Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts

The Problems with Erika Christakis' Email : A Close Reading

I have been alternately excited and a little troubled about what's been happening this week on college campuses -- especially Yale and Missouri -- this past week.

From where I stand, what happened at the University of Missouri was pretty exhilarating. University presidents who come into the job straight from the corporate world (Tim Wolfe had a background in the software industry) may be good fundraisers, but they typically can't handle crises or criticisms the way long-term academic veterans typically can. Universities cannot be run like corporations; you can't just fire a troublesome department chair or disgruntled student group the way you can if you are the CEO of Novell. I'm pretty sure the students there will be better off in the long term with someone who really knows the university culture and is therefore better positioned to help build a better and more inclusive campus community down the road.

My own university had a crisis following an incident of racial hate speech in recent years (I wrote about it here), and responded carefully by engaging with student demands and making real changes to address ongoing problems of campus climate. Faced with a similar situation, I believe Lehigh did better -- and had a better outcome as a result.

What's been happening at Yale is a little more complex. I read Professor Erika Christakis' email when this story broke last week and immediately found it problematic, with serious issues of tone and rhetorical positioning. It's a hot mess that poses as thoughtful provocation. 

But I also don't quite understand why students can't express their legitimate anger through proportional response. Free speech advocates have been circulating a video of a student engaged in a kind of bullying and one-sided exchange with Nicholas Christakis that made me cringe, and think, "we can do better than this."

So here is my attempt to model what I wish that student would have done: a critique of Erika Christakis' email to students in Silliman college at Yale in her capacity as Associate Master. My source for the email is this website
Erika Christakis: Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.
Not starting off too promisingly. Professor Christakis wants to bring her own research and teaching interests into the conversation, but there's a disconnect between her example of the "specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics" and the question about what kinds of costumes might be appropriate for college students in a diverse academic community to wear. These are two different things. 

The flawed premise here is going to be the source of much of the more serious trouble to come in later paragraphs.
Erika Christakis: I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
What's weird about this is the presumption she makes -- as part of the university administration -- to criticize the "bureaucratic and administrative" exercise of authority over college students. If students she had been speaking with disagreed with the restrictions the upper administration was requesting, why not let them make that critique? Why is she presuming to do it for them?

There is a deep rhetorical awkwardness inherent in telling students that they should want to be more rebellious in the face of these rather sensible restrictions (don't dress in black face! don't wear a mohawk and dress up as a "sexy Pocahontas"!) than they in fact are.
Erika Christakis: It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
"Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18?" This is simple: the answer is, it's not okay if you are eighteen. Why isn't that obvious?  

College students are adults who have to take responsibility for their actions and statements. Yes, there is an old idea of college as a somewhat protected space, where students should be allowed to make mistakes and figure out the best ways to make their points felt. I probably benefited from that when I was in college and made some mistakes of my own. 

But that space doesn't exist any longer in the social media era, and it's high time we recognized that. The prospect of cameras everywhere recording everything does put more pressure on students to learn quickly how to negotiate the line between playful expression and hurtful speech or insulting appropriation. But by the time they reach college, most students have already had some experience dealing with that; people had cellphones in high school too. Growing up along these lines is now a central part of learning how to be a responsible adult in a diverse and complex society.

On with the email: 
Erika Christakis: Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.
Here I really threw up my hands. "But I really, really like them too." Really? This is just a very embarrassing thing for her to have put in this email. "Is the trade in blood diamonds wrong? Probably. But I really, really like having shiny things." 

Now let's wrap up:
Erika Christakis: Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity – in your capacity - to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?
In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?
It's not mine, I know that.

Amidst the ongoing awkwardness ("guys, why don't you want to be more offensive?") and tone-deafness there are actually a couple of good points here. I do think there is a role for students to engage in self-censure and social norming. If a student wears something that another student finds offensive, the first recourse should probably be person-to-person conversation. People who make mistakes and who attempt to redress complaints about their behavior in good faith ought, in general, to be given a little leeway. But there is also a role that can be played by administrators engaged in student life when that doesn't work the way it should. To me, it just seems really odd for an administrator to say, "why can't you guys just police yourselves?"

That forgiveness we might extend to students who make mistakes might have held true for Professor Erika Christakis, by the way. The best response to this type of awful email under ideal conditions would have been to publish a sharp refutation in the student newspaper. In this case, the letter is such a mess that a witty Yalie could probably generate an on-point parody in her sleep (i.e., "American universities were once a safe space for racist and homophobic secret societies where young men routinely got naked and whipped each other with wooden paddles as initiation rites. Have we lost faith in young people's capacity to decide whether they want to continue those hallowed traditions?").

(Update: A group of students did post a letter responding on the internet here. It makes many of the points I do above, but also has some rhetorical problems of its own.)

But of course the conditions are not ideal and we're now past the point where any of that could happen. Professor Christakis thought she was writing a note to young people to authorize them to resist what the authorities were telling them to do, but what she and her husband (Nicholas Christakis, who appears in the video linked to above) have found is a form of resistance against authority they could never have anticipated. The authority being resisted is their own.

Consequences Day: A Modest Proposal for the 19th of March

The U.S. has a number of important civic holidays: Veterans Day (equivalent to the British Armistice Day), Memorial Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and of course, Independence Day. In the past twelve years, a new de facto patriotic holiday has also emerged -- September 11 Day.

Some of these holidays tend to emphasize straightforward patriotism, while holidays like Labor Day and MLK Day tend to provoke internal reflection regarding the injustices in American history.

I think we need a new holiday (or perhaps an anti-holiday) in the spirit of MLK Day and Labor Day: a day to memorialize the tremendous folly, waste, and injustice of the second Iraq War, which began on March 19 2003 -- ten years ago to the day. For readers who have forgotten about this long burning corner of horror, Juan Cole has a helpful set of reminders, with a post called "What We Lost: the 10 Ways the Iraq War Harmed the U.S." I highly recommend it.

I would call my proposed day of remembrance (it is not quite right to call it a holiday) Consequences Day. Here is what I have in mind for Consequences Day:

1. We need a Consequences Day first and foremost because the United States started a war on spurious grounds, and against the advice of friends and allies, and now has to pay for it. We are still dealing with and paying for the Consequences. (And we are still seeing those Consequences in the headlines of the news -- if we choose to notice them. Fifty people were killed in bombings in Baghdad today.)

President George W. Bush and his team have never publicly addressed the consequences of their actions. Bush is now retired and apparently spends his time painting dogs. I do not think there is any mechanism for any of these people to ever come forward and acknowledge their failures and their mistakes; I wish there were. At the very least, I hope their retirement is troubled from time to time by reminders of what they did -- the questioning of the occasional disabled veteran, for example.

2. We need a Consequences Day because the U.S. invaded a country without any sort of plan for following up after the initial invasion component was completed. As Cole points out, and many others have stated, the U.S. did not have very deep knowledge of the country it took charge of in 2003, and indeed had actively excluded some of its most knowledgeable people from participating in the rebuilding of Iraq. Waste and mismanagement ensued, followed by a protracted and bloody insurgency (or Civil War) that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and hundreds of thousands permanently displaced.

Americans have been paying financially for the Consequences of this war, and will continue to pay for it for generations -- to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. The Iraqis, for their part, have had to pay for it by having a broken country (see more about that at another Juan Cole post: "What We Did to Iraq").

3. We need a Consequences Day because many political figures (especially in the U.S. Senate) and social institutions (the New York Times, along with a huge swath of the journalistic establishment outside the Times) who might have questioned the build-up to the war, including the very vague and questionable evidence that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, failed to ask the right questions or say "no" when they had the chance.

For the people who failed to say no, Consequences Day needs to be a time to think about how we handle decision-making and how we approach dissent. A number of Democrats in the Senate, for example, clearly made the calculation that voting against the war would be a political loser. The consequence ought to be that they are forced to see the error of their ways. Similarly, many important writers and journalists (two who stand out in my mind are Fareed Zakaria and Salman Rushdie) signed off on Bush's war; I want them to address the consequences of that support.

Surely, many people who supported the war did so because they were "freaked" by the seeming political paradigm-shift represented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For them Consequences Day should be a reminder that tragedies can multiply themselves if we don't respond to them appropriately and dispassionately. Instead of remaining focused on solving security issues raised by 9/11, we created an entirely new tragedy which has cost more in American lives (4000 soldiers have been killed, and tens of thousands more have been rendered disabled) than were killed on 9/11.

Every American is crystal-clear on what happened on 9/11, but many, if not most, are pretty fuzzy about the fallout from the Iraq War. We need a Consequences Day to rectify that.

One writer who clearly has accepted the Consequences of supporting the Iraq War is Andrew Sullivan, for whom the war was such an epochal catastrophe that it has effectively reversed his political orientation. I am not clear why this hasn't also happened for others. Admittedly, some (one thinks of Tom Friedman) are just too callow and complacent to really even be aware of how their support for the Iraq War has damaged their credibility. (Clearly, between Andrew Sullivan and Juan Cole, bloggers come off much better than institutionally supported journalists when it comes to accountability and the ability to see the truth in front of our noses.)

4. We need a Consequences Day to reflect on the many abuses of human rights conducted by American soldiers and intelligence agencies during this war, and the War on Terror more broadly. American soldiers treated prisoners unspeakably at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA widely used torture at facilities like Guantanamo (but not just Guantanamo). The rest of the world knows that now, so that too has consequences: any American efforts to compel other countries to check the use of torture against detainees will in effect be stillborn until there is some sort of accountability for this.

Consequences Day in, short, is intended as a day of reflection and self-criticism -- borrowing something from the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (the day of "Atonement"). It would be a day for Americans to stop and take stock of and collectively grapple with the results of this large national failure. While some of it can be pinned on a few terrible public officials who engineered the catastrophe (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld), or to a larger number who assented and were complicit (Rice and Powell, but also John Kerry and Hillary Clinton), in truth the failures of the Iraq War also point to broader structural and social failures that apply in some ways to all of us. How can we do better as a society -- to try and ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?

Not the cheeriest of commemorations, to be sure. But unlike some other civic holidays, a day to focus on the Consequences of our mistakes might actually help us avoid repeating them.

Race and the U.S. Census -- from April 2010

I wrote this in April 2010, and tried to get it published without success as an Op-Ed. Printing it now in response to a debate some friends are having regarding race and the census. I may have a follow-up post on it soon.

More than sixty years ago, my grandparents left their home in a village in Pakistan, packed all their belongings in an ox-cart, and walked on foot for hundreds of miles – along with millions of other Sikhs and Hindus – across the border to a newly independent nation: India. Millions of Muslims from the other side of the border were going in the opposite direction, settling in Pakistan, where the immigrants from India are to this day identified by other Pakistanis as “Mohajirs” (“Migrants”), held to be somewhat separate from the old-timers who are really native to the region.

In 1973, my parents migrated again, this time from India to the United States. As my father still likes to brag, he and my mother came to this country with nothing but a medical degree from an Indian university, and about $300 in their pocket. My parents’ profile was not so different from that of thousands of other immigrants from various Asian countries, who came to the U.S. seeking economic opportunity after the reforms in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Four decades later, this wave of immigration has made the United States easily the most ethnically and racially diverse large nation in the world. As of 2000, the census recorded approximately 1.9 million Asian Indians living in the United States (counting people who checked two boxes on the Census for “race”), and this number is expected to be substantially higher as of 2010. By comparison in 2000, approximately 150,000 wrote in “Pakistani,” 43,000 wrote in “Bangladeshi,” and 20,000 wrote in “Sri Lankan” Unfortunately, the census data from 2000 gives us no way to ascertain how many immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka might have simply defined themselves, racially, as “Asian Indian,” since that is the closest category on the survey that does not require a write-in answer.

While the race question on the Census has for the most part remained the same from 2000 to 2010, there is one significant change, which comes in the form of a “hint” that has been added in the 2010 census to the category “Other Asian.” The hint, in parenthesis, points to a write-in box suggesting several nationalities that may be written in, including, “Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on.” The addition of this small hint in the 2010 Census might seem small – perhaps it is meant merely as a clarification, and not as a substantive change – but it raises some difficult questions for Americans whose families hail from the Indian subcontinent.

