Headnote: This month’s cover story (April) for Oprah’s magazine is, “What would you stand for?”
Closely related, in my mind, to: Of what would you say, “This I believe?”
On the Internet is an old radio broadcast by a science fiction novelist, and Saturday Evening Post short-story writer, Robert Heinlein. His brief talk was part of the old This I Believe radio series where plain speaking folks, some of them everyday citizens, some of them famous like Helen Keller, would read a brief essay on what they believe. Heinlein’s piece, by the way, was on how his neighbors, like Americans everywhere, were good and honest.
(Note: You can find two collections of these pieces currently in print, one of original pieces, one new, published with the hope that everyday citizens will be inspired to come up with their own “This I Believe.” The series was started by journalist Edward R. Murrow, a household name in his day)
Although I had read Heinlein’s piece previously, I went onto the Web to hear what his voice sounded like. What surprised me was not his voice but some comments by puzzled people below Heinlein’s piece, comments that left me puzzled. Some folks truly didn’t understand why, back in the days of vacuum tubes, Robert Heinlein, or any man, would say, “I belong to the United States.”
Clearly the commenters did not understand the classical citizenship of the ancient Greek city-states. This was the same citizenship envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, being acted out at town hall meetings in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution.
To me, getting to know idealistic classical citizenship is useful, like how an athlete, at the beginning of every season, finds it useful to be getting back to the fundamentals. In fact, Heinlein and his wife used to “get back” to reading the U.S. Constitution once a year, on the fourth of July. I guess picking a regular calendar date is one way to stay informed, eh?
Now, before I attempt an essay about classical citizenship, I would say to you, dear reader, “let’s be cool.” Relax. No one is saying we should return to the days of my father, born 1919, or Robert Heinlein, born 1907. It’s all cool. As I write this, I am merely agreeing with a young history major I know who said “You need to know your past to know where you’re going.” This I believe.
The post-modern model for citizenship, I suppose, would be where a nation-state is like a ship of state run by a crew of executives, or board of directors, and therefore, as regards the rest of us, our responsibility begins and ends with voting. Just like in a shareholder’s meeting. That, and maybe glancing at the company annual report. In contrast, classical citizens would have to be alert and active all year round. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
The problem with waking up to vote every four years (or six years, for certain less democratic national leaders) is simply this: Over in Russia they have voting too. It’s not working out very well for them. No, and it’s not working out very well in China either. You may have heard about “The Great Firewall of China.” In place of the World Wide Web, and world wide “free trade” of information, the Chinese have a cyber wall, interrupting all Internet cables into the state, a blockade monitored by dark computers, to keep out any Internet articles that contain, say, the words “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Free Tibet.” I’m serious: in China you cannot use a search engine for “the man at Tiananmen standing bravely standing in front of the tanks…”
It’s so easy to control a public who have been blindfolded. As a character said in Robert Heinlein’s novel, “If This Goes On—“ (from memory) , “I came to understand that the greatest weapon of any tyranny is secrecy.”
As for China, what the Women’s Liberation Movement said during my youth applies: “The personal is the political.” Long after the rest of the world has let go of communism to grasp for the brass ring of democracy, the Chinese regime will whirring along like an evil clockwork. Not advancing in freedom, not advancing in having citizens feel ever more personal responsibility, but instead going backwards. Backwards! This year their current leader is changing the constitution to be “leader for life.”
As with all dictators, with increasing power he would become an increasing threat to peace. Then what? I am sure he must feel threatened by the ethnic Chinese of Taiwan, over on the nearby island of Formosa, “Chinese” who have grown up from beloved babies to becoming senior citizens, all the while passionately loving the green hills and flag of their island-state, never knowing anything but democracy. He must grind his teeth at the living example of freedom that the republic of Taiwan represents. No doubt he would deeply desire to conquer Taiwan, and absorb the people into China, blindfolding their innocent children and raising them to know nothing but communism and tyranny… But it will all work out. As long as the Taiwanese are willing to defend themselves, to throw their first punch, America and the free world will always be there at their side. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.”
