This summer, in an effort to follow Career Service’s advice and boost my resume, I got an internship with a magazine in Wales. The internship itself was unremarkable; the valuable part was spending six weeks in the company of fervent Welsh nationalists who are still fuming over 800-year-old insults from the English. For some reason, spending so much time with Welsh nationalists made me realize my own patriotism. This was the fourth time in my life I’d lived abroad, but the first time I’d ever felt so strongly that nothing could ever make me trade in my citizenship. So as sad as I was to see my summer in Wales come to an end, I was excited to return to the land of the free with my newfound patriotism.
But when I got home, I was barely through customs before I was assaulted with horror stories. Monuments to terrorism on Ground Zero! Illegal invasions of Mexicans! Our country suddenly in the hands of a Muslim president who isn’t even American! I was taken aback by the chaos, and it quickly became clear that the old liberty-loving America I remembered had dissolved into a new America with a very different set of principles. My sense of what it meant to be American – to have a belief in those certain inalienable rights – had, over the course of a single summer, been made invalid. And in this new America, being American means something far different than I’d remembered.
Being American these days means making compromises to avoid stepping on any toes. That is, after all, the American way: tact, political correctness and sensitivity at all times. Our freedom of religion, for example, is all well and good in concept, but in practice it must be compromised when, say, an Islamic community center in relative proximity to Ground Zero risks offending the growing percentage of Americans who have been diagnosed in recent months with a clinical fear of cultural differences. I’ve long thought the word “inalienable” indicated something that could not be compromised, but clearly dictionary.com has lied to me. The American Right to Compromise means treading lightly, avoiding insult at any cost and never causing problems, which is what Park51 is expected to do. It’s just like when Rosa Parks didn’t want to sit in the back of the bus, we compromised and she just sat in the middle; that way, the country as a whole could avoid the unpleasant hassle of a civil rights movement.
Being American also means a belief in the Freedom of Fads. As kids, we had fads: think Beanie Babies, Pokemon and Furbies. Likewise, American adults have fads of prejudice. Once upon a time, it was all the rage to hate the Irish – you simply weren’t cool unless you had a “positively no Irish need apply” sign hanging on the door of your business. In the 1940s, it was so fashionable to hate the Japanese that we locked all Japanese-Americans into internment camps. These days, anybody who is anybody hates Mexicans, Muslims and, just to be on the safe side, anyone else who had the misfortune to be born with brown skin, or maybe just sat out in the sun too long. Racially profiling a Latino or equating Islam with Nazism, a la Newt Gingrich, is pretty much just Twilight for grown-ups.
In an interesting about-face of the Ten Commandments, being American now includes the Right to Bear False Witness. When I returned to the States at the end of the summer and heard that nearly one in four Americans believe President Obama is Muslim and an equally alarming percentage believe he was not born in the United States, I wondered if perhaps in my absence Obama had converted and that somehow Hawaii had been expelled from the Union. Admittedly, Americans have no reputation for being particularly well-informed, so I assume this Right to Bear False Witness is just an extension of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy. We’ll never get all 300 million of us to remember when the War of 1812 took place or where Sweden is on a world map, so let’s just stop trying altogether and let the misinformation run free.
I know that as an American I’m supposed to proudly exercise my rights, but something about this new definition of what it means to be American doesn’t sit well with me. I miss the old America, the one where I and everyone else had the right to do, gather, say, worship and write as we pleased. I miss America the melting pot, where landing on our shores meant – at least in theory – acceptance, freedom and a chance at a new life. Most of all, I miss the America I bragged about to the Welsh, my idealized America that would never claim that “Muslims can build a mosque on Ground Zero when we can build a church in Mecca” or work itself into hysteria concerning the religion of the leader of our secular state. It was to that America that I was so excited to return when I left Wales, and I can’t believe how quickly my excitement has vanished.
When I hear talk of repealing the 14th Amendment or news reports of an assaulted Muslim cab driver and an arson at a mosque site in Tennessee, I can’t even express the extent of my shame and disappointment. I’m sorry, new America, but if this – compromising constitutional rights and caving to fearmongers – is really what it means to be American, then that strong sense of patriotism and love of country that I realized in Wales doesn’t mean anything at all.