Discovering, Again, the Meaning of “American”

In his essay, “The discovery of what it means to be an American,” James Baldwin described how
his exile in Paris led him to new self-knowledge about his national identity. Baldwin left the US to
survive what he called “the color problem,” but was surprised to find he shared a sense of being
“not at home” with white Americans in Europe. He was American in ways he had not realized. Exile
afforded him intellectual freedom, but his growing consciousness of the French-Algerian war led him
to understand that “there are no untroubled countries in this fearfully troubled world.” Leaving home
gives one only temporary relief from ambiguity, responsibility, and identity.
I read Baldwin’s essay for the first time on September 10. Resident in the United States for eight
years and five days, I had recently moved from New York City (CUNY) to New Haven (Yale). Facing
decisions about moving back to Europe, I read Baldwin mindful of the differences between us, but
surprised at how much I shared his sense of being “not at home.” On September 13, I had to teach my
second class at Yale. Shaken though I was by the suicide attacks of September 11, I came to realize
that week how my own sense of self depended, in very real ways, upon the intellectual work of
teaching, and upon teaching queer theory in particular.
Queer theory is always about categorization: how we knit up events into categories in our
language and social practice, yet treat categories as natural kinds; how we categorize by making “fuzzy
boundaries” where confusion, desire, and violence are often played out. Categories are also “mythical
norms” (as Audre Lorde put it) and we feel our differences from those unstated norms more keenly
than our similarities. I wanted to explain to the students in my Science, Technology, and Queer Theory
class why I felt particularly privileged that week to have been engaged with the intellectual project of
queer theory.
I foregrounded the categorizability of September 11 as both a “global” and as an “American”
event. Emails from friends and family in Australia, Croatia, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland,
Ireland, South Africa and the USA made explicit the global impact of the tragedy, but posters had
already sprung up around our campus asking that “God bless America.” American has long been the
national identity most confusable with the global and this confusion has everything to do with power.
(Why did it seem normal for buildings in Manhattan to be called the World Trade Center anyhow?) The
centrality of America in our concept of the global is not just a matter of cognition. The emotional
expressions of sympathy to September 11 from around the world are necessary, humane, and
welcome. Yet natural and intentional disasters that had occurred in East Timor, Nicaragua, Peru,
Rwanda, and Turkey in recent years had not evoked the same global emotional response. Why?
I cannot, in good faith, believe that my own depth of feelings about these various events was
simply a result of personal connections to New York City and particular New Yorkers. Nor was it a
result of fears of the US government’s likely response. All of these global events are human tragedies,
but because of the shape of our categories, some become more human than others. Here was another
lesson from Foucault: Discourse shapes not only our thoughts, but also those visceral emotional
reactions by which we measure our very humanity.
I also tried to explain to the students my sense of unease at the rapid and all-pervasive
hardening-of-the-categories. We all had a strong urge to help, yet “help” was quickly said to be
exhausted by the giving of blood and by prayer (and later by
displaying flags, shopping, and remaining “unified”). Not an easy
time to be an atheist or a gay man (and these were the
differences from the “mythical norm” that my whiteness and HIV
status afforded me the privilege of experiencing as salient).
In contrast, the boundaries of the category ‘terrorist’
appeared to be unknown. The human scale of the tragedies of
Sept 11 renders the actions of the attackers unjustifiable; yet we
were also invested in keeping the motivations behind those
actions unimaginable. Terrorist acts were ‘evil,’ ‘crazy,’ and
‘unthinkable,’ the only way to save humanity appeared to be an
endless ‘war on terrorism’ which was ‘good,’ ‘sane,’ and
‘rational.’ Popular support for this war threatened to fill the space
evacuated by the narrowing of the category of ‘help.’
I use the word ‘threaten’ consciously, as that is the emotion
that the words of George Bush, Tony Blair and other world
leaders seemed to engender globally in my friends, my family,
and myself. In the world according to these powerful folk, one is
either wholeheartedly behind this ‘war on terrorism’—whose
object is unknown—or one becomes its legitimate target. I
appreciated keenly Judith Butler’s arguments that democracy
depends upon the possibility of contesting the meaning of
political signifiers. ‘Terrorism’ is one sign whose meaning I want
to contest, although the space to do so appears to be narrowing.
‘Pro-American’ is another sign that I want to keep open.
After eight years here I still know little of the complexity of either
being ‘American’ or being ‘Irish.’ I teach my students to
recognize how queer Americans are often positioned as the
constitutive outside of ‘American,’ and recently I’ve found myself
reminding Irish friends and family who have never been in this
country that this ‘war on terrorism’ does not represent the
entirety of ‘American sentiment.’ I talk with them about
Americans who don’t know what to say to their children and
students, Americans who put up peace signs in Union Square,
Staten Island, and the New Haven Green, and Americans who
recognized that I was “not at home” and made me welcome in
New Haven. I remain “pro-American” but I oppose the emerging
forms of political domination. I do fear more terrorist attacks on
Americans, including my friends; but I’m terrified of a world of
political abstraction.
Peter Hegarty is the Larry Kramer visiting Assistant Professor of
Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University.