The classical model for democracy would be the forum: A vast stone roof held up by majestic marble pillars letting a breeze blow through. No firewall. There, citizens who passed through the city gates from their farms would meet and mingle with the city folk, discussing the political issues of the day. They would do this feeling a sense of personal “agency” and responsibility. This was, of course, before newspapers. “A citizen’s duty is to be informed.”
It’s hard to blindfold everyone mingling in a great forum… not when everyone is insisting on their “freedom of assembly” and “freedom of speech.”
Now, what if some fellow named Vladimir Putin, or Julius Caesar, was getting “too big for his toga,” too ambitious, posing a threat to peace? Folks had a custom in Greece, (but not in Rome, poor Caesar) of allowing people to write a person’s name on a piece of broken pottery, or “potshard,” something more common than paper litter is today, and then dropping the potshard onto a ballot pot. If a fellow received too many votes then he was “ostracized,” excluded from society for a time. As I say, they didn’t do that in Rome or the American colonies, nevertheless the custom of ostracism makes a point: The Greeks, even without newspapers, kept themselves keenly informed about the news of the day.
Part of what made Greek democracy possible was the same thing that made some of their farmers able to walk to the city: Their human size. Not a nation-state, but a city-state. Perhaps the smaller size was what made it possible for folks to meet and greet, observe how people are pretty much the same, and feel their civic actions mattered.
The divine spark of democracy, from the Greek word “demo” meaning people, came from an exciting, new improved idea: …The people are “good enough”….
No need for rule by the “real Muslim” clerics of Iran, or by those of hereditary noble blood, or by the membership-by-invitation-only Communist Party Members of China, or by any elite. “Our betters” did not have to rule us “for our own good.” (Putin says democracy is too disorderly) I myself have a university degree, and a nice job, so maybe, in theory, I would like an educated filthy rich elite to run things, but no: As someone once said (I forget who) “The people may not be the wisest repositories of power, but they are the safest.”
In classical Greece, the people would not prefer to be relieved of their burden of responsibility, preferring instead to all gather together to meet in a great stone amphitheatre. I suppose a city-state is small enough for such a “town hall” meeting, such “government of the people”… yet perhaps too big to meet except for simple questions of, say, “go or go-no.” I imagine needing an amphitheatre meeting for unanimously deciding to go to war—and if, after discussion, the people are divided, then obviously they won’t choose for some of them to march off to go form up, knees trembling, for battle. On that day, war would be a “no-go.” As Lincoln quoted, “A house divided cannot stand.”
When a mass meeting wasn’t practical, the concept remained. If, say, the entire elected government magically sailed to Atlantis, or vanished in an earthquake, a fresh bunch of “good enough” citizens would step into the vacancies. Similarly, during my boyhood, the modern U.S.A., for the atomic age, had a long legal line of succession—president, vice president, secretary of state, and on and on down the line, listing everyone who, in the event of atomic casualties, would fill in as president until the next election. In the post 9/11 TV series Battlestar Galactica, after an atomic blitz, folks have to go pretty far down the line until they find a former school teacher, the surviving Minister of Education, and make her the president. (played by Mary McDonnel) Democratic-wise, although the survivors are in a permanent state of crises, (making for great television) they move with due deliberate speed to have an election
(Note: Even after an atomic blitz there would nevertheless be a “next election”—no “emergency” dictators. Even during hot war time, as gentle Abraham Lincoln insisted, the people have the right to a federal election, so that, if they so chose, they could elect a man who would end the terrible bloodshed and make peace with their brothers to the south, allowing those brothers to maintain their racial slavery.
Near the end of the war, when Honest Abe Lincoln was asked if he wanted the confederate president, Jeff Davis, captured for trial, Abe said he would be OK “if Davis slipt away, unbeknowst.” Plainly, unlike Arabs of the desert, Lincoln thought a democracy was no place for old hatred and old feuds. He symbolized this, immediately after the war, by asking the band at the white house to play the marching song of the south, “Dixie.”) `
Believing that “citizens” could fill in as president is not at all like in certain modern countries where everyone agrees that no one is even remotely as capable as the “dear leader.” But as for the U.S? “Even the president puts on his pants one leg at a time.”
