Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘2010s’ Category

477. Zoom

In 2010s, blogs and blogging, Inter/Transnational, Stories on May 1, 2020 at 1:03 am

This is the twenty-sixth and final entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Having covered the past half-century in a panoramic sweep, I zoom right into the present moment where I sit up in bed with my laptop, red-eyed from staring at the small screen, wondering how all this is going to play out over the next few months. I remind myself to pull back from the future and take refuge in awareness, in this moment, just sitting here breathing.

I have just finished watching a live virtual town hall on Facebook from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). Asian and Asian Pacific American journalists, activists, writers, actors, comedians, all remind us that this moment of anti-Asian hate is not an aberration but as American as apple pie. They remind young Asian Americans experiencing racist attacks for the first time to report them of course, not to stay silent, but also to remember to support other vulnerable Americans in their struggles and to look back to history  to gain perspective on this moment. They remind us of other moments in time chillingly similar to our own, such as the Chinese workers after the railroad had been built who didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance; the killing of Vincent Chin in the Reagan era, when Americans losing their factory jobs directed their anger at anyone who looked Japanese because of the success of the Japanese car industry. They remind us of the aftermath of 9/11 when anyone brown was fair game. But they also remind us of solidarity: how Frederick Douglas spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Act, how Jesse Jackson spoke out in the wake of Vincent Chin’s murder embracing Asian Americans as part of the Rainbow Coalition.

Zoom in, zoom out
Breathe in, breathe out

Today was an online teaching day, four hours with students on discussion forums and email and another with colleagues, planning a union meeting on Zoom. It’s the penultimate day of classes and because of the pandemic my students are nowhere near done with their assignments. With final paper deadlines pushed back, and back again, and Incompletes still looming, I remind myself not to worry on their behalf; pull back in and breathe.

One hour on Zoom with a thousand people around the world for mindful meditation with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Hundreds more joining live on YouTube because Zoom cannot accommodate more than 1000 people. The meeting app allows one to zoom out to gallery mode and see dozens of people at a time; then, when a person is speaking, the camera zooms in on them. We too zoom in. We close our eyes, take refuge in awareness, the body just sitting here, breathing.

Breathe in, breathe out

After submitting the penultimate post for the Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge, the letter Y, I visit other bloggers doing the Challenge, in Australia (where it’s May Day already), Atlanta Georgia (U.S.), and close to home, in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Zoom in, zoom out

Now my sore eyes are closing. Must complete my final entry.

Zed for Zoom. Zoom the videoconferencing software we all suddenly find ourselves installing to reach out to others while we must stay physically at home. Not that. Zoom zoom that sound made by many small children, the sound of cars revving up, planes taking off. Onomatopeia. Zoom zoom. Not that either.

This: the continual zooming out, taking the long view, gaining perspective on our individual situations, reaching out; followed by zooming in, back home to this body, this breath.

Just this breath; breathing in, breathing out. Just this. Just this.

This.

Over and out.

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476. Youth (and Age) in a Changing America

In 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2020 at 7:04 pm

This is the twenty-fifth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

As I approach the finish line of this whirlwind review of the last 50 years in America, my face is way up close to the screen as I look around at things that are unfolding now and try to see ahead to the United States post-pandemic. As I do so find myself thinking about youth more and more; not my youth, not youth as a stage of life, but the youth of this country and what they are going to inherit. I’m also thinking about the relationship between youth and age, not as a generation gap, but as a collaboration.

In this past month’s daily posts I seem to have been relying on more and more hastily hyperlinked data, but today I want to keep it simple and you can call me on my claims if they’re not supported by facts. But in every opinion poll I’ve looked at, the youth across the country are more tolerant, more open-minded, more ready to embrace difference than any other age group. The youth are more politically liberal than any other group; restrictions on voting are one of the main obstacles to their playing a major role in the outcome of Presidential elections. The youth are the most concerned about the threat of unchecked climate change and the most willing to do something to do something about it. Finally, thanks to this generation of youth, America is only going to get more demographically diverse as time goes on.

