How international students might talk about the president when they head home over the holidays.
In a few short weeks the jargon of economics and politics that thrums constantly in the background of the International Affairs Building will be stilled, if only for a little while. If you are remaining in New York over the holidays you will all of a sudden find that seats at cafes and libraries are a little bit easier to come by. Campus will seem quiet and serene. Maybe there will be more snow. Or a heat wave, it’s tough to tell these days.
But for many, the end of the semester will be marked by a flight home; for international students, a flight out of the United States. And the subsequent weeks, spent with friends and family, will involve a healthy number of questions about your time in New York. They’ll ask about classes and friends. They’ll wonder about your professors, and how often you study, and if you even study at all. If they’re like my family, they’ll check to make sure you’re eating well.
I want you to know that this is a facade. They do not care. They want to talk about Trump.
The vast majority of international students will be returning to a country in which the stock of the United States has declined precipitously in the last year. Out of 37 countries polled by Pew in their Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey, all but two—Russia and Israel—reported a sharp decline in respondents who trusted the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs. This held true not just among traditional U.S. allies like my own country, where Barack Obama was a celebrity and Donald Trump is a punchline, but in places like Jordan and Venezuela, where the former president enjoyed dismal trust and the current one remarkably enjoys even less.
So it is likely that when you go home over the holidays, over dinner or drinks, you will find yourself drawn into a discussion about what the hell exactly is going on. And in the comfort of your own home you might be tempted to rage and proselytize. There’s certainly enough to rage about. The president of the United States most closely resembles an insecure and self absorbed semi-literate 14 year old, in everything from his Twitter posts to his diet. He is enabled by cowards. He provides cover for racists and demagogues. Even the little things are weird; this year’s White House Christmas decorations look like a cross between the runway at a Kanye West fashion show and Narnia.
Only because I fully sympathize with the yearning to yell about the president and the state of politics in the United States do I suggest we all try, at least sometimes, to do the following: when it comes to talking about our host country over the holidays, let us speak with nuance, and exercise restraint.
Many of us come from professional backgrounds where thought and care are required before we express an opinion or endorse a position. And SIPA is an environment where careful analysis and a diversity of perspectives are encouraged and provided for. When such a gaze is applied, to this city, to our world, to this country and its president, a picture emerges that demands more than angry rants against caricatures.
The fundamental issues that frame CNN’s frantic chyrons trace their lineage much further afield than the current administration. The debate over healthcare in this country is a function of politics and ideology, but its incoherence is also a logical consequence of trying to manage a population of 320 million people, living in widely disparate geographic, economic, and demographic contexts. Rural Alabama, Southern California, Colorado, Hawaii, and Morningside Heights; these places are as different, and as far apart from one another, as are Warsaw, Copenhagen, Rome, and Tunis. It would be absurd to expect them to agree on a single system of providing healthcare, and yet we mock Americans for their inability to figure it out.
Tax reform in the United States is about no less than attempting to fund the largest and most complex organization that has ever existed in human history. It’s no wonder it’s messy, and when special interests, lobbyists, the personal electoral viability of individual senators and a blindly partisan media atmosphere are mixed in, what you get is an omnibus bill with handwritten scribbles in the margins passed at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
And the issue of race, of course, which has always been and continues to be this country’s grand Achilles Heel, is much bigger than this president or his predecessor. Walk across Amsterdam, into Harlem, and take note of the environment. Note the constant police presence, with lights blazing every night. Note the retail typology. Note the disrepair of the buildings, and the garbage in the project parking lots. Those things don’t look different now than they did in 2016, or 2015, or 2009.
But despite these big, hard, infuriating problems, we all chose to come here, presumably because we found something that we couldn't find at home. What exactly that something is might be different for each of us, and this is exactly the point. No place offers so many things, holds so much humanity, or cradles so much potential.
Americans have a job to do right now. The friends we’ve made here know that, and all of us are aware of the stakes. But we have a job to do, too, as guests. We carry the obligation of reporting back honestly and accurately, of not resorting to tropes and exaggerations. In ways sometimes good and often horrible, history shows us that what concerns the United States concerns and impacts people all over the world. It is in our interests, too, to speak about the things that are happening in this country, and the challenges it faces, in nuanced and accurate ways so that we might bring a more empathetic understanding of it home with us, and so that people where we’re from might better understand what the hell exactly is going on.
So when the conversation turns to Trump, don’t stop at “he’s an idiot.” Go further than him. Talk about what we’ve seen here, about the United States we’ve encountered and the Americans we’ve met, and the menu of issues both complex and important that compete for attention. What you’ll be describing is a beautiful country, one that is fascinating and tragic, and one to which, after a little break, I’ll be excited to return.