“An Idea in Our Minds”: What It Means to Be an American When You Weren’t Born One

September 3, 2021   •   By Andrei Codrescu, Aurelian Craiutu, Costica Bradatan

AURELIAN CRAIUTU: Andrei, in 1993, your movie Road Scholar was released, along with the book of the same title. Toward the end of the movie, you spoke eloquently to a group of “new Americans” at a naturalization ceremony about what it means to be an American. You said: “America is an idea in our minds. Every generation of new immigrants remakes America in the shape of what they imagine it to be. Now it’s your turn.” This was almost 30 years ago. We live in a different America now, one defined by hyper-polarization, anger, and mistrust. Or rather, we seem to live in different Americas: a red America and a blue one, an America where 2+2 makes 4 and another one where 2+2 sometimes adds up to 5. Truth seems to be negotiable now, and facts are politically charged. What would you say today to the “new Americans” gathered at a naturalization ceremony?


ANDREI CODRESCU: Today, I would sound cautionary notes: “You can remake America in the shape of what you want it to be, provided you leave your tribal resentments behind you, and watch your back.” At that time, I couldn’t see how previous generations of immigrants might not be exactly thrilled by newcomers. In 1991, the future looked rosy. The Iron Curtain was down. Fukuyama hadn’t yet postponed the “end of history.” The war in Yugoslavia had not yet happened. The Twin Towers were still in place. The new Americans I was addressing were surely optimists by default about “the new world order.” I was an optimist myself, and I didn’t want to kill the buzz. But if anyone in that audience thought that I was giving them license to remake America into a better Egypt, or Sudan, or Vietnam, they were dead wrong. I hoped that most of them wanted to eat all they could, and be left alone without a knock at the door in the middle of the night.


If I had told them then what I think I know now, I would have added that first-generation immigrants are sacrificial, and that only their children might do well enough to resent the next wave of immigrants. Americans are a layered cake of resentments of others, kept together only by the Constitution and the progressive laws that keep forbidding open warfare. Imagination is a luxury. At the time, I was probably more ignorant than most of them about American history. Still, naïveté, ignorance, and optimism do in fact tend in time toward a progressive ideal.


To your point about truth being negotiable and facts being politically charged, I think that we are now at the polar opposite of that moment in 1991. Not because “truth” and the “political” were less charged, but because they were charged with a different energy. The optimism of 1991 was caused by the (seeming) collapse of communism (a suicide, in my opinion), when the United States was the only superpower. I imagine the Roman Empire feeling that way around the time Augustus exiled Ovid to Tomis.


COSTICA BRADATAN: I find your distinction between the immigrants’ idealistic motivation (some hyperbolic, vaguely mythical imagining of the country, which pulls them to it irresistibly, and in ways they are not always fully aware of), on the one hand, and a very real, sometimes prosaic reason to immigrate (imminent danger and hunger, or even just plain greed), on the other hand, to be an important one. It’s worth dwelling on it for a while. For what is fascinating here is that both motivations can be present in the same person, at the same time: one can be, simultaneously, idealistic and utterly prosaic, a big soul and an even bigger scoundrel. But that, in a certain sense, is a reflection of America itself, isn’t it? With its breathtaking mixture of high and low, generosity and pettiness, refinement and kitsch, obscene wealth and even more obscene poverty, and so on. “A country of extremes,” as the cliché goes.


The gap between the two extremes is enormous in America, unlike other, more “egalitarian” places. That comes with its problems, of course, but at the same time it creates an ample space of self-realization and failure, whatever they mean to different people. And, implicitly, that gives birth to an extraordinary social and political dynamism.


ANDREI: When I gave that little pep talk, I remember distinctly two waves of unease: one from the audience in front, and the other from the Immigration and Naturalization Service officials behind me. The would-be Americans were from everywhere: Somalia, Israel, Romania, Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Mexico, Tunisia, Egypt. There were veiled women, turbaned men, people wearing all kinds of tribal identification. I said “what you imagine it to be,” thinking of how my grandmother imagined America: “In America, dogs walk around with pretzels on their tails.” This was the idealized picture of America I was sure everyone had. That image would have been in addition — or prior — to whatever real cause had made them immigrate: political persecution, hunger, fear, or just about any reason for getting away from wherever they were born. This idealized America may have preceded their adult identifications, or it may have come from daydreaming of escape. I meant that they could realize that idealized image, not the realities that they were sure to encounter.


