Fareed Zakaria on Putin, the Dalai Lama and Race in America - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Fareed Zakaria on Putin, the Dalai Lama and Race in America

Fareed Zakaria on Putin, the Dalai Lama and Race in America

By Nick Fouriezos


Because his immigrant tale shapes his worldview.

By Nick Fouriezos

CNN host and Indian American journalist Fareed Zakaria sat for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.

On the trickiness of origins

Fareed Zakaria: I grew up in India, so I’m an immigrant. I came to America when I was 18, but most of my life in America I’ve been, well, college [at Yale in Connecticut], then Boston, then New York. Mostly New York, though. So I like to think of myself as a New Yorker.

Carlos Watson: Where in India was home originally?

Zakaria: Bombay, Mumbai.

Watson: Everyone from India who says Bombay, who I meet stateside, and I say Mumbai, and almost wonder if I’m out of step. What is the distinction?

Zakaria: It’s a generational one. So it was Bombay since the 17th century. And then in one of these feats of nationalistic pride, the local government decided to rename it Mumbai, which they claim is its original name, which isn’t actually true because before the British, there was no city. So it’s a sort of imagined first. And for those of us who grew up there, your instinct is to say Bombay, but for young people, I noticed it’s become Mumbai. All your airline tickets have Mumbai, the newspapers that used to be called the Bombay Times are now called the Mumbai Times. So it’s all changed.

On the rise of Hindu nationalism and weakening Muslim political power in India

Watson: Do you think a Muslim politician could win leadership in India at the highest level? Is that possible?

Zakaria: Not even remotely possible. Because one of the problems for Muslims in India is that they are everywhere a minority, which means that they are politically disempowered. If you think about it, the biggest mistake in a way in the partition of Pakistan and India was all the Muslim-majority areas became Pakistan, so the people who were left in India are scattered around. And in a democracy, your power comes from being accumulated, especially since we have the same system we have in the States and in Britain, which is first-past-the-post. You don’t have a proportional representation. So Muslims are 15 percent of the population in India, but they are less than 5 percent of the seats in Parliament. In fact, there are only five constituencies in the entire country where Muslims make up more than 30 percent of the vote.

So imagine Blacks in America where you didn’t even have those concentrations that you have in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and some other places, where they were scattered. Even for Blacks, I think in America, it’s one of the biggest problems with 15 percent of the population, you’re still massively underrepresented because there are lots of places where Blacks are a minority and that makes it so that you have these populations that are discriminated against, but they don’t have political power even though people say, well, you’re one man, one vote. But look at Georgia, the biggest problem for the Democrats is you can get up to 45 percent in Georgia, but then you’ve got to get some white people to vote for you, and they just don’t.

On the effects of race on his career

Zakaria: I’d say a lot of people felt like it was important to hear from somebody new, somebody different, somebody with a different voice and with a different life experience, and I think that helped a lot. I think it helped that I was well-qualified and could have something intelligent to say, but the fact that it came from somebody who looked different and who had, as you say, a distinctive name. Yeah, I think it helped a lot. Look, I mean, and you know this too, on the negative side, I came to this country at 18. I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I didn’t know a single human.

I mean, literally the only person in America I knew was my brother. And so making your way in a situation where you are really an outsider is something of a disadvantage, but I think you’re absolutely right. And it speaks to, I think, the fact that America does try to absorb immigrants, and does make an effort, that it helped. But I think, as you know, Chris Rock put it really well. He said, “Look, I’m incredibly rich and famous,” at one of his stand-ups, and he said, “And yet I bet you, there’s not a white guy in this audience who would trade places with me.” There’s a lot of downsides.

Watson: I actually wonder whether that’s still true or whether something is happening in the consciousness and the thinking where maybe for the first time many people would trade places. Maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe his answer is still right, that the chances that you could end up under the knee of a police officer are dramatically higher for him, and so people would just say no, but I would actually be curious about where that stands today and whether 2020 has been a watershed year in terms of that sense of identity.

Zakaria: Yeah. I agree with you. It’s a whole new world out there. I mean, they just don’t care whether you’re Black or white or gay or straight. It’s very inspiring. It’s not even that they’re trying. They just don’t care.

On the most interesting people he has met

Zakaria: I have met people who are very distinctive in terms of the kind of contributions they’ve made. I have to say, just in terms of sheer intellectual heft, some of my professors and mentors, when I was getting my PhD at Harvard, pound for pound, I don’t think there are a lot of people in the world who are as smart or as well-read or as well-versed. I look back on some of those people, Sam Huntington, Joe Nye, Stanley Hoffman, probably in terms of the kind of larger world stage, what stands out for me are two or three people. Lee Kuan Yew, the guy who built Singapore, amazing character, who just took this sandbar in the middle of Southeast Asia and turned it into what is now one of the most successful countries in the world per capita, GDP is higher than the United States, really the model of government.

[Vladimir] Putin, one of the most interesting characters I’ve met, very, very penetrating intelligence, very well briefed, deeply steeped in Russian history and a nationalist to his core in a way that you could see he could physically get angry when he was telling you about what the West did to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. And the Dalai Lama, to meet somebody whose intelligence manifested itself in a completely different way, in a way that I could barely begin to understand, let alone mimic or follow. I mean, just kind of a genuinely spiritual mind and a spiritual personality that is sort of like dazzling and amazing, but felt very distant to me. I can understand somebody who’s analytically smart. This was a different kind of thing.

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