Just the other day I was watching Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor emeritus of linguistics and political commentator, on Youtube. Chomsky was arguing that through a particular distortion of logic and without much concern for the Constitution and international law, the “imperial presidency” has expanded to the point of including authorization for acts of genocide (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the murder of American citizens judged by secret courts to be terrorists.
I am certainly not a fan of expansive presidential power, especially during a time when, like Rome, we seem to be moving from a republic to an empire. No matter where you stand in regard to Chomsky, however (critics from both sides have their points), his concern for the role of ordinary citizens in society and their influence in civic affairs is valid. What was his advice to a follow-up question about how to ensure that checks and balances within government actually work and that the vox populi is heard? Engagement. Get involved, he said, by not sitting back and letting others take control.
Enter the #1 train, which runs from The Bronx to Lower Manhattan. I got on it last night at approximately 7:15 pm after a meeting at West 23rd Street. The thing about the subway in New York is that you never know what to expect when the doors pop open. Sometimes it may be crowds of revelers, a guy selling pirated DVDs, panhandlers, musicians, kids selling candy, even acrobats and dancers. It can be very nice that way. Other times it can be not so nice.
Last night was not nice. I got on, took my spot standing at the set of doors across the car, and assumed the attitude of “non-engagement.” In New York, and perhaps other urban areas, the way to survive and enter into the rhythm of the city is by not looking at people directly, avoiding personal contact even in tight spaces, and never talking to strangers. It’s an unwritten code of non-engagement. All New Yorkers know it, which is why you often see them scurrying along with their heads down, frowning. Not everyone, mind you, but a lot of them. You may think they’re on their mobiles, but they’re actually practicing non-engagement.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard yelling but thought nothing of it. The yelling grew louder and closer. I held fast to my position of non-engagement and did not look up. The yelling turned into a confrontation between two or three teenage girls and an older woman, maybe in her mid-forties, sitting three or four seats to my left. Apparently, words had been exchanged between them. I do not know what was said. One of the girls stood in front of the woman, threatening and taunting her, even flicking her fingers in her face. I could not see the woman directly.
Just as the flicking turned worse and someone started doing that windmill kind of slapping cats do, the man sitting next to the woman, whom I assumed was with her but wasn’t, held up his arms and reasoned with the teenagers to “stay cool.” They immediately backed down and returned to their seats. The man got off at the next stop and I got off at 59th Street.
Thinking about it afterward, I realized there were various levels of engagement/non-engagement going on here. The woman, surprisingly, did nothing to defend herself, not even holding up her arms or pushing the taunting teenager away. The teenagers were very involved, obviously, as was the man. The one teenager in particular acted like a thug, acting disrespectfully and with impunity (I thought of Nazi youth). But thanks to one man, and others nearby, a real crime had been avoided.
I realized that for Noam Chomsky’s engagement to happen, we have to change our attitude of non-engagement. But the cultural ethos–the infrastructure of society–does not support this kind of engagement. Rather, it supports the opposite. So, joining clubs or civic groups (i.e., Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”) isn’t going to do the job. What will?
Moving one step closer to the fight, holding up an arm to defend someone being attacked, standing up to speak when it is much more convenient to sit down. Small steps that lead to larger steps that lead to the habit of courage. Chomsky did not talk about virtue, but I know he had Aristotle in mind.