Portfolio > Writings

Highland Park IL—Character Counts!
A project of the Highland Park (IL) Human Relations Commission
As refracted by David Westling

Signage photographed on Sept. 22, 2016 between Roger Williams Ave. and Laurel Ave., Highland Park IL USA.

The Six Pillars of Character is an initiative of the Josephson Institute, Michael Josephson, President, mailing address 8117 W. Manchester Ave. #830, Playa Del Rey CA 90293. The motto of the Josephson Institute, as published on their website, is “To improve the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision making and behavior.” The Six Pillars of Character are Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.

The signage shows each of the Six Pillars on a separate sign. These signs are dotted all through Highland Park at nearly every stoplighted intersection in the city. Of particular note are the subheadings on each sign. Under the heading Fairness, one finds, for example, “Play by the Rules.” Under Citizenship, one finds “Respect Authority”. One sign functions as the master header of the Six Pillars of Character. It is headed by the word “Character”, and the subheading reads, “Character is revealed by what you do when you think no one is looking.”

The architects of Western political theory historically have had a very difficult time negotating the turbulent waters found at the intersection between religious and secular life. The Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, for example (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”), is widely seen as promulgating a ”separation of church and state” which is designed to ensure that theocratic tendencies do not gain the upper hand. But the impulse to religious sentiment dies hard, and when its more overt manifestations are discredited, more covert ones fill the vacuum.

The crusade against the excesses of the religious spirit has a long history. One finds it in the philosophical antecedents of the ideas of the Founding Fathers, notably in the work of John Locke, whose Two Treatises of Civil Government attacked the old regime’s own pillars, represented by Locke in the work of Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha enjoyed a wide acceptance in the Europe of 1680. Locke used reason to attack the arguments of Filmer, who justified the authoritarian State (the “Crown”) in terms of the legitimacy of authority in the family, traced back to the assumed kingship of Adam. By 1680, however, the notion of contractual obligation had made major inroads into the collective psyche in England, and the notion of mutual consent between contracting parties began to erode the old verities of the patriarchy. This set the stage for the revolutionary initiatives of the latter part of the 18th century, most notably the Amercan and French Revolutions.

The fundamental concept informing the notion of polity in the wake of the French Revolution is that of citizenship. A citizen is a member of a political community who enjoys the rights and assumes the duties of membership. This broad definition is discernible, with minor variations, across the spectrum of current political theory, presumably taking its cues from the entry “citoyen” in Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie (1776). Notwithstanding this common starting-point and certain shared references, the differences between 18th century discussions and contemporary debates are significant. The encyclopédiste's main preoccupation was the relationship between the concepts of ‘citizen’ and that of ‘subject’. One assumes with D’Alembert and Diderot that there are significant differences, but what is the nature of this distinction exactly? National Socialism is perhaps the most salient example in modern times offering insight into this state of affairs; Nazi theorists revived the old notion of “subject” as a complement to that of the “citizen” and put their inimitable stamp onto both. The first category, citizens, were to possess full civic rights and responsibilities as defined by the politico-legal structure of the society in question. Citizenship would be conferred only on males of German heritage who had completed military service, and which could be revoked at any time by the state. The Reich Citizenship Law of 1935 established racial criteria for citizenship in the German Reich and because of this law Jews and others who could not prove Germanic racial heritage were stripped of their citizenship. Citizens in the Nazi state were clearly in a more privileged position than subjects, but it could hardly be maintained that they enjoyed anything approaching the freedom and autonomy envisioned in the political theories of Mill or Locke.

The second category, subjects, referred to all others who were born within the nation's boundaries who did not fit the racial criteria for citizenship. Subjects would have no voting rights, could not hold any position within the state, and possessed none of the other rights and civic responsibilities conferred on citizens. All women were to be conferred "subject" status upon birth, and could only obtain "citizen" status if they found gainful employment or if they married a German citizen. There are obvious parallels between this distinction in national socialism and that which obtains in the so-called “liberal” societies; “subjects” in our day correspond roughly, in the Amero-European sphere, to such low-status individuals as convicted felons. The upshot of this distinction, however, is arguably that, in an era where the republican model, which emphasizes a regime of participation encouraging office-holding by all participants, has taken a back seat to the liberal model, which emphasizes the “occasional participation” in the political process in such key activities as voting, that the disparity between “citizen” and “subject” has become markedly truncated.

