Who Do We Think We Are?: American Identity and the Ideal of Democracy in the 21st Century

Amy Wilentz
UC Irvine

“The Forum for the Academy and the Public,” a UCI-based collective of faculty interested in public writing and public issues hosted a conference with Jill Lepore, New Yorker writer and Harvard professor of US history, as the keynote. The conference addressed the following questions: Who defines America today? How do we decide who we are as a nation and what we want to be? Are the founding documents relevant to America in the world today, and what are our new uniting “documents,” if any? Are we in fact united? Or are we a very loose confederacy, if that? Indeed, do nations really exist anymore? Is part of what we’re seeing not just the disintegration of the US, but more broadly, the emergence of a world in which supranational systems now override the interests of nations? Or are we, conversely, entering a retrograde era in which a kind of atavistic nationalism will rise to the fore? What will be the consequences for individuals as the concept of the nation changes? And what are the roles of the academy, the media, and new communication technologies in considering these matters and moving them forward constructively?