Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Immigration Debate: Focus on South Asia

There’s not much I want to say about what I’ve been reading online lately concerning the so-called immigration debate in the U.S., except that I am both pleased to see that the South Asian community is getting some deserved attention (vis-à-vis, e.g., the Latino community) and appalled at the recent column by Joel Stein in TIME MAGAZINE that has sparked this attention. In a piece called “My Own Private India” (Time online, 05 July 2010), Stein’s reminiscence on his hometown of Edison, NJ and the large Indian population there is supposed to be, I think, a satirical meditation on the immigration issue that’s been inflamed since Arizona passed a state law,

which proponents and critics alike said was the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status. [see the rest of this 23 April 2010 NY Times article, here]

But Stein comes off, in my estimation, as patently unsatirical and downright racist. It’s quite obvious that he’s attempting to be funny and witty in this piece. And I have no doubt that there’s a cohort of folks who will appreciate his writing (as his Facebook page from Monday demonstrates). But I just don’t see the humor or wit. I see ignorance. I see playground puerility. And I see Stein and his writing as both offensive to the entire American community (of Indians, Italians, Czechs, Swedes, Egyptians, Indonesians, and so on) and potentially dangerous (see, e.g., the post about Dreyfus below, which oddly presaged this post). Read his column and judge for yourself. If you still don’t see what I see, then I encourage you to read a reaction to Stein’s column at the blog Sepia Mutiny and see if that changes your view.

Pixies, Anyone?

I remember a summer job when I was seventeen: A friend and I were hired by a painting company to paint several of the gigantic houses around Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. We were the youngest of the crew by many years, and as the summer wore on it became clear that many of these guys (there were no women among us, as I recall) had lived through some wild experiences and had some interesting professions and associations before they ended up painting for a living. The owner of the company was a recovering alcoholic, and he hired most of the guys on this summer crew from a halfway house in the city for recovering addicts of all sorts; he either lived at the house at the time or once lived there. I can’t recall. His business went under before the summer was over, and he skipped town owning me around $500.00, which was a major bummer (I think he owed my friend even more). This is all irrelevant to this post, really, except for the fact that several of the stories I heard while painting mansions that summer enthralled me for their references to rock-n-roll hedonism (one of the oldest painters had many stories of his former life as a roadie for Greg Allman and other b-rockers — I think Eddie Money was among them, for example), drug abuse (I learned about “speedballing” from one of the painter’s afternoon reveries), and the Pixies. Apart from my friend and me, the owner of the company had two other relatively young guys on staff. They were college going age, and their tenure with the crew overlapped with mine by about two weeks. I didn’t get to paint on the same projects with these guys too often. But one day I was stationed on a roof with one of them, painting the window trim and fascia boards of a big old Tudor-style house, and naturally we chatted all day. During our lunch break somehow details about our families came up, and this guy told me that his brother was recently in a bad car accident. I don’t recall where it happened or how his brother made out in the accident, but what stuck in my memory, still quite vividly to this day, is that he told me his mom thought his brother crashed the car because he was listening to the Pixies. She thought their music messed up one’s ability to concentrate, he said and laughed. I didn’t get the humor in what he said at the time (not sure if I do now, to be honest). I had heard of the Pixies at that point but I hadn’t listened to them. I remember having really unusual ideas about what the music must have been like. These ideas lasted for almost a year before I actually heard the band. I eventually heard and saw them on MTV’s 120 Minutes, which is to my mind the best video show that MTV has ever had (do they even still play videos on MTV?). 120 Minutes aired late at night on the weekends, I think, and it featured bona fide alternative music videos. Back in the late-80s the label “alternative” actually carried some descriptive precision: in brief, it referred to music that you were not likely to hear on the radio, which was “commercial,” such as the hair-metal bands Poison, Bon Jovi, and Guns-n-Roses, and other supergroups and solo artists like U2 (circa Joshua Tree) and Phil Collins. In any event, several months after hearing the story about how the Pixies might have messed up a guy’s mind so much that he got into a car wreck, one night on 120 Minutes I saw a Pixies video for “Here Comes Your Man”:

I liked this song instantly, even if I was a little thrown by the distorted figures and frozen mouths in the video. And I still like this song a lot. Since seeing that video, I’d have to say that I’ve come to place Doolittle, the album on which “Here Comes Your Man” became the most widely known track, in my top ten favorite albums of all time. But would I endorse the album as one of the greatest rock albums of the 80s or of all time? Maybe. Back in January Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of the NPR / WBEZ rock-n-roll radio talk show, Sound Opinions, considered this possibility and, even better, dissected the entire album with Pixies frontman Black Francis (née Charles Thompson) — listen to the show here. It’s well worth your time, if you’re at all interested in this album and the band. Of course, the band went through a sort of renaissance five-six years ago when they reunited for a world tour, which saw their shows selling out venues at record-breaking speeds and receiving high praise from critics worldwide. If you have a little more time, I highly recommend Matthew Galkin and Steven Cantor’s loudQuietloud: A Film About the Pixies (Stick Figure Productions, 2006), which you can watch for free on Hulu.

Attempting to Explain the Unexplainable

Ali Sethi’s op-ed in today’s NY Times is a poignant series of reflections on the complex history of religions and religious nationalisms on the Indian Subcontinent. His starting point is the recent attacks on Ahmadi Muslims in Lahore, on 27 May 2010,  in which more than 80 Ahmadis were reportedly killed. The Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement is a minority Muslim sect in Sunni dominated Pakistan that has been considered heretical by the Pakistani State, and hence persecuted, since nearly the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The central claim of heresy leveled against Ahmadis has to do with their interpretation of the concept of jihad and their belief that Muhammad was not the final prophet. Ahmadis believe that all of God’s prophesies were brought together in the person of Mīzrā Ghulām Ahmad (1835-1908), the tradition’s founder. Ahmad had a liberal, interfaith approach to religious discourse, and he was regularly engaged with his Muslim, Hindu, and Christian neighbors on the Indian Subcontinent. Sethi’s remarks on the Ahmadi tragedy and the history of Islamization in Pakistan make for engaging reading. And he presents some useful insights on the persistent struggle with cultural memory in South Asia, particularly concerning the effects of Partition. Given the U.S.’s involvement (read: regular drone attacks) in the region, and the general lack of knowledge of modern South Asian history among Americans, this first person account of growing up in the region—amid multiple Talibans, inter-Islamic dispute and violence, the use of religion by politicians and military leaders, among other things—is important and, I hope, will be thought-provoking.

Hey Ho, Let’s Go!

USA plays England this afternoon in the 2010 World Cup. Having had strong outings in the friendlies leading up to the Cup–a 3-0 win over Australia and a 4-2 loss against the Czech Republic–the Red White and Blue boys have some momentum as they take the pitch against Wayne Rooney and England. Of course USA needs an absolutely perfect showing today to best England, who’s one of the favorites to advance well beyond the first round in the tournament.

There are reasons to be more optimistic about this USA team than its predecessors. This club seems more serious and disciplined than past teams, more grounded in footballing on the international stage and less concerned with presenting itself as a counter-U.S.-athletic-culture than earlier clubs, which often appeared to be childishly groping for a self-identity and unaware of the fundamentals of the game. Over the past two decades, I often heard from folks in Europe and Asia, where football is deadly serious business (far more than baseball or football in the U.S.), that American “soccer” was about as serious to FIFA as the CBA or CFL are to the NBA and NFL. Never have I heard this view more incisively or humorously articulated than John Oliver’s first report for The Daily Show from South Africa. Check it out, laugh your ass off, here (anybody know how to embed a Daily Show clip on WordPress?).

The Onion: Right Again?

The day after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, the Onion ran this short piece: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”

05 November 2008 / WASHINGTON—African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it. Said scholar and activist Mark L. Denton, “It just goes to show you that, in this country, a black man still can’t catch a break.”

