Sometime toward the end of this year, I shall become an American citizen.
A few of my European friends look confused when they realize that I go around the world expounding the importance of liberty – and yet choose to live in the USA.
They are thinking, of course, of all the obvious stuff, like the abuses against privacy by the NSA; the killing of innocents in ill-considered or even dishonest interventionist militarism; the foreign policy that produces terrorists in the name of destroying them. These Americanisms are made all the more ugly by the apparent hypocrisy: any abuses against liberty are bad, but those that are perpetrated by a State that consistently justifies them by the need to protect liberty, are a special kind of pathetic.
Some Europeans also know something about America’s almost unique taxation of its citizens on income earned outside the country – a clear disincentive that superficially, at least, makes American citizenship one of the most unappealing in the world.
As a liberty-lover, why would I tie himself to all of that – for life?
I am not interested in becoming American because America has less than anywhere else of what is bad: I’ll do it because America has more of what is good – the good of informed, passionate and principled resistance against all of those things that shouldn’t be so.
Stuck on an L.A. freeway in 2005, I was listening to NPR, when an interview came on with Greg Palast, a celebrated American journalist and author who moved to the U.K. when he realized that his investigative work was not getting the air-time it deserved in the U.S.. During the interview, Palast was asked whether he wanted to bring up his newly born children in England – the country where he had built a life and highly successful career – or in the United States – the country of his birth.
He answered unhesitatingly that he wanted to bring them up in the U.S. Asked for a reason, he ventured that in the U.K. the average person knows a lot more than the average American about what is wrong with their political system and how their leaders and money-masters abuse them and their country, but they have an apathy and cynicism that prevent them from getting very exercised about it: they don’t care because they expect to be screwed, he said; they therefore are resigned to compromised rights and the incompetent, over-reaching or self-interested wielding of governmental authority.
In the U.S., on the other hand, said Palast, people are much more ignorant of all these things, but were they to know, they’d be much more angry, and therefore more likely to exercise their popular power to change things, since Americans have ideals, and more importantly, believe not only in the possibility of those ideals’ being practically realized, but in the requirement that they be so.
That was 2005. Palast was speaking soon after the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had started; but some time before America’s post 9/11 foreign policy arrogance had alienated most of the world; it was before the financial crisis, and before American politicians had begun bailing out many of the institutions that were responsible for it (along with the State, itself) on the back of taxpayers.
The swing to the Democrats under Obama in 2008, driven by “hope for change”, was the first sign of Americans’ saying enough’s enough.
But under Obama, the financial crisis continued, as did the bailouts and the cronyism; the unfunded government liabilities kept rising; unemployment hurt more families, many of whom lost their homes; Guantanamo remained open, imprisoning the innocent (innocent since they have not yet been found guilty) in a legal black hole; Obamacare sought to remake a huge fraction of the American economy, rammed through on a party-line vote, only to do for millions of Americans the very opposite of the claims that were made to justify it; the Patriot Act was renewed; the National Defense Authorization Act was passed. Increasingly, as the Bill of Rights has continued to be erased, more Americans have begun slowly to awake from their ignorance, by discovering that the nation’s problems aren’t the fault of one party or the other: rather: they are about power, itself, and they are systemic. These waking Americans have, for a few years now, been proving Palast more right by the day.
It is exciting to watch. It is even more exciting to participate in. The rising is not just political: it is cultural. We have seen the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, Edward Snowden, the rise of “Independent” as the fastest single political block of voters in the USA, the Ron Paul phenomenon, the battle for the soul of the Republican party, Blue Republicans and, generally, hugely energetic, increasingly numerous grassroots activists, who owe their allegiance to no party or organization, but identify simply and loosely as a “Liberty movement”.
This is my America, as it is Palast’s – America as the idea that still inspires agitants of such numbers, energy, intensity of activity, and unquestioned certainty that popular action is going to make a difference because a sufficiently irate and determined minority can’t help but succeed. I am now a part of that activist minority, continually refreshed by its inclusiveness, diversity and relentless positivity. I am willing to bet that, per capita, no other nation can boast the sheer number of manhours and dollars that have been donated to effect change from the ground up in reaction against intolerable change from the top down.
In particular, young American adults, in celebration of the classical liberal Anglo-tradition to which they are heirs – and driven to find new, better perspectives that their professors, established political parties or the mainstream media are not providing – are rediscovering the founding ideas of the nation and the thinkers, concepts and language on which they are based. Just as the idealistic youth of the ‘60s became the leaders, professors and media hacks of today, as they moved America toward the bigger state and social democracy, today’s similarly energized young adults will in the decades to come move America away from militarism, crony corporatism, fiscal irresponsibility and the unintended consequences of one-size-fits-all statism. Both generations reflect the fervent idealism and practical action that together are the spirit of the America to which I shall join myself.
Perhaps even Palast didn’t give his countrymen enough credit.
Although a huge number of Americans may indeed be ill-informed or uncaring about the shenanigans of the Big State and Big Money, in one important respect, their political life is more informed than the citizens of other nations, for, throughout the rest of the developed world, there is no significant argument about whether the State is the only credible agent of delivering social and economic improvement. That has already been conceded everywhere. So political debates elsewhere are more incrementalist and a-philosophical, reducible to the question, “does policy x slightly improve things in relation to some issue or does it make them worse?” In most nations, that is a question asked without a worry about implications for the size of government, the setting of precedent, the constraints on those who wield power, or individual freedom and personal responsibility. In the USA, in contrast, there are still enough voters who never completely lose sight of the fact that every political choice, however immediate and however small, has an effect on individual liberty, and the relationship between the individual and Power – an effect that manifests only over decades or generations, but manifest it certainly will. In other words, any policy decision, however well it might seem to address an immediate issue, must be assessed in relation to the very purpose of having a United States of America at all.
Yes. That’s the word. American politics, – however ill-informed, however sometimes corrupt, and however exasperating – are like the nation and its people, always exceedingly purposeful.
For many, the Biblical expression “shining city on the hill” has become little more than a kitsch political sound-bite, but, if yours is the city that was founded on the most sublime culmination of a thousand-year tradition of liberty, it matters very much to the rest of the world whether the lights in the city are on. When, in 1630, John Winthrop used that expression to describe a new American settlement, he wasn’t suggesting moral superiority: he was indicating awesome responsibility. For me, so many Americans take that responsibility deeply to heart.
America-the-state is off its rails. But Americans are already well into a massive popular project (actually a series of overlapping projects) to get it back on track. It is the most meaningful and exciting project I’ve ever participated in – and it is one, I believe, with the power to change the world. How could I not be inspired by that?
In his excellent book, Inventing Freedom, Daniel Hannan explains that the modern meaning of “patriot” as implying some inherent national superiority is new – and quite wrong. Rather, he writes, “before , a patriot was someone, on either side of the Atlantic, who was determined to preserve the libertarian exceptionalism of the English-speaking polity against is enemies, internal or external.” In other words, American patriotism is a patriotism of ideas and ideals, not of land or power. Like the American founding, proper American patriotism is idealistic and inspires.
By that definition, I have long been an American patriot. When I take my citizenship oath, I’ll not be becoming an American at all: I’ll be simply declaring that I was one all along.