Raj Patel: Proud to Be An American
“I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
I’ve never actually attended a Moonie mass wedding, but I imagine it’s much like the ritual of becoming a US citizen. In the Masonic Hall in San Francisco yesterday, I was one of 1,245 people from 103 countries who faced a stage, put our hands on our hearts, and with one voice betrothed ourselves not one another or the Reverend Moon, but to a flag. There was something faintly cultish about it all.
To become a US citizen is to be invited into a very exclusive cult, of course, one whose armed forces can now call on me to bear arms. And there was no shortage of military themes in the proceedings. In general, when people sign hymns to bombs bursting in air, I tend to run the other way. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a step up from the rituals of my previous national anthem. In Britain we sing God Save the Queen, a song so interminable and with lyrics so ponderous and toe-curling – “Happy and glorious, Long to reign over us … Thy choicest gifts in store, On her be pleased to pour” – that in the time it takes to go through it once, you can not only have memorized the Sex Pistols version, “God Save the Queen, The fascist regime, … No future, No future for you, No future for me,” but begin fervently to wish it to come true.
No Sex Pistols for us new US citizens, though. The ceremony closed with a video of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be An American,” which was accompanied by lots of breathtaking images of American pastoral beauty, intercut with images of armed men and women. It seems it’s impossible to be a proud American without expensive military hardware. Like other nations, this one doesn’t have an entirely glorious history, founded as it is on that hardware pointed at Native Americans, then slaves, then striking workers, civil rights activists, immigrants and global justice protesters.
Our Master of Citizenship ceremonies, a nice man from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, put all that behind us. He reassured us that the US was better today for our membership in it. “But,” he said, “we’ve got a lot of problems in this country. Now that you can vote, we’re going to need your help to vote to help to make them better.”
He’s right: there are problems. More than one in six Americans are going hungry, there’s record inequality, stagnant wages for middle and working class Americans, incarceration rates are high, health care levels low. If African American women’s health care levels were counted as a country, they’d be doing worse than Uzbekistan.
The uncomfortable wobble in the middle of our official’s sentence betrays a deeper truth, though. Voting isn’t going to solve problems this big. It rarely has. But what he neglected to mention is that this is a country forged from struggle. The catalyst for the Boston Tea Party, at least as Pulitzer prize-winning historian Arthur Scheslinger tells it, came not because of ‘taxation without representation’ but, rather, a widespread opposition to the increasing monopoly of the East India Company. In other words, US history began with a people’s fight against a corporation so powerful, it was the Wal-Mart of its day. Likewise, emancipation, universal suffrage and civil rights weren’t won through voting, but through direct action for social change, involving protests for equality, democracy, and justice.
It’s this America, where democracy isn’t something you let other people take care of on your behalf but something that you’re empowered to do yourself, which I joined yesterday. I didn’t need a certificate from the government to do it, just as I didn’t need a marriage certificate to love my wife. The citizenship certificate is a sign of commitment – and I want that commitment to be public. Not least because if in being democratic I am arrested, I won’t get deported back to Britain.
In civic groups, churches, schools, unions and cooperatives, it’s this democracy that’s alive and thriving. It’s invariably pitted against the power of large corporations and the state, against the most public embodiments of America.
There’s a painful ambiguity here – I loathe the militarism, corruption and injustice that America represents, but I celebrate the genuine democracy, equality and freedom that can already be found growing in every corner of the country. It’s this tension that Langston Hughes caught exactly in his beautiful poem, “Let America Be America Again.” As the rock guitars blared over the hall of newly minted citizens and the video screens showed images of aircraft carriers and star-spangled banners, I kept this fragment of Hughes’ poem in my heart.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!
Raj Patel is the author of “The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy” (Picador).
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