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On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country.  Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”.  The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.

In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?

Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.

What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?

I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish?  So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk.  In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom.  Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States.  Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’.  What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.

So how does one un-thug the state?

It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it.  Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end.  So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills.  I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized.  Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did.  We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.

Are you optimistic about India today?

Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented.  Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.

 

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The New York Times in an editorial piece published on July 1, under the title “Mr. Trump, Melting Under Criticism,” has weighed in on Mr. Trump’s Twitter War, most recently on the MSNBC co-hosts Joe Scarborough and (especially) Mika Brzezinski, with the observation that the President of the United States “does not appear to realize that he is embarrassing himself” (emphasis added).  This is in reference, of course, to his tweet about “low I.Q. crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe”, and his characterization of Ms. Brzezinski as “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” TrumpMorningJoeTweet

The ‘venerable’ Times laments, as do many other media outlets and perhaps considerable segments of the American population, the “creepy misogyny”, cyberbullying, and the pathetic boasts of sexual prowess that have informed the conduct of Mr. Trump since before he assumed office and which have shown no signs of diminishing since he was installed in the White House.  However, the New York Times ends the piece with a wholly predictable piece of humbug, which is an illustration if nothing else of the limits of this newspaper’s imagination.  Inquiring if the “etiquette of professional wrestling and reality television truly pass as acceptable for the Oval Office”, the paper’s editors affirms that “the breadth and depth of bipartisan repugnance for this president’s insults suggests, thankfully, that the answer may prove to be no.”

 

The phrase “bipartisan repugnance” is itself a species of charlatanism, assuming as it does that “bipartisanship” is the gold standard from which the present generation of American politicians have regrettably departed.  The democrats have deviated so far over the last several decades from any kind of politics where social equality is at all meaningful that to speak of “bipartisanship” in this vein is to show not an iota of awareness of the fact that the masquerade of a single political party posturing as two is the critical problem in American politics.  But let us leave aside this weighty matter for another one which may suggest why a man charged with sexual harassment and worse by at least fifteen women did not only not have to pay any price for his reprehensible conduct but rather was rewarded by being elected to the highest office in the country.  The import of this may perhaps be understood when we reflect on the fact that the recently exonerated Bill Cosby, whose own sordid saga of gross sexual misconduct has been played out in the press in vivid detail, felt emboldened enough to state that he would go on tour and conduct “town halls” where he would instruct young men on how to avoid accusations of sexual conduct.  Mr. Cosby is nowadays described as a “disgraced comedian”, but evidently he was not disgraced enough, not if he had the temerity to counsel young men on how they might take advantage of women and avoid the risk of accusation.  This last act of the “comedian” would be comic if it were not so repulsive.

 

Let us return, then, to the sentence on which so much pivots: “He [Trump] does not appear to realize that he is embarrassing himself.”  Feminists are not alone in pointing out that Mr. Trump appears to take special delight in demeaning women, and many will point to the apparent tolerance for such conduct as an indication of the deeply misogynist strands in much of American society.  Women, on this argument, are far from being considered as equal, and it is widely understood that, at least in certain sectors of American society, the denigration of women has no adverse consequences for sexists or misogynists.  All of this may well be true, and the argument of American feminism about the distance that women have yet to travel is all but unimpeachable.  But Mr. Trump is nothing if not an equal opportunity employer:  he has held forth, after all, on Mexicans as rapists, on Muslims as terrorists, on the Chinese as (currency) manipulators, and so on.  Mr. Trump’s contempt for a good portion of humankind does not even remotely rescue him from the charge of misogyny, but his political demeanor suggests that something more is at stake than his contempt for women, ‘losers’, and others whom he so clearly disdains.

 

Why, to rephrase the question, does Mr. Trump not experience any sense of shame?  If a person is consistently thought, by a good portion of the media and the public, to be a habitual liar, misogynist, bully, sexual assaulter, brutally vindictive, and authoritarian to boot, one might think that at some point such a person could be shamed into doing better or displaying some of those qualities, such as contrition, which round out a person as human.  Seven decades ago, when Japan came under American occupation and American anthropologists were called upon to provide some insights into Japanese character to ease the task of ruling over a defeated but proud ‘alien’ race, Ruth Benedict answered the call with a study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), where she distinguished the modern West with its supposed ‘culture of guilt’ from Japan with its ‘culture of shame’.  The precise problems with Benedict’s understanding of Japanese culture are many, among them the presupposition that what may be called the guilt regime of Christianity stands opposed to the notion of social order and civility that characterizes a Confucian-driven society.  Nevertheless, her notion of a ‘culture of shame’ is not without use.  Thus, to take a singularly spectacular example, when the Japanese company Akagi Nyugyo raised the price of its immensely popular ice cream bar from 60 Yen to 70 Yen, or by less than the equivalent of ten cents, the first such raise in 25 years, the chief executives and other employees of the company appeared together in public in a collective display of remorse.  This was an expression of the shame they experienced in, as it were, having to betray the trust the public had reposed in them.  Stories of Japanese executives committing suicide when they have been caught in mismanagement of a company, or profiting from their own mistakes, are legion.

 

Mr. Trump stands at the very opposite end of this spectrum:  he is a specimen of a man who does not experience any shame at all.  However, what is alarming about American society is that he does not even remotely stand in singular and sinister isolation in this respect, even if the tendency is to cast him as something of an aberration.  The problem runs much deeper:  indeed, I would hazard the thought that the idea of shame is no longer a part of the vocabulary of American public life.  The idea of shame has virtually disappeared from the American lexicon; it is a relic of a pre-modern era.  That is precisely why jail sentences, nominal or otherwise, have no bearing on the future political or public conduct of public figures and celebrities.  After her conviction in 2004 of financial fraud, Martha Stewart did not sink into oblivion; she merely went through a hiatus and by 2012 had assumed the Chairmanship of her namesake company.  The sexting scandals of Anthony Weiner which led to his conviction in 2011 did not preclude him from making a run for the New York mayor’s office in 2013.  It is precisely this utter lack of shame which Donald Trump and Bill Cosby find enabling in their crusading attempts to cast themselves as victims of aggressive and lying women.

 

Political party affiliations are of no consequence in this state of affairs:  if there is any “bipartisanship” in American public life, it resides in the fact that Democrats and Republicans are equally shameless.  Thus, in the present dispute between Mr. Trump and the “Morning Joe” show co-hosts, it is not each party’s opposition to the other but rather the sheer complementariness of their positions that is strikingly palpable.  The relationship of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to Mr. Trump has been nothing if not, in the words of the New York Times, a “roller-coaster” ride.  Scarborough was at one time rather close to Mr. Trump, even a political confidante, and he was briefly even under consideration for the position of Mr. Trump’s running mate.  Mr. Trump’s pointed objection to Joe and Mika as fundamentally hypocritical, considering they spent three evenings at his exclusive private resort, Mar-a-Lago, around New Year’s Eve has received less attention than it deserves.

Joe&MikaAtMar-a-Lago

The original caption runs thus:  Journalists have criticized Joe Scarborough and his MSNBC co-host, Mika Brzezinski, for attending President-Elect Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve party on his Mar-a-Lago estate.  Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4083068/Morning-Joe-host-s-hit-claims-cosy-relationship-Trump-attending-president-elect-s-New-Year-s-Eve-party-Mar-Lago-estate.html#ixzz4libsN9tf 

It is not that Mr. Trump stands exonerated, contrary to what he believes; rather, we have to question whether it was merely lack of judgement on their part, or, as I am suggesting, that Mika & Joe inhabit fundamentally the same amoral universe which has defined Mr. Trump, which made them consort with Mr. Trump months after repeated allegations of egregious sexual misconduct on his part had become part of the record.  It is not that Mr. Trump has changed in the six months since they wined and dined with him; Mr. Trump has not transformed from a gracious and unassuming host to a raging lunatic.  We may, if we wish, put down the strained relationship of this recently-engaged couple to Mr. Trump as something akin to the estrangement of lovers; or we may characterize their relationship as illustrative of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences.  Beyond all this, I submit, the supposed dispute between these two parties is illustrative of the fact that concepts such as shame have now disappeared from American public life.

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A few months ago, Harsh Mander, who is one of India’s most committed activists, a staunch anti-communalist, a fearless advocate of human rights, and—if I may add a personal note—an old and trusted friend, wrote an opinion piece for the Indian Express which gave me pause for some thought. I have since had other moments to think about Mander’s piece, which is entitled “Unlike America”; its sub-heading more than adequately suggests the tenor of his argument: “In India, voices of public protest against hate-mongering targeting Muslims have been far too muted and infrequent.”  Mander is among the millions who throughout the world was filled with a “dark foreboding” after Donald J. Trump’s electoral triumph, and Trump’s reckless actions and pronouncements since his inauguration on January 20 would have done little to alleviate the deep misgivings about the American President that Mander like many others (myself included) have experienced.

Less than two weeks into his administration, Trump issued what became known as the “Muslim Ban”.  It is at this point, Mander suggests, that many Americans woke up to the unpleasant reality that they would have to live for at least four years with a Commander-in-Chief and President who is boorish, narcissistic, and habitually prone to lying.  Though Mander does not say so, Trump is fundamentally not merely uninterested in issues of social justice and equality but, to the contrary, a blatant example of the absolutely vacuous Ayn Rand school of thought which believes that man is born to self-aggrandizement.  (To my mind, the notion of Trump as a disciple, howsoever much he may detest the very idea considering his proclivity to think of himself only as a ‘winner’ and ‘leader’, of Ayn Rand has barely been noticed in the prolific public commentary.)  The “Muslim Ban” had just been issued before a court put a stay order on it; the revised version of the ban, issued days later, similarly did not survive judicial review.

But none of this is the subject matter of Mander’s article, which is rather on how, in the wake of the “Muslim Ban”, Americans rose to the occasion in a vivid demonstration of what has made America ‘great’ and a beacon of light to other countries.  Mander speaks approvingly and many would say justly of the “luminous, spontaneous public display of solidarity and empathy with the targeted Muslims by millions of ordinary Americans”, which to his mind is an affirmation of the fact that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  Moving towards the last third of his opinion piece, Mander thoughtfully asks whether in India good-natured and well-intentioned people have done enough to resist “the fear and animosity that has been systematically fostered against the Indian Muslim minority in the Modi era.”  Many Muslims in India view themselves as second-class citizens, and Mander poignantly inquires whether “Indian people have reached out to defend and reassure their Muslim neighbours in ways that many Americans have”.

It is doubtless true that within hours of the issue of the “Muslim Ban”, protestors came out on the streets of America to lodge their opposition against the xenophobic turn in the new administration and attempts to ‘secure’ America against supposed enemies of the state.  The country’s airports, especially, became sites of concerted resistance, and hundreds of immigrant attorneys offered their services pro bono to immigrants and refugees.  Elsewhere in the country, as Mander writes, what are called ‘faith leaders’ representing Christianity and Judaism also made it known that they would not abide by any executive orders or regulations that clearly target Muslims.  One cannot but agree with Mander that this apparent display of solidarity with Muslims has been admirable.

