The New Meaning of Citizenship - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The New Meaning of Citizenship

The New Meaning of Citizenship

By Charu Sudan Kasturi and Nick Fouriezos


Because citizenship matters now more than ever.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

What does it mean to be a citizen? It’s a question the world has grappled with since the time of Ancient Greece. Citizenship is a privilege, a benefit and sometimes a weapon. Here at OZY we think it’s a vital responsibility and one worth rethinking at a time of turmoil. As curious, globally minded people, we are hopeful the borders closed during the pandemic can reopen soon, so everyone can see more of the world. Amid a painful U.S. election aftermath that’s now even seeing calls for secession from the union, it’s increasingly clear that we need a positive, constructive effort to Reset America. Today’s Sunday Magazine explores the meaning of citizenship and how it’s changing rapidly.

How Borders Are Changing

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History Repeats Itself? The internet was supposed to make this a borderless world. But recent years have seen the rise of nationalist leaders from the U.S. to Brazil to Hungary, while the global pandemic brought unprecedented border closures. Some analysts see parallels to a century ago, when the shocks of World War I, Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution and the Spanish Flu led to widespread restrictions on the flow of people and commerce for decades — with disastrous results for Jews fleeing the Nazis, Black Americans trapped in the South due to domestic terrorism and others.

Migration Patterns. Around the world, immigration has largely halted, with public support for contagion-inspired border closures. And while there is often scapegoating of immigrants — in the case of the coronavirus, particularly those from China — there are signs of public opinion shifting in favor of immigrants in the U.S., many of whom work in health care and other essential jobs. A September Pew poll found that 60 percent of Americans believed immigrants strengthened the country, up from 46 percent in 2016. But lengthy economic woes threaten such progress. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of mostly rich countries, points out that anti-migrant opinions soared during the Great Recession, and a repeat of such polarization could be coming for the Western world.

A Different Kind of Migrant. The rules are always different for the 1 percent. Countries such as Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Vanuatu have allowed wealthy foreigners residency rights and a coveted passport or visa if they make a sizable investment. These schemes typically appeal to those with home-country passports that don’t afford as much freedom of movement, places like China, Nigeria or Pakistan. But now wealthy Americans like Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt are increasingly seeking out a “golden passport” in Europe or the Caribbean. Why? Reasons include global COVID-19 restrictions against Americans, given the raging pandemic in the U.S., and fears of a stricter tax regime under incoming President Joe Biden.

Borderless Bucks. With Bitcoin hitting new highs, fresh attention is turning to cryptocurrencies, which can be used with ease across borders while avoiding some of the headaches of currency tied to any one nation. For years blockchain technologies have been the domain of the libertarian right, but they’re starting to get more attention on the left — specifically, from socialists. Why? Because cryptocurrencies can be exchanged among dissidents without attracting government attention, and in the long term, blockchain could be used as a replacement for free markets in a socialist state: Each citizen, for example, gets a token for a place to live. Read more on OZY.

In the Eye of the Border Beholder. Despite being the birthplace of COVID-19, China has avoided its worst devastation and as a result its power has only grown — while Europe and the U.S. in particular have been hobbled. And China is using that clout to flex its frontier muscles. In October, China built a new village high in the Himalayas, in what Bhutan considers its territory. The move mirrors China’s efforts to annex disputed islands in the South China Sea (despite an international tribunal invalidating its claims) and deadly clashes this year on China’s border with India — after China built a military encampment on what India considered to be its side.

The State of Trumplandia? Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh floated the idea of “secession” this week for states that believe Donald Trump was cheated out of re-election. After the Supreme Court summarily swatted away a lawsuit led by Texas’ attorney general seeking to nullify elections in states where Joe Biden won, Texas GOP Chairman Allen West (an ex-congressman with a penchant for outrageousness) suggested “law-abiding states” should “form a union.” Still, it’s important to keep this all in context: The West Coast flirted with autonomy when Trump won in 2016. And much of the population did not consider George W. Bush or Barack Obama to be legitimate presidents, either. America is polarized with a political culture growing more toxic by the day, but the realities of secession would be too much to bear. Just check out how Brexit is going.

New Citizenship Initiatives

Smiling university students with laptops on table at campus

America First. When most of David McCullough’s Yale classmates in American studies went overseas during the summer, he put 7,000 miles on his mother’s Mazda exploring the hidden byways of America. He came away with the realization that Americans are stuck in their bubbles, so he resolved to do something about it. Despite having no training or expertise, the 26-year-old established the American Exchange Project (AEP), a nonprofit offering high school juniors and seniors the chance to travel to parts of the country unlike their own and where, for a time, they’ll live in each other’s shoes. Hundreds are taking part this year. Read more on OZY.

