I cannot count the number of times that I have heard friends, people from a background similar to my own, remark to themselves, after an election, or just in an idle moment, “I can’t believe how stupid American voters are!” The assumption behind such comments is that ordinary Americans stupidly vote for the demagogues who lie to them so blatantly and that such pathetic behavior is shocking. Also implied by the comment is that we, we cultivated and educated Americans, can see so clearly through the falsehoods and we are much superior to such people.
I have been remembering these conversations quite vividly over the last few weeks since my close Korean friend Ko San recently shared with me a photograph of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture masterpiece “Les Bourgeois de Calais” (The Burgers of Calais). The scene depicted is from 1347, when King Edward III of England’s army forced the French city of Calais to surrender after a long siege during the Hundred Years War. Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him.
When the city of Calais surrendered to the English, the six individuals came out to suffer punishment on behalf of the vanquished city were all representatives of the educated and privileged class, the burgers who felt that as responsible citizens they should sacrifice themselves for the group. Rodin’s sculpture captures them not as proud heroes, but as ordinary individuals deeply distressed and fearful of the fate that awaits them. Rodin strove to capture the full significance of the sacrifice they offered through such realism.
Historical records say that the citizens of Calais who offered themselves up were ultimately spared. The tale embodies for us the tradition of noblesse oblige, the duty to society of those who are born well.
Les Bourgeois de Calais
When I first came across the term noblesse obligeas a boy, I learned it with a rather negative, or diminutive, connotation. I understood “noblesse oblige” to refer to such little efforts of the wealthy to put a silver lining on their relations with society. To offer to pay for the schooling of the children of their servants, or to offer a goose to the farmers on Christmas Eve. I have since learned that the term can be used in this most profound sense as the sense of responsibility of those of the ruling class to sacrifice themselves first before all others. Although I would not be so naïve as to assume that in years past that all the well-born did so, there is something in that tradition that has been lost. It is hard to imagine a situation in which the super-rich would suggest they need to sacrifice themselves before the poor or poorly educated.
Let us return to the statement, “I can’t believe how stupid American voters are!” The assumption is that the poor political system we observe,the manner by which poorly educated Americans are misled by politicians, is a result of their pathetic ignorance, or a result of the cynicism and opportunistic mind of politicians.
But the argument is entirely backwards. If average citizens are having trouble understanding how politicians mislead them, it is because those who have the judgment and the education to understand what is really going on do not feel any obligation to help them, or cannot find any way to communicate with them. Whether it is by talking with ordinary citizens about contemporary issues, or by supporting programs aimed at educating ordinary people, the privileged in society could do much to help ordinary people respond to such challenges. If common people are misled, it is ultimately our fault.
I am always astonished at how forgiving working people are of people like myself. Here I have enjoyed so much in my life that they have not. And yet when I talk to the remarkable people who clean our streets and bathrooms, who cook up food and serve us, who sell us goods at markets and at stores, they are unfailingly courteous and show little trace of resentment. I have an enormous obligation to them.