I Am the Nation is actually a perfect illustration of why the American dream can so quickly turn into a nightmare. It is, for a start, a product, not of patriotism, but of corporate advertising, written in 1955 by Otto Whittaker for the Norfolk and Southern Railway. (The only change in the text, made during the centennial celebrations in 1976, was to add “the steaming jungles of Vietnam” to the places where the “heroic dead” answered freedom’s call.)
And, like most ads, it is also a grotesque exercise in denial. The “nation” it evokes is overwhelmingly white, male, Protestant and entirely characterised by “freedom”. Just two women get a mention – Harriet Beecher Stowe and “Betsy Ross with her needle” (sewing the first American flag – a good womanly occupation).
This America does not contain Rosa Parks or Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Jones or Betty Friedan. And not a single black or Hispanic person belongs in the nation – no Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, no César Chávez or Ella Fitzgerald. It is an entirely invented America, one in which sententious pseudo-patriotism obliterates vast human complexities.
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