Watching the state of affairs in the US over the past few months has left many of us in a state of paralysis. Our hearts have bled for the millions of American lives lost to COVID. The violent imagery of George Floyd’s last breath and subsequent violent riots and protests have poured across our screens. From an Australian perspective, it seems America has never been more politically and socially divided. One might argue that Americans have lost the connective national tissue which once bound them together.
In spite of the recent social and political upheaval we are observing within the United States, it is important to keep in mind that socio-cultural movements are nothing new for the American people. A glance at US history depicts numerous movements which have fought to uphold and actualise the rights of minorities. I argue that the social movements bubbling within America today such as Black Lives Matter do not undermine the notion of an American identity, rather they demonstrate the attempt of modern Americans to live up to the founding values of their nation. In this way, movements of social change can help the United States move closer towards actualising the hopes and dreams that the American founding fathers had for a new nation.
American national identity is built upon the unique and radical founding of the United States. Unlike nations whose identity is based on shared ethnicity and ancestry, America was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” Though at the time of America’s founding, these admirable ideals were not realised for most citizens, American history has steadily embraced and began to live up to the freedoms expressed in seminal founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S Constitution. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as men who enabled America to live up to their founding commitments by abolishing slavery and segregation. While America has never been perfectly aligned with its founding values, what appears to bind Americans together is a dedication to see the United States lives up to its founding values.
The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. Racism is one of these barriers that is deeply rooted within American history. The United States will always contend with the harsh reality that while European colonists could claim an American identity, people trafficked as slaves from Africa were not entitled to the same privileges. The practice of slavery continued in the United States until 1865 with the introduction of the 13th Amendment. Following this, black Americans endured an entire century of racial persecution and discrimination before the promises of the Civil War were realised. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaimed universal liberty, such documents coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans. Despite an increasingly diverse US population and racial progress [evidenced through achievements such as the election of Barak Obama, the first African American president], some Americans argue that there is an entrenched racial component to American identity that divides whites and non-whites.
Building upon historic injustices against African Americans, The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the core of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. Black Lives Matter demonstrates a powerful message: African Americans, like all Americans, long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism in the United States have prevented African Americans from accessing this promise. American citizens responsible for discriminating and continuing to exclude African Americans from the benefits of American identity are contradicting the very values which underpin American identity. In this way, the plight of members of the African American community throughout history expresses a pattern: the continuous attempt to reconcile society with the country’s founding values.
Social change in the United States has improved the freedoms of its people, reconciling the US with its founding principles and helping to evoke the true sense of what it means to be American.
In light of the ongoing 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, China’s ceremonial parliament has voted to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to enact dramatic national security legislation. According to the Chinese government, these new laws are intended to crackdown on ‘secessionist and subversive activity … terrorism and foreign interference’. Beijing has previously blamed the lack of a national security law for last year’s alarming anti-extradition protests. However, activists remain concerned that these laws will undermine civil liberties and bring an end to Hong Kong’s unique partial autonomy.
Hong Kong is currently governed under a “one country, two systems” model underpinned by two key documents: The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These established China’s rule over Hong Kong – subject to significant caveats including the continuation of British capitalism, maintenance of the common law, protection of civil liberties and an understanding that Beijing would not directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from the city’s 1997 handover. Significantly, Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact national security legislation “on its own.”
While details about the application of these new security laws remain unclear, they clearly encroach upon Hong Kong’s existing autonomy from China. The ‘crimes’ stipulated in the security laws have vague definitions and could potentially include any attempts to voice dissent against the Government. Such laws may also lead to widespread arrests on arbitrary political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. If these reforms are unable to bridge the divide between Hong Kongers and Beijing, then Hong Kong may remain a tinderbox of revolt for years to come.
The enactment of this legislation has prompted wide-spread criticism from international actors such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. In the United States, the Trump Administration has announced that it will no longer treat Hong Kong as being autonomous from the Chinese mainland as a result of Beijing’s latest intervention. In addition to the political ramifications, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is now in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair compared to China’s. These features make Hong Kong an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. Any erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech risks undermining this appeal.
Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would strip Hong Kong of its special privileges, China’s state media have taken aim at the US by comparing #BlackLivesMatter protests with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A commentary published in China Daily – a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party – said US politicians should do their jobs and help solve problems in the US, instead of trying to create new problems and troubles in other countries.
Chinese attempts to equate protesting in some US cities with wide-spread calls for democracy and freedom from China in Hong Kong are disingenuous and politically-motivated. At this critical time, it is important that Western media outlets critically assess China’s claims and report them for what they are. Racial tensions in the US and Chinese interventions in Hong Kong are entirely seperate issues. Failure to recognise these clear differences and blind acceptance of CCP rhetoric plays right into Beijing’s hand and may cost the people of Hong Kong their freedom.
National identity refers to a shared belief among a group of individuals that they form a cohesive whole due to shared history, connection to a territory and common distinctive characteristics. Within modern America there are some who question the existence of a national identity. Others argue that while a shared American identity currently exists, social division and fragmentation will result in the demise of US national identity. Contrary to such views, national identity in the United States has proven to be resilient throughout history and plays an important role in continuing to unify a diverse population.
