To Be an American

President Obama plans to spend Memorial Day weekend in Illinois, which means he won’t be participating in the customary wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.

That’s a pity. Memorial Day has already lost much of its significance for many Americans, and the image of the president commemorating our war dead is always a great reminder—especially at war time—of what this holiday means.

In his Gettysburg address, Lincoln said that the world “can never forget” those who perished in the decisive Battle of Gettysburg. But many Americans have forgotten, or never learned, the meaning not only of Memorial Day but of the country so many of our servicemen and women have died fighting for. 

When I was growing up, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was known then, was the day we visited local cemeteries to decorate the graves of the war dead, with flags or flowers. Memorial Day has become little more than a long weekend to mark the beginning of summer and to gather for barbeques, picnics and sporting events.

Polls underscore how ignorant we’ve become of our history and way of life. Surveys by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute underscore American college students’ lack of knowledge of basic American history and institutions. In a 2008 study, 71 percent failed a civics knowledge test. More than half couldn’t name the three branches of government.

Our president personifies a generation that’s de-emphasized America and American values. The spectacle of Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress cheering as a foreign head of state chided a commonsense Arizona immigration law reflected an ideology that sees little to like about America.

On a certain level, I couldn’t help but feel a little admiration for Mexico President Felipe Calderon. It was a disgusting display—but at least Mexico’s president is willing to stand up for his country. That’s much more than our president is willing to do for his.

When elaborating on the country that elected him president, Obama speaks  mostly of its sins, real and imagined. When asked if he believes in American exceptionalism, he answers that sure he does—in the same way the coddled Greeks now taking to the streets against their government in Athens believe in Greek exceptionalism. A simple “no” would suffice.

Watching Obama describe the Arizona law reminded me of a school teacher scolding her students for misbehaving. He said the new law is “poorly conceived” and “misdirected,” and he nodded approvingly as Calderon called it “discriminatory.”

Obama has made empathy his governing virtue. But he seems to feel little empathy for fed-up Arizonans, who have endured as nearly half a million illegal immigrants have poured into their state. The Obama of Hyde Park and the White House has never felt the dread of wondering whether drug smugglers were sneaking through his backyard in the middle of the night.

Since America’s beginning, immigrants arrived on American soil yearning to learn our language, history, laws and customs. There was a time in America’s history when new immigrants would rally to ensure their new countrymen that they loved America and were willing to become Americans.

But the metaphor of America as a “melting pot” is no longer apt. A better metaphor is of America as a “salad bowl” of mutually exclusive groups.

Today, hyphenated Americans often put other affiliations first. One poll of Hispanics in America found that 64 percent consider themselves “mostly Hispanic,” while only 15 percent see themselves as “mostly American.” Even worse, 27 percent of the survey sample had lived in America for more than 25 years, while only 15 percent lived here less than six.

The goal of American immigration is to build a citizenry that loves America first. But that hasn’t happened. While liberal elites fret about how to move illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” the immigrants themselves are busy jockeying to get in front of TV cameras while waving foreign flags and anti American signs, and crying for open borders at rallies across the country.

When Hispanics can do all their business in Spanish, vote in Spanish, take a driver’s license exam in Spanish and send their kids to bilingual public schools, what incentive do they have to assimilate?

In his State of the Union address, Obama discussed reforming immigration laws in order to “ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.”

But the Democrat’s amnesty bill would reward those who did not play by the rules, while punishing those who did.

And immigrants are disproportionately low-skilled and poor. Heritage Foundation research has found that such immigrants “receive, on average, three dollars in government benefits and services for each dollar of taxes they pay.”

America has always welcomed immigrants and it should continue to do so. But, as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, immigration should be “predicated upon the man’s becoming an American and nothing but an American. There can be no divided allegiance here.” He continued:

“Any man who says he is an American but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language…and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

For immigrants to become Americans, and to embrace America, they must first recognize their new home as a great and good country. They can only do that if they learn our history, including the history of our wars and of the “honored dead” who gave “the last full measure of devotion.”  A country that forgets its history will be a country that history soon forgets.