Lecture on the meaning of America delivered February 8, 2018 for the Jessup Scott Honors College, Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of Toledo, OH
The Tomb of Walt Whitman
On a small plot of land in Camden, New Jersey lies the tomb of famous American poet Walt Whitman. The tomb’s façade – a basic stone temple – is designed with simplicity, austerity, and straightforwardness in mind.
It is no surprise that Whitman oversaw the construction of the tomb himself – a man whose body of work contains a leitmotif of America and American life that was just as blunt and indisputably honest as the structure he was to be buried in.
In the preface to his renowned collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, he wrote:
“The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people.”
Whitman’s democratic spirit falls flat in the face of today’s reality.
He is buried in one of the most violent and poorest cities in the country. Camden’s poverty rate is almost 40% and its population in decline. He likely would not be celebrating the genius of the common people if he were alive today.
But is that a fair conclusion?
His words could also serve as a wakeup call to dangerous economic and political trends in the country today which favor economic and political elites over wide swaths of the country.
This too is debatable.
But what’s clear is that Whitman did not mince words: words that talk about the individual and the nation; words that illuminate the body and the land; and words that separate the everyday from the foreign.
It is too much to ask of anyone to pick just one poem or even one line of poetry that summarily exemplifies how Whitman shaped an ethos, a sentiment, and a spirit of American identity and of the country during a time of great transformation.
Jewish Delis and Indian Grocery Stores
I am not up to the task. Instead, I will tell you this.
When I read Whitman for the first time, first in high school and then again and again on this campus as an American Literature major, I became drunk, hungry, and nostalgic all at once – enraptured by a vision of America so industrious and primitive at the same time.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
As he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning
or at noon intermission or at sundown.
And while America had moved on from shoemakers and hatters to Jewish delis and Indian grocery stores, Whitman’s old narrative resonated with me.
His words “I am large, I contain multitudes” still applied.
Yes, he was talking about me and you.
His words compelled me to think about what it meant to be American, but also how the different pieces of me fit into that description: a woman, an immigrant, a Muslim.
But I heard Whitman tell me something else: you are so much more than just yourself.
We – Americans – are a whole – a collective entity with a values-based foundation and worldview.
That foundation and worldview have always been in flux, in contest and collaboration with our minds and hearts. And the healthy discussion and debate of those values and perspectives has always been a part of who we are as a nation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my political education began with poetry.
The interdisciplinary philosophy of the UT Honors Program trained me well –with special thanks to my professors and mentors at UT, Tom Barden, Linda Smith, Jamie Barlowe, the late David Hoch – and so many others who pushed us to think innovatively long before it became the buzz word it is today.
A Vibrant Technicolor Drama
A part of my early political education included a transformation in the way I saw immigrants. I began dreaming of the Americans who came before me – the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and Jews.
These were communities of people who all seemed so integrated into an accepted backdrop of American life. Now, they popped out as main characters in a vibrant technicolor drama.
In so many respects, the old immigrants were just like the new immigrants: some left for a better life, seeking economic prosperity or political refuge; others came without intentions of staying forever, trying their luck in a new land that promised plenty.
And they had experienced the same challenges I witnessed in our immigrant communities: language barriers and discrimination. And they asked themselves: how much of the homeland should we keep and what should we let go?
So, there were others before us, my young mind would conclude.
It was as if America had left a little post-it note for me which read, “Hey kid, it’s gonna be ok. This isn’t our first rodeo.”
And she also told me this: “You are not alone. You never were.”
I wish I could say this very thing to everyone today who is stateless, homeless, or simply just lost.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of them who need to hear this message. As I stand here today, over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide in the last year.
Then there are those who are lost in a legal limbo across the world, people without immigration papers who are now the subject of intense policy debates in the United States.
These conversations have also come to define America – at least for the moment.
Individuals, Institutions, and Laws
These issues are not so far away from our own lives as we might think.
