When we think of
How many times have I read signs related to anything in America boasting to be the greatest on earth (show, building, airplane, theatre, stadium, whatever) with the “only in America” sign?
And I was wondering why this apparent urge to constantly assert one’s uniqueness and grandeur in Americans’ own eyes as well as in the face of the world. An outside observer may wonder if something is missing in the very core of the American identity that needs both to be forgotten and overcome. Some sort of innate “deficiency” that is permanently reminded of through the incessant effort to magnify everything American. The more pressing the boasting, the more apparent it is something has to be concealed.
And I came to this idea: It may have something to do with the three most essential foundations of any human society: Money, language, population.
1°) Which symbol is more American than the dollar? To the point that all over the world, when a caricature of the
is published, it is adorned with an image of the dollar. But as we all know, the dollar is the Americanized version of the thaler, a former German currency. What’s more, the graphic symbol of the symbol, the $, stands for Spanish Dollar. In other words, the most conspicuous symbol of the country and the associated meta-symbol aren’t national in their origin, thus in their essence. US
2°) The language that is spoken in the US… well, you know… is not a language that has been building up after hundred and hundred years like in any other country, it is a language that has been “imposed” upon by the former masters, or rather, that came along… like any former Spanish colony in south America. Although in our case it could be considered like an import product, language isn’t an asset like any other mind you.
To top it all, English, a marvellous language per se, is nonetheless the result of a blending of German (verbal system), French (vocabulary), Latin (syntax), coalesced on a vernacular basis that isn’t exactly “American”.
That cannot go without deep running consequences in one’s own national feeling and pride when one’s language isn’t actually one’s.
3°) Although America is now a very diverse nation in terms of population -the famed melting-pot- historically its population is European. The natives and “real” Americans, the Amerindians so to speak, have been nearly wiped out, which leaves an unfathomable hole in the collective memory of the country, a dark spot that can never be lightened up. Though Europeans in their origin, Americans have to insist they’re no longer Europeans, which is correct of course, and yet… they are. Like the great, great, great grand sons of a family would insist they no longer are from the family. But they can’t… they’ll always be scions of their origins. Now, talk about sitting on a fence when I have to pose that I am me and not the other one, although I am also partly the other one.
It’s not like the Chinese for example who are Chinese with no further ado; or the Iranians, the Greeks etc. Americans, it seems, have to distant themselves from Europeans while there’s no denying their origin. As a matter of facts, Americans are Europeans who live in another continent and who have developed another way of living.
If one accepts these three propositions as valid, it may make sense then that the need to overcome these identity flaws in the heart of
can only be partially transcended through a true national symbol which owes nothing to anything foreign: The Flag. Hence, maybe, the virtual religious status the Stars ‘n Stripes seems to enjoy in America . Now, that is a symbol of national identity upon which all American citizens know there is a pledge of allegiance which signals the ultimate engagement of adherence to the country. America
The true and only true American symbol is the flag. And it may not be exaggerate to pose that the importance it vets in the American psyche is inversely proportional to the three aforementioned wounds of the national ego.
The very essence of the American identity bears unmistakable similarities with a Greek tragedy indeed.
(When the word “Americans” is used it has a collective meaning of course, not each and every single American citizen.)
Note: The painting is «Nu à contre-jour ou l’eau de Cologne» by Pierre Bonnard, 1908.