Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

497. Euphemisms

In blogs and blogging, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2021 at 2:02 am

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

By definition, idioms have a meaning “not deducible from those of the individual words” that make them up; their meaning is metaphorical and can only be divined through usage. Euphemisms are a class of idioms that double down on this definition by deliberately concealing their meaning for the purpose of softening something embarrassing or unpleasant.

As R.W. Holder put it in his How Not to Say What You Mean, euphemisms are the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit. They are frequently deployed to skirt the subjects of death (as in “passed”–like a kidney stone?), bodily functions (unfortunately named “comfort stations” for public toilets), and sexual misconduct ( a “player” for a sexual predator)—all sexual conduct (“making whoopee”), for that matter. They may be quite acceptable when they seek to comfort or protect, for example, a person who is grieving, although sometimes I wonder whether beating around the bush protects the bereaved or the speaker. In fact, I think that euphemisms most often serve to protect the speaker from discomfort–or worse, from a public outcry or even criminal prosecution.

Businesses routinely employ euphemisms when giving their workers the boot, attempting to put a better public face on what is a sad and ugly business any way you look at it. “Letting them go” is the least of it, since “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go,” suggests reluctance to part with the employee. When someone is made redundant, the passive construction suggests that it was no one’s decision, just a consequence of the March of Progress. When downsizing—sorry, rightsizing—demands mass layoffs, they are often referred to as trimming the fat, as if the lazy workers are all that stand in the way of a leaner, meaner organization.

But the most pernicious deception, in my view, is practiced by so-called intelligence organizations and the military. Even their names are euphemisms. Until 1949 the combined departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force had been called the War Department because that was what it did; soon after WWII was over, in 1949, the United States, now the ruler of the Free World, renamed it the Department of Defense. It now appeared that the nation with by far the world’s largest military and arms industry, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, was not a bully or a warmonger, but a defender of freedom and democracy. And as for military intelligence, well, that’s an oxymoron as well as a euphemism. In this regard I recommend an illuminating 2019 article (and podcast) by Stephen J. Thorne, Euphemisms, Acronyms, and Outright Lies: The Language of War  and a recent article by Margot Williams on euphemisms used by apologists of torture at Guantánamo Bay.

Here are just a few of the military euphemisms which vie for the most sickening in my book:  
conflict: war (John Prine’s Sam Stone hits this nail on the head.)
enhanced interrogation: torture
extraordinary rendition: torture by proxy
taking [someone] out: killing
collateral damage: civilian casualties
friendly fire: accidental shooting by someone on one’s own side.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, 2006 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you’ve been following my posts in this anachronidioms series you may be wondering in what sense these euphemisms are anachronistic. Sadly, they’re not, in that they’re still very much with us. However, we forget their relatively recent origins at our peril. Several of these terms have been in use for decades—as slang, in private military circles, or, if used in the print media, then only in quotation marks—but have officially entered the language quite recently, since the 1990s or early 2000s. Learning of the context and purpose of their emergence may help immunize us against accepting them as normal.

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496. Dancing in the Street

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2021 at 3:26 am

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dancing is movement and movement is change. Dancing in the street is an inherently liberating idea because it moves from a private, contained space to the public thoroughfare. When people get up and dance, circulation happens, and circulation is anathema to stagnation, segregation, incarceration, a threat to the status quo in any number of ways. Of course, circulation is essential to life, and dancing, more than anything else, is life.  

There are dozens of dance-related idioms in English alone: it takes two to tango, give it a whirl, be or to get in the groove, tread on someone’s toes, step out of line, be footloose and fancy free, light on one’s feet, get off on the wrong foot, sweep someone off their feet, look lively, and strut one’s stuff, just to name a few. None of the above are particularly anachronistic, with the possible exception of in the groove, with its origins in gramophone or phonograph records, which released the sound when the record player’s needle, or stylus, came into contact with the rotating surface of the grooved record (originally shellac, and after the 1940s, vinyl).

How does dancing figure in my personal A-to-Z of anachronidioms?

