Last December I went to Taiwan to visit my grandmother. Like the Republic of China itself, she had turned 100 earlier in the year. During the trip I spent a day at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Set among lush, green, mist-draped mountains, the museum holds the world’s most spectacular collection of Chinese artifacts—spirited away in wartime by the Nationalists who fled to Taiwan when Mao’s Communists took over the mainland.
On display that morning was a centennial exhibit of 100 masterpieces from the museum’s holdings: famous calligraphic scrolls, priceless porcelain vases, finely carved jadeite cabbages. Each exquisite object was surrounded by a welter of tourists, many from the mainland. Even more stirring than the exhibit was its ambition, the belief that something as vast as Chinese culture and tradition could be captured in a selection of iconic things. The objects, from across dynasties and millennia, were Chineseness; the exhibit, an act of re-Sinicization. It was heritage reinforcement for an audience presumed Chinese.
I wondered, on the long flight home, whether Americanness could be so captured and so reinforced. I don’t doubt that the Smithsonian could create a comparable show with 100 special objects. What I doubt is whether we have today a strong enough sense of shared identity, of common cultural and civic roots, for such an exhibit to capture the country’s imagination.
America is always in flux, but the flux today seems more disorienting than usual. As China emerges rapidly and confidently, as Americans begin to wonder aloud about relative decline, as the center of gravity in our electorate shifts away from white men, as globalization enables immigrants to stay more wedded than ever to their homelands and not their new land, as political paralysis calls into question the durability of our constitutional design—as all these trends converge, a question arises: What is the content of American identity?
Without bonds of blood or tribe or sect to pull its people together, America has always tended toward the centrifugal. We are held together by Black Friday and “I’m lovin’ it,” by bowl games and March Madness, by reality television and virtual water coolers. America’s story of self today is not so much a story as a Twitter feed. Heavily mediated, mainly commercial, and shockingly perishable is the sense of the republic that our public has today.
Of course, from the Revolution onward, America has had available a real story and a great unifying force: the self-evident ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, encoded, even if imperfectly, in the Constitution, and embodied in amendments that made citizenship of the United States something transcendent and vital. Because our country began as an idea, the status of the citizen here has always been more than simply ministerial. It is, at least in theory, a trust; half a social contract. Citizens are promised liberty, and we, in turn, promise to earn it—by sustaining it.
These days, however, talk of citizenship is thin and tinny. The word has a faintly old-fashioned feel to it when used in everyday conversation. When evoked in national politics, it’s often accompanied by the shrill whine of a descending culture-war mortar. Hence the debates in recent years about birthright citizenship and whether such status ought to be denied to so-called “anchor babies,” mostly of Mexican descent. Or, less seriously but no less menacingly, the efforts to push the President of the United States out of the boundaries of American citizenship with a fervently wished-for foreign birth certificate.
When citizenship is drained of content by a commoditizing market and polarized politics, America suffers. Our ability as a people to maintain the democracy we’ve inherited diminishes, as does our ability to adapt to new challenges. We have to revive a spirit of citizenship if we want to remain a people.
That is why it is time now for a movement to re-Americanize Americans. This means reanimating our creed, cultivating the character needed for civic life, and fostering a culture of strong citizenship. Each of these imperatives is subject to abuse and co-optation by those who take a narrow view of what this country is. Which is why I argue that a twenty-first-century Americanization movement must be catalyzed by progressives.
Americanization, Last Time
A hundred years ago, as the great wave of European immigration to the United States peaked, there was a push for Americanization that crossed sector and institution. In public schools, the curriculum was changed to emphasize more American history and to teach patriotic anthems and parables. In urban slums, settlement houses like Jane Addams’s Hull House and hundreds like it taught immigrant adults how to speak English and to assimilate into the “melting pot” of the city. Historic preservation took on greater prominence. From the pulpit came more lessons about American providence. Genealogy became a phenomenon and “heritage” a cultural obsession.
Today, at the end of another great migration to the United States, the will to Americanize is much weaker. That is in part proper. The nineteenth-century Americanizers, in their frantic eagerness, were stifling even when they meant well. As the First World War approached, much of the earnest patriotism of the movement curdled into jingoism and nativism. Excluded altogether from the Americanizing embrace were most people of color, who, whether deemed black, brown, yellow, or red, were the anvil against which various European ethnicities were forged into dominant whiteness.
