What the Religious Right in America can teach us about Pluralism

Religion in the public sphere has not always been problematic, as American history demonstrates. Clergy have taken both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions when it comes to issues such as civil rights, anti-war protests etc. This is seen as in the 1960s, when the clergy lead demonstrations for civil rights while in the 1980s they vehemently protested abortion. This hard-nosed pragmatism is a feature of American public life and will likely continue, says Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Professor of Sociology in his essay The Religious Right and Symbolic Politics (1991). In analyzing the effectiveness of the Religious Right in American public and political sphere, Wuthnow asks: What worked for the Religious Right and what did not? An answer to this may point to the direction in which the future leaders of the Religious Right may strategize, he suggests. Further, Wuthnow shows that the Religious Right has consistently tried to mold public policy, defined as the outcome of the political process with respect to specific substantive issues. While the stated position of the Religious Right has consistently been to ‘uphold morality’, the way to achieve this has varied, depending both on the power that the groups have enjoyed as well as the relations between local and national politics.

photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/
photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/

In an insightful remark Wuthnow captures the paradoxes of American life : “ The American public does not want our public policy makers to be devoid of value considerations, but neither does it want its seminaries and churches to become halls of public administration.” (p.89). By this he means that while there is a great desire to see values reflected in the public sphere, Americans deeply pragmatic in several ways, and are conscious of keeping the separation of Church and State. Americans do not want Clergy to run be Surgeons, nor carry out bureaucratic functions, he reminds us. At the same time, he reminds us that one of reasons the Religious Right was successful in the 70s and 80s was because of its ‘outsider’ image, of being the ‘Moral majority’, standing up for what was right, and being ‘anti-establishment.’ When this gave way to being ‘inside’ the corridors of power, the legitimacy that they enjoyed began to wane. The reason for this is that the anti-government sentiment among most Americans is still prevalent among most Americans, who are ambivalent about the ‘over-reaching’ aspects of the federal government.
Also, this moral majority succeeded post-Watergate and other business scandals of the 1960s and 70s’, when Americans were worried about growing immorality, drugs and teenage pregnancies and a drop in general morality. The ‘flower children’ of the 1960s had grown up and were becoming responsible adults. Further, he argues that it may be prudent to look to the Right for lessons by considering some of the ways in which it influenced public agenda. This theme is well developed and illustrated in his book Red State Nation (2012), where Wuthnow argues that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two religious denominations – Methodism and Catholicism- in Kansas State actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining ground during most of the state’s history. Though Kansas is a paradigmatic case for how the Republican party has established a strong hold, there are many internal debates, inconsistencies and struggles between the Religious Right groups that are not fully appreciated, Wuthnow reminds us. For instance, the tension between Methodists, Catholics and Baptists is not taken into consideration, when we speak about the Religious Right. Nor is the ‘moderate’ side of the Republican Party itself, which in many cases goes against the extreme Republican perspective.
The ‘moral majority’ of today seems to be decidedly liberal, by many measures. As recent studies have shown, the fundamental structure of American family is changing. As this in-depth report by NY Times argues: “Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes. Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” The report goes on to say that increasing intermarriage between races, religious denominations is causing a shift in how people conceptualize kinships. “ In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally. Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” This level of mingling, complication of associational life has not occurred before, according to observers. While there is little doubt that this is impacting the shift towards a more liberal and plural outlook towards moral values, the exact shift is yet to be determined.

Hobby Lobby and the debate about religion

Several important legal cases in the past few months have made the issue of pluralism salient, in the American public consciousness. Issues related to marriage equality, Immigration and most recently, healthcare have brought forth some deep underlying tensions in American society, to the fore. While these cases are about particular issues, I would argue that they are ultimately about defining the scope of religious pluralism in America. This case, like the others is about what Wuthnow has called ‘symbolic politics,’ i.e., the strategy of gaining attention for symbolic issues and ensuring that the Right Wing’s agenda stays in the public policy realm. The decisions that courts reach in deciding these cases will have far-reaching implications on how the future generations come to understand the limits of religion. Also, these debates involve ‘factions’, in this case, special interest groups, that are often accused of undermining democratic participation.
I will briefly discuss the impact of religion in the public sphere and use the example of Hobby Lobby case that has challenged the neutrality of courts and the state in implementing laws. In this case, it is the federal healthcare law that is being challenged. While it is not possible to go into all the details of this case, a quick synopsis of this case is as follows: Two companies: Consestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, want to be exempt from providing their employees contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act. While these two firms are not religious organizations, their owners say that they are the ‘victims of an assault on religious liberty’, as the owners disapprove of some of the contraceptives, points out a New York Times editorial.
The question that is at the heart of this debate is whether the contraceptive coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it be to “further a compelling government interest.” The NY Times editorial argues that the Supreme court should not allow the corporations to get away with this, as it would mean permitting the companies to impose their views on thousands of their employees.
As the editors further argue: “If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.” The arguments about religious freedom are being used to deny services to women in this case, as they were used to deny equality to African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. While this particular instance could be seen as ‘government aggression’ against religion, the principle of non-discrimination would be violated if the Supreme Court supports the corporate case.
Beyond the immediacy of the issues we are discussing and the legal wrangles involved, the big issues involved are those of the changing morality in America. This is related not only to the changing family structures, as mentioned earlier, but also increased shift in religious denominations, conversion to other religions as well as a moving away, from religion, generally. An article in The American Scholar points to the declining influence of the Evangelical Church, and the impact this is having on other denominations. Call it the ‘fall of Evangelical Church and the Rise of Catholic Church,’ if you will. As the article argues: “But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.” Simultaneously, while the growth of ‘spiritual shoppers’- those who are religiously unaffiliated but spiritually active, grows, other religions such as Islam gain more converts and the Catholic Church also becomes an attractive proposition for the more liberal minded Millennials, we have the shift of an entire generation of Christians.
Further, pointing to the broader sociological changes, the American Scholar article claims: “ Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.” So, taking a cue from this, one can ask: Are the Hobby Lobby and related cases an attempt by the Religious Right to assert its ‘moral authority.’ Can it be seen as a desperate effort to claim its own moral territory, that it is afraid of losing?
A related concern that comes up, in this examination of the changing demographics, religious affiliations and moral values is: How is the notion of pluralism (pertaining to religion, ethical values, morality) shifting in this context? A careful analysis of the aforementioned factors suggests that there seems to be a gradual expansion of the idea of pluralism. Also, if the Republican Right’s strategies of using pluralism to advocate a more narrow vision of society is not working, might we see a broader vision of pluralism in America? At the level of discourse too, are we seeing a gradual relaxation of how we seek out ‘morality’ in the public sphere. As Connolly argues in his book Pluralism (2005): “ What is needed today is a cautious relaxation of discourse about the sacred, one that allows us to come to terms affirmatively with the irreducible plurality of sacred objects in late modern life. With respect to sovereignty it is important to underline the significance of acts by which deep conflicts are settled; but it is equally important not to elevate them to the level of the sacred.” (2005,p.39). By this, Connolly is referring not to the relaxation of moral norms, but the entrenchment of positions, that often goes when people are discussing deeply normative values.


How can Zakat help Syrian Refugees?

The ongoing Syrian Civil War is pegged to be the largest humanitarian disaster since the Cold War. A recent New York Times article quoted United Nations Organizations officials making an appeal for an unprecedented $5bn towards relief and rehabilitation, even as the fighting goes on. Given that most of the victims of the crisis are Muslim (ironically, so are the perpetrators), the question that one can logically ask is: can the neighboring Muslim countries as well as those with a large Muslim population help fix the humanitarian crisis? What role can religious mobilization play in humanitarian rehabilitation? At first glance, there seems to be tremendous potential for this sort of mobilization. Geopolitics aside, I argue that humanitarian responses coming from individual and civil society, faith-based groups are perhaps the most effective way to deal with long-term aid for Syria and particularly helpful, when the government aid dries up.

