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Archive for the ‘Terrorism and Its Politics’ Category

Los Angeles:  October 2nd, 2017

Today, October 2nd, is designated by the United Nations as the “International Day of Non-Violence.” A General Assembly resolution to this effect was passed in 2007, with the hope that a day so designated would be an occasion to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness” throughout the world.  The choice of October 2nd was, of course, no accident:  the day marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the principal architect of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance.

Today, October 2nd, I woke up like millions of others to the news that a gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, 64 years of age, had positioned himself in a room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel from where, on the night of October 1st, he fired dozens of rounds of bullets from an automatic rifle on thousands of people attending a country music concert before turning the gun on himself and preventing his capture by the police outside his door.  When the firing ceased, at least 50 people had been killed; another 500 had been wounded.  The death toll, some 20 hours later, now stands at 59.

This is how America celebrates the international day of non-violence.  Oh, yes, it does—loud and unmistakably clear.  I can already hear the din of noises disturbed by what they will characterize as a caricature of this nation.  I can hear them saying that what Paddock did is not what the United States is about.  There will be the furious hashtag messaging — #thisisnotus – and thousands of others will point to the first responders, to those who have graciously given blood to the hundreds now lying on surgery tables, and even more so to those who gallantly even chivalrously laid down their lives—such as the young 29-year old man who had been married for just a year, shielded his wife’s body with his own, and so took the bullets that spent his life—as representing the real story of America.  They are right:  that is the story of America, but not uniquely so:  there are such decent and good people everywhere.

The story of America is, however, uniquely a story of violence in a certain idiom.  There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.  From thence we move on to slavery and to wars of extermination, to the saturation bombing of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and of course to the regime of guns.  Some others have enumerated in detail the many catastrophes that I have omitted which ensued worldwide in the wake of American foreign policy; yet others have hinted at the metaphysical foundations of American violence.  The indubitable fact remains that the United States is, in this respect as in so many others, an anomaly on the world stage—even as it, of course, claims leadership of that mystical entity which has become a license to police the world, that thing called “the international community”.  India was long under British rule; the United States is under the rule of guns.

The wounded are still being attended to but the so-called “debate” over gun control laws has already led to the firing of missives from various parties.  We will doubtless hear an argument fit only for imbeciles, namely that guns do not kill, people do:  by this logic, those who can afford to keep tanks to protect themselves from drones or large mobs of people should be allowed to do so, since tanks do not kill people and only gunners do.  A veritable arsenal was found in Paddock’s hotel room:  15-20 firearms have been mentioned in media reports, and around the same number of firearms have been recovered from his residence.  I doubt if in the entire city of Osaka, to take one illustration, there are as many firearms as Paddock had stuffed in suitcases that he brought to his hotel room.  (Osaka city has a population of around 2.7 million; the greater metro area is home to about 20 million people.)

The precise nature of his firearms is now being discussed:  should they be characterized as machine guns, assault rifles, automatic or semi-automatic rifles?  Most if not all of the assault weapons in Paddock’s room had a telescope.  It appears that only a few days ago he purchased three rifles, and passed a background check.  But of course: should one have expected otherwise?  How many rifles should a man be allowed to purchase?  Should background checks be more rigorous?  What if a killer moves from a state where firearms are regulated “tightly” to one where open carry policies are followed?  What does one do when the assassin is a “lone wolf”?  What if, like many a Nazi, he goes about the business of killing during the day, gassing a few people here and there, machine-gunning others for practice, before returning home in the evening to his wife and children and reading the Bible to his children before putting them to bed?  These “debates”, as they are called, will go on—assuredly, as  night follows day.  Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to vote on a bill which would remove a tax on gun silencers.  Perhaps, perhaps, passage of the bill will be derailed for a few days, or weeks, out of “respect” for the victims of the shooting:  par for the course.  And then of course it will pass:  more par for the course.

In a previous blog, then occasioned by a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, I called for having a law passed that would lead to the abolishment of the NRA and having it declared a criminal organization.  It is necessary only to gesture at the arguments that I then advanced at some length.  There are countries such as Australia, which historically has shared a culture of addiction to guns and violence with the US, where gun buy back provisions have fundamentally removed firearms from the public domain.  Of course, the scale of any such measure in the US would be immensely different, considering that 300 million firearms are in private hands:  but if gun violence were viewed as a public health hazard, akin let’s say to the poisoning of the water supply of all major cities in the country, it would receive the attention it requires. It matters not a jot whether there are “genuine hunters”, which is another anomaly, and even less whether fidelity to an arcane provision of the United States Constitution should hold millions of people hostage to a wretched conception of ‘American freedoms’.  Adherents of the 2nd Amendment might suitably be given an extended course on “how to read a text”.

