Showing posts with label Globalization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Globalization. Show all posts

8.22.2016

"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. 

2.13.2015

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Malcolm X and the Post-Colonial World

[The following is the draft text of a talk I am due to give next week at Lehigh's conference on Malcolm X. Any feedback or criticism would be welcome.] 

Let’s start with a quote from Malcolm X, from his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered in April 1964.

When we begin to get in this area, we need new friends, we need new allies. We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level -- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as it's civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. 
But the United Nations has what's known as the charter of human rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 34)

As is well known, towards the end of his life, Malcolm X’s approach to talking about racism and inequality underwent a series of changes. Some of those changes had to do with theology -- his departure from the Nation of Islam and his embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam. Others have to do with his changing attitude towards ideas about segregation, black nationalism, and the mainstream civil rights movement.

What has been less talked about is that in these last years he also radically increased his understanding of and engagement with parallel questions related to race, nationalism, and political sovereignty in the post-colonial world. In his final years, Malcolm X was in the process of transforming from a black nationalist intellectual whose ideas about resistance and liberation were firmly rooted on American soil into a more global figure with strong ideas about third world revolutions, the nature of the cold war, and the prospects for international socialism. In speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X highlights the potential importance of the United Nations and the International Declaration of Human Rights as a path of redress for African Americans on the receiving end of American racism. Malcolm X strongly suggests that the pattern of civil rights abuses and discrimination in the United States needs to be seen and judged by international bodies -- the same as human rights abuses anywhere.

In the early 1960s, the UN was one of the most important vehicles for legitimizing a large number of new nations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean that became independent from European colonial powers in the decade between 1955 and 1965. More than thirty new nations gained independence in this period in Africa alone, and all immediately joined the UN, impacting the culture of that organization.

Importantly for our purposes today, this process of decolonization was occurring effectively simultaneously with the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Within the United States, those were the years when black Americans successfully fought for and won rights that had been denied to them. Elsewhere in the world, millions of black and brown people who had formerly been under the rule of European colonial authority fought for and won the right to self-determination. What Malcolm X came to realize through his travels in Africa and the Middle East in the last years of his life was that the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and the struggles for human rights and democracy in the third world were in effect mirror images of one another. And, as per the quote we started with above, if the attempt to achieve justice and a degree of redress for a history of violence and subjugation within the parameters of the U.S. were not likely to succeed, Malcolm X felt that the best hopes for the black community in the U.S. would be to take the demand for justice to the broader international community.

The starting point for Malcolm X’s internationalism is his strong sense that as a black American in 1964 he is not considered a true American. By denying him his dignity and equal enfranchisement under the law, the country has in effect indicated to him that he doesn’t belong. He’s been, in effect, denationalized. Here’s “The Ballot of the Bullet” again:

I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there'd be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they're already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet.
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 26)

On the one hand being denationalized as a black man in America is an extremely painful experience. In that feeling of being excluded lie the roots of Malcolm’s anger – that bitterness that seems to reverberate in so many of the speeches he gave, and that terrified many white Americans and led to his being watched by numerous law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the NYPD, and the CIA while he was abroad all had files on him). If a nation refuses to recognize you on the basis of your race, an obvious solution is to use that logic to construct an alternate nationalism. For Malcolm X, that meant black nationalism as articulated by the Nation of Islam (NOI). As he describes in his Autobiography, Malcolm X came to join the NOI while in prison and stayed with the organization through 1963. But while the NOI had many empowering and beneficial effects on Malcolm X’s intellectual and ideological development, it operated as a closed community articulating a concept of black nationalism through self-segregation rather than as a frontal challenge to an unjust system. It was only when he left the NOI that Malcolm X really began to broaden his vision in the directions I have been describing here.

