Good World Citizens

This week’s F5 comes from the diabolical, karate-warped mind of Acolyte Of the Way of the Open Hand, aka Marvin of Austin:

What does it really mean to be a citizen of the world? How do you understand the concept, and who are the five people who best exemplify your understanding(s)? They can be living or dead, fictional or non-fictional.

Oh my. Marvin’s really outdone himself this time: even he himself had trouble answering this question.

Of course, the whole challenge to this is that first little question, which I would rephrase simply as, “What is a world citizen?” That is a concept I’ve played with before, but never actually thought out too clearly. For me, in the past, I would claim global citizenship as a way of explaining my lack of strong feeling about my Canadian citizenship. (Not that the lukewarmness of my feelings about Canada remains: positive and negative, my feelings about Canada have grown over the years. These days, I’m finding my homeland quite wonderfully working at becoming more modern, leaving America behind in the dust in terms of social development: legislating gay marriage, leaving the war on pot to the birds, and so on.) But merely disavowing nationalism doesn’t really make one a global citizen.

What is a global citizen? As Marvin wrote on his blog, I am tempted to list off friends I know personally, people who have traveled more and/or seem much more like “citizens of the world” than me. I’m not sure it’s a totally misguided urge, for they exhibit some of the traits which I am sure are part of global citizenship: Charlie and Ritu and John Wendel all are much more familiar with the news than I am (I tend to get a little behind on news); they’re equipped to vote. I think of people who appreciate (to an astonishing degree of depth) the arts not only of their own culture but of others’, and of the ancients, such as my far-too-well-read friend Jack; I think of people who slip between languages with such amazing facility, like (once again) Ritu and Jean-Louis in Montreal (who also knows politics well enough to make me feel completely sheepish). I think of people like Joleen and Myoung Jae and Mer whose lives seem to be a continual adventure of adjusting to new localitiesand customs, and truly knowing the place they’re in as best they can,

But I see my definition is strange: some people speak many languages but have traveled but little; some people know art of the world so deeply yet know and care nothing of politics. And so, while I have a clear definition of “world”, I have no idea what “citizen” means.

Since I haven’t managed to install my OED yet, I’ll consult the Merriam-Webster online. And this is what I get:

Main Entry: cit-i-zen
Pronunciation: ‘si-t&-z&n also -s&n
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English citizein, from Anglo-French citezein, alteration of Old French citeien, from cit?/i> city
1 : an inhabitant of a city or town; especially: one entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman
2 a : a member of a state b : a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it
3 : a civilian as distinguished from a specialized servant of the state

Note that the first meaning, a resident of a city or town, is first. According to another spot I looked, the meaning of “citizen” being applied to national allegiance or residency doesn’t even exist until about the time of Chaucer.

So when we say world citizen, we’re simply expanding the frame of reference from town, to nation, to world. Fine. But this just helps us understand the width of the reference “world” as appended to citizen. That’s not much help.

Yet it’s in this definition we find something useful. For it says that citizens are “one entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman”. This, of course, we must remember, is a twentieth-century, and doubtless a modern, construction of the meaning of the word. Historically, in situations where people enjoyed those “rights and privileges of citizenship”, we can see that those rights and privileges almost always entailed responsibility. We live in such a rights-and-entitlements society in the West that we’ve forgotten talk of rights that isn’t accompanied by talk of responsibilities is only so much horseshit.

In a democracy, you have the right to live free of kings and dictators. You have the responsibility to educate yourself the best you can on the issues, vote as best you can, and when occasionally absolutely necessary, to fight for the defense and reform of the system. You have the right to free speech. You have the responsibility to use it well, and to try educate yourself to the point where you have something worth saying. You have the right to life. You have the responsibility to do something worthwhile with it, and at times you have the responsibility to lay down your life for something bigger than yourself.

There’s something more to it than that, though. To my mind, a citizen also loves his or her city. The citizen treats the city (or nation, or world) with compassion, respect, and dignity. To be a world citizen, one takes on an attitude of love, and stewardship towards the earth. In the seemingly rising battle between business and environmentalism, the world citizen is not an extremist, but there is no question where the citizen’s fealty lies. Just as with residents of the city, for residents of the world there are things that are more important than money.

Finally, there is something, to my mind, about engagement that makes someone a citizen. A true citizen, an exemplary one, is one who is in love with that place of which he is a citizen. For a world citizen, he is in love with the world. In Korean, there’s a word my girlfriend calls me: “Kaegujengi”. It means a kind of child who is engaged with all things around him, is curious and fascinated and wants to engage in play with everything, from ideas to words to other peoples’ hands and even his food. (No, I don’t play with my food. I quit that a few months ago.) I think that in a world citizen, this feeling of engagement with all things must persist into adulthood. The world citizen is a renaissance person, interested in many things and able to see how they are interconnected.

