Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

394. Scattergram, Spring 2017

In Books, Music, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Words & phrases on January 14, 2017 at 4:33 am
Robert Rauschenberg, Scattergram

Rauschenberg, “Scattergram”

My Spring teaching semester begins right after Martin Luther King Day, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States (there, I said itfollowing hard on its heels. As I find myself struggling to bring order to my mental landscape, the word scattergram comes, unbidden, to mind.

scattergram would require me to map my wayward thoughts in relation to something fixed. But rather than being plotted between two axes, representing dependent or independent variables, everything appears to be in total disarray. Nothing can be held steady, allowing other variables to be plotted in relation to it. Even scattered is too controlled—splattered, more like it.

No matter, I must posit order; let the horizontal axis be calendar time, the vertical, hours per day or hours per week. There looms a 15-week semester moving inexorably onward into May, with four courses (3 different preparations) running—galloping—concurrently, three of them twice a week each, the fourth, blessedly, only once. Here they are, with their attendant syllabi and lesson plans and work schedules, their assignments and office hours, their grading, grading, grading. Subject matter is another diagram altogether, but of course it will color the whole experience, mine and my students’, in and out of the classroom.

shoppingThe courses will inevitably overlap with each other. Concepts of freedom and unfreedom frame my two first-year composition courses, with a focus on incarceration in the United States, mass imprisonment of black Americans, black men in particular, disenfranchising them all over again: The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander describes and amply demonstrates. The ideas in these two courses can be further illuminated through the lenses of the third, contemporary theory. To Jean Beaudrillard, U.S. society is itself carceral, though Americans will do almost anything to avoid facing this fact, with “truth” becoming a non-issue in the age of the hyperreal, when media images no longer need to correspond to any underlying reality. 


Michel Foucault’s genealogies of prisons and punishment trace the advent of “corrections” and the rise of all-seeing surveillance, epitomized by the panopticonStuart Hall, author of Policing the Crisisredefines “black” and unites in resistance the diverse new ethnicities of contemporary Britain. The fourth course, my weekly Special Topics seminar, after dragging us, bedraggled and grief-benumbed, through the wake of terror, helps us come to some kind of healing through art—and through humanity, I hope, bedeviled though we are.


Sure, we’re scattered, shattered, shell-shocked, mud-bespattered. But we’d best take heart, bestir ourselves and coalesce, soldiering on through the blighted landscape, casting a smattering of light upon these benighted post-truth times. 


Come Together

from (Abramsky)

from (Abramsky)

 Belay there, me hearties! Let’s Work Together.

(And why have I just used so many words with the prefix “be-“? Begorrah, I cannot say.)

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393. Flying those Flags

In Britain, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on December 4, 2016 at 3:25 am
Eddie Izzard's Do You Have a Flag?

Eddie Izzard’s Do You Have a Flag?

I’ll try to keep this brief, because to me it’s cut-and-dried. Hampshire College has folded, following a firestorm of protests and threats, and has re-flown the American flag on its campus. I have not followed the controversy closely, but I want to make one observation: private colleges in the United States are not required to display the national flag.

As a student of nationalism, I feel compelled to note that although pennants and flags have long been used as signals (as in semaphore) and to identify armies in battle, national flags are very recent developments in world history, only dating back to the late eighteenth century, and not becoming universal until the 19th century. Rectangular pieces of fabric bearing national insignia, they have become potent patriotic symbols that often carry strong military associations, but it is important to remember that they are just that, symbols, displayed on bits of cloth and mounted on poles—or, in one of my favorite songs, printed on plastic and plastered on cars.

Allow me, and yourself, a little levity: watch Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, “Do You have a Flag?” performed here by the comedian himself, and here by Lego men. Now treat yourself to John Prine’s classic song from his first album, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. Back in 1971, he was referring to the Vietnam War when he said, in the next line, “It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war”; but unfortunately it’s all the more resonant in this brave new world of perpetual war.

I recall with sadness the great Indian philosopher poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote Jana Gana Mana, the song that has become the nation’s national anthem. (He also wrote Amar Sonar Bangla, the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh.) I can’t hear Jana Gana Mana without getting overcome by nostalgia—love for India, the aspirations of the–then newly independent nation, and memories of singing it at the top of my ten-year-old voice every time I went to the cinema with my father (the flag billowing on the screen for 52 seconds just before the running of the birth control advertisements: do ya teen—bas!). Tagore was a great patriot with a deep love for his country. But as he grew older, and began to understand what horrors nationalism was capable of wreaking, he came to see it as a modern scourge, and spoke out strongly and insistently against it. For this he was attacked and vilified by many of his compatriots, just as those who dare to question the military adventures of the United Statestoday are attacked and vilified as anti-national. As Tagore said in 1908, “I will never allow nationalism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” For both yesterday and today, his words warn us of the danger and the travesty of bestowing upon a state apparatus and its symbols the love best reserved for our fellow human beings, the reverence best reserved for all things sacred.

