A Fine Time to Become an American

A Fine Time to Become an American

September 8, 2019 100 By Kody Olson


I picked a fine time to become an American. It was a grey, overcast morning in Oakland,
California. I was one of 1,094 people of every color and
creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite
documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema. I wasn’t the only new citizen of European
origin, but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the
most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans. (How many Americans became Chinese citizens
that week?) Next were the Mexicans (more than 150 of them),
then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians. Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented
that was most marvelous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed
in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Wales and
had initially come to California to work for NASA. I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy
weighed down by dread. So I wondered, would this be like the Department
of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless
Internal Revenue Service? In fact, the officials of the US Citizenship
and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding,
bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism,
chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and
Tagalog. Yet this was very far from a multicultural
occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanization, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to
the constitution, Yankee Doodle, and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Well, that did it! The way that song conjures up vast American
landscapes (“From the redwood forest / To the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me
by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas were what first drew me to the
United States. Then came the information about our rights
and obligations—specifically, our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and
our inextricable link to the Social Security system. (Nothing— rather disappointingly—about
the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiraling federal
debt we were all now on the hook for.) The ceremony then became more stirring. A “Faces of America” video had a distinctly
martial soundtrack. We raised our right hands to swear the oath
of allegiance, absolutely renouncing “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate,
state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required
by the law.” Then we placed our right hands on our hearts
to recite the pledge of allegiance to the national flag “and to the republic for which
it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s heady stuff, even in Oakland on a Thursday
morning. And then, there he was—the President of
the United States himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Donald
Trump told us rather sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.” And that wasn’t all: “You now share the
obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of
life.” Compare and contrast with the Barack Obama
version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology
. . .” The grand finale was God Bless the USA, a
country music anthem by Lee Greenwood, made famous following the 9/11 terror attacks on
New York and Washington. It too was a call-to-arms. “And I’m proud to be an American / Where
at least I know I’m free / And I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right
to me.” More than half a century of being British
has made it hard for me not to cringe just a little at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until
such time as we, the people, vote in another one. Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American—because it’s always a fine time. I’m Niall Ferguson, fellow at the Hoover
Institution at Stanford, for Prager University.