The Clare Spark Blog

January 21, 2010

Citizenship and emotional maturity

Clare Spark, June 1993

My daughter Shulamit Chocron, née Jennifer Loeb, took this picture of me and my inner (Carmen? flower child?) self the day of the hooding ceremony at UCLA for the Ph.D. I look extremely pleased with myself, for my graduate work in U.S. History had brought me into conflict with numerous members of the Department of History, not to speak of visitors from other campuses or UCLA departments with orientations to science, history, and the Enlightenment that clashed with mine. Moreover, it took me eleven years of study, research, and writing to pass my exams, and then to satisfy my reading committee. So why was I elated? For one thing, I had escaped from a hopeless fight with Pacifica Radio (the “listener-sponsored” “alternative” radio network that was the model for and precursor to National Public Radio). For another, throughout frequent heated disputes with faculty, I never lost my cool, though I sometimes teared up on the way home. And I could appreciate the positive contributions to my education of even my most ardent antagonists: they all had something of value to teach me.  I do admire self-control in myself and in others, which brings me to the subjects of this blog: 1. hating one’s political or intellectual opponents, or, alternatively, worshipping certain authority figures who offer visions of protection, solidarity and “community,”  while simultaneously offering persons or groups or belief systems as objects of hatred; and 2. using conflict productively, testing the validity and usefulness of one’s world view and opinions, while learning how others think and feel about the most vital subjects.

1. Citizenship in a diverse society. As I have said before here, citizenship in a democratic republic places unprecedented demands on its electorate. Those demands are both intellectual and emotional. Citizens cannot allow media pundits and politicians or other would-be mind-managers to pull them back to the unmodulated, unsublimated emotions of childhood and adolescence, e.g., adoration, hatred, or defiance.  Unfortunately, the history of the United States has numerous unsettled conflicts–between sections and ethnic groups, for instance. All the leftover fights that have been around for six centuries in the transition from tribalism or feudalism to a would-be free market society remain in play. Moreover, our country remains polarized over the role of the state in a globalizing world. The bad thing about polarization is that it breeds unthinking rejection of whatever the opposition proposes as legislation or cultural practice. What to do? We should be demanding not just more open, clean government at the local, state, and federal levels, but a detailed exposition of the policies that will rule our lives for the near future. This is a job for parents, the schools, and all the media at our disposal. 

   2. If we don’t engage the arguments of our opponents, we can’t tell if we are doing the right thing. Forget the buzz words such as “moderation,” “bipartisanship,” or “balance.” These are vague abstractions that take us away from the concrete policy that we must analyze: is it class legislation? what are its economic consequences? how do we differentiate between reconcilable and irreconcilable conflicts?, and so on.

     To combine these two points, I finish this little meditation with a proviso: learning cannot take place in an environment that is felt to be dangerous. Without safety and an adherence to rules of engagement, there can be no rational dialogue or imaginative leaps into proposals for improved, reformed institutions and policies.  We are a long way from national agreement on anything I have written here, but we had a start with our Constitution and the amendments that corrected its flaws. We should love the search for truth, love the courage that leaps into the darkness to discover new things, and above all have patience with ourselves and those who make us angry.

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