The Evolving American Experiment

I love America. I admire America. As Bonasera says at the beginning of The Godfather, “I believe in America”.

Biographically, there is an obvious explanation. My father had a heart attack in India a few months before we moved here. A month after we immigrated, he had bypass surgery. To our great surprise and relief, New York State picked up the tab. I assume it was some version of Medicaid, and it was a heck of a welcome by the country. My father lived for another thirty years, twenty of them working in the Social Services department in Westchester County in the suburbs of New York City. Without America, I might not have had a father past my early teens.

But there is more to it than biography. When in college I read Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Rousseau and Kant, my admiration of America increased. The American Constitution of 1789 was a bold experiment in liberal democracy, a living example of Enlightenment values. The more it sank in that America was the first modern nation to try this experiment, the more I was grateful to be here. The American dream for me wasn’t mainly economical. It was intellectual and cultural: to contribute to the experiment started by the Founding Fathers.

However, there is a major difference between the America of the Founding Fathers and the America I immigrated to in 1988 at age 11. Since its beginning, America was ethnically diverse, with Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and later in the 19th century, Hispanics, Asians, and many others. But the governance and cultural self-representation of the country did not reflect this diversity. The liberal democracy experiment was limited to whites.

Naturally racism played a big part in this. But it’s worth noting how fantastical democracy seemed to even many whites at the time. Most Europeans then thought the colonists were crazy to try a government without a king. Many of the farmers who fought in the revolution might have been fine if George Washington became their king. But Washington wasn’t fine with it and that is his greatness. So democracy being limited to whites was like the training wheels used to achieve the balance of a representative government.

American history for the next two hundred years was the struggle to take the training wheels off. This culminated in the 1960s when, with the end of segregation, America became an explicitly multicultural liberal democracy.

This was the America I immigrated to. With the naiveté of a child I had first imagined that America was a completed project, one which I could simply benefit from. But far from being complete, America is continually evolving. The Founding Fathers did the hard work of establishing a democracy. Lincoln’s generation maintained that democracy. Martin Luther King’s generation transitioned America into a multicultural democracy. The current generation, like Lincoln’s, faces the task of maintaining and unifying the democracy we inherited.

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Crucial to our generation’s work is looking clear eyed at the challenges facing a multicultural democracy. Each day brings a new issue which strokes division. If we are to hold the country together, we have to find, as Washington, Lincoln and King did before us, paths of pragmatic idealism. For that we need compassion and civic trust. And also philosophical reflection: the work of conceptual clarification which teases apart issues instead of responding from a haze of tribal instinct.

Consider one of the latest campus controversies (Washington Post article about it here and CNN here). A Duke professor, director of Graduate studies (DGS) in the biostatistics department, sent an email to grad students urging them to speak English in the student lounge and study areas. A couple of professors had complained to the DGS about some students speaking Chinese loudly around the department, and wanted pictures of those students so that they can be sure not to work with them. The DGS relayed all this in the email, and said that out of respect and for the sake of their careers, they should speak English around the department.

The international students objected. So did 2,000 students at Duke who signed a petition that the email was racist. They urged discipline of the DGS and the professors who complained to her. The DGS resigned her position. The Dean of Medical Science apologized for the email and said there were no language restrictions. The first year Chinese graduate students in the department, as stated in the Washington Post, “issued a statement, in Chinese, asking for ‘a thorough investigation of the incident’.” The news spread to Chinese social media, where millions of Chinese were outraged at the racism in America.

Who is right? Choosing a side can feel like making progress rather than being passive. But it’s rushing to an answer that is passive, for it takes the question too much at face value.

The email was not a smart idea. It conflated issues of speaking loudly with speaking Chinese. And even if the department wants only English spoken around the department, the justification can’t be a couple of faculty and the DGS think so. The DGS should have taken the professors’ complaints first to the rest of the department faculty. If the department faculty decide on the language restriction, the DGS can communicate it to the students with the full weight of her colleagues behind her.

