Friday, March 24, 2017

Slide Show: Sikhs and Sikhism

Gentle introduction to Sikhs and Sikhism for a student group at Lehigh; slides after the break.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Two "Storify" Accounts of the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at Michigan State University

I recently attended a Symposium at Michigan State University that was heavily Tweeted about. I later compiled two Storify collections comprised of live tweets from the symposium. Those Storify stories are embedded; click "read more" to see them.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Forgetting the Famines: the Kiplings and British India

Slide show for a talk at Michigan State University's Global DH Symposium (click read more to see the slide show).

 The text of part of my talk is posted in the "Representing Famine" section on The Kiplings and India.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The America I Fear

The America I Fear (a poem in progress)

In the America I fear, a woman seeking shelter from partner violence is shackled by the state, detained for expedited removal.

In the America I fear, a mom is pulled from her car, even though she was not the one they were looking for. She’s sent back to Mexico in shackles, her daughters left to fend for themselves.

In the America I fear, we better have our papers in order. They’ll line us up for secondary screening; they’ll take our phones. Are we still welcome in America if we criticize it on Facebook?

America I fear is showing its teeth. Immigrants retreat now to the shadows; the tomatoes we hoped they would pick for us are rotting on the vines, a sticky mess and a sign of lives wasted and families torn.

America, I’m afraid our righteous anger, our protests and our lawsuits can’t stop this; they have the force of law on their side. In the America I fear, they’ll make the laws they want to enforce.

In the America I fear, immigrants will be told to keep their heads down, mouths shut, or bad things could happen. I fear we’ll let this happen. (It occurs to me that I am America, Allen Ginsberg once said.)

In the America I fear, our President speaks of “taking the shackles off” Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They are now free to put millions of immigrants in shackles.

In the America I fear, shackles will be a winning strategy, just as they were once before. Remember when the teeth of their attack dogs were directed at black folks. Today, like Langston Hughes, I too am the darker brother, and I too, sing America. (And fear it.)

In the America I fear, shackles will be a winning strategy at the polls. The immigrants who have been disappeared weren’t voters. Their disappearance will be invisible to many. Celebrated by some.

In the America I fear, all this is televised, all this is televised, all this is televised—and the ratings are through the roof. The America I fear is happening live. The America I fear is already here.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Historical Footnote: Militant Suffragettes, Forced Feeding, and Class Identity

A brief historical footnote completely unrelated to President Agent Orange.

I've been working with an honors student on her senior thesis this spring. She's interested in the militant suffrage movement in England (1909-1914 roughly); we've been reading memoirs by the Pankhursts, novels like Gertrude Colmore's Suffragette Sally (published in 1910 -- interestingly, there's no digital version of it online anywhere!), the anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower (archive.org), and combing through old collections of the London Times and Votes for Women (the weekly newspaper closely affiliated with the WSPU).  We're finding lots of interesting stuff, but since I am not an expert in this area I wanted to put this footnote out there in case readers have suggestions or tips relating to this topic they could share.

We got interested in the depiction of the imprisoned activists who engaged in hunger strikes as a mode of resistance inside prison during the peak of the militant suffrage movement.

One curious discovery my student made was that at first this was seen as linked to class identity. In the early 1900s, the women's prison system in England was structured along strict class lines. First class women prisoners ("political prisoners") could wear their own clothes, order food for delivery in prison, have access to books and writing materials, and even receive visitors. Second class prisoners had more limited rights, and third class prisoners (often prostitutes: women suspected of "moral turpitude") lived in pretty abysmal conditions.

Most of the militant suffragettes, starting with the Pankhursts themselves, were middle class (some of the prominent leaders were also upper-class -- titled women like Lady Constance Lytton). But when imprisoned for various acts, from simply being disruptive in public to actually committing acts of vandalism (breaking windows), and rioting, they were thrown into the third class prison. Initially at least (in 1909-1910) many of the hunger strikes that ensued were oriented towards calling attention to this fact -- the suffragettes thought they deserved to be put in the first class facility as political prisoners, rather than be thrown in with the "common" prisoners.

It's also worth mentioning that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were pretty crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See more here)

Later the hunger strikes morphed into something else -- a much more powerful rhetorical tool for calling attention in general to the Suffragists' claims and cause (as Lytton would later describe it: the hunger strike was a "woman's weapon" against the state). In 1910  Lytton went to prison under a pseudonym, disguising her class background. She went on hunger strike and then was subjected to force-feeding. When she came out, her account of how she'd been treated helped raise mainstream awareness of what was happening to the imprisoned suffragettes. She also asserted her commitment to an egalitarian -- middle and working class -- suffrage movement.

It's probably important to mention also that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were quite crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See a bit more here)

Soon, the government would start putting imprisoned suffragettes in first class women's prisons. They also stopped force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strikes (some continued to do so), but shortly after the beginning of World War I the movement largely went into hibernation, reemerging after the war.

So -- as I mentioned, I'm not an expert in this area, and much of what I describe above is new to me. Do any readers have suggestions about either feminist historians or literary critics they think are particularly insightful on these topics? Favorite suffrage (or anti-suffrage! we're interested in both) novels? Suggestions on digital archives or collections we should look at? 


Friday, February 03, 2017

An Open Letter to Steve Bannon, from a Hyphenated American

Dear Steve Bannon and Friends, 

I'm probably wasting my time writing to you. You know that old internet saying, "Don't Feed the Trolls"? Well for the past couple of years I have mostly thought of you and Donald Trump as basically trolls, more interested in scoring political points and tripping up your opposition than in putting forward a coherent ideology of your own.

But then Donald Trump won the freaking election. Now you and he have the ability to shape policy in some profound ways; you have already begun doing it.

It really does not make sense to dismiss you as trolls any longer, since you run the government. So this is an attempt to talk to you and your "alt right" friends seriously for a moment. My hope is that you can convince me that you're not just trolls who have won the lottery through a crazy and terrible fluke. Can you?

