Last December I went to Taiwan to visit my grandmother. Like the Republic of China itself, she had turned 100 earlier in the year. During the trip I spent a day at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Set among lush, green, mist-draped mountains, the museum holds the world’s most spectacular collection of Chinese artifacts—spirited away in wartime by the Nationalists who fled to Taiwan when Mao’s Communists took over the mainland.
On display that morning was a centennial exhibit of 100 masterpieces from the museum’s holdings: famous calligraphic scrolls, priceless porcelain vases, finely carved jadeite cabbages. Each exquisite object was surrounded by a welter of tourists, many from the mainland. Even more stirring than the exhibit was its ambition, the belief that something as vast as Chinese culture and tradition could be captured in a selection of iconic things. The objects, from across dynasties and millennia, were Chineseness; the exhibit, an act of re-Sinicization. It was heritage reinforcement for an audience presumed Chinese.
I wondered, on the long flight home, whether Americanness could be so captured and so reinforced. I don’t doubt that the Smithsonian could create a comparable show with 100 special objects. What I doubt is whether we have today a strong enough sense of shared identity, of common cultural and civic roots, for such an exhibit to capture the country’s imagination.
America is always in flux, but the flux today seems more disorienting than usual. As China emerges rapidly and confidently, as Americans begin to wonder aloud about relative decline, as the center of gravity in our electorate shifts away from white men, as globalization enables immigrants to stay more wedded than ever to their homelands and not their new land, as political paralysis calls into question the durability of our constitutional design—as all these trends converge, a question arises: What is the content of American identity?
Without bonds of blood or tribe or sect to pull its people together, America has always tended toward the centrifugal. We are held together by Black Friday and “I’m lovin’ it,” by bowl games and March Madness, by reality television and virtual water coolers. America’s story of self today is not so much a story as a Twitter feed. Heavily mediated, mainly commercial, and shockingly perishable is the sense of the republic that our public has today.
Of course, from the Revolution onward, America has had available a real story and a great unifying force: the self-evident ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, encoded, even if imperfectly, in the Constitution, and embodied in amendments that made citizenship of the United States something transcendent and vital. Because our country began as an idea, the status of the citizen here has always been more than simply ministerial. It is, at least in theory, a trust; half a social contract. Citizens are promised liberty, and we, in turn, promise to earn it—by sustaining it.
These days, however, talk of citizenship is thin and tinny. The word has a faintly old-fashioned feel to it when used in everyday conversation. When evoked in national politics, it’s often accompanied by the shrill whine of a descending culture-war mortar. Hence the debates in recent years about birthright citizenship and whether such status ought to be denied to so-called “anchor babies,” mostly of Mexican descent. Or, less seriously but no less menacingly, the efforts to push the President of the United States out of the boundaries of American citizenship with a fervently wished-for foreign birth certificate.
When citizenship is drained of content by a commoditizing market and polarized politics, America suffers. Our ability as a people to maintain the democracy we’ve inherited diminishes, as does our ability to adapt to new challenges. We have to revive a spirit of citizenship if we want to remain a people.
That is why it is time now for a movement to re-Americanize Americans. This means reanimating our creed, cultivating the character needed for civic life, and fostering a culture of strong citizenship. Each of these imperatives is subject to abuse and co-optation by those who take a narrow view of what this country is. Which is why I argue that a twenty-first-century Americanization movement must be catalyzed by progressives.
Americanization, Last Time
A hundred years ago, as the great wave of European immigration to the United States peaked, there was a push for Americanization that crossed sector and institution. In public schools, the curriculum was changed to emphasize more American history and to teach patriotic anthems and parables. In urban slums, settlement houses like Jane Addams’s Hull House and hundreds like it taught immigrant adults how to speak English and to assimilate into the “melting pot” of the city. Historic preservation took on greater prominence. From the pulpit came more lessons about American providence. Genealogy became a phenomenon and “heritage” a cultural obsession.
Today, at the end of another great migration to the United States, the will to Americanize is much weaker. That is in part proper. The nineteenth-century Americanizers, in their frantic eagerness, were stifling even when they meant well. As the First World War approached, much of the earnest patriotism of the movement curdled into jingoism and nativism. Excluded altogether from the Americanizing embrace were most people of color, who, whether deemed black, brown, yellow, or red, were the anvil against which various European ethnicities were forged into dominant whiteness.
In ensuing generations, with the emergence of the civil rights movement and multiculturalism, the descendants of those new-century immigrants came to reject the melting-pot ideal and its obliteration of differences. They instead learned to embrace a cosmopolitan pluralism—an identity libertarianism—in which to be American is to be what you want. Out went assimilation, in came authenticity.
Much has been gained in this revolution. Identity libertarians have freed us all to express and create our true selves and enabled the marketplaces of ideas, style, cuisine, and commerce to benefit from real diversity. But what’s been lost is the core of American citizenship. It’s no exaggeration to say that America has never been more confused about what its own citizenship entails—and never more timid about imparting the values, knowledge, and skills needed to be a citizen in the broadest sense.
Citizenship in this nation is many things. It is a legal status conferred by the accident of birth or by the process of naturalization. It is a set of privileges and immunities. But it is also a cultural inheritance, an ethical standard, an implied set of responsibilities, a collective story and memory.
