Tell Me About Me: A Reflection on Identity in Europe and America

Sarajevo. Image source

Short on history, long on freedom?

Sorry to break it to you, but you are your (long) past. Your identity, in part, is determined by history as everything that exists today is built upon what has come before; We are living on the ideas and with the DNA of all that has already come to pass.

Self-representation, like genetics, tells the narrative of where we’ve been, where we are, and to some extent, where we are going. On the one hand, a deep history undergirds a strong sense of identity. On the other, it can tie you up in the shackles of retribution politics, long-standing animosity, and racial/ political/ ethnic tensions.

During my travels through Eastern Europe, I’ve been struck by questions related to the themes of deep history and its influence on identity:

  • Why does nationalism still usurp a collective sense of Europeanism (despite the EU, Schengen, Erasmus, the ease and extent of travel among young people)?
  • Why do we consistently see a pendulum swing between progressive and retrograde political ideas (i.e., the re-rise of autocratic-like governance: Russia, Hungary, Poland; Openness and Isolationism)?
  • Isn’t it awesome that smoking is still seen as cool in the Balkans? (Or, the tension between Westernization and Central + Eastern European culture, especially as it plays out among young, urban, university-educated folk)

My supposition: The longer the history (of a place or group of people) the more defined identity may be, and the less room there is for deviation from the past (as a general long-term trend). [1]

He made art and was made from it. Kazuo Shiraga, Japanese modern artist who belonged to the Gutai group of avant-garde artists. Image source

People like to know where they are from and what they are made of.

In particular, I’ve noticed how ingrained the history of place and culture can be. The urban, university-educated Europeans I’ve met, so far, care for national identity in a way I haven’t experienced before; There is deep-rooted pride in where they come from. Compared to Americans, they seem to hold a greater appreciation for history — their history — though they may not express it so pointedly.

Their comprehension makes it apparent: They have a clear understanding of their country’s narrative (key events, major players, political implications, etc.), their recount of history is communicated subtly, in ambivalent terms, and they discuss today’s climate in lieu of the past.

I get the sense that there is an intense desire towards preservation and remembrance of history in places that have had a dynamic past. Essentially, where there has been a vastness of tumult — expansion and contraction, hostile takeovers, obliteration, occupation, migration, dynasties, and other existential determinants — the desire for recording and understanding is greater. Coincidentally, in the deep past, conquering parties would often burn the libraries of a newly acquired city, attempting to erase the accumulated knowledge (the history) of the people. For the record: People don’t like being obliterated.

In contrast, without a history anything is possible. A clean slate provides a new beginning and the end of history all in one fell swoop. European tribes have had to consistently grapple with foreign influences on their homeland, which means there has been a constant fight for the preservation of identity. They have been accustomed to this battle, and psychology says that whatever you invest yourself in acquires more meaning for you.

As an extension, the Europeans I’ve spoken with seem to bind their cultural history with personal identity. It means more. Rationally, people recognize that history doesn’t need to shape their actions today, but it’s in the bullet holes dotting the buildings, in the amino acids of the body, in the shared memories and folktales.

Ultimately, it is the nuanced uniqueness of each group that provides meaning — what I perceive to be minute differences among cultures are actually subtle clues into what comprises national or ethnic identity. [2]

The (many) American flags. Image source

America, land of the “free.”

Compared to Europe, America doesn’t have a deep history [3]; Our culture is not an accretion of millennia-old influences, and this confers a certain freedom.

America’s own narrative follows a relatively simple trajectory flowing from a consistent, dominant, homogenous authorship. In our modern telling, the ethos flows from a single-lensed position: Of rich, white men of power and white supremacy; Of conquering barbaric natives and the import of lesser-than “Others”; Of cowboys and colonizers of nature; Of self-sufficiency; Of exceptionalism; Of domination; Of manifest destiny. This monotone-ism combined with a shorter history likely contributes to our simplistic view of our own past.

European lands been muddied by wars, border disputes, ideological conflicts, etc. America hasn’t had to grapple with the idea of its (fragile) existence in several centuries. We haven’t been forced to consider our sense of identity in an existential way:

  • Since the Revolutionary War, we haven’t faced a meaningful invasion (physically, ideologically, or otherwise).
  • We’ve experienced one-off terrorist events and been attacked as an act of war, but we haven’t been subjugated under a foreign power (or even grappled with the threat) since our incorporation.
  • The Civil War provided the greatest hazard to a cohesive identity, and it has reinforced perhaps the most fundamental differentiation in ideologies in the country, that between liberalism and conservatism (which extends to personal liberties, economics, social affairs, etc.) — and, of course, this is not unique to America. [4]
  • There has been no fundamental shift in the power or economic structure (we never really had an aristocracy or caste system to overcome, there is still a two party system, anarchism and communism has not posed a meaningful threat on the soil or in the Senate, monopolism is a natural outcome of capitalism, etc.).

All of this to say, America has had a cohesive existence relative to Europe. [5]

**Please note: I am not saying everything is copacetic in the U.S.! For an advanced nation we are shockingly backwards in certain respects: We are a highly segregated society, racist, violent, have a massive prison population, limited upward social mobility, etc.**

I exhort you, Sisyphus, break from your past (or be doomed to repeat it). Image source

Reinvention may just be freedom from the past.

America was built on the foundation of re-invention: The first colonies were established with the purpose of finding gold (Virginia) and establishing religious paradise (New England). That is integral to our implicit understanding of ourselves and the way we make our way through the world; We are free to constantly re-create our identity. [6]

Given our short history and relatively peaceful existence, Americans seem to have less concern for their own history. [7] We have less mystery in our story because it is all laid bare in modern records, we don’t really have a mythology. We do wave flags, elect a President to “Make America Great Again,” and take pride in being “Number 1,” but what does it actually mean to be American? What have we done, as individuals, to maintain continuity in our story, to build on the narrative?

If you don’t care about your past, can you really be concerned with self-preservation? Do we know what we stand for? Can we identify what is truly worth fighting for?

[1] A longer history equates to more time for the neuronal pathways of society to be reinforced, and hence, these habits are harder to break.

[2] I.e., the similar vodka-like “Rakija” in Serbia and Croatia, and “Palinka’ in Hungary. Cheeses, yogurts, pepper spreads across the Balkans, much the same just with different names.

[3] We are a young country, relatively speaking, and in the modern narrative, we largely ignore the natives and geographic past.

[4] Jonathan Haidt in “The Righteous Mind” argues that progressivism and conservatism are two of the most fundamental differences that exist among the human species.

[5] With a murkier background, I wonder if Europeans are more comfortable with ambiguity and ambivalence?

[6] This, in part, may help to explain our advantage in entrepreneurship.

[7] How different would our sense of self be if we had been continuously invaded and conquered by, say, Mexico or Canada?

Thanks to Christian Russo for reviewing and providing feedback on a draft of this post.