"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 11/12/08

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The strange meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” in America

This was first published in Weekly Trust Newspaper on December 17, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Even though I have always eschewed, even disdained, glib and facile labels such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative,” etc I had nonetheless always thought of myself as conforming to what would seem to be the consensual notions of a liberal.

However, after nearly a year of being in the United States, I’m no longer sure I’m a liberal. So am I now a conservative?

Well, first who is a liberal? It was Voltaire, the French philosopher, who once said, “If you must converse with me, first define your terms”—or something to that effect.

Although there is admittedly a lot of definitional vagueness in the conception of what constitutes a liberal, my own understanding of the term, which I don’t pretend to be anything other than drawn from the resources of popular imagination, is that it refers to someone who is not limited to or by established, conventional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; who is free from bigotry.

It is also used to denote one who is amenable to proposals for reform, new ideas for progress, and is tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others. Generally speaking, it means one who is broad-minded and is not held in check by the tyranny of received wisdom.

In Nigeria’s political vocabulary, the most fashionable word for such a person is “progressive.” Now, most people in Nigeria who wear the tag of “progressivism” are some of the most backward characters I have ever come across.

Take, for instance, these Afenifere clowns who are a study in narrow-mindedness, gerontocractic arrogance, ethnic insularity—and worse—but who have blackmailed the Nigerian media (supposing the media are not themselves complicit with this intellectual fraud) into identifying them as “progressives,” and those who disagree with them as “conservatives.”

In the United States too, it’s traditional to draw a distinction between liberals and conservatives in every national debate. But unlike Nigeria where everybody avoids the label “conservative” like a plague, here people who think they are conservative not only accept the label but flaunt it.

And they have newspapers, TV stations and radio stations that popularize their ideology.

A conservative is generally understood to be a person who is resistant to change, who conforms to the standards and conventions of the upper-middle class, who has what Marxists would call “a bourgeois mentality.”

In America, however, it’s not that simple. Here, people who identify themselves as conservatives fall into two groups: The first group, often called the Christian Right, is made up of racist, inward-looking, xenophobic, Christian religious fundamentalists who resist, or struggle to reverse, the cultural turbulence of America.

The second group is composed of mean-spirited, ruthless and vulturistic capitalists who can suck the blood of a dead person if they are convinced that his blood has profit value.

The liberal crowd here is the natural attraction for all racial and religious minorities. But as most immigrants from non-Western cultural backgrounds find, there is a strange meaning to being liberal in America.

The main issues that appear to define the liberal agenda in America are abortion and gay rights and gun control.

To be considered a liberal, you must support the right of women to abort their pregnancies if they so choose (which is no longer called abortion right, but “pro-choice”) and for homosexuals to be allowed to get married.

The third is support for the abolition of the death penalty. But this is not as much a “hot-button” issue, as Americans say it, as abortion and gay rights.

I personally have no problem with the first one if the circumstances for abortion are justified by medical expediency or, in the case of married people, if the decision to abort is the consequence of the mutual consent of the husband and wife.

However, I have issue with homosexuality and abolition of the death penalty.

But, first, what do American conservatives think of abortion? As far as American conservatives are concerned, any abortion, however so defined, is murder.

But it is supremely ironic that the people who hold these opinions are the same people who not only support but mastermind the mass murder of innocent people in Iraq and elsewhere in the name of evangelizing the gospel of democracy and freedom.

Similarly, a popular conservative radio talk-show host (most radio talk shows in America are owned by conservatives) advocated that the most efficacious way to reduce crime in America is to abort all black babies!

And this man was not some unknown quantity on the lunatic fringe. His name is William Bennett, a former minister of education under Ronald Reagan and drugs czar under the first George Bush.

The self-described Christian moral crusader said in an unguarded moment during his talk show: “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose; you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” So, for this conservative, abortion is reprehensible only where black people are not concerned.

Another conservative Christian broadcaster and proprietor of the Regent University by the name of Pat Robertson this year called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. His reason: The president is turning his oil-rich South American country into “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Some conservative!

American liberals were, of course, very loud in denouncing the comments by Bennett and Robertson as despicably racist, insensitive and utterly condemnable. But while I despise these conservatives for their xenophobia, racism and their embrace of the cruelties of capitalism, I find myself strangely agreeing with their views on homosexuality and the death penalty.

In the United States, as in most Western countries, homosexuality is being increasingly glamorized and celebrated especially by so-called liberals. Conservatives despise homosexuals, and will rather die than see gay marriage given official imprimatur by government.

As for the liberals, anybody who as much as tries to express the faintest reservation about homosexuality is labeled “homophobic’—which is becoming as dreadful as being called racist or some other name of disapproval.

