Emergency in India, Faux and Real

EmergencyIndia1975HinduFrontPage

On the night of June 25-26, forty-five years ago, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, acting at the behest of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, imposed an emergency in India and suspended all civil liberties. Speaking to the country on the morning of the 26th from the studios of All India Radio, Mrs. Gandhi stated that the emergency had been necessitated by “the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.” She warned that “forces of disintegration” and “communal passions” threatened to tear apart India and that she was impelled to act from the desire to preserve the country’s unity. “There is nothing to panic about”, she advised her fellow Indians, and, as if to assure them that the drastic step that had been taken to put the Constitution of India into abeyance was not being done to advance her own interests, she insisted that “this is not a personal matter” and that it “is not important whether I remain Prime Minister or not.”

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Mrs. Gandhi holds an election rally at Ramlila Grounds in Delhi, February 1977. Source: Indian Express.

 

Far more so than the democratic leader of a state, the despotic ruler likes to believe that he (or she, as in this case) only acts in the interest of the people. Two weeks earlier, acting on a petition filed by Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponent, Raj Narain, a judge of the Allahabad High Court delivered a judgment which unseated Mrs. Gandhi.  Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha declared her election to Parliament “null and void” on the grounds that she had engaged in corrupt election practices. Mrs. Gandhi stood convicted of two charges: the state government of Uttar Pradesh, which was very much in the hands of the Congress Party, had apparently built a stage which allowed her to address election meetings “from a dominating position”; and, secondly, that her election agent was in government service and was therefore barred from any political activity. That Mrs. Gandhi’s election could be set aside on what today would be deemed entirely frivolous charges, if they were noticed at all, is a testament not so much to the honesty and innocence of those days but rather to the steep decline in morals in public and political life.

MrsGandhiUnseatedIndianExpress

Justice Sinha gave Mrs. Gandhi leave to file an appeal to the Supreme Court within twenty days, and the Supreme Court convened for the first hearing on the 23rd; but before the Court could deliver its judgment, Mrs. Gandhi had already acted.  Her fall might have seemed inconceivable to many observers, considering that she was hailed for leading India to a decisive military victory over Pakistan in December 1971 and orchestrating the dismemberment of India’s arch enemy.  In May 1974, in an operation termed “Smiling Buddha”, India carried out a “peaceful nuclear explosion”—we shall pass without comment in the interest of brevity the politics of this twisted expression—and Mrs. Gandhi thereby signaled to the world India’s intention to become the hegemon in South Asia.

Nevertheless, in spite of Mrs. Gandhi’s popularity, India was restless. Almost thirty years into independence, the country remained desperately poor; the literacy rate for women in some districts was in the single digits. Growth had been agonizingly slow, yet the population continued to swell.  Some economists jibed at the country’s “Hindu rate of growth”:  the annual growth rate of the economy appeared to run in tandem with the birth rate. Milk, butter, sugar, cooking oil, and other essential items remained in short supply.  It was not uncommon even for middle-class people, let alone the poor, to have to wait in long lines for rations. Far too many people were beginning to ask: is this the freedom for which we dreamed and waged an anti-colonial struggle?

Though the Congress under Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru, and others had shepherded the country to freedom, allegiance to the party was beginning to wear off.  Opposition to the Congress had been fragmented, but by early 1974 the Gandhian socialist leader, Jayaprakash Narain, known to everyone as JP, was able to bring together students, peasants, workers, and intellectuals under the slogan of “Total Revolution”. A nationwide strike led by the union representing the employees of Indian Railways, the largest employer in the country, was doubtless interpreted by Mrs. Gandhi as an ominous sign of difficult days ahead for her.

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Jayaprakash Narain, known to the people as JP, addresses a rally.

