August 14, 2013 marks the day when I set foot on American ground. With little more than the desire to learn about 21st century America (and a nice Fulbright grant to financially support my curiosity), I aimed to discover what drives this great nation.
And let me start this blog post by telling all of you that my first four months in the USA have been absolutely mind-boggling. In Belgium, I make a living by studying democratic crises, and without sounding too much like a disaster tourist, I can honestly say that these last few months were probably the best time to visit the USA. When Europeans look across the Atlantic, they tend to think that Americans have a strong sense of national identity and that they support one common political and societal project. But the last few months have shown that this is far from the truth. The political climate in the US has become more and more polarized and the role of the elites in exacerbating conflicts is increasingly being questioned. Without too much of an exaggeration, I would even say that the current political divide between Democrats and Republicans takes almost Belgian proportions, even though Belgium still holds the embarrassing world record of the longest government shutdown.
This climate of conflict and division did not only make it even more rewarding to be here, but it has also influenced my research agenda. It created an excellent momentum for me to set up a deliberative experiment at Harvard University. Just like I did with the G1000 project in Belgium, I am planning to gather ordinary American citizens to sit down and discuss politics in the Spring of 2014. They will deliberate how they see the future of their country, what challenges they see on the long term, and how they would change their political system. In order to keep you all in suspense, the results of this deliberative mini-public will be in my next blog post…
But my stay in the US has not only created opportunities for me as an academic. It has also fundamentally shaped me as a person. I’ve met poets, painters, actors, architects, prime ministers, ambassadors and Nobel laureates who I’d probably never have met if I hadn’t come to Harvard. I’ve gone apple and pumpkin picking, leaf peeping, and clam baking. I’ve established personal connections with people from Indonesia and Canada to South Africa and Colombia that will probably grow out to be life-long friendships. I’ve gained new insights in Americans as a people that fundamentally changed my view of the world, and my life has become richer and well-rounded as a result. I have found time and energy to pursue old passions simply because it makes me more balanced and more productive. And I am convinced that this experience will make me a better person, a better academic and a better citizen, and I have only the Fulbright Commission and Mr. Boas to thank for that.
All in all, I would like to say that my expectations were extremely high, but my experiences exceeded them by far. The only regret I have is that I didn’t apply for a Fulbright grant earlier.
— Didier Caluwaerts