Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘United States’ 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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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

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

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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486. Fingerprinted and Found Wanting

In 2000s, Aging, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Work on November 2, 2020 at 2:04 am

immigration fingerprinting (Chris Schneider)

After decades of living in the United States as a Permanent Resident Alien, I began the process of applying for citizenship. I suppose I had waited a long time to take the plunge, so perhaps it was only what I deserved to be kept waiting in turn–interminably, it seemed. I filled out and submitted my application for naturalization back in July 2007, in plenty of time to be able to vote in the 2008 presidential election, or so I thought. But nothing happened for a very long time, and all in all the process took nearly two years. My citizenship test and interview were not scheduled until August, 2008, and it was not until March 2009, when the election had come and long gone and the new president had already been inaugurated, that I finally attended my own inauguration into U.S. citizenship, the mass swearing-in ceremony. But the first sign that the wheels of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) were starting to creak into action had come in mid-December 2007, when I received a letter informing me of my appointment to be fingerprinted.

Both the citizenship interview and the swearing-in took place in Boston, but the fingerprinting operation was in Hartford, Connecticut—a little bit closer to home but, as it turned out, much more alienating. It took place in a crowded, dingy office where I was given the distinct feeling that we were already considered guilty until we could somehow prove otherwise. The waiting area was the most unwelcoming place, rather like an old Greyhound Bus station in the sleaziest part of town. All the applicants—whether pregnant, elderly, or infirm it made no difference—were treated with casual disregard if not outright hostility. Although I knew I was a privileged immigrant and had had an easy time in comparison to many others, in that office I got just a taste of what it felt like to be just one of many miserable supplicants abjectly seeking entry into the most powerful country on earth.

At last my name was called. The man rolling and squishing my inked fingers made no effort to be personable, to soften the humiliating ordeal, and as he worked his irritation seemed to increase. Finally he remarked that my fingerprints were very worn, and managed to make it sound like an act of defiance on my part, or if not, then some kind of character defect. I had been tried and found wanting. Was he suggesting that I had deliberately worn down my prints so as to pervert the course of justice? Or simply saying that I was an inferior specimen? I did my best to disregard him, but again, was given the distinct impression that I was a dirty foreigner who didn’t deserve the honor I had had the presumption to seek.

Apparently bricklayers, who handle rough materials, and secretaries, who handle lots of paper, are the most susceptible to the wearing-down of their fingerprints. In my early 50s by then, I had done both–heavy manual work at the greenhouse and the farm and plenty of paper-handling at the press, not to mention mountains of washing besides. But I was not ashamed of my washerwoman’s hands, evidence of hard work (and of forgetting to wear rubber gloves when I did the dishes). So yes, my fingers were work-worn; what did they want to make of it?

My prints may now be part of a massive digital fingerprint file going right back to the 1990s. In 2018 the USCIS announced a plan to digitize their entire archive of fingerprints taken from applicants for naturalization, in a move to be able to deport people retroactively, even after they have already become U.S. citizens. Just knowing this keeps you on edge which is, no doubt, the intention. Don’t get too settled! You’re still an outsider.

Here are a couple of songs for all the hard-working immigrants out there—Hoyt Axton’s Boney Fingers and the Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth. Hold your heads high. Make no mistake, no matter what Homeland Security and the Border Patrol might say, America needs you; it is not just you who should have to prove yourself worthy, but this country that should have to earn your respect.

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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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480. A Burning

In Books, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases, writing on July 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

I’ve just finished reading A Burning, Indian American writer Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, which I ordered back in June, as soon as I heard about it. Although it ought to have been a quick read, I had to put it down while I met a few deadlines, and only just took it up again this morning, when I read the rest of it all at once. Now here I am, devastated; and impressed, in spite of myself.

I must admit that when I first started reading I was skeptical and prepared to find fault, which is not how I generally approach a novel. Why? Well, partly because of the book design, which featured short line lengths, large type, and short chapters, with short paragraphs separated by lots of asterisks as if it was written to be consumed by an attention-deficit public. As I began reading, it became clear that that was indeed the effect; the book was a page-turner and despite my reservations I soon began to care about the characters.

Small things still niggled, though; I took note of them even while aware that I was being ungenerous. The first was the author’s device of making Lovely, the hijra, a transgender woman and one of the three central characters, continually speak in the present or past continuous tense, as many Indian English speakers tend to do. While this trademark tense, along with Lovely’s many malaproprisms, certainly identified her in the rapid-fire chapter changes (each featuring a different character), I couldn’t help finding it jarring, and being unsure whether it was necessary, since it was so overused and clearly meant to add humor. Were we supposed to be sorry for her or laughing at her? Here’s an example, with Lovely’s own first-person narration:

“Don’t say such things, please,” I am protesting, even though I am secretly thinking that maybe he is right. My performances are always outshining. In fact, I am having the same thought myself. But I am always being humble. “I have to learn a lot more than you,” I am saying to him. (143)

Seven present continuous constructions in five sentences, short sentences at that. But I withheld judgment, and I’m glad I did.

