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Essay

Commemorating the writings of Emily Bronte

Children of Wuthering Heights by Sohana Manzoor

A common concept today about the children portrayed in Victorian literature is that they are innocent in spite of their sufferings and brutalization by the society. One can refer to an apotheosis of childhood innocence through characters like Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop, and Pip in Great Expectations, or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. During the Victorian era morality and didacticism were appended to the Romantic imagination, and these childhood victims of social injustice were redeemed by their inherent sense of goodness and modesty. Consequently, later on in life these victims of tyranny did not turn into tyrants themselves.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, however, treats children and their sufferings in a very different manner. Peter Coveney observes, “the symbol which had such strength and richness in the poetry of Blake and some parts of the novels of Dickens became in time the static and moribund child-figure of the Victorian imagination” (33). Emily Brontë perhaps captures this idea more acutely than any other of her contemporaries.

When it comes to the novel, most people visualize a grand romance on the Yorkshire moors as portrayed in Hollywood movies by the same name. But I wonder how many actually realize that the heroine of that romance died when she was just over eighteen and Heathcliff had left home three years before that. Doesn’t that make it more of a romance of adolescence or even childhood?

The pain and anguish represented through the two characters is more about the loss of a love that belonged to the freedom of childhood and was lost as they encountered social segregation and class-conflicts as they grew older. In this article, I have chosen to look at those troubled children of Wuthering Heights whose childhood was virtually disrupted by the adult figures surrounding them. The sufferings they encountered as teenagers or adults are rooted in the cherished and tortured existence they led as children.

The popular belief today is that the horrors of the World Wars, concentration camps, and other nightmarish situations took away that world of innocence from the modern child. Such an assumption suggests that nineteenth-century children were more innocent than the children of the twentieth century because they did not experience the horrors of the Great Wars. But standing in mid-nineteenth century England, Brontë shows with brutal honesty that a child’s world might be simpler and less complicated than an adult’s but is still far from being innocent and guiltless.

In ‘Le Chat’, one in the collection of The Belgian Essays, she draws an analogy between a cat and a child. When a child comes to his mother with a crushed butterfly in hands, she hugs him praising his efforts. For Emily Bronte, however, the scenario is reminiscent of a cat “with the tail of a half-devoured rat hanging from its mouth” (58). Using the metaphor of a predator she thus brings forth another aspect of “childhood innocence” which can be cruel and terrifying. And hence, the youngsters in Wuthering Heights torture and kill helpless animals on different occasions. They are reported to kill birds by hanging traps over their nests, and to strangle puppies from the back of chairs.

Early in Wuthering Heights the uninvited guest Mr. Lockwood has a nightmare during his stay at the Heights which in crucial ways sets the tone of the novel. He dreams of someone or something knocking on his windowpane, and when he tries to close the window, a cold little hand grabs his wrist and begs for entrance:

Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear. (20–21)

The dream, or rather the nightmare is fearful in its realistic description and neither the author nor the narrator attempts to interpret it except in incoherent blabbering. His fear makes him act irrationally and thus the readers are made to enter a world where children are treated unkindly, cruelly even.

While cruelty toward children is not all that unusual in Victorian novels, the problem with Wuthering Heights is that here it seems rampant. The houses in Emily’s novel are not work-houses or orphanages as one can find in the novels of Dickens. And yet the way children are reared and treated here can hardly be described as benevolent or nourishing.

The idea that children are to be treated kindly, a theme repeatedly emphasized by the Victorians, seems to have gone completely awry in Wuthering Heights. Children are mostly treated whimsically by adults as if they are mere playthings. Moreover, because the purveyor of ill-treatment is a parent or guardian, there is nobody to interfere, nobody to question the authority of the wrongdoer.

Old Earnshaw takes a fancy to the foundling Heathcliff but turns against his own son, Hindley. So much so, that in order to have peace in the house after his wife’s death he sends Hindley away to college. Not once does he consider the way he as a father has allowed an outsider to usurp his son’s rightful place. On the contrary, he blames Hindley for unruly behavior. Naturally, when Hindley returns home after his father’s death, he has no compassion for his usurper of a foster brother, Heathcliff.

Then we have old Mr. and Mrs. Linton, generally known as kind and just people. And yet during Catherine and Heathcliff’s nocturnal adventure at the Grange, they are unperturbed by Catherine being bitten by their watchdog, Skulker. It is only later when Edgar identifies her as Miss Earnshaw, they tend to her wound. Mr. Linton allows young Cathy to be welcomed inside, but Heathcliff is turned out because he does not conform to the behavior or appearance of an ideal child as Mr. Linton observes:

“Oh, my dear Mary, look here! Don’t be afraid, it is but a boy—yet, the villain scowls so plainly in his face, would it not be a kindness to the country to hang him at once, before he shows his nature in acts, as well as features?” (39)

Instead of the angelic golden looks of Oliver Twist, or Edgar Linton, Heathcliff possesses the dark appearance of a gypsy; he swears, and often speaks gibberish instead of clear English. To be welcomed as a cherished child, however, one would have to appear and act as a perfect child, and not just have the size and looks of any child. He is younger than Edgar, is still in his adolescence, yet the Magistrate of the province wants him hanged—Linton’s real feelings here survive his irony—based on his gipsy-like looks.

Oliver with his innocent appearance earns occasional compassion even from the master criminal Fagin, but Heathcliff with his dark countenance fails to gain an iota of sympathy from either Mr. or Mrs. Linton. They never attempt to understand Heathcliff’s plight or Hindley’s tyranny. On the contrary, they also seem to feel that the “little Lascar” deserves that kind of treatment because of his unbecoming appearance and unruly behavior. Such an attitude toward children indicates a problematic aspect about Victorian England. Often characters were decided based on physiognomy, just as Mr. Linton assumes Heathcliff to be a criminal.

Nelly, who presents herself to be better than most in her appreciation of Heathcliff, admits that Hindley’s treatment of Heathcliff “was enough to make a fiend of a saint” (51). And yet she too often confides in her audience that Heathcliff might very well have been a devil’s child, as she says, “where did he come from, the little dark thing, harbored by a good man to his bane?” (252). Such concerns against Heathcliff are uttered by almost all characters of the novel on different occasions, throwing light on a very provincial attitude of contemporary England. Even children could not escape the clutches of such convictions, and therefore, were treated accordingly. The problem with Heathcliff is not just that he is a foundling, but also that he is a foundling with non-English physical attributes. Moreover, he often resists social decorum and takes a perverse joy in acting wicked. It matters little, therefore, that he is a child; more important is the fact that he does not fit the criteria set for an adorable child.

Thus, it obviously seems that in spite of promoting innocent childhood, nineteenth-century England could very well have been a challenging sphere for children. Religious beliefs encouraged strict discipline but there was nobody to oversee the tyranny practiced in the name of religious teaching. So, while young Heathcliff and Catherine are bullied into reading the Bible by Joseph in a cold fireless room, Hindley and his wife enjoy themselves in idleness, resting by the fire.

Furthermore, Emily Brontë questions the traditional understanding of a good child and a bad one. Heathcliff tells Nelly that the reason behind his and Catherine’s nocturnal visit to the Grange was to find out if the Linton children are treated as badly as they are. When Nelly sinks into the purely conventional again [and], says that they are good children and therefore do not need punishment, Heathcliff scoffs at her for being partial to the Linton children because she thinks it is acceptable: “‘Don’t you can’t, Nelly,’ he said. ‘Nonsense!’” (38). Soon and often it becomes apparent that there is nothing so extraordinarily good about Edgar and Isabella. They are the children of a local, influential man, and therefore, petted by everybody around them. They are taught to be polite in company and dress well. In spirit, however, they are no better than the children of Wuthering Heights.

Another interesting aspect about the children of this novel is that they are all are left without the care and protection of their mother. Not a single one of them approach adulthood with their mother to protect them.

It indeed seems that Emily Brontë’s world is a place where children are left without the protection of their guardians, and “normal” emotions are reverted (144). In some significant ways, they pose as a commentary on the children of Charles Dickens who are idolized as perfect children. This is how even some of Brontë’s contemporaries looked at her work, and failed to understand the meaning of such random atrocities. The Victorian mind probably expected a kind of pattern of stable life which Emily’s novel refuses to provide.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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Essay

A Book of One’s Own: The Story of Women’s Writing

                          

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Human beings have always told stories. However, in the course of history, the voices of many groups fell silent, their lives — and their stories-hidden from ‘his’ story. Before the story of women’s writing can be recounted, we have to look at the term itself.

 Why are we still using the term Women’s Writing? Do we use the term  mens’ writing?

Is the conceptual category of  women’s writing a description , a prescription  or a ghettoization?

When we say women’s writing, are we marking out women as a group whose gender identity needs to be  declared  in order to evaluate their writing? Or are we saying that the writing will lead us to a revelation of the gender identity of the writer?

Does it then, or can it then become a reductive activity, an “intellectual measuring of busts and hips”, as feminist and literary critic, Elaine Showalter, writes in one of her essays ?

Or are we making an allowance for them, much in the spirit we view any kind of affirmative action, as a sort of acknowledgement of past wrongs? And reparation of the kind we make towards historically marginalised or oppressed groups?

In a sense, women have always written, albeit in an environment where a large part of their work has been hidden from history, not acknowledged or documented. Another problem is that their writing and its evaluation has not only been framed by, but completely explained away in terms of the gender of the writer, leading to generalisations and gender stereotyping. This is a reductive and circular view where every detail in the text is sought to be explained with reference to the gender of the writer. So the statement that emerges is “she writes like this because she is a woman” or “only a woman can write this or this way” and that too not in a tone of approbation.  

 The  goalpost for the woman writer was set by male critics, often the self-appointed custodians  of  literary traditions where the gatekeepers were all men. In a sense women writers were being pushed towards adopting the honorary status of men, (the incidence of the male pseudonym) or to forget their femininity and become a frump. Another image was also that of the virago or the “hyena in petticoats”, a form of labelling to undermine strong, strident and opinionated women. Here I am  deviating from Showalter’s idea of the ‘feminine’ phase by suggesting that the woman writer of the 18th and 19 th century were actually challenged to forget their femininity.

 It was deemed inappropriate for women writers to write about sex and sexuality, as is evident from the discomfort and disquiet around Radhika Santwanam, described in the Introduction to Women Writing in India: 600 BC to Present (2009), edited by Susie Tharu and  K. Lalita. Interestingly this censorious attitude to women’s  writing was not a historical but a product of relatively recent ideas of gentility and appropriate womanhood enshrined and embedded in Victorian morality, which were appropriated by the newly-emerging middle classes who had received western education.

 Sumanta Banerjee in his The Parlour and the Streets (1989) traces the loss of a vivid colourful idiomatic oral language drawing from the popular culture of the streets. As this vigorous colloquial idiom was  deemed inappropriate and unfit for literary usage, it did not find any place in the new respectable national literatures in the regional languages that were emerging in the 19th century. So the ‘literary’ got marked off from the colloquial where the baby (women’s literature –oral and written) was literally thrown out along with the bathwater.

 Prior to the 19th century, in England , one reads not just Mary Wollstonecraft, but also Aphra Behn, and  other signposts to  alter an otherwise barren landscape of women’s writing. Here as we probably know already, the anxiety of  ‘influence’(pointed out by Harold Bloom) is replaced by the anxiety of authorship, where the woman writer is made to feel orphaned and alienated, a Jane come lately since  she  has no genealogy or tradition to which she belongs. Thus we see the attempts in many instances, where writers claim their mother’s heritage.

Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) is a case in point. While the figure of the mother is very important even for male writers, there is a special poignancy in which this relationship is signified in women’s writing. Thus there is Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography, Amar Jiban ( 1876, one of the first autobiographies in Bengali), Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986) , all autobiographical texts where the mother’s death becomes a moment of unusual poignancy, helping shape the contours of the writing self.  

Another problematic issue is obviously the seemingly unified and homogeneous category of ‘women’, which is an imposed unity for a  heterogeneous and diverse cross-section of people. So when we refer to ‘women’s  writing’ as a category, we have to think whether we are being just or fair in  clubbing  such a diversity of voices under one rubric or template. What tends to happen is that a diversity of voices tend to get homogenised and flattened out and specific issues are lost or get submerged depending on power dynamics, on factors like access to vectors of power related to race, class, caste, socio-economic status and sexual orientation.

Some of these  issues  were flagged by women of colour or Afro-American feminists and also by ‘third world’ academicians. They felt that the unmarked category of women, while seemingly inclusive, actually excluded them in fundamental ways. They rejected the term ‘feminism’ and instead replaced it with their coinage, ‘womanism’. They also compared women’s  writing to a patchwork quilt, where ever bit is both an individual piece as well as part of a collective and bigger creation and endeavour.

Now what do we see in terms of the situation on the ground of or for the women writer? One is Virginia Woolf’s vignette in ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’( excerpted from A Room of One’s Own, 1929).  Nearer home, we have the narrative of how Rashsundari teaches herself to read and write. I would go so far as to say that one of the themes of women’s writing seems to be a thematising of women’s writing itself, their coming to voice, textuality and affiliation, about the pangs of growing up female and about the process of gendering across societies.

However, while these themes and issues maybe crucial to women’s writing , they may not always be framed as belonging to the category of the ‘literary’, according to the rules put in place  by its custodians. So even though a lot of novels by women circulated in the marketplace, they are missing in the archive.

 Therefore one obvious way of approaching women’s writing is to do so through the non-formal, the informal, the  non-canonical, through modes and forms which slip under the radar of the ‘literary’. Thus the memoir, the diary, letters autobiographies or hagiographies, the poetic fragment  are also aspects and forms that we need to take into account while discussing women’s writing.

There is a fair amount of material on women and the novel, how women were peculiarly suited to the exigencies of novel writing and consumption, and how they are more shadowy figures when it comes to poetry. If we see the poetry section in the  usual courses, we see a handful of poems (in a somewhat tokenistic way), many of them deeply personal, confessional and autobiographical. Some poets like De Souza seem to use irony quite a lot, for example in ‘Marriages are Made’. If we were to isolate stylistic features of women’s poetry as specifically gendered , relatively short verse forms, brevity, tightness of language and syntax, are all evident in women’s  poetry and  one of the most anthologised female poets, Sylvia Plath, eschews the elaborations of an intricate style and sticks to flat statement, staccato rhythms and colloquial tones. As Dickinson frames it, they “shut me up in prose/because they would have me still.” We can only speculate about the ‘they’ in these lines.

Women’s experience on the stage and as playwrights were also dictated by certain social norms. Women’s visibility on the stage and their occupying the public domain represented a kind of transgression, as is evident both in theatre journals and in the autobiographical writings of actresses like Binodini Dasi, known to generations of Bengali theatre goers as Nati Binodini.  The stage raises a question about the ‘proper’ legitimate domain of women, who were viewed as violating the boundaries of morality  and respectable and acceptable behaviour.

The story of women’s writing is still in the process of unfolding. From learning to read and write in secret, as showcased in Rashsundari Debi’s autobiography (since literacy in women, it was believed, was a sure precursor to widowhood) because of the taboo on women’s literacy, many women have emerged as powerful voices-and presences-both in the archive and in the marketplace. The hand that supposedly rocked the cradle can also hopefully rock the world, challenge the existing order of things and write a better world into being.     

   Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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Essay

This Independence Day, Let’s Celebrate the Apocalypse

By Dustin Pickering

Independence Day Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia, by John Lewis Krimmel, 1819

“…rather these question marks arise when the human condition is so improved and ameliorated that the inevitable mosquito bites of body and soul are found to be altogether too gruesome and gory, and in the poverty of their experience of actual pain, people will even take being troubled by ideas to be suffering of the highest order.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Science trans. R. Kevin Hill

This essay is a reflection on the current crises and my own proposed approach to handling them positively. I also attempt to offer some meaning to them while keeping within the tradition of American constitutional liberty. I also invite the reader into my own experiences.

If the reader is adverse to controversial ideas that challenge prevalent assumptions, then I suggest passing on this personal essay. I plan to shake assumptions concerning the direction of the United States and talk about things that matter and how our country and culture are reckoning with them.

Trump emerged as a Black Swan President in 2016, completely shattering liberal hopes of the first female president. Most of his supporters were white, seen as uneducated rednecks and put on display for ridicule. He was the anti-immigrant candidate, the one saying that “bad, bad hombres” were crossing the border. He told us that he could shoot someone on the street and his constituents would still love him, demonstrating a casual arrogance found in every other politician we have come to know. What makes him different? 

President Trump is an arrogant man who has courted authoritarian regimes of various stripes including North Korea, India, and even the Russian government is pleased to have him in power. This could signal a global paradigm shift in power relations altogether. Trump is not the problem, but he is the response. By reflecting the face of Caliban back to our souls, he leads us to think on matters of importance.

After President Obama created the Syrian refugee crisis with the aid of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what sort of leadership was needed to counteract the ensuing instability? Bernie Sanders suggested importing thousands of people as climate refugees and writing a blank check to cover expenses of an increasing welfare state. Even the controversial Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who this writer admires) suggests major changes in fiscal policy guided by Modern Monetary Theory. Infrastructure needs dire improvement as it crumbles. What better time to create something entirely new from the old patterns?

Let’s also talk about injustice. How we have treated others historically. How we continue to marginalize people. Why are we only now reckoning with our own hideous reality that we created?

Society needs a culture to help it identify itself. It requires art, both commercial and fine arts. It requires attitudes and stereotypes to fit our lazy thinking habits. It requires political economy, adjustments to government and its relations to industry. A country is a thing much larger than itself.

Nationalism, a word I have often despised, means what a country identifies as should be held at high value by its citizens. Pride in one’s country is not inherently exclusive. Critics of the United States on the left have offered a great number of reasons to reconsider our global supremacy. Post-globalization society will be much different; it will need to be strong and fit to survive, but it will require openness. It will need to be robust, but multicultural. Open criticism helps us adapt to growing cultural pressures.

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July 4th, Independence Day, is a celebration of the penning of the Declaration of Independence which declared the 13 colonies of America separate from the tyranny of British monarchial rule. Later the founders were to establish a new government after coming short with the Articles of Confederation.

In creating a stronger central power capable of collecting revenue to pay the debts of the Revolutionary War, the United States engaged in a radically new political mode of being in the world. After centuries of European wars over religion, the Enlightenment sought to empower the individual and empirical science.  The ideas of the Enlightenment  from thinkers such as Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, and others established a new precedent which emboldened culture and science.

The founders were familiar with these ideas. After rational debates concerning the new government, the United States Constitution as we know it was written. The ideals presented of rational discussion, free speech and assembly, not only founded this majestic country, but were the very staples of its founding. Free press was established to help circulate ideas. Common Sense by Thomas Paine was a leading factor in persuading the colonists so free press was also beneficial to the American Revolution.  These ideals are something to make us exceptionally proud.

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This writer is a left-libertarian when it comes to ideology, but we must look beyond ideas. The metamodernists convey that reality and text are different things, but not mutually exclusive. How we conceive ourselves matters. With Donald Trump in the White House, a man who has shady dealings in the past as everyone does, a political outsider whose rhetoric is extreme but powerfully honest, a reality TV host who admittedly has helped our culture decline into laziness, we have come to firmly reckon with not just our history but our present as well. There has never been more open, honest discussion in the public domain as now. I see people defying the conventions that have long held them down. Ideology is an enemy, a bad conscience. However, it is a necessary component to our being. It contextualizes and celebrates our caveats.

President Trump has put in front of us what so many past presidents have hidden in private. In doing so, he is caused us to think more deeply on our predilections. Broad cultural shifts are taking place that wouldn’t have without such an impetus. The mobilization against Trump is as powerful a catalyst as he is himself. Let’s not be dogged by ragged assumptions.

With this said, I plan to vote for Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen to make a point that I want to preserve the ideas of liberty, independence, and freedom of thought. I cannot empower the left or the right in my vote with reasoned conscience. Identity politics has triumphed as a reaction to racism, sexism, and the various evil isms setting one’s “identity” as political collateral in a battle against history. This leftist dogma does not suit me, and I cannot empower it by voting to uphold it and its culture.

I respect Trump and admire some of his accomplishments. I have discussed them in writing. However, I cannot vote to uphold Trumpism either. With writers such as Anis Shivani I believe Trump is a man of the people, although his responses to coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement are tepid. A recent NPR (National Public Radio) article discussed by FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) suggested that experts have failed to properly address an issue yet again, and making comparisons to the expertise that lead to the Iraq War. Government authority clearly is human, and not divine.

I was an atheist after hearing Bad Religion for the first time at age 13. Raised strict Catholic, I merged my traditional and revolutionary tendencies into Christian humanist anarchism, my own variety of metamodernism.

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My mother, also an atheist, lost her mother to a drunk driver at age eighteen when I was a toddler. She and my father separated. Courts ordered my father to pay child support for which he never took responsibility. Custody was granted to my grandmother and aunt. Court documents from the Chancery Court of Monticello, Mississippi I dug up a few years ago reveal that my grandmother was given custody because she would raise me in a “Christian atmosphere suitable to the court.” She raised me exceptionally well, but held strong patriotic tendencies and for many years I despised her politics. She read Ann Coulter as she was passing away and I selfishly argued with her. Independence Day was always cause for argument over American Empire.

She had a heart of gold. She had an intellect that the world did not fully glimpse, and I only understood in retrospect. An independent woman can take many forms.

My father hates liberals so I grew into one, naturally. Now I renounce the left as a sworn leftist. I will not stand for attacks on free expression. I will not passively watch our country slide into extremes. I will not, I cannot, let this happen now. I will pray for my own redress. The world needs God. I need God.

It is often said that the founders did not like religion. This is only partially true. Jefferson’s own writings mock the clergy. However, Madison was a devout Anglican. Washington was a Mason. Even the radical democrat Jefferson praised religious tolerance as the means to spread truth, thus the creation of separation of church and state.

Is it time to separate church and hate? Enough of the religious supremacy. It turns people away. Embrace the shifting world. One can be strong in faith and reasonable in heart.

*

It is time that we celebrate independence of thought, free discussion, and individual liberty again. These ideals must be vindicated. The Enlightenment emboldened science, elevating it to a cause of its own. However, it did not leave a strong legacy of criticism of science. Science, however, offers criticism of itself. As it creates its own church with dogmatic expertise in the name of consensus, we sometimes forget that it’s mind is human.

