Andrew Potter on citizenship

One of the best things I've read lately about citizenship is a column by Andrew Potter (@jandrewpotter) on the lessons we can take from Nelson Mandela. He says that people often think of citizenship as mainly entitling them to rights, such as voting. Potter says that there is a reciprocal obligation of service for those who would like to claim those rights:

  • These citizens must be willing to engage in public debate, they must have a sense of tolerance and civility, and they must have broad feelings of loyalty, trust and solidarity. The citizens of a healthy liberal state must see themselves as belonging to the same “community of fate,” a community which is willing not only to recognize your rights but to fight for them, to the death if necessary. This is the burden of citizenship.

  • The idea of citizenship being as much about obligation as it is about entitlement does not sit well with some.

Why the reciprocal obligation to serve? Because, Potter says, rights don't last long in a society without "an engaged and active citizenry." Potter says that these kinds of citizens are "the lifeblood"--the necessary life-giving circulating power--of the "stable liberal democratic states" where rights have a chance to endure.

Mandela claimed that a racist or racial government had no legal or moral claim on him, and his resistance sprang from that judgment. That government saw no obligation that it had to him, and so he resisted. For Potter, this implies the real ethical arrangement that justice requires: "a reciprocal relationship of obligation," something we owe each other, back and forth, in civil exchange. Not just rights that are owed to us. Not just a private life, either. There is an understanding of citizenship here that accepts great responsibility but in return earns the right to make demands for equal justice and responsibility from one's government and fellow citizens. It's a fair trade, not a one-way benefit or contract.

Last built: Sun, Feb 23, 2014 at 10:53 AM

By Ken Smith, Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 9:16 PM.