Indian hospitality, American lives

As I am saying my good byes to people in Blacksburg, where I currently live, and moving to NoVA, I ran into an old acquaintance of mine. This professor of religion –the son of American Methodist priests was born in India – and knows Telugu, among other Indian languages. We got talking about a mutual acquaintance, an Indian scholar, who is constantly traveling. He told me that his family hosted this Indian scholar for a week, even though he didn’t know him at all. “Quite a common Indian expectation, isn’t it,” I asked him. And then the conversation turned to Indian expectations of hospitality, the topic of this brief post.Indians do tend to have high expectations of themselves and of others. As guests and hosts, there are particular rituals, traditions and norms that are followed. Living in a Western society does change this norm a bit, but not radically; there is a constant negotiation going on, in terms of how much ‘tradition’ the family will  uphold and I believe how one treats a visitor is a key part of this negotiation.indian-hospitality-HC62_l

Indeed, there are sayings in various Indian languages such as “Atithi Devo bhava,” which is a Sanskrit aphorism that roughly translates as “The guest is God.” Quite a big claim, isn’t it? As a host, we are expected to treat the guest with everything that we are capable of. I remember this, as a matter of upbringing. Every time someone would visit us, my mom taught me to check if they had eaten, would want some water and offer some snacks, at the very least. These were the basics of being a good host. As a guest, it was one’s duty to refuse anything that was offered, and it was the duty of the host to force them to change their mind. This seems to be a nuanced cultural game that Indians learn to play, at an early age. Eventually, one of the parties wins. Either the host wins and the guest ends up eating, drinking or staying for longer than they anticipated, or the guest wins and leaves.

At the root of this persuasive behavior seems to be the need to please the other, and for the host to feel that they are indeed generous. At the risk of generalizing, I would claim that this is common across various cultures and religious traditions in India. I have been to very few homes in many parts of India where this isn’t true. Of course, with changing societal norms, people are becoming less generous with their time and other resources. But what about Indians living in the U.S.?

Indian-Americans live a schizophrenic life. This roughly translates into living ‘American lives’ but being expected to behave like ‘Indians in India.’ This means attempting to follow much of the same rules of hospitality as one does, in India. Many India-Americans I know are incredibly generous people, who try to uphold their traditions of hospitality, but at the same time; are aware of their own sense of freedom and time-commitments. They would not offer the same kind of attention, time or resources to a host that an average Indian host would. Again, this is based on anecdotal evidence and I don’t intend to generalize.

I am reminded of another incident, where a group of visiting bureaucrats from India were hosted at Syracuse University. I was helping with the program management of this particular group and spent some time with the 30 plus group of officers. One of the complaints I heard from them during their two week stay was “Why aren’t the professors inviting us to their home.” This expectation that they would be invited to the ‘hosts’ home is quite natural, in an Indian setting, but for an American to invite you home for dinner, you’d have to be someone special, and not just a regular trainee in a two-week program, who one’d just met. So, there was a matter of being lost in cultural translation.

As generous as Indians are expected to be, there is also wisdom in curtailing over-staying guests. As much as some traditions can be burdensome, there are others that check this behavior, as well. This saying, which is quite popular in India, captures the spirit:  “On the first day, the guest is bhagvan (God), the second day, the guest is insaan (human) and on the third, the guest is Shaytaan (devil),” reminds us that the hosts should be mindful of not over-staying. Finally, my professor friend reminded me that, growing up in India, he noticed a peculiar custom: Of the host offering to pay the return ticket to the visiting guest, once they had stayed for a few days. “This  was, perhaps a way of telling the guest that it is time to leave,” he pointed out. Some wisdom in that generosity, indeed!

The Anatomy of Arrogance: How to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon

Pride is one of the cardinal sins, but in today’s America it seems to have  become a virtue. If Donald Trump’s rhetoric is anything to go by, and the reaction he is getting from his ‘fans,’ then this ‘sin,’ seems to be the way to win elections. In the language of culture studies, this absolute belief in oneself and one’s values, to the exclusion of others has been called ‘expressive individualism,’ by Robert Bellah, the great American Sociologist.          Expressive individualism means that the primary value that needs to be satisfied or fulfilled is the ‘creative self within.’ This means that all other obligations to others need to be subordinated to this urge. One can easily see how this can run into problems, with others – the family, community – which one is part of.trump

The paradox is : How is such vitriol gaining followers and traction? Are the American voters so unsure of themselves that they will fall for the slightest show of confidence – even if it is based on arrogance of power and wealth – and no real substance?

Trump’s self-declared values – in hard work, entrepreneurship, leading from the front, winning at all costs etc. – make him believe in his own individualism much more than any obligation or duty to anyone else. This extreme manifestation of his personal values in the public space is causing a lot of angst. Combined with extreme arrogance and racism (some have called it xenophobia) we have a deadly cocktail, which seems to be gaining traction.

We may actually have to rely on some scholarship, a bit of conjecture and ultimately, the actions of Mr.Trump to understand the phenomenon that is manifest before us. It is shocking, to many Americans that he is leading the polls, according to this article on CNN. The article points out that “Trump secured 17% support, according to the Suffolk University/USA Today survey. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush garnered 14%, while the rest of the 2016 field remained in single digits.” This puts him ahead of many veteran politicians. During the interview, he argues that no one is listening to Republican leaders such as Lindsey Graham and it is reported that the top Republican brass is already concerned that Trump is causing damage to the party.

But the question still remains: Why is this mode of expression so vastly popular – if Donald Trump’s popularity is any indication that it is so? I would hazard a guess that this reflects the current mood in the U.S. – the country is very slowly recovering from a recession. The world is chaotic – each time one turns on the T.V. or social media – one is bombarded with bad news and gloom and doom scenarios- both domestically and internationally. The fact that lobbies are pushing their own agendas, to twist news to their advantage, is another issue. Very few people have the ability to sift through all the noise in media and make sense of what is actually ‘true.’ Besides, we live in an age where ‘truth’ is contested, and rightly so. But we seem to be living in an age, where there is so less certainty about anything. And amidst all this chaos, the American population is shown promise of a better future, stability and ‘security,’ the great myth that has come to dominate American public imagination.

Who wouldn’t want some more security, a better job and a president who seems to want to make America the ‘greatest country in the world.’ Trump is tapping into not just the insecurities that Americans face, but also the core of American exceptionalism, a fact that he openly embraces. He is also someone who represents corporate America and its suspicion of ‘big government.’ This goes well with the Tea Party, Libertarian and other constituents. So, in that sense, Mr.Trump is offering hope, but with a lot of ‘vitriol,’ as Jeb Bush characterized his rhetoric.

My own analysis of what will happen with Mr.Trump’s campaign: As much as he seems sure of himself and his campaign, I think the Trump campaign will burn out, before he reaches the final round of primaries. He is pissing off too many people in the party, to earn any credibility, even to be nominated as a candidate; much less become the President of the United States.

Are you an Insider or an outsider?

Do you have to be an American to write about America, or a Black person to write about African American issues? Or a Christian to write about Christianity? These questions get asked, quite often, especially in academic circles. While the general academic rule of thumb, or the ‘mood’ in academia today is that this is not an appropriate way to think, such line of thinking still persists. Academia prides itself in being above the narrow confines of partistanship – when it comes to politics – or religious or ethnic chest-thumping, though some of it does occur, nevertheless.

I came across an important essay by Robert Merton, a Sociologist, who has contributed much to our understanding of how knowledge is produced and the field of ‘Sociology of Knowledge.’  Titled, “Insiders and Outsiders,” (1969) where he talks, at length, about the ways that knowledge is legitimized, among groups of people.

Merton quotes Karl Polanyi, the celebrated intellectual, and I quote him here, at length to illustrate a fundamental point : That in a free society, people are free to choose their sources of information and should be able to judge the ‘truth,’ for themselves. While we live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society, with no single claims to truth on any matter, there are groups that would contest that, arguing that there is indeed just ‘one way’ to do things – whether it is in the matter of choice of religion, politics or other issues. This is where the real thorn arises.

“in an ideal free society each person would have perfect access to the truth:

to the truth  in art, religion, and justice, both in public and

private life. But this is not practicable; each person can know directly very

little of truth and must trust others for the rest. Indeed, to assure this

process of mutual reliance is one of the main functions of society. It follows

that such freedom of the mind as can be possessed by men is due to

the services of social institutions, which set narrow limits to man’s freedom

and tend to threaten it even within those limits. The relation is analogous

to that between mind and body: to the way in which the performance of

mental acts is restricted by limitations and distortions due to the medium

which makes these performances possible”. [ Polanyi,1959, p. 68]

Merton explains that as there is growing distance between people in society, and a growing lack or mistrust, this function of checking and re-checking of facts is lost; and people tend to hunker down in their own narrow visions of what ‘truth,’ is. This is evident, I would argue, in any issue : Race matters, issue of religion or even issues such as national security. Any of these areas are contentious and full of emotional baggage. When one approaches these issues with purely pre-conceived notions and firmly held beliefs, which one is not willing to question, then we have a problem. Dogmatic beliefs do not inform us, they can only tear us apart.