I've been watching what you and President Trump have been doing with the various executive orders and trying to understand it. It started with the Wall, and all the over the top language about illegal immigrants that's behind what is obviously a pretty dumb xenophobic symbol. Then last week we had the Refugee Ban and the seven country visa ban, supposedly to fight terrorism, though we all know that's not the real point of it (*cough* #MuslimBan). There are now reports there will be other orders soon -- you want to change the H-1B rules to make it harder for American companies to hire skilled foreign workers. Apparently Trump is also going to go after immigrants who are poor and who have received help from social welfare programs like CHIP.

Is Trump also going to reduce the number of immigration visas overall? (He promised he would in the campaign.) Is he going to go after birthright citizenship? 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Against the Refugee Ban

Yesterday President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that will freeze the entire U.S. refugee program for several months, while ending the Syrian refugee program indefinitely. Long-term, President Trump plans to cut the total number of refugees admitted annually from around the world by more than half (from a max of 110,000 currently to 50,000 in the future). President Trump has also temporarily banned visitors and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria and Iraq, even though, as many commentators have pointed out, no recent Jihadist terrorist incidents in the U.S. featured individuals originating from any of those countries.  

I have a lot to say about the many things that are wrong with the seven country visitor ban, but I'll save that for another time. Here I want to focus a bit on the history of the Refugee program -- and on Syrian refugees in particular. By freezing the Refugee program and refusing to accept Syrian refugees, the U.S. under President Donald Trump is turning away from a proud history of American hospitality, and disavowing any responsibility for the conditions that have led millions of people to be displaced from their home country. The Refugee Ban will be ineffective at stopping terrorism; it also flies in the face of more than sixty years of policy and experience with refugee resettlement. It suggests we as a people are becoming smaller, morally and politically, based on a rationale that at best is incoherent and worst is just a lie.

While President Trump has never been particularly honest about his own views of the Iraq War, on a few occasions he has correctly alluded to the fact that the roots of the conflict in Syria can be traced back to the destabilization of the region that followed the ill-fated U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moreover, President Obama's encouragement of a popular uprising against Assad, beginning in 2011, helped nudge forward the events that have followed. We did not make the mess in Syria, but we are undoubtedly involved; we helped make the mess, so we should help to fix it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Teaching Notes: Multimodal Assignment (Spring 2016)

I taught two sections of first-year writing in spring 2016 under the overarching theme of "immigration." I assigned some fiction related to the American immigrant experience but spent quite a bit of time talking about issues in immigration policy. Our class was coinciding with the final months of the Republican primaries, and we were also bringing election politics -- the debate about illegal immigration -- into our earlier assignments. I had them read a series of Op-Eds relating to the immigration policy debate and also watch recaps of the primary debates.

For the final month I decided to shift gears and help guide students to a research topic that was focused on a historical issue -- in this case, the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which led to more than 100,000 Cuban "undocumented" immigrants entering the U.S. over the course of a few months. I gave them quite a bit of background on the event and also showed them how to research aspects of it on their own using tools like Lexis-Nexis. We spent time in class workshopping paper topics as they were being developed by students, and then the papers were due in late April.

In this class, I made the decision to give them a relatively tight set of constraints on the research paper – they were all working on a single topic. Within that topic there were many subtopics I charted out for them. Some were designed to appeal to questions about economics and policy (what economic impact did the rapid influx of 125,000 Cuban immigrants have on the Florida economy?) – designed to get the interest of the business majors in the room. Other subtopics were more focused on more cultural issues and issues of social justice. To what extent does it make sense to see Cuban refugees as undocumented immigrants along the lines of the conversation today? What were the experiences of LGBTQ Cuban refugees in the Boatlift like? Students picked out various subtopics, often in small groups, and worked within the broader framework I had selected.

This approach -- where you give students a topic to research rather than let them pick their own -- is not one I would recommend for everyone. For one thing, it's very difficult to pick a topic that's neither too broad nor too narrow. You also don't want to seem that you're imposing your particular hobby-horse or research area on a group of unsuspecting freshmen. The advantage of introducing some degree of constraint is that you can set up a scaffolding for students -- and a base of knowledge they can draw on -- that means they don't have to go out entirely on their own. You also don't put yourself in the position of having to research a topic with which you yourself may not be super-familiar alongside the students. Finally, I wanted to pick a topic that would stimulate genuine debate, and allow students in the room who identify as conservatives as well as liberals to have something to grab onto ethically and intellectually. American conservatives have long supported an open-door policy towards Cubans wanting to emigrate, and Ronald Reagan's administration ultimately gave the vast majority of those immigrants green cards and then citizenship. How does that square with what conservatives think about these topics today? But the event was also seen as a disaster for Jimmy Carter's administration as it was occurring -- it forced Democrats also to reconsider their attitude towards immigration and hospitality and set the stage for the "New Democrats" who would emerge after Reagan (i.e., Bill Clinton).

About two weeks after students submitted their research papers, I asked them to repurpose some of their research for a multimodal assignment. Finally, I asked them to present their multimodal projects live in class (4 minutes to present, 1-2 minutes for feedback and questions). We took two sessions to work through each of the projects. This is not something for everyone either – those two class sessions might have been used for something else. But I also felt there was something of value there, especially for several students in the class who were either shy or were not confident of their English-language presentation skills. Making them present and defend their research orally might be another “mode” in the “multimodal” assignment.

More Resources:

Introductory Lecture Notes on Mariel Boatlift:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eol9bkN3sZ2aEZLgLf8_N5bh9mkeXueWqHEI6_L9qfM/pub

Google Docs detailed collaborative timeline of the Mariel Boatlift:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GVHQPSlfVZVX1tcdU34BlZQxuQtrG5pUscRIN8mlL5g/edit?usp=sharing


Below is the text of the multimodal assignment I gave my students.




Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spring 2017 Teaching. "Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India"

I'm teaching a graduate course in spring 2017 called "Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India." 

In addition to regular primary and secondary readings for the course, I'll encourage students to seek out an archival project on a thematic topic related to the intersection of race & gender in Victorian India. This could be an exploration of newspaper archives related to a particular hot-button issue picked out by students, such as the "Rukhmabai" issue relating to Hindu child marriage, debates over laws relating to widow remarriage, issues affecting the mixed-race Eurasian population, etc. Students will be asked to conduct a limited amount of archival research on that topic, and then find a productive way to edit and present those materials online, in a digital format. I will use my work on my digital project, "The Kiplings and India," as a model, though students will not be in any way obliged to contribute to that project. 


