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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Slumdog's Prism

Wow eight. I know, old news now, but I always have a craving to see it again. Apart from the upward facing thumbs, stars, nods of approval, and gold sculpted figures, I have encountered a myriad of curious negative sentiment over the past few months (I'll get to that in a minute).

I enjoyed the movie, and thought it was impossibly fulfilling and uplifting, but I can't point to any single element that was truly outstanding on its own. While the kids went well beyond their roles, I can't say that there was a truly great, unique acting performance (no real star power to begin with either), like Leo/Jack/Alec in "The Departed," Ed Norton in "American History X," or Charlize Theron in "North Country" or "Monster," Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," not to mention Denzel in "Training Day." Additionally, while gathering great acclaim, the music was mediocre, falling short of A.R. Rahman's previous catalog and not fully drawing from the musician's reservoir of raw talent. While no one component was extraordinary, their assembly certainly was, with the storyline, music, screenplay, and camera work reinforcing one another— greater than the sum of its parts in this case, one plus one equaled three. What was considered to be an "impossibly shallow" plot came to out-layer initial expectations. Despite the individual stand alone shortcomings, at the end of it all I embraced a feeling of remarkable joy and promise that I haven’t had after any previous movie I can remember. One can easily envision a sea of the beamiest faces come credit roll.

The success was somewhat foreseen, especially with all the hype and endless positive press and projections. And the broad appeal— the underdog story of disadvantaged, orphaned chai-wallah and the idea that children did not have to forever strive to be Amitabh Bachan, but they just to be themselves. As with any film, I've come across the entire spectrum of opinions from friends, peers, and uncles and aunties, and many reviews from lukewarm to gloating. The majority of negative response stemmed from the fact that many felt that the circumstances were unrealistic and the ending far fetched. Or, "I just don't like happy endings." In fact, friends and I would hypothesize whether an alternate ending in which Jamal gets the girl, but loses the money, may have been better.

Along with this, there was a striking amount of negative press inked in newspapers such as India Abroad or Indian/Indian American-community-focused
local northeast publications and digitized on internet forums, blogs, some of which was scathing, denouncing the film's director, Danny Boyle, and stating that "the film should have never been made." What was most curious was the rationale behind the scorn— the film portrayed India in a bad light. I remember a similar sentiment when Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" was released years ago and some, including my family and aunties and uncles, thought that the movie misrepresented India. But, I still never grasped the notion that the storyline and characterization in the movie would convince viewers that Indian culture was rife with hedonists, child molesters, or adulterers. While we all know it to be fruitless to generalize opinions and pass judgment based on a specific instance or depiction, it is also futile to assume that others will do so. The reaction to "Slumdog Millionaire" by some, usually among the older generation Indians or Indians born and raised in India, made me scratch my head. And the Slumdog reaction has much less to do with the movie itself than with a broader notion— a misguided Indian nationalism.

I have heard now that the "West" has seen "Slumdog Millionaire" (not intended to be an expose), it will think that all of India is synonymous with slum life. Questions like "Is India really like that?" may now arise with uncomfortable frequency. Of course, such ignorance exists and is sometimes unchecked in America. I am still surprised to run into people my age in the Northeast who have never eaten Indian food, despite the boundless opportunities at all corners, city or town. But, I have to give those watching the movie the benefit of the doubt. I don’t expect most to now think that India is a vast poorhouse with inescapable danger and depravity. Some viewers may be that stupid and perhaps I set expectations too high or am too forgiving. The inaccurate 7 eleven owner, taxi driver stereotype still persists, but Apu's "The Simpsons" label has surely faded in the last decade as Indians gain clout and spotlight in American modern life. Two extremes bubble up— the ignorance of the "West" and the other side of fervent, blinding, and denying nationalism— and saying the answer lies in between really oversimplifies the interactions between the "West" and India. Both sides are wholly invalid and destructive. In fact, particularly for the next 40 years, Americans and Europeans who fail to truly understand India soon, set free misconceptions, and open arms and doors wider, will also fail to truly flourish to their potential. It is their loss.

