There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic: is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power?
In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”. America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well: though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives. In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos. The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either. And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel. Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally: democracy in the United States itself become imperiled. On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world. It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.
This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven. In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations: as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.” However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir. Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music. Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor. But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music. A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”. This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.
Ethiopia, a country of around 115 million people, has been over the last few weeks in the thick of a civil war that, the Ethiopian government submits, is now drawing to a close. The attempted secession of the Tigray region has apparently been thwarted by decisive military action. It remains to be seen whether the proclamation of victory is justified or premature, but what has been unfolding there should be of special interest to multiethnic states and particularly democracies which are struggling to contain the rising tide of ethnic particularism and xenophobia which is sweeping the world. For most of the 20th century, the Amhara, with 27 percent of the population, held sway over a country with seventy ethnic groups, among them the Oromo (34%), the Tigray (6%), and Somalis (6%). The more than four decades long rule of Haile Selassie was brought to an end in September 1974 when the 82-year old Emperor was deposed and a military junta known as the Derg assumed power. Ethiopia was transformed into a single party Marxist-Leninist state. For much of that period, the country became indelibly linked, in the worldview of the outsider, with the image of famine; internally, the “Red Terror”, the campaign of repression unleashed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg’s point man, made short work of the regime’s political opponents.
Every nation has its, to use the word commonly invoked for such purposes, “myths”. Just how myths, lies, and fictions differ from each other is an interesting question in itself, but in his classic essay of the late 19th century, “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan put forward the arresting idea that a nation cannot be forged without some shared notion of “forgetfulness”. Americans, especially white Americans, have for generations been brought up on the idea that the annual celebration known as Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November for many decades, marks the occasion when the Pilgrims first sat together with Native Americans and they broke bread together in celebration of the first successful harvest. This recounting of that idyllic past disguises the forgetfulness which would become critical to the making of America. The other name for that forgetfulness is “genocide”. It is for this reason that, in common with many other Native Americans, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving Day as the “National Day of Mourning”. As this collective of Native American organizations states, “Since 1970, Native Americans and our supporters have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”
America is right now in a strange place, many would say. Though the Presidential election was “called”—as one Indian commentator in the state of Bihar, where an equally interesting election has just drawn to a close, stated, he now perforce has to add this new term to the electoral vocabulary common to India—some days ago, the sitting President of the US refuses to acknowledge the election results. Trump’s supporters plan a massive rally in the nation’s capital on Saturday in a show of force intended to convey to the man who now believes that he practically owns the White House that they will form his stormtroopers. There are rumors that, come January 20, Trump may be running a parallel administration. Perhaps, much like Venezuela, the United States will have two presidents and the world will be divided between those conferring recognition to either of the two claimants to the throne. There is some talk of militias taking to the streets and even of “civil war”. Uneasiness hangs in the air.
It appears, at least as of this moment, that Joe Biden is headed for the White House in January 2021. A considerable segment of the American people will feel greatly relieved, as indeed they should, and what many characterize as the ‘nightmare’ of the last four years appears to be coming to an end. Biden had, among other things, declared this election as a referendum on ‘decency’ and many Americans will doubtless feel grateful that their country, long accustomed to viewing itself as the world’s greatest power, the leader of the free world, and as a shining beacon of freedom and hope to the rest of the world, has had its reputation restored. There were fears that the election would be marred by violence but even international observers have declared themselves satisfied that the election proper has been conducted fairly, insofar as there does not appear to have been any violence at polling states, and indeed little effort appears to have been spared in ensuring that voters had multiple options to cast their ballots in the midst of a major public health crisis. None of this detracts from the ugly fact that for weeks Trump and his election campaign team had been making attempts to obstruct mail-in ballots from being counted and that lawyers representing the campaign have filed multiple legal challenges to bring the counting of votes to a halt. That there should be any question at all about whether votes should be counted or not is astounding and will be the subject of a subsequent essay.
Part II of a Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson–“The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist”
In the second part of Rev. Lawson’s recollections of his childhood in Massillon, Ohio, he discusses his school years, the fights he got into with some other boys, and, most critically, the fact that though his father and mother had differing (if predictably differing) views on how he should address the taunts or challenges from other boys, the environment at his home was nurturing and that his parents were one in being determined to see young Jimmy and his siblings shape up to be decent, reflective, and morally responsible human beings. But in this portion of the conversation Rev. Lawson also discusses at some length his father’s work as a pastor, shares some lovely and intimate details of life in the household of a black family, and reflects on the political context — lynchings of Black people, America’s entry into World War II, and, what is often overlooked, the importance of the African American press. The African-American press was vibrant and even prolific; at one time, the Pittsburgh Courier, which Rev. Lawson mentions reading in the public library, had at its peak during World War II a subscription of around 250,000 and correspondents in several parts of the world. There were other African American newspapers which, as I have elsewhere written (including this piece called “King and the Mahatma”, Open Magazine, 29 September 2020, though longer scholarly articles are forthcoming), carried detailed coverage of the Indian independence movement and generally offered unequivocal support of the nonviolence struggle for freedom whose chief architect was Gandhi. The excerpts reproduced here take us to the end of young Lawson’s schooling.
Part III of The Trouble with Kamala: Identity and the Death of Politics
In an effort to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion. I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88). That this hunch is far from being a demonstrable fact is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’s gradual and probable ascendancy to the pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics–especially at this juncture of history. It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist, and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi. Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes! Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India, and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the United States as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations, and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (center), with her sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, to her left, at the Simla Conference
Part II of The Trouble with Kamala: Identity and the Death of Politics
Those who do not recognize the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America. What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic party to the Vice-Presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the President, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life. Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a Black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration. Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years: they participated in political demonstrations against racism, discrimination, and injustice, discussed decolonization in Africa, and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’. These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, “my mother’s people. In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life.” In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children: “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
A baby Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and her paternal grandfather, Oscar Joseph, during a visit to Jamaica. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)
Part I: Black, Desi, and (Just) American: Identity and the Political Ascendancy of Kamala Harris
(in 3 parts)
Let us first, in speaking of Kamala Devi Harris, dispense with the two sets of commonplace observations being aired since Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the President of the United States, named her as his running mate. Harris is described as a prolific trailblazer: she was the first Black, the first Indian American, and the first woman elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco and later as the Attorney General of California. She is only the second Black woman to serve in the US Senate, having been preceded by Carol Moseley Braun who represented Illinois for one six-year term in the 1990s, and Harris is the first Indian American to serve in the Senate. She is now the first woman of color to join the presidential ticket of the country’s two major political parties and, should the Democrats prevail in the November Presidential election, she would obviously become the first Indian American and African American to hold the Vice-Presidency of the United States and would be well-poised to make a bid to become the first person in all these capacities to preside in the White House and perhaps dominate the politics of the Democratic party over a good part of the next generation. If all of this were not exhausting enough, she is also the first nominee of either party for the position of either Vice President or President to have graduated from one of a group of what are known as Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—more precisely, from Howard University, apparently dubbed at one time the ‘Black Harvard’. Harris is clearly what is called an ‘achiever’, and is not shy in being characterized as one—though she seeks in principle to soften what might otherwise be seen as boasting by quoting her mother, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”