Dmitriy T.M. sent us a link to a story at Slate about (mostly European) “national personifications” — that is, human figures used to represent particular countries, their citizens, or ideas of the national character.  Personification is contentious in that it aims to represent a diverse society with a single person, often representing a simple idea.  Accordingly, we sometimes see divergent, or even conflicting, personifications.

Many personifications in Europe and areas once colonized by them connect the nation to noble ideas and values through the use of Latin-derived names and the use of robes, poses, and other elements of classic statues and paintings to adorn a female figure. For instance, the United Kingdom’s Britannia (an emblem that first emerged when Britain was still ruled by Rome) is a goddess-like figure wearing a Roman-style helmet who has, over time, come to represent the nation and the idea of liberty:

The U.S. has a similar figure, Columbia:

More popular characterizations also emerge, often representing the national character not through goddess-like imagery but as an Average Citizen.  For instance, much more familiar in the U.S. than Columbia is Uncle Sam. He differs from many other national personifications in that he doesn’t represent the U.S. citizenry or the idea of the nation in general; he specifically represents the U.S. government and is best known for wanting “you” to join the military, buy war bonds, and such:

And in addition to Brittania, the U.K. is also personified by John Bull:

According to the Slate article, John Bull presents the British people as middle-class, smart in a common-sense way, and also somewhat suspicious of authority — that is, John Bull is a personification that separates the citizenry from government (the source of authority) to some extent, and thus has been used in many political cartoons to question government policies (whereas Uncle Sam has often been used to advocate them, since he represents the government itself).

Going a step further, Portugal’s Zé Povinho, a working-class personification, actively mocks the powerful, including political elites:

Competing personifications may be used by different political factions. For instance, those in favor of and opposed to Irish independence used female emblems of Ireland. Opponents of Irish nationalism used the figure of Hibernia, represented as the younger sister of Brittania and in need of her sister’s protection from the brutish (male) nationalist forces:

Nationalists responded with Kathleen Ni Houlihan, “generally depicted as an old woman who needs the help of young Irish men willing to fight and die to free Ireland from colonial rule, usually resulting in the young men becoming martyrs for this cause”:

The gender element in these competing personifications is interesting: in both cases Ireland is a woman in need of protection, but who see needs protected by (a stronger sister or men) and from (men in both cases) differs.

So here we have just a small handful of national personifications that may coexist fairly harmoniously while serving different purposes (say, Brittania and John Bull) or actively conflict (representations of Ireland). Various groups in a nation (political elites, different social classes, rebels, etc.) are unlikely to identify equally with a single personification; thus, the figures used to represent a country or its citizens can become sites of political or cultural contention, defining who has the most legitimate claim to being the backbone of the nation (the middle-class John Bull, the working-class Zé Povinho) or framing independence or other political movements.

Talking Points Memo posted a campaign ad for Rick Barber, a Tea Party-aligned Republican running for Congress in Alabama. In the ad, Barber first speaks briefly to George Washington about taxes. Then he turns to Abe Lincoln and makes a comparison between funding social services and slavery. The screen then flashes photographs of slaves, prisoners in Communist work camps, and Nazi concentration camps…because paying taxes and those historical events are all basically the same, you know:

Aside from the trivialization of some of the most horrendously cruel acts against humans in modern history, it’s rather ironic that Barber says, “We shed a lot of blood in the past to stop that, didn’t we?” I understand there were many conflicting allegiances in both the North and the South during the Civil War; I have ancestors who owned slaves and sided with the Confederacy and others who fought for the Union. You certainly can’t paint all Southerners with a broad brush. However, it still seems odd to have a guy running for office in a state that seceded from the nation, whose platform emphasizes opposition to social programs that disproportionately help non-Whites (that is, Whites are the majority of recipients, but non-Whites are represented at rates higher than their proportions in the U.S. population as a whole), co-opting the anti-slavery position, which certainly wasn’t a mainstream attitude among Southern conservatives at the time. [Note: I am not implying that opposing social programs is the same as slavery, but only that because the discourse around opposition to them is so often racialized — think the “welfare queen” stereotype — that it makes a jarring companion to associations with ending slavery.]

In another re-writing of history, the ad ignores the following (from the TPM post):

…Lincoln was a lifelong champion of the traditional Whig policies of “internal improvements” — that is levying taxes, usually through tariffs, to fund infrastructure projects throughout the country, and incorporating the principle of central banking. In addition to prosecuting the Civil War, Lincoln’s administration put all of those policies into effect, as his Republican Party’s political coalition was built upon the foundation of the northern Whigs.

Also, Lincoln was president when Congress passed the first income tax, implemented to raise money for the Civil War (U.S. Treasury):

When the Civil War erupted, the Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861, which restored earlier excises taxes and imposed a tax on personal incomes. The income tax was levied at 3 percent on all incomes higher than $800 a year.

