Impressions of COVID-19 Socio-Political Dynamics in France

Herewith some impressions of the COVID-19 situation in Montpellier, France since arriving six days ago (where I am on sabbatical for the semester). As an American, I am using my own country as a reference point (which may or may not be meaningful for some readers).

1) As compared to the US, the COVID-19 vaccination rate is higher (77.8% fully vaccinated for age 12+ for France as a whole) and the ICU occupancy rate is lower (45%).

2) Unlike the US, cloth masks don’t seem to be a thing. Everyone wears surgical masks.

3) Like the US, a not insignificant proportion of mask wearers have their noses exposed.

4) Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are alive and well here, even among the well educated.

5) There are regular mass street protests against the vaccine passport (passe sanitaire) (see photo of a recent protest from outside my apartment window). A vaccine passport is needed to enter all public spaces such as restaurants and museums. Unlike the yellow vest movement, which was dominated by the working class, these protests seem to draw on a broad cross-section of society (I suspect there is an odd congruence here among the left and the right around civil liberties).

6. As in other parts of the world, a local colleague is running a research project for measuring COVID-19 in sewage waste water (apparently COVID-19 positive people excrete markers of the disease). Their group takes samples at the intake to the municipal sewage treatment plant, but they can also work their way upstream in the sewage system to isolate clusters in certain parts of town. This method is much better at detection (for public health responses) than testing alone. Their research shows a spike in COVID-19 in Montpellier starting in July with the tourist season (mostly French tourists), then a decline, and now another spike with returning students (Montpellier is a university town).

Not sure what to make of all this. Some aspects are better than the US, others are not. If anything, I have learned that the US is not the only country with complicated social and political dynamics surrounding COVID-19.

Eulogy of Harry H. Moseley: Reflections on a Life Well Lived

St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Milwaukee WI

7/31/2021

By Bill Moseley

Good morning. My name is Bill Moseley and I am Harry’s eldest son. My Mom, brother James, our families and I are grateful for your presence here today and for the time you took away from your busy summer schedules to celebrate Dad’s life. It means a lot to us.

It is a strange thing to celebrate someone’s life over a year after their death. The immediate pain of their passing has somewhat subsided and you’ve had time to reflect on their legacy. You all knew our Dad in different ways, as a colleague, parishioner, oarsmen, non-profit volunteer, uncle, in-law, cousin, friend, collaborator or other.  There will be time at the lunch following this service for others to reflect on Dad’s life and we look forward to hearing from you then. My modest goal now is to share what it was like to have Harry as a father and a close family member. Dad had 81 years on this planet and I think it is safe to say that he lived a good life. But what does it mean to live a good life and what can we learn from someone who lived in this way? The more I thought about Dad’s life, three themes emerged: resilience, love of life, and commitment to family, which I would like to reflect on in turn.

Resilience

Living a good life does not necessarily mean living a perfect life or an easy one. Dad was extremely lucky in many ways, but I have more recently grown to appreciate the way he dealt with and bounced back from hardships. Losing his father in college, having his university rowing team not qualify for the Olympics, not making partner with Price Waterhouse, being let go by Caremark in his 50s, and then let go again a few years later by a start-up firm in Indiana. These all had to have been challenging moments. Following these losses of employment at an age when many are summarily discarded by corporate America, I saw him maintain his integrity and sense of self-worth and work tirelessly to identify what would be next for him. Each time he approached finding a job as a job in and of itself, literally going to the employment center every day until he found another position. I am sure some of this drive was about a commitment to support his family, but I think he was also adamant about being in the game and making a contribution. Let me make two brief comments about his resilience in these instances. The first is that these moments of loss or rejection didn’t seem to own him, although I am sure it was very challenging. Sure, he would talk about it with us, but you always had the sense that the family was most important and this other problem was secondary. We were going to be okay. Second, these experiences led Dad to have deep compassion for others who had lost their jobs. Dad was always happy to meet with anyone, anyone who had lost their job and I know he met with and supported countless individuals in this situation.

Love of Life

Dad loved life or, as the French would say, he had joie de vivre. In fact, Dad was so enthusiastic that he more or less only knew how to operate in 4th or 5th gear, pushing right up until the end. This, of course, may explain why he racked up a few speeding tickets in his life and was quite fond of that gadget known as the fuz buster. Good food and fine wine were part of this joie de vivre, but it extended to so many other areas of his life, his competitive nature in sports, his love of the outdoors, and his passion for social justice and politics.

Dad was always competitive, especially when it came to athletic endeavors and games. For example, Dad was an aggressive poker player. While I would hang back and make small bets until I knew I had a good hand, Dad was always pushing and betting more chips. I can only imagine what it was like to row against him. There is a metaphor here, because Dad was ‘all in’ on life in the same way he was ‘all in’ on poker.

Like any good poker player, Dad did not shy away from calculated risks. He and Mom moved the family to Belgium from 1985 to 1987 in a job option with Baxter Travenol. This was an amazing and transformative experience for both he and the family. While I was away at college by then, I know this greatly expanded their world view and led to some important new opportunities for my brother. Although this move likely cost him some advancement options at work, I don’t think he ever once questioned that it was well worth the risk.

As native Clevelanders, and long-time Chicagoans, Dad and Mom embraced another adventure when they moved to Milwaukee. One of the really nice things that happened after they relocated here in 1997 was that Dad had more time and opportunity to explore his interests. My brother and I were out of the house by then and he really enjoyed working at Aurora Healthcare. His proximity to the Milwaukee River allowed him to embrace his passion for rowing again, something he had set aside for nearly 40 years. Here my parents also found a welcoming parish in St Mark’s Episcopal Church, and rewarding social justice work with Common Ground, the Gathering and numerous political campaigns. Thank you Milwaukee for being so good to my parents the last 23 years of Dad’s life.

