Thursday, September 27, 2012

Core Citizenship
Chock, definition: …a little triangle-block of wood which can totally prevent a wagon, aircraft or truck from moving if, and only if, it is inserted at the wheels before any speed is built up.
Encyclopedia Galactica

Since I have the word “citizen” in my blog header, I’m disappointed we don’t hear the word much these days. We become forgetful. In this, I am reminded of how the United Nations is doing special fine work at preservation (World Heritage Sites) and feeding the children, (UNESCO) yet all the while we are forgetting the UN’s less glamorous core function: The prevention of another war. Lest we forget: The UN was born while my father was a soldier amidst the flames and falling ashes of the last world war.

As citizens, we are enjoying many special fine community initiatives, like in those sweet paintings by Norman Rockwell that used to adorn the front pages of the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell showed us volunteering and helping and standing up to speak in a town hall meeting. How nice. Today I think we are forgetting: Our special roles such as voter, consumer and taxpayer are fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. If we forget our core value, if we forget above all to be citizens, then we may become nothing more than dust in a radioactive wind. The core function of a healthy citizenry, it seems to me, is the avoidance of war.

If proud citizens are attuned to their responsibilities in a democracy, then they will make an effort to immediately put chocks in the social wheels if they see any movement towards war, civil war or tyranny... The usual order is tyranny, civil war, then war.

The world is a harsh schoolroom. In my younger days, in the ’seventies, the people of Iran were all excited to have their revolution; they had such high hopes. Too bad they didn’t accept their need to be constantly alert to instantly shove in the chocks. Too late they learned how swiftly tyranny mushrooms if unchecked, too late... (Later the common people found themselves in an eight year fruitless war with Iraq)

Back then tyranny had already come to Argentina. The people were under the rule of some military colonels. Only a few years after the sufferings of Iran, a quarter of the way around the globe, the people of Argentina “suffered”—in both the modern and biblical sense of the word—terrible government inflation. They reacted. They were within days of “throwing the rascals out” when the colonels offered a distraction: They proclaimed a war in the Falklands. Now what? Easy: The oppressed civilians, lacking the critical thinking of mature citizens, lunged for the bait: hook, line and sinker. The rascals were safe. (Later they lost power, but that was only because they lost the war) By this time, of course it was too late to expect the civilians to instantly achieve good citizenship. In the US, in contrast, under a Lincoln or a Roosevelt, elections and change of government have never been suspended, not even during a desperate war.

Citizenship is on the other side of the coin marked Democracy.

Last year, for the first time, there has been an “Arab spring.” Regretfully, I hold no hope for Arabs, if only because they don’t understand the chock needed to keep government wheels from grinding away, faster and faster, at free speech. As I see it, probably the Arabs realize that a bad tyranny is “bad,” but at the same time they don’t feel they have an alternative called democracy, therefore they can’t allow themselves to realize that every tyranny is “wrong.” Even though millions of illiterate adults and children believe in a benevolent tyrant, written history is irrefutable: Such dictators are as rare as a five-legged cow.

This year, for the umpteenth time, the male Arabs are into violence. I’m not a professional psychologist, but I do have an amateur hypothesis about their notorious, by world standards, temper. When thinking of the male Arab “short fuse” I remember the typical fuse of a US Marine drill instructor. Here is my theory: If you are a male, either an Arab or the Yankee just down the street being led away in handcuffs for beating his wife, if you are going to routinely oppress your wife and others in your household, then a short fuse is part of your nature. The consequence, then, would logically follow: Believing a short fuse is appropriate for your rulers too. Hence sudden violent assaults, inside little shops and on sidewalks, by government agents and Islamic priests, and the frenzied street murders too, without the calm balance of judge-and-jury, ignoring human rights, while life goes on in a land without citizenship… I pray for poor Iran.

I mentioned Argentina. I suppose another example of a difference in core values would be how in South America the children of the rich, with monotonous regularity, would rather become surplus lawyers than go off in the wild to be useful engineers. As well, they avoid “serving” in the armed forces, unless conscripted. Meanwhile in Britain the upper class, including the royalty, is proud to go off in uniform “in the service.” No conscription. Citizenship, in a healthy democracy, is for everyone.

Surely things are connected. For example, surely a state with a government vulnerable to a coup de’tat is also a state without human rights. Surely a state with secret police and torture is also a state without freedom of speech. Throughout history, surely, this has been a law of human nature. The only solution I can see for any Arab public, therefore, is for them to aim their survey stakes towards democracy, building a slow, hard road of citizenship. There will be huge road stones for crowds to manhandle into position: “human rights,” “freedom of speech,” and many more. Each stone will mean much opposition and discussion before it is tamped into place. It’s hard, I know, but I can say this: No state that has achieved democracy, Asian or Western, has ever regretted the effort, or wanted to travel back in time. Once an adult accepts mature citizenship, it feels so fitting. There’s no going back to childhood.

That is one thing I know for sure.
Written under a democratic sky as I try to be citizen, not civilian.

Sean Crawford
In this brave new century
September, 2012

A hopeful sign: Recently (December) Al-Jazerra quoted an Egyptian taxi driver as joining a protest, with a feeling of urgency, saying that this time things would be different, not like before, because Egyptians would know their rights.
Perhaps instead of "chock" he would say "camel's nose in the tent" but he has the right idea, he knows that rights have to be upheld immediately.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Citizenship After 9/11
Headnote: Hullo. This piece was unfortunately first published (on August 28, 2011) before I realized that August-early September was the "silly season"of low readership. (See footnotes) Now it feels timely.

If you don't care about me, I don't want to be part of your democracy

I like the feeling of validation when someone else expresses my own beliefs about what citizenship could mean:

After 9/11, (unfortunately) “…We weren’t urged to study Arabic, to join the foreign service or international aid groups, to develop alternative sources of energy, to form a national civil reserve for emergencies—or even to pay off the cost of the war in our own time. Its burdens would be borne by the next generation of Americans, and by a few hundred thousand volunteer soldiers in this one.”

The writer is George Packer, a winner of the Overseas Press Club award, from his book The Assassins’ Gate subtitled America in Iraq. …As you know, Memorial Day is observed by Americans back at home, and in a chapter called Memorial Day Packer is writing the above paragraph about a citizen, Chris Frosheiser, who lost his son in Iraq. Two paragraphs later Packer writes:

“So the months after 9/11 were a lost opportunity—to harness the surge of civic energy and to frame the new war against Islamist radicalism as a national struggle. It should have been the job not just of the experts in the intelligence agencies and Special Forces but also of ordinary American citizens to wage it. And it should have been waged on many fronts, with many tools—not just military, but also intellectual, diplomatic, economic, political, cultural. This had been the vision of the architects of the early Cold War, whom Chris Frosheiser read about in a college history course and whom he came to admire even more after September 11…. Bush…His message to the public was essentially, “Trust me,” and the public slipped into a fearful passivity.”

A theme of my essay site is that democracy does not begin and end with voting. That’s too easy. Democracy begins with people and their neighbors feeling not as passive peasants but as citizens, together.

For me it took effort, I had to get off the couch, to be a young citizen-soldier. I remember a dewy morning when I risked my life walking through a grassy field to find unexploded bombs. Suddenly my leg got caught. I looked. There was a very fine yet surprisingly strong copper wire... ...No danger. This wire had been part of a wire guided anti-tank missile. Such rockets, naturally, require mid course corrections. Earlier, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, had envisioned a missile where you could sight on the target, click to show it to the missile’s computer, then click once more to send the missile on its way. Of course such “fire and forget” is only a fantasy.

I think part of the problem in the US, now, is the recent fantasy of “market fundamentalism.” In this ideology the public can relax and just let “market forces” do all the work. I think this feeling has spread… to people feeling that government “should not” require constant correction. When President Obama was proposing a national health care, like the splendid ones in Japan or my homeland of Canada, many Americans suspected that their own limitations, unfortunately, were just too great. They simply could not have a government service that would work nearly as well as in Canada or Japan or Europe, not if the relaxed lazy citizens wanted to just “fire and forget.” How queer for me to reflect that, within my lifetime, Americans used to be more democratic than Canadians.

