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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime VI

 

“As I’ve said before, any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable.  And any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.”

–Paul D. Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, US Congress, December 12, 2016

 

Ten years ago, much to the surprise of the US administration, Hamas swept to victory when elections were held in the Occupied Territories.  The promotion of ‘free elections’ around the world has long been a platform of American democracy, and the US now found itself in a spot of trouble since an organization that the US had condemned as a terrorist outfit had legitimately assumed power.  Hillary Clinton was then a Senator representing the state of New York and she was evidently greatly disturbed by the outcome.  On September 5, 2006, shortly after the elections were concluded, Hillary Clinton gave an interview to Eli Chomsky of the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press where she said the following: “I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake.  And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.”  An audio recording of this first came to light only about two months ago.

 

Only those who somehow think of Hillary Clinton as a great champion of democracy will perhaps be taken aback by her boldness indeed arrogance in thinking that it is for the US to “determine” who wins elections in other countries.   That “elections”, free or otherwise, should be the litmus test for a democracy is an assumption that receives little interrogation, no doubt because, to rehearse the old cliché, an electoral democracy is perhaps the best of a range of rotten political options.  Another assumption, scarcely questioned by what is assumed to be the most vigorous press in the world, is that the US has always held free elections.  I do not refer here to the example that will most easily come to the mind of most people, namely the election of George W. Bush to the Presidency of the United States after his brother Jeb, then Governor of Florida, and a pliant Supreme Court handed the election to him.  Of course, the proposition that the US elections are “free” is in some sense undebatable, even if one can easily complicate the narrative by pointing to various stratagems that have been deployed over the decades to keep certain people from voting.  In many states, convicted felons lose the right to vote in perpetuity; similarly, even long after the Voting Rights Act was passed (and recently gutted), facilities for registration have been denied to racial minorities in a number of places.  The other, equally substantive and unimpeachable, piece of evidence which puts into question the whole notion of “free” elections in the US is of course the extraordinary reach of what we might call big money, which has not only made it all but impossible for people of ordinary means to compete in elections but also clearly “rigged” the outcome to reflect the interests only of the corporate and moneyed interests.

 

However, the revelation, now seemingly endorsed by the CIA itself, that Russia intervened in the US elections suggests what is even more obnoxious in the present commentary, whether in the liberal media, on conservative blogs, TV stations, and radio shows, or as the opinions of politicians, military officials, and officials in the intelligence community.  The US has long assumed that it is perfectly within its right to intervene in other countries:  such interventions, of which the examples are numerous enough to fill several volumes, have extended far beyond seeking to influence electoral outcomes, and have often involved overthrowing or attempting to overthrow legally elected governments.  Many such interventions have taken the form of connivance by the CIA, though this has seldom occurred without a signal from the American administration of that time and the State Department that such a course of action is a calculated element of American foreign policy.  The most notorious example, with repercussions that have lasted to this day, is the CIA- and MI5-engineered coup that overthrew the legally elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953.  Just as unpalatable to the US was Salvador Allende of Chile:  to be sure, there was domestic opposition to Allende’s socialist policies, but the evidence which supports the view the overthrow of his government was strongly supported if not instigated by the US is incontrovertible.

 

It may be far from being an established fact that the Russians were the ones who plotted to hack the emails of the Democratic National Committee just as it is far from being proven that Russian intervention, if indeed it occurred, played a decisive role in swinging the election in favor of Trump.  But let us assume the worst and suppose that Vladimir Putin and the Russians were deliberate in their hacking of DNC emails and planted misinformation.  They are, needless to say, easily capable of doing so.  Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the major leader, gave it as his firm opinion that “any foreign breach of our cybersecurity measures is disturbing, and I strongly condemn such efforts.”   This is the view that is being echoed by every American political leader and commentator, and perhaps that is how it should be.  If, however, the US stands by the idea of national sovereignty, and views intervention by any other state, particularly one with which it has a relationship of deep suspicion over decades, as reprehensible, how is it that the sovereignty of other states means nothing?  The question here is not merely one of hypocrisy; rather, it points to a fundamental problem in American politics, namely the inability of the public sphere in the United States to generate any kind of self-reflexivity.  One might easily say that the conduct of the United States is what one expects of a world power; one might say that this is characteristic of an imperium.  But one wonders whether any empire has been so singularly lacking in self-reflexivity, so pathetically lacking in an awareness of how it came to acquire its own sovereignty and how it positions it positions itself as the aggrieved party in every discourse?  The cheek of it:  the Russians did something to which only Americans have an unquestioned right.

 

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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime V

(Being, a gentle reminder to the reader, a cornucopia of assertions, satire, commentary, interpretation, Trump-comedy, and much else, but always grounded in at least some facts.)

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The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Ohio, founded and shuttered in 1977 on September 19, a remembered in the area as “Black Monday”. Source: http://postindustrialrustbelt.blogspot.com/2014/10/rust-belt.html

Few phrases have done the round as much in this election cycle in the United States as the “Rust Belt”. On Washington’s Beltway, jubilant Republicans and morose Democrats will doubtless be talking about the Rust Belt for a long time, indeed until such time as rust begins to acquire around the idea of the Rust Belt and, like all others phrases that have done their time, this one too becomes a hazy memory. Contrary to received opinion, the phrase “Rust Belt” is not of recent vintage, dating, as is commonly imagined, to around 20-30 years ago, a period which witnessed both NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse.  This is when jobs began leaving the United States, corporations started taking recourse to outsourcing, and the industrial heartland in the Midwest—and especially the area around Pittsburgh and other steel-producing towns—went into decline.

