Citizenship at Leisure In The Ball Pit Republic
Instead of the “Man in the Arena” section in “Citizenship in a Republic” denizens of the ball pit republic should ponder a different section
There is nothing new under the sun, just repeats and remixes, or — in the current vernacular — rebranding of what has always been. This is because while the sloganeering of concepts changes every generation, human nature by and large does not. So it is with such a concept and term as citizenship, from its early meaning as we understand it gestating in Ancient Greece to the modern ideas of participating in society. Being good modern Americans, we sloganeer the hell out citizenship while we tend concurrently to do very little of it.
This is not a new phenomenon. The American journey from citizenship meaning grabbing the family firearm to fend off the British to our current generation of citizening via your preferred electronic device has been quite the odyssey. “The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed,” Teddy Roosevelt told a bunch of French folks 110 years ago. “The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore, it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”
Oh God, are we in trouble.
We are in an era of politics where activity is mistaken for accomplishments, volume for importance, and folks who think “fighting” is the most important aspect in choosing avatars and allies. The folks who hold that last bit about fighting and praising folks who fight have really been having themselves a moment as of late. The more well read, or Google able, among them often quote from a section of that same speech by Teddy Roosevelt, a section called “Man in the Arena” (which the whole speech is often mistakenly titled as):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Stirring words, striking rhetoric, words that make you want to mount your Conan throne and declare what is best in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women…or something. Words that are often quoted, often referenced by folks who think the fight against the enemy is the highest calling of politics and cultural engagement. And they will cite that speech and Roosevelt’s words as the chapter and verse in their Gospel of Punishment Punditry.
Which means those folks completely missed the point.
Roosevelt’s speech contains “Man in the Arena”, but the title is “Citizenship in a Republic” and the 141 words of “Man in the Arena” aren’t the main point of the other 8700 words he spoke that day in France over a century ago. In fact, they aren’t even a main point; the “Man in the Arena” segment is actually just the setup to the ending of the first third of the speech. The bulk of the speech is a tour de force of roles of individuals in a society, the responsibilities of the privileged classes, and mostly about how division among classes was the disease that killed republics.
It is important to note in these words who is speaking them and who he is speaking them too. Roosevelt, a scion of privilege who none the less adapted “The Strenuous Life”, wrapped his entire personal and professional persona around a self-made, personally responsible brand of manliness, and proceeded to project that into his own brand of political progressivism. Whether physical or political, no one could accuse TR of not fighting, and such a man had all the moral high ground in the world to speak such words. Hearing those words was the elite of France and Europe. The invitation to speak at The Sorbonne in Paris meant the former president had the attention of one of the highest education centers in the Old World. The avatar for the New World was given carte blanche to speak on any topic he chose, and Roosevelt went with “ Citizenship in a Republic “, reckoning that the republican form of government to be good common ground to speak to his French audience. Master politician that he was, Roosevelt was able to use his rugged American bone fides but still mold his message for an audience of academic and political elites.
But Teddy would have no time or patience for most of the modern folks using his words to flame throw on the interwebs. Latching onto the fragment on fighting without the longer treatise on personal responsibility not only misses the point, but is rather the problem with such shallow battle cries of “but he/she/it fights!!!” as some kind of incantation of importance without success in the first place.
That’s because, far from the arena Roosevelt spoke of and knew well from a lifetime in it, the modern-day keyboard warriors and political lightweights don’t really want to be those “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again”. Far from the gladiatorial arena of TR’s painted picture, they actually strive for a field of battle much more modern, and contusive to their particular sensitivities. Contusive, as in the slightly injured without the breaking of skin or permanent damage. Something that requires lots of exertions, so you feel you are overcoming a struggle but a controlled enough environment so that there is little chance of actual damage to the participant.
Fortunately, adults of a certain age had just such an arena in their childhood, a consequence free arena in which to fight their perceived battles in “a safe, respectable place that played to current anxieties. The ball pit has always been a standard part of that.” Ah yes, the ball pit. The pinnacle of the “soft play” movement and brainchild of one Eric McMillan, an Englishman who moved to Canada and gained fame for trying to put a child-centric design into Expo ’67 in Montreal.