Who could have imagined one of the “messes that other people left behind” would be the month and half long (and sure to be longer) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Last week Maureen Dowd summed up Obama’s biographical trajectory since his magical election in 2008 (“A Storyteller Loses the Story Line“). “It’s not a good narrative arc,” she wrote: “The man who walked on water is now ensnared by a crisis under water.” A little further along in her column,  citing the post-election piece from the Onion above, Dowd opines:

The oil won’t stop flowing, but the magic has. Barack Obama is a guy who is accustomed to having stuff go right for him. He’s gotten a lot of breaks: two opponents in his U.S. Senate race in Illinois felled by personal scandals; a mismanaged presidential campaign by Hillary Clinton; an economic collapse that set the stage for a historic win, memorably described by the satiric Onion newspaper as “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”

A lot of people voted for Obama because they thought he could somehow rise above the exigencies and disasters that continually befall a nation of nearly 310,000,000 people. His rhetorical flair as a senator and presidential candidate was convincing. He promised to bring change to Washington and the business-as-usual rigmarole that many have grown desperately tired of. It’s tough to measure change in a presidency in the midst of its unfolding, to be sure. The medical reform bill has been a big change, yes, and straight out of the gate Obama snagged the Nobel Peace Prize. That was a quick change in the tenor of global opinion on the U.S. government. But here, on the ground, we still have Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran in more or less the same ways we had them under the Bush administration. As Obama faces what will likely be the largest environmental disaster of his presidency, how different has he come across to the U.S. citizenry than did George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? While many in the the media are asking why Obama is not more visibly upset or vocally empathic with the people of the Gulf Region, I am reminded of questions put to Bush’s press secretary about why he was absent for days after the floods overtook New Orleans. Should we expect more from Obama than we did from Bush? In his run up to the White House, did Bush instill hope for change in people the same way Obama did during his campaign? Can Obama, as Dowd presses him in her column last week, seize his story line and reshape its current characterization of himself of a passive, detached, acquiescent man and rise to the heights of his one-time soaring rhetoric of change and progress and hope? Right now he seems too meek.

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Frontline (India) published an interesting, if unenlightened, review of Louis Begley’s latest book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. I am tempted to pick up this book, not so much because of the review, but because I’ve often taught the Dreyfus Affair as an historical turning point in the academic career of Émile Durkheim and his views on religion, especially insofar as they pertained to notions of community and sacrifice. It wasn’t only Durkheim who was deeply affected by the Dreyfus Affair, but most of the intellectuals associated with L’Année Sociologique, especially Marcel Mauss (not to mention countless other artists, academics, politicians, private citizens, and so on), were vehement Dreyfusards during Alfred Dreyfus’s trials and captivity. Of course in academia nowadays it’s often chic to try to find historical parallels with such recent events in U.S. domestic and foreign sociopolitical life, such as 9/11, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. Some are merely attempts to make scholarship sexy, and they are not worthwhile to use in the classroom; but some have actually been well thought out and argued, nicely demonstrating the usefulness of history and careful hermeneutics to teach the importance of reading history for understanding our present circumstances. I am not sure what to expect from Begley’s latest effort, but the Dreyfus Affair itself has already been helpful in the latter regard for me. I just don’t know if I’ll have a need (or desire) to lecture on G.W. Bush’s presidency and reactions to 9/11 anytime soon. Of course, for just about any scholar of religion, 9/11 changed the playing field — in terms of theory for sure, but as Begley’s book attests, in terms of historical analysis as well. It forced us to reconsider our assumptions and adjust our foci in the classroom and in our writing to discuss religion in the full context of the various institutions that constitute culture (e.g., education, politics, medicine, entertainment, etc). That there might be clear and incisive parallels between Dreyfus and some of the detainees at Gitmo, and the treatment of these people by leaders in late-19th century France and early 21st century America, is not surprising. And religion is, I am fairly certain, integral to all of these parallels.