The title sounds daunting - after all, there are nearly 300 million Americans and therefore lots of opinions (Americans being amongst the most opinionated people on earth). It also sounds pretentious – who am I to define what being an American means? But I believe there is some common ground that most Americans would agree on. Note that I said most – it is impossible to get all Americans to agree on anything. If you were to place 100 randomly selected Americans outside in a pouring rainstorm, at least 3 would disagree that it was raining.
So what does it mean to be an American?
First and foremost, Americans are optimists. It is part of our national culture, born of the dreams of immigrants since the 1500’s that braved months at sea, driven only by the wind, to come to a strange land where they hoped for something better. Perhaps it is genetic and is part of our DNA passed down by our forefathers who came here because they believed they could make a better life for themselves and their posterity. For many of those who stayed home in Europe, there was more acceptance of “the way things were” and less appreciation for “the way things could be”.
Bobby Kennedy said “Some folks see things as they are and ask why. I see things as they are and ask why not.” This is the quintessential American Ideal. To be sure, perhaps 20% or so of our population are descended from folk who came to this country involuntarily, but even within that group, there was a spirit of looking forward to the future. Americans believe there is no problem that cannot be surmounted. The times when our nation has faltered have been when we have succumbed to fears of malaise. Our greatest times of triumph have been when we have focused on our optimistic vision of the Republic, of our communities and of the world. Europeans don’t share this optimism. Perhaps it’s the weight of history, the burden of 3,000 years of monarchies, dictatorships, communism, fascism, endless wars, and terrible pogroms. As a recent Italian visitor said in my home, “Europe is like an old man who is resigned to his life. America is like a young person who truly believes they can make the world a better place.”
Secondly, Americans are fighters. Americans have always held that there are some things worth dying for. Back when the Cold War was raging, I had a discussion with a young man from Europe who quite frankly told me that he would rather be alive and under communist enslavement that to die for the “abstract” (his words) idea of freedom. He maintained that life was more important than liberty. This fundamentally flies in the face of what most consider the American Ethos. From the rallying cry of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or give me Death” to John F. Kennedy’s “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”, Americans have been willing to sacrifice everything for what the young European described as “abstract”. The Judeo-Christian heritage of the overwhelming majority of Americans taught them that the Jews of old were a free people who later surrendered their freedom to monarchs because they feared their enemies more than they appreciated liberty. And they ended up with neither security nor liberty, proof of Benjamin Franklin’s edict: They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.
Thirdly, Americans laugh and they laugh at themselves. Americans have always been a laughing bunch. From the beginnings of the Republic with Benjamin Franklin’s wit that diffused the egos in the Continental Congress and later, the Constitutional Convention, to the acerbic satire of Samuel Clemens who showed America a part of herself that wasn’t always good, but could be fixed (see – optimists fix things), to the joking of Theodore Roosevelt and even now, with Jon Stewart. We like to joke about ourselves and rib ourselves and it keeps up from becoming quite so full of ourselves. Some nations have real problems with mocking themselves. Perhaps it is part of our heritage descended from the Scots, Irish and Welsh who came to these shores. Europe and much of the rest of the world suffer too much from Nietzche’s idea of laughter as a medicine to be taken reluctantly: Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter. Americans understand laughter to be something they need to wallow in, something they WANT to wallow in, as Henry Ward Beecher put it: “Mirth is God's medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it.”
Fourthly, Americans are individualists. This has created problems on occasion, but it is the very idea of the hardy individualist that has been a vigilant protector of the defense of liberty. Sadly, this idea is under attack today and hopefully, we will not proceed down the slippery slope of communalism. It does take a village to raise a child, but the parents bloody well need to be the primary responsible parties. We believe that the individual is important and valuable and that the concept of the individual is an essential part of protecting the nation from becoming a dictatorship of the majority. We rejoice in our individual quirks. Whereas quirks in Europe get you shunned, quirkiness in America has always been excused as “eccentricity” or, in the old parlance, “a bit queer”. As such, Americans believe that individualism is something to be admired, not admonished.
Fifthly, Americans have, of all people, believed from the beginning that freedom and liberty was their God-given right. From the concept that God spoke directly to man and walked with man in the garden, to the Old Testament’s admonition against about surrendering freedom to monarchs to the modern day teenager screaming about “my rights”, Americans believe that we were born free and that government exists at our pleasure, not the other way around. Americans believe that the Constitution frames the powers of the government and that it does not declare what the rights of the people are. The rights of the people are paramount and the Constitution only acts to tell the government what it cannot do to the people while it is doing what the people want it to. Americans understand that the government has a role and that role is to provide for the citizens what they individually would not be able to do. The government exists to defend this nation from attack and to protect the individual from the bully, whether that bully is another individual or even society itself. Most of all, Americans understand the nature of government is to free the individual to meet his or her highest potential. In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, commenting on the Preamble to our Constitution: Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties.
And finally, Americans are proud to be Americans. Americans are not ashamed of the American Flag. Americans are not afraid to proclaim their heritage. Americans do not hide behind the flag of another country. Americans admit that America is not perfect, but we full well believe we live in a very, very special place. We do not believe there is no merit to other nations, but we believe there is a reason why the Statue of Liberty stands in our harbor. We believe that we are the “city on the hill” that Ronald Reagan described us as. And we believe that our optimistic, fighting, laughing, individualistic freedom loving IDEALS are the ideals that allow mankind to achieve his highest purpose on earth.
That’s what I believe an American is. I’m not dumb enough to believe that all Americans agree with me. I do believe that those who would take issue with these Ideals either have an axe to grind or maybe are just expressing their own individualism. If it’s the former, they need to get over it. If it’s the latter, I applaud them. I’ve traveled around a large portion of this globe and have met wonderful people and seen beautiful places in different parts of the world. But America is home. America is still where millions of people clamor to come. And we are still “the bright shining light, piercing the darkness.”
© Doug Gilmore 15 January 2005