Here's the brief course description.

"Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India"

This course will explore 19th and early 20th century texts related to British colonialism with an "intersectional" lens. Broad questions to be considered include: What role did liberal 19th century British feminism play in helping to consolidate -- or critique -- an ideology of British Imperialism? How can we understand the early Indian nationalist movement specifically with regards to the representation of Hindu and Muslim women? How do interracial relationships and cross-cultural structures of desire and intimacy factor into the history of the later unraveling of the British Empire? To address these questions, we will introduce ideas from postcolonial theory and specifically postcolonial feminism, and apply them to a set of primary readings that includes both well-known authors like Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, and E.M. Forster, as well as more marginal figures like Flora Annie Steel and Pandita Ramabai. In addition to primary texts, a portion of the course will introduce students to research methods in order to access archival materials related to the British empire; this archival unit will also entail some digital humanities concepts and methods.


Likely Primary Texts (we may not do *all* of these):

Rudyard Kipling, Early Poems, Indian journalism, select short stories (The Kiplings and India
Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales From the Hills (1900) (Gutenberg version
Flora Annie Steel, On the Face of the Waters  (1897). (Archive.org version
Meera Kosambi, Ed., Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter (1889 / translated 2003) 
Krupabai Satthianadhan, Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Life (1894) (Archive.org version
Rabindranath Tagore, Chokher Bali  

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868) (Gutenberg version)
Sara Jeannette Duncan, The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893) (Archive.org version)
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)
E.M. Forster, Biographical materials and India-related essays
Florence Nightingale, Letter on the Madras Famine of 1876 (5 page famine report)

Secondary Criticism  (Preliminary list -- mostly supplementary/optional reading)
(Excerpts from these available on CouresSite)


Victorian/ Postcolonial 
Patrick Brantlinger, Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies (2009)
Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (2003)
Nathan Hensley, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016)
Tim Watson, "The Colonial Novel" (from The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel)
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)




Gender and Race

Indrani Sen, Woman and Empire: Representations in the Writings of British India 1858-1900. (2002) 
Shuchi Kapila, Educating Seeta: The Ango-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule (2010) 
Krupa Shandilya, Intimate Relations: Social Reform and the Late Nineteenth-Century South Asian Novel. (2017) 
LeeAnne Richardson, New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain: Gender, Genre, and Empire. (2006) 
Claire Midgley, Gender and Imperialism (1998) 
Padma Anagol, The Emergence of Feminism in India, 1850-1920 (2005)

Poverty and Famine

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (2002), Chapter 1
Leela Sami, "Starvation, Disease and Death: Explaining Famine Mortality in Madras 1876–1878" (2011) 
Sukanya Banerjee, Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire (2010). Chapter on Dadaji Naoroji's "Poverty and Un-British Rule""
Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine (1997). Chapter 4, "Literature of the Bengal Famine" 
Louise Penner, Victorian Medicine and Social Reform: Florence Nightingale Among the Novelists (2010). Chapter 4: "Engaging the Victorian Reading Public: Nightingale and the Madras Famine of 1876  
Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981). Chapter 6: "The Great Bengal Famine.""Appendix D: Famine Mortality: A Case Study" 
Meghnad Desai, "The Economics of Famine" (in Harrison, Ed. Famine [1988]) 
William Digby, Famine Campaign in Southern India, 1876-1878. (1878). Digital Copy on Hathi Trust 
B.M. Bhatia, Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1963). Chapter 3: "Famines and Famine Relief, 1860-1879"



Rudyard Kipling

Zohreh Sullivan, Narratives of Empire : The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling (1993) 
Charles Allen, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling (2008)
Christopher Hawes, Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India (Chapters 5 and 6)
Jan Montefiore, "Kipling's North Indian Travels" (From In Time's Eye
Harish Trivedi, "Kipling's 'Vernacular': what he knew of it -- and what he made of it" (From In Time's Eye) 
Don Randall, Kipling's Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity (Introduction) 
Thomas Pinney, Kipling's India: Uncollected Sketches 1884-1888. (Introduction)

Flora Annie Steel

Violet Powell, Flora Annie Steel: Novelist of India (1981) 
David Wayne Thomas, "Liberal Legitimation and Communicative Action in British India: Reading Flora Annie Steel's 'On the Face of the Waters'" (ELH 76.1: 2009, pp. 153-187)



E.M. Forster

Jenny Sharpe, "The Unspeakable Limits of Civility: A Passage to India
Benita Parry, Delusions and Discoversies: India in the British Imagination 
P. N. Furbank, E.M. Forster: A Life 
Antony Copley, A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writings of Edward Carpenter, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood 
Parminder Kaur Bakshi, Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E.M. Forster's Fiction.  
Sara Suleri, "Forster's Imperial Erotic." in The Rhetoric of English India






Bagchi, Barnita. "'Because Novels Are True, And Histories Are False': Indian Women Writing Fiction In English, 1860-1918." A History of the Indian Novel in English. 59-72. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Stephen Knight, "The Postcolonial Crime Novel" (from The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel)




Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Teaching Notes: "Religion and Literature" (Fall 2016)

This fall I taught a course for advanced undergraduates on "Religion and Literature." In it, I assigned Milton's Paradise Lost (the first five books), a substantial selection from William Blake, Iris Murdoch's The Bell, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Overall, a pretty successful class on a topic I have been thinking about for much of my career. The following is a lightly edited version of the opening day lecture I wrote up for my students. 


Let's start with the following poem by William Blake:
“The Garden of Love” (from Songs of Experience)

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys desires.

English and American literature has been deeply connected to debates over religion, going back to the medieval period. Even as Christianity seemed to recede in public life in the modern era, prominent writers continued to write about it, sometimes expressing their passionate dissent from various religious orthodoxies -- as we see in Blake's poem "The Garden of Love" above. For Blake, the formal institution of the Church (represented by the Chapel that's been built in what used to be a garden) is first and foremost an institution of interdiction and denial ("Thou shalt not"). Its principles of self-denial and its championing of suffering are a species of death for Blake. And yet he resists them not in the name of atheism or secular humanism -- but in the name of a much more personal, text-centered interpretation of Christianity. Blake's Christianity was not centered around the idea of Christ's particular suffering on the cross, but on the idea of a divine gift in the form of human prophetic genius in dialectical relationship with the restraints that are placed on it.