What else grated? Well, Indian novels in English are almost always double-coded. If they use a term unfamiliar to non-Indians they follow it immediately with a descriptive phrase or word of explanation. This makes the work more easily accessible to a wider readership, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much it is done, and whether or not it is desirable to make the readers do a little work and make sense of the word in context or (gasp) look it up in a glossary at the back of the book. This novel either double-codes every possible unfamiliar word or dispenses with it altogether and replaces it with a familiar one. Even Indian street food (at a time when “authentic” global street food is all the rage) has to be translated into terms a global audience would understand, with kadai translated as wok and fresh coriander translated as cilantro. One incidence of double-coding particularly irked me: Jivan’s harried defense lawyer visits his guru. Okay. I think that in 2020, most English-speakers know what a guru is. But this novel is taking no chances: just in case, “my guru” is followed by “my spiritual leader” (106).

The fact that one of the main characters is a hijra: did that bother me? Was I being transphobic? I confess that I mentally raised half an eyebrow when remembering that Anjum, one of the main characters in Arundhati Roy’s last novel, was also a hijra. Were they trying to cash in on the moment, especially in the Global North, or were they helping to bring marginalized voices to the fore? I remember the late Marathi writer Gauri Deshpande’s reaction to Arundhati Roy’s celebrated first novel, The God of Small Things, in which she wondered whether Roy was trying to cater to the West’s appetite for titillation by featuring not only a star-crossed inter-caste love affair and incest between twins but adding child sexual abuse for good measure. Gauri certainly did not make this charge out of political or social conservatism, since her own avant-garde novels challenged class and power inequities and included transgressions likely to simultaneously scandalize and titillate her Indian readers. Ultimately, the test would be in whether these characters were drawn with complexity and whether these elements were essential to the plot.

During the weeks A Burning had to be set aside, I found myself thinking of it from time to time. Did I want to be won over, or did I want my first impressions confirmed? I wasn’t sure. Was I being mean-spirited out of envy of this first-time novelist’s privilege? But hadn’t I been given all the same privileges? And wasn’t I often troubled by the all-too-ready dismissal by writers and critics based in India of the global successes of their fellow writers in the diaspora simply because that success was rarely extended to them, no matter how good they were?

Now that I have finished my first reading of A Burning, I recommend it heartily, despite my initial and admittedly petty reservations. It is a fine novel, fast-paced and powerful. It kept me guessing throughout, filled with hope and dread in equal measure. The three main characters are all drawn with complexity and pathos and I found myself rooting for every one of them. The outcomes for each of them were completely understandable, given their respective situations and the situation in India today; and yet, not entirely inevitable. They could have been different, if only. . .

A Burning couldn’t be more timely, and, as Majumdar herself said in a radio interview shortly after its publication:

I think there are these really close links between what’s happening in India and what’s happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

The title, which somehow felt grammatically off to me at first, also turned out to have been just right on so many levels. Congratulations, Megha Majumdar, for a terrific first novel!

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf, 2020. Buy it from your local independent bookseller.

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478. Sheer Cruelty

In Family, health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on May 14, 2020 at 2:48 pm

 

In 2018, 18.3 million people lived in mixed-status families in the United States. A mixed-status family has at least one member who is an undocumented immigrant. Hundreds of thousands of young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients live in these mixed-status households with one or both parents undocumented as well as younger siblings who are citizens. Everyone in these households is subject to tremendous stress at the best of times, living in poverty, having to keep their precarious status a secret, and living with the knowledge that one of their loved ones could be deported at any time. Even when the citizen children are old enough to sponsor family members there are roadblocks put in their way; and family members who are citizens are frequently denied benefits for which they are eligible.

Soon after Donald Trump took office as President he announced his intention to do away with the DACA program, established by President Obama in 2012 as a stopgap since Congress had been unable to pass the DREAM Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding undocumented Americans. At one point he floated a deal to DACA recipients that he would offer them a path to citizenship in exchange for getting the funding he wanted to build the massive border wall between the U.S. and Mexico . To their credit, DACA recipients refused to throw their even more vulnerable fellow-immigrants under the bus in return for their own security. Now DACA is before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of young people are waiting anxiously for the decision that is due any day now.

Now add the COVID-19 pandemic into this nightmarish situation. Here are two diabolical moves that the administration has made:

First: According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 15.4  million people in mixed-status families who have been denied their federal stimulus checks. Joint filers cannot receive a stimulus check under the CARES Act if one spouse does not have a Social Security Number (SSN). Stimulus checks are even being denied to immigrants who have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of SSNs. According to the Center for Migration Studies, “ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in withheld payroll taxes annually.” Several lawsuits have been filed challenging this CATCH-22, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to exclude someone from financial assistance because of who they married. Meanwhile millions of hardworking people are being denied emergency help.

Lorena Espinoza de Piña, ready for work as a registered nurse

Second: US Foreign-Born Workers by Status and State, and the Global Pandemic, a May, 2020 report from the Center for Migration Studies, shows how many immigrants are putting their lives on the line as essential workers at this time. The report shows that there is a larger percentage of immigrants than US-born Americans working in essential jobs. It lists by state and occupation the numbers of immigrants doing essential work, and breaks it down by immigration status. You can see for yourself how many undocumented Americans are risking their lives taking care of our elderly and sick, cleaning our buildings, and growing and processing our food, among many other essential occupations.

President Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller are itching to crack down even further on immigration, taking advantage of COVID-19 fears to make sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system. In this climate, will the U.S. Supreme Court vote to strike down DACA? According to the Center for American Progress, more than 200,000 DACA recipients alone are working on the front lines of the coronavirus response. Public health experts have made the case to the Court that their deportation would be catastrophic for the nation at this time, vital as they are to the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, it would be catastrophic for them as well and for their families: sheer cruelty.

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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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