The unease of the immigration officials behind me came from knowing that this rosy image was a bunch of hooey. These were people who had investigated many applications for asylum, had offered a two-year period of conditional residence in the form of green cards, and had FBI files on everyone. They had pored over the questionnaire that at the time of my arrival in 1966 asked: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” A question now replaced by, I think, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization?” On the other hand, they were trusting enough to let me make a speech to new immigrants. Some of the post–Cold War optimism floated around them, too. Today, they wouldn’t dream of it.


AURELIAN: Both of you mentioned the diversity of America, from the diversity of landscapes, faces, and skin color to that of wealth and education. Costica also pointed to the diversity of motivations for wanting to become a naturalized American citizen. This diversity is indeed central to the American way of life. A related issue which appears clearly in Road Scholar and fascinates me is marginality. Lots of marginal people make an appearance in the movie, and they are memorable. The group of Haitians, for example, dwelling in an abandoned building in New York, who believe that, in the words of one of them, “You got certainly more freedom in this place than you don’t have anywhere else.” Or the hippies in Santa Fe, seeking to live freely and authentically by rejecting the straitjacket of their bourgeois community. Marginal are also the members of the Bruderhof utopian community, in Upstate New York, who seek fraternity, peace, and harmony in God by rejecting private property and limiting the freedom to choose. Marginal are the family friends of the prisoners in Camden, New Jersey, who do not fail to note the irony of the jail’s location just across from Walt Whitman’s house, the poet of American freedom. One could also add the Romanian exiles dining at Sammy’s restaurant in New York, where they indulge in huge steaks to compensate for the meat-free diet imposed by the Romanian communist regime they had fled. All these people, for all their differences, are marginal in their own odd but charming way. Andrei, I suspect you wanted to present them as integral — I am almost tempted to say central — to the American spirit. If so, I wonder what this tells us about our singular country, where, to quote Stendhal, “human beings are moved only by three ideas: money, liberty, and God”?


ANDREI: I agree with Stendhal, but those three ideas spawn different Americas, overtly in outright conflict, covertly in collusion. When the producer originally called, he wanted to make a documentary about Route 66 and its kitschy attractions. Before the interstate highways, Route 66 was how motoring Americans traveled the continent from the East to the West coasts, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1991, this was a dying road, punctuated here and there by once-thriving exotica: the world’s largest ketchup bottle, largest totem pole, Cadillac Ranch, and the motels where Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert hid with Lolita. Meant to entertain middle-class families on their first long driving vacations, these surreal attractions celebrated the affluence of postwar America with images manufactured from prewar movies and comic books, giving the illusion of a gentler, older time. And the Route wasn’t welcoming to Black Americans, to say the least. “Diversity” mostly meant exotica, babies with two-heads, dinosaurs, strongmen (sometimes Africans).


I sabotaged the producer’s faux nostalgia for Route 66. I redrew the map to include the “marginals” you mention. There are obvious ironies here: the money and liberty of America made these “marginals” possible. Many of them (the Bruderhof, the mystics of Santa Fe) needed God to prove that they were right. Others, like the science-based Biosphere 2 in Arizona, looked to an extraterrestrial utopia. The American trinity (money, liberty, God) made these margins possible until some of them (Biosphere 2) moved slightly toward the center, while others went the way of most utopias, to senescence and irrelevance. In 1991, they were all laboratories, clinical trials.


COSTICA: I am not surprised that you, Andrei, felt an impulse to explore the marginal condition. As an immigrant and, therefore, marginal yourself, you experienced a natural attraction toward America’s marginals. That points to an interesting situation. Every single human society generates its forms of marginality. But America’s relationship with marginals goes much deeper, I think. Since its inception this country has never ceased to absorb them. Religious marginals from Europe played an important part in the foundation of the first colonies. Later on, if a social, ethnic, religious, or racial group in some part of the world — Irish peasants, poor Southern Italians, persecuted Jews from Russia and elsewhere, people from war-torn regions in Africa and Asia — had a chance to escape their predicament, they would come here. If you were well off, socially and economically, if you belonged to the mainstream religion or the dominant race, you had no reason to emigrate. As a result, you have generations of marginals settling down and growing roots — layers upon layers of marginality. It’s in America’s DNA. Marginals not only built America but are its very building blocks.


