The Stanford Rape

The “Stanford rape”, in which a freshman named Brock Turner raped an inebriated and unconscious woman, has become a spectacular layer-cake of contemporary American pathologies. It has given all of us – journalists, politicians, academics, bloggers, “activists” – something to contemplate with outrage. This community of outrage has, I think, taken the form of a mob that has reached a moral and political consensus. The outrage itself, however, contains a number of fractures that are worth a closer look, and that are quite revealing about how we punish and how we constitute ourselves as a public in this country. None of it is remotely edifying.

The rape that Turner committed is the least remarkable part of the spectacle. It is, after all, the spectacle of widely endorsed entitlements – that of the white male, that of the economically privileged male, and that of the male athlete – rolled into the behavior of an undergraduate. What Turner did is so commonplace, in its pieces if not in its totality, that it is not just his parents (who have tried to defend him, rather stupidly) who share in the culpability. We can find traces of Turner in every small town where adults show up to watch high-school football games and seventeen-year-old boys are heroes of the community. It indicates, among other things, a refusal to grow up: a permanent infatuation with the combination of testosterone, violence and adolescent irresponsibility, and a worshipful identification with the sites of that combination. This is a model of community premised on the carnivorous camaraderie of young males. Females inhabit it as cheerleaders and meat. When this settler-colonial masculinity – the association of the little school on the prairie – is fortified and extended by corporate sponsorship, university scholarships, over-involved alumni-fans and the bros-and-hos dynamic of the frat party, we get the incitement to sexual conquest that produced Brock Turner.

It is tempting, no doubt, to see Turner’s parents as enablers, if not instigators, and to turn on them for their angry and defensive response to his punishment. But to dogpile on family members attempting to cope with disaster in the full glare of the media and public opprobrium, and to fault them for not being more concerned with the victim of the crime, is quite bizarre. Parents in that situation will defend their children, no matter how unsustainable the defense. Likewise, public introspection can hardly be expected to be their immediate reaction or priority. They may very well have shared some of the assumptions that Brock Turner exhibited when he forced himself on an unconscious woman, but the entitlement to “twenty minutes of action,” even if it is taken literally, is not the obscure disease of a margin of society. We cannot eradicate it without rethinking institutions and a “way of life” in which we are very broadly implicated: campus life, youth culture, team sports, success. Nor can we assume that we, in the community of outrage, are entirely and reliably immune to it.

The sentence imposed on Turner has drawn as much criticism, if not more, than the crime itself. It has been suggested that a non-white or poor defendant would have received more severe punishment, and that Turner – the privileged white boy – got nothing more than a slap on the wrist from a sympathetic white, male judge. That position is indefensible. It is true that a black rapist, or one who was not a successful athlete at an elite university, would probably have received more than the six months in a county jail (three with good behavior) that Turner got. The discrepancy is undeniably appalling, and Turner’s sentence is scandalous. But the scandal is not what it appears to be. Most of those who have broadcast their outrage at the sentence have overlooked the fact that six (or three) months in jail is not the main substance of Turner’s punishment. Those months are, in the main, a gesture of punishment, and a semi-obsolete gesture at that. In a society that fetishizes incarceration, the public reflexively expects to see imprisonment after a conviction. In the process, however, it can overlook the reality that imprisonment in America has been entwined, since the 1990s, not only with the rhetoric of institutional failure (articulated as overcrowding and recidivism) that is as old as the modern prison itself, but also with less theatrical forms of punishment and control. These are not as visually impressive as orange jumpsuits, but they are equally flawed in conception and damaging in execution.

The core of Turner’s punishment, as anyone who has been paying attention must realize, is the requirement that he register as a sex offender, and the felony record itself. Taken together, these ensure that he will remain under intrusive police supervision for the rest of his life. He will not be able to live where he wants, he will have to report to the police every time he moves, and he must stay away from certain (and sometimes not so certain) areas. On some days, like Halloween, he may be required to stay indoors and hang a “Beware of Sex Offender” sign on his door. People concerned for their children’s safety, or moved by curiosity, will be able to look up his name and address online, harangue him on the street, and petition his landlord to throw him out. In most states, he will not be able to vote. Various foreign countries will block him from entering their territories. Most importantly, his ability to pursue a profession will be crippled. Every time he applies for a job, he will have to disclose his crime, simultaneously shaming and disqualifying himself. There is no realistic way for him to get off the registry, or to retire his criminal record. This is hardly the lot of a criminal who has escaped punishment. It is the lot of a seventy-year old pariah who is still paying for a crime he committed when he was hardly twenty. Many, if not most, in Turner’s position would have preferred a prison sentence that actually ended with “time served.”

That, as much as the near-certainty that a black man would have also received a stiff prison term in addition to all of the above penalties, is the scandal of Turner’s sentence. Like eighteenth-century English juries that displayed a reluctance to convict because they wanted to protect defendants from a savage regime of punishment, the judge in Turner’s case appears to have done what he could to mitigate the consequences of the conviction. In doing so, he may have showed his social biases; he certainly showcased an institutional bias that was never in doubt. But he also showed the limits of what elected judges can do to interpret the law. He could not (or at any rate, did not) overturn the conviction, or stop the more or less automatic punishments it carried. Turner’s whiteness, money and standing as a Stanford athlete may have saved him some prison time, but his life was over as soon as he was convicted.

