But whence the sense of despair? We had the Global South speakers series this week--the last from the three year period in which we have been working. Professor Desai from Tulane University was our Thursday night speaker. Born in India, raised in Tanzania and Kenya, and a well-respected scholar on Indian and African identities, he brought the history and culture of the Indian Ocean and the later trans-Atlantic migrations to life and how they connected with North America. He also dwelt on Indians and Africans in Cape Town, and that resonated with my own research and interests in the parallels between South Africa and the US South.
Friday, Professor Gomez from New York University was the speaker. His focus was African identities and the African diaspora, and it focused very much on issues related to the African experience in the south, particularly Mississippi and South Carolina. One comment he made was powerful: He said that community organizations were the positive influences positioned to lead in regard to not only change, but the transnational and migration issues which consume us all right now. He said that they are committed to a grass roots movement, and motivated by altruism; this would be in contrast to that of many so-called leaders in the world today. He then went on to speculate about what President Obama's election signified in regard to his early experiences as one of those committed leaders. Of course, President Obama has been criticized for his hope, his vision of what is possible.
Afterwards, we had a working workshop where the Global South faculty members engaged in discussion with the two scholars about our own plans for developing the Global South focus in Mississippi. I tend to see it in a pragmatic way, because social work does much of the things already that are unknown to the other disciplines--primarily humanities and social sciences, with a few journalists and Africanists in the mix. I am the lone behavioral, applied science member. For example, as they discussed their desire to go into the community with service learning, and I have been doing that for years, it fills me with the excitement of possible joint work. Imagine, for example, if English professors, or Modern Languages, or journalists, or whomever could and would partner with me in the Riverside after-school work?
I always end up being very quiet, though, rarely speaking--which is quite unlike me actually. I think it is because I feel I am speaking from a different language, even though social work builds its knowledge base on humanities, and draws deeply from sociology, and very much utilizes cultural identities in our practice, for example. When I first began with the group, I thought I was clear on what the mission was, but the longer I am involved, the less I seem to grasp where the group wants to go.
In that atmosphere of questioning--which I do not see as a bad thing or a wrong thing, just a concept with which I am grappling, I came home exhausted after a very full and busy week of early hours and late hours every single day. Then, I opened my email to find one of those forwards that can send me into either fits of laughter or raise my ire to the point of wanting to move to another country. It would make me laugh, but for the consequences.
It was the forward of the alleged "constitutional lawyer" who claims to teach at universities and claims to have read every sentence of the health care bill and proceeds to then provide "proof" that the bill indeed contains plans to abort all our babies, have death panels to deny services to all our old sick people, and so on. And that this is "scary" and we should not delete this but pass it on.
I responded that the only thing scary was the fact that people believe this crap. Being true to my curious nature, I looked up the so called constitutional law professor. He isn't, of course. He offers an internet course, not connected with any university, called "learn it today, use it tomorrow" and while he may be an attorney, he clearly is either illiterate (if he claims to have read the health care bill--oh, wait! We don't even have a clear proposed health care bill yet, do we?) or a liar, or both.
Where it all ties in to my sense of despair is that I simply find it difficult to believe that people will believe all this nonsense out of fear. The reality is that vulnerable populations (like poor white Southerners who jumped on the conservative, fundamentalist Republican bandwagon to escape the "evils of integration") typically are the most harmed by that rhetoric, and yet so supportive of it. I read today in the Times where 14,000 people in the US lose their insurance coverage every single day--and yet we continue to clamor for no government interference. Cuba and Sweden, for example, have better health and education outcomes than the United States, no death panels sitting around executing Grandma and Grandpa, no overwhelming uneducated drop outs or children having children and ending up in life long poverty, but let's don't consider that in our debate.
I met a young Swedish woman who is studying at the University of Mississippi this semester and engaged in an interesting conversation with her. I was telling her about my experiences with Swedish (and Danish and German and Belgian) social work students in South Africa and she was sharing about how their doctors work in exchange in research and practice with doctors from South Africa. She was knowledgeable of the world outside her own borders in a way my students seldom are. Most of my students cannot even discuss policy issues related to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina's effects, let alone anything related to South Africa.
I just deleted the email, reminded yet once again that the folks who get their news from email forwards seldom read a variety of sources of information and are much more interested in supporting their embedded belief system than they are seeking out new information or engaging in the challenge of pursuing knowledge and useful ways to use it. I don't say that out of any sense of superiority or disrespect, but rather, out of sadness that so many folks have such a foreclosed identity.
Why is being an intellectual, a rational and thinking person so frightening to people? Because he isn't John Wayne riding into town to blast the bad guys to hell and back? I was thinking this morning of President Obama, and how much he is starting to remind me of President Carter--a man whose skills and intelligence have benefitted us greatly in his years since his presidency. Will President Obama end up like that as well--because his altruistic and charismatic leadership will be better suited to the grass roots work where real change often comes? Will he be invited to join the Elders, even if he is a young man?
I don't know where all of this is going--it's just my trying to put some of my thoughts of this week into a forum where I can begin to try to make sense of it and shift back into my normal optimistic self. I don't like being in the valley, but sometimes, one needs to just stay there and go through the experience to be able to move past it. I can't fake my way back into idealism, I can't isolate myself from the nay-sayers, and at least for right now, I can't not let them affect my sense of what is possible. I hold on to the knowledge that based on history, I will move past it, and I will re-engage, and I will emerge with better understanding and capacity for the work I try to do.