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September, 2002, Volume 10 Nr. 1, Issue 109

by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski

Being a citizen, of a village, of a nation, of a world, is being an active participant.  Citizenship is distinguished from simple residency and implies individuality.  There is no contradiction here, although a fascistic reading may declare that a citizen is one who is glorified in his immersion in the Whole (the State, the Church, the Party, the Company), and that individuality is subversive, dangerous to the sacred Whole.

Citizenship implies individuality because a citizen is One, acting in relation to, and in defense of, a community.  Citizens do not defer to the State, although they may, after deliberation, temporarily defer specific rights, such as when allowing private property searches in the form of an airport luggage check, or allowing cookies and transfer of private information on the web.  Such deferments are temporary and conscious sacrifices by a citizen for purposes of security or convenience.

If a State requires excessive abrogation of human rights as the cost of belonging, can a person living under the rule of such a state even be called "citizen"?  That person is not citizen, but "subject", under the power and authority of the State/Party/Church.  it is not surprising that natal and naturalized residents of the U.S. -- citizens -- are more frequently called "the American people" than "US citizens".  Such language not only de-emphasizes the obligations and rights of citizenship, it enhances the power of the State.

"United States" is a political designation, but "America" is an emotional idea.  Consider the typical ignorant, arrogant use of the term "American" as applying not to the entire Western Hemisphere (Nosotros Americas), but only to the U.S.  It is easy for a fascistic State to exhort its subjects with a glorious ideal: America!  Fatherland!  Allah!  Cultural Revolution!  Free Trade!   Under these emotional promisewords the masses can be best controlled, for they can be enjoined to willingly participate in their subjugation.

What I am writing here is PoliSci 101, and certainly no news to any of my readers, but I repeat the obvious because it is  not an old analysis, the moldy fruit of dusty scholarship.  It is a valid way to analyze the situation in the U.S. today.  Consider the accelerating loss of civil rights and the moneyed media's determined resistance to uprisings of citizens everywhere.

"Citizen uprising" is a cliche phrase, and euphemism for violent rioting, which I would like to redignify as an optimistic slogan.  "Citizen uprising" is descriptive of our obligation as citizens facing an increasingly entrenched martial State.   We must rise up as mature individuals, in the dignity of our citizenship, our birthright as humans.  We must not be so lazy or fearful that we bow to whatever "authority" is convenient or well armed.  The arms these petty princes  wear are words and cash and guns and glitter.  There are many weapons in the warm cold war that attempts to subjugate citizens, to "normalize" individuals, to so control people that they never waken from whatever sub-spectacle they are dreaming.

The Matrix movie resonates with many who are longing to be citizens.  The mythic fantasy of The Matrix is not a literal speculation of a possible future.  As science fiction, it's weakest idea is the one given for the existence of the virtual world itself.   The notion that a cruel crop of harsh sentient machines would farm humans as batteries and then entertain them with a fancy virtual world is bad science fiction.  But as a metaphor and artistic description of the present, particularly for detached privileged young people, like Neo, The Matrix touches us in the same places as its myth-lit predecessors.  Its course is the Hero's journey, that favorite tale of Western Civilization and particularly redolent  of the Enlightenment.  The Hero is an archetypal citizen, and her journey always ends back in the community where, as a mature and active person, she acts as a public servant.  Don't get hung up on the monarch titles, as classically the Hero returns to become King.  Or, in Neo's case, Messiah (complete with resurrection scene -- just like other messiahs Mithra, Jesus, Osiris...).  King or Messiah, the point is that they lived and suffered as humans, and did so, even unto death, in the service of other humans. (While the alleged omniscience of one of these Messiahs - Jesus - diminishes  the value of his sacrifice, that notion is not a part of the earlier versions of the tale).  Messiahs are scapegoats that we adore.   Heroes are mortals like us. 

The Matrix confused Hero and Messiah, muddying both, so that Neo, who began as Hero, ended up as Messiah, "The One."  Perhaps the better examples of citizens are other characters.   The band of guerillas who preceded and  trained Neo (Morpheus,Trinity, Tank...) are the equivalent of modern citizen vanguards: the companeros on Granma, the freedom riders in Selma.  The many citizen uprisings described in the famous Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.."

The most important message of The Matrix is not Neo revealed as "The One", but the recognition that it is up to each and every mature citizen to wake up, study, and act to rehumanize the culture. 

It is the responsibility of a U.S. citizen to learn about and criticize his culture, especially those people and mechanisms in positions of authority.  If structures of authority are inimical to human rights, which rights these governmental structures should be designed to protect and promote, the citizen has an obligation to challenge them, up to and including revolution.  While a successful national revolution would replace the political entity which grants legal "citizenship", a broader idea of citizenship transcends national political entities and describes an individual actively participating in the ongoing creation of a society in which the primary value and unit is the individual citizen.  The cohesion of the U.S. culture is in the minds of those of its citizens who still hold to the possibility of the promise "E pluribus unum". 

"E plurubus unum" is the original U.S. motto.  While often translated as "one out of many" to give it a smooth syntax in English, a more direct alternative is "out of many, one." Focusing on the "unum" can emphasize that once these people are homogenized they can be an undifferentiated, controlled mass, but "of many" indicates the continued existence and importance of individuals, who are the very source of, and supreme to, the nation.  "Out of many" (individuals) which becomes, creates, empowers "one" (the nation).  It is a malleable slogan and can be used to inspire citizenship whether the "many" are read as colonies/states, diverse subcultures or individual persons. 

Where cohesion is forced at the barrel of a gun or otherwise coerced by grossly unequal power, then the original promise, "E pluribus unum", is broken, and "might makes right" stomps in.

Another U.S. motto can excuse the abdication of citizenship to an unimpeachable power: "In God we trust." The notion of God in this culture includes and emphasizes the rewards and punishments of the hereafter. 

To defer to an ultimate, eternal, omnipotent authority, and on who, for all its alleged power, uses degenerate people (self-proclaimed sinners) as his tools of political action, is behavior unbecoming of a citizen.  This is not to say that theists cannot be good citizens, most of our great public citizens are or have been theists.  The motto, "In God we trust" is unconstitutional.  In spite of SCOTUS rulings claiming that it only implies tradition and "ceremonial Deism", the heated debates and hyperemotionalism over laws and lawsuits surrounding this motto (and "under God" in the pledge) put the lie to the notion that godtalk is but an innocuous habit.  Not without reason did the citizen's movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries renounce unelected authority even up to the churches and the dictatorial deity himself.  The classic anarchist slogan, "No Gods, No Masters", is an appropriate motto for citizens everywhere.

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