America, when we step back and look critically at her pedigree, is a strange animal. And America is so big, such a world unto herself, and has done so much to shape the world around her that we may never really take stock of just how strange we Americans are, in what ways we have seriously deviated from what hitherto appeared to be Nature’s plan for the nations of the world. Indeed, America is not so much a nation in the classical sense as it is a program, an “experiment” carried out over generations. At the center of this experiment would seem to be the notion that all people from all the world can live together in democratic harmony, which in itself has left many people deeply unsatisfied, not to mention dead. To make matters worse, every time the country arrives at what might have been a sustainable hypocrisy in the application of this notion, it insists on calling its own bluff.
But of course America, being as big as it is and being possessed by so quixotic an ideal, is bound to contain deep divides, fractures in the actual which are both concealed and exacerbated by the fervidity of the ideal. It’s become something of a commonplace in the past decade or so — since the Bush-Obama transition, really — that there are at least two Americas, and perhaps that one is better than the other. There are stubborn, anti-intellectual, self-reliant Red America on the one hand and inclusive, creative, self-righteous Blue America on the other, seemingly bound forever to rehash the dialectic of the English and American Civil Wars. There is an obvious reality to this account, but I want to accentuate something different about the disunity, or rather multiplicity, of American culture. I want to peel back not only the desperate optimism — or rather the “Blue American” provincialism — that would present America as “essentially, as opposed to aspirationally, a tolerant, pluralist place, full of enlightened citizens who settle their differences via ‘principled disagreement,’” but even the layer beneath that. What if we were to put aside for a moment even the aspirational quality of the American self-concept and take a good hard look at what results the experiment is actually churning out, no matter how uncomfortable it might be?
The one thing every participant in this experiment — at least those of us who are not from pre-Columbian indigenous backgrounds — has in common, more than any political ideal or television fandom, is that our ancestors left home. Those who weren’t taken here in bondage may have left in service of their ideals, to flee persecution, to explore, or simply to make a quick buck; all in all, it’s probably safe to say most of us are not here because we signed on to some noble world-historical vision but because of some combination of misfortune, dissatsifaction, and plain old avarice.
So here we are. And to the extent that we have an American cultural tradition to draw upon, it is because somewhere along the line people stopped seeing this land as a place to flee to and started seeing it as home. Black people and poor white people in the United States, no doubt due in large part to their experiences of exclusion and lack of cultural memory of having been in Africa or Europe, and especially in the South, did that more than just about anybody else did. There is a kind of solidity in black and working-class white culture that the rest of us have a long track record of looking to for a kind of guidance, an authenticity with which we can fuel our creative endeavors. A Saturday Night Live skit last October poked fun at how this shared sensibility can manifest — and how politics can make it seem to be for naught. It features Tom Hanks as Doug, an evidently working-class Trump supporter, looking set to win “Black Jeopardy,” and winning much favor with his black opponents — until the game moves to the topic of “Lives That Matter.”
And here we begin to see the really salient divide, not one between American nations but between the “real” world, in which these two Americas actually exist, and the political world, in which they exist only insofar as they account for differing interpretations of how the experiment should proceed. Nowhere in the protocols of the experiment are there provisions for the uplift or — gasp! — the preservation of, say, the Black America that mourned the blues scale into being, or the Appalachia that gave birth to Abraham Lincoln. There is only the persistent demand for more: more voters, more revenue, more jobs, more programs, more democracy in the world. It’s as though we attempt to resolve our perennial social maladies by subjecting even more people to them. Every time people begin to really put down roots, every time the long, slow, arduous process of ethnogenesis starts to take place, America remembers her ideals and recommits to the experiment. Another wave of immigration rolls in; another country is invaded and “democratized,” either militarily or by “non-governmental organizations”; another generation is born into the “new normal,” perhaps turning its nose up at the outmoded prejudices of its parents and grandparents, only to be shocked at what follows as it grows old in turn.
In order to really examine this sense of impermanence and confusion, let’s look to someone who, by all accounts, ought to be very well-adjusted. Let’s imagine the most conventional, unassuming Middle American — imagine him as whitebread, as suburban, as middle-class, as possible. Some of his ancestors were colonial settlers; others came much later. He isn’t a WASP, but he isn’t a “white ethnic” either. He’s not heir to some vast family fortune, but he’s doing very well by global standards. He’s aware of how blessed he is, too—but he feels a sort of disconnect between himself and the circumstances his blessings have put him in. Who is he? What is he? What can he identify with, beyond this or that subculture, that isn’t hopelessly political? How can he ground his sense of self in anything abiding and ancient?