Race and class are indeed relevant to Turner’s punishment, but in ways that are quite different from what the critics of his sentence have underlined. The various registries and regulations for mandatory and quasi-mandatory sentencing that emerged in the 1990s, and that continue to form a cornerstone of American law-enforcement and punishment, were intended primarily to control urban criminals and “super-predators” (to borrow Hillary Clinton’s racially coded term): to contain, in other words, the poor and colored scum that had not been locked up by the incarcerating zeal of the Reagan-Bush era. They utilized a broad brush, eschewing nuance as a political weakness and an administrative handicap. The sex offender registry, in particular, was notoriously but deliberately promiscuous. It indiscriminately included people who had been caught urinating by the roadside, flashers, molesters of six-year-olds, teachers who had had sex with high school students, sellers of pornography, people with child porn on their computers, rapists who had bludgeoned or maimed their victims, dates who had not taken no for an answer, and, of course, innocent people who had been convicted of such offenses because they looked the part. New York City only recently changed its laws to exempt street urinators from criminal conviction and registration. The lack of intelligent discrimination in offenses and penalties was both a posture (“tough on crime”) on the part of lawmakers and prosecutors, and a calculation intended to take the human element out of judgment and give severe punishment a machine-like certainty. That promise of certainty reassured middle-class whites, who did not anticipate – does anyone ever anticipate? – that they might themselves fall in the path of their machine of judge-proof, defense-attorney-proof, nuance-free security.

The concept of security is itself quite relevant, because the extension of punishment beyond the prison term and into a diffuse and permanent condition is the sign of an epidemic of insecurity and a related willingness to expand the surveillance state. It is inseparable from the ubiquitous video cameras, Homeland Security, the NSA, no-fly lists, and the culture of “If you see something, say something.”  Less readily visible are a set of connections that take us back to the American rejection of adulthood in favor of innocence. Mandatory sentencing, laws named after lost children, registries and permanent surveillance all reflected an extraordinary anxiety about the vulnerability of juveniles. Not only was there an explosive intensification, in precisely this period, of the fear that strangers were out to hurt our children, entire populations – college students in particular – were infantilized by administrators and faculty. This was not necessarily a top-down swaddling; students – especially those who believed they were marginal and oppressed – showed great interest in swaddling themselves. In the process, they and their older well-wishers equipped the state (and a host of state-backed entities) with the intrusive, arbitrary and all-pervasive power of super-parents. Below the imagined layer of protection, there was only fear: the familiar fear of child molesters, rapists, terrorists, blacks, Muslims and immigrants that gives the contemporary state its scope and rationale.

This is not a state that possesses, or is expected by its protégés to possess, the capability for nuance; that has been jettisoned in the quest for safety. It is, therefore, appropriately represented not only by the ultra-violent police, but also by the self-righteous mob baying for blood. The individual members of this mob are quite certain that none of them, or their son, would ever commit a sexual offense or crime of any kind, even though they participate in a society saturated with incitement to precisely such behavior. The mob may have a valid moral point. Indians who demonstrated on the streets of Delhi after the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey undoubtedly had a moral point. But in demanding the death penalty for rapists without thinking through the problems posed by the death penalty for all of society, to say nothing of their own complicity in chronic forms of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence, they were worse than villagers with pitchforks, who at least have no pretensions to liberal citizenship. Much the same can be said for those who seem to think that the American state should sentence a twenty-year-old to a lifetime of social and professional leprosy, and still feel that that is not punishment enough.

The consequences of this mob mentality go well beyond any particular miscarriage of justice. It raises, first of all, an echo of old English juries and the Bloody Code: when the law is an ass, it opens itself to subversion from within the judiciary. Secondly, despite the likelihood that judicial bias provided some minor relief from legal stupidity in Turner’s case, the burden of stupid laws and procedures inevitably fall disproportionately upon the socially disadvantaged, who are most likely to be brought to trial, inadequately defended, and convicted. Third, the unrestrained public outrage we are witnessing is fascist and childish. It is childish in its lack of proportion and perspective, and fascist in its bullying quality, in which everybody feels the need to join in pulverizing the captured criminal. It is fascist also in its demand for declarations of self-repudiation and public repentance, which eviscerate the concept of privacy of the soul – even that of the criminal – without which liberal democracy cannot survive. It marks the corruption of the judicial process by a notion of “victim’s rights” that exceeds legality itself, introducing emotional readings of statements about how badly the victim felt after being raped. (Is a rape victim likely to feel something other than bad? Would a victim who was not a Stanford student, and not as capable of writing an eloquent statement, be less worthy of attention from Joe Biden, not to mention a national commotion?) When trial and punishment become a spectacle of "feelings," including tearful suffering and confession, and inevitably, the observer's need for spectacular satisfaction, we enter the terrain of witch-burning, which has never been far removed from the American courthouse and prison.

Fascism, it is worth remembering, is not a binary quality that a state either possesses or does not possess. It is a ubiquitous tendency within modernity, utilizing specific histories and cultural resources, that must be identified, confronted and contained in every society and state. A fascism of the left, undergirding a community of fear and vindictiveness, is no less real or obnoxious than a fascism of the right. A man has been convicted of a serious crime, although hardly an extraordinary one. He should be able to receive a reasonable punishment and then get on with his life, without becoming the scapegoat of a savage civilization.