Photo credit : irusa.org
Photo credit : irusa.org

Consider this: Annually around US$200 billion and $1 trillion are spent in “mandatory” alms and voluntary charity across the Muslim world, according to a report from the IRIN, the United Nations News wire . This is more than 15 times the combined annual global humanitarian aid from all countries. This staggering amount of money is spent largely during the month of Ramadhan, but some of it during the whole year. While giving patterns vary across countries, racial and ethnic divisions among Muslims, who are ethnically and racially as diverse as the entire humanity; certain patterns are clearly visible: there is a clear preference to give to ‘near and dear ‘ones, i.e., poor relatives or neighbors. In fact Muslim scholars recommend that this be the case. While zakat and sadaqa (voluntary arms) are not strictly conceptualized as tools of social justice, they can be interpreted as such. The Qur’an calls charity a process of ‘cleansing one’s wealth’. And this motif is visible among most donors, around the world. There is a growing mobilization globally, to give to causes and humanitarian initiatives such as Syria, Palestine, Sudan etc. The success of Islamic Relief, Hizmet Movement and other civil society groups is testament to this growth in the Muslim FBO sector. While this sector offers a lot of potential, there are obvious challenges too.
The challenge of utilizing zakat for humanitarian development in Syria are many. While several organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands, Hizmet, Red Cross, UNHCR, Save the Children and several others are working in Syria to ameliorate the suffering of vulnerable populations, the demand is far too great; for these organizations to fulfill the needs on their own. This calamity needs concerted and coordinated actions on all fronts – government, nongovernment, faith-based and individual. The big challenge in a coordinated global humanitarian action involving zakat is obvious: the logistics of it is simply too complicated. While there are no centralized ways to donate zakat money and each individual or family usually decides on how this money should be disbursed, there is a growing awareness among groups and national leaders on the need to streamline it. One way to do this is to coordinate donations through civil society organizations, as it happens in the Western world and emerging economies, where there is a growing culture of nonprofits. Among those countries where this is not possible, some states do collect zakat money. In fact the Gulf countries even have zakat ministries that care of zakat collection.
Jonathan Benthall, one of the pioneers of study of global Islamic humanitarian movement has written in his book The Charitable Crescent that the global movement to utilize zakat and help fellow Muslims started after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Bosnian War consolidated it. Given the fears of this money flowing into militant hands, several governments have clamped down and made it hard for the flow of zakat money, he says.

Other researchers such as John Alterman have called this an ‘exaggerated fear’, arguing that despite the doomsday predictions, only a very small number of these nonprofits indulge in illegal activities and that we ignore or sideline their potential for doing good at our own peril. Several organizations have spoken about the difficulties, both real and perceived, of channeling their zakat money towards the Middle East. The hurdles that have been put in place, both as a result of monitoring systems set up by the U.S. and E.U. for monitoring ‘terrorist funding’ often conflate funding for civil society organizations. This is a real danger that is facing this sector. The dominant narrative of ‘terror funding’ may perhaps be an inflated fear of a phenomenon that has genesis more from geopolitical developments and actors rather than through civil society organizations. Both Alterman and Benthall point out that this is a fact we must consider, before we conflate the two. A report from ISPU in 2009 titled Charitable Giving Among Muslims: Ten Years after 9/11 argued that the actions of the U.S. government to shut down and investigate several Muslim charities had had a detrimental effect on charitable giving.

The report goes on to suggest several policy recommendations, that would remove the current hurdles in place. The situation today is not looking good. As of today, the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) has received just 10 percent of its needed amount . As donor fatigue sets in and there is greater despondency among aid workers and donors, the critical question that all those involved in this must ask is: Are we utilizing the solution, right in our backyard? Are we being too cautious, in the face of a great need and not letting home-grown solutions cater to home-grown problems?
Going forward, the challenges in a post-conflict situation would be many. Education, housing, healthcare would only be the starting points for the millions of those displaced, both internally and out of Syria. While the U.N., army of civil society organizations and faith-based organizations gather resources and work through this difficult crisis, one thing is clear: all segments of society must come together, irrespective of faith- affiliation, geographic and national boundaries, to help the victims of Syrian War.


1. For more, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/world/middleeast/syria.html?action=click&module=Search&region=searchResults%230&version=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fquery.nytimes.com%2Fsearch%2Fsitesearch%2F%3Faction%3Dclick%26region%3DMasthead%26pgtype%3DHomepage%26module%3DSearchSubmit%26contentCollection%3DHomepage%26t%3Dqry749%23%2FSyria%2Bfundraising%2F&_r=0

2.For more, see For more, see http://www.irinnews.org/report/95564/analysis-a-faith-based-aid-revolution-in-the-muslim-world

3. See http://www.ispu.org/Getpolicy/34/2259/Publications.aspx
4. For more, see http://fts.unocha.org/pageloader.aspx?page=special-syriancrisis


Which History Should We Remember?

