bigotry, Bill of Rights, civic engagement, community involvement, discrimination, eyes on the street, faction, freedom, Hannah Arendt, Hayek, inequality, intolerance, James Madison, Jane Jacobs, John Locke, liberty, license, Montesquieu, Niebuhr, On Revolution, partisanship, prejudice, propaganda, racism, society, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Federalist Papers, The Spirit of the Laws, The White Ribbon, xenophobia
Following most presidential elections, talk turns towards the newly elected (or re-elected) candidate, cabinet nominations, policy changes, and so forth. For the party of the losing candidate, discussions revolve around how the winning candidate achieved success, or which missteps their candidate took.
In the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, we experienced something else: A backlash against the winning candidate, which emerged in the Birther Issue, the Faith Issue (Muslim or Christian?), so on and so forth.
For those of us who thought we were living in a post-racial society, we were quickly reawakened to the reality. While the dissenters may have felt they held legitimate claims, for most Americans we uncomfortably recognized the racial and xenophobic (due to name) undercurrents. Racial and xenophobic issues are only two symptoms of prejudice, bigotry, partisanship, discrimination, inequality…
But how did we get here? Why, after decades of trying to eradicate these social diseases, do we still suffer them in America? These problems seem to be getting worse.
It is due, I postulate, to American citizens’ withdrawal from the public sphere, retreating to the private sphere of our homes and becoming anonymous, inconsequential, faceless individuals. We no longer understand what it means to be recognized, consequential and involved in society or, more specifically and pragmatically, in our local communities.
“Society” itself has become a target of our suspicion and cynicism. We ignorantly blame society for our inability to distinguish ourselves, when in fact it is the weakening of the social fabric which keeps us anonymous. We become wary of any noun that begins with “soc-,” our unlearned fears associating “society” with “socialism.”
That stalwart of liberty and individual, the English political philosopher John Locke, heavily influenced America’s founders and founding documents. Yet, little do we hear from Locke’s contemporary proponents of his arguments for the importance of society. In his second treatise on government, Locke framed society thus (from Chp. 7):
“God having made Man such a Creature, that, in his own Judgment, it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong Obligations of Necessity, Convenience, and Inclination to drive him into Society, as well as fitted him with Understanding and Language to continue and enjoy it.
“The first Society was between man and wife….”
Thus, Locke asserts that society was immediate, and that it was never an artifice of unnecessary making or dispensable in nature. Nevertheless, some voices believe society is merely a concoction that infringes upon individuality. In fact, such an argument is code for “society infringes upon license.”
“Yet, with innumerable examples staring them in the face, the people still bawl out ‘liberty,’ by which they mean nothing but freedom from every species of legal restraint, and a warrant for all kinds of licentiousness….”
Washington Irving, Salmagundi, № XI (1807).
If the idea was drawn from Locke that the individual preceded society and thus society is an artificial condition, it is a gross misreading.
Using Locke’s example, society arrived as soon as Eve arrived, so society’s emergence was all but immediate. What Locke did maintain was that when individuals pulled “all together, came short of Political Society.” This is a crucial distinction, for this is how Locke reasoned that individuals preceded government, thus our rights are natural and intrinsic to our being, that no government establishes such rights for individuals, but such rights are divinely (or, if one is atheist, naturally) granted and thus cannot be bestowed on or revoked from the individual merely by decrees of government. Such rights are inalienable, immutable, intrinsic.
Locke never argued individuals preceded society, save for Adam, and to drive the point further, maintained that the individual was made for society, and society made for the individual. To suggest that society is of little import implies that society operates to control the individual, possessing an ulterior and evil motive not unlike the propaganda machine of the Third Reich. Since society is capable of producing such infringements upon the natural rights of the individual, this argument continues, it cannot be deserving of special considerations to maintain.
Such arguments ring from dark shadows, for powers with ill intent understand all too well the need to conquer and divide. Without the cohesiveness of a society, citizens are vulnerable.
We tend towards the extremes in arguments, the hyperbolic, and so it is with the individual versus the society. Which entity should take precedence? There is no necessity to choose, as both need to exist in balance, and both are necessary. As the Austrian-British economist and political philosopher F.A. Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty, wrote,
“When we reflect how much knowledge possessed by other people is an essential condition for the successful pursuit of our individual aims, the magnitude of our ignorance of the circumstances on which the results of our action depend appears simply staggering.”
