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Engaging Cultural Citizenship

In my last essay, I wrote about class diversity. From an intensely personal perspective, I questioned the practice—just as prevalent in our national discourse as in the realm of family secrets—of entering into tacit agreements to normalize what should never be considered acceptable. I said that it was time to break the pact upholding the idea that violent inequality is normal, high time for everyone's voice to ring out in a national truth-telling.

Class generally equals socio-economic status, but of course, reality is far more complicated. For me, the concept of "cultural citizenship" is more powerful and true. It’s not a legal status; you don’t need a passport to have cultural citizenship. It is a full state of belonging, participation, dignity, and honor, and it is denied to people who don't fit the tacit agreement that defines who is worth heeding, which can include people whose race, heritage, religion, sexual orientation, material wealth, political views, or even physical condition diverge from prescribed norms. In this essay, I touch on several aspects of cultural citizenship and its denial, from our own borders to halfway across the world in Hungary and Belarus.

Understanding cultural citizenship requires considering this question: how would the place you live be different if the same presupposition of full cultural citizenship—of heritage mattering, of voices counting, of entitlement to have a say in our collective future, of being welcomed, of feeling seen, of feeling at home—were given to every person as to its wealthiest and most powerful citizens? Seriously: every person. To the extent that we regard cultural citizenship as a privilege—treating it as natural and inevitable that some people will count far more than others—we enter into a damaging pact, as by keeping family secrets at the cost of well-being, of integrity and ethical alignment.

Through a lens of cultural citizenship, who are we? Have you seen this amazing mapping tool at the New York Times? You enter your address or zip code, and it brings up a series of maps based on the Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2005 through 2009. Because it's census data, you can safely assume people of color are undercounted, but not to the extent of rendering the data valueless.

The map of my neighborhood made a handsome design, with the colored dots representing racial categories evenly distributed. In this part of Richmond, no single group dominates, according to the quoted figures: "Whites 28%, Blacks 26%, Hispanics 24%, Asians 18%, Other 5%."

When I take my walk along the Bay Trail, I see individuals and families from all these categories strolling along. The numbers affirm a feeling my walk evokes. Passing, we greet each other, we admire the water and the birds with the innate appreciation of beauty available to all humans; collectively, we transmit the message that the conviviality which seems natural to our species will prevail if given room to flourish.

But behind the smiles, many people are up against it. Sunday's New York Times carries a feature about epidemic foreclosures in this area, and a slow-moving state agency which has not yet begun to accept applications for the $2 billion in federal funds it has received to help people keep their homes:

A city report released in April found that more than 2,000 homes and apartments in Richmond were in some stage of foreclosure. In the city’s hardest-hit ZIP code, 94801, which encompasses much of the central and northern sections of the city, almost half of all homes were “in foreclosure or financed with subprime mortgages and thus as at risk for foreclosure.”
In two other central Richmond ZIP codes, 94806 and 94804 [my zipcode], where Mr. Chavarria lives, the city estimated that more than a third of all homes are at risk.
“We’re talking about the postal worker who’s lived in this community for 20 or 30 years,” said Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of the East Bay, a nonprofit organization that helps troubled borrowers negotiate with their lender. “These are not greedy people.” Some families needed money to pay medical bills, repair their homes or bail their relatives out of jail, she said, while others are simply out of work.

These conditions are rooted in public policies and the behavior of those elected to make and watch over them. Most recently, many commanding voices persuaded two-thirds of Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts for wealthiest taxpayers (and almost as many members of Congress to vote against increasing the estate tax). Out here in Richmond, I am hearing none of those voices raised to hurry needed funds to hard-pressed homeowners. Are you?

What is the impact on cultural citizenship when the individuals elected to represent us, to promote the public good, do not share the experience or interests of those affected by their economic policies and by the glacial pace of the bureaucracies they oversee? Welcome to the U.S. Congress, where millionaires are so thick on the ground, they are represented at 50 times the national rate (about one percent of Americans are millionaires, in contrast to nearly half of federal lawmakers).

If you don't believe me, check out the Center for Responsive Politics' report on Congress members' net worth. You have to get to the bottom of the top 25 to descend to a paltry average net worth of $25 million (the list is topped by Daryl Issa with an average net worth of $304 million). All of the top 25 are white. Indeed, as The Hill's slideshow demonstrates, all of the top 50 are white. Half of the top 25 are Democrats (and some of them, possessing the same freedom of choice as you and I, vote often on the liberal side of issues, providing property isn't destiny, thank goodness). There are elected representatives of color whose net worth exceeds $1 million, but none of them is among the mega-rich who dominate these lists.

