Apple pie! Founding fathers! Paul Revere! Bald eagles! The stars and stripes! Every country has its symbols, but perhaps none embraces them quiet as strongly as the United States of America.
It can seem a little unfair to say that Americans have an obsession with American culture. And to be clear, we’re not trying to call anyone out. In the past, we’ve written about the American obsession with Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, so it’s only fair we talk about how the United States interacts with its own culture.
To do so, we’ll examine the aspects that make up the idea of America. The United States is of course a many-layered thing, so it’s really hard to make any general statements about all of it. Yet the country is defined by certain concepts and symbols, and examining them can tell us a lot.
The Short History Of The United States
The United States is, comparatively, really young. It’s been less than 250 years since the country was established. There are turtles who have lived through most of American history.
By having such a short history, the United States is in a somewhat unique position. History is a huge part of a country’s identity, and many other countries have literally thousands of years to pull from. The United Kingdom mythologizes its founding, with fantastic stories of King Arthur and his knights. Egypt traces its lineage to ancient Pharaohs who built pyramids filled with spiritual meaning. Italy was once the home to the mighty Roman empire. In comparison, the United States is a newcomer.
This isn’t to say the United States hasn’t mythologized its past. You don’t need to look past Mount Rushmore to see how the founding fathers, along with other presidents, have been made both literally and figuratively larger-than-life. Military victories, from the Revolutionary War to World War II, are pointed to as proof that the country is one to be reckoned with. There may be less history, but that doesn’t mean it’s celebrated any less.
Americans choose events in history to define who they are today. And this is a double-edged sword. People can praise George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for building the country, but they can also point out that they were both slave owners. World War II could be seen as a victory of good over evil, or as an example of the United States crossing moral boundaries with the use of the atomic bomb.
The United States is complicated, and so it must constantly reckon with its history. There is no present identity without the past.
The Red, White And Blue
The national flag is an important part of any country’s traditions. Arguably, the United States is no different from other countries in this regard. But this article is about the United States, and Americans definitely have a very intimate relationship with the flag.
The flag plays a dual role in the United States. First, it is a symbol of respect, patriotism and veterans. You stand for the flag before sporting events, children pledge allegiance to it at school — though they can’t be forced to — and it is an integral part of any official ceremony that happens in the country. The flag is an honored item.
On the other side of things, the flag is also a huge commercial product. You can walk into stores with entire aisles filled with the American flag on posters, pencils, notebooks, shirts, bathing suits, hats, scarves and, you know, actual flags.
Like with many aspects of the United States, this cashing in on the stars and stripes may sound contradictory to its honored status. Yet somehow the two ideas of what the flag means coexist in the American consciousness. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, demand for flag merchandise skyrocketed as people wanted to declare their patriotism. The flag is all about pride, and Americans express pride in many, many different ways.
America’s Heartland; Or, Real America
“America’s heartland” is a phrase you’ll often hear a politician say, and it seems pretty self-explanatory until you think about it a little. Granted, it could just refer to the geographic “heart” of the country, so any part that doesn’t touch the coasts. But often, heartland seems to refer to some idea of “real America,” or an America more authentic than any other part. Trying to find real America is an obsession in and of itself.
In early 2017, the New York Times created a poll to see what people thought was America’s heartland. Using nine unlabeled maps, they asked readers which representation of the heartland they thought was most accurate. With 22 percent of the vote, the Midwest was the most popular, and “far from the coasts” came in a close second with 18 percent.
Historian William Cronon has said the heartland “describes a deep set of beliefs about places that somehow authentically stand for America.” And the bigger problem here is when the heartland gets conflated with this idea of real America. There is a notion that some places, particularly cities like New York City and San Francisco, are not real America, whereas rural and industrial communities are. Of course, everyone who lives in the United States should be defined as Americans.
The Ideals Of The Nation
The United States was built on ideas. There’s the American Dream, which loosely means that anyone should be able to come to the United States and find success. There’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the three unalienable rights put forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. There’s also “truth, justice and the American way,” but that one’s just Superman’s catchphrase. And then, above all, is the Constitution of the United States of America.
The U.S. Constitution is not the first document to majorly reshape history, but it is one of the most potent. It continues to dictate every facet of American government, and people, regardless of politics, defer to the Constitution and the ideas put forth by the Founding Fathers. There are disagreements on exactly how closely the law should stick to what the Founding Fathers wrote, but it is still the bedrock of the country. Though for being a bedrock, it is far from stable.
The history of the country can be read through the lens of how the Constitution has changed. First, the Bill of Rights was added to ensure things like freedom of speech and the right to a fair and speedy trial. How to interpret these first 10 amendments has been an ongoing debate since the day they were written. Since then, there have been additions to the Constitution to end slavery, give women the right to vote, make alcohol illegal, make alcohol legal again and much more.
It’s a testament to the staying power of the Constitution that as the country has adapted to new ideas, it too has changed. There are still some ideals that remain — freedom, equality, justice — but the country’s approach to them continues to advance.
American [Fill In The Blank]
You may have noticed a theme with this article so far, and it’s that all of these things are about defining the country. There are plenty of things that could be on a list of American obsessions: the Kardashians, the O.J. Simpson trial, fast food, football, barbecue and beer being just a few. But what unites all these disparate ideas? Americans’ love of their Americanness.
In a young country, branding things as American can be important. It’s American football, American Idol, the American Dream, the American way of living. The country is a country of immigrants; less than 2 percent of residents are Native Americans. That means everything the country has is a hodgepodge of cultures and ideas taken from various parts of the world. While it may seem like the traditions and ideas of the nation are well-established, they’re not. And so to create stability, Americans look for what is American. It is a process of self-definition.
Why, then, are Americans obsessed with American culture? Because they’re still trying to figure out exactly what it is.