In early America the self-respecting citizens could delegate individuals to be, say, the sheriff or district attorney, (elected positions) but they would not abdicate their responsibility to accomplish the work of those worthy people. (a responsibility normally discharged by exercising oversight and the vote)
No point in being like a dispirited worker in a Russian communist factory, comfortable-as-a-cow, saying “I only work here,” and “I only live here.” How sad, for any Russians to think they “only” live in Russia, thinking “It’s not “my” country, no, it’s THEIRS: Putin and his lot…” … How happy: If you define leadership by the willingness to accept responsibility, then for any classical democracy every citizen is a leader. Not a cow. As a school teacher, who mentions cows, tells his civics class in David Gerrold’s science fiction novel A Matter for Men, “Citizenship is the willingness to be uncomfortable.”
For citizenship, it’s instructive to consider a good high school: Some students will be mere lazy drones, with apathy, (from the Greek “a” without, and “path” spirit) thinking “I only attend here.” There is nothing you can do for those children; motivation is a door that is locked from the inside. Other students will get involved in clubs and activities, such as varsity sports, and then feel a sense of proud school spirit, proudly wearing their school crest. Just as the Greeks were proud.
Perhaps the Greeks kept their pride to the bitter end. Eventually, just as Rome did later, the Greece would decline and fall. I believe Edith Hamilton was writing of the young men of Athens when she wrote, “When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
Ancient Greece was city-states: Corinth, Athens, Sparta, Thebes and many more. Of course the citizens of each city-state thought their city was the best. Citizens each thought they “belonged” to the best state there was. As would members today of a good boarding school, or a good regiment. A shared delusion? Perhaps, but a useful one.
God bless those old Greeks. One day, one of their descendants would be a spirited American who got involved in his community, and volunteered with a political party, and read the Constitution once a year: A man who would say, “I belong to the United States.”
Phoenix and Calgary,
~With its small screen view of how a society is organized, with the eternal balance of freedom versus security, democracy versus anarchy, and the requirement for civilian rule over the armed forces even during desperate times, the TV series Battlestar Galactica was only possible because the American people were temporarily ready to face certain things. Ready in light of the horror of 9/11. As the actor, Edward James Olmos, who played old Commander Adama said, “You will never see another program like this in your lifetime.”
~I have three essays with Battlestar Galactica in the title archived in August of 2011, and another in August of 2012. Reminder: It’s OK to comment on my old posts.
~I won’t apologize for offending Muslims and Chinese, any more that Peter Capaldi would apologize “for offending the Nazis” while in Berlin: The 12th Doctor Who admitted to a German reporter’s question that yes, the Daleks were based on the Nazis. Capaldi related this on the Graham Norton show. Anyways, here are two quotes from the Internet, (link) spoken by the hero in the theocracy:
- I think perhaps of all the things a police state can do to its citizens, distorting history is possibly the most pernicious.
- “If This Goes On—” Chapter 6, p. 401; originally published in Astounding Science Fiction (February - March 1940)
- I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy...censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.
- “If This Goes On—” Chapter 6, p. 401
Literary Side Note: There is a scene in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel The Puppet Masters where one of the scary invaders is captured for questioning. He crudely offers to make Americans into slaves, or puppets, in return for taking away their burden of responsibility. The old man doing the questioning makes a grim face: “ He spat on the floor. “You know,” he said slowly, “me and my kind, we have often been offered that bargain. It never worked out worth a dam.” ”
Heinlein, as I noted above, also wrote about a good man feeling guilty while reading forbidden knowledge in “If This Goes On—” published as part of Revolt in 2100. The man comes to appreciate how plain democracy, the opposite of governance by clergy, was once entirely practical. How ironic, then, that writer Robert Heinlein is accused of “being a fascist” by some readers.