June 11, 2016

Muhammad Ali and Celebrity Culture


The death of Muhammad Ali this week once again focused attention on the cultural work of remembering a celebrity. Undoubtedly, if Ali had been a great boxer and nothing more, remembrance would have been less substantial than it was. He was, after all, a man whose heyday preceded the Internet and cable television. What gave the legend of ‘The Greatest’ its substance is Ali’s record of outspoken political activism, especially his opposition to the Vietnam War. Celebrities with pet causes are not very hard to find in America, but in Ali’s case it was not posturing. It was an intelligent, sophisticated stance that connected the racism of Jim Crow with the racism of a murderous foreign policy, and that came with the willingness to make real sacrifices. When he refused to fight in Vietnam, he did not flee to Canada: he stayed and took the punishment, and gave up some of the best years of his athletic career. Dr. King (or Gandhi) could not have asked for more.

It was extraordinary, but simultaneously, it was not so. While is tempting to regard celebrities – athletes in particular – as freaks, they are products and emblems of their historical moment. Ali was a part of the trajectory of the racial politics of America after the Second World War, following in the wake of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. He was more publicly angry than them, and famously less modest, marking a crucial transition of ‘mood’ within a wider civil rights movement that brought us the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. The shift from tight-lipped forbearance (not deference) to undisguised anger and self-praise in the public sphere coincided with the willingness to connect the dots between racism in America, which obviously involved black Americans, and racism in foreign policy, which in the imperial world was a white man’s domain. Many whites who tolerated Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights activism recoiled when he began to speak out against the Vietnam War: he had gone beyond the permissible boundaries of the ongoing American conversation about race. But looked at in another way, it reflected a permission that came from blackness itself: a transgression that was enabled, even incited, by a culture – and not just black culture – that had discovered the excitement and moral legitimacy of rebellion but not yet found a sophisticated method of containment. It made for a brief moment when black Americans (and not just athletes) could stand on the international stage and clench their fists like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, provided they were willing to pay a price.

The price paid enhanced, rather than diminished, their status as public figures. The place of public sacrifice to the making of blackness in the Civil Rights era was not immediately evident to white observers. Hannah Arendt, for instance, reacted with outrage to black parents who exposed their children to tear gas and police dogs on the streets of southern cities. It had to be explained to her that the parents were neither callous nor cowardly, but engaged in a coherent moral strategy. To her credit, she came to understand what moved parents to put children in harm's way, beginning with the recognition that they were already in harm's way. Whereas the idea of the sacrificing parents was hardly new to the self-image of a beleaguered minority, the publicly demonstrated willingness to risk losing what was most precious supported the claim on public space itself, and made for a new, public, racial substance.

For men, the visible combination of sacrifice and transgression disrupted a long-established line between childhood and adulthood in the American construction of race. The infantilization of the black male – the phenomenon of grey-haired men being addressed as ‘boy’ by whites young enough to be their sons – was an old strategy of racial intimidation, with its immediate roots in the terrorism that overtook the South after the Tilden-Hayes Compromise of 1877 ended the Reconstruction. Even older roots can be found in the soil of the plantation presided over by the paternal slave-owner, where to be (publicly) the slave and the (unacknowledged) child of the white man could be literally the same thing. It was the interruption of this existential childish (or more generously, childlike) condition by the Reconstruction, with its spectacle of adult black men engaged in the public life of citizenship, that spurred the terror of the Klan. The black man was a political and sexual rival, but a ‘boy’ was either harmless or perverse, or dead, even when he intruded into the public eye.

The possibility that black Americans had internalized their infantilization proved to be a raw nerve for writers of the post-World-War-II period, as evidenced by the controversy over Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Wright’s Bigger Thomas – a nightmarish genie in bottle of violence – may have been deserving of sympathy, but he was also emotionally, intellectually and morally stunted. In a series of commentaries on the book that effectively destroyed their friendships with the author, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin both took Wright to task for perpetuating a racist construction of the black man-child, especially in an era when colonial subjects from India to Senegal were becoming citizens not only of their nation-states, but of the world. Wright had, of course, intended his famous protagonist to exemplify the damage done by racism and the explosive threat that damaged men posed to society, and it is as difficult to deny the psychological truth of Bigger Thomas as it is to deny that of Raskolnikov. Ellison and Baldwin, however, argued that it was an incomplete truth, and that Bigger, with his inarticulate violence, had been locked by his author into a particularly pernicious ghetto, in which the signifiers of adulthood – reason, wit, politics, art, agency, the awareness that home is located in a world of justice and injustice – were absent and impossible.

Ali, who was more a contemporary of Ellison and Baldwin than of Wright, added those signs of manhood and public wholeness to the subjectivity of the black American celebrity. Indeed, he made them constitutive of celebrity. The combination of adulthood and the overt violence of the boxer was potent stuff, and this potency can in no way be separated from Ali’s famous sex appeal. It was threatening (and thrilling) not so much because Ali was exceptional, as because he was in the vanguard of a wider rejection of the ghetto of children. Indeed, it can be argued that the systematic destruction of the various Black Power movements in the late sixties and seventies by the agencies of the state, in which extra-legal violence was freely used, was aimed at defeating this breakout and restoring the boundaries of Bigger Thomas’ world, transgression of which was merely criminal: a police matter.

