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From Dependence to Independence: a citizenship story

Your Humble Blogger has picked up a book by Noelle McAfee, who blogs over at gonepublic. She seems to be a very interesting thinker, and a few pages provoked a great deal of thinking on my part, as well as a sense that YHB will very frequently be using slightly modified versions of her metaphors and framing devices to discuss political matters. So don’t read her book, dammit! It’ll ruin the whole thing.

Anyway, the one thing I thought I’d throw out there for Gentle Readers to kick around is her idea that instead of looking at political maturity as a progress from dependence to independence, we should look at it as a progress … wait, before I get to that point, let’s look at her rejected paradigm to see if (a) it’s a straw man that nobody sensible would actually argue, or (2) it’s a very solid idea that we reject only at great cost.

The idea, and I’m going to try to articulate it myself, without resorting to her language, is that traditional views of democratic participation and citizenship have, as their ideal, the citizen as an independent rational actor. Given two policies, the ideal citizen will use abstract reason to determine the preferable one. This citizen will not be swayed by the individuals proposing their ideas, nor the rhetoric with which the ideas are communicated. You will know the ideal citizen, in fact, by his (or her) ability to strip away the inflammatory rhetoric, the appeals to passion, fear and ambition, the partisan jockeying that poisons our political discourse. No, the ideal citizen will vote for the man, not the party, and for the policy, not the man. It’s all about issues. Not to be distracted by flag pins or swift boats or a comparison of spouses styles, but to keep eyes on prize, that prize being, of course, policy.

There are two problems with that ideal that come to YHB’s mind after dipping into Ms. McAfee’s book. One is, of course, that it’s preposterous bullshit. Nobody does that. We might as well have an ideal citizen who is impervious to cold or heat, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, or who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. People may attempt to vote or deliberate without being tainted by emotional appeals, but they will succeed mostly in deceiving themselves about their supposed rationality.

On the other hand, the preposterous bullshit may serve a useful purpose. If we hold to our ideal citizen as described above, we gain merit by learning not to be deceived by rhetorical tricks. The more we try to achieve that ideal, the less we are swayed by fear and hate, and the more our ultimate decisions will be good ones. For all that everybody’s perception of the universe is incomplete and inaccurate, yet the universe does exist. I can apply my skills to it and improve my perception without the hope of some attainable perfection. We will, you see, make better decisions if we fool ourselves into acting as if this ideal were attainable. So that first problem is not necessarily a disaster, although it should be pointed out that perhaps basing self-governance on self-deception is not altogether a pleasant thing.

The other problem that comes to mind is that on a deep level, the emphasis on individual reasoned decision-making makes it difficult for people to reconcile their differing views. That is, if I come to a rational decision, based on all the facts and not tempered by my emotional or tribal attachments, and you come to a different decision, then you are wrong. Oh, yes, it’s possible to agree to disagree, to weigh different kinds of costs differently and to interpret evidence differently, but the way it actually works is that you are wrong. I have done the ideal citizen thing, and you have been duped by demagogues. This is a serious danger: George Santayana felt that democracy was inherently flawed because the minority could never really accept the legitimacy of the majority when the majority was wrong, and of course the minority would always think the majority was wrong or else they would join it. This is exacerbated by our ideal of the independent citizen; if I pride myself on coming to my political conclusions independently, rather than being influenced by my community, then it is easier for me to reject the individuals who have come to different (and inferior) decisions, who are independently and individually responsible for those decisions.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for sticking to that individual, minority view. As long as we accept the process, we can grant the legitimacy of a government with which we disagree. And for all the trouble we’ve had in the last two decades (or more) of the Parties questioning the legitimacy of each other’s electoral victories, would it have been any better if the groups were any less assured of the rightness or independence or rationality of their decisions? Surely our ideal citizen would, in his rationality, his independence and his relentless focus on The Issues, be less susceptible to the pettiest aspects of those decades of partisan bickering. Instead, the ideal citizen would focus on those areas where such disagreements affect governance, which would make it all the harder for politicians of either Party to achieve dubious goals by distraction and division. If the problem is, to some extent, factionalism, then having the ideal citizen who disdains to aggregate himself with any faction is a brake. Although, here, too, it may not be a good thing for a community to eschew communitarianism outright.

