On July 4, let’s ask what is Americanism?

As we celebrate July 4th, a discussion worth having comes to mind … What is Americanism?

This entire discussion for me is long overdue. Some of my brethren on the left look the liberal democracies of western Europe for inspiration even though in many cases they are more classist and race-conscious societies than the United States has been in generations. Nations that enslaved whole races of people like France are seen as “enlightened” by some on the left when compared or contrasted with the United States. And like the United States, places like France, and the Netherlands have electorally viable far-ight fascist movements gaining strength.

These folks often overstate the virtues of any non-American people, including those who don’t share liberal values at all and are guided by religion, albeit religions other than Christianity. But that’s a topic for another day about a crisis in liberalism.

On the right for many, Americanism is far more a statement of culture and thought, reflecting a knee-jerk nationalism and white identity more than anything truly ethnic or geographic. Various journals, books and articles have been written by conservative thinkers to create an American identity and myth which is almost wholly manufactured or theoretical. We recently discussed this in my piece on American Exceptionalism and in other discussions about Critical Race Theory and how American History is largely based around myths and out-of-context events promoted by conservatives. These “conservatives” claim that to them protecting American history and heroes are the most important aspect of our culture, but most these “heroes” were created by myths. For every Davy Crockett we have about five Robert E. Lee’s or John C. Calhoun’s. That is the fault of many people throughout our history but today protecting these myths are the exclusive province of the American right.

From where I sit, it’s time to either stress what unites us as a people or simply retire the term American, because it really isn’t a substantive meaningful one – it’s just been a term like the bastardized “patriot” used to inflame political divisions and one with no ethnic meaning with the notable exceptions of Native Americans, whatsoever. The reality is that Americans are an invented people by and large (like many other people – most people say I am “Indian,” but what is an Indian? It was not an ethnicity, race, nation of people or a distinguishable nation-state before the British decided to group a bunch of Colonial subjects that were darker than the British together within the boundaries of “India,” and many of those people now identity as Punjabi or Bengali or whatever. I don’t self-identify as Indian-American unless forced to by others, because what is an Indian? To me no such people exist ethnically.). Outside of perhaps Native Americans (American Indians) in reality there is no such thing as an American. No American ethnicity exists, as the United States of America is a nation-state that was drawn on political lines.

The failure of Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery’s 1775 Quebec expedition as well as the 1812 Invasion of Canada, meant the USA (who claimed the term “American) didn’t even unite English-speaking white people largely living in North America who could trace their lineage to the British Isles within its national boundaries. Short of some future annexation of Canada, the United States will never be a complete nation-state of white people in North America from the British Isles or Northern Europe. So let’s accept that. The American Revolution also had some *possible* anti-Catholic undertones which perhaps weren’t played prominently but probably served as a reason Quebec and Florida choose at that time to stick with the British rule.  

The concept of an American or Americans as a distinct race of people came from the prose of Thomas Jefferson, a noted Francophile in the Declaration of Independence. Defining Americans as a “separate people” from Britain served to try and transform what was in all facets a civil war contested by British brothers into a conflict between different peoples. 

The myth somehow that arbitrary boundaries between the thirteen colonies and other British colonies in North America constituted a separate people was done expressly for political reasons. The settlers and those in power of those colonies were British in all but name, as they remained for sometime even after independence. As someone of “Indian” extraction, historically I find Jefferson’s notion that Americans were different than the British in 1776 almost as absurd as the claims by Muslim League that Indian Muslims were somehow a distinct people from Indian Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Christians in 1947, leading to the formation of Pakistan. As I noted above Indians don’t really exist but if they did exist how could Indian Muslims who were Bengali be different than Indian Hindus who were Bengali?

Both were created narratives for political purposes, justifying the dividing and separation of a people. Jefferson, whom I admire for what it is worth flaws and all (one of the few historical figures in American history I do admire, for the record)knew what he was doing, and why he was doing it. The goal was to create a context of those fighting for independence being a different people or race than the British when in fact they were not. They were British. So were the people we now term as “Canadians,” at least when it comes to those of British Isles origin.

Being an “American” is more a state of mind than anything or statement of personal identity than anything else – Few if any reading these pages (unless you are Native American) can claim to be an “American,” though the spirit of Americanism is something that has been very real as myth making and the concepts around being an American. 