It would, of course, be inaccurate to say that the restoration has been complete. But the fact that we find Ali’s political bent to be extraordinary suggests that there has been a real rollback. Black American celebrities are far more common today than they were when Ali made his inflammatory remarks about Vietnam. Remarks about a country that has literally been set on fire should be inflammatory; it is soothing rhetoric that is outrageous in such circumstances. But for the most part, we have stepped back from the fiery stuff, Black Lives Matter notwithstanding. The apparent step backwards has not been towards the stoicism of a Jackie Robinson or even Nichelle Nichols, but in the direction of the pouting narcissism of Kanye West, in which self-love is totally disconnected from solidarity. It is connected, instead, to consumerism: what one buys and shows off, what one’s name is used to sell, and one’s own marketed image. It is connected, in spite of the content of rap lyrics, to a fundamentally inarticulate image of the petulant man-child who needs a mother – or a record company – to manage his petulance.

It is essential that this critique not slip into a dishonest or hypocritical rant about ‘the black celebrity’ today, particularly when the critic is located outside or on the margins of the black American experience. In 1986, when Chrissie Hynde excoriated Janet Jackson’s generation of R&B musicians for having become the Pepsi Generation (‘How much did you get for your soul?’), the validity of the observation wilted before the irony of a white commercial artist scolding black artists for being, well, commercial. Today, there can be little doubt that regardless of color, celebrity status – and the public voice it potentially carries – is far better contained by the marketplace than it was contained by any counter-authority in the 1960s. But since color can hardly be disregarded when it comes to worldwide distributions of power and resources, any context that appears to operate ‘regardless of color’ is deceptive: it has been actively, politically neutralized. Its horizon has shrunk so dramatically that the world of injustice in which Ali fought and spoke, and that remained somewhat visible during the boycott of apartheid South Africa, is now quite invisible to those who seem to exist entirely in the public eye.

The stultifying effect of that containment is quite stark if we look beyond the American setting towards places where the corporate annexation of mass culture is relatively new. Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, is nearly a perfect example of iconic insularity. He had the good fortune of being one of the handful of modern athletes who have inhabited a level of ‘greatness’ that can come only from fortuitous cultural circumstances. Midway into his career in the 1990s, he was already celebrated – and not just in India – as the greatest batsman since Don Bradman, and certainly he had more media exposure and adulation than Bradman did in the 1930s. But Tendulkar’s generation of Indian cricket stars – wealthier, more famous and more in the public eye than any previous lot of Indian athletes – were also extraordinarily buttoned up, even when they took their shirts off and ran victory laps around the stadium. They had nothing to say that went beyond platitudes, even about sport itself. They seemed incapable of anger or organization. Literally the products of economic liberalization, they were either privileged by the status quo or aspired to privilege; they lived in the world but hid from it in moneyed enclosures.

It helped that they were mostly middle-class, upper-caste and Hindu, but even those came from less secure social locations were generally uninterested in provocation. The exceptions, like Vinod Kambli, received no quarter from the gods, and their provocation was rendered as juvenile misbehavior. Unlike their predecessors, who at least occasionally spoke their minds, Indian athletes who emerged after 1991 were superbly contained, to the extent that sacrifice became not only incomprehensible but meaningless. They were guarded men in every sense of the term. They knew better than to rock the gravy boat, comprising their sponsors, their boards and their government (which had become indistinguishable). They had, effectively, adopted the position of good children, to be seen but not heard except in jingles and propaganda. As men who saw, heard and spoke no evil, they were no less mutilated, and castrated, than Bigger Thomas or Vinod Kambli.

Ali was the product of a cruder arrangement of control, in which rebellion was both more imaginable and more compatible with celebrity status and public life. Its hallmark was an assertive wholeness of eyes, ears, brain and tongue: a breaking out into the world, not a zealous guarding of privacy. (We hear constantly how Tendulkar has had to protect his privacy.)  Ali had to be put in jail, not in a mansion, and jail made him stronger. Now the mansion is containment enough. Outside the mansion, there is nothing except paparazzi: no politics, no pain, no joy. The public stage that was once experienced as liberation is now experienced as layers of containment, compliance and conformity. We have, in a sense, gone from one pole of extraordinary subjectivity, signified by rebelliousness and adulthood, to another, signified by docility disguised as dignity.

June 6, 2016

When Doves Cry (For No Good Reason)

The deaths of first David Bowie and then Prince, in fairly quick succession, have unleashed upon us – us being the global middle class, although not equally global in all places – a particular variation of the phenomenon of public mourning. I must admit to being slightly repulsed by it. I liked Bowie and Prince, and listened to ‘Darling Nikki’ with a certain relish when I was fifteen. But I was never what might be considered a fan, and stand outside the circle of public mourning in which everybody is not only a fan but a performer as well, acting out their love. Public mourning is, by its nature, a performance. What is it about our moment that induces well educated, ironically inclined individuals to openly self-flagellate and recite lyrics like 'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life' as if this was profound or poetic? There is, obviously, more than one factor at play, and these overlap: the impact of the recording industry on individuality and generational identity, the intertwining of individuality and loneliness, the yearning for community bred by loneliness, and the rise of virtual communities of compulsive performers. In these communities, subjectivity is necessarily and compulsively absurd, and this absurdity occasionally loses its ironic cover and stands naked, reverent and ridiculous.

