Looking around the nation today, I have been a little sad. There seems to be so much that divides us and so many people absolutely convinced of their rightness that they can’t deign to consider someone else might feel differently, or if they know people feel differently – on whatever the topic – they put that person down as crazy, ill-informed, or plain stupid.
I admit I have been part of the problem. I find it hard to accept how so many people can be for or against whatever topic I think has ample evidence to support my version of truth. When I offer evidence, particularly in the realm of historical evidence, I expect to convince the person with whom I disagree, and sometimes I have. But sometimes that person has questioned my sources, dismissing them as biased or leaning in one direction. How can we have a civil conversation when the very facts of history somehow are being called into question?
In this, the most connected age in human history, we are more disconnected than ever. Because the internet allows people with fringe opinions to find each other, they have grown stronger, asserting their right to be heard no matter how far out of the mainstream they might be. I think particularly of racist groups who “found each other” to form the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville. Can any reasonable American believe that our nation should be OK with racism in this era?
There was a time not so long ago when we could all agree on the facts of a situation. We had three TV channels, local radio that got their news from the same sources, and the newspapers. We all saw Walter Cronkite bring us the news of the day and never questioned his motives except to bring us accurate journalism. No one wondered about the groups to which he donated or where he vacationed. We knew he was telling us the truth. It was the same truth no matter where in America you lived.
Today’s media landscape has shattered like a car window, giving us ample opportunity to find “facts” that support our preconceived notions – another sin for which I am guilty. Now you have to go to Snopes or Politifact to see if the stuff that you’re reading in your Facebook feed is true, though I have had people question even the veracity of those sites. It is enough to make many just give up and stop trying to have challenging conversations with friends. I might as well give up on the news completely.
Considering this, I ask “What do we have left that still unites us, that still makes us American?” I can think of that time when our choices were limited, so we were all eating the same foods, driving the same cars, etc., so it seemed our culture was a real American thing, but even that isn’t true. We may not have seen that the neighbors down the street had kofta on a different New Year’s Day from us, but they were there. So it isn’t our culture.
We have a common language, but it’s one that most people on earth speak, and came from our colonizers, so that can’t be the thing that unites us.
Lots of nations have a majority religion. Iranians are almost exclusively Shia Muslim and Venezuelans are almost exclusively Roman Catholic. While most Americans claim to be Christian, there are so many versions of Christianity, and so many other faiths in our midst, it can’t be religion, especially in light of our founding principle to keep church and state separate.
Other nations have a dominant ethnicity, but America has prided itself on allowing the “teeming refuse of tempest shores” to come on our land. We are soon to be a majority-minority nation so that isn’t the thing.
After considering all the options, I determined that our love of freedom is what makes us American. We fought for it against the British, and have continued through successive civil rights campaigns to provide freedom and equality to more and more people, fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence with each new opening. But are we alone in the love of freedom? Probably not, but I contend there is a uniqueness to how Americans love freedom. But maybe there’s something more powerful that unites us.
Could it really just be – our history? The knowledge of what our nation has been through together for nearly 250 years? All the laws and leaders, turmoil and joy we’ve collectively shared is ours and no other nation on earth has experienced what we’ve experienced exactly as we’ve experienced it.
Loving U.S. History the way I do, I was excited thinking that I might be part of preserving the unique character of “American” in my classroom. Getting to share the stories of our nation with a new generation of young people has always been a privilege to me, but I hadn’t considered that work’s connection to building THE American identity until recently, as I’ve gotten increasingly concerned about our stance in the world and our relationship with each other.
But in realizing this I do have hope. I know that there are thousands of U.S. History teachers across this nation who are working daily to pass on those stories of the past, to share the people and places that made America, and therefore creating what it means to be American in each group of children.
My only fear today is, is that enough?