Why I Watch The World Cup in Spanish

The reasons are quite straightforward, and as might be expected, not exceedingly deep. They are only interesting because, I, like many others who watch Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, do not speak Spanish. (At least, my Spanish has never risen above some minimal fluency.)

First, the most superficial reason of all. The Spanish language broadcasts on Univision are called by commentators considerably more animated than the ESPN crew: they are more voluble, they string together extended descriptions of play, each infused with a great deal of passion; the pleasurably interminable calls of GOOOOOOAAAAALLL are, of course, a bonus; when a game is running late and a team is desperately pressing for an equalizer, the crowd sounds plus the increasingly frenzied play-calling can build to a pleasurable crescendo. At the most basic level, watching a Spanish-language telecast of a World Cup provides ample and repeated confirmation of the Cup’s standing as the world’s premier sporting event; this year, the Cup is being held in South America, and watching in Spanish provides a better virtual connection with the venue. (Besides, I’m in New York City; watching the World Cup in Spanish seems like the right thing to do in a city in which so much Spanish is spoken on a daily basis by so many of its residents.)

Second, Spanish language broadcasts seem especially appropriate when watching South American countries play. In the catalog of pitiful attempts to construct the right kind of atmosphere for soccer watching, watching two Spanish-speaking countries go at each other accompanied by a Spanish commentary soundtrack will always find honorable mention. You can even fool yourself, for a second or two, that you have attained a deeper understanding of a more ‘natural’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘skillful’ way of playing football. You can close your eyes and paint a picture or two in your mind of a game played far away, with a far away sensibility. (This past weekend, I watched part of the Brazil-Chile game on ESPN-Deportes; the commentary was in Portuguese, and was a particularly appropriate accompaniment to the game’s action.)

Third, perhaps more seriously, the primary sin, in my eyes, of the various combinations of British commentators that ESPN subjects us to is that they cannot shake themselves free of a dominant set of stereotypical and archaic narratives. To wit, to put it just a tad crudely, South American, Asian, and African teams are overly excitable, poorly disciplined, lackadaisical, more prone to psychological meltdowns; their brand of ‘instinctive’ soccer always somehow needs fine-tuning when coming up against the systematic execution of game plans by European teams.  This flavoring of the commentary can vary in its subtlety but it is unmistakably present. It equips the English-language commentary with a very particular evaluative frame; the average South American, African or Asian player is subject to a persistent exoticization, one which carries it with a heavy burden for its subjects. They have to perform to a standard of sporting and moral rectitude that they seem blithely unaware of. But which I seem just a little sensitive to–perhaps excessively so, but for the time being, watching in Spanish will do just fine.

Note: There was a time when I used to think watching Spanish language soccer broadcasts would improve my spoken Spanish, but I’ve given up any hope of that.

On Safe and Unsafe Academic Workplaces: An Email to a Colleague

Here, on this blog, I have often written posts about the academic life. Some of those posts have concerned themselves with the state of affairs in my discipline, philosophy, and yet others have been more generally directed–perhaps about academic publishing, for instance. A recurring concern in my posts on academia might be termed ‘workplace issues’–matters that make our professional spaces for working hostile or friendly, supportive or inhibiting. Unsurprisingly, some of these have centered on how women and other minorities might fare.

In today’s post, I want to reproduce an email I wrote to an academic colleague–otherwise very friendly and great company–with whom I had several uncomfortable interactions over a period of time. I was finding myself increasingly resentful of the interjections and interventions that were made in our conversations and suspected I was heading toward what might be an irate, loud, and potentially friendship-destroying response. To head that off, I wrote my email.

Here it is, edited to protect identities. (NOTE: I’ve realized since I wrote this post that my use of “colleague” implies a member of the philosophy department; this email, however, was not written to one.)

Dear X:

I don’t think I would be representing myself fairly if I didn’t say that I’m finding your style of referencing India and all things Indian quite off-putting. I don’t know how serious your feigned ignorance of the subcontinent, its culture and history is, but I think you should be aware that when you do so you don’t come across as remotely funny, and only serve to marginalize me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. These comments of yours, which relentlessly push India to the dusty margins of history, culture, and material accomplishment, do no justice to your intellect and wit, of which there is abundant supply. They are especially peculiar because they are made to a person who never, ever, tries to be a triumphalist about anything Indian, in which case you could at least say that you were trying to bring me down a peg or two. These remarks of yours, which depict you as Euro-chauvinist, simply do you no justice, and are unfair when directed at someone who fights an almost constant battle to have himself taken seriously somehow, to get people to look past his accent, his brown skin, and his association with a country that despite its rich historical and cultural accomplishments is almost only ever associated with the kinds of images you seek to conjure up again and again.

I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ve lost my ‘home’ and will never find one here, no matter how hard I try, no matter how ‘American’ I become, no matter how knowledgeable I become about this land, its history and its peoples. But I find it hard to accept that even in a space that I normally find so intellectually and emotionally invigorating, I have come to feel that I have to tread warily, making sure that I don’t ever mention India or anything Indian, thus continuing a process of effacement forced upon me in many other contexts.

I write this to you because I consider you a friend, because I respect your intellect, and because I consider my conversations with you to have been some of the most intellectually simulating that I have had in a long while. And it distresses me to think that there are times that in those spaces I feel tense, uncomfortable, and carry resentment out with me.

I might have come across as stereotypically too-sensitive, bristling with a chip on my shoulder. Perhaps I have run the risk, in writing this email, of having you consign me to the trash heap of all those folks who complain too much, who lack a sense of humor, who can’t roll with the punches. But I thought it better that I take the risk and express myself, perhaps not clearly enough, rather than simply pretending that I don’t feel a particular way.