He can’t pine for Prague or Dublin like his ancestors might have; he’s not a Czech American or an Irish American. He’s just “white” — and what sort of identity is that? If he takes his “whiteness,” within an American context, too seriously, he gets the sense that he then has two options: either he must identify with the discredited white supremacist ideology of the 19th century; or, as per today’s received opinion, he must identify with it in reverse, and make his every conscious minute on this earth an effort to deconstruct, dismantle, and redistribute every last vestige of the world that ideology was a part of. Either way, he must remain simultaneously self-obsessed and self-denying; he is prevented from seeing himself as a member of one among many peoples, all of whom are different, all of whom have distinct concerns, but none of whom is objectively superior to the rest. Whether he chauvinistically lords it over others or “sits down and shuts up” in order to counteract it, he is in either case wedded to a sense of his own indestructibility, to a sense that only his own group can exercise agency in the world — a kind of collective narcissism.
Frankly, our American isn’t interested in that. He doesn’t want to denigrate others in order to define himself; he also doesn’t want to be a kind of anti-self, constantly militating against any sense of collective identity he might develop for fear it would reawaken the dread beast of colonialism. He just wants to be. He figures one ought to have a reasonable amount of both pride and shame in his ancestors, but more than anything he wants to feel that he really has any. He wants to belong to something more solid, more unquestionable, than a fandom or a customer base or a “public” — something that can’t be so easily wiped away by the ravages of fashion or the coming and going of political regimes. He wants the freedom of not having to choose everything, not having to piece a self together out of the tattered remains of cultural givens. He wants the liberty that comes with loyalty. Isn’t that what being human is supposed to feel like?
He sometimes wonders what it might be like to wake up one day and find that he is a Frenchman, or Polish, or Gujarati — that his nationality demands no political idealism from him, no supreme openness to novelty and variety, no nodding of the head at empty nostrums; that it simply is. When a Frenchman walks on French soil, he imagines, he can be confident that the bones beneath his feet are those of some distant ancestor. When our American thinks about whose bones might lie under his feet, he gets uneasy, as though he is stuck somewhere he should not be. He wonders if it would be any comfort to the souls of tribes long conquered that now even more of the world, not just Europe anymore, is sending ambitious and creative people to do business on their graves.
Our American begins to feel a kind of guilt — and not such that would simply lead him to make a donation or two, be very loud about having done so, and then, say, burn a Confederate flag. He feels a sort of cosmic guilt, as if millions of people from hundreds of nations were implicated in some massive crime against Nature herself. D.H. Lawrence, who himself moved to America in revulsion at what had become of Europe, said as much nearly a century ago in The Plumed Serpent:
“And sometimes [Kate] wondered whether America really was the great death-continent, the great No! to the European and Asiatic, and even African Yes! Was it really the great melting-pot, where men from the creative continents were smelted back again, not to a new creation, but down into the homogeneity of death? Was it the great continent of the undoing, and all its peoples the agents of the mystic destruction! Plucking, plucking at the created soul in a man, till at last it plucked out the growing germ, and left him a creature of mechanism and automatic reaction, with only one inspiration, the desire to pluck the quick out of every living spontaneous creature.
“Was that the clue to America? she sometimes wondered. Was it the great death-continent, the continent that destroyed again what the other continents had built up? The continent whose spirit of place fought purely to pick the eyes out of the face of God? Was that America?”
Well, is it? Puritans and Cavaliers and Dutchmen and Frenchmen; West Africans and Ulster Scots; Germans and Irishmen and Jews; Chinese and Japanese and Italians and Poles; Mexicans and Indians and Persians and Filipinos — all of us coming in droves to the shores of forgetfulness. Making better lives for ourselves, striving upward out of stifling ancestral worries and into a New World, yes! — but also assembling, brick by brick, the infrastructure of the moral entanglement of hundreds of nations. Of course there is the massive tally of tragedies and injustices: the deaths among the indigenous peoples of the continent from disease, let alone from massacres, wars, and innumerable skirmishes; the enslavement of millions of Africans and the indenture of millions of Europeans; the Civil War; two centuries of foreign military interventions, so many of them beyond even the Western Hemisphere; the unprecedented concentration of wealth; the reduction of culture to ephemeral movements of aesthetic taste. One recalls the final words of William S. Burroughs’s “Thanksgiving Prayer”: “Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.”