*

I released a poetry collection called Salt and Sorrow several years ago. I even boldly sent a copy to the White House as a gift to the new president, asking him to end the longest federal shutdown in American history. The book’s basic idea was to restore Western values to their Platonic Idealism. After reading an introduction to Plato’s Collected Dialogues that notes how these values have saved Western civilization over centuries when it was at its most crucial moments, I thought to add some Christian humanist Idealism to our culture. The book was well received. The President sent me a thank you card which he signed personally. I have it hanging on my bedroom wall. The book is an easy but thoughtful read and worth discussing.

I announced to the Cosmic Poets Society that I had sent the gift to the president, and the day after the tracking number showed it was received the shutdown ended. Many people suggested I may have persuaded the president, although I humbly doubt it.

*

In the aftermath of Black Lives Matter and the ongoing battle against all forms of bigotry, lightning struck the Washington Monument. The monument stands as one of the world’s tallest structures in memorial to the United States’ first president, General George Washington of the Continental Army.

For years, I prayed justice would come to halt the world. I know God knows what He is doing as He has been doing it for an eternity and will continue to do it. The world stands.

Perhaps the astounding loneliness penetrating my soul and the soul of humanity found a course for its reckoning.

*

Again, all ideas have their faults and we should be willing to critique them. Ideals are important especially in the United States where slaveowners boldly declared independence from tyranny. Words are powerful. Over the course of American history, movements have developed to challenge bigotry and discrimination. When we fail to honor “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and forget that “all men are created equal” (even the language is a tad sexist, though the idea is powerful), we relinquish our ideals to the dustbin. The founders were imperfect, and they were trapped in world history with all its faults.

We can discuss slavery in 1776, and forget that sex slavery still exists in this country. Children are sold and trafficked across the border. We can continue reckoning with our history, and forget that its spectre still haunts us in myriad shapes. It is important that we shape our identity to suit the growing multicultural globalism before us.

Liberal democracy is a faith. It has proved to help us ascertain the human condition and address it assertively. Ideals are to be cherished; they guide us. Independence is not to be relinquished.

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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Essay

Wisdom of the Wild

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Protima could not believe her eyes when she got back home from the shelter after the super cyclone had spent itself. Her milch cow was standing on the pukka road that led to the river Mani — one of the many arms of the Hooghly before it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Right next to the cow stood Lalu and Bhulu, the two pariah dogs who had made her courtyard their home. All three wagged their tails as she approached them. But she stopped short as she looked towards the pile of hay stacked next to her kuccha* hut: On top of the pile, were the hen and the ducks!

Protima was amazed. They had stood there all through the stormy night of rain and gale, as Amphan churned the water of the Bay and flooded the land on both sides of the river that flows 50 meters from her house. They did not run amok when the hurricane winds blew away the thatch roof off her mud walls…The television channels had been blurting the news for days and days that the government had alerted the state about the cyclone that was to land at a speed of 160 kmph. How fast is that? Who knows! Even cars, if they come to this remote corner of West Bengal, don’t run at more than 40 kmph.

The panchayat had organized for the villagers to seek shelter in the local school which was a double storeyed structure. That’s where Protima had followed her husband just before the wind started its tandava* in the afternoon; he with his nonagenarian father on his back, she holding the hands of her younger twins and her elder daughter clutching the free end of her sari. Only, even as they were fastening the doors before rushing out of the hut, she had unlocked the coop to let out the hens and untied the rope around the neck of the cow. That proved a saving stroke: the cow moved away from the house far enough to be safe from the flying roof, yet close enough for Protima to find her when she came back home.What is more, the two dogs followed the cow and not only kept her company — they even held on to her tail and sought the support of her hind legs to keep their noses in the air when the salt water of the ocean came riding the fresh waters in high tide.

Although it came up to her belly and chest, the cow stood stock still and did not kick the canine members of the assorted family. The ducks too did not ditch the hens. They could have paddled away in the flooding water. They didn’t. They inchoately knew that the hens do not swim. They had all come out of the coop and assembled on top of the haystack — quacking and clucking, clucking and quacking even when the birds on the swirling trees had stymied their cheeping.

Miles away from Raidighi, Protima’s mother Chhabi was reminded of the earlier severe cyclone Aila that had struck precisely eleven years ago. That day the second named cyclone of the North Indian Ocean had come at a speed of 110 kmph leaving a million souls homeless. That time too, all the members of her neighbour, Haran Sardar’s family had scurried off to seek the safety of the only concrete structure — the middle school — in the village on the vicinity of Gangasagar in the Sunderban region.

In the haste stemming from their anxiety, they didn’t notice that their father, an old man in his seventies, had lagged behind to secure their meagre belongings and beddings. However, as the strong winds coincided with the high tide, the water rose faster than he expected, and cut him off from the safe house. But Haran Khuro* was a wood cutter whose feats are still narrated to the younger lot. He looked around him and swiftly climbed up on the nearest tall tree and, at the fork of two sturdy branches, secured himself with his coarse cotton gamchha*.

A while later, as the swift waters rose further, he noticed a black keute — Bengal krait — emerge out of the whirling white and slither up the bark of the same Hetal tree. The old man at once untied his gamchha, clambered up a few notches and found himself a perch in the highest of boughs.

As the water kept rising higher still, he noticed a tiger emerge out of the cluster of Sundari trees. Swiftly, though, noiselessly the feline came and seated itself at the foot of the very same tree that had already given shelter to a venomous snake and and an infirm biped. “Oh God!” Haran Khuro thought to himself. “I climbed up the tree to be safe from the flood — but where can I go to save my life now?” Sheer helplessness got the better of him and he fainted then and there, fastened to the tree by the gamchha around his waist.

That may have saved his life. Or was it the innate instinct of animals — wild, venomous, or social — not to be hostile and fight with another being faced with the same wrath of Nature, but to live peaceably? For, two hours later, when the waters receded, the tiger ambled back into the forest, the keute slid down the tree trunk and returned to its hole in the ground; and Khuro‘s sons rowed down in a fishing boat with a search party looking for the father.

He? He was still tied to the tree with his worn-out gamchha…Young Sujata had yet another story about the coevality and harmonious sharing of the living space by the humans and wildcats of the region that is the breeding ground of crocodiles. Kaal Baisakhis are a routine feature here. These Nor’westers frequent the southern tip of Bengal in the summer months of April and May, often with violent hurricane-speed winds, causing tornadoes. Just before sunset or immediately after it thick dark clouds appear in the southern sky foretelling gale-speed winds and torrential rains.

After one such evening Sujata and her younger siblings had gone off to sleep on the floor of the hut while their parents had retired to the sole cot in the room after making their Grandpa comfortable in the apology for a veranda that had no side walls but still had a roof overhead. Next morning the mother was woken up by the old man’s voice. “Ei byata, where has this dog come in from? Jaa! Go make yourself comfortable elsewhere. Hey! Why lean on me? You’ll crush my frail bones by your weight! Go away…”Alarmed by the monologue, she hurriedly opened the door. And froze. Nudged by the sleepy old man, the cub Panthera Tigris had got to its feet and was stretching itself out of its slumber.

It turned its head at the sound of the door opening, looked into the eyes of the lady of the house that had sheltered him from thunderous sleet, and sauntered away towards the jungle…..As I listened to these ladies from Bon Bibi‘s* domain, a single line from the Hollywood movie Black Panther kept playing in my mind: ‘In times of crisis the wise build bridges while fools build barriers…’

How very true! In the face of tidal waves and hurricane winds, tigers and snakes, cows and dogs, hens and ducks exist in harmony. But our political netas?! They sharpen their knives and reach for arms. The BJPs and INCs, TMCs and CPMs, SJDs and DMKs, the Republicans and Democrats, the Tories and Labours of the world can’t stop bickering, they all try to score over their opponents. Why do they only think of fishing in troubled waters?

*Kuccha — impermanent, mud hut

*Tandava — Shiva’s dance of rage

*Khuro — Uncle

*Gamchcha — A light strong absorbent piece of cotton, often used like a towel

*Bon Bibi — Forest queen

*Netas — Politicians

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Essay

Resurgence of the “New” Discourse

By Ria Banerjee

As the world is teetering on the brink of collapse, we are collectively participating in a mass elegy for a lost world.  The custodians of that world-security, stability-have receded into the archives of our memory. In Heath Ledger’s inimitable performance as the insouciant Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), he nudges a shattered Harvey Dent to “introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order.” It is precisely this order, a sense of clinging on to the last dregs of meaning that has gone for a toss in the wake of the pandemic.  And yet, the trajectory of human evolution bears testimony to mankind’s relentless quest to forge meaning out of chaos, to seek an eternal consonance amidst the cacophony of dissonance and dissent.

This propensity to fall back on fragments and carve something concrete is the momentum behind the establishment of a new regimentation. Human agency strives, unabated, to discover measures and means in an endeavour to engage with this pathogen in a new way- it is the mechanism of co-existence. But such cohabitation involves the resurrection of a ‘New’ normalcy altogether. Currently, the pandemic has unearthed a fertile field of scholarly inquiry into this domain of the multiple “New” discourses that offer some semblance of a revamped normalcy in the post-Corona world. But what are the challenges encountered as we navigate through this? Are these measures available for and accessible by all and sundry? What are the prerequisites for activating such measures and who are the intended recipients of the ‘New’ normal?

The virtual space in the prelapsarian state (the pre-Corona world that is) was a universe of frivolous escapades; it offered us the much needed succour to unwind at the end of a long day. It was a space to visit and revisit in between the rigmarole of life. And yet, we were acutely aware of the disjunction between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. The lockdown phase has completely blurred that demarcation- the ‘virtual’ is now the ‘New’ real. Virtual classrooms on virtual platforms are instrumental in ensuring that quality education continues to be imparted without any hindrance. But here is the catch.

Conducting online classes is based on the presumption that everyone is equipped with the necessary amenities. In third world countries where thousands of people are knuckling under crushing poverty and falling prey to unemployment, education becomes a luxury that exists in imaginative spaces. Thus, in effect, the right to education becomes a prerogative of the select few, of the ‘privileged’ coterie who dictates the dominant ideology. While online education has become an imperative in the present scenario, it is equally necessary to ensure that it does not end up magnifying the digital divide and depriving a section of the “basic” right to education.

The pandemic has also aggravated, if not exposed, another kind of lethal contagion. Alienation and estrangement, as studies show, are no longer literary motifs that dominate the creative space — it has a tangible presence and form now. The attendant mental repercussions of being cocooned in our homes for long has escalated the sense of loneliness- the definitive offshoot being bouts of depression, anxiety, angst and a restlessness.

Many have succumbed to emotional meltdown during these volatile times. Ensconced in a world bereft of the comfort and sanctity of human “touch”, we are gradually being sucked into a treacherous whirlwind of monotony and repetitiveness from which there is no respite. Deliberating on mental health at a time when we are compelled to make a ‘world” of our ‘home” is slightly paradoxical.