But I can’t help thinking that homosexuality is either a sick, aberrant sexual perversion or unbridled carnal narcissism. When I say this, my liberal friends call me “conservative,” and “intolerant.”

They claim that homosexuals can’t help being what they are; that they are inexorably wired bio-chemically to be attracted to people of their sex and that we should accept their sick fancies as just another legitimate “sexual orientation.”

Another argument is that homosexuals don’t hurt anybody. Why should it be anybody’s bother what they choose to do with their private lives? Fair enough.

But when I put it to my liberal friends that research after research has shown that men have a “natural” predisposition to have multiple sex partners, and therefore should equally be given the same privilege to marry more than one wife, they shrink to their “liberal” hell holes.

American citizens who are Muslims are not allowed by law to have more than one wife (they can, of course, be serial monogamists and philanderers), but homosexuals are on their way to getting the right to get married. It’s part of the American liberal agenda.

What of the death penalty? For me, it’s a simple issue of proportionality of justice. If you murder, you also deserve to die. The argument that the death penalty has not deterred the commission of murders begs the question about justice.

Believe or not, this is how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are understood in this country, trivial as they seem, and people win and lose elections on the basis of these issues.

Relations between Africans and Black Americans

This was originally published in the Weekly Trust newspaper on December 2, 2005.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

You would expect that it is natural that African immigrants in the United States and Black Americans should have a robust relational intercourse. However, the relationship between African immigrants here and Black Americans is often hallmarked by mutual suspicion and distrust.

“We may have a common ancestry, and even a common skin color, but we view each other as different,” said Andre Reynaud, a black American freshman from Lafayette, Louisiana, majoring in secondary education.

He said American blacks traditionally tend to have a dim view of all immigrants, and that African immigrants here are tarred with the same brush as other immigrants.

“Their accent is different; the way they live is strange,” he said. “What you don’t know, you either learn or ignore. And I think we generally ignore here.”

But Uwaila Osaren, a final year journalism student who was born in Nigeria but raised in the United States, said the strained relations between African and black American students at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette is not representative of the general pattern of relationships between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.

“I grew up in Houston, Texas, and it’s not the same,” she said. “I think it has something to do with the African-American culture in Louisiana. “They’re not exposed to many different cultures. Here, it’s either black or white.”

Osaren opined that the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students is not because they don’t like Africans.

“They don’t even mingle with the whites they grew up with,” she said. “Why would they mingle with Africans they never knew? It’s two separates, and they can’t mingle.”

She said she has been caught in the web of a huge relational ambivalence since she came to study at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, four years ago.

“I didn’t fit with Africans because they consider me too American, and I didn’t fit with Americans because they consider me too African,” she said. “I’m the true meaning of African American.”

For Richard Bargblor, a Liberian native majoring in nursing, the relational tension between African students and black Americans is the consequence of a historical grudge that black Americans have been conditioned to hold against Africans for the alleged complicity of their ancestors in selling the ancestors of black Americans into slavery.

“A lot of them have told me that our forefathers sold their ancestors to the white men,” he said. “Maybe, that’s why they’re holding back from us.” He insisted, however, that guilt is not inheritable. “Besides, our ancestors didn’t willfully sell their ancestors,” he added. “It was done under duress.”

Bargblor also said he finds black Americans’ use of swear words in their everyday conversations repulsive. “They use the ‘f’ word so easily,” he said. “We don’t use that in Africa. It’s an offensive word.”

Kyle Ward, a black American sophomore from Mississippi majoring in political science, suggested that it is difficult for African immigrants in the United States to mix smoothly with black Americans because over 400 years of spatial separation between the two groups also created an enormous gulf of cultural separation.

“They [Africans] are not used what we do,” he said. “They don’t understand why we do what we do. They have a totally different view of the world. That’s why they don’t hang out with us.”

He contended that most African students who come to the United States devote little time for leisure, entertainment and sports—areas he said black Americans consider central to their cultural uniqueness. He said this fact limits avenues for interaction between the two groups.

“They’re more focused on their studies because they appreciate the opportunities here,” he said. “We take these opportunities for granted. They’re foreign students. Period.”

For Ben Adobor, a native of Ghana and graduate student in engineering, a major stumbling block in the relationship between black Americans and African students is the almost mutual unintelligibility of their English accents.

“It’s ironic that I understand white Americans more easily than I understand my African-American brothers and sisters,” Adobor said. “But I realize that they have as much difficulty understanding my accent as I have understanding theirs. They’re easier to understand when you relate to them on an individual basis, but when you find yourself alone in their midst, they could as well be speaking Greek. You’re lost, and wonder whether they’re speaking English.”

This sentiment about language barrier is mutual.

Rosetta Pickney, a black American student from Lake Charles, Louisiana, majoring in health information management, also expressed frustration with African accents. “We don’t understand their accents, so we avoid them,” she said.

