What makes an American

By Stefan Herlitz

Collegian File Photo
Collegian File Photo

“American exceptionalism” has been a hot topic in recent political discourse. Conservative pundits consistently use it to justify war, American superiority and ultranationalism. Liberals often denounce it as racist and imperialist. As the political debate rages on and the major parties constantly bombard one another with meaningless inflammatory tropes, one must keep one thing in mind: America is, indeed, exceptional, just not for the reasons many people say.

There is no country in the world like the United States of America. I do not say this because we have the world’s largest economy, highest GDP, or most McDonald’s per capita (out of countries with a population over one million), nor because we have the world’s highest military spending, 10 of the world’s 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or the ability to exterminate the entire human race in a nuclear apocalypse. America is different from the rest of the world’s nations due to one single, simple thing: the meaning of “American.”

Being American is fundamentally different from being Irish, Kenyan, Chinese or any other nationality. When one says, “I am Irish,” there is a distinct set of characteristics that comes with that epithet – Irish people share genetic roots, a common culture and a distinct social history. One may move to Ireland, gain citizenship and live there for years, yet still be considered a foreigner; the same phenomenon applies to any other non-American country. If I were to move to China, live there for years and attain citizenship, people would still call me a “foreigner.” Why? Because I’m a white guy from Massachusetts and I’d stick out like a sore thumb.

In America, the word “foreigner” is almost unknown. Even in the most homogeneous areas of the United States, no one assumes that someone else is not American, regardless of race, ethnicity, accent or dress. The very instant someone sets foot on American soil, that person can identify as an American.

But wouldn’t this, you might ask, then make “being an American” meaningless? This is a perfectly valid question – after all, what is the purpose of a word that describes everyone?

The truth is, that is the point: to include everyone. America might be the only country in the world to self-identify in a way that doesn’t leave anyone out. Unlike those of other societies, our national identity is not built upon constructed social distinctions, and the question as to what is “American” is not an issue to us, because everything is. This is the beauty of the idea of America: a place where you can be you, I can be me and we can have little to nothing in common, yet somehow we are still members of the same community.

What unifies the American people is not the presence of imagined commonalities, as in other nations, but rather the fundamental desires of the human race. The “American Dream” is not a set of values unique to Americans, but the inner desire of all peoples everywhere: to be able to improve their lot in life through courage and perseverance, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. This is what makes, and has made, America great. Americans strive for excellence, demand to be heard and reach for the stars, actions completely independent of race, gender, class, ethnicity, or any other degree of difference. Anyone can work for a better tomorrow. Anyone can be American.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]