By Mara Soloway, I Start Wondering Contributor
What does it mean to be American? That’s a question that roused significant passions after the last presidential election, depending on who you talk to. However, a more measured approach to the responsibilities of citizenship can offer some thought-provoking ideas that we can implement in our daily lives.
The Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square are in the midst of a three-year project, What it Means to be American, which has brought together some of the nation’s top historians, scholars, and public thinkers to explore this big question in terms of America’s history of migration and immigration, democratic traditions, and shared history and culture.
The Importance of Taking a Stand
The conversation held before a large audience at the Museum of Fine Art Houston began with the moderator – Nancy Barnes, editor and executive vice president for news for the Houston Chronicle – asking the panelists where civil disobedience fits in. Interestingly, all four panelists said that it is important in terms of being an American.
“We are at our best as citizens when we are being critical, when we’re protesting,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University historian of American political rhetoric. “It’s fundamental to how we see ourselves as Americans.” She noted that early American thinker John Dickinson was not a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but his ideas stimulated the movement to break away from Great Britain. His words from the late 1760s told citizens that they should be vigilant in defense of their own freedom and make judgments against the crown, which was not the accepted behavior at the time when many were actually happy to be part of the British Empire.
Johann N. Neem, civil-society historian at Western Washington University, said, “Americans are at their best when they are critical and thoughtful. One of the challenges is how to be critical and thoughtful while also being respectful and bear witness to each other.” Neem believes there is power in being respectful to each other. Mickey Edwards, a former U.S. congressman from Oklahoma who now works on political reform and teaches political leadership, echoed Neem’s idea. “We have an obligation to be very forceful in speaking out when we think things are wrong,” he said.
Remaining Civil in Our Tone
But all of us, particularly those in public office, have to be able to respectfully find common ground after having strong debates from different points of view. Edwards said it’s wrong to demonize each other based on our political views.
The Washington Post “Civilities” columnist Steven Petrow was asked about being civil in our online and social media interactions. “Don’t drink and tweet,” he joked and then described how he begins conversations with those who email their disagreements with him, often in nasty language. He writes back asking them “What do you really want to say?” About two-thirds write him apologizing for the words they used and then more politely discuss the topic. “We were able to have a productive conversation where we heard each other,” he said.
Overall, Petrow wants us to respect each other and not use inflammatory language. He said that it doesn’t get us anywhere to use words as a weapons in homophobic and racist ways when people state their opinions. Instead, he wants us to find commonalities. The group consensus was that we need to get to know others with different viewpoints and try to understand them. In other words, don’t just interact with those in your echo chamber. Neem noted the value of shared commitments that come from joining organizations that aren’t explicitly political that bring people together over a shared commitment unrelated to their politics. “You start to know other people and they turn out to be interesting, thoughtful, moral and ethical,” he said.
Mercieca said the language of division perpetrated by the media serves it and not us. She appealed for more language of transcendence – language that works to bring us together. She cited Jimmy Kimmel’s heartfelt words about his son’s heart surgery and that we all want our children to be well as a recent example. Petrow then asked for a show of hands of who in the audience would like to see more transcendence. It looked like everyone raised their hands in a show of support for coming together.
Creating a Diverse — and Stronger — Society
As the conversation turned to immigration, Petrow reminded us that the national motto is e pluribus unum, meaning out of many, one.
Neem, himself an immigrant, feels, “Being American is something you become, and it doesn’t matter if you’re native born or not, because it’s not in blood and it’s not in color…. It’s not something that is genetic; it’s something we work together to become.” He believes the commitments made to be American aren’t any more natural to someone who was born here than they are to an immigrant.
Other panelists had similar backgrounds. Barnes’ family was French Canadians who settled in Massachusetts; neither parent graduated from college. Edwards’ parents were Polish and Lithuanian Jews. “My father grew up in orphanage and I got to become a member of Congress. There’s not a whole lot of countries where that could happen,” he said.
Mercieca’s dad was from Malta, where his family experience almost daily bombings during World War II. To her, America is about hope that things are going to get better. She said, “Being American is something like a gift.”
Learning Our Civic Responsibilities
The conversation took twists and turns through other political topics. In addressing how we take American back from its political divides, I found the overarching themes to be that we all have to learn how to be American. We have to know who our representatives are and do more than vote every four years. We have to learn to use our political power. We have to be prepared to engage as citizens and know our obligations. We have to do better at accepting that others don’t agree with us. We have to take responsibility for our actions and our words.
Sage words from Petrow encouraged the audience to get involved in issues they care about. And from Neem: American democracy hasn’t always been perfect. It’s a diverse work in progress that needs all of our input.
Zócalo’s recap of the Houston event: http://www.whatitmeanstobeamerican.org/conversations/pledging-allegiance-to-our-different-and-shared-ideals-of-citizenship/. Click on the link to see the video of the event.
More about the What it Means to Be American national dialogs: