It is an unspoken and undeniable truth: you demand something in return for giving me your vote and all it implies, and your asking price is that I give 100% of myself to my constituents, which in the case of my current job is the entire borough of Staten Island. I also know that if I were to let down, if I were to give one iota less than my best, my harshest critic would be the guy I look at in the mirror every morning.
I also know that you would, properly, give me a boot in the ass when the next election cycle rolled around.
After all, you demand the best I have to give, and I take your demand seriously, as should every elected official at every level of government. The ones who don’t? The ones to whom “public service” is an empty moniker, a paycheck with benefits, a means to a self-serving end? You’ll sniff them out sooner or later; the American voter, the New York voter, the Staten Island voter, is too savvy to be fooled for long.
For my part, I always have – and always will, until I make my exit – looked upon your vote as a contract between two honorable individuals, to be honorably upheld to the best of our ability to do so. But a contract is, at its heart, an agreed-upon exchange of value. I readily agree to give what you demand – the totality of my energy and skill – but I am inclined to ask: is your best offer simply an inked circle next to my name on a piece of stiff paper?
Well, not so fast. “I will give you the best I have to give” is a promise I make that has real value, something you can take to the bank, and to my way of thinking it’s worth more than just your vote. I want you to sweeten the deal, so to speak.
You demand my best? Then I demand yours.
Here’s what that means: in some way large or small, seen or unseen, you will recognize that although you are an individual answerable only to yourself, you do in fact live with your neighbors, within a community, as part of a town, and you will agree to devote some part of your energies to making things better. You may think that you already do enough simply by living the life of a responsible adult, but I maintain that no single elected official – or group of them – will ever succeed in making our community all it can be without the cooperation of those folks who have put him or her in office. And so I ask you to do a little more.
In a book of essays called “The Art of the Commonplace,” Wendell Berry says it better than I ever could:
“While the government is studying and funding and organizing its Big Thought…the citizen who is willing to Think Little, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it - he is doing that work...”
“It takes a village,” said someone, some time ago. I have never been a fan of the phrase, nor of the collectivism it implies. I believe that the most basic component of American society is the individual, free to pursue his or her own aims, goals or desires. But I do recognize and believe that individuals will, for their own self-interest, sooner or later form a village, and recognize as well that the village has needs that can only be met when many individuals agree that working to benefit the group is, in fact, working to benefit themselves.
Here’s another quote: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” It’s a Middle Eastern phrase that has stuck with me over the years. It means, as I interpret it, that those who never constructively engage with their community, a community in constant search of a better life, are relegated to offering nothing but yelps and snarls from the side of the road. But they effect no change; they are barely heard. The caravan moves on without them.
So here’s what I’m asking: volunteer to take on a responsibility beyond the personal one; figure out a way to give to the community something more than simply condemning government in your medium of choice, be it print or digital. Criticism from those within the caravan is welcome, but from the unengaged? As I said: the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
If I can get you to pick up a piece of litter and drop it in a can, I have not written this for nothing. If you will engage your neighbors to discuss a solution to something that’s been bugging your community, I won’t have wasted 900 words. Things as simple as that – or a thousand other things I could list if I had the time or space – is the tiny price of admission to the caravan.
We are, you and I, honorable individuals. You demand the best of me; now I demand the best of you.
Let’s shake on it.
[NOTE: Anyone’s who’s been following current events these days has seen the accusation of plagiarism thrown around quite a bit. I mention it because one of the quotes in this blog piece was used in a column this morning by the Post’s Michael Goodwin. “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on…” is an old, but scantily used, proverb. I guess it gained prominence when used by Truman Capote, who poached part of it as the title his book “The Dogs Bark,” a collection of his essays published back in 1973.
Anyway, this blog post has been in the queue for some months now; I just wanted to let you know before I was unfairly accused of plagiarism. J These days demand such transparency – and that’s not a bad thing.]