Nation-States are a proud group. Nationalism remains one of the stronger impulses for humankind the world over. Although this pertains primarily to the political (the voice of consensus via shared values and/or the compromises of diverse constituents), it is also voiced in defense of the cultural. In a majority of countries, where each region or locale or town is as different from the next as the colors on the flag, this cultural nationalism takes the form of certain agreed-upon symbols, images, exported goods, usually coalescing around the region of the Capital. In France, say, Brittany celebrates its own holidays, consumes its own cuisine, dances uniquely to its own music. Bordeaux grows cabernet, Toulouse cooks cassoulet, and Chartres has the cathedral with the blue glass. Each region, while sharing and mixing, has each of these and more: holidays, food and drink, religious practices, monuments and architecture, and language dialect. Yet the country’s nationalism is based upon the baguette and the Louvre, and a mutual respect for everything else. There is localism, and there is nationalism, and they are intertwined.
In America this is not the case. The country was founded on a different principle, with a wholesome vision, and has remained on a different path. We came here escaping our former locales and when we arrived what we saw was, thankfully, an empty land — empty of history, of culture, of politics. We are perhaps the country that cares least for its continent’s history and indigenous peoples (here’s looking at you, Australia). We claim nothing but the blank slate. Onto this we have drawn our own picture of a new nationalism.
In America, it’s a nationwide pride. If you can’t get it everywhere, it isn’t American. We all need to be the very same people (one nation, under god), with the very same opportunities (classless society, American Dream), doing the very same things.
Holidays. We don’t have regional holidays, even if we once did. Halloween in New England becomes fake autumn in Southern California, where you’d better make sure that costume isn’t too heavy, because it’s eighty degrees outside. Christmastime in the wintry North becomes fake frost painted on windowsills in the South, shrubs of Douglas Fir decking the kitchens of Tulsa and Houston, where nary a Doug Fir grows. New Year’s Eve no matter where we live, rural Idaho, Omaha, Nebraska, Portland, Maine, we are watching the ‘ball drop’ in Times’ Square, where we’d much rather be, at least in spirit. Thanksgiving is our favorite, because everyone anywhere can eat a whole hell of a lot of food, though even in New York City we pretend we’re on the farm. Fourth of July too, which is legitimately national, has become a holiday of who can best emulate the aesthetic of Ohio, of Michigan, of Missouri, anywhere in the good old American Middle, where the genuine Americans live, so sip lemonade and eat apple pie and play backyard baseball, be ordinary, be simple folk like they are, even if you live in San Francisco or Miami. It is basic expropriation, emulation being the deepest American trait. There are a few that avoid this: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for example (though you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced it in Burlington, Vermont).
Food and drink. We don’t get fired up about ‘regional cuisine.’ What we really love are the ‘American’ purveyors, those you can feast on anywhere across the country, no mater where — McDonald’s, Applebees, Cracker Barrel, Starbucks, and a hundred others. In other countries there are, granted, types of dining (bistros in France, pubs in Ireland), but there one is proud of one’s own local incarnation of the type. Here, we are not attached to our local Cheesecake Factory, we can eat it anywhere (the factory being the epitome of mass production), it is the idea we love. Friends come back from a long trip abroad and the first place they want to go is Buffalo Wild Wings. This is what America is all about. Those regions that do have a specific cuisine (again, New Orleans, or coastal California/New England, or the deep South) evoke a localism completely detached from American Nationalism. Californians are proud of their food (and their Napa Valley wines) at the cost of alienating themselves from the rest of the country. When tourists come for the beach they pretty much stick to the Jack in the Box they’ve been eating back home, or, if they do venture out, it’s to indulge in the sensuous, sinfully smug consumption of the typical Californian. In Maine and New Hampshire and Massachusetts, lobster is a legitimate king, but don’t ask folks in the Midwest to spend their dinners hovering over that hideous sea locust. In the South, where tourists do go to eat the food, there is, of course, also a fierce local pride — though we really don’t need to go into the past consequences of Southern localism at the expense of the country as a whole, I think — with plenty of alienation. Again, even if we like these foods once in a while, we are not proud of them on a national level — they detract from, not add to, our sense of nationalism. New Orleans is a fun and exciting place to visit for most of us, but it is also foreign, and not very ‘American.’
