Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for April, 2017

The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between Tibet and India, rarely obtrudes upon one’s consciousness.  It is commonly described in the West as ‘fiercely protective of its traditions’, which is another way of saying that it has, thankfully, been resistant to the idea that it should, as the neo-liberals are fond of saying, “open up” to the West if it wishes to be more than just a footnote to history.  Over the last decade, Bhutan has nonetheless splashed its way into the Western media every now and then for a very different reason, as the progenitor of the idea that Gross National Happiness should replace GNP (Gross National Product) as a more reliable indicator of a country’s well-doing. The young king of Bhutan has been one of the idea’s most enthusiastic advocates and it has not been without its takers, most particularly among those who have worked on ‘development’ and ‘social justice’ issues and are cognizant of the fact that the well-being of a nation and its people cannot be reduced to something called the GNP and a few other economic (or allied) determinants.   Whatever the difficulties of ‘Gross National Happiness’, and they are considerable, the idea should perhaps be embraced for no other reason that it might put a few economists, the vastly overrated and frequently insolent practitioners of the dismal science, out of work.  Happy is the country that has little or no need for economists.

It may be too much to say that Bhutan, for all its remoteness, has a film industry; nevertheless, a few films have come out of Bhutan over the last several years.  A few days ago, by happenstance, I came upon the first feature film out of Bhutan, and was struck, as surely every viewer would have been, by the charm, depth, and relative sophistication of Travelers and Magicians, “Chang Hup The Gi Tril Nung”, especially in the absence of a filmmaking tradition.  Made in 2003 by Khyentse Norbu, the film is remarkable for more than its unhurried pace:  much like Bhutan itself, the film steers refreshingly clear of the loud and mindless chatter of much of nearby Bollywood and Hollywood.  Its central character, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a young official working in a village somewhere in central Bhutan, is in a hurry to get to Thimpu, the country’s capital:  he has received a summons to a visa interview at the American Embassy.  But why should anyone be in a hurry in Bhutan?  If a young man in Bhutan is in a hurry, something is askance.  When “the land of dreams” beckons, what else remains?

Travellers&MagiciansPosters

America’s reach is everywhere; the dream-work of America is happening in the remotest corners of the world.  Dondup is what, borrowing the vocabulary from neighboring India, I would like to describe as the Resident Non-Bhutanese:  though he lives in Bhutan, he might as well be living in America.  Dondup has already been transported to America:  he wears tennis sneakers, and, on more than one occasion, the camera lingers on these would-be Air Jordans, the vehicles of his carriage from one land to another.  The walls of Dondup’s room are plastered with posters of white, sultry-looking girls; a large US army poster, “Uncle Sam Wants You”, with the familiar call to a glorious career in the mightiest military machine of the day, dominates one corner of the wall.  American rock music blares from Dondup’s boom box; even the distinctly un-American Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist, which serves as Bhutan’s mandated national dress for men, is given a Yankee twist as Dondup sports a denim variety.

Dondup’s village is a two-day bus ride from Thimpu.  He just misses the only bus of the day and tries to hitch a ride.   As he waits by the roadside, he is joined by a peasant carrying a large sack of apples; a vehicle pulls up, but the driver assumes the two men are traveling together and says he cannot take them both.  Down the winding mountain road comes, a short while later, a dramyin-strumming Buddhist monk (Sonam Kinga); before too long, a rice paper merchant and his pretty daughter, Sonam (Sonam Lhamo), have joined the party.  The journey has long been a metaphor, in world literature and cinema, for self-discovery; but this voyaging into the self entails a twin-pronged movement, both into interiority and away from the crowd into the company of strangers.  Thus, though Dondup starts out as the solitary traveler, the size of the party grows—but only so much, indeed just enough to prod him into some degree of anxiety and discomfort, then a modicum of self-reflection, and finally a recognition that the self seeks the other.  The five pilgrims journeying into Thimpu are eventually picked up by a truck driver; as they clamber into the back, they discover they have a drunk for company.  The drunk may not exemplify a higher consciousness, but he does point to altered states of consciousness.  Much like the Buddhist monk, he remains unruffled:  merry is he who is drunk—drunk on the love of God, or perhaps drunk in the lover’s embrace.  Along a major turn-off, the five step down and the truck moves on.

Travellers-and-Magicians-Dondup&AppleSeller

Dondup, the young man in a hurry who seeks to leave for America, and the apple seller.

