Saturday, May 20, 2006

Worn Out?

These days, a passage from Rousseau's Social Contract keeps coming to mind.
Although a people can make itself free while it is still uncivilized, it cannot do so when its civil energies are worn out. Disturbances may then destroy a civil society without a revolution being able to restore it, so that as soon as the chains are broken, the state falls apart and exists no longer; then what is needed is a master, not a liberator. Free peoples, remember this maxim: liberty can be gained, but never regained.

I wonder if he's right about this, if the history of free peoples only goes in one direction. It could be argued that the United States has gone through periods of more restricted freedom (the 1950s, say), always rebounding into a period of greater freedom (the 1960s, for good and for ill). This could be an illusion, the comforting myth of a once-free people in decline. Or it could be have been a genuine regaining of liberty, a measure of how much "civic energy" has been left at those times.

If Rousseau is right, I wonder whether the "civic energies" of the United States are just about played out, with more and more people retreating into media-supported fantasy worlds and political life becoming more and more cynical and corrupt. I'm not sure where I could stand so as to measure this, or what standard I should use.

From where I stand now, though, the Orwellian maneuverings of an imperial administration do not give me much hope. "A master, not a liberator", indeed.

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