We are a nation that revolves around “rights.”

Which makes sense. Our government was literally founded in opposition to a monarchy. The founders of this system took up arms and fought a bloody, long, and daunting war in order to be done with authoritarian rule.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.

It is hardly surprising then that the language of the new government focuses heavily on the establishment of individual rights. I mean, even before we get to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, we have the Declaration of Independence.

Famously presented on the Fourth of July, 1776, right there in the Preamble it states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

So there we have it. Even before we were a country, we were centered on the establishment of rights.


Three cheers for it, by the way! I don’t know about you, but I really like my right to practice whatever religion I choose or none at all. I really like my right to free speech, to be protected from unlawful search and seizure, to vote.

Yes, I am a fan of my rights, and yours, too.

Setting aside for the moment the more tricky bits around gender and race (I know, that’s a pretty big set-aside) the concept of granting individuals rights was literally revolutionary.

Sure, sure, the Magna Carta had already come into being several hundred years before, but that really only granted rights to land owning, i.e. wealthy, white men. Way, way back in 539 B.C.E. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia, proceeded to free the slaves and set out a proclamation of human rights, becoming the first known establishment of such. Sadly, those ideas failed to take hold globally.

At the time of our founding, most of the world was still operating under distinctly different rules. Europe certainly was. In fact, it was our rebellion that inspired the French Revolution.

Intriguingly, a lot of the concepts – and indeed the exact language – in our Constitution (as well as our official government seal) was borrowed directly from the Haudenosaunee, a “sophisticated and thriving society of well over 5,000 people when the first European explorers encountered them in the early 17th century” as noted by Terri Hansen, a journalist for PBS.


While the sharing of a governmental template is pretty cool, regrettably, another concept of indigenous government failed to be similarly embedded in our national consciousness, that of  “responsibility.”

It shows up in the language, as in “the rights and responsibilities,” but it never really caught on as a way of being. We tend to operate as isolated individuals, focused on our rights, without weighing the impact upon the others, our responsibility.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as the rhetoric of the midterm elections swirled around me.

We are really good at knowing, stating and defending our rights. We’re a little squishy on knowing, stating and embracing our responsibilities. What are they? What do we owe to each other as a part of a functional society? What are our obligations to our neighbors? Our communities? Our nation? Because really, if we are going to have any sort of future at all, we are going to have to start paying as much attention to that as we do to the rest.

I have some further ideas about this, actual implementable suggestions I want to float and talk about, and so I’m carrying this conversation over into next week.

If you have actionable ideas on this topic, I’m interested in those as well. After all, my hunch is we might need to try a lot of things, including some that flop like a lead balloon, before we find what works.

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