Unique concept of identity makes U.S. great

I probably think about how sweet America is a good half-dozen times a day, more if I have free time between classes. My seminar last Tuesday actually got me a little introspective about my identity as an American, though, which was different — I typically avoid introspection and choose to defer entirely to my brainstem. My brainstem’s id. Once I was already “thinking,” though, I figured I might as well run with it.

The seminar is “Southeast Asian Politics,” and most everyone in class boasts some connection to the subject matter: There’s folks from Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia; one girl researches in Cambodia; and it might seem like I speak only American (poorly), but I’ve actually studied three years of Indonesian — I can extol the virtues of “demokrasi” and “kapitalisme” like a pro. The seminar’s about halfway through Thongchai Winichakul’s “Siam Mapped,” which details the mapping of Thailand as a discrete geo-body and the parallel construction of a Thai national identity. In light of the questions the book raised regarding the idea of the nation in general, the two students leading the class thought to ask how we each identified ourselves.

One of the two, a guy from Thailand, led off. Acknowledging that he was not technically part of the Thai ethnic group (his grandparents were Chinese immigrants), he said that, frankly, he didn’t care: He loved the Thai king and he loved being Thai, and he had wholeheartedly embraced his seemingly artificial nationality. Quite the opposite was the other discussion leader, a Canadian girl. She admitted her crisis of national identity, a reflection of Canada’s broader struggle to adopt a coherent character when its culture largely overlaps with America’s — apparently, Canadians spend lots of time debating their malaise. (I’ll be honest, I laughed at the Canadian, although I only realized it once the Thai guy started pointing and laughing at the fact that I was laughing.) We also had a Malay girl discuss the difficulties she had identifying with any one nation in particular, as, thanks to her mixed Chinese and tribal Malay heritage, she fully identified with neither; she said that she instead identified as a product of a global culture.

We ran out of time before I could launch into a delightfully chauvinist ode to the rock-‘n’-rollitude of the United States of America; by that night, however, I had already managed to peg the Western-style state and capitalism as the most effective means of social organization in the modern state system, so I at least got stereotypical-conservative points for that. Still, though, hearing how these other folks related to their respective countries got me thinking about how and why I ascribe to an American identity.

I related to the Malay girl: Although it probably trivializes her Malaysian experience to compare it to having parents of different religions in America, I also consider myself the product of two heritages. I’m just lucky that my (sort-of) mixed culture doesn’t pose any obstacle to embracing an American identity. And although I’m unsympathetic to royalists (surprise), I could also identify with the Thai guy. I’m two generations removed from about five kinds of European peasantry, and I doubt I’d qualify as part of an American nation defined by Western European ethnicity. If someone did decide to frame American-ness in those terms, an off-white person like me would be pretty borderline. The Thai guy and I are enthusiastic citizens because we’ve embraced our respective national philosophies, and, while I think the centrality of a hereditary monarch to the Thai ethos is backwards, I respect how my fellow student has basically willed himself into being Thai.

Which dovetails into why I think America’s about the best country in the world, i.e., actually the best country in the world. So many of the world’s countries, if they even have a coherent idea of self, have one that hinges on ethnic nationalism rather than an articulation of principle. An American in my seminar tried to group the United States with those countries, contending that America has a white face. But one of our country’s greatest successes has actually been delegitimating nativist sentiment and excluding it from the mainstream American political and cultural conversation.

America today doesn’t represent some American ethnic unit, if it ever did, and it doesn’t pretend to. It’s consciously artificial, without any aspirations to traditional nationhood — it’s not the geographical inheritance of some fictive American tribe. And instead of a belief in a king, America has a belief in individual life and liberty, a philosophical framework whose institutions someone of any background can become part of. Anyone who embraces America can become an American. I’m sure my actual response in that seminar would’ve most likely devolved into rabid, inarticulate jingoism (and more laughing at the Canadian girl) — but this is what I hope I would’ve said.

Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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