Sunday, May 31, 2020

Usonia not America: On Imperialist Language

This article proposes that the term Usonian be used to describe residents or citizens of the USA, in place of the imperialist term American. Language reflects politics. This revolutionary gesture is necessary to overturn decades of exceptionalism that has damaged so many people(s).

For perspective, here's a list of countries and territories in the Americas:
Antigua and Barbuda
Bouvet Island
British Virgin Islands
Cayman Islands
Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Falkland Islands
French Guiana
Nueva Esparta
Puerto Rico
Saint Barthélemy
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
Saint Martin
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
San Andrés and Providencia
Sint Eustatius
Sint Maarten
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos Islands

There's one more, of course: the United States of America. This country represents only a small part of the whole, yet likes to fashion itself as "America" in toto.

This nominative imperialism derives from the ideology known as Manifest Destiny. Originally this doctrine was used to justify the expansion of white settlers across the continent westward and southward, slaughtering all in their way (Native Americans, Spanish and other prior settlers, Mexicans, etc.)

In 1811 John Quincy Adams wrote:

The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union.

The term "manifest destiny" was used by newspaper editor John L. O'Sullivan in 1845:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

Not all politicians were on-side. For example, some objected to the annexation of Mexico along racial lines. A Senator from South Carolina delivered this speech in Congress in 1848:

We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that!

In the same year President James K. Polk asserted the Monroe Doctrine, which maintained that the United States has responsibility for all the nations in the Western Hemisphere, and therefore is right and correct to interfere in its neighbours affairs. The USA knows best, being a divinely blessed state, incapable of doing ill.

Though the term Manifest Destiny fell out of favour, it was still used at the end of the nineteenth century to justify the USA as a maritime power in the Pacific. Darwinian doctrines were explicitly evoked to justify domination of Hawaii, Samoa, and the Philippines (not all of which came to fruition as desired).

In the twentieth-century the USA went abroad, overturning elected governments in Asia, bombing suburbs in Panama, installing dictatorships throughout Central America, setting up drug cartels to numb their own citizens, using corporations to control labour forces, militarising the region. Manifest Destiny was rarely evoked by name, but was folded into the overall conception of "American exceptionalism".

From this potted history it's clear that the term "American" is hardly neutral. Every time a citizen of the USA is referred to as "American" this perpetuates the ideology that the USA dominates all of the Americas, that each and every one of the countries listed above are inferior to the exceptional USA.

In truth, most of those societies have traditionally shared very little with the USA, having superior health and education networks, stronger social fabrics, less focus on rampant individualism, and greater resistance to capitalism. Many of these aspects have been undermined by transnational exploitation and outright interference from the USA. But to call all these people "American" assumes a great homogenisation, justifying decades of aggression. It is, in short, an insult.

Or, as James Duff Law wrote in 1903:

We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title 'Americans' when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves. Every day is keenly felt the want of a correct name for our great, grand, glorious, independent country.

Law proposed the alternative label "Usonian." Frank Lloyd Wright took up this term to describe a plan for democratic housing (though he misattributed the word's origin to Samuel Butler). Today the term lives on only in certain architecture circles.

My proposal is that we recover, from this fine heritage, the term Usonian to describe residents of the USA. It's fair and useful term that functions to deny imperialism and exceptionalism.


For George Floyd, murdered by the racist state.


Craven, Jackie. 2019."What Is a Usonian House?" AboutCo [website]. link

Hastedt, Glenn. 2004. Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. New York: Facts on File.

Law, James Duff. 1903. Here and There in Two Hemispheres. Lancaster, PA: The Home Publishing Company. link

McCrisken, Trevor B. 2001. "Exceptionalism," in Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy Volume 2, second edition. Alexander DeConde, Richard Dean Burns, Fredrik Logevall, Louise B. Ketz, eds. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 63-80.

Wikipedia. 2020. "Manifest destiny." Wikipedia [website]. link


American Progress (1872) by John Gast (1842-1896)


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