31 October 2008

Local (inter)nationalisms and a Call to Ambassadorosity

I usually shun ambassadorial roles or aspirations. But in trying to prepare lizzie b* for our trip to Kolkata in December, I’ve been searching for short readings and films that may ready her for what's in store and help her appreciate the history embedded in the city we'll be wandering around.

This morning, I finally got around to reading a wonderful little essay I've had bookmarked over at Himal Southasian. It’s an evocative piece by Rangan Chakravarti on history, the local and the global, nationalisms and internationalisms. Here’s a lengthy excerpt, though you really should read the whole thing:
I am writing the history of my nation, Bejoygarh. It is a nation that developed in a colony established by my forefathers and my foremothers…

What defines a nation? And let me give the answer: Bejoygarh had it all. We had a boundary. To the west was Arabinda Nagar, to the south Pallisree, to the east Bidyasagar Colony – these were all colonies like us, but they were not us. We had our own territory and our own community. It was not imagined like some new thinkers seem to think. In fact, I am nobody, but I would still like to make this point. These big nations are a conspiracy of the big states. In our Nation of Bejoygarh, everyone knew every other member of the community. And that is how nations should be. Who needs a big state? Who needs a big nation? Nobody. Only people who make bombs, and those who want to wield power with police and soldiers. My own history will prove that to you. And I shall be coming to that very soon.

In our nation we also had wars with other nations. But all of them were on the football ground. Do not come to tell me that football patriotism began with the televising of World Cups. Nor should it be traced to Brazil alone. I still clearly remember the patriotic passion that each match between the Bejoygarh Cultural Association and Pallisree Nabarun would generate. We, the nationals of Bejoygarh, would cheer our team, and the nationals of Pallisree would cheer theirs. This is how we defined national supremacy. Not by bombing Iraq or occupying Czech territory.

Today, much is being said about the global and the local. They say that the local is getting directly linked to the global, through global media; they say the borders have vanished. I listen and I laugh. Where were these people when Valentina Tereskova, the woman astronaut from the USSR, and Yuri Gagarin came to Bejoygarh? How was the local then distant from the global if we had Hillary Vila from Ghana coming and giving lectures in our maidan? How is it then that the first film I ever saw was Nanook of the North? I think I saw it in 1964.

My god, this reminds me of the time my father organised some celebrations for Africa Day. We had called Hilary Vila, who was then a student at Calcutta University. In those days, lots of African students used to come from socialist-bloc countries to study here. Now only footballers come, I think. Anyway, the function was organised and we were all tense with excitement. I had memorised Tagore’s famous poem, “Africa”...
I mean it. Read the rest of the essay. It's funny, smart and an amazing condensed history in the form of "found fiction."

For lizzie b (and anyone else interested), I’m also suggesting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay “Adda: A History of Sociality” from Provincializing Europe and I’m ordering a collection of Amitav Ghosh’s essays, mainly because I’ve wanted to finish his article “The March of the Novel Through History” for some time now after I started reading it in a bookstore this summer. We've also just watched Satyajit Ray’s Nayak earlier this month.

But what do I know? I’ve been to Kolkata only once in the past decade, I grew up in the States and I’m an Americanist by training. They really shouldn't even let me outside, the odor of my putrid provincialism is so disgusting.

So who’s got better ideas?
Think short things to read between a full-time job and grad school at night. Or things to watch that are stimulating enough that one won’t zonk out since one's making due on five-six hours of sleep.


*Full disclosure/Confession: The request is partially for lizzie b, but also for me. I’m always game for some good pre-trip prep reading.

Postscript: Read Vijay Prashad's essay on McCain/Palin's odious attempt to smear Rashid Khalidi. This blatant appeal to racism and stupidity by the Republican Party, along with others, is pathetic.


lizzie b said...

Btw, I am currently reading Calcutta by Geoffrey Moorhouse, from 1972, and enjoying. I would love to read/watch some things that bring us closer to the present day, as well.

Buster said...

And how could you not enjoy Mr. Moorhouse's book when he drops gems such as these:

You will fall into step behind a pair of Sikhs who are holding hands or who, if they are not doing that, are each for some unfathomably Sikh reason cradling their testicles in one careful palm as though they were afraid these might suddenly drop off and go rolling down Chowringhee. There will be beggars, of course, for very soon the Grand Hotel will appear and already a number of lobster-coloured Westerners like yourself will be nervously making their way up from its direction. Small boys will be trailing them like puppies...

("Migrants," p. 170)


Buster said...

From rootlesscosmo, who tells me that comments may be on the fritz. If you have problems with comments, email to me at address in the profile. Here's RC:

I tried to leave a comment on your latest blog post but something weird happened--I dunno. Anyway it was an irrelevant list of movie titles (in reply to your request for "something to watch")--no connection to Kolkata, except possibly one of them, but all favorites of mine.

The exception is "Privates on Parade," which is, believe it or not, an anti-colonialist, pro-queer, Brechtian musical comedy set in the Malayan "Emergency" about 1952, with a cast that includes John Cleese who is *not* the funniest person on screen. Not to be missed.

