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.
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