What It Means to Be an American in the 21st Century

Courtesy of Paulette Wooten (Unsplash CC0)

The definition of an American is simple: “A native or citizen of the United States.” What it means to be a true American is much more complicated and, at the same time, very simple.

To be or to become an American, a person did not have to be any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American.

Therefore, to call oneself an American requires accepting a unique set of principles, including understanding, compassion, and the welfare of the majority taking priority over personal ambitions. True Americans are selfless, and although we often disagree with the opinions of others, we accept the fact that free thought and free speech are at the core of American beliefs.

I was raised by a typical American family. My great, great grandfather, Ferdinand Bernard Kaufmann, immigrated from Prussia in 1837. One of his sons, Joseph, was my great grandfather. His firstborn, Frank Ferdinand Kaufmann, was my grandfather. He was born in 1886 in Greencreek, Illinois. The entire family moved from Illinois to Cottonwood, Idaho, just after the turn of the century. They later moved to a section of Lewiston called the Orchards.

At the beginning of WWII, Frank’s daughter, Viola, moved to Seattle, Washington. She worked for Boeing Aircraft, building airplanes for the war effort. In 1945, when the war ended, she met a young sailor who had arrived in Seattle on his way back home to Jackson, Mississippi. They married and moved to Lewiston, where I was born in July of 1946.

My father, Alford Turnage, and four of my uncles, Francis, Leonard, Richard, and Cornelius Kaufmann, served in WWII. Sadly, Leonard died in combat.

My grandfather and his entire family loved their country, and that patriotic attitude was ingrained in me from the day I could walk and talk.

When I was sent to a Catholic Elementary school, I still remember the feeling when we stood before classes started, faced the American flag, and recited the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

Most of those feelings remain. However, changes that happened over my more than seven decades as a true America involving our government has angered me and forced me to question if one entire party has a single “American” remaining.

On one of the darkest days in American history, June 24, 2022, a very politically biased Supreme Court removed a woman’s Constitutional right to care for her own physical and mental health. Last week, the Senate and the House passed the Inflation Reduction Act, and it is waiting for President Biden’s signature.

What is most upsetting is that not a single Republican voted in favor of the passage of a bill that would offer relief for all Americans, add approximately nine million jobs, and engage America in the fight to end climate change. Who are they representing? It’s not 331 million people.

Washington is composed of men and women who place themselves first and their nation somewhere farther down on their list. They cannot be compared to the men and women who served our people 50 years ago.

Courtesy of Mick Haupt (Unsplash CC0)

The following is a perfect example of what it means to claim the right that you are a true American. It was offered by Michael Douglas, who portrayed Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 movie “The American President:”

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free.'”

For me, I find it simple, follow the ‘golden rule.’ Americans “do the right thing,” even when they find it very difficult, placing principles ahead of personal desires.

I will always be proud to have been raised in the America, which represented a willingness to grow and eliminate the evils which existed, replacing them with greater compassion, gratitude, and the celebration of what will someday make America the greatest nation in the world, our diversity.

By James Turnage, Novelist


American Academy of Arts & Sciences: Dædalus: What does it mean to be an American? By Sarah Song
Up Journey: What Does It Mean to “Be American”
IMDb: “The American President” Quotes

Featured and Top Image by Paulette Wooten Courtesy of Unsplash – Creative Commons License
Inset Image by Mick Haupt Courtesy of Unsplash – Creative Commons License

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