Washington -- ONE OF the most noble statements on citizenship was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's observation that "only a free contract between the citizen and the government allows the individual . . . to bind himself to all while retaining his free will."
What would the great 18th-century French philosopher think if he were to walk into the complex and changing halls of American citizenship this Fourth of July? What would the nation's founders find?
On this Independence Day, they would find some exquisite naturalization ceremonies, such as the one July 4 at Thomas Jefferson's estate at Monticello; more, they would find gala celebrations across the country among Americans who nevertheless spend little time discussing or thinking about the sacred concept of citizenship.
But if they took time to peer seriously beneath that convivial surface, they would find disturbing changes.
The founders solemnly described citizenship as "a volitionary allegiance . . . a privilege and not a right . . . a band of brethren . . . a covenant . . . the social contract . . . a voluntary community of free men . . . a community of allegiance."
They knew a magnificent, historic secret: Only with citizenship could people rise from subjection under tyrants to be free and self-governing.
And today? Some writers on citizenship talk about the "commoditization" of citizenship, in which the once-solemn bond has become a mere "commodity" (as in convenience, usefulness, profit, advantage, expedience).
In short, to choose to become a citizen or remain an alien is not much different from choosing what to buy for dinner.
The perceptive Kettering Review writes that, in place of citizens, are becoming "tourists of the age," and avers that "from a nation of citizens, we've become a nation of clients."
Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon writes about our becoming a "nation of strangers," while others write of America becoming a transient and disposable "walk-in country."
Meanwhile, the philosophy underlying the change in the concept of citizenship can perhaps be found most cogently in the concepts the aging ideologues of the '60s use for the future. Instead of an American citizenship, they see such philosophical alloys as "regional citizenship" (belonging only to your region), "bi-national citizenship" (belonging equally to two societies) and even "diaspora citizenship" (belonging to the nation you fled from).
On every level, the once-solemn vow of citizenship has been demeaned, diminished, dumbed down. Non-citizens are voting all across the country (easy, with the massive counterfeit document racket). Forty thousand aliens can now get green cards through a carnival citizenship-by-lotto. New citizens no longer have to go through a judicial court ceremony, and "citizenship-by-mail" is being considered. In sharp contrast to the past, Americans today not only fight in foreign armies but even serve as foreign chiefs of state (Serbia, Armenia, the Baltics).
The most extraordinary example of the dumbing-down of the citizenship test is the famous "Question 86" of the 1986 naturalization exam, which asks: "Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States."
To be free? To join a community of human beings with rights and responsibilities to one another? To take full part in the greatest political, civic and economic experiment the world has ever know? Don't be silly!
The acceptable answers in this cynically utilitarian age are "to obtain federal government jobs, to travel with a U.S. passport and to petition for close relatives to come to the United States to live."
How we came to this sorry stage is a sad story. After World War II, the kind of civic education in the schools that had made citizens out of disparate peoples gave way to the hostile-to-America social engineering of political ideologues.
The '60s radicals who so influenced the courts won case after case expanding "rights" for people who had made no commitment to the country (illegal aliens receiving privileged treatment in the schools and hospitals). Individual merit rights passed to adversarial group rights. And intellectuals who believed in utopian "worlds without borders" nibbled away at any unfashionable idea of commitment to "obsolete" nation-states.
The outcome has not been surprising: In 1946, fully 67 percent of legal aliens in America became naturalized citizens, while in the 1990s, a mere 37 percent are becoming citizens. And Americans now see government as distant and alien, something far from the citizens' creation it always was.
The good news this Fourth of July is that there are groups and movements, instinctively feeling the danger, that are coming forward with myriad programs aiming to restore citizenship.
There is still time -- but only some -- because what we see in the disintegration of much of the world, from Serbia to almost all of Africa to much of the former Soviet Union, is no longer unthinkable in the United States.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.