Why is it that my parents and I are “Asian Indian,” while our friends who came (more recently) from Pakistan – people who share our complexion, languages, and much else – are given a separate slot? Similarly, while Bengali-speaking Indians will almost certainly fill out “Asian Indian” for Question 9, Bangladeshis, who again share the same language, appearance, and many deep cultural links with Bengalis on the Indian side of the border, might feel encouraged to follow the lead of Pakistanis in identifying themselves as of another “race,” again under “Other Asian.” And this confusion can be seen yet again regarding the ethnic groups from the southern part of the Indian subcontinent: Tamil Indians, who speak a language and have a distinctive way of life that resembles their Tamil-speaking cousins in Sri Lanka. If Tamil Indians are “Asian Indians,” how are Tamil Sri Lankans “Other Asian” – which by the logic of the new hint, they must be? All of these groups now have significant immigrant representation in the United States. It is puzzling that despite the many cultural and historical commonalities shared by people from the Indian subcontinent, they are seen by the Census as separate “racial” groups.

The confusion over the nationalities of the Indian subcontinent is only one among several signs that the Census remains hopelessly confusing on “race.” How is it that there is a distinct box for the Samoan “race,” but no boxes for “Arab” or “Persian/Iranian,” both of which have substantial populations in the U.S., and who are likely to be split between “white” and “some other race”? And what about Afghan-Americans? Are they “Asian,” “white,” or “some other race”?

After some consideration of these categories, it becomes clear is that while some boxes in Question 9 on the Census (the “race” question) actually refer to categories everyone would agree relate to “Race” (“white,” “black,” “American Indian or Alaska native”), there are several others – “Asian Indian,” “Japanese,” “Chinese,” “Korean,” “Filipino,” “Vietnamese,” and “Samoan,” that refer to what are really nationalities. While official Census statements and directives suggest that the survey should have one question that relates to “ethnicity” (Question 8, addressed to Hispanics), and one on “race,” the reality is that Question 9 in particular remains a mish-mash of social groupings that could variously be described as “racial,” “ethnic,” or “national.”

Admittedly, the changes to the approach to race taken by the census are not all bad; indeed, the current configuration is a great improvement over versions of the “race” and “ethnicity” questions in earlier Census surveys. (Before 1970, for instance, Asian Indians, along with others from the Indian subcontinent, were all simply expected to check “white,” even if it was far from clear that they were going to be recognized as such by ordinary Americans.) The Frequently Asked Questions section of the current Census.Gov website, in response to the question, “Why doesn't the race question include more categories?” refers to a 1997 directive from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), setting up a general frame of reference that included five broadly defined racial groups. The 1997 OMB directive, which can be read in its entirety here [http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/fedreg_1997standards/], also states that, “The categories represent a social-political construct designed for collecting data on the race and ethnicity of broad population groups in this country, and are not anthropologically or scientifically based.”

But this statement by the OMB raises more questions than it answers. If the racial and ethnic categories on the U.S. Census are not “anthropologically or scientifically based,” on what ideas or facts exactly are they based? While one understands the imperative to gather broad population data, wouldn’t that data be better if it were construed in keeping with terms and social groupings derived from scientific anthropology?

Let us briefly take a stab at a better system of categorization for Asians. Admittedly, there is no magic bullet – and certainly no simple way to balance the challenge posed by balancing ethnographical accuracy against the evident need to be brief and keep the form simple enough that it can be easily understood and filled out. Still, I would suggest that the various “Asian” nationalities could best be re-defined into three large, regional groups: South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian. Though obviously culturally heterogeneous in many ways, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and Nepalis, come close to forming what ought to be an intelligible regional (if not “racial”) category – a category that anthropologists would call South Asian. Similarly, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people might be identified as East Asian, while Filipinos, Burmese, Cambodians, Laotions, Thais, Indonesians, Fijians, Malaysians, and other Pacific Islanders, might all be Southeast Asians. Again, these three regional sub-categories of “Asian” are far from perfect, and each of the terms listed is abstract enough that it would probably need a list of “hints” along the lines of the hints currently given for “Other Asian.” While this change might not solve all of the analytic problems relating to Asian “racial” identity on the Census, it certainly would lead to better data than a survey that encourages Asian Indians and Pakistanis to see themselves as distinct “racial” groups.

"Over and Over He Said 'Survive'": the Poetry of Khaled Mattawa in Light of Libya

I was lucky, at Duke in the mid-1990s, to overlap for a few years with the Libyan poet and translator Khaled Mattawa, then enrolled in Duke's Ph.D. program. I don't think I really grasped the extent to which Khaled's experience as an expatriate (really, exile) would end up impacting me at the time. And I was also a bit too young to be able grasp the level of accomplishment and power of Khaled's first published book of poetry, Ismailia Eclipse. (Sheep Meadow Press, 1995. The book is difficult to find now, though Khaled has helpfully put many of the important poems online here.)

Since the recent uprising in Libya began, I've been slowly revisiting Khaled's work and using the poems, where possible, to help process the incredibly stirring -- but also distressing -- events that are taking place in that country. As one of very few Libyan intellectuals fluent in English living in the United States, Khaled has of course been in demand in the U.S. media in the past two weeks. He did a great interview on PBS's NewsHour, and another on NPR in the past few days. But the most moving statement he's made in light of the rebellion is to write a personal account of growing up in Libya (Benghazi) at the beginning of Qadhafi's rule: "Rising to Shake Off the Fear in Libya". (The essay has appeared as an Op-Ed in several newspapers today.)

Here is an excerpt from that Op-Ed:


A few months earlier on April 7, 1977, members of the revolutionary committees had plastered a poster of Gadhafi’s image on my father’s car. On that same day they had, under the dictator’s direct supervision, publicly hanged several dissidents in Benghazi. 
On the day of the execution, the Ghibli winds blowing from the desert filled the air with dust and turned the sky into a reddish-gray canopy. I’d taken a bus with a friend to catch a movie downtown. Nearing Shajara Square, the bus simply turned around and took us back to where we had come from. Later that evening, state television repeatedly broadcast the hangings. I went to our garage to peel the dictator’s poster off our car. It took an interminably long time.
Along with millions of other Libyans, I have never stopped trying to peel Gadhafi’s image from my life. Even after I came to the United States in 1979 to continue my education, the dictator seemed to follow me. He was the one Libyan most people had heard of, and they wanted to talk about him. I used to be enraged when women told me how handsome he was. To me he was the face of evil itself, the face of separation, exile, thuggery, torture and lies.
(Source: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/03/03/2096377/rising-to-shake-off-the-fear-in.html#ixzz1FeVTVOts )


Reading this, I couldn't help but think of Khaled's early poem, published in Ismailia Eclipse, describing the very same event, "Fifty April Years". Here is an excerpt from that poem, which Khaled has posted in its entirety on his website:


Poetry in the Protests -- Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi

[Cross-posted at Guernica

Protest poetry and music sometimes rises to the surface during popular uprisings, crystallizing popular sentiments -- one thinks of Victor Jara in Chile, Nazim Hikmet in Turkey, Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Pakistan, or Woody Guthrie in the United States. At times like these, the right poetry and song doesn't merely describe how people are feeling; it can actually act as an intensifier that guides a protest movement, helping it spread and solidify. (Needless to say, such poetry does not need to be written by professional poets. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream..." was an act of poetry as much as anything else.)


