Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘history’ Category

400. Why Pay those Union Dues?

In Education, history, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 30, 2017 at 4:18 am

I do like Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, King of the Road, a song in the American hobo tradition of the lone drifter, continually movin’ on. But in the second verse, one line never fails to infuriate me. The verse begins:

Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues. . .

So retrograde! I can’t stand it. Instead I sing out defiantly, no doubt to the irritation of anyone in earshot, I pay my union dues!

Why pay your union dues? I’ll tell you why. Pay them because a union negotiates a contract for the benefit of all the employees. The dues allow the union to function, to organize, to advocate on behalf of the workers. If an employee proudly refuses to pay his dues, like Roger Miller’s self-styled “man of means by no means,” then he is just getting a free ride on the backs of his fellow-workers. That’s shameful in my book.

This pride in refusing to stand with one’s fellow-workers is ornery American individualism, and although I have lived nearly fifty years in this country, it still sticks in my throat. It’s the same individualism that says, Because my children are no longer in school, I will vote against funding the public schools; or Because I’m young and healthy at the moment, I don’t need to pay into the Medicaid or health insurance systems. This flouts the basic principle that makes a national insurance system work: it can provide coverage for all because everyone helps to support it. If only the elderly, the sick, and the disabled paid into the system, it would sink under the weight of the expenses; but if healthy people pay in as well, healthy people who do not draw upon it as much, then the system stays afloat. What the young, healthy, able-bodied people fail to recognize is that they will be old and sick and vulnerable one day, and then the system will support them.

What don’t people get about this principle? Damn it, you don’t have to be a dirty Commie to understand it. It’s the same principle that life insurance companies bank on: actuarial tables demonstrate that young people will pay into a policy for many years and are unlikely to draw on it before it has made a tidy sum of money for the company. If only old people bought life insurance, the premiums would have to be prohibitively high in order to make the company viable.

What makes a seemingly simple and self-explanatory principle so difficult for people to grasp? What makes it not just difficult, but downright un-American? For one, there’s that strong streak of ornery individualism I mentioned earlier, that makes Americans say, How dare they make laws that require me to wear a seatbelt in my own personal car? I’ll ride without a seatbelt if I damn well please, because I’m a free man. A free man, yes; sadly, all-too-often a dead man as well. But hell, they say, if I wanna kill myself, ain’t no government gonna stop me.

cartoon by Evelyn Atwood

Also responsible for this confounding anti-union sentiment in the United States are the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the so-called Right-to-Work laws. Although Taft-Hartley allowed for the setting up of union shops (which require all new workers to become members of the union), it also allowed individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops, laws that required workers who refused to pay union dues to receive the same benefits as those who paid their fair share of the union’s operating expenses. These states, which now number 28, are known, in a fine example of Orwellian Doublespeak, as Right-to-Work states. No wonder labor activists referred to Taft-Hartley as the slave-labor bill.

Someone, please write us a new verse for King of the Road that makes it crystal clear how idiotic it is to wear the refusal to pay union dues as a badge of pride. If you don’t want to pay dues, that is your prerogative, I suppose, though you should realize that you thereby weaken the bargaining power of the workers as a whole; but then, American hustler, be principled enough to recognize that you don’t deserve the union’s benefits either. (As an example and a healthy corrective, here’s Peggy Seeger adding some new words to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 favorite, Union Maid.)

King of the Road was that quintessential American loner, a figure that many American men see as attractive, and many American women as downright sexy; I don’t. I suppose I just can’t see the glamor of going it alone when it hurts others as well as oneself.

Note: I got the idea for this post from the June 26th, 2017 edition of The Resistance Report by Robert Reich, a programme broadcast live from Professor Reich’s office most weekdays, and one I watch avidly. In it, Reich, formerly a Secretary of Labor, explains the basic principle on which universal health insurance works and makes it clear how self-defeating it is for working people to oppose it.

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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, it seems, 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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382. What’s Wrong with “Oriental”?

In history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on June 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm

[from megangillman.wordpress.com]

“Perpetuating Oriental Stereotypes” (megangillman.wordpress.com)

On May 20th, 2016, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, President Obama signed a bill that will eliminate all references to the words “Oriental” and “Negro” in U.S. law, and replace them with “Asian American” and “African American.” U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens, NY), the chief sponsor of  bipartisan bill H.R. 2438, said, “The term ‘Oriental’ has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.”

On hearing the news I breathed a sigh of relief: something that had troubled me on an almost daily basis had now been recognized as derogatory at the highest level of government. This is critically important, because many people, even some Asian Americans themselves, don’t realize it. Just minutes before I read the news of H.R. 2438, I received an emailed reading response from a student on a short story by a Malaysian writer, in which my student used the term “Oriental” to make a sweeping generalization about life in ‘that part of the world’. Clearly the bill has not gone far enough, and neither has its coverage in the media, because they don’t explain why the term is derogatory. It’s not enough to be told, as H.R. 2438 does, that many Asian Americans find it offensive, since this can be dismissed as their problem, their hypersensitivity. Isn’t it just a descriptive term, its apologists ask, like “Westerner”?

CHOP SUEY SPECS

No, “Oriental” is not merely descriptive (and neither, for that matter, is “Westerner”–or, to use parallel terminology, “Occidental”, which, tellingly, is rarely used). It is a term designed to categorize, generalize, dehumanize, and dominate. Let me explain, as briefly as I know how.

3First “Oriental” is an outdated term, based upon a 19th-century colonial concept of race that divided humankind into a hierarchy of racial types, with the Western European (man)–born to rule–at the top: Caucasoid, Negroid, Australoid, and Mongoloid, or Oriental, as it came to be known a little later. These terms have come to be associated with skin color and physical appearance, but also with stereotyped character traits, temperaments, and predelictions (again, with the Caucasian on top). All this has been debunked by scholars across the disciplines as a lot of baloney, and it is now generally accepted that this scientific racism was an ideology conveniently constructed to justify colonization of the “lesser breeds” by the naturally superior ones. In sum, “Oriental” was invented by Europeans for Europeans.

Second, “Oriental” is a blanket term covering huge swaths of the world. It has been used to refer to the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia,  and given the tremendous differences among all these regions, is on the one hand  almost completely meaningless and on the other, extremely harmful in encouraging people to lump them all together in their minds. For example, the student I mentioned above who wrote on the short story, Leng Lui Is for Pretty Lady, failed to notice that it was set in Hong Kong, its protagonist was from the Philippines, and its author Elaine Chiew, is of Malaysian origin and has lived in Hong Kong and the United States, but now lives in London. To tell the truth, I myself failed to tease out these specificities while teaching the story, which is about the predicament of women who must leave their families and go abroad to work as maids in the global economy. My failure, and the term Oriental, allowed the student to conclude that this was “what it is like to be a woman living in servitude in an oriental country,” as my student put it. First, it generalized about the condition of all women in “the Orient”, and second, in allowing him to disregard the fact that there are women working as maids in exploitative conditions all over the world, including Europe and the United States, it performed the work for which, according to the late Edward Said, Orientalism was designed: to create an inferior Other which is the polar opposite of the so-called West, upon which the “West” projected all that it did not want to accept in itself.

Third, with regard to the term “Orient”, better known as “the East”, I ask the question, East of what? The answer, of course, is East of Greenwich, England, which Britain at the height of its empire declared the central reference point for measurements of longitude, for which Greenwich is the arbitrarily designated Prime Meridian. Everything East of Greenwich is East and everything West of it, West. But we are now a world with many centers, and it is time we changed our language to reflect this new reality. Now that Britain is just a small island again, with little power if it does not attach itself to the new global superpower, what sense does it make for people in its former colonies to continue to see it as the global Center and  themselves as marginal, always obliged to look Westward for success and self-affirmation?

yellow-face.com

[yellow-face.com]

imgresFourth, “Oriental” is used to demean, divide, and exclude. It is natural for people to see themselves as the central reference points of their lives, and it is understandable, if not desirable, for people to want to identify themselves with power. Perhaps that is why one still finds Asian Indians in the United States internalizing Orientalist stereotypes and identifying themselves with  the “Caucasian” rather than “Oriental.” More than once I have heard  Indian students of mine declaring that they are not Orientals, which prevents them  from making common cause with other people of Asian origin under the useful umbrella of Asian American. And yet U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court ruling of 1923, made it clear why it is in their interest to do—and in fact, to extend themselves still further to identify with all people of color. This was during the long period of first Chinese and Asian Indian, then Oriental Exclusion, when no one of Asian origin was allowed to immigrate to the U.S. or gain U.S. citizenship. The complainant in the Supreme Court case, an Asian Indian, had claimed that he should be granted citizenship because Indians are Caucasians, not Orientals. The judgment acknowledged, that Yes, he was Caucasian, but No, he could not be granted citizenship because he was not white, revealing the true purpose of these racial categories.

