Monday, August 27, 2012

Ryan and Rand Vs Obama and Wright

Ever since Mitt Romney chose Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan to be his running mate op-ed writers, bloggers and talking heads are all abuzz with talk of Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan had said in the past that Ayn Rand was his greatest inspiration to come to public life. Ryan gives Rand's tome 'Atlas Shrugged' as Christmas gifts to staffers and others.

Paul Krugman the unofficial town hall crier of the democratic party declared in his column "Galt, Gold and God", "what does it say about the party when its intellectual leader evidently gets his ideas largely from deeply unrealistic fantasy novel?". Another blogger seized on the fact that Ayn Rand, according to Jennifer Burns's biography 'The Goddess of the market: Ayn Rand and the American right", expressed admiration for a grisly serial killer and wrote a column titled, yes, titled "Paul Ryan's guru Ayn Rand worshipped a serial killer who kidnapped and dismembered little girls". Jennifer Burns herself took  to op-eds to ask if Ayn Rand, who disapproved Ronald Reagan, would approve Paul Ryan. Burns wrote two op-eds.

Paul Ryan told an interviewer that for all his love for Ayn Rand her militant atheism is not something he agrees. Ryan's another mentor is Friedrich Hayek. Hayek, Nobel laureate in economics, is revered for his polemical book that argued about the evils of socialist/communist model of economics in 'The Road to Serfdom'. Hayek nevertheless had voiced support for a government run health care program. An idea that Ryan and Romney now oppose. Another columnist pulled up Ryan for 'cherry picking' ideas from Rand and Hayek.

Liberals and the Press would have drooled 'intellectual' if Obama talked about philosophers and economists so passionately. They drool so even when he does not talk serious ideas and offers his 'Robinhood' as a choice against what he calls 'Romneyhood'.

Ayn Rand did indeed express some admiration for a serial killer from the perspective of a man who defies society's mores. As repugnant as it may seem let us not forget that Truman Capote's 'In cold blood' is considered a classic despite the fact that Capote did indeed almost admire two very gruesome murderers. Jennifer Burns does trace how Rand obsessed with Nietzchean idea of 'super human' did fashion her heroes mostly as anti-heroes first and only then progressed to stylizing her heroes as defying society in a positive way.

No human being ever picks up a book and accepts all that is said, even for the Bible. If Ryan as a Catholic said he believed the Book of Genesis these same liberals would chortle. We all read and love many books. We imbibe cherry picked ideas to create the most complex phenomenon in the world, our own composite identities. Ayn Rand hated Friedrich Hayek exactly for Hayek's concession that government could still have some legitimate role. If Krugman thinks 'Atlas Shrugged' is just fantasy he needs to take some classes in literary appreciation. Maybe his employer, Princeton University, will give him a discount to attend its humanities courses.

Jennifer Burns's biography details the strife between Ayn Rand and the intellectual vanguard of the right, particularly its rising intellectual lodestar William F. Buckley Jr. The conservatives ridiculed Rand for her atheism and for idolizing strident unbridled individualism. Liberals scorn conservatives use of religion as a yoke for their ideas. It is a topic for another blog. We all read great works of literature without agreeing with all of the ideas or the personal ideologies of the author. Tolstoy was a philanderer. Does it mean that we condone or look to emulate that part of Tolstoy when we lose our hearts in his immortal works?

Compare all this brouhaha to how quickly the media and opinion makers were eager to pass over discussion of Obama being influenced by Jeremiah Wright.

After a month of unbroken string of crushing victories as the 2008 primaries ground towards three big states PA, OH and TX. ABC broke news about Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons. The week after 9/11, Wright, in elaborate embroidered dress, thundered "America's chickens have come home to roost". In another sermon he intoned at high pitch "no, no, no. Not God bless America but God damn America and that's in the Bible".

America was stunned. Obama campaign went into a tail spin. Hillary archly said "if he had been my pastor I'd have changed my church". The news was not broken by Fox News and hence even Obama loving liberal media had to sit back and take notice. Questions of 'does Obama share these views' dominated the airwaves. Obama the orator rode to the rescue of his own candidacy. Obama's belief that he could mesmerize audiences and make them suspend logic proved, by hind sight, a great prophetic gamble that paid off handsomely.

Obama confessed that Rev. Wright used to speak critically of USA in his sermons while Obama sat in the pews for two decades. Rev. Wright presided presided Obama's marriage and baptized his children. Obama nevertheless added that these remarks, now looped on national TV, were 'incendiary'. The remarks, Obama said in his landmark address, had "the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but view that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike". He then went on to say that this was not all there was to Rev. Wright and why he can no more abandon his pastor than he could abandon his white grandmother who raised him but was prone to racial stereotyping. Obama gave a carte-blanche good conduct certificate to Rev.Wright, "not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms".

