Patriot games

  • Jon Kelly
  • 11 Sep 08, 04:28 AM GMT

OK, so immigration is a serious issue in this election. I knew I needed to speak to someone born abroad about how they went about assimilating - this country having been, essentially, built by huddled masses yearning to be free.

But it was still a bit of a shock when I turned up for BBC World Service debate (which you can listen to here), and, out of the audience, a 86-year-old chap from Wimbledon, south London, with an unadulterated English accent, stood up to tell everyone how proud he was to be an American.

Basil LewisBasil Lewis wouldn't have it otherwise. He still felt affection for Britain, he told me when I caught up with him afterwards. And friends would often ask him how he could square his national identity with his manner of speech.

Yet America has been good to Basil since he left London in 1977 to escape high taxes and a "semi-socialist government". His career as a broker had flourished, his wife loved Los Angeles, and his three sons had become an attorney, a financial consultant and a Hollywood scriptwriter respectively.

"It's not my country right or wrong," he said. "But it's more often right than wrong."

Fiercely critical of illegal entrants to the republic ("my immigration to America was difficult, tortuous - and entirely legal. So I'm totally against them"), Basil must have thought about this more than most, I reasoned.

So what is it, I asked, that made him an American?

He shrugged. "I like the whole concept that everyone is equal. I like the capitalist system," he replied.

I know I'm an outsider. But there's got to be more to it than that, I thought.

Or is there? What do you think?


  • Comment number 1.

    Why should there be more to it than that? Surely that is what has tempted millions to America over the years? It is the American dream isn't it? Anything is possible. Now, whether or not it pans out like that is a different story but the appeal of this simplistic argument is obvious.

  • Comment number 2.

    Many years ago I saw David Susskind (producer of the film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" etc.) host a talk show where he had several guests on -- all European royalty -- to discuss why they loved living in America. I will never forget the response of one woman. She said that when at parties in Europe the first thing she was always asked was "Who are you?" In America, the first question was always "What do you do?" The rest of the guests all agreed that not being judged by their titles or their family connections was the most liberating experience they'd ever known.

    Could it be that an egalitarian society, at least for those who keenly feel the class divide in either direction, is preferable to being locked in the strictures of the status quo back home?

    The notion that you can, and should, pursue your dreams and let nothing stand in your way is very American. As is the idea that we are a nation of laws. In very simple terms Mr. Basil has indeed explained the basic principle behind the desire to immigrate here and the resentment against those who choose to violate the law of the land in order to do it.

  • Comment number 3.

    "I like the whole concept that everyone is equal. I like the capitalist system," he replied.

    That makes about as much sense as asking somebody what they like about a shape and them replying: "I like the fact it's circular. I like its corners."

  • Comment number 4.

    As someone who also left England for America, I have to say my experiences and opinion couldn't be more different, "more right than wrong", I think not. The "American Dream" is now the "American Nightmare" corporations run roughshod over ordinary people, stealing pension funds or benefits after years of service, govts. and politicians elected to benefit themselves and their corporate lackeys, a foreign policy of invade, kill, destroy under the lie of "promoting democracy" while overthrowing or trying to overthrow democratically elected govts. because they don't tow the US corporate line. My disgust came to a head a couple of years ago when I turned in my greencard and moved to Venezuela, now here's a country where you do have personal freedom and where ordinary people have hope, the American dream is still alive but it's here in South America.

  • Comment number 5.


    I wish you would have spoken to a couple of different legal immigrants such as Latino or Asian, to validate Basils comments, I think that you would have gotten variations on the theme.

  • Comment number 6.

    RE: #3

    Actually, I think when he said "I like the capitalist system," he meant the opportunity everyone has to go out, be an entrepreneur, and make fist fulls of cash.

    It is unfortunate that this entry only focuses on one legally immigrated man but there is still plenty of America left to explore.

  • Comment number 7.

    Jon, you are more insightful than you may believe.

    The answer to your question at the end is found in your first paragraph '...huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' (That's the correct quote, by the way.)

    Mr. Lewis saw opportunity here for himself, and more crucially, for his children, that Britain in the 1970's could not offer. He was willing to make the painful sacrifices of legal immigration, and we in America are the beneficiaries of his efforts.

    The constant challenge in American culture is to maintain that freedom under the rule of law, so that all can 'breathe free', and have opportunity available.

  • Comment number 8.

    Sorry, but I'm not sure if I should comment about illegal immigration or the differences between Americans and Europeans. I guess I'll go with the latter.

    I'm an American who has lived in Japan for the past 7 years. Obviously I've learned a lot about Japanese culture, but I've also been able to make friendships with a lot of Europeans. My life has been enriched by my friendships with them, but sometimes I get the feeling that for them life is something that happens, almost as if they go through it with a permanent shrug on their shoulders. It seems like it's harder for them to be inspired than the Americans I know.

    After talking with so many people from all over the world I feel like I should put some kind of disclaimer on this post so people don't think I'm ranking one country over another... I'm just making a point about one thing that I've noticed.

  • Comment number 9.

    European immigration runs smoothly, Asian immigration often runs smoothly, as does some Mediterranean and some from India...
    But Mexican, African, and Middle-Eastern immigration can often become bogged down in endless red tape.

    I'm sure this can't just be about skin color... right?

    Personally, my guess is that it's also about religion and perceived economic value.

    Welcome to the land of Protestant Capitalism. May your travels be both safe and enlightening.

  • Comment number 10.