For many of Blake's peers, his radical beliefs and personal practices (he refused to enter Churches for much of his adult life!) would actually have placed him outside of Christianity. It’s worth remembering that in England at least, the Church of England was the “Establishment” Church throughout this period: the Monarchy and Parliament were directly connected to the Church. Non-Anglican Christian sects -- Roman Catholics, and Protestant “Dissenters” (Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists…) were banned from holding public office, and there was widespread discrimination against them in many walks of life. It wouldn’t be until 1835, for instance, that Catholics would be allowed to vote or serve as members of Parliament in England. English Jews wouldn't get the same privileges until 1858.

With Milton in the 17th century, through Bunyan, Blake, Defoe, and Swift in the 18th century, and going further through the 19th and 20th centuries there is no shortage of canonical writers who have seriously engaged issues of religion in their works. Books like Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) are thickly saturated with religious references. People often overlook these when they talk about Robinson Crusoe – whose eponymous hero starts off rebelling against religion. His life as a castaway can be interpreted in the novel as punishment for his sins. Later, he has a “conversion” experience; his subsequent rescue might be seen as a reward for that good behavior.

There’s a shift in the approach to religion in the 19th century. During this period, many of the great canonical novelists (especially George Eliot and Thomas Hardy) are preoccupied with the decline in influence of the Church on everyday life. A writer like Eliot agrees with many of the moral ideas of Christianity, but from an early age she rejects organized religion and makes the case to friends and family that the teachings of Christianity should be seen as mythology rather than literal truth. If we had more time together in this course, we could look at novels like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1894), and Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859) – which both show ordinary people turning against the values of the Church in favor of a more common-sense idea of personal morality. The sense of a Church in decline is also very much present in mid-20th century novelists like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. Here we will look at Murdoch’s fascinating novel The Bell (1958), in which the novel’s heroine finds herself on a kind of spiritual quest. Can the Church reassert itself, and can religion/Christianity once again play the defining role in the lives of modern people (and especially: modern women) that we believe it played in the Medieval period?


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Op-Ed in Indian Express

I recently had an Op-Ed in Indian Express called "The President is Coming." In case it disappears from the internet at some point, here is the text of the essay. According to Indian Express, as of November 29, 2016, it's been shared 107 times. 


The President is Coming

When my 10-year-old son woke up to the news that Donald Trump had won the American presidential election this past week, he was extremely upset. He said, “I think Donald Trump is going to make us leave our house and go out of the country.” I had a lump in my throat. Though we are of Indian origin and are practising (turban-wearing) Sikhs, my son and I are both American citizens. He was born in Philadelphia. I tried to reassure him the best I could: nothing can happen to us. Don’t worry.

Even with some hesitation that morning, I succeeded in calming down my son, but I was projecting a confidence that I really do not feel right now, as an Indian-American and as a member of a small religious minority group under a Trump presidency.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump made many statements that were alarming to immigrants from all over the world. Some of the comments ought to be alarming to Indian immigrants and Sikhs in particular. To begin with, there is the infamous proposal to ban all Muslim immigration, and possibly create a “registry” of Muslims already in the country. This programme is, to begin with, both unconstitutional and morally wrong.

But what if it were to come to pass? Though non-Muslims might expect to be spared in a Trumpian anti-Muslim crusade, the reality is that most Americans simply do not know the difference between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

The massive wave of anti-Muslim feeling that would follow the implementation of these policies would likely lead to public hostility against all brown immigrants.

The prospect of mass deportations of illegal immigrants would also have a major impact on South Asian communities in the US. The stereotype of an undocumented immigrant may be someone who is from Latin America. But in truth, Asians are the fastest growing community of undocumented immigrants in the US right now. Of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants thought to be in the US at the present moment, at least one million are from Asian countries, including approximately 5,00,000 from India alone. There are many Indians who entered on a student or tourist visa, and overstayed; they are now considered undocumented. They work at small shops and hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurants; they drive taxis. We see them on weekends at mandirs, masjids and gurudwaras.

President-elect Trump has also indicated that he intends to restrict legal immigration. There are strong hints that a Trump administration could drastically reduce the number of permanent residency visas (green cards) issued in the coming months. Temporary business visas like H1 and B1 visas might also be affected. Trump has said as much directly, though his statements on the subjects tend to be overlooked compared to his stand on illegal immigrants.

Many readers may be wondering about the Republican Hindu Coalition, a group in New Jersey that hosted a fundraiser for Trump earlier this fall. Trump did appear at a Bollywood-themed Hindu function in New Jersey but that should not indicate that his presidency will be good for US-India relations. In fact, Trump has a very shaky grasp of world affairs, revealing in interviews and debates that he has only the barest of knowledge of what is happening in places like Syria and the Crimea — and no one has even bothered to ask him about Kashmir or where he stands on India-Pak relations.

Indians hopeful about a Trump presidency should not be naive. Trump has a long history of taking people’s money and giving nothing in return. This was his business model in Trump University, which was supposedly a “school” for educating aspiring real estate investors. In fact, the “university” is now out of business, with a fraud case pending even after Trump’s election. He had a regular habit in his building projects of refusing to honour his contracts; he has been sued hundreds of times for non-payment. Finally, any Indians expecting gratitude from Trump for the small amount raised by Indian supporters during this campaign should also be aware that Asian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton by an overwhelming margin.

As of right now, these are speculations based on Trump’s statements and behaviour over the past year and a half. Trump has changed his position on key issues many times, and we do not really know yet much at all about what Trump will actually do when in office. That said, based on everything we have seen thus far, we should expect a wild ride. Indian companies that do business with the US or that rely on travel visas should be concerned. Anyone waiting for a green card or even a work authorization permit had better be ready to wait a very long time.