While Malcolm always remained focused first and foremost on the sufferings of and denial of rights to African Americans, over the course of 1964 his speeches reflected his moving away from an American-focused black nationalism in favor of a broad and inclusive human rights advocacy. Immediately after he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X embarked on a series of international travels that would intensify his convictions in the arguments he introduced in that speech. While in Saudi Arabia, participating in the Hajj, Malcolm had the famous epiphany that Islam has the potential to be a truly racially egalitarian faith – an epiphany that would cause him to rethink, in the last weeks of his life, the terms of his long-held views about the irrelevance of sympathetic whites to the black struggle.

But as importantly during that period abroad, Malcolm met with intellectuals and allies in many different national contexts, including Lebanon, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. His experiences in Nigeria and Ghana are particularly noteworthy; here Malcolm began to seriously embrace a Pan-Africanist ideology that rhymed with that espoused by major political figures in African politics, including especially Kwame Nkrumah, with whom he met privately towards the end of his trip.

In speeches and public statements made after the trip, Malcolm increasingly referred to events transpiring in Africa – he expressed outrage over the 1961 killing of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, and made frequent reference to revolutionary uprisings in places like Algeria and Cuba. Here is a key moment from one such speech, given at a Militant Labor Forum event in May 1964, shortly after Malcolm’s return from his first trip abroad that year and prior to his second:

They [Algerian freedom fighters] lived in a police state; Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army.  (Malcolm X Speaks p. 66; also see Marable 335-336)

And then a bit later:

‘The people of China grew tired of their oppressors and… rose up. They didn’t rise up nonviolently. When Castro was up in the mountains in Cuba, they told him the odds were against him. Today he’s sitting in Havana and all the power this country has can’t remove him.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 68; Marable 336)

In June 1964, Malcolm met with Japanese writers visiting Harlem who were survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II (Hibakusha). In his remarks at that meeting he said:

‘You have been scarred by the atom bomb…. We have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.’ Several Japanese journalists also attended the event, giving Malcolm a platform. He praised the leadership of Mao Zedong and the government of the People’s Republic of China, noting that Mao had been correct to pursue policies favoring the peasantry over the working class, because the peasants were responsible for feeding the whole country. He also expressed his opposition to the growing U.S. military engagement in Asia, saying, ‘The struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World – the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” (cited in Marable 340. Marable’s source is Yuri Kochiyama’s 2004 memoir, Passing it On)

Also in June 1964, Malcolm created a new, secular organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which dedicated itself ‘to unifying the Americans of African descent in their fight for Human Rights and Dignity’. The OAAU’s “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives,” which Malcolm presented at an event at the Audobon Ballroom on June 28, 1964, puts forth an agenda that seems closely aligned with the human rights emphasis Malcolm first articulated in “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

The Organization of Afro-American Unity will develop in the Afro-American people a keen awareness of our relationship with the world at large and clarify our roles, rights, and responsibilities as human beings. We can accomplish this goal by becoming well-informed concerning world affairs and understanding that our struggle is part of a larger world struggle of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression.  (OAAU, “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives.” Online at:
            http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/gen_oaau.htm

Malcolm’s second trip to the Middle East and Africa in 1964 would last five months. On that trip he would first attend the meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the new political structure created by African nations and the antecedent for the African Union. He then spent several weeks in Egypt, working with Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University.

Malcolm also spent time in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Ethiopia on this trip, and met with many African leaders and writers, including several heads of state: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Sekou Toure. After he addressed the Kenyan Parliament, it passed a “resolution of support for our human rights struggle.” Nearly everywhere he went, Malcolm X was received as a heroic and admired figure – he had no trouble arranging meetings with heads of state such as President Sekou Toure of Guinea, who spoke to him approvingly about his work.

