The Persuasive American Identity
Australia's identity struggles are intertwined with its history and operation within the European sphere (where there is hopeless confusion about national identity.) America's identity struggles and triumphs therefore provide a useful point of comparison when considering whether alternative approaches can effectively build harmony in migrant based societies.
Whereas Europe has looked upon national identities as somewhat of a threat to the European Union and social cohesion within it, America has traditionlly looked upon a national identity as a method of mass persuasion and a method to foster social cohension in a society fractured by civil war and diverse immigration. As a consequence, Americans are far more comfortable with displays of national allegiance than are Europeans (and Australians.) For example, civil rights activists like Martin Luther King evoked the identity of the founding fathers who proposed all men are created equal when trying to persuade his fellow Americans to let go of their prejudices. Likewise, musician Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner on the electric guitar in a way that associated American patriotism with America's progressive movements. Neither Australia nor Europe has comparable examples of non-white civil rights activists using a national identity to change society.
Martin Luther King - I had a dream (1968)
Jimi Hendrix - The Star Spangled Banner [ American Anthem ] ( Live at Woodstock 1969 )
American politicians also approach identity in a very different way to their European counterparts; particularly in presidential elections where there is a tendency to create a vision of America that is consistent with the candidate's policy agenda. For example, in the reign of Abraham Lincoln, America was about going to war against the south to ensure the doctrine of equality included black Americans. In the reign of Ronald Regan, America was about the giving the individual freedom to make his or her own choices (unlike was the case in Communism). In the reign of George Bush Jr, America was about going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan to liberate the oppressed in Islamic countries while demonstrating American power. The one commonality is that there is a tendency to evoke a poorly defined “spirit” of the founding fathers, the Lincolns, Jefferensons and the Wasingtons so that the current agenda can be portrayed as the logic step from the steps of the historic heroes.
In 2016, Hamilton stars gave vice-president elect Mike Pence a speech about their American values.
Because the American Dream grew out of political action and America’s presidents constantly refer back to that action in their campaigns, the American identity is highly political. Whereas a French individual might express their identity through wine, food and approach to life, the American might do so by waving a flag in support of the founding fathers’ dream of freedom or carrying a firearm to support the 1st amendment of the constitution.
The broad acceptance of an American identity across racial groups owes a great deal to America’s historical successes that have associated the identity with status. In short, because most American leaders were quite successful in increasing prosperity across the generations as well as making a positive impact around the world, most groups in America looked upon the American project as something worthwhile. During the presidential campaign of Donald Trump; however, the American identity was strongly associated with whiteness within the media, which marked a significant change in attitude amongst many sections of American society.
The association with whiteness was not a Trump initiative, rather, it was the continuation of a trend that started decades ago. Since the end of the Vietnam War, America has lacked the positive international successes of the Marshall Plan that re-built Europe after World War 2 or the writing of the Japanese constitution that transformed Japan from a militaristic dictatorship to an open democracy. Instead, it has had policy disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya that aimed to bring democracy but instead brought religious extremism. Furthermore, multi-generational poverty has resulted in many Americans believing the American dream is outside of their reach. Without the status for the American "brand", alternative social identities, such as those based on race, religion and gender have assumed a more important role in the lives of Americans, and many have abandoned the national identity in the process. Admittedly, race, religion and gender identities have always been part of American civic life; however, the separation of the identities from an American identity is arguably more pronounced today than in the past.
The growing importance of racial, religious and gender identities outside of the American identity umbrella has been problematic for white male atheists because they have not had the same ability to access a racial, religious and gender in a socially acceptable manner as do women and people of colour. For those not wanting to return to a KKK past, these white males have had had two main avenues to a social identity. The first avenue has been to hold onto the national identity as it has been abandoned by non-white races, some religious groups and some women. As it is the white men who have been disproportionately left carrying the flags, there has been an inevitable association of identity with whiteness and maleness. The second avenue for whites to gain a social identity has been to become Americaphobes where the white gains social status by creating derogatory caricatures of other whites. In this way, many whites in America act very much like whites in Australia in that they have a race-based identity that it is in a degree of denial about the racial basis of the identity. Ironically, in the process of villfying the American identity for being white, they actually reinforce associations of it being white.
Because America has a mosaic of national identities that are always been challenged, individual Americans don't suffer the same kind of oppression that exists in non-western nations that have more singular national identities that expect individual conformity. Specifically, if an individual American doesn't identify with a promoted national identity, there are alternatives that they can identify with to gain a sense of belonging and informal rules to live by. On the negative side, because the American identity is so tied to politics and persuasion, there are many American identities in competition with each other and which has resulted in significant hostility between groups. The same hostility is not seen in nations like Japan or China which have a more agreed national character and which don't have a diversity of groups trying to exploit a political vision of a national character for their own gain.