Meeting The Children (And Grandchildren) Of ‘Celebrities’

Have I told you about the time I met Richard Wright‘s grandson at an academic conference? A few seconds after we had begun conversing, I blurted out, “Your grandfather changed my life, my perception of this world; I saw and understood myself differently once I had read Native Son.” My interlocutor thanked me politely; he smiled; we talked a bit more about his project to make a documentary on whale hunting, and the pressing need to conserve those majestic leviathans of the deep. As our little meeting concluded, I half-jokingly offered my services as a volunteer assistant for his project. He promised to stay in touch.

Then there was the time when, strolling down a brownstone-lined street in Brooklyn on my way to my gym, I passed, for the umpteenth time, a man strumming on his stoop–on one occasion, a mandolin, on another, a ukulele, and of course, a guitar. Finally, one day, I stopped and struck up a conversation. A few minutes later, I had been informed the gentleman I was speaking bore the last name Westmoreland. When I asked, ‘That Westmoreland?,” back came the answer: ‘Yup.’ I was talking to the son of William Westmoreland, the man who conducted the Vietnam War for many gory and increasingly pointless years. But, as his son assured me, the last word on that sorry business has not been written yet; perhaps some vindication might yet make its way to his father.

And then, of course, my daughter goes to daycare with Amartya Sen‘s grandson; his mother, Sen’s daughter, is a friend of ours. We do the things that parents of children who are friends with each other do: playdates, birthday parties, impromptu dinners. Sometimes I hear that the great economist himself stopped over at her place for a quick visit, on his way, perhaps, to another keynote address or to receive another award. (Someday, I hope to run into him and press copies of my cricket books into his hands; I’ve heard he is a fan of the game and might be tempted to check these. I hold little hope that he would be interested in my academic writings.)

Encounters with the children of celebrities are a curious business. You make indirect contact with ‘fame,’ with ‘achievement,’ with ‘success’; you sense, dimly, a glimpse of the distinctive life that they live (or lived.) You feel, as an undercurrent running through your encounters, a brush with ‘history.’ If you are so inclined, you might grasp at these insubstantial offerings, and revel in them. Celebrity spotting of any kind, even with a twist like the one noted here, is always great party-conversation fodder. But you also come to realize a simple fact about the human condition, about the gulf that separates us from other individuals. These folks, your ‘friends’ of a kind, are gloriously distinct and separable from their celebrity ancestors; they live their own lives; they are their own persons. Talk with them all you want: you won’t get an autograph; the fame they might have  known intimately won’t rub off on you.

Heard The One About Fascists, Socialists, And Murderers?

In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (W. W. Norton, New York, 2006, pp. 6-7), Amartya Sen, in the course of asserting how ‘our freedom to assert our personal identities can sometimes be extraordinarily limited in the eyes of others’, slips in the following:

[S]ometimes we may not even be fully aware how others identify us, which may differ from self-perception. There is an interesting lesson in an old Italian story–from the 1920s when support for fascist politics was spreading rapidly across Italy–concerning a political recruiter from the Fascist Party arguing with a rural socialist that he should join the Fascist Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Fascist Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Fascist recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the rural socialist, “if your father had been a murderer and your grandfather had also been a murderer? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Fascist Party.”

Dunno about you, but when I read this, I chuckled long and hard. This is genuinely knee-slapping stuff.

Analyzing a ‘joke’ is a decidedly unfunny business, but I’m going to press on regardless.  There are three levels on which this story ‘works.’

First, of course, is the partisan one. We laugh because we think the Fascist recruiter, the representative of a murderous regime, received a rather effective and witty, even if perhaps unwitting, comeuppance from someone he might have considered his political and intellectual inferior. It’s good to laugh at Fascists–pompous, brownshirted, jackbooted types, all of them.

Second, the story conveys the impeccable logic of both interlocutors quite well. The Fascist recruiter, as Sen notes, picks apart the ‘fallacy’ of the socialist: Why should your ancestors’ political commitments be so determinative of your current political commitments? The socialist, in response, relies on a supposedly inductive extension of what seem to be his family’s predelictions in the counterfactual state just described for him: All members of this clan thus far indulge in activity X, therefore so will I (in the current political manifestation of X.)

Third, and this might be the reason for the story’s enduring appeal, we recognize within it an abstract formal schema that can be pressed into service across variations in time and space and political commitment. This may be easily demonstrated by my twist on the tale:

There is an interesting lesson in an old American folktale–from the early 2000s when support for Republican Party politics was spreading rapidly across the US–concerning a political recruiter from the Republican Party arguing with an urban progressive that he should join the Republican Party instead. “How can I,” said the potential recruit, “join your party? My father was a socialist . My grandfather was a socialist. I cannot really join the Republican Party.” “What kind of argument is this?” said the Republican Party recruiter, reasonably enough. “What would you have done,” he asked the urban progressive, “if your father had been a hypocritical sexist racist and your grandfather had also been a hypocritical sexist racist? What would you have done then?” “Ah, then,” said the potential recruit, “then, of course, I would have joined the Republican Party.”

