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American La(n)d


Welcoming 73 new citizens – myself among them – to the United States on Thursday November 29, Judge Lawrence E. Khan, the Presiding United States District Court Judge, said the following:

“The strength of this nation lies in its diversity.”

If so, then the USA just got a little stronger. The names of the 73 new official citizens, as printed in alphabetical order in the ceremonial program, featured immigrants from ten different countries before it started repeating itself. All in all, there were nearly thirty different countries represented among just the 73 of us: the United States of America is nothing if not a mosaic. And now I am officially a part of it. Wow.

Becoming an American: Judge Khan on left, Congressman McNulty in the middle, yours truly on the right.

Many of my friends – immigrants and citizens, at home and abroad – have been surprised by my decision to take American citizenship. They presume that it means I’ve signed up to the country of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They are wrong. Two hundred and thirty years ago, the American people fought a revolutionary war against the British to free themselves from, among other things, “taxation without representation.” Yet for the last eighteen years, I have also endured “taxation without representation.” I started paying taxes to Uncle Sam in 1988 or ’89; considering that I got married in 1993 and had my green card within months, that I had a child here in 1995 and bought a house in 1996, it was obvious I was not going anywhere in a hurry. It’s less clear why I seemed so comfortable for so many years to keep paying taxes without my right to vote, a right that I could only acquire by becoming a citizen.

I can only suppose that, for half of those two decades, it just didn’t seem that important. The country was in a good way. The Stock Market kept going up through the 1990s, crime kept going down, record companies and book publishers were throwing out big advances and it was easy to earn good money, the people seemed relatively happy with their lot, and even the Europeans liked Americans enough that when they couldn’t end the civil wars on their own Balkan doorsteps, they called in the American bombers to do it for them. Why should I be so bothered as to go through the process of becoming an American myself, just to add one small statistic to numbers measured in the millions? After all, when it comes to Presidential Elections, each State is counted as a block – and New York State is always, staunchly Democrat. Ditto the New York Senators elected from New York City and the local Congressmen, too. My vote wasn’t needed; I lived in solid blue Democrat land. In fact, so secure was I of my political surroundings that in the 1990s, it was my cop-out boast: I don’t live in the United States of America, I live in New York City.

Then came the election of 2000, the one in which the candidate with the most votes did not become President. Given the nature of the electoral college, even a million more votes in New York State would not have made a difference to the outcome – and I can not promise you I would have voted for Al Gore in 2000, rather than abstain or vote for Ralph Nader – but at least I could have counted myself as a statistic when the Supreme Court ultimately awarded the Presidency to George W. Bush. Come the election of 2004, I didn’t think much of John Kerry either, but the same rules applied: my vote could have been counted as yet another against the incumbent. It wasn’t: I didn’t “elect” to have my say.

And then, in 2005, I moved to the country. Admittedly, our new house is in Woodstock, a town so left-wing that the Democrat candidates in the Town elections ran unopposed this November. However, we could just as easily have built in Shandaken, next door, Phoenicia’s surrounding town, where a God-awful two-term Republican Town Supervisor administration was, just earlier this month, thankfully overturned by a swing to the Democrats. The majority was small: a couple of hundred votes. One of the three Councilman positions went Republican by just 28 votes. Positions all over the place here are awarded by such small electoral majorities. As Judge Khan reminded us in Albany on Thursday, he himself is elected by the voters – as is the Congressmen who was sitting beside him, Democrat Mike McNulty, as also are our District Attorneys and our Highway Superintendents, our Tax Assessors, our School Boards…. America offers more opportunity to elect more people to public office, more frequently, than any other country in the world. And it’s time I had my say.

The exterior of the Court House… hey, there aren’t that many pictures you can take of the inside of a court room!

Many of the new Citizens sworn in alongside me in Albany did not need reminding. Some of them hail from dubious democracies such as make America’s horrendous 2000 election results look like an everyday judicial appointment, or they are fleeing dictatorships, civil turmoil and wanton corruption. These are people for whom the American Dream really has been worth chasing down, because, whatever its faults, the country they can now call home offers so much more by way of opportunity and freedom than the country they left behind.

For my part, I’m all too aware of America’s faults. And even if I wasn’t, it’s hard to pick up the Internet or step out the house these days without someone else, frequently an American neighbor, listing them for me. I’ve had to live through what may well be remembered as the worst two-term Presidency in American history, and one reason I’ve stopped writing about it online in recent months is that, as I began my application for Citizenship, I recognized my own hypocrisy: if I’m not willing to get involved in the Democratic process, even to the extent that I make a personal choice to abstain at times, then I have no right to complain about it.

