“United States” or “America”?

I wrote this article in Spanish for a Venezuelan magazine eighteen years ago. As the current culture war has rekindled all kinds of arguments against American nationalism, I wanted to post this updated, free translation of the original article.

Si (como afirma el griego en el Cratilo)
el nombre es arquetipo de la cosa,
en las letras de “rosa” está la rosa
y todo el Nilo en la palabra “Nilo.”
Jorge Luis Borges, El Golem

If (as the Greek affirms in the Cratylus)
the name is archetype of the thing,
in the letters of “rose” the rose is,
and all the Nile in the word “Nile.”
(my unfaithful translation)

It is normal to hear American citizens call our country “America.” However, there is also a different and generalized opinion among Latin Americans to call the country situated to the north of the continent as “United States,” while at the same time adding the prefix “North” to the name of its “American” citizens.

What is the correct name of this particular country? As often happens with sentiments, passions and beliefs, the opinion that the name of the country is “United States” is unsustainable when facing reasoned argument.

It is natural for Latin Americans to think that their membership in a continent baptized for Amerigo Vespucci would be diminished and even denied if they would call the particular country “America.” It would consider North Americans as the only inhabitants of the New World, something evidently absurd. Nevertheless and risking the shame of Latin nationalists, xenophobes and anti-imperialists, I would like to clarify the misunderstanding that lays at the bottom of this laudable but mistaken sentiment.

By the way, I have also heard this misunderstanding from American citizens who wanted to be up to date on political correctness and help erase the image of the Ugly American.

The French, protectors only of their own nationalism, conscientiously assume the misunderstanding and refer to the particular country as États Unis. However, when an Italian who wanted to emigrate in 1900 talked about “America” while remembering his older relative who emigrated from Sicily, he wasn’t thinking about a whole continent; he was thinking about a particular country and a particular city, New York.

Simply, there is a confusion between the geographic sense and the political sense of the word “America.” When we refer to the inhabitants of the continent represented in a geographical map as Americans, we are right in unifying all of them whatever the country they belong to. But we are in error if we believe that this is the only meaning of the word “America.” Because there is an equally valid political sense of the word, the one in which the name of countries are represented in a political map of the world, the same sense that everybody uses in daily speech. And there is only one country called “United States of America” among all the countries in the world. One could claim this fact to be unjust, but it is a fact.

But there is yet another, even more powerful argument to determine the correct name. The term United States has nothing to do with the country’s name. It has everything to do with the type of state the country has. The term means that all the governmental institutions of the nation are united in a decentralized federation, a voluntary union of all the states that conform the nation, just like the Confederation of Swiss Cantons, in opposition to the type of state assumed in the modern meaning of the word republic, which originally meant a system of government based in popular sovereignty but that currently means a centralized state.

There are examples of this difference everywhere: The current Republic of Venezuela was called Estados Unidos de Venezuela from 1864 to 1953; France, by a decision of the National Convention in 1792 during the French Revolution, is called République Française. Was Venezuela’s name Estados Unidos, or is France’s name République? Of course not in both cases. The former was and is Venezuela, and the later was and is France. Therefore, whether one likes it or not, the name of the country is “America.” Or, if you prefer not to ruffle feathers in polite company and inconvenient times, the name of the country is “United States of America.”

Vladimir Dorta, 06/22/2018