Allegiance and Renunciation at the Border

Works Cited

How to Cite

Norman, B. J. (2004). Allegiance and Renunciation at the Border: Works Cited. M/C Journal, 7(2).
Vol. 7 No. 2 (2004): Turf
Published 2004-03-01

“I’m saying let’s make it 84 percent turnout in two years, and then see what happens!”

…“Oh, yes! Vote! Dress yourself up, and vote! Even if you only go into the voting booth and pray. Do that!”

Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toni Morrison on the 2000 Presidential election in June Jordan’s essay, “The Invisible People: An Unsolicited Report on Black Rage” (2001)

On September 17, 2003, Citizenship Day, the United States was to adopt a new version of its Oath of Allegiance. The updated version would modernize the oath by removing cumbersome words like “abjure” and dropping anachronistic references like “potentate.” Thus the oral recitation marking the entrance into citizenship would become more meaningful—and more manageable—for the millions of immigrants eligible for naturalization. The revised version, however, was quickly canned after conservative organizations, senators, and other loud political leaders decried what they saw as an attack on a timeless document and a weakening of the military obligation foundational to entrance into the American citizenry. The Heritage Foundation, one such organization opposing the perceived attack on citizenship, issued an executive statement decrying “the Department of Homeland Security's misguided attempts to make U.S. citizenship more ‘user-friendly’ for those who want the benefits of our country, but don't care to accept the responsibility” (n.pag.).

Indeed, the thwarted attempt to make citizenship procedures more welcoming arose at a curious time. Though the proposed changes arose from a long, rather mundane administrative initiative to reconsider various procedural issues, the debate over the Oath of Allegiance politicized the issue within the context of the war on terror and the constriction of entrances into the national turf. The Bush administration responded to events referred to as 9/11 with vigorous efforts to shore up national borders within a language of terrorism, evildoers, and the dire need for domestic security. The infamous Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) became the consumerist, welcome-sounding Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services when it was placed it under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. The consolidation of citizenship services and disparate border policing programs further bolsters the longstanding scrutiny of immigrants—especially those considered not-white—for their ideological commitment and adherence to current national ideals. Naturalization requires a uniform recitation of unhesitant adherence to official doctrines—and a stated commitment to fight and die for those ideals. War, it seems, and its necessary division of friends and foes (“evildoers”), occupies the dead center of official ceremonies of citizenship. Naturalization procedures demonstrate how the figure of the immigrant undergoes rigorous scrutiny and thus defines the bounds of American citizenship. However, as immigration scholars like Bonnie Honig, Mai Ngai, Linda Bosniak, and Judith Shklar have shown, the specter of the immigrant also serves as an exculpatory device for preexisting inequities by obscuring internal division. While immigrants perform allegiance publicly to obtain citizenship status, birth-right citizens are presumed to have been born with a natural allegiance that precludes multiple allegiances to ideologies, projects, or potentates outside national borders. Ideas about the necessity of pairing exclusive ideological commitment with citizenship are as old as the American nation, notwithstanding the tremendous volume of announcements of a new world order in the wake of 9/11. In all incarnations of the citizenship oath, full membership in the nation-state via naturalization requires a simultaneous oath of allegiance and renunciation. Entrance into the nation-state requires exit—from ideological turf more than geographic turf—from the newly naturalized citizen’s former home country. Though scholars of diasporic and cosmopolitan identities like Aihwa Ong, Phengh Cheah, Bruce Robbins, and Brent Edwards have questioned the viability of the nation-state in postmodernity, official American articulations of citizenship adhere to a longstanding phenomenon whereby inclusion within the polity requires a simultaneous exclusion or renunciation.