The idea of a 'generation' did not fully exist before the nineteenth century. It emerged from disjunctures in society that were generated in the first instance by pedagogy and subsequently (and not entirely separately) by capitalism. In colonized as well as metropolitan societies, young people were subjected to educational regimes that differed sharply from what their parents had experienced, and that produced the school as a space that was ‘away’ from home. In this world apart, children were definitively ‘different’ from their parents. This difference lent itself not only to panic and condemnation by parents who could not ‘understand the kids’, but to Romanticism and to the bourgeois experience itself, well before the turn of the twentieth century.

But the idea that music could form the boundaries and substance of a 'generation' had to wait for the years following the First World War, not least because the war produced further, sharper rents between those who fought, those who gave the orders to fight, and those who looked on. These rents, Paul Fussell wrote, were the spaces within which the ironic sensibility germinated and took over, permanently dooming Victorians and Edwardians to quaintness. With the simultaneous and mutually reinforcing maturing of gramophone technology and commercial radio, and the emergence of a broad prosperity – especially in America – that sold more things to more people than ever before, recorded music became a primary vehicle of irony and irreverence, marking generational identity more ‘naturally’ and democratically (for what is a generation if not democratic?) than the old-school-tie and even literature ever could. It also bridged, silently but substantially, the political rent between the generations, establishing a contradiction that has remained integral to the business of popular music. Those who participated in a common market of the buyers and sellers of identity could never be entirely hostile to each other.

Adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American social historian Paula Fass used the phrase ‘the damned and the beautiful’ to describe this first musical generation. The damnation and beauty were both ascribed by outsiders (like disapproving pastors and salivating advertisers), but they were also embraced by the generation itself, which gave it its peculiar narcissism: that slightly doom-and-gloom inflected self-absorption that was entirely compatible with hedonism and that colored the experience of the individual undergraduate as well as the crowd at a party or a nightclub. After the coming of the baby boom and rock and roll, that narcissism filled the concert venue with its collective hysteria and waving cigarette-lighters, and gave U2 lyrics their anthemic quality: the earnest, self-adoring ‘we’ of ‘we can break through,’ ‘we can be one’ and ‘we are the world.’ In its merger of melancholy and euphoria, loneliness and community, this subjectivity of the group-hug contained more than a trace of the parallel phenomenon of fascism (to say nothing of the church), albeit with a better soundtrack. Irony turned out to be an affectation, incompatible with the valorization of permanent childhood or a 'youth culture' one never outgrew.

Even the quality of the soundtrack is misleading. Like fascism, the generational identity produced by the consumption of music has come with a devaluing of aesthetics, or philistinism, that manifests itself in inflated and distorted reactions to the deaths of rock stars. It is one thing to hold forth publicly on ‘our grief’ at the evident mortality of, say, John Lennon, or in the future, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe. There is in those cases an undeniable ideological and aesthetic content – that might be summarized as poetry – worth mourning. But when the banality of 'Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life' followed by a few good guitar licks becomes the lexicon of grief, and we declare our undying 'love' for kitsch and dead pop musicians, what are ‘we’ mourning? Along with poetry, we would seem to be devaluing grief itself.

Most charitably, it might be argued that we are mourning ourselves: ‘the way we were’ in, say, the year Purple Rain played on FM radio. We are trying, pathetically, to recover the disposed bits of ourselves from the dustbins of generations, and from the dispersed souls – classmates, neighbors, relatives, lovers, the dead – that have made a ghostly last stand on Facebook and Twitter. The music and the musician’s name functions like a photograph, and it’s not especially good photography: a selfie, so to speak. That fundamentally maudlin experience of self-love and panic (the ‘we’ breaking down into an ‘I’ that is shorter of breath, more than one day closer to death) is dignified and assuaged ultimately by its immersion in a public ritual of nostalgia. It is not cheapened, because it was cheap – affordable, throwaway, mass-marketed– in the first place.

May 4, 2016

Serbia With Nukes

In an essay published in Haaretz in 2006, Tony Judt referred to Israel as ‘Serbia with nukes.’ The phrase was not his own; he was citing an unnamed person, who was himself adapting Helmut Schmidt's dismissive description of the Soviet Union (‘Upper Volta with nukes’). But Judt was not being random or flippant in his choice of analogies. A decade after the war in what used to be Yugoslavia, Serbia still carried a stench. It was not just the stench of massacred civilians, rape camps and ethnic cleansing, but also of a particular kind of nationhood: one saturated with aggression and self-pity.  Identified (not least by themselves) with Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, Serbs appeared obsessed with wrongs – old and new – suffered at the hands of outsiders and internal enemies, convinced that nobody understood their insecurity in their own homeland, and driven by a monstrous, paranoid desire for dominance. It warped them to the extent that they were no longer recognizable as civilized, let alone liberal and democratic in the post-Cold-War European self-image. They were, moreover, not only driven by a sense of their own importance (to Europe and civilization), but actually not much more than a small tribe of provincials. That Serbs themselves could acknowledge their pathology is evident in Srdan Spasojevic’s wryly titled A Serbian Film, which was promptly banned all over the world for its unflinching depiction of a savage dystopia.

