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WHY DEFINITIONS MATTER: What Is An ‘American?’

NOTE: One of the most common complaints I hear about my blogging is that I spend too much time worrying over the meaning of words.  Well, I’m sorry if this bother some people, but if we do not have a common understanding of what we mean by the words we use, then we can never be sure we understand anything we read?  So I have started this series as a means of recording my thoughts on Why Definitions Matter.’  I hope you’ll find it of some use in your own quest for understanding.

What is an ‘American?’  It is not a citizen of the United States.  How can we know that, because this is the United States of America, but it is not ‘America.‘  America is a continent, and there is a North and South America, each containing more than one nation.  So how can we say a citizen of the United States is an American, but not a Canadian, a Mexican or even a Brazilian or Argentinian?  Obviously, ‘American’ means something more than just citizenship.  Luckily, as with so many things, our founders left us a little help.

“Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”

— Benjamin Franklin (attributed), letter to Benjamin Vaughn, March 14, 1783

The spirit of this quote was echoed many years later in the Superman comic book series:

“Truth, Justice and the American Way!”

So what is the American way and how is it connected to what we mean by ‘American?’

For me, it all goes back to Franklin’s words.  Before we won our independence, we were called ‘Colonists‘ — not Americans!  Shortly after our independence, the world started to call us Americans, but that was not who we were.  We were a confederacy: a collection of independent nations.  So you might have been a New Yorker, or a Virginian or a Georgian, but you were not technically an American (you still aren’t).  Whether consciously or not, I believe the world referred to us as ‘Americans‘ as a short-hand way of describing the value set that epitomized the people of our confederation.  In short, ‘American‘ originally referred to the spirit which drove the people of our United States and, as Franklin pointed out, that spirit was Liberty.

Now that spirit of Liberty was also a short hand term used to describe much more than just freedom.  It stood for a set of ideals which, among other things, included a value placed on the individual, and on individual rights.  This included the right to property.  It included the rule of law, and of a system of justice whereby the law was applied equally to all — regardless of a person’s wealth or social status.  It also included small governments, limited in power by the specific functions listed by the people who created that government.  That government also remained the servant of and answerable to those same people.  But above all, Liberty rested upon individual responsibility and accountability.  One had duties to others and to their nation, and was expected to see to those duties and to answer to the rest of their fellow citizens if they did not do so.

This was the spirit which attracted so many immigrants over the years.  They came to this nation to become part of it by adapting these principles into their own lives and then living them.  It is why this nation was once called The Great Melting Pot: because people came here to become an ‘American.’  They became citizens of a State through the Naturalization process, but they became Americans by adapting this set of principles and living according to them.  More than that, they taught them to their children and defended them — sometimes, even with their own lives.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the value set which drives the majority of those calling themselves ‘American’ these days.  Many of them do not even know this history, nor do they feel any obligation to learn it.  For too many, the idea of ‘American’ carries a feeling of superiority and/or entitlement.  Immigrants no longer feel any desire to ‘assimilate,’ and even if they did, to what would they assimilate?  Our nation has become so balkanized that we have lost national identity.  In other words, we have lost what it meant to be American.  Now, it means whatever an individual wants it to mean.  What’s more, if you were to try to explain any of this to most people, they would most likely react negatively, telling you that you have no right to tell them what anything means.  You see, words have lost their meaning, and with them, we have lost the ability to communicate, which then leads to social decay and — eventually — collapse.

I’ll end by trying to illustrate what I mean.  We have groups in this country calling themselves Americans, but they are openly Socialist.  There is nothing compatible between the U.S. Constitution and Socialism.  They are contradictory systems of governance, but the socialists in this country still think of themselves as Americans.  You have a similar situation with those people supporting Fascism (most of them call it ‘conservatism’).  They support a State-supported (i.e. public) system of corporations, but insist that their corporate property is private and deserving of private property protections.  Well, Jefferson and Franklin (to name two of our founders) both said this is not the case.  They said property which exists because of the public (i.e. govt) remains in the control of the public.  So these Fascist Americans are also at odds with the founding ideology of this nation, yet they are among the fiercest calling themselves American.  Then there are the Libertarians, who advocate for an ideal which the founders rejected as being too far toward Anarchy.  They call themselves American, but the founders would have disagreed (and did).  And don’t forget the small remnant which is still clinging to the founding ideology.  Today, we call them Classic Liberals.  All call themselves American!

Now, here’s why this matters.  Suppose I have a large audience made up of equal numbers of each of the groups I just described, and I tell them that one group is a ‘true’ American and the rest are all traitors to the American ideal.  What do you think will be the result?  Now consider this: there was once a time when I could have done this without causing a fight.  In fact, the groups not included by the definition I gave would have recognized that they were not included.  I know this to be true because I have read the political writings of these groups from the time periods when they were fighting to change the meaning of American — so they could be included in the new definition.  The problem is, you cannot change the meaning of a thing, and when you try to force it, all you do is create opposition.  If and when that opposition becomes angry enough…  Well, look around.  Today, we have a Fascist, a Socialist and a Communist fighting for the Presidency and all three call themselves American!  But none of the three actually are — not as I understand the meaning of the term.

And it’s all because we no longer have a collective understanding of what words mean…

[NOTE: I no longer think of my voice as anything special.  There was a time when I believed I had something important to say, but not so much these days.  I write now because I feel driven to do so.  Something inside me will not let me rest until I post the pages you just read.  I’d just as soon not bother anymore.  It all seems like no one is listening and I do more harm than good.  So I have come to trust that whatever it is driving me has all this under control.  Personally, I believe it is God, but others may not.  All I ask is that, if anything I write helps you, or you think it might help others in any way, please, share this page.  Re-blog it, share it on FB or send the link to your friends.  So long as you feel it will do more good than harm, then please, use this page however you wish.  Thank you.]

4 responses to “WHY DEFINITIONS MATTER: What Is An ‘American?’

  1. Well, I’m sorry if this bother — bothers?

  2. Reblogged this on The way I see things … and commented:
    “This was the spirit which attracted so many immigrants over the years. They came to this nation to become part of it by adapting these principles into their own lives and then living them. It is why this nation was once called The Great Melting Pot: because people came here to become an ‘American.’ They became citizens of a State through the Naturalization process, but they became Americans by adapting this set of principles and living according to them. More than that, they taught them to their children and defended them — sometimes, even with their own lives.”

  3. Pingback: Whare Has America Gone? | The Oil in Your Lamp

  4. Pingback: Since When Do Two Wrongs ‘Trump’ The ‘Right?’ (A Moral Appeal To Trump Supporters) | The Oil in Your Lamp

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