Dan Kemmis doesn’t hear many people call themselves citizens anymore.
It’s “taxpayers” or, at best, “concerned citizens,” “as if citizenship is a form of anxiety.”
Missing from such terms is a more well-rounded sense of citizenship that realizes democracy is not just paying taxes and getting your money’s worth.
What’s been lost, he said, is a spirit of civility - not just in the sense of politeness, but in the sense of living together in a local community that both nurtures and thrives on the participation of its citizens.
Appearing last week in Pullman and Moscow for the “Tale of Two Cities” community organizing series, the Missoula mayor and author of “The Good City and the Good Life” said American cities have fallen into “a spiral of sullenness and anger.”
The art of open debate too often lapses into self-interested argument and political division. Talk radio feeds off cynicism, acting “parasitical in the decay of political culture,” he said. Newspapers aren’t innocent, either, at times highlighting differences among local groups instead of showing how they solve problems.
In a more civil culture, he said, citizens feel free to debate but manage to care more about their community than winning their argument.
“It’s possible for people to be disagreeing with each other but have the sense that, even while they’re disagreeing, they’re working toward a common ground,” he said. “That seems to be a sense that we’ve lost.”
The product of an eastern Montana farm, Harvard and the University of Montana law school, Kemmis, a Democrat, is former speaker of the Montana Legislature and is now in his second term as mayor.
Along with President Clinton, he is an adherent of the growing “communitarian” movement, which seeks to reconcile individual rights with the collective good.
His book, which draws on comparisons to ancient Athens and the Missoula farmer’s market, even offers a jacket blurb from Amitai Etzioni, author of “The Spirit of Community” and the communitarian movement’s guru. “A must-read for any citizen and communitarian,” Etzioni writes.
On a cautious note, Kemmis said citizens must avoid having too high of expectations of public life and instead be willing to fail.
“The chief civic virtue,” he said, “is patience.”
But among his suggestions for improving a community’s attitude and participation is concentrating on the well-being of children. This is actually a survival issue, he said, since renegade children can become downright dangerous through gang activity and other behavior.
“The city can’t do well if its children can’t do well,” he said.
Moreover, helping children overcomes fragmentation and cynicism, since no one will disagree on the importance of doing it, he said.
Some cities are putting to good use mentoring programs in which adults teach children. University towns in particular have an untapped pool of mentors, as well as the chance to develop valuable service-learning projects for students, he said.
Missoula’s own high level of civic participation - which yielded thousands of people to help a local artist build a hand-carved carousel - is featured in “The American Promise,” a three-part public television series on grass-roots efforts to uphold the ideals of democracy. The series airs today and Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KUID and 8 p.m. on KSPS.