Friday, March 04, 2005

Citizenship and Political Activity

In a recent post I included an aside mentioning that I was thinking of doing a future post that would examine issues of engaging with politics in a land not (originally) your own. This is that post.

Though I gave this issue quite a bit of thought back when we first moved to Los Angeles, I have come back to it because of a comment left in response to this post and pursued in a brief comment-dialogue after this post. For the most part I will dissociate this discussion from that particular issue (the recent right-wing attacks on Ward Churchill), those particular posts, and that partiuclar dialogue, but that's where I'm starting from.

Now, admittedly I was lazy in writing that post, and basically just said "What they said!" to justify my position rather than doing the work to at least summarize what I thought was useful from the articles cited. However, though I couldn't fully articulate it at the time, looking at the initial comment to both of those posts (it's the same thing posted twice) the fact that I am Canadian was used in conjunction with a number of other things that seem to be intending to mark me as "not plain folks" to delegitimate whatever I had to say in the original post without engaging with the substance of what I was saying. In the course of the dialogue, it should be noted, that changed.

But even though that appeared to be how the pointing out of my nationality was functioning, what about the substance of that declaration? As far as I can tell, a reasonably fair formulation of what was being implied -- and at this point I am not necessarily concerned if it was actually this poster's intent, because I think it's a sufficiently common sentiment to be worth addressing -- was that it is appropriate to butt out of the affairs of a polity of which you are not a member, and the main criterion of membership that is relevant in this instance is citizenship.

First of all, I am wary of the concept of citizenship. I don't completely disregard it, because it is a concept with such functional power behind it -- just ask people who are stateless or refugees. But I am wary of it. In some senses, it has always been a concept devoted to exclusion, a way of keeping some of the people who live in a given area from participating in political processes, whether it was women and slaves back in Athens, or whether it is undocumented migrants being kept powerless in the United States so their labour is easier to exploit. Even those who are formally citizens can be functionally excluded from the full benefits of citizenship in many different ways. For example, this report, of which I was one author, has some discussion (especially in Section 4, but throughout) of the ways in which racial minorities in Canada are kept from full exercise and enjoyment of citizenship. In the modern world, citizenship also serves to regulate who has access to resources under the control of a given state -- resources accessible via the market economy in that state, or directly from the state. This is in a world in which a legacy of empire and oppression has, over many centuries, concentrated resources in certain states and robbed them from others, and the flow of resources is still in those same directions. So citizenship is a way of excluding most of those whose resources we have stolen (and are stealing) from following those resources and trying to get a piece of them where they are controlled now.

When deployed in this way, particularly by right-wing nationalists in the United States, ideas of citizenship and sovereignty also have huge elements of hypocrisy. It is another example of the pepetual double standard that many U.S. leftists are continually pointing out, between the way that mainstream standards differ for "us" and "them" or "worthy" and "unworthy." It should just be screaming off the screen why it is ridiculous to invoke citizenship and, by extension, sovereignty against a lone voice in a neglected corner of cyberspace with no power to do much of anything to anyone when it is raised to comment on something pertaining to the U.S., while supporting a U.S. state that itself intervenes in the internal affairs of countries all over the world, all the time. This includes fairly blatant open interference in elections, covert interference in elections, supporting coups, imposing sanctions, supporting proxy armies to attack countries, and actual invasion, among other things.

There is a particular twist on this with respect to Canada. For one thing, it's not as blatant or direct or horrible as it has been and is with U.S. interference in lots of other countries. However, though I reject the position of some Canadian left nationalists that blame the U.S. for entirely too much and paint domestic elites in ways entirely too favourable, and also ignore the already-integrated nature of the political economic forces that shape both countries, there are still ways in which the United States functionally shapes and constrains domestic realities in Canada. A clear, if not particularly crucial example is with respect to the decriminalization of marijuana -- a Senate committee recommended doing that as far back as the early '70s and it again came to the front of the policy agenda recently, but pressure from the U.S. continues to play a role in preventing it from being implemented. More broadly, the economic dependence of Canada on the United States limits the ability of Canada to set both domestic and foreign policy that strays too far from what the U.S. wants. To take an extreme example, you are kidding yourself if you believe that if the Canadian state started nationalizing industries left and right, even if for some reason it had the support of the majority of Canadian elites, that there would not be consequences from the U.S. Anyway, though the case of Canada is a moderate example by global standards, it still illustrates the hypocritical ways in which the right (and probably other parts of the political spectrum) in the U.S. tends to recognize and mobilize concepts like "citizenship" and "sovereignty".

My vision of democracy is one that is participatory, liberatory, and with control over decisions dispersed and held in direct proportion to the impacts of those decisions, with due consideration of past history and current realities of hierarchies of power and privilege. This leads to a much more complex consideration of where one has the right to stick one's nose than depending exclusively on the binary variable (either you is or you ain't) of citizenship.

For example, there are enclaves of oppressed people centred around a common (if diversely inflected and experienced) oppression to which I would have no claim of membership, like LA's African American communities or a rape crisis centre collective. It would be imperative that I not interfere with some internal debate or process going on in a site like that. That doesn't mean I should have no opinion, and maybe there would even be appropriate ways, under appropriate circumstances, to express those opinions -- a discussion with a friend/ally/loved one who was a member of such a collective, for instance. But in general, a substantial degree of discretion and reserve would be called for; this example is, for me, fairly clear.

But more generally, I can't present hard and fast rules for when I think it is appropriate to speak up and when to shut up, and in what ways, and with what qualifiers, and so on. Like I've written before, my political participation in the United States while I live here is not the same as it would be in Canada, and it will continue to not be the same. However, one important element that will guide my decisions is something I tried (poorly) to express in the comment-based dialogue that triggered this reflection and this post: It's not just that the same problems exist in Canada and the United States, but rather that they stem from the same source. It is the same oppressive structures causing both, and while there is often some local variation in articulation, they are of a piece.

This means, for example, that I feel I am within my rights to speak up in defence of leftist intellectuals, because I suppose I sort of am one (even if I'm an invisible, tiny, and irrelevant one except maybe to a few wonderful folks who know and love me) and if I were to be designated as being worth demonizing (and considered to be an easy enough target despite not being racialized or a woman) it would be the same forces, the same process, the same agenda, causing that to happen whether it happened in the U.S. or Canada.

It also means that I will feel no hesitation in speaking out to support Aboriginal struggles, wherever they happen to be located on Turtle Island. Colonization has been and remains one big process, whether it has happened to result in one settler state, or two, or ten. (And despite racist mainstream quibbling about blood quantums, the whole Churchill thing is still very much related to Aboriginal struggle.)

It means that I will feel compelled to be active in struggles for peace and against imperialism, in whatever small way I am able to be given my current circumstances. War and imperialism are produced by the same system in which the Canadian state is embedded, and they have the potential to both benefit and cost those of us who live there, and those of us who have mostly lived there but now live elsewhere. So we are morally complicit (if in a somewhat different way) even if war and imperialism are originating from the U.S. state because our companies will profit from the slaughter, and the preservation of the current global flow of resources will benefit those who live in Canada, as well as those who have mostly lived in Canada but now live in the U.S. And besides, war and imperialism certainly are impacting lots and lots of people around the world who are no more able to vote in U.S. elections than I am, so it's just a common humanity thing to get involved.

It means I will stick my nose into lots of other things, both in body and in words. But not into everything, and not into everything in the same way. I'll know my boundaries when I see them, in each situation.

I welcome dialogue about this issue.

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