J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur
Since before the foundation of our country, this has been the existential question of our time - what is an American? What does it mean? How is it defined? Who qualifies as being an American?
With recent events, I fear we need to ask ourselves this question again. Now more than ever.
It is a harder question to answer in the affirmative than you would imagine.
We can say for certain what it is not. American is not a singular race, nor is it a particular people group.
There is not a singular American culture. There is no one American cuisine, no one dialect, no one American experience.
We are not of a single religion, despite some protestations otherwise. There is no Church of America.
We are not all one color, one size, one shape.
We share no singular origin.
Further, American is not bound by a specific geographic location. Not bound to a singular language. Not bound to a single history.
Instead, we are what we have always been - a diverse group of outcasts held together by a collection of ideals.
"The chief ideal of the American people is idealism."
President Calvin Coolidge
We hold tightly to some of the best ideals ever put to paper. That all men, that all people are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights - by definition, God given rights that cannot be taken away. Rights to life. To liberty - to freedom in many senses of the word. To the pursuit of happiness.
We believe the government is of the people. That it derives its power and its life from the very people that it governs. That it is crafted and sustained by the people. They fill its halls, they make the laws, and they in turn enforce them. And that ultimately it exists for the people. Government is for the benefit of the people, not the other way around.
That we have given the government a purpose. A reason for existing. To form a more perfect Union. To establish justice. To insure domestic tranquility or peace. To promote a general level of welfare. To secure the blessings of liberty, not just for ourselves, but for those that will come behind us.
We have not always done a great job in living up to these ideals. We have struggled with equality for all people. We have struggled with having the government benefit the governed, not the governors. We struggle with securing the blessings of liberty for our posterity, and not just being focused on the now, the immediate, the self-centered us.
But, by and large, we as Americans define ourselves by these ideals. These lofty goals that bind us when we pledge our allegiance to this nation.
The problem with having ideals at the center of a national identity is that they are intangible; they only have the meaning we assign to them.
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean a 'nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "Whether you can make words mean different things - that's all."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
Through the Looking Glass
As discussed above, we have struggled in the past because we have tried to change their definitions. We want to be able to define who qualifies as "men" when we refer to "all men" being created equal, so that we can control exactly who we must acknowledge. We have excluded based on gender, believing it only referred to men specifically. We have exclude based on color, believing evil notions of racial superiority. Even codifying a system in which a darker color would make someone 3/5 of a person. A contradiction right in our founding documents.
We are at this point again. We are seeking to control the definitions.
Our president has long been seeking to end birthright citizenship. The principle of jus soli, or the idea that you are a citizen of the place where you were born. That you are forever tied to the soil your feet land on. This week, he ended birthright citizenship for children born overseas to United States service members. Think through that, we've ended birthright citizenship for the children who for whatever reason are born overseas to the very people defending our country.
We're narrowing our definitions for political gain. We want to stop "anchor babies." We want to discourage or outright end most forms of immigration. We want to pick and choose who can be an American.
As if that were not dangerous enough, it goes even further than that. When our identity is tied up in our ideals, we can accuse those who do not hold up to our version of those ideals as no longer belonging. Those on the right can accuse those on the left of being "un-American," and vice versa. To accuse those who disagree as being disloyal. To suggest that particular groups should leave.
It's no longer enough to cling to these ideals. We're requiring an extra claim; a stronger tie.
We're looking to require uniformity where liberty once reigned.
"It has always been cited as an irrepressible symptom of America's vitality that her people, in fair times and foul, believe in themselves and their institutions."
We have to recognize that differences and disagreements are part of our national identity. That we are meant to wrestle with how to proceed as a nation. It's meant to be hard. Because when it's hard, when we push through it and reach compromise and consensus, it's worth it.
We have to recognize that there will be times we have to be pushed into progress when we don't want to face it. We as a nation had to have racial equality thrust upon us for it to take root. And we are still having to deal with those consequences.
We have to recognize that it is our differences that define us. That there is a constant pull in this country between experiences. Between black and white. Male and female. North and South. East and West. Coastal and fly-over. City and country. 1st Generation and 3rd/4th/5th generation. Naturalized and Immigrant. Religious and not. Further, we must recognize that it is these differences that make us greater than the sum of our parts.
We have to recognize how we got here. Who we are.
We are a nation of outcasts and runaways. There are too few of us who can claim an uninterrupted direct link to the soil of this nation when we trace our full lineage. For the vast majority of us, we are the products of immigration to this land, and often, we represented the groups our old countries wanted to get rid of. Those groups they didn't want.
We were the religious heretics, the undesirables, the lower social classes.
The tired. The poor. The huddled masses. The wretched refuse. The home-less. Tempest-tossed.
We are a nation of dreamers. We came together, we sought this land, because we believed in its ideals. Because we sought freedom. Liberty. Equality. The American Dream. The eternal promise. The huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
We are a nation of borrowers. We have borrowed pieces from every culture, every race, every nation, every tongue, and every tribe to cobble together this country we call America. We see this in our language, in our food, in our art, and in our principles of government.
This is how our melting pot is formed, in the best sense of the analogy. From each group that comes to our shores, they contribute the best of themselves. They join and impact our culture, and we in turn, impact theirs.
We are the ultimate shared experience. The ultimate neighborhood. The ultimate village to raise a person. To better each other. To love each other. To share with each other.
Maybe then, we can truly live up to the ideals that we claim. Maybe then we will be the western pilgrims.
Maybe then we can call ourselves Americans.
"He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims."
J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur