News and Features
In their 1996 book The Next War, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweitzer concoct some troubling scenarios they imagine could confront the United States. One is with Mexico: It's 1999, and a radical nationalist comes to power with the assistance of drug traffickers, resulting in a flood of migrants and drugs across the US boundary. In response, the Pentagon sends 60,000 troops to the border region. Tensions between the two countries mount over the next few years, leading to a full-scale US invasion of Mexico that restores law and order within six months. In constructing this nightmare scenario, the authors draw on a long history of depicting undesired immigrants as invading hordes and the international boundary as a line of defense. Peter Andreas recounts this hawkish vision in his provocative and highly persuasive Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide. He argues that predictions of an inevitable march toward greater levels of militarization in the region--of which the Weinberger/Schweitzer vision is the most extreme--ignore the necessity of maintaining a porous boundary because of the significant and intensifying levels of economic integration between the United States and Mexico.
Still, as part of the US government's war on drugs and "illegal" immigrants in the border region, the enforcement regime has grown dramatically over the past two decades, as chronicled by Andreas. The antidrug budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, rose 164 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 1997, while the overall budget for the INS nearly tripled between FY 1993 and 1999, from $1.5 billion to $4.2 billion, with border enforcement the biggest growth area. At the same time, transboundary trade has reached unprecedented heights because of the 1994 implementation of NAFTA. This exacerbates the challenge of "enforcement." As a 1999 government report cautioned, "Rapidly growing commerce between the United States and Mexico will complicate our efforts to keep drugs out of cross-border traffic." With a daily average of 220,000 vehicles now crossing into the United States from Mexico--and only nine large tractor-trailers loaded with cocaine required to satisfy annual domestic demand in the United States--the task facing US authorities is daunting.
Given such practical contradictions, it's the creation of an image of boundary control that has been most significant. As Andreas explains--and this is his well-written book's central point--the escalation of border enforcement is less about deterring drugs and migrants than it is about symbolism. In other words, state elites are more concerned about giving a good performance for reasons of domestic political consumption than they are about realizing the stated goals of boundary enforcement. In fact, the political-economic costs of too much success serve to limit enforcement. As one high-level US Customs official cited in Border Games stated, "If we examined every truck for narcotics arriving into the United States along the Southwest border.... Customs would back up the truck traffic bumper-to-bumper into Mexico City in just two weeks--15.8 days.... That's 1,177 miles of trucks, end to end."
To the extent that there is an appearance of success, however (statistics showing more interdiction, for example), it helps to realize a variety of political agendas. As Andreas contends, "Regardless of its deterrent effect, the escalation of enforcement efforts has helped to fend off political attacks and kept the drug issue from derailing the broader process of economic integration."
Thus, in the case of NAFTA, the deceptive image (one carefully crafted with the Clinton White House) that Mexico under Carlos Salinas de Gortari was having significant success in the binational war on drugs facilitated a reluctant Congress's passage of NAFTA. Moreover, the Administration promised that NAFTA would bring even greater levels of transboundary cooperation in the drug war and lead to more resources for boundary enforcement.
NAFTA also intertwined with the Administration's offensive against unauthorized immigration (a matter Andreas does not discuss), which was, in part, the US answer to massive disruption in Mexico's rural and small-business sectors brought about by growing economic liberalization. While Administration officials promoted NAFTA as a boundary-control tool (by creating better, high-paying jobs in Mexico, went the argument, NAFTA would lead to less immigration from Mexico to the United States), they also understood that NAFTA would intensify pressures to migrate among Mexicans displaced in the name of economic efficiency. As INS Commissioner Doris Meissner argued to Congress in November 1993, "Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border."
For Andreas, specific developments are often the "unintended feedback effects of past policy choices" as much as the result of particular bureaucratic incentives and rewards. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), for example, led to the legalization of large numbers of unauthorized immigrants as a way of ultimately reducing unsanctioned immigration. IRCA's main effect, however, was "to reinforce and expand already well-established cross-border migration networks" and to create a booming business in fraudulent documents.
These "perverse consequences" laid the foundation for the anti-immigrant backlash that emerged in the early 1990s--most vociferously in California, a state especially hard hit by the recession and feeling the effects of a rapidly changing population due to immigration. In advancing this argument, Andreas cautions that his goal is "not to provide a general explanation of the anti-illegal immigration backlash." Rather, he seeks to show how political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs partially whipped up public sentiment and channeled it "to focus on the border as both the source of the problem and the most appropriate site of the policy solution." While there is much merit in such an approach and the explanation that flows from it, it is insufficient.
First, as many have argued, the backlash of the 1990s was not simply against "illegal" immigrants but, to a large degree, against immigrants in general--especially the nonwhite, non-English speaking and the relatively poor. Moreover, as Andreas shows in a stimulating chapter that compares and contrasts similar developments along the Germany/Poland and Spain/Morocco boundaries, the seeming paradox of "a borderless economy and a barricaded border" is evidenced along boundaries that unite and divide rich and poor in other parts of the world. Given the locales of these developments and their uneven impacts on different social groups, there is need for another type of explanation.
How does one explain the differential treatment of the interests of the rich (enhanced trading opportunities) and those of the poor (those compelled by conditions to migrate and work without authorization)? It is in this area that Grace Chang is of great help. Disposable Domestics offers a refreshingly new perspective on immigration control. Chang's tone is overtly political and more polemical than that of Andreas, but her approach is equally rigorous. Her goal is to make poor immigrant women visible, to humanize them, to highlight their contributions and tribulations, and to show them as actively trying to contest their conditions of subjugation.
Chang argues persuasively that poor immigrant women--largely Third Worlders--have become a central focus of "public scrutiny and media distortion, and the main targets of immigration regulation and labor control" in the United States. To show the continuity between past and present, she provides an overview of the long history of imagery portraying immigrant women as undeserving users of welfare services and hyperfertile breeders of children. In doing so, she makes an invaluable contribution, showing how the regulation of immigration and labor is inextricably tied to matters of gender, as well as to those of class, race and nationality.
The author effectively challenges mainstream assumptions that surround the immigration debate. For example, she argues that studies attempting to measure the costs and benefits of immigration--regardless of their findings or the agendas behind them--ultimately reduce immigrants to commodities or investments. Chang sides with an emerging consensus among immigrant advocates that sees such studies as missing the point, and instead emphasizes the human and worker rights of all immigrants. In this regard, she criticizes immigrant advocates who have fallen into the trap of dividing immigrants between good ("legal") and bad ("illegal").
Chang highlights the folly of this approach in recounting the trials of Zoë Baird, Clinton's first nominee for Attorney General. When it came to light that she employed two undocumented immigrants as domestic servants--a common "crime" among two-career, professional couples--her nomination was sunk. What led to public outrage, according to Chang, was more the "resentment that this practice was so easily accessible to the more privileged classes while other working-class mothers struggled to find any child care," rather than the flouting of the law per se.
Throughout, Chang gives us moving accounts of gross exploitation of immigrant women working as domestics or caretakers, showing that relatively well-off households often look specifically for "illegals" to save money and to facilitate their privileged lives. Indeed, "the advances of many middle-class white women in the workforce have been largely predicated on the exploitation of poor, immigrant women." For Chang, this explains why "the major women's groups were conspicuously silent during Baird's confirmation hearings"--a manifestation of the racial and class privileges their members enjoy.
Recent antiwelfare efforts in the United States, which Chang explores in another provocative chapter, also rely on the exploitation and scapegoating of immigrant women. She compares representations of poor women--native and immigrant--used both in the promotion of welfare "reform" and in efforts to regulate undocumented working women. In both cases, poor women are portrayed as exploiters of the system (to facilitate their hyperfertility) and as criminals--either as welfare cheats or as "illegals." For welfare mothers, the resulting backlash is "workfare"--a program that forces them to work (outside their homes, under the assumption that raising children is neither work nor a benefit to society), but not for a wage. They work for their welfare benefits instead, a remuneration usually far below what they would earn as employees. Meanwhile, government officials, corporate spokespersons and household employers mask their exploitation of low-wage employees as beneficence, purportedly providing them with opportunities, training and preparation, and the ability to assimilate into respectable society.
The war on the poor (welfare reform) and that against unauthorized immigrants are also sometimes functionally tied. Virginia's state office of social services, for example, cooperated with the INS to open up jobs held by "illegals" for workfare participants. This, along with INS raids of workplaces in the midst of unionization drives, according to Chang, is a growing trend. It is far from clear, however--at least on the basis of the anecdotal evidence Chang presents--that such events indicate a long-term, upward trend. Indeed, while anti-union employers have long used the INS to undermine immigrant-worker organizing, with a number of especially outrageous incidents taking place in the late 1990s, those appear to have diminished over the last couple of years, apparently due to the outcry from union, immigration and human rights activists. In part, the discrepancy reflects the fact that Chang wrote the book--more a collection of essays stitched together--over several years, with some of the chapters having appeared in previous publications.
Chang tends to see the factors that create and drive immigration and the mistreatment of low-wage immigrant workers as derivative of an overarching economic logic and a resulting set of intentional, goal-oriented practices. Thus, the workfare/INS-raid nexus illustrates the "true function" of the INS: "to regulate the movement, availability, and independence of migrant labor." More generally, immigration "is carefully orchestrated--that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed and periodically stopped--by the direct actions of US interests, including the government as state and as employer, private employers, and corporations." United States elites keep Mexico and other countries in "debt bondage" so that they "must surrender their citizens, especially women, as migrant laborers to First World nations." And the purpose of California's Proposition 187, which would have eliminated public health, education and social services for unauthorized immigrants, is "perhaps" to mold immigrant children into a "category entirely of super-exploitable workers--those with no access to language or other skills and, most of all, no access to a status even remotely resembling citizenship that might allow them the safety to organize."
Such contentions imply a level of unity within the state and coherency in thought among economic and political actors (who are seemingly one and the same) that simply do not exist. They also downplay the agency of immigrants--who appear to be mere pawns of larger forces--and factors internal to their countries of origin driving immigration. Finally, such economic reductionism is puzzling given Chang's emphasis on race, gender and nationality. It seems at times, however, that she thinks that these are mere tools for highly rational, all-knowing and all-powerful economic elites.
This is why we need to appreciate the autonomous roles of race-, class-, gender- and nation-based ideologies in informing much of the anti-immigrant sentiment--factors that do not always dovetail with the interests of capital. Indeed, those elements are frequently at cross purposes. More than anything, anti-immigrant initiatives over the past thirty years have been the work of opportunistic and/or entrepreneurial elected officials, state bureaucrats and the cultural right--often small grassroots organizations and right-wing think tanks--rather than the business sector. Historically, capital has been generally pro-immigration. As the New York Journal of Commerce gushed in 1892, "Men, like cows, are expensive to raise and a gift of either should be gladly received. And a man can be put to more valuable use than a cow." Today, the Wall Street Journal advocates the elimination of border controls for labor. While this probably does not represent the view of most capitalists, it is significant nonetheless. And in the case of Proposition 187--as Chang reports--California employers, while collectively failing to take a public stand on the measure, generally opposed it for fear that they had much to lose if it passed. That said, the author is undoubtedly right to castigate employers for doing little or nothing to stand up for the rights of immigrants from whose labor, and from whose politically induced marginalization, they profit.
Given the divergent emphases and approaches of Andreas and Chang, very different solutions emerge from their arguments. Andreas criticizes the overemphasis on the supply side of unauthorized immigration and drugs. In terms of immigrants, for example, he observes that among wealthy countries, the United States "imposes the toughest penalties on the smuggling of migrants and related activities yet is among the most lenient with those who employ them." Similarly, he criticizes the scant resources available for enforcing existing workplace rules, which would undermine the ability of employers to exploit unauthorized workers, and he chides Congress for failing to develop a forgery-proof identity card system. (His stand on continued drug policing in the border region is less clear, although he calls for framing the drug problem as one of public health rather than law enforcement.)
Andreas seems resigned to the continued emphasis on border controls, too, despite demonstrating their brilliant failure. As one INS official he quotes explained, "The border is easy money politically. But the interior is a political minefield." Ending the border buildup is also a political minefield--one Andreas seems unwilling to enter. He is decidedly critical of the border status quo and aware of the hardships it causes (a topic to which he gives insufficient attention), but he critiques it on its own terms. In this regard, he does not stray outside the mainstream confines of debate.
A law-enforcement approach to unauthorized immigration is destined to fail. The ties between the United States and Mexico (and increasingly much of Latin America) are too strong, migrants are too resourceful and creative, and Americans are too resistant to the types of police-state measures that would prove necessary, to reduce unsanctioned immigration significantly. A far more effective and humane approach would be to work with progressive sectors of Third World societies to address the breakdown of political, economic and social systems and/or institutionalized injustice that often leads to immigration.
De-emphasizing boundary policing will likely reduce the deaths of unauthorized migrants (almost 600 in the California border region alone since 1994). But increased internal enforcement will create other difficulties, such as increased discrimination against those who do not look "American." It will also cause greater hardships in immigrant households, many of which contain people of different legal statuses. Should the US deport a principal breadwinner (an "illegal") from such a household, for example, leaving behind his or her US citizen children and "legal" spouse to fend for themselves?
Although Andreas argues that "the state has actually structured, conditioned, and even enabled (often unintentionally) clandestine border crossings," he discusses this matter in narrow terms, focusing on how previous "solutions" to the putative problems had an exacerbating effect. Meanwhile, he neglects the role played by the government and US-based economic interests in creating the conditions that fuel immigration. Thus, no issues of moral or political responsibility enter the analysis.
Grace Chang, on the other hand, puts a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the United States in fueling outmigration; it benefits from immigrant women's labor and wreaks havoc in Third World countries through the likes of military interventions and the imposition of structural adjustment programs. For Chang, the question is not one of trying to devise the best policy to control the unauthorized but of bringing about the changes needed to realize the rights of immigrants as workers and as human beings. In making this case, Chang correctly calls upon those of us who benefit from an unjust world order to stand in solidarity with immigrants--especially low-wage, Third World women who enable our privileged lifestyles--in their struggle for social justice at home and abroad.
Arad, where I live, is a small, out-of-the-way town in the Negev desert, in southern Israel. There are Jews and Arabs living here, but so far it has been surprisingly quiet. Not very quiet for myself though, as I happen to be the town's famous "leftist" or "Arab-lover." It was almost natural that as I walked down the local mall near the main square yesterday, some strangers were angrily shouting at me: "You are to blame," or "Do you still trust your Arabs?" In particular the voices came from some of the patrons of a street cafe, so I sat myself down, ready to listen.
There was an elderly man, rather gentle, with a musician's fingers, who said to me, "Look what you leftists have done to Israel by making the Oslo agreements with Arafat seven years ago. You gave him land for a promise. For a piece of paper. He committed himself to renouncing violence and to sorting out future differences through negotiations. But why should he renounce violence when violence always yields him a dividend? Each time there is a burst of Palestinian violence the whole world puts pressure on Israel to make more concessions. You yourself," he said, "advised Mr. Peres to travel all over the world to collect billions of dollars for the Palestinian Authority. With this money they purchased the weapons and the bullets which they are now shooting at us."
An attractive woman of about 40, with a slight Russian accent, intervened, saying, "Like yourself, I voted for Ehud Barak in the last elections because I want peace. I still want peace, but next time I will vote for Mr. Netanyahu or Mr. Sharon. The history of recent years tells us that the Arabs have made an honorable agreement with the right-wing Mr. Begin, with the hard-line Mr. Shamir and with the extremist Mr. Netanyahu, whereas doves such as Rabin, Peres and Barak--all they get from the Arabs are the car bombs, the exploding buses and the lynchings."
There was a third voice, young, extremely polite, seemingly an Oriental Jew, who smiled at me and said, "Let's not waste our time. This conference in Egypt is totally useless. Arafat can no longer control the fundamentalist frenzy of violence which he himself perpetrated, whereas Barak can no longer negotiate because the Israeli Jews have lost confidence in his peace policy. Arafat and Barak may not know it, but they are both finished."
I asked, "So what is going to happen?"
From the four corners of the coffee shop people said, More fighting, more violence, more bloodshed. One of them even added, "And you are also finished, Mr. Oz. We will never listen to you again if you advocate a compromise with the Palestinians."
I said, "And what will happen if we don't compromise?"
A woman said, "There will be more violence."
I said, "And what after the further violence?"
Everybody said, "Finally there will be an agreement."
"Between whom and whom?"
"Between Israel and a Palestinian state, of course."
I just nodded. I was going to pay for my coffee and go. But those people refused to let me pay for my coffee. They paid for me. They insisted.
©Amos Oz 2000.
Collaboration occurred in the past, and there's no professional bar to it today.
In the more trying period ahead, a modest internationalism would fare best.
When members of the Arab League gathered for an emergency summit in Cairo on October 21 to discuss "the grave situation in the Palestinian Territories and its impact on the peace process," hopes were high among ordinary Arabs that their leaders would reflect popular opinion and at least call on the states having ties with Israel to cut them forthwith. They were to be disappointed. When Libya's Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, reflecting that feeling, saw the draft communiqué prepared by the league's foreign ministers, which merely said that member states that had diplomatic relations with Israel might consider severing them, he was so angered that he leaked the document to the press and left the conference.
No other leader followed his example, though--not even Izzat Ibrahim, the representative of Iraq, which is technically at war with Israel. Having been excluded from Arab League summits for ten years because of its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq could hardly afford the luxury of a walkout. As it was, taking into account the threat posed by Israel's hawkish actions, the conference's Egyptian host, President Hosni Mubarak--working closely with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah--had decided to close the chapter on Arab divisions caused by Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and invite President Saddam Hussein to the summit. Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, the country's supreme authority, served as Saddam's stand-in.
Iraq's re-emergence as a player in the Arab world came at a time when many countries were already moving to restore normal relations with Baghdad. In recent months, dozens of flights from several Arab capitals, as well as Paris, Moscow and New Delhi have landed at the newly reopened Saddam International Airport near Baghdad. None of them were cleared in advance with the United Nations 661 Sanctions Committee, which is charged with overseeing the embargo on Iraq. The defiance of the UN came after President Clinton's softening toward Iraq because of the tight market in oil and its rising price. Clinton's behavior had been forecast earlier by James Akins, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "When the oil price rises above $30 a barrel," he said, "Saddam Hussein will be treated like Mother Teresa."
There is an indisputable link between the high price of petroleum, Iraq's endowment with the second-largest oil reserves in the world and US policy on Saddam. With Iraq producing some 3 million barrels a day, its highest output ever, the removal of a UN ceiling on its petroleum sales in January and US oil corporations buying a third of its oil exports, Saddam is now a major player in the market. Adding to his weight is the fact that Iraq has been exempted from OPEC's quota system because of its dire economic state.
Little wonder that Madeleine Albright announced in early September that the United States would not use force to compel Iraq to accept inspectors of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), formed in December under Security Council Resolution 1284, who had just finished their training. Following his testimony to the Security Council on September 2, UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix said that it was a good guess "that not much might happen before the American elections." After all, who would be so foolhardy as to upset the dictator, who might turn off his oil tap and cause a spurt in gasoline prices during the run-up to the November 7 poll, thereby ruining Al Gore's chances?
What started as a token defiance of a UN ban on flights to Iraq by Russia's Vnukovo Airlines with the Kremlin's backing in mid-August has snowballed into an international challenge to the 661 Sanctions Committee. The dozens of flights to Baghdad from Arab as well as European and Asian capitals were not cleared in advance with the sanctions committee. A large number of Arab countries have sent their aircraft, loaded with prestigious delegations of cabinet ministers, legislators, trade union leaders, businessmen, doctors, engineers, actors and entertainers--and token humanitarian aid. It is easier to name the exceptions: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Both allow the use of their air bases by the Pentagon to enforce an air-exclusion zone in southern Iraq.
Touching on the larger issue of sanctions against Iraq, King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close US ally, said at the Arab summit, "Our [Arab] nation can no longer stand the continuation of this suffering, and our people no longer accept what is committed against the Iraqi people from the [UN] embargo."
On the central issue before the summit, Izzat Ibrahim was hawkish: "Iraq is calling [for] and working to liberate Palestine through jihad because only jihad is capable of liberating Palestine and other Arab lands [from Israel]." To show that Iraq's sympathy meant more than words, Saddam immediately dispatched a convoy of forty trucks loaded with food and medicine to the Palestinian territories via Amman. This kind of gesture should boost Saddam's already high standing among young Palestinians and accelerate his rehabilitation among Arabs, creating a symbiosis between him and the Arab street.
Who says this is a do-nothing Congress? Sure, it can't agree on expanding the childcare tax credit or approve an increase in the minimum wage. Yet, as Congress prepares to adjourn, legislators were rushing to protect and expand tax subsidies for some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world. Under current law, US exporters can set up largely paper presences in foreign tax havens like Barbados. The exporters can then exempt between 15 and 30 percent of their export income from taxes by routing products through these entities, called Foreign Sales Corporations. In a recent case filed by the European Union, however, the World Trade Organization ruled that the FSC tax break was an illegal subsidy.
Precedent has shown the United States more than willing to bend to the will of the WTO. For example, when the WTO ruled against an Endangered Species Act protecting sea turtles, the United States quickly eased its regulations. Yet when a multibillion-dollar tax incentive is at stake, Washington falls all over itself to protect corporate welfare.
Immediately after the WTO ruling against FSCs, the Clinton Administration, a few members of Congress and the business community began meeting in secret to work out a bill that eliminates FSC in name only while actually expanding export subsidies for a total cost to taxpayers of about $4 billion a year. The beneficiaries? General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon, Cisco Systems, Archer Daniels Midland and others. The House approved this bill with only forty minutes of debate and no amendments allowed, by a vote of 315 to 109. The bill was held up in the Senate because some objected to the tax break for arms manufacturers and subsidies for tobacco exports. Despite the objections, the bill is expected to be tacked onto a must-pass budget bill and signed by the President.
The proponents of this giveaway claim it will promote US jobs. However, the Congressional Budget Office, whose director was appointed by Republicans, has written, "Export subsidies do not increase the overall level of domestic investment and domestic employment.... In the long run, export subsidies increase imports as much as exports." The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reached a similar conclusion.
It gets worse. The tax break may actually subsidize moving US jobs overseas. There is no requirement that a substantial portion of a product covered by the subsidies be made with US content or with US labor. An Administration official said that an eligible product could have "little or no US content" and still qualify.
Not only is the legislation not economically justifiable, it is not likely to comply with the WTO ruling. The EU has already stated that the changes aren't adequate, and it intends to seek authority to retaliate by imposing 100 percent tariffs on some $4 billion worth of US goods.
I am not a fan of the WTO. It is an unaccountable, secretive, undemocratic bureaucracy that looks out for the interests of multinational corporations and investors at the expense of human rights, labor standards, national sovereignty and the environment. But by pointing out that export subsidies like FSCs are corporate welfare, the WTO has done US taxpayers a favor. It has once again highlighted the fact that US trade policy is written by and for corporations, with no concern for workers, human rights or environmental protection.
