Many Citizenships

There is no better time to reflect on the idea of citizenship than now.


Is this the right moment to think, let alone speak, of the idea of citizenship? Especially if you are a foreigner!

Dark clouds are gathering in Western, liberal democracies. The refugees displaced by droughts, warfare and large scale persistent wars from Asia and Africa are knocking on European doors in search of new homes. They are seeking shelter first and then a sense of security that comes with citizenship.

The hosts have long had a hospitality ethic that greets the strangers at their doors. In North America, warm-hearted Canadians sent their prime minister to the airport to welcome the refugees from Syria, who promised them prompt citizenship. In this country, with a rich history of welcoming immigrants, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump leads the drumbeat that brown-skinned immigrants are undesirable. Brown skin is endangered, along with black skin. There is growing intolerance of people who don’t look like the “natives,” the once aggressors.

In many parts of this country, racism, prejudice and ever narrower worldviews are increasingly threatening immigrants. The Neanderthals on talk radio, who drum up the droning hum of hatred every day, are tilling the land for greater spite each passing day. The recent dominance of White Identity politics has sent tremors in the hearts of millions of immigrants. In the new Republican parlance, acquiring citizenship is a crime; even the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to children of immigrants born in this country, has come under question. The more the world becomes complex, the narrower their minds get.

There is no better time to reflect on the idea of citizenship than now. When Little India started 25 years ago, the most urgent issue for Indian Americans was to gauge and articulate the travails of adjusting to another culture, of making a home away from the home of our birth. We were preoccupied with the ideas of dual identity, the meaning of home, and our adaptability in a multi-cultural environment. We paid taxes, contributed to this economy, and enriched this culture, which in turn gave us security and opportunity. Now, as the ferment in the world intensifies, and our brown skin takes center stage, we need to re-think the questions brought forth by citizenship, loyalty and the moment of migration.

Many of us are immigrants, Indians and others. Some of us want to bring family members to live with us, for economic opportunity for them, or to support them in their twilight years. Many Indian Americans hold green cards, but don’t seek citizenship. Many are eager to become citizens and are overjoyed when they do. Becoming a citizen means different things to different people. It is a reward of a lifetime to some; while to others, it is a simple convenience. Citizenship asks much of us; we respond to it differently.

In this age of globalization, defined by large scale migrations around the world, citizenship has come to mean something else. People move because they are forced to; to seek a better world; or they long for a life better suited to their skills and desires. There is no denying that notwithstanding the current instability, the future will be defined by greater migration, not less.

 The future will challenge our notions of what it means to be citizens and what it means to be at home; and what it means to be a patriot or a cosmopolitan.

Acquiring citizenship, or the process of “naturalizing,” has a particular meaning for the state. Citizenship means something particular. Taking an oath is to declare allegiance to a new nation and, for many, renounce the citizenship of their birth. Once you are a citizen of this country you are eligible to vote and you are protected by its Constitutional rights. The laws of this country protect you and you protect it by obeying them. Rarely is anyone coerced to take up citizenship; it is a matter of choice. In America, it means a lot, since what distinguishes this country from the rest is an unequivocal loyalty to the principles of The European Enlightenment that recognized Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity for all.

Citizenship also bring burdens. The constant drumbeat of “Rights” may make you think otherwise, but citizenship involves responsibilities and burdens. You must now become a lawful citizen of the new nation. The policies of this nation are now yours. Their wars are now your wars. Their killing is now your killing. In a nation, born of violence, that is important. You are complicit in the crimes of the nation. Many naturalized citizens watch helplessly when the U.S. goes to war against the nation of their birth. The burdens on such naturalized citizens can be unbearable.

You may question the ethical relationship to the new State you just “married” for the rest of your life. That is what it is meant by acquiring citizenship in a new country. Let us call this “political-legal-national-citizenship.”

This is where the practical meaning of citizenship becomes shaded. Citizenship in this age is often a matter of convenience, of expediency, and of tolerance. For people born in a different land in a foreign land, it can be hard.

It is often impossible to shake off the bone-drilled feelings of belonging from your homeland and install new feelings of fealty after an oath-taking ceremony. The inner culture may conflict with the culture of everyday experience. Your suffering from that pain can be hard to translate to others.

Citizenship in this case means something less than full loyalty. Political citizenship may not mean cultural citizenship. This distinction between cultural and political citizenship can be significant. People who live on the borders between countries, where the divide between their legal and cultural environments is vast and deep, may have divided cultural citizenships. Immigrants can be haunted by the conflict. Diasporic cultures are defined by divided cultures in their hearts. They have little option except to separate political citizenship from cultural citizenship.

No matter how the Right may spin to fit the raging hatred at the moment, this country in particular, as well as many countries in Europe (as well as Asia), have survived and prospered from the influx of foreigners.

Economic prosperity is often built on the backs of silent labor, from women’s work at home to the toils of exploited immigrant workers. It is no flight of imagination to assert that the economies of many Western countries would simply collapse without immigrant labor. The same is true of the home countries, because of the flight of extraordinary talent. For these laborers, from the strawberry fields in California and orange orchards in Florida, to the technology companies of Silicon Valley, citizenship means permission to work without hindrance from the law. It gives them a security, which they recognize by participating in the process of taxes, democracy, and government. Like cultural citizenship, economic citizenship transforms the notion of citizenship in an age of globalization.

To add to the complexity, one family may accommodate citizenships of many kinds, as successive generations live together and adapt.

The citizenship we have worshipped for so long is outmoded in this age. It needs a new language, a new way of thinking.

We witness a new complexity in the already muddled perceptions of immobile and parochial citizens in many host countries. It is impossible to become completely American (although a good many immigrant-citizens are more “American” than those standing on its ramparts!), or Swedish, or German, or French in the current state of affairs. The new citizens are in the process of becoming citizens — a process we should never assume to be ever complete. There are deeper lineages inside every person, deeper links that are animated by ancient, familial, communal, or religious loyalties. It is audacious to assume that the speech act of taking an oath shakes these links. Subscribing to communal rituals of citizenship does not make anyone a loyal citizen. Loyalty is to be measured in the spirited quality of belonging to multiple worlds that live inside a million hearts.

It is a hard concept to translate for those who believe that citizenship is a gift that asks for obedience of heart and mind. In terms of laws, it does. But in terms of values, culture, beliefs, and economic survival, political citizenship has its limitations. Thus, when we hear complaints about immigrants and their divided or dispersed loyalties, it is the voice of the old world speaking. In this moment and in this world, there are multiple citizenships inside all of us. We are becoming cosmopolitan; individuals in this age belong to many worlds. Patriotism and loyalty come in many forms; legal, political, economic, and cultural. The coming world, no matter what the racists may say, is not a world of one citizenship; it is a world of many citizenships.

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