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The Rust Belt of the United States. Source: https://unitedstateshistorylsa.wikispaces.com/Sunbelt+and+Rustbelt

The veracity of this claim is not my concern at this juncture.  However, what is interesting is that though the term “Rust Belt” began to acquire popularity around the late 1980s, similar uses of the term can be dated back much earlier.  The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the phrase “Rust Belt” was used as early as 1869, when the San Francisco Bulletin stated that “a foreign demand for wheat and barley would set a good many farmers on their pins . . . The demand will not, of course, help those who rented lands within the rust belt.”  More tellingly, a good decade before NAFTA entered into force, well before, as Trump and common wisdom would have it, Mexico, China, India, and other countries began swallowing up well-paying jobs that had sustained decent American families, an Associated Press story, published on 30 November 1982, stated that “unemployment is extremely high in many areas of the so-called ‘Rust Belt’, the heavy industry areas of the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.”  For all the tens of thousands of economists—the anointed ‘queens’ of the social sciences—writing on this subject, the claim that unemployment in the Rust Belt surged following the enactment of NAFTA and the packaging of jobs to China remains largely unexamined.  The rust on the Rust Belt has a longer history than is commonly imagined.

There is a consensus among commentators or “pundits”—proud Indians will doubtless have taken note of this, pointing to it as one of myriad signs of how Indian words have now become normalized in English—that the Rust Belt states won Trump his Presidency.  It is Hillary Clinton’s neglect of these states, and her presumption that the working-class was in her pocket, that is supposed to have sunk her bid for the presidency.  Of course, as scholars in particular are wont to say, such a claim is “problematic”, since even many outside the Rust Belt voted for Trump.  A majority of white women, 53% to be precise, appear to have voted for Trump, notwithstanding the fact that well over a dozen white women stepped forward with allegations of being sexually abused and assaulted by him; similarly, though Trump reeks of racism, fewer black people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Barack Obama.  One could easily multiply such facts, but there is nevertheless a widespread and credible view that the Rust Belt states proved critically important and perhaps decisive in Trump’s victory.

So much for the view from the Rust Belt.  India’s much derided (or vaunted, by some) ‘Cow Belt’ furnishes us another perspective on the US Elections in myriad ways about which I shall be only tantalizingly suggestive.  Both India and the US are what may be called ‘bovine’ countries:  the cow is venerated in India among the Hindus and devoured in the US; in the Midwest, especially, beef jerky is a delicacy.  But let me not venture forth, for fear of being targeted by the internet gau rakshaks, on the numerous delectable ways in which India and the US, joined at the hip as the world’s two largest democracies, are bovine-minded.  The Cow Belt, which some view as a derogatory term, refers to India’s Gangetic heartland from where Narendra Modi drew his strongest supporters in 2014.  It is sometimes called the ‘Saffron Belt’:  in either case, it is in this densely populated part of the country that Hindu nationalism has its widest appeal and where gangs of young men have organized themselves into vigilante groups that terrorize Muslims and “pseudo-secularists” (as they are described by the advocates of Hindutva) who do not pay obeisance to the cow.

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Four young Dalit men stripped and beaten with belts, allegedly for transporting beef–not a crime under any Indian law, but a heinous offense to the Motherland and to Gau Mata from the standpoint of self-appointed Guardians of the Cow. The incident took place in July 2016 and was video-taped. Source: India Today.

It is here that a person might get beaten to pulp on the mere suspicion of eating beef or transporting dead cows to the slaughter-house.  In both countries, the narrative takes on the same hue, registering the disaffection of the ‘majority’ in the ‘heartland’ who are bereft of jobs and hobbled by some form of political correctness.  White racism in the United States, of course by no means confined to the ‘Rust Belt’, meets its match in Hindu chauvinism in the ‘Cow Belt’.

But there is seemingly another obvious reference when we speak of the perspective from the ‘Cow Belt’ on the US Elections.  Many commentators have pointed to the ‘strong man’ who seems to be trending worldwide today and have suggested, as did Pankaj Mishra in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, that Narendra Modi, with his boasts about his 56-inch chest, may have set the example.  Trump’s all but explicit remarks about the shriveled penis of one of his opponents in the Republican primary might seem to bolster such a view.  But it is doubtful that Trump emulates anyone except himself:  he has an equally long history both of boasts and of parading his own masculinity. Moreover, was there ever a time in the politics of the last two to three decades when the ‘strong man’ did not reign?  Have we forgotten Manuel Noriega? Or Saddam Hussein? Commentators would have been more on the mark if they had been sensitive to the shifts in the register of masculinity among ‘strong men’, shifts which portend what I would call an incredulous masculinity.  What could be more fantastic, for example, then the fact that Rodrigo Duterte, now President of the Philippines, as a candidate promised that if he were elected President he would gun down drug users and traffickers and, as President, would immediately exercise his privileges in granting himself immunity from charges of murder!  Whatever one may say of Modi, he lacks this kind of devilish humor and ingenuity.

There is also the matter, finally, of the Chastity Belt. chastitybelt American feminists and women’s organizations have rightfully expressed alarm at the looming erosion of women’s rights, and in particular women’s reproductive freedoms, under a Trump Presidency.  The sexual profligacy of Donald Trump, who even hinted that he would have made a stab at his daughter if she were not his daughter, should at once remove the slightest suspicion that anyone might have that the President-elect would like women to be decorous.  He may like, one suspects, women to be the playthings of men, but he is no advocate of the view that women should be chaste.  The same cannot be said of his Republican allies in Congress, whose views on abortion I discussed in a previous blog and who, it would not be too much to say, certainly think that some women—black women, Latinas, poor women, working-class women, Muslim women—should regulate their sexuality.  The metaphor of the ‘chastity belt’, nowadays a sex toy but in its heyday an instrument for ensuring that women did not step out of bounds and remained available to their husbands, was brought home to me when I stumbled upon this gem from Sarah Palin, another wondrous specimen of American political comedy:

With so many belts to go around, I wonder if we might not all want to make a lunge for the lungi:

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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime IV

 In late November 2004, following the election of George W. Bush to a second term of the Presidency of the United States, I published an article in the journal, Economic and Political Weekly, which remains the principal vehicle in India of wide-ranging and often scholarly commentary on social, historical, and political issues.  The article is called, “What the US Electorate Voted For” (Vol 39, no. 37), and shorter versions of it appeared as “The Bitter Pill of ‘American Democracy’” in the Bangladesh Observer (Dhaka; 12 November 2004, p. 4) and as “The Morning After:  The Bitter Pill of American Democracy”, Sunday Island (Colombo, Sri Lanka; 14 November 2004).

