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INTERVIEW

Elaine May - Despite Being Preoccupied with Safety, Americans Have Made Themselves Less Secure

Professor at University of Minnesota reflects on her keynote speech at the 15th SSASA symposium

Elaine May at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association

Elaine May at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association

Oscar Tollast | 15.01.2018

Elaine May is no stranger to the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA), nor is it her first time at Schloss Leopoldskron. The professor and author last attended a SSASA symposium in 2012 – Screening America: Film and Television in the 21st Century, which was her fourth time at the Schloss. She says, “I’ve been here before, and I’ve always found it very exciting, intellectually stimulating, beautiful, luxurious [and] delicious. It’s always a wonderful experience. I especially love having the opportunity to discuss issues that pertain to the United States with people from other countries, because I learn so much from their perspective.”

May was speaking having returned just under five years later for her fifth visit for the SSASA symposium, Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration to hear how other countries’ citizens perceived the new American administration under President Donald J. Trump. She also provided the key note presentation on the first evening of the symposium, titled, “The American Dream and the Quest for Security – the Promise and the Perils.”

Among the points May made was that the United States had a “crisis in democracy,” and that the American Dream has been problematic since the beginning of the Second World War. While it’s since been possible for members of the middle class and working class to achieve material aspects of the American Dream, they live in fear that dream could be taken away from them in an instant, she says.

May, Regents professor of American studies and history, and chair of the Department of History at the University of Minnesota, says, “That level of anxiety and fear – that was first manifest in the atomic age and in the Cold War – has taken various forms over the rest of the 20th Century, and now into the 21st. That has kind of conditioned Americans to live in a world in which they always feel that they are in danger. That leads to a breakdown of belief and investment in the common good, and in a kind of mistrust in the government to work on behalf of all citizens, and in a fear and suspicion of strangers – whoever those strangers are.”

This fear has changed the way Americans live their daily lives, according to May. It changed the way citizens vote and how they envisage their nation’s identity. In short, May says this has had a long-term effect on undercutting democracy. She adds, “Americans have become quite preoccupied with issues of safety and security since the early Cold War… Everything they have done to try to make themselves more safe and secure has made them less safe and secure.”

Expanding on this point, May says US citizens have become so preoccupied looking over their shoulder that they’ve failed to notice what is happening in front of them and the growing influence of the country’s elite one percent. She says, “Keeping a gun in their pocket wasn’t going to prevent [people] from metaphorically losing their shirts to Wall Street and other big money financial institutions that are really robbing them – not somebody walking behind them on the street.”

May’s keynote drew several responses from participants, one of whom suggested a hate narrative was more dominant in the US than the fear narrative. Responding to this suggestion, May says, “I think the two are very related. I think that the hate comes out of fear. If we really knew each other, you wouldn’t fear each other. Hate is a stronger more aggressive stand than fear. Fear feels weak, and hate feels strong.”

As a past president of the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association, May’s interest in her country’s history cannot be questioned. Her interest in US history first bloomed when she lived in Japan as a student in 1968. She says, “I hadn’t really understood how important it would be for me to know my own national history until I lived abroad as an American, and I had to speak as an American, and I had to represent a country that I was profoundly alienated from in 1968 between the Vietnam War and all the other horrible things that were happening at the time. I had to speak for my country – not just as a person who saw herself as among the dissenters within the country but as the citizen of the United States that was wreaking havoc all over Asia, including Japan.

“I thought I better learn something. I went back to the US and started taking US history courses, which I hadn’t really done much of. When I graduated a year later, I felt I didn’t really know enough. I had applied for the Peace Corps and got in but realized I had nothing to teach anybody until I knew more. I thought I better go to graduate school. Then I went to graduate school, and then I kind of just got on the train.”

Her graduate school days are now long behind her and she certainly now has a lot more to teach people. In addition to her work as a professor, May has authored several books, most recently Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy (2017) and America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (2010). Alongside multi-time Salzburg Global Fellow Reinhold Wagenleitner, she also co-edited Here, There, and Everywhere: The Foreign Politics of American Popular Culture (2000), a collection of essays that originated at a Salzburg Global session.


Elaine May was a participant of the Salzburg Global Program Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration, which is part of Salzburg Global's multi-year series Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA). More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SSASA

15.01.2018 Category: CULTURE, JUSTICE, SALZBURG IN THE WORLD, SALZBURG UPDATES, SSASA
Oscar Tollast