My elementary school handed out good citizenship awards at quarterly, school-wide assemblies. The yellow cardstock certificates commemorated the recipients’ exhibition of those behaviors the school deemed proper for responsible young people: obedience, respect for authority, and adherence to the rules. In other words, to be a good citizen was to be compliant.
At no time did the principal praise anyone for challenging his authority, attempting to overturn the established way of doing things, or just generally raising hell. Indeed, those behaviors would have resulted not in commendation, but condemnation; they would have garnered not attention at an assembly, but detention after school.
Many of us carry into adulthood the youthful lessons taught by similar systems of reward and punishment, internalizing childhood norms as we graduate from public schools and into public squares. There, we too often think good citizenship means accommodating ourselves to those in power by not stirring up too much trouble. We too often think good citizenship means avoiding needless negativity, mimicking all those smiling government officials and business executives with their golly-gee-everything-here-is-just-fine attitudes. And we too often think good citizenship means behaving respectably.
All of this is terribly, dreadfully wrong.
Good citizenship in an open, democratic society requires, first and foremost, a spirit of perpetual rebellion, a ceaseless desire and a determined willingness to challenge those that hold political, economic, social, cultural, and legal power — even if doing so sacrifices our claim to respectability (and, along with it, our own entry into the circles of power) and even when it seems like the “good guys” are in charge.
The need for perpetual rebellion is born of institutions’ inherent conservatism and their steadfast resistance to true change and reform; their inevitable, insatiable desire to horde power for themselves and deny it to others; and their willingness — indeed, eagerness — to use that power to justify their own existence and prerogatives, even to the detriment of those for whose benefit they are supposed to wield power.
Facing this reality is uncomfortable — quite literally. The promise of a comfortable, commodious life is what we commonly call the American Dream. To make good money, live in a nice house, drive an expensive car, and, most important, gain acceptance among other, similarly situated people of similar station: These are the goals toward which we striving Americans are pointed. With a little work and a lot of luck, the prize may be ours, but at a cost; we’re encouraged to remain mostly quiet and mostly compliant so as to cultivate our respectability, thereby avoiding any risk to adulthood’s good-citizenship certificates: seats on local government committees, speaking slots at chamber-of-commerce seminars, invitations to charity luncheons, and so on.
This bargain promises comfort, but at the cost of democracy. For comfort motivates the comfortable to maintain the status quo, to prop up those institutions of power that seek not the promotion of equality or freedom or justice, but their own perpetuation. The early twentieth-century critic Randolph Bourne observed, “The business man is satisfied with his ‘results’ if his business does not actually stop going. One achieves ‘results’ when the machine goes on operating, not when it turns out a desirable product.” And so it is today in government and politics, economics and business, culture and society.
To achieve desirable results, we must seek to disrupt the machine and insist that its mere operation — no matter how smooth and efficient and technically impressive — means nothing if the adulterated products it turns out are steeped in inequality, bondage, and injustice. Such production compels our rebellion.
That, and nothing less, is a citizen’s work.
It is my sincerest hope that Charlotte Citizen may, in a spirit of perpetual rebellion, play some small part in doing the important work of confronting the powerful in our community and achieving a little more democracy here.