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Test of Allegiance

February 2007
Test of Allegiance

Are the new U.S. citizenship tests meaningless?

Yes, for no test can inspire allegiance


It is puzzling, the administration's recent rollout of new U.S. citizenship test questions. The questions, says the director of the U.S. immigration agency, will "�K inspire immigrants to learn about the civic values of this nation so that �K they will participate fully in our great democracy."

When will we learn? A government cannot impose or even inspire allegiance, nor make its citizens value democracy. Anyone watching the news when U.S. naturalization ceremonies are featured can see how proud and grateful these new citizens are. It's not because they passed a test. Unlike natural-born citizens, these naturalized citizens have worked long and hard, some waiting decades to take the oath. When one considers what some must endure to become a citizen, the new test is almost an insult.

The new test is still in a pilot phase, and is voluntary at this time. Volunteers who fail can take the old test, which, admittedly, is easy for those who can memorize the answers. The new citizenship questions are a mixed bag. Some focus on U.S. history (Who was the first president of the United States?), or geography (Where is the Grand Canyon?). Others boggle the mind: "What is the current minimum wage in the United States?" and "When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?" It appears that paying taxes is an important responsibility of citizenship.

According to Merriam-Webster Online, a citizen is "a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it." As a natural-born U.S. citizen, or, perhaps, in spite of it, I have strong feelings about citizenship. I say "feelings" and not "opinion" because it's a visceral thing, this allegiance to my country. It comes from the gut. I was not born with it, I was not taught it, and it certainly isn't because I passed a test. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd fail if I took the new test now.

But, I'd be willing to take it if all U.S. citizens were required to do so. Perhaps, when we turn 18 or when we apply for a passport. As U.S. emissaries, display your allegiance by knowing what the stripes stand for, not just by wearing the Star and Stripes. In fact, some questions on the new test may be of interest to our executive branch: "Name one example of checks and balances," "What is the ‘rule of law'?" and "What are ‘inalienable rights'?"

The new test will no doubt be implemented after the trial period despite objections from critics. With 600,000 naturalized citizens each year to show us the way, who knows, the rest of us may be inspired to appreciate our democratic values and history.

Citizen Reeta Sinha wrote this opinion from Las Vegas, Nev.

No, nations need common meta-narratives


Nativism is making a comeback, with the U.S. wanting new citizens to "prove" their American-ness, and the British doing the same; the Japanese are increasing the "patriotic" content of school textbooks. Is all this a good thing? Personally, I don't think this is particularly sinister or racist or discriminatory. It is, if anything, a sad commentary on the fact that the world has become a more dangerous place to live in. This the Anglo-Americans have just discovered, but Indians, living under the shadow of violence and terrorism, have known forever.

Nativism and jingoism are found all over: consider the "bumiputra" (native son) movement in Malaysia that favors Malays (60 percent of the population) at the expense of Chinese (30 percent) and Indians (10 percent). Often such movements arise because there is not enough of a pie to go around, and this is one way of grabbing an unfair share.

Ultra-nationalists like the United Kingdom's Enoch Powell and the United States' own Pat Buchanan have long suggested that their respective nations are being flooded by immigrants who have no appreciation for the native culture of the land they reside in.

They may have a point. All nations have a mythology that is important for civic-mindedness. America has long had an uber-narrative about the melting-pot: that every new citizen goes through a process in which he or she sacrifices their existing selves. They emerge phoenix-like with a freshly-minted American persona that has all the trappings of a seeker after "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness," and all that goes with it, as memorably recorded by Alexis de Tocqueville a century ago.

And, by and large, this formula has worked. All immigrants feel this pressure, and some accept it more eagerly than others: for instance, Bharati Mukherjee is partial to characters in her novels who violently murder their old, Indian selves in pursuit of motherhood, apple pie, and white picket fences in their new land of citizenship.

Of course it is quite plain why the United States is going through this phase right now. Many Americans are feeling beleaguered, as they face a new "other" that seems more implacable and difficult to overcome than the old ones. Mohammedans have the money (oil windfall), the motivation (72 virgins and eternal heaven), and the means (sleeper cells) to impose serious damage on the United States. And their ideology does sell a lot better than did hectoring Marxist rhetoric from the Soviets. Besides, they are adept at demographic warfare as they have demonstrated in "Eurabia."

Under these circumstances, it is only natural that a United States facing a threat to its existence and its mythology, should start insisting on a certain nationalist narrative that it wants all citizens to internalize. ?�

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Chennai.

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