I take the liberty of reproducing this piece, since on reading it again earlier today I find that the same piece could be published today virtually intact, with only obvious changes—substituting the name of Donald J. Trump for George W. Bush, and so on.  This by no means should be interpreted to mean that just as the US muddled through the years of the Bush Presidency, it will do so through the years of the Trump Presidency. Nor am I trying to suggest that I may have been prescient, though a systematic study of American politics suggests that Trump is not at all an aberration, as Barack Obama would have us believe, but rather the logical outcome of the American political system. This is not the time for complacency.  But it does mean that unless the profoundly systemic evils that characterize the American political system are addressed, we shall lurch from one dangerous buffoon to another, from one ‘democratic despot’ to another.  Speaking at UCLA on November 9th this year, the day after the election, the French philosopher Alain Badiou adverted to ‘democratic fascism’.  In my 2002 book, Empire of Knowledge:  Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (London: Pluto Press), I wrote about the “democratic totalitarianism of the United States”; and, in the concluding lines of “The Bitter Pill of American Democracy”, in pointing to Bush’s frequent references to the war on terrorism, I said:  “Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear invocations of authoritarianism, couched as messages to people to entrust themselves into the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly furnished the recipe for transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.”

Many of those who have studied German’s descent into totalitarianism have long pondered how a country that, in popular parlance, produced Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Kant, Schiller, Goethe and an extraordinarily long list of intellectual and artistic luminaries could embrace the demagoguery, naked militarism, brutal authoritarianism, and eventually the machinery of killing that would characterize the Nazi regime. No one should suppose that the United States, which is well-versed in methods of genocide, is immune to the perils have struck and brought down empires and totalitarian states alike.  The havoc that the US has brought down upon external others—Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians—may one day, which is perhaps not all that distant, be brought down upon many of its own citizens and residents. Donald J. Trump is only the logical outcome, not the culmination, of a process that has long been at work; much that is deplorable may come in his time, but it is certain that much worse will come after his time.

I have placed in bold italics such of my remarks from the previously published piece, which follows, which appear as they could have been written apropos of this election.  Take, for instance, this sentence: “Bush’s election means, in stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless “pacification” of entire countries, and an indefinite war — of terror, not just on terror — against nameless and numberless suspects.”  I submit that if we were to replace Bush with Trump, not a single word of this sentence would have to be altered in order for it be persuasive.

How often will the world have to swallow the bitter pill of American Democracy?  The fetus may be aborted by the ‘morning after’ pill; but if the ‘morning after’ pill has to be taken too often, it will wreck the woman’s body.  The body politic of the American Republic, in particular, is now in an advanced stage of decomposition.

 

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The Morning After:  The Bitter Pill of “American Democracy”

The recently concluded American elections, which have given George W. Bush the victorious verdict that he so vigorously sought, were being touted as the most marvelous demonstration of the success and robustness of American democracy even before the polls had closed in some states.  The lines to vote were reported to be unusually long in many places around the country, the prolific predictions about fraud, voting irregularities, and the unreliability of electronic voting machines largely fell flat, a record number of new voters made their presence felt at the polls, and more Americans cast their vote than at any time since 1968.  The usual platitudes, calling upon all Americans to “unite” after a bitterly “divisive” election campaign, were heard from Senator Kerry in his concession speech, and once again Bush, who poses as an archangel of “compassionate conservatism” when he is not being a cowboy, has promised his opponent’s supporters that he will attempt to win their trust.  Only the future lies ahead of this, as Bush puts it, “amazing country”.

The United States may be “amazing” for reasons quite at odds with those commonly imagined by Bush and the American electorate which so evidently resonates to his schemes for the upliftment of America and, strictly in that order, the rest of the world.  In the state of Oregon, a ballot cannot physically be cast at an electoral booth; it must be mailed to the appropriate authorities beforehand.  Fewer people vote in elections in the US than in almost any other democracy, though no country has done more to peddle the idea, especially to that portion of the world which is resistant to electoral democracy, that voting constitutes the ultimate fulfillment of a person’s political life.  If dictators understood, at least from the American example, that voting absolves people from further political responsibility, one suspects that they would be much less hostile to the vote as an expression of political sentiment.  I vote, therefore I am; man votes, Bush disposes — with some aid from God.  All these must surely constitute grounds for thinking of America as an “amazing country”.

Quite to the contrary, these elections furnish the most decisive illustration of the sheer mockery that electoral democracy has become in America. The iconoclastic American thinker, Paul Goodman, observed four decades ago in Compulsory Miseducation that American democracy serves no other purpose than to help citizens distinguish between “indistinguishable candidates”.  Both parties are utterly beholden to the culture of the corporation and what used to be called ‘monied interests’, and both have contributed to bloated military budgets; besides, however short the memory of those who fetishize Democrats as paragons of liberalism, decency, and civility, Democratic administrations have been scarcely reticent in exercising military power to subjugate enemies or ensure American dominance.  The current debacle in the Democratic party owes much to Bill Clinton, though he has been so lionizedthe consummate diplomat, the “comeback kid”, the supposed engine behind the growth of the American economy — that any criticism of him, barring the “moral turpitude” he is said to have displayed when he was caught with his knickers down in the Oval Office, is all but impossible.  Many Democrats instead held Ralph Nader, who understands better than most people the elaborate hoax by means of which one party has been masquerading as two for a very long time, responsible for sprinting votes away from Al Gore in 2000.  This served as one long-lasting excuse to which the Democrats could resort to explain why Gore was unable to prevail at the polls, and also explains why they went to extraordinary lengths to keep him from appearing on ballots in 2004; the other excuse originated in the circumstances under which a tenacious Bush, whose ambition for power is just as ruthless as his ignorance and arrogance are colossal, was able to get his brother Jeb Bush and the Supreme Court to hand over the White House to him.  The dictators who run banana republics were doubtless imbibing a very different meaning from the axiom that America leads the way.

