Challenge: Act Like Citizens, Not Subjects

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Challenge: Act Like Citizens, Not Subjects

French Revolutionist Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) envisioned a "Republic of Virtue" that would reconstruct society according to certain universal, utopian and monolithic principles of goodness and virtue. However, he -- and his fellow Jacobins -- didn't trust the French people to be sufficiently virtuous to generate the "general will" they believed was necessary for the good, safe and stable society they had planned.

After the Jacobins seized power in 1793, they suspended the nation's newly adopted Constitution, on the grounds that they could not ensure safety, security and stability under its provisions. Soon thereafter, to consolidate their power, they instituted the "Reign of Terror" to save the nation from the Evil "enemy within" -- evil people who disagreed with their notions of virtue, justice or "liberty, equality, & fraternity". Dissenters, as well as many who merely neglected to agree with the Jacobins -- were guillotined. It is estimated that as many as 40,000 people perished in a little over a year, and the words "terrorism" and "terrorist" entered the political lexicon.

It's curious, as Claes G. Ryn notes in a new book "America the Virtuous: Crisis of democracy and the quest for empire" that 210 years later we are again dealing with a "Republic of Virtue" and a "Reign of Terror" under the aegis of "neo-Jacobins" in the Bush administration. Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives associated since 1997 with "The Project for a New American Century" are now the driving force behind the Bush administration's National Security Strategy -- a program which includes pre-emptive strikes against "imminent threats" or possible competitors, and a perpetual war-on-terrorism to sap the nation's resources, suppress dissent and criticism in the name of security, and frighten citizens into subjection to their political agenda

In "The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat " (2002) Roger Scruton observes that "Islam, salm, and salaam -- "submission," "peace," and "safety" -- all derive from the verb "salima" whose ... meaning is "to be secure," "unharmed," or "blameless," but which has a derived form meaning "to surrender." The muslim is one who has surrendered, submitted, and so obtained security. In that complex etymological knot is tied a vision of society and its rewards far different from anything ... in modern Europe and America."

Scruton continues: "Western civilization has left behind its religious belief and its sacred text, to place its trust not in religious certainties but in open discussion, trial and error, and the ubiquitousness of doubt. ... "[T]he distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up in the view that the first are composed of citizens, the second of subjects."

The Jacobins tried to hijack the French Revolution, hoping to deprive the people of their political power as citizens and make them subjects in a prefabricated Republic of Virtue from which Evil had been exterminated. In contrast, the American Revolution was fought to free the people from being subjects of a distant ruler and make them into citizens empowered to govern themselves through discussion, debate and dissent.

With the start of the primary election season Americans have an opportunity to examine the agenda of the Bush administration, and that of those who would replace it. It seems increasingly evident that the agenda of the neo-Jacobins of the Bush administration is to use the power of money, markets, weapons, media, fear, racism, and religion to rule the world according to their vision of Virtue and Evil. It is also apparent that they see the public as subjects, not citizens. Regrettably, at this time, there is little expectation that any other Republican agenda will gain any traction. A Democratic agenda, we hope, will emerge as candidates compete for the Democratic nomination.

And this is where the greatest opportunity lies for citizens -- not just Democrats -- to take back control of our nation and make it plain that we are citizens, not subjects.

History suggests that, like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, pride and lust for power will be the undoing of the neoconservatives' agenda for our nation. But We the People have the challenge and opportunity to use this campaign year to put our democracy back in working order.

Just this week we have learned we were bamboozled into attacking Iraq by lies about WMD. And we don't like being deceived. We don't like being treated like subjects; we resent being told what to do, and are even less tolerant of being told what to think.

Americans have a growing awareness that our institutions for deliberative and responsible decision-making have been eroded by the Patriot Act, and the unconstitutional abdication of Congress from its responsibility to determine when war is necessary. Much of our ability as citizens to hold our leaders accountable through debate, discussion and dissent have been manipulated, weakened or wrecked in the name of "security".

We need to start doubting the stories from info-tainment and managed news, and start looking for alternative sources of information. (Let me recommend both and ) We need to challenge our elected officials and candidates to actually answer the questions put to them. We need to start asking "Who profits from?" and "Who pays for?" policies promulgated by our leaders.

Most of all we must start working toward an open-ended agenda driven by concerns for human values and shared power, an agenda that honors our heritage of democracy and self-determination, and provides for our common future by nurturing and educating our children and protecting the earth we live on.

In short, we must act like citizens, not subjects.

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

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