Public service

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When was the last time you heard someone described as a “public servant”? Although in this country the term has traditionally been applied to elected officials, we no longer use it much in that context. To many people’s ears it probably sounds rather quaint.

No doubt that’s because now many of us attribute motives other than public service to the people who run for office. We assume they’re in it for different reasons: power, influence, fame. And because the business of running for office has become just that — a business — and a sometimes nasty, brutish one to boot, associating it with servanthood seems a bit of a stretch.

Opinion: Public servants

Another reason we’re suspicious of public servanthood is because servants don’t get paid, whereas electoral politics is more and more becoming a big-bucks enterprise. Although politicians might not make a lot of money once they’re elected, the process of getting there requires larger and larger infusions of cash, and money has a way of tainting things and people.

One antidote to the cynicism that increasingly pervades electoral politics these days is to look close to home. The men and women who run for local office are most likely to fulfill most people’s definition of public service.

Members of the City Council in Lauderdale or the Community Council in St. Anthony Park labor in obscurity. They’re clearly not in it for the money, and they’re unlikely to appear on the 10 o’clock news. So why do they do it?

What we call public service is part and parcel of representative government. Choosing some people to represent the interests of a group has a long and distinguished history in the course of human events. And that system works best when the chosen representatives truly serve the group rather than themselves.

All of which means being a public servant isn’t easy. It entails a willingness to set aside one’s personal interests in favor of the greater good. Rather than grinding one’s own axe, it means sharpening the public debate that will lead to the best outcome for the most people.

At the same time, effective public servants are not wishy-washy, blown about by every wind of doctrine. They have principles. They act consistently. They are willing to say “Here I stand.”

But they are also willing to acknowledge that others stand elsewhere. Furthermore, the best of them are able to mediate among a welter of competing voices and interests and help others find common ground. In short, they are peacemakers.

Peacemaking is hard work, as any parent with more than one child can attest. Peacemakers forego some “rights”: the right to appeal to history, to precedent, to rules and regulations, even sometimes to majority rule. Peacemakers challenge not only the notion that might makes right but even that right necessarily makes might — because they recognize that rightness is always contested.

We wage war, but we forge peace. And the crucible out of which peace emerges must be tended by public servants who can take the heat, who have faith in the greater good and are willing to do what’s necessary to achieve it.