American Born

The term "American-born" for me recalls populist, protectionist slogans like "Buy American," used back in the distant '80s to urge people to support Detroit. As if Americans created within the nation's borders were in some way superior to other kinds of people in general, and other kinds of citizens in particular. There is, of course, an actual legal distinction between naturalized citizens and native-born ones; it has frustrated Governor Schwarzenegger's presidential aspirations. But "American-born" somehow makes me think of the more suspect songs in the Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp repertoire.

The notion of citizenship and its meaning came up over the last couple of days because the #haiti twitter feed has been full of links to this article, wondering why the US media is not up in arms about the staggering statistic that 4,000 Americans are missing in Haiti. This figure is comparable to the total loss of life as a result of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and significantly greater than the total loss of life in the destruction of 9/11. For now I'll leave aside the evident and absurd presumption that lost American lives are worth more than others. The original twitterer expressed his fear that the lack of media coverage "is due to racism." By the time Huffpo ran their story about how little coverage these 4,000 deaths have gotten, Andrew Rasiej had either come up with a few extra possibilities ("Is this being under-reported because it's too painful? Is it because of racism? Is it because of lack of information?") or he was misquoted. Either way, I'm afraid his very first tweet nailed it. Certainly visiting diplomats, aid workers and consultants of various races, holding US passports, were among the victims of the earthquake. But the vast majority of the American dead, I'm afraid, will prove to be those of Haitian origin who had navigated the long and arduous legal quagmire that is the United States' naturalization process, particularly the version of it typically confronted by the dark-skinned and the kreyol-speaking. Others will be the sons and daughters of those immigrants, born in America, but not often considered "American-born." No matter what kind of American you are, being of poor, black, and Caribbean origin still diminishes the meaning of your life, and death.

Then, this morning, in the venerable New York Times, I encountered a usage of the "American-born" term quite different from the one I thought I understood. The Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, a wanted fugitive who has stashed himself somewhere in Yemen, was described in both the first graph and the photo caption as an "American-born cleric." Al-Awlaki was allegedly pally with many nasty and misguided people: three of the 9/11 bombers, murderer and renegade army Major Nidal Malik Hasan and, most recently, underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Someone please help me: what does "American-born" mean in this context? I can't see any good reason why the NYT shouldn't simply use the word "American" here, unless this comes from a secret in-house style-sheet code and is meant to let the cognoscenti know that Al-Awlaki renounced his citizenship. Do they describe all Americans resident in foreign lands as "American-born?" Perhaps. Two weeks ago James Thompson was described as "the American-born author, who lives in Finland." But in the Al-Awlaki case it seems to me to be some sort of patriotic face-saving distancing technique, the other side of the populist coin, as in: he may be American-born, but he's no American.... Help me out here, I'd really like to know.

1 comment:

anthony chase said...

Let's hope your blog reaches the desk of the NYTimes editor responsible, and he answers your 'American born' query