Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”

 

 

Punjab, Palestine, Israel: Refugee Resonances

The way I first heard the story of the Jews from my mother it was about refugees, endlessly wandering from expulsion to expulsion, who had finally found a home. The first history of the creation of Israel I read introduced me to the Palestinians; they were refugees too. And I had learned, long before, that I was a Punjabi, from a land which had been divided during the Great Partition of India in 1947, that my ethnic demographic included many who had become refugees during that bloody and violent movement of peoples, that I lived in a city–New Delhi–whose population had grown to accommodate many who had moved there from the former West Punjab, now part of the newly created nation of Pakistan. My father’s family had moved from their older home too, not quite in the dramatic way that refugees moved during the Partition, fleeing murderous mobs: my grandfather had found employment in Central India and moved, calmly and sedately, in 1930; his brothers followed. They were all safely across the border well before 1947. My mother’s family was from the East Punjab; they did not have to move, but they lived through bloody riots in the city of Amritsar on the eastern side. But my father’s family still lost lands–agricultural and residential–in our old home; and so as I grew up, moved around India, and then later, migrated to the US, I could still say with some fidelity to the facts, “My family is from the part of the Punjab now in Pakistan; we were displaced.’ It granted my otherwise rather humdrum biography a little frisson. (There was one refugee story I was told about a pair of my father’s cousins, a boy and a girl, a sister and a brother, who had traveled back by train together but alone during the Partition. The train was stopped by mobs before it could cross the border; the girl, just older than a toddler, hid below the seats, while dead bodies piled up around her. She was pulled out, covered with blood and barely breathing, at the next station. Her brother was beaten and left for dead; so many bones were broken in his body that he never regained the full use of his limbs and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.)

So I found, at some level, the story of Israel and Palestine lay particularly close by; I did not need to move too far in the space of my affective responses to find one that lined up for Israel and Palestine. I was primed to read the story; one part of it–of seeking home–is universal, but other parts are only available to those who have traveled and lost, who can speak of another place other than ‘this one’ as being ‘home.’ Later, I exiled myself voluntarily to another land, losing one home and beginning the hunt to find another. I became another kind of refugee–seeking refuge in an ‘outside’ into which I had cast myself. Stories of refugees were always more meaningful to me than those of other kinds. But not all came to me in the same way.

When I first encountered the story of the Palestinians in the history of the creation of Israel, I skipped past it. I did not want to face up to the grim reality of their refugee camps, of the story that lay behind the black and white photographs of a grimy-faced boy and girl, clad in rags, visible through the barbed wire of the new homes created after 1948. Somehow, I felt overburdened by their tragedy; could it really be possible that the creation of a homeland for a people I knew as refugees would have turned another people into refugees? Israel and the Jews made a powerful claim on my attention and sympathy, drowning out the call of the Palestinian displaced; it left no space for them. The history of the Jews, the Holocaust, the stories of their suffering–they seemed to demand all the empathy I could muster.

But the Palestinians would not go away; they were refugees after all. I heard their stories–at some only dimly perceived level–in my descriptions of myself, in my invocation of a village, and its waters and food and peoples and summers, endlessly and glowingly talked about by my grandfather and my grand-uncles, in the way I would and could claim ethnic solidarity with Punjabi Pakistanis, who now, thanks to a geopolitical tactic, bore a different nationality than me; they all reminded me there was, in my family and life, the touch of the displaced. I had left home too to move to this land of people from elsewhere, who could all, in the right circumstances, dream nostalgically and wistfully of places other than this one. If the Palestinians could not find sympathy in me, living here, in this land, soaked with the tales of the dispossessed and their searches for a place of rest of repose, then where else would they find it?

 

Margaret Sullivan Won’t Miss Five Things About The NYT; Here Are Two More

Margaret Sullivan–“the media columnist for The Washington Post….former Public Editor of The New York Times“–lists the five things she won’t miss about the New York Times:

1. The inherent tension of the job. The whole concept of coming to work every day to handle complaints, and maybe to criticize work done at the next desk over, well . . .

2. New York Times Exceptionalism: The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing. In editorial matters, this manifests itself as, “It’s news when we say it’s news.” Examples: Initially underplaying the Panama Papers; not covering much of the early days of Chelsea Manning’s trial (she was then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning); assigning a reporter to Hillary Clinton more than three years before the election; not digging in early on the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Excellent as it is, The Times is too often self-satisfied. If there’s a fatal flaw – as in Greek tragedy – this may be it.

This is a pretty damning indictment; one that is correct. Nothing else has made the Times look ‘out of touch,’ ‘not with it,’ than its slow-footed response to some of these times’ most important stories–too often, it is left chasing the leaders.

3. Defensiveness. Although The Times runs many corrections and has two staff people, including a senior editor, whose main job is correcting errors, it’s safe to say that many Times journalists find it hard to admit they got something wrong. In fact, what’s much more likely than any such admission is the tendency to double down.

Moreover, it’d be nice if the Times could be better at responding to correspondence that points out factual errors or conflicts of interest.

4. Articles that celebrate the excesses of the 1 percent

This could also have been titled ‘Articles That Provoke A Toxic Brew Of Uncontrolled Mirth And Homicidal Rage.’ Write on the rich and fatuous all you want; just read your copy back to yourself before you publish.

5. Articles or projects that seem to have “Prize Bait” stamped on them. The telltale signs: These pieces are very long, very elaborate, and clearly the product of many months of work. So far, so good. But they seem overwrought.

I can live with this last one.