The narrative frame of Travelers and Magicians involves yet another element that has long informed Indian story-telling traditions.  The road ahead is a long one; to pass the time, and prompted by Dondup’s desire to flee the apparently suffocating confines of village life in a hermit kingdom, the Buddhist monk takes it upon himself to share with Dondup and the others the story of Tashi (Lakhpa Dhorji), a villager who yearned to escape from the drudgery of everyday life.  One might fault the film for occasionally taking recourse to a stock of clichés: thus, Tashi mounts what else but a white horse that he cannot tame.  He is thrown to the ground and injures his leg; wandering around in a daze, Tashi is hopelessly lost in the remote mountains before he comes upon the home of an old woodcutter, Agay, married to a beautiful woman much younger to him.  The old man rules over his young wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom), like a tyrant; she longs for a younger man’s touch and company, and Tashi and Deki are soon caught in a web of lust and jealousy.  A plot is hatched; the old man’s chhang (liquor) is poisoned, but he seems to take a very long time to die, writhing and groaning in pain. This adulterous relationship ends as all such escapades do, as Deki falls to her death in the wild rapids as she pursues a fleeing Tashi.

LoversInTravellers&Magicians

Tashi and Deki caught in a web of lust and jealousy.

The story of Tashi is told not in one single take, but rather the film alternates between the main narrative frame and the interior frame; the filmmaker cuts seamlessly between the two stories, making effective use of dissolves, match cuts, and other cinematic devices.  The interior story doesn’t exactly mirror the main framework story, which is what makes it all the more enticing; and yet there are enough elements—the desire to escape the constraints of village life, the voyaging forth into the unknown, the journey into the interior of one’s self, the entrapments of desire, the restlessness of the young—to stitch the two stories into a single narrative framework.  The film is self-reflective about the art of story telling:  stories are not to be told only to while away the time, but because stories, more other than forms of discourse, translate more easily from one culture into another.  Was it Thucydides or Heraclitus who said that wherever one goes, one runs into a story?

TractorInTravellers&Magicians

The party disperses: the monk and Dondup finally a catch ride to Thimpu.

Travelers and Magicians deploys in many respects elements of a narrative structure with which we are familiar from other films and works of literature.  Just as the party grew incrementally, so it diminishes incrementally.  Some hours short of Thimpu, a bus finally pulls up before the party of five.  Dondup, who had at the outset been in an extraordinary hurry to get to America, now seems rather indifferent to the land of dreams:  the bus has room for only and he puts the apple-seller on it.  And so the party of five has begun to scatter, the monk and Dondup taking a ride together into Thimpu. The destination is no longer of any consequence; the journey is everything.  As Eliot put it hauntingly in “Little Gidding”,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 

Fifteen years ago, I delivered before the Regents’ Society at UCLA a lecture entitled, “Violence in the 21st Century:  The Terrorism of Categories and Invisible Holocausts.”  Mike Davis had published in late 2000 his magisterial book, Late Victorian Holocausts, but I do not recall that it was his work that had inspired the title of my talk; rather, it was the critical literature on the largely unrecognized genocidal aspects of “development” that had led me to my title.  A colleague who was present at my talk later told me that in Israel, where he had spent a good part of his life before moving to the US, such a lecture would be inconceivable.  He pointed, rather surprisingly, to my use of the word “holocausts” in the plural:  in Israel, only one holocaust is recognized as such.  It is “The Holocaust”, and to suggest that there may be other holocausts apparently diminishes the enormity of the Shoah, the only and only Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews—and, though this is not always mentioned, a sizable number of homosexuals, the Roma, and those earmarked by the Nazi state as ‘unfit to live’ on account of mental or other disabilities.  In Berlin, at least, there now exists a memorial to the others who were felled by the Nazi state’s murderous policies.

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  A full page announcement, or “Open Letter”, published in the New York Times (24 April 2017) and authored by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Congress, commences with an observation by the British philosopher John Gray, who adverts to the fact that while “intellectual and scientific values accumulate in the world”, and are transmitted from generation to another, “unfortunately ethical values” are not transmitted in this fashion and must be learnt anew by each generation.  This point has been argued by many others who have similarly pointed to the fact that technological changes have taken place at lightning speed over the last few decades but that the capacity of human beings for moral thinking has not changed very much.  To Dr. Kantor and Professor John Gray alike, the inescapable truth is that though everyone is aware of the Shoah, the new generation is “ethically uneducated” about its meaning and implications.   As Dr. Kantor points out, the numbers of Holocaust survivors are “dwindling”, but this is of course unavoidable; however, much more alarmingly, anti-Semitic incidents in English-speaking countries, which have been more hospitable to Jews than other European countries, have been rising sharply.

That there should be a “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is one of those truths that dare not be contested, except at the peril, as Dr. Kantor’s “Open Letter” unfortunately suggests, of being labeled anti-Semitic.  Not just on this day, but nearly every day, there is always the occasion to remind the world that it “should never forget” the unspeakable atrocities of the German killing machine.  The dozens if not hundreds of Holocaust Museums around the world stand forth as vivid reminders of the fact that one community at least has the power to invoke its past and shame everyone else into remembering. Who, however, remembers the perhaps half a million Bengalis who were killed in the genocide in what was then East Pakistan as it made its bid for independence in 1971?  Hardly anyone—indeed, I should say no one, barring the people of Bangladesh themselves.  Some people, but not very many, remember the 800,000 Tutsis butchered in the Rwandan genocide from a little more than two decades ago, but those numbers have already been dwarfed by those who have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Rwanda will soon go the way of Bangladesh; it is doubtful that even the Congo will stay very much in the collective memory of the West or indeed the rest of the world.

