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.

Social Development in India – What do We Know?

USIPII met Dr. Abusaleh Shariff about a year ago, through a common friend. We kept in touch and promised to connect the next time I was going to be in D.C. It turned out that I was able to meet him just yesterday and spent a good hour chatting about various initiatives at the US India Policy Institute, a think-tank that he heads, as the Executive Director. As someone who is leading expert on Indian development sector former Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Shariff is one of the most important thinkers on issues related to development in India. We spoke about his background, work on the Sachar Committee Report and work at the USIPI. His take on social development seems to be on of proactive rights, where civil society groups and individuals secure what is due to them from the state, by means of concerted action, using procedures and programs that are part of the government mandate. This is the new social contract that needs to be renewed, he seemed to suggest. While economic liberalization and a new discourse of privatization as the panacea for all ills seems to have become the norm, Dr.Shariff’s work suggests otherwise.

Speaking about the condition of minorities in India, in particular, the Muslims in India, Dr. Shariff says in an Op-Ed in The Hindu, “Empirical analysis of process indicators (literacy, higher level education, formal employment, access to banking and credit, political participation, etc.) according to religious communities excluding Hindus, confirm Muslim placement below the line of average. If the SCs/STs are singled out and compared with religious groups, one finds Muslims in most of the measures about the same or even lower. With adjustments for initial conditions, the conditions of Muslims relative to the SCs/STs have worsened over the years.”

So, is Affirmative Action (reservations) in India the only way out? It seems that this is the solution that follows from the arguments that he makes. Dr. Shariff argues that there is a systematic bias in the way that government programs benefit specific communities and leaves out others. He argues that the “The only way to eliminate such bias is to ensure equal opportunity and access to programs which generate benefits proportional to the size of the population. Naming programs specific to the deprived community even if has to be done by caste and religious identity must be the public choice. It is clear that there is no catch-22 situation as has often been made out to be and it is not even ‘unconstitutional.”

These ideas are not absolutely new, in the sense that there has been an appreciation of the idea of ‘human development’ indices, since Amartya Sen and other scholars popularized it. While the notion of development indices itself is not new, what is new is the formulation of these ideas in the context of upliftment of minority communities in India. Politically, this is a lightning rod, as those opposed to benefits reaching the minorities have historically called this ‘minority appeasement’, a pejorative word to describe bribing the minorities to vote for the ruling party. But as Dr. Shariff’s research and other pioneering scholars work demonstrates, there are huge disparities in income, wealth and health indicators that need to be fixed. It seems that the only way to do this is for the state to intervene. For all the talk of the private sector filling in the gap left behind by the state, it seems like the state withdrawal has actually left many poor and vulnerable even more vulnerable.

As the Social Development Report 2012, produced by the Council for Social Development argues, despite the acknowledgement by the government that socially, India is extremely ‘unequal’, in economic and social terms, recent policy changes don’t seem to get to the heart of addressing the challenges. As the report argues “According to the HDR, malnourishment in Indian children is twice higher than children in Sub-Saharan Africa.” It suggests further that the problem is not the lack of resources, but no perceptible change, despite more resources being allocated to the problems. So, the devil is actually in the details; in this case. The problem is not of allocating the needed resources, but making sure that they actually reach the intended beneficiaries. Economic liberalization and state withdrawal from provision of infrastructure and health facilities seems to have only deteriorated the reach and scope of services, according to the report. While the quality of services may have improved, in certain segments such as healthcare service delivery, the reach of these services for the poor and marginalized is minimal, as they cannot afford to pay for these services.

The challenges to including minorities in development seems to be an ongoing one. In a recently released District Development and Diversity Index, Dr. Shariff argues that “Given the vast geographic expanse and high population concentrations across India a meaningful development strategy that address acute poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, ill-health must occur at the level of the districts. Further, hitherto development policy decisions were made using a combination of district level per-capita averages and a small set of indictors such as average rainfall and agricultural productivity; little information on the quality of life and human development were available.” These are not ‘wicked’ problems, though policies at the district levels and access to the services provided by the government is the key to addressing them.

Amidst all this data and discourse of minority rights, one must not forget that the story of India’s minorities is also the story of India. How a country treats its weak and vulnerable is a reflection of the country’s moral and ethical compass.

A New Year Wish – Charity and Justice for all

It is that time of the year when everyone is reaching out to everyone else, to seek support for their causes. Financial support, in-kind support, volunteer time, all of it is kosher. If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’d know. There are many things that are wrong with our world and activists, religious leaders, politicians are all working, in solving these- in their own way. That is not to say thIMG_0071 IMG_0205 IMG_0206at there aren’t others who are creating or adding to these problems. Surely, there are. But there is a growing awareness among people who are aware that one must align with people or organizations to seek justice for victims of violence and oppression.

On the other hand, there is a perspective that seeks to forgive, look at the grand scheme of things and realize that (as in some world religions) that this world is ephemeral or Maya – an illusion, that will soon pass. So, one’s role is to do one’s best karma and hope for the rewards in an afterlife or next life, depending on one’s belief system. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam advocate one of these perspectives.

While these two approaches could be seen as two opposing views, with the first one being the radical activist one, and the latter a more pacifist, non-confrontational approach; the truth is that both are very active, engaged and conscious ways of living. The other extreme is to just not bother. To switch off what is going on around oneself, insulate oneself with one’s own pursuit of happiness, comfort for one’s family and live a life pursuing pleasure. This suits some of us, and more power to them. But to live the ‘good life’ as Aristotle taught and other great teachers demonstrated through their lives requires living an ‘examined life,’ one in which one’s actions, thoughts and ambitions are put under the microscope and examined for their impact.

I have been reading a lot about charity this year, since my research concerns looking at discourses of charity and how dominant discourses in America accommodate it or not. Also, I am interested in the religious dimensions of giving and how religious traditions shape our understanding of giving and if at all, it is changing. This seems like an innocuous question, but given the current debate in the American system about welfare reform, immigration and healthcare; they have proved to be an explosive mix. And there is the risk of losing track of what is significant, amidst all the noise one hears from pundits and news anchors. One of the most striking facts I realized is that ultimately, all of us (irrespective of party ideology) are seeking solutions to human problems – and this is based on the assumption that people are not entirely self-interested, in a zero-sum game way. Libertarianism is an entirely different story. I will deal with ‘enlightened self-interest’ in another blog. The way we may seek to arrive at the solution may be different – either government intervention or market mechanisms, but the higher goal is always to solve a problem and arrive at a solution to better others’ lives. And that is an admirable thing. The only caveat is that we must be guided by facts, not ideologies. As former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said “You may be entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” We must be watchful about this, as we formulate opinions on issues that we care about.

Reading the newspaper is a depressing act these days. Civil war in Syria, economic depression in Europe, sexual violence in India, Gangs going crazy in Central and South America and political instability in Africa; not to mention the crazy antics of Republicans and Tea Partiers in the U.S. This is the staple of our diet. On a daily basis. The daily dose of images coming our way has perhaps sensitized us. The other day I just read a headline about a certain number of people dying in the Middle East and I caught myself rushing to another story, as it just did not surprise me anymore. Ghastly images, news of dozens dying is so normal that we don’t even pause to think.

As the year is winding down and I am planning for the upcoming year, I wanted to jot down some ideas and ask myself and those who read this: Can our collective resolution in the New Year be to be more sensitive, aware and more charitable? Can we aspire for a more just world, where one person’s will does not decimate thousands and thousands of lives and the forces of greed, evil and hatred don’t work their way into people’s hearts- using words, labels and ideas that sound lofty? Can we all be more alert and vigilant against the use of words and ideas such as terrorism, welfare and realize that there is always more than one side to a story and how people deploy their narratives? Can we be more charitable and yet more firm in our resolve to not let politicians, our leaders and others bully or manipulate us?

I promise to at least try, this year. The year 2013 was very good for me. I traveled a lot, met wonderful people, read great books, had great conversations, and received much kindness from people I knew and from strangers. I hope this continues in the New Year and I hope that all of you have a great year and also make the effort to be kind to strangers, nice to people you like and don’t like, dignified in your anger and sensitive when dealing with those who are weaker than you are. And learn more. Read. Travel. Converse.

Here’s my wish list for the world, in no particular order of importance:

 

  1. End to violence in Syria – Yes, this tops my list. The sheer magnitude of violence and inhumanity that we are witnessing in Syria is unbelievable. What is even more unbelievable is how indifferent all of us are to it. I hope this violence ends, irrespective of whether Mr. Assad stays in power or not.
  2. Global economy picks up – Despite not being a huge fan of GDP driven model of growth, I do feel that the slump in global economic growth doesn’t portend well for billions of poor, around the world.
  3. Republicans in America realize the value of bi-partisanship – I am told that Republicans in the past were bi-partisan and could actually reason with their fellow Democrats. Apparently, those days are long gone. This should return and I hope 2014 is the year when there are more senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (though he was a democrat) he was a bi-partisan and perhaps the rare intellectual-politician that all countries so desperately need.
  4. Indian politicians (and bureaucrats) stop acting like little kids – And that our media grows up. This is in context of the recent incident involving the Deputy Consul General and the alleged ‘insults’ to India, when investigations into her misconduct were brought to fore. I also hope that Indian media learns that India is not the center of the world and is NOT a “super-power” as much as they would like it to be. It actually reminded me of this talk by Ramachandra Guha, on why India should not be a super-power.