The US citizens fired their white house experts off to Iraq, and then tried to forget that citizenship requires participation. "Nation building," to rework an old quote "is too important to leave to the generals."

Earlier in the first quoted paragraph was this

“…Joseph Biden wondered, “How urgent can this be if I tell you this is a great crisis and, at the time we’re marching to war, I give the single largest tax cut in the history of the United States of America?” The tax cut didn’t just leave the country fiscally unsound during wartime; their inequity was bad for morale. But the president’s failure to call for shared, equal sacrifice wasn’t accidental. It followed directly from the governing spirit of the modern conservative movement that his presidency brought to full power. After years of a sustained assault on the idea of collective action, there was no ideological foundation left on which Bush could have stood up and asked what Americans could do for their country. We weren’t urge to study…” (As above)

The next paragraph begins:

“Perhaps it was a shrewd political read on Bush’s part—a recognition that Americans, for all their passion after September 11, would inevitably slouch back to their sofas. It seemed fair to ask, though, how a body politic as out of shape as ours was likely to make it over the long, hard slog of wartime; how convincingly we could export democratic values when our own version showed so many sign of atrophy; how much solidarity we could expect to muster for Afghans and Iraqis when we were asked to feel so little for one another.”

I love that validation. In one of my essays I pointed out that it was a mistake to think we could teach the Iraqi’s to have democracy with just a quick sound bite, the implication being that on the home front Americans would need to reflect for more than just a single bite of time. But of course, events proved Americans just could not reflect, certainly not enough to develop some solidarity with Iraq. I think my parents knew more about the enemy during WWII than we do about  our protégés, our allies,  all those folks we mentored in Iraq.

In the Arab world, democracy is still a feared, loved, hated, strange and revolutionary thing. It was Emma Goldman who said, and you may have seen her bumper sticker, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” As for what the Iraqi’s wanted, (dancing?) judging by the US occupation authorities, and their bizarre dictates, no Ugly American cared enough to ask them. Not caring? Not working with? I ask you: Is this treating the Iraqi’s as “good enough to be citizens,” or merely as unwashed voters who would regularly change their masters? It cannot be denied: The US occupation authorities were embedded in the US culture, in a republic of people too apathetic to oversee them or correct them, let alone develop any understanding of the innocent Iraqi people. Here’s a bumper sticker for an Iraqi driving past a US headquarters: “If you don’t care about me, I don’t want to be part of your democracy.”

For various sound reasons, which would require a separate essay, I haven’t given up on the US. I still have hope. I realize how, for some people, hope is only felt when concurrent with action. At the end of my April 2011 essay Are Yankees Stupid? I was getting at this sort of thing, at action, citizenship and hope, when I addressed a hypothetical US citizen, one who claimed he was neither stupid nor irresponsible:

"At which I can only reply, as gently as I can, “All of my readers are responsible. And you, dear reader, may well prove me wrong. Go ahead: do the “citizen thing.” Go to your downtown library, or bookstore, and ask them to include a war on terror section. Tell them how your fellow citizens want to seek out new information, new concepts, and boldly put their actions where their commitment is… I am sorry to say I think you will fail… Then you may write a comment here to tell the rest of us what happened.”"

That was in April, and so far I've heard nothing back. I am an idealistic person, so if you have some hope, please feel free to comment.

Sean Crawford
August 28

~The 2005 quotes are from pages 386 and 387 of the Farrar, Straus and Giroux trade edition of The Assassin's Gate, with a new copyright 2006 Reading Group Guide and a new 2006 author's Afterword.

~Jerome Weeks of the Miami Herald, wrote "Packer's account is suspenseful, heartbreaking and infuriating, like watching a slow-moving bus accident... The Assassin's Gate is simply indispensable."

~As I recall, the heirs of President John F. Kennedy did not use their initiative any more than did the pals of Bush.  No asking, "What can I do for my country?" As the bus started to slide  down the hill the liberals stood watching with folded arms.

~Maybe it's the time of season, or maybe its the time of apathy, but this essay, with its clear title, is getting less than my usual number of hits.

~Update: It's taken a good while, but, cumulatively,  now it is at a normal number of hits.