‘Post-Millennials’ on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As for my generation, the Baby Boomers rapidly going into what may or may not be a prolonged old age (depending on whether COVID-19 or some other catastrophe wipes a large number of us out), our proportion of the population is projected to rise steadily over the next forty years. We vote in higher numbers, but we are also whiter, more conservative, less willing to accept climate change as a reality, more fearful of immigrants, and more resistant to the reality of an increasingly diverse America. Although a new wave of young people and women are being elected to Congress and are already making waves, wealthy old white men still dominate both Congress and the Senate; until they wake up or get out of the way, they are going to be an obstacle to the structural change needed to green the planet, reduce the wealth gap, and increase the security and quality of life for the rest of us.

Rally for Bernie Sanders in L.A.

I loved the relationship that Senator Bernie Sanders had with young people during his Presidential campaigns. The mutual love and respect was tangible. He refused to be a guru figure, lecturing or preaching to his disciples from a lofty height; young people ran his campaign and he looked to them to shape his policy and correct his course when needed. They joined him in much higher numbers than they did to young candidates like Pete Buttigieg.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Wichita, Kansas, July 20, 2018. (J Pat Carter / Getty Images)

You don’t automatically get respect by virtue of age; you have to earn it. And the way to earn it is to learn how to listen, speaking to everyone as equals equally worth of respect, regardless of age; keep reaching out to people and sharing your skills and life experience with them; and as long as you have breath in your body, keep being willing to step up when there is work to be done, inspiring younger people to step up with you. Bernie certainly did, and still is doing so as a Senator, fighting for the working people of America  who are the most vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus in a society that values the Almighty Dollar more than human life. Not Me, Us was his campaign’s slogan, and he lived it; young and old alike recognized that and felt embraced, not shunted aside as they are so often.

To me that is the ideal relationship between youth and age, something to aspire to. Pete Seeger had that relationship with young people as well, insisting on going to elementary schools and singing with the schoolchildren into his nineties. Here they are together, making and singing  Bob Dylan’s Forever Young in a project by and for Amnesty International.

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475. XR — Extinction Rebellion US

In 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, India, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Politics, Stories, United States on April 30, 2020 at 5:02 am

This is the twenty-fourth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

It is heartening that young people have taken the lead in confronting government denial of climate change and are making it clear that we are already in a state of climate emergency.  Extinction Rebellion is committed to non-violent mass action, including civil disobedience, to forcibly draw attention to the crisis. The group launched itself in Britain in 2018 with a series of high-profile actions, and chapters sprung up the world over as millions of young people prepared to take to the streets in September 2019 for a Global Climate Strike. An April 2020 article in Rolling Stone proclaims Extinction Rebellion the new eco-radicals, rejecting a politics of petitions for one of disruption. They will not be swept aside.

Andrew and I attended a rally in support of the climate Strike at UMass and were delighted to see and hear from students ranging from grade school to grad school, informed, passionate, and committed to global environmental justice. XR was there, as was the Sunrise Movement, and several other local organizations. Despite the global situation looking impossibly dire and the United States closing its eyes to the problem, the students were clear-eyed about the challenges ahead but resolute, with faith in their own resilience.

           Logo, Extinction Rebellion US

May 3, 2020: When I began to research this piece, I had no knowledge whatsoever of the internal workings of XR. However, I began to suspect an internal schism when I discovered that there were two different XR websites, one called Extinction Rebellion US and the other called Extinction Rebellion America. I performed a search on the issue but found nothing. Now, three days later, I have found what I was looking for. Apparently there is a split; however, it’s not just a question of the natural tendency of organizations to split (think of the warring factions, the Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian) but something much more serious, the question of whether a group resisting the climate emergency is willing to stand up for those most affected by climate change: Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities (Demands, XR US). Here is the text of XR US’s fourth demand in full: ‘

We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all.

In an April 28, 2020 article  by Geoff Dembicki, A Debate Over Racism Has Split One of the World’s Most Famous Climate Groups, a faction within the newly formed US organization objected  to making environmental justice one of the group’s demands, fearful that it would drive people (read: white people) away from the cause. The group has split off to form XR America, whose statement of demands and principles do not include XR US’s fourth demand that prioritizes those most vulnerable to climate change. Instead, the splinter group argues that they are a decentralized single-issue group that doesn’t endorse any particular ideology but works “alongside other essential movements and organizations which focus on, among many things, racial, social, and economic justice; political reform; positive legislation, and sustainable alternative energies, lifestyles, and systems.”

In the article, published by VICE, Dembicki interviews Jonathan Logan, one of the founders of the new splinter group, who argues that those fighting the climate emergency cannot afford to waste time making social justice a priority:

“Let me put it this way, and please get me right on this. . .If we don’t solve climate change, Black lives don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change now, LGBTQ [people] don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change right now, all of us together in one big group, the #MeToo movement doesn’t matter… I can’t say it hard enough. We don’t have time to argue about social justice.”

Had I known about this split, I might not have chosen to feature XR in my A-to-Z series. But on the whole I’m glad I have, because it highlights an important weakness of single-issue political movements. By focusing on one overriding issue they hope to include as many people as possible; but in so doing they fail to draw attention to structural inequities and as such, they lose the ability to make transformative social change. As Dembicki points out, it is not only poor people and people of color who are most heavily affected by climate change, but it is they who have the greatest stake in the fight against it. To say that the needs of the most vulnerable people on the front lines of the climate crisis worldwide should not be given a priority in the movement against climate change is like diminishing the struggles of black people in the Black Lives Matter movement with the inane counter-slogan, All Lives Matter.

Be warned: Even XR US is still not firmly committed to environmental justice; the internal debate continues. A disclaimer on top of their list of demands reads: These demands only represent XR US. They are still in the process of development.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency rages on. Under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the price of oil dips down below zero at times, the current US administration has loosened a number of important pollution control regulations. In the effusive April 1, 2020 article in Rolling Stone, which makes no mention of a split, author Josh Eels says that XR deems the politics of older environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club as being “insufficiently confrontational.” Sadly, this new group that prides itself on disruption doesn’t seem to be sufficiently committed to disrupting race and class privilege. We may have to look elsewhere and to other organizations for positive change in the fight for environmental justice.

A disclaimer of my own: Having only just learned of this split in XR, I recognize that I may not fully understand the ongoing internal debate. Nevertheless, I have enough experience in environmental organizations myself to recognize a familiar pattern here. I hope that XR US will stick to its firm position; if not, it may find itself becoming irrelevant.

Here are some images from the Fall 2019 climate strike in New York City and worldwide. Note that Extinction Rebellion is only one of the many groups taking action here.

Young demonstrators flooded the streets of New York City as fellow youth climate strikers rallied in thousands of other locations around the world [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

London–Fashion Week September, 2019

NEW YORK CITY: Hundreds of environmental activists with the group Extinction Rebellion descended on New York City ‘s Financial District to protest against climate change.


Kenya Environmental activists march carrying placards as they take part in a protest calling for action on climate change, in Nairobi [Simon Maina/ AFP]

Extinction Rebellion, India (Facebook)

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473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violent over the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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472. Under Pressure

In 2000s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Immigration, Media, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on April 25, 2020 at 10:10 pm

This is the twenty-first entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

President Barack Obama, former President Jimmy Carter, first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton wave at the end of the Let Freedom Ring ceremony, Washington, Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I haven’t spoken yet about the Democratic presidents over the past 50 years. There was President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), an honest and decent man whose presidency was overshadowed by the hostage crisis in Iran. Then after two terms of President Reagan (1981-1989) and one of President Bush, Sr. (1989-1993) we had two terms of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001). He did fulfill his promises to balance the budget and strengthen the U.S. economy, but at the expense of welfare mothers (through his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act) and a further widening of the U.S. and global wealth gap by his acceleration of neo-liberal economic policies such as free trade and deregulation of finance. Clinton also continued harsh sentencing practices like the “three strikes” crime bill that disproportionately targeted black and low-income people. After President Clinton we had two terms of President Bush, Jr. (2001-2009), marked in my memory by war and more war. So when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, I felt a great sense of relief, and allowed myself to hope for better things to come.

Inauguration Day

Barack Obama was the first President who was younger than I was, seven years younger. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had been born in 1946. Obama, born in 1961, was only 47 when he took the reins, the first child of the 1960s to enter the White House, and of course, the first black President. Like me, he was born of parents from different countries, and had even spent four years living in Asia as a child. Not only that, he had been a college friend of the sister of one of my best friends from school in India, and she and her husband were very active in his election campaign. After Barack Obama had won the election I remember going to a party thrown by friends of mine who had campaigned for him and people were in a state of euphoria that I had never seen before in connection with party politics. There was a large American flag in the room, and people took it in turn to hold the flag as they went round the circle talking about what this election meant to them. As I recall, one even wrapped the flag around him as he spoke, which, as someone who is very leery of nationalism, even at its best, I found disturbing. However, It was the first time that many Americans of my generation were able to identify themselves positively with the United States at the national level.