46912a66e79e4982da5469f3484b4341Calling someone an Oriental, even if their families have lived, worked, paid taxes, and died in the United States for generations, excludes them from full Americanness by relegating them firmly to the status of permanent outsider, unassimilable alien, regardless of their American citizenship. It designates them as Other, not one of Us, not from here, and in the end neither equal nor fully human. Just a glance at the stereotypical images of “Orientals” that are rife in the visual media makes this abundantly clear. These stereotypes also ought to make it obvious why the term is so hurtful.

My final point—and forgive me, I am an English teacher—is about the politics of grammar. “Oriental” is an adjective, not a noun. So to call a person “an Oriental” is to define him or her based on physical appearance and an imaginary repertoire of pre-ordained traits seen as belonging to that racial category. It is derogatory, dehumanizing, and high time for it to be defunct.

I hope it is now clear to you what’s wrong with “Oriental.” Hooray for the passage of H.R. 2438, and Thank You, Congresswoman Grace Meng!

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379. Young People

In blogs and blogging, history, Inter/Transnational, parenting, Politics, Stories on April 30, 2016 at 11:45 am
UMass students calling for social justice (masslive.com)

UMass students calling for social justice (masslive.com)

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

YI remember having a passionate argument at age 16 with Richard, a philosopher-friend of my parents, who was middle-aged to me then, but in fact was only in his early thirties at the time. In what seemed to be impossibly patronizing tones, he assured me that I should just wait until I was a little older, and I would no longer feel so strongly about the state of the world. This only infuriated me all the more, and I screamed back that I would, I would; I would always feel passionately about it.

Now that I am older, almost twice as old as he was then, I think that Richard was both wrong and right. I still feel strongly about the state of the world, and, if anything, he feels more strongly about it than he did then. But the quality of that feeling is different, since I am battle-scarred, world-weary, and just plain tired. Young people throw their whole selves into a cause with all the idealism and energy of youth, invincible, unheeding of their own human frailty. I remember, as a 20-something anti-nuclear activist, preparing to occupy the construction site of the Seabrook nuclear facility, and declaring that we would set up camp there indefinitely, establishing a model alternative community. I must have believed this, although I can’t imagine how I could have imagined that the authorities would allow it for a moment; and they didn’t.

Students all over India in solidarity with students at JNU (Hindustan Times)

Students all over India in solidarity with students at JNU (Hindustan Times)

But I tell this story not to patronize my younger self. We accomplish impossible tasks when we believe that we can and act upon that belief, without hesitation or self-doubt. For a long time I was under the impression that “the younger generation” was selfish and self-involved. But in fact the current generation of people in their teens and twenties are more socially aware and politically active than any generation since the Sixties. Young people are on the move the world over, intensely concerned about the state of the planet, putting their bodies on the line for social and environmental justice. If at times I express irritation with them, it is really because I see in them my younger self, and hope against hope that they do not fall prey to the same mistakes that I—that we all—made at their age.

As we grow older and face our own mortality, we look to the younger generation as the hope for the continuation of the efforts we will not live to see completed. Their energy energizes us, their idealism inspires us, and their naïveté fills us with a protective tenderness. We need them; they are our future.

Model for multi--generational living in Germany  © picture-alliance/dpa

Model for multi–generational living in Germany © picture-alliance/dpa

The saddest thing to me is the way the elderly in many societies today are segregated with other old people, rather than living in multigenerational communities. I watched a documentary once about a community in Southeast Asia whose old people who were the happiest of any other group of elders on earth. Why? Because they had a useful social function, meeting the children from the school buses and looking after them until their parents came home from work. It was a win-win-win situation for everyone: them, the children, and the parents. I hope that we can work to create more and more such communities for ourselves and our age group.

When my son was in his twenties I used to look forward to the youthful energy in the house when he came home at holiday times. With the instantaneous communication of social media, he had hardly been home for a minute when his friends would start calling, dropping by, and sleeping over, with me fussing over them, serving snacks, and pulling out sleeping bags, as I used to when they were schoolchildren. iPhones were hooked up to the speaker system, and their music filled the house again, while the joyful noise of their boisterous play was music to my ears. Now they are setting up homes of their own and the house is quiet most of the time, the occasional visitors chatting sedately over tea with the subdued energy of my generation.

Let me make a couple of things clear: this is not a nostalgia piece, neither do I crave the presence of the young merely to vicariously recover my own lost youth. Furthermore, we oldsters still have plenty of fight left in us, and I would not want to give the impression that we simply want to let go of our responsibilities and pass the world’s problems on to the next generation; no, we will work for positive change as long we have breath in our bodies. But we mortals crave continuity, and the creativity and commitment of the young gives me hope for the future. And joy. Young people fill me with joy.

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375. Unions

In blogs and blogging, Education, history, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on April 26, 2016 at 2:40 am

cropped-FINAL-GEO-LOGO-SMALL

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UI’ve just returned from a 25th anniversary celebration of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), UAW 2322, a union of graduate students that organized and went on strike to gain recognition while I was in graduate school. We went from abjection to dignity through standing up and demanding that our work be recognized as the work it patently was, and not merely as part of our graduate education. We also won year-round family health insurance, fee waivers, a decreased workload, and a substantially increased rate of pay per course.

I am extremely thankful for the trade union movement, for the struggles of workers in the past to secure rights, benefits, and working conditions that I take for granted today. Andrew’s grandfather was a union man, and I have written before about how, when his union won a half-day on Saturday, he began taking his son—Andrew’s father—on a special outing on that half-day. My mother has always been a strong supporter of unions, and it was a great disappointment to her that by the time her workplace finally got around to unionizing, she had technically been promoted to management. As for me, I have been a member of three different unions over the years, the IWW in the 1980s, GEO in the 1990s, and the MSCA over the past 10 years. Without them, I would be insecure, lonely, alienated, and broke.

UnknownWhetstone Press was organized as a three-person worker’s cooperative. We collectively owned and operated the business and gave ourselves excellent health insurance but very little else; we couldn’t afford it. A significant portion of our business involved printing for non-profit organizations who would only use a union shop, so it was imperative that we unionized, but at a grand total of three, we were too small for just about any union to accept us.

Except for the Wobblies. Their slogan was One Big Union, and no one was too small for them. We paid a pittance in dues and became proud members of the Industrial Workers of the World. I used to enjoy reciting the preamble to the IWW Constitution, which begins:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

imagesThe funny thing was, of course, that in our case we were the workers as well as the employers! The irony wasn’t lost on us; it just gave us all the more delight in declaiming the “revolutionary watchword, ‘abolition of the wage system.’” That worked, since we didn’t make any wages to speak of and had few prospects of doing so in the future.

I tease gently, but make no mistake, I do not mock, for the Wobblies, the union of Joe Hill, have a noble history and I’m proud to have been a tiny part of it for a short while.

Now I’m thankful to be teaching at a public university whose faculty is unionized as the MSCA, under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. It’s strange indeed that we are forbidden to strike; everyone knows that the strike has historically been the principal weapon and ultimate recourse of a union. Then, too, not all professors think of themselves as workers. But we are workers nonetheless, and I’m glad of the solidarity across disciplines in a system that can be stratified and competitive.

Unions bring me joy. Sing it!

Solidarity Forever

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong
.

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364. Jai Jagat!

In blogs and blogging, Family, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2016 at 5:29 am

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  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

JMai-Atya, my Aunt Kumud, now 93, was a Gandhian social worker and educator all her working life. She took a vow of simplicity as a student in 1942, during the Quit India Movement, and has worn only khadi, homespun cotton, ever since. She has worked tirelessly for Dalits,  women, children, anyone in trouble—with their families, society, the law—her vision one of freedom, justice, and a sustainable life for all the people of India.

