While researching a now deleted node on the continued attempts of the Turkish Government to deny the Armenian genocide, I learned that in Turkey, it is a crime to insult "Turkishness". It would be interesting to find out what exact things are considered to be "Turkish", and an insult to them. Surely, there must be many different aspects and activities that make up life in Turkey, so how exactly do they decide what is "essentially" Turkish? How would you define "Turkishness".
We don't have a similar law in the United States, although perhaps it would be better if we did, because then the conversation about what makes up "Americanness" would be out in the open, instead of a matter of what "everyone knows". For example, there is a cartoon, at
showing how Americans perceive themselves, how the world perceives them, and how they actually are. If you look at the URL, you will say it says angels
and fat men (William Shatner, of course is Canadian)
. Most people reading this understand the joke: Americans are self-righteous, religious people who act like ignoramus to the rest of the world, but who are really couch potatoes
. This is an understanding of Americanness
that probably everyone in our country has, although they might feel different about what it means. Rush Limbaugh
might cheer on the square jawed lads
of the Armed Forces
, while Ward Churchill
might call them war criminals
, but both seem to believe, tacitly, that these people are the "essence" of America.
Of course, people know that there are plenty of Americans who are African-American, Hispanic, leftists, gay, Asian, Arab or just have no interest in watching NASCAR. These people make up a large amount in terms of both percentages, and (due to the United States' large population) raw numbers. There are different ways to cut the numbers up, many of which are telling, but perhaps the best is just to say that the minority population of the United States is around 100 million people, bigger than any single nation in Europe, except perhaps Russia. Is a comment about the crudeness and commercialism of American culture also aimed at the 40 million Americans of African descent, or is it aimed at the approximate similar numbers of white people living in the Deep South? Again, whether they hate it or love it, the suggestion seems to be that monster trucks and church picnics are somehow a more authentic expression of Americanness than say, hip hop or White Wolf RPGs. Years ago, I heard the KRS-One song The Homeless, in which he says "Africans are homeless, even though we pay rent". I take these words, now, to be a statement that no matter how much Africans (and any other group) contribute to the culture, either materially or culturally, that contribution will always be "rent", never reaching the level of cultural "ownership" that a certain subset of Europeans is entitled to.
The most vitally important application of the concept is the fact that, for the past decade or so, the Republican Party in the United States has abandoned politics. The Republican Party is not a party of ideas (even of bad ideas), as much as they are a party that promises some vague cultural nostalgia. Although they are never stupid enough to go out and say it, (and might be unaware of the fact that it is the center of their appeal), the Republican Party has tacitly claimed the ground of "Americanness", of authenticity. They have managed to make the Democratic Party always explain itself and defend itself, which always comes off sounding somewhat half-hearted, even in ridiculous cases, such as John Kerry, a decorated veteran, trying to appear as naturally military as George W Bush, someone who, even at the most charitable, has very little military record. The unspoken statement that the Bush administration, and his backers, make is this: If Americans just stop thinking, and return to some undefined past where men were men, all of the problems caused by those urban, thinking liberals, who aren't even real Americans, will go away.
I wish they would say this outloud, but they won't.
The good news, from my viewpoint, is that this essentialism is finally starting to collapse under its own weight. Several years ago, I wrote a critique of civic virtue, the type of neo-Aristotelean morality professed by William Bennett. I pointed out that morality, in Christianity, does not come from having the right cultural background. Morality comes from making a decision to accept the grace of God. If you accept the ideas of conservatives about what is immoral conduct (homosexuality, for example) or what most people would consider immoral conduct (lying about it), several people who have had the type of wholesome backgrounds that conservatives love have been caught having illict sex, either homosexual or heterosexual, and sometimes abusing their power. Even with the perfect background, these people ended up doing things that would seem to be more inline with the permissive culture they deride, and were hypocritical about it as well. I think these cases, and a few others , got it through many people's minds that the attempt to live a moral life can not be gained through partaking in some mythical, wholesome essential background. Living morally is a choice. If these scandals don't work, there will probably be more and more until the message gets through.
Along with the idea of cultural essence as providing morality, there was an equally unstated promise that cultural essence would provide competency. Again, the tacit assumption was that all of these good old conservative Texans were real men, whose innate knowledge of guns and pick up trucks and unflinching determination would allow the United States to triumph where the more cerebral have failed. And for me, and I think for most Americans, even competency at the basic level was disproved, above anything else, by Hurricane Katrina. In a classic display of the gap between image and reality, one of Bush's political cronies was shown to not at all be the type of rugged, pragmatic type you would want to manage natural disasters, but instead was occupied as a horse show expert and knew more about appearing to be working than actually doing anything. The War in Iraq was another example of the fact that wrapping up in the cultural trappings of war did not at all equate to having the skills needed to win a military, let alone political victory: shooting captive pheasants (or octogenarians) is a much different skill set from winning a modern war. I still think a few people trust that if only the United States could embrace our cultural essence tighter, the war could be won. Although I can't prove it, I think that Rush Limbaugh's comments about phony soldiers were not just a reference to one particular man. Limbaugh was suggesting (even if he didn't know it himself), that it is not the actual activities of soldiers that make them soldiers, but rather their belief or commitment to a model or template of cultural authenticity. I doubt the truth will ever come out clearly about the matter, but that is the subtext as I see it.
On these issues, and many more, the lack of competence is obvious, and growing. Even more obvious is the gap between image and reality. To bring it back to NASCAR, while their may be a cultural affinity for automobiles, over the last decade, the United States has moved even further from being a nation that actually makes things into being a nation that sells government debt to countries that actually do.
I did lose my point there, a little: I am trying to write a philosophical essay about people's perception of national "essence", to make some political remarks that are probably fairly obvious to the readers here. My point is not to attack one particular party's abuse of "essence", but to point out the absurdity of the idea over all. Perhaps some of this anxiety over the idea of my essence is my own issue, a result of moving to a rural, conservative school as a child, where my hippie, Quaker upbringing didn't endear me to my classmates. I don't think I am alone in having this idea, or image of "Americanness", and feeling myself separate from it. My hope is, that as soon as this image is finished being discredited (which will happen soon, but won't be as definitive as I would wish), that the American people can redefine ourselves based on our real culture, and our real needs, and that foreigners will look at our culture beyond a few stereotypes.