America, know there are countless people in the world who would gladly trade places with you.”
“I chose to be an American. What did you ever do, except for having been born?” —Ayn Rand
I was born under the flag of the People’s Republic of China, a country that remains under the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party to this day. I have very few memories of my early childhood in mainland China, save for a visit to the Forbidden City—a brief tourist stop when my family traveled to the American consulate in Beijing to apply for a visa.
While Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms eliminated the worst economic collectivization from the Mao era and gradually opened China to the outside world, political and social freedom were never fully embraced. Nevertheless, the limited opening allowed my family the opportunity to explore options for a better life. In 1993, under the kind sponsorship of an American physician, my mother left for a research position in the United States with less than $200 in her pockets. My father and I followed her a few months later, and, from the moment we landed on American soil, we put down our roots in our new adopted country.
Like the countless waves of other immigrants who came before us, my family and I arrived as strangers in a new land, found freedom and opportunity, gradually assimilated into our adopted country, and eventually worked ourselves into the upper middle class. In a time when vast swaths of the population are losing faith if not outright rejecting American founding principles, history, and institutions, I wish to provide a counternarrative for my fellow citizens and international allies who still believe in the fundamental goodness of this country and its people. Let my family history and personal experiences living in America be that story.
As long as I can remember, I despised those who sought to dominate and coerce others, whether they be the playground bully, a frenzied mob, or a tyrannical government.
My childhood growing up in Ohio was relatively carefree (as long as I met the demanding academic standards set by my parents), and I learned as much as I could about American life. Star Wars: A New Hope was the first movie I can remember watching in English. It left me completely mesmerized with ideals of heroism, adventure, and epic battles between good and evil. As a total bookworm, I made the local library my second home and frequently maxed out the limit of books a kid’s library card could check out. Although I read widely across genres, I especially enjoyed reading about the accomplishments of great individuals. Whether they were mythical heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, the American Founding Fathers, brilliant scientists, trailblazing entrepreneurs, intrepid explorers, or our modern astronauts, I was awestruck by those who left their mark in history. If there was one common theme I learned from my reading, it is that anything is possible for free peoples with free minds and the courage to use their freedom.
There was never a single political awakening moment for me. A nerd at heart, I saw myself in the spirit of freethinking scientists like Richard Feynman, Charles Darwin, and Carl Sagan, all of whom pushed the boundaries of human knowledge, refuted superstition, displaced ignorance, and carried the beacon of the Enlightenment. Long before I ever learned the intricacies of the First Amendment, I treasured the values of free speech, open debate, and unfettered inquiry. (Becoming exposed to South Park in elementary school probably helped. My culturally-ignorant immigrant parents remained blissfully unaware.) I grew up in a world where all ideas—good, bad, and ugly—were freely available (my friends quickly introduced me to those ideas the adults wanted to censor or hide) and where everything was shared nonstop. It was an eye-opening experience for this young Chinese-American boy.
As long as I can remember, I despised those who sought to dominate and coerce others, whether they be the playground bully, a frenzied mob, or a tyrannical government. I knew from the examples of my early heroes that these were the enemies they fought. Even if I had never read a single page of F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for free market economics and conservative–libertarian philosophy, as I did later in life, nothing could have stopped me from becoming a civil libertarian in the mold of Christopher Hitchens, Ira Glasser, and the old-guard ACLU.
As I grew up, my parents gradually revealed more details of their former destitute life in Maoist China, which made me grateful that I never had any experience remotely comparable here in the United States. For my parents—after starting life anew in a foreign country, establishing themselves as respected medical professionals, working their way into the upper middle-class, becoming naturalized citizens, and raising two healthy, successful children (my sister and me)—the American Dream was real as it can be.
My story is an extension of theirs. Many children of first-generation immigrants struggle with reconciling parallel lives in two worlds: the traditions and values from their ancestral homelands versus the liberal culture of America. It was not always easy, but I would like to think I have found the balance over the years. I accepted that my Chinese heritage and upbringing is a fundamental part of who I am, but I also fully embraced my identity as a full-blooded American and the limitless opportunities of this country.