However, I am slightly discomforted by certain assumptions that underlie Mander’s claim, and would like to conjoin some general queries with the specifics of the politics of protest in the US and India by way of opening up a space for discussion.  First, there is the question that in the Indian liberal imagination, the US becomes the benchmark by which other countries are judged.  The US scarcely has any monopoly on what we might call the architecture of popular protest:  if anything, American streets see much less protest than do the streets in most other countries.  Of course, one can anticipate the rejoinder, namely that the street protests in, for example, Russia and Venezuela have been waged not on behalf of the rights of various other religious, racial, ethnic, or gendered others, but rather by ordinary citizens who feel their rights have been trampled upon or who seek to create a space for political dialogue.  By the same token, however, it is indubitably the fact that the United States is essentially and in its core an immigrant society.  The “Muslim Ban”, in other words, is not merely an issue with implications for Muslims, or even those, like Sikhs or brown-skinned people in general, who might be mistaken for Muslims.  If the Muslim is a metaphor for the immigrant, then effectively most Americans are Muslims. 

Thus, in this respect, the “Muslim Ban” can be described as something that is experienced viscerally as a ban upon every immigrant, or even ancestors of immigrants, which is the preponderant portion of the American population—as a rebuke, in other words, to every American.  Mander could have perhaps made a stronger case if he had advanced the view that the Muslim in India is similarly a part of the Indian self, a part of every Hindu, just as every Hindu is a part of every Muslim self, even if the gravitational pull of South Asian politics, particularly in Pakistan, over the last course of the last century has been to try to demarcate the Muslim as an altogether separate entity from the Hindu.

Secondly, as a corollary to the above argument, it is thus easier to understand why the politics of agitation in the US has not, generally speaking, extended to a great many other issues.  Trump’s “divisive politics”, as it is often termed, is unpleasant and even deeply offensive to many, but very few of the other equally odious measures that his administration has passed have given rise to mass demonstrations.  To take one illustration, the various pushbacks in the Trump administration against measures designed to safeguard the environment, and even his rejection of the Paris climate accord, have not led to anything like the kind of demonstrations that we have seen over the “Muslim Ban”, though the implications of his administration’s repudiation of the scientific consensus over climate change are far-reaching and in some respects dwarf many other pertinent social issues.  It may be that organization of resistance around climate change, which may seem something like an abstraction to some people, particularly in an affluent country such as the US, is no easy task.  But this only goes to suggest that there is, in some ways, a singularity of concern that the “Muslim Ban” is able to evoke.  Empathy, that is to say, is also selective. 

Thirdly, then, there is something anodyne in the observation that Mander has put forward when he writes, to quote him again, that “a politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.”  My point here is not merely that “a politics of hate” does triumph all too often:  if this were not the case, mass murders, genocide, and the carefully managed orchestration of hatred would not be routine facts of history.  There may be, indeed there is, an ethical imperative to affirm, and affirm repeatedly, our capacity to overcome the politics of hate, bigotry, and fear.  But there is also the need to reckon with the fact that the “politics of hate” is not an isomorphic phenomenon but rather is inextricably intertwined with the brute facts of nationalism, class hierarchies, and ideologies of exclusion.

We are left, moreover, with other questions which hover in the background of Mander’s piece.  It was a mass movement of resistance, waged over three decades, which brought to an end colonial rule in India.  In the mid-1970s, again, a popular movement, which saw meetings and demonstrations in north India, put an end to the authoritarianism that had guided Mrs. Indira Gandhi.  In recent years, the issue of corruption has riled the middle class.  It is unnecessary, at this juncture, to probe the politics of protest over “corruption”.  Mander seeks to inquire:  why is it that the ill-treatment of Muslims does not similarly evoke the anger or an anxiety over injustice and bring the people of the streets to India?  It is not that the people of India will not take to the streets:  but why do they fail to do so in the case of palpable forms of injustice and discrimination against Muslims?  Mander has described the symptom, but not the disease.  Is the disease Hindu nationalism?  Is it a new-found adherence to the ideology of ‘each man to himself’?  Is it the collapse of some notion of a social commons?  Is it the decline of the ‘moral economy’?  Has some kind of zero-sum politics become the norm?  Even if Mander has not posed these questions, his piece should certainly be read as a necessary provocation to ponder over the profound malaise that has afflicted India.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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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.