While the British once paraded their flag with overblown pomp and ceremony as a symbol of their imperial power, now their erstwhile colonial subjects, rather than turning away from such vainglorious displays of worldly power, seek to reproduce them with a vengeance.

The Indian Supreme Court has just ruled that the national flag must be displayed in all movie theaters, and the national anthem played to a standing audience before film screenings. While in my childhood innocence I sprang to my feet and sang with all my heart, now it chills me to see that ritual made mandatory by the highest court in the land.

I opened with a reminder that private colleges—and indeed, private individuals—are not required to fly the national flag. In closing, permit me another reminder: the last time I checked, the United States was a free country, whose constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech included the freedom to question such symbols of military might. To the extent that the flag stands for freedom for us all, long may it wave! But to the extent that it stands for Might over Right, I must say, like Rabindranath Tagore, that it does not stand for me.

Oh, and another song: U.S. Blues.

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390. When You’re Pulled Over

In 2000s, Politics, Stories, United States on September 3, 2016 at 3:04 pm


My heart is still pounding. This morning, en route to my parents’ house from the rehab facility where my father is convalescing, I suddenly became aware of a police car behind me. I had noticed the car earlier, but it had pulled someone else over, so I had driven on by in some relief, until I realized that it was now coming for me.

I might have known that the police would be out in force. It is move-in weekend for the returning college students, and traffic was already getting heavy quite early in the day. I admit I was preoccupied, in the midst of calculations as to whether I would have time to stop at the copy shop located dangerously close to the university, prepare a master for copying on my first day of classes, and get back to my mother before her caregiver had to leave. But although I was mindful enough to be respectful to the point of obsequiousness (a lesson learned long ago), although this particular cop was decent and I managed to defuse the situation, it started out charged, escalated rapidly, and came as close to a violent encounter as I would ever want to get.

Here’s how it unfolded, and how it very nearly unraveled: I knew the stretch of road well, because it has been a construction zone for the past hot, dry month, and the road was still stripped down to the dirt, choking passing motorists with billowing clouds of dust. (Why is it that they always seem to time these construction projects to coincide with the return of students in the fall, rather than scheduling them over the summer, when our area is depopulated?) When I saw the blue lights flashing in my rear-view mirror, I knew that I was in a heavy traffic zone and a turning lane to boot, that there was no shoulder or emergency lane, and that it was not a very safe place to stop. Still, after a little hesitation I pulled over as far as I thought I could, switched on my emergency flashers, and rolled down my window to seek guidance from the police officer as to where to go. No joy—he didn’t oblige. So I cracked open the driver’s door to let him know that I needed help; apparently that was a big mistake.

Already overloaded with the flashing lights, my senses were now blasted by a bullhorn, which warned me to stay inside the vehicle. I re-closed the door hastily, and now the officer stepped out and approached me. He told me that Massachusetts law required me to stay in the vehicle if I was pulled over, and to keep my hands on the wheel lest he worry that I had a gun. I had been rummaging in my parents’ glove compartment for their registration, so my hands had had to leave the wheel. His state of high anxiety immediately set up a matching state in me, as I searched my handbag frantically for my driver’s license, and he told me that the car’s registration, which he had already run through the state database, was associated with an expired license. I explained my situation, that it was my parents’ car and that my mother no longer drove.

To be fair, the tension now began ratcheting down as quickly as it had escalated, and he gave me a lecture, returned to his vehicle to check my driving record, and came back to let me off with a warning. I turned off the main road immediately, kicking myself for not having trusted my original instinct to take the back way home.

A Dallas police sergeant takes part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

A Dallas police sergeant takes part in a prayer circle after a Black Lives Matter protest. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

When I got home I looked up the Massachusetts drivers’ manual, the section entitled General Guidelines if You are Stopped By a Police Officer (pp. 111-112). It warns that: “[p]olice officers have reason to be worried about their safety during traffic enforcement. Each year in the United States, a number of police officers are killed and thousands more are assaulted.” Apparently “[d]uring 2013 alone, 2 police officers were killed and 4,335 others were assaulted during traffic pursuits and stops.” Two police officers were killed! I don’t have figures for 2013, but according to the open-source reporting project, Killed by Police, one hundred and sixty-eight people were killed by U.S. law-enforcement officers in attempted traffic or street stops in 2015, or 14% of the 1199 people killed (Reuters, Jan 2, 2016).