At the same time, I believe many Indians carry a naïve nationalism that favors impression over progress. I reject the flimsy argument that somehow this is easier for me to say because I was not raised in India or the fact that I was not brought up there does not give me the perspective to speak on Indian nationalism. I love India, and after my last trip in November, I crave to go back there constantly. I can speak infinitely about its beauty and promise, and also can drone about its plights. Ditto with America. One thing's for sure, you can't appease everyone— you can speak only about India's positive and some will claim that you are inventing an emotional response and speak only about the negative and others will claim you are "anti-national." Since when does a critique of one area detract points from the praise in another area or a whole. Since when is pride, self respect a zero-sum game. The fact remains that nationalism and love for country, by no means, entitles one to ignore critical problems or brush them under the rug. It seems as if India's nationalism is still relatively primitive and must shake off its primordial straps, evolve into something more pragmatic and flexible, yet still principled.

Additionally and importantly, now that India is increasingly on the world stage, it cannot have it both ways— be fully open geo-econo-politically, but still only show some of its cards. And, I know that Indians have no qualms about being open; walking on a street in Delhi I can easily see the racks of 50 different newspapers in a stand, with the distaste of local leaders showcased brazenly and democratically.

This is not the place to air out all of India's challenges and disparities. But, related to the topic, classism is surely present, and if you do not think so, then you are either in denial or need a reality check. Additionally, if one believes that Muslims and Dalits are still not marginalized, then one really needs to take a hard, closer look without nationalistic blinders or the veil of Hindu chauvinism. Some will think this is anti-Hindu, but I am a proud Hindu. This is not some first step in a twelve step program. Outside of India, the country is clearly associated with its role in producing engineers, doctors, and scientists; the unbridled growth of the tech sector, bootstrapping the country onto the world scene, has made ever more prevalent the Indian entrepreneur and media icon. However, as Nandan Nilekani writes in his eloquent book "Imagining India," inside India, the view varies dramatically depending on where you stand.

This is more than a popularized Indo Western world of Sanjay Gupta, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Atul Gawande, Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Naveen Andrews, M. Night Shyamalan, Bobby Jindal, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, and Fareed Zakaria, it is also a world of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, the slum in Mumbai in which the talented children from "Slumdog Millionaire" grew up. No, I don't really have the perspective of the slum as I have never been there. But, neither have most Mumbaikers. Of course, not all is gainsay as there is abundant vibrant progress, especially with private-NGO-based innovations, but the progress will never leave me satisfied as it is tilted all too conspicuously toward the already privileged. Why has light speed growth been so easily opened to the lighted banners, billboards, and urban wonders tied to the rich, but movement for the most basic of needs for the poor has languished for decades up to this day.

A key burden to India's identity is its lack of unity. Nilekani describes in his book the "fractious lines of caste, class, religion, and region." "People begin to see themselves as belonging to their caste or religion first and country second, a dangerous theme in a nation so diverse." Most perceptible, growing up and going to college in America and on visits to India, is the superiority complex between people from Punjab state versus Tamil Nadu state versus Kolkata versus Mumbai versus Kerala state, and on and on and on. What is even the point of this utterly useless divisiveness? We need a more unified nationalism. I find it defeatist and hard to believe that we cannot create a more top-down unity while still preserving regional identities, histories, cultures, and traditions. I am considering a much larger vision of India. This is age old and has been cited as fundamental in Britain's ability to take rule over India during colonialism and India's turtle pace from independence to 1991. I also know it is an elemental issue in India's still evolving self perception.

In the same vein as Albert Einstein, who said that "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind," openness and criticism without nationalism is lame, and nationalism without openness and criticism is blind. India must adopt an open and constructive nationalism. Yes, the ignorance is present among those who might say "Do people really gouge people's eyes out in India?" but there is also ignorance in the petty denouncement of a perfectly uplifting movie because of entrenched, misguided, and all too self conscious nationalism. The engine has just been started, and India's "demographic dividend" is expected to see its sweet spot in the next 30 years. Now is the time that India— "young, impatient, vital, awake"— brings itself together and looks the "West," as well as its more than 40 million slum dwellers, in the eye.

Song for an Unsung (2.28.09)

Prominent accolades exist from Nobel prizes, book prizes, Time's top ten lists of influential people, badges, honors, knightships, to colored hearts. And, we know that it is the countless men and women on the ground level that move the world forward in obscurity. However, one man took the world on a global stage yet is rarely ever mentioned; he should not just be on any "Top 10" list, but surely on the "Top 5" lists. It is because of him that upwards of 25 million people are alive today and while his name surely must be gilded in public health institutions, I have not met a single medical student who knows what he has done. His name is James Grant. His true-to-self global story is one of persistence, coherence, and perspiration.

