Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chance to Support Resilient Youth

Over the past ten weeks I've had the honor of working with some truly inspiring students who have immigrated to Portland from SE Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Central America. Next Wednesday, March 29, they'll be sharing from the interviews they've done of their parents and their photographs illustrating the rich range of cultures they are living out.
The event is 10:00 a.m. at the Community Center behind St. Andrew at NE Alberta and 7th in Portland. Admission is free.
Other students will read from their letters and letters from Ghana on the theme of adversity, stories of overcoming poverty, loss of parents, and abuse, among other challenges.
So please forward this to anyone who might be interested in learning from and supporting diverse, determined, and resilient young people.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Resilience: "There's Nothing More"

I'm one of those people who spent much of his life wondering what I should do when I grow up. I think I believed that there was one shining path that I was meant to walk, and all would be lost and wasted if I didn't find it. The poet Sylvia Plath wrote of watching figs ripen on a tree and being so afraid that she wouldn't pick the right one that they all grew rotten and fell to the ground. That image resonates for me.

A piece of advice I heard somewhere that made an impression on me was that one shouldn't try to do everything. Find a passion, something you are reasonably good at and care about, find others who feel the same, and work with them and stick to it. Christians often refer to this as one's "calling." But you don't need to be a Christian to be devoted to a particular cause, even in the face of apparent failure.

One problem that people like me, an American who has had a pretty comfortable life, commonly run into, is what to do when problems arise while pursuing one's calling. Many Americans are raised to expect happy endings, even if we are working with vulnerable people. As the humanitarian Paul Farmer puts it, we often assume that "all of the world problems can be fixed without any cost" to ourselves. Caring about other people inevitably leads to disappointment and suffering.

But if you truly believe in what you are doing and are collaborating with good people, you can decide that giving up simply isn't an option. One of my favorite fictional characters is the Nigerian headmaster in Helon Habila's Measuring Time, a man who is determined, against what seem to be impossible odds, to maintain a school for vulnerable children. "This is life," he explains. "There's nothing more." And that's more than enough.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Immigrants, Cosmopolitanism, and Conservatism

I've been spending a lot of time around immigrant students, lately, teenagers from all over the world. Some have been exposed to extreme trauma, fled violence, lived in refugee camps. Some have had much more ordinary lives. All find themselves in the U.S. trying to sort out how to reconcile or blend their traditions, the lives of their parents, with the American youth culture they encounter at middle and high school.

The children are diverse in ways that extend beyond their point of origin or their varied cultures. Some are shy. Others are anything but. Some love school, others, well, not so much.

I've long studied immigration, but much in the same way that I studied West Africa. It wasn't until I went there and experienced for myself that I was deeply affected by it.

And so I find myself deeply affected by these young people, by their ready gifts of friendship, their openness, their determination and optimism.

In today's polarized and often poisoned political culture, liberals and conservatives often divide over immigration, with conservatives fearing that such people might dilute American culture. Yet immigrants are often deeply conservative. Most have strong religious beliefs, a ferocious work ethic, and a deep commitment to their families. The other day in one class we discussed the tension between commitment to family and pursuing one's dreams. Students strongly asserted that they would not live apart from their parents to pursue any dream, not after the sacrifices their parents had made for them. Some had tears in their eyes as they spoke about how much their families meant to them.

It makes a person think about what life is for, in the end, which I think is a great benefit of cosmopolitanism, of seeking contact with a variety of cultures. Cosmopolitanism may seem like a liberal idea, but it often leads to more conservative (if "conservative" is defined in a traditional sort of way rather than as whatever the Republican Party currently favors) points of view.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Gift of Turning 60

The most obvious blessing of being sixty years old is that it beats the alternative.

But I've noticed a lot of other benefits, too.

One of the historical anomalies of modern life is that we live a long time. Paired with the great comfort--again, relatively speaking--that most of us in the West enjoy, this understandably leads to a sort of assumption that we have all the time in the world. And that can become a sort of burden. "What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?" wonders a character in The Great Gatsby.

Old age has a way of reminding you that time is short. People your age--or younger--that you care about start passing away, sometimes with scant notice. One's energy level and memory are not what they used to be. Weight is easier to put on, harder to lose. Ailments start creeping in--or sometimes rushing in.

Life becomes more of a gift, less of a burden. One hopes for many more years, especially productive and healthy ones. But clearly most of life is in the rear-view mirror, and the road ahead may be much shorter and more difficult than we hope for. And that is a good thing to ponder.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

How Did This Happen, Conclusion (I think)

In sum, here are my major "take-aways" from the election in terms of what I can do:

1) Although many factors lay behind the election of a person patently unfit to be President, one of them certainly is fear of the unknown or of the stranger. Maintaining friendships with a wide range of people--and seeking to bring diverse people together--can ease those fears.

