I almost hate to distress our commentariat with the latest piece of stupidity to sully the aether. But I think there’s some value in discussing these matters, if only to discourage, with the prospect of mockery, journalists who are not motivated by more conventional goads such as professionalism, or truth.
Exhibit A: Marathon’s Headline Win Is Empty by Darren Rovell, a CNBC Sports Business Reporter.
The meat of the article is that the Men’s New York City Marathon winner may be the first American to take the prize since 1982, but it’s “not as good as it sounds.” Take it away1, Darren.
Meb Keflezighi, who won yesterday in New York, is technically American by virtue of him becoming a citizen in 1998, but the fact that he’s not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies.
The article goes on to explain how Keflizighi was born in Eritrea, and African runners are so poor that the measly money that one can make as a runner is “a lifetime full of riches”. But how is that relevant to Keflizighi?
He is an American citizen thanks to taking a test and living in our country.
That’s the usual way, yes. There’s an oath, too; some people do care about that. I’m guessing that Rovell isn’t Native American, so I bet he’s descended from similarly technical Americans.
Let’s do a trivial bit of research on the web and clear up a few facts. According to both Wikipedia and Sports Illustrated, Keflezighi came to the United States at the age of 12, and started running in seventh grade (about a year later, I guess). He was naturalized as a US citizen in 1998, when he will have been about 23. So he’s not a product of the African distance-running culture, and as a college graduate (UCLA, 1998), he’s not dependent on his running to fund his third-world life of poverty. Implying otherwise is—to put it mildly—completely incorrect.
Furthermore, the 1982 finisher whom Rovell cites as the previous American winner was Alberto Salazar, who was born in…Cuba.
(We won’t even go into whether Keflezighi got his citizenship as easily as “a ringer who (sic) you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league” gets work. That level of ignorance about the difficulties of the American immigration process is a whole different field of fail.)
Exhibit B: What I got Wrong About Keflezighi, also by Darren Rovell, CNBC Sports Business Reporter.
The non-apology apology.
I said that Keflezighi’s win, the first by an American since 1982, wasn’t as big as it was being made out to be because there was a difference between being an American-born product and being an American citizen. Frankly I didn’t account for the fact that virtually all of Keflezighi’s running experience came as a US citizen. I never said he didn’t deserve to be called American.
Oh. That phrase “technically American” really doesn’t mean “doesn’t deserve to be called American.” I see.
And I’m a Dutchman.
Rovell is on a bit of a cleft stick. He can either say that the use of “technically American” in his original article was correct, and that American citizenship by adoption is second-class citizenship, or he can say that he did no research whatsoever on Meb Keflezighi, and conflated two unrelated English terms to boot.
He declined the racist2 option and went for incompetence:
It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America. So Meb is in fact an American trained athlete and an American citizen and he should be celebrated as the American winner of the NYC Marathon.
<Jon Stewart voice>It turns out? What, was it just revealed, just today, November 3, 2009? Then that Sports Illustrated article that tells the whole story of his childhood was, like, backdated to October of 2005?</Jon Stewart voice>
And then there’s the fact that, to make sense of Rovell’s argument, you have to read “American-trained” for “American-born”, the phrase he uses to differentiate Keflezighi from runners for whom he would “break out [his] red, white and blue.” For a professional writer, conflating two such terms is like a carpenter picking up a screwdriver to pound nails.
The irony is, there is actually a core discussion to be had about American runner training. But it’s covered in the muck of so many assumptions and errors that it’s not worth addressing. That would dignify said muck with too much legitimacy, and its the kind of stuff that damages actual human beings.
The point of all this
It’s useful and necessary to discuss these things, if only to discourage that level of stupidity. But there’s a deeper point than just the question of why this particular man, who has epitomized the American narrative, is being accorded second-class citizen status. Seriously. A man goes from being a refugee from a war-torn country to a college-educated world-class athlete. He demonstrates pride in his American citizenship; most other runners did not wear shirts with USA emblazoned on them. And yet he can’t shake the perception that he’s only “technically American.”
What does that make my children, who are natural born American citizens, but have never lived in the US? What about my cousin, born in El Salvador and adopted at 12 by my uncle when he married her mother? What will it make my niece, when my brother and his wife bring her back from China in three weeks? What does that make the members of our community who have chosen their citizenships, taken tests and oaths?
I get it all the time, as an expat; people want to lessen and belittle my Americanness when they disagree with my opinions. Leaving the US is apparently very unpatriotic; learning about other cultures is suspect, and moving abroad all but treason3. (And taking a second citizenship? Dear Lord, the reactions.) I recall one conversation where I only salvaged my right to an opinion on matters American by mentioning that I am required to file tax returns.
There are similar discussions in pretty much every nation on earth, of course. This deep question of identity is not specific to the United States. Europeans have been wrestling with it since the Moorish Conquest. The rise of the British National Party in the UK is symptomatic of England’s ongoing struggle to see even the Scots as fellow countrymen.
But the matter at hand is the American identity, and I’m relieved to report that the majority of the comments on both of those posts agree that Rovell failed this impromptu civics test. That, at least, restores some of my faith in my fellow Americans, technical and otherwise.