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.

 

 

How the US Congress can make friends and help people

What is the role of US Aid in developing contexts?

A panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies sought to answer this fundamental question, as part of the Global Development Forum meetings.

While the question and its answer seem simple, it does have enormous implications on how foreign aid impacts various levels of development – both domestically and internationally. It shows us how we think of America’s role in the world.

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Photo credit : http://www.humanosphere.org

This question is also important, as it reflects the attitudes that American publics have towards helping those who are vulnerable and weak. It goes to the deeply held beliefs of what the United States is about, its ‘manifest destiny’ is and how other nations are to interact with it. Looking at this question from the inside-out, one can gain incredible insights into what the future of multi-lateral relations will be.

So, who does this question impact? Immediately, in the D.C circles, it impacts the ‘belt-way bandits’, those organizations that are the direct beneficiaries of the government contracts – whether in the International Development space or other indirect forms of ‘capacity building’ through International NGOs. It also impacts foreign governments, whether they are those such as Pakistan, Israel or Egypt, that get a substantial chunk of their aid – to the tunes of billions of dollars from the U.S. or others, such as India, that have sought a more technical partnership and have moved away from accepting large aid.

Looking at the current political climate, where the focus is on ‘making America great’ again and this reluctance to ‘help’ other poorer nations is frowned upon. At the same time, one must not forget that US Aid has been a key part of not only US foreign policy, but also one of its diplomacy or ‘soft-power’ as Joseph Nye has argued.

They key tensions that the panel debated revolved around: Presidential authority vs. congressional mandates, ideological rigidity vs. bipartisanship and focus on alliance building ( abroad) vs. focusing on a domestic agenda. There is no movement purely in one direction, as all members of the panel, which comprised of Michael Millere, Diana Ohlbaum, Les Munson and Talia Dubovi – all veterans of Capitol Hill.

Munson argued that there is bi-partisanship in action, even today; despite what the media headlines say. He pointed to several bills such as Global food security Act, Power Africa Act and others, which have been carried to passage, through sheer bi-partisan support.

On the other hand, the gridlock between both parties is visible in the fact that the Foreign Aid Assistance Act has not been revised in over 30 yrs, pointed out Ohlbaum. At the outset, the Act recognizes that “Furthermore, the Congress reaffirms the traditional humanitarian ideals of the American people and renews its commitment to assist people in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness, and ignorance.” This is not surprising that post WWII, the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower, and in this role, was also saw itself as an upholder of greater and nobler humanitarian principles, of which humanitarian aid is a key part.

This humanitarian impulse is seen in the event of major natural disasters that occur. Americans gave, for instance over $350 billion, in philanthropy, in 2015, according to Giving USA. Speaking about giving to International Affairs, Dr. Una Osili points out that the slight drop, by 3.4 % compared to previous years could be because of increasing attention to domestic causes. Also, there hasn’t been a huge natural disaster, that has occurred internationally; for Americans to be involved, she added.

Development, as anyone who studies it, or is involved in, knows,  is a complicated business. There are several intervening factors that go into making a country develop and grow out of poverty. There are also movements and ideas that call for ‘de-growth’ and for reexamining the current modes of ‘development.’

Not least of which is political stability and a responsible government, at the helm. The U.S. being a country that has a lot of leverage in many areas that impact global trade, commerce and flow of goods does have a big say in how the processes that impact development are conducted.  The next presidency will determine if foreign aid will just amount to charity, or if the U.S. Congress, working with the next President, will create an enabling environment for all countries to participate, in the global community of nations.

 

 

How to make a political statement by learning Spanish

SpanishClub3
Photo credit : bhs.burlesonisd.net

We are living in interesting times. Times when xenophobia, racism and suspicion of the ‘other’ are going mainstream, at least at the level of political rhetoric. While one can excuse this as the misguided logic leading up to the primaries, one cannot ignore the amount of confusion this is causing- both domestically and across the world. President Obama had to clarify recently at a high level ASEAN leaders’ summit that this trend of xenophobia does not represent America and it will pass[i].

Culturally, this phenomenon of xenophobia also challenges the very idea of what the U.S. is about – the ‘land of opportunities,’ an enduring myth that has survived centuries[ii]. The complexity in the idea of ‘land of opportunities’ is that it is true under certain circumstances, for certain people. While being challenged by nativists and others, who resisted immigration, this idea has survived; thanks to the generosity, wisdom and plain common sense of the American people and (some of) their law makers.

