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On National Identity

In my last article I wrote about the imperative to look more closely at our notions of history—but what about our notions of the present?
The result of our last election has been read as signaling a shift in American racial realities since the Civil Rights era. Yet large groups of Obama supporters seem to have flagged in their enthusiasm, disappointed by change that hasn’t measured up. On the other hand, Mitt Romney himself has got to know how undesirable a candidate the Republicans have come up with. Even my hometown conservative crowd feels dicey about him, and the largely mainstream Christian right-wing can’t seem to quit fidgeting over his Mormonism and economic distance from blue-collar reality.
To expand Colbert’s parody of the former MA governor, it’s almost as if both candidates are basically running on the platform: “I’m not the other guy.” In contrast to both the intensity of the Civil Rights era and the uncommon excitement of 2008, this election seems much less about voting because you are compelled, than voting because it’s compulsory—a duty you’ve embraced.
The malaise I sense here has me thinking of the ways we create to think of ourselves as Americans outside of politics. In this and next week’s column I’m going to be writing about this “national imaginary.” That is, according to thinkers like Benedict Anderson, a nation cannot exist unless its members—the vast majority of whom will never meet each other—maintain an imagined idea of what it means to be a member of that nation.
“The United States” isn’t just sea to shining sea and the people between, but a vision we are taught in school and experience through politics and culture. My gambit here is that the politics side is taking less and less of a role in our personal experience of this national imaginary.
For instance, at the same time that the elections are gearing up, the NFL season is—for all intents and purposes—already underway. Televised pre-season games are given similar attention to regular season games (according to ZAP2it numbers, it beat NASCAR in the ratings last week for Earnhardt’s sake!), and when the Cowboys play the Giants next Wednesday the networks will have seventeen weeks of regular season ratings to look forward to.
We could say similar things about the electoral pre-season, a Washington Times article from January 27 noted that this year’s first Republican Primary Debate clocked 5.4 million viewers to football’s 5.8 this past weekend, but football has a longevity to its numbers, and a strength in its hold on the imaginations and desire of a national audience to which Capitol politics does not compare. Think about it, when is the last time someone in the bar said to you, Man, I’m so stoked: just signed up for C-SPAN and set my tivo to record some serious election coverage! This fascination is borne out by shows like The League, which provides a glimpse of fantasy football dedication that doesn’t seem fantastical if you know people who play.
And this is a different dedication than that which we’ve given in the past—in fact, it’s a type, almost a species of dedication that was quite literally inconceivable prior to not only the Internet, but the social media infrastructure that would allow stat updates and Rivals message board convos to happen so effortlessly in real time. This building of community in a virtual space actually facilitates a different national imaginary, since I am aware of watching, competing, and sharing fairly apolitical values with a gigantic audience.
I’ve just written about football today—but these transformations occur across the spectrum of social involvement from sites like Pinterest, to shows like Breaking Bad, to blockbuster films offering a rich and varied content shareable by a national audience. I’m fascinated thinking about the other ways we’re inventing to create our local, regional, and especially national identity. Because as much as the luddites complain about people on cell phones, or television rotting your brain, we each have to (or at least most of us choose to) continue finding ways of building affiliations with our neighbors and fellow citizens that we find useful and meaningful.

Bill Phillips is in his second year of Doctoral studies in English at Ole Miss. He is from Augusta, Ga.