This background, I believe, has provided me a unique perspective on the American political scene.
Although I hesitate to embrace political labels, I consider myself a classical liberal or libertarian and, above all, an individualist. Throughout my life, I never felt that I truly belonged to a single social clique, tribe, or political party. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Kipling was right. Being one’s own man is a very difficult path to walk, but I am proud to say that I have kept my intellectual independence and integrity and still found acceptance and success in my professional and personal life. And this was only possible in the United States of America.
But this kind of freethinking and independence is being threatened by a new form of collectivism represented by social justice ideology, intersectionality, identity politics, critical theory, and postmodernism. Many excellent commentaries have already identified the roots and core beliefs of these ideologies and movements. Their central tenets can be summarized as follows:
- There is no “you” as an individual. Your identity is constructed by race, gender, and class.
- You exist only as part of a collective group. These groups are in zero-sum conflict with each other.
- There is no objective truth, only subjective interpretations and narratives. “Truth” is only a cover that allows dominant groups to exercise power over others.
- Scientific knowledge and even science itself is a social construct.
In sum, this new collectivism rejects the foundational principles of the Enlightenment. It is not surprising, then, that most social justice activists are hostile towards free speech, due process, and the very concept of individual rights—exemplified in our current “cancel culture.”
There is a difference between “cancel culture” and honest criticism. Jonathan Rauch prepared a thoughtful guide distinguishing the two. The latter is about finding truth, moral persuasion, and, most importantly, an attitude of good faith. The former is distinguished by punitiveness and the goal to “make the errant suffer”:
“Canceling…seeks to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents. It is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity and reduce the scope for forms of criticism that are not sanctioned by the prevailing consensus of some local majority.”
As early as 2015, when I first encountered social justice ideology for the first time, I was unnerved by its authoritarian undertones. Knowing the history of modern China and my family’s experiences, it was not the first time I saw the dangers and potential for tyranny when self-righteous egalitarian activists tear down institutions and run roughshod over individuals in the name of the greater good. More often than not, they proved themselves to be nothing more than humanitarians with guillotines. I cannot help but suspect people who cloak their lust for power and domination using the same rhetoric and rationales.
And I am not alone in this. As social justice ideology and its offshoots continue their long march into schools, universities (even STEM fields), corporations, professional societies, and now mainstream American life, I cannot help but notice that people who push back against groupthink and mob rule tend to be first-generation immigrants from former or current communist countries who are familiar with the collectivist tactics and propaganda from their native homelands.
Mobs invaded private neighborhoods and demanded home owners take down their American flags.
While most of this summer’s racial justice protests were peaceful, there were notable cases where activists went too far. Mobs invaded private neighborhoods and demanded home owners take down their American flags. In another high-profile incident, mobs surrounded innocent restaurant patrons and tried to force them to raise their hands in solidarity. However, what disturbed me the most were the ritual self-flagellations. Appalling videos showed white people kneeling to black organizers, confessing to racism, begging for forgiveness, and, in some cases, even washing their feet. Similar behavior was observed in Democratic politicians—despite their actual records—who profess to be sympathetic to racial justice.
Knowing the sorry tales from my own family history, these degrading acts were eerily reminiscent of the struggle sessions from China’s Cultural Revolution. During that decade of nonstop chaos, ideologically-possessed mobs would surround victims and then verbally and physically abuse them (if not killing them outright) until they completely broke down and confessed to imaginary crimes.
These acts to coerce free human beings—to make them believe, say, and do things against their sincere conscience—crossed the line for me. Whether they take place in the United States, China, or any other country, these exercises of raw political power on the unwilling are flat-out wrong, no matter the cause or pretext.