Mai-Atya was our family chronicler. She wrote to my father regularly, wasting not a centimeter of space on the blue aerogramme, telling him who had got married and when, who had had a baby and its date of birth, who had passed their exams, who had shifted their job or their place of residence. She ended her letters with the stirring slogan, Jai Hind!  —Victory to India!imgaerogram

I would try to read her cursive Marathi and ask my father to translate what I could not. One letter, she signed off with a new slogan: Jai Jagat!—Victory to the World!

Victory to the World—what a concept! Trust my dear Aunt Kumud to be several steps ahead of the rest of us. While most of the rest of us were wallowing in feel-good nationalism—all-too dangerous, though we didn’t realize it then—she had decided to broaden her vision to include the well-being of everyone on the planet.

I looked up Jai Jagat on the Internet, and found the website of Ekta Parishad (unity council), a “peoples movement dedicated to the principles of non-violent action, aiming at social and land reform.” Their vision is of an India in which:

Each one could benefit from equal and guaranteed access to land, forest, and water, and the whole population—regardless of origin or caste—could live with dignity.

Jai Jagat 2020 is a campaign launched by Ekta Parishad, in which they too make their vision global.

Ekta_Parishad_logoIn the 2020 campaign we are broadening to Jagat, meaning all people in the world. This does not mean that the work of Ekta Parishad alters its direction from changing its focus away from the lives of poor people. We continue to organize marginalized communities for their control over land and natural resources, as a way to fight poverty. At the same time we realize that this problem is not limited to India alone and that people from almost every country across the world are experiencing similar challenges. Market driven globalization is depriving millions of people from their land and accessing resources. People are being dispossessed and forced into cities and slums.  This means that we need to work at a global as well as at the grassroots level to bring about real change.

 Jai Jagat actually means VICTORY OF THE WORLD. That is very close to the concept of  Sarvodaya (‘well being of all’) that was given by Mahatma Gandhi. The underlying principle is that, if there is a victory then it should be the victory of our common humanity not the victory of one nation over another. The victory should also be based on the victory of living commodiously together, and of people coexisting with nature. If the victory is for everyone and for everything, then this is the best. A modern world needs to imbibe these new values, the values of Jai Jagat and Gandhi’s notion of Sarvodaya.

Dear Mai-Atya, who signed off, Jai Jagat, some 35 years ago; ahead of her time, as always. Let’s hope that the rest of us can catch up in time to save this struggling world. That is a vision that brings me joy.

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361. The Guardian

In Britain, history, Media, Stories on April 9, 2016 at 9:51 am

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

GBack then it was the left-leaning, or at least staunchly social democratic Manchester Guardian, and it was my Uncle Ted’s daily newspaper. (Later he switched to the much more conservative Daily Telegraph, but I think it was for its legendarily difficult crossword rather than its politics.)

Founded in 1821, the Manchester Guardian has a noble history. Its initial prospectus promised:

It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy.  

UnknownThe Guardian has stayed true to these principles throughout its nearly-two hundred year run, its editorial policy always on the right side of history—from my perspective, of course.

Back in the 1980s, when we were living on the farm in Winchendon, and in danger of being cut off from cosmopolitan currents, my mother bought me a subscription to the Manchester Guardian Weekly, which became my lifeline to the world outside. It was a selection of the best articles from The Guardian, Le Monde, and The Washington Post, including, crucially, the Guardian crossword (which, in truth, was sometimes the only thing I found time to tackle).

The late, great Araucaria's first Guardian crossword

The late, great Araucaria’s first Guardian crossword

Whenever I go to England, for however short a stay, I buy the print edition of the Guardian every day, trying to re-acquaint myself with the reigning Zeitgeist. Over the years I’ve saved cuttings (I know, I know, Hoarder Alert) from some of the most memorable headlines of the times, of massive demonstrations in Trafalgar Square protesting the September 11, 1973 military coup in Chile, Margaret Thatcher’s handling of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, race riots in the 1980s, cuts to the National Health Service, Booker Prize-winning writers, the Notting Hill Carnival.

