The medal count steadily rises for the United States team in Sochi -- but the Olympics are about so much more than medals. They are about sportsmanship, coming together and celebrating national unity through diversity, or so the television commercials insist.
"Is it unpatriotic to not care about Sochi?" I was recently asked in jest. But as a historian of the United States, it forced me think of the deeper question hidden inside the more jovial one, one that examines how we think about America as a nation. What or rather who is the United States?
I think about this question a lot. Although my Ph.D. is in U.S. history, I mostly research and write about North America in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was no United States then. There was a composite of different sovereign peoples, who did not understand themselves to be members of a nation, let alone the same nation.
For those of us who work on periods and regions outside of the traditional scope of U.S. history, the nation appears as just another moment in a time. It is a construction that did not always exist and, if history has taught us anything, it will not always exist. But this story makes for less flashy commercials.
The point is not that there is something wrong with cheering on the Olympic team. I can surely enjoy a good hockey game, and the sheer vertigo I get from watching the ski jumpers pumps up the adrenaline. But while rallying behind my team, I can't ignore the limits and temporality of the nation as an autonomous and self-defining entity.
As a U.S. historian, I find myself required to teach, explain and defend this construction. Often in the least expected of places.
"Aren't you troubled by how they are changing it?" the emergency room nurse asked me after she found out I was not just another patient with a severe sinus infection; I was a Yale history professor (still with a severe sinus infection). The "it" she was referring to was American history, and her complaint focused on how it was now being taught -- "diluted" was her word of choice. As I tried breathing through my extremely clogged nose, I felt relieved she did not have a copy of my current syllabus. My class on War and Rebellion in Early America begins in Central Mexico, makes it way to Spanish Florida, then Virginia, before finally reaching Massachusetts, or what she considered the canon of Colonial America.
Emphasizing diverse actors and experiences, my courses narrate a far more inclusive, albeit far less cheery story of colonial America. I do not view this inclusion as a dilution of other and older traditions. Puritans, witch trials and religious thought still play important roles in my courses. But so do a whole range of other actors -- most of whom are neither Protestant, nor English, nor male.
This makes for a far more complete, complex and thicker history. The expanding parameters of whom, what and even where the story of the United States should begin and the uncertainty of where it might go next present me with both the most exciting and the biggest challenge of teaching history -- which is perhaps why I care more about the World Cup.