The State Is Not Father, the State Is Not Mother

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The
following found its way into the Boston Globe three weeks
ago:

Card
says president sees America as a child needing a parent
By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff September
2, 2004

NEW
YORK – White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said yesterday that
President Bush views America as a ”10-year-old child” in need of
the sort of protection provided by a parent.

Card’s
remark, criticized later by Democrat John F. Kerry’s campaign as
”condescending,” came in a speech to Republican delegates from
Maine and Massachusetts that was threaded with references to Bush’s
role as protector of the country. Republicans have sounded that
theme repeatedly at the GOP convention as they discuss the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.

”It
struck me as I was speaking to people in Bangor, Maine, that this
president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child,” Card
said. ”I know as a parent I would sacrifice all for my children.”

The
comment underscored an argument put forth some by political pundits,
such as MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews, that the Republican
Party has cast itself as the ”daddy party.”

The
"daddy party." Yikes.

Now,
I have the kind of job that allows me to studiously avoid the broadcast
media, especially the yak-fests that masquerade as 24-hour news.
(And thank God!) Most breaking news in the oil and gas industry
doesn’t merit broadcast coverage, so for the first time in several
years, I’m able to work free of the pointless blather of CNN, Fox
and MSNBC. (I confess, however, that I miss Al-Arabiyya, Al-Jazeera
and that wonderful piece of performance art, Saudi television’s
Channel 1.) So I don’t know how or even if these remarks made the
rounds. Did I miss a thoughtful and engaged discussion of the role
of the state in American life in early September?

I
didn’t think so. Somehow, I suspect that if the hapless Senator
Kerry had made similar remarks, the self-appointed "conservative"
radio voices of the heartland would have roasted him, ridiculed
him, and held such statements high as yet one more example that
Democrats cannot be trusted to allow ordinary folks run their lives
without the meddling of Washington and its dark minions. That’s
what would have passed for a thoughtful and engaged discussion.

However,
I take it from the apparent silence of the "Right" that
while an awkward statement, because the paid mouthpiece of God’s
Anointed uttered these words, they are gospel, and no questioning
can be allowed. Most Republicans probably believe this nonsense
anyway, they just don’t want to admit it. We are all the children
of the Good and Watchful Father George, who will do all he can to
protect us (Card said so). And we should be damn grateful.

It
is one of those unfortunate facts of human history that minds more
curious and thoughtful than George W. Bush’s have viewed the state
in much the same way — as a parent that guides, protects, nurtures,
disciplines, punishes and even sacrifices its children.

Children.
That would be us, according to this line of reasoning.

This
is hardly a modern notion owed to Jacobin revolutionaries, utopian
communitarians, Fabian socialists, Muscular Christians, Bolsheviks,
New Dealers, Great Society Liberals, Reaganites, Ikhwan al-Muslimin
members, or fascists, phalangists and corporatists of various flavors
and inclinations. Just to prove that antiquity can also be the fount
of stupid ideas too, Plato devoted a large part of an entire dialogue,
Crito, to this ridiculous proposition.

At
the risk of boring those of you familiar with the scene, Socrates
— the great threat to public morals — is in jail awaiting execution.
Several of his followers, including Crito, have devised a scheme
to break Socrates out of prison and hie him out of Athens to a comfortable
and probably untroubled exile. The old man will have none of it,
and at first it seems he’s actually opposed on real principles –
"we ought not to repay any injustice with injustice or to do
any harm to any man, whatever we may have suffered from him."
(Church, 36) (All citations are the F.J. Church translation as it
appears in The Dialogues of Plato, Bantam Books, 1986.)

An
admirable stand, a moral stand, one I suspect most of us could agree
with and might even espouse ourselves if faced with the same fate.

