Jun 17th 2019

The Idea of America is at Risk

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

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 peoples 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 peoples who came to our shores, wave after wave of immigrants became American and, in the process, they changed American culture, music, cuisine, humor, 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 unraveling of the very idea of American identity. A story come to mind:

A few years ago, I was the invited speaker at a dinner honoring a retiring Arab American elected official of Lebanese descent. The event was taking place in a center 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 World Wars I and II 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, toward 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 of voting in foreign elections is a new and growing phenomenon among many ethnic groups in the US. While it is understandable for more recent immigrants who still maintain strong ties to their countries of origin, it is, nevertheless, worrisome because it creates a divided focus and loyalty. 

Serious questions must be asked when we see citizenship and identity being cast off like an old coat. We have long questioned how it can be legitimate for US citizens to fight in the Israeli army, settle in the West Bank, or become Israeli officials (like the current Israeli Ambassador to the US). But the same question must be asked of other groups, as well. When two officials, who served in the Bush Administration, leave the US at the end of his term and run for office in the Middle Eastern countries from which they emigrated, we have good reason to question what this says about being an American. 

While I said that I understood, but was still concerned, about the conflicted loyalty of recent immigrants, what troubles me even more are the increasing numbers of younger American-born citizens seeking dual citizenship in foreign countries. 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 unraveling 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 is not solely responsible for this phenomenon, there can be no doubt that his behavior has added fuel to the divisive atmosphere in which we are living.

In a perverse way, Democrats have also contributed to this diminution of American identity. During the Obama Administration, the State Department began a "diaspora initiative" – referring to descendants of American citizen immigrants as "first generation diaspora Americans," encouraging to invest in and even vote in their "countries of origin!"   

The problem, however, is not just political. It's much deeper. 

In the first place, there is the growing global awareness created by modern mass communications. We are increasingly aware of the world and our place in it. Our vision is global and not limited by community or even country. We feel the threat of climate change more intimately and care more deeply about human rights issues in far flung corners of the globe. 

This is especially true for young people, the generation my brother John Zogby calls "the first globals." A few years ago, my granddaughter, then in eighth grade, on her own, made a half-hour film "Impressions of America." Using Facebook and Skype she connected and conversed with peers in 13 countries, interviewing them about their attitudes toward America. This is what modern technology has created – a generation that knows about, thinks about, cares about, and is able to act on a question that connects them with the world. That is the America and the world in which they live.  

When Donald Trump speaks about "making America great again," he isn't speaking to these "first globals" or older generations who have a more expansive view of America in the world. He is speaking of a more limited narrow idea of America – tinged with a contempt of the "other" and fearful of change. 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 is right to feel alienated by and to resist this exclusivity, but it is wrong to surrender the idea of America to those who hold such a narrow view. The flag isn't theirs. Nor can the response to feeling incomplete in a globalized world be to seek dual citizenship or a foreign passport in order to feel part of the larger world. 

Just as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, 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 globalized world.

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Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.