Civic duty and national renewal

Civic duty in our time, I submit, consists mainly of three tasks.  The first is to seek to understand the demands of a modern society and to participate responsibly in its collective life.  The second is to help lessen the suffering of others in our midst.  And the third is to make accountable those who make decisions in our name.

These three elements of civic duty are interrelated.  Our ability to make others accountable for the decisions they make in our name depends very much on the extent of our own fidelity to our obligations as members of society.  We would be deterred from demanding of others what we ourselves fail to practice in daily life.  We would feel compromised and ethically disabled.  In like manner, we may be so engrossed in our personal lives that we fail to connect to the life of the community in any positive way.

In times such as ours, one’s first duty, I think, is not to despair but to seek greater understanding of what is happening to us as individuals and as a nation.  Despair is the other face of confusion.  Our failure to make sense of complex events is bound to lead us to ineffective action.  We must learn to think reflexively and critically so we may begin to realize our blind spots and correct them.  We must not fear and obstruct the new; rather, we must track its movement and befriend it.

The modern society that is upon us demands that we abide by its most basic rules.  They are not difficult to understand.  What are these?  Three things basically: 1) Fall in line and wait for your turn; 2) Know the rules and follow them; 3) Come on time. These simple rules will permit us to navigate the complex terrain of the modern world with ease.  There is not a single modern society in the world today that does not strictly enforce these rules.

The fundamental premise of these rules is equality – a premise that is hard to accept in a traditional society with its entrenched hierarchies.

The rich, the powerful, and the well-connected hate falling in line. They are not accustomed to waiting for their turn.  Though they make the rules, they think they are not covered by them.  It is not surprising that the poor, the weak, and those without any influence go through life looking for patrons who can sponsor them.  They don’t trust the system.  They expect their patrons to put them ahead of the others in the line, or to exempt them from the rules.  These favors do not come free; they are purchased ultimately at the cost of our own basic freedoms.

Systems based on patronage place a heavy burden on the decision-maker whose power rests on the ability to please everyone seeking favors.  It may work for simple societies.  But the larger and more diverse a society becomes, the more this burden is multiplied.  The only solution available in the long run is a mode of governance based on differentiation of functions and institutionalization, starting with the adoption of impersonal procedures for processing needs and delivering services. This type of governance substantially diminishes the power of politicians, and so fierce resistance is to be expected at the outset.  But this will eventually be swept away by the tide of social change.

Of the three aspects of a modern citizen’s role mentioned above, the most crucial, I think, is the need to comprehend the events that mark our painful transition from a traditional to a modern society.  Our failure to analyze these events in structural terms produces precisely the kind of unproductive interventions we have seen in the recent past.

We have taken adventurous shortcuts through people power in the hope of starting afresh, forgetting that political cultures are not dismantled overnight. We have changed political leaders dramatically in recent years, only to realize after a few months that we are confronting the same system all over again.  Part of the reason for this is that we have tended to articulate our vision of a new social order as a simple quest for morally pure and God-fearing leaders. This arises from a popular view of political corruption as largely the result of moral failure, rather than as an integral component of the existing social system itself.

The inadequacy of our understanding of the national situation is also visible in our easy recourse to charity when dealing with the complex problem of poverty and social inequality.  We prefer to deal with the symptoms rather than with the causes, believing that the little we do for our less fortunate brethren is always better than merely criticizing the government.  There is some truth in this, but, callous as it may be to say it, it also dangerously excuses the system in which we live, and conceals from us our own unexamined personal roles in the perpetuation of this unjust way of life.

When the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote about the quest for social solidarity in our time, he was referring not to the ritualistic charities that define our futile attempts at redressing inequality, but to our gradual awakening as human beings to the reality of our own unwitting participation in the oppression and exploitation of others. Such an awakening shifts our attention from the limited mortals that we are to the kind of society we have created for ourselves.

To be able to watch ourselves collectively as a nation – that is the mark of a modern society.  But to be able to revise our notions of who we are and what we can be – that is the quality of a great people.


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