American in Waiting: The Disconnect Between the Definition and the Doing

By Henry Smart, III

At some point in your life, you may have been asked–What does it mean to be an American? Maybe it was posed during a civics class in middle school or at work. No matter when you were asked, you were probably able to produce a plausible response. However, during a crisis, do you forego the canned response–the typical reply laced with patriotic overture–and is your definition of the American represented in the collective public response to a crisis?

What has been our administrative and policy response to the current Ebola outbreak, and are these responses in alignment with how we see ourselves as Americans?

Smart oct 30With the looming issues surrounding the Ebola outbreak, I decided to poll people within my social network to see if their definition of being an American is reflective of our society’s management of the outbreak. I took to Facebook and LinkedIn and posed a basic question to my social network in the following manner: Post one sentence stating what it means to be an American, to you.

Under the assumption that we are one nation, I took the liberty to compile the responses into a collective definition:

It means freedom…Choices and the ability to fight for and defend your choice…It means everything, because I am a citizen of a great country that allows freedom and opportunities…Freedom of speech, and very few restrictions on traveling to other countries...Not being afraid to stand up for what you believe in…Not being faulted for going against the grain…Having to face the realization that this nation isn’t the “super power” it was once deemed…If I am not white, male and/or heterosexual, [then] my life is of very little significance.”

This collective definition starts out in the tone we typically expect to hear and it ends with a tone that is extremely different. This spectrum forms the framework for an ongoing discussion I hope to have with fellow public administrators, academics and anyone else that might be interested in being American, and more importantly doing American.

What I mean by doing American refers to the shift from a collective definition to the formulation of policies and practices. Taking much liberty with the collective definition, I offer the following observations:

  • On the Issue of Freedom – On Oct. 24, 2014, Kaci Hickox, a nurse who dedicated her time to helping Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, was placed in quarantine without a proper medical evaluation. Is it good policy to sacrifice an individual’s freedom in order to protect others? It depends. The issue in this case may not be the policy per se, but rather the associated practices. Did we verify the nurse’s fever before taking further action?
  • Freedom to Travel – In our discourse pertaining to Ebola, we have entertained the idea of implementing a travel ban to countries in West Africa. If we uphold the collective definition, the notion of travel bans would violate how we [Americans] define ourselves and/or encourage a temporary adjustment to the definition.
  • Not Being Faulted for Going against the Grain – How many of us would dedicate our time and resources to caring for Ebola patients in another country? It is safe to assume that many of us would find something else to occupy our time. However, Nurse Hickox went against the grain, and her act of courage and compassion was met with an unsupported limitation.

Our administrative and policy responses to the Ebola outbreak may not represent how we see ourselves as Americans. This disconnect between the collective definition of American and the doing is an opportunity for policymakers and public administrators to focus on the empirical, not the hysterical. Policies and practices based on kneejerk reactions can only move us further away from how we would like to define ourselves.

Lastly, I thought this response was rather salient and there is a metaphoric tie to the plight of Nurse Hickox:

I am an “American in Waiting” — when you read the constitution it seems to be more inclusive than our actions have allowed it to be….Some say that when the forefathers wrote it they were only thinking about white men…you can’t write a document so important and exclude so many ….so until WE THE PEOPLE includes [everybody]…I’ll wait!

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