Cincinnatus, Call Home
Copyright © by Len Holman, 2/19/12
Could it be possible that a person is called to the service of his country, saves it from extinction, then—instead of going on to fame, glory and a fat book deal, goes back home to the farm to slop the pigs? Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (520 BCE—430 BCE) did exactly that. Called on to attack and destroy Rome’s enemies, he succeeded and went back to his farm each time. Of course, George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus for his selfless giving up of power to go back to Mt. Vernon, when he could have been President for as long as he wanted. These men are held up as examples of public servants, serving the Roman Republic and the nascent American republic, respectively. Today, we hear almost every candidate for public office, from the smallest town up to the White House, tell us they want “to serve,” that it would be an honor to do so—but what does it mean to be a “public servant? There are several possibilities:
1) Like a waiter in a restaurant. This man or woman serves the customer, acceding to his or her every whim in the hopes of getting a good tip, and also to keep the job. “The customer is always right” is an old adage, but still a viable one for this servant. The server never tells the gentleman he is too fat now and will regret ordering the cheesecake with chocolate truffle sauce. The truth would probably get her fired. The server overturns heaven and earth to get what the customer wants, even if it’s not healthy or very good that night. Is this what is meant by a “servant?” Do we see our potential officials catering to our every whim to get our vote, even when they cant’s deliver or even when what we want is not good for us?
2) Serving nobility. This person isn’t working so hard for tips. He or she is probably working just to live. Whatever the lord or lady wants, that’s what is served. The life of the server is directly—sometimes painfully—connected to the patron and his or her guests. There is no question here of the server telling the lord or lady, “I’m really not feeling the serving thing right now. And anyway, you’ve already had too much to eat today. I’m going to go take a nap. Maybe tomorrow.” The server has no interest, personal or existential, in saying “no” to the guests. In fact, it’s in his interest to give them what they want, when they want it. It’s pandering for survival, which candidates do all the time just to get to the next round of fund-raising and then election.
3) Serving the poor, indigent, helpless, and downtrodden. This is how the politicians like us to view them—as saviors of the middle class, the ninety-nine percenters (unless they are living in tents and blocking access to the limo garage, then call out the cops with the shields and pepper spray), They want us to see them, dressed in “everyday” clothes, like blue jeans (they think this is how we all dress), folksy, caring, conversant with our problems and concerns, wanting to lift us up and set us free (can I get an “Amen?”). These folks are sort of like Super PAC-funded Mother Teresas. They will serve us by telling us what we want to hear and flooding our media with ads showing us the other candidates are rapacious scoundrels just out for themselves. These “public servants” are in our henhouse just to protect the chickens, not to eat them—never mind our experience with seeing their brethren with feathers in their mouths. This is what passes for public service.
4) True public service. This is of two main kinds: volunteering at soup kitchens, hospices, thrift stores, and the like—with no thought of an ulterior motive. It is done mainly for the benefit of others. Some do it to get into heaven or get their karma burnished for the next go-round, but mostly they do these things in the service of others. The other flavor is a bit more difficult for most Americans to grasp—since they don’t seem to get the concept at all, especially since 9/11. This is public service which necessitates criticizing the government, with the objective of making it better. The argument is that some government—at whatever level and whatever strength--is better for citizens than anarchy. So the better the government, the better off the citizenry will be, and to make government better, one must identify problems which prevent a government from getting better—and this involves a critiquing of that government. This questioning and criticizing and critiquing must come from the media, the citizens, and the pols themselves. Do we see much of this kind of public service? About as much as we see flying porcines and older men who don’t hold in their stomachs at the beach when a pretty young woman walks by.
Public service has its rewards, but for an effective public servant corps, we need to take the money out and put true morality in…no man is an island and all that. By the way, true morality has nothing to do with sex, gender identification, or whether you sleep with your neighbor—or his dog. However, given that humankind is what it is, that’s probably not going to happen. So the burden for a better society is on us, the voters. We must do two things: choose those who are true servants, and then watch them like a wolf watches a pork chop. Even if we could choose a pure public servant, there is certainly no guarantee he or she will stay that way, so citizen diligence is essential to our democracy. What would have happened if Cincinnatus had decided to hang around, or if Washington concluded he liked the perks of the Presidency and wanted to die in office? What would we have with no mythology of the Hero Citizen, selfless and kind, brave but self-effacing? Well, what we’d have is what we now have. And what we now have is a free-for-all that isn’t free for all. What we have now is what we call our “democratic process.” What can we possibly do about all this? Must we continue to play a crooked, illogical, dangerous, and slimy game? There may be one shocking thing, which we see signs of among independent voters. Paraphrasing an old anti-war slogan from the Vietnam era: what if they gave an election and no one came?
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