On the Inestimable Value of Citizenship

There are speech acts that negate their own validity. For example, the defense or promotion of violence in service of the sacred, or the notion that to oppose marginalization and stereotyping, specific groups need to be treated as inherently and universally hostile to one’s aims, no negotiations allowed. To be a citizen is about choice and responsibility, but it is never a valid choice—or an expression of any genuine personal freedom—to refuse it.

To refuse citizenship is a self-negating performative speech act, intended in every case to serve as a kind of comment on the state of affairs—”that’s not for me”, “my interests lie elsewhere”, “they’re all corrupt”, “I would replace the whole system”, etc., or, sometimes unwittingly (subconsciously, as a way of sloughing off the burden of responsibility): “I want those in power to have free rein”. To refuse citizenship is an act of cruel self-sabotage the bad effects of which seep out into the rest of society and undermine the health and wellbeing of the whole citizenry.

Rights must be defended, and they can only be defended by being exercised. To exercise the right of citizenship—the inalienable right to be a voice in the people’s sovereign exercise of legitimate authority over the forces of government and civil order—is to contribute to the imagination, affirmation and edification of a future in which better conditions for more people are not only possible but the rule.

In Tahrir Square, in Cairo, from January 25 to February 11, 2011, and on almost every Friday since, the world has witnessed the awakening of an ancient civilization, having struggled under autocracy for thousands of years, to the beauty, wisdom and vital import, of participatory civics, i.e. principled and committed citizenship. It is not impossible, not even unlikely, that Tahrir Square now stands as a model for democracy in the globalized 21st century.

Ordinary people, not professionals of the political sphere, gather peaceably, in public spaces, to formulate, debate, propose and even demand implementation of, reforms that impede corruption, overturn illegitimate acts by public officials, and move a society toward more genuine human liberty, both individual and collective. The dignity and imagination of a people depends on its ability to behave constructively in this way.

In Madrid, the 15-M movement (15th of May) launched its occupation of Puerta del Sol, the central square in the capital of a European country, also, incidentally, the geographical center of Spain, from which major avenues turn into highways, fanning out across the country like the rays of the sun (hence: Puerta del Sol). The movement gathered force as an homage to the heroism of Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria and Benghazi, and became a defiant declaration in the voice of the people, proclaiming the political authority of citizens over the levers of power and influence.

The Acampada Sol (the Puerta del Sol encampment, or “occupation”) became a lesson to the world in direct democracy. Protesters not only gathered to stage a permanent sit-in. They organized committees to handle legal issues, health issues, sanitation and food distribution among those living there. They staged general assemblies, and more focused topical assemblies, in which anyone who was present could participate fully. They enacted a form of spontaneous democracy in which no one would be excluded. The only exclusion was exclusion itself.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the actions of a flagrantly autocratic and corrupt governor—who upon taking office immediately began implementing a strategy to sideline the legislative opposition, coordinate legislative action under two brothers running the state’s two legislative chambers, while using their father’s leadership of the state police force to intimidate the families of opponents to his power grab—sparked a statewide citizen uprising, with support from across the US. The Madison movement demanded true democratic process and the early voting out-of-office of the governor and several state legislators for corruption and rights-elimination.

The Occupy movement, whose name, strategy and meaning, took hold of global public consciousness on September 17, 2011, when thousands of protesters sought to occupy the public space in front of the New York Stock Exchange, only to be met with heavily armed National Guardsmen and riot police, enforcing a ban on public use of public space.

The term “occupy”, to many is simply an outgrowth of the Tahrir Square movement: occupy public space to force the autocrats out of power; but it changed, over the course of 2011, into a more complex conceptual call to action: occupy your mind, your being, your surroundings, with conscientious citizenship. Be the world you want to bring into being; reform by practicing what you aim to see happen.

Citizenship is about informed engagement and responsible participation. It runs through the system and its forthright exercise requires that all public servants live up to the standards of the most sincere and committed among their constituents. No society can prosper in a legitimate, sustained or humane fashion without honoring the inestimable value of citizenship, and the lesson of the last year of citizen uprisings across the world is that this obligation to honor the authority of citizens is inescapable for all public servants at all times.

Power cannot be justified by the urge to silence citizens; power cannot be used to limit democratic liberties, if democracy is to survive; power cannot be used by the servants of the people against the people, if human rights are to be secure in our shared future. To refuse citizenship is a speech act, and it proclaims one’s consent for unaccountable authoritarian action.

Freedom of speech does not mean anything one does or says can be done or said without repercussions: the abdication of one’s authority over those who serve in public office is the abdication of one’s authority as a citizen; tacit support for the accumulation of too much power in too few hands is tacit support for the erosion of one’s own liberties; exclusive use of one’s voice for the denigration or marginalization of others is the limitation and the degradation of one’s own voice, and an erosion of one’s own freedom of speech.

The value of one’s privileges as a full citizen of a free democracy is inestimable. The tendency, over so many decades, to move power away from people and toward the already powerful, now necessitates a conscious reengagement of the citizen in the life of the nation. We can only protect and improve our democracy by exercising in the most informed and conscientious way our role as citizens.

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