Although what it means to be an "American" may seem a simple question to many, there is vast divergence in how Americans themselves answer the question. For many, the term reflects a wonderful affirmation of both our nation's history and heritage and a commitment to freedom for individuals to live their lives as they see fit. Some see that as rightly acknowledging America's God-given destiny as what Ronald Reagan's vision of America as a "light on a hill."
For others, American means white/black/brown, blues and polkas and bluegrass, salsa and opera – a culture richly fed by difference and 100s of years of immigrants, big and open, full of contrasts, and where optimism survives. And for immigrants, American is a place of opportunity, a place to start over.
Still for others, the term reflects a worrisome flag-waving arrogance and ethnocentrism - wherein America retains a superiority complex as a land deserving of more than the rest of the world. These critics point out many instances in American history where under cover of this very American exceptionalism, the U.S. military acted in de-stabilizing and ultimately lamentable ways around the world. This view is well-captured in the John Lennon anthem “Imagine there’s no country, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for…”
Compared to the “God given destiny” view, these other views see America as one country in a world community - not better than others, not the best, with virtues and sins. In this sense, John Lennon was rejecting nationalism; he was not rejecting being American.
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