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Citizenship in America Today: What It Means in the Age of Edward Snowden, Colin Kaepernick, and Donald Trump

Who's a hero now?

In his farewell speech on January 11, 2017, President Barack Obama made frequent reference to the ideas of citizen and citizenship in our democracy. Early in his speech he stated: “For 240 years, our nation's call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation.” In stressing the domestic as well as international roles of the citizen, he said: “So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” In calling us to our duty as citizens, he stated: “But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.” He lauded the role of citizen in saying: “Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.” (He emphasized the word by saying it twice amidst applause.) Toward the end of his speech, he stressed his own intentions as a citizen: “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won't stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.”

A few days later, Donald Trump assumed the office of presidency, with the implied role of “first citizen” of the United States. He is unusual in several ways. He is the oldest person to be elected president and comes to the office without ever having served in public office. His methods are unconventional. Rather than using the normal machinery of American democratic government, such as official statements, press conferences, and national televised speeches, he prefers to tweet.

He has emphasized a number of “rights” which stem from his campaign promises as means to “Make America Great Again,” his campaign motto. The right to a job: he signed legislation to lift the Obama-era ban on new coal leasing on federal lands . The right to secure borders: He has vowed to build a wall along the 1,915 mile Mexican border. The right to security at home: He has signed legislation banning immigration from seven Muslim countries. An implied right: to prosper without undue government interference. He appointed Scott Pruitt as the EPA director, signed legislation rolling back Obama-era climate initiatives and proclaimed his intent to withdraw the US from the Paris Accord on climate. Implied in these actions he has taken is that he believes it his duty to fulfill as many of his campaign promises as possible. 

Edward Snowden: Leaking Classified Documents for a Better America

In 2013, Edward Snowden, an intelligence contractor for the U.S. government and former CIA employee, copied and leaked thousand classified documents to several British and American journalists, revealing the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance and data collection programs. Snowden faces charges on two counts under the 1917 Espionage Act and is now living in asylum in Russia. In September, 2016, he was interviewed by the New York Times via internet and said that he believed his revelations had improved privacy for Americans and that “being patriotic doesn’t mean simply agreeing with your government.” He continued: “I would argue that being willing to disagree, particularly in a risky manner, is actually what we need more of today.” He has been called numerous things: a whistleblower, a traitor, and a patriot.

The case of Edward Snowden illustrates the tension between national security, as defined by the U.S. government, and individual privacy. It also forces the questions: When does patriotism require breaking the law? When does a citizen break his/her country’s laws in order to serve a higher good and to improve the country?

Colin Kaepernick: Sitting and Kneeling for a Better America

Unlike the political activists in the Sixties who stood, assembled in great numbers, marched, sang, listened to stirring speeches, shouted, and sometimes damaged and destroyed property and individuals, Kaepernick choose first to sit and then to kneel in silent protest. The biracial, back-up quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers challenged the conventional ritual of patriotism by sitting during the national anthem at pre-season games in August, 2016, eventually switching to kneeling. He argued: “There is police brutality—people of color have been targeted by police.” He criticized the inadequate training police receive. He asserted he was not “going to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” 

Other football players followed his example of either kneeling or raising a fist: Marcus Peters (Kansas City Chiefs), Brandon Marshall (Denver Broncos), Arian Foster (Miami Dolphins), who was joined by teammates Kenney Stills, Michael Thomas, and Jelani Jenkins. Two New England Patriots and three players from the Tennessee Titans also protested at least once. 

Colin Kaepernick was showing his patriotism and exercising his right to free speech. I believe that his goal was selfless, to improve his country, rather than to generate more publicity or money from the sale of his jersey which skyrocketed. He should be grateful to live in a country where this right of free speech is honored, unlike the country where Edward Snowden currently resides. It has also been reported that he did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, saying that “it really didn’t matter …, the system still remains intact that oppresses people of color.” This was surprising for a man who seeks the improvement of the American system. 

In the case of Colin Kaepernick, there was no breaking of the law. There is no law requiring that a citizen stand for the national anthem. However, all expectations of a good state or civilization cannot be, should not be, codified. Good civilizations also have unwritten citizen’s norms and codes of ethics. These help to identify and bind the citizens of the civilization together. 

In late August, then candidate Donald Trump reacted: "I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing," Trump said. "I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen."