Start Cramming Now

First, let me thank Evenshine for his/her thoughtful reply to my post “Dogma Vs. Cheese.” 

Second, let me give thanks in general that this election season is almost over.

One of the odder moments in this incessant campaign was when John McCain’s status as a real American became a question. I don’t mean that anyone doubted his patriotism or citizenship or anything like that. I’m referring to the skepticism expressed over whether his birthplace (a military base in the Panama Canal zone) fulfills the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that the president be a “natural-born citizen.”

It would indeed be a soul-crusher for Republicans if the guy pulls an upset in November, only to be ruled ineligible come Inauguration Day. Either scenario, by the way, is highly unlikely.

In any case, conservatives want to change the Constitution (that non-living document) by adding the “Schwarzenegger amendment,” so that any naturalized citizen can become president. But while they’re at it, they also want to amend the Constitution so that being born in America is not sufficient for citizenship.

The thinking here is that too many pregnant Hispanic women are dragging their huge bellies across the border, just so they can spit out a little nino or nina on U.S. soil. Doing so, of course, ensures American citizenship for their offspring.

I happen to agree with these proposed changes, especially amending the Constitution so that people born in America are not automatically made U.S. citizens. In fact, my compliant with this proposal is not that it is unfair or radical, but that it doesn’t go far enough.

So if we’re going to do this, let’s do it correctly:

Amend the Constitution so that no one can become a citizen until he/she passes a basic test. I mean nobody gets citizenship by virtue of where they’re born or their parents’ status. Everybody has to earn it.

This is where most conservatives pull back. They just want Diego and Maria denied rights because their parents don’t speak English. They certainly aren’t talking about limiting the status of their own ninth-generation offspring.

It’s not just selfishness. We have this mindset that people whose roots go back farther are better Americans. But individuals whose ancestors fought at Valley Forge are not inherently more patriotic than immigrants. In fact, I would argue that people who spend time, money, and effort to study our culture – then prove they know what they’re talking about – are more committed to, and knowledgeable about our nation than the millions of Americans who slept though high school history.

To be fair, I have a bias. Several members of my family have had to pass the test. I was born here, so I didn’t have to put myself on the line. But my mother, aunt, and several cousins have had to step up and say, “Hell yeah, I had to work for this.” And don’t we always appreciate things that we have earned more than gifts that are just handed to us?

And what’s so intimidating about a basic test, anyway? I’m not talking about forcing people to answer questions like “Explain U.S. monetary policy on a macroeconomic level.” The citizenship test, as I understand it, asks people things like “Why do some states have more representatives in Congress?” I find it difficult to believe that this is a harmful thing for citizens to know.

If we had informed citizens – people who really strived to be active members of this country – maybe America wouldn’t elect leaders based on how cute they are or, Lord help us, whether the majority wanted to have an imaginary beer with them.

An objection to this idea is the status of children. Are we to educate every child with the knowledge that come adulthood, many of them will be, at best, legal residents and never become citizens? Well, that’s hardly scary, because we do that now. Furthermore, I would argue for the intrinsic benefit of putting all kids on an even playing field – one where every child is a future potential president –rather than subdividing children into “natural-born citizens” and interlopers.

So what are the objections to this idea? Are they based on the principles of fairness and history, on the norms of our culture? Or perhaps we react negatively because of fear, the itchy suspicion that many of us have no idea what all those stars and stripes on the flag actually symbolize.


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October 2008
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