Opinion: What it means to be an American


Published: 05-18-2024 8:00 AM

Michael Pelchat of Webster is a retired pharmacist and current history student.

In 1850, Presbyterian minister, James Thornwell of South Carolina, speaking on the major issue of the day, said “they are atheists, socialists, communists on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.” Thornwell was speaking of the issue of slavery, but his words can also provide some insight on the issues of our own time.

That we are a polarized nation is becoming obvious and every issue seems to serve as a wedge to drive us further apart. Thornwell’s framing of the issue of slavery is very similar to how issues are now being framed in the United States in the 2020s.

A sitting governor labels the college pro-Palestinian protests as 100 percent antisemitic. A candidate for Congress accuses the students of supporting terrorists and calls the protests perverse. Both men ignore the other side of the coin and refuse to acknowledge the student’s valid concerns over Israel’s policies toward Palestine prior to the Hamas attack and its tactics in the ensuing war. They equate criticism of Israel’s policies with antisemitism even though the two are independent of each other. They choose instead to focus on the disorder and property damage and call it antisemitism to justify the use of force to suppress the demonstrations.

The reasons for the polarization of America are myriad and complex and all Americans share some share of the blame. One cause though is quite simple, and it is the growing tendency for Americans to view some of the rights we have previously taken for granted such as a free press, free speech, and freedom of assembly through a partisan lens. The differing attitudes toward the college demonstrations are just a manifestation of something more insidious, the acceptance or rejection of another’s rights based solely on whether or not we agree with their position. That these rights are granted to all Americans and are protected by the Constitution no longer is factored into the discussion.

Opinions are no longer opinions but absolute truths. Opposing views are not seen as merely a different opinion but as sacrilege and un-American and those expressing those opposing views are increasingly being characterized as the enemy and a threat.

As historian Jon Meacham wrote in his book, “And There Was Light,” when issues are presented in stark contrast of right or wrong, good or evil, compromise is impossible because the act of compromise is seen as weak or even sinful. Reason is not a factor, only emotion and the certainty that I am right, and you are wrong.

Donald Trump is not to blame for this, but he legitimized it as a political tool for both sides. Starting with his campaign to demonize the press and his comments and actions following the Charlottesville, Virginia riots and the Black Lives Matter movement, the acknowledgment or denial of an individual’s right to speak or assemble is very much dependent on whether or not we agree with them.

Conservatives rightly criticize universities for attempting to suppress conservative speech but then try to do the same to suppress liberal speech. They call it woke, illiberal liberalism or un-American but the message is the same, only my opinion matters, only my opinion is right so be quiet.

A candidate for Congress recently wrote that Americans no longer share a common understanding of what America stands for or what it means to be an American. Sadly, he is right but not for the reasons he gave. To be an American, to be a patriot is to recognize that every American has a right to express an opinion, even an opinion that others would vigorously oppose.

We cannot have it both ways. Either we have a democracy, or we don’t. Either we have a country where differences of opinion and debate are tolerated and encouraged, or we have a country where only one opinion matters and anything contrary to that opinion is un-American and something to be suppressed.