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What Is a True American?

The following essay was first given as a lecture at the conference “The Unmaking of Americans” at Bard College in 2014. It was later published in HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, vol.3 (2015).

Roger Berkowitz: Let me begin by introducing our guest for this panel, Anand Giridharadas. I first encountered him a couple months ago when I read his book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. I had known very little about the book when it came out, but it’s one of those that you read very quickly with gratitude for the author. It is a real pleasure to have Anand here. He writes the “Admit One” column for the New York Times arts pages and the “Letter from America” feature for the New York Times global edition.

Anand was born in Cleveland and raised there and in Paris, France. He has been a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and today he appears regularly on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and The Daily Show. He is ABD (all but dissertation) at Harvard in the Government Department; instead of a degree, he has a Daily Show degree, which is worth more, I am sure.

One of the beauties of The True American — which has been made into a film — is that it tells a beautiful and compelling story. There are at least two main characters in the book. Anand, could you talk to us about the character Rais and give us a sense of what he is about?

Anand Giridharadas: Thank you for having me. This book is a true story, a work of book-length journalism. I say that because what I am going to tell you sounds untrue, but it indeed happened, and it happened in America. Additionally, I think it has a lot to tell us about what it means to be American today. It is about two men, and you have asked me to intro- duce the first of them.

Raisuddin Bhuiyan, who goes by Rais, is like so many of the people who came to this country over the generations. He is a striving immigrant who is from Bangladesh originally, and he came to America in 1999. Let’s remember that people came for various reasons over the generations. Some people came here out of desperation, some people came here flee- ing persecution, but a lot of people who came here were fleeing perfectly decent circumstances, decent to everybody else around them except them. And that is actually a big part of the American story. We are peopled by people who couldn’t stand things that their brothers or sisters often could. Rais was one of those.

He had a great life. He was an Air Force officer in his country, which is a top position in his homeland. Bangladesh is a big peace-keeping coun- try, so he would have been a fighter pilot, made good money, and ridden in chauffeur-driven cars for the rest of his life. But something kind of nib- bled on his ear repeatedly and always pushed him to the next thing. That is how he got into the Air Force. And once he was in, the whisper was, “You got to get out, and you got to go to America. If you want to do any- thing, you got to go to America.” In a time when we are very depressed about our country, it is worth remembering that in most countries in the world, a lot of people still get that whisper.

So he came here any way he could. And now you have to imagine an Air Force officer who begins working at a gas station in Dallas in the summer of 2001. He has a tough existence; he is working many hours every day, but he has these very clear pictures. He is going to work here a few more months, he is going to save up just enough money to enroll himself in com- munity college, he is going to study IT, he is going to marry his fiancée by the end of the year in 2001, and he is going to become a big-time IT guy.

Then 9/11 happens, and he meets Mark Stroman, who is the other character. Mark comes from a very different world. Mark Stroman grows out of a white working class around the Dallas area that in his family, but also in many families, has progressively been worse off each of the last three generations. His grandparents kind of owned a construction busi- ness and had a pretty big house. His parents seemed to sort of work and have a home. There was a lot of alcoholism, a lot of abuse, but they kind of had the rudiments of a stable life. And he grew out of this environment, a world where there are a lot of guys like him.

From age nine, Mark is in and out of the law, getting arrested for things that involve sling shots at first and then graduate to chrome nunchucks, to stealing a guy’s pickup truck, to wielding a knife at some Mexican kids in high school. Eventually, he ends up where a lot of American boys are ending up right now, which is first juvenile detention and then prison, where he serves time on two different offenses. For each time, he is let out after a few months on six- and eight-year sentences.

Mark is kind of a deadbeat, but he is not part of the welfare story. He works as a stonecutter and in a body shop. This is a drift man who had never been able to hold down a kind of decent life, and who lived, as his wife put it, by the doctrine of hurt-or-be-hurt, who had grown up with immense trauma within his family. After 9/11, this man became convinced that 9/11 was the purpose of his life and that the U.S. government was going to do nothing. He felt that only he, Mark Stroman, could avenge these attacks, so he drove around three gas stations in Dallas, and he shot the clerks behind these three gas station counters, all the while thinking that they were Arabs and that he was fighting back and defending his country. He called himself the true American.

