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12 January 2012
“If we spend an hour every morning informing ourselves about distant wars and another hour lamenting their possible consequences, when we are neither ministers, generals, nor journalists, nor anything, we render no service to our country and we waste the most irrecoverable of our possessions: our own short life.”
This is a passage from “The Art of Living”, an essay published in 1939 by French Academician and writer André Maurois (1885-1967).
At first glance, Maurois’s message may sound attractive, particularly to busy people.
However, considered more critically, it seems nothing less than reactionary.
It is generally assumed that the ideal citizen is an informed citizen. Or to put it another way, as Socrates did, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology, 38a).
Maurois, however, appears to be recommending that ordinary people leave the great questions of the day either to their superiors or to the experts or to individuals that are both. Notice his view that some people – those not having major roles in public life – are “not anything”. People who are not anything should not bother their silly little heads with grand matters that are of relevance only to important people.
We have heard politicians say that politics is too complicated to be left to the ordinary citizen; it should be left to politicians. Or they go even further and contend that ordinary citizens do not want to bother their little heads with such matters: they have elected politicians to do this job and want them to get on with it.
We maintain that this is a recipe for authoritarianism and even dictatorship. Only by insisting that politicians are accountable to their electorates can we ensure that they do not deviate from the task of representing them.
By accountable we do not mean simply that politicians must re-present themselves to their electorates every four or five years. We mean that they must be accountable to, and subject to dismissal by, the citizen voter at any moment during their mandate.
However, in order to be in a position to hold politicians to account, electorates need to be composed of informed citizens. They ought not to bury their heads, ostrich-like, in the sand. On the contrary, as informed citizens they should participate actively in the life of their society.
What do you think?