Commentary: Public Sense of Identity | KERA News

Commentary: Public Sense of Identity

Dallas, TX –

About six months ago, out of the blue, I was added to the Zogby International polling list. Every couple of weeks I get a 40-50 question survey on which I help reflect the collective wisdom, or sometimes confusion, of the American people.

Each survey has a different emphasis, from immigration to presidential politics to the media to consumer spending, but one question is always on every survey, and here it is:

"Do you consider yourself mostly a resident of your city, America, or the planet Earth?"

In other words, the pollsters want to know, who are you and where do you think you're from? What are the sources of your identity, and is one source more important than another?

First, consider local identity. Now I know there are people who still say you can't get a great bagel west of the Hudson River, but due to greater mobility and the effects of mass media, local and civic identity is not as strong as it once was. In North Texas, for example, we've seen the once-vigorous rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth fade almost to nothing in the past twenty years.

Partly because so many of us move so often, and partly because we tend to shop at many of the same national retailers, it's harder to draw sharp distinctions between cities today. However, there are moments when I still feel the tug of my Dallasite identity. Recently, when the District Attorney's office released a cache of dubious documents about the Kennedy assassination, I winced, recalling the old and unfair branding of Dallas as a "city of hate" after JFK was killed.

So what about the "American" part of the identity question? When I visit other countries, I've noticed, my "Americanness" does seem more pronounced, though I don't wear a "Team USA" t-shirt on my travels. A few years ago when I was in Mexico City for President Vicente Fox's inauguration, local officials had posted huge banners bearing the names of various world leaders. When I saw the banner welcoming "Comandante Fidel Castro, I knew I was a long way from home, and I was reminded that much of the world doesn't see things our way.

With the global economy in full swing, some of the forces that have eroded civic identity could do the same thing to national identity, but I believe that will be a long, slow transformation. Unlike the countries that have blended into the European Union, America is a continental nation-state that has long thought of itself as having a unique character and a special role in the world. Those habits are likely to die hard, if at all.

And what about the third part of the pollsters' question? Do you think of yourself as primarily a citizen of the planet? For many of us, that "earthling" identity may surface as we consider threats that transcend nations, like global warming.

On the more positive side, many people feel closer to the earth when experiencing great natural phenomena like the Northern Lights or the Grand Canyon, or just looking at the starry night sky when we're far enough away from the city. I don't suppose there's an "American" way of looking at the stars, but maybe we could ask Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly about that.

So, who are we and where are we from? Do we belong to a city, a country, or a planet? How we answer those questions could shape our thinking on some of the most pressing issues that confront us.

Chris Tucker is a writer and literary consultant from Dallas.

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