The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.


The ‘True Image Of A Writer’ And Online Writing

Shortly after I first began writing on the ‘Net–way back in 1988–I noticed that there was, very often, a marked contrast between the online and offline personas of some of the writers I encountered online. (I am referring to a small subset of the writers I read online; these were folks who worked with me in campus research labs but also wrote actively on Usenet newsgroups.) One of the most stunning contrasts was provided by a pair of young men, who were both brilliant programmers, but also afflicted with terrible stutters. Conversations with them were invariably affairs requiring a great deal of patience on the part of their interlocutors; their stutters very frequently derailed their attempts to coherently communicate. (I had suffered from a stutter myself once, as pre-teen, so I instantly sympathized with them, even as I did my best to decipher their speech at times.)

This was not the case online. Both wrote brilliantly and voluminously online; they wrote long and short pieces; they wrote on politics and technical matters alike with style and verve; they possessed a caustic sense of humor and were not afraid to put it on display. Quite simply, they were different persons online. One of them met his future wife online; she wrote from South America; he from New Jersey; she fell in love with ‘him,’ with his online persona, and traveled to the US to meet him; when she met him in person and encountered his stutter for the first time, she–as she put it herself later–realized it was too late, because she had already fallen in love with him. The unpleasant converse of the situation I describe here is the internet troll, the keyboard warrior, who ‘talks big’ online, and uses the online forum as an outlet for his misanthropy and aggression–all the while being a singularly meek and timid and physically uninspiring person offline. The very anonymity that makes the troll possible is, of course, what lets the silenced and intimidated speak up online. Without exaggeration, my memory of these gentlemen, and of the many other instances I observed of shy and reticent folks finding their voices online, has informed my resistance to facile claims that traditional, in-class, face-to-face education is invariably superior to online education. Any modality of instruction that could provide a voice to the voiceless was doing something right.

In Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (Penguin, New York, 1986) Primo Levi writes:

Anyone who has the opportunity to compare the true image of a writer with what can be deduced from his writings knows how frequently they do not coincide. The delicate investigator of movements of the spirit, vibrant as an oscillating circuit, proves to be a pompous oaf, morbidly full of himself, greedy for money and adulation blind  to his neighbor’s suffering. The orgiastic and sumptuous poet, in Dionysiac communion with the universe, is an abstinent, abstemious little man, not by ascetic choice but by medical prescription.

The ‘true image of the writer’ is an ambiguous notion; online writing has made it just a little more so.

Note: I wonder if Levi had Nietzsche in mind in his second example above.

Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’: Talking About Religion, Identity, And Culture In A Philosophy Classroom

Last week, the students in this semester’s edition of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class began reading and discussing Chaim Potok‘s The Chosen. (We have just concluded our discussions of Chapters 1-5 i.e., Book One, which details the initial encounters between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, the book’s central protagonists.) I had not read the novel before the semester began, and had placed it on this semester’s reading list–the organizing theme is ‘the religious novel and its intersections with identity and culture’–on the recommendations of some friends who had. Thus far, this has been an exceedingly good move; I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to any other philosophers looking to place fiction on their reading lists.

This is because, as might be suspected, the book provides ample material to spark philosophical discussion in the classroom–Potok was a philosopher by training, and it shows. I had not looked at his biography too closely before the semester began, but once I began reading the book, it was blindingly obvious to me that the author had either studied philosophy extensively or was an academic himself. (The central give-away for me was the mentioning of Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica by Danny Saunders as he describes his intellectual interests and career plans to Reuven.) Literary critics might complain about the heavy-handedness of the symbolism employed in these preliminary chapters but philosophy teachers will not complain about the fairly explicit invitation to delve into the questions of how religious faith and practice inform our sense of self, what their limits are, and how intra-group differences can be more sharply drawn than even inter-group ones. Many of my students come from backgrounds where religion has formed an integral part of their upbringing; some have attended Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish parochial schools so they can relate quite easily to the yeshiva-educated central characters of The Chosen. (It does not hurt that the novel is set in Brooklyn itself.). These students have a diverse set of reactions to the influence of their parochial education on their identities; their discussion of the themes The Chosen focuses on lets them draw upon their personal experiences in their reactions to it.

The selection of The Chosen for a philosophy class also makes an acute topical sense in these times, for the opening chapters permit an examination of the peculiar position of a minority culture–one made up of refugees and their descendants–surrounded by a dominant one, one to which it feels it must prove itself in times of war and greater patriotism, even if at the cost of having to make adjustments to its dominant sense of priorities and norms. The use of a baseball game, the playing of which takes up the entire first chapter, allowed for a discussion of the intersections of nationalism and sport too–how and why does the sport field function as a proving ground for ideological claims?

I’ve often written on this blog on how fiction helps my teaching of philosophy; the opening weeks of this semester have offered a gratifying confirmation of that claim.

