A country for old men

In college I became so angry with the outrageous acts my government has commited, ostensibly on my behalf, that I researched renouncing my United States citizenship. This research was not merely about youthful anger, it was also guiding my honor’s thesis. My basic thesis was that the nation state was a problematic construction that didn’t work as a way to organize the modern world.

What does nationality represent in contemporary societies? What can one infer about a person based on her nationality? What is the common bond between those who share national borders? It’s not language. It’s not ethnicity. Nor is it religion, political ideology, or race. In the modern world, identity has very little to do with national borders. I probably have more in common with some of my ‘neighbors’ on Last.FM than I do with the overwhelming majority of my countrymen in Texas. It was my view then, and it remains today, that the perfect nation is no nation at all. A world without nations is a long way off, but in the mean time, I pondered renouncing my own citizenship.

What does it mean to forfeit my citizenship? I don’t mean merely expatriating and perhaps gaining citizenship in some other country. I mean actually renouncing all citizenships, becoming stateless. A man with no country. Is this even possible? And if so what would the implications be? Would this make me less of a human, less of a person?

The answer is that yes, you can renounce your citizenship, and yes, it effectively renders you a person with no rights. Renouncing one’s citizenship is possible, and the detailed requirements of doing so are described in section 349(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. A United States citizen wishing to renounce his or her citizenship must do the following:

  1. appear in person before a U.S. consular or diplomatic officer
  2. in a foreign country (normally at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate);
  3. and sign an oath of renunciation

One, two, three and presto, you are stateless. You’re also totally screwed. A stateless person cannot travel freely, as he has no passport and can’t obtain a visa. Moreover, he can’t be deported back to his home country, as he has no home country. And realizing the error of his ways, a stateless person cannot reclaim his citizenship (at least in the US), as the renunciation of US citizenship is an irrevocable act. A stateless person is not protected by his own country’s laws, and his rights vis a vis various international laws become questionable, as these laws are valid because nation states have endorsed them.

If some of this sounds familiar, you can probably thank Hollywood. The movie Terminal, starring the lovable Tom Hanks, described a situation where a refugee was trapped in an airport terminal, unable to leave because he lacked documents, and unable to return ‘home’ because he had no home country. Terminal was loosely based on the true story of a man named Merhan Karimi Nasseri who was an Iranian refugee who lived in Charles De Gaulle airport for many years (!) because he could not gain entry to any nation.

As it happens, without a country, we are nothing. Without a government to protect them, we have no claim to the ‘inalienable’ rights our Founding Fathers so eloquently described. Ahh, nations. You can’t live with them, and you really don’t want to live with out them.

So what do we do? I’m no anarchist, and I’m not a pessimist either. I don’t subscribe to the dark and hopeless future that Cormac McCarthy describes in “No Country For Old Men.” I believe, fundamentally, that people aren’t depraved lunatics. I believe that all of us have the potential to be good, not only to ourselves and our loved ones, but even to total strangers. In essence, I believe we have the capacity as a civilization to create the opposite kind of country than what McCarthy describes. A country for old men, for all men, for all people. And a country that requires no citizenship. The question is, how do we realize this dream?

10 responses to “A country for old men”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    I never figured that giving up one’s citizenship is not difficult.

    As bleak as politics seems to sometimes be, isn’t it wonderful that we have a voice? We have the ability to overthrow our leaders without overthrowing a government. As a student, I was led to believe that although we have a vote, my vote doesn’t count for much. But in Washington states gubernatorial election of 2004, the election between Dino Rossi (R) and Christine Gregoire (D) came down to 129 votes (.0045%). Gregoire won. By the way, my vote was one of the 129 deciding votes…

  2. Jeremy says:

    Brooke, I just want to say, first of all, that I’m so sorry you’re posting this incredibly thoughtful piece the day after xmas, when everyone is still in holiday mode and whatnot (me too, just arrived in ny this morning and finally realized… oh yeah, there’s a post today). Because this is a post that deserves some commentary. While I’m often so ashamed to be American that I wonder what it would be like to leave and live permanently in another country, I find it hard to imagine having no national allegiance and, thus, having no rights, etc., whatsoever. This is actually an incredibly frightening thought–I’m wondering, too, what this “dream” would look like, too…. and what some of the rest of you think… more later. Back to the eggnog.

  3. Tim Wager says:

    Marleyfan, I”m not so sure that we really do have a voice – look at the 2000 presidental election. W. does whatever he damn well pleases, no matter what anybody else says. That said, it still seems that we’re still better off than most of the world, not that I’m proud of that fact or that we have to bully everyone else to attain that status. However, despite my cynicism, I vote in almost every election I’m eligible to vote in, right down to the smallest municipal elections that most people don’t show up for. I guess I kinda think that if you vote, you have a part of the collective voice, but if you don’t vote, you’re totally screwed.

  4. J-Man says:

    Oopsie, the above comment was actually posted by me, J-Man herself.

