2.12.2011

American United



A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a really great question, which I am reproducing here along with my off-the-cuff response:

Will there ever be an unified american culture? A culture where everyone feels equally american, and of a unified culture in this (our) country? Thoughts?

My response:

1. Our country is not THAT old, so the mythology of the frontier, of fighting a revolution, and of establishing "a more perfect union" is still hard-wired into most Americans' sense of being American. ("American Beliefs," by John Harmon McElroy, is a good read on this notion.)

2. Our past and present has far more diversity, and the attendant results (positive things like unity in diversity, negative things like racism and injustice) than any other nation in history. So I think that is defining, although sadly far too many of us are ignorant of large swaths of people groups and of past atrocities, so this awareness is probably far less universal than it should be.

3. Because we are so diverse and distinct in so many ways (race/ethnicity, geography, personal tastes), the things that are universally American tend to be things that cause us to forget our differences and band together as Americans against something else. Think WWII, 9/11, the Olympics. (Re: WWII, I commend to you "Double Victory," by Ronald Takaki, which tells of different Asian-American groups' contribution to the war and how fighting in it made them identify more as Americans.)

4. I got the sense that Obama's call for this generation's "Sputnik" moment was lukewarmly received. So I'm not sure we can summon up a unified goal we can all get behind (although, at a local level, there may things people can rally around, which breaks down walls between groups).

5. Lastly, your question asks whether all Americans will ever feel truly equally American. Alas, I am pessimistic about this. Because of how strongly the feelings are concerning the three points above, it seems innate that people will be ever competing to be "more American," sometimes putting down others as "less American" as a way of doing that. Consider politicians and groups arguing that they know what "the founding fathers" would have wanted. Even though there was a halo after 9/11, our most recent galvanizing moment, it quickly went away. Perhaps, at a grassroots level, we can build pockets of humility and decency, and at the end of the day that's something we can all do and so we should commit to doing it.

Thanks for kicking off such a stimulating conversation on such a stimulating issue.


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