A Trip to Paris

Our time in Paris is truly something that I will never forget. Between a private party in one of France’s most historic monuments with the French Alumni Network, a visit to the Moulin Rouge, and a number of adventures with my best friends, how could I forget? However, one of the things that I remember most clearly about our trip was a story that I heard about the building of the Eiffel Tower. Originally, the people of Paris resisted its building because they were worried that it would look out of place. It was supposed to come down when the World Fair ended, and yet, it stayed standing. I think there’s quite a lot of virtue to unpack there. A love of beauty, an appreciation for art, and an open-minded attitude that enable the administration of Paris and the World Fair to recognize the significance that the Tower could have for future generations if only it was left standing. On the subject of aesthetically pleasing things, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incomparable beauty of both the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre. What I found particularly interesting is that both buildings were not constructed to serve as museums… the first was a train station and the latter an administrative building. However, someone had both the vision and ability (what I would identify as significant intellectual and executive virtue) to transform those spaces into ones that celebrate beauty in so many different forms. I loved that each museum displayed art writ-large; they did not presume to judge what counted as art and what didn’t in cultures around the world, choosing, instead, to display the world and her people in full splendor. Especially for the Europeans, for whom art is such an integral part of their history and global recognition, this kind of open-mindedness and compassion for the experiences of others speaks volumes about the intention with which these exhibits were put together. Finally, I have to say that the shopkeepers of Paris exhibited compassion to a degree that was certainly not required of them. Despite the language barrier, I was constantly made to feel at home in the various shops and restaurants I visited. They were receptive when I tried to speak French, and gracious when I reached my linguistic limit. More so than the food or the items that I bought, I felt welcomed and accepted into their little corner of France. What a magnificent experience.

 

French Culture Shock

I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Europe, and France specifically, is not the United States. In my opinion, that couldn’t be a better. While I’ve been abroad, I’ve been reminded that, when people think rationally and work to construct a society that rests on values like conservation and rationality, things work really well. Here in France, the priority is not work, but rather leisure and enjoyment. Meals last as long as you want, the workday lasts as long as there is work to be done… the only downside is that there aren’t really stores open 24-hours, but I’ve survived. I’ve also realized that there’s far less sugar in things in Europe. Despite a focus on food that many Americans might abuse in a cultural sense, the French relationship with food focuses on quality ingredients and a healthy balance of caloric intake and excercise. It is no wonder to me that there aren’t really many overweight people in France. The understanding of food is just a bit different.

There are certainly some things about French culture that have been a bit hard to adjust to. First of all, there is no ice. Anywhere. I am someone that really enjoys an ice-cold beverage, and the only place that seems to serve them is Starbucks. I’ve went to the one in Paris more times than I’d care to admit. There’s also sufficiently less air-conditioning, and it may just be that I run a temperature a bit above the normal Frenchmen, but I’d rather be outside than inside most of the time when it comes to climate control. The thing that has been the most uncomfortable for me has been the incessant propensity for smoking. I would never say that Americans are more healthy than the French, but there is certainly not a widespread belief that smoking is an activity meant to be avoided. I am shocked by the amount of pollution in cities like Paris that come from discarded cigarette butts.

However, other than that, I can’t fault France for much, especially because this week my president decided to walk away from the Paris Climate agreement while Machron stood up to Putin about the Russian state media’s influence (among other things). Machron has even gone so far as to invite American climate scientis to France in order to continue their work in an environment hospitable to their work (pun included). One last thing about French culture that I’ve found to be interesting is their relationship with the language. I am a novice of French, but I have learned enough to be somewhat functional in a bakery or similar place. That being said, without fail, the owner of the shop switches to ENglish when they hear my American accent. The French language is not to be mauled by foreigners, especially not by one that has only learned a few phrases for the purpose of the trip. THe message is kind yet clear: This is our language and our heritage. Either speak it with grace, or don’t speak it at all.

