I’m writing this post on Super Bowl Sunday, a semi-holiday (or day of observance, literally) that’s wholly American. And I’m thinking about what it means to be an American in 2017. Does it mean that we try to follow the principle that my six-year-old daughter wrote on a sign two weeks ago: “Treat all people fairly”? Or does it mean that we rank people—based on the circumstances of their birth, the color of their skin, the particularities of their faith? Does it mean that we try to act in a way that would make our children and our grandchildren proud? Or does it mean that we practice a kind of moral relativism that allows us to justify any action, however brutal or base? What does it mean to be a citizen? What are our obligations, our aspirations?
About a month ago, while giving his farewell address in Chicago, President Obama used the words “citizen” and “citizenship” eight separate times. He gave a quick history lesson:
For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.
It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan—and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.
So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.
He offered a warning:
Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.
He reminded us of the stakes:
But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning—with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.
Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
He challenged us to get to work:
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.
Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.
And he made a promise:
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
I’d like to keep thinking about the idea of citizenship—about what it means, why it matters. What does Claudia Rankine say? And W. H. Auden? And Frederick Douglass?
While I was writing this post, I got an email from The New Yorker, as I do every Sunday. The email directed me to stories from the magazine’s archives, all of which describe the immigrant experience.
In Kathryn Schulz’s “Citizen Khan,” I read about the remarkably resourceful Zarif Khan, who traveled from a small village near the Khyber Pass all the way to Wyoming, where he reinvented himself as Hot Tamale Louie and became a frontier legend. Khan gained US citizenship in the mid-1920s, had it stripped from him a year later, and regained it in 1954. Schulz writes:
Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those “many” can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall.
I suspect we’ll get through this bullying and cowardly period in our national history—though, as Obama reminds us, nothing’s assured. We’ve had hopeful signs all weekend: from New York, from Seattle. And yes, autocracy seems to be part of this year’s cultural weather, but so does resistance. Reading about the many acts of courage by protesters and refugees in the US and across the globe, I hear the fierce pledge at the end of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.”