The present elections have blown these excuses, under which the Democrats have been sheltering and smoldering, to smithereens. Bush’s victory margin, by the standards of democracy, is comfortably large.  Nader, the so-called “spoiler” and “traitor”, won a mere few hundred thousand votes, and his presence doubtless even emboldened more Democrats to go to the polls.  If Americans could not much distinguish between Bush and Kerry, and indeed how could they when Kerry, with his promise to “hunt down” the terrorists and wipe them from the face of this earth, sounded entirely like his opponent, the Democrats must ponder how they could have moved so far to the right and thus surrendered what little remains of their tattered identity.  Considering the horrendous record that Bush has compiled in nearly every domain of national life — an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, the occupation of a sovereign nation, the strident embrace of militarism, the reckless disregard for the environment, the shameless pandering to the wealthy, the transformation of a 5-trillion dollar surplus into a 400-billion dollar deficit, the erosion of civil liberties, the insouciant disdain for international treaties and protocols, and much else — one cannot but conclude that the American people have given Bush carte blanche to do more of the same.  One thought of the Butcher of Crawford as the arch executioner, under whose jurisdiction Texas sent more men to the death chamber than any other state, but his appetite for destruction extends even to the English language.  Edmund Burke, with his inspiring mastery over English, indicated Warren Hastings, a proconsul of an earlier generation, with the terrible observation that when Hastings ate, he created a famine; but when Bush opens his mouth, words come out horribly mangled, as unrecognizable as the bodies which litter the streets of Iraq.  Bush’s election means, in stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless “pacification” of entire countries, and an indefinite war — of terror, not just on terror — against nameless and numberless suspectsNo extenuating circumstances can be pleaded on behalf of Americans, however much progressive intellectuals might like to think that Americans are fundamentally “good” and merely “misinformed” by the corporate media.

It is no secret that the defeat of George Bush was, from the standpoint of the world, a consummation devoutly to be wished for.  Many well-meaning Americans deride Bush as an “embarrassment”.  Used with reference to him, the word sounds like an encomium.  The best of peoples are embarrassed by their own actions at times, and embarrassment can, at least on occasion, be read in the register of modesty, awkwardness, and innocent virtue.  “Embarrassment” seems wholly inadequate as an expression of the visceral anger and hatred Bush unleashes among some of his detractors.  Those even more critical of Bush are inclined to view him as a liar There is, however, scarcely any politician in the world who does not lie, though one can say of Bush that he almost always lies.  But what if the American electorate understood, as appears to be the case, his lies to be desirable, necessary, and premonitions of truth?  Bush lied to the world about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he lied about the purported imminence of a threat against the United States from Iraq, and he falsely claimed a link between the al-Qaeda network and Iraq.  Yet none of these revelations about the insidious modes in which consent is manufactured made an iota of difference, and Bush charged ahead with insistent reiterations of the same falsehoods.

Consequently, more arresting clues to the danger that Bush poses to the world must be located elsewhere.  One did not expect him to act any differently; but that a large chunk of the American population has boldly declared its affinity for him is proof enough that, at the end of the day, many Americans share with Bush his contempt for the world and the view that the United States can never fundamentally deviate from the path of good A very substantial number of Americans have declared that they found Bush to embody “moral values”, presumably the same moral values that they hold sacrosanct.   Bush’s moral vision, as is well-known, extends to clear and unambiguous distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and he is emphatic in his pronounced belief that “those who are not for us, are against us”.  The success of Bush points, in other words, to something much more ominous, namely the sheer inability of Americans to comprehend complexity and retain some degree of moral ambivalence.  The fear that Bush is charged with exploiting, namely the fear of terrorism, is more broadly the fear of the unknown, the fear of ambiguity.  Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear invocations of authoritarianism, couched as messages to people to entrust themselves into the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly furnished the recipe for transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.

Elections in India have consequences mainly for the Indian sub-continent, just as those in Australia largely impact Australia.  But the American elections impact every person in the world, and there are clearly compelling reasons why every adult in the world should be allowed to vote in an American presidential election.  However much every American might balk at this suggestion, it is indisputable, as the striking examples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Iraq so vividly demonstrate, that the United States has never considered sovereignty an inviolable fact of international politics.  We shall, then, have to radically rethink the received notions of the nation-state, sovereignty, democracy, and internationalism.   These elections will widen the gulf between Americans, ensconced in their gigantic Hummers and endlessly adrift in the aisles of Cosco and Walmart, and most of the rest of the “civilized world”.  One nonviolent way of moving the world towards a new conception of ecumenical cosmopolitanism is to allow every adult an involvement in the affairs of a nation that exercises an irrepressible influence on their lives.

Meanwhile, there is no morning after pill to abort the nightmarish results of 2004, and the rest of the world will have to swallow the bitter pill of “American democracy”. 

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In 1974, the young but already acclaimed German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, released a remarkable new film, Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf; also known as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul], which was as daring as it was prescient in its treatment of the reception of foreigners and particularly Muslims in Germany.  The film features an unusual relationship that develops between Ali, a Moroccan guest worker in his late 30s, and a 60-year old white German widow from a working-class community by the name of Emmi.  A chance meeting between the two blossoms into love, but, as lovers have often found out for themselves, others won’t let them live in peace.  A younger man with a much older woman is a phenomenon that continues to be rare in most societies; some people are even likely to find such a relationship abominable.  However, what most offends Emmi’s daughter, son-in-law, friends, and co-workers is that she shares her bed with a Moroccan immigrant.  The canard that foreign workers—many, though by no means all, of them Muslims—are “dirty” is repeated in Elli’s former circle of friends and workers; and, as societies are wont to do with women who show any degree of sexual independence, Elli is soon condemned as a “whore”.