More of Rev. Wright's sermons tumbled out. Rev. Wright himself chose to address the country at a 'National Press Club' event. The press conference was sheer circus. Obama advisers showed him a taped video and told him to make the final decision of what to do. In a brief terse address Obama repudiated the pastor and severed all connections with Rev. Wright's church. In the general election when GOP surrogates raised the Wright issue John McCain, a gentleman, forbade any discussion of that saying that such a topic is beyond politics. Big mistake.

Obama's assertion that he has never heard such 'incendiary' remarks from Rev.Wright is a facetious claim that was eagerly lapped up by his enablers in the media and propagated for consumption to his adoring masses. The night before his announcement in Springfield, IL, for his candidacy Obama campaign was worried. Rolling Stones magazine had run a profile on Rev.Wright the pastor supposed to offer invocation at the historic ceremony. Obama personally called Rev. Wright and said 'you have a way of saying things' and suggested that Rev.Wright offer a prayer away from the public eye in the basement before the chosen 'One' ascends the stage.

Rev. Wright was known for such remarks and known to make anti-semitic remarks in sermons. Long after the election when asked if he had spoken to Obama Rev.Wright said "them Jews will not allow me to talk to him". Obama's then chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel was a Jew. Afro-American community and their leaders have a fraught relationship with Jews and Israel. Malcolm X, according to his Pulitzer awarded biographer Manning Marable, would recount the words of Saudi emperor referring to New York as 'Jew York'.

Sarah Palin's 'palling around with terrorists' helped the Obama campaign to ridicule any legitimate criticism. Lost in the mind numbing adulation of Obama was any discussion of intellectual influences on the candidate.

Obama's recent biographer David Maraniss says he referred to his first employer as 'working for the enemy'. That was Obama's vision of corporate America decades before he called Wall Street CEO's 'fat cats'. This view was strengthened and deepened in the crucible of Rev.Wright's church. From W.E.B. Du Bois to MLK Jr to Rev Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, criticism of capitalism is an article on faith amongst Afro-American leaders especially in church sermons.

 Everyone talked about MLK Jr's comment that 'Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America' referring to how whites and blacks have separate churches. No journalist or magazine thought it fit to write articles about black churches and their ideologies. Jodi Kantor, NYT journalist, wants to visit Mitt Romney's Mormon church and talk to fellow Mormon church goers. Recently Mitt Romney invited journalists to his church and a CNN columnist wrote asking for more such invitations.

Obama spoke in his address about being referred to as 'not black enough'. That's true. But what he failed to mention was that that whisper campaign was what the black political leadership used to destroy his run for becoming congressman in Chicago. Pulitzer winning author David Remnick recounts Obama's testy relationship with black leaders in Chicago in 'The Bridge: The life and rise of Barack Obama'. Obama needed a foothold in Chicago politics amongst Afro-Americans and the door for that was Jeremiah Wright's influential church.

Oprah Winfrey was another congregant at Wright's church. When her show started being noticed Winfrey, knowing Wright's incendiary attitude, withdrew herself from the church. It is little wonder that Obama followed her example.

Recently Rev.Wright claimed that he was offered a bribe during 2008 election to disappear and not cause a problem for Obama. Of course the press acted like they never heard the interview.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Romney, Ryan And Obama : Diversity In American Politics

The American electorate made history in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, the nation's first black President. 2012 is set to break further barriers and bring diversity to the forefront of American politics. The GOP has nominated Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Romney has picked Paul Ryan, a Catholic, to be his running mate. Amidst the din of campaigning this positive development has lost attention. America's diversity was rarely ever reflected in its candidates for office especially for the Presidency. The diversity in candidacy is exceeded by the demographic composition of the electorate that in turn is changing the electoral map. A lot of this is for good and some, of course, causes concern.

Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for the nomination of a major party, faced unique problems. Her standard dress, a pant suit, was mocked. As Clinton ground through a losing nomination she read a supporter's letter at a rally, "it is not over until the lady in pantsuit says so". She did not laugh, critics said, she 'guffawed'. If her makeup was a little off a whisper campaign started "is she going to throw in the hat". If her tops showed some cleavage that was mentioned in an article. Sexist jokes, even sexist toys showed up.  Clinton, as she loves to remind all, put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling of gender discrimination in Presidential primaries. When Clinton campaigned in New Hampshire two men stood up holding some clothes saying "iron my shirt". Clinton responded "ah- the remnants of sexism - alive and well". A WSJ poll said Americans were more ready to accept an Afro-American than a woman for the Presidency. 

Obama endured barbs, some unintentional, about being Afro-American. Joe Biden, a fellow contender, remarked , in cringe-worthy words, "you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy".  Biden called Obama to apologize. Obama said it was 'unnecessary and told reporters generously "I have no problem with Joe Biden". At a debate in New Hampshire fresh from his trail blazing victory at Iowa Obama made a gaffe telling Hillary, looking down at his notepad, "you are likable enough Hillary". He lost women vote and New Hampshire by 2 points. 

