A long time ago I remember reading that Texans were the only Americans (defined for the moment as residents of the United States, with apologies to any Canadian or Latino readers) who, when travelling overseas, would answer the question “Where are you from?” with the answer “Texas” instead of “America” (or “the U.S. or a similar answer). The implication was that of all Americans, only Texans have established some other identity than “American”. Or perhaps the implication was that Texans were not Americans at all. I seriously doubt this was ever true, but I have no doubt it is no longer true.
In fact, I would argue that there really is no such thing as an “American”, if one defines that term as someone who shares a set cultural, political and economic values with the other 300,000,000 residents of the country called the United States of America. The United States of America has since it’s inception, and even during the colonial period before, been comprised of blocks or regions with unique and different cultural, religious, linguistic, legal and political characteristics. Some argue that in recent times, with the emergence of mass culture, television and radio, mass production and mass marketing, the proliferation of ubiquitous corporations such as McDonalds and WalMart have relegated regional differences to quaint relics of the past, no longer relevant to identity. Others claim that events such as the bombing of the World Trade Center, the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the Great Depression have forged a common history and heritage which transcends any local identities.
But my experience suggests this is absolutely not the case. I am reminded of a man I worked with some years ago. He lived and for the most part worked in Houston (except for the two years he commuted to New Jersey from Houston every week). But he had been born and raised in New Orleans (or N’orlens, as he pronounced it), and considered himself a New Orleanian even though he hadn’t lived there in many years. This was even before hurricane Katrina.
I am also reminded of a conversation that took place in the mid 1990s at a Bed and Breakfast in San Francisco between myself and another guest from New York, a couple from Miami and the proprietor of the B&B. One of the guys from Miami, in telling us that was where they were from, noted that many people considered Miami the northernmost city in Latin America. Then our host made the comment that all five of us really came from places that many “Americans” would not consider a part of “America”.
During the week following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 much was made of the way the attacks appeared to “bring people together” and “bring out the best in Americans”. Some of this may be true, but before the week was out people interviewed in Springfield, Missouri by NPR were blaming the attacks on homosexuals and abortionists and all the other perceived evils that New York City represents to those in the holier than thou Midwest. With eighteen months Mr. Bush was pursuing war in Iraq based on the view that Saddam Hussein was responsible, a view perhaps shared by many of Mr. Bush’s fellow Texans, but widely dismissed by most New Yorkers, who also criticized his warmongering. So much for the World Trade Center attacks as a defining event of American identity.
Perhaps I’m just a strange anomaly, someone who was born and spent most of my life in America, who just doesn’t get the whole idea of being American. And what of it? What if there really is no such thing as an American? Why would that matter?
What comes to mind most readily is the images in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The images looked eerily like something out of one of those “failed states” like Somalia or Afghanistan, definitely not what we would image coming from America? Nations, those groups of people that share common values and cultures, don’t turn their backs on a portion of themselves like a major city and allow such a thing to happen. Nation-states, which are based on the idea that the boundaries of a state should be roughly equal to the territory of a nation, don’t let half a million of “us” to be abandoned to storms and then shot at and treated like dogs when they are desperate for assistance. But the people of New Orleans were not “us”. They were not Americans like the people “around here”. They were those strange folk who talked funny and had weird customs and lived “down there”.
That is why I know there are no such things as Americans. The word has no universal meaning. An American in New York is not an American in Georgia, or Kansas or Nevada. American is just another word for “those who live around me and think like me and act like me”. So long as that is the case, the United States of America is a failed nation-state, for no nation-state can exist without a nation, and images like the post-Katrina images of New Orleans are what we should expect to see.