Denying the rights of citizenship

Georgie Anne Geyer

November 12, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- THE INEVITABLE has happened -- an American city has voted for the idea that American citizenship is worthless. The city is nearby, middle-class Takoma Park, Md., but its name might as well be changed to "Masochismville, U.S.A."

We have seen this coming for some time, as privilege after privilege of what used to be the precious covenant of citizenship has been watered down to absurdity and granted to anyone who strolled in. Indeed, just a year ago, I wrote about Question No. 86 of the U.S. government's new "citizenship" test for immigrants, which reads, with hints of grand and inspiring answers to come, "Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States."

The "correct" answers on the test -- in fact, the only three answers accepted by our omniscient government? They are: "to obtain federal government jobs, to travel with a U.S. passport, and to petition for close relatives to come to the U.S. to live."

All of that is inspirational enough, but last week's elections, Takoma Park voted by 1,199 to 1,107 to give the right to vote in city elections and the right to hold city office to non-U.S. citizens residing there. Assuredly, Takoma Park, a pleasant place of single-family homes, is where the '60s radicals settled. It is "Berkeley East," a community that already has declared itself nuclear-free and a sanctuary city for Salvadorans and other illegal aliens.

But Takoma Park and several other communities are only the beginning. In just one immediate spinoff, the vote was carefully watched by, among others, Democratic D.C. Council member Frank Smith Jr., who plans to introduce similar legislation in Washington.

I certainly know where I stand in thinking about this subject. Over my 25 years as a foreign correspondent, I have watched far too many once-beautiful and once-coherent countries fall apart, disintegrate under my feet into warring tribes of peoples: Lebanon, Chile, Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, Nicaragua and, today, Yugoslavia, India and the entire Soviet Union. These are tragic countries, once nations, where disintegration and collapse were forced upon them by alien forces.

The real tragedy here is that we are doing it to ourselves, masochistically, guiltily, as though we have no right to ask for the most minimal commitment of anyone to our own social contract. It is at heart a surrender of sovereignty, our giving control over our lives and our covenant to just about anyone who wanders by.

What is it that the Takoma Park activists want in diluting their power over their own lives? In interviews, residents said things like, "Non-residents pay rent, they work, they pay taxes and they are impacted by a lot of the decisions the city makes," and "There's no harm in giving those people the right to vote," and "This will help them become part of the community."

All of that is irrelevant to what is at stake here. The idea of citizenship in a nation took centuries of evolution and was passed down to us. Far from a random creature of history, "citizenship" historically has marked a deliberate move toward more civilized behavior.

This is because, as the great 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau concluded two centuries ago, "only a free contract between citizen and government allows the individual to bind himself to all while retaining his free will." In my own simpler South Side of Chicago thinking, citizenship is the commitment of human to human and of those individuals to the state that binds them together.

When we look at those other countries that have disintegrated, almost all have qualities in common. They collapse when an agreed-upon balance of diverse populations is disturbed and one group becomes dominant. They collapse when the central value system of the state no longer binds people in some core beliefs and commitments, one to another, and they collapse when there is no longer any pride in protecting one's own sovereignty.

All of these are present, to one degree or another, in many areas of the United States today. The problem is that it sounds ultra-conservative and "un-hip" even to talk about citizenship in a country whose own government no longer knows (Question 86, again!) a really good reason for being a citizen.

But this cause is not ultra-conservative and un-hip. It is civilized, practical and really quite beautiful. To see our alternative, we need only look around the globe.

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