The Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes is reported to have said, “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world.” He was talking about leverage and how a small force can have maximum effect if applied from the right position in the right way. By that he meant a stable, fixed position. If you have that, you can move much greater weights. But having a fixed position has implications beyond weights and simple machines. In fact, it is sound advice that can be applied to just about anything in life. I am going to apply it to citizenship; namely, why I am not a global citizen but an American one.
Before I explain, let me say that I do not exactly lead a parochial life. I have traveled to nearly two dozen countries on four continents, continue either to teach or do business in Europe, India, and South America, can get around in a few languages, and have extended family around the world. I am also sympathetic to and/or involved in causes like sustainability, the alleviation of poverty, human rights, the plight of migrant workers, alternative sources of energy, and the gift economy. I am telling you this only to show that it would be relatively easy for me or someone like me to claim global citizenship, but I do not make that claim. Here are my reasons.
First, following Archimedes’ lead, I think an effective way to be truly objective, to understand the world around you without imposing your own standards, values, and cultural worldviews on others, is to do so from the inside out. By that I mean from a fixed position. The best way to understand where someone is coming from is to know where you stand, who you are, and where you are coming from. And not just where you come from, but where your people come from. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s observation that we are all walking graveyards, carrying the stories of our past–relatives, parents, grandparents–within us. Postmodern philosophers and theologians have been telling us for a while that “subjectivity is the way to objectivity.” Go within yourself to find out about others, thus learning about and appreciating both. A related dictum might be, “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
Second, I like Alexis de Tocqueville and his early 19th century observations about the new republic called the United States of America. The experiment in democracy that he wrote about was distinctly different from anything that had appeared before for three reasons: (1) it divided power among Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches, with pride of place going to the Legislative branch, i.e., Congress; (2) it soundly rejected the idea of a king, emperor, or divinely-appointed sovereign with the power to tax the people and commit them to war arbitrarily, (3) it began to create, through trial and error, a system of property rights whereby citizens could hold legal title to land and thereby create capital. This started slowly and did not apply universally, of course, but the seeds of ownership were there and helped develop a culture of entrepreneurship and individual rights unrivaled at the time.
Regarding (2) above, I find the current abdication of war authority by Congress to the President very troubling. If you believe Secretary of State John Kerry, the President not only doesn’t need Congress’ approval to go to war in Syria but is merely informing them as a courtesy. While this is a complicated legal issue involving the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed just three days after 9-11 and John Yoo’s unconscionable memos regarding torture, surveillance, and Presidential power, you have to have a pretty active imagination to view Article II of the Constitution as justification for giving the President carte blanche when it comes to war. Actually, you have to not care about the Constitution at all.
Third, there is a reason baseball continues to be the national pastime even though a couple of billion dollars in television rights go to the NFL. Not only is baseball, like jazz, quintessentially American, it reflects the rich and varied relationship between natives and immigrants, the States and the Federal government, subjectivity and objectivity. What I mean by this is that, although professional baseball is played only in North America, its players come from just about everywhere on earth: the Caribbean, South America, Japan, Korea, Australia, even Europe. After soccer, it is arguably the most diverse sport in existence, yet all players come together for a game that combines grace, strength, cleverness, and humor in a way that you won’t find anywhere else. And the grass smells pretty good, too. In its best moments, the United States is the same way, attracting the world so that they, too, can live and compete with grace, strength, cleverness, and humor.
Fourth, America is home. It has made its mark on me in indelible ways such that whether I am in São Paulo, Mumbai, or Istanbul, I am an American. I can no more shed my Yankee ways than I can my personality, even when I am in a place where I am mistaken for another nationality, which happens once in a while. This reminds me of immersion trips I have taken to Central America with undergraduates, who are anxious to take on indigenous cultures and leave off their privileged ways. Are they privileged? Certainly. But I tell them that the best way to honor the cultures and people they meet is not to try to be like them but to take back home all that they have learned and integrate it into the American context. That’s when true change and transformation can happen.
Finally, my celebration of being American does not blind me to things like gun violence, consumerism, corporate greed, urban plight, the militarization of the police, or any of the other demons we struggle with on a daily basis. But it gives me hope and a sense of belonging to something incredibly human and, for that reason, beautiful.
And speaking of humor, as I write this I just received an email from the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board proclaiming today as “National Cheeseburger Day.”
What a country!