Commitment to family

Dad was also always very committed to family, so it is not too surprising to me that many of his passions, such as rowing and politics, were put on hold when my brother and I were younger and living at home. He was all one could have asked for in a father and he dearly loved our Mom, his daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

One of the things Dad and Mom were really good at was recognizing and nurturing different skills and talents in my brother and I. My brother James and I are quite different. Parents obviously pass on distinct traits to their children, some of these are learned, while others are innate. We like to joke in our family that my brother James got all of the skills. He is the engineer, following in the footsteps of practically all other males in our family. He is good at fixing things, from cars, to computers, to work around the house. In fact, I sometimes tell my wife that she married the wrong brother. As my brother struggled in school as a young kid, it’s my Dad who really recognized that James enjoyed all things mechanical. Allowing my brother to acquire old computers and machines, take them apart, and then reassemble them in different ways in the basement over months was a brilliant way to bolster his confidence and boost his talents as a budding engineer.

Of course my Dad tried to do the same with me, having me work on various house projects throughout my 18 years at home, but it just didn’t stick. While I don’t have inherited engineering skills, what I do attribute to my Dad are my passion for physical activity, my desire to explore places near and far, and my love of maps. I am a geography professor, the only academic in a family where the men were engineers. At one point I remember Dad noting that this was kind of remarkable, a very different path than anyone else in the family – and it was said in the most positive, loving and supportive of ways.

Dad’s love of nature and time with family are exemplified by a couple of stories. When we were in grade school, Dad used to take us on Sunday afternoon adventures. In those days, Dad travelled a lot for work during the week, so Mom always had a well-earned Sunday afternoon off.  One of our favorite getaways was the land surrounding the College of DuPage, near Glen Ellen, Illinois where we lived from 1968 to 1976. Here there was a lake and a wetland we called “the Swamp.” We spent hours there with Dad, collecting fish, tadpoles and frogs that we brought back home to nurture in a backyard aquarium. We also constructed makeshift watercraft that we used to skirt across the swamp, exploring every nook and cranny of the shoreline. Here we learned to revel in the wonder of the natural world side by side with our father.

In the summer of 2010, Dad and Mom took our kids on a memorable summer adventure, via train, to Glacier National Park and then on to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. During the trip, our Dad and our Uncle Bill (who joined them along the way) taught our then 10 year old son Ben how to play poker, a game that would become a regular feature among some of us at family gatherings, including the many camping trips that Dad would accompany the kids and I on in his later years.

Last but not least, I mention the family cabin in LaValle, WI which I know some in the church men’s group here have visited. In 1991, my parents built a cabin there. Actually my brother James managed the whole project and did much of the electrical work himself. In the ensuing 30 years, Dad and Mom cherished the cabin as space for family get-togethers, including the fourth of our seven epic Moseley family reunions. It was a place to frolic in the lake, ski in the woods, hike with a family dog in the hills, and enjoy the many fruits of the land, from raspberries, to cheese, to corn and beer. With its huge fireplace, magical couch for napping, and large common area, it exuded the spirit of Harry Moseley.

Conclusion

Let me conclude by sharing how I find Dad’s voice lingers with me. In the middle of my college years, I remember lamenting to Dad one summer that I was sad that I had never met either of my grandfathers, men who had both died in their 50s before I was born. At the time, he suggested that people might live on in this world in invisible ways and, that while I had never consciously met my grandfathers, he suggested that their habits and modes of thinking were likely passed on to me by other living relatives. My grandfathers were here he hinted, but I just didn’t realize it.

In the months since Dad’s passing, I often think of him when I am out on long bike rides or cross-country skiing in the woods during the Minnesota winter. As I do this, I am sometimes in this extended mental conversation with Dad. Oh, isn’t this bend in the river cool? Dad would have liked this. Or this old neighborhood with its architecture, or this path through the forest… It is as if my sense of wonderment and joy in the world are a shared experience, shared with my immediate family when they are present, but often shared with Dad when I am alone. Dad’s voice of resilience, love of life, and commitment to family lingers on in my mind. He is gone, but still present.

Memorial services create a space for many things to transpire in our hearts and minds: they allow us to mourn, they allow us to celebrate the life of the person who has passed, and they give us a chance to reflect on what is important in our own lives. Thank you Dad for creating such a space today.

Condemnation of US Coup Attempt // Condamnation de la Tentative de Coup d’État Américain

[Version française ci-dessous]

by William G. Moseley

To my international friends and colleagues, make no mistake about it, yesterday there was an attempted coup in the United States. President Trump and his associates incited a mob to attack the US capital with the explicit intent to intimidate congress into overturning the results of a free and fair election.  I do not have the words to describe the horror, shame and anger I felt as I watched live coverage of hooligans smashing into the capital building, carelessly and wantonly trampling on 230 years of multiparty elections and peaceful transitions of power.

Democratic norms and social capital are so hard to build, yet so easily destroyed. While there are plenty of problems with the US political system, and we continue to fight the legacies of slavery and the demons of racism, people of color and their allies in the United States have worked extremely hard to make better democratic practice a reality over the past several decades. The real tragedy is that we now have a significant portion of the US population, aka as Trump’s political base, that live in an alternate reality and actually believe the 2020 election was fraudulent (against all facts to the contrary). This fantasy has been spun by the president himself, amplified by the right wing media, and aided and abetted by far too many Republican Party enablers. Yesterday’s events were the logical and planned outcome of weeks of spinning lies and the whipping up of emotions amongst the right wing mob that eventually attacked the capital.

While President Trump only has two weeks remaining in his tenure, he should be removed from office for sedition. Of course this is what should happen, but I am sober enough to realize that the vice president and half the president’s cabinet, all Trump loyalists, are unlikely to take this brave but necessary step. Still harder, and arguably more important, is going to be the long and hard process of rebuilding the social fabric, respect for basic facts, and regard for democratic norms  in the United States that Trump has so carelessly destroyed. I am by nature an optimist, and I have faith that my country will overcome this extremely difficult moment, but we need your prayers and support to get back on the right path.

William G. Moseley, DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography, Macalester College, Saint Paul, USA

[French version below]

À mes amis et collègues internationaux, ne vous y trompez pas, il y a eu hier une tentative de coup d’état aux États-Unis. Le président Trump et ses associés ont incité une foule à attaquer la capitale américaine dans l’intention explicite d’intimider le congrès pour qu’il renverse les résultats d’une élection libre et équitable.  Je n’ai pas les mots pour décrire l’horreur, la honte et la colère que j’ai ressenties en regardant en direct les reportages sur les hooligans qui se sont introduits dans le bâtiment de la capitale, piétinant de manière imprudente et gratuite sur 230 ans d’élections multipartites et de transitions pacifiques du pouvoir.

Les normes démocratiques et le capital social sont si difficiles à construire, et pourtant si facilement détruits. Alors que le système politique américain pose de nombreux problèmes et que nous continuons à lutter contre les séquelles de l’esclavage et les démons du racisme, les personnes de couleur et leurs alliés aux États-Unis ont travaillé extrêmement dur pour faire des meilleures pratiques démocratiques une réalité au cours des dernières décennies. La véritable tragédie est que nous avons maintenant une partie importante de la population américaine, alias la base politique de Trump, qui vit dans une réalité alternative et croit en fait que l’élection de 2020 était frauduleuse (contre toute évidence). Cette fantaisie a été créée par le président lui-même, amplifiée par les médias de droite, et aidée et encouragée par beaucoup trop de facilitateurs du parti républicain. Les événements d’hier sont l’aboutissement logique et planifié de semaines de mensonges et d’émotions de la foule de droite qui a fini par attaquer la capitale.

Alors qu’il ne reste que deux semaines au président Trump, il devrait être démis de ses fonctions pour sédition. Bien sûr, c’est ce qui devrait arriver, mais je suis assez sobre pour réaliser que le vice-président et la moitié du cabinet du président, tous fidèles à M. Trump, ne prendront probablement pas cette mesure courageuse mais nécessaire. Plus difficile encore, et sans doute plus important, sera le long et difficile processus de reconstruction du tissu social, de respect des faits fondamentaux et de considération des normes démocratiques aux États-Unis que Trump a si négligemment détruits. Je suis par nature optimiste et j’ai confiance que mon pays va surmonter ce moment extrêmement difficile, mais nous avons besoin de vos prières et de votre soutien pour nous remettre sur le droit chemin.

William G. Moseley, Professeur de Géographie, Macalester College, Saint Paul, USA

Trump and His Recent Attacks on Democratic Governors (and a reflection on counter-narratives)

Trump’s recent attacks on the sensible policies of Democratic governors, including my home state of Minnesota, are inexcusable. Trump is clearly reckless, dangerous and thinks of no one but himself. Sadly, I am not surprised by his moves. What continues to confound me is his cult following. I thought I understood his appeals to white working class men, but I kept thinking he would go too far and people would peel off, but that never seems to happen.

liberate-minnesota

(‘Liberate Minnesota’ Demonstration Outside the Governor’s Mansion on March 17, 2020. Source: KSTP TV)

The Governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, will hold his own with Trump. He is thoughtful, sensible, a good communicator (he’s a former high school geographer teacher by the way), and uses evidence to make decisions. My bigger worry is the election next fall (and that is where I am focusing my energies). My concern is how Trump will behave if he loses. I suspect he will use all of the tools in his toolbox to dispute the election, and will not be afraid to burn down the house if he can’t be the landlord. That is when we will really need a mass public response in support of the constitution.

The Trump era has changed the way I think about narratives (a common theme in post-structuralism and some of my own scholarship). Democracy is a narrative. The rule of law is a narrative. You need a critical mass of people to support a narrative if it is to function. I always thought of counter narratives as positive forces that disrupt hegemony and lead to progress, but Trump’s counter-narrative is deeply destructive, an anti-narrative of sorts.  A functional narrative needs to have some basis in reality, and Trump’s stories are based on right wing fantasy. It is this articulated fantasy (periodically re-spun at political rallies) that seems to keep his fanatical followers on board, no matter his transgressions, and even if it involves the death of more people from COVID-19.

Presentation slides from Macalester College Teach-in: Understanding Trump’s Nativism and Nationalism from a Global Perspective

These are my slides from today’s campus conversation (aka teach-in) at Macalester College on the current political climate in the US.

My Argument

While it is tempting to see resurgent nativism and nationalism in the US as a local phenomenon, we should resist this myopic intellectual drift & seek to understand these policies & attitudes from a global & historical perspective. I argue that neoliberal policies at the global scale have impacted the US working class. Furthermore, right wing & nativist movements across the global North, not to mention the rise of religious fundamentalism, share the common appeal of easy answers and scapegoating for those whose livelihoods are unraveling in the face of globalization.

understanding-trumps-nativism-and-nationalism-from-a-global-perspective

2016 was a terrible year, but I’m not giving up & neither should you. Thoughts on End-of-Year Charitable Contributions

Yes, 2016 was a terrible year, but I’m not giving up and neither should you. There are still lots of good organizations out there doing vital work and they deserve our support. Herewith a few thoughts for those of you considering end-of-year charitable donations.  I’m thinking about the following needs: strong and free press, refugees, climate science, agroecology, education, and women’s reproductive health. Below are eleven good outlets for your resources, ranked in no particular order.

winter-2016

1) Oxfam International

Oxfam is deeply involved helping refugees but they also do important advocacy and policy work.

https://www.oxfamamerica.org/donate/

2) American Refugee Committee

This is a local group to the Twin Cities that works internationally on refugee issues.

http://arcrelief.org/

3) Groundswell International

One of my favorite NGOs working in partnership with local communities in the Global South on agroecological approaches to farming.

http://www.groundswellinternational.org/

4) Africa is a Country

This is an alternative news source (the name is satirical) for those interested in Africa.

http://africasacountry.com/2016/12/africa-is-a-funds-raiser/

5) Planned Parenthood

Providing vital healthcare to women. This group will surely be under assault by the incoming administration.

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/

6) National Public Radio

We need a strong, independent media. Donate to your local NPR affiliate. Mine is Minnesota Public Radio.

https://contribute.publicradio.org/

7) MinnPost

A good non-profit , local news source in Minnesota. If you’re not from Minnesota, you likely have something similar. As above, we need a strong, independent media.

https://www.minnpost.com/support

8) The College or University of your choice

We need strong educational institutions now more than ever. Here I’ve got to mention Macalester College (my employer) and Carleton College (my alma mater).

https://www.macalester.edu/supportmac/

9) Progressive religious organizations

One example is Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul. Lest we forget that there is a core social justice mission in many progressive religious traditions (something that is often lost or forgotten amidst the fundamentalist clamor).

https://www.cctwincities.org/locations/dorothy-day-center/

10) 350.org

An organization supporting a grass roots climate movement with attention to the realities of science and the principles of justice.

https://350.org/

11) Friends of African Village Libraries

This group works with local communities in various African countries to create village libraries.

http://www.favl.org/

I am sure there are many other well deserving outlets, but that is all my addled brain has to offer for now (way too much grading for this professor at the end of the semester). Happy Holidays!

Un Despot en Amérique

Je suis déprimé et sous le choc après les résultats des élections de la nuit dernière aux États-Unis. Je pensais que je me réveillais ce matin avec une victoire mince Clinton et le sentiment que l’Amérique avait esquivé une balle. Une victoire pour Trump était insondable pour moi – et maintenant je dois envisager l’impensable: Donald Trump comme mon président.

Que faites-vous quand un tyran narcissique, raciste, nativiste, et sexistes gagne le combat sur le terrain de jeu et apparemment la moitié de la foule acclamait pour lui? La réponse courte est que vous vous levez, pensez sérieusement à ce que vient de se passer, retournez au travail, et de continuer à combattre le bon combat. Néanmoins, je n’ai vraiment pas besoin d’un autre rappel existentielle que la personne la plus qualifiée ne gagne pas toujours, et que la peur, la manipulation et le pouvoir parfois dominer sur le jour.

Le côté charitable de moi voudrait croire que ce fut une révolte de la classe ouvrière contre les politiques néolibérales au cours des 35 dernières années qui ont enrichi un peu et fait les moyens de subsistance de beaucoup plus ténu. Ce qui me navre, cependant, est la façon que le angst des ouvriers blancs est devenue liée à la xénophobie, le racisme et le sexisme. Trump laisse beaucoup de démons sortir du placard – et ce sera difficile de remettre.

Le fait que Trump, et ses partisans républicains, ont normalisé un discours droit extrême est profondément troublant. Tout nos enfants ont appris sur le respect et l’empathie mutuelle semble en danger si le chef du pays a un tel mépris pour les principes de base de la décence humaine et le dialogue constructif.

Je suis triste que l’internationalisme et le multiculturalisme ont pris une grande défaite dans cette élection. Bien que je n’admire toujours tous les aspects de la politique étrangère du président Obama, je l’ai beaucoup apprécié ses tentatives d’articuler une position américaine plus humble dans le monde dans lequel nous étions un joueur d’équipe plutôt que d’un braggard narcissique. Il avait aussi une façon de parler de questions raciales qui était simultanément apaisante et rassurante, mais a provoqué la pensée plus loin. Malheureusement, je ne savais pas que beaucoup d’Américains ont trouvé l’approche d’Obama menaçant.

L’appel de Trump pour retourner l’économie américaine à son ancienne grandeur est délirante. Bien que je ne suis pas fan du néolibéralisme économique, je me rends compte aussi que nous ne pouvons pas revenir à une époque antérieure lorsque la fabrication a été plus dominant et ceux qui ont un diplôme d’études secondaires pourrait prospérer. La voie à suivre est d’insister sur l’éducation et tirer plus de gens dans l’économie du savoir ou des métiers hautement qualifiés. Le plan économique de Trump, si elle existe, est un tuyau rêve anachronique.

Et ne me lancez pas sur l’environnement. Avoir un sceptique du changement climatique à la Maison Blanche est un coup terrible pour la planète et un extrêmement mauvaises nouvelles pour la communauté scientifique américaine. Je travaille en étroite collaboration avec la National Science Foundation des États-Unis au cours des années et je frémis à l’idée ce qui se passera au budget de cette agence si l’anti-intellectualisme, et une incompréhension fondamentale de la science, saisit plus profond à Washington.

Ce qui me fait le plus peur à propos de Trump sont ses tendances despotiques, son ignorance de l’état de droit, et sa volonté de jeter les institutions démocratiques pour son propre gain. J’ai, malheureusement, une certaine expérience avec les despotes comme un chercheur qui a travaillé en Afrique au cours des 30 dernières années. Je l’ai vu les bons et les mauvais dirigeants vont et viennent dans divers pays africains, et je suis choqué quand la peur, le mécontentement et la xénophobie ont conduit certaines circonscriptions pour soutenir les coups d’état, ou chefs de tendances dictatoriales. Ce que nous avons appris la nuit dernière est que l’électorat américain est pas plus sage ou prudent que toute autre population. La peur, et ses démons associés, ont eu le dernier mot dans cette élection. Ceci est une leçon d’humilité pour dire le moins, et encore une fois, je vais devoir expliquer à mes amis internationaux comment nous pourrions faire un tel choix horrible.

Je fais vraiment inquiéter Donald Trump ayant les contrôles à l’armement nucléaire de notre nation; je fais vraiment peur que Trump va fouler aux pieds notre constitution; et je crains que l’économie, les relations raciales; et l’environnement vont obtenir beaucoup de mal avant d’aller mieux. Il est pour ces raisons que je vais me battre comme un diable pour protéger les progrès des pays a fait à ce jour – et pour tenter de minimiser les dégâts inévitable qu’un tel chef téméraire va infliger à notre pays et le monde.

La peur est un animal destructeur qui se cache en chacun de nous. Trump puisé dans cette crainte et partit à la victoire. Mais au fond, je crois vraiment que la peur ne sera pas le dernier mot. Oui, il fait nuit maintenant, mais je vois cela comme un chapitre sombre dans un récit plus américain sur le changement, la capacité d’adaptation et d’espoir.

A Despot in America

I am despondent and in shock after Tuesday night’s election results in the U.S. I had thought I would wake up Wednesday morning with a narrow Clinton victory and a sense that America had dodged a bullet. A Trump win was unfathomable to me – and now I must contemplate the unthinkable: Donald Trump as my president.

What do you do when a narcissistic, racist, nativist, sexist bully wins the fight on the playground and seemingly half the crowd was rooting for him? The short answer is that you get up, think hard about what just happened, go back to work, and continue to fight the good fight. Nonetheless, I really didn’t need another existential reminder that the most qualified person doesn’t always win, and that fear, manipulation and power sometimes rule the day.

The charitable side of me would like to believe that this was a working class revolt against neoliberal policies over the past 35 years that have enriched a few and made the livelihoods of many more tenuous. What sickens me, however, is the way that white, working class angst became intertwined with xenophobia, racism and sexism. Trump let a lot of demons out of the closet – and these will be hard to put back.

The fact that Trump, and his Republican backers, have normalized an alt right discourse is deeply troubling. Everything our children have learned about mutual respect and empathy seems in jeopardy if the leader of the country has such disregard for basic principles of human decency and constructive dialogue.

It saddens me that internationalism and multiculturalism have taken a big hit in this election. While I didn’t always admire every aspect of President Obama’s foreign policy, I greatly appreciated his attempts to articulate a more humble American stance in the world in which we were a team player rather than a cocksure braggadocio. He also had a way of speaking about race that was simultaneously calming and reassuring, yet productively thought-provoking. Little did I know or understand just how many Americans found this threatening.

Trump’s call to return the American economy to its former greatness is delusional. While I am no fan of economic neoliberalism, I also realize that we cannot go back to an earlier era when manufacturing was more dominant and those with a high school education could prosper. The way forward was to stress education and pull more people into the knowledge economy or the highly skilled trades. Trump’s economic plan, if there is one, is an anachronistic pipe dream.

And don’t even get me started about the environment. Having an outright climate change denier in the White House is a terrible blow for the planet and extremely bad news for the American scientific community. I’ve worked closely with the US National Science Foundation over the years and I shudder to think what will happen to this agency’s budget as anti-intellectualism, and a fundamental misunderstanding of science, takes deeper hold in Washington.

What scares me most about Trump, however, are his despotic tendencies, his ignorance of the rule of law, and his willingness to trash democratic institutions for his own gain. I, sadly, have some experience with despots as a scholar who has worked in Africa over the past 30 years. I’ve seen good and bad leaders come and go in various African countries, and I’ve been shocked when fear, discontent, and xenophobia drove certain constituencies to support coups d’états or leaders with dictatorial tendencies. What we learned last night is that the American electorate is no wiser or careful than any other population. Fear, and its associated demons, have had the final say in this election. This is humbling to say the least and, once again, I will have to explain to my international friends how we could make such a terrible choice.

I really do worry about Donald Trump having the controls to our nation’s nuclear weaponry; I really do fear that Trump will run roughshod over our constitution; and I am concerned that the economy, race relations; and the environment are going to get a lot a worse before they get better. It is for these reasons that I will fight like hell to protect the progress out country has made to date – and to try to minimize the inevitable damage that such a reckless leader will inflict on our country and the world.

Fear is a destructive animal that lurks in all of us. Trump tapped into that fear and rode it to victory. But deep down, I truly believe that fear will not have the last word. Yes, it’s dark now, but I see this as a somber chapter in a longer American narrative about change, adaptability and hope

To my friends and colleagues in Mali (Pour mes amis et collègues au Mali)

(French version below)

Please know that we are with you.

I have been in a state of shock and sadness since the events of Friday when terrorists stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako killing at least 21 innocent victims and shattering a fragile nation struggling to regain some sense of stability and forward momentum. This is not the first terrorist attack since Mali returned to a level of normalcy after a coup, rebellion and elections in 2012-2013 (including a terrorist attack at Bamako’s “La Terrasse” nightclub in March 2015), but it unsettled me more than before because it stoked a concern that this might be the new normal, rather than a return to peace.

Ideological and religious extremism now concern me in a way that they never have previously. This is not just a problem in Mali or the Middle East, but clearly a growing issue in the United States as well. The way certain American politicians (namely some Republican presidential candidates and governors) have reacted to the attacks in France, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Mali, is alarming. It saddens me further to know that these politicians are backed by a segment of the US public who share their racist, intolerant, and myopic views.

Clearly we all have a lot of work to do in our respective backyards , and globally, to foster tolerance, a respect for basic human dignity, and peace. We are in this together and we are with you.

Mali

Savons que nous sommes avec vous!

Je suis dans un état de choc et de dépression depuis les événements du vendredi quand des terroristes ont pris d’assaut l’hôtel Radisson Blu à Bamako tuant 21 victimes innocentes et brisant une nation fragile du mal à retrouver une certaine stabilité. Cela est bien sûr pas la première attaque terroriste depuis Mali est revenu à un certain niveau de normalité après un coup d’Etat, la rébellion et les élections en 2012-2013 (y compris une attaque terroriste à la boîte de nuit «La Terrasse» de Bamako en Mars 2015), mais il m’a perturbé plus qu’auparavant parce qu’il a alimenté la crainte que cela pourrait être la nouvelle norme, plutôt que d’un retour à la paix.

L’extrémisme idéologique et religieux me concernent maintenant d’une manière qu’ils ont jamais auparavant. Ce ne sont pas seulement un problème au Mali ou au Moyen-Orient, mais de toute évidence un problème croissant aux Etats-Unis ainsi. La façon dont certains hommes politiques américains (notamment certains des candidats et des gouverneurs républicains) ont réagi aux attentats en France, le Liban, le Nigeria et le Mali, est alarmante. Il me désole en outre de savoir que ces politiciens sont soutenus par une partie de la population des États-Unis qui partagent leur point de vue raciste, intolérant, et myope.

Il est clair que nous avons tous beaucoup de travail à faire dans notre propre cour respectifs, et à l’échelle mondiale, pour favoriser la tolérance, le respect de la dignité humaine fondamentale, et la paix. Nous sommes dans le même bateau et nous sommes avec vous

Riffing on Adichie’s Americanah: International Journeys, the Hybrid Life, and Thoughtful Engagement

Lecture to the First Year Class, September 1, 2014

Macalester College

Good morning everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here and thank you to Ann Minnick for the kind introduction. I am, really, truly honored to be co-delivering the class of 2018’s first lecture. I’m teaching a first year seminar this year, the Geography of Africa, and therefore have already met a subset of your peers, not to mention their parents. While I can’t say this for the parental units, everyone in the class showed up on time, eager and ready to engage. We are off to a good start on our joint adventure over the next four years.

So let us begin.

I was talking to my partner a few months ago, who also happens to have read the book Americanah, and she said: “why are they having you give this lecture?” At the time, she was looking at me, clearly in interrogation mode, in our domestic space where I’m just a dude, where my PhD means absolutely nothing. I responded that “I’m a geographer who works in West Africa.” “I suppose they want me to give some international perspective, to provide context on Nigeria and the experience of Africans who immigrate to the US.” She scoffed, “but the book is about race relations in the US.” Furthermore, she said, eyebrows raised, “I think a feminist scholar would have a field day with this text. The main character, Ifemelu, only seems to find fulfillment through her relationships with men. Why aren’t her relationships with female friends more developed? What the hell is that all about, geography man?”

Indeed, this novel has a lot to say about race relations in the US – and I will not be talking about that. Professor Brown clearly is more qualified than I to provide you with commentary along these lines. I also will not be deconstructing the novel from a critical feminist perspective. What I will do, as hinted at earlier, is give you a little background and context regarding Nigeria. I then want to focus on three themes that this novel prompted me to consider: 1) international journeys (or the process of going away and coming back home); 2) privilege and hybridity; and 3) praxis or thoughtful action.

Context on Nigeria

So first, let me provide a bit of background on Nigeria. Nigeria is by far and away the largest country in Africa in terms of population. At 178 million people, its population is twice as large as that of the next two countries, both Ethiopia and Egypt at around 85 million. Nigeria is a middle income country. Its economy is the largest in Africa and ranks 26th in the world in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Nigeria is a former British colony, winning independence in 1960. Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1956 and production began in 1958. Nigeria’s crude oil is of particularly high quality – meaning that it has relatively low sulfur content. The United States has long been engaged in Nigeria’s petroleum industry and is its top customer – purchasing roughly 40% of its oil exports.

While the country has over 300 different ethnic groups, there are three main groups which are the majority in different regions of the country: 1) the Hausa and Fulani in the North who are predominantly Muslim, 2) the Yoruba in the southwest (where Lagos is located) who are predominantly Christian, and 3) the Igbo in the southeast who are also predominantly Christian. In the novel, both Ifemelu and Obinze are supposed to be Igbo – as is our author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

One of the most significant events in post-colonial Nigeria was the Biafron war where the Igbo in the southeast part of the country tried to secede to create the independent state of Biafara. This civil war lasted from roughly 1967 to 1970 and was particularly bloody – with roughly a million people dying from the fighting and related famine. The war was in part about ethnic tensions, but also about control of the oil fields on Igbo lands. Today ethnic and religious tensions still persist between the largely Muslim north and the Christian south. There is also a long simmering environmental justice crisis in the oil producing regions of the country where local people have protested against oil related environmental degradation – a struggle made famous by the now deceased activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Nigeria used to have one of the more dynamic manufacturing sectors in West Africa. It was also largely self sufficient in food production. However, as the oil industry grew more prominent, both manufacturing and agriculture atrophied. Oil accounts for 98% of Nigeria’s exports today. Nigeria also has a long history of coup d’etats and involvement of the military in politics (a fact that some social scientists link to the oil industry). The 70s, 80s and 90s were filled with coups and a series of military juntas, but the country now has had a democratically elected government since 1999.

I believe this context on Nigeria is useful because it helps us understand that the fictional story which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is sharing with us reflects a great deal of the realities of contemporary Nigeria, as well as it colonial and post colonial history. These realities include ethnic tensions in the country, the uncertainty created by military coups, the aspirations of middle class families, and the appeal of the United States as a destination for study, business or employment. There are also the challenges of religious fundamentalism in the country, the complications faced by young men in obtaining visas to go to other nations, and the differential power relations between men and women. I also think it is interesting to consider which of Nigeria’s realities Adichie does not highlight in the book. There is, for example, almost no mention of the oil industry in the novel and how this is: a source of much of Nigeria’s money; the country’s close relationship with the US in the post-colonial period; and (arguably) much of the political instability in the country.

 

International Journeys

I would now like to move on to my three themes of 1) international journeys; 2) privilege and hybridity; and 3) praxis or thoughtful action. First is our topic international journeys. Americanah is, in large part, a book about the journey of going to another country, spending time there, and then coming back home. Part of this journey is the vividness of impressions you have when you arrive in a new place (or how this place is different from your home). On the flip side, once one is acculturated to this other place, and then comes back home, one is extra aware of what is peculiar or different about your home. The result in this case is a double critique: a critique of US society and a critique of Nigerian society. But more broadly, let us consider more carefully the insights such journeys might produce, how they change us, and the hybrid persons they produce.

So let me ask a question. How many of you have left your home country and travelled to another country for any length of time? How many stayed in that other country for at least 2 months (everyone else sit down)? At least a year (everyone else sit down)? For those of you who remained standing after my first question, you should, at a minimum, be able relate to the themes in this book. If I were to ask this question four years from now, at graduation time, many more of you will have stood and remained standing as I asked my questions. The real import of this query, however, is not whether you travelled, but what you gain from that experience and how you use those insights.

In the “Innocents Abroad,” 19th century American author Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Twain’s famous quote highlights the potential virtues of travel, but I want to be clear that this is an ideal scenario, and furthermore, that travel is a privilege not accessible to everyone.

Travel does not always make for better person as Twain has articulated. A potential problem with shorter term travel is that you may have a superficial experience with the culture which only serves to reinforce stereotypical impressions. The classic example of this might be a packaged tour with well rehearsed cultural experiences that cater to outsider expectations rather than the internal realities of a place.

If you stay longer in a place, say a few months or an entire semester, you may begin to push through the veneer of initial impressions and expectations – and begin to grapple with the realities of a place. I’ve led study abroad programs for Macalester three times now, and there is a predictable pattern of adjustment. It begins with initial euphoria (because everything is new, cool and interesting), followed – about a month into the experience – by depression and frustration with the realities, challenges and differences of a new place. This is coupled with a realization that you’ll actually have to deal with these challenges because you’re not leaving tomorrow. Then, if students are lucky, they emerge from this funk with a more grounded and nuanced understanding of this new place. Then they go back home and see where they came from with a different set of eyes.

Adichie, through the voice of Ifem, spends a lot of time commenting on race dynamics in the US, but we also hear about other issues, such as: how her own initial expectations for America are smashed, the challenges of adjusting to a new educational culture, or her commentary on certain American practices. For starters, her initial beliefs (e.g., that it is always cold in America or that there is no poverty) are practically upended on day one. Her challenges in the American classroom should have resonated with, or at least been of interest to, many of the international students in this audience. She learns, for example, to speak in a certain way in the American classroom and to adjust to a new educational culture. At home in the Nigerian classroom memorization was most important, and now she finds herself in a setting where class participation is highly valued.

Most interesting to me were her comments on some practices in the US, practices that we have normalized, yet – under a slightly different guise – also categorize as wrong or backward in other cultural contexts. I love, for example, her commentary on tipping culture in the US. What is the difference between tipping and bribing? At the end of day, the difference may not be one of substance, but rather whether or not a practice is socially sanctioned. Americans give money to underpaid wait staff as a reward for good service. There’s an unspoken deal – we’ll pay you a little more if you take good care of us. But then Americans often wag their fingers at African governments where corruption and bribing are seen as rampant: where someone might pay a little extra to an underpaid government civil servant to get something done, or to get better service. While I am not defending this practice, the difference between this and paying a little extra for good service in a restaurant does seem nominal.

Ifem also returns to Nigeria as a different person than the one she left as. Superficially, she may exhibit certain American affectations, she is an ‘Americanah,’ but she is also a changed person and therefore sees and views her home differently. Having dwelt in more than one place, she is a hybrid of sorts. She sees what is good, but she also sees what is bad. She likes being back home, feeling at ease in a place where no one questions her identity, but she also wonders about the material and consumer culture of Nigeria’s growing upper middle class, the conspicuous consumption, and the emptiness of the drive to accumulate goods.

My own experience in this regard was when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer for 2.5 yrs in Mali, West Africa in the 1980s. I would subsequently work for longer periods of time abroad, but what was unique about this time in the Peace Corps was that it was in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone era, and (furthermore) I did not have the resources to come home during the entire period. So, there I was, serving in a village of 200 people as agricultural agent, and the only connection I had to my home was letters (which took a month to get home, and a month in return for a response) and twice yearly phone calls.

This time in Mali was a transformational experience for me. I, like Ifem, was hyper aware of all the differences when I arrived in my new home: the new smells, sounds, and cultural practices. I also had a lot of my stereotypes and assumptions challenged upon arriving in Mali. I remember being terrified that my presence in this small village of 200 people would disrupt their local culture. That I might inadvertently create new desires and wants which would destroy their ‘pristine’ way of life. I distinctly recall hanging out with my Malian friends one evening, dinking strong tea, as we almost always did, and I wanted to trim my toe nails. Of course, I had a toe nail clipper, but I thought if I publicly used this I would inflame a desire for this new imported object. So I set about trying to trim my nails with a large hunting knife, coming perilously close to removing a few digits. Fortunately my Malian friends, looking upon in horror, stopped me. One held up a pair of toe nail clippers, saying that here this is what they used. Clearly my belief that this was a primitive, isolated culture was misguided. This place had long been connected to the rest of the world and I needed to recognize that. I was not the imperial agent, the potential destroyer of local culture I imagined. I subsequently fell in love Mali and especially Malians’ agricultural and natural resource management practices. These interests explain much of who I am today – a geographer who studies food and agriculture in Africa. But this experience also forever changed the way I looked at the US. I came home a different person who could never see his own culture in the same way again. I had become hybridized.

Privilege and Hybridity

So now let’s talk about privilege and hybridity. In an interview with NPR last year, Chimanda Ngozi Adichie said that she recognized she was extremely privileged to have studied in the US and to now effectively live in two places: Baltimore in the US and Lagos in Nigeria. Clearly, international journeys are a privilege and the vast majority of the global population never has had the possibility to have such an experience. Or, perhaps the international journey was not one of choice. In many cases people have been forced to leave home because of strife, political persecution, an environmental disaster or economic destitution. This sets up a different dynamic than the middle class student coming to the US for an education, or the middle class American studying or working abroad.

But what about those folks who could afford to travel in terms of time and money, but chose to never engage in a cross-cultural experience? [Why is that? It could be a lack of education, having never learned enough to spark curiosity and interest in other parts of the world? I don’t know.] But what if cross-cultural journeys were an obligation? Some of you may be familiar with the practice of the Haj in Islam (this is one of the faith’s 5 pillars or tenants). It suggests that all of the faithful should make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca during their lifetimes if possible. What if cross-cultural journeys were like the Haj? That is, everyone who had the means to do so was obligated to engage in a cross-cultural journey during their lifetime based a belief that this would make you a better person and that society overall would benefit from such experiences. That dwelling in two different places and cultures breeds hybridity and insight. Now the reality is that we don’t have an obligation to engage in cross-cultural journeys in our society, but we do encourage it at places like Macalester for some of the reasons just mentioned. This is often in the form of study away (whether it is in another country or another community in the USA) or a post graduation experience.

With the privilege of being able to engage in a cross-cultural journey comes the responsibility of sharing new understanding and, perhaps, the responsibility to act on that new understanding.

Praxis

The last item I would like to discuss with you today is praxis. With new found understanding often comes the desire or need to act, to do something to make the world a better place. The desire to do something is not unusual, and, in fact, quite common amongst many Macalester students. My hope, however, is that Macalester College produces students who want to do more than simply act on an impulse or insight to make the world a better place. Rather, they opt to go about this in a thoughtful and theoretically informed manner, something known as praxis.

Over the years, I have encountered students who have an allergic reaction to theory. They eschew theory because they believe it to be irrelevant, impractical and esoteric – they just want to do stuff. Well, the reality is that nobody just does stuff, we are all, consciously or unconsciously, acting on some mental model of how the world functions. Theory is exactly that, a simplified model for the way the world works. We can’t survive without these models as we need them to process and organize information. That said, the sooner we become aware of our own mental models, the sooner we recognize the connections between the world of ideas and the realm of action, and the sooner we can interrogate our own models and iteratively improve them over time (a process which leads to more thoughtful action or praxis).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does a good job of pealing back the facade of contemporary American and Nigerian society to show us all the problems underneath. What she does not provide us with, in my view, is an explanation for the problems she brings to light. If anything we are left to conclude that racism in America, or conspicuous consumption and corruption in Nigeria, are a product of local culture – full stop. In all fairness, perhaps explanation is not the job of a novelist. But as a social scientist, trying to explain the process behind what we observe is critical. And, furthermore, these explanations often involve theory and models of how the world functions.

Take the case of corruption in Nigeria. It is tempting to see this as a purely local problem. One that is attributable to local ethics, culture, attitudes or behavior. But one could have an explanation that is more structural in nature, one that is informed by ideas like Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory. Frank argues that countries like Nigeria were basically underdeveloped during the colonial era. While Nigeria was once largely self-sufficient with an economy that catered to its own needs, colonial policies such as a head tax pushed Nigerians to produce less food for their own households and commodity crops for export to Europe so they could earn the money to pay taxes. This led to famines in the colonial era which, ironically, were blamed on backward agricultural practices and overpopulation – with no recognition that it was the colonial policies that might lie behind these outbreaks of hunger.

In a similar vein, Britain and the US have been deeply involved in the Nigerian petroleum industry – warping the economy and developing what some would call a petro state. In other words – our (American) consumption habits are deeply connected to contemporary political, environmental and social problems in Nigeria. This is a very different explanation, or theory, than one that frames these problems as primarily local.

The implications for action are huge in this instance. Mindless activism means going over to Nigeria and trying to address corruption as a purely local problem, one of Nigerian norms and behaviors. Under this view, we (Americans) are disconnected from the problem. We are external actors coming in as saviors. In contrast, dependency theory pushes us to think about how we might be connected to the problem. What is the genesis of our rapacious thirst for oil, an addiction which drives us to intervene around the world and often support unsavory dictators?

In the early to mid 20th century, a constellation of interests in the United States (our oil complex) emerged to engineer a petroleum-based form of development. We built spatially diffuse suburbs, fueled by federally backed housing loans for largely white middle class families. The government invested massively in a specific form of transportation infrastructure, the federal highway system, which fueled auto-based inter-urban travel and, because of ring-roads around cities, an increasingly diffuse urban form. The government and petroleum related interests (namely auto companies) then largely dismantled public transportation in all but the largest American cities through buyouts and unfavorable subsidy structures. I am not an expert on the social pathologies that initially led us to turn to cheap oil, but it seems that a solid argument could be made for racism (combined with corporate power) as at least one casual factor (in the sense that it is a repelling force that works against people living and travelling together).

As such, and this is where I would like to end, the problem of racism in the US, and the challenges in contemporary Nigeria, may not be entirely disconnected from one another. Cross-cultural journeys not only help us to better understand problems in our own countries and others, but to explore potential connections between these issues. These journeys are a gift, a privilege that often changes us forever – we become hybrids in the best sense of the word. This hybridity breeds new insights which we not only have a responsibility to act upon, but to act upon in a nuanced and informed manner. And because of this – I have hope. Thank you.