An irony of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision extending free speech rights to corporations and other large organizations is that “citizenship” has been, in fact, a major casualty of the I-me-mine, every-being-for-itself evolution which led to the ruling.
I don’t mean citizenship in the legal sense; almost everyone is technically a citizen of one country or another. I mean the concept of citizenship that suggests a social contract with a body of humanity beyond one’s self, immediate family, or tribe. A “citizen” in this sense benefits from his or her membership, and in turn owes certain things to the nation.
The BBC reported yesterday that “Canada’s government has introduced a ban on the wearing of veils while swearing the oath of citizenship…anyone wanting to become a Canadian would have to show their face.” While the facts there concern legal citizenship, the issue – and a French ban on the burqa or niqab has made news recently too – raises the moral sense as well.
Such policies illustrate the instinctive feeling of many westerners that citizenship, in the sense of full-duplex participation in civil society, requires one to be present among one’s peers, and real presence requires visibility. A veiled woman looks like she has chosen to absent herself from society; if she’s legally a citizen, we feel she should be one morally and socially as well.
Even the word “citizen” has fallen into disuse (other than in its strict legal meaning). In the past it carried a sense of privilege, and attendant pride. But that’s largely gone now. The sense that the privileges and pride of citizenship have vanished leads to popular movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Americans have come to feel that their essential social contract with the state and, at least as important, with the system of capitalism has been broken. And they want it back.
An email from the Working Families Party arrived in my inbox as I was writing this post. It read in part, “General Electric will never fall in love. Goldman Sachs will never drop off a child for her first day of school.” Such manifestations of the desire to return to a more human concept of citizenship bombard us every day.
The Citizens United ruling is, among other things, a reminder of the dilution and even corruption of the customary status of citizenship. A judgment that “corporations are people” elicits an outcry because it implies that actual people – i.e. you and I, i.e. citizens – no longer have any special status; that the state, or the “system” under which we live, no longer judges its human components worthy of the consideration we have long believed humans deserve.