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Annals of the President Trump Regime IX

Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer from Hyderabad, and all of 32 years old, was shot dead in a bar in the city of Olathe, Kansas, on Wednesday night.  He and his friend, Alok Madasani, were nursing a Jameson whiskey at Austins Bar and Grill when a Navy veteran, Adam Purinton, 51, fired on the two men.  Madasani survived the attack; so did Ian Grillot, 24, another patron who confronted the gunman after mistakenly thinking that he may have run out of ammunition.

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Srinivas Kuchibhotla. Source: Indian Express.

A surge in hate crimes has been reported from across the country, and not only since Trump gained the White House; there is ample empirical data to suggest that hate crimes began to increase once Trump had clinched the Republican nomination for the Presidency.  The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that on one single day, November 9, immediately after the election had been decided, 202 hate crimes were reported from across the country; in the ten days following the election, 867 such crimes of “harassment and intimidation” were reported.  “Many of the incidents involved harassers invoking Trump’s name, the Center’s report states unequivocally, “making it clear that the outbreak of hate was primarily due to his success in the election.”  In recent days, dozens of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated.  The racists have evidently been feeling greatly emboldened since Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’ and take the country back—though back from whom, and back to what, are almost never specified.

The history of the US is drenched in hate crimes, but the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla will in time to come surely be seen as forming an extraordinarily distinct chapter in this troubled history.  The killer, the New York Times has reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States” (Saturday, February 25:  “Drinks at a Bar, Ethnic Insults, Then Gunshots).  There are few hates crimes which are not accompanied by ‘ethnic slurs’; and doubtless the most common form of opprobrium that immigrants have continued to face is to be told, especially if they dare to be at all critical of the US, to return to where they came from.  Thus far, then, the killer, Adam Purinton, seems to have said nothing spectacularly vile.  However, it is Mr. Madasani’s testimony which furnishes the more pertinent clue to the unusual characteristics of this killing.  Mr. Madasani recalled, “He [Purinton] asked us what visa we are currently on and whether we are staying here illegally.”

The fact that both Mr. Kuchibhotla and Mr. Madasani had been living in the United States for many years, and had received their graduate degrees from American universities before becoming gainfully employed, is beside the point.  The shooting would have been no more justified had the victims been illegal, Muslims, refugees, or from working-class backgrounds.  The killer did not bother very much with their answers, since he pulled out a revolver and then shot one of them dead—but not before he yelled at them to “get out of my country”.  Ever heard of a killing where a victim was asked what kind of visa he had before bullets were pumped into his body?  One is accustomed to hear of killings over botched drug deals, a sex triangle, or a disputed inheritance, but what kind of hate crime is it where the victim is interrogated over his visa status?

The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, forcefully rejected on Friday any suggestion that the murder of Mr. Kuchibhotla and attempted murder of Mr. Madasani could even remotely be linked to the ferociously anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been emanating from the Trump administration. Spicer is not known for his command over the English language:  naturally gifted in being incoherent, he nevertheless made himself quite clear, “I mean, obviously, any loss of life is tragic, but I’m not going to get into, like, that kind of – to suggest that there’s any correlation, I think, is a bit absurd.  So I’m not going to go any further than that.”  But why should such a “correlation” be “absurd”?  If Trump’s followers, acolytes, and foot soldiers are sold on the idea that immigrants have stolen ‘their’ country, taken ‘their’ jobs, and made America unsafe, why is it at all unreasonable that the present administration, which has done everything within its power to incite hatred against immigrants, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, Syrians, and various other classes of foreigners, should be forced to acknowledge it has opened the flood-gates of racial and religious hatred?

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Srinivas Kuchibhotla and his wife Sunayana Dumala in happier days. Source: Live Mint.

Mr. Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, who is employed by another IT company in the same area, said that her husband’s killing had forced her to confront the question:  “Do we belong here?”  She has gone on record as saying that she awaits an answer from the US government about what “they’re going to do to stop this [kind of] hate crime.”  The entire country awaits such an answer.

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