Given such high expectations of change, Barack Obama’s Presidency was bound to disappoint; from Day One he and his administration were under tremendous pressure. There was no honeymoon period with Congress; Republicans were determined to cross him at every step, and they did. Every single initiative he brought forward, they voted down. If he said Yes, they said No. If he reached out to them with a No–and he did reach out, again and again–they switched to Yes. And this was a President who had run as a centrist, even slightly Right of center, who was committed to reaching across the aisle and healing the national divide.

As the first black President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama were under intense pressure and scrutiny, and remained calm and dignified, even while facing down a steady stream of vicious racist attacks. Conspiracy theories proliferated. There was the claim that he was a secret Muslim because his middle name was Hussein, when it was well known that he and his family were devout Christians who had been attending the same church for nearly twenty years. (In fact, that too, had been controversial, because it was an African American church whose pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had made what were condemned as anti-American and racially charged remarks during his sermons. Pressure on this front caused the Obamas to leave the church in May 2008, because it had become such a liability to his candidacy.)  And who can forget the Birther Movement conspiracy, peddled by Donald Trump, among others, which insisted with no evidence to support the claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate President? As late as September 2016, only one-third of Republicans believed that President Obama was U.S.-born.

Every little thing President Obama–that model of moderation and product of interracial love–did or said was seized upon as evident that he was driven by racial hatred. I particularly remember the fallout after an incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the summer of President Obama’s first year in office, when the eminent scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct after the police were called to his house at the report of a break-in, when Professor Gates had just returned from a trip to China and, finding his front door stuck, had enlisted his taxi-driver’s help in forcing it open. Even proving that his house was his own by showing his Harvard ID and Massachusetts driver’s license was not enough, and his outrage led to his spending the night in jail.

When asked what he thought of the arrest at a news conference (on health care) later than week, President said, in part:

“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that [Gates case]. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” (McPhee & Just, CNN)

The white backlash sparked by the President’s having said that the police acted “stupidly” was out of all proportion to his reaction. American police unions demanded an apology And such was the self-control that President Obama had to exercise every minute of his eight years in the White House, that, under pressure, he actually retracted the remark.

Walking back his sharpest criticism but stopping just short of a direct apology, the President said:

“In my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. . .But. . .I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home and to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Prof. Gates probably overreacted as well.”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates commented in his 2016 story, My President was Black:

Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival. Whenever he attempted to buck this directive, he was disciplined. His mild objection to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 contributed to his declining favorability numbers among whites—still a majority of voters.

Meanwhile, in self-described White America, in stark contrast to the President’s measured response to racism, a very ugly, unapologetic racial hatred was smoldering, and being kindled and re-kindled. I witnessed an everyday instance of it inadvertently, through the feature on Facebook that allows one to see photos that one’s Facebook friends have “liked.”

One day, browsing through the Facebook photos of a young relative based in the American Midwest, sometime during President Obama’s first term, I came upon some photos that I thought he had taken but it turned out were from an album posted by a friend of his. They were from a child’s birthday party, but started in the trunk of their car on the way back from shopping for the party, where they had bought a piñata. Father and son bundled it into the trunk and then took it out together and hung it up high, for the party guests to swing at. All this was lovingly documented. When the time came, in another moment of father-son bonding,  the father blindfolded the child, perhaps five years old, helped position him with the bat in his hand, and showed him how to swing. The child was a fast learner and the piñata was soon cracked wide open, its content strewn all over as the children rush to pick up their spoils.

It was an effigy of President Obama swinging on the tree. Father and son had brought it gleefully home and strung it up together. The goodies were inside the head, the contents that spilled out were the brains. This was what some parents in the Midwest were teaching their children. For Americans, the figure of a black man strung up on a tree cannot fail to evoke the hideous history of public lynching in America after the end of slavery, between 1977 and 1950, used as a tool of racial terror to assert white supremacy over African Americans. It was sickening to see that some Americans were teaching their children to think this way about their President, even if only in effigy, and to think that this was an acceptable way to express opposition in a democracy. This was not a game; it was a ritual.

