Is there a ‘rational’ way to Discuss Immigration Reform?

America is a country that equally loves and hates immigration. With public opinion on this issue being divided, it does not look Americans will reach a consensus on what is good for the country, anytime soon. If history is any indicator, then this question has not been settled in the last three hundred years. So, as urgent as this matter is – and I do believe that immigration reform should take place – I think we need to step back and look at this issue for what it is – a deeply rooted one, that is intertwined with the very identity of America. Is America really a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and people? Or is it not? There is no right answer to this question, as it is a normative one, whose meaning will be defined and re-defined by every generation. I would argue that it is impossible to determine this purely on the basis of polls, public opinions or even voting, because this question is about values and normative assumptions about what constitutes America.

Liberty

By this, I mean that there is no ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ way to go about immigration reform in the U.S. I believe the best way to think about this issue is to think of it as an ethical value, rather than as a ‘rational’ one, that would either benefit or harm America’s economy. President Obama’s recent moves to allow millions of undocumented workers is not a new story, in the sense of being totally novel, but one that is part of a struggle between nativists who did not want to dilute the character of America versus liberals, who believed that the melting pot of America should be kept open to all, who wanted to be a part of it. As this article in the New York Times points, one key piece of the Executive Order may allow up to five million undocumented workers to work in the U.S. with work permits and not fear being deported. The benefits of this measure could be potentially limited to those who have lived in the country for more than ten years, the report added. This brings us to the question of why immigration continues to be such a big issue? Why is it so divisive and what is the history of this discourse?

Since the early 19th century, this has been the pattern of existence for most Americans. While the immigrants have changed – from Irish in the early nineteenth century to Asians, Arabs and now Latinos. The anti-immigration sentiment has been based on fear. This is a dominant theme that emerges time and again. This could be a fear of several things: Fear of lack of resources, vanishing jobs, ‘dangerous criminals’ and fear of ‘diluting the true identity’ of what it means to be an American have all been invoked, from the early 19th century onwards. While we are witnessing anti-immigrant sentiment against Latinos and Muslims now; the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Arabs to South Asians have faced this in the past.

Latino immigration and fear of the ‘foreigner’

While President Obama has been slow to push for comprehensive immigration reform, given the nature of divisive politics in Washington D.C., there is indication that he will issue an Executive Order, soon. This is meant to allow for greater access and mobility for undocumented workers, who are predominantly from Mexico, but also come from Latin American countries.

Nativists argued for banning the Irish from entering the U.S. in the 19th century and then later in the 20th century, the same arguments were propounded against Arabs and those from Asia. As Wuthnow suggests, we must critically examine the mythos that make up America – that is a land of opportunities, or that it is really a religious place. These myths are not helpful, and can do more harm, he suggests and goes on to say “For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” Any such examination should take into account that we are becoming more individualistic, as a society and this needs to give way to a more collective way of thinking, he suggests. So, is the anti-immigration sentiment a purely rational decision of individuals deciding to keep those not ‘fit’ to be part of the U.S. out, while allowing others to come in? Or is there something more to it? Can we explain this through purely rational choice paradigm or do we need more than that?

So, while it is important to examine the narratives on which America is built, it is also crucial for us to look at the narratives and myths about the immigrants themselves. I would argue that this is equally important, if one were to arrive at some approximation of ‘truth’. While several studies have shown that immigration is good for America, there are an equal number of them that would point to the opposite – that immigrants are harmful to our economy, they take away jobs from deserving Americans etc. This sort of ‘instrumental rationality’ of measuring everything from a purely ‘scientific’ perspective is not helpful. In social sciences, we need more ‘value rationality’, as suggested by Flyvberg (2001) and others. This means that we actually go beyond purely epistemic or quantitative analysis and make normative, ethical judgments about issues – whether an issue is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our society.

As Wuthnow argues, renewal of America – as an idea – is not purely about material conditions, though economy is always part of the political discourse, but rather about where people feel the country is headed. This is evident in the mid-term elections that concluded, where a majority of voters did not recognize Obama’s achievements in reducing unemployment, budget deficit etc. and instead voted for the Republicans. How does this fit into the arguments that I have made thus far? It confirms in some ways what Flyvbjerg says that people do not make ‘rational’ choices but rather those that are based on normative choices. So, in our analysis of issues like immigration, climate change etc. perhaps we must be open to including judgment and decisions made in the manner of a ‘virtuoso social and political actor’, as Flyvbjerg suggests, rather than just focusing on the rules of the game. Rules are often now followed and are often broken, when it comes to practical, everyday life – a fact that ‘rational’ social science does not take into account.

