THE BLOG
04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Concentric Circles of Service

I've been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King lately, in the context of how legacies are formed after heroes pass on. For instance, we justly honor the beloved civil rights icon with a holiday every January. And since 1994, we even decided to double the honor, by also hailing MLK Day as our national Day of Service. A day to volunteer, to give something of yourself to those in need.

Now that's as admirable a goal as I can think of. And a legacy of which Dr. King would no doubt be proud. He certainly exemplified selfless service in countless ways. But as evident in the way he lived, preached and protested, service meant more to him than volunteering. It also meant informed political action.

Action based on philosophical and moral reasoning -- subjects he studied intently his whole life -- fueling his tireless and courageous quest to persuade us that the precious civic values of liberty, equality, dignity and justice must be shared by all citizens if we are ever to consider ourselves a truly great country.

It was, in fact, the intellectually rigorous ideas that powered King's political activism that we most remember and revere him for, and that shape the full contours of his legacy. But his dedication to lifelong learning and informed political activism are not part of our definitions of service today.

Service for civilians now focuses primarily on volunteering. Now, there's no question that doing volunteer work is doing God's work, and it's a beautiful thing that millions of Americans are engaged in it. In communities everywhere, volunteers offer their skills, good will, and human connection to those who could surely use a helping hand. Even in these recessionary times, when you'd expect a pull back, more people are giving more of their time in ever more ways. This is a testament to the compassion and empathy that is a core American trait, and we can only hope this form of service continues to grow.

And grow it surely will, given the enormous strides made in the last year or so to publicize the virtues of volunteering, and to make it easy as a mouse click to find suitable service opportunities near you. In fact, the institutional support for service, from the president on down, is truly awesome, and anyone interested in coalition building should look at what this field has done as a case study.

But there's still a missing link in this quest for a good and just and equitable society. There's another kind of service needed, without which democracy cannot thrive. A form of giving that is essential if we are to ever solve the big national challenges we face. A kind of citizen service that has largely been MIA in America for the past forty years.

It is service to the principles and practice of self-governance. The individual citizen giving back to the collective political enterprise of which we're all a part, and from which we all benefit in so many indispensable ways.

In this formulation, service requires us to stay well-informed about the big issues, and actively engaged in groups and organizations that help shape political decision-making.

Unfortunately, these two aspects of serious citizenship are not part of most Americans' regular civic routine. And we rarely hear calls for this type of citizen service from on high -- whether in Washington, Hollywood, newsrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, or houses of worship.

This is puzzling, as it's precisely this kind of service that's required for the country to effectively respond to our many and growing crises -- all of which need wise and affordable policies, and widespread support to succeed.

Informed support. Active support.

But as confirmed in study after major study, the average American scores between a D and an F in terms of how much they know about the way government works, or about the issues of the day, or about the policies that allegedly address them. The little we know about politicians or their positions is based on our emotional responses to mindless 30-second TV spots, or short blasts of TV "news," or button-pushing diatribes from self-righteous talk show hosts.

Rather than read and learn about actual issues and policies, and participate in groups that can harvest the wisdom of crowds and magnify the individual voice, we convince ourselves we're too busy, or it's not our job but theirs, or it wouldn't make a difference anyway as there's no way to make my voice heard. As a result, the law of physics takes over as special interests who aren't shy about speaking their mind rush in to fill the political power vacuum created by passive citizens.

And that's what makes those interests so special -- they're the only ones aggressively promoting what's important to them in a sustained way. Imagine what our politics would be like if most Americans did the same thing.

Now, I'm not saying the average person can currently call for a meeting with his Senator the way the head of the NRA or AARP might be able to -- nor can we help write Congressional legislation the way lobbyists all too often do. But we definitely can make our voices heard in other and equally effective ways.

But before we speak, we need to know what we're talking about. Which leads us back to King. He didn't develop his views and passions by watching TV. He read. He studied. He learned. And then he acted.

Things we all must do every day, each in our own way.

That is our job as citizens.

And until the vast majority of us start taking that job a lot more seriously, America will remain mired in gridlock and polarization, and dangerously puerile politics -- regardless of the party in power at any given time.

Unfortunately, the vital cause of radically upgrading America's civic and political literacy levels has just been tainted by the code-loaded rantings of a churlish former Congressman. But the facts remain. When it comes to knowing what we need to know, and acting effectively on our informed convictions, we remain a nation of citizen slackers.

And as long as that remains the case, no changes in who we elect or how we fund campaigns will fix things either. Only a cold hard look in the mirror, and then a commitment to change our civic priorities.

Learning how to contribute to the solution is not rocket science. But it does take effort, and some time out of our busy days. That's why the work of the serious citizen is sometimes referred to as civic duty, or obligation. But I prefer to think of it as the extremely reasonable cost of our much cherished rights. After all, freedom is not free. And rights require responsibilities. Payment, if you will, for the greatest gift any people have ever received -- the idea of America. An idea that withers when ignored by The People it exists to, well, serve.

To repeat, embracing this form of service should not come at the expense of time spent volunteering. We can't have a good society without selfless acts of compassion. But volunteering alone will not help us transform government into the high performance genius machine we need it to be.

Volunteering alone cannot lead America to successfully address climate change on the scale needed. It won't help us pass an enlightened energy policy, or foreign policy, or fiscal policy -- or rebuild schools and roads, let alone a sane health care system, and on and on. Those are tasks for good governance. Really good governance. And in America, government is supposed to be not just for the people, but by the people.

So let's separate the two forms of service, so we might better gauge how engaged we really are, and how we can do better.

Volunteering is about helping those in need, neighbor to neighbor, across town or around the world -- serving as a sturdy link in the cosmic chain that connects us all on a spiritual level. We can never do enough of this.

Citizen Service is about the daily obligation every citizen has to contribute to the healthy operation of self-governance -- and to help ensure the best from those we elect to represent our interests. It is about each of us as individuals paying our dues to the collective that protects us from living in chaos. It is a function of good citizenship that we ignore at our own peril.

And it is a form of civic behavior that doesn't even recognize the word partisan.

A modern day public servant whose passionate views about the role of the citizen never fail to inspire is Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, New Jersey. Below is a little video mashup I put together, featuring excerpts from a Bill Moyers interview he did last year, along with clips of some other great Americans to accent his themes. Play it for those in your life who say they're too busy to read the daily newspaper, or to actively participate in groups or organizations seeking to make an impact on the political direction of their communities.

Then let us all commit to double or triple our service to democracy. And encourage everyone we know to do the same.

This is how America will fix its broken government. The only way.

By The People.

Renewing our vows as self-governing citizens -- ready, willing, and able to show up for work every day.

Informed. Engaged. At last.

Move cursor after clicking Play, and control bar will disappear.