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In Germany, given the enormous burden of its history, the question of xenophobia is of paramount importance.  Germans have striven over the years to contend with their past, and it is certainly unnecessary to recount their myriad efforts to acknowledge, and atone for, what transpired under National Socialism and the country’s transformation into a totalitarian state.  In recent years, even as most European countries have been shockingly indifferent to the fate of refugees who have attempted to made their way into Europe from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, Germany has been generous in opening its arms to this—as it sometimes represented—flotsam and jetsam of a surging humanity.  In comparison with every other country, in and out of Europe, Germany has certainly been salutary in its reception of refugees.  Nevertheless, the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now openly voiced in most countries of Europe, and that has taken the form of virulent forms of racism and discrimination, is now being heard in Germany as well.  Far-right parties had been making inroads in Germany over the last twenty years, but their sentiments have thus far not been shared, at least not in public, by the majority of Germans.  However, yesterday morning’s newspapers carried a report that, perhaps in submission to growing public animosity towards Muslims, whose otherness is symbolized to many people most distinctly by the veiling practiced by many Muslim women, Chancellor Angela Merkel had indicated that the use of the hijab in Germany will henceforth be severely curtailed.

Quite apropos, then, of all this, it is perhaps fitting that last evening I should have had occasion to see Fassbinder’s comparatively little-known film, Katzelmacher, released as part of a set of five DVDs of his early films in Criterion’s Eclipse series.  Fassbinder shot this film, in black & white, over a period of nine days in August 1969 and was able to release it just two months later.  The word, “Katzelmacher”, is said to be Bavarian slang for “foreigner”, though the word has also been rendered as “trouble-maker”; and Fassbinder himself is said to have elaborated upon it thus: “a foreigner, especially someone from the South, who is supposed to enjoy great sexual potency.”  The film centers on a group of young friends in one of Munich’s neighborhoods who appear to have largely aimless lives:  their conversation centers on financial woes and gossip about who is sleeping with whom.  There isn’t much camera movement:  the film moves between a few different locations, among them a street where they gather for conversation, a run-down restaurant, and a few “domestic” apartment interiors. In keeping with this bare-bones cinematic minimalism, necessitated to some degree by the small budget with which Fassbinder was working, is the use of recurring tracking shots of pairs of the principal characters strolling down a street where they are the only pedestrians. The men are abusive to their female sexual partners, slapping and hitting them at will as it seems, and it would be far too much to speak of men having respect for women; indeed, scarcely anyone seems to have any respect for anyone else, and the women bitch about each other.  There is no laughter, no joy, no humor.  One woman, Rosy, engages in a form of prostitution, charging even her boyfriend for sexual favors.

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Katzelmacher: Aimless Lives of the Young.

What disrupts this pattern of living is the sudden appearance of Jorgos (played by Fassbinder himself), a Greek guest-worker who takes up residence in the apartment of Elisabeth, which she shares, though not with any great pleasure, with her live-in boyfriend, Peter.  By the late 1960s, when Katzelmacher was released, there were over two million foreign guest-workers in West Germany, from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Morocco.  As in the case of Japan, the wartime machinery in West Germany was in the aftermath of the war diverted to industrial production, and by the late 1950s the economic resurgence of West Germany was such as to generate a huge demand for foreign workers. Jorgos is first taken for an Italian; he is then discovered to be “a Greek from Greece”.  Soon, the rumor is circulating that Elisabeth is sleeping with Jorgos; though the rumor is without any foundation, the implication in part is that Jorgos is without any morals.  Any such insinuation, as Fassbinder suggests, would be comical if it were not (as it eventually turns out) dangerous, considering that none of the other characters can even remotely be viewed as a paragon of the virtuous and morally upright human being.  Peter, who does not take kindly to being reminded by Elizabeth of his sheer worthlessness as a man capable of any degree of financial autonomy, loses no time in suggesting to this motley group of rather pitiful specimens of bourgeois middle-class life that the Greek is muscular, of better built, and larger than any of them—more particularly, in the region of the genitals.

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Beating Up on Imigrants: Jorgos is set upon by the young men of the neighborhood, in a scene from “Katzelmacher”.

Some might suppose that it is sexual envy that feeds the anger and resentment of this circle of young friends.  However, though anti-immigrant feeling may feed on predictable anxieties, such as the notion, now being widely trumpeted in Trump’s America, that immigrants “steal” jobs, xenophobia needs no such rationale and can live off a great many others rumors and anxieties.  For the young women and men in Katzelmacher, vindictiveness towards immigrants is something like a sport; for no apparent reason, Jorgos is constantly taunted as a “communist”.  Greece, in fact, was under the rule of a military junta from 1967-1974, and thousands of communists were hounded, killed, and exiled to remote Greek islands.  The only person who stands by Jorgos is Marie, whose boyfriend, Erich, is a particularly vicious and violent hoodlum of sorts; but her affection for Jorgos, far from saving him, makes him a target of attack by Erich, Peter, and others.  Jorgos is beaten up badly; he is tempted into returning to Greece.

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Jorgos and Marie stroll down a street: from “Katzelmacher”, directed by Fassbinder.

The film ends with Marie and her friend Gunda strolling down a street, hands held together, and exchanging these words:

Marie:  In the summer, he’s taking me to Greece.

Gunda:  And his wife?

Marie:  It doesn’t matter. In Greece everything’s different.

The anti-immigrant narrative now sweeping through the US and much of Europe has nowhere to hide and nothing to say for itself:  it is pathetic, farcical, and tragic as much for immigrants and refugees as it is for wealthy host societies who have apparently still not learned to live with difference and understand what constitutes hospitality and ecumenism.  The bold minimalism of Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher brings us closer to the emptiness that lies at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiments.

