The first month of my semester is officially over. Four weeks of endless readings, weekly Museum visits, many nights on U-Street and amounts of various ethnic foods have come to an end. When I think about it, all of it seems to have happened in racing time, which did not allow me once to sit down and reflect upon all the moments. Hence, I took the opportunity of my 1-month anniversary to replicate all the unforgettable moments, unfamiliar situations and also absurd confrontations while enjoying self-made blueberry pancakes, loads of bacon and fruits on E Street’s rooftop.
And while I was eating, – and being extremely surprised by the perfection of my pancakes’ circular shape – a strange wave of emotions hit me. Happiness, surprise, satisfaction, anger and melancholy are few worthy to be mentioned. In that moment, I just realized all the words and actions stemming from the personal interactions I had. In that specific moment, I fully became aware of the diversity of thought within US society including all its ambiguities.
Every time people ask me about the most significant thing that I learned during my high school year in the States, I tell them about the flawed European view on American society, which is perceived as uncritical, extremely patriotic and increasingly arrogant. The US I encountered during the time of 2010-2011 was not only open and welcoming, but it also surprised me with incredibly keen-witted and intelligent people. This view, which I had acquired during my exchange year was, however, constantly challenged by extremely conservative parts of American society tending to be the loudest in the political debate. My fellow Europeans, who never had the chance to spent more than a vacation in the US, only had heard the voices of unprogressive parts of American’s society and political elite. Hence, they never fully understood what I was talking about.
They will never understand, because they cannot see the dilemma of American society & the struggle of progressive sections to change the status quo discourse. What I learned during this last month and my second long-term stay in the States is that these progressive voices are already halted when challenging the mainstream discourse with their criticism. They are simply rejected on a basis of ‘wrong’ and ‘right’. They are perceived by a ‘black and white’ paradigm. And, lastly, they are marginalized without further discussion. I am not talking about the current presidential debate – this text does not aim at conveying my personal opinion about how the political Left and Right is treated in this country. This text is about my encounters at GW – the perfect example of this clash between two major movements within society.
When someone calls me a ‘socialist’, I usually do not get offended. People get emotional in informal settings and due to my socio-political work, this happens now and then. But it is very rare. I do not want to transform this into a history lesson about how socialist ideology has been treated by society and the polity in Europe, Latin America or Asia versus its status in the US. I think the whole Cold War, ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthyism paradigm does definitely offer one of the many explanations for less attraction within American society to feel drawn towards Leftist ideas, but it should not serve as the basis for defining a set framework of America’s political landscape as well as its subversive movements. America does have incredibly bright, deep-read and highly motivated progressive sections within its society that do not fear to criticize the status quo. However, the issue for their slow progress seems to be that they are not invited for a dialogue by the forces shaping the mainstream discourse. And the reason for a lack of debate is the apparent idea that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in politics. But politics is much more than that: It is a constant debate, where various groups and individuals disagree with each other and try to find a compromise. Politics is about good arguments, its about values and lastly it is inherently idealistic. So when I am called a socialist while having a political debate, I am not bothered since it only fortifies my belief in social democracy. When I am called a ‘socialist leftie’ in a country, where this term is despised by several in society, I do not feel personally attacked with regards to my political beliefs, but it negates progressive societal movements within this country, who want to reform the current political discourse.
I am satisfied with most of my classes, one of them being probably the best class I have taken in my academic career so far. Our professor does not only challenge us with critical theory, but she encourages us to search for dialogue not only with her, but also among the students while discussing political, economic and social events and structures. Her and 95% of my class represent the progressive critical part of society in this country, which is determined to change the status quo for the better. In complete contrast to this stands one of my other classes. The status quo defines our discussions, criticism is taken personally by all involved and a dialogue is not sought. The current political discourse is protected against ‘socialist lefties’ and any other voice that disagrees. A descriptive mode of engaging with the issues dominates the events discussed. Analytical thinking is not requested.
When someone calls me a ‘socialist leftie’, I usually do not get offended. Even if it happens in an academic context. I am not trapped in any ideological mindset and far away from being a radical or revolutionary. I have learned to rather believe in reforms. But I do get offended when I see that the purpose of academia is being undermined. Academia should open up new horizons, it should attempt to represent as much diversity as possible, it should be critical and it should push students to think analytically. It should push students to think for themselves. It should encourage students to criticize without being criticized.
When I was called a ‘socialist leftie’ this past week, I did not get offended as usual. Although, it was used as an attack on a personal basis. Although, it undermined the purpose of academia. Although, ‘socialism’ was used as a dirty word. I was not offended, because I see the big and growing sections of US society, which are pursuing progress. They are critical, they are brave and they believe in the making of politics while upholding their moral values. I saw these people not only during my exchange year 6 years ago, but I see them now, too. Right at GW sitting in the classrooms. And I hope that, as the mainstream political discourse within the United States will slowly change, that also the cultural discourse about alleged American political dullness will finally be abandoned by my fellow Europeans and others around the world.