This is a photo of my grandmother, Sylvia, my uncle, Ronald, my mother, Marcia, and aunt, Victoria, standing in front of their home in Rangoon in 1966 shortly before Ronald left to study in America. Since 1958, Burma had been slowly strangled by the Socialist military dictatorship of Ne Win. Many who could leave subsequently did. Most of my family scattered across the world, to the east and west coasts of the US, the UK, Australia, even Norway. There’s a mood of regret in this picture, but also looks of fierce determination.
Just reviewed Amy Chua’s Political Tribes for the Evening Standard. I liked how she described America as the rare super-tribe, in which the idea of American-ness both binds and permits vastly disparate sub-groups. And how that unique concept has then blinded America to the importance of tribes during its overseas adventures. I was less convinced by how this applies to America today. But it’s a tautly written and provocative book.
Tom Hodgkinson, the British founder of The Idler empire, has written a satisfyingly frank account of running a small business. It’s introspective and at times very funny. A million miles from the gauzy WeWork visions of small enterprise as all post-industrial lofts and coffee machines. Hodgkinson’s experience is struggling with cash flow and hung-over employees. I reviewed it here for the Wall Street Journal.
You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.
I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one — a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.’
A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I…
…The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
I wrote this piece a couple of years ago for the WSJ, but these same thoughts have been rattling around my head recently:
Why I Chose the Red White and Blue
Growing up British, I thought that I knew everything about national self-loathing. We were reared in the shadows of long-gone might, taught that we were mere dormice scuffling in the footsteps of imperial giants. To dull the pain, we administered heavy doses of sarcasm, self-effacement and “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
But then I moved to the U.S., and over my decade here, I have realized that when it comes to the rhetoric of self-flagellation, as in so much else, we Europeans are small time. The U.S. government, we hear, is no longer checked and balanced but broken. Banks and insurance companies are plundering the nation’s treasure. Bridges are crumbling, children aren’t being educated, and that thudding sound is 1.3 billion Chinese sitting down to eat America’s lunch. For all this country’s glories, its morale in recent years has felt low.
So a couple of months ago I did my bit to buck the gloom: I became a U.S. citizen.
I had been told that the 2013 model of U.S. citizenship was the lemon on the international lot. The Internal Revenue Service would have its claws into me for life. The jihadists would mark me as a demon of the Great Satan. Canada and Australia were more welcoming. Europe has a stronger social safety net. Asia has more economic opportunities. What was I thinking?
For one thing, after I watched the Tom Hanks film “Captain Phillips” with my 10-year-old son, he made an excellent point: If ever I were kidnapped by Somali pirates, I would wish I were a U.S. citizen so that Navy SEALs could come to my rescue.
But it also felt like time. For the past decade, I have lived happily in the U.S. while retaining my British citizenship. My wife is a natural-born U.S. citizen, as are my two sons. I have paid taxes but lacked the right to vote. This didn’t bother me at first, but it has chafed more as my financial and emotional investment in the U.S. has grown.
I could simply have renewed my green card. But it no longer seemed enough, either in terms of rights or responsibilities. I was receiving the privilege of living here on the cheap.
Forty-three years ago, my mother’s parents came to the U.S. from Burma. Leaving behind all they owned and a daughter who would marry an Englishman, they started afresh in Virginia. My own naturalization lacked such drama: just a $600 filing fee, a set of forms, a fingerprint scan, an interview to test my English, a civics quiz and an oath.
On a Friday in November, I drove to the Richard C. Lee Courthouse in New Haven, the Areopagus of central Connecticut. My wife took the day off work, and our sons left school to watch me swear allegiance (with the promise of Shake Shack burgers to celebrate afterward).
The courtroom was grand but shabby in that government way, with marble and oak panels illuminated by dusty lights. We huddled masses, 30 strong, were young and old, from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe, each here for our own reasons. Conducting our ceremony was an 89-year-old federal judge, Ellen Bree Burns, and an official from the Department of Homeland Security wearing a Stars and Stripes necktie.
Most times, said Judge Burns, when people leave her courtroom, half are happy, half unhappy. But making new citizens was a moment of unadulterated joy. She urged us to vote and to preserve whatever culture and heritage we had brought with us. And she thanked us for letting her be the judge who swore us in.
We received our certificates of naturalization and a yellow envelope marked “The White House.” In it was a “Dear Fellow American” letter from President Obama. “Since our founding, generations of immigrants have come to this country full of hope for a brighter future, and they have made sacrifices in order to pass that legacy on to their children and grandchildren,” he wrote. “This is the price and the promise of citizenship. You are now part of this precious history, and you serve as an inspiration to those who will come after you.”
The U.S. does this language so well. It is an antidote to cynicism. It revealed to me what a frail and incomplete thing it had been to live here as an observer rather than a full participant in civic life. I wish that those Americans who trash their country for its failings or doubt the value of their citizenship could give it up and reapply for it, just to see with fresh eyes what an astonishing gift it still is.