The fundamentals in the Middle East have changed so drastically--unalterably--that the recent agreement at Sharm el Sheik was just a strip of gauze on a gaping wound. The complacent assumption of many in Israel and the United States that the "peace process" was moving irreversibly forward has been drastically shaken.
An enormous gulf opened between the two peoples sharing the same land. A troubled Israeli columnist wrote in Yediot Ahronot, "It was only two weeks ago that we were buying furniture in Ramallah, gambling in Jericho, importing vegetables from the West Bank villages and reading about the Palestinians' intention to build six new duty-free malls for Israelis along the border with the autonomous areas." (Note the one-sided view of Palestine as a consumers' haven.) "Where was this [anger] concealed so that we didn't see it?" The answer came from a Palestinian social worker: "For fifty years, we have lived together, yet I do not believe the Jews really know anything about us.... Young men cannot find work. Nearly half of all Arabs in Nazareth live below the poverty line.... Why is anyone amazed that everything has exploded?"
How could any reasonable person not have believed that the visit of Ariel Sharon, escorted by 1,000 policemen, to the Temple Mount--also known as the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site--would provoke the Palestinians? As Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz, Sharon did not care if he offended the Palestinians--"he went up ignoring their existence completely. He went up for internal political reasons, without giving a thought to how his behavior might affect them." Sharon is loathed by Palestinians for the brutal war in Lebanon and for loudly championing the policy of pushing ever more settlements into their space.
It is true that Sharon's visit was not the "real" cause of the riots. They were ignited by long-smoldering outrage over the failure of the Oslo process to deliver any tangible benefits to Palestinians. One of the greatest of the longstanding provocations, along with the humiliating Israeli military presence, is the ongoing encroachment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian space, which has continued unabated under the Barak government.
In the short term the violence must be stopped; in the longer term, all sides--but particularly the United States and Israel--must absorb the lessons of this round of violence before they go about trying to restart peace talks. The Israelis must face the fact that it is wildly unrealistic to maintain sovereignty over East Jerusalem, overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians determined to contest that sovereignty. The United States must face the fact that it has failed to convince the Palestinians that it can be a fair and honest broker (about $5 billion annually in military and economic aid to Israel, an occupying power, has always made that claim rather hollow). Arafat concluded that trilateral negotiations (Israel, the United States, the Palestinians) left him isolated, called on to make compromises that would be politically fatal to him. The Arabs' insistence on Secretary General Kofi Annan's participation in the Sharm el Sheik talks signaled the need for an expanded UN role in the region. The European Union, Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states must play a greater part as well.
To regain its credibility as broker, the United States should involve the UN, the EU and the Palestinians in the preparation of its report on the causes of the violence. Israel must cease its reliance on military force, which exacerbates tensions and keeps youthful Palestinians raging in the streets. Arafat has a role in cooling the violence, but he cannot do it until religious fanatics on both sides are reined in. Beyond that, two estranged peoples must somehow be reconciled. With time, the wound can be healed. It must be.
You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."
If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."
We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")
I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.
If Western Europe is to be independent it must defend its welfare state.
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, diagnoses an anti-Israel tilt in the US media, in which "the Israelis have come through a miraculous alchemical formula to become the giants and everyone else is the David.'' What planet is this man living on?
Just look at the numbers. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, compared with just five Israeli Jews. The Palestinians attack with stones, Molotov cocktails and the extremely rare automatic weapon. Unlike nations that quell riots by their own people with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Israelis respond with live ammunition: antitank rockets, helicopter gunships and armor-piercing missiles. Armed Jewish vigilantes have undertaken murderous rampages against unarmed Arab citizens, shooting them in cold blood. The UN Security Council condemns Israel's "excessive use of force."
