When you think of corporations, what color are they? Are they black or white? The Supreme Court decision to see them as deserving the right to free speech makes the answer trickier than one might imagine.
I attended a meeting this evening. There were six or seven of us, and we began by sharing why we were present. I said that I was invited, but that was not an adequate answer. I was expected to say something—to compose a statement about myself—to compose my voice.
What would it be like to live the life of a common citizen? I think it would include the following activities:
The civic is the space between our common humanity and our social differences. We are invited by others, and by the urgency of problems, to participate in this space through civic conversations about how we want to live together.
Today is possible because others have cared for us; taken care of us. Without caring relationships, we easily lose track of our common humanity. To be full of care (careful) requires that all the providers of care are recognized.
What we do share (a common humanity) is the basis for what we decide to share (provisions, gifts, love).
There’s so much work to be done. All who have the capacity to work are needed. Work should not be controlled by the business job market, but rather by the needs of people and the planet.
We are the inheritors of the earth, of knowledge, of the arts, of all that makes the commons a resource for all of us.
Our planet—a home for all living things—is now threatened. It must be protected. Many of our communities—a home for families and friends—are crying out for justice and repair. They must be protected.
Together we can hold elected officials accountable to the people they represent, and we can hold all institutions accountable for their violations of justice and environmental sustainability.
Through civic conversations, we can develop systems of provision so all of us have the basic provisions for a good life, not at the expense of some, but rather at the advantage of all.
The violations of justice and sustainability, of all the “isms” that should not be practiced with impunity, must be protested against.
Without disagreement, we have no reason to engage in conversations. We simply do what we all believe is right, not knowing if it is right or not. Disagreement is the beginning of ethics—of a life worth living.
If we have not changed our minds, we have not been paying attention. There is no universal site from which we can know it all, but rather only particular places where others can tell us what we do not know. To enter into a civic conversation is to enter into a chamber of self-transformation.
Like horses and deer that existed on the savanna, we are fear-based animals. It is part of what we have in common. Living like a common citizen means that we try to focus this fear on real things we should be afraid of.
The struggle for moral equality and inclusion has a history. In the short history of the U.S., it includes the struggles to expand citizenship beyond white male ownership, the Civil War, the struggles for women’s rights, for worker’s rights, the Civil Rights movement, and current struggles for justice and sustainability. The common citizen continues this tradition and passes it on to the next generation.
Ethics, as I understand it, is a question: a question about what we should do and who we should become. We answer these questions in language and action, but we never answer them alone. In fact, if we are really alone, we do what we think is right, considering the world we think we live in. The isolated person is always a righteous person; because they have no way of knowing whether what they think is right is actually right.
It’s hard to know. It was so long ago. We began as hunters/gathers. At that time, we lived with nature. Hunters followed the herds and killed what they needed for food. We did not control the herds. The movement of the herds controlled us. In good years, we lived together.
And we gathered nuts, fruit, and grains from the earth’s bounty. We adapted to what was available. In good years, we lived together. Just as we celebrated the cunning and wisdom of animals, we also celebrated the earth’s fertility.
Then some of us became shepherds. Instead of a hunter’s life of living with the herds, we created our herds—domesticated animals—and made them live for us. We began our domination of nature.
And some of us became farmers. Instead of gathering what nature had provided, we took nature’s seeds and planted them to serve us. We dominated nature.
And so it goes. Adam Smith made it clear to everyone. In his Wealth of Nations, he describes the four stages of “man.” We were first hunters, then shepherds, after shepherds, came farmers, and we ended up as a commercial nation, as traders. What he forgot to mention, of course, is that the prosperity of the traders depended on the domination of millions of Africans, of millions of Americans, and of the earth. That’s where we are.
How do we find ourselves? We cannot return to hunting and gathering, although we certainly need to listen to those who continue these traditions in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. We do need to adapt our life to the planet’s life. We must live with the planet, much like we used to, when, in the good years, we lived together.