2) Much of the electorate feels disrespected by liberal or radical intellectuals--and that is partly by design. Educated white people, especially, commonly distance ourselves from our less educated counterparts by mocking their values and intellects, and they have gotten the message.  This sort of distancing, this assertion of superiority, often happens unconsciously, I think, but it is no less damaging for that.

3) A point related to #2, above: I need to remember that people I disagree with have things to teach me, access to truths I have not learned. My knowledge and understanding will always be partial.

None of the above means that I or others should stay silent or passive in our politics. But all of us need to own our part of the current dilemma for us to have the best chance of working our way out of it.

Like a person falling from an airplane without a parachute, most people in the U.S. have had a great ride since World War II, especially. The ground, it appears, is rapidly approaching.

Friday, December 9, 2016

How Did This Happen, Part III

One of the more striking and, for many of us, disturbing developments of the last campaign was the emergence of what is commonly referred to as "White Nationalism," or, more generally, white identity politics.

This growing attraction to or assertion of a white identity is the product of several themes. Part of it is simply demographics, namely that in more and more parts of the U.S. white people no longer constitute a majority. It also reflects a sort of longing for the sort of identity that people of color seem to possess--or at least that white people think they possess. I've run across many liberals who in fact seem to regret being white, as whiteness is associated with not having a culture or an identity.

In academia, being white is in fact commonly interpreted as a sort of mark of shame, or at least being very uncool. A few months ago I read a book proposal on American identities that essentially identified whiteness with privilege and oppression.

I have two general problems with that assertion or assumption. First, it seems to be a sort of (albeit subtle) form of white privilege to assert that only white people are capable of dominating and exploiting others. To assert that white people are more evil than other groups is to at least imply that we are more clever than the rest, that we are the ones with agency. Second, and on a more practical level, many white students will resent the assertion or implication that whiteness can be reduced to unearned privileges and domination. As one pundit recently observed, white people are apt to vote for the party that is not calling them racists.

President-Elect Trump was very skilled at speaking to the fears and resentments of white people across the educational spectrum. "Make American Great Again" was, for many people, code for "Make American White Again"--or at least that America would be "restored" to the sort of place where white men, especially, called the shots and where their cultural references (from "Merry Christmas!" to the Confederate flag) were enshrined as norms.

Part of what progressive-minded people who are concerned about racism and other forms of prejudice need to do, it seems to me, is to find a way to talk about race, ethnicity, and identity in a way that does not simply reduce whiteness to oppressiveness. When I think of my heritage, what my parents and their parents handed down to me, certainly racism is part of the package. But far more explicit and influential, I think, was a ferocious work ethic.

Of course the problem here is that when white people celebrate their ancestors' work ethic, for example, we commonly go on to assert that our work ethic makes us better than everyone else. White Nationalism asserts that only white people have made substantial contributions to the U.S. or to civilization more broadly defined. Some assert that only white people can even do an honest day's work. This is not simply insensitive; it's patently false.

Can white people build a sense of identity, of culture, that is not tied up in disparaging the cultures of others?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Did This Happen? Part II

It is interesting to note that so many public intellectuals are now examining white, working-class people as a sort of anthropological exercise. On the one hand, it's a good thing that highly educated, liberal people are trying to understand their less educated counterparts. On the other hand, it's a bit depressing that there is such a gulf between the two groups. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many academics in the U.S. today find it easier to understand and certainly to have empathy for someone living in the developing world under very different circumstances from our own than we do with the average Trump enthusiast.

One of the discoveries of these cultural anthropologists of the white working class is that the subjects of the study view themselves as middle class. That distinction is a telling one, for I think it's an assertion of both being at the heart of America's identity (a status they fear is slipping away) and that they are not people who need things--though one of the great ironies of modern American politics, I can't help but point out, is that states and areas whose residents express the most antipathy to government tend to be subsidized, through federal and state taxation and expenditure, by places highly populated by pointy-headed intellectuals.

But I think we pointy-headed intellectuals play a leading role in the modern social, cultural, and political divide between highly and less educated white Americans.

I recall years, when I was a young radical, a friend remarking that she felt like she "could not keep up with" me. By the time she accepted one of my positions, I had staked out a new one, farther away from normal people like her. And of course that was the point, to be more radical than thou. It's a very human and understandable impulse, to wish to "distinguish" oneself, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term. Intellectuals like to turn their educational advantages not simply into cash, but into "cultural capital." We adopt ways of living and thinking that set us apart from--and above--our less educated peers in our taste in food, entertainment, and, of course, politics. Hence we are often perceived, by those we view as our inferiors, as walking around with "stick up our ***."

One of the problems with using one's education to assert superiority is that it so often generates humiliation and resentment in those who are made to feel excluded. Another problem is that if you are determined to be in the minority, you won't win many elections.