Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Our Duty to the State

‘Ask not what your country can do for you...’ ... This has always struck me as a strange thing to say, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, whenever I try to say it naturally, it comes out backwards. I have to think for it to come out right. JFK was reading a speech prepared for a particular time and place, but it still doesn’t seem a natural thing to ask instinctively. Secondly, and conversely, although it isn’t natural to ask it, governments constantly proclaim their unique ability to do just about everything for us, and take a lot of our money to do it with. In one way, therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what our country can do for us. We should expect it to do things for us, and we should expect to be well rewarded when we do things for it.

I’m not a great fan of nationalism. A strong and stable nation is likely to be a peaceful and prosperous one, and that matters to everyone who lives in and forms part of it. A nation with a strong sense of identity is likely to provide its citizens with a strong identity too, and this is a useful thing to have. But blindly clinging to a sense of the nation that has never existed, blocking its borders against newcomers lest, the horror, something might change, is a debased and worthless nationalism. It is even dangerous, because it can easily be, and frequently is, seized on by those would be rulers of the divide and rule type who are prepared to get their hands dirtier than most.

Anyhow, a few basic rules:

The state* will always exist in some form. But the state is not society. In any society there will be people who control it, while considering themselves outside it and above it.

The individual owes nothing to the state. It is the state that owes its very existence to the individual.

The state’s existence can only be justified if it is useful to the individual.

When the existence of the state becomes more important than the freedom of the individual, you have tyranny. And misery. And murder.

When any ideology becomes more important than the freedom of the individual, you will have tyranny. And misery. And murder.

When most laws seem to have the purpose of criminalizing anything which inconveniences the state, rather than of protecting or enriching the people, you should be disturbed.

There are plenty of examples of this throughout the world in recent history. It really isn’t hard to understand that once you dehumanize people, and give others permission to dehumanize people and the conceptual structure with which to do it, they will suffer.

*By ‘state’ I don’t mean a country or nation, something with a physical and historical existence. I don’t mean society, as in the way which we organize ourselves and recognize (or don’t recognize) that we may have certain duties with regard to the others who make up the society we conceive ourselves as being part of. By ‘state’, here I mean those people and organizations who consider themselves separate from and superior to the rest of us, and whose main function is to perpetuate their own condition and sense of themselves.


Vincent said...

If I were inclined to be argumentative, I would say that here in England - I cannot speak for its sister countries within the UK - there is not in ordinary thought such an entity as "the state", except in such odd phrases as "state schools" which aren't even called that now officially.

We have a government, which imposes on us the duty to obey all laws and pay taxes; and we have royalty which does not impose any duties upon us at all, not even standing to attention when the National Anthem is played at the end of a cinema performance (abolished years ago). There is not even a duty of respect to the Royal family.

So to me, the State is an alien concept, known only from unreliable sources.

It's just possible that I might have done as Kennedy suggested - asked what I could do for my country - but I tend to see things more from a one-world perspective.

Patriotism is still worth the money, though, as a spur to our armed forces. They don't want to die for politicians, after all; and they are not really dying for "the world".

CIngram said...

Every so often I am filled with a kind of vicarious paranoia. It probably comes of reading libertarian blogs. We are both lucky to live in countries where the authorities in general are relatively benign and unobtrusive, but it is only a relative thing, and the history of the world, and the world today, clearly teaches that man will always seek dominion over man, and that the benignity we experience is not the norm.

Yes, patriotism is useful in that sense. If you want to pay people to die for you, or for your ideals, you need to offer them some purpose that they too can understand. (Which sound a lot more cynical, not to say contemptuous, than I meant it to be.)

Vincent said...

I didn't mean it to be contemptuous either, of course.

The organised fighting instinct - us against them - is profoundly embedded in homo sapiens. Now that we live in a world more governed by reason, we need the approval of reason to unleash our instincts (which by definition are beyond reason).

The unleashing is almost literal. Fortunately most young men do have this leash, this moral veto. It can only be unlocked by a code of honour. I would go so far as to say that everyone has a code of honour, but some kinds are unsavoury: loyalty to the wrong persons or things.

Don't you think it's a subject that ought to be taught in school? Not to say to children, "This is what you must do and not do", but to illustrate the existence of codes of honour based on loyalty, and acknowledge that they are personal. But they are chosen, they are not imposed. Neither raging emotion nor outside pressure determines your moral code, ultimately. It is your own freedom. So you have to consider it carefully, and the enormous effects it may have on society.

That kind of lesson. It would have a special piquancy in the UK with its proportion of Muslims (especially in my town & street) whose loyalty if you examined it might be more aligned to their religion, ethnic roots (Pakistan & Kashmir) & cultural identity, than to their adopted or birth country.

CIngram said...

While school curricula and the training of teachers is almost exclusively in the hands of government, I doubt that any such adventure in moral freedom will enter our classrooms. Though I'm sure they are, or have been, schools where this has been done, and it would be an excellent thing. Indeed, it is prtly what education should be for. Most things, knowledge, and to a certain degree understanding, can be learnt in other ways, after all.

I am a Catholic born and bred, and it gives you a different perspective on national identity and probably on national loyalty. I wouldn't presume to suppose that the experience of British muslims is identical, bit they may be similarities. I can hear Mass anywhere in the world and feel a greater affinity, brotherhood if you like, with those around me than I feel walking down almost any street in England.