Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Will the Real Americans Please Stand Up (Or Kneel)

Real Americans are all shapes, sizes, religions and beliefs, as symbolized during this citizenship ceremony at Pottsgrove High School last year.

What does it mean to be an American?

The nation's birthday seems like as good a time as any to explore this question.

I'll begin by telling you outright I don't think there is just one answer.

The problem is, a lot of us think there is.

To some, an "American," is an English-speaking person born in this country.

But last October, I watched 54 people born in a different countries, take an oath at Pottsgrove High School that made them citizens of the United States of America.

Are they any less "American" than those of us who were born here?

I would argue that getting to this country from another, sometimes under difficult circumstances, in some cases learning a new language and learning the history and structure of your adopted nation makes them more of an American than those of us whose only qualify characteristic is being born.

These folks had to work for it.

Chin Su Kim of South Korea received his US Citizenship papers
last year in a ceremony at Pottsgrove High School.
They had to want it.

If the only real American is someone born here, one could argue that the only real Americans are the descendants of those who were here before Columbus; before Ponce de Leon; before the Mayflower blundered its way into Massachusetts Bay.

Frankly, Native Americans have a pretty solid claim, and the only practical way to dispute it is to put a pin in the timeline of the continent's history and say only those born after 1776 (or 1789) and their descendants are real Americans.

But that seems a bit capricious in the broader scheme of history.

In truth, all Americans are from somewhere else. Its just a matter of how far back you go.

And lately, we have been going way back.

It has never been easier -- or more lucrative for the Internet companies doing the searching -- to trace our descendants back through the generations to Ireland, or Italy or Slovenia and, if the commercials are to be believed, millions of us are delighted to be doing so every day.

To celebrate our non-American origins and, in the same breath, refuse to confer the status of "American" on those who came a decade or two later is beyond ironic.

It's moronic and it borders on the kind of willful and belligerent ignorance in which, sadly, we have begun to specialize in recent years.

Perhaps being a real American has less to do with where we're born and more to do with what we believe.

And no, I don't mean belief in God or being a Christian nation. We are, rather, a nation that was founded by Christians (many of them "diests," who believed in God but not religion).

The Christians who founded this nation knew their history, they knew the centuries of blood spilled in Europe in wars over who was the right kind of Christian.

This nation was founded by Christians who specifically wanted to keep Christianity out of government; to make worship a matter of personal belief and not one of government mandate.

When I say maybe a real American is defined by her belief, I mean someone who believes in the ideals of America; our right to pursue life, liberty and happiness; our right to be free to speak our minds; to worship as we wish.

Perhaps a real American is someone who understands and exercises the rights that are due every American thanks to our Constitution and its predecessor which we celebrate so noisily on this day every year with fireworks (or in Pottstown's case, lasers.)

Consider the curious case of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who refused to stand for the National Anthem because of what he saw as unfair treatment of non-white Americans.

Many viewed this choice as "un-American."

I say what could be more American than to peacefully protest what you see as the unfair treatment of a minority?

When you can be pulled over for "driving while black," or a jury decides that a police officer did not commit murder when he shot a black driver because he is justified to be "in fear for his life" because of the color of the driver's skin, something has gone wrong. That is a violation of America's highest ideals.

Is it not the finest American tradition to stand up, or in Kaepernick's case, kneel down, for what you believe to be un-American? Let's not forget the "all men are created equal" part of the document we are celebrating today folks.

To argue that all men are being treated as equals in America today is to deny the evidence of your own eyes.

To argue that all men (and women) are provided with the same opportunities in today's public school systems is to deny the facts.

To argue that protesting such unfair treatment, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in more riotous fashion causing property damage, is un-American is to deny our own history.

After all, what was the Boston Tea Party we so venerate but a bunch of costumed hooligans destroying private property in protest over how the majority in England was treating the minority -- the colonists?

In truth, I believe this argument over "real Americans" -- most recently crystalized in a new NRA advertisements pasted below in which the word "they" is featured prominently -- is really about the dry science of demographics.

The U.S. Census predicts that in a few years, white Americans will become a minority in this country.

Its hard to win elections that way, which is why for years, Jeb Bush was trying unsuccessfully to rouse his party to this reality with the phrase "demographics is destiny" and urging the GOP to be more welcoming to Hispanics.

But instead of embracing this new majority and winning them over in the marketplace of ideas, the multi-pronged methodology now underway is to subvert that looming majority to maintain control of the country for as long as possible -- a desperate strategy to hold on to what is believed to belong only to the "real Americans."

It's pretty simple stuff when you take a step back and look at the big picture.

First, you make it harder for "them" to vote.

Purging voter rolls, requiring photo IDs and a national investigation of non-existent voter fraud as an excuse to collect state voter data is a good way to start.

Another necessity is to undermine public education.

Citizens who are taught to think for themselves are hard to fool and even harder to rule, particularly when there are a lot of them. So rather than recognize that different people learn in different ways and devote our efforts to educating each student in the best way we can, we have standardized education; using standardized tests which discriminate against non-traditional learners and, by what I'm sure is pure coincidence, non-whites and those raised in poverty.

If you don't fit the mold, you don't move ahead through the system. How did we come to this in a country where we celebrate the idea of independence every year?

We've punished and demeaned teachers for so long now, that the number of people willing to undertake this most vital and, more recently, thankless job, is dwindling to the crisis point.

But rest assured that school districts in wealthy white suburbs -- the beneficiaries of Pennsylvania's lopsided and racist education funding system -- will still be able to afford the higher salaries necessary to attract those still willing to teach.

And of course, trust in the media must be undermined as well.

You can't have those who may point out inconsistencies and outright lies; those charged with speaking truth to power and holding it to account; those who so often remind us how alike we all truly are and how much we actually have in common; running around unimpeded when you are so desperately working to instill fear with an "us" and "them" narrative.

Fearful people are easy to manipulate, particularly when you claim to have an easy solution that we can understand. Never mind that it doesn't work. What's important is that its comforting and that it reaffirms what we've always believed about who truly deserves the rewards of being a real American.

Certainly, it's not "them."

As for me, I plan to celebrate July 4th by celebrating the idea that real Americans fight for what's fair, what's right, because it makes us a better country. It brings us closer to being the country we say we aspire to be.

I plan to celebrate July 4th by celebrating the idea that the best American is an American educated enough to make decisions based more on facts than feelings, to know her rights and to exercise them with vigor, who knows that oppression of any of us is oppression of all of us.

I plan to celebrate the birth of America by celebrating an idea best articulated by a fictional Englishman, that we have come to a time in our history when we will all have to make a choice -- between what is right, and what is easy.

But that's just me.

And I'm only one American.

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