"Attack on America." "America Responds." "America at War" - We've
all seen the headlines and heard political leaders discuss what
the American people will or will not tolerate. Yet the term "America"
is deceivingly complex. True, we are bound together by the flag,
symbols of government such as the congress or White House, and historical
figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We are also
bound together by common experiences - whether achievements such
as the moon landing or disasters such as the attack on the WTC and
Pentagon. But if we look below the surface, it appears as though
different people have different interpretations about the meanings
of these symbols and events. For example, for some, the flag represents
hard-won democracy, even the revolutionary spirit of our forefathers;
while for others, it represents authority, righteousness, and the
world's leading military power.
To people outside America, the range of meanings can be even greater.
Some eagerly embrace American popular culture - blue jeans, Coke,
rock and roll, while others see these same elements as slowly destroying
their own native cultures. Some see America's involvement in various
military operations around the world as reassuring, a good neighbor
helping to maintain the peace; others see these same activities
as an unwanted intrusion, a bully forcing his viewpoints on those
too weak to defend themselves. What makes the situation so complex
is that these different feelings can coexist in the same country
and even in the same person, with for example, the older generation
supporting American military presence but disliking American popular
culture; or the younger generation wearing jeans and listening to
rock and roll as they protest American military interests in their
part of the world. This complexity underscores the wide-range of
meanings that are bound together by the symbols of America =8A and
raises the question of how to interpret actions (whether positive
or negative) directed towards those symbols. We know what we
mean by the flag or the White House, but are these the same meaning
that others have?
One additional complexity is worth mentioning. For many people
in the world, America represents the modernity associated with the
20th Century: mass production, a consumer culture, a high living
standard, a waste culture, and so on. In fact, these developments
are common to other parts of the world as well (think of Europe
and Japan). But somehow, "America" serves as the shorthand to describe
both the wonders of 20th century development and the contradictions
and problems. Particularly in those parts of the world that are
far removed from mass production and consumerism, America represents
both the dream and curse of the modern.
Questions to Consider
- How far can we push the relationship between America as a symbol
and America as a people? How might we complicate that relationship?
- Can you think of different meanings that symbols such as the
American flag might represent for people, both in America and
- What examples can you give of mixed feelings for America - liking
one aspect while disliking another?
- Who's America is represented by the Pentagon?
- The World Trade Center is in America and many thousands of Americans
died in it; but it is also the headquarters for many international
companies, and nearly one thousand foreigners also died in it.
How can we interpret the WTC - as an American symbol? A New York
symbol? A symbol of international capitalism? or something else?
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