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Thoughts on national identity: A view from across the pond

Published: January 16, 2009
Section: Opinions


the_hoot_1-16-09final_page_03_image_0002When I studied abroad in Scotland during the autumn semester, my American identity suddenly became very important. I have always been faintly aware of this identity, but living in a foreign country forced me to become much more conscious of it. I became slightly uncomfortable and defensive when asked where I was from. I resented the fact that the word ‘American’ seemed to imply certain things about me. Among others things, it associated me with the policies of our unpopular government.

Just what does ‘American’ mean? What do all Americans share? One obvious answer is that we share a geographic domain. That answer does not go far enough, however. There is something more implied by the word ‘American’. After all, I have only met a fraction of the people living in the United States. I’ve traveled west of Illinois once (during a trip to Arizona). Geographically, Alaska and Hawaii might as well be foreign lands since they are so far away from Massachusetts, my home state.

In addition to sharing a common land, we also share a common government. Americans have always been proud of the basic principles of their government, and with good reason. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are certainly impressive documents and deserve to be celebrated. In a sense, these documents, and the ideals they espouse, bind us together as Americans. We appreciate their force and importance. On the other hand, Americans are often bitterly divided over the decisions made by our government. No one should ever confuse a government with the people it governs. They are two separate entities. Thomas Paine began his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense with that thought in mind. “Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins,” Paine wrote.

There are a number of things I like about America, but not enough to continue the exaggerations promoted by our politicians (be they Republican, Democratic, or Independent). I am both amused and mildly irritated when I here a politician claim that “America is the greatest country in the world.” This type of rhetoric is definitely not helpful to our image abroad. Seemingly harmless statements of this kind can do damage, as I learned while living overseas. They make Americans seem inflated with self-importance. America does enjoy various advantages over other countries, but that is not a reason to send the message that it is better than them.

A few of my European friends made fun of the kind of rhetoric our politicians use. “Are your workers really the best in the world?” teased one friend after hearing John McCain make that claim. To be fair, President-elect Obama has made nearly identical statements. In the defense of McCain and Obama, there is tremendous pressure in American politics to be as ‘patriotic’ as your political rivals. Consider how Obama was criticized by some Republicans for not adorning his suit with an American flag pin.

My friends at Edinburgh University were very interested in American politics. A few of them complained that British politicians were dull. By contrast, American politicians are engaging and entertaining, sometimes foolish and ridiculous, but rarely uninteresting. Think about it. We have McCain the war hero and friend of Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin the moose-shooting Alaskan, and Obama, the charismatic orator. Even President Bush, loathed as he is in some parts of the world, is a source of entertainment. How can Gordon Brown possibly compare?

Perhaps this is why the election received such extensive coverage in the British media, never mind the stark differences between the candidates and severity of the problems confronting the next president. Signs of the election were abundant. In the week leading up to the big day, one of the bars in the student union building served Obama and McCain burgers. After the election, one café in Edinburgh set up two tip jars, with Obama’s name on one and McCain’s on the other. A note instructed customers to place a tip in the jar of the candidate for whom they would have voted. Not surprisingly, Obama’s jar was full; McCain’s was empty.

It is amazing how Obama’s victory seems to have changed the way Americans (not just our government) are perceived. I could sense a lot of goodwill on Nov 5, at least toward those who voted for Obama. Let me summarize what happened: Americans elected Obama, most Europeans like Obama; therefore most Europeans like Americans a little more as well. Certainly not every European supported Obama, but I think it is fair to say that Americans gained a boost in reputation because of his victory. I welcome any goodwill Obama’s victory has created, but I am slightly uncomfortable with it nonetheless. I am uncomfortable with the fact that foreigners may think our leaders closely represent ourselves. Our leaders do represent us, but only to an extent. We often disagree with them about various issues, even when we vote for them.

The label ‘American’ can only say so much about individual Americans, just as the word ‘Scottish’ can only say so much about individual Scots, or ‘English’ about individual Englishmen, etc. We are all individuals first and citizens second. It is hard to fault people for associating each other with the leadership of their respective countries, but we must exercise caution in the process.