Two of his victims, an Indian and a Pakistani clerk, died immediately. But in one of the three shootings, he used a bird-hunting gun and shot a spray of pellets, 39 of which went into the face of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, the Air-Force- officer-turned-gas-station-clerk. They went through his eye, 2 millimeters from his brain, and through various other parts of his face. But they did not kill him. So that is the setup of the story of two men who met by accident.

I think the thing that intrigues me most about Rais and Mark is that they were living two very different ideas of what it means to be an American. Rais was in that encounter in the gas station because of a belief that no matter where you are in the world, no matter how good your cir- cumstances, you can be better off if you go to America. Mark Stroman was living in a different America, where no one around him seemed to hold that belief or behave that way. Living in these different Americas, the two men collided that day in the shooting.

I then spend much of the book talking about the next 10 years. Mark Stroman goes to trial, is charged with one of the three shootings as a mur- derer, is sentenced to death, and goes to death row, the Polunsky Unit in Texas, for the interminable wait. Rais Bhuiyan, a fledgling immigrant who does not understand the system even in good times, now has to deal with the system with one eye that won’t open and a mouth that is shut. He is let out of the hospital the day after the shooting with his right eye still not opening because he did not have insurance and because being shot in the face is a preexisting condition.

And so, from just day two of the shooting, Rais has to begin navigating the health-care sector and other American bureaucracies. (Let’s remember that many of these companies do not work even if you are not born as an immigrant.) He has to try to convince the Red Cross that he is one of the 9/11 victims in Texas, but the Red Cross says, “There are no 9/11 victims in Texas.” He has to try to navigate his fear, but he does not understand the sociology of this country. He saw a bald white guy with tattoos attack him. Now everywhere he goes in Texas, he sees a lot of guys who look like Mark Stroman. It took him a long time to understand that there was only a single crazy guy. In the beginning, he felt that there must be some sort of squad who has this agenda, and he just didn’t know when more members of this squad would pop up. By now, however, Rais does see everyone as individuals, and he is remarkable that way. He is now doing human rights work and sees people for their humanity.

Over the years, both Rais and Mark evolved, and that is why there is the book. Mark evolved by coming to terms with himself a little bit in the solitude of death row, by reconciling himself with the story of how his own failure and the failure of others helped create someone as angry as himself. Meanwhile, Rais rebuilt his life, got a job at the Olive Garden, got a job in IT, pushed his way up, and 10 years after the shooting, Rais went to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He finally had money to go, so he went and took his mother along with him. This was his promise to his mother.

They both cried the whole time. They did not think he would survive everything he did, let alone fulfill his sacred obligation. And when he was in Mecca, he had this epiphany that God saved him that day in the gas station, when he was sure he was dying, and that he never repaid God because he was so busy surviving. His visit to Mecca was his time to repay God, so he decided to do that by publicly forgiving the man who shot him. As if that’s not enough, Rais began fighting a legal campaign against the State of Texas to save his attacker from the death penalty. He sued the Texas establishment in court, citing, among other things, the precepts of mercy and compassion under Sharia law to argue the case that it was unconstitutional to execute his attacker.

Roger: An amazing story. You spent a fair amount of time with both of these men, right?

Anand: No, I couldn’t spend time with Mark. The accounts of Rais and Mark are two very different types of testimonies. In the book, I interweave the sto- ries; each chapter alternates with the other. One Rais chapter, one Mark chap- ter, another Rais chapter, another Mark chapter. Writing about Rais was like writing normal nonfiction about a contemporary person. It was a reporting thing. Writing about Mark, by contrast, was almost like writing a biography of a historical figure in terms of the evidence base. It was basically like a paper. I have 4,000 pages of documents on Mark, and then I interviewed everybody who knew him. I had to kind of put him together through others.

Roger: One of the most moving chapters is the one about Rais getting a job at the Olive Garden restaurant. Tell us why you spent so much time writing about the Olive Garden and the culture that Rais had to navigate there.

Anand: There were two reasons. One, because just writing about the Olive Garden is funny, and fun, and the book needed some comic relief, so that’s in the Olive Garden chapter. Two, things happened at the Olive Garden that were very important for the story. First, Rais is looking for a job. He has basically been in his house, hiding, until this point. And he finally says, “I got to get over this fear,” and he thinks, “What job could I do that will keep me safe, that would not expose me the way I was exposed in the gas station at 11 o’clock at night, that would help me overcome my trauma?” So he thinks, “I need to do a thing with a lot of people, and I need to over- come my fear of white people,” and he just figures that the Olive Garden is a remarkable place to get over his fear of white people. And so there he is. Sure enough, there were people who came in as a table of four, and to him they looked identical to Mark. They had the same tattoos, as far as he could tell, as the man who shot him, and he sometimes went back to the kitchen and cried.

There were two events that were significant parts of his evolution. The first was where Rais, who was a very pious, very devout Muslim, started to become an American pragmatist. This happened because of a substance called wine. At the Olive Garden, he quickly learned that wine. beer, and cocktails account for half of your tips. He had not known that. It is not the same where he comes from. So he realized he was stuck in his Islamic notion that you should not even touch the stuff physically. He was going to earn half of what everybody else was earning, and that was not working at $60,000 in medical debt alone. So he reasoned with himself, and he said, “God wouldn’t want me to starve.” So he was like, “I am still not going to drink this stuff, but I will sell the stuff.”

He starts selling wine and he thinks, “I shouldn’t sell just if they ask. If I am going to do it, I might as well be good at it.” So he starts going to all the fellow servers, and he says, “Tell me what this wine tastes like to you?” And he kind of boiled it down to this impression that wine really has only three tastes: crispy, chocolaty, and spicy. So he would just go to a table and say, “Welcome to the Olive Garden, and you know, with your Bolognese pasta I would really recommend this very crispy wine. I think you will like it.” And at the Olive Garden in Mesquite, Texas, that sort of worked.

Also, he learned to say little things like, “Welcome to the Olive Garden. Are you going to the rodeo today?” which is not an abstract question because a lot of people were actually going to the rodeo right afterward. So that was learning to play the game, and years later, when he would take on Rick Perry and try to take on the entire Texas establishment, his ability to hustle, to play the game, and to understand the media became important.

The other part of the Olive Garden was how it taught him about Americans whom many middle- and upper-middle-class Americans never get to know. A lot of immigrants from educated backgrounds like his — I would say that this is true about the family that I grew up in, as well — can kind of leapfrog from a privileged position in a very poor country into a kind of middle- and upper-class existence in this country without being aware of how a lot of Americans actually live. This unawareness stems in part from the fact that you never went to school here. If you arrived when you were 25, there were a lot of things you just didn’t study and about which you were unaware because of the way we live geographically. If you live in a suburb 45 minutes north of New York or west of Washington, D.C., for instance, and you do your IT job or whatever, you don’t really know about the suffering.

That probably would have been Rais’s path had he gotten his IT thing, but because he was shot, he became exposed to the American underclass in a way that a lot of people of his background aren’t. This exposure made him think of these types of Americans as people, but he also realized when he looked at the people he was working with at the Olive Garden, native-born Americans of various races, that people born in this country of that demographic completely lacked access to the American dream. For him, by that point in the story, the American dream had started working for him again, despite his being shot in the face. And while a lot of different things were going on, partly the bad economy and those kinds of things, what he saw in these other Americans was an intense solitude. A lot of us don’t see it because we have been here too long, but Rais, with fresh eyes, was able to see things that were appalling to him and should be appalling to us.

For example: Rais, by that point in his life, though in debt had got a friend to co-sign a lease for him to get a car. A lot of his colleagues at the Olive Garden — he saw these women, sometimes pregnant women — walk- ing home on the sides of the highway in 110-degree heat. He was won- dering how it could be, in this country, where everything is so affordable, why these people didn’t have cars. They were making decent money, working the same job as he was, and it turned out that they had the money to lease cars, but almost everybody who worked there didn’t have anybody in their lives who could or would co-sign a lease for them. And he was thinking, “What is going on in the richest country in the world, where they don’t have a brother or sister, or uncle, or aunt, or parent who could co-sign a lease?”

People like Charles Murray and Bob Putnam have talked a lot about this, this loss of social capital. But Rais was not an academic theorist. He was living a life and seeing that this dream for which he had come to America was starting to work for him but was not working for a lot of peo- ple born and raised here.

Roger: He came up with a theory to describe this phenomenon, correct?

Anand: Yes. He called it “the SAD life,” and this was his diagnosis, which I think had some truth to it despite not being the full picture. He was par- ticularly obsessed with how a lot of people were beholden to a life of sex, alcohol, and drugs. I think you can set aside the sex part a little bit because of his own views, although a lot of people today do bear unintended chil- dren and never grew up with parents.

But when Rais got into the stories of his colleagues, they were tragic stories. And I think this is a narrative that we are not really comfortable with, or comfortable with it only in evangelical churches. We are not com- fortable having a mainstream conversation about the fact that a lot of peo- ple in America are living extremely chaotic, precarious lives. Rais saw the connection between his Olive Garden colleagues and the man who shot him. He understood that there was a kind of disease in the country, and he wanted to start doing something about it.

Roger: Your book comes to be about a number of things, one of which is this sense that there is an America that functions and an America that doesn’t, which is, to a certain degree, what Charles Murray and George Packer were talking about yesterday. As spoken of by Packer, there are unaccountable institutions today that don’t work. Also, from Murray’s point of view, there is a bubble on the top that really works, even though the people on the top are hollow, whereas there is a bubble on the bottom that doesn’t work. Please tell us a little bit about what you came to see about America while writing this book. Did you discover something, and if you did, when, in writing the book, did you come up with that idea?

Anand: I had the kernel of the idea before, which was what attracted me to the book. My first book was a much more general book about India, where I was a foreign correspondent, and I had never thought about doing a book on a single story, at least not this way. What drew me to this story was that I felt it was a way of exploring a larger idea that had been with me for a little while, which was that I found myself surrounded by two different story lines. One story was “this was kind of the worst time in American history ever, and everything was horrible,” and there was a good amount of evidence for it. The other story line was “this is the best time in American history, apps are going to change everything,” and there was a lot of evidence for that, too.

I think we are living, in some ways, in the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression at the same time. The people who want to tell us that we are living through the Depression only don’t acknowledge that it is not just one percent of us who are doing well. A lot of us are doing well. I don’t know what the number is, but a quarter or a third of Americans live and work in great places for some of the world’s best institutions, where they are the best at what they do. That is not true in France, or Spain, or in a lot of other Western countries.

At the same time, however, a lot of us live in conditions that are already deeply Second World, and the people who want to talk about how this is the Roaring Twenties and say everything is great don’t want to acknowledge that a lot of people are living through the Great Depression. I feel that both are deeply true, so the book moved back and forth between both worlds and showed that neither of them is permanently fixed. The immigrant who came for the world of the Roaring Twenties fell out of it and tried to reclaim it, whereas the killer who grew up in a failing America came into contact with the America that works through visitation, letters, and pen pals while on death row and actually started to become a better guy.

Roger: Two questions before we end. First, I’d like to have you read a paragraph on page 121 of your book. You bring up a thesis that we talked about yesterday on a panel on freedom, “Is America the Land of Freedom?” A discussion on that panel asked whether freedom is the idea of America. George Packer begins his book The Unwinding with the idea that we are living through a time of almost too much freedom, an idea you raise in your book, that we might need to return to kind of “un-free- dom” or sense of family and other constraints. From what I could gather, your book becomes, at least in its discussion of Mark Stroman and his world, a meditation on the problem of excess freedom in America. Can you please comment on that idea?

Anand: Yes, but before I read this paragraph, I want to give a little bit of context. As I mentioned, my first book was about India. I grew up in the United States, the son of Indian immigrants, and I moved to India after college to reconnect with my heritage. I moved to a place where I had never been before, and I lived there for six years, when I had originally planned on staying for only six months. During my time in India, I became a newspaper correspondent and wrote a book about the extraordinary change that was happening not just in India but also in a lot of the devel- oping world. At the heart of that change was a celebration of the idea of freedom and the idea of the individual. There are things in India that have been conspiring against the individual for eight centuries now, if not mil- lennia . The caste system, class, economics — a lot of different things, which in various ways have limited individuals from finding their voice and becoming their fullest selves.

I wrote this great celebration of the idea of the individual coming to India, and then I came back here and I started telling the story. Then I realized in a strange way what I was doing. The uncharitable version was that I was contradicting myself, but what I was doing was chronicling a society at the very other end of that arc of individualizing, and that at the other end of the arc, it became something much less worthy of celebration. I saw that a lot of the people who are not doing well enough in America are people who suffer as much from the excess of individualism as people do in India from a lack of individual freedom.

This is a passage in the Olive Garden chapter in which Rais makes that connection, about how people were imprisoned back home, versus how they were imprisoned at the Olive Garden.