 

Are Youth in America becoming more Materialistic?

In the Mecca of Capitalism that the U.S. is, it may perhaps be inappropriate to ask: Are young Americans becoming more materialistic? As I read David Brook’s column The Streamlined Life in the New York Times, just two days ago, this question is addressed, quite directly and his argument seems to suggest that indeed they are becoming more materialistic. With greater economic insecurity, lack of opportunities, are young people these days becoming more obsessed with wealth and economic stability? What is at stake here is how does this bode for the future of America’s role in the world?index

Is this greater focus on just material wealth and success going to make the future leaders of America more insular, inward looking and disconnected from the outside world. In his column, Brooks thinks out aloud whether American college freshmen are becoming too goal oriented and focused on success, to the detriment of other bigger questions such as ‘meaning of life’ and developing a coherent living philosophy. Based on the survey results of the survey by U.C.L.A., he says “Their overall values change. In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.” While there is a tendency among many Americans to think that their country is ‘exceptional,’ due to its super-power status, they also mistakenly assume that it is ok for them to be completely self-absorbed with their own problems and not care about the rest of the world. This is visible through various surveys conducted about Americans attitudes towards rest of the world, including the amount of foreign-aid that America should give, the role that U.S. should have in global affairs etc. Consistently, the average American seems to think that the lesser involvement, the better. While this is a normative question, where each answer can be equally valid, from a realist perspective, this seems foolhardy; as a super-power cannot afford to be self-absorbed. It not only hurts its ability to influence world events, but also hurts its moral standing.

The questions raised above, about whether greater individualism and focus on wealth is impacting American society are not new ones, by any means.In their classic book, Habits of the Heart (1985), Robert Bellah et al investigated the phenomenon of individualism and argue that Americans use their public and private aspects of life to make sense of their lives. They say “Our conversations with our fellow citizens have deepened our conviction that although we have to rely on our traditions to answer those questions, we have to probe those traditions much more critically than we are used to doing if we are going to make sense of the challenges posted by the rapidly changing world we live in.” (p.21).While identifying individualism as a uniquely American trait, that my well define the ‘American character,’ Bellah et al contend that “Whatever the differences among the traditions and the consequent differences in their understandings of individualisms, there are some things they all share, things that are basic to American identity. We believe in dignity indeed the sacredness of the individual. Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious. Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and for the world, are closely linked to our individualism.”(Pg.142). This individualism is a consequence of the Western liberal tradition, which holds the freedom of the individual to be paramount, but has also been informed by the strongly religious traditions in the country. They have identified various forms of individualism such as ‘expressive individualism’ and ‘utilitarian individualism’ and Walt Whitman and Benjamin Franklin are given as examples of the two types of individualisms. So, in effect, individualism is not a hindrance to collective action or idealism; but it can rather help Americans deal with and make sense of the demands that their communities make of them. The trouble seems to arise when there is too much of individualism and it leads to people becoming self-absorbed to the extent that there is a total disconnect from society. This could have implications for democracy as such, as scholars such as Robert Putnam (2001) and Robert Wuthnow (2004) have argued in their books.

Another finding that troubles Brooks and bothers me as well is the following. “In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.” While the limitation of this survey, and any survey, by virtue of its methodology is that the results don’t capture a lot of the nuance in the answers given; they are definitely indicative of the broader ‘mood’ in the country. The mood among youth, of claiming their rights, while not remembering their obligations towards the country is captured by this quote by Amitai Etzioni, a staunch proponent of Communitarianism “Young people have learned only half of America’s story. Consistent with the priority they place on personal happiness, young people reveal notions of America’s unique character that emphasize freedom and license almost to the complete exclusion of service or participation. Although they clearly appreciate the democratic freedoms that, in their view, make theirs the “best country in the world to live in,” they fail to perceive a need to reciprocate by exercising the duties and responsibilities of good citizenship.” (p.3). While these debates will continue to play out in the years and decades to come, there is a growing realization among some scholars that civic engagement, responsibility towards one’s nation and fellow beings is declining and that is not a good thing – both for the individual and the community.

The warning that Bellah and his colleagues sound in Habits of the Heart is relevant today, as it was when they wrote it. “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous – that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities.” This may be a fair warning and given the results of this survey, policy makers, religious heads and educators and parents should all take heed and perhaps re-focus their attention on making the youth more ‘integrated’ into society, rather than ‘alienated.’ The stakes are very high and if this trend is not stopped, the very individualism that has made America the most innovative nation in the world may also make it the most self-absorbed and nihilistic one. That, the U.S. cannot afford.

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.

 

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time

 

He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.

 

New Year Reading List – Top 12 books in Charity and Philanthropy

Keeping up the tradition of recommending books to read in the upcoming New Year, here is my list of top twelve books for 2014– all focused on Charity and Philanthropy. For starters, the two words don’t mean the same. Hopefully, by the time you are done with the 12 books, you will know the difference. If you are slow reader, read a book a month; if you read fast, aim for one a week. The books are not ranked in any order, so feel free to pick up any title you choose. And yes, some of them are online (for free download) at Project Gutenberg or other sites. So, here goes:

Photo courtesy: amazon.com
Photo courtesy: amazon.com

Image 2

  1. Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – Perhaps the most cited (and sometimes cited simply because they have to) this book is a classic. Written by a French Aristocrat, who spent a few years in the U.S. documenting the norms of civil society, Democracy in America is a must read for anyone wanting to understand how ‘civil association’ came to be so dominant in the U.S., its moral philosophy and political dimensions. Tocqueville does a great job of illustrating the development of legal systems, relationship of federal government with the states, among other things. But the genius of the book lies in finding how civil society came about in the U.S. and how it is unique in so many respects. If you don’t have this book, buy it. Today.
  2. Bishop, M., and Green, M. Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich can save the World – With the discourse of ‘business can save the world’ gaining traction by the day, it is important to be aware of this trend and analysis. While I completely do not agree with the arguments presented here, it is a book worth your time. With Bill Gates and Warren Buffet pledging almost half of their fortunes to philanthropy, will the sector be in a position to transform the lives of millions of poor? Will other HNW individuals follow suit? What are the prospects of this move for philanthropy generally? These are some of the questions Greene and Bishop have dealt with, in this book.
  3. Robert Wuthnow. Saving America?  Faith based services and the future of Civil Society – I am biased towards Wuthnow. He is my favorite Sociologist of Religion and also the most perceptive one. So, his book makes it among the most important ones to read. Infact, any book written by him is an eye opener (and there are quite a few to read). At last count, he had authored over 38 books (I counted that many, not sure if I missed a few). Nevertheless, Saving America offers an in-depth analysis of faith-based services and if they should be supported with tax dollars. Both incisive and perceptive, Wuthnow writes with compassion and a sense of duty towards those who are at the receiving end of the social services. He is a kind soul who is sympathetic with the benefits that these organizations provide to the recipients, but is also scholarly in his approach.
  4. Kass Amy, ed.,Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists. This brings together the best of essays from various cultures, thinkers and ideologies to reflect on charity and philanthropy. There is WEB Dubois, Pope Benedict, Tom Paine and Rabbi Maimonides, among others.  Here is a sample of what is in this book: Eight levels of Giving by Rabbi Maimonides :

There are eight levels of giving:

1. Helping someone find employment or forming partnerships, so they don’t need your help again

2. Giving to the poor, knowing that no one gives to them

Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives and the poor person does not know from whom he takes

4. Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.

