The Maid and the Diplomat

The diplomatic ‘crisis’ that has flared between India and the United States over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian vice-consul in New York, is what is called a tamasha: entertaining farce. It is of no real importance, but an awful lot of people are looking on with interest, exhibiting various degrees of vitriol, righteous indignation and amusement.

For those who have not seen an Indian newspaper lately, or read the American papers carefully, the basic story is that the vice-consul was arrested for having paid her imported maid, Sangeeta Richard, a decidedly sub-minimum-wage salary. She is also alleged to have lied about Richard’s wages on the visa application she submitted to the US government. Richard went AWOL last summer, and this week an ambitious federal prosecutor (is there any other kind?) Preet Bharara – Indian-born, as luck would have it – had Khobragade arrested, strip-searched, cavity-searched, thrown briefly in jail (‘with drug addicts and common criminals’), and charged. The maid, it turns out, was not missing at all, but working with Bharara’s office. Her family has been since then ‘evacuated’ from India and spirited to safety in the US. They're all here somewhere, hiding from RAW assassins and NDTV reporters. If found guilty of the charges against her, the vice-consul faces ten years in prison.

Indians are upset. They understand, correctly enough, that a strip search and cavity inspection constitute a sanitized sexual assault, and nationalist patriarchies are highly sensitive to sexual encroachments. They also suspect, again correctly, that US diplomats are treated with greater indulgence by the Indian authorities than their Indian counterparts are in America. So American diplomats have had their diplomatic privileges sharply reduced by an Indian government determined to show its toughness in the run-up to elections. The various political parties are competing for the Most Patriotically Outraged prize, and it is not all posturing: people are quite genuinely outraged.

All of this was unnecessary. In an ideal world, the Indian government would issue its diplomats with instructions that occur naturally to the rest of us: if you can’t afford a maid, make do without. The US government, which has conducted itself with spectacular clumsiness and stupidity, would know better than to engineer a diplomatic incident where a discreet warning (or better visa processing) would have done the job. And no prosecutor with an eye on the governor's office would presume to ‘evacuate’ foreign citizens from their own country. These outcomes reflect poor coordination between bureaucracies, arrogance, and probably a measure of racism as well. If in doubt, play the scenario in reverse: female American diplomat, suspected of underpaying an employee, being made to spread her cheeks for the police in Delhi. The New York Post editors would die of joy. But I too love a good tamasha, and this one has all three elements of a really good one: race, class, gender.

So I marvel at Ms. Khobragade, who is barely denying that she provided false information on the maid’s visa application and then quietly negotiated a second agreement, for a lower salary, with the maid. Nor is she denying that when the maid threatened to go to the authorities if she was not paid her legally due minimum salary (and compensated for the extra hours she had been made to work, being an Indian servant), she tried to have her arrested, and got an Indian court to issue an order blocking the maid from filing a civil suit. She is either not very bright, or befuddled by a runaway sense of entitlement.

In the vice-consul’s defense, this sort of visa fraud is probably very common. The American officials who processed Richard’s visa application could easily see that a diplomat who earns $4000 per month could not pay her maid more than $4000. Yet the visa was issued. Obviously, these things are usually handled with a nudge and wink, and prosecutors who want to demonstrate their American credentials are not on hand to make trouble. Khobragade can hardly be the first Indian diplomat to have brought her servant with her on these dubious terms.

But what strikes me most sharply about the vice-consul is how utterly provincial she is. Here is a highly-educated woman who has signed up for a career in the Foreign Service. Yet she remains the typical Indian memsa’ab, who must have servants to boss around. Her standing in life, her sense of her own worth, and the normalcy of her world all depend upon it. Of course, the servant has to be Indian, accustomed to a particular idiom of command and deference. When Ms. Khobragade came to New York, she never left Bombay. She had no intention of seeing, let alone absorbing, local norms of housework, dignity, employer-employee relations and legality. She has no idea that she has done something wrong, and does not understand – or care to understand – why others might feel otherwise. Such people, who are essentially tourists with the expectation of immunity to consequences, are the worst kind of diplomat. Yet they are the norm and not the exception. The Ugly American is in good company.