Africa interests the West very little, except as a place for “investments”.  Let us, therefore, take a more complicated example.  56,000 American soldiers, or something in that vicinity, were killed during the Vietnam War, and the United States is littered with memorials to them.  To the best of my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions the three million Vietnamese who were killed in this war. It is not their names that I am suggesting should be recounted:  the very fact that 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed is not recorded at any war memorial site.  It isn’t even certain how many Vietnamese were killed; in all such instances in Asia or Africa, some nice round figure seems to suffice.  Every single American life, on the other hand, must be etched in memory forever, doubtless because God has an especially soft spot for Americans, dead ones as much as those who are living—thus the familiar and noxious incantation of American political speeches, ‘God Bless America’.  The search for American soldiers “Missing in Action” in Vietnam is still on going; the budget for that mission runs into millions of dollars.  Every American life counts, as indeed it should.  Why American lives alone should count is a question that few are prepared to ask, though, paradoxically, many are prepared to answer.

Some Americans might well ask why the Vietnamese should be remembered in American memorials, since such memorials very much do the work of the nation-state and are intended to commemorate the lives of the Americans who laid down their lives.  Presumably, they will add, the memorials to the Vietnam War in Vietnam honor their own dead.  But one would think that in a Christian nation, which is what the United States has called itself, it should be as least just as important to remember those we hate, and those in whose killing one has been complicit.  What did Christ say on the Sermon on the Mount?  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47)  There is nothing whatsoever that is exceptional in remembering the American dead:  if at all forgiveness was sought, it is the Vietnamese dead who ought to be remembered?  Or perhaps it is only given to America to forgive, not to beg forgiveness?

The ethics of forgetting is not any less important than the ethics of remembering.  But of this I shall speak some other time.  For now, it suffices to stay with the idea that the call to remember cannot be dismissed.  But what exactly is to be remembered?  Only that six million Jews were killed and that the Nazis were engaged in annihilationist terror?  Does this entail submission, howsoever tacit, to the view that the suffering of Jews takes precedence over the suffering of others?  If it is “Holocaust Remembrance Day” that we are called upon to observe, does this confer recognition upon the Holocaust as the paradigmatic instantiation of genocide in modern times? Does Holocaust Remembrance Day give rise to the supposition that there is a hierarchy of suffering?  Does the suffering of some people count more than the suffering of others and, if so, on what theological and ethical view?  Unless “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is decisively disassociated from an insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust, it is very likely going to breed resentment rather than understanding and compassion.

 

 

Read Full Post »

The idea of a “bhakti movement” has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of “Indian civilization” and, more specifically, the notion of a “composite culture”.  Bhakti is in English generally rendered as “devotion”; in the generally accepted narrative, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the 8th century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country.  India’s history for a thousand years, from the early medieval period until around 1650, a period perhaps not quite accidentally coinciding with the advent and then ascendancy of Islam, is thus described as having been preeminently shaped by a remarkable number of men (and often women) whose philosophical and literary compositions were marked by an intense devotional spirit.  Whatever the differences amongst these great devotees (bhaktas) of God, and whether they considered themselves followers of Shiva or Vishnu or conceived of God as formless (nirguna), they are supposed to have shared certain attributes.  The bhakti movement is said to have opened the doors to God to women and the lower castes; where Brahminism affirmed the ritual superiority of the Brahmins, the infallibility of the Vedas, and the idea that each person was bound to the observance of his ‘caste’ duties, the adherents of bhakti are said to have rebelled against the authority of the Vedas and the upper castes and prioritized the idea of personal experience of God.

Much of the scholarly literature on bhakti has pivoted around certain themes.  The distinction between saguna (conceiving of God with form) and nirguna (the notion of God as formless) was a bedrock of the literature for a long time.  Another strand of the scholarly literature focused on differentiating women bhaktas from men bhaktas.  From around the early 20th century, some colonial writers had dwelled on what might be called the social capaciousness of bhakti, or, to put it with a tinge of provocation, the insurrectionary and rebellious aspects of bhakti.  Some of the more recent scholarly works on bhakti, showing an awareness of how the language in which we speak of bhakti has changed, have worked in themes of subaltern agency and Dalit consciousness into their discussions of the works of bhakti poets such as Kabir and Tukaram.

SantTukaram

Sant Tukaram, in a popular representation

John Stratton Hawley of Barnard College has been a student of bhakti over the last several decades, and in his most recent study of the subject he takes the study of bhakti in very different directions.  The fundamental achievement of A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a “bhakti movement” came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility.   Hawley hints, though he could have dwelled on this idea at greater length, that the colonial period generated an anxiety, which Indian nationalists commencing in the late 19th century were eager to address, about the basis of Indian unity.  From the late 18th century, it became a staple of colonial writing to argue that India had never constituted a “nation”.  If the colonial claim that only British rule had succeeded in giving geographical integrity to a people divided by immense differences of caste, religion, and language was to be ably contested, some palpable evidence of India’s cultural unity had to be put on offer.  The Sanskritist V. Raghavan, in his 1964 Sardar Vallabhai Patel Memorial Lectures, led his hearers on a tour where the itineraries of bhakti and its most sublime exponents—the Alvar poets, Virasaivas, Jnandev, Narsi Mehta, Jayadev, Caitanya, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Laldeo, Tukaram, among many others—might reasonably be construed as having wrought a tapestry of emotional and territorial integration that led inescapably to the idea of “India” itself.  Raghavan described his religious subjects as “The Great Integrators: The Saint-Singers of India”, but he was scarcely alone in giving voice to such a view.  Two decades earlier, working in an entirely different medium, the artist Binodbihari Mukherji and his students created frescoes of these “Medieval Saints” on the walls of the Hindi Bhavan at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati (pp. 275-83), a “world university” envisioned as a monument to interculturality, civilizational dialogue, and an integrated conception of the “human”.

KabirWithDisciple1825

Kabir, the Poet-Weavr, with his Disciple, a painting from around 1825.

The more precise contribution of Hawley’s impressive study, which draws upon his four decades of experience of India’s massive devotional literature and the concomitant scholarship in a number of Indian languages, however lies in his delineation of the two major constituents of what would become known as the bhakti movement.  The central part of his story revolves around the notion of the four sampradays, that is the traditions of teaching and reception which were the conduits through which bhakti was thought to have made its way to the north from the south.  Secondly, two prominent Hindi scholars, Ramchandra Shukla and especially Hazariprasad Dvivedi, emerge as the principal figures who helped to shape the commonplace understanding of the bhakti movement.  This portion of Hawley’s narrative, esoteric and rather detailed at times, will be of interest mainly to specialists, but its wider import can be estimated if we pause to think how the idea of a bhakti movement became enmeshed with the desire to carve out a space for Hindi as something like a national language.

MukherjiLife-of-Medieval-Saints-North-wall-Hindi-Bhavan

Binodebihari Mukherji, “Medieval Saints”, a fresco at Visvabharati, Hindi Bhavan (North Wall)

Few scholars can claim the wide and erudite command over the literature that Hawley brings to his subject.  His articulation of the politics of knowledge that has informed the idea of the bhakti andolan (movement) is enviable and forces us to consider anew some of the most important strands of the cultural and intellectual history of India. However, some readers might find it amiss that there seems to be comparatively little analysis of bhakti compositions, and readers will get acquainted with very few bhakti poems or compositions as such.   Most of the verses that Hawley chooses to quote and analyze have a bearing on his discussion of the four sampradays: having dwelled on the notion of ‘movement’, the reader might perhaps in vain look for the spirit of bhakti.  More striking, still, is the comparatively understated role and near omission of certain major figures who, in various ways, were critical to the consolidation of the idea of a bhakti movement.  India, the great Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji was to proclaim in Krsnacaritra (“The Life of Krishna”), had become overwhelmingly captive to the idea of bhakti, and this passivity and devotionalism seeded the country’s oppression under the Muslims and then the British.  The question of whether Bankim’s essay is at all persuasive aside, the influence of this long essay was very considerable and remains to be gauged.  Similarly, while Hawley recognizes the supreme importance of Narsi Mehta’s bhajan (devotional song), “Vaishnava Janato” (p. 28), in the Gandhian rhetoric of resistance to colonialism in the language of love, he might perhaps also have considered the fact that Gandhi dared to describe the venerated Rammohan Roy, the author of the “Bengal Renaissance” and by some measures the architect of Indian modernity, as a “pygmy” in comparison with Kabir and Nanak.  Nevertheless, in A Storm of Songs, Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.

 

[This is a modified and slightly lengthier version of my review of John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2015), first published in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2017).]

 

 

Read Full Post »

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics II

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
               -Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till” (from the Bootleg Series, Vol 9 [1962-64]

 

It was the summer of 1955, in Mississippi. The temperatures can rise to the high 90s, but this state had been burning for another reason.  The previous year, three young civil rights activists, who had been championing racial integration and attempting to register black voters, had disappeared.  Their bodies would be recovered from an earthen dam more than six weeks later.  The head of one of the Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state of Mississippi, who doubled as a preacher, was acquitted by an all-white jury that declared itself unable to convict ‘a man of God’.  Two of the three men were white, and the good old folks of Mississippi doubtless thought of them as race traitors; as for the one black men among them, James Chaney, the only good “Nigger” was a dead one—few white men doubted that.

Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi from Chicago in the summer of 1955 would have been unaware of much of this.  On August 25th, he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a local beauty queen who ran a little provisions store.  Three days later, at 2 AM, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s home.  They bludgeoned young Emmett’s body until his face was unrecognizable and then shot him dead; his mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later.

EmmettTill&MamieTillMutilatedBody

The Mutilated Body of Emmett Till, with his mother, Mamie Till. Photograph by David Jackson. Copyright: Time Magazine.

EmmettTill

Emmett Till in 1955.

Once again, an all-white and all-male jury acted to preserve the interests of the white race.  Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the charge of murder; the grant jury that convened to discuss kidnapping charges against the two men refused to indict them.  In the town of Sumner, where the trial was held, visitors were greeted with the slogan, “A good place to raise a boy.”

MamieTill

Mamie Till at the Funeral of Her son, Emmett Till.  Copyright:  New York Times.

Months after the trial, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing; their story appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look. But they could not be tried again, having been acquitted of that charge.  For their story, they received the tidy if not princely sum of $4000:  murder pays, literally.  Till might well have been forgotten, destined to become another statistic in the log book of white atrocities against black people, but for the fact that his mother, Mamie Till, took the bold step of having her son’s body displayed in an open coffin on September 3. Mourners recoiled at seeing Emmett’s horribly mutilated body; indeed, his body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that he could only be identified by his initials on a ring on one of his fingers. Photographs of Emmett’s body were reproduced widely and appeared in hundreds of publications.  Mrs. Till, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, did not live long enough to see her son receive justice, but his killing is nevertheless said to have spurred on the civil rights movement.  Most histories of the Civil Rights Movement commence with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Ms. Parks herself would go on record to say, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”  The most influential documentary ever filmed on the Civil Rights Movement, the epic Eyes on the Prize, would open with the story of Emmett Till.

The casket in which Emmett’s body was placed is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American history.  There have been many other developments in the story of Emmett Till:  early this year, Carolyn Bryant, whose whiteness and lies—an ugly pairing that has destroyed many lives, indeed been the undoing of entire cultures—sent Emmett to his ghastly death, confessed that Emmett had made no physical or verbal advances on her.  “That part’s not true”, she told the author of a new book on the Emmett Till case.  But even more recently, Emmett Till is back in the public consciousness, this time with a controversial painting by Dana Schutz entitled “Open Casket” that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial last month.  Schutz has based her painting on photographs of Till’s body that were published in Jet, the Chicago Defender, and a number of other magazines at that time.  It is not her painting which is controversial as such; rather, according to a number of African American artists, the subject is not Schutz’s to claim.  She is white.

DianaSchutzOpenCasket

Diana Schutz, “Open Casket”, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, March 2017.

The artist Parker Bright positioned himself, over successive days, in front of the painting, sometimes with friends and fellow artists, to block the view.  The words, “Black Death Spectacle”, were splashed across the back of the T-shirt that he was sporting.  A black British artist, in a letter written to the two Asian American curators of the show, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, called for the destruction of the painting, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and expression are “not natural rights” and that Diana Schutz, whose works command considerable sums of money in the art market, stands to profit from Emmett Till’s death.  Schutz has declared that she never intended to sell the painting; in her defense, she admits that she cannot know what it is like to be “black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.  Their pain is your pain.  My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

DianaSchutzPaintingProtestAtWhitney

Protest before Diana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket”. Photograph: New York Times.

Schutz’s defense does not appear to be implausible, and we should in any case be prepared to believe her both when she says that she never intended to sell her painting and that, as a mother, she can empathize with Emmett Till’s mother.  History is, of course, a profligate narrative of people profiting from the suffering of others, and many others are guilty of much more onerous acts of commission; it isn’t absolutely clear, as well, why, had she intended to sell her painting, Schutz would have been guilty of anything more than bad taste and poor ethical judgment. We may ask why Schutz must be subjected to some imaginary litmus test. It is perhaps also a tad bit unfortunate she chose to summon the “holy” institution of motherhood in her defense: if one intends to elicit some support, the figure of the mother can always be called forth.  But, beyond all this, lie some questions that in their elemental simplicity take us to the heart of the debates surrounding the politics of representation.  Who speaks for whom? With what right? With what notion of entitlement? With what responsibilities? Does one have to earn one’s stripes in order to speak for another—provided that is what Schutz was seeking to do—and just exactly how does one earn these stripes?  Over the span of centuries, many of those whom we accept as voices of conscience have urged upon us the notion that if there is injustice anywhere in the world, it is always a threat to justice; if someone else is without freedom, I cannot be entirely free myself.  Freedom is indivisible—at least some part of us must hold on to this idea.  If there are others who are suffering, wherein is my ‘happiness’? If at all I feel this way, do I not partake of that suffering?

