Thursday, August 16, 2007

My country 'tis of thee ... and thee and thee: full text

My country 'tis of thee ... and thee and thee

Multiple passports may be the answer to many of fissions and frictions of the new world order, even if bureaucrats and ID card pedlars may hate them.
Ian Williams

August 15, 2007 6:30 PM | Guardian Comment is Free

Alexander Alexandrovich Volkov is an unsung hero of the new world of cosmopolitan citizenship.

In 1991 Volkov launched intrepidly into space as a patriotic Soviet air force colonel and cosmonaut, and spent half a year in the Soviet space station. While he was orbiting, the Soviet Union fell apart and by the time the comrades on the ground started calling each other "mister" and eventually remembered to bring him down, Boris Yeltsin had been vivisecting his citizenship. By birth he had become Ukrainian citizen, on a Russian vessel, landing in Kazakhstan.

Totalitarian countries have no ambiguities about citizenship - they demand total loyalty to one state, which their rulers take to represent the country. EM Forster introduced a humanistic ambiguity declaring, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

One hopes that he chose his friends wisely. But no real patriot, except one who was living down to Dr Samuel Johnson's definition of patriotism as the "Last refuge of the Scoundrel," ever truly believed "My country right or wrong." As GK Chesterton, who was himself fond of his motherland to excess, said, it "is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

Surely the model should be Willy Brandt, a true patriot, who donned a Norwegian uniform against his "own" state when it betrayed him, humanity and its own citizens and invaded the country that had given him refuge?

However Brandt has his mind made up for him. The Nazis stripped him of citizenship. For most of us, however, citizenship is uncomplicated. We are born with it, or we acquire it when we move elsewhere. For millions of people in over 70 countries, the state does not care if someone who picks up a new passport retains a previous one. But far too many insist on a monopoly of loyalty.

In fact, the US used to require anyone who took an American passport to renounce their previous one and it still says so in the naturalization oath. Indeed, as I remember, an old friend Bill Ash, a prematurely anti-Nazi Texan, lost his US passport for flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.

The law never changed, but the practice did in the sixties, largely with the discovery that there were many Americans in Israel who wanted to have their rugelach and eat it. As a result the State Department now operates on the administrative premise that "U.S. citizens intend to retain United States citizenship when they obtain naturalization in a foreign state, subscribe to routine declarations of allegiance to a foreign state, or accept non-policy level employment with a foreign government."

Although one cannot help thinking that US citizenship is not what is was since the White House stripped Jose Padilla of its protections, many millions of Americans who hold multiple passports would make it very difficult to enforce the law as written. In fact the biggest threat is the xenophobic reaction of some Americans to Mexico allowing dual nationality. People who see no threat at millions of Cubans, Poles, Israelis, Irish, and even British like myself holding dual nationality now wake up sweating at night at the thought that their gardeners and housecleaners may vote.

Whatever the reasons, the US has effectively joined the countries that show an urbane insouciance about multiple passport holders. But while most of these are people who have moved their homes, dual nationality could be a major stabilizing influence in areas not traditionally associated with either urbanity or insouciance. Across the world are millions of people like Alexander Volkov, who did not change their country but had their country changed for them. Unlike the orbiting cosmopolitan Volkov, these stationary tourists have stayed in the same place as their country changed around them.

It would be nice to think that minorities stranded in a country could live there safely. As the old Balkan saying has it: "Why should I be a minority in your country, when you can be a minority in mine?" Sensibly, many of these people vote preemptively with their feet, and "return" to whatever they think their safest homeland may be even if they never lived there. Their movement led to social distress, skill shortages, economic disruption and contributed to nationalist backlashes.

In the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and even the velvetly divorced former Czechoslovakia, if citizens had been able to keep the option of dual nationality, they would be less fearful about the future: enough so to stay wherever they were confident they had a bolthole if things got tough. In Kosovo, if the Kosovar Serbs were assured that they could also hold Serbian passports, it could help persuade them to risk staying in and independent state.

Restrictions on passports are counterproductive, and to some extent a violation of human rights. And while contributing to global citizenship, as Willy Brandt proved, a new passport does not sever obligations but rather adds to existing ones. Dual nationalities should be encouraged, not prohibited.

No comments: