I have long argued that the American identity was fundamentally different than that of most other countries in the world. While the identity of most nations has been ethnic-based, being American represented an inclusive idea that transcended ethnicity.
For centuries we have absorbed people from all over the world and, within less than a generation, they became American. As they did, not only were they transformed, but the idea of America, itself, was transformed.
It hasn’t always been easy. Newcomers have often faced resistance in the form of discrimination and exclusion. But despite the bigotry against the many diverse people who came to our shores, wave after wave of immigrants became American and, in the process, they changed American culture, music, cuisine, humour and history.
Despite the periods of resistance and backlash against the latest newcomers, this is how America worked for generations. Now, however, I believe that we are witnessing a distressing unravelling of the very idea of American identity. A story comes to mind:
A few years ago, I was the invited speaker at a dinner honouring a retiring Arab American elected official of Lebanese descent. The event was taking place in a centre that had been built by the local Lebanese American community. In the lobby of the building proudly hung pictures of those members of this ethnic community who had served in the US military. There were group photos of young men and women, in uniform, from the First and Second World Wars all the way up to the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the story told by this photo gallery was so profoundly American, I made a mental note to mention it in my speech.
Before I was to address the dinner, the evening’s master of ceremony introduced the visiting ambassador from Lebanon for a few words. He spoke of Lebanon’s pride in the success its emigrants and their descendants had achieved in the US. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of his remarks until he shifted, towards the end, to make the announcement that Lebanese Americans would be eligible to vote in Lebanon’s next election. As someone who has spent more than half of my life fighting to secure the role of Arab Americans in US politics, registering Arab American voters, and supporting those who run for office, I was horrified.
When it was my turn to speak, I felt compelled to begin by making it clear that I objected to Lebanese Americans voting in Lebanon’s elections for two reasons. Our ancestors had made a choice. They became Americans, fought for America, and fought to secure their place in America. The elections in which we should vote, therefore, are here in America. Secondly, I believe that because we will not have to live with the consequences of the outcome of the vote in Lebanon, we have no right to decide who will govern in that country.
This phenomenon is not limited to Americans of Arab descent. It is occurring in many ethnic groups.
While securing American citizenship, the right to vote, and an American passport were once the coveted goals of generations of immigrants, we must ask why some of their descendants no longer feel that same sense of pride and belonging and instead seek to reverse this process and become dual-citizens. It raises serious questions about the unravelling of loyalty to the American identity.
Some blame President Trump for their alienation and search for alternative identities. Although he and divisive xenophobic rhetoric of the Republican Party are not solely responsible for this phenomenon, there can be no doubt that his behaviour has added fuel to the divisive atmosphere in which we are living.
What’s concerning is that in this environment, I have friends who won’t display the American flag on national holidays. They, in effect, have given up the fight and surrendered America and its symbols to those who have cast the idea of America in a limited intolerant light. This response, I feel, is self-defeating. It falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists.
The idea of America isn’t theirs. It’s bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalised world.