 

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Annals of the President-Elect Trump Regime I

(Being a Cornucopia of Facts, Opinions, Commentary, Satire, Scholarly Writing, Poetry, and Vignettes, But Mainly Facts and no Ressentiment)

November 18, 2016

The American Psychiatric Association announced today the release of its new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, popularly known in the profession in the US and worldwide as the DSM.  The DSM’s new edition, an event that transpires only once every decade, has long been awaited.  Among this year’s new findings, the DSM VI’s editors stated, nothing is remotely as significant as the addition of a new disorder which has been termed by experts the “Trump Penile Disorder”, aka as “Trump Penis Disorder” or, in short, TPD.  The editors hastened to clarify that TPD is entirely distinct from Erectile Dysfunction, which though it may have psychosomatic elements is primarily a physical phenomenon, as well as from Peyronie’s Disease, an affliction which hits about 5% of all men after fifty but can scarcely touch such stout men of stamina as the President-elect.  In Peyronie’s Disease, the experts explained to a large crowd of reporters, the penis becomes a curve ball and is barely able to reach first base, whereas Mr. Trump was known only to hit home runs.

The DSM’s editors were drawn to the conclusion that the Trump Penile Disorder (TPD) had to be taken seriously on account of two considerations.  First, they drew attention to the testimony offered by the world-acclaimed Indian ayurvedic doctor and healer to numerous Hollywood stars, Dr. Deepak Chopra.  Appearing on a show with Fox New Radio host Alan Colmes on Tuesday, June 7, the soft-spoken Chopra said that, watching the presumptive Republican nominee over a period of time, he regrettably had come to the conclusion that Mr. Trump was a “racist” and “bigot” who “represents the emotional retardation of a three-year old.”  Dr. Chopra, who is ordinarily reticent in delivering such judgments, was adamant in his gentle way that he was “100% sure” in reaching the opinion that Mr. Trump was a belligerent and prejudiced “racist” who had brought out the worst in everyone else.  Yet it was not merely Mr. Trump’s belligerence and severely emotionally retarded state that distinguished him from others, since many others display similar characteristics; rather, as Dr. Chopra would explain in a subsequent appearance on the Conan O’Brien show on October 24, 2016, Mr. Trump’s “consciousness is stuck in his genitals.”  Mr. Trump, Dr. Chopra stated, “thinks with his penis”.  With the best or most compassionate of human beings, one expects that they might think with the heart, leaving the thinking with the brain to those who have dedicated their lives to the illumination of reason; but Mr. Trump’s singularity, Dr. Chopra was clearly inclined to think, resided in the fact that he thought with his penis.  As with others who are mentally challenged, Dr. Chopra appeared to be suggesting, Mr. Trump, notwithstanding the severe retardation which made him speak, blabber, and froth at the mouth like a three-year old, had an overgrown body and in particular he let his penis do all the work for him, which included the thinking apt for a toddler.

The editors were pressed on this matter by skeptical reporters, particularly experienced women journalists who complained that they all knew of men who treated their penis as a thought(ful) projectile.  This led the DSM’s editors to describe, in miniscule detail, the second set of circumstances that had inescapably led them to the view that they had not been hasty in given medical recognition to the Trump Penile Disorder.  During the course of the campaign, they noted, nearly two dozen women had come forward to complain of sexual molestation and sexual assault by Mr. Trump.  Some women had complained that Mr. Trump hid pinched their bottoms; others complained that Mr. Trump’s hands had a tendency to wander during their conversations, and they would invariably come to rest upon their genitals or breasts.  Mr. Trump was accused by at least one woman of walking into her dressing room without knocking while she was in a state of undress. And, of course, there was the (in)famous incident which had been captured on video and seen around the world where Mr. Trump had loudly bragged that he was “automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them.  It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it.  You can do anything . . . Grab them by the pussy.  You can do anything.”

Keeping in mind these considerations, the DSM’s distinguished editors, now looking a little red in their faces, sought to furnish a definition of the Trump Penile Disorder.  (They noted, in passing, that the elites were prone to describe it as Trump Penile Disorder, but the working-class thought the word “penile” a little presumptuous and long-winded and were content to settle for the more familiar “penis”.)  Needless to say, only men were afflicted with the Trump Penile Disorder, though the experts admitted that a transgendered person might, in certain circumstances, fall under the sway of this disorder.  A person diagnosed with TPD let his penis do the thinking for him; secondly, the person so diagnosed had a grand plan for penile projectile propulsion, which the experts signified through the acronym PPP2—the number “2” being added to distinguish it from the economists’ conception of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).  When a number of reporters objected that a sample of one, namely Mr. Trump himself, was grossly inadequate to furnish an account of a supposed mental disorder, much less one designated by a name, the DSM VI’s editors were quick to point out that Mr. Trump had been propelled into the White House by over 60 million voters who appeared to recognize TPD for what it is.  The most distinguishing feature of the TPD, they noted, is that the person afflicted with this disorder, always a sexual predator, is able to induce in everyone a schizophrenic state where they come to believe that carrying out sexual assaults, preying upon women, and otherwise “objectifying” women not only do not furnish any kind of hindrance to the advancement of the predator’s ambitions but are in fact essential to propel the sexual predator into high office.  The question for the nation, the DSM VI’s editors appeared to be suggesting, is whether any successful candidate for the office that Mr. Trump will invariably have to vacate one day could conceivably win it unless he too had been diagnosed with Trump Penile Disorder.

At the Trump Organizations’s Headquarters at Trump Towers on Trump Avenue in Manhattan, New York, where there is a Trump Boutique with its hot-selling Trump Perfume for Pussy-Grabbers and a Trump Perfume, albeit in sample size only, for Dick-Catchers, as well as a Trump Cafeteria renowned for Trump Dogs, there was much rejoicing that the Trump Band had been able to make its way into the recondite world of the DSM.  No other President of the United States, or indeed the head of the state of any other country, could claim as much.  When asked if the President-elect did not have his match in the late Idi Amin, the Trump Organization spokeswoman noted that the President-elect did say “Amen” both before having his meals and after every successful attempt at pussy-grabbing.  The spokeswoman further argued that it was quite apposite that the supposed disorder in the world created by the President-elect’s triumph should apparently be echoed by the disorder in the President-elect’s most vital organ.  President-elect Trump, she noted, had been voted into power by people who trusted him and expected consistency between his body and the body-politic, the inner and the outer.  She would not comment, however, on the possibility that the “Make America Great Again” tri-colored caps might be replaced with brown-colored caps bearing the acronym, TPD.

