"Our grandchildren will still be fighting for democracy": Why Ali Velshi says it's worth it

MSNBC host and author traces his family’s roots and connects their quest for belonging and equality to today

Published June 11, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Ali Velshi (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ali Velshi (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

“Why does anyone leave anywhere?” is the compelling title of the first chapter in Ali Velshi’s new book, “Small Acts of Courage: A Legacy of Endurance and the Fight for Democracy.” The award-winning MSNBC host shares his family's immigration story, which spans from India to South Africa, Kenya, Canada and the U.S., and digs into why so many people around the world decide to pick up and leave their homelands.

As the son of a Palestinian immigrant myself, and especially in contemporary America, where the right so often attacks immigrants with false claims, I connected deeply with what Velshi's family endured. As he explained during our "Salon Talks" conversation, although immigrants come from many different places and their stories are all different, they've come to America for the same reason: the prospect of a better life for themselves and their families.

Velshi, who is particularly known for his background in economic reporting, made clear that our nation still needs immigration, contrary to the stereotypes of conservatives. “Economically, immigrants are an imperative in America," he said, largely because of the "negative birth rate" among native-born U.S. citizens. But Velshi cautioned that America is “developing into this anti-immigrant society,” with the MAGA movement's evident focus on preserving white supremacy taking priority over the needs of economic growth. 

Speaking of the former and perhaps future president, Velshi and I share a concern that too many Americans truly don’t believe that we could lose our democratic republic if Donald Trump returns to the White House. Velshi had recently returned from a reporting trip in the Middle East and said people he spoke with there would love to live in a democracy that offered a greater level of self-determination. In the U.S., far too many of us take this experiment for granted. 

The ongoing threat from anti-democratic forces in our nation on the right has led to a kind of epiphany for Velshi, he said: “It's made me realize that the fight for democracy doesn't end. Our grandchildren will still be fighting for democracy, as well they should." Watch my "Salon Talks" conversation with Velshi on YouTube. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book resonates with me because I'm the child of an immigrant. You're an immigrant yourself, but so much of your story is about your family, why they came, what they hoped for, what their dreams were. You start out, in the first chapter, with the question of why anyone leaves anywhere. So tell me why your family left India a few generations ago?

There are a lot of things in this book, and different people read it differently, but you locked into the main theme here. It is a universal story of migration, right? Everybody leaves everywhere, historically. That's how it's generally gone. And that's not just OK, it's the way of the world.

In our moment right now, economically, it's an imperative right in America. We're on the wrong side of this whole thing because we have a negative birth rate in America, and we need immigrants. And yet we're developing into this anti-immigrant society. Now I'm telling that story from the other side.

My family have been migrants since the late 1800s. They left India because of drought and went to South Africa, which was, in theory, the promised land. Except it was this deeply racist society, and they wanted to change it for the better. They go to another country for opportunity, then they tell the government of that country, in the process of fighting against racism, that you're not doing this right and you're not treating us properly and you can do better. And these other people in South Africa are saying, "Why don't you all go home if you don't like it here?” Does that sound familiar to you?

People come to this country and they would like us to do better for them and for ourselves. And our attitude is, you're not from here, you're just taking our jobs and doing bad things. So my family gets to South Africa, they become anti-apartheid fighters, which makes them the enemy of the government. Then they leave to go to Kenya, where I was born, thinking that was a real democracy.

They got to Kenya when it was a colony. They got to see the British flag come down, the Kenyan flag go up. Can you imagine being there at the birth of democracy and being able to vote for the first time? Because they were not able to do that [in South Africa] because of the color of their skin. But that dream didn't work out for other reasons. There was an anti-immigrant, anti-Asian sentiment going through East Africa at the time. You'll remember that in Uganda they expelled all the Asians.

So finally my parents get to North America and it is the promised land, right? It's freedom. They jump in with both feet. Basically this is the story of how my family has just fought to be involved in the political and the civil process for so long. That's the moment we're all still in right now.

You and I are having discussions of the sort that my grandfather and my great-grandfather would like to have had, but in apartheid South Africa, that would have been illegal.

You touched on your family’s Indian heritage and time in Kenya. What those places have in common is they were part of the British Empire. They were colonies. My dad was born in what was then Palestine under the British mandate, so it was also colonized in a different way. How did that experience affect your family? You grew up in two former colonies, first Kenya and then Canada, which was also part of the British Empire.

Yeah, it was part of the British Empire and then the British Commonwealth. It's a former colony that didn't throw off the yoke of colonialism. So you don't have mch anti-colonial sentiment in Canada. In fact, the king is still on the money. I grew up thinking the queen was a really nice lady, which she was. But liking the royal family because you think they're nice and sweet does not take away the fact that the British Empire and colonialism was — can we swear on the show or not? — was s**t for everybody involved except the colonials, except the British. There is no country where they went that they didn't wreck. They thought, oh, they'll give you an education, two percent of your people can go to London and get a law degree — as Gandhi did, by the way. He was a British-educated lawyer, but he was an Indian.

"Colonialism was  s**t for everybody involved except the colonials, except the British. There is no country where they went that they didn't wreck."

They will say, well, we brought you railroads and we taught you heathens the English language and we brought you Christianity. It's all garbage. When the British took over India, India was a quarter of the world's GDP, a quarter of the world's economic production. When they left India in 1948, it was down to 2%. They fully wrecked the country, and today it's not even 10%. And that's the world's most populous democracy, most populous country.

India will get there eventually, but it'll take them decades to get back to where they were. So colonialism actually wrecked the world. That said, it was better than apartheid where my parents were. So it all became measures of betterness, and by the time they got to Canada, what they found was not just freedom, not just equality, but the ability to be involved in the political process.

Now here's the rub. I figured when my parents got to Canada in 1970, 1971, that fight was over. I didn't grow up thinking about the fight for democracy. And now look where we are, where you and I talk on a regular basis about the possible demise of democracy in our country in 2024. That's a real discussion, one that I didn't think I would have to have. I thought that was a conversation for my grandfather and my parents, not for me.

There are so many examples. There are women who didn't think Roe v. Wade would ever be an issue again. If you're Black in America, you had more voting protection in August 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed, than you do today.

That's right.

The move backward is happening. You mentioned that when you moved to Canada, that's when you became Indian. Explain why that is, because that might not make sense to people.

Yeah, when you grow up in this sort of diasporic way, you're never clear what you are in your new country, right? You've had this experience yourself, right? You've grown up and at different points in your life, your identities have been different depending on what's under threat or what's in vogue. When my parents were in South Africa, they were Indian because that's how the society divided you up into ridiculous byzantine categories. Then they get to Kenya and they're sort of South African, but they're still in the Indian diaspora in South Africa, in Kenya, and they want to be Kenyan. They want to be part of this new democracy, but that didn't quite work out.

Then they get to Canada, and they want to be Canadian, but my grandmother,, who raised us and lived with us wore a sari and spoke Gujarati. The food inside our house was all Indian.

"I didn't grow up thinking about the fight for democracy. And now look where we are, where you and I talk on a regular basis about the possible demise of democracy in our country in 2024."

The decorations were all Kenyan, because we were so far removed from India that we didn't have any Indian stuff. In South Africa you couldn't take on or enjoy the parts of anybody else's culture because apartheid meant white people had their music and their art, Black people had their music and their art, "colored" people as they called them, who were mixed-race between white and Black, had their own music and art and way of speaking. Indians had their own, Chinese had their own. So there was no carryover from South Africa.

So we get to Toronto, and we're not white because Toronto at the time, when I grew up, was 17 different kinds of white. It was Irish Protestants, Irish Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, English Anglicans. And so we, by definition, had to be something.

My buddy Mikey, who lived on my street, who is one-quarter Sicilian, one-quarter French Canadian and half Syrian Arab, was also not 17 different kinds of white. So the two of us were like brothers. We don't look anything alike, but they treated us like brothers because we were the "other" on the street. So I grew up identifying a little bit as Indian, but very confused as a kid. Am I Kenyan? Am I Indian? Am I Canadian? Am I South African? What am I?

It's interesting when you feel alone. I grew up in Lodi, New Jersey, where you were either Italian or my father — that was the entire town. My dad was the only non-Italian. I'm half Italian because of my mom, so we fit in. But it was weird to have that experience. I really grew up identifying as a white guy. Then 9/11 happens, and I'm told I'm not white. My "white card" is taken away, and now I'm just an American patriot. That's how I identify myself.

But it's great though, right? Because people of our age, when we were kids, if you were something different from the mainstream, you generally hid that. That moved into my career where I did not want to be the other guy when I worked for local news in Toronto. I was not drawing attention to me, my people's holidays, my people's events and all that. I was just trying to get a seat at the table.

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Now it's amazing. Kids take the food they ate for dinner last night to their schools. They have very long ethnic names. They're proud of it. I think it's amazing that there's much more freedom to be your authentic self in America or Canada today than there was when I was growing up.

Yeah, I'm much more in touch with being Arab today than I was growing up. This wasn't the life that I lived. So things change. It's interesting though, you’re Indian ethnically and Muslim religiously. When you see what's going on in India, does it…

It devastates me.

Is it painful to see [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist spewing anti-Muslim hate?