5. Below this, one puts into another’s hand before the latter asks

6. Below this one gives another after the latter asks

7. Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner

8. Below this, one gives begrudgingly

  1. Kass, Amy. ed., The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose – Another interesting book by Amy Kass. This brings together some interesting perspectives on philanthropy from various authors, poets and thinkers.
  2. Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving – While many people are trying to leave a mark with their philanthropy, they don’t have a blue print of how to do this. Frumkin, who is at Upenn provides a concise, clear roadmap for those who want to do this. A very well written book, one that is indispensable for those who want to go beyond just writing checks.
  3. William Jackson. The Wisdom of Generosity: A Reader in American Philanthropy – This is a quintessentially American philanthropy book. Using folklores, stories, parables drawn from America’s rich past, Jackson offers us an idea of what philanthropy looks and feels like in the U.S. A rich book, that will make you appreciate the richness of American traditions of giving. I realized that between me and the author, there is a small coincidence:  that the author spent his youth in Bangalore, working with NGOs’ (my hometown) and I was sitting in Indianapolis at the Philanthropy Library, IUPUI, many years later and reading his book on philanthropy. Small world, indeed.
  4. Warren Ilchman and Stanley Katz, Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions – This book looks for expressions of philanthropy across various traditions and religions around the world. This again, brings together various writers from varying backgrounds to offer us a rich compendium of ideas and perceptions.
  5. Elayne Clift. Ed. Women, Philanthropy, and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society – As the role of women is being increasingly recognized in our world, works of scholarship are also being produced. This is an interesting book that chronicles the struggles of women who are philanthropists, in everyday life.
  6. Singer, Amy. Charity in Islamic Societies – This is perhaps the ONLY book length treatment of charity in Islamic societies. And perhaps the book that spurred me to decide on my dissertation topic. And yes, she writes well. I have a deep respect for historians who do their job well and she does a remarkable job of grounding the norms, aesthetic dimensions and values of zakat, sadaqa and Waqf in Ottoman Empire and brings back the narrative to current day. A great book that should be in your possession. A review of the book is here.
  7.  David Wagner. What’s Love got to do with it? A Critical Look at American Charity. – This one is for the critical theorists out there. Wagner is not entirely convinced that charity, as we practice it, makes an enormous difference in society. He offers a well argued, indepth analysis for why things are as they are. A good read.
  8. Olivier Zunz. Philanthropy in America: A History. – This book is a historic look at the emergence of philanthropy and makes a case for its use in public good. Zunz is a historian and brings his skills to fore here. Starting with philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, the book traces the history of philanthropy in the U.S., offering a great narrative of how public good has come to be associated with giving. A good read and I enjoyed this book.

Additional recommendations:

Alright, if that hasn’t satisfied your curiosity, here are a few more (keeping in tune with what one of my favorite professors does – All his syllabus has three reading lists. Required, Recommended and Supplementary).

  1. Robert Wuthnow’s  Red State Nation
  2. Barbara Ibrahim and Dina Sherif, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy
  3. David Hammack and Steven Heydemann eds., Globalization, Philanthropy and Civil Society
  4.  Helmut Anheier and David Hammack, eds,  American Foundations; Roles and Contributions.
  5. Arnove et al. Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism

If you enjoyed this list, share it with others and if you find a book that you think I should read, please write to me! Happy holidays!

 

Do we really need nonprofits in America? : Five arguments for the sector’s existence

 

Are nonprofit organizations redundant? Can the for-profit sector solve all our problems and usher in a world where poverty, disease and deprivation are things of the past? I read an article on the Forbes website yesterday that argued for dismantling of the nonprofit sector. This piece by Mr. Freedman sought to show, using two elite universities as examples, of how the entire sector is not really contributing to our lives and at best, it is a benefit that the sector does not deserve. I believe that in the U.S. (and many parts of the world) the nonprofit sector plays a key role in society and holds together social bonds, provides opportunities to those who cannot be part of the for-profit sector and finally, offers an opportunity in democratic participation.

Photo courtesy : eder671nonprofit.pbworks.com
Photo courtesy : eder671nonprofit.pbworks.com

Let us look at some of the arguments that are made in the Forbes piece, before we move on to analyze why I think the nonprofit sector is so important to America. While pointing out that most students at Harvard and Stanford, two institutions Mr.Freedman picks for analysis – are rich, isn’t it a total waste of tax payers dollars to subsidize them? He says: “But Harvard’s philanthropy is clearly questionable. Most of Harvard’s students are rich. (For that matter,all on average four year nonprofit schools skew upward in the wealth distribution, although not as much as many of the most elite).” But it would help to remind Mr.Freedman that most students in America don’t go to Harvard and Stanford. They actually go to community colleges, for a start. As this recent U.S. News article points out, there are over eight million students enrolled in community colleges. And from a recent lecture at Virginia Tech, I learnt that as many as 40% of graduate students have spent some time at a community college, before moving onto graduate level study.

Here are a few arguments, spanning various sectors for why we need the nonprofit sector and how it enriches our lives, in concrete ways.

