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The Sorrows Of Europe Or How The Burqa Helps Hide Europe’s Fraying Social And Economic Realities

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on July 28, 2011 at 12:00 am

This post was originally written in response to France’s decision to ban the burqa but many of its arguments find new relevance in the aftermath of Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of over 90 Norwegians. Many of my arguments are also echoed in a recent piece written by Remi Nilson, editor of the Norwegian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, called “Why Norway?” 

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It is not about the burqa. And it’s not even about the dignity of the woman. Neither the French, nor the Dutch will admit it. But we have to look past the hysteria to attempt to understand what lies behind it. Though we use our love of ‘women’s liberation’ arguments to wage war, repress minorities, erase diversity, deny individuality, and of course silence difference, the fact remains that what is taking place in France and other European nations today concerning the burqa or its Muslim immigrants, is just not about the burqa or about the Muslims.

It’s about Europe and the impact the creation of the European Union has had on nations, their idea of themselves, and their economic and social realities. The immigrants are merely victims of the helpless.

The Europeans are suffering economically, and her citizens are in the midst of what can only be described as some of the most gut-wrenching economic and public services cut backs in their modern history. Europe’s new generations are being told that much of the social stability, security and safety nets their parent’s generations were used to are about to be eliminated. This same generation is seeing massive cuts in its education budgets and services, an erasure of its health care coverage, a loss of its pension networks, a gradual cutting away of job related benefits, rising unemployment, greater social and economic uncertainty and much else that national leaders like Sarkozy and their apparatchiks can do little or nothing about. Most of all this is taking place because of the economic crisis gripping European economies, new-found political priorities and a determined desire to connect to the requirements of a globalized economic and financial marketplace. And though the impact is being felt within the borders of each nation, the nation-state is unable to really do anything about it.

The massive demonstrations that gripped nations like France were clear call and warning to governments. But the fact remains that unlike in the past, these public demonstrations are now largely futile as the decisions about a nation’s economy, its financial sectors, and the civic and social services it once promised it citizens, are no longer in its governments hands. As Serge Halmi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, pointed out, in an editorial called ‘France Says No

France hasn’t seen demonstrations like this for 40 years. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s character, his arrogance and determination to crush the “enemy” have aroused wide opposition. But one man’s whims do not account for all the sound and fury. This is a response to a fundamental and unjust change of social direction chosen by European governments with allegiances ranging from confident right to compliant left, on the pretext of dealing with the financial crisis. Berlusconi has done no more good or harm in Italy than the socialists under Papandreou in Greece and Zapatero in Spain. They all threaten the viability of public services and social security. To please the bean-counters on the stock exchange, they all propose to make ordinary people pay for the havoc wrought by the banks, who carry on just as before, free from any obligation to show “courage” (like the workers) or solidarity with future generations.

And it is precisely at such moments, particularly in what the writer and intellectual Arjun Appadurai called Fortyn Pim’s Europe (France, Italy, Austria, Holland, Romania), when there is a clear loss of national and government sovereignty, that the nation-state turns on its ‘other’, the weaker and the ‘different’ and raises the specter of their threat to ‘our way of life’.

As Arjun Appadurai discusses in his book The Fear Of Small Numbers: An Essay On The Geography Of Anger, the rise in fundamentalism and nationalist rhetoric reflects a growing loss in economic and social cohesion and control, as governments and societies confront the realities and strains of our fast changing, globally inter-connected world. Appadurai is more articulate, and points out that we now live in a world where….

…some essential principles and procedures of the modern nation-state – the idea of a sovereign and stable territory, the idea of a containable and countable population, the idea of a reliable census, and the idea of a stable and transparent categories – have become unglued in the era of globalization… (page 6)

We are seeing a phenomenon as government’s lose their ability to maintain control over their economies and industries, turning increasingly towards managing and encouraging a greater nativism, a more infantile celebration of imagined ideas of national culture, values and heritage. France is merely a specific situation of a phenomenon we have seen in India, Malaysia, Italy, and also today in the USA. As Appadurai further elaborates, that at such moments of loss of national sovereignty, we find nations caught in….

…panics about foreign goods, or about foreign languages, foreign migrants, or foreign investments. Many states find themselves caught between the need to perform dramas of national sovereignty and simultaneous feats of openness calculated to invite the blessings of…capital and the multilaterals…the virtually complete loss of even the fiction of a national economy, which had some evidence for its existence in the eras of strong socialist states and central planning, now leaves the cultural field as the main one in which fantasies of purity, authenticity, borders, and security can be enacted…the nation-state has been steadily reduced to the fiction of its ethos as the last cultural resource over which it may exercise full domination. (Page 22, 23)

And so in France, as in the rest of Europe, where an impotent leader, unable to offer any solutions to her flaying economic issues, has happily distracted us with the ‘threat’ to the great French republic posted by about 1800 or so Muslim women who apparently are ‘repressed’ and ‘unenlightened’ and need to be saved from themselves. In a nation of 65 million people, these women are not even a statistic and yet have become the focus of a nation’s hysteria, resulting in scenes that simply shame the human conscience. As Naima Bouteldja, writing for the Open Society Foundation, tells us:

As a direct result of the political and media hubbub, niqabis who ventured outside their house found themselves facing frequent verbal abuse ranging from “ghost” and “Darth Vader” to “whore” and “slut,” used as a back-handed way of defending women’s dignity. Some also had their pictures taken as if they were circus freaks, while a small number of women were also spat on or physically confronted by passersby who tried to rip off their veils.

It takes as much prejudice, misogyny, repression and brutality to compel a woman to take off a burqa as it does to compel her to put one on. Both acts deny her as an agent, an individual, a mind, a person, and a sovereign member of a family and a society with the capacity to speak, think, act and change. If you are not convinced, look closely at this scene, and tell me you do not realize where we have arrived. Tell me that this moment is not truly one of shame and lament.

Copyright April 12 2011

In the same piece Bouteldja continues and tells us that:

Indeed  by claiming this ban on the full-face veil will protect women, the result, as Jameelah, 24, told me has been the exact opposite:  “I had the feeling that I was no longer human, that I was a monster,” she said, “while they should have respected me because at least I was a human being like them… at least for that reason I wanted some respect.”

Far from the wastelands of Afghanistan where the image of the burqa became synonymous with the repression of women and the presence of patriarchical pathologies, the urban byways of Paris have become theaters of the absurd where articulate, autonomous, independent women demonstrating on the streets of the city have been subjected to arrests, forced removal of their burqas, violent attacks, and verbal and physical abuse by the nation’s citizenry.

Oddly, these apparently oppressed women seem to have an annoying way of behaving and speaking as intelligent and articulate individuals, something that of course does not bother the righteous to reconsider their prejudice and generalizations. What is at play here is political manipulation of an old Orientalist prejudice, one that negates the independence and individuality of these women, and insists that they, regardless of what they as lucid and autonomous adults say, do not have the capacity to think and judge for themselves.