After returning to the U.S., Malcolm elaborated on his newfound Pan-Africanist and Third Worldist consciousness. In an event again at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on December 13, 1964, he made comments along these lines:

The purpose of our meeting tonight … was to show the relationship between the struggle that is going on on the African continent and the struggle that’s going on among the Afro-Americans here in this country. […] As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get the Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 90; see Marable 395)

What is the real import of the distinction Malcolm X draws between “civil rights” and “human rights”? I can think of two answers, one that might be more pragmatic and one more philosophical. As a black man who felt himself to be denationalized, Malcolm didn’t believe that a struggle focused entirely on civil rights could ever achieve its ends. He didn’t trust that the American system could ever reform itself from within, that it could ever truly deliver justice for its African American population. So a turn to international bodies, to third wordlist ideology, and to Pan-Africanism provided a practical recourse.  

But I tend to think that it’s not just a pragmatic or political strategy that led Malcolm X to turn to human rights. As he increasingly became aware of what was happening in places like the Congo in the early 1960s, and as he came to understand the significance of the Cuban revolution and the misguided nature of the American military involvement in Vietnam, I believe that Malcolm X truly felt that the richest and most effective ethical framework he could adopt was one that would point outwards, beyond American borders. From the speeches he gave in 1964, it’s clear that as Malcolm X visited countries like Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria, he recognized that the lives of African people were as much deserving of recognition and dignity as much as were those of black Americans – that he saw (to return to a phrase I used earlier) these parallel struggles as mirror images of one another. If he had lived longer, and been able to visit other parts of the world, the tenor of his ideological evolution in late 1964 leads me to think that Malcolm X would have soon come to expand beyond the pan-Africanism he espoused in the last year of his life towards a kind of global human rights advocacy.

For me this part of Malcolm X’s legacy has particular relevancy and urgency today, as we think about the issues of our day. We see the continued failures of our own government to observe basic human rights protections; under the Bush administration we allowed torture of an unknown number of individuals – which was deemed legal as long as the individuals were not U.S. citizens and the actions were performed off of U.S. soil – in Guantanamo Bay and in various CIA black sites around the world. And while those practices have ended, no one responsible for those policies has been called to justice. Under Obama we’ve had a policy of extrajudicial execution using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The best course of redress for these wrongs isn’t civil rights – the framework of rights within a single national context under a legal framework designed to apply mainly to citizens. With the U.S. military engaged in an effectively globalized field of operations, we need a strong global framework for protecting the rights and protections of individuals across national borders and irrespective of citizenship status. 

In the U.S. fifty years later we still have reasons to doubt that the civil rights of African American citizens are protected under law. The deaths of numerous unarmed black men at the hands of police last year, followed by non-indictment of police officers responsible for those deaths, makes that only too clear. But the strong sense of international solidarity with protestors on the streets of places like Ferguson and New York City that followed those events was echoed and embraced by activists in other parts of the world. In Malcolm X’s day, the challenge was to present the grievances of American blacks to the world stage. Often through Twitter (i.e., #blacklivesmatter), images of those grievances can now be seen and known by people elsewhere. We see them; they see us. This is a fulfillment -- though a very partial and limited one -- of an idea of the hope for justice and international solidarity that Malcolm X articulated in the last year of his life. 

10.19.2010

New Course in the works: After the Wars--Literature of Globalization

I'm teaching a new course in spring 2011 called "After the Wars: Literature of Globalization." I got the idea after re-reading Kim during the summer, while the Obama administration was waging an aggressive--but seemingly still doomed--campaign to finally try and dislodge the Taliban. It seemed hard not to think of connections between the British campaigns in Afghanistan (which are in some ways alluded to in Kipling's novel) and the current American war there.

It's hard to escape the fact that modern wars accelerate the process of globalization, moving large numbers of soldiers and others to different parts of the world, often provoking complex new social and economic realities in the process.

At the same time, one must accept that modern, global wars do not truly encourage unrestricted cross-cultural encounters. If anything, they can lead societies that may seem relatively open at one point to reinforce their political borders. 9/11 is a case in point here, not so much as a moment when "everything changed" (that kind of rhetoric comes to seem ever more misplaced as the years go by), but rather as a moment at which the euphoria of globalization in the 1990s suddenly changed course. If the 1990s was the decade during which we saw many more people celebrating -- and sometimes resisting -- the idea of globalization, the 2000s seemed to be a decade during which a new anti-globalization ethos came into being, not just in the United States, but in Europe as well.

