Citizenship: What does it mean?

TBy Harry Boyte

the world looks different from South Africa, where I’ve been this summer, building relationships with democracy groups and universities. The trip demonstrated to me, especially as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks draws near, that our country’s profession of innocence in the world is not so innocent.

The George W. Bush administration has called for a national debate on Iraq, but I am convinced there is a deeper debate to which the issue must be tied. We need to discuss, “What is citizenship in the 21st century?” and “What are citizens called upon to know, to be and to do to help address the world’s mounting problems?”

The Bush administration’s division of the world into good guys (led by a United States full of virtuous, kind, compassionate volunteers) versus evildoers (terrorists and their supporters) disguises a unilateral projection of U.S. power with the language of a moral crusade. It also rests on a particular view of the citizen – the citizen as volunteer – which needs to be challenged.

Higher education institutions, including the University, are called to take civic leadership on both fronts. We need to educate our students, staff and the society about a world that is far more complex than any simple “good and evil” division. This requires a view of the citizen as far more than a volunteer.

The neat divisio n of the world into good and evil hides the turbulence of a world roiling with different voices, enormous problems and bitter conflicts. It also has an air of stunning unreality from the vantage of South Africa. South Africa still remembers the “quiet diplomacy” – which most saw as toleration or even sympathy – that both the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations demonstrated toward the apartheid government, a regime based on racist and brutal repression that ended with the nation’s 1994 democratic elections.

In 2002, even moderates and conservatives in South Africa are shocked by the George W. Bush administration’s talk of war on Iraq. “Remember Hiroshima, Mr. Bush” read the banner headline in “The Star,” Johannesburg’s leading newspaper, after Bush officials raised the possibility of using nuclear weapons. President Thebo Mbeki, who has urged partnership with the United States and other western nations, expressed anger the United States has downplayed the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Bush vacationed at his Texas ranch while 40,000 world leaders and activists discussed such problems as the 1.1 billion people who lack clean

drinking water and the 2.4 billion who need access to sanitation.

A simplistic division of the world also denies United States’ greatest strength, as University graduate Thomas Friedman recently observed in The New York Times. Taking issue with those who attacked the University of North Carolina for assigning a book on the Koran to incoming freshmen, Friedman argued the U.S. democracy’s vitality is most evident when the society “challenges its own truths by presenting alternative possibilities.”

The Bush administration’s moral framework also rests on a particular concept of citizenship. Bush made the idea of the citizen-as-volunteer the base note for his policies long before Sept. 11. In his initial campaign announcement, Bush articulated “the noble calling of a nation where the strong are just and the weak are valued.” He accused Al Gore throughout the campaign of “trusting government, not the people.” He used citizen-service as the center of his inaugural address. “I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort,” Bush proclaimed, “to be citizens, not spectators, to serve your nation, beginning with your neighborhood.”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has called for a new patriotic spirit in which volunteerism and service figure as centerpieces. Thus, in his Nov. 8 address on the nation’s course in facing the “terrorist threat,” Bush used the concept of “a nation awakened to service and citizenship and compassion” to define “American civilization” itself, at war with a ruthless enemy. “We value life,” Bush declared. “The terrorists ruthlessly destroy it.” To enlist Americans in the fight, he called for “all of us (to) become a Sept. 11 volunteer, by making a commitment to service in our communities.”

In general, higher education has been less successful in debating views of citizenship than in conveying the complexity of the world. Bush gets his view of the citizen as volunteer from communitarian theory, the dominant concept of citizenship today in U.S. higher education. The nation’s leading communitarian theorist is Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor and president of the American Political Science Association. Putnam has described declining patterns of voluntary association in U.S. life.

The question is how to address such decline. Putnam argues for a reinvigoration of what he calls “social capital,” or a spirit of volunteerism. Though a Democrat, he helped Bush draft his inaugural address and, along with other communitarians, celebrated a “citizenship-championing president” in the White House. Moreover, Putnam argued that signs of increased social solidarity in the United States after Sept. 11 are evidence of new citizenship.

Such a view of citizenship is detached from power, politics and the vast diversity of the United States and the world. “Social capital,” like Bush’s volunteerism, calls up positive images of human connection, compassion and caring. It resonates in a society increasingly depersonalized, fragmented and materialistic. Yet compassion and caring do not convey boldness and courage in fighting injustice, ingenuity in addressing problems, or political skill in dealing with others with whom we may have sharp ideological or value differences.

These are the traits we must cultivate in our students and in ourselves if Americans are going to engage with others across national boundaries in addressing the challenges of the 21st century.

I agree with Bush – and his communitarian advisors in higher education – that we need to be “citizens, not spectators.” But I disagree with their definition of the citizen. As the University launches the council on public engagement this fall, debate about “What is a citizen?” needs to become a central question.

Harry Boyte is a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.