de officio civitatium

June 18, 2008

In as much as any columnist of YS can approach anything seriously without being sucked to the cosmopolitan and post-modern vortex which is the empty soul at the heart of this endeavor and as much anyone can ask these sorts of questions without creating a spinoff, I will endeavor to provide an answer. I’ve chosen to focus on current day America for the purposes of this question.

   Partisanism has led to a sort of biasing of government, an us and them mentality which tends to minimize the shared aspects of the governing process, there is truth behind the all americans cliche. But its hard to get at. By what process does one constitue oneself as American? The easiest way out for any nation is universal conscription. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century Frenchmen learned to be French and to speak the common French by means of the army. Yet despite the brief and often harrowing experience we often have with Selective Services, there is no mechanism operating similarly in America. We share the same holidays, the same barbecues, the same times for family gathering, yet none of these are particularly unique, and the days which should in some sense embed us in our national mythology serve as little more than a pretense for three day weekends. It has also been stated that the essence of an American is to have experienced 9/11, to perhaps know the feeling of solidarity. Without minimizing the tragedy, the power of the moment and the sense of connection has been hijacked by sectarian interests, I feel like the proverbial Essene in the Pharisaic temple.   

   A discussion of what is owed is perhaps more than what Americans do. The point of the American democratic-republic is to be overly large, to channel populism and special interests into harmless channels through size. In terms of actual responsibilities to the government, the average citizen never has to do more than pay taxes, potentially fill out the census, maybe vote, and the right to pursue unlimited self-interest. This particular problem is best, I think, exemplified by the Dodge/Chrysler 2.99 gas deal. Its insane, inane, utterly unneccessary and guaranteed to keep America beholden to Middle East potentates. But its a good deal. And that seems to trump the my own sectarian American values. For others, this is potentially essential to being an American. 

     The problem with trying to classify the sepcific responsisbilites of the American citizen to one’s government is that it seems as if America is a republic of self-interest. In some very real sense, all the functions of the civil service persist and are pursued for their functions as fulfilling personal self interest. Even the military, while some can still claim aspects of duty and responsibility has morphed into a sort of functional mercenary force. One of the major draws of the army these days is economic advancement and free education. Our republic is sort of structured to take advantage of people’s self interest. And this is nothing new and nothing shameful. the old Roman republic served as a vehicle for the acquirement of prestige, power, and wealth for the Roman aristocracy. 

   So far I’ve outlined how there is nothing at the center of the American relationship to the state, besides the nominal gestures that citizens are compelled to make, such as paying taxes, having an American passport and potentially voting. I think at the center is an understanding that the republic is constituted through self interest, that perhaps the needs of most are served through this republic, and this was its sort of essential constitution, life, liberty and property. There is no idealized point in which more was given to the republic for duty and honor, these were all essentially pursuits of self-interest. The American Revolution was the mobilization of popular support through elite concerns. Thus what does the American citizen owe to the American government? Only following the dictates of self-interest under the overarching centrality of the American government. This is what is, but it is not ideal. Rather, we should follow the ways of the Swiss and through extreme localism, re-involve the citizen in American politics.