W. E. B DuBois On The Exportation Of Domestic Pathology

In ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, Bedford St. Martins, 1997, pp. 68) W. E. B. DuBois writes:

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

DuBois was, as might be expected from such a perspicuous thinker, onto something here. Just as wars fought overseas invariably come back home to roost, to corrupt and fester domestic realities by injecting into them the same militarism on display elsewhere–witness the policing on display in Ferguson and the awesome militarization soldiers in the War on Drugs are able to employ, so too, are domestic pathologies sooner or later exported overseas. Especially if the political power in question is capable of projecting itself to the furthest reaches of the world. It seeks and finds expression elsewhere; it has the means to do so; its motivating principles and ideologies lend it problematic form.

As DuBois notes, a nation capable of oppressing its own domestic ‘other,’ will have little compunction in translating that contempt into even more murderous form in its foreign policies. Especially if it sees that same ‘other’ present elsewhere. If indigenous people are exterminated at home, their extermination elsewhere will be of little consequence (it comes as little surprise that US foreign policy in Latin American has consistently propped up regimes who have enacted brutal programs of suppression of directed at their indigenous peoples); if people of color and women are denied rights at home, their enslavement elsewhere will matter little if required as a cornerstone of international relations (the long tolerance of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the propping up of dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere pay adequate testimony to this claim). Indeed, the increased ‘otherness’ of the peoples in distant lands may lend the foreign policy an especially brutal and indifferent edge.

It should be small wonder then that the rest of the world looks on with some nervousness at developments in seemingly domestic political matters in the American domain; an America more enlightened in its treatment of citizens at home has taken the first step–no matter how halting and tentative–in extending similar treatment to others who are the subjects of its policies elsewhere.

DuBois knew ‘colored Americans’ would not find respite elsewhere; sooner or later, they would have to fight a power that would soon find them in their new homes. Better to begin that battle now, here.

A Strike At CUNY: The Work Yet To Be Done

Over at CUNYstruggle.org Sean M. Kennedy strikes a sharply critical note of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress’ tactics in their ongoing struggle with CUNY, New York City, and State administrations. Kennedy takes as as his starting point, the recent civil disobedience action staged last week, and on a couple of occasions, calls for a not-ersatz civil disobedience:

[M]any rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law. [link added]

[W]hat does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

[M]any of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Given Kennedy’s explicit and implicit concern for CUNY students, I thought I would offer some notes on my experiences as a student whose faculty went on strike. That experience, I think, highlights my greatest concerns with a union strategy that includes a strike. I’ve voted in favor of a strike, so I’m not against a strike per se; rather, I think, a great deal needs to be done to prepare the ground for a strike. In that sense, I join in Kennedy’s critique of the PSC’s tactics because that work has not been done yet, and neither does it seem to have been planned for; I just come at it from a different perspective than he does, in the hopes of highlighting a concern that is not raised in his post. (The costs of going on a strike do not, for instance, include a mention of the losses to students: delayed graduation, derailment of educational plans, loss of income dependent on graduation etc.)

During my undergraduate days at Delhi University, the faculty went on strike twice. First in my ‘freshman’ year, for thirty-six days; and then, in my second year, for sixty-six days. The local press, as can be imagined, was hostile: the usual complaints about faculty indolence and self-indulgence–these should be familiar to Americans–came flooding in. More importantly, the students responded with anger and confusion: they did not know why the strike was being called; they had not been supplied with any information about the nature of the negotiations between the university administration and the faculty union; university faculty were subject to the same critical view that school teachers in the US often are–those who can’t, teach; and so on.

The result was that university faculty had practically no support–rhetorical or practical–during their strike. (The first strike failed precisely for this reason, thus necessitating a second strike, but it seemed the lessons of the first time had not yet been learned.) Moreover, the students developed an intense  antipathy to the faculty; this came to a head in the second year, for on that occasion, when faculty returned to teach, students boycotted classes. This boycott did not last long but the bad feelings did.

If the PSC wants to call a strike, it must do much more to communicate to the students–and their families–why such a strike is necessary and how it would benefit students and faculty alike. A strike will not succeed if the students don’t support it.

Note: Here is an older post responding to a New York Times article on the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.

Notes On Meditation Practice – I

Last year, after being urged to do so by many–friends, strangers, dissertation adviser–I began a meditation practice. In May 2015 to be precise. I registered for a four-day class, attended four two-hour ‘training sessions,’ and was off and running. Or, rather, I was off and sitting down. Twice a day for twenty minutes at time. The modality of meditation practice that I received instruction in, the so-called Vedic method, appears to be a re-branding  or simple variant of an older technique called transcendental meditation: sit comfortably with your back supported, your head free, your eyes closed, and repeat, silently, a simple word or phrase given to you by your teacher. That is all there to it. There is no counting of breaths, no sitting cross-legged (or in the Lotus Pose.) You can be sitting on a chair or a couch or a park bench (or, as in my case, on a couple of occasions, a seat in a car, subway, or airplane.) You could, if you wanted, just sit up in bed after waking up in the morning, rest your back against a propped up pillow and headboard, and get to meditating.

