Liam Cowley

How united is the USA?

Liam, a final year History and Political Science student at Trinity College Dublin, is particularly passionate about modern Irish political history as well as national and European current affairs. A member of the Bringing Europeans Together Association, Liam has participated in dozens of Model European Union, European Youth Parliament and Young European Leadership conferences since 2011. Liam has been politically active in his local community and at university in relation to campaigning on EU treaty referenda, austerity measures and Irish reunification, among other matters. Coordinator of his Students’ Union’s 1916 Rising centenary commemorative program, Liam values the powerful impact that past events and individuals can have on the present and the future. A keen supporter of Dublin GAA and a tour guide of his native city, Liam has a deep affection for Dublin and the diverse range of people that have contributed so much to the city’s millennium-long story.

 

Student
Liam Cowley

University
Trinity College Dublin

Degree
History and Political Science

Work Placement
Congressman Joe Crowley

Host Family
Maureen Donnelly

Date Published
July 10, 2017

This is my first time in the United States. It is also my first time in a country with a population of 350 million. It is territorially the largest state that I have ever visited. The influence of the US (in culture, politics, economics, social values and many other areas) on the minds and lives of Irish youth, and Europeans more broadly, is probably not truly recognised or appreciated by most Americans. Saturation of our lives by much of that which is called ‘American’ without ever needing to set foot in the place is likely to be beyond what many Americans could imagine. Certainly if another country had as much influence over American affairs and the thoughts of Americans as America has over Ireland, I’d imagine most Americans would not stand for it and the infamous Second Amendment would be very readily and eagerly utilised en masse. Perhaps I’d be proven wrong and a surprising number of Americans would accept externally originating soft and hard diktats (provided they occur in tandem with sensitivity to the arguably non-fundamental peculiarities of American society, like peanut butter, apple sauce, baseball and franchise restaurants).

I am very aware that during my nine weeks here, while hugely beneficial for getting an insight into the way the militarily and economically strongest state functions, I am experiencing but a sliver of America geographically and in terms of the types of people with whom I am most frequently meeting and having interactions. Having an internship in Capitol Hill provides very welcome chances to encounter greater diversity of thoughts, politics and voices from across America. My time to date on the Hill has also allowed me to see the extent to which talk of growing divisions in American society is replicated at high political levels. The deadlock as far as attempts to pass legislation is concerned is evidence that the country is indeed divided, with divisions very much present not only between the two traditional parties, but also within them.

Something that I have been thinking about increasingly since my arrival here is the question of how the US at a very basic level has managed to endure as a single nation for over 200 years and the concept of being American has been open to all sorts of people of a multiplicity of backgrounds and outlooks. The truth, I believe, is much more complicated than that. I would tentatively suggest the US, like all countries in which the individual’s profit-motive exists at the apex of a society’s value system, is a country divided between a class that really and knowingly owns the country, a much larger group (‘the middle class) that mistakenly believes its own the country in a universalist kind of way and a marginalised section that realises it does not have any shares in the country and, all things continuing as they are, never will. I am increasingly of the view that title deeds to define ‘America’ and ‘American’ have forever been contested and the present talk of a divided country is nothing new, but rather a natural development and acceleration of the arguably inevitable for a state that I believe has long struggled to define itself, its people and its missions towards itself and the world at large.

My obsession with history (and crucially the goodwill of Maureen Donnelly, and Pat and John Greco) brought me to Gettysburg and Mount Vernon. I have visited the many memorials to American soldiers and leaders throughout D.C. I spent a Sunday afternoon in Arlington Cemetery, seeing JFK’s large plot, the tomb of the ‘unknown soldier’, the Women in Military Service for America memorial and the gently rolling green fields surrounding the former home of Robert E. Lee where the remains of hundreds of thousands who went to their deaths for their ideal of America lie. I have also learnt much from partaking in tours of Capitol Hill. Being on the National Mall for the Fourth of July fireworks display also provided an insight into America, its history and how some Americans understand their national identity. Cheers of ‘USA!’ on the Fourth below the Washington Monument indicate pride in the difficult-to-define-thing that is this country. Cries of ‘USA!’ also indicate why so-called ‘narrow’ nationalism will always have a dominant place in America culturally, politically and economically. As Mr. President says, and as his electorate agree, ‘America First!’ Regardless of calls from liberal politicians and their base for Americans to move clearly and explicitly towards a more ‘tolerant’, all-embracing society, the ingrained ‘USA!’ mentality will ensure such a battle is near-doomed before it even gets seriously underway.

At the heart of the question about the unity of the USA is the story of the formation of the state and the beliefs of those who founded it. Establishment America and those who subscribe to its narrative put forth a view of America to its own people and the wider world that the US’ existence is founded on maximising the ideal of liberty, combined with providing and safeguarding ‘inalienable’ human rights. That message should of course be easy to sell. If a table existed that measured effectiveness of nations’ self-branding, the US would be doing very well. That is, if the complicated truth of American history and awareness of it did not muddy the clean marketing image of liberty and rights. Marketing only works when slogans and buzzwords can be backed up by track records and past actions.

For two groups of people, in particular, in this country, it is obvious to see how the state’s rhetoric towards its own past can be felt as little more than insults. One group is the African-American community. That the great fight against tyranny and for freedom only little more than 200 years ago was for the benefit of a pre-determined, specific section of the population in this land who saw no contradiction in taking their new won freedom to maintain a tyranny of their own over a kidnapped, brutalised, dehumanised and enslaved people, while simultaneously announcing that ‘all men are created equal’ cannot but leave many greatly disillusioned with this country’s raison d’etre. In one sense, the American Revolution may perhaps be somewhat comparable to Rhodesia’s UDI or northern unionists’ talk of breaking from Britain so as to not be obliged to provide Catholics with civil liberties provided for in 1960s and 70s Britain. If the issue of this country’s acceptance of slavery could be forgiven as a tragic blunder by people who did not know any better, the seizure of lands belonging to Native Americans and genocide of Native Americans, as well as long-lasting systematic state oppression of and discrimination against indigenous peoples is so wholly contradictory to the projected view of the American Revolution as a fight for freedom and liberty as to make the American Revolution and the American Dream little more than shams. I absolutely appreciate the principles that led to the Declaration of Independence and the desire to end Westminster’s rule in America, but the inconsistency that exists between supposed efforts to achieve a new, rights-based society and continued enslavement of kidnapped peoples and land-grabbing and murder campaigns against natives is too glaring to accept the bona fides of America’s ‘freedom fighters’ and founding thinkers.

The course of American history post-‘independence’ illustrates that the system at work here is very much at work for an elite cohort. Every generation of the top bracket in order to keep the money wheels spinning, has seen that rights are gradually extended once such rights are diluted to the point of possessing no threat to the economic system while benefiting in the public view from polishing the social-issue veneer that disguises the core of the great clash between the haves and have nots. If a country is too endure long time, I believe something more fundamentally and organically common to all people of the nation than pledging allegiance to a cloth must be found. The question remains: How long will it take for the inherent rot in the roots to, if ever, fully contaminate and destroy the surface level façade?