Semi woken a thought had me in its grip and uncontrollably began to utter these words: “Now I understand what it means. It is very simple. From now on I am an American. It does not matter that I am not a citizen. It would not matter even if I get denied citizenship. It would not matter if I am thrown out of this country or where I end up living in this world. I am an American! From this moment on I am an American!” Maureen’s voice woke my other senses, “OK! OK! Now go back to sleep!”
It was very early in the morning, the clock radio indicated it was after four, some faint light was seeping through the windows from outside. My mind did not register the day, month or year of this early morning conversion, having a “born again” sensation. My memory tells me that it was a couple of years before the close of the 20th century. I had not filed an application for my citizenship. I did not even have an application form in my possession. What was the meaning of “I am an American”?
I had given up on my previously held Marxist view of the world just a few years earlier. My Leninist “imperialistic” view of the U.S. had changed into its opposite, an appreciation of the position that the U.S. held in the hierarchy of the world order. I was eligible for citizenship since the mid-1970’s. While eligible, for most of those years, I had a principled position against becoming a U.S. citizen. Becoming a U.S. citizen was equivalent to accepting being part and parcel of “Imperialist” world order, enabling it in my small way. When my views changed, opposition to citizenship was no longer warranted. Yet I had not found a meaningful link between myself and the U.S. as a society. I was living in the U.S., politically secure and away from the oppressive pressures of my native land, Iran. In the U.S. I had plenty of opportunities and for the second time in my life I was relying on myself for the material support of my life and along with my wife we were providing for our small family. But there was a mental block for becoming a citizen. The star-spangled banner was just a piece of cloth to me and not reason enough for citizenship and not sufficient to raise my hand to take the oath for it. I had a partnership with Maureen who was born and raised in the U.S. but a mental commitment to become a full member was missing.
Since 1967 when I first entered the U.S. to pursue my studies I had occasions to see the text of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and its extension as the constitution of the U.S. At these occasional readings I thought about those written words. The constitution seemed reasonable and practical the same way the procedures of a recipe would look reasonable and practical. I could not have an objection to the terms of the U.S. constitution but what intrigued me was the first part of the Declaration of Independence. The meaning of this segment in my mind was like this: Men possess certain inherent rights, among them the right to life, liberty and the “pursuit of happiness”.
I could somehow digest the right to life and liberty but the last part “pursuit of happiness” always seemed silly! How can a destitute man pursue happiness? How can an unemployed, homeless, hungry man be in the “pursuit of happiness”? How could I take an oath of loyalty to such a silliness!
In my euphoria it was as if a beam of light focused on the words, “pursuit of happiness”, lingering in space. With a flash the meaning of those words changed. The meaning was simple and it was not silly. The silliness was all mine. A third world, a mostly tribal, hierarchically dependent mentality would have a difficult time to understand the foundation of the U.S. which is inherent in those few words. “Pursuit of Happiness” is not that someone lays the groundwork for my happiness. It is my willingness to struggle for my own progress expecting that the state will not hinder my efforts. The happiness is not defined by the state but by my own actual efforts to advance myself. The happiness can only be perceived or achieved through my own struggle alone. The concept is very simple when understood properly and it looks silly if one brings it into the context of his culturally backward mindset.
I felt like a provincial peasant who for the first time is visiting a large city and is faced with the challenge of leaving behind his provincialism. Being a Muslim was provincial, being a Persian was provincial and being an Iranian was provincial. Being Muslim-American, Persian-American or Iranian-American was an excuse to not be an American. They all looked to me as a mere cover to seek economic, social and political benefits without trying to understand the foundation of all these benefits. Any X-American is to be a citizen or become a citizen without knowing what the citizenship of the U.S. entails.
This does not mean that my Muslimness or Persian heritage – my first language, Farsi – is wiped out. My heritage stays with me, but I am an American first. That is my primary consciousness no matter where I end up living. Those few words are the foundation of the U.S. and to understand it is to join America. You do not have to raise your hand for any pledge to be an American! You can raise your hand and take a pledge to get a U.S. passport and apply for other benefits and yet fail to be an American.
For the last two decades I have examined those few words in depth and I will write or speak about them on other occasions. What prompted me to write this piece is related to another thought. A couple of months ago another idea occurred to me that completed this circle. I had listened to and read on Joseph Campbell and his ideas about the power of myth in the social formations and their advancements – this was years ago. The core of his idea is that every society in the past is based on a story, a myth and we need a myth, a story as the foundation of our belonging to that society. Most of Campbell’s discussions are to examine these myths in different societies, mostly tribal. His discussions are very interesting. I understood his exposition of the more primitive societies, but I thought that he failed demonstrating its validity when it came to the modern states – societies with “democratic” constitution where science begins to take a more prominent role.
What I missed was that Campbell’s observations does apply to all societies, and it is even relevant to the United States. Our society is also based on a myth. I should remind you that myth does not mean falsehood and it does not mean untrue. Myth is a story, a belief and the struggle for its realization. I think Campbell expressed it as “myths are public dreams”.
The American Declaration of Independence was a break from the British myth that was based on the monarch’s sovereignty. The founders came up with a new idea, the sovereignty of the person, the individual. This idea has endured since 1776. Like all myths it has come under pressures. At times it has seen signs of cracks to the point of abandonment, but through struggles this myth has endured and strengthened. New events are testing this idea again and signs of fracture are apparent. Is our society of sovereign individuals capable of surviving these pressures?