Due to his use of rubber, foam, vinyl, and plastic in playground designs, McMillan is often referred to as the “father of soft play.” As he told UPI in a 1975 interview, almost everything he built followed four priorities: economy, ease of maintenance, safety, and the child’s pleasure, in that order. Although McMillan prided himself on his ability to create playscapes that evoke a child’s sense of imaginative exploration, his priorities were rooted in practicality and safety.
The idea was letting kids play more safely, and let’s face it, ball pits are such a blast that the staple of childhood play is now an in-office perk pitched by Google and Facebook to the now-adults. But arenas they are not. While they might train children to problem solve and overcome an environment in a playful way, an adult is just recapturing childhood fun more than discovering something new.
So many folks think they are in the arena but in reality, at the first sign of pushback, of setback, of not getting what they want, they don’t adhere to the understanding that an arena is a combative thing of winning and losing but immediately begin demanding the rules be changed to their favor. That the walls of the arena be enclosed, the floor filled with balls, and the sharp and hard edges wrapped in padding to prevent any such occurrence from happening to them again. Not only that, but upon emerging from their new palace of play they expect applause and adulation not only for persevering but having the foresight to change the rules to their favor. “They fight” is an ethos that often doesn’t account for actually getting hit themselves, you see. That would be unfair. Only “them over there” should ever be hit, you see. That’s why we need nets in our ball pit arenas to keep the wrong kind of people out, they will explain.
They would do well to read the rest of the “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, of how a good citizen is efficient, one who can hold their own, one who is obsessed with not only their own freedom but the same freedom for others. Of being sensitive to class and occupations, and not making the mistake of using either as weapons of division, and how doing so means the one who wins such a contest won’t matter because “it made no difference whether the republic fell under the rule of an oligarchy or the rule of a mob. In either case, when once loyalty to a class had been substituted for loyalty to the republic, the end of the republic was at hand.”
The class of folks who demand we respect and provide for their ball pits of affirmation are neither elite nor the very poor that TR discussed. Most are somewhere in the middle, having gained some things in life but not enough to soothe their desire for more, and if they don’t check their passions, a perpetual aggrievement towards those who do have that desired level of wealth/success/power or who they perceive as impediments to them. Things like traveling to political rallies and boat parades, contributing to political causes, and other activities indicate at least some form of disposable income to dedicate to the proposition that all men might be created equal, but the citizens of the ball pit republic better get their equal first, or else.
Maybe instead of the “Man in the Arena” section of “Citizenship in a Republic,” those denizens of the ball pit republic should memorize a different section, one that is harder to digest but required nutrition for citizenship knowledge:
In a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth. Bitter internecine hatreds, based on such differences, are signs, not of earnestness of belief, but of that fanaticism which, whether religious or anti-religious, democratic or anti-democratic, is itself but a manifestation of the gloomy bigotry which has been the chief factor in the downfall of so many, many nations.
Of one man in especial, beyond anyone else, the citizens of a republic should beware, and that is of the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him, in one shape or another, profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic. It makes no difference whether he appeals to class hatred or class interest, to religious or anti-religious prejudice. The man who makes such an appeal should always be presumed to make it for the sake of furthering his own interest. The very last thing an intelligent and self-respecting member of a democratic community should do is to reward any public man because that public man says that he will get the private citizen something to which this private citizen is not entitled, or will gratify some emotion or animosity which this private citizen ought not to possess.
In our current age, weak political parties are increasingly subject to bending to personalities that can arouse passions above whatever it is that individual proclaims over what the parties themselves ostensibly stand for. Arguments based off how passionate folks are, how many of them are, how many votes they can amass, how much power they can wield, should not be winning arguments to citizens who care about their country as a whole. If you lose the whole country in the end to the intramural politics, it isn’t going to matter which side wins. Your ball pit will not be safe in the post-American Republic world. In fact, it will be the first thing to go.
Better to be in the real arena — the arena of ideas — where it is hard and you will get your ego bruised, but the fight actually matters. Technology has given every single person the greatest chance in all of human history to make themselves heard, to fight their corner in the arena, to participate and not just spectate. “The good citizen will demand liberty for himself,” Teddy Roosevelt told the French elite so long ago, “and as a matter of pride he will see to it that others receive liberty which he thus claims as his own.”
If you really must fight and claim “he fights” as your ethos, at least fight for that. Citizenship is a great privilege and one worth fighting for, not only for yourself, but others. What shall you do with it?
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on February 24, 2021.