Generosity on the Rise: The two most charitable cities in the nation — determined by measuring donations, volunteerism and other factors — sit astride a short stretch of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Minneapolis and its neighbor St. Paul lead a top-10 that includes four Northwestern cities … and no Southern ones. Experts say generosity is sprouting where it’s needed most, given the social unrest in Minneapolis this year and rampant homelessness amid rising housing prices up and down the West Coast. It’s been a year when millions of Americans have lost their jobs — and hundreds of thousands have lost loved ones. Yet as 2020 winds down, the country is surprisingly giving more than ever before, with PayPal seeing record transactions on Giving Tuesday. Read more on OZY.

Fight Goes on for Black Native Americans. They are the forgotten survivors of the Trail of Tears — Black enslaved people who were uprooted from their land in modern day Alabama and Georgia and moved to Oklahoma. Native American tribes enslaved some 10,000 people, partially an effort by the tribes to capitalize economically and assimilate with white colonists. After slavery was abolished in 1865, the U.S. government signed a treaty to give tribal citizenship rights to the newly freed. But the new constitution of the Creek Nation in 1979 only allowed tribal citizenship “by blood” — shutting out descendants of those whom the Creek enslaved. They are still fighting for their citizenship rights today, a movement that is taking on new urgency with the Black Lives Matter protests and federal payments to tribes under the CARES Act that excluded these Black descendants.

Stateless Strivers. Tens of thousands of people in Lebanon have no country. That’s because of an archaic law preventing Lebanese women who marry non-Lebanese men from passing their citizenship to their spouses or children. The government has continually broken promises to repeal the law, as similar ones have fallen across the Arab world. Enter Lina Abou Habib, who’s been fighting for women’s rights during the pandemic, while also pushing ahead and gaining traction on citizenship rights once and for all. Read more on OZY.

Citizenship Quiz!

Find the answers at the bottom of this article

  1. Which passport lets you travel around the world — without giving you citizenship rights anywhere? 
  2. If you’re a pregnant French mom flying to Japan and deliver in midair while the plane is over U.S. territory, can your baby claim American citizenship? 
  3. Which Caribbean nation earns more than a quarter of its GDP by selling its citizenship?
  4. What iconic scientist considered himself a global citizen and described nationalism as an “infantile disease”?
  5. What is the largest economy where you as a citizen would need to pay no personal income tax?

What Does it Mean to be a ‘Good’ Citizen?

The Athenian 1 Percent Loved Being Taxed: In Ancient Athens, only the wealthiest citizens were asked to pay taxes — and they not only did so willingly, but oftentimes boasted about paying even more than required. It’s a stark contrast to the modern billionaire love affair with avoiding taxes, yet it was thanks to a society that gave clear incentives for Athenians to value being a good citizen and giving back to their community: from rewarding them with honorifics and statues in their honor to providing them a stronger legal defense if ever they faced a day in court. Read more on OZY.

Extreme Direct Democracy. Switzerland boasts some of the highest rates in the world in trust in their government, while other nations’ rates have plunged. What gives? Participation. Any Swiss citizen who gathers 50,000 signatures in 100 days can force a referendum about any law passed by Parliament, while 100,000 signatures can kick-start an initiative to create a law. Read more on OZY.

Would You Make the Grade? The Trump administration recently made the test to become a naturalized U.S. citizen harder, increasing the number of potential questions from 100 to 128 and the correct answers required from 6-of-10 to 12-of-20. The questions are now more nuanced and at times the answers are questionable. For example, the answer for “who does a U.S. senator represent?” was changed from the “people” of a state to its “citizens.” You can test yourself here.

Rejecting a Nation’s Notion

Sovereign Citizens. Experts estimate there are roughly 300,000 sovereign citizens in the U.S. They argue that common law and sheriffs are the only true authorities in the land, meaning the federal government — and taxation — are illicit. SovCits believe the feds are illegitimate tyrants who trick us into giving away our freedom by signing official documents. As a result, they have a truly strange take on the English language that’s meant as an effort to evade federal oversight. Read more on OZY. 