James Grant was the head of the UNICEF from 1980 to when he passed away in 1995 and stewarded the "child survival revolution." Grant was profiled in David Bornstein's "How to Change the World," which centers around Bill Drayton's 'Ashoka' organization; despite the poor titling choice, the book is truly a Magna Carta on social entrepreneurship. During the 1980s when the world marched forward while, in the rearview mirror, 14 million children died every year from the most basic conditions of diarrhea, TB, malnutrition, and completely preventable/curable diseases; that's 40,000 children every day! It took Grant to finally exclaim that this was unacceptable and create a stand that would last a generation. On a side note, it is important to point out that 3 million people die needlessly each year from TB, while mainstream news screens place surprisingly disproportionate attention to flesh eating bacteria and laughing disease.

At the time in the early 1980s, the call was not for breakthrough science. We already had everything we needed. Grant emphasized that our shortfall was simply a lack of vision, stating that "morality must march with capacity." We needed simple solutions on a grand scale. For example, oral rehydration therapy (ORT), a simple mixture of glucose, salt, and water, was revealed in the late 1970s to be a lifesaver for diarrhea, which killed 5 million children yearly at the time, the majority of them easily preventable. Moreover, premixed ORT packets for mixing with water could be prepared for 10 cents each.

Grant's strategy, was both elegant and targeted, heeding the moniker "GOBI"

G: growth/weight monitoring
B: Breastfeeding
I: Immunization for TB, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles.

"FFF" was added later for food supplements, family planning, and female education. Resulting from the campaign, most importantly, was the dramatic change in the world state of immunization from a level of 20% to 80%, Grant's effective rate of "universal child immunization." By the early 1990s, 4 million deaths were prevented yearly through ORT, 3 million children were prevented from being crippled through polio vaccination, not to mention countless saved from measles. Further, Grant championed the use of iodized salt to prevent iodine deficiency; at the time, 43 million people were estimated to have had brain damage from lack of iodine. Propelled by campaign, the proportion of the world using iodized salt increased from 20% to 70% in the 1990s. Grant would never be seen without a packet of ORT salts and a pocket iodine salt test.

Grant took three approaches to reach his global feats:

1) He stood up to the existing system, not only to the status quo of apathy, but to a World Health Organization that disagreed with his selective ideas in favor of more system structural improvement, guiding the entire establishment in a new direction

2) He implemented a dynamic network of both collaboration with world leaders, health organizations, religious heads, etc, and competition amongst country groups to immunize more children

3) He stuck to his message, hammering it relentlessly, speaking unabashedly to statesmen about their own priorities, as well as diarrhea. Bornstein also insightfully highlights that if you wanted your core purpose to shine through "you had to overcome your own inhibition of repeating yourself."

Grant's efforts were a marriage of brute force with innovative management and cooperation to steer simple measures to the both the global doorstep and the village doorstep.

By doing so, he went far beyond the definition of selfless, and, in fact, such cliché descriptives of tireless and selfless simply fall short of encapsulating Grant and his contribution. On a practical level, he demonstrated that "pipe dreams" and next to impossible goals can be amassed to the entire globe with the right coaxing. Thomas Friedman has emphasized that we are at a point where our dreams must exceed our memories. Grant epitomized this point. He knew that it was not the memory of thousands of years and hundreds of millions of lives lost to epidemics of smallpox that led to the disease's eradication in 1980. Nor could the fond memories of rising living and health standards in the U.S. and Europe be of use to tens of millions of dying children. His dreams outsized these memories.

Grant was a man of total self awareness with a complete lack of self importance and his contributions are seemingly impossible to size up. Apart from stoking my cynicism about the vanity and true ignorance of the bubble we live in, on a positive note, Grant's story made me reconsider the traditional calibers of humanity and "humanness" we so often use.