Race, more than gender, played a very large role in 2008. Panicked after Hillary's humiliating loss in Iowa Bill Clinton jumped into the fray at New Hampshire. Trying to point out that Obama's positions on Iraq war mirrored Hillary's Bill exploded "this is the biggest fairy tale". Bill Clinton was referring to Obama's opposition to the war as 'fairy tale'. Afro-Americans, helped by many a anti-Hillary commentariat, took it as referring to Obama's historic candidacy. Then came S. Carolina. Bill Clinton stung by Hillary's loss in South Carolina after a very racially heated primary shot off "well Jesse Jackson won here". Afro-American leader and preacher Jackson having won S.Carolina went on to lose the nomination. Afro-Americans, until then Clinton's redoubtable supporters, turned on him in fury. Till the end of the election Bill Clinton faced allegations of race baiting. There was no truth in them though. Clinton, as his ardent supporter James Carville said on CNN, "had not a single racist bone in his body".

McCain defied a supporter who ranted that Obama was not born in the US and was a Muslim. McCain cut off that woman saying "no madam. He is an honorable man with a nice family. I only have policy disagreements with him". Sarah Palin, a political unknown until being nominated to the Vice Presidency by a panicking McCain, was the one who really had it tough. Very shameful rumors swirled about her, her daughter's pregnancy, her Down's syndrome afflicted child, her marriage etc. 

Amidst all of the above the silver lining was America was coming to terms with their candidates being diverse. Joe Biden, known for his foot-in-mouth disease, was coached on being gender sensitive during his debate with Sarah Palin. When McCain referred to Obama as 'that one' in their first debate it raised a flutter. Candidates were still learning that their words, every day words, could become transformed when it refers to a person of different background. Obama and McCain's first debate took place in University of Mississippi where James Meredith, the first Afro-American student, had to enter guarded by US Marshals. Meredith's admission resulted in race riots at the university. The University celebrates Meredith, aged 79 today, with a statue in his honor. 

The GOP, notorious for being a white man's party and in thralldom to evangelical Christians nominated a Mormon. To many evangelical Christians Mormonism is a satanic cult. Mitt Romney weathered many a not too subtle attacks on his religion. Washington Post has drawn attention to how Obama, campaigning in Iowa, drank beer with voters and spoke of it in order to bond. A favorite staple question of US Presidential elections is to ask voters 'which candidate would you have beer with'. Romney, as Mormon, is a teetotaler. An MSNBC commentator asked "why should we elect a guy who does not drink beer".

JFK's candidacy was hogged by criticism of his Irish Catholic roots. Would Kennedy, many bigots wondered, take orders from the Vatican. JFK then gave his speech on religious freedom and eventually romped into the Oval office.Al Gore nominated the nation's first Jew, Joe Lieberman, to be the VP in 2000. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, is Catholic. Joe Biden is Catholic too. There is no white male protestant on the ticket for 2012.

Madeline Albright became America's first woman Secretary of state in 1993. Since then until today no white male has occupied that office. Clinton and George W brought in a lot of diversity to their cabinets. Bush nominated the nations first Hispanic attorney general, two Afro-Americans successively as secretaries of state. Obama nominated, Eric Holder, the first Afro-American attorney general. Today 3 women, one of them Hispanic, serve in the US Supreme Court. And there was Nancy Pelosi, America's first woman speaker. America has come a long way one could say.

The electorate's demographics too changed. Obama carried Virginia, that bastion of civil war and segregation, a first for a Democrat in 40 years, simply because of a very diverse population in Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia has lot of Asians and Afro-Americans. Likewise Colorado. There are projections that demographic changes might even change Texas as battleground state. 

George Bush carried 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and thus putting together a 'winning coalition'. Alarmed at the shrill rhetoric on immigration during 2012 GOP primaries Jeb Bush cautioned the candidates against such strident positions. Obama is now nakedly pandering to Hispanics. This vote-bank politics focused on ethic minorities, particularly Afro-Americans and Hispanics is cause for concern as much pandering to Evangelicals and gun lobby is of concern. Arizona, home state of John McCain, is within Obama's reach thanks to Hispanic population there and head-in-sand racist GOP administration there. Both Romney and Obama have given prime speaking spots for Hispanics at their conventions.

The GOP is more diverse than what people credit it for. The GOP canduidates includeed an Afro-American, a woman and two Mormons. GOP boasts of the nation's first Hispanic senator, charismatic Marco Rubio. Then there are Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, both of Indian origin, governors of states in racially sensitive South. Jindal and Rubio are watched with interest and may run for the presidency one day.

America is being reshaped demographically in all spheres beyond just politics. Ivy League University Presidents and CEO's of companies are increasingly ethnically diverse. In short I can happily conclude 'E PLURIBUS UNUM' (out of many, one).

Monday, August 13, 2012

S.Ramakrishnan and Eddie Murphy Come To America

Eddie Murphy plays an African prince in ‘Coming to America’ who is on the lookout for a queen. Saying 'what better place to find a queen than in Queens' Murphy lands in NY and goes through Murphy-like experiences that showcase America in Hollywood slapstick comedy fashion. Contemporary Tamil writer S.Ra, as S.Ramakrishnan is popularly known, also came to America and has shared his opinions of Yankee land.

