HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 28, 2008
From Liberty Street

Withdrawal

John Turner


I knew that my trip to Newfoundland would offer me the opportunity to step back from political furor and ask myself whether concern for everyday politics is either useful or healthy. I have been able to step back but I can't say I'm any closer to answering the question.

This morning in my notebook, I jotted this comment: Nietzsche is fairly consistent in holding, throughout his writings, that politics is for the masses and not for free spirits. All political parties are compelled to transform their principles into al fresco stupidities and paint them on the wall. This condition cannot be changed. It would be pointless to raise a finger against it. So a few people must step aside from politics and seek their own self-determination. All this might be true were it not for the advent of the genuine police state. It demands at least some attention from everyone, regardless of how uncommon his ideals might be.

I don't suppose I even begin to qualify as one of Nietzsche's free spirits. Still, I do find myself, as I go along in life, less and less satisfied with the pleasures and ambitions that appear to motivate a majority of my fellow citizens. So, where does that leave me as far as politics are concerned?

If I were to write a treatise on the ideal state, I'm pretty sure I would begin with the proposition that the people of any political unit need, more than anything else, to construct an apparatus to protect themselves from the power of their own government. Other needs are important, such as protection against foreign incursions, support during civil disasters, economic regulation to prevent starvation and squalor, and on and on. But none of them approaches the requirement that in a just state the government must be prevented from abusing its own people. And why does this come first? Because one's own government has more power to abuse, by reason of its proximity and information, than any other threat a person faces.

Consequently, if I could be sure that tyrannical forces were in check, I could feel free to turn my mind to philosophy, psychology, and literature. Politics could safely remain in the hands of manipulated mobs -- what we call political parties -- for a while. But this leads directly to my point. Tyranny is never in check. It lurks always, lusting to seize control. We acknowledge this in our basic political precepts -- the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and so on.

The abusive propensities of government have clearly been waxing over the past several decades in America. We are now known as the torture capital of the world. The government frequently seizes persons without bringing any charges against them and holds them in prison as long as it wishes. Our prison population is more numerous than any other collection of prisoners in the world. We remain one of the few nations on earth where the government regularly takes helpless persons into small rooms and kills them. There seems to be nothing in either the Constitution or the will of the people that can stop the government from launching massive military attacks against nations who never did anything to us and killing tens of thousands of their citizens, destroying thousands of American lives in the process. None of this bespeaks a condition where the civil rights of the people are secure. And, yet, the people are not aroused. This is the most dangerous feature of our whole situation.

How, in this environment, can a person simply dismiss politics, set political issues aside, leave them to other people, turn the mind to more fruitful and intelligent subjects? One can argue, of course, that unless we construct a finer public psyche, a higher aesthetic sense, a more humane philosophy, politics will continue to decay. Politics can't be reformed by working directly on political projects. It is the forces that drive politics that have to be reformed. I'm drawn to that argument, and, yet, when I consider that there are people in government who want to launch more wars all around the world, who want to increase rather than to decrease the prison population, who want to dismantle virtually all the traditional legal rights of citizens against search and seizure, I'm not sure I can sit back and wait for an enhanced philosophy to take hold.

That's the dilemma I face, and that all concerned citizens face. I don't think it can ever go away. We can't expect resolution; we just have to find ways to manage it. So, occasional withdrawals into Newfoundland, must remain just that -- occasional.


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