Un-becoming a citizen

It takes more — or less — than passing your citizenship test to become a true American.

“Very few Americans actually function as citizens anymore.”
Scott Ritter



It wasn’t that long ago that the sight of a roomful of immigrants after they’ve passed their citizenship tests warmed our hearts. Who could fail to be moved as they raised their right hands and swore to support the Constitution and obey the laws of the United States?

In recent years, however, American hostility toward illegal immigrants has poisoned the well of our welcome. Not even those who qualify to take the test to become naturalized citizens are immune. Our ambivalence is now also reflected in the test itself.

Heretofore, the questions were multiple-choice civics class specials. But beginning in October 2008 a new set of questions, which U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have been trying out for two years, will be incorporated into the test. It’s ostensible motivation is to generate a better understanding of our history and government institutions in those who seek to make the US their new homes.

Apparently just naming the three branches of government won’t be sufficient — applicants may also be asked why there are three branches. Acceptable answers would include variations on preventing the power of government from becoming concentrated in one branch.

While, according to USA Today, “Immigration advocates want to ensure that the new test does not make becoming a citizen more difficult. . . groups that want to control immigration want to ensure newcomers are not simply memorizing information.”

A normal reaction to passing the test, especially the latest version, would be to assume that your new compatriots will be flattered by what you know about their country, like when tourists make an effort to speak the local language. But some Americans may suspect that you crammed for the test just to infiltrate our country and set up a terrorist cell.

Equally pernicious, though, are those of us who will resent an immigrant for knowing more about their country than they do. The author has no stats or poll results to support this conclusion, just hunches gained from a lifetime of living and working outside both the city and the academy.

Not only don’t most of us care to be reminded of what we don’t know about our government, neither have we much interest in acquiring that knowledge. Viewing our government as corrupt, we either consider it beneath us or fear we’ll be tainted by it.

Also, in the great American tradition of “the business of America is business,” we see little value in knowledge that doesn’t make us money. Our singular ability to forget literature and art classes once the courses end attests to that. As for government, we leave it to those who are paid to understand it.

But, according to Naomi Wolf in a recent AlterNet interview therein lies the problem: “. . . there’s this class of politicians, scholars and pundits who do the Constitution for us, so we don’t bother educating ourselves.” Whereas, the nation’s founders “wanted us to know what the First Amendment was and what the Second Amendment does for us.”

Thus, “we don’t feel the kind of warning bell of ‘Oh, my God, arbitrary search and seizure! That’s when they come into your house and take your stuff and scare your children!'”

You’re liable to be met with a blank stare if you express concerns over the Bush administration’s erosion of the Constitution. Try reciting it to Americans (and explaining it. Ever read it yourself? It’s no walk in the park.)

Don’t put it past an American if he or she responds: “Maybe they went a little too far back then.” For instance, when it comes to warrantless spying, many Americans are steeped in the “if you do nothing wrong, there’s nothing to worry about” ethos.

“After all,” he or she might explain, “they only had to worry about a king oppressing them or someone who might want to be the king of their new country.” (As if, with Bush and his court, those concerns are foreign to us.)

“In fact, maybe the time has come to update the Constitution and pass some amendments,” you might be told. Then he or she might brighten. “See, I remembered something from high school civics.”

Relinquishing our rights to our leaders is one thing. Giving them carte blanche to make war is another.

In other words, notice how few Americans pay close attention to foreign policy? Complain as we might about Iraq, we still have no qualms about leaving it in the hands of “experts.” What do we look like? Wonks or something?

Listen as Ritter describes the guys he watches “Monday Night Football” with [edited for conciseness]: “They’re not stupid. But they keep telling me, ‘That foreign policy stuff is too complicated, man. You’ve been living this for your life, but we have jobs and everything.’

“But then they start criticizing play calls. ‘You know, if they’d given the ball to the fullback on this play, statistically speaking on second down through the guard and tackle off the right side, he’s going to gain 3.5 yards.’

“I said, ‘How do you know that?’ They go, ‘Oh, we studied the stats.’ I’ll tell you what: If you’ve got enough time to study sports stats, you’ve got enough time to study American foreign policy and have an informed opinion about places where Americans are dying.”

More than ever, in response to, among other things, the incompetent government imposed on us by the Bush administration, we toss around the word “idiot.” But the word boomerangs. Its origins lay not in those who misrule us, but in the Hellenic idiotis, which means he who was held in contempt because of his lack of interest in politics.

Or, as Christopher Shea wrote back in 1999, “most people base their votes, and their answers to polls, on only the vaguest feelings about how the economy, or life, is treating them.” Then, in 2005 the libertarian Cato Institute issued a treatise titled “When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy.”

Its author, Ilya Somin, maintained that, lacking even the most basic political information, the typical voter is in no position to communicate his or her will to candidates for office. Furthermore, he or she lacks the knowledge to assign credit or blame to the correct office holder.

Worse, unless spoonfed a program by a force as well organized as the far right, he or she is unable to understand how issues are connected. In other words, each exists in its own little vacuum.

Meanwhile, any incentive for the ill-informed to educate themselves is further diluted by a culture that reinforces the conceit that everyone’s opinion is valuable. Like the man-on-the-street interview of another era, today’s polling loves you just the way you are.

Returning to the citizenship test. . . under these conditions, doesn’t it make the perfect prerequisite for voting?

In theory, perhaps. But testing voters has long been synonymous with racial discrimination. For example, in post-Civil War Louisiana, 130,000 African-Americans registered to vote in Louisiana. After tests (just for literacy, not knowledge of government) were instated in 1893, only 5,000.

Maybe enough time has passed since literacy tests were abused to allow us to revisit the subject of testing voters. In fact, we could turn to naturalized citizens for tutoring. Can’t you just see it? An enterprising immigrant starts a company like Kaplan’s to prepare natural-born citizens to pass the voting test!

8 replies »

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  2. many Americans are stepped in the “if you do nothing wrong, there’s nothing to worry about” ethos.

    I think you meant “steeped in,” like a tea bag, but I think I like “stepped in” is probably more accurate….

    Sometimes I think we’d be better off if we were like the fascist nation in Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie, where most of the “fascism works” message was purged and replaced with sex and violence), where you had to earn your citizenship and right to vote instead of being born to it

  3. Thanks for the correction, Brian. I’m my own worst proofreader.

    My Special Forces nephew swears by “Starship Troopers” (the book, not the movie).

    God, we take citizenship for granted. It may be a cliche, but the vote is as powerful a weapon there is. Too often, though, we aim it straight at ourselves instead of our nation’s ills.

  4. The problem with using the Heinlein-ian view of earning one’s right to citizenship is how we decide what constitutes worthy criteria. In a perfect world, one would be made a citizen through demonstrated intellect, good works, community involvement, and dedication to national service.

    In the *real* world, it comes down to money, power, social networks, and collusion between interests. The masses are kept quiescent with entertainment to prevent them actually smartening up and realizing how much power they’ve lost over their lives.

    I see a lot of change on that front, though. Maybe it’s taken the horror of Bush to do it, but people are more galvanized and involved in politics now than at any time in my lifetime previously.

  5. Oh, forgot to mention:

    I saw Scott Ritter speak on his book tour a few years back. Like Glenn Greenwald, he had the zealot’s fervor of an angry conservative who is disgusted at what has become of his party, his movement, and the ideals he swore to uphold. And there’s no zealot like a convert. 😉

  6. Scott Ritter, associated with child abuse, and bribed by Saddam Husayne? That is who you quote on the Constitution?

    I have never been anything but warmed by citizenship pictures. The problems with US residency and citizenship rules are as follows:

    1. No special rules to permit quick entry to brilliant contributors such as Einstein or Von Karman.
    2. Edward Kennedy’s 1960s changes to permit entry to all relatives of legal residents, and anyone who claims they might be a legal resident.
    3. Immigration quotas for Mexico and other poor Latin American countries are too small.
    4. Immigration lotteries to other countries not for merit, but just for getting lucky, are too large.

    Starship Troopers was a good work of fiction. It was not fascism, as the state offered citizenship to anyone who wanted it (and agreed to pay the price of obedience for a set term). Citizens in that fictional state would know that there are consequences to the politican’s “We need to…”.

  7. I disagree with the list of questions and an answers because some of the answers are wrong.

    George Washington was not the first president. In 1776, when we declared independence, Washington was a mere general. John Hancock was president of the continental congress, which voted for independence on July2, and accepted the text of the Declaration on July 3rd. A civil service clerk copied the text overnight, and it was distributed on July 4th when the principals had left town.

    Later John Hansen was first president under the terms of the Articles of Confederation.

    Yes, I care about those details. Better to leave out the question than to test for knowledge with a bad answer sheet.