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.
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