In ensuing generations, with the emergence of the civil rights movement and multiculturalism, the descendants of those new-century immigrants came to reject the melting-pot ideal and its obliteration of differences. They instead learned to embrace a cosmopolitan pluralism—an identity libertarianism—in which to be American is to be what you want. Out went assimilation, in came authenticity.
Much has been gained in this revolution. Identity libertarians have freed us all to express and create our true selves and enabled the marketplaces of ideas, style, cuisine, and commerce to benefit from real diversity. But what’s been lost is the core of American citizenship. It’s no exaggeration to say that America has never been more confused about what its own citizenship entails—and never more timid about imparting the values, knowledge, and skills needed to be a citizen in the broadest sense.
Citizenship in this nation is many things. It is a legal status conferred by the accident of birth or by the process of naturalization. It is a set of privileges and immunities. But it is also a cultural inheritance, an ethical standard, an implied set of responsibilities, a collective story and memory.
At its core, citizenship in America is an act of claiming. What is being claimed is a creed that emanates from the declaration and finds restatement in the Gettysburg Address and yet again in “I Have a Dream.” How it is claimed is by a combination of collective belief and deeds.
To pour content again into the vessel of citizenship, we need to Americanize anew. To do that, we must reinvent the very notion of Americanization. What I write of is not a deracinating assimilation to a white man’s way. It is not enforcement of partisan orthodoxy. It is taking profoundly seriously how we make an unum from the pluribus. It is about having confidence in what is exceptional about our experiment.
Americanization, This Time
The word “Americanization,” like the word “exceptionalism,” pushes the buttons of many people, especially on the left. To them, it can sound like a cover for white privilege and warmongering. It suggests arrogance and groupthink. In short, Americanization conjures up for some folks the worst of America.
But these connotations are not fixed. It is in our power to reshape them by recalling the best of America, including our capacity to face our history in full. Americanization should mean, “to keep trying to live up to our promise.” Redeeming the idea of Americanization is the very kind of redemptive act that America stands for. Not “my country right or wrong,” but, as the German immigrant and U. S. senator Carl Schurz said a century ago, “our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.”
This is true patriotism. To Americanize means to ask people to commit to a set of values. Rights come with responsibilities and opportunities with obligations. You have the right to burn the flag in America—but you should honor the fact that the flag symbolizes that right. You have to be willing to work hard and be enterprising—but if you are, you should be promised a fair chance at success. You are free to sustain the traditions of your ancestral lands—but you should contribute to the development of this land and its rituals.
A new Americanization movement will reinforce these principles. It will instill in young people a sense of why being here is special, even in a networked and transnationalizing age, and what they owe this country. It will sharpen for Americans of all ages a sense of appreciation and responsibility for the institutions of our democracy—and thus our ability to participate in those institutions. It will enable us to face an era of demographic transition with more unity of purpose. And it will prove to us and to the world that for all its profound and tragic flaws, the United States still has a confounding ability to convert its shortcomings into strengths and to remix itself.
This new Americanization program, importantly, is not just for immigrants. It is for everyone. It is for the longstanding citizens who have forgotten or never appreciated the full measure of their inheritance. It is for the chieftains of global companies who think their fates are no longer tied to the fate of this nation. It is for romantics of the far left and far right who think nations and states are obsolete until they need one—this one—to provide for their needs.
A new Americanization program must also be created by everyone. Government can be involved, but so must community foundations, schools, business leaders, union organizers, film and TV producers, social-media mavens. There should be a spirit of wiki to it all, of popular movement, with ideas emerging from the bottom up and not only from experts. Throughout, it should focus on three core elements of a civic religion: creed, character, and culture.
Creed To be Americanized is first to be immersed in the tenets of our democratic faith, expressed in seminal texts, speeches, and stories, from Jefferson’s time to our own.
As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his liberty, and his sacred honor…. Let reverence for the laws…be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in the courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
When a young Abraham Lincoln spoke these words at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, he meant by “reverence for the laws” not mere obedience to authority. He meant reverence for democracy itself—and for the obligations that democratic freedom entails.
To Americanize is to be comfortable telling everyone that what separates this nation from others is that it has a moral identity. Others have history and tradition. We do too, but more than anything, our nation is dedicated to a proposition. That distinction cannot be emphasized enough. When Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality “self-evident,” he was not recording a timeless fact; he was asserting one into being. His saying so, as he declared America, helped make it so.
