Suriya Jayanti (2nd Quarter, 2006)

4th Quarter, 2006
Dale E. Fridell Scholarship Winner
Suriya Jayanti
Washington College of Law at American University

My formal political coming of age, as I turned eighteen, took place in the shattered landscape of civil war-torn Lebanon. My experiences throughout the Middle East during the year and a half I spent there brought into sharp relief the reality that life in America is comparatively tranquil, prosperous and nurturing.

A Portion of Suriya’s Winning Essay:

My formal political coming of age, as I turned eighteen, took place in the shattered landscape of civil war-torn Lebanon. My experiences throughout the Middle East during the year and a half I spent there brought into sharp relief the reality that life in America is comparatively tranquil, prosperous and nurturing. The U.S. boasts a vibrant and ever-changing society, the aggregate of multitudes of individual lives. These lives have the privilege of flourishing under the protection of a political system that at the very least tries to be for the people, of the people, and by the people. With far greater success than many countries I have either visited or lived in, the values and ideals that inform the apparatus of the American state allow it to function much like a greenhouse; sheltering and fostering the human culture growing within it. It is this that makes being American possible, providing each of us the foundation and structure with which we can thrive. Given such, I understand patriotism to be admiration of the formal political and legal structure of this country; it is appreciation of our governmental system as a thing, a tangible apparatus, a bureaucratic organization, an efficient and effective authority system replete with checks and balances.

Suriya Jayanti
Suriya Jayanti

Culturally speaking, America is a nation of big dreams, vast ideals, boundless optimism and eternal frontiers. We’re a nation of people who love to eat, drink and be merry (albeit sometimes to excess). We live and breathe innovation, indulgence, and yes, freedom. We love ourselves, our lives, our liberties and our country. On a whole, this is a society intoxicated with the cultural self-celebration called nationalism, as distinct from the more sober sentiments of patriotism. And to me, there is an obvious synergy between the prudent and pragmatic political system and the lively and undulating pulse of American society. I find it fascinating that such cultural dynamism is necessarily rooted in the ongoing stability of the inanimate structure of the U.S. form of government.

Paradoxically, the vibrancy of the nation is made possible by the bedrock, unwavering ideals set forth in the American Constitution, even as our understanding of the founding document evolves with our culture. Perhaps the appropriate metaphor is that of a sonnet; the rigid structure of the poem allows for immense emotional potency and creativity, just as the Constitution’s strict division of powers, separation of church and state and defense of civil liberties allow for American vigor, viability and continuity.

The relationship between government and society became both practically and intellectually paramount to me in the autumn of 2000. It was then that I found myself living in Lebanon, accompanying my mother on the first of her Fulbright Fellowships. As a widely traveled citizen of the world, and being from an extremely diverse ethnic and cultural background (in part owed to dual citizenship), I had not until arriving in the Middle East carefully considered my American-ness. By this I mean both what America is and what it means to be American. Situated in this small Mediterranean country where the U.S. embassy was blown up twice during the civil war, I found myself in the unfamiliar and challenging position of defending the U.S. from aggressive criticisms. The Lebanese resent America in countless ways and for a plethora of reasons. Some segments of society feel betrayed by the U.S. while others are envious of its power. Still others take offense at perceived American anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiments, or meddling foreign policies, or the seemingly unqualified support of Israel, and so on.

In any case, I found myself at seventeen years old the sole American student at my Beirut university, l’Universite de Notre Dame de Louaize. I was thus perceived as a representative of America and therefore the object of countless questions and myriad demonstrations of hostility. Most importantly, I was forced to seriously examine what America is; both in substance and spirit. I then had to articulate this to my Lebanese peers (in a combination of English, French and Arabic) in answer to the question of why I was not ashamed to be American. It seemed to me that part of the Lebanese resentment of the U.S. is born of a profound yearning for the relative sociopolitical stability we take for granted. The citizens live without the afore-mentioned benefit of a “greenhouse” government, and as a consequence they subscribe to neither any national social contract (though tribal loyalties are very strong) nor discernable rules of law. Lebanon has no true division of powers and absolutely no division of church and state; it lacks the guiding institutional brilliance of the American Constitution.

What became clear to me, in observing the chaos of Lebanon, is that the American insistence upon adherence to both the spirit of and word of the Constitution is what makes for the strength, the prosperity and the peace of the U.S. From my vantage point thousands of miles away, ensconced in a country where the pet saying is “mashi hookumiah” (there is no government), I realized that the constitutionally-defined, symbiotic relationship between American society and its governmental system is essential to our social vitality and progress.

