Why I Am Not An American

Aaron Swartz, taken from us too soon, wrote a piece that really spoke to me. As someone who wishes for equality yet avoids labels (especially on myself), I felt this piece captured my thoughts exactly. It also inspired me (with a small nudge from a good friend) to write a similar piece on the subject of immigration.

Until relatively recently, most travel in the world was limited by actual, physical factors. The incredible time it took to make long journeys was also fraught with danger and expense. Months of travel could be required to go even a short distance; and with those months came the price of equipping and feeding the travelers. Ships sank, horses died, and (if video games played in middle school taught me anything) lots of people died of dysentery. Despite these difficulties, people DID travel, to all corners of the Earth. However, while these intrepid travelers of yore overcame rivers and oceans, mountains and deserts, they rarely had to contend with a group of soldiers keen on preventing them from moving around.

People have, throughout the ages, had all sorts of “identities” based on all sorts of criteria. People have identified themselves with clans and families, with religions and ethnicities, with movements and beliefs, even with diets and movie franchises. The phrase “I am a…” is ubiquitous today. How many times do you hear someone say “I practice a vegetarian diet?” or “I ascribe to the Catholic belief structure?” Rarely, if ever. People define themselves by these groups – it’s not just an action or a belief, but a group to belong to. Maslow in action. People ARE Catholics or Vegetarians or Trekkies or what have you. But the modern age has given us a new identity as well: Nationality.

Nationality is often aligned with ethnicity, but certainly not always. It’s become vogue to identify with your nationality, though Nationality has some major differences with other identity groups. For one, Nationality is entirely an accident as far as you’re concerned. Maybe your parents were wealthy and savvy enough to make a conscious choice to have you in the country they did, but chances are good it was just where they happened to be. Unless you happen to be a naturalized immigrant, then you didn’t join this club, and nothing you could do (or fail to do) would make its leaders kick you out.  In fact, you’d have to try really hard to leave voluntarily – which would make you think that the club really hungered for members.  Yet most importantly, unlike nearly all other clubs, this one actively tries to prevent others from joining. Different factions within the club want to make it harder than others – and some want to make it downright impossible – but few want to launch a massive recruitment campaign.

A major goal of the Catholic club as a whole is to convert others into it. A major goal of Vegetarians is to convince other people that they should also be Vegetarians. While some elitism is natural among many groups, it’s mostly directed at those who have tried and failed to get in, or those who never tried at all. Members of one religion or belief structure or whatever kind of group might think they’re better than outsiders, but they don’t usually try to prevent outsiders from joining. Most clubs follow the pattern of setting criteria for membership and then letting the chips fall. Catholics have to follow Catholic doctrine, Vegetarians have to avoid meat, and Trekkies have to occasionally dress up like a Starfleet Officer. But Americans? The only criteria for default entry are that you were born in America or to Americans – and that’s that.

While people can pose all of the arguments they want in terms of whether borders should be open, closed, or somewhere in between, does it make sense to have Nationality as an identity? Imagine if the only way you could be a Catholic was if your parents were Catholics, but if that were true, you didn’t have to do anything else. You didn’t have to obey any rules, you didn’t have to attend church, you didn’t have to even believe in the teachings – yet you got all the benefits of a vast social support network and prime seating in the afterlife. Would it make sense to take pride in that identity anymore? Would it be just and right to make laws benefiting only those people, and harming all others?

Of course, in the real world, many people DO identify with groups that are nothing more than accidents of birth. People take pride in their ethnic cultures. Sometimes it makes sense, too – if you appreciate a particular kind of behavior associated with that ethnic culture. I like being an Italian – but to me, that means I value good wine, family loyalty, and minding your own business. If I knew nothing of the actual culture of Italians, I would think it silly to be proud of being one. However, I’ve also made plenty of my friends over the years “honorary Italians” if they ALSO loved good wine, were good to their mothers, and knew when to keep their mouths shut. In short, I turned my ethnic identity into a voluntary club.