The mental repetition of the word or phrase supplied by the meditation instructor is crucial; it acts as a kind of block against the intrusion of distracting thoughts and permits the transition to a more quiescent mental state, one which is more placid and less agitated. (It also, interestingly enough, allows access to some very interesting behind-the-eyes imagery.) The ‘mantra’ may be displaced by these thoughts of course, but on noticing that such a displacement has taken place, it should be ‘summoned back’ and the mental repetition should begin anew. The ‘mantra’ is meaningless and deliberately so; a meaningful mantra would induce a distraction all of its own.

I cannot, currently, offer any testimonials to any dramatic changes in my temperament or my physical state–i.e., an empirically verifiable change in some physical parameter–as a result of my meditation practice. However, I will say that I look forward to my two daily meditation sessions–once in the morning, immediately after waking up, and then, once in the evening, at some point before dinner. (On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, my evening session is really an afternoon one, conducted at 3PM or so before I leave the library to go pick up my daughter from daycare; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I meditate in my office after finishing my teaching for the day, and on Saturday and Sunday, I meditate at home, sometimes in the living room, sometimes in my daughter’s room (the only quiet place in our apartment while my girl tears up the rest of the joint.)) I look forward to these sessions because I find them relaxing and useful de-stressers. The morning session seems to compose me for what lies ahead of me; the evening session relaxes me after a day’s stress has started to accumulate. (In that regard, the evening session plays a role similar to my evening walk home from campus.)  Just for that rather simple and yet hugely important reason, I consider my meditation practice an invaluable addition to my daily routine.

In future posts I hope to elaborate on some other subtle effects and changes induced by this practice, and on its relationship to other modalities of self-reconfiguration.

Hating On The Phrase ‘All Lawyered Up’

You’ve heard it in police procedurals on the television and the big screen. I know I heard it in The Killing and The Wire. A couple of weary beat cops or detectives, battling crime on the streets, fighting the noble War on Drugs perhaps, keeping us law-abiding citizens safe from the depredations of the big, bad, mostly black criminals out there, grimly acknowledge that they cannot make a move against a suspect because he is ‘all lawyered up.’ (The Wire threw in the offensive stereotype of the sleazy Jewish lawyer defending criminals for good measure; as noted elsewhere briefly, that show overreaches at some points.)  He has legal counsel; he won’t talk; he won’t confess; he cannot be interrogated in the way the cops would like; he has withdrawn into a safe space, protected by a mere ‘technicality’ called ‘due process.’ A collective groan goes up from the audience: goddamn criminals and their lawyers, artful dodgers both, have slipped loose once again of the restraining strong arm of the law. If only those weasel lawyers would get out of the way, the police, prosecutors, and judges and juries could get on with the business of sending the most decidedly guilty to jail. The ends justify the means, right?

In a nation suffering from a mass incarceration crisis, which arrests twelve million of its citizens every year (defended by fifteen thousand public defenders), where police-induced false and coerced confessions are among the leading cases of wrongful convictions (including homicide cases), whose Supreme Court has systematically eviscerated the rights of criminal defendants in every domain of criminal procedure ranging from initial arrest to admissible evidence to jury instructions, where plea bargains result in innocents serving jail time for crimes they did not commit, the phrase ‘all lawyered up’ must rank as one of its most bizarre cultural productions.

It contributes to, and is part of, a cultural and political state of affairs whereby most Americans imagine that the law is too easy on crime and criminals; that the rich, powerful crook capable of hiring a $500-an-hour defense lawyer is the average arrestee; that the law’s protection of those detained or arrested by the police is a cumbersome obstacle to be bypassed or evaded. It contributes to the buildup of a groundswell of anger and frustration that all too often results in an urge to ‘throw the book’ at defendants, to harsher sentencing regimes, to a vindictive and retributive philosophy of punishment. Many folks possessed by such attitudes do not just serve on juries; they also serve as judges.

The American mass incarceration crisis has many components to it; it is enabled by many systems and agents. Among them is a cultural industry that specializes in keeping us scared and angry and hostile to the rights of our fellow citizens; the police are the thin blue line, restrained and helpless, unable to protect us because the forces of obfuscation and bureaucracy, law and lawyers, waving antiquated scrolls marked ‘Constitution’ and ‘Criminal Procedure’ will only hinder and obstruct the work of angels.

What a crock.

On Meeting An ‘Illiterate’

As my daughter approaches that miraculous stage in her cognitive and intellectual development when reading independently will start to become a possibility, opening up a portal to a world whose outlines she has, with some astonishment and delight, started  to sense, I am reminded of a childhood encounter which first made clear to me the singular importance of literacy.

