On Being An American

‘When the soul of a man is born, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.  You talk to me of nationality, language, religion.  I shall try to fly by those nets.’ — James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I participate in a certain web forum for the discussion of geopolitics where the number of participants is just a handful, but the viewpoint diversity is very strong, ranging from my strongly market liberal views that are pretty disdainful of government action in most dimensions, to those on the right who are more or less recognizable conservatives, to social democrats, and even our court jester: an old school Marxist tankie who spends his days and nights posting article after article from TASS and other outlets of overt Russian dezinformatsiya

Occasionally, one of the other participants in responding to something I’ve said or in drawing my attention to one issue or another will refer to US government institutions as mine. For example, “your Supreme Court”, or “your Congress”; that sort of thing. Now, I almost never take Internet discussions seriously, and even less often take them personally, so it’s interesting that alone of all the things we discuss there — war and peace, economics and social dynamics, liberty and tyranny, the works! — it is this simple formulation that, to use an ironically American turn of phrase, drives me bananas.

There are a number of reasons why that may seem odd. The fellow who uses it clearly has no ill intent, he’s simply indicating that I’m an American. And he’s quite right: I am. I’m a US citizen, born in the US of American parents. My father’s family has been here since not long after the Civil War, and my mother’s European ancestors in what is now the US go back to the 17th century. (And that’s not counting an Abenaki ancestor on my mother’s side, since that’s so distant that to claim it as meaningful would be rather disingenuous.)

That said, that doesn’t mean that ancestry is everything, or even the main thing. I’ve long thought that whether one’s ancestors have been here since the last Ice Age or just the last presidential administration, culture is king in determining who an American is. American culture takes a lot of criticism, especially from ourselves, but one thing about it that I’ve always appreciated is how easy it is to assimilate. No matter where you come from, and how strong your ties remain to that place, your kids may respect your culture, but if they are raised here, they will be American. 

So if I’m an American and don’t think that being American is bad, then why does “your president” bug me so much? There are two reasons, the lesser of which is ideological. If something is “mine”, that suggests I am somehow responsible for it and that I endorse it. Well, I’m not, and I don’t. Perhaps at the local level there a single determined individual can build meaningful influence and effect noticeable change, but when it comes to things like US foreign policy, the decisions made in Foggy Bottom are even more distant from the hoi polloi of the electorate than any ancestor who trudged across the Bering land bridge in search of wooly mammoths to spear for dinner.

The great reason, however, is that the formulation implies that one’s outlook is inexorably limited by one’s national origin, that the color of one’s passport is all that colors one’s perspective. I do realize that it’s a factor, in fact I’ve learned how important familiarity from the inside of a society is to understanding it by reading some of the humorously inaccurate beliefs about American society occasionally made on that forum by those familiar with it only from afar.

But just because one’s culture may be a starting point for understanding the world, that doesn’t mean it’s a finish line for it. By cultivating multicultural experiences and deliberate exposure to other languages, other societies, and the hopes, dreams, beliefs, and fears of those whose roots were fed in distant ground, one can end up with a much more refined view of how we are similar and how we differ. 

Put simply, then, the main reason that formulation galls me is that it suggests that a person’s views are much more one dimensional than they necessarily are. I like to think that I don’t presuppose that of others, and in turn I would prefer they not presuppose it of me. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?