S.Ra's recent interview to a magazine had two interesting observations. First, he laments how Tamils in USA who have been emigrating since the 50's, lack any creative literary output, unlike Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto. He says Tamils in USA lack any social awareness for what happens in Tamil Nadu and show not a 'single' good trait found in Canadian Tamils.

Second, he dishes out freely his ideas of what US is. USA is a country where cities are dispersed like islands amidst forests. Dwellings are situated within forests. Americans create cities by the side of forests resulting in an imbalance. Americans lack a distinctive culture and live a life of intellectual emptiness. The capitalist system compels everyone not to look beyond one’s own self or borders. Thousands of Tamils have emigrated to US but unlike Chinese, Japanese and Jewish immigrants there are no literary creations by Tamils.

S.Ra was invited to Canada and USA for his creative acumen and literature. A Canadian Tamil Sangam honored him with an award and that was how all this journey happened. It is disappointing that S.Ra did not bring to bear his literary sensibilities to what he saw. His interview makes it appear that he has little understanding of US history and intellectual traditions and that is what surprises me most given that he is a voracious reader.

When I met S.Ra at FeTNA I asked him about his impressions of the country until then (did not ask what he read of America). S.Ra said he was interested in seeing art galleries. He wrote a nice article about Diego Rivera museum but offered this drivel now. S.Ra added that he would read about US when he returns to India. He said it would be meaningful to read about a country after the visit because he can place what he reads. Fair enough. On the other hand, in his acceptance speech in Canada he expressed great admiration for Canada and how he was desirous of visiting Canada since childhood and mentioned his reading of books on Canada. 

Canada, due to its liberal asylum policies, is a magnet for Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Tamils are by nature reputed to be more literary minded than Tamils in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan Tamils had to flee their homeland under tragic circumstances and did not emigrate, like Tamils from Tamil Nadu, in search of greener pastures. As exiles Sri Lankan Tamils have a deeper yearning for their mother tongue and homeland that none of the other Tamils can experience. 

Asians emigrated to US in a big way only after Ted Kennedy sponsored immigration reform in 1965, not 50's as S.Ra thinks. Tamils emigrated by the thousands only recently thanks to H1B program. That our education system produces clerks with no knowledge of fine arts is a much lamented fact. The high concentration of engineers, IT professionals, amongst immigrants in US is a prime reason for lack of literary output. US immigration policies also define what kind of Tamils can immigrate to US. Amidst job concerns, green card anxieties, layoffs, taking care of families in two continents, raising kids in a different culture, by and large the Tamil society, like Indians in general, is still trying to find its feet. Creation of literature by a people results from many factors and almost none of which exists in US for Tamils and, again, for Indians in general. Jewish Diaspora, not just those who came to USA, have a high concentration of not only literary creativity but creativity in every sphere of activity and the reasons for that are varied. But the Chinese and Japanese have not produced any great 'body of work' that makes the Tamils in US look sorry.  Anybody can state a fact but to see the reasons behind what happens and what does not happen is supposed to be the preserve of the intellectual. S.Ra failed to show that nuance in understanding.

About his pathetic understanding of US geography and culture I am speechless. He just traveled by road from Toronto via New York to Baltimore and visited few other pockets. America is a vast country with widely varying topography. Such elementary awareness has escaped this screenplay writer. I'd forgive that too but not his statements on US culture. S.Ra was an English literature student and should have known better about US 'culture'.

How can he talk so lightly of a country where Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Margaret Mitchell, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Gore Vidal, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson, Santayana, Dewey and an endless list lived. Time Magazine runs a special issue every July 4th picking out one American to talk about how that person helped shape America. The first person, who was not in the pantheon of founding fathers like Jefferson and Franklin, to be on that cover was Mark Twain. A literature that reflects American issues and shapes American thinking was created to give expression to the needs of this country. Americans have always prided themselves in creating American institutions distinct from their cousins across the Atlantic. This desire for distinctness was so ingrained that Americans even created their own dictionary, by Noah Webster, spelling ‘centre’ as ‘center’, ‘colour’ as ‘color’. 

American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 at Philadelphia functions even today. Franklin founded the society so that Americans might 'cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge'. I asked S.Ra if he planned to visit the Library of Congress, Jefferson's creation. He said he did not have time. OK, understood but does he know the hoary history of that library. Does he know how Jefferson created the University of Virginia and designed its rotunda? Jefferson desired that University of Virginia provide an ‘American education’ to Americans. S.Ra's guides are also to blame. They did not take him to Monticello, home of Jefferson. Why do Indians not visit places like Monticello or Mount Vernon or Mark Twain’s home? Or the library of congress? (I am talking about most not all).