Anwar Congo comes across as a fairly normal man – Until he starts to describe his sadistic ways of killing innocent people. He is the protagonist of an Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing, a film making, for depicting the 1965 Indonesian purge of Communists. An estimated one million people were killed during that period. Men like Congo were the ‘gangsters’ who carried out these killings. act-of-killing-trailer

            The killers who are captured in this film are free men today. They roam the streets, have access to national level politicians and are boastful of what they did. The narrative that they paint is one of ‘saving Indonesia’ from communism. My understanding of communism and the Cold War was limited only to Vietnam, the Non-Alignment movement and other Western interventions. But I had no idea that over a million people were killed in Indonesia in the guise of ‘spreading freedom’. Isaiah Berlin would be turning in his grave. Perhaps all liberal thinkers who rightfully defend liberty and liberal principles would be turning in their graves at this supposed intervention, to stop the spread of a totalitarian system.

            The question that is relevant to us now in 2014 is: How do we remember this history and what if, anything, do we do about it? Are these war crimes? Should Congo and his accomplices be prosecuted? And more importantly, how do we make sense of this history, that implicates directly the narrative of Western powers, who defended ‘freedom’ and ‘human dignity’ by standing up to totalitarian regimes during WWII, but very soon were fighting proxy wars that killed millions around the world. Indonesia, Vietnam, Latin America were all impacted by the Cold War. A related question to how we should make sense of evil is : How should we remember history and which part of it should we remember?

Nietzsche addressed this problem very well in his short essay On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life. He argued that there are three kinds of histories: Monumental, Antiquarian and Critical History. Monumental history is when we remember history through monumentalization. For instance building war memorial etc. Antiquarian history involves preserving traditions of the past while Critical History is taking a step back from our engagement with the characters and narratives and taking a close hard look at our history, through a critical lens. He argues that we need all three histories, to ‘serve life’, i.e., to ensure that we learn lessons from them and do not stagnate, as individuals or become unthinking creatures, who live in the glories of the past or are deluded with fantasies of the future.

What is at stake here? In the case mentioned above, a few things stand out: abuse of power by the powerful, the co-optation of others, who willingly helped those who were doing evil deeds and also the identities of all those involved. The victim’s identities were as crucial as those of the perpetrators. While in Indonesia, the ‘communists’ were the demons, in Germany it was the Jews. While the cliché that victors write history is true, it is also true that the losers remember it. And they valorize their loss in more ways than one. Consider the Confederate flag-hoisting ceremonies that occur in the American South, every so often. The group that organized this event said on their website “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.” While their stated purpose may be true, what is really at stake in these actions seems to be political mobilization. Mobilization around an ideology and history that has long lost relevance. This ideology believed in slavery, denied minorities and the ‘others’ rights that were due and vehemently resisted joining the Union. This is also part of the rhetoric that believes that the federal government is ‘taking over our guns’ and believes in re-arming itself, should there be a revolution. Sounds rational? I am not too sure. Being able to look at the past and the mistakes that our ancestors have made, willingly or unwillingly is mark of a mature mind.

            Nietzsche argued for remembering our history, not just to memorialize it or merely to draw inspiration – though both can have their uses. He argued for remembering it critically. As he says: “Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus neither melancholy nor weary.” Comparing human memory with that of cattle grazing, he points out “For the man says, “I remember,” and envies the beast, which immediately forgets and sees each moment really perish, sink back in cloud and night, and vanish forever.” Forgetting all one’s experiences, lessons in life is akin to living like a beast, he is saying. While this is not a tenable position, the alternative, i.e., to remember everything and live ‘historically’ would also rob man of his agency.

            Elaborating on this idea, Tariq Ali, Novelist and Writer talks about the ‘downgrading of history’ in this fascinating talk. He argues that in contemporary times, there is a trend to forget history or even think it is irrelevant. “The historical process is not linear. It is not a line going up, progress and all that. It goes up and down. Progress, rationalism, defeat, rise of irrationalism. This’s been the case for thousands of years. It is good to remember that there have been bad times before. There is nothing pre-ordained that we must move forwards.” Ali points out that the Western world fought the ‘monism’ of Communism that stifled differences in thinking, divergence from the norm. The very same thing seems to be happening, with those in power suppressing dissent.

 His thesis is that the current global crisis and the recession that started in 2008 showed that when the rich are being bailed out, why are not the poor being afforded this? To even ask this question is to invite wrath of the rulers, the rich and billionaires, says Ali. This is also an area where history has been forgotten, and the lessons are not being used. Forgetting history is altogether an abuse, Ali says.

