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Citizenship [Sep. 11th, 2010|12:11 pm]
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I was on a "Politics in SF" panel at Dragon*Con which once more convinced me that a lot of people should've been made to read "The Man Without a Country" a few more times.   Though, with the sneering generation (Baby Boomers, starting a year after my unnamed contingent, were spectacularly good sneerers) that probably would not have had the desired effect...my desired effect, at least, which would be to remind people that the person with no loyalty to anything but his/her own pleasure is not a noble hero of individualism, but a pathetic failure as a human being.

There is, of course, more than one way to be a failure as a human being, but this is a form of failure very popular at the moment and--as it has considerable power to make others miserable--it's one I'm particularly aware of right now.  One of the loudest (actually THE loudest) voices on the panel blared at one point  "The business of business is profit."   Well...yes.  But that doesn't mean that the business of business is smart, or useful to the country, when business is granted the rights of a citizen but not the responsibility.

Because citizens have another business, besides whatever pays their rent...the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation. 

The definition of "success" for a business may be rising stock prices, or increased sales...but the definition of success for a citizen has nothing to do with stock prices or corporate income...a citizen is a success--as a citizen--inasmuch as that individual makes things better.    It does not matter how: a parent who conveys to their children the responsibility of citizenship--that the world is not their bowl of cherries, but everyone's bowl of cherries, that they owe something to the society that nurtured them--that parent is a success as a citizen.  The honest shopkeeper, the honest craftsperson, the honest teacher, the honest tradesperon, the honest truckdriver; those who obey the laws and make roads safer by their driving or make neighborhoods safer by their cooperation; those who volunteer for tasks like ambulance work or mentoring kids or working in food pantries: these are all doing what successful citizens do...they are supporting the social and cultural infrastructure that supports them.  

What distinguishes the unsuccessful citizen?   Some old-fashioned vices:  greed, dishonesty, laziness, selfishness, cruelty, anger/resentment/, refusal to take responsibility for his/her own acts and their consequences.   Anything that degrades the resources of the nation--including the human resources needed for a healthy society--anything that harms the nation--brands those who do it as unsuccessful, bad, citizens.  When a construction firm uses substandard materials to build that highway or bridge or apartment building...that's being a bad citizen, and no amount of donations to a political candidate--or even a university--can undo the damage done to the fabric of trust that underlies healthy societies.  When a member of the armed forces uses supplies for personal gain--or fails to learn his/her job and carry out his/her duties with dispatch--or does anything that reflects badly on the service--that's damage done to public trust and/or to the reputation of the nation.  When a policeman or jail guard rapes a prisoner...when a judge rules in favor of a corporation in which he owns stock...when a company fires the employees in its own nation and hires cheaper labor elsewhere...that's damage done to the fabric of the nation.   And that's being a bad citizen.  

This nation was founded with an overt appeal to universal rights of mankind--those stated (but not stated to be all) being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   But the survival of this nation depended then, and has depended since, on citizens taking responsibility, not just liberty, as one of the rights of mankind.   Had the signers of the Declaration been as wedded to personal liberty as the right wing today, there would have been no successful Revolution.  For these men, who pledged their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor"  to the cause, did not want total freedom for themselves--they did not demand that others bear the burdens so they could ride in the well-sprung coach.  They were familiar with, and based their concept of citizenship on, ancient understanding of citizenship--that courage/fortitude, integrity,  temperance, sound judgment were all desirable virtues which, if held by all citizens, would knit together a culture otherwise tolerant of diversity.   They knew enough of human nature to know that no nation had yet achieved such a citizenry--that it was unlikely to exist in future even with the best possibilities--but they knew it was worth trying for.

And they knew it would take personal sacrifice--first their own, which they were willing to make--and then, in succeeding generations, more of the same.    They knew--which too many now do not--that risking one's physical life in combat or a dangerous public service is not the only sacrifice necessary to make and preserve a sound nation.   Any society depends on contributors, not just takers...those who grow the crops of food and fiber, those who make the tools and those who use them, those who bear and support and teach and train the young who will carry on the work as adults.  Society must benefit them, not just those who skim off a profit from their work.   Yes, a large and complex society needs a more complex social and financial structure--but a structure that increases the gap between rich and poor--that ignores or devalues the contributions of the poor and middle-class--is a society that creates bad citizens by its very structure.  

When a rich man, like Ken Lay of Enron, can claim that he has suffered more than the low-level employees of the company because he's lost more money (his wealth going down from hundreds of millions to only 20-something millions)--when he can spend his pre-sentencing time at his luxurious home in Aspen with his family, while a poor man will spend his pre-sentencing time in jail--the system is obviously creating bad citizens.  When a President's wife (Laura Bush) publicly announces that she and her husband have suffered more from the war than anyone else--a statement I'm sure most brain-injured and amputee vets and their families would take issue with--and then retire to a cushy Dallas home and a cushy central Texas ranch--with a big estate in Patagonia waiting should they wish--we have an excellent example of citizenship failure right at the top.   With greater power and wealth should come greater responsibility and accountability. 

Which brings me, on this particular day, to the aftermaths of 9/11.   And, in line with that, the vexed question of the Islamic memorial site and the responsibilities of immigrant citizens in general.

We have always had trouble with immigrants (the native peoples had the most troubles with immigrants!)   Every new group that landed on the shore was greeted with distrust (and often responded badly) until it showed that it was willing  and able to contribute something those already here wanted.  The most successful, in terms of acceptance, endured decades of distrust and discrimination and then turned on newer immigrants the same attitudes that had so angered them.   (Last fall I talked with a man on the train whose parents had been Italian immigrants...he was vehemently denouncing Hispanic immigrants using exactly the same complaints that were used against Italians earlier: dirty, lazy, violent, etc.)

Public schooling was viewed as a way to educate immigrant children into the existing American culture--to break down their "native" culture and avoid the kind of culture clashes (between religions and national origins) people brought with them from the old country.   Refusal to send children to public schools was once considered a refusal of the duties of citizenship (this changed in the '60s/'70s, with the white flight from public schools as an attempt was made to create racial balance.)   English-language-only instruction was one method used--there was to be one language all citizens understood, so that anyone from any background could communicate with anyone else...to avoid the tight little enclaves that people naturally retreat to because it's more comfortable.  Was this ideal?  No, but in a couple of generations, nearly all immigrants' grandchildren were able to speak English, even if their kids dropped out of school.  

The point here is that in order to accept large numbers of immigrants, and maintain any social cohesion, acceptance by the receiving population is not the only requirement: immigrants must be willing and able to change, to merge with the receiving population.   The new place isn't the old place; the new customs aren't the old customs.   "Acceptance" is a multi-directional communications grid.  Groups that self-isolate, that determinedly distinguish themselves by location, by language, by dress, will not be accepted as readily as those that plunge into the mainstream.  This is not just an American problem--this is human nature, the tribalism that underlies all societies and must be constantly curtailed if larger groups are to co-exist.  It is natural to want to be around those who talk like you, eat the familiar foods, wear the familiar clothes, have the familiar cultural references.   But in a multicultural society like ours--and it has been multi-cultural from its inception--citizens need to go beyond nature.  That includes those who by their history find it least comfortable.

Whether a group changes its core behaviors and values after immigration or not, it must--to be assimilated later--come to understand the culture into which it has moved.   To get along, it must try not to do those things which will, sure as eggs is eggs, create friction, distrust, and dislike.    Is this a limitation on its freedom?  Yes.  It is also a limitation on the freedom of the existing culture into which it moves...it's a compromise.   A compromise isn't entirely comfortable to either side, and either side may misjudge how uncomfortable a compromise is to the other side--it is wise to grant that what you're asking the other guy to do may be quite uncomfortable to him/her.   A group must grasp that if its non-immigrant members somewhere else are causing people a lot of grief (hijacking planes and cruise ships,  blowing up embassies, etc.) it is going to have a harder row to hoe for awhile, and it would be prudent (another citizenly virtue) to a) speak out against such things without making excuses for them and b) otherwise avoid doing those things likely to cause offence.

When an Islamic group decided to build a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attack, they should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people.  Not only were the attackers Islamic--and not only did the Islamic world in general show indecent glee about the attack, but this was only the last of many attacks on citizens and installations of this country which Islamic groups proudly claimed credit for.  That some Muslims died in the attacks is immaterial--does not wipe out the long, long chain of Islamic hostility.   It would have been one thing to have the Muslim victims' names placed with the others, and identified there as Muslims--but to use that site to proselytize for the religion that lies behind so many attacks on the innocent (I cannot forget the Jewish man in a wheelchair pushed over the side of the ship to drown, or Maj. Nadal's attack on soldiers at Fort Hood) was bound to raise a stink.   It is hard to believe that those making the application did not know that--did not anticipate it--and were not, in a way, probing to see if they could start a controversy.  If they did not know, then they did not know enough about the culture into which they had moved.  Though I am not angry about it, and have not spoken out in opposition, I do think it was a rude and tactless thing to propose (and, if carried out, to do.)

I know--I do not dispute--that many Muslims had nothing to do with the attacks, did not approve of them, would have stopped them if they could.  I do not dispute that there are moderate, even liberal, Muslims, that many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons and are admirable in all those ways.  I am totally, 100%, appalled at those who want to burn the Koran (which, by the way, I have read in English translation, with the same attention I've given to other holy books) or throw paint on mosques or beat up Muslims.  But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they've had.  Schools in my area held consciousness-raising sessions for kids about not teasing children in Muslim-defined clothing...but not about not teasing Jewish children or racial minorities.  More law enforcement was dedicated to protecting mosques than synagogues--and synagogues are still targeted for vandalism.  What I heard, in my area, after 9/11, was not condemnation by local mosques of the attack--but an immediate cry for protection even before anything happened.   Our church, and many others (not, obviously all) already had in place a "peace and reconciliation" program that urged us to understand, forgive, pray for, not just innocent Muslims but the attackers themselves.   It sponsored a talk by a Muslim from a local mosque--but the talk was all about how wonderful Islam was--totally ignoring the historical roots of Islamic violence.  

I can easily imagine how Muslims would react to my excusing the Crusades on the basis of Islamic aggression from 600 to 1000 C.E....(for instance, excusing the building of a church on the site of a mosque in Cordoba after the Reconquista by reminding them of the mosque built on the site of an important early Christian church in Antioch.)  So I don't give that lecture to the innocent Muslims I come in contact with.  I would appreciate the same courtesy in return (and don't get it.)   The same with other points of Islam that I find appalling (especially as a free woman) and totally against those basic principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution...I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom.  It would be helpful to have them understand what they're demanding of me and others--how much more they're asking than giving.  It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country.  (And the same is true for many others, of course.  Libertarians, survivalists, Tea-Partyers, fundamentalist Christians, anyone else whose goals benefit only their own group.  There's been a huge decline in the understanding of good citizenship overall.)

But I don't expect this to happen.   And on this anniversary of 9/11, all I can do is hope that no bombs are thrown, no Korans burned, no innocents killed... by anyone.

NOTE.  Time to move the crowd outside and shut the door.  All comments will be deleted, the slag recycled for another time, and no further comments made on this post.  Whatever's been said has been said, and answered, and resaid, and reanswered.   














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