Politics & Policy

Learning to Be an American

Our national project rests on transcendent ideas — including a belief in capitalism.

Recently, John Sununu apologized for saying that he wished that “this president would learn how to be an American.” Whether he should have walked back his statement is up for debate. But, that particular incident aside, the notion that there is such a thing as “an American” and that one can be good or bad at being one is not self-evidently a ridiculous idea, as some have made it out to be.

I am not an American but a British subject living in America. I could, however, become an American. If I did, what would that mean? To some, perhaps, it would merely mean that I had conformed to the laws dictating how long I had to be in the country before I could be naturalized, and then that I had asked the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to do its thing and issue me an official piece of paper. Certainly, this it how it works in most countries: There might be some basic rules that applicants must follow, but, beyond the strict legal meaning of the transition, there is little else. Were I, for example, to move to India, I am sure that I could become a citizen of that country if I so wished. But I would not become an Indian. This is not so in America, and to observe the distinction is relatively uncontroversial. “Being an American,” it seems reasonable to suggest, is much more than getting hold of the right paperwork and being physically present or — in the case of most Americans — being born into it.

So what is it? Well, it’s certainly nothing to do with race. The American doctrine that “all men are created equal,” as laid out so elegantly in the Declaration of Independence, quickly puts paid to that. It is this that made the evils of slavery, segregation, and other forms of racism so acutely intolerable in the United States, for it is one thing to be racist in a country defined only by its borders but quite another to be so in a country defined by its principles. “All men are created equal” is a fact of nature, but it is also a proposition that many still reject; and the degree to which one subscribes to it is closely related to how good one is at being an American. There are terrible Americans who were born in the United States and great Americans who were born abroad. Paul Johnson, who wrote a wonderful History of the American People, was born in England, but he understands the country perfectly; Howard Zinn, who was born in Brooklyn, does not.

There are a host of similar American propositions, and most of them are fully testable. This is why America has a citizenship test. Would it not be “un-American,” for example, to oppose free speech? One has to understand the axiom and vow to uphold it in order to be naturalized not simply because it is the law of the land, but because it is a foundational principle without which the American idea ultimately cannot operate. This and the other core principles are neatly outlined in the national guidebooks, which include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, and so forth. Such works have made the world intimately familiar with the propositions of the American project and have acted as a magnet to immigrants from all over the globe. In contradistinction, ask somebody what Belgium is for and they will be hard-pressed to answer you — there is no such thing as the Belgian “promise” or the Belgian “dream,” and those who spoke of such things would be looked at with reasonable suspicion.

So prominent are ideas in America that they are put on the money: “In God We Trust,” “E Pluribus Unum,” and “Liberty” are — literally — forged into the currency of the nation. In Britain, by way of contrast — a nation that helped write America’s values and then largely abandoned them at home — the money features a picture of the Queen, some functional words, and a few decorations. This difference is important.

In an episode of Da Ali G Show, the fictional character Borat interviews an American and asks her why America is the best country in the world:

Borat: “Which country is the number one in the world?”

American: “I think, right now the US.”

Borat: “Don’t you think maybe Kazakhstan is the number one?”

American: “No.”

Borat: “But we have a man with the biggest amount of fingers. He has eight fingers. Do you have it?”

American: “Does he have the right to vote? The freedom to speak?”

Borat: “Weeell . . . Not so much. But we have the biggest goat in the world. Oh no. Hungary has number one. But US has number five. Are we number one country now?”

True to Sacha Baron Cohen’s style, this is heavy-handed. But it strikes at something important. Borat proudly lists many of the commendable (albeit fictional) virtues of his country — “Kazakhstan number one exporter of potassium!” — and the American calmly reminds him that American ideas are why the country transcends all others. Is it too radical to propose that national greatness thus relies upon people following these very ideas?

Reflexive, frivolous, and opportunistic charges of “racism” aside, the reason that Sununu stirred such controversy with his comment about Obama’s learning to be American was that it dealt with something not explicitly articulated in any of the founding documents. As I understand it, the outcry against Sununu derives, at least in part, from the fact that he was criticizing Obama for not being a very good capitalist — and that, per Oliver Wendell Holmes, “capitalism” and “America” are not interchangeable. I’m not at all convinced of that. Capitalism is the only economic system compatible with the form of government laid out in the Constitution. And, even if capitalism is not enumerated in that document, the role of government is. You really cannot have American constitutional government with a different economic system. Progressives ultimately know this, which is why they disdain the charter and seek fundamentally to transform it.

So uncontroversial is this notion that the citizenship test explicitly asks which system of economics the United States enjoys: The correct answer is “capitalism.” I would argue that, if it is reasonable to potentially deny people citizenship based on their failure to understand this tenet of the republic, then it is also reasonable to judge someone’s capacity to be a good or a bad American by the same token.

Abraham Lincoln started his Gettysburg Address with these words:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.

Lincoln was fighting both to keep the union intact and to rid the nation of slavery. But he also understood acutely that, if America disappeared, so did its underlying ideas, which is why he finished his short oration with the earnest hope that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” He was correct to so worry. If the Union had lost the war, then others could well have interpreted the Civil War as living proof that a republic built on presumptions of liberty simply could not persist. As such, America’s survival was important not only to Americans but to all free people.

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it this way in “The Swimmers”:

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

Ideas require willing, and some hearts are more willing than others.

 — Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.


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