Or, in the realm of rhetoric, any articulation of a “we” requires a simultaneous citation of a “not-we.” At the heart of citizenship is a cleavage: a coming together made possible by a splitting apart. It is not mere historical curiosity that the notorious utterance of “We” in the Action of the Second Continental Congress popularly known as the Declaration of Independence is forged in direct opposition to a “He” (King George III)—repeated no less than nineteen times in the short document. In contrast, “we” appears only eleven times. What the Declaration shows, and what the Oath of Allegiance insists, is that the constitution of a bounded polity in America emphasizes external difference in order to create the semblance of an internally homogeneous “we.” Thus arises the potency of national documents that announce equality amidst a decidedly unequal social order. These documents provide the ring of broad inclusion for what Rogers M. Smith has described as “civic myths”: ideals of full equality that politicians cite enthusiastically without worrying about their veracity in the everyday lives of the citizenry.

Yet American archives and literary histories teem with protest writing that makes visible the internal divisions of American publics. In these literatures arises a figure that threatens the fragile story of a finished “we” based on uniform allegiance: the partial citizen speaking. The partial citizen speaking—from experience, on behalf of others—and addressing the real divisions within a national audience is situated at a strategic site at which to simultaneously claim and critique the inclusive pronouncements of the American Republic in order to make them real. The best example is Frederick Douglass who, having been invited to celebrate the nation in 1848, capitalized on his tenuous claim to citizenship status and delivered the speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In the speech, Douglass excoriates his audience in Rochester, New York on behalf of the slaves absent from Corinthian Hall because they are toiling on Southern plantations. To his “fellow-citizens” Douglass cries, “This Fourth of July is yours not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” (116).

In contradistinction to leaders’ duplicitous uses of civic myths eschewed by Smith, protesters like Douglass use their partial citizenship to gain a toehold on the viable, but unfinished project of full democracy for all. By claiming the essential American-ness of their projects, protesters like Douglass position their present projects as the fulfillment of previous national promises. In her study of foreigners’ critiques of America, Bonnie Honig shows how “[Foreigners] make room for themselves by staging nonexistent rights, and by way of such stagings, sometimes, new rights, powers, and visions come into being” (101). In the wake of 9/11, we must be interested in the rhetorical means of similar stagings by those already inside presumed national borders who have been denied full access to, or enjoyment of civic, economic, and/or social rights. These partial citizens speaking and writing stage heretofore nonexistent rights by claiming preexisting civic myths by, for, and on behalf of voices that were never meant to speak such civic myths as truths.

Sometime after 9/11, President George W. Bush took the virtually unprecedented step of labeling U.S. citizens like Yasir Hamdi and José Padilla “enemy combatants” in order to circumvent the guaranteed legal rights to counsel and trial afforded to all U.S. citizens. The arbitrary nullification of Hamdi’s and Padilla’s citizenship rights was not entirely new given that protest has often been seen as forfeiture of citizenship. In addition to the obvious example of the allegiance-renunciation pairing in the citizenship oath, we can turn to Emma Goldman’s deportation to Russia in 1919, or to the odd favor with which the exit plans of Garveyites and their predecessors have been received. Or, squarely within American borders, Henry David Thoreau’s blueprint of civil disobedience pairs protest with the withdrawal from collectivity (his refusal to pay poll taxes in protest of the Mexican War), a move which bolsters the notion that dissent necessitates a retraction from participation in the public sphere.

However, there is another option: collectivity in the face of division. Protesters like Douglass occupy the outposts of real publics that can deliver the ineffable social equality of the modern democratic state. Here, those whose very citizenship is in question are the ones to sift through the promises of the nation-state and to hold them against the evidence of experience—their own and that of others for whom they speak. Participation in the state is more than adherence and renunciation. If Toni Morrison would just as soon have us enter a polling station to pray as to vote; so, too, protesters like Douglass demand hope amidst despairing situations of inequality—often state-sponsored. Their projects are never to simply unveil inconsistency between state promises and the experiences of subsets of its citizenry. Squarely within the circuitous myths that enshroud the state’s turf, these protesters stake claims to the very national myths that threaten their existence.

Author Biography

Brian J. Norman