Thursday, 9 April 2009

Home of hopeful and land of the bitter

I suppose I should announce my return by expressing a heartfelt and groveling apology to this blog’s two loyal followers and their pet cockatoo for the lack of activity and updates of late. My excuse …? Well, the completion of my latest academic thesis coupled with two extended jaunts to two continents could not have helped. Anyway, to authenticate the excuse, this entry summarizes how I got on in one of those trips.

Visiting the United States, so soon after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, was always going to be an interesting undertaking. Perhaps it is not fair to make any real comparisons, not having been to that country prior to this trip, but there was certainly a palpable sense that this was a nation trying to forget and rid itself of any vestiges of the last administration and welcome the new dispensation that promised hope and change. A tad bit clich├ęd perhaps, but that is certainly the sense I got from the moment I disembarked at Newark airport en route to Boston. Whoever you talked to (unless of course, they were GOP diehards or from Pluto), there was this sense of unbridled optimism that this was a country ready for something different and hopefully, this time, something positive. Even after considering the prevailing economic and financial gloom all around. Again, with no prior experience to make any accurate comparison, some of my travelling companions who had been to US during the Bush II era, also seemed to think that even the reception from the Homeland Security border agents was certainly a bit more welcoming (albeit still stern) than on previous visits.

Judging by how well the trip turned out, it was certainly a perfect coincidence that my first visit to the US, in February and March 2009, was at the pleasure of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, who sponsored my hosts Boston College to run the Inclusive Politics fellowship programme at its Centre for Irish Programmes.

As for the programme itself, it provided us (14 participants from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) with an insight into the democratic political system as it exists in the United States, especially in relation to expanding participation in that system. Through its extensive and diverse itinerary, the programme explored techniques for making political discourse more responsive to cultural and ethnic minorities and to populations traditionally less likely to take part in the democratic process. In fact, to summarise that preceding mouthful, the trip was certainly well thought and amply supported, providing us with the kind of access to the American political and civic establishment that would normally not be possible to regular tourists.

Some key highlights of the programme included meetings with senior officials in the US State Department (including the Ireland and Europe desks); a meeting with Senator John Kerry’s senior foreign policy advisory team (particularly relevant since Sen. Kerry is currently chairing the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee); meetings with prominent Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (her late husband, former Senator Paul Tsongas, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination against Bill Clinton in 1992) and two Massachusetts state legislators who are second generation Americans. Other highlights were the tours of the Capitol Hill complex in Washington DC and of both chambers of the Massachusetts state legislature in Boston and of course all the major monuments that are synonymous with American capital.

We also visited prominent non-profit organisations such as the Irish Immigration Center, the National Organization for Women (NOW), MassVOTE, the Chinese Progressive Association, and Roca which works with the most disenfranchised and disengaged young people (mainly gang members). Also of particular interest, were the meetings with the progressive/liberal think-tanks such as the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Center for American Progress.

I suppose it would have been amiss if all we visited were progressive/liberal/ Democratic leaning organizations, so to balance things somewhat, on the conservative side of the political divide we visited the National Center for Public Policy’s Project 21 and the Family Research Council. Both unfortunately turned out to be grotesque caricatures of the Republican movement. Basically, Project 21 promotes the views of those African-Americans whose ‘entrepreneurial spirit, dedication to family and commitment to individual responsibility has not traditionally been echoed by the nation's civil rights establishment’.

The meeting with the African-American chairman of the Project 21 advisory board turned into study of polemics, which included the outright dismissal of the election of President Barack Obama as a non-event. The gentleman’s party trick throughout the meeting was to pointedly avoid referring to President Barack Obama but rather dismissively as ‘that gentleman now in the White House’. When asked why, the man who prefers not be referred to as an African American (perfectly his right), basically rolled out the right’s anti-Obama grievance list; pro-choice, pro gun control, liberal opportunist who had achieved nothing so on and so forth.

As for the meeting with a senior official of the Family Research Council, some of his stridently homophobic and rather antiquated and outlandish views on divorce were quite startling to say the least. In fact, the meetings with Project 21 and the Family Research Council very much highlighted how bitterly aggrieved the Republicans were of the new political dispensation in Washington DC and how much they could still not countenance the resounding defeats they received from the Democrats in the November ‘08 elections.
Generally, having been largely indifferent about the visiting the US, particularly during Dubya's administration, I must say I enjoyed this inaugural trip which also included spending a couple of afternoons in Harvard and MIT, where I had luncheon in this cozy, quirky, (healthy?) burger joint full of delightfully stereotypical academic types (jacket patches and all) and some pretty rad students. Nirvana!

Of course, seeing my brother after such long while was the cherry on top, but more on that later.