Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

How immigrants can help us better understand American identity

As Americans we link our national story to the Founding Fathers, the founding documents, and a brave history of rebellion against foreign rule. We look back to our national history to identify who we are now.



By Ajit Maan


By Ajit Maan
Best Defense guest columnist

As Americans we link our national story to the Founding Fathers, the founding documents, and a brave history of rebellion against foreign rule. We look back to our national history to identify who we are now.

But the history that “counts” as part of our national story is selective. We don’t “count” Japanese internment or institutionalized racism, for example, as part of our identity. These are “unfortunate” parts of our history, but not representational parts of our story. That is how unifying story construction works, by selecting all the history that hangs together with consistency under the title that defines it.

Many Americans can’t find a way to reconcile the inconsistency between our heroic narrative and the realities of our history and our recently altered present. “Who are we?” Ross Douthat asked recently in a thoughtful piece in the New York Times. He suggested that while a unifying story about American identity may not be possible, it is precisely what is essential now: “Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged,” Douthat wrote.

This is where the specter of the immigrant can lead the way. Immigrants and other cultural nomads demonstrate a different more adaptable way of dealing with conflict, not by attempting to unify conflicting realities but by identifying with the conflict itself. They demonstrate and embody an ontology that does not fit under any one totalizing grand narrative. They exist in between what are often incommensurable realities. Theirs is not a narrative; it is an inter-narrative.

The notion of inter-narrative has much to offer Americans now. It is a way forward, out of cognitive dissonance toward a learned capacity to hold competing truths together at the same time because those inconsistent truths reflect reality in a way that an artificially unified story does not.

Douthat attempts to answer the question, “Who Are We?” by lamenting that a unifying story is necessary but perhaps not possible. I am suggesting that a unifying story is always possible but requires some degree of repression. The alternative is to tell a story about the inconsistency. And the capacity and ability to do so is useful during social conflict and in peace building.

Ajit Maan is President of Narrative Strategies, author of Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, and Co-Editor of Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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