A Citizen of Nowhere

Preamble to a Reclamation Project

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May

I. A Citizen of Nowhere

During the last election cycle, my wife and I campaigned door-to-door for a friend whose candidacy we whole-heartedly endorsed. Greeting people on their front stoop and then pitching our friend’s candidacy was an edifying if not always satisfying experience.

Fortunately, our friend will soon term out, so we won’t have to campaign for him again. We love him, but neighborhood canvassing feels like going 15 rounds with a bruiser.

At one house, we were greeted at the door by the paterfamilias of what we came to understand was a large and devoted clan. “As a matter of fact,” he told us, “all of us are meeting here next Saturday to decide how our family will vote this November.”

As we extolled our candidate-friend’s many virtues, both political and personal, Chris and I managed to avoid revealing how appalled we were by this family pronouncement. In the four decades since I began voting, I doubt I’ve once voted for the same presidential candidate my father and brother have voted for. That my parents (divorced), grandparents, aunts, uncles, and sundry seldom-seen cousins might gather in a living room and decide how our “family bloc” would vote verged on the unthinkable.

Perhaps it’s partly generational and partly temperamental: my family fidelity is, shall I confess, compromised. I love my people, but I don’t vote or worship or eat like any of them. Fortunately, I’ve never been compelled to do so.

Moving away from the family fold often affords one independence in matters political, dietary, or spiritual. As it is, I’m temperamentally inclined toward flight more than a fight—so, long ago concluding that I appear better from a distance, I flew.

Like many of my generation, I’m a “citizen of somewhere else.” Nathaniel Hawthorne used those words to describe himself when he left Salem, attempting to cast off the weight of his Puritan heritage, but in the end he made it only as far as Western Massachusetts. I made it a little further from my hometown—1803 miles, give or take—and I’ve long nursed a private dream of one day crossing the ocean to live for a spell as a useful citizen of another nation.

As a Gen X American, I came of age during the Great Fracturing of national consensus. Cynicism was a coping mechanism for the daily outrages of the 1980s. We Gen Xers could hardly be called un-American, because for the last 40 years it has been all but impossible to define what “American” values are. Like so many in my cohort, I held no blind allegiance to ideas percolating in the national coffee urn, and not since grade-school days have I drunk a deep draught of its platitudes. As it is, the United States is the country that I’ve learned to live in, but as near as I can tell, fortitude and folly, brilliance and bombast bubble and churn about equally here in the U.S. as elsewhere.

And why not admit it: the governments of some foreign nations have built fairer, more resilient systems of governance than we in the U.S. have. Some countries worship their constitutions less than we Americans do and hence have written recent, better, and more adaptable governing documents—like modern constitutions that help citizens thrive in a rapidly changing world.

You don’t “hate America” because you admit that some nations legislate better than we do. For example, some eminently livable countries have a per capita firearm death rate 1/200th the United States’ rate. I’d like to know how they do that.

It's a luxury of class and country, I realize, but I’ve long considered myself a world citizen—not, as Theresa May would have it, a “citizen of nowhere,” but simply a person who loves humans in general more than Americans in particular.

Even so, I live in a place—in my case, a very small town in a remote corner of New Mexico—and my deepest allegiance is reserved for the people with whom I share my place. But in the end, it’s propinquity and fellow feeling, not some abstract sense of nationhood, that defines my circle of affection.