by Matt Stannard
October 31, 2018
The title question is derived from “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?” a dreadful essay published way back in 1991 by Richard John Neuhaus, a leading voice on the religious right, who was as responsible as anyone for conservative Christianity’s turn to militant, and often ruthless, political activism. That activism, and the political structures it built, punched down rather than up and was never about liberating the oppressed. The essay appeared long before “atheism” came to designate the bigotry of Richard Dawkins, et al. It simply denoted proactive nonbelief, which Neuhaus found incompatible with good citizenship, because one could not truly be a good citizen unless one acknowledged the Common Source of Good. That was pretty much it, a “gotcha” argument right up there with “you oppose capitalism but you’re using a computer.”
How incredibly, disturbingly ironic to reread Neuhaus’s article now, at a time when far-right groups are back in the public square calling for the extermination and subordination of nonwhites and non-Christians people, and performing that call with bullets. The idea that atheists are a danger to public order because they don’t share a very particular foundational metaphysics is just fucking quaint.
Tolerance and co-existence get a lot of crap from both the right and left. I get the left critique of liberalism, but I’d like to revisit the necessity of tolerance at least long enough to assert that, at a time when the current presidential administration is enabling and encouraging fascism, along with threats to strip citizenship rights away from some, and deny asylum and freedom of movement to others, while all the while white supremacists are harassing, beating, and killing people and not fearing for their own status or citizenship in the least, it’s time for us to contemplate the legal subordination of racists.
In the abstract, it may be that a willingness to welcome and engage others who are different from us is supererogatory at most–morally desirable but not morally required. If we stop there, we can easily conclude that a racist can never be a good citizen in a society nominally premised upon welcoming difference. This seems noncontroversial to anyone to the left of Donald Trump or Stephen Miller. So the answer to the first question is easy for us, and I suppose we could debate it out with those in the “center” who believe that we need to tolerate intolerance, although those debates tend to go in circles.
But because we are not in the abstract, and because white supremacists in America are doing more than just thinking shitty thoughts, and because there is no abstract, and wherever there is white supremacy there is violence and murder and the closure of public space and incursion of secure private space, I want to move beyond the question of whether a racist can be a good citizen and ask whether racists ought to be stripped of
their citizenship altogether. There is a solid case to be made.
By the way, it’s equally obvious to me that to propose an ethno-state as some counter-antecedent to the “good citizenship” question is to beg that question. To advocate the ethnostate is to advocate racism per se, and that is the battle-cry of contemporary American fascists, although, as I’ll explain a bit below, they often propose such things half-ironically as a rhetorical trick.
It is reasonable and, in the current context of racist violence, desirable, to demand as a condition of citizenship the acceptance of the citizenship, dignity, and autonomy of others in one’s community; and where dignity and autonomy are concerned, such an obligation extend to respect respect for non-citizens as well.
The idea of revoking citizenship is provocative, of course, but it’s far from absurd. Rainer Baubock and Vesco Paskalev’s 2016 article in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal discusses various grounds for revocation of citizenship, mostly in the context of the European Union, but with much to consider when contemplating a more cooperative and egalitarian iteration of the United States. There are a number of weak reasons why states revoke citizenship, such as service to a foreign state; but there are stronger reasons too, such as the discovery that an applicant had deceived authorities in order to acquire citizenship (although we can ask whether that is an adequate reason). Then, of course, there are those who threaten public security in such an extreme way as to expose as false one’s commitment to the society in which they live. “No right is absolute,” Baubock and Paskalev write, “and in the Hamdi case the U.S. Supreme Court found that grave threats to public security can justify significant limitations of the right to due process. It would not be inconsistent for the Court to sustain abridgment of their right to citizenship on the same grounds too.”
As a general category, “noncompliance with citizenship duties” can go beyond just obeying laws, though. Baubock and Paskalev cite Shai Levi’s speculative argument that citizenship could be revoked for serious violations of the “duty of civic allegiance.” Although Lavi’s argument is in the context of terrorism, which violates a citizen’s “commitment to self-government,” it isn’t a stretch, and may even be more reasonable, to extend that duty to respect for the rights of others to exist (period), and to participate in public life. This doesn’t strike me as a free speech concern, either, since the act of renouncing one’s state is also a speech act–one which denotes an explicit rejection of the foundation of one’s citizenship. I do understand the danger giving the state the power to throw around “duty of civic allegiance” and think such a concept could be replaced with some kind of minimal duty of acceptance of others, a literal duty of non-racism or nondiscrimination applied to those identity categories we currently define as protected classes (plus a couple more that we should so define).
So a simple statement of my hypothetical proposal would be something like “Those advocating discrimination or subordination of other humans on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression, religion, ethnicity, nationality, age, or socioeconomic class are subject to revocation of citizenship.” Not unproblematic, but a good starting point for discussion, I think.
