Live-blogging Midmorning: Who is an American?

naturalization_ceremony.jpg

This morning, I’ll be in the MPR studio with Kerri Miller during the first hour of Midmorning, live-blogging as she examines the nature of citizenship, national identity, and what it means to be an American.

Here guests are Stanley Renshon,professor of political science at the City University of New York and a certified psychoanalyst. He’s the author of 13 books, including “The 50% American: Immigration and National Identity in an Age of Terrorism,” and William Hing, professor of law at the University of California-Davis School of Law. He is the author of “Deporting Our Souls: Values, Morality, and Immigration Policy” and “Defining America Through Immigration Policy.”

This all stems from Kerri’s interview last month with Howard Fineman on his book, The Thirteen American Arguments (this was rebroadcast last week).

These are some of the particular questions:

  • Who is an American?
  • What is the role of faith in public life?
  • What can we know and say?
  • What is the nature and limits of presidential power?
  • What role should America play in the larger world?
  • What does it mean to create a “more perfect union?

    Feel free to offer your commentary in the section below, and/or ask your questions. I’ll pick the best ones — as time allows, of course — and we’ll make you part of the show.

    Midmorning live-blog

    9:10 Fineman says “we are different.”: How is that different from other countries and how they were founded. Renshon says it’s not all the difference that matters. We made the decision early on on how to handle immigration. We took the position if people would adhere to the U.S. creed, they’d be acceptable candidates. But it’s a fairly common sense to say that’s all there is to becoming an American. There are ways you can identify s an American but it’s a common mistake to believe democracy is all there is to it.

    Renshon says Fineman makes the mistake on this point.

    9:14 Q: Have values we use to define American character changed?

    A: Renshon: There’s a good line of continuity because things like liberty, justice, and democracy are large terms. It’s easy to have changes within large categories and change the category to a large degree.

    9:17 Hing talking about the perception immigrants have before they come to America.

    Good observation in comments:


    I was in Greece a few weeks ago and when I came home, it was obvious to me that American’s feel they are entitled to many material goods in their lives. We are entitled to a car, a house, flat screen tv, even a pet. The majority of people in Greece don’t have cars, they live in a small apartment, or with their parents in the family home, they go out to the local tavern to watch a football game, and why would they keep an animal for companionship if they can’t farm it, or eat it! Perhaps it’s our consumerism and materialistic culture, but American’s think they deserve certain items in life and they aspire to attain them.

    Do you agree? And do you think immigrants pick up this culture? And if so, do they pick it up when they get here? Or did they have it before?

    9:22 Renshon says there’s a difference between “deserve” and “expect.” America is a dynamic country economically, he says. Over time, we had lower expectations earlier in our history and as our ability to produce, those experiences (expectations?) go up.

    9:25 Caller interested in how we talk about being an American. Fineman saying “we’re not here because of a geographic accident,” she says, negates all the people who were here before the Europeans came.

    9:26 Via Twitter (I’m at @bcollinsmn) @ten7 says “I am a 1st gen immigrant to the USA. I consider myself American, and proudly so. Can’t wait to vote in Nov!

    9:30 Caller: Who is this “we”? Renshon reacts to Hing on immigration policy history here. “You can look at what we did in the past and beat it over the head, or you can see how it developed.” Says the promise of America is it tries to live up with its ideals.” He says “the we” is all of us over time.

    Hing and Renshon get into it pretty good over whether we’re more exclusionary now than we (there’s that word!) were before.

    9:34 I just messed up jbnimble’s “name.” Sorry jbnimble. One comment of his/hers is worth chewing on, though:


    This whole discussion of national identity reminds me of Mark Twain: “Loyalty to the country always; loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”

    It does seem that politicians — and a lot of others in the public arena — confuse the country with the government.

    — News break —

    9:40 Caller: A Hmong American says it’s the 30th anniversary of his family coming here. Says Americans think of Americans as European extract. He serves in the military and says when he’s not in uniform, Americans think he’s “an alien.” “I think we still have quite a ways to go before the world sees non-white Americans as Americans.

    Hing agrees. “If you ask Americans to draw a picture of an American, most of them will draw a picture of a white person.” He talks about a protest outside a mosque in Chicago with people telling people inside to “go home.”

    Renshon says he’s concerned when people relay individual stories. He cites Pew survey on Hispanics. He says the survey showed discrimination of HIspanics is often at the hands of other Hispanics.