Insiders and outsiders

Speaking of the processes that form these insiders and outsiders, Merton argues that social movements start off with the intention of bringing about a greater consciousness among people. They are however, formed primarily on the basis of ‘ascribed rather than acquired statuses’ (and identities, with eligibility for inclusion being in terms of who you are rather than what you are (in the sense of status being contingent on role performance). This presents the first significant problem – bias – excluding people just because of who they are. For instance, if someone tells me that I am not qualified to write scholarly material on America because I am not an ‘American,’ it’d be the case of appealing to an ascribed rather than ‘acquired status.’ For such a person, it wouldn’t matter that I am getting a Ph.D in the U.S. and have interacted, studied with, and worked with some of the leading intellectuals in this country. All that would matter is my ‘origin,’ and who I ‘truly’ am. This approach, Merton suggests, and I would argue, is the wrong one.

Credit : The Guardian.com
Credit : The Guardian.com

The ‘insider and outsider,’ discourse is not only deeply problematic, but also has basis in earlier discourses of exclusion of people, from acquiring knowledge. This almost Brahminical rigidity in excluding people from acquiring forms of knowledge has precedents in Nazi Germany, in the U.S.- during the debates about what sort of knowledge Blacks should receive – technical or liberal arts, etc. The most famous of these debates were between Booker Washington and WEB Dubois, while the former argued for a ‘technical,’ training for the newly emancipated Black man, while Dubois was in favor of a more liberal arts approach.

            In the strongest form, the insider argument can take the form of ‘Only a black person can write about Blacks, only  a Muslim can write about Islam etc.’ Academic training, capability and a curious mind mean nothing, according to this doctrine. For sure, if this were true, then none of the history we are reading today would be of any use, because it is often written by people who are not the ones who create it. They are most often, not people, who are like us.

The outsider doctrine holds that anyone who does not belong to the group can never fully and totally comprehend what is going on. It is easy to see how this is false. Just as there are incompetent outsiders, who bungle through their field work and interviews and act culturally insensitive – say, in an anthropological study- there are incompetent insiders, too. Extreme insiderism is nothing but ethnocentrism – the belief that one’s world is at the center of the universe – and this manifests itself in chauvinism of all kinds. Nationalism, race pride, pride in one’s religion, at the expense of others’ are all manifestations of this ‘insiderism.’

Academic study of any topic – whether it is religion, race or ethnicity is supposed to be an exercise in critical thinking and investigating the claims to truth, not indulging in propaganda. Therein lies the distinction between academia and propaganda.Academic training allows one to analyze and weigh the empirical proofs for and against a phenomenon and make an informed decision. As Merton reminds us, sociological understanding demands much more than ‘acquaintance with.’ It includes an understanding of methodologies and conditions and processes, in which people are caught up with. This often comes with training and years or practice.

On another note, here is take-down of extreme insiderism of Fox-News, watch this interview with Reza Aslan.

Should you give ‘Directly,’ for impact? Lessons from my mom’s charitable experiments

What is the best way to help people? Is it to let the market forces determine who should survive and who should sink, or should there be intervention from the state or other players? How should philanthropy be directed towards individuals and communities? These questions have neither clear-cut answers, nor a good way of being resolved. At least not anytime soon. While these questions come up in the context of discussion of both domestic welfare programs as well as international development, we often hear talk of ‘impact evaluation,’ and the need to see results.

photo credit : Give Directly
photo credit : Give Directly

So, how does one think of the ‘right ‘answer? Is it ‘Giving Directly,’ i.e., giving cash transfers to the poor, to let them decide what is best for them? Or is it a more targeted and  specific program – like school scholarships, loans to purchase cattle or agricultural equipment? I suggest that this debate is not so much about the right metrics or longer duration of measuring them, but rather about ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy,’ and which one is more effective.

For the uninitiated, charity is any form of giving that aims to save or transform the individual and is short-term and driven by emotions or a ‘higher’ calling. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a more ‘scientific,’ way of doing charity, which aims to change the social structures – education, healthcare or others – that make people poor. This ‘scientific’ movement emerged in the 19th century, with the mega-rich such as Rockefellers, Carnegie and Ford – who sought to use their enormous wealth to rectify some social ills. A similar thinking permeates the international development sector too, where there is an increasing demand for showing ‘results,’ for the money spent.

As those who study or practice International Development know, there is an almost obsessive urge on the part of organizations carrying out the ‘development,’ to prove that what they are doing is indeed working. Combined with this, there is also a huge amount of resistance to any form of international aid from certain political groups and ideologues in the West – the Republicans, for instance, who think that the U.S. is spending way too much on aid, than it should. There is an entire discourse of how countries should ‘help themselves,’ and not depend on the U.S. or others – whereas the U.S. spends about one percent of its annual budget on aid, globally. This too, serves as a ‘soft-power’ tool, rather than being wasteful. This helpful chart outlines how much the U.S. spent on aid in the year 2012.

