Saturday, 3 February 2018

Citizen Thiel

Peter Thiel's citizenship is back in the news again. In case you forgot, the basic idea is this:

  • Peter Thiel got rich.
  • Peter Thiel applied for citizenship on the basis of important contributions to society at large (through both investment and philanthropy) and the prospect of more (include promotional benefits).
  • Peter Thiel was reliant on the legislation's allowing the Minister discretion.
  • Peter Thiel met with several big wigs in the previous government, including John Key and Bill English (the big boss and his deputy).
  • Citizen Thiel was created.
  • Citizen Thiel was discovered.
  • Citizen Thiel turns out to have been in the country for less than a year in total, and probably less than 5 months.

I don't really think Thiel works as generalisable example. His story seems extraordinarily specific. Some of the reasons why he's controversial relate to things he does politically. We need to make sure we don't go anywhere near that rabbit hole. Luckily we spend far more on a single narrative, "Billionaires Buying Citizenship".

When you look at what Thiel actually did is there a case for his citizenship? Was what he was doing really that impressive? Did he do things that should make the Minister think, "Ah, I have this discretionary power?" Probably not, no.

But what if he did more?

Citizenship is weird. A lot of people seem to treat it as some sort of hallowed and sacred Thing. I'm not sure it is.

Citizenship strikes me as two things:

  1. A legal relationship identifying a person as having rights and responsibilities towards a legal entity. This relationship comes from a number of different sources.
  2. A legal recognition of an emotional relationship.
It doesn't cost me anything to know that people I completely despise are NZ citizens. Based on his support for Trump's immigration bans, Citizen Thiel is definitely not my favourite person. But I feel much more disappointed when I read things by, say, Andrew Little or Winston Peters or Margaret Mutu espousing similarly (but far from identical) anti-immigration sentiments. Indeed, Peters is such a laughing stock in this regard that I give him a bit of a mental pass... but that's my problem, I remember a New Zealand where saying the things that Little's Labour did made you a laughing stock. That's the country I grew up in and that is what feels betrayed.

Legally there is no real difference between Citizens Little, Peters, Mutu and Thiel but Thiel was born in Germany and is very American. What he says is never going to feel like a betrayal. It can't. He doesn't come from NZ's cultural milieu he just subtly modifies it by his membership. I both come from it and modify it. And that sense of betrayal means nothing. And it shouldn't. All it represents is a motivation to contest these narratives I loathe. That's it. 

We can grant citizenship of New Zealand to as many people as we like. It doesn't really cost us anything. I mean, sure, if we suddenly decided to pay the dole out to 7 billion people we'd have problems but no-one's talking about these kinds of numbers or that type of policy. And anyway both New Zealand and Ireland already have hundreds of thousands (or even more) citizens who don't live in their respective countries.* No worries. Just having citizenship doesn't mean anything fiscally.

Looking at Thiel this way suggests that maybe the government should have extorted some more stuff out of him. I mean, what's the rational case against negotiating citizenship? If our representatives can decide to spend billions of dollars on roads no worries, surely our government is also able to be our agent in deciding whether or not a grant of citizenship is advantageous for us? Right? That's what it's meant to do. Act in our best interest on the available information.

And the emotional case? That mutually beneficial grants of citizenship somehow cheapens our citizenship? I mean, if your sense of self is really challenged by this, why are you okay with my having NZ citizenship? I mean, it's a complete fluke that I was born in NZ to parents who have NZ citizenship. I did nothing for it. I have you nothing for it. It just suddenly obtained it. Doesn't make your citizenship any less meaningful does it? How can it? It's a personal quality that depends on your person. If that's challenged by someone else, it's not the system that requires introspection but you. I'm called Harry. Other people are called Harry too. That's life.

What if we argued that countries have an emotional investment in their citizens? I mean, there are treason laws, right? People being given citizenship without any intangible connection to New Zealand is problematic in this light. The country itself has a brand to protect.

I'm not sure negotiated citizenship betrays that. It's just a different manifestation of the brand. It's not the human face directly. It's not embracing the loyal, the honest, the believers or the home-callers. It's saying, "This person has acted in our interests. We reward that." A half decent rebuttal to what is, at best, a half decent argument, I think. There are many kinds of emotional relationship.

Citizen Thiel represent a problem. Citizen Thiel is an outcome of mishandled negotiations. But the idea of Citizen Thiel is something I'm comfortable with. 

I'd absolutely prefer we give citizenship to people who call NZ home. I would. But if we can make those people who do better off with the odd negotiated grant? I'm going to say we shouldn't take that option off the table. Who does that benefit? Not us.

* I have no issue with Ireland's citizenship laws. Me and them? We have a simpatico relationship. In fact, I very nearly qualify for Irish citizenship. As far as I can tell, if my grandmother had obtained it a few years earlier, I would. Possibly my mother would have had to claim it also, but it's been a while since I looked at this and I've forgotten what I decided the exact issue was. (For reference, citizenship rules are terribly complicated, especially British citizenship.)

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