But being governed by an overwhelmingly white economic elite helps to create a climate in which the tacit agreement supports the innate superiority of financial winners—so much so, in fact, that they can't even admit they've gotten a boost from the public purse. Go back and listen to Crybabies," a "This American Life" show from late September. In the first story of that program, "Wall Street: Money Never Weeps," the scene is set by quoting finance-industry execs (whose own companies received bailout multimillions) comparing Obama's mild financial reforms to Hitler's sacking Poland. The reporters try to get a few Wall Streeters in a noisy bar to admit they owe their continuing employment in part to government bailouts. But the Wall Streeters steadfastly insist that their success is due entirely to their superior intelligence. Believing that is part of the damaging pact that weakens cultural citizenship. An alarming large proportion of the elected guardians of our public trust believe it: after all, it's their story too.

To understand cultural citizenship, it helps to see it foreshadowed, to see arenas in which we model the kind of inclusive conversation that ought to mark our national political life. You will not be surprised when I say that culture itself is the arena in which this is most evident. My friend Jeff Chang has a wonderful essay in The American Prospect (co-authored with Brian Komar of the Center for American Progress), exhorting progressives to notice that:

Cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred. Jackie Robinson's 1947 Major League Baseball debut preceded Brown v. Board of Education by seven years. Ellen DeGeneres' coming-out on her TV sitcom preceded the first favorable court ruling on same-sex marriage by eight years.

He argues that stories and our talents at telling them are the most effective way to reach "A new cultural majority—an emerging American public that is the most demographically diverse ever and predisposed to support a progressive agenda, a public that elected Obama in 2008 but mostly stayed home in 2010." You know how strongly I agree with that, and Jeff says it so well, I see no need to repeat.

But I do want to add a point, that in the music we listen to, the images that capture our attention, the tales told onstage or screen, we see a world that looks far more like my neighborhood in Richmond than does the U.S. Congress. The cultural landscape isn't Utopia (nor is anyplace else). In the commercial sectors, artists often have differential opportunity based on the same categories that shape the exclusionary state of our cultural citizenship. In community-based work, resources are often painfully scarce. But the work of artists and creative activists offers us a glimpse of the richness, understanding, and pleasure to be discovered when we abandon the tacit agreement to pretend our strongly biased, money-dominated system is democracy at its best.

That's why artists are always early targets of antidemocratic movements. Jeff points out that historically, the right cracks down on creative expression as an efficient way to spread the fear that fosters obedience, a topic I explored a couple of weeks ago.

That isn't limited to our own borders, of course. Theater artists around the globe are protesting an attack by the new Hungarian government on the National Theatre, and on artists and media in general. Here's a message from the Hungarian Theatre Critics' Association, spelling it out. It's pretty clear that once again, artists are being used as the bleeding edge of a general crackdown. Extreme-right Hungarian nationalists are disseminating a list of "Jews, homosexuals, and Bolsheviks in media and culture," with Róbert Alföldi, the National Theatre director, in the first row.

I'm guessing most readers will have heard little or nothing about what is happening in Hungary. Most of the information is being spread through blogs like this one. I have signed the petition entitled "Hands off culture and media in Hungary!" and I urge you to do likewise, and to tell your friends.

Nor will most be likely to have heard of the Belarus Free Theater, a much-admired group that must perform in secret in its own country, and whose director, Natalya Kalyada, was just arrested in a peaceful demonstration against election fraud that returned President Aleksandr Lukashenko to office.

In the U.S., we still possess the legal rights denied to our counterparts in Hungary and Belarus, even if we often must assert them in the face of opposition. Cultural citizenship is a transnational—indeed, global—resource. Especially where it is not honored and protected by constituted authority (which is to say, nearly everywhere), the responsibility falls to each of us, the imperative is to make full use of our voices. What good are rights if we don't use them?

Ponder that as you listen to the incredible Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, singing Woody Guthrie's anthem, This Land is Your Land." Best version ever.

And if that puts you in a giving mood (which is almost guaranteed), please consider the brilliant Richmond book drive, an easy click-through way to contribute needed books to the vastly undersupplied schools of my home community. Knowledge is power.