Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You

Society & Culture

The Democratic and Republican National Conventions have just concluded. Yangyang Cheng reflects on her introduction to American politics, and shares her hopes and concerns for this election. Living in historic times, what is one's responsibility as an individual? Beneath the distorted realities, how do we reclaim the bond that is deep and intimate with this world and each other?

I remember that evening like it was yesterday, when my father sat me down by his large wooden desk. A clunky cassette player stood between us. He hit play. I pressed my ears against every syllable, the sound scratched by time.

“Ask not what your country can do for you.”

My father paused the tape and asked me to repeat what I had just heard. At age 10, I had learned enough words in English to make out the sentence, but its unusual structure confused me. It took a few rewinds and replays before I got it correct. Only then did we move on to the next line.
Ask what you can do for your country.”

The tape crawled on as the night flew by. My mother walked over from the kitchen, announcing that it was time for bed. Before we put the materials away, my father picked up the booklet with the transcript and read aloud the paragraphs we had just heard, his voice modulating in a similar rhythm as that in the recording. As if propelled by a power emanating from the page, he stood up, paced a few steps, and sat down again.

“Do you understand what it means?” my father asked me, his eyes soft and stern. A man of few words, he was trying to impart much more than a language lesson.

Like the president whose speech he admired, my father never got to grow old. After his death a few months later, I took over his small collection of cassette tapes. All of them were for learning English. A couple were soundtracks of classic movies, Jane Eyre and The Sound of Music. Some were broadcasts from BBC and Voice of America. And then there was a set of three tapes with a booklet, “The Greatest Speeches in the English Language,” according to its cover.

I listened to every tape, referencing the transcript for words I did not know. The movies were difficult to follow by audio alone. The news clips were dry. The speech collection, however, was magical. Churchill and Roosevelt rallied their people in the gravest hour. Dr. King preached at the March on Washington. Adlai Stevenson spoke from the floor of the UN. One voice stood out as the only woman, who enunciated every article in “It takes a village to raise a child.” The introduction noted her “crisp, Chicago accent,” and that Hillary Clinton was the only First Lady in U.S. history elected to public office.

I placed the old cassette player next to my bed and listened to it every night. It was one of the few extracurricular activities my mother allowed. Spoken English is an important skill, she said, reiterating her regret of not knowing another language. “One day, you will be presenting at international conferences.”

An academic presentation bears little resemblance to a political speech. Behind my mother’s odd suggestion was her inner conflict, the impossible task of raising a daughter for excellence, encouraging her to dream, and at the same time protecting her from looming dangers in a patriarchal, authoritarian society. My mother saw in the world leaders, past and present, inspiring role models for her adolescent child; she was also worried that their soaring rhetoric would lure me into the perilous waters of politics, a subject she had deemed taboo.

I left China in 2009 for graduate school in the U.S. My mother was disappointed that I chose physics instead of a more “feminine” discipline. If there was any silver lining, she believed, the demanding study should keep me far away from affairs of the state.

I would once again disobey my mother. In my newly found freedom, I read. I volunteered on President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. When the Institute of Politics (IOP) opened its doors the following year, the three-story building became my second home on campus outside the physics department.

 

 

It was an unusually cold day in the fall of 2013. The streets were covered with a light dust of snow. Inside the Alumni House, the room was boiling with excitement.

The distinguished guest was late. He had attended the groundbreaking of a women’s shelter in the morning, and was heading over from a fundraiser. My friends and I used the time to take selfies. It was an occasion to remember: We were about to meet the vice president.

When Joe Biden walked in, everyone cheered. The conversation was moderated by David Axelrod, the IOP’s founding director and the chief architect of Obama’s political career. Before long, Biden had removed the polytape fence around the stage and was making his way across the room. I glanced at the students in aisle seats with burning envy.

