Getting to Know One Another, in America and Beyond (October 25, 2011)
You each have at your place setting a copy of my book Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip, which I published last year about a six-week trip that photographer Pete Sabo and I made through parts of India and Pakistan, entirely overland, in early 2009 in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai. Overtaken By Events is a follow-up to my previous travel book Alive and Well in Pakistan, which was published in 2004. Alive and Well in Pakistan covers a decade, on both sides of 9/11, during which I visited Pakistan many times and at one point, in 2003-2004, spent a semester teaching journalism at a university in Lahore. The kindest thing anyone has ever said about Alive and Well in Pakistan was in the conservative British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, whose reviewer wrote that “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.”
I wrote Overtaken By Events, the book you have, because circa 2006-7-8 I was doing a lot of public speaking around the United States, and I was becoming more and more embarrassed when people would ask me to comment on the current situation in Pakistan. By 2009 it had been five full years since I had set foot in Pakistan and, to make a long story short, a lot happened during those particular five years. I believe in the importance and value of seeing things for oneself. So, to make another long story short, I went back to Pakistan and wrote a whole nother book. You don’t have to have read the first book in order to read the second one, by the way.
I structure my business to make it possible for me to give away copies of my books to students and to educators like you, who might help me pursue my mission of enhancing young Americans’ awareness of, and human sympathy toward, people and societies beyond our shores. As The Daily Telegraph‘s reviewer said, my real journey is a search for common humanity. I don’t think there’s any more important work that needs doing in today’s world. I venture to guess that you feel similarly, which is why you’re international educators.
I consider myself a journalist, but I have to add a caveat, because that word usually connotes a gatherer of political news. I’ve been there, done that, but I came to feel that there are more helpful ways for me to write about the world outside the United States. So I write books of nonfiction narrative travel, with the goal of humanizing Pakistan and Haiti for American readers. I think of myself as a reporter, a writer who stays on the ground. I put a premium on showing up, paying attention, listening to Pakistanis and Haitians, and taking notes. I’ll be giving similar treatment next year to another troubled country for my next book, which has the working title Home Free: An American Road Trip.
Having introduced myself and my work to you, I would welcome conversations about how we might work together to build understanding and respect among different peoples, as NAFSA’s values statement puts it. If you’re interested in starting that conversation, please come to the session that Liz Branch of TCU and I will be presenting this afternoon, called “Traveling Abroad Like a Travel Writer.”
So how did I end up in Pakistan, of all places? I’m asked that question a lot, often by appreciative but baffled Pakistanis. I usually answer it by quoting John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It all started one day in 1982 in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, when my father came home and asked if I would like to go to Haiti with him and a group of Milwaukee-area Episcopalians. Oconomowoc is a very nice town; when I tell my wife childhood stories, she says it sounds like Lake Wobegon, which is pretty accurate. But, to make another very long story very short, if you go from Oconomowoc to Haiti at age sixteen, you can never go all the way back. Haiti has been an enduring love of mine – I’ve been there three times since the earthquake, most recently this September – but Haiti also led me eventually to the other side of the planet, to Pakistan. In 1986, on a whim, I signed up for the University of Wisconsin College Year in Nepal program (which incidentally cost my parents less money than if I had spent the same academic year in Madison, with in-state tuition, which at the time was $700 per semester). Then, a few years later, I went to live in Bangkok as a journalist and had many adventures around Asia in the 1990s. Pakistan became part of my Asian adventure. I now consider myself very fortunate to have spent a lot of time in Pakistan before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 all too understandably colored the way Americans perceive the Muslim world.
I can’t give this talk, in this city, without telling you where I was when I learned about the terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I was in Lahore, at the tail end of my first long visit to Pakistan, about to return across the border to India. As I’m sure you remember, the widespread initial assumption was that the bombing must have been the work of Islamic fundamentalists. It wasn’t. What I remember is that, when I returned to Delhi in India a few days later, my Kashmiri Muslim friend there said, “There was bomb blast in America!” What struck me was that he was surprised, not that there had been a bomb blast, but that there had been a bomb blast in America, of all places. Things like bomb blasts weren’t supposed to happen in America.