Along those lines, it seems worthwhile to note the role played by Arabic poetry in the uprisings. One particular poet, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi (whose name can also be rendered in English as Aboul-Qasem Echebbi), was widely cited on the streets and even in the Tunisian news-media during the uprising against Ben Ali, and according to reports coming in from Aljazeera, is now being cited by protestors on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

The key poem is rendered in English as "To the Tyrants of the World," and unfortunately I cannot find a great translation of it online anywhere. There is one version at a blog called Arabic Literature in English, here. Interestingly, a better translation is actually available via a radio story on NPR.


To the Tyrants of the World
(Translated by Abdul Iskander for NPR)

Oppressive tyrant, lover of darkness, enemy of life
You have ridiculed the size of the weak people
Your palm is soaked with their blood
You have deformed the magic of existence
And planted the seeds of sorrow in the fields


Wait -- don't be fooled by the spring
The clearness of the sky or the light of dawn 
For on the horizon lies the horror of darkness,
Rumble of thunder, and blowing of wind

Beware, for below the ash there is fire
And he who grows thorns reaps wounds
Look there, for I have harvested the heads of mankind
And the flowers of hope 
And I have watered the heart of the earth with blood
I soaked it with tears until it was drunk
The river of blood will sweep you
And the fiery storm will devour you 

Translated by Abdul Iskander (Source. Original Arabic)


As I mentioned, "To the Tyrants of the World" was recited on the streets during the protests in Tunisia, and it is now being recited in Cairo and Alexandria by the millions who have taken to the streets to demand democratic reforms and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. One line whose meaning comes across with unmistakable force in this translation comes near the end: "He who grows thorns will reap wounds." One does not forget a line like that.

Another poem by al-Shabi is a short verse that is actually part of the Tunisian national anthem, "If the people one day aspire to life" (also referred to variously as "The Will to Life" or "The Will to Live"). Here the Arabic Literature blog does have three very good translations available on their site here. My favorite, at least in terms of the quality of the English, is by a commenter at another site, called YankeeJohn:

Should the people one day truly aspire to life
then fate must needs respond
the night must needs shine forth
and the shackles must needs break
Those who are not embraced by life’s yearning
shall evaporate in her air and vanish.  (Source)

Again, for the original Arabic, I would suggest taking a look at the bottom of the post here. You can also see Al-Shabi's poetry being recited in Arabic in a video at the website of UT-Austin here.

Another powerful political Arab poet I know of is Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, an Iraqi who spent much of his adult life in exile. One of his famous poems, "The Dragon," is available in translation here. Below are the opening lines of the poem (it's worth reading in full):

A dictator, hiding behind a nihilist's mask,
has killed and killed and killed,
pillaged and wasted,
but is afraid, he claims,
to kill a sparrow.
His smiling picture is everywhere:
in the coffeehouse, in the brothel,
in the nightclub, and the marketplace.
Satan used to be an original,
now he is just the dictator's shadow.
The dictator has banned the solar calendar,
abolished Neruda, Marquez, and Amado,
abolished the Constitution;
he's given his name to all the squares, the open spaces,
the rivers,
and all the jails in his blighted homeland. (Source)
This is usually interpreted as the poet's commentary on Saddam Hussein, but at various points in the poem al-Bayyati expands his meaning to refer to the dictator-dragons who are being "cloned" acround the world.

There are of course many other contemporary poets from Egypt and Tunisia, and I will be looking them up in the days and weeks ahead to see if I can find more writing like al-Shabi's -- writing that seems to crystallize what is going on, even if it might have been written at a different time or in a different context. One place to look might be the collection, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from The Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. Egyptian poets included in the volume include Andree Chedid (writing in French), Amal Dunqul, Ahmad Abd al-Mu'ti Hijazi, Fatma Kandil, Abd el-Monem Ramadan, Salah 'abd al-Sabur, and Himy Salem. Some Tunisian poets whose Muhammad al-Ghuzzi, Amina Said (writing in French), and al-Munsif al-Wayhabi.

*

[UPDATE: Read this incredibly informative essay by Elliott Cola on the role of poetry in the Arab protest movements... Thanks Kitabet.]

And Then They Came For Lasantha Wickramatunge

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in broad daylight outside of Colombo last week. SAJA has a helpful round-up of coverage of the event, including some background on Wickramatunge's journalistic record. What stands out is the fact that he has been a consistent dissenting voice in Sri Lankan politics, sharply criticizing the previous government for years. In recent years he had also become a critic of the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had earlier supported. Indeed, Wickramatunge and Rajapaska were until recently rather close friends.

Wickramatunge's assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by forces allied with the government, if not directly sponsored by the government itself. His memorial service, which took place yesterday in Colombo, was attended by thousands of people (see a Flickr photostream of the event here).

This past Sunday, the Sunday Leader, the Sri Lankan newspaper founded by Wickramatunge and his brother, carried a posthumous editorial authored by Wickramatunge himself. It's called, "And Then They Came For Me," and it's written with the understanding that it would only be printed in the event of the author's assassination.

It's a moving statement, which ought to be read by anyone who doubts whether freedom of the press or freedom of speech is, after all, an essential right. Wickramatunge begins by asserting his primary goal as a journalist over the fifteen years he had worked with this newspaper:

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper. (a link)

Though Wickramatunge had been a critic of the government's prosecution of the ongoing war against the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka, he was by no means an apologist for the LTTE (indeed, if I am reading his name correctly, he is ethnically Sinhalese, not Tamil).

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall. (link)

There's more that I could quote, but perhaps I should just encourage readers to read the editorial themselves.

It's a remarkable statement in many ways, not least because its author seemingly knew what was coming, but continued doing what he was doing all the same. (Bravely or foolishly.) But even more than that, despite the extremity of the situation in which Wickramatunge wrote this editorial, his voice remains calm and reasonable. There is no melodrama there, just a passionate commitment to the journalistic mission of always aspiring to speak the truth, even if no one wants to hear it.

