The Passive-Aggressive Citizen

Jonathan Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, recently announced that he has become an American citizen.

Just a few days ago, in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, I raised my right hand and—along with some 150 other immigrants from places like Bangladesh, China and the Dominican Republic—was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, something I’d been secretly longing to do for about 30 years.

I write “secretly” because growing up in a small border town in Canada, there was always something slightly shameful about that desire. Canadians, especially during the Reagan era of my adolescence, loved criticizing their benighted, warlike neighbor to the south (even while overlooking the ways the United States underwrote their comfortable standard of living).

Yet it seems that he never really transcended the prejudice that there is something shameful about Americanism, because he goes on to deliver a backhanded, passive-aggressive tribute to his adopted country.

I’ve come to realize over my years here that many of the very same American beliefs that drive the rest of the world crazy, and that lead the United States down so many dark alleys—whether doggedly resisting gun control, or continuing to battle over universal medical care, or the way so many poorer Americans still vote against their economic interests—also make the country a powerful engine of invention and renewal.

So: that don’t-tread-on-me frontier spirit that gets you the Tea Party, side arms in schools, and that cussedly resists other forms of regulation also fuels the world’s fiercest spirit of innovation. The widely held myth that anyone can make it here leads Americans to reject a more humane and redistributive social-safety net—but also drives a start-up culture envied around the globe. Intense individualism produces irrational hostility toward government—but also makes this country unusually accepting of ex-foreigners who become citizens. And faith in the country’s exceptionalism produces hypocrisy and bullying behavior abroad—but also global leadership that’s done the planet enormous good, and that no other nation is willing or able to provide.

Did I just mention a problem with moral prejudice? Tepperman is basically saying that he can see a few benefits from America’s fierce individualism—but he just can’t bring himself to take individualism seriously as a moral doctrine or to contemplate whether its benefits might be wider than those he has reluctantly acknowledged. Having gone straight from the weird jingoistic socialism of Trudeau-era Canada to the institutions of the American intellectual “elites” (such as they are), it is as if he’s still afraid that he will be ostracized if he shows too great a longing for the American spirit.

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