Staying locally, Looking globally

At one point in the not-too-distant past, COVID-19 was a relatively minor news item–the virus didn’t even have a name, it just sounded like another SARS, and cases were linked to specific areas. Now, it’s a pandemic and there have been over 1.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths worldwide. Much of the world is now living under social distancing measures, ranging from full lock-down to more voluntary guidelines.

Everything’s changed so quickly–it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a few weeks. In mid-January, our local GP clinic had a little sign up on the door saying not to come in if you had recently travelled to one of the countries on their list and presented the listed symptoms. That clinic is now completely locked-down, with dozens of signs and taped off entrances, and the walk-in clinic and all non-essential appointments have been cancelled. I had to take my son in for his 8-week vaccinations, which thankfully was deemed essential. We had to be triaged on the phone, then they had to unlock the door to let us into the empty waiting room. The nurse who gave him his jabs was in full protective gear, too–I’m grateful for her sake that she had it, when there are so many stories of frontline healthcare staff working without adequate kit.

It’s been a surreal experience, living through this pandemic and its countless impacts. Social media has been a lifeline, enabling interaction with friends and family around the world as we all go through it together, separately. It’s been interesting (and often upsetting) to see how different countries deal with the virus. As an Italophile with friends in and from the country, it’s been particularly heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Italy. This viral video was an excellent example of people-to-people international communication:

When the video was posted on 15 March, we were still living as normal. We were commuting to work, doing the school run, shopping for non-essentials, attending public events, etc. My nephews in Minnesota, as well as family and friends in Washington state, had their schools closed that week, and ours were closed the week after. My friends and family and I are all living under slightly different restrictions and timelines, but we’re all going through this together.

The pandemic is a global experience that truly highlights our common humanity and underscores what really matters–physical and mental health, and interpersonal relationships. This is an opportunity to humanize international relations, not through exchange and face-to-face contact, but through shared experiences on a global scale.

Pregnancy for Academics

3 weeks postpartum at PhD graduation–at the party, someone asked how I did it, how I combined research and pregnancy/childbirth. I did it by delaying my graduation ceremony, and finishing my PhD before even getting pregnant!

Between not teaching this term, doing up the new house and being pregnant, I’ve neglected this blog over the past couple of months. I’ve been meaning to post thoughts on pregnancy/parenting as an early-career academic, but it’s a big topic to tackle, and difficult to be reflective and inclusive when I really only have my own experiences to share. My maternity leave officially starts today, so I thought I’d have a go anyway and share some of my favourite pregnancy resources.

1) Pregnant Chicken

As a first-time mom who took an instant dislike to the tone of sites like “What to Expect” and “The Bump”, I was thrilled to find “Pregnant Chicken”. Brilliant, funny Canadian writer Amy Morrison is everything you’d want in a mom-friend–she clearly knows her stuff but keeps the tone upbeat and never preachy or judgmental. She strikes the perfect balance between information and entertainment.

Her week-by-week pregnancy calendar e-mails are the only ones I signed up for this time. My favourite posts are this very accurate sleep guide and this essential reading for new parents who are upset/confused/irritated by unsolicited comments & advice.

2) Evidence Based Birth

On a recent Birth Hour podcast, Evidence Based Birth‘s founder Rebecca Dekker, PhD, explained how the site and its resources grew out of her research into her own first birth experience. It was traumatic, for both her and the baby, and included a number of practices that are not supported by evidence. They were simply presented to her as necessary and “the way things are done,” and as a first time mother, she didn’t think to question them. The site presents evidence from actual medical research in a neutral, fact-based way that does not seek to promote any particular philosophy or approach to birth.

As an American in the UK, it’s been very interesting to me to look into the evidence as I try to work out why the NHS does what it does, and why their outcomes are so much better than those in the US healthcare system. This article on the evidence & ethics on circumcision is a great example–if I’d stayed in America, my sons would have been circumcised without a second thought. It’s “the way things are done” there, yet rare in many other countries. The NHS doesn’t perform them routinely.

