Saturday, December 8, 2007

Ethnicity & the notion of American Identity

So I mentioned my Irish buddy for the last two entries. (Hey! That could be a toy! "My Irish BuddyTM!" New from Hasbro!)

Well, I am going to mention him again.

Some months back he told me about an acquaintance of his who runs an Irish-themed bar and restaurant, plays guitar and sings at this establishment, and for all intents and purposes could not understand how this individual is capable of making a living as a "professional Irishman" (as he put it). He was even more fascinated - and more than a little disturbed - at how great an audience there was for his acquaintances' establishment.

"C'mon!" I remember him declaring. "We're the (bleep)ing Irish! We're a bunch of drunks who've been the collective punching bag of a nation of inbred wankers! Who wants to be celebrating that?"

Well, that question got me thinking. That, and I had a long flight home from Seattle to contend with, so I tried putting my old anthropology training to use (that's my real background, not information technology - I picked that up after grad school) and wrote an off-the-cuff analysis of the American notions of ethnicity and national identity and e-mailed it to him the next day. I've decided it might be worth reading, especially to see how others may or may not react to it in comparison to My Irish Buddy (I may post his reactions if I get his permission), but also to see if I made any glaring historical/sociological errors in my analysis.

So here it is, warts and all. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way: while I still stand by my definition of "Constitutionalist," I have since regretted using that term. Here's why.

And another thing.... since I am presenting this "as is" and cannot guarantee its accuracy, I'm not providing any verification or supportive links. Check this stuff at your own leisure. At a later date I may (or may not) revise it and correct it.


[My Irish BuddyTM] –

Your statements about Americans and our obsessions with ethnicity
really got me thinking (dangerous thing). I find myself with nothing
to really do on this long flight home from Seattle so I thought I
would take the time to jot down some of my thoughts about the notion
of the "American Identity" from a personal and anthropological
perspective. You don't have to read this, and you probably have much
better things to do (sitting in your underwear watching TV?) but
should you continue… consider yourself warned.

And I'm doing this all from my head, so I cannot guarantee the
accuracy of some of the following material. In fact, just the fact
that you did not have an American education leads me to believe you're
going to find some errors in what you read here. But let's give this a
try anyway, shall we?

The American Revolution
The North American continent, especially what is now considered the
Eastern Seaboard of the United State was settled by primarily Western
Europeans from the northern regions: the Dutch, the French, the
Germans, and the English. Especially the English. In fact, by the time
ill feelings began to foment among the colonists, all other cultural
groups had been subsumed by the English and homogenized into a fairly
recognizable English-derived culture.

Thinking of ourselves as Americans did not happen, however, until the
Declaration of Independence came onto the scene. As we declared
ourselves a separate nation and set up the temporary Continental
Congress to see us through the transition (and the oncoming war), we
defined ourselves as Americans not so much by our ideals as expressed
in Jefferson's document so much as the fact that we were no longer
English subjects. You read right: the earliest American identity was
founded on not being British.

This is a very important distinction: after we won the Revolutionary
War, the deciding factor for where one got to live – remain in the new
United State of America or emigrate to Canada – was one of loyalty;
did one see the Crown and Parliament as the seat of governmental power
or the Continental Congress and its eventual inheritor (first the
Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution). It always
bothers me how this is not taught in American public schools: the
transmigration between the US and Canadian territories immediately
after the war, in terms of percentage of population, was not rivaled
until India created Pakistan and had the Hindus and Muslims shuffle
around. This was a big deal in which many people lost land and other
property, and many families irrevocably dissolved - and I'm actually
referring to North America, here!

The War of 1812 served to further this form of the American identity
notion… but it was not to last.

Colonization Practices, the Louisiana Purchase and Rogue Sates
Before I go any further, I must point out something concerning the
remaining dominions under the British Crown after the American
Revolution. Those dominions fairly empty of natives (when compared to,
say, India or Burma) were settled by colonists carrying the Union Jack
who considered themselves British subjects – for the most part. This
phenomenon presents a flavor to their colonization and the formation
of their eventual sovereignties that is completely lost on most
Americans. You see, we Americans tend to think of the way we handled
colonizing (or "settling," in our historical parlance) the rest of our
part of North America as "normal;" which is certainly not the case.

Unlike such Brit-derived nations such as Canada or Australia, we
gained our independence early on and then became a colonizing force in
our own right. With the purchase of the Louisiana territory form
France during the Jefferson administration – for a whopping 2¢ an
acre! How's that for a deal? – we developed a philosophy known as
"Manifest Destiny." Manifest Destiny was the notion that the United
States, as a nation, would eventually extend from the Eastern Seaboard
to the West Coast; an achievable goal thanks the the Louisiana
Purchase. Unfortunately, this notion also gave most Americans a
feeling of entitlement, allowing them to rationalize the practice of
marching in and displacing natives left and right for the purposes of

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Federal Government turned a myopic
eye to these shenanigans, which were in many ways in opposition to the
ideals of the Constitution.

