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Citizens and Consumers

Last week The Chicago Tribune published a brief interview with writer Toni Morrison on the occasion of the awarding of the prestigious Carl Sandburg Literary Award to her by the Chicago Public Library.  In the interview she reflected on changes in American life, noting that “When I was young they called us citizens; after World War II they began to call us consumers.”  Her observation got me thinking about the difference between a citizen and a consumer, the primary point being that citizens have a sense of belonging that evokes responsibility for the whole, while consumers have a much more privatized vision focused on what they can possess and accumulate for themselves.

  • Citizens pay taxes, perhaps not with excitement, but with a sense that this is how we help provide for the common good.  Consumers resent paying taxes and do everything they can to minimize what they owe.
  • Citizens care for public education whether their children are in public schools or not.  Consumers limit their interest in public schools to the years their children are attending them and confine their personal involvement to what impacts their own child.
  • Citizens are willing to inconvenience themselves in order to help the community or the nation care for the environment that sustains us.  They willingly recycle, support public transportation, and advocate for public policies that may cost them at the gas pump or in their monthly utility bill.  Consumers focus on what’s convenient and cheapest for them.
  • Citizens join community boards, provide financial support to non-profit human service agencies and other public institutions, and volunteer their time.  Consumers protect leisure time for themselves and hoard assets for their personal needs or desires.
  • Citizens vote with a view toward who or what will most likely benefit the welfare of all and  protect or advance the interests of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Consumers vote with an eye for what’s in it for them today.
  • Citizens love their country enough to criticize it, even if that means doing or saying the unpopular thing.  Consumers take what they can get and avoid jeopardizing their place in the consumer culture.
  • Citizens are willing to take risks to defend their country or protect their community.  Consumers are content to pay others to take risks for them.

To be sure, these contrasts are a bit contrived and overdrawn.  Most of us behave a bit like citizens, a bit like consumers.  But with some careful attentiveness you can usually detect in most people a basic disposition either toward citizenship or toward consumerism.  What can I give?  Or what can I get?  How much do I have to offer?  Or how much can I buy?   Is the neighborhood, broadly construed, my concern?  Or is my home my castle?

Citizenship is a hot topic today with much attention being paid to who has a right to citizenship and who does not, and how we protect the circle of citizenship from being invaded by the undocumented and the undeserving.  Morrison asks us to think less about the rights and prerogatives of citizenship and more about its responsibilities.  Or, put another way, the question is not so much who has documents to prove citizenship, but who acts in such a way as to demonstrate citizenship?  Seen in this light, it may be the case that a lot of those people we disdainfully dismiss as “undocumented immigrants” actually have a greater claim to citizenship than many of our neighbors whose families have lived here for generations.

I harbor no illusions that this line of reasoning will be embraced in any immigration reform act, or that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will take this perspective into account during its raids.  After all, if we have in fact become consumers, then protecting our marketplace from the undeserving makes eminent sense.  If, however, we are willing to embrace the notion that our country should be more of a community than a market, then we might also be willing to entertain the subversive thought that citizenship ought not be conferred or assumed merely on the basis of legal documentation.  That might suggest a very different “path to citizenship” than the ones currently be considered.  Of course, for some of us it might also pose the disturbing possibility of a “path out of citizenship” as well.

John H. Thomas

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