Paradise lost


I often get asked where I would like to live, if I weren’t living in America. The contexts for these conversations vary; partly the topic is broached because I have lived outside the U.S. before; partly because I look like someone who is not from the U.S.; partly because, as a single unattached man with savings, I could plausibly pursue another international move; and partly because I’m of the age where my peers are contemplating the narrowing of life’s options and the fear of missing out weighs more heavily than it had before.

I always answer that there’s no place I’d rather live than here, which is the honest answer but doesn’t always make for interesting conversation. America is home to me, and I have no other. Other countries are too underdeveloped and conservative, on the one hand, or too ethnically and culturally homogeneous (even if they are politically progressive), on the other. When I lived in Switzerland, I remember one European telling me that the (traditional) Swiss form their friend circle at an early age and those people are essentially their friends for life. And, he went on, that is why, for the most part, foreigners (who made up 25% of the Swiss population) made friends with foreigners, the Swiss with the Swiss, and the two groups never truly intersected. I understood the logic behind that arrangement, and the cultural context in which it arose, but I never agreed with it. What has always thrilled me about the U.S. is that the opposite attitude is so prevalent: that the divisions between “American” and “foreigner” are porous; that there is no such thing as traditionally American; and that this land was made great by the waves of immigrants that washed over it. (Of course, these notions are contested by a large, deplorable segment of the populace here.) The idea of one’s social network ossifying at a young age seems very conservative, traditional, and “Old World”. And perhaps this is too simplistic, but I think the youth and constant expansion and ever-present flux of the New World prevented that same attitude from being the norm here.

My parents came to the U.S. from India in the mid-1980s. My dad braved many cold winters as a grad student in Iowa, and, at the first opportunity, left there for a warmer clime (Arizona), never to return. After getting a job as a college professor, he has lived there ever since. My mom came to the U.S. a few years after my dad and they have settled into an upper-middle-class-to-rich suburban existence with two kids and a house and a well-tended garden, a life that is so common for well-educated immigrants that I’m probably boring you by even mentioning it. When I think about where I want to live, and which place feels like home, I don’t just think about politics — I also think about people, and specifically whether people who look like me and my parents and my brother have opportunities to flourish. A brown-skinned man, son of an immigrant, became president of the U.S. Another is a Congressional representative of one of the richest areas in the country. There is a Hindu woman who is a prominent (albeit problematic) progressive in the Democratic caucus. There are young women of color, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, who are pushing the party to the left. There is a new crop of black and brown politicians, from Andrew Gillum to Stacey Abrams to Beto O’Rourke who are fighting to make the South progressive. How can I feel at home in a place like Switzerland, where none of the people in power, regardless of party, look anything like me?

At this point I grow a bit uncomfortable with this train of thought. After all, aren’t European politics and policies more progressive than American ones? What has our diversity gotten us, besides an endless set of targets for right-wing populists and racists to exploit? And what have America’s (relatively) open borders produced politically other than a massive backlash against the “browning” of society? Sure, Barack Obama was a president who looked like me (apart from being much more attractive), but ultimately he was a vaguely left-of-center figure who was ineffectual in many ways and counterproductive in many others. Part of me is tempted to say that I would rather have a white person in power who believes in class politics, than a brown person who doesn’t. I would be happy to sacrifice my desires to “feel at home” if everyone got affordable healthcare. The ideal situation would be to have progressive politics embodied by a diverse set of politicians, but, if we have to choose, the former sounds more attractive than the latter.

