Fair warning, this post may get… rambly, since I’m running a bit of a sleep deficit. I blame new daughter C. Making new humans is hard, and she hasn’t even gotten big enough to start really kicking yet!
However, I want to talk a bit about family, and upbringing, and relate that to a blog squabble that’s happened recently between two authors I admire – and who, I think, are both right, because I think both have ID’d a different piece of an elephant. I’ll be writing my own perspective on things, which may or may not be correct, but because I’ve been a reader of both blogs for… um, a few years now at least (cannot for the life of me remember how many) I’m not going to link to any particular posts. There’s not really a good “summary” one; both authors have a huge “back catalog” of blog posts that people who aren’t regular readers haven’t encountered, and so I’ve seen some big mistakes in interpretation from people who are readers of one or the other who’ve read only a couple posts and then misinterpreted the other author out of ignorance of that author’s wider philosophical views. So if you want to join the popcorn crowd, please be aware of that issue.
But back to the family and upbringing thing.
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
That’s a phrase I picked up from my grandparents. And while it’s a humorous statement if you’re struggling with a folding map during a road trip to someplace you’ve never been before, there’s a lot of truth to the statement that changing your location doesn’t change your self.
Nor does acquiring a piece of paper that alters your legal identity change your self. When I got married, I took my husband’s last name. That didn’t change the fact that I was raised by my parents in my family, not his. And of course, people know that and realize that when a man and a woman get married, they bring to their new family differing family traditions – even when you marry, as I did, someone extraordinarily culturally similar to yourself, down to the homeschooling and the tiny church denomination! That means, of course, that children (ones from unbroken homes, at least) are raised in a blend of two different family traditions. And then when they get married and have kids, that process of blending is going to repeat itself.
Now, the greater cultural environment for our kids is going to be fairly stable – as much as we can make it so, that is. The social network we grew up with is the social network we’re planning to raise our children in – we’re able to do that because we’re living close to where we grew up. So the just-outside-the-family culture is going to be the same, Lord willin’ the creek don’t rise. But that cultural-environment stability isn’t something that all families have, especially now that travel is so easy.
Some people might decide that the cultural environment of their upbringing isn’t what they desire for their adult lives – the kids who leave the country for the city are a common example. And new parents often decide that the city isn’t where they want to raise their children, and move out to the suburbs. Some few are even going farther than that – like the various flavors of homesteading and off-grid folks. Moving out of one country into another is even more drastic a change!
But everything in daily life and experience says, “Upbringing matters.” Whether you choose to stay or to go, to copy what your parents did or to deliberately try something very different, nothing you do in the present or plan for the future can erase your past. And it will affect you.
Which ties into the idea of the nation – not the state – as an extended family. You see this in regional subcultures a lot, in fact. It’s probably more of an art than a science to slice and dice just where and what the dividing lines are (like a lot of things about human existence, the edges are blurry) but it’s plain to everyone that there’s such a thing as Yankee and Southron and Midwesterner, etc. (You get other categories too – like “military brat” and “preacher’s kid” – all referring to certain types of upbringing that has a discernible effect on the resulting adult.)
And now I’m rolling back around to the big question – “What’s it take to make an American?” Because, in the legal sense, of course all it takes is a piece of paper saying you’re a citizen – whether you get that paper by being born on United States territory, or earn it through the legal immigration process.
Thing is, I don’t think that either of those things is enough, by itself. Because being born with United States citizenship doesn’t say anything about your cultural values or upbringing, and legally immigrating doesn’t offer any guarantees on that matter either. Clearly there are a lot of US citizens who don’t have what one might describe as a “historically culturally American” upbringing, despite the fact that their families have been United States citizens for generations. And for immigrants who come as adults, the best one could say is that their cultural upbringing was compatible with American cultural values; but no matter how many years they’ve been a US citizen or how much they love America and devote themselves to assimilating, it’s never going to change the fact that they were raised somewhere else, in a foreign culture.
That’s going to leave a mark, because upbringing marks everyone. And because it leaves a mark on “generation zero,” it’s going to have downstream effects on “generation one” as well. Now, just how much of a mark is debatable, and varies case by case – some immigrants make a point of assimilating as quickly as possible, and some make a point of not assimilating. But I suspect that the “foreign elements” don’t come out in the wash, as it were, until at least the fourth generation from an assimilated immigrant. Generation two probably knows generation zero, after all – it’s generation three that will most likely grow up with stories of the immigrant great-grandparent but no personal relationship with that ancestor – and thus much weakened ties to the foreign culture. (In some cases of particular cultural compatibility you might get away with fewer, and in many cases of extremely different cultures you’re going to need far more.)
And so I think Vox Day is right in that immigrants are never quite fully as American as a natural born citizen can be; even the ones who are welcome, well assimilated, and demonstrably loyal to their new country. That doesn’t mean they’re somehow lesser people (though of course everyone who holds “Americanness” as an idol is now seriously triggered and has ceased comprehending anything I just wrote) or should be looked down upon or sneered at for not being good enough. Every nation on the planet started somewhere, after all, even the really old ones. Effort to become something you weren’t, originally, is worthy of being recognized and valued! The student who must work diligently to do well in class demonstrates her character to others by her behavior more clearly than the student to whom everything comes easily, even if the diligent student’s grade is lower.
But it’s not all about “blood” or “race” or “ethnicity” as some would have it – those things aren’t nothing, but they aren’t everything either. (I’d link the commenter who pulled the quote up from somewhere but I’m of bad character and too lazy to look it up.) The students to whom everything comes easily often have bad habits, or lack the mental tools to figure things out when they don’t come instinctively. How many educators have seen kids fly through lower level subjects only to hit a brick wall at, say, algebra, because they don’t know how they came up with the answers? Teaching kids like that how to think about their thinking so that they consciously know how to solve difficult problems can be quite hard. They’re not used to working at it.
And I think that’s how you end up with born-and-bred Americans who aren’t actually American. Because if you start a couple generations back and steadily erode the cultural upbringing and historic cultural values of “Americanness” in an effort to replace it with something else (coughpublicschoolscoughinternationalsocialismcough) – you will end up with college students who “feel threatened” when a speaker dares to utter dissenting opinions on campus, and protesters trying to shut down the marketplace of ideas while activists deliberately hunt for Ordinary Joe wrongthinkers in order to destroy their lives. Seems to me you don’t get much more unAmerican than that, without committing actual treason that gets your fellow countrymen killed, no matter how many generations your family has lived in the United States.
You can have the ancestry. But that’s not enough, not if you turn around and betray everything your ancestors valued and denigrate all their accomplishments. Just as papers aren’t enough, not if you betray your hosts by keeping other loyalties. But, well, neither is “fit in or f_ off” enough in and of itself, not today. The question becomes, “Just what are you fitting into?” Because it seems to me there are a lot of non-compatible cultural groups jostling under the umbrella of the United States… and some of them are not what I would consider “American” at all, pedigreed or not. But the kicker is, they think the same about my “American” identity. You can see it every time someone says, “That’s not who we are” and there’s a sizable contingent of fellow citizens for whom that IS exactly who they are. What authority exists to determine who is correct about “who we are”? There’s no Supreme Court of Nations to make a ruling, or to deliver the standard to which all who aspire to the “American breed” can fit themselves. No wonder the arguments get so emotionally heated, and a lot of people believe that the United States is destined to break up into smaller, more homogeneous ethno-cultural groups.