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The self-styled ‘Land of the Free’ nurtures yet another facet of hypocrisy

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Last month, two members of the U.S. Senate vilified Eduardo Saverin, the cofounder of Facebook Inc., for doing something that Americans are apparently coming to consider a punishable sin.

Sen. Charles Schumer, along with three cosponsors, has introduced a bill in the Senate to go after people like Saverin. On May 24, Sen. Schumer held a press conference in Washington, warning Saverin that the day of reckoning for him and others like him is swiftly approaching.

Saverin, born 30 years ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, spent much of his childhood in Miami, Florida and was the holder of a U.S. passport. However, in September 2011 he renounced his U.S. citizenship. He has been a resident of Singapore since 2009.

If the new measure — named the Ex-Patriot Bill — becomes enacted into law, Saverin may be subject to a special 30 percent tax on capital gains reaped on U.S. property with a net worth of $2 million or more. Even more drastically, he could be barred from entering the United States; in short, rendered persona non grata.

The Ex-Patriot Act would be the name of the law allowing this to be done to Saverin and others — and what an eerie name for an act of Congress that would be!

What in tarnation is an ex-patriot? Is this some kind of klutzy pun on the word “expatriate?”

Sen. Schumer has called Saverin “a great American success story gone horribly wrong. (He) has turned his back on the country that welcomed him and kept him safe, educated him and helped him become a billionaire.”

Before I go any further, I make a full disclosure here: I, too, gave up my U.S. citizenship — though not because I suffer from billionairitis. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be spending 10 minutes at the supermarket unable to decide which tub of tofu I should buy.

On July 6, 1976, just two days after the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I made my own declaration of independence by becoming a citizen of Australia. Some few weeks after this I received an official “Loss of Citizenship Certificate” from the U.S. consulate in Sydney. My sin, of no longer wanting to live in the United States, is equivalent, in American eyes, to glimpsing God and then claiming you are an atheist.

At the time I renounced my U.S. citizenship, the possibility for someone like me to be a dual citizen of Australia and America did not exist. But even had that been possible, I would not have taken it up. I no longer thought of myself as an American, though, unlike Saverin, I was born in the United States.

Now, many millions of people around the world leave their country for another, feel genuinely at home in their new surroundings and assimilate beautifully. Should Norwegians, Indians, Nigerians, Japanese, or citizens of any other nation, be vilified in their country of birth if they emigrate and take U.S. citizenship?

Should all countries around the world punish people for forfeiting their citizenship?

Some countries, as we know, consider the very act of leaving akin to a crime. What North Korea does to its citizens who leave and then return represents only a harsher form of punishment than what Sen. Schumer and his colleagues in the U.S. Senate are advocating. The grossly titled Ex-Patriot Act is a blatant example of the deterioration of all citizens’ rights in the United States.

And yet, it has many gung-ho advocates. Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School, recently lent his weight to the Senate bill.

“Once Americans renounce their membership in our national community,” Ackerman wrote in the Los Angeles Times on May 16, “they should be allowed to return only under exceptional circumstances — in response to the call of a child in a hospital or a mother on her deathbed.”

Two words in his article struck me. The first was “membership.”

Is citizenship a membership for card-carrying patriots? It is not. It is something granted to a person born in the country, among others means of acquiring it. The infant did not choose to be a member of any group, and can, in adulthood, opt out of citizenship at will. Why should there be any penalty for this?

The other word that jolted was “exceptional.”

This neo-con buzzword is nothing more than an excuse for Americans to rewrite the rules of universal rights and principles as their self-styled interests deem it profitable to do so.

And, as far as exceptional circumstances are concerned, who is to define what they are?

In December 1978, I returned to the U.S. — with an American visa stamped in my Australian passport — to attend my father’s 75th birthday celebration. Would Ackerman have barred me from going, seeing as my father was still hale and hearty?

The authors of the proposed Ex-Patriot Act are intent on making sure that every taxpayer resident in the U.S., citizen or not, pays their taxes. This is an admirable goal, against which few would argue.

Saverin legally forfeited his American citizenship before Facebook went public. To tax him on profits with a retrospective new tax and bar him from entering the U.S. is nothing more than an exercise in ex post facto vindictiveness.

Curiously, a similar policy was followed in the U.S.S.R. Jews who migrated to Israel were obliged to “pay the state back” for their education as a prerequisite for leaving.

Wouldn’t it have been better for the Soviet state to treat those emigrants as valuable future assets, as people who, whether they renounced their Soviet citizenship or not, could flow back and forth between the U.S.S.R. and other countries, acting as living cultural links?

The Ex-Patriot Act represents a dangerous first step toward turning America’s perverse and self-aggrandizing exceptionalism into a state-sanctioned excuse for the infringement of rights.

The right to renounce your citizenship — without being punished for doing so — should be as sacred as any other right protected by the state.

Not long after I gave up my American citizenship, I met a lady from the U.S. at a party in Tokyo. When I told her what I had done, she started to tremble; and, with a flushed countenance and an index finger pointed skyward, she said, “I have lived 30 years in Japan but never once have I even contemplated giving up my American citizenship!”

I assured her that my doing so in no way suggested that she or others should follow. To her I had renounced a religion, for that is the form such “Americanism” takes. But even someone who no longer believed in a god, I told her, could still go to a church and admire its beauty.

In 2011, some 1,700 people — for what must be a grand variety of reasons — relinquished their U.S. citizenship. If the Ex-Patriot Act goes on the statute books, some of these people will find their bank accounts assaulted and their freedom of movement restricted by the U.S. government.

The only thing exceptional about this trend is that it is grounded in a pernicious intolerance.

Were I a truly patriotic American, I would consider it an infringement not only of the rights of ex-citizens but also of those people who are proud to be born or naturalized in the United States.

The witch-hunting of the 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts, is taking on new forms in Washington, D.C., in the 21st century.

American citizens at home, be wary: The finger pointing at others can, in a single gesture, be made to point at you.