            Coming back to the documentary, are not Congo and his accomplices’ actions despicable? And isn’t this documentary an attempt at critiquing this history, while monumentalizing it? Through the narrative in the film, Congo seems to be rather proud of his actions and he says that he was going ‘good’ for his country and that the Communists deserved to die. There are graphic accounts of how he killed the men, women and children and his friends describe other ghastly acts including rape of minor girls. All of this is surely sick and it is quite clear that we are dealing with a very dark and psychotic character here. But taking a close look at this part of Indonesia’s history and critically examining the facts also shows us how supposed wars for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ have had terrible consequences. Remember that these were supposed to be the ‘good’ guys fighting the ‘bad’ Communists during the era of heightened Cold War. The Western world was involved in its own versions of such wars, though not so blatantly.

By remembering, altering history and “through the power of using the past for living and making history out of what has happened, does a person first become a person.” But for all of this to occur, it must occur critically, with conscious thought to what is being remembered and why. Aspects of history should be examined, critiqued and also used in all three forms that he has shown. Should this documentary shame the Indonesian government or the Western powers who supported them? Or rather should we, supporters of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ in the West be more cautious when we claim to support these values and people who further them. This documentary certainly raises these profound questions and we are wise to heed the call and examine these issues critically. Not to do so would mean abusing history and our own intellect.





Should We Get Rid Of The ‘Southern Mystique’?

There’s an old joke I heard in India, that the Southerners tell about the Northerners (I am a Southerner, from the city of Bangalore) and it goes: The only culture up North is ‘Agri’ culture.

Photo credit : www.art-prints-on-demand.com -
Photo credit : http://www.art-prints-on-demand.com

While seemingly innocuous and said as light-hearted banter, it does capture the stereotypes South Indians have about the Northerners. The Northerners have their own versions of this joke, some are more blatant. I see this phenomenon in the U.S. as well. While there is no history of a Civil War in India, as in the U.S., these stereotypes run deep. There is a bloody history in the U.S, that perpetuates some of the stereotypes and antagonisms that exist between the regions in this country. I will focus on the U.S. in this short article and try to answer the following question: In the U.S., should we learn to speak of each other in a different way and go beyond this ‘Southern mystique’? This ‘Southern Mystique’ often paints the American South as an exotic land, full of violence and sensuality and is patently a creation. One could go so far as to say that this is similar to the Orientalist portrayal of the former colonies in Asia and Africa. While historical facts do support many of the assertions of violence, racial hatred and bigotry, the exoticization of the South in literature, as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams have done is arguably just that – an exotic fantasy of a land and people who are subject to similar, if not the same forces that the ‘Northerners’ are subject to.

Howard Zinn in his short book The Southern Mystique (1964) argues against this continuation of the ‘Southern mystique’. The key argument of his book is that this ‘Southern Mystique’ can be gotten rid of. What is needed is not new legislation, but new conditions, where the White and Blacks interact and deal with one another more. Also, coupled with this, there must be realization that people are motivated by current circumstances, values that they hold dear and also economic incentives. While one of these values is racial attitudes and sometimes, superiority of the white race, this can be changed, over a period of time. I would suggest, taking this a step further that perhaps we can start by how we talk about the South. While this in itself may not solve anything, it is a good start.

A recent incident in Blacksburg, though minor, demonstrates the continuing differences that exist in the popular imagination in the South. I went for a haircut just the other day and witnessed something strange. Well, almost hilarious, if it were not for the tension that was inbuilt into the narrative. The incident I witnessed involved a roughly 40 year old man getting a haircut and giving some advice to the young man, who was cutting his hair about the banality of education, how ignorant almost all professors are etc. “Most of these professors are like politicians, I tell ya. They just talk because they can, I bet no one ever listens to them.” To this the young man nodded and kept cutting his hair. Sitting next to this gentleman was another young man, who was conversing with the lady, who was cutting his hair – conversation is a very Southern thing I am learning, and I am completely for it. While he mentioned that he was from the North, this older gent remarked “Oh yeah, this town is now flooded with them Yankees. Not sure what they’re doing down here.” While this could be seen as just blabbering from a not-so-intelligent person, it does capture some of the tensions in popular imagination that Southerners have for those in the North. Radical groups such as the Tea Party have and continue to exploit these differences and historical narratives that pit the North against the South.

