I’m not going to address this past weekend’s events specifically. There are already hundreds of columns covering every aspect of what happened in Charlottesville (and what is happening, to a lesser extent, in Seattle and Richmond and elsewhere).
Instead, I’d like to refer back to something I wrote about a different terrorist attack a few years ago, this one not on American soil. Toward the end of the piece, I discussed what makes our nation unique. That’s the portion that’s relevant to our present conversation.
In the United States, although our record is obviously imperfect, propositions such as “anyone can become an American,” and “we’re a nation of immigrants” are woven into the fabric of our national identity.
It’s much tougher for someone to convince you to engage in anti-American activity when you feel you are, in every sense, an American . . .
When we speak of American Exceptionalism, those of us who still believe in such a concept point to E pluribus unum as an underpinning of that idea. The bargain is a simple one: An immigrant may become fully American in a way that he may never be able to become fully French or fully Russian or fully Dutch.
There really isn’t a catch, either, except that the new American accept our laws and certain very basic cultural norms. The paradox is that those cultural norms are based largely around individual freedom or self-determination, which means “embracing” them might mean only “live and let live.”
Do that, and everything our nation has to offer can become as available to the immigrant and children of immigrants as it is to me. I look—with pride—at a new citizen as every bit a “real” American as I am.
That is our magic.
That is what makes us great.
That is American Exceptionalism.
That is also why we must always preserve that value. It is the mechanism by which a nation of immigrants remains a nation, rather than a litany of bickering factions segregated by blood or holy book.
Every American must believe that this is our land. All of us. Whether we were born citizens or not. Whether we’ve been here for generations or months. Whether we worship the same god, a different god, or no god.
Everyone must remain invested in our nation’s culture and her well-being. The way to make sure this happens is to stress shared values and opportunity, not highlight differences in an attempt to divide us into aggrieved categories.
We’ve done a better job of that than Europe has, and I think our culture has benefited greatly as a result. I can only hope that we continue to do so. But protecting those values, like protecting most things that matter, will take work.
By every one of us. Tirelessly. In word and deed.
For the rest of our lives.
I was writing then about our country’s ability to assimilate other cultures into the essence of America. But recent events have highlighted the flipside of this proposition—something I didn’t discuss at length in 2013.
In order for all of this to work, there must be a willingness to agree to the “American idea.” That means that those who are ostensibly already part of the fabric of our nation have to accept the idea upon which our society is built. That’s the true American exceptionalism of which I spoke.
It isn’t merely the concept of “tolerance.” That’s important. But it is also the commitment to the idea that anyone who is willing to be a law-abiding member of our society is as fully a part of that society as any of us.
To reiterate: Every American must believe that this is our land. All of us. Whether we were born citizens or not. Whether we’ve been here for generations or months. Whether we worship the same god, a different god, or no god.
This is not merely the begrudging acceptance of a legal status. This is the notion that it benefits us, and it makes our lives better, to ensure that all Americans, even ones who are not “like us,” are a part of this endeavor.
It does not mean we must all agree on any political issue. Quite the contrary. That, too, is part of our magic. But we must be willing to resolve those differences through democratic means—including vigorous protest, so long as it remains peaceful.
But ideologies rooted in racial supremacy and/or violence are anathema to this grand idea. Recall the one proviso I mentioned in 2013: There really isn’t a catch, either, except that the new American accept our laws and certain very basic cultural norms. The paradox is that those cultural norms are based largely around individual freedom or self-determination, which means “embracing” them might mean only “live and let live.”
The mistake I made then was not clarifying that this bargain doesn’t apply only to new Americans.
It applies to all of us.
Those who lack the courage to embrace the American idea because they are too afraid to let go of their “tribal” identity cannot become fully American. Even if their family has been here for hundreds of years. People who have only lawlessness and hatred and violence and fear-mongering to give to our society have no place in our society, whether they were born here or not.
I must confess that I pity them. They are depriving themselves of the full, wondrous, unique experience of what it means to be American—an experience for which the soulless, insipidly narrow, anything-but-unique pursuit of ethnic superiority is no substitute.
The question now is are we willing to prevent these forces from undermining those who do accept the American idea? (Hint: That effort doesn’t begin with punching anyone.)
We’re still a long way from becoming that cesspool of bickering, identity-obsessed factions about which I warned.
But we’re a bit closer than we were last week.
Nonetheless, I remain cautiously optimistic. The United States is a land of 330 million people. I am resolute in the belief that the clear majority, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity, occupation, or religion, accepts the fundamental premise upon which the best version of America is based. These are the Real Americans.
However, as I said before, protecting that beautiful premise will take work. By every one of us. In word and deed. Tirelessly. For the rest of our lives.