Monday, November 21, 2016

Leaves underfoot and overhead: my New England fall

I drink it all in greedily. The greens, the browns, the golds, the reds, and all those indescribable shades in between and beyond. And the blue, blue sky overhead. The nip in the air only serves to accentuate the sharpness of the colors, and adds a quickness to my step as I crunch across the leaf-strewn pathway of the arboretum.

Arboretum: a place where trees and plants are grown to be studied or seen by the public (Merriam-Webster dictionary, online)

I would amend that definition to include: a place that offers a sanctuary from the chaos and confusion and the intense pressure to achieve order that marks urban life.

Of course, temples and spas also offer that. But you know what I mean. Chants and bells and low-key piped music and strange aromas do not quite match the abundance of the woods. Even if it is a cultivated copse (not a typo, the r has no place in this wood/word).

I took a few hours off on what promised to be the last perfect day of the New England fall to find my way to the Arnold Arboretum, on the southern edge of the city. The crowds thin out between the T-stop and the almost-industrial looking pathway and suddenly,  a pair of wrought iron gates mark your entry to this 480-acre parkland.

I walked. I felt the softness of the pines and the rough edges of the white and red oaks. I discovered the beauty of the leaves of the hemlock (something I'd always associated with witches and their potions) and the perfection of the Japanese maple.

I breathed. I allowed myself to be interrupted by scurrying squirrels and calling birds, falling acorns and skittering leaves. I felt the thought emptying itself of words.

As for the rest, it's in the pictures.

In the soft shade of the conifers.

The ones that stay steadfastly green.

The weeping larch still manages to cheer

When you look down, there is promise to be found

Still, the sun shines through

He stares curiously--or maybe just wearily--at me

The branches seem free, and light, somehow

Gold, gold, gold!

Shades I have no names for

The last cool flames of autumn

The five-pointed leaves of the sweet gum, also known as Witch Hazel

The dark magic of old tree bark

Oh that Japanese maple!

I am many colors at once.

There's music in them shadows

Need I say more?

Time for reflection. 

And if you've stayed with me this far, here are some more pictures from a walk along the Charles River, lined by oaks and elms and maples and the occasional linden. The grey-blue of the water and the iridescence of the sky.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Days After

I’m not a voter in the United States, nor I am not a permanent resident. Yet I found myself caught up in the mania of the past several months and in the not-so-nail-biting finish in the early hours of Wednesday (Nov 9) morning. Now we’re all asking ourselves why and how no one saw it coming. Why the effects of income inequality and a certain kind of disenfranchisement or its perception—an even more invidious thing—could have escaped us, could have passed unseen by the mainstream media and the online echo chambers we find ourselves spending time in.

So, back to that space between day and night on Wednesday. Even as I tried to sleep after the news of Florida broke, my daughter texted me from India, incredulous as she and my husband watched the result unfold in patches of red on television and laptop screen, augmented by the disbelief of commentators pointing at their magic screens. As for me, trying to get warm under a heavy quilt, my bleary eyes were locked on my phone, scrolling through twitter and Facebook, jumping from the emotional posts on the ‘secret group’ called Pantsuit Nation to updates from the New York Times and NPR feeds. By the morning, although the news was old by then, we were still reeling in disbelief. How could this happen?
Signs of support in Colorado

This complete immersion in the politics of the moment, the sense of being caught up in the middle of a monumental change, continued. Through the morning I watched, first, Hillary’s gracious and emotive concession speech and then Obama’s congratulatory message, but I did not have the stomach to watch Trump’s acceptance speech. And despite the fact that the roads I was traveling on had emerged decidedly blue, there was an air of despondency and gloom.  And a strange sort of paranoia. As I boarded the Greyhound Bus to return to Boston from Hartford, where I had given a lecture the previous night, my friend texted me anxiously: “Be careful on the bus; don’t make eye contact with anyone—there are crazies out there.” Difference—of colour, of gender expression, of religion—could make one a target, she was suggesting.

By mid-day the expressions of sadness, anger and denial were growing louder. Large groups congregated at the Boston Common and smaller groups met in various other venues across the city’s campuses. The focus among many liberals/progressives seemed to be on thinking through this and regrouping, figuring out ways to talk about the loss of a certain way of seeing the world and the country, and finding ways to keep alive the ideal of an inclusive, caring community—an ideal that seemed to have been shattered and put under serious threat by the Trump victory. The alt-right rhetoric of misogyny, xenophobia and racism/sexism seemed to have won a path to the idea of an America that was largely white, anti-science, and exclusionary.

The first such discussion I attended was on the evening of November 9, at the Mahindra Humanities Centre at Harvard University, titled “Dark and Stormy: Reflections on the Elections”, moderated by postcolonial theorist and literary scholar Homi Bhabha, with Harvard professors Jill Lepore (historian, New Yorker contributor), David Laibson (behavioral economist) and Danielle Allen (director, Edmund Safra Centre for Ethics) as panelists.

The view from afar: Danielle Allen, David Liaison,
Jill Lepore and Homi Bhabha
“It’s good to see the room so full, on a day when I am feeling particularly empty,” said Homi Bhabha in opening the discussion. “We come together in this safe space, seeking a space of comfort.”

Clearly, there was an assumption—not incorrect, yet an assumption--that this gathering was of the like-minded. That it was a coming together of people who shared a kind of despair, even if they may not go so far as to say they would disregard the mandate (as the slogans on Boston Common did). What followed was a picking apart of the situation, from the perspective of history, journalism, economics and ethics.

In a sharp critique of contemporary journalism practice, Jill Lepore took the long view, noting that something about the “tenor of this election season” that seemed to have turned certain variables into constants and vice versa. “Our sense of the past has become foreshortened by technology,” she said, and this fed into the sense of what she termed “political millennialism”. Her focus was on the crisis of journalism that was made manifest by this election. She pointed specifically about the reliance on polls (“Polls have been wrong every single time…still we trust them!”), the conflation of informed opinion with punditry, and the erosion of locally grounded reportage. “With the dwindling of political on-the-ground reporting, not talking to people face to face, the only move available to the analysts was the intellectual one,” she said.

In an argument backed by evidence from longitudinal studies as well as dip-stick surveys, David Laibson drew attention to the fact that the Trump campaign had a strong core message (Make America Great Again) that was attractive to the large group of Americans for whom the American Dream had pretty much collapsed. “People had trusted in us—the political and cultural elites—to make the right policy decisions,” he said. “And we failed.” Laibson too pointed to the role of technology in all of this, which would only continue to intensify the economic inequality of present times: “We should all be very afraid of this trend.” The loss of faith in the ruling elites drove this group to place their trust in someone who, he feared, would turn out to be a “false prophet”.

Danielle Allen reprised an essay she had written for The Washington Post in which she wrote: By virtue of participating in these contests, we are free. Only by participating in these contests can we be free. We are disappointed today but can try again for tomorrow. To be a democratic citizen requires endurance, resilience and tenacity.” With hope tinged with, she reminded the audience that there were institutions in the country that “limit the scope of our defeat” but that “we need to learn again, how to listen”. “Where do we get the moral and ethical strength to resist and decide in favour of social justice?” she asked. She was also unequivocal in linking the issue of income inequality to race, and wondered if it would be possible to “rethink questions of fairness, equality, etc. so that they include everyone”, including, presumably, the disenfranchised white working class, emphasizing that “What will become of us depends on each of us.”

In their questions to the panel, the audience—comprising a mix of faculty, students, and members of the larger Boston public--reflected the mixture of anger, despair and emergent hope that seems to pervade discussions around the election result.  Homi Bhabha returned to the question uppermost in teaching circles: “How do we give our students the conceptual tools to address these issues of social justice?” Linked to this was Jill Lepore’s observation that “It’s very hard to get students to disagree with each other in a productive manner” would be familiar to university faculty everywhere. Danielle Allen too wondered, “How do we restore healthy intellectual habits” that could lead to an evidence-based dialogue between opposing viewpoints.

Summing up, Homi Bhabha, in a quintessentially academic manner, paraphrased Gramsci: “We are now faced with what can only be called a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will.”

The next morning, I wandered through the corridors of MIT to find myself under the “great dome”, the large entry foyer that had served as the safe space for students and faculty trying to make sense of the election results. I heard that some professors had conducted their classes in the foyer, focusing their discussions in some way around the mood of the moment. The six-foot-thick pillars under the dome had been wrapped in white, providing space for expressions of Hope and Fear. All of them were covered in writing, letters large and tiny, in forms ranging from outright rants to poetry to prayer. Two young women sat on one side, with a big box of white and black wristbands that people could sport to show that “we are not alone”. Many students still gathered around the pillars, reading, and some still picking up a pen to add to the words.

