Wednesday, February 23, 2011


For some years now I have been trying to convince students not to participate in SGA, that is, the Student Government Association. In part, or so it seemed to my mind for some time now, I thought this was funny and a harmless way to make some young people think about what they were doing. It was also in large part a result of my conclusion that “student government” is, by and large, a joke because the students did not have very much power or whatever power they had they got because some BOBs allowed them to have it.

But of late I have begun to think that there is more to this argument than even I knew. I have, recently, begun to think about “involvement” and the prejudice that students and even the rest of us should, as we like to say, “get involved.” I mean, for starters, what does this recommendation take for granted about the world that we live in? Does it not have to imply that this world is amenable to change, to reform, and that all we have to do is apply ourselves, “get involved,” and we can “make a difference.”

But suppose this is a mythical view of the world we live. Suppose that this world is less amenable to change, to reform than we would prefer to think. Suppose, if you would momentarily, that this world is so resistant to change that those who “involve” themselves in it, more often than not come to grief, not success. In fact, to take this to an extreme, suppose that the world we live in is so resistant to change, to reform that sooner than getting “involved” one should seek to escape, to make an effort to remain uninvolved in order to preserve one’s sanity, one’s safety, one’s happiness.

Recently, and quite by accident, I stumbled upon a book entitled Socratic Citizenship, the argument of which is that Socrates’ idea of citizenship was essentially or deeply negative, that is, was based on the recommendation to “do no injustice.” As the author points out, Socrates thought that it was worse to do than to suffer injustice, a thought that distinguishes Socrates from us and from most human beings. But think about it in terms of the all-too-common recommendation “to get involved,” which must mean “do justice.” Socrates was, by this reckoning, quite a conservative chap because he did not say to the youth of Athens, “get involved,” or “do justice.” Rather, he said to the youth of Athens, “don’t do injustice.” [Think of the Crito in this light and Socrates’ refusal to escape makes sense: that is, he would not do an injustice either to Athens or to Crito by escaping. Men like Crito made Athens more just and Crito was more just by remaining a part, an unalienated part of Athenian society.]

Think further about it in terms of politics: Which is more likely to lead human beings to do injustice[s], an active, interventionist government or an “inactive,” let-it-be government? In foreign affairs, the answer seems all-too-obvious: An active, interventionist foreign policy is more likely to lead to injustices than a foreign policy of “manly indifference” or “benign indifference.” We call these injustices “collateral damage.” But we all know this is a cover for “injustice.” Or to take an example from domestic politics: Which is more likely to lead to injustices, a war on drugs or a more moderate, law enforcement approach to drugs? Or: Which is more likely to lead to injustices: A national education policy or educational policies controlled by the states and localities? Is it not unjust to fire all teachers of “failing” school systems as measured by the results of test mandated by a national government?

And so, involvement or non-involvement? Perhaps the answer is not as clear as we have been taught to think.

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