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The United States is conservatively estimated to have at least 300 million firearms in private ownership, though the actual number may be considerably higher.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey put forward a figure of 270 million in 2007, nearly ten years ago, but this estimate is based largely on recorded sales and information furnished by individual gun owners. However, gun registration is not mandatory across the United States, and trafficking in firearms is a lucrative business.  What is unequivocally true is that every study ranks the United States as number one globally in the per capita ownership of private firearms.  It is, of course, far from being the only trigger-happy country in the world.  Other countries that place in the top ten are Iraq and Yemen; though officially Afghanistan was placed only 102nd in the 2007 Geneva survey, the country is known to be awash with private firearms.  Indeed, the Pathan has long had a reputation, whether deserved or otherwise, for a love affair with his rifle.  But these are not the countries with which the US likes to be compared, though it is a telling fact that the US often finds itself—for example, in the matter of adhering to capital punishment—in the company of countries, among them Iran and North Korea, which it otherwise describes as “rogue” states.

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First Group of Dukhobors Arriving in Halifax, Canada, by ship. Source: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

So just what is it that is to be done with all these guns? Assuming, as I have had occasion to remark on my blog on several previous occasions, most recently in my essay posted yesterday, that the measures—background checks, placing a ‘reasonable’ limit on the number of firearms an individual might own, initiating a waiting period—that are from time to time proposed in the US, varying only in degree rather than in kind as one moves from one state to another, are nearly worthless, what lessons might be drawn from other countries?  To pose a question in this fashion itself often invites opprobrium in the US, since many Americans, and not merely those who are not well-educated, hold dearly to the view that America has little to learn from the rest of the world.  To take one illustration, the late Justice Scalia, whose sudden departure to another world led to a rather mysterious, indeed I should say herd-like, outpouring of grief, held firmly to the opinion that American justices had no business citing the opinions of courts in countries such as India since American jurisprudence was self-sufficient, supreme, and trend-setting.  Michael Moore’s late 2015 film, Where to Invade Next?, dwells precisely on these forms of American insularity and exceptionalism, though as he points out some of the most progressive social innovations were the consequence of American ingenuity but were later abandoned in the US even as they came to be adopted in other countries.

 

Australia offers perhaps the best illustration of how private gun ownership might be limited while not outright eliminated.  Japan’s rate of homicide by private firearms is practically zero; there have been years when there have been fewer than ten fatalities on account of gun violence in an entire calendar year.  But once one moves beyond the iconic Japanese brand names and the taste that a certain sector of the white population has acquired for Japanese cuisine, Japan is construed as much too alien to the American sensibility.  Most Americans would take offense at the suggestion that their country might consider emulating Japan.  Australia, on the other hand, shares with the US an Anglophone culture, English common law traditions, and much else—even if cricket and Australian Rules are not quite akin to baseball and (American) football.  In 1996 and again in 2003, Australia initiated a gun buyback program.  The 1996 program, precipitated by a massacre in Tasmania that took a toll of 35 lives, required Australians to surrender certain firearms, among them some semi-automatic rifles, long guns, and pump-action shotguns.  This mandatory buyback program provided owners with “just compensation” and was financed by an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5% to 1.7% of income for a period of one year.  The NRA and its various mouthpieces, among them the National Review, have not surprisingly contested the efficacy of this program; however, more scholarly studies have established that the firearm homicide rate in Australia fell by an astounding 59% while the firearm suicide rate decreased by 69%.  Australia’s gun ownership rate is presently about 21.6 per every 100 residents; its gun homicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000 in contrast to around 11 per 100,000 in the United States.  Gun buyback programs have barely been tried in the US; where at all they these feeble measures have been grudgingly attempted, they have been on a voluntary rather than mandatory basis.

 

If, however, the US is going through a period of mass delusion, then Americans will be impervious to reason.  When rational argument cannot prevail, we should at least permit ourselves some stories.  The social history of one radical anarchist community, the Dukhobors, also known as the “Spirit Wrestlers”, has been little told.  Even chroniclers of nonviolent resistance are unfamiliar with them:  there is no mention of the Dukhobors in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Resistance (2000), or in Mark Kurlansky’s short but engaging NonviolenceTwenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (2006).  Arising from the great 17th-century schism that shook Russia, the Dukhobors were a mystical evangelical group that faced intermittent persecution from 1773 onwards.  The Dukhobors rejected all external authority, the Bible not excluded, and viewed their own leader as a reincarnation of Christ.  The convoluted history of the Dukhobors, among whom the adherence to nonviolent resistance to oppression, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, communal ownership of property, and the repudiation of conscription is common if varying in degree, need  not be rehearsed at this juncture.  A series of exiles—to the Caucasus, Siberia, then to scattered villages in Georgia—eventually brought them, with the financial assistance of Leo Tolstoy and English Quakers, to Canada.  The bulk of the Dukhobors, some 25,000, are now settled in western Canada; there is a small population, numbering not more than 5,000, in the US; and estimates of their numbers in Russia vary immensely, from a mere few thousand to something like 30,000.

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Russian Dukhobor settlers on ship, enroute to Canada, 1898. Source: Canadian Archives.

 

It is the Dukhobor practice, very much alive today if only in the form of symbolic remembrance, of creating a bonfire of guns that is of supreme interest.  7,000 Dukhobors first engaged in the burning of weapons in 1895, on June 29, at three different sites in the Caucasus, to protest conscription in Tsarist Russia.

