The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and previleges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.
GEORGE WASHINGTON, letter, Dec. 2, 1783
Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, this idea called America, was and always will be a new world–our new world.
GEORGE H. W. BUSH, State of the Union Address, Jan. 31, 1990
Part of America’s genius has always been the ability to absorb newcomers, to forge a national identity out of the disparate lot that arrived on our shores.
BARACK OBAMA, The Audacity of Hope, 2006
In recent years, I’ve noticed that Americans have been calling their country ‘America’ a lot more than they used to. This is even when they are referring to their country in a very prosaic sense, as a geographic entity or a basic political collective, and not in the special sense of an idea about the nation, basically associated with immigration, used in all three of the above quotations from American Presidents. The two popular American TV shows (that are aired in Canada), “America’s Most Wanted,” and “America’s Got Talent,” provide excellent examples of the new and expanded use of the term ‘America’, through both their names and the recurring use of the term during the shows (including by the Canadian judge on “America’s Got Talent,” Howie Mandel). This has been bothering me a lot lately, and now I think I know why. It’s not that I’m concerned that this is evidence of a rising imperialistic tide in the United States that threatens to wash away my physical country–or at least I’m not overly concerned. (I’ll clarify what I mean by that shortly.) The most disturbing thing to me about the increased use by Americans (and by Howie Mandel) of the term ‘America’ to refer to the United States of America is that it forces Canadians to repress, or even to relinquish, important parts of our own cultural identities.
In Canada, when we don’t call the United States of America its full name, we call the country the U.S.A., the United States, the U.S., or just the States. We never call the country ‘America’. For Canadians, the term ‘America’ refers, geographically, to the entire “new world” comprising North America, South America and Central America: the United States is just one part of America, like Canada is one part of America.
We Canadians do, however, commonly call citizens of the United States ‘Americans’, and describe various things, and people, that come from the United States as ‘American’. I’ve always understood the terms ‘Americans’ and ‘American’ as being essentially slang, although generally-acceptable ways of avoiding wordiness and the awkward grammatical constructions that result from having a country whose actual name consists of four words, with the possessive word, ‘of’, as one of those words. I’ve never had any problem–up to now–with the terms ‘Americans’ and ‘American’, and even commonly used them myself. (Until I introduce an alternative, I’ll continue to use these terms in this blog post.)
While Canadians see ourselves as being part of the geographic America, we never refer to ourselves out loud as ‘Americans’, because we don’t wish to be confused with citizens of the United States, commonly known as Americans. If the appropriate occasion arose, we might, however, speak of ourselves as “North Americans”, a group which also includes citizens of the U.S. and Mexico. While Canadians don’t speak of ourselves as just ‘Americans’, at least many of us, including myself, do sometimes think of ourselves as ‘American’, both in a geographic sense and in a certain cultural sense.
Although I’ve pointed out elsewhere in this blog various differences between the cultures of the United States and Canada, especially as these differences relate to education in our respective countries, there are some obvious strong similarities between the cultures of our two countries. Both of our countries are relatively young countries that have become homes to large numbers of new immigrants, initially mainly from Europe. I should point out here that our two countries have had rather different approaches to immigration (basically speaking, the United States has favoured a “melting pot” approach whereas Canada has favoured a “multicultural” approach); nevertheless, both countries are countries primarily of immigrants, with small percentages of aboriginal peoples. Also, the principal language in both countries is English. (In the province of Quebec, of course, the principal language is French–although even most Quebecers have at least a fair comprehension of English.) We also are neighbours.
Because of the common language, the relative proximity of the two countries that facilitates transportation and travel, and the fact that the American population is about ten times that of the Canadian population, Canadians tend to receive a great deal of exposure to American culture. A lot of what Canadians who are readers read is likely to consist of books by American authors and American magazines–and, of late, various kinds of on-line material, including blog posts and Twitter feed, written by Americans. Canadians watch American television shows and films, and listen to American music. If we are interested in art, we are likely to see exhibitions of the work of American artists, and if we happen to be theatregoers, we attend plays and musicals that originated in the United States. We have locally-produced cultural products, of course, and Canadian content rules, and the cultural products we consume are not confined to those of Canada and the United States; but Canadians in general tend to be very familiar with American cultural products–or at least with certain genres, depending upon our individual interests. The cultural identity of Canadians is, inevitably, derived in large measure from the consumption by Canadians of these American cultural products–even though we may interpret these cultural products, or at least aspects of them, rather differently than do most Americans.
