What Does it Mean to be American?

With the presidential election seeping into every normal day-to-day conversation, the idea of ‘American’ is tossed around as a given. The candidates appeal to the fact that they stand for American values, which is supposed to somehow be a persuading argument. But as with most things the term ‘American’ is so ambiguous that it requires further analysis into its true meaning.

The first source in understanding the question better was to read other essays that people had written on the subject, and to be quite honest I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed research more. The answers that people give to the question stated above range from humorous to infuriating. For instance one of my favorites comes from the always fair and scholarly New York Times. Mr. Damien Cave writes that after completing his travels he feels that: 

It’s a difficult question. “Productive” is a word I’ve heard from many of the people we’ve met, but they also said it’s more than that. Personally, as a correspondent, I’ve learned to identify Americans by sight and sound: They tend to talk and laugh louder, tell their stories more freely, and to walk with purpose —  even when heading in the wrong direction.

Considering that is quite literally almost the entire article, I don’t know if the New York Times could have written a more blatant piece of propaganda. Americans are productive, because of course nobody else in the world is productive, and we are more free and have more purpose! We live life to the fullest, talking and laughing as loud as we want, who cares what others think! If I may be candid for a moment, Mr. Caves article is propaganda trash. This only reaffirms my low opinion of the New York Times.

There were answers to the question that I was very much expecting, such as Larry Craig’s of Western Journalism. With a slew of fundamentalist responses this one in particular stood out to me. Mr. Craig identifies three traits that are distinctly American, that is Christianity, freedom, and whatever we were before immigrants came. With that last point I don’t believe I’m misrepresenting him here, in part 1 of his philosophically enlightened series of articles on Americanism, he elegantly states it like this:

If you are making a generic salad, you can add a lot of different ingredients to add to the flavor. But this doesn’t work for everything. If you are making a milk shake, and everybody adds any ingredient they like (maybe one person adds hot sauce and another vegetable juice), you don’t end up with a milk shake. You end up with something that no one wants to drink. Recipes exist for a reason. Only certain ingredients in certain proportions make the best tasting dishes.

I’m not sure why people would put hot sauce and vegetable juice into a milk shake, and I’ve never heard of anyone needing a recipe for a milk shake, but his point gets across. He elaborates by saying “We talk about American ideals: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But many of these new residents don’t believe in these. And many of the old ones are starting to not believe in them either.” This point actually confused me at first, because Mr. Craig takes the time to say that so many people immigrate to America because of how great it is, so it’s odd that people would want to move to America for these ideals and then not believe in them? Silly.

Christianity, this response came up as much as one would expect it to. But Mr. Craig goes a step further. He doesn’t just claim that Christianity is American, it’s that private churches are the truly American part because then Americans get choices in how they want to worship the same book. I feel the need to explicitly state here that I have nothing against Christianity in any sense, it’s just that I support a secularized government and Mr. Craig directly targets that view so that’s why I am addressing this. Mr. Craig states:

But wait. Wasn’t that the case of Europe at the time? Weren’t those nations all Christian? Yes, but they all had state churches. That is like saying that everybody has to shop at Walmart. What we call competition in the marketplace is also valuable in the area of religion. We see it in churches here as well as individual churches are started, grow, and often die (and new ones are continually being started.)

Our nation was based on a view of life that acknowledged God; and it became quite clear later on that they just didn’t mean God in the abstract, but the God of the Bible. They spoke of self-evident truths, clearly recognized by the people of the incipient nation: men are created equal.

Again this argument makes a crucial error. Premise 1: Americanism has private churches, not state churches, Premise 2: America was established to have a Christian government. My response here is that, is it truly not a state church if your government is established on it? Sure you may have different denominations believing various things about that religion, but in a fundamental sense how is it really any different? The variance in churches mean nothing if every level of government if hugely influenced by the doctrine of that one religion, and indeed Mr. Craig does identify the role that Christianity played in shaping the government.

