Category Archives: India

The ugly Americans

American flag

It used to feel special to travel abroad with that blue passport. In my evolving world view, I had ample reason to feel pride in my country and its democratic ideals and in my conviction, that despite our many flaws and occasional deep hypocrisies, we truly meant well in the world. We cared about the plight of others, we were generous in our assistance to the less fortunate, and we held our allies in the highest regard.

That was then; this is now. I am much older, and as I travel first to India and now back in Uganda, the sordid, sorry news from the United States is never far away. Large screen monitors in airports and hotels expose the latest in what we’ve now come to accept will be an unending series of Trump media distractions (intentional?) achieved through egregious and unpresidential tweets, along with reprehensible political statements and policies that fly in the face of the ideals that I grew up thinking defined us as a people. “America First” is code for screw the rest of the world (nations, and the environment) – we don’t care and you don’t matter.

From my short-term perch in Kampala, I can tell you that indeed we do make a lot of noise in the world. The polarized, angry name-calling and lack of even basic civility that has come to define the United States in the era of Trump is heard regularly more than 10,000 miles away. More people than you can imagine around the world now know who Mika Brzezinski is. No surprise then that I encounter, every day, perplexed looks by the citizens I meet in these two countries as they ask their variation of the same question:

“What has happened to America?”

It’s depressing that I don’t have the words to answer that. It is too easy to blame the other side, when an insufficient number of liberal and progressive Americans failed to show up when it mattered the most – at the polls last November.  For the first time in my long life I feel shame for my country, and particularly for the leader and his many supporters who are committed to a boorish politics of unapologetic selfishness, who are sowing the seeds of deep discord and division within the United States and beyond, and who seem united in their utter rejection that the globe is now interdependent. “America First” is telling the people I meet abroad every day as I travel that they simply aren’t significant, unless they have a terrorist’s agenda. Then they will be crushed (along with innumerable civilians who just happen to be in the way, and desperate refugees fleeing such terrorism who simply long for a modicum of peace, stability, and hope). To people abroad, America is now perceived as an increasingly reclusive, isolationist, heavy-handed and uncaring country. Yes, we are respected as militarily strong and quick to punish those who would do us harm (at least when it is in the Trump team’s perceived national interest to do so, which is an unsettling thought). And sure, as a citizen of the United States and the daughter of a U.S. Marine, I am gratified that my security is a priority, even if I have deep questions as to the prevailing assumption in Republican circles that there is no such thing as too much defense spending. So what does it all add up to for America in the world?

An ugly truth – Americans are no longer nice. Continue reading The ugly Americans

Only 700 million women

child marraige poster

“What would she do, anyway? It’s not like she has any real choices?”

Such is the cynical response I’ve often encountered, or variations thereof, when I’m moved by whatever furies impassion me on such occasions to advocate for an end to child marriage. It’s an odd counter argument, as if the normalization of a systemic wrong makes it acceptable – “natural” even. The way things ought to be.

But then again, no. Such cynics feel no need for “oughts” in their world view. “It’s just the way things are, dear.”

I’m writing this in New Delhi, India, a country which in terms of population size has the largest number of child brides on the planet. Granted, it is an uneven picture; in some Indian states there’s been remarkable progress in beginning to diminish this practice. Yet in other states, such as Bihar, the percentage of child marriages is over 60 per cent. It’s illegal, of course. India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act back in 2006, but the political will to enforce this law or to otherwise effect change seems inadequate. A National Action Plan intended to prevent child marriage, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has languished since 2013 with no passage in sight. Indian jurisprudence simply cannot decide how to define child marriage. As they ponder, the practice continues.

India is hardly alone. Niger in west Africa holds the ignominious title of worst offender, where 76 per cent of women are married as children. It’s daunting for me to wrap my head around such numbers. Yet the numbers are both daunting and damning; over 700 million women in the world today were married as children. That’s more than five times the entire number of women and girls in my own country, the United States. If you are reading this in the United States, just look at any woman or girl and think of five. Do that again and again, each time you see another female. Your head will be spinning before long. It should be aching, not just spinning. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, yet how often is it discussed by the general public, or cited as a priority?

Almost never. Continue reading Only 700 million women

India won’t talk to us

Taj Mahal

When the world’s two largest democracies won’t speak with each other, urgent questions ought to be asked. In particular, when the issues proposed for discussion included human trafficking and the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, the refusal to engage is both inexplicable and inexcusable.

The United States has certainly placed a great emphasis on improving U.S. – India relations. While visiting India, President Obama even went so far as to frame the relations between the U.S. and India as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”. And of course, there’s a very large, very active, and very successful Indian-American community, arguably the most remarkable diaspora population in the world today. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also visited the United States in September of both 2014 and 2015, and was warmly received on both occasions. It is therefore nothing short of bizarre that the visas of two very senior American diplomats who had arranged important visits to India have “run into problems”, and the visits have been scrapped for now.

It isn’t too far-reaching to presume that the failure to grant these visas has everything to do with the portfolios of these two diplomats, and not the diplomats themselves. Ambassador-at-Large Susan Coppedge heads up the State Department’s global engagement against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. She comes to this important role from a career distinguished by her expertise as a successful prosecutor of human trafficking cases, and as a proficient trainer regarding the nature of human trafficking to law enforcement agencies in many countries. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry, also truly earned his rank from a similarly distinguished and exemplary record of expertise. As the first American diplomat to ever hold this position, his diplomatic career has involved postings in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt, Uganda (twice), and South Africa. Randy Berry also joins only six other openly gay American diplomats holding an ambassadorial rank.

In short, these two people are among America’s very best, brightest, most distinguished, and most trusted. They’re certainly worth engaging with. The denial of visas to both is simply quite astounding.

The United States wasn’t going to India to scold or to preach. This country has many egregious problems of our own when it comes to a failure to respect the human rights and dignity of vulnerable groups, including people who are trafficked and all within the LGBTI communities. While we cannot know with precision how many people are trafficked to and in the United States, the estimates range from between 14,500 to 17,500 people annually, mostly women and children. Despite these disturbingly large numbers, our dysfunctional Congress has yet to pass the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination (FORTE) Act, first introduced in 2013. And, as evidenced by the recent vote in Houston turning down an initiative to protect LGBTI people and others against discrimination, and in the irresponsible and ignorant branding by Senator Ted Cruz of the alleged Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood center attacker as a “transgendered [sic] leftist activist”, hate speech and the self-righteous, extensive persecution of LGBTI persons in America are all too vibrant here. Continue reading India won’t talk to us