So, American aid to the world is seen not so much as charity, but rather as ‘philanthropy,’ a scientific tool and a measured response to how the U.S. should be perceived by the world. Since WWII, as the only super power in the world, all eyes have been on the U.S., in terms of looking for how it would behave. With Marshall Plan, the U.S. set off a very successful model of development that has continued to be seen as a gold standard.

While there are other discourses of charity and philanthropy out there, that do not privilege or prefer ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact measurement,’ over other aspects of ‘why’ we give aid the meaning making processes that lie underneath these actions. Religious understandings of charity and philanthropy can be seen as the alternate to our obsessive quantification. While Give Directly has received a lot of praise for initial results and successes, critics point out that it is precisely that, the initial results from a trial experiment. Reality, they argue is far more complex and convoluted. And in this, they are partially, if not fully, right.

My (late) mother’s model of doing charity was surprisingly similar to that of Give directly. As a financially independent person (my mother worked as a high school teacher), she made many big and small decisions about money on her own – after taking care of her own family’s needs. This meant she identified the poor both within our extended family and also others, who came to her, for help. In her lifetime, I have seen my mother help at least four families in a substantial manner – to the extent that they are actually better off, in many ways., The kids are better educated, better fed and now, almost 20 or 25 years, after she started helping them, are in better jobs – because of their education or other opportunities – than they would have been otherwise. This, to me, is the power of giving directly. It works. But, with many caveats. Life is never as simple or linear as it seems!

In analyzing the effectiveness of giving directly, there is also the bigger problem of the ‘problematization of poverty,’ as Arturo Escobar has pointed out. This means that we tend to define, measure and position poverty in the third-world, sitting in the first world, not knowing and not fully appreciating how people understand poverty themselves, the strategies they use for survival and what means are available to them. This, I think is the bigger problem in this debate, as much as it is about charity and philanthropy. Until we find more details and more long-term results of what transpired with the families that Give Directly has helped, we must deal with the confusion that exists and the lack of ensuring clarity.

Do we need accurate data about Nonprofits in the US ?

Last weekend, I attended a conference / brainstorm hosted by the American University, in partnership with the Urban Institute. Titled  ‘Nonprofit Panel Data Symposium,’ the two day event attracted some of the top brains in the country, working in the nonprofit/ civil society sector. As a young scholar who is interested in the sector and whose work intersects with the nonprofit sector quite strongly, I had a big incentive to be there. While it is hard for me to share all the details that were discussed, I will offer a few insights, in the hope of answering the question I have just raised : Do we need accurate data about

nonprofits in the U.S.? 1

The short answer to this question is : Yes. The longer answer is to explicate why this is so. I will use my own research as a starting point to answer this question. First off, there is no ‘accurate data’ out there. As one skeptical participant raised the question : ‘Is the data we have worth shit’? That is a good question to ask, to begin with. The fundamental reason is that any data that is publicly available usually comes with a few caveats and limitations – what is disclosed, how much of it is disclosed and how current is this data? While Form 990s tell us part of the story, they don’t tell us the whole story.

On a related note, while statistics can inform us about the trends in giving, the impact of certain policies on how nonprofits respond, they usually conceal as much as they reveal.

While there are some excellent initiatives that have been ongoing, in the field of nonprofit data collection – at Urban Institute, Lilly School of Philanthropy among other institutes, the felt need among researchers is that of an ongoing panel data-set. Such a dataset does not exist for the nonprofit sector. In my research, I came across this problem too. While the groups Iam interested in studying for my doctoral degree are American Muslims, there is a lot of ‘issue’ based data, but no real panel dataset – either in quantitative or qualitative terms – that can offer us an analysis of how the nonprofit sector has changed over time. This temporal element is important, in many contexts, to tell a story.

Research is usually about creating a narrative that is compelling and also ‘true.’ While the facts may vary over time, having a long time-duration analysis evens out the fluctuations that are inherent in any organizations’ lifecycle and they can be analyzed and understood more clearly, over a period of time. To this extent, yes, a panel data set is a good idea. As bad and imperfect as any data source is, having something tells us something. Not having any data and just speculating, based on pre-existing theories or worse still, on hypothesis is the worst form of research or scholarship. And I have seen this, when it comes to scholarship on Islam or even philanthropy. Better to let the data speak, rather than let one’s imagination run wild. As Danial Patrick Moynihan famously said “One may be entitled to one’s own opinions, but not one’s own facts.”