This narrative of South vs. North could be considered a popular culture version of the ‘culture wars’, a phenomenon that comes up time and again. While very present in popular discourse, if not in Confederate Flag raising incidents such as this, or the debate about the ‘overstretching’ mandate of the Federal government. The sentiment against big government is pretty high in the South, as most people would be aware. The underlying factor that drives all of this seems to be fear. The fear of unknown, known and the anxiety to preserve what little there is left of the privilege that the ‘old order’ provided. As this NY Times Op-Ed points out, “The potential for multiracial coalitions to address these issues (poverty and lack of economic opportunities) is made less likely by the rightward drift of white Southerners and their aversion to potential African-American partners.” Ms.Dowe, the author of the Op-Ed further argues that “Historically, the racialized social order of the South has granted whites what Peggy McIntosh called the “invisible package of unearned assets” of privilege. This package included economic advancement, social esteem and access to better occupations and opportunities. After the Civil Rights movement extended these privileges to African-Americans, whites sought other means of privilege.” This shift to the political Right seems to be working against their own interest, as the Republican Party has consistently worked to undermine Social Security and other welfare programs such as the Food Assistance program, which benefit the poor – irrespective of race. There is data that shows that there are more poor white folks in the South than African Americans.

The American South does have a reputation for being more insular, closed off to rest of the country and prone to more racism. While the first two accusations seem quite prevalent, the allegation of racism prevailing is quite an egregious one to make. Yes, there has been a strong history of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups operating out of the Southern states and they still do. This notwithstanding, as with other ways of thinking of the ‘other’, can we use this logic to think of the nation – the Union as one, instead of dividing and mentally dissecting the country into North and South? Or is this too much to ask for? The North is not a race-free haven. The challenges of racism, ethnocentricity and religious bigotry exists in New York too. It is the degree that matters. While political points can be scored by keeping up these divisions, it may actually be a prudent move to address these issues for what they are – deep insecurities and political wranglings going hand in hand.

The pride, the focus on community and rootedness of many of the people in the South are truly admirable. The anger, hurt and misplaced rhetoric of ‘othering’ anyone not from their local communities should be placed in this context. Poverty, a focus on history that places the Southerners as the ones who lost and a perpetual sense of deprivation are some of the root causes of this continued ambivalence that the Southerners feel for the Yankees.

Zinn advocates a strategy that it lead by strong leadership and economic plans that ensure that those actions that facilitate integration bet incentivized. He says: “ But the specialness of the Southern mystique vanishes when one sees that whites and negroes behave like human beings, that the South is but a distorted mirror image of the North and that we are powerful today, and free enough to retain only as much of the past as we want. We are all magicians. We created the mystery of the South and we can dissolve it.” These differences are false dichotomies, propped up by those interested in keeping a certain history alive. These are also tied to certain relations of power, as a discourse analyst would say. While keeping one’s heritage is all well and good, remembering the defeats, humiliation and subjugation of the past – the Civil War in this case- and interpreting it as a continuation of the struggle is not only counter-productive, but seems to be ludicrous.


What a 19th century French Aristocrat can teach us about America


This is perhaps the most cited book in the world. I have seen it cited even when there is no need to do so, because the aura of quoting Tocqueville, the 19th century French aristocrat is irresistible. With his magnum opus Democracy in America, written after his visit to America in the 1830s’, Tocqueville entered the hall of immortals and this book is widely considered both by liberals and conservatives as an authoritative book on American history. While there is deep questioning in America regarding democracy and its efficacy and study after study showing that components that build democracy are in decline, this book is a peek into the past that offers us rich insights and lessons.democracy

“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” These are the words with which Tocqueville begins his book. Here, he is talking about the equality that he saw among ‘free White men’, of his era, given that slavery was still very much part of the American social makeup. One can forgive him for this and look at the where he is coming from – the nobility of France, a deeply hierarchical society. This is one of the most significant takeaways from this book. This insight into the equality of Americans is also one of the most insightful observations that he makes. While inequality in America did exist in his time and it seems to have only increased in our times, the absence of  aristocracy and a perception of equality among all people is  part of the psychological makeup that is hard to find in any other part of the world.

He goes on to say “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” This goes to elaborate his earlier statement about the equality of conditions in America. He did note that the paradoxes in America were quite obvious. Racism while proclaiming equality. A great sense of individualism and the presence of conformist ideas alongside, a deeply religious society that was also extremely materialistic. The sense of local governance and direct democracy that Tocqueville witnessed in his travels across the states was something he marveled at, while there was a Constitution that was over 50 years old at that time. He made a careful note of all these paradoxes and  analyzes them.