Additionally, this 2016 Political campaign is challenging the very idea of a culturally plural America. This divisive campaign is also bringing up a lot of issues that I deeply care about, both culturally and politically. I am both surprised and shocked at the level of bigotry against ‘Hispanic’ people, in particular. Language is at the heart of this battle, as well.

Let me clarify: My wife is a Spanish speaker –she is Mexican-American- and I was only vaguely familiar with the language. When we dated for four years, before getting married, I would add ‘o’ to every English word, to make it ‘Spanish’ sounding. Initially, I thought it was funny, but later on realized that I was being facetious and outright ignorant, not to mention offensive, as well. I love my (new) Mexican family as much as my (inherited) Indian one and it pains me to see the kind of narrow-mindedness that is characterizing American public sphere.

So, how does a brown, Indian born Muslim, with a Catholic Mexican-American wife tackle such bigotry? By learning Spanish, of course.

Keeping in mind the common wisdom of ‘happy wife, happy life’, I decided to learn the language. Well, that wasn’t the only motivation. I have always wanted to learn Spanish. As someone who knows four other languages – I grew up in India: where being a polyglot is the norm, rather than the exception- I thought that learning Spanish couldn’t be that hard. But boy! have I been wrong. Spanish grammar is hard. And tricky. And extremely nuanced. But it is a challenge worth overcoming and I am enjoying the journey. This process is also helping me map my own limits, of learning as well as expanding my skills of observation.

I have no delusions of grandeur and no great ambitions of mapping the cultural and administrative landscape of the U.S. like Alexis De Tocqueville did, when he wrote Democracy in America[iii]in 1835. But I do think there is a need for closely examining the changing contours of what America is ‘becoming.’ Tocqueville, who, until today is cited in scholarly and popular books and articles is considered one of the great chroniclers of American life. His greatest insight was that America was very ‘equal’ in many ways. The trends of aristocracy were long over, given that Americans resisted the ‘old world’ ways of doing this. He says “ Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance[iv].”

Tocqueville went on to argue that equality of social condition translates into equality in political opportunities. The equal political rights that are given to everyone are a gift of democracy and it also means that everyone who is in this country ought to be treated in a similar manner. The current political rhetoric by Mr. Trump seems to be challenging this very idea – by clubbing blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans and others are ‘undesirables’ and shutting them out of ‘respectable’ American society. Even if it means doing so, rhetorically.

For me, learning Spanish is also proving to be a ‘border crossing’ phenomenon – quite literally. You can reach across and touch people’s hearts with the language and make them feel that you are ‘one of them.’ Partaking in a ‘linguistic community’ is being part of a culture, a way of life and a way of thinking. It goes merely beyond the ability to string a few words, together. I am learning this, each day. I did visit Mexico City with my wife, over Thanksgiving and learnt that my Spanish flows much better in Mexico, for some reason. Something about ‘full immersion’ perhaps?

At the same time, Spanish is proving to be my inspiration and a test of what I can push myself through. It is also teaching me that we are constantly borrowing and learning from one another. Look at words such as ‘Bastante’ (enough) and ‘Alfil (Chess piece) among others; which have been borrowed from Arabic. Besides, Spanish itself has Latin roots and shares ‘family resemblances’ with many other European languages.  There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in Spanish. This language of the conquerors – yes, let’s not forget the Spanish colonial history – did assimilate from other cultures and languages. In this regard, Spanish is very open and embracing. In addition, I am able to appreciate the intermingling of the other part of my heritage – the Muslim one – when I watch Destinos and look at the architecture and linguistic influences of the Moors on Spain[v].

Language, like other aspects of life is not insular. As a student of Spanish I am learning this and appreciating the increasing complexity of thought, learning. ‘Effort’ has taken on a new meaning – though I learnt that lesson well, when I was finishing up my dissertation writing. Nuance – both in thought and in speech-is another aspect of language that I am learning. Just a small change of accent or word can make a lot of difference.

Learning a language as an adventure ? One of the bigger insights I have gained personally since I started learning Spanish is that one needs to have a sense of adventure and also courage, to succeed. While the rudiments of a language, its grammar may be known, a learner does not know ‘all’ the rules or even the words necessary to form a fully coherent sentence. At the beginning stages at least! As one progresses, with trial and error; one’s confidence grows. It happened with me too. I am at what my teacher; Claudia calls ‘basic-intermediate’ level, where I am forming some coherent sentences and am beginning to understand much more than 50% of all words spoken to me.

