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July 25, 2005

Will the real Americans please stand up?

Once in a while, the media decides to find out what the "real" America thinks about some major issue that is consuming the national media.

I can immediately predict what they will do. They will send a reporter out to somewhere in the mid-west, say Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska, and that reporter will go to a small town or rural area, and interview some people there. And typically, the person interviewed will be white, middle-aged, middle-class, religious and church-going, and having a conventional occupation (teacher, home-maker, small businessperson).

These are supposed to be the "real" Americans, who represent the true values of the country.

I always wondered about this particular journalistic cliche. What is it, exactly, that makes this particular group more truly representative of the country, more credible as speaking for the nation than, say, an elderly, white, New York City shopkeeper or an atheist black doctor in Mississippi or a young Hispanic farmer in Arizona?

I don't think that the reasoning behind this choice is purely demographic and statistical. It may be that if we do a multiple slicing of the entire population according to color, age, class, religion, geography, and occupation, the group singled out for journalistic preference might come out as slight more populous than other groups. I am not even sure if that is true but I think it is irrelevant.

The point is that it has become an ingrained part of conventional wisdom that this particular grouping has some special claim to speak for the country as a whole. It is as if there is a sense that "true" Americans are those who look as if they could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

This comes back to a point made earlier in my previous posting where I argued that this idea that one segment of the population are the rightful heirs to a country and that others are "allowed" to be there is a notion that can ultimately lead to chauvinism and conflict, as can be seen in the experience of other countries. In my native Sri Lanka, there is the feeling that it is the Sinhala Buddhist majority who somehow represent the "true" Sri Lanka, and this sentiment has been the source of endless political and social unrest.

So the question is, can we define a "real American"? Is it just any citizen? Is it a citizen who was also born here? Or does it also require one to adhere to a certain set of beliefs and values? Does it depend on your physical appearance? Or is the whole exercise of searching for the "real" Americans simply pointless and should be abandoned?

I suggest that that we should reject that kind of thinking altogether, along with corresponding journalistic tropes such as the "American heartland." They serve no useful purpose and only serve create divisions and hierarchies.

POST SCRIPT

The following is a notice from Case for Peace of which I am a member:

Film: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire
Date: Wednesday, July 27, 2005,
Time: 7:00 PM
Where: Peace House, 10916 Magnolia Drive, University Circle (near the parking entrance to the Auto Museum).
Admission: I believe that there is no admission charge.
Duration: full version 64 minutes (accompanied in DVD format by abridged version and additional footage). To be projected in full screen mode, followed by discussion.

Cleveland Peace Action invites you to view this remarkable film that documents how a radical fringe of the Republican Party used the trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks to advance a pre-existing agenda to radically transform American foreign policy while rolling back civil liberties and social programs at home.

The documentary places the Bush Administration's false justifications for the war in Iraq within the larger contrast of a two-decade struggle by neo-conservatives to dramatically increase military spending in the wake of the Cold War, and to expand American power globally by means of force. At the same time, the commentary explains how the Administration has sold this radical and controversial plan for aggressive American military intervention by deliberately manipulating intelligence, political imagery, and the fears of the American people.

The film is produced by The Media Education Foundation, narrated by Julian Bold, and features interviews with Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, Scott Ritter, Daniel Ellsberg, Jody Williams, Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, and many others.

Produced before the 2004 election, this is film is particularly relevant now as a public education tool, since more information is being widely revealed about the background preceding the war.

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Tracked: July 29, 2005 07:52 AM

Comments

One of my favorite features of The Onion (which used to be a local paper for my town!) is their parody of the "Real America" trope, the "What Do You Think?" feature, which gives the opinions of six imaginary people every week; the names and occupations change, but the stereotyped diversity-in-cross-section remains constant (you know - the kind of "diversity" where they start with "white male around 30," and each face differs from that "standard" by at most one bit).

Posted by Erin on July 25, 2005 09:48 AM

It is too hot to go outside, but since I live in Ohio, the Heart of it All, I figured I can just get on my computer and find the real America.

I simply searched for "real america" on Google, that's right no capital letters.

I found Zogby International's publication, The Real America, which contains the results of Zogby's polls and surveys. Apparently they think the Real America is statistical and from a small sample they can tell how the whole country feels. I tend to agree with that notion.

I also found a book written by syndicated talk show host, Glenn Beck. Never heard of him? Me either. This excerpt is from his webpage.


After reading “The Real America,” you’ll understand:
* How we’ve been tricked into allowing “Temptation Island 3” into our homes
* Why political correctness has turned us all into liars
* What Doritos and CNN have in common
* How Jesse Jackson and Yasser Arafat are the same person
* Who’s really responsible for your fast food & Oreo addiction
* And maybe some other stuff…

Mr. Beck makes the Real America look ignorant.

I did however find a shining example of what you wrote about Dr. Singham, a Washington Post article that interviewed an Oklahoma family with a gay 17 year-old son. Poor guy has probably been counting down to his 18th birthday to get out and visit some of the more placid, fake America.

The most interesting part of my Internet search for "Real America", in my honest opinion was the fact that out of 50 links displayed to me only 3 were not trying to sell me something. If I were a journalist I would wait at home until a telemarketer called me and ask them questions. They are more American than anyone, willing to barge into your house to sell you things you do not need.

Posted by Justin Rich on July 25, 2005 05:03 PM

Mano, I just had to comment on the title of your entry. Professor Singham making an Eminem reference- who knew? :)

Posted by Katie on July 25, 2005 11:03 PM

I think the "real Americans" trope is an occaisional recognition by the major national media that 98.7% (give or take) of the time their stories focus on a very small sliver of the country - the residents of a handful of large cities. Their half-hearted, rather head-patting semi-apology for this is to term everyone in flyover country "real Americans".

Posted by Jason on July 30, 2005 11:11 PM