“[T]o help reduce the levels of anxiety. . .during a traffic stop” the Massachusetts driver’s manual lists thirteen things you should do. It does not say, by the way, that these things are required by law, just things that could make the police officer less anxious (and therefore, by implication, less likely to shoot you). By the way, I did all but one of them: “Stay in the vehicle (both you and your passengers). Only get out if you are instructed to by the officer.” It’s interesting that if the officer orders one to get out, one is required by law to comply; however, it is not a law, but a guideline, that one should stay in the car unless instructed otherwise. Still, if one wishes to minimize one’s chance of getting killed, it is a damn good idea.

I’m a 60+ year-old female college professor with no history of violence, in a rural part of the state that has virtually no history of violence. Still, just cracking open the car door rapidly escalated the police officer’s anxiety to levels of volatility that we could both feel in our guts; and that, if I had inadvertently made one more false move, might have driven the situation right over the top and out of control. My breathing is quickening again just thinking of that.


What nearly happened to me this morning was a wake-up call. It could happen to anyone at any time, but it happens to black people, and people of color in general, at a dramatically higher rate in proportion to their numbers in the population. If you don’t think so, take a look at The Counted, a website maintained by the British newspaper, The Guardian, that also documents people killed by police in the United States: 730 to date in 2016 alone, 112 of whom were completely unarmed. Of those 730, 365 were classified as white, 180 black, 122 Hispanic/Latino, 15 Asian/Pacific Islander, and 13 Native American. That’s 5.49 per million Native Americans and 4.51 per million Blacks in comparison with 1.84 per million Whites killed by police this year so far.

I’ve been aware of these disproportionately higher numbers for some time, and they amply document the problem, but after today I will no longer be able to go out in the car just enjoying a lovely day. For sure, everyone’s mind should be on the road at all times, but in addition to that alert attentiveness, there will be a dull anxious ache in my stomach as I negotiate the nation’s roadways. While we are all advised to modify our behavior so as to placate the anxious—and armed—police force, my experience today gave me just a taste of the visceral fear that Blacks in the United States must live with at all times.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

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

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

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


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

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

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

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

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

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

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

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

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388. It Wants To Be Found

In Books, Media, Music, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on August 17, 2016 at 2:17 am


Happiness is a warm gun (bang, bang, shoot, shoot)/Happiness is a warm gun, mama
When I hold you in my arms/And I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
—The Beatles

When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a child, the scene that most disturbed me was the diminutive hero Bilbo’s underground encounter with the etiolated Gollum, in which he found the Ring and got away by outwitting (cheating, actually) his opponent in a game of riddles. From then on, Bilbo kept the Ring and he kept it a secret, using it to make himself invisible whenever expedient, and thereby sealing his reputation as a brilliant little burglar. It was clear to me that Bilbo’s behavior, though justifiable, was not altogether ethical, and I even felt sorry for the light-deprived, near-translucent Gollum, left all alone in the underground tunnels without his “Precious.”

Gollum’s hissing to himself, “What has it got in its pocketses, my Preciousssss?” filled me with a terrible fascination, followed by the chilling realization that it wasn’t his own precious Self he was referring to, but the possession he had come to prize more than his own soul. In fact, his “Precious” was precisely what was in Bilbo’s pockets.

But the most terrifying realization came in the later Ring Trilogy, when it became clear that the possession of the One Ring had not only turned the benign Sméagol—once a harmless hobbit himself—into the slinking, sniveling, cringing, cadaverous Gollum, but threatened to do the same to anyone who held onto it for any length of time. How did it do this? It made its possessor feel powerful and it made him feel safe, especially when slipped on his finger, cloaking him in invisibility. But in fact, the feeling of safety conjured up by the Ring in his pocket was entirely false.

Here, in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf warns Frodo of the Ring’s active desire to be reunited with its true master.

You must remember, Frodo, the ring is trying to get back to its master…. it wants to be found.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo had found himself continually fiddling with the Ring while it was in his pocket, and on occasion it even seemed to slip itself onto his finger. The same thing happened to his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. The Ring actually compelled its wearer to slip it on, thereby making him, far from invisible, hyper-visible to the Dark Lord; far from a powerful agent, it made him an instrument of another’s evil designs.


Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also pull the finger.
                                                                      —Leonard Berkowitz

It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” goes the ubiquitous anti-gun-control slogan. But what Leonard Berkowitz, the late, eminent professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, found was precisely the opposite: the mere presence of guns in a given space excited and incited greater aggression. It came to be known as the weapons effect. The proximity of a trigger made a person want to pull it. Like the possessor of the Ring of Power, far from making him safer, it exposed both him and others to much greater danger. He became hyper-visible, because having a gun—in some studies, just seeing one—made him want to shoot it.

Guns do kill people, because, as with the Ring of Power, being in the presence of their terrible power evokes the desire to wield it. Sadly, one may not realize until too late that one is not the possessor, but the possessed. Efforts to conceal the weapon will be futile, because it wants to be found.


Let’s not just leave things here, ascribing intent to the instrument but leaving its lord and master unnamed.

In the aftermath of the December, 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there was plenty of talk of the deranged shooter and the need to prevent the sale of guns to the mentally ill. What was almost never mentioned was the curious fact that Newtown, Connecticut is also the headquarters of the NSSF, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, just three miles away from the elementary school. The NSSF is a non-profit organization, the trade association for the firearms industry and its foremost lobbying group, in recent years outspending even the NRA, the National Rifle Association.


The NSSF’s mission is “to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.” But its logo, with green deer, pine trees, and hunters with protective earmuffs, and its accompanying slogan: Promote · Protect · Preserve, suggest something very different from a trade association, more like an environmental conservation association. What purports to promote gun safety simply promotes more guns; as another of its slogans puts it more starkly: Always shooting for more. (See the Gun Violence Archive for more information on gun-related incidents in the U.S., including mass shootings.)

The NSSF runs and publicizes shooting ranges all over the country. Its website has a handy-dandy feature that allows you to find the range closest to you. Adam Lanza’s mother, a gun enthusiast herself, had taken him and his brother to one of these shooting ranges, where he learned how to wield the weapons he later took from her hoard to shoot and kill her and 26 others, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The New Republic ran an article soon after the shooting that made the link between the NSSF and the Sandy Hook mass shooting. However, it disavowed any suggestion of causation, that the presence of the NSSF headquarters in Newtown had anything to do with the young man’s shooting spree. Instead, it merely noted that there was “a certain tragic irony to it.”

It seems to me that this link underscores the illusory nature of the sense of safety conferred by the possession of a weapon. The NSSF claims to be all about safety: teaching people to use weapons safely at shooting ranges, even running youth programs that promote the responsible use of firearms. But what happened in the very belly of the beast? A mother took her son to one of these shooting ranges, and he made full use of his training, right in the backyard of the outfit that promotes them. What was touted in the name of safety and protection was in fact the very instrument of death and destruction, both for the de-ranged young shooter and for his innocent victims. As Gandalf noted: “The Ring is always trying to get back to its master”. To know its true nature, we would do well to track the smoking gun back to its source (bang, bang, shoot, shoot).

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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


“Perpetuating Oriental Stereotypes” (

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”?


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?


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 (

UMass students calling for social justice (

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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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

Blogging from A to Z
  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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348. On Tap

In health, Inter/Transnational, Nature, Politics, Stories on November 4, 2015 at 2:10 am
Public drinking fountain in Barcelona, Spain (Matthew Lasar,

Public drinking fountain in Barcelona, Spain (Matthew Lasar,

481212_622906671069266_400505785_nIn class today we discussed the right to clean drinking water and sanitation, declared a universal human right by the United Nations in 2010 as the availability of water was increasingly under threat from global climate change, pollution, and privatization. Appallingly, it is a matter of debate whether water is in fact a right or whether it is a commodity that can be bought and sold. One student expressed delight at having been given “free” drinking water on a recent trip to Italy, in a town where the water supply had temporarily been contaminated. We talked about the idea of the Commons, and certain ancient and inalienable rights, such as the right to grazing and to water for humans and cattle. Young people in the United States are so used to buying bottled water that the notion of public water fountains in the town square is quaint: delightful, but a little dangerous.

Another student mentioned that her family has their own well which supplies them with fresh drinking water. Her boyfriend’s family, who have an expensive built-in filtration system for their town-supplied water, were shocked to see her drink straight from the tap. This is in the United States, where, with rare exceptions, the public water supply is perfectly safe to drink. But insidiously, ordinary water—unbottled, free—is becoming the exception rather than the norm.

p.txtMany universities in the United States and Canada are locked into 10-year Cold Beverage Agreements with companies like Coca-Cola as the sole providers of all their beverages, including bottled water. When our Global Studies Program organizes a catered event on campus, we ask for tap water in glass jugs instead of bottled water, but one has to know to ask, and it isn’t second-nature to do so anymore. Thankfully, student and community organizations are beginning to seek bans on bottled water and are winning.

Although technically, water is a renewable resource, the world’s water supply is finite and we waste it at our peril. Once used, it can take a very long time to return through the water cycle. Even if we switch to tap water from the bottle, we can’t take for granted that it will always be on tap. Worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. We must conserve it and we must keep it in the public domain.

(AP photo from

AP photo (

Raising a glass of precious water to us all on this planet.

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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

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from



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 (

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

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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