My mother loved dancing–in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she lived to dance. My father loved music, but far preferred to tap his feet and watch. In post-war London of the late 1940s and early 1950, before she got married, Mum used to go dancing every week with her best friend Lily. They would go to the movies every week as well, or as often as they could afford, to see American films, mostly, with Frank Sinatra and other heartthrobs of the time. Bill, my eldest cousin and eleven years my senior, remembers jiving with his cool Aunt Glad to Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That must have been in 1956, when, if I was two, Bill was turning thirteen. Mum knew loads of different dances and was always learning new ones. Parties in those days always featured music and dancing—in fact, dancing was the whole point of the party as far as she was concerned. When there was no one at home to dance with, Mum would rub two rags in floor polish, attach them to her feet, and dance, polishing the parquet floor as she did so and, in place of a partner, swinging round the column in the middle of the living-room floor.

Three dance-related idioms have a special meaning for me, and are anachronistic in the sense that they take me right back to a bygone time. The first calls up my (non-dancing) father and one of his favorite expressions. I hadn’t thought of it for years until I was brainstorming for today’s entry: to make a song and dance. It means to make an unnecessary fuss about something, to make a production out of it. Dad was characteristically short-tempered, and he used this when he was annoyed with someone who, instead of just getting something done, made a song and dance about it, or—another expression of his—a hoo-ha, a big fuss over nothing. (I never got the impression that Dad approved of Mum’s swooning over the song-and-dance men of the silver screen, He certainly didn’t care for Frank Sinatra, and I can’t help think it had something to do with Mum loving him so much.)

The second of my triad of dance-related anachronidioms: to put on one’s dancing shoes. This means, to get into a positive frame of mind or to get ready to party. For me it will always and forever be associated with the summer of 1963, our third and last summer in Athens, when I was nine years old and my parents took us to an open-air movie screening (not a drive-in, no-one had a car) to see Summer Holiday, starring the British pop singer, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff Richard–the Queen has a soft spot for him). In it, our hero and his boy band rent a red double-decker bus and drive overland to Greece in it, finding romance along the way, of course. Put on Your Dancing Shoes was one of the movie’s many musical number. I cringe as I watch it today—it hasn’t aged well; but back then, it was pure romance.  

My third dance-related anachronidiom, two left feet,  takes me back to 1967 in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the kind of shame that makes one’s cheeks burn. I was just 13, a particularly self-conscious age, and visiting a school friend over a week-long break when her parents invited some young members of the Sikkimese royal family over for the evening. It was embarrassing enough to be introduced to these princelings in my early-teen clumsiness, but the nightmare began when it was suggested that some entertainment was in order, and that entertainment was ballroom dancing. I froze; the only dance I knew how to do was something called the African Twist, that some exchange students from the U.S. to our school in India had taught us. Somebody put on a record, paired us up, and announced a foxtrot.

I won’t dwell on the awful details. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t even fake it. He knew it and I knew he knew it, although he was terribly well brought up and smoothed things over with the utmost finesse. Of course his princely education must have covered ballroom dancing, but that didn’t help; it wasn’t in my repertoire and it takes two to foxtrot. Two left feet on my part, and some treading on toes into the bargain.

Martha and the Vandellas (Photo: Motown/EMI-Hayes Archives)

There is another category of dance-related anachronidioms: song titles. They epitomize a particular moment in time and their very opening notes conjure it up. Some of them resonate deeply, cutting across nations, classes, ages, races, genders, rising to the status of anthems. When the song’s title is also an idiom, it is all the more evocative. For me these songs would have to include two by Bob Marley and the Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up and Lively Up Yourself and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul. But the one I want to pay tribute to today is the Motown hit Dancing in the Street, sung by Martha and the Vandellas, co-written by producer Micky Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, and released in the explosive summer of 1964. Motown was in the business of making hits, not revolution, and they were very good at it. They swore that the song was just about city children in Detroit taking the caps off the fire hydrants during the heat of the summer, and its promotional video featured crowds of young people, almost all white, groovin’ to the beat; but something about the song made it a call to action, despite the best efforts of the record company.