The uncertainty Indian Americans are experiencing now, immediately after the election of Trump, might be comparable to what we felt immediately after 9/11. Then, as now, there was an immediate spike in hate crimes directed against Muslims and those perceived as Muslim. But even more than that, what concerned us was that we felt uncertain then about our place in American society. With roughly half of American voters in the recent election supporting a man who regularly shows contempt for non-white immigrants, we are experiencing a version of that uncertainty again.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Digital Humanities Exhibits at #MSA18: An Annotated Overview

I'm at the MSA this year to talk about my Claude McKay project as part of a Digital Exhibition.

The format is unusual: in one of the main halls of the conference hotel, the organizers set up large-ish monitors. Presenters bring their own laptops and, for a single morning of the conference, demonstrate their work to conference attendees as they come and go from regular panels. You don't give full-length talks, but that makes sense for many digital projects -- the open-ended format allows you to be more interactive and exploratory than is possible in a conventional conference talk.

Here are some of the exhibits that were on display at #MSA18 with my brief annotations:

Mapping Expatriate Paris. I got a chance to talk to Clifford Wulfman and Joshua Kotin from Princeton, who have been building a polished, very useful site based on Sylvia Beach's lending library records at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. She kept the lending library records for many users. These contain books signed out but also the addresses of members of the lending library. One interesting discovery: many of the users of her lending library were actually not poor, left-bank bohemians, but members of the French upper class. (Check out this page to see a map and discussion of the left bank/right bank addresses of Shakespeare & Co. lending library patrons.)

Modernist Archives Publishing Project. I got to talk to Alice Staveley of Stanford about this project. It's an impressive archive of the output of the Hogarth Press -- its books, but also secondary materials like account books and correspondence. There was much more printed by the Hogarth Press than just Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury mainstays; among the many authors and texts I'd never heard of were a number of Indian authors whose works I'd like to explore. Many of the texts in this archive might be technically under copyright, but many of the authors' families have granted permission for the digital presentation of their works. I was impressed by the level of care and attention to details in this well-funded project.

Marianne Moore Digital Archive. The majority of Marianne Moore's poetry is under copyright, but this site is planning to put forward some really interesting ancillary materials, including Moore's notebooks and the Marianne Moore Newsletter, which contained sketches Marianne Moore made in her notebooks as well as analysis and rare historical-biographical engagement with the author.

Modernist Networks (Modnets). I didn't get a chance to talk to the folks doing this project in person but the goal is pretty clear -- they're aiming to be a hub for modernist studies digital humanities project and also a kind of vetting / peer-review mechanism along the lines of what we see with sites focusing on earlier periods. Currently they have 59 federated sites and links to more than 78,000 objects. (I will submit my own project to them for peer-review / federation once it's a little further along.)

Modeling Modernist Studies (Topic Modeling Modernism/Modernity). Jonathan Goodwin's interesting topic modeling project exploring keywords and concept-clusters in the flagship journal of Modernist Studies. It's a continuation of a kind of meta-scholarly analysis he was doing earlier with his modeling of the language of MLA job listings. I got a chance to talk with Jonathan about the project and I hope to play around more with some of the newer topic modeling tools he's been using at some point. 

Modernism in Baltimore: A Literary Archive. I did not get to talk to the folks behind this project. Still, the idea here seems fairly straightforward -- they're collecting artifacts and historical materials related to literary modernism in Baltimore (the contributors also appear to have an interest in architecture and the arts more broadly). As of now the home for this is a Facebook page, though some resources are stored at Baltimoreheritage.org.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism / Linked Modernisms. Stephen Ross, whom I met at DHSI last year (he teaches at University of Victoria and is currently President of the MSA), is the general editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism (a large-scale digital / subscription-based encyclopedia project). He's been taking the metadata generated by that project to produce an open (non-paywalled) resource called "Linked Modernisms." As of this morning the main link for the project seems to be broken, but you can read about the project here.

Open Modernisms. Another project from the University of Victoria. It's a collection of modernism studies syllabi. At this point just starting out, it looks like. (But I have some syllabi I want to send them... Readers, consider contributing!)

I enjoyed talking to Brandon White of UC Berkeley about his project using WordNet and NLTK to analyze the plot and evolving thematics of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom (incest, bigamy, race/miscegenation...). I don't see a link to his Compson project online, so I don't think it's public research yet.

William S. Burroughs Digital Manuscript Project at  Florida State University. Unfortunately the Burroughs archive is, for copyright reasons, largely behind a password-protected firewall. But I got to talk to Stanley Gontarski and Paul Ardoin about the project at length, and I was really impressed by the level of attention and care they have put in -- there are some really powerful tools for analyzing and comparing versions and studying Burroughs' intertextuality. In short, a really powerful resource for serious Burroughs scholars. (Anyone reading this interested in using the site should contact the site editors; they can get you a temporary password to access FSU's amazing Burroughs materials.)

Using a Visual Understanding Environment to Understand H.D.'s Networks of Influence. Celena Kusch is co-chair of the international H.D. Society. I got to talk to her about using a software package called the Visual Understanding Environment to study the social network around the writer H.D. Fascinating project and a software package I definitely want to explore a little myself, perhaps for my Kiplings project.

American WWI Poetry Digital Archive. I talked to Tim Dayton of Kansas State at length about this excellent archive of more than 400 books of American World War I poetry. This morning, unfortunately, I can't seem to find a link to the project itself anywhere. (I think this project is currently being migrated from Scalar 1 to Drupal or perhaps Scalar 2.)

*

My own Claude McKay project was a modest first version of a site that will eventually have more primary texts (the two Jamaican collections of poems are coming soon!) and more robust network diagrams (probably using Giphy down the road). It was gratifying to talk about the work with a number of people walking by my booth; thank you to everyone who took a few minutes to stop by and say hello. Most people seemed to get it, and saw the value of the network diagrams / thematic tagging that I and my graduate students have been doing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Claude McKay: New Site, Expanded Project (w/Network Diagrams)

Harlem Shadows: Claude McKay's Early Poetry
http://scalar.lehigh.edu/mckay/

I've recently been working on rebuilding a collaborative class project on Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows in the Scalar platform. As I've been putting the new site together, I've also been adding fresh material to the project, including a number of McKay's early political poems. (I've also been using Scalar for my Kiplings and India project.) It's a powerful platform, especially with regards to metadata, annotations, and tagging. It's also designed to allow you to create multiple "paths" through overlapping material. In McKay's case the Paths feature comes in particularly handy as he tended to publish the same poems in different venues; it's revealing to see which poems he tended to republish and which he quietly "put away."