I do not know whether Wickramatunge was right or not when he argued, in the passage I quoted above, that the current military actions in northern Sri Lanka are doomed to failure. Indeed, part of me hopes he is wrong, and that this really is the end of the road for Prabakaran and the LTTE army.

But history and logic suggests that in fact Wickramatunge is likely to be exactly right: you cannot win over the hearts of minds of an enemy in a civil conflict by brutalizing them. Any lasting peace will have to be consensual and negotiated, involving the disarming of the LTTE, but also concessions from the government. (Northern Ireland is the model to try and emulate, I think.)

In Defense of Sonal Shah [Updated]

[After I posted this, Sonal Shah released a statement distancing herself from the VHP. I was able to verify the statement via another source; for me this puts to rest any questions about her views, and reinforces the argument I make in the following post.]

Last week at Sepia Mutiny Abhi did a post on Sonal Shah, who is working for the Obama transition team. Over the weekend, however, a controversy erupted over Shah, who has worked for the Center for American Progress and Google.org (the philanthropic arm of Google), and who has started, with her siblings, a do-good organization called Indicorps.

Vijay Prashad makes some very harsh accusations in an article in Counterpunch, basically suggesting that Sonal Shah is a supporter of a Hindu right organization, the VHP.

The accusations have been widely covered in the Indian media, including The Hindustan Times, TOI, and DNA. Most of those are simply echoing the statements made by Prashad. I have also been getting emails from left-leaning Indian academic friends, who are outraged about Sonal Shah.

I am skeptical about Prashad's accusations. First, I think it's important to keep a little perspective: Sonal Shah has been hired because of her experience with Google.Org, not because of her former affiliation with the VHP-A. She is also not actually working for the "Obama administration" -- she is working on the team that will hire people to work for the Obama administration. If and when she has an official government post, and especially if that post has something to do with policy on India, this kind of scrutiny might be merited. Right now, it is not.

Second, Prashad's accusations against Sonal Shah smell like a smear -- not so different from Sarah Palin saying Barack Obama "pals around with terrorists." I have no idea whether Sonal Shah is secretly sympathetic to the VHP or not. But given that she has not made a public statement in response to Prashad's most recent accusations, we should probably respond to her based on her actions and verified statements. Not on her parents' beliefs (the worst kind of guilt-by-association), not on her past membership in the VHP-A (which is not disputed), and not on what Vijay Prashad says she said at some Desi conference years ago. In this decade, Sonal Shah has clearly been on the right side of things.

Vijay Prashad wants to paint a very particular image of Sonal Shah, as a kind of die-hard Hindu chauvinist, who continues to harbor secret communal hatreds, even if she has not made public statements to that effect, is not formally affiliated with any relevant groups, and has been doing valuable social work with Google.Org and Indicorps. But that is just one narrative. One could easily construct a counter-narrative along these lines: Sonal Shah's parents are in fact supporters of the VHP, and are friends of Narendra Modi. As an ABD growing up in Texas, she had little awareness of the destructive and intolerant nature of Hindu nationalism, and when the opportunity came around to work with VHP-A to raise money for earthquake victims in Gujarat in 2001, she took it. But perhaps, with maturity, and as she took a higher profile role in the organization, she also began to gain an awareness of the costs of affiliation with the VHP, and left to found an organization that does similar work, but with a secular slant.

That second narrative I have presented is admittedly complete speculation. But I put it out there because I think there is as much evidence to support it as there is to support the narrative that Prashad has put out in Counterpunch.

I do not have the time to write more at present; I may come back to this later tonight. In the meanwhile, comments are open for discussion. Read the Prashad essay -- what do you think? Is he being fair? Also, do readers know more about Indicorps? And, finally, if anyone does know Sonal Shah personally, would you vouch for her (or perhaps, for what Prashad is saying about her)?

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:



I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)


For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)


Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)


And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.

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.

'Every Unsavoury Separatist is Gloating': Questions About Kosovo

Via Crooked Timber (and also 3QD), there is a learned critique by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express, of the recent "engineering" of independence for Kosovo by western European powers and the U.S.

The key paragraph in the argument for our purposes (i.e., with South Asia in mind) might be the following:

In the 19th century, there was a memorable debate between John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. John Stuart Mill had argued, in a text that was to become the bible for separatists all over, including Jinnah and Savarkar, that democracy functions best in a mono-ethnic societies. Lord Acton had replied that a consequence of this belief would be bloodletting and migration on an unprecedented scale; it was more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy. It was this link that Woodrow Wilson elevated to a simple-minded defence of self-determination. The result, as Mann demonstrated with great empirical rigour, was that European nation states, 150 years later, were far more ethnically homogenous than they were in the 19th century; most EU countries were more than 85 per cent mono-ethnic. (link)


In his Column in Indian Express, Mehta keeps his focus sharply on Kosovo's status within Europe, and also considers the seeming double standard as the Western powers disregard Russian objections to Kosovo's independence, on the one hand, while they go out of their way to accommodate China's (unconscionable) policy on Taiwan, on the other.

But there is obviously a question for South Asia here as well, and India in particular. Mehta briefly alludes to the history of nationalism in the Indian subcontinent when he invokes Jinnah and Savarkar, but his column raises questions for us as we think about the present too -- specifically the questions over the status of Kashmir and Assam (maybe also Manipur and Nagaland, not to mention Punjab in the 1980s).

The debate between Acton and Mill Mehta invokes isn't so much a "conservative" versus "liberal" debate -- John Stuart Mill is considered one of the architects of the philosophy of liberalism, but in this case his views come out as less "liberal" than Acton's. Mill supports thinking of nations as defined by race/ethnicity, but that approach can reinforce ethno-religious differences, rather than leading to an environment where different communities have equal status in a diverse nation. I tend to favor Acton's approach, except perhaps in cases where minority communities face imminent violence, or genocidal suppression.

(Incidentally, Mehta builds his arguments on an essay called "The Dark Side of Democracy" in New Left Review, by Michael Mann; for those who have subscriptions, you can find the article here.)

Desis Vote (And, Tooting My Own Horn)

SAMAR Magazine has a new issue up on its website on elections -- both within South Asia and here in the U.S. They have essays on the recent election in Gujarat, the Parliamentary elections in Pakistan, the upcoming elections in Nepal, a piece by an SAFO member, and a piece on the Desi vote in New York. There's also a short essay by myself, on "Skinny Candidates With Funny Names," which brings together points made in several of blog posts on Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal. In the piece I make reference to some Sepia Mutiny comment threads, and I actually quote directly from commenter Neal.

