Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The role of the citizen (notes on a comment)

Adiemantus, who writes an informative blog frequently on political matters, has composed a thoughtful comment on some of my political ramblings. I'm bringing it out front because I hate to have so much effort and thought left where possibly so few people will see it. My thoughts are interspersed.
I much appreciate your thoughtful ideas on this and other subjects.

With regard to those, such as your wise friend, who are disgusted with politics: I almost think that one of the beauties of our polity is that its well-functioning does not seem to require that all or even most of the citizenry take an active interest in politics.

Of course, you're right, and I oppose mandatory voting for this reason and because I know so many uninformed and frankly stupid people that I wish wouldn't vote (and who probably wish I wouldn't).
Let me push that thesis a step or two further: Our polity was designed to allow (perhaps even to encourage) most individuals to live free from the muck of politics, and instead to devote themselves fully to other endeavors, such art or writing or (most especially) commercial pursuits, without having to worry that their neglect of political matters might permit the rise of tyranny.

Designed? Really? I say this more in amazement than doubt. I haven't read many of the primary sources around the time of the founding documents, but I've always been given to understand that they assumed an educated, informed and involved citizenry. In a way, it's a benefit of a monarchy that the citizens don't have to (or don't have the opportunity to) spend as much effort on the process of good government.
With its elevation of wealth (as distinct from class), our polity was organized so that many of the most ambitious souls, rather than aspiring to become captains of great armies whose shedding of blood would redound mostly to the glory of the leaders, would instead seek public acclaim as captains of industry directing legions of workers in peaceful and productive activities that benefit not only the leaders, but also the workers.

The few still drawn to seek glory in politics arise for the most part, not from among the greatest souls, but from a second or third tier of humanity. And they must to conduct themselves with moderation, as they find few citizens with the time or inclination to serve any zealous scheme, and certainly no scheme that might seriously and unnecessarily jeopardize the citizens' material well being. And, thanks to the constitution's checks and balances, these politically ambitious ones find their actions constantly challenged by others equally ambitious. They, much like the captains of industry, win adherents not by promising glory or salvation, but only by arranging for the citizens' acquistion of physical comforts.

So, notwithstanding the constantly over-heated rhetoric from all political quarters proclaiming that the nation is going to hell in a handcart, that rhetoric is sound and fury signifying little or nothing. The most important political territory in our lives has been permanently walled off from politicians' battles, so that the politicians are limited to fighting their rhetorical disputes over some rather measly parcels, the conquest of which (in historical terms) has relatively small effects on our lives. Meanwhile we citizens can safely ignore the politicians' petty battles and go on about our business of making art or money or whatever else appeals to each of us.

This may be true part of the time--Goldwater vs. Johnson, Carter vs. Ford, even arguably Clinton vs. G.H.W. Bush--but there have been times when national leadership was truly crucial to the survival of the republic and of its citizens. Of course, you can never be quite sure if it's one of those times, and even in hindsight, you never know what the losing candidate would have done, and you don't know for certain the effects of President M that come to fruition during the presidencies of N, O, P and Q. So maybe a little trepidation going into every election is not overblown.
Aristotle thought that to be truly free, a person must participate in politics because that was the activity which ultimately ruled our lives. His definition of citizen was "a person who rules and is ruled in turn." A person who did not participate in the politics of his city was equal to a slave because he left himself under the rule of others. Of course, Aristotle believed that the aim of politics was to bring about virtue in the citizens. Seeing how disagreement over what is true virtue leads often to bloody conflict, the founders of our polity aimed not for virtue, but for freedom--a lower target, but one that is less controversial in its details and easier to hit.

Going back to your sausage metaphor: If your friend is so disgusted with politics that she refuses to participate in it, is that decision of greater import than her decision not to work at a meat-packing plant? If we all were butchers, would the sausage be any better?

Every metaphor breaks down at some point. If all were butchers, the sausage might actually be better, but it's not an important improvement. If we all took our role as citizen more to heart, I think the republic would be stronger and people's lives would be better.
I apologize for having taking so many comments to express myself, but I had composed my comment offline, and then discovered the word limit on your comments system.

On the contrary, thanks for a thoughtful response making the best of my blog-on-the-cheap.

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