The comment about America’s 'intellectual emptiness' is the worst absurdity. This to a country that stages plays by Eugene O Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. This to a country that has the world’s most lavishly equipped prestigious Symphony halls. This to a country of Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul music, country songs. S.Ra might know of some books influencing America, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin'. I am not sure if he knows how Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of scientific revolutions' is still revered in the study of science or how Allan Bloom's 'Closing of the American mind' came to be written and its influence decades later. Fleeing Nazi Germany Thomas Mann came here and wrote his immortal 'Faust'. Alexander Solzhenitsyn fleeing USSR found a home in New England. The largest number of Shakespeare’s much revered First Folio copies are in the Folger library in Washington DC. Not in England.

Not many immigrants know much about the deep intellectual currents that form the bedrock of America. Louis Menand's 2002 Pulitzer winner 'Metaphysical club' details of a philosophy club founded by famous jurist Wendell Holmes, philosophers James and Pierce. Jefferson is revered for not just his intellect but his desire to create other Jeffersons. The ratification of US constitution by the colonies is itself a story worth reading. The Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay, marshaled support in unprecedented polemical manner to pass the constitution. Those opposed to the Federalist papers articulated their opinions as, what else but, Cato.
Bernard Bailyn's Pulitzer winning 'Ideological origins of American Revolution' is a detective story that traces the origins of the ideas of a magnificent constitution. Bailyn threads the story of how Magna Carta, Montesquieu, Roman history and more flowed into creating an intellectual achievement that stands in a class of its own. Gordon Wood in his Pulitzer winning 'Radicalism of American Revolution' makes the case of how American revolution was 'radical' in creating a new paradigm of nation state. Wood painstakingly explains how a monarchical society transforms itself into a republican society.
America is the country of think tanks. Brookings institution and ‘American Enterprise Institute’, ‘Rand corporation’ amongst others ensure a vigorous intellectual stirring about and create a pipeline of intellectuals to inform those who govern. 

Harvard,Princeton, Johns-Hopkins, MIT, Stanford are all not mere accidents. Many countries have tried to replicate them and failed miserably. A compelling read on American universities is, "Great American Universities" by former President of Columbia University, Jonathan Cole. Cole was part of a team that China formed to create a Chinese Harvard. The attempt floundered and Cole wrote this book to tell the world why America's universities are unique and how to protect them.

The capitalist system that he decries is what drew thousands of India to seek their fortunes here and see more of the world. Does he know how MBA courses are being altered to include a stint in Asia to know the emerging economies. S.Ra should try to understand what leaps of creativity and ingenuity are involved in building the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge. He could explore and learn why Frank Lloyd Wright is revered as the creator of American Architecture? Capitalism is involved in all that.

Silicon Valley can only come from America's womb. No other country can give the space for Steve Jobs. Microsoft, Apple and HP were all born in garages. That Silicon Valley would be created in West coast and not in the equally prosperous East coast is an interesting study of how America has different cultures in its two coasts. Not to mention how the Midwest is re-inventing itself today. Is it an accident that Rockefeller, Carnegie, Stanford etc lived and flourished here? The US transcontinental railroad was not only an engineering marvel but a financial marvel too. Gordon Wood narrates how Americans made 'commerce' as the connective tissue of a country that lacked any other historical glue. The miracles brought about in industrial manufacturing and productivity were possible only in America. Calvin Coolidge, US's 30th President, stated 'the business of American people is business'.
A vague silly chatter of the California gold rush insults the westward expansion of America and the taming of the West.The Jefferson commissioned Lewis-Clark expeditions are stories of not just adventurism but of a unique human spirit that is amorphously labeled 'American'. Jefferson told them not just to travel and map out but they were charged with studying flora and fauna in each area and to see how economic expansion can be carried out. Forgotten for long today that expedition is canonical. 

S.Ra thinks that America does not have its own cuisine. That his guides, fellow Tamils who did not know better, took him to pedestrian restaurants they are used to going is not America's fault. Crab cakes in Maryland,  lobsters in Maine, Soul food in New Orleans and so on were not even tasted by him. Yes America is a land of immigrants and it is home to so many cuisines but they all have taken a distinctive American flavor too, sometimes losing their originality but mostly a new character.

Many Indian immigrants lack a curiosity to know and understand how a motley group of colonies in 1776 evolved into a super power. The 'super power' is not because America is unrivaled in arms and military but its deep intellectual nature. S.Ra maligns that US has not created its own culture but is a hodge podge of immigrant cultures. Nothing is further from truth. In every art forms streams of immigrant cultures have commingled and they have been transmuted into what is called 'American'. This is true of every civilization and every country. It is puzzling that this anthropological truth escaped S.Ra.

