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07/15/07 NEWS1: What is an American?

What is an American? Immigration debate reveals patriotism—and nationalism By Stephanie Ramage On May 18, 1941, as Americans debated whether they should allow themselves to be pulled int...

Corina Arevalo (left) and her daughter Nataly Perdomo hold up an American flag during an immigration rally outside the U.S. Capitol in June.

CREDIT: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

What is an American?
Immigration debate reveals patriotism—and nationalism
By Stephanie Ramage

On May 18, 1941, as Americans debated whether they should allow themselves to be pulled into “Europe’s war”—the conflict that would become World War II—and castigated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his unilateral decision to ship arms to the British, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes gave a speech in New York's Central Park.

“What constitutes an American?” Ickes asked. “Not color nor race nor religion. Not the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth. Not the coincidence of his citizenship. Not his social status nor his bank account. Not his trade nor his profession. An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man.”

Ickes’ speech, considered one of the greatest in American history, was in response to newspaper columnists’ assertion that the fascism sweeping Europe at the time was the inevitable, unstoppable “wave of the future.” Nationalism, that foster parent of fascism, had long since taken root in Germany, designating the Aryan “children
of the Fatherland” as the only true heirs of justice, the only people worthy of dignity.

As the two great forces of our own age, globalization and migration, threaten to change the order of our world, the response in various parts of the globe has been that old, predictable standby: nationalism.

And, also predictably, in many cases it parades as patriotism.


The two are not as obviously different as one might think.

“If you were to say that in common parlance today, we use ‘patriotism’ to refer to loyalty to one's country qualified by commitments to other moral principles, and ‘nationalism’ sometimes means instead that loyalty to one’s nation trumps all other moral claims, you'd have a version of the distinction that people would probably recognize,” says Rogers Smith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It just wouldn’t be linguistically correct as a characterization of all the ways the terms are used.”

Maurizio Viroli, a professor in Princeton University’s Department of Politics, writes in his seminal book “For Love of Country” that patriots and nationalists have “endeavored to instill or strengthen in us different types of love: a charitable and generous love in the case of patriotism, an unconditional loyalty or an exclusive attachment in the case of the nationalists.”

Phillip Klinkner, a professor of political science at Hamilton College in New York, says there is no hard and fast definition of either term.

“Nationalism is often the perception that a nation is defined by broad characteristics like territory or the language or culture associated with the territory,” he says. “Patriotism is the perception that a nation is defined by ideals. What makes you an American is not where you were born. It’s not blood or territory.”

Deborah Schildkraut at Tufts University explains that nationalism draws on comparisons with other nations, and involves more of a sense of superiority.

“It relies on stereotypes and on the idea of ‘us versus them,’” says Schildkraut, who, like Klinkner, is also a political scientist.

That is why the issue of immigration provides the most vivid background against which to determine if one is looking at something that more resembles patriotism or nationalism—it provides the ‘us versus them’ context that acts like a litmus test for the hard-to-define difference.

“I think immigration makes us think about what it means to be an American,” says Schildkraut. “And that makes us think about what it means to not be an American.”

Schildkraut, who has studied patriotism in public opinion, points to the World Values Survey as a way of seeing clearly the relationship between national identity and immigration. The survey is a massive international index that measures everything from happiness to family stability to religious observance to, of course, patriotism.

“On the part that measures responses to immigration and immigrants, people who rate pretty high on patriotism tend to be okay with immigrants,” she says.

That Europeans who consider themselves patriots, for example, might well actually be nationalists should come as no surprise to anyone: Aside from dramatically cutting down on the number of immigrants they will accept, particularly from majority Muslim countries, some European countries have passed laws that target Muslim immigrants. France, the Netherlands and Germany have all produced legislation that attempts to make it more difficult for these immigrants—who raise a lot of ire because of their dress, their non-European language, and in recent years, the rhetoric of a few imams—to live there.

Among these measures is the prohibition against wearing the traditional veil in schools in France and budget cuts intended to de-fund Islamic schools while maintaining funding for Christian schools in the Netherlands. These measures have been taken with the stated goal of preserving the national identity of each country—a wholly expected response to being swallowed up by the European Union and to watching Muslim immigrants become part of virtually every European landscape.

“In Europe, for a long time, there has been this sense that these people could never really be ‘one of them’ with Europeans,” says Hamilton College’s Klinkner. “You could be a Turk who lived in Germany for three or four generations, but you couldn’t be a German. In those countries the ‘nation’ is defined by geography or language. But here in the United States there’s also always been one strain that believed if you were not a white Anglo-Saxon protestant, you were not an American.”

In fact, he says, our citizenship birthright was spelled out in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to insure that blacks would be considered citizens.

“A lot of people who are more nationalistic, their perception of being an American is based more on race,” he says. “You see it a lot in the immigration debate.”


On its face, some of this ethnic profiling can look downright patriotic.

Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at UCLA, has studied immigration extensively and suspects that the current perception of today’s immigrants as being different from those of the past has something to do with the way they are used in discussions of national identity.

“Those who see immigration as a threat to national identity believe that today’s immigrants, unlike those of a century ago, are preserving their own cultures and identities and not integrating or assimilating,” he says. “But evidence suggests that second- and third-generation immigrants continue to learn English and assimilate in other ways, and that they do not differ fundamentally in this respect from earlier immigrants.”

As Tuft’s Schildkraut explains, the language barrier is one part of the immigration debate that has summoned up shades of nationalism as well as patriotism. It’s a valid part of that discussion, she says, because it is of critical importance that people who live in the same country have a language in common. But the language issue may be providing cover for other sentiments. “People might be uncomfortable dealing with racial and ethnic differences, so they latch onto language as a way of talking about that,” she says. “On the other hand, you may have someone who is very inclusive and very welcoming of immigrants, but they say ‘There has got to be some way for us to communicate with each other as a country.’ These are ways that language gets pulled into the debate.”


In 2002, Rui J. P. de Figueiredo, Jr. and Zachary Elkins, political scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, took a closer look at what appeared to be patriotism throughout 50 countries including the U.S. Focusing on “attitudes towards one’s nation and attitudes towards immigrants to that nation,” without denoting the legal or illegal status of immigrants (which is not immediately discernable anyway), the pair noted that “Pride, it seems, reveals itself in two very different forms, one positive (patriotism) and one negative (nationalism).”

In a paper titled “Are Patriots Bigots?” the pair explains that these two dimensions of pride “have very different implications for prejudice towards immigrants. True, the average nationalist is hostile towards immigrants. However, the average patriot is no more antagonistic to immigrants than is the average citizen. That is, those who express feelings of national superiority tend to derogate immigrants but those who express admiration for their country’s principles and values tend to appreciate outsiders as much as anyone else.”

Having more or less defined patriotism as an attachment to “the nation, its institutions, and its founding principles,” and nationalism as “a belief in national superiority and dominance—a commitment to the denigration of the alternatives to the nation’s institutions and principles,” they warn that “these two dimensions of national pride imply very different consequences for attitudes and behavior towards outsiders.”

Many books have been written about how economic insecurity welds together outright racists and normally levelheaded individuals in search of a scapegoat. But the economic pressure theory falls apart not only in light of the present healthy economy—last week, Bloomberg News Service’s survey of 70 economists painted a robust picture of employment, business investment and exports, despite the relative weakness of the dollar—but also in view of academic research.

“On the one hand, the effect of economic insecurity seems to have little direct contribution to attitudes toward immigrants, once we account for other factors,” de Figueroa and Elkins write. “In contrast, both an authoritarian personality and personal frustration seem to be linked directly to prejudice. Such results suggest that hostility towards immigrants does not derive from any direct and specific threat immigrants pose but from a more general state of dissatisfaction within the individual.”


In late September 2001, just weeks after terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. claimed nearly 3,000 lives, a law professor at George Mason University penned an essay entitled “What is an American?” that rapidly became one of the most e-mailed articles in the world. Much of what Peter Ferrara described in that essay
has to do with immigration:

“Americans welcome people from all lands, all cultures, all religions, because they are not afraid. They are not afraid that their history, their religion, their beliefs, will be overrun, or forgotten,” he wrote. “… Americans welcome the best, but they also welcome the least. The nation symbol of America [the Statue of Liberty] welcomes your tired and your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores, the homeless, tempest-tossed.”

Reflecting today on that six-year-old essay, Ferrara, currently at the conservative American Civil Rights Union, says he wouldn’t change it. But wretched refuse notwithstanding, he would like to see more selective immigration so that the U.S. gets a “better-educated class of Mexican immigrants.” The recent immigration bill backed by President Bush failed in the U.S. Senate, he says, because it called for legalizing millions of immigrants “overnight.”

“Americans want immigration at a rate that allows immigrants to be assimilated,” he says. “I don’t think that means that Americans want to close the doors to immigrants.”

De Figueroa and Elkins, who conducted their research a little more than a year after Ferrara wrote his essay, came to the conclusion that their results were “unambiguous,” writing: “Nationalism is strongly associated with hostility towards immigrants while patriotism is unrelated or, if anything, negatively associated with hostility.”

Perhaps even more importantly, they note, “Patriotism is not some sort of indiscriminate ‘world pride’ or ‘internationalist spirit’ that Gordon Allport, William James, and others have suggested as a way to surmount bigotry. What we are conceptualizing and measuring as patriotism is a monogamous love of nation. It is particularism, not universalism. It is a German’s love of Germany, an American’s love of the United States, and a Brazilian’s love of Brazil. What is intriguing is that such exclusive group loyalty does not come at the expense of tolerance.” SP


Comment by The ACRU Blog | Wednesday, August 01, 2007, 8:41 AM

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