What Mrs. Gandhi called an “emergency”, which would last until March 1977, was a deadly stab at democracy in action.  And democracy is a frightening prospect to despots, however they may be clothed. It was a fake emergency, nothing more than an odious attempt at rule by one person. The odd thing is that today, forty-five years later, India is doubtless facing a real and undeclared emergency that dwarfs the social, economic, and political problems that India faced at that time. The country has been brought to a condition of utter ruination by the ruling party and the middle-class elites that have sought to profit in every respect from their willing acquiescence to an economic and political program, now six years in the making, that rests on nothing else but power and personal gain.

It does the government no good to impute that its present problems are on account of the coronavirus pandemic.  Early last year, the country’s unemployment rate was the highest since 1974, and readers will recall that the government made every attempt to stop the publication of the data before the election.  The government need not have feared, as the election results showed.  Manufacturing has been in a slump for the last three years.  Car sales, a measure that the government uses to point to the growth of the middle class, were down by 35% at the end of 2018.  80 percent of the population, according to all available indices, still lives on the equivalent of $2 a day. The vast majority of the people still have little or no access to health care, even as the country prides itself on being the world’s pharmacist, and the concept of a social security net is virtually non-existent to the hundreds of millions of slum-dwellers, migrant laborers, and farmers.

As a democracy, India has languished.  Human rights advocates and political activists, even those whose adherence to nonviolence has been exemplary, have been hauled into jail on fraudulent charges. Various stratagems, including colonial-era pieces of legislation, have been deployed with intensity to harass, silence, and liquidate journalists and intellectuals who speak in the language of dissent. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, India slipped a further two notches and now ranks a lowly 142, lower than even Myanmar which is ruled by a military junta. On the Democracy Index’s global ranking, India dropped 10 places to 51: that it maintains even something of a place as a “flawed democracy” has to do with the relatively smooth functioning of the election machinery, though the data shows the severe erosion of “civil liberties”.

The country’s foreign policy is an embarrassment.  Relations with China have been deteriorating and some days ago India got badly mauled at the contested border in Ladakh.  The government’s account of what happened has convinced not one individual, except for those who are clearly incapable of thinking for themselves and who shout themselves hoarse in pronouncing critics as “anti-national”. India is barely on speaking terms with Pakistan. Communication from both sides consists of taunts, insults, and vacuous displays of muscularity. Most tellingly, neighboring Nepal, an ally and friend for decades, and the only other country in the world with a shared Hindu heritage, has spurned India. In the most recent act of defiance to India’s exertion of its influence, Nepal’s Parliament voted unanimously just days ago to issue a new map which shows territory disputed with India within its own borders.

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly aggravated the country’s ills. Cases of infected people are rising exponentially.  There are stories aplenty, if people in the government will only listen, of hospitals closing their doors to Covid-19 infected patients and people being left to die. It will surprise no one that India’s vastly stretched and wholly inadequate medical care facilities are entirely unequal to the task at hand.  In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the government is still engaged in a relentless assault on critics, human rights activists, and dissenting intellectuals, as if it did not have the far more urgent and mightier task of making India a true and hospitable home to all of its residents (nagariks). One shudders to think what other powers the government might assume if it were to formally declare an emergency. In the midst of this undeclared emergency, I am tempted to think, with Albert Camus, that “the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

First published on 26 June 2020 at abplive.in under a slightly different title, “Emergency in India, Fake and Real”.

Hindi translation published at abplive.in under the title “भारत में आपातकाल, नकली और असली”

 

 

 

Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

Part II of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident.  Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma.  A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan.  The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.”  There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies:  he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being.  When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.”  Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime.  British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler.

To all his previous sins, another one has come to the fore in very recent years: Gandhi was, it is said, a racist. Thus the vandalization of his statue during these “Black Lives Matter” protests, and similarly, as some readers might recall, the demand, ultimately conceded, for the removal of his statue from the Accra campus of the University of Ghana two years ago.  There is no question that Gandhi used the word “kaffir” on numerous occasions to refer to the black population of South Africa, and equally there is unimpeachable evidence that he was keen that the Indians should not be classified alongside black people.  It has also been argued, not incorrectly, that though he waged a struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa, Gandhi did absolutely nothing to plead for black people or to seek to involve himself in their own struggle to gain some measure of rights and dignity in their own homeland.