In every great social and anti-colonial movement of the last several decades, one common principle has persisted among various differences.  In the women’s movement, the most astute feminists welcomed the participation of men, but on the condition that women would furnish the lead.  The major anti-colonial movements of the 20th century did not disavow the support of sympathetic white liberals; but there was always the awareness that white men, even the best intentioned, often have a tendency to dominate if not hijack a movement.  Mohandas Gandhi never lacked English friends and sympathizers, in India and England alike; but they accepted the idea that they would support the freedom struggle from the side.  This seems to be an unimpeachable idea of social justice, one calculated to lead to a heightened appreciation of the dignity of the struggle itself; and these considerations, too, are not so far apart from the questions that have been raised by the black protest against Diana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s “open casket”.  Nevertheless, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the supposition that, as a white artist, the suffering of Emmett Till is not  hers to claim—at least not for purposes of representation.  If there are no “natural laws” that confer an automatic right to freedoms of speech and creative expression, surely there are no “natural rights” which would lead us to believe that blacks know blacks best, or that only women may speak for women?  It would be trivializing the issue if we took the examples of Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas to suggest the difficulties in supposing that racial solidarity trumps every other bond of fellow feeling.  But how long must we persist in the notion, which one would imagine has had its day (though of course one knows otherwise), that politics derives in the first instance from identity? Is the protest over Schutz’s painting anything really much more than this rather procrustean idea?

Read Full Post »

 

Ahmed Kathrada has been so much part of my life over such a long period that it is inconceivable that I could allow him to write his memoirs without me contributing something, even if only through a brief foreword.  Our stories have become so interwoven that the telling of one without the voice of the other being heard somewhere would have led to an incomplete narration.

  • Nelson Mandela, Foreword to the Memoirs of Ahmed Kathrada

 

KathradaWinnieNelsonSisulu

Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, and Walter Sisulu

One afternoon around 12-13 years ago, I received a call from the office of the Dean of International Studies at UCLA inquiring if I had any interest in meeting Ahmed Kathrada.  I jumped at this rare opportunity. I don’t now recall what had brought Kathrada to Los Angeles, but he was in town on a short visit and the Dean’s office was desperately trying to find someone who could meet with him.  There seemed to be little awareness of Kathrada’s stature or the extraordinary place that he occupied in history.  But someone in the Dean’s office knew of my interest in the Indian diaspora and its variegated histories; perhaps some also knew of my long-standing interest in anti-colonial movements.  And so the privilege of taking Ahmed Kathrada to lunch was all mine.

Kathrada&NelsonMandela

Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada. Copyright: Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

The man whom I met was of gentle disposition, modest, and extremely well-spoken.  Many times after that meeting with him, I wish I had taken a tape recorder and sought his permission to record our conversation; but, then, at other times I have thought to myself that I did the right thing in just treasuring that moment.  How often Kathrada must have been recorded and surely many times he must have wished that he could speak without the slightest let or hindrance?  Ahmed Kathrada was ‘Kathy’ to his friends—and what friends they were:  Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Billy Nair, and many others who were among those convicted in the great Rivonia Trial and still others who had the privilege of being at the helm of leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).  Kathy, or “Uncle Kathy” as he came to be known later in life to his countrymen and women who adored him, was Witness Number 3 at the Rivonia Trial, following Witness Number 1 Nelson Mandela and Witness Number 2 Walter Sisulu.  Convicted like the others of organizing a “revolution” and “of the crime of conspiracy”, which Judge de Wet described as being “in essence one of high treason”, Kathrada was similarly sentenced to a term of life imprisonment with hard labor.  He would spend over 26 years behind bars, nearly 18 of them in the company of Nelson Mandela in Robben Island.

Born in 1929 on August 21 of Gujarati Muslim parents in Schweizer-Renke, a small town in northern South Africa, Kathrada moved to Johannesburg as a small child with his parents and entered political life in his late teens.  A fellow Gujarati by the name of Mohandas Gandhi had already left his mark on South African politics; but Gandhi, though he spent some twenty odd years in South Africa, eventually made his way back to India.  Kathrada was first and always a South African, deeply committed to the fundamental idea expressed in the Freedom Charter, namely that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.  Kathrada served out his first prison sentence when he got picked up for his participation in the “Passive Campaign” organized by the South African Indian Congress in 1946 and for his opposition to legislation that restricted Asian land ownership.  In the early 1960s, after some in the ANC including Mandela had renounced their allegiance to nonviolence, Kathrada went underground and became part of the ANC’s armed wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, or “MK”).  It is at Lilliesleaf, a ‘safe home’ in Rivonia, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, that Kathrada along with several others would be apprehended and indicated on charges of trying to overthrow the government.

