18 May 2007

On national mythologies: part 1

For more than four years, a collective sense of American national identity and purpose endorsed the U.S-led war on terror and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, despite significant and bitter opposition that began before the “shock and awe” campaign and has steadfastly refused to go away. What little public support remains for the president and commander-in-chief appears to be crumbling, in part, because that national sense of self crafted by no longer automatically means broad public support for the foreign policies of this administration. So it seems like an opportune time to examine this most recently constructed American national identity, some of the mythologies that support it, and to scrutinize the historical patterns and processes of national identity formation. What does it reveals about United States and its rich and disparate cultures? What is the relationship between national identities and other identities that are based on, say, race, social class, religion, ethnicity, or gender? What can it tell us about the historical processes of national identity formation in the United States and elsewhere?

I use mythologies to refer to convictions that are so deeply imbedded in a given culture that they become part of the accepted wisdom of the age and, consequently, go largely unchallenged. Mythologies provide a window into the culture of the believers, particularly how they view themselves and their relations with the rest of the world, regardless of whether those myths meet standards of truth or historical accuracy.

By national identity I mean a sense of collective self that is powerful enough to build social and political consensus. National identity is a necessary to envision and work for the formation of a nation state, it nurtures a sense of “we” who have common interests and values, and it is that “we” that is typically invoked at times of crisis, for instance, in response to a natural disaster. The visceral reality of national identity is nowhere more evident than when it motivates young people to join the military at a time of war and at the risk of injury or death and enormous pain for their family and loved ones.

National identity is built upon broad mythologies that endure, but is also affected by the specific historical context in which it is being articulated. So the U.S. national identity before the Western frontier was “closed” in middle of the 19th century when most Americans lived in rural areas could not be replicated in the largely urban 21st century when the United States is the world’s dominant economy and military power. However, both identities can be supported by the same foundational mythologies, for example, American exceptionalism and successful assimilation, which is often represented by metaphor of the melting pot.

My research and teaching experience this past year at the American University of Central Asia have only reinforced two strong convictions I have about American national identity formation. First, the articulation of the single national identity creates a wholly inadequate cultural framework through which to understand the United States, irrespective of whether you live in Chicago or are looking in from Bishkek, Al-maty, Tashkent, Dushanbe or Ashkabad. I am not suggesting there are not popular beliefs and values that many Americans share, but that there are also many Americas, many Americans and many American identities. And these varied identities exist simultaneously and often in great tension. Any effort to create a monolithic national identity discredits and attempts to deny this dynamic quality of American cultural life.

Secondly, the stubborn insistence on cultivating a single American identity is largely, though not exclusively, a political project directed by the most privileged Americans to serve their collective self-interest. It can only succeed by the ongoing cultivation of a selective public memory that often amounts to historical amnesia. Furthermore, a national identity forged by the dominant culture in the service of its self-interests is essentially anti-democratic in impulse and effects for reasons I will explain later.

To be continued

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