Here’s a letter from the Treasury Secretary to President Lincoln recommending someone for the new position of Commissioner of Internal Revenue (Library of Congress):

It’s a great example of the re-writing of, or ignoring huge parts of, history (which certainly both Democrats and Republicans do) to suit current political positions. Lincoln is useful as a symbol, not as a complex figure whose policy positions (including ambivalence about ending slavery) actually matter.

Related posts: MTV PSAs reference Holocaust, PETA’s Holocaust on Your Plate ads, romanticizing picking cotton, different ways of remembering national tragedies, Mammie souvenirs, Black women tend to White women, and the corporate plantation.

Oh my. Inés V. just let us know about a contest on WTVN, a conservative talk radio station in Ohio (reader Scapino clarifies that the conservative tone is mostly due to syndication of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, not really the local DJs). Just…see for yourself:

Inés says,

This campaign is a response to Columbus mayor Michael Coleman who boycotted AZ by banning all city-funded travel after SB1070, and the mayor is depicted as a holder of a green card [that’s him shown on the ID card].

It’s an astounding example of dehumanizing undocumented immigrants — being a proud American is linked to “illegals” (a term that somehow seems more stigmatizing than terms like “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens,” even — a linguistic erasure of personhood altogether) being scared, presumably of all the proud Americans they encounter, and the lucky winner gets to go “spend a weekend chasing aliens”. It’s like you’re getting to go on a safari.

Groups in Columbus have organized a response and will be delivering letters to the station this afternoon, before the contest ends, in protest.

I’d add more commentary, but what can you really say?

It is commonly claimed and, in fact, I have claimed it on this blog (here and here), that the U.S. is especially individualistic.  Claude Fischer, at Made in America, puts this assertion to the test.  “There is considerable evidence, ” he writes, “that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples.”

He operationalizes “individualism” as “gives priority to personal liberty” and offers the following evidence.

Question: “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?”

Question: “ Right or wrong should be a matter of personal conscience,” strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Question: “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong,” strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Question: “Even when there are no children, a married couple should stay together even if they don’t get along,” strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Fischer entertains several explanations for these findings.

(1) Americans aren’t really individualistic (anymore).

(2) Americans means something else by individualism (like freedom from government or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps).  Fischer thinks that these are different values, though: anti-statism and laissez-faire, pro-business economics.

(3) Americans are individualistic, but they are also religious and sometimes religion outweighs individualism.  If that’s so, Fischer argues, then maybe it is true that we’re not that individualistic.

(4) American individualism is found not in people’s opinions, but in how we organize our society.  Fischer calls this “undemocratic libertarianism.”

Finally, (5) maybe what is meant by individualism is really voluntarism, the right to leave and join groups as we see fit.

The argument and the answers clearly revolve around how we define (or operationalize) “individualism.”  In any case, the comparative data does put the U.S. into perspective and Fischer’s discussion leaves a lot to unpack.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Over at Buzzfeed, Peggy posted this photo of a piece of kitsch she found on sale in Japan:

Thanks to Dmitiry for the link!  To clarify…

Uncle Sam, icon of American freedom:

Colonel Sanders, mascot for the fast food restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken (the suit is the giveaway):

So what does this mean?  Well, perhaps nothing.  But it suggests that America is associated with capitalism and greasy food at least as much as the idea of freedom.  It also means that, at least in this instance, the U.S. has lost control of its brand.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Facebook ad from Ryan R.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The clip below is the trailer for a movie, The Code of the West: Alive and Well in Wyoming, that appears to be part documentary, part travel/tourism advertising, and part morality play. It emphasizes the moral superiority of a simple, truly “American” life lived in the great outdoors:

The clip is a great example of the way we socially construct both places and times.  Wyoming, a stand in here for “The Old West,” is mythologized as a place where people haven’t changed much.  Just as they were in the old days, they are steadfast, hard-working, and follow an impeccable honor code.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t great people in Wyoming, but it’s always wrong to say that something is always true (see what I did there?).  Further, today it is likely that many people work indoors in blue and white collar jobs and have little time to soak in the big sky that supposedly inspires such wholehearted goodness.  But the “idea” of Wyoming nonetheless privileges the cowboys (however many are left) over the office jocks.

Further, as Rachel at The Feminist Agenda writes “omit[s] a huge chunk of history”:

In cowboy country, there was one group of people with whom we never honored our word or felt bound by a firm handshake. If your skin was brown, all bets were off. We would make agreements with you, sealed by a handshake and a written contract, which we would disregard the minute it became convenient for us. Our word was worthless if your skin was brown and your culture didn’t look like ours.

Of course Rachel makes the same mistake here that the film makes:  There were (white) cowboys who would honor a handshaking with an American Indian.  We shouldn’t demonize the past/a people any more than should romanticize it/them.  Still, Rachel’s point stands: in the big scheme of things, the new Americans were not honorable by any measure.