I don’t think Mr. Craig deserves any more of my time. I felt compelled to write a whole separate essay just disseminating everything he’s ever written, but as in most things I have to restrain myself. After being sufficiently agitated at this point in my research I found an article from Scholastic, the children’s educational company. This was more lighthearted so it helped to take the edge off a little. The idea for this article is that it was a series of quotes from children, mostly around 10 years old, what it meant to them to be American. The responses were exactly what I was expecting, everything that their parents must have forced into their head. The most common answers dealt with being free and being who you want to be. The takeaway from these children’s responses is that to be American is more of a tendency than anything else, but that can’t be the case. Because then perhaps there would be an American citizen that doesn’t believe in freedom, and using that definition we could say he isn’t American.

At this point I came across an article in the Atlantic, and my regards goes out to the author Karina Martinez-Carter for having the most serious response to the question that I could find. Carter points out the odd fact that there is more than just one country in America. I fact checked this claim by looking at a map, and yes she was correct. It turns out that if you look at a map ‘America’ has Mexico and Canada at its borders, and there’s even a ‘South America’ with even more countries.

Sarcasm aside, Carter makes some excellent points. During her time in Argentina she notes that she would accidentally refer to the U.S. as America, to which the Argentinians would respond “We’re all Americans”. This is the perfect response. I jokingly wondered if Damien Cave of the NY Times was including the Argentinians when he said Americans were productive. Going even further though, calling Argentina ‘America’ could be harsh at times. Activist Elizabeth Martinez wrote that “For Latinos/as here and abroad, calling this country “America” is offensive,” due to the memories of U.S. imperialism that the term could provoke.

This was the last article I had to read. I realized that when politicians refer to ‘America’ they are specifically referring to the U.S. but that blatantly ignores the rest of the actual Americas. Maybe United Statesian values didn’t have the same ring to it? American exceptionalism aside, the point is that a politician can’t refer to United States values because we don’t know what those are, we only know what American values are, and those are a vague set of broad ideas that nobody can really put their finger on. I feel strongly inclined to conclude that the idea of Americanism is just rhetorical but even I’m not sure of that. It could be that to be American is simply just to be a citizen of the United States, but as we saw before if we use the term American we would have to include citizens of Argentina and every other country in North and South America.

The true takeaway from all this is to think about what politicians really mean when they refer to American values. To many it really does sound like a valid argument, we have a set of values and we should stick to them, but on closer analysis it’s never that simple.

 

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22 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to be American?

  1. I find the concept of Civil Religion helpful when navigating today’s chaos. The old “sacred” icons of Americanism have been challenged by new groups of citizens and the old White male set of assumptions is falling away. As these old beliefs see the light of this demographic changes, a now minority feels threatened and is lashing out.

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  2. As with most things in life, it’s open to double interpretation depending on your vantage point.
    Given that, technically… as seemingly established by our fore fathers through the Constitution… we are the United States OF America, which suggests more accurately that we might be the United States of North America. But since North and South (and Central) America are geo/regional assigns and not names of sovereign political entities it would seem being “American” could be accurate to anyone living in the Western Hemisphere……… IF that were the only definition of being an American one was looking to clarify. That’s the “duh” answer.

    I am gathering from your post that you were not looking to define the semantics of regional geographical terminology about who is a true “American”, but rather trying to clarify the more cerebral distinction of the political and philosophical attributes that are attributed to those Americans who are citizens of the country of the United States. More to the point, I am guessing you are seeking to understand how two candidates for the highest office in the land, both claiming some ordained definition on what makes an American (from the United States), are promoting their idea of “American” principles.

    I could be flippant and simply reply that, if you are asking that question then it’s obvious you aren’t an American. End of discussion. But.. again… life isn’t that simple. Here’s my contribution toward defining being an American.
    Being an American is nothing more than living a dream. I don’t mean that one bit in the sarcastic sense. It’s about trying to be something that our region of humans on this planet have built for ourselves by trying to learn from history and piecing together a set of rules that has allowed us to create a society in which we can choose to personally aspire beyond ourselves… and to include others beyond our borders. The dream is the hope we collectively have in maintaining personal freedom and having the ability to inspire others beyond our borders to do the same… and to give of ourselves not only because we have the ability but also the desire.

    Now.. you can toss in there all you like about Christian influences and religious ideologies. The whole idea is that we are a collective that succeeds on individualism… using concepts from political, philosophical, and religious theory. Here’s the best part… because humans are involved this idea doesn’t always work correctly… and that continues the dream to be better. Also… my definition here fits ME.. and that’s all that matters for me. The dream is different for everyone. Hence, you decide which candidate best matches your dream then use your vote accordingly.

    What a long-assed reply. Funny thing is… who cares in the end.

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  3. The question of what it means to be an American is a ridiculous one. Therefore, the answers will be ridiculous too. To start, it was a nation founded on genocide and slavery…since that’s how it started, it really can’t have a good middle or ending.

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    • Ridiculousness is subjective and relative to each person… unless you prefer to judge others accordingly, in which case it might suggest you could be elitist.
      Regarding your supposition that the States were founded on genocide and slavery… well, that pretty much sums up the beginnings of most, if not all, nations since man began organizing his priorities for the betterment of the entire group. In fact, that’s the story of man in general… at least on this planet. Moving on to your “conclusion” that since the States started from the genocidal enslavement of whomever was around at the time (I am guessing you are meaning native Americans) that anything following can’t possibly be any improvement… it sounds like nothing would ever satisfy you about the nature of man. Rather sad outlook for you.

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      • Re: well, that pretty much sums up the beginnings of most, if not all, nations since man began organizing his priorities for the betterment of the entire group. In fact, that’s the story of man in general… at least on this planet.

        This is untrue but for argument’s sake say it were, it doesn’t mean it’s ok for the United States and Europe to conquer, kill, rape, steal, maim from more than half the world on the basis that everyone at one point or another did it. After all, the ‘West’ is supposed to be the more superior more ‘civilized’ race right? We are supposed to know better? All that ‘superior’ learning and development starting from the Ancient Greeks and then Christianity?

        As for ‘improvement’ in the United States; of course there are improvements, but again, as a nation who thinks of themselves as ‘exceptional’ to the rest of the world based on certain ‘values’ we have…how are police killings acceptable? Income inequality? State sanctioned Islamophobia? Xenophobia against immigrants just to name a few. How are any of these things exceptional? Which then brings to, exactly which of these things makes us more ‘American’ and who ‘gets’ to be American these days? We all know Muslims and illegal immigrants can’t call themselves Americans, anyone else we care to leave out of that group? This is what I mean by ridiculous.

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        • I’m not so sure that Americans proclaiming themselves “exceptional” is tantamount to some level of sainthood. Again… keeping in mind that everyone on this planet is subject to being human, which includes all our foibles as well as our distinctions, no one country anywhere can be everything to everyone… ever. Yet that human quality of idealism, hope, and sometimes pure spiritual faith, feeds our desire to want to improve ourselves in spite of the fact that we never will. America IS exceptional from the standpoint that our form of government has lasted longer than any in modern history, that we are a world power that strives to engage in peace rather than conquest (or genocide or enslavement because we can recognize our own shortcomings and try to correct them), and our economic and scientific achievements have indeed served the entire world in some form. The world is a better place because of America.. and Americans.

          But by NO means is America, or Americans, perfect. You can languish in the contemporary social struggles of police shooting black people, your xenophobia against immigrants, and the current wave of Islamist stereotypes, yada, yada, yada… and if that’s your gauge on American values then you might want to re-visit history a bit. Over time we will overcome all those issues in some manner. In their place new social stigmas will develop, and due to our ability to want to make course corrections by way of our Constitution we will overcome those shortcomings as well.

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      • You could also argue that since the genocide and slavery in the USA are so very recent that it affects American culture in a way it doesn’t affect the culture of some other countries.

        I don’t think, for example, the contemporary Italian identity has much to do with Caesar’s genocide of the Gauls as much as the current American identity does with the less than 200 year old genocide of the Indians.

