What is it to be an American?

It’s a bad question, I think, because it overemphasizes the attribute in a way that makes no sense, certainly not in 2007 and maybe ever. You can reasonably be an American stamp collector, lawyer or Catholic, meaning one whose attitudes, understanding and pursuits are colored by a background and web of connections accumulated growing up and living here, but not an American simply as such.

If you try to answer the question as posed, and treat “American” as an identity rather than attribute, here’s what happens:

  • If you’re a public man or pundit, you come up with something like what John McCain says:

    “It’s to share a common goal that all of us—a principle—are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.”

  • If you’re an historically-conscious highbrow, not an ideologue, you might say something like what Thornton Wilder said at the end of the ’40s:

    “From the point of view of the European, an American is nomad in relation to place, disattached in relation to time, lonely in relation to society, and insubmissive to circumstance, destiny, or God. It is difficult to be an American, because there is as yet no code, grammar, decalogue by which to orient oneself. Americans are still engaged in inventing what it is to be an American.”

  • And if you’re the voice of the Internet demos, randomly chosen along with the preceding spokesmen from the first 6 or 8 items that came up on
    Google, you’re likely to say that

    “The great thing about America that most people do not realize is that here there is no stereotype because you’re allowed to be whatever the **** you want provided that it does not include being a pervert, child molester, sexual deviate, essentially anything within reason and not a childish behaviour or one consistent with a mental disorder as defined by the writers of the constitution and the document itself.”

    Put it all together, and it turns out that to be an American is (1) to be devoted to some grandiose open-ended principle that’s applicable to the whole world if to anything, (2) the point of which is completely obscure because you have no idea who you or anyone else is or should be about, but (3) which you dig anyway because the principle turns out to mean that you can do whatever you feel like doing and who cares and isn’t it wonderful.

    None of that makes much sense. It would be smarter to grow up a little, pull ourselves together, and get serious. When we do, I think, we will stop being Americans in the sense of fundamental identity and understand ourselves as something more particular and substantive however colored that thing may be by our American background and however attached we may be to our country.

    All of which may sound like blather and maybe it is. Still, it can sometimes help to identify basic loyalties and connections, which I suppose are what talk of “identity” is all about. With that in mind, I’m inclined to say that I’m fundamentally less an American simply as such than a citizen of Western Christendom through its presence in America. From that it follows that how American I feel myself to be is deeply affected by the degree to which America maintains or rejects Western Christendom. If America became an Islamic caliphate to the general satisfaction of its people I wouldn’t feel particularly American. I might still feel an attachment to America and Americans in various ways, but that attachment wouldn’t tell me much about who I am. Something of the same sort would apply to the extent America becomes ever more decisively and undeniably an imperial multicultural state. “Identity” is a matter of identifying, and who can contemplate an imperial multicultural state and see himself?

1 thought on “What is it to be an American?”

  1. Little America
    The test of what it means to be an American is what – heaven forbid – in the case of a terrific economic downturn causing mass emigration, Americans would take with them to their “Little Americas” and “America Towns” scattered in other nations. Another test would be, what they would hang on to if – always heaven forbid – they were conquered and ruled for centuries by another power.

    Being an American is definitely a credo. They love the system, the checks and balances, but with rare exception, especially in the south, have very little atavistic love for their country. Americans are full of pride over the country’s ability to amalgamate foreigners… but a city like Rotterdam where half the population is already from somewhere else can out-america the Americans in such a boast. And the rest of Europe is catching up.

    Where I live, Italy, the founding father’s wore togas and what we love predates representative democracy or any system. The things we love have seen emperors, popes, dictators, foreign invaders… We simply cannot revere the hotheaded Sicilian and Piedmontese who dragged us into Republic 22, the way America reveres her founding fathers. We are not one nation under God, but everybody under God… and so heaven help you if the pasta isn’t al dente! And heaven help the Gypsies freshly arrived from Romania if they don’t clean up their act!



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