Not just S.Ra but every immigrant who has made America his/her home should spend some efforts to understand this country that we all have come to call homeland.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Tragedy In Wisconsin And Some Debates

On Aug 5th Wade Michael Page, a member of a White supremacist group, went to a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, WI and killed, in cold blood fueled by racism, 6 people. He would have killed more but for a timely alert by kids aged 4 who saw him first. Page terrorized a group of peaceful worshippers until SWAT teams took him down. The Sikh community and Indian-Americans at large are still reeling from  the emotional aftermath. President Obama ordered a national day of mourning and assured India's Sikh Prime Minister that all will be done to protect Sikhs in America. Wisconsinites and Americans at large poured forth their sympathies. Rev Paul Armstrong of United Methodist Church in Oak Creek told Time "we are in this together..the community is saying we hold the Sikhs in high regard". A year ago Rev Armstrong had taken members of his church to the Gurdwara and was "totally impressed by their hospitality and their tales faith". (Below picture is of the community in Oak Creek mourning, courtesy Time magazine, more pictures at the bottom of the blog, also from Time )

The tragedy in Wisconsin took place within a month of another mad guy (now, medically mad) taking an assault rifle to a Batman movie and mowing down tens of moviegoers. That triggered a debate about America's vexing issue of gun control. Fareed Zakaria argued, correctly, in Time that America has a gun problem and really needs to look at the issue disappasionately. Zakaria went so far as to say that Americans who do not support gun controls are doing a disservice to the famous 'second amendment' which is cited for the 'right to bear arms'. The Wisconsin shooting took on another layer of controversy viz. 'racism'. Sikhs have been targeted, 700 times according to Sikh associations, since 9/11, being mistaken for Muslims. Some of those incidents were fatal.

Wade Page was a racist, pure and simple. He was a member of white supremacist gang and had an application for KKK, the most notorious racist organization in USA. Page, reports now reveal, was an avid listener to a certain genre of pop music that, NYT called, 'fueled hate'. Even music can be used to fuel hatred. Two op-eds appearing in Washington Post and NYT, by Sikhs, amongst others, have taken this racism angle head on.

Arjun Sethi, writing in Wash.Post, recounts painful incidents like being bullied in high school (pushed into girls toilet), profiled at courts, where he appeared professionally. Sethi points out how FBI for reporting hate crimes does not have an option for Sikhs to record. MLK Jr scolded America that its promissory note returned "insufficient funds". Sethi called for America to live up to its promise of equality for its diverse population since that is 'what drives immigrants here and what makes USA the envy of the world'.

Bhira Backhaus, writing in NYT, celebrated the century old Gurdwara in Stockton. Backhaus, like Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Namesake', recalls growing up amidst a culture clash. He had married 'outside the Sikh community' causing a 'painful breach' with his parents until their last days. Backhaus is comforted that when his parents reached out to him at last he understood that he still "belonged to the community". Then he raised the question if the devotees would have been spared had they 'dressed' like the rest of Americans (almost all women folk in that Gurdwara were in Salwar) or talked like Americans.

That the victims were brown skinned was the only reason they were killed. No matter what dress they wore or what accent they spoke Wade Page would not have spared a single one of them. Backhaus concludes by saying "to wipe away what has come before, who we have been over the centuries, also means to forget who our own mothers and fathers were". This is where I differ. This is moment of great tragedy and the cause is clear, racism, hence I tread carefully on this 'assimilation' debate.

Active discussions are taking place on the fact that Sikhs, unlike other Indians, wear a visible sign of their religion. The turban and a beard for the menfolk. It is their religious precept and they should be free to do it without prejudice like a pastor wearing his cassock or a Jew wearing his yarmulke. Assimilating does not mean forsaking all that.

Backhaus would love for Americans, of all races, to respect his faith, his values and whatever goes within the amorphous term 'culture'. But he has no word to say about the fact that his parents, RIP, thought it was sacrilegious to marry outside his community. His parents had lived in US for decades and I am sure expected to be treated as equal human beings. Should not Indians show the same acceptance towards American culture? Why do Indians look at American girls as something less? Why do Indians advertise for their girls "need groom for Indian born American girl, BUT brought up with Indian values". What does THAT mean?

When I saw 'Bend it like Beckham' I was indeed thinking 'are Sikhs in UK that insular from their fellow British'. Acceptance is a two way street. I understand that the community is anguished and very angry but how come nobody thought it proper to even mildly acknowledge the fact that the country has rallied around them unlike their mother land whose leader, in response to 3000 sikhs being killed, said "when a huge tree falls the earth is bound to shake".

I've been shocked to hear Indians carelessly use derogatory words referring to Afro-Americans. The term 'racism' is loosely used and often refers to whites as the perpetrators. Afro-American council members in DC spoke in blatant racist terms about 'Asian groceries'. Criticizing media adulation for South Asian basketball sensation Jeremy Lin an Afro-American athlete spoke in racist terms.

I am a strong supporter of being assimilated into the local culture. America's prosperity, its secular fabric, its openness etc are all the result of American 'culture'. Indians should learn to become Americans. A woman of Sikh origin is the governor of a Southern state (South Carolina). Preet Bharara, Manhattan Attorney, featured on the cover of Time and listed by Time as one of the '100 most influential, is the scourge of Wall Street.

