A Peace Corps Problem

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I aspire to serve with the Peace Corps after I graduate from OU. While this post takes a critical look at one of the short pieces published on the Peace Corps’ website, please rest assured that I still wholeheartedly support the mission of the Peace Corps and fully intend on applying to serve.

Since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has sent over 75,000 Americans to Africa in pursuit of world peace and friendship. This worldwide cultural exchange provides partner nations with trained individuals who are charged with “promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and “promoting a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” The Peace Corps has become a popular post-graduation alternative to entering the workforce, and the 7,376 volunteers currently serving abroad are by and large making positive impacts in their host communities. However, the reflections of one former volunteer who spent time in Senegal, Mali, and Sierra Leone suggest that not every Peace Corps participant fully capitalizes on or even understands the nuances of their cultural exchange. By one individual’s accounts of his time in Africa, the cultural exchange he experienced was a very one-sided affair, in which he imposed American values and beliefs on the members of his community and made little attempt at understanding the merits of his hosts’ cultures and the fact that Africa does not need saving.

Serving in the Peace Corps is a substantial commitment to representing America well in word and deed, because every action and conversation is a display of American culture for people who may never visit the United States, but perhaps even more important is the way in which volunteers bring the culture of their host community back stateside. The cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps comprises two-thirds of the program’s mission statement but seldom receives proportionate emphasis, although the project work is also significant. In “What I think about when I think about West Africa,” the author reminisces on cherished years of volunteering in Africa, which he spent planting trees in Senegal, righting a failing business in Mali, and teaching middle school language arts in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, he also fixates on his ability to instill Western behaviors and beliefs in his host community and barely acknowledges the reverse, as if the African point of view had little to offer. The author concludes by stating how proud he was to be the light that “humanity everywhere so desperately needs,” and in doing so evokes the age-old portrayal of Western saviors bringing light into Africa’s heart of darkness. I believe that this is a fundamentally flawed approach to serving in the Peace Corps, not to mention international volunteering in general. It saddens me to see this point of view highlighted on the Peace Corps’ website, but I will admit that a year ago I wouldn’t have noticed anything problematic about the blog post in question.

A Note on Slacktivism

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Dr. Andreana Prichard’s Images of Africa class this past semester. It is a critique of “slacktivism” and the END IT Movement.

The END IT Movement was founded at Passion 2013, an evangelical Christian conference for college students that takes place annually in Atlanta, Georgia. Attendees were encouraged to “shine a light on slavery” and raise awareness via donations and social media for the plight of the 27 million men, women and children still trapped in some form of modern-day slavery, both in Africa and across the world. The END IT Movement is now in its fifth year of campaigning against modern-day slavery in all of its various forms. Every year on “Shine a Light on Slavery Day,” athletes, celebrities, and many others take to social media to share images of their hands, adorned with red X’s, in an effort to educate and inform the public about present-day human trafficking and forced labor. The evangelical END IT Movement has tackled the troubling issue of modern slavery through “slacktivism” with relative success, but tends to place disproportionate emphasis on combating sex trafficking, which is markedly less prevalent than labor trafficking.

The END IT Movement relies on what has come to be known as “slacktivism” – a term coined for campaigns to raise awareness over the internet that require little more from participants than a click and a share. The Red X Campaign by END IT asks individuals to post a picture of themselves with a red X drawn on their hands, with the hopes that other members of their social media network will inquire about the meaning of the action. This is raising awareness at its most basic, which has yet to produce tangible results in regards to modern slavery. Slacktivism is potentially better than nothing, but even that much remains to be proven. Surely, there must be better uses for the END IT Movement’s considerable resources.

Deutschland braucht keine Alternative

This past February, Dr. Carsten Schapkow, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at OU, gave a timely presentation on the rise of Germany’s most prominent far-right political party: Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). AfD is a Eurosceptic party, meaning that it is critical of EU membership and the Eurozone. Eurosceptic political parties are generally considered anti-establishment and can lie anywhere along the political spectrum, but the most successful Eurosceptic parties in recent years are overwhelmingly right to far-right, such as the AfD, France’s Front National (FN), the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), which is the largest Eurosceptic party in Europe. Dr. Schapkow discussed Alternative für Deutschland’s present and future goals, constituents, and its implications for Germany and Europe. In the first election after its founding in 2013, the AfD could not secure enough votes to obtain any seats in Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag. Four years later, Alternative für Deutschland, won 94 seats in the Bundestag, making it the third largest party in the parliament. Support for AfD is concentrated in eastern Germany (Saxony in particular), and tends to be male, working class, less educated, and between 30 and 60 years old.

I see myriad parallels between Donald Trump’s rise to prominence and the explosion of support for Eurosceptic parties. Both developments are characterized by conservative, anti-establishment, anti-immigration, populist movements that rely on fear-mongering and nationalist sentiments to raise and maintain support among very similar constituencies. Alternative für Deutschland is still the minority party in the Bundestag, but growing concerns over immigration and the economic troubles of the Eurozone may contribute to gains by the AfD in future elections. However, while the UKIP-spurred exodus of the United Kingdom from the EU encouraged Eurosceptics across the continent, similar anti-establishment campaigns in EU countries have seen less success. I, for one, hope that the Alternative für Deutschland dies an early death, as Germany does not need an empowered bigot at the reins. We tried that. It sucks.

Image result for alternativ fuer deutschland

Book Club pt 2

For the second semester in a row, my friend Tram and I led an Honor’s College Reading Group. After And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, which we chose for our first reading group this past Fall, we decided to go with a decidedly more dated work of fiction: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Tram and I were not complete strangers to Agatha Christie’s writings, but neither of us had heard of this particular novel, despite its well-deserved reputation as one of her best. We chose Roger Ackroyd from her vast catalogue of published works after reading a handful of the overwhelmingly favorable Amazon reviews, and it did not disappoint. Agatha Christie was an incredibly prolific author; according to the inside cover, only the Bible has sold more copies than Ms. Christie, the original mystery writer. To our pleasant surprise, Christie proved a popular pick, and our reading group filled up in a matter of weeks, with a short waitlist to boot. Of course, a few of our members would never show up to claim their copy, and attrition would take its toll as the semester dragged on, which may have been exacerbated by scheduling; we attempted to stretch a 312 page book to fill an entire semester. The bite-sized portions that this created were appealing at first, but we quickly realized that mystery novels are not designed for such piecemeal consumption. Consequently, a few of our weekly meetings adjourned early because we simply ran out of things to talk about. You live and you learn.

Tram and I once again spearheaded a weekly bribery scheme in an effort to retain our book club members, to varying levels of success. We made a concerted effort to provide some sort of sugar-loaded baked good each week; the highlight of the semester was the blackberry pie, courtesy of a generous guest celebrity chef who goes by Sojeph. I’m ashamed to admit that more than half of the baked delights this past semester were purchased, not handmade, but we made a good-faith effort to provide for our book clubbers and sometimes the bargain cookies from Baked Bear were our only option. I’m not sure if any of our attendees made it to every meeting (although I’m fairly certain that I did), but some of the most consistent also happened to be big Agatha Christie fans. I owe them my gratitude for entertaining our wildly off-base theories as we tried to predict the outcome of the mystery at every meeting, and for not ruining the shocking conclusion that left most everyone reeling. The aforementioned individuals were also very helpful when we didn’t understand Christie’s references to characters or happenings in her other books, which few of us had read.

Through the ups and downs of the semester, an Honor’s College Reading Group provides a refreshing break from the mundane, and Tram and I are currently discussing our next selection, coming Fall 2018. I don’t yet know what we’ll be reading, but I would love to have you along for the ride!

Tangents

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I learned a whole lot about the TV that my parents grew up on in a class I took this past semester, America in the 1970s. Even though we never mad e it to the 80s and the greatest series ever aired (“Cheers”), learning about the decade of “All in the Family” and “Happy Days” finally introduced me to shows that I’d heard of but never seen or taken much interest in. Besides Hawaii Five-O, of course, but only because my dad insisted that I experience some of the original in order to better understand the remake. Our class also briefly discussed news coverage during the decade. I read a bit about ABC’s coverage of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and then decided to check out a Wikipedia article on the subject. As is usually the case, that sent me off on an hour-long curiosity tangent. Wikipedia may not be the greatest source to cite on OU papers, but it sure is informative (and uniquely capable of sucking the reader into a never-ending adventure of clicking through links).

As I learned that day, the 1972 Summer Olympics played host to a tragic terrorist attack that successfully targeted the Israeli Olympic team and resulted in the deaths of 11 members of the squad. I had heard of the Munich Massacre before, but was shocked to read about how poorly the entire affair was managed. Germany received multiple credible warnings of a threat prior to the Olympics, even some that specified that an attack would be carried out by Palestinian terrorists, and yet the government took no precautions against it and then mounted a failed rescue attempt that got every hostage killed. Far too little, far too late. According to the reading, ABC’s coverage of the events helped the network gain significant credibility, which nowadays seems like a no-brainer – reporting on tragedies is easy and sure to generate views and ratings. Shameless plug – Bastille’s most recent album discusses our fascination with violence and tragedy on the 24 hour news cycle; both the music and message are top notch.

I also stumbled across the documentation of Mossad’s response to the Black September attack (Black September was the organization that carried out the attack). Those guys and gals do not mess around. Operation “Wrath of God” wasn’t just a revenge plot; it was a calculated, decades-long campaign to rack up a serious body count in a very public, yet deniable fashion. A few hours prior to each assassination, Mossad would deliver flowers and a note to the family of the target. “A reminder we do not forget or forgive.” Yikes.

And the Mountains Echoed

This semester I had the pleasure of leading an Honor’s College Reading Group with my friend Tram. It was my second reading group, and my first as a moderator, and it was amazing. Tram suggested that we read And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, who is also responsible for the acclaimed novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I read and loved both of the aforementioned novels in high school, but I hadn’t had a chance to check out Hosseini’s third release, so I happily agreed to her selection. As it turned out, this was the perfect book club book (I’ll explain why) and we were joined by an incredible group of students as we delved into Hosseini’s masterpiece. For whatever reason, exclusively freshmen signed up for our group, but we took the opportunity to welcome the new Sooners with open arms and baked goods. Initially, Tram and I only planned to bring a treat on the first day that we met as a group, but they were so complementary that we ended up bringing food to every meeting. It was an expensive semester, but a good one for sure.

And the Mountains Echoed is a tale of love, loss, and redemption that spans generations and continents. The book consists of nine chapters, each of which is narrated by a different character from the story. The main characters, siblings Pari and Abdullah, are born in a remote village in Afghanistan and separated at a young age, perhaps out of necessity, but tragic nonetheless. This event serves as the impetus that keeps the tale moving, and is the glue that binds all of it together, even the seemingly random, tenuously related chapters. I was especially struck by the fact that the reader gets to live out the entire lives of many of the characters, from adolescence to death. That the journey of life could be so succinctly summarized in the 30 to 50 pages is, in my mind, a sobering reality. However, Hosseini manages to make every page leap with vivid color and beautiful prose, not to mention the captivating story that proved the greatest challenge for many members of our reading group – finding the strength to put the book down. I don’t want to give too much away, but And the Mountains Echoed is a must read for all and a perfect choice for any book club, because it is rife with motif and so very open to interpretation. The characters are compelling and at times, beyond frustrating. The settings are so well imagined and spotted across the globe, in such a way that you travel the world from the comfort of your seat. I don’t want to give too much away, but I thoroughly enjoyed this read and the companionship of our book club, and I would encourage everyone to partake in both.

Challenges Facing China’s New Leadership

As part of a series of IAS lectures on China this past semester, OU managed to bring Dr. Yukon Hwang to campus to explain the many challenges facing China’s new leadership. Dr. Hwang is China’s former representative to the World Bank and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He gave a riveting talk that revealed many of my misconceptions about China, particularly when it comes to the country’s seemingly robust economy. In reality, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader who is now regarded in kind with Mao Zedong, has a tough road ahead. He wants to modernize China and solidify its place at the forefront of the global powers, but this is much easier said than done.

China was once one of the world’s most egalitarian countries, but this is no longer the case. Instead, the country’s export trade has created vast inequalities that necessitate long term strategy and a shift towards an economy driven by consumption and services. They also struggle with a worsening debt crisis, growth slowdown, and rampant corruption. Nonetheless, most Americans and Europeans believe that China is the world’s leading economic power, when in fact the US still holds that title. Unfortunately, it is this false perception that drives much of America’s foreign policy with China, because we live in a country of majority rule. As it turns out, and this rocked my world, China is not responsible for our trade deficit and there is no correlation between US and Chinese trade balances. What’s more, the trade deficits of the two countries actually move in the same directions! We resent China and believe that we invest too much money in the People’s Republic, when in reality only 1.5% of our foreign direct investment goes to China. And this makes total sense, because our top exports to China (agriculture, planes, waste, semiconductors, and cars) do not need to be produced in China. Unfortunately for China, the aforementioned misconceptions have left many Americans with an unfounded negative opinion of China. I do not know how he will accomplish it, but I’m sure that Xi Jinping plans to tackle this sour tastes, and to right China’s economy in the process.

A Genuine Conservative Tradition

I do my best to avoid living in an echo chamber. Naturally, I often find myself surrounded by like-minded people, but I believe that it is of critical importance that we intentionally expose ourselves to contradicting points of view. Accordingly, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Professor Rick Tepker, the Floyd & Irma Calvert Chair in Law and Liberty Professor of Law talk about the meaning and death of the genuine conservative tradition. Professor Tepker is the first OU law faculty to argue and win a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, an accomplishment that is inspiring to say the least. He gave a succinct history of what he considers to be the genuine conservative tradition, and discussed how the aforementioned school of thought has been more or less abandoned by many politicians who call themselves conservative.

Tepker summarizes conservatism as respect for the little guy, restraint, and a source of moderation and civic virtue. These buzzwords aren’t all that partisan upon initial inspection, but they have morphed into something entirely different nowadays. Conservatives are less likely now to be characterized by careful, conservative action, and more likely to be associated with anger, a skepticism of demonstrations, and quick execution of decisions. For example, President Trump called his initial executive order on immigration a “military operation,” which implies that we are directing a military operation against visitors to our country and citizens alike. Rather than cherishing public education as a Jeffersonian way to transfer knowledge, Professor Tepker contends that our conservative representatives are more likely to be skeptical of science and conventional wisdom, all the while cutting funding for education and implementing programs like school choice vouchers. Conservatism is no longer an adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried, as Abraham Lincoln once put it. But it is not too late to remind our conservative representatives that they aren’t living up to the adjective and school of thought with which they identify. And if that fails, the beauty of our political system is that anyone can give it the good college try.

An Independent Judiciary

During the series of lectures on democracy at the University of Oklahoma earlier this semester, I listened to Dr. Justin Wert, an Associate Professor of Political Science at OU, discuss the threats to judicial independence in the United States. I have always been fascinated by the American political system, in particular our ingenious system of checks and balances that has thus far reigned in any one branch of the federal government from amassing too much power. The independent judiciary is an integral component of our democratic system, but it has recently come under fire from the administration of Donald Trump.

Federal judgeships function very differently from many other roles in the government. For starters, federal judges are appointed, not elected. In addition, they are often appointed for life, a tenure that was designed to insulate the judiciary from the whims of the day, the influence of other branches, and the popular opinion that would be needed to be catered to if judges had to worry about being reelected. The process of lifetime appointments is hotly contested and not without its faults, but changing this key component of the Judicial Branch would likely require a Constitutional amendment, which is no small task. And as long as the head of the executive branch is calling the character of judges into question and casting doubt upon their decisions, it only makes sense to maintain as independent a judiciary as possible.

President Trump attacked Gonzalo Curiel, a judge in the District Court for the Southern District of California, because Judge Curiel presided over the suit against Trump University. President Trump falsely called the judge Mexican, when he was in fact born in Indiana, and then went on to say that “It is a disgrace. It is a rigged system … This court system, the judges in this court system, federal court. They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace.” Luckily, Donald Trump had not yet been sworn in at the time and as such could take little recourse outside of hurling baseless insults, but the President has already faced challenges in the court since taking office and will undoubtedly continue to do so. For example, his “immigration ban” has been stayed by multiple courts across the country, prompting less than pleasant responses from the Commander in Chief. Fortunately, the courts are designed to lag behind new administrations, so as long as President Trump allows the established system of checks and balances to remain in operation and does not attack the credibility of the judicial branch, our country should be insulated from any brash decisions that go before the courts.

Into the Mainstream

I had the pleasure of attending Rienhard Heinisch’s enlightening lecture about the meteoric rise of various manifestations of populism in Europe. Dr. Heinisch is the head of the political science department at the University of Salzburg and is an esteemed scholar on the broad topic of populism. Populism, loosely defined, can be “a political style, a mobilization strategy, or a thin ideology or frame.” This definition is admittedly a bit of a catch-all, but there is both a responsible party and a decent reason why. The media perpetuated the use of this term, as it allowed for generalized reporting on the rise of this movement, which took root in France in the early 2000s and rapidly spread outwards to the rest of Europe. However, the so called populist candidates across Europe took starkly different approaches to winning over their constituents. As such, there is no such thing as a “European populist party.” Rather, populist candidates brand themselves as unique to their country and take on the established parties, such as the Greens and the Liberals, who they believe have failed in one way or another at serving their citizens. By building grassroots movements, occasionally with outside help, populist candidates have attracted extreme followings and shaken up the political realm through sheer force of will. Such candidates have come very close to winning major elections in Europe, which is all the more amazing when we look at their growth over the past fifteen years.

Populists, or political figures that as a general rule are fond of questioning the principles of liberal democracies and conduct themselves in a rather unorthodox manner (breaking taboos, discriminating against the political minority, or exhibiting nativist or nationalist tendencies, for example), were concentrated in a small amount of European countries in the early 2000s. Since then, the ideology has spread like wildfire to the far reaches of the continent and has taken on very different looks and found varying levels of success and resistance. Despite all of these inconsistencies, Dr. Heinisch attributes the success of the populist movement to widespread doubts about the legitimacy of the political system and, in some voting blocs, a fear of losing control, economic status, or national identity. Populist candidates excel when they can adapt to the ever-changing whims of voters, but as a result there is no solid populist agenda among the more successful variants. I suspect, however, that there are some entities that have firm agendas very high hopes for this movement. Russia, as an example, has been supporting populist parties like UKIP and the Front National monetarily and in the media. Oddly enough, this goes relatively unnoticed in Europe, whereas alleged Russian meddling in the US has come under very close scrutiny. Whether or not Europe’s fledgling ideologies survive the test of time, the gains that populist parties have made in the past decade cannot be overlooked.