But the binding together of the sins, sufferings, and responsibilities of the nations of the world doesn’t stop there. Hundreds of heads of state have been educated in American universities — as of this writing, we may count those of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Thailand, Colombia, Estonia, Liberia, Kenya, Singapore, and the Marshall Islands, among others. The ideology which enjoys currency in those universities thus enjoys currency worldwide, as much as does the U.S. dollar. Billions of eyes have seen Hollywood movies; billions of ears have heard American popular music. If we take off our democratic blinders, we see that the “shining city on a hill” is the seat of an empire — the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Our hypothetical American thinks about this, and he knows that nothing lasts forever. But no empire has ever been this big. No empire has ever come to dominate so thoroughly by promoting the ideal of freedom from any sort of domination. When this one eventually comes down, the reckoning that follows may be unlike anything the world has ever seen.
After all, where can the chips fall? Our American considers that there is something rather precarious about so many different peoples coming to live on the same landmass within such a short period of time. It takes a combination of security, prosperity, and a hefty dose of ideology to sustain such a high concentration of diversity. Indeed, it requires changes in our relations with others which only intensify the feeling of rootlessness. It becomes important not to invoke the past too strongly for fear that one or another group may be left out — and thus the common ground on which all groups can stand is, by necessity, largely commercial when not political.
To put it simply, people come here and are deindigenized. That’s the great experiment — liberating people from the very sense of peoplehood. Our American starts to think America is like the La Brea Tar Pits, taking us in — all of us, the whole world — like so many animals, ready to reduce us to fossils, remains no longer capable of generating new life but perhaps appreciable from the sterile remove of a museum. Yes, this is a prosperous place; yes, this is a refuge for so many people from so many dangers; but what would bind them together in the absence of wealth and entertainment? That’s how you know you’re a member of a people, a nation in the true sense of the word: when you know that shared stories, shared loyalties, shared notions of purpose, will abide like a rock beneath the waves of poverty and prosperity.
Our American is charitable and open-minded, but he isn’t stupid. He knows full well that if the power went out, if the money stopped flowing, if the hegemony of Washington were seriously in question, the level of social trust would not be high enough to hold things together. As it is, hardly anybody hitchhikes anymore; people flake on their friends as if they were strangers; our American can hardly name any of his own neighbors. He considers how short-sighted it is — how cruel, even — to subject people to a comfort so seductive and yet so tenuous, a comfort which has already begun to slip away on the psychological level if not the material. If there’s a god, our American thinks, he (or she!) probably isn’t very happy with us.
This begins to seriously haunt our American. And who are we to blame him if this unease begins to affect his feelings about policy, about identity, about his own past and future? What if he comes to suspect it might be best to limit if not halt immigration, not out of some small-minded intolerance but out of fear, a real and abiding fear of divine judgment, at the thought of subjecting even more people to the experiment? What if he secretly begins to wish that his own ancestors had never come here at all? Shall he go back to Europe? Would they even want him, having given up the dream of progress for the dream of homecoming, taking his big comical American aspirations with him even as he tries to escape them, like a child running away from the animal balloons tied around his finger? What would “going back” even entail for someone whose ancestors came from all over the continent? Shall he send his head to England, one arm to the Czech Republic and the other to Ireland?
There is, of course, no turning back of the clock. America has already been settled, even if questions of American identity have not. Our American is, more or less irrevocably, just that — an American. Even if he were to expatriate, he would be doing the very thing his ancestors did that has left him so alienated. So unless he is willing to adopt an entirely new national loyalty — assuming that another nation even accepts him — he must paradoxically make peace with his Americanness while working to overcome that peculiarly American sense of always being on the run. If he wants to feel at home here, he must come to see himself as American the way, say, a Hungarian sees himself as Hungarian — not as a matter of adherence to an aspirational creed, but as a matter of heritage. In short, he must indigenize himself — and in his efforts, nay, in his very desire to do so, he will find himself at odds with so much of what is considered American.
Aaron Jacob is a writer from Texas. His Twitter is here.