We live in confused times in the United States. Even fundamental questions evade answer, such as one of the most basic of all:
What does it even mean to be “American”?
This issue is being seriously considered for the first time in decades, certainly for the first time in my thirty-five years. It’s always been assumed that “everyone” knew, but questions lurked somewhere in the national discourse. But this past year, especially, it’s become been a huge part of the zeitgeist.
So . . . what are Americans? What are we? Has this ever been satisfactorily answered in our entire history?
Are we a “nation of immigrants”? Is being an American a set of “beliefs”? Is there an ethnic or racial component? Is it a legal status?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Early immigration laws clearly had a racial component . . . but then again, race-based slavery was legal at this time. These early immigration laws also required an oath and proof of good character.
Obviously, we’ve thankfully jettisoned the racial aspect, but still have the oath of citizenship. But if being American is just adherence to a set of beliefs, what about people that were natural born American citizens? What if they don’t believe in “America,” whatever that means?
Do you see where I’m going with this?
I think about my own family sometimes. All but one of my grandparents was born here, and that one came when he was 17. He is the only one who had to take any kind of oath of citizenship. So, does that make him more American than the rest of us?
If being American means adhering to a set of beliefs, how do you test whether somebody really believes this, or is going through the motions just to get citizenship? Do we really want a state powerful enough to be able to determine this?
Or do you make the requirements so onerous that only the truly dedicated will succeed in becoming a citizen, thereby proving their belief?
If being American means adhering to a set of beliefs, do you have to test everybody, even if they were born here, regardless of how long their family has been here?
This questions seem silly, but they’re relevant in light of an important fact:
We have no agreement about what it means to be an American.
None. Every group, whether it’s political, racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious seems to have its own definition. I suppose this is the result of two powerful forces:
- The fact that, save for the American Indians, there is no agreed-upon “American” ethnicity; and
- The American idea of individualism: How dare you tell me who or what I am?
Other countries don’t provide great examples for comparison’s sake. No matter how long I live there, if I move to France or Denmark or Saudi Arabia or Japan, I’ll never be “French” or “Danish” or “Arabian” or “Japanese.” In fact, the only place I could move to, get citizenship, and actually be considered “one of them” . . . is Greece!
So do we want a racial or ethnic component here in the United States? It’d be easy, right? If you’re the descendant of the original European settlers, the ancestor of an African slave, or are American Indian, you certainly have more of a racial or ethnic claim to being “American” than I do.
But this feels ikcy, doesn’t it? Nations like Japan and China and Israel are big on things like this. But we’re America, dammit! We’re different!
And a racial or ethnic aspect? Are you trying to tell me that my Korean buddies from law school aren’t “real” American? Or my friend in graduate school whose family was originally from Ghana? Or my wife’s parents, who are from the old-country and became legal citizens?
Remember, it’s not just a light skinned-dark skinned thing: At one time the Irish, the Italian, and yes, even the Greek were considered of lesser, un-American stock. So I’m pretty sensitive to this.
Yet at the same time, we can’t deny that demographics have a lot to do with culture. Witness what’s happening with the changes in Europe. Millions of people from other continents settling in Germany and England and Holland an Sweden will change local cultures, no matter how much you don’t like that fact.
“But we’re better than this!” we like to think. “Being in American changes people for the better!”
It seems to me that basing your entire national identity on a “set of beliefs” is a nearly impossible position to maintain. And yet it may be the best that we’ve got.
We pride ourselves on being the most successful multi-ethnic country that the world has ever seen. I happen to agree with this point.
How did we do this? By insisting on total assimilation. This might be the only way to have a multi-ethnic country not fall apart into a collection of tribalistic and hostile ethnic communities. You know, sort of like what we have now.
I can’t see any other solution than insisting on assimilation. This is easier said than done.
Assimilation takes time, but it can be done. This is why the only solution in my opinion is strict border control and immigration enforcement based on limiting how many people can come in per year to give new arrivals time to get used to speaking English and concepts of limited government and the overall American culture, including practices and norms, dos and do-nots. Otherwise, I see no other way to keep this country, already fraying, from completely coming apart.
Social cohesion is difficult to create and easy to destroy. After all, if we all don’t even speak the same langauge, how can we be expected to get along?
I’m anticipating a flood of angry and nasty comments in reaction to this post. Oh well. Another thing that many think–me included–goes into the definition of being American is respectfully stating what you believe and engaging in the free exchange of ideas.
You can see I’ve thought this through and have come to a logical conclusion. I’d love to hear yours.
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