Hamilton: From Caribbean Obscurity to Broadway Sensation

On the evening of February 9th, 2017, I attended an event sponsored primarily by the OU Humanities Forum featuring Dr. Andrew Porwancher, Professor Sean Churchman, and notable New York theater critic Peter Filichia discussing the meteoric rise of the popular musical Hamilton. As a Hamilton biographer, Dr. Porwancher was particularly fascinated by the musical, and was excited to lead the event. In addition to a panel discussion, the audience was also treated to a number of performances from OU’s own School of Musical Theater, which were breathtaking. The discussion, at least from Dr. Porwancher’s end, focused on his research regarding Hamilton’s likely Jewish origin. The question and answer portion from the audience was also particularly engaging. Most of their questions centered on the rise of musical adaptations of historical characters and stories… the panelists didn’t think anyone could top Hamilton. I certainly agree.

The panelists also discussed Hamilton’s immigrant roots, and it was this particular topic that I found the most intriguing. Hamilton was raised on the island of Nevis, and was passed around from family member to family member. His childhood is a case study in the British West Indies of the time; he was a white man that was well-educated (by virtue of his own talent) that ended up maintaining a ledger for a sugar trading company. After he was sent to America, the panel also discussed how his status as an immigrant in the early days of the republic influences his relationships with some of the other Founding Fathers. According to the panel, his immigrant identity caused great tension between Hamilton and other members of Washington’s cabinet. What I found particularly interesting about this is that it indicates that, even at the beginning of our nation, which was a time when we were supposedly embracing the “great American melting pot,” xenophobia was still prevalent. The problems we face today, it seems, are not new; clearly, the solutions we propose to them need to be.

GEF and ICDGWF

On March 9th of this year, the Informed Citizens Discussion Group convened for one of our favorite events of the year: ICDG with Food. For those unfamiliar with this organizations, ICDG is an organizations that holds about ten different small discussion groups every week where students of all different political backgrounds convene in order to share ideas and talk about current events. During ICDG with Food, we (the co-chairs, myself and my friend Alex) buy food for the group at large, and meet as an entire organization. This enables our members to get introduced to new worldviews and opinions outside of their group, which is the main point of the organization.

The main topics of discussion during this event where the international ramifications of Donald Trump’s assertion that President Obama wiretapped him during the campaign. Many members expressed concern that America’s allies would see this as just another example of the Trump campaign making illegitimate claims, and they also worried that foreign leaders would then be accused by Donald based on their relationship with him. On the other hand, several of our members asserted that Trump’s statements were true, and that it didn’t matter what foreign nations thought, because American policy should be endlessly concerned with its own nation, and not with foreign actors.

We also talked about the fall of the Chinese economy, and while that is certainly not my area of expertise, it was incredibly fascinating to listen to people that were far more intelligent than I on the subject matter talk about how they think that India is soon going to replace China as the primary Asian economic powerhouse. The people in the group mentioned that the aging population of China was leading to a significant decline in productivity, which, considering the one-child policy, I found to be particularly interesting. Would China economically be served by removing this policy, and if so, why haven’t they removed it? The responses the Economic students gave was really satisfactory, but lacking in a background knowledge, I couldn’t offer much more of a critique.

Finally, we talked about the similarities between European and American right-wing groups. Several of the members of the group were worried that European leaders of populist parties would use Trump as a template for how to win elections, and even more, including myself, were concerned that Angela Merkel is going to be voted out of office in the upcoming German elections. By the time that we reached that discussion topic, the pizza had run out, so we didn’t get much farther…. however, as always, it was fascinating to discover how different people with different expertise conceived of these issues that I knew little about.

The Diplomat

Like most students majoring in International Studies, I want to work for the State Department when I graduate. While the recent election of human Cheeto has slightly changed my outlook, I am still very much determined to work in the Foreign Service for a period of life. So, when I heard that OU’s Diplomat-In-Residence Rob Andrew was hosting a session on careers in American diplomacy for the Honors Student Association, I decided that it would be a great chance to learn more about the potential careers available to eventual graduates.

