Note: This post is adapted from a talk I gave on Friday, October 12, 2018, at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center.
In recent years, I have often found myself thinking about Aristotle’s distinction between the “good man” and the “good citizen,” and the political conditions that make the latter possible. Hannah Arendt draws on this distinction in her 1970 essay “Reflections on Civil Disobedience,” which the political philosopher Leo Strauss elucidates as follows:
In his more popular Constitution of Athens [Aristotle] suggests that the good citizen is a man who serves his country well, without any regard to the difference of regimes—who serves his country well in fundamental indifference to the change of regimes. The good citizen, in a word, is the patriotic citizen, the man whose loyalty belongs first and last to his fatherland. In his less popular Politics, Aristotle says that there is not the good citizen without qualification. For what it means to be a good citizen depends entirely on the regime. A good citizen in Hitler’s Germany would be a bad citizen elsewhere. But whereas “good citizen” is relative to the regime, “good man” does not have such relativity. The meaning of good man is always and everywhere the same. The good man is identical with the good citizen only in one case—the case of the best regime. … This amounts to saying that in his Politics, Aristotle questions the proposition that patriotism is enough. From the point of view of the patriot, the fatherland is more important than any difference of regime. From the point of view of the patriot, he who prefers any regime to the fatherland is a partisan, if not a traitor. Aristotle says in effect that the partisan sees deeper than the patriot, but that only one kind of partisan is superior to the patriot; this is the partisan of virtue.
In Donald Trump’s America, this distinction between partisan and patriot, good man and good citizen, seems more salient than it has ever been in my life. What, after all, does it mean to be a good citizen in the United States at a moment when children are torn from their parents and isolated in cages? When so many unarmed men and women—often but certainly not always black—are shot to death without repercussion? When children are slaughtered in our nation’s schoolrooms because our laws ensure that the most violent of weapons remain readily accessible, while our lawmakers impotently pantomime regret? When avowed racists march unmasked through our streets and the president condones them? “There are fine people on both sides,” he tells us. At what point are we to conclude that blind patriotism to such a regime is incompatible with the dictates of good citizenship?
We are now living in a time when a great many Americans are deciding to disobey in a variety of nonviolent ways—some of which we may support and others we may not. We see in the country’s Sanctuary Cities, for example, police officers and mayors unwilling to do the work of rounding up undocumented immigrants for ICE agents. We see men and women taking it upon themselves to rid their communities of monuments to slavery and diminution. Elsewhere, though, we see citizens refusing to adapt to our evolving understanding of gay rights, and business owners refusing to serve same-sex couples. Despite the obvious philosophical differences in these examples, they all describe citizens disobeying the law in the name of conscience.
But there is also a more expansive understanding of civil disobedience, which in some cases may be even harder to undertake—that which necessitates going against social norms if not legal strictures. Here Arendt distinguishes between disobedience of the law, civil and criminal, and the defiance of religious, secular, political, and social authority. Is the football player Colin Kaepernick a bad citizen for kneeling during the national anthem and drawing the ire of the president and many self-professed patriots?
“The law can stabilize and legalize change once it has occurred,” Arendt observes, “but the change itself is always the result of extra-legal action.” The case of Kaepernick and the national movement against police brutality he has inspired (as well as the extraordinary backlash) particularly interests me. Like the Stasi agent in the 2006 film The Lives of Others, Kaepernick offers a prosaic glimpse of what can happen to a man trying to be good in a bad regime. Can such civil disobedience help reunite majority opinion around common truths? So far, I am not at all certain. Is civil disobedience, however, an exemplary act of citizenship—a useful and necessary means, at the very minimum, of allowing the good man to continue looking himself in the mirror in an imperfect society? Is this what Albert Camus meant when he spoke of “the individual’s resistance to injustice as fundamental for the resisting individual’s own health and welfare”? Of that I am positive.
It remains to be seen if what we are witnessing today can equal what was harnessed during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the finest and most productive example of disobedience in America’s history, led by one of the finest citizens this country ever produced, Martin Luther King Jr. But it is a start nonetheless, and a welcome divergence from the end-of-history complacency that mired us in previous eras. As others have remarked, the United States is a country in which “an individual, through one of the most serious oddities of our law, is encouraged or in some sense compelled to establish a significant legal right through a personal act of civil disobedience.” In some very real sense, then, loving America means knowing when and how to defy her—both legally and normatively. This is not partisanship. This is what genuine patriotism would look like if we insist on another definition of patriot, one more expansive than that used by Aristotle.
I think of the two women who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in the elevator after the Kavanaugh testimony. I think of them holding open the door and demanding he not look away from them. And, to my amazement, I think of him actually—if fleetingly—listening to them and changing his vote. For a moment, I really do believe that a new and better democratic American ideal can emerge. But as we contemplate how we are going to confront enormous challenges such as climate change going forward, it will almost certainly require many more of us to find the courage to love our country enough to disobey it.
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