Read The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government Online

Authors: Eric Liu,Nick Hanauer

Tags: #Political Science, #Political Ideologies, #Democracy, #History & Theory, #General

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (6 page)

BOOK: The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
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But for direct evidence we need examine only our own schools. Somewhere between the one-room schoolhouse of the 19th century and the assembly-line high school of the 20th, Americans came to accept the tacit notion that the walls of the school are to keep kids in and others out. As public education has become more bureaucratized and rule-bound, and the actual work of teaching more test-driven, it’s become easier for parents to drop their children off and check out of the process of education. At the same time, it’s become harder for parents—or, for that matter, neighbors or grandparents or mentors—to enter the classroom and become a truly integrated part of the schooling experience, let alone to improve the actual quality of the school.
A norm now prevails in most public schools that education is the job of professional educators. Rules have arisen to support that norm. There were probably good reasons for such rules, and certainly teachers are professionals to be respected. But one unintended consequence of all this is that the state gives us permission to treat education—even of one’s own child—as someone else’s job (or problem). When challenges arise in a public school, it’s rare or only on the margins that families or the community are permitted to come up with solutions or innovations.
What’s lost in such crowding-out and such shifts of power?
Quality of life, for one thing. In the case of the decimated Main Street, the glue of neighborliness disappears when everyone drives to the superstore. Eye contact, touch, presence, and smiles: all decline and disappear. In the case of the school-as-fortress, children get a desiccated experience of what it means to live in community. No adult outside the school owes them any special support or concern, and they in turn don’t owe any back. Our schools are worse for it.
What’s lost is the willingness of people to make judgments in situations that are not formulaic but are messy and human, and then to trust each other to make the best calls we can. As Philip Howard has argued powerfully, in a society that over-relies on laws and rules to govern everyday interactions—one where much is prescribed and proscribed and “what is not prohibited is permitted”—people forget how to exercise both rights and responsibilities.
What’s lost, in short, is citizenship. By “citizenship” we do not mean legal documentation status. We mean living in a pro-social way at every scale of life. We mean showing up for each other.
Citizenship matters because it delivers for society what neither the market nor the state can or should. Citizenship isn’t just voting. Nor is it just Good Samaritanism. A 21st-century perspective forces us to acknowledge that citizenship is, quite simply, the work of being in public. It encompasses behaviors like courtesy and civility, the “etiquette of freedom,” to use poet Gary Snyder’s phrase. It encompasses small acts like teaching your children to be honest in their dealings with others. It includes serving on community councils and as soccer coaches. It means leaving a place in better shape than you found it. It means helping others during hard times and being able to ask for help. It means resisting the temptation to call a problem someone else’s.
Central to our conception of citizenship is an ethic of sacrifice—and a belief that sacrifice should be
progressive.
That is to say, being a citizen is not just about serving others and contributing when it’s convenient but also when it’s inconvenient. And the scale of the contribution should grow in proportion to the ability of the person to contribute. Just as progressive taxation asks those who can pull the most weight to do so, progressive civic contribution asks those who have the most civic capacity—and who have benefited most from our civic culture—to take the most responsibility.
Citizen Gardeners
 
In the opening section of this book, we laid out a new story of self-interest. It is an obliteration of the myth of rugged individualism. The self-made person may be a great American icon but he is also a fairy tale. Ask that individualist who made the bootstraps she is pulling up. Ask her who paved the road that she walked on to be able to see you, who taught her the very language she uses to assert her independence.
Citizenship is a recognition that we are interdependent—that there are values, systems, and skills that hold us together as social animals, particularly in a tolerant, multiethnic market democracy. More than that, citizenship is a rejection of what Francis Fukuyama has labeled “the Hobbesian fallacy,” the ahistorical notion that humans began as individuals and only later rationally calculated that it made sense to band together in society. In fact, humans have been social from very the start; individualism is a creation of recent centuries.
The old story of self-interest is a product—and perpetuator —of Machinebrain. The new story is an exemplar of Gardenbrain.
Machinebrain held that citizens are automatons, mindlessly seeking advantage over one another, colliding like billiard balls, and that the best to be hoped for in civic life is that we should channel our irredeemable self-seeking into a machinery of checks and balances that can set one interest or faction against another. Machinebrain uses malevolence to cancel out malevolence in the hopes of generating benevolence. This is the political and civic culture that has dominated American politics since the early 19th century.
Gardenbrain, by contrast, sees citizens as gardeners, tending to the plots we share—and also as organisms within a greater garden, each affecting the next. We form each other. We are bound up in each other’s choices. We are not separate. As Paul said in Corinthians, “the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” We are deeply, irretrievably interdependent. We cannot pretend that our acts and choices happen in isolation. When we start with this recognition, we have to accept more responsibility. For everything.
If this sounds weird to you, perhaps that is because you live in a society that is, to use the acronym coined by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. In other parts of the world, Haidt shows in
The Righteous Mind
, people have always paid far more attention than we Americans do to relationships among things and people than to the separateness of all objects. Gardenbrain sees systems. It tempers autonomy with community.
Creating Civic Contagions
 
Yet Gardenbrain also enables us to claim more individual power—much more power than conventional theories of citizenship attribute to us as individuals. For one of the central facts of life on an interdependent web is that every action and omission is potentially powerfully contagious. When you are compassionate and generous, society can become compassionate and generous. When you are violent and hateful, society can become violent and hateful.
You
can be the original cause of that contagion.
Why? Because humans are copying machines. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer once said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” What this means is not that you are powerless but that you can set off a new chain of copying—and you do—every day with every act.
In their groundbreaking book on social networks,
Connected
, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler document the powerful and remarkable effect social networks have on us, and we on them. Exploring a variety of social phenomena, from obesity to home-buying to happiness, Christakis and Fowler show that “social networks affect every aspect of our lives. Events occurring in distant others can determine the shape of our lives, what we think, what we desire, whether we fall ill or die.”
This is to be taken not as generalized ethical precept but rather as a reporting of social fact. Just because you don’t immediately, or perhaps ever, see the virus of behavior leap from host to host doesn’t mean it isn’t leaping. It is, relentlessly. Most people are wired for strong reciprocity, which means we repay good with good and bad with bad, and are willing to repay bad with bad even at some personal cost, just to reinforce group norms.
As a result, even when good behavior is the minority choice in a bad setting, those who hew to good behavior can eventually prevail—and they are not suckers for doing so, but rather players of the long game over the short.
This law of enlightened citizenship also makes it insufficient for us merely to complain about social trends we don’t like. When you read in the news about teenage pregnancies or greedy Wall Street CEOs or steroid-taking athletes, you cannot say that those people are bringing America down. You cannot distance yourself from the trend that you decry. You own it—either because you contributed to that contagion or because you didn’t contribute enough to stopping it. Either way, permission from someone else for you to act was never required.
 
 
 
CITIZENSHIP: Machinebrain View
 
 
 
 
 
CITIZENSHIP: Gardenbrain View
 
 
Understanding the world as networked, complex, and adaptive frames our perspective. Any human population will have a wide range of behaviors, from completely altruistic to totally sociopathic. Some people will be criminal and dishonest, many others will simply be what social scientists call “free riders.” Free riders accept the benefits of their environment without being willing to pay the costs to create those benefits. This is well understood. What is now just as well understood is the destabilizing effect their behavior has on the group. Free riders gain initial competitive advantage over non-free riders, and thus put pressure on them. Companies that are allowed to cheat destroy industries by forcing all competitors into a race to the bottom. People who are free riders destroy communities by forcing citizens into the same behaviors.
BOOK: The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
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