The key problem that he wanted to solve, by writing this book is how democracy could survive and thrive, without falling to the changing mores of a majoritarian agenda. He felt this could be the antidote for France, with its hierarchical society. Having emerged from the French revolution only a generation ago, France then was in clear danger of falling back to autocratic leanings.  Not only France, but the whole world could learn from America’s experience, he wrote. He also undertakes a careful review of the judicial system of America, as it forms the backbone of the democratic system. “The courts correct the aberrations of democracy,” Tocqueville points out. He gives a detailed breakdown of how the local courts are aligned with the courts higher up and those are in turn responsible for the national jurisdiction. The system of checks on the Executive branch of government through the judiciary is made amply clear through his analysis.

Probing into why Americans thought of each other as equals, he writes “It may safely be advanced, that on leaving the mother country the emigrants had in general no notion of superiority over one another. The happy and the powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune. It happened, however, on several occasions, that persons of rank were driven to America by political and religious quarrels.” The immigrants who made America their home were in exile, often fleeing religious persecution. This, combined with the English language and customs made them tolerate each other. The Founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson personified this notion of equality in all forms – including enshrining it in the constitution as the First Amendment, that sought to restrict the establishment of any one religion and also barring the state from prohibiting the practice of any particular religion. The wisdom of this basic clause cannot be overstated. When many countries around the world are grappling with issues of secularism, separation of religion and state and the role of the ‘state religion’, such problems are present to a much lesser degree in the U.S. than anywhere else. While it is hard to distill all the key points that Tocqueville made in a short essay, suffice it to say that this book deserves to be read, as it provides us a glimpse into the soul of America of the 19th century.

What lessons, if any does Tocqueville’s analysis have for us? I would argue that by relooking at the character of America in its formative years, we get a glimpse of the struggles that the nation and its people went through. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a mirror – in that it offers us an opportunity to look at our country yet again, with fresh eyes. Despite the historical element, many aspects of his analysis still hold true. While essentializing the ‘American character’ is not my purpose and I presume that Tocqueville also did not set out to find this, one can read into his work this quest for how the average American made sense of his life, his country and his or her own surroundings. To this extent, this is a powerful sociological document that offers us rich insights into how ordinary people, priests, criminals, tradesmen and

He does critique the institution by saying “Slavery, as we shall afterwards show, dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.” (p.47)

A comparison with that era and our times can offer us benchmark of sorts. As a student of philanthropy, I was intrigued to learn of the history of civil society organizations. Americans are constantly forming self-help groups or some sorts of associations, Tocqueville pointed out. This trend seems to have continued, as we see the nonprofit and civil society sector to be one of the most vibrant in America. Americans given about $300 billion, as individuals to charity every year. Of this, about $100 billion goes to religious institutions, further demonstrating the importance of religion in the American public imagination. This is shifting slowly, but despite the demographic shifts, decreasing influence of Church on individual and societal morality, there is still a general understanding that religious institutions are key to American social life.

As America is changing and its fundamental values are being questioned by various discourses related to immigration, wealth inequality, gender relations etc. this book offers us some insights into how America has dealt with these issues in the past and what wisdom this holds for the future. Despite its formidable size, at over 800 pages, this is a book worth your time and attention.

Should we all be Cosmopolitans Now?

The idea of being a ‘Cosmopolitan’ or a citizen of the world is not new and one can trace its emergence as a philosophy to the Stoics, who lived during the second and third century B.C. The most famous of them is Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations has become a classic. The idea of not belonging to one place and embracing the universe as one is the crux of this way of thinking and one is inclined to ask: With globalization, is this the way the world is moving, and should we all be cosmopolitans now? Kwame Anthony Appaiah surely thinks so, and articulates his ideas in his book Cosmopolitanism, Ethics in a World of Strangers.c

Cosmopolitanism has many fans, but there are critics too. The opposing forces that faces a cosmopolitan way of life are the parochial ones: Nationalism, tribalism and any identity that seeks to be all consuming and dominant. This notion aspires to a ‘cultural purity’ that is an oxymoron, Appaiah argues. “The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live in a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places and that contains influences from many more” .While this is true and a valid argument, it is also true that cosmopolitanism could end up becoming another generalizing and universalizing principle, that could potentially ignore the ‘particularisms’ as Clifford Geertz, the Anthropologist would say. These particularisms are what make us unique and in their absence, we would be devoid of any identity. The other word for this is cultural relativism and one that seeks to honor each tradition on its own terms. While Appaiah acknowledges its value, he fears that this could lead to a world that is not ‘shared’ by all. This could lead to more divisiveness than is needed, in his view.