One line stands out to me in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, My President was Black.  Speaking of President Obama’s  high-minded refusal to respond to the racists on their own terms, Coates is awed by his skillful negotiation of the impossible position he was put in:  “But through it all, for eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.”

This is not to say that I personally agreed with all the actions and initiatives of President Obama’s administration; I didn’t. Just to name a few, I didn’t agree with the way he hired foxes to guard the chickens, appointing Tim Geithner, President of New York Federal Reserve Bank, as his Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers as President of the White House National Economic Council. With these men at the helm, the Obama Administration’s economic bailout bailed out the banks and financial institutions from the subprime mortgage crisis without helping the people who lost their homes to foreclosure. It did pull the economy out of the tailspin it inherited, but at the expense of an even greater gap between rich and poor. It did end the war in Iraq but it reopened U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, killing hundreds of Afghan civilians with a previously unmatched number of drone bombings.

There are many smaller, positive achievements of the Obama years. This article, and this one, enumerate some of them; chief among them for me as an immigrant was his executive order to establish the DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to protect from deportation a group of aspiring but undocumented young people who had immigrated with their families as children. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, it bought time for these young people to pursue a path to citizenship. Some other achievements: his commutation of sentences of people serving long prison sentences for nonviolent drug possession; his trip to Cuba to begin the process of normalization of relations between the two countries; his passing of the Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws (and there were many); his role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal; his appointment Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The mass shootings that punctuated the Obama Presidency were heartbreaking, as were the failures of his administration to enact significant gun control legislation in the face of the gun lobby—most powerfully, the National Rifle Administration (NRA). President Obama wrote and delivered many powerful speeches during his two terms in office, but of his most moving was his eulogy at the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the congregation members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where, on June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot 12 people, killing 9 of them in cold blood during a Bible study. His aim, he said in his confession, was to start a race war. It’s not possible for me to start a discussion here about what drove the white supremacists out of the woodwork during this time, but perhaps they realized that America was changing, and that there would soon be no tolerance for their hateful ideology.

Executive Director of Let’s Move! and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House

Looking back now, from the ever-deepening depths of horror of the Trump Administration, I think of the moments of joy that I felt during the Obama Administration. First Lady Michelle Obama turned part of the White House lawn into an organic vegetable garden as part of her project to educate children on the value of healthy eating and exercise. Thousands of children from inner-city Washington DC and around the country were welcomed into a very open White House and were able to meet a black First Family up close and personal. President Obama gave the 2014 National Humanities Medal to Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. I awaited the release of his summer reading list every year as he prepared for his short summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Actor and comedian Kal Penn, famous for the Harold and Kumar movies and his role in Mira Nair’s The Namesake, served as President Obama’s associate director of public engagement. Far from slashing support for the arts and humanities as the current administration is doing, the Obamas’ In Performance at the White House concert series screened on PBS were a joy to watch, especially seeing musicians, singers, and poets welcomed into the White House as if it was theirs, the people’s house. Especially touching were the tributes to black artists whom President Obama introduced–as he introduced all the performers–as quintessentially American, as having created the best of what this country has to offer the world. Here’s a link to Love and Happiness: An Obama Celebration, the final White House concert in the BET-sponsored series and here is the President himself in another concert finale with Buddy Guy and Ensemble (including Mick Jagger), singing Sweet Home Chicago.

Grace under pressure.

              President Obama hosting In Performance at the White House (PBS)

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471. T_ *_ *_ *_ *

In 2010s, blogs and blogging, poetry, Politics, United States, Words & phrases on April 24, 2020 at 4:37 pm

This is the twentieth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

from Amit Sheokand on Marco Gaziosi’s A Blog of Bosh

With apologies and thanks to Edward Lear for The Akond of Swat. This is an approximation of an imitation of it. Apparently Lear wrote the poem after reading a notice in 1876 of the death of a religious leader, the Akhoond of Swat.  Whoever had written the obituary evidently know nothing about Swat or the Akhoond, and so, with typical colonial arrogance, assumed that nobody knew anything about him, his life having been wholly unremarkable. That notion must have tickled Lear’s funnybone.  Swat is a beautiful valley that was in northwestern India at the time, today in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border. (Incidentally, Swat is the native place of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who stood up to the Taliban and advocated for girls’ education.) In his blog on Lear, A Blog of Bosh, Marco Graziosi has suggested, with Julie Rybicki, that the poem is Lear’s attempt at a mock ghazal or qasideh.

