Bonds and Myths of American Identity

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Living abroad for eight years, my primary identity became “American” and “expat.” I was thrilled to encounter Americans in the Middle East and felt instant affinity with most of them. Political or (sub)cultural differences didn’t matter. We seemed to have an innate understanding of each other. Now that I am “home,” it seems I have to choose what kind of American I am going to be, in ways that divide or put me at odds with other Americans. What region of the country, in an urban or rural setting, do I choose? Do I select a racially or ethnically integrated neighborhood, a church, an economically upscale or modest enclave? What kind of school does my kid go to or that my wife and I teach at, public or private, well-resourced in a “good” neighborhood, with students who have curiosity, a conducive environment and a hunger to learn? Or seriously deprived, under-performing, with angry, loud, undisciplined and out-of-control kids? What kinds of civil and social clubs will I participate in?

My political views, indeed my new American identity may be shaped by these choices and by whether I routinely watch Fox News or MSNBC, which of these two polar-opposite daily outrage machines I internalize. And since “like attracts like,” my worldview may be shaped by how my new neighborhood voted in the 2016 election.

These decisions seem to define me as different from other Americans, “them” who aren’t like me.

Stay tuned for a post on the kind of American identity we have chosen, at least temporarily.

The video above suggests that national identity is entirely a social construct, “a myth that built the modern world.” I’m not sure that I agree. We all want to feel a part of tribes. From my travels, I certainly have observed that there are clearly cultural traits and behaviors common to national identities, and citizens of different countries have different national experiences.

Nationalism has mainly been a negative force in the world, the video suggests, growing out of urbanization, mass communication, war, and decline of the church. Militarism and leader worship are often part of nationalism.

But living in the Middle East, where clans, religions, and extended families are more likely to define who you are, in opposition to others, leading to fragmentation and even civil wars, you appreciate that nationalism can be a positive, unifying force.

The video also neglects the appeal of public service and self-sacrifice as a part of patriotism — to give back for the blessings you have been given, to “preserve, protect and defend” your country and your fellow citizens from forces that wish to destroy it, to maintain the rule of law and fight, if necessary, against tyrannical forces without or within.

Perhaps this cynical video could only be posted in a leading American publication now when the desire for common ground, to seek policies that solve problems that unify the nation, has been at least temporarily lost. In national politics, the dominating trend is to point fingers and blame other Americans for the country’s problems.

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