In the long run, that makes for a fascinating collective psyche, and may explain much of what is going on in the country politically, socially, culturally, intellectually. I personally find it to be a great irony that a country with such a history, and such a psychological makeup, has come to play the role of “superpower,” or indeed “the only superpower.” There is certainly an element of revenge here, if a largely unconscious one, but this may also explain some of America’s insecurity and indecision when it comes to international relations and asserting itself in the world.


ANDREI: I wasn’t “marginal” to the communities I visited. I was in fact an invader from the “center,” with my TV crew, cameras, part of what they despised about America, the relentless hucksterism. The reason they let me inside at all was because in my commentaries on national media I defended “immigrants,” “difference,” “the counterculture,” “art,” etc. They were fooled by my “content,” though not entirely. The Sikhs in New Mexico refused to let our cameras in certain areas, and some people, like the “lowriders” near Albuquerque, didn’t even show up for prearranged appointments.


I would use the word “marginal” provisionally, to describe people who have deliberately stayed outside the mainstream of “money,” “God,” and maybe even “liberty,” because they prioritize different values. They were central to themselves, but marginal to my project. Their marginalities were, in fact, so different, that without laws and distance, they would have gone to war with each other. To themselves they were central and had the luxury of space and isolation. In this sense, they were more central to American idealism than I was.


You make a fascinating point about the marginals having become the DNA of America, and then returning to the world they left behind as a “superpower.” You note a possible “element of revenge” in America’s superpower status. There is a Freudian “return of the repressed” sense about this and, no doubt, something Hegelian or Jungian too. I mean, where were the centers of the societies the immigrants fled from? For many, it was the church, the army, and the state, each one with varying powers of exclusion and terror. The imagined country I was prompting the “new Americans” to “make America” into could be no more than an alternative to those old “centers.” Or, in a wider view, one might say that the center of all the cultures they abandoned was War. If the “marginals” were running away from War, what is the repressed “revenge” at the center of the American superpower? Is it the post–Cold War sense that America, now the world’s super-policeman, is going to ensure world peace? So far, America has military supremacy on earth and in space, but I doubt that the imagination of “marginals” envisioned space wars and weaponized biospheres.


There are violent paradoxes at work here: how do “center” and “margin” apply now, in the post-pandemic ’20s of the 21st century? The “inside” and “outside,” as I used them in my book, The Disappearance of the Outside, are fragile metaphors for our present. Maybe if we substitute “money, God, and liberty” with “community, nonviolence, and rewilding,” we can still redeem the “marginal” vision of the ideal superpower. A religious group like the Bruderhof has a few thousand followers, and the Mormon Church has millions, but these “marginals” may be more aligned with the original Americans described by Alexis de Tocqueville than with today’s techno-hypnotized zombies.


I think that America’s DNA is only partly an amalgam of “differences” or a move from the margins to the center. America was already a “superpower” when it threatened the world’s traditional values that immigrants escaped from. The world has already, for the most part, shed those values after World War II, becoming in some way “American,” or “hopefully American.” In this sense, the new refugees are only “Americans” trying to return to America. Can places not geographically in the US be “flawed Americas,” from which their inhabitants are trying to escape to get to the mother ship? Like pilgrims going to Jerusalem?


AURELIAN: I wonder about Andrei’s claim that America is a superpower because it “threatened the world’s traditional values.” An interesting detail from Road Scholar might help us think further about this point. I have in mind here the dialogue with Nguyen Qui Duc, the radio commentator, and his father, who had spent 12 years in a North Vietnamese prison prior to coming to the US. While the father feels comfortable in America, which offered him freedom, something he was deprived of in communist Vietnam, the son, who grew up in America, is ready to go back to Vietnam “tomorrow.” As he puts it, he wants to return there to be with friends, to share his fears and joys with them. He doesn’t feel rooted in the soil of the New World, where he arrived in 1975. For Nguyen, being part of a real community can only happen in Vietnam, where his real, spiritual roots seem to be. He returned there in 2006.


This is more than a conflict between generations; it is about fundamental values. Here we have a clear contrast between roots and belonging, on the one hand, and freedom, on the other hand. And it is presented as if one must choose one or the other to stay alive. But must that really be so? Having lived in communist Romania, I sympathize with the attitude of the father who is quite happy to be able to think and move freely in America. That freedom is real (not formal) for him, and he values it highly. At the same time, I also have sympathy for the son’s longing for roots and genuine friendships, although I would be curious to find out what Nguyen thinks today about his decision to return to Vietnam 15 years ago. I wonder what you make of this. Might it be possible to say that, when true to its spirit, America can offer both freedom and roots? And it is this capacity that constitutes its charm, originality, and, shall we say, “greatness”?


ANDREI: I sent Nguyen Qui Duc — or Duc Nguyen — your question, Aurelian. Now a retired radio personality in Hanoi, Duc kindly answered. With his permission, here are some excerpts:


It’s been eight years since I made a trip to the US. I moved to Vietnam in 2006 and have been in Hanoi since. I am doing well, although COVID is distancing and making life so uncertain. So, to your friend’s comment. It gets complicated as time goes on, and I rethink my decision and path often. Your friend is quite right in separating the issues according to certain values: freedom of thought and action vs. cultural bonds and necessities.


I know immigrants and Vietnamese who have successfully built a life in America and enjoy their lives there. I came alone, never felt at home, and without being a businessperson, an engineer, or a person who can easily build a career in America, I never developed a sense of comfort there. I appreciate what I was able to do in America, my media career, the help along the way, and the friendships with people like you and Davia Nelson. I was lucky to have had that community, but in America, that community was rare, it demanded that I be different than who I felt I was, or at least it was satisfied with just a part of me.


Over the years I’ve come to understand some points I’m hoping now to summarize here:


I always make a distinction between voluntary and involuntary exile. All through my youth and later years, I felt forced into exile. Others, including my father, also felt that forcible departure, but in exchange, received a freedom that had been desperately absent for him in Vietnam. Others choose to live in their new country, they think of it as a rebirth — something I could never accept. Many immigrants leave, wanting a better life. They also want to return at some point, but rarely do.


My sense of community in America came from immigrants or people who felt a sense of alienation from mainstream life. I appreciated some of the opportunities, but also faced limitations. I was never completely at ease in America, even when I learned enough to write in English. I felt the new language was something forced on me.


I don’t regret my decision to return to Vietnam: I am more Vietnamese than American, however you define that. But then again, there is a sense of alienation. I don’t think and behave entirely like the Vietnamese, having lived abroad for so long. There’s a new generation whose concerns are understandably different. There’s a sense of history that I find lacking. In addition, what I knew of Vietnam in my childhood, and in the first years when I visited, has changed considerably. There is a Western selfish attitude, an overwhelming concern with money, status, Starbucks, steel and glass high-rises, etc., that I abhorred in America.


I’ve been able to do many things here I couldn’t do in America: support artists, build a gallery, a jazz club, a bar, a restaurant, design houses, etc. Some of this is due to Vietnam being an emerging capitalist economy, where anything goes. Some of this is due to corruption, and a capitalist country under the guise of a communist party that controls power, and wealth. Some of this is hard to live with, but then I have always been attracted to people who struggle.


Finally, there’s always the personal issue. I often feel neither here nor there, an outsider no matter where, but also an insider … I have a bond with Vietnam and can navigate life here, but I always traveled in search of some other self: I see parts of me in Morocco and I keep returning there. Same with Tokyo and Kyoto. I’ll always be a nomad, a traveler. Everything is temporary, nowhere is home, everywhere is home. You and Davia are home — but we’ve haven’t talked in 15 years. Still, I think of you as home.


I am grateful to Duc for bringing an intimate and warm perspective to the questions and paradoxes of exile. He also speaks to the more general condition of exile, that of longing for the place one came from, once the “center” of our life, and of the difficulty of return from what becomes in time another “center.” In the end, time is what conditions all of us. The zeitgeist is not a choice: one is born in a police state, like Duc’s father, where opposition means prison or death, or one is lucky, like Duc and myself, to live in a time offering the luxury of choice. “Should I stay or should I go?” was the song line of our generation. In four decades or less, “no choice” has become “choice.” Objectively, this is progress. Psychologically and spiritually, it may be the reverse. Being forced to take a position in defense of freedom in a dictatorship may be a kind of “noble suffering” that sharpens the senses and gives life meaning, while the freedom of staying or leaving, made possible by the previous generation, may be an acutely felt form of suffering, without being redeemed by the adjective “noble.”


