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To Be American Essay

1804 words - 8 pages

            “To be American (unlike being English or French or whatever) is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than inherit one; since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.” In the context of this quote attributed to Leslie Fiedler, being American means subscribing to a socially constructed national identity--to the collective American Dream. This observation expresses a core truth about Americans, and about an American greatness that is in fact exceptional, but it is also problematic in several ways. First, the public has never felt compelled to fix the meaning of the American Dream, a term that presumably everyone knows. ...view middle of the document...

The United States put personal dreams of upward mobility, equality, and home ownership into the nation’s political agenda. That helped incorporate the myth into the national identity, but in a nation as diverse as the United States, it assured that the translation of the dream into policies would become historically a matter of dispute.
            The use of the term “myth” is itself a clue that America’s exceptionalism has limits. Myths have been powerful forces throughout history and in all communities. Whether or not a myth becomes an element of national identity depends on the current beliefs and practices of a particular country. The American mythical idea in fact derives from the European Enlightenment (“English or French or whatever”). The ideas of John Locke, for example, were a major influence on Thomas Jefferson. What made the American myth unique was the extent of its successful incorporation into the nation’s character. More often than not, individual freedom around the world has been seen as a threat to the prerogatives of elites and the security of nations. For this reason, the dreams of upward mobility, equality, ownership, and personal fulfillment have not always been encouraged in other corners of the globe. 
Throughout the British colonies, for instance, society was structured along lines of “deference and noblesse oblige.” (JC 61) To escape the confines of immobilization, indentured servants signed contracts to work as slaves for fixed terms in return for passage to America. The prospect of moving up in the world was an avowed motive that could not be realized in the old country. Even in the twentieth century, the Spanish, French, Dutch, and especially the British regarded land ownership as an asset of the monarchy and the elite rather than a right for all people. One study showed that in Detroit in 1900, 55 percent of residents of German ancestry, 46 percent of Irish, and 44 percent of Poles owned their own homes--figures that would have been impossible in Europe. (JC 138) America, thus, is exceptional in the manner in which the individual pursuit of ownership and prosperity became the cornerstone of national identity, and in the extent to which this pursuit successfully translated into freedom and security for so many citizens. But the pursuit itself is not uniquely American. Although the principles behind the American myth were not fully manifested in national identity until the founding of the United States, it is human nature, rather than distinctive American qualities, that accounts for the aspirations that define the myth.
America’s democratic experiment did create a new type of national identity, essentially a creation of collective imagination. President Lyndon Johnson said, “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest that is sleeping in the unplowed ground.” The Declaration of Independence, the charter of the...

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