The thinness of American identity has to stretch from Toby Keith to a bro on Beacon Hill.
On the right track but he may be limited by his life experience as a Bostonian. And there are obvious problems with his essay: we are not a "nation of immigrants," not when the founding stock was primarily Anglo-Celtic. And the loss of a tribal sense was enforced through war and liberalism; it was not a voluntary surrendering by the Anglo-Celtic peoples in regions with a substantial identity and culture.
The paucity of any gut-level, tribal sense of us in America is no accident. We don’t just happen to be a wildly variegated nation of immigrants with little to tie us together—that’s sort of the whole point. American culture is, by design, thin but hospitable: our particular quadrant of earth is meant to be loose-plowed and expansive, a soft place for immigrants to land and flourish, provided they want growth badly enough, and the weather more or less cooperates.
And so we keep the cultural entry costs low. The most important step to Americanization is assenting to a short list of philosophical propositions about the goodness of liberty, equality, capitalism, democracy—the sorts of propositions that Jefferson dashingly declared self-evident in the summer of 1776, now considered self-evident by basically the entire Western world and lots of places beyond. If you’re willing to do this much, and to learn a bit of English, you are hereby invited to open up your corner shop, to send your children to good schools, and basically settle into the great American chase along with the rest of us. But there’s even more: you are free, as you pursue this, to remain whatever you are: you can practice your accustomed religion, speak your native language as much as you like, celebrate your childhood holidays, etc., all while being fully American.
Compared with a more traditional nation-state—like France, for instance—America looks like a strange sociological experiment. Since at least 1789, French identity has been, like American identity, a matter of certain shared Enlightenment principles: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, approximately. But it is also, crucially, a matter of shared bloodlines, language, history, literature, and cuisine, things that originated long before the time of Rousseau and Voltaire. Can you be fully French having no taste whatsoever for Madame Bovary, Camembert, or Bordeaux? You cannot, at least not nearly to the degree that you can be American having never read Moby Dick (I’ve never finished it myself) or fancying what, hamburgers? Budweiser?
You could say that the French cultural topsoil is harder: becoming French is a life’s labor and costs a great deal. In order to accomplish it, you can’t be Nigerian or Albanian anymore. Visible signs of foreign religiosity—burkas, turbans, etc.—are legally restricted in the public sphere. You can bring along whatever skin tone and eye shape your mother gave you, but, s’il vous plait, leave the rest on the shore of your former fatherland, or at the very least, keep it indoors.
One downside to this cultural rigorism is that France takes forever to integrate her immigrants—or all too often fails to integrate them at all, in which case they frequently come to rest in suburban ethnic enclaves where their native tongue, cuisine, and customs sustain them. The French find this sort of segregation frustrating and disappointing, of course, but even more troublingly, these unintegrated remnants have in recent memory often turned into hotbeds of tribal hostility, directed toward the nation that has physically accepted them but has failed to fully embrace them in all their un-Frenchness.
America has no comparable problem with integration, because becoming American is comparatively easy. But there is also an upside to the French model: once you’ve penetrated a hard, rocky topsoil like France’s, your roots find dense earth to hold them. You and your descendants can make heart-deep use of the first person plural—as in nous sommes français. You will know, so the promise runs, exactly who your people are.
Next to the French model, our way of integration, our whole culture in fact, looks weirdly loose and insubstantial. And indeed, the French view our hyphenated identities—speaking about Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans—as simultaneously wishy-washy multiculturalism and barely-concealed racism. Why, the French ask, do you need to list one’s country of origin? Haven’t you been able to make them, or allowed them to be, real unadulterated Americans? From across the Atlantic, we look like a nation that fundamentally doesn’t know who we are, and so allows petty things like melanin to keep us from sharing in a robust national fraternité. The point about racism is misconceived, I think, but the point about looseness obviously has some substance.