Another experiment. Usually I respond to comments in the comment thread, even if I write at length, as a way of reminding myself that my words aren’t deathless—there are always plenty more where those came from. But occasionally I go looking for something I wrote and can’t find it, leaving me wishing they were a little more persistent. So look for at least a few of these longer responses to end up as blog posts. I don’t plan to count them toward my daily quota.

Constant reader Servetus offers some correctives to yesterday’s story from James C. Scott. A few thoughts in response:

  • In fairness to Scott, his book has little if anything to do with the nature of Germans, Neubrandenberg is just where he happened to be when that inkling of anarchism first came to him.
  • With respect to astounded Americans, I’m with the Germans here. That is, I think that both Germans and Americans are slavish adherents to the law, but at least Germans are true believers while Americans are “practical anarchists”, true believers in the law for others at all times while for themselves only when it’s convenient. (Trying to draw an analogy here with the accusation that many American Christians are “practical atheists”, believers in their own mind but unbelievers in their personal practice.)
  • Servetus points out that the Germans look much less slavish once you take into account the practical consequences of disobeying. I’m all for that as well. When I’m thinking about how to behave with respect to a law I consider two things: (1) how will my actions affect others, and (2) what trouble might descend on me for bending or breaking the law. The more severe consequences that Servetus describes would certainly make me more likely to stay within the law’s bounds.
  • Regarding running afoul of the authorities in the GDR: not me, buddy! A few weeks back I watched The Lives of Others, a very sobering story about living under state surveillance in 1980s East Germany. I can’t say for sure how I would have behaved in such a world, but almost certainly I would have done everything I could to remain inconspicuous, living mostly in my head. At least that’s my response to increasing surveillance in our own society—stay well under the radar.
  • Finally, returning to Scott’s point, I think he is wise to suggest that we regularly practice using our own heads to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. You can still act in accordance with the just and reasonable ones, and you can even conform to the others as a practical matter, to avoid making trouble or getting in trouble. But it’s good to know why you do what you do—especially on the day your conscience calls you to do otherwise.

2 thoughts on “

  1. Thanks for the reply.

    On the question of practical believers / practical atheists — I have to agree. I picked up a contract teaching two sections of Intro to Christian Theology earlier this year (I have all the applicable graduate credit), and ended up being that weirdo, a Jew teaching Christian theology to ostensibly Christian believers. When we got to Matthew 5-7, it was astounding how many times people would say either “that isn’t what Jesus meant” (I mean, what??) or “that doesn’t mean what it says literally” (okay ….). It was incredibly depressing.

    re: “The Lives of Others,” agree, gripping movie. Although that story was fiction, the general outline of one family member spying on other family members for various reasons was quite common, and if I remember correctly, the actor who plays the Stasi agent in the film, was in that situation — he discovered after 1989 that his by then ex-wife had been informing on him while he was working in Berlin theater. The general historical accuracy of details in that film (set, costumes, objects, music, etc.) is extremely high.

    re: obedience to the state in general — I always used to tell my history students when we were reading Eichmann in Jerusalem that a key test was what you’d do if you were alone in a car at 2 a.m. at a red light that seemed to go on and on, if you were sober, alone, and there were no traffic cameras there. Would you, and if so at what point, run the red light?

  2. (Oh, and I don’t necessarily mean that Jews are necessarily different. Just that teaching the Christians depressed me on the point that you’re raising.)

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