Home makes for a good cameo appearance, retreating into oblivion for most of the time. The pandemic has catapulted the “home” from relative anonymity into limelight but such is the quirk of fate that we can longer acclimatise ourselves to such an orientation any more — as if, ‘home’ exists in contradistinction to the ‘world’  and has no existence outside of it. Needless to say, the pandemic is exposing before us the chink in the armour. Social distancing might be an imperative now, but a fundamental element of disconnect had long infiltrated the bond between the “home” and the “world” and ruptured it.

 And perhaps, even when we are negotiating the unprecedented changes in our socio-cultural spheres, the greatest challenge is to be with our own selves. The hustle and bustle of life, as it were, had demolished the aspiration to confront the individual in us. The “Me-time” myth was an illusion. Self indulgence (to chill, as they say in common parlance) was never about rejoicing in the sole company of oneself but to unleash the beast in us in the company of others. But self-isolation had interrogated those deeply nurtured ideas. The lockdown had compelled us to shun our non-confrontational demeanour. Looking inward, forging a communion with our lost and suppressed identities had proved to be an art that takes time to master.

While our lives hang on a precarious rope of appeasement and adjustment, the gradual movement from a world dictated by chronological time to one bereft of it has proved to be unnerving. Life was an assortment of events, bound by minute strands of temporal gradations — our approach to life was economic and measured.

The Corona crisis had ended up shattering that temporal yardstick against which we would construct and consolidate the flux of life. Longing for a heartfelt interaction with your beloved in a different time zone can be accomplished through video calls no doubt; online teaching can be smoothly conducted by mastering a bit of technical know-how and yet, does it feel real? Can one accommodate the pulse and throb of life in the click of a button?

So, what are these “new discourses” advocating for? The protocols and maxims we had lived by before the pandemic can no longer contain the crisis we are now encountering. The “new” normalcy is a call to refashion ourselves. Perhaps it is time for us to embrace an emerging world order that will mould us to become better versions of ourselves. Like all the other epidemics, the Corona crisis will remain in the historical imaginary for transmogrifying the world into a dystopian wasteland; the resurgence of the “new” discourses will be a quest for and towards a different utopia.

Author’s Bio: Ria Banerjee is an M.A in English Literature (First Class First) from Shri Shikshayatan College, affiliated to Calcutta University. She is currently engaged as a faculty in Prafulla Chandra College, Department of English.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Essay

Chipping Away At Time’s Edifice

By Dustin Pickering

#Minnesota, Sketch by Dustin Pickering

“…history is potent enough to deliver, on time, in the medium to long run, most of the possible scenarios, and to eventually bury the bad guy.”

Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

This essay assumes a personal and historical tone during time of global unrest. It is my response to the murder of George Floyd and seeks to re-imagine what could be from what is.

My great grandfather on my dad’s side loved Black people. He was respected in the small Mississippi town of Monticello where he frequented Black churches at night. As a Southern Baptist, it was an odd thing for him during that period to appreciate the Black community. This was during a time prior to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s.

My grandmother grew up in that era and married at age 13. Her husband was involved with Klansmen. She told me stories about violence against Blacks including an incident where she saw a Black man run into a field followed by an angry mob of white men that included the town sheriff. The sheriff told her not to worry about what was going on. She told me in confidence that when the Civil Rights Act made it possible for Blacks to run for office, she voted for a Black woman running in a local election. She told me stories of Blacks being chased from sidewalks and vapidly discouraged from smiling casually at white women, treated as second-class citizens, jazz clubs being raided, Black musicians portrayed as negative influences on youth and women for smoking marijuana, and newspapers with severely racist headlines. The picture was distant to me other than history books. She told me about the first time she witnessed a sit-in. Her shock was outrun by her admiration. She owned the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.

These stories will come as no surprise to Blacks, I’m sure. The Black community has suffered repression by white supremacists and societal conditions imposed on them for hundreds of years in the United States. It seems unjust that even Nature is not even-handed. For instance, the COVID-19 virus and AIDS disproportionately affected Black communities. I attended a short discussion with Tantra Zawadi, an activist and poet, several years ago during which she showed a documentary film about the suffering of Black people due to the AIDS virus. I asked her why she thought it hurt her community particularly. She responded that the Black community has learned to not care for itself. That is a long and frightening discussion.

***

It is often assumed that the American Civil War resolved the problems created by slavery. President Lincoln is reported as stating, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” This was quoted from his debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas on September 18, 1858. This statement was made in defense against the Democrats who believed Lincoln would abolish slavery, what was then a radical suggestion.

Frederick Douglass said of class struggle, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

The Black Codes of the Reconstruction era did just this. Even before the Civil War, such codes were designed to protect the institution of slavery. Blacks were expected to turn their guns over to white men upon the white man’s request. Through convict leasing, private parties could employ the free labor of convicts. This practice provided immense revenue to southern states. Time Magazine writes, “Prison privatization accelerated after the Civil War. The reason for turning penitentiaries over to companies was similar to states’ justifications for using private prisons today: prison populations were soaring, and they couldn’t afford to run their penitentiaries themselves.” In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery except as punishment for a crime. Privatized prisons historically targeted Black males. African American families still suffer from policies such as the Drug War. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act created tougher mandatory sentences for possession of crack, a drug that was cheaper and easy to transport than powdered cocaine, though not much different in substance. Media hype of the 1980’s created the illusion of a “crack epidemic”, thus leading to the tougher sentencing law. This law was amended by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. The Sentencing Project Records the racial disparities of incarceration.

Some statements from The Sentencing Project:

“One contributing factor to the disparity in arrest rates is that racial minorities commit certain crimes at higher rates. Specifically, data suggests that black Americans—particularly males—tend to commit violent and property crimes at higher rates than other racial groups. Other studies, however, demonstrate that higher crime rates are better explained by socioeconomic factors than race: extremely disadvantaged neighborhoods experience higher rates of crime regardless of racial composition. Because African Americans constitute a disproportionate share of those living in poverty in the United States, they are more likely to reside in low-income communities in which socioeconomic factors contribute to higher crime rates.”

“The United States government’s War on Drugs has perhaps contributed more than any other single factor to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”

***

We continue to remind one another to “beat our swords into ploughshares.” We must be hungry.

***

In the 19th century prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, factions of anti-immigrant sentiment developed and coalesced into the Know Nothing Party. They were generally working-class nativists who resented Irish and German Catholics for economic reasons. They came from industrialized cities in the North and spread into the South. The Party was founded in 1844 and rose to prominence in 1853 until the Dred Scott decision and John Brown’s raid proved slavery was a central issue to the nation rather than immigration. John Wilkes Booth was a member.

Once the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) replaced congressional edict with popular sovereignty regarding slavery in territories included in the Louisiana Purchase, what is now known as the Republican Party emerged in the North among anti-slavery advocates and Freesoil debaters. Nativists in the South became entrenched in the Know Nothing cause. Such nativist sentiment evolved into the strict anti-immigration policy in the 1920’s that was oddly lax on northwestern European flow into the United States.

It is a commonly understood fact of history that the northern economy was less dependent on slave labor, and more on the surplus capital provided by taxing the products of slave labor. In Hylton v. US (1796), Justice Patterson wrote, “The constitution declares, that a capitation tax is a direct tax; and both in theory and practice, a tax on land is deemed to be a direct tax… The provision was made in favor of the southern states; they possessed a large number of slaves; they had extensive tracts of territory, thinly settled, and not very productive. A majority of the states had but few slaves, and several of them a limited territory, well settled, and in a high state of cultivation. The southern states, if no provision had been introduced in the constitution, would have been wholly at the mercy of the other states. Congress in such case, might tax slaves, at discretion or arbitrarily, and land in every part of the Union, after the same rate or measure: so much a head, in the first instance, and so much an acre, in the second. To guard them against imposition, in these particulars, was the reason of introducing the clause in the constitution.” (bold emphasis is the essayists)  

In 1895, the Pollack case redefined direct taxation to include taxes on property and income, and the 16th Amendment restored the original definition of taxation whereby to allow the progressive income tax and other measures.

The northern industrialized economy continued to exploit Black labor. According to thehenryford.org, “No single reason can sufficiently explain why in a brief period between 1910 and 1920, nearly half a million Southern blacks moved from farms, villages, towns and cities to the North, starting what would ultimately be a 50-year migration of millions. What would be known as the Great Migration was the result of a combination of fundamental social, political and economic structural problems in the South and an exploding Northern economy. Southern blacks streamed in the thousands and hundreds of thousands throughout the industrial cities of the north to fill the work rolls of factories desperate for cheap labor.” The population of Detroit nearly doubled between the years 1910-20 with a significant increase in the Black population. The Great Migration provided companies like Ford Motors with cheap labor from African Americans.

Clearly slavery shaped the United States economy and was a major catalyst of dispute as well as change. Some may argue it was necessary for the New World; however, religious groups such as the Mennonites were abolitionists as far back as 1688. Along with immigration and taxation, today’s Republican Party has utilized these antiquated hostilities; yet, the Democrats have convinced a segment of voters with other reasons. They became the party of ‘civil rights.’ Encyclopedia Britannica defines civil rights asguarantees of equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, or other personal characteristics.” A July 12, 1964 article in the New York Times states, “…the pressure exerted by militant Negroes had become so great that many businessmen had dropped racial barriers in their establishments. Many others were waiting only for the excuse provided by the new law.” The spirit of the times was changing to oblige equal rights. Some may argue that law does not guarantee equality or fair treatment. However, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stated in a rebuttal to Goldwater’s “change of heart, not legislation” approach that he agreed with Goldwater, and although legislation cannot make a man love him it can in fact prevent him from lynching him.

We should not define bigotry, xenophobia, and racial injustice along party or regional lines as the usual contemporary narratives have it. My grandmother and I used to argue about the Old South in contrast to the “New South.” A few years ago, Newsweek ran a cover article along those lines. The changing attitudes of young people and the decline of traditional narratives favoring “states’ rights” were the article’s focus. After reading, I called my grandmother to discuss it with her.

She didn’t seem to agree that the South was changing significantly. She often spoke against the Democrats and their effect on the South historically. Democrats caused enormous civil unrest during the Reconstruction Era, including at the Battle of Liberty Place where white supremacists defeated US troops in an attempted coup against elected governor William Pitt Kellogg. Kellogg was considered a “carpetbagger” by white southern Democrats because of his years collecting customs at the Port of New Orleans. The White League, as the paramilitary white supremacist force was known, intimidated Blacks to prevent them from voting—no poll tax or literacy tests! Reconstruction era Democrats used violence and intimidation to oppose Black emancipation! The grandson of a Confederate soldier, President Lyndon Baines Johnson who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supposedly remarked, “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.” It is sometimes said President Johnson was simply navigating the political realm wisely, much like President Lincoln.

This began the era of “Southern Strategy”. The term “dog whistle” was used to indicate the new rhetoric of “state’s rights” employed by the GOP. “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busingstates’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites,” Lee Atwater stated to explain states’ rights. Atwater further states, “But Reagan did not have to do a southern strategy for two reasons. Number one, race was not a dominant issue. And number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been, quote, southern issues since way back in the sixties. So Reagan goes out and campaigns on the issues of economics and of national defense. The whole campaign was devoid of any kind of racism, any kind of reference.” Does making race a central issue hurt or help the cause of equal justice? Have we forgotten the importance of racial dynamics in shaping this country?

