Many Rights, Few Responsibilities

I became a citizen of the United States on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Sitting in a room at the University of Maine, I listened to a speech made by a senior administrator at the university that spoke not of the benefits of citizenship but of its responsibilities: to participate in civic engagement, to vote, to speak up against injustice. There was a note of despair to the address, in that way things sound when we speak of what we hope will happen while fully conscious of the horror of what is actually going to come to pass.

Why do you want to become a citizen?, I was asked, by a reporter from a local TV station as I strode over in my sari to cut a large chocolate cake decorated with an American flag – not because I had been appointed to do so but because everybody else seemed too terrified to disrupt the red white and blue! I want to demonstrate what it means to be a citizen, I replied, I want to give my daughters a model of citizenship where pride in ones country does not absolve one of working to mend its ills. I didn’t tell him that the biggest push to take this step came from my mother-in-law who was anxious about my political writings, an anxiety justified by the United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act and the specter of Guantanamo, but, perhaps, a little too exalted a possibility for a small-time journalist such as myself; despite the fact that the Iranian newspaper delivered to my door came pre-shredded at the USPS, something I laughed about in a somewhat juvenile fashion, using it to torment my mother, alongside my “jokes” about the CIA and how my father resembled Saddam Hussein.

All these years later, though, in a climate where fear has released its hold on the citizenry, I find that my answer to the reporter still stands. I have a deep allegiance to the country in which I was born, and the call and response of this country in which I now live comes to me as a responsibility. I want my daughters to feel the depth of loyalty to ones country, they to theirs, I to mine, but in order to make that possible, I have to let this country seep into my veins. In the face of overwhelming evidence of my love for Sri Lanka, something they see in all that I say and do, I must demonstrate my love for America in ever more meaningful ways.

And so I have discovered that love is a responsibility that has little to do with rights. I have listened, time and again, to Americans who can quote the most popular of the constitutional amendments – the 1st, the 2nd, the 4th, the 5th. Rarely, if ever, have I heard my fellow citizens speak up on behalf of the other amendments. The 14th, for instance, which calls for working toward the betterment of community through public, volunteer work that may improve the lives of all citizens. No, that’s not very popular. What is popular is the chest-thumping demand for freedom to conduct private lives unrelated to our public existence as human beings. The right to free speech, for instance, without consideration for the responsibility of civility, morality or sensitivity to the humaneness of others. Or the right to bear arms without the responsibility to consider that the resale of small arms first purchased in the United States is responsible for a large number of the 300,000 people, mostly civilians, killed worldwide every year.

That interpretation of rights as unrelated to responsibility does not speak to me of love for ones country or of patriotism. Unless we are the sole inhabitants of a country, we live among others in a social agreement where the rights we codify in laws are but a guide to the responsibility we have toward and for each other. They are, always, the last word on our interactions, our behaviors. They are there to be summoned when all conversation is spent, when all negotiation is done, in other words, when we are broken. They are not to be held aloft like a banner in a time of war, as an indication of threat and defiance in the face of advancing enemy troops. That is not their purpose.

I read the title story by Bala Cynwyd author Robin Black, in her new collection, If I Loved You I would Tell You This, (Random House, 2010), which describes perfectly the essential difference between right and responsibility. In the story, a woman (possibly) dying of cancer with a child (possibly) in a facility for the mentally disabled, reflects on the motives of her neighbor who cuts down a line of 16 year old trees between their houses in order to erect a six foot fence on the – newly surveyed – property line. A host of inconveniences occur for a family already under duress. Did he have the right? Absolutely. Did he have a responsibility? Yes. But the right trumped consideration. In such an exchange there are no winners.

Love for a country must surely carry with it love for its many parts. To claim love for this country and yet care not a whit for the public education of other people’s children, or the speed at which one drives down a residential road, or the weariness of the check-out clerk who bags your groceries, or the forced enlistment of young people too poor to have any other choice but to risk their lives at war, or the abandonment of people whose homes sink under rising waters, or the impatience with the elderly lady trying to drive her car at rush hour, or the daily work of the thousands of teachers and coaches who show up at our children’s schools and sporting events, is to exist in a vacuum where you possess but a surface clarity about the meaning of those two words: country, love.

On a recent Sunday, during a query about integrity at the Haverford Friends Meeting, a lady stood up to quote a few lines from Donne. It was taken from his essay, ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,’ and although we are all familiar with it, it bears quoting again:

“…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”

I grew up, as a Sri Lankan, understanding that what is given freely must still be earned. A free education must be earned by upholding respect for education and rigorous intellectual pursuits. Free healthcare must still be earned by the purchase and consumption and, if possible, the cultivation, of native vegetables, fruits and herbs. The freely given affections of parents and grandparents and extended family, must be earned by a willingness to tend to the elderly, consideration of the dying, with a transmitting of the same values to a younger generation.

The freedoms that Americans are so quick to mention are no different. They, too, ought to be earned. We ought to deserve them, somehow. That “somehow,” to me, does not come on the wings of a recitation of the pledge of allegiance but on the heels of attentiveness to the work that must be done, in any neighborhood, in any community, in any state, in any given moment. As I teach my daughters the American anthems that my mother strung on my vocal chords long before this American life came to pass, I favor less the desperate hope of the ‘Star Spangled Banner;’ it is that other anthem, the anthem of a beautiful country that I sing most often. And, perhaps, because words are the foundation of my life, they can hear in my voice the note of care that accompanies the celebration of a bountiful nation, to mend our flaws, to confirm our souls in self control, to refine our goals, to ennoble our successes, to ensure that selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free. But, perhaps, most of all, I hope that they hear in those words the reminder that we are asking, not demanding, the grace that might bring us the brotherhood we still lack, and that I commit, as I expect them to commit, to doing the work that makes beauty possible.

One thought on “Many Rights, Few Responsibilities”

  1. I’ve been on a bit of an exile for a while. America can be an extremely draining place. Done a lot of reading: Russell Brand’s “My Bookie Wook”, your book, a touch of the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency”–just hopping about for footing because things have gotten certifiably insane (Detroit, my city, is trying its best to go down in flames). Then I come back and I read you. Talk about replenished. An ill-informed citizenry will always shout about rights in the wrong way. Thank you for clearly and calmly doing it right.

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