02 May 2006

Searching for the Elusive American Identity

These are turbulent times in America. On the global level, the United States continues to advocate Democracy in foreign nations, such as in the recently “liberated” Middle East. On a national level, the United States government is attempting to put new laws into effect, which are meant to limit support for illegal immigrants. On a local level, there is discussion of raising taxes for those who trade with reservations, in effect raising prices on the reservation, thus removing the incentive for citizens to do business on them. These three issues are related in that they all focus upon “others” and “non-Americans”; the foreigner in a foreign land, the foreigner illegally in American lands, and the indigenous non-American, surrounded by American land.

These issues, when simplified, can be seen as imposing the American identity upon others. The Middle East, for instance, is expected to become like America through democracy. Conversely, the illegal immigrant has been labeled as different and incompatible with the American identity, and is therefore being rooted out. The economic attack upon the reservations is an attempt to hurt business, which may one day lead to a collapse of the reservations, along with the Native American identities that go along with them. These issues are based upon the understanding of the American Identity, and how this understanding is applied to others.

This conclusion leads to an important question: what is the American Identity? If global, national, and local politics are to be based upon the understanding of the American Identity, it is of great importance to know what the American Identity is. What is American? To be American, does an individual have to be born in America’s borders, or is it a state of mind? These are the questions about this elusive American Identity that have led me to begin the following discussion.

If policy is often based upon the understanding of what it is to be American, it stands to reason that policy makers would be able to present a definition of the American Identity. With this in mind, I consulted the official government website (www.whitehouse.gov). Much to my disappointment, there was no clean-cut answer presented. The best description I could find was that Americans believe in Democracy, rights, equality, and prosperity. As an American myself, I agree that I do, as a matter of fact, like democracy, rights, equality, and prosperity. Yet, most individuals believe in rights, equality and prosperity. Also, unless I have been misled, the United States is not the only democracy in existence, but rather one of sixty-five democracies (http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/democrat.html). Unless I have been extremely misled, sixty-four of those nations are not the United States. Therefore, the official government definition of an American is not useful for our current task of defining the American Identity.

If the values of America, such as liberty and free trade, are shared with other nations, such as Canada and Britain, perhaps geography is to be considered. Are Americans a part of the American Identity because they were born in the United States? My Uncle would say no, as he was born in an American army base in Germany, yet is still an American by birth. Also, those who were not born in the United States have added to the American Identity. Albert Einstein was not born in the United States, and was not American, yet nuclear energy is seen as American. Currently, the United States wishes to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear power, and justifies its ability to interfere because it was the first to have nuclear power. Yet, as American as nuclear energy is, the majority of scientists working on the Manhattan Project had European accents. This shows that those born outside of America still affect the American Identity, whether they are foreign scientists, or my American Uncle, who happened to be born in Germany.

If geography can’t be used to explain the American Identity, perhaps culture can. American popular culture is, after all, totally unique. Then again, Canada enjoys the same music, television, movies, food, and clothing that Americans do. In fact, many famous American cultural icons are Canadian, including Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Brendan Fraser, Michael Ironside, Rick Moranis, and William Shatner, to name but a few. British culture is also a major part of American pop culture, which is clearly seen by the popularity of bands such as the Beatles and Franz Ferdinand, and the record-breaking sales of Harry Potter books and films. Not only is American culture found throughout the world, but it is also influenced by foreign nations. Therefore, it cannot be used to describe the elusive American Identity.

Perhaps I have gone about my task incorrectly. It might be that the American Identity exists because of the mixing of foreign cultures. America is, after all, the great melting pot. Throughout its existence, America has been the destination of immigrants from all over the world. Yet, this understanding has problems too. The United States received the bulk of its early immigrants from Europe, and therefore much of the “melting of cultures” was, originally, European cultures being mixed together. Does not the European Union propose to do something similar? If the mixing of European culture was an important aspect of the American Identity, does that mean the EU also shares this American identity?

The argument against this would be “no,” because the United States also mixed with Asian, African and Latino cultures. Yet, Europe had contact with Asian and African cultures before North America was even discovered. The English are known for their love of tea, which they obtained from Asia. As for Latino influences, the current laws targeting illegal immigrants affect most Latino Americans. It is this aspect of the American identity that policy makers are trying to remove. With the Latino culture being targeted and “unmixed,” and the EU sharing many of the “mixing” found in America, the melting pot understanding of America is no longer useful.

