By Ralph Nader
March 10, 2023
A friend just gave me a book by Richard N. Haass with the intriguing title, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. Mr. Haass is a self-described member of the establishment – in his words “people and institutions that have often been vilified and blamed for the failures of democracy.” Having worked in the Pentagon, State Department and White House under four presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, followed by his present leadership of the Council on Foreign Relations, may explain why there is nothing in the index of his book under “law” or “corporation” or “unions” or “consumer cooperatives.”
Credit him, however, with the recognition of “the mounting evidence that this rights-based democracy is failing.” He discusses “ten obligations, that if adopted by a preponderance of citizens, would go a long way toward fixing American democracy.” He calls these “habits of citizenship” (Danielle Allen’s phrase) that “should happen but that the law cannot require.” … “Putting these obligations into practice is up to us.”
Here are Mr. Haass’s ten obligations: 1) Be Informed, 2) Get Involved, 3) Stay Open to Compromise, 4) Remain Civil, 5) Reject Violence, 6) Value Norms, 7) Promote the Common Good, 8) Respect Government Service, 9) Support the Teaching of Civics and 10) Put Country First.
Reading through the ten chapters on these “obligations,” I could not help but be amazed that Haass neglected to describe the one citizen who, in the 18th century, voluntarily adopted and brilliantly practiced most of these obligations – Benjamin Franklin! Franklin is the model good citizen.
But Haass also revealed his indifference to a more contemporary adoption of the obligations to speak truth to power.
For example, in his chapter on the teaching of civics, he failed to tell his readers about current student movements where young people adopted obligations, created their own civic institutions and moved to action against powerful vested interests. Probably the most illustrious demonstration today is the “public interest research groups” (PIRGS) in some 24 states, run by college students with full-time staff. In the state where he works, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) (https://www.nypirg.org/) has been teaching civic skills and helping students make changes in their communities since the early 1970s. Sometimes these students even get course credit for their projects.
On the Obligation to Reject Violence, Haass defines violence as serious street crimes, and foreign and domestic terrorism, with a brief reference to unlawful police power. For those confronting oppression as occurred from racism in the U.S. or British imperial rule in India, he approves of non-violent civil disobedience of the kind practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Omitted are the waves of illegal, unconstitutional, mass violence carried out by the “military-industrial complex,” (strongly condemned by President Eisenhower in his farewell address) against millions of innocent people abroad. (Note the upcoming 20th anniversary of Bush/Cheney’s criminal invasion of Iraq.)
Also missing in his book is any reference to the corporate crime wave of violence, reported often in the mainstream press, in the form of toxic emissions, unsafe products, brutal workplace conditions and the 5000 people who lose their lives each week from “preventable problems in hospitals,” according to the John Hopkins School of Medicine peer-reviewed report. (See: https://hub.jhu.edu/2016/05/03/medical-errors-third-leading-cause-of-death/).
Haass should know better than to write a book that fails to address the expanding giant corporate power, privilege and immunity over labor, consumers, patients and communities, which has sparked legions of brilliant books, public hearings and documentaries, to little avail. There is also no mention of the government’s preferential corporate taxation and huge corporate welfare payments.
His brief reference, urging corporate leaders not to make campaign contributions to politicians who are inimical to democracy or to have people pressure companies to slow climate change or not to advertise with media outlets “that consistently peddle falsehoods or encourage violence” provides no specifics or proper names nor existing reform groups, which would help readers remember some of his advice.
Being knowledgeable and self-censorious at the same time can lead some readers to think Haass is naive. On page 159, he gives us a sample: “Politicians may not always be responsible, but they are almost always responsive.” Mr. Haass, where have you been for the last twenty years? Ordinary citizens can’t even get their elected politicians to return a call, acknowledge or respond to serious letters about policy matters, or come to town meetings with agendas planned by people reflecting civic obligations. I’ll send Mr. Haass our forthcoming report titled “The Incommunicados” that chronicles the acts of the unresponsive class.
As I read through his book, it also became clear that Haass ignored the initiatory obligations of corporations, labor union leaders and universities in his list of voluntary obligations. (See, The Ethical University: Transforming Higher Education by Wanda Teays and Alison Dundes Renteln).
Haass feels more comfortable pressing for mandatory teaching of civics in schools and the mandatory obligation of “one or two years of national service.”
Expecting even a small minority of citizens (say 10 percent) to take on these obligations out of a sense of mounting peril to our weakened democracy or worry over what their descendants will inherit, is unrealistic without “facilities” that make it easy to band together in a variety of crucial affinities that would, for example, for starters demand repeal of labor laws that obstruct union organizing, require inserts in billing systems inviting people to band together as consumers with full-time staff to challenge commercial abuses in the banking, insurance, energy and health care industries. (See, https://csrl.org/citizens-utility-board-cub/).
Rights without remedies are hard to exercise. Remedies without facilities to band together leave people struggling with their “obligations” one-by-one up against the collective power of business and government.
One last suggestion to Mr. Haass – Visit https://winningamerica.net/ and invite some of the featured seasoned, accomplished civic leaders to a roundtable with you and other establishmentarians. The civic leaders listed on the Winning America site work daily to build muscular democracy and challenge concentrated power and injustice. They name names.
You need them. Or do you?