Legally, I’m an American. I’ve got the passport and birth certificate to prove it. But truly? I’m not an American. I’m just a person who happened to be born in America and happens to live here now.
I’m not exactly sure why this I feel this way. Perhaps it’s because I’ve moved around so much, spending five years – including my most formative years – overseas in Brussels or Florence, and living in two other American cities besides. Even the fact that my home is a house in peaceful, suburban Vienna, Virginia seems merely coincidental. It could have been in Belgium or New Zealand or Mexico and I’d have loved it all the same.
Do I love America? I mean, sure, I think it’s pretty cool. It’s got some good aspects of course, but I could say that about Belgium or New Zealand or Mexico too. I certainly don’t have the kind of patriotism that seems to infect the country. I’m also not particularly fond of the American flag, or any other for that matter.
Even in first grade in my Virginia public school, when I first learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance, I can remember feeling rather reluctant – then and for the following five years of daily pledges. I haven’t said it since sixth grade and when I sometimes realize I still remember the whole thing, I’m not filled with national pride – I’m actually a bit creeped out.
Another aspect of the common American identity is a set of shared ideals. These principles tend to range across the political and social spectrum in what Americans see as a certain moral rightness: examples include liberty, equality, democracy, diversity, opportunity and competition. I see many of these as essential to a working system of governance, but to me that’s common sense. Freedom has nothing to do with America. It wasn’t invented here and America certainly isn’t the freest nation.
Still, many would disagree with me. It is in part from these ideals that many Americans derive their pride in their country – yet another reason to identify with it. But this pride doesn’t originate only from blind faith in America’s freedom. There is much to be proud of in America. Its democratic system, while shaky at times, has served as a model for similarly successful democracies throughout the West. Its racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity serve to show that we are all equal, and despite many obvious problems, is on the way to proving that we all really can get long.
Of course, it’s easy to take pride too far. Perhaps my strangest experience with this was last summer. I had just moved back to America, this time to Chicago, and I was watching the first episode of HBO’s The Newsroom with my family. The show’s main character, news host Will McAvoy, is asked at the start of the show “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” After beating around the bush a little bit, McAvoy settles on the answer that it isn’t. The audience seems shocked, but I didn’t get it.
Of course America isn’t the greatest country in the world. Why would anyone think that? The simple idea of there being a “greatest country” is ridiculous in the first place – so intensely subjective that the question might as well be “What’s your favorite country?” However, 28 percent of Americans believe it’s the sole greatest and only 12 percent believe there are nations better than America.
Now I’m not saying America’s all bad. It certainly isn’t, and I already mentioned several admirable reasons to be proud of it. But to say it’s the best country in the world, “Miss Earth 1776 to 2014,” is a bit much.
And the point stands. Through all these reasons to identify as American, few have swayed me. And when I look at myself, I find that I simply don’t see America as part of my identity. In fact, I don’t see any nation that way. I’m not saying this to present my disagreement with various American policies or assert my anti-nationalist political beliefs – while both are there, nationality just isn’t part of me.
As for you, whether you’re American or not comes from whether you identify with it – not from whether your home’s here, or whether you love democracy, or whether you think it’s the best star-spangled nation in the world.