A high degree of independence for the individual can only exist, almost paradoxically, with a high degree of interdependence between individuals. One can think of society as a massive t-test, a statistical methodology wherein within-individual and between-individual data can be culled from the same test, yet the independence of one is crucial in ascertaining the validity of the other.
This interdependence is not the same as dependence. The atmosphere of dependence emanates from an condescending elitist attitude towards the citizen, reducing him or her to an individual incapable of making decisions from himself or herself, that others are better educated in taking care of the bigger issues. The individual does not need to be – nor can be – involved, and thus develops a dependency.
With the citizen’s independence – based on liberty, not license – interdependence simply recognizes that we rely on each other to ease our day-to-day concerns, allowing us to focus on the substantive issues such as ensuring our governmental structures serve the larger good, that economic structures serve the individual by enabling a living income, that meaningful communities exist where we can live and pursue a life in an interactive, vibrant environment.
There is little doubt that society holds potential for a dark side, as attested to by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man & Immoral Society, written at a time fascism was on the rise around the world (it was originally published in 1932), and its themes highlighted in the 2009 German film, The White Ribbon. Those who have studied societies that have quietly allowed authoritarianism to rise without challenge can attest to such powers. Those who have lived in small towns and cities can corroborate their potential for producing stifling atmospheres. There is the tendency for the individual to turn morals and values over to a society, community or organization, hiding behind such entities to justify, or remain complacent towards, immoral action.
The reinforcement of society, and its local counterpart the community, becomes crucial just for these very reasons. The more the individual engages in a society or community, the more that active and educated individual lessens – though never eradicates – the chance of a society or community dictating an individual’s decisions, moral or otherwise. The term “educated individual” is not necessarily meant to suggest one who is institutionally educated, but one who simply educates himself or herself on issues of importance to a society or community. This engagement denies a society or community the capacity for procreating evils such as racism, xenophobia, prejudice, bigotry, partisanship, discrimination, and inequality.
The confining community portrayed in The White Ribbon was reasonably easy to obtain for most of humanity’s existence. Even as technology progressed, the one-way communications offered by radio and television offered little help, equally capable of serving as vehicles of mass propaganda by insidious governments as serving the good.
Yet today, in the early 21st century, humanity finds itself in an opportunity bursting with significance and opportunity: social media. Social media provides communications, but on a two-way, interactive level. Social media allows the world to challenge, to open the local community to new ideas. While small, suffocating communities were certainly a threat in the past, this can no longer serve as a scapegoat against community development today. We have a light, and it can be bright if we allow it to be so.
Society and its local manifestation, the community, cannot be a mere artifice. The individual cannot obtain alone what the actions of numerous individuals, acting together, can provide collectively. It is the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s terminology. In a modern, complex society, how many of us could raise livestock or crops? Build our homes or other dwellings? Repair our vehicles? Sew our clothes? Collect our trash? And this merely focuses on the economic.
More importantly, as a modern complex society we must veer from assuming others will carry the load. Modern society is too complex to assume any one person or single entity will effectively and efficiently guide us through the myriad of social, political and economic issues facing us. Complexity demands organic, grassroots control, and that is only achieved by engagement and involvement. And today, it is assisted with the advent of our knowledge infrastructure, the Internet and social media.
America’s founders, while creating a democratic republic, could take for granted the nation’s social fabric and community involvement in the 18th century. These assumptions are embedded in the U.S. Constitution: The Bill of Rights were inserted to provide the necessary freedoms that allow citizens to engage their governments, to strengthen their communities. What other reason exists for the Bill of Rights than this?
Yet, those freedoms do not come with a guarantee of satisfaction. Participating in a community, engaging in local politics, involving one’s self in the community, can be ugly, messy. Factions will arise. “Freedom,” Hayek wrote, “necessarily means that many things will be done which we do not like.”
The father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, welcomed this diversity as read in his writing of The Federalist, No. 51:
“It is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part… There are… methods of providing against this evil… by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens, as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.”
Hence, faction assures no single power monopolizes or dominates our country.
