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What If Nobody Was A Citizen?

Today is a big day in the conceptualization of citizenship in the United States. Starting today, a category of marginalized non-citizens, people who were brought to the United States before the age of 16, is going to be allowed to move one more step toward citizenship by applying for the right to stay in the United States for two more years while they work on their educational and professional records.

In this context, a question occurred to me: What if we just did away with the legal status of citizen in the United States?

Could that work? Of the top of my head, I can see such a scenario going in two ways: 1) Everyone who happens to be within U.S. borders could be recognized as having equal rights to participate democratically in the nation; or 2) Everyone could be excluded from democratic participation.

I’m thinking of this question as a way of exploring the concept of citizenship from a negative perspective. What does the concept of citizenship in one particular nation – and excluding some from it, do for us?

2 comments to What If Nobody Was A Citizen?

  • Count Stephen Kent Gray of the Principality of Sealand

    Citizenship denotes the link between a person and a state or an association of states. It is normally synonymous with the term nationality although the latter term is sometimes understood to have ethnic connotations. Possession of citizenship is normally associated with the right to work and live in a country and to participate in political life. A person who does not have citizenship in any state is said to be stateless.

    Scenario 2 by definition would happen.

    Citizenship status, under social contract theory, carries with it both rights and responsibilities. In this sense, citizenship was described as “a bundle of rights — primarily, political participation in the life of the community, the right to vote, and the right to receive certain protection from the community, as well as obligations.”[20] Citizenship is seen by most scholars as culture-specific, in the sense that the meaning of the term varies considerably from culture to culture, and over time.[4] How citizenship is understood depends on the person making the determination. The relation of citizenship has never been fixed or static, but constantly changes within each society. While citizenship has varied considerably throughout history, and within societies over time, there are some common elements but they vary considerably as well. As a bond, citizenship extends beyond basic kinship ties to unite people of different genetic backgrounds. It usually signifies membership in a political body. It is often based on, or was a result of, some form of military service or expectation of future service. It usually involves some form of political participation, but this can vary from token acts to active service in government. Citizenship is a status in society. It is an ideal state as well. It generally describes a person with legal rights within a given political order. It almost always has an element of exclusion, meaning that some people are not citizens, and that this distinction can sometimes be very important, or not important, depending on a particular society. Citizenship as a concept is generally hard to isolate intellectually and compare with related political notions, since it relates to many other aspects of society such as the family, military service, the individual, freedom, religion, ideas of right and wrong, ethnicity, and patterns for how a person should behave in society.[15] When there are many different groups within a nation, citizenship may be the only real bond which unites everybody as equals without discrimination—it is a “broad bond” linking “a person with the state” and gives people a universal identity as a legal member of a specific nation.[21]

    The liberal-individualist or sometimes liberal conception of citizenship suggests that citizens should have entitlements necessary for human dignity.[23] It assumes people act for the purpose of enlightened self-interest. According to this viewpoint, citizens are sovereign, morally autonomous beings with duties to pay taxes, obey the law, engage in business transactions, and defend the nation if it comes under attack,[23] but are essentially passive politically,[22] and their primary focus is on economic betterment. This idea began to appear around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and became stronger over time, according to one view.[5] According to this formulation, the state exists for the benefit of citizens and has an obligation to respect and protect the rights of citizens, including civil rights and political rights.[5] It was later that so-called social rights became part of the obligation for the state.[5]

  • Bill

    Yep; your citizenship represents your signature on the ‘social contract’. With it, you assume certain responsibilities and gain certain rights.

    It would be great if that contract embraced all the Earth and all of humankind, but we are so far away from that noble goal that it is probably hardly worth discussing just yet, outside of commentaries on John Lennon’s anthem, “Imagine”.

    An invasion by extraterrestrials is probably our best shot at getting there any time in the next thousand years. Unfortunately, the tightly linked concepts of “us” and “them” are pretty much evolutionarily hard-wired into the human brain, and will likely require dynamite to dislodge. Consider the tribal name of almost any aboriginal people you care to think of: the vast majority of such names translate to “The People”. As in “we’re people…and you’re not.”

    At one time these divisions actually made some biological (if not moral) sense, back when tribes or nations more-or-less defined distinct gene pools. Nowadays, few nations other than Iceland actually do so any longer. The concept of nationhood, like the human coccyx, becomes nothing more than a useless vestigial organ. Or worse. It can’t help, and when it does anything at all it merely hurts.

    All that said though, I’m still a sucker for the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games (especially at Orioles Park in Baltimore, where it takes a unique form). As I get older, I appreciate ever more those institutions and rituals which tend to unite us…or at least some of us…in the face of what seems to me to be an ever more every-man-for-himself world. So I can’t imagine casting aside my citizenship, but I would be happy to exchange it for citizenship in the human race, if that option was available.

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