Civis Romanus sum. I’m the kind of guy who has books with that phrase all over my shelves. Whatever my failings, I’ve read a lot. Many years ago I even learned to ski by reading a volume on it. So when my editor asked me to review three books on citizenship I naturally went… went… I don’t think I ever read one.
I’ve read dozens that dealt with it incidentally, taking it for granted. But it’s the sort of thing you’d imagine Aristotle devoting an entire volume to. And since he didn’t, or it was lost when the library at Alexandria burned or whatever it did, I’m going to try to dredge up, I mean reflect on, its tacit presence.
We are nearly all citizens of something. By accident of birth, good or bad, or by choice wise or foolish, we are legally citizens of a political entity. But some permit dual citizenship and others do not; some allow you to shake the passport from your sandals as you depart in scorn (and possibly in secret) and others never really let go.
When defector Viktor Korchnoi played Anatoly Karpov for the world chess championship in 1978 the Soviets demanded he use a flag labeled “stateless” and he retorted that he’d prefer their flag with “I’ve escaped” on it. Which points to two important considerations.
First, some people really are without citizenship, expelled or escaped from, or scorned within, some loathsome jurisdiction and temporarily or permanently unable to secure membership in another. Though Korchnoi eventually became a Swiss citizen (and at age 80 won their national title).
Second, not all citizenships are created equal. Some are a privilege, others a hideous burden. What, then, are we to make of citizenship with deadline looming, from my bookshelves at least?
I decided to start with that perennial favourite, Leonie Kramer’s edited James McAuley: Poetry, essays and personal commentary. OK, he’s not Aristotle. I only heard of him thanks to Mercatornet’s Michael Cook. And while my shelves are thin on poetry, and McAuley isn’t in the first rank, he was a pungent critic of modernity (including the Australian version of Canlit which is apparently equally cringeworthy).
His verse occasionally inspires and often baffles me. But he’s a superb essayist, deploring modern language “that feels like chewed paper or tired chewing-gum in the mouth” and offering (finally we get to citizenship) this passage: “It is clear that the structure of my political thinking is that of an Australian nationalist. I have a worldview, of a sort, and a wider concern. But politics begins at home. The immediate business, and the one that one might hope to understand, is not to reform the world or save mankind, but to make decisions relative to Australia’s immediate needs.”
He’s no jingo. “Being nationalist in this sense does not have to involve any overwhelming love for Australians as a people…. Sometimes I’ve come back from abroad happy to be an Australian. Sometimes… ashamed and disgusted. I make a joke sometimes about having ethnic prejudices, starting with Australians as the ethnic group I am most prejudiced against. But in fact one could do worse, and I suppose one measure of my really accepting my Australian membership is my belief that on the whole the Australian electorate has over the years displayed a fair amount of good sense”.
The twin pillars of membership and acceptance mean real citizenship is like one of Burke’s little platoons except it’s a big platoon, being a legal not a social arrangement. And it means being accepted into a club you do want to be a member of. So my second choice is Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, a stunning achievement for its depth, brevity, and bon mots like English being uniquely suited to truth-telling. But Hannan is no jingo either.
This heritage is open to anyone who comes to the Anglosphere because they belong there. And it explains why such citizenship is a privilege of a special sort: It
So now to Civis Romanus Sum, a phrase even implicit in the Bible story of Paul facing arbitrary torture until he asks whether they do such things to a Roman citizen and instantly the mechanism of law springs into action to vindicate his rights. The Romans didn’t get it all right, of course; they never really managed the popular veto on government promised by the “Populusque” in SPQR. But as our final entry, Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture, drives home, there has always been something very special about membership in the West.
I do not say perfect. For instance the Greeks talked a lot about democracy. But even those who practised it never came close to Magna Carta, habeas corpus, Parliament and all those things that make citizenship in an Anglosphere country the best. Still, there was built into the cultural foundations, and tentatively and haltingly developed especially with the admixture of Christianity, an intuition and popular determination that individuals mattered and they and their “personal space” must be legally and socially protected. Everything about our societies, from politics to economics to defence, has been much better in consequence.
So what emerges incidentally from many such books is that citizenship, the real kind, confers the privilege of protection from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, plunder and execution. And in return the obligation, and privilege, to try to make decisions relative to your community’s immediate needs. It is citizenship in this sense that always has been lacking in most of the world and still is.
It’s very important. Someone should write a book on it.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, columnist with the National Post and Epoch Times, adjunct professor at Augustine College and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus.