Set this flag on fire!

July 1st, 2015


IMAGE/South Carolina’s Information Highway

(A version of this article ran in the April 2002 edition of CounterPunch magazine.)

For the last 53 years, the state of South Carolina has flown the Confederate flag above the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia, a noxious emblem of the state government’s unremitting animus toward civil rights laws and desegregation.

The flag was hoisted in 1962 as a show of defiance against the Supreme Court and the Civil Rights movement. It soon became a war banner for the segregationist minions marshaled behind Strom Thurmond’s Southern Manifesto. The flag has remained a shameful glorification of the ante-bellum, slave-holding South and a daily blight for South Carolina’s black population ever since.

Recall that South Carolina was not only the ignition point for the Civil War, but the Wal-Mart of the slave trade. Many of the black Africans brought to South Carolina as slaves for the plantation owners were sent into the swampy rice fields, which proved to be malarial death camps, where people perished in nearly unimaginable numbers. Nearly two-thirds of the black children in the rice plantations perished before reaching the age of sixteen.

Black Africans who weren’t forced into the rice and cotton fields of South Carolina (the Carolina planters exhibited a peculiar preference for blacks from Senegambia and present-day Ghana) were sold in Charleston’s slave market to plantation owners from across the South. These brokers of human beings ended up making millions and enjoying seats as legislators in the statehouse, where they drafted laws to protect their “property.” When people talk about the flag as a proud symbol of the state’s heritage that’s the inescapable and horrific background.

For the past few of years, the NAACP and local civic rights organizers, including CounterPunch writer Kevin Alexander Gray (click here to read Gray’s bracing history of the battle over the flag), have led a campaign to compel the removal of the flag from atop the capitol building and have it entombed in a display case in a nearby museum, which houses artifacts from what is quaintly referred to in Carolina as “the war between the states”.

Counterpunch for more

In combustible, Muslim Karachi, a Christian erects a 140-foot cross

July 1st, 2015


Parvez Henry Gill, a devout Christian, is building a 140-foot cross in Karachi, Pakistan. Christians are a tiny minority in mostly Muslim Pakistan and are sometimes targeted in violent attacks. Gill says he has received many threats, but calls the cross a “symbol of peace.” PHOTO/Phil Reeves/NPR

Eighteen months have elapsed since Parvez Henry Gill first began tackling one of the more unusual and sensitive assignments that anyone, anywhere, is ever likely to receive.

Now he is close to completing the task: the construction of a 140-foot tall Christian cross in the middle of Karachi, the business capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
A woman is carried into the hospital after being injured when two suicide bombers attacked a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Sunday.

Wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, the cross juts into the sky above this turbulent port city, where Sunni Islamist militants frequently target religious minorities — usually Shia Muslims, but sometimes Christians, too.

Gill says the order to embark upon this ambitious project came from on high — from God, in fact, who encouraged him to build the cross as a way of raising the spirits of Pakistan’s downtrodden Christian minority.

“The idea came from God in a dream,” explained Gill, 58, a lifelong devout Christian, as he stood proudly beside his cross, during a typically steamy June afternoon on the edge of the Arabian Sea. “I promised God I will build a cross soon,” he said.

He was as good as his word.

Built In A Cemetery

Gill started building his cross in December 2013, planting it just inside the gate of Karachi’s largest Christian cemetery, where many hundreds lie beneath white marble gravestones, including English colonialists from the former British Empire.

The cross dominates the immediate neighborhood, dwarfing the scruffy homes and alleys around the edge of the cemetery and the huge billboards emblazoned with burgers and mobile phones along the highway running past the cemetery gates.

It is the same height as a high-rise apartment block and is the highest Christian cross in Asia, according to Gill.

This addition to Karachi’s skyline is built from concrete, steel and iron, and stands on 20-foot deep foundations.

Gill laughs at the suggestion that this makes his cross bulletproof. It is not meant “as a challenge to anyone,” he says. It is simply a “symbol of peace and hope for Christians who are worried and hopeless.”

Gill is happy to talk about why he’s building his cross, but he imparts little personal information.

He says he’s a businessman, who, with his family, is bankrolling the construction of the cross. He declines to reveal much more than that, apparently because of security concerns. There have been “so many threats,” he remarks.

Such is the sensitivity and fear that surround the issue of religion in Pakistan that initially Gill decided not to tell his Muslim laborers what they were building. They only realized it was a giant Christian cross when it began to look like one. More than 20 of them promptly downed their tools and walked off the job.

No such concerns seem to trouble a knot of Muslim men, who are whiling away the day in a nearby alley, smoking and gossiping. For many months, they’ve been watching the cross steadily rising higher and higher, yet they insist they have no grievances with their Christian neighbors.

“It’s their religion. It’s in their graveyard. We have no problem with it,” says Salman Shareef, an off-duty policeman, while others nod in agreement.

National Public Radio for more

(Thanks to reader)

‘Leave God out of it’

July 1st, 2015


Famous 13th century West Asian humorist Mullah Nasiruddin IMAGE/Square One Explorations

From Copenhagen and Paris to Mumbai and Kolkata, satirists and cartoonists have become targets of bigoted followers of both religious gods (who choose to murder them) and political gods (who put them behind bars). One is reminded of the story of the famous 13th century West Asian humorist Mullah Nasiruddin, who went to a tailor to order a shirt, and the latter promised to deliver it within a week, adding the rider, “God willing!” After several weeks, having listened to the same promise—along with the same rider—a disappointed Nasiruddin finally asked the tailor: “How long will it take, if we leave God out of it?” Nasiruddin’s question, seemingly innocuous, but as a metaphor, tears up the vast canopy of religious hypocrisy that covers our socio-economic practices.

In today’s context, it poses the problem at two levels—(i) the uneasy relationship between the exploitation of popular belief in religious authority (“God willing”) by opportunist charlatans on the one hand, and the quotidian needs of the common people (a shirt, for instance) of which they are deprived on that religious plea, on the other; and (ii) the alliance of religious authority and the modern state, with its paraphernalia of mini gods—politicians, bureaucrats, judges, businessmen, contractors, mafia dons, among others—who also keep reassuring the Nasiruddins of today with the same old promises in the name of some superior authority while denying them their basic needs.

Ironically enough, Nasiruddin’s humorous quip, about keeping God out, predates the current debate over the concept of secularism as keeping all forms of religion separate from civic and political governance. While a breed of Indian politicians and intellectuals suggests that it is a Western idea which is unsuitable for the East, it was actually an Eastern folk humorist who came up with the idea of “leaving God” out of our daily transactions. By expressing his personal scepticism, Nasiruddin in a sense, forewarned us about the conflict that is rending apart our world today over the question of separation of religion from state polity. Quite a large number of people (whether the mutually feuding Shia–Sunni militant groups among the Islamic communities in West Asia and Pakistan, or the Zionists in Israel, or the Hindu fascist organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal in India) subscribe to the belief that their respective gods and religious practices must determine state policies. However outrageous and inhuman such practices may be (like the Islamic Sharia laws of punishment, or the Hindu rules on untouchability and pollution), anyone opposing or violating them (even from within their own communities) are targeted by these fanatics.

Humour in Islamic and Hindu Cultures

At this stage of the discussion, it may be relevant to recall the role of humour in both Islamic and Hindu cultural traditions. To start with, it is necessary to disabuse Muslim believers of the idea that their Prophet was a scowling killjoy—an image which has been meticulously advertised by the mullahs. The idea has been reinforced in the Muslim psyche by the prudish and censorious edicts of the Sunni clergy of Saudi Arabia, and the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran. During Prophet Muhammad’s times, from contemporary sources like reminiscences of his sahabas (companions), the Hadith and other texts, it appears that the early Islamic society was easy-going and far removed from the narrow-mindedness and murderous morbidity that prevail over it today.

Muhammad himself cracked jokes with his sahabas and wife Aisha—often at his own expense. When asked by his companions why he did this, he said: “But I only tell the truth.” In other words, the truth can often be expressed through jokes which can be easily comprehended by the common people. After all, the Quran said: “That is He who granted Laughter and Tears.” As Islam granted its followers this right to laugh, the later disciples of Muhammad made innovative use of it to lampoon the Muslim clergy (who usurped the right to interpret the Hadith in the name of the Prophet), and mocked self-righteous Islamic institutions and disciplines.

One such humorist was Ash’ab, a singer and entertainer who lived in Medina in the eighth century, and whose jokes were later collected in the form of a text in the 10th century. In one of his jokes, he disparaged a cleric who claimed that the Prophet had defined only two qualities in human beings which would make them God’s chosen friends. When asked what these two qualities were, Ash’ab replied that the cleric had forgotten one, and he himself had forgotten the other!

Economic & Political Weekly for more

via South Asia Citizens Web

The boundaries of taste

June 30th, 2015


Stephen Pearson, Wings of Love, 1972. © Stephen Pearson IMAGE/Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow & Son Ltd., London

In our moment of instant assessment and “if you like this, you’ll like that” algorithms, it would seem that we’re approaching the end of taste. As our muscle for cultivating taste weakens, and globalization thrives, the lines demarcating good and bad appear increasingly fluid, and therefore changeable, even irrelevant. It’s a democratizing notion, and a seductive one. But as you’ll read in the Boundaries of Taste, the second of this year’s four special inquiries into borderlines factual and figurative, it’s also fallible. Taste boundaries, whether enforced or imagined, inform how the world behaves. And like much of today’s flavor of racism or classism, taste derives power from its implicitness.

So where does taste live? Guernica’s contributors find it emerges in the in-between—along the spectrum of emotion and intellect, that nebulous space between love and what we think we love, primal pleasure and learned appreciation, gut revulsion and reasoned dismissal. Consciously or not (and now more than ever) taste is a performance, a projection of our selves into the world—or a set of actions, symbols, and vocabularies by which we assess others. Whether on Pinterest or at a farmers’ market, through celebrity-endorsed sneakers or lit-mag tote bags, taste is reified by the image it makes.

But more urgently, taste is a potent organizing principal, our insidious means to decide who we’re with and who we’re against, who belongs and who doesn’t—and further, to cloak political and structural boundaries under the softening light of subjectivity. Taste, as many of the pieces in this issue insist, does not live autonomously, superficially, within each of us. Instead, it emanates outward—a tool of the powerful, wielded to regulate our differences.

Writing about New Orleans funeral customs, in which the deceased are embalmed in lifelike poses and mourners dance passionately in jazz processions, C. Morgan Babst probes the privilege inherent in deeming something distasteful. “Necessity sometimes overrides propriety” in a community that’s seen “slavery and yellow fever, a murder rate north of Medellin’s, a hundred-year flood.” Invoking the bodies lost or left to rot after Hurricane Katrina, she argues: “If…we have brought an unmoving corpse into the middle of our dancing, it is not out of morbidity or numbness, but because the onrushing fact of our disappearance only brings our living into focus.”

Sonia Faleiro also examines how social customs collide with conceptions of correctness. She profiles Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, who enraged worshipers after tracing a Christ statue dripping so-called “tears of God” to a sewage leak. Facing death threats and a blasphemy charge, he fled to Finland, where he remains to this day, left to contemplate from afar the power of offense in his homeland.

Guernica for more

Godmen and libel

June 30th, 2015


Karsandas Mulji, editor of “Satya Prakash”

It is not possible for us, in this day and age, to imagine the passions whipped up a century and a half ago by the Maharaj libel case. A godman brought a libel suit against a newspaper for exposing his sexual exploitation of female devotees. The charges (of sexual exploitation) were proved true; but, in the process, the fact that he had venereal disease was also exposed in court.

The case is noteworthy for reasons more than one. First, the stature of the two English judges and their judicial discipline. Their judgments were brief and to the point. They were at pains to distinguish between the nobility of the great religion of Hinduism and its perversion by the godman.

It is not realised that in the Shah Bano case, Justice Y.V. Chandrachud went out of his way to make a reference to Prophet Muhammad which was as irrelevant as it was offensive. Would he have done so with regard to the founder of any other faith? Judgments of the Supreme Court are prolix with embellishments that that add little to clarity or elegance. Our judges want to be loved by the public.

Sausse and Arnould heard the libel case; even Homer nods. Vacha erroneously writes that the case was “tried before Sir Joseph Arnould”. He adds: “The Plaintiff in the suit was the head of the Vallabhacharya sect of the Vaishnavas. The defendant was one Karsandas Mulji, who edited a newspaper in which he wrote a number of articles, exposing the abuses that, according to him, prevailed in the Vallabhacharya sect. It seems that something akin to what was known in Roman Law as jus primae notis was claimed by or accorded to the religious heads of the sect; and their blind votaries, in their ignorance and credulity, sacrificed young women at the altar of a foul superstition. The articles created a great stir in the community, and threw the parasites of their temples, and the worshippers of the ‘holy’ religious head, into consternation and fury. The hold of spiritual superstitions was so strong upon ignorant people in those days that it demanded great courage and determination to expose and denounce practices which, if essentially lewd and repulsive, were sacrosanct in the eyes of the ignorant and orthodox classes. Karsandas braved public odium, and persisted in his course in the face of threats and persecution. The result was that the head priest, the subject of the attacks, sought legal redress.

“He filed a suit for defamation against Karsandas. In doing so, he threw himself unwittingly into the arms of an enlightened court, and a fierce and fearless advocate. Karsandas was lucky in securing for his defence the services of T.C. Anstey. Anstey’s brain was inflamed by the tale of trickery, fraud, and filth, which was placed before him; and he came to court determined to expose the foul practices, and crush a dangerous delusion. Few could withstand the scathing and relentless cross-examination of Anstey—least of all anybody with a dark and dubious record. …

“The story goes that as Anstey entered the court-room on the first day of the trial, he brushed past a man who was standing there, and his gown touched the man. The man shouted in vernacular, ‘do not contaminate me with your touch.’ Anstey turned round and asked what the man was saying. He was told that it was the plaintiff; and ‘His Holiness’ felt contaminated by the touch of an alien. Anstey retorted fiercely, ‘Tell the foul beast that I won’t touch him with a pair of tongs’.”
Godman’s disease

Dr Bhau Dajee was a graduate of the Grant Medical College, and a private practitioner. “I am a prizeman of the Elphinstone College. I won a prize on the best essay on female infanticide in Kathiawar. I was a member of the late Board Education, and am a Fellow of the Bombay University. I am a member of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the Bombay Geographical Society and several others. There is a female school permanently endowed in my name. I am a Shenvi Brahmin, and not a member of the Vallabhacharya sect. I have obtained a diploma of the Grant Medical College. I have taken a particular interest in the history and antiquities of my country. My practice extends amongst all classes of the natives, and I was the first graduate employed by the Maharajas of Bombay. I know the plaintiff, whom I first saw about a year and a half ago, once or twice professionally.

“Dr Bhau continued: The disease was syphilis, which is commonly known as the venereal disease. I did not treat him for it, he mentioned to me that he was suffering from ‘chandee’, and would send a man to me the following day. ‘Chandee’ literally means chancre, an ulcer.”

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Politics of the possible: The Sanders crusade

June 30th, 2015


If a psychic had predicted in the 1970s that Bernie Sanders would someday stand on the White House lawn in support of an embattled Democratic President, or become a Democrat himself, people who knew him would have considered it a poor joke. Sanders would have called it “totally outrageous.”

But the idea that he would one day run for president? Now, that was a pretty safe bet. The real questions were when and how.

From the start, Sanders had his eye on one high office or another. In January 1972, three years after moving to Vermont, he waged his first race for the US Senate. In a special election to replace deceased “native son” Winston Prouty, he got 2 percent of the vote as a Liberty Union Party candidate. Undaunted, he represented the state’s newest “third party” party again that fall, this time as its candidate for governor.

For Sanders, a key moment in that race came in September when he escorted Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous and controversial pediatrician, during a Vermont visit. At the time Spock was running for President as the People’s Party candidate.

In two other statewide campaigns over the next four years, Sanders focused a righteous anger and his growing campaign abilities on monopoly capitalism, the superrich and their two henchmen – the major political parties. Running to replace retiring political icon George Aiken in 1974, he won his first union endorsements, but still only 4 percent of the vote. That race put Patrick Leahy, a young Chittenden County State’s Attorney, in the Senate.

Debating Republican businessman Richard Snelling and his Democratic opponent, Employment Commissioner Stella Hackel, on public television in 1976 in the race for governor, Sanders accused both of avoiding the real issues; his list included public ownership of utilities, doubling the corporate income tax, and eliminating the income tax for those earning less than $10,000. Decades before the Occupy movement, he foreshadowed its call: “the people of the State of Vermont have got to get off their knees and have got to stand up to the 2 or 3 percent who control the money.”

A year later, however, he sounded frustrated when announcing his resignation from Liberty Union. “Sad and tragic” was how he saw the five-year old party, yet offered little advice or encouragement before dropping out of sight. “I don’t know about my future,” he admitted. Despite decent press coverage, union endorsements, and performing well in debates, he couldn’t come close to winning.

But two decades later, only hours after the US House of Representatives voted to impeach a President for the second time in the nation’s history, there was Sanders, now a former Burlington mayor and Vermont’s only Congressman, lined up with Democratic notables behind Bill Clinton outside the White House. Ten years after that he backed Barack Obama for President from a seat in the US Senate. By then, he had effectively neutralized any Democratic opposition in Vermont – without officially joining the party.

Toward Freedom for more

Climate change: The Pope’s encyclical and the dominion of religion

June 29th, 2015


IMAGE/John Cook

The thinking person, Walter Benjamin had occasion to remark, appears to experience crisis at every juncture of her or his life.  How can this not be so if one were to experience the pain of someone else as one’s own?  How can this not be so when, amidst growing stockpiles of food in many countries, millions continue to suffer from malnutrition, and the lengthening shadows of poverty give lie to the pious promises and pompous proclamations by the world’s leaders over the last several decades that humanity is determined to achieve victory in its quest to eradicate poverty?  With war, violence, disease, and the myriad manifestations of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination which man’s ingenuity has wrought all around us, how might a person not be experiencing crisis?  One Foundation after another—whether it be named after Bill and Melinda Gates, the Clintons, Ford, Rockefeller, or other tycoons—has claimed to have helped “millions” of people around the world, but the crises appear to be multiplying.

There is, yet, a larger crisis that engulfs us all, even those who are sheltered from the cruel afflictions to which a good portion of humankind is still subject, especially in the global South.  Pope Francis, singularly among “world leaders”, has dared to address the “crisis” that overwhelms all others in his recently released encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), which poignantly sets the tone for a conversation that ought to engage the entire world with its declaration at the outset that the subject of his letter is “the care for our common home”.  Over the last few years, a consensus has slowly been emerging among members of the scientific community that climate change is presently taking place at a rate which is unprecedented in comparison with the natural climate change cycles that have characterized our earth in the course of the last half a million years; moreover, as successive Assessment Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have affirmed, global warming is, to an overwhelming degree, the consequence of human activity.  IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) suggested that scientists were reasonably certain in their finding that global warming had been produced by the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere owing to the massive burning of fossil fuels, the industrialized use of animal stocks, and significant changes in land use.

Lal Salaam for more

Pluto-bound probe faces its toughest task: finding Pluto

June 29th, 2015


If all goes well, the New Horizons spacecraft will swing by Pluto and its moon Charon on 14 July PHOTO/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

New Horizons nears dwarf planet whose full orbit has never been mapped.

Some 4.7 billion kilometres from Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft is heading for a historic rendezvous with Pluto. To achieve this, it will need to hit a very small target: an imaginary rectangle in space measuring just 100 by 150 kilometres.

Mission navigators need to put New Horizons precisely in that area to ensure that the spacecraft can make all planned science observations during its 14 July fly-by of Pluto — the first ever of that distant dwarf planet.

For now, the spacecraft is on target. But getting to Pluto is one of the hardest tasks in interplanetary navigation, and crucial decisions will be made in the next week and a half. The last chance to change the spacecraft’s flight path comes on 4 July.

Because astronomers discovered the dwarf planet in 1930, they have seen only part of its 248-year path around the Sun, and they don’t know exactly where Pluto is. And New Horizons is so far from Earth that it takes 9 hours to send and receive a signal, making the spacecraft hard to direct in real time.

Nature for more

NSA spying on France, time for America´s Mea Culpa

June 29th, 2015


French President François Hollande welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry PHOTO/The Daily Beast

We can’t really say we’re surprised. Ever since Edward Snowden started to reveal the worldwide scope of the American intelligence services’ electronic surveillance and private data collection two years ago, ever since we were told that this mass spying went as far as snooping on German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel’s personal phone, ever since we learned that the ultimate refinement consisted in having the German secret services spy on Airbus on behalf of the Americans, hardly anything can truly surprise us.

Sooner or later, it was going to be confirmed that the Elysée Presidential Palace and French officials were also being spied on by the United States. And with the Wikileaks revelations just published in the Libération newspaper and Mediapart website, this has now become reality.

Should we then just accept it? We can’t, of course. Sure, we need to avoid the trap of naivety. Intelligence plays a crucial part in the fight against terrorism. The French government itself has just pushed forward with far-reaching legislation to reinforce its surveillance powers, even though some aspects of that bill were strongly opposed by privacy advocates. In this fight, French and European services need to cooperate with the Americans, and they need to be able to continue doing so, in accordance with the law.

Where is Washington’s mea culpa?

But that’s not what this post-9/11 NSA folly is about. Snooping on Angela Merkel or François Hollande, or indeed on Airbus or environment advisers, has nothing whatsoever to do with fighting terrorism. It does however say a lot about the surge of a monstrous machine with almost unlimited technological might that considers itself to be above all control, be it from the justice, political and democratic systems.

It’s a very worrying fact that such a machine is allowed to operate inside such a formidable power as the United States. Of course, we would like to know whether these excesses are due to the services’ being drunk on their infinite capabilities and left on autopilot mode, or whether they stem from specific orders at the highest level.

World Crunch & Le Monde Diplomatique for more

Weekend Edition

June 26th, 2015