Dr. Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s show GPS, a columnist for the Washington Post, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and a New York Times bestselling author of three books. Born in India, he immigrated to the United States to attend university and went on to receive his Bachelor’s of Arts from Yale and a PhD degree in Philosophy of Government from Harvard. Dr. Zakaria was invited to UCLA to give the annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture in Journalism and International Relations. He was kind enough to sit down with members of The Generation before he gave the lecture and answer our questions about immigration, democracy, and journalism with patience, insight, and humor.
The Generation’s first question for Dr. Zakaria concerned the relationship between immigration and populism that he has explained in one of his past articles for the Washington Post, and why this issue is so potent at this particular moment. Zakaria noted a visible rise of “right wing populism” in countries that are both lagging behind economically and those that are succeeding. Yet regardless of their economic prospects, “the one common trait you see is immigration.” What’s to blame for the backlash? Zakaria says its the forces of globalized capitalism.
“Globalized capitalism is a very dynamic but destructive force. We always think about the upside, the new products, the new companies, but we forget about the downside, the destruction of companies and communities. Now that’s what gives [globalized capitalism] its power, its dynamism, its productivity. But there’s a real downside…. And in that, when you go through a particularly accelerated phase of it, which I think we’ve been going through ever since the end of the Cold War, I think it’s easy to accept the globalization of goods, of services, of capital, these are all abstractions. But the globalization of people, that’s very hard.”
In addition, Zakaria observes, paradoxically, that places without many immigrants have the strongest reaction to immigration.
“Where is it that you find this rhetoric about [Donald Trump’s proposed border] wall has played the best? Its in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. These are not places that have vast numbers of immigrants. The places that have immigrants- New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Bay Area – they’re fine, because it’s much easier to fear the unknown, the image, the stories, the scare tactics.”
The combination of the globalization of people and the fear of the unknown person are the causes of this current rise in populism worldwide. Furthermore, Zakaria finds political leadership to be at fault for the populism rearing its head today as opposed to in the past.
“At the end of the day, political leadership matters. You have had one party, and within one party, one person, who systematically drummed up this fear. And of course he had something to play with, there was a great deal to play with in terms of the underlying anxiety. But that’s what leadership does for better or for worse. It takes that raw material and then it can fashion it as it wishes. And it’s always easier to scare people. It’s always much easier to scare people than to give them hope.”
Dr. Zakaria is, of course, referring to President Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric. Throughout his candidacy and presidency, Trump has spewed rhetoric almost daily about building a wall on the Mexican-American border and implementing a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. According to Zakaria these campaign promises exacerbated fears of immigration and helped lead to the rise populism in the United States.
We also asked Dr. Zakaria about struggles of assimilation in Europe and the United States for new immigrants. He discussed the differences between the two regions, and how he believes it to be much easier for immigrants to assimilate into American society, calling it an “assimilation machine”, and noting that “as an immigrant I can tell you the great challenge for American immigrants, for me with my kids, is to make them retain some small element of the old culture. That is the biggest challenge.” This is in contrast to Europe, where there is “a certain degree of multicultural relativism that said everyone can just live their own lives and practice their own practices even if they were very illiberal practices” and that Europeans have “tended to neglect the issue [of immigration]”. He goes on to make the point that in the U.S every immigrant is trying to assimilate, that every immigrant in the U.S wants themselves and their children to speak English as there are huge economic incentives for doing so. As opposed to the xenophobic rhetoric of President Trump, who often portrays immigrants as the “other,” and as foreigners seeking to come into the country bringing elements of the old culture here, Zakaria paints a different picture of immigrants. He describes immigrants not as people who wish to come to the U.S and retain an “other-ness” but as people who wish to become American and assimilate into the country’s culture.