        Take a look at the militarized police they sent to crush the protests at the Standing Rock Reservation, for example. They’ll seem eerily familiar.

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        • Like I mentioned in another reply earlier here, you might want to re-visit your history class you apparently skipped. For one thing, some replies in this posting are generously using the term “genocide” as it relates to how earlier European occupants of what is now the U.S. treated native Americans, ongoing right up to us contemporary Americans. While there were most assuredly some Americans who indeed favored wiping them all out (actual genocide) it was never an adopted or declared public policy to do so. The preference was “relocation” which became the reservations. Did the Americans of the day treat native Americans poorly? Of course. Were there military abuses like pillaging, rape, torture? Of course. Did the U.S. government break treaties at will? Of course. Were the reservations places of poor, sick, and mistreated human beings? of course. Did the American public of the day have general contempt for those “savages”? Not all… but there was a majority. But there was no organized genocide… the persecution and elimination of a complete race… and certainly no one is doing that now.

          How in the world does the protest at Standing Rock equate in ANY way to what I have just listed above in how Americans of the day treated native Americans? Did anyone get raped and pillaged? Did law enforcement ride into the village and slaughter everyone just because? Were native Americans rounded up and force marched to reservations?
          It was simply a civil protest and those things can get out of hand just because of their nature. Use some common sense.

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  4. From a friendly Canadian north of your border I believe you picked up the term America from your national anthem. It was written as the War of 1812 between our nations was ending. In a more modern sense President Kennedy said “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” I took what he said to heart asking anyone on this planet to create a new world of law without war. He also said “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.” and here you have the concept of sharing a dream from America to include the world. I may sound romantic even though I loved and continue to love the high ideal.

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  5. In the Wikipedia article, “America’s” it says, “…without a clarifying context, singular America in English commonly refers to the United States of America.”

    Very thought provoking. Except for one comment, though, little was said about what people of other nations think “American values” means. I lived on and off in Spain for nearly ten years. I almost had to demand, when the locals referred to America and things “American” a clarification be made as to which nation was being discussed. Every time – and I do mean every time – the answer was the same: ¡Los Estado Unidos por supuesto! The same was true in Vietnam.

    To be an “American” is to be from the United States. If from Canada, you are a Canadian. If from Mexico, a Mexican; the Dominican Republic, Dominicans…and so on. People from the United States are not called United Statesers, they are called Americans.

    I still get uncomfortable when I hear those of other nations say this, though. It’s like they ignore the others. Guess the PC virus got me somewhere along the line. But not to worry. I am, slowly but surely, recovering.

    This post helped. Thanks. I love it when someone messes with my mind, making me scramble to do some research and deeper thinking.

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  6. Very thought provoking. Except for one comment, though, little was said about what people of other nations think “American values” means. I lived on and off in Spain for nearly ten years. I almost had to demand, when referring to America and things “American” a clarification be made as to which nation was being discussed.

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  7. Thanks for liking my blog posting, The Ineffable Sadness of Neutered Cats. It was written as a very indirect and roundabout reaction to the election of Donald Trump as US President. As an ardent ecologist and environmentalist, I am deeply saddened at the thought of Trump, Palin, and so many other climate change deniers acceding to positions of global power. Apart from all the other considerations of probity and character that DT seems to lack, his accession to power bodes ill for the world’s environmental future.

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  8. Being American is being a distinct cultural entity. It’s easy to diagnose a Brit from an American. Being productive is a bourgeoisie ideal and satisfies the ethos of the great American Dream. Yes, America is evolving from a Sacred Fundamentalist Christian society to a secular Christian society. The desire to tolerate ideas especially new ones is a distinctive American trait I have come across in my life. Anand Bose from Kerala

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  9. Douglas Kennedy once put it like this: “The great difference between Americans and Brits is that the Americans believe that life is serious but not hopeless… whereas the English believe that life is hopeless, but not serious.” Sums it up rather nicely, I think 🙂

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