A New Citizen and a New President
For me, the inauguration of President Trump is particularly poignant, as the outgoing President was the one under whom I became a citizen, while the new President was elected in the first election in which I was also able to participate as a new American.
Born British, I moved to the USA when I was 29. In 2009, I became a permanent resident, and last year, after a 12 year odyssey through a Kafkaesque immigration system, I became a citizen.
In my heart and soul, however, I was American a long time ago – a fact of which I became conscious in two experiential flashes. The first made me realize that I was no longer “just” a Brit. After the second, I knew I was American, even though I didn’t yet have the passport to prove it.
The first occurred in Phoenix. I was in the city with a friend when we heard of a liberty-oriented political conference that was being held in the Sheraton hotel there. Being political types, we quietly went down there, and let ourselves into the back of the hall. Scanning what at that time was for me a rather unusual environment, I noticed a participant who was prominently sporting a side-arm.
I was only five years out of Britain at that time, and the instinctive reaction of most Brits, in whose country even the police don’t carry guns, to such a thing would typically be some combination of horror, perplexity and even derision. At the very least, the sense of cultural dissonance would be instinctive. But for me, somewhat surprisingly, that was not the case. Even though I had never shot a handgun, nor had had any interest in firearms, not only did I feel at ease with that man’s carrying his weapon in an indoor environment in which he was not threatened, but – much more than that – I understood why he was doing it, and that the reasons were, of course, decidedly American. The idea that rights un-asserted are lost over time and that a lethal means of self-defense is a right are alien to British culture, so the fact that I didn’t feel in that moment that the carrier of that gun was of a different species — let alone a different culture — was enough for me to register that I my national identity was already becoming more complex, more layered.
However, the moment I knew that I was American was altogether stranger. I was at the top of a mountain in Kyrgyzstan, sitting in a room in a run-down building that had been converted to a classroom for a week. I was there with others to share some of the principles of political and economic liberty with a group young adults whose formative years had come of age in a former Soviet republic. At the time, one of my colleagues, an opera singer, was giving a class. After loosening up the extremely bright but highly skeptical students by getting them to discuss and then sing the Kyrgyz national anthem, he proceeded to sing the American anthem.
The tears started rolling down my face, and they would not stop.
Not only have I never cried for the British anthem: I cannot even imagine any Englishman doing so. Yet, there I was, with nowhere to hide in the front of this rectangular room, crying for the anthem of a country to which technically I did not yet fully belong — but with which spiritually I resonated at the deepest level.
I was taken aback by my deeply emotional response but perhaps should not have been. After all, there were many occasions in the preceding five years of a brutal legal immigration process when it would have been emotionally, financially and practically much easier just to have just given up, but on those occasions I always returned to the simple fact that I already felt at home, and after all, one’s feelings are the language of one’s soul.
In any case, on that day, on a mountaintop in Kyrgyzstan, I knew that, while I was British, I was also an American.
A few months later, I was back in Phoenix, and went to support an Italian friend as he became an American citizen. I imagined myself going through the same ceremony four years later with my own kith and kin in the audience.
I smiled through the whole thing, sharing fellow-feeling with all of the new citizens — not just as Americans, but as people who had overcome similar stresses and uncertainties to achieve their goal of becoming once and for all American.
Yet, one part of the ceremony gave me serious pause. The oath taken by new citizens includes the words,
I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.
Imagining my mother in the audience, my stomach knotted at how upset she’d be if I renounced where I had come from and the land with which she shall always identify.
I was sufficiently perturbed by the implications of that renunciation that I started googling when I returned home to see what it really meant.
Becoming A Bipatriot
I have no reservation in my commitment to the USA. In fact, I have already done more to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” than many born-and-bred Americans, and I love doing it, because I believe deeply in the founding principles of the United States and the American project. I would take up arms for the USA and I would fight as hard to defend my fellow Americans as I would for my fellow Brits.
Indeed, to me, my British-to-American narrative is a rather special one in that it follows America’s historical narrative, and to me, much of what is best about the American character and foundation is an evolution, perhaps even a higher expression, of British values and political traditions. (In his poem, “England and America in 1782“, Tennyson explains it better than I can.)
Indeed, my pride in those British gifts underpins my pride in the Americans who fought the revolution and wrote the Constitution to save and improve on those same gifts as they were being trampled in “the motherland”.
Britain formed me. America is what I have chosen to do with how I am formed. Renouncing one for the other would be like renouncing being a son to become a husband — or like renouncing my first child when my second is born. Doing either would be absurd and false. As with two sons, so with two countries: I love both, delight in the success of both, am pained by the falling short of both, and get to celebrate the fact that love is not diluted when it is doubled.
For those reasons and others, I was glad to learn that my renunciation of Britain in the USA carries no weight in Britain, and that even in American law, I can be both American and British.
Thank God for that. I am impatient to embrace America fully, and commit to my new countrymen, but if I really had to choose between an American identity and a British one, I’d be overwhelmed by the unreality of that choice.
So I am a bipatriot, if I might coin a term, and it is a wonderful thing to be.
Just as people who can think in different languages benefit from a certain intellectual and emotional abundance, so do we bipatriots. We have an enriched identity, a more colorful sense of self. We get to see issues — especially political, philosophical and cultural — in very different ways, but in each way clearly. Not only is that exciting; it hopefully gives us something different to contribute to our adoptive country.
Happily, another British-born Americaphile inadvertently helped me understand why bipatriotism makes sense: Daniel Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament has said,
Patriotism is what makes people behave unselfishly. It’s the basis of our sense of obligation to those around us. A patriot doesn’t belittle other countries: he cheers their sense of national pride, and values their freedom.
Indeed. And I am blessed, like the parent of two children, to have twice the pride
But the skeptical reader might still ask whom would I support in a world-cup soccer final between the US and the UK (choosing soccer only because it’s one of the few team sports that are seriously played by both nations), as the answer to that question would no doubt cut to my deepest allegiance. Upon introspection, I am delighted to find that in that game, my team never loses.
Prejudice Against Patriotism Is as Damaging as Patriotism with Prejudice
I didn’t vote for the President who was sworn in today, and I was not expecting to be taken by his speech – but I was struck by one line in particular:
When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
That made me recall Hannan, above, and it is the kind of patriotism of which my bipatriotism is made. It is also the patriotism of individual liberty on which our nation – my new home – was founded.
I hope it truly is the patriotism of our new President, and of those who have supported him. Our future depends heavily on it.
But just as importantly, I hope that those who have justified their opposition to our new President as a way of expressing, so they say, their lack of prejudice, will extend that lack of prejudice to those who are inspired by country, its history, and its founding ideals, and so call themselves patriots. Our future depends heavily on that too.