In the face of numerous events at UCLA that have been canceled or disrupted by student protestors, The Daily Bruin reporter Megan Daley asked Dr. Zakaria about the excessive “political correctness” that is often at fault for such disruptions on university campuses across the country. These students subscribe to a type of individual identity politics that Zakaria finds detrimental to free speech. Last year, for example, Bruin Republicans had planned on hosting conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but canceled the event amid fears of protests similar to those that occured at UC Berkeley and UC Davis that turned violent and forced the event’s cancellation.
In relation to these events on our campus and others, Zakaria spoke about how excessive political correctness can be detrimental to the university’s goal of creating an environment for discussion and academic discourse. While acknowledging that he understood the impulses of historically marginalized groups who “feel that they want to be full participants, that they want to have their voices heard, [that] they don’t want to be demeaned or marginalized again, or excluded again,” Zakaria argued that the instinct to shut out and not listen to speech they find offensive is harmful and might actually make that speech more attractive to people who see this type of inflammatory speech as “ideas that nobody wants to hear”. He argues that the problem with completely shutting down these ideas “is that the nature of an intellectual arena has to be one that allows open, unfettered conversation, discussion, and debate. And the best answer to bad ideas are good ideas, not to shut down those ideas, to not hear them”. He then broadened his explanation of what he believed to be a systematic problem with the way politics are framed on college campuses.
“People want politics to be primarily about their experience, their identity rather than a shared experience and a common identity. Because if it becomes all about your identity, first of all it becomes impossible to have a common, joint conversation that includes everybody. Secondly, if it’s all about your identity, almost by definition, nobody else can understand it as well as you, so your answers are always going to be right. And again that can’t be the basis on which you can construct a policy. So I think there’s almost a bigger problem which is that politics has become very narrowly personal and very narrowly about these kind of identity issues”.
More recently on February 26th, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin came to UCLA to give the Arnold C. Harberger Lecture. I attended the lecture that afternoon after the Generation interviewed him. During the lecture, protestors were extremely disrespectful and hissed at Mnuchin as he was speaking. He attempted to laugh off this hissing, and even addressed a protestor directly about why he was hissing, to which the protester replied “I think you’re full of shit!”. These protests made Mnuchin very hostile, flustered, and essentially prevented him from discussing what he came here to discuss, which was United States economic policy and international sanctions. This is an excellent example of Dr. Zakaria’s discussion of identity politics and how this type of politics can prevent academic discourse. These students were only reflecting on their own personal identity as people who feel as though they have been harmed by the Trump administration, and failed to allow for a productive academic discussion. You may not agree with Mnuchin’s policy or business decisions, but shutting down his ideas and not allowing them to be heard only further polarizes people and does not fight “bad ideas” with “good ideas” as Dr. Zakaria advocates academic discussion should do.
Given that that the U.S was recently downgraded from a “full-democracy” to a “flawed-democracy” by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Zakaria also discussed the concept of an illiberal democracy as described in his book “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.” A liberal democracy is one that we find in places such as the United States, where there is protection of individual liberties from the majority and the government and popular participation in democratic processes. An illiberal democracy is one that keeps its democratic processes but loses its individual liberties and checks and balances. Dr. Zakaria finds this lose of liberal democracy in the United States problematic on “two levels”, for Americans and non-Americans alike. Using disenfranchisement of African American voters as an example to illustrate how this is a problem for citizens, Zakaria stated:
“We are the only democracy that I know of, I haven’t done an extensive study, but certainly the only advanced democracy I can think of where there are systematic efforts to disenfranchise people, to ensure that certain parts of the public don’t vote. You can see this happening today as the supreme court relaxed it’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act. A whole series of states put in place laws that had only one purpose, which was to make it harder for certain groups of people, primarily African Americans to vote. That’s a pretty big flaw to be living with in a democracy”.
The Supreme Court Case Zakaria is referring to, Shelby County v. Holder (2013), struck down sections 4b and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which required states to get preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting practices and declared which states must obtain this preclearance based on analysis of past discrimination. Since the decision, states such as Texas and North Carolina among others have enacted Voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to disadvantage minority voters.