The US was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” This identity is exemplified in American leaders and seminal texts such as the Declaration of Independence, The U.S Constitution and Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’ s “I Have a Dream” speech. US national identity continues to be comprised of America’s founding ideals, evidenced through the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and volunteerism.
Puritan settler John Winthrop conceived of America as a “city on a hill,” a distinct place with a heaven-sent obligation to build a new world. In the aftermath of the War of Independence, many citizens agreed that Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and distinct from other nations.” Today, many Americans continue to perceive their nation in this exceptional light. In the era following World War II, America has made strides to become the world’s economic, military and cultural hegemon. US exceptionalism is further predicated on American’s strong tradition of successful immigration. Since its founding, America has been the ‘nation of nations’ and a refuge for the poor, oppressed and persecuted; sentiments which are inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. In 1858, Lincoln stated that when immigrants internalised the creed that “all men are created equal,” they “have a right to claim it as though they were blood and flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence.” Today, immigration continues to be largely supported by both major political parties. In contrast to much of Europe, America has no major political party calling for ethno-cultural policies that would see a ban on immigration. These combined factors afford Americans a world-leading standard of living. Such standards outrank all other countries of major size and geopolitical importance. US history of post-WWII dominance and leadership on the international stage has reinforced and magnified traditional conceptions of American exceptionalism: a core aspect of American national identity.
A long-standing tradition of volunteerism is another hallmark of American national identity based on the founding values of personal responsibility, moralism and equality of opportunity. It was Benjamin Franklin who formed the first volunteer fire department in 1736, and many American militias during the Revolutionary War were comprised of volunteers. Some of the most well-known American charitable organizations, such as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, date back to the 19th century. Writing about his travels through the US in the 1830s, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville frequently commented on Americans’ tendency to form voluntary civil associations. He was impressed by their desire to come together with their friends and neighbours to accomplish community goals. Today, this same tradition of civic duty and community development is exemplified by the 40% of Americans who actively volunteer their time. This figure sets the United States apart as one the most philanthropic nations in the world. The strong culture and history of volunteerism in the United States lives on today and continues to enable a highly diverse population to unite around shared goals and common purpose.
Another aspect of American national identity with particular relevance today is the concept of the American Dream. This refers to the belief that anyone can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. Imbued with a sense of community, the Dream speaks to people of all races, ethnicities and cultures. The Pilgrims realised this dream, imagining a new destiny for themselves as did the founding fathers. In the 1830’s de Tocqueville observed the ‘charm of anticipated success’ in American society and his research led him to discover that this same optimistic outlook existed among the European colonists some 200 years’ prior. The American Dream is an elastic element which continues to be a defining element of American identity in the 21st century. Athletes invoke it during championship games, immigrants leave their homes in search of it and aspiring politicians appeal to it as a basis for their candidacies. From its earliest settlers to its most recent arrivals, the shared hope and aspiration at the heart of the American Dream is a key component of American identity.
The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaim universal liberty, such documents have coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans and women. Despite immense social progress, some Americans argue that racism and sexism continue to divide American societies. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the centre of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. The #MeToo movement similarly draws upon the historic injustices encountered by American women while also raising awareness of the contemporary experiences of sexual abuse survivors. The movement exemplifies the intention of American women to seek freedom from barriers of sexual exploitation they experience, which currently prevent them from realising the full effects of freedom, equality and the hope implicit within the American Dream.
These movements both symbolise a powerful message: all Americans long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism and sexism in the United States have prevented people from accessing these promises. In Gunnar Myrdal’s description, America has represented the ideals—not the perfect execution—of liberty. Therefore, contest within the United States does not undermine the concept of US national identity, rather the ongoing quest for greater freedom within America attempts to reconcile society with the country’s founding values, emphasising the continued relevance of core aspects of American identity: liberty, equality and hope.
American national identity is broad enough to encompass all citizens, yet powerful enough to establish a shared connection between Americans, their country and their national aspirations. Though the United States will continue to face pressure to change, American identity will remain consistent and will continue to uphold the shared culture, ideals and values which founded America.
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Armstrong, Joslyn. “A Dream Deferred: How Discrimination Impacts the American Dream Achievement for African Americans.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 50, no. 3 (2019): 227–250.
Bone, Martyn. “City on a Hill.” Dictionary of American History, vol. 2 (2003): 184.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (Oxford University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central 2014.
Devos, Thierry and Hafsa, Mohamed. “Shades of American Identity: Implicit Relations between Ethnic and National Identities.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 8, no. 12 (2014): 739-54.
D. Lavy, Marvell. “Volunteerism in America.” Contract Management 45, no. 8, Aug (2005): 65-69.
Erickson, Bradley M. ” Understanding American Identity: An Introduction.” Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, California, 2017.
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2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.
At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.
Warnings from Hungary
Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?
Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies
Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.
Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.
Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.
Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.