Sidebar: the Federal Constitution is well worth reading, if you have
not already done so. If you haven't, you'll get to do so with [your daughter]
when it's time for her to take her proficiency tests in 7th grade.
Assuming you and your family are still in Illinois that is…

In any case the practices of the settlers and the hesitation of the
developing federal government lead to a disconnection of identity
between the settlers and the notion of being "American." This was not
such a big deal for states such as Illinois, which grew out of the
settlement of the Louisiana Purchase acreage: everyone submitted to
the statehood process without a peep because the land was explicitly
intended to be incorporated into the United States from the point of
sale on.

However, territories from outside this acreage (mostly stolen from
Mexico) were another story. Would you believe that California and
Texas were briefly their own separate countries for a while? It's
true! The California Republic and the Republic of Texas grudgingly
submitted to statehood out of necessity. They both needed help with
the damn pesky Indians and all the rambunctious displaced Mexicans,
and the U.S. Army was the only force with the resources to do
something about it.

But I digress…

The Late 19th Century/Early 20th Century Immigration Swell
Okay, this is where things get interesting; which is to say, more
recognizable as what America is like today.

Starting in the 1880s the United States experienced an influx of
immigrants for other regions of Europe and the rest of the world, most
noticeably Eastern and Mediterranean Europeans, Chinese and, of
course, the Irish. The still relatively homogeneous U.S.A. exhibited a
rather passive-aggressive reaction to this phenomenon. On the one hand
we accepted the gift of the Statue of Liberty from the French and
proudly displayed its welcome sign proclaiming we wanted the unwanted,
the "wretched refuse" of other lands. And as soon as we got them in we
put them to work under horrid conditions in factories and
slaughterhouses and shunned them as something almost worse than "the

Out of necessity these immigrants settled into neighborhoods they made
their own. These became the famous ghettos of what is now yesteryear:
New York's Little Italy, Chicago's Bridgeport, and the Chinatowns
found in various major metropolitan areas. These ghettos became the
bedrock of the curious ethnic pride you seem to find so peculiar about
America, Mike. True, similar quasi-ethnically segregated communities
can be found in other countries – like Toronto's well-known Greektown
– but none have the same sense of ethnicity as being a link to
identity as one finds here in the States. This is due to a rather
interesting thing humans do when faced with rejection by society at
large: they will either change to assimilate into the greater whole or
reinforce and take pride in their difference as a means of succor and
survival. And this really has not changed all that much in the
intervening decades.

The Great War (World War I)
By the time things were getting hot and heavy in Europe during the
early 20th century, how "American" one was tended to be defined by how
long one's family has been in this country. This was usually deduced
by the ethnicity of one's family name – unless it was Anglicized by
choice or by accident at Ellis Island. Of course, this only applied if
one was white. Black? Latino? Asian? Oh, Sweet Jesus, let's not even
go there!

As the war on the Continent progressed, the U.S. went into business
and charity mode. We cheerfully sold arms and supplies to all players
in the conflict. Also, plenty of 2nd and 3rd generation
German-Americans were setting up charity funds and money-raising
events to support the Kaiser's war effort. And no one batted an eye.

Well, when the U.S. entered the war just in time to mop up the mess
(and look like heroes in the process), a small reawakening of the
notion of an American identity took place. Suddenly, German-Americans
were changing their names and/or shouting at the top of their lungs:
"Hey! My parents were Prussians, but I was born here! I'd never get
upset if some fat, inbred Hapsburgian aristocrat got his brains blown

But this, too, did not last all that long…

The Great Depression and World War II
Interestingly enough, when the Stock Market crashed and briefly
considered joining a monastery, it was the ghettos that held
themselves together better than the long "established" communities.
Thanks to the rampant xenophobia experienced by the more recent
immigrant groups, they had stronger social bonds and were already
heavily community-focused than their WASP (white anglo-saxon
protestant) counterparts. Unemployment was still a problem, but fewer
people went cold or hungry thanks to sharing of what was available.

The Second World War changed all that, of course. Once again, we went
in to clean up Europe, but this time we had Japan to contend with, as
well. This time, it was really personal.

As American soldiers traveled the various theatres of the war, they
found themselves identified by others as Americans. Not
German-Americans, not Italian-Americans, not Irish-Americans, but
simply Americans. Couple to this the use of the notions of the
Declaration of Independence – Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of
Happiness – as a focal point for Americans to rally around as we
battle the fascist totalitarians (hey! Let's conveniently ignore the
fact the Stalinist Soviet Union is our ally!) created again a renewed
sense of American identity. This sense of American identity during the
Forties and Fifties is probably the strongest it ever was in my
country's history.

