Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bradley on the Role of Citizen

From Bill Bradley's The New American Story:

Once you have a desire to make a difference and you've taken steps to be informed, the next step is to get involved, passionately. Socrates captured this spirit of involvement during his trial, when he was faced with the prospect of exile from Athens: "Perhaps someone may say, 'But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life in quietly minding your own business,' this is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand. If I say that....I cannot 'mind my own business' you will not believe that I am serious." Inherent in the job of being a citizen is the refusal to mind one's own business. As a citizen, you are the caretaker of the public good. You don't see yourself as a representative of a special interest, and you don't think democracy amounts only to a negotiation among special interests. You are disinterested; you act for the whole, not just yourself.

Such engagement will not be easy. It goes against the prevailing idea of how things ought to be done. In Unconscious Civilization, John Ralston Saul writes that being a citizen is "not a particularly pleasant or easy style of life. It is not profitable, efficient, competitive or rewarded. It often consists of being persistently annoying to others as well as being stubborn and repetitive." But when you keep at it, beautiful things can happen. Like Socrates, we need to challenge the public lies that too often pass without comment and explain what it means to be a democracy committed to humanism and globalization simultaneously. Our own philosophers, economists, political scientists, and sociologists should engage on the public issues of the day, not just hole up in their academic sanctuaries. Democracy depends on citizens who make waves. When citizens abdicate their inherent democratic power, they turn the system over to those who often use it for personal enrichment, or worse. A true citizen doesn't retreat to his or her private pleasures when the price of public silence is that society's big decisions are made by fewer and fewer people.

This was just one of many passages in Bradley's book that resonated with me. His method is to look at each of the major issues facing Americans and reiterate the "story" of that issue as we have become used to hearing it, then to retell the story of that issue in a new, more hopeful way.

He addresses world politics, the economy, oil and the environment, pensions, health care, and education. While I don't agree with him on every point of analysis, his perspective is far reaching and thoughtful. This book hit by library shelf in April 2007, but is almost eerily predicts the current meltdown of the housing market, sub prime mortgages, hedge fund market, and the fall of the dollar.

It would seem like he was a lone voice in the wilderness if I didn't hear so much of Bradley's ideas in reflected in this year's competition for the Democratic nomination, in Governor Granholm's alternative energy initiative, in the AARP ads featuring the purple elephant-donkey.

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