An Immigrant's Case for Patriotism

On this Fourth of July, let's renew our commitment to the American creed.

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By Shay Khatiri

I grew up in Islamist Iran, but I have always been an American at heart. Even in my youth, before I ever stepped foot on American soil, I felt American—because I understood being American not to be a matter of records but a state of heart and mind. To me, it meant adherence to American principles: respect for human dignity, protection of rights and freedoms, and criticism to make the country better. Now, in my adoptive home, I feel more keenly than ever the truth of those early instincts. 

Once a year, the Fourth of July comes to remind all of us of what the immigrant knows: neither the radicalism of America’s experiment nor its beauty has diminished. The Fourth of July is a great time for drinking, barbecuing with friends, and watching fireworks. But it is more, too—or it should be. The Fourth of July is our annual call to renew our commitment to the American creed. That is why, every Fourth of July, I read four short texts to remind myself why I love this imperfect country in the truest sense—with critical love. 

First, I read the Declaration of Independence. It has been said that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” is the most famous sentence in the English language. It enshrined the unrealized promise of equality—that every human is born with equal dignity and deserves the respect of fellow humans—as part of our national identity.

But equality of dignity means more than mere toleration. So the second text I read is George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, with its promise of pluralism: 

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation ... For happily, the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.

How am I to give credence to these extraordinary words of tolerance, written by a man who owned slaves?

Here, Frederick Douglass comes to my aid. To remember the cruelty that burdened America and almost broke its back, the third text I read is Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In the speech, Douglass answers his own question:

[The Fourth is] a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham … a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

We are a better nation because of Douglass’ withering criticisms. His damning condemnation of America is just, but his anger is not at America. Rather, it is at Americans’ failure to live up to their nation’s promise. He concludes:

Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country … [I draw] encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions.

Reading Douglass reminds me that the best argument against injustice is a call to be more American, not less: to appeal to the liberal values of our founding, and to highlight our failure to make them real.

Finally, I turn to Douglass’ only competition for the title of history’s greatest American and the greatest prophet of Americanism: Abraham Lincoln. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln reaffirmed liberty as a foundational element of America and equality of dignity as the country’s mission. But he added, too, a sense of the stakes at play. He ended with a solemn pledge, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The omission of “the” before “government” was deliberate: Lincoln was talking not only about the American government but also about the liberal democratic project. To Lincoln, the collapse of the American republic would have been the end of the experiment of liberal democracy. 

I spent the first two decades of my life in Iran. But Iran, in the vice grip of tyranny, was no home. When I left to live in Hungary, it quickly became clear that my Middle Eastern background meant that I would not find a new life in Europe. This is not the case in America, where our accents and how we look do not make us any less American than one other. Here, the measure of one’s patriotism is one’s dedication to liberty and the American creed. 

Love for America does not mean blindness to its many faults or to its unfulfilled promises. I was mortified by Donald Trump’s ascent, but I am also proud that the same ballot box that brought him to power ousted him from the presidency. I was outraged by the murder of George Floyd, but I fell in love with America all over again when I saw the outrage it generated among my compatriots.

And my American story is not those three times in the past seven years that I was a target of bigotry because of my background or beliefs. Rather, my American story is that it happened only three times—far fewer than in Hungary or in Iran. I arrived in this country with two suitcases and nothing else. Despite the mountain of expectations I had of America, it has not disappointed me. For the first time, life is not so frustrating that it forces me to focus on my wellbeing alone; freedom has brought with it so comfortable a life that I can now care about others.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” I do not love America because it is my country. I adopted America as mine because it is worthy of love. Being American is a constant challenge, exhausting and demanding, yet joyful. That’s how love works.

Shay Khatiri is an editor at Persuasion.