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Identity has become very prominent in American culture in recent years. What you look like; where you come from; how much you earn and how you talk, are the superficial indices that many use to peg you into one group or another. What is being lost is an appreciation of a deeper identity; one that manifests itself through a person’s character.
There is an American identity, derived from the positive experience of our nation, and best exemplified by men like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It is transcendent in human experience, but completely human in its aspiration. People not born here can claim it. Many foreign born manifest it better than native born. It is the composite effect of five very specific values, which combine in a very unique way to create the American character.
The first is individuality, the recognition that humans have separate identities from their external appearances. It is opposed to individualism, which is a personal identity that excludes others, and collectivism, which is mass consciousness, where everyone thinks and acts the same.
The second is “resistant cooperation,”a term coined by Wynton Marsalis to describe jazz. It is the willingness to solve the problems of living, with people we may not particularly like. It supports the art of compromise, which is the activating principle of American life.
Third is freedom. A belief that there are no artificial bounds, that the future, is decided by knowledge and courage, and never by ignorance and fear.
Fourth is stewardship; the exercise of authority and power held in trust, tied to responsibility for others, not entitlement.
Fifth is integrity; living according to a personal standard that one has the courage to proclaim. It is a rejection of hypocrisy and affirms straightforward living. Its value lies in its reliability. People can count on what others say.
These values are held by all people to one degree or another, but all five existing simultaneously, and with equal vigor, is the essence of the American identity. Derived from and reflecting the best of the American experience, these values are the nuts and bolts of a free society. Pursuing them is the noblest of human quests and one that we all should be proud to affirm.