  1. First, looking far back, I’d say that no matter what I think of his actual thinking (some of which I think is crazy, some of which is brilliant), Socrates would be one of the first world citizens I ever heard of. Granted, his world was small, it was really only Athens, wasn’t it? And yet I’ve read he talked with Brahmins in Athens, and like others in Greece at the time he was familiar with the thinking of cultures like the Chaldeans, the Egyptians, Persians, and others. But what’s striking is what he chose to do with this knowledge: he taught. He worked to figure out what the world ought to be like, and then he spent his time teaching; and when it came down to it, it was a job he was willing to die for, to teach the young, to hold to his principles, and to be a loyal citizen. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t drink the hemlock, but even so I can admire him for his dedication to teaching, the range of his interests and inquiries, and his seriousness about the task he had taken upon himself.
  2. I first encountered the writings of Thai Buddhist activist and intellectual Sulak Sivaraksa in a book called Dharma Rain, about the connections between Buddhism and environmentalism. I was impressed by his writing, and the way that a unity seemed to exist for him between social, political, environmental, and moral/spiritual/religious issues. Sivaraksa took education not only in Thailand but also in Britain, and managed to unify all he learned; he is an outspoken activist, a founder of NGOs, and someone willing to fight even his country’s government for the sake of what he feels is his duty to the world.

    His interests range wide (just look at the titles in this list of his speeches—which I just found and which I shall have to read soon, as I am pretty excited at finding this wonderful cache!), and while he’s an intellectual, he also is in touch with the poor of his country, and he has, during his life, refused to rest in the scribal chamber, sequestered from the world he is trying to remind us we ourselves should be engaged with. (And with him, I do actually get the sense he’d trying to enlighten me, and you, and all of us. I never feel like he’s saying things for the delight of hearing his own voice saying smart-sounding things.)

    Along with Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s one of the (famous) Buddhists I respect most, and I think the most important thing about him for me is that while he thinks self-transformation is crucial, he also feels social activism and action are absolutely crucial practices for an engaged Buddhist; I would expand that and say they’re crucial to world citizenship as well.

  3. Michel Foucault. Isn’t it funny, this is the second philosopher I’ve listed? Yet in Foucault, about whom I’ve gushed here before, I find so much engagement with the world, so much action (look at his phenomenal output of writing), so much delicacy and care of thought; Foucault was, for my money, not just one of the geniuses of our century: he was someone wise enough to know where to direct his brilliance, looking at how the world came to be as it is. When I read Discipline and Punish, I found the biggest, most wonderful kaegujengi I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. Foucault touches upon the mystery of how societies come to take the shape they do; he asks questions about the most fundamental divisions and practices in the Western world, of what we make of our sexuality, of our madmen and our “criminals” and our ill and their bodies, and our knowledges. Unlike Sivaraksa, the man didn’t come out and give us recommendations for action, but I’ve long believed that his act of writing was performative of such a thing; that for him, the first and crucial step was to get engaged with the world and really think it through. For what he did for thought in the last century, and the way he did it, I say he is certainly a world citizen.
  4. Physicists are funny people to begin with, but great physicists are even odder still. Like in psychotherapy, there is a great duo in post-Einsteinian physics. The Freud is Murray Gell-Mann, stern and difficult and Dionysian, but my choice for world citizen would be the Jung: the jovial, mad, somewhat messed-up, and (in his interests, not his religion) catholic Feynman. This guy was crazy about all kinds of things, and he spent his life teaching. Perhaps, in fact, I mischaracterized my choices above: it wasn’t philosophers I chose, not really; it was teachers. In any case, I think the diversity of Feynman’s interests, his dedication to his science, engagement to the world through it, and his working so hard at teaching, all add up to him being a great world citizen. (Sagan might have been another example, were I a bigger fan of his work.)
  5. I’m gonna cheat in a way similar to how Marvin did, and mention a class of people here, a category rather than an individual. Since coming to Korea, I’ve met some young people who, while they happen to live in a somewhat insular society, are profoundly aware of what’s going on either in the periphery of their society, or in the rest of the world. For example, I knew one young man who told me he liked to read Baudelaire in the French simply because it was, “How do you say? So… decadent!” I’m not kidding, those were his exact words. And this guy was a German major with a thing for Italian opera. Well, he knew politics and history pretty well, too. Another example would be my friend and bandmate Seong Hwan, who experienced a recent awakening of social conscience. He’s not one for Bach or Debussy, but he’s pretty aware of what’s going on in popular music both inside and outside of Korea, and he is also, these days, quite political. I respect and admire him for it. Another friend of mine now living in Seoul, Hyun Hwa, wants to work for an NGO and especially to work in Africa, which she sees as part of her duty as a Christian but also as a person.

    The last example in this class of people is my girlfriend, who is known online (and on this page) as Lime. Our conversations span so many topics, most of which she is conversant in, and her English is so good I simply talk to her normally. She can read my French writing and understand it, too. Well, tonight we talked about her life goals. Unlike so many other young Koreans I know, she has budgeted herself time in her life-plan for all kinds of adventures and learning experiences, as well as for periods of work and experience that are dedicated not to money but to helping people and doing good in the world. I was quite impressed by this and proud of her. The call to social duty, to engagement with the world and the people in it, her dedication to her work and study, and her way of thinking about other people and herself really makes me find her a good example of a world citizen. But she’s not the only one. While some foreigners claim that young Koreans are all the same, all apolitical and job-focused, the fact is there is a small underworld of Koreans who care about important things, and who are focusing on important social problems (like the treatment of migrant workers, which several of my Korean friends have talked to me about). Doing so in the face of a lot of passivity and disinterest is something I have to respect.

Finally, a runner-up… Princess Di!

Just kidding. But one runner-up would be C. Douglas Lummis, a political theorist who’s written about the best defense of the spread of democracy and the nature of what viable democracy must be. He’s also worked in the field in countries outside the USA where citizens were working to foster and preserve their democracies. I think very highly of him.

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