As an American……….

There are not many more ludicrous starts to a sentence than the words As an American. The phrase seems to roll off the tongue so easily and with such sincerity, partly due to the alliteration but also because of the solipsism and national self-obsession the words represent. Americans, like those in a number of other countries I hasten to add, are conditioned from an early age to consider their nationality a unique marker and an essential part of their identity rather than something more incidental or relatively insignificant; and to believe that nationality is more fundamental to their individual self than other core, arguably more important, aspects of identity such as religion, values, political philosophy, culture, family, ethnicity, or personality.

Of course, we can trace much of this American inculcation back to the mid-twentieth century when the United States made an immense effort to corral very diverse groups and numerous cultures into a unified country with a sense of shared belonging (hence, during this time, the introduction of the national anthem, pledge of allegiance, and flag veneration), as well as to the Cold War, when, in the face of superpower rivalry and socialist threat, the United States constantly pushed and emphasized its sense of nationhood and collective identity, however contrived. But it was effective and today the United States remains a peculiarly homogeneous nation that demands a remarkable level of political, social, and cultural conformity. Yet despite this degree of homogeneity, it remains reductive, folly, and immature to suggest that the country bestows a ‘nationalized’ opinion and perspective on all its citizens.

Firstly, the phrase As an American presumes that there is something in the national experience that generates a unique perspective or worldview. Yet there are no distinct values, principles, or socio-cultural traits in the United States that could create a national opinion on any given subject. Indeed, the United States is particularly unoriginal in its essence, being an expansion of British and European civilization and thus predicated, socio-culturally, legally, and politically on Western-centric norms and liberal political philosophy.

Thus, the phrase As an American is often employed as a rhetorical device merely to add clout to the speaker’s opinion by suggesting that their view represents that of a whole nation. Alternatively, it is used to flatter the nation itself, for there are Americans who want to claim every human virtue as their own or paint a picture of their nation as they would like it to be seen. Therefore, we see regular As an American references to things such as bravery, individualism, meritocracy, justice, liberty, opportunity, democracy, and can-do spirit. Nevertheless, such self-labelling proves rather vacuous and duplicitous when it does not match reality or one observes the same virtues being claimed and extolled by numerous other people, cultures, societies, and nations. Unfortunately, for the As an American user, no citizenry can monopolize an opinion, idea, or perspective, or claim ownership of certain values, principles, forms of government, or righteousness.

Secondly, even if there were such unique and defining attributes among a nation’s population (and that is a very hypothetical if), it would simply be impossible for them to exist in the United States, or virtually any other country on the planet, because most societies are too changeable — evolving over time, often beyond recognition — and far too diverse and complex to allow, let alone sustain, exclusive, sui generis viewpoints. Even now, a black youth from Chicago’s South Side sees the world very differently from a white grandmother in Lexington, Kentucky. A Latinx from Oakland, California, would have a completely different perspective on life than a retiree in Bradenton, Florida. Or, more brutally but tellingly, what unique American opinions did George Floyd share with Derek Chauvin? In this context, the phrase As an American never sounded so perverse.

Individuals, not nations, have values, opinions, traits, perspectives, and characteristics. Undoubtedly, an individual’s nation impacts and shapes them, as does culture, personal experiences, and innate character, but it is highly specious to suggest that sharing the same country means sharing the same opinion and perspective. Ultimately, whenever one hears the words As an American, we must immediately stop and ask ourselves two things. 1. Who is the speaker actually speaking for? I can pretty much guarantee that they will not be speaking for me, for you, fellow citizens, or anyone else, but simply themselves. 2. Are the claims they make and opinions they offer on behalf of the nation genuinely unique and discrete to the country’s citizens or are they in fact rather broad, universal themes that are shared by much of humanity? I am confident it will be the latter.

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Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon

Lived on the streets of New York. Visited over 60 countries. Degrees from LSE, Duke and Cambridge. RAF officer. Teacher. Novelist. Dual citizen of the US and UK