America Calling

America Calling
America Calling
By Sacha Zimmerman

Anand Giridharadas ’99 on his big start in journalism at Horizon, his years as a foreign correspondent, the nature of hatred and forgiveness, and why reading
The New York Times from cover to cover just might spark your next great idea.

America is trying to tell us something. As Anand Giridharadas ’99 put it to Head of School Bryan Garman on the Sidwell Friends podcast, Lives That Speak, the caste system, inequities, and extreme poverty he saw as a reporter in India are not so different from what is happening in the United States itself. Here, racism, grievance politics, and vast economic gaps are also baked into the fabric of society. That fundamental truth reveals the lie: that meritocracy is the story of America. This longstanding tension between the nation’s founding narrative and its present reality seemed to explode this year with the arrival of five simultaneous calamities: coronavirus, an economic crisis, a racial uprising, a climate catastrophe, and threats to democracy itself. Yet, what if this moment is not the decline of a nation but its inflection point? Could these blows be the very traits that precede an American awakening?

BRYAN GARMAN: I remember you in my classroom with another great writer, Tory Newmyer ’99, who also has a journalism career. You both were editors at Horizon.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: We had a controversial tenure. A lot of people who edit school newspapers in college or high school do so because it’s a good extracurricular, and a lot of those folks don’t end up necessarily having anything to do with journalism. But with Tory and I—and we would have predicted it then—it has turned out to be true. We really wanted to be journalists. And we both are still journalists 20 years later. We saw the platform of Horizon as the beginning of our career. This was our Woodward and Bernstein opportunity, and we acted accordingly, which got us into a tremendous amount of trouble. We had issues with being censored by the School, so we printed a blank front page in pro- test in which we pretentiously quoted Camus to try to justify our position on free speech. It was a fraught time.

I should also say, of the many, many years of education that I’ve had before, during, and after Sidwell Friends— many schools, college, an abortive graduate school attempt at Harvard— the four years at Sidwell were, by far, the most important for my education. There was a foundation of learning, becoming a lifelong learner, engaging with ideas, and cultivating a curiosity that was unlike anything else I’ve experienced.

BG: After Sidwell, it was off to the University of Michigan, and what happened next?

AG: Before Michigan, I had an internship with The New York Times my senior year at Sidwell. I reported, wrote, and published two stories. That was addictive. So all through Michigan, in the summers, I did internships in journalism, worked as a reporter for The Michigan Daily, found different ways to do stuff for The New York Times, and worked for The New Republic. After Michigan, I decided to be a foreign correspondent. I got this great advice from Jill Abramson [who would go on to become the Times’ first female executive editor], who was my mentor. She said: “Don’t spend your 20s hanging out around the building trying to get in. Go out into the world, collide with the world. That’s how you make yourself a journalist.” I had this idea to go to India and collide with the world, but I couldn’t get a journalism job. So, I decided to just get whatever job would take me to India. The most irrelevant, strange-fitting, “we’ll hire anybody from any intellectual background” job I could get was McKinsey & Company. I made $14,000 a year working for McKinsey in Mumbai, living in a rat-infested room in someone else’s apartment. It was not a very workable situation, but it was a way to get to India. I did McKinsey research projects, and after just over a year, I very luckily got a journalism job at The New York Times.

BG: How did that experience in India shape your work?

AG: India is an outlier in many ways. Just the levels of poverty there exceed any- thing you experience in a country like the United States—the breadth of it, the depth of it. The subjugation of women is on a scale like that, too. We have problems in this country with the way we treat women, but in India, it’s on a different level. Everything feels like it’s on a different level. As I became a reporter in India and started telling these stories, what became really clear is that India merely exaggerates a lot of the conditions and realities about the world that are true everywhere. So, while I was a journalist there, I would marry my reporting with a certain amount of reading about India and other countries’ journeys to modernity. There are these deep patterns. When I came back to America many years later, the experience of India helped me understand how caste is not only something that exists in India; it exists in America. It helped me understand that when we talk, in America, about being a meritocracy or people ending up where they are because of their effort, it’s not true. After India, I could see how profoundly untrue it is.

BG: Tell us how you came to write The True American and the lessons that book conveys.

