Friday, June 12, 2009

Politics: Why I Won't Be A Republican

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Just in case there was any doubt after the George W. Bush administration, Newt Gingrich has provided me all the reason I ever needed to not be a Republican. In a speech on 5 June, Gingrich told a Republican fund-raising audience:
I am not a citizen of the world! I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous.
Considering that anyone other than a government immigration official that asks me about my citizenship will hear that I consider myself a World Citizen before a United States citizen or potential future Canadian citizen, it's not surprising that I find Gingrich's statement to be anathema. If anything, the past decade has taught us that we are world citizens, whether we want to be or not.

Legally speaking, of course, Gingrich is correct that there are no world citizens. The concept of citizenship requires that (1) the citizen has obligations to the sovereign of which that person is a citizen, and (2) the sovereign has obligations to the citizen. As the planet is not legally a sovereign body, it is not possible for either of those relationships to exist in a formal form. However, the second sentence is where Gingrich and I diverge immutably--the idea of world citizenship is "stunningly dangerous." I would argue that NOT feeling obligation to the world as a whole is what has proven stunningly dangerous.

I could cite holes in the ozone layer, climate change, or other environmental issues to make the case that what happens in the rest of the world fundamentally matters to those living in the United States (or any other country). Each of these issues is an example of something where an individual has an obligation to the planet at large to not adversely impact it (and ensure that others do not as well) or extreme consequences may be faced. Arguably, the other side of the obligation, that of the planet to the citizen, is not as clear--though I would say that if one lives in an environmentally responsible manner then one should expect that the planet will behave in a predictable fashion and provide expected food supplies, a breathable atmosphere, and so forth, though admittedly that's hard to enforce.

However, I believe the most compelling example of the need for the world citizen perspective is the event that conservatives have been focusing on since it happened--the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Most people in the United States were surprised to the point of emotional overload by the attacks, and completely rejected as unpatriotic people like me who had been paying attention to the rest of the world and understood that such an attack was conceptually possible, even if the details were unexpected. While the world citizens could see the danger and the insular thinkers either could or would not, what the world citizens were missing any mechanism to do something about the threat.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had later in 2001 with a local landlord in Massachusetts--a friend of my own landlord--who had spent time in the Middle East, studied Wahhabi Islam as it existed in Saudi Arabia, understood the hatred felt by radicals in the movement, and tried to warn people in the United States about it. He found that almost nobody was capable of understanding how the concept of hatred was different and thus couldn't process the information. After the attacks, he gave up. He had felt an obligation to pay attention to the world and an obligation to identify the danger to others, but his perspective was too foreign to be accepted, even in supposedly-liberal Massachusetts. What was missing was actually two-fold, (1) acceptance of the world citizenship model of having obligations to pay attention to and identify problems outside one's own country, and (2) any mechanism for creating accountability of the world to the citizen, which could be accomplished through existing sovereign nations with some creative use of the United Nations structure.

It was not feeling obligation to the world as a whole that created danger in the run-up to the 11 September 2001 attacks. It was actually the opposite--it was an abdication of any awareness of or responsibility for what was happening in the rest of the world that made the impact of the attacks so profound to United States citizens that had no idea it might be coming.

The real fundamental irony to me is that while Gingrich and other leaders are guiding the Republican Party into a stance of diminishing the importance of the rest of the world, they support free trade policies. To use a famous Gingrich phrase, I find it "singularly bizarre" that they think free market principles should apply to the whole world, but see no reason to have any obligations to the world as a whole or any expectations from the world. If one is going to have free trade--and my stance on that is a bit nuanced for complete treatment here but substantially supportive--then I think one has an obligation to make sure the playing field really is fair, and that means establishing international mechanisms to enforce that--exactly the kind of the obligations that Gingrich is dismissing.

In the speech, after stating that he was not a world citizen, Gingrich went on to state:
I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator.
As the forum was supposed to be about Christianity, the bulk of Gingrich's remarks expanded on that statement. From my perspective, that statement could draw a whole rebuttal essay in itself--apparently the language in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn't mean the same thing to Gingrich that it means to me, and apparently Gingrich likes his interpretation that the United States is fundamentally Christian the same way that Iran is fundamentally Muslim. It blows my mind that such an obvious parallel doesn't seem to bother him, and gives me yet another reason to not be a Republican.

It's easy in the Obama era for someone of my generation to reject Republican principles, so in that sense my position is completely unremarkable. However, by so directly diverging from what I consider to be fundamental to my being, the concept of world citizenship, Gingrich is making it impossible for me to even consider being a Republican (something, I would point out, that Stephen Harper's Conservatives have not done in Canada). I suspect I'm not the only one.

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