I remember as a child in the Reagan 80’s I was tutored to read and write by a Black woman who came to love me as her own. This was in Mississippi, the heart of the Dixiecrat struggle only decades before.

***

In 2013, a high school in Jacksonville, FLA initiated a name change. It was originally named after Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest who was known to have cut off the arms of surrendered black soldiers. My father was at the forefront of keeping the name. I reluctantly signed a petition he created to keep the school’s name even though I strongly disagreed with it. The school’s African-American student population grew to over half the student body. The school used a Confederate flag in its pep rallies. I can see why the name, which was suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1950’s, would upset Black students. Nathan Bedford Forrest was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I signed the petition in a lukewarm decision to support my family, believing it was a lost cause. I was later told that the petition would not be used because only current students and their families’ voices mattered in the decision process. My father was irate.

I agree with the decision to change the school’s name. Who wants to be subjected to seeing the symbols of racism—watch videos from the Civil Rights era—symbols used to oppress and intimidate Blacks, or have a school honored after the KKK’s first Grand Wizard who was not even from Florida? I learned of my own temerity and indecision during this dispute. While the petition had few signatories generally, I was one of them. My decision to sign went against my conscience.

The high school is now known as Westside High School.

***

As a matter of general observation, it seems that political grievances are not resolved only politically. 

Continuous police brutality against Blacks throughout history from Emmitt Till to Amadou Diallo, from Rep. John Lewis to George Floyd, is a serious concern. Blacks are 2.5 times as likely to face police violence than other racial groups. In 2019, 1,098 incidents of police homicide were recorded. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, Black people were 24 percent of those homicides while only being 13 percent of the population. In 2017, 1,117 police homicides occurred with 27 percent of them being Blacks. According to a National Institute of Justice study, 50.6 percent of police surveyed believed that it is not unusual for police to turn a blind eye to police misconduct and disagreed that police report abuses of authority at 58.5 percent of those surveyed (Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority, 2000). This study notes that 65.6 percent of those surveyed do not believe the “code of silence” is necessary to good policing. This suggests that in spite of the numbers, our police forces have integrity.

The Black community even retaliates against other Blacks, but Black violent crime is more likely to be interracial. Some solutions to these problems have been suggested. A February 4, 2017 NPR article reports that “as the ration of black officers in police departments rose – up to a certain threshold – so did the number of fatal encounters between officers and black residents… The tipping point appears to be 25 percent. When black officers reach that ratio in the force, the rate of fatal police-involved incidents levels off. The study also found that once a police department became about 40 percent black, the trendline flipped – the more black officers a department has after that point, the less likely the incidence of fatal encounters with black people.” Varieties of strain theory suggest that criminal activity could be due to strain on families, institutional and societal demands on the individual, the Ferguson effect (increased distrust of police due to police violence), and other factors. The National Review reports, “In reality, a randomly selected black man is overwhelmingly unlikely to be victim of police violence — and though white men experience such violence even less often, the disparity is consistent with the racial gap in violent crime, suggesting that the role of racial bias is small. The media’s acceptance of the false narrative poisons the relations between law enforcement and black communities throughout the country and results in violent protests that destroy property and sometimes even claim lives.” The data at mappingpoliceviolence.org notes that Black Americans killed by police are more likely to be unarmed. The broken windows approach encouraged in the 1994 Crime Bill puts undue pressures on poorer communities through increased policing of them. Some suggest juvenile delinquency is caused by the readiness of illegitimate opportunities compared to honest work.

Bloomberg reports a novel addition in this national conversation. Sarah Holder writes in “The City that Remade Its Police Force” that community policing has enabled peaceful protest. Holder writes, “Homicides in Camden [New Jersey] reached 67 in 2012; the figure for 2019 was 25.” With the assistance of New York University’s Policing Department, the police in Camden developed a new manual for use-of-force. (The manual can be read here.) Camden is hoping the rest of the country’s forces follow suit.

***

It seems in recent years there has been some improvement for the Black community.  Graduation levels improved under the Obama administration and Black unemployment is at historical lows under the Trump administration (prior to COVID-19). Economist Walter Williams in The State Against Blacks notes how government policies such as minimum wage and affirmative action have worsened conditions and discrimination. Since the book was written in 1982, unemployment among Black youth is still about 50 percent. Redlining began under FDR by housing authorities has also contributed to impoverishment of Black families. The Community Reinvestment Act, passed in the 1970’s to combat redlining, is even said to have played a role in the Great Recession of 2008 by encouraging subprime leasing.

The riots and demonstrations going on in the United States today as a reaction against the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was not resisting arrest and cried for his life while an individual officer’s knee clamped on his neck, are not historical anomalies. The problems faced by the African American community are rooted in a history that affects us all as Americans. The cheapening of Black lives, the destruction of their communities, and the ignorance prevailing concerning these matters and their causes should be openly discussed.

***

Aside from institutional violence, other policies have impacted the Black community disproportionately.

Conservatives believe abortion is rooted in the eugenics cause. As evidence they mention Margaret Sanger, a eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood. According to a 2017 study by American Journal of Public Health, black women had the highest rates of abortion even though white women had more of them.

The study, which also notes a decline in the number of abortions in the USA between 2008-14 says, White women accounted for the largest share of abortions among the 4 racial and ethnic groups examined (38.7%), although they had the lowest abortion rate: 10.0 per 1000. Black women were overrepresented among abortion patients and had the highest abortion rate: 27.1 per 1000.” It has been noted that clinics tend to be in poorer communities, granting easier access to minorities who tend to be economically disadvantaged.  Sanger herself notes the reason for her activism: “If THE WOMAN REBEL were allowed to publish with impunity elementary and fundamental truths concerning personal liberty and how to obtain it, the birth control movement would become a movement of tremendous power in the emancipation of the working class.” (from “Suppression”) Abortion is a socioeconomic issue more than a race issue. The mistake is easily made when we forget that race and class intersect in the United States.

In spite of these facts, Sanger wrote in “The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda”, “As an advocate of Birth Control, I wish to take advantage of the present opportunity to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’, admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes.” While it is true that the poor tend to have larger birth rates with less means at their disposal to care for the children, this passage indicates Sanger’s early commitment to eugenics.

California’s prison system employed the decision of Buck v. Bell to forcibly sterilize 148 female prisoners without consent between 2006-10. Huffington Post writes, “In the past, sterilization of vulnerable populations in the name of ‘human betterment’ was carried out with legal authority and the backing of political elites. What current and past practices share is the assumption that some women by virtue of their class position, sexual behavior, or ethnic identity are socially unfit to reproduce and parent.” (“Sterilization Abuse in State Prisons: Time to Break with California’s Long Eugenics Patterns”, 7/23/2013) PBS.org states, “While California’s eugenics programs were driven in part by anti-Asian and anti-Mexican prejudice, Southern states also employed sterilization as a means of controlling African American populations.” (“Unwanted Eugenics and Sterilization Programs in the United States”, 1/29/ 2016)

However, Coretta Scott King had this to say about Margaret Sanger upon accepting the Margaret Sanger Award for Human Rights on behalf of her husband: “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.  …  Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by non-violent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.” NPR recognizes in their Race Card Project that “black babies cost less to adopt” because of supply and demand. In other words, there are more black children prepared for adoption and less interest in adopting them.

***

Why have we come this far without questioning ourselves, white friends, white family, white society? It seems when the world turns a mirror to us, for us to look at ourselves, we would rather forget, argue, debate, make excuses.

I am not any better. I admit. I am not any better. It is a tough thing to look at yourself and say, “I can do better. I can encourage more equity.”

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Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about the United States. It isn’t about capitalism or socialism. Research South Africa, for instance, and find that the violence against white people is a result of a system that clearly is in favor of white people. Even post-Apartheid, Blacks are being shafted of opportunities. School books are free for white children. White farmers are wealthier and rely on the work of Black people.

This is an issue with humanity. This is an issue with the world. This is not an issue with specific groups, countries, or factions. I framed this essay in the context of my country, the USA, because this is where I see the most immediate effects of the problem. Being in the center of European imperialism and colonialism from the beginning, the United States is responsible for the lack of equity faced today.

In Timbuktu, Islamist insurgents torched two libraries containing historic manuscripts in 2013. Some of the material in the libraries dates back to the 13th century. On the edge of the Sahara, Africa preserves some of its vital history. In a battle for civilization, extremists torch the buildings. These documents include important translations of Plato, Hippocrates, and other Western thinkers, as well as writings on medicine, art, and philosophy. There are also Medieval copies of the Qur’an. Many of the manuscripts were evacuated with financial help from multiple organizations such as the Ford Foundation founded by Edsel and Henry Ford in 1936. Recalling my comments on Ford Motors earlier, perhaps we have come full circle and things are improving although only slightly? Are Blacks being recognized as independent, fully competent individuals now as compared to the Civil War era?

***

It is a difficult and sobering thing to let go of power. In order to see the reflection of one’s skin and the haughtiness of one’s attitude and acts, one must look into the eyes of another’s experiences.

***

Capitalism, emerging from the products of slavery through rapid industrialization, left many people out. Since the founding of the United States under the words “All men are created equal, entitled to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” there have been struggles to make this ideal into reality. Once John Jay, founding father, argued that ownership of property should be the sole criteria in considering the right to vote. The values of a capitalist society include the right to the product of one’s labor, free enterprise, and to do with one’s property what one decides in a fair and just manner.

The US Constitution declares we have a right to security in our persons and property. The US Constitution also declares we have a right to freedom of speech, religion, association, and peaceful petition. The world has been inspired by this model of democratic republicanism. The product of many noble minds put together through rational argumentation, the American federalist system provides a positive model for the world in struggles for freedom, as well as great abundance. With its checks and balances, both across government and the economy, the American system is constructed to encourage fairness and rational decision-making among free parties. The right to utilize one’s gifts is the epitome of justice. Human action, not time, will bring these ideals to greater fruition.

The American system is not inherently segregationist, but we still await justice to wash away this culture of supremacy entirely.

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The author thanks Dr. Reza Parchizadeh, Dr. Troy Camplin, and henry 7. reneau, jr. for their editorial contributions and guidance. 

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Essay

Mimesis and Movies: Plato, Kurusawa & Kiarostami

Karan Tekwani discusses Rashomon and Certified Copy in light of Platonic Philosophy

“…what questions this will to truth has already laid before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions!”

“What in us really wants ‘truth’?”

“… we want truth: why not rather untruth?”

Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche begins his book, Beyond Good and Evil, with a series of questions challenging the “will to truth”. “Will to truth” can be defined as the human tendency to attach overriding importance to the quest of true knowledge. Perplexed by this obsession with truth, Nietzsche takes up in his later works a fierce critique at the “unconditional will to truth”.

Beyond Good and Evil opens with two important questions challenging the centrality and value of truth. The first question, “What in us really wants ‘truth’?”, concerns the psychological ground of human commitment to truth. The second question —  “Why not rather untruth?”–  is regarding the moral value man ascribes to truth over untruth. 

Plato banished all the poets from his ideal society.