Martha Reeves told the story in an interview during the summer of 2020, when the entire nation was swept by protests following the killings of Armaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Jacob Blake, and too many more. According to music critic Jim Farber, writing in the Guardian:

Right after she recorded the exuberant anthem in July of 1964 as frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas, it became a worldwide smash, selling millions of copies while serving as the song of its summer. At the same time, its lyrical “invitation across the nation … for folks to meet” in the street – matched to a melody and vocal as urgent as a clarion call – soon took on a second, more pointed, meaning. The transformation took place during the long, hot summers of 1964 and 65, “when riots broke out, in every city in the nation”, Reeves recalled. “Just like now, the police brutality and the government trying to control black people, prompted the uprising that was a revolution.”

I first heard Dancing in the Street in 1968, from those American exchange students from Detroit (or was it Chicago?) at our boarding school in India, the same ones who had taught me the African Twist. I had never heard any Motown before that. I had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, either, until his assassination was announced at the school assembly one April morning, and Laura and Joanne burst into tears. It was clear that there was a great ferment taking place back in the United States, a country that I didn’t know I was to migrate to in less than two years. By the time I got to the United States and heard more Motown at parties in college, it was the sound of white nostalgia. Inevitably, at a certain point in the party, usually quite late, someone would put on My Girl, and all the merriment would grind to a halt. There would be an almost religious hush, followed by an ecstatic singalong; and I would just stand there, alienated, because My Girl didn’t mean anything to me. It was just an anachronism; unlike Dancing in the Street, which was part of my history, even if only at second hand.

Did I mention that besides all of the above, dancing in the streets is a dance-related idiom? It means being extremely happy. Fully alive.

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490. A Continuation

In Books, Music, Politics, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases on December 31, 2020 at 8:08 pm

A continuance is a request by a party in a criminal case to reschedule a court date. The date can be for a hearing or a trial.

As the year draws to a close, at least for those who measure the passage of time by the Roman calendar, the internet is abuzz with messages bidding 2020 Good Riddance and looking eagerly to 2021 for new beginnings. For my part, I’ll be grateful for the chance of a continuation.

Of course we are desperate to draw a hard cut-off line under the ravages of the past year and celebrate the prospect of a return to life after COVID-19. Most of us realize, though, that we will never return to the old normality; which, in any case, was already unacceptable. Furthermore, metaphorically turning the page on 2020 will not end the pandemic or restore the lives, homes, and livelihoods lost to it. It will not end the endemic violence in our societies and around the world. It will not bring equality under the law regardless of race, class, or creed. It will not repair the fabric of our communities torn apart by greed, hostility, and mistrust. It will not feed hungry children, mend shattered lives, or heal broken hearts.

Those awaiting new political leadership, either in anticipation or in dread, may well find that in fact the new dispensation will not be much more than the old dressed up in a different style. (Here’s how The Who put it in Won’t Get Fooled Again and I must admit the truth in it, though I still resist the political cynicism.) There will be some movement, whether backward or forward, but either way we will just have to keep on pushing if we want to translate those new faces at the top into positive change in ordinary people’s lives.

Of course we all know that the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an arbitrary marker. Every moment of every day is a new beginning, if only the individual and the collective have the will to make it so. But new beginnings are not brought to fruition in a moment. So many people are forced to keep their lives on hold, in hostage to the whims of those in power. They are in limbo, waiting for a court hearing, a judge’s ruling, unable to make long-term plans. But the longed-for ruling, when it comes, may be a hard cut-off, a decree of immediate deportation or a sentence to lifetime imprisonment, whether literally or metaphorically. In  such cases, we may prefer a continuance to a final ruling, because it allows more time for us to work for change.

In U.S. law, when a court grants a continuance it means that the court date is temporarily suspended or postponed. When work is permitted a continuation, it means that the process underway can continue. It may not be completed, but at least it has not been terminated. There is still hope.

Progress is like that, moving in fits and starts. We continue to work as long as we can, and often a continuance is the best we can hope for. Those of us who are still here can celebrate that fact and recommit ourselves to preventing disaster capitalism from hi-jacking catastrophe yet again.

The prospect of a continuation is a positive one because it allows us more time not only to restore balance after a crisis, but to set things to rights, to set ourselves on a sustainable path, to heal divisions rather than merely to win.

In Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, three siblings whose family was broken apart and dispersed in the wake of Partition have become even further estranged over the years, by their different circumstances, their different personalities, and a series of misunderstandings and long-held grudges. When one sister, Tara, now living in the U.S. returned for a visit to her sister Bim in India, they finally began to make a breakthrough, but only when it was nearly time for them to part again. Tara begged Bim, who was ready to dismiss their precarious new understanding, to recognize that they had made progress. Said Bim, with her characteristic impatience:

‘Don’t be so silly, Tara—it was all so long ago.’

‘Yes, but’, cried Tara desperately (and with one of my favorite lines of all time):  ‘but it’s never over. Nothing’s over, ever.’

‘No,’ Bim agreed, growing gentler. . . Nothing’s over. . .Ever’.*

Tara seemed comforted to have Bim’s corroboration. . .  At least they had agreed to a continuation. *

Nothing’s over, ever; even this terrible year. And yet, as we remember Auld Lang Syne all over again, we are right to put 2020 behind us and to welcome 2021. Our struggles will not be over, not by a long shot, but we have been granted a continuation. Happy New Year!

*A confession: when discussing this passage in my book, Colonial Karma, I actually misquoted it, using the word ‘continuance’ rather than ‘continuation.’ Setting it right here, more than 15 years later, proves that it’s never too late to correct one’s mistakes.

The quote above is from Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Harper and Row, 1980, page 174.

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483. The Singing Cowboy: Heart Core Meltdown

In 1970s, Media, Music, Politics, singing, United States on August 18, 2020 at 1:30 pm

From the late summer of 1978 through the early summer of 1979, Andrew and I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and volunteered with Citizens Against Nuclear Threats (with the unfortunate acronym CANT). Sometime during that 10-month sojourn, a young man drove up to the house where we were living with Michael and Jill and stepped out of the car with a guitar. To my outsider’s eyes he looked like a stereotypical Texas cowboy, blond-haired, straight-talking, square-jawed; also sincere, humble, and a little diffident. He said that he had written some songs for the anti-nuclear cause and he wanted to give them to us, if we could use them.

We invited this blue-jeaned stranger into the house and asked him to show us what he had. If I may have been a tad skeptical at first, I was a total fan before he had finished his first song. This guy was good! It was a winning combination of country music and anti-nuclear lyrics. But not just any lyrics: an inspired use of the traditional three-verse formula for a love song to tell the story of our society’s disastrous love affair with nuclear power. In all my years of anti-nuclear activism I don’t think I made a speech that was as successful in compressing our message into just 224 words.

Imagine this young cowboy standing in our living room and singing his heart out. Here are the lyrics to Heart Core Meltdown:

1. You melted down the core of my heart
You nearly made me fall out of my seat;
I took a bit too long to learn
You gave me radiation burns
And I thought that I was dying from the heat.

Ch: You’re just like a nuclear disaster
You spread destruction everywhere you go,
You’re gonna kill me if I stay
But I just can’t turn away
I’ve got too much in you to pull out now you know.

 2. You melted down the core of my heart
This time I guess my safety system failed,
I was supremely confident
But here you came and there it went
I guess it never had been tested on this scale.

 Ch: You’re just like a nuclear reactor
You give me all the energy I need,
But I think I might go back to burning firewood
‘Cos darlin’ you’re unsafe at any speed.

3. I thought I could get rid of you my love
By burying the past with all its pain,
No matter how deep down I dug
All those leaks I could not plug
You keep seeping through the fissures of my brain.

Ch: You’re just like the nuclear industry
You wanted to control me from the start,
I trusted you too much
But now I’ve felt your fatal touch
And you’ve melted down the core of my heart
.

from NIRS.org (AP photo)

If it was the Spring of 1979 when the singing cowboy entered our living room and my heart, then his gift couldn’t have been more timely. The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas was playing to packed houses as the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was melting down in real time. We leafletted audiences as they came out of the movie theaters in a daze, and dozens of people were calling the CANT office, thanking us for what we were doing and asking how they could help. Dean Rainey sat down and wrote this gem of a song, which, as I recall, he performed live with a companion piece for at least one of our anti-nuclear rallies.

