Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach


On her book On Civic Friendship: Including Women in the State

Cover Interview of December 07, 2009

A close-up

In the book’s preface I dive into what I has been much overlooked in the modern period: the importance of friendship, how it seems to differ for women, and not just its importance personally, but also in what I call its civic form.

A central mistake I see repeatedly made by many in the modern West is to think of friendship as merely a personal relation.  It actually has important civic analogues. Consider three traits that (I argue) appear to be essential to genuine friendship: a reciprocal liking and awareness of the other as moral equal, a reciprocal wishing that other well for their sake (and not for one’s own), and a reciprocal practical “doing things” for the other. How can these essential traits possibility be applicable when we are dealing with a population, say, of many millions?

In civic friendship (unlike in personal) the above three traits don’t operate directly but via a society’s public laws, social institutions and customs.  That is, my “awareness and liking” of fellow citizens is revealed, first, in my being informed and educated about how citizens live in other parts of my city or country. Further, I might wish them well civically by being willing to help them in times of crisis or (at the very least) not begrudging them my tax dollars for basic assistance in education, housing or health care, etc.

Even my personal enemies I can treat as civic friends; this means only that I grant them the respect and rights due any American.  Obviously the state, and a set of universal individual rights, play a critical role in regulating our awareness of the facts of other citizens’ lives (e.g. through education and other institutions) as well as in stipulating the minimal duties we have towards them.

No doubt I was first led to the topic of rethinking the foundations of the modern political state by my years studying abroad in the 1970s.  I viewed the American state from the outside as the Vietnam War had just ended, and I experienced directly the myriad ways in which social and political institutions may be well organized.  Upon returning to the U.S., I eventually came to the conclusion that what was lacking was the value of fraternity, what I now call civic friendship.

The original American founding fathers had hoped to avoid “injurious faction.”  But, in the United States, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown ever larger since the 1970s—it is already greater than at any point since the Great Depression.  We have a ruling corporate culture that is hierarchical and secretive instead of democratic and open.  Our electorate is so apathetic that roughly half of eligible citizens don’t even vote.  And we may be the most violent of all advanced industrial nations, with gun ownership still enshrined in our Constitution, and with roughly one out of every 32 adults behind bars or on probation or parole.  Our military expenditure comes close to outstripping that of the rest of the world’s military powers combined.

Despite all our wealth and power, however, we are one of the most pusillanimous of modern industrial nations in terms of the public granting of welfare or benefits. We are the only major industrialized democracy without universal health care—with 48 million uninsured.  Our system of family leave plans is inadequate and our short-term welfare benefits are punitive.  Our public schools are failing and our aid to foreign countries has fallen to 0.1 percent!  Our awareness—let alone positive concern—for our fellow citizens and the rest of the world is shockingly low.