So. Gentle Readers. We start with this idea, that the ideal citizen is the product of a growth from dependence to independence. First, we have no political ideas at all, nor any way to express them. Then as children, we learn a little about politics, but are incapable of formulating independent ideas or of rationally analyzing platforms and candidacies, and our entire worldview is dominated by our family and school to the point where even if we had the skills to analyze or formulate, we would be either imitating or rebelling against those other views rather than being independent. Then, as we get more sophisticated, we learn to set aside our biases, to disagree or agree with our parents, teachers and friends based on the facts at hand, rather than our relationships. We learn, as well, to view the statements of politicians skeptically, and to brush aside empty rhetoric and misleading appeals. Ideally, now, we arm ourselves against demagoguery and deception. We don’t just accept the advice of our parents or our pastors or our union bosses; we view their advice, also, with a skeptical and rational eye. We spot logical fallacies and reject fallacious conclusions. We judge, based not on our emotions and attachments, but on reason and evidence, and we do so as individuals, independently, each going in to a voting booth, pulling the curtain closed (perhaps metaphorically), and registering one single vote, to be tallied with all the other individual votes, each aspiring to the rationality and unbiased impartiality of the ideal citizen, cumulatively guiding a state aspiring to rationality and impartiality itself.

Does that seem like a fair description of our cultural ideals, and the assumptive ideals of John Rawls and Immanuel Kant and Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill and John Dewey and Robert Nozick and G. A. Cohen and Milton Friedman, as well as of James Madison himself? Of course not, that would be preposterous bullshit to claim. But the point, I think, is that there is a fundamental mindset that binds up ideas of individual autonomy with democracy and liberty, that makes this development—from dependence to independence—a fundamental story we tell ourselves about ourselves as citizens, and that we set up our democratic states in accordance with that story. Which leads to two questions: is it a true story, and is it a good story?

And another: what would be a better story?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Does that seem like a fair description of our cultural ideals

No, because voting is the least aspect of citizenship. One of the most disgusting claims from an virulently anti-citizenry administration was the notion that Election Day is the only "accountability moment," that the voting booth is the only proper place, time, and means for public involvement in our governance.

I want to engage with your questions of how we allow legitimacy to opposing viewpoints, how we balance reason and emotion in our public discourse, how we value relationships. But if all of that is simply to examine the margins of how we engage in the most marginal of public responsibilities, it just doesn't seem relevant.

You've taken requests in the past for rants. Please post a screed about how much more our founding fathers expected of each of us than we now expect of anyone, let alone ourselves. Rage against the loss of the public square as a place we would even recognize as relevant to our government. Exhort us to do more than vote, for voting has become a refuge for resignation.

I'll set aside the issue of what citizen participation in democracy should look like--I think Michael is right to argue that focusing on voting is reductive--to focus on the question of what "independence" means here.

I don't know yet what Ms. MacAfee's position is going to be, but I would say that the exercise of what I would call "independent judgment" is foundational to liberal democracy. Now, I wouldn't equate independent judgment with impartiality or rationality; rather, exercising independent judgment is thinking things through for oneself. To exercise independent judgment, one must first have a belief that one should think for oneself rather than just doing what someone in authority tells you to do. Then, once one has decided to think for oneself, one must have the capacity to think critically, whereby one can evaluate the claims of others to reach one's own conclusions. This sort of judgment is one of the chief ends of liberal education, a kind of education that has been a hallmark of the American democratic experiment.

Now, exercising such independent judgment doesn't mean that one will or should act, as a citizen, only on the basis of impartial evaluations of policy. Nor does the cultivation of this kind of _intellectual_ independence entail imagining oneself as an independent _agent_ more generally, although certain political ideologies have asserted some connection between the two. The idea that the "rational actor" is somehow free of emotional encumbrances may be part of our traditions, but it is a part of the tradition that has been significantly challenged and widely discarded since the middle of the twentieth century. To put it another way, achieving intellectual independence doesn't entail dismissing the value of our relationships when undertaking to exercise independent judgment.

feh. independent thought. is that why we're talking here, because we're too incompetent to think on these things in isolation, "for ourselves"? and how does this mysterious "learning" take place? is there a final state of learning? is there a living thing we can imagine that would really adapt to achieve perfection unto itself, that would not also go extinct? or how about, is there a person whose personal fortunes are not bound up with those of their community, who can act and decide on all politics, all resource management issues, with complete autonomy?

if you are less inclined to get suckered than most, while maintaining an eye for disruptive opportunity, are you an asset to yourself alone? why would society at large seek to cultivate those two characteristics, because it seeks the ideal individual?

"maintaining an eye for disruptive opportunity" means "seeking your fortune through managed risks" not "sociopathy," though lately i have my doubts.

Allow me to simplify one of hapa's questions:

Is there a living thing we can imagine that would not go extinct?


Much good stuff here. I'll get to that rant, Michael, although it may not be until autumn, depending. And I would like to delve a little deeper into the distinction Chris is making between using independent judgement and acting as an independent agent; I think there is a great deal to that. I also think that hapa's question about whether a culture seeks to create ideal individuals at all—or rather, whether it is a good idea for culture to encourage/indoctrinate the individual to aim for and approach the ideal for an individual, which will of course remain outside the grasp, but there's the approach, you know—dammit, hapa, I was going somewhere with this sentence, when I started.

Anyway, much more later, all right?


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