Are you, or have you ever been, an American?

What virtues are common to Jeanne d’Arc, Charles de Gaulle, Thierry Henry, and Sylvia Guillem? What unites Owen Roe O’Neill, Wolfe Tone, Patrick Kavanagh, and U2’s “The Edge”? Perhaps we should not look for virtues, because no nation can say all its members are one way or another. But we can say that these people collectively, belong, respectively, to America, to France, and to Ireland. And belonging is not nothing.

Just as we know and struggle to describe the French or the Filipino but recognize a collective personality that emerges across them, people of other nationalities know they are brushing up against the American nation as it barges in. A Hungarian friend drew my attention to the fact that, after the Cold War, American media had filled in many of the spaces vacated by Russia. She complained how American movies — particularly Disney movies played on Sunday afternoons in her childhood — were slowly changing the Hungarian attitude toward love, which was more reserved, more intimate, and presumably weightier in some way I cannot begin to comprehend. She didn’t want Hungarians to be remade as moon-faced American high-schoolers.

How do we know that we belong? My contention in many columns and across my book is that conflict, risk, political stress, and collective ambitions bring our nationality to the fore. Sometimes this is an insidious process, where happy “citizens of the world” discover to their dismay that, in a clamor of conflict, the world will hang them for the national character they deny in themselves.

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