But Adobor said the language barrier is secondary to the distortion of the African image in the mainstream Western media as a contributing factor to the strained relations between African immigrants in the United States and black Americans.

“All that they see about Africa in their media are images of starving, barely clothed children, AIDS victims, and so on,” he said. “I wonder where the media get these images from. I think African-Americans are ashamed to identify with us because of this.”

Pamela Hamilton, a black American graduate student in communication from Shreveport, agreed. “We have negative views of Africa that we received from slavery, passed through generations and now transmitted through the media,” she said.

However, she pointed out that this negative perception is reciprocal. “Some African students that I have met also have negative views of African Americans,” she said. “Few Africans understand what slavery has done to us.”

Hamilton said although there are obvious cultural and even experiential barriers between Africans and black Americans, those barriers are not sufficient to break the social, historical and ancestral bonds that bind Africans and black Americans.

“There are people who have been able to overcome these barriers,” she said.

But Kimberly Malveaux, a black American nursing major from Lafayette, Louisiana, said she thinks there are no barriers to overcome.

“My personal experience is that I relate with African men better than I relate with African-American men,” she said. “There may be Africans who also relate better with African-Americans than with Africans. I don’t see any tension here.”

Meanwhile, Arinze Okolo, president of the University of Louisiana’s African Students’ Association and junior mechanical engineering student from Nigeria, said it is difficult to give a blanket and definitive description of the attitude of black Americans toward African students.

He said there are as many black Americans who are reluctant to relate with African students, as there are who are enthusiastic about mixing with them.

“I think those of them who take the trouble to go beyond media stereotypes and read up on Africa or ask questions about Africa tend to be friendly,” he said. “Many of them attend our social functions, and we attend theirs too.”

Bradley Pollock, Ph.D., professor of African and African- American history at the University of Louisiana’s department of history and geography, attributed the reluctance of black Americans to relate with African students to their lack of exposure to different cultures.

“On this campus, most of the African-Americans are from small towns,” he said. “They’re just frightened of what they don’t know. They may even be frightened of other African Americans they are not used to. It’s not a Louisiana problem; it’s a small-town problem.”

Pollock added that even though there is some basis for the hostility of some black Americans toward Africans because of the notion that Africans sold their brothers and sisters into slavery, “it is not an accurate historical assumption.”

“For instance, countries in East Africa, such as Uganda, were not involved in the slave trade,” he said. “In any case, if you’re nursing animosity against Africans because of that, what do you do with the white slave owners? It’s been centuries ago. It’s time for healing.”

For Patricia Holmes, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication, insufficient communication between black American and African students is the cause of the mutual distrust between them.

“When they communicate, they’ll realize that they have more reasons to come together than they have to stay apart,” said Holmes, who is black. “Our shared ancestry and our shared history of slavery and colonialism are big enough reasons for us to come together.”

She said the excuse of differences in accents as a reason for the low level of interaction between African students and black Americans is “rather weak.”

“People from New York also have a different accent, so you won’t talk to them because of that?” she asked rhetorically. “Africans don’t all have the same accent. Do they stop talking to each other because of that?”

My sojourn in a country within a country

I have decided to archive all my columns in Weekly Trust. The following is my first column, which appeared on November 25, 2005 under the name "Notes from Louisiana."

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As a tribute to the meteoric but richly deserved elevation of my good friend and former classmate, AbdulAzeez Abdulahi, to the position of acting editor of the Daily Trust, I have decided to start a new weekly column. But more than that, the Trust Newspapers have a special place in my life in more ways than one.

It was in Trust Newspapers that I’ve had my most productive professional experience after graduating from the university. The excellent tradition of journalism that I was exposed to at the Trust has continued to inform and nourish my professional judgments.

And the best part: it was also at the Trust that I met my wife! So the debts I owe to Trust are actually heavier than the owners of the paper probably realize, and it is inconceivable that I can ever sever my umbilical cords with the papers.

I have been in the United States since the beginning of this year pursuing graduate studies (that’s how Americans call postgraduate studies) in journalism and communication, and I want to deploy this column to chronicle my sojourn in this strange land and share with readers my experiential encounters as they occur.

This past one year has been an incredibly exciting experience for me. Although this is not the first time I’m visiting the United States, it’s the first time I’ve been away from Nigeria for this long.

While I deeply miss being with my wife and feel intensely guilty about leaving my lovely little girl when she was only a couple of months old, the robust intellectual and cultural exposure I get here daily compensate for the sense of emotional loss I feel for being temporarily away from my family.

Like the title of my column suggests, I live in the state of Louisiana—an oil-rich state in the Deep South of the United States that shares so many similarities with Nigeria.