The MIT Media Lab group that I have been spending much of my time with—the Center for Civic Media--holds regular meetings every Thursday to review work and bounce around ideas. It’s an open forum to which everyone is invited (except once a month when it’s closed for pure group business) and everyone is welcome to bring their voices to the table. When I walked into this Thursday’s meeting, I found Nicole, the administrator of Civic, putting out a larger number of chairs than usual, around the long table that most weeks hosted a small crowd of 20 to 25 people. I found myself a spot in the second row and settled in, burrowing into my phone as I waited for the meeting to begin. The next time I looked up, every space around the table and the rows beyond was occupied, and people were still walking in. There must have been around 70 people in the room. Clearly there was something different.

Ethan Zuckerman, who directs the Civic Media Lab, began by introducing the format of the meeting. The weekly get-togethers begin with a quick round of introductions (because there are often some first timers) and an ice-breaker question. Today’s ice-breaker was in some ways a no-brainer: “Tell us who you are, what your affiliation is, and what is one thing you do to pull yourself together when you feel shaken up.” (In the past we’ve had questions like: ‘which superhero would you be or what is your favorite storybook character’…real ice-breakers, in other words.)

The assumption—again, not incorrect—was that everyone was feeling somewhat unsettled and they needed a way to get past it.

In what seemed like a rapid-fire round of coping strategies, we mentioned such things as talking to family and friends, going into nature, getting drunk or gorging on chocolate, playing a game or listening to music, running and biking, and losing oneself in a silly movie (or ‘crappy television’) or a favorite book.

(There was a furry animal on Ethan’s shoulder that I could not immediately identify but it became clear when he talked about his own coping strategy: “to stroke my friend’s pet hedgehog until I feel calm”. Adrienne from the Harvard Business School and a regular at Civic meetings brought her dog who walked around spreading good energy and petting opportunities.)

The other tradition of the Civic meetings is to bid for time, to give everyone around the table a chance to present their idea or catch everyone up on a project or report on an activity. Ethan (or the designated chair, in his absence) holds the auctioneer’s gavel and uses his discretion to dole out blocks of time ranging from 30 seconds to 20 minutes, depending on the pool of bids and relative merit.

Again, today’s meeting was a departure.

Ethan spent five minutes talking about the backdrop to the meeting (the election result), his own reactions (first anger, then energy), talking us through an alternative history where a Hillary victory ended up with a numbing complacence. He then laid out the plan: three blocks (“acts”) of twenty minutes each. The first: fears. The second: hopes. The third: concrete plans.

Here’s how it played out (a rough re-creation, give or take a few):

Act 1: Fears—“I’m afraid that—“
-       My daughter’s friends will be deported
-       As an international student, I will lose the opportunity to work here
-       My undocumented friends will have to leave
-       My identity as a trans person will come under attack
-       We will dissolve into fascism
-       Hate will take over communities
-       A conservative supreme court will overturn all the progressive legislation of the past eight years
-       Foreign policy will be poorly informed and become insular
-       Nuclear war will be a real possibility
-       We will lose the ability to have real dialogue
-       Education will be even more sidelined, especially school education
-       Misogyny (and racism, xenophobia) will be normalized
-       A culture of misinformation and distrust will take over
-       I won’t be able to explain the need for a kinder world to my children
-       There will be a wave of anti-science policy
-       Perceptions of opposition will lose nuance and we will act on even more stereotypical understandings of the ‘other’

And so on.

Act 2: Hopes--“It gives me hope that—“

-       The media will introspect hard
-       There will be opportunities to think differently
-       We will find a new vocabulary of inclusion
-       There will be a greater focus on job creation and ethical technology development
-       We will look beyond our narrow progressive communities to find out more about others
-       This has happened before and we have come through other difficult times
-       The institutions of this country will still function

The expressions of hope were often the converse of the fears (or hopes that the fears would remain unfounded) and it was evident that although thinking about hope definitely raised the positive energy in the room, it was harder to verbalize and give shape to hope.

Act 3: Intentions—“I will—“

Ethan began by talking about his own resolve to reach out and ensure that he provided what support he could to those in his circle who felt marginalized, scared, and weakened. Others mentioned a variety of actions they could take in the immediate or not-so-distant future to address some of their fears and actualize some of their hopes.

