‘I am an American’ - filming the fear of difference: a book review

Ten years after 9/11 and counting, Cynthia Weber’s project in ‘filming the fear of difference’ is more than ever relevant to our debates.

Rosemary Bechler
12 September 2011

Cynthia Weber’s recently-published book, I am an American’: Filming the fear of difference is a great action. And before you conclude that I cannot string a grammatical sentence together, let me insist that it is best described as one of my favourite theorists of democracy, Paul Barry Clarke, might describe it - as an ‘acting towards or into the universal’ - the kind of individual initiative that, ‘permits, or even develops, the conditions for and the possibility of a renewed understanding of the civic virtues.’ As such, it is a remarkably positive and ambitious exercise in encounter and recognition to have come out of an episode of spreading tragedy and human waste, like the events and afterlife of 9/11. 

For the author, it seems to have begun with one of those personal coincidences of timing that bring new ideas and emotions to the fore: bereavement arising from the death of a favourite aunt, and her experience in viewing the famous ‘I am an American’ Public Service Announcement (PSA), shot for the American Ad Council, that began airing on US television ten days after 9/11. The PSA, which featured US citizens of “various ages, races, religions, and ethnicities looking directly into the camera and declaring ‘I am an American’, while emotive Americana music plays in the background” was designed, at a time when a backlash was feared against Arab and other minority Americans after the attacks, to remind US citizens of the original US motto – E Pluribus Unum/Out of Many, One. Years later, many US citizens would still identify the ad with the all-too-brief spirit of unity that embraced the country in the aftermath of 9/11.  

Cynthia however experienced it differently from the outset, anticipating that for all its good intentions, such an idealized image of the American melting pot could never avert the backlash, failing as it did to address the real ‘complications and paradoxes’ of any such expression of citizenship, identity, tolerance, patriotism and justice. This was especially the case once the President had announced the ‘with us or with the terrorists’, War on Terror, and it became increasingly clear that this was going to be “fought every bit as much on the home front as on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq”. She was convinced that this comforting fiction was “as full of flawed memories about the US nation as my family is about my aunt,” and that to secure a far better outcome, it would be necessary to go in search of a “more complete history that is shaping who we are and who we might become as Americans, individually and collectively”. 

Her account would have to explore how US citizens were working out the answers for themselves to the question, ‘What does it mean to you to be an American?’, which is why each of her interviews culminates in a ‘flag shot’ pose with the US flag which expresses this unique relationship. And it would have to include the ‘Many’ US citizens whose experiences put into question the post-9/11 US national ideal of the ‘One’ – citizens who might be soldiers charged with fighting in foreign US wars, civilians caught up in “domestic US wars over public policies like immigration that resonate differently during the War on Terror”, or a whole range of those who made no public declarations but nevertheless somehow found themselves directly involved. 

Her process of filming a series of interviews with US citizens collectively came to be described as ‘filming the fear of difference’, as it gradually grew into a rich documentation of what Weber describes as the “human costs of a fear-based patriotism”. She likes to think of it as an “intimate reminder” of these human costs, and the great gulf between the lived realities and principled ideals of the always changing ideal of the National Us as ‘One’. The thirteen four-minute, mini-documentary films in which her interviewees tell their story in the first person, can be found in the permanent collection of the September 11 Memorial Museum, alongside Weber’s critical remix of the Ad Council’s PSA, featuring the ‘Many’ US citizens she interviewed, stating what kind of US citizens they are, and concluding with a reversal of the American motto, which now reads, ‘Ex Uno, Plures’. And this is indeed an intimate reminder, not least because of the impressive people we have been able to get to know a little, through the articles and films that the author has shared with us over the years on openDemocracy, some of whom we meet again in her latest thoughts on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Nor are these the only ‘political subjectivities’ that we encounter in this process.  Peppered throughout the book are the red, white and blue comment cards that participants in the project’s numerous public lectures, film screenings and exhibitions around the world, were invited to fill in - anonymous public reflections on the project. Often people describe what has particularly moved or struck them in the stories before them.  Whether one’s own moments of empathy coincide with theirs, as a reader one encounters these jottings with a sense of recognition because one is engaged in the same sort of meditation on the space between one’s-self and the other, the same intense experiences of similarity and difference. The book’s readers have their own invitation too, this time to “feel free to engage with these materials in any order”. The contents are not organised by character, chronology or by event. For the author, “ their organisation highlights the ironies and illogicalities that marked post-9/11 US policies and some of the responses to them…  but there is nothing essential in their ordering.” So one is aware that Cynthia has placed side by side for our consideration the story of the first proud beneficiary of the ‘fast-track US citizenship program’ for legal resident aliens fighting for the US in Iraq; the father estranged from his family in the attempt to reject his son’s posthumous US citizenship; and the young Iraq War Resister who has sought political asylum in Canada. But it is entirely up to you how you dip into this endlessly thought-provoking treasure trove and what kind of narrative you weave from these encounters.  As someone passionately committed to online revelation, it is rare that I would recommend a physical book as the better experience. But here, with the freedom to pick and mix in these beautiful pages, for once I think I must.

We are further encouraged to make this personal journey of discovery by the author and film-maker who is our companion throughout. For a crucial component of this ‘intimate reminder’ is Weber’s own memoir of the project, made up of a series of short prose ‘vignettes’. Paradoxically, the more she puts herself into the frame, the less encumbered one feels by assumptions let alone meta-narratives in one’s own exploration. From the first moment that we encounter her, lost among the shacks in a Californian desert, through to her shocked discovery that her Minuteman interviewee is without permission using his ‘I am an American’ film to get himself elected to the US senate and attracting thousands of viewers in the process, followed by her realisation and resolve that if she is to film children she must have their permission as well as that of their parents, and her frank apology for her poor Latin, there is no pretence of neutrality or omniscience here – just a vulnerable individual passionately reaching out through relationships with others to discover a national identity and a citizenship of the world, worth sharing. 

Does it matter if one isn’t an American? I don’t think so. Undoubtedly, watching US citizens grapple with their own stark version of the  ‘fear-based patriotism’ with which so many of us have had to engage since 9/11 holds a particular fascination that is also an education.  Joanna Bourke put it well when she said, “Whatever kind of American you are, or however well you think you know Americans, this book is an eye-opener. I couldn’t put it down.” Of course it’s true, as the academics reflect at the end of the book, that the US is the world’s hegemon, and that asking who qualifies as an American also probes into such core concepts as the Westphalian inter-state system, ‘liberal-democratic-capitalist peace’ and the ‘end of history’. But I don’t think this is the most important reason why we all have our relationship to this endeavour. It seems, for example, almost inevitable that in going about her work in London, the film-maker should have been stopped and searched in Grosvenor Square, caught sketching the American Embassy by zealous London metropolitan policemen who are clearly doing the work of the world’s hegemon. But beyond the ‘special relationship’, we have a closer relationship with the author as she sits ‘frozen to her bench, shaking uncontrollably’, noting that her fellow occupants in the park see her as someone to be afraid of, then realising that thanks to her ‘white skin, my middle class profession, my Christian upbringing’, this time, ‘this is going to be OK for me.’ We know how she feels.  These aren’t just somebody else’s stories. 

What it seems to me this project of ‘filming the fear of difference’ has tapped into is a genuinely world-historical moment in which we are all having to confront the violence that is accompanying the construction of the ‘National Us’ at a time when the nation-state, in its defence of the interests that it defends, is in crisis. It is a violence, as the book traces, that takes many forms, from the enemy images constructed in war or in immigration policy, to that of the self-appointed vigilantes who identify with the formation of the ‘One’, or to the violence triggered in third parties through fear of the other. 

In recognising this and working against it, Weber’s work of inclusion and deepened understanding offers us a glimpse of an empowering dialectical third term (not at all the same as a ‘third way’) to replace false options between clinging onto the ‘One’, wrongly imagined as order, or finding ourselves flung into a post-modern moral relativism, wrongly imagined as chaos and collapse. We can see something of this false dichotomy in the recent openDemocracy debate over the Norwegian atrocity – another of the types of violence that aggregate around the construction and maintenance of the National Us in today’s world. In among the responses, there are many resolute attempts to rediscover and repair the ‘One’ so that it can withstand and ultimately prevent such an attack on its basic fabric, whether in the form of nostalgia for social democratic statism; the more subtle hope to be placed in a civilised common sense; or a re-emphasis on state secularism of various kinds, certainly popular in our comments spaces. None of them quite works, because none can really address either the diversity or the political impotence of our modern societies, and more particularly the ‘fear of difference’ which proliferates under the contemporary conditions of a profound mismatch between any kind of monocultural National Us and that real diversity. The missing term is democracy, albeit a deeper democracy than any now foreseeable, in which conflicting interests can be negotiated and resolved by citizens on their own behalf. 

The reason why I welcome this book on openDemocracy, is because the ‘action’ that writing or indeed reading it involves - to go back to my opening contention - holds the seeds of a long-term remedy for all of us: the painstaking, individual recognition and re-weaving of relationship across the chasms of distrust and mutual ignorance which is the pursuit of a new multicultural form of ‘citizenship, identity, tolerance, patriotism and justice’ that opens onto the universal - not one predicated on the defence of a single community national standard in a diversifying world, but freely and continuously negotiated between people who have abjured violence. We can see this discovery taking place however intermittently throughout the Arab spring, and feel an ‘intimate reminder’ of it on our pulses when we read, ‘I am an American’.

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