The tradeoffs, unfortunately, are not that simple, and class and race intersect the usual ways. The more of the “wrong” sort of people who receive social benefits, the more vulnerable those benefits become. European politics are not as progressive as they seem, and they have pitted class equality against political equality. Switzerland, for instance, forbids immigrants on welfare from becoming naturalized citizens. It confiscates the valuables of refugees seeking asylum. And it has made it more and more difficult for anyone who is not Swiss to become so. The result is an increasingly two-tiered society where the social safety net is, in theory universal, but the electorate that gets to make decisions about that safety net is not. Immigrants and foreigners in Switzerland have been subjected to a decades-long campaign of demonization, and because they largely do not belong to the electorate, they cannot fight back.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Poland and went to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Krakow. It was a deeply moving experience. The museum’s main exhibits are arranged chronologically, and one of the exhibits, pictured at the top of this post, focused on the “Paradisus ludaeorum”, or “Paradise of the Jews”. It was a period spanning the last half of the 16th century to the first half of the 17th. In Poland and Lithuania, the Jewish community flourished:

During this period Jews enjoyed a high degree of autonomy: they had their own self-government, including the Council of Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratsot) – a phenomenon unique in Europe. Unlike in other countries, they experienced no mass religious persecution. On the contrary – they could develop their learning, print books, and sometimes even debate with Christian intellectuals. It is precisely at this time that prominent authorities on Jewish religious law lived and wrote. In the town of Kazimierz near Krakow, at the very heart of an influential Jewish community, the famous rabbi and thinker Moses Isserles, known as Remuh, wrote the Mappah, a collection of customs and religious precepts for Ashkenazi Jews. The second half of the sixteenth century brought yet another change: encouraged by the nobility, Jews began to settle on vast noble estates (latifundia) in the east of the country. They engaged in new activities: leasing inns, mills and breweries, trading in grain and cattle.

The events of this week are a reminder that there are no laws of history governing such golden ages. History need not be linear, and progress should not be viewed as inevitable. I’m reminded of the opening passage from Adam Serwer’s prescient article about Trump’s presidency ushering in a “Second Redemption”:

Between 1870 and 1901, there were 20 black representatives in Congress and two black United States senators. Between 1901 and 1929, there were none.

Southern Redemption had been led by white Democrats and their paramilitary allies, but crucial to their decisive victory was the willingness of the Republican Party to abandon blacks in the South to their fate. “Many Northern Republicans also hoped to use the crisis to jettison a Reconstruction policy they believed had failed,” wrote historian Eric Foner in Reconstruction. “The freedmen, insisted former Ohio Gov. Jacob D. Cox, must moderate their ‘new kindled ambition’ for political influence and recognize that they lacked whites’ ‘hereditary faculty of self government.’ Ulysses S. Grant, who had sent federal troops into the South to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, privately concluded that the 15th Amendment, adopted to protect the freedmen’s right to vote, had been a ‘mistake.’”

(The parallels to white politicians in Europe and the U.S. abandoning their previous commitments to racial equality are striking.)

In Poland, too, the Paradise of the Jews was lost, ending with the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648. Throughout history, Jewish people have found temporary refuge in various countries, but, of course, permanent refuge can never be guaranteed. There is a steady drumbeat of anti-Semitism in the U.S. now, from various Republican-adjacent forces, like Lou Dobbs, Alex Jones, David Duke, and Richard Spencer, and, increasingly, from Republicans themselves, like Steve King and Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump. And the result has been, and will continue to be, more violence against the Jewish people. (It is worth remembering that the events in Pittsburgh this Saturday were the single largest hate crime against Jews in American history.)

The same logic applies to the people I’m descended from. Indian immigrants have flourished in this country since Lyndon Johnson’s Immigration and Naturalization Act repealed immigration quotas and allowed Indians to migrate in large numbers, and since the black-led civil rights movement enabled us to be seated at any restaurant, attend any school, and apply for any job. Although we have taken it for granted, this paradise is also fragile and ephemeral. If we cannot successfully fight back, we are in danger of becoming second-tier people in our own country, like the Jews after the Nuremberg Laws, blacks during Jim Crow, or, increasingly, Muslims in Eastern and Central Europe. And given the stakes of this fight, I would much rather back politicians — minorities, LGBTQ, women, and others — who have skin in the game than white male politicians who don’t.


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