Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lady Justice Is Blind (And Crazy)

In the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury verdict, here I am again, trying to make sense of insane pieces of news streaming through my social media network.

Yesterday the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, reached a verdict and acquitted officer Darren Wilson of shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Wilson’s claims of self-defense were taken to be credible. This shooting incident, which took place on August 9th 2014 not only bears resemblance to another highly publicized shooting and killing of an unarmed black teenager, Treyvon Martin, by civilian George Zimmerman, in Sanford Florida on February 26th 2012, but also follows on the heels of the acquittal of George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges on July 13th 2013.

The two cases have important similarities and differences:
Setting aside all contextual information for the moment, and only looking at the bare bones of what happened, in Ferguson, MO, a man was shot and killed by a police officer on duty. In Sanford, FL, a man was shot and killed by a civilian. Taking only this information into consideration, lethal force wielded by a police officer is somewhat less disturbing than when a civilian exercises the same force. 

In both cases, the defendants initiated contact with the victims. Again, for a police officer on duty to stop and question a pedestrian is not as remarkable as a civilian (even if he were part of the Neighborhood Watch) to approach a stranger, intimidate him and begin an altercation, as George Zimmerman did.  When we also consider that Zimmerman disregarded the instructions from the 911 operator to not follow the suspicious teen he was reporting about, his actions appear all the more premeditated. For these reasons, the acquittal of George Zimmerman is far more outrageous than the acquittal of officer Darren Wilson.

Further, when we take into consideration that both teenage victims were unarmed, the use of lethal force by both Zimmerman and Wilson seem unwarranted, and the deaths of the two teenagers tragic, avoidable events.

When we add the detail that both victims were black, it appears to indicate that racism was what motivated the use of lethal force. Racial discrimination is what is being widely discussed in the media. While the issue of race certainly influences the use of force by the police, citing race as the primary reason for these two teenage deaths, is misguided.

Looking at the two incidents solely through the lens of race implies that if the very same incidents took place with white victims, the act of killing unarmed teenagers wouldn’t be so outrageous. What if Trayon Martin’s shooter in Sanford and the police officer in Ferguson had been black? Would the killings then be less distressing?

Racism is widely prevalent in America. Nobody denies it. There are more African Americans in prison than their proportion in the general population would indicate. Blacks and Latinos are pulled over and frisked in much greater proportions than whites. African American drug defendants are more likely than whites to receive mandatory sentences and sent to prison more than whites for the same drug offences. But racism is not the prime cause of the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

When George Zimmerman became suspicious of a black teenager who was minding his own business and peacefully walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood, that was racism. But when Zimmerman initiated an altercation, pulled out his gun and shot this black teenager (allegedly in self-defense,) that was not racism. That was an instance of America’s toxic gun culture at its worst.

We are so accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of guns in everyday American life that we look past gun culture as the primary cause of violence and cite incidental details as causes. It’s like saying someone died of gunshot wounds because his body was too weak to withstand bullets.

Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed not because they were black, but because guns are used with impunity in America. If you hypothetically sift out racism from America and imagine how the Sanford, Ferguson and similar incidents might have played out, you would still see unnecessary gun deaths. They would just be equally distributed among the races! But if you sift out America’s noxious gun culture, keeping racism intact, these incidents would play out in ways that would still be unfairly biased towards blacks, but their outcomes would not be nearly as fatal.

It is true that more African Americans fall prey to the bullets discharged by white police officers than white victims. But it is also true that there are a greater number of deaths of African Americans in the hands of other African Americans wielding guns. Think Chicago. When we implicate racism as the root cause of gun deaths based on cases like the one in Ferguson and Sanford, we fail to account for the greater proportion of African American deaths. When we implicate Gun Culture - the easy availability and unchecked use of guns -as the root cause of deaths like that of Trayvon Martin, we account for all deaths in the hands of guns. Of course there are many layers of complexity within the influences of gun culture, and race, class and gender differences most certainly shape it.

In assessing the role of racism in the Ferguson and Sanford incidents, one must view the killings of the unarmed teenagers and the acquittal of the perpetrators as separate issues. The influence of racism in the killings is not as salient as the influence of racial discrimination in the acquittals. Would the juries in the Zimmerman and Wilson cases have indicted the killers if the victims had been white? Perhaps.

The use of guns in everyday life is second–nature to a large proportion of Americans. It is considered a birthright. But like all rights, some people have a greater share of it than others. White privilege has certainly staked a larger claim to the right to use guns:

Enter Marissa Alexander.

Marissa Alexander is an African American woman from Florida, and a mother of three. In 2010, she was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

According to her defense account, she fired warning shots in her home and in the direction of her estranged and abusive husband and his two sons after her husband attacked and threatened to have her killed. 

The prosecution claims that they weren’t warning shots, that she wasn’t in fear for her life, and that the shots were fired in anger, at human height, and in the direction of her two stepchildren, endangering their lives.

Comparisons between Alexander’s case and Zimmerman’s case have been made for many reasons: Most obvious is that they are both Florida cases where the defendant invoked Florida’s “stand your ground” law to defend the discharge of a firearm under the perception that one’s life was in danger. Both defendants claimed that their lives were in danger. In Zimmerman’s case, this resulted in the death of an unarmed teenage boy. In Alexander’s case, nobody was harmed.

Another common factor is that both cases were under the supervision of State Prosecutor Angela Corey. Corey has encountered much criticism for her handling of the Alexander case. The guilty verdict she sought for Alexander is driven by Corey’s supposed commitment to victims’ advocacy, in this case, on behalf of the two children whose lives were endangered when Alexander fired her gun. Corey wanted to send a strong message that domestic disputes should not be handled the way Alexander handled hers, with a gun.

There are complexities in every case, and clearly the nuances in Zimmerman’s and Darren Wilson’s case helped cast their version of the events in a credible light. It was also convenient that the victims weren’t around to refute their versions.

The nuances in Alexander’s case, however, did not enhance her credibility. Despite a history of abusing his wife and other women (and admitting to it,) and despite changing his story - first corroborating Alexander’s version and then changing his version, Rico Gray, Alexander’s estranged husband was perceived as the victim, and Alexander the aggressor. The jury deliberated for a mere 13 minutes before they found her guilty on all three counts of aggravated assault. In May 2012, Alexander was sentenced to twenty years in prison (comprising three concurrent terms.) Yes, twenty years for using a gun and not killing anyone, while George Zimmerman walks free for using a gun and killing someone.

In September 2013, a re-trial was ordered by the 1st District Court of Appeals on grounds that the judge in the original trial did not properly instruct the jury on self-defense.  The retrial was/is scheduled for December 8th. 2014, where, if it were to take place, Angela Corey intends to pursue the same three charges of aggravated assault, and a 60-year sentence - comprising three consecutive terms.

In the meantime, and as if the overly harsh judgment meted out to Alexander weren’t enough, the winds of chance conspired to have Marissa Alexander accept a plea bargain on the very same day that the jury in Ferguson reached their verdict. The two events – the grand jury acquitting Darren Wilson of murder, and Marissa Alexander agreeing to plead guilty - to not risk a 60-year term for not killing anyone- were juxtaposed by chance on November 24th 2014.

You have to be blind (like Lady Justice) to not see the irony and injustice of it all.

As per the plea agreement, Marissa Alexander will serve a three-year sentence (most of which she has already completed.) She is likely to be released on January 27th 2015.

Strange are the ways of  “Lady” Justice.  She turns on her own kind.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Dissent of Man: The Downward Spiral of Censorship

       The decision last week by Penguin (India) to recall and pulp existing copies of Wendy Doniger’s  ‘The Hindus - An Alternative History,’ is another sign that India is heading towards the Dark Ages. Liberal writers and commentators denounced Penguin’s decision as a cowardly step that will further fuel the narrow-minded sentiments of the Hindu Right Wing. This action by Penguin (India) was not forced upon them by a court of law or any state sanctioned decree. Rather, it is a voluntary step taken in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Campaign to Save Education). The SBAS, an outcrop of the powerful, right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is spearheaded by one Dinanath Batra who objects to Doniger’s book because it “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus,” thereby violating section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

       That Penguin (India) chose to settle the case rather than fight it out in court is telling, and perplexing. Calling for censorship and giving in to censorship have aspects that are clearly counter-productive and counter-intuitive. Imposing restrictions on access to books or banning them only increases their visibility, which often leads to increased sales! Penguin (India) was certainly aware, and must have taken some comfort in knowing that no matter how irresponsible their action is to their writers and their readers, their bottom line would see some benefit. 

       Censorship in India is common practice. Even though Article 19 (A) of the Indian Constitution states that “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression,” this right has been eroded down to the bone by amendments: Section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.” IPC 153 (B) prohibits actions that are “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility.” The law evoked to silence Doniger is IPC 295 (A), which identifies as criminal, those “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Between sections 153 and 295 (A), there is no room for any opinion whatsoever. Given India’s diversity in religion, culture and language, anything you say has a potential to insult someone. Here are a few fragments from that iceberg of Indian censorship:

The most infamous act of censorship in recent years was the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1988. Despite being the birthplace of Salman Rushdie, India was the first entity, worldwide, to ban the book – and it did so well before the fatwa was issued on Rushdie’s life. It was banned, not by a right-leaning government, but by the centrist Congress Party, led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The circumstances surrounding the ban were not entirely transparent. Here is an open letter by Rushdie to Rajiv Gandhi following news of the ban. 

