Why would anyone choose to be an American?
Because perception of your country or another country is more important (and always will be) than real facts.
I’m regularly asked by strangers and my Malaysian in-laws, “why don’t you love America? It’s the greatest place in the world!” The belief that any place is better than your own place (company, partner, home, country, etc) is a mix of perception and personal experience. Factual realities have little influence.
‘You are just a hater’
I used to spend long hours explaining how the USA is more like a oligarchy than a democracy (the article linked is a good balanced review of the topic); that social mobility is a joke (includes a comparison and consideration of the influence of perception on views towards social mobility); or that they are much more likely to be murdered in the USA than pretty much anywhere else. I won’t repeat the arguments here (or the counter arguments) as what intrigues me that factual arguments had no impact. I’ve not convinced one person to change their view of the USA. Instead I occasionally convinced them that I “clearly don’t like the USA”. I loved and still do love many of the things the USA represents. Ideals of equal treatment under the law, freedom of expression and the need to be a force for good in the world. These ideals are not unique to the USA. Many countries including my home profess similar ideals. I’ve come to appreciate how much of my perceptions of the USA are shaped by propaganda and idealism.
Steven Pinker said it best in the Blank Slate that Western Democracies have managed to accomplish one thing which is giving people what they want, in the most efficient way at the time. This too could be argued is an accomplishment of propaganda. Countries which ensure that what people precieve and the propaganda remain in sync.
Perception not Facts
I don’t bother mentioning the facts when I talk about citizenship choices any more. I’ve found that the conversation is more enjoyable when I argue a point of perception and encourage self experience. Saying: “Go and see for yourself. Live there. Try to get a job.” Sometimes it turns out they prefer the propaganda of one place to another.
American propaganda via media, TV, Hollywood and corporate branding drives a certain positive/desirable perception of the USA for most people in the USA and for many people in other countries. This emotional perception helps the USA sell lots of stuff. And also convinces everyone that living in the USA must be better than anywhere else.
There are many places in the world where the USA is a dramatically better option (and potentially the difference between life and death) than where they are living presently. I could take a stance that ‘every place has good and bad, get over it’ but logically, preceptively and factually that is not true.
For the 20 odd percent of the world’s population that is globally mobile and does have a choice, perception formed by propaganda is critical. For those with a choice (within America and outside), choosing the USA is emotional and reactive.
Everyone hates a government that is ‘working’
Talking about this reality directly has lead to more interesting conversations. Specifically responding with counter questions like: “Ah, yes. You feel that way because of all the movies you have seen right?” and “do you think USA would have the same challenges with jobs, taxes, rich and poor that your country has?”
One of the best conversations was with a taxi driver in Singapore who insisted that his government was horrible and needed to change everything but the USA was the best place in the world. What changed the tone of the conversation was when I mentioned that “all I did when I was an American was complain about the USA. I sometimes feel that part of being a citizen of a country is having a burden to complain, to find fault and to voice it out. This is the only way we make our countries better.”
Talking with different people from different countries this trend is more clear. The more that people complain about their government, the more engaged they seem and the more effective their government seems to be. Those people with truly ineffective or harmful governments never complain either due to fear or resignation and acceptance. No matter what system, no government functions without critisim. And no matter how perfectly that government makes choices there will be angry detractors who voice it loudly.
Consider that the “best” (providing the best possible outcome to the largest number of stake holders) decision a government can make on any given policy point is unlikely to be the preferred choice by any single group. As giving a group their preferred outcome almost certainly is the worst possible outcome to another group. From this we can assume that the best decision a government can make likely will make every group unhappy. And general discontent but acceptance is maybe a sign of a highly effective government.
This dynamic also increases the incentives for any given government or political party to aggressively use propaganda, media, promotions to try and explain, justify and encourage people to believe in the rightness of the choices.
American Democracy is Terrible
It’s the terrible choice that Americans have made. Surprising as it may be to educated people around the world a large number of educated people in the world (including many in the USA) do not believe that American democracy is the single best political system ever created.
There are many highly educated people who think that democracy is a bad idea in certain situations just like communism is a good system in certain situations.
And there are even educated people who believe that there are better systems than democracy, hybrid systems, and other forms of government that we haven’t "discovered" yet or don’t have the structures to manage.
Churchill made much the same argument from a British standpoint:
‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
And I think that any leader and likely many citizens of communist countries would easily say the same of their governments that it’s the best worst form of Government that they have gotten to so far.
Leading us to the equally shocking conclusion that the educated population of China (or other non American democracy country) has not replaced their government with a democracy because the majority don’t want to. And in many cases the majority are (un)happy enough with the government that they have.
A defective government is still better than nothing
Often anarchists and foreign interventionist forget that in any country, those with power will abuse it to take as much as they can. So the majority has a tricky choice. Do they risk a new form of Government (and the possibly severe harm from the change of that government) that may rebalanced the scales of power and give more or less power to the rich/powerful or do they make do with the balance that they have. And for most people, in most situations, I would argue that they will prefer to keep what they have unless it is so extremely bad that the risk of harm/death is inconsequential to the opportunity of a new government. Or, said another way, that risking a new government is worth it given that things can’t get any worse.
This is the irony to those who desire to be Americans because they precieve the USA as a much better place than where they are —they are equally unwilling or unable to take actions which will change the things they dislike about their present country.
When I was an American, I could have started a company, lobbied, participated, formed action parties, protested (I did attend a few rallies; passively) or even run for government when I didn’t like all the options.
I didn’t do anything. Because my perception was (and still is) that I couldn’t change anything, that the system was morally corrupt and broken. Yet everything that I feel emotionally about the USA, another person could emotionally argue about their own country — no matter what the facts show.
There are a lot of people in the world. A lot of those people have different opinions about lots of different things. Getting even a small minority of those people to agree on basic stuff is almost impossible. If you doubt it, try and convince your child, partner or coworker of something factually correct yet preceptively wrong to them. In these situations, propaganda is a tool to try and achieve the outcomes of a social change without forcing everyone to come to the same understanding.
If you believe it, you need not understand it.
Time helps and hurts. It helps resolve these issues as over time, people do get better. Enough bad examples, enough mistakes, enough injustices and we do change. Anyone who argues otherwise, has an impossible task to explain the successful, explosive growth of humanity over the last 100,000 years.
Time hurts because we don’t see the progress. We see the tragedies. We see millions killed in cold blood. We complain about our governments for the same reasons. It is impossible for us to see (and for the government to guarantee) the result of the trade offs and choices made.
Any choice is an attempt to provide the best options for the majority, with limited impact on the minority over a reasonable time frame. Which takes faith and emotional belief more than facts and figures.
Belief shapes our choices
Some people want to be Americans because they believe, emotionally the propaganda of the USA. They believe that the country will, over time produce the best result for them, eventually.
Some people want to be Chinese, Russian, Indian, South African, Austrialian for the same reason.
I am Singaporean because I believe this too. I believe that my government (mistakes, failures and problems inclusive) has the best chance of figuring out what is needed to make most people better, minimize the impact on the rest. That the government offers a good accountability against the abuses of people with wealth and power and that, over time, the policies will mostly turn out right.
Am I right? I certainly believe in the choice I made.