February 2021
America Needs an Attitude Adjustment
Perspective from the 5enses Editors

Okay, so that happened and we got through it, sort of. What now?

At 5enses we don’t do editorials. We’re not about taking public stands on issues. For us it’s the values that count — the health of our community counts, leadership counts, the social contract counts. But given the extraordinary events of January, we talked it over and decided that we have to say something about what’s been happening to our nation and the choices we have in front of us.

Most of all we want to let you know that we share your concerns, and that many others in our community share them as well. You’re not alone.

The events of the past five years have forced us to face up to who we really are as a community. We’ve learned that the values we’ve always trusted to hold us together are not as widely or deeply shared as we imagined, that deep fissures of racism, classism, religionism, gender bias, conspiracy theories and general distrust divide us, that the potential for violence is real and just under the surface, even where pedestrians still wave when we drive by. It feels like we’ve been actors in a street scene that now seems only a little more real than a Disney Main Street Parade.

We stand blinking in the smoking wreckage of 2020 and it’s reasonable to ask, “Who the hell are these people?” The answer, unfortunately, is inescapable: they are us, we are them.

Our shining-city self-image is no more, the mask is off. No sensible adult who hasn’t just awakened from a five-year coma can be wide-eyed and cheery about America’s future right now. Maybe that’s a good thing.

We’ve learned that everything we count on can be lost, that our society can change direction quickly in ways we never really thought possible. For too long most of us have lived like adolescents, comfortable in our entitlement and rebelliously skipping our chores to do and say whatever comes into our heads, because “freedom,” whatever that means. It should be no surprise that some are going all Lord of the Flies on us.

Along with its frustrations and horrors, the year behind us reminded us that when we stand up for what’s right and demand it, our media and our elected leaders respond.

Disheartening and frustrating as it is, this is the lesson that Ben Franklin gave us when he quipped, “A republic, if you can keep it,” and which should have been central to our political consciousness at least since the 1860s. It’s there for us to pick up, dust off and put to good use in rebuilding and moving forward. We would be wise to expand that lesson with Franklin’s ensuing exchange with Mrs. Powel, who asked, “And why not keep it?” Franklin responded, “Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”

This adroitly describes how Americans have generally used the franchise over the past seventy years, as a vehicle for personal satisfaction, as something to consume from a table set for us, while someone else does the cooking and washing up. From another angle it hints at the lust for power driving the venal decisions and underhanded tactics that brought us to this sorry pass.

In the coming months we’ll hear a lot of ideas for ways we can improve our systems to make them more inclusive and resistant to subversion, and we don’t want to say those won’t help. But the reforms that will really make the most difference and best secure our democracy and our lives going forward are within ourselves, as citizens.

The other founders of our republic shared Franklin’s skepticism about its viability, and healthy skepticism of government is our shared American legacy. But when we let it devolve into cynicism, we expect less of our representatives and bureaucrats, and we all know we tend to get more of what we expect.

So part of the answer is to expect better. When the community pays attention and demands real value for its tax dollars, in terms of quality and competence in public services as well as elected officers who do the homework and accept the responsibility of doing what it takes to maintain and improve our quality of life, we’re more likely to get better decisionmaking and government we can trust, in a virtuous cycle. As writer and borderline fascist Robert Heinlein wrote, we tend to get the government we deserve.

But we think the bigger piece of the solution is to accept the most important responsibility of citizenship, and that’s to be involved and help build that better community, personally. Going beyond acceptance or complaint about what we get, being actors rather than consumers, is at the heart of our high value on self-government.

Along with its frustrations and horrors, the year behind us reminded us that when we stand up for what’s right and demand it, our media and our elected leaders respond. We set the agenda, we bring the ideas, we make the change happen using government as a tool for positive, collective action.

So we urge you to consider how you can help move the ball forward in your own way, whether that’s running for office yourself, encouraging people you trust to do so, getting involved in a community-minded action group, or just being unafraid to ‘talk politics’ with friends and neighbors, looking into the issues and sharing your values and ideas. Who knows, you might find out it’s more fun than it looks, and you could make some new friends.

More hands make light work, and there’s a lot of work to do. Your involvement matters. Let this horrible year behind us be the start of a new and better chapter in our story.

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