Guardian-front-page-011

With the advent of the Internet, the Guardian took the lead among British newspapers in its online presence, starting with the Guardian Unlimited and now with the indispensable The Guardian dot com. This presence has helped it more or less sustain itself while print journalism has been facing formidable challenges. The Guardian made headlines itself in 2011 when it courageously broke and covered the Wikileaks story, and stood up to state ire. I regularly post links to its online book reviews for my students, and, perhaps perversely, am following the 2016 U.S. elections on their site, even though, disappointingly, they share some of the bias of the U.S. mainstream media in their coverage of the Democratic race.

imagesOne of The Guardian’s most important recent online initiatives has been The Counted. Because, incredibly, the United States does not keep national records of police killings of civilians, the Guardian took it upon itself to do so by establishing a searchable database that it has called The Counted. People can notify them of a killing and they will investigate and verify it. If it holds up, they will add it to their count. It can be broken down by race and ethnicity, gender, age, state, and whether the victim was armed or unarmed. The tally is a heartbreaking 281 people killed by the police in the United States in 2016 to date.

Despite its best efforts, The Guardian is struggling financially. Another highly reputable newspaper, The Independent, had to suspend its print publication earlier this year, and it is heartbreaking for me to contemplate the possibility of The Guardian going the same way. So much so that I am about to become a Guardian Supporter, in order to protect its fearless tradition of independent journalism. I feel a stronger allegiance to the Guardian than I do to, say, National Public Radio, which has become stodgier and more centrist over the years, catering openly to the wealthy. Without it, both in its online incarnation and its print editions, my life would be poorer and more isolated. The Guardian brings me joy.

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350. Lest We Forget

In Britain, Family, history, Media, people on November 11, 2015 at 6:40 pm
Remembrance Poppy

Remembrance Poppy

My maternal grandfather was a proud man who refused to wear a tie or to bow to anybody or anything. But Mum said that he made one exception, at 11:11 am every Armistice Day, when he stood stiffly to attention—as did everyone else in the room, or woe betide them—during the minute of silence on the radio in honour of all who lost their lives in the First World War.

My uncle Ted told me that Granddad signed up with his younger brother at the start of the War. The pressure to enlist was enormous, and there was no work for them in England, so off they went to France. Granddad made it through with only a knee injury that sent him to a hospital in Wales for a short period of recovery and then back to the front, where he was transferred from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps Regiment to a “cushy” job in the Royal Army Medical Corps, retrieving the wounded and the dead from the field of battle. He served to the very end and came home in one piece, but his brother wasn’t so lucky. He was killed in the very last month of the war, and the family has never found his grave.

Stretcher_bearers_Battle_of_Thiepval_Ridge_September_1916

The demobilized soldiers were promised “a land fit for heroes,” but the reality back home was very different. During the four years of the war our grandmother had given birth to three children and buried two of them. Life was bleak for the young couple, with more children being born and no work to be found. Granddad faced a Catch-22 whereby he couldn’t receive unemployment because he had not lost a job; apparently the war didn’t count. As a small boy, Uncle Ted remembers queuing up with his father for food relief and coming away with a single loaf of bread to feed the whole family.

Although Granddad himself remained staunchly patriotic and proud of his military service, Uncle Ted is sad and bitter on his behalf. He blames the diplomats who failed to secure a negotiated peace, the generals who sent soldiers to certain slaughter, and the politicians who allowed the war to drag on for years, long after anyone remembered what it was all in aid of—if they ever had.

It was in my childhood that I first wore a poppy on Remembrance Day in remembrance of the dead of the “Great War”—the war in which there was hardly a family in Britain who didn’t lose someone. But this year the controversy surrounding that simple emblem has left a bad taste in my mouth. Right-wing anti-immigrant parties have attempted to appropriate the remembrance poppy and its meaning. It was always sold by the Royal British Legion in aid of the WWI veterans; now, however, there are hardly any of them left and apparently groups like Britain First have been selling the poppy as well; I wonder what they do with the money.

I am not living in Britain, but the controversy reaches me over Facebook, where I have been seeing aggressive posts telling those who disrespect the poppy to Go Home. After a little research into the subject, I find that the so-called disrespecters are straw men: that is, no one has shown disrespect to the poppy and what it stands for; these groups are creating a false enemy in order to fan the flames of hate. It would be well for these haters to remember that among the many men who fought and died in the First World War were nearly two million British colonial subjects, Indians and Africans who were aggressively recruited, with promises of land and freedom upon their return. For those who did return, the promises were not kept, fueling the movements for independence from colonial rule.