‘But I Am From Brooklyn’

A few days ago, I reported–on Facebook, where else–a conversation with my daughter that went something like this:

Her: Papa, where’s India?
Me: It’s a country in Asia, sweetie, on the other side of the world.
Her: We can drive there?
Me: No, we have to fly. I was born there, you know. I’m from India.
Her: But I’m from Brooklyn.

Predictably, this evoked amused and approving reactions from my friends: my daughter’s precocity of expression stood revealed. (The slight sass in her response had something to do with it, I’m sure.) My daughter’s “but,” expressed with some incredulity, is the kicker. If I am ‘from India,’ then shouldn’t she be ‘from’ there too? But she isn’t. At least one part of the supposed parental transmission of identity from me to her that was supposed to take place hasn’t. She is brown, she looks like me, we are of the same nationality as far as travel documents go, but she is not ‘from’ where I am ‘from.’  She was born in Brooklyn, she lives here; she returns to Brooklyn when she travels; she is ‘from’ here.

This conversation reminded me of one I had with my brother regarding a pair of friends of his, the children of a philosophy professor who, after working at Michigan State University for several years, had returned to India to take up an academic position in New Delhi. One day, during dinner, my brother referred to them as ‘American.’ This caused me some bewilderment; the boys were clearly ‘Indian,’ for they looked like us. They did, however, speak English with an American accent, but that did not seem to change the fact that their names sounded very Indian, they lived in India, and their parents were Indian. Why were they American? My brother said it was because they had American passports; they were American citizens. But, I persisted, that just meant they used American passports to travel. They were still Indian, surely. My brother, with some brusqueness, terminated the conversation with a quick “No, they are American; that is their nationality.”

We were offering contesting visions of an aspect of personal identity. My brother took identity to be a matter of citizenship, and the passport you carried; I took it to be derived, through some organic, biological process, from one’s parents. You had an Indian name, you had Indian parents, you had Indian features; you were Indian.  My brother had noticed that his friends, though ‘Indian’ in those respects, spoke English differently; they spoke nostalgically of their lives in Michigan; they drank cold milk straight out of a bottle. (No one did that in India; you drank your milk heated over.)

My daughter will be seen as Indian by some, and American by yet others. She might come to see her identity as a curious amalgamation of the two; her name will remind her, often, that her father came ‘from’ elsewhere. Her negotiations between these two aspects of her identity might be tortuous or not. No matter; I hope to be able to observe, and if at possible, inform them as best as I can.

Passing For Pakistani And The Two-Nation Theory

I often pass for Pakistani. In my zipcode, 11218, once supposedly the most ethnically diverse in the US, it isn’t too hard. I speak Urdu, but perhaps more importantly, given Pakistan’s linguistic and ethnic demography, Punjabi; I am brown-skinned (but not all brown folk are alike for I, given my linguistic capacities, cannot pass for Bangladeshi); I can converse, comfortably, about cricket; I slip into stores and buy spices and condiments, asking for them by name, with practiced ease; I order food in restaurants like a seasoned gourmand, entirely willing and able to consume those that include beef in their list of ingredients. I could, with some sleight of hand, even claim I am ‘from Pakistan’; for after all, my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab. I do not lie or dissemble; when asked if I am Pakistani, I say I am not. On one occasion though, on my hearing my response to his question about my origins, my young interlocutor burst out, in some surprise, ‘But you speak Punjabi like a Pakistani!’ Well, I did hone my spoken Punjabi in this city by speaking to Pakistanis.

On most occasions, my passing is not deliberate; I do not intend to deceive. But sometimes I do. Most notably, I did so during a cricket game, the T20 cricket World Cup final in 2007–between India and Pakistan. That day, I had been watching at home, content to cheer on the Indian team in splendid isolation. But thanks to a rare power failure in Brooklyn, the telecast failed. I went looking for relief and succor. I found it in a Pakistani restaurant with a large screen television. Being the solitary Indian fan in a Pakistani stronghold during a cricket world cup final did not suggest itself as a pleasant activity at that moment; I decided to go undercover. I asked for the score in Punjabi; I might even have introduced a tone of solicitousness in my queries about Pakistan’s prospects as they chased the Indian total. When Pakistan lost, I did not celebrate overtly or loudly; I quickly left before texting some jubilant messages to friends in distant locations and time zones.

My passing earns me some easy acceptance in these ‘venues of deception,’ but otherwise no great advantage accrues to me. Neither am I seeking any. I do not think I will be charged more, or refused service, if the fact of my national origin were to be common knowledge. Pakistan and India might have an edgy geopolitical relationship, but the micro interactions that take place in the great subcontinental diaspora tend to be regulated by far more mundane matters. I am not a solitary offender in the passing business. I presume that, just like me, many Pakistanis pass for Indians, and see no reason to loudly and explicitly clarify their nationality or national origin in their otherwise anonymous interactions with Indians and Indian establishments.

Perhaps these easy passages–back and forth–between one supposed identity and the other suggest other zones of contestation of the two-nation theory.