As someone said, freedom is untidy. We have to bring it to them under the benign guidance of bombings and outright war, and now also with benign laws. Its for their good. The mission civilisatrice continues.

But more importantly, as Tzvetan Todorov has warned that:

There’s a difference between criticising a triumphant ideology and criticising a marginalised, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred.

Fear Of The Barbarians by Tzvetan Todorov

The spiral towards intolerance, and the wholesale reduction of a complex polity, like Europe’s immigrant populations, to simplistic and infantile generalizations is of course a wider trend. We have to recognize, as much as many would prefer not to, that each European nation’s immigrant populations have unique histories and relationship to their chosen European lands. The story of the Algerians in France cannot be conflated with the story of the Bangladeshis in Britain, or the Turks in Germany or the Somalians in Italy. Their stories also cannot be disconnected from each European nations colonial post, post.WWII social and economic development programs, and their specific and unique administrative and bureaucratic policies about inviting (yes, they were invited) immigrants from other lands onto their shores. It was with no small irony that Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, stood on front of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and warned:

Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern in connection with the current economic crisis. They lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration. Roma and travelers, Muslims or Jews, and more generally, those who are different, experience hostility and social exclusion in many of our societies.

There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to larger popular support for marginal political parties. However, I am even more concerned by the reaction of mainstream political parties in addressing such popular fears.

The European left and her public intellectuals have failed the test of their time. Most all has scurried to the corners of conventionalism, and refused to stand by the ideals they once propounded for the likes of the victims of Soviet repression. When it has come to defend the humanity, equality and individuality of the darker races, they have succumbed to paranoia, racism and outright hypocrisy. The few that have stood consistent, and have been pilloried by the rest for their stance, include people like Ian Baruma. For the last five years, if not more, Baruma has been speaking out to Europe, trying to clarify her malaise, and warn her against her easy resort to hate. In an essay called Europe Turns Right Baruma argued that:

European populism focuses on Islam and immigration, but it may be mobilizing a wider rage against elites expressed by people who feel unrepresented, or fear being left behind economically. They share a feeling of being dispossessed by foreigners, of losing their sense of national, social, or religious belonging. Northern Europe’s political elites, largely social or Christian democrats, have often been dismissive of such fears, and their paternalism and condescension may be why the backlash in those liberal countries has been particularly fierce.

The strains on national identities that the European Union project has wrought has not been sufficiently studied. Europe is the home of some of the most desperately and violently manufactured nationalism and national identities. In complete negation of their lived reality, most Europeans think they live in ethnically homogenous and culturally uniform nations. Even the Swedes think so, never allowing facts to intervene and transform this myopia. The hundreds of millions of dead from WWI and WWII attest to methods required to arrive at our still-not-quite-pristine national purity. But it has been the project of the European Union has torn at what have until recently been a people blindly comfortable in their concocted identities and sense of national purity.

Pushed by the changing global economic environment, and Europe’s need to remain competitive and relevant, and project has bought it into question issues of economic autonomy, and economic policy management. What was once a national concern, overseen by national banks and national politicians, has passed onto people the Europeans never see and can never communicate with. And with the European economies dancing with economic straits, many now bankrupt and laid waste, the fears and uncertainties are pushing it citizens to extremes of regressive and xenophobic behavior. Again, as Ian Baruma had pointed out in an interview with Der Spiegel

Immigration and the Muslim issue in particular has become the focal point of a much larger sense of anxiety which has to do with the European Union, globalization, erosion of the authority of the nation-state and economic uncertainty. That general sense of insecurity and resentment makes a country very vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that you get from people like Wilders and Pim Fortuyn before him.

We have been here before, for example during the minaret ban in Switzerland, and we will return here many times in the coming months. Today they will go after the burqa, the hijab, the dupatta, claiming security and French cultural values, tomorrow they will target other aspects of the immigrants life and culture and claim that it threatens the very foundation of the republic. Maybe they will eventually go completely against the idea of Islam as a belief, outlawing it completely on the grounds that it provokes violence and represses its practitioners. The leap isn’t as large as you may think. The conversations will move from dress, to food, to modes of worship, to financial transactions, to charities, to schools, to social gatherings, to language, too much else.

Taming The Gods by Ian Baruma

Faced with a growing social and cultural complexity, confronted with economic and financial systems that today no longer respect or adhere to the controls of regional dictates, and unable to offer solutions and ideas that address the real personal and social fears of its citizens, the Europeans are reacting by trying to construct walls to ward off change.

But it may be late. The die has been cast and nothing short of an economic miracle can turn us around. The economic situation in Europe is not about to improve, and the levers of national economic control and policy will remain beyond the ability of regional governments. That is, French and other politicians will not be able to respond to the real, economic and social demands and difficulties of their citizenry. They will instead turn towards demagoguery and denigration of the ‘other’ to stave off thought and questioning of their impotence.

The only thing now left to wonder is to what level of violence Europe’s citizenry will rise against her ‘other’, for there is really no other place to go if such cultural and nationalist programs continue. The Muslim immigrants of Europe stand dehumanized and degraded in her eyes. They are the un-human, the mass that has a core ‘essence’ that programs them towards barbaric and uncivilized behavior. They are unable to change, do not have the ability to reflect, cannot contemplate, or be individual. They can only do what is in their ‘essence’, an ‘essence’ defined by something called ‘Islam’ which of course the Europeans know and can define, though its practitioners prefer to practice it in a million different and diverse ways. Shockingly, many of its practitioners choose not to practice it either, but lets not bother ourselves with that possibility.

We can now only wonder whether we will go the way of Italy, a nation that has already sanctioned the use of violence against the taint of the ‘outsider’? The violence used to wrest a young woman’s burqa, or that used by armed men to drag her to jail, should give us reason to pause because when we decide that our liberties require a resort to illiberal actions, we have crossed the line from being open, democratic, tolerant and vibrant nations that respect the right of individuals (the individual and her rights to freedom of speech, access to justice, right to life etc. being of course the central concept of a liberal state) and have drifted towards insecure, fear ridden and weakened people closing off our minds, intellects, humanity and courage to the purveyors of lies and obfuscations.

Its time to see past the veil of lies and begin to ask the hard questions about what is happening to the world around us. Europe has to turn to herself, see within herself, to transform this debate into a meaningful one. She does not serve her citizens, nor her future generations, by easily succumbing to the fear-mongering of a few elitist politicians, or the egregious racism of a few paranoid racists. The future will insist that European nations be multi-ethnic and multi-religious, but more importantly that Europe’s story and history be that of all its people who have come there, thrive there, live there and make it what it is. There is no return to an imagined pure nationalism or nation. There is no return to the Europe that never was, other than in our imaginations. We will have to return to a point where the individuality and autonomy of each European is respected, even if that means that some individuals will dress, eat, live and speak in ways that we cannot fathom or appreciate. The individual is sacrosanct, and for as long as their personal choices are personal choices and they do not impose them upon others, we will have to tolerate them regardless of how much their choices may confuse us.

