The Price and The Promise of Citizenship

January 15, 2014

The January 2nd, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal had an excellent essay written by British-born Philip Delves Broughton, who decided it was time to become a U.S. citizen after ten years of residence, an American wife, and two American children.  Mr. Broughton offers an enlightened take on both his rationale for - and experience of - becoming a U.S. citizen.

In his decade of U.S. residency, Mr. Broughton observes that the collective American morale is in the doldrums.  And while maybe for good cause, Americans, he feels, fail to appropriately put the rewards of their citizenship in a greater context.  In short, in fretting over the bad, we fail to take gratitude in the good.  He further realizes that the more time spent in the States, the more financial and (more importantly) emotional investment he was making, he was being shortchanged the emotional rewards of proper citizenship. 

Upon being sworn in, the presiding judge (89 years young) urged the new citizens to "vote and to preserve whatever culture and heritage [they] had brought with [them]."  And what an excellent thing for that judge to say!  In other words..."this is yours too now, so help us shape it...but be sure not to forget from where you came.  Its okay to preserve your culture and heritage, even now as Americans."  And not only is it okay, but it's rather expected...because the richness and diversity of other cultures in a singular geographic place is one of the many rewards of being an American citizen.  For immigrants to abandon their culture and heritage would not only be an affront to their identity and ancestors, but it would equally rob us - Americans several generations entrenched - of the very things that make the world interesting, colorful, and magical. 

Mr. Broughton further details the conclusion of the ceremony with some parting thoughts:

We received our certificates of naturalization and a yellow envelope marked "The White House." In it was a "Dear Fellow American" letter from President Obama. "Since our founding, generations of immigrants have come to this country full of hope for a brighter future, and they have made sacrifices in order to pass that legacy on to their children and grandchildren," he wrote. "This is the price and the promise of citizenship. You are now part of this precious history, and you serve as an inspiration to those who will come after you."

The U.S. does this language so well. It is an antidote to cynicism. It revealed to me what a frail and incomplete thing it had been to live here as an observer rather than a full participant in civic life. I wish that those Americans who trash their country for its failings or doubt the value of their citizenship could give it up and reapply for it, just to see with fresh eyes what an astonishing gift it still is.

And this is refreshing, no?  That an outsider can see the hope and optimism in ways that we insiders cannot?  And it further speaks to his notion of citizenship as defined by his experience; whereas before he was a mere observer, only now has he been imparted the power of full participation.  Mr. Broughton has been privy to what is by most accounts an amazing and life altering experience.  His notion of citizenship is arguably elevated compared to many of us who were born into it and take it for granted.  

And I couldn't help but relate his experience to The Civil Standard Observation.  Whereas Mr. Broughton had to reconcile his notions of national identity, parallels can also be drawn to our other, smaller geographical identities within our country, as we seek to embrace the customs of a new place while holding on to the heritage of our home place.  I think what I wish for is that upon my own conversion to a new geography...a different place...that same enlightened and wizened 89 year old judge was waiting to offer me the same sentiment she offered Mr. Broughton: "[Be a part of it]...and preserve whatever culture and heritage you have brought with you."