The same provinciality and entitlement are evident in the Indian media’s complaints that the vice-consul was treated like a ‘common criminal,’ locked up with ‘drug addicts,’ and so on. There is no reason to assume that Ms. Khobragade is an uncommon criminal, after all, or that she is morally superior to somebody whose major vice is substance-abuse. Strip searches and body-cavity inspections are indeed ‘barbaric,' as the Indian government noted in its protest against the vice-consul’s arrest. They are rituals of power and humiliation dressed up as security measures, like much of law enforcement in America. Now, it would be one thing if Ms. Khobragade’s sympathizers were outraged that anybody should be treated in that manner. But their outrage is rooted in an obscene distinction between common and uncommon people: it is apparently acceptable to violate the bodies of the former, but not of the latter.

It is precisely this distinction – that differential assessment of the worth of human beings – that leads to the exploitation and mistreatment of servants by their employers. It is also why middle-class Americans seldom make a fuss about how the police treat their victims. They know that these rituals are intended for a different demographic from themselves, although the expectation of ‘uncommon’ treatment is rarely naked. Indians, on the other hand, let it all hang out. When Shah Rukh Khan was profiled by American airport officials a couple of years ago, Indians protested not because a Muslim had been harassed, or even because a brown man had been harassed, but because the dumb firangis had failed to treat an uncommon man with uncommon respect. Had it been some other brown man, or a poor man, they wouldn’t have cared. And, of course, poor brown men and women face this sort of shit every day: in New York, in the Gulf states, at Heathrow. There’s no national outrage there.

Ms. Khobragade faces two sets of charges: one having to do with visa fraud, and another with the exploitation of an employee. The first accusation seems irrefutable, but the second is more interesting. To some Indian and most American observers, the exploitation is obvious. As per US and NY labor laws, Sangeeta Richard was entitled to a minimum wage of nearly $10 per hour, for a maximum of 40 hours a week. She was also entitled to vacation time. Instead, she was working longer hours, and instead of getting four thousand dollars a month, she was getting about five hundred.

The issue, however, is not so straightforward. First of all, people who depend on cheap labor overseas to maintain their First-World lifestyles are in no position to be self-righteous about exploitation. And American diplomats abroad don’t pay their native employees an American minimum wage. Secondly, like most live-in servants, Ms. Richard had a free place to live, food, clothing and medical care. So it is not quite true that she was being forced to survive in Manhattan on $500 a month. Had she wished, she could have saved or remitted her entire salary, which is precisely the expectation in these arrangements. If I had five hundred dollars left over every month after all my basic expenses had been met, I would be delighted. So would anybody who is actually paid the minimum wage in America. And $500, which works out to thirty thousand rupees, is a middle-class salary in India.

Ms. Richard clearly agreed in advance to the lower salary. She cannot claim to have expected four thousand dollars and then been surprised to receive five hundred. She is an adult who entered into an agreement with Ms. Khobragade; nobody forced her to take the job. It can, of course, be argued that she was forced by poverty, but if we take that position then we effectively argue that the poor have no agency or accountability. In any case, Richard was not in dire poverty before she accompanied the vice-consul to New York. Her father works for the US embassy, and she herself has worked for an American diplomat in the past. She appears to have known what she was doing.

That does not, however, mean that there was no exploitation. When you pay someone $500 a month to be your live-in servant in America, you render that person totally dependent upon you and your goodwill. This is especially true if that employee has limited English-language skills, no driver’s license, and no local structure of social support: friends, family, alternative options for employment. At that point, notions of consent and contract become unsustainable. Employers often hold on to the passports of their servants, hold wages in arrears, or pay in rupees (which means the servant has no access to her own earnings while in America). When Sangeeta Richard wanted to take a second job, she needed Khobragade’s permission, and permission was refused. Moreover, we are not talking about just any employer: Khobragade, as vice-consul and employer-patron, had nearly total power over Richards’ visa status in America. Khobragade clearly counted on that power, which is why she refused to allow her maid to take a second job. Also clearly, she was willing to abuse that power: when Richard left and Khobragade complained to the police, she had to be reminded that Richard is an adult. Khobragade filed charges of petty theft against her maid, when clearly the missing property was the maid herself. She assumed that she was dealing with a common servant, and did not consider the possibility that the servant might be a smarter, cannier player of the system than herself, converting a disadvantage into an effective immigration plan for herself and her family.

December 19, 2013

The Indian Election

The BJP sweep in the state-level elections in India last week is, quite possibly, a foreshadowing of what is to come in the national election next spring. The confidence of my lefty friends that Narendra Modi will not be the next Indian prime minister may have been more wishful than realistic. With that in mind, I wanted to write a few lines on the prospect of Narendra Modi as PM.

We should be clear-eyed about what the BJP revival means, and what it does not mean. It does not mean a new wave of Hindutva and anti-Muslim bigotry. Antipathy towards Muslims has not gone away – far from it – but there has been no spike, no reprise of the hysteria of the early 1990s, with its bizarre ‘chariot rides’ and spectacular vandalism. The recent ‘riot’ in Muzaffarnagar was reprehensible, but it was nothing like the carnage in Bombay in 1992 and Gujarat ten years later. The BJP victories are about other, more prosaic things: the economic slowdown, the glamor that Narendra Modi has acquired as the messiah of corporate India, and above all the dismal performance of the UPA government. Had Manmohan Singh stepped down after his first term in office, he might justifiably have been remembered as an effective prime minister who had followed through on a coherent agenda of governance. But in his second term, Manmohan has become something between a joke and a sad apparition: a man asleep at the wheel, or not even behind the wheel. The responsibility for this state of affairs is mostly Sonia Gandhi’s, who has done to Manmohan what Putin did to Medvedev, but that simply underlines the reality that the PM is not responsible even for his own disappearance. Meanwhile, the Gandhi family has offered nothing of substance except corruption and arrogance, hounding a bureaucrat who blew the whistle on shady land deals and trying to preserve the status of Parliament as a safe-house for criminals. The BJP is just as corrupt and high-handed, but has the advantage of being in the opposition.

Given Manmohan Singh’s vanishing act, the climate is right for a new politics of omnipresence, i.e., an emphasis on personal leadership. So we have Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi, which is arguably a presidential rather than parliamentary confrontation, consistent with the Indian middle class’ aesthetic preference for America over Britain. In that confrontation, Rahul Gandhi is at a disadvantage, because although he has had more than enough time in the limelight to establish himself as ‘leadership material,’ he has been either too lazy or too unintelligent to do so. It is, I think, the former. What Rahul says – about criminals in Parliament, about the Muzaffarnagar atrocity – suggests the existence of insight and even principles, but they also suggest a terrible lack of consistency and organization. Modi, on the other hand, is nothing if not focused and organized: a man who knows what he wants and leaves no doubts about his seriousness. He will never win a majority of votes in an all-India election, but given the uninspiring opposition, he might win just enough to be the dominant figure in a new governing coalition.

Modi appears to fulfil a long-standing fantasy of a segment of the Indian population – the urban middle class – that, while beleaguered by the rise of subaltern and semi-subaltern voters, still retains the power to articulate the template of national leadership. What this class has wanted since the turn of the last century is a particular type of man at the head of the nation: a man capable of the well-informed, clear-eyed, rational and decisive use of violence. That capability, after all, is at the heart of the liberal nation-state that emerged from Bismarck’s Europe. In India, the ‘man’ who best represented this ideal in the PMO was Mrs. Indira Gandhi, but Vajpayee, Nehru and even Shastri came close.

Modi’s apparent proximity to this model of statesmanship is misleading. He is fundamentally a provincial man, without the worldly education and historical awareness required to represent or even understand the national interest in the world. His amply-demonstrated capacity for violence is suited not to the calibrated deployment of naval squadrons but to street-fighting, i.e., to the petty viciousness of domestic politics and organized rioting. Even his style – the garish fancy-dress, the gratified acceptance of the worship of supplicants – is easily recognizable as the aesthetic of provincial politics in India, reminiscent of southern film-star politicians, Mayawati’s pink elephants, and Mamata Banerjee’s zeal in covering Calcutta with posters and billboards of herself.

In thirty years of Left Front rule in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya never became so omnipresent in the public eye, but they were liberal, middle-class politicians. (There were images of Mrs. Gandhi everywhere in Calcutta in the 1970s, but they were mostly cartoons drawn by the communists. Now, of course, cartoonists and communists are both visited by the police.) Mamata, Mayawati, Modi and the Southern gods represent what might be called a subaltern take on fascism. It’s not the real – i.e., 'European' – thing, either as fascism or as liberal democracy, although it has elements of both. Modi as PM would be just as prone to triggering fits of nervous laughter as Mamata Banerjee has shown herself to be. But even subaltern fascism must be taken seriously as a dangerous political product.

The biggest difference between Modi and Mamata, obviously, is Modi’s barely disguised hatred of Muslims. This is not necessarily his best selling point, but many voters who are uncomfortable with it have learned to accept it as an incidental imperfection in an otherwise desirable package of right-wing economic policies. Many more take for granted that being anti-Muslim is the core of right-wing nationalist ideology in India. Yet right-wing Indian political thought has a long, parallel history that is not anti-Muslim. We can trace that history not only to Benoy Sarkar and more problematically, Subhas Bose (who was both of the left and of the right), but as far back as the essayist Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, who was Bankim’s contemporary. Bhudeb was a self-identified conservative; his views on the Hindu family, Indian womanhood, caste, and the relationship between society and the individual were consistently reactionary, although not anti-modern. Indian nationhood was real and distinctive, he argued, and sought to recover and conserve the distinctions. Like Bankim, he was uneasy about Muslims: their extra-Indian enthusiasms were too evident for his liking. But he also insisted that Hindus and Indian Muslims belonged to a single moral and social world, that Indian Muslims had more intimate bonds with Hindus than they did with Arabs, Iranians and Turks, and that Islam would become progressively indigenized in India until Muslims were no more alien than Jains and Sikhs. In this, he preemptively rejected a basic premise of Savarkar’s Hindutva: the notion that India was the exclusive punyabhumi or sanctified homeland of some religious communities but not others.

Bhudeb’s Hindu conservatism did not prevent him from teaching in a madrasa, and from regarding the ulema with deep empathy and respect. He recognized the social and political divides between Hindus and Muslims in his own time, but pinned the blame firmly on Orientalist scholarship (history in particular). He placed the major responsibility for bridging the divide upon his fellow-Hindus, who were, he recognized, already the economically and politically dominant community. In this, he foreshadowed Benoy Sarkar, although unlike Sarkar, Bhudeb wrote at a time when the ins and outs of Indian nationhood were still falling into place.

What Bhudeb, Benoy Sarkar and Subhas Bose acknowledged, and Bankim, Savarkar and Golwakar did not, is that an Indian nationalism that is anti-Muslim at heart is fundamentally self-defeating; it cannot be otherwise. No state that excludes, demonizes or discriminates against thirty percent or even twelve percent of its population can be stable, peaceful or effective, especially when twelve percent adds up to well over a hundred million people. Such a country will remain at war with itself and crippled by that war. And that war is precisely the sort of provincial, primitive use of rusty swords and tridents that sustains a politician like Narendra Modi. It features secular citizens slipping into a rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in casual conversation, landlords rejecting prospective tenants because they are Muslim, of harassment by the police of a man with the temerity to marry a Hindu woman, ‘encounter killings’ of college students, and the occasional pogrom. It is far removed from the grand visions of global strategy that the Indian national elite has entertained since Bankim turned Krishna into Bismarck. The irony of the middle class’ willingness to embrace a small-time bigot like the murkhya-mantri of Gujarat is precisely that it diminishes its own pursuit of the global big time: a place in the sun, credible and projectable power. It reduces would-be giants to dwarfs. India with Modi as prime minister will probably not be Nazi Germany, but it will be a small-town circus complete with animals and clowns, in which jackals imagine they are lions (from the Gir Forest, naturally).

December 8, 2013

In Two Languages

Long before the kid was born, we had decided to raise her bilingually. The word ‘decision’ is not quite right; it was simply an assumption, born from middle-class parents who take for granted the validity of a particular streak of contemporary American liberalism. It runs against the grain of the assimilationist dogma of immigration and citizenship, in which learning (or retaining) languages other than English is either a sort of cultural treason, or a belated educational dalliance that must be carefully segregated from things like identity and real life. It is, of course, quite close to the practice of immigrant culture in American history, in which the first generation tends to speak Italian or Russian or Chinese, the second generation is bilingual, and the third speaks English only. But the hegemonic discourse is that of the fourth generation, which insists that its great-grandparents went straight from Ellis Island to ESL classes and never looked or talked back.

Even in Park Slope, a neighborhood populated mainly by hipster dads with babies strapped to their chests and tattooed moms with designer strollers, our strategy is far from ubiquitous. When we meet ‘mixed’ couples in the playground or park, we find – more often than not – that the immigrant parent has acquiesced to an English-only approach, albeit embarrassedly. Here, as in other American cities, when it comes to families in which both parents are middle-class Indian immigrants, English-only is the norm, not the exception. Partly, this is because it’s convenient: the parents themselves often speak different Indian languages and communicate with each other in English. Partly, it’s an ideological position: urban-middle-class Indians don’t think of English as a foreign language, and it might be suggested, a bit unkindly, that our colonial baggage makes English-only a matter of pride. Certainly there is no dearth in Indian cities of parents who habitually speak English with their children even when they’re all capable of conversing in Hindi or Bengali. They’re reminiscent of nineteenth-century Russians of a certain class, who spoke French amongst themselves. When that set emigrates, raising their ABCD children bilingually is an anti-priority. Indian languages signify what they strove to leave behind even before they had left.

For me, the calculations were different. I emigrated in my early teens, half-formed. Bengali was the sound of something lost that had to be restored. So although I had never been a Bengali-chauvinist, had routinely come close to failing my Bengali exams, and shared my cohort’s prejudices against the products of ‘vernacular schools’ (having never given any thought to the fact that both my parents went to Bengali-medium schools), the preservation of language became a strategy of self-preservation, and literature a necessary sanctuary. Neither the only sanctuary nor a fortress, I should add, but one of several homes that I refused to relinquish, and that, like any meaningful home, I want to bequeath. And for my wife, whose enthusiasm for raising our daughter bilingually has been more stubborn than my own, Bengali was not only a language she had struggled to learn in Bangladesh and India, it was also a basic part of being married to me: not altogether different, I suspect, from the color of my hand or the sound of my voice.

The plan was simple enough: I would talk to our daughter in Bengali, and the wife would use English. Very soon, however, I became skeptical about what we were doing and its chances of success. First, there was the suspicion that the girl was being subjected to an unnecessary, confusing and ill-advised experiment. (She was, at the same time, being sprinkled with Spanish at her daycare center: ‘agua’ and ‘leche’ were among her first words. Simultaneously, there was an infusion of Hindi, for she enthusiastically sings along with me to ‘Tum ho meri dil ki dhadkan’ and demands that we sing 'Chanda hai tu' on a daily basis.) Second, and more powerful, was the intimidating nature of the pedagogy we had chosen. A language is not merely vocabulary, after all, or even a combination of vocabulary and grammar. It is the intersection of crowded lives: an infinitely broad web of experiences, enveloping bird-calls and truck-horns, the fading of daylight and half-remembered music, overheard quarrels, subtle and violent registers of formality, sarcasm, rage and lust, and the dialects, accents and word-choices that indicate class, place, gender and generation. To assume that one person can communicate all that in solitary conversation was insane.

We persisted nevertheless, and it has worked better than I had dared to expect. Even the ‘lag’ that bilingual infants are supposed to experience in their verbal development has been miraculously bypassed, and we have a girl who is not yet two but precocious in two languages, and adept at knowing when to switch from one to the other. ‘Want go downstairs,’ she informs me. Not paying attention, I don’t quite catch it, so she explains: ‘Nichey jabi.’ Like any urban-Indian child, she effortlessly mixes the vernacular and the global: ‘Mama read-to-you korbe’ (‘Mama’s waiting to read to me’), she tells me diplomatically when she’s tired of our lessons. And there was something shocking in the realization that she now knows nearly all of the first volume of Hashi-Khushi, Jogindranath Sarkar’s illustrated alphabet primer that has been a rite of passage for Bengali children since 1897. She loves the whimsical poems and drawings of Hashi-Rashi (1899), and will probably take easily to Sukumar Ray, whose father Upendrakishore's writing for children was first published by Sarkar's press. Suggestive continuities lurk everywhere in these extremely compact histories of being South Asian.