In any case, I’ve been a fan of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes since my earliest youth. Ever since the current occupant of the White House first began to occupy that position, I’ve been playing about with his name, which seems to suit him to a T.
So here goes, begging your forgiveness for my failings as a poet and my utter lack of patience with this puffed-up personage.

 

Is it a zit, a pimple, scab, a scar, or bump?
No, it’s Ratfink T_ *_ *_ *_ *.

Is it a gremlin, grouch, a slouch, a hood, or hump?
No, it’s Grinchy T_ *_ *_ *_ *.

Is it a sewer, cesspool, bog, a drain, or sump?
No, it’s Swampy T_ *_ *_ *_ *.

Is it a bubble, pillow, poori, puffball, pump?
No, it’s Pompous T_ *_ *_ *_ *.

Is it a mound, a molehill, hummock, buttock, rump?
No, it’s Swollen T_ *_ *_ *_ *.

Is it a crater, bomb site, landfill, skip, or dump?
No, it’s Rubbish T_ *_ *_ *_ *

Crooks slip trump cards up their sleeves

Cops frame youth on trumped-up charges

Braggarts blow their own loud trumpets

Time to end this trumpery:

Dump the Trump!

( from The Guardian and TMA 384: Auntie Bette’s Litmus Test)

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468. Quagmire

In 2000s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 21, 2020 at 9:26 pm

This is the seventeenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

That the U.S. invasion of Iraq would turn into a quagmire was arguably one of the known knowns of President George W. Bush Jr.’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, despite his and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s protestations to the contrary during the drumbeat to war. In November 2002, Rumsfeld insisted, responding to concerns that the invasion could become a quagmire: “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he said. “It won’t be a World War III.” The Bush administration pushed inexorably toward invasion and occupation, selling the it to the United Nations on the trumped-up charges that the Saddam Hussein regime was concealing weapons of mass destruction.

Quagmire? What Quagmire? is an Institute for Policy Studies article dated September 3, 2003, less than six months into the occupation. The invasion began on March 20, 2003 and did not formally end until December 2011, when U.S. officially withdrew combat troops from Iraq. However, the American-led intervention in Iraq followed apace, from 2014 to the present, to oversee the fight again ISIL and generally to maintain the War on Terror. Back in the Iraq Quagmire, an October 2015 piece by Michael Brenner in Counterpunch, assessed America’s continuing presence in the Middle East. On March 16, 2020 there were estimated to be 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Some notorious quotes:

“Mission accomplished!”

March 16, 2003 – “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” – U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to U.S. television network NBC (Reuters)

April 11, 2003 – “Stuff happens.” – Rumsfeld, asked about rampant lawlessness in Baghdad after U.S. troops captured the capital. “It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” (Reuters)

May 1, 2003 – “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” – U.S. President George W. Bush, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished”. (Reuters)

While U.S. troops and millions of hapless Iraqis were sucked into the quagmire, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, private military contractors were laughing all the way to the bank, according to the Financial Times (Contractors Reap $138 bn from Iraq War). Don’t forget that powerful politicians were siphoning off the profits of war all the way to the top, the Number One exemplar of the multi-million dollar revolving door being Vice-President Dick Cheney of the private defense contractor Halliburton, whose subsidiary KBR received $39.5 billion in Iraq-related contracts between 2003 and 2013, according to Business Insider.

I watched with a feeling of déjà vu as the United States resurrected tired quotes and urgings of “staying power” by British imperialist cheerleaders Rudyard Kipling and  Niall Ferguson to sell the pre-emptive invasion and occupation of a sovereign state to an reluctant U.S. public and a cobbled-together global coalition. Empire was being rehabilitated: it was The White Man’s Burden and the civilizing mission all over again, 21st-century-style.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.