In the era of nation-states which began roughly with the formation of the United States, a revolution whose political impact is underplayed to this day by European-based historians, the movements and thoughts that originated from this continent changed global thought. But they weren’t distinctly “American” thoughts at all – they represented the best of English and other western liberal and enlightenment thought but finally put into practice in a new nation-state. 

The myth of American Exceptionalism has been created to keep the fiction going about a unique people with a special place in global society. But the reality is Americanism is an idea, a myth, a thought, nothing tangible or real. This is why its definition is ever evolving and subject to constant manipulation by politicians. But as a people we like these lies, these fictions, these myths, so we let the politicians on both sides define what an American is, whether it is a narrow definition pushed by conservatives or a broad definition pushed by the left- both are in fact not only vague but in a true sense, wrong.

“American” as a term to describe people is political or cultural nomenclature which has a melting pot of different people’s, whose ideas and innovations have transformed human society for the better. The United States is a nation whose own history is lamentable and tragic, but we can never forget that for a few short years in the 1940’s, the USA helped saved the human race from likely destruction. From World War II came whatever true identity the American people have, but as that greatest generation passes on handing the torch to the baby boomers and Gen X, the nation has no meaning, no sense of joint purpose- it is in fact more a divisive term than anything.

The fights over mask-wearing and COVID-19 were a potential moment of unity, where the generations now leading could have demonstrated a joint purpose, and vision to lead the planet through its greatest crisis since World War II. Instead, we saw the fraying of the nation-state that is the USA along strictly ideological lines and a growing reverence on the right for selfish individualism and cognitive dissonance, traits that fueled Trumpism and a denial of hard cold facts.

Where we sit after a year plus of COVID-19 is a nation where the ideologues on the right will use the term “American” or “Americanism” to describe anything they desire politically, even if that means killing more American citizens through the selfish act of spreading a deadly virus openly in the name of “liberty,” and “freedom.”

Americanism has always been a rough thought, but at times a beautiful one. However, today it is becoming a more dangerous term, used to justify all sorts of selfish actions that endanger others and promote a denial of facts and reality. The events of January 6 were the final straw in demonstrating how the term is now a dangerous trigger to even inspire coups and insurrection by those moved to cognitive dissonance or even violence by the use of the term “American” or implications or “real” Americans as a theme.

This is a nation-state that occupies a large swath of land on the North American continent, and has been an indisputable force in moving forward human progress and making an impact both positively and negatively (a reality we have not touched on in this article, but one that still rears its ugly head in Latin American on a regular basis) on global history. But does being an American mean anything beyond residing on a portion of the North American continent? Given the current state of political and ethnic polarization within the United States, it’s hard to make a case for unity in purpose, spirit or thought.

What is the American idea, and what is Americanism if anything? It’s a question we should continue to ponder going forward…

(Would love reader comments on this)

5 comments

  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    Good piece

    One problem.

    Crockett was a racist who went to Texas to fight for slavery and against Mexicans.

    He was just like his hero Andrew Jackson

    Jefferson also a total racist

    Like

    1. Um, sorry no. Crockett was a noted anti-Jacksonian who lost his House seat in Jackson’s adopted home state to a Jacksonian – why? Crockett voted against the Indian Removal Act and was friendly with the Cherokee nation.

      Like

  2. E pluribus unum is better said ‘e pluribus…pluribus.’ As I understand it, we had a social contract that included some sort of “equality” in order to make the claim of “unity.” We left that far behind staring in the mid-70s. When the ability to see a doctor is considered a status symbol, there is no longer even a pretense of equality. When students are required to enter peonage for an education, there is no pretense of equality. When the police are empowered to kill whomever they please, there is no pretense of equality.

    We’re left with an enormous land mass of diverse, multicultural population. The experiences of someone from Brookline, MA are going to be alien to someone from Espanola, NM, St. Louis, MO and Miami, FL.

    Without a claim to “equality” we’re factions, which are supposedly inconsistent with the long-term goals of the country. But, the social contract wasn’t broken by regular folks. It was broken by the extremely wealthy in order to serve their interest. Until we address this material issue we’ll always be ‘divided,’ which is probably a good thing. It’s better to be divided and aware of our essential nature than to be united under false pretenses.

    Like

  3. Anonymous · · Reply

    Spot on!

    Happy 4th … if you celebrate it!

    Like

  4. Steve Ellman · · Reply

    Like

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