When most people say “I’m proud to be an American,” they don’t mean that they’re proud of having been born between a certain latitude and longitude. They mean they’re proud of a certain set of characteristics. I could even imagine a subset of those characteristics that I would guess few Americans would disagree with: Bravery, hard work, the willingness to sacrifice for others, and perseverance. Those are all spectacular qualities – but Americans don’t have a monopoly on them.

In fact, those sound EXACTLY like the set of qualities it would take to leave your homeland, taking impressive risks for the sake of a better life for you and your family, and put in the effort to overcome the grueling task of making a life for yourself in a new land.

So that’s why I’m not an American. I don’t identify with the cowardly, the lazy, the selfish and the quitters – even if they were born inside the same arbitrary lines I was. But I do identify with, sympathize with, and long to help the brave, the diligent, the selfless and the driven – wherever they were born, and wherever they’re going.

John is a passionate believer in open borders, coming at the issue from a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist moral perspective.

See our blog post introducing John, or all blog posts by John.

3 thoughts on “Why I Am Not An American”

  1. When people say they are proud to be American, they may not be referring to a set of qualities that they have based on their nationality. They may be referring to something they believe the nation itself represents.

    In this case, despite all of its flaws, I think it is fair to say that the United States still represents the values of liberty and ingenuity.

  2. Very nice post and I identify with much of it.

    What’s interesting about nationality as identity is how it changes when you are no longer comfortably in the midst of others who are also “proud to be an American.” Instead you find yourself in a world where people are very proud to be Chinese or French or Japanese and it changes you. And over the past year or so I’ve met quite a few people outside the U.S. who are “Accidental Americans” – they only discovered very recently that they are U.S. citizens because they were, though no fault of their own, born on U.S. soil. Most of these people I’ve talked to are trying to rid themselves of something they never asked for and have no intention of activating.

    I grew up in the U.S. but I’ve spent nearly half my life elsewhere. I still feel culturally an American in many ways but the other country of my heart has molded and shaped me for most of my adult life. These days I think of my identity as something fluid, not fixed and, as you point out, that pretty blue U.S. passport is simply not the final word. It is a travel document, nothing more.

    And that changed everything for me. Once I divorced nationality from identity, the idea of giving up U.S. citizenship seemed much more palatable. I will always be an American because that’s where I grew up and where part of my family lives but I don’t have to be a U.S. national or citizen to be part of that country’s culture, language and values.

  3. My various observations:

    The blogger wrote, “while these intrepid travelers of yore overcame rivers and oceans, mountains and deserts, they rarely had to contend with a group of soldiers keen on preventing them from moving around.” That’s not right, because many explorers reported hostile natives all over the world. True, the hostility did not originate with formal immigration laws and such, but the urge to repel perceived outsiders should not be viewed as a recent phenomena resulting from artificial laws and boundaries.

    Yes, nationality is the result of birth in a random location. But being Catholic often is also a birth accident, resulting from being born to Catholic parents. Being a Trekkie is seemingly by choice, but maybe influenced by the accident of being born kind of nerdy or growing into a nerd from social influences. But your vegetarian example is probably a good one of a quality more likely to be freely chosen. So, anyway, many aspects of a person are birth accidents, but that does not make them irrelevant.

    It’s true that Catholics/Trekkies/vegetarians/etc don’t try to prevent outsiders from joining, but that is because they perceive no risk in having others join. Many people DO perceive risks in having outsiders join their nation; it is a different situation.

    I’ve never understood why people say they take pride in their nationality or ethnic background. I’m not convinced that Americans are more likely to have the qualities you mentioned: bravery, hard work, the willingness to sacrifice for others, and perseverance.

    I also would not generalize about immigrants having those qualities either. The seeming bravery and perseverance might actually be simple desperation, not a result of intrinsic internal psychological drive. And they might be much more willing to sacrifice for their friends and family than for their new countrymen.

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