Thursday, December 12, 2013

Notes on a Citizenship Ceremony

Mrs. Athwart History became a United States citizen on Tuesday, and I'm very proud of her. Naturally, I came with her to the swearing-in ceremony. Here are some various observations.

What a truly amazing country we live in! Before the ceremony a video was playing showing various scenes: of family life, of nature, of communities, of business. America is an incredibly varied and welcoming nation. Much is made of our flaws, but it's worth reflecting from time to time on our virtues.

America is unique in its adherence to a set of ideals above any other definition of nationality (other Anglo-Saxon nations approximate this but only America makes it explicit). Essentially, if you agree to live our way, then you can be an American. I wonder how this is handled in other countries. France, for example, is famous for teaching colonial Algerians about "their ancestors, the Gauls."

A slightly sour note crept in early in the ceremony. Representatives from the election office spoke about the importance of registering to vote. But they repeated themselves in Cantonese and Spanish. This is doubly flawed. First, those who speak neither Cantonese nor Spanish must've felt left out. A new citizen proficient in Farsi but a bit shaky in English is thus treated differently on his very first day as an American. And second, it was the only part of the ceremony conducted in multiple languages. Part of the citizenship test is to demonstrate a working knowledge of English. This is as it should be, and the ceremony should be in English. The oath, for example, is in English. Voting is important, of course, but not more important than the oath. If the oath can be trusted to be understood in English, the voting registration advertisement damned well can be.

Nearly every speaker at the ceremony was a naturalized citizen. Kind of cool, I thought.

There were over 1,000 new citizens sworn in along with my wife. This is a busy office, I imagine, and I'm not sure how often they run the ceremonies, but the numbers were still remarkable. USCIS claims to have naturalized 6.6 million people in the past decade, so that's 660,000 per year, or 660 ceremonies like this one every year across the country.

The oath was preceded by a singing of the National Anthem. The singer was pretty awful - just someone from USCIS - but it was poignant, nonetheless, and was the oath. This is a big step in many lives!

At the end of the ceremony, a singing group was invited in to perform "America the Beautiful" and "This Land is Your Land". The singing itself was just atrocious, and frankly embarrassed me. This is how we welcome new citizens, with amateurs who can't stay on pitch? Better to just play a recording or leave it out. But the message was nearly as bad. The Woody Guthrie song is, of course, crypto-communist. The ceremony was being held just a few miles from Berzerkely, so that's probably a factor, and I imagine most of the folks at the ceremony didn't pick up on the lyrics or knew the history of Guthrie or the song. But it's not quite the way I'd like to see America represented.

Still and all: I was moved. And more importantly, my wife is now a citizen!