We Are Americans First (and fish second)

The society convened for the fifth time this semester and for the annual Hamilton Alumni Debate, Resolved: We are Americans first.

The Philodemic was happy to welcome back many of the Society’s alumni, including the presiding Chancellor Randy Drew and four keynote speakers. Affirming the resolution were Mr. Will Downes and Chancellor Joe Sempolinski. Keynoting on the negation were Mr. Matthew Hipple and Ms. Emma Green

Chancellor Sempolinski began his opening keynote speech by preemptively defending himself from the plethora of ways in which American citizens are divided politically, ethnically, and culturally, to name a few. “What unites us is greater than what divides us, being that we are Americans.” The commonality to both sides of any political debate is a desire to interpret basic American values to the best of one’s ability. Our status as Americans in fact molds how we view the “other” and allows us to see the beauty and value of diversity. Ms. Green offered a framework under which to evaluate the potency of a given identity: what should your decision making apparatus be guided by? Ms. Green responded to this question: “(This apparatus) should not, first and foremost, an identity forged in the context of a politically constructed nation-state but rather our understanding of oursleves as human beings.” Such an understanding of our universal common denominator fuels global empathy and attention to pressing global issues, such as global warming. Chauvanism precludes universal empathy.

Mr. Downes contested that the United States is, in fact, unique in that it does not require abandonment of one’s other, deviating identities, and yet embraces our equality as transcending diversity. While other countries confront crisis by turning inwards and engaging in sectarian conflict, the United States falls upon a common morality as the thread of our union: “Countries around the world are fracturing because they lack this uniquely American united value system.” Mr. Hipple, adopting an alternative negation framework to that of his co-keynoter, posited that the frontier is the core of our American identity, and its ubiquity can be evaluated in the context of three spheres: “the horizons of our existence, our daily lives, and the future.” In each, Mr. Hipple contented, the U.S. has been turning away from our founding ideals. NASA now looks inward rather than out. Our day-to-day responsibilities are taken away by the government. And we have no regard for future generations, evidenced by the 40.8% of children that are born out of wedlock. “If there’s a unitary ideal that binds us in this day and age, it isn’t American.” 

Mr. Chris DiMisa refuted Mr. Hipple’s assertion that we lack concern for our children by arguing that the reason for vitriolic rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum is a common worry for our future generations, a very American mindset. Mr. Mitchell Tu (SFS ’17) opened with “America is like a toaster: you use it as a tool, but have no attachment to it.” In fact, the founding documents laying out our ideals cause more division than unity. Ms. Sarah Olson asked the Society where our obligations lie, asserting that our country prioritizes what we stand for. _________ began his speech in Spanish. “Algún día ustedes van a olvidarse de sus identidades Americanas.” He continued on to argue that to speak of American identity is to forget where each of our origins lie. Ms. Amanda Wynter argued that it is precisely the tension of our differences that molds our American identity. “As a half Panamanian, half Jamaican woman studying the postulations of old white men… I exist in this complexity because I am an American.” America, Ms. Wynter argued, is the acceptance and embrace of differences within a common context.

 Ms. Madeleine Ringwald contested that if it is not a document declaring citizenship but indeed our differences and simultaneous agreement on certain ideals such as liberty and human rights that make us American, then we ought to consider all those around the globe who support such ideals to be Americans as well. Chancellor Jonathan Deutsch argued that the nation is distinct from the state. “We are a nation not defined by anything other than: all men are created equal, and they all deserve a chance.” Chancellor Deutsch asked the negation to identify what part of being American is incompatible with some essential part of our identity. Mr. Alden Fletcher (SFS ’17) argued that the spirit of the resolution itself is divisive, and wrongly so. “We must all come together as multiple nations in the face of global problems, because borders are just lines in the sand.” Mr. Reza Jan contended that the cause one would die for is where their identity primarily lies. “Here, in the U.S., people fight and die not for God or for a town but for a construct built by someone who, 200 years ago, drew a line in the sand and said ‘This is my line. Don’t you dare cross it.’ “