The Afghan War Now On The Menu Or What Happens If You Stick Your Head Really Far Up Your A**

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars on June 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

MREs — Meals Ready to Eat — photos of everything on the menu for soliders from many different cultures who are all fighting in Afghanistan © Ashley Gilbertson / VII Network via Lens Culture

The embedded photojournalist is now so bored that he is photographing food. You can see the entire piece by clicking on the image above.

And this at a moment when civilians continue to die in an unjust war, an illegal war, and an absolutely unnecessary one. Things are so bad that our erstwhile puppet, a one Mr. Hamid Karzai, is complaining about it and doing it loudly. But of course, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, such expression of ‘freedom’ are not for the people we are apparently there to ‘free’.

No, it is best that we continue to use our media to repaint this bloody, shoddy and shameless military frat-party as some noble, casual, innocent, benign dinner party. I hate to say this, but someone has to call such rubbish work precisely what it is: rubbish.

Our cameras, and hence our society’s eyes, are turned to the banal and seriously ludicrous. Perhaps I will say nothing more than to counter-point this fine, artistic presentation of food with this also very fine, journalistic presentation of the consequences of once the food has been digested – the waste that we do not want to look at.

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In a fine piece called The Magic Realism Of Body CountsMohammad Idress Ahmad pointed out:

At the end of 2009, the Pakistani daily Dawn calculated that, of the 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks that year, only 5 were known militants. Earlier that year, The News, Pakistan’s other major English-language daily, had calculated that between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people – of whom only 14 were known militants.

This is only the tip of the ice-berg. We don’t want to think about what is happening inside Afghanistan itself where no journalists or other institutions have bothered to keep count. To say nothing about the criminality, corruption, and sheer waste that are the lives of the people of Afghanistan under our ‘gourmet’ occupation has been completely erased from our view. That Afghanistan remains, after over 10 years of an American presence and an American controlled, and mind you, illegitimate, puppet government, on the most dangerous country for the very Afghan women we apparently went to liberate and stay there to protect, is simply shameful.

Trust Law Graphic

This is under our benign watch. This is after eleven years of an American style Mc-democracy and its only getting worse. And yet none of the daily socio-economic pathologies of Afghanistan makes it to us out here in the ‘civilized’ world. It is simply erased from our eyes because we are too busy cozying up to our ‘boys and girls’ and studying the menu!

In the face of atrocities, killings, maiming, torture, indefinite incarcerations and a general atmosphere of repression and military occupation, it is shocking that individuals, publications and institutions think that works such as this is worthy of production, publication and promotion. As a citizen of a country involved in multiple illegal and brutals wars, and where we avoid a serious discussion about the consequences of these wars for the people we are waging them for and against, and the legality them, this kind of work only comes as yet another slap in the face leaving me feeling mocked and humiliated.

I mean, we aren’t even trying to be seriously anymore. There are photographer’s producing stories about the joys of post-war Iraq, in complete denial of the psychotic reality of the ‘client’ state that we have created there. This is sheer and simple obfuscation if not blatant propaganda. These are serious war, with massive human and social consequences, to say nothing about devastation and death, and we just don’t give a damn! Why even go! Why not just do a different story, but one at least that is real, and has meaning, and reflects a genuine intellect and critical engagement. Why bother to do this?

This is not even serious anymore.

The Most Beautiful Girl They’ve Seen Or The Embedded Photojournalist Gets Picked Up!

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, Photography on May 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Creative Common Copyright Fab34

I have argued this again and again, and have been reviled and criticized for it again and again. And yet, nothing produced by any of the many number of reporters and photojournalists who have chosen to embed with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan has convinced me to change my mind that embedded journalism is many things but never journalism.

It has been with nothing but great dismay that I have watched photojournalism’s highest awards and recognitions go to work that was produced in conditions and restrictions that we would have denigrated and mocked had they been imposed by one our ‘flavor of the year’ enemy states. I doubt that any reportage done from an embed with the Soviet Army that invade Afghanistan in 1979 would have been considered a crucial and appropriate documentation of the war in Afghanistan. And yet, we are ourselves happily convincing ourselves that ‘our’ boys are in fact producing crucial and appropriate documentation of our wars.

I was reminded of all this as I read a fascinating and funny piece by Peter Van Buren in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘The War Lovers’ where he begins by asking the most relevant question we often avoid:

What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

I have made my own arguments about the embed approach in a number of pieces, including The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well, and Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging Of War, and a partial tongue-in-cheek piece called How We Refused To Embed With Brittany Spears, and Fighting Ghosts And Selling The Good War Or Why Are The Toy Soldiers On The Front Lines!, and others of course.

But there is a fascinating insight in Van Buren’s piece that is worth thinking about. He points out that in fact the embedded reporter has tremendous access within the military, to its soldiers, and even to classified details coming across over the wire. They also have more liberty to report what they saw than we may imagine. And yet, few do. Van Buren’s argument for why the military can allow this to happen and not worry is striking, pointing out that

…the military wasn’t worried..[b]ecause its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive…[E]embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.

And the camaraderie and companionships that develop ensure the appropriate voice and the appropriate check on serious reporting. As Van Buren continues:

You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.

For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.

Of course, we reporters and photojournalists never talk about this. As always, there is such little self-reflection within the practitioners of the craft that it is staggering to think that they are being asked to go out and document the world for us. In fact, in a world drowning in images, they may be producing the permanent and definitive images of a world. And it is an image where the ‘other’ is increasingly and consistently seen through the sights of a gun. Or, as Van Buren points out, through …wet dreams passed on to the public.

The Park Or How While Contemplating A Recent Assassination I Found Myself On A Ferris Wheel

In Musings On Confusions on May 8, 2011 at 10:08 am

The Park by Asim Rafiqui 2011 (Click on image for more)

Click on the image above for more.

The Dead Can’t Dance And I Refuse To Either Or Why I Insist On Remembering While Others Insist On Drinking To Forget

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on May 3, 2011 at 10:06 am

We have invaded two nations because we were told that we must. Both illegally and in violation of all known international law.

We have murdered possibly over a million Afghanis and Iraqis and Pakistanis and others in the process. And continue to kill them at will in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We have displaced and dislocated from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan other millions, forever ruining their lives and humanity. And forever consigning them to the void of suspicion, fear and prejudice.

We constructed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military bases and detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now use them for ‘forward projection’ in the so-called war against a noun.

We continue to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan and use massive military force to retain our jack boots over their necks while funding and supporting illegal and completely illegitimate governments that we described as ‘democratic’ and ‘parliamentary’.

We have invited private militia and corporate mercerneries to the party and given out contracts worth billions to make it appealing for them.

We have detained innocents, including American citizens, indefinitely and still refuse to give them appropriate justice. President Obama willingly continuing the illegal and unjust policies of his predecessors

We have tortured them relentlessly (oh, sorry, we have enhanced interrogated them!)  and strong armed our civilized courts and bureaucratic apparatchiks to justify our actions.

We have renditioned them and sent them off to our ‘allies’ in other parts of the world to be tortured, maimed and killed. And there is no end to this program.

We have illegally eavesdropped on our citizens, violating our own laws in the process. And it continues.

We have sent American men and women into useless wars and watched thousands of them die to cover our lies and greed. And thousands more will die in the coming days.

We have curtailed civil rights and liberties within the USA all in the name of a war against a noun. And there is no turning back.

We have handed over trillions of dollars to the military and to private contractors just as our own economy has gone bankrupt and our citizens are being thrown out of their homes, jobs and futures.

We have handed over trillions of dollars to Wall Street, while the ordinary have been begging for pension handouts and calling it ‘revolutionary’ action. And each time I ask why, I am told that it was the good of the nation. And its security.

We are closing down our schools, reducing our welfare programs, cutting back public and state budgets, taking away what little healthcare we could afford, allowing our infrastructure to rot, corporatizing our congressional and house leadership, inflaming Islamophobia because we have run out of political and public service ideas and all while simultaneously approving more money for security programs, anti-immigration programs, military invasions and wars, and new and improved intelligence programs.

We have been doing this for ten years, and as my nation sinks into economic pointlessness and desperation, I am being told that I should celebrate the killing of a largely if not completely irrelevant ‘Enemy #1′.

I am supposed to forget all this for the sake of a party and a beer. I am supposed to just not ask the hard questions, never look back as Obama so stupidly said Look Forward, Not Backward. 

I am supposed to ignore the sheer hideousness of the fact that what actually got this useless trophy took nothing more than a few months of intelligence work (can bribing the Pakistani ISI be considered ‘intelligence work’?), a small commando unit, and a raid in the city of Abbotabad – one of Pakistan’s largest military cantonment cities and less than hour away from its capital Islamabad?

Am I to believe that no one bothered to look inside what must have been the strangest and most conspicuous house in the entire town – 12 foot walls, barbed wire, clandestine comings and goings, high security controls, etc. to see who may be there? A house smack in the center of a major Pakistani military city, under the very nose of Pakistani and American intelligence. Am I to believe that we waged years of drone wars in the mountains, leaving thousands of dead and tens of thousands displaced, while never bothering to look over the walls of our city offices? If not I, then would not the thousands of dead want to know the answer to this question.

Why do I feel that I have just been made a fool of and am now being told to hold the Star Spangled Banner and dance around like a monkey? Why can’t I get over the feeling that I have just been sold a lemon, and the salesman is laughing while counting my cash?

Perhaps it’s just me but I can’t celebrate or wave this flag. I can’t get past the horrors of these preceding years. I can’t stop hearing the echoes of the arrogant lies, nor the screams of the millions of innocent lives lost to pave the road of our righteousness with their blood and souls. I can’t help but lament this fraud, since nothing changes, and all paranoid fantasies of ‘invading demons’ continue as before. More wars, more security, more torture, more fear, mor screaming hysteria about the dangers to ‘our way of life’.

I beg for mercy. Please don’t ask this American to dance. I beg for mercy. Please don’t demand that this American forget. I beg for mercy, please let this American remember. There is still so much more to come. So much more that I will have to remember for future days when I will be told to forget. Please let me sit here….and remember.

The Travails Of Our Post-Colonial Subconscious Or What Does The English Language Have To Do To Be Recognized As An Indian Language?

In Background Materials, Book Responses, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on April 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

A very curious essay appeared in the recent issue of The Caravan magazine. Written by Nilanjana S. Roy, titled ‘How To Read In Indian‘, it veered uncertainly between discussing the emergence of the phenomenal success of Indian writers writing in English, and a discussion of outsiders writing stories about India. Subtitled The Long History of a Literary Argument That Refuses to Go Away it clearly meant to be a literary discussion, but in fact it quickly diverged into a discussion about the outsider writing about India.

Roy begins by recounting some of the debates at a gathering of Indian writers and intellectuals at Neemrama Fort Palace, and moves towards the criticism that so-called Indian critics have made of those from the so-imagined outside writing about India. Roy mentions Mulk Raj Anand’s criticisms of Salman Rushdie, various criticisms hurled against V.S. Naipual and his works on India, and a strange reference to Pankaj Mishra’s recent critical study of Patrick French’s new book on India. As Roy elaborates:

In a sense, we have always been sensitive as a nation to what is written about us; nonfiction about the US, for instance, seldom draws as many reactions, fuelled equally by anxiety and exasperation. The anxiety comes, in the reading of many, from seeing any narrative that interrupts the neatly seductive story of India Shining; the exasperation comes from a smaller band of Indians who are tired of having what they already know and consider familiar explained to them in exhausting and unnecessary detail.

But somewhere in the middle of the essay, the focus turns to the question of language. The example of Bankim Chatterjee is given – a Bengali writer who made a conscious decision to never writing in English and instead speak ‘to his people’ only in the native language of Bengali. As Roy states, that for Bankim…

…the question of whom he was writing for became urgent in his mind. He could not, he felt, write unless he was addressing his people, his countrymen, in their tongue

It seems to me that this is an entirely different question from the one that was first offered in the essay. One is a question of perspectives on India – the insider vs the outsider. The second is a question of language as a marker of belonging, and ideas of nationhood and community. The first is a criticism about what is said about India and by whom. The second is a question of what means ie language is used to write and whether English (and yes, lets admit that this is about English, about our colonial scars, and about our desperate post-colonial ideas of our indigenous cultures) qualifies as an appropriate language to use to speak about, and to India.

I am willing to admit that there may be overlaps in these discussions, but it seems that to make sense of either we should, to help with the discussion, keep them apart.

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The first issue has come up quite bit lately. A certain group of self-appointed guardians of literary India have taken it upon themselves to pillory Europeans who have had the temerity to work in India, say something about her and her culture, and perhaps most egregiously, find a place of celebrity and social and cultural participation in India itself.

This peevish stance was recently seen in Hartosh Singh Bal’s recent tirade against the writer William Dalrymple that appeared in India’s (English language!) Open Magazine under the heading ‘The Literary Raj‘. It made for painful reading, riddled as it was in a language and presumption so provincial that they defied belief. The essay was inspired by Dalrymple’s prominent place in organizing and appearing at the now very popular Jaipur Literary Festival, a fact that seems to have upset Singh Bal’s Indian, and lets admit it, nationalist and cultural sensibilities, leading him to ask:

I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book,’The City of Djinns’, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?

