Unfolding the Map
We're ending our brief foreign excursion with William Least Heat-Moon and about to enter into the state of New York. I've been thinking a bit lately about why and how I entered this world in the United States, instead of someplace else. In this post, we'll ponder a variation of the question "why am I here?" If you wonder not only why, but also where, consult the map.
"....By the time I reached U.S. Customs, the rain had stopped and, as I crossed the bridge over the Niagara River north of the falls, with quite unbelievable timing, the Canadian sun turned the eastern cliffs orange."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 1
Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, New York
The other day I had a thought run through my head. This particular thought has happened before, but I was surprised by it again because I haven't given any serious consideration of it for a while. It's kind of a chip off of the block the usual philosophical question "Why am I here?" My question is "Why am I a U.S. citizen?"
One can only really examine this question truly when one steps outside of the U.S. The more foreign the culture, the more perspective it gives upon one's place within their own. Luckily, I've been able to travel and gain a little perspective. I don't think LHM really was able to examine his U.S.-ness or his citizenship from a brief travel through lower Ontario and a cross over the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, but it gives me the opportunity to do so in this post.
I think it's important that all Americans consider why they were born an American citizen. I feel this is critical especially now as we very noisily and politically debate what the true meaning of citizenship is. After 9/11, very many people and politicians concluded that the outside world was a dangerous place. Many advocated for the U.S. to retreat inward and disengage. Others, particularly prominent politicians at the time, put in place a policy of unilateralism and preemption. The U.S. would strike, unprovoked if need be, wherever it felt it must to ensure its security and its own interests. In the process, we not only alienated many other countries, peoples and cultures, but internally we began to classify those who were us, and those who were not.
Yet, a vast majority of the American people have not stepped foot outside the borders of the U.S. According to CNN, only 30% of the U.S. public has a passport. They have never gotten that experience of seeing what it's like to be a "citizen of the world." They have never had to confront that, in the absence of a happy accident, they might have been born in Africa, or North Korea. They might have lived in squalor in a Calcutta slum, or been kidnapped and thrown out of an airplane over the ocean in an Argentine "disappearance." They might have had to contend with hunger and poverty, sickness and disease, war, violence, famine, despotic governments and everything that a majority of the world's population has had to deal with.
So, why am I U.S. citizen?
I've been dabbling, a mere amateur really, into some classical philosophy. I'm not sure that philosophy can answer my question, but I will try, though I'm not a philosopher and am probably completely off-base. It is possible, in a Platonic sense, that we can accept the idea of the United States as a form of something deeper and more fundamental to our existence. Therefore, I can accept the idea that I am a U.S. citizen, but that is only how I can understand a much more abstract concept - by making it part of the real world.
In an Aristotelian sense, the idea of being a U.S. citizen is associated in my mind with goodness and virtue through my political socialization. Since I was young the importance of my citizenship has been reinforced. Therefore, I strive to be a good citizen in the cause of attaining a most virtuous status of citizenship.
Virtue has long been associated in American history with hard work. But here the American ideal strays from some of the classical philosophies such as Cynicism which reject the ideas of wealth, fame, power and possessions. In fact, sometimes the U.S. has been associated with hedonism in the pursuit of gratification and pleasure.
Most of us, however, probably take a less gratuitous approach. In an Epicurean sense, we would allow ourselves only moderate pleasures and we would wish for a freedom from fear. In this sense, the promise of the U.S. is very important because our political system was created to give us freedoms from what the Founders believe was the biggest potential source of fear, the national government. Classical liberalism advocates individual freedoms as the most important goal for us. Indeed, we could take this farther into a Stoic view of citizenship, where the best life in the U.S. is one of reason, virtue and in line with the harmony inherent in the universal order. Thus, being a good citizen would consist of the exercise of restraint, self-control, logic, reason and wisdom.
I could take these exercises even farther, but they don't bring me any closer to knowing why I am here in this country, and as I wrote earlier, I'm just an amateur at this.
What I keep coming back to is a sense of the meaninglessness of borders that we have demarcated. If I were to look at the globe from space, I would not see large lines that would indicate where one country ends and the other begins. What I would see is land masses with people on them. Any barriers outside geological or natural ones are completely arbitrary. There would be nothing separating me from Canadians or Mexicans.
Of course, there are borders, and they are reinforced by our acceptance of them. And our acceptance of those borders leads us to believe that as Americans, we are different than Canadians and Mexicans. We separate and classify but really, that's absurd. Recounting looking back on Earth from the moon, astronaut Frank Borman writes:
The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance.
Life Magazine, January 17th, 1969
So why am I a U.S. citizen? I was born in the U.S., and I attach meaning to it. But I have been outside the U.S. and have been able to see and hear how others perceive us, and many times in a very unflattering light. That has affected my view, as made me less U.S.-centric and has made me want to use the luck of being a U.S. citizen to promote good in the world. I could not help but feel how privileged I've been in the presence of the poor of Bangladesh, prostitutes trying to survive in Thailand, the oppressed of Central America striving to gain political and social equality and that I owed it to myself and them to have a wider view of what my citizenship means and how I can use my influence to push my country toward actions that better the world. The freedoms that I have allow me to think about such problems and potential solutions, where, as a citizen of someplace else, I might just be trying to survive.
So, I am a U.S. citizen because a random roll of the dice put me here. But, I am also a U.S. citizen because from here, I can affect tremendous good if I so choose. And I so choose.
Wow, I just discovered this song. I like it! The song was written by the American band Flying Machines and includes four other world musicians: Kailash Kher from India, King Sunny Ade from Nigeria, Cheng Lin from China, and Khaled from Algeria.
If you want to know more about the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge
Next up: Lewiston, New York