When Judt suggested that Israel was ‘Serbia with nukes,’ in the aftermath of brutal invasions of Gaza and Lebanon, he thus pointed to a mode of civic identity and political functioning that is both horrifying and laughable: the mode of an unbalanced child with deadly weapons, a danger to itself as well to those around it. Watching events in India unfold over the past few days, I was reminded of Judt’s use of the phrase, and wondered if it does not describe India also. There too, a majority that is undeniably in command of every sector of social, political and economic life is obsessed with what it calls the ‘appeasement’ of minorities. There too, monstrous things have happened, not just once in a while but as a matter of course. There too, world-power pretensions are simultaneously desperate and ludicrous, because of the nationalist conviction that the enemies that matter most (‘anti-national elements’) are within its borders. The nationalist is, in other words, unable to pull his head out of his ass: his vision of the world is limited by his uncontrollable desire for revenge against what is within his own body. Even the obsession with Pakistan is merely the displacement of an internal enmity to a location just beyond an unconvincing border.

It is useful to look at the JNU crisis in the light – or rather, pitch darkness – of this rectal nationhood. In some ways, what has happened at JNU must be welcomed: the attacks on students by police and patriotic mobs, and the statements by various politicians affiliated with the government, have clarified things. When sedition laws are deployed against student politicians making speeches on campus, a defendant in a courtroom is assaulted by goons (who are also lawyers!) in front of the police not once but twice, and cabinet ministers declare that “the nation can never tolerate insults to Mother India,” we should have no trouble using the word ‘fascism.’ Suddenly, ordinary Indians – not just cranky academics – are using it, and even some who voted for the BJP in the last election are dismayed. References to Germany in the 1930s are being bandied about more or less nakedly in the Indian press, to say nothing of the network of diasporic commentators and users of social media. We need only be a little surprised that it took people so long to follow the cranky academics and pseudo-secular bleeding hearts, who began fretting after the 2014 election.

The fascist attacks on JNU are welcome also because they are not really about JNU, or even about any particular principle associated with that university. They are, rather, about very general ideas of the nature of the state, the content of nationhood and the meaning of dissent. It happened at JNU, but it could have just as easily have happened at another university, although in that case, the national anguish would probably have been more muted. But because the arrest and beating of a student for giving a mildly ‘anti-national’ speech happened at an institution that has long prized its elite status, large numbers of Indians have been moved to identity with the poor jholawalas. This, as I said, is a good thing, because if decent, middle-class, Hindu citizens will not take to the streets or use the f-word when pregnant Muslim women are cut open and fetuses ripped out, men are lynched for having the wrong kind of meat in the fridge, and families are herded into ghetto-like camps because their homes have gone up in flames, at least they will march when the same forces come after smart, smartly dressed members of the ‘majority community.’ Something extraordinary is happening in the country, the Supreme Court opined yesterday. Indeed, but it did not start at JNU. At most, it can be said that the JNU incident alerted the majority that it too can be cast in the role of the ‘anti-national element.’ It produced an insight – and such insights are rare for national majorities – that JNU and Naroda Patiya are on the same continuum. It is that insight that is extraordinary. And because it is difficult to bear, there is already the impulse to separate the predicament of the jholawalas from the predicament of the circumcised. While the widespread impulse of Indian liberals and their foreign allies to 'stand in solidarity' with JNU is laudable, the jholawalas need our solidarity much less than do the katuas. If the dignity of the latter was assured, the former would have no trouble.

It is comforting, no doubt, to rally around ‘the Constitution’ in extraordinary times, or around ‘the republic,’ as many alarmed Indians have done in the past week. This is understandable; one needs handles to gain ideological traction. But the republic is not some pristine principle, and the Indian Constitution, like any constitution, is a flawed political product. Fetishizing them will take us only so far. The Constitution and the republic have not prevented gross abuses of power in the past, from police violence against the poor, Dalits and minorities, through brutal counterinsurgency tactics in remote corners of the map, to stifled speech at every turn. They have not prevented rampant discrimination in housing and employment, or diverted polite, university-educated, middle-class citizens from their smug conversations about ‘those people.’ (Most fascists are perfectly nice.) The Sangh Parivar did not invent all this, and people have not always taken to the streets (or Facebook) in protest. While some of those abuses are in the nature of the modern state, others are specifically rooted in the Indian state, which has attempted from the outset to deploy democracy without liberalism. It is only now, when the outright fascists are in power, that the implications of that formula have come home to roost, and citizens who have been at best wishy-washy about liberal principles are reaching for the Constitution. But it may very well be necessary to take a closer look at the Constitution itself – and at the principles to which the citizen is willing to commit – before ‘the republic’ can provide adequate protection against commonplace episodes of the extraordinary.

