Yeah, we complain about America. We do it on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. We complain about America standing in line at Safeway, at Starbucks, and at the barbershop. We especially complain about America online where most of us enjoy the safety of anonymity. Our right to publicly complain about our country and our politicians is surely the most precious of our Constitutional rights as Americans.
But there’s almost always a point where we draw the line, a point where we willingly, even passionately defend our nation, warts and all. That’s not an American thing, but a human thing — go to any nation on the planet and you will find the local citizenry will just as passionately defend their own nation, no matter how tyrannical their government may be.
For example, a few weeks ago I received a response to an article I wrote concerning the inevitable failure of what I termed the white supremacists’ race war against nonwhites. The response implied that immigrants do not truly assimilate but build enclaves of their own and do not interact well with immigrants from other nations. His point was (in so many words) that we should take measures to ensure immigrants assimilate more effectively, and that America should “protect their constructed American identity and the American culture.” He warned that failure to do so would likely lead to increased violence, and opined of other nations in which immigrants have not assimilated.
Despite all the times I’ve castigated my country and its citizens, this got my proverbial goat. I mean, when it comes to pointing out the things America does wrong, the amount of paper necessary to list the accurate accusations would kick global deforestation into high gear. If you’re going to talk smack about America, at least be accurate about it. The target’s almost too big to miss!
What the individual wrote evinced sheer ignorance about what America has become over the past century or so. Yes, there are tens of millions of Americans who are deeply afraid of anyone with skin darker than their own, or a woman wearing a hijab, or a Sikh man wearing his turban, or even people speaking a language with which the hearer is not familiar. Racism and xenophobia are woven into the very fabric of our nation. Perhaps “warts” isn’t the right metaphor; instead, maybe I should refer to our racial and xenophobic heritage as a form of chronic-but-treatable leprosy, the symptoms of which sometimes come in the form of spots where the skin is much whiter than it should be.
So where did the guy go wrong in his criticism of America?
There’s something not just special about America, but unique in all human history.
It’s not that we’re the most powerful or the richest nation in human history, nor that American culture has spread to every other nation or culture on the planet. Instead, it’s the simple fact that anyone from anywhere — if they can come to America — can truly be American. Note that this isn’t referring to mere American citizenship, but to be accepted as truly American.
Think about that for a moment. Someone who is not ethnically Japanese can not move to Japan and be accepted by the locals as truly Japanese. Could I emigrate to Brazil and be truly considered Brazilian by the locals? No. Could someone not ethnically Han Chinese ever become the premier of China, or could an ethnic Asian from the vast steppes of eastern Russia ever hope to become president of Russia? I’ve got a house and perhaps a hundred extended family members in the Philippines, but I could never be considered a Filipino. Other than America, the one nation on the planet where the culture comes closest to welcoming émigrés is that of the United Kingdom.
To be sure, there are some immigrants who were very successful, at least at first glance. There’s Alberto Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru who became the president of Peru from 1990 to 2000, but the story didn’t end well since he’s still in prison today. There’s Sonia Gandhi, an Italian woman who married an Indian man, immigrated to India, and became a powerful politician who stood a very real chance at becoming their prime minister if she had chosen to do so. But it is unlikely that she would have had such an opportunity if her husband had not been the son of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and heir to the powerful Gandhi name (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi).
There are other arguments against my claim of America’s radical inclusion. Given our history of slavery and Jim Crow, of the Japanese Internment, of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, of the Civil Rights struggle, and the Trump administration’s full-throated racism, it is true, and tragically so, that tens of millions of Americans haven’t received the memo yet and still wallow in racism and anti-immigrant nationalism. But there’s also the positive examples set by other nations such as England’s (albeit sometimes half-hearted) fight against slavery beginning in the early 1800s, and the ready acceptance of Black American soldiers during WWI by the French civilians:
Black soldiers received a warm welcome from French civilians, who, unlike white troops of the American army, exhibited little overt racism. “They treated us with respect,” one soldier recalled, “not like the white American soldiers.” These interactions further contributed to the image of France as a nation free of racial discrimination and uniquely committed to universal democratic rights.
— Chad Williams, Hamilton College
Ever since the end of WWII, most of America has gradually come to accept the fact that we are indeed a nation of immigrants. The words of Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus on the Statue of Liberty may be said to be our nation’s ‘mission statement’ in purest verse.
The great majority of Americans nonetheless recognize the immigrant character of our nation and accept it, even eagerly so. Perhaps the best indicator of this is California, where non-Hispanic Whites now comprise 37.2% of California’s population, and California is (if it were its own nation) now the fourth-largest economy on the planet. Despite the problems California has, there’s a large number of immigrants and refugees living that proverbial American dream. Xavier Becerra once said, “ As goes California, so goes the nation.” Other states have made the same claim, but none can hope to match the economic or cultural influence California wields today.
The great success of first- and second-generation immigrants brings us to the question: who is the single most admired man in America? President Barack Obama, the child of a Kenyan immigrant. Who’s the most admired woman in America? The woman who shares his life, his wife, Michelle Obama. Only in America are achievements like theirs even possible. It’s not just his own remarkable story, but one of the very real opportunities that awaits all immigrants and refugees in our nation. In his remarks where he awarded former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
As the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat, Madeleine’s courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world. And as an immigrant herself — the granddaughter of Holocaust victims who fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child — Madeleine brought a unique perspective to the job. This is one of my favorite stories. Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, “Only in America can a refugee meet the Secretary of State.” And she replied, “Only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State.”
Somali-American refugee Ilhan Omar serves as the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s Fifth congressional district.
As early as 1782, the phrase “melting pot” was being used to describe America. There is no — and perhaps never has been — a single identifiable “American culture” or “American identity,” for our culture has been changing ever since our nation’s founding. This is why the sobriquet melting pot fits so well, for every different culture within our borders — whether immigrant or native-born — is a different ingredient, if you will, adding spice and flavor, heartiness and nutrition, texture and contrast to the stew roiling and boiling in that pot.
Have some, there’s plenty to go around! Yes, the bitterness is too strong right now, but give it a few more years and the savor and sweetness and spiciness will return, reflecting all the possible flavors of humanity, and it never tastes quite the same way twice. It’s very good, if you’ll accept it on its own merits, and it is best enjoyed by the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, and the wretched refuse of distant teeming shores.
And you can have this experience only in America.
This is why, for all her warts and boils, and despite her cultural leprosy of racism and xenophobia, I do believe in America, hold her close to my side, and love her still.