This is the second in a series of posts about American values inspired by my renunciation of American citizenship.
I teach American Studies at a teacher-training college here in the Netherlands. The eight-week courses—two for the younger, full-time students, and one for the adult, part-time students—are not in-depth studies. They are introductory courses for students training to become English teachers. One of my goals is to prepare them for the sorts of questions their own pupils are likely to ask them:
“Why would anyone be against having a universal health care system?”
“Why do they allow people to own guns in America?”
Or the current most-common question: “Why would anyone want to vote for Trump?”
Answering these questions has a lot to do with traditional American values that people in the US take for granted, but that are not well-understood outside of the country.
Until this year, I assigned readings in a textbook titled American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture to my adult American Studies students. The book is intended for use inside America in programs aimed at foreign students and in classes for immigrants.
In a chapter called “Traditional American Values and Beliefs,” the authors identify a set of six basic values that I used—and to some extent still use—as underlying themes for my teaching of American Studies:
- The chance for individual freedom
- Equality of opportunity
- Material wealth
- Hard work
The latter three are described in the book as the price to be paid for the first three.
In this post, I’ll address the chance for individual freedom and its pairing with self-reliance. I’ll discuss the others in future posts.
I tell my students that the idea of individual freedom stems from the early immigrant experience: the Pilgrims, for example, went to North America to be able to practice their own religion freely (Never mind that they didn’t want others to practice other religions!). Many others followed them to America for related reasons: to escape restrictive societies or persecution, for example, or to be able to own their own land.
I point out how important the idea of individual freedom was in the years leading up to the American Revolution: the British government prevented the colonists from making their own economic decisions by taxing them without giving them representation and by limiting their options for importing and exporting raw materials and processed goods.
I explain the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the colonists’ view, pursuit of happiness was dependent on individual freedom.
When discussing current issues, such as gun ownership or national health, understanding Americans’ deep belief in individual freedom helps my students begin to understand what to them often seems beyond comprehension.
Americans especially value self-reliance, and see it as a requirement to obtain and secure individual freedom. In other words, given their tremendous distrust of government—also stemming from the American Revolution—they expect to be successful through their own efforts.
American heroes, generally, have all been self-made men (and, increasingly, women). Traditionally it was the frontiersmen and pioneers who set out on their own and were solely responsible for their own well-being. Later this view was applied to any successful businessman who, through his own efforts, went “from rags to riches.” This partially explains Trump’s supporters.
This image—the self-reliant, self-made man—has been extended since the American Revolution to include a distinctly libertarian bent. Not only should people be responsible for their own welfare and prosperity, but the flip side of that idea, in the view of many Americans, is that the government doesn’t have the right to intervene, either to further an individual’s prosperity or to hinder it.
This idea helps me explain the general emphasis on low taxes and small government.
So how does this have anything to do with me?
The fact is that I still subscribe to these values. I cherish my freedom to make my own choices, including my choice to live in the Netherlands and, ultimately, to renounce my US citizenship. Embracing these values hasn’t changed even though I live in a more structured—some Americans would say “socialist”—society.
My husband and I have always supported ourselves and our children without expecting the government’s help. I still believe in self-reliance, though my left-leaning tendencies do allow the idea that government can—and should—provide for those who cannot be self-reliant for whatever reason. And I understand that if you accept the existence of a social safety net, taxes have to be higher to pay for it.
But these are only quibbles over the degree of freedom and self-reliance we expect, not over their intrinsic value as such.
Renouncing my citizenship has not changed my values. Indeed, in many ways I am living those values more literally than ever.
The US government’s treatment of overseas Americans is unfair and onerous. As I’ve posted before, we are treated as if we are criminals without due process. Our privacy is invaded.
By renouncing my citizenship, I feel that I have made the first step toward claiming the individual freedom that American values assure me I have the right to enjoy.
It’s my own personal little American Revolution: I am declaring independence from a government that imposes unfair demands on me while not allowing me any meaningful representation within that government. What could be more American than that?