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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