The Wages of Inert Citizenship
The world outside or before the U.S. was and is not a pretty thing. Even in rare consensual societies, factions and inequality under the law persisted—whether the plebs and populares of early Republican Rome, the greens and blues of Justinian’s Constantinople, or the Guelphs and Ghibellines of thirteenth-century Florence. Belonging to the wrong ethnic group or religion or political clique translated into a diminished political existence—or often far worse. Institutionalized persecution required the use of mass violence, in the way that governments today have systematically oppressed Chinese Uyghurs and Tibetans, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandan Tutsis, or Serbian Bosnians.
Again, not all that much has changed politically for a majority of the world’s non-Western residents. Despite the glitter of globalism, contemporary Chinese are not treated equitably under the law—and are routinely electronically surveilled, monitored, and “graded” with social credits and demerits, by their own government. Hundreds of re-education and forced labor camps seek to transform Muslim Chinese into atheists or agnostics—on the premise that no one in China has inalienable rights of habeas corpus or freedom from unwarranted search, seizure, and arrest.
Currently roughly one-million Chinese Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province have been forcibly interned in re-education camps (“vocational training centers”), where Chinese Muslims are forced to renounce Islam, often required to undergo sterilizations, and to pledge fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. So far global outrage has been muted due to Chinese economic clout and commercial reach, along with Beijing’s brilliantly cynical posturing as a victim of historical Western racism.
Elsewhere, Russians cannot choose their own president. Iranians have no inalienable rights protected by a written constitution. Bolivians cannot say or write what they wish. Those jailed in Mexico discover that their fates do not rest with supposed guarantees of equality under the law. Palestinians do not hold regular free elections. Women in Saudi Arabia could not drive until 2017. Cubans cannot travel where they wish. Pakistanis cannot worship as they please—safely. Elsewhere in much of Africa and often in Latin America, what makes life miserable is not even so much authoritarian government as no government at all. The chaos of contemporary Somalia or Venezuela ensures that basic necessities and security are all but non-existent. Justice there is meted out in the manner of ancient Norse sagas—by individuals and tribes.
In sum, people elsewhere in today’s world, whether under a constitutional government or not, usually cannot speak freely, vote, or use or even own arms. National boundaries, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, often drawn by outsiders, do not reflect a unique society with a distinct geography, language, customs, and traditions. The history of nationhood until the present day has been mostly one of dependent residents whose futures were—and still are—determined by forces and people well beyond their control.
What we see in unfree societies past and present outside the West is mostly a landscape of repression—and, to a lesser degree, for many centuries for some inside the West, especially women and slaves. Yet it has always been an odd but characteristic habit in the West that it damns itself as inferior to other civilizations that are wholly unfree. Apparently, its own notions of citizenship are so exalted, that anything short of perfection is considered not good enough.
Unfortunately, this escalation of self-reflection to self-loathing is often an unfortunate characteristic of post-citizenship. In a cynical sense, one can identify a true democracy by its vibrant self-criticism that in the postmodern age often devolves into a perpetual attack on its own institutions and past. Such are sometimes the wages of Western freedom. They appear often in the current West in the form of warring on the past by statue toppling, name changing, and culture canceling, in a perpetual quest to achieve perceived perfect freedom and equality, and/or more cynically find pathways to power.
Citizenship, of course, was dissipating well before the terrible year of 2020. That diagnosis explains why the tumultuous events that have followed met so little resistance—whether suspensions of the protections of the First Amendment, or local and state decisions not to ensure the safety and security of Americans, or the politically selective enforcement of the law or the laxity in conducting voting. American citizenship is now in the crosshairs of contemporary Western society. Everything currently argues against it. From our popular culture to the political agendas of the elite and influential, nothing seems to stand for citizenship. A glorious history is derided as bunk; a frightening future is awaited as glorious.
American citizenship is deemed inegalitarian and unfair to those without it, both here and abroad. It hinges on the once dynamic, but now shrinking middle class, which to our twenty-first-century tastes has become pedestrian, lacking the romance of the distant poor and the style of the refined elite.
Citizenship once persuaded Americans to surrender their comfortable racial, ethnic, and gender identities to absorb a common and mutually constructed bond. To work, that allegiance to ideas and values had to supersede shared tribal and religious affinities. Americanization was often a tenuous project, given it was contrary to a human nature that is tribal and clannish. It required patience and shared faith that the effort of the melting pot was good enough without having to be perfect.
In an age of massive government subsidies and technological omnipresence, citizenship still assumes Americans must be independent, common-sensical, and informed—and skeptical of ever larger government. They do not inherit their unalienable rights to govern themselves fossilized in amber. Instead they must remain vigilant auditors, aware that across time and space most autocrats, at home and abroad, have sought to destroy citizenship, an idea centuries in the making, but easily ended in a summer. And it is not just men in sunglasses and epaulettes that target citizenship, but legions of well-meaning bureaucrats in coats and ties as well.
America was about the only nation in history that defined fairness as equal opportunity rather than a guaranteed equality of result. That citizens can and must be politically equal, without the government assuming the unchecked power to make them economically the same, remains a radical idea. It is completely foreign to both socialist totalitarianism and even the agendas of most modern liberal democracies.
The current strategic tug-of-war is over the future role of America itself. Is the United States to shed its three-century-old Constitution? Is it to transcend any sense of national identity, common traditions, heritage, and physical space for new agendas as a sort of global caretaker of state-imposed morality? Will we follow the European Union model of increased redistributive taxes, larger and more powerful government, fewer individual rights, an end to secure borders and national identity, and a largely ideologically driven politics that is pledged in theory at least to mandated egalitarianism of result, with the goal of erasing race, class, and gender discrimination by counterintuitively emphasizing them?
Or will the United States remain a free and constitutionally protected republic where all ideas are explored, examined, and sometimes rejected under the aegis of an ancient constitution and a shared ancestral tolerance? Will there still remain free, autonomous, often cranky and outspoken citizens of the middle class, who are neither wards of the state, mere residents, tribes and peasants—or citizens of the world?