Will the real Americans please stand up?

Once in a while, the media decides to find out what the “real” America thinks about some major issue that is consuming the national media.

I can immediately predict what they will do. They will send a reporter out to somewhere in the mid-west, say Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska, and that reporter will go to a small town or rural area, and interview some people there. And typically, the person interviewed will be white, middle-aged, middle-class, religious and church-going, and having a conventional occupation (teacher, home-maker, small businessperson).

These are supposed to be the “real” Americans, who represent the true values of the country.

I always wondered about this particular journalistic cliche. What is it, exactly, that makes this particular group more truly representative of the country, more credible as speaking for the nation than, say, an elderly, white, New York City shopkeeper or an atheist black doctor in Mississippi or a young Hispanic farmer in Arizona?

I don’t think that the reasoning behind this choice is purely demographic and statistical. It may be that if we do a multiple slicing of the entire population according to color, age, class, religion, geography, and occupation, the group singled out for journalistic preference might come out as slight more populous than other groups. I am not even sure if that is true but I think it is irrelevant.

The point is that it has become an ingrained part of conventional wisdom that this particular grouping has some special claim to speak for the country as a whole. It is as if there is a sense that “true” Americans are those who look as if they could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

This comes back to a point made earlier in my previous posting where I argued that this idea that one segment of the population are the rightful heirs to a country and that others are “allowed” to be there is a notion that can ultimately lead to chauvinism and conflict, as can be seen in the experience of other countries. In my native Sri Lanka, there is the feeling that it is the Sinhala Buddhist majority who somehow represent the “true” Sri Lanka, and this sentiment has been the source of endless political and social unrest.

So the question is, can we define a “real American”? Is it just any citizen? Is it a citizen who was also born here? Or does it also require one to adhere to a certain set of beliefs and values? Does it depend on your physical appearance? Or is the whole exercise of searching for the “real” Americans simply pointless and should be abandoned?

I suggest that that we should reject that kind of thinking altogether, along with corresponding journalistic tropes such as the “American heartland.” They serve no useful purpose and only serve create divisions and hierarchies.


The following is a notice from Case for Peace of which I am a member:

Film: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire
Date: Wednesday, July 27, 2005,
Time: 7:00 PM
Where: Peace House, 10916 Magnolia Drive, University Circle (near the parking entrance to the Auto Museum).
Admission: I believe that there is no admission charge.
Duration: full version 64 minutes (accompanied in DVD format by abridged version and additional footage). To be projected in full screen mode, followed by discussion.

Cleveland Peace Action invites you to view this remarkable film that documents how a radical fringe of the Republican Party used the trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks to advance a pre-existing agenda to radically transform American foreign policy while rolling back civil liberties and social programs at home.

The documentary places the Bush Administration’s false justifications for the war in Iraq within the larger contrast of a two-decade struggle by neo-conservatives to dramatically increase military spending in the wake of the Cold War, and to expand American power globally by means of force. At the same time, the commentary explains how the Administration has sold this radical and controversial plan for aggressive American military intervention by deliberately manipulating intelligence, political imagery, and the fears of the American people.

The film is produced by The Media Education Foundation, narrated by Julian Bold, and features interviews with Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, Scott Ritter, Daniel Ellsberg, Jody Williams, Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, and many others.

Produced before the 2004 election, this is film is particularly relevant now as a public education tool, since more information is being widely revealed about the background preceding the war.

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