I’ve been thinking about how I wish I could live my life with the suspension of disbelief of an American who says "This isn't our country."
One of my favourite hobbies is probably complaining about America, especially Texas. Ah, the untapped comedic potential of Southern hospitality. You could say I have a lot of disdain for the place. In recent times I've been told this is annoying and/or hurtful. Why, I’m not sure. Is it hurtful because you still place so much stock in the idea that yours is a nation of greatness? Is it annoying because you believe geopolitical borders determine who can issue judgement?
“Surviving in America seems like a giant hazing ritual,” a friend recently said to me over dinner.
“Yes,” I agree. “Citizens exhibit a sense of pride for making it work in a place where everything is supposed to be capital G Great but 'prosperity' comes at a significant psychological price.”
[Note: Around this time last year, I started reading a study on Bourdieusian social space. You can access it here. The upwardly mobile respondents "between two worlds" have been of particular interest to me.]
For many Americans, the retention of their American identity is of the utmost importance. Their country and state mean a lot to them. It's a buffer of sorts against anxiety and cultural dislocation. To revoke this identity could entail battling additional hostility in the form of negative sanctions. I can agree with that "Home of the Brave" part of their anthem.
“It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing,” asserts Claudia Rankine in Citizen, “It is also that you have a destination that doesn't include acting like this moment isn't inhabitable, hasn't happened before, and the before isn't part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.”
It must be exhausting, that I will say. I can't imagine. Speaking of imagination, I'm currently reading Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Benedict Anderson writes, "In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles. On the other hand, how truly rare it is to find analogous nationalist products expressing fear and loathing. Even in the case of colonized peoples, who have every reason to feel hatred for their imperialist rulers, it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of national feeling."
It's fascinating to me. Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, "the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship." Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible for millions "not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings." Anderson wonders… how have these "shrunken imaginings" generated such colossal sacrifices?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Pretty sure it was James Baldwin who said, "You can't talk about education in this country without talking about the whole society in which it mainly fails to occur.” The imaginings are so limited and the real-time exploitation so oft ignored. The effects of the structures that guide American legal and social practice have such adverse implications. And more and more people are starting to tune in.
[Edit: Since this post was originally published, I have also read "Disturbing Our National Slumber" by Rich Blint, which I would highly recommend. Blint brings up a conversation between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, admiring Lorde’s "refusal to be seduced by the promise and fiction of American egalitarianism." He reminds us, "Change is difficult, power intractable, dominant discourses formidable. The opportunity to confront the seams, fissures, and fault lines of a culture is one of the definitions of crisis. And although we tend to shrink from responsibility when confronted with disaster, looming or acutely present, we would do well to adopt the elemental grace Lorde expresses ... and declare that as a consequence of living we greet the contradictions of our enduring if abstract differences with respect — 'like looking at death: hard but possible.'"]
For me, defining characteristics of the US include its attitude of superiority, questionable education system, and the overarching theme that attempts to maintain authenticity vis-à-vis one's origins/class abate continued mobility. We see a lot of social suffering and profoundly conflicted individuals oscillating between the loyalties of family and the opportunities of mobility.
I've also been reading a piece titled "Open City or the Right to the City?" by Neil Brenner in which a genuinely open city is described as "one in which investment is channeled to serve social need rather than private gain; in which public institutions secure and protect shared, common resources from private appropriation; and in which all inhabitants have secured equal capacities to influence decisions that affect the spaces, institutions and resources shared by all." Not sure how much this is going on in major American cities. When considering how individuals access reserves of economic/cultural/social capital, it seems like consociating helps reduce consternation. The more American the better. America first.
Another fun thing about many of the Americans I've encountered is that their ability to deflect is phenomenal. I'm not sure it's a coping mechanism of sorts to avoid a potential identity crisis but I almost admire it. Their pride for the place is inextricably linked with their fledgling awareness of how other people view it. How they have succeeded in spite of the broken systems that are in place.
Either I am told I must refrain from commenting on what I find abhorrent (because my country of origin is a utopia of sorts and I must not be familiar with any structures of oppression) or I am given some bullshit line about how "Western culture is a benchmark of progress" and as a Canadian I am just looking to pick a fight. By condemning America as a whole, I am condemning the efforts of the marginalized to make it 'better,' I am told. This sounds a little bit like #NotAllMen if you ask me, but, hey, no one asked me.
When we speak about men performing harmful actions (or misogyny in a general sense in 2018), few people (with the exception of male chauvinists themselves) pipe up, "But not all men…" anymore. It's gotten old. I wonder how long it will take before we can condemn the world's most insidious nation and its dangerous policies without having to take the flak from its more devout citizens/fans.
"English speakers are particularly unwilling to acknowledge American evilness because we are cultural beneficiaries of their hegemony," a Scottish friend reminded me recently.
Yet there are some Americans (who are fairly privileged/upwardly mobile, mind you) who eschew the status quo and condemn the nation. Among them are people I consider my friends in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit (I grew up fifteen minutes from the latter), among other places. They don't snarl at outsiders who critique the "Land of the Free" but they do denounce systems that acutely perpetuate violence in their homeland (and elsewhere).
I sat beside some senior citizens from Seattle in a restaurant last week. We discussed Trump’s recent comments to Trudeau regarding trade and tariffs.
“I hope you screw us over,” one of the men joked with me cheerily. “Enjoy your dinner.”
“I will,” I replied gratefully.
So I continued to reach out to some of the people themselves to discuss American exceptionalism in recent times. (I'm no longer interested in their particular brands of patriotism.)
"For me the best place to find it sorta like incognito and as liberals experience it ideologically is in Star Trek," a friend who moved from Minnesota to Berlin told me in a recent discussion. "Like the older ones. You got this unexplored frontier being channeled and molded by the exceptionally flexible William Shatner. And they go around sorta like making chaos rational and giving everyone free space federalism."
I started laughing at how accurate this description was.
"As I've been living abroad, he added, "I've noticed more and more that sometimes I need Americans around."
"Because no one else can just flip on maniacally unjustified optimism in the face of obstacles that don't require any … For me that projection about the future not being shitty in spite of all evidence is a big part of it."
In the words of Lana del Rey… Be young. Be dope. Be proud.
Like an American.