What is a Global Citizenry, and Can It Save Us?

First published in The Humanist.

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Headlines this past spring claimed that for the first time ever, more than half of poll respondents around the world said they saw themselves more as global citizens than as citizens of a country. What did they mean in saying that?

First of all, to lower the heart rate of certain U.S. readers we should state that they clearly didn’t mean they’d sworn loyalty to a secret global government for the period of time until the Dark Side crushes all light from the Force, or until Mom, apple pie, and sacred national sovereignty expire in the satanic flames of internationalism. How do I know this? For one thing, something that a majority of the planet is aware of is the opposite of a secret. More importantly, what’s at issue here are the poll respondents’ attitudes, not their situations. In many nations the responses were almost evenly split; half the people weren’t wrong, they were just differently minded.

Still, what did they mean?

In the United States, rather stunningly, 22 percent of respondents supposedly said they strongly agreed that they saw themselves more as  global citizens, while another 21 percent somewhat agreed. How you can somewhat agree with a binary choice I haven’t the foggiest idea, but supposedly they did. That’s 43 percent total agreeing either strongly or somewhat in the land of flag-waving militarized exceptionalism, if you can believe it—or if it doesn’t actually mean much.

Canada is slightly higher at 53 percent. But, again, what does it mean? Were respondents shocked into agreement with a sensible sounding idea they’d never heard mentioned before? Is a strong minority really enlightened beyond the common nationalism? Russia, Germany, Chile, and Mexico had the least identification as global citizens. Should we look down on that? Nigeria, China, Peru, and India had the highest. Should we emulate that? Are people identifying with humanity or against their country or in support of their own desire to emigrate, or against the desires of others to immigrate? Or are people employed
by globalized capital actually turning against nationalism?

I’ve always thought that if people would stop speaking in the first person about the crimes of their country’s military, and start identifying with all of humanity, we might achieve peace. So I compared the “global citizen” results with the results of a 2014 poll that asked if people would be willing to fight in a war for their country. The results of that poll were also stunningly encouraging, with strong majorities in many countries saying they wouldn’t fight in a war. But there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the two polls. Unless we can find a way to correct for other important factors, it doesn’t seem that being a global citizen and refusing to fight have anything consistently in common. Nationalistic countries are and are not willing to fight in wars. “Global citizen” countries are and are not willing to fight in wars.

Of course, the willingness-to-fight responses are sheer nonsense. The United States has numerous wars up and running, recruitment offices in most towns, and 44 percent of the country affirms they’d fight if there were a war. (What’s stopping them?) The global citizen responses may be largely nonsense too. Still, it’s worth noting that Canada is more globally minded and pacifist than the United States in the two polls, while Asian nations are both biggest on global citizenship and most willing to parti-cipate in wars (or to make that claim to a pollster).

Whatever it may mean, I take it to be wonderful news that a majority of humanity identifies with the world. It’s up to us to now make that mean what it should. We need to develop a belief in world citizenship that begins by recognizing every other human on the earth, and other living things in their own way, as sharing in it. A citizen of the globe doesn’t expect to necessarily have much in common with the inhabitants of some far-off corner of the world, but does certainly understand that no war can be waged against fellow citizens.

We don’t need clean elections or an end to war profits or the expansion of the ICC to impose the rule of law on countries outside of Africa in order to create world citizenship. We just need our own minds. And if we get it right in our own minds, all of those other things had better get ready to happen.

So how do we think like world citizens? Try this: read an article about a distant place. Think: “That happened to  some of us.” By “us,” mean humanity. Read an article about peace activists protesting war who say aloud, “We’re bombing innocent people,” while identifying themselves with the U.S. military. Work at it until you can find such statements incomprehensible. Search online for articles mentioning “enemy.” Correct them to reflect the fact that everyone has the same enemies: war, environmental destruction, disease, starvation, bigotry. Replace “them” and “those people” with “us” and “we humans.”

This is in fact a massive project, but apparently there are millions of us already identifying with it, and many hands make light work. Models for emulation can also be inspiring. We can look back to the creative activism of Garry Davis, who took a stand against nationalism as a world citizen.

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Muhammad Ali

We can also look to the late Muhammad Ali, who took a stand against war on the grounds that distant foreign people mattered too, that—as the saying goes—all wars are civil wars because all people are brothers and sisters.

Told to join the U.S. military during the war on Vietnam that would ultimately leave six million people dead in that country, Laos, and Cambodia, Ali gave up his career and was willing to give up his freedom. “Just take me to jail,” he said, in stark contrast to characterizations of his moral and legal stance as “dodging” something.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother,” Ali said, “or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me ‘nigger.’ They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? Why am I going to shoot them? They’re poor little black people, little babies and children, women. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Obedient Americans denounced Ali for opposing a U.S. war, but the architects of that war admitted, decades later, that he had been right. “I think we were wrong,” said former Secretary of so-called Defense Robert McNamara. Do people in the U.S. know that? Polls suggest that very few have even a remotely accurate idea of the numbers of people killed in Vietnam or Iraq or the Philippines or other U.S. wars. “The nationalist,” George Orwell said, “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” The world citizen would be far better informed.