If you spend just 10 minutes watching the news on NBC or scrolling through headlines on CNN.com, it’s difficult not to notice a serious trend within the current election cycle. In an attempt to appeal to voters, both the Clinton and Trump campaigns have attempted to define what it means to be American.
I have lived in the United States for my entire life, but I am not the stereotypical American. Both my parents are Australian, and I also have an Australian passport in addition to my American one. Consequently, I identify with both Australian and American cultures. Watching cricket on Saturday night? That’s right. Watching the NFL on Sunday afternoon? You got it. But am I any less American than someone who has grown up on a farm in Iowa to parents whose parents’ parents’ parents immigrated on a boat from Eastern Europe, or more American than someone who has only lived here for five years?
There are varying perspectives on what the definition of an American is. Legally, you are an American if you are a United States citizen. This definition is logically simple, because it offers a very clear division: If you do not have a United States citizenship document, you are not American. This viewpoint, however, excludes people identifying as Americans who have been living here for many years on visas or green cards, or those who are in the process of becoming citizens. For instance, two of my friends from high school have lived in the United States for most of their lives, but still had to apply to college as international students because they were born in Korea. Both of them spoke English perfectly, but they were living in the United States on green cards. For all intents and purposes, they are Americans.
Hillary Clinton’s perspective, exemplified by her advocacy for a path to citizenship for those who have crossed the U.S. border illegally, represents a relatively open and accepting concept of what it means to be American. The rise of Donald Trump represents the opposite. To Mr. Trump, you are only American if you are white and natural-born, or if you are an Eastern European supermodel. This is due to his insistence that we should bar the entry of Mexicans and Muslims into this country in order to prevent terrorism and other acts of violence. This perspective is particularly restrictive, especially since it excludes well over 100 million U.S. residents.
In addition, many of Trump’s supporters and (worryingly) many of his opponents believe that you are not a real American if you criticize the United States or take some political stance against the status quo. At the beginning of his football games, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand during the national anthem. Mr. Kaepernick has said that he “[is] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Many people have voiced vitriolic opinions of the quarterback, suggesting that his protest of the national anthem intrinsically defines him as un-American. This type of criticism is absurd. Why should exercising freedom of speech, a right that defines the United States to the rest of the world, make you less American?
Fundamentally, any definition of what it means to be an American is arbitrary and would inevitably exclude people who could be considered American. What it means to be American is paradoxically defined by its lack of definition. Anybody can be one. All you need is to feel American.
Because of this ambiguity, we can instead try to define its opposite. What does it mean to be un-American? The clearest answer is treason. According to West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, treason is defined as “the betrayal of one’s own country by waging war against it or by consciously or purposely acting to aid its enemies.” Let’s examine this definition. During the American Revolutionary War, General Benedict Arnold attempted to trade West Point to the British in exchange for “a large sum of money and a high position in the British army.” Clearly, General Arnold acted against the best interests of the United States, and so was committing treason.
During the Cold War, too, some CIA agents actually worked for the Soviet Union, despite claiming to do the opposite. These double agents also committed treason because their goal was to hurt the United States, not help it. A modern test of this definition is Edward Snowden. Although he did release classified documents to the American public, violating security protocols he had promised to obey, his goal was not to create a national security crisis. Instead, Snowden aimed to make Americans aware of the intrusive and unconstitutional surveillance that the NSA perpetrates on every single person in America. According to Snowden, NSA spying is detrimental to the country, and the first step toward solving the problem was getting the American people involved. His ultimate goal was the betterment of this country, not a conscious or purposeful attempt to aid America’s enemies.
What can be concluded from this analysis is that the most un-American thing somebody can do is silence America’s critics. The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that it exists, and in today’s deeply flawed America, the public needs a little help to get started.
Chester is a member of the class of 2020.