Citizenship and Beyond

by Chimene Keitner

[Chimene Keitner is Associate Professor at UC-Hastings College of Law and the author of The Paradoxes of Nationalism (SUNY Press 2007).]

The first four chapters of Peter’s thought-provoking book send a clear message: U.S. citizenship is not all it’s cracked up to be. The message can at times seem harsh: “Becoming a citizen entitles one to little more than the right to vote, eligibility for some public benefits programs, and freedom from any threat of deportation” (30-31). Little more than … freedom from any threat of deportation! I thought as I read this, my mind full of the stories of the asylum-seekers I represented as a law student at Yale, and the myriad undocumented domestic workers and day laborers trying to eke out a living here in the Bay Area and elsewhere without the sense of basic security that citizens take for granted. (Thomas McCarthy’s recently released movie The Visitor, which I saw as I was reading Peter’s book, poignantly illustrates these themes of security and belonging.) But Peter resists over-valuing these benefits, just as he rejects an account of meaningful political participation that “fetishizes the ballot” (91). For him, the experiences of aliens at risk of deportation confirm his observation that “[w]ere one to draw a line … it would not fall along the citizen/noncitizen divide but would rather distinguish citizens and legal aliens, on the one hand, and those out of status or with no basis for securing it, on the other” (88). One’s “foundational identity” (a concept I would encourage Peter to expound further) does not come from a U.S. passport, but rather from “a Social Security number and a driver’s license” (90). His conclusion? “Where one would expect it to count the most, the rights of citizenship don’t add up to much” (88).

Although Peter assures us that he offers his observations “as a matter of description, not lamentation” (79), it is difficult to avoid detecting nostalgia in his account of the decline of American distinctiveness, which he characterizes as “the fading of America” (40). In discussing the rise of dual and even triple nationality, he seems to take at face value the nationalist (and monogamist) assumption that “[s]ingular affiliations inherently have greater meaning than nonexclusive relationships” (59). Whether or not this is accurate as an empirical matter, I found myself craving a more probative treatment of the normative and conceptual underpinnings of such assumptions, as well as some comparative discussion of relevant examples, such as the increasingly amalgamated citizenries of the European Union.

The real payoff (for me) comes in chapters five and six, in which Peter sets the agenda for future exploration of the intersection and interaction between identities and interests in law, politics, and international relations. For the academic community, his book could well be titled “Beyond Citizenship Studies.” As he presages in the introduction, “[i]f the state no longer dominates identity, it will inevitably lose ground as a location of governance” (6). In his view, the shift from “binary” to “scalar” modalities of territorial presence (101) calls for no less than a reconceptualization of politics.

I have come to think of the requirements for legitimate and effective governance in terms of three C’s: cohesion, commitment, and compliance. Peter challenges us to think about how to achieve these conditions in a globalized world, where “‘everyone is an American’” (76). These challenges are pressing, but elements of them are also perennial, as I have explored in my own work. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously lamented that “il n’y a que des Européens.”) Peter’s book documents the fissures in the American melting pot model and deftly points out the shortcomings in various proffered alternatives for dealing with the pluribus that may transcend the unum. Inevitably, many questions remain. But Peter has certainly advanced the collective conversation about what he calls, in an appropriately plural phrase, “the meanings of ‘we’” (5), which are not reducible to decisions about who is and who is not entitled to a U.S. passport.

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