We arrived in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, safely on the evening of November 3rd. The flight was very long and very challenging with two small children, but everyone managed. After a bit of a false start in our housing search in Antananarivo, we moved into our long-term apartment last Friday the 11th. We couldn't have done it on our own. We had a lot of support from our Malagasy friends (Hoby, Davidson and Mendrika come to mind) and from the US Embassy as well. Of course, the entire thing, the months of planning and the execution of that planning, would have been impossible without my wife Emily whose patience, love and support are without peer. The internet here is now up and running, so I figured it was time for my first blog post in-country. Thank you (misaotra betsaka) to all those who helped us get to this point. It was not easy and we are still adjusting to life as a family here, but getting settled is a big step.
I applied for this Fulbright opportunity all the way back in August of 2015. If someone had told me at the time that the first lecture I would be giving at the University of Antananarivo would involving explaining how Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election, it would have surely gotten a good laugh out of me. But here we are. And there I was, speaking to a roomful of about 40 Malagasy college students about how it all happened. I spent some time explaining the Electoral College and how it enabled Trump to win the election despite losing the popular vote. In Madagascar, presidents are elected by popular vote. The students and myself both seemed to be of the opinion that this is the best method. We talked about swing states and how Trump won all of them by an extremely thin margin. We talked of the strangeness of this election and the differences in the candidates. I noted that many people in American were shocked at how the level of political discourse has seemed to hit new lows, as exemplified in the debates. We talked a bit of the big controversies and I ended with some thoughts on Plato and democracy, especially his ideas that democracy is a dangerous form of government. It is dangerous, he thinks, because people who are not suited to making political decisions have the power to do so. I told the students that I myself did not think that Plato's ideal republic with political power held by a chosen few was the best form of government. Rather, I told them that his ideas are worthy of discussion because they indeed challenge us. And they come to mind at a time when people see America's democracy in a difficult situation. The students' questions were impressive and they seemed to have a good grasp on American politics, which is significant given that in general people in Madagascar have relatively poor access to information about world events compared with other countries. They wondered why American was so divided. I told them that the explanation was complex but noted that it involved two major factors. Some people seem to fear a more diverse and changed American while others embrace it. Also, and I think more importantly, people do not really challenge themselves in their political thinking. They consume news that validates what they already believe, causing the general American's thinking about politics to be rigid and lazy. The divide is no doubt real and it is hard to see it going away anytime soon. Students here wondered if there could be a coup d'etat. One happened here, of course, not long ago. A bit more than 7 years ago. I told them that the material standard of living was so high in the US, and that the military was so strong, that people would lack both the motivation and ability to pull off a coup d'etat. Overall, their questions were very good, their command of English was excellent, and their general knowledge of the world seemed quite good. They appreciated the fact that I spoke Malagasy to them and clapped when I explained to them that a large part of my motivation for doing this Fulbright was to come back to a country and culture that I love as a scholar. The first lecture was indeed nothing like what I expected. But that's how things seem to be these days.