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This item is taken from PN Review 4, Volume 4 Number 4, July - September 1978.

AT THE primary school I attended in Mexico one of our subjects was civismo. Though related to historia, one's civismo was affected-for grading purposes-by one's conducta in class. Civismo, then, was not merely a subject for study; it was a subject to be embodied in one's childish public actions. However well one mugged up the Aztec monarchy, or mastered the niceties of the viceregal system, or evoked the heroisms of the revolutionary leaders, if one misbehaved, one was marked down in civismo. More than that, it was a matter of manners, and also the willingness to participate in class, to take responsibility for small projects: a complex subject to be sure. It was there to measure whether or not one was en route to becoming a 'responsible citizen'. It may have served as a form of social indoctrination, but even in the rhetorically 'revolutionary' context of the state curriculum, its concern was not ideological indoctrination. 'Civic' is a useful concept, subject and word, edging us away from left, right and centre to more radical matters.

The civic conscience may be political, but it is never merely ideological. Often it defines itself against political realities or in political crises-Solzhenitsyn, Paz, Ivan Illich and Robert Lowell are examples of this. Usually the civic conscience is active before and after crisis. Its role is different in each society.

Writing of Latin America, Ivan Illich says:

Military government must fear Socrates: he must be jailed, exiled, ridiculed, or driven underground. Few great, popular and respected Latin American teachers are employed in their own countries. If such men join the government, the Church, or an international agency, they will be threatened by corruption through compromise.

In this country, the dangers of compromise are less overt. But in lands where plurality does not exist in social or political institutions, where centralization is rigid and a single-minded programme (or a supremo, pressure group, or vested interest) is dictating all action, then the presence of the independent intellectual becomes more important. He is not an automatic dissident but a person capable of distinguishing between good and bad means to specific social ends. His function is to voice the beliefs and witness to the truths that in less controlled societies might be thought to be widely understood, if men wished to take the trouble. In rigorously controlled societies intellectuals can become, as recently in Czechoslovakia and East Germany (and at great peril to themselves), a civic parliament, a moral parliament, elected by their national history and culture to express aspirations outlawed, or simply to state facts and re-state continuities, when the autocratic authorities prefer controlled information and a history rewritten, a cultural map re-drawn, to omit ambiguities and 'revisionism'.

'Elected by history'-a curious democracy! A democracy of the living ideas of the past. In such nations it is the only democracy available: in an authoritarian society with suppressed traditions either of freedom or the struggle for it, history becomes the only active constituency, returning its representatives who reaffirm its authority by preserving and adding to the works of literature, philosophy and art, by responding to the actual particulars of their past and present experience.

Such a parliament is not officially recognized. It may be silenced, or expelled to become a parliament in exile. It never becomes, or would wish to become, a government. It may be that parliaments of this sort are increasingly desirable in the pragmatic west, where the functioning democracies have so far translated politics into mere economic expediency that another form of centralized authoritarianism can be seen developing.

Often the function of the intellectual is less immediately momentous. He may be only a clear-sighted prophet. In a country where a perversion of objectives, a disorientation, has been generated by the precarious achievements of mere affluence, he may point as Illich does to the progressive 'loss of environment' that is being suffered. When affluence begins to fail more seriously than it has already done, and we are compelled to regard ruefully the course we have been urged along by those who have had designs for our 'future', we may find that it has destroyed the very environment it set out to enhance, that many of the material gains have implied serious spiritual losses. The ideologies of material affluence-provoked understandably by a reading of the miserable history of the human effects of industrialization in the last two centuries-as they generalize and gradually divorce themselves from historical particulars, can become most destructive of civic identity. When Illich speaks out for 'planned poverty' he speaks against the imperialism of prescriptive programmes and advocates solutions based on particular circumstances, solutions which can be humanly and materially afforded in those circumstances.

The work of the civic imagination will have political overtones, but it will not be only political. It rejects a view of 'history' as an inexorable force with fixed and universal rules. Instead, it attends to diverse histories of different places, or even within a single place. While international in its perspectives, it is generally national or regional in its objectives. It is more acutely attuned to the distinctions within seeming analogies than to the similarities between disparate social and political experiences. It individuates. Its witnessing is significant for its particularity. What it witnesses to will have a general human pertinence, but its political overtones will be national. It is the quality of witness, not the conclusions drawn from that witness, that most interest us. For the conclusions drawn, often from an irrefutable analysis of present circumstances (as in the case of Solzhenitsyn or, differently, of Illich), can be as impracticable or potentially disastrous as what they seek to remedy, though Illich's suggestions are richly provocative.

A genuine civic conscience is almost always unpopular with the authorities and with those who would shape public opinion, goading it one way or the other. The attempts to devalue, by personal slur and allegation, the work of Paz and Solzhenitsyn in some western countries, are of course automatic and predictable within the crude system of polarization. These figures cannot be harnessed to the service of party. And yet they, among many others whose work has been or will be featured in PNR-are the credible authorities we can turn to if we wish to read uncensored news of our condition, witness of the highest order available to us. The truth is seldom as we would wish it. The writers I refer to have never wished to deny this, even when it has cost them a great deal to speak out.

-Michael Schmidt

This item is taken from PN Review 4, Volume 4 Number 4, July - September 1978.

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