A question one has to consider in thinking about globalization is: how much of this really new? To what extent is the contemporary experience of globalization different from or similar to the wave of  that began during the peak years of European Imperialism (1870-1945), itself an era of innumerable wars? One could also focus more narrowly on just World War II, an event led to widespread displacement, migration, and political realignment. How did globalization during and immediately after World War II differ from the era that began in the early 1990s?

Another key question is the role of war: how do large wars, involving the migration of thousands or millions of individuals, impact the movement of people, ideas, cultures, and technology? Is it possible that with continued globalization leading to ever larger populations of displaced and immigrant groups, we might see a decline in the conventional idea of 'national' identity, and the emergence of a new concept of global belonging?

If you were teaching this course, what books might you assign? (The only strict parameters I have are: 1) 1870-present moment; 2) something to do with war and globalization.)

After the jump, a preliminary syllabus.

5.07.2008

Fareed Zakaria's Latest: "The Post-American World"

Though I've often disagreed with Fareed Zakaria on specific policy questions, I've always been challenged and interested by his way of thinking about big issues. I found Zakaria's earlier book The Future of Freedom stimulating, if imperfect. Zakaria seems to be especially good at synthesizing complex issues under the umbrella of a signature "big idea," without choking off qualifications or complexities. He still may a little too close to the buzzword-philia of Thomas Friedman for some readers, but in my view Zakaria's book-length arguments are a cut above Friedman's "gee whiz" bromides. (Zakaria's weekly Newsweek columns do not always rise to this bar.)

Zakaria's latest big concept is The Post-American World, a just-released book whose argument he summarizes in a substantial essay in this week's Newsweek. The basic idea is, the world is becoming a place where the U.S. is not a solo superpower, but rather a complex competitive environment with multiple sites of power and influence. Even as China and India ("Chindia"?) rise, it's not clear that the U.S. or Europe will fall; rather, everyone can, potentially, rise together -- or at least, compete together. Zakaria argues that despite hysterical anxieties figured in the mass media regarding the threat of terrorism and economic crisis, the world has rarely been more peaceful -- and that relative peace and stability has created the opportunity for the unprecedented emergence of independent and rapidly expanding market economies in formerly impoverished "Chindia."

There's more to it (read the article), but perhaps that is enough summary for now. There are a couple of passages I thought particularly interesting, which I might put out for discussion. First, on India:

During the 1980s, when I would visit India—where I grew up—most Indians were fascinated by the United States. Their interest, I have to confess, was not in the important power players in Washington or the great intellectuals in Cambridge.



People would often ask me about … Donald Trump. He was the very symbol of the United States—brassy, rich, and modern. He symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America. Today, outside of entertainment figures, there is no comparable interest in American personalities. If you wonder why, read India's newspapers or watch its television. There are dozens of Indian businessmen who are now wealthier than the Donald. Indians are obsessed by their own vulgar real estate billionaires. And that newfound interest in their own story is being replicated across much of the world. (link)


This last insight seems dead-on to me, and it's the kind of thing I think Zakaria appreciates precisely because he was raised in India (no matter how many times he says "we" when talking about American foreign policy, he still carries that with him). This is one of the spaces where Zakaria's status as an "Indian-American" is a real asset, as it gives him a simultaneous insider-outsider "double consciousness" -- he has the ability to see things from the American/European point of view, but also know (remembers?) how the man on the street in Bombay or Shanghai is likely to see the world. [Note: I did an earlier post on Zakaria's complex perspective here]

(As a side note -- for the academics in the house, isn't the narrative Zakaria is promoting in the passage above a "pop" version of what postcolonial theorists have been talking about for years -- what Ngugi called "The Decolonization of the Mind"?)

Secondly, another passage, which I think addresses what might be the biggest hindrance to the multi-nodal global society Zakaria is interested in:

The rise of China and India is really just the most obvious manifestation of a rising world. In dozens of big countries, one can see the same set of forces at work—a growing economy, a resurgent society, a vibrant culture, and a rising sense of national pride. That pride can morph into something uglier. For me, this was vividly illustrated a few years ago when I was chatting with a young Chinese executive in an Internet cafĂ© in Shanghai. He wore Western clothes, spoke fluent English, and was immersed in global pop culture. He was a product of globalization and spoke its language of bridge building and cosmopolitan values. At least, he did so until we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and even the United States. (We did not discuss Tibet, but I'm sure had we done so, I could have added it to this list.) His responses were filled with passion, bellicosity, and intolerance. I felt as if I were in Germany in 1910, speaking to a young German professional, who would have been equally modern and yet also a staunch nationalist.



As economic fortunes rise, so inevitably does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win recognition and respect throughout the world. (link)


Will resurgent nationalism turn out to be the biggest hindrance to the "smooth" globalization Zakaria is talking about? How might this play out? Will there be a new generation of wars, or will it be expressed in subtler ways (like, for instance, what happened with the nuclear deal within the Indian political system). In the Newsweek article at least, Zakaria doesn't really explore the downside of emergent (insurgent?) Chindian nationalisms in depth; perhaps he explores that further in the book.

3.27.2008

A Book with "@" in the Title

There's a profile in the New York Times of Chetan Bhagat (thanks, Pocobrat), author of One Night @ The Call Center, which was released in the U.S. on paperback last year. Bhagat, an author few in the west will have heard of, has now become the biggest English-language author in Indian history:

But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history, according to his publisher, Rupa & Company, one of India’s oldest and best established publishers. His story of campus life, “Five Point Someone,” published in 2004, and a later novel, “One Night @ the Call Center,” sold a combined one million copies.

Mr. Bhagat, who wrote his books while living here, has difficulty explaining why a 35-year-old investment banker writing in his spare time has had such phenomenal success reaching an audience of mainly middle-class Indians in their 20s. The novels, deliberately sentimental in the tradition of Bollywood filmmaking, are priced like an Indian movie ticket — just 100 rupees, or $2.46 — and have won little praise as literature.

“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here. (link)


Yes, it's true, we do hate him.

I read One Night @ The Call Center a few months ago, when the American publisher sent me a review copy. Some parts were so bad, they made me cry. I was particularly bored by the chapters detailing the protagonist's unrequited romance with a colleague , which are set off in bold type for some reason (though the fact that they are set off in bold is actually useful -- the font makes it easier to identify the chapters to skip!).

That said, the novel does have some amusing cultural commentary scattered here and there, and I suspect it's the book's candor on the grim--yet economically privileged--experience of overnight call center workers that has made Bhagat so popular. That, and the book is so easy it could be read by a stoned dog on a moonless night.

Here is one passage, on accents, I thought interesting:

I hate accent training. The American accent is so confusing. You mightthink the Americans and their language are straightforward, but each letter can be pronounced several different ways.

I'll give you just one example: T. With this letter Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent, so "internet" becomes "innernet" and "advantage" becomes "advannage." Another way is when T and N merge-- "written" becomes "writn" and "certain" is "certn." The third sound is when T falls in the middle. There, it sounds like a D--"daughter" is "daughder" and "water" is "wauder." The last category, if you still care, is when Americans say T like a T. This happens, obviously, when T is at the beginning of the word like "table" or "stumble." And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another story.


Say what you will about his literary skills, Bhagat has clearly worried about American accents.

A second moment of cultural commentary I remembered came from the middle of the novel, after one of the characters has started to freak out after getting one too many calls from racist Americans uttering epithets of the "rat-eater" variety:

"Guys, there are two things I cannot stand," he said and showed us two fingers. Racists. And Americans."

Priyanka started laughing.