The Miseducation of Laura and Bill (2.8.09)

Finally, I recently got around to reading Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" (updated expanded version), which offers a pretty insightful look at globalization, technology innovation, digitization and their force in shaping a "flat" world in which nearly everyone is connected; not only can we (and businesses) communicate seamlessly with someone from Bangalore, Beijing, but someone's actions, opportunities, and strife in Lagos has a larger impact on our own lives than we might superficially think. I actually cannot stand the expression "It's a small world," (I disagree, a door-to-door trip from New York to Connecticut still takes two and a half hours using the subway and Metro North and a flight from L.A. to Boston pretty much eats up my entire day!), Friedman storyboards Globalization 1, from 1492 to 1800, shaped by Columbus's exploration and steam power, Globalization 2, from 1800 to 2000, driven by the Industrial Revolution, the telephone, computers/software, and the internet, and Globalization 3, 2000 to ?, in which there has been a light speed take-off of the digital revolution (the printing press took over a century to really have a broad impact) that has empowered many with instant information and enabled us all communicate, express, and collaborate in continually new ways.

While the book set off with a good start, much of it was parched and monotonous, rife with computer/IT jargon and unexpected rambling of the history of the modern World Wide Web and software architecture that was not my cup of tea; however, education, the discussion in one section (263-400), really hit home for me. The themes and ideas below are basically a distillation of this small section of the book. While for some of us the ideas of a versatile liberal arts education are played and cliche, they are all too relevant and magnified, and deserve an exclamation point now, as we scale up an increasingly rocky vale, a hand up to block the sun, this is what we glimpse.

We have seen the Industrial Age, an Agricultural Revolution, and are in the midst of an Information Age that has well toned wings and is set for the stratosphere. But, we are also brimming on, what Friedman coined, a "Talent Age," or what can be empirically known as an "Education Age." To clarify, we need to understand the type of minds that will thrive in this new world and the current state of the American education system in the context of its global classmates. From World War II to the late 1980s, the U.S. essentially faced no legitimate competitors and over that time adopted a sense of entitlement and complacency; the environment and the stakes have certainly changed over the past twenty years. Friedman draws an interesting, and somewhat unrelated, parallel with the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team; certain it would always win gold, in the 1970s, it sent NCAA players to compete, then when competition became sharper, it sent NBA players. Much to the astonishment of the world, the U.S. team, with its unmatched athleticism, lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina, stumbling to the bronze medal podium. While U.S. basketball players slept, other countries learned from the coaching techniques and fundamentals shared around the world and outwitted us. Did our star power get to our heads, or did we just not care?

In a way, this is what has happened to the world's industries and America's relative talent. China, India, Korea took advantage of the running bull while America rested on its laurels, fragile as they were; the new globalized, connected world just provided more grist to the mill for these sharp, curious, and innovative international minds, all on a mission upward. Much of the lower-end technology work we were doing was outsourced to India or automated; idea hotbeds like Beijing's Microsoft center began churning out world-encompassing innovations. Consequently, we live in a world where we cannot just be left-brained, analytical, systematic, logical, and mathematical to lead innovation. Our generation and our next generation, not just to compete, but to survive, must use their right brains for "context, emotional expression, and synthesis." "We need to focus education on constantly developing our students' right-brain skills-- such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component" (Daniel Pink). Staying ahead of the curve in five years requires that we all need think more horizontally, and, as Friedman highlights, be good explainers, collaborators, and synthesizers, as well as personalize our work to the world. Successful institutions will be those that hire software and economic policy architects who are also songwriters and cellists, researches who paint and photograph, and doctors who are also poets and can draw bridges between literature and modern epidemics. As Friedman points out, a great calculus student may be able to solve the problems, but a real right-brainer will know how to identify the innovations and challenges that create the calculus.

In this respect, I commend the U.S. university system, which I believe is unmatched in its liberal arts strength. In fact, I was surprised to observe that in India, mostly in the rural setting, communities still possessed a tunnel vision mindset, continuing to idealize the professions of doctor and engineer as the end all, unaware of the hundreds of exciting new and changing medical- and engineering-related opportunities that have emerged, waiting at their front doors. However, the U.S. cannot sit pat, as countries like China and India fully understand the changing needs as well and are quickly closing the gap to captain the driving innovations, rather than just house back-end offices. The real evolution of our education system must begin at the kindergarten, elementary school, and high school level; in this arena, we are falling apart. To draw an analogy to this "quiet crisis," Friedman describes someone sleeping on an air mattress with a hole in it, slowly deflating; while one cannot feel oneself sinking in any given moment, eventually his or her back (or side) will feel the cold floor.

