America / Culture / Events

What Does It Really Mean to be American?

Yesterday morning I attend a panel at the Brookings Institution on “What It Means to be American: New Poll Explores Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America”, organized in co-operation with the Public Religion Research Institute. The panel reported the results of a poll conducted by PRRI on attitudes that Americans have towards Islam, American Muslims, Immigration and Immigrants. This very narrow topic selection was one of the elements that I thought to be most bothersome, can we claim to define what it means to be American through polls on two issues of society. These are not simple or easy to handle issues, but they hardly define the current political debate here in Washington, DC, let alone the self-image of a society.

Nonetheless, after this initial frustration with the narrowness of the panel’s selection within the topic of the title, the panelists escalated into a full-blown assault on self-identified tea party supporters and on Fox News watchers as the source of all possible non-assimilation and negative views of Muslims and immigrants in American society. The numbers presented on the report of poll itself are interesting and anyone interested in societal attitudes should take a look at it. Notwithstanding, on the panel they barely developed very interesting points raised by the research, such as why do a slim majority (51%) of Americans feel more secure and at the same time a huge majority (close to 80%) and close to 70% of Americans think that the US is less respected abroad. These questions are more juicy to develop and discuss than the barely veiled implication that tea party supporters and Fox News watchers are racists.

The other major flaw that I saw on the panel presentation is that they did not try to discuss what are the values that a majority of Americans share and identify as being an integral part of what it means to be American, as the tittle indicated. The very selection of the issues that were explored and the way that they were approached led to a discussion of policy, rather than a discussion of values. Nowhere is it more clear on the question of a possible solution for illegal immigration in which both opinions consider “secure borders”, without a clear definition of the terms, as the starting point of the discussion. I personally was expecting to hear the values that led people to say that they prefer deportation over a path to citizenship. From a panel entitled “What It Means to be American”, there was very little discussion on the shared values of the society and on how Americans imagine and portrait themselves.

By Fred Ferreira@fbartelsf