For thinkers and doers of today and generations to come, Ruth Braunstein has a question: What does America mean to you?
“The public is still thinking about it, whether they know it or not,” she says. “Our assumptions about what it means to be American are embedded in many of our conversations about public policy. Who deserves access to public institutions and resources, if we are to allow certain religious groups to display their religious symbols in public, does one have to be a taxpayer to be a good American? There are so many ways this plays out in the context of our political debates. »
Most of the time, however, the general public can’t answer, says Braunstein, an associate professor of sociology who heads UConn’s Sense of Democracy Lab. Politicians and elected officials, the top brass of institutions and corporations typically make decisions that end up defining “America” for those who make it up – like the holidays observed on the public school calendar.
Last fall, she sought to change that with the help of political science professor and president emeritus Susan Herbst, who came across a 1937 competition in Harper’s Magazine soliciting written submissions that attempted to define America at that time.
“We don’t see all the answers given in the 1930s, but from what we can tell, these are the classic answers: that democracy is fragile, that citizens are not always informed and open to manipulation, and that there are a lot of problematic leaders with bad intentions,” says Herbst. “Like many intellectuals in the 1930s, there was great fear that the United States would see the rise of authoritarian movements right here on our own soil.
“We were seeing the rise of Adolph Hitler and other dictatorial leaders and many American journalists thought the subject of our own future was vital,” she continues. “Although our contemporary situation is different, we have the same fears when we witness demagoguery at home and abroad. The parallels with the 1930s and the shared concerns are indeed staggering.
Rianka Roy, graduate sociology student who received honorable mention and one of Democracy Lab’s five $100 awards “Meanings of the “America” project”, offered the acrostic poem “Coming to America” who describes his immigration to America and wonders if the “foreign” designation on his passport – despite his legal status – will thwart a sense of belonging.
“Millions of immigrants have come to settle in this country. They love the country, work for it, and cherish the opportunities they find here,” she says of the poem. “But often their opinions are ignored. They are stereotyped as foreigners who threaten national security and jeopardize the economy. On the one hand, we want to embrace our adopted country, on the other hand, we feel unwelcome.
Braunstein says she received between 50 and 100 entries for $1,000 in cash prizes funded by UConn’s Institute of Humanities and the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. There was one first place, five honorable mentions and three finalists. The submissions came from UConn students who were told to go beyond the usual patriotic rhetoric in their submissions, to be creative in how they see the country, and ultimately to “rally the enthusiasm.” as also requested by the Harper contest.
“There were a lot of students who were worried about a more exclusive view of the country and they were very critical of that,” Braunstein said. “Many spoke about racial injustice and the movements that have emerged to stand up to racial injustice, including Black Lives Matter. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the responses – some very critical, others holding this tension between criticism, patriotism and hope.
Sandy Barrow ’19 (CLAS) ’22 MPH submitted his painting “Urge,” a silhouette portrait of Audrey Hepburn done against a background of old maps of the United States, to illustrate the American drive to be better and do more, often at the cost of lost identities by taking the wrong path.
“Watch out for her because she’s sneaky,” Barrow says of the black acrylic painting. “The envy and those feelings of competitiveness are not always evident. They are a little throughout the day or a little throughout the month or the year. They’re sneaky and can have bigger impacts on your mental health and well-being than you might think. When you formulate your goals and your journey, you are bombarded by the expectations of others and often you are not able to chart your own path or be satisfied with the path you have chosen. When you see her, you are captivated.
It’s a cycle that’s unique in America, Barrow, who was a finalist in the contest, says, “We work harder and have longer work weeks and less care for our workers than many other comparable, developed countries.”
For contest winner Nicholas Xenophontos ’23 (CLAS), the fact that “America” has no definition is perhaps its greatest strength. In his test, “Meanings of America” he notes that the country is free, brave and just – but that leaves landlords free to raise rent, councilors to recommend stifled tears to show courage and brothers and sisters to support opposing sides of the laws and differing opinions about right and wrong.
“Try any fundamental pillar of American identity and you’ll find hypocrisy, redundancy and irony,” says Xenophontos in the essay that won the $500 top prize. “Our entire history is one of betrayal of one of our intrinsic merits, beginning with the colonial destruction of Indigenous society, land and culture.”
Because of this tension, America is meaningless, he says, allowing people to define it for themselves.
“My inspiration came from a deeper cynicism and a slight nihilism that permeates the mood of my generation,” he says. “If we don’t discuss the personal meanings we place on our nations or our institutions, then those tainted values that cement themselves in our lives will go unchallenged. We need to talk about what America means to us, because the hope is that our voices will be raised and we will hear each other. After all, speaking is of no use to us unless we open our ears and minds to what is actually being said.
Braunstein says she was not surprised that the competition attracted students from majors outside of the expected fields of political science, sociology and public policy. At Democracy Lab, its students come from a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, business, and computer science, and they’re “excited by the opportunity to stretch their legs a bit and think about things they don’t think about.” . as much in their courses, but these are their personal interests.
They helped with the lab website design, publicize the contest, serve as contest judges, and promote the complete project on Twitter and instagram. Staff at UConn Center of Excellence in Teaching and Learning filmed the winners talking about their submissions.
Now the students and Braunstein turn to the sequel – a documentary-style podcast, “The Battle for American History.”
The recording of the first episode took place at the end of April.
“In the podcast, we reflect on where we are exposed to these different versions of American history, beginning with childhood, in church, through rituals, and during vacations,” Braunstein explains. “What are the times when people start to question some of these ideas they’ve been exposed to – like the myth that America is a sacred ‘Christian nation’ – and what are the voices today that criticize this version or promote alternative versions of the narrative? Which promotes a history of the country as a racially and religiously diverse country that has an imperfect past but is working towards the vision of a more perfect union with the ‘coming ? “
Talking about America’s past is important to its future, as Xenophontos says, and Herbst agrees.
“As a social scientist, you always want to ask yourself, ‘Who cares? when you study a phenomenon like American public opinion. I think it’s important to get into the minds of average citizens as best we can. If people value democracy, trust each other and trust the democratic process, they will build a better nation,” she says. “They will work together and make sacrifices for the greater good.”