In this week’s reading of Judith Shklar’s American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, I couldn’t help but get the sense that what the reading actually did was exclude a whole lot of people. If the core of American citizenship is voting and earning, there are more than a few individuals who fall outside of those categories. We came up with some of them during class: elderly, homeless, felons/incarcerated, children, mentally incompetent, physically disabled, stay at home parents, unemployed, and immigrants. When your criteria exclude a significant number of your population, it can hardly be considered inclusion. And Shklar makes being included sound so desirable!
Shklar’s definition of citizenship is not the legal definition, nor is it the definition that deals with the concept of nationality. She comes up with a unique concept of citizenship that is dependent on one’s right to vote and to earn. We know that both are central to one’s standing as an American citizen, but the question I’d like to pose here is what exactly is important or valuable about being a citizen? For me, there are much better ways of evaluating yourself without ever factoring in where you fall on the citizenship scale. On my reading, there wasn’t much separation between being a good citizen and being a good person. This emphasis on the importance of citizenship onto who we are leaves out so much more of what makes people so great. So you’re not able to earn or vote, so what?
I can’t say whether it was intentional or not, but Shklar turned our citizenship into an evaluative tool of our self-worth. Shklar puts it simply when she says, “without one’s earnings one is ‘nobody’” (pg 92). This fascination with work and producing things (in this case, a paycheck) can be seen throughout American culture. Far too often we value production over substance. We have become ants, mindlessly toiling away day after day. Calling yourself a “workaholic” or a “multitasker” is a virtue; some aspire to sleep deprivation. As Mark Slouka put it in his essay Quitting the Paint Factory, “the dominion of the ants has grown enormously.” Slouka argues that rather than keep people busy (earning) you should actually let them have idle time. He says, “by allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it…constitutes a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press.” Having time to think for ourselves is essential, it is when we can develop independence, objectivity, and fairness. This idle time, however, is often chipped away at because the culture we live in emphasizes earning and producing and doing.
Now, I don’t think that Shklar can be blamed for her attention to earning-it is merely a product of association. What I hoped to achieve with this blog post was to take a moment to stop and question whether being an “earner” should really matter. So you’re not able to bring home a paycheck every month, so what?! Should your value as a human being really decrease because of that? Should citizenship define our identity?