Understandably, William Dalrymple did not take kindly to these suggestions, and fired back with his own piece in the same magazine titled ‘The Piece You Ran Is Blatantly Racist‘. Hartosh Singh Bal’s retort followed in the form of a piece called ‘Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?‘. as well as one by Pramod Kumar, one of the founders of the Jaipur Literary Festival, entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘.

A similar accusation of ‘how dare you!’ was leveled against – and I say this with no small irony, by Patrick French against the Indian born Pankaj Mishra. Yes, it may seem odd to say this, but that is precisely what happened when Pankaj Misrha wrote a ‘not so enthusiastic’ review of French’s new work on India called India: An Intimate Biography Of 1.2 Billion People.

Mishra’s criticisms, offered in a piece called (provocatively I will admit) ‘A Curzon Without An Empire‘ and published in India’s (English language!) Outlook Magazine, were leveled against French’s truncated understanding of India’s modernity and her economic development. Mishra’s criticisms reflected ideas already raised in many Op-Ed and other pieces he has written about the phenomenon of Shining India and the deep inequalities and injustices it is inflicting upon the majority of her citizens.

French, however, took it personally, and retorted with what can only be described as an attempt to singularly mark Mishra as an ‘outsider’ who pretends to be a ‘insider’. He chose to discredit Mishra in a response, with the rather catty title ‘Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon‘, not by taking on Mishra’s socio-economic arguments, but his ‘outsider’ character:

It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.

As these debates have raged it seems that we have lost sight of the key issue ie what is being said and not who is saying it. We can see this tendency in Singh Bal’s and French’s reactions. Instead, we have focused on who is saying them.

What should matter is not that Dalrymple or any other writer is an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’ but only whether what he says about India is intelligent, insightful, articulate and informative. We have to accept that many Indians have written rubbish works of fiction and non-fiction about their own country, and many foreigners have in fact written some fabulous works in the same categories. It is not the origins of the writers that matter, but the content of their writing. Dalrymple has in fact written some powerful works on Indian history – White Mughals: Love And Betrayal In 18th Century India and The Last Mughal: The Fall Of A Dynasty: Delhi 1857 being two such works.

Dalrymple’s place in India’s literary circles is not the result of a ‘Johnny come lately’ but reflects many decades of passionate engagement with the country and its history. We can’t fault him and others like him for his origins, but have to engage him, and all others, on the basis of their ideas and contributions. Which is what Mishra did when he critiqued French, though French preferred to offer a rebuttal that was if anything petty and venal.

A focus on the ‘what’ vs the ‘who’ helps distance us from debates that can quickly become mired in racist and xenophobic stances. They allow us to remain above the treacherous and slippery terrain of identity politics and nativist generalizations. It allows us to focus on ideas, insights, and information, without coloring our judgments on the basis of color, ethnicity, race, religion and class. Literary and intellectual criticism has to adopt this position if for no other reason than to be consistent and rigorous.

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We next turn to the question of Indian writers writing in English. This question became an urgent issue of concern particularly since Salman Rushdie’s set off a fire-storm of indignation when he very careless suggested in the introduction to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing that:

The prose writing–both fiction and nonfiction–created in this period [the fifty years of independence] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.

Few have managed to get past this dismissal of India’s vernacular literature, and many have been fighting tooth and nail to argue for the importance and relevance of India’s so-called ‘vernacular’ languages.

And Roy too can’t get away from speaking about this. What is confusing is that she keeps returning to this question of language, which appears to have been her original motivation for writing the piece, sporadically while focusing far more on the issue of who writes about India. What is perhaps confusing is the underlying privilege she herself grants to Europe, its markets, its audience and its ‘reading’ of India.

What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West—shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swath of Europe—has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing. Imagine assessing all of European literature by reading only works in Polish, or only works in Italian—that, in the absence of a market for translations of Indian fiction, is the position the West is in when it reads “Indian writing”. And as long as the market is open only, or chiefly, to Indian writing in English, this blindness cannot be overcome. There is also the question of economic power: with access to larger audiences abroad, publishers outside India can and do dictate who has that access, what kind of stories travel from here to there, what books will be considered future Indian classics. There is an inequality in the system, inevitable, inescapable and often resented.

There is just so much wrong in the above paragraph that I do not even know where to begin.

First, it is ridiculous to complain that the West reads only those works that are written or translated into English. I mean, what else would they be able to read? Furthermore, the critic has nothing to say about the fact that the initiative to translate works from various Indian languages into English or other European languages often comes at the behest of European publishing houses. If indigenous Indian writings are to find a global audience, they have to be placed into an Indian publishing structure that makes them i.e translates them, available to a larger audience. I suspect that the answer is not merely about translations though but also about the relevance and resonance of the stories.

Second of all, the statement carried within it an hypocritical thought: that it is Europe that does the reading that actually matters. Despite the writings attempt to complain about the value set on works that are recognized and celebrated in the West, she himself sets Europe up as the audience that actually matters and should in fact be reading India more broadly and in a less truncated way. Their reading us, and all of us, is very important and the determinant of value. She laments their ‘truncated’ reading of us, as if their reading is what really matters. This prioritization of the Western audience underpins all such complaints of ‘truncated’ views, and is the unspoken background prejudice of such critics. A need felt for stories to ‘travel from here to there’ belies a belief that arriving ‘there’ is somehow the achievement that matters. Here she is again:

She also ignores the reality that there are large markets for vernacular literature in India itself. Kerala alone boasts a market of nearly 33 million readers, and all in their native Malayam. As described in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘Kerala: Mad About Books‘:

Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Returning to the issue at hand, when will we accept that English is an Indian language? How many years, and what history, allows us to call a language ‘Indian’? Is it 10 years, 100 years, 400 years? I would argue that English is fundamentally an Indian language and has as much right to be called that as Urdu, or Tamil or Hindi or any other language that arrived into its present form and place as a result of settlement, communication, commerce, conquest and creativity. In fact, Roy herself admits that:

The Census 2001 figures, released late last year, revealed that English had, effectively, become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns or belong to metropolitan areas that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege…as this generation begins to tell and write its stories, it may not need to beguile the souks of the West with its Indiennisme.

