In Which There Are No Americans

Though conservatives (especially of the Ford-truck-buying persuasion) often use the language of nationalism, I wonder if any Americans really think of themselves as Americans the way an Englishman thinks of himself as fundamentally British, or an Irishman as Irish.

The emphasis on individual autonomy inherent in our very founding seems to have created a situation in which we identify more with, if nothing else, our ideologies than with the nation itself.
Indeed, I would argue that we do not have a nation at all, but a collective of autonomous individuals loosely bound together by law. American culture seeks to avoid definition, and instead is obsessed with ‘diversity’, those things which do not define but rather differentiate.

I find it interesting that if someone asks you where you are from, or about your ‘racial’ heritage (as bogus a concept as that is), Americans will tend to talk about their old-world heritage. I’m not an Idahoan, I’m an Irish-American. Or African-American. Or Scotish, or Latin or…whatever bit of ethnicity you’ve decided to latch on to out of your Heinz-57 family tree.

We are a country of wannabe-expatriates. This partially has to do with the historical formation of our nation, and maybe the memory of that has just not worked itself out yet. But it is interesting that we find being an American so blase, and desire to racially and culturally identify ourselves (in however tenuous a fashion) with some other nation or, failing that, with an ideology. And that is somehow part of the very definition of the American experiment.

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10 comments on “In Which There Are No Americans

  1. Nathan says:

    So we know that Irish are redfaced fighting heavy drinkers with music that is kind of rhythmic, and we think that Brits have poor teeth and a domination complex, and obviously if you are of African descent you are good at sports, but what is an American like? Are we just obnoxious overweight consuming imposers? Mutts. Maybe since that is what we are told from the outside, we would rather be something else. I repeat then, what is an American like?

    In case it is not clear, I realize the stereotypes.

  2. I think I agree. I was really struck by this when I lived in Arlington. A few quick comments:

    First, English don’t think of themselves as British, but as English. Only foreigners conflate England and Britan.

    Second, though an American cannot be really an American, mightn’t he be a Virginian?

    Third, what does this imply for our patriotism?

  3. Kelly says:

    Thomas Jefferson said that our states were about the biggest thing that anyone could feel loyal to, and I think he was right. But since we’re politically and geographically united (as in, it’s easy enough to travel from coast to coast) and we have such a tendency to marry someone from another state and raise our kids in a state neither parent grew up in…

    Well, I’m saying we’re not rooted in one place enough to identify ourselves with that place, and we’re so mobile that we’re losing all distinctive local culture we ever had before the age of the automobile, so that there’s not even an ethnic identity that belongs to here.

    I wonder how many generations it took the Celts to start thinking of themselves as British? Or the descendents of the Anglo-Normans to start thinking of themselves as English? I think the various Saxon invaders only ever thought of themselves as Saxons – referring back to their homeland in present-day Germany.

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for swinging by.

    First, mea culpa. You speak truth, although Kelly’s comment makes one wonder how much longer that will matter.

    Second, not really (I don’t think). A few portly types who still wear suspenders and can’t pronounce their vowels properly might still think that way (that was a cheap shot, I know), but that sort of state loyalty is rapidly becomming as relevant as my once-upon-a-jr.-high-time desire to support the Sinn Fein in their struggle for Irish freedom (speaking of Britain).

    Thirdly, I was wondering the same thing. Not much good I would imagine. Though I do like the idea of Christians moving away from thinking of themselves as primarially an American or whatever else (for these things, again building on Kelly’s comments, are at root social constructions which may be done away with as easily as they have been created), and moving toward a Christian Nationalism that transcends such loyalties. Is that taking my eschatology too far?

    Fourth, I have been wanting to say this for a while, and this seems as good a place as any to do it: I greatly appreciate and respect your consistently patient and gracious demeanor (not to mention interesting ideas) in all your online interactions (Gibbs, Sheibe, Yonke, et al). You model ecumenism without having an intellectual limp-wrist. Blessings,

  5. Hooser says:

    I am with you 100% on the ‘Christian Nationalism’ thing. After reading Dr. L’s Against Christianity, I can’t help but think in those terms. The stupid loyalism of Americanism is one thing that really annoys me about the whole immigration thing. People forget we’re dealing with real human beings here.

  6. Kelly,

    Thank you for your comments as well. I agree with you, but I wonder if this is all a bad thing, taking the long view. Industrialization has had some terrible effects on society, but once we have worked out all the kinks (I still see us as just breaking out of the initial developement phase of industrialization), industrialization is a wonderful thing. So, perhaps, with the developement of communications in forming a global culture? I don’t see the weakening of old nationalisms and cultures as inherently detrimental.

  7. hoos,

    in a word: word.

  8. Kelly says:

    Sorry – I’ve got to correct my attribution above as I just ran across the place where I first read it seven or eight years ago.

    “Nathaniel Hawthorne, who understood better than any other writer of his time the contrary workings of the human heart, took note… in his pertinent essay, “Chiefly About War Matters,” when he remarked that a state was as large a territory as anyone could be expected to love, and that love for an invisible hypothesis like the American Union was something few people had the imagination to achieve. (Richard Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay)”

    But I really don’t think it’s a bad thing, given the Scriptural injunctions against removing ancient landmarks, the commands to return land to its original owners during the Jubilee, and given that Heaven is to be filled with “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”

    IOW, I don’t think it’s the love for one’s place or one’s recognition of ethnicity that’s wrong, rather it’s the pitting of one against another. I loved playing clarinet in the band, but it would have been silly for me to think that everyone should play clarinet, or that the various instruments were supposed to compete with one another.

  9. kelly,

    i agree with you that there is nothing wrong with embracing your ethnicity and cultural traditions, as far as that goes. however, i think it would go a long way toward avoiding ‘racial pride’ if we recognized the relative and transient nature of ‘ethnicities’ and ‘races’. for christians, the ultimate goal is one ‘race’: sheep.

  10. Ben

    Thanks, for the encouragement.

    When Tim changed his page, the links disappeared, so I couldn’t find my way back here for a while. Hopefully this explains the delay in responding.

    I think I would agree that I would particularly like some healthy Christian “nationalism”–and I don’t share your escatology. But I’m not sure how we could have a Christian nationalism. What would we be attached to? Would we be fondly attached to our common liturgy? But even among high churches there is little unity on that (the Eastern Rite is nothing like the Western Rite) though there is some similarity. Or for the Creed? But the Creed is verbal, and usually we need something visual and tactile to love. (The creed could be part of this, but I have trouble seeing how it would be the only part.) Or to our baptisms? But that doesn’t happen often enough to be such a source of unity. Or should we have a united Christian reverence for the Sacrament? I’m all for that, but I bet most Protestants would strongly object.

    And even still, a smaller degree of healthy nationalism would be nice–don’t you want people to be proud (in the good sense) about all the little local things e.g. wine and food in France, tulips in Holland, the Queen in England, the All Blacks in New Zeland etc.?

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