And yet, while Lebanon’s chaos and anarchy began to make me increasingly appreciate American political ideals, my widening perspective made me increasingly aware that America as a culture was far from perfect. During my concurrent part-time employment there as a reporter for the Daily Star, a division of the International Herald Tribune, I had access to the media wires and thus to extensive information concerning the U.S.’s behavior around the world. There is a fair amount of newsworthy material that is neither widely published nor broadcast in the United States, much of which concerns the negative effects of American foreign policy. For example, for right or wrong, the Bush Administration’s refusal to fund family planning organizations in Africa unless they teach “abstinence only” has arguably had the effect of increasing the HIV infection rates in Uganda. Also, America’s seemingly blind support for General Musharraf of Pakistan has provided him with the cover to more aggressively undermine women’s freedom in that country. Or, the again seemingly unquestioning sale of military technology to allied but oppressive governments ethically implicates the U.S. when that equipment is used to equip genocidal factions. The fallout of such policies provides the answer to the proverbial question of “Why do they hate us?”. For me, in a country firmly situated on the State Department’s terrorism lists, surrounded by the amorphous “they” within that question, the hate was palpable.

In this environment, the schism between the political ideals set forth in the Constitution and the realities of often-detrimental policies in action became a central interest of mine. The axiom that all politics is domestic informs the dichotomy; all policies enacted by government, both at home and abroad, necessarily arise from domestic culture and sentiment. Crucially, the values of the motivating political ideals do not necessarily produce righteous action. Exposed to the repercussions of this dissonance around the world, I became keen to work towards bringing the intentions and actualities into closer accord. Initially I felt that I should pursue a career in the realm of foreign policy. Consequently, when transferring back to a U.S. college from my Lebanese university I chose a school with a strong International Relations/Government program, Claremont McKenna College (CMC).

CMC provided me with an outstanding education. I majored in International Relations, Conflict Management and Resolution and minored in Leadership Studies. My coursework was both challenging and rewarding. The four fellowships I was awarded as an undergraduate, working with research institutes including the Henry R. Kravis Leadership Institute, gave me an opportunity to sharpen my professional and analytical skills while working with some of the nation’s leading scholars of government and international relations.

My return to the U.S. coincided with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Over the course of my three years at CMC I watched and felt the aftermath of 9/11. The fallout brought boiling to the surface the perennial tension between upholding constitutionally sanctioned liberties and more carefully controlling society in such a time of threat and fear. With the ensuing erosion of civil liberties, I frequently remembered the chaos of a society lacking the provisions of a guiding constitution, which protects the individual by defining government power. It seemed to me that the surging nationalism, this cultural “us” versus “them” distinction, was so very reminiscent of the devastating nationalism that ripped Lebanon to shreds. In balance, I felt that there was a shortage of patriotism as I have defined it: appreciation and adherence to the intentions of the Constitution. Inasmuch as all politics are determined by domestic sentiment, the challenge to individual liberties instigated by the response to 9/11 undermined the efforts to spread such liberties abroad. Having lived in the sociopolitical purgatory that is the alternative, I thought the more patriotic response to the national tragedy would have been to galvanize America in its commitment to the Constitution and the rights set forth therein.

With the experiences mentioned above, I now feel that the appropriate next step for me is to put my efforts into studying the word and the spirit of the Constitution. This is the impetus behind my choice to go to law school to study Constitutional Law. My wanderings abroad have taught me the following: the continuing relevance, resilience and applicability of our constitutional ideals are the basis of the prosperity, liberty and relative tranquility of America. As an intellectual, I am fascinated by the intricacies of the legal system that guides and informs the society in which I choose to live. Law school will give me the education, training and the tools needed to be an effective and proactive American, working to serve and champion the Constitution by participating in our national interpretational debates.

In light of my reasons for going to law school, I feel very strongly that American University’s Washington College of Law is the best possible choice of schools for me. I have already been admitted and have accepted. My intellectual curiosity and my sense of purpose will be both challenged and complimented by the rigors of the J.D. program. I have also been accepted to the School of International Service to pursue a Master’s Degree in International Affairs.

The political experiment that is the United States is founded in the letter of the law, as set forth in the Constitution. Meanwhile, the cultural vibrancy of America is made possible by the spirit of the principles that inform that same document. Just as the Declaration of Independence was, both a “mere Article of Separation” as Abraham Lincoln characterized it and the launch of America as an independent society that believes in the abstraction that the pursuit of happiness is a basic human purpose, the Constitution is both the bedrock of our state and the caretaker of our culture. I look forward to studying its history, complexities and meaning further, and I seek your support in doing so.

Copyright 2009, All rights reserved.

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