But while doing so, refuses to see that the question of Indians writing in English and Indians not writing in English is only interesting if you privilege and value the judgment and commercial power of the European. An insistence that if it’s not being ‘read’ by Europe than it is being marginalized, ignored and under-valued reflects a very severe post-colonial inferiority complex that holds the European ‘audience’ on a higher scale of value and relevance. The question to ask ourselves is why this is so? Is it simply because they throw more money at it, and can hence create a greater aura of glamour, celebrity and fame around their industry? Is it because their voice continues to matter to us even far above our own? It reminded me of something Partha Chatterjee said, though in a different context, that despite our best efforts our…

…thought accepts and adopts the same essentialist conceptions based on the distinction between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, the same typology created by a transcendent studying subject, and hence the same ‘objectifying’ procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age…There is consequently, an inherent contradictoriness in…thinking, because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power…thought it seems to repudiate it.

Chatterjee, Partha Nationalist Thought And The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Page 38

What also remains unexplained is that given the growing appetite for Indian writers in Europe and the USA, why there has not been a greater effort from within India to have its many vernacular works translated into languages that can be read by the Europeans and the Americans? This is something yet remains to be understood, and as far as I know has not been sufficiently examined. A part of the answer I believe lies in the point I made earlier: that it is the universality of a story that matters, not merely its translation. I am sure that this is not the whole answer, but we cannot ignore this fact. And the naturalness of it: the European is under no obligation to read our stories and we should expect her to be.

Finally, I would add that the reason why we don’t just read Polish literature to understand Europe is because Poland comes to us not just as a separate language, but also as belonging to a separarte nationalism. The prejudice of Indian nationalism prioritizes her Northern Indian elite and mythologies, complete with its preference for English and its strong historical and cultural links to the West. I need to say more about this, since this may inflame some serious objections, but we cannot ignore the preponderance and unfair weight of North India when it comes to being mistaken for India as a whole. That is why we can assume that an Indian from a narrow, middle-class segment writing in English represents all of India because Indian nationalism itself has been articulated by this class since such nationalisms very inception, if not earlier. A very small elite speaks for the entire region, and many regions are marginalized in the process. This is a broader issue that require more explanation for which I do not have space here.

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Underlying all this concern of course are some very nativist ideas of what it means to be Indian, and who can claim that privilege. These ideas are of course inflected by the definition of an Indian nation, cemented by the pillars of official nationalism: borders, states, languages, flags, passports etc. But literature is about ideas, not geography. It is about the human imagination, not cities of birth. The idea of India cannot be confined to within India’s physical borders. Her post-colonial modernity defies such simplistic definitions of what it takes to be Indian. A vast, diverse diaspora is one reality that undermines the country’s geography. The cosmopolitan lives of even so many millions of her resident citizens – lives that see them living, studying, conducting business in a number of different geographic and cultural domains, is another reality that can’t be ignored. Into this modernity of cultural and geographical flows we cannot place rigid and fixed ideas of ‘belonging’ or ‘culture’ or ‘vernacular’ languages.

Our citizen’s lived realities are far more interesting than fixed identities and out-dated ideas of ‘Indian-ness’ require. It is specious, if not a complete waste of time, to argue about whether a certain language is Indian or not. If we keep in mind that it is mere historical fate that Assamese is an ‘Indian’ language and Pushtun is not. It could just as well have been otherwise. And we should not forget that even today people in regions like Kerala and Tamil barely speak Hindi, with many absolutely refusing to do so.

We are better off, whether it is when we discuss fiction or non-fiction, judging a work on the merit of its content and imagination, rather than on merely its mode of communication. We are better off accepting the absolute hybridity of our lives, the many ways in which they are embroiled and mixed with the lives, cultures, histories and intellectual trajectories of societies, peoples and ideas beyond our geographical borders. Today more than ever – in an age of global media, the internet, accessible long-distance travel, inter-connected marketplaces and business, we no longer live and experience this world from within our geographical frontiers. Our imaginations are influenced by things we can’t even really enumerate, and perhaps largely by ideas that come to us from way past our known horizons. We don’t have to like this modernity, but it would be foolish to pretend to ignore its reality. It would be equally foolish to pretend that we can today set a clear definition of what it takes to be considered Indian, and who can claim the right to speak for it, to it and with it.

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In Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions on April 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

Thanks to TruthDig

Defending The Myth While Killing The Reality Or Why Banning A Book May Reveal More About Us Than What Is In The Book

In Book Responses, Musings On Confusions, Readings, The Daily Discussion, Writers on April 1, 2011 at 8:20 am

The State of Gujarat has banned Joseph Llelyveld’s new book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India.


Gujarat’s much celebrated Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, called it perverse, or more specifically, he stated that:

This publication defames the Mahatma and there is rising anger not only in Gujarat but in the entire country. The perversion shown in the writings not only deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms but cannot be tolerated. I know that the members of this august house share my feelings.

He has called on the Indian central government to follow suit and ban the book across the entire country. This ‘reverence’ for the Mahatma, and an intolerance of anything considered an ‘insult’ is ironic to say the least. If there is anything state in India that has completely rejected and dismisses most everything Mahatma Gandhi stood for, then it is Gujarat.

To hear Modi, a man whose very idea of himself and the state that he controls is the absolute antithesis of what Gandhi preached and practiced, is truly amusing to watch. Anyone reading Gandhi’s remarkably revolutionary work Hind Swaraj would realize how completely Gandhi’s ideas of a genuine Indian independence and modernity are ignored in this state that now proclaims to ‘respect’ him by banning works it believes ‘disrespect’ him.

A state that is run by idealogues and ideologies similar to those that led to Gandhi’s murder, a state whose leaders and citizens quietly sanctioned and supported massive violence and outright slaughter of its own Muslim residents, a state that has marked by mass ghettoization and segregation of its populations, a state that has adopted an unforgiving and unquestioned policy of consumerism, capitalism and corporatism, and the same state that rejects everything Gandhi asked India to be, is now banning a book that has not even been released in India and obviously never even been read by the offended. Is it the book that offends, or is this grandstanding merely a veil to hide our erasure of him from our daily  life and politics while continuing to present him as our avatar?

Earlier the same state had banned Jashwant Singh’s work Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence because it argued that it was Nehru and the Congress Party’s policies that forced Pakistan’s founder Jinnah to accept the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan.

Another intolerable intellectual thought, and another intolerable realization. Across the lines, the state of Maharashtra has also banned Joseph Llelyveld’s work on Gandhi. Earlier Maharashtra had banned Jamie Laine’s work Shivaji: The Hindu King In Islamic India where a discussion about Shivaji’s birth and sexuality provoked outrage across the state, and led to an attack by mobs against academics and intellectuals who had worked with Laine, and the trashing of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, Maharashtra where Laine had done some of his research.

The Indian Supreme court disagreed and recently lifted this ban, though the work remains contentious and disputed, Laine a persona non grata, and any other work staining the ‘perfection’ of Shivaji’s life and reputation – Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey for example, targeted for banning.

