This tale begins with a revolution. Thirteen British colonies decided to reject the authority of Parliament and break from the empire. The motivation was a wave of liberal thinking that refused to support the aristocracies of Britain. This was the American Revolution which resulted in the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the United States of America.
The ideology that fueled the revolution and set the tone for the national identity of the United States is best described by the philosophers of the time:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and person, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprical, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal to one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will set one above another and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
– John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government
But there is another and great distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
– Thomas Paine, Common Sense
It was the revolutionaries hope to convince and assure the colonists that there was no reason that they should be held under the will of Great Britain. They sought to do so by dismantling the notion of aristocracy and the ‘God-given right to rule.’ In order to do so, they took a stance on society that suggested that all men are created equal by natural design. Once independence was achieved, the United States continued to develop their national identity according to the ideology that had won their independence. This is how we can see the appropriateness of the poem that was placed onto the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, New Colossus
It is then easy to see why the United States would create a national identity that is built on being a refuge for the oppressed. The United States fashioned itself as a global crusader of justice and equality.
Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy
(4:26 – 8:41)
This term was coined by Bell Hooks to describe the interlocking systems of oppression that are all functioning simultaneously at all times. Hooks’ genius has offered us a completely revolutionary way to think about our place in society. Often we stratify the systems of oppression in society and choose to place those that directly affect us at the top of the list. However, at all times, all of these forms of oppression are at work and an individuals place in society is affected in some way by these systems. It is these systems that make up the framework for the America’s national identity. In order for any American to understand their station in this country, they must at all times consider the systems at work and the way that they affect every person living within them.
One of the most important things to remember when discussing American Nationalism is to remember that it is not actually about identity in the way we would usually think of it. Often we think of individuals as having identities. So we think about imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy as aspects of individuals personalities or the things that certain individuals do. This is incorrect. These things are social systems.
The crucial thing to remember about patriarchy or any other social system is that it’s something that people participate in. It’s an arrangement of shared understandings and relationships that connect people to one another and something larger than themselves.
– Allan G. Johnson, Patriarchy, the System
American Nationalism is formed through social systems which require participation is significant because it then suggests that without social acceptance, these systems will fail. In order to gain social acceptance from individuals institutions, such as family, religion, academia, legal systems, and mass media, are infused with the characteristics of American Nationalism. Then the institutions convince individuals to believe in and buy into American Nationalism of their own free will.
The fact that the United States sought to create a national identity was not the problem — that part is logical for a fledgling country. The problem is that America sought to force its identity upon its inhabitants and its ideology on the world. America required. It was originally thought that the United States would unify the oppressed peoples of the world and give them a place where they could be treated as human beings. It was expected that the people who fled to the United States would adopt the national identity in place of their own ethnic heritage.
The power of American Nationalism, for its defenders, is that it has enabled the “widening of we.” — This process allowed for the incorporation of not-quite-white, but not-quite-not-white Irish, Jewish, and Southern and eastern European immigrants into the canons of whiteness through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries making them Americans first in a legal and then in a cultural sense.
– Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country
It was expected that there would be a universal American identity that all citizens would want to ascribe to. Much like their British predecessors, the American forefathers never once considered that any ideology other than their own could be right. They believed that everyone would want to ascribe to their philosophies. When they didn’t; America forced them. The problem is that American nationalism is about domination: dominating the inhabitants, dominating the economic market, dominating women, dominating non-White races, and dominating foreign countries. America may have begun as a crusader of oppressed people but somewhere along the line America became the very thing that the original colonists had sought to oppose.
Any American seeking to explore the truth about who and where they are in this country must begin with an understanding of who this country is. This brief account of the development of American Nationalism is by no mans all encompassing; however it provides a rudimentary understanding of who America is and how we came to be who we are.
When we explore where we began and the intentions that we began with, we can then explore where we are and the huge disparity between the two. This contradiction in the American identity is crucial to understanding, on an individual level, why various individuals are where they are and why it seems that they can never escape the circumstances surrounding their situation. It is because despite what the American philosophy espouses about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness the truth is that the systems that are holding this country together are in complete opposition to those ideals. Those systems are about limitations, control, and reproduction of the system.
We have to constantly critique imperialist white-supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.
– Bell Hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism
Americans in general are fairly ignorant in regards to international relations and, therefore, usually have no idea what America looks like in the eyes of the world. We assume — because we are socialized to — that America is a great world leader with global power that is undeniable. Perhaps at one time. What we have become is a global bully with delusions of grandeur. And much of what the individual feels on a personal level is a backlash of the pushing of an international and national agenda that America has to tell the world — including its own citizens — one thing and to behave as another. And every act of activism in this country is about holding America accountable for the promises that it has made; about reminding America of how far she has fallen from her admirable beginnings, in the hopes that she will see the error of her ways and return to those ambitious hopes upon which she was built.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man