Citizen Conspiracy. From COVID-19 vaccines to QAnon to the death of Jeffrey Epstein, conspiratorial thinking seems to be everywhere right now. Is this the era when fringe ideas have gone mainstream? On the latest episode of When Katty Met Carlos, we explore why people believe in conspiracy theories and what the potential consequences for wider society might be. Hear directly from people who believe in the theories, and those who have been subjected to personal attacks from conspiracy theorizing extremists. Listen Now

The State of Statelessness. The United Nations estimates that perhaps more than 10 million people throughout the world are stateless — meaning they have no true nationality and are citizens of nowhere. Most of the time, this is not their idea: Think of Rohingya refugees who are rejected by Myanmar and unloved by Bangladesh. You can renounce your home country’s citizenship, but typically your country will require you to be a citizen of somewhere else. Then there’s Mike Gogulski, an anarchist who renounced his American citizenship at the U.S. embassy in Slovakia and later burned his passport, becoming one of the few truly stateless ex-Americans.

2020’s Great Samaritans

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The Unemployment Dream Team. One day this spring, an insurance agent, a bartender and a corporate compliance officer got together to figure out the poorly designed beast that is Florida’s unemployment system. Since then, banding together with other volunteers across the state, they’ve helped more than 50,000 unemployed Floridians by troubleshooting their cases, walking them through the process on Zoom calls, compiling lists of contacts in the state’s byzantine bureaucracy and even throwing some political muscle around. Their fans started calling them the “Dream Team” of Florida’s benefits system — at a time of urgent need. Read more on OZY.

Stephanie Lampkin. Black women have an abysmally small presence in Silicon Valley: Just 0.27 percent of venture capital money went to Black female founders between 2018 and 2019. But this year, the number of founders getting $1 million checks nearly tripled compared to two years earlier. One warrior in that fight is tech veteran Stephanie Lampkin, who started a listserv for Black women in tech called Visible Figures, playing off the popular film Hidden Figures, about Black women doing NASA’s math in the 1960s. Four years later, Visible Figures is a thriving forum where Black women in tech network, share tales of success and struggles and support each other on a tilted playing field.

Edward Aguilar. This Georgia high schooler had been tinkering with a delivery platform like UberEats but when COVID-19 hit, he shifted from lunch to humanitarianism. Project Paralink has since handed out 1 million items of personal protective equipment across seven states for those fighting the virus — and in one month distributed more face shields in Georgia than the federal government did. Read more on OZY.

Lena Waithe. No paperwork, no middleman. When the George Floyd protests were erupting across the country, the Hollywood creator posted a simple message to her Instagram: She would give $45,000 directly to Black protesters who left their Venmo or CashApp information in her comments, to help them pay for groceries, rent, whatever it took to stay in the struggle.

Dolly Parton. Did you think the country singer, cultural icon and children’s book benefactor could be any more universally beloved? How about the fact that she gave $1 million to the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University in the early days of the pandemic, which they used to fund research into a new kind of high-quality coronavirus test that was used in the Moderna vaccine trials. 

Changing Constitutions

Chile. In October, the country voted overwhelmingly in favor of scrapping its Pinochet-era constitution, and rewriting the nation’s fundamental law. At the heart of that is a demand that the state resets its contract with Chileans to focus not just on creating wealth — Chile has the highest per capita income in South America — but making sure it is distributed more equally. Education, health and other basic services are in private hands in Chile. The country’s citizens want that to change. 

Italy. The European nation also voted to change its constitution this year but flipped the Chilean script. Amid the economic crisis, with memories of austerity measures from past years still fresh, the nation voted to slash public spending on governance by chopping the size of its legislatures by a third.  

Russia and Guinea. In nations ruled by authoritarian leaders, the president is effectively the state and the state the president. So it is in Russia and Guinea, where the social contract is about the citizen’s expectations from Vladimir Putin and Alpha Condé, and theirs from their people. Both countries had referendums this year and voted to allow their leaders to continue in office for longer than was previously possible.

Liberia. Is former soccer star and current Liberian President George Weah planning to emulate Condé? Liberia is awaiting results of Tuesday’s referendum to reduce the length of presidential terms from six to five years. But Weah’s critics fear that he’s laying the groundwork to claim that since his current first term began under the old constitutional two-term limit, he has the right to run twice more.

India. The world’s largest democracy has for centuries hosted and welcomed refugees from nations that have included Nazi Germany, Tibet, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But it’s now redefining citizenship with religion at the center of it. A controversial new law passed at the end of 2019 — the government is still finalizing mechanisms to implement it — would expedite citizenship for migrants from neighboring nations — as long as they aren’t Muslim. 

Citizenship Quiz Answers

  1. UN passport
  2. Yes
  3. St. Kitts and Nevis
  4. Albert Einstein
  5. Saudi Arabia
Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.


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