Zakaria then discussed how the downgrade of American democracy is damaging on an international level:
“When you look at violations of democratic rights, of civil rights, of human rights around the world, over the last 25 years certainly, the United States has been a pretty consistent and strong voice opposing. It didn’t always do as much as it could have but this is one thing I think Americans can take a great deal of pride in that the United States was always a voice cataloging these issues and highlighting them”.
This is in stark contrast to what Zakaria sees happening now.
“Today we have a completely different atmosphere. Almost every authoritarian ruler in the world today that has in some way attacked, imprisoned, bankrupted or punished members of the media in his own country has cited Donald Trump’s use of the word ‘fake news’… So here we have our situation where the United States is becoming a role model for an illiberal democracy rather than for democracy, human rights, liberty, and the free expression of ideas. I cannot think of a time in recent memory when you have had dictators around the world using the United States as an example to justify its practices.”
Leaders in Syria, Cambodia, Libya, and China have all used Trump’s term of “fake news” to deny or downplay atrocities in their country or silence political opposition. Rhetoric from leaders of the United States has global influence, and this can either be used to promote democracy or to weaken it. As Dr. Zakaria points out, it currently appears to be doing the latter.
The students from Daniel Pearl Memorial High School asked Dr. Zakaria about the atmosphere when covering stories at the White House during the presidency of Donald Trump. While he does acknowledge that “it’s a great time to be a journalist because the public is fascinated by the news”, he finds covering the White House difficult for two reasons. “One of which is a lot of the interest frankly is in the circus of what is going on in Washington”. He goes on to compare now with what it was like shortly following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back then, people were concerned about policy and why these events were happened, but “what now we are witnessing is the fascination with the circus of the Trump administration and Trump personally”,
The second reason Zakaria finds it frustrating to cover the White House is because of the hostility towards the press coming from the White House.
“You are living, working in a circumstance where the President of the United States and the administration are systematically and actively hostile to the press, hacking it, threatening legal punishments, non legal punishments, demeaning it, and that’s a very weird atmosphere to live in.”
As discussed earlier, the term “fake news” has spread to leaders around the globe thanks to Trump’s. In January, President Trump handed out “Fake News Awards” to organizations who had given him unfavorable coverage. Dr. Zakaria says these attacks on the press can be especially dispiriting because the United States is meant to be one of the freest countries in the world and the oldest constitutional democracy. He also postulates on what this attitude may mean for the future of democracy in America:
“You think to yourself it’s fine, the institutions are strong but you know, they are only strong until they collapse, until they get weak. I’ve seen that happen in other countries. America is not somehow you know endowed by the creator with some kind of magic force field that will prevent that so that’s the worrying part about this”.
To conclude the interview, I asked Dr. Zakaria what advice he had for novice international affairs journalists such as ourselves. He emphasized that the challenge of writing about foreign places and people in the United States is making Americans care about it. Zakaria elaborates:
“I think we have a huge problem in this country in that we are a vast continent surrounded by two benign neighbors and two vast oceans and so it’s easy to think that the world doesn’t affect the United States and that you can imagine an America First or America Alone agenda, but the reality is that we are deeply interconnected with the world, as we should be.”
Yet Zakaria thinks this problem can be overcome by making the issues more salient to readers. As journalists, he believes we need to show this connection and explain why these problems are important to an American audience. While broader issues such as ethnic rivalry or sectarianism often catch people’s attention, sometimes just “telling a great human story” allows people the opportunity to relate. He concluded, “just recognizing those people out there who look different, and sound different, and worship different gods, you know, there’s often an element of common humanity that we forget.”
Dr. Zakaria was incredibly articulate and a pleasure to speak with. I was both impressed and grateful that he took the time answer all of our questions thoughtfully and thoroughly despite the fact he usually works with higher profile individuals, including presidents and prime ministers. His comments and ideas on immigration, democracy, and journalism come from years of experience as a journalist, and this experience showed. Many thanks to him for taking the time to sit down and talk with us.