    (Renshon and Hing clearly disagree on things. “May I finish my sentence” is always the first clue.)

    9:48 Just read “Joel’s” definition of an American (free speech and freedom to express). Renshon, given the opportunity to react, goes back to an earlier caller, instead. Shoot.

    9:54 Renshon says some people think going into Iraq was foolish, some think it was a matter of national security. “Which represents democracy?” he asks.

    9:58 “Jeff” — in comments — leaves us (on the air) with an opportunity for something to do during the coming holiday (or any other time)


    Given the crrent anti-immigrant tide, whenever I meet an immigrant, I make a point of saying “Welcome.”

    Many are surprised and pleased by my statement and then often tell short stories about how they enjoy being here.

    Keep the conversation going online! Midmorning is the show that never ends!

    • Beryl Knudson, Gullsgate

      “What is an American” is a generality searching for a definition…”American” is place that covers all of North, South America in its broadest sense. “The huddled masses” we once welcomed to our shores we now label immigrants or illegal immigrants and we use and abuse them as cheap labor; build walls to keep them huddled and exploit south-of-the border states. Exploitation is done by greedy corporations and by invading or training others to invade against their own people “School of the Americas” under whatever name, exists to ensure dictators exist for our government to too-often manipulate and control. That is the ugly backside of this nation which may become its own enemy and we may not even recognize ourselves as we terrorize other nations in order to exploit their oil and control their futures…it will take more than one morning cup of coffee to soften this morning view.

      Faith is not a role to be played out in the public arena to contol the politic. That is religious faith which is not one but many ‘faiths’…then there are the war gods, money gods, power gods…which to choose from; they to are ‘faiths’ of a sort? A ‘public ethic’ may be a better term than ‘faith’ and even that is subject to private more often than public approval?

      There are few ‘perfect unions” under this administration but many imperfect disunions, although one could say Cheney, Rumsfeld Bush certainly believe they are a “perfect union”…otherwise, who knows anymore? When justice bows to the abuse of power, where exists a “perfect union”?

      Freedom to speak still exists in some imperfect form, within the boundaries of a corporate-controlled media, more often than not maybe. However, September in St Paul may stretch the credibility of that freedom? Who knows? Or will the freedom to speak and publically assemble turn those who participate into “huddled masses”?…what goes around , comes around the conservatives may say…then where next?

      If everyman can see oneself in another’s face and act accordingly, maybe he/she/we will survive this present terror, which is of our own making to some degree (more than even I, a cynic care to admit?)….so much for a morning sans coffee….enough, already…cheers.

    • Sara

      I was in Greece a few weeks ago and when I came home, it was obvious to me that American’s feel they are entitled to many material goods in their lives. We are entitled to a car, a house, flat screen tv, even a pet. The majority of people in Greece don’t have cars, they live in a small apartment, or with their parents in the family home, they go out to the local tavern to watch a football game, and why would they keep an animal for companionship if they can’t farm it, or eat it!

      Perhaps it’s our consumerism and materialistic culture, but American’s think they deserve certain items in life and they aspire to attain them.

    • http://overacandle.com jbnimble

      One of the interesting things about Fineman’s book is to disabuse us of the notion that this debate over immigrants is a “new” debate. We never had a past where we accepted all immigrants and now we don’t. Rather, we’ve always objected to some immigrant group or other.

      I do agree that the notion of restricting immigration to “maintain our identity” seems a rather empty goal. What identity? I suspect the answers to the other arguments Fineman discusses are more important in determining who is an American. What are our answers to those questions? That will give us a better sense of our values. And an American is someone who shares those values.

      On another point… This whole discussion of national identity reminds me of Mark Twain: “Loyalty to the country always; loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”

    • ben

      I think that being american means sharing the american belief of a fair and democratic goverment.

    • http://www.tenseveninteractive.com/ Ivan Stegic

      I think I disagree with Sara. I grew up in South Africa, but immigrated to Minneapolis in 1999 — I don’t think people here think they are entitled to things. I think it’s a matter of feeling like we can do anything and have anything here, and America affords us the opportunity to do that. Many other countries don’t have that opportunity aspect. I know for a fact that South Africa does not.