Unlike Duc, I feel that exile is a generous condition. I emigrated from Romania at the age of 19, when adventure is marvelous. I sometimes feel nostalgic for Sibiu, but I would have languished there if I had stayed. Duc and I are the same age. My sympathy is with his father, but I understand Duc as well. In the end, “central” and “marginal” are a matter of perspective and luck. The luck of being born at a certain time in a certain place. America is a dream, but it has a severe ideology as well: money, guns, and religion in exchange for being part of it. But also the choice of dissent.


AURELIAN: I would like to return in the end to a point made in Road Scholar from which we started — that America is an idea in our minds — and link it to the much-discussed concept of the “American Dream,” which is now being questioned. A century and a half ago, the German-born statesman Carl Schurz referred to America, his adoptive country, as “the great representative of the reformatory age, the great champion of the dignity of human nature, the great repository of the last hopes of suffering mankind.” As long as that idea, inseparable from the “American Dream,” remains appealing, the relevance of America in the 21st century will most likely endure. But America, we are (re)discovering today, is not just one story: it is a series of stories, and not all of them are bright. Road Scholar and Tom Zoellner’s recent book, The National Road, made this abundantly clear. When he came here in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville “saw in America more than America.” He perceived in the New World the shape of the new democracy, with all its prejudices and passions. The story he told in Democracy in America, focusing on the equality of conditions, differs in important respects from the image of America offered by, say, the controversial 1619 Project. So what are to make of the “American Dream,” and where can we go from here? Can we still see in America “more than America”?


ANDREI: What is “more than America” is what immigrants brought to this country. We have so far discussed America solely from the point of view of immigrants. Whatever our real motivations, we insist on “the idea of America” and “freedom.” Alexis de Tocqueville was a brilliant tourist who did admire this new democracy, but glimpsed already the conflicts that are now playing out in full. Carl Schurz didn’t “adopt” America — he was an immigrant, part of a wave of German immigrants who were fleeing the European revolutions of 1848, and bringing revolutionary ideas with them. Another refugee of that vintage was Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein, the author of The Mysteries of New Orleans and, like Schurz, the publisher of an abolitionist newspaper. America in the second half of the 19th century was viewed by these immigrants as an unenlightened land of slavery and corruption, a growing empire they set out to reform. Slavery had been abolished in much of Europe, but it continued here, and didn’t end until the Civil War.


The toleration of “differences” depends very much on how dangerous we are to the myths we have ourselves helped to invent. Many 19th-century writers were not fooled by the clichés of politicians looking for votes with rhetoric about “liberty,” “opportunity,” and the “American Dream.” Mark Twain savaged the bluster and lies of the political class. At the same time, America became prosperous, thanks in large part to immigrant workers who labored at first in conditions close to those of slaves. It was a long and arduous journey before the cliches about America’s “land of opportunity” became partially true for some immigrants. In addition to fierce competition for labor, immigrant peasants and workers brought their home countries’ prejudices with them. See Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York for a concise history.


The end of the Cold War was a unique time, when the rhetoric of liberty, as inscribed in the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, was briefly aligned to the common interest. Before that, the needs of labor dictated immigration quotas, and the critical ideas of intellectuals were not looked upon kindly. In fact, intellectuals, not just immigrant ones like us, are not looked upon kindly by politicians and their sponsors. To come full circle then, we are outsiders, or “marginals” whether we like it or not.


On the other hand, we can make the case that America is indeed a land where we are free to talk, and some communities are free to live how they want to, because this place is constituted on the basis of Enlightenment ideas, held together by a battered but still powerful Constitution. “Marginal” ideas are enabled by that foundational document to come closer to the center. But will they displace the other America of unchecked, untaxed capital, neocolonialism, and racism? If America is “more than America” because of our idealistic imagination, there is a lot of work to do yet. The possibility is here, but as you can see on TV every day, so is the angry reaction of the “center” that contains, I’m sorry to say, children of previous generations of immigrants who are ignorant of their own history.


COSTICA: Andrei, Aurelian, on behalf of LARB, I would like to thank you very much for this fine conversation.


¤


Andrei Codrescu is a Romanian-born American poet, novelist, and essayist.


Aurelian Craiutu is professor of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington.


Costica Bradatan is religion editor for Los Angeles Review of Books.