I am a being. I have a body and limbs and a mind. However, even animals have these and yet are obviously not human, lacking in legal rights and often viewed without empathy. So what, exactly, makes a human being? Should I find myself limbless, I would no doubt still belong to the human race. However, if left brain dead, attached to one of those machines – air forcing lungs to expand and collapse, expand and collapse, with a heart too ignorant to just quit already – would I still be a human being, or something less? Is humanity limited to intelligence, emotional or logical?
This question alone has many political implications (any pro-life or anti-capital punishment supporters?). It is also an attempt to trim down the fat of humanity in order to get the sweet core of theoretical understanding. It is an episiotomy of body, mind, and soul. Judith Shklar, Alexis de Tocqueville, James Morone, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among many others, are great political thinkers who use this splicing approach in order to better define the world around them. The concept that these thinkers pay particular attention to is American citizenship.
Shklar believes that citizenship was a matter of social standing, that if an individual has the vote and earns a working wage then he or she is in. If, however, an individual lacks either one, their standing is irrelevant. Tocqueville, while not directly addressing citizenship, notices the importance of race and morals in terms of social standing. Those who fall out of the dominant norm are treated differently, revoked of even legal privileges. More ideologically, Morone understands that citizenship is important in terms of the civic republican community: a kind of “one for all and all for one” deal. Individualistic Emerson, on the other hand, instead confides that citizenship is only important if you think it to be so. He is far more interested in cultivating the self and one’s own path regardless of popular thought.
This brief summary does not do these authors’ arguments justice, but, even so, some readers might be left wondering what on earth the big deal is about American citizenship. I believe that what some of these authors lack are concrete considerations of what being an outsider really translates to. Just as someone who has been stripped of their humanity might be found locked inside a concentration camp, there are also dire consequences for those who are not considered one of us.
For one, the effects of not having the honored status of citizen is felt by the 154 remaining inmates in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to a story in the New York Times, a man who was held without trail for 12 years was recently sent back to his home country. If these men had U.S. citizenship, their Constitutional rights would have protected them from such an injustice. However, because these men are not one of us, and in fact are potential threats, their cries largely go unheard.
However, for those who are legal citizens, racism is a plague that divides the worthy from the undeserving in terms of standing. As artfully noted by Shklar and Tocqueville, slavery is the root of racial prejudice. Again, for those who are in, racism is at best an abstract idea. However, for those who are faced with limited opportunities and are even persecuted, citizenship as standing is a very important attainment.
The below video features Jane Elliot, the teacher who in 1968 developed the famous “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise to teach students what it feels like to be a person of color. This video, however, was made sometime within the past 15 years. It is somewhat long, but is interesting to watch the reactions of the adult students and is a testament to racial prejudice and misunderstandings.
In short, recognized citizenship ensures the protection of the state and also allows people to be accepted by their peers. Citizenship matters as these are two very necessary needs for any healthy citizen-state relationship.