United States Of The World

Nov 11, 2018

Commentary: As with any other nation, the making of America has been about the amalgamation of innumerable social beliefs and practices from somewhere else. For starters then, any conversation about American nationalism must begin with the story of human migration itself. That started in Africa: the one place where all humanity can declare a shared genesis story. Beyond religion. Beyond politics. Beyond culture. Beyond current affairs. We are from Africa. That's a genetic fact.

But narrowing the focus, it is obvious to me that America cannot claim-not absolutely- one single human invention that is emblematic of its self-identity today. Not baseball. Not democracy. Not human rights. Not having a constitution. Not pizza. Not Christianity. Not free markets. Not bagels and coffee. The list goes on.

As I mentioned, take for example the game of baseball. I know it sounds criminally unpatriotic to say this, but baseball is not American. The concept for the game derives from England; it would not exist without previous games in early Britain and Continental Europe such as cricket and rounders. There is historical debate on this, but most scholars agree that the game of cricket dates back to the south east of England in the 16th century. 

Even something as sacrosanct in our society as democracy and codified constitutionalism can not be claimed by America. The Greeks developed the basic tenets of democracy; Aristotle wrote expertly about constitutionalism in his Nicomachean Ethics; and the notion of individual liberty was well known to philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. In fact, the Japanese had a formal constitution in 604 called the Seventeen-articles constitution. And in 1100, Henry 1 adhered to the Charter of Liberties, which led to the Magna Carta in 1215.   

Human rights in general are not unique to the American system and way of life. The Golden Rule may be over 10,000 years old, an ethical code likely dating back to the ancient Chinese sages. And the moral tradition associated with the Ten Commandments is historically attributed to the Hebrews. Needless to say, the very Judeo-Christian tradition which provides the scaffolding for the American educational and legal framework predates the Revolutionary War by 6,000 years. 

Let's be frank about this, there is not one single technology either-from the radio to the world wide web-that is purely American in its design, production, and distribution. This is true of the research/ mechanical processing of technologies in a global marketplace, as well as the scientific discoveries which made these technologies possible. Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, predicted the existence of radio waves in the 1860s. Two decades later, Italian inventor, Guglie Marconi, sent and received his first radio signal in Italy, soon to be flashing signals across the English Channel. Likewise, the conceptual framework for the internet had its roots in the research of countless scientists and engineers. Born and raised in the Austrian Empire, Nikola Tesla toyed with the idea of a "world wireless system" in the early 1900s. Paul Otlet, the Belgian author and visionary entrepreneur, was the first to conceive of a way to collect index cards meant to catalog facts. Otlet's Universal Bibliographic Repertory in 1895 is an idea that would grow into Google a century later.

How about Pizza? It could be as old as the Chinese baking techniques of the 1100s: certainly, it is Italian. Hot dogs? Try German. Beer? That's prehistoric. Cars? Motorized transportation has been a dream of rational bipedal creatures since the dawn of the wheel. Movies? They are just plays recorded and edited for reproduction; and theatrical plays have been performed for at least 2500 years. 

Not even the Blues and Jazz can be considered purely American inventions. Both are byproducts of an African experience that can only be understood in the context of slavery.  The African experience led to the African-American experience of bondage and freedom from bondage. That's the essence of the Blues and Jazz. These genres of music are not American without being African first. They would not exist at all if it wasn't for a very particular and sinister form of nationalism which justified the capture, enslavement, sale, and torture of human beings for financial gain. 

Not even iconic corporations such as McDonald's and Wall Mart are purely American businesses-at least not in the sense of making money off a certain type of commercial practice. Agriculture and cattle raising was birthed in the Fertile Crescent, in what is now modern-day Iraq and Syria, possibly more than 12,000 years ago.  And the first long-distance trading occurred between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in Pakistan around 3000 BC. 

I am guessing that readers catch my drift. 

Perhaps what makes America unique is how all of these disparate cultural ingredients come together. What comes out of cricket and rounders is a new game called baseball. What comes out of percussive based shamanistic rituals tied to suffering and rejuvenation is a new form of musical and religious expression called the Blues. What comes out of generations of bloody contests for human liberty on the battlefields of Ancient Greece, Asia, South America, and Europe, is a new voice for freedom called the Declaration of Independence. What comes out of painstaking scientific progress from all over the world is a new use of rocket propulsion technology that enables astronauts to reach the moon. That's essential Americanism. 

To be the type of nationalist who believes that America is exalted above and beyond the cultural achievements of other societies (and ancient civilizations) is not just ahistorical but nonsensical. The fact remains that Americans are Americans because they are Egyptian, Syrian, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Russian, African, Chinese, European, and so on. If for no other reason, that's why America is something new in the course of human history. Everything from the philosophy of statecraft to the enshrinement of civil rights has been an advancement for the species. But advancements have been made in America because Americans are walking with and on the reliable shoulders of giants from other parts of the world-both past and present. I would be sinfully remiss if I excluded the legacy of Native Americans who were living in these territories for over 30,000 years longer than anyone from an European-American background talking glowingly about the patriotic duty to be a nationalist. 

Let me put it this way: America is not just part of the world. America is also of the world and because of the world. It's a hard to hear message for some, but America is America because of those who have been callously denigrated or outright forgotten as non- Americans. This is a great shame because at the end of the day there is only American internationalism. There is only a United States of the World. 

George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, and SUNY adjunct professor of philosophy from Rochester, NY.