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. Continue reading “What Does It Even Mean to Be “American”?”