31 December 2006

Usonian and Eurovian

In 1774 there were 32 British colonies in North America. Five of these would later become Canadian provinces; another 14 would eventually become Caribbean nations, or parts thereof. A revolution took place in 13 others, and these became the United States of America. At the time, the population of each of the 13 insurgent colonies was much larger than that of any of the loyal colonies (which played a significant role in choosing sides, but that's another story). As is usually the case with revolutions, the one that created the USA spawned a universalist ideology; many early US radicals believed they were effecting a general transformation of European civilization.

As a result, it took an embarrassingly long time before the nation known officially as the United States of America actually pinned down its natural boundaries. In particular, some of the more fanatical demagogues were obsessed with capturing the loyalist provinces to the north.1 At the same time, there was ambivalence towards Latin America and the Caribbean. While some dreamed of the New World being uniformly new-made and revolutionary, the fact was that the Americas were far too huge and complex. The North American revolutionaries were chasing in two dozen different directions, and tripped up by incompatible ideals. One other problem was that the 13 colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant; this was in an era where the Reformation was often regarded as an indispensable step towards the sort of liberty sought by the Continental Congress. That meant, sadly, a distinctly anti-Catholic twinge to early revolutionary perorations.

By the time the Revolution ended, it was well-nigh universal to use "American" as the toponym for the new federation. This reflected the inherently ephemeral aspect of revolutionary identities; the American Revolution had dreamed of a connection between the "newness" of the Americas, and the newness of the social order to be created in it. Obviously, many Americans were not only opposed to the new order, they fled to Canada to get away from it. Others who favored the Revolution, did not favor its leveling tendencies; Americans in a literal sense, they were not "Americans" in the ideological sense—they rejected any fanciful doctrines of continental particularism or, as it is often called, "American exceptionalism." Or they were indeed among the levelers, but looked to the French Revolution to redeem mankind, not the American one.

Today, there are 35 countries in the Americas; 14 have populations greater than 10 million, three more than 100 million. The total population is about 886 million, of whom 302 million live in the USA. It seems reasonable to argue that the United States really needs a better demonym (name for a category of people) than "American." One widespread problem is that the 584 million other Americans seem inclined to blame us for expropriating "American" to refer to ourselves; according to the Wikipedia post, many observers note that "American" is perjorative in Canada ("Don't you dare call me 'American'!") and culturally offensive in Latin America. In Latin American dialects of Spanish, estadounidense is preferred.

My own impression is that the preference for using "American" as a demonym mostly came from Europe; it came from the political typologies of the period 1763-1822. From the first it was used as a sort of put-down or ridicule, the way "politically correct" is used to refer to ideas the speaker detests. This custom persists; European political discourse invariably proposes a good, "European" idea; and offers an "American" idea as the monstrous counterpoint. "American" motives are always squalid; European motives are always noble and righteous. When Europeans behave in ways that disgust other Europeans, they are inclined to accuse that person of being "Americanized." Even bad ideas that undeniably come from Europe, like the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, are imputed to the USA. The subtext arises from the most jaundiced reading of radical ideas, viz., that they stem from an overweening and self-serving reflex. European accounts of the American Revolution treat it as an immense tax evasion scam, with insufferable pretensions of moral invigoration. This led to mockery of Europeans who had once applauded the Revolution as a new leaf for mankind ("How now, Lord Fox, still the American?").

The interesting thing about revolutionary federations is that they typically take the name of a part, rather than something of which they are a part. The vernacular term for the Netherlands is "Holland," the name of two provinces there. But the Dutch ruthlessly expropriated the name of the entire Low Countries for themselves, leaving the rest of the former Spanish Netherlands (AKA Belgium and Luxembourg) with the graceless regional term "Benelux."2 The Confoederatio Helvetica is known by the name of one canton, Schwyz (hence, Switzerland). The modern republic of Austria (Österreich) is actually a federation of länder, of which only two are named "Österreich" (neither includes Vienna!). Mexico is the name of a very small state in the nation of Mexico; it's also the name of the confederation of Toltec-speaking tribes whose empire covered a third of the land area of modern Mexico (the country). Western names for Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó use the defunct ancient "duchy" of Qin (Ch'in) as a toponym for China; the domestic name of Zhōnghuá ("Middle State") refers to the region between the Changjiang and Huanghe Rivers, or less than a third of the actual land area of contemporary China. The Orwellian name Eastasia would be more geographically accurate than either China or Zhōnghuá, but highly irritating to Burmese, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese.
The problem of the missing toponym/demonym is shared by another federal entity, known formally as the European Union. The membership of the EU has grown to include 27 countries and a population of 490 million. Its GDP, at $12.8 trillion (2007 PPP) is almost identical in size to that of the United States of You-Know-Where. It has spawned many efforts to rally the national spirit into a new "European identity," which would ultimately overtake existing national identities (i.e., German, Dutch, Maltese, Spanish, Bulgarian...). However, 711 million people live in the continent of Europe—in other words, 221 million non-EU Europeans.

And unlike the 1790's, when usage of "American" as a US demonym became widespread, today there is no question that it is EU member states that are the leading offenders. Today, "Europe" means the EU. Margaret Thatcher's quote, "They are not more European than we are. They are just more federal," was a vain sally against the tide of language. Those hostile to this or that aspect of federation are said to be "Europhobic"; those who are slavishly in favor of even horrid centralizing schemes call themselves "pro-European," and seethe at the perfidy of European voters who say no. This is especially cruel, in my opinion, to the Swiss, Norwegians, Croatians, Serbs, Ukrainians, Russians, and others who are passionately in love with Europe (the continent), and are excluded even as antagonists.