The other titles, all (like "Privates") available from Netflix, are:

Body Heat
Trouble in Paradise
Born to Kill
Ace in the Hole (the 1951 Billy Wilder)
Nightmare Alley
The Late Show
Odds Against Tomorrow

Yeah, I've got a soft spot for flm noir, but the ones on this list are all quirky examples of the genre; "Odds" is explicitly anti-racist (the point is hammered home in the last scene), written by the blacklisted Abe Polonsky and released under the "front" name John O. Killens (a lefty, but not blacklisted) and directed (like "Born to Kill," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "West Side Story," and "The Sound of Music," incredibly) by Robert Wise. And "Late Show" has a brilliant performance by Lily Tomlin and fine work by the whole cast including Eugene Roche as a fence and William H. Macy--the other Bill Macy--as an LA hustler. Great stuff, guaranteed to keep your interest but not cause you any loss of healthful sleep. Enjoy.

nadia said...

The counterpunch article is way off about Khalidi being a radical, he's an activist yeah but I don't think anyone familiar with him would consider him remotely radical. Hell even Daniel Pipes seems to call him a moderate, in his own sick way.

Now what someone like Ali Abunimah has to say, usually crawls right up people's asses.

Buster said...


I see your point that Khalidi certainly does not represent the far left position on Palestine/Israel and US foreign policy in the Middle East. But Vijay only makes the claim that Khalidi is a radical in "a different way"--a moderate, whose speeches and writing are marked by intellectualism, but who actually brings up the problem of American Empire (and uses its name) and has the audacity to acknowledge Palestinian rights and suffering.

What I liked about the piece is that it absolutely did not partake in this game we have been called to watch this campaign season: the McCarthyite politics of denial. What Vijay is trying to get at here, if I understand him, is that, sure, Obama has learned from the experiences and intellectual production of radicals from the South Side to Hyde Park to Indonesia (this last stop being rather important to the essay as it brings up the spectre of the violent suppression of radicalism). The point, as I take it, is that one should NOT have to deny this to be a viable candidate for office. You shouldn't have to disown ACORN, throw Khalidi under the bus and pretend like all you know about social justice you learned in kindergarten (rather than college days of thumbing through Fanon).

Perhaps Vijay stretches Khalidi's claim to radicalism a little to make this point. But the point, in my opinion, is incredibly important for those who are thinking about what to do AFTER the Obama victory and how to pressure him and get him to listen to those better angels. How we work to become a relevant voice on the political spectrum and not detritus to be swept away like so much bad rubbish littering the streets with out silly signs about empire and war.

Buster said...

"out" should be "our" in that last sentence.

nadia said...

I see where you are going with all that but now I have to open the can of worms anyways of what equals radical with regards to the Israeli/Palestinian question, cause there's a number of ways you can define the spectrum.
a)Palestinian activists that are almost totally marginalized from the discourse, where he's a rabid moderate.
b)The spectrum of opinion in the field in which he's an expert.
c)The spectrum of opinion in the int'l community, which if you go by UN resolutions is essentially split opinion between the US and Israel and the rest of the world.

In the sense of discourse in the mainstream media in the US, you're right he's going to be seen as a radical, just as any criticism of Israel is going to. But I think Juan Cole and others have a point that that has as much (or more) to do with his Palestinian-ness as it does his views, which are moderate by the standards of all the spectrums I just outlined IMO(and which CNN et al are pretty ignorant of.) Guy has always advocated a 2 state solution (popular in the Clinton era-on the decline now) and criticized Palestinian leadership for not being compromizing enough(see his "liberation deferred" in the Nation.)

I get that that is not the core point of the article, but I just have to nitpick:)

nadia said...

As for what the article does argue, I personally always saw Obama as a centrist and wasn't expecting anything more.
Abunimah touched on how to make themselves a force in politics as well at the end of his article (with reference to discourse on US policy on Israel/Palestine which has a much, much steeper hill to climb than say, changing something like the patriot act), or from a non radical POV there's the student in the NYT article said "he should have said 'yeah I know him, I'd like to know more experts on the Mid East cause it's important for foreign policy.'"

I'm sure you won't be surprised there's been a lot of debate over how he's been handling the secret muslim thing(and how Colin Powell handled it way better than he did.)

In the specific case of the Khalidi accusation I think he's right to outright dismiss it as it's about a specific accusation of him being tied to the PLO that's completely baseless and ridiculous. In the long term though this really isn't something that's going to go away and he's going to have to do a non halfassed job of tackling it.

The Bush administration was very closely tied to people that were radicals, so obviously it's possible, and more possible for him the bigger a mandate he wins on Tuesday(if at all.) I'm just not totally sure to expect that he would want to. But again here, I would question what should be considered a radical. I mean someone like Juan Cole is probably considered to the far left end of the political spectrum and doesnt get interviewed on tv outside of PBS, but he advises the US government by virtue of him being an expert.