Do Americans “by nature” know how one becomes a “naturalized” American? To become a citizen is far from ordinary in today’s Western countries. Democratic founding is a privilege of the first generation, which binds the next and establishes the political identity of the demos. After that, people are citizens by nature. In ancient Athens, citizenship was autochthonla, “sprung from the land,” and as eternal as the land itself. Religions too seek continuity over time. It is a Catholic rule that parents baptize their children just after they are born, before they can choose for themselves, before they can remember. Catholic identity should appear natural. Of course, this does not prevent recruiting new believers or new citizens.
The applicant for citizenship is given the chance to experience something the citizen “by nature” cannot experience. The act of “naturalization” is a reminder of the founding moment; its procedures represent the political identity of the existing demos, the deeply republican character of the Constitution. This is something unique. In Italy or Germany, naturalization is a bureaucratic fact: new citizens don’t take a “civics exam.” I became a naturalized American this spring, after I passed the exam and took the Oath of Allegiance, a simple but psychologically entangling procedure (and the reason why several European friends criticized my decision).
I studied the “Sample of Civics Questions” in a Naturalization Study Guide, and was interviewed by a gentle Indian-American woman whose English made me feel at ease. “What do the stripes on the flag represent?” “How many amendments are there to the Constitution?” “Who has the power to enforce the law?” “Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.” “What is the Bill of Rights?” “Name some countries that were our enemies during World War II.” Easy questions except for the last two: “Who helped the Pilgrims in America?” and “What is the national anthem of the United States?” To the first I was supposed to answer, “The American Indians or Native Americans.” Actually I did, but the tone of my voice was enough to make my examiner remind me that we were not having a “political discussion.” And I could not answer the second question. Of course I knew the title of the anthem, but I have never been able to pronounce it: too many hard consonants in succession for my Latin vocal cords. My examiner laughed at my inability and tried in vain to help me.
Then, the day of the Oath came. Almost two thousand candidates convened at the Jacob Javits Center early in the morning, before work. We were arranged in Roman fashion: nine centuriae, each a perfect square of two hundred applicants. Several volunteers distributed voting registration ...
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