Citizenship – “For the Believers”

by Glen

So we commence the last week of posts, recognizing that the task before Canadians today is a formidable one.  Citizenship as a useful political concept is in danger of being torn into many parts. By a bitter twist of historical fate, the concept which evolved to provide a sense of identity and community is on the verge of becoming a source of communal dissension.

Yet we are not without our means. Centuries of development have provided us with instinctive skills that could better equip us for self-government than we might think. When speaking to average citizens one discovers a deeper sense of value and solidarity that often stands in direct contrast to prevailing attitudes. Whatever their persuasions, talk long enough and you’ll discover a spirit that longs for a more holistic way of life and a more equitable practice of compassion and justice.

What we have, then, are citizens who are swept along by public opinion and who often parrot the rhetoric of established groups and yet who, at the same time, desire to depart from such conclusions in an effort to find deeper meaning and understanding. My own experience has shown me that this strange duality is everywhere, even in politicians and corporate spokespersons. There is a desire to see this country succeed and to lift all citizens with that success. It is precisely these senses that we must seek to bring to the fore and that can’t be accomplished without hard work and much open dialogue. Again, through my own personal experience, I have learned that the most far-reaching development in society have not emanated from Ottawa, the board room, or within the established structures of society, but obscure and unpredictable places where average but committed citizens found ways to change their world.

Perhaps it would be proper to say that the highest task of citizenship is to create new channels whereby individuals and groups, along with their governments, can rediscover the concept of self-government. And for such a task to be accomplished there must be a form of national reconciliation – citizens coming to terms with themselves. This was the high purpose politics itself was supposed to serve and foster, but which has tragically misplaced.

We have come to accept both consciously and unconsciously the premise that renewal comes through grand ideas and gifted leaders. These blog posts have maintained that the renewal of citizenship can originate among everyday people who find the will to engage themselves with their surrounding reality and to question the conflict between what they are told and what they instinctively know and experience. They will be the richer for the experience. Democracy’s great problem today is to turn passive consumers into hard-working citizens – no small task. Our ultimate solutions will emerge only from the trial and error of active citizens who learn for themselves how to do politics. It requires of people the patience to accumulate social understandings that they have tested against reality and then to effectively pass on their lessons to others.

We are in need of trust again – the kind of social trust we had in one another and for our institutions in times past. If we fail to lay hold of it we shall continue to see our communities rupture and grow more isolated. Trust is a gift, but it must be looked for. It comes to individuals and groups in particular experiences and at particular times and places; and when it does arrive it will help us to begin the process of working together in a serious effort to build a better society. I instinctively trust the 10 or so citizens that met with last week to discuss a way forward, even though I only had met a couple of them. I trust them because they showed up and were capable of talking beyond just their own experiences. There didn’t need to be elaborate rules or a false belief in perfect uniformity, just a spirit of mutual respect. A search for honest and candid conversation among citizens can be its own reward, whether or not it leads to the fulfillment of everything we desire. It opens a path to self-realization grounded in social relationships. Ordinary citizens have their own advantages, including their ability to see the reality more clearly sometimes than those who hold power. In many places this ideal is already in motion.

What Tocqueville failed to see we can no longer ignore. Our willingness to let the common good be split into so many various factions has left us without a universal identity as citizens. This present generation, and the next, must find tangible ways to reinvigorate the social faith in the promise of citizenship. Therein lies the key to citizenship’s future: meaningful existences – individual and collective – are found when citizens are pursuing something larger than themselves. That what these blog posts have been about – they are for the believers.