At the end of the event, Biden posed for photos with the IOP’s student board. I was one of them. He asked each of us when we’d graduate. At my turn, I blurted out, “I’m a fourth-year Ph.D. student in physics. I have no idea. Please ask my advisor.”

The vice president threw his head back and laughed. “When I talked about perpetual motion just now, did I get the science right?” The only response I could muster was a nervous grin.

I shared the exchange with my advisor the next day, who found it hilarious. “If I get a call to Blair House, I would know why!” When I received my diploma two years later, he suggested that I should pass on the news: “Tell Joe Biden you have graduated!”

During my time there, the IOP hosted a steady roster of some of the biggest names in American politics and provided generous access for students. The proximity to power was dizzying. That I was studying physics provided some much-needed critical distance. We belong to different arenas, I regularly reminded myself; a person’s worth is not dependent on titles and cannot be transferred through a handshake.

I also knew that had I been born in the U.S. and raised under different circumstances, my fascination with the cosmos might very well have given way to my interest in governance. Watching other students speak unabashedly about their political ambition and work deftly to utilize their connections always stoked mixed feelings, like observing a version of myself in an alternate universe. I could never be sure if my appreciation of their determination and effort, as well as my critique of a few questionable choices, was rooted in a hunger unsatiated, a childhood fantasy unrealized and unrealizable.

People go into politics out of a duty to serve. People go into politics out of a desire for power. Both of these statements are true. I do not believe either motivation can be completely abandoned for the other; if so, there are much more sensible paths than what is simultaneously the most honorable and most despised profession.

Different as they are, scientific research and political campaigning share much in common. There is a singular goal, an established method, rules to follow, techniques to master. A long, messy process can be broken down to individual tasks. The work is only glamorous in movies. In reality it’s tedious, repetitive, and never goes as planned. It’s also addictive. By focusing on the quest, a person takes up residence in a simplified world where roles are clearly defined, where every problem has a technical solution or is irrelevant.

The mission is noble, to probe the universe or to serve the people. But its advancement is not benign. The practitioners are not impervious to the ethical challenges and moral dilemmas, however they are incentivized to look away. In the sciences, the social cost can be insidious. In politics it is immediate.

During a seminar at the IOP, a prominent Republican strategist showed us a curation of campaign commercials. The second-best ad in a presidential race, according to him, was “Bear in the Woods,” used in 1984 to reelect Ronald Reagan. The menacing grizzly, lurking in the forest, represented the Soviet Union. Since the beast’s intentions were unknown, “Isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear?”

Topping his list was “Daisy.” Formally titled “Peace, Little Girl,” the 1964 video from the Johnson campaign started with a young child plucking and counting petals. The digits were repeated in reverse by a mechanical, ominous voice. Through the child’s eyes, we saw a mushroom cloud rising above the horizon.

I left the IOP that afternoon in a disturbed daze. On my way back to the physics building, I passed the statue “Nuclear Energy,” marking the site where humankind first split the atom. My education in fundamental science was bound to the legacy of the Bomb, a fact I struggled with every day. Exploiting the prospect of a nuclear war for political gain felt antithetical to the very spirit of public service.

I learned two things from that class. First, to persuade an electorate, fear is more potent than hope. Second, eligibility aside, I’d never make it as a politician. My mind is too unruly, my personality too blunt. At the end of the day, faced with my own conscience, I cannot suspend judgement.

 

 

I did not plan on following the party conventions this year. Three and a half years since Donald Trump took office, and eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, both the political landscape and daily living have become unrecognizable. A four-day extravaganza to formally nominate a presidential ticket feels like a relic from another world. What is the point of such choreographed performance in a time of planetary catastrophe?

I look up the schedule for the Democratic National Convention and decide that I’ll watch it. I’m curious about the format, the first virtual convention due to the pandemic. I see familiar names and am nostalgic. More importantly, I feel compelled by an obligation to witness.

This year’s convention could be its last. The thought crosses my mind like lightning. For a second I forget to breathe.