Paddock took at least fifty-nine lives.  But what he has done on the day of nonviolence is to eviscerate the voices of those who have resolutely stood for nonviolence, in word, deed, or thought.  He ensured that October 2nd would not be remembered as a day dedicated to nonviolence, and that the voice of Gandhi would be drowned out by a cascade of bullets and the cacophony of a mindless debate over something that Americans call “gun control”.  So, in that respect, the crime of Paddock is much greater—but the crime is not solely his.  He only pulled the trigger; he is only an assassin of ideas and ideals acting at the behest of others, whether those be members of the NRA, the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of guns and firearms, the politicians who extend their patronage to the gun lobby, and the myriad others who have turned America into a spectacle of murderous idiocy for the world to behold.

At the end of the day, then, we should let Gandhi speak. His most famous expressions have now been mass marketed, blanketed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, car stickers, billboards, and much of the rest of the paraphernalia of modern life.  But, at this juncture, even a clichéd aphorism from Gandhi stands forth as a salutary aphorism on how nonviolence alone can call us to the ethical life:

An eye for an eye only ends up

making the whole world blind.

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

 It is not surprising that a good portion of even mainstream America should have unequivocally condemned the display in Charlottesville of right-wing terrorism.  President Trump cannot be counted among those who came down swiftly on the neo-Nazis and their kinsmen.  He did not merely prevaricate but, in a scarcely veiled attempt to exonerate “white supremacists”, took it upon himself to condemn “all extremist groups”—though even this disapprobation was late in coming—before, on August 15th, stating with greater conviction in his pathetically juvenile English that “there is blame on both sides”: “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”  To take only the examples of prominent public figures who cannot remotely be accused of having a liberal disposition, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan described the white supremacists as “repugnant”, while Senator John McCain called them “traitors” on his Twitter account.  Even Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose own commitment to civil rights is, to put it mildly, exceedingly questionable, but who as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer must at least put forward the semblance of some respect for the rule of law, was moved to admit that “the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice.”

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Street clashes in Charlottesville, 12 August 2017. Source:  Los Angeles Times.  Photograph:  Michael Nigro / Pacific Press.

The widespread outrage over white extremist violence that followed has doubtless been genuine.  The liberal constituency in the US is considerable, and most people in that community do not condone violence, at least not right-wing violence directed against other Americans.  Moreover, one can even subscribe to racist sentiments and yet forswear violence.  In the frenetic world of social media, the hashtag #thisisnotus was at once embraced by thousands.  They may have done so to bring to mind the better possibilities that reside in the American self and to invoke a necessary political solidarity for the present.  And yet I have the inescapable feeling that the crass affirmation, “this is not us”, creates a much smaller place for reflection and dialog than the unthinkable:  #thisisallofus.  One could invoke, of course, “the hooded Americanism” that historians of the KKK have documented in such meticulous detail, or the lynchings that were invitations to Sunday picnics in Jim Crow South[i]; one could also point, if one stretched one’s canvas beyond the cruel deprivations to which black America has been subjected, to the genocidal tendencies that have conspicuously been part of the grand design of making and keeping America “great”.  Just how do these disingenuous expressions of outrage permit whiteness to remain unscathed even as white supremacists are banished, as they should be, to the realm of the barbaric and the unforgiveable?

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Lynching:  What a Jolly Good Show!  This lynching took place in Duluth, Minnesota, not in the Deep South.  Source:  https://sherielabedis.com/2015/03/29/new-report-on-lynchings-in-jim-crow-south/

White supremacism necessarily entails a profound adherence to whiteness, but (to borrow a phrase from the scholar George Lipsitz) “the possessive investment in whiteness” runs deep through American culture and only manifests itself as white nationalist ideology or outright fascist-style violence occasionally.  A large and increasingly growing body of commentary by liberals and left-leaning scholars has now made the idea of ‘white privilege’ a familiar part of American political discourse.  Such white privilege takes many forms, some obvious and others scarcely so, commencing with the assumption that is tantamount to the original sin, namely that America belongs to white people just as white people can rightfully, naturally, and preemptively call America their own.  The white American, unlike the African-American, Japanese-American, or Chinese-American, has never had to be hyphenated:  as Roland Barthes would have it, he belongs to the realm of the exnominated, those who never have to be named, those who can be universalized and whose rules become everyone else’s rules (Mythologies, 1972, trans. Annette Lavers [New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux]).  There are other less transparent forms of whiteness, though with even a little prodding they can be easily excavated.  Such, to take one example from studies of environmental racism, is the notion that non-white communities should have to bear the burden of toxic and nuclear wastes, pollutants, and the garbage produced in everyday life.

White privilege is perhaps best witnessed in the mounting critiques over US immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education.  The Trump regime has, contrary to common opinion, little interest in stemming illegal immigration; by law, those who are in the US “illegally” can be summarily deported.  This is apart from the consideration that illegal immigrants are an invaluable asset to the American economy.  To understand the true import of pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments, it is sufficient to understand that the slogan, ‘Take America Back’, means nothing but taking America back to the period before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made possible Asian and African migration into the US and thereby slowly but surely altered the social fabric of American life. “Make America Great Again” is not only a slogan calling for the revival of manufacturing in the United States and once again turning the country into the predominant industrial power in the world:  it is also a call to make American white again.  It is thus legal, rather than illegal, immigrants who pose by the greater problem for those who would like to see the US restored as a principally white dominion.

Similarly, the massive white unrest over affirmative action occludes two facts.  First, as every study has shown, and as is confirmed by a recent New York Times analysis extending to 100 universities, including Ivy League institutions and the flagship public universities, black and Hispanic students are today more rather than less underrepresented at such institutions than they were 35 years ago.  More significantly, it is almost never conceded that the entire system of higher education is effectively the consequence of an unwritten code of affirmative action over decades on behalf of white students. It is white entitlement, not supposedly the lower bar for admission for blacks and Hispanics, that has kept Asian Americans from predominating in elite American institutions.

In speaking of “the possessive investment in whiteness”, George Lipsitz was adverting to something more than white privilege; indeed, the more compelling part of his argument resides in the claim that “all communities of color suffer from the possessive investment in whiteness, but not in the same way.”[ii] Immigrant communities have, in their own fashion, sought to claim whiteness, or at least an approximation to it; whiteness has entered into the sinews, pores, arteries of American society.  Ironically, much of white America hasn’t quite fathomed its own overwhelming success; if it had, white Americans would not be staging, as they are today, a new secessionist movement.  Robert E. Lee, at least, would have understood the animated and largely cliché-ridden dispute over Confederate statues as fundamentally a proxy war over whiteness.  Even as he might have looked askance at having his own statues knocked down, he would likely have been pleased that the idea of secessionism continues to thrive.

 

[i] On the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in the US, I would point readers to a few works, among them:  Leonard J. Moore, Citizen KlansmenThe Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1971, reprint ed., 1995); David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism:  The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. (Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press, 1987); and Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond, ed. Anne P. Rice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

[ii] See George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in WhitenessHow White People Profit from Identity Politics Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1998), 184.

 

(Concluded)

The two pars of this article were first published as a single piece in somewhat shorter form as “Whiteness and Its Dominion:  Letter from America”, in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) 52, no. 35 (2 September 2017).

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

“The problem of the twentieth century, wrote the African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line.” Nearly every book on race relations in the United States that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation.  Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to lay claim to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.”  That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, and social engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery”, “ridicule and systematic humiliation”, indeed “the disdain for everything black.” (See W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903], Mineola, New York:  Dover Publications. 1994), v, 6, 9, 111).

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W. E. B. DuBois, 1868-1963.  Source:  The Poetry Foundation.

However emboldened black people in the slave-owning slaves may have felt at the end of the Civil War and through Reconstruction, a period that some unrepentant whites characterized as one marked by ‘Negro swagger’, their liberty, such as it was, did not last very long.  Black America had to be brought to its knees, a project that still continues however disguised the forms in which such oppression takes place, however loud the voices clamoring for diversity, multiculturalism, respect, and tolerance.  Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to what he unequivocally termed “a second slavery”, he deployed a striking metaphor to characterize what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (p. 7).  Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil”. This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain”, but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further.  The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.”  And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”:  in what is the book’s most arresting insight, albeit one where the language is anticipated by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave dialectic in Phenomenology of the Spirit, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; the Negro can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world”, through the eyes of the other.  DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (pp. 3, 28, 7).  Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”:  though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonized, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.

