Thursday, January 22, 2009

Citizens Not Americans: Obama's Political Metaphysics on Power and Privilege

Philosopher Linda Hirshman argues that within the first few words of his inauguration speech on Tuesday, Obama changed the political metaphysics of the United States. He opened by calling out to his "fellow citizens" not "my fellow Americans."

Her view is that citizenship harkens back to ancient Greek ideals of someone (she acknowledges the gender and class bias in the ideal) who is prepared to engage in the work of the community--making laws in the Assembly or defending the homeland as a soldier. Citizenship involves an understanding of self that is involved and commitment to one's relations in the civic sphere.

American identity, on the other hand, is about individualism and isolation. It privileges being left alone by government, and by the community, in order to pursue one's one private goals.

For Hirshman then, Obama is calling us back to a more ancient sense of virtue and active participation in public matters. Citizens not Americans.

While Hirshman recognizes that the old Greek role of citizen was built on a foundation of sexism and slavery (free, propertied men had other people to do their work for them, enabling them to engage in all this civic virtue), she fails to recognize that there was another group in the ancient Athens she glorifies. This would be the metics, the resident non-Athenian aliens, who usually were merchants and could utilize some public services, but were not allowed in the law making roles of society. They were forced to accept laws not of their own choosing in exchange for the privilege to remain.

The idea of the metics is important to remember because American citizenship has usually meant something very different than the ancient Greek ideals. Judith Sklar, in American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, points out that American citizenship was always a status role--it meant you were in, you were all right, and usually, you were all white. Groups fought for inclusion into citizenship, not because they wanted to get more involved in the public matters, but because they wanted to be on the inside of power and privilege.

Today in the United States, it is estimated that there are close to 16 million undocumented immigrants who perform many of the same services to the community that the metics did for ancient Athens. They have rights to some public services, but unlike some European nations, most immigrants have no way to influence public decision making. The longer they stay without a voice, the more they become second class members of society who serve the first class citizens. As Michael Walzer has said before in his book Spheres of Justice, such a condition is intolerable in a democratic society

In addressing himself to fellow citizens, is President Obama calling us to civic virtue, or is reminding the group with power and privilege, served by another class of people with neither of those goods, to continue to enjoy their hegemony?

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