The locus of this dramatic gesture can be found in the dialogues of Book X of Republic, where Plato has Socrates conclude, “we can admit no poetry in our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men” (471). The reasons poets cannot be admitted into the ideal society, “are both epistemological and moral, but whatever the reason they have a word in common: mimesis” (Melberg, 10). Poetry, argues Socrates delivers untrue knowledge, because it offers a second hand imitation of an already second hand imitation. When a carpenter makes his platonic bed, he takes a step away from the ideal form. When a painter paints this bed, he moves even further away. “This, then” settles Socrates, “will apply to the maker of tragedies also, if he is an imitator (mimetes) and is in his nature three removes from the king and the truth, as are all other imitator” (464). This theory of mimesis, that discredits the value of poetry, works at two ends. At the first end we have the assumption that a central “ideal truth” exists and at the final end we presume that an imitation is always of less value.

Nietzsche’s questions, that destabilize the authority and worth of truth, are in direct contrast with Plato’s assumptions, establishing the centrality and value of truth. The questions that Nietzsche asked challenge Plato’s assumptions, giving rise to a new set of possibilities. What if we do not want truth? What if there is no truth? What if untruth is the truth? What if untruth is as valuable as truth? The paper proposes to explore all of these possibilities.

This essay evaluates the fundamental assumptions of Plato’s theory of mimesis, in light of Nietzsche’s questions concerning the “will to truth”. It undertakes this examination through a discussion of two movies:  Rashomon (1950) and Certified Copy (2010). The use of films to critique the assumptions is in line with Plato’s use of the word mimesis “with a primarily visual significance; mimesis suggests image, a visual image related to imitation, re-presentation” (Melberg, 10). And concludes by discussing the influence that Plato’s assumptions have had throughout centuries since their conception.

The theory of mimesis rests on the idea that there exists an ideal form, that poetry cannot capture. This ideal truth is conceived by the God and every attempt of the artist, be it carpenter or painter or poet, takes him a step away from this true reality. This centrality of truth has had such a captive hold over human mind, that in the past few decades various search projects have been undertaken to ascertain the true form of numerous artistic imitations.

The British historian Geoffery Ashe in his The Discovery of King Arthur claims to have identified the “original Arthur” in the fifth-century King Riothamus. In his Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry, John G. Bellamy argues that the prototype of Robin Hood can be traced to thirteenth-century Robert Hode, a valet to Edward II. Abert Boime, professor of art history, in his paper presented at American Astronomical Society, stated that the night sky in Van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” corresponds to the astronomical facts of June 19, 1889. But what if all these search endeavours are futile? What if neither Riothamus nor Robert Hode nor the astronomical facts are the actual true forms? What if all these, supposedly, true forms are subjective versions of truth themselves? What if there is no central truth to hold authority? Building upon this lack of centrality of truth, Nietzsche in the section four of Beyond Good and Evil writes:

“…we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgements are the most indispensable for us that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live — that renouncing false judgements would mean renouncing life and a denial of life.”

Nietzsche argues that most untrue forms occupy the positions of central truth. The evidence and argument mechanism, employed to verify facts, does not apply to these untrue truths because these untruths become the “conditions of life”. There is nothing like centrality of ideal truth, every real truth is just an unquestioned untruth. Therefore, Nietzsche questions, “What in us really wants ‘truth’?”

This absence of central truth is best exemplified by Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon. Rashomon literalizes the possibility of multiple untruths contesting to be the central true version.

Brimming with action, Rashomon is Kurosawa’s exploration into the idea that there is no absolute truth. The movie is about a rape and murder, and five different versions of the same incident. Influenced by their subjective perspectives, a priest, a bandit, a wife, a samurai (through a medium) and a woodcutter (who initially offers false story, the correct version), narrate their individual experiences. In absence of any significant clues, the audience cannot tell whose version is true. Kurosawa does not want the audience to decide who is telling the truth, the point is: truth is not absolute, it is relative. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines relativism as

“… the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them.”

Each of the characters in the movie espouse truth relative to their ethical, moral, cultural and social backgrounds. In the bandit’s version of the events, he is presented as a skilful fighter. The wife makes sure that her narrative showcases her as a devoted loyal wife. In the samurai’s story, told through a medium, the samurai is portrayed as a heroic man who kills himself when he disgraced by his wife. Though initially in his account the woodcutter does not confess, he later informs that he picked up the lady’s dagger and sold it in the market. Through this relativity of truth Kurosawa highlights that there is no central truth. The fundamental idea of Plato’s theory of mimesis, that there is an ideal true form, collapses when viewed in light of Rashomon’s belief in relativity of truth.

Another idea fundamental to Plato’s concept of mimesis is that only originals are valuable. The conclusion of the theory of mimesis is that since imitative poetry is thrice removed from reality, it is not valuable. According to Plato, any art form divorced from the stamp of truth is not worthy of appreciation. This idea that truth and value are sacrosanct has become prominent in past few decades when means of replication are easily available.

In 2010, the National Gallery of London staged an exhibition entitled Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries to showcase the various high-tech devices capable of attributing a work of art as authentic. But what if original work is missing? What if the value of fake is more than the original form? What if the fake displaces the original? Developing this argument regarding the value of fake, Nietzsche writes in section two of Beyond Good and Evil:

“For all the value that the true, the truthful, the selfless may deserve, it would be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to deception, selfishness and lust.”

Nietzsche’s challenges the supremacy sanctioned to truth, arguing that untruth may be equally valuable. The fake can exhibit quality deserving to an original. If untruth is as worthy as truth, “Why not rather untruth?”. This argument rings a scene from Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, when Elle takes James to see a painting in a museum, that had long been considered authentic but was eventually revealed as a copy. Similar to this painting, Kiarostami’s movie blurs the difference between the original and fake.

Certified Copy, released in the same year as the National Gallery exhibition on fakes, unmasks the absurdity of the dichotomy of original and copy. Certified Copy deals with a mysterious relationship between a British writer James Miller (played by William Shimell) and a French art gallery owner Elle (Elle is French for she, played by Juliette Binoche).

James is on a visit in Italy to promote his non-fiction art history book, also called, Certified Copy and Elle invites him to spend a day with her. Elle drives James to Tuscany museum to see a painting called “original copy” that is related to the subject of his book. The museum guide explains, “This is the famous Muse Polimnia, the portrait of a woman, whose dramatic story is told on the cartel next to the painting. For years, this painting was believed to be Roman Art. It wasn’t until the 20th century about 50 years ago, that it was revealed to be the work of a skilled forger from Naples. However, the museum decided to conserve this fabulous portrait as an original. It is actually as beautiful as the original.”

However, contrary to Elle’s expectations, James does not seem captivated. On being asked what did he earn James responds, “They say how much they adore the picture. But they say it is a copy and the original is somewhere around”. James is upset that the painting’s status as a copy, denies acknowledgement of its artistic merit. After this museum visit, James and Elle go for a coffee to café, where the film’s key moment in terms of narrative twist takes place. While James steps outside to attend a call a call, the café owner an old lady, addresses James and Elle as married and Elle does nothing to correct her. Elle keeps up the pretence as they talk of marriage, work and fidelity.

Eventually, a subtle but a meaningful gesture occurs, the old lady steps in front of the seated Elle, blocking her from audience’s view, bends over and whispers something into her ear. After this moment, the distinctions between the real and fake are blurred in the movie. When James returns, both James and Elle act as if they have been married for fifteen years.

It becomes nearly impossible to decipher if the couple are strangers pretending to be married or spouses role-playing strangers. Just as the fake painting had been considered original, the audience realises that what they had believed to be reality was pretence. And now seems to be pretence can be the true reality. Unlike Plato, who works with neat distinctions between the original and the fake to ascribe value to the original, Kiarostami merges the difference between the real and fake to illustrate that untruth can be equally valuable as truth.

Plato’s idea of mimesis marked a turning point in the history of Greek ideas. The assumptions made by Plato: the centrality of truth and the value of truth, were unprecedented in Western thought. Jean Pierre Vernant notes, “Prior to Plato Greek culture regarded images as an actualization or ‘presentification’ of what they represent. Archaic statues of Gods, for example, were understood not simply as illusionistic depictions of a deity but as an actual revelation of a divinity that otherwise be invisible” (Mathew).

This is similar to what James said in his lecture in the movie, “The copy leads us to a better understanding of the original” (Certified Copy). The ancient Greek art, before Plato, was not regarded as derogatory imitation but a means to achieve the immaterial. However, Plato’s idea of mimesis brings a fundamental shift in this trend, by introducing the central authority of truth. Art now becomes a periphery to this centre; whose value is always inferior to the true form.

The true form becomes the standard against which the merit of art is judged. In spite of these changes, the universal appeal of mimesis cannot be denied. Plato’s idea has been discussed, adopted and even challenged, both directly and indirectly, by writers, film directors and critics, throughout the centuries. Its universality is evident in the case studies of this paper: an Iranian director in his French movie of 2010, uses a concept discussed by a Japanese director in his 1950 movie. Plato’s concept of mimesis with its assumptions, has percolated centuries, nationalities and even art forms.

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Acknowledgement

The idea of this paper came from the classroom discussions with Mr. Naveen Panniker in his Literary Criticism classes on Plato’s Book X.

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Karan Tekwani is a postgraduate student at Delhi University. He is passionate about world cinema and wishes to pursue cinema studies in future. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Essay

One Life, One Love, 300 Children

Keith Lyons writes of Tendol Gyalzur, a COVID 19 victim, a refugee and an orphan who found new lives for many other orphans with love and an ability to connect.

Tendol Gyalzur: “My religion is wiping children’s noses.”

This story is about how one person found joy and happiness, not in accumulating material possessions or going viral on social media, but in finding her purpose through doing service, and making a difference to many, many lives.

Yet it might have turned out differently for Tendol Gyalzur. Her parents and brother were killed as they fled Tibet. As an orphaned refugee she was adopted in Europe. She had every reason to be bitter, every reason to hold a grudge, every reason to hate. It took great courage for her to return to her childhood homeland which had been invaded by China. It took huge sacrifice for her to work with those occupiers who’d orphaned her. And it took a deep love for her to admit that sworn enemies were actually capable of love.

I first met Tendol nearly 20 years ago while I was travelling in the Tibetan borderlands of north-west Yunnan province, in a place which later changed its name to Shangrila in a shrewd move to attract tourists in search of the fictional place of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933). In Zhongdian, a predominantly-Tibetan town which sits at a literally breath-taking 3,300m above sea level, the owner of my guesthouse drew me a rough hand-drawn map on a blank back page of Lonely Planet China showing the route from the Old Town to the ‘Gū’ér yuàn’ (solitary nursery).

I made my way through the rough cobblestone lane maze of the Old Town, past steamy yak hotpot restaurants and karaoke bars where red-robed monks drank beers and barley spirits, to the much-larger New Town with its wide boulevards, guarded bank buildings and muddy construction sites.

After turning right at a new 4-star hotel, skirting alongside a placid lake, and halting just before the town’s new traffic-light junction, I spotted a sign for the orphanage. The arrows took me behind a primary school into a residential area, and up to a walled compound. I knocked on the gate metal door, a couple of guard dogs inside started barking, and eventually, the door was opened by someone in a cook’s apron and sporting the trademark Tibetan alpine rosy cheeks. “Welcome,” she said, and I presented my offering of a bag of warm winter hats, scarves and gloves. “Come in, and I will get Tendol.”