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Kenza Drider, wearing a niqab, was detained Monday by undercover police officers at a demonstration in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, 11 April 2011.  Source:  New York Times; see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/world/europe/12france.html

DuBois’s metaphor of veiling remains apposite for our times, and may have yet ever greater salience, and not only because much of contemporary political discussion, and white anger, in the United States and Europe has swiveled around the figure of the veiled Muslim woman.  The ban on veiling, or more precisely on covering one’s face, in public has been in effect in France since April 2011.  Muslim women are not necessarily the only ones who are affected by this ban, nor are Muslim women mentioned explicitly; indeed, besides the burqa and niqab, the ban also covers masks, scarves, and helmets.  But, of course, the ban is targeted mainly at the practice of “Islamic veiling”.  Offenders are fined 150 Euros, or about US $165-180 depending on the rate of exchange.  Remarkably, one man, Rachid Nekkaz, had by April 2016 paid the fine on behalf of 1300 women charged with illegally veiling themselves in public, thus incurring a personal expense of 235,000 Euros.  This is in itself an extraordinary story, one that compels us to think anew about notions of tolerance and charity, and the ethos of hospitality:  but a story for another occasion.

The United States has no such ban on “Islamic veiling” or, more broadly, on covering one’s face in public.  Yet, it is white America that shrouds itself in a veil, unable to look upon itself, incapable of the self-reflexivity which would suggest both maturity and a capacity to confront the naked truth.  To unveil America’s unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness, we can do little better than turn to the events that transpired not too long ago in a picture-postcard town in the state of Virginia, which housed the principal capital of the Confederacy.

 

What Happened at Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital, was home to two of the country’s “founding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.  Each served as the Governor of Virginia and as President of the United States, but Jefferson also has the distinction of being the founder of the University of Virginia and the architect of the university’s signature building, the Rotunda.  In recent years, Charlottesville, perhaps in keeping with the notion of a ‘university town’, acquired something of a reputation as an outpost of liberal thought in a state that has long been a bastion of conservatism.

In July 2014, the US National Bureau of Economic Research pronounced Charlottesville the “happiest” place in America.  In the received view, it is a small town with most of the assets and none of the liabilities—traffic gridlock, pollution, social anomie—of a big city.  The scenic Blue Ridge mountains are nearby, the climate is temperate, and paeans there are many to the town’s supposed gastronomic refinements.  (This is surely one of the many ways in which the US has changed over the last few decades:  not only are tofu and yogurt widely available, and these were virtually ‘foreign’ foods in late 1976 when I first arrived in the US, but there is the cult of the chef and much hullabaloo over ingenuous culinary creations.  Universities lure students and faculty with the promise of gastronomic delights—one of many recruitment tools.)

Happy are those who know little of the past, one might say: Charlottesville, not unlike the state of Virginia, has ugly racial antecedents.  Its black population was not permitted to build their own church until 1864, not coincidentally in the thick of the civil war; even more ominously, considering that the US had partaken of two global conflicts to save the world from fascist tyranny and enshrine democracy as the supreme value, in 1958 the city responded to federal court orders to integrate white schools, issued in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, by closing all its white schools as part of a concerted strategy of resistance.  A similar strategy was pursued by other cities and school districts in many of the southern states.

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Downtown Charlottesville, VA. (Photo: Payton Chung/Flickr)

If the town has indeed become more liberal, or more receptive to diversity, Charlottesville’s black people appear to be thinking otherwise.  The black share of the population has fallen from 22 percent in 2000 to 19 percent at present [Eligon 2017]. Many will put this down to gentrification and rising rents, but of course those have precisely been some of the ways in which black people have been run out of town and excised from the white world.

It is in this pleasure dome of happiness, then, that white America erupted recently as it does every now and then.  The ancient Greeks and Indians were among two people who understood that happiness is ephemeral; as the lawgiver Solon informs the vain king Croesus, “But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end:  for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”  On the night of August 11th, as a prelude to the call by the white supremacist Richard Spencer to “Unite the Right”, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through the campus of the University of Virginia bearing torches and swastikas, all to the accompaniment of slogans such as “blood and soil”, “White Lives Matter”, and “You will not replace us”.

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White supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally at the University of Virginia, 11 August 2017.  Photograph by Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty

The following day, they gathered in force at a public park in Charlottesville.  The ostensible reason for this gathering was a decision by the town council to remove an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully attempted to lead the slave-holding states in secession from the Union.  These exponents of white terror found themselves facing a vigorous and much larger opposition comprised of liberals, left activists, ordinary citizens—a motley crowd of decent people.  Clashes ensued; the police stood by:  much of the world, but not most of gun-loving America, would have watched in astonishment at the sight of people openly flaunting assault weapons, automatic rifles, and handguns. Before the day was over, a young neo-Nazi sympathizer had, with intense deliberation, plowed his car into the crowd of protestors, thereby killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.

 

(To be continued)

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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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February 19, 2017

Annals of the President Trump Regime VIII

 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously characterized December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes swooped down on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in a ‘surprise attack’ and devastated the greater part of the American Pacific fleet, as a “day which will live in infamy”.  A little more than two months later, seventy-five years ago, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.  Little did he know then that February 19, too, would go down as a “day which will live in infamy”; indeed, February 19 is likely to resonate far into the future, perhaps even more so than December 7.

Executive Order 9066, dated February 19, 1942, has long been described as a presidential decree that authorized the removal of Japanese Americans (and, though this is little known, a few people of German and Italian ancestry) from the West Coast to specified incarceration camps.  (In two previous blogs dating to mid-2015, I recorded my impressions of a visit to one such camp: Manzanar, California.)  This common understanding is by no means incorrect; however, the Executive Order does not once mention Japanese Americans, or any other ethnic community, by name.  It in fact authorizes “the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas”, that is to secure them against foreign enemies, in the interest of the “successful prosecution of the war [which] requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities”.  EO 9066 notes that persons may be “excluded” from “military areas” prescribed by the Secretary of War and the Military Commanders acting under his direction, and that the “right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave [such areas] shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”

Nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans would thus be ‘relocated’ to what have variously been described as war relocation centers, incarceration camps, detention centers, internment centers and concentration camps.  American citizenship did not save them from this hideous oppression; a full two-thirds of those so incarcerated were American citizens, the rest “resident aliens”.  Fred Korematsu was among the few who refused to comply with the Executive Order; he was hauled into jail and then convicted of evading internment.  His appeal to the Supreme Court fell on deaf ears, even if Justice Frank Murphy, in his dissenting opinion, unequivocally affirmed that “racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.”  Four decades later, the conviction of Korematsu was vacated by Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who unambiguously declared that Korematsu’s case “stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect government actions from close scrutiny and accountability.”  Judge Patel did not, however, explicitly overturn EO 9066, and the decision of the court in Fred Korematsu vs. United States [1944] still stands, even if, as various legal scholars have noted, the decision is now routinely condemned and not even remotely taken to constitute precedent.  Korematsu would, in time, be decorated by President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Japanese-Americans, as a whole, would be rendered a rare apology along with compensation for “a great injustice”.

Roosevelt’s EO 9066 calls to mind, of course, the recent and now recalled Executive Order issued by Donald J. Trump in the opening days of his Presidency.  Much ink has been spilled on EO 13769, or, as it is known in popular parlance, “the Muslim Ban”.  Barring Syria, no country is in fact mentioned by name; an exception is made for Syria with the argument that “the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” and is suspended until such time as the President, or someone delegated by him, makes the determination that their admission to the US would not be inimical to American interests and the security of the American people.  Refugees from Syria, in other words, may be excluded for an unspecified length of time.  Neither the word ‘Muslim’ nor the word ‘Islam’ appears even once in Trump’s Executive Order; but that it is seven Muslim-majority countries that Trump had in mind when he barred admissions from those countries for 90 days may be inferred when the Executive Order is read in tandem with certain portions of the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as the United States Code.  Sec. 3(c) of EO 13769 states that “the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” and their admission is thus suspended for a period of 90 days.  The countries so referred to in the INA & USC are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia.