I waited until now to say his name because I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t remember it. When we asked our friend Michael, who still lives in Albuquerque, if he remembered that day he did, and said that he thought the talented singer-songwriter was Tommy O’Connor, who had been based in Santa Fe, but who had passed away a few years ago. But just this evening I found a flyer with the lyrics of this song on it, and the composer listed as Dean Rainey.

It has taken me more 50 years to share a recording of Heart Core Meltdown, for which at the time I was full of promises to help him find an agent and get made into a hit. This recording is at a third remove from the original audiocassette, re-copied by Andrew onto another cassette tape about ten years ago and then re-recorded and digitized last weekend by our dear friend, storyteller Norah Dooley. Technologically challenged as I am, I will attempt to make a better-quality recording: I owe it to Dean.

Maybe the singing cowboy wasn’t a Texas cowboy at all; if so, it was my ignorance that prevented me from seeing him fully. The enigmatic stranger performed another of his compositions for us that day, as timely and as brilliant as the first, this one with a reggae rhythm. A post on “The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)” will be forthcoming as soon as I have a digital recording of it.

Thank you, Dean, for your generous gift, and please forgive me for my half-century delay.

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On the 2020 A-to-Z Challenge: Fifty Years in the United States

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Media, Notes, Politics, postcolonial, United States, writing on May 4, 2020 at 1:17 am

February 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of my arrival in the United States as a new immigrant. Fifty years seemed momentous, and prompted reflection. Encouraged by Kristin of Finding Eliza (whom I met way back in 2013 during our first Blogging from A to Z April Challenge), I decided to participate in the 2020 Challenge with a theme of the past fifty years in the United States from the perspective of an immigrant–at least, of this immigrant.

Here’s a hyperlinked and annotated list of the month’s posts, from A to Z. Fellow-bloggers, please scroll down for my reflections on the Challenge.

The Theme:
Fifty Years in the United States (an Immigrant’s Perspective)

America
Fifty years after arriving in this country, I try to speak truthfully about what “America” evokes in me, and why.

Bangladesh
In which I recount the terrible events in 1970 that led to the birth of Bangladesh, and the response of the United States

Cooperation
Prompted by recollections of my happy time in a co-op house as an undergraduate, I sing the praises of cooperation rather than competition.

Dual Identities
Back in the 1970s, before multiculturalism, you were one thing or another; I was both: what to do?

The Eighties
In which I reminisce and reflect on the nineteen eighties, the decade dominated by President Reagan but momentous for me for happier personal reasons.

Farming
Living on a small farm for nine years in the 1980s made us acutely aware of the state of American farming.

Graduate School
From the late eighties to the mid-nineties I was engrossed in graduate studies. What was that all about?

Householder
In which I think back on what it was to be a householder, as that stage in life is moving into the rearview mirror

Immigrants
Memories of being an immigrant in the Eighties

John Prine
In the aftermath of John Prine’s death by COVID-19, I play his songs and think of all he has meant to me over the years, including what he has meant to me as an immigrant.

The Kuwait Phenomenon
In which I remember the first Gulf War

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment
Even when migrants choose to leave the countries of their birth, they cannot help longing for beloved people and places left behind. I reflect upon this love and longing, and its impact on the present.

Middle Age
As I move out of middle age, I remember moving into it and consider both external and internal perceptions of that stage in life, particularly for women.

New England and New Mexico
The two regions of the country in which I’ve lived are deeply shaped by Native American history, struggles, and continued presence.

Originals and Adaptations
In which I explore the cultural angst over lost originals as the new millennium approached.

Post-9/11”
In which I explain my objections to the term and describe the climate for Arab and Muslim Americans, South Asians, and Others in general in the aftermath of that tragic event.

Quagmire
This word was used in 2003 to describe the anticipated outcome if the United States were to invade and occupy Iraq, Sadly, those fears and much worse ones were borne out.

Return
In which I reflect on the real and imagined, voluntary or forced, temporary or permanent returns of immigrants to their countries of origin.

Social Media
I document, starting in the 1990s and exploding in the 2000s, how rapidly the internet and various forms of social media changed the way we spent our time and interacted with others.

T_*_*_*_*
A piece of doggerel about the 45th POTUS

Under Pressure
In which I remember the the 44th POTUS and the pressures under which he had to perform.

