Fortunate freedom

Our citizenship must be exercised conscientiously and every day, especially at the local levels of government, where we can have the greatest effect.
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Our citizenship must be exercised conscientiously and every day, especially at the local levels of government, where we can have the greatest effect.

There has been a revival over the past several years in scholarship, literature, film, and television of work examining the period before and after the United States' fight for independence. All have served as a reminder of how close the issue was. The presence of some remarkable leaders, and a heavy dose of good luck, contributed to our country's eventual birth.

The original 13 colonies saw themselves not so much as part of a single federal system but as entities united in their desire for freedom from Great Britain. Americans saw themselves then as primarily sons and daughters of Massachusetts, Virginia, or Pennsylvania. It took a bloody civil war to eventually resolve the nature of our union.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. But it was a century later, in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act decisively made it illegal to discriminate against or for any person on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion — a true emancipation. Women were disgracefully denied the right to vote until quite recently. Every step forward has been a struggle. It should not surprise us that, in the 2008 presidential campaign, we find ourselves still absorbed by matters relating to federal-state-local relations, race, and gender. Debate over immigration policy is very much a part of the debate about who and what we are.

The big news is that we are engaged in this business peacefully, through democratic means, and, I believe, with a common faith that we will in time build a more perfect union.

Local applications

The tests of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution ultimately come in the places where we lead our daily lives.

We tend not to think of state and local issues in cosmic terms but they, too, are part of our constant refining and redefining of our freedom. In our state, former Gov. Booth Gardner's so-called "Death With Dignity" initiative, I-1000, will be on our fall ballots. Tim Eyman seems to have a measure on every election-year ballot. Many states do not use ballot measures as part of their governance. But we choose to do so — an application, if you think of it, of our own particular view of states' rights. Quite soon, voters of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties likely will be asked to consider for the umpteenth time the size and shape of their regional transportation system. Many other states and metropolitan regions make such decisions in an entirely different way.

Seattle is one of a handful of American big cities which elect city council members at large rather than by district. This, too, relates directly to a local view of how decisions should be made. The rationale behind at-large elections is that council members, therefore, could be expected to take a large, citywide view of their responsibilities. The contrary view — to which I subscribe — is that communities and neighborhoods will be left out of decisionmaking altogether unless they have their own specifically elected council members. Power, in this instance, will flow to single- and special-interest groups with the strongest citywide political money and influence.

We have taken our own special approaches, too, to Puget Sound cleanup and to how we choose candidates for general elections. Our tax system — as it happens, a highly regressive system in what is supposedly a progressive state — is one of our own design and not at all like that of even nearby Oregon.

All decisions count

Thomas Jefferson wrote, at the time of our independence, that "we cannot be both ignorant and free."

The most inexcusable offenses, in a self-governing society, are ignorance and complacency. For a variety of reasons — far too long to list here — Americans nationally and locally are guilty of those offenses too regularly. Polling data in recent years, for instance, have shown that, after non-stop coverage of southeastern and New Orleans flooding, a majority of Americans still had no idea regarding the geographic locations of New Orleans and Lousiana; that nearly half of Americans, after 9/11, thought the terrorist attacks were "an inside job" undertaken with complicity of U.S. government officials; that, several years after onset of the Iraq War, almost half of us believed weapons of mass destruction still were present in Iraq.

We sometimes can feel relatively powerless when it comes to affecting big war-peace or national economic issues. But we need not be powerless when it comes to deciding state and local matters. Our voices can be heard. Our votes can determine the people who govern us and the decisions they make.

Some of the decisions are difficult. I am conflicted, for instance, regarding the Death With Dignity issue. I know and especially respect Gardner, who is coping with his own longstanding illness and wishes to make final decisions about the time and circumstance of his own departure. Others believe such decisions ultimately rest elsewhere and that, if legalized here, Death With Dignity might be abused in particular with regard to those suffering from debilitating and expensive but not necessarily terminal conditions. I will vote for Death With Dignity because of direct experience with terminal illness in my own family. My late wife died more than 12 years ago after a five-year fight against multiple myeloma, then an incurable and sometimes untreatable bone cancer. Her last months were a painful, terrible ordeal. She often prayed for the relief that Death With Dignity would have brought her. Were she here, I know that she would be campaigning alongside Booth Gardner and on behalf of his ballot initiative.

Yet others, I know, will vote otherwise and also because of personal or family experience. These decisions are reserved to us because of the good fortune we have in living in a country which took birth on July 4, 1776 — not long ago in the long sweep of history — and in which our citizenship must be exercised conscientiously and every day if our freedom is to last.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of