The liberal argument against this kind of hard line is most often the marketplace of ideas metaphor, that the solution to racist speech is anti-racist speech. We have to ask: solution for whom? Although we don’t realize this when we’re making the argument, it’s made from the privileged position of those least likely to be killed as a result of bigoted incitement. History demonstrates that allowing racist discourse in public dialogue does not result in the sorting of good and bad ideas through the filter of public choice. Instead, because racists explicitly reject such argumentative ethics to begin with (embracing them only in cruel irony to justify making inroads into such incitement), racism becomes a perennially unsettled, re-presented issue that we re-litigate again and again and again, each time accompanied by spiraling levels of extra-discursive and fatal violence.
And in any event, I’m not arguing for censorship of racist speech or criminal punishment of the racist. My argument is that, in being racist, one fails to meet one’s citizenship obligation threshold. I should be entitled only to such status which I am willing to categorically and sincerely extend to others, with only non-arbitrary exceptions. I should affirm, or at least not actively oppose, the inherent worth and dignity of all people and their right to co-exist in the state and civil society so long as they also affirm the same. If I refuse to do that, then I am refusing to join with others in upholding a basic ethical obligation to those with whom I exist, the violation of which directly threatens others’ security and participation in the state and civil society.
But what about those of us with radically critical views of the state and civil society? Well, I may be “against the state” or large parts of it (e.g. I may be an anarchist or a revolutionary communist), but this doesn’t have to undermine the social obligation to affirm, or at least not actively oppose, the inherent worth and dignity of all people and their right to co-exist in the state and civil society. In fact, this is an important difference between anarchism or communism on one side, and fascism on the other. The former are critiques of the state that do not arbitrarily exclude people from participation and moral status (and actually attempt to propose social orders where all people are truly free to so participate), while the latter is premised upon those exclusions and mandates them in praxis.
Drawing such a line in order to retain one’s status as a citizen is also desirable because the classical liberal line of protecting racist speech while outlawing violent action is a line that fascists have learned to blur through an elaborate system of ironic practices such as the use of outrageous statements that the speakers deny being serious about when called on them. This quite often appears as “We should kill all of you. Stop, stop, I’m joking. Maybe.” “We need a white ethno-state. Perhaps I am only being ironic.” Fascists can and will make endless versions of these statements, mixing them with conspiracy theories and non-actionable discourse advocating racial hierarchies and appeals to the desirability of ethnic cleansing and eradication. As long as they aren’t calling for specific acts of violence against specific people, there are no real consequences for such speech acts even when they inspire actual violence. My hypothetical proposal recognizes this limitation and suggests that the requirements for citizenship in a just democratic society ought to be heavier than simply being able to claim one was only joking about the desirability of slavery and genocide.
Similarly, racist conspiracy theories about marginalized people serve as a subsidy to those with a political agenda served by marginalizing potential opposition. Fox News can assert, with no legal consequences, that powerful Jews are responsible for people of color being mad at police. The ability to do such things is similar to the ability of corporations to create (and avoid paying for) negative externalities like pollution. A social cost is extracted and paid by others for the profits of the polluters. My hypothetical proposal says that the polluters should pay the costs of those externalities. Rejecting my proposal wouldn’t make those externalities go away; it just ensures that innocent people, and the state, will continue to pay for them. Those rejecting the proposal ought to provide a counterproposal for how those costs will be paid, one that solves for the fact that they are externalized on innocent victims now.
The last two years of public life in the United States, filled with spiking numbers of racist violence, open fascist activity, and the occupation of the White House by white nationalists devoted to turning the United States into an ethno-state (or perhaps more accurately, preserving it as such) makes Richard John Neuhaus’s 1991 piece on atheism and citizenship even more disgusting in retrospect than it was originally, as if nonbelief in God threatened the safety of vulnerable people and the body politic in any way comparable to white supremacy, an ideology very compatible with conservative theism and which, in totality, carries no possible consequences other than to subordinate, hurt, or kill other people.
Racism, particularly manifest in fascism, serves another nefarious role: It’s invoked to preserve the existing socioeconomic order through violence and intimidation. I believe the existing socioeconomic order threatens to destroy all life on earth, but even if it didn’t, racism prevents public deliberation rather than facilitating it. White supremacists, racists, and fascists produce metaphysical justifications for murder, arbitrary hierarchies, and structural violence, and in doing so, not only pose direct threats to people’s safety, but also long-term threats to democratic participation in public life. That they are allowed to do so is a political anomaly caused not by America’s unwavering commitment to free speech, but America’s antecedents in material hierarchy and ideological bigotry. Because we want to put such antecedents behind us, racists ought not feel safe, let alone affirmed, in the United States. They ought to fear for their citizenship and social status. One could even reasonably argue for the social utility of them fearing for their personal security and safety, since they knowingly create climates where others fear for theirs. But at the very least, they should not feel at ease about their relationship with the state and civil society. Racists should be afraid to be racists.
Matt Stannard is operations director at Solidarity House Cooperative. His latest article at Occupy.com is “After Rahm, Can Chicago Create a Cooperative Economy?” The opinions expressed in this essay are solely Matt’s.