citizenship badgeI really like the word citizenship.

It looks good, with a preponderance of i’s you don’t often see in English. Stare at it too long and you’re convinced it must be Greek or German. 1

It sounds good, carrying all its stress on the first syllable and allowing the last three to float off in the breeze. To a poetic taxonomist, this four-footed creature is called primus paeon and is fairly rare.

Mostly, I like the meaning of the word citizenship. The concept it describes is abstract, intangible — but oddly active. Citizenship isn’t something you have. It’s something you do.

For 2012, I’ve decided to do citizenship.

More specifically, I’m going to earn the three Boy Scout citizenship merit badges: Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World. I earned all three as a Scout in the 1980s, and while the specifics have changed a bit, the underlying spirit behind them remains intact.

I’ll be working my way through a checklist of the requirements for each badge. Scouts present their work to a merit badge counsellor — generally, a fellow scout’s dad — but I’ll be blogging my answers here.

Along the way, I hope to explore some of what I think is best and worst about how we conduct ourselves as individuals and nations. I’ll also need to explore a bit about what’s become of Boy Scouts, an organization that greatly shaped who I am and what I believe, yet wouldn’t have me as a member today for multiple reasons.

Why now?

It’s an election year in the U.S., so my thoughts naturally turn towards government and leadership. To paraphrase a tired cliché: citizens get the government they deserve.2

But have we really been this awful?

Or, given our collective indifference to the actual responsibilities of citizenship, is it remarkable things aren’t much, much worse?

I’m the father of a six-year old, who comes home from school with questions and theories about how it all works. To her, the Mayflower and Martin Luther King, Jr. were equally A Long Time Ago. You can’t understand American history without understanding what we were aiming for, where we fell short, and where we could still do better.

Reasonable people can disagree about size and function of government, but the ideals of citizenship are essentially non-partisan and global. Citizens have rights and responsibilities, including management of their communities and decisions about how to use shared resources.

Citizenship is about being a team player and a good sport — but that doesn’t mean blindly following along. You make choices that have consequences: voting, not voting, protesting injustice, rallying against taxes, tolerating fraud, skirting jury duty or obeying the TSA’s security protocols. Every public action you take has an effect on those around you.

My intention with the Citizenship series is to explore, rather than arrive at any particular destination. I think there are interesting questions that we’ve largely abdicated to pundits and theorists, who discuss government as if it’s a game rather than an endeavor.

I grew up watching a lot of Star Trek, so yes: I can be utopian at times. But better that than dejected cynicism. Idealism itself gets you nothing, but it can serve as a useful compass to point where you want to go. That’s my only aim in this exercise.

  1. It’s actually from Norman French citezein, which swirled together “denizen” and the Latin roots for “city.”
  2. Often wrongly credited to Alexis de Tocqueville, the idea is better attributed to Joseph de Maistre: “Toute nation a le government qu’ell mérite.”