Most apparent, the system is dated, founded on an early 19th century structure of local townships taking charge of their designated schools, funding them through property taxes. However, this has led to a very fractious arrangement in which wealthy communities congeal, setting low taxes, but still providing comparatively high and disparate school funding. Overall, in short, the American public school system is more than unbalanced and outmoded, it is a complete disaster and if you do not think so, you are very disillusioned and misinformed. You need only learn about the dilapidated conditions in many under-funded schools in the Chicago area, or in under-served communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, states that receive about $6,000 per pupil annually, compared to New York, which receives more than $12,000 per pupil yearly. Not helping matters recently was former president Bush's ill-fated No Child Left Behind policy, which squarely centered funding and support based on standardized test scores. Just because something is measurable, does not make it correct. In fact, the plan completely overlooked the plight of impoverished families and the need for a multi-disciplined education that emphasized music, art, literature, history, along with math and science.

Everything is off kilter. Why is it that when a baseball player tests positive for steroids, televised congressional hearings consume the news for three weeks, yet not a single, wholehearted, well thought step has been taken to address the issue of inspiring children to excel in math and science and bring out the creativity that is so inherent in these subjects? This is most definitely a crisis stage, not to be considered some sort of scare tactic; this is a common sense, forward thinking tactic. We have been much too shortsighted and uncreative for our children and now there is no room for ambivalence. With these demands, we need something completely novel-- an Education Revolution, a Learning Revolution. We need to forego the highly localized oversight of public schools and make states set progressive, forward looking standards and draw proportionately from their budgets. They need to set the bar higher and make sure that the opportunities exist for everyone to reach the bar, e.g., not monopolizing the most talented teachers and the best resources in the highest income bubbles. Educators and policy makers need to collaborate with business leaders and engineers regularly. Every child should have high speed internet access. And, please no more platitudes, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Since we need to provide incentive for and improve the sciences while also strengthening arts programs, a significant investment boost is demanded. We need a new way that is more innovative, flexible, cross-disciplined, and builds an underlying core value system. In sum, we must recast our approach and mode of thinking to something far more current, enduring, and inspiring.

While this is a collective aim, I can't help but reflect it back internally. Perhaps, now is the time to set forward something new, something bigger, within ourselves, too.

India's Reflection (12.1.08)

Sitting down at the Itmad-ud-daulah (near the Taj Mahal) on the serene left bank of the afternoon Yamuna River, praying at the ancient Kamakshi Amman temple (near Chennai), and feeling the top level of the Golden Temple during Guru Nanak's birthday at Amritsar in India's northern reaches, the sentiment and reaction I felt toward India and its daily scenes crystallized in my mind; my feelings were reinforced when I was blessed to see my great grandmother, now 104 years young, with all her energy and adorable personality. I recently visited India after eleven years. When I had last done so as a bratty, closed, ungrateful teenager, I returned with a cautionary tale of indigestion, mosquito attacks, and "third world" un-civilization. In fact, despite the gained maturity, when sitting at the gate in the Brussels airport awaiting my connecting flight to Delhi, I noticed that my bill of emotions included a slight apprehension. However, with perspective that enables one to be more receptive to life's beauty and gravitational pulls, as well as reason its challenges, I had a fundamental expectation that I would appreciate India more this time around. This was certainly the biggest understatement of my life.

Of course, it is natural to make comparisons to the life and place I grew up in, almost as a kind of base to reflect upon. The argument of whether America is "better" than India or whether India is "better" than America, as spun from questions I received when I was younger regarding my preference or amongst prideful Indian Americans today, is altogether futile, fruitless, and even divisive (also reflects on the altogether wasteful North India versus South India gulf). Two extreme views persist out there - one foggy, immature rearview image of depravity and another of a country that is completely "Westernized." Neither story is wholly correct and in my eyes, to be so naive as to overlook or neglect India's inequities for sake of pride or nationalism is as equal a sin as the ignorance amidst the "West" that denounces India for its problems. But I do not plan to make any such formal, dry examination now. My reflection is far more personal and genuine and makes me long, love, as well as feel connected to and enamored by India. I assure you that there is no embellishment, no melodrama here; nor is it that I was somehow not "sensitized" to India's lifescapes and landscapes. I am speaking not as an unknowing foreigner, but as an Indian American. I have taken care to ensure that I was not simply under the spell of the most delicious food and coffee I had ever tasted and unbridled hospitality (which initially can be overwhelming), but truly was feeling what I was feeling. India's stark contrast to the life I have seen is what stole my heart.