I’ve watched enough television and late-night charity ads in my life to assume that any orphanage will have poor, sad, bedraggled kids confined in drab quarters, but I was not expecting the light, spacious and clean courtyard, with a basketball court and stable with horses. Bright Tibetan motifs of the sun and moon and swirly cloud patterns decorated the trim of buildings, while in small gardens orange and yellow flowers reached for the clear blue skies above.

From one of the buildings out came a woman who, after stopping to tie up the shoelaces of a small child and send them off to play with a hug, introduced herself to me as Tendol. She ushered me into a small reception area where I was given tea, and after explaining about her work, she showed me around the facility, which had spartan but well-maintained tidy dormitories, classrooms for after-school study, and a cosy kitchen.

I was surprised not just at the uplifting environment and its positive vibe, but also at just how content the dozens of children seemed. As a deliberate policy, two aspects of the orphanage’s operation were aimed at mainstreaming and protecting the children. Rather than become a closed institution like most other orphanages in China, the children went to school at the nearby school next to the orphanage, so they could integrate with their peers. To give greater security and remove the fear of being further displaced, Tendol committed to keeping all the children in her care safe from being put up for adoption.

It was one big family, and the children regarded each other as brothers and sister, with the house-parents and Tendol and her husband Losang referred to as parents, aunty or uncle. While most of the children were Tibetan, some were from seven other ethnic minorities including Naxi, Yi, Lisu, and Han Chinese. With orphans found abandoned on the street, or having lost parents, she said how Children’s Charity Tendol Gyalzur doesn’t discriminate on the ethnic origin, the colour of skin, or religion. “Instead we accept those who are most in need of our help and protection.”

While most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, Tendol was brought up in Europe with Christian values, but her mission was never religious and the orphanages were non-denominational. In an interview she once said her work was practical and pragmatic rather than religious, “My religion is wiping children’s noses.”

“I am the happiest person on Earth,” Tendol would often tell me when I visited her bringing donated clothes and food, or guests. “Really, I am the happiest person,” she would declare, wrinkles appearing around her deep dark twinkling eyes as she smiled, while outside youngsters playing tag, improvised soccer and hopscotch shrieked and chortled. “You can write that down.”

I did take note of her genuine proclamation and was curious to learn about her story, not just of her tangible ‘bricks and mortar’ achievements, but also of her personal transformation which made her in my books more saintly and less dogmatic than the likes of Mother Teresa (now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta).

So how did an exiled orphan return from Switzerland to establish orphanages and nomadic schools across Tibetan areas during the last three decades? That journey, going full circle, from being an orphan herself to caring for hundreds of orphans, is Tendol’s story. The short answer is that was obviously very hard work, requiring dedication, perseverance, and boundless love. Tendol was supported by her family, especially her husband Losang Gyalzur and two sons, as well as donors throughout the world.

Given Tendol’s tough, turbulent childhood as an exile, refugee and orphan, you might expect her to hold a grudge against those who orphaned her. Yet she was possibly the kindest-hearted person you might ever meet.

I wanted to know about her life and struggles, and how she overcame the obstacles. When I stayed in Shangrila for 18 months, and later lived in the nearby town of Lijiang for a dozen years, I came to appreciate the difficulties for outsiders to live and work in China. For me and many other foreigners, the cost of visas and frequent visa-runs were higher than the actual cost of living.

Every year or so, someone I knew would be fined and deported. Several Tibetan-focused NGOs operating in Lhasa were kicked out, re-establishing in Yunnan, only to face more scrutiny and barriers. Tendol no doubt had to make some compromises in her work, but her continued ‘licence to operate’ seemed to come from her outstanding reputation, key connections and ultimately, from her record of success: she provided a social service for those most in need.

Tendol fled Tibet in 1959 during the suppression of the uprising against Chinese rule, escaping across the Himalayas with her parents and brother. Along the way, during the treacherous journey, her parents and brother died, and at one stage the group of refugees she travelled with left her behind in a remote village. She realised her plight, and ran after the caravan, making it through Bhutan to India, where she was placed in a refugee camp. She didn’t know the names of her parents or brother, nor did she know the date or year of her birth. Her age was only estimated based on the number of baby teeth.

The events of 1959 left tens of thousands dead and saw over 80,000 Tibetans, including the 14th Dalai Lama, flee to India. Tendol was transferred to an orphanage in Dharamsala run by the Dalai Lama’s sister and was chosen to be part of a group of a dozen children to go to Europe in 1963. Before departing to Munich, the Dalai Lama spoke to the children, hoping that one day they would be able to return to help rebuild Tibet and spread happiness, as ‘flowers that would later bloom in Tibet’.

She was adopted by a young German couple, both doctors, and grew up near Konstanz. As well as suffering culture shock and racial abuse for the darker colour of her skin, her less traumatic early memories include being invited to lunch with the mayor of Munich only to be served a bland meal of hominy grits, and being sick from eating too much chocolate at Easter.

In Germany, she met her husband, Losang, a fellow Tibetan refugee who had fled to Switzerland in 1972. They moved to near Zurich in Switzerland (the country with one of the largest populations of Tibetans) and started a family.

When her sons were still young, and when Tendol was 36 years old, she returned to Tibet for the first time in 1990, this time bearing the distinctive bright red Swiss passport with its bold white cross. While other visitors in the capital Lhasa were marvelling at the enchanting Tibetan Buddhist architecture and magnificent high-altitude scenery, she came across two dishevelled children rummaging through trash. She took them to a nearby place to eat, but at first, the manager refused to let them in.

“It was then, for the first time in my life, I realised that the only thing I wanted to do was fight for the rights of these abandoned children,” she said. “I know there are orphans all over the world, but I am Tibetan, and I wanted to help the orphans of Tibet.”

When she described her vision of establishing an orphanage in Tibet to her family and friends back in Switzerland and Germany, many argued it was an impossible dream. After all, she was just a surgical nurse, with little money, up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles to set up a private institution in bureaucratic and xenophobic Communist China.

Haunted by the images of the scavenging Tibetan street-children, which triggered her own memories of being an orphan, she took out her savings and some of her husband’s pension, sought donations and loans from family and friends, and secured some financial support from the Tibet Development Fund. Within three years of that pivotal moment in Lhasa, she returned in 1993 to open Tibet’s first private orphanage at Toelung just outside Lhasa. It started with just six children.

She opened a second orphanage in her husband’s hometown of Shangri-la in 1997, and five years later established a centre in western Sichuan for the children of nomadic herders.

Back in Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France, she gained more support from those inspired by her work. After dividing her time between both worlds she eventually moved to Shangri-la, spending time at the two other facilities and returning to Europe to report on progress and fundraise.

Although the authorities appreciated her work, and would often find or refer children to her care, the local government didn’t provide much in the way of resources. I remember one time Tendol showing me a large screen television gifted to the orphanage by officials, and lamenting the lack of government support for her humanitarian work. In later years, the government was more supportive, offering to fund teachers’ salaries and helping with clothing, food, housing and transportation. Chinese have been among the sponsors and volunteers, though the vast majority of the funds to maintain the operation have always come from abroad.

While some children’s charities gain sympathy and support by showing emotive images of deprived downtrodden children, Tendol didn’t rely on this tactic to attract donors. Instead, the charity showed the children doing activities, playing, and having fun, with some before and after photos showing the transformative for some of the orphans found abandoned on the streets.

Her husband joined her in Shangrila, and one of her sons, who had been a professional ice hockey player in Switzerland, relocated to establish a craft brewery, one of the highest in the world, which also employs adult orphans as part of a training and apprenticeship scheme. Songtsen’s two restaurants also give skills to youngsters in the tourism-oriented economy.

As the children in the orphanage grew older, some went on to tertiary study, vocational training and jobs. One of the former orphans from her Lhasa home became house parent in Shangrila. Tendol once confessed to me the challenges of seeing the children grow into adults. “It was a big change for me, from looking after them as children, to seeing them start careers, get married and have families.”

She hoped that in the family-atmosphere of the homes the children would not only strengthen their identity and independence but also live and work peacefully together. Each child had daily and weekly duties including keeping the premises clean, with teenagers, often seen hanging out laundry, helping the cooks prepare meals or playing for younger residents.

Volunteers were enlisted to help teach the Tibetan language, which was in danger of dying out, and as well as completing homework the residents were given lessons in Tibetan and English. When I lived in Shangrila I often visited, bringing other travellers to play with the kids. Teachers would devise fun games, musicians would teach new songs, and a juggler would entertain the children. When a new performance hall was completed, the interaction could take place indoors, with the children sometimes welcoming visitors with traditional songs and dances. The openness of the orphanage and its standing in the community meant you were as likely to see Tibetan monks or government officials come to study the innovative model as you were overseas sponsor groups or student volunteers.

After Songtsen joined his parents in 2008, an additional grassland property gave the children more space to run around in. The father of the orphanage, Losang, was an accomplished horseman, and a number of the children learned the skills of Tibetan horse riding, with several winning prizes at Shangri-la’s annual horse-riding festival.

Later when I moved to Lijiang, four hour’s drive away, I would still visit, sometimes taking small groups and families. If Tendol was in town and not away at the other orphanages or back in Europe, she was more often than not in a meeting or doing necessary paperwork. But she always made time, getting up from her desk to give me a big hug, sometimes lapsing into German (she admitted to mistaking me for a German-speaker as this was her main working language in liaising with sponsors and donors).

She was proud of all of her children. Around the walls of her office, certificates and prizes awarded her children joined photographs of her Swiss family and birth sons. Tendol had a big family that went beyond her own and her homes. She was also quick to point out that her endeavours weren’t just a one-way exchange, saying she’d learned a lot from the children, and that others might learn how to live in peace from them.

She said at the start she saw the Chinese as enemies. Her children would throw stones at any Chinese. But she was able to turn those enemies into friends and allies, and Chinese have been among those supporting her work.

As she passed retirement age, and Losang turned 70, they gradually closed the orphanages, with the remaining children now under the care of well-run government orphanages, and the couple returned to Switzerland. The Shangri-La Brewery and Soyala restaurant still remain in Shangrila.

Last year Tendol’s achievements were outlined in the German-language book Children of Tibet: The Unbelievable Story of Tendol Gyalzur, published in Switzerland. Publishers Woerterseh would like to release an English translation.

However, the last chapter of Tendol’s life of service in helping 300 children came earlier this month, when she succumbed to coronavirus, and died in Switzerland. The New York Times was one of the media offering a tribute to her life, in its new ‘Those We’ve Lost’ section highlighting the lives of those who have died from COVID-19. In Shangrila, one media outlet praised her inspirational life overcoming many obstacles, poetically declaring, “Love is boundless, and able to turn dry lands into a lush pasture.”

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Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Essay

Can Humanism Survive the Onslaught of Hate

By Dr Ram Puniyani

Lately when India has been undergoing the massive crisis of the Corona epidemic and the offshoots of its mishandling, we have also seen the pandemic being used to demonise a particular community in India. These hate mongers, operating through powerful medium of TV, and widespread social media which also has resorted to Fake news has intensified the Hate against religious minority. In this vast phenomenon, it seemed that all is lost as far as amity between people of different religions is concerned. Despite this broad generalisation one feels happy when one comes to know of few incidents where religious communities come forward to help each other.