The matter, however, is far from being as straightforward as Gandhi’s critics would have us believe, though I shall offer only the shortest rejoinder here since each point may be discussed at great length.  We may begin with the word “kaffir” which, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) usefully reminds us, has “since the mid 20th century been considered extremely offensive”.  It is noteworthy that the offensiveness of this usage is dated to the mid-20th century, or some three to four decades after Gandhi left South Africa.  What its usage was between 1890-1914 merits considerable exploration:  as the OED makes clear, it was also used widely to designate, apart from black people, non-Muslims and members of certain groups, among them the Xhosa and Nguni peoples.  Secondly, those who speak of “Indians” and “black” people in South Africa do so on the assumption, which is entirely erroneous, that these were monolithic communities. Not only Gandhi’s own record of the struggle, best embodied in his book Satyagraha in South Africa, but innumerable other documents offer incontrovertible evidence that the “Indian” community was itself deeply divided, and Gandhi had enough to do to bring some semblance of unity to Indians splintered along lines of religion, linguistic affiliation, caste, and profession.  His critics do not tell us which black people Gandhi was supposed to dialogue with, or appeal to, making it all the more necessary that we critically examine what is meant by the “black” community.  Thirdly, we do not have it on record that any black community ever approached Gandhi to involve him in their struggle, and Gandhi was altogether consistent in never taking up a community’s struggle unless he was asked for his help.  Fourthly, and rather strikingly, whatever we know of his attitudes towards black people comes from his own writings, and it is an indubitable fact that his writings have long been known to black South African leaders as well as the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement to whom Gandhi was unquestionably the figure of greatest inspiration and indeed veneration.  They may have understood that Gandhi had outgrown his views, which is the argument commonly advanced in Gandhi’s defense; they also understood, which we have not, that Gandhi was his own best critic. And, fifthly, in this vein, we must be attentive to the critical praxis that Gandhi extended to the views that he advocated.  Whatever he did say might also be measured, as one instance, against the ethics of hospitality that he clearly and unequivocally offered to the Zulus when he led a large team of Indian volunteers to nurse the wounded Zulus when no white man was even willing to touch the African.

Nevertheless, for argument’s sake, let us grant his present adversaries their due and concede that Gandhi was a racist; indeed, let us go further than some of them, and let us suppose that he remained an unrepentant racist to the end of his life. But can one grant that he was not a racist like the slave trader, Edward Colston, whose statue was rolled over into Bristol Harbor?  I assume that is the case. Surely one can also grant that he was not a racist in the mold of Leopold II, or even someone in the mold of the militant white segregationists in Mississippi who did not hesitate to kill civil rights workers? Just what kind of racist was he, then, and just how did his racism harm others?  Is there any evidence whatsoever that might lead us to the conclusion that his racism instilled a hatred or dislike for black people among Indians in South Africa, or that black people in South Africa suffered in consequence of his racism?  Perhaps his critics should labor to make clear what they understand by “racism” as such, and whether they think, to pursue one line of inquiry, that racism and prejudice are the same thing? To be sure, one might have a prejudice about sex, or sexual orientation, but not about race; and so racism and prejudice are not quite synonymous:  if we refine the question, are racism and a prejudice about race the same thing?  Black people doubtless have some prejudices about white people, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think of black people as racist.

There is, finally, this story that must be told.  In 1936, Gandhi was visited at his ashram by Howard Thurman, a prominent African American theologian, intellectual, and educator.  They had an intense conversation, recorded both in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and in Thurman’s own autobiography, With Head and Heart (1979).  At the end of it, Gandhi told him:  “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”  His critics and the defacers of his statues should ask themselves if these are the words of a racist.

(concluded)

See also Part I, “What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately, of Mohandas Gandhi

The two parts were published as one single albeit much shorter piece under the title of “The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race” on June 15, 2020, at abpliv.org. The original article can be accessed here.

What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately of Mohandas Gandhi

First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before.  The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd.

The United States entered about two weeks ago into a different phase of the struggle in the mode of the spectacular.  Statues of Confederate generals, often astride horses—for that is what generals did in those days—have been lassoed off their pedestals; other Confederate monuments have been defaced; and some have been removed by city or local authorities in the stealth of the night. These statues—most prominently of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia—have drawn the ire of protestors before, and the “Unite the Right” Rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, became the occasion for a renewed demand for their removal as eternal symbols of the subjugation and humiliation of black people.  What could not be achieved before has evidently been achieved this year as reports continue to come in of the destruction, removal, and vandalization of these statues. But it is not only these symbols of the Confederacy, which itself dared the American Republic to extinguish slavery and struggled to retain “a way of life” whose justification was sought in the Bible, in history, in Social Darwinism, and simply in the pleasure and profit that some men derive from exploitation, that have been uprooted in the last fifteen to twenty days.

This time, the outrage of the protestors has found other targets, among them Christopher Columbus, with whom the whole sordid story of European genocide, slavery, and barbarism in the Americas commences. Statues of Columbus have been vandalized or removed in Virginia, Texas, New Jersey, and Minnesota, and others will surely fall or be removed in the days ahead.  What yet distinguishes even more the present outrage is that statues have been felled in other parts of the world.  The statue in Antwerp of the butcher of the Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium, who ran an area in central Africa that was 75 times the size of his native Belgium as his personal fiefdom, and whose henchmen may have orchestrated the death of around 10 million Africans, was set fire to and has since been removed.  In what is perhaps the most visceral display of the anger directed at the memorials which stand forth as testimony to the mass enslavement of Africans, the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, Britain, was toppled by protestors, rolled through the streets, and finally dumped into Bristol Harbor.  The protestors who toppled the statue had the good sense to tie its hands and feet—if only to signify the manner in which African slaves were caged, denied their freedom, bound to servitude, and literally rendered immobile during that long journey on the slave ship known as the Middle Passage.

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The statue of slave-trader Edward Colston being dumped into Bristol Harbor, England. Source: cnn.com

Much greater icons than Jefferson Davis or Robert Lee have taken a beating at the hands of protestors. The day before yesterday, protestors were thwarted in their attempt to bring down the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States whose face adorns the $20 bill.  On many previous occasions, Trump has declared his unqualified admiration for Jackson, though at least once the remarks of the present incumbent of the White House appeared to suggest that he thought that Jackson might still be alive!  Jackson’s notoriety among liberals stems principally, though not solely, from his policy—encapsulated in the Indian Removal Act of 28 May 1830—that led to the removal of the Cherokees to west of the Mississippi River, though he also enslaved hundreds of African Americans. This forced resettlement of thousands of Native Americans, known as the “Trail of Tears”, might be described as an act that was critical in sealing the fate of all American Indians, not only the Cherokees. Though some were critical of Jackson’s worldview even at the time, he himself remained thoroughly unrepentant:  as he put it in his second annual message to Congress, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”

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Protestors attempt to bring down the statue of Andrew Jackson at Lafayette Square, Washington, DC. Source: ABC News. The police intervened: 23 June 2020.

Whatever Jackson’s renown in the United States, which remains considerable, he cannot be viewed as a ‘world historical figure’ or even in the league of George Washington, the Republic’s first President and himself a slave-owner. If the desecration of Jackson’s statue is to be justified, it is not altogether clear by what logic statues of Washington or Jefferson might be spared; and if they are not to be spared, why stop with statues and not burn to the ground—or abandon it to the dogs and other feral creatures—the very capital of the country, since it takes its name after Washington himself.  The iconography of slavery is embedded into most institutions and artefacts of American society—it is present not merely in the Confederate flag, or in the sentimental expressions of gratitude for supposed Southern chivalry across the American landscape put up by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but is embedded in the very fabric of American life, present in the names of schools—as a little aside, I myself spent a little over one year after coming to the United States in 1976 at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia—colleges, universities, insurance companies, financial institutions, and countless number of towns and cities. Statues are only the outward, the most public and oracular, manifestations of what resides in the pores and sinews of American society.

