God has a delicious sense of irony. The essay contest subject was globalization. And here, at the center of Manhattan, between the mahogany panels and liveried waiters of the Harvard Club, amid the donors of the Templeton foundation, was a shy Nigerian boy. This Matthew was another winner. In his first venture outside of his poor, small Nigerian village and university, he was flown to the throbbing heart of capitalist power. His wore a suit — a bit big, a bit overbuttoned — and happily told me in grammatical but halting English how his family would use his $5,000 cash prize. His experience was globalization writ large — lifted from poverty, immersed in Western cultural hegemony.
“Every day I thank God for making me Nigerian. Some of my classmates pretend like they’re American, but most of us are proud.”
But the dichotomy between Nigerian and Western identities isn’t so simple. At school he spoke English, not just for American power, but as a compromise between the several languages of the several peoples of Nigeria — Nigerians are a single people only by virtue of Westerner-drawn borders and the English language. And, in an odd paradox, he worshiped a God who was brought to — sometimes forced upon — his people from the West who maintained the religious belief after the West had gone secular. By speaking in a Christian idiom he was simultaneously resisting Western secularism and capitulating to an old Western religion that drove out the Nigerian ancestral rites. So was he being authentically Nigerian — or are we still imperialists? And, if he believes Christianity was true and good, does it matter to whom it once belonged?
He was the youngest of eight children. I told him that I was the youngest of four, and that was many where I came from. In Europe and fashionable parts of New York, four children is generally recognized as a symptom of psychosis. In the West now, a child is one asset that competes for our investment against others and often loses to the lush new studio apartment, the nights at fancy parties. Sure, we slave for the children we do have — embarrassing them at soccer games, sparing nothing to get them to the right colleges — short of asking if they care. We must perform due diligence on our children, after all. As societies become more affluent, they become more childless as the instinct to invest, to advance and to limit one’s obligations drives out the instinctive desire to incorporate new parts of ourselves into our stories, our people and our traditions.
I’m aware of that ignorant kind of condescending, sometimes quasi-racist romanticization of poor, rural or “primitive” life. No doubt, life in the Third World is painful, and we should use trade and aid for its relief. But I don’t want Matthew becoming fully Western or American, either. I cringed when some attendees offered to help him get into Columbia’s journalism school.
The archetypal American experience, it is often said, is that of fatherlessness. Certainly, the orphan figures strongly in our literary traditions, but even those of us in loving families are orphans from peoples. We are an immigrant nation, each cut off from a fatherland where shared mythology and ancestry created unity. We are a nation of individualists in the best and worse senses of the word, both in our ambitious freedom and in our disunity. The paradoxical American project attempted to create a whole people out of shared belief in individual liberty. Lincoln believed it. Over the bloodiest battlefield in American history, even in the midst of a great civil war, he spoke of our fathers bringing forth a new nation, making of us a family with a common destiny, linked together from birth to death.
But today it’s hard to say there is an American people. The culture war indicates a broken America. We are strangers and aliens to our fellow citizens within our common borders. We do not consider Americanism as a primary constituent of our identity — we identify more strongly on ideological or subcultural grounds.
As with so many things, our generation is lukewarm when it comes to patriotism. We educated affluent don’t join the military as our grandparents did, but we don’t burn flags like our parents did either. We are neither patriotic nor unpatriotic. We’ve no effusive sense of American identity, but neither do we condemn nationalism and American imperialism. We say we love America. If love means wishing her the best, we do. But if love is an overwhelming, jealous attachment, then we’ve none.
Though I had a loving family, I grew up far from extended family, with no strong sense of ethnic or religious identity. Raised in a sleepy, manicured suburb, I had little sense of community, belonging, peoplehood, beyond the six of us. I’ve found some at Yale. But it’s hard for intellectuals to make a whole. Intellectuals have always been alienated from the community, because unity is sustained by tradition, and intellectualism, as the attempt to figure things out for oneself, is by default individualistic.
Americans today are rich and free. We are free from community, tradition, religion, lovers, parents, children, spouses. But we’ve used this freedom to enhance our own separateness. Our individualism has manifested itself more in loneliness and samenesss than creativity and freedom.
I don’t want the rest of the world to become like us. I don’t want Earth to be reduced to a bland sameness, a tasteless porridge of hollow men without peoples, communities, traditions, religions or identity, a people who praise multiculturalism while creating a world of English speakers attired for Western business, performing only the rites of secular capitalism, worshiping airbrushed celebrities obeying the fast-food advertisements.
So while we need to find some way to cure the Third World of poverty, we need to do it without infecting it with our spiritual disease.
Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.