America: A heritage?

Zach Wiita

I know a girl who turned my entire sense of what being American means on its head with just one word: heritage.

I didn’t get to know this girl well when we first met; she was cast to play a role at a theater where I volunteered, and I never got a strong sense of who she was. Over the years, though, I kept running into her now and then, and, as college guys are wont to do when they meet pretty girls, I ended up adding her on Facebook. And a few weeks ago, as I was sitting at a computer, fighting off some literary panic over what to write about in my first column, I remembered her Facebook page and how she’s currently keeping a blog about living in Europe. In one of her entries, she describes attending Fourth of July celebrations with other Americans and the U.S. ambassador – and declares that she is proud of her heritage. “Ah-ha!” I thought. “A topic!”

I have to admit, her turn of phrase threw me for a loop. If she had been anywhere nearby, I would have been tempted to yell, “Wait! That’s wrong! America isn’t a heritage!” Of course, in plenty of ways, it is. We have our own history, culture and a distinct national identity. Still, something about her word choice bothered me, so I tried to figure out exactly what it was.

“Heritage” is not a word I use to describe America or my sense of patriotism. When I talk about my heritage, I’m not talking about the United States – I’m talking about my ancestors from the old countries. Germany, France, Finland, Ireland, Wales, Scotland – and England. Always England. My great-grandmother, whom I called Ma’am-Ma’am came over from England in the early 1910s when she was a child, and the man her daughter married was also the son of English immigrants. Ma’am-Ma’am raised Gramma, who raised Mom, who raised me, and we still have relatives in England. Even our family stuffing recipe we use every Thanksgiving came with us from England. When I think of “heritage,” I think of Europe and Great Britain – of the peoples we were before we were American.

As I thought about it, it seemed to me that was the source of my cognitive dissonance over my friend’s use of the term “heritage.” I think of myself as an American first, but I also think of myself in terms of the communities in which my family once belonged. To me, America is not a heritage. It’s an ongoing project, a continuing and ever-evolving goal. It’s an aspiration.

To me, America is still new.

I sometimes think that’s the source of political differences between liberals and conservatives in this country. Conservatives pay homage to the past – the American past – and want to make certain that its best aspects are remembered and honored, protected from the threat of frivolous change. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to think of the American past in terms of the failures of the United States to live up to its principles and to think of the future potential of the United States to become a “more perfect Union.” To conservatives, it’s a matter of heritage. To liberals, it’s a matter of promise. Like it says on the tin: “Stay the course” versus “Change we can believe in.”

Of course, that’s a false conflict. You need heritage and change if you’re going to create a functional society – respect for the past and belief in the future. I try to keep that in mind when I write about politics. You’ll find in this column that I’m on the liberal side of most issues. I hope that my columns will be interesting and stir debate, but I also hope they will have something everyone can agree upon most of the time. After all, I was afraid of public writing – but it’s time to embrace that change. www

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at[email protected].