The fact that the romanticization of The Old West wins out over its demonization is part of the larger revisionist history that the United States encourages (in school, in politics, and in popular culture).  There is what power looks like: to the victors go control over the narrative.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

I am in Munich for the month and last week I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. I was struck by the difference between the tour I took here and the tour I took of the Lara Plantation just outside of New Orleans in May. Visiting Dachau put the two modes of remembrance into stark contrast. Without trying to argue that the holocaust and U.S. slavery are the same in every way, I would like to suggest that both are tragic histories that included unimaginable human suffering. Yet, the tours were very different.

I’ll start with Dachau.

The first thing that our tour guide did was impress upon us, in no uncertain terms, that Hitler was a terrible man, that the things that happened under his rule were indescribably inhumane, and that the concentration camps were death camps, pure and simple, with or without a gas chamber. In case his words were not clear enough, we took in a 22-minute video featuring photographs and narratives, all camp specific. No details, no horror, no gore was spared.

The entry gates lead to the main square in the camp where prisoners were required to congregate each morning and evening. What dominates the square today isn’t the guard towers, though they are present and meticulously reconstructed, it is the memorial by Yugoslav sculptor Glid Nandor. I had seen this sculpture in pictures before and have always found it to be one of the most impactful pieces of art I have ever seen.

The artist, who had been a prisoner in one of Hitler’s concentration camps himself, meant for the sculpture to commemorate the prisoners who had committed suicide by throwing themselves against the electrified gates of the camp. I appreciate that the sculptor makes no attempt to ease our acknowledgment of the horror and hopelessness of life in the camps.

This main memorial sculpture was one of many. There were four memorial buildings, about six monuments, the museum, and a convent that had been located on the site. And memorials are still being added. The gift shop sold books and documentaries.

My impression was that the Germans took this deadly seriously and I was impressed by the way that the Germans are handling their national tragedy. They seem fully committed to owning this tragedy so as to never ever allow anything like it to happen anywhere again. Never did the guide try to sugarcoat the holocaust, minimize the tragedy, or put anything into a measured perspective.

All of this may seem unremarkable. We’ve all heard that Hitler and his concentration camps were bad before. Hitler is, no less, synonymous with evil. Accordingly, it may seem to you that it could not be otherwise; it may seem that this tour of the Dachau concentration camp was the only possible tour that could exist.

Let’s turn to the Lara Plantation tour. The main story in this tour was about the glamorous lives of Lara (the strong-willed female head of the plantation) and her family members. Plantation life was romanticized: strong women, dueling men, wine collections, expensive furniture, distinguished visitors, breeze basking and mint julep drinking, and an ever-expanding fortune.

The plantation was done up to look gorgeous:


I would guess that about 15-20 percent of the tour was spent on slave life. They showed us some documents listing the slave “inventory” at its peak, they talked about laws regarding slaves and how they differed from laws elsewhere in the U.S., they revealed that the Br’er Rabbit stories were originally collected from slaves there, they discussed the extent of the sugarcane fields, and they allowed us to walk through this reconstructed two-family cabin (mentioning that slaves were allowed to have gardens):


In contrast to the almost obscene documentation of the abuse and murder of concentration camp prisoners, this was the only image of a slave that I saw during the entire tour:


The image shows one slave and the two rows of slave cabins reaching back into the sugar cane from the year behind the main house. You can compare the reconstructed cabin with those in the image. It’s hard to say, but I’m not sure I see cute picket fences and gardens.

Here are some things that were not included in the tour: extended discussions of the health of slaves, their physical and emotional abuse, the breeding programs, rape, their punishing labor, the destruction of their families, the age at which slaves began to work, and all of the other indescribably inhumane things about human slavery.

The gift shop sold jam and honey, CDs, yummy smelling candles, candy bars, New Orleans hot sauces, dried alligator heads, little angels made out of picked cotton… and Lara’s memoirs.

The contrast with the Dachau tour was nothing short of stunning.

Could the Lara Plantation do a tour that mirrored that of Dachau? Absolutely.
Should they do that tour? Absolutely.

Plantations were many other things, but they were also the engine of slavery.  It is this that should stand out as the most important thing about them. Concentration camps were many other things as well (e.g., a military training site, a daily job site for German soldiers, a factory producing goods, and a strategic part of the war effort), but we have absorbed the important lessons from them so thoroughly that it is difficult to even imagine what an alternative tour might look like. In contrast, one can visit the Lara Plantation and come away not really thinking about slavery at all, in favor of how pretty the china was and oooh did you smell that candle as we walked by? Delicious. I need a coke, you?

A lot of Americans, when Germany is mentioned, express disbelief that a people could live with a history like the holocaust. But Americans do live with a history like the holocaust, we just like to pretend it never happened. While Germany is processing its participation in a human rights tragedy, the U.S. is denying its own; while Germany is confronting its own ugly history for the betterment of the world, we are busy preserving the myth of U.S. moral superiority.

The plantation pictures are mine and the Dachau pictures are borrowed from here and here.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.