Northern Virginia Ethical Society (NoVES)

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Collective Reflections On What It Means To Be An American

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 8:16 AM | Deleted user

At our Sunday 2/18 platform, five NoVES members, myself included, wove a biographically based tapestry of the diverse American immigration story. We traced our multi-generational family migration stories to America back to Ethiopia, Belgium, India, Colombia, Malaysia, Hungary, Australia, and indeed well beyond our shores to every continent on this planet.

Our varied stories spoke of flight. From concentration camps, military dictatorship, communist government, and other settings. We also spoke of the quest for and fulfilment of opportunity in America. At medical and dentistry school, in entrepreneurial ventures, and more. Our stories also variously spoke of confronting and defying stereotypes, of feeling “different” in America, but also of feeling American and “different” abroad. We heard echoes of the generosity and warmth we feel from fellow Americans, and also of the sense of being a stranger at home from having a different accent or aspect. And several of us mentioned that ironic sense of feeling American especially when we are abroad, even if we may feel less so when we are home in America.

Despite many common threads, each of our five stories were unique. Adding to our five biographies we presented are the many more diverse immigration stories from our NoVES membership which were not told at that Sunday morning platform. What nonetheless emerges from this sense of commonality and diversity is the reality that America has always and continues to accommodate the rich streams of history, language, and traditions that the rest of the world brings us and that we imperfectly meld into a sense of common American identity.

America for all of us is an ideal which somewhat eludes us, yet also can inspire us and the rest of the world in ways no other country can. We have held the torch of e pluribus unum to attract the energies of hard working and creative talents worldwide and, as a result, have achieved a record of social, cultural, scientific, and technological innovation still unmatched elsewhere in the world. Yet, we have historically fallen short of fulfilling our ideal, whether through enslavement of involuntary migrants, exclusion of others who sought to voluntarily migrate, or unlawful detention of citizens who happen to look “different” at the “wrong” time.

At present, our ideal has once again been placed on trial as a seriously misplaced sense of nativism has threatened to overshadow our real, albeit imperfect, achievements of striving to overcome the limitations of bigotry, persecution, and discrimination elsewhere in the world that brought many of us and our ancestors here. For us who seek to build a society on enlightened principles of reason, the evidence of our benefits from diversity and immigration is overwhelming. We need to continually strive to shed the illusions of fundamental differences into which our tribal instincts mislead us. We need to instead harness that marvelous gift of reason which has shown us the genome of a human species demonstrating race as a biological fallacy and also as a dangerously misleading social construct. America remains uniquely poised to show humanity the potential of harnessing that sliver of our genome we call human diversity. Our claims to humanist ideals make this challenge an imperative.


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