My trip to India was transformational for me in that, essentially, it hit the nail on the head. To clarify, over the past year I have more firmly grasped three realizations. The first is a chronic recognition of my fortune. Another is a deep generational understanding that every step I take is one that is not only built on the backs of my parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, but is actually identical to, indistinguishable from the step that my great grandmother now takes everyday in Bangalore. The third is a spiritual appreciation that recognizes that contentment exudes from within rather than being dependent on external factors and that such contentment is maintained by living in the current moment rather than the often natural tendency to fester on the past or grow anxious about the future. While such sentiments are certainly nothing new, previously they were nomads in my mind, which drew on them fleetingly, and the feelings they elicited were of guilt and shallow motivation. Now they 1) have found a settled home and are a continual, universal part of my life and 2) summon a sense of chronic pride and clearer ambition. India provided me with solid affirmation of all of the above, tying all the loose strings and evaporating wayward doubts. I felt both humbled and emboldened.

It was not the cliche descriptives of India as a "land of contrasts" and colors and scenes of every walk of life across urban and rural street corners or played out comparisons to America's materialism that made the impact. While India's daily scenes continued to be immeasurably beautiful, this was just the veneer of beauty that did it for me. It was a triad of a pervasive selflessness, sharedness and its nobility, and devotion/faith at every turn that captivated me. It was not as if I had to look, it was inescapable. It was that all gifts and conversations came truly, solely, and wholly from the heart. When one person needed assistance, ten would run and insist on giving it. An outside observer could rightly describe traffic in Bangalore or Chennai as pure chaos, but after a little time within I had the faith to feel completely cradled even when a bus was seemingly hurtling towards me - I couldn't think of a better system, everything seemed just right.

As for comparisons, all are entirely relative. The relative stifling cynicism and sickening vanity that seems to permeate the life I observed in America boiled away in the Madras coffee I sipped every morning. My initial fascination evolved into a sense of belonging in which there were too many moments when I could not have imagined myself anywhere else in the Milky Way. Unlike America, with its awkward patchwork of unity and belonging, India offered something seamless - everything and everyone had a perfect place. In India, my father's aside of "look at what is there, not at what is not there" as he clicked photographs through the window of our moving van, my parents' anecdotes of childhood in what anyone now would consider rural poverty, my grandmother's stories of Hanuman's virtue and devotion to Rama all sprouted legs and took life, running wild in my mind. Having the chance to speak to students and visit a hostel (and its book bank), which two of my uncles funded and developed and named after my grandmother, designed solely for impoverished college students unable to afford residence and books, further underscored an education system and its associated value system (still not accessed by so many in India) that makes America look shameful and merely, as Kozol would put it, "artificially advantaged."

While I am in no position, and it would be completely baseless of me, to judge any one person's selflessness or sincerity or bring forth any such measures, I can speak to general observations. More than the culture or history, the family, friends, and strangers met, and daily life, in terms of India's incessant beauty of selfless, shared faith, America is merely a pale reflection. In relative terms, as overly blessed as I have been in America, it is as if America's genuineness is impulsive, contrived, reactionary, and bottled in preservatives. While life in America is three dimensional, India offers four; feelings of purpose and meaning were unabashedly exposed and came looking for me. Saying goodbye to India was all too difficult and it certainly felt as if I was saying goodbye to a new friend, one that I could always fall back on. In the background I saw my friend pulling millions up out of poverty, while the friend I grew up with has been pulling people back down. This new friend recently launched a mission to the moon, lines city street lights with solar panels, and sees daily street laborers without shoes canvassing local communities with mobile phone advertisements. He sees a Muslim build a Hindu temple.

India seems to be just the golden proportion of mystery and reassurance and while I have begun to grasp it's galaxy, it is still unfathomable to me. I yearn for a one way ticket back.

History's Design, Bridge Design (11.5.08)

Merely fewer than 45 years have passed since the Marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and the laws that broke through the shackles binding African Americans from registering to vote, let alone casting a ballot. Despite the fact that blacks had the "right" to register and vote, many were taxed, cruelly intimidated, or even killed for doing so. Moreover, at that time, a civil rights law had not come to pass for over 100 years. Considering this, just last night the design of history took a seemingly impossible form. What was considered impossible by many just two years ago unfolded right in front of our eyes in our own lifetime in one night. Ironically, a conservative Fox News analyst stated, for our children "this will not be in history books, this will be on the covers of history books."

While the moment that all of us and Barack Obama embraced last night should be celebrated now and through the rest of history, what cannot happen (even though I doubt it will) is a sense of complacency. Barack Obama, seemingly effortlessly, put up a giant pillar of the civil rights movement, and his election is certainly a great leap; however, race relations are far from reaching maturity and the ultimate aim of equality. Much policy progress has been made and should be congratulated, but the undercurrent of racial divide and the dismal state of institutional support for minorities is still prevalent in my eyes. Granted this, last night was not any sort of destination, but was monumental as a launch point for untold civil rights heights. It's so brilliantly inspirational - a black man is now president of the United States of America.

Barack Obama is no Martin Luther King, he is no John F. Kennedy, and he is no FDR. He has not yet proven much at all, if anything. But many people conjure such comparisons only because they see the potential, as well as the probability, that Barack Obama will be such a transformational figure. He won last night because he was a superior candidate with superior policies, and because he was a greater engineer (I'll get to this in a second). The Republican Party brought forth an extremely honorable man with his own policies, but also lost to itself. Despite all the post-mortem infighting that will take place over the coming months that will suggest that John McCain was "not conservative enough" or that Palin was the problem or that George Bush was the deadweight, these are not the reasons for the conservatives' defeat. The party lost for a broader, fundamental, and systemic reason - it was detached from itself. How is a group going to connect with millions of people, rally them to its ideals, when the group is so disconnected from itself? The same goes for any individual. This self reflection has been made or must be made by each of us, as well.

Barack Obama, aside from breaching this historical watershed, did something over the last two years that is equally as important - he altered the philosophy of unity. He did so by engineering two bridges. The first bridge, the bridge to "hope" and "change" is somewhat of a figurative one, one that rests in our minds. Many look to the ideas of hope and change as little more than destinations that are impossible to grasp like a fleeting idea or an electron in a cloud. In fact, many conservatives have struck out these terms as platitudes and "rhetoric" lacking "substance." The problem with such an argument is that Barack Obama did more than just flaunt such ideals, he built a recognizable bridge toward them and thus made hope and change tangible ideals. Millions of Americans believe in and can see a path to such substantial ideas through the message of Obama's campaign. In fact, by ignoring this bridge to hope and change by citing a lack of substance is equivalent to ignoring the substance intertwined in Americans' everyday lives. Some even argue that Obama is merely a symbol. But, can't a leader be both a symbol of transformation and a pragmatic change agent at the same time? Is the celebratory praise, and sometimes tears, following Obama's victory merely a symbol? Are the hours that millions spent to turn the voting machine levers to Obama merely symbols? Obama is more than a symbol, just as the beliefs of the majority of Americans are more than symbols.

The second bridge is the one between conflicting ideals and this one offers an even more usable, pragmatic interface. The obstacle of achieving many goals in this country has been the idea of mutual exclusivity - the fact that two seemingly polar goals cannot be achieved without sacrificing one of them. I was glad to see Obama finally increasingly emphasizing this point in his last lap campaign rallies. For example:
  • Why can't healthcare be improved and be made more available to Americans without sacrificing quality and efficiency? The fundamental inkling that this is somehow factually unachievable is what is holding us back.

  • Why can't both the lower and middle income classes increase their incomes along with higher classes? The idea that the government can't design a way for the disadvantaged to receive more opportunities while allowing the advantaged increase success is hopelessly cynical and must be shed. In fact, all evidence surrounding the success of the middle class first points to the contrary.

  • Why can't a leader sit down to talk about policies with another leader, without simultaneously promoting dictatorship, betraying America, or waving a white flag?

  • Can't pro-life Americans and pro-choice Americans come to a road that will reduce the number of abortions in America? Can't the basic rights of gay and lesbian Americans be preserved even in the face of of strict religious fundamentalism? Why must the sanctity of religion come at the cost of the health of a woman, the rising issue of unplanned pregnancy, and inclusiveness and equality for those marginalized in America today?

Conflicting ideas are not merely islands separated by choppy waters; Obama was the first to unveil to the wide masses that there was a bridge between them. Many would consider solutions to the above "pipe dreams"; I have little condolence for such cynics. After all, they have neglected the fact that such "pipe dreams" are what led to America's independence in 1776, inspired civil rights and suffrage movements, and fueled our greatest scientific innovations.

Throughout the campaign and up through his acceptance speech last night, Obama has demonstrated a discipline and maturity that belie his youth and inexperience. He has thus far been transformational both historically and through his philosophy of unity and consensus. However, we have seen merely a portrait of a man. We hope and believe, with good reason, that he will live up to the lofty expectations set on him. While Obama's record is sparse and while running a disciplined and extraordinary campaign and getting elected president are, by no means, achievements meaningful to everyday Americans' lives, regardless of what you believe, in building the two above bridges, the young Obama has accomplished what even the most experienced leaders have been unable to do. Moreover, Obama's victory showed that America has finally grown up.

Out of Our League (10.6.08)

We all like leagues - the major leagues, the NFL, the NHL (a few people at least), 20,000 leagues under the sea, math league, the company kickball league, a league of extraordinary gentlemen.

The League of Democracies, an ill conceived body brandished by McCain with some supporters from both sides of the aisle, is one that has no place in this world. The idea has garnered limited discussion and media focus, even in a climate desperate for refreshing and effective foreign policy change. Essentially, the League of Democracies is an assembly of democracies from around the world joined to collectively steer foreign policy, security, and global issues (health, education, etc.) and eventually replace the UN.

The idea comes to the surface with seemingly noble intentions. Of course, a new union of nations spreading democracy around the world, what a sound and bold idea, right? But, these intentions are deceptive. The League of Democracies is just another vehicle for the U.S. to assert its "exceptionalism" and impose its notion of democracy on foreign landscapes. Under U.S. stewardship, the League will certainly look to push the U.S.'s agenda, protect the U.S.'s interests, and look only to incorporate countries of the U.S.'s choice (only those democracies that have been U.S.-friendly); this runs counter to the integration and collaboration that the world is yearning for. Moreover, as the U.S. has gone against the grain of UN consensus in both identifying and resolving key international issues over the past 8 years, it now has floated the League as an alternative to continue its cowboy approach. Does the U.S. really expect any country to come on board when it has alienated and devalued so many countries' views and opinions?

This authoritarian motive is so flagrantly dressed in the notion that the U.S. is the "best" and "knows best." First off, what Americans must fully accept is that in 50 years, the U.S., while still boasting the world's strongest military, will not possess the world's largest economy. China, and likely, India will handily surpass the U.S. It has less to do with America becoming a weakling and more to do with the the laws of large numbers; with each country having more than 4 times the population of the U.S. and productivity and innovation quickly approaching, and in some cases surpassing, that of the U.S., China and India are bound to gain ground quickly. What U.S. leadership needs to embrace is that being the "best" in the world is not having the strongest military or economy, it is 1) working the "best" within an integrated world framework and 2) being the "best" in developing innovations to improve global conditions. Secondly, U.S. leadership needs to fully understand that democracy does not need to look and feel like the U.S. everywhere in the world. This superficial patriotism of "country first" is not only backward thinking, it's pushing the U.S. backwards. Since when does patriotism run counter to cooperation? Since when does it go against a more intelligent, sophisticated, and integrated world view?

In addition to having fundamentally flawed motives, the League of Democracies overlooks many "details," including the world's regional economies and histories. Just because a group of countries shares the political orientation of democracy does not mean that each member will, all of a sudden, naturally pursue common interests and goals, especially those common to the U.S. Democracy is just the surface, rooted in an array of religious, historical, and economic factors. Like so many conservative ideals, The League of Democracies pulls the visceral strings of Americans, but obscures context and ignores underlying complexities.

While the League of Democracies is impressive in scope (and certainly the world needs new and bold ideas), it lacks the proper motives and thoughtfulness to unite the world and promote freedoms. The UN has its many serious deficiencies, but the League is not the answer and the long-standing UN should not be replaced. We need leadership to put together innovative alternatives to existing UN structures and policies, making the organization more efficient, inclusive, and integrative. The U.S. does not have to be so insecure, nor does it need to be a bully.

I know it's cliche - the idea that the U.S. needs to simmer down its ego, partner with the world rather than perpetually believe that it is the "best" - but then why is this ideal still so out of reach for so many Americans and even a U.S. presidential candidate? They always say in these presidential debates that "America is a beacon of light." Let's make sure this light keeps burning and reaches even farther.