On Competent Citizenry, According to David Brin

Apologies for typos. My broken finger keeps getting in the way…

I don’t know why I looked at his web page, really. Maybe it was just the link on Marvin’s age that drove me to it. It’s been a year or two, so maybe it was just curiosity. I’ve always disagreed with the man on certain points, of course—and my rather well-supported reading of some of his novels based on his own nonfiction writings was enough to drive him into a fit on at least one occasion—but now I simply must say something about one of his political articles. I won’t address his main point directly, because I know he means one kind of “competence”, but I think he’s missing the bigger picture, the bigger question of competence which, unless it gets answered, will make it impossible for any of his scenarios to be even possible.

David Brin thinks that America has a competent citizenry. And look how he begins his essay on this:

Following America’s worst single day of violent death in this century, pundits have engaged in a relentless tag-team shouting match. Security experts call for new government powers and tighter restrictions, while civil libertarians shout back that we should courageously accept risk in order to prevent “Big Brother” from peering into our lives. While they jostle for air time, both groups are foisting some rather unsavory shared assumptions.

Hmm. There’s no need to get into the points that follow, because to be honest if you’ve read Brin, you’ve seen them all before. The thing is, and there is a thing, I take issue with the first sentence of his essay.

After all, look at what he writes:

Following America’s worst single day of violent death in this century…

Does that make sense to anyone out there? May I remind you that America is still the only nation to have dropped an atomic weapon in an act of war? Sure, they like to spread around ideas that other states might do this, but, regardless of circumstances, nobody else has ever done this act… which may perhaps be the century’s worst day of violent death. In fact, September 11th is probably nothing near America’s worst day of violent death in this century: 2948 confirmed dead, and when you throw in the maybes at most 2998, according to this online database at september11victims.com (which is based on AP’s reports). Certainly, that outstrips Pearl Harbour, but does it outdo Nagasaki? America killed 66,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 at Nagasaki, very quickly and very shockingly, and there were thousands more injured to boot.

Even if you only count casualties to America, World War II, there’s always The Battle of the Bulge, where, according to this article,

The One Hundred Sixth Division was virtually destroyed in the first 48 hours. About 20,000 men were captured, wounded or dead.

Sure, that’s not a sensationalist attack, not terrorists on home soil; and we’re more than willing to say this is different because it was an attack on civilians. Then again, by the time this battle happened, the difference between civs and military personnel was a matter of luck and costume and little more; most of the boys out there had graduated from school in 1942, 43, or 44.

Of course, this is Brin’s opening, but throughout, and even to the end, you see very clearly that this essay is not only directed at Americans—after all, that is his audience—but also at the American mindset. Witness how he ends the essay exhorting us to remember that “those planes were filled with adult males who could overcome fanatics armed with knives. They had been indoctrinated to be passive, but those men aboard UA93 proved that citizens can be heroes. In fact, the call would stir our hearts and make us feel brave. If done carefully and responsibly, it would make us feel like men and women… adults with a role to play in defending our tribe.” Did you catch that last bit?

Adults with a role to play in defending our tribe,

he says. Hmmm. And I think that’s pretty much a good encapsulation of the mindset he’s aiming to communicate to. It’s precisely the kind of mindset that makes the international cooperation he envisions and describes above so bloody impossible. If you told a large group of non-Americans what he described in his dream of citizens building private informal networks to defend America, in which we find

a serious attempt to find and exploit first and second degree-of-separation personal contacts between Americans and common citizens in every third world nation. At relatively low expense, a ground level system of mutual trust building and rumor-squelching could arise…

I think the main common response would be one of shocked, unbelieving amusement. I think when they realized he was serious, they’d laugh their asses off.

Why? Because, I think, people have learned the American lesson well. They know to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Plenty of people may not wish America harm. I personally don’t wish America harm. At the same time, I think a major cultural change will be necessary or else America will harm itself, and will continue to attract the attention of those who wish it harm. One doesn’t need to read or quote Chomsky (or even to believe half of what he says) to see that there is implicit American involvement in all kinds of things all over the world that breed violence, bloodshed, suffering, and hate.

And where does it begin? Well that question, you see, brings me to the big laugh I had when I read Brin’s comment about “competent citizenry”, which forms a link from his main page to the article. You see, the thing is, I was laughing because my first thought was, “If the citizenry is so competent, how did the clowns who are running the country get into the White House?” I thought it was going to be an attempt to dispel my misgivings about the state of American democracy and the fitness of the American people to vote in proper leaders. This problem, you see, has occupied me for some time. I’ve heard arguments that the war in Europe was as much about deposing Hitler—not Hitler as the embodiment of evil, just Hitler as in the leader of the German state, the main instigator of its brutalities and campaigns of war and horror—from the German leadership. If the Allies were justified in that, then what is the rest of the world—a world that in places tangibly suffers not only from American hegemony in general, but from Bush & Company’s warmongering specifically—entitled to do? Is a war on America subjectively justifiable on the same grounds? I hope it isn’t, but I am afraid more than enough peopl, using logic that America itself would use, would answer that question unservingly in the affirmative.

And the last thing America needs, at a time like that, is someone who is encouraging the conception of America as a “tribe”, an “us” that must be defended from a “them”. The more this kind of attitude takes root, the more the offenses against other nations will be easily ignored and the more likely it will be that more and more awful things happen in America.

And the first thing Americans should think about is how ridiculous they look to the rest of the world. America looks to many of us non-Americans as if it is run by a disorganized pack of clownish schoolboys with no idea of what they’re doing. Like it or now, that’s how it appears to much of the outside world. The fact that a hick like Bush can be taken seriously by anyone, let alone get into office, lessens America’s intellectual standing in the world’s eyes. Far be it from me to tell America that its politics should be determined by how outsiders see them; yet, when you’re standing on your lawn in your underwear screaming at cars passing by that you’ll kill them if they look at you the wrong way, because maybe they have guns in their car trucks or maybe they’re friends with someone who hates you, and (with a very few exceptions, all of whom are financially and militarily dependent on you) the rest of the neighborhood gathers and watches you with a mix of horror and disgust on their faces, you may wish to reevaluate your representation.

If America did in fact have a competent citizenry—a citizenry equipped to be the basis of a working government, a representative government—then I think either America is a screwed up and crazy place, or Bush getting into office was a mistake. I truly hope it’s the latter.

The next election, I believe, is where we will find out which case is the true one.

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