An Indian soldier wounded in WWI

An Indian soldier wounded in WWI

So on Remembrance Day, once but no longer Poppy Day in my mind, I remember the hard lives of my grandparents and the ordinary British working people, as well as the men who gave their lives for their colonial rulers. That war was not fought for any of them. If the poppy means anything to me, it is as an emblem of the fragility and preciousness of human life and a reminder of all those who have been sacrificed to the insatiably hungry war machine.

Lest we forget.

battle16

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347. Free Speech: Goodbye to All That?

In 1970s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on October 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm
Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from watsonssoapbox.wordpress.com)

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from watsonssoapbox.wordpress.com)

(from allwonders.com)

(from allwonders.com)

It must have been during our stay in London in the autumn of 1973 when Andrew and I were visiting Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, that 150 year-old emblem of Britain’s commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly. On our previous visit we had encountered a succession of people making impassioned speeches, heavily peppered with oddballs ranting about the apocalypse and the Second Coming. Along with the other passers-by we listened politely for a short time, perhaps asking a question or accepting a flyer before edging out of their line of vision.

This time it was an altogether different scene, so weird that it refuses to come to focus in my mind’s eye. I see not one, but a group of people, mostly young, who have set up some sort of table—dining table, operating table, it isn’t clear—on which is set what looks like a monstrous loaf of bread baked in the shape of a phallus. They are cutting it into slices and offering a piece to any and all takers brave enough to sample it. For they declare openly that, quite apart from its priapic form, there is more to the loaf than meets the eye: marijuana has been baked into it. Further, they insist that they are not advocating the recreational use of this substance—which would be illegal and actionable, even at Speakers’ Corner—but rather, that they are partaking in a religious sacrament.

9780374289331Here’s where my memory gets even more hazy. The group claimed direct descent from Robert Graves, long-resident outside of England in Majorca, Spain (then known to me only as the author of I, Claudius, which was on my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood and which I had read surreptitiously and with considerable bewilderment). They were even flourishing some kind of founding document with Graves’ signature on it, bestowing authority and legitimacy upon them. As I recall, they were a revival of some sort of ancient fertility cult, perhaps one of those described in Graves’ work, The White Goddess. Somewhere, in my old five-drawer file cabinet or buried deep in a box in our basement, I may still have the flier that we brought away with us. I didn’t ingest their offering, though, and cannot testify to the veracity of the group’s claims, with respect to either its ingredients or their origin myth.

Robert Graves regularly comes up in my teaching, either as the author of the autobiographical Goodbye to All That (1929), or as a mentor in to younger writers like Alan Sillitoe in the 1950s and 1960s, or as a character in Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration. It was only once, in a contemporary British fiction class, that I ventured to tell my students the story of the phallus-worshipping fertility cult at Hyde Park Corner purportedly founded by the man himself. Their jaws dropped and the room fell silent.

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

This would just be a colorful tale from my chequered past if it were not for the serious threats to free speech around the world today, even in the nations that enshrine this sacred principle in their own origin myths. In country after country, United States, Britain, Australia, even Canada, free speech is being curtailed in the name of security, swept away as the spectre of terrorism is conjured up. In India as I write, the leadership of the ruling party is refusing to condemn the recent murders of writers who held views, such as rationalism or atheism, that run counter to the crusading beliefs of the Hindu Right. In so doing—or rather, in refusing to do so—the Center gives the extremists tacit license to kill. In such a climate, people who practice minority religions or hold dissenting views are afraid to speak out, indeed, afraid to be who they are.

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free, even giving utterance to certain words online, let alone out loud, is sufficient to put one on a watchlist, or worse. Nowadays, simply being on a watchlist, whether or not the suspicion has any foundation, gives the government license to kill, and to get away with it.

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (ontheroadarchives.blogspot.com)

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (ontheroadarchives.blogspot.com)

It seems that the time-honoured tradition of free speech at Speakers’ Corner is under threat as well. It is incumbent upon us all to uphold free speech by exercising it, refusing to be silenced in a climate that has cast a chill over our fundamental human right. Thinking back to that performance in Hyde Park more than forty years ago with its flagrant, joyous disregard of convention, I may gently tease, but will never trivialize the open society that permitted it.

