Fort Report: On Being American
Our soldiers know this feeling all too well. Perhaps you have experienced it too. You are in a far off place with no one familiar around you, and then you see it and experience an instant feeling of connection—an American flag. At that moment, the flag is more than a piece of cloth with colored stars and stripes. It is an enduring symbol that expresses a deep unspoken narrative about who we are as a people and about the ideals that unite us as a nation.
If you ask people what America means, most would say freedom. Yet this word freedom is so overused we have forgotten its essential meaning. Most properly understood, freedom is the ability to do what one ought, to take responsibility for oneself, one’s family, one’s community, and, by extension, one’s nation. Freedom is not a detachment from responsibility, to do whatever you want. That self-destructive idea erodes freedom, resulting in not only the loss of oneself but the degradation of community.
We often reflect on what it means to be an American when discussing immigration. America has long offered the hope of freedom for immigrants yearning to work for a better future for themselves and their families. To those “tempest-tossed,” to those “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” America lifted its lamp beside “the golden door.” Implicit in this “world-wide welcome,” was a basic compact that those who came here, however arduous their journey, must undertake the responsibilities of citizenship.
In fact, America’s very survival as a beacon-handed land requires those who immigrate to assimilate and adopt the values proposition that makes our country unique in the history of the world. Those values include respect for others, acceptance of law and order as a prerequisite for the orderly functioning of society, and the desire to participate constructively as a citizen. Those who refuse to assimilate or reject these time-honored values take advantage of the sacrifices and hard-fought gains of generations of Americans who have built, and often died for, what we cherish and share. This is fundamentally unfair and an abuse of freedom itself.
Individual freedom is achieved most fully in community. When the government and interest groups see freedom merely as the functional meeting of material needs, it undermines the social dimensions of freedom, which are rooted in authentic human relationship. Conversely, the proper amount of government provides protection and creates the guardrails for individuals to flourish together, generating meaning for persons and communities. The right political approach in America can restore that golden mean.
There is a story of a man talking to his young son. He said, “Son, see that beautiful home on the hill there? One day, if that’s your heart’s desire, if you work hard enough and are patient, if you do what is right, you could have such a home.” Another man in another country talking to his young son took a different approach. He said, “You see that big mansion on the hill there? If you work hard enough, if you stay focused, and if you position yourself right—one day you can get that guy.”
Our country is not based on envy. It is based on respect and responsibility. To make America flourish again—politically, economically, and culturally—a restoration of this ideal is necessary to create the conditions for a true and lasting freedom.