A Note on American Identity vs. American Patriotism

A lot of conservatives, myself included, put a huge premium on the notion of “American identity” and bemoan its passing, the left’s rejection of it as a concept, the creeping wave of cosmopolitanism, etc. etc. etc. There’s some justification for this declinism, I would argue, but not as much as I’ve hitherto thought.

If you want to define American identity as something aspirational, something we are trying to push towards, something you can sacrifice for- then of course it’s on the decline, as so many civic life surveys exhibit. It’s probably verifiably true that you have lower rates of broadly-shared and inclusive “patriotism.”

But American patriotism and American identity are two different things. What you love is not what you are, however much it might influence and be influenced by it.

If you want to think about American identity- those habits of heart, ways of mind, values of daily life and long-term aspiration, that do indeed separate Americans as a whole from other peoples around the world- it might be better to start looking from the outside in. How do foreigners view us?

I don’t have any hard data on this, though I’m sure I could find some if I wanted to. But the general perceptions I’d anecdotally say seem to characterize Americans abroad include:

-pragmatism, sometimes ruthless pragmatism, regardless very innovative. Americans know what they want to do and how to do it, and if they don’t they’ll be the first to find out how.

-A very non-romantic here-and-now focus that sometimes devolves into crass materialism and acquisitiveness. That’s why Americans are so good at taking over the international business scene whenever a new market opens up.

-A simple conception of honor- “my word is my bond,” that sort of thing, as opposed to complex customs and traditions and arrangements. In fact, oftentimes a callous disregard for those arrangements. “You might consider yourself straightforward, but I consider you rude,” says the foreigner to the American businessman.

-Nonetheless a kind of dreamy idealism, a belief that fate and providence and progress is on their side, because as an American one is doing the world’s work.

These four characteristics- and there are more I’m missing- aren’t particularly positive or particularly negative value judgments. They’re just kind of there, they are what they are. The “real American” archetypes who display these characteristics include the “GI” soldierly archetype, the American military men who, as Churchill said, will always do the right thing once all other options have been exhausted, and they’ll do it goddamn well too! There’s the entrepreneur/inventor/captain of industry archetype who’s very good at organization, profit maximization, and the peculiarities of hard sciences, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about ideas. (These usually are rumored to have come from a rags-to-riches background as well.) There’s the cowboy archetype, the lone individual made rugged by the rough life of frontier politics in the wilderness or in the suburbs, who doesn’t need ostentatious ceremony and wordplay to get what he wants done. And of all of these figures, not one is a philosopher, a revolutionary, a poet- but they each have visions and passions as deep as those of the philosophers, revolutionaries and poets, and are simply much more eminently practical men of affairs.

Sound familiar? Again, this isn’t a celebration or a condemnation of what Americans are or are presumed to be- it’s just a humble attempt to illustrate what, exactly, it is we’re talking about when we say “American identity” and presume our fellow Americans know what we mean. (As mentioned, there are many more of these archetypes- look at my writing and Wilfred McClay’s writing for some guides to those- but we can’t go too in-depth to them here.)

Now these archetypes are, it’s true, made possible by certain historical experiences America has gone through- the fact that you can better imagine these sorts of people to be roaming the world doing manly things between, say, the 1830s and the 1940s, is testament to the fact that these archetypes were developed in response to the American historic experiences of capitalism and enterprise, the expansion across the American West, Jacksonian Democracy, and of course our great Iliads, the Civil War and the World Wars. But archetypes and memes have a staying power that long outlives their birth, especially when they are institutionalized into narratives and repeated over and over again to new generations.

It is this that we’re really talking about when we talk casually about American identity- “that’s so American of you,” or “You really think that’d happen in America?” But when we talk gravely and seriously about American identity- “that’s Un-American!” or “do you even love America?” we are not talking about this. Then, we are talking about how we ought to define patriotism.

I want to make it absolutely clear that there is a big distinction between being an American and being an American patriot- you can certainly be both, but you can also choose not to be a patriot. You can’t choose not to be an American- it’s just in your cultural style, for better or for worse, and there’s no simple-opting-out of it. And pretty much everybody who grows up in America is about as American as you can get to some degree, whether they make a big deal out of it or not.

Whereas other nations are defined by interactions between physical, racial features and the cultural habits and loyalties practiced by folks with those features, the American nation is defined rather by people of all sorts of different physical racial features subconsciously practicing certain cultural habits and loyalties, and believing that those are connected more to a certain set of ideas than to anything else. In a sense they’re right; in other senses they’re wrong; but that’s why it’s so hard to pin down what exactly an American is, short of describing one of them.

Follow me?

Then let’s put to rest the idea that being an American is just subscribing to the civic triad of freedom/justice/equality, whatever the hell those things might mean. Being an American means being an American, and we all know what that means, but can’t define it. You can become an American over time; you can probably become less of an American over time as well. You can be an American citizen without really being an American; you can love America and fight and die for her without being an American. You can be an American and not be a citizen (not too common) or you can hate everything America stands for and still be, unfortunately for you, an American (far more common.) It’s a way of being, first, and in other ways and definitions, it can be a citizenship contract, a conscious choice to follow certain ideals, or a geographic affiliation. But when we’re talking casually (and thus anthropologically and culturally) about it, we all know what it means, and it’s a thing of habits and the soul rather than anything else.

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