Saturday, July 4, 2009

On this Independence Day

Life has a way of getting away from us. It has been four months since my last post. Lots of thoughts. Not much time or incentive. Perhaps Facebook drained the mental juices too much. For a longer discussion, tho' it seemed appropriate to discuss a larger idea that I have wrestled with for a bit: What does it mean to be an American? Figure July 4 is as good a day to deal with it as any.

Growing up, when I asked "who are we?" --and in New Mexico that is not an inconsequential question -- the answer was along the lines of "You are an American and that should be good enough for you." Okaaay. Yes, I was born in the United States. I am a citizen, am glad I am a citizen, appreciate the opportunity to vote and particpate in our governance. As an identity, though, what does that mean? After all, George W. Bush is an American. So was Michael Jackson. So are the neighbor kids whose family came from Mexico and who themselves speak both Spanish and English. So, what does it mean to be American?

It seems that there are two versions of answer, neither of which I find terribly satisfying. One is the classic "WASP" version--the "All American" version. "American" means northern European in descent, English speaking, Christian, preferably from a small town, preferably with military connections, married with kids (or supporting married with kids), loving sports--esp baseball and football, prefering "meat and potatoes" cuisine, with ties to the farmer or the "workin' man," and fervently patriotic with the unswavering conviction that the United States is better than any other place on the planet--ever. It is the "country" in "country music." Think the song "I'm proud to be an American...." It is on one end Fox News but also Prairie Home Companion of Garrison Keillor on the other --the two sides of the same coin. It exists here in Kansas in spades. A version of it defined what American meant for my family.

Yet it has its limitations. There are a lot of people who are born, raised, and supportive of the United States who don't fit that but in this image, are't "real" Americans. Urban yuppies aren't "real Americans" in this view and urbanites in general are problematic for this largely small-town vision of Americanness. You aren't a "real American" if you didn't serve in the miltary or at least support all U.S. policies overseas unquestioningly. Immigrants can be All-American so long as they give up their earlier traditions and "become" American. People of color have limited relevance to this world view, as do people who aren't Christian or LBGT, etc. It excludes pretty much anyone who can't say "H**l, Yeah!" in identifying with the world view of the country music.

There is an opposite vision that in some ways developed precisely to challenge the All-American notion just listed. That vision is the melting pot, the world of the song "They're coming to America." It is the world of America as place of opportunity for all and therefore is open to all. Anybody can be American so long as they are born here or are naturalized citizens. American means hot dogs and tacos and sushi. Americans speak all languages, have ties to all parts of the world and have a variety of religious backgrounds. It is the America of the WPA projects of "This Land is My Land." In many ways, it is a far more accurate depiction of American identity. After all, the U.S. is the first country to not be founded based on an ethnicity but rather, and ideal.

Yet, that is where its problematic issues come in. If being American is about being tied to all other peoples on the earth,and ultimately being part of a society that is an amalgam of all the peoples of the earth, then what is the difference between being American and being, well, human? The diversity view makes absolute sense from a legal, citizenship standpoint. On the other hand, it can be, from an ethnicity/identity model so broad that it can be almost meaningless. Identity is rooted in the sense of "I am this, I am not that. I am part of a larger group that has X,Y, and Z features." It has to be more than mere legal descriptions (after all, you don't hear someone proclaim "State Legislative District 36 pride!"--it has to be deeper than that) Total inclusion of all groups, while a very worthwhile endeavor, eliminates the "other" to distinguish oneself. This is why I don't have a problem with the "hyphenated American." Rather, it becomes a natural outgrowth of someone both identifying as American and yet finding an identity within that breadth. The hyphenated concept is all but required to allow someone to find a relevant identity within the larger mix.

This multicultural version is the New Mexico model, with its very, very, very strong embrace of tradition, heritage and rootedness in the land and people. One sees it in the Pueblo artist connecting with ancient traditions, who can say "I am X because we do this, eat this, and have this as a background story. It is the Latino who can be both American and part of "La Raza" and be proud of both. It is rooted in very real reactions to ethnocentricism and racism that have defined the region for generations. Grafted onto that is the cowboy model, which is the Southwestern "All American" (perhaps Y'All American is more accurate) contribution to the mix as a legitimate mix. But if you aren't Native American, Latino, or a Cowboy, well, you're just an Anglo outsider--a "them" not worth describing in detail.

This is where we come back to the issue of American for the native born English speaking crowd. If you can't legitimately tie oneself to a specific heritage based on place or origin, ethnicity, or region, then, well, who are you? If you are a blend and the family made sure, in good mid-twentieth century fashion, to strip any ethnic baggage from the background (often with quite understandable reasons), who are you? I know a lot of people who just say "I'm a mutt"--which is sorta akin to saying "I don't care if I have an identity." It is giving up on the identity quest. Maybe that is the healthiest way to be and the sanest way to proceed. Wish I could go there. Just can't.

For me, the quest for identity, heritage, traditions, etc. remains circular and awkward. As a blend of several different backgrounds but ties and traditions to none of them, this background means there really isn't anything to put at the front end of the hyphen in the hyphenated American. Yet, I am too different from the classic "All American" version of being American as well. Being raised in a multicultural, urban setting, the ties don't stick and trying to live into the small town, God and Country, "All American" image would feel as fake as attempting to be more "ethnic" when trying to connect to one of the lost heritages of my own background. In other words, I feel neither fish nor fowl.

In the cosmic scheme of things is ain't no big deal. There are lots of people who have a lot more serious problems and real issues to deal with. 99.99999999% of the world's people have much more serious matters to attend to so I almost feel guilty even devoting this much time to the topic. It fully realize it is a luxury tp be so whiny, a privilege limited to a very well off, well educated person who has very much benefitted from what society has provided. Yet, it is the matter that won't go away, sorta like a nagging pain that you can't quite explain and would love to get a diagnosis for.

Wish there was a way to end the post. The concluding paragraphs remain to be written. My ongoing search is to find out what they might say.

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