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Americans: An Invented People

Newt Gingrich was almost right about the Palestinians when he said they were an “invented people” (though the difference between right and almost right, to paraphrase Twain, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug). Gingrich’s statement would be accurate if only he’d go on to say, “but then, Americans are an invented people. And so are Finns and Frenchmen and Filipinos. All peoples are invented.”

Gingrich won’t be saying that anytime soon, because his whole megalomaniacal vision of himself and his nation depends upon the myth of nationalism. That myth holds that nations have essences, which define them and which they maintain throughout history. This model tells you that there is some kind of Americanness that you share with Gingrich, and me, and some guy in Detroit, and Lincoln and Jefferson. Politicians eat and breathe this myth, which ought to be warning enough that it is a crock of nonsense.

To see why, ask yourself a few simple questions: Have you ever met a Visigoth? Followed election returns from the Roman Empire? Booked a trip to the Aztec Disneyland? If you answered “yes” to any of these, please take the test again, and avoid the comments section in the meantime. The problem with believing in national essences is that so many have disappeared, not by extermination but by transformation into new identities. As for the nations that still endure, their continuity over the centuries is an illusion. As Dante observed in the 1300’s, “if those who died a thousand years ago were to return to their cities, they would believe that these had been occupied by some foreign people.” He was referring the the inevitable changes that occur in language use, but it’s equally true of culture: Even Jack Kennedy, to say nothing of Lincoln or Jefferson, would be astonished, and probably appalled, by American culture in 2012—for reasons we might admit (maybe we have overdone it with Christmas, as Jefferson would probably say) and reasons we’d reject (well, see, now that we don’t have slavery or apartheid, we elected a black man President).

“The manners of a people,” wrote David Hume, “change very considerably from one age to another.” His shrewd essay on “national characters” supplies a proof he could not have intended: The national traits he describes in it—Greeks are cowards, Persians are natural-born comedians, Danes are stupid—are no longer current. (Though it’s interesting that the stereotypes themselves persist: In American stereotypes of 2012, it’s the French who are “surrender monkeys,” Jews who are funny and Poles who are dumb.)

If neither language nor culture persists over time, then where does this feeling of a shared essence come from? And what maintains it? For my money, the best answer is still Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: A people, like the Palestinians or the Americans, is composed of human beings whose personal experiences and emotions have been fused to a collective identity. As summed up in this insightful essay by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the effect of this linkage is this: “I owe my existence to my parents, and by metonymical extension they represent the larger, abstract collective. I harbor tender feelings for my childhood, which by extension becomes my group’s glorious and tragic history. I feel attached to the place where I grew up, which was not just any arbitrary place, but the nation (or, as the case might be, the sacred land of Hinduism, the traditional territory of the Fijians, the tormented country of the brave, but sadly misunderstood Serbs).”

The key to a passionate identity, then, is a feeling of personal connection to people you have not met, and who died long ago—a feeling that is as strong as it is illusory. This personal aspect is the reason you can’t just make up peoplehood out of anything, anywhere. You can take your identity as a Navi or a Klingon very seriously, but those identities won’t impress many other people, and so they won’t bite deep into your life. However, if an identity does have a deep, daily, personal, inescapable effect on your life, then it will feel, and be, quite real. Palestinians vote, work, hope and fear and hate as Palestinians. Their prospects for happiness and success are very much dependent on the fact that they see themselves, as others see them, as Palestinians. Palestinian peoplehood, then, is just as real, and just as invented, as is American peoplehood.

What achieves this connection of the personal with the abstract, imagined community? Schools and the media send the message, economics reckons the business of making a living in national terms (as in “our GDP” and “our” balance of payments) and politics pours people (and their expressions of loyalty) into national borders. So, we Americans see ourselves as “one people,” so Minnesotans don’t stress out about the way they subsidize people in Mississippi. In the European Union, though, history is taught and politics organized so that Germans think the essential boundary for identity is between Germans and non-Germans, while Greeks think it’s between Greeks and non-Greeks. If schools, and media, and business, and politics were organized around the difference between Prussians and Bavarians, then there would be no German national identity.

All peoples are portrayed, by their Gingriches at least, as incarnations of some essence that persists through history. But all peoples are, in reality, invented in the present—by teachers, pundits, politicians, bureaucrats and businesses. It’s an old cheap trick of propaganda to point out that the other guy’s stories are myths while claiming that your own are gospel truth. Yet the fact of invention is shared by all peoples.

So the right question to ask about a people isn’t “is it invented?” but rather “is it real?” Is this an identity that people vote in, work in, celebrate in?; is this an identity they teach their children, weep for, and hope for?; is this an identity for which they’re getting tortured and shot? When the answer to those questions is yes, then the identity in question is at least as real as your own.

Illustration: People-inventing meetup, 18th-century style.


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