It devastates me on a million levels, right? One is that my family were Indians. Most Pakistanis were Indians [before the partition of 1948], but there are actually more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. There are more than 200 million Muslims in India who are being treated very, very poorly.

"India is the world's biggest democracy — the democracy that threw off the yoke of colonialism in 1948 — and could be leading the world right now on so many levels. But India is going in the wrong direction."

But here's a sad thing: In 1948, Gandhi gives India independence. This is a guy who says, "I was born in India, but I was made in South Africa." So all the stuff in my book about what he does in South Africa — he leaves in 1913, believing he has failed. Ultimately, he had planted the seeds not only for the end of apartheid but for the civil rights movement in the United States, but he thinks he's failed.

He then goes to India, convinces everybody about this independence thing. He negotiates with Britain, gets independence in a pluralistic society. Now, the saddest thing to Gandhi, after 1948, was that India and Pakistan became two countries because he wanted it to be one. He really was a pluralist. But the Muslims said, "We're going to drown in your massive country. So we want our own country." So there's been this tension. The two countries have officially been at war since the day of independence.

India has tried to be a pluralistic country. It has educated its workforce. It has become a major force in the world. And now it is becoming a xenophobic, Hindu nationalist, Islamophobic country. But it's not just that: They arrest journalists, they arrest opposition leaders. It is, like Hungary, and to some degree like Turkey, becoming an anti-democratic country. The world's biggest democracy — the democracy that threw off the yoke of colonialism in 1948 — this is the country that could be leading the world right now on so many levels, especially when we need democratic leaders. India is going in the wrong direction.

And the United States potentially is going in the wrong direction as well. We'd have to look to leadership outside our soil for democratic leaders, if Donald Trump were to win. You write in your book about how Canadians viewed the United States and how that changed in 2016 when Trump won. Share a bit on that, please.

Yeah, I mean first of all, when I worked in the United States and I'd go back to Canada, people would say, "What do Americans think of us?" I’d say, they don't. The average American knows almost nothing about Canada, maybe it's Mounties and their hats or that it's wilderness or that they went to a camp there or that the Olympics were in Calgary or Montreal. Or maybe they know about hockey.

We Canadians grew up watching American TV. So it was very hard to distinguish, in Canada, between Canadians and Americans. But after 9/11, you started to see some distinctions between these two countries because you realized that Canada had achieved pluralism a bit better than America had. And then after the election of Donald Trump, there were a whole lot of Americans looking at real estate in Canada and understanding that Justin Trudeau had just been elected prime minister, this handsome, eloquent guy.

They're doing sort of normal things as a government and being leaders on the world stage. And we had Donald Trump. So I think a lot of people in America became very interested in Canada after 2016. And by the election of 2024, I think they're going to be looking for a lot of real estate in Canada as well.

Depending how this turns out. I've never had more conversations with people who've talked about, in all seriousness, a plan B. They’re also exploring other options, if a parent was born in another country, for example

Right. How they can get a visa, a European passport, something of that nature.

I fear that too many Americans don't get the threat. You have said that your viewers don't always want to see what Trump is saying.


I think we must pay attention. For example, at rallies he is using the word "liberate" and saying he's going to liberate the United States from a list of enemies. And we're on that list.


His crowd is cheering. If he wins, he'll think he has a mandate to "liberate" the country from us. And I don't know what that means, but history tells us to be wary.

And they've written it down as part of this Project 2025. It's not this loose clown car of an administration like last time. You could laugh at them and say they didn't really break all that much, which I disagree with, because they've broken faith in the political process, which is all that we apparently had.

But if it happens this time around — yeah, I think there will be real retribution, first of all. He has used the same kind of language that Mussolini used. I think there are two kinds of people who are worried. The people who are kind of worried, who are looking for an escape hatch: Can I go to Canada? Can I go to Europe? And there are those who are worried who are saying, "What will the fight look like at that point?" There are some people who think it would be better, people who are Democrats who say it would be better if Donald Trump won because it'll hasten the decline and the demise of America, out of which a phoenix shall rise.

Who's saying that?

I've heard it and I don't think that makes sense. I don't know that we should burn the place down to try and save it. I think it is a house that is dry and there's kindling and there's sparks in the air and we need to keep the house from burning down. I would rather do that.

"After 2016, there were a lot of Americans looking at real estate in Canada and understanding that Justin Trudeau had just been elected, this handsome, eloquent guy. They were doing normal things as a government and being leaders on the world stage."