FuneralOfAhmedKathrada

The State Funeral of Ahmed Kathrada in Johannesburg on 29 March 2017. Copyright: BBC.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”  These are the famous words with which Nelson Mandela commenced his ‘speech from the dock’ at the Rivonia Trial, which opened in April 1964.  They could easily have been said by Kathrada.  Much in that historic trial has been eclipsed by Mandela’s justly famous address; but Kathrada’s exchange with Dr. Percy Yutar, the lead prosecutor for the state, is no less compelling, not just as an illustration of court theatricals but also as a statement of the astuteness and moral courage of an auto-didact.  Time and again, Yutar sought to drive a wedge between Kathrada, an “Indian”, and his black comrades; but Kathrada dealt with him summarily, with an admirable firmness and probity of purpose.  Here is one exchange:

Yutar:  Were there any traitors among your own people, the Indian people?

AMK:   I suppose there are. There are traitors among all people, Indians, Jews, South Africans, Afrikaners, the lot.

Yutar:  And what are you going to do with the traitors, let’s deal just with your people, the Indian people?

AMK:  My Lord, when it comes to traitors, they are traitors.  Whatever colour they are, they are traitors.  I hope they will all be dealt with similarly.

And, on another occasion, when asked if he knew George Naicker and if he was a “co-religionist”, Kathrada replied:  “Co-religionist? He’s a Hindu and I’m a Moslem.”  And so followed this exchange:  “Oh yes, but an Indian?” “Yes. Two different religions.” “Billy Nair?” “I know Mr Billy Nair.” “Also an Indian?” “Also an Indian.” “Yes, and?” “And a human being.” “If you’re trying to be smart with me, I’m prepared to take it.” “I don’t know why you keep on saying co-religionist and Indian.”

Kathrada was far more than what Yutar, for all his legal expertise, could handle.  He was intent on establishing, with “evidence, documents and otherwise”, that Kathrada was “nothing else but a communist agitator”.  To this, Kathrada issued a scathing and yet matter-of-fact riposte:

AMK:  That’s your opinion.  I don’t know what you mean by a communist agitator.

Yutar:   That you are a member of the Communist Party and that your job is to agitate people to make them believe that they are oppressed and trying to incite them!

AMK:   My Lord, I thought we had solved this problem already.  We don’t have to make any non-Europeans believe that they are oppressed.  They know they are oppressed.

Much has been said in the obituaries that have been written of Kathrada of the last twenty-five years of his life that he spent as a free man in the continued service of South Africa.  He served as Counselor to President Nelson Mandela and took charge of the Robben Island Trust, escorting world leaders, among them Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, as much as school children to this prison that its famous inhabitants lovingly characterized as a University.  Shakespeare, as Ashwin Desai has shown in his remarkable book, flourished on Robben Island.  What, however, struck me most when I met Kathrada was the complete lack of rancor, the absence of the slightest note of bitterness at having been robbed of the best years of his life.   I suspect that this graciousness and magnanimous attitude derived from a set of circumstances, among them his long years of friendship and fellowship with the likes of Mandela and Sisulu, the example of Gandhi, and his adherence to Islam.  Kathrada remained resolutely secular to the end; but, though is something that secularists have a hard time comprehending, he derived his very secularism from his faith as a Muslim.

kathrada-mandela-and-clintons

Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela with the Clintons.

It is very likely, too, that in years to come Kathrada’s name will resonate as a striking example of what Indians and Africans working together in a spirit of fellowship can achieve.  Even as this is being written, I am ashamed to say, African students in India’s capital have been set upon by unruly groups of young men.  The conduct of most urban Indians towards Africans can only be described as execrable.  In Africa itself, the legacy of the Indian presence has been mixed at best; but all this is the subject for other commentaries.  In South Africa, at least, it cannot be doubted that Indians partook of the freedom struggle in equal measure as black people, even as the apartheid regime insistently and insidiously attempted to divide the population.  Kathrada unfailingly resisted these attempts and remained to the very end a resolute advocate of the idea of a multi-racial South Africa.  For this alone, he should be remembered as a colossus of both the struggle against apartheid and the effort to achieve a truly democratic South Africa.

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Politics, Culture I (A New Series)

Los Angeles, 4 April 2017

A masterful orator, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – as he is invariably described in the black community – was perhaps at his prophetic best when, fifty years ago on this day, he handed down a searing indictment of America’s war in and on Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York.  Four years earlier, on the steps of Washington’s Mall, King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; and it is doubtless the optimism of that speech, and its palpable demonstration of his still enduring faith, despite the massive provocations to which he had been subjected by white racists, in the promise of America that has ensured its status both as a landmark document of political spirituality and as a signal achievement in American political rhetoric.

The “dream” of which Dr. King spoke in 1963 would soon sour.  By the mid-1960s, America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam had considerably escalated.  Opposition to the war had been growing; even some who opposed the advance of communism in Vietnam had qualms about the manner in which the US had taken over the role of the former colonial power, France.  Thus far Dr. King had spoken comparatively little against the war, though his unflinching advocacy of nonviolent resistance to segregation and the virulent racism of American society did not leave in doubt his own views about the illegitimacy of war in general and, certainly, the absolute immorality of a war launched upon a people thousands of miles away who, as Ho Chi Minh had declared, “have never done any harm to the United States” and would not capitulate, or even agree to so-called peace talks, “under the threat of bombs”.

