What it Means to be an American Citizen

Recently an ESL student of mine became a spanking new U.S. citizen. I’ve been teaching her English for about a year and a half, but the last six months were spent cramming for the citizenship exam, which has not only reading and writing tests but also big chunks of American history. To better help her remember the material she was memorizing, I often used Google Translate to explain complex concepts that the Founding Fathers had immortalized in the U.S. Constitution over 200 years ago. The very first paragraph is quite a mouthful –

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The entire paragraph is actually just one sentence, but it contains within that single sentence such a multitude of ideas that it took us a while to unpack them all and truly understand the purpose of the drafters. As we proceeded through the reading of American history, I felt such a sense of pride for this country I now call home.

Eight years ago, I had taken the same citizenship test, and I recall how my voice wobbled when I pledged allegiance to this country over my motherland India, where I had spent the first four decades of my life. What had kept me going through the solemn ceremony was the certainty that the values of this country I had now adopted were aligned with my personal belief system. Casting my first presidential vote for Barack Obama, who embodied those values and referred to them often, only made my pride in this country deepen.

Fast-forward to 2016 and I am looking on in horror as a minimum of 40% of the American populace seems to be in thrall to a racist, egomaniacal demagogue who has shattered all norms of civility, political correctness, and even lawful behavior, yet continues to have stable support among a plurality of Americans. Donald Trump once famously said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His continued viability as a Presidential candidate seems to bear that out.

So what does this say about us as a country? About our claim of moral leadership? About our standing as the leader of the free world?

When I became a U.S. citizen I believed that America stood for certain values, and that core ethic justified its preeminence in its world. Yes, we made and continue to make mistakes in our self-governance and in our dealings with the world, but I’ve always hoped that we have a certain moral core that we return to to self-correct, to acknowledge our mistakes, to make reparations. What bolsters this belief is that I live in a society whose values lean increasingly towards acceptance of diversity, towards tolerance, towards punishing wrongdoers and rewarding virtue. Sometimes this belief gets shaken, as when I hear of black Americans unfairly targeted by police, or bank executives getting away scot-free after legally looting their stakeholders. But there has always been a sense that if we can mobilize, protest, and take action, these mistakes can be fixed.

But when a throwback like Donald Trump comes this close to power, I really have to question my fellow Americans and their loyalties. Have we really forgotten what we are and are meant to be as Americans? Do we need a reminder of what our values are? Well then, here’s a list, in no particular order –

  • We believe in a voice for everybody, regardless of their economic, social, or racial status.
  • We accept and welcome diversity
  • We believe in abiding by the law and none of is exempt from doing so
  • We pay our fair share of taxes and insurance to live in a stable, prosperous society
  • We care for our fellow citizens and our global brothers and sisters
  • We care for the environment and the ecology we are leaving to our children
  • We engage in respectful dialogue
  • We believe in equal opportunity
  • We are saddened by others’ suffering and seek to help where we can

And most important of all, America is a nation of “We” and not a country filled with “I’s,” each looking out for himself. This is enshrined in our constitution, whose first three words should give us a hint to the culture the framers were creating for the new country.

Donald Trump, you, your campaign, and your supporters need to take a closer look at what it trumpmeans to be a patriotic American. Take a minute for self-examination and think about whether the values I listed above are actually better held by immigrants like myself and my student, who honor them by our actions every single day or by rage-filled xenophobes like you who seem to have strayed far, far away from the ideals of this country.

Maybe each one of you should take the citizenship test too…it might teach you a few things you seem to have forgotten as you celebrate hate, denigrate the “other” and make a virtue of gaming the system. Then you might understand what it truly means to be an American.

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