The new site can be accessed here. I would particularly recommend readers play around with the Visualizations options on the menu at the top corner of the screen.

Here is the text of some new material I've added to the site, analyzing, in a very preliminary and informal way, a couple of network diagrams I generated using Scalar's built-in visualization tools.

* * *

Below I'll present two different network diagrams I've derived from Scalar's built-in visualization feature. One looks at the clusters created by thematic tags, the other looks at the relationship between poems published in different venues.

Skeptics of Digital Humanities scholarship sometimes see objects like network diagrams and wonder what they might tell us that we don't already know. And indeed, even here, to some extent, the diagrams below do show us visually some things we might have been able to intuit without the benefit of this tool.  I should also acknowledge that the thematic tags we have been using are somewhat subjective. We have the poem "A Capitalist at Dinner" tagged by "Class" but not by "Labor." Others might structure these tags differently and end up with diagrams that look different. 

That said, there are some surprises here. In McKay's poetry I'm especially interested in thinking about the connections between the two streams of his writing from this early period, which we might loosely divide into a) political poems (including race-themed poems and Communist/worker-themed poems) and b) nature-oriented, pastoral and romantic poems. At least in terms of publication venue, there is quite a bit of overlap between these two broad categories. McKay excluded the most directly Communist poems from his book-length publications, but he included—often at the urging of his editors—poems expressing decisive anger at racial injustice in American society. And even in the body of poems published in magazines like Workers Dreadnought there are hints of the nature themes in poems like "Joy in the Woods "and "Birds of Prey." The network diagrams show us a series of other poems as well at the "hinge" between the two clusters. These poems might be particularly worthy of special attention and study in the future. 


A. Thematic Tags.

Take a look at the following network diagram showing the relations between a limited set of thematic tags, generated by Scalar using the built-in visualization application. The image below is a static image, but if you click on VISUALIZATIONS > TAG on the menu in the corner of this site, you'll get a "clickable" diagram that is also live and manipulable. The body of poems included here is comprised of all of the poems from Harlem Shadows as well as about fifteen of the early poems not included in Harlem Shadows



(See the full-size version of this diagram here)

What does this diagram show? First, we should note that the red dots show tags, while the orange dots show poems. As of November 2016, only eight thematic areas have been tagged: Race, Class, City, Nature, Home, Sexuality Homoeroticism, Labor. (More Tag information from the earlier, Wordpress version of this site is currently in the Metadata for individual poems, and is discoverable using the search function on this Scalar site. Try searching for "Birds," for instance.) 

What Can We Learn? 

1. Thematic Clusters. First and most obviously, certain themes are "clustered" together. Nature and Home have many overlaps, and thus appear clustered. Sexuality and homoeroticism also form a cluster. And finally, the tags focused on Class, Labor, and city life also form a natural cluster, though the clustering is significantly less tight than the others.

2. Centrality of Nature. An obvious discovery is that "Nature" is one of the most common tags in McKay's early poetry. This was a surprise to the students in the Digital Humanities class (given that we think of McKay as a black poet with militant/leftist politics, we might expect those themes to be more dominant). Of course, many of the poems marked "Nature" also overlap with race, class/labor, or sexual/queer themes. The surprise in finding so much discussion of Nature—and specifically McKay's interest in writing about birds—might remind us that we actually need to read a poet's poems before rushing to narrowly define them (i.e., as a black, political poet). (I would encourage visitors to look at Joanna Grim's essay exploring the "bird" theme in Harlem Shadows)

3. Home. Many of McKay's poems in this period thematize his memory of life in Jamaica. Thus, a few of the poems (for instance, "The Tropics in New York") reflect McKay's nostalgia for his pastoral upbringing from the vantage point of someone now living in a much larger, modern urban setting. 

4. Poems with three or more tags. I'm interested in the poems that presently have three or more tags: "The Barrier," "The Castaways," and "On the Road." These are poems that scholars may not have paid very attention to in the past, but diagrams like the one above might lead us to think of them as newly important as they bridge some of McKay's most important themes from this period. (Again, the number of tags is a bit arbitrary and at present an artifact of the way metadata has been tagged. At most this information might nudge readers to pay a bit more attention to some poems rather than others, not to make any sweeping conclusions about the poems as a whole.)

I would encourage users of this site to play with the live visualization tool and send me (Amardeep Singh) any screen captures that seem interesting or telling. 


B. Publication Venues

This diagram is a bit more messy. It contains nodes for publication venues (which are organized on this Scalar site using "Paths"). These appear in light blue in the diagram below.  Users can access a "live" version of the diagram using VISUALIZATIONS > CONNECTIONS in the menu in the corner above. 



(See the full size version of this diagram here)

What do we see here? (Note: the blue dots represent publication venues. The red dots represent thematic tags. The orange dots represent individual poems. The green dots are media files uploaded to this site. Readers should probably try and ignore the green dots.)

Essentially there is a larger cluster around Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems and Harlem Shadows, and a smaller cluster around the Workers Dreadnought path and the Early Uncollected Poetry path I've constructed on this site. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, the sexuality and homoeroticism tags are mostly entirely disconnected from the labor & class oriented poetry published in magazines like Workers Dreadnought.  But there are some poems right in the middle between the two clusters that seem especially interesting to consider -- poems like "Joy in the Woods," "The Battle," "Summer Morn in New Hampshire," "Birds of Prey," and "Labor's Day" that appear with strong connections both to the "Nature" tag and to "Class" and "Labor" tags. Though few of these poems have been looked at closely by critics, they are in some ways the key to understanding the two major aspects of Claude McKay's poetry in this period. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

"I'm Happy to Own All Of It": Teju Cole's "Known and Strange Things"

I have been reading and reveling in Teju Cole's new collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, over the past week. Many of the essays here were published earlier in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and Granta.

