An Immigrant Scholar of American Politics Writes About the American Dream
Cyril Ghosh, assistant professor of government and politics at Wagner since 2012, published his first book in 2013, The Politics of the American Dream: Democratic Inclusion in Contemporary American Culture (Palgrave Macmillan). Huffington Post columnist Heath Brown named it one of the year’s best political science books. In March 2014, Wagner Magazine Editor Laura Barlament sat down with Dr. Ghosh to find out more about the project.
LB: In The Politics of the American Dream, you write, “Democratic societies can only thrive when people of diverse identities can feel equally free and included in them.” What are some factors in your personal experience and in your studies that led you to that conclusion?
CG: I grew up in a Catholic household in a pretty secular India. When I was in high school, Hindu nationalists came into the national spotlight as a real political entity in India. The most dramatic signal of this change in the political landscape was a controversial destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, a holy city for Hindus.
I was 16 years old. And, for the first time, I felt that I lived in a Hindu country with a Hindu majority and that Christians, like Muslims, were somehow second-class Indians. I hadn’t articulated this to myself in these words at the time — but I felt that India would not, and indeed could not, be a “real” democracy if it became a Hindu nationalist country.
I have since thought about this subject more systematically, and the sentence you quote is the result of a lot of thinking and reading and studying about this topic that reconfirmed the ideas I have had since my teenage years: No polity can legitimately call itself a democracy unless it makes a serious effort to accommodate and include the various communities of people, often marked by their “difference,” that live within its boundaries.
LB: How did you get interested in studying the US, and in the US?
CG: I came to Syracuse University with the intention of studying national identity in comparative form. But my topic was too big for a dissertation, so I narrowed my focus to American politics. I’m curious about how we maintain multicultural polities, and how we preserve unity or cohesion in those multicultural polities. We say, “You and I are so different in so many ways, but somehow we both belong to this country.” This question I think is fascinating.
LB: Why focus on the American Dream concept?
CG: It’s not the American Dream part that is the most interesting thing to me; it just happens to be the trope that binds people together. The question that really interests me is: How do you preserve unity or cohesion in multicultural polities? How do you manage difference? How do you maintain some kind of lubrication in a plural society marked by antagonisms, competition, and differences? In so many places in the world, people are fighting each other within countries, because they feel like they don’t belong to the same polity. In the US, we usually don’t do that kind of thing. Because we’re doing something right; or, at the very least, we’re doing something different.
LB: People still believe in the overall project of the United States, even if they differ in their beliefs about certain issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage?
CG: Yes, I agree. The only thing is, it’s interesting that you use the word “project.” It’s one that Canadians do not use. They do not say, “We have an overall Canadian project.” It’s fascinating that America is seen, by Americans and by others, as an ongoing project. It’s a continuation of an earlier idea, the “city upon a hill.” That’s what keeps people together. This to me is the interesting thing.
LB: Saying the pledge of allegiance and stuff like that.
CG: There’s a line in the book where I say, “It’s amazing that this country stays together as one, under God or at all.” [He laughs.]
LB: How did your understanding of the term “American Dream” change through writing this book?
CG: My understanding of the term has actually lessened. I know less about it now than I used to, when it was just an inchoate idea. I know too many different things about the concept now. Although I do have a definition of it in my book.
But, I don’t want to be facetious, it’s a question you’re asking with integrity.
Here’s an example. When I first started, I behaved as if the meaning of the term was self-evident and the same across the board for all people. But that is not the case. There are at least two iterations of the term. It used to be the post-war idea of this middle-class boom, two cars in the garage, a chicken in every pot. It was a suburban, white family with vacation time — that kind of idea.
And then something changed in the ’60s, with the 1963 March on Washington, the “I Have a Dream” speech. This other, different idea of social and racial justice also became a central part of the dream of equality. So, these are two different species of the American Dream, related but distinct: Racial justice and middle-class abundance. That’s just one way in which I have known more and, in a sense, less, because I know so much about it now.
And then there are other aspects: What the American Dream means for immigrants, what it means for undocumented workers, what it means for people just trying to make a living. It’s changed in so many ways. It’s become much more complicated than this idea of, oh, you can make it big.
LB: Not the Horatio Alger myth anymore.
CG: Yeah … I’m a big fan, by the way, a big fan. Ragged Dick, for example, is a great book. I recommend it.
LB: How receptive are your Wagner students to learning about America from you?
CG: It’s amazing, they are interested in what a foreigner has to say about America. After the first couple of classes, they forget that I’m not from here. They’re not interested in that anymore. They become agnostic about who I am.
And they get used to the fact that I will disagree with almost anything they say. I tell them, “Look, it’s not because I want to hurt you, but because I believe that this is the method we use to learn better.” It’s a dialectical method, a Socratic method. They get it. They say, “He’s not a jerk.”
LB: How does your belief in democratic inclusion play into your teaching at Wagner?
CG: I am pretty heavily involved in the Wagner Plan. Professor Lori Weintrob and I teach in the First-Year Program, in which we discuss, among other things, immigration, multiculturalism, and the American Dream in 21st-century America. Also, I teach an Intermediate Learning Community with Professor David Gordon, on Civil Liberties and Disability Rights. In this class, we discuss the question of minority inclusion and social justice from various perspectives, but especially from the point of view of law. In some of my other classes, I discuss critical race theory, immigration, gender and sexuality, etc.
LB: What is your next project?
CG: I have been working on a set of ideas that combines the topics of ideology (especially the ideological insistence on the idea of “work” in the US) and citizenship and immigration. It will be a while before it takes some concrete shape, though.
So far, I’ve basically made a career of my immigrant status. [He laughs.] There’s no other way to say it. I came here to go to school, finish a Ph.D., get a job, and live here. And what’s my research area? The American Dream. So if you think about it, it’s interesting, you know? I write about myself in a sense.