But
the real damage is done in the next few questions and answers (is
it me, or does Plato never have anyone ever ask Socrates hard questions
or disagree with his stupid answers?). Socrates personifies the
law, holds a conversation with it, and in a wee bit of early social
contract theory, has the law answer that Socrates, as part of the
deal by which he was an Athenian, agreed to "abide by whatever
judgments the state should pronounce." (Church, 37)

And
then Plato has Socrates, probably using a sock puppet to mouth the
words of the law, say:

What
complaint have you against us and the state, that you are trying
to destroy us? Are we not, first of all, your parents? Through us
your father took your mother and brought you into the world. …
[S]ince your were brought into the world and raised and educated
by us, how, in the first place, can you deny that you are our child
and our slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this be so,
do you think that your rights are on a level with ours? Do you think
that you have a right to retaliate if we should try to do anything
to you? You had not the same rights your father had, or that your
master would have if you had been a slave. You had no right to retaliate
if they ill-treated you, or to answer them back if they scolded
you, or to strike back if they struck you, or to repay them evil
with evil in any way.

And
do you think you may retaliate in the case of your country and its
laws? If we try to destroy you, because we think it just, will you
in return do all that you can to destroy us, the laws, and your
country, and say that in doing so you are acting justly — you, the
man who really thinks so much of excellence?

Or
are you too wise to see that your country is worthier, more to be
revered, more sacred, and held in higher honor both by the gods
and by all men of understanding, than your father and your mother
and all your other ancestors, and that you ought to reverence it,
and to submit to it, and approach it more humbly when it is angry
with you than you would approach your father; and either to do whatever
it tells you to do or to persuade it to excuse you: and to obey
in silence if it orders you to endure flogging or imprisonment,
or if it sends you to battle to be wounded or to die? That is just.
(Church, 37)

The
state is father. The state is mother. It gave you life. And it can
take it away, too.

But
it didn’t give you life. It isn’t your parent. It never was, and
it never will be.

While
Plato does his best to personify the state (and, in essence, so
does Card, in a roundabout "L’etat c’est Bush" sorta way),
the state is not real. It is not flesh nor blood nor bone. It is
a fictitious entity that exists only in law and is made real by
the imaginations of all those who believe in it, work for it, and
shape its aims and goals. (Note I did not say that it is fictional.)
It is not a person. It does not breathe. It does not think. It has
no soul. It has no rights. It does not hope. It cannot repent, beg
for forgiveness, forgive, praise and thank God for its blessings.
It cannot dream. It cannot hate.

And
most importantly, it cannot love.

Through
much of human history and in most human societies — including many
today — parents never cease to effectively be parents. Adult parents
manage and supervise the lives of adult children, and that realization
may help to put Plato’s notions of state as mother and father in
context. But knowing that still does not help us, because many of
us have a far different ideal of how parents should raise children.
We raise our children to be confident and free human beings able
to make their own decisions, shoulder their own responsibilities,
make their own mistakes, suffer the own consequences, reap their
own rewards, and live their own lives. We will always be parents,
but there will come a day when we will stop actively functioning
as parents.

(I
suspect, also, that many parents in antiquity were also happy to
see their children become successful, independent adults.)

That
isn’t true for the parental state. We, its children, are never adults.
We are never capable, we always need its guidance and supervision.
We must always be protected, rewarded, educated, and punished. We
are never grown.

And
surely a loving parent would never sacrifice a child to ensure his
or her own survival. We call such people monsters. Yet, when that
state which regards us as children to protect then robs us of our
wealth, our liberty and our lives, we talk of duty and responsibility
and honor. Those who demand the sacrifice are not monsters, but
"our leaders" – many of whom, oddly enough, never
ever make the kinds of sacrifices they demand of us.

What
kind of "parents" are these who live off the labor and
profit from the death of their own "children?"

The
state is only a tool used by individuals who can think and feel
and love and hate. It has no independent moral existence of its
own. Those individuals craft its aims, goals and ideals. They assume
the right to rule others, often exercising that right by force.
One of the great moral puzzles we live with is how fallen but free
human beings ought to govern themselves. As long as we live in a
fallen world, we will never be able to really solve this problem.

But
it is clear to me that no man is more rightly guided than another
enough to compel obedience, and certainly not to the point of death.
I need no parent in Washington. And neither do you.

September
23, 2004

Charles
H. Featherstone [send
him mail
] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing
in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer
in Alexandria, Virginia.

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