But I don’t want this to be all about voting. That’s merely a backhanded compliment, a defensive justification for something I feel very positive about. (There are other, defensive reasons for my change of status: the current Administration has made it all too easy to deport non-Citizens for petty crimes, and my wife has long told me that the IRS would get the lion’s share of any estate should I die as a non-citizen. I owe it to my family on both these counts.) It’s difficult now, in late 2007, to conjure up the emotions I felt in the days, weeks and months after 9/11 – but I must try. For during that time frame, I realized I had already become an American. I took those attacks personally, as an assault on my home country, my chosen way of life. Equally, I was proud of the way my countrymen responded, especially in the magnificent melting pot of New York City, where retaliations were almost non-existent and where, for weeks and months afterwards, we co-existed in an oddly blissful and mournful state of mutual love and affection. It makes me sick to my stomach to see how this damn Administration has squandered all the good will it could have reaped both at home and abroad; it makes me equally disgusted that Rudy Giuliani is out there campaigning for President on the notion that he somehow protected us and rescued us. But those people do not represent me, or the majority of those I lived amongst back in Brooklyn, nor do they speak for the majority of Americans.

I know Americans, black and white, of Asian and African and European descent alike, to be good people at heart, good hard-working people who are perfectly willing to help their fellow man – especially when led by example. I don’t like all of them, and they don’t all like the likes of me, and there are bad people here as there are everywhere in the world, and let’s not get started on the big capitalist businesses or the fast food obesity epidemic or the Christian Evangelical movement (there simply isn’t the space) because I could come back at those with a thousand positive anecdotes. Let’s say that the majority of us believe the country is big enough for us all to find our own space amongst like-minded folk to call home. Let’s remember that, with the exception of the Native Americans, “all of us came from somewhere,” to quote Judge Khan. Let’s allow that, even though I would like to declare myself an Internationalist, bound by no laws other than those of Mother Nature, having consciously put down my roots in this country, I’m now proud to have signed on to the values I believe this country stands for.

It’s a commonly voiced criticism against our current Administration that it has tried to tear up the Constitution, the very values to which I refer, and on which this great country was built. That would explain why, a couple of years ago, an editor in New York sent with her Christmas cards a copy of that Constitution: she wanted people to read its contents, to remember them, to know to protect them against the injustices of the Bush Administration. She was right to do so. But I’d like her and everyone else to know the following, too. As part of the process by which I became a Citizen, I had to study that Constitution – something most American-born citizens stop doing after they leave school. Having passed my test I was given, by the Department of Homeland Security/INS, the exact same published copy of the Constitution as that editor sent me a few years ago. And then, in Albany on Thursday, alongside a welcome letter from the current President, I received something yet more satisfying: a book that bound the Declaration of Independence alongside the Constitution, all its Amendments, some annotated history and even an index of subject matter, all courtesy of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Finally, when I stepped forward to receive my Certificate of Citizenship, I was handed yet one more copy of the Constitution, this courtesy of our hosts, the Courts. Whatever this Administration thinks of the Constitution, its troops on the ground – and I use that metaphor deliberately – hold it very dearly, and clearly desire us new immigrants to do likewise.

That’s why I take the Bruce Springsteen approach to our current problems, as he recently expressed it in Rolling Stone:

“The American idea still has enormous power in its best manifestation. And ten George Bushes cannot bring that idea down- a hundred cannot bring that idea down. What we’re going through now, we’re going to be out the other side at some point.”

Indeed we will – the same way that the British nation finally got out from Thatcherism, albeit after a minority of the people voted her into office three times in a row, and then put her successor in power, too. As I say, there are bad people everywhere. Thankfully, it’s written into the Constitutional Amendments that American Presidents can only hold office twice. We will be rid of our current President in a little over a year.

A family of five from Moldava get Citizenship together.

As it turns out, I was sworn in at the Court House in Albany, the State Capital, barely 200 yards downhill from the Times-Union Center, where just two weeks earlier I’d seen Bruce Springsteen close out a typically great set with “American Land,” his Gaelic jig tribute to the immigrants that built this country: “The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews.” Based on the 73 of us new citizens in Albany, that influx has shifted color, creed and continents. There were just two Irishmen, one German, no Italians and no advertently Jewish names amongst us. The biggest contributing country was, not surprisingly, India, with Pakistan and Bangladesh also well represented, and then a smattering of African countries, a few from the West Indies, a handful from the Baltic region and eastern Europe, a few South Americans (Peruvians and Guyanians mainly), some from far south-east Asia, and several from Moldova, the only country listed of which I’d have trouble finding on a map. Oh, and there were six of us from the United Kingdom, second only to the number from India. Make of that what you will.

