University Press Week: Citizenship with Robin Hemley

Happy University Press Week! Today the UP Week Blog Tour’s theme is “How to be a Better (Global) Citizen.” The following is a guest post from award-winning author Robin Hemley, whose book Borderline Citizen is coming out in March 2020.


I’m Not a “Global Citizen” but I’m Happy to be Transnational

On a flight from Moscow to Hong Kong several years ago, a Ukrainian man seated next to me, noticing my American passport, which I’d set momentarily on my food tray, asked to see my passport, which he pronounced, “very interesting.” While flipping through the pages, he asked me if I was a patriot. This was a question I’d never been asked, and sensing my hesitation, he told me he wasn’t a patriot because Ukraine had “bad politicians, bad police,” though “the people are good, the scenery is good.” Then he started hum/singing “The Star-Spangled banner.” In an effort to make him stop, I tried to answer his question, “I guess so,” I said. But it was a question that couldn’t be answered in the span of a flight because I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a “patriot” anymore. Curiously, at the moment I was flying from Moscow to Hong Kong, the famous/infamous former NSA whistleblower/spy/patriot/traitor, Edward Snowden was flying from Hong Kong to Moscow, the U.S. government eager to get their hands on him.

Like my seatmate from Ukraine, I loved aspects of my country. I had been to forty-nine out of fifty states, and loved parts of every one of them. I was born in New York but had spent significant portions of my life in the South, the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the West. My family had been in the U.S. since the mid-1800s. But the country I was born in seemed to be drifting away from its ideals and the polarization that is so evident now was also evident in 2013. I would tell foreign friends that America was two countries. One I was very proud to be a part, but the other I wanted to flee from.

9781496220417I had recently accepted a job in Singapore, where I would spend the next five-and-a-half years. And from the moment my Ukrainian friend asked his question, I had continued to think about it and to add on to the question, “Do you consider yourself a global citizen?” I have to say I don’t consider myself a “global citizen,” but I do consider myself “transnational.” I prefer the term “transnational” to “global citizen” in part because the former implies a fluid movement across the narrow borders that sometimes “bad politicians” in Ukraine, the U.S. and elsewhere want to erect and patrol to the exclusion of our common humanity.

To me, the term “global citizen” is a kind of feel-good designation that means very little, especially at a time when governments around the globe are creating, intentionally or not, so many exiles and refugees. Are refugees global citizens? Are exiles? I am not a citizen of any other country than the U.S., and I know this grants me certain privileges, responsibilities, and culpabilities. But I do not hold the citizens of the United States in higher regard than say, my Australian friends, my friends from the Philippines, and yes, my friends from China and Russia and Ukraine. Nations as such are relatively new inventions anyway, and to have blind loyalty to one over another (emphasis on the word, “blind”) is to adhere to a narrow and sometimes dangerous definition of patriotism. As Hannah Arendt said, “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.”

The real question to me is not whether I’m a patriot or not, or how can I be a better global citizen, but how can I be the best representative of my country whether I’m inside or outside of its borders? What are the values of my country that I want to uphold and cherish? What trends and tendencies of my country in its present moment must I reject, no matter how personally difficult, in order to live with myself? I know that my travel is not only a privilege but a factor in the ongoing environmental degradation of our common planet. This is another question of importance to me: How can I be a responsible traveller through the world, and what good can come out of my travels?

For me, the response to my Ukrainian seatmate is my book, Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood, in which I try to wrestle with these difficult questions, as they affect every one of us, no matter where we live, how we view ourselves in the world, or where we travel, by choice or force, whether we move a million miles or not at all.

To read more Hemley, check out Invented Eden from Bison Books.


Here is what other University Presses are discussing on their blogs today:

University of Virginia PressExcerpt from Amitai Etzioni’s latest book, Reclaiming Democracy, which explains how recent global threats to democracy demand the response of a social movement on the scale of the civil rights or environmental movements. Etzioni lays out the requirements and opportunities to achieve such a movement.

Georgetown University Press: A post highlighting ways to be a better global citizen in the context of the global refugee crisis according to David Hollenbach’s Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees.

Purdue University Press: Director Justin Race discusses his first year with the Press, the value of a small UP that is both local and global in scope, and how UPs build awareness and knowledge and foster global communication

University of Wisconsin Press: A post focused on book and journal readings that highlight scholars who are engaging with concepts of global citizenship and influencing public policy to improve global situations.

University Press of Florida: Carl Lindskoog, author of “Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System,” provides a list of actions individuals can take if they are concerned about the detention crisis at the US border.

University of Minnesota Press: Ian G. R. Shaw previews his manifesto for building a future beyond late-stage capitalism, drawing up alternate ways to “make a living” beyond what we’re conditioned for.

University of Toronto Press: An exclusive excerpt from one of the first two books in their New Jewish Press imprint: The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by Kenneth S. Stern. As the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, Stern offers some brilliant advice on how we can all think rationally and compassionately in order to be better global citizens.

Vanderbilt University Press: A post looking at ways to practice active citizenship, as explored in Awakening Democracy through Public Work by Harry C. Boyte.

University of North Carolina Press: Alex Dika Seggerman, author of Modernism on the Nile, on how art historians can use a global perspective to rethink the underlying narratives of modernism.

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