AG: I moved back to the United States in 2009 and was still finishing up my first book, India Calling. I knew I wanted to write about America and the very peculiar nature of the divide we were experiencing. There was a lot of talk already about inequality, but in my travels and observations, there was something deeper, a kind of a cold civil war: It was a coming apart of the country. But how do you tell a story of a country falling apart in this way? One day, I’m sitting in bed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading The New York Times, trying to get column ideas. I kept reading, I kept reading, and I finally ended up in National Briefing, which is the absolute dregs of The New York Times, when you’ve really read the entire paper. In the National Briefing, I saw this story of a guy executed in Texas the night before. So far, so Texas. But in his final days, one of his Muslim immigrant victims had fought to save his life in the name of forgiveness. I started digging into it. Two hours later, I called out to my wife, “This is my next big project!”

It’s the story of a white supremacist who we would now say was Trumpism before Trump. It’s the exact ideology of Donald Trump, the exact set of grievances, the exact inversion of personal hate into hatred of others, and the exact sense of white men being left behind and stiffed. This guy goes on a hate-crime spree after 9/11, goes to three gas stations and pulls the trigger on three clerks, all brown immigrants from South Asia. Two of them die. The third one, Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, survives. He came to America because he wanted more. He’s working in a gas station, saving money for a wedding and school, when he gets shot in the face by this white supremacist. A couple of days after being admitted to the hospital, Bhuiyan is kicked out because, essentially, being shot in the face is a preexisting condition, and he doesn’t have insurance. He struggles, faces homeless- ness, medical debt, lives all the American traumas—in addition to the basic fact of being shot in the face because he’s not white. He rebuilds his life and becomes whole again. He ends up making six figures in IT. He miraculously makes it in America. The America he had come for eventually does work for him. He starts to feel this immense gratitude and wonders what he can do to repay America. He realizes that, in the name of Islam and in the name of promoting forgiveness between the Muslim world and the West, he wants to forgive the guy who shot him in the face. He wants to prevent the state of Texas from executing this guy. In a marvelous coup of trolling, he sues Texas, arguing that sharia law compels mercy from Muslims. Therefore, as a newly minted American citizen, under the First Amendment he has the right to extend mercy as prescribed to him by sharia law.

It was remarkable. It’s about two men, two Americas, hatred, and forgiveness. It’s also about every other thing America embodies: inequality, the breakdown of social structures, white working-class downward mobility, the coming majority minority America, meritocracy, the opportunity ladder, healthcare.

We are falling on our face right now as a nation because we are jumping higher, trying some- thing harder than any country has ever attempted.

BG: Responding to the assertion that Joe Biden is vulnerable on law and order, you recently wrote that America does have a law and order problem: “It’s white America, from the founding days of the republic, committing to an eco- nomic and political model that made violence a daily systemic necessity.”

AG: In recent years there’s been this really powerful, growing reckoning. The first thesis I lay out in that piece, the blood- at-the-root thesis, is not as controversial as it once was. The president of United States recently gave a speech critiquing the 1619 Project and critical-race theory, which is the ultimate endorsement of the importance of those ideas.

The second thesis is that this is a profoundly special country with some ideals and practices that are unique in the history of the world. For all the flaws of this country, and all the moments I’ve encountered racism, there is an idea that, in this country, anybody can become an American and an American can be any kind of person. We are falling on our face right now as a nation because we are jumping higher, trying some- thing harder than any country has ever attempted. This is as special an endeavor as any country has ever set out to do, and we are also a profoundly, existentially, from the root, flawed, broken country. I think there’s space for both of those truths.

BG: You also say that America is ready for an age of reform.

AG: Five synchronous crises came to a head this revolutionary summer—coronavirus, the economic crisis, the racial uprising, the hovering crisis of the climate, and the democratic crisis embodied by Donald Trump. These crises are dark; they’re a recipe for despair. But they also raise this question of whether we’re at the end of an era; maybe what we are really see- ing is that we have not been living right. The connective tissue in all these different crises are telling us: “You haven’t been living right. You haven’t been voting right. You haven’t been eating right. You haven’t been living in harmony with the planet right. You haven’t lived with the right level of concern for each other. You haven’t lived right in terms of checking greed and other base emotions.” If this is a rock-bottom moment for the country, could it be a moment that precedes an awakening and an age of reform? An age in which public purpose once again overtakes private purpose as the defining striving of the age, in which what we do together matters more than what we do alone? If there is a silver lining or a way to find hope in this time, it’s that a brokenness this complete has to give way to a dawn.

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