I was feeling pretty darn lonely Saturday morning as I drove Puru to the airport for a quick trip he took to present at a conference. He’s leaving soon for India, and misses no opportunity to emphasize his one-way ticket (the turd). 🙂 It’s just the goodbye thing. Sucks.

He and I got on to the topic of how one can work for social justice from within certain professions. It reminded me of the conversation I had with Linh and Lisha the other day, about how we can inspire our students to consider the notion of citizenship. The first thing about a discourse being civic is that it’s public. The second thing is that it shouldn’t be confused with civil. Yes, we don’t want name-calling, but sometimes civil gets narrowed to a definition that implies one cannot disagree. The problem is that in fact many of us do disagree regarding critically important things and often we disagree in vitally distinct ways. If by civil we mean respectful, I’m all for it. If by civil we mean trying to avoid controversy . . . I don’t think we’re going to get very far.

So we need to discover (or create) some sustainable and generative ways of talking with each other about the stuff that’s wicked hard to discuss. Considering citizenship as an identity is one way to begin because it breaks out of the traditional, limited/limiting “identities” of what sociologists call ascribed status (race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, dis/ability, sexual orientation, religious heritage, etc). Secondly, national citizenship is the most significant identity of our era. If you are a domestic who has never traveled outside of the US, it might be difficult to imagine why citizenship matters so much. But if you have traveled, or if you’re in the United States on a visa of some kind or another (or illegally, as is the case for many of the lowest-paid workers in our economy), then you realize citizenship makes all the difference in the world. This isn’t just applicable to the United States. Everywhere around the world people are voluntarily traveling to find work or are being dislocated from their homes because of war, poverty, famine, disease…this is the human face of globalization. Migration isn’t new, but it’s bigger than ever in history, and whether one gains citizenship or not in the country one moves to can be a vise squeezing out the capacity for joy no matter how many other things one has going well.

Over the past week and a half, I’ve been reeling over the sudden and unexpected death of my thirteen-year-old nephew, Alec. I couldn’t help but juxtapose the unbelievable outpouring of community grief and support for him, our family, and close friends with the facts I’ve been learning from Puru about farmers in India who are currently committing suicide at the rate of one every five hours. They are dying because of us. Of course it isn’t a direct cause-and-effect, but it is indirectly because most Americans believe in neoliberalism. Support for neoliberalism (which has been the domestic and international policy of every President only since Ronald Reagan!) means that we sanction policies that put profit over people, favoring uneven geopolitical development and thus the infrastructure for every current crisis on the world stage. It really is this basic. Even as I participated in the activities commemorating Alec’s life and comforting those of us left to carry on, I was aware of the privilege that enabled so many people to take the time to attend the viewing, service, and provide material and emotional support to the family.

Part of being a citizen is being aware of the economic implications of the politics one’s nation pursues. This also means knowing the history of times before our own. Prior to Reagan there were different ways of promoting capitalism. Turning away from neoliberalism does not mean giving up freedom or democracy. It does mean we stop distancing ourselves from the ramifications of policies whose impact we don’t necessarily have to see. Looking at Alec’s body I wondered, how many family members and friends in India (and too many other places around the world) have viewed how many loved one’s bodies for reasons that could have been prevented? Medical science apparently doesn’t yet know how to predict and intervene with the structural weakness that caused one of Alec’s ventricles to collapse. Perhaps political scientists, economists, elected and appointed government officials, and even corporate businesspeople also do not yet know how to balance the institutionalization of social justice with the imperative to raise and maintain standards of living around the globe. If we force ourselves to take a careful look, the evidence of neoliberalism’s failure is overwhelming. It persists for lack of an alternative. Devising national and international politics that balance the needs of human beings at all positions along the socioeconomic scale – regardless of country of origin – is a task that might require a little bit of attention from every single one of us. As we figure out how to relate on terms other than war and mass consumerism (with its omnipresent specter of exploitation), perhaps we can spend more resources on medical research such as the possible links between the myocarditis Alec had as an infant and the structural failure of his heart as a teen, agricultural policies that sustain farmers and feed entire populations, and educational opportunities that preserve cultural, religious, and linguistic difference while modeling ways of resolving these differences through talk.