Of course, acts such as these always take us back to perhaps the most famous book banning in modern times – the attack against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses which, in case you did not realize, is still banned in India. It has been over22 years since the ban was put in place, and no one dare challenge it. And yes, I do own it, and I have read it and I do love it. It’s hilariously funny, and the controversy over the offensive passages completely irrelevant and frankly ignorant.

Before I start to sound like a self-congratulatory, self-righteous and holier-than-thou pretentious secular modernist, let me confess that I do understand the instinct to ban works. There are plenty of books that I find offensive, and that I once would have loved to see removed from the shelves of bookstores.

One such work is Joan Peter’s confirmed hoax called From Time Immemorial: The Origin Of The Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine.

Despite a comprehensive series of works that revealed the sheer analytical, statistical, data, and factual fraud carried out to produce a work that basically argued that there are no Palestinians, the work remains easily available in almost all major bookstores in the USA. In fact, so much was written about this book that one did not even have to read it to know it. Norman Finklestein wrote his PhD dissertation on the work, and was the first to reveal it as the hoax it was. Noam Chomsky was Finkelstein’s thesis advisor at that time. However, this work received a National Jewish Book Award in 1985, before its veneer started to peel. Joan Peter’s book is comprehensively dissected in Norman Finkelstein’s work Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict, but even the ordinary pundits eventually had to take note. Ian and David Gilmour did a massive, 8000 word dissection of the work in The London Review Of Books called ‘Pseudo-Travellers‘ concluding that:

In spite of its grandiose claims to have altered ‘the very basis of our understanding’ and to have brought knowledge where before ignorance reigned, this book is not history. As a guide to what has happened in Palestine in the last hundred years Ms Peters is about as trustworthy as her Medieval ‘source’ Makrizi. The prominent Zionist academics thanked in the preface for their encouragement, their ‘data and statistics’, their ‘checking and rechecking’, seem to have some explaining to do.

And there were many others e.g. Yehosha Porath’s scathing analysis in The New York Review Of Books called ‘Mrs. Peter’s Palestine‘, New York Times had Anthony Lewis to turn to who broke open the fraud in a piece called There Were No Indians’ and many more. But the book is still on sale, and it is still lauded by those who originally lauded it.

I had once wanted it banned, though today it is an amusing reminder of the distance people will go to serve their sectarian, racial, ethnic, class and nationalist prejudices and lies. My complaint now is that it continues to be sold without an errata or a clear acknowledgement of the academic fraud perpetrated to produce it.

I could probably list a dozen or so more such texts that offend me, and the ideas I hold dear. I will confess that I have had the urge to remove such works from shelves but have stopped myself. I know that this act is futile, that like an idea once spoken, a word once print lives forever and will always overcome efforts to erase it. And that perhaps in the end this act is self-defeating.

However, I often ask myself where this urge comes from and why is it so powerful that it can take lives. After all, mere words, even the seemingly simple act of writing poems, can send powerful nations into paroxysms of idiocy. So what is it that we are reacting to? What is it about books that cripple our tolerance, and ability to simply let ideas live and be challenged?

Perhaps it is fear, and self-doubt. Perhaps it is the realization, fueled by an inherent intellectual and personal insecurity, that the ideas being written about are sure to influence others around us into asking the questions for which we have no answers. That they may begin to ask questions that reveal the hypocrisies we have been veiling behind pious platitudes and righteous rhetoric. Perhaps that which we wish to ban reveals the very chinks in our armour, the specific regions of self-doubt we carry within and hope that the others will never quite figure out. Perhaps we ban because we are afraid to ask ourself the difficult questions, and hope that others will not either. Perhaps we ban because we want to ban our doubts and erase our suspicions that our certainties are never as certain as we think.

Perhaps banning a work is not about defending the honor of the object offended, but about defending the obfuscations and myths we constructed to create that ‘honor’ in the first place. Perhaps this realization will continue to inform those who resist such bans, and compel the Indian State, and its Supreme Court, to continue to overturn such reactionary actions.

Where The Head Spun – 6th March 2011

In Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions on March 6, 2011 at 6:11 am

Jennifer Egan.

She is one of the finest American writers working today. Her A Visit From The Goon Squad was troubling, provocative, funny and dire. So it was with some surprise, but more with excitement, that I saw that she has turned to journalism.

She has a piece on Lori Berenson in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine. Her piece The Liberation of Lori Berenson is wonderfully written and retains Egan’s sensitive eye for the simple detail, and that lovely ability to allow her characters to emerge quietly and in fragments.

Lori Berenson spent 15 years of a 20 years sentence for aiding and abetting a terrorist plot that never took place. I am not surprised at Egan’s choice of Berenson, who in fact sounds very much like a character out of one of Egan’s books when Egan describes her:

She is slight and mild-mannered, with wire-rimmed glasses, an inquisitive gaze and wavy brown hair that she often wears in a single braid down her back. She dresses simply — often in jeans, occasionally dangly earrings. Her speech is polite and a little stiff, in the manner of both a native English-speaker who has lived much of her life in another language, and a person who resists self-revelation.

Worth a read.

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On a different note, I have been following the turmoil in the Middle East on the amazing Jadaliyya website

Complementing Al-Jazeera’s excellent coverage, Jadaliyya offers the best in-depth analysis of the social, economic, political and cultural factors fueling the tectonic shifts taking place in a region long ignored and seriously misrepresented by American and European media, intellectuals, pundits and academics. I recommend that you bookmark it.

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Speaking of tectonic shifts, The Boston Review, carried a fascinating article on the state of our economy and criminality that bought us to our financial knees. In a review of four important books on the subject called Business As Usual: The Next Wall Street Collapse writer Jonathan Kirstner highlights the institutional and systemic failures of post-Reagan/Clinton capitalism and its abandonment of the fundamental warnings of some of the most important economic minds of our time. Stiglitz’s Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, and Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 And The Descent Into Depression appear to be particularly important. In both academic economists come in for particular criticism:

The embrace of rational expectations and the efficient-markets hypothesis, and the tendency of the discipline to reward impressively sophisticated and utterly implausible models, contributed to the ideational environment in both business and government that led us off this cliff.

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This of course comes at the heels of another devastating piece in Rolling Stone Magazine which highlights how the crass criminality that underpinned the financial and mortgage market collapse, has largely been covered up and the perpretrators allowed to go scott free. Mark Taibbi continues his excellent expose of this hideous industry and its hideous actors in a piece called Why Isn’t Wall Street In Jail where he points out that:

Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world’s wealth — and nobody went to jail.

Sobering. Dismaying.

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My friend and photographer Tiane Doan Na Champassak has a new blog. My initial reaction was one of confusion, but then again that is how I felt what I first met Tiane himself. It takes a while to get him, as it took me to get this blog, and I love it. Called 1 PHOTOGRAPH/ER it features, as Tiane explains, what he considers to be an:

exceptional photograph, the rare “jewel” often hidden in a mass of images produced by either well-known or unknown, professional or beginner, conceptual or classical photographers.