Language in use – What Wittgenstein tells us about language? He is considered the greatest philosopher of the modern era. As this BBC podcast says “the limits of my language are the limits of our world[vi]”. While I will not indulge in the intricacies of Tractacus Logicus Philosophicus, his magnum opus; I will however, point to one of his key arguments – that language must be understood in how it is used. Not merely in terms of the symbolism that it denotes. ‘Language and logic also point to the limits of our world’ would be a good way to summarize one of his key arguments. I would argue, by way of Wittgenstein that having a broader ‘spectrum of logic’ can open up more ways of seeing the world. Better linguistic skills can enhance reasoning and ways of imagining the world.

Finally, language can unite us more than divide us. Just look around the world – there are more than 400 million Spanish speakers around the world[vii]. That is more than the population of the U.S. Learning Spanish can also diminish the world’s ignorance a little bit. Adding an additional speaker of another language is a good thing – and I say this as the son of two language teachers, who grew up in India, that has more than 23 ‘official languages[viii].’

With over 41 million native speakers of Spanish, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than in Spain, according to a study by Instituto Cervantes[ix]. Besides, there are 11.6 million bi-lingual speakers. This is not counting people like me, who are learning their fifth language. So, how can one ignore or at worse malign these people, who speak other languages? By 2050, there are going to be an estimated 150 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. How can one fight this natural diversity of languages and cultures? If the founding fathers had the wisdom to avoid this issue, keeping in mind the diversity, why should we tinker with the existing order? Why fix something that is not broken and also why fight against the order of how our world is becoming global – through trade, commerce, better communication technologies? And of course, the growth of appreciation of Latin American culture. As my wife asks ‘Why hate Mexicans, when you love Mexican tacos’?

On that note, it makes sense to ask: Does the ‘English only’ movement even make any logical sense? Obviously, Wittgenstein would disagree[x].  Such racist and rhetoric narratives are the border-line where logic stops and bigotry begins.

 

 

[i] http://dailycaller.com/2016/02/16/obama-slams-trump-and-rubio-foreign-observers-are-troubled-video/

[ii] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8140.html

[iii] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm

[iv]  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#link2HCH0006 Chp.3

[v]  https://learner.org/series/destinos/

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jYaTCn8vw

[vii]  https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

[viii] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Languages_of_India

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country

[x] http://www.iperstoria.it/vecchiosito/httpdocs//?p=547

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.

 

Has social media made us lazy?

I have been thinking about social media and how it has made us lazy. Yes, social media allows us to sit on our backsides, click a few cat pictures (potentially cats in distress) and makes us feel like we have ‘saved the world’. Or if you are a bit more gifted, perhaps you’ll write about something – like I am attempting – post it on your blog, share it on twitter and Face Book and think you’ve done your part.

But have you? Really? Have you ‘changed the world’, one tweet at a time?

soc media
photo credit : marccx.com

Do hash tag campaigns really do much, apart from bring people’s short-attention spans to focus on one thing, even if it is for a few hours? What happens after this? Did #bringbackkourgirls do much? In this case, as this Guardian article argues, this campaign only solidified America’s military involvement, and intervention – an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned campaign.

As this journalist, writing about racists in Britain points out, “Hell, in a world where the video of a man singing in Korean and doing that strangely iconic horse-riding dance can get 2.5 billion views on YouTube, 1.3 million becomes a bit of an empty number, doesn’t it? Pressing like on a Facebook page requires less thought, less commitment and less accountability than signing up to a political party.” Her point is that real political change takes time, effort and actual on-the-ground mobilization. And not just social media activism.

If the mere spectacle of social change is what we are after, then perhaps social media helps us get there – but real change, lasting change takes time. And effort. Real effort.

If you’ve been trying to lose 20 pounds of fat on your body, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about.

Two jobs I Could Never have….like ever!

I dropped off my wife, who is a Catholic, to her colleague’s house on the  morning of Sept 23, at 4 am. Together, they, along with a few other colleagues were going to meet the Pope and the President at the White House.   On my way back, I was thinking to myself: Those are the two jobs I could never have – Being the Pope or the President of the United States. As a Muslim man, born in India; it may perhaps be the ultimate fantasy to be in either position. An impossible one at that.

Photo credit : parade.com
Photo credit : parade.com

Well, I did have ambitions of a monastic life, at one point in my life. My ambitions of (Muslim) priesthood died out when my hormones kicked in.  Unholy thoughts replaced holy aspirations. But again, those ambitions wouldn’t have taken me to the Vatican, unless I converted. At best they would’ve taken me to the backwaters of Malakka in Malaysia or the theological seminaries of Oil rich Saudi Arabia. Neither appealed to my cosmopolitan upbringing. I was happy being a ‘regular’ Muslim, doing ‘regular’ things. Nothing spectacular or holy for me, please.