Many Indians wonder why not US ban hate speeches. White supremacists are often monitored by FBI but America's vaunted 'first amendment' protects a lot of speeches including some abominable ideas. Hate speech is protected speech too. FBI or Department of Justice usually act with care when they prosecute for hate speech. This political correctness and respect for constitution is hotly debated. Before Indians accuse US of racism in turning a blind eye to white supremacist hate groups let us remember the Fort Hood shooting. Maj. Nidal Hassan killed 13 people in an army base. Nidal Hasan was flagged for provocative ideas but was given a pass.

When a person wags his finger at Americans and asks "why should I forget my language, my culture, my homeland etc" it would be fair to be asked back "so why bother to come here". An H1B guy who sends an email 4 days after landing saying "the common man on the road has no morals in USA" I am appalled. Why do Indians, who desire to be treated as equals and as 'Americans', at the first available instance ready to look at America like they were guests examining the country seeking to pass judgments? Indians need to first look at themselves as Americans and not as 'visitors' with a smug look of ' I love your money as long $1=Rs50 and I hate everything else'. If they think so it is ok except when they eagerly seek green cards or citizenships. There are millions of Indians and other countrymen who would love to become Americans for the love of American culture and they deserve that green card more than the smug Indians. Weeks after 9/11 I was at a party where a Sikh, a millionaire franchisee owner of Pizza Huts, declared solemnly "America is a terrorist country". This, from a person whose motherland is yet to prosecute, let alone convict, 28 years later, a single person for a pogrom that killed 3000 Sikhs. He did not even demur that 3000 of his fellow countrymen were killed just weeks back. As much as we want Americans to accept us it is high time we thought about how accepting we Indians are of Americans.

I disapprove of Indians celebrating India's independence day in USA complete with a flag march and, of course, a Bollywood actress. Those celebrations in NJ/NY are a shame both for India and USA. There is place for only one flag in US, the stars and stripes. That Empire State building lights up in tri color is the magnanimity of Americans. That Diwali is celebrated in the White House is a sign of arrival for Indian-Americans. Schools in NJ and even offices elsewhere celebrate Diwali. the Aug 15th celebrations, points out, is strongly Hindutva in character pushing away other Indians. North Indians do not treat South Indians, especially Hindi illiterate South Indians, as fellow Indians. An advertisement for A.R.Rahman concert in NJ states "there will be as few Tamil songs as possible". When ARR first visited US North Indians booed him when he played Tamil songs. Then Tamils returned the favor for Hindi songs leading to that kind of advertisement. Indian Americans are a fractious lot. Instead of this useless Independence Parade if Indians organize symposiums on India's greatest achievement, its Freedom struggle, it would make Americans proud of India.

America can certainly do better and it is my wish to continue to hold America to its promise but we also need to remember that Americans are human beings too. 19 hijackers belonging to one religion declared a religious war killing 3000 Americans and the story continues till today. The Times Square bomber, a Pakistani, was even made a citizen. Yet he chose to kill fellow Americans on American soil. In this climate very regrettable acts of profiling and hate crimes occur. To be fair they have not proliferated. Bush's Secret Service agent was asked to get off a plane because he was a Muslim. Later Bush appeared on live TV with the agent beside him to condemn that incident. Bush, it should be noted, invited a Muslim cleric to offer prayers in the National Cathedral along side members of other clergy in the wake of 9/11. America has actively prosecuted hate crimes.

Today a Wisconsin teacher says he will learn more about Sikhism and teach his students. We wish a tragedy does not have to be the reason for that learning but this is the only sane redemption a society can strive for.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Understanding America: Hoover feeds Belgians, Bolsheviks and Germans

Almost everyone across a wide intellectual and political spectrum has some opinion of what America is. While many would love to settle down in USA quite a lot of them and others have only a vague idea  of what America is beyond the fact that one could possibly earn in US dollars. Noam Chomsky, whom the NYT called 'arguably the greatest intellectual alive', has spent decades writing tract after tract only shining a spotlight on America's underbelly. Amongst the many books that he continues to churn not a single word is good about America. Added to that a clip from a recent TV series informed Americans that their country is "not the greatest country 'anymore'". A visiting Tamil writer informed his eager listeners that Americans as a people are kind, generous and are different from 'America' the country. I am still trying to understand that loopy statement. As an immigrant who loves US I decided to write a series "understanding America". No better place to start that than with a narration of how America fed not only its friends but also its sworn enemy, Bolshevik Russia.

