Among other things, culture is identity; it separates thine from mine, us from them. It teaches us right from wrong and appropriate from inappropriate. Once indoctrinated, we live by these rules, which, in turn, constitute our identity.
Today, I posit a seemingly easy question. What is American civilization and cultural identity? What makes you American, or what makes an American one of “them” if you are not American?
No differentiation has been more legitimized over the course of human history than nationality. It is upheld by international law and validated by our own cultural perceptions. While “nation” is a hot political word in certain circumstances, nationality has traditionally implied cultural homogeny. Members of a nationality often share centuries of common history, tradition, language, food, music, folktales, subculture, etc. Time counts for something, no? Moreover, common genetic heritage often accompanies national cultural bonds. A brief glance at the sides participating in the UEFA Euro 2008 Finals exhibits readily apparent phenotypic similarities shared by members of a particular national team.
The United States is a very interesting nation from this perspective. The United States has been an independent state for approximately 232 years; the eastern seaboard has been regularly inhabited by westerners for roughly four centuries. Almost two dozen generations across four hundred years would certainly constitute enough time to develop an independent and unique national culture. Isolated by a large ocean and a sparsely inhabited continent, Americans seemed perfectly situated to allopatrically evolve a new culture. Today, Americans share a similar value system, common English accent, powerful sports and popular culture, and a strong sense of civic duty. Are Americans a traditional nation like any other? Do Americans have a common national culture, appearance or identity?
In proud recollection, the grandeur of American history has often been portrayed as the triumph of the underdog. It has been the celebration of the faceless indistinctive individual who, through indefatigable effort and perseverance, achieves success. America is not a single strain of homogeneity, but rather an olio of culturally discrete constituents. We are all familiar with the axiom: the United States is a melting pot of cultures, a land of only immigrants. Americans share the same space, but no American is less American for being dark or light skinned, for wearing a turban, fez, burqa, or for eating certain foods or even smelling a certain way. Unlike in other nations, an immigrant in America is virtually impossible to detect, since Americans are almost entirely of old-world immigrant heritage. The only question is: of which generation? Given that Americans are the most genetically and culturally diverse nation on Earth, it would appear that the only thing Americans have in common is that they have nothing in common.
What makes America, America then? Who helped realize the 20th century American golden age? Was it the quality of the actual Americans who had previously settled and toiled for a better society, or was it perpetual immigrant fidelity to the promise of the American dream—a timeless legacy that belongs to past and future generations of immigrant Americans? Is the image of the dirtied coal worker more iconically American than the Indian convenience store owner? Is an American's birthplace even relevant to being American?
While immigration policy has always been a polemic topic in the United States, the underlying issue is essentially a question of identity. Realizing that America is not a homogenous population requires accepting that being American is fundamentally about openness and common tolerance of other cultures. Rejecting this view requires the belief that there is a group of people that share a common history, phenotypic look, lifestyle, value system, etc. that is more legitimately American than those of any other persuasion in any of these categories. Being more American, this group of people would naturally enjoy a stronger claim to American soil and representation, no? Are we the children to the founding fathers or merely the founding fathers’ ideas?
Who is the real American? Consensus on this disjunction would go a long way towards solving several contemporary American problems.