    • Lawrence

      Our definition of an American is some one of original European ancestry (though that is starting to change) who as a people opted to amend some of that system of law, expectations, and means of advancement, in the hopes of some day owning their own property, detaching themselves from government regulation, speaking one unifying langugage, and acquiring as much wealth as possible. We believe in love over arranged marriages, in happiness in an instance, in the right to speak out about anything that conflicts with our own individual ideas and values, and in looking extravagant so that others may know we are financially successful. Our mental experience is that we’ve overcome and have helped other nations overcome learning a new land, building cities and communities and industries from scratch, vanquishing those we feel impede what we’re trying to bring about–financial success, and furthering the success of corporations. At times, we will defend liberties, such as privacy. At other times, we will not. We don’t like to examine messy parts of our history, such as the enslavement of Blacks, the internment of Asians, and the slaughter of Native Americans, nor do we want any one to question our current motives (is Iraq about terror or is about something more). We think we’re right all the time, and have some difficulty negotiating things that are not about wealth. But we feel like we’ve accomplished alot, and this is why we boast with pride.

    • Jessie

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the materialistic nature of our lives as well. However, I don’t believe it’s quite as simple as Sara (above) suggests.

      I think being an American has a lot to do with “the pursuit of happiness,” which is difficult to define. An easy, concrete way of visualizing it is to think of the white picket fence lifestyle. But this does not encompass the American being. There is certainly a sense of selfishness that often accompanies the individual independence we pursue and idealize in the US.

    • Tyler Suter

      Wish I could comment on this subject, as it relates to my central concerns…stupid job.

    • dan

      Judith Shklar, in her book, American Citizenship, put it well: being an American is based on 2 things, earning and voting. Americans don’t place a financial burden on the members of their community and they are capable of rational thought necessary for making independent decisions when voting. Being economically self-sufficient and capable of independent thought isn’t enough, however. A person needs to be seen as capable and deserving of the mantle of American citizenship. Hence, we’ve seen the de jure exclusion of women and Blacks from American citizenship rights in a large part because they were perceived to not fit the mold. So in other words, being an American is as much about espousing “American” ideas and it is being seen by other Americans as capable of defending and practicing those same ideas.

    • judy Chucker

      Will our American identity transform to something quite different, say, in 50 to 100 years? Will assaults to our Constitutional ideals–and bowing to those assaults through our courts and Congress–play a large role in shaping a different identity?

    • Steve

      Descriptive and normative definitions are mixed up in the discussion. Both are worth discussion, separately.

    • http://overacandle.com jbnimble

      Jessie,

      That’s interesting. You just reminded me… One of the original formulations (in modern philosophy, from which many of the founding fathers drew ideas) was “life, liberty, and property.” I’ve often wondered about the transition from “property” to “pursuit of happiness.” How much a shift is it really, in the American consciousness? Do we equate happiness with owning stuff?

      Certainly the emphasis on the individual seems central in all of this. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • Paul

      Once a person is an American, isn’t it our focus on laws instead of on traditions that distinguishes us from people in other countries?

    • Joel

      What it means to be an american:

      1) Our laws re libel make it very easy to say just about anything we want vis a vie another person, even if it is a lie or distortion; contrast this with Canada or Europe which have very restrictive laws governing libel; it is very easy to secure a judgement vs another for very simple inflammatory accucsations. jFreedom of Speech.

      2) Immigrants to Europe are proscribed from wearing headscarves, or other actions which are taken negatively by the natives; contrast this with the experience in the US where immigrants and indeed all citizens are able to dress the way they want, express their religion, in short be themselves while being a member of fsociety.

    • Lawrence

      The interesting thing about American attitudes towards immigration today is that while we welcome them to work our farms and in our factories, we want immigrants to go home, at 5:00 p.m. back to their own country, and come back to work our jobs the next morning. We’re, for example, not really worried about Hispanics handing us McDonald’s during our lunch break. But, if Americans see Hispanics in their stores, or moving into their neighborhoods after 6 p.m. while speaking Spanish to one another, then Americans have a problem with that. Immigrants can’t fly or drive their car here for work, and then return overseas to their home during rush hour.

    • Jeff

      Given the crrent anti-immigrant tide, whenever I meet an immigrant, I make a point of saying “Welcome.”

      Many are surprised and pleased by my statement and then often tell short stories about how they enjoy being here.

    • Kris

      The discussion on-air about treating Muslim-Americans as foreign and un-American made me realize the significance of religion in American identity. As an atheist, I often feel excluded from the mainstream concept or definition of what an American is.

