by Alice V. Feeley, RDC
During the last months, American flags, patriotic speeches, fireworks have reminded us in varieties of celebration of the country we hold in common, our United States. Early in July we could have listened to opening words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (women too) are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . .” Maybe at school or a public event we’ve recited or listened to our pledge of allegiance to the flag, which concludes with the words, “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for ALL.” Our currency bears the words, “In God we trust.” Unlike many nations rooted in bloodlines or tribes from time immemorial, our nation was founded on principles that by definition are intended to serve the common good.
Recent legislative, court, and executive decisions have invited us to pay attention to the heritage, life and resources we share in common and to look for common ground. However, some loud, violent, partisan and very expensive voices of the 2012 election campaign deny that we have common ground or shared goals for government, i.e., the common good. In a culture where success is often understood as being “self made,” and interdependence is ignored, a sense of common ground and a commitment to our common good is easily lost. Consider the moneyed fund-raiser guests who recently insisted that everyone recognize their self importance and VIP entitlement, arrogantly contrasted with the “common person,” unimportant except in service to “VIP’s.” This incident caused me to recall with a smile my mother’s disapproval of first class seats on airlines, seeing something “un-American” in this kind of distinction.
Perhaps my mother’s view was extreme, but she knew something about the common good as well as compassion, which is only real when we see ourselves in our commonality, our shared humanness with one another. It is that view from common ground that moves us to awareness of and compassion for the needs and sufferings of others, that impels us to raise the question, “What is the common good?” in choosing behaviors or making decisions in any community of which we are a part. In the 1950’s John Kenneth Galbraith lamented the existence of “private affluence and public squalor.” This sounds like disregard for the common good, a disregard heightened in our own time.
To raise the question “What is the common good?” in any situation starts with an awareness of those affected by a behavior or the outcome of a decision and a recognition of our common humanity, our common ground. It is a different question from “How can I control the outcome?” Photographers know that perspective has a limitation based on where we’re looking from. In pursuing the common good, we need to be open to honest dialogue, ready to listen and possibly be changed in some way by interaction with persons who stand in a different place. Compromise may be called for.
Leaders are more likely to raise questions about the common good in governance if their constituents really value the common good over unlimited, individual gain. If we, like the man who physically pushed me aside last weekend to get ahead on a ticket line, imagine that our concerns are the only ones that matter and treat others as if they were invisible, we will not be encouraging our leaders to make efforts towards the common good. If we imagine that our concerns are the only ones that matter, we are in danger of turning our government into the kind which the signers of the Declaration of Independence had to dissolve in order to bring about these United States.