On resolving to deserve a better government

Walking the dog the other day, I got to thinking about New Year's resolutions. It's that time of year again - this curious interregnum between Christmas and New Year's, this hiatus when school is out and routine is dissolved and the pace is different. It's a good time to look back over the old year's story, draw its moral, and ask how the new year might be better. The trouble is that I've never been one to get cranked up over the tradition. I've never composed long lists of self-chastising assertions - promising not to dribble bird seed across the kitchen on my way to fill the back-porch feeder, vowing never again to eat sukiyaki with chopsticks while wearing my beige suit, and pledging neither to use, nor to wince visibly when others use, the words ``classy,'' ``scenario,'' and ``co-opt.''

I'm not against such resolutions. It just seems that casting them in cold type sometimes makes it harder to carry them forward in warm and living experience - as though we had dispensed with our obligations by writing them down and could now proceed to forget them. On a more serious note, it also seems that, in a world spinning so close to the brink, there are more significant things to set one's mind to - ways to raise, as it were, the national level of resolution-making.

So I've been thinking about some of the lessons of this past year - the year of the Challenger disaster and the Voyager triumph, the year of the bombing of Libya and the Reykjavik summit, the year of Wall Street's insider-trading scandals and Washington's Iran-contra maelstrom. And I realized that throughout this year I've been hearing, more frequently than usual, a particular old truism - the one that says that people get the government they deserve.

That is, of course, a cynical pronouncement, usually applied by those who, in other circumstances, are prone to say, ``See, I told you so!'' But there's a grain of truth hidden in it. Even tyrannies, which grow up to some extent out of the populace, survive partly by the consent of the governed - or at least by their lack of non-consent. And representative democracies are, in important ways, just that: representative. So the great New Year's question may be: How can I resolve to improve the very thing - my individual citizenship - that I'm asking my government to represent? What can I do to deserve a better government?

Those are tough questions for dog walks. But I started by looking back over the peaks and valleys of the old year - beginning with the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in January. The immediate cause of that disaster lay in the booster rocket seals - a highly technical piece of engineering about which I, as a citizen, can do very little. But the real failure lay in the bureaucracy that organized the space mission - the lack of decisiveness and intercommunication, an unwillingness to break the momentum of a schedule, an inability to hear and heed the warning signs from those who suspected something was amiss.

What can I do to deserve better? Why not resolve to improve my own relationship to bureaucracy? A two-part resolution comes to mind. The easier part is to vow, within one's own life, to listen more carefully, encourage fuller intercommunication, decide more vigorously, and interrupt routine whenever necessary. The harder job may be to resist the temptation to sneer at the very concept of bureaucracy itself - to write it off as inherently inept, self-protective, and arrogant. Some bureaucracies are. But some aren't. They're the ones that need our support. They're the ones we deserve.

And what about the US bombing on Libya on April 15? Was it an act of justified defense or of frustrated revenge? In the context of Qaddafi's obstreperous terrorism, something needed to happen. But there may have been other ways of making the point. And there certainly was more talking that successive American governments could have done over the years - with our European allies, with Mideast nations, and with Libya itself - to defuse the tensions so that the situation never would have reached that fevered pitch.

Again, a two-part resolution. First, a vow to negotiate steadily over even the small things in life, lest they build to the seething point. And second, a pledge to maintain the means, the desire, and the public appearance of the will to defend my own inner sense of peace against outside aggression. If I deserve a government that acts up to that standard, after all, I had better make sure I act that way myself.

Those are just a couple of New Year's resolutions from a couple of the old year's incidents. Next time I walk the dog, I'll set my mind to the lessons of Iran-contra deals, Reykjavik, and the rest.

A Monday column

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