There is much that calls for an analysis and comparison of EO 9066 and EO 13769.  There is no conception of a nation-state without borders; and borders exist to be safeguarded, patrolled, and policed; but they also exist, for precisely that reason, to be transgressed.  No border can be such until it is transgressed.  There is also the extraordinarily and palpable fact that the body of the nation-state in such political discourse is rendered much like the human body.  The body ingests food and expels it in the form of waste matter; the body has its points of entry and exit.  The language of Trump and his followers has hinted, and more, at immigrants as a repository of waste and filth that must be expelled from the body-politic.  All this is certainly worthy of lengthy comment.

At this juncture, however, only one arresting set of facts interests me and seems to have received little if any attention in the sprawling commentary on the ‘Muslim Ban’ and its comparisons with Roosevelt’s Executive Order.  Even those who hold no brief for EO 9066 have sometimes sought to argue that Roosevelt was responding to a declaration of war, indeed a pre-meditated and coordinated attack on American soil.  Caught up in the war hysteria, and the ferocious anti-Japanese sentiment that had been building up for decades and that would assume a terrifyingly xenophobic and vindictive characteristic in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt succumbed as anyone else would to the virulent racism of the day. Many of his supporters, even as they are critical of his Executive Order, insist that he was fundamentally a man of liberal and well-meaning disposition.

A man’s acts may be monstrous—let us call EO 9066 that—but he himself may not be a monster. On any reading, that is a reasonable view; and it may be a stretch to think of Roosevelt as a monster.  But it is not any less reasonable to ask whether Roosevelt’s racism was merely provoked by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, or whether, as was true of much of white America then, it was a part of his (to use almost an Indianism) ‘constitutional makeup’.  In 1925, Roosevelt had retreated to Warm Springs, Georgia, to give his battered body some rest; between April 16 and May 5, he authored nine editorial columns for the Georgia Macon Telegraph.  On April 21, Roosevelt turned his attention to the subject of immigration into the United States.  “It goes without saying that no sensible American wants this country to be made a dumping ground for foreigners of any nation”, he wrote; and this sentiment is elaborated upon towards the end of his article:  “We have, unfortunately, a great many thousand foreigners who got in here and who must be digested. For fifty years the United States ate a meal altogether too large—much of the food was digestible, but some of it was almost poisonous. The United States must, for a short time at least, stop eating, and when it resumes should confine itself to the most readily assimilable foodstuffs.”  Just what Roosevelt construed as poison and indigestible is rendered more explicit in his column of April 30, where he let loose a volley of words about—the Japanese, who else?  Here is Roosevelt:  “Let us first examine that nightmare to many Americans, especially our friends in California, the growing population of Japanese on the Pacific slope. . . .  Californians have properly objected on the sound basic ground that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. . . .”

We have heard much the same about the Muslim “nightmare” in the US.  Muslims are inassimilable and they cannot be reconciled to American values.  If the ‘liberal’ Roosevelt and the ‘authoritarian’ Trump speak nearly the same language, what does that tell us about ‘American values’?  Is what is happening really “un-American”, as we are being repeatedly assured by all those whose liberal sentiments are deeply offended by what is transpiring in the country?  And, just as importantly, might we not have to know something about the political past of Donald J. Trump, about which we have heard very little, to tell us about his ‘constitutional makeup’?

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Los Angeles, 25 June 2016

Amjad Sabri, 45, was shot dead on a Karachi street Wednesday morning.  To millions of people around the world, he and other members of his famous family have been the torch-bearers of Sufi qawwali music since the late 1950s when the two brothers, Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, released their first album under the EMI Pakistan label, Mera Kohin Nahin Hai Teray Siva [I Have None Other Than You].  Amjad Sabri not only inherited the legacy of his father, Ghulam Sabri, but was in every way a worthy legatee.

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Amjad Sabri

Pakistan has gone well beyond being in a state of crisis.  It has been so long in a crisis that one needs a more trenchant, soul-searching, and analytically penetrative vocabulary to describe the abysmal state to which it has long been reduced.  This nation-state, not yet 70 years old, is now in its death-throes.  It is, as the world’s affairs have made evident, and as is suggested by the turmoil in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to mention only a few other countries, far from being the only country where common people can no longer expect to live with any assurance of even minimal security and dignity.  No Indian, such as myself, should ever be able to throw a stone at Pakistan without casting a glance at India’s own sordid state of affairs.  India has had its own share of open assassinations of intellectuals and its suppression of voices of dissent is alarming.

Nevertheless, the problems of Pakistan are not only quite distinct but of an altogether different order, even if the assault on freedom of expression and religious worship has taken on menacing overtones even in relatively robust democracies.  One splinter group of the Taliban, the so-called Hakimullah Mehsud faction, has claimed responsibility for Amjad Sabri’s murder and described the music of which he was a superb exponent as “blasphemous.”  The charge of blasphemy is not to be taken lightly in Pakistan, where people so accused—Christians, Ahmadis, non-believers, apostates, even those who are just resolutely secular—have even been killed in custody while awaiting trial.  If an accusation of blasphemy is in many instances nothing short of a death warrant, Sabri’s offense was, from the Taliban perspective, compounded by the fact that Sufi qawwali music is seen as an absolute anathema to Islam.  This view stems from a profound ignorance among the extremists both about the status of music and indeed the place of Sufism in Islam.  Far from being an aberration, Sufism had been central to Islam for centuries; indeed, it would be safe to say that most Muslims, until the advent of ‘modernity’, would have had some affinity to a Sufi order.  What is perhaps even more germane is that the notion that music ought to be abhorrent to a believing Muslim is an idea that is of very recent vintage with little or or no credibility in Islamic history.

The assassination of Amjad Sabri, then, fits the template of interpretation that is now firmly in place.  We have been hearing for many years about the rigid intolerance and fanaticism of the Taliban.  Pakistan is in the grip of several insurgencies, in Balochistan, Waziristan, and among Afghan Pashtuns, but to outside observers, especially in the United States and Western Europe, the battle for Pakistan is essentially between the state and the Taliban.  We may ignore, for the present, the fact that the Taliban is far from being one single entity, and that various Taliban factions do not all share the same ideology.  There is, more pertinently, a lurking suspicion in the foreign policy establishments of India, the US, and most Western powers that the Pakistani political elites only make a show of being committed to the eradication of the Taliban.  Many of them are believed to be sympathetic to the Taliban and extremist ideology is supposed to have many adherents among Pakistan’s politicians and army officers.  A variation of this argument, and it is little more than that, posits the deep discord that is apparently tearing apart the country as one between “moderates” and “extremists”.  In this scenario, whatever the local elements that might be feeding into the conflict, Pakistan is yet another stage where ideologues who are wholly beholden to the Wahhabi and Salafi elements are making an extremely violent and desperate bid to impose a puritanical, harsh, and ferociously punishing version of Islam throughout the world.

While this standard template of interpretation has much merit, it is oblivious to the most critical component that distinguishes the Muslim extremists in Pakistan from their brethren in the Middle East.  Muslims in Pakistan are not only part of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, but they also partake of what might be called the Indic worldview.  Much before the rise of the Taliban, South Asian Islam, especially in Pakistan, was beginning to fall hostage to the notion that it was an inauthentic and feebler version of the Islam of Muhammad’s homeland.  The purists in Pakistan, whatever their misgivings about the political implications of the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, have always been troubled by the sheer proximity of Islam to Hinduism in South Asia, and Bengali Muslims in particular were seen as the source of contamination which both enfeebled and compromised true, muscular Islam.  Thus the loss of East Pakistan was a blessing in disguise, and Muslims in Pakistan could be weaned, as has been happening over the last 45 years, from those distinct socio-cultural and religious practices, such as visits to the dargahs of Sufi saints, that reeked of Hindu influence and idolatry.

Students of Pakistani society are aware of the close and ever growing ties between the Saudis and Pakistan.  But Pakistan, again, is not even remotely the only country where the Wahhabi state of Saudia Arabia has successfully sought to peddle its noxious and virulent version of Islam.  It thus becomes imperative to understand what is distinct about Islamic extremism in Pakistan and why the stakes are extraordinarily high.  It cannot be emphasized enough that, unlike in the Middle East, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that developed in South Asia over several centuries, from the advent of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 13th century to the end of Mughal rule, is a glorious monument of world culture and a testament to the ability and resilience of the practitioners of two very different faiths to cohabit the same space in the most productive fashion.  The terrorists who murdered Amjad Sabri are seeking to undermine this past, little realizing that they will have succeeded in turning Pakistan into a desert:  not the desert of Muhamamad’s time but akin to a wasteland following a holocaust.

 

 

 

 

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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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