At its core, citizenship in America is an act of claiming. What is being claimed is a creed that emanates from the declaration and finds restatement in the Gettysburg Address and yet again in “I Have a Dream.” How it is claimed is by a combination of collective belief and deeds.
To pour content again into the vessel of citizenship, we need to Americanize anew. To do that, we must reinvent the very notion of Americanization. What I write of is not a deracinating assimilation to a white man’s way. It is not enforcement of partisan orthodoxy. It is taking profoundly seriously how we make an unum from the pluribus. It is about having confidence in what is exceptional about our experiment.
Americanization, This Time
The word “Americanization,” like the word “exceptionalism,” pushes the buttons of many people, especially on the left. To them, it can sound like a cover for white privilege and warmongering. It suggests arrogance and groupthink. In short, Americanization conjures up for some folks the worst of America.
But these connotations are not fixed. It is in our power to reshape them by recalling the best of America, including our capacity to face our history in full. Americanization should mean, “to keep trying to live up to our promise.” Redeeming the idea of Americanization is the very kind of redemptive act that America stands for. Not “my country right or wrong,” but, as the German immigrant and U. S. senator Carl Schurz said a century ago, “our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”
This is true patriotism. To Americanize means to ask people to commit to a set of values. Rights come with responsibilities and opportunities with obligations. You have the right to burn the flag in America—but you should honor the fact that the flag symbolizes that right. You have to be willing to work hard and be enterprising—but if you are, you should be promised a fair chance at success. You are free to sustain the traditions of your ancestral lands—but you should contribute to the development of this land and its rituals.
A new Americanization movement will reinforce these principles. It will instill in young people a sense of why being here is special, even in a networked and transnationalizing age, and what they owe this country. It will sharpen for Americans of all ages a sense of appreciation and responsibility for the institutions of our democracy—and thus our ability to participate in those institutions. It will enable us to face an era of demographic transition with more unity of purpose. And it will prove to us and to the world that for all its profound and tragic flaws, the United States still has a confounding ability to convert its shortcomings into strengths and to remix itself.
This new Americanization program, importantly, is not just for immigrants. It is for everyone. It is for the longstanding citizens who have forgotten or never appreciated the full measure of their inheritance. It is for the chieftains of global companies who think their fates are no longer tied to the fate of this nation. It is for romantics of the far left and far right who think nations and states are obsolete until they need one—this one—to provide for their needs.
A new Americanization program must also be created by everyone. Government can be involved, but so must community foundations, schools, business leaders, union organizers, film and TV producers, social-media mavens. There should be a spirit of wiki to it all, of popular movement, with ideas emerging from the bottom up and not only from experts. Throughout, it should focus on three core elements of a civic religion: creed, character, and culture.
Creed To be Americanized is first to be immersed in the tenets of our democratic faith, expressed in seminal texts, speeches, and stories, from Jefferson’s time to our own.
As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his liberty, and his sacred honor…. Let reverence for the laws…be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in the courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
When a young Abraham Lincoln spoke these words at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, he meant by “reverence for the laws” not mere obedience to authority. He meant reverence for democracy itself—and for the obligations that democratic freedom entails.
To Americanize is to be comfortable telling everyone that what separates this nation from others is that it has a moral identity. Others have history and tradition. We do too, but more than anything, our nation is dedicated to a proposition. That distinction cannot be emphasized enough. When Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality “self-evident,” he was not recording a timeless fact; he was asserting one into being. His saying so, as he declared America, helped make it so.
It falls on us to keep it so. Only continuous renewal of a commitment to the creed keeps the creed alive. Naming it matters: rediscovering the words, saying them again, assaying their meaning. In classrooms, boardrooms, kitchens, and churches, in corner stores and today’s settlement houses, on TV and on Twitter, it’s time to shake off the sleep of cynicism and to awaken in earnest as Americans. It is time to appreciate the content of our creed as if we were all newcomers: with wonder and awe at the world-changingness of it all.
To reanimate the creed we need to focus in part on revitalizing civic education in our schools. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is one advocacy group working to do this. Even though public education in America is a matter largely left to the states, there can and should be a federal requirement that the basic texts and ideas of our nation’s civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral of sophistication, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade. After all, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor notes, this was the very point of creating free and compulsory public education: to make citizens.
The responsibility belongs not only to schoolteachers or education policy-makers. Leaders in every community should take it upon themselves to start contests and public conversations about the American creed: what’s in it, what challenges it, how we honor it, how we have fallen short. The answers will be staggeringly varied—as they are on the DefineAmerican.com website started by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and undocumented immigrant) Jose Antonio Vargas—but they will have a unifying thread of reckoning.
Character Our standard of citizenship in America is centered, constitutionally and rhetorically, on rights. But with rights come duties and with liberty, responsibility; else freedom decays into mere free-for-all. So a second dimension of a new Americanization is the cultivation of citizenship as a matter of character. This is citizenship in the sense of good or great citizenship: living in a pro-social way; showing up for one another; making an adaptive asset of our diversity. Civic character is therefore more than industry, perseverance, and other personal virtues. It is character in the collective: team-spiritedness, mutuality, reciprocity, responsibility, empathy, service, cooperation. It is acting as if you believed that society becomes how you behave—because it does. Character is the thread that ties creed and deed together. What acts instantiate our stated values? With what understanding of our system of self-government? Making what kind of contribution?
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