This blanket consensus wasn’t always the case, of course, for example in the 1860s. If only they’d had McDonald’s back then — or, indeed, any strong national corporate interest — we could have all eaten McNuggets for breakfast instead of musket balls. Herbert Hoover thought we were a nation of “rugged individualists” (though at the same time he also thought the 1930s market would fix itself). Well, Sam Walton was a rugged individualist, and now we can all be rugged individual owners of Sam’s Club cards and mass-produced plastic toys. That’s how the market fixes. After all, it’s Sam’s right to force his individualism on anybody he wants, just as it’s now the right of other corporations (ahem, people) to do the same. In many of the countries experiencing civil war today — Syria, Iraq, Colombia, the DRC — corporate interests, the exploitation of national resources/commodities, and global capitalism in general are the only thing holding together a sense of State (usually not in a good way). If only they could make a clean break like South Sudan and not end up, well, like South Sudan. In fact, the only thing that can trump America’s cultural nationalism is capitalism itself — the only warfare we’ll allow ourselves against ourselves is class warfare, usually encountered here with a heavy dose of racism.
Religion. Circus-like big-tent evangelists, moving from town to town. Televangelists, beaming everywhere at once. The pre-fab, warehouse style of contemporary church architecture. The one exception, you might think, are the all-American Mormons in Utah. But, as if to directly counterbalance this opportunity, their envoys all dress up in the same bland shirt-and-tie-and-bicycle-helmet garb, as opposed to anything remotely Utahn (that’s the correct local way to spell it, by the way). Any spiritual connection they once had to the sandstone desert has been lost in a commonplace closet of corporate resemblance.
As for monuments and architecture, the country is, for the most part, too young yet to have produced much of these (at least imbued with any local historical value). Red brick houses in Boston can be seen just as well in Atlanta. Victorians in upstate New York abound on the hills of San Francisco. We do have a few monuments to which we’ve attributed some local character that nevertheless remain national in the public consciousness: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Manhattan skyline, Mount Rushmore. But the only truly patriotic, wholly local monuments we have, and the one thing to which we can fully ascribe both localism and nationalism, are our National Parks. What we could not do, Nature has done for us.
Some people confuse all our talk of melting pots for the ingredients, not the final product. But it is the resulting mush, packaged and frozen and shipped out to all two-hundred-fifty locations, that we celebrate.
There is one cultural area, however, in which Americans—along with most other nations worldwide—do exhibit a commensurate local and national pride. Sports. Baseball is our collective pastime, yet you’ll never hear a Giants fan cheer on the Dodgers, no matter what the occasion. Teams represent their cities like no other medium in America. In countries such as Spain, where, for example, the Barcelona and Bilbao football teams field mostly Catalan and Basque players, respectively, this local pitch can turn powerfully political, even if every fan cheers on the national team during the World Cup (the most nationalistic and most watched cultural event in the world).
It should come as no surprise that the most watched cultural event in America is the Super Bowl (the February 1st, 2015 broadcast of Super Bowl LXIX, at 115 million viewers, became the single most watched broadcast in American history), even if the two states represented in this most recent contest consist of only 14 million people. Then again, if the culturally homogenous Americans desire something to aim for, they should look (as usual) to China, a country whose massive regional diversity has been determinedly undermined by its political system for over half a century. In a nation where, pre-1955, each province spoke more-or-less a different language, it’s no small feat that 700 million people now tune in annually for the New Years Gala broadcast — take that, Super Bowl — an officially-sanctioned showcase of Chinese cultural ‘diversity’, the 2015 edition of which aired this past February 17th (interesting to note: a recent poll found that around that exact number of the nation’s people — a little over half the total population — can speak Mandarin conversationally).
In lieu of true language dialect (and even this is parroted—travel to rural anywhere, North Dakota, Missouri, Arizona, Oregon, and they talk like they’re from Texas) we have had our local American press. Richard Rodriguez writes, in his essay “Final Edition,” of the death of the newspaper:
“We no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with ‘I’.”
We get our news from multiple sources, based in differing locales, many times throughout the day. There is no voice we trust; we trust them all, or, rather, slightly distrust them all. We are a cynical generation, even if we’ve undercut the usefulness of the term. We have no place, just RSS feeds and the blogs we follow with links we enjoy. Rodriguez goes on:
We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses…We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.
We are what we’ve craved all along. A placeless place, a classless society. The problem is that, actually, we aren’t either of those things, it’s merely a vision we’ve sold ourselves, or that the wealthy and powerful have persuaded us to buy. The newspapers of old, too, were run by rich megalomaniacs. But at least they were personable, they had a sense of ‘place’, indeed, their very status depended on it, and they let the talent speak (for the most part). Now everything, including megalomaniacs, is decided by ‘the market’, by blanket advertising, corporate models, the all-powerful, all-ambiguous, all-ubiquitous ‘consumer’. Neither the talent, nor anyone else, is permitted to speak, though some are permitted to shout—as long as what they are shouting are brief words, stock phrases, cliches, slogans. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Jeff Lennon is a displaced Californian living in Brooklyn. You can visit him online at The Coastal Literary.