May 21, 2001. The word citizen is not often used. We are in the process of giving up not only the word but the idea that it represents. We have been moving toward not knowing what it means to be a citizen, not knowing what it means to be an American.
Americans tend to be categorized into groups, whether it is consumers, the wealthy, the needy, the single mothers, or the black and the white, depending on what interests are being pushed or catered to. This lineation may well show that the fabric of society is in need of repair, that the idea of the nation and citizenship that goes with it has disappeared.
After hearing President Bush’s speech at the University of Notre Dame I think I am beginning to understand what he is up to. And it has much to do with this problem.
My insight into understanding his project has been delayed because all through the campaign the emphasis was placed on the slogan "compassionate conservatism" and the media ruminated much over the real meaning of the terms. Their ruminations distracted me. The term as used by Bush goes beyond re-defining conservatism by making it more compassionate. He is getting at the very heart of a contemporary problem, a problem that in one way or another, is at the core of the meaning of America and the meaning of e pluribus unum.
While I was doing graduate work at the London School of Economics in the mid-1970s I had many interesting conversations with students from around the world (including India, Germany, Poland, Nigeria, Belgium, and England) on themes directly related to this issue.
Each person claimed to be a citizen of his country, and each claimed to be a patriot. Each claimed, in the end, to be a full participant in the life of his nation because he was born into it. It was part of his identity, an identity that was shared with others. In fact, some maintained that they had no individual identities apart from their family and their nation. And they argued that this was a good and natural thing.
This is where the conversation turned to America. The interlocutors perceived that there was something essentially different going on here. Citizenship in America was not the same as citizenship in other countries. It did not depend on birth and seemed to depend less on language and even on shared habits. There was something else at work here and they all knew it.
After some delicate circumlocutions, we got down to the nub of the matter. The United States, as country and a nation, was founded on a principle that had universal applicability and appeal: the natural equality and liberty of human beings. The establishment of our government and the manner in which it was structured was directly related—and dependent upon—the universal idea claiming that men were capable of governing themselves. In the beginning, in America, were the words. And those words applied to all men. Theoretically, anyone believing in those words could be a citizen. Words became more important than ties based of blood, family, and ancestry.
It was admitted by all that a man born in Turkey or Hungary could never really become a citizen of Germany or Poland or Nigeria. But it is clear that he could become a citizen of the United States. How could this happen?
It should surprise no one that the conversation eventually settled on Abraham Lincoln. For it was Lincoln, during the great crisis of American identity, who most clearly and eloquently re-articulated the things that we must have in common if we are to think of ourselves as a nation. He is the statesman who held the Union together and made it worth keeping. But he is also the master of words, the poet that gave us words that gave new birth to the self-evident old truths.
It was because of Lincoln that our hearts and minds became one. Our love for the idea of America and freedom was re-ignited by Lincoln’s mighty words. He not only persuaded us, but inspired us to become patriotic. He reminded us of our original purposes—why the Declaration of Independence is the "the standard maxim of a free society"—and thereby breathed new life into patriotism and citizenship.
My fellow students from around the world understood this and were, in their own way, in awe of it. They knew what Lincoln meant when he called this nation "the last best hope of earth."
They also realized something President Bush now realizes. The fabric is torn asunder, and people have to be once again persuaded and moved to act. And they cannot be coerced into it. It has to be voluntary. We are not trying to re-establish a nation founded on blood that resembles a family. We are attempting to recollect what we stand for as a people, what we have in common, and to act accordingly. Mind and heart are involved.
Bush claims that he is attempting "to revive the spirit of citizenship." That revival is a challenge not only for his administration, but more importantly a challenge for all citizens. Citizens have to be concerned voluntarily with the well being of their fellow citizens and the common good. Bush said: "Citizenship is empty without concern for our fellow citizens, without the ties that bind us to one another and build a common good." With rights come obligations. The nation’s unity must be built "by extending our country’s blessings."
His vision is more than a call to us to act more responsibly than we have, although it is also that. It is more than a return to the idea of self-government, although it is that. It is more than a return to decency and civility and an encouragement to a certain set of virtues, although it is that. Bush’s attempt is nothing less than an attempt to re-connect the idea of freedom to citizenship.
I hope he has enough love for the country and poetry in his heart to do it. I think we have enough citizens with good memories of the things for which we stand who still know how to mend the fabric. He is asking us to get to work. We should be willing.