Is the ‘American mythos’ in need of revision?

I am writing this on the second day of election results, that have shaken the country; rather badly. With the election of Donald Trump, Washington D.C., is in mourning. It looks and feels like almost all of the country is at the precipice of something. Mainstream media are still coming to terms with what this means. While the pundits speculate and those who have won celebrate, the question that seems to be at the back of everyone’s mind – and this is a very serious one – is whether the U.S. will stop being a ‘land of opportunities.’ By this, most people mean an inclusive society, where everyone stands a fair chance of succeeding, despite one’s origins, social status or religious beliefs.

At first glance, it looks like everything that the progressives fought for is at stake. There is enough empirical proof for this fear. Consider this : In his memo, Mr. Trump has indicated that he will scrap all ‘unconstitutional Executive Orders’ of President Obama in his first 100 days. In addition, he has also indicated that he will ‘remove criminal illegal immigrants’ and ‘suspend immigration from terror prone regions’ meaning putting an end to the refugee resettlement plans. Also, significantly, he has promised to cancel payments to the UN Climate Change plans.

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York
source : https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Statue_of_Liberty,_NY.jpg

While each of these will impact an area of American public life, what is at stake is ultimately how Americans define who they are and the ‘myths’ that uphold their sense of identity. As Robert Wuthnow points out in his book  American Mythos, the myths of American being a ‘land of opportunity’ that gives everyone a fair chance is true only because a lot of people ( if not all) believe in it, and work to make it possible. If there is a seismic shift in this attitude, and there is great skepticism and nationalism – combined with isolationism – as we are seeing globally, with Brexit and the recent reaction in the US Elections, then this myth may well be no longer believed.

In this interview, Wuthnow offers an insight into materialism and immigration. Using the perspective of materialism among immigrants, he suggests that the sense of hardship and sacrifice were part of their narratives.  These narratives helped shape their immigrant identity. There seems to be a clash of narratives taking place now. With the rise of a nativist narratives, that are defining America being only a place for caucasians?  The blatant racism that was on play during the election seems to be playing out, with increased incidents of racist attacks, as several media are reporting – across the country.

The narratives of migration, opportunity and freedom have defined America. If these shift in a major way, then everything that the country stands for will also change. We are already witnessing isolationism, nativism and protectionism in Europe and other parts of the world. Is this a trend that will catch up in the U.S., as well?

While it is too early to say how the next four years will shape up and what it would mean, for immigrants and others; who see the U.S. as their home; one can see that the meta-narratives about what the U.S. is, and what it stands for, is changing.

While there is no need to panic, I do believe it is time for right-thinking people to reexamine how the current political scenario will impact all Americans – whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

There is certainly need for more dialogue, tolerance and open mindedness on part of everyone. But the ball is certainly in the Republicans court. Given that the administration is going to be run by Mr.Trump’s side, and much of the rhetoric that has caused division has come from that camp, it falls on them to reach out and heal the wounds. It falls upon Mr. Trump to also be Presidential and stand up for what makes America a great nation – tolerance, openness, inclusiveness and creativity. To ignore this and to remain silent while his supporters create fear and intolerance would be betraying the very values that made his success possible.

 

 

Do politicians and bureaucrats need to be creative?

While it is not a good idea for accountants to be creative with balance sheets – and that can quickly escalate into trouble for everyone – I have been reading and discussing with people, the idea that politicians and bureaucrats need to be creative. Just ‘following the rule book’ will not help us solve the intractable and complex problems before us.

One of the key areas where this creativity is needed is in re-framing the existing laws into ones that will work for all of us, including those who are vulnerable and powerless.

Uganda
Burundian refugee Larson talks with a customer at his pharmacy in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo credit : UNHCR

Dwight Waldo, one of the pioneering and original thinkers of Public Administration has argued that there is reason to believe that P.A. is more of an ‘ethical’ field than is made out to be. It is not a purely ‘scientific’ one, he has suggested. What this also means is that  that bureaucrats should not aim to run their division like a business, as there is a clear tension between efficiency and democratic governance and due process. He also examined one of the key tensions in implementing laws : that between bureaucracy and democracy.

Lets take one example, to illustrate how there is a need for greater creativity and original thinking among politicians and bureaucrats : managing forced migration and resettling refugees.

I watched this talk by  Alexander Betts, in which he points out how refugees need not be seen as a perpetual burden who either : a. need to stay  in refugee camps, which are often not helpful to long-term rehabilitation of refugees  b. Head to an urban area, where they are destitute, with no economic opportunities; as laws of the land don’t have the right to work. c. risk their lives to go to Europe, by taking dangerous journeys.

What is the problem with the current situation and laws?. In short, there are a few, as Betts argues : the old laws, written post WWII don’t work anymore. Given the realities of our globalized world, where travel is cheap, labor is in demand in Europe and there is a willingness on part of refugees to work; these laws don’t match up to the daily realities of the refugees. They need to be updated.

There are examples of creativity and originality among bureaucrats and politicians in addressing this issue. Betts points to Uganda, where the government has offered greater access to jobs for refugees and also created opportunities for them to create jobs for locals. As UNHCR reports, “Refugees have access to the same services as Ugandan nationals, have the right to work and to establish their own businesses. They enjoy freedom of movement and are given land for agricultural use, reducing dependency on humanitarian aid.”

What this means is that refugees can become an asset to the economy, helping it grow; rather than become passive recipients of aid.

This also ultimately boil down to the view of human nature one system takes, over the other. At the same time, there is the issue of politics. In the case of Syrian refugees, fear is trumping all manner of rational and other thinking. Creativity requires a calm mind, that is focused on the problem at hand. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening in the Western world.

It seems like the only solution to this quagmire would be to learn to re-learn to think without fear and prejudice. And the ones who should start this are those in power. Because, ultimately they are defining the reality, before us.