I find myself disconcerted. Worried.
This semester, I’ve been teaching a seminar on Hindu Nationalism. My students are engaging questions of religion, secularism, and the politics of oppression. They are contemplating the pros and cons of differing governing bodies in India. They are wrestling with what it means to build a country out of diversity and what it means to build a country by enforcing similarity.
All my life I’ve watched political struggles around the world. I’ve wondered at countries where elections led to violence, where voting was (even more) disenfranchised, where hatred became a mantra for power. I have been completely aware of my own privilege that my country could have elections without violence even if our elections were never as free as they should have been or could have been.
This week I was driving through the neighborhood seeing signs that say things like “Nancy Pelosi Will Destroy America.” Another viciously mocked Joe Biden. I thought to myself how strange that it never occurred to Republican voters that their signs are occasionally (often?) venomous but you simply don’t see signs like that from Democratic voters. I genuinely believe that Mitch McConnell is a threat to democracy. I think his approach to shutting down government and refusing judicial votes (to name two examples) demonstrate that for him democracy must take a back seat to power. But I would never put a sign in my yard asserting that McConnell will ruin America. What would be the point? It’s the sort of sign that says much more about the person who posted it than the person it’s about. Whether you like Biden or Pelosi is beside the point. I remember when Republicans claimed to represent the “moral majority.” Whether that was true or not is also beside the point…could it plausibly be the truth now when the Republican supporters shut down roads across the northeast US (source … but just so you know, it happened in two separate places just a few miles from my home)? Could it be the case when the sitting Republican president works so hard to undermine the current election? Could it be the case when the sitting Republican president advises armed supporters to be weaponized and ready?
It’s not my job to tell my students how to vote or what America should look like. So I don’t. I just tell them to vote. That’s important. But maybe seeing what’s happening in another country will help them work to make ours better.
My students are learning how assaults on Muslims have been a mechanism for creating a pernicious national unity in India. I hope that helps them see how in our country assaults on minorities, immigrants, and others is similarly awful. Sure, I’m a fan of Nehru–an imperfect but remarkable human being. He argues in The Discovery of India that what makes India beautiful and powerful and amazing is that to be Indian means to be Hindu or Muslim or Parsi or Adavasi or Buddhist or Jewish or Christian and to love the nation as a people. To declare Bharat Mata ki jai! (Victory to Mother India!) refers to the victory of the people of India…all the people.
I remember when I was taught to celebrate how America was a “melting pot” culture as a kid. As an adult, I moved to New York City and learned what makes it possibly the greatest city in the world: it’s that everyone is here. All religions, all ethnicities, all races. And you can ride the subway and see it all. You can go to any one of the thousands of restaurants and learn a little bit about some other culture. It’s a gorgeous thing. It’s the best of what can be America.
When we hate others, we diminish ourselves. When we raise up the weakest, the most vulnerable, we simultaneously transcend ourselves: we become great in equal measure to the extent that we share, we serve, we protect.
All photos are from personal travel.