succumbing to peer pressure

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Social Contract

Do we still have one? I guess this is what I was trying to get to several posts ago, when Sid was distraught that I was not my usual Pollyanna self. I was always taught, from a very young age, that we live with two contracts, each with varying degrees of tangibly laid out guidelines and implied responsibilities. One is the general social contract we have with each other as humans, the other the contract of citizenship we share as Americans. Michael Ignatieff had an excellent essay about this in the Times's Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I've waited too long on this post and the archived article now costs money to view, so no hyperlink for you guys. But here are some excerpts:

What has not been noticed is that the people with the most articulate understanding of what the contract of American citizenship entails were the poor, abandoned, hungry people huddled in the stinking darkness of the New Orleans convention center.
"We are American," a woman at the convention center proclaimed on television. She spoke with scathing anger, but also with astonishment that she should be required to remind Americans of such a simple fact. She - not the governor, not the mayor, not the president - understood that the catastrophe was a test of the bonds of citizenship and that the government had failed that test.
"We are American": that single sentence was a lesson in political obligation. Black or white, rich or poor, Americans are not supposed to be strangers to one another. Having been abandoned, the people in the convention center were reduced to reminding their fellow citizens, through the medium of television, that they were not refugees in a foreign country. Citizenship ties are not humanitarian, abstract or discretionary. They are not ties of charity. In America, a citizen has a claim of right on the resources of her government when she cannot - simply cannot - help herself.
Let us not be sentimental. The poor and dispossessed of New Orleans cannot afford to be sentimental. They know they live in an unjust and unfair society. They know their schools aren't much good, that their police protection is radically deficient, that their neighborhoods have been starved of hope and help.
Knowing all this, the people of New Orleans still believed that, as Americans, they were entitled to levees that would hold, an evacuation plan that would actually evacuate them and a resettlement plan that would get them back on their feet. They were entitled to this because they are Americans and because these simple things, while costly, are well within the means of the richest society on earth.
The betrayal cannot be made better by charity and generosity. Americans have turned out to be - not surprisingly - very generous toward what has become the largest population of internally displaced poeple since the Civil War. But private benevolence cannot heal the wounds - of humiliation and abandonment - caused by government failure. Nor can exemplary performance by some agencies - the Coast Guard, for example - do that much to redeem the abject performance of others.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, I've always really liked the "social contract" idea in political philosophy. However, in trying to use it in classroom discussions in Poli. Sci. classes I was told that as an idea its basically outdated in current political philosophy. Though it was never made clear to me what was supposed to have replaced it.


2:45 PM  
Anonymous Sid said...

Huh, I hadnt realized that the social contract was considered "discarded". I still use it for ethical arguments all the time... I presumed it still existed, and I like living my life as a citizen accordingly.

8:13 PM  

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