The American Republic requires citizens shouldering certain and differing responsibilities in communities, requires differing points of opinion to be heard, and most certainly cannot be rigidly ordered to the degree we may prefer. As political theorist Hannah Arendt explains in her work, On Revolution (Chapter 6):
“Democracy… was abhorred (by the American founders) because public opinion was held to rule where public spirit ought to prevail… the decisive incompatibility between the rule of a unanimously held ‘public opinion’ (in a democracy) and ‘freedom of opinion’ (in a republic)” highlights “the truth of the matter… that no formation of opinion is ever possible where all opinions have become the same.”
For America to be successful again, we have to interact with our fellow citizens. Commit to educated debates. Learn to compromise. It’s grassroots politics and community involvement. It’s recognizing that none of us is an expert. None of us has all the right answers. We consider the alternatives, then act on the best information we have at the time. If it doesn’t work, we start over. There are no theories here, only the empirical evidence we accumulate in life. And lest we forget, self-governance takes self-discipline.
Along the way, we will find ourselves working with other Americans, Americans who are different in race, gender or sexual orientation. We discover that at our core, we all want the same thing: a way to provide for ourselves and our families, the safety of loved ones, the desire to carve out a contentment in this thing called life, the free space to practice our beliefs without infringing on the rights of others. Along the way, our racism, xenophobia, prejudices, bigotry, partisanship, discrimination, and inequality begins to fade. Along the way, we find our self-governance skills re-emerging.
The ebb and flow of daily life on Hudson Street (Greenwich Village) in 1961, as Jane Jacobs describes it in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had a certain structure to it. Yet, it was most certainly not externally dictated or demanded. The self-governance emerged from a self-discipline in place, growing out of the actors participating, interacting. People were (and still are) capable of working out their own lives. No one appointed the adults on Hudson Street to be the “eyes on the street.” It was simply a part of the arrangement that assured their liberties, whether the residents of Hudson Street realized it or not.
Most importantly, no one paid the adults to be the eyes on the street. The French political philosopher Montesquieu (in The Spirit of the Laws, Part 4, Book 20, Chp. 2) understood why such voluntary activity slides out of everyday existence:
“But, if the spirit of commerce unites nations [think globalization – ed.], it does not unite individuals in the same way. We see that in countries where one is affected only by the spirit of commerce, there is traffic in all human activities and all moral virtues; the smallest things, those required by humanity, are done or governed for money.” (emphasis added)
Jacobs observed that the structured housing projects of the Fifties and Sixties were unmitigated disasters. Someplace, somewhere, some set of experts who studied all the theories, wrote dissertations on all the variables, and felt they possessed all the answers, wreaked massive havoc on the lives of untold thousands (perhaps millions) of urban poor. What once were considered messy, disheveled neighborhoods in need of a bulldozing – in the eyes of the experts – turned out to be close-knit communities. These communities were perhaps unable to generate a robust economy, but were rather effective in weaving a social fabric. As Jacobs uncovers, the children from the projects were more likely to head for delinquency, not those from the unkempt neighborhoods.
And sadly, we will never know the full impact of those housing projects. How many families were destroyed in the process? How many friendships? How many “eyes on the streets”? It’s likely the fallout has conveyed itself from generation to generation, down to our time. Those neighborhoods were not perfect, but their inhabitants came far closer to making an underprivileged life work there than in the projects.
In like manner we need to rebuild our local communities, re-engage in our local governance. We will find better communities in which to live when we start tearing down the walls that have been erected between Americans, walls every bit as real as the Berlin Wall. We need to start freeing ourselves from such an Iron Curtain… only this curtain of intolerance was of our own making.
As Robert E. Shalhope remarked in his 1976 The Journal of Southern History article, “Thomas Jefferson’s Republicanism and Antebellum Southern Thought,” regarding life in the American Republic in the wake of the American Revolution:
“We now understand how deeply Americans believed that with their revolution they had created a new republican world. Americans became convinced, moreover, that what made republics great or what ultimately destroyed them was not force of arms but the character and spirit of the people. Public virtue became pre-eminent. A people noted for frugality, industry, temperance, and simplicity was good republican stock, while those who wallowed in luxury could only corrupt others. Easily acquired wealth was gained at the expense of the community; it was the entire society that was crucial.”