My own piece aside, I would recommend people start with the piece by Ali Najmi on the Desi vote in New York. It's informative, for one thing, and Najmi makes reference to a new organization called Desis Vote, which aims to mobilize participation in the South Asian community.

I would also recommend the piece by Luna Ranjit on the upcoming elections in Nepal. Ranjit explains why the planned elections last year were postponed, and explains why the upcoming elections will be historic for Nepal. In addition to addressing the Maoist question, she talks about some of Nepal's ethnic/tribal problems, with groups such as the Terai.

Obama as a 'Brown' Candidate

I had a moment of Obama-identification when I saw the following anecdote from the Iowa caucuses in the New York Times last night:

The Boyd household, perhaps, is atypical. She supported Mr. Obama, while her husband, Rex, walked into the caucus as a Clinton supporter. Before the final headcount was conducted, she said, he changed his mind and moved over to the Obama corner of the room.



In an overnight e-mail, she offered an explanation.

“Rex went to Clinton and I wore a Obama sticker. As people milled and talked, he changed before the count as he heard people stating they could not vote for someone with a last name like Obama. One said, ‘He needs to stay in Chicago and take care of his family.’



“Rex came over to Obama, where he heard not one negative bit of talk. He felt they both stand for pretty much the same ideas, but our leader needs to be positive and Obama puts that feeling out there. That is important in this world.” (link)


There goes that 'funny' name again. Obama has joked about it at times in his stump speeches, but here it seems like it might really be a liability for him after all. For someone to say "I couldn't vote for someone named Obama" is to my eye code: it's a way of saying "I couldn't vote for someone foreign."

The problem of the funny name, and the association it carries with foreignness, as has been discussed many times at Sepia Mutiny, is a characteristic most South Asians share with Mr. Barack Obama. (He has a nickname, by the way -- "Barry" -- though he has admirably chosen not to campaign on it... yet).

This little anecdote is a reminder that this campaign is still, in some sense, a referendum on race and, more broadly, "difference." Clearly, some voters (even supposedly less race-minded Democrats) really aren't ready for a black candidate, or a "different" candidate -- but as, in the anecdote above, there are also an equal number of voters who are drawn to Obama for precisely the reason that others are prejudiced against him.

Obama's difference obviously isn't exactly the same as that which many South Asian American dcontend with, of course: he's Christian, and many of us are not (though it's worth pointing out again that he doesn't have a Christian name). He's also visually and culturally identifiable to most Americans as "black," while Desis often have the problem of looking merely foreign and unplaceable. (In his second gubernatorial campaign in Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, as I've discussed, found a formula to get around this, but since it entailed positioning himself in some cases against the interests of African Americans, I don't think it's a formula I would encourage others to emulate.)

Obama assiduously avoids making the campaign about race in his speeches and debates (except for the obligatory references to Selma, which even white candidates make), though I think he finds coded ways to address some of voters' doubts about his difference after all. Take the opening of his recent victory speech in Iowa:

"You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.



But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. (link)


When he started out this paragraph, I could have sworn he was going to say that "this day" is the day a black man overwhelmingly won a primary caucus in a state that is 95% white. But in fact, the punchline is something much more neutral: it's the day people "come together around a common purpsoe." Those first few phrases are in some sense code, but Obama knows better than to directly play the "racial vindication" card.

He does something similar at the end of the speech, when he talks about "red" and "blue":

To end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.



Because that's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation.



We are choosing hope over fear.



We're choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.

(link)


(Obama sure is a master at vague but potentially inspiring language!)When Obama talks about bringing together "red states and blue state" and "unity over division," it's hard for me not to think that he's again using a kind of code, what he really means is, he'll bring together a coalition of of white voters and non-white voters.

Obama seems to have found a method to invoke race, and hint at his own racial difference, without making it a "problem" for white voters. (We'll see if he can remain as subtle after running up against the Clinton "firewall" in New Hampshire...)

Zakaria on Obama, Identity

Ruchira sent me a link to a recent Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria, and it seems like it could use a comment box. Zakaria says he likes Obama, surprisingly, because of "identity." It's surprising because, as Zakaria himself admits, he's not one for identity politics:

Obama's argument is about more than identity. He was intelligent and prescient about the costs of the Iraq War. But he says that his judgment was formed by his experience as a boy with a Kenyan father—and later an Indonesian stepfather—who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii.

I never thought I'd agree with Obama. I've spent my life acquiring formal expertise on foreign policy. I've got fancy degrees, have run research projects, taught in colleges and graduate schools, edited a foreign-affairs journal, advised politicians and businessmen, written columns and cover stories, and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles all over the world. I've never thought of my identity as any kind of qualification. I've never written an article that contains the phrase "As an Indian-American ..." or "As a person of color ..."

But when I think about what is truly distinctive about the way I look at the world, about the advantage that I may have over others in understanding foreign affairs, it is that I know what it means not to be an American. I know intimately the attraction, the repulsion, the hopes, the disappointments that the other 95 percent of humanity feels when thinking about this country. I know it because for a good part of my life, I wasn't an American. I was the outsider, growing up 8,000 miles away from the centers of power, being shaped by forces over which my country had no control. (link)


Zakaria's approach to "identity" is in some sense negative. He wouldn't argue that Obama is better because he's black, or mixed-race, or part-African, etc. But he will argue that Obama has enough of a personal, experiential link to the world outside of U.S. borders (non-U.S.) that it will benefit his judgment.

One could argue that the key distinction here is "experience" vs. "identity," and that it's "experience" of the non-U.S. we're talking about really, not "identity." But the way Zakaria phrases it (and from some of the other points he makes in the column) I sense that he's talking about something much more visceral than what one might learn on a semester abroad in college. Perhaps he really does mean "identity" -- as in, a set of immutable attributes -- not "experience." What do you think?

Follow-up on Romney (Muslims & Religion in US Politics)

Last week several commenters at Sepia Mutiny criticized my post on Mitt Romney's "Muslims in the cabinet" comments. Romney's apparent gaffe quickly faded from the headlines, but Romney's recent speech on his idea of the role of religion in politics might be a good opportunity to briefly revisit my earlier post, and take a look at some issues with Romney's attitude to religion in politics that come from directly from Romney's statements "on the record."