During my childhood, an annual visit to my grandfather’s home was a much-anticipated event. One of the indulgences that awaited us there was the opportunity to eat food cooked by my grandfather’s faithful cook, Gopal, a long-serving and dedicated worker who had, over the years, perfected his craft to a point where it surpassed my grandmother’s cooking. Now, she supervised the kitchen from a distance, and left its daily operations to him. He awoke early in his quarters adjoining the main residence, fired up the coal braziers used for food preparation, laid out his cooking implements and got to work. Tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea, dinner–these issued from his domain effortlessly, each consumed gratefully and appreciatively by our family. An almost literal icing on the cake were his dessert treats, made for us youngsters on special request. He was supremely indulgent in this regard, ever willing to rustle up some concoction or the other which would artfully deploy sugar or jaggery in manners previously unimagined. We–my cousins and I–saw him as an avuncular figure; there was a great deal of affection and respect in our interactions.

One aspect of this affectionate interaction was a desire on the part of my brother and I to share with him–as best as we could–our lives elsewhere: on air force bases, in New Delhi. To this end, one fine morning, I excitedly called Gopal over to look at a book–borrowed for a four-week loan–from a library in New Delhi. I pointed at an illustration and the caption, which I think, had amused me to no end. Gopal laughed along with me and then, abruptly, he said, “What does it say?” I replied, “Here, take a closer look.” Back came the answer, “No, you tell me; I can’t read it.” I said, “Right, sorry, you don’t know English.” He clarified, “No, I can’t read.”

I stared at him, stunned. Gopal was, at the time, over  fifty years of age. He had just informed me that in all that time, he had never learned to read; he had never read a book, a newspaper, or  even a recipe. He had never sat down to immerse himself in a printed page; he had never traversed those spaces made accessible by reading a book. I considered myself to be possessed of an active imagination but at that moment it failed me; I could not comprehend what such a life could be like. I say this–and thought it–without any condescension; I just did not know what it was like to not read, to be possessed of so much seeming incomprehension.

At that moment, something and someone I considered familiar had become utterly strange; I realized the extent of the gulf that separated my life from Gopal’s; and the extent of my fortunes all over again.   

A Day In Gaol: Protesting Andrew Cuomo’s Attack On CUNY

Yesterday I, along with many other members of the City University of New York’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) participated in a civil disobedience action outside the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Across the street from us, other members held a rally; they waved signs, chanted slogans and marched. We were all protesting New York State (and City’s) slow starvation of CUNY–through persistent budget cuts. (See this earlier report too.) Moreover, faculty and staff have now been without a contract for six years. Given the cost of living increases in New York City, this  means that we have been receiving pay cuts for the past six years.

We marched out as a group in rows, arms linked, and then performed a ‘die-in’ in front of the entrance to the office building. We received three warnings from the NYPD to cease and desist; following our non-compliance, we were all arrested and taken to NYPD’s central office at One Police Plaza for booking and post-arrest processing. (Thankfully, the NYPD was not over-enthusiastic about tightening their plastic hand-cuffs.) The usual tedium ensued: first, we waited in the paddy-wagon before being driven off, then on arrival we waited before disembarking. Once that had happened, we moved slowly through several stages of processing. Identity cards were collected, searches conducted, property–including shoelaces–confiscated for holding, mugshots were taken (with a twist that each arrested person ‘posed’ with his arresting officer.) This done, we were sent to a holding cell. I had been assured by my arresting officer–a Pakistani gentleman with whom I struck up a rolling conversation in Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani-Punjabi–that a new streamlined procedure was being followed and that we would be out quickly, but even then, a wait of approximately four hours was still in store.

As was the case in my previous time spent in a NYPD holding cell, conversation with my cellmates was the saving grace of what would otherwise have been an exercise in boredom. I chatted with, among others: a staff member of CUNY’s Murphy Institute who hailed from a family with four generations of union organizers;  a political theorist who analyzes conservative critiques of capitalism; a doctoral student in sociology writing on race and class in social movements; a Brooklyn College sociology professor specializing in studies of policing and police brutality. (In the paddy-wagon too and while waiting in line for processing, there had been wonderful moments of bonding and camaraderie, including the obligatory rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever.’)

Finally, the moment came, as our arresting officer called us out to pick up our property and court appearance notices (we had been charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’) After doing so, we were escorted out to the precinct gates, where we were greeted by our union colleagues, who had kindly arranged for food and snacks and had held on to our backpacks. I was underdressed as I had not anticipated the sharp drop in temperatures, so I quickly ate a sandwich and headed for the downtown Q train to take me back home. I was in bed around midnight.

The ongoing, seemingly nation-wide, assault on public education is one of the most shameful features of modern American life. It is the true negation of the American dream, a central component of which was the promise to educate, and make possible, a better life for those who could not afford it otherwise. An attack on public education is a political act; it loudly and proudly proclaims an anti-intellectual stance; it says that education is a privilege reserved for those able to pay for it. That is not what CUNY is about, and the faculty and staff here will not let the city and state administration forget it.

Note: These articles by Village Voice writer Nick Pintohere and here–provide more useful background on what is going down at CUNY. This article in the Gotham Gazette reports some of the latest developments in the funding crisis.