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To many Americans, a phrase like “social control” makes fingernails on a chalkboard sound like dulcet strains. But, in reality, our national birth amidst cries of “liberty” was a particular response to a particular situation, one which has fed a national mythos lopsided in its orientation, and loath to explicitly address the flip-side of liberty: Governance. The U.S. Constitution, despite the ahistorical myth treasured by most right-wingers, was not drafted in order to guarantee individual liberties and preserve states’ rights, but rather to constrain them both. “Federalism” meant stronger, not weaker, national government, and the constitution was the dramatic response to the toothlessness of the Articles of Confederation, which failed to bind the nation into a single political-economic entity.

The real challenge we must face is not how to preserve liberty, or maintain social control, but rather how to balance and integrate these two simultaneously competing and complementary demands. Following, in the comments, is something I wrote a few days ago on another blog, incidentally addressing this issue. I would love for others to jump in, and engage in this most salient of all political discussions!

  • While the values of personal liberty and political self-determination are indeed precious, as strange as it may sound, I’m not completely anti-imperialistic. No matter how we get there, there is always some delegation of power, either downward or upward (i.e., either the few delegating to the many, or the many delegating to the few), and some balancing of personal liberty, local authority (over individuals)/autonomy (from encompassing political entities), national authority (over localities and individuals)/autonomy (from empires or global governance), and, arching over it all, the hegemony of the most powerful nations, which may or may not eventually lay the foundation for some effective degree of global governance. It is also true that governance (at least of large complex societies) began with violence and is preserved with violence, even when, as in the case of the United States, it is Constitutionally agreed upon (remember The Civil War?). So, in reality, power is always a part of the formula, and freedom/autonomy is never absolute.

    Nor is that reality something that has always been to the disadvantage of those who are subjected to it. There were some people lining up to belong to the Roman Empire, and some who resisted it who could arguably be said to have objectively benefited once conquered. Certainly, some Celtic tribes were happy to ally with the Romans against rival Celtic tribes, just as some Mexican Indian tribes were happy to ally with the Spaniards against the (at least equally brutal) Aztecs. The Irish, at the time of their revolution against British rule in the early 20th century, were largely reconciled to British political governance, and not for the most part riled up about it. When a group of idealistic intellectuals were arrested for plotting a rebellion, the Irish people jeered at them on the streets, not at all sympathetic to their cause. It was only when the British mishandled the situation, executing the plotters for what most other Irishmen saw as mere folly, did it incite a popular revolution.

    Don’t get me wrong: The more democratic and participatory the processes (up to a point of diminishing returns) that we utilize for forming our polities, the better. Confederation is far preferable to conquest, but not quite as qualitatively removed as we sometimes imagine: Power still plays a role in the nature of the institutions established, and secession is still frowned upon (see: American Civil War). My real point is that it’s a more complex and subtle world than we usually acknowledge, and that distributions of social institutional power, in various forms, are an inevitable reality that we must navigate in our attempts to progress, rather than simply an evil that we should repudiate.

    Marx, to the great chagrin of my late Marxist Mexican father-in-law, once said that it would have been better had America simply anexed Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War, accelerating the maturation of a capitalist world order that he saw as a necessary requisite to socialist revolution. And though we are rightly uneasy with that notion, I’m not sure that all of the Hispanic residents of the territory that was anexed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would necessarily rather be scrapping together a living in Chihuaha right now.

    On the old 80’s TV show “Northern Exposure,” the Inuit woman who was the New York doctor’s nurse in his rural Alaskan town, describing the relationship between the local Inuits and the local whites, said, expressing her ambivalence, “On the one hand, they conquered us and stole our land. On the other hand, they brought us power tools.”

    I know there is a powerful ideological “strange attractor” that gravitates to the absolutes that eliminate that ambivalence and side unequivocally with self-determination. And, while the express will of people at any given time has to be a dominant theme in how, and by whom, they are governed, in the end there is always some articulation between the will of individuals and the imposition of social institutional power by others, to disproportionately but often, in the long run, widely distributed benefit. It’s a far more complex set of challenges we face than simply having a few oversimplistic slogans which define right and wrong, good and bad, with a moral clarity that does not exist except in some human minds, and that does much mischief when overly enthusiastically embraced.

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