    • Deanna Kloster

      Regarding the perception that Americans are Euro-American. I consider myself open minded, “liberal” and am against prejudice stereotyping. Just after 911, I noticed that I did have a subconscious view of American as a “white” American. I have also noticed other disturbing prejudices in myself since moving to the Deep South from MN 7 years ago.

      I think the one guest “protests” too much. We all have prejudices and it’s important to face them and be honest to ourselves in society and individually.

      Thanks! Deanna Kloster

    • Judy

      In response to jbnimble: I believe we believe we’re about the individual. In fact, our organizations and institutions are shaped around the subjugation of the individual. We’re far more authoritarian than we realize. Contrast this with Japan, a culture we regard as organized around the group. Ironically, the group encourages individual contribution to the whole–to the enrichment of the group.

    • Michael Gibba

      To be an american is to be able to transcend the cultural, ethnic and nationalistic restrictions imposed by geographic and historical legacies (see the former Yugoslavia, Middle East) in an environment that allows for and encourages open debate and affords opportunity for the individual to realize both economic and philosophical success despite the government. The demographic makeup of the US is still very caucasian, but when my eastern european grandparents came here, they were easy to spot, too.

    • http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin/ Paul

      Alas, I concur with Deanna. After 9/11,I noticed a pronounced tendency to suddenly consider everyone out-group as suspicious, and anyone who fit the generic profile of the hijackers was automatically scrutinized.

      Its an atavistic, tribal instinct that is in our genes and difficult to overcome even with millennia of civilization.

    • Gary

      It is unfortunate that the guest, Mr. Renshon, has a typical white male view of racism. Just because some things have gotten better in race relations, does not mean that racism has gone away. It would have been nice if MPR had found an expert with a more informed view of institutional racism and its impacts on many Americans. Mr. Renshon discounts the actual experience of many persons of color, somehow thinking that he, as a white male, knows what their experience has been better than they do. It is unfortunate.

    • dan

      Paul – that’s silly. There is no such thing as an atavistic, tribal instinct when it comes to national identity. It’s always constructed in society and never transfered genetically.

      And Steve is right. Focus on either a normative definition or a descriptive one.

    • Jessie

      jnimble,

      “Property”… I think even this could be defined in several ways. I think of what property represented to our founding fathers. (It’s worth noting how contradictory it was to native Indian belief.) Property enabled independence.

      I think our society has changed so that “property” can actually be very destructive. With the more common job-changing property can act as a chain.

      Our ideal and our reality are not aligned. I’m not sure which needs to adapt. I think our ideal is out of date and unsustainable. However, the reality of an increasing gap between rich and poor is also incredibly dangerous.

    • c

      to be an AMERICAN

      to live freely, speak freely, while respecting other’s freedom(S)

      in order to do this we have to be able to trust that our elected representatives (including the local authorities) behave and act in the highest good for all.

      “with liberty and justice for all”

    • c

      I pledge allegience to the flag of the United States of America

      and to the Republic for which it stands

      one Nation under God, indivisible

      with liberty and justice for all

      for those who have a problem with “God” maybe you could replace the word with “Truth” it means the same to me.

      and why do they not allow this in public schools?

    • giles

      c, “under God” was inserted in the McCarthy period!

      It’s not disallowed, but you can’t force a child to pledge if they don’t want to. That seems right to me.

      I’m sure that other countries may indoctrinate on a daily basis but, interestingly, the ones that stand out to me are the old USSR and China.

      It’s only in the US that I consistently hear the inhabitants say that the USA is “the best” however it never quite ranks there on popular measures for same.

      The US just isn’t very good at critically comparing its own history, experiences and realities with other nations’.

    • c

      /The US just isn’t very good at critically comparing its own history, experiences and realities with other nations’./

      i believe that you can’t change history (ie: the method used to acquire land from the native americans, who thought we could share their land when we just took it from them) but you can improve the current situation. I think we could do alot more for the native american people. Our ancestors took their land and really messed up their way of living.

    • Bob Collins

      //It would have been nice if MPR had found an expert with a more informed view of institutional racism and its impacts on many Americans.

      Such as Mr. Hing?

