Playing the Citizen

[This is blog five in the series ‘Politics On Ideas’. The first four parts you can find here.]

The coming blogs I am going to discuss with you how the different players in our game, ‘The Political System’, are influencing what we believe to be true and shaping our political actions. How the behavior of citizens, journalists, politicians, artists, scientists and others have a serious effect on the outcomes we get as a society.

The role the most of us get to play in our society, whatever our occupation is, is the role of ‘the citizen'. One of the things which connects politicians, journalists, politicians, artists, scientists and other professionals is that they are citizens too when they are not on the job. A citizen is a registered member of a geographical community with certain rights and obligations within that community. Whether you are or can become a citizen of a geographical community is decided by the current laws of that community.

To be a citizen is a privilege you might not contemplate on every day. The right to live in a certain country. The right to travel because you have the identity papers to do that. The right to vote for those citizens who live in a democratic nation. The right to certain social benefits which your country gives to its citizens. And as a citizen in a democratic nation you also have certain freedoms which are protected by law, such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and the freedom to organize yourselves

I am a citizen of the European Union, a citizen of the Netherlands, a citizen of Noord-Holland and a citizen of Amsterdam. Which means I am an citizen of an union, a country, a province (or a state) and a city, but not of the world. When I was born my parents did not register me at the United Nations as a member of our global community with the rights and obligations that would go with such a status. To be clear, it is not just me: no one on our planet is registered as a global citizen yet. Legally speaking it does not exist.

The idea of global citizens does exist outside of the legal realm. Hugh Evans is the founder of an organization which literally goes by the name: ‘Global Citizen’. In a TED talk Evans explains what he thinks a global citizen is and why we need to have global citizens:

A global citizen is someone who self-identifies first and foremost not as a member of a state, a tribe or a nation, but as a member of the human race, and someone who is prepared to act on that belief, to tackle our world's greatest challenges. Our work is focused on finding, supporting and activating global citizens. They exist in every country and among every demographic. I want to make the case to you today that the world's future depends on global citizens. I'm convinced that if we had more global citizens active in our world, then every single one of the major challenges we face -- from poverty, climate change, gender inequality -- these issues become solvable. They are ultimately global issues, and they can ultimately only be solved by global citizens demanding global solutions from their leaders.

Evans talks about how people identify themselves. The story they believe to be true about who they are and what behavior should follow from that. There can be a tension between ‘what we want to see’ and ‘what is’. The view of the world we have may not be same as what we experience on a day-by-day basis. Our dreams about how it could be should not make us blind to what is going on right now. Neither should this necessary acceptance of how things are withhold us of trying to transform it to something more beautiful. You never know what your current efforts might produce in the future. Or to quote the American architect and author Richard Buckminster Fuller: “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.

Within a country you have national and foreign citizens, no global citizens. In a country which is part of the European Union you have two kind of foreign citizens: other EU citizens with a different nationality and non-EU citizens. The difference between a German or a Canadian in France. Foreign citizens do not enjoy all the rights and obligations as national citizens do. This is true all over the world. In the European Union not even all foreign citizens are equal. Foreign citizens from another EU country have other rights and obligations than foreign citizens from a country outside of the European Union.

The Dutch Employee Insurance Schemes Implementing Body (UWV) states on her website: “If you are a national of a country that is part of the European Union (EU), the European Economic Area or Switzerland, you are legally entitled to stay, work and look for work in the Netherlands. You do not require a residence permit.” If you are from outside this area, for example an American citizen, then you need a ‘Residency Permit” or a ‘Work Permit’ via your employer. A foreign citizen from another EU-country registered as a resident of a Dutch city is allowed to vote in the municipal elections. A non-EU citizen registered as a resident in a Dutch city is allowed to vote for the municipal elections too, but only if he or she lived in the Netherlands for more than five years. These are two examples of how there is made a difference between the rights of citizens based on the geographical community were they are registered.

