Amidst all the recent debate about immigration reform — apparently dead for now — I read Pat Buchanan’s book, “State of Emergency.” Since it appears we will be talking about this again sometime soon, let me say this is the sort of book from which reasonable minds can profit. It is filled with facts and figures and lists and dates, and those are all very interesting. There are also anecdotes chosen to illustrate the various symptoms of decline about which Buchanan is exercised, and those are also interesting. But I think the most interesting theme of the book is the sustained reflection Buchanan gives to the question of what makes a nation.
It is our disunity, more than anything else, that seems to convince Buchanan that we are in a state of emergency. Although he clearly believes a rapidly changing ethnic composition is part of the cause, he is not only blaming immigrants. He repeatedly points to a sharp division of opinion between average citizens and multicultural elites, and he blames the elites for our problems at least as much as he blames the immigrants themselves, if not more. His sharpest criticism is reserved for President Bush, whom he accuses of believing that our nation and our economy are the same thing, and that what’s good for the economy is good for the nation. (And that’s one of the milder criticisms he levels at President Bush.)
Buchanan clearly believes our national identity is fading away, and that we are becoming a cacophony rather than an orchestra. There has always been someone saying this during periods of heavy immigration, of course. But toward the end of the book Buchanan quotes Eugene McCarthy for the proposition that there are three great duties of any citizen: to pay taxes, to vote, and to bear arms in time of war. Buchanan notes that a third of the population pays no taxes, half the population doesn’t vote, and only a tiny percentage fight our wars. He takes this as a sign of decline and a cause of disunity. I tend to think he is right. Is it possible that this is the hidden problem that is making our immigration controversy look tougher than it needs to be?
Is it really possible to narrow the duties of citizenship down to three things? It seemed to me that a lot more was required, but I had trouble thinking of anything else that was as important. Reporting for jury duty is important, possibly as important as voting. Volunteering in civic organizations is important, but most people probably wouldn’t think of that as a duty of citizenship; non-parents, for example, are not commonly thought to have any obligation to coach little league. Obeying the law? Well, yes, except when your obligation as a citizen is not to obey the law, which makes that a tricky one.
I thought I might learn something by looking up the promise we solicit from new citizens. According to Wikipedia, this is what they have to swear:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
However, Wikipedia also states,
The Oath of Citizenship is not a federal law. Technically, any oath is legal, as long as it meets the “five principles” mandated by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1953. These principles are:
- allegiance to the United States Constitution,
- renunciation of allegiance to any foreign country or leader to which the immigrant has had previous allegiances to,
- defense of the Constitution against enemies “foreign and domestic”
- promise to serve in the United States Armed Forces when required by law (either combat or non-combat)
- promise to perform civilian duties of “national importance” when required by law
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as pretty weak brew. Neither the oath nor the list of five principles makes any reference to voting or paying taxes, for example. They might well be considered “civilian duties of ‘national importance,”” but voting is not (as far as I know) “required by law” anywhere in the U.S., and the obligation to pay taxes is a long way from universal. Another article on Wikipedia mentions jury duty, taxes, and draft registration as responsibilities of citizens, along with the surprisingly bureaucratic (and to me implausible) suggestion that using a U.S. passport for international travel is somehow a responsibility of citizenship, but there is no citation from which I can tell what authority requires any of these things.
I Googled “obligations of U.S. citizens,” but that only sent me back to Wikipedia. OK, how about “obligations of citizens,” without regard to nationality? Here I found some interesting ideas from other countries. The 1991 Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, for example, has a section addressing (together) the “Rights and Obligations of a Citizen.” These include (among other things) the statement in Article 8 that “Citizens participate in the determination of state and social issues directly or through the mediation of freely-elected representatives.” So Latvians recognize an obligation to vote, even if we don’t; and I suppose this could be interpreted to recognize an obligation to coach little league, or join Rotary, or do something specifically social. Latvians also give us this from Article 11:
1) A citizen must be loyal to the Republic of Latvia and has the right and responsibility to defend its freedom, independence and democratic parliamentary system. (2) A citizen must fulfill mandatory state service and other obligations to the state as determined by law. (3) A citizen has the right to possess registered weapons.
The Republic of Bulgaria has a similar rights-and-responsibilities section in its constitution. It covers everything in our five basic principles, plus Article 61 adds an obligation to “assist the state and society in the case of a natural or other disaster.” Then there is this intriguing Article 36:
(1) The study and use of the Bulgarian language shall be a right and an obligation of every Bulgarian citizen.
(2) Citizens whose mother tongue is not Bulgarian shall have the right to study and use their own language alongside the compulsory study of the Bulgarian language.
(3) The situations in which only the official language shall be used shall be established by a law.
(As an aside, check out the rest of of Chapter Two of that Constitution. I didn’t compare it side by side with our bill of rights, but it seems to guarantee every liberty our own constitution guarantees, usually more explicitly, plus a few more we might consider here.)
I don’t have time to survey scores of other countries, and you wouldn’t read it if I did, so let me stop here and say simply that it seems to me our next immigration debate could be improved by a little more attention to countries like Bulgaria and Latvia, two nations that somehow managed to subsist as nations despite long periods of domination by a foreign government. If there is one thing that I think everyone in the immigration debate agrees with, it is the ideal of assimilation. The people we admit as permanent residents — whoever they are, wherever they come from, and however many of them there might be — ought to desire full membership in society, with all the obligations as well as the benefits. That depends on a heck of a lot more than which side of a border you happen to be on. And if we are going to continue accepting unprecedented numbers of immigrants who speak little or no English, is it really xenophobic to think that we have to do something to make sure we can all talk to each other?
But it is not only the immigration debate that is affected if — as it seems to me — we are currently underspecifying the obligations of citizenship. Why don’t we expect more of each other? Shouldn’t informed participation in self-government be described as a duty of citizenship, and not just a right? Shouldn’t our tax policy be guided at least partly by the desire to ensure that everyone pays something? Since draft registration alone has been a pretty empty gesture for anyone under 50, why shouldn’t there be a period of compulsory public service — whether military or non-military — that gets the Catholics working next to the Jews and the Salvadorans next to the Koreans? Does anyone really think these things would not matter if we just closed our border? Perhaps the next immigration debate we have will address some of these broader issues.