The Diplomat, as we took to calling him, talked at length about the Consular Fellows Program, which is one of the newest ways that the State Department is attempting to recruit students out of college. While the mechanics were interesting, what I found even more fascinating was the broad range of powers given to these officers. According to the Diplomat, these Fellows are primarily concerned with visa applications, which they can approve or deny entirely at their own discretion. If I’d had more time, I would’ve asked him why that was… seems like a lot of power to put in a 20-something’s hands. The Diplomat also chatted about the foreign language requirements necessary, and made a point to point out that many of the languages that we were studying (ie. French, German, etc) were actually not at all privileged in the Consular Fellows program, and that if we wanted a job in that field, we should start studying a “critical” language (Arabic, Russian, Chinese). That took the wind out of a lot of our sails.

The Diplomat concluded our hour-long conversation with a discussion of his own time as a diplomat. He had a couple particularly memorable stories… specifically, he told us a somewhat tragic and hilarious story about how he had to ship his cat to his new home in Europe during one assignment. He also talked about how tough life can be for young, and middle-aged, foreign service officers, especially with families. He emphasized that, in order to commit to a career with the State Department, especially in the early years, one needs to consider what they’re willing to give up in order to travel the world. For many of us, it was a pretty substantial sum of emotional capital.

The Twin Impending Senses of Doom and Elation: Thoughts on International Travel

The other day, I dropped $1500 on a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, France. This summer, along with Associate Dean Rhonda Kyncl and the College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Scholars, I’ll be embarking on a two-and-a-half-week excursion to France (funded by the program, which is a pretty awesome perk that I couldn’t be more thankful for) to learn about the concept of virtue, especially as it relates to service abroad. I have to admit… I’m a lot more nervous to go than I thought that I would be. I’m flying internationally for the first time, but I’m also flying by myself out of Kansas City, which adds another layer of stress. I gave myself a 3-and-a-half-hour layover in Atlanta upon re-entry in to the United States to go through customs, I’ve already picked my seats, planned out what I’m going to do on the plane to distract myself from the fact that I’m flying over an enormous ocean on a flying metal bird of death in to a city that was the subject of recent terror attacks, and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something will go wrong. I suspect that this isn’t an uncommon fear to have… that being said, it doesn’t make it any less real for me. The what-ifs keep swirling around my head: what if I didn’t give myself enough time somewhere to make my next flight? What if I arrive late and miss a plane? What if a meteor ends life on Earth? All of these are, of course, entirely natural and equally likely scenarios, which only adds to my stress level.

All of that being said, I also couldn’t be more excited for this trip. I am going with some of my absolute best friends, being taught by one of my favorite people on OU’s campus, and I get to attend a party hosted in the freaking Eiffel Tower (you read that right). We’ll be meeting with the mayor of the town we’re staying in, hiking around, and eating all the French cuisine that our stomachs can, well, stomach. Once I finally have my feet on the ground, I’ll be able to think about all of that. Until then, I’m just praying to whatever deities are out there that I arrive in one piece (and preferably not in a body bag).

A Mentoring Update

This year, the Global Engagement Fellowship decided to launch a mentoring program for its newest members, and so for the last few months, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of mentoring some of the best and brightest students that the University of Oklahoma has to offer. Below is a quick update on each of these outstanding individuals.

Lucy is killing the campus involvement game. She is one of the few freshmen members of The Oklahoma Group, which is an organization that provides free consulting services and development advice for non-profits in the Norman, Moore, and OKC areas; both her team lead and her fellow consultants rave about her abilities and her work ethic. Lucy was also just named as one of the Top 12 Most Outstanding Freshmen on OU’s campus as per the President’s Office, and a winner of the University College PACE Award. I’m looking forward to attending the ceremony to see her win it all. Lucy is currently looking forward to spending some weeks this summer in France and potentially interning for Speaker Ryan.

