Of Citizens and Covenants
Our society is characterized by great freedom: by ever-growing personal autonomy, a loosening of social and civic bonds, and a diminishing of cultural and religious value systems. But have these things made us more free, more enlightened? Perhaps not. As David Brooks writes in a Wednesday column,
The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are — when they have firm identities.
Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. They can come only when we have defined social roles — father, plumber, Little League coach. They can come only when we are seen and admired by our neighbors and loved ones in a certain way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.”
You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.
Brooks explores the importance of “separability amid situatedness”: the ability to have independence and room to grow, within the supporting framework of a loving community and undergirding system of values. This sort of situatedness, he argues, requires a “covenant” rather than a contract. “People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts,” he writes. “Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”
Brooks’s observations reminded me of an essay Marilynne Robinson wrote for Harper’s Magazine in defense of the public university. In it, she describes the difference between the “citizen” and the “taxpayer”—and the significance of the fact that the former is used less often than the latter:
There has been a fundamental shift in the American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of the shift, public assets have become public burdens. … While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion—failing infrastructure, for example—are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, however large or small.
… Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated. It is treated as a limited good that ought to be limited further. Of course, the degree to which the Citizen and the Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types is a question complicated by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by interest groups, by politicians playing to constituencies, and by journalism that repeats and reinforces unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air. It can be said, however, that whenever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, a stalwart defender of his own, and a past and potential martyr to a culture of dependency and governmental overreach, we need not look for generosity, imagination, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look for the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.
… The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even—a word we no longer hear—posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k). It is no mystery that the former could be glad to endow monumental libraries, excellent laboratories, concert halls, arboretums, and baseball fields, while the latter simply can’t see the profit in it for himself.
In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet wrote that the family, religious association, and local community “are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.” These associations are what make us not only “taxpayers”—autonomous individuals in a singular relationship to the state—but rather “citizens,” with a sense of civic duty and a passion for the local sphere. Without community, “you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.” One is reminded of the sort of fear-mongering that dominates our politics these days—on the radio, the television, in many partisan publications.
Brooks believes our separation and hostility must be “repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants—widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides. But it will probably also require leaders drawing upon American history to revive patriotism.”
Sadly, we’ve seen some faulty conceptions of patriotism displayed in our politics in recent months; the word seems tainted and frayed by current political discourse and debates, bloated by discussions of American exceptionalism and suspicious, nationalistic belligerence. Perhaps this tendency has grown in part because patriotism without strong local covenants isn’t patriotism at all: it’s loyalty to an intangible, amorphous conception of country—one that isn’t tied to anything concrete or specific. Ian Corbin pointed this out in a thoughtful Independence Day piece last year, arguing that our patriotism must latch onto a local sphere before it can (healthily) blossom into any sort of national allegiance: “I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism,” he wrote. “It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.”
As Nisbet wrote, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.” This words seem to perfectly describe the malaise and bitterness that currently plague our politics, pushing voters to choose anti-establishment candidates and their Us vs. Them rhetoric. “It is not merely that an orderly, predictable world of values has been replaced by the unpredictabilities and moral voids of civic life,” writes Nisbet. “Fundamentally it is the loss of a sense of belonging, of a close identification with other human beings.”
This loss leads us not only into callous individualism—it can also lead us into coarseness, into a bitter and vengeful expression of uncensored emotion: “Moral conscience, the sense of civilized decency, will not long survive separation from the associative ties that normally reinforce and give means of expression to the imperatives of conscience,” writes Nisbet. Do we not see this in the often crude and offensive banter between presidential candidates, between their adherents on Twitter or other social media platforms?
Our autonomy—the breakdown of family, community, and church—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the state and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. “Genuine freedom is not based upon the negative psychology of release,” writes Nisbet. “Its roots are in positive acts of dedication to ends and values. Freedom presupposes the autonomous existence of values that men wish to be free to follow and live up to.”
Thus we return to Robinson’s Citizen vs. Taxpayer. They are concrete examples of what our freedom ought to be characterized by: not a complete freedom from social obligation or allegiance, but rather a freedom to give of ourselves in a larger cause, in a community and/or covenant that has deep and lasting meaning. Robinson’s example of worthy citizenship is an allegiance to American higher education, appreciation for the patronage necessary to keep the liberal arts alive. Unless we’re willing to give a little of our paychecks and our allegiances to the higher education and what it stands for, she argues, we are refusing to display the sort of civic spirit that has traditionally been the bedrock of American patriotism, of American society. Being a “citizen” requires—it does not just entitle. It involves a sort of noble attentiveness to duty and obligation. Some might argue that it would be better if, instead of paying our dues to public universities, we demonstrated greater generosity to the private university. But either way, Robinson’s point still stands: our citizenship should involve a sense of belonging: a devotedness to family, community, and posterity.
Perhaps such attitudes of love and allegiance can be a solution, at least in part, to the fragmented autonomy that Brooks is describing. Perhaps they can animate our patriotism, and save it from frenzied dogma or hostile belligerence. Because being a citizen reminds us that before we can claim anything for ourselves, we must give of ourselves in local covenant.