Thursday, March 19, 2015

reclaiming citizenship

The New Responsibility: citizen self-empowerment, taking responsibility for the little piece of turf I stand on. There is nothing novel in this idea. It's roots go back to the Revolutionary ideologues of the Enlightenment, those guys that brought us the French and American Revolutions (and later, the Russian, Spanish, and Chinese Revolutions. Even Canada had it's own scaled back version in 1837 - footnote 1). The term "citoyen", citizen was made a term of honor. As citizens, all should be considered equal (at least before the law). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! Libertad, Igualdad, Fraternidad!

            In periods of systemic breakdown such as we are living through (note 2), the suggestion that we cultivate virtue in our own backyard is, in fact, all that one could reasonably be expected to do! "Conquering New Worlds" is the project of another age: been there, saw that, now suffering the hangover from.. Our time of transition makes different demands on us, offers different opportunities. One of the more surprising of these new opportunities: our real - physical, living - world has a near infinity of ecological niches and few of these have been really explored or understood in any detail. Think of how the microscope opened up a whole new universe to human comprehension - all without moving a step, without crossing a sea. The "new" world of microbial life was literally hidden under our noses all the time! We simply didn't have the means to perceive it (esse est percipi! - what is perceived, exists..) Today, we need a new mental microscope to perceive the opportunities - and challenges - of the new (post cheap fossil energy) world we are entering. I suspect my perceived need to develop such a mental tool, led to my reconsideration of the old right wing buzzword, "responsibility"..

            Taking responsibility for one's own piece of turf means different things to different individuals. The existentialist philosopher, J.P. Sartre held that life is a "project" that we are responsible for:

"L'Homme est absolument libre, il n'est rien d'autre que ce qu'il fait de sa vie, il est un projet. Sartre nomme ce dépassement d'une situation présente par un projet à venir, la transcendance."


Wo/man is absolutely free, s/he is nothing other than what s/he makes of life, s/he is a project. Sartre considered this capacity to move beyond one's current situation via a future directed project a form of transcendence. (my translation, emphasis added)

           One recalls here Nietzsche's idea of "self-overcoming", of aiming high to hit high..

            For me, given the state the world is in, taking responsibility means the creation of Cultural Refugia to save the best fruits of the last 6000 years of Patriarchal Culture: calculus, the Periodic Table, the scientific method, the idea(l) of citizenship, democracy, human rights, feminism, Enlightenment Universalism (note 3). All the good stuff we want to save from the barbarian hordes.. All the good stuff we payed such a heavy price to obtain!

            Taking responsibility for one's own piece of turf implies, for an occidental, (re-)empowerment of the citizen (note 4). The citizen must take back control of our democracies which we have stupidly turned over to corporate interests in return for the cornucopia of mass produced goodies they have delivered us. One definition of fascism reads:

fascism: control or seizure of the State by the corporate elite

            Democracy means rule of / by the People. If we take this definition literally we must admit that, as citizens of democracies, we have let ourselves be brainwashed by the corporate agenda which is to maximize profits. Hyperconsummerism maximizes profits. We let ourselves be brainwashed / manipulated by the advertising industry to maximize the profits of multinational corporations.

             Unfortunately, we find it more convenient to displace responsibility for our moral failures than to assume blame (and the responsibility that comes with it). The corporations "program" us to consume (regardless of the cost to the environment and future generations). But if we take the definition of democracy seriously, we, the citizens, are ultimately responsible for the results because, under democracy, the citizen is king..

              Today, if we are to save at least some of the furniture (my Cultural Refugia!), we - citizens - must reclaim our authority from the corporate usurpers and the craven politicians who serve them. Reclaiming responsibility means reclaiming authority for the word "authority" implies responsible use of power - responsibility. By assuming responsibility for the turf s/he stands on, the citizen also self-empowers, assumes the robe of authority..

              In practice, this leads to the odd situation where a left wing critique of society leads - "paradoxically" - to a right wing conclusion: accepting responsibility in our personal life, for our personal relations with the people around us, accepting responsibility for our little piece of turf. If things are going to change, I must become the local center of change from which all change ripples outwards. The Buck stops with me..

              In practice, this is not an easy message to accept! People on the Left or Center of the political spectrum - even those of the moderate Center Right - accept that some, at least of the evils of society are structural in nature: They transcend individual actions or volition. Evils such as racism existed before my birth: they form part of the structure of social reality I was born into. If leftists feel they are losing ground, as today, it becomes tempting to  throw in the towel with the cry that "the System is rigged!" and we are its victims.

