What transpired at the US Capitol on January 6, President-elect Joe Biden noted, amounted to “sedition”, an act not of “protest” but of “insurrection”. He was joined in this characterization at that time by a few other Senators and since then many public commentators have endorsed this view. Some are inclined to use somewhat softer language, deploring the shocking lawlessness and descent into anarchy. Many other elected officials and public figures bemoan the desecration of the “temple of democracy” and still others wonder whether America can any longer boast of being “the shining city on the hill”.
It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”. The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”. Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom. “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.
Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”. Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”. Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest. This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America. The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”. It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”. As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”
America is right now in a strange place, many would say. Though the Presidential election was “called”—as one Indian commentator in the state of Bihar, where an equally interesting election has just drawn to a close, stated, he now perforce has to add this new term to the electoral vocabulary common to India—some days ago, the sitting President of the US refuses to acknowledge the election results. Trump’s supporters plan a massive rally in the nation’s capital on Saturday in a show of force intended to convey to the man who now believes that he practically owns the White House that they will form his stormtroopers. There are rumors that, come January 20, Trump may be running a parallel administration. Perhaps, much like Venezuela, the United States will have two presidents and the world will be divided between those conferring recognition to either of the two claimants to the throne. There is some talk of militias taking to the streets and even of “civil war”. Uneasiness hangs in the air.
It appears, at least as of this moment, that Joe Biden is headed for the White House in January 2021. A considerable segment of the American people will feel greatly relieved, as indeed they should, and what many characterize as the ‘nightmare’ of the last four years appears to be coming to an end. Biden had, among other things, declared this election as a referendum on ‘decency’ and many Americans will doubtless feel grateful that their country, long accustomed to viewing itself as the world’s greatest power, the leader of the free world, and as a shining beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, has had its reputation restored. There were fears that the election would be marred by violence but even international observers have declared themselves satisfied that the election proper has been conducted fairly, insofar as there does not appear to have been any violence at polling states, and indeed little effort appears to have been spared in ensuring that voters had multiple options to cast their ballots in the midst of a major public health crisis. None of this detracts from the ugly fact that for weeks Trump and his election campaign team had been making attempts to obstruct mail-in ballots from being counted and that lawyers representing the campaign have filed multiple legal challenges to bring the counting of votes to a halt. That there should be any question at all about whether votes should be counted or not is astounding and will be the subject of a subsequent essay.
With just one day to go before the American Presidential election, the signs are unmistakably clear that voter suppression remains a fundamental problem in American electoral politics. Among the many ways in which American democracy may be distinguished, and certainly not for the better, from other democracies is its long, unparalleled, and entirely unabashed record of voter suppression. One might think that voter suppression is a relic of the past, its history rooted in the idea, present at the inception of the Republic, that the right to exercise of the vote could only be granted to select constituencies. To the contrary, the practice of voter suppression has displayed a striking resilience, suggesting the manner in which American democracy is as much rooted in the idea of exclusion as it is in the notion of inclusivity. Indeed, though Americans like to flaunt their democracy as the envy of the world, American politics is virtually unthinkable without voter suppression. It is as American as apple pie and its remains, to the present day, a weapon with which white supremacists, whether parading as armed militiamen or dressed up as governors, senators, state officials, county clerks and registrars, intimidate some people from voting and in some cases outright deny them their constitutional right to vote.
In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi. As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US. In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States. Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism. A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).
A Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson—Part I: “Jimmy, What Good Did That Do”
Today, September 22nd, marks the 92nd birthday of the Reverend James M. Lawson, once described by Martin Luther King as the greatest strategist of nonviolence in the US. I have, on this blog, penned a couple of essays on him over the last 2-3 years, and also included excerpts from our recorded conversations extending to around 26-27 hours which commenced in December 2013 and are now slowly but surely being edited with the aim of creating a compact book on the greatest living practitioner of nonviolence in the United States, one whose experience in training three generations of nonviolent resisters and dissenters extends over 70 years. Our first conversation took place shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, and was largely on the subject of Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US support of the apartheid regime, and the place of nonviolence in modern politics. We discussed at length both Mandela’s achievements and what we both saw, though perhaps in different in complementary ways, as some of the shortcomings of the struggle in South Africa—shortcomings which, judging only from the continuing strife and plight of black people in South Africa, may have been considerable. Excerpts from this discussion will be shared in this blog on the death anniversary of Mandela.
Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”. Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson. John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.
Part III of The Trouble with Kamala: Identity and the Death of Politics
In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion. I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88). That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history. It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi. Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes! Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference