Why are you American?
August 17, 2007 3:41 AM   Subscribe

What does it mean to you (yes, YOU there, reading this) to be an American?

I'm primarily interested in an American response, but a little bit of "outsight" could be helpful in some way, I'm sure. I'm just curious as to what the nationality actually means to some people. I want to have some kind of national identity, and I desperately want to have a good reason to be an American other than the fact that I was born here.

I don't understand: "you should go back if you don't like it here" or "people died so you could ask that question" or anything similar. I want a real answer, and if there are any people who CHOOSE to be American instead of being born American.

I'm 21, I see what's going on in the world, and I become upset when someone tells me that "I should be outraged." Why? "Impeach Bush." Why? "Bomb (insert country here)!" Why? "Because America kicks ass!" or some other stupid answer.

I would like stories, really, something real, some event or conversation, a snippet of history, anything that made you decide "Damn straight I'm an American" and you said it with pride.

(I hope it's ridiculously obvious that I won't appreciate responses looking anything like the ones above, excepting the first poster only. That way it won't be funny. Or will it?)
posted by bam to Human Relations (106 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
The idea of "freedom" is the abstract concept most identified with being an American. For some people, that concept settles nicely in their heads and hearts, for others it's more complicated.

File me in the latter category. Simply put, I tend to want to believe in the promise of (personal) freedom as a nearly absolute concept. That being said, when everyone from well-meaning ideologues to proto-fascists attempts to legislate precisely where those freedoms start and stop, my ability to recognize my own limits and respect them personally is taken away.

That is, my personal concept of freedom is corrupted.

The idea of being an American to me lies entirely in my own reconciliation of absolute freedom versus the PG-13 version I'm allowed, and how - in comparison to other countries - I'm able to express my support and/or displeasure with the efforts of my government (through voting, writing, reading opposition literature) to settle at a different point of reconciliation than I imagined.

So, I guess being an American for me is a constant state of dissatisfaction with a status quo and an appreciation that I'm allowed to think about and work towards an ideal vision of society without fear of imprisonment or censorship.
posted by peacecorn at 3:58 AM on August 17, 2007

on an optimistic day, i see american history as a long struggle to live up to the ideals the country was supposedly founded upon. it's had its ups and downs, but i think on a long term we're succeeding.

on a pessimistic day, i think of my country less charitably.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:59 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

I was born in the US, and it is both good and bad, but generally good. To me, being an American means we sometimes take ourselves too seriously and the ego starts to take control, but it also means we have the ability to laugh at ourselves.

It means we hold state fairs where one of the main attractions is a life-sized cow carved out of butter and we also have some of the greatest art museums and music festivals in the world.

It means that....as an American....I am represented by fellow citizens who look nothing like me or people who look very much like me (can that be said for too many other countries?)

Being American means being human (i.e. not perfect). But it also means that we get to keep working toward improving ourselves and our nation, and we have the ability to do so without civil violence. That is, perhaps, one of the greatest things about being an American.

Best, WS
posted by Womanscientist at 4:00 AM on August 17, 2007


For me, being an American is not about a government or loyalty to an institution so much as it is a culture. As long as I'm in the US, I don't notice I'm an American. But as soon as I travel outside I become very aware of the things that make me different; the way I interact with other genders, the sports I watch, the reactions I get when I tell people I'm an engineer, the way people greet each other, the food I eat, the way I dress, the way I talk. Most of these things are very small, but they stand out for me, and together they give me some sort of identity relative to the people I'm interacting with in another country. While I usually try to blend in to those other countries so as not to be an obnoxious tourist, I have much more tendency to embrace my Americanism as a thing to be proud of when someone asks me where I'm from; when I'm in the US, I don't give a damn about my cultural affiliation because it's pretty hard to notice it.

It's kind of like when I moved from Ohio to Massachusetts... I hated Ohio. Hated it. Would never live there again. But it had a lot of influence on how I grew up, so here in Mass I'm proud of growing up on meat and potatoes and watching the Buckeyes and having funny grammatical quirks in my speech. It's what made me, me! (Among other things of course) So I have to represent! Same deal with being American.
posted by olinerd at 4:01 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've lived in Europe for five years now and often have small moments where I identify as an American, usually with more of a neutral detachment than pride. And I certainly don't want to go back to living in America. But hearing American English used well, crisply and evocatively, fills me with pride. American is inimitable, it floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. I mean things like hearing Old Dirty Bastard say he'll "Godzilla up your shit" for example. Small turns of phrase you could only get out in the American idiom. And btw is American the only language that can make everything into a verb? I never used to listen to hip-hop and now it's all I can hear. Maybe this sounds ridiculous but it is these things that please my heart. In fact, I'm white, and I would almost say it's the American black vocal culture that I'm most proud of. Probably "pride" is the wrong word here, but these are the things that are really close to me and that I am lonely in my appreciation of here.
posted by creasy boy at 4:10 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

First of all, part of the problem with America is right in your question -- not every "you!" can answer this question, because not every "you" is an American. There's this perception among the rest of the world that Americans consider the default culture and identity to be American. In America it's pretty common for 95% of the people you meet and interact with to be born and raised in America. In Europe and other developed nations (maybe with the exception of Japan?) it's much more common that you will be living with people from different countries. I really do think that to some extent many Americans have the mindset:
humans from the United States (Americans)=people
humans from other countries=foreigns
I think that the problem with being an American is that most of our worth comes from the myth that we are the best country in the world. In most countries, patriotism derives from a love of the unique qualities of that country, and often is an expanded form of regionalism, with those expressing the patriotism forming a common identity based on strong cultural factors like history, language, food, etc.

Now, there are I suppose some uniquely American foods, and American English is definitely different than that spoken in other countries, but I would say there isn't the same common cultural identity that you can find in the UK or France. I think if you look at countries with massively growing immigrant populations (none of which, by the way, can match the US which is by nature an immigrant nation) they are starting to see the effects of cultural disunity.

Nonetheless I think America is self-selecting in its mentality. Basically, America was first populated by people who were exporers, who felt stifled or persecuted, or who were seeking out wealth. So as a result, the base psychology of our nation is one of pride, recklessness, and desire for wealth. This shapes our current psychology as well as the American "dream" -- a house all of our own (independence) and a good life (wealth). Of course, most humans want this but I think it's pronounced and more emphasized in the American model.

The only real heritage point, some argue, is the American Civil War. Some people say that this is at the base of the American shared identity. For sure its repercussions can still be seen in the cultural and political shape of America. The idea of the oppressive north eastern elites probably could be traced all the way back to Reconstruction.

I am not a historian or sociology, this is just my gut feeling. Basically, America's cultural highpoints surround wars: the Revolutionary War that founded it, the Civil War which divided it, and the World Wars which established America as a "world power". In fact being a world power is a strong part of how America perceives itself and is perceived.

I remember only a few times in my life when I've felt wildly patriotic. One was the first time Clinton was inaugurated. There was such a feeling of hope and promise permeating DC at that time and I felt like we were going to really go somewhere wonderful. The other was in the immediate wake of 9/11 when I saw how united my friends and acquaintances were. In both cases my hopes were crushed, first by Clinton bowing down to the conservatives, and then of course Bush basically reacting to the world's untied sympathy by asking them to bend over and take it like a man.

That's why I think being an American will always be problematic for me. I'm naturally a pacifist, so being from a nation whose worth derives from military might and bullying pains me deeply. I try to be proud of the fact that Americans -- not America -- are still widely loved by the world. They appreciate our warmth and friendliness, our inclination to be helpful. I think the largeness of America has inspired a certain amount of openness to others that is sort of unique.

As a frequent traveler/liver abroad, from a purely legal, political, and social standpoint it is certainly sometimes a relief to be an American and know that America will be around for me to come back to.

And of course there is always the love of my family, my friends, and my geographic home that provides me a strong tie with being an American.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:18 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeh, born American, living in Europe for the last decade, I've run EMEA (Europe, The Middle East & Africa) for a couple of instituitions and typically had oversight of the region in global roles. Heavy, at times almost incessant travel, and to some very, very crappy places.

I've spent lots of time not only in the G7 but also some politically unstable countries, and more than once the bullets started flying whle I was there.

Whenever someone asks me if I'm American I always answer affirmatively, directly and positively. I'm definitely American, and happy to be a product of a nation that tolerates open thought and the free expression of ideas. As others upstream have noted, our system isn't perfect - hell, I'm not convinced it's even teh best form of democracy. But one might make the argument that any system designed and operated by humans will be failable on some level; IMHO the brillance of the Founding Fathers was that they very carefully and deliberately designed a system that is capable of and tolerant to correction and modification. A system that is well aware of and largely resiliant to human foibles and fallibility.

Mine isn't solely an academic position either; I'm eligible for British citizenship and could opt out of the American experiment at any time. And while I'll get that red passport soon, I won't do so at the cost of my American citizenship.

That false flag bullshit? You know where Americans abroad identify themselves as Canadian or British or whatnot?

I don't get it. You are what you are.

I'm American. More than once I've said so at the wrong end of a rifle.

You are what you are.
posted by Mutant at 4:20 AM on August 17, 2007 [10 favorites]

I'm American because it's where I was born and raised. Does it define me? Only as far as I define myself by it.

Being American has given me a lot of advantages in life, for which I'm grateful. But moving away from America has also given me a lot of advantages in life.

Life is a crapshoot - I got lucky.
posted by wayward vagabond at 4:40 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

Travel the world - then you know what it means to be an American.
posted by homodigitalis at 4:42 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

On a recent jaunt to Germany, I visited the Reichsparteitagsgelände (nazi party rally rounds) and Dachau. I had been sheepish about my nationality all the preceding week, embarassed of my American coarseness, ashamed that I am not a slinky, progressive polyglot. But after a brief, visceral revisit of european history, it really was a "damn straight i'm an american" sort of moment.

so seconding homodigitalis.
posted by bluenausea at 4:59 AM on August 17, 2007

homodigitalis had a good suggestion, go forth and travel. I lived a year in England, by means no remote or truly alien land compared to America, but it helped me come to appreciate and take much more pride in being American.

First and utmost in my belief, I hold freedom as being an important aspect of my nationality. I like to think that we enjoy a level of freedom that for the most part, is still greater and wide spread than most other countries, that since the American Revolution, our nation has fought again and again to uphold and expand it. That doesn't mean I don't look at the wars and things our nation has done which has checked or destroyed freedom in other places and feel shame and anger. Typically, I have not been happy with the present administration either.

I also agree in that what I love about America is that we are a mixing pot, that while a majority (not a great one) of Americans are white, Americans come in every shape and color. It makes me proud that so many people have come to America and have found and are finding a home, a chance to throw everything to the wind to be what they want to be. America doesn't promise success, but it does promise the chance to try. That across the world, people from many lands, look to one nation above all others, as the place they want to go and live.

What some people think as ugly and crass, I think are great. Americans can be whatever they want to be, with such a freedom that is rare to find any where else throughout the world.
posted by Atreides at 5:21 AM on August 17, 2007

chatfilter, but an outsider who has visited the USA a couple of times and lived in europe suggests the major traits are inward looking self importance and an inability to understand why everyone else doesn't want to be a yank.
It continually surprises me that USians hold up as an example the immigrants from third world nations as an example of america's superiority.
Yes, the USA looks good if you have a GDP of sub-$10k, but for the rest of the first world it looks cut throat, scary and disappointing (especially when you see how far the US has fallen from the ideals if its founding fathers).
posted by bystander at 5:27 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

(that wasn't directed at Atreides thoughtful post, more a general view)
posted by bystander at 5:30 AM on August 17, 2007

well, there a hundred thousand answers to this question. a lot of people (status-conscious, insecure, unsophisticated) believe that being an american means being a member of the most prestigious country club on earth. that's not my answer, but it's an answer, and a valid one.

as for me, what really moves me about my country (although we don't live up to it as much as we could) is that it is a nation bound together by ideas of liberty and self-determination rather than ethnicity, language, or religion. i love the new-world, colonial origins--that our forefathers were not kings and dukes, but rather convicts, runaways, dreamers, pioneers, banished second-rate administrators, slaves, explorers, entrepreneurs, opportunists, outcasts, etc. we are not noble. we aren't carved in stone. i love that our founding document--the constitution--is amendable and changeable.

i wouldn't get hung up on it, though. america is a work in progress, and being a part of it can mean any one (or twelve) of a thousand things. it might be something you internalize, or it might just be incidental, like your driver's license number or what high school you happen to be zoned for.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:31 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

i guess what i'm saying is that "america," the brand, is different from america the nation.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:33 AM on August 17, 2007

Well, for me personally I was born and raised within a particular culture and while there are some problematic aspects to it, I think there is a lot there worth preserving and celebrating. U.S. history is multifaceted and there is a fair quantity of religious and ethical radicalism, as well as a multicultural history that deserves to be uncovered. Many parts of the U.S. were openly multilingual until WWII for example.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:34 AM on August 17, 2007

I think it is pretty cool that anyone can become American. Not just an American citizen, but American.

For example, I can emigrate to Japan, but I'll never be Japanese.

I can emigrate to Russia, but never be Russian.

No matter how long I spend in Canada, I wouldn't ever be considered a Canadian.

But anyone who wants to come here to better their own life, while not burdening anyone else, can be American.

Whatever your color, wherever your from, you can be an American. That's so cool.
posted by sandra_s at 5:37 AM on August 17, 2007 [11 favorites]

iana, but two related points:

1 - your question includes some items - why you should be "outraged", for example - that, to my eyes, have nothing to do with being american. there are certain things happening in the world and one reaction to them is to be outraged, of course, but that seems to me to be a moral question and not one related to nationality. the fact that you do relate it to nationality suggests that you are being manipulated - that you are responding to people saying "because you are american you should feel xyz" when facing a moral problem. i say "manipulated" because i don't think nationality (more generally, cultural identity) should be strongly connected with morality - that is one of the more obvious lessons of history.

i mention this because it seems so common in american politics. americans seem to think it is ok to spy on other people, but not on themselves; that americans deserve a fair trial, but not "foreigners". and, incidentally, to an outsider, that attitude is decidedly american.

2 - nationality tends to be connected with other ways in which we group socially. there are obvious connections with ethnicity, for example. it is also a political construct - a nation typically has some type of government at a national level - and the efficient functioning of a national government requires a certain amount of consensus / participation.

in larger countries, or those whose political borders don't coincide with social boundaries, there is the risk that fragmentation will occur - that people will stop identifying with the common good and instead divide into competing factions along social / ethnic lines. to counteract this i believe that such governments (and i think this particularly applies to america, which is geographically large and has traditionally absorbed many immigrant groups) actively construct and maintain a national identity. so to some extent for all of us - and particularly americans - believe in an ideal of "who we are" which is a story, chosen to encourage us to behave in a certain way. anyone can see this in recent american politics.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:50 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

[sorry, misread your question slightly; i think you already agree with me on the "outraged" point. also, by "spy" i was referrring particularly to wiretapping and satellites (and not shifty men in trenchoats)]
posted by andrew cooke at 5:56 AM on August 17, 2007

Best answer: I'm an American because I uphold, and am bound to, the promises and traditions of the republic, most clearly outlined in the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. It isn't an easy road nor will it make me famous. I do it because I believe it is right and I see that in the faces of the people I deal with every day, which comprises one of the most motley groupings of people every assembled on the planet, but whom I know all share my hopes and aspirations even if they prefer to carry them out in ways different than I. At the end of they day this place will always be one of the few where I can say that while railing against the majority. At the end of the day we're all here for the common good, not just our own but for humanity's. While trespasses may be made, I know they will be fixed... someday.
posted by jwells at 5:56 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

2nd suggestion. Drive across America at least one, if possible, make a round trip going different roads. Another aspect of America that fills me with pride is the great beauty of her natural landscape, not to mention, the sheer size of our country.
posted by Atreides at 5:58 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

Excuse me sandra_s, but that's inflammatory hogwash. There are millions of immigrants in Canada who are every bit as much Canadian as any other citizen. It's pure US propaganda that you're spouting, and that you believe it is also the source of many of the equivocal answers to this question.

As a non-American who nevertheless has spent a lot of time there and has a brother who is a naturalized citizen, America is wonderful because it is inherently a paradox. A great proportion of modern environmentalism was born in the US - but it is nevertheless one of the most officially skeptical states on the planet on the subject. The US still has among the greatest scientific establishments in the world - but it is also among few where people still believe pre-modern views of human origins etc.

The thing that frustrates me with people from outside the US is that they think they can "identify" and know the US narrowly. "But X% still believe in CREATION!" they cry, ignoring the fact that the US is where most of evolution science comes from as well. You can say that about almost any issue.
posted by mikel at 6:01 AM on August 17, 2007 [9 favorites]

A system that is designed to self-correct, and sometimes does.

What jwells said.

Also, the country will accept into the establishment--and ultimately into the power structure--almost any exogenous ethnic or religious group, after a few generations of discrimination and demonization--surely the shortest such period in the world.
posted by Phred182 at 6:09 AM on August 17, 2007

Best answer: I hope you don't think I'm being trite, but I honestly think that a lack of monolithic nationalism is one of the things that makes the U.S. great. Sure, there are the neo-cons who try to speak for all of us, but due to the U.S.'s sheer size (population and geographically) and the fact that the vast majority of us came from somewhere else at some point, there's a pluralism of culture and worldview that I don't think you can find anywhere else in the world. Even in Canada, where I live now, people who haven't spent a lot of time in the U.S. don't seem to fully understand that there are as many ideologies and perspectives as there are that are all associated with American identity. Elsewhere, I've found, you're (whatever country)-ian, or you're a (whatever other country)-ian living in (whatever country). The "melting pot" concept our civics teachers droned on about in school really is unique, even today. You don't have to be one thing to be American.

To pull this idea out of the abstract, it means that I can still be patriotic while criticizing the current administration and using the political process to unseat it. It means that I don't feel a loss of identity just because I don't subscribe to some national cultural hegemony. And as I grow older and see more of the world, I'm really beginning to appreciate the fact that I have had the privilege of growing up with the idea that I can do whatever I want, provided that it's not illegal - which is fundamentally different than the idea that I can do only what my government and/or culture deems acceptable for me to do.

I think Deathalicious has a good point about the American/foreign dichotomy, but it isn't necessarily because all Americans are jingoistic bastards (though there are some, to be sure). I think it has more to do with the fact that, more than any other country in the world, the U.S. kind of hands you a blank slate and says, "you're American, now you go figure out what that means."
posted by AV at 6:11 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

surely the shortest such period in the world

I'm not sure why you would think this. The UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, for example, all have embraced immigrants within a generation.
posted by bystander at 6:12 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

No matter how long I spend in Canada, I wouldn't ever be considered a Canadian.

But anyone who wants to come here to better their own life, while not burdening anyone else, can be American.

This makes no sense at all. Have you ever been to Canada? Or Ireland, or any number of other countries, for that matter?
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:13 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

I was born in Japan (though technically on US soil) and spent most of my early years abroad, so I have a pretty good perspective on this. There are plenty of things to deplore about America—smugness, ignorance, adventurism abroad, growing tolerance of repression at home—and it's conceivable to me that within my lifetime it will cease to be in any meaningful sense the country I learned to love, but for the time being, I agree with peacecorn (first respondent): it's about freedom. America was created in the name of freedom (yes, yes, insert ironic comment about black people, Indians, etc.) and that's what people have historically come here to experience: the freedom to say what they like, live where they like, and break out of the confining social/economic strictures of wherever they came from (where, typically, if you were born into a peasant family you stayed a peasant and your kids would be peasants as well).

americans seem to think it is ok to spy on other people, but not on themselves; that americans deserve a fair trial, but not "foreigners". and, incidentally, to an outsider, that attitude is decidedly american.

Nonsense. That attitude is human; Americans are not only human but (at the moment) riding high, so it's particularly annoying in them, but give me a break—every nation (and clan and family) applies different rules (and patterns of thinking) to themselves and to Others.

Excuse me sandra_s, but that's inflammatory hogwash.

Oh, come on. Yes, she overstated the point and shouldn't have dragged in Canada, but it's still valid. In much of the world you can live there all your life and never be seen as a member of the community; in America we're all immigrants—there's no such thing as an "ethnic American."
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

It continually surprises me that USians hold up as an example the immigrants from third world nations as an example of america's superiority.

I used to have a great quote from [I think] Lewis Lapham about how Americans saw themselves as a big boy scout troop that anybody could join. As opposed to being Japanese, for example.

That notion of 'choice' filters into all sorts of conversations, in all areas of public and private life, and at both ends of our political spectrum.

To me, being an American is defined by the Constitution and our system of common law on one hand, and our corpus of national mythology on the other. Neither depends on who your parents were, or where you were born, and gives you pretty wide latitude in what to believe.

'Choice' is an interesting word to ponder. You could say 'freedom', but that word has been used so much to mean so many things that it makes people's eyes glaze over a bit.

One strong American stereotype that occurs to me is that the 'American' is the person who won't passively accept their fate, but will choose to be active and do something about it, whether it's Bruce Willis fighting terrorists or Rosa Parks in the front of the bus.
posted by gimonca at 6:16 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

After a summer in Italy, I was having a farewell dinner with one of my Italian friends. The wine was flowing, and the conversation turned to the Italian laws requiring you to carry identification at all times.

To my friend, these laws seemed reasonable: after all, they allow the police to identify who might not belong there, to check if somebody is perhaps an illegal immigrant.

To me, it seemed incomprehensible that anybody should support the ability of the police to randomly stop you on the street, for no reason at all. But no matter how long we argued (nor how drunk we got), I couldn't make my friend understand where I was coming from.

In subsequent discussion with other friends from around the globe, nobody has been able to understand why I would feel so strongly about this issue.

Now, I'm not trying to argue that American laws are, as a matter of fact, universally more supportive of individual liberties than elsewhere. Nor do I think that all (sadly, perhaps not even most) would agree with me on this particular issue. But I do believe we share a deeply held initial assumption: freedom is important, it is part of our identity, it is worth making sacrifices for. It's number one.

And of course we're hypocrites, and we are prudes, and of course we perpetrate great evil around the world in the name of this "freedom". I'm not proud of any of that.

We disagree, us Americans, about what "freedom" should mean; "freedom" to my liberal father is a very different thing than to his fundamentalist sister. But they would both agree that it is fundamental.

Also? America has the best damn corn on the cob you'll find anywhere in the world. And free public libraries. And rhubarb, damnit, to make strawberry-rhubarb pie in the summer.
posted by wyzewoman at 6:19 AM on August 17, 2007 [6 favorites]

I'm an American because I'm from here and continue to live here, though I've briefly lived outside the country. I can't get excited about fussing over government boundaries.
posted by look busy at 6:22 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

No matter how long I spend in Canada, I wouldn't ever be considered a Canadian.

As I Canadian I would have to disagree with that assertion, or at least what it implies - anyone can be a Canadian, but our culture also values and embraces roots and origins (thus countless X Nationality-Canadian variations)

(at least that's what they tell all of us in grade 9 geography class)
posted by davey_darling at 6:23 AM on August 17, 2007

I'm not American, but I lived there for a while as a kid and know a lot of them. Honestly, there doesn't seem to be anything that special/unique about Americans, although the ones I know have all travelled/lived overseas and may not be typical. In broad stereotypes, I think of Hollywood and the world police and millions of small towns.

But I have the same trouble figuring out why I should have my own national pride, aside from our sports teams, of course (Australia). It really is like picking a local sports team - you grew up in that area, so you love their cute red uniforms, even though there's a perfectly good argument for the green shit worn the next suburb across. I don't really see a great benefit from patriotism/national feeling/whatever.
posted by jacalata at 6:24 AM on August 17, 2007

I'm a dual citizen of the US and Canada, raised in Canada and now living in the US. 3 out of 4 of my grandparents are American. I do not consider myself one, and I don't think I ever will even though I will likely spend the rest of my life here. So while I am not a proud American, I have spent some time considering the differences between me and my American peers. The only difference between us, other than the 25% Canadian I have in me, is how we were raised.

I think that (generally, of course many exceptions exist) Americans are taught from a young age to value their government, history, ideals, etc above all others. They focus on self-improvement and personal gain and the ability (and responsibility) of an individual to change their own fate with near-religious passion. They have been taught such pride for their own systems that they often have difficulty comprehending why someone would want to do things another way (note that I am not saying they are ignorant or unintelligent, just proud). They value freedom and tolerance, and enjoy the liberty they have in their country. They tend to act as though there are no other countries with this gift, whether they actually believe that to be true or not.

It is something that is taught, whether by parents or the school board or the government. It is hammered in by the fact that the country is so incredibly large and most people do not interact with many people from other countries. People are taught pride in a certain way of life, grow up surrounded by others who were taught this, and then teach their children the same thing.

The reaction I typically get from American acquaintances when suggesting something non-American might be equal or even superior is confusion, as though I were suggesting the sky is green or that humans don't need water to live. Those who are at least willing to discuss the possibility are usually Americans who have spent some time travelling abroad.

If you want to develop some pride in your country my suggestion is to read more history and find moments that inspire you, travel and explore interesting places, meet the other people within your borders, and find things that you can be passionate about, beyond the standard patriotic lines. There are some great things here, and my own (limited but slowly growing) pride for the country comes from my experiences and interactions as an adult rather than what I was taught.

On preview:
No matter how long I spend in Canada, I wouldn't ever be considered a Canadian.

But anyone who wants to come here to better their own life, while not burdening anyone else, can be American.

Whatever your color, wherever your from, you can be an American. That's so cool.

In my experience, this is quite backwards.
posted by waterlily at 6:26 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

To clarify my response.

I have direct, close relatives in Nova Scotia. their grandfather and my grandfather were brothers born in America to Polish immigrants. In 1945, the one brother moved from Pennsylvania and settled in Nova Scotia.

3 generations later, the family is still known as, and referred to in town as, "The Americans".

My Uncle, whom I also visit regularly, lives in County Cork, Ireland with his absolutely wonderful Irish wife. He will never be an Irishman.

Its not and indictment of the countries. The same can be said about many of the states in the US. I am from Pennsylvania, born and raised. I can move to Texas. I would not be "Texan". :-)

And for the record: US, Canada, Mexico, England, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Italy, Russia, Japan, China. I would consider myself well traveled. In each of those countries I found deep, proud and impressive cultures populated by breathtakingly nice people.
posted by sandra_s at 6:29 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

As a non-American (with or without "outsight"), I find it interesting that so many of the comments talk about "freedom" - as an absolute concept; an ideal; freedom of choice, freedom to dream and aspire, freedom of thought and mostly of deed.

And, in contrast, there's also an attitude - displayed in a thousand different ways on a thousand different subjects, from those of national importance down to ones of individual belief - that freedom elsewhere is dangerous lest people make the wrong choices; a blindness to the fact that others need to have the freedom to make their own mistakes, make their own choices, and follow their own path, for "freedom" to actually be a worthwhile and meaningful concept.

Not to sound like a troll, but all too often it verges on the sanctimonious* - like an older sibling trying to get to to think and act the right way, as if they're suddenly some paragon of wisdom.

Remember how well you reacted to that? ;-)

(* As, I admit, does this post. I'll shut up now...)
posted by Pinback at 6:32 AM on August 17, 2007

There are many things I love about the United States but for me that doesn't translate into "I'm proud to be an American." Nationality is an accident of birth. I can't take credit for the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. That doesn't mean I don't get weak in the knees at "We hold these truths to be self-evident," but it's not from pride.

I'm proud of my family and friends in the States who work hard, make their own way, are attuned to the possibilities in life, help neighbors and strangers as a matter of course. I think those qualities are typically American.

As someone said above, I love English and the way Americans use it.

But I don't think it's logical to be proud just to be from a country. To my mind that's a dangerous way to think.
posted by bluebird at 6:33 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm also surprised at all the people saying "freedom" here. Freedom is certainly a tradition part of America's self-image and to my mind its most abstract part. It is a piece of pure theory not in the sense that it's not true but in the sense that Americans tend to see their "freedom" as what they could do -- what the government would not stop them from doing -- if they had the means. In other countries people see "freedom" as what you can actually do: can you leave a job that's killing you? Can you care for your aging parents? Can you take six weeks' vacation? So to me "freedom" as an American virtue, at present, is like the flag or the belief that you need to have some kind of belief: definitely a real element in the national identity, yet rather lacking in content. I think a lot of what ties Americans together is a certain rhetoric lacking in content.
Another thing tying Americans together is that they are genuinely very friendly. And I think Americans tend to interact based on the team model, which is often a very pragmatic and very binding mentality.
posted by creasy boy at 6:34 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

To me America means open debate, the states as laboratories of new ideas in governance, and the right to be left alone if I'm minding my own business.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:37 AM on August 17, 2007

there's no such thing as an "ethnic American."

Really? Have your history books been re-written that quickly? Oh, that's right.... the natives were Indians right.

Maybe I made a mistake in posting my (now) deleted comment first, before waiting for Americans to answer. I'll have another go...

I was born in South Africa, my parents are British Nationality and we moved back to Northern Ireland when I was in my teens. If I want I can choose to be South African, British or Irish. And I could consider myself European If I wanted. I consider myself lucky because after stressing about my identity for years I'm now comfortable just being a 32 year old male of European descent.

National identity gets you nowhere and the comments here attest to that. They are meaningless.

My Uncle, whom I also visit regularly, lives in County Cork, Ireland with his absolutely wonderful Irish wife. He will never be an Irishman.

Really because there's this guy down the road who moved from Nigeria 7 years ago who is now town mayor. Perhaps your Uncle won't let go of his former nationality and inegrate with those around him?

Whatever your color, wherever your from, you can be an American. That's so cool.

Yeah, groovy isn't it. My parents now live in Spain (have done for 3 years). My 8 year old sister considers herself Spanish and the locals are proud she does. So cool.

Americans can be whatever they want to be, with such a freedom that is rare to find any where else throughout the world.

You'll find it's not really that rare. There are many countries that are much "freer" than the US
posted by twistedonion at 6:40 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

In my experience, this is quite backwards.
Agree. Canada is very open-arms, compared with Japan, where you will never completely be accepted as Japanese no matter how hard you try, simply because you don't look like one. I'm speaking from personal experience.
posted by Meagan at 6:47 AM on August 17, 2007

Best answer: I'm honestly baffled as-to why most people would feel pride or shame about being an American (or any other nationality). I know that, usually, when someone says they're baffled by something common, they're trying to start an argument or imply (in a passive-aggressive way) that they're superior ("I just don't get why people are ever cruel!") But I really don't understand these kinds of nationalistic feelings.

If I was a politician or civic engineer, I might feel pride (or shame) in America, because my JOB would be to try to improve/create/fix America. But I'm just some guy who happened to be born here. I guess you could say that by going to my job as a computer programmer (being part of the capitalist machine) -- and by voting -- I'm contributing to America, but we're talking about FEELINGS here. I don't experience, in any tangible way, on a day-to-day basis, the feeling of being part of some national machine. I didn't build it. I didn't break it. I just happen to be sitting on top of it.

So to feel pride in it would feel like walking by a bakery and being proud of some cake in the window -- some cake that I didn't bake.

And I will totally agree that American has a beautiful landscape and (when it's used well) a good language, so do many other places. By luck of the draw, I happen to live in that landscape and speak that language, but I didn't plant the trees and I didn't write "Huckleberry Finn." I love green eyes, and I'm happy that I have green eyes, but I'm not proud that I have them -- I just got lucky. Similarly, I'd love to win the lottery, but if I did, I wouldn't be proud of the money I'd "earned."

I'm equally baffled by Americans (my age) who feel ashamed of slavery or the treatment of Native Americans. Both of those are terrible things, and we should all work to stop such things from happening again and to correct any problems that still linger from when they did happen. But the Holocaust was horrible, too. I didn't contribute to the Holocaust; I didn't own slaves or slaughter the natives. I'm ashamed of bad thing I'VE done -- not things other people have done.

I don't think nationalistic pride/shame -- for most people -- is rational. Yet they feel it anyway. Now, I'm not a 100% rational person. So the question is, why do I not buy into this piece of irrationality when so many other people do? (Sorry if that sounds insulting. You may not think that nationalistic pride or shame is irrational, in which case -- from your perspective -- my argument crumbles. I'm just writing from my perspective.)

The only thing I can think of is that it comes down to upbringing. I have friends who have an irrational attachment to Christmas, because they were brought up in families in which trees and presents and Santa were key rituals. I wasn't, so I don't really "get" Christmas.

Neither of my parents discussed America much. They voted, but I never saw either display a flag, discuss pride or shame or anything like that. My dad is a British Jew (who emigrated here in the 50s). He talked at length about WORLD history and politics. My mom seemed fairly a-political. Or she kept her views to herself.
posted by grumblebee at 6:55 AM on August 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

I think Pinback said it well. There are many fine things about Americans, which many other countries also think are valuable, like freedom, decency, tolerance etc.
Perhaps the thing that is making non-Americans a bit hostile in our responses is the assumption only America has got these right.
Other countries didn't stop thinking about these issues in 1776, so we have progressed too, but a large part of American identity seems predicated on the belief that other countries are backward on these issues.
There seems a dichotomy where Americans will pick an example (e.g. Italian ID cards) to show their advancement, yet ignore other aspects of the same society that would cleave to American values even more closely than the US (e.g Italians extreme democracy rather than a two pary state).
But as Pinback said, being raised in America makes it hard to objectively judge non-American ideas. A national case of the "not invented here" syndrome.
posted by bystander at 6:57 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Born in the USA here. For me I think it's the principle that this is a nation of laws, not men. (Yes, under this administration that's become more and more notional, but stay with me here.)

Since you asked for a story, here goes:

About 15 years ago I was living in Israel. One day I went with some Israeli friends to a gorgeous nature reserve near the Dead Sea. We were out hiking and swimming and so forth and stopped paying attention to the time. Suddenly we noticed we were the only people left in the park, and the sun was sinking fast. We scrambled back to our car -- by then the only one left in the parking lot, since it was about an hour past closing time. There was an Israeli cop car blocking the exit, waiting for us. My boyfriend (an Israeli), who was driving, swirled around and around the parking lot, and the cops gave chase.

They started yelling at us through their PA speakers, much more angrily than I thought was warranted. I remember thinking, "So we stayed in the park past closing time. Who cares? Why are they making such a big deal of it? Why are the cops even worrying about this?"

And then I remembered that in Israel everything is a security issue -- and I realized that my assumptions about what was safe and what was dangerous, lawful behavior and criminal behavior, my rights and the actions of the courts, were all purely American. All at once I felt very far from home -- in a strange place, where laws I didn't understand, and didn't necessarily believe in, applied to me.

I was suddenly, viscerally grateful for the familiar aspects of the US justice system.

In the end the whole legal thang turned out to be moot: After about 15 minutes we managed to elude them, slipping out the exit and off, up the highway toward home. But that moment of feeling like an alien (in a "WTF - this is so weird; I can't believe they do things this way" sense) stayed with me for a long time.

I will also say that as I stood on the street corner in September 2001 and watched the WTC burn and collapse, I realized right away that its comparatively trusting innocent-till-proven-guilty legal presumptions were going to be curtailed and would possibly never be the same again. To me that's by far the most grievous damage the terrorists did to the US. (Sorry - hope that's not a derail.)
posted by GrammarMoses at 7:02 AM on August 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

i'm not a citizen, but a permanent resident (married to a citizen). i choose to live in the us, and not my country of citizenship. i often ask myself why do i do this? the answer isn't easy but i guess is an amalgam of many different things. these things include abstract, romantic notions, mainly influenced by cultural artifacts: authors like kerouac, brautigan, fitzgerald, filmmakers like mallick, scorsese, ashby, wiseman, songwriters like young, dylan, cash, and artists like hopper, warhol, and frank. these are things that let me like, sometimes love, america. y'know it can be hard to sometimes. but just give me the road, a cup of coffee and an early morning mist and i will show you the america i know is possible.
posted by iboxifoo at 7:04 AM on August 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

My family, on both sides, has lived in the same general area for at least the past four generations. I'm not only American, I'm fundamentally midwestern, Iowan, and to an extent, linked to my city.

What does this mean? It means I'm in an area that is sparsely populated by New York or Chicago standards. I'm used to older neighborhoods near lots of parks and newer suburban neighborhoods that sprawl for miles outside the city, self-fashioned mansions that house families that barely interact with their neighbors. Many of my friends are employed by companies that rely on our well-educated population but cheaper costs of living to create giant office buildings in the suburban sprawl where people collect on mortgages, process insurance, and do phone support.

I'm never more than fifteen minutes from a corn field, even in the middle of town. This is what much of the country is like. Public transportation exists but is rare. I rely on my company to provide my health insurance; if I were to lose my job, I would pay a large sum per month and the lack of insurance alone would make me panic a little until I was once again employed, even though I have reasonable savings.

I'm used to regional attitudes. I had a two hour conversation on a plane from Denver to San Francisco with a man from New York who has been living in Michigan and Florida for the last twenty years. Midwesterners initially found him rude due to his conversational jibes. He found them overly protective of their lives -- it's true, many of us think that this is a good life and that drifts into a fundamental misunderstanding, leading some in the region to not understand that things can be different, and as good, elsewhere.

The so-called American way of life is so fundamental here that it's apparently hard to believe that someone elsewhere would not want the same. Therein lies the motivation behind the best and worst actions of the country, I believe.
posted by mikeh at 7:06 AM on August 17, 2007

Grumblebee, I definitely applaud your anationalism, but your argument seems premised on the idea that you're a pure individual and can only rationally be proud of things that you yourself did as an individual. Now, no-one is really a pure individual in the sense that everyone's personality and self are constituted by things outside of themselves, things they themselves did not invent -- and some classics are nation, religion, ethinicity, but it also includes family, general character traits, symbols, and ideals such as the ideal of individualism. People can be proud of who they are, but "who they are" is wide-open to any number of constructions could easily include their nation -- such that they are proud of a part of themselves in being proud of their nation. And I can be proud of my individuality, but of course this modern invention, this stance of individualism, is something I didn't invent either, I probably read it in a book when I was 15, so I have no real reason to be proud of that either by your criteria. Nonetheless it feels to me like a part of my self. If this makes any sense.
posted by creasy boy at 7:09 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

this is a really interesting question!

to me, honestly, it just means that i was born here and that i continue to live here.

i also have a bunch of snarky answers, but i don't think they answer the question, so i'll refrain.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:09 AM on August 17, 2007

I've never been to the States. But the rest of us do have something that America doesn't in terms of our all having America as the overwhelming secondary culture that infiltrates our whole lives. My own feeling is that the trait that generally stands an American apart, that confers something of an essential identity and which has been voiced on a few occasions above, is that fundamental belief in individual freedom.

Now, that can be perhaps either lauded in an economic philosophy sense and married in heartfelt praise to the political/constitutional history or it can be derided as the fuel from whence a psychotically nationalistic government feels sufficiently emboldened to traipse around the world as a selfproclaimed ideological dominant overlord, but to an observer, the fervour and passion surrounding the self is a part of the makeup that is most identifiable.

I'm trying to say this in a neutral kind of way, not only because I am very aware of where 'here' is, but because it can be a good or a bad thing or trait or tendency or whatever, depending on the individual or situation. Obviously specific Canadians or Australians etc can manifest similar philosophies but, by and large, that whole ethos surrounding individual over collective is the something, the substance that most identifiably constitutes an American characteristic - in my humble opinion of course.
posted by peacay at 7:12 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

I am exceedingly Patriotic, but my country is New England. Being an American means nothing to me, except when federal laws intersect into my daily life. America has the same currency that we do and the same currency, but the cultural disconnect between New England and America rapidly peters out once you get west of Albany and south of Philadelphia.

We didn't vote for the man who is President of the United States and our national representatives don't have the same priorities by-and-large as the people they serve with.

"America" is really several countries that are stuck together by a common military and currency. And we hate each other. And it's easier for me to partially deny America's existence because the people of my real country would be happier without the people of other regions calling us commies and trying to nationally legislate us into their way of thinking. I love my country. I dislike America.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:13 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Rudyard Kipling wrote a bit about what it means to be american.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:16 AM on August 17, 2007

When it comes to feeling pride or shame in nationality, I tend to agree with grumbebee's answer.

I feel like I could be a kind of internal control subject for this question. I am not an american, but am married to one, and a permanent resident. So I have the choice to become one in a few years. Why would I choose to become an american? Well, I don't think I will. It doesn't have anything to do with particular pride in my own nationality (New Zealander), more that I feel like deliberately becoming an american at this time would be an endorsement of the current regime. Now, I know that that seems an incredibly narrow view given all the other examples people have given about "what it means to be an american" but all of those examples (freedom being the recurring one) are just as applicable to my own nationality.
posted by gaspode at 7:18 AM on August 17, 2007

a blindness to the fact that others need to have the freedom to make their own mistakes

To turn that around, consider that there's often a problem here with the attitude of "well, it's your own fault". It can make it politically easy to cut social programs, for example.
posted by gimonca at 7:32 AM on August 17, 2007

I never really felt like an American until the September 11 attacks. Then it seemed like there was a real feeling that we had been attacked, that we were hurt, that we were grieving together. I sensed a brief period of national unity that I'd never felt before, or since.

Because of how we've responded to the attacks, now I alternate between feeling ashamed or just tired and sad. We've accepted things that should never happen. (I don't believe that Americans are any better--or any worse--than people from other countries, but part of the American identity is that we're supposed to strive to be better.) To many people, especially outside the US, re-electing President Bush was essentially an endorsement of his policies. None of the leading candidates for the next presidential election are repudiating his civil rights abuses.

I think the major theme in American history has been the expansion of liberty and individual rights. I hope this continues. Sometimes it's irritating when Americans brag about being the best without being able to back it up. Other countries ended slavery before us. Other countries gave women the vote before we did. Other countries have had women presidents already. Other countries have universal health care.

Sorry to be so negative. There are things about the United States that I'm proud of, but with the Padilla verdict this week I'm bummed out.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:33 AM on August 17, 2007

Bystander, I guess I was thinking of the experience of Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, among others. They were reviled and unemployable when they arrived, but now--and mostly in the last sixty years--they are pervasive throughout the top levels of government, corporations, and other institutions. They have reached the absolute center of the power structure, and other immigrant groups are rapidly moving to join them. There has been a massive shift in power away from the WASP establishment.

I would argue that this was possible, in the mid-20th century, not because of unique ethnic characteristics of those groups but because of a system that is designed to accomodate and evolve.

This phenomenon is not unique, but it has yet to happen to this degree in other countries. The UK is a particularly poor counter-example--where a strong ethnic and religious group perpetuates itself through educational instutions that produce the majority of the country's civil servants and business leaders. Compare, for example, the composition of the boards of British vs. U.S. banks as recently as the 1990s.
posted by Phred182 at 7:45 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I feel much more loyalty to the state of Michigan than to the United States (which is funny because I live in Ohio now). To me, I am a Michigander before an American (and I suppose an American before an Ohioan. I might be an Ohioan in denial.) I can't answer what it is that makes me a Michigander - I suppose it's something to do with a shared culture and a bond I feel with my fellow Michiganders that I don't necessarily feel with Vermonters or Hawaiians. Maybe it's the Vernors and Faygo.

George Bernard Shaw said, "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it." I suppose that's a little of what I feel about Michigan!

As for Americanism, the two things that give me a little surge of patriotism are the movies 1776 and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I guess that's because they're about people with big dreams getting things done, rather than all the pointless middling that my cynicism tells me is going on in DC most of the time.
posted by srah at 7:50 AM on August 17, 2007


I am not an american, but am married to one, and a permanent resident. So I have the choice to become one in a few years. Why would I choose to become an american?

Taking US citizenship would mean you never have to deal with USCIS ever again, ever.

And it would mean that you and Mr. Gaspode could move to New Zealand and have no trouble moving back to the US should job markets so dictate, and no hassles about coming back for visits.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:53 AM on August 17, 2007

"America" is really several countries that are stuck together by a common military and currency.

Consider visiting a pow-wow in the Ojibwe nations up here. Highlight is typically honoring the veterans who've fought for the U.S., with a grand procession led by the stars and stripes. It's another interesting situation to ponder. Quite a few Indians have individually or collectively chosen to be American (not all, you could certainly argue), but I can't just choose to be an Indian--although a lot of tribes are beset by 'wannabes' who will take the American joy in redefining oneself to that extreme length.

It's another aspect of the 'choice' narrative. "You can be anybody you want to be!" You can be a skydiver. You can be a Klingon on the weekends. You can be a Presbyterian, for that matter. Implications include that people are individuals capable of making choices, and that people have responsibility for their choices. And that people are essentially equal--another basic assumption of our common narrative.

(If you want a great American moment, by the way, I like the story of Jim Thorpe at the Olympics, when he was introduced to the King of Sweden, and gave him a friendly "Hi, King!". That's American!)
posted by gimonca at 7:54 AM on August 17, 2007

Consider people who post here asking "How can I become a Canadian?" It's not because they love hockey or maple syrup, or want to collect Canadian Tire coupons. They're still being Americans, and following that choice. I think they're often driven by a notion that 'America isn't American enough' anymore, that maybe Canada is the real America now.

Same script: dissatisfaction leads to choice leads to progress, all driven by individual self-reliance. The same self-reliance you find in everyone from Thoreau to Patton to Andrew Carnegie to Tupac Shakur.
posted by gimonca at 7:58 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's incorrect to say that I love America because I am an American. Nationalism is simply a form of self-interest. The breadth of what is included in "self," though, is not strictly limited to our physical selves: it can include family, tribe, town, state, nation, sports team, civic organization, school, etc.

We love the things that we identify with because part of that identification means that we consider them an extension of our selves. We swell with pride because of that sense of identity -- of being part of something. Not because that thing is greater than ourselves, but because we consider it to be part of ourselves.

Find someone who is from (whatever nation you consider to be) a backward shithole and that person will almost certainly have a sense of national pride. Sometimes I hate America and sometimes I love it, and if I was from Iraq or Zimbabwe or Latvia, I'm certain that I'd feel the same way about that country.

The reasons a person is proud to be American or whatever nation is not primarily because of the intrinsic qualities of that nation -- rather, we use those qualities to rationalize our feelings. I love my mother more than any other mother in the entire world. Yet if I had a different mother, I'd feel differently -- though not because of any characteristics of the women themselves had changed. I love my mother because she is my mother, and even though I also think that she is objectively a good person, her honesty, kindness, and compassion are not the primary reasons for my emotional connection to her.
posted by camcgee at 8:11 AM on August 17, 2007

This is a fascinating thread and a question I've been thinking about myself. I am a naturalized American, having been born in the former Soviet Union, and am currently planning to move abroad for a while. I was a child when I arrived so I feel like I've pretty much absorbed American culture... and now it's time to experience some more cultures. Still, no matter where I go I'll be American. Here are my somewhat scattered thoughts on being American:

- Diversity and how casually we treat it. Maybe this is just an East Coast or big city thing, but even cities like London simply do not feel as diverse. Americans may be surrounded by other Americans most of the time but it's a mix of people who look different, sound different, dress differently, have different religions, values, etc... And we all interact, even if only on a surface level. It creeps me out to be someplace homogenous. (Of course, there is currently a backlash... but historically we're pretty accepting.)

- Economic and business focus - Americans seem to be always be on the lookout for ways to earn money, starting businesses, expanding, etc. Our business culture seems very versatile and fast-moving. This can lead to a abuses but a whole lot of innovation and economic power as well. (Although a lot of that innovation is now moving abroad for a variety of reasons.)

- Individual striving - everyone is always told to improve their life, excel, innovate, chase the American dream, etc. A good number of people actually seem to do this, and it is certainly a key American myth. (Although income mobility is actually higher in Europe.)

- American privilege - a certain assumption that an American should be treated well and unwillingness to take shit. A willingness to argue with groups of authority and stand up for one's rights. A lot of us are taking more shit than ever before, though...

- Powerful, seductive pop culture - the reason Hollywood exports so much ain't just money. There is something about that American dream that resonates with people all over the world. Americans have produced a lot of great art and culture, maybe just as a function of our size, but certainly something about America contributes to the creativity of its artists.

And all that stuff is in me, and as much as I am embarrassed by some of the things America is doing right now, it's part of my identity. Is any of it unique to America? Probably not, but it does combine into a distinct identity and one I have no desire to shed even if I choose to live elsewhere.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 8:14 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is a really interesting question and I've enjoyed reading the responses. This is something I think about from time to time. I was born and raised here. 3 of my grandparents can be traced back to the 1700s (just finding out a lot came as indentured servants) and then 1 grandparent was the first generation born here. Her family (Armenian) left Syria when my great grandfather was drafted in to the Turkish Army, knowing he would never make it out alive.

It's hard for me to say how I feel American. I feel like a New Englander--a 3rd generation one. But my dad is from the South and I feel solidly "half Southern" as I sometimes say. I have a grandpa who signed up to be in WWII with his 3 brothers and was incredibly patriotic. I wish I had asked him exactly why he was proud of America, I just knew that he was. He always flew a flag at his house and I spent many a summer night singing WWII war songs on his back porch with the whole family.

What makes me feel 'proud' (not the exact word I mean to use) lately is when I'm doing all of my genealogical research and I find out I come from these 13 yr old boys who got on a ship to come to a new land to work for some rich guy because their parents couldn't afford to keep the kid. And they stayed and worked and made it turn out ok. They helped build cities and towns and worked in cotton fields and some still work in the factories in the same towns in Alabama that they were picking cotton in in the 1840s.

I don't think we're the best. I don't think we're the worst, either. I'm horrified by a lot of things that are thought of as American these days. But it's what I am, for the most part. I guess I'm torn most of the time, but I am American and I don't mind singing the national anthem or saying the pledge of allegiance, but I know a lot of folks do and I'm glad they can feel that way without being thrown in jail (at least not yet, anyway! I know.. sorry, negative).
posted by jdl at 8:22 AM on August 17, 2007

As was the custom of the day, the medals were presented to the athletes during the closing ceremonies of the games. Along with the two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon. Legend has it that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."
posted by gimonca at 8:23 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the original poster was looking for ideas that are unique to America.

Freedom isn't one of them.
Progress isn't one of them.
Acceptance of immigrants isn't one of them.
There are other countries built upon people who were convicts and slaves.
There are other countries with constitutions that are maleable.
There are other countries with unique and great local variations to the dialect.

Perhaps a unique and defining characteristic of being American is having the arrogance to believe these things are unique to America...
posted by Jimbob at 8:24 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Btw Old Dirty Bastard is the embodiment of the American spirit according to RZA and not just to me:

"I think he represents a true free spirit. He's freedom. He don't give a fuck. He'll pull his car over in the middle of an expressway, stop traffic, and get out and take a piss. Is that American, or what? He scares some people, but some people just love him, because he'll do what you want to do but are scared to do."
posted by creasy boy at 8:25 AM on August 17, 2007

I'd like to nth all those saying that they didn't know what it meant to be an American until they'd traveled/lived abroad. There is something, some quality, that generally ties Americans culturally. At this moment I still can't put my finger on what it is (friendliness? saying what you mean - well, sometimes?). But I know that whenever I travel abroad, I recognise this thing in other USians, and they recognise it in me, and we don't recognise it in others. Obviously, there's more that unites everyone as "People", but I think this common thing that we as Americans share is undeniable.

This is not to say at all that it is something to be proud of. It just is. Before I'd left the US, I didn't feel any particular affinity with the US But since I've left, I realise that there is something undeniably American in me. I'm not proud of it, but I recognise it. And now, when people ask me where I'm from, I say "The US." Not proudly, but with confidence. I know that I am American.
posted by mosessis at 8:26 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

When travelling, what makes me feel American is seeing how misguided some people of other nationalities are about us. "Why does everyone support Bush???" Crap like that. When someone is wrong about you, you get very defensive.
posted by smackfu at 8:27 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Until I was five, I was a German citizen living with my mother's side of the family in Frankfurt, although I was born in the US and my father was an American, so I always had a legal claim to American citizenship.

Back in those days, I desperately wanted to live in America because the two things I wanted most to be was a cowboy or Superman, and that's what America meant to me: America was the old west movies my Oma would occasionally let me stay up past my bedtime to watch, and the Superman comic books that my grandmother from my father's side would send me every few months in care packages from the states.

Then when I was five, my Oma and I were in the states visiting the American side of my family when unexpectedly my father and grandparents staged a dramatic "rescue" at the airport, by simply dropping my Oma off at the airport and driving away with me still in the car. My mom was a heroin addict, and my grandparents had become convinced that my life in Germany was too unstable, and so they felt they were acting in my best interests. And by this time, though I was young and spoke very little English, I had also made my feelings on the matter plain: I wanted to stay in America where I could one day become a cowboy or Superman. As far as I knew, such things were really possible in a place like America, which by all accounts--as confirmed even in the gossip of the youngest children on the playground in Germany--was like no place else in the world, a place where anything was possible.

But when I started school in the states, I found the reality of America to be quite different than expected. Through the earliest parts of my school experience, I struggled with an English language-skill deficit and paid a heavy price for my disadvantage.

In Germany (where kindergarten started a year earlier than in the states and extended for two years), I'd been designated as gifted and called a "wunderkind" because of my advanced language skills, and other children my age considered my intelligence to be a positive trait and actively sought out my friendship because of it. In America, my poor English skills made me a playground pariah. My American classmates, most of whom scarcely seemed capable of conceiving of people who didn't naturally speak English as human, taunted me mercilessly, and assumed the guttural intonations of my native tongue were a sign of mental retardation. In Germany, I had been popular and accepted by my peers, and playground bullying had been the exception rather than the rule; in America I was bullied relentlessly and bullying was regarded as more or less a part of normal play.

By the end of first grade I'd established myself as the highest-level reader in my class, motivated largely by a spiteful desire to prove to all my cruel American classmates ("die Schweine," as I often called them under my breath) that I wasn't mentally deficient, but in fact, was just as capable--even more so--than they were.

With the language problems that playground bullies had used to justify their abuse behind me, I figured I would finally be granted some peace and social acceptance. But then word soon began to spread among my classmates that I was smart. And pretty soon, the bullying began all over again, this time because I was considered too intelligent.

After that, I pretty much gave up on making sense of American playground society and I just did whatever I could to blend in and gain the acceptance of my peers. Often this meant engaging in acts of petty delinquency. By middle school, I was a class clown and unrepentant delinquent who's claim to fame was skipping as many classes as I attended and being part of a crowd of other boys who once set a gym locker on fire.

On several occasions, I became a bully myself, letting myself be baited by playground antagonists into fight with weaker kids for the amusement of the crowd, even though in reality, there was no real reason to fight. I remember once, I gave this really harmless, nice kid a bloody nose because a crowd of kids had formed around us in the gym, fueled by rumors about some petty sleight, and one of the kids in the crowd shoved the kid into me, as several of the other kids goaded: "Oooh, you gonna let him hit you like that?"

I only had to punch the kid once and the fight was over. His nose just started gushing blood all over his shirt and he started crying. He didn't even bother to act tough or to act like he was going to fight back. Still, in spite of what I'd done, from the hurt and confused look on his face it was clear he felt no ill-will toward me. I'll never forget how bad I felt when I realized that even though I had technically won the fight, in reality, he was the winner, because he was clearly the better person. He was just a good, sweet-hearted kid, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the crowd turned ugly. And I had for a short time been transformed into the disfigured and petty-hate-filled face of that crowd.

So this is what it means to me to be an American: Sometimes you're the bully, and sometimes you're the bullied. But either way, when the crowd gets restless and starts spoiling for a fight, you'd better believe they're not going to settle down again until they see some blood. So sometimes the best you can do is just to try to anticipate when and where the crowd is likely to start getting restless again, and then just quietly go the other way.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:27 AM on August 17, 2007 [8 favorites]

For me, being American means I can ________ [fill in the blank].
posted by iamkimiam at 8:27 AM on August 17, 2007

I saw a bumpersticker a few years back, shortly after the Iraq invasion. It read "I love my country, but I think we should start seeing other people." It summed up beautifully my (and many people's) feelings about this place, and the ideals and dreams it was ostensibly founded on.
America is a big, gorgeous, shining, filthy, flawed, cracked diamond. Just depends on how you're looking at it, and how much you're willing to overlook. Loving America is like loving a person with a personality disorder. You know and see that at its heart it's a beautiful thing and capable of towering acts of selflessness and great wonders; but it can be such an insufferable asshole, so often, that it can be hard to remember the good things.

Being American means so many things it's almost meaningless. There's a soldier in Savannah, GA who grew up in Minnesota and went to West Point. He is a true believer in the War on Terror, collects guns, and loves to hunt and fish, and to camp. He busts his ass to do his job very very well, and he's an American through and through.

There's guy who went to high school with me, who grew up in one of the rougher parts of the Twin Cities. He came from a humble poor black family, who worked very hard to put him into private school. Later, he worked his way through a prestigious Art school and now works as a graphics designer for a TV company in LA. He hates the current administration, but would fight anyone who called him unAmerican.

There's a guy whose parents crossed the border from Mexico illegally and gave birth to him here in Minnesota. They had been underemployed laborers in Mexico, but they gave him the opportunity to go to school and now he's a sales rep for an IT contract firm. Wears suits, loves scotch, and owns a nice house. And he's American.

There's the City of Las Vegas, which summarizes the American spirit to me all in one ugly gaudy beautiful package: Hubris, greed, blind ambition, heartless cynicism, all powered by the conviction that if you take a chance and trust in yourself, things will turn out alright. These are the things that are American.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 8:36 AM on August 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

I'm having trouble articulating this, but I identify my patriotism most strongly with freedom. It's my perspective that we Americans have a wider range of expression (both good and bad). Other cultures seem constrained in comparison. Yes, American culture often plays to the lowest common denominator (e.g. Jerry Springer), but that's just indicative of the extreme ends of the continuum. I really feel like I can do whatever I want here. I can call the president's mom a whore, or I can write beautiful poetry.

I'm not asserting that this perception is factually correct, but you asked what it means to me to be an American, so there you go.
posted by desjardins at 9:16 AM on August 17, 2007

Try reading some more history. Be on the lookout for off-the-beaten path historical figures like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor that arguably won the Civil War, then went back to teaching. Of course, there ain't nothing wrong with Mark Twain, either:

We are called the nation of inventors. And we are. We could still claim that title and wear its loftiest honors if we had stopped with the first thing we ever invented, which was human liberty.

But don't get into the jingoism, like Twain said:

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

Of course, there's always Captain America. What other nation could birth a class of artists and storytellers that could conceive of a super-hero that "wears the flag" but very deliberately doesn't stand for the government, but instead the ideal that someone could be free?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:28 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think America, the idea, is of a slate where you can paint your own picture, you are not a religion, ethnicity or culture that was chosen for you. You can make great things with your slate, you can save the world. You can also watch 9 hours of TV a day and get so fat you can barely walk down the street. You get to paint your picture, most people - Americans and furriners alike - are shitty painters.

The idea of America as a unique beacon of freedom was probably more true when my grandparents were fleeing the latest pogrom. Not true now, both because we are a bit less free and the rest of the world is more, but the idea, the image, of any country is slower to change than the reality. It took Britain most of the second half of the twentieth century to work through not having an empire. The problem of America today is similar to the problems of most civilizations when they were on the top of the heap. They got fat arrogant and lazy. We, alas, must plead guilty to that. But, in Victorian times, you can bet your bottom Yuan there was the ugly Briton. The French were not so into liberté égalité, fraternité in Vietnam, Africa, or Algeria. There will likely be the Ugly Chinese when the kick us off the top of the heap.

In the US we do have a horrible legacy of racism, slavery (started by Europeans) and slaughtering Native Americans, etc., but Australia outdid us in brutality in their treatment of Aborigines, and while En-Zedders and Canadians were a bit better, they ought not to start singing Kum-baya just yet.

Thus, I do resent it, when people think being an Ugly American is somehow unique to America or part and parcel of the American character. I do resent the assumption that I am a loud ignorant boob because of my passport. European chattering classes are particularly guilty of this type of reverse bigotry. I almost wonder when the smart set will accuse me of killing non-American babies on the fourth of July to use their blood for McDonalds' special sauce.

In America it's pretty common for 95% of the people you meet and interact with to be born and raised in America. In Europe and other developed nations (maybe with the exception of Japan?) it's much more common that you will be living with people from different countries. I really do think that to some extent many Americans have the mindset:

Well maybe in Nebraska, but today I doubt that even there, but I have no idea the basis for such an assertion. I live in a city where 1/3 of the population is foreign born.

As a non-American who nevertheless has spent a lot of time there and has a brother who is a naturalized citizen, America is wonderful because it is inherently a paradox. A great proportion of modern environmentalism was born in the US - but it is nevertheless one of the most officially skeptical states on the planet on the subject. The US still has among the greatest scientific establishments in the world - but it is also among few where people still believe pre-modern views of human origins etc.
posted by xetere at 9:34 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

So many people have answered that the thing they love most is "freedom" and I'd argue if you polled people on the street, the first words out of the mouths of 90% would be "freedom." But freedom means so many different things and I don't think it's a particularly effective rallying cry to anyone who stops think about it, even superficially.

To me, it means the free will to accomplish anything. In fact, Americans have accomplished fantastic things that would have been impossible without the optimism and self determination that goes along with freedom -- the first skyscrapers, rock music, the moon landing, the personal computer. I think some people forget that to make the most of freedom, it takes hard work, determination, and a sense of responsibility and it angers me that the people who wave the biggest flags are the ones who seem the most complacent about freedom. And attack the rest of us for our lack of patriotism.

More and more, freedom has come to mean "I don't have to do shit because I live in the greatest country in the world and no one's gonna make me do anything I don't want to." Security and prosperity have corrupted the national concept of freedom and it is really hard for me to feel connected to these people any more. We all know these ideas break down strongly along regional lines and I question whether there will really be enough holding this country together to survive in the next hundred years. On optimistic days, I feel that my idea of freedom is really the correct one and it's worth fighting for the country I love, to take take it back from the ignorant bigots who've stolen it. On less optimistic days, I feel that you simply cannot win an argument with a majority who refuses to debate.

Someone above said that America is a land of paradox and I'm intrigued by this idea. Is it possible the thing that unites us as Americans is the fact that we do disagree? I'm not sure. I believe there has to be something tangible and concrete that unites us and if "freedom" is the best answer you got, I am not sure that's good enough.

After 9/11, I remember being absolutely mystified by all American flags that suddenly appeared. It was as if everyone was expressing an allegiance to something that wasn't really there. An allegiance to having been attacked. A mythology of victimhood was born.

In the end, my personal experience being an American, in the year 2007, is bitterness and lost possibility.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:39 AM on August 17, 2007

Two things come to mind for me.

First, for all our faults, the United States is the country that makes the most effort to place the rights of the individual above the rights of society. You can argue about how we go about fulfilling this idea, the core of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but the focus on individual freedoms is unmatched around the world.

Second, the American attitude toward progress is also unmatched in the last 100 years. From spectacular events like landing men on the Moon, to curing disease, to invention of fundamental technologies (like the semiconductor), to popular culture, America tends to lead the world in new ideas. Many countries do a good job of refining these innovations, but the US is the home to more innovation and new ideas than any other individual country in the world over the last 100+ years.

Again, for all the sturm and drang recently, the individual freedoms in the US lead directly to the ability to create and innovate in a diverse and open society in a way that I haven't seen in other countries.

To me, this personal freedom is the most American of characteristics.
posted by Argyle at 9:40 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Some genealogist hired by my great-aunt a few years back traced our family history. I have never seen the actual family tree that he came up with, but right there at the top of it were two folks who had been on the Mayflower. According to this genealogist, I am the direct descendant of people on the Mayflower. Now, I only know this from my mother, and I never can remember the names of my ancestors. But I do always remember that, if you watch the old cartoon, Mouse on the Mayflower, my ancestors are major characters.

I can't tell you if the genealogist is correct. I'm willing to bet there's plenty of room for error in matters such as these, but, regardless my skepticism, I'm willing to let it into my family history.

I am descended from people who looked around where they lived and decided that, nope, it wasn't good enough. For something as ethereal and invisible as religious belief, they got into a stuffy, tiny boat, and traveled 3000 miles over sea. There's something hard-headed and arrogant in that action, sure, just as there's something hard-headed and arrogant in how they treated the peoples they found living in their new home, and how, having left for religious freedom, then set up strict laws against beliefs other than their own. But, still, that's what they did. With their eyes squinting to the West, they decided, "We can do better," and they sacrificed safety and comfort for some noble ideal.

I do not know the specifics of my family history after that, but I do know that I was born in California, as had been my grandmother back in 1923. Somehow, sometime between Plymouth Rock and 1923, my ancestors must have moved. I doubt this occurred too closely to their arrival on those cold, hard rocks of New England. It probably was several hundred years later. But still, again, they turned their eyes to the West and decided, "We can do better." Who knows what their motivation was. I can make up stories that seem reasonable. They could have been '49ers who only wanted for money. They could have been frustrated businessmen who wanted to start someplace new. They could have even just been horrible misanthropists who just could not agree with anyone around them, causing them to move further and further out. But, whatever the case, they had that drive and fervor. They had the grit in their teeth and the sun beating down on them, whether this second 3000-mile trek was by stage-coach or railroad. They had hardship, and they probably hated it, but they did it all the same. They did it because they could. Because they could do better, and they saw no reason why not to.

That's the culture into which I was born, the culture that certainly doesn't see why they should have to put up with anything they don't want to. It's the culture that truly believes that, if you just have enough space, you can do anything. This isn't a culture that believes in limitations. This isn't a culture that understands humility too well, nor does it always manage to make the right decisions. But always is maintained that sense of ability, of self-reliance, of the promise of success.

I don't know if this speaks of all America, or if it speaks only of my family, or what. But that is what I see as the main thread in the culture I have inherited from the treks my ancestors have taken, which must be at least somewhat similar to the treks most everyone in America's ancestors have taken.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:40 AM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

Love, money and applie pie.
posted by hootch at 9:46 AM on August 17, 2007

I really started to appreciate what America is when I studied in depth the religious wars in England from the time of Henry VIII's reformation to the accession of William and Mary. The religious persecution went back and forth, depending on who was in power. At that time, the idea of a land with no state religion was completely unheard of. Perhaps the great thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment could not have done as much in any country in Europe as they were able to do in a place free from the inertia of history.
posted by happyturtle at 9:51 AM on August 17, 2007

To me, it seemed incomprehensible that anybody should support the ability of the police to randomly stop you on the street, for no reason at all.

This is to police against illegal immigrants right? I'm a legal permanent resident of the US and as such I have to carry my 'green card' around with me at all times. Just, btw...

I'm a Brit married to an American and I have to say that I was never patriotic until moving to the States. I do like the States a lot and feel quite pro-Yank when I'm outside the country, but if I could change one thing about the US it would be that reasonableness would be seen as a virtue rather than a weakness. If that could happen in the US then I think that many people would be better off.
posted by ob at 9:54 AM on August 17, 2007

Oh I meant to say this too. A lot of Europeans, especially Brits, think that they know all there is to know about the US. This is of course quite arrogant and the more time I spend here the more I realize that the moment that you try to pin something down about the US is the moment that you realize that there are many exceptions to that particular generalization. For me the US is in many ways an amorphous entity.
posted by ob at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2007

I primarily think of America as Capitalist in the same way as Soviet Russia was Communist -- both based on perversions of the original ideology, both were run by small elites (of self perpetuating power in one case, wealth in the other) and both too entrenched in their ideology -- and its propagation -- for the absolute good of their citizens and other countries.

Part of any ideology is enshrining and enforcing who the Other is, and drawing that line is what being American means to me. Beyond that it's meaningless, as all the people claiming more-or-less universal traits as American are showing
posted by bonaldi at 10:11 AM on August 17, 2007

I grew up in communist Poland, Norway, Thailand, Taiwan and just post-Tienamin China, lived in Australia briefly as a young adult, and have traveled in Europe and Asia.

I love many things about the cultures of the world I have observed. To love things about America, and to love being American, is not to diminish those other identities or to say that they are less valuable.

People here who are getting defensive about American self-pride are really irking me. Don't you feel good about where you come from? Don't you think there are good things about your country? If you don't, why haven't you left yet?

Anyhow, I love America because of its ideals and I hate it because of its failings. I am proud of those ideals, even though many of them are vague and self-contradictory.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:15 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

The pure products of America
go crazy--

(one of the best poems ever written about the US of A)

But still, again, they turned their eyes to the West and decided, "We can do better."

Yeah, I think my family history is part of my picture of America too. I'm descended (on my father's side) from a guy who came to the new colony of Maryland with his brother (maybe as indentured servants—I'd like to know more about them); he moved to the Appalachians, where one of his descendents married a Cherokee; his descendents moved west to Georgia and then to the new state of Alabama and then to the newer state of Arkansas; the family shuttled back and forth between Arkansas and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), with a side trip to Texas in the 1870s (where my grandfather was born), until the Dust Bowl blew them west to California with the other Okies and Arkies. My mother's family immigrated from Norway in the late 19th century and lived in a tight little Norwegian Lutheran community in Iowa until my dad swept her off into the cosmopolitan life of a foreign service officer (which he somehow sidestepped into after getting out of the Army); his first posting was Japan, where I was born. Somehow all of that—the restless generations-long journey westward to new opportunities, and the (inevitably failed) attempt to reproduce an old-world culture on the Great Plains, followed by a breakout to the genuine New World—is what I think of when I think of "my country." I don't understand the people who want to keep out immigrants or somehow keep it "pure"; America has always been a land of mongrels, and purity is death.

This is a great thread.
posted by languagehat at 10:34 AM on August 17, 2007

Creation myths and hyperbolic patriotism aside - as well as placing aside the reactionary attacks from others; one needs to take a step back, take a breath and view our nation and the rest of the world in perspective.

Think of what system you would create to govern people. We know that you get more than 50 people together and you start needing a methodology to running things. What system would you prefer that is flexible enough to govern any number of people from 50 to 5 billion. Ideally you want that system to be as fair as possible to take into account the natural human tendency to hold and abuse power over others and also give the abused a way to justice.

Yes, we have many social inequities and issues to work out in America, but as a whole we get along pretty well and opportunities are honored pretty well for a group of 300 million people.

We generally stick to that paper, the Constitution, and while - being humans where small groups want to grab power - we have ALWAYS strayed from the Constitution, we have always veered back, because the genius of it is that it grants the minority political rights and the current majority (whatever it is at any time) WANTS those rights in case it goes back to being the minority.

We were formed not by one ethnicity and/or religion and/or regional commonality. We came together as several special interests; different religions, different local regional interests (The agrarian South, The industrial Northern cities), and no one of them wanted the other to have too much power over them. All we wanted to do was live and work without someone else infringing too much on it, and that means *I* have to also let *you* live and work, so economic opportunities open up and we have the "American Dream" of opportunity.

Do you think that YOU, an American of whatever religious beliefs, can move to France or Poland or Kuwait or India or any country in Africa or Asia or the Middle East and break the barriers of entry to succeed THERE as far as any one of those country's citizens can succeed here? IT aint no bed of roses here but there is opportunity. The governor of California was born in Austria and that had zero impact on why anyone voted for or against him. Could you become the executive political head of Tyrol? We have Muslim congressman. We have millions of people accept the opportunities to enter our economy that dont even speak English! Are you getting work in France or the Ukraine or Albania not speaking their language?

Again, yes, we have a long way to go socially towards equality and we should never stop self inspecting and striving towards that goal, but do you think that other countries are relatively better?

Point Being: take any place and write them as large as us and their social inequities and racial prejudices and glass ceilings and economic inefficiencies will be writ a lot larger than our issues today.

Every nation in human history that has had overwhelming economic and military power has projected it on others and I could keep you up all night on how much worse their abuses were.

To be American is to be part of the greatest social experiment, and I feel we are largely succeeding. I am proud of that.

I also know there is a lot of improvement to be accomplished internally and no excuses for external abuses of power and oppression and we need to work together to reign ourselves in and have our power projected in a more humane way, and you are best to help that happen from within.
posted by Kensational at 10:40 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

People can be proud of who they are, but "who they are" is wide-open to any number of constructions could easily include their nation

From what I gather, many people feel this way. But I still don't get it. Maybe I'm flawed in some way, but I've never been proud of who I am and don't really even understand that as a concept.

To be more specific, I AM proud of who I am when it comes to the parts of me that I actively developed. I'm proud that I'm a programmer and a good husband and a good teacher. But those are things I worked on. So I totally understand being proud of things I've achieved (and ashamed of things I failed at or failed to do).

Now, I'm conceited enough to think I have nice-looking hands and eyes. But am I proud of my hands and eyes? No. I just got lucky. I didn't work to get them. And I hate being short. But I'm not ashamed of being short. I didn't make myself short.

Maybe I'm mincing words. I do enjoy many things about living in America. And I hate other things. But for me, hating and enjoying are different feelings than shame and pride. I guess some (most?) people can feel pride for "who they are" rather than (or in addition to) "what they've done," but even for them, I'm guessing it's a different kind of pride. Otherwise fashion models wouldn't often start to feel worthless and go back to school or whatever. They'd just bask in the pride of being beautiful.
posted by grumblebee at 10:46 AM on August 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is a fascinating thread to read.

I'm Canadian. I will state that up front.

I am often disappointed when Americans I know will spout the usual fervent (almost religious) rhetoric that annoys me. I know it's not their fault. They were raised reciting the stuff, with hand over heart. (An image that quite frankly gives me the willies.)

It's when someone like Jon Stewart says the US is "the greatest country in the world"... like it's a given. Or when a liberal-minded friend of mine says how America is the world's beacon of freedom... as though the US is the only country in the world that espouses those values. How is it possible that so many Americans believe that the US is the only country with a free press, or the right to protest, or the right to your religion or to live without religion?

It makes me queasy, because it isn't just arrogant, it's ignorant.

I guess lines like that just come out unconsciously, by rote, but maybe as a result of some of the posts in this thread our American Mefi friends will think twice when they find themselves reciting one. Question what you were taught. Look at the UN Human Development Index. Read or watch global news. Become a citizen of the world. It's the individualist nature of the US as a whole that makes so many of its citizens blind to its problems and faults and the ways in which people in other nations may actually have MORE freedom than do they. The freedom to have medical treatment regardless of your circumstances, for example, even if it means everyone sacrifices a little bit of their money.

I found it interesting while reading the thread that so many of the favourited posts were romantic/sentimental "spacious skies and amber waves of grain" ruminations. It's that indoctrination at work again. I think many Americans love their country because they've been trained to from birth, plain and simple.

I enjoy the US. I have lots of American friends I respect and love. I even have a huge crush on an American (granted, one who lives in Canada). But I think the US collectively would be a truly great country if it had some humility.
posted by loiseau at 10:53 AM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm an American that's traveled extensively, and everytime the plane begins its final descent back into the US, I find myself appreciating American English.
Not because of the accent, but American English is able to express the delicious sense of irony that's most American to me.
I think the Russian sense of irony is most similar to the US, but Russian doesn't express it in the same way.

On a similar note, I appreciate the phenomenon of the Harley-Davidson and the cult of the open road. As I transition from a very urban environment back to the open West, those wide open spaces need to be seen from the back of a loud motorcycle.
posted by lilithim at 11:10 AM on August 17, 2007

Ask a dead man. I am American because my grandfather, suffering persecution in his homeland, hopped on a ferry. Only he knows why I am American. I see no need to justify it, myself. I can only make the best of it.
posted by nilihm at 11:25 AM on August 17, 2007

I think the original poster was looking for ideas that are unique to America.

The question was: what does it mean to you to be an American? It's interesting to me that in the responses, one of the significant complaints about Americans is that we think we are unique in the world in various ways. I believe that this is true in the abstract- it's part of what we are all taught: that you are a person who can do whatever you want, be the things you want to be, and believe in whatever you'd like to believe. The focus on individual freedom here is definitely significant to the American way of life, and I think that Americans tend to express their personal ideologies in ways that sound extremely self- important to the rest of the World. Oftentimes ignorance is magnified in this expression, but at heart I don't think it's a manifestation of disrespect as much as it is somewhat complaisent self- satisfaction. Cynicism and modesty are not really national traits. I think this is why Americans are so frequently perceived as arrogant- they tend to seem awfully pleased with themselves, no matter what their actual world views or political inclinations are. I understand that can seem very abrasive; but I don't think that very often there's any significant feeling of superiority in any meaningful way.
I know that there's a lot of jingoistic assimilation rhetoric bandied around by political types, but I think one significant thing about Americans is that no matter how long ago their ancestors came to this country, they still seek out and celebrate their ties to other places. Some of my ancestors came here from Wales in the 17th century; I have a Dutch great grandfather from Breda, a Portuguese great-grandmother whose parents immigrated from the Azores, an Irish grandfather whose grandparents escaped the potato famine, and a grandmother who was born in Kent. I'm proud of being a fifth generation Californian, yet it's just as important to me that I have these ties to so many other places in the world. Though my travels have yet to take me to any of the homes of my ancestors, I still feel that they belong to me in some way, and that I have a connection to these places that I've never been and people I've yet to meet. That's a big part of what "American" means to me personally. It's possible that American confidence in being a cosmopolitan individual with ties to the world at large stems from our distant (un)familiarity through bloodlines. In spite of our geographical isolation and pervasive ignorance of the rest of the globe, we act as though the world is our oyster. On an individual level, this attitude helps perpetuate the friendly, optimistic, can-do attitude of entrepreneurs, pioneers, and travelers; as it pertains to a national policy foisted on the rest of the world it's disastrously arrogant and self-centered.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:28 AM on August 17, 2007

How is it possible that so many Americans believe that the US is the only country with a free press, or the right to protest, or the right to your religion or to live without religion?

Because in many cases, the Americans are right.

So, I take a look at this chart as an example, and recognize that there are many countries above the U.S. on the list. All well and good. Except when you dig a little deeper, you start seeing freedom curtailed quite deliberately in many of these nations that enjoy a "free press."

* The UK ranks higher, except the government regularly censors broadcasts and other media.
* Ireland bans abortion outright.
* Canada demands commercial language to be printed in French.

I pick those three because they're easy English-speaking targets, but also because I recognize that there is (often extreme) controversy in the U.S. over all three topics, as well. I don't wish to debate the relative merits here. Merely I wish to answer the question -- what does it mean to be American -- and my answer is it's a continual journey toward freedom. It ain't perfect. It never is. Never will be. But it's about the journey, not the destination.

As Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification - one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

And, hey look. The dream came true.

Well, mostly. The game ain't over yet. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:43 AM on August 17, 2007

Wish I had more time to address this topic, as it's one I've thought about a lot. One thing I'd like to add to the discussion is a quick look at the word "freedom." Many people from other nations have had trouble reconciling our frequent and reverent references to 'freedom' with the fact that the U.S. is a fairly well regulated country, full of restrictive laws and customs. However, Americans don't always construe this as a conflict, and I think there are two reasons:

1. That our word 'freedom' means more than 'lack of restriction,' it means 'self-determination.' While we might regulate a lot of behavior, the essential American goal is to have a say in the conditions and direction of your own life. It's why all of our ancestors, barring the enslaved and indentured, came here, and it continues to be our primary defining value today (though of course its realism is debatable - still we embrace it): make your own life. You determine what you achieve.

2. That we're aware that the conditions of our legal and political lives are ours to change, if we care enough. Movements of Americans working together result in changed law and policy, and we know it's always possible. There's much less fatalism about structures of our lives and the power/corruption/impenetrability of our government and law enforcement, which is something I see in people from other countries, and something new immigrants often speak of as a contrast to their former ways of life.
posted by Miko at 11:45 AM on August 17, 2007

Best answer: Here's a little anecdote from this week alone reminding me that I'm happy to be living in a particularly interesting brand of America, southern California. And maybe America's not as exceptional as many people say it is with regards to diversity and cultural fusion; I see the same things happening in other non-monocultural places all over the world, from South Africa to Canada.

But I'm moving to Latvia in a few weeks - a country which, upon independence, chose to deny citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people who lived there (out of a total population of about 2 million) because they weren't Latvian enough, even if they'd lived there for generations, and used what seems to me the rather flimsy excuse (note: IANALatviologist!) that becoming independent and asserting one's place on the world's (or even Europe's) stage required everyone to fall into a lockstep cultural identity and learn Latvian. Russian speakers have had a tough go of things in the now-independent Baltic countries, often being blamed for all sorts of societal wrongdoings, and now I'm moving to a place that, at least officially, obviously favors the linguistic heritage of one group over another. As a language teacher, I'm trying to stay positive that I can convince my students that society becoming multilingual is a net social good, not just something advantageous for a job application.

So in that regard, at this moment in my life, the thing that makes me American is how I've been taught that creating and participating in a society defined by ideals and aspirations, rather than something like ethnicity or language, is an amazing (not the only!) way to live one's life.

It's like your crazy friend in high school who was always egging you on to try new stuff, good or bad, with a manic "doitdoitdoitdoitdoit!", is following you around, making you always expand the boundaries of what you think is accepted and acceptable for you - there's never an end to what you can call American as long as you keep meeting new people.
posted by mdonley at 11:58 AM on August 17, 2007

Best answer: I think the original poster was looking for ideas that are unique to America.

. . .

Perhaps a unique and defining characteristic of being American is having the arrogance to believe these things are unique to America...

Actually, the original question said nothing about looking for things that are unique to America, and many of the posters have taken great pains to note that they understand that many of the things they like about and identify with the US are present in other countries. Most Americans (like most people in the world) like other countries a lot. We like foreigners. We like talking to strangers and finding out what their lives are like. The question didn't ask "why is America different from other countries?" It asked what it means to us. And what it means to us probably overlaps quite a bit with what other nationalities mean to the people who hold them, because a nationality as a defining characteristic is going to have some common themes. It's going to be about history and patriotism and politics and heritage and culture, and those things have common threads that overlap across countries.

I haven't heard anyone say that the US is the only country to enjoy freedom and prosperity and opportunity. Only that these are things we like about the US or associate with our feelings about being American. Every country has a unique definition of what those things mean, and we've been trying a bit to parse the American definition, but that doesn't mean that other countries are not free, just that their systems are different, and just as you might prefer your way, we often prefer ours. I can say that one of the things I like about grass is that it's green without denying the fact that trees are also green or denigrating the green quality of other plant life. Many Americans have ancestors who fought wars to preserve the freedom we now enjoy, or who saved and sacrificed to emigrate here so that we could have a better life, or who suffered doing backbreaking labor to enable us to survive, and we're proud of that legacy. We're not saying that other people from other countries don't have legacies to be equally proud of.

If someone wants to ask "Why are you proud to be Scottish?" or "Why are you proud to be Brazilian?" I'm sure you'll get some equally good answers to that question that revolve around the heritage of those countries and the sacrifices made by those people's ancestors and the freedoms people there are proud to enjoy. And I seriously doubt that any American will chime into that thread and tell you that Scottish people aren't free or that Brazilians are being arrogant for feeling proud of their heritage.
posted by decathecting at 11:59 AM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

decathecting, read Kensastional's post again. If you asked "Why are you proud to be Scottish", you'd get a ton of self-deprecation, and probably some meant-to-be-funny stuff about how no other country lets you deep fry anything you like for breakfast.

You wouldn't get Scots saying "you can take a slice out of any country in the world our size and we'll be doing better than it" or anything like it. There are a lot of comparison statements here and not many are on very firm ground, and that's what's giving rising to the rebuttals and accusations of arrogance.
posted by bonaldi at 12:06 PM on August 17, 2007

This makes no sense at all. Have you ever been to Canada?

Have you ever been to Canada outside of Ontario (which is very American in character, anyway)? Let me know if Albertans, Quebeckers, and Newfoundlanders ever become proudly Canadian. Assimilation is a bit speedier on this side of the border.
posted by oaf at 12:12 PM on August 17, 2007

Best answer: I remember being at a anti-war protest - a peace event - and getting punched in the face by a New York City Police Officer, for asking for his badge number.

That made me proud to be an American.
posted by entropone at 12:18 PM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

Albertans and Newfoundlanders (especially Newfoundlanders!) become proudly Canadian as soon as they move to the USA. I know a whole bunch of em. Canadian regionalism falls aside when people leave the country, and all that is left is an allegiance to hockey, ketchup chips, Coffee Crisp, and the CBC.

I am a Canadian in the US now and I would take American citizenship as soon as I get the chance. And what does being American mean to me? Cash, shopping, and opportunity. Gotta love the free market. Plus, my kid's American, which I am really happy about. Canada's an awfully small country in some ways and it's nice to have the choices that an American citizenship can bring.

I came here to work. The American dream may be dying, but it's not dead. People can move to the US and get ahead (unless USCIS decides otherwise). America, despite all the xenophobic rhetoric and increasingly misguided government policy, still loves a global marketplace. That's why Wal-Mart is the symbol of America.

It sounds cold, but you know what - money can buy me some happiness. I own my own home and I can go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want whenever I want. I can save and invest and get rich slowly, and hopefully I'll have a comfortable retirement.

There's a reason why people come to the States over and over again, despite the misery inflicted upon them by immigration officials. It's almost always economic. It's history repeating itself over and over again - many times you can make a better life for yourself here.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:34 PM on August 17, 2007

It's history repeating itself over and over again - many times you can make a better life for yourself here.

well, i can't disagree. but let's hope that's still true in the future, because median incomes in the states have been slipping pretty dramatically lately. indicators of social mobility, from what i understand, aren't looking too good anymore either.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:54 PM on August 17, 2007

How is it possible that so many Americans believe that the US is the only country with a free press, or the right to protest, or the right to your religion or to live without religion?

Of those, Canadians have only the right to protest. The press isn't totally free, and there are Catholic school boards all over the place (but it's not like Germany, where the churches can tax you).
posted by oaf at 1:26 PM on August 17, 2007

Nationalism is not bad. Nationalism used as a coherent force to direct malice towards minority groups or other nations is a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with being proud of where you're from, but like all things, moderation is a good thing.

America is not the greatest country in the world, but never before and still quite not yet, is there some place else like it. The open land that the nation moved across, continually filled by those who arrived with nothing but their names, and upon which they built futures for their families, has helped shape the American spirit. It is not without its tragedy, but those who were the America of the past, and whose descendants make the America today, realized that at the time, they were experiencing something that truly could not be found anywhere else throughout the world.

As someone mentioned above, it was the oppressed and the poor who made up many of the immigrants who came to America in the 1800's and ever since. America was a better place in many ways than the homes they left behind, and they instilled that sense of admiration in their children. so this may well be why Americans today speak so proudly of their homeland.

This same sense of greatness was reinforced following the end of the Second World War, when our grandfathers returned from Europe and Asia, as indisputable victors in a war against Fascism and anti-democratic ideals. They were rightfully called liberators and for many of those men and women, the war was the first time they had ever encountered or seen the rest of the world, and thus, they played the central role in recognizing America's new status in the world as one of the most powerful. This pride, this vision as the protector of liberty and democracy, was again, passed down into their children.

Someone said that Americans love America and its ideals because its how they're raised. This is true, in part, but I think every person at some point has to make their own judgment on why or if they will embrace their country. Some never do, and thats fine.

Ultimately, Americans are a direct product of what their ancestors achieved and experienced. Thrown against a history that shows the country marching from colonial subjugation to universal suffrage, albeit with great tragedy, conflict, and sacrifice, and I think the way we present ourselves is not ignorant, but a rational byproduct of our creation.
posted by Atreides at 1:34 PM on August 17, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed -- if you want to go on a tear about natioanlism please do that in METATALK
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:52 PM on August 17, 2007

Response by poster: I am amazed by all the responses. I just spent the last three hours reading everything, and the ones I marked as best answers aren't necessarily the best answers, just the ones the I felt helped me more, which is the nature of the thing, I know. < facetious>I'll let you know what my decision is.< /facetious> Seriously, thanks for being honest and telling me how you feel about something and why you feel. I can take that with me.

One thing though, I'm not really interested in what you guys think I should do in order to ______, though I do appreciate the sincerity.

I like "You are what you are." or something to that extent.
posted by bam at 4:24 PM on August 17, 2007

I was listening to the radio after one of the early Republican presidential debates where they were talking about the issue of torture, and how several of the candidates supported the use of torture to protect national security, and I thought "That is so fucking un-American it makes me want to scream." I am not a person that generally goes around labeling things as American or un-American, but I guess to me being American should mean you don't fucking tolerate torture FOR ANY FUCKING REASON.
But I am an American because I love it here. Because I do believe that the average person has more opportunities here than most places in the world. And you have such a great variety of climates to choose to live in, all within one country! What a bunch of lucky bastards we are.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:45 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

i am australian.
family is the most important thing.
being from somewhere is only an interesting topic when you get to travel and see wat it is like to be from somewhere eles
posted by edtut at 4:46 PM on August 18, 2007

The World Values Survey may give an indication of what values American's hold (at least in the abstract) in relation to other nations. This recent empirical-minded post on the Inductivist blog is fairly revealing:
Readers and I listed in an earlier post those values that we thought of as elements of "Americanness," but what do the data tell us? I looked at responses of representative samples of people from countries all around the globe to more than 300 hundred questions from the World Values Survey. . .

Okay, let's attempt a description of what makes the U.S. distinctive in terms values. Americans value volunteer work, and they do it out of compassion and because they want to return the favor done for them.

Americans feels thay have control over their lives, and they can change things. If someone is poor, it's his own fault.

Americans are very proud of their work, but strangely wouldn't do it if they didn't need to make a living. They believe in top-down business organization.

They identify with a religion, they are theists, and they believe religion is important for children.

The country is feminist.

Americans are very proud of their country; they believe in personal freedom over equality; they have faith in the political system; and they trust neighboring countries. They are tolerant and pro-immigration. They are anti-socialist.

Let's reduce that to a list like the one before:

Americanness based on the World Values Survey

belief in volunteerism
belief in free will
hierarchical at work
posted by dgaicun at 9:22 PM on August 18, 2007

Patterns of values listed in the above survey about volunteerism, trust, and multiple associations also seem to square with Tocqueville's famous exploration of "Americanness".
posted by dgaicun at 9:27 PM on August 18, 2007

Maybe being American is naively thinking that there is such a thing as a "greatest" country and taking for granted that you're part of it because you could conceive no differently.
posted by mikeh at 5:19 PM on August 20, 2007

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