Part VII: Citizenship Through the Ages

This is the seventh essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious since the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform.

As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.

In the ancient worlds of Athens and Republican Rome, the citizen was the critical basic unit of the civic body politic. Citizens had both rights from and duties to the political body—the city-state. When the state—facing an emergency—summoned the citizen to military duty, the citizen had to respond, putting his allegiance to the state above allegiance to family, clan, faction, or tribe. Aristotle maintained that a human being could reach his full potential only through the city-state. To Pericles, living life aloof from the affairs of state was stupidity.

In Republican Rome, citizens’ rights become more complex and codified. As Republican Rome increased its conquests through force, it used Roman citizenship as a diplomatic tool to cement political relationships with conquered peoples.

Drawing inspiration from the ideas of the Enlightenment, French revolutionaries early on in their fight against absolute monarchy and the old order of privilege enumerated and codified citizens’ rights in a document. Facing military threats from hostile neighbors, it called upon not only “citizens” but all members of the French nation—young and old, male and female—to perform duty for this new France. Passive citizens no longer sufficed. New active citizens were needed, citizens who possessed and acted on their “public virtue,” what Republican Rome had called “pietas.”

Nazi totalitarian Germany required German citizens essentially to surrender their rights. Emphasizing duties instead of rights, it emphasized that they fulfill these duties to save Germany from the vengeful victors of World War I and to restore Germany to glory. This Germany did not subscribe to any code of rights derived from the Enlightenment. The German citizen was defined in narrow, exclusive terms. Aryanism was the key litmus test. This citizen was to obey, not to question or to not challenge. Commands and orders came from on high; the German citizen’s duty was to obey. To disobey was to denigrate the Fatherland. Echoing Aristotle’s idea in part, Nazi Germany asserted that the German citizen was nothing apart from the German state and that Adolf Hitler and Nazi party officials defined the right and the wrong. Enculturated to think of Jews as subhuman, ordinary German citizens—not just hardline Nazi functionaries—contributed at various levels to the mass execution of Jews and other undesirables.

For the first two decades after World War II, American citizens were in general agreement as to the rights and duties of citizenship. Their fundamental rights were clearly enumerated and codified in the Constitution, though subject to various interpretations. With memories of the war still fresh and now facing Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, Americans were generally united in their duty to support of their country’s leaders and policies against Soviet communism.

As the Sixties began and the many movements of protest were launched, the consensus of the Fifties cracked. Large groups of mostly younger citizens, middle-class citizens, and African-Americans citizens split from the majority of American citizens who believed generally in the legitimacy of the American system, its leaders, and its policies. The rights to assemble and to free speech gained in prominence and allowed these groups to demand change. They asserted that America was not so beautiful; rather it was deeply flawed. The wonders and prosperity of capitalism were illusions and did not bring happiness and contentment. Social injustice was rife. They asserted that the arms race, especially the nuclear arms race, was dangerous and unnecessary. Their country’s involvement in the Vietnam War had to end. They asserted that the country’s authority figures were capable of great stupidity, could not be trusted, and had to be challenged. Finally, they asserted that a freer, more open lifestyle was better than mindless conformity.

The most significant legacy of the Sixties regarding citizenship and patriotism was the breakdown of the single model of the “good American citizen” of the postwar period. Large portions of the population believed that a good citizen was no longer just a “red, white, and blue citizen”—“my country, right or wrong.” Now one could be accepted as a “good citizen” by being, let us say, a good “white citizen”—someone who is motivated on pure principle to disagree publicly with the country’s political leaders and policies. One could now be a “good black citizen”—one who is prepared to oppose publicly the country’s policies on minorities. One could now be a “good pink citizen”—one who is prepared to oppose publicly the country’s policies on gender issues. Some would even condone a good “red citizen”—one who is prepared to use violence to change American policies or indeed the American system. After all, it was none other than the writer of the Declaration of Independence who said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The “yellow citizen”—one who protests merely for self-interest—has never gained legitimacy or respect.

 

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