There is, in addition, a dire need to look again at the purposes of Indian nationhood. That nationhood needs a purpose will, of course, appear nonsensical to some: to the dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, especially on the political right, nationhood simply is. It creates a state to protect its boundaries, and it regards dissent as a challenge to its very existence. That is the starting point of Serbia-with-nukes. Indian nationhood, however, has historically had a romantic component that is intertwined with the idea of justice: the idea that underlying the miraculous historical convergence of people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Punjab to Assam, is the objective of doing ‘the right thing,’ and not just for yourself. The right thing could be derived from the European Enlightenment or from sources closer to home, but the principle guided a wide range of ideologues: Nehru, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Rabindranath and even Bose, who was not a democrat. The imperative of justice, and not just self-interest, produced something new in the form of a national identity, a national space, and a national state. That, really, is the only defensible reason to be a nationalist. Otherwise there is no point in being so absurdly attached to arbitrary borders assembled by a regime that everybody recognizes as illegitimate: the British-Indian colonial state. Nor is there any point in arresting, beating and hanging those who question the map.

India is not Serbia or Israel, and not just because it is much bigger in every way. But there has emerged in India a tribe of Serbs, who appear superficially to be two different tribes. One is rustic, boorish, clad in saffron bandannas or khaki shorts, highly sensitive to 'insults to the nation,' and imbued with a predilection for murder and rape. The other is suave, English-speaking (with the right private-school accent), well-shod, and clad in neatly ironed shirts. They do not, as a general rule, murder or rape. But because they share the vision of a nationhood that is forever threatened by ‘anti-nationals,’ and that has no purpose except revenge and dominance, they give their approval to the murderers and rapists, and show themselves to be provincials of the worst sort. They are a menace to their neighbors, compatriots and themselves, and no one is more responsible for the farcical reality of a twenty-first-century nation-state that relies on mob violence to reassure itself of its permanence, continues to debate whether Shivaji was greater than Aurangzeb, and uses sedition laws against those who give the wrong answer.

