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Learning to be an American

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Over at National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke, a “British subject living in America,” takes a look at what it means to be an American. Expanding on Ronald Reagan’s famous quote that “you can go to live in Turkey but you can’t become a Turk. You can’t go to live in Japan and become Japanese. But…anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and be an American,” Cooke explores what it is–beyond having the right papers and simply being in America–that makes one an American.

So what is it that makes an American an American? Cooke writes:

“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 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.

It is the ideas that are important, and without them, America would no longer be America, Cooke argues. He concludes with this wonderful description from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “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.

Read the whole article here.