5.  And above all, I wish that all of us rise above the walls that each one of us has built around us, consciously or unconsciously – walls of gender, race, religion, class consciousness, nationality or political affiliation. And this is possible, as some wise man said: “All prejudice begins in the head and that is where it should end.”

 

The university as a politically contested space

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Two events in the recent past helped me gain some insights into how politically contested a university campus can be. This political nature of American campuses is not new, but offers opportunities for students to engage, deliberate about issues that they are passionate about and can be seen as a positive factor in one’s education. The flip side of over-politicization of campuses is a danger too, as we will see.

The first was the abrupt appearance of an AIPAC member in one of my classrooms, to recruit volunteers for their conference in Washington D.C, which is taking place in March. And she appeared on the day of the controversial talk by Boycott Divestment and Sanctions activists in Brooklyn College, NY. The second was the recent debate about assault weapons ban spear-headed by President Obama. I believe that the way in which we handle both issues in the U.S will have implications not only for freedom on campuses, but also shape the narrative about freedom and responsibility in this country. These two examples serve as a good prism to look at the broader fights going on in contemporary American politics.

Both issues are highly politicized, controversial and arouse equal passion from the supporters and their detractors. While they are both very complex arguments, which cannot be evaluated in this short piece, I will focus only briefly on how they play out on a university campus and what implications it has for student politics as well as the notion of “freedom.” I believe the progress of both these will define a key national and international issue, which will impact the youth of this country in a significant way.

Also involved in these two issues is the question of justice, violence, rights of the oppressed, racism as well as the exercise of power. These two issues couldn’t be more far apart and yet so close. One is a domestic issue, while the other involves a land thousands of miles away. Ironically, they seem to involve the same strands and binaries which characterize the fight for justice.

Freedom of speech and the American university

The controversy notwithstanding, what is telling is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks following the incident. A man of courage, he stood up for the right of the speakers and organizers to carry on with their event, despite opposition. His remarks are telling :

“ If you want to go a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea … I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students. The freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system. Take that away, and higher education in this country would certainly die.”

                While one can read this and say that he was being partisan ( as his detractors have accused), these are words which essentially speak to what is enshrined in the first amendment of the U.S constitution and also what makes American universities unique: their ability to allow free speech and allow for dissent, debate, discussion and counter-debates to exist. While the speakers at this event were critics of Israel, those who are supporters of Israel have the right to organize, protest and speak all they want. Why should the rights of these BDS activists be taken away? The argument about representing “both sides” of the debate seems hollow at best. One need only ask the question: How many pro-Palestinian speakers are invited at the AIPAC meetings?

Speaking at the event, Philosopher Judith Butler said :” You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.” She went on to talk about why this issue is relevant to our generation and what role each one of us can or not play in this – depending on our choice.

Gun control and college campuses

The most recent development in this regard is the legislation in Colorado, passed this week that sought to increase regulations and banned concealed guns on campuses. This follows intense debates at the national level, involving the president’s direct intervention following Sandy Hook shooting earlier this year which shook the nation and forced a debate, which has been unprecedented in the nation’s history.

Yahoo news reported this legislation whereby ammunition restrictions limit magazines to 15 rounds for firearms, and eight for shotguns. Three Democrats joined all Republicans voting no on the bill, but the proposal passed 34-31. While this debate is still playing out in its entirety, it is interesting to see how university campuses are reacting to it. There is a strong pro-gun lobby on campuses too, with some sides arguing that students need guns to protect themselves. The pro-gun sentiment was captured by a representative in these words: “Do not disarm our young adults in general and our young women in particular on our college campuses in the name of a gun-free zone,” Republican Rep. Jim Wilson said. This line of argument, while valid constitutionally and legally is coming at a time when the country is still coming to grips with several mass shootings in the year 2012 and a charged political environment.

But at Virginia Tech, where I am a student and one which witnessed the horrific shooting in 2005, the mood is somewhat somber. Recently, VP Joe Biden spoke about this incident and called for compulsory background checks to anyone who wants to purchase a gun. The issue of gun-control seems to be gaining traction and we can see more laws in the country restricting sales of guns.

Protect freedoms, allow deliberation and debate

While I am clear about both issues and know where I stand, I believe it is important that all parties to these two issues have the right to express their opinion and within legal bounds, be allowed to act on them. If a college campus is the venue they choose organize on, so be it. There ought not to be false restrictions based on any viewpoint, even if the climate for discussion seems quite tense.

One couldn’t frame this anymore eloquently than Butler, who said :” These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

As far as the gun-control debate is concerned, while the pro-gun student groups have the right to garner support and do what they think is right, the maxim that one’s freedom stops where the other’s rights begin should be kept in mind.