Certainly, it’s fun to try and draw statistical conclusions from our varied make-up. Did the almost total lack of Western Continental Europeans amongst us speak to the hatred of modern America among the everyday Spanish, Italians, Germans and French? Or rather, if I attended a Naturalization Ceremony in New York City, where Wall Street employs a large number of white western Europeans in its well-paid white-collar jobs, would their numbers suddenly appear, as I suspect? Should I read anything into the absence of Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians? Or the complete lack of Mexicans? Is 73 people really a sufficient number to try and reach such conclusions? I doubt it.

It was more informative, perhaps, to draw character studies rather than statistics. There was the family of five from Moldova who were presented with their Certificates together; I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d fled in unison and successfully applied for asylum. There was the ageing Irishman wearing an American lapel pin, surrounded by younger family members waving small American flags. There was the Albanian who brought his own children forward, in arms, to receive his Certificate, and paused longer for his picture with a more genuinely beatific smile than almost anyone else: what did this moment mean for him, I wondered, and what had he been through to reach it?

We had been instructed to dress in “proper attire,” and I wore my best clothes. Others decided not to bother, but again, it was ridiculous to try and reach conclusions. Should we frown on the Bangladeshi youth who showed up in jeans and work jacket? Or, instead, on the middle-aged British woman who wore a shabby raincoat in the court-room and scurried up and down the aisle, maybe the only person amongst us not to have someone take her photo, as if acutely embarrassed to be part of the whole occasion?

Does it matter? We all became Americans on Thursday and we all handled it with the personal freedom that comes with that Citizenship. Despite the emotional moment when we stood to take the oath of allegiance, it was far from a pompous occasion. In fact, the whole event had the celebratory feeling of a wedding, right down to the photocopied program and Judge Khan’s witty and poignant remarks. He told us how much the Court staff look forward to this monthly occasion, when they can gaze out on a room full of smiling faces, as opposed to the usual frowns and fears of that day’s defendants. He encouraged us all to take as many photos as we wanted, though cameras are typically, strictly forbidden, and he and Congressman McNulty stayed around afterwards for further photo ops. He told us the story of his own father’s immigration, from the Ukraine in 1905 – penniless, but of course, chasing that distant American dream, and how could he possibly have dreamed then that his own son would one day rise to be a Judge in the State Capitol? – and when he presented the Certificates, he made a very big point of announcing everyone’s home country. (I presume Judge Khan was happy to have a Ukranian amongst us.) This was, as it turned out, as much a celebration of our origins as it was our destination, and though I handed in my Green Card to the Court Clerk, I got to keep my British passport: becoming an American does not mean renouncing one’s roots.

The Capital Book Store in Albany in all its disheveled glory.

On leaving the Courthouse, I chose to wonder down Broadway a while. I was rapidly waylaid by the Capital Book Store, with its overflowing charms. Inside I made the acquaintance of the proprietor Kenneth, who has owned the store some forty-odd years, and still remembers the first book he read, at age three. He lives to love his books, spends most of his days moving them around the store, bringing in some from the basement, or from storage, churning them around so that regular visitors always find something new. His is a bookstore right out of the movies: there were tens of thousands of books literally falling off the shelves and propped up on the floors – and that’s not counting the vast collections of magazines, records and pamphlets. It’s the kind of place you could spend a whole day just perusing through written history. Me, I went little further than the first aisle before I spied something I knew I needed to buy: the Pocket History of the United States, a first edition paperback from 1942 that cost me just $8. It seemed pertinent. No, it seemed necessary. I had been given three copies of the Constitution and one Declaration of Independence, courtesy of various Government branches, over the last few months: the least I could do was give an independent businessman a few dollars for a pocket history of the country I can now call home.

In taking the book to bed at night, I grasped that it was probably a selective, jingoistic history, written during a time of war. But still, this sentence, delivered in the opening paragraph of its preface, bears quotation:

“Notwithstanding its youth, (the USA) is today the oldest republic and the oldest democracy and lives under the oldest written constitution in the world.”

Naturally, by the time I left the store, I’d picked up a few more books – an old paperback about wine, a Herman Hesse novel, a Jules Verne book for Campbell. I left the eastern philosophy, the Ayn Rand novels, the studies of pornography, the creaking hardback history books, the pulp fiction and the Guide to Kissing pamphlet from the fifties for another day, and another visit. But standing in that store and marveling at the wonder of the written word, its ability to inspire, instigate, inflame and inform, I certainly felt compelled to re-read from my booklets, and type out now, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of Grievances.”

Many other nations – most other nations – offer no such written guarantees of freedom. And that’s just one of the many reasons this remains a country worth believing in – all the more so in these difficult times. Our current Administration does not have the right – quite literally, it does not have the right – to take those freedoms away. As a legal American resident, I have long exercised those freedoms in writing and in person. And as a new American citizen, I especially look forward to doing so at the ballot box. In the words of Burning Man: welcome home.

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