On Monday, December 30, 2013 I renounced “all allegiance and fidelity” to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I (of Scotland) and took my oath to become a United States citizen. Having lived in America for the best part of a decade, immersed myself in her history, traveled extensively, and married a girl from the heartland, I have long felt adoration for this country akin to the patriotism professed by most citizens. The Certificate of Citizenship, although welcome, told me what I already knew.
But what does becoming an American mean? Nearly ten years ago when I first entered the United States, Samuel P. Huntington sought to answer the same question in his text, Who Are We? The book, which won plaudits as well as heavy criticism, focused on what the author deemed to be the origins and supposed ‘threats’ to the Protestant character he felt formed the core of the American Creed. It spurred a lively debate that really continues to this day.
Although Huntington placed a great deal of emphasis on cultural shifts and the crude national unity that seemingly emanated from the Cold War, few words were spent on the ever-increasing size and scope of government that directly seeks to compete with national identity, community association, and civil society in general. National identity need not be conflated with that of slavish devotion to the government, despite the best efforts of the latter.
For those who saw the infamous video at the Democratic National Convention this assertion should be fairly familiar. The video, dubbed by Republicans ‘Government is the only thing that we all belong to,’ may as well have been a product of the Department of Homeland Security at a citizenship ceremony. If our immigration system is, as many Republicans and Democrats claim, broken, the process in which we inaugurate new citizens is a national embarrassment.
As expected patriotic songs are interspersed with videos of flying eagles, grafting farmers, and national monuments. Even if one finds some of this a little tacky there is still plenty of room for pride even as a room fills with that Lee Greenwood song. However, I was deeply perplexed (and troubled) by the fact that in the room where the ceremony was taking place, DHS staff had endeavored to place their bureaucracy’s flag next to every Old Glory. They had pride of place and equal standing. These dark blue rags were as prominent as the flag we new citizens proudly pledged allegiance to. Why? This struck me as rather Orwellian.
And then came the photo opportunities. New citizens had the pleasure of having their picture taken with their new congressman, the local DHS mandarin, and the flag. Both of them. Had I possessed the security of my certificate I would have requested a picture substituting the DHS flag for that of my state, Virginia. Instead I opted not to bother at all. Despite being reminded by DHS staff about the importance of this day, I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated. The fact that DHS bullies were administrating the ceremony was unfortunate, but made sense. The need for them to insert themselves and their department seemed entirely unnecessary.
For most Americans this story is disappointing. As Carl Friedrich once stated, “To be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact.” At least in my experience (which granted might differ from others‘) these ceremonies are not a celebration of citizenship to pursue happiness, but an ode to a department created when many of these individuals first filed their paperwork. Democracy in America it most certainly is not. It might also strike some as amusing that given DHS is coercive in nature it is tasked with preaching the gospel of liberty to new citizens.
While we may still debate over the validity of Huntington’s polemic, it’s worth acknowledging that Americans are defined by the yearning for individual freedom from, rather than affinity for, government. That’s the difference between being a citizen and a subject, though the naturalization authorities appear to have forgotten. Facing sharp criticism over Texas becoming the 28th state in the Union, President James K. Polk lamented in his inaugural address that “These foreign powers do not seem to appreciate the true character of our government.” When it comes to welcoming new Americans, neither does our own.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the U.S., covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. A native of Scotland and now a U.S. citizen, he lives and works in Virginia. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt