The Thinness of American Citizenship: Or, What’s Wrong with Happenstance Americans and Diasporic Communities?

by Jonathan Weinberg

Peter, you argue that there is no core of American identity beyond the popular and political culture (Snoop Dogg, anyone?) that we share with the world. The culture of New York, in other words, is not meaningfully different than that of New Delhi; or in any event, it’s no more distinctively and meaningfully American. I’m wondering, though: if that’s the case, why, exactly, do you think there’s a challenge to citizenship posed by the “happenstance American” born in the U.S. but who spends much of her life outside it? Or by the child growing up in a “diasporic community” said to be socially and culturally disconnected from the larger nation? It seems to me that the reason you think these folks pose a challenge to citizenship is because you do believe that a sufficient period of acculturation and residence, meaningfully situated within the American community, does convey something — knowledge, values, more — that makes you American. The asserted problem with happenstance Americans and folks in disaporic communities is that they don’t absorb that something. But whatever that something is, it looks like American identity.

(Alternatively, I suppose, the problem could be disconnected from knowledge and values; it could be just that those folks may not have sufficient attachment to American community. That concern, I think, would situate you somewhere within the liberal nationalist paradigm you critique in the book. But that’s a topic for another post, if we get to it.)

I suppose I think that there is still an American creed, and that its elements include, among other stuff, a commitment to immigration and to the American experiment — an enterprise of perpetually rebuilding and reconstructing our City upon a Hill, a city that we collectively built, rather than merely inheriting, and that therefore we can rebuild — that we in the U.S. still see as distinctively American. Then again, I may be projecting my own liberal values onto the nation: after all, a lot of the American public are less committed to immigration than I am. I expect there are some members of the public whose version of American identity is premised on closed borders. It may be that what unites us in the U.S. is narcissism. We all tend to see the American experiment as, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the last best hope of earth”; we just can’t agree on why.

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