I had come to know that bomb blasts happen all the time around India and Pakistan – even then, in the time of relative innocence before 9/11. These days they happen there far too often. Ordinary Pakistanis, friends of mine, go about their daily lives in much closer proximity to physical danger than any of us in this room are ever likely to be. But what I learned from the Oklahoma City bombing, and my Kashmiri friend’s reaction to it, was that America is not separate or far from the rest of the world. This turned out to be why I had left Wisconsin in the first place: to learn that the serene small-town world that I came from is of a piece with the world at large.
Oddly, I found my new awareness comforting. But why would I find it comforting? Isn’t ignorance bliss? I found my new awareness comforting because, as Dr. Paul Farmer put it to me in Haiti almost a decade later, “To be wounded is to acknowledge the truth, whereas to be sheltered is to be oblivious.” There’s a Haitian proverb that says much the same thing, and from which I’ve taken the title of my book to be published next spring, Bearing the Bruise, about my thirty years’ worth of visits to Haiti: Bay kou blie, pote mak sonje. It means, “He who gives the blow forgets; he who bears the bruise remembers.” My premise is that it’s better to remember than to forget, even if the price of remembering is bearing a bruise.
I’m speaking candidly today because all of us in this room are adults and professionals. But how can we effectively convey enough – but not too much – of the truth about the world to impressionable young Oklahomans and Texans and Louisianans and Arkansans, so that they’ll become interested in the outside world, and sympathetic on a human level beyond politics to people there, without doing damage to their own integrity and quite justified pride in their own society? I don’t have a complete answer to that important question, but to me there’s nothing sadder than the sight of a young American who has become interested in the outside world and who has decided that, somehow, that must entail despising or rejecting America. I assertively reject that presumption. That’s why one of my literary heroes is the travel author and novelist Paul Theroux, whose work proves that it’s possible for a writer to be at once thoroughly cosmopolitan and unapologetically American.
There’s another writer whose work can be useful in helping us influence the young people that you work with and whom I want to reach, and that’s George Orwell. I don’t necessarily mean Orwell the dystopian novelist, but Orwell the topical essayist. Orwell lived in Burma and fought in the civil war in Spain, and wrote powerfully about both of those countries, but he was always thoroughly, and patriotically, English. The Second World War brought out his patriotism, just as 9/11 brought it out in many Americans, but it was always there. One of the most enduringly useful things Orwell wrote is an essay called “Notes on Nationalism,” published just as the Second World War was ending in 1945, in which he took pains to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism. I want to read to you in full the paragraph in which he defines the distinction:
By “nationalism” [wrote Orwell] I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad”. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism [Orwell's emphasis]. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
In short, Orwell defines patriotism as a good thing, and nationalism as a bad thing. Making the distinction between the two explicit in today’s America is important, because it’s important for young Americans to know that loving our own country does not have to mean hating or fearing other countries and other people. This is important partly because millions of those “other people” are in fact also Americans, here to stay, just as (for example) I’m here to stay because my Irish and German and French ancestors came here and stayed. We’re all in this together, and there’s a lot of work to do to try to make a new, improved America in the 21st century, so it behooves us to get to know each other and to work together. It’s not necessary to leave America in order to discover the world, because the world is here. The world came to America in a very aggressive and terrible way on 9/11, of course. But it’s exactly because of that that we need to help young Americans to know that the outside world is not primarily dangerous and violent and frightening, but interesting and full of variety and adventure.
It’s great to send students overseas – going to Haiti and Nepal at a young age made all the difference for me. But not all students can or should go overseas, and that’s okay, because discovering the world begins at home. The domestic equivalent of nationalism is bigotry. I’m sorry to say that there’s only one group of Americans today against whom it’s widely considered not only acceptable, but sometimes even admirable, to be bigoted, and that’s Muslims. There are several million Muslims in America, and they’re here to stay, and the rest of us need to get used to that and be okay with it. I want to emphasize that anti-Muslim bigotry and moral recklessness in America are not an exclusively right-wing phenomenon: they cut across the American ideological spectrum, from the Quran-burning pastor in Florida to the young woman in liberal Seattle who now lives in hiding because of the very silly and irresponsible cartoon that she published.