954af2b8cf78d3d9d97c24f33acf14d1

As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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386. When the Law Breaks the Law

In 1970s, 2010s, history, places, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on July 16, 2016 at 10:47 am
(from layoverguide.com)

(from layoverguide.com)

I remember vividly the first time I witnessed law enforcement breaking the law, and it was terrifying. It was one evening in the fall of 1970 on the way to an anti-Vietnam War rally on the Boston Common. Two of my Brookline-High classmates and I had taken the trolley in together, and our English teacher, Mrs. Metzger, had said that she would give us credit if we wrote an essay on the experience. (She was that kind of teacher—we adored her.) I was sixteen.

Boston Common (worldeasyguides.com)

The Boston Common (worldeasyguides.com)

The Boston Common, dating all the way back to 1634, is the oldest city park in the United States, a 50-acre haven of green smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boston, with the State House directly to the north of it, the shopping district to the east and south, and the Public Garden to the west. The Common and the Public Garden are criss-crossed by a well-kept network of internal walking paths, flanked by flower-beds, benches, and bronze sculptures depicting George Washington and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (statesymbolsusa.org)

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (statesymbolsusa.org)

Gail, Caren, and I were strolling down one of the paths without a care in the world, happy to be out together, and chatting away nineteen to the dozen (or at least, I was). We must have been heading toward the square within view of the golden dome of the State House, where many of the events, including public demonstrations, are centered. But suddenly, on a dime, things turned nasty. While we were talking, an army of police vehicles had encircled us, crashed onto the Common, and were not only driving down the walking paths, but across the lawns. They were shouting something through bullhorns, but we couldn’t make out any words. It was terrifying to see them coming at us from all directions, and to see the public order we had always observed obediently and taken for granted being overturned by the very forces of law and order.

Although I was the one whose idea it had been to come, I was also the one who panicked, while Gail, heretofore the apolitical one, now took charge, keeping perfectly calm. She steered us to the side of the path and we waited, keeping as much out of the way as was possible, while cop cars cut across the Common in all directions and people scattered chaotically, screaming and scrambling to get out of their way.

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

That was 1970, and looking back, it sometimes seems like an age of innocence. But in fact it had only been a few short months since May, when college students at Kent State and Jackson State had been shot and killed by police and the entire country had erupted in protest. The war was raging at home as well as in Southeast Asia, and we were well aware of it. Nevertheless, this first-hand evidence of police over-reaction came as a shock to us, sheltered teens from the suburbs and especially for me, as an immigrant who had been in the country for less than a year.

Still, protests and all, 1970 was an age of innocence in comparison to the state of affairs today. Since then, police forces across the United States have become increasingly militarized (see this clip and another from The Colbert Report), and police killings of civilians are a daily occurrence. (See the U.K. Guardian’s site, The Counted, for a continuously updated record of all the people killed by the U.S. police: the year-to-date count is 587,  in mid-July 2016.) 

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “no person shall. . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Since when has the practice of law enforcement forces, both at home and abroad, been Shoot to Kill? Are we living in the Wild West, with a practice of Shoot first, ask questions later? What happened to the hallowed democratic principles of the rule of law, due process of law, and habeas corpus (more like habeas corpse these days), let alone the presumption of innocence, the concept that a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty?

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

The ubiquity of guns, in the hands of people and the police alike, surely has something to do with the frightening escalation, as does the ideology of perpetual war that has militarized our culture and society, with warspeak pervading the news media and our vocabulary so as to cover up the naked truth and numb our natural responses with euphemisms for killing such as “neutralizing” and “taking out”.

With the general public belatedly becoming aware—thanks to the courageous Black Lives Matter movement—of the reality of police violence in the U.S. that people of color have been experiencing first-hand all along, people are finally saying, Enough!, and in numbers too large to ignore. The charge of the police is To Protect and to Serve: it’s time to remind them who it is they are supposed to be serving. Even conjuring up the specter of global terrorism is no longer enough to scare people into submission. The mask has come off, and the face underneath is ugly. We must demand that law enforcement upholds the law. 

make-way-for-ducklings-1950

Police Take Notice: Make way for ducklings!

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385. On Two Girls Running

In 2010s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Stories, United States, women & gender on July 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm
young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

by kokamo77 (deviantart.com)

The other day I had the same experience twice within the span of half an hour. It was a warm summer’s evening, the Saturday of a holiday weekend with July the Fourth coming up on the Monday, and our usually-quiet neighborhood was humming with activity. When we first moved to this area it was a combination of retirees, empty nesters, and young families. But over the years, as we ourselves have aged, many people have moved on, one way or another, and a number of the once owner-occupied homes have become student rentals.

