The cultivation of strong citizens does not happen automatically, any more than the cultivation of healthy plants does. Democracy is a garden in which the organisms are interdependent. Developing civic character is the work of gardening—of tending the plot. In a multiethnic market democracy like ours, we cannot rely on a myth of rugged individualism to hold us together. We have to seed and feed trust. We reap what we sow. Educators need to teach not just civic facts and history but also the elements of civic character: what it means to be in union with others. That requires doing real things together and reflecting on the shared experience. In schools, it means more service learning that’s tied to an understanding of American institutions. Take students to serve in a church food bank, for instance, but also discuss the civic role of faith-based groups. What can citizens make happen with and without government, with and without each other?
In government policy, cultivating civic character means adding more resources for AmeriCorps and other national service programs—but also grounding them more explicitly in elements of American citizenship. In parenting and child rearing, it means teaching and rewarding even the smallest acts of courtesy and cooperation because they compound. In philanthropy and community life, it means creating more opportunities for adults to learn how to do democracy.
During the Great Depression, grassroots citizenship schools like the Highlander Folk School in Appalachia emerged for just this purpose. Highlander is where Rosa Parks was trained to organize. It was where she learned that civic character is expressed in the choices we make. She was prepared by her teachers to make the right choice as a citizen when the time came. What institutions prepare us now?
Culture As it happens, the Highlander School is also where an old black spiritual was adapted and then popularized into a movement anthem called “We Shall Overcome.” American democracy makes us a promise that only we can keep. This faith requires a rich, suffusing culture of unity: anthems, rituals, colors, civic scripture set and reset in new creative contexts.
The third aspect of Americanization, then, is introducing Americans to the patterns of our civic culture—how we have governed ourselves, by law or custom, and lived in community over 200 years. One such pattern is promise, failure, and redemption. This is the foundational story of slavery and civil rights. Another is the generation of hybrid innovations from our miscegenated gene and meme pool. This is the story of American music, of Silicon Valley’s ingenuity.
I believe the new Americanization agenda must reveal and express both these story patterns: the profound ways, past and present, that we have fallen short of our stated ideal; and our resilient, adaptive ability to take our failures as the stuff of new invention. Slavery’s legacy is evident in de facto segregation and in the severe inequality of our schools. It is found too in the voice of every American, in the warp and woof of the American vernacular. We Shall Overcome.
To teach Americanness is to celebrate the ideal and the real as one, without irony or ambivalence. It is to use a shared language in public life—American English, with a democratic accent—so that we may transcend unshared private histories. It is to invoke a civic religion that infuses our many narratives with common purpose. In 1982, the liberal producer Norman Lear created a pageant for ABC called “I Love Liberty” that grabbed hold of both the cultural patterns I described above. With the Muppets and multicultural celebrities, with earnestness and absurdity, it depicted the turmoil and contradiction of our founding—and the insistent promise of our future.
We need to have the self-assurance to create new pageants, to invoke and remix the rituals and symbols our own way: the flag, the hymns, the oaths. We can’t fear causing offense. A people scared to say the Pledge of Allegiance is nearly as unhealthy as one scared not to. What we must remember is that we get to continually reinvent and rewrite that pledge, this culture.
That’s why recently I helped launch a civic-artistic project called Sworn-Again American. It mashes up aspects of a naturalization ceremony, a multicultural festival, and a revival tent to make a playful public experience in which Americans recommit to the content of their citizenship. What we should celebrate more than diversity is what we do with it. How do we bring everyone in the tent and create something together? In a twenty-first century way that activates our true potential, we all need to become sworn-again.
The Role of Progressives
What I’ve called for here may cause many progressives heartburn. I admit that this new Americanization agenda sounds like—indeed, is—something conservatives promote. But I disagree that it should be something only conservatives promote. Progressives should be front and center.
Why? The promise of American life is a promise of justice, requiring action not passivity, challenge not complacency; and is therefore progressive. The effort to nudge the country toward alignment with its stated ideals is asymptotic: We can keep halving the distance to perfection, but it remains infinitely out of reach. With the goal never fully attainable, the pursuit becomes then an act of faith, and therefore progressive. Progressivism is nothing if not the belief that something “more perfect” is worth striving for.
Some progressives contest the very idea of citizenship and dispute the need even for nation-states. They are too utopian. Other progressives hold the American nation-state in low regard because of a track record of racism and war and empire. They are too cynical. They do not see that inherent in the hypocrisy of so many American acts—in fact, what makes hypocrisy hypocrisy and not mere iniquity—is the existence of a higher professed standard.
We are called still, all of us, to live up to that standard. The best tradition of the American left is a tradition of love for America: insistent, impatient, often disappointed, but unrelenting. And the best hope for America tomorrow is that across lines of left and right we find ways to articulate common purpose—not by glossing over hypocrisies but by unpacking them; by treating them as the beginning of a chapter rather than the end of the story.
It’s time for a civic synthesis that speaks to the tension between a Western WASP inheritance and a diverse multicultural present; between words in marble and a more sordid reality; between liberty and equality; freedom from and freedom to—because that tension is what is American. In every setting we can, progressives and conservatives must teach to the tension together. And progressives should initiate the dialectic—because in America we always have.
There are some progressives who say that conservatives, consumed with culture war, are incapable of teaching to the tension. Maybe. But they should take a look at What So Proudly We Hail, a recent anthology of American stories and songs whose editors include Leon Kass, the conservative scholar and former adviser to President George W. Bush. Every prefatory note in that collection speaks to the tension and complexity of American identity. Not a note incites culture war.
There are some conservatives who would double over laughing at the notion of progressives leading the charge to reanimate a love of American citizenship. But I would refer them to A Patriot’s Handbook, a similar and similarly powerful anthology of civic religious texts assembled by Caroline Kennedy.
Together, these collections remind us that the most useful way to be progressive is to conserve: to honor and maintain the deeply revolutionary, once-in-a-world tradition of our creed and culture. And the most useful way to be conservative is to progress: to enable the American idea to adapt to changing times so that the idea itself may endure forever and ever.
Lines of Descent and Ascent
At the National Palace Museum, beholding those objects made epochs ago—ten or 12 Americas ago—I marveled at the continuity of the line. But that line of Chineseness, a shared sensibility expressed in brushstrokes and carvings and in ratios of form to space, is in the end rooted in the soil and heart of China.
A European, an African, or a black or white American can appreciate those lines. They cannot claim them. When an American of Chinese descent like me can, it only sharpens the realization that of the two identities I might claim, only one is by design universal. Only one is an open operating system inviting people from anywhere to rewrite the code. Only one asks humans to be better.
American exceptionalism in this age of great tectonic shifts does not depend on our forever having the largest economy or the mightiest military. It does depend on our having the planet’s most adaptive and resilient concept of citizenship, one that rises above land and blood, that commits us to a national lifetime of striving, failing, renewing, striving again to dedicate ourselves to our proposition.
We live in a great country. It’s time again to get religion about it.
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