             The reality, of course, is that over the long run, everybody is the victim of somebody else (!!!) This why I am viscerally opposed to mass "compensations" to victims of slavery, war.. (without, of course, denying that criminal liability - for causing an accident or selling an unsafe product - is a desirable and useful category). Carried to the extreme, where does apportioning blame end? Blacks are compensated for slavery and racism, First Nations are compensated for having their land stolen, Canadian citizens of Italian and Japanese origin are compensated for incarceration in determent camps during World War II. 

             But once again, the devil is in the details! One can make a case, given evidence from the US an Canadian governments, that citizens of Japanese origin did not constitute a security risk and, if anything, were ultra patriotic to their adopted nations. On the contrary, Italian Canadians of the WW II generation have admitted that determent camps for Italian immigrants and new citizens were warranted: Mussolini was sending his agents to Québec to foment separatist dissension along racial and religious lines (appealing to common "latin blood" and the Catholic faith). Montreal's Italian community of the1940s was a hotbed of political agitation, threats, boycotts, beatings and the odd bombing. So who, then, "deserves" compensation for WW II determent: the patriotic Japanese but not the fascist-infiltrated Italian community? Who decides the good apples from the bad..

                 Pushed to its limits - women compensated for Patriarchy, for example - everybody would be compensating everybody else with no net gain or loss (except for the corps of money shufflers who, of course, would charge exorbitant fees - lawyers and their ilk..)

                 Victimization is a sordid human reality (and probably always will be). But a sense of victimization combined with powerlessness can create the toxic social environment we inhabit today. Researchers studying jihadist terrorists who were born in Western countries have noted that some of these people are acting from an intense sense of injustice at the evils inflicted on the Muslim world by the "Crusaders" of the arrogant West. We may choose to dismiss such indoctrination as mere "propaganda" but such an attitude misses the point! The brainwashed youth who joins ISIS may be doing so from noble motives: to avenge wrongs done to innocents (with whom they identify). It's hard to find sentiments more noble than that..

                 The common sentiment of powerlessness, of lack of control over our collective (or individual) destinies is, I suspect, a major breeding ground for the various forms of fanaticism and extremism we see around us, from  Global Warming deniers to European neonazis, American militias and jihadist martyr-terrorists.

                 How else can we counter these toxic byproducts of the sense of powerlessness, than through the (re-)empowerment of the Citizen, who is each one of us?

                 In order to regain any efficacy at all, the Left, in the coming increasingly turbulent decades, will have to address the question of individual responsibility and its relation to larger social goals. We have to face the question of the relation of the individual - his rights and duties - to his society. We will need to examine the nature of citizenship itself  in this dawning millennium.  

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2- among the challenges the world faces: climate change, overpopulation, breakdown of essential ecosystems and the natural services they provide, depletion of non-rewewable resources, failure to make a speedy transition to renewable resources and energy systems when we still had time, over-exploitation of renewable resources (thereby functionally converting renewable resources into non-renewable, depleting, ones), the rebirth (or renewed vigor) of racism and religious fanaticism..

 3- Enlightenment thinkers like the 18th century German philosopher Immanual Kant held that human nature is universally the same but expresses itself differently in different cultures and historical epochs. "All men are brothers." 

4- Citizen / citoyen: definition, from

"Etymologie : du latin civis, celui qui a droit de cité, citoyen.

Historiquement, un citoyen est un membre d’une cité-Etat grecque, disposant du droit de suffrage dans les assemblées publiques. Il participe aux décisions de la cité relatives aux lois, à la guerre, à la justice, à l'administration...

Pendant la Révolution française, le terme "citoyen" a été réutilisé par opposition au "sujet" (du roi). Il permet de désigner tout homme sans notion de hiérarchie, par opposition à la Noblesse. A noter que, durant cette période, les termes "citoyen" et "citoyenne" ont été utilisés pour remplacer "monsieur", "madame" et "mademoiselle"."

etymology: from Latin "civis", one who has right to the city, a citizen

Historically, a citizen was a member of a Greek city-state, possessing the right to vote in public assemblies. He - only males had full citizenship - participated in municipal decision making relative to lawmaking, war, justice and administration.

During the French Revolution, the term "citoyen" was re-employed in opposition to "sujet" (a "subject" of the king). "Citoyen" designated any man without reference to position in the social hierarchy.. During the revolutionary period the terms "citoyen" and "citoyenne" were used to replace the traditional modes of address: sir, madame, mademoiselle,.. 

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