jeudi 15 novembre 2007

Yes, we are American!

When we think of America we think big in the first place. Americans themselves often insist on how large their country is geographically speaking, as well as how powerful it is. Overdoing things seemingly looks like a defining trait of all things American (no negative understanding attached to the word).

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 US 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.

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 America 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. 

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.

9 commentaires:

LASunsett a dit…

If you were to ask intelligent Americans, I think they certainly would have little trouble agreeing with many of the points you have made.

But, to understand the psyche of an American, you have to know and understand why Americans came here in the first place.

They left a crowded continent that had despot rulers, for a land that offered an adventure for souls that felt closed in. When they got here, they braved rugged conditions, they faced starvation, and yet they survived what was in that day, a monumental task. And above all they saw wide open spaces.

When they saw they could make it here in this land, they developed an adventurous spirit that eventually led to some of today's attitudes, which you describe. never again did they want to feel crowded.

They were peace-lovers that were products of the renaissance and outcasts in their own country. They were discriminated against because they didn't want to be told how to believe theologically. They were free-spirits that longed for space and the challenges that came with it.

They wanted to show the motherland that they could make it. they wanted to take all things European and make it better. (Whether they did or not, is moot.)

But these principle characteristics, I have outlined, are just part of the reasons there has been so much competition, both then and now. Then, it was not healthy competition. Today, it's much more friendly and much more healthy. (It may not seem like it sometimes, but it really is.)

Flocon a dit…


You seem to put much emphasis on the concept of over populated areas, crowd etc. in order to explain the reasons for many Europeans to immigrate to America.
"They left a crowded continent"
"never again did they want to feel crowded."
"They were free-spirits that longed for space"

I'm not sure I can follow you here.
The Scandinavian countries weren't exactly crowded in the XIXth (and still aren't), Ukraine was some sort of desert as was Russia and the now Baltic States.
On the contrary, the most populated country in Europe in the XIXth was France (say 30 million inhabitants by 1850) which had the least immigrants to the US.
Over-population was less a factor than poverty (save for France precisely) I would say.

Greg a dit…

Flocon: you should be able to understand this, as the French have exactly the same superiority complex. It's taught to both populations from day one. Each is convinced they do most everything the best way.

If you don't believe me, you can visit this blog called You'll see what I'm talking about.

Anonyme a dit…

If you ignore all of the homogeneous societies and focus only on those supposed “melting pots” (which no longer adequately describe multicultural societies), I believe your analysis remains valid after substituting any number of other ethno-national adjectives, including “French Canadian.” It is true that we frame our identity by nationality, but also by our regional origin. This is true in the US (Texans vs. Californians), and it is true in France (Parisians vs. Bourgogne). Any people can take natural pride in their nation, or state, or hometown and transform it into unnatural superiority, which in my view marks a poorly educated person. There is certainly a place for pride, but it should not be false-pride. In the case of Americans, there have been so many mistakes and yet — Americans have done much good in the world.

I wish it were true that an attack on one American could be regarded as an attack on us all, but our individualism and regionalism precludes that from happening except under the most dire consequences; I do not think it is much different in your country. As an American, I do not believe for a minute that God loves us any more than he does any other nationality — or even that he takes “sides” in conflicts. What I do think is that God expects us to find ways to get along with one another, and to the extent that they can, do more good things than bad things. Standing in the way of this is our politicians with a nationalist agenda, which may or may not be in the best interests of us all.

Semper Fidelis,

Anonyme a dit…

Hi Greg,
"It's taught to both populations from day one."
Hmmm... Some more details would be welcome.
You will notice that I didn't mention any "superiority complex" in the post but I guess you can infer there was some sort of hint of this. Hmmm... Would you recommand this address?


Anonyme a dit…

Hi Mustang,
"In the case of Americans, there have been so many mistakes and yet — Americans have done much good in the world."
If an American citizen says so I suppose it must be true... But could any other citizen from any other nation in the world be allowed the same sort of statement without being considered arrogant by you? ;-)


LASunsett a dit…


//the most populated country in Europe in the XIXth was France (say 30 million inhabitants by 1850) which had the least immigrants to the US.//

This is true. I didn't intend for my short comment to be the final analysis.

But the important thing to note about this phenomenon is, France had the least amount of immigrants to America despite the fact, they had the largest amount of land. This is one of the bigger reasons, the French lost much influence over new world.

Where I live now, was once part of the Louisiana colony. Cities like, New Orleans and St. Louis, are the exceptions. These settlements were originally French. Other smaller settlements, like Terre Haute and Vincennes (both in Indiana), were French. There still is a lot of French influence in these cities and towns, yet today. Although I willingly concede that influence is being lost by the generation

The wars with Britain cost them a lot, as well. Who knows whether or not, things would have been different, had France not sold the Louisiana Purchase, to fund a war?

//Over-population was less a factor than poverty (save for France precisely) I would say.//

Crowded conditions doesn't necessarily mean number of people. In this case, crowded means less space for people to own and occupy. The nobility owned the land and the commoners had to live where there was a town. They didn't have the luxury of going out buying some land, and building a home on it.

If someone wanted to move to the country, they had to own land. Land, being already owned, was expensive. In America, one could move away and stake out land for themselves, at little cost. Just a willingness to relocate, across the pond.

Besides this, "crowded" is also a relative term. When many are in a village, town, or city, it's still subject to a time element. It may not have been that crowded by our standards today, but it was viewed as crowded, by those that lived in it.

Bottom line to the point i am really trying to make, Americans were the risk takers. Most immigrants throughout history have been risk takers. Those that stayed in Europe, stayed there because they felt safer staying. They were more content with the status quo, than those that left.

Obob a dit…

I caught this at yen/yang and wanted to throw my shillings worth, but most of my points have been made.
I do dig Sarkozy. I'm glad to see y'all made the right choice. I will stop time to time and offer a little "meat"

Flocon a dit…

Thanks for your comment Obob,

Some former posts are in English, some others will follow. If you feel like...