But the specifically religious dimension of such political categories as “citizen” and “subject” was left largely unexplored until the philosophical upheavals of mid-19th century Germany. A ragtag group of journalists and philosophers today grouped under the rubric “The Young Hegelians” utilized biblical exegesis to critique the underpinnings of the State from a religious standpoint. The refractory State maintained its refractoriness, they argued, because it was founded on religious tenets, that is, rational inquiry into its workings was proscribed, treated as “sacred”, or, as one might say in post-Freudian psychological parlance, “taboo”. In the view of the Young Hegelians, all extant constitutions which partake in the modern theory of the nation-state, ostensibly based in secular values, were merely disguised reworkings of Christian moral precepts. Biblical exegetes such as D. F. Strauss undertook to discredit the hallowed narratives of the Christian Bible. Strauss brilliantly attacked the two principal interpretative strategies for examining the New Testament, the miraculous and the rationalistic, in such a way as to delegitimize both, using one to criticize the other. The floodgates were thus opened to a general critique of religion in terms of the political dynamics of 19th century European paradigms, and philosophy began to “come down to earth”, culminating in the work of such theorists as Karl Marx, who famously wrote that “religion is the opiate of the people.”

But one could hardly maintain that opposition to the old religious viewpoints quickly withered away in the face of this critique. It could be argued that here was the ultimate psychomachia, the most titanic of titanic struggles for the soul of everyman and everywoman. The historical arc stretching from 1835 to the present has seen wildly oscillating tendencies; at regular intervals the atavistic impulses associated with the religious mindset would reassert themselves and a resurgence of the ancien régime would set in for a time. From a rationalistic point of view, religion has, as everyone knows, significantly eroded in the intervening 180 years. But the human psyche reveals itself to be anything but rationalistic once one gets under its surface, and backward-looking attitudes manage to find their refuge. The principle of ‘subjecthood’, as construed within the idea of the monarchy, operating under other names, refused to disappear, and has arguably intensified in the last century. As the liberal model of citizenship crowded out the republican model, in large part due to the sheer scale of modern societies, the distinction between citizen and subject has continued to narrow. As this transformation has run its course, certain religio-collectivistic elements, borne out of the realm of ritual, gained momentum in order to furnish the enervated psychic lives of the “citizenry” with anchoring structures of meaning previously vitiated by the march of Enlightenment rationalism. We see it today in America and elsewhere in the notion of civil religion, observances which stand outside of the overt religious practice of specific religious denominations but share many of the same characteristics, typified by the appeal to the supraindividual, as is found in all varieties of nationalism and expressed in such phenomena as reverence for the US flag, singing of the National Anthem, recitiation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and, more obscurely, in the retreat into identity politics, where group identity trumps individual identity.

The City of Highland Park Character Counts! initiative as implemented in its street-sign program functions as telling evidence of the covert dominance of the religious spirit over the so far pathetically insufficient efforts at its surmounting in liberal political philosophy, itself suffused with this spirit, despite protestations to the contrary. One could conceivably object that Highland Park is not representative of liberal societies as a whole in that its population is heavily weighted towards a more conservative Protestant Christian ethos, and there is little doubt that this is indeed the case; but considered in light of the critique of religion as found in the work of the Young Hegelians and others there is ample evidence that far from being a disqualifyingly extreme example of a Protestant-influenced synthesis of religious and civic values, inapplicable to the value systems of more mainstream American populations, the Character Counts! intiative and its appearance in the streets of Highland Park, with its implication of the maintanance of desirable character attributes to be enforced by the potential use of the policeman’s baton, arguably represents an unusually frank conception of the bedrock philosophical lineaments of liberal societies in general as they have evolved in the industrial and post-industrial world. Filmer’s Patriarcha still manages, albiet more covertly than before, to rule the day for us all.

Character Counts! Text 1