Herbert Hoover, as Truman put it, "wasnt' one of those fellows born with a gold spoon in his mouth, his father was a blacksmith in West Branch, Iowa, both his parents died before he was 9 years old". Hoover became a mining engineer and prospered. When World War-I broke out Hoover was in London. Many Americans scrambled to return to US from Europe but lacked money and papers or other resources. Hoover formed a committee to help the 'busted yankees'. Noticing his organizational skills and the success of his program the Wilson administration asked him to head "committee for Relief in Belgium" as Belgium, run over by Germans, was starving. Millions of Belgians needed food and they needed it urgently. Later Wilson made him the head of 'US Food Administration'. By the time the war ended Hoover was largely responsible for saving millions of Belgians from near certain death. Streets in Belgium were named for Hoover. America had set aside $100 million to rehabilitate Europe. Humanitarianism was tinged with real politik too. As US would do after World-War II with Marshall Plan so too this assistance was to ensure that a starving Europe is not swept with a 'Red' rage. 

The Belgian relief would pale into comparison, morally and scale-wise, compared to what Hoover would achieve in Bolshevik USSR. A PBS documentary 'American Experiences: The great famine' captures the rescue in great detail (watch it here . Famine, due to natural causes and the hot headed collectivization schemes, ravaged USSR. Tens of thousands died every week. While no other nation lifted a finger the US and Herbert Hoover stepped in to stop a human catastrophe on a gargantuan scale. 

Maxim Gorki pleaded to the west "Gloomy days have come to the land of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Mendeleev". PBS commentator noted that Gorki did not mention Lenin. Hoover, now US Secretary of commerce and head of 'American relief administration', piloted a bill, 'Russsian Famine Relief Act' in 1921 at a cost of $21 million (in 1921!!!). The scale of work envisioned was one that only the 'American spirit', that indefinable, soaring greatness, could accomplish.

In 1921 USSR was a very backward country and the revolution had torn the country inside out. The infrastructure, whatever pathetic infrastructure there was, was destroyed. A crumbling economy, famine, repressive regime gave rise to rebellions, notably Kronstadt rebellion. David Remnick, Pulitzer winning author of 'Lenin's Tomb', notes that 'Stalin was a lamb compared to Lenin'. Trotsky under Lenin's command suppressed the Kronstadt rebellion with a heavy hand killing or executing thousands. Noted communist and author Arthur Koestler would recall that as a water shed moment in renouncing communism in 'The God that failed'. 

Lenin, of course, was suspicious of American help. Lenin, naturally, wanted control of how food was distributed. While assuring Lenin on political interference Hoover insisted that America will control the distribution to ensure anyone who starved got aid irrespective of their political leanings. Lenin, would use Cheka, the secret police, to monitor the ARA.

In January 1922 thousands of tons of wheat sailed from NYC to USSR. The ARA had divided the famine regions into ten zones with each being administered by an American. One has to pause and reflect what a herculean task it was to transport relief across a very climactically hostile terrain, the Russian steppes, in the notorious Russian winter that had defeated Napoleon and will humble Hitler 20 years later. This is terrain and climate not familiar to any westerner. It took 16 days for the ships to travel from NY to Moscow through Atlantic over 5000 miles cutting through a frozen Black Sea but it took 21 days to travel just 1300 miles from Novorossisk to Samara. Traveling through Russia when typhoid swept through the villages would endanger the lives of many American relief personnel.

Hoover is mostly remembered as the President who presided over the Great Depression. FDR, like what Obama is doing now, milked that fact relentlessly and blamed Hoover for everything for nearly 15 years over 3 terms. When Truman became President and presided over a devastated world in the after math of the war once again humanitarian relief became a focus as Europe starved.

Time magazine writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy wrote a readable book on how US Presidents in office formed testy alliances with ex-Presidents, some of whom were defeated by the incumbent, for a larger good. Truman recruited Hoover to do what Hoover does best, feed millions.

'Until that point, it was not uncommon for as much as a third of the population in a war zone to die of hunger'. Truman was determined not to allow that. Attlee cabled Truman for help. Europe and Asia's production had gone down. 'Canada's production of wheat was down 25%". Once again, US, rose to shoulder the burden.

Hoover and Truman called for Americans to sacrifice to feed the world. US whiskey and alcohol production was cut to save wheat. Americans were asked to cut down wheat consumption by 25%, fat consumption etc were rationed. US can only do so much hence Hoover, age 71, went on a world tour to organize food from every corner of the world and to cut through red tape. 'He visited slums and orphanages'. Truman asked Americans to undergo "European 'austerity' diet two days a week. Millions will surely dies unless we eat less". 

Hoover went to South American countries which US had actively tried to intervene politically in previous years. In Argentina, Hoover, ex-US president, was seated "196th out of 216 guests: but I was resolved ... to eat even Argentine dirt if I could get the 1.6 million tons".

Hoover had his failings too like his other great effort during Mississippi floods showed. Afro-Americans were ignored and their silence was bought with a promise of help during a Hoover presidency. Doubters can quibble that Hoover's help for the Bolsheviks was tainted by the hope that seeing America's excellence and generosity Russians would just might turn away from communism. Compared to the millions of lives saved such doubts are but cavils with roots in anti-American prejudice.

America continued to supply food to communist USSR while Kruschev vowed to 'bury' USA. India, ally and foot stool of USSR, too was fed by America.