For me, the inauguration of President Trump is particularly poignant, as the outgoing President was the one under whom I became a citizen, while the new President was elected in the first election in which I was also able to participate as a new American.
Born British, I moved to the USA when I was 29. In 2009, I became a permanent resident, and last year, after a 12 year odyssey through a Kafkaesque immigration system, I became a citizen.
In my heart and soul, however, I was American a long time ago – a fact of which I became conscious in two experiential flashes. The first made me realize that I was no longer “just” a Brit. After the second, I knew I was American, even though I didn’t yet have the passport to prove it.
Not Just a Brit
The first experience occurred in Phoenix. A friend and I heard of a liberty-oriented political conference that was being held in a nearby Sheraton hotel. Being the political type, we quietly went down and let ourselves into the back of the hall. Scanning what was at that time an unusual environment for me, I noticed a participant who was prominently sporting a side-arm.
My national identity was already becoming more complex, more layered.
At that time, I was only five years out of Britain, a country in which even police don’t carry guns, and the instinctive reaction of most Brits would typically be some combination of horror, perplexity, and even derision. At the very least, a sense of cultural dissonance would be instinctive. But for me, somewhat surprisingly, that was not the case.
Even though I had never shot a handgun, nor had had any interest in firearms, not only did I feel at ease with that man carrying his weapon to a non-threatening, indoor event, but – much more than that - I understood why he was doing it, and that the reasons were, of course, decidedly American.
The ideas that un-asserted rights are lost over time and that people have a right to self-defense through lethal force are alien in British culture. But in that moment, I didn’t see the gun-touting man as member of a different species — or even of a different culture. That was enough for me to register that my national identity was already becoming more complex, more layered.
However, the moment I knew that I was an American was altogether stranger.
I was at the top of a mountain in Kyrgyzstan, sitting in a run-down building that had been temporarily converted into a classroom. I was there with others to share some of the principles of political and economic liberty with a group young adults who had come of age in the former Soviet republic. One of my colleagues, an opera singer, was giving a class. After loosening up the extremely bright but highly skeptical students by getting them to discuss and then sing the Kyrgyz national anthem, he proceeded to sing the American anthem.
The tears started rolling down my face, and they would not stop.
Renouncing one country for the other would be like renouncing my first child at the second's birth. Doing either would be absurd and false.
Not only have I never cried for the British anthem: I cannot even imagine any Englishman doing so. Yet, there I was, in the front of the rectangular room, with nowhere to hide, crying for the anthem of a country to which I did not yet fully belong — but with which spiritually I resonated at the deepest level.
I was taken aback by my deeply emotional response but perhaps should not have been. There were many occasions in the preceding five years of the brutal legal immigration process when it would have been emotionally, financially, and practically much easier to have just given up. Yet, on those occasions I always returned to the simple fact that I already felt at home, and after all, one’s feelings are the language of one’s soul.
In any case, on that day, on a mountaintop in Kyrgyzstan, I knew that, although I was British, I was also an American.
A few months later, I was back in Phoenix. I went to a citizenship ceremony to support an Italian friend as he became an American citizen. I imagined myself going through the same ceremony with my own kith and kin in the audience.
I smiled through the whole thing, I empathized with all of the new citizens — not just as Americans, but as people who had overcome similar stresses and uncertainties to achieve their goal of becoming once and for all American.
Yet, one part of the ceremony gave me serious pause. The oath taken by new citizens includes the words,
I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen."
Imagining my mother in the audience, my stomach knotted at how upset she’d be if I renounced where I had come from and the land with which she shall always identify.
I was sufficiently perturbed by the implications of that renunciation that I googled it immediately upon returning home to see what it really meant.
Becoming A Bipatriot
I have no reservations in my commitment to the USA. In fact, I have already done more to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” than many born-and-bred Americans. I love doing it because I believe deeply in the founding principles of the United States and the American project. I would take up arms for the USA and I would fight as hard to defend my fellow Americans as I would for my fellow Brits.
I am a bipatriot and it is a wonderful thing to be.
Indeed, to me, my British-to-American narrative is rather special because it follows America’s historical narrative, and to me, much of what is best about the American character and foundation is an evolution, perhaps even a higher expression, of British values and political traditions. (In his poem, “England and America in 1782”, Tennyson explains it better than I can.)
Indeed, my pride in those British gifts underpins my pride in the Americans who fought the revolution and wrote the Constitution to save and improve on those same gifts as they were being trampled in “the motherland”.
Britain formed me. America is what I have chosen to do with how I am formed. Renouncing one for the other would be like renouncing being a son to become a husband — or like renouncing my first child when my second is born. Doing either would be absurd and false. As with two sons, so with two countries: I love both, delight in the success of both, am pained by the shortcomings of both, and get to celebrate the fact that love is not diluted when it is doubled.
For those reasons and others, I was glad to learn that my renunciation of Britain in the USA carries no weight in Britain, and that even in American law, I can be both American and British.
Extend that lack of prejudice to those who are inspired by this country and its founding ideals.
Thank God for that. I am impatient to embrace America fully, and commit to my new countrymen, but if I really had to choose between an American identity and a British one, I’d be overwhelmed by the unreality of that choice.
So I am a bipatriot, if I might coin a term, and it is a wonderful thing to be.
Just as people who can think in different languages benefit from a certain intellectual and emotional abundance, so do we bipatriots. We have an enriched identity, a more colorful sense of self. We get to see issues — especially political, philosophical and cultural — in very different ways, but in each way clearly. Not only is that exciting; it hopefully gives us something different to contribute to our adoptive countries.
Happily, another British-born Americaphile inadvertently helped me understand why bipatriotism makes sense: Daniel Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament has said,
Patriotism is what makes people behave unselfishly. It’s the basis of our sense of obligation to those around us. A patriot doesn’t belittle other countries: he cheers their sense of national pride, and values their freedom.”
Indeed. And I am blessed, like the parent of two children, to have twice the pride.
But the skeptical reader might still ask whom would I support in a World Cup soccer final between the US and the UK (choosing soccer only because it’s one of the few team sports that are seriously played by both nations), as the answer to that question would no doubt cut to my deepest allegiance. Upon introspection, I am delighted to find that in that game, my team never loses.
Prejudice Against Patriotism Is as Damaging as Patriotism with Prejudice
I didn’t vote for the President who was sworn in today, and I was not expecting to be much taken by his speech - but I was struck by one line in particular: “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
That made me recall Hannan, above, and it is the kind of patriotism of which my bipatriotism is made. It is also the patriotism of individual liberty on which our nation – my new home - was founded.
I hope it truly is the patriotism of our new President, and of those who have supported him. Our future depends heavily on it.
Just as importantly, I hope that those who virtue-signal their “lack of prejudice” by opposing our new President, will extend that lack of prejudice to those who are inspired by this country, its history, and its founding ideals, and so call themselves patriots. Our future depends heavily on that too.