What Does It Mean To Be An American?
There were several articles that had little actually in common that made me stop and think - what does it really mean to be an American? Part of my thinking was triggered by this article by John Derbyshire on NRO. What passes today for an American "intellectual" in many cases is someone who is violently anti-American. Many other articles by a dozen different pundits added to my growing realization that most people living in this country have forgotten what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America.
I've been thinking a lot about this for over a week now. IMHO, there are four facets of being an American: our personal lives, our public behavior, our political activities, and our patriotism. A weakness in one area can be overcome by strength in another. A weakness in two areas makes us a weak citizen. A weakness in three or more areas means we've forgotten what it means to be an American, and need help, desperately.
Our Personal LivesThe most important single factor in being an American is the knowledge and acceptance of the vast amount of personal freedom we have. Americans today enjoy freedoms found in only a few places in the world, and nowhere in such abundance. Lacking, however, among many Americans is the acknowledgment of the personal responsibility that goes with that freedom - the responsibility to not only acknowledge the freedom of others, but to support and defend it.
Being an American means having the opportunity to do whatever we choose to do, and to do it to the best of our ability. We have the right to change jobs, to work for ourselves if we choose, to move to any other part of the country, to marry whom we wish (within reason), to have as many children as we think we can afford, to worship (or not) in a way we feel is right, and pretty much live our lives as we see fit. Being an American also means accepting personal responsibility for our actions and decisions, living within our means, taking care of the needs of our families, and doing what we must to live our lives as we wish. Freedom is a two-sided coin, and responsibility is the obverse. Without responsibility, freedom soon degrades into license.
There's more of a personal commitment required to be an American than that, however. There's the responsibility to see that any children we have are given basically the same opportunities we had - to get a worthwhile education, the right to look for a job that supplies our needs and makes us happy, the right to buy a home and have a family. We have the responsibility to leave the world at least no worse off because of our presence, and better off if possible. We have the responsibility to make good decisions, based on what we know about the subject being decided. We have the responsibility to think, and to reason, and to make decisions both in our best interest and in the best interest of the nation as a whole, wherever possible. We do not have the right to demand that others provide for our needs without justifiable cause. We have the responsibility to set a good example for our children, to act as responsible adults if there's a potential for danger. We also have the right and the privilege of acting like children if our behavior won't harm any others. Finally, we have the responsibility to accept the consequences of our bad decisions, our failures, and our mistakes. We have the right to be an individual, to make personal decisions, and to accept the rewards and consequences of those decisions.
Public BehaviorWe have the right to be an unmitigated boor at home, but in public, we have a responsibility to treat others with respect. After all, we wish to be treated with respect wherever we go and whatever we do. That requires that we accept certain social rules and mores that society establishes through decades of trial and error. Social requirements aren't necessarily legal rules, but those that break them face some form of consequences. Deliberately breaking rules and flaunting social strictures are acts detrimental to the smooth functioning of a society. Creating arbitrary and conflicting rules is also destructive. Social standards provide the lubrication that allow people as individuals to function in large groups. Deliberately destroying or contorting those rules weaken the social lubrication, and increase strife between individuals and limit personal freedom. A thinking, caring American understands the need for societal limitations, and works within them.
A free man also understands that society can only function well when the rules are accepted and followed by the great majority of the people. When rules are imposed on the majority by a small segment of society, the potential for conflict and confrontation grow rapidly. How we behave in public speaks loudly about how much we truly accept both individual freedom and individual responsibility. Someone who accepts personal responsibility obeys the rules of society because he understands that such obedience enhances his individual freedoms. Those that constantly stretch the limits of social standards, who constantly act in ways contrary to the rules of society, fail to understand the basic principle of freedom: that it's shared by all, and that freedom includes the freedom not to have to put up with obnoxious, disgusting, and undesirable behavior.
How we accept and respond to legal limitations also establishes what kind of American we are. Law, contrary to the legal profession, is not an absolute. The rule of law allows human beings to set limits on personal and/or group behavior to protect life, liberty, and property. The world is not rational, and what would be the best action in one situation may not be the best response in another. Blind obedience to law can be destructive. We have the ability to think, to reason, and to act based upon the situation we're confronted with. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the law - in 99% of our daily activities, the strict application of the law is the most appropriate response. Our Constitution, however, says that it was written to "promote justice", which is quite different than blindly imposing law. We have to do what we think is right, and hope that, if confronted, we can convince those exercising the power of law to agree with us. We also have the responsibility of accepting the consequences if we fail in our convincing.
Being an American means understanding the limits placed on our personal freedom - the responsibility of allowing others to exercise the same degree of freedom we demand for ourselves, including the freedom to not tolerate behavior we find offensive or undesirable in ourselves or others.
Political ActivitiesThere is no such thing as a non-political person. A hermit living by himself in the most desolate place in this nation is expressing a political statement by his behavior. This essay is political, as are any comments made in response to it. Anything which is said or done, in any format, that attempts to affect the way others think about a subject is political. That goes for any subject, even religion, even personal hygiene. Any behavior where one person or group wishes to influence or change the thinking of others, is political, especially if the objective is to establish limits, or to control, or to manipulate in a specific manner.
The United States is a Republic - a limited form of representative group democracy. Our founding fathers created a system of rules for choosing representatives to act on our behalf to formulate laws and make certain decisions in our name. That system has worked relatively well enough over a long period of time, and the vast majority of people don't see any reason to change the system now. That system gives us many excellent opportunities to govern ourselves. We have the right to place questions before the body of people recognized as citizens, for their discussion and approval or disapproval. Each individual, except certain felons, has the right to attempt to be chosen for public office. Usually, the majority decision is accepted as the "will of the people", and the body of law is either strengthened or modified accordingly, including the election of representatives.
In order for any system to work, however, people have to have respect for the rules, and for the application of those rules. That means that there can be no blatant rule changes after the decision has been made, or one set of rules for one group, and a different set for another. We, as individuals, must not only accept those rules, but demand that those who wish to represent us accept them as well, and punish their failures. That means enforcing the rules, punishing those that violate the rules, and bringing violations and violators to the attention of others. The one-man, one-vote concept must be held inviolate, or individual freedom is threatened. Being an American means defending the rules as they're written, or forcing changes to bad rules we've discovered before the next election. Being an American means exercising our right to select our representatives, speaking our mind about the issues and candidates, and holding to our convictions until vindicated or proven wrong. Being an American means making an informed decision, based upon merit. Being an American means ensuring the system as it exists works, and works as well as possible for all citizens.
PatriotismPatriotism means more than just love of country. It also means dedication to the principles that underlie our government, that provide for our security, and that enable us to live with the most freedom of any people on Earth. Patriotism requires that we understand our past, accept our failures, acknowledge our successes, to work to improve our nation where it's weak, and support its strengths. It means learning to work with other nations as equals, to share our good fortune, and to help those who wish our help to reach the same level of independence and freedom we enjoy. Patriotism requires humility, the ability to acknowledge that our Founding Fathers were centuries ahead of their time in the recognition of personal freedoms, that our government is unique among nations, and that what makes it unique is the guarantee of freedom for every individual.
These four factors - personal freedom, public awareness, political action, and patriotism, shape our role as citizen in this Republic. Citizenship, however, requires practice if it's to be effective. Active citizenship helps shape and mold the nation on a daily basis, not just once every two or four years. Patriotism does no good if it's not based on knowledge of why we do things, as well as when and where we do them. Political action, without understanding how everything fits together, is as likely to be destructive as it is to be constructive. Citizenship is not a state of being, but an ongoing process, practiced daily.
I'll try to keep this thread open for any other ideas about citizenship that readers might want to express.