Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"You came to Ireland... to do American Studies?"

I wish I had been keeping track of how many times I have been asked this in the past month (because it’s a lot.)But it’s true- I am taking a semester abroad at the Clinton Institute for American Studies in Dublin, Ireland. Within the Institute, students and professors see it as completely logical and beneficial to look at the United States from an outside perspective; to others, it makes slightly less sense. Being asked this question so often (becauseeveryone asks what you’re studying, and this is the natural follow-up) has made me constantly reevaluate my own presence here, which, thus far, has been great and also eye-opening in several ways.

Two of us from Fordham are participating in this semester abroad program. Alex and I are the only undergraduates in most of our classes, and two of very few Americans. The graduate and doctoral students are studying American Studies or Media and International Conflict. Our classes are: Visualizing Americanization, Journalism: Reporting Conflict, Public Diplomacy and Soft Power, Ireland and the US, and America in the 21stCentury. In addition to our weekly classes, we have been invited to participate in the many academic and social events the Institute hosts.

On Thursday, January 21st, Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech on Internet freedom. The Clinton Institute and the US Embassy hosted an event where we watched the speech streamed on the Internet, then participated in the online discussion by submitting questions. In her speech, she highlighted the role communication networks can play in emergency response (using Haiti as the most clear and recent example.) She stated that the US stands for “a single Internet” and that the Internet can serve as a “great equalizer.” She spoke about an American responsibility to help ensure its ability to fulfill that role worldwide. The Internet is spoken about as a space, and so the freedom to assemble can be applied as a freedom for all individuals to connect in cyberspace.

The overall response seemed to be that it was a well-delivered, well-intentioned, if somewhat vague speech. One question, asked by my classmates, that remains in my mind is that of why the US feels it is our responsibility to provide these freedoms worldwide. Is it because we feel we have ownership of the Internet, or is this attitude a vestige of the American exceptionalism that created the “city on the hill” mentality?

On Wednesday, January 27th, we were invited with our classmates to the US Embassy in Dublin for a panel discussion on Obama’s first year, modeled after a similar panel they held last year around his inauguration. The journalists and authors on the panel (Niall Stanage, Scott Lucas, and Margaret Ward, chaired by Ryan Tubridy), discussed particular issues among themselves and then took questions from the audience about Obama’s first year as President.

The panel came soon after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, which contributed to feelings that promises such as healthcare reform had not been fulfilled (at least yet.) The panelists agreed that the messianic language many used for Obama at the beginning of his presidency, while it energized his supporters, set him up for some level of disappointment from the start (in other words, he could still provide healthcare and jobs and education reform, but even for Obama, such things take time.) While the Democrats lost the supermajority, one panelist pointed out, they still have a greater majority than the Bush administration ever did. They also discussed the possibility of a Palin candidacy in 2012 and whether Guantanamo will actually close. In closing, they seemed hopeful that his future years will show better results for his hard work, and as Lucas said, that the everyday of hope could overtake a culture of fear.

The Irish people I have met so far, even in purely social situations, are quick to ask my opinions about political figures and events once they find out I am American (as soon as I speak, of course), and this has led me into several interesting conversations. I have, of course, become much more aware of how my American identity sets me apart now that I am outside of the States. While I knew that people abroad would be aware of things like the American presidential election, at times I am still surprised by the depth of knowledge they have of the American political scene.

I couldn’t help but wonder if people at home were as interested in Clinton’s speech as some people here were. I wasn’t sure if I myself would have watched the entire thing were I at home and I felt, for not the first time since arriving, a little less aware of current events on a global level than I would like to be. People here frequently ask about things like September 11th and the 2008 election, and my individual memories of those events, but they nearly always know more about the events than I would when talking about Irish history. As American students in an Irish classroom we are sometimes, but rarely, asked in class to describe how something is in America. Since much of our subject matter is on the States and on the role of the states globally, this is an incredibly new and interesting dynamic. It is so interesting to exchange our understandings of the US with our classmates and I am constantly impressed, if not a little intimidated, by how much my classmates and others I meet already know about the States.

In addition to these academic events, I have already been able to explore the city of Dublin and a few other counties in Ireland. My classmates have been quick to recommend places to visit and I am so excited for the rest of my time here. I have already been able to see Galway and the Aran Islands, hear traditional Irish music in an annual festival (and some not-so-traditional… Jay-Z and Journey are still nightly staples in a surprising number of pubs), and see my first rugby and hurling games before watching the Superbowl with UCD’s American Football Club. It is an exciting time to say the least.

I will update periodically about my experiences of American Studies abroad throughout the semester. In the meantime, I will continue working on my answer to what brought me here in the first place!

No comments: