This piece of writing was first published in the summer of 2003 in The Yoke magazine, an independent Irish publication.
American identity is based on an ideology. This is understandable given the kaleidoscopic nature of the nation’s roots. Being a microcosm of the global population, the usual criteria for differentiating groups such as ethnicity, common language, and other shared cultural determinants do not apply to Americans in any meaningful way. Instead, collective identity is constructed around a set of ideals mapped out in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The essence of ‘American’ is to be found in allegiance to abstractions such as liberty, equality, democracy, justice, individual dignity and so on. This allows the American self-image to remain rooted in a conceptual field of moral virtue and attached to the Utopian vision of the USA’s founding fathers. As the reality of American power in the world assumes heights both undreamed of and undesired at the country’s inception, the resilience and relevance of this fundamental aspect of American identity will, not for the first time, be put to the test.
The Declaration of Independence states:
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness …"
Far from being self-evident at the time, these stated Truths were radical and revolutionary when placed next to the divinely approved inequality which characterised the rule of monarchy. The content of the Declaration is aspirational in every respect. Firstly in terms of establishing an effective independence from the British Crown - there was still a war to be fought and won. And secondly in terms of implementing the idealism within whatever socio-political structures emerged after independence was achieved.
This is not as straight forward as it sounds. Although ideals have an unchanging life in the realm of abstraction (or so Plato suggested), their realisation is inevitably context dependent and conditional. The words Liberty and Equality do not have the same meaning today as they did in 1776. If they did, how does one explain the fact that many of the delegates who voted for the Declaration were slave owners? Did the founding fathers consider women to be equal to men? Were the "merciless Indian savages" referred to later in the document even considered human beings with a right to life?
America is an experiment in progress. The feedback loops between the aspirational ideals and the evolving social context contribute to a dynamic process which generates its own bifurcation points. The most striking example of such a crisis was the Civil War which led to the abolition of slavery and the birth of modern America almost a century after its conception as a new Utopia.
Being anchored to a set of changeless ideals, the American identity is vulnerable to subversion by ever-changing reality. This translates into a potential threat to stability and social cohesion. Myth-making and story telling have been the main buffers used to minimise this possibility. A parallel history has been recreated based on a selective attention to details if not outright invention. The past is given a gloss which serves to minimise the deficit between ideology and reality and which becomes a focus for romantic nostalgia. The seminal mythic form is the Hollywood Western. Key elements are the complete absence of moral ambiguity; actions based on altruism rather than self-interest or greed; the triumph of benign innocence against adversity and of good against evil; the affable gunman of high moral character dispensing justice; or the fallen gunman / man with no name who redeems himself through acts of heroism and sacrifice.
Other genres contribute archetypal forms for assimilation into the mythology of the American Dream. Family values have been idealised in a thoroughly middle class fashion primarily through TV shows. The celebration of wealth and ostentatious living in soap operas such as Dallas or Dynasty presented an acceptable face for greed, and so on.
These expressions of faux Americana not only provided props for American identity, but through their export helped to define the perception of America for the wider world. Between them, the film, TV and music industries provided a massive entertainment value while at the same time propagating an idealised version of the country. It was a highly successful combination which helped to create much good will towards American culture despite the essentially low brow nature of the product.
Up until the late 1960s, the image portrayed in the mythic expressions of American life was almost exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant with pride of place given to the dominant male. This reflected the reality of American culture and inadvertently revealed the extent of the ideological deficit and its conditional nature. While Liberty may have been integrated during the aftermath of the American Civil War, Equality was still more abstract than real.
The pressures for change built up a major head of steam and erupted during the turmoil of the civil rights movement. In coincidence with the counter-cultural revolution, the flowering of feminism, the emergence of the New Left and the Vietnam War debacle, American identity experienced a serious crisis. As the bifurcation unfolded, the robust challenge to established traditions created much confusion, soul searching and loss of confidence. The façade of innocence and moral rectitude so characteristically attached to the American self-image during the 1950s could no longer resist subversion by reality. By the 1970s, nobody wanted to watch Hollywood Westerns anymore. They raised the ghosts of too many dead Indians.
The cultural upheaval did result in a society more respectful of its true multicultural character. Equality legislation was enacted, and while prejudices still remain, the expression of the spirit embodied in the Founding documents achieved a more mature form appropriate to the times.
In some respects the crisis for American identity during the 1960s could have been worse. In the wake of World War II, American power increased enormously and began to fuel serious imperial ambitions. Problematically, the Declaration of Independence is a major rant against the evils of British imperialism and by implication imperialism itself. The contradiction between the ideology and the emergent imperial reality was resolved in the belief that America had only accumulated the burdens of power reluctantly and through unbidden turns of destiny in the course of fulfilling her missionary role as the defender of Freedom and Democracy. The disastrous unprovoked involvement in the Vietnam War presented a major challenge to that view. However the impact of this challenge was tempered by the reality of the Cold War which provided the backdrop to the S.E.Asian conflict. The spread of Communism was perceived as a threat to Freedom and Democracy in every part of the world which valued those ideals. Despite reservations about US involvement in Vietnam, her allies were reliant on American military capabilities for their own security and the diplomacy reflected that fact.
When the fog of the Cold War lifted, the American Empire was in place for anyone who had still to notice. It is only in the last year or two that the implications of this have begun to seep through to the American psyche. The wake up call happened on September 11th 2001.
Alongside the immediate traumatic impact of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, many Americans were shocked to discover that there were people out in the world who hated their country. This was incomprehensible and incompatible with the embedded image of America as a benign and model force for good in the world. How could anyone hate the American Dream? The shock and incomprehension was ameliorated to some extent by the wave of global scale sympathy generated in response to the bombings. However, this was short lived.
The activities and attitudes of the Bush Administration have created much friction in the international community. Cooperation and mutual trust are in short supply. Whatever sympathy America attracted after September 11th evaporated completely in the run up to its illegal invasion of Iraq. American imperialism, having thrown off its cloak, is now unapologetically naked and out of the closet. It is showing an aggressive and belligerent face. Whatever tensions this generates for the American self-image, it will certainly make many citizens ponder what sort of relationship it is that they want with the world.
Clearly another bifurcation point has been reached. Such crisis points present opportunities for evolution. American society matured as a result of the upheavals of the 1960s. However imperfectly, changes were made which acknowledged the equal status of all the diverse elements which make up the multi-cultural unity that is American society. This entailed a reconsideration of the relationships within what is essentially a microcosmic mirror of the global community. Now that America is such an dominant presence internationally, the challenge for the people is to visualise their country as a member of the global community rather than seeing the global community as another wild frontier that needs to be tamed and recreated in America’s image.
It is the ignorance of, and lack of empathy with other cultures which betrays the immature stage of development of what is still a young nation. The image of selfish and swaggering adolescent boys with guns running roughshod over the products of Ages is hard to shake off. The disrespectful comments addressed to ‘Old Europe’ in response to voiced concerns about American strategy regarding Iraq only reinforce this image.
The world does not need to be convinced about the positive aspects of American culture or the extent of her contribution and achievement in little over 200 years. It would be disingenuous to just focus on the negative. However, as the feedback loops continue to turn and drive the evolution of American identity at this critical point in the country’s history, it may the Old French who have something to offer in support of the process. In their own revolutionary ideology, Liberty and Equality had a companion.
Copyright © 2003 Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.top