Perhaps the mixing of cultures in America is too specific an aspect of American history. America’s history is defined by revolution, civil war, industry, expansion, world trade, and being a superpower. Yet none of these aspects are unique. The English had a civil war hundreds of years prior to the American civil war. Mexico and France also had revolutions of their own. British achieved industrialization a century and a half before the United States. The United States was not the only nation to embrace expansion and claim it to be their destiny. Germany used the same argument prior to both world wars. The United States was not the first world power to embrace free trade; it merely took Britain’s place at the end of the First World War. As far as being a superpower, the United States shared this status with the Soviet Union, and today finds a rival in China.

All the more problematic is the nature of identifying with historical events. I am an American, as were my parents and grandparents, yet none of my ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. Yet, the revolution is the symbolic representation of the American Identity. To make matters all the more confusing, I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Does that mean that I am both a traitor and an American? I do not believe so, particularly because I do not support the notions of the Confederacy. Therefore, I am American because I pick which aspects of the past I link myself to. I link the winning of World War 2 to myself, particularly because my grandfather fought in it for the United States. Yet, I choose not to link myself to the poor treatment of Japanese Americans during the war. Events in the past don’t give individuals their American Identity, but rather it is the American Identity that allows them to feel linked to past events they choose to associate with, such as the Revolutionary War.

Having run out of options, I am forced to consider my own experiences to find the American Identity. I do this not because I feel I am the quintessential America. I do this because I know I am American, thus I must have the American Identity somewhere within. I am American in that I am a fourth generation American, and that I have had family fight in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. I was raised by a family of optimistic, “hard work pays off” Americans. Yet it wasn’t until I lived in England for four months that I became aware of my one American Identity.

In September of 2005, I attended Oxford University, and lived in England until the end of December. Prior to leaving the United States, I had never thought of myself as American. I had considered myself a New Yorker, a Western New Yorker more specifically. Living in a country of foreigners, however, I became an “American.” When I travelled into the southern United States, the distinction of North and South existed. When I lived in Oxford, however, I did not see myself as a New Yorker and a Texan as a Texan, but rather, I saw us both as Americans.

It was in this foreign atmosphere that I realized the American Identity is abstract, and cannot be defined, but it can be felt through an “American kinship” of sorts. This became most apparent after spending a week in Italy. Knowing only the Italian phrases which I learned as a child from my grandmother, I had no means of communicating with the Italians, with the exception of “yes,” “no,” and pointing. When in Italy, my friend and I ran into two American girls, whom we became friends with. The girls were from Florida, whereas we were from New York. We were from State Schools, and they were from a private university. They were conservative and we were liberal. The girls were vegetarians, and we felt that the more adorable the animal, the tastier it would be grilled. Needless to say, there were clear differences.

Yet, we all got along wonderfully, because the fact we were all American made up for the differences. In America, surrounded by Americans, such a link would have seemed trivial. Yet, surrounded by Italians, the link of being American was important enough to overlook our differences. I believe this is the main aspect of the American Identity.

At first glace, it may be thought that the American Identity exists as an “Us vs. Them” style of thought. But this wasn’t so. We connected because it was understood that we were all American. The first Americans were not Americans because they were not British. They were all American because they were all facing the same problems: a new nation, in an unexplored part of the world. The American Identity cannot be described, because it is always changing. It is not based upon what makes Americans different from the rest of the world. The American Identity is based upon the understanding that all Americans have to face their problems together. This is why the American identity is strongest in times of need, such as war or depression. The American Identity is, on its most fundamental and unchanging level, the understanding that all Americans are equally American.


germanboy said...

Hello and thank you very much for your essay on the American Identity! I have to write something about it for school and googled for it. It is just an amazing line of thought, really! :-) I am from Germany and it seems to me that you hit the point for 100%! Great work. Danke ^^

Josh Cooper said...

As a British person, I found your essay invaluable to the essay that i had to write for English, where I had to explore the concept of the American dream/Identity based off a story by Kate Chopin in the times of inequality between race and gender I think that the British and the Americans are more alike than you make out.

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Well-written and easily understood. Great, great, great job!

Cody the great said...

Cody (Australian)
I too am writing a report on school comparing Australian identity to American. Ya' gotta love Google!!....alas, even though I thought your essay was very interesting, it hasn't really helped me with my homework. Bummer!!

amir said...

(an Iranian who studies American studies)

The Constructivist said...

Hey Amir, a former student of mine wrote this. I assume by posting it on the blog he was ok with having it cited, but I could check with him if you want.