I didn’t come to this country legally because of something I did on my own. My arrival was incumbent on the support of so many individuals, institutions, and laws:
…like my parents who decided to leave the old country for the new,
…and my uncle in Ohio who sponsored my entire family to come from Pakistan in 1980, just as the democratic government was ousted in a military coup and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
…and like the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo which became my extended family and support network, where community aunties and uncles invested their precious weekend hours in teaching us about religion while also showing us how to be good citizens and members of the local community.
…and laws like the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which abolished an earlier quota system based on national origin, and established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States.
These are the facts of my life. They explain why I am standing before you today.
They tell the story of a country that, under the right personal and legal circumstances, can provide a platform for so many to succeed.
But this success is neither guaranteed nor does it come at any cost. It must be negotiated, earned, and shared.
Such success may occur in parallel to the diminished status of other Americans who have been here for much longer. But, remember, they too are immigrants from another era.
The more realizations I have about who we are as a nation, the more questions I have.
Is America always going to be a story of haves and have nots?
Is the American dream real, or is it just a figment of our imaginations, concocted by citizens and leaders who believe in their own myth?
How do we put all of this into context?
I have struggled to do so in the current political environment, where there is little space to have candid and respectful dialogue with Americans of different viewpoints.
Here’s what I do know:
That the right circumstances are not predetermined. They must be shaped and facilitated by individuals, institutions, and laws. They are not guaranteed or innate to who we are as a nation.
The idea of America as a society of open-armed citizens who take the tired and poor without consequence or condition is false.
You might think this is a cynical statement. Here’s another way to think about it:
What if we think of our idea of America not as a fact, but as a creation myth – a symbolic narrative about what we intend ourselves to be, rather than what we truly are?
Think of Whitman’s decree of “I am large, I contain multitudes” as aspirational rather than descriptive.
To be successful in such aspirations, however, we require more.
More empathy, communication, a greater ability to negotiate, and to also be honest about who we are as a nation – and what we’ve done well – and that which we regret.
There’s that word again – honest.
Is America honest? Or, put another way, is it viewed as a trustworthy and honest broker on the world’s stage – so much that it remains a desirable destination for the downtrodden of the world?
Given the U.S. government’s rhetoric on refugees and approach towards immigration policy, I would argue no. But it didn’t start with the Trump administration or with the current refugee crisis.
Our country’s ability to be viewed as an honest broker has been challenged for decades by the international community.
The second I set foot in the State Department in 2004 and began doing the hard work of diplomacy and engaging the world on U.S. policies, I realized that the rest of the world was over us.
“For More Than 80 Years…”
Seventeen years ago, on a brisk fall morning in early September, I peered out of window in Arlington, Virginia to see long tendrils of smoke connecting the Pentagon to the sky.
Traffic jammed the city, forcing some people to abandon their cars in the middle of the road.
Just minutes earlier, two hundred miles to the north, jets crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
A month later, Al Qada leader Osama bin Laden issued the following statement:
“There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation [the Islamic world] has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years. Its sons are killed, its blood is shed, its sanctuaries are attacked, and no one hears and no one heeds.”
In the coming days, months, and years, I would find my career completely consumed by the war on terror.
We did not know what the future would hold – nor did we have systems in place to deal with a threat like Al Qaeda. It was a brave new world – for us.
For bin Laden and his supporters, however, they were living in the past.
A past where America meant supporting Arab dictators who committed human rights abuses against their own people.
A past where America covertly funded the overthrow of democratically elected regimes.
And a past where the United States propped up puppet governments to counter the Soviet threat.
This brutal band of fundamentalists used terrorism as a tool to make a point about America’s wrongs in the world.
What we really needed was another kind of reckoning – a more peaceful one that could show us how our role in the world had shifted so dramatically from what it had once been.
Even worse, how we responded to the 911 attacks further hindered our ability to be an honest or impartial broker on the world stage – to be that moral guiding force and shining example our creation myth intended us to be.