But matters have now gone beyond Jefferson and Washington.  There is outrage in London, for instance, over the desecration of the statue of Winston Churchill, the war-time Prime Minister of Britain who came to be cast as the last man standing between barbarism and civilization. I have nothing to offer, he said, “but blood, sweat and tears”, and in politically conservative circles, and I suspect in some beyond that too, he is viewed with utter veneration as the gritty political leader who led Britain to a decisive triumph over Nazi Germany.  In anti-colonial circles, however, Churchill has long had an altogether different and even odious reputation as someone who was racist to the core. Just precisely how he was a racist is a question that must be treated with diligence, something not possible within the confines of this essay, but there is little doubt that he persistently adhered to the view that Africans and Indians, among others, were incapable of exercising responsible self-government. He was scarcely alone in holding to this view. Growing up in India, I came to learn of him as the obdurate and relentless foe of Indian independence, and as someone who despised Mohandas Gandhi: as he put it rather infamously, on the eve of the Indian leader’s negotiations with the Viceroy for Indian self-representation, it was “alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, an Inner Temple lawyer, now become a seditious fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” For many years, while being intensely troubled by Churchill’s outlook, I also marveled at his enviable command over the English language.

Churchlll'sStatueLondonVandalized

Statue of Winston Churchill outside Parliament Square, London, 7 June 2020. Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8398909/Defiant-Black-Lives-Matter-protestor-says-desecrated-Churchills-statue.html. The masked BLM protestor who defaced it explains in a short video why he did so; the video is at the same source.

It is thus all the more ironical that even the statue of Mohandas Gandhi has not been spared.  The desecration of his statue in the American capital—paint was sprayed over it and it appears to have been partially defaced—will seem inexplicable, perhaps some form of collateral damage in the heat of the moment as protestors went from one site to another, to the hundreds of millions who know of him only as the architect of Indian freedom and as the principal exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance.  Gandhi may have been reduced to a set of clichés, quotations adorned on mugs, T-shirts, posters, billboards, and car stickers, but it is instructive that among the many aphorisms attributed to him there is famously this one: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”.  If I may use the anodyne language that characterizes the remarks of corporate managers, liberal politicians, and well-intentioned university administrators, most “good people” everywhere are bound to feel horrified that the statue of no lesser a person than the Mahatma, ‘the Great Soul’, should have been vandalized.  The American Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, seems to have been expressing precisely these sentiments when he tweeted with an Indian audience in mind, “So sorry to see the desecration of the Gandhi statue in Wash, DC. Please accept our sincere apologies.  Appalled as well by the horrific death of George Floyd & the awful violence & vandalism.”

GandhiStatueWashingtonDefaced

Gandhi’s statue in Washington, I might add, is no ordinary statue. It is not its aesthetic brilliance that distinguishes it, even as it is pleasing to the eye, but rather its location in the nation’s capital, a space reserved, with but a handful of exceptions, to commemorate the lives of those Americans who are deemed to have been decisive in shaping the nation’s history and endowing it with greatness.  Indeed, the placement of statues and memorials in Washington is no easy matter, subject to immense bureaucratic hurdles, and falls under the jurisdiction of the US Congress itself; and Ambassador Juster’s apology must be read not only as an expression of atonement for the country’s inability to safeguard the statue of a person associated the world over with the idea of nonviolence but as a necessary diplomatic gesture.

GandhiStatueWashingtonColdStorage

However, as I shall suggest in the forthcoming part, there is a more complex politics underlying the desecration of Gandhi’s statue, which has followed the path to which Gandhi himself has been confined by some:  cold storage.

