American Identity

During the 2016 election cycle, it started to become clear how divided our country appears to be on many issues. I say appears because I’m unconvinced that the issues are really the points of division, rather are manifestations of a deeper, more potent kind of division, one of identity.

I queried Facebook friends during the primaries about what they thought it meant to be American. Granted, my friend list hovered at only around 100 (intentionally), but I expected better than a three percent response rate. Seriously — only three had anything to offer. Two of them were fairly predictable and brief, essentially being that to be American is to be free. The third was a prevaricating acknowledgement of how blessed we are while, typical of our current social rhetoric, also a veiled admission of guilt over being a white American, witness to the injustices borne by the various other identity groups, a guilt which underlies and dominates much of the cultural chatter of late.

Presently, everyone seems to demand attention to, and for, particular identities — intersectional, sexual, gender, marginalized, transitional, non-defined, undefinable. It is Newtonian-level reductionism applied to the body politic. The idea of a human universal, or at least an American universal, seems lost. Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” was a clarion blast in opposition to such particularity, a message to remember a unified identity. Critics mocked him as peddling a romantic nostalgia at best, or attempting a reversal of progressive social values and achievements (make America white again) at worst. More likely, it was a deeply embedded impulse to reclaim an identity that everyone in the country could share — do share, willingly or not, knowingly or not — as a bequest from the founders and builders of this western, democratic, republic. Such an identity is neither nostalgia nor regression, but an overarching character of the national collective, so to speak.

There’s a recent book out (2015), titled “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,” a collection of Saul Bellow’s nonfiction. Bellow had particular identities which today would qualify him as an “other” in America: he was an illegal immigrant (born in Canada, brought to US by his parents at age 9), and he was Jewish. Yet, he ended up as a strong player in what today is considered the power system — a Pulitzer and Nobel-winning novelist of highest regard. The opening of his “The Adventures of Augie March” is one of the most quoted: “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” This is how, I imagine, Bellow would have answered me if he had been one of my Facebook friends.

The reason he would, I suspect, choose to define himself (through the character) as American before the other, particular, identities which were also his, might have to do with that idea of a human universal. To borrow from a Chicago-Tribune review by Bill Savage, “Bellow embraces an ideal of a human nature that doesn’t merely transcend race, class, gender and other divisions between individuals and social groups: It makes such differences irrelevant, beside the point, and therefore makes any writer or thinker who explores such divisions misguided at best and barbarous at worst.”

It’s time to call upon our writers and thinkers, media and politicians, Twitter phenoms and celebrities, to retreat from the barbarism of defining everything by particular identities and groups. It’s time to find a way to recognize and consent to an American universal. Yes, I’ll say it in the way that I mean it — let’s make America great again — by exploring our divisions less and our common, American identity more.

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