And indeed, I had read several of them before, but spread out over years and often sandwiched into lots of other online reading that sometimes diluted their impact. As a result, I did not see the true implications of important essays like "Unnamed Lake" or "A True Picture of Black Skin" in those earlier reads. Seeing them in print and in the context of other essays on overlapping topics helps the author drive the point home. (Another reminder of the limits of our online media + text consumption ecosystem.)

The collection as a whole is divided into three sections, including essays on writers and literature, essays on photography, and travel writings. The travel writings I found particularly engrossing; Cole has visited dozens of countries since he became a literary star after the publication of Open City in 2011. I also see in the travel writings echoes of the voices of other great travel writers, including Conrad, Naipaul and more contemporaneously, Amitava Kumar... There's a very precise balance in these essays of the personal voice and experience with a journalist's eye for broad questions of general interest. I would not be surprised if we were to see more travel writing from Teju Cole in the future.

* * *

James Baldwin, Barack Obama, and Cole's Cosmopolitanism

One essay I had missed outright is the first essay in the collection after Known and Strange Things' prologue. Here it's published as "Black Body"; it was first published in The New Yorker in August 2014 as "Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin's 'Stranger in the Village.'" This essay encapsulates at once Teju Cole's originality -- his distinctive voice and unique way of thinking -- while also underscoring his deep filiation with earlier generations writers and intellectuals, both from the Black Atlantic tradition and from the Postcolonial / Global tradition.

The signature of Cole's outlook to global culture is eclecticism:

There’s no world in which I would surrender the intimidating beauty of Yoruba-language poetry for, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, nor one in which I’d prefer the chamber orchestras of Brandenburg to the koras of Mali. I’m happy to own all of it. This carefree confidence is, in part, the gift of time. It is a dividend of the struggle of people from earlier generations. I feel no alienation in museums. But this question of filiation tormented Baldwin considerably. He was sensitive to what was great in world art, and sensitive to his own sense of exclusion from it. He made a similar list in the title essay of “Notes of a Native Son” (one begins to feel that lists like this had been flung at him during arguments): “In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the Stones of Paris, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and the Empire State Building a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.” The lines throb with sadness. What he loves does not love him in return.
This is where I part ways with Baldwin. I disagree not with his particular sorrow but with the self-abnegation that pinned him to it. Bach, so profoundly human, is my heritage. I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait. I care for them more than some white people do, just as some white people care more for aspects of African art than I do. (link)
This is a remarkable statement -- and I can't help but see my own evolution on these topics expressed perfectly in these eloquent paragraphs. I had a deep sense of cultural dispossession as a young person -- in which I remember perceiving a sense of exclusion that resembled James Baldwin's -- though more recently (really, as I have grown into my shoes as a literature professor) I have had a growing sense of cultural ownership in the mainstream of Euro-American life that resembles Cole's: "I'm happy to own all of it."

For many postcolonial academics based in the West, the dilemma of whether to embrace a European cultural heritage or to develop a sense of identity based on the recovery of a sense of lineage to Africanness or Asianness has been a long-term preoccupation with no easy answer. But it doesn't have to be either-or. A Nigerian writer in New York can have a world-class knowledge of Euro-American photography and modern classical music (Mahler!) and also make and share playlists of contemporary Nigerian dance songs. For my own part, I can teach and write about everything from Bollywood movies to Milton without embarrassment. I can own all of it too. (As a side note, Cole also recently made up a playlist for Known and Strange Things. You can see it here.)

To be clear, eclecticism and cosmopolitanism should not be confused with loyalty to dominant cultural institutions. Nor would Cole allow that his passion for "serious" photography, writing, and music means he is more interested in "aesthetics" than "politics." If anything, Cole's voice -- as embodied in the essays contained in this collection -- seems to suggest that what makes certain works of art powerful is in fact often precisely their embrace of an urgent politics (and this is as true of W.G. Sebald's novels as it is of Derek Walcott's poems). In other words, aesthetics need not be seen as separate from politics; our preoccupations with the latter can be what drives us to strive to make something beautiful and meaningful in response to terrible exigencies in the world around us. Or: Out of passionate politics can come great art.

Another essay that beautifully encapsulates Cole's unique status as a hybrid figure is his essay, "The Reprint" (it does not appear to be available online) recounting the night Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the Presidential elections of 2008. Cole was on-hand in Harlem to witness the crowd's reaction as the news was announced late in the evening.

One reason Obama is an important figure in understanding where Cole is coming from might be their shared connection to Africa:
The argument could be made that he wasn't really 'the first African American to be voted into the office, because he was African American only in a special, and technical, sense, the same way I was African American: a black person who held American citizenship. But the history of most blacks in this country--the history of slavery, Reconstruction, systematic disenfranchisement, and the civil rights movement--was not my history. My history was one of emigration, adaptation, and a different flavor of exile. I was only a latter-day sharer in the sorrow and the glory of the African American experience. 
[...] Obama, at the core of his experience, is hybrid. The significant achievement is not that, as a black man, he became president. It is that, as a certain kind of outsider American --of which the Kenyan father, Indonesian school, and biracial origin, not to mention the three non-Anglo names, are markers--he was able to work his way into the very center of American life. [...] His victory, I would think, should resonate even more strongly with these out-of-place characters who have been toiling in the shadows of the American story: the graduate students with funny accents, the pizza-delivery guys with no papers, Americans, regardless of color, who remember a time when they were not Americans. (249-250)
Cole doesn't underline it for us, but it's pretty clear that the link he drew between President Obama nd himself in the first paragraph quoted above also holds for the second. He is very much an "out-of-place" character (as am I) -- though at this point he is no longer "toiling in the shadows of the American story."

* * *

Photography and Blackness

Another essay in the collection that I found quite powerful is "A True Picture of Black Skin" (first published in the New York Times Magazine in February 2015). The jumping off-point for this essay is the Roy DeCarava photograph, "Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington DC, 1963."