First, on the previous post. In hindsight, I regret not taking seriously the people other than Mansoor Ijaz who say they heard Romney say he would rule out people of Muslim faith from his cabinet. At the time I wrote the post, there were two witnesses saying that; by the following day there were three. All three individuals work for one libertarian magazine based in Nevada, which does pose a concern (that is to say, it's possible they're part of a right-wing anti-Romney movement).

That said, four witnesses (including Mansoor Ijaz, who in my view is not very credible) is enough: Romney probably did say (at least once, possibly twice) "Not likely" when asked whether he would have Muslims in his presumptive cabinet. The biggest problem with that statement, of course, is that it's discriminatory. And those of us who aren't Muslims should be equally concerned: if he's not having any Muslims in his cabinet, he's probably not having any Hindus or Sikhs or Jains either.

Another unfortunate aspect of Romney's statement is that it reveals his seeming lack of awareness of people from a Muslim background who might in fact be qualified for certain cabinet posts. One such person is the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN -- one of the few high-level Bush political appointments that hasn't been a total flop.

In the end, I do not think the Romney "Muslims" gaffe is a significant political event, partly because it seems no one caught it on video, which means Romney has "plausible deniability" (damn you, deniability!). Pressed on the question by the media, Romney finesses it, and argues that what he meant was that he wouldn't have Muslims in his cabinet just to placate critics of America in the Muslim world. That explanation works just fine with the mainstream media.

Still, Romney's recent speech on religion probably isn't going to win him many Muslim friends:

"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings. (link)


Muslims have "Frequent prayers" -- that's the best he could come up with? Oy, vey. (I think Jews might also be a bit troubled that his praise of Judaism is for its ancientness, a quality which has sometimes been invoked by anti-Semites. It's also untrue that the religion is unchanged; ever hear of Reform or Conservative Judaism? But I digress.)

Of course, what's really wrong with Romney's speech, beyond that absurd paragraph, is the way he completely flip flops on secularism.

At the beginning of the speech Romney says:

"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. (link)


But by the end he says:

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. (link)


He's perilously close to a direct contradiction in these two statements, and is only saved by a slight distinction between the idea of "politics" (where he says religion does not play a direct role) and the idea of the "public square" (where he says it should).

(Romney also conveniently overlooks the fact that "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance -- which, it should be mentioned, was not written by the "founders"! -- fairly recently.)

To continue:

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'

"Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united. (link)


Romney wants to have it both ways: he wants to be respected by the main stream of American voters despite his belonging to a small religious minority. But he also wants to insist on the importance of keeping God in the political picture, and seemingly fudges over the fact that his concept of "God" is surely not the same as a Catholic's, or a Jew's, or a Buddhist's. (And he doesn't give a thought for what all this means to those Americans who do not believe in God at all.) The rhetoric is slippery: at the very moment when it seems he's going overboard with religion, he turns around, and describes American values in secular terms ("equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty").

In short: on religion, Romney is like a wet seal on icy pavement. (He reminds one, more than a little, of John Kerry.)

The Kucinich India Connection

The Washington Post has a rather odd profile of Congressman Dennis Kucinich and his wife, Elizabeth. It's essentially an account of how a 61 year old midwestern Congressman with political views considerably left of the American mainstream (and, yes, a history of spotting UFOs) got together with a 30 year old British woman who, in the reporter's words, "looks like Botticelli's Venus, only with clothes on."

It's a bit weird that people are paying all this attention to Elizabeth Kucinich's looks, rather than her husband's political views. The WaPo piece acknowledges the oddity of the hype (including the bit that ran on The Daily Show a few weeks ago), but in some ways this piece adds to the gossip-fest instead of moving past it.

The style of the writing does get on my nerves at times:

He says: It was an ordinary day in May 2005. There he was, Dennis Kucinich, congressman, twice divorced, looking for love, as always. He was on the floor of the House, doing ordinary congressman things.

"Tell her about the morning," Elizabeth says helpfully.

"Ooh! That's right!" Kucinich says. Here's the amazing part. (Things involving Elizabeth generally tend to be amazing.) That very morning, believe it or not, guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who teaches peace through meditation and rhythmic breathing, had come to town. Dennis and Ravi have known each other for a long time. Ravi asked about Dennis's love life. Dennis said he was still looking for that special someone.

"And his response was, 'Stop looking and then she will appear,'" Dennis says. "And I said, 'Okay, I'm going to stop looking.' I said that. And that afternoon -- "

"I walked through the office door," Elizabeth finishes. (link)


On the one hand, this reads like political coverage as filtered through Danielle Steel ("looking for love... and doing ordinary congressman things" ?! Is this the same Washington Post E.J. Dionne writes for?).

On the other hand, if the Kuciniches really do say stuff like this in public, it's a bit hard to truly feel sorry for them.

There's more India a bit further on:

Her first inkling that Kucinich might be different from the run-of-the-mill congressman was the presence of two Indian nuns from the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in Kucinich's reception room. She chatted with the nuns about India and felt herself being "opened" up by the conversation.

Then she and Zarlenga were called into Kucinich's office.

Dennis watched the young woman's eyes. First they went to a bust of Gandhi sitting on his bookshelf. Then they went to a picture given to him by the Hindu nuns -- a burst of brightness against an orange background meant to depict "conscious light." Then her eyes went to his.

"That was it," Dennis says now. "One, two, three." He knew.

"As soon as I met him I knew my life had changed," Elizabeth says. "I knew that he was my husband."

On the couch, they lean in for a kiss. (link)


Cho... Chweet.

Seriously, though -- what do you make of the role of these smatterings of Hindu spirituality in the Kucinich Romance? Does this apparently sincere interest in a certain Hippie-fied version of Hinduism lead you to like the Kuciniches more or less?

One does eventually learn some interesting things about Kucinich in the Washington Post piece (veganism, Crohn's disease, high school football...), but not without being subjected to more gushy commentary from the reporter about hot Elizabeth and her pierced tongue:

The world can be cynical, which is all the more reason why a long-shot presidential candidate must be pure and unwavering in his faith, must be unmoved by the vagaries of the public and the media -- by its interest in the superficial, in things like height and tongue studs.

"It's pathetic," Elizabeth says of the nation's fascination with her piercing. "I really wish people would -- "

She stops.

