Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Conversation of the Day

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a columnist writing every other week, I could have taken the liberty to pontificate today on anything under the sky, and above it. Current events always offer interesting topics to sound off on: Good bye UNMIN, welcome Bryan Adams, stop power outage, etc. No, but I have something personal for today.

After having implored my readers to “Consider This” column, and then giving it a try, I am writing this, formally, under the title “Me Publica,” which in Spanish means “it publishes me”, according to Dr. Joe Goldstein, an expert of that language. In the tradition of writing columns, not to sound too self-adulating, this is where I wish to make my thoughts, feelings and angst public.

Columns are for sharing our memories, trials, arguments, appraisals, dreams and resolutions; and smiles, fears, tears, and hopes, for they speak to our shared life experiences, to our destiny as a people and nation. So then, I wish to take the liberty to try these once in a while.

Human memories, ideas and standpoints clash universally and more so during times of social and political upheaval, and this clash becomes vivid today in columns, the domain of opinion journalism. Intense ideological polarization and partisanship nourish personal journalism of contending views. No wonder, during the last decade of conflict and unrest, our newspapers’ opposite the editorial (Op-Ed) pages have expanded, and opinion shows on broadcast media are all too common and so are the incendiary blogs online.

This thought on the craft of opinionating, on divided interests, agenda and contentions of human actors (in Nepal, mostly political parties) led me to walk down my memory lane this past Monday, the day commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., the late civil rights leader of America. A typical American clash of memories and viewpoints that I observed up close a few years ago seems to inform our current great national divide, our divergent views over how to write a mutually agreeable constitution, or how to restructure the country.

However, the American clash, inside or outside of columns, is instigated more by policies aimed at sharing public benefits than by politics of power. Nonetheless, the fight--at times aggressive and violent--continues even in the world’s mature republic. It’s a reminder that writing a national charter is not the end for Nepal, but only a real beginning of a constant struggle for a meeting point, for social justice, redefined for every generation, whichever political parties champion whatever causes. That also means we will need more columns and courtrooms in the future to deliberate this struggle.

MLK, or more reverently, Dr King, supersedes Gandhi (Ghandi for some) in the “Deep South” of America. Despite their emancipation long ago and their enhanced standing recently, following Obama’s election as president, majority of African Americans living in the region still feel they remain on the aggrieved side of the great American divide. Social segregation, though subtle, is still there. There are only two occasions capable enough to bring crowds into the streets of the otherwise desolate-looking small towns there: MLK Day and St. Patrick's Day (of Irish origin).

To be honest, while I lived there for several years, I never took part in a St. P. parade, but in 2007 I joined the MLK rally for the second time. In modern democracies, multiculturalism is another term for minorities; it is minus the dominant culture. Sometimes multiculturalism manages to ensure participation of some sympathizers from within the majority as well. My white friends who attended that event said the rally was getting more diverse by the years; i.e., there were more whites joining the rally. However, rarely, if ever, blacks participated in the St. P. Day. Both events underline the need to bridge any racial or religious barriers. But the process and pace of social change appears frustrating in this case.

I took part in that rally, walking for about thirty minutes along the local highway. My 9-year-old son led our small group on foot, wedged between a long snake of colorful cars and limousines. He, along with another kid of Hispanic descent, pulled a wagon. The banner proclaimed the theme: United We Stand: One Nation Under God.

People clapped and cheered as we passed them. “Let's keep Dr. King's dream alive!” someone said aloud. “Uh…hum, uh…hum, yea!” the onlookers agreed.

My 4-year-old daughter, holding on to my hand, and excited by the sights and the sounds, bounced happily forward. A year ago, she was on a stroller. This was her first in her memory.

But collective memory can be different. We may like to forget things even if we remember them, especially if they are painful or bitter. Sometimes the act of remembering is more than a mental exercise. On that day, walking the highway for many became remembering the struggle for civil rights in America.

The struggle continues. There is an ongoing clash of old as well as fresh memories in America, memories shaped by contemporary issues surrounding race, wealth/taxes and world power. The significance of public memory in the post-9/11 world has become enormous, especially because in developed democracies, memories shape public opinion and public opinion shapes public policies, forcing the government to act.

Following the rally, I went to listen Bernice Albertine King speak at a local Arts Center. The youngest of four King children, she invoked (and revealed) the initials of her name (BAK), urging the audience to “Be A King”: Be people-centered, not thing-centered, work for non-violence, not war; be part of the solution, not the problem, etc.

The memories about her father stirred the audience. The triple evils identified by MLK--racism, poverty and war--are still alive in America, she bemoaned. So the young must “engage in the conversation of the day” as did many young of the earlier generations to bring about social change.

We have made strides, we are materially rich, but poverty also means the “poverty mentality” that continues to prevail in America, she observed. As an example, billions of dollars are being spent on war, when far more people are dying from cancer than from terrorism.
The BAK speech was quite a contrast and yet in some ways similar to what I got to hear from George W. Bush, who visited the local town three months earlier. I had spent almost 3 hours waiting in a long line of several thousand people before I could get into the stadium where he spoke. People seemed patient all the while, despite such a long wait to see the “imperial” president. In fact, about a thousand ticket-holding people could not even get into the stadium, because the place was already full.

In his speech, Bush said war (a response to his triple axis of evils— North Korea, Iran and Iraq) was necessary to stop terrorism, and that Republicans must stay in power to keep the economy growing and to ensure continued tax relief, apparently more for the rich.

Even with Obama at the helm, the divide continues, only that he is trying to inspire civility and empathy for the other side. America hasn’t reached a meeting point; prejudices of race, gender, wealth, and nationality (American first) persist.

Since we in Nepal have many more divides, blind beliefs, and deeply held prejudices (the “sincere ignorance” or “conscientious stupidity” referred to by MLK), it may be appropriate to commemorate him today by reflecting on his core message of tolerance, dialogue and service. The solution-oriented BAK approach might help transform our leaders and their followers into genuine kings. Meanwhile, columnists and other pundits have the responsibility to cut through political diatribes, recognize our evils, and engage everyone in our conversation of the day.

The key issue is not that there is a divide, but how we approach to bridge that divide.

The writer works with the Media Foundation. He is the author of the recently published book, A Compassionate Journalist (2010).

Published in Republica, Jan 19, 2011.