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Bothering with Citizenship

“Politics should be the wise exercise, distribution, and maintenance of power.” ~Robert Redford in the movie Legal Eagles

“Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty — their power and privilege — to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by … politicians.” ~P.J. O’Rourke in the book All the Power in the World

PathwayToCitizenshipI suppose I could multiply quotes concerning the nature of politics, but the first one will do with one caveat, and that is “Politics is the acquisition, exercise, distribution, and maintenance of power.” While it should be wise, that is more wish than fact. P.J. O’Rourke’s definition, on the other hand, serves fine as is 😉 I’ve already written about my take on the nature of Apollonian vs. Dionysian religions as a paradigm for politics and governments. In that discussion I addressed the nature of (Apollonian) cerebral and (Dionysian) visceral man, and why virtue and liberty are so closely interrelated. One of the implications of that discussion is that certainty about one’s place in the world tends to express itself in certainty of action. Witness the certainty of action in the Muslim community worldwide with the Danish cartoon conflagration. America claims to support freedom of expression, diversity, even a diversity of ideas. More to the point, the Danes didn’t simply claim to support these ideas; they were internationally recognized as one of the most tolerant societies while remaining one of the most firm supporters of these civil liberties.

That brings me to the notion of citizenship – seems to be the next step after politics, hey? For the purposes of this discussion I am going to ignore the notions of “corporate” and “global” citizenship for the simple reason that these ideas are conjured up for reasons (to instill a responsibility to “surrender part of their liberty”) similar to that of many politicians when they are “acting in our better interests.” Another obvious reason to ignore these ideas is that there are no rights, privileges and immunities enumerated by consent that are associated with these supposed “corporate” or “global” responsibilities. In other words, citizens tend to be associated with democracies – for other forms of government the term is typically subjects.

So then, a definition of citizens’ rights and responsibilities of citizenship must reside in the correlatives of citizenship’s component parts. One can turn to the Wikipedia, Britannica, or other reference and find at least three common elements of citizenship. First, it implies membership in an enfranchised (the right to vote) democratic political community. Second, the collective rights, privileges, duties, and immunities connected with membership are a celebrated component of citizenship. Finally, participation in civic life that affords a certain equal protection under the law seems to be a clear component of membership. At the very least these elements combine to protect the citizen’s body and property from harm by “enemies both foreign and domestic,” and to offer reasonably consistent conditions for the many ways citizens interact, e.g., travel, commerce, and marriage.

Granted that this is a simple and cursory look at citizenship, I do believe it provides a basis to challenge our thinking on subjects which we are or are not certain. I’ve read a ton of these little essays on politics, citizenship, government, etc., and I have trouble locating sources – but I know I’ve read something like “Revolutionaries are the graffiti artists of history.” Tell me you haven’t noticed some graffiti that hasn’t captured your attention… Europe and America’s revolutions ultimately provided for universal suffrage, and this makes it necessary for our democratic populations to avoid confusion about political ideas and the arrogant notion that somehow modern ideas are necessarily better or superior to those of our predecessors. We must be on guard against the biases of the moment and recognize that the notion of progress assumes our current ideas and certainties are somehow better than those of the past.

This is dangerous. Today we tend toward cultural relativism, an avoidance of responsibilities to our fellow citizens by accepting that one culture is equal to another. We pretend that this somehow makes us superior to the overconfidence of the past. That opinion is somehow on the same level everywhere. This is dangerous; it is a serious self-delusion that hides our own arrogance concerning our own tolerance – that it is somehow superior to the ideas of our past and the prejudices of other traditions.

I hope the primary point isn’t lost in the discussion – we must be cautious with our ideas or risk falling to our own hubris. All cultures are not equal. All opinions are not equal. Some ideas and practices should be recognized for the vile violations of civil liberties they are… Squelching freedom of expression to prevent offense is nonsense. Squelching dissent to prevent a free exchange of ideas, or to assure an untrammeled path to passage of a prized bill is worse. As citizens we should be seeking to protect each other and our civic life from these encroachments.

Citizenship requires us to think reasonably – let’s not fall for a phony populism or a fake egalitarianism. A culture that accepts the mutilation of its women for “cultural reasons” is not equal to a culture that protects its women from mutilation. Period. Making distinctions isn’t inherently racist, bigoted or intolerant.

Find your certainties. Think them through. Act… and I’ll wait for the hate mail.

Cheers all, have a great Thursday.

p.s.     This piece was originally aimed at a discussion of felony disenfranchisement. Guess that will have to wait! I’ll let the current frustration settle, then try again 😀

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  1. Mr. Grim
    November 5th, 2009 at 11:22 | #1

    As much as I would love to leave a long-winded and overly verbose comment on this particular post, I find that all that needs to be said has already been said. Consequently, it leaves me with but one sentence for comment:

    I could not agree more.

  2. November 6th, 2009 at 07:31 | #2

    As usual, Steven, you are on an intellectual plane that leaves me in the dust. Assuming I have interpreted you correctly, I agree with your caution that we take ourselves and our ideas too seriously. The utopian idea that we can provide perfect health care for all is handy as a goal but worthless as a policy. When we legislate that all animals are equal, the reality will come back and bite us with the truth that some animals are more equal than others. Watching the Congress and major interest groups (AARP, AMA) abandon all semblance of ethical behavior to force through a bill that they believe is a ‘greater good’ is to see a sellout of the most important building blocks of our nation. The rights of citizens in this country are being suspended because a large number of politicians believe the end justifies the means. I guess I am so disappointed with the current crowd in power that I can’t help bring any discussion of politics, citizenship, or patriotism back to this: We are only as good as our leadership and our leadership is only as good as we are responsible citizens. At the first opportunity we need to act at the ballot box and tell our politicians to behave ethically or you will be replaced.

    Tom (ttoes.wordpress.com)

  3. November 7th, 2009 at 23:39 | #3

    @Mr. Grim

    Thanks buddy. Of course, judging by the response to this post (large for me) and the email, and even more important, my wife, I’ll have to aim at communicating a little better. Glad you agree though! 😀

  4. November 7th, 2009 at 23:59 | #4

    @tom Vail

    I couldn’t agree more Tom. We definitely need to act at the ballot box, and more! The idea that education should be monopolized by the state, even if the intent is noble, is abhorrent. Controlling the the entire public (and of course any schools accepting federal funds) curricula mitigates against the very diversity of ideas our government claims to support. Be it cap and tax, health care-health insurance-health what ever reform, or education I share a similar disappointment with our leadership. Though she’s firmly on the left and I tend to disagree with her political positions, Naomi Wolf writes authoritatively about our founders and the current gobbledegook that passes for legislation these days. She believes it’s deliberate, intended to keep regular citizens out of government. I believe she is probably right.

    You’re right too, as citizens we shoulder at least part of the blame for our current condition – I think perhaps that conservatives had better start community organizing on their own…


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