And there lies the rub. Sarkar’s primers are a foundation of modern Bengali, but they reflect a historical moment that is only ambiguously ‘alive’ in the present time. The illustrations are of little boys and girls in dhotis and saris, although some of the girls have already made the switch to dresses. The mothers wear ghomtas, or the end of the sari draped over the head in a half-veil. The locations are unmistakably East Bengali, rustic and riverine: lost, in more ways than one, to the lived world of Indian Bengalis. ‘Li-kar jeno digbaji khay,’ Mira recites (‘li-kar turns a somersault,’ although it comes out suspiciously like ‘li-kar jeno tiktiki khay’ – ‘li-kar eats geckos’), but the li-kar is a dead letter: it no longer exists in the Bengali alphabet. I cannot think of a single word that uses it; it was already dead when Jogindranath wrote Hashi-Khushi, and twentieth-century primers soon dropped it from the alphabet. It lingers in Hashi-Khushi like a stranded ghost. And as for ‘tiktiki khay,’ the only gecko that Mira has seen is a photograph above the stairs of our Brooklyn apartment. That particular tiktiki used to live behind another photograph on the wall of my father’s living room in Santiniketan. Both occupants of the room are long dead and gone, but the original photograph, which shows my father standing stiffly in front of the library at MIT, now hangs in my mother's living room in California, sans lizard.

The Bengali that my daughter is learning, and about which I am gloating, is therefore removed from her in more than one way. Teaching it necessarily involves omissions, because some fossils and lost pieces – the li-kars and geckos – are beyond explanation. The ubiquitous drawings of river-boats have no automatic association with bhatiyali music for her. Even the paper boats (which must become river-boats in the imagination) are foreign beyond translation, and one man in New York City cannot convey the melancholy of bhatiyali to a toddler. It is quite reasonable, under the circumstances, to wonder what all this is for: what kind of acculturation can it possibly achieve? I am reminded of an ABCD freshman who came to my office one day, and upon realizing that I speak Bengali, happily began an extended conversation, throughout which she addressed me in the familiar ‘tumi’ form (equivalent to Du in German or tu in French). She was unfamiliar with the ‘apni’ form (Sie or vous) that would have been appropriate; her parents always used ‘tumi’ with her, after all. So for all I know, I could merely be teaching the CD in ABCD.

The pessimism is probably unfounded, or rather, not founded in the right place. Each generation of modern Bengalis that absorbed the alphabet-culture of Jogindranath Sarkar and other second-wave producers of Bengali children's literature (if we consider Vidyasagar the first wave) has absorbed, essentially, a world of dislocation. Colonial Indian children’s literature was always a narrative of novelty, not timelessness: making sense of it, rearranging it, salvaging something from it, but also accepting it. The illustrations of dhoti-clad boys on paper boats rowed by ravens were not, after all, intended exclusively for children in villages on the banks of the Padma. The bhatiyali that I heard in my childhood came entirely from the record player, and although there were people around who remembered and translated the original context, that context too was probably more imagined than real, shaped by migration, forgetfulness, and filled-in gaps between what you know and what you are supposed to know on account of your identity.

What the kid does with her Bengali will ultimately be her business, not mine. It will be different from what I did with my languages. She will probably go through a period when speaking an obscure foreign language is an embarrassment, and will need to rediscover the language on her own. What she discovers then will not be what I am trying to teach her now. But that’s just fine, because what matters is not accuracy in the reproduction of culture but creative nostalgia for imagined pasts: the ability and desire to improvise what we call ‘heritage,’ and which is valuable not because it is real but because it is substantial, and because it, like a photographed lizard on a wall, contains a shadow of something real.

October 6, 2013

Fear of a Black Chamberlain

In some ways, the Obama administration’s attempt to engineer an attack on Syria fits an established political and rhetorical pattern. Last weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry brought out the M-word – Munich – and by doing so, implicitly used the H-word. A fourth-rate power that can barely hold itself together became a great menace to the world, requiring preemptive military action by another old fraud, the Free World. In America, nobody laughed – nobody in Washington or in the respectable media, at any rate. This is, after all, a known script that we dust off and read to each other every few years. Gaddafi was Hitler, Saddam was Hitler, bin Laden was Hitler, now it’s Assad’s turn. And where there’s a Hitler, there might be a Chamberlain. The ritual has a certain solemnity to it, like handling a flag, and in this corniest of political cultures, playing along is the key to respectability. Bill Keller of the New York Times – a most respectable courtier – dutifully wrote an editorial announcing that Americans reluctant to attack Syria were being ‘isolationist.’ (Never mind the hundreds of foreign bases, Afghanistan, and the ongoing drone wars in at least three countries. This is 1938, so we must be isolationist.)

