Experts Discuss American Identity and Democracy in the Trump Era

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UC Irvine’s Forum for the Academy and the Public presented their 4th annual conference titled “Who Do We Think We Are?” last Friday and Saturday. Panelists from all over the world came together to discuss issues surrounding American identity and democracy.

The Forum for the Academy and the Public is the result of a collaboration between the School of Law, the School of Humanities and the Literary Journalism Program. The event was also sponsored by Illuminations, the UC Humanities Research Institute, the Humanities Commons and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The first day of the conference featured a keynote address by writer and historian Jill Lepore. Lepore is a staff writer at “The New Yorker” where she mainly writes about history, law, literature and politics. She is also a professor of American history at Harvard University.

In her keynote, Lepore first addressed the question of how Americans identify themselves.

“Who are the ‘We’ in ‘We the People?’” asked Lepore.

She went on to say that the concept of “the people” is a political and legal fiction that individuals interpret in different ways to fit whatever narrative they are trying to advocate for. She also pointed out that “we” never seems to include everyone. In using “we,” people usually mean “me” and someone or some group of people is always left out.

After her speech, Lepore was joined by former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, Harvard professor and award-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed and Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz in a panel discussion that furthered the conversation on American identity. Panelists applied the country’s founding principles to current events.

Arellano stressed the importance of knowing one’s history. He discussed Orange County’s history as an orange grove paradise and the tendency to forget about the Mexican and Latino workers who picked those oranges. He also said that most people are drawn to America by hope for a better life and noted that Americans have always been at war, a sentiment the other panelists agreed with.

“Who are we?” said Arellano. “We’re people with hope and we’re people who like to be angry.”

Gordon-Reed said that in such a diverse country, it’s hard to pinpoint one identity to encompass all of America. The conversation also centered on identity politics and how the country can move forward in these polarizing times.

To Wilentz, “the spectacle of democracy is Americans fighting over democracy” and “California provides a model for how liberalism ought to go.”

Saturday had three panel discussions featuring individuals from all areas of academia.

First, Cristina Garcia, Hua Hsu, Douglas Kearney and Laila Lalami, all award-winning authors, journalists and poets, examined the American immigrant experience and how writing is a form of activism.

Kearney said that the idea of what America is shifts all the time. Even calling America a country of immigrants is problematic because that ignores everyone who is not an immigrant, as well as the native populations who were already present during white colonization.

“Erasure is not just oversight,” said Garcia, “it’s deliberate.”

Lalami focused on the idea of self.

“The self is a relative term,” said Lalami. “You cannot define one without defining the other. I am a woman because there is man.”

“The only people who have to hyphenate identities are non-whites,” continued Lalami, drawing from a quote by author Toni Morrison. She also explained that Trump’s nativism is enticing to white America because they had no way previously to talk about race. They’ve been taught that race doesn’t belong to them. The issue is trying to get whites to talk about race and culture outside the contexts of white power and supremacy.

Douglas Kearney recites original poetry. Photo Courtesy of Erica Yun, Programs Coordinator, Humanities Commons.

For the second panel, authors and journalists Dmitry Bykov, Carlos Rajo, Junko Terao and Xiao Qiang, representing Russia, Latin America, Europe and China respectively, discussed how the rest of the world sees America now that Donald Trump is the president.

All four panelists said they were shocked when they heard the news and couldn’t understand how America had elected someone like Trump. However, they all identified similar political climates and attacks on the press in their own countries. Bykov made connections with Putin, Rajo brought by Cesar Chavez, Terao talked about the rise, removal from office and possible return of populist leader Silvio Berlusconi and Qiang spoke on his experience growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution. The panelists agreed that other countries are often aware, on some level, of American politics, but Americans don’t reciprocate.

“Most Americans are sure history depends on them,” said Bykov.

The final panel of the day centered on technology’s effect on democracy and American identity and featured Berggruen Institute president and researcher Craig Calhoun, Olin College of Engineering professor and writer Debbie Chachra, UCI informatics professor Paul Dourish and USC professor and former tour manager for Bob Dylan, Jonathan Taplin.

From left to right: Dmitry Bykov, Junko Terao, Carlos Rajo, Xiao Qiang. Photo Courtesy of Erica Yun, Programs Coordinator, Humanities Commons.

All four looked at how the rise of technology, especially social media, has affected politics and society. However, Dourish pointed out that social media is only one part of a hybrid media system.

“This is an advertising-based society,” said Dourish.

The overall sentiment of the event all panelists echoed was that American identity is nuanced and complex and the idea of a singular “we” is problematic. There isn’t one particular answer. In holding events like this, organizers hope to encourage audiences to think critically about who they think they are.  

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