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Archive for the ‘The Politics of Culture’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Emmett Till in 1955.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Annals of the President Trump Regime VII

A month into his “administration”, Donald J. Trump, who claims to have achieved more in one month than any of his predecessors in the White House, has issued a new executive order.  Though the text of this Executive Order is unambiguously clear, commentators are divided about whether it can withstand a court challenge.  The brevity of the Executive Order calls to mind various articles of the US Constitution, which are similarly short, pithy, and exemplary in their sense of gravitas.  President Trump, sitting at his massive desk which, as has been the case since he assumed office, is singularly devoid of documents, files, memoranda or any other paraphernalia of governance, issued the following order last evening:

PUNJABI PEOPLE WHO ADD WATER TO EXPENSIVE SCOTCH WILL BE DEPORTED.

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Executive Order to Preserve Scotch Whisky Against Its Punjabi Enemies Posing as Friends

To gauge the monumental significance of his latest missive, entitled “Executive Order to Preserve Scotch Whisky Against Its Punjabi Enemies Posing as Friends”, this reporter has prepared a short background paper which may be of some use to those who are attempting to grapple with this extraordinary decree and its implications:

1  Having spent the better part of his month in office arguing that (a) his inauguration was an unprecedented show of numbers of his followers, (b) that he gained more electoral votes than any other president, and (c) that his ratings both as President and Reality TV star have shot through the roof, Trump has now signaled his desire to move on to weightier matters of state.

2  It has long been reported that Indians, especially Punjabis, consume more scotch whisky than is actually produced in the entire British Isles.

3  The scotch whisky industry in 2014 alone earned the British exchequer more than 5 billion Pounds. As was the case throughout the 17th and 18th century, when the British had absolutely nothing—barring bullion—that they could ship to India and China, nothing that is by the way of goods and consumables that was desired by the people of these two massive countries, so now Britain must rest its case for its usefulness to the world on its ability to pump scotch whisky into the global economy.  Leaders of the industry were, just hours after the Executive Order was issued, still studying it for the possible implications on their livelihoods and the British economy.

4  Sources close to President Trump confirmed that he, and members of his family, are teetotalers. Consequently, it is not certain why Trump has been so animated by a beverage which he does not even imbibe.

5  Much has rightly been made of the fact that President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, popularly dubbed the ‘Muslim Ban’, explicitly identifies all the people of seven Muslim-majority states as potential terrorists and therefore, in appearing to target adherents of one religion, is most likely unconstitutional. Punjabis are outraged that though the new Executive Order targets one ethnic group, no one is prepared to take to take up the cudgels on their behalf.

6  Punjabis in Pakistan and India, two countries that have fought several years, were for once united in their condemnation of a decree aimed at a people whose forefathers helped to transform the state of California into the world’s agricultural powerhouse.

7  Punjabi connoisseurs of scotch whiskey complained bitterly that Trump had failed to distinguish between filtered and unfiltered water, and was similarly oblivious to various distinctions to which he should have been more sensitive before issuing his decree. Proper vetting would have brought to light the distinctions between distilled water, spring water, mineral water, artisan water, water bottled at the source, Perrier, bubbles, and so on.

8  Some Punjabis expressed alarm that a similar executive order, which in its draft form has already been leaked to the press, would lead to the deportation from the US of those Punjabis who have been agitating to replace the turkey with tandoori chicken as the national bird of the United States.

An emergency meeting of the worldwide Punjabi Confederation of Diluted Spirits has been called to contemplate a possible rejoinder to the Executive Order.  The Confederation of Scotch Purists has announced that in the event of a judicial challenge to President Trump’s far-sighted Executive Order, it will file an amicus curiae brief.

 

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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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