Ask someone from Canada–or, I would think, from any country in the world other than the United States–who knows a little about musical theatre if the ‘America’ of the song “America” from West Side Story is only about the United States and, probably, they’ll tell you it isn’t. Although, there are references in the song to New York City, the setting of the show, as well as to Puerto Rico, the place of origin of the characters who sing this song, the basic immigrant experience that Stephen Sondheim captured in his lyrics for that song holds just as true in Toronto or Vancouver, and probably in various other cities around the world, well, as it does in New York City, for various immigrant groups. Especially if one lives in a country that is part of America other than the United States, the ‘America’ of lines such as “I like to be in America/ Okay by me in America/ Everything free in America/ For a small fee in America” isn’t necessarily only the United States.
In my impressionable youth, I listed to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel music. In their song also titled “America“, the narrator recounts a long Greyhound bus trip through the eastern United States taken by him and his girlfriend, who are “looking for America.” As a young Canadian, I readily identified with the characters in that song, although I’d never been in Pittsburgh, Michigan or Saginaw, or travelled on the New Jersey Turnpike. (Studying at McGill but being from Vancouver, I did acquire a fair amount of experience travelling by Greyhound, but along the Trans Canada Highway.) Ironically, young Canadians today listening to that song for the first time are likely to have an easier time making sense of it than their American counterparts: the central paradox of the song is apparent only if one recognizes the United States of America and the ‘America’ of the song as being relatively independent entities. If they aren’t seen as being relatively independent, this poignant song is reduced to a confusing road-trip, in which the narrator is, quite literally, “lost”.
Even the three quotations from U.S. presidents with which I began this post have resonance for Canadians. Apart from Bush equating ‘America’ with a nation in the second part of his quotation, from a Canadian perspective, the ‘America’ of these quotations applies equally to Canada and the United States.
I don’t know why it is that Americans have been calling their country ‘America’ a lot more than they used to–even when referring to their country in a very prosaic sense. But having people from around the world habitually call citizens of the United States ‘Americans’, and things and people of the United States ‘American’, seems to have provided fertile ground for this nefarious weed, that threatens to choke an important part of the cultural identity of Canadians. (It’s summer, and I’ve been pulling a lot of weeds lately.) I’ve decided I, for one, am not going to do that anymore. I’m henceforth going to make an effort to avoid those terms, even it means sounding wordy or overly formal. Other Canadians–and even people from other nations, including even citizens of the United States (there, it’s not so hard)–might want to think about doing the same.
As for the term ‘America’, I hope I’ve made it sufficiently clear in this relatively short piece (that could be the basis of a book) that it is both wrong and offensive to many of us to use the term in a sense that necessarily excludes Canadians–and citizens of other countries in America, apart from the United States. From now on, when I see, or hear, the term being used in this sense, I’ll be changing it to ‘Umerica’ . . . at least in my mind. Thus, “America’s Most Wanted” becomes “Umerica’s Most Wanted” and “America’s Got Talent” becomes “Umerica’s Got Talent”. The “Miss America Pageant” becomes the “Miss Umerica Pageant,” and Miss America becomes Miss Umerica. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but a second wrong can illuminate the wrongness of the first wrong. And, come to think of it, ‘Umerica’ isn’t a bad nickname for the United States of America–and ‘Umericans’ also isn’t a bad nickname for those citizens of the United States. (I considered various options, and this is the only one I could come up with that seemed to have any chance of catching on.)
As a final point here, producers in the United States of television shows and other cultural content might wish to take into consideration that when they are planning on distributing this content in countries other than the United States–or even if they aren’t planning it but it is likely, in the digital age, to happen anyway–they be more careful about the use of ‘America’–and even ‘American’ and ‘Americans’. Perhaps some pressure also could be exerted at this end, through Canadian television networks and so on that purchase cultural materials produced in the United States of America–or Umerica–for distribution in Canada. Perhaps it also might be exerted through the CRTC, and similar Canadian regulatory bodies dealing with other media.
As a very final point here–Howie Mandel, you should know better. Shame on you!