Conversion to any other religion never appealed to me, at any point of my life. And I have always believed that Islam is a very ‘open’ and ‘all embracing’ religion. Islam sees itself as truly Christianity 2.0 and Judaism 3.0, as in, a continuation of the monotheistic tradition that started with Abraham. Ask any Imam. He’ll confirm what I am saying. Even the Salafis will concede that point, theologically speaking. As the second son of two high-school teachers, teaching and being pedantic comes naturally to me. Ask my wife.

Anyway, back to the President. The (poor) President Obama has been pilloried since 2008 for being a ‘secret Muslim,’ and most recently the tactics used by Donald Trump to rev up emotions against Muslims in general have brought back this issue. This debate is about whether Obama is ‘truly’ American and ‘truly’ a Christian. The reasoning being that if he is not either, then he is obviously not eligible to be President. And of course, we know by now that being Muslim means that you are guilty unless proven otherwise, in certain circles. The Muslim identity is unfortunately ‘problematic.’ Even after writing my dissertation about American Muslim identity and its relation to philanthropy; I am looking for answers on how to ‘fix’ this issue. Perhaps no one knows. Neither the President nor his advisors. The media is merely a spectator, which spews out whatever is thrown at it, only amplified, many times over.

Anyway, having reconciled myself to the fact that I cannot be in either position, in this lifetime, at least; I came back home. I came back humbled and thankful for the life I have. Thankful and grateful that we have two sane people, who are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Both are men of faith and hope, who bring reconciliation, where others cause strife. Both embody a work-ethic, which I could hardly keep up with, even if I am a good 40 years younger than him. Both are deeply Christian, without being unnecessarily dogmatic or close-minded.

Can they do better? Yes, of course. But at least we don’t have people in positions of power that will jail, kill, persecute or maim others, for the color of their skin or their religious beliefs. I took a nap, knowing fully well that even if I can’t have the Pope’s job, I can rest assured that he is doing his, well.  And I can take a nap whenever I want. Neither the Pope nor the President have such luxuries.

Creating a positive ‘identity’ for refugees?

In most media discourses, Refugees are constructed  as pathological creatures. The entire discourse of refugees and their plight is portrayed as something of a ‘problem to be fixed.’ While it is true that most refugees are in need of desperate help and do, over a short period of time, burden the economy of any host country; but research has shown – and common sense should tell us – that over a long period of time, refugees are a boon to any place where they go.

As this OpEd in NY Times points out, refugees contribute to the revitalization of economies. As a former resident of upstate NY, I saw the impact of this phenomenon. Most of the refugees settled there are independent, self-sufficient and actually quite wealthy, all in a matter of less than 20 years. That is just one generation. Bosnians fleeing the Balkan war are among the refugees who live in this region and are among the prosperous communities there.

photo credit : womenoftheworld.org
photo credit : womenoftheworld.org

Similarly, when media accounts of refugees portray them as helpless victims, who are in perpetual need of assistance, the reality is quite different. As they are fleeing persecution, they are also deeply conscious of the need to re-build their lives and are eager to take up any opportunity that comes their way. As the NYT OpEd mentioned earlier points out “A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.” This goes against our popular understandings of what refugees do, and how ‘dependent’ they are on welfare.

This bias is not only present in media discourses, but also scholarly literature on Arab-Americans in general and refugees in particular. I came across this phenomenon, as I was researching the issue for a policy brief, that I am writing, as part of my work at ACCESS. Why is this cognitive bias present? Is it because the dominant framing of refugees is set? It is set – in terms of framing them as helpless, without agency and will power? – as essentially victims who are not capable of shaping their destiny? While this is part of the story, it is not the entire story. True, they are helpless ( for the time-being) but are not without agency or will power. The Syrian refugees, for instance, are taking enormous risks, putting their lives in danger, to move to a safer area, to live and prosper. This shows not only their resilience and determination to fight against all odds, but also their imagination and ability to think outside of the box.

America should embrace this positive energy and will to live. It is what has made the U.S . a great country and it is what drives innovation and change. It is time we all re-examine the dominant narratives of the refugees as a burden and look at them for what they are – victims of circumstances, who will thrive, in the right environment. It is our duty, as decent human beings to help them find this environment.