Citizenship and Political Community

Tonight I am writing in a coffeehouse as part of a community writing group. People of all ages, vocations and backgrounds gather here Wednesday nights to work on poetry, novels, memoirs, screenplays and the like — writing that often draws on their own lived experiences. We begin each session by simply having a conversation for half an hour. Over time the strangers become familiar, and maybe the familiar become friends. Perhaps even a community of friends. Who knows?

We are all having different reactions to the crises of our country. For my part, I have disengaged from mainstream media. I get the short version of the news every morning from my roommate, Margot, a former social worker. We talk about it. We yell about it. We laugh about it. And lately — cry about it. Along with my morning coffees (yes, plural!), this ritual wakes me up. Every week I select a few longform articles to read — because I like lengthier pieces of journalism, which explore various angles and complexities of a single issue. Sometimes I share these articles with friends. Often I do not. Largely I do this for my own well-being. After all, I wrote an entire dissertation on the destructive effects of worthless media on the soul. Seriously.

My relative disengagement from the ‘show-that-is-mainstream-news’ has led me to think a lot about citizenship. I agree with Aristotle that citizenship is an essential ingredient in “eudaimonia” (human flourishing); part of what it is to lead a good human life is to be a good citizen. However, if being a good citizen requires remaining “well informed” on the “spectacle” of reactionary media+politics, then I am no citizen at all. I am what the Greeks call an “idios” — a private person. We get our word “idiot” from this word. It is not a nice word.

The summer before last I traveled to Athens for the first time. After mountain biking the Aristotle Trail (in Stagira, Macedonia), cycling/running up Mount Olympus and off-roading along the wild Mani Peninsula (in the south Peloponnese), I finally landed on Socrates’ stomping grounds, the ancient agora in Athens. Despite the heat and my own exhaustion, I walked and walked. For the first time I glimpsed what it is like to live in a genuine participatory democracy. Imagine if, on your way through the public square, you were to pass a senate assembly house (bouleuterion), a “tholos” (housing chief government officials), law courts, a stone “voting machine” or even a gigantic placard listing all current lawsuits. Imagine also that you are deeply familiar with most of these spaces and tools, having used them together with your fellow citizens. Interspersed with these familiar structures are religious temples, altars, a public bath, a jail, a theater, stores and more. Religion, recreation, commerce, culture and politics all meshed. And people actually spent time talking to each other in public. Indeed, Plato’s philosophic dialogues are based on the kinds of deep conversations citizens had with each other. (Unfortunately, “citizens” only comprised about 15% of the population, freeborn males.)

The great joy of citizenship — i.e., what makes it part of human flourishing — is that of being part of a political community. How do we skip the spectacle and embrace the community? What kinds of political communities can we “home grow”? Perhaps we need to broaden what we mean by ‘political’ and also disentangle it from partisan politics — the great divider and conversation stopper.

I will stop here, because I have been at this coffee shop for far too long, and all my companions have wisely abandoned me. But I do hope to develop these ideas, because this is just a start. Please comment or write me with any thoughts!

And because a blog post cannot not have a picture, I leave you with a picture from an Arizona Trail Association trail work day at Mormon Lake last weekend (does the path look less bumpy?):

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Author: sarahruthjansen

Sarah Ruth Jansen is an American philosopher, writer, outdoor adventurer and bicycling advocate. Between trimesters teaching philosophy in Minnesota Sarah bikepacked the Colorado Trail (Denver to Silverton) in 2014 and completed the cross-country Tour Divide Race in 2015. In 2016 Sarah won the Arizona Trail Race. You may contact Sarah at sarahruthjansen@gmail.com.

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