One of the most moving things I’ve witnessed in my recent travels around America was an encounter a year ago, at a mosque in New Jersey, between Muslim teenagers and a group of local community members invited to interact with them. The students from the Islamic high school attached to the mosque – who incidentally have a 100% college acceptance rate and an average SAT score of 1920 – said things that day like “We’re Americans. We all want the common good of this country” and “We want our voices to be heard more. It’s our job to go out and educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about what Islam is all about.” But the things the students said were not what was so moving. What floored me was when a 67-year-old woman in the audience said that she knew what it must be like for them, as members of a misunderstood and suspect religious minority. She told them that, growing up Jewish in America half a century ago, she had endured being called things like “Christ-killer” by classmates. And she wanted to share with the young Muslims what her father had always told her: “Hold your head up high and be proud of who you are.”
That’s good advice for any young person, and the corollary is that being proud of who you are is consistent with being interested in and sympathetic toward other people who are also proud of who they are. There’s a wonderful verse in the Quran that quotes God saying, “I made you nations and tribes that you might know one another, and not despise one another.” And, although the cities and towns where you live and work might be less diverse than New Jersey, the opportunity is there for all of us to know one another, no matter who we are or where we’re coming from.
The less diverse part of America where you do the important work of making international students feel welcome is the America that I come from, and it’s exactly because of my own background and experience that I believe confidently in the capacity of that America to involve itself respectfully and constructively in the world. I said earlier that my discovery of the world began at age sixteen, when my father invited me to go with him to Haiti. But really it goes back to my father’s own sense of adventure and to his decision at age twenty-one to leave Dallas, where he grew up, at a time when Dallas was, as he put it, the sticks, and to live in other parts of America. Once, when I suggested to him that he had, as they say, modeled behavior for me, he replied, “Well, I didn’t go as far afield as you did. But I did feel a need to get out of town.” I fancy that there’s something both very Irish and distinctively American about my father’s attitude to life and the world. He learned Spanish in his sixties because he felt like it, and he has traveled to Burma with me and to Mexico many times with my brother. His attitude is that, if there’s an adventure to be had, why not have it?
But he didn’t pluck that attitude out of thin air; he got it, I think, from his father. My father is very fortunate to have grown up in America at a time when becoming well educated really could go hand in hand with achieving and enjoying a comfortable middle-class standard of living. He was able to have it all, in terms of postwar middle-class American aspiration: three master’s degrees in liberal-arts subjects, a useful, stable, and satisfying professional career, and a paid-off house in a nice part of Colorado Springs. It’s much harder for young Americans these days, as all of you must know. It’s hard for me, and I’m a generation older than your students. But where my father came from is instructive, I think. He grew up in a very modest household on the east side of Dallas. His mother was a farmer’s daughter from Quitman in East Texas, and his father, who was from Waco, was a machine-tools guy in a factory. My father once told me that if his parents hadn’t sacrificed for his education, he probably would have become a machine-tools guy too.
I didn’t know my grandfather, but I know something about him that makes me think very well of him. What I know is that, once a year, during his two weeks of vacation time, he put his fedora on his head and got in his Studebaker, or whatever old-timey make of car it was that he owned, and he drove his family around America. My grandmother didn’t drive, so my grandfather did all the driving, and of course this was in the forties and fifties, before American families traveled by air. Many American families didn’t travel at all, but for some reason my father’s family did. I think the reason was just that they were interested in the world outside Texas, and they wanted to see some of whatever was going on out there. One year they went to San Francisco. Another time they went deep into Mexico. Another year, they went all the way to Canada. And once they went to New York City, where my father was able to fulfill his cherished hope of seeing his favorite team, the Cleveland Indians, play the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
So I want to end this talk by thanking and honoring the late Lester Casey, who by all accounts was just an ordinary American, a machine-tools guy from Waco, Texas, for having such a vision for his family, and for being such a good sport about doing all the driving. Thanks to him, I’ve seen a lot of the world and gotten to know a lot of interesting people. We in this room enjoy the opportunity, and have accepted the obligation, to bring the same gift to the current generation of young Americans. It’s a big job, but fortunately we have more resources at our disposal than a Studebaker and two weeks vacation time.
Ethan Casey’s book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti was published in February 2012. He is also the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He is currently planning a book of topical travel with the working title Home Free: An American Road Trip, for which he will travel around the United States during 2012. You can join his Facebook page or contact him directly.