When I wrote this email I was, as I am now, a tenured full professor. I do not know how many untenured juniors simply hold their tongues.

Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.


1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Hot, Bothered, and Devout: The Religious Policing of Sex

Yesterday, I posted a review essay on a pair of books by SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra that critique the field of “Indian studies.” In my essay I attempted to place into some context the recent controversy over the recall from circulation of Wendy Doniger‘s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Amongst the many charges leveled at Doniger’s writing is that she has “hurt” the sensibilities of devout Hindus. This accusation is often made against many modern scholars of Hinduism; Balagangadhara and Malhotra are part of this chorus. Thus, in my essay I noted the former’s critique of Jeffrey Kripal and Paul Courtright‘s  psychoanalytical takes on the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha and his conclusion that Kripal and Courtright were “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.” Malhotra, of course, has been vigorously accusing Doniger of a variety of sins: her treatment of sexuality and sexual themes is one of them.

So, rather unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of these critiques is the offense caused to religious sensibilities by that which is supposed remain between the sheets.

I think we are entitled to be suspicious that whenever Hindus—in India, or elsewhere— or other devout folks–all over the world–get offended by academic or cultural responses to their religion, it invariably has something to do with sex, the one business that gets everyone hot and bothered under their cassocks and lungis. Reading Balagangadhara’s language of “violence” against Hindus, one would imagine the darkest depths of anti-Hindu sentiment had been plumbed. Rather disappointingly instead, it turns out Hindus are like religious prudes everywhere: sex and their gods or their saints do not go together; they are chaste, virtuous, asexual creatures. What a letdown for the civilization that gave us Khajuraho.

By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the ascetic strains in Hinduism—like those pointed to, ironically enough, by Wendy Doniger—but rather to combat the impulses present in the responses to the scholarship of Kripal and Courtright that seek to cover up the erotic and sexual strains in Indian culture at large. Such stereotypical and clichéd outraged responses are, after all, not even in accord with Indian cultural mores. Risqué versions of tales taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata often make the rounds in India; there are too, among the young ‘uns, dirty ditties galore about its characters to be sung out loudly and coarsely. Those who sing them, and tell lewd jokes by the dozen about characters from the great Hindu epics, don’t seem to be hurt by their activities.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra owe us an explanation of why so many Indians do not seem perennially offended by such practices. Could it be the vaunted Hindu tolerance and syncretism—spoken so glowingly of by Malhotra—is found here in the implicit understanding that powerful cultural and mythological imaginaries are unlikely to be diminished by a few academic theses? Intolerant reactions do not sit well with the picture these two worthies paint for us of an endlessly patient and resilient tradition.

Unsurprisingly, Balagangadhara and Malhotra, and their fellow “outraged”, claim to speak for too many, and seek to control discourse. Some things never change. For all the exalted theistic conceptions that the supposedly devout seek to foist on us, they descend all too quickly from the sublime to the sordid, from lofty metaphysical conceptions to just good old scoldings about dirty talk. There is nothing new in this outrage; just a tired old policing of sex.

SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

On 12 February, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin’s decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger’s book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the ”idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin’s withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”   

This dispute over Wendy Doniger’s work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

Continue reading

Reading Native Son

Partha Chatterjee describes his experience of first reading Edward Said‘s Orientalism:

I will long remember the day I read Orientalism. It must have been in November or December of 1980. In India, this season is classically called Hemanta and assigned a slot between autumn and winter. In Calcutta, where nothing classical remains untarnished, all that this means is a few weeks of uncertain temperatures when the rains have gone, the fans have been switched off, and people wait expectantly to take out their sweaters and shawls. I remember the day because the house was being repainted and everything was topsy-turvy. I sat on the floor of the room in which I usually work, now emptied of its furniture, reading Edward Said whom I had never read before. I read right through the day and, after the workmen had left in the evening, well into the night. Now whenever I think of Orientalism, the image comes back to me of an empty room with a red floor and bare white walls, a familiar room suddenly made unfamiliar. [As cited in S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 35]

In 1991, I was gifted Richard Wright‘s Native Son by a girlfriend of mine. I had not heard of Wright; I certainly had not read Native Son. I was–as might be surmised–callow and ill-read.

A few days after receiving this generous gift, I began reading it; I will long remember the day I did. It was summer time in New Jersey; the nights came late, providing some relief from the muggy heat of the day. I had driven back from work, eaten an early dinner, and then retired to my tiny bedroom to read; my two roommates were still occupied elsewhere, one at graduate school, the other at work; I had solitude and quiet and time, near perfect conditions for reading. I propped my pillow up against the wall, rested my head against it, stretched out on the modest futon mattress that served as ‘bed’ and read Native Son.

I read Book One: Fear and Book Two: Flight. Then, as I read Book Three: Fate, and as Bigger Thomas approached his final, irresistible fate, I felt as if the world, and the place I had previously inhabited in it, was fast becoming unrecognizable. And yet, simultaneously, I was becoming more comprehensible to myself; suddenly I understood . As I lay there, slumped, stunned, struggling to take in the dramatically new portrait that Wright was painting for me of race, class, subjugation, and resistance, I felt as if the walls of the room I was in were moving back, somehow expanding to accommodate a growth I felt within me of something I had never experienced before.  I couldn’t stop; I continued to read, sickened and fascinated in equal measure by the tragedy whose contours had been traced out for me in such eloquent fashion by Wright. I knew I would never see my past life in the same way again; I didn’t think I would ever feel as I had before I read Native Son ever again. Now, whenever I think of Native Son, I think of that evening, that room, and its walls, seemingly being pushed back by the expanding consciousness they enclosed.