At a party recently, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union backed me against the wall and told me to write about the government's policy of deporting Salvadoran refugees. The lawyer persisted, leaving me only to fetch some reading materials -- a fact sheet, her own congressional testimony and a study of the subject by a professor at MIT. Oh boy, Washington parties can be a load of laughs.
For about two weeks, the various documents rested on my desk at home, unread. But one day, something happened that prompted me to read them: Rupert Murdoch, a media baron in three nations, announced he and a partner would buy seven American television stations and, as required by law, he would become a U.S. citizen.
Let me be the first to welcome Murdoch to the United States and to say that this is the worst reason for citizenship I have ever heard. Here is a man who approaches the oath-taking with the wet-eyed sentiment of a title search: just something to do before closing a $2 billion deal. He comes to these shores like a caricature of the storied immigrant of old -- not seeking to better himself and his children but seeking, instead, to go from super-rich to super-richer.
It is the role of the Rupert Murdochs of this world to instruct by mocking both convention and tradition. He publishes newspapers that other publishers shy from even reading -- and does not seem to care. He finds a place in this world for naked women and headless infants, for the realities of race and class and ethnic insecurities -- for a New York Post that double-dares you not to read it. "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar." G'wan. Take a peek.
And now, as perhaps his finest service, Murdoch mocks the very notion of nationalism -- that it even matters that much. There's irony in that if only because Murdoch's newspapers are prototypes of jingoism. It was his Sun in England that during the Falklands war celebrated the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline "Gotcha!" and The New York Post strikes a similar chauvinistic stance in this country. Murdoch himself, though, now evidences a supreme indifference to it all. He's going to the USA. Dear reader, you have been suckered. His ultimate loyalty is to his fortune. Gotcha!
The framers of the law requiring Murdoch to become an American citizen naively supposed that citizenship was synonymous with allegiance and sentiment -- and that television was too powerful a medium to fall into the clutches of foreigners. But what is the sentiment when citizenship is only an incidental part of a business deal?
Only six years ago, Murdoch came close to swearing undying fealty to his native Australia: "Who in this room can say that I am not a good Australian or a patriotic one?" Naturally, television stations were at stake. Now he stands, cap in hand, before the Statue of Liberty -- just another immigrant seeking a media empire.
A spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Murdoch would get what Murdoch was entitled to -- and citizenship was unquestionably one of those things. Fine. That same spokesman then explained the difference between Rupert Murdoch of Australia who is aleady a resident alien and some Salvadoran wading into the country via the Rio Grande. Fine again. I understand -- I swear I do. But I also understand that American citizenship means more to the latter than to the former -- maybe even the difference between life and death -- and that Rupert Murdoch probably could not get in if his name were Ruperto Murdocho.
The stuff the ACLU lawyer handed me told the usual story of heartbreak -- of poor, wretched people being sent back to El Salvador because the government said they were economic, and not political, refugees. The law is complicated. But a law that makes citizenship a requirement for making huge amounts of money while withholding it from those who want only to make modest amounts, makes no sense. Murdoch once again has done the impossible. It took $2 billion, but he's cheapened American citizenship.