In search of identity: Citizens, nationals or subjects? [Fourth of July afterthoughts]

Another Fourth of July has come to pass, just like two-hundred and thirty others have since the United States emerged as a nation; a day when every American is expected to overflow with pride and patriotism. It is also a day when symbols and clichés are intended to bring our emotions to a pitch strident enough to deafen our reason.

For many of us, older, and hopefully wiser, this is also a day when we can reexamine our political selves, and our souls, in search of both civic and political identity. And we want to do so with an open heart, preferably without anyone challenging our love, support and complete willingness to defend the country and the lofty ideals for which it stands.

In this reexamination, the first question that comes to mind is… what are we, so-called Americans, to this nation of ours that we call the United States of America. Are we citizens, nationals or subjects… or are we, indistinctly, all of those things? Apparently, according to the dictionary, there is no difference in the meaning or intent in the use of those three words.

And, I wonder, if perhaps that is exactly the problem; if, contrary to what is written in Roget’s Thesaurus, those nouns represent three very different types of relationship.

A good friend, and mentor of old, corrected me more than once on this subject many years ago, stating without ambiguity that we cannot treat these three designations interchangeably, as if defining a political trinity. Instead, he insisted, we must give each one its proper place, and priority, in the scheme of things; and that until we do, we won’t find who we are or where we belong… or truly be capable of achieving understanding among different peoples, or of attaining lasting peace.

As long as citizens, nationals and subjects are treated both grammatically and politically as synonymous, one and the same, peace for humankind will always be in the horizon and, like a mirage, impossible to reach. We become identified with and loyal to the state, instead of being loyal to ourselves, and the noblest feelings we might possess.

Apparently, my philosopher-friend had long ago ended his search for political identity. He always claimed to be a national of the United States because that’s where he lived, not just his nation of birth but also his nation of choice… with a society, culture and economy that he clearly identified as his very own.

But as a human being he felt he was a citizen of a world where all people are born – whether they are made aware of it or not – with inalienable rights to freedoms which precede, and pre-empt, any written, or to be written, in any constitution. And he also acknowledged being a subject to causes that advocated the exercise of those freedoms in achieving social justice and the greater good for humankind… based on respect for all people, regardless of community or nation they belonged to. He consents in being a subject to his conscience, and not to any nation, king, pontiff, commander-in-chief or leader of any type; that’s where his loyalty was then, and continues to be now.

My friend: a national of the United States, citizen of the world and subject of his conscience. The more I think of it, the better it sounds… and the more sense it makes.
He pledges allegiance to his conscience, while abiding by the laws of the land, but will not subjugate himself to the interests and desires of those who govern… be them faithful or faithless to the society they represent.

It is at this time of the year, within two or three days of Independence Day, when I receive the angriest mail from Americans who are politically disappointed in their country, and who often feel betrayed. Most of them are veterans of Vietnam and of our warmongering in the Middle East… people who write with both anger and a conscience that can bring one to tears. To them I pass on the wisdom that I have received from my friend, after telling them they are not alone:

Continue being a subject of your conscience and a citizen of the world. And do your best to change the hearts and the minds of those around who no longer pursue the lofty ideals this nation stands for, fighting without quarter a perverse leadership that has led us astray.