The Fulbright educational exchange program, founded in 1946, is the largest educational program of its type in the world. Americans study in other countries, and foreign scholars come to America to study. In the course of its history, forty-three Fulbright scholars have won the Nobel prize, and seventy-eight have won the Pulitzer prize. Approximately eight thousand Fulbright grants are awarded annually. Signed into law by then-president Truman, he said, “If we don’t want to die together in war, we have to learn to live together in peace.” (Thanks to Wikipedia.org)
The Northern Nevada International Center arranged the visit in Reno of seventy newly arrived foreign Fulbright scholars. Susan and I hosted six of them for one of our special dinners, preceded by a home concert. We had heard that there would be some vegetarians in the group as well as the fact that pork was not to be served. Thus, we guessed correctly that we would have guests from India as well as some Moslems. Susan prepared one of her gourmet vegan meals.
Our six guests included two from India, and one each from Tunisia, Bahrain, Japan, and Ireland. It was a diverse and interesting group who all spoke excellent English (especially the man from Ireland J). All had arrived in the US just two days before. Three were on their way to Boston. One was going to Monterrey, California. One was going to a small college in Georgia, not too far from my hometown of Columbus (West Georgia College in Carolton, GA). And one was going to attend my college alma mater, Florida State University, in Tallahassee.
Dinner conversation was very engaging as we questioned each of our guests about their courses of study. The Japanese man was a student of American history, specializing in the period since World War II. The Irish student was going to study law at Harvard. The Tunisian was going to study government administration. One of the Indians was going to study public health administration. All of these skills will be most welcome when they return to their home countries.
What followed was a frank discussion of the problems endemic to their home countries. The Indians complained about the rampant corruption in Indian society. It’s a sad commentary that it is accepted by most Indians that they will have to pay a bribe to take care of some bureaucratic process, either having to do with utilities, licenses, or policing. For example, if a traffic cop stops someone, it’s much easier to bribe the policeman to forego a ticket rather than to go through the court process. Another common bribe is to move to the top of the queue for utility installations. The utility industry is overwhelmed with the needs of Indian society, and so it is a natural temptation for the employees to give preferred service to those willing to pay a little extra in the form of a bribe.
Our comment was that in American corruption is rare on the local level, but is rampant at the highest levels of our society. Our bribes occur under the auspices of lobbyists, who dispense enormous amounts of money to our lawmakers, affecting the drafting of laws, the uneven enforcement of regulations, and the tax breaks given to large corporations, such that despite a high nominal corporate tax rate, many large corporations pay almost no taxes at all, which is legal under the current lobbyist-instigated loopholes.
The discussion of our respective challenges in relation to political processes was poignant in relation to Bahrain. Bahrain has been repressing dissent within its population with the help of military troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia. The “Arab Spring”, i.e. the democratization process, started in Tunisia, spreading to Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain. The protests have led to civil war in Syria. The monarchy of Bahrain has kept a lid on protests through sheer force. Our Bahraini guest (who was half-Dutch) did not have a positive view of the protests, seeing them as a movement driven by religious forces that have fomented strife between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Arab world. She expressed reservations about democracy being driven by that part of the population that is relatively uneducated and motivated by their desire for a Sharia-law-driven “democracy”, perhaps an impossible combination of terms. For democracy to function correctly, the people have to be educated enough to make informed decisions.
The most interesting conversation concerned Tunisia, whose revolution was witnessed and aided by our guest. He had used his English and French language skills to translate and supply news reports carried by, among others, the New York Times. He expressed his feelings of being honored to be a part of the revolution, and that he would be proud of it for the rest of his life, as well as through the lives of his (as yet unborn) children and grandchildren. The picture he painted of Tunisia was one I had never heard before. He said that Tunisia is home to one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in the world, and is still home to a significant Jewish population. He spoke of Tunisia being home to the second largest ancient Roman amphitheater in the world, as well as the ruins of Carthage and other ancient cities. He raved about the food. He described Tunisia as having a cosmopolitan population that welcomes tourists. He invited us to visit him when he returns home in two years. That’s another country for our “bucket list” of countries to visit before we die.
In the course of our discussion, our exuberant Tunisian guest expressed the fact that “People everywhere want freedom” as his explanation for the Arab Spring and other liberation struggles from to Syria, to Tibet, and Palestine. He was justifiably offended by the blanket condemnations of Islam expressed primarily by Christians. As a Moslem, he naturally saw Islam, properly interpreted, as a religious force for peace. He compared the Moslem suicide bombers to those fringe Christian groups that are willing to kill others for their beliefs (e.g. homosexuals, abortionists, atheists, etc.), no matter what Jesus or the bible might have said.
There is so much strife in the world that spending this evening with these outstanding Fulbright scholars was inspiring and reassuring. The Fulbright educational exchange program, along with the Peace Corps, are two of the most beneficial programs ever mounted by the US government. The experiences of American scholars abroad and foreign scholars studying in the US will generate benefits for many years for all the countries who take part in these exchanges. It’s great that the Northern Nevada International Center brings these guests to Reno, where we are able to personally interact and promote more “citizen diplomacy.”