By Conor Sanchez
I don’t want this blog to become a platform for political views, but recent events have transpired which I think are actually an affront to a lot of the content on TheNicAdventure particularly as it relates to Peace Corps, multiculturalism, and global development.
First, we can all relax. The year 2015 is almost over. While there were some things to celebrate, there were more things that challenged our faith in humanity, leading some of us to give up on it altogether by resorting to fear-mongering, militancy, victimization, and extremism.
The letdown was not so much in terms of the events themselves but rather in our responses. Bad things happen. Bad people exist. Bad ideas find followers. What’s more discouraging is when leaders, institutions, and communities – especially ones that are viewed as vanguards of social progress – fail to find reasonable conclusions, fail to learn from past mistakes, and fail to accept facts that are staring them right in the face.
The Black Lives Matter movement, a campaign that merely points out the undisputed fact that black US citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of the police, was some how manipulated into an inflammatory or even hateful anti-police expression. Rather than acknowledge the truth that lives of black citizens historically have been devalued and that perhaps more can be done to help black communities beyond more policing and more incarceration, many responded condescendingly, “All Lives Matter.” This not only states the obvious, but it also refuses to acknowledge the politics that render some losses less visible than others. This refuses to admit that growing up black in America is indeed a lot different from growing up white.
Earlier in the year, the issue of millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. was broached by presidential candidates and at first, it seemed like we were in for yet another dose of diatribes about how immigrants are stealing American jobs and draining the social safety net. Then it took a much darker tone when one candidate called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Maybe it’s too much to expect leaders to acknowledge the contributions immigrants have always made and will continue to make (regardless of their citizenship status), but I wasn’t expecting flagrant bigotry to rear its ugly head.
Our responses weren’t just limited to domestic events. Paris, Beirut, Aleppo, Sana’a and countless other cities, experienced unfathomable violence in November, but there was, at least initially, an obvious bias for whom we lent our sympathy. Then we tried to use the attacks to justify closing our borders to those seeking refuge because they practiced the same religion as the perpetrators. Worst of all, there were new calls for ground troops in Syria to fight ISIS as if we had completely forgotten the amount of energy, money, and lives that were lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – two of our nation’s biggest foreign policy failures.
It’s sometimes mind-boggling how we return to the same tired prescriptions. We spend billions of dollars on military interventions even though they have a mixed record. The US has the highest prison population of any nation in the world with approximately 2.4 million prisoners. Meanwhile, we do absolutely nothing to regulate weapons that are literally slaughtering us on domestic soil on a routine basis.
While each of these events is unique and complex, I see them all as either a symptom of or a distraction from one issue in particular. The issue is increasing insularity. Many of us can’t be bothered to see things from a different point of view anymore. We feel cornered if we’re forced to acknowledge our own privileges in life and attacked if we’re asked to think about what it means to be born white in America or to be born in America at all. Too easily we give up on or completely ignore solutions that focus on education and empowerment (or doing both by simply giving a girl a book). We think of these issues as overwhelmingly complex, but we have no problem electing leaders who pour billions of taxpayer dollars on overly idealistic, violent, and ineffective responses.
So how do we break this cycle? How do we connect more with people and communities that have different experiences from our own?
For starters, the Internet can only do so much. Although we now live with more access to information than ever before, the web has proved to radicalize us as much as it connects us by siloing us further into echo chambers. The only way to break down insularity and reduce our fear of “the other” is through in-person interaction. We have to get out and engage with communities across the street from us, across the country, and across borders. We have to donate time. We need to volunteer more, travel more, and leave our comfort zones more. It is in these instances of action where positive social engagement can prove fatal to cultural insularity.
I firmly believe education is the ticket to spreading opportunity and making the world a more secure place regardless of where you’re born. For me, Peace Corps service was an opportunity to act on that belief. But even if you aren’t prepared to spend 27 months in a foreign country where you may or may not have access to running water, there are a million ways to help from home by staying informed, donating to projects helping more girls get an education, or leading a presentation in your local community. Leave your comfort zone by tutoring in a prison or a low performing school.
The second thing we can do is to give our support to better leaders, and that doesn’t mean merely avoiding bigots like Trump. Trump may represent the extreme of our worst instincts, but even “moderate” figures have spent the last seven years capitalizing on xenophobic sentiments to halt policies that seek to do more than just throw more police or troops at a problem. We need leaders who also pursue policies that invest in education, public health, and closing the gap between rich and poor both at home and abroad.
Curtailing insularity would mean getting serious about these efforts, which we are not. It would mean putting half the amount of funds we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan into pro-poor growth initiatives. It would mean President Obama fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise to establish a $2 billion global fund for education. It would mean giving organizations like Peace Corps, USAID, AmeriCorps, Education, and the HHS the budgets that DOD has been given over the last half a century. Finally, it would mean ending the paralysis in Congress and starting to pass legislation again.
My hope for the New Year is that shameless xenophobic rhetoric, which only serves to divide us and give our enemies more fodder for recruitment, finally comes to an end. I hope we come to terms with the fact that we are no longer a nation where minorities and immigrants simply assimilate to White America’s identity, but rather we are an increasingly complex multicultural society. So let’s embrace and celebrate differences, pluralism and contradiction. Let’s live up to the motto on the Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.
My last hope for the year ahead is that we do not repeat the mistakes we made by invading Iraq and Afghanistan. As one journalist who was held hostage by ISIS recently said, “The winner of this war will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over the people on its side.” US military expenditures today are over 610 billion dollars, constituting 20% of the total US budget. If our nation’s budget is a reflection of its priorities, this is unacceptable. We must allocate more towards things like education, diplomacy, and economic development throughout the world and especially in the Middle East. If we don’t, I really fear we’ll end up spending on the same failed policies and further endanger global security.
The answer as to whether we can push the needle on any of these issues lies in the 2016 elections. One year from now, we’ll be welcoming a new president to the White House as well as new members of Congress. Do we want 2016 to be the year we gave in to the unabashedly racist rhetoric that filled the airwaves throughout 2015? Or do we want this to be the year that stopped the race bating, the scapegoating, and the fear mongering, and finally elected more leaders who choose pragmatism over ideology, inclusivity over fear, and facts over feelings?
My hope is the latter.