Cole's comments on this photograph and on the complex historical legacy of photographing black skin are quite smart. We might begin with the elegant explication of the photo itself:
One such image left me short of breath the first time I saw it. It’s of a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine, but both her face and the rest of the picture give off a feeling of modulated darkness; we can see her beautiful features, but they are underlit somehow. Only later did I learn the picture’s title, “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963” which helps explain the young woman’s serene and resolute expression. It is an expression suitable for the event she’s attending, the most famous civil rights march of them all. The title also confirms the sense that she’s standing in a great crowd, even though we see only half of one other person’s face (a boy’s, indistinct in the foreground) and, behind the young woman, the barest suggestion of two other bodies.

Cole goes on after this to talk about why the history of photographing African American people (and people of African descent more generally) has been so fraught -- a history that has both ideological and material, technological elements. Camera light meters and developing processes were designed with light skin tones in mind, meaning that even when African and African-American people have been photographed with respect and dignity, the photos have not always "come out" right. Cole argues that DeCarava developed his own emulsion process to produce images like the one above.

* * *

The Ethical Responsibility Not to Turn Away

I'll end this brief review with an account of another essay that left me floored, "Death in the Browser Tab" (New York Times Magazine, May 2015). Again, this is one that I somehow missed when it was printed last year. The theme here is the growing pattern of seeing people getting killed in videos posted online. Often these are black people. The most immediate trigger event for this particular reflection was the shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina -- but the list was long in 2015 and has become, sadly, even longer with a series of further "deaths in the browser tab" we've seen this year.

(Incidentally, here's something I wrote last year that attempted to link the Ferguson event to a police murder that galvanized Malcolm X and other black radicals in 1963.)

Cole shows that there is a long and fraught legacy of thematizing death in photography, which goes back to the 19th century tradition of "postmortem pictures." This was transformed in the twentieth century, as cameras become more portable and faster shutter speeds meant that by the 1960s, still photographers could capture the moment of death in a way that had never been possible earlier. (In this context Cole mentions Eddie Adams' famous photo of the death of a South Vietnamese general in 1969.)

The videographic afterimage of a real event is always peculiar. When the event is a homicide, it can cross over into the uncanny: the sudden, unjust and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, whom he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t, becomes available for viewing and reviewing. A month after I went to North Charleston, back in Brooklyn and writing about the shooting, I find a direct approach difficult. 
I write about Holbein’s “Pictures of Death,” and about Robert Capa’s photograph and Eddie Adams’s. I write about “The Two Drovers,” about Robin tramping through the borderlands intent on murder. I write about my morning in North Charleston, the gloomy drive there and back and the wilted flowers on the chain-link fence on Craig Road. If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself. Finally, I start to watch footage of Scott’s last moments. It’s the third time, and it makes me uneasy and unhappy. The video begins with the man holding the camera racing toward the fence. A few seconds later, Walter Scott breaks away from Michael Slager. Slager plants his feet and raises his gun. There is still time. He shoots once, then thrice in quick succession. Scott continues to run. There is still time. That is when I stop the video and exit the browser.

We are well beyond the ethical dilemma many people discuss regarding the effect of these videos: is it right to watch these images? Is there a kind of pornography of violence at some point? Indeed, I couldn't help but think of some comments from Julius, the protagonist of Cole's Open City, along the lines of: must we watch every act of violence? The fallout of that refusal which, when we first encounter it early in the novel, might even seduce us into agreeing, is pretty stark: people who don't want to engage the pornography of violence might well have an instance of it in their own past they are trying to hide.

I think Cole's reflections here (also expressed in the essay earlier in the collection, "Unnamed Lake") seem to suggest we actually do have an ethical responsibility to witness these deaths. But their impact on us is complex and sometimes hard to read. We are traumatized by them, hurt by them, and (in my case) depressed by our sense of powerlessness to stop this pervasive violence. Insofar as we sometimes see these shootings from the point of view of the shooters (police body cams) we are implicated in the violence in unsettling ways. We do have a right to limit the experience -- to close the browser tab when it becomes too much. But we simply cannot not watch. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why I Was Unmoved by the Sikh Prayer at the RNC



Amidst all of the other things going on at the RNC this past week, night two started with something very unusual -- a California lawyer named Harmeet Dhillon recited a part of the Sikh Ardaas prayer that is one of the central prayers in the Sikh daily practice. A room full of Trump and Cruz supporters bowed their heads and followed along in silence.  This is probably the highest profile "Sikh sighting" we have had in this country since the tragedy of the Oak Creek Gurdwara mass shooting three years ago. It ought to be an occasion to celebrate.

I wanted to be proud of Harmeet Dhillon for being brave enough to do this, considering that, in the past, large Republican gatherings have not always respected Sikhs or Sikh prayers. If this were any other cycle for the Republican party -- if this had happened at Romney's convention in 2012, for instance -- I would be only too happy to celebrate this.

But here's the thing...

The Republican candidate for President this year, Donald Trump, has consistently and repeatedly advocated banning another religious minority community from entering the country. The Republican party as a whole has become a hotbed of viciously anti-Islamic thinking. Among the leadership there are few voices who have the basic decency to follow the example of former Republican President George W. Bush -- who in his public statements carefully differentiated between the vast majority of Muslims around the world who want nothing more than the opportunity to live their lives and freely practice their faith in peace, and the small minority who support Jihadism.

Sikhs are not Muslims. But as members of an immigrant community, and as members of a small, but highly visible religious minority in American society, we are not so different from our Muslim American brothers and sisters. I cannot understand how we could look at what's happening in the Republican party with regards to the demonization of Muslims and not see our fate as a community as connected to theirs.

For these reasons, I cannot be moved by the recitation of the Ardaas at the RNC. My understanding of Sikhism is that it has, as a core principle, a rejection of discriminatory thinking. The tradition started by Guru Nanak more than 500 years ago was born out of a sense of the deep injustice of the Indian caste system. The poet Kabir once said: "There is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman [Muslim]"; those lines are also in the Guru Granth Sahib, considered the sacred and authoritative scripture for Sikhs. Those words represent a fundamental rejection of discrimination based on religious identity. 

The philosophy and the ethics engendered by the Bhakti movement and by this strain of thinking within Sikhism might well have something to say to the Republican party of today. Perhaps we could go a step further and say that it is actually something today's Republican party desperately needs to hear. But that is not the message that was sent to the Republican National Convention Tuesday night. And I don't see much here to celebrate.