There is another category of home on my regular walking route up the hill and back, especially after crossing the town line, which has always been a bit of a mystery to me. These houses have always appeared to be empty, even abandoned, as if they were summer homes, or as if their owner had died some years back but the family had not yet gotten around to clearing and selling them. The signs of emptiness are an eerie quiet, absence of light in any of the windows, canvas-covered cars parked in the driveways, overgrown banks and walkways, crumbling stone steps. It is in the front garden of one of these mysterious houses where the untended quince bush lives, the one I always pass on my route, flowering in the spring, and producing a small, hard fruit that I watch developing, ripening, and eventually shriveling and drying out, unpicked. Every now and then, at the end of the season, I pluck one and bear it home with me, feeling a little guilty, but mostly indignant on the quince’s behalf as it persists year after year, valiantly coming to fruit with no one nourishing or pruning it, or appreciating its efforts.

by kokamo77, deviatart.com

But I digress. On this particular summer’s evening, I was driving up the hill, nearing our house, when a young woman  suddenly burst out of a side street not far ahead of me, running at full tilt, and sprinted athletically across the road without slowing down at the curb and with nary a glance to left or right. My heart began to beat fast at the close call and I didn’t know whether to be relieved, angry, or admiring in the face of her youthful abandon, her confidence and invulnerability, her evident muscular power.

Soon after getting home I set out for my evening walk further up the hill. I usually turn around at the town line, where the sidewalk ends, but on this particular evening I continued on a little further. As I approached one of the houses that usually lies empty, I heard music and laughter, and saw holiday lights strung all around the front porch. The overgrown steps had been cleared and swept and the grassy bank was newly mown. Suddenly and without warning an adolescent girl bolted out of the house. Déjà vu! Hadn’t the same thing just happened to me not half an hour ago? But just as I began to tense up in anxious anticipation of her darting out into the street like her predecessor, she pulled herself up short, as if she had hit an invisible electric fence, then meandered leggily round to the back of the house and out of sight.

young_horse_lineart_4_ms_paint_by_kokamo77

This girl aroused even stronger emotions in me. I found myself wondering what had propelled her out of the house as if shot from a cannon, and what had made her come to such an abrupt halt. Instead of the annoyance I had felt toward the earlier runner, I felt sympathy and approval; instead of admiration, I felt protectiveness. Who can forget those times in adolescence when one feels so stifled in a roomful of adults that one must get some air immediately or die, those times when every instinct tells one to get away as fast as possible, no matter where? Then, too, every girl can recall the times when one longs to burst out, but Reason points out that there is nowhere to run. Instead, more often than not one simply settles for some time alone, to simmer down and prepare oneself to face the fraught family atmosphere again. This girl, her family new to the neighborhood, may have bounded outside and then realized that she was in unfamiliar territory; so instead of breaking through into the unknown, she put on the brakes and walked slowly and thoughtfully into the her family’s new back garden.

One part of me—the parent, probably—applauded the girl’s good sense, while another part felt a little sorry that she didn’t have the boldness, and no doubt the foolhardiness, of the earlier, older runner who had so startled me a little earlier. Sure, there was time for her to gain that confidence in herself, but time is not always on the side of adolescent girls; as often as not, they lose, rather than gain confidence as they advance into their teens.

On the other hand, thinking back to the older runner, I found myself wondering what her parents were thinking. Had they not warned her to take care when crossing that busy road? Or perhaps she was in college, living with a group of other students; if so, she was old enough to know better. Even as I admired her athletic physique as against my woeful lack of muscle tone, my exasperation was stronger, since she had potentially endangered her own life and mine. Was my disapproval of that fearless girl greater than my approval of her younger counterpart’s cautiousness? And weren’t all these feelings of mine deeply gendered, despite my feminism and my own rebelliousness at their age?

Adolescent and teenage girls have so much power and potential. They need experience in order to develop maturity and good sense; but we are afraid to give them that leeway. In the name of protection, we continually underestimate them, rein them in, and hold them back, as parents and as a society. And as grown women, we hold ourselves back as well.

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