Creating a Community: The New Story of FO° Meetups

Communities and conversations enrich the human experience. Unlike centuries-old Oxford or the Cosmos Club, FO° Meetups are new. In many ways, we are emulating these august institutions while building open, diverse and global communities in different cities around the world.

December 06, 2023 22:57 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

Years ago, my father gave me four children’s history books: Indian and British, Soviet and American. These books had four different stories about the same events in history. In many ways, this education planted the seeds of Fair Observer. I realized early that it helps to view the world through many prisms.

Yet this unusual education made me different from my fellow students. In the India I grew up in, exams mattered. The books prescribed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for the Central Board of Secondary Education were holier than the Bible. Departing from the straight and narrow meant decapitation in the exams.

In brief, I got terrible marks growing up. Worse, I did not have much in common with fellow students. Their world was the NCERT books, exams, marks, cricket and Bollywood. None of these interested me. I was interested in classics such as the Mahabharata and the Odyssey; sports like football, tennis and swimming; and, of course, history.

When it came to history, I found myself falling foul of both teachers and fellow students. India was then ruled by the Nehru dynasty, which had imposed socialism through a colonial bureaucracy. Things were not as oppressive as Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao Zedong’s China, but freedom and creativity were certainly not in the air. I just could not swallow the NCERT narrative hook, line and sinker, and I found myself isolated as a result.

A story of communities, old and new

All through my education and career in India, I found myself isolated. It was only when I got to Oxford that I found my people. Here, I met the likes of Thomas Baranga, Thomas Munby, Alexander Coward, Phoebe Makiello, Elise Siegert and many others. We had interminable discussions about all sorts of things, exchanged ideas (many of them silly) and debated till we were blue in the face.

Oxford left an indelible mark on my mind. I have often wondered what enables my alma mater to foster such close-knit communities. The architecture, both physical and social, plays a part. The distance from distracting London helps. Many centuries of tradition also help. When I arrived as a young officer from India, I was told a chap called Lawrence came here a few years before me and that I had some living up to do. Yes, the tutor chatting with me was referring to Lawrence of Arabia. This sense of following in the footsteps of greats is always there at Oxford. Yet what makes the place special are the people and the communities they form.

At Fair Observer, we have always had a strong sense of community in our core team. Yet it was hard to translate that to our authors and readers. Unlike Oxford, ours is a new story. We lack the spires and domes of Oxford. We are geographically distributed. Claire Whitaker is in London, Peter Isackson in Charente-Maritime, Roberta Campani in Geneva, Anton Schauble in Delaware and so on and so forth.

One of our team members came up with the idea that we should start FO° Meetups. Authors, editors, readers, donors and supporters could meet up in different cities around the world. After a slow start, our meetups have picked up. Last week, we had a great gathering in New York. We had young interns in high school as well as senior people, including a German economist, a Japanese investor, a British serial entrepreneur, a Hungarian private equity professional and a Brazilian marketing expert. Earlier, we had an equally delightful meetup in London. Today, we have our meetup at The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery, 8th and G Streets NW, Washington, DC 20001 from 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM Eastern Time.

These meetups have forged small communities in different cities. People of diverse walks of life come together to get to know each other and discuss various issues. I always learn something new in every meetup and look forward to catching up with familiar faces and meeting new people in various cities. 

A dinner hosted by Türkiye sparks new ideas

As I think of our FO° Meetup today, I cannot help but remember the dinner at the Cosmos Club in honor of the centennial of the Republic of Türkiye. Yesterday, I met old friends and new at this event. We had extraordinarily engaging conversations till late in the evening. I learned that a 2010
BBC story about Vienna being a “playground for spies” still holds true today. I also learned from a top expert how Russia is subverting sanctions.

The dinner hosted by Türkiye also made me think about how time never stands still. After 1453, Istanbul became the center of the Ottoman Empire which extended from Europe to the Middle East. In 1529 and 1683, Ottoman forces besieged Vienna itself. A century later, the Ottomans had declined, and they lost Crimea to the Russians in 1783. Prince Grigory Potemkin, the legendary lover of Catherine the Great, conquered this peninsula for his queen. Today, Russia and Ukraine are battling it out for control of Crimea in the Black Sea.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire came to be known as the “sick man of Europe.” It lost territory regularly. At the end of World War I, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres abolished the empire, took away territory not inhabited by Turkish peoples, imposed punitive economic terms and restricted the military. This treaty was far more severe than the Treaty of Versailles.

The Turks did not take kindly to the Treaty of Sèvres. Mustafa Kemal Pasha launched the Turkish War of Independence and successfully fought Greek, Armenian and French forces. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne followed, leading to the formation of the modern Turkish republic.

Note that the first mass movement in British India, which then comprised modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, was the Khilafat Movement. Indian Muslims opposed the victorious Allied policies and their planned dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Mahatma Gandhi, who had just returned from South Africa, supported the Khilafat cause, This movement aimed to restore the Ottoman sultan as the caliph of Sunni Muslims, and Gandhi yoked the energy of this cause to launch the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920.

As I think of the dinner yesterday, I realize ever more clearly that the world has always been interconnected. Time is a meandering river that changes our societies imperceptibly over time, and yet many things stay the same. This coming year, we will be doing more timelines to provide context and make sense of the world. We will also learn from the likes of the Cosmos Club, where the Republic of Türkiye hosted such a magnificent event.

To those who do not live in Washington, DC, an introduction to the Cosmos Club is in order. It is “a private social club for men and women distinguished in science, literature, the arts, learned professions, or public service,” and a great institution. So are many clubs in London and elsewhere. From time to time, I go to events at these august institutions. In some ways, they are reminiscent of Oxford colleges where people congregate and converse. FO° Meetups lack the physical infrastructure of these communities and are more loosely bound, but they tend to be more global and diverse. Perhaps the way forward might be to collaborate with these older institutions to combine our strengths.

Republic of Türkiye Dinner at the Cosmos Club

I have come to the end of my reflections this Wednesday. I wish you a wonderful holiday season and look forward to your ideas. Remember to become
a regular donor to Fair Observer if you have not already done so. Even $1 per year matters because a million people giving us this amount will enable us to inform, educate and build communities around the world.

My best wishes and warmest regards,

Atul Singh 
Founder, CEO & Editor-in-Chief

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