P.S. Thanks to fellow-blogger Don Scrooby, whose photographs of Hyde Park in Candid Impressions sparked this memory.

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343. European Border Crossings

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel on September 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Greece-train-map

In August of 1963 my father and mother, three-year-old sister Sally, and I traveled by train from Greece to Belgium and then by ferry across to England. The journey took three or four days and is all a pleasurable blur in my mind now, from the long bus trip from Athens to Thessaloniki (the first trip by automobile when I did not get car-sick) to the lurching ferry ride across the Channel to Dover, and finally on to London. It was a student train which my thirty-something parents had somehow managed to get on, and the noisy, polyglot young people adopted the nine-year-old me as their mascot, taking me into their compartments as they talked, sang, and laughed all the way across Europe.

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

Old train station, Skopje (Jeff Rozwadowski)

I was in a kind of dream throughout, as we rocked our way through the days and nights in the self-contained world of the train. I was aware, though, that we were passing through Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. From there we crossed into Hungary, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and finally, England and the bosom of our mother’s family. I remember riding through long stretches of countryside with the train running parallel to a wide, slow-flowing river (I felt sure that it was the Rhine, but never really knew), and remember pulling into a grand train station at Frankfort. But besides the spectre of Skopje that hovered dimly at the edges of my consciousness, there were the grim, grey overcoated border guards who boarded the train periodically in the night—in what must have been Yugoslavia and again in Hungary. I knew nothing then of the Eastern Bloc or the Cold War, and thankfully there was no need for me to have any dealings with them nor they with me, but I felt the chill of their presence in contrast to the carefree merriment of the students returning from their summer holidays.

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (by Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

Refugees on a train in Macedonia (“She will always remember this journey”: Lindsey Hilsum in Granta Magazine)

That long-ago journey has returned to my mind again and again over the past few weeks, as thousands of displaced families have braved perilous Mediterranean crossings from Turkey to Greece and on foot to Hungary, where they have waited day after day for a train to take them across Europe. The memories of the children in these families will be so different from my sunny recollections of the Sixties youth culture, as I rode through the days and nights in the students’ boisterous embrace, moving from country to country with only the slightly jarring awareness of the border guards to remind me that we were crossing a national border.

In 1963 the European Union (then the European Economic Community (EEC)) included only six countries; Britain was still hemming and hawing over whether or not to join and wouldn’t do so until 1973, ten years later; Greece, not for eight years more, in 1981; Austria, not until 1995; and Hungary still later, in 2004, when the Eurozone swelled to include ten more countries. Yugoslavia was to go through a protracted and bloody breakup in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by economic restructuring, crusading Serbian nationalism (remember Slobodan Milošević?), and violence against ethnic minorities. But back in 1963 Yugoslavia had just been renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Marshal Tito was firmly in power, holding it all together—for a time.

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

Refugees tear-gassed at Hungarian border (Gultuysuz on Twitter)

The European Union sought to unite Europe as a regional economic community, doing away with separate passports and working to develop a culture of inclusion. But with politicians and anti-immigrant groups whipping up panic over ‘barbarians at the gates,’ Europe has developed a siege mentality and is shutting down its borders again, fearful of the ‘swarms’, ‘floods’,  tide’ of refugees, most of them non-Christians. As writer after writer reminds us in Granta Magazine’s timely special issue, The Refugee Crisis, Europe itself was torn apart by war not so very long ago, thrusting out thousands upon thousands of refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, many of them non-Christians as well.

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

Solidarity with Refugees in London (Photo: Randi. Sokoloff/Demotix/Corbis)

When I see the heartbreaking images of the child victims of this conflict, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have been given a warm welcome into Europe. My family was taken up into that train full of returning European holidaymakers and transported readily across its rolling green countryside; many of these families were driven from their homes, herded into camps, fleeced by unscrupulous smugglers, and then denied entry as they arrived sick and bedraggled at the fences of Fortress Europe. Europe and the United States are deeply embroiled in that war in Syria. The more than four million people displaced by it are the responsibility of us all, as the solidarity demonstrations across Europe have affirmed, as ordinary people march under banners urging, “Open the Borders,” shaming their governments, welcoming the refugees. As one homemade placard declared: We are One: there is no “Other.”

(Reuters/AFP)

(Reuters/AFP)

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