Violence
United States society is shaped by violence and becoming increasingly militarized.

Water Protectors
In which I document the shocking statistics on the availability and affordability of running water in the United States, and showcase those–often the hardest-hit–who have taken a stand to protect our water as a basic human right.

XR — Extinction Rebellion US
This new, largely youth-led organization demands a rapid and thoroughgoing response to the climate emergency, in the face of government and corporate denial. I discuss the apparent split in the US branch on the urgent issue of environmental justice.

Youth (and Age) in a Changing America
A reflection on the growing diversity of youth in the United States and the most productive and satisfying relationship between youth and age.

Zoom
After this panoramic sweep of the past half-century I zoom back in, back to myself in the present.

The Swift River (photo: Josna Rege)

A-to-Z Reflection: Since, as we well know, March 2020 was the month when the U.S., like the rest of the world, was under stay-at-home and social distancing orders due to COVID-19, the enforced solitude prompted further introspection, not only about my own life but about the condition of the country as a whole.

The disruption and general dis-ease meant that I had not decided in advance what my topics would be, so every day was a bit of a scramble and some of the posts reflect that lack of forethought. Looking back, my mood may well have influenced the gloomy tone that crept into some of them, but I think that the facts warranted it. There may not be as many personal reminiscences as I had initially thought there would be and there are definitely more hyperlinks to supporting documents than I had anticipated, but I hope that overall there’s enough of a balance between public and private, between documentation of events and reflection on them, and enough optimism to inspire first, tentative steps into the uncertain future.

This year I decided at the outset to visit a small group of fellow-participants regularly, and to reciprocate when people visited and comment on my posts. It turned out that technical difficulties prevented me from commenting on blogspot and some other platforms, a problem I solved eventually but by then it was the end of the month.

Thanks to the fellow-bloggers whose posts and comments informed, inspired, and delighted me throughout:
Finding Eliza (My family in the Twenties)
QP & Eye (adventures in the Coddiwomple)
The Curry Apple Orchard (Taking the Hard Road–serialized fiction. I was soon hooked!)
aliceinbloggingland (past, future, and present in time of corona)
Panorama of the Mountains (two challenges: reviews of documentares and favorite movies)
All Things Must Pass (personal and philosophical reflections)
Sharon Cathcart (Facts about Pompei)
United States Hypocrisy (examples of same)
To My Recollection (Haikus and other short poems)
365 Days (a daily photographs)

Apologies to Time and Tide (My Favorite Things to Counter COVID-19 Stress) The Old Shelter (Living the Twenties), and My Ordinary Moments (childhood and grandfather’s garden) for missing you due to difficulties posting comments. I hope to return and catch up in the weeks to come, as also with late-in-the-month finds: Discovering Mom (Remembering the author’s late mother) and Sonia’s Musings (Laugh in the Time of Corona: on Indian stand-up comedians and comedy channels).

Thanks to fellow-bloggers who visited despite not participating in the Challenge this year: Calmgrove (prolific and inspiring book reviews), and Epiphany (doing an A-Z of her own in May); to Anna and Marianne, dear friends who visited and commented faithfully; and to Andrew for his proofreading and forbearance. (All lapses, both in language and in judgement, are of course mine.) And Congratulations to J Lenni Dorner and the whole A-to-Z Challenge team for your hard work, good energy, and a great ride!

Stay safe, everyone, and keep writing!

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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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474. Water Protectors

In blogs and blogging, Nature, Politics, postcolonial, United States on April 29, 2020 at 4:13 am

This is the twenty-third 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.

When my family moved to the United States from India, the daily ritual of collecting, boiling, and cooling water was no longer necessary and we soon took drinking water on tap for granted (see TMA 87, Thanda Thanda Pani or, You Never Miss Your Water). In 2015 the shocking story of the contamination of the water system in Flint, Michigan made national headlines with high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals (here’s an update on the situation). But Flint wasn’t unique: a 2018 study found that during the height of the Flint water crisis, water systems across the country serving 21 million Americans were also in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Flint residents Melissa and Adam Mays prepare meals with bottled water. (Brittany Greeson)

Not only is the problem of contamination widespread in many municipalities, but so is the problem of high water utility bills, prohibitively high for many low-income residents. A 2018 survey by Food and Water Watch found that 15 million U.S. residents had had their water shut off in 2016, or 1 in 20 households. These shut-offs hit communities of color particularly hard. By October 31, 2019, more than 10% of the households in Detroit were already on water payment plans and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had turned off the water supply to more than 25,000 accounts. Since then they have restored more than half of them, but as of mid-January 2020 there were still more than 10,000 households without water.

