Monday, March 06, 2017

Citizen of the World or Citizen of Nowhere?

If Margaret Thatcher's legacy is sealed as "there is no such thing as society", Theresa May may have already given us something to remember her for: "But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere."

This is, she may claim later, taking her words of out of context. She said, to be exact:  "But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what citizenship means." Justifiably, she could claim, at a later and calmer time, that she was merely defining citizenship. However, she meant this to be a soundbite, and it is a good one: And, therefore, it can be taken in its more provocative sense, as it was meant for that.

We are at a day and age where many people may indeed want to think of themselves as citizens of the world. They want to be footloose, live in different countries, have relationships across national boundaries, learn different languages and work in different places. And, indeed, with the Internet, one may have deeper conversations and closer friends across boundaries rather than next door. This is just for global bankers: For students, junior employees, entrepreneurs, writers and artists, life is very global.

In context, one may not necessarily know whether to be offended or amused by what Ms May said. She is doing what nationalists do, invoking blood, honour and sacrifice, all the mythologies of British greatness. She is the deliverer-in-chief of Brexit, and at her heart, a little Englander: She is bound to say what she said. The offencive thing about this barb is not meant for all those rich Chinese and Indians who park their money in London Real Estate, Ms May is happy for them to be World-loving, but it is meant for those British students and city-dwellers who never fully understood the schism with Europe. Ms May is indeed accusing them for failing to comprehend the incomprehensible, as she is rebuking them for being a Citizen of the World but wanting the country to be Global Britain at the same time.

One could also be amused by her attempt at defining Citizenship. She believes one can be a citizen of Britain - an imagined community - but can not imagine any bigger. But there is something ironic here, because she gives away that citizenship is a top-down thing. So, while she invokes the issue of commitment, she, at the same time, making it an issue of governmental paper which her government can issue or take away. If those lofty and meaningless words give away anything, it is that she was the Home Secretary far too long.

So, is Citizenship of the World possible? We may say that the ancient Greek definition, which was about belonging to a City, is not acceptable to us, as our world is economically and technologically more complex. At the same token though, Ms May's definition of citizenship, bound to nation state bureaucracies, may be equally out of date. As I mentioned above, with work, love, conversations, knowledge and kinship truly spread across the world, it is perfectly possible to be a citizen of the world today.

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