You’re American If You Think You’re American

One of the advantages of having a ten-year backlog of posts is pulling up stuff from the past and linking it with current web content.  Several years ago when Steven Den Beste was still doing regular blogging, he wrote a post, Non-European Country that discussed some of the differences between Americans and non-Americans and why America really is different from all other nations.  I’ve quoted from it several times, but this is the excerpt for today’s post:

European “nations” are based on ethnicity, language or geography. The American nation is based on an idea, and those who voluntarily came here to join the American experiment were dedicated to that idea. They came from every possible geographic location, speaking every possible language, deriving from every possible ethnicity, but most of them think of themselves as Americans anyway, because that idea is more important than ethnicity or language or geographical origin. That idea was more important to them than the things which tried to bind them to their original nation, and in order to become part of that idea they left their geographical origin. Most of them learned a new language. They mixed with people of a wide variety of ethnicities, and a lot of them cross-married. And yet we consider ourselves one people, because we share that idea. It is the only thing which binds us together, but it binds us as strongly as any nation.

Indeed, it seems to bind us much more strongly than most nations. If I were to move to the UK, and became a citizen there, I would forever be thought of by the British as being “American”. Even if I lived there fifty years, I would never be viewed as British. But Brits who come here and naturalize are thought of as American by those of us who were born here. They embrace that idea, and that’s all that matters. If they do, they’re one of us. And so are the Persians who naturalize, and the Chinese, and the Bengalis, and the Estonians, and the Russians. (I know that because I’ve worked with all of those, all naturalized, and all of them as American as I am.)

You’re French if you’re born in France, of French parents. You’re English if you’re born to English parents (and Welsh if your parents were Welsh). But you’re American if you think you’re American, and are willing to give up what you used to be in order to be one of us. That’s all it takes. But that’s a lot, because “thinking you’re American” requires you to comprehend that idea we all share. But even the French can do it, and a lot of them have.

That is a difference so profound as to render all similarities between Europe and the US unimportant by comparison. But it is a difference that most Europeans are blind to, and it is that difference which causes America’s attitudes and actions to be mystifying to Europeans. It is not just that they don’t understand that idea; most of them don’t even realize it exists, because Europeans have no equivalent, and some who have an inkling of it dismiss it contemptuously.

It is that idea that explains why we think being called “cowboys” is a compliment, even when Europeans think it’s an epithet. It is that idea that explains why we don’t care what Europeans think of us, and why European disapproval of our actions has had no effect on us. It is that idea which explains why, in fact, we’re willing to do what we think is right even if the entire rest of the world disapproves.

It is that idea which convinces us that if by our actions we “lose all our friends in the world” then they weren’t really friends to begin with, and that we’re better off without them.

And it is that difference that continues to mystify and frustrate Europeans, who incorrectly assume that America is a European country, and who try to explain our behavior on that basis. And because our behavior is inexplicable for a European nation, they conclude that it is the result of foolishness and immaturity and lack of sophistication.

They come to those conclusions because that’s the only way one can explain how a European country could act the way America has acted. What they miss is that America is not European, not at its deepest levels. It derives from European roots, and the majority of us are derived genetically from European stock, but it is utterly unlike Europe in the ways which matter most.

I get occasional emails from the Quora.com website with interesting questions answered by the membership. Today’s included this question:  What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America? The answers are fascinating, because as much as other cultures do not grok Americans, the reverse is equally (if not more) true. I will only excerpt one answer that I found particularly insightful, but I do recommend you read the whole thread, comments and all:

Convenience is rather pleasant.

Everything one knows about American convenience culture: 24 hour shops, fast food, “have a nice day” etc. appears tawdry and degraded when you only know it exported elsewhere in the world. At best it looks sad and desperate to be copying the US, and at worst, like a bad case of cultural imperialism as US companies come in and try to impose their models on your society.

But actually *in* the US, there’s something rather charming about it. A McDonalds in a mall in Beijing or Brasilia is a horror. But go to one for breakfast in Los Angeles and it all kind of works: the design and appearance, the food, the behaviour of the staff. Not a wooden formula but a living culture.

Americana travels badly but is surprising comfortable in its native environment.

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