(to be continued)

The Dominant and the Dominated:  A Short Tribute to Albert Memmi

. . .  with an aside on Frantz Fanon and Edward Said

I read a couple of days ago of the passing of Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born Jewish novelist, political thinker, sociologist, and essayist who exiled himself to Paris after Tunisia’s proclamation of independence in 1956.  At his death, on May 22 on the outskirts of Paris, he was just a few months shy of being 100 years old.  I found myself surprised at reading his obituary in the New York Times, if only because it has been years since anyone had ever even mentioned him; to be brutally honest, having known him of him as a writer who had been most active, as I thought, in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me that Continue reading

The WHO and the Viral Politics of Nationalism

Part II of “Who’s Responsible:  The WHO, Internationalism, and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The WHO’s record in helping contain the transmission of viruses, many of zoonotic origins, that have created global public emergencies over the last two decades and that are quite likely poised to become even more critical in the decades ahead is rather more mixed.  It may be that the organization was created with the intention of liberating the world from those diseases that had long been the scourge of humankind and whose very name evoked dread:  typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, and especially cholera and smallpox.  No one by the second half of the 20th century was quite thinking of the “plague”, even if the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat in 1994 (with bubonic plague discovered in three villages in Maharashtra), was a grimly reminder that this ancient pestilence had by no means disappeared.  The incidence of death from the plague in Surat was only 56, and it was soon relegated to the background as an anomaly, as something that was merely an unpleasant reminder of “medieval times” in a modern age that had purportedly moved beyond such calamities.

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Surat, 1994, during the plague. Source: Getty Images.

Continue reading

The World Health Organization (WHO): Testing Times for ‘Medical Internationalism’

First of two parts of “Who’s Responsible:  The WHO, Internationalism, and the Coronavirus Pandemic

(Ninth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is today the face of international cooperation, or what remains of it, has kicked off yet another controversy as it seeks to lead the world out of the coronavirus pandemic.  On June 5, nearly two to three months after public health authorities in most countries had directed people to start wearing masks, the WHO’s embattled Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced at a press conference that the organization recommended that people living in areas experiencing “widespread transmission” of COVID-19 adopt a face covering.  That it took the WHO this long to issue such a note of guidance controverts the Continue reading

The Killing of George Floyd:  Racism in a Country Living on Borrowed Time

Los Angeles, 31 May 2020, 2 AM

(No. XII in the series:  The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics)

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Police officer exercising “knee restraint” on George Floyd in Minneapolis, about 8:05 PM, Monday, 25 May 2020, frame from a video taken by a witness to the killing.

As I write this, nearly all of America’s largest cities are under curfew extending through the night into dawn. It is not even a week since George Floyd, a 46-year old African American male, died as he lay pinned to the ground by a white police officer.  Minneapolis, where the killing took place, has been roiled by protests for the last five days, and demonstrators have taken to the streets across the country, necessitating Continue reading

The National Imaginary: Patriots and the Virus in the West

(Eighth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part III of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”

Anti-LockdownUSA3

A demonstration with around 2,500 people outside the state capitol in Washington against Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, April 19. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The contours of each country’s national history appear to be on display in the responses that have been witnessed across the world to the coronavirus pandemic.  However, in suggesting this, I do not by any means wish to be seen as subscribing to the ideas of distinct personality traits that were behind “the national character” studies undertaken in the 1940s, a project that involved Continue reading

The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus: Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness

(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”

William_Hogarth_-_A_Rake's_Progress_-_Tavern_Scene

“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19.  The diary is taken by social historians to be Continue reading

Life In the Time of Plague: Samuel Pepys in London, 1663-66

(in multiple parts)

Part I of A Global Plague, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories

(Sixth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

COVID-19 has made diarists of many of us, but the Englishman Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was, to use a contemporary expression, far ahead of the curve.  Pepys, who lived through the Great Plague that struck London in 1665-66, as well as the Great Fire of London that over the course of five days in September 1666 gutted the old City of London, was a prodigious keeper of a diary that remains unrivalled in its depiction of the daily life of a well-heeled and influential man living in times of turmoil and pestilence.  Pepys might well have been Continue reading