Mr. Jordon Nardino argued that it is not our American identity, nor religion, nor ethnicity nor the multitude of suggestions offered by both sides that construct our primary identity but rather socioeconomic class. “Wealth pulls people together to sit at the cool kids table much more than Americans sitting with Americans.” Mr. Sam Kim (SFS ’17) urged the Society to shift rhetoric about the concept of ‘American identity’ from nationalist to positively patriotic. Mr. Kim quoted Carl Schurz: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” President Peter Prindiville offered a paradigm under which to evaluate the resolution: when making decisions, which identity do we pull from the most? and argued that we pull more from religious or moral identities than our national one. Mr. Warren Wilson argued that we can be defined by both the particular and universal traits outlined by the negative side and still primarily be defined as Americans. “It is because our Americanism grounds both our individual traits and the fundamentals of our humanity that the affirmation wins.” 

Mr. Nick Greenough asserted that the lack thus far in the debate of an agreed upon definition of “American” precluded the affirmation from winning. “A very American trait is strong disapproval of other people’s interpretation of what it means to be American.” Ms. Julia Christensen argued that our tendency to unite in the face of national tragedy to a higher degree than we do in the face of global tragedy indicates that we first and foremost identify as Americans. Mr. Nicholas Meyers postulated that the United States by its nature negates the resolution. As a country built upon ascriptive membership, America is unable to persecute on the basis of religion or ethnicity. “We must negate, and perhaps for the better.” Mr. Taylor Willis argued that choosing your identity in fact makes it a more potent identity. 

Mr. Alex Hendersen compared the Philodemic itself to a song capable of overcoming suffering and pain innate to the human experience, an example of the love that transcends national identity and reaches our core condition as human beings. Ms. Anna Hernick argued that all it takes is a momentary broach of our day-to-day “American bubble” to make us realize how dearly we identify with the United States and with the American ideal.

Upon return to the keynote speakers, Mr. Hipple immediately clarified that we, laymen, cannot claim the sacrifices of our armed services as our own, especially not as evidence of patriotism. Further, our lawmakers no longer look at the Consutition but lie in the hands of interest groups. Modern-day government fuels a sense of entitlement. “You need to think, in every decision you make, how your actions affect other people: if you don’t, you aren’t American.” We no longer live by American ideals. Mr. Downes categorized Mr. Hipple’s argument as traditional American catastrophization: from Socrates to John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, “Declinism, ladies and gentlemen, is as American as apple pie.” Moral and political panic are borne of a very deeply American longing for rootedness in an ideal. We are like fish that don’t know they’re wet until someone pulls them from the fishbowl: our values as Americans are so entrenched in our lives that it seems tautological to acknowledge them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t identify with them.

Ms. Green argued that the “first principle” is nearly impossible to sift out, pointing out that all of the aforementioned “American values” actually derive from Locke’s second treatise on government. So who is to say where the line is drawn between American ideals and humanitarian ones? The changing world necessitates that we find commonality with and empathy for people we never have before. “Knowing that liberates us to try to build a better world moving forward.” Chancellor Sempolinski asked the Society what makes one American. America is not the United States but rather an ideal that we strive to make the United States more like. The Chancellor dispelled the notion that your primary decision making metric is your primary identity, noting that while insignificant day-to-day decisions need no consideration of your status as an American, “It’s about whether you make the hardest decisions while considering your identity as an American.” Alluding to the frequently used fish metaphor, he asked, “How do you know what your fishiness means unless you leave your bowl?” Finally, Chancellor Sempolinski emphasized how accessible America as an ideal is. “If you believe what we believe, you’re part of us.”

The society voted 24 – 4 – 24. Chancellor Drew broke the tie and affirmed the resolution, leaving the final vote 25 – 4 – 24 to affirm.


Madeleine M. Ringwald

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