Playing along with rituals, however absurd, is the stuff of historical continuity. And what continuity! One of the most astonishing revelations of the Snowden files is that classified NSA documents were meant to be read only by American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand spies. Not even the French or the Germans had access, never mind their willingness to cooperate with the NSA. Ah, the intimacy of the 'special relationship.' The French might be eager to bomb Syria – it’s excellent advertising for Dassault, and a new Syrian regime might buy Rafales to replace their destroyed inventory – but when it comes to that iconic creature, ‘the Allies,’ there is no wavering from a stubbornly, romantically, Anglophone fantasy. Empire evidently never graduated from the class of ’45, and everybody knows that the French, Russians and Chinese never really belonged in that class. But who knew that New Zealand has spies? (Who do they spy on? Fiji?) Or that Canada is so important, eh? Or Britain, for that matter? Not even Putin knew, to the embarassment of David Cameron, who began sputtering unconvincingly about a great past. What is this ‘special relationship,’ anyway? Could something as matter-of-fact as intelligence-sharing and strategic cooperation really boil down to the sentimentality of a shared language? Then again, no language, not even French, is as enmeshed in the culture of empire as English. But why should New Zealand be ‘in’ and Jamaica be ‘out’? They speak English too, don’t they? Oh wait…

Then there is Israel. Another special relationship, but differently special, in which the dog has accepted the power of the tail in a way that would confound Gramsci. One of the less reported aspects of this Syrian crisis is the frantic lobbying for war being done by AIPAC. It would be impolite to report such things, and Abe Foxman might make unpleasant insinuations. But why would Israel want the US to attack Syria? Well, it would weaken Hezbollah and isolate Iran. But the Israeli government has indicated in the past that it is not keen to see the Assad regime – which is barely a nuisance – replaced by something unknown, unpredictable and chaotic, especially since the anti-Assad rebels are unlikely to be friendly to Israel. The neo-con calculation that applied in Iraq is discernible in Syria but not very strong. But the rhetoric of gas and Munich is irresistible all the same, in exactly the same way that the rhetoric of saving-the-world is irresistible in American politics. It sustains a national consensus on why-we-exist, why-we-do-the-things-we-do, and why-our-priorities-are-so-incredibly-fucked-up. It soothes and reassures even as it frightens people into letting the government into their pants and email accounts.

There is, nevertheless, a pattern of diminishing returns. And this time around, it has become apparent, even Americans are not buying it. Congress may yet buy it, but it looks shockingly uncertain. The British clearly did not buy it. (When was the last time you wanted to stand on your chair tipsily and sing God Save the Old Bag? Well done, Parliament.) The Germans are being rather hostile, which is not surprising if people are going to bring up Munich. And so we have the utterly pathetic spectacle of the American president going around literally begging people to please, please, let him drop just a few bombs, just for a few days. He cannot really explain why. He cannot say that it is about saving face, although he comes close. He insists that ‘the world’ drew the ‘red lines’ behind which he is trapped, but doesn’t dare go before the UN General Assembly. He insists that chemical weapons are heinous, but won’t talk about what a Hellfire missile or white phosphorus does to a child. He cannot say why a massacre in Syria is intolerable and one in Egypt acceptable. The press is doing its best to help by refraining from asking rude questions, but in the end, it may be the Russians who save his face by conjuring up a diplomatic solution. That would make Putin the winner in this sorry affair.

Meanwhile, I find myself marveling at the farce that Barack Obama has become. It cannot be called a tragedy; there is no nobility here. But at one time, this man knew people like Rashid Khalidi and Bill Ayers: thoughtful, honorable men, men with ideals to which they were committed. It is reasonable to think that they really were friends; Barry probably inhaled. It is difficult now to imagine them in the same room together. Could Obama look them in the eye? The people who would still want to have a beer with him are AIPAC lobbyists, Wall Street cronies and thugs like Keith Alexander. It may very well be depressing for Obama to realize that being president has brought about this startling inversion of his social and moral circle. It certainly raises the question whether he understood, in 2008, that this was going to happen, and if he would still have run for president had he understood. Perhaps it makes no difference to him. The more depressing thing is that we – who voted for him, made phone calls for him, donated to his campaign and cheered his election – now realize that no matter who Obama was in 2008, it was always going to end in farce.

September 9, 2013