By 1966-67, the Vietnam War had become the defining, one might say transcendent, issue in American public life.  Some in the movement may have been tempted into thinking that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, the legal framework for redressing the extreme liabilities from which black people suffered had been put into place and thus the problems of African Americans were on their way to being resolved.  Dr. King and his associates, and black people throughout the US, of course knew better.  By this time, Dr. King had come around to the view that the two great movements of the mid-sixties, the Civil Rights agitation and the resistance to the war, had to be linked together.  There was another pressing consideration: in war abroad, as at home in the US, to the extent that the black person could call a country where he or she had been enslaved, killed, tortured, maimed, lynched, raped and ridiculed a “home”, the black person had borne the brunt of the toll.  A disproportionate number of young black men had been drafted to fight an imperialist war and lay down their lives for a country which otherwise had no use for them.

It is against this backdrop that on 4 April 1967 Dr. King stepped foot inside that “magnificent house of worship” called Riverside Church to deliver what remains to this day one of the most extraordinary indictments not just of the American war machine but of American society.  The particular risk that Dr. King took that day is hard to divine today, fifty years later, when it is assumed that opposition to the war was rather common; in any case, Dr. King’s singular achievement may not be transparent to those who have hear of Muhammad Ali’s fearless resistance or have grown up on the idea that Malcolm had by far a sharper and livelier tongue.  Dr. King’s many biographers have noted that he had been advised that he should not address the question of the Vietnam War:  the good faith that he had earned among many white people might well be squandered, and even his fellow black leaders were rather adamant that, as a “civil rights” leader, Dr. King should continue only to hammer away at the injustices facing black people.  Dr. King’s own father was among those who would help to weaken a resolution that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had put forward in opposition to the war.  Yet, as Dr. King told his audience, the time had come to recognize that, in relation to Vietnam, silence is betrayal.  Speaking from the “the burnings” of his own heart, he perforce had to question the path which was leading to the destruction of Vietnam, even if many questioned him about the “wisdom” of his intervention:  “At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud:  ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?  Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’  ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say.  ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask.”

What would follow that evening would be a meticulous and mesmerizing dissection of the structural roots of American racism and the inextricable link between militarism and injustice.  Dr. King himself would outline “seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the fold of [his] moral vision”, but his oration can be distilled into a few major points.  First, Dr. King ponders over the cruel irony of young black men “crippled by our society” being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asian which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”.  In “brutal solidarity”, Dr. King writes of young black and white American soldiers, they burned “the huts of a poor village” or mowed down the enemy, “but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago.”  Secondly, Dr. King describes, not so much in chilling detail as in lacerating language, the destruction wrought in Vietnam by air and on land.  The “women and children and the aged” are sent on the move by bombs, herded off “into concentration camps”:  “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.  They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. . . .  They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food.  They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. . . We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops.”

A country that oppresses sections of its own people at home cannot be expected to do otherwise abroad.  Every colonial regime brutalized some of its own people, the weaker and defenseless sectors of its own society, before it brutalized external others.  One fundamental contribution of Dr. King’s Riverside Church oration was to bring home to the American people the inextricable relationship of American militarism in Vietnam and the desperate attempts by white racists to enforce racial segregation and discrimination in the US.  The country that denied black people the dignity that permits a person to call himself or herself free was the same country that would seek to virtually obliterate the Vietnamese.  Thus it is that Dr. King would go on to characterize his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.   Yet he does not permit this damning indictment to eviscerate his hope that America might one day be brought around to a different view of the world, such that it is no longer, as he says, “on the wrong side of a world revolution.”  But “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,” Dr. King insists, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

It is a matter of record that Dr. King would be roundly criticized by nearly every major newspaper and periodical in the country.  One of the few magazines that stood by him was, not surprisingly, the NationThe Washington Post, which had been supportive of the war, stated with unvarnished arrogance that “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence”; moreover, Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country, and to his people.”  The supposed bastion of ‘true news’ and liberal opinion, the New York Times, which had been critical of the war, spoke in a rather identical idiom when it lamented that Dr. King had engaged in a “wasteful and self-defeating” exercise that had needlessly sought to fuse “two public problems that are distinct and separate” and thereby paved the way for an outcome that “could very well be disastrous for both causes.”  It is not, however, the supreme irrelevance of the observations of these two highly regarded newspapers that should be of most concern to us; rather, it is the indubitable fact that Dr. King’s speech might well be delivered today with barely any change, except for the alteration of some bare facts of life, that should give us to pause to consider whether we have even to the slightest degree rendered obsolete the moral concerns which framed Dr. King’s majestic set of reflections.

Read Full Post »