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.