National Identity and the Duties of Citizenship

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.


8 Responses to “National Identity and the Duties of Citizenship”

  1. jim walsh Says:

    In grade school, back in the 194os, we learned that if you serve in the armed forces of another country you lose your American citizenship. What happened to that?

    The point, I assumed, was that you can be loyal to only one nation. So how come Americans now have dual citizenships?

    I don’t want to come off sounding like Lou Dobbs, but is it too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube? Oh wait, the metaphor answers the question….

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    I haven’t checked the citation, but Buchanan says that under the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Afroyim v. Rusk, Congress has no power to revoke citizenship from any citizen who does not voluntarily relinquish it. Afroyim involved a naturalized Polish immigrant who got U.S. citizenship in 1926 but then moved to Israel in 1950. He then tried to renew his U.S. passport in 1960 but was refused because he had voted in Israeli elections. The Court reversed this, and according to Buchanan, the Court’s opinion stated that neither voting in a foreign election nor serving in a foreign army nor swearing allegiance to a foreign power constituted a forfeiture of U.S. citizenship.

  3. David Fitzgerald Says:

    I have a number of thoughts on this that are being refracted from an awful lot of places right now, so forgive, if you will, the rather disjointed nature of this post.

    1. My current experience as an ex pat, while certainly not a perfect prism through which to approach these questions, does add some helpful insights I think. One of the things that has struck me about moving to England is just how easy technology makes it to remain fully connected to America. I write for this blog. We will return home twice (and perhaps three times) this calendar year because of cheap airfares. Communication with family and friends back home is instantaneous. I read the NY Daily News Sports section every morning, as well as the NY Times and Washington Post online, just as I did in NY. Other than the Financial Times, I rarely buy a London paper. I can watch the NY Yankees live twice this week through the miracle of the North American Sports Network and I could have watched the entire Big East Tournament and NCAA basketball tournament had I been so inclined, again live. Next fall the NY Giants will play the Miami Dolphins in a regular season game at Wembley here in London. In short, although this is a marvelous experience, I remain a NYer in everything but address and technology makes that not only possible, but shockingly easy and affordable.

    2. Admitedly, I am only an “ex pat” and not an “immigrant”. Query how helpful those categories are? How many people actually set out to “become American?” My own family narrative is instructive. My maternal great grandparents emigrated to the United States from Calitri, Italy early last century. My great grandfather went with the understanding that the move would not be permanent, he was an “ex pat” tailor. After having my grandmother they moved back to Calitri and my great grandmother quickly realized that she liked it better in America. She prevailed upon my great grandfather to return to America and fifty years later my mother recalls the joy and pride Dominic Nicholais (who never mastered English) had when he became a citizen of the United States.

    My wife’s family experience is also instructive. Her grandfather’s oldest sister was sent to the States in the 30’s to help out an ailing aunt, fully intending to return to Italy and the family farm. Shortly after, another sister was sent to visit and then…the war broke out and they were both stuck in the States. In the interim, they met my wife’s grandmother who was native born but whose family hailed from the same region in Italy and they became friends. After the war, the two sisters took my wife’s grandmother back to Italy to “visit” the family. She and their brother fell in love and returned to the States as husband and wife and had two daughters, ten grandchildren and, to date, 8 great grandchildren, Americans all.

    The point of the narratives, I think, is that the motives behind immigration are complicated and varied, Emma Lazarus notwithstanding. My experience of the Italian and Irish immigrants amongst whom I grew up is that there “Americanism” was both incremental and dialetic. Living in America changed them over time and collectively, over time, those immigrants changed what it meant to be an American. The lack of technology and cheap fares home, when need or opportunity drove them to our shores, isolated them from the home culture in a way that modern immigrants are not. They both assimilated into and had an affect on the culture in the way their time, place and circumstances allowed. I have a feeling that 50 or 100 years from now America will look, smell and feel like a very different place than it does now precisely because of this distinctly American iterative process of immigration. That process is largely organic and cannot be scripted. The choice is to embrace it or be scared of it. The Europeans are generally scared of it and, as such, there is no assimilation here, to the detriment of both the native born and the ghettoized immigrant populations. As big a problem as immigration is in America it is nothing compared to the issue it will be here in Europe.

    3. Which brings me to Buchanan. I think his lament for the decline of the notion of the “duties” of citizenship is really a lament for the decline of the notion of “duty” generally. The insistence on self-actualization, without any regard to responsibility to family, God, country, neighborhood, environment may be the number 1 moral issue facing Americans. To the extent these moral imperatives are distinctly American it is that, heretofore, Americans have respected the rights of their fellow citizens to actualize those imperatives in unique ways and also, have been open to new ways of understanding how “the good life” can be actualized. That is why we have been so successful in assimilating new immigrants, because we are both open and receptive to their talents and ideas in a way that other cultures have not been.

    Having said that, I think the lack of a draft in connection with waging this war in Iraq was a criminal oversight by every element of the American government. But that’s another post entirely.

  4. Mark Grannis Says:

    An interesting reflection, Dave. From this perspective, our increasing difficulty with the assimilation of immigrants might be just the flip side of the difficulties that regimes like China and Iran have keeping out unwelcome western influences.

    That may be a useful corrective to overly ethnocentric ideas of nationhood (like Buchanan’s, in my view), but like most things I think too much could easily be made of it. I think interpersonal experiences play a larger role. I also wonder whether you might surprise yourself in a couple of years when you find little traces of your time in England showing up at the Bronx Zoo.

  5. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Reasonable Minds, scooping the NY Times opinion page by twenty-four hours

    I think this piece highlights something else I have noticed. When you work in a large financial institution, law firm, multinational corporation, work with people from all over the world who speak every language under the sun and, not only do we get along, but it is amazing how similar our value systems are. One thing globalization has accomplished is that, if you are a participant in the global economy you will share values with people from every continent and with every religious background. The cultural debate among people who syndicate bond deals is largely settled.

  6. southernitaly Says:

    Interesting read – thanks.

  7. SjP Says:

    Have you read the Bradley Project? On its face, the Bradley Report could be considered an excellent and provactive document to help us return to a recognized National Identity. But, the report can hardly be considered a document in which the views of the American people are espoused given two primary limits of the study itself. The issues deal with a sample size of less than 1% of the American citizenry. The second, is that the participants were not randomly selected. These two issues alone all but nullifies the Bradley Project as it only speaks to the ideals expressed by 2400 people taking an internet survey.


  8. Mark Grannis Says:

    Thanks for the tip, SjP. For Reasonable Minds readers, Sojourner’s Place has links about this project at

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