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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More Essays

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."