We Americans just marked a special day in our nation’s official calendar.
On Memorial Day we honor those who have sacrificed in military service to our country, particularly those who have given their lives to protect the rest of us. It is and should be a day of reflection and remembrance for those of us fortunate enough to live in our free nation.
While we are a great nation, we are not a perfect nation, and among our imperfections is that we seem to have lost the concept of service to others in many areas of our common lives. We talk the talk about service to our country, but we do not walk the walk with respect to members of our armed services. Some of them live in actual poverty as many in our Cumberland County community know well. I cringe when I see public service announcements begging for funding for various veterans’ projects, not because the projects are not worthy but because caring for our veterans is a public responsibility to be borne by their follow Americans, not only those who choose and are able to donate.
Public service workers, government employees and others who jobs are to serve the American public are routinely both overworked and underpaid at the same time they are denigrated as “bureaucrats” and people who feed at the public trough. Elected officials are considered impotent and incompetent, sometimes outright corrupt, and competent, capable and honest people decline to run for critical elective offices because of it. Important civil service jobs in both federal and state governments go unfilled because of low pay and low public esteem.
It is hard to know when public service became a negative, even dangerous, calling. Ronald Reagan, an icon to many, gave voice to the sentiment when he said in an August 1986, press conference, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” It would be an amusing remark if it were not so insulting. Yes, government is cumbersome, slow and frustrating, but it tackles problems, issues and emergencies that the private sector does not. The private sector does not fund the highway system, educate the vast majority of Americans, or provide health care for people who cannot afford our outstanding but wildly expensive medical system.
We all see where public service ranks on the career status ladder — almost the bottom rung. It has been camped out there for decades. What has also become apparent relatively recently is that public service is actually dangerous. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a medical doctor who has devoted his entire professional life to American public health has personal security. Members of Congress are escorted around the U.S. Capitol by armed National Guard troops and Capitol Police. Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head 10 years ago, and Reagan’s own press secretary James Brady was disabled for the rest of his life by a bullet intended for his boss, the President.
John Kennedy’s take on government service was the opposite of Reagan’s. In his inaugural address, Kennedy famously called for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We have come a long way since then but in the wrong direction.
In an autocratic government, one person or a small group is in charge, and the people have little or no input. In a democracy, we the people are the government.
It is time that we both respect and reward those among us who keep the wheels of government turning for all the rest of us. This includes all who serve from the highest to the lowest, and especially those who serve us in the U.S. military.