Given what I now know, I couldn’t have hoped for a better state to live in the United States. Louisiana is a warm state—in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. It has very mild winters and hot and sticky summers. That makes the state closer to what I was used to in Nigeria than the northern parts the U.S. where winters can get so chilly that they can literally freeze one’s blood.

The people here are also unbelievably friendly, convivial and obliging. Everybody seems to smile here, even to total strangers. But charming smiles from an equally charming girl to people from different cultural experiences can sometimes send unintended cues.

(One of my Ghanaian friends here told me that when he first got here two years ago, he thought he was so good-looking that girls couldn’t resist him—until he realized that everybody smiled to everybody). The warmth and courteousness of the people here is so very inconsistent with the stereotype of America I had been led to nurse before coming here.

Another beauty of the state is the rich racial alchemy of its people. In spite—or because—of the vicious racial segregationist history of the state, there is robust intermarriage between blacks and whites in both the biological and cultural significations of the term.

If the Creoles (light-skinned descendants of European, mostly French, and ex African slaves, but who are nonetheless considered “Black” in U.S. racial categorizations) are the biological consequence of this alchemy, Voodoo—a strange but fascinating mixture of African traditional religions and Catholicism—is its definitive cultural artifact. Even the food, music and art of Louisiana have more than a casual convergence of African and European influences.

However, the people who enjoy numerical dominion in the state, especially in the southwestern part of the state where I live, are called the Cajuns (pronounced k-ei-j-u-n-s)—an English corruption of the French word Acadien, which is itself derived from Acadia (pronounced a-k-ei-d-i-a), the ancestral home of the Cajuns in Nova Scotia, a region in the French-speaking part of Canada.

The Cajuns were originally French settlers in Canada who were expelled from there between 1755 and 1763 for refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Most of them came to settle in what is today Louisiana.

The really intriguing thing about these people is their fastidious doggedness in preserving their cultural idiosyncrasies in America’s enormous multicultural cauldron, or melting pot, if you will.

A great proportion of the people still speak a variety of French, called Cajun French, which is actually a mishmash of Canadian and Parisian or metropolitan French.

Although there has lately been a noticeably progressive decline in the number of people who speak Cajun French, there have been concerted efforts to make the language appealing to the younger generation. To this end, Cajun areas of Louisiana often form partnership with Acadians in Canada who send French teachers to reteach the language in schools.

Similarly, the University of Louisiana, where I teach and pursue graduate studies, has an internationally renowned undergraduate and graduate program in Francophone Studies. The medium of instruction in the program is French.

When the Cajuns speak English, they speak it with a distinct accent that sets them apart from other Americans. Their words are relatively slurred together, and they can be extremely fast—and incomprehensible to a first-timer.

I have always had to tell my students to enunciate more clearly and speak more slowly than they are won to when I want to understand them. But after almost one year of learning and teaching here, I’ve almost become a Cajun myself.

Louisiana is a country within a country in many respects. It is not only that most of the people here are unlike most Americans by being mostly bilingual in Cajun French and English, they also have parallel systems of administration, and use nomenclatures that are markedly different from the rest of America.

For instance, while every state in the United States calls its local governments “counties,” Louisianans call theirs “parishes.” It is a celebration of the people’s Catholic identity. (Most of America, apart from Boston, is predominantly Protestant).

But while Louisiana and its are people are great, the state’s proneness to hurricanes can be disconcerting. This year was particularly bad for the state. It was hit by two devastating hurricanes, which were given such deceptively innocuous names like Katrina and Rita.

Even though the city where I live was not affected by any of the hurricanes because it is situated inland, the auxiliary effects of the hurricanes have been very disorienting for us. I had never seen more violent winds in my entire life before. I can only imagine what people who were in the eye of the storm went through.

A few days after the hurricane, I had occasion to travel to the state of Florida, which required me to go through parts of Louisiana that were directly hit by the hurricane, and to such other affected states as Alabama and Mississippi. The consequence of the fury of the winds was immense. Huge trees were uprooted and dumped on the road and whole towns were literally wiped off the map.

Long lines for fuel—reminiscent of what I was used to in Nigeria—surfaced. The people had never experienced that in their lives and thought that was the worst thing that could happen to a nation.

Predictably, every body on the fuel queue had a short fuse—literally. In Mississippi where we stopped to refill our car, somebody’s fuse blew. A guy attempted to jump the long line, but an angry and frustrated man jumped forward, grabbed the man and shut him on his head.

His skull was blown to smithereens. He died instantly. And everybody scampered away in terror. There were several such reports all over Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes.
When I think of the fact that Nigerians go through more severe fuel scarcity with perfect equanimity—or almost perfect equanimity—I can’t help concluding that we’re indeed a rare breed of humanity.