Cyril Ghosh, assistant professor of government and politics at Wagner since 2012, published his first book last year, The Politics of the American Dream: Democratic Inclusion in Contemporary American Culture (Palgrave Macmillan). It was named one of the best political science books of 2013 by Huffington Post columnist Heath Brown.
Q 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?
A 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 political entity in India. And, for the first time, I felt that I lived in a Hindu country with a Hindu majority and that Christians, like Muslims, were second-class Indians.
I have since thought about this subject more systematically. The sentence you quote is the result of a lot of thinking and reading and studying 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.
Q Why did you focus on the American Dream concept?
A 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? 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 least, we’re doing something different.
Q How did your understanding of the term “American Dream” change through writing this book?
A I know less about it now than when it was just an inchoate idea for me; now I know too many different things about the concept. When I first started, I behaved as if the meaning of the term was self-evident and the same for all people. I have since learned that 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 every garage, a chicken in every pot. Then something changed in the 60s, with the 1963 March on Washington, the “I Have a Dream” speech. The idea of social and racial justice is also a central part of the dream of equality since then. And then there are other things: What the American Dream means for immigrants, for undocumented workers, 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.
Q Not the Horatio Alger myth anymore?
A Yeah … I’m a big fan, by the way. Ragged Dick, for example, is a great book. I recommend it.