3) Ina May Gaskin

I never thought I would go for a “natural” approach to childbirth–I always liked the joke that an epidural is “natural” because it’s natural to want pain relief. Two things changed my mind: 1) watching The Business of Being Born, and 2) reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I first heard about counterculture icon Ina May Gaskin in the documentary, and when I became pregnant I turned to her book to learn more. I donated the book after I had George, to pass on her wisdom to others, and then bought another copy when I became pregnant again. I love reading the positive birth stories–especially because we usually hear horror stories from others and in the media! One of my favourite concepts from Gaskin is the idea that women shouldn’t be afraid of giving birth–our bodies are made to do it, and animals don’t approach birth with fear. While there are plenty of scary things that can go wrong, it’s good to be reminded that most of the time, birth doesn’t require extensive medical interventions to get a healthy mom & baby at the end of the process. I’m not 100% on board with all of the ideas presented, but as they said at La Leche League meetings, “take what works for you and leave the rest.”

Out Now! Journal article on exchange diplomacy and the Fulbright Program

My new journal article in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy is now available online! It discusses the theory and practice of exchange diplomacy and analyses the results of a survey of Fulbright Program administrators around the world that I conducted for the 70th anniversary of the program, in 2016. I presented the study at the ICA Conference in Prague last year, and wrote and re-wrote this paper a few times between now and then. I’m much happier with it now that I was with its earlier versions, and it’s great to see it finally getting published.

Read it for free here.

This has been my first properly “independent” publication–my other 3 have all been published alongside other conference papers in special issues of journals/an edited book. I’m working on a couple of other independent things, so hopefully there will be more publication announcements in the near future!

China at 70: The First Fulbright Program

Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. We spend so much time in school learning about WWII, but very little attention is paid to China and the Pacific Theater in the years that followed–the history curriculum, at least in the US, seems to jump from WWII to the Vietnam War. Beyond knowing who Chairman Mao was, I really didn’t know much about the 1949 revolution before reading a book for my thesis research, Wilma Fairbank’s America’s Cultural Experiment in China, 1942-1949 (Washington: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, 1976).

Histories of US exchange diplomacy often make the Fulbright Program sound like a higher ed version of the Marshall Plan, suggesting it was a post-war effort to rebuild Europe that ultimately turned into a Cold War tool, as well. But although Europe is home to some of the largest exchange programs, the first Fulbright Program was actually with China.

from Fairbank, 1976, p. 155

It took about 7 months of negotiations between the US and China to finally reach an exchange agreement that would establish this first Fulbright Program. Part of the delay was due to disagreements over control (the US insisted on a directing board made up entirely of Americans) and the question of how the new program would differ from existing educational exchanges under the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program. Established in 1908, the program created scholarships for Chinese students to study in the US out of funds that had been paid by China to the US (indemnity for the Boxer Rebellion). The Chinese government had control over that exchange scheme, while Fulbright would be a US-administered activity, with completely different funding arrangements, but the Foreign Minister expressed concerns “that it will be impossible to explain these distinctions to Chinese public opinion.” (p. 156). Economic instability was another challenge–inflation and exchange rates fluctuated and it was difficult for administrators to predict exactly how much a grantee would need for a year’s stay.

Even after the agreement was reached in November 1947, it wasn’t until March 1948 that the program was established enough to actually launch exchanges. The first grantee, Derk Bodde, a Professor of Chinese Studies at University of Pennsylvania, was contacted by Washington officials, who asked if he would be prepared to go to China as a Fulbright Fellow. “We would like an immediate decision, if possible, so that we can make a press release today to say that the Fulbright Program has been started.” (p. 174). It had been 18 months since the Fulbright Act had been signed, so they were keen to start it and Professor Bodde was, in his words, “tremendously happy to go.” (p. 175)

A total of 27 Americans were able to take up their Fulbright grants to China in that initial cohort, with 18 of them based in Peking by the end of October 1948. 14 other American grantees’ awards were “suspended due to conditions in China” as the conflict developed (p. 178). For those in the country, questions of safety soon arose and it wasn’t clear what should be done to address it.

On November 1, 1948, Mukden fell to the Communists, marking the final defeat of the Nationalist forces in Manchuria. The imminence of the southward advance on Peking was obvious.

This developing crisis demanded some prompt action by the Foundation. Order the Fulbright fellows out of Peking? Send a rescue plane to move them and their few dependents to safety? Perhaps even send them home in view of the increasing hopelessness of the military outlook for the Nationalists? The Fulbright program was, after all, financed by Chinese Government currency which was not only plunging rapidly to new lows but would certainly not be accepted in areas controlled by the Communists.”

Fairbank, 1976, p. 179

The Foundation decided not to terminate the program, and ultimately managed to support all of the grantees who wished to stay in China for the year. This small group of American Fulbrighters was lucky to have the experience, despite the uncertainty and challenges they faced, because China had been largely off-limits for American scholars from 1937 to 1945 (due to the Sino-Japanese war and WWII), and would be again for many years to come. The 1948-49 academic year was, therefore, a unique moment in US-Chinese relations and exchange diplomacy.

American officials maintained some hope for the continuation of the program well into the summer of 1949, despite Communist advances and funding challenges due to the devaluation of the yuan–for example, “the final telegraphic transfer of funds to grantees in Canton had involved losing the equivalent of 87 cents on the dollar” (p. 196)! Cultural Attache George Harris asked the department to “undertake to assure the availability of funds for continued educational exchange activities in China should events render a program possible.” (p. 197).

By August 31st, however, the program was suspended. Funds were exhausted and “Communist policy showed no hope for continuation of the program on the China mainland.” (p. 198). The Fulbright Program in China was resumed with the normalization of US-Chinese relations in 1979, and has continued and grown ever since (apart from a suspension in the 1989-90 academic year, in response to US criticism of China’s violent crackdown of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square)

Several interesting lessons can be taken away from America’s Cultural Experiment in China, and this first Fulbright Program highlights some key points about the nature of exchange diplomacy.

  • There have been attempts to politicise the program from its very beginnings.
    • W. Bradley Connors, Acting Director of USIS in China, suggested that Fulbright professors should “explain our democracy and way of life to their Chinese students, who will take an important interest in explaining to students the fallacies of their anti-American sentiments, making this phase of their work as important as their own courses and lectures. Only in this way can we obtain full value from such exchanges.” (p. 204)
  • Those attempts have been consistently resisted, and academic integrity has been prioritised from the beginning.
    • “Fortunately, the Board of Foreign Scholarships had been established for the express purpose of selecting grantees on their scholarly qualifications, not their usefulness for political ends.” (p. 204)
    • “And in Nanking the personnel of the Board and of the Foundation were wholly devoted to furthering the scholarly aims of the grantees, which could be attained in the circumstances only by their remaining aloof from political involvement.” (p. 204)
  • There’s a discrepancy between what Washington might think happens and what actually happens in the field.
    • “The U.S. Government expenditures for cultural relations programs were justified in Washington for various nationalistic and public relations ends–to make friends abroad, to enhance the American image, to counter Axis propaganda and, in the case of China, to give educational and technical assistance to a wartime ally.” (p. 205)
    • “But in the field, public relations was never the primary aim, and the enhancement of the American image in China occurred only as a byproduct of a job well done. What was actually taking place at the Point of Contact was a transference of ideas, skills, knowledge, understanding, and human feeling from persons of one culture to those of another, directly or through various media.” (p. 205)

Further reading on US-China exchanges:

Fu, M. and Zhao, X. 2017. “Utilizing the Effects of the Fulbright Program in Contemporary China: Motivational Elements in Chinese Scholars’ Post-Fulbright Life” Cambridge Journal of China Studies, 12(3), pp. 1-26.

Li, H. 2008. U.S.-China Educational Exchange: State, Society, and Intercultural Relations, 1905-1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Xu, G. 1999. The Ideological and Political Impact of U.S. Fulbrighters on Chinese Students: 1979–1989. Asian Affairs, 26 (3), pp. 139–157.

What I’m Reading: The Truths We Hold

The surest sign somebody’s considering a run for executive office is the publication of their combination memoir/manifesto. The Truths We Hold follows the model of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope even more closely than I expected–it’s as though it’s been updated to critique the Donald Trump years instead of the George W. Bush years. Both books do a beautiful job of capturing the massive scale of contemporary problems we face while still expressing optimism and an unshakeable faith in American values. If you, like me, question that such values still exist in post-2016 America, it’s good to be reminded of them as we go into the next election.

After admiring Kamala Harris’s skillful questioning of people like Brett Kavanaugh, I was excited to see her amongst the 2020 Democratic primary candidates and I was keen to find out more about her. There are definitely some similarities between her upbringing and Obama’s. They were both raised by strong, academic (Shyamala Harris was a breast cancer researcher, Ann Dunham had a PhD in anthropology and worked in microfinance development) single moms, both of whom they lost to cancer in the early stages of their political careers. They both grew up travelling internationally and developing a worldview that’s more cosmopolitan than that of the average American (she visited grandparents in India and Jamaica, Obama lived in Indonesia). They both earned law degrees and have a strong public service ethos.

Significantly at this stage in the primaries, both candidates have been considered “unelectable”. Back in May, Samantha Bee pointed out that questions of “electability” only seem to face the female candidates, like Warren, Harris, Gillibrand and Klobuchar. Early polls ranked Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke as the most “electable” candidates, despite the fact that they have all lost elections and primaries in the past. The ladies have not.

Kamala Harris has won every race she’s ever run–for San Francisco’s District Attorney, California’s Attorney General, and her current U.S. Senate seat. Yet the pundits still say she’s not as “electable” as Biden or Sanders (who’ve both lost previous bids for the presidency). Harris addressed this claim at a recent rally in Iowa:

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the similarities between Harris and Obama–a few months ago, this Vanity Fair piece described Republicans who feared the prospect of Harris running for president because they saw her as “the next Obama”. In the same way that it would have been great to see Obama debate Trump and stand up against his birther conspiracy mongering face-to-face, I would love to see Kamala Harris use her prosecutorial skills against Trump in a debate. She speaks so eloquently and persuasively in her book about his litany of crimes–intentionally cruel policies of separating families and detaining kids in cages, Islamophobia, cuts to public services and tax breaks for the wealthy, transphobia, sexism, racism, actual confession on tape of sexual assault, unwillingness to condemn white supremacists/KKK/neo-Nazis, etc. It was sometimes overwhelming to read this book, to see it all written down in one place, rather than just getting a constant trickle from the 24/7 news cycle. But her no-nonsense approach, her determination and her optimism helped to balance that out and restore some degree of hope in the end.

While there are several candidates in the primaries that I would be quite excited to support in next year’s election, Kamala Harris is my current frontrunner.

Humanizing UK-EU relations in the face of Brexit

Yesterday the UK government announced plans to prorogue (suspend) Parliament in the run up to the 31 October Brexit leaving date. The Prime Minister claims the timing decision was about making progress in other policy areas (fighting crime, funding the NHS & education, etc.) but that doesn’t fit with what he’s said in the past. During the recent leadership contest, he considered using it as a means to get Brexit through:

At Conservative hustings in Bournemouth on 27 June

Overnight, there’s been a huge backlash from politicians of all parties and members of the public. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said, “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.” A petition started just yesterday evening has already gathered 1.3 million signatures, and counting–far surpassing the 100,000 signature threshold needed to get the petition debated in Parliament.

Brexit has been 3 years of crazy so far, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know one thing–on a human level, the people of the UK and the people of the rest of the EU are fine with each other. Even the most ardent Brexiteers actually love Europe. They drink champagne and vacation in Italy and Spain, they love the German Christmas markets and shop at Ikea. They drive Audis, BMWs, Volvos, Fiats, Renaults, Citroens, Peugeots, Dacias, Skodas, etc. They eat huge amounts of food imported from the continent–the UK imports nearly 40% of its food, and 79% of that comes from the EU. At grammar school, they learn European languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German–they’re not learning Chinese or Arabic (although Brits are well-below the EU average when it comes to languages: only 38% of Brits speak at least one foreign language, versus an EU average of 56%).

At the end of the day, Britain and the EU are neighbours and friends, colleagues and family members. They were before Britain joined the EU, and they will still be if/when Britain leaves the EU.

What I’m Reading: Disarmed

Kristin A. Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

When I was in high school, my friend Rachael took me along to see Bowling for Columbine (2002) at a little independent movie theater in Mount Vernon, Washington. I wasn’t particularly aware of the gun control vs. gun rights debate before watching that movie, but that movie made me realize that America’s gun culture wasn’t normal. Like Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko about the healthcare debate, this movie used a comparative approach to show that ‘the way things are’ in America isn’t the way they are in other countries.

The recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings drove that point home again, powerfully–this doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not normal. “American exceptionalism” is evidenced in the government’s impotent attitude toward gun violence.

Growing up in the States, I knew people who owned guns–deer hunters, people (white men, to be specific) who wanted them for “self-protection” (which I’ve never understood–protection from what? Why do I feel safe without a gun, even in sketchy areas, but a tall, athletic guy I knew needed a gun to feel as safe as I do?). When I lived in the States, I didn’t think to question the Second Amendment and I took gun rights for granted.

Now, after a decade living in the UK, a country that banned handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland school shooting in 1986, my views on gun control no longer have a place in American politics. Even the most progressive Democrats believe in upholding the Second Amendment. Their current proposals are “the boldest language used in 20-25 years”, but they’re still not banning assault weapons, much less handguns.

Much of the academic literature on America’s gun debate centres on explaining why the NRA/gun lobby is so powerful and well-organised. Goss turns that question around to ask why the gun control advocates are so weak and ineffective. Where is the “missing movement for gun control”, as she calls it? Part of the answer lies in the American policy-making system, which makes national change difficult without large-scale mobilisation–and the necessary degree of mobilisation just hasn’t been seen on the gun control side, to overpower (or even compete against) the gun rights side.

Her book is part of my literature review for the study I’m doing on gun debate discourse post-Parkland, so I’m interested in this idea of mobilisation. The March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 was, arguably, the kind of grassroots mobilisation that gun control advocates needed in order to get gun policy reform passed. But did it? What has changed since Parkland, in terms of actual policy?

As part of my study, I’ve been coding Congressional Twitter over the month after the Parkland shooting, so I’m familiar with all of the policy proposals that were circulating in those early days and weeks. They were, unsurprisingly, polarized. On the right, it was mostly arming teachers and increasing school security, while on the left it was a range of proposals–Fix NICS (improving the background check system), universal background checks, banning assault weapons, gun violence restraining orders, etc. The STOP School Violence Act passed with bipartisan support, but its proposals were a first step rather than comprehensive reform, and it had nothing to do with gun control. For several Republican members of Congress, their only mentions of Parkland or the gun debate were a “thoughts & prayers” tweet on 14 February, then a tweet about their support of the STOP act when it passed on 14 March. After seeing that pattern, over and over (and some “NRA A-grade” congresspeople didn’t mention it at all), I’m a bit cynical about policy change, and about the state of the gun debate in general.

Goss, however, is impressed by the March for our Lives movement and the current state of mobilization on the gun control side.

“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

” One year later, experts say Parkland was ‘turning point’ in gun debate”, 14 February 2019

The same article pointed out a range of new laws and regulations at the state level, in 26 states and D.C.:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

The list gave me some hope. 26 states is a majority, even though it’s a very slim one. I suspect those lefty, urbanised states include quite a lot more than 50% of the US population (I think a lot of people forget how massive California’s population is–one in eight Americans lives in California!). I think Goss’s observation about sustained mobilisation still rings true today, though–gun control advocates need to be as organised, high-profile and noisy as the gun rights side are with the NRA. They have a lot more money and influence of course, but as Goss points out, large-scale grassroots movements have changed things before–the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, etc. The challenge is going to be translating popular support into mass mobilization. In a poll from last week, 90% of Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases and nearly 70% support an assault-style weapons ban. It’s amazing to hear about that kind of consensus in our divided “red vs. blue” politics. The American people actually agree on some of the major proposals. Now they just need to care about advocating for them as much as the NRA cares about expanding gun rights…