Being an American is schizophrenic. It is a type of organized, controlled social madness that is just barely subverted by an incessant stream of cheap reality television, hyper-materialistic idolatry, skin-deep nationalistic sentiments, and other such platitudes. There is not an identity crisis in America, its just that our “identity” has always been a chaotic mess of people and places and things too numerous, too different to completely reconcile. So we just jam them together, swallow the racism and the sexism and prejudice and the inevitable delusion of home-grown fundamentalism, and go about our day wielding the biggest stick the world has ever seen. Its no wonder we look like a caricature of normality, a political cartoon come to life in all of our obtuse irrationality and fumbling foreign policy.
We have a history half-full of greatness, progress and half-full of almost unspeakable heinousness against millions of people across the world who simply lacked the privilege of being able to call themselves “Americans”. And yet, only one-half of our already-muddled selves is ever discussed, acknowledged or claimed as part of our identity, as if one could leave a trail of blood and bodies, built first and foremost on the genocide of an entire continent of peoples, and have it be tastefully and justifiably inconspicuous. Even in spite of our personal, internal heterogeneity, it is also our inability or unwillingness to come to terms with our own historical reality that prevents us from ever creating an identity that could not otherwise be characterized as any number of sociopathic psychological disorders.
Please don't get me wrong (I know how the above must sound), but I love my country. I love it in all of its madness and its calamity. But as an American who has lived abroad for a significant period of time, not only have I had the opportunity to reflect upon and dissect my American identity piece-by-piece, but I have also been faced with the constant challenge of having to explain that very identity to people from other countries. It is an impossibility and a constant struggle.
No doubt, every country has its own history and identity, and there is hardly a single one in the entire world that got it all right or has all of their shit completely together. But none of them have assumed the great crown of global hegemony, none of them regularly hold the fates of millions in their grasp whether indirectly, through the setting of global economic agendas, or directly, through our seemingly relentless need to wage war. Whether we deserve such great clout and power in the world seems somewhat moot at this point.
America, in its youth and idealism (more of a political tool than an actual belief at this point), is like the biggest kid in school, the jock who just learned about his own physical prowess over the rest of his peers, and finds a constant hormone-fueled need to impress that upon others. Maybe it all goes back to masculine dominance and this age-old patriarchy that shows us just how intellectually un-evolved we all really are, but who knows. As an American, like I was as a teenager wandering the halls of high school, I feel consistently embarrassed and very insecure about that identity. I am not that kid anymore, but when I say “Americano” to the people I interact with on a daily basis, I can tell that they all think something along those lines. It makes me cringe. Sometimes I just want to say Canadian.
What worries me the most is that almost no one alive today remembers America not being top dog in the world. This post-World War II baby-boomer generation and their generations of offspring were all baptized in a world where America had already filled that space of global dominance, where the world was split into the false Cold War dichotomy of good America and bad Soviet Union. Our perspective (and I am including myself in this) is filtered by our short-term and selective memory. We too readily, too willingly capitulate to passivity and corporate-issued social pacification like sheep to the slaughter because they keep telling us we are number one and it feels good and it is just so easy to believe from the plastic-wrapped, self-indulgent bubble in which we live.
News flash: America is not number one in anything except 1) Most powerful military (thank you military-industrial complex at the expense of egregious domestic needs), 2) Largest economy (soon to be eclipsed by China and not long after, likely India as well) and 3) Percentage of our population that is currently incarcerated (we won't get into how racialized our prison population is, but just as a side note...). In every single other category, such as life expectancy, standard of living, equality, freedom, education, health care, governmental transparency (i.e. level of corruption), we are not only not number one, we are consistently and increasingly lagging farther behind other more advanced and progressive countries.
The Roman Empire held on to the illusion of the Republic right up until the end. They faded away, leaving their indelible mark upon history, and in the end surrendered to the closing walls of barbarian tribes, Muslim armies, and a corroding social system of unsustainable cosmopolitanism. In retrospect, it was inevitable. Some might say that it was that very illusion of their own identity that allowed them to survive as long as they did. My personal opinion, it was that illusion and its detachment from reality that stifled their ability to evolve, to accept change, to grow and adapt to the constantly fluid world around them.
As an American, from where I am sitting right now, it seems like we are also in the midst of several closing walls. An inconceivably deteriorating environment, global climate change, continuous war and a still-expanding military-industrial complex, population growth, corporate infiltration of our political system, the general erosion of our domestic and personal freedoms, the dissolution of our democratic process, and our continual attempts to look outwards with our critical eyes instead of looking inwards. We act as if we are at war with the world, fighting for some ideal that we don't realize we left by the side of the road a long, long time ago because it was slowing us down in our pursuit of those true American values: greed and power. In reality, we are at war with ourselves.
I believe there is so much potential and goodness in America; it is my country, my home and I love it dearly. But the first step toward historical reconciliation, a contemporary humbling of our role in this world, and our preparedness for the storms that sit just over our horizon, is to find a true, honest identity, to forge it out of our mass of parts and peoples and influences. Otherwise we are simply perpetuating the lie, sinking deeper into the delusion, falling faster into the night from which we may not awake. It is a personal task of every person, every American and it is a collective responsibility of our nation as a global leader. We should wield that power with genuine reluctance and in the faith of serving others as well as ourselves.
So I will make this promise: I will always say I am an American and I will not feel embarrassed by it. I will understand that my country is not perfect, but I will continue to love it and support it anyway. I joined the Peace Corps in that spirit and I will continue to live in it. So for better or worse, here is to America.