America the Place vs. America the Idea

On NPR news last week there were two reports coming out of Greece that I had trouble reconciling. The first was Greece’s $85 billion bailout resulting in the Greek PM stepping down. Greece isn’t just broke, it’s broken. And yet, the second story was about immigrants risking death on the seas to leave Turkey and other places to come to Greece. Obviously they are leaving broken countries where they risk death and injury at the hands of their government on a daily basis, to take a boat ride risking death and injury on the high seas, to go to another country which is not just broke but broken. It’s a strange world.

Do these mostly unskilled, uneducated Muslims go to Greece or Europe hoping to someday become Greeks or Europeans? Do they wish to embrace Western culture and raise their children in a Western society? Or are they just looking for handouts like the ones that Greece already provides to over 70% of its population?

Do Central Americans, Mexicans, and Muslims come to America because they want to become Americans? Do they wish to embrace American culture and raise their children in an American society better than the one they left, or do they come here hoping to create Somalia in America? Do they raise the Mexican flag on American soil and force schools in their adoptive communities to cover symbols of America because they might be offensive to some of them? Do the predominantly unskilled and uneducated immigrants bring unemployment and the vices that accompany it like drugs, violence, crime, homelessness, dependency, etc?

Jonah Goldberg provides a clue about who we should embrace as American immigrants. He tells of Peter Schramm and his father who emigrated from Germany via Hungary in the fifties. “[Peter’s father] told his son to pack his bags, the Schramms were moving. Where to? Peter asked. His father replied, “We are going to America.” “Why America?” Peter pressed. “Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.” He continued, “Dad, in his way, was saying that he understood America to be both a place and an idea at the same time. Fundamentally, it is a place that would embrace us if we could prove that we shared in the idea. We meant to prove it.”

Both of my parents are immigrants. Both came over with their families much like the Schramms. Both came, not for the freebies that America provided but because they wanted to be Americans. Both families came with skills as accountants, engineers, musicians, lawyers, artists, and writers. They wanted their families to be more like America and made no attempt to change America to be more like them.

If they wanted to live in cities or suburbs, there are cities and suburbs all over the world. If they wanted to live near big lakes, mountains or deserts, there are big lakes, mountains and deserts all over the world. They came to America “the idea”, not America the place.

Are the current immigrants coming ashore in Greece there because they want to be Greeks, or is it just the next stop over where they can get free things without the hassle? Are the immigrants to America crossing the southern border illegally, doing so because they want to be Americans, or are they just looking for free stuff promised by Obama for themselves and their children? Do the Muslims in Minnesota long to be Americans and live the American dream, or do they dream of returning to the Middle East and fighting the western Satan when they realize they can’t make America more like the Middle East?

A Muslim family can raise a son and daughters in the dress, religion, and traditions of the country they left and then be shocked when their son performs atrocities, as happened in Tennessee. Why? How could this happen? The answer is that the family adopted America the place but never America the idea. 

Two brothers come to America with their Kyrgyz parents. America accepts them with open arms, providing them with food, healthcare, housing and the highest levels of education at no cost with no strings attached. No expectations implied or assumed. Why then do the parents leave and the sons kill and maim hundreds in the name of their warped understanding of their religion or situation? Because their parents and family adopted the place and what it would give them and their children and never the idea of America and being American.

Unfortunately, there is no test that can prove that an immigrant is here to embrace the idea of America. Learning some historical facts and reciting a pledge don’t make you American. Being born in an American hospital doesn’t make you an American. There’s no red pill to choose that makes you an American.

The idea of being American must be in your brain or in your heart. I think that idea for many Americans has been lost. Even our president has demonstrated that doesn’t know what the idea of being American is. A flag on your lapel isn’t just a pin.

Maybe Obama should have taken the time to have a cigar and drink with Peter Schramm. Mr. Schramm could explain to him how he and his father “proved it.” How they led their lives in American in a way that showed they shared the idea of America. Maybe then we would have sensible immigration policies. Maybe then America would once again be an idea instead of just a place on the map.