-       Try to seek out people beyond my personal echo chamber and talk to them
-       Clearly articulate lines that must not be crossed and actions I will take if they are
-       Do what I can to make sure my daughter’s friends are not deported
-       Focus my master’s thesis on building more diverse and inclusive social networks online
-       Try to understand what drives people who think differently from me
-       Spend more time away from my desk and among people
-       Crate a graphic novel or comic book
-       Run for office
-       Volunteer in the community
-       Find a pen pal who is of a different persuasion and begin a sustained dialogue
-       Do something about islamophobia
-       Work on alternative “cooling technologies” (to combat global warming) that may not require big policy changes

The go-around took the whole hour and more, with practically everyone chiming in on all three acts, and some offering more than one suggestion. Finally, Ethan asked us to do one more thing: to find someone in the room whom we had not met before, to exchange contact details with that person, and commit to the one thing we were going to act upon. Each partner then would have the responsibility of following up with the other and holding them (or helping them through) to that promise of action.

Two very different kinds of conversations (if you could call the first a ‘conversation’), but both valuable in their own ways. The first, at the Mahindra Humanities Center, offered a distanced, more cerebral, macro level view of the problem and did not go very far in suggesting solutions. To be fair, that was not the aim; it was more to unpack and understand the situation. The second, at the Civic Media Lab, built upon a preexisting community, one that already had shape and boundaries (albeit porous), and was comfortable with its members, both old and new. But both were similar in that they fairly defined notions of “Us” and “Them” and therefore the threat posed by the election result was outside the door, not inside and in dialogue (although Ethan did say he did not want to assume that no one in the room had voted for Trump and reiterated that everyone was welcome.)

Through all this, I had a nagging question. If one respects the process of democracy, then one must respect the result. Why is it that this election result was so emotionally fraught, so deeply divisive, that it required this sort of debriefing and processing---and some might even say, mollycoddling, of young people? If you’re old enough to vote, shouldn’t you also be mature enough to take the outcome of the vote? Yes, there is bound to be disappointment, but there is always one side that wins, and one that loses.

The obvious—and not incorrect--answer does not entirely address the nuances of my question. The issues at stake here were long standing rocks of unfairness: discrimination based on race, gender and ethnicity/religion, perceived social inequity on one side and bigotry on the other, protectionism on one side and inclusion on the other. America as some sort of beacon for the world (even with all its flaws) and America as a bully (one that is always, unquestionably, right). These are battles that are being fought globally—which is why so many of us felt invested in the outcome, even if we are supposed outsiders. We see ourselves as insiders to the causes of social justice.

So here’s the problem. How does true dialogue begin across political, ideological, cultural, social divides? Is it possible to begin with friendship, setting aside expectations of difference, and slowly progress toward understanding? Or have we caricatured conversation to such a degree that we no longer know how to pause, reflect, listen, and turn things over in our minds without immediate judgment?

I can’t help seeing some parallel here with the kinds of conversations we’ve been having in India, on our own campuses, over the past year. The liberal left in India, too, has been feeling besieged, under attack from majoritarian forces that construct a narrow definition of culture and society, an ahistoric jingoism that aims at creating and cementing perceptions of Us and Them that feeds on the paranoia of “one’s own nation” being overtaken by undeserving upstarts—whether from previously marginalized castes or minority religions. We (the liberals, progressives) assumed that no understanding is necessary or possible, and therefore continue to talk among ourselves, eliminating nuance from our construction of our own Other, our own version of the alt-right.

I myself struggled with this in the aftermath of the suicide on the Hyderabad University campus (see earlier post) in January 2016. I needed to understand the ways in which deep, historic resentments continued to be fed by current forms of injustice, often hidden deep inside the layers of seemingly equitable systems and practice, causing habits of mind and action that render the injustice impossible to discern—especially if you are among that self-styled group that sees itself as liberal, progressive, secular,… sensitive. Of course, there were significant efforts on our campus both as a collective and by individual teachers, to offer creative spaces for expression of various kinds, for stories of marginality and exploitation, for expressions of resistance to the dominant culture. But again, like the two meetings mentioned above, the people who participated were by and large speaking to the converted—or those who already had the (intellectual) capacity, tools and the commitment to engage in dialogue.

I think we are better position to discover new routes and vehicles to real dialogue. The level of social and cultural diversity on our campuses is far greater than what I’ve seen so far on American campuses, which are dominated by one kind of privilege or another. This means we can experiment inside the safe spaces of our classrooms with ways of speaking with each other, of airing and examining disagreements that may be emotional or intellectual or an indistinguishable mixture of both. It’s a challenge, but it must be done.

As Danielle Allen said so eloquently, re-envisioning the Gettysburg address, what we will become depends on what each one of us does. A people of nations, as human beings, as residents of a planet that we have, tragically, rendered irredeemably unstable.