It falls on us to keep it so. Only continuous renewal of a commitment to the creed keeps the creed alive. Naming it matters: rediscovering the words, saying them again, assaying their meaning. In classrooms, boardrooms, kitchens, and churches, in corner stores and today’s settlement houses, on TV and on Twitter, it’s time to shake off the sleep of cynicism and to awaken in earnest as Americans. It is time to appreciate the content of our creed as if we were all newcomers: with wonder and awe at the world-changingness of it all.
To reanimate the creed we need to focus in part on revitalizing civic education in our schools. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is one advocacy group working to do this. Even though public education in America is a matter largely left to the states, there can and should be a federal requirement that the basic texts and ideas of our nation’s civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral of sophistication, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade. After all, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor notes, this was the very point of creating free and compulsory public education: to make citizens.
The responsibility belongs not only to schoolteachers or education policy-makers. Leaders in every community should take it upon themselves to start contests and public conversations about the American creed: what’s in it, what challenges it, how we honor it, how we have fallen short. The answers will be staggeringly varied—as they are on the DefineAmerican.com website started by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and undocumented immigrant) Jose Antonio Vargas—but they will have a unifying thread of reckoning.
Character Our standard of citizenship in America is centered, constitutionally and rhetorically, on rights. But with rights come duties and with liberty, responsibility; else freedom decays into mere free-for-all. So a second dimension of a new Americanization is the cultivation of citizenship as a matter of character. This is citizenship in the sense of good or great citizenship: living in a pro-social way; showing up for one another; making an adaptive asset of our diversity. Civic character is therefore more than industry, perseverance, and other personal virtues. It is character in the collective: team-spiritedness, mutuality, reciprocity, responsibility, empathy, service, cooperation. It is acting as if you believed that society becomes how you behave—because it does. Character is the thread that ties creed and deed together. What acts instantiate our stated values? With what understanding of our system of self-government? Making what kind of contribution?
The cultivation of strong citizens does not happen automatically, any more than the cultivation of healthy plants does. Democracy is a garden in which the organisms are interdependent. Developing civic character is the work of gardening—of tending the plot. In a multiethnic market democracy like ours, we cannot rely on a myth of rugged individualism to hold us together. We have to seed and feed trust. We reap what we sow.
Educators need to teach not just civic facts and history but also the elements of civic character: what it means to be in union with others. That requires doing real things together and reflecting on the shared experience. In schools, it means more service learning that’s tied to an understanding of American institutions. Take students to serve in a church food bank, for instance, but also discuss the civic role of faith-based groups. What can citizens make happen with and without government, with and without each other?
In government policy, cultivating civic character means adding more resources for AmeriCorps and other national service programs—but also grounding them more explicitly in elements of American citizenship. In parenting and child rearing, it means teaching and rewarding even the smallest acts of courtesy and cooperation because they compound. In philanthropy and community life, it means creating more opportunities for adults to learn how to do democracy.
During the Great Depression, grassroots citizenship schools like the Highlander Folk School in Appalachia emerged for just this purpose. Highlander is where Rosa Parks was trained to organize. It was where she learned that civic character is expressed in the choices we make. She was prepared by her teachers to make the right choice as a citizen when the time came. What institutions prepare us now?
Culture As it happens, the Highlander School is also where an old black spiritual was adapted and then popularized into a movement anthem called “We Shall Overcome.” American democracy makes us a promise that only we can keep. This faith requires a rich, suffusing culture of unity: anthems, rituals, colors, civic scripture set and reset in new creative contexts.
The third aspect of Americanization, then, is introducing Americans to the patterns of our civic culture—how we have governed ourselves, by law or custom, and lived in community over 200 years. One such pattern is promise, failure, and redemption. This is the foundational story of slavery and civil rights. Another is the generation of hybrid innovations from our miscegenated gene and meme pool. This is the story of American music, of Silicon Valley’s ingenuity.
I believe the new Americanization agenda must reveal and express both these story patterns: the profound ways, past and present, that we have fallen short of our stated ideal; and our resilient, adaptive ability to take our failures as the stuff of new invention. Slavery’s legacy is evident in de facto segregation and in the severe inequality of our schools. It is found too in the voice of every American, in the warp and woof of the American vernacular. We Shall Overcome.