Even worse than the American homes where the town water has been shut off are those that do not have running water at all. Closing the Water Gap in the United States, a November 2019 report by the U.S. Water Alliance and the non-profit Dig Deep (whose Navajo Water Project aims to bring running water and solar power to families on the Navajo Nation) found that more than two million Americans live in homes without tap water or flushing toilets…and Native Americans are the group most likely to be without them. Out of every 1,000 Native American households, 58 of them have no plumbing, while the same is true for only three in a thousand white households. In the COVID-19 pandemic, remedying this dire situation is becoming a matter of life and death.

Nancy Bitsue, an elderly member of the Navajo Nation, receives her monthly water delivery in Thoreau, New Mexico.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

According to April 2020 data analysis by Food and Water Watch and the Guardian, despite the fact that hand-washing is critically important to preventing the spread of the coronavirus, water utilities have not yet pledged to suspend water shut-offs for two-fifths of the houses they supply, and an even smaller percent have pledged to reconnect the water to the households who have already suffered shut-offs. With the millions of Americans losing their jobs, mass shut-offs loom unless the utilities can be pressured to change course. Consumer Reports is calling for a nationwide moratorium on water shut-offs during the COVID-19 pandemic, which you can sign here.

But this isn’t just a story of gloom and doom. Those facing the water crisis most directly are also the ones who have been on the front lines of the fight to protect our precious water supply, and none of us can afford to stay on the sidelines. In November 2019, saying, Water is a basic human right, the newly elected Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot announced that the city would stop shutting off water due to unpaid water bills, and would offer reduced rates, payment plans, and forgiveness of backlogged payments for the poorest households.

The struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) drew representatives from more than 50 tribes and their allies from across the land to stand together to stop an 1200-mile oil pipeline running across four states and under a Missouri River reservoir that would threaten the water supply of the standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as violate several sacred sites and burial grounds. On August 4, 2016, after the Army Corps of Engineers approved that section of the pipeline with inadequate consultation of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the tribe sued the Corps. For the next six months, people answered the call to take a stand with the Lakota people as Water Protectors. They faced attacks by dogs, tear gas, and the police in bitter cold temperatures as they set up camp on the land which was slated for the bulldozers. Standing Rock came to stand for protecting the life-giving water that sustains us all. Here is a timeline of that period, and Honor the Earth’s Winona La Duke talking about it.

When President Trump took office in January 2017 one of his first actions was to issue an executive order to the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the approval process for the project. Within two weeks, it was duly approved. The Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes whose lands and people are downstream of the site sought a restraining order in court, but it was denied. The legal battle continued and so did the encampment of water protectors, until February 22nd, 2017, when the North Dakota governor ordered the protestors to leave and March 7th, 2017, when the U.S district court denied the tribes’ motion for an injunction.

Victory: Decision cites risks of pipeline spills to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. But the fight was still not over. On March 25, 2020, a federal court ruled in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and struck down the federal permits for DAPL, citing “significant unresolved concerns about the potential impacts of oil spills and the likelihood that one could take place.” Said Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, “This validates everything the Tribe has been saying all along about the risk of oil spills to the people of Standing Rock. We will continue to see this through until DAPL has finally been shut down.”

As COVID-19 threatens Native American reservations across the land, it is important to join and support the continuing struggles against leaky oil pipelines as well as the effort to provide adequate health services and running water to the most vulnerable Americans. Honor the Earth is another excellent organization to support, as they seek reinforcements in the battle against the Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota this summer, along with all indigenous people’s resistance and alternatives to projects that endanger our water and our very lives. They must not stand alone.

DIG DEEP U.S. Water Alliance

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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)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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