I don’t even need to use sentences to give you examples. These words speak volumes on their own: waterboarding; torture; Abu Ghraib; rendition; Iraq; Guantanamo Bay.
It wasn’t always perfect, but it used to be different.
The United States helped rebuild Europe’s economy after World War II through the Marshall Plan.
The late American Ambassador Richard Holbrooke who played a decisive role in the Balkans conflict in the 1990s is still remembered by Bosnians as someone who saved lives and restored hope.
And in 1959 in Punjab, Pakistan, a group of Americans paid a visit to the small village of Jaurah, inspecting newly paved roads funded by U.S. development aid.
My mother, only ten years old at the time, remembers the visit like it was yesterday.
Dozens of children surrounded the Americans, poking them and laughing as they walked. Women poked heads out of windows and doorways, too shy to join in the cajoling but equally excited about the visitors and the road which would facilitate so many opportunities for the community.
The American-funded modernization of my family’s ancestral village was the byproduct of a strong bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
“Everyone loved the Americans then,” my mother would say.
The United States officially started giving Pakistan aid in 1951. In the decade following, Pakistan received a total of $2 billion in American aid.
By the mid-1960s, more than half of the foreign aid in Pakistan came from the United States. This covered half of the country’s import bill as well as half of the government’s development budget.
To this day, the United States remains the single largest bilateral aid donor in Pakistani history. Yet, years into a troubled relationship with Pakistan – largely the result of the war on terror – there is less love and more resentment for Americans. In Punjab, the country’s largest province, the government has decided not to accept U.S. aid, primarily because it doesn’t like the strings associated with it.
Has America reached its limits?
Here was yet another example of how America’s special role in the world – its exceptionalism – was less and less effective.
Has the world’s once great superpower reached the limits of its creation myth?
Once a motivating ideal that allowed us to do some good in the world while protecting our interests, it is now something that is resented and unwelcome. In some cases, it is used as a tool of manipulation by other countries seeking to involve us in their messy domestic affairs.
Walt Whitman would have indeed declared America exceptional above all other nations.
I don’t know to what extent he believed we had a mission to transform the rest of the world. But if I had to channel Whitman’s forceful honesty and his passionate bluntness, to give us some helpful advice for navigating today’s murky global politics, here’s what I would say:
The United States continues to be a special place, both for its citizens but also for millions of people around the world.
For every person out there who remembers America’s faults, there are just as many who remember its virtues, such as having one of the best university systems in the world; being at the forefront of innovation in science, technology, and space exploration; and of course let’s not forget: Hamilton, Star Wars, and Beyonce.
If we are hypocritical in telling foreign governments to be kinder to its minorities, then let that be a reminder for us to do better.
If we take to the world’s stage to promote a spirit of democracy, let us be first to strengthen and preserve what we practice at home.
And finally, let us be honest about who we are. History teaches us that no one anywhere fully integrates, fully assimilates, and entirely loses sight of where they’ve been before.
There is neither linear history nor clean slate.
Everything is messy and complicated but we have a responsibility to keep building and getting better.
As citizens, we should aspire to maintain a social contract with each other and the government that should serve us.
That’s the work ahead for America and Americans.
Let’s Go Find Them
It’s probably bad luck to end a speech by telling a captive (and possibly hungry) audience there’s more work to be done. So, instead, let me leave you with a memory of mine.
I wrote this last year when I was trying to make sense of the political climate in the United States.
It goes like this:
I grew up in northwest Ohio where the Midwest summers were stunning: big open skies, the colors of the sunsets stretching across the horizon as far as we could see – to the right and to the left.
The blue-black shadows of small children danced in the moonlight, chasing lightning bugs as the smells and sounds of the evening summer took over:
smoke from a grill a few doors down, fried chicken cooking next door, train whistles in the distance and the soft humming of wheels on railroad tracks, and the fresh night air full of cottonwood, pine, and maple trees.
There are millions of memories like these across our country – a panorama of experiences as complex, dynamic, and beautiful as the land itself. Let’s go find them.
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