To teach Americanness is to celebrate the ideal and the real as one, without irony or ambivalence. It is to use a shared language in public life—American English, with a democratic accent—so that we may transcend unshared private histories. It is to invoke a civic religion that infuses our many narratives with common purpose. In 1982, the liberal producer Norman Lear created a pageant for ABC called “I Love Liberty” that grabbed hold of both the cultural patterns I described above. With the Muppets and multicultural celebrities, with earnestness and absurdity, it depicted the turmoil and contradiction of our founding—and the insistent promise of our future.
We need to have the self-assurance to create new pageants, to invoke and remix the rituals and symbols our own way: the flag, the hymns, the oaths. We can’t fear causing offense. A people scared to say the Pledge of Allegiance is nearly as unhealthy as one scared not to. What we must remember is that we get to continually reinvent and rewrite that pledge, this culture.
That’s why recently I helped launch a civic-artistic project called Sworn-Again American. It mashes up aspects of a naturalization ceremony, a multicultural festival, and a revival tent to make a playful public experience in which Americans recommit to the content of their citizenship. What we should celebrate more than diversity is what we do with it. How do we bring everyone in the tent and create something together? In a twenty-first century way that activates our true potential, we all need to become sworn-again.
The Role of Progressives
What I’ve called for here may cause many progressives heartburn. I admit that this new Americanization agenda sounds like—indeed, is—something conservatives promote. But I disagree that it should be something only conservatives promote. Progressives should be front and center.
Why? The promise of American life is a promise of justice, requiring action not passivity, challenge not complacency; and is therefore progressive. The effort to nudge the country toward alignment with its stated ideals is asymptotic: We can keep halving the distance to perfection, but it remains infinitely out of reach. With the goal never fully attainable, the pursuit becomes then an act of faith, and therefore progressive. Progressivism is nothing if not the belief that something “more perfect” is worth striving for.
Some progressives contest the very idea of citizenship and dispute the need even for nation-states. They are too utopian. Other progressives hold the American nation-state in low regard because of a track record of racism and war and empire. They are too cynical. They do not see that inherent in the hypocrisy of so many American acts—in fact, what makes hypocrisy hypocrisy and not mere iniquity—is the existence of a higher professed standard.
We are called still, all of us, to live up to that standard. The best tradition of the American left is a tradition of love for America: insistent, impatient, often disappointed, but unrelenting. And the best hope for America tomorrow is that across lines of left and right we find ways to articulate common purpose—not by glossing over hypocrisies but by unpacking them; by treating them as the beginning of a chapter rather than the end of the story.
It’s time for a civic synthesis that speaks to the tension between a Western WASP inheritance and a diverse multicultural present; between words in marble and a more sordid reality; between liberty and equality; freedom from and freedom to—because that tension is what is American. In every setting we can, progressives and conservatives must teach to the tension together. And progressives should initiate the dialectic—because in America we always have.
There are some progressives who say that conservatives, consumed with culture war, are incapable of teaching to the tension. Maybe. But they should take a look at What So Proudly We Hail, a recent anthology of American stories and songs whose editors include Leon Kass, the conservative scholar and former adviser to President George W. Bush. Every prefatory note in that collection speaks to the tension and complexity of American identity. Not a note incites culture war.
There are some conservatives who would double over laughing at the notion of progressives leading the charge to reanimate a love of American citizenship. But I would refer them to A Patriot’s Handbook, a similar and similarly powerful anthology of civic religious texts assembled by Caroline Kennedy.
Together, these collections remind us that the most useful way to be progressive is to conserve: to honor and maintain the deeply revolutionary, once-in-a-world tradition of our creed and culture. And the most useful way to be conservative is to progress: to enable the American idea to adapt to changing times so that the idea itself may endure forever and ever.
Lines of Descent and Ascent
At the National Palace Museum, beholding those objects made epochs ago—ten or 12 Americas ago—I marveled at the continuity of the line. But that line of Chineseness, a shared sensibility expressed in brushstrokes and carvings and in ratios of form to space, is in the end rooted in the soil and heart of China.
A European, an African, or a black or white American can appreciate those lines. They cannot claim them. When an American of Chinese descent like me can, it only sharpens the realization that of the two identities I might claim, only one is by design universal. Only one is an open operating system inviting people from anywhere to rewrite the code. Only one asks humans to be better.
American exceptionalism in this age of great tectonic shifts does not depend on our forever having the largest economy or the mightiest military. It does depend on our having the planet’s most adaptive and resilient concept of citizenship, one that rises above land and blood, that commits us to a national lifetime of striving, failing, renewing, striving again to dedicate ourselves to our proposition.
We live in a great country. It’s time again to get religion about it.