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Friday, April 29, 2016

National Identity–Are Americans Becoming More Global In Outlook?

The BBC World Service has produced a series on ‘Identity’, addressing how that formerly simple issue has become far more complex in a world where traditional  sexual, national, racial, and ethnic identities are being challenged.

The most recent episode focuses on national identity, and the World Service sponsored a poll asking citizens of a variety of countries where they saw themselves on a national-global spectrum.

Graphic showing how respondents from 18 countries answered a question about whether they viewed themselves more as a

The poll focused on the issues the BBC was covering and  in this case immigration.  Questions were asked concerning attitudes towards racial and ethnic intermarriage and acceptance of Syrian refugees.  Nevertheless, it gives some idea of how different countries see themselves in a changing world. 

Not surprisingly the United States was far more on the ‘national’ end of the spectrum.  Despite our long history of immigration, assimilation, and pluralism, we remain a very inward-looking nation.  American exceptionalism is borne of the belief that America still is the democratic beacon for the world, the home of liberty and justice,  and the defender of capitalism and free markets.   It is no surprise, then, that Americans look warily at the rest of the world and conclude that they want little part of it.

Image result for images statue of liberty

This survey, however, begs the question of identity.  National identity is shaped by far more than attitudes towards international inclusion.  In fact, although the world without a doubt is becoming smaller, more inter-related, and connected, identity is far more a function of national culture than any worldview. 

When asked what most defines America (as the BBC asked Americans on a previous program in the series), the responses were similar and ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ were always the first things mentioned.  We are a nation conceived in liberty, respondents replied; and we have upheld and maintained the principles set forth by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.  Although we have no millennia-old history like Asians or Europeans, no long traditions of art, literature, and music, no grand architecture, we are still unique because of these foundational principles which, because they are moral and reflect both Biblical injunction and the highest Enlightenment thought, are the equal of none.


But is ‘Liberty and justice for all’ only a convenient rallying slogan in a country where poverty, racial discrimination, and income inequality have skewed the moral and ethnical balance?  Where only the wealthy have the opportunity and the ability to enjoy freedom of economic mobility, superior education, high-paying employment, and access to privilege and power?  

Most members of  marginalized groups still recite the litany of ‘The Land of Opportunity’ and claim passionate patriotism even though their chances of realizing the dream are very slim indeed.  Whoever we  may be and no matter how put-upon or disadvantaged we may claim we are,  few of us would rather be French, Indian, Nigerian, or Russian.   We’ll take our chances here, for at least here we can make our grievances known.

There is something to the myth, then, that makes up a part of our identity.   Myth usually trumps facts, and even if people had access to those data which quantify income mobility, job access,  economic opportunity, or wealth creation and show that freedom is not all it is made out to be, they would still cling to the hope that their case might be different.

Yet a focus on liberty, freedom, justice, and opportunity to define national identity is far too narrow to be of use.   There is something permanently iconic about the  French Revolution, Imperial Russia, dynastic Egypt, Persepolis, Athens, the Roman Empire, or the American War of Independence that will never be lost by citizens of France, Russia, Greece, or America; but it is not an all-encompassing feature. 

Image result for images ancient rome

More important for defining American identity are our cultural myths. The Wild West is just as iconic as The Bill of Rights.  It represents a very unique American individualism, sense of Biblical justice, private enterprise and ambition, risk-taking and fearlessness, and unlimited vision.  We have not lost the same wanderlust of the Conestoga wagons, Manifest Destiny; nor the determination of the territorial wars against the Indians, French, and British,  or the economic migrations from the Upper South to the Lower South, the bounty of the Plains. 


We are proud of our frontier justice, our territorial destiny, and our ability to build a powerful country out of grasslands, swamps, and desert. 

America is popular culture, perhaps our most important export.  We may sell things, but ideas and myths are far more influential in a world market.  We are movies, reality television, glitz, glamour, image, and Barnum & Bailey.  While New York and Chicago may better express American ambitious capitalism, and Silicon Valley the best of  American entrepreneurial spirit, Hollywood and Vegas are more expressive about our identity.   Las Vegas is simply a modern, neon-lit, showy version of the saloons of the Old West.  Hollywood is vaudeville.


American popular culture has thrived in an intellectual cultural vacuum.  We cannot expected to have developed and established a European-style civilization when we are so young, and when our ambitions were so focused on material success and wealth.  Saloons, vaudeville, myth, and a very peculiar untamed character created who we are.

Although Europe is becoming more ethnically and racially mixed, it will never be like America a country which has always taken in all comers.  Some may complain about the influx of unwanted wetbacks and other ‘illegals’, there is no stopping the flow.  Every major city on the East Coast is for the European visitor a bewildering but fascinating kaleidoscope of races and ethnicities.  Despite the current the divisiveness of politically correct ‘diversity’ and forceful attempts to include everyone in a super-big top, America will always be more variegated and acceptingly so than any other nation.  Immigration and assimilation is who we are.

Language defines culture just as culture shapes language.  Our American English, never governed by an academy has always been a language which reflects America itself.  Our speech is influenced by street culture, hip-hop, Wall Street derivative-speak, regionalisms, youth, social trends, movies, and country music.  Our language is as assimilative as our culture.  The rate at which new words enter the American English lexicon is geometric. 

What do we miss most after a long trip to a foreign country.  Not the hamburgers, fast food, ribs, or fast Internet, but English.  Even those of us who are fluent in another language are rarely funny in it.  As much as we may have mastered grammar, syntax, phrasing, and vocabulary, we can’t make others laugh because we are not connected enough to their culture.  Back home our language and our culture are one. 

So, no, Americans are not global by any means.  Proud of our tradition, principles, and ethic; saturated with popular culture, speaking a hybrid language, and understanding instinctively references to Mississippi, Texas, Marilyn Monroe, Ferguson, the Castro, or the Yankees, there is nothing global about our identity whatsoever.

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