And, once more, it was not to last.

The Cold War
After WWII, America became powerful, affluent, and on the move. The
ghettos began to dissolve and the suburbs began to grow. However, you
can take the boy out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out
of the boy. Our never-ending pride in our ancestral, pre-immigration
heritage still holds us. It was during this period that the
development of ethnically themed restaurants with entertainment became
not a novelty item for WASPs, but cradles of nostalgia for average
Americans wanting to reacquaint themselves with "their roots." Never
mind the cultural practices of Italian-Americans do not really
resembles those of actual Italians. Never mind that corned beef is
originally a Jewish foodstuff. Never mind real sauerbraten would make
most German-Americans want to puke from the smell… it's all about what
we want to think life was like for our ancestors in "the Old Country"
and not think about the uncomfortable realities that drove them to our
shore in the first place. This, more than anything, [My Irish BuddyTM], is what
makes it possible for your acquaintance to be a "professional

But let's get back on track.

During the Cold War we Americans came full circle with out identity.
Now we defined ourselves as "not being Communists." Which was an
unfortunate thing. It also meant the rest of the world started seeing
us as one of two bullies on the block – the other being the U.S.S.R. –
and sooner or later they would have to kow-tow to one of us.

But the Soviet Union collapsed. So where does that leave us today?

America is the New Rome, and We're the Only Game In Town (or so we
like to think)

How does the world see us?
In my opinion, the rest of the world, with some merit, sees us
Americans as fat, obnoxious, insensitive boors who own too much, want
too much, and use too much (SUVs and iPods, to name a few). We're seen
as God-obsessed and power-mad, thanks to our current president, and
not that much better than "the Terrorists" in that regard. We also
have an annoying tendency to not appreciate what we actually do have
via to the Constitution and capitalist innovation.

How do we see ourselves?
If you are to believe the news, we're all down-to-earth folk with
everyday lives, values and problems. We are a people of great faith
and great tolerance for those who are different from us, and we're
ready to place our initial trust in our fellow man. Think "fresh-faced
Midwestern farm boy/girl." In reality, it's our desperate attempt to
keep the Norman Rockwell mythos alive long after its corpse has become
so much worm [manure].

How I see us.
We are a nation that has always struggled to find our identity
practically since our inception. We still define ourselves by our
ethnic heritage, which is best left behind so we may embrace ourselves
as Americans. I am guilty of this myself. I find it hard not to
classify myself as "German-American" first… which is funny since I can
barely speak German!

At this point in my country's history, I see two groups that could be
considered truly representative of the "American identity." One is
actively reaching for that title. The other, I feel, is much truer,
but to disparate to ever rally for attention and mindshare.

Group 1: "Redneck Republicans"
These people are ones you've seen on T.V. and seen all around the
[local] area. The are hard drinkin', god-fearin', football-watchin',
country-&-western-music-listenin', [poop]-kickin', "I love my country!"
types. They to be rather ill-educated and ignorant, very involved in
their churches but not well-versed in the theology of their faith,
like their toys and tend to vote conservative in politics. They feel
they own the title "American" and are as a whole disturbingly
middle-to-upper class, Protestant and white. In other words, the
devolved descendants of the WASPs.

Group 2: "Constitutionalists"
This is my own ad hoc term for this group.

These are people like me who feel the Constitution is only thing that
really binds us together as a nation. People like me who feel the
Constitution is one of, if not the most, brilliant governmental
document ever composed. We tend to think of being American as "someone
who has a duty to understand our foundational documents and protect
them from abuses." We belong to all walks of life and faiths (or lack
thereof, in my case), and we tend to belong to watchdog groups that
seek to keep Constitutional abuses or disregards in check (ACLU, FFRF,
Americans United, People for the American Way, etc.)

But in the end we're a minority, which is ironic in that we tend to
value being Americans most of all. I also fear people like me are then
only thing that's keeping this country from turning into the horror
described in Sinclair Lewis' fine novel It Can't Happen Here. (Lewis,
by the way, was the author who stated that when fascism comes to
America it will be "wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Sound
like any politicians you've seen since coming here?)

Wrapping it up.
If you've gotten this far, thank you for putting up with this rant.

Once again, I don't claim to be an expert, but you got my wheels
spinning, and I needed something to do during this flight. I ran out
of reading material a while ago and if I look at another document for
[my boss], I'm going to strangle someone. This gave me some much-needed
diversion, and I got to use my noggin for something other than
technical or process issues, for a change, which is a great relief.
Believe me, it really is.

I also wrote this because you seem to have a genuine interest in what
I have to say… Bog help you, on that one.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this, and I look forward to your reaction
and comments at a later date.

[The Dim WitTM]

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