February 19, 2016

Lynch-mob nation

In the cosmopolitan southern city of Bangalore this week, a Tanzanian woman was dragged out of a car, beaten, partially stripped, and ‘paraded’ by a mob. Her assailants, it seems, were angry about an unrelated accident, in which a Sudanese student had hit and killed a pedestrian. The details are appalling: when the young Tanzanian tried to escape her tormentors by jumping on a bus, the passengers threw her back to the crowd, and when she tried to file a report with the police, she was sneeringly told to produce the Sudanese man (whom she did not know) first. The scrap of comfort that can be gleaned here is that one bystander had stepped forward to help the woman, only to beaten mercilessly by the mob. But there has also been some anguish about ‘what we have become’: how racist, how lawless, and so on. Even the contributors to the comments sections in the mainstream press have recoiled, in the equivalent of an embarrassed crowd. Since lynching and mob violence are neither new nor rare in the modern Indian experience, however, it is worth asking whether the assumption that there has been a change for the worse – a moral and civic decline – is actually justified, and when lynching becomes commonplace.
For those familiar with Indian public life and its patterns of violence, what happened to the Tanzanian woman is almost entirely familiar, and not just because of the rage that lurks below the surface of relations between the car-borne and the pedestrian. The particulars of the Bangalore incident are easily recognizable as the idiom of violence against low-caste women in rural areas and provincial towns, and even urban women on ‘festive’ occasions. In a patriarchal society, there is nothing like sexual humiliation and terror to enforce the intertwined hierarchies of caste, class and gender. That enforcement is typically abetted by the police, who are after all there to maintain ‘order’ in every sense of the word.
The spectacle of the violent crowd – engaged either in a pogrom against a ‘community’ or in the lynching of a stray victim – should not surprise Indians. The rioting mob has been a part of public affairs in independent India from the outset, acting out a rogue history that resists historicizing and frustrates those whose preferred national narrative is one of warring states. It might be argued that such mob action is the sign of a ramshackle modernity in which the state is weak both ideologically and structurally: it has no monopoly on either the legitimacy or the means of violence.  Every once in a while, the liberal pretensions of the republic are exposed as irrelevant and alien, and the citizenry reverts to its primal state.
That argument is not altogether without merit; the ideological gulf between the crowd and the state in India can hardly be denied, although it can be romanticized by those who see the subaltern crowd as the repository of an alternative and superior civic virtue. It may, however, be more accurate to say that the problem is not the gap between the crowd and the state, but the overlap. Here, I want to draw attention to two other histories of chronic mob violence: anti-black terror in the United States between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and anti-Jewish terror in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The American example is overtly noticeable to those who were shocked by the attack on the Tanzanian woman, because of the shared element of violence against those identified as ‘black.’  That connection, however, is a red herring. Anti-black racism is not a uniform or universal phenomenon; its roots and rationales vary from one historical setting to another. American bigotry is only tenuously related to Indian contempt for the dark-skinned. The more interesting overlap has to do with the relationship between the crowd, the state and the pariah. The epidemic of lynching which began in the American South even before the Reconstruction had ended was not just about reestablishing white supremacy and intimidating the generation of blacks who had grown up after the Civil War. It was also about creating rituals that would demarcate the boundaries and content of blackness – articulated as spatial segregation, sexual containment, disenfranchisement and the condition of terror itself – at a moment when slavery no longer supplied the parameters. Mob violence clarified and policed the outcaste status of people who were otherwise entitled to the permissions of freedom and citizenship. At the same time, it generated for Southern whites a method of defiance, not only against the federal government and the Republican Party but also against republican principles of American identity, recovering from it the narrower ideology of white democracy that had its roots in Andrew Jackson’s nation even more than the Confederacy. Lynching thus became the basis of a local governance that was contextually at odds with the national government: a rift in the state, in which the crowd established a semi-legitimate Southern shadow-state. It could be tolerated by the national state, not only because tolerance was politically expedient following the rehabilitation of the Democratic Party, but because it was consistent with the delinquent side of American praxis. Frontiers and colonial warfare came with their own rituals of racial violence. Teddy Roosevelt, imperialist and frontiersman, could thus both disdain and accept the lynch-mob politics of the South.
In the German case, that distance between the legitimate and illegitimate states was eventually closed. After 1933 but well before the Wannsee Conference, the mob and the state had become interchangeable, in the sense that each spoke and acted in the name of the other, and also provided cover for each other. Mob violence, as in Kristallnacht, functioned as a surrogate for state violence. Once the Final Solution began, the mob was fully absorbed by the state and lost its visibility as an autonomous entity, i.e., as a mob. In each these aspects – the emergence of the mob as a proxy of the state, and the redundancy of the mob – Germany showcased an arrangement of power that is fascist in the first instance, and fascist as well as totalitarian in the second. Lynching in the American South, in contrast, was ‘merely’ a form of productive terror. Whereas the state-mob in Germany produced the Jew and the Gypsy as vermin (or, as Agamben would have it, as beings removed from the domain of legality and illegality), seeking ultimately to dissolve the ghetto and empty the camp, Klan terror produced the Negro as a subordinated minority, to be kept in its new designated place.
When a mob in Bangalore terrorizes an African student, the American reference is actually the least applicable. There is no question of reimagining black students in India as a ‘minority.’ Euro-American racism has certainly leached into Indian speech and behavior (more in the diaspora than in India itself, I would suggest), but this borrowing is so thinly rooted in the history of that racism that it is highly superficial: an easily available imitative gesture, like the monkey-gestures that were directed at the black Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds in India some years ago. Indian racism against people perceived as black, and Africans in particular, is real and pervasive, but it is not an ideology in its own right. It is, rather, a practice extemporized from cultural rubble: neighborhood and campus tensions, perceptions of the relative wealth and power of different categories of foreigners, imported discourses of savagery that are understood at the level of picture books. Affiliating that racism with its American counterpart is like ascribing ‘anti-Semitism’ – a European ideology with a European history bracketed by Jewish emancipation after 1791 and annihilation before 1945 – to Arabs in the erstwhile Ottoman lands and post-Algerian-War Europe. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, anti-black racism in India is not primarily about blacks, blackness, or aversion to dark skin. It is about an illiberal community reacting to a perceived foreign presence in its midst when foreignness is unprotected by a color – of skin or of passport – associated with power.
It is also about the widening of an Indian practice of normalcy and dominance, in which the status of women, minorities, outsiders and pariahs is underlined by recognizable rituals of crowd violence. The Tanzanian woman was treated like a Dalit, not because she was black, but because that is how Indian crowds have long put people in their place and experienced themselves as communities of power. Bangladeshis and Biharis (and at one time, Gujaratis and ‘Madrasis’) in Mumbai, Manipuris and Nagas in Delhi, Sikhs in 1984, the Chinese in 1962, and Dalits, Muslims and women (of all classes and communities, although not equally) at all times have been subjected to the order of the mob. Well-developed discourses of otherness and inferiority exist only in the last three instances, but it turns out that such discourses are not necessary for that much-debated Indian phenomenon: ‘intolerance.' Racism towards Africans is readily acknowledged as an Indian problem even by people who bristle at the suggestion that there is widespread intolerance towards Muslims. The first makes India 'look bad' in the global press, and the acknowledgment of crimes against foreigners is a part of the damage-control. The second is intimate and existential. Like a crime within the family, it cannot be admitted even to yourself.
If something has gone wrong, it began decades ago, when older patterns of exclusion and domination converged with new civic identities, rendering public space particularly dangerous to anyone who could be identified as a misfit or an upstart. What has happened relatively recently, however, is a reinforcement of that public violence by the state, which is increasingly prepared to utilize the mob as a surrogate. A distinction must be made at this juncture. The reliance of Indian politicians and parties on mobs (usually organized from cadres or hired lumpen) is of long standing, and every party that has sniffed power has been guilty of it. But the mob-as-nation is a specialty of the Hindu right, which can govern the state but also strategically locate itself outside the state, among the 'public.' Nationhood itself – with its compulsive quest for an order of insiders and outsiders – has, accordingly, taken on the quality of the mob.
Few would argue that the Indian government systematically encourages attacks on Tanzanian women, or on blacks. (Besides, Karnataka is governed by the Congress, not the BJP.) But it does not seem to be especially disturbed by such attacks either, because what happened in Bangalore is not divergent from a particular understanding of nationhood, with its rituals of belonging, demands for order, and assorted compulsions. In this nation, the many will always take for granted the right to humiliate or kill the few – it knows no other way of self-constitution, with the exception of an anxious self-congratulation that highlights its investment in modernity. The day after the incident, Indian scientists announced their development of a vaccine for the Zika virus (a proud moment for the nation, naturally), underlining the Indian condition as a scientifically accomplished lynch mob. As I observed earlier, it is not really about blacks. It is always about Muslims, Dalits and women, in the sense that that is where the patterns and permissions of Indian mob violence originate.

February 5, 2016