  1. Incentivizing community action – As Alexis De Tocqueville, the French Aristocrat keenly observed in Democracy in America, the form of association is key to progress in America. “ In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother of science. The progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.” Tocqueville, 1845 [1945]:1. Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University contextualizes this development in the ideology of voluntary action that existed since the founding of the country. Voluntary action in the 19th century was seen as a middle way between rampant individualism and monarchial tyranny. The arrival of immigrants around this time also led to the development of self-help societies and voluntary groups, that provided crucial services to the newly arrived immigrants, he points out. This continues, to this day and one sees that the nonprofit sector benefits people from across all segments of society – the very poor, the middle class to the rich ( The National Football League (NFL) is an egregious example of a nonprofit that ‘serves’ some very wealthy interests).

At the heart of this associationalism was a distrust of state authority and a belief that people are able to take care of their own needs, if left to their own devises. The legal status that nonprofits enjoy and the tax exemptions that they get is in part incentivization for this sort of associationalism.

2.Community Colleges – The surprisingly large number of students who attend community colleges is not well known. Their crucial role in preparing students for future education or work should not be discounted, nor is their funding mechanism, much of it modelled so that the fees don’t leave a big debt on those attending these institutions. As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of students who attend them is testimony to their continued relevance.

3. Employment in the nonprofit sector – As this recent article points out, millions of people are employed in the nonprofit sector and it contributes roughly five percent of the American GDP, every year. A recent report from the John Hopkins University’s Center on Nonprofits points out that about 10.1% of total America’s workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector. This is third in line, behind retail and manufacturing.

4. Democracy and philanthropy – Anyone familiar with American history will acknowledge the key role that civil society institutions have played in forming American democracy and sustaining it. Payton and Moody further argue that Philanthropy is crucial for Democracy. “The future of a free, vibrant society is linked to vitality of the philanthropic tradition,” they point out. (Payton and Moody, 2008. Pg.88). The advocacy and civic role of philanthropy are clearly essential in democracies, but other activities – helping to meet public needs and responding to human problems, shaping the moral agenda, and expressing cultural values are all part of building a stable democracy, they say. The notion that culturally, Philanthropy fosters democracy is an idea that has persisted since Alexis de Tocqueville pointed this out in his classic work Democracy in America. Payton and Moody build on Tocqueville’s argument in that Democracy needs philanthropy as it is also a cultural value, fostered by civic institutions

 

5.Cultural argument – One must also remember that individualism and freedom are at the heart of the American character, as Robert Bellah et al have argued in their book Habits of the Heart. In this book, they start off with case studies of four distinct individuals, leading very different lives. But what ties them together is how they make sense of their lives. As they say: “Brian Palmer finds meaning in marriage and family; Margaret in therapy. Thus both of them are primarily concerned with family life. Joe gives his life coherence his active concern for the life of his town; Wayne Bauer finds similar coherence in his involvement in political activism. Whether chiefly concerned with private or public life, all four are involved in caring for others. They are responsible and, in many ways, admirable adults. Yet when each of them uses the moral discourse they share, what we call the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than as we have observed them, they actually are.”

As many keen observers of American society, from Alexis De Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and more currently Robert Wuthnow, have pointed out, civil society and its functioning is crucial for American democracy. The way in which individual agency has shaped American ethos is quite unique and offers all of us – should we choose to, to participate in making our ‘own world’ in our communities, both locally and at the national level; with limited interference from the state apparatus.

 

The libertarian argument against nonprofits in general is predicated on cutting back on any subsidies to those who ‘do not produce’. This is fallacious, as it defines productivity in a very narrow sense. Are the services of an NGO engaged in employment generation not valuable? What of the local community college or research institution? And I am not even bringing up the soup kitchens and other self-help groups that save lives, provide shelter and provide social services that many welfare states do. How does one quantify the results of some of the intangibles such as community action and mobilization, that several NGOs’ work towards?

Taking a cue from this, the discourse of ‘fixing the world’ through for-profits alone misses out on this sense of commitment, social bonding and cohesion that seems to exist in American society; and much of this exists in the nonprofit sector, where the motive to serve exists, even if in a flawed way. This social capital is the basis of how civil society has evolved in the U.S. Taking this away would mean taking away something at the heart of the American ethos. And unfortunately, much of this social capital is not “for-profit”.

Is soccer a religion?