Yet aside from the Palestinians invited to speak explicitly for their own cause, the mainstream US media condemn the Palestinians and exonerate Israel with Soviet-like consensus. Editorial pages are unanimous in apportioning the blame exclusively to Yasir Arafat rather than the war criminal Ariel Sharon, who provoked the riots to advance his political career. Sharon was puffed up in extremely sympathetic interviews by Lally Weymouth published in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and held forth as well on the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page. Meanwhile, the members of the punditocracy who appeared during the weekend of Barak's ultimatum spoke as if channeling American Jewish Committee talking points.
While Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio battled one another to shower the Palestinians with higher and higher degrees of contempt in their second debate, the only American voices heard to speak to the larger context of the conflict were the twin electoral outliers, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Given his history of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, the former Crossfire host has forfeited any credibility he once had on the issue. Nader's criticism of Sharon, which he expressed on CBS's Face the Nation, was therefore far more valuable, especially in light of the relative scarcity of such voices on network television.
More typical, however, are the views of Charles Krauthammer, who has apparently contracted the same mental and emotional affliction that drove poor Abe Rosenthal insane. The pundit actually compared the phenomenon of Palestinian riots and rock-throwing to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Complaining of overly sympathetic coverage of Palestinian "frustration"--"frustration with what?" Krauthammer demanded in mock horror, as if the average Palestinian refugee lived next door in Chevy Chase--Krauthammer termed Israel's dovish leaders "feckless" for seeking an accommodation to create a nation where Jewish soldiers are no longer in a position to gun down unarmed 12-year-old boys.
Sure Arafat is a corrupt, untrustworthy leader, and I wish he had somehow found the courage to risk his own neck and embrace Barak's surprising concessions at Camp David, if only as a foundation stone in a much longer peace process. The concessions were, unfortunately, the best offer the Palestinians are likely to get for some time. But it's not Arafat's indecision or Palestinian rock-throwing that lies at the root of the current conflict. Rather, as the Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco wrote on the Times Op-Ed page, it is the fact that "the proponents of the agreement, including the Clinton Administration, never fully informed the Palestinian people that the [Oslo] accord did not offer any guarantee of Palestinian self-determination, full equality and an end to the military occupation." Since Oslo, Pacheco notes, the quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has declined from terrible to nearly unbearable. Owing to the lack of good will on both sides, what is being constructed from Oslo is less peace than apartheid.
I have walked across open sewage in Palestinian refugee camps surrounded by children begging for candy. I have been served tea at the home of a Palestinian family whose 13-year-old son was killed days earlier by the Israeli Defense Force as a suspect in a murder that turned out to be the work of a crazed Jewish fanatic. I have stood in the rubble of Palestinian houses that the Israelis bulldozed as a warning to those who would continue to protest. Seven years ago, I stood on the White House lawn and listened, tearfully, to Yitzhak Rabin say "enough" to the killing on both sides. Alas, it was not enough. And given the realities on the ground, for every Israeli who loses a son or daughter, so too will scores of Palestinians.
It would behoove those in the media who hold forth on this issue to address themselves for once to its larger context. It is Israel that is oppressing the Palestinians, and it is the Palestinians who are doing virtually all the dying. True, Ehud Barak has taken massive political risks by offering concessions that go well beyond the Israeli consensus. He is a brave leader and an authentic soldier for peace. But given the magnitude of the physical, psychological and sociological costs of the Palestinian "catastrophe," Barak's best is simply not good enough. The only chance for lasting peace will come when Israel agrees to share Jerusalem with a full Palestinian partner, granting equal rights to citizens of both nations; with Israeli rule in the West and Palestinian rule in the East.
Perhaps it's too much to ask a victorious people to offer genuine justice and material sacrifice to the nation it has vanquished on the battlefield--particularly when the hatred of the defeated nation continues unabated. But the Palestinians will accept nothing less.
I'm a Jew with deep emotional ties to Israel and strong sympathies with the Labor/Zionist project. My own words fill me with foreboding. But if it must come to war, then let us at least be honest about it. Like Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it will be a war that Israel has chosen because it could not countenance the alternatives. And it will be the Palestinians who, once again, will endure the lion's share of the suffering.
Facebook Like Box