Joe Biden is the Demcratic nominee. The primaries had started with the most diverse field of candidates, which quickly shrunk to two old white men before settling on the former vice president, who has been running for the highest office since before I was born.

Most voters do not want a revolution, Biden has said. Maybe he is right, with the delegate count as proof. But it’s difficult to see how the current system is sustainable as is, after years of splitting at the seams, the unraveling accelerated by COVID-19.

A party convention is not the venue to debate ideas or contend with flaws. For four consecutive nights, a two-hour program makes the case for why Biden is the right person for the job. It’s a strong argument, beautifully executed. When the storyline snags, the limitations are not so much about the nominee or his record, but the inherent contradictions in America’s perception of itself versus an unforgiving reality.

During the roll call on the second night, instead of raucous announcements from a stadium floor, the virtual convention takes the audience on a brisk tour of the country. The diverse geographies and people are endearing, unless one remembers the bloody conquests that established the territory. The campaign deserves credit for featuring several indigenous leaders, who spoke on tribal sovereignty and the fact that democracy on this continent predates the U.S. constitution.

The third night is hosted by the actress Kerry Washington. After recounting her familial lineage, she reminds viewers that everyone in this country, unless they are Native American, came from somewhere else, “by choice or in bondage.” This is a more accurate statement than the myth of “a nation of immigrants,” but America has never lived up to the openness it espouses. Since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the country’s borders have served as a tool of white supremacy. Before Donald Trump promised to “build a wall” and enacted the Muslim ban, Barack Obama had deported more undocumented immigrants than any of his predecessors.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave white women the right to vote, the convention includes a lengthy segment on gender equality and Biden’s leadership in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). What is not mentioned is that VAWA was passed as part of the 1994 crime bill. Biden, as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, was one of its chief legislators.

A quarter of a century after it’s signed into law, the largest crime bill in American history has increased imprisonment, expanded surveillance, and exacerbated racial disparity. I do not doubt Biden’s commitment to keeping people safe, but his response to crime is more policing. Decades of scholarship and empirical evidence have proven that harsh policing does not reduce crime. On the contrary, the police, as a racist, misogynistic institution, perpetuates state-sanctioned violence and reinforces structural inequalities that breed criminal behavior.

By selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden has helped make history. The first Black woman and Indian American vice presidential nominee is an important symbol of progress, but Harris’s identity and accomplishments cannot shield her from the fact that as a former prosecutor, she has achieved personal ascension by being part of the carceral state. Systems of oppression do not stop at the water’s edge. An honest examination of Harris’s background should also acknowledge her caste privileges as the daughter of a Brahmin.

Representation alone is not liberation. Sharing in empire does not bring freedom. Black mayors are featured at the convention as voices of the current movement against police brutality and systematic racism, but for the activists on the ground, the elected officials are the target of their protests, not their leader.

At his acceptance speech on Thursday night, Biden opens with a quote from the legendary civil rights leader Ella Baker: “Give people light and they will find a way.” A vocal opponent of capitalism, imperialism, and the political establishment, Baker would have disagreed with much of Biden’s policies. On the other hand, the pioneering grassroots organizer also eschewed sectarianism and advocated for coalition building. The reference to Baker, as well as the choice of an elegant yet vague quote instead of her more fiery statements, is a perfect summation of Biden’s campaign strategy: gesture to a wide ideological spectrum without upsetting the center.

 

 

I feel bad for watching the Democratic National Convention with a critical eye. I wonder if too much politics has made me cynical. Joe Biden, for as far as I can tell, is a good man. His decency as a person, more than his success as a politician, was the theme of this convention. On the second night, his nomination was formally introduced by Jacquelyn, the New York City security guard who encountered the candidate in an elevator.

“I take powerful people up on the elevator all the time,” Jacquelyn said in a pre-recorded video. But Biden was different. “(In) the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him.”

One of the most affecting moments at the convention was delivered by Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old boy with a stutter. The teen met Biden at a campaign event in New Hampshire. Having suffered the same speech impediment in his youth, Biden bonded with the boy and took him backstage, where he shared tips of marking up a text to facilitate speaking.

On the final night of a tightly-orchestrated program, the two minutes of unvarnished grace shone like a soft, soothing light. I have watched Harrington’s speech a few more times, and I still tear up at the end. The child is a reminder that, in spite of everything that’s been happening, beneath the distorted realities we occupy, there is still a part of us that is deep and intimate with this world and each other; if we may find a way to reclaim that bond, which really is what makes us human, then not all hope is lost.

Being vulnerable takes courage. Baring one’s pain is a form of giving. When I was still new to this country, I did not know much about Biden’s policies, but reading about his experience of losing loved ones helped me through my own grief. That someone in his position might understand a small part of what I was going through made the process a little less lonely. The vocabulary of loss can be conveyed even in silence, time and distance overcome.

In the cassette collection that accompanied my adolescence, there were two speeches I returned to often. They were different from the rest, in tone and substance. They were not battle cries or policy prescriptions. Both were short, and they were words of mourning. One was Bobby Kennedy calming a bereaved crowd in Indianapolis after informing them of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The other was Ronald Reagan speaking from the Oval Office after the explosion of Spaceship Challenger. I’m not religious, but I’ve held on to the latter’s poignant closing like a balm: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

Presidents console the nation in the aftermath of tragedy. It feels silly that I’m spending so much time thinking about this minute matter. Among all the sins of this administration, the quality of oratory might be the least consequential. A speech is mere words, and a politician’s word, regardless of occasion, always deserves scrutiny.

But eloquence has its power. Language can wound as well as heal. In this year of ambient loss, I find myself with an unquenchable thirst for words. Watching the Democratic convention, especially in its moments of rhetorical triumph, I had an urge to slip off the armor of reason and submerge into the narrative, to be embraced and uplifted.

“What I want from the river is what I always want: to be held by a stronger thing that, in the end, chooses mercy,” writes the poet Oliver Baez Bendorf. Living in historic times means being tossed into whirling torrents. I have no idea where the river is flowing or whether I’d make it ashore.

Each time there is more discriminatory policy from the White House, or U.S.-China relations hit a new low, my inbox lights up with a string of urgent messages from my mother. Keep your head down and your mouth shut, she says. “You do not know where the politics is headed.”

My mother’s warnings are manifestations of love, which makes my insistence to stay on the tip of the waves an unforgivable act of betrayal. Living is a gift as well as a responsibility. There are no innocent bystanders to history. There is no messiah who can part the seas. Casting a ballot is a materialistic choice, and this time the choice is clear. But an election is not a magical switch. Voting, for those who can, is only the first step. The Democratic ticket represents a chance to stop the hemorrhaging, but a new world can only be birthed through radical imagination and collective effort.

Ella Baker said that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” The statement is not a dismissal of leadership itself, but a critique against the common tendency of relying on charismatic individuals for social change. In the irresistible tide of history, each of us is one drop of water.

 

 

I’m writing this column on the fourth and final day of the Republican National Convention. Its committee has foregone the standard procedure of adopting a platform. The only official position of the party, as stated in the resolution, is to reject the Democrats and “enthusiastically” support President Trump.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke from Jerusalem during an official visit to Israel. The unprecedented action appears in violation of the State Department’s own memo, issued in December of 2019 and signed off by Pompeo, which forbids “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees” from attending political conventions and related events, especially if they are in a foreign country.

After Pompeo’s speech, First Lady Melania Trump addressed the convention from the Rose Garden, newly renovated for the occasion. Earlier in the week, Trump officiated a naturalization ceremony and performed a presidential pardon at the White House. Both events were live-streamed as part of the convention. Tonight, he will be formally accepting his party’s nomination from the White House lawn. No modern president has done so. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while working in an official capacity. In less than four years, Trump has turned the Republican Party into his personal cult and treats federal resources as his own property.

The Democratic National Convention, which took place last week, already feels like ages ago. After the election of 2016, for a very long time I had to close the browser whenever Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama appeared on screen. Seeing them at the convention, I noticed that I could look at their faces and listen to them speak without being wrecked by sorrow. I do not know if that counts as recovery when the trauma is ongoing. For better and for worse, a part of me has grown numb.

Human beings are resilient, resourceful creatures. We look for semblances of what’s familiar in times of upheaval. But when does the ability to adapt become complacency and self-deception? Since Trump came to office, the national media has often fallen into the trap of covering his administration in the same way as its predecessors, printing its statements at face value despite the habitual lies, squeezing its policies into a scaffolding of normalcy when the very agenda of this White House is about undermining rules and disregarding norms.

Following this year’s conventions on cable news, I hear the same type of analysis as in previous elections, where production quality gets more attention than policy, the messaging becomes more important than the message. Pundits default to the language of horse race because it’s all they know. It’s very hard to confront a reality that has rendered one’s sole expertise obsolete.

An unexpected speaker on Wednesday night is the Chinese dissident and civil rights activist Chén Guāngchéng 陈光诚, whose harrowing escape from China in 2012 was championed by Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State. In a short, polished address, Chen called on the United States to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party, which he described as “an enemy of humanity,” and praised Trump’s leadership on this issue.

Trump has made being “tough on China” a personal brand, not for the betterment of humanity, but as a diversion from domestic crises and cover for discriminatory policies. I do not want to speculate on Chen’s motives. He is but one individual. His poor judgment is part of a broader phenomena. Among the overseas Chinese community, many of the harshest critics of Beijing are also the most enthused supporters of Trump. Across the United States, immigrants who lived under dictatorships often display a conservative bent. They are drawn to the old-fashioned narrative of guns and glory. They need their country of choice to be exceptional in order to validate their sense of self. They claim to be defenders of liberty, but what they really want is not freedom, which requires solidarity, but power, the militant, hierarchical power of force.

It’s hence no wonder that people like Chen align with Trump’s white, nativist base. They need to cling to an idea of America that no longer exists and never did. Their grievance is real. Their bigotry is a mask for their pain. Without the ability to direct hatred outward, they’d have to look inward at themselves, and they are afraid of what they might see.

This time four years ago, during a conference dinner, a colleague commented that she’s very worried what his supporters might do if Trump lost.

“Better than if he wins?” another colleague interjected.

Several of us giggled. The possibility seemed so far-fetched it’s comical. In retrospect we were in denial. Everything I had feared about a Trump presidency then has happened or been set in motion. The institutions have not stopped him; they enable him.

It’s easy to lay blame on the individual. If the president were uniquely evil, his removal from office would redeem us all. But it’s never as simple. The votes in the last election were close. The final tally was not a result of bad luck. What we should be asking is not the hypothetical “what if.” The real question is what were the conditions of this country that allowed someone like Trump to have a plausible path to the White House in the first place.

The same conditions persist today in more vicious forms. I’m under no illusion that things will turn a lot worse before there’s a chance of getting better. The outcome of this election will be determined not only at the ballot box, but also in the courts and on the streets. Each of us with a stake in the outcome will be faced with some very difficult choices. When that moment comes — and make no mistake, it is already here — I hope enough of us will be able to resist our worst impulses, to reject the easier option and choose what really matters, to the present, the past, and the future.

I cannot do anything for those who hate me except to hold their humanity in the same manner as those who love me. I cannot be a pessimist because I care, and caring is all we have. When future historians write of this time, I hope they will find in the archive a quote from a speech, and understand that an ancient light shone through the darkness and the people found a way.


Yangyang Cheng’s Science and China Column is a monthly feature on SupChina.

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