I was born in Brooklyn in 1931 so I did not have to do anything to earn my US citizenship. My father, who was born in Stockholm came to the US not as a place he sought but as a place he liked in his merchant marine days in the early 1920s. He worked in New Orleans and at West Point before settling in New York City. He never became a US citizen because he said he had nothing bad to say about Sweden. He read a Swedish-American newspaper to keep up with events in Sweden and faithfully wrote to his mother in Stockholm. My mother was also born in the US, in Bound Brook, New Jersey. Her parents were immigrants from Tarnapol then part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire and now part of Ukraine. She was placed in an arranged marriage by her father to a Russian immigrant and in those days that meant she lost her US citizenship and became a subject of Russia (she belonged to her husband under then US law). After she divorced and remarried my father, she became stateless. In order to vote for Roosevelt she had to be renaturalized and my brother and I went with her to be sworn in, in 1940, as a US citizen even though this was the land of her birth.
I pledged allegiance to the flag every school day K-12 before it was modified to include the phrase “under God.” Since I had no religion I would have found that offensive or at least compromising to my beliefs. Whenever I have an occasion to recite that pledge, I omit the inserted two words because I feel it is unconstitutional to impose religious beliefs by the state. I admire the America of our Founding Fathers who mostly embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment. They established a country based on the consent of the governed and not an imposed government by monarchies, tyrants, or the privileged few. I admired Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, the non-violent abolitionists, the early feminists, the first labor union organizers, the preachers and journalists who denounced child labor, the social reformers who built settlement houses, the pioneers who settled small farms in the Midwest, the educators who established free public schools, the public health programs that introduced immunization against infectious diseases, the inventors who built our bridges, roads, railroads, and ships, the philanthropists who established public libraries and outstanding universities. I also admired our critics – Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, Walt Whitman, Ida Tarbell, Eugene Debs, Ralph Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, and other men and women who braved the condemnation of the rich and the powerful.
We oscillate from decades of progress and hope to decades where the few dominate our lives and attention. We shift from generations that live in peace and generations stuck in wars that are elective. We believe in merit and earning our own reputations and lives but we also believe we are innately exceptional. We fear immigrants as often as we welcome them and appreciate what they have contributed to the diversity of American culture. We have done wrongs like passing compulsory sterilization laws, like establishing internment camps for the Japanese in WWII, like the fugitive slave act, like “separate but equal” segregation laws, like making corporations “people,” like tolerating laws that target students, minorities, the poor and the elderly so that they find it difficult to vote. America has always been a land of contradictions. It requires the diversity of its critics, reformers, and activists to counter the tendency of the selfish to purchase legislation that favors their interests.