So, why is this notion of Cosmopolitanism important, one may ask? The simple answer is that because there is no other choice, at least for many, around the world, who are constantly bombarded with messages, media, ways of thinking and living that are alien to their ‘local’ traditions. Either we all cloister ourselves in our own ‘world’ and refuse to acknowledge or respect the ‘other’ whatever that may be, or we can open up our world and minds and recognize that the ‘other’s’ way of life, language, culture are valid and as human as we are. This gives life to the statement that the stoic playwright Terentius Afer made “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” Appaiah draws out various analogies from his own life and that from history to demonstrate that cultural relativism, the belief that each one of us is so unique that we are best left undisturbed, is patently false. Further, Appaiah elaborates the tension between positivism and value laden worldviews.Positivism has its limits, he argues, because it can lead to particularism and a fixation with ‘rationality.’ What if the other person doesn’t speak in rational terms? How do we deal with this?

This is where values enter, points out Appaiah and one would have to agree that values can have a universalizing spirit. Who doesn’t believe in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless – we may differ in the means for doing this, but most of us would agree that these are good things that we should all aspire for. “Folktales, drama, opera, novels, short stories: every human civilization has ways to reveal to us values we had not previously recognized or undermine our own commitments to values that we had settled into. Armed with these terms, fortified with a shared language of value, we can often guide one another, in the cosmopolitan spirit, to shared responses; and when we cannot agree, the understanding that shaped our responses are shaped by some of the same vocabulary can make it easier to agree to disagree.” While this call for focusing on the positives in the narratives and values is all fine and good, what happens when there are clashing narratives and values that pit one against the other? While Appaiah does offer a critique of the ‘counter-cosmopolitan’ narrative of the radicals – Al-Qaeda and other totalitarian systems such as Communism etc. it comes across as too being too essentialist. For instance, in his critique of the concept of the Ummah, or universal brotherhood of Islam, Appaiah takes into account only how the radical Muslims frame it and misuse this concept to ‘other’, while ignoring the equally powerful Ummah that a Sufi or mainstream Sunni conceptualizes. What about the notion of Vasudaiva kutumbam, among the Hindus – that translates as ‘The whole world is a family.’ This is a big weakness of his argument and it is glaringly obvious that while he builds up the war cry, he doesn’t deliver the goods in this particular regard and ends up making a generalization, that ends up in an essentialism that could potentially be seen as carelessness.

As regards how to negotiate among warring factions, Appaiah, does not help us much in this regard, other than by saying that we must converse with one another. But the question still remains: What if people are not willing to even do that? What value system should one adopt? Should we all force everyone to adopt ‘universal principles’? While this seems like a plausible argument, the question still remains: who determines what is universal and why should everyone accept them as such? The differentiation between universalism and cosmopolitanism is that, in the latter, there is a recognition of differences and also the only criterion needed to be a ‘cosmopolitan’ is to recognize the other and have the ability to converse and deal with them. It does not necessarily mean that we adopt the views of the other, as a Universalist would demand. This difference is crucial and one that makes all the difference between ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘respectful cultural dialogue’.

The biggest counter force to this sort of ecumenical thinking comes from ideologies such as nationalism that seek to set boundaries, both real and imagined. While these are often based on linguistic, nationalistic and other imaginaries, that are a product of historical and economic or imperialistic forces, their manifestation is real. How can one deny that American exceptionalism is not real? Or for that matter that the way Canada defines itself is in some way in opposition to what America is not. This tendency to ‘other’ those who don’t belong is part of our psyche and is deeply ingrained. Appaiah acknowledges that we began as small tribes, living in hunter-gathering type communities and this has shaped the way we think and feel about those who belong and those who don’t.

There are some problems with Cosmopolitanism too, including the very foundational one: Who can afford to be one? Can all of us be cosmpolitans? The simple answer seems to be: No. Being a cosmopolitan requires time, effort, money and not to mention access to certain levels of societal resources that are unfortunately not available to all. While we may be exposed to cultures, languages and food from other countries at a superficial level, to be a true embedded cosmopolitan requires traveling to those places, interacting with people who are not like us and living their lives, from their perspectives. This, I would argue is an expensive proposition. Especially if one is not lucky to live in a heterogeneous society. As Gramsci would say, cultural notions are unfortunately defined by the ruling classes and in this sense, the bottom rung of any society can only aspire to be cosmopolitan, in practical terms. This is a practical constraint that I see for this way of thinking and living. But despite this, cosmopolitanism is a compelling and enticing way of thinking and living, one that can make us bigger people, than we are, already.