 

 

 

Traveling With the Right Kind of Passport

Amartya Sen introduces us to his Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny with the following rather well-known little story:

Some years ago when I was returning to England from a short trip abroad (I was then Master of Trinity College in Cambridge), the immigration officer at Heathrow, who scrutinized my Indian passport rather thoroughly, posed a philosophical question of some intricacy. Looking at my home address on the immigration form, he asked me whether the Master, whose hospitality I evidently enjoyed, was a close friend of mine. This gave me pause since it was not altogether clear to me whether I could claim to be a friend of myself. On some reflection, I came to the conclusion that the answer must be yes, since I often treat myself in a fairly friendly way, and furthermore, when I say silly things, I can immediately see that with friends like me, I do not need any enemies. Since all this took some time to work out, the immigration officer wanted to know why exactly did I hesitate, and in particular whether there was some irregularity in my being in Britain.

The petty harassment and humiliation at this story’s core–caused by the failure of imagination on the the immigration officer’s part–is here artfully pressed into service as prologue for a philosophical discussion of the problem of identity; Sen does not dwell on it any longer.

Sen’s story does however remind us that passports, markers of citizenship, serve as guarantors of convenience and bulwarks against all kinds of threats, including the psychic ones that Sen was subjected to above. When I became an American citizen in December 2000, and began traveling with an American passport (my first journey with it was to New Zealand in March 2001), I suddenly became aware of how significantly the anxiety I associated with overseas travel had been attenuated: my pre-travel preparations became shorter; I did not have to deal with queues at consulates and embassies; I did not have to decipher bureaucratic documents to figure out visa requirements; I did not have to subject myself to inane questioning from immigration officers; and so on.

The world suddenly appeared a much more tractable space. Nothing about me, as far as I could tell, had changed: I professed the same political and religious beliefs; my physical composition–give or take a few pounds–was the same; but I was now a much more desirable person, no longer a possible societal threat, a possible burden on the exchequer of those nations who had sought extensive bank guarantees before granting me even a tourist visa.

Shortly after I became an American citizen, a friend of mine caustically suggested I had been lazy and insufficiently “loyal” to my former nation. I was stung at first, but then forgave him. He did, after all, travel with a European Union passport.

Note: Ironically, since obtaining US citizenship, the one country I did have to get a visa for was my country of former citizenship, India. My trials and travails with the processes that entailed have been described before on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wanted: Moar Philosophers in Bollywood

A few days ago, a delightful oddity began making the rounds: a clip of Bertrand Russell in a Bollywood movie.  The background for this clip is straightforward even if improbable:

The year was 1967. Russell was by then a very frail 95-year-old man. Besides finishing work on his three-volume autobiography, Russell was devoting much of his remaining time to the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. To that end, he sometimes made himself available to people he thought could help the cause….So when he was asked to appear in a movie called Aman, about a young Indian man who has just received his medical degree in London and wants to go to Japan to help victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell said yes.

The actual conversation between Russell and Rajendra Kumar is quite stilted and staged but still worth a gander nevertheless. Having now witnessed such an encounter though, one’s mind turns quite naturally to the endless opportunities for philosophy-meets-Bollywood, not all of which require the philosophers concerned to just play themselves.

Here are a couple of tentative suggestions:

1. Foucault in Aakrosh: Here, Foucault plays the part of a French expat philosophy professor, now settled in India after originally travelling there as a hippie undergraduate. He has returned time and again to the strange land he has fallen in love with, and slowly come to empathize with the lot of the landless, brutalized, peasant oppressed by feudal landlords. He sees in that sphere of power politics, a visible demonstration of his writings. As Bhaskar Kulkarni the lawyer, struggles to understand why his client Lahanya Bhikhu is speechless, Foucault comes to his aid, helping Kulkarni to understand how the relentless application of power, exerted in multimodal forms upon the body and mind of Lahanya and his family have reached their logical summum bonum: the peasant, having reacted through and via the one visible outlet of power i.e., an act of ‘protective’ violence upon his wife, is now spent and unable to communicate meaningfully. Armed with this knowledge Kulkarni is able to modulate his relationship with Bhikhu, and more importantly, by distributing Foucauldian pamphlets among Bhikhu’s fellow peasants, spark an uprising. At the movie’s end, the peasants gather for a group shaving of their heads in honor of Foucault.

2. Martha Nussbaum in a yet to be made movie: Nussbaum is an American philosopher married to an Indian economist who has returned to his homeland to dabble in politics. Nussbaum plunges into Indian life, naturalizes, and joins in. Soon, this dabbling turns serious, and before she knows it, our heroine is running for parliament on a pro-woman, pro-flourishing platform. She comes under attack from Hindu nationalists, who dismiss her as a a rabble-rousing ignorant, Hinduism-hating foreigner. Nussbaum, however, meets them at their own game, learning Sanskrit, mastering Hindu scriptures and defusing her opponents via a series of brilliant written exegeses and public debates. Her marriage does not last, but Nussbaum does not return to the US, choosing instead to make India her new home, now a true daughter of the soil.