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The Doukhobors’ “Burning of Arms”, 29 June 1895, painting by Terry McLean. Source: http://www.doukhobor.org

This act of defiance is one of the more remarkable chapters in the history of human awareness, an affirmation of the dignity of every human life and simultaneously an expression of an adamantine refusal to kill another person.  One need not idealize the Dukhobors:  they have been implicated in previous years in Canada in acts of arson and dynamite, even if such acts were directed at their own properties to signify their repudiation of material possessions.  In all the discussion that is presently taking place in the US on gun violence, and amidst all the bravado about the intent to be unified and to prevent terrorists from dominating the narrative, there is barely any reflection on the philosophical and ethical implications for the human spirit when killing becomes a sport.  It is not for nothing that the Dukhobors have been known as the ‘spirit wrestlers’ or ‘spirit warriors’:  they call to mind, with unmistakable urgency, the simultaneously necessity to tend to the spirit and to take arms against arms. The call to nonviolent resistance is heard loud and clear in the Dukhobors’ burning of weapons.

 

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Part III of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (concluded)

The short history offered in the previous post of attempts to exclude those viewed in mainstream American society, or by a considerable majority of Americans, as ‘undesirables’ tempts one to conclude that xenophobia is intrinsic to American history, and that the fear, suspicion, and hatred of the Muslim is only the latest instantiation of an inability to live with the Other.  However, such a conclusion stops considerably short of pursuing the implications of present-day Islamophobia, if only because disdain for the Chinese or hatred for the Japanese did not entail wholesale contempt for Confucianism, Shintoism, or Buddhism.  Indeed, religion has seldom entered into American discussions of China or Japan, and Zed Buddhism’s attractiveness to a certain class of Americans resides in, if one could put it this way, its secular qualities.  The Muslim from Iraq, Iran, Libya, or Syria is a different kettle of fish.  The Middle East, or West Asia as it is known in other parts of the world, has to Americans been largely synonymous with oil; if it conjures any other image, it is of a barren landscape and a cultural desert.  It is doubtful, for example, that most Americans have ever heard of a single poet of writer from any of these countries, even if Iranian cinema has now been acknowledged as having produced masterpieces of world cinema.  The closest most Americans are likely to get to a feel for this part of the Muslim world is perhaps a taste for Persian food or some belly-dancing from Egypt or north Africa.  Some Americans who are sensitive to criticisms about insularity might suggest that Arabs themselves have conceded that nothing remains of their culture. Did not, after all, the Syrian poet Adonis say in an interview he gave to the New York Times in 2002:  “There is no more culture in the Arab world.  It’s finished.  Culturally speaking, we are part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators.”  Insert into this landscape what appears to Americans to be an arid, sterile, and humorless religion, and one can begin to fathom the deeper roots of Islamophobia.  There is also the matter, which is perhaps tacitly present in the vast resentment against Islam that has long been brewing in the US, that it is the fastest growing religion in the world, and it presents the stiffest possible competition to American evangelical proselytization.  If there are two religions which have not eschewed proselytization, they are certainly Christianity and Islam:  and it is their proximity and nearness to each other, in far many more respects than can be enumerated here, that of course feeds the anxiety of Trump, Cruz, Carson, and their ilk.

It is important, as well, that the difficult questions about the nature of “American” identity not be deflected by considerations that, while they are important, are not centrally important in the present discussion about the implications of Islamophobia in the “land of freedom”.  Many Americans and even some Muslims, for example, will argue that Trump and his ilk are only proposing to do what Muslim nations have already done.  The treatment of non-Muslims in most predominantly Muslim countries is shabby at best, and more often simply horrendous.  On this account, merely being a non-Muslim is hazardous in a country such as Saudi Arabia.  Pakistan, to name another country, even requires all Muslims who are applicants for a passport to take an oath denouncing Ahmadis.  A second argument, which is increasingly being heard in Muslim communities and has been voiced by most American public officials, including President Barack Obama, is that law-abiding and “good Muslims” must increasingly take responsibility for the “bad Muslims”; or, in somewhat more sophisticated language, the onus falls on the vast majority of Muslims to understand how radicalization has affected their youth, and then isolate and rehabilitate the “bad Muslims” and “evil jihadists” among them.  But when Christians engage in mass shootings in the US, which happens rather often, we do not hear calls for the Christian community to take responsibility for the evil ones in their midst.  Moreover, surprisingly little attempt has been made to situate the present controversy in relation to the widespread language of “diversity”, which today is conceivably the single most important issue in the American workplace.  Diversity has most been understood as a way of accommodating women, ethnic minorities, and increasingly members of the LGBTQ communities; however, there has been scant discussion of religious diversity.  Ignorance of Islam is widespread; the greater majority of Americans admit that they have never known a Muslim.

 

Five years ago, there was a storm of resentment over the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at ‘Ground Zero’, the “hallowed ground” where two planes struck the World Trade Center towers and made martyrs of some 2500 Americans.  (I wrote about this in two previous posts .)  Obama, echoing Lincoln, declared that “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”  There was indignation that Muslims were being allowed to lay claim to the very ground that their fellow Muslims had desecrated:  the unstated supposition, which has never been allowed to tarnish the barbarism of any white Christian, was that all Muslims stood condemned.  The public remarks that were then on display could reasonably have led one to the view that the abuse of Islam is the new form of anti-Semitism in America.  Yet the implications of Islamophobia are still deeper.  Arguments that the ban on Muslims will keep America safe from violent terrorists, or that America is in dire need of controlling its borders, are a smokescreen.   Immeasurably more Muslims have paid with their lives for the terrorist attacks of September 2001 than Americans, or practitioners of any other faith, though an American can only recognize this if a Muslim life is viewed as equivalent to an American life.  Those who denied Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That is the fundamental problem that lurks behind American Islamophobia.

See also Parts I, “Trump and the Spectacle of Xenophobic Buffoonery”, and II, “The Deep Roots of Xenophobia in US History”

[The three parts were published as a single piece, of considerably shorter length, entitled “The Implications of American Islamophobia”, Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 51 (19 December 2015), pp. 12-14.]

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