Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Civic duties and the Republic

I spent most of this past Monday in the jury "lounge" of the Hall of Justice, San Diego's court complex. Quite apart from expecting the Super Friends to arrive at any moment and reflecting on the absurdity of calling any room as uncomfortable as a third-world bus station waiting room a lounge, I gained a little out of the experience.

As it turns out, I wasn't selected for a jury. But this wasn't because of my contrary nature, my argumentativeness, my training in making the weaker argument the better, my belief that the reasonableness of a doubt is both context- and subject-sensitive or even my friendship of one of the County's prosecuting attorneys. After six-and-a-half hours, Jury Services' computer had not selected my name to be sent to a courtroom and the courts' jury needs for the week had already been met.

But, in that period of several hours, after the intelligence-insulting orientation--an hour to explain what could have been read and comprehended in 5 minutes--I was thrown together with a group of people unlike those with whom I normally mix. I was between a middle-aged elementary school teacher, native to California and active in her church and a retiree who's guiding passion is the rational expansion or replacement of San Diego's Lindbergh field.

Now, fortunately or not, neither these two, nor the majority of the several hundred people in the jury lounge that day were much like the sort of people with whom I normally mix. My communities are either gay or academic for the most part. In other words, like many Americans I live in something of a self-selected ghetto. This is no different than living in an ethnic neighborhood or a homogeneous suburb or a small town. It has its advantages. At the same time, it means that I don't spend much time with people outside these self-selected community: I don't understand where they are coming from and most of them probably can't understand why I might have the opinions I do (God knows that most people I know can't figure me out).

Besides helping to guarantee the right to a jury by one's peers, civic duties and responsibilities have another advantage. Like one of the traditional justifications for public schooling, obligatory civic responsibilities force us to spend time with one another, to get some greater feeling for the larger, more inclusive public.

Now, clearly this doesn't mean that we are going to build some kind of strong community. I'm not likely to be spending time with the woman I talked to most of the time I was on jury duty. She seemed as troubled by my being Catholic as she was by the feeling she was getting that I might be gay. I'm pretty sure that if we got to know one another, we wouldn't like each other. Communities are built on closer connections and are necessarily smaller and more emotionally-charged things. But civic responsibilities might create a sense of a (loosely) united public. And such a sense of belonging to a public is necessary for the survival of anything like a republic.

A republic is, literally, a public thing, i.e., a thing that we all share and have an interest in. If we are to keep from becoming just a fractured set of irreconcilable communities, perhaps we all ought to pay more attention to our civic responsibilities.

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