Source: Creativecommons/flickr
Source: Creativecommons/flickr

This is not meant as a rhetorical question, but a rather serious one. Is Soccer a religion? What makes it one, and if not, why? There are several reasons why one can argue for Soccer ( or football) as you call it, to be classified as religion. “Religion,” which comes from the Latin root “Religio,” which means to practice, or to do something over and again. The problem only begins with semantics, but doesn’t end there. I believe that it is important to clarify what religion means, what its role in public sphere is, and how one is to deal with it, for purposes other than merely spiritual. The role of religion needs to be understood now, more than ever – with seismic changes taking place around us in the U.S, vast political and demographic changes in the Middle East and North Africa and also economic challenges and recession making a deep impact on people in Europe. Many of the explanations offered to us, by journalists, academics and policy makers are couched in the language of “religion.”

There is much more going on in the religious realm, if one pays close attention to it. The debate becomes salient in the context of “football hooliganism,” as in the latest case of Egypt, where 22 people are reported to have died in clashes, following a verdict about football riots in 2011.  Religion in the public sphere is making a come-back, often for the wrong reasons. While the debates advocated by many are outright misleading, there are many nuances to the debate, if one pays close attention and has the patience to look carefully at the intersections of religion and the public sphere.

Jonathan Benthall, a scholar of Sociology of Religion argues that a “religion” has the following 19 characteristics. Let’s see if Soccer satisfies these criterion:

  1. Appeal to supernatural entities
  2. Appeal to an ideal world
  3. Totalizing discourse, creeds, master dogmas and scriptures
  4. Ontology, or an explanation of human beings’ place in nature
  5. Foundation narratives – Narratives that talk about how the world was created
  6. Conversion experiences
  7. Acceptance of doctrinal paradox
  8. Ceremonies, Rituals and Spiritual disciplines
  9. Solace in the face of death and suffering
  10. Martyrdom
  11. Demonology
  12. Moral imperatives based on altruism
  13. Internalization of a moral code
  14. Sectarianism
  15. Identity politics
  16. The sacred-profane distinction
  17. Trance states
  18. From the local to the transnational
  19. Patina – Referring to having survived for a long time.

So what? One might be tempted to ask. While one can argue that Soccer satisfies almost (if not all) of the above criterion, does it become a “ religion,” despite not being considered one in a traditional sense. What about Scientology, which is struggling to being considered as a religion, despite not being accepted by many, including the liberal western states of the United Kingdom and France, where it is being viewed with much suspicion, and treated almost like a cult. This article shows how the “religion” of Scientology is being actively seen as a “fraudulent” faith.

This question of whether something is considered a religion is relevant also because of its public policy implications. There is something to be said about the negative connotation that the term “religion” has in certain circles. Certain societies and intellectual groups actively despise religion and religious practices and anything pertaining remotely to religion is seen with suspicion, if not active hostility.

While the United States guarantees freedom of religion and one can choose to believe in practically anything that one wishes, other parts of the world are not so tolerant. The case against Scientology in France centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test. The Independent quotes her as saying that in the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-meter” to measure her spiritual progress, all fraudulent ways to “extract money.” While this article is not meant to defend Scientology or explain its doctrines, I merely used this as an example to illustrate one of the debates in the public sphere concerning religion.

Any debate about religion in the public sphere these days (and since the renaissance) has centered on how it impacts the “public sphere.” While one can argue about the need to keep religion in the private realm and separate the public sphere and religion – reality is much more complex. Robert Wuthnow, Jose Casanova, Jonathan Benthall – all world-renowned Sociologists and thinkers who have studied the role of religion in the public sphere have argued for understanding, accepting the role ( and indeed, the need) for religion to address some of our social evils such as poverty, hunger and homelessness. And it is hard to argue that religion( through faith-based organizations such as the Church, Mosque, Temple or Synagogue) continues to address these fundamental challenges on a daily basis. Religion is also making a comeback given the economic recession, the lack of government intervention in providing social security ( Western societies are facing this challenge more than others, if one looks at this closely). A recent IRIN article pointed out that just Zakat contributions ( charity given by Muslims) throughout the world is to the tune of between $200 billion to a trillion, which is more than 15 times the global humanitarian development aid, given by all the western nations combined. This staggering potential cannot be ignored.

I would like to believe that globally, there is a shift to pay attention to what religion is – in its various manifestations, its key role in the lived human experience and also its critical contribution to making our lives better. Finally, as Robert Wuthnow  famously said:  “ You may close the door on religion, but it comes flying through the window.” Perhaps it is time we make peace with the idea of religion and learn to live with it.