"Actually, it works okay with the young people," she says. She says some time back she was out in Los Angeles, visiting an organization that works with at-risk youth and former gang members.

"This young lad was taking me around, Hispanic chap. And he was really nervous," she says. "We just, like, chatted initially, and at some point I laughed and he said, 'Oh my God, you've got a tongue ring! That's so cool! I'm going to get everyone to vote for your husband!'"

"Ha!" says Dennis Kucinich, looking amazed.

The happiest presidential candidate laughs and laughs. (link)


(...and the reader squirms and squirms.)

Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen (about whom I've written before) has become the center of controversy again following anti-Taslima riots in Calcutta over the past few days. Exactly why the riots focused on her is a bit of a mystery, since the incident follows a new violent incident at Nandigram (about which I've also written before). At any rate, some Muslim groups are also demanding that Nasreen's Indian visa be canceled (she's applied for Indian citizenship; her current visa expires in February 2008), and she seems to have yet again become a bit of a political football.

Since the riots, the Communist government of West Bengal apparently bundled her up in a Burqa (!) and got her out of the state, "for her own protection." (She's now in Delhi, after first being sent to Rajasthan, a state governed by the BJP.) The state government has also refused to issue a statement in defense of Taslima, fueling the claims of critics on both the left and right that the Left is pandering (yes, "pandering" again) to demands made by some members of the Muslim minority.

The writer Mahashweta Devi's statement sums up my own views quite well:

This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Taslima Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India. (link)


Ritu Menon in the Indian Express gives a long list of outrages to freedom of artistic expression in India in recent years:

These days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only people whose freedom of expression the state is willing to protect are those who resort to violence in the name of religion — Hindu, Muslim or Christian. (Let’s not forget what happened in progressive Kerala when Mary Roy tried to stage ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ at her school. Or when cinema halls screened The Da Vinci Code.) Indeed, not only does it protect their freedom of expression, it looks like it also protects their freedom to criminally assault and violate. Not a single perpetrator of such violence has been apprehended and punished in the last decade or more that has seen an alarming rise in such street or mob censorship. Not in the case of Deepa Mehta’s film; not in the attack on Ajeet Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts in Delhi; not in M.F. Husain’s case; not in the violation of the Bhandarkar Institute; not at MS University in Baroda; not in the assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad this August. I could list many, many more. (link)


I was unaware of some of those, in fact.

In Dawn, Jawed Naqvi quotes a book on Nasrin and feminism, which compares her to the great rebel poet Nazrul Islam:

The foreword to the book, "Taslima Nasrin and the issue of feminism", by the two Chowdhurys was written by Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University. "To my mind, more important than Nasrin's stature as a writer is her role as a rebel which makes her appear as a latter day Nazrul Islam," he says.

"The rage and the fury turned against her by her irate critics reminds one of a similar onslaught directed against the rebel poet in the twenties. More than half a century separates the two, but the society, despite some advance of the status of women, has not changed much. The forces opposed to change and progress, far from yielding the ground, have still kept their fort secure against progress; have in fact gained in striking power. While Nazrul never had to flee his country, Nasrin was forced to do so." (link)


Barkha Dutt plays up the irony of Taslima's being asked (forced?) to put on a Burqa as she was escorted out of the state:

As ironies go, it probably doesn't get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP -- a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the 'freedom of choice' school of India's Muslim intelligentsia by writing that "covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work". She's always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman's sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called 'Let's Burn the Burqa', Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.(link)


Saugata Roy, in the Times of India, gives an insider perspective on the "Fall & Fall of Buddha" -- which refers to the growing willingness of both the Chief Minister (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) and the Communist Party of West Bengal in general, to compromise on basic principles. Roy mentions that in the 1980s, the CPI(M) did condemn Rajiv Gandhi's overturning of the Supreme Court's decision on Shah Bano. But no more:

The role reversal didn't come in a day. It began the day when the CM banned Nasreen's novel Dwikhandita on grounds that some of its passages (pg 49-50) contained some "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religion or religious belief." What's worse is Buddha banned its printing at the behest of some city 'intellectuals' close to him. This was the first assault on a writer's freedom in the post-Emergency period. Later, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.

But the court order was not enough to repair the damage. The government move dug up old issues and left tongues wagging. Soon thereafter, Hindu fundamentalists questioned M F Hussain's paintings on Saraswati. Some moved the court against Sunil Gangyopadhyay's autobiographical novel Ardhek Jiban, where he recounted how his first sexual arousal was after he saw an exquisite Saraswati idol. All this while, the Marxist intellectuals kept mum lest they hurt religious sentiments. And when fundamentalists took the Taslima to the streets, they were at a loss. Or else, why should Left Front chairman Biman Bose lose his senses and say that Taslima should leave the state for the sake of peace? Or, senior CPM leaders like West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim say that Taslima was becoming a threat to peace? Even worse, former police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee - now in the dog house for his alleged role in the Rizwanur death - went to Taslima's Kolkata residence and put pressure on her to leave the state. This was before last week's violence in Kolkata. But still, the timing is important. Mukherjee went to
Taslima's place when the government went on the back foot after the Nandigram carnage.

But the Marxists themselves? Perhaps unknown to himself, Buddha has been steadily losing his admirers. There was a time — just a few months ago, really — when not just the peasantry and workers but the Bengali middle class swore by him. Today leftist intellectuals like Sumit Sarkar, liberal activists like Medha Patkar are deadly opposed to him and his government. The Bengali middle class, for whom Buddha represented a modernizing force, is today deeply disappointed with him. One thing after another has added to the popular disenchantment. First, there was the government's high-handed handling of Nandigram, then came the Rizwanur case in which the state apparatus seems to have been used and abused to thwart two young lovers, and now the government's capitulation in the Taslima affair before Muslim fundamentalists. (no link to TOI; sorry)


And finally, Taslima Nasreen herself speaks, asking that her situation not be made into a political issue:

Taslima Nasreen is happy her plight has been highlighted, but the author-in-hiding says she does not want to become a victim of politics. She has been told that she could become an issue for the BJP against the Congress and the CPM in the Gujarat elections.

“I do not want any more twists to my tale of woes. Please do not give political colour to my plight. I do not want to be a victim of politics. And I do not want anybody to do politics with me,” an anguished Taslima told HT on Monday over the telephone. (link)


It's a fair request -- unfortunately, it's already too late. Politics, one might say, has "been done."