Recently, John Sununu apologized for saying that he wished that “this president would learn how to be an American.” Whether he should have walked back his statement is up for debate. But, that particular incident aside, the notion that there is such a thing as “an American” and that one can be good or bad at being one is not self-evidently a ridiculous idea, as some have made it out to be.
I am not an American but a British subject living in America. I could, however, become an American. If I did, what would that mean? To some, perhaps, it would merely mean that I had conformed to the laws dictating how long I had to be in the country before I could be naturalized, and then that I had asked the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to do its thing and issue me an official piece of paper. Certainly, this it how it works in most countries: There might be some basic rules that applicants must follow, but, beyond the strict legal meaning of the transition, there is little else. Were I, for example, to move to India, I am sure that I could become a citizen of that country if I so wished. But I would not become an Indian. This is not so in America, and to observe the distinction is relatively uncontroversial. “Being an American,” it seems reasonable to suggest, is much more than getting hold of the right paperwork and being physically present or — in the case of most Americans — being born into it.
So what is it? Well, it’s certainly nothing to do with race. The American doctrine that “all men are created equal,” as laid out so elegantly in the Declaration of Independence, quickly puts paid to that. It is this that made the evils of slavery, segregation, and other forms of racism so acutely intolerable in the United States, for it is one thing to be racist in a country defined only by its borders but quite another to be so in a country defined by its principles. “All men are created equal” is a fact of nature, but it is also a proposition that many still reject; and the degree to which one subscribes to it is closely related to how good one is at being an American. There are terrible Americans who were born in the United States and great Americans who were born abroad. Paul Johnson, who wrote a wonderful History of the American People, was born in England, but he understands the country perfectly; Howard Zinn, who was born in Brooklyn, does not.
There are a host of similar American propositions, and most of them are fully testable. This is why America has a citizenship test. Would it not be “un-American,” for example, to oppose free speech? One has to understand the axiom and vow to uphold it in order to be naturalized not simply because it is the law of the land, but because it is a foundational principle without which the American idea ultimately cannot operate. This and the other core principles are neatly outlined in the national guidebooks, which include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, and so forth. Such works have made the world intimately familiar with the propositions of the American project and have acted as a magnet to immigrants from all over the globe. In contradistinction, ask somebody what Belgium is for and they will be hard-pressed to answer you — there is no such thing as the Belgian “promise” or the Belgian “dream,” and those who spoke of such things would be looked at with reasonable suspicion.