I just got my dad’s birthday present the other day. It’s always tough, partly because of his age and partly because his birthday is on New Year’s Eve. Which is close enough to Christmas that when he was growing up, he always got a “this is your Christmas AND birthday present.” Of course he did come from a large but poor family. But it’s a common problem for people whose birthdays fall on or near holidays. My wife’s birthday is always within a week of Mother’s Day, thus driving me and our sons crazy. My own birthday is the week after 4th of July, which isn’t too bad.
But people who are born on national holidays like Christmas or Valentine’s Day have a tough time. It’s supposed to be their special day, but everybody else is celebrating, too. Only not for them. In some cultures, birthdays are not celebrated or else everybody celebrates on the same day. In some Asians countries, the first new moon of the year, Tet, is both a New Year’s celebration and everybody’s birthday as well. It’s a practical solution to the problem but not very satisfying from my view. Everyone wants to feel unique one day a year.
And yet I think the public/private yearly birthday celebration dilemma is a good stand-in for our country’s polarization problems. Our divisions are less liberal vs. conservative and more about public good vs. individual rights. And neither side seems willing to acknowledge that both need to be considered in the legislative arena. Should the NSA have unlimited access to public data, or should my right to private correspondence prevail? Does a public interest in preventing abortion outweigh a woman’s right to not have medical device shoved into her body against her will?
The first celebrated democracy in Athens put its greatest citizen to death “for the public good.” Socrates accepted his death sentence because he thought that the state was mankind’s greatest invention and that the fate of a single individual paled in comparison. Thousands of years later, our founders created a state whose structure was designed to be so convoluted as to make individuals safe from its sloth-like machinery. Of course, in the beginning, the only individuals guaranteed protections from the state were land-owning white men. But the tension between the rights of the individual vs. public need in America was born.
Our country’s history has been filled by the pursuit of civil rights by every group left out of the political process ever since. And most have been successful. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of opinion. It’s hard to make sense out of the current debates over public versus private good. Corporations have been declared people who can buy elections and deny equal rights to employees but have none of the responsibilities that citizenship demands. The Tea Party declares that government is broken and useless while taking advantage of the very infrastructure created by the government they say doesn’t work.
The Internet, National Weather Service, and Post Office are just some of the government entities that work very well in spite of their insistence that large government is inherently evil and inept. The Tea Party reminds me of the Wisconsin dairy farmer who complained about government handouts while he collected his dairy subsidy check. Conservative political thought has traditionally concentrated on freedom of the individual to succeed or fail on his or her own merits. But Ronald Reagan’s alliance with Evangelical Christians allowed groupthink to enter the tent. It is quite revealing that, among Republican candidates for president, those who hold up individual rights as a primary political responsibility are doing poorly in the polls. Meanwhile, those who push group and corporate values are leading. And the front runner openly ignores the Constitution all together.
On the other side of the spectrum, people demand things of the government that it cannot provide, such as perfect safety from foreign and domestic terrorists or economic equality. Some people are terrified by our government. Others are frightened by individuals who demand total autonomy as well as freedom from the consequences of their decisions. Political paralysis is the result. We can’t even pay our bills without a huge fight every six months or so.
It’s time to put partisanship and temper tantrums aside. We need leaders who act like adults. People who seriously weigh benefits to the public AND the individual of every law they craft and implement. Exhibit A for this need was showcased in the last election. President Obama gave a speech in which he pointed out the necessity of infrastructure to the success of business owners. When he said, “You didn’t build that,” he was referring to roads, schools, and the Internet among other things. Instead of acknowledging the need to balance the welfare of the individual with the welfare of the state, Republicans jumped on that snippet and used it as campaign propaganda.
I don’t know where we will find leaders who act like adults. The bases of both parties seemed determined to nominate increasingly more juvenile candidates. But I think we need to start with local and state elections. We need to stop being so partisan ourselves and cross party lines to elect candidates who demonstrate the ability to govern rather than galvanize. “Think globally, act locally” is a good political as well as environmental strategy.
As for my father, I got him some small gifts to help him stay in touch with his community of friends and family. At eighty-seven, he values his independence. But he also depends on others to get through his days. There’s a lesson there for all of us.