Foreign citizens in a country could be tourists, working people and businesspeople who live abroad, expats, migrants, but also refugees. Tourists come to another country for a relative short time to enjoy a vacation. Working people and businesspeople can do all or part of their work in another country than were they are living right now. Expats intent to come for a few years to a particular country to work and live there, and then leave that particular country again. Migrants come with the intention to build up a new live in a certain country, often for economic reasons, but you could also think of lovers with different nationalities deciding to live together in a country of their choosing. Refugees flee war and violence, natural disasters or have other justified reasons for why their lives may be in direct danger in their own country. Extreme poverty, which could also be lethal is not a direct danger and therefore fleeing extreme poverty doesn’t make you a refugee, but a migrant. Almost every country in the world is a member of the ‘Refugee Convention’, which gives refugees a special status over migrants. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR states that “the core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law.

Expats are by definition citizens from another country than where they are living and working right now. For migrants and refugees the same could apply, but they also could have become a citizen of the country where they have moved to, next to or instead of their original nationality. According to UNHCR worldwide there are at least ten million people stateless. They have no nationality and they don’t have the rights and obligations that go with it. Some of us have more than one nationality and some us have no nationality at all. The idea that we still have this many people on the planet who have no citizenship, no registered home, is totally crazy.

The status you have in a country could have implications too for the potential political power you may have in a certain area. For example, only citizens born in Untied States of America can become President or Vice-President of the United States of America, immigrants who have become American citizens can not.

You could also think of the difference between the political power of refugees in their host country and the political power of national citizens of that country. Refugees will generally have to learn the language and the customs of their host country to be better able to give a political voice to their hopes and concerns. Refugees also have to learn how the different government institutions work in a host country to get things done. And until the time refugees have learned these kind of things they are in a disadvantage compared to other citizens who are already familiar with how things are done. Also the status of being a refugee can make it more scary to take political action in your host country, because you might be afraid to be kicked out if you become more assertive or face other potential negative consequences that a citizen of that country will not.

Or think of the possible effects of the different status and perceived status of national citizens and foreign citizens such as migrants. And don’t forget to include national citizens who are or perceived to be from a migrant culture. Migrants or national citizens who look differently and/or act differently in noticeable ways than the dominant culture of the national citizens are much more likely to be discriminated against. Because they are different than what’s considered “normal” by some people. Or because some people feel the need to project their own fears and failures on other people, on people who don’t look and/or act like them. Human beings want to be part of a community. Excluding others is only safe in so far it does not exclude yourself from a particular community. Discrimination is almost never done by a lone wolf, but done with support of or without resistance from his or her peers, precisely because of this reason Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following in his ‘letter from a Birmingham jail’ (1963):

Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

Yes, time itself is neutral and what you decide to do with it isn’t. The execution of constructive political ideas can lead to “human progress”. However, by the “appalling silence of the good people” this progress may never see the light of day. In other words, by not getting involved in the political ideas that shape the society we live in people give more power to those who do get involved. It takes “hard work” to get political ideas realized. Choosing not to do that work can have real consequences for many people. To be inactive therefore doesn’t make you less of a political citizen, because your silence potentially has political consequences on how our society is shaped, on which ideas prevail at the end of the day.

The system can influence the way in which citizens in it behave. It does make a big difference if you live in an open and free society or in a more authoritarian environment. The same kind of behavior could have different consequences in a free society or an authoritarian society, which could be a very good reason to adjust your personal and collective behavior. Citizens also can change the system, because they decide to start and continue to act differently with enough players to actually transform their political system.

I will focus on liberal democracies and how we can make them function better. This means that I am mindful that not all my suggestions would work in an authoritarian environment. Because I want to be as effective as possible I am going to focus my energy where I think my ideas have the greatest possibility of flourishing. It is my hope that the ideas which I share can be of benefit to as many people as possible in whatever situation human beings find themselves. At the same time I cannot close my eyes to the fact that the freedom you have as a human being to move is an important factor for the progress you can make. And the harder the circumstances the harder the price often is which human beings have to pay for their efforts, which takes a lot of courage. Compared to the hardships in authoritarian environments it is relatively easy to improve liberal democracies. And within liberal democracies it is relatively easier for affluent people to push for constructive changes than for people in harder circumstances. If only because of a very valuable asset which enough money provides: more room for free time to use as you want.

The game will be played whether you participate as a citizen or not. The game will be played whether you understand the rules of the game or not. It is up to the citizens to get up to speed. Where do you as a citizen begin if this political world is completely new to you?

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