Sunday, July 27, 2014

Political Citizenship at the Expense of Social Citizenship?

In the new issue of The New York Review of Books, Gordon S. Wood concludes his otherwise positive examination of Danielle Allen's Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality on a critical note. He observes that the equality that Allen is defending is a political equality and suggests that political equality may have been achieved at the price of a more social approach to citizenship, arguing further that the latter took priority in the minds of the Founding Fathers. It is easy to see how the combination of the Internet and the specialization of media channels has created a more level playing field for the expression of political opinion. The problem is that, on that level playing field, every voice now has a megaphone; and ultimately the loudest voice prevails.

On the social side of the balance, Wood says the following about the Founding Fathers:
The confidence that Jefferson and the other revolutionaries had in society alone flowed from their assumption that every person, regardless of rank or education, had a natural social or moral instinct that tied them by affection to their fellow human beings. This social and moral sense, this natural feeling of affability and benevolence, became for the revolutionaries a modern substitute for the austere and martial conception of virtue that had sustained the ancient republics.
In the world the Internet has made (and is making), it is hard to find many instances of nouns like "affection," "affability," and "benevolence," all of which seem to have been briskly swept away by a sense of values in which the marketplace is all that matters. To be fair, that vision of "Jefferson and the other revolutionaries" did not fare very well after the French Revolution; but one of the unanticipated consequences of globalization appears to be that the globalization of trade has been accompanied by a globalization of "uprisings of rage." The result is that, on a global scale, we are no longer "concerned citizens," in either the political or the social sense. We are just rabidly self-centered consumers, wanting to make sure that we "get ours;" and all others be damned.

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