But some people say it's so broken that we should let the whole thing crumble. I don't know what that looks like. I don't know what starting again looks like for America. The American experiment has not been a failure. It has not been perfect at any point. I think there have been remarkable efforts, leading to the Civil War, leading to universal suffrage, leading to the civil rights movement, to try and improve things in this country. More often than not, after a period of time we've done better. That's what we need to continue.

The idea is that democracy is a cactus. As I write about in the book, it's relatively hardy but you can't give it no attention, you can't stick it in a dark closet and hope it'll work, right? You have to give it some attention, and that's where we are. Democracy will go away if you don't practice it and you don't nurture it. And that's the moment we're at in America.

Do you think the fact that your family came from different countries and you literally came from a different country helps you understand that you could lose this?

You could lose this, yes. I got off a plane last night from the Middle East. There are people all over the Middle East, notwithstanding the current war, who are talking about politics, how they would love to have a real political system with real political parties where they could debate and do those things. We have it! Don't give it up. Don't ignore it. You can't say, "I can't read this anymore, I can't watch TV anymore, it’s too much for me." It can't be too much for you.

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You mentioned the Middle East. You've covered the Gaza conflict and other conflicts. Why does this one feel so different? Why is this one so heavy for so many of us?

It's truly the worst story in the world. It is the equivalent of being a firefighter and you get a call, you get dispatched to a building, and you show up and this building's on fire and it's the biggest building you've ever seen. There's no way that your hoses or the water will reach the top. There's no way your ladders will reach the top.

There are people up there who need to get out and you can't rescue them, but you can't get in your truck and leave. You have to stay here until this is fixed, even though it is obvious to everybody around you that it's not going to get fixed. IN the case of Israel and Gaza, the leadership in both cases are deeply disincentivized to solve this problem, because a real solution to this problem largely means the end of Netanyahu and his crazy right-wing government.

It probably means the end of the people who currently run Hamas. Doesn't mean that the concept of Hamas, which has been around since the 1920s, will go away, but these leaders will go away. They might get exiled somewhere, but the Israelis will take them out. So everybody who can do something about this is disincentivized to do it.

The rest of us in the world have decided to start reading this book from the final chapter, right? This is the demise of social media and cable news. It's caused us to have a hot take on a situation that does not deserve a hot take. This is an old problem. It's an old case. It needs to studied and understood. It is actually solvable. There is a way in which the people of those lands can live in the peace that they deserve and the security that they deserve. It is the will that is absent from a whole lot of leaders who are not prepared to do it. What we in America owe the world is to know the full story, to be fair arbiters of this thing, to humanize the people on both sides of this issue and to say, this does not need to happen.

It would take a lot of compassion and empathy. It would take a balanced U.S. policy to incentivize compromise. Because if you're the Israeli government, you don't actually have to compromise. We're going to end up giving you exactly what you want in the long run. That doesn't incentivize the compromise you need to get to a just solution where there's safety and security for both Palestinians and Israelis.

The problem is that there are a lot of people who want that, who are very frustrated with the Biden administration right now. Both in primaries and in the general election they are suggesting they will vote against Joe Biden, knowing well that that will result in a victory for Donald Trump. And there must be some satisfaction in saying, "because of what you did, I voted against you and I took you down." And I can empathize with people who think that way, except tat this is a binary election. Whether Israel-Palestine is your main issue or climate's your main issue or whatever your main issue is, it's a binary election.

If it's not Joe Biden, it's going to be Donald Trump. So everybody needs to sit for a moment and be comfortable with the idea that Donald Trump may be the president of the United States for another four years and whatever carries from that.

It could be way beyond that, if Trump gets in. He knows that he's never leaving. One last thing here: How have your family's small acts of courage inspired your passion you have to fight for democracy in the United States?

Well, first of all, it's made me realize that the fight doesn't end. Our grandchildren will still be fighting for democracy, as well they should. There will always be people who don't want democracy. So you need to fight for it.

I also spend a lot of time in other parts of the world, including places that my family is from, where people still are in that fight. I was in Egypt just a couple of days ago, where they're so desperate for democracy. It's not a country that's falling apart. It's relatively stable, but they don't have democracy. I travel a lot in the Arab world. They don't have democracy. Sadly for a lot of my Israeli friends, they don't have democracy. They believe they do. They say they do. But what we've seen for the last two years, including in those protests in the street, is that they don't.

Everybody wants fairness and justice and equality. And what I realized is that I am part of that fight and you're part of that fight, as much as my great-grandfather was and my great-grandmother and my grandparents were, and my sister and my mother. That’s what I'm writing about, that we're all in it together.

The point of the small acts of courage is that you don't have to boil the ocean. You don't have to solve America. The election of 2024, Israel and Gaza, Russia and Ukraine — you don't have to solve everything. Just solve something. Small acts of courage are where success lies.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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