Now, to add to Sullivan’s list, here are a pair of grouses:

  1. An appalling Op-Ed page, which continues to underwrite a cottage industry of satire and parody and just plain straight-up ridicule. Cluelessness, banality, sophistry, bromides; they are all here. It still remains unbelievable that the Times–with the platform and resources at its disposal–cannot put together a better crew here. (The Times grants ample space on its Op-Ed pages to ‘experts;’ it has no plans to be a Vox Pop even as it seems to work toward that standing through its comments sections.)
  2. Despite the pride the Times takes in its area staff, readers with a background in the regions being reported on often find the Times’ coverage superficial and uncritical. In some areas of coverage–like the Palestinian crisis in Israel or the fraught India-Pakistan relationship–the resultant skewed analysis is damnably poor.

My First Phone Number

I grew up–till the age of eleven–without a telephone in my household. A phone line was a rarity–expensive, hard to obtain with a long waiting line–even for the Indian middle-class, and in any case my family lived for the most part on air force stations. But even when we lived in the city, we made do without a phone. If you wanted to talk to someone, you visited them. Without calling. Sometimes they were at home, sometimes they weren’t. It was an acceptable uncertainty of sorts. If you just had to make a phone call–on the occasion of an emergency for instance–you relied on a neighbor’s generosity to share their phone line with you.  A phone was a big deal; only the select few had one.

Shortly after my father retired from the air force and started a small business, he ‘applied’ for a phone line (these applications were processed by the governmental telecommunications authority, which ‘awarded’ lines on the basis of need); his application specified that the phone would be a necessary accessory to his business, thus hopefully placing it higher in the prioritized queue of potential owners. News of the success of this application–a few months later–was greeted with some incredulity at home; was it really going to be the case that we were going to have that magical instrument at home, one that would let us simply pick up the receiver, dial a few numbers, and talk to friends and family?

Apparently so. Soon enough, a technician showed up to install our phone; cables were run along walls, a phone jack mysteriously appeared, and then, incredibly enough, a phone set itself, complete with black handset–the kind I had seen people cradling up against their ears–and a rotary dial. The moment of truth was here. Our family, our household, would now have a new address, a new association: our phone number.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I still remember it: 61-69-42. I break it up that way because that’s how I remembered it: Six One, Six Nine, Four Two. My mother was the first user of the phone; she called her mother to let her know the news. My father went next, calling an old friend. My brother and I had no one to call; we had never bothered to ask anyone’s phone numbers at school. We didn’t call our friends; why did we need their numbers? Indeed, I did not even know who among my friends owned a phone.

But the next day at school, I came to know who did. I told my classmates I had a new phone number, proudly rattling off its magical digits–there had been no need for me to write them down, they were instantly memorable–even as I asked for theirs and encouraged them to call me. Some did; conversations on the phone–some of which ran over an hour–now suddenly emerged as a magical new form of interaction with folks I had previously only known in the flesh.

Some thirty-eight years later, I hardly ever talk on the phone. Email and text messages rule the roost; when I do talk on the phone, I’m a model of efficiency. A quick exchange of information, and I’m done. Just like the phone displaced older forms of communication, it has been impolitely shoved aside by newer ones. No one’s grieving; we’re too busy being socially networked.

‘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.

Democracy, The ‘Anti-National,’ And The Seditionist

In my essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, currently serving a fifty-five year jail term in Federal prison for seditious conspiracy, I had written:

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 remain a blot on American democracy; John Adams deeply regretted — till the day of his death — being their prime mover. The crimes they charge citizens with — and the notion of a political dissident imprisoned for holding political beliefs supposedly dangerous — are an embarrassment for democracies. The very idea of sedition induces puzzlement in a student of politics: how can a liberal democracy punish the entertainment of beliefs?

Recent events in India–the crackdown on student protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in particular–suggest that this lesson has not yet been learned by democracies everywhere. (A pair of articles by Ruchir JoshiA Rash of Fascisms” and Mukul KesavanRepublic vs. Nation” makes this point in the Indian context quite eloquently.)

What is it that those who seek to crack down on the slogans, claims, and activities of the alleged seditionist fear? Because a nation is an idea, an abstract entity, and not a piece of land or a group of people, this question becomes a little more puzzling.

The nationalist has, of course, conflated himself with the nation; he perceives the attack on the nation as an attack on himself. The arch-nationalist thus reveals himself as a deeply paranoid, insecure type. Rather than seeing the fulminations of the political radical as an opening salvo in a debate, he perceives it as a material attack upon himself and his life’s projects; he has dedicated himself to the unblinking service of something whose provenance, dimensions, and nature he does not fully understand and now finds himself all at sea, unable to coherently defend, without descending into inarticulate rage, this mysterious notion. He is, as I noted in another context, “all unsatisfied Id, no Ego.”

I went on to note:

The accusation of seditious conspiracy is political: nothing enrages the patriot like the seditionist. He is a fifth columnist, a cancer on the body politic. The seditionist assaults the idea of the nation and offends our sensibilities by proclaiming that our idols have feet of clay. Sedition incites rebellions by encouraging citizens to rise up against their state; the existence of the seditionist is a threat to the public and psychic order underwritten by nationalist sentiment. In the old days, those who spoke against dominant paradigms, who placed the earth at the center of the universe and the like, were tortured, torn apart by mobs, burnt at the stake.

Unsurprisingly, we find religious fervor in the prosecution of this variant of political heresy. Nietzsche described the punishment felt suitable for this kind of citizen as:

A declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, law, order, authority, who is fought as dangerous to the life of the community, in breach of the contract on which the community is founded, as a rebel, a traitor and breaker of the peace, with all the means war can provide.

As might be expected, this rhetoric has shown up in the discourse surrounding the arrest and physical abuse of the students arrested in India.

Democracy is a young thing, a mere fledgling; it places a fairly onerous responsibility upon those charged with its care. Many, it seems, are simply not up to the task.