Take it from a first-generation immigrant from a current communist regime: Forcing people to live a lie is a hallmark of tyranny. As a public service to our fellow citizens, immigrants like me have no choice but to speak out when we see the parallels. Free Americans and any self-respecting human being should resist participating in the Great Lie.
Let me be clear: I am not blind or deaf to injustice, which existed historically and continues to exist in this country. There are deep, serious flaws with the American criminal justice system. For far too long, African Americans and other minorities have been denied the full freedoms and privileges that most white Americans enjoy and take for granted. Clark Neily at the Cato Institute had nothing but the harshest words for our present reality:
The United States’ criminal justice system is fundamentally rotten, but the effects of its dysfunction are not felt equally by all Americans. Instead, it is the marginalized and politically disenfranchised who bear the brunt of that injustice, including particularly communities of color. Although both the root causes and the significance of racial disparities in our criminal justice system are debatable, the existence of those disparities is not. And when people perceive—correctly in my judgment—that some lives are counted by the system as less sacred than others, they are going to be angry about it. And they damn well should be.
The killings of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, and too many other black Americans were heinous crimes. I supported (as did the vast majority of Americans across ethnic groups and the political spectrum) the initial protests for accountability and justice.
In the case of George Floyd’s killing, all four officers responsible were quickly fired and charged. Public outcry made an impact and the world witnessed in America that no one was above the law. Under the American political system, We the People are the true sovereigns and can ultimately force the government to deliver accountability and respect and to expand our rights, or dissolve outright. Our track record of success is undeniable.
In a real authoritarian country, none of that would have happened. In China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Cuba, and other tyrannical regimes, agents of the state routinely murder, torture, rape, imprison, and violate human rights with impunity on a mass scale, and there is absolutely no recourse.
That is why comparing America’s ills to any of these is grotesque and factually wrong. For all its flaws, the United States remains a beacon of freedom and hope to the world’s oppressed peoples.
It does not stand for racism and bigotry. And this adopted son of liberty will not give it up to those who do.
We can empathize with those who suffer without being bullied into accepting the sins of others. We can stand against injustice without forsaking independent thinking and personal dignity. We can include historically-marginalized perspectives into curriculums without throwing out the best of Western canon. We can have a nuanced look into our past without being ashamed of our history.
Contrary to the claims of the 1619 Project and other revisionists, the United States was founded in 1776 on individual liberty and unalienable rights, not slavery. The American flag stands for the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It does not stand for racism and bigotry. And this adopted son of liberty will not give it up to those who do.
The fundamental principles of America—embodied in the Declaration of Independence and secured in the Constitution—belong to everyone. The promise and limitless potential of this country also belong to everyone. We will always struggle to live up to our highest ideals as long as flawed human beings continue to exist.
Americans will continue to have heated debates on the continued relevance of those principles, where we fall short, and just about every other issue one can imagine.
But to me, actions speak louder than words. When immigrants risk everything to come to the United States, they do so under the sincere belief that its ideals and promises are real. For my family and me, the American Dream is real. And I know many others share (and will share) this sentiment.
The American Dream will endure as long as we keep alive its fundamental principles and resist the current climate of entitlement, victimhood, and collectivism.
If I could offer some advice to future immigrants and to my fellow American citizens: Remember the country owes you nothing but a chance to be free. Use that freedom wisely.
No matter how frustrated or aggrieved you may be with your current life in America, know there are countless people in the world who would gladly trade places with you.
Take advantage of the myriad opportunities that are part of America’s core social fabric and run with them. Do not capitulate to bitterness and pessimism when you encounter setbacks and failure. This country offers unlimited chances to reinvent yourself.
Speak out against injustice. But do not succumb to hate and envy. Regardless of their intentions, do not let anyone exercise arbitrary power. And remember: Despite all the attempts to pigeonhole people into identity groups, in the end, there are only individual human beings.
Do not be afraid to be an individualist.
The world you desire can be won. It exists. It is real. It is possible. It is yours.
Aaron Tao, The Atlas Society