At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of "B-B! ... B-B! ... B-B!" over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first "B" and the second -- a heavy, murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamp of naked feet and the throbbing of tom-toms. For perhaps as much as thirty seconds they kept it up. It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.
from 1984 by George Orwell

"U-S-A! ... U-S-A! ... U-S-A!", the chant rings clear, providing a surround sound audio to the striking image of the stars, the stripes, the red, the white and the blue, shimmering in the breeze. This could be the harmless support of the crowd at a major sporting event; or maybe it's the organised and pre-meditated rallying cry of the faithful at a party political convention. Whichever it may be, there is no doubt that this has become the anthem for all things American.

But what does it mean to be American? Although any country's corresponding adjective will be loaded with ideas and personal prejudices (Swedish -> blonde, porn; French -> coward; etc.) these are mere stereotypes. The main definitions of those words are neutral -- "Swedish" referring primarily to something or someone from Sweden, "French" to something or someone from France (if we ignore the fries). It seems to me that the word American is something much more complex in nature: one can be American, un-American, a "true American", a follower of Americanism, a perpetrator of anti-Americanism, or feasibly anything ranging from none to all of the above, depending on who you talk to.

American vs. un-American

One way of demonstrating the versatility of the word American is by looking at the word un-American. Now all us English-speakers learnt at school that un- means not, so un-American should mean the opposite of American. The word un-American is quite easy to define if you just look at who or what it is commonly applied to:

- in the 1950's it was used as a euphemism for Communism, displayed proudly by Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee

- Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards used the word to describe remarks made by Vice President Dick Cheney. The implications1 were that un-American meant dishonourable, undignified and seeking to divide the American people

- terrorism, and those who aid terrorism, have also been branded as un-American, particularly since September 11, 2001

- the term has been used by Jonathan Freedland, a journalist with moderate left-wing newspaper The Guardian, to describe the perceived imperialism of the George W. Bush regime and their War on Terror2

- neo-Nazi and supremacist groups are quite readily referred to as un-American

- funnily enough, I've never heard un-American used to mean "not a citizen of the United States of America", the meaning which would seem most logical

If that is what it means to be un-American (and those are only a few examples), then surely we can take the opposites of all those definitions and come up with a definition or definitions of American. Well then, judging by that list, "American" means:

  • not (or against) communist/left-wing politics
  • honourable
  • dignified
  • unifying (at least domestically)
  • against terrorism
  • anti-imperialist
  • anti-war
  • pro-equality
  • not extremist
  • not (or against) far right-wing politics

In fact, it seems that these idealist uses of the words American/un-American can mean damn near anything, depending on what the person using them believes in. Contrary to popular belief, these terms do not belong to nationalists and right-wing rhetorists -- everyone has their own idea of what America stands for and what it means to be American (or un-American).

(Nazi:) You and I, we're the same. (William:) We are not the same. I'm an American. You're a sick asshole.
from Falling Down starring Michael Douglas

It is also worth noting that all those definitions have little to do with nationality. There are American Communists, American terrorists, American extremists, honourable and dignified people from all countries, and so on. There might (potentially) have been a point where the United States, due to open immigration, attracted people of a certain mindset, who felt that the country best suited their ideals and desired way of life. But human nature always wins over in the end and the USA contains extremists, lunatics and self-centred people just like any other country in the world.

For every person who says that America is the Land of the Free, there will be someone else who has a completely different idea of what it means to be free. For those who say that America has the greatest economy on earth, there will be those who argue that "the economy" is about much more than money.

A man called Thomas Browne once said, "He who discommendeth others obliquely commendeth himself," and I feel the reverse applies equally. Loving one's country should never be something to be ashamed of. Nor should wanting to use one's superior resources to aid other countries in times of need. But believing one's country to be inherently greater than others is NOT a fundamental requisite of patriotism, but the fundamental root of perceived arrogance.


1 Read http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/09/08/cheney.ap/ to decide for yourself

2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,927860,00.html


Afterword

I apologise if that appeared to be an attack on America. Implicit in the logic of my write up was the fact that people of similar mindsets exist globally. There is at least one person in any country who believes that country to be the greatest. I just felt that the current political climate left the USA as the most topical subject for the essay.

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