An Immigrant’s Letter to Western Philosophy

Bharath Vallabha

Dear Western Philosophy,

It’s been a while since I wrote to you. Last time we talked I said some pretty harsh things to you. I said you were racist because you looked down on your cousins – Asian philosophy, African philosophy and others. I said you were elitist because you looked down on people from your ivory tower. I said you were out of touch because you stopped caring.

So I left. I studied you in college and grad school and was a professor. But I quit academia and turned away. I didn’t want to think about you again. That was seven years ago.

But recently I have been thinking about you a lot. An unexpected thing happened: I realized again how amazing you are. The anger turned to love. And appreciation. Thank you. I am grateful for all that you do and all that you have given me.

The change started during the 2016 election.

As an immigrant, I felt nervous about Trump. He was saying the reason many Americans are suffering is because the elites let in too many immigrants. That Bush and Obama cared more about people like me than families that have been here for generations. Was I a parasite? That seemed to be the implication. When I became an American citizen 20 years ago, I felt welcomed by America. Now America didn’t seem so sure.

I was upset. I wanted to yell I am as American as any American, and how dare anyone claim otherwise. But then, the years of reading and listening to you kicked in, and I thought: let me step back from my emotions and take a breath. Let me gain distance from my feelings, the way Socrates, Marcus Aurelius and Kant said was crucial to being rational. The stepping back didn’t make the anxiety disappear. But it created a barrier between me and the anxiety. It helped me think from a space of reflection, instead of a space of fear.

I thought of you then with a smile. Like you had my back. I remembered why I loved you in the first place.

When I stepped back from my emotions, I wasn’t interested in yelling. I wanted to understand what I was feeling and what was happening in the country. Where could I turn to for that? Not to Trump rallies. Or to Trump critics’ saying it is all racism.

I turned to thoughtful journalism. To nuanced new media. To sociology. To history.

And to you.

To Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke and Kant, and debates about where political authority comes from, and what a just government looks like. To Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, and debates about what form a democratic government should take. To Rawls and Nozick, and debates about the scope of government. To Oakeshott, Arendt and Strauss, and debates about the relations between philosophy, politics and culture.

And further, to debates about modernity and its limits, truth and power, individuality and community, nationalism and globalism. To debates between Voltaire and Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and Burke, Mill and Marx, Malcolm X and William Buckley, Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler.

With these debates in mind, I started to hear the ideas behind the vitriol in public discourse. Through you I could hold conflicting ideas at once without feeling overwhelmed.

My coming to America was good for me and for America. I believe that. Still, the policies that enabled me to become an American might have adversely affected some Americans; considering that thought without taking it personally, I could see it was possible. Holding only to the first idea made me feel indignant at “Make America Great Again”. Holding only to the second idea made me feel guilty. Holding onto both ideas at once, I felt called to deeper reflection. To think more. To listen better. To engage in more nuanced reasoning.

You didn’t solve the issues for me. No clear answers tied with a bow. But you helped me feel empowered to face up to my own blinds spots. To stand up for myself without putting others down.

In the process I realized better what it means to be American. It is not simply about an economic dream. It is about a lived, philosophical project begun by the Founding fathers and mothers. They were inspired by you – the tradition of Plato, Aquinas and Descartes, a tradition founded on the power of ideas and the mutual respect implicit in debate. They founded this nation as an heir of Western philosophy and as its extension.

When I became an American citizen, I became a part of this project. A part of you.

This is why I couldn’t forget you when I left academia. I thought I could leave you behind in the classroom. But in thinking about what it means to be an American, I discovered you again in the very air and fabric of America. And you were there for me. Welcoming me when I felt unwelcome. Helping me understand my fellow Americans through the ideas and debates that are a part of you. Encouraging me to respond to others’ fears not with my own fears, but through the strength and hope of reflection.

I used to think you were defined by academia. By the gatekeeping, the who’s in and out of the pantheon, the marginalizing of other traditions in your name. I couldn’t look past it and identified you with it.

But I see now you are not limited that way. You contain multitudes within you. Academic and non-academic philosophers. Religious and atheist. Liberal and conservative. Men and women. Distinctly Western, and yet also influenced by, and open to, other traditions, wherever the search for truth leads.

You spoke through Socrates at his trial. Through Jefferson at the declaration of Independence. Through Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You speak through me and through the person I disagree with. When I remember that, no matter how deep the disagreement or how personal the argument, I see the other person as another me. Because we are bound through you. For that, I am grateful.

Sincerely yours,

Bharath Vallabha

Image: “The Death of Socrates,” Jacques-Louis David