Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Identity Day!

Blogging has been light as I have been traveling back from Budapest.  In a post later today, I will discuss what I learned in that very beautiful city.  In this post, I just a few brief thoughts on yet another Fourth of July viewed from my perch north of the Wall.

It was a good thing that I was not in Canada when this list of the 99 ways Canada is better than the US was published.  Luckily, the first I learned of this is when I read Andrew Cohen's column this morning that does a nice job putting things into perspective.  Now, I don't have to come up with 100 ways the US is better than Canada.

Instead, I will focus on just one for this Independence Day.  Every identity includes multiple aspects about who one is, but a key part of that is by defining who one is not.  Canada, because of its proximity and relative size, absolutely has to define its nationalism in large part by what it is not--the US.  Which leads to various stuff that can be good and bad.  I have been less than thrilled with "Americanized" as an insult up here--that Hillier was Americanized, the Harper is Americanized, which explains how they could be so unCanadian

One of the things that makes the U.S. "great" in my humble opinion is that there is no single Other that defines the U.S.  While the US has been in opposition to the British early on and then the Germans twice (and Japanese once) and the Soviets for quite some time, to be an American is not so clearly defined by not being like country x, y or z.  To be unAmerican does not mean acting like a Canadian or a Russian or a Chinese person.  It did mean, for quite awhile and with some nasty consequences, being Communist or seen as a sympathizer to communism.

The U.S., for all of its problems, tends to have loftier targets for what defines it than other countries--the ideas that it represents and the ideas that it opposes.  So, all the goodness in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (leaving out the ugly bits, like condoning slavery for more than four score years) are key bits of the content in the American identity that resonate, and the Others that have defined the U.S. and American identity have been colonialism/empire (that would be mostly of the British kind, admittedly), fascism (too many Germans in the US to hate Germans for very long?), and Communism.

The problem today is that Terrorism has much less content than the ideologies of the past, so the Other is really a strategic or a tactic, which means the US ends up defining itself by the strategies it chooses to fight Terrorism.  Alas, the strategies that now definite American identity include rendition, torture, and drone strikes.  Of course, this affects more how others see Americans than how Americans see themselves, but identity is, as academics say, intersubjective.  Our identities are products not just of how we see ourselves but how others see us. 

My American identity is probably a bit more complex than it was before 2002, as I see more clearly (although I am often quite confused) how others perceive Americans, including as The Other.  With Great Power not only comes Great Responsibility but also a Great role in how others construct their identities and nationalisms. 

I am pretty ambivalent these days about the State of the Union and the place of the U.S. in the world.  I have a column coming out later today at that addresses this.  But I wanted to just address some identity dynamics as I am too tired from my air travels to come up with one hundred reasons why the US rocks.  Not why the US is better than Canada but why the US just rocks (thanks again, Andrew Cohen!).  Maybe next year.  In the meantime, enjoy Independence Day, which marks the anniversary of an incredible document that mattered not just then and there but since then pretty much everywhere.  Indeed, despite the flaws of the founders, their hopes and ambitions for what this country would become, this imagined potential, is pretty damned terrific and is worth more than a few fireworks and excessive blogposts.

And, yes, this speech still gives me chills.

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