Just like her best friend Lucy, Hennessey is already a campus force to be reckoned with. This year, she started her very own Registered Student Organization, the Foreign Film Club, which strives to provide both domestic and international students the opportunity to watch high-quality foreign films and gorge themselves on free food… in my opinion, a worthy cause. Hen is also a member of the Undergraduate Student Congress, where she is an active member of the Ways and Means Committee, which appropriates over $600,000 every year to different student organizations across OU’s campus. She is also currently a pledge for Delta Gamma, which I’ve been told she enjoys. I’ll take her word for it. 😊

Noah is a verified Linguistic genius, and will also be joining Hennessey and I in the Undergrad Student Congress in the upcoming months (benefits of being the only person to file for your district’s seat)! He is, far and away, the international politics junkie of the group, and I’m quite thankful for his expertise. Unfortunately, Noah is usually writing disgustingly long papers, so he isn’t able to hang out with the group as much as we would all like him to, but such is life. Noah is also one of the leaders of the newly-minted Student Advisory Committee for Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity within the College of International Studies, where he is making waves and working to ensure that all members of the CIS feel like a part of our larger community.

Madison Doyle (along with Hennessey) has done what I never could, which is pursue Arabic past the first class. Both she and Hen are planning on traveling to the University of Texas this summer to take an 8-wekk intensive (IN-TEN-SIVE) Arabic course, after which they will surely emerge either battle-weary or simply lifeless (I cannot stress show intense they’ve made this program sound). When she isn’t studying her alif baa (alphabet, which is about all I remember from ARAB 1115), Madison is also a member of the Sooner Freshmen Council, an organization of freshmen leaders on OU’s campus that I myself am particularly partial to.

Finally, Ryan and Lydia are both dominating their freshmen year. Fun fact… the two of them make up their freshmen class within their school (dramaturgy, under Weitzenhoffer), and both are working on dramaturging their first shows this semester. We can’t wait to see them both. In addition to participating in the School of Drama and all of their slightly cult-like rituals, Ryan is also a Gaylord student, which I respect beyond words. The world needs more good journalists, especially when the current administration is calling into question the very nature of journalism and reporting. Lydia is a member of the Crimson Chords, OU’s only student-led, co-ed a cappella group, an organization that I was a part of long ago. I can’t wait to see her next concert.

Seriously, these people are the best.

My Conversation with a White Nationalist

This semester, my best friend and I have had the distinct pleasure of co-chairing the Informed Citizens Discussion Group(s), and it has been a stressful blast. With 10 groups and over 100 participants, I think that it is safe to that the recent political turmoil both in the United States and abroad has contributed to significant growth in the groups, a significant decrease in attrition, and a significant broadening of the kinds of people we bring in to the discussion.

For example, a few weeks ago, I was reading a piece of political satire regarding punching Nazis to the group that I co-moderate, and one of my discussion members said that he didn’t really think that was appropriate. I, assuming that he simply disliked the idea of engaging in physical violence based on someone’s ideology, asked him to explain why he thought that. “Well,” he said, “as someone that identifies as being on the alt-right, I find that offensive. The dude that was punched isn’t even a Nazi, he’s just a White nationalist.” My group fell silent. For the past three weeks, we had all assumed that we all fell somewhere along the left…. Sure, some where more libertarian and some were more socialists, but no one in my group identified as anywhere along the right-wing spectrum, except now for this member. To his credit, one of the members attempted to engage the alt-right student in a discussion about why he thought what he though, but there are only so many times that someone can argue for a racially and culturally “pure” America before you my liberal group will come after you. Between myself, my co-moderator, and some of my more outspoken members, it was like Milo vs. Rachel… and the results weren’t pretty. No one yelled at anyone, but that seemed to mostly be because anytime anyone got close, they just held their tongues and waited until their blood pressure has fallen enough to respond in a basically cordial way. We spent the last 30 minutes of that discussion grilling this student, wondering how in the world he believed what he believed, and when the members decided that they didn’t agree with the basic premises on which his argument rested (namely, that the United States is a country of White people for White people by White people), they went on the offensive. I don’t think that’s the worst thing.