"What is there to laugh at?" I said.

"Because there is a contradiction. He doesn't like racists, but can't stand Americans," Priyanka said.

"Why?" Vroom said, ignoring Priyanka. "Why do some fat-ass, dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why?"

Nobody answered.

Vroom continued, "I'll tell you why. Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our counttry for the last fifty years couldn't do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth."


And if reading rants like that makes you feel better about things, you might enjoy One Night @ The Call Center. (Well, parts of it, anyway.)

4.09.2007

Misadventures in Government: Delhi and Nandigram

The dream of speeding India towards globalization and economic liberalization has encountered quite a number of hiccups over the past year, though two failed government policies in particular stand out: the sealing drive in Delhi, and the Special Economic Zone plan in rural Bengal.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections over the past few days, and the Congress Party lost heavily, while the BJP gained the majority of seats, primarily because of "sealing," which is the process of closing down illegal commercial enterprises in residential areas. The government's mismanagement of the sealing drive, which has led to repeated interventions by the Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, can be compared in some ways to what happened recently in Nandigram. There, a group of villagers gathered to protest the conversion of their farmland into a "Special Economic Zone" (SEZ) found themselves under fire by police. Fourteen people died in the violence, and in the ensuing uproar the Communist government of Bengal has been forced to suspend (temporarily?) its plan to develop a massive chemical factory and the four-lane highway that would lead to it.

There are of course ironies in both instances. It's remarkable, for instance, that the Communist government of Bengal is so pro-globalization that it was ready to force several thousand people in Nandigram to relocate to make way for an Indonesian corporation (the Salim group). But it seems to me that what is happening here isn't so much about conventional ideology (left vs. right) as it is about pro-development policies, that might make sense in principle, being terribly mismanaged.

Both issues are incredibly complicated, and alongside your opinions and arguments, I'd like to humbly request that readers suggest links that shed light on the different sides of each issue.

The Wikipedia entry for the 2006 Delhi Sealing Drive is pretty helpful, as it gives a detailed timeline of events (supported in many cases by external links to news articles). Another helpful starting point is this Rediff article from last November. There is also a blog of sorts on Delhi Sealing; the recent entries refer to the "Delhi Master Plan 2021," which was unveiled by the Congress government last fall as a way to offset the political damage created by the misguided sealing drive that unfolded over the course of 2006. The new Master Plan compromises on several issues; for instance, it aims to create more "mixed use" areas, thereby reducing the need for sealing under the previous plan. In all of this, the Supreme Court has been a major thorn in the side of the Congress government; it has required the government to implement a deeply unpopular policy, and in some sense pushed the Congress Party in Delhi into its current situation. (The Supreme Court has also bucked the will of the legislative branch on the question of reservations for OBCs, though that is another whole can of worms.)

On Nandigram and the SEZs, Wikipedia is again a good place to start. I would also recommend this Tehelka article from March 3, which also discusses a controversial SEZ plan in Singur involving a proposed Tata Auto plant. There's also an interesting Op-Ed in the Indian Express, from a writer who is clearly pro-SEZ and pro-globalization, but who recognizes the failures in the plan as it was enacted. And finally, try this leftist critique of the rather non-leftish policies of the CPI(M) in Bengal at Znet. (You may or may not agree with Akhila Rman's assessment of what happened at Nandigram, but her footnotes/links are very helpful.)

The biggest problem with the SEZ program from a civil rights perspective is the way the government can acquire rural land from peasants who may not have any papers to support their claim to ownership. (In this sense, they are similar to the traders who run unlicensed shops in Delhi -- and the claims of both groups are, in my view, legitimate.) A new policy is being put in place that will require that SEZ land in the future be purchased, rather than simply possessed, but it's unclear whether that is now going to be tried at Nandigram.

1.24.2007

In the Washington Post: Vikram Chandra, and a little from me

I'm quoted in an article in this past Monday's Washington Post, on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games:

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."