The most touching such incidence of amity came forward in the form of story of Amrit and Farooq. They were travelling in a truck from Surat to UP. On way Amrit, a worker, fell sick and most other travellers, asked him to leave the truck in the middle of the night. As he was offloaded, he was not alone. His friend Farooq, another worker, also came down with him. Farooq put the sick Amrit in his lap and cried for help which caught the attention of others and an ambulance landed up to take Amrit to hospital!

In another incidence one worker, who had a differently able child, took the bicycle of another person, leaving a touching letter of apology, saying that he was helpless as he has to travel with his children and there is no other means. Many a people reported it as a theft of the bicycle while the owner of the bicycle, Prabhu Dayal took it in a stride. The one who took away the bicycle was Mohammad Iqbal Khan.

In Sewri Mumbai, Pandurang Ubale, a senior citizen died due to age related and other problems. Due to lock down his immediate relative’s could not organize the funeral. His Muslim neighbours came forward and did his last rites as per the Hindu customs. Similar cases are reported from Bangalore and Rajasthan.

In Tihar jail, the Hindu inmates joined the Muslim in keeping the Roza (fasting). While mosque in Pune, (Azam Campus) and a Church in Manipur has been offered as a place for quarantine. In another lovely incident a Muslim girl takes shelter in a Hindu home and the host gets up early in morning to prepare and give her food for Sehri, a pre morning meal before Rosa begins.

One can go on and on. Surely what is reported must be a tip of the iceberg as many such incidents must be going on unnoticed and un reported. The feeling one was getting after the section of media jumped to communalise spread of Corona, coined words like Corona bomb, Corona jihad, one felt the efforts to break the mutual trust between Hindus and Muslims may succeed totally after all. The deeper inherent humanism of communities has ensured that despite the Hate being manufactured and propagated by communal forces for their political agenda, the centuries old amity and the fraternity promoted by freedom movement will sustain itself somewhere, though it is suffering deep wounds due to the religious nationalists.

India’s culture has been inherently syncretic, synthesising the diversity in various forms. The medieval period which is most demonized, and as many of the sectarian ideologues are presenting it as a period of suffering of Hindus, the fact is that it is during this period that Bhakti tradition flourished and literature in Indian languages progressed during this period.

Even Persian, which was used in the court of kings interacted with Awadhi and produced the Urdu, which is an Indian language. It is in this period when the most popular story of Lord Ram was written by Goswami Tulsidas. Tulsidas himself in his autobiography Kavaitavali writes that he sleeps in a mosque. As far literature is concerned many outstanding Muslim poets wrote wonderful poetry in praise of Hindu Gods, one can remember Rahim and Raskhan’s brilliant outpourings in praise of Lord Shri Krishna.

The food habits, the dress habits and social life emerged with components from these two major religions. The sprinkling of Christianity in different aspects of Indian life is as much visible. It was the symbol of deep interaction of Hindus and Muslims that Muslims followed the Bhakti saints like Kabir and many a Hindus visit the Sufi Saint Dargahs (Shrines). This interactive element is vibrantly visible in Hindi films. Here one can see the outstanding devotional songs in praise of Hindu gods composed by Muslims. One of my favourite’s remains, ‘Man Tarpat hari Darshan ko Aaj’ (My soul is longing to see Hari). This song was written by Shakil Badayuni, composed by Naushad Ali and sung by Mohammad Rafi. The latter must have sung innumerable devotional songs.

Our freedom movement, despite the divisive role of British, the Muslim communalists and Hindu communalists, brought together people of all religions, in the struggle against colonial powers. Many a literary people painted the beautiful interaction of diverse communities. During freedom movement, and in the aftermath as communal violence flared up, the likes of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, and towering above all Mahatma Gandhi tried to douse the fire of violence through exemplary efforts, efforts in which Muslims and Hindus both reciprocated despite the hate spread by the communal forces.

One recalls here the efforts of those friends, who laid down their lives to combat the fire of Hate. In Gujarat the names of Vasant Rao Hegiste and Rajab Ali will always be remembered as they laid down their lives, as a team, to restore sanity. This interaction is very deep and the present Government cannot tolerate the impact of Islamic-Muslim component in our culture. That’s precisely the reason that attempts are on to change the names of cities (Faizabad-Ayodhya, Mughal Sarai-Deen dayal Upadhyay etc).

The deeper interaction of communities is present in all facets of our society. The examples during Corona crisis have again brought to fore the fact that Indian culture is essentially a product of synthesis of different aspects of many religions prevalent here.

Dr Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. Email: ram.puniyani@gmail.com

This article was first published in Countercurrents.

Categories
Essay

Pandemic Paxicide

By Dustin Pickering

Globally, three million children a year die of hunger or malnourishment according to theworldcounts.com. The site also notes the number is dropping steadily. In a May 2019 editorial ,Voice of America reports, “Today, some 821 million people suffer chronically from hunger. And although this is significantly fewer people than the numbers we saw a decade ago, hunger still kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.”

Why then does the coronavirus, which has claimed more lives in the United States than other countries at 91,163 total deaths, offer cause for a global economic shutdown? Belgium hosts the highest rate of mortality in the world from the virus at 16.4 percent. In the United States, Cook County, Illinois records 61,212 cases of the virus as of May 17 according to John Hopkins University of Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center. There are 315,174 total global deaths attributed to COVID-19 so far, with the highest confirmed numbers in the United States. Transmission of the virus, says this Chinese study, is elevated by cooler and less humid climates. This possibly explains why areas such as New England and Chicago are heaviest affected, especially New York City.

This essay does not intend to question the lifestyle of American citizens or the policies of the global leadership. However, it may take that tone but I ask that you dig deeper. I propose a question to the reader: why does a mutation of the COVID bug command so much initiative from us whereas global hunger does not seem too much of a concern? How long before the equitable world we all wish to see appears before us?

Already the Coronavirus lockdown has an economic cost reported at BBC here. We are seeing oil prices in the negative in the USA, stock values declining, looming recessions worldwide, and massive unemployment due to the response. Industry is slowing in China where the virus is said to have originated. All in all, we are seeing global political conflicts ranging from who controls the narrative to what cure will work best while political leaders tell citizens “business as usual”, or in contrast turn to authoritarian measures. Richard Hoftstader writes of the paranoid leader in “The Paranoid Style of American Politics”, “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

In this work on social psychology, Hoftstader further writes: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.” Clearly the authoritarian and paranoid styles merge in conspiratorial logic. The Other must face blame, ostracisation, or anything to distract the populace. The paranoid leader in authoritarian style pins the fearful onto the opposition; it is that fear which he or she embodies in this action that makes the leader effective to others.

Authoritarians thrive on fear, hostility, and incomprehensibility so it is no wonder they are cropping up during these emotionally heated times. Regardless of whether or not coronavirus is indeed “a little flu” , Brazil’s president makes himself the central issue. He is the victim of a conspiracy. Even President Trump in the United States practices better diplomacy — he suggests that he has worked with governors in all the states, of both parties, and they are working together. He also notes in an April press conference that the pandemic shows why the United States must be an ‘independent nation’.

In spite of the media’s attempts at Paxicide and character assassination, the Global Happiness Report tells us that in 2020 more than half the world’s citizens are in urban areas and that “Cities are economic powerhouses: more than 80 percent of worldwide GDP is generated within their boundaries. They allow for an efficient division of labour, bringing with them agglomeration and productivity benefits, new ideas and innovations, and hence higher incomes and living standards.”

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s praise of the bourgeoisie speaks for itself: “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”

What is this pandemic and what is the panic around it? Returning to Hoftstader’s comments on the paranoid style, it seems the establishment has pruned and developed it. As the United States faces the worst unemployment rate in history since the Great Depression, and a study predicts a possible extra 75,000 deaths due to despair from the conditions imposed by the virus, there is no easy way to measure the economic costs of this pandemic.

Even now, Chinese officials say the virus may be changing as new cases show symptoms much later, and take longer to test negative. No one knows what the future harbors. The uncertainty itself is torturous as the Well Being Trust and The Robert Graham Center study relates its reasons for calculating higher numbers of deaths of despair, “unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment, mandated social isolation for months and possible residual isolation for years, and uncertainty caused by the sudden emergence of a novel, previously unknown microbe.”

The human is a social animal. Imposing bizarre restrictions on our social lives seems unnatural, especially under conditions we cannot assess.

There are also socioeconomic factors that are emerging in this crisis. The chart shows that workers with less than high school education are suffering the highest rates of unemployment at 21.2 percent, and education level seems to even further reflect on one’s employment according to the chart. Perhaps it is time for a radical restructuring of the economy and tax policy, which may be possible suggests an article in MIT Technology Review. It’s not quite what you expect, however. For instance the article tells the reader that “The tax policy that the AI Economist came up with is a little unusual. Unlike most existing policies, which are either progressive (that is, higher earners are taxed more) or regressive (higher earners are taxed less), the AI’s policy cobbled together aspects of both, applying the highest tax rates to rich and poor and the lowest to middle-income workers. Like many solutions that AIs come up with—such as some of AlphaZero’s game-winning moves—the result appears counterintuitive and not something that a human might have devised. But its impact on the economy led to a smaller gap between rich and poor.”

Let’s not confuse this with flat rate or regressive tax rates that countries like Estonia or Russia used to build capitalist markets. We have capitalist markets in the United States, and do not need to build them. But will we have markets as rich and sturdy post-COVID? The uncertainty is mind-boggling, and the propaganda regarding the virus is frightening.

Janet Yellen of the Brookings Institute tells CNBC that GDP in the United States may be down 30 percent in the second quarter due to the virus. She said, “This is a huge, unprecedented, devastating hit, and my hope is that we will get back to business as quickly as possible.” This interview took place in April 2020. The first quarter already saw a drop of 4.8 percent according to the BEA.

According to a March 2020 Bloomberg article, China’s GDP is at -20 percent in Q1. The article quotes Michelle Lam, a greater China economist at Societe Generale SA in Hong Kong, “We expect infrastructure stimulus to be much stepped up to support aggregate demand and tax and fee cuts to cushion the COVID-19 shock, especially now external demand will be much dampened by the global pandemic.”

President Trump is also calling on infrastructure development, as reported in this CNBC article. When he first entered office, he wanted a two trillion dollar infrastructure package while interest rates were at zero but the Fed upped the rates.

Perhaps, the pandemic paxicide is also bringing some agreement.

The fact is we will not know what COVID-19’s inception into the world will bring until the future arrives. Have we seen any white horses yet? Or is the garbage mounting in sea? As government spending escalates, I think it is safe to assume we are running a course only our imaginations can dream. Meanwhile, migrant workers in India continue to suffer while people use their plight to further their reputations. In the USA, as mentioned we see a downward spiral in the future of blue-collar workers.

It is time we consider something new. While the entire system collapses, we must rebuild because if the future isn’t certain, one thing is: we must make the future. Possibilities are already emerging for us, such as this initiative in Portland.

“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson who also wrote “Will there really be a ‘Morning’?” Perhaps there will be. A more equitable world stands before us if we wish to make it.

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.