    The fact that Basil went through the trials he did just to get to the US attests to the probability that he is a very determined, persistent person and that goes far in many places.
    Regarding the US being capitalist - though higher up on the SCALE 'o Capitalism relatively, it is by no means a capitalist system in the pure sense, as so many like to think of it. The last I checked, shamefully high levels of corporate welfare aren't part of sound capitalistic theory. That is just one example.
    People tend to become fixated on capitalism over other important dynamics (perhaps due to it's widespread physical manifestations - the flash and ubiquity of US products globally?). Capitalism in the US is supposed to work in tandem with (or should i say subject to?) what I believe are concepts that are even more core to an admirable nation, civil liberties and a formal separation of powers utilizing a system of checks and balances. Immigrant or native, those concepts in practice are what can make the US a great place to be. Being able to make a buck should be a nice after-effect.

  • Comment number 11.

    What I don’t understand is how people in this country are quick to label others as immigrants when we all in some way or form immigrated to this country. In my opinion, we are all immigrants. The only real Americans are the so called “American Indians”. Why are they called American Indians when they are actually the real Americans? They were here before Columbus “discovered” this country. We have all these different labels, such as African American, Indian American, and Hispanic American, but you don’t hear so much about European American. Why? This country was built by immigrants and it is still being enriched by newly immigrated Americans. Once you have lived and embraced the American culture, you are an American. I have no problem with a person having an accent due to the fact that they came from another country and they still have a little bit of the culture that they grew up with. No matter how thick your accent is, or how broken your English is as long as you embrace the American culture no one should question your identity as an American.

  • Comment number 12.

    There is more to it than that. Or at least there was prior to the non-election of 2000.

    While the "capitalism" thing is mainly conceit -- as we are pretty well "socialist," with health care being the glaring, soon-to-be-gone, exception -- the "equal" thing runs well beyond a relation to class. Until this unlawful, rogue regime, there was no organ of gov't that did not -- by design -- carry the indirect "consent of the governed."

    Which is why the failure to impeach these unelected (yes, really) war criminals and the ongoing election crisis are the "real story" of the moment in our once-great nation.

    Want to get beyond the triviality? Have a chat with your BBC colleague Greg Palast for a primer on what's really "deciding" who rules or leads (not both) Americans. Then get some Sherpa-guide assistance from Brad Friedman (, who can provide bus-stop by bus-stop stories on the real battle: between the vote stealers/suppressors and the grassroots electoral reformers.

    Then you might be able to report to the public and the world something they don't already know -- something worth knowing.


  • Comment number 13.

    Good for Basil! This country is built on an idea. We may get it wrong much of the time, but we are constantly experimenting. All of us were immigrants at one point. I want people to come here legally and work to make it.

    we may not all be "equal" in terms of economics, but you have the chance to work with the breaks you get. Sometimes you have to make your breaks.

  • Comment number 14.

    Oi Sgt Seymour:
    "I like the whole concept that everyone is
    equal. I like the capitalist system," ...
    That makes about as much sense as
    asking somebody what they like about a
    shape and them replying: "I like the fact
    it's circular. I like its corners."

    Ah... therein lies the rub, does it not?

    In other news, a local interest story:
    When I was a little girl in Ole Virginny, mah MaMa got us enrolled in the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. But then we realized that the local group was just a socially appropriate front for a bunch of local KKK folks.


    The moral of the story:
    We are all immigrants here in the USA... but some stoopid amerikanners figure that some immigrants are better than others. Silly, ain't it?

    PS: These days, the VA Governor is Democratic rather than GOP. I live in hope...

  • Comment number 15.

    "I like the whole concept that everyone is equal. I like the capitalist system," he replied. "And I can believe that everyone is truly equally able to compete in a capitalist system because I don't believe in cyclical poverty. What's that -- Watts and East L.A.? Bed-Stuy? Appalachia? Never heard of them. Cheerio!"

  • Comment number 16.

    Is your question, "Is there more to choosing to be an American than that everyone is equal and that the capitalist system is good"? Certainly - I am sure that you would get many different answers if you asked different people. I am originally from the UK but lived in the US for a total of 10 years before to moving on to Hong Kong. I had many friends who moved to the US who stayed and some who left. One statistic I heard was that of the people who immigrate to the US, one third will still leave at some point.

    Personally I love the positive attitude of America. "If you want to do it, then go for it". "If your life isn't good, then fix it". This contrasts a lot with the weary or cynical attitude to life that one often sees in the UK, and I really appreciated it, once I got over my smug dismissal of people's ability to get excited without a long warm-up period! Having said that, just as in the UK, there are groups of people who do not see any hope of advancing in life, but it feels as though there are less. Perhaps I just was limited in my contacts, although I did spend time with the homeless as well as professionals, and (provided they weren't mentally ill), they could be very positive and friendly.

    So, would I have been happy to settle and to become a citizen, and put an end to my "taxation without representation"? Yes - but I see it as being a full participant, rather than as a process of being proud (which always worries me). I do love America, well, much of it, anyway - the amazing open spaces, the vibrant cities with their great mix of cultures, the willingness to volunteer to help others, the positive outlook on life, and some great friends that I don't contact nearly enough!

  • Comment number 17.

    Sounds like you found some real Americans in your visits to small towns. You would have a very different perspective had you chosen large cities. Glad your experience was not only worth reporting, but gives us who sometime get somewhat afar from the pulse of this nation a breath of fresh air to learn it's still out there if we want to take the time to look. Thanks for sharing it.


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