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The Dissenting Photographer Or How American Photographers Turn To Intelligence In Times Of Intransigence

In Journalism, Musings On Confusions, Photography, The Daily Discussion on March 4, 2011 at 6:44 am

The image showed little, and yet said so much that it made me laugh. The first time I saw it I did not know who the photographer was, but some quick research revealed it to be no other than Tim Davis. The image, called Nixon Monument was sheer genius:

'Nixon Monument' from the series My Life In Politics by Tim Davis

And that is perhaps what defines Tim Davis’ work: a quiet, but rigorous intelligence that compels the viewer to read his images for deeper insight and critical commentary. The entire series called My Life In Politics (the title alone is so lovely!) is a searing look at the caricature of democracy that is the American political machinery. It captures brilliantly the public spectacle and the hollowing out of the intent and meaning of a democratic enterprise, and its reduction to theatre, and facade.

'One Nation...' from the series My Life In Politics by Tim Davis

An European photo editor I met at Visa Pour L’image some years ago pointed out that there was very little in the way of dissident and critical photography in America. Recently the same question came up in a conversation with students at a social science institute in India. I think that this is too simplistic an argument. American photographers have been speaking out and offering resistance to the mainstream radicalization and militarization of the American public and political space. Tim Davis’ work of course is an example of a photographer confronting the dimensions of America as he sees it, and pointing out the dangers of its slide towards extremist consumerism, war and comic book political dialogue.

We are living in times where dissent is understood to be treason, a conflation that of course serves the interests of the powerful. And America – despite its self-proclaimed image as a land of free speech and individual liberty, has a long history of confusing dissent with anti-Americanism, and proclaiming allegiance to the political agenda and programs  a sitting government, and its apparatchiks, rather than to the institutions and values of the republic. In particular, the American media has repeatedly chosen to adopt the prejudices and rhetoric of populism rather than fight to maintain a determined adherence to the values of free press that challenges power, protects public interests and maintains a near-fanatical independence from the influence of the powerful. Instead, we have a media today that is absolutely beholden to power, so much so that its practitioners actually prefer to ‘represent’ the perspectives of power and ‘protect’ their idea of American values over all else. And so in this space American photographers concerned about the infantilism and militarism that continues to plague our nation have had to adopt subtle, tangential means of dissent which can create some wonderfully clever and complicated works. They can’t scream, but whisper ominously.

Mitch Epstein has offered his dissent in his new work American Power. Epstein is another favorite of mine – smart, individual and focused and his new work offers a critical look at American life, lifestyle and presumptions of consumption that underpin its dependence on oil, coal and other extractive, environmentally destructive and politically distorting energy resources.

From Mitch Epstein's series 'American Power'

Mitch Epstein and writer Susan Bell have even gone so far as to create a website dedicated to asking the question What Is American Power? and as they state:

…heighten awareness of the toll that energy and consumption and production take on our economy, security, health and natural resources.

Anthony Suau’s Fear This remains one of the few works that attempted to speak out against America’s build up to the invasion of Iraq. I remember first seeing this work in a second-hand bookstore in New York and wondering if anyone would ever notice it. This was back in 2006 and those were dangerous times when even the fact that we knew our leaders were lying could not stop us from standing alongside them. Those who spoke out were marginalized as cranks, called anti-American, and simply ignored. To produce a work that showed us our ugliness, and the ease with which we were hypnotized towards violence by our politicians, military leaders and our mainstream media, took some courage. Given the crass jingoism and near-violent patriotism that has gripped the nation since the 9/11 attacks – an event that has become the justification for so many domestic and international injustices and criminal actions that it simply defies the mind, one can understand the need for prudence. However, the very meaning of dissent, the very necessity of loud criticism, is most clear when it is most dangerous.

From Anthony Suau's work Fear This

I also think of Paul Fusco’s quiet, but angry project called Bitter Fruit. I had the pleasure of speaking to Paul Fusco about this work when I met him for lunch in Perpignan in 2006. I remember him carefully explaining the anger that drove him out onto the streets of USA and towards family funerals in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and where else he could find information about them. I remember him telling me that it was the military who always prevented him from speaking to the families of the killed, though it seemed to him that the families in fact wanted to speak to him.

From the series Bitter Fruit by Paul Fusco

Nina Berman’s recent work Homeland on the militarization of the American public space, is another example of a photographer attempting to offer criticism and dissent, but doing it in her own quiet way, and turning out eyes towards things we ought to be concerned about.

From the series Homeland by Nina Berman

American photographers have to deal with a very American public and media environment which is largely conservative and non-confrontational. There are no mainstream dissident publications and certainly none that would offer the American public a critical viewpoint on issues that touch our very ideas of our selves and our patriotism. American photographers producing works that question the American way of life – the very way in the defence of which we justified the illegal invasions of other nations and the mass slaughter of other peoples, have to do so carefully. After all, much like those who confront religious fundamentalists, these photographers are questioning ideas and individuals who are equally unquestioning and intolerant of debate – the American patriot.

In the end it is producing some very intelligent and very interesting work. It is the work of thinking individuals, produced by creatively re-working the conventional ideas about how to cover our conflicts (no embedding here!), our politics and our demise as a nation that adheres to values that are universalist and human.

Sadly our most well-known photojournalists have completely failed to offer such perspective, preferring instead to offer simplistic, misleading and ultimately propagandist productions from behind embedded positions with the US military. Some are even busy as we speak documenting Middle East dictators, recasting them as ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’, at a moment when millions across the regions are reaching out to topple regimes of repression and violence. For most it has just been too easy to adopt this stance, to go along with the flow, to stop thinking and then veil the inherent laziness and intellectual cowardice of this approach under a language of ‘bearing witness’ or some other such inanity. It reminds me of what Mark Slouka said in a piece called  Democracy & Deference

What kind of culture defines “maturity” as the time when young men and women sacrifice principle to prudence, when they pledge allegiance to the boss in the name of self-promotion and “realism”? What kind of culture defines adulthood as the moment when the self goes underground? One answer might be a military one. The problem is that while unthinking loyalty to one’s commanding officer may be necessary in war, it is disastrous outside of it. Why? Because loyalty, by definition, qualifies individualism, discouraging the expression of individual opinion, recasting honesty as a type of betrayal. Because loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right, is fatally undemocratic, and can lead to the most horrendous abuses.

As some of these ‘greats’ now celebrate their achievements on the platforms of world press awards or even at gala cinema events in Los Angeles, we citizens would do well to remember the other photographers who have chosen a more difficult, and more courageous path and are reminding us, in creative and intelligent ways, what in fact it means to be a citizen of a people’s republic.