The prevailing logic surrounding this situation is that we should have respected his difference of opinion and attempted to engage in a constructive dialogue so that we can all come to a reasonable conclusion and respect each other’s differences. However, as in most situations, I don’t think this was the time for respectability politics. One of my favorite sayings is that I’m always willing to have a constructive dialogue between two equal and opposing viewpoints. For example, we need to raise taxes versus we need to lower taxes is an acceptable discussion to have. We need to raise taxes versus we need to create a racially homogenous nation through genocide and mass deportation is not a discussion of two equal propositions, and I don’t regret my reaction in this situation. What’s even worse is that I didn’t even get to finish reading my piece about punching Nazi’s. This dude would’ve certainly benefited from hearing it.

The Trump Effect and Dr. Farzaneh

On Wednesday, February 15th, I attended a lecture by Dr. Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh, the Visiting Fellow at the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies entitled “US-Iranian Relations: Past, Present, and Future. As someone who knows next to nothing about Iran, and even less about the relationship between Iran and America, I found this discussion particularly enlightening. In addition to providing an overview of the history of Iran’s relationship with America, Dr. Farzaneh made the compelling argument that America and Iran could not be more natural partners, but that America’s continued Islamophobia, and the resulting backlash from Iran, are keeping the two from succeeding as allies. While most of Dr. Farzaneh’s talk went a bit over my head (I think that I was a bit out-of-place among the Iranian scholars and Arabic/Farsi students that made up most of the crowd), this was one of the first times since the election of Donald Trump that I heard an academic discussion on the role of Islamophobia as it affected Middle Eastern scholars.

I’ve thought more about this chilling effect in recent days, as multiple studies report that the “Trump Effect” is severely decreasing the number of foreign students enrolling in US universities. Especially for a program like OU’s College of International Studies, this could not be more devastating. The intellectual vitality and diversity of US universities is under attack, and as long as foreign applicants are fearful of their ability to come and go freely, there isn’t an end in sight. I also worry about the effect that the Trump Effect will have on research and tech development. Universities like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Yale maintain some of the best facilities and faculty members in the world, and due to their large endowments and sheer amount of resources, are able to recruit globally, bringing in the best students and scholars regardless of national background. By cutting off an entire cohort of potential scientists and engineers from the tools and resources they might need in order to become groundbreaking members of their field, Trump is effectively threatening the future of a number of academic disciplines. Even before the personification of White America’s id was elected President, gaining entrance to the United States as an emigrant from the Middle East was difficult. I worry that it will soon be impossible, to the detriment of us all.

An International Trump

What does Trump think he’s doing? I mean, honestly dude, you can’t just call the leader of Taiwan without expecting China to be ALL OVER YOU. Do you want World War III? This is how we get World War III. Trump’s lack of ability to understand even the most basic tenants of diplomacy is really going to make foreign affairs rough for America in these upcoming years. If there really is a destabilization of NATO and other similar alliances, there is going to be a place for Russia, China, and their allies to move in and upset Western democracy as the global ideologic hegemon. While that might not be the worst thing, it will almost certainly involve an unnecessary loss of life. Trump doesn’t seem to understand the gravitas of his situation, nor is he able to comprehend how his personal actions can possibly affect the lives of our service men and women overseas, in addition to our lives here at home. International Relations and International Studies professors are going to need to write new books and teach new classes about what it means to work in the Foreign Service under a Trump presidency, because this is certainly not the world that we thought we lived in. I am perhaps most scared for our European allies who rely on our support in order to stave off threats that are geographically closer to those nations and who are now being told that that support comes with a price. Sooner or later, Trump is going to need to recognize that diplomacy, and governance, is decidedly different from the art of business. However, if his success in the latter is any indicator, he may not learn his lesson regarding the former anytime soon.

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