From Mon Sep 13 13:45:08 2004
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Date: Mon, 13 Sep 2004 19:17:12 +0200 (CEST)
Subject: US: a disputed history of identity

US: a disputed history of identity

By Edward W. Said, Le Monde diplomatique September 2004

ANYONE with the slightest understanding of how cultures work knows that defining a culture, saying what it is for members of that culture, is always a major and, even in undemocratic societies, a democratic contest. There are canonical authorities to be selected and regularly revised, debated, reselected, or dismissed. There are ideas of good and evil, belonging or not belonging (the same and the different), hierarchies of value to be specified, discussed, rediscussed and settled or not.

Moreover each culture defines its enemies, who stands beyond it and threatens it. For the Greeks, beginning with Herodotus, anyone who did not speak Greek was automatically a barbarian, an Other to be despised and fought against. An excellent recent book by the French classicist François Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus (1), painstakingly shows how deliberately Herodotus set about constructing an image of a barbarian Other from the Scythians, more even than from the Persians.

The official culture is that of priests, academies and the state. It provides definitions of patriotism, loyalty, boundaries and what I have called “belonging”. It is this official culture that speaks in the name of the whole, that tries to express the general will, the general ethos and idea, that inclusively holds the official past (the founding fathers and texts, the pantheon of heroes and villains) and excludes what is foreign or different or undesirable in the past. From it come the definitions of what may or may not be said, those prohibitions and proscriptions that are necessary to any culture if it is to have authority.

It is also true that besides the mainstream or official or canonical culture there are dissenting or alternative, unorthodox, heterodox cultures that contain many anti-authoritarian strains in competition with the official culture. These can be called the counterculture, an ensemble of practices associated with outsiders—the poor, immigrants, artistic bohemians, rebels, artists. From the counterculture comes the critique of authority and attacks on what is official and orthodox. The great contemporary Arab poet Adonis has written a massive account of the relationship between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Arabic culture and shown the constant dialectic and tension between them. No culture is understandable without some sense of this ever-present source of creative provocation from the unofficial to the official; to disregard this sense of restlessness within each culture, and to assume that there is complete homogeneity between culture and identity is to miss what is vital and fecund.

In the United States the debate about what is American has gone through many transformations and sometimes dramatic shifts. When I was growing up, Westerns depicted native Americans as evil devils to be destroyed or tamed. They were called Red Indians and insofar as they had any function in the culture—and this was as true of films as of the writing of academic history—it was as a foil to the advancing course of white civilisation. Today that has changed completely. Native Americans are seen as victims, not villains, of the advance of the US into the Wild West.

There has been a change in the status of Columbus and even more dramatic reversals in the depictions of African-Americans and women. Toni Morrison noted how in classic American literature there is an obsession with whiteness, as Melville's Moby-Dick and Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym eloquently testify. Yet she says major male, white writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, men who shaped the canon of American literature, created their works by using whiteness as a way of avoiding, curtaining and rendering invisible the African presence in the midst of society. That Toni Morrison writes her novels and criticism with such success and brilliance now underscores the extent of the change from the world of Melville and Hemingway to that of Dubois, Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Morrison herself.

Which vision is the real America, and who can lay claim to represent and define it? The question is complex and deeply interesting but cannot be settled by reducing the matter to a few clichés.

A recent view of the difficulties in cultural contests whose object is the definition of a civilisation can be found in Arthur Schlesinger's little book, The Disuniting of America (2). As a mainstream historian, Schlesinger is understandably troubled by the fact that emergent and immigrant groups in the US have disputed the official, unitary national fable as it used to be represented by great classical historians such as Bancroft, Henry Adams and, more recently, Richard Hofstader. The disputants want the writing of history to reflect not only a nation conceived of and ruled by patricians and landowners but one in which slaves, servants, labourers and poor immigrants played an important but as yet unacknowledged role.

The narratives of such people, silenced by the great discourses whose source was Washington, the investment banks of New York, the universities of New England and the industrial fortunes of the Middle West, have come to disrupt the slow progress and unruffled serenity of the official story. They ask questions, tell the experiences of social unfortunates and make the claims of “lesser” peoples—women, Asians and African-Americans and other minorities, sexual as well as ethnic. Whether one agrees or not with Schlesinger's cri de coeur, there is no disagreeing with his underlying thesis that the writing of history is the royal road to the definition of a country and that the identity of a society is in large part a function of historical interpretation, which is fraught with contested claims and counterclaims. The US is in such a fraught situation today.


(1) François Hartog, Le Miroir d’Hérodote, Poche, Paris, 2001.

(2) Arthur M Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, WW Norton, New York, revised edition 1998.