Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In the classic film The Third Man, Holly Martins, an American writer of dime novels, goes to postwar Vienna looking for his old friend Harry Lime, who has gotten involved in the criminal underworld of that city. In a famous speech, Lime, played by Orson Welles, offers some justification for the path he has followed: “You know what the fellow saidÃ³in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peaceÃ³and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”
Switzerland in its modern form was incorporated one-hundred and sixty years ago today, and while, as Welles was reportedly told after making the film, they may not actually make cuckoo clocks, this does invite a question about that element of their policy that most sets them apart from other nations: their legendary neutrality. The last blood shed through war on Swiss soil was back in 1848, prior to their new federal constitution, and after the epoch-defining experience of living through the strife and sorrow of the Napoleonic wars just shortly before. For a nation that borders both France and Germany, neutrality was probably a good call.
Would it be a good call for us, as individuals? Clearly, were the United States to not engage with the world in alliances, the world would be a vastly different place, and probably a worse one; this is a question we leave to others to take up. Rather, we are interested in the question of what merits neutrality has in political and philosophical deliberation. Does it put the neutral person in a position of power, as an arbiter who can be looked to for guidance due to their lack of commitments to individuals? Does it put them in a position to be removed from the conflicts which consume the ordinary members of society? Or is it, on some level, just a curiosity, ineffectual and decorative, like the cuckoo clock?
LetÃs first consider the more positive side of the neutrality debate. As weÃve mentioned before, neutrality allows for the individual to act as an arbiter between oppositional factions in a heated debate. This state of existing Ã¬above the frayÃ® has the major perk of preventing the accumulation of strong enemies (unless people hate you for being spineless) and of steering clear of altercations more generally. The neutral party can commonly well-liked by people on any side of an argument, for what is there to hate? Who hates cuckoo clocks?
We are also forced to ask: who loves cuckoo clocks? People may find you jovial, or charming, or a steady confidante, and they may well like watching you come out of your box every hour or so to do an Alpine dance, but when it really comes down to it, are people going to stand to defend you? Surely something other than cowardice moved the neutral party to that stance in the first place, and when that motivating principle is at stake, the neutralist could reasonably be moved to fight. However, it must do so alone, even in terms of argument; you cannot create a coherent front with which to stand against your (rhetorical) opposition.
Then, of course, there are those who are neutral from sheer unwillingness to engage with political questions. This is entirely understandable. ItÃs not that politics is boring, as has been recently suggested; rather, itÃs that there is far too much knowledge to acquire and to order, and then to pass judgment on. And then there are those things that we seem to be better off not knowing. The internet and cable news allow for all sorts of stories and issues to be on offer 24 hours a day, which in their complexity and morbidity end in numbing both the mind and the soul.
Yet, we must engage with issues. We must become aware of them, have views on them, and discuss them. As Father James Schall of Georgetown University noted in a recent lecture, Ã¬the ultimate criterion for a civilization is our talking to each other.Ã® We need not set down a final decision on the issues, or have our opinions writ in indelible ink so that they can never be revised, but we must do our best to know what we can and to be willing to stand by that knowledge and its implications, however horrifying or demanding it or they may be.
There are, obviously, bounds on this knowledge. Apart from the epistemic questions of the bounds of human knowledge, which we leave to others, there is more immediately a limit on how much any individual can know. ItÃs clear that we all must find those points of learning that move us; one person might read articles on TurkeyÃs travails as a secular Muslim state, while another might watch for freedom of speech issues on our own soil. Also quite apparent is that at any given moment, when faced with the option of taking a side on any given issue, we may lack the knowledge necessary to take an educated stance. In this case, a position of neutrality is not simply tolerable, but it likely the appropriate one until ignorance is overcome.
But ignorance should be overcome; positions of neutrality should be mere fleeting moments in intellectual purgatory. We should use instances of ignorance as an impetus for the discovery of issues and arguments that have never before occurred to us. If a little neutrality steers us through the twin shoals of extremism that threaten to run aground any who endeavor to care about American politics, so much the better. One thing is fairly certain: there are vessels far more seaworthy than the cuckoo clock.