    • c

      /It’s not disallowed, but you can’t force a child to pledge if they don’t want to. That seems right to me./

      Nor can you force a child to sing a song about the itsy bitsy spider or a song about mr golden sun or nursery rhyms but they are still being taught. so what do you perceive as the difference giles? i would bet that any new immigrant would gladly recite The Pledge of Allegience

    • Mary

      Just for kicks I looked up the definition of American on an e-dictionary. There are three definitions given, a Native American of North or South America, a citizen of the U.S. and lastly, a citizen or inhabitant of North or South America. I think it’s interesting that they put ‘citizen’ and ‘inhabitant’ next to each other, because according to the U.S. laws, the two are very different.

    • Julie Felt

      As if there was any one definition that could cover the variety of people who on the face of it would seem to be an “American”. For starters, this descriptive technically includes all of those folks who consider themselves Americans who are nationals of Canada, Mexico, Central and South America.

      Okay, I know that we are really trying here to discuss those folks who reside in the United States of America. But indeed this common error really *does* annoy these “other” Americans, so many of whom are carrying true (native) American blood in their veins.

      The guests comments on today’s nine o’clock program seemed to be arguing from a rather ahistorical, if not somewhat parochial place. Can we insert into this conversation some of the variety of the “racial” aspects in the culture of the USof A, please? It is a lot more complex than a mere person-of- color vs. white guys thing. And let’s not overlook the experience of the “white American” brothers-in-blood and the brutal facts of the American Civil War (or as the defeated parties persist on referring to this event as the “War Between the States”) and how this plays into who fits into and how do they view the United States of America. How do southern, white “Americans” fit into the “American values” and loyalty to the nation (sorry, Samuel C!) Anyone who ever visited the deep South before the Northern in-migration of recent years that has “yankee-fied” somewhat, at least the bigger cities; let alone in the twenty-first century, knows that this place *is* really different than the rest of “America”. I know a number of born and raised southerners who feel down-right foreign when they spend any time living up in the northern tier of states. So much for being an “American”, albeit a “white” one.

      The nature of “race” in our country and the experience of immigrants coming to our nation is more nuanced than was portrayed this morning, I believe (not to mention that the notion of race being a “fact” that has been pretty much refuted by scientific, empirical study of the of blood groups of homo homo sapiens).I would like to point out the sad history that reverberates today of the “color-blind” pecking order that the Irish immigrants experienced in New England when they came to the land of the Englishmen settlers (the original members being those who were discriminated against, despite their “anglo” stock, by their fellow countrymen back in the old country. (So much for anglo-saxon humanist egalitarianism tradition; an early example of class trumping race?)

      Throw in the experience of California one hundred and fifty-odd years ago, a hispanic-settled republic with a Chinese minority who were more than welcome to come and participate fully in the Gold Rush society of the USof A as long as they were cooking and laundering and shop-keeping for the “whites”, not to mention building the transcontinental railroad at great risk to their lives hanging from ropes off the sides of the high Sierra, blasting holes through solid rock.

      Signed-

      A “Californian”, who has lived all over this land (it’s mine and it’s yours)

    • c

      I know what you mean Julie, and that damn Tom Petty, just what does he mean “she was an American Girl”-heck she could have been Brazillian!

    • Sue Anthony

      @ Dan

      /Americans don’t place a financial burden on the members of their community and they are capable of rational thought necessary for making independent decisions when voting./

      I don’t think anyone who has self esteem would believe themselves to be a burden on anyone. I pay taxes and I know that some of it goes to pay for social programs and I have never thought of anyone who participates in a program as a burden.

      So Dan I ask, How have you earned Your Mantle of American Citizenship?

    • http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin/ Paul

      Paul – that’s silly. There is no such thing as an atavistic, tribal instinct when it comes to national identity. It’s always constructed in society and never transfered genetically.

      I wasn’t clear.

      I’m not saying National Identity is genetic. What I am saying is the perceptions of who and what makes up fellow “x-ians” (x is the name of the country) can be influenced by our genetically influenced behavior. In-group and out-group.

      Why do you think that certain people rant about America being a “white christian nation”? They see their race and their faith in themselves and their friends and think that they are the only “real Americans”.

      That sort of thinking is influenced from the time when we all lived in small bands and tribes. The tribe across the river is of the Other. They aren’t like Us. We’re the only people that matter.

      In some cases, that devolves to “they aren’t human”.

      Do a little reading on Nationalism and you will see what I mean.

    • Tyler Suter

      icely said Lawrence