That said, it’s crazy that the DGS resigned. In the email she acknowledges it can be hard being an international student and she welcomes people to talk to her about any concerns. It was an honest mistake on a tricky issue. It’s even crazier that some first year students issued a statement of protest in Chinese. If the DGS and the faculty who complained are wrong, it’s about how students can talk outside official departmental contexts. But complaining to the department is as official a context as it can get. It’s absurd to have a statement of protest in Chinese, and expect the faculty and Deans to get it translated.

The crux of the issue is the claim of racism. Was the rule that students speak English around the department racist?

We can certainly think of contexts in which it is. Say, if the faculty who complain belong to the KKK, or if they believe America is being stolen by non-white immigrants. The news tells us a few facts and we can fill in the rest of the story in a way which suggests racism as the motive.

But we can also fill in the story in a way which doesn’t. Say, if the faculty who complained were speaking only about international students, and so who are not Americans. If I invite my Chinese neighbors for dinner, and at the dinner table they talk loudly in Chinese without concern for my comfort, and I object, that is not racist. Perhaps that is being a bad host, though that’s debatable. Not every form of discomfort involving differences in race and culture is racist. Sometimes it’s perfectly understandable.

It is clear from the DGS’ email that she was speaking of international students, and so the professors who complained were probably thinking of the situation as analogous to the inviting people for dinner context. The relevant questions then are: is it racist to have a language requirement for guests at a dinner gathering? Are professors and international students best understood on the model of hosts and guests? What if some of the hosts are Chinese-American, and so speak Chinese around the department? How to distinguish between Chinese-Americans and students from China? If there are no language restrictions, does that hinder a sense of community? If there should be language restrictions, how to determine those in a diverse society?

The trouble with fixating on the issue of racism is it skips over these questions, and treats the question “Is the email racist?” as the only relevant question. As that one question dominates the discussion, polarization grows.

It’s like when we ask, “Is the mind separate from the body?” and assume progress consists only in whether the materialists or the dualists are correct. But progress might happen when we break down the question into dozens of smaller questions, and address them in a more contextual, piece meal way.  Whereas focusing on one big question can be a rush, making progress requires stepping back to see the variety of questions, facts and contexts at play. As Wittgenstein said of philosophy, “the race goes to the one who can run slowest.”

When we step back regarding the email case, even more complexity comes to the surface. Perhaps the relevant model isn’t host and guests at all, but salesmen and customers. The CNN article concludes with these facts: “More than 363,000 Chinese students were enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States in the 2017-18 academic year, constituting the largest foreign student body… A US Commerce Department report in 2016 said Chinese students in the US contributed $9.8 billion to the American economy.”

The focus on racism suggests the power dynamics are entirely on the professors’ side. As if the students are a modern day Rosa Parks. But the difference in the situations of Rosa Parks and current international students, especially from a country with a booming economy like China, is striking. Just from a news article we can’t tell what was motivating the professors. Maybe it was racism. Or maybe it was annoyance that some international students might be treating the social spaces mainly as economic spaces (like a party room one rents) rather than as cultural spaces tied to the locals’ sense of national pride.

This raises a very complex question: how should universities balance their national and global commitments? The truths of biostatistics are surely not nation specific. Duke just as surely is a part of America. So how can Duke affirm its Americanness while welcoming non-Americans? At root, the error of the professors who complained and the protestors alike is a kind of bad faith: an escape into simplistic solutions of language restrictions or claims of racism rather than facing head on the complexity of our situation.

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A challenge we face as Americans is to foster pride in a multi-cultural America. To tell a unified story of all Americans working together on our experiment of democracy. As Rorty says at the beginning of Achieving our Country, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement… Emotional involvement with one’s country…is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame.”

Developing a unified narrative within America is difficult enough. Things are made more difficult by the economic and intellectual globalization we are going through. It can foster the idea that to embrace a multi-cultural America is to give up on America as a nation state – an idea embraced by both white nationalists who think America is essentially white and by globalists who think nation states are passé.

I don’t believe that for a second. Unlike white nationalists, I believe the Founding Fathers’ ideas are more important than their skin color. And unlike globalists, I believe nations are essential to democracy. I believe the Founding Fathers were brilliant in creating a democracy, and that the civil rights movement was an extension of that creation. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Rosa Parks are all American heroes. They may not be my genetic ancestors, but they are my national ancestors. I am grateful to them all.

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