Returning to Mac, Revisiting Global Citizenship

By Leif Johnson

As a student returning from study abroad, there is a lot for me to get used to again at Macalester. Besides tough academics and the occasional glimpse of an ivory tower peeking out from behind Old Main, the thing that is most striking to me is the pervasive marketing of the concept of global citizenship. It was one of the things that drew me here in the first place, as it was for many of us, but I believe that we need to take a step back and reexamine what exactly we are buying into when we attempt to label ourselves global citizens. At best, I have come to believe, global citizenship is a plea to think globally and act locally. At worst, it is a call to join a global enlightened minority whose actions shape world affairs, acting in the name of millions of people we have never met. If we come out on top at Mac and truly inherit the legacy of Kofi Annan, a few of us may eventually be able to both think and act on “the global stage” as true global citizens. Even if our reach is not so great, as newly-minted citizens of some global polity it will be our job to transcend state boundaries and nationalistic impulses, no matter what it says on our passports.

But therein lies the problem. As people with the economic and legal means to travel freely, it is easy for us to talk about global citizenship from within the comfortable confines of our Midwestern academic enclave, or while venturing abroad to some exotic locale. But in doing so, we have a tendency to forget the fact that the very concept to which we aspire is, for a majority of the world’s population, so unattainable as to be meaningless. The decidedly national citizenship that virtually everyone except for us is saddled with does not endow them with such freedom of movement. The global citizenship of passports, visas, development organizations and foreign aid is an institution created by and for a tiny, elite group of “global citizens,” into which we, as Macalester students, are invited. Kofi is looking over our shoulders, asking if we’re truly living up to our potential to shape world affairs.

It shouldn’t be too hard to come to the conclusion that this conception of global citizenship is problematic. I wish to introduce a new one.

Last spring, working on the US-Mexico border, I met a global citizen. She is an indigenous woman from Guatemala, and her passport consisted of four one gallon jugs of water, tied together in pairs with twine that doubled as a handle. Her journey north was authorized by no government, but instead undertaken with audacity than I suspect I will ever muster in my lifetime. Thinking locally, she was acting globally, crossing an imaginary line in the sand, disregarding for the ten billion dollars spent yearly to enforce the citizenship system of passports and visas, ports of entry and racial quota systems. Every step that carried her further north carried her not only closer to Chicago, but also towards the forging of a real global citizenship. Her citizenship was built from below, and based not on ability of an elite few to pass through or around national boundaries, but instead on their complete subversion.