  5. bryan says:

    um — #2 was posted by jeremy at my house earlier this evening.

  6. Brooke Maury says:

    Jeremy, thanks for your sentiments. I don’t know what a world with no nations would look like, or if it’s really a dream or a nightmare. Probably, the nation state will be the way the world is organized for a long time, whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

    My current thinking is somewhere at the intersection of Tim’s and MarleyFan’s comments: what we have is not perfect, but it’s really pretty good. It’s a constant struggle between those who wish to abuse their power, and those who wish to keep that power in check. When you think about it, that’s kind of what the Founders envisioned. Of course, we are completely out of balance at the moment, which is kind of what Tim is suggesting – we need to exercise our rights as citizens.

    Whenever I think about these ideas now, I’m reminded of a small but very effective speech I was given by an ex-girlfriend when I was lamenting the state of the nation and threatening to expatriate. She essentially said it upset her that demagogues and right wing zealots had absconded with patriotism; that the real patriots were people like us – tolerant, open minded people, and we had a responsibility to *not* take our marbles and go home, but rather stay and stand up for ourselves. In other words, take back the nation. Hopefully, as the primary season is coming into full swing, we can all take action by turning out the vote…

    Happy New Year’s everyone.

  7. Natasha says:

    When we stood on tops of the tanks during the August putsch in 1991 holding guns, knives, bats –whatever we could get, getting ready to defend the White House, if such a need was to arise, we too were angry with the new government, which was to take over in the next few days. We were crazy teenagers, who loved “perestroika,” guns in our purses that our parents gave us for protection, new opportunities, and adventure, but most of all we loved our country. Russia has been through many diverse governments throughout its history, yet the pride in being its citizens was often but not entirely associated with politics. It was also about the silent snow that fell against the light projectors of St. Basils’ every winter, the cafés on Pushkinskaya street, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Shedrin, Lermontov, and Pushkin, the pride in our achievements as a nation, the crapes, the birch forests, the “Moscow Nights,” the history of the Romanovs. Likewise, being an American means so much more than simply being involved in the political processes this country might undergo, it means passionately loving its land, history, and culture. The important political or historical changes within a country cannot surface without its citizens. Since the occurrence of the putsch we often say that it’s better to hold a pen and go to a voting booth today, than to hold a gun and go to a war tomorrow. Ohh… and leaving your country to live someplace else is very easy if you are a crazy 19 year old, who believes in a world without borders, the concept of uni-race(all races should mix so there would be no discrimination), defending those who can’t defend themselves, unconditional altruism, and unconditional benevolence in people.

  8. Brooke Maury says:

    That is a wonderfully articulated position Natasha. I share your affection for Russian culture, even though I’ve never had occasion to travel there. I have spent enough time reading its authors and history to appreciate the richness, toughness and beauty of the culture. I’m also humbled by what you have done to stand up for what you believe in.

    My point wasn’t to devalue cultures, quite the opposite. My point was that it’s counterproductive to make cultures and nation states align. Borders cause inhuman and ugly acts. I think these borders are arbitrary, especially given that many of them were established long ago by imperial powers, and national conflicts over the last 100 years have spread diaspora all over the planet. My opinion is that organizing the world along arbitrary national borders is a recipe for disaster. After all, doesn’t the snow fall silently in Chechnya, as well as Russia? Yet they’ve fought over these boundaries, and all the various implications, for centuries.

    It’s a simple analysis, I know, but it’s what I thought many years ago, and there is some validity to it today.

  9. Natasha says:

    Brook, thank you very much for all the compliments about the Russian culture, I loved your post and, by no means, I thought you devalued culture. I was just saying that taking into consideration the current international bureaucracy, perhaps, it is more productive to take action, which is hard to do if you give up your rights; yet your idea of giving up your citizenship is the most selfless and potentially very effective one, only if thousands of other people did the same. I, personally, was one of the biggest believers in the world without borders after the doctors told my mother that she had 6 months to live, the surgery to help the situation was best done in the States, and we got 16 rejections by the American Embassy. I even carried a keychain with a globe, symbolizing the world without borders and secretly planned to fly her to Mexico and then stick her in a trunk trying to get her over the border :) I also believed that in the world without borders it would be easier to help children and elderly (those who can’t defend themselves). My believes pushed me to eventually pack my stuff, get on the plane and land in the middle of Seattle, spend three days on Bainbridge Island and take the train to LA. I met likeminded people in LA and together we did things like trying to help the homeless, even a modeling shoot against discrimination. After a while, I understood that changes are hard to implement and lifting the borders is a long process, which involves things like a global mentality shift toward peace, religious understanding and respect, commerce coordination, raising overall poverty levels, and many many other aspects which are, at this point of time, unattainable, meanwhile the borders are there to protect us too. I am sincerely happy to know that there are people out there thinking about this kind of stuff. It’s very nice to meet you. Happy New Years!

  10. Natasha says:

    Brooke, so sorry about the typo