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There was a time when a government, having to provide services for its citizens, was allowed to ask residents if they were citizens
Various translations of the New Testament’s Book of Luke have it that in the days of the birth of Jesus, the great Caesar Augustus gave the order that there was to be a census for the dominions of Rome. As an example, the New International Version has it this way: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.”
The King James Version is a little more stringent in its diction and much more direct on the object of the census: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The point of the census is thus made plain: count ’em and get their coin would be the colloquial rendering. Citizens, and in the case of empire, dependents, too, must be counted, for taxes to be raised.
I learn from the higher scholarship of Google that there is some problem with the date here, the gospel claiming it took place during the reign of Herod the Great, when in fact more mundane sources establish that the census in question took place nine years after victims of the great infanticide crossed the grim Styx into the underworld. But we may leave that quarrel as it is.
Forgive this little introductory saunter but I thought it very mildly worth noting that census-taking seems to have always called up aspects of contention. Far from biblical times you may recall that in the reign of Emperor Harper — Harper the Mild and Scrupulous as the history books will record him — it stirred the anger of Liberals when his government proposed the abandonment of the long-form census. Such was the fondness of Canadians for inquisitive surveys of their habits and loves, and their regard for the bureaucrats who assembled them, that it may well have been this issue alone that brought Justin Trudeau and his Liberals to power. In any case, it was reinstated by them, and the waters of the Rideau have flowed ever so smoothly from that moment on, and Canada remains the peaceful kingdom it has always been as a consequence. Go near the census at your peril, is the motto to be derived.
Down in the states, Emperor Donald the Delightful is experiencing his own difficulties gathering a registry of America’s fine citizens. Previous censuses — censi? (sounds better) — included, as a centrepiece, the innocuous but necessary question: Are you a U.S. citizen? Which to impartial minds can hardly be seen as obnoxious or in any understanding inherently invasive. In fact, were one drawing up a list, or doing a count of American citizens, in other words conducting a census of American citizens — Are you an American citizen? — would surely have to take top billing (if you were a Roman you would call it the sine qua non).
Apparently in these fraught times south of the border, counting your own citizens, asking those who live in the U.S. if they are U.S. citizens, crosses some novel and absurd line of political correctness. The Democrats reacted to this proposal in the manner of scalded and bad-mannered cats, and mirabile dictu there was a ruling from a high court judge that it could not be asked. For those opposing the move it was argued — though the word has to be stretched to cover this point — that asking American citizens if they were American citizens “could deter minorities and immigrants, even those in the United States legally, from taking the survey.”
What a very strange world we are in and what strange times prevail. To tax and provide for citizens all that governments provide, surely they must know who and how many they are? Determining who is a citizen and who therefore is not, has to be the primal information of the state. That it is even contested, that the matter goes to the courts, that a court rules against it are pages from an as-yet-unwritten Alice in Wonderland. Very much like the question of borders. Nations have borders and nations decide who shall become new citizens and who shall not.
These were once accounted verities, axioms so basic that they had Euclidean standing. But principles and axioms are as free-floating balloons these days and everything can easily be determined to be the opposite of what it is. A very easy example, but one which I’ll offer to suggest the quality of so many of the others, is that a group calling itself Antifa (anti-fascist) is actually a black-clad, face-masked, violent gang of fascists. It is a world in which the mob beating of a gay journalist of Vietnamese descent — under the eyes of a police force — earns the description (from some quarters) as a pre-emptive strike against white supremacy and racism.
As said, a strange world. A government can’t ask who its citizens are. How far we’ve come. In age, memory grows fallible, but in my twilight I seem to recall a time — or is it a dream? — when we knew what men and women were, and even more ludicrously, knew it from their very birth. Ah, it’s as the poet said: Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
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