A demonym is readily at hand, and its need is obvious: the most important routine relations of the EU member states are with neighboring European countries, from Switzerland to Croatia. It's conceivable that a couple of members might ultimately chose to drop out, allowing the future union to adopt more robust centralized control. The greater cohesion and sense of ideological commitment would restore, I suspect, an element of idealism that has been missing in the last 15 years of the EU's history. But the EU citizenry would have to adapt to a world in which expressions of effusive "European" patriotism will be damaging to the public image. This will create a pragmatic need for something distinctive from the rest of the continent.

Things or people of the EU might be referred to as Eurovian. French nationals of the future might appeal to their Eurovian solidarity with Italians or Finns. There would be a Eurovian history that began with the Treaty of Rome in 1950; this would be cleansed of the nasty bits of European history that occurred before that date, such as wars among Eurovian member states (or "polities," as I suspect they might prefer to be called in the future). The use of Eurovian would never be used as a substitute for "Europe"; there would never any such thing as a "Eurovian Union" or "Eurovia." At worst, such barbarisms might appear in political cartoons, but only to mock certain foreign heads of state.

The ability of European countries to embrace such linguistic novelties has long been remarked upon. This power over language could be leveraged by the European Ministry of Retributive Semiotics (EMRS) to impose the use of "Usonian" as the adjective for things and persons of the United States. So far, this usage has been confined to Esperanto and the writings of Frank Lloyd Wright. The constructions I've mentioned above seem deliberately ugly and difficult to pronounce; worse, they make cognates in different languages rare. Some nationalistic Latin Americans might be pleased that their least favorite country has an unpronouncable name, but the sheer inconvenience has meant that, with ubiquitous US culture, the easy-to-say, linguistically universal, "American" wins out. Even in Magyar and Basque, not to mention Arabic, Russian, Japanese, and German, the preferred demonym sounds something like "American."

But the EMRS would be uniquely capable of thwarting this Yanqui cultural imperialism. EMRS would be able to establish the neutral and impeccably fair "Usonian" as the correct term. Europe does enjoy utterly indestructible cultural prestige; in contrast, even those addicted to higher forms of US culture, like the writing of William Faulkner, are somewhat embarrassed about it. Why pretend that Usonians have a monopoly on free will?

Usonians don't benefit from being called "Americans"; as a practical matter, ordinary US citizens suffer a cost in resentment. Even if my ancestors took a certain pride in "owning" the word, I see it as a random and dangerous accident of history. I suspect its use (in Europe) was actually meant as a put-down of US-sympathetic Europeans, which caught on among lower class Europeans who immigrated here, both before and after the passage. As migration became routine (even for individual European-Usonians), the term lost any ideological baggage. In the fullness of time, people for whom the USA served a practical function spoke of it often as a literal place—not some fantasy or Miltonic pandemonia, but just another place. Applied to individuals, "America" was just a person with US nationality, not a conscious apostle of John Locke.

The restoration of that political baggage, with the rest of the steamship (and iceberg, to boot) was fated to happen when the USA ventured into the superpower business. The others remembered their unfinished resentments from the 18th century as if no time had passed in between. US nationals were either adherents of the whole enterprise, or else "anti-American." The option of being an American with an opinion about the good and the just was no longer available. But someone against, say, the existence of popes is a contra-pope. An anti-pope is an alternative, and rival, pope—not someone opposed to popes. A Frenchman opposed to the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy is not anti-French; he isn't even anti-French if he's anti-capitalism or a teetotaling vegan. He's just a French teetotaling vegan. There were French opponents of Napoleon and French Bonapartists, French Petainists and French Trotskyists. But it is "Americans" who are obligated to approve of certain institutions or certain arrangements... and despise certain enemies.

These labels can be a tyranny unless they are objective, and they can be objective only if they are accurate.
1 The Continental Congress launched an invasion of the future Canada in 1775, as part of its plan to force a speedy settlement of the Revolution. This was a debacle, as French Canadians did not rally to the Continental Congress.

The second attempt, in August 1812, was an unmitigated disaster. In the United States, the war with Great Britain was so unpopular that New England teetered constantly on the brink of secession. The federation existing at the time was so decentralized and weak there was nothing remotely like a unified command, or even serious deliberation on the war—since the federal government was virtually powerless to stop the territorial militia.

2 In case there is any confusion, this is said tongue in cheek. The revolution that created the Netherlands was in 1578; that which created Switzerland, 1291; Austria, October 1918. Prior to the Revolution of 1911, the official name of China was the "Qing (Ch'ing) Empire," which—except for the now-lapsed inclusion of Outer Mongolia—is the most geographically accurate name of all. To make it the most offensive of the four, in 1911 the Qing Empire did not include Taiwan.

Yankee: while I find the epithet "Yankee" deeply aggravating, those who use it lose any pretense at wit or measured effrontery. The term is more likely to be used by US nationals like me making fun of fanatical loathing of us, than by actual Latinos speaking in earnest. It's like beginning a harangue with the caveat, "I know I must sound like a defeated, humiliated, inarticulate fool, but..."

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home