What Rais was perhaps discovering was that the liberty and self- hood that America gave, that had called to him from across the oceans, could, if carried to their extremes, fail people as much as the strictures of a society like Bangladesh. The failures looked dif- ferent, but they both exacted the toll of wasted human potential. To be, on one hand, a woman in Bangladesh locked at home in purdah, unable to work or choose a husband, voiceless against her father; and to be, on the other, a poor, overworked, drug-taking woman in Dallas, walking alone in the heat on the highway’s edge, unable to make her children’s fathers commit, too estranged from her parents to ask for help — maybe these situations were less dif- ferent than they seemed. What Rais was coming to see, through his Olive Garden immersion, was the limits of the freedom for which he had come to America — how chaos and hedonism and social corrosion could complicate its lived experience.

Roger: I think that point is really beautifully put. We, as part of the lead- up to this conference, recently had a debate here at Bard. The discussion featured mixed teams from Bard and West Point and revolved around the question, “Is individualism an American ideal worth fighting for?” We started with this idea of Tocqueville, who actually is pretty much the inven- tor of the word individualism. The word is first used in the English language in 1827. Not 10 years later, Tocqueville writes Democracy in America Vol. 1, in which he gives the first definition of individualism as different from self- ishness. Selfishness is a passion to do good for yourself. Individualism is a thought to focus on yourself and not on the common, not on what is mean- ingful in the world. It is the focus on your family, on yourself, on your wants and not on the common good. What he says is that the great danger of American democracy is individualism, and the only response to that dan- ger that is not dangerous to freedom is more individualism in the sense of self-government, not to mention individuals who are reengaged in the public sphere. It struck me that that this train of thought is something that very much aligns with what you’re doing in your book.

Anand: You’re correct. It’s important to note, however, that I don’t come at the issues I discuss in my book with an ideological framework. That’s not what I do. I do a lot of deep reporting and interviewing, and I try to figure out the story of what is going on in people’s lives. I therefore pay a lot of attention to the language people use to describe what they feel is going on. Ultimately, the big conclusion I came to was that a lot of the people who are hurting are falling between the cracks of the Left and the Right in America. And what I mean by that is this. The Left is very elo- quent at caring about the most vulnerable among us, the weak among us — people for whom the system is not working. It is also very eloquent about some of the causes of that failure, as well as about the lack of eco- nomic opportunity, the way big companies operate, structural racism, and other kinds of things.

But the Left is silent on a lot of things that the people I was writing about will tell you are the biggest problems in their lives, including the complete lack of family in many quarters of America. In the demographics I wrote about, hardly anybody has a dad. These are what I call fathers until conception. This is not the inner-city hood that we tend to associate with this problem. This is really becoming an every-race reality, an every- demographic reality. Not just that, but there are a lot of social corrosions that the Left is very uncomfortable talking about.

The Right is more comfortable talking about some of those issues. However, it is not comfortable talking about the economic and the struc- tural racism issues, and it doesn’t care about the most vulnerable people. And so those people, and their lived experience, falls in between the cracks of the Left and the Right.

I find that very frustrating, given the amount of pain that you see out there. This isn’t just what’s evident in Texas. I was in a Wal-Mart in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a few weeks ago, and you can see what meth has done. Meth is happening everywhere. You can drive half an hour from here in any direction, and you will see what meth is doing. Meth is hap- pening, just one little example of meth — you can see it in the teeth in the Wal-Mart in Lancaster. And who is speaking to that? No one. Why is that? Because it doesn’t really fit in anybody’s agenda. That is really what I wanted to try to put on the table.

Roger: One last question: Did you have an answer of who is the true American, or what is the true American?

Anand: It would have been a much shorter book if I did. I mean, there is no doubt who I, and who anyone reading the book, will think is the better guy, but that is not what is important. I think both of them represent claims in American life to what is a true American, what is the true American spirit that will always be with us, and that is more un-resolvable. They both represent one side of an opposition between a certain settled- ness of American life and the constant change of immigration, between the idea of individualism and of community, between the idea of every- body doing what they want and there being certain fixed values. These two characters fit on very different sides. It is not neat, but what ends up happening in the book is that so many of the important claims as to what it means to be American end up being embodied by so many of the char- acters who come along; they compete and joust in fascinating ways.

Roger Berkowitz has been teaching political theory, legal thought, and human rights at Bard College since 2005. He is the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.

Anand Giridharadas is an American author. He is a former columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of three books, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, and Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.