In 2003, Paul B. Courtright’s ‘Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings’ was banned because it offended Hindus for suggesting an additional interpretation of the story of Ganesha. Courtright views the Parvati-Ganesha-Shiva relationships through the lens of Oedipal conflict. Courtright’s  bigger “crime” was to make overt phallic associations between the physical forms of Ganesha and Shiva as a part of that oedipal reading. 

In 2004, James W. Laine’s ‘Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India’ (Oxford University Press) was banned after activists affiliated with the Maratha Seva Sangh ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, whose archives provided Laine with much of his research. The book allegedly portrayed Shivaji in a negative light.

Cultural vigilantism is no stranger to India. Maqbool Fida Hussein, India’s most eminent painter (he was called the Picasso of India), spent the last years of his life in self-imposed exile. Some of his paintings depicting semi-nude goddesses in sexually suggestive poses triggered a barrage of lawsuits as well as an attack on his home by the Hindu fundamentalist Bajrang Dal, which led Hussein to ultimately leave India. Hussein was also a film director and producer. His film ‘Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities’ angered Muslim groups for allegedly being blasphemous, causing Hussein to withdraw it from cinemas. 

In January, 2013, actor/director Kamala Hassan’s ‘Vishwaroopam’ was banned in the state of Tamil Nadu following protests that the film portrayed Muslims in a derogatory way. 

Censorship has extended its reach inside the hallowed halls of education as well. In October, 2011, an essay by A.K. Ramanajum, a preeminent scholar on Indian literature and linguistics, was removed from the B.A. syllabus of Delhi University. This was the upshot of pressure put on the Academic Council of the University by right-wing groups to remove the essay. The essay, called ‘300 Ramayanas,’ brought to light the many variations and “tellings” (as Ramanujam liked to call them) of the epic that exist in addition to the Valmiki-Ramayana, the default version in India. 

Social media, too, has not been spared. In November 2012, two college students aged 20 and 21 were arrested for “hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.” One girl’s crime was posting a comment on her Facebook page questioning the total shut-down of Mumbai following the death of Bal Thackeray, Mumbai’s political kingpin and Hindu hard-liner of many decades. The girl wrote: "With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on...... Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.” The other girl’s crime was “liking” her friend’s post.

       Penguin (India) is not the first publisher to set a precedent to capitulating without a fight. In January of this year, Jitendar Bhargava’s ‘The Descent of Air India’ was voluntarily withdrawn by Bloomsbury (India) in response to a lawsuit filed by Praful Patel, India’s former Aviation Minister widely implicated in bringing the airline to ruin. Bloomsbury even apologized to Patel in a public notice: "If the contents of the book have caused any embarrassment to Mr. Patel, we sincerely regret the same and it was never our intention to discredit him in any manner."

       These and a multitude of other instances of curbing free speech have made taking offence a de rigueur occurrence in India today. Taking care to not offend is looked upon as the strategy to maintain peace. And so the law is exploited, where feelings of being offended are disingenuous, or they are pandered to in order to gain votes or some political leverage. 

       Dinanath Batra’s claim that ‘The Hindus’ has offended a million Hindus may not be a false statement. However, the offence taken to Doniger’s textual analysis, (or should I say sexual analysis) of Hindu literature has no bearing on the right to publish these alternative interpretations of them. No matter the alleged depravity and errors in Doniger’s interpretation, translations or method, suppressing her viewpoint is not the answer. The healthy way to counteract dissent is to engage in the conversation and add to the discourse as some people who are equally offended as Mr. Batra is, have done. Indian-American philanthropist and businessman Rajiv Malhotra spearheads one such effort to bring attention to the claim that western indologists are altering perceptions on Hinduism by their psychosexual analyses of Hindu texts. Several academics, too, have compiled a critique of Doniger’s perspectives and methods. Their criticisms of Doniger and other scholars of Indology with a similar bent to interpreting Hindu texts have converged in a book called ‘Invading the Sacred.’ I have not yet read Doniger’s comprehensive (almost 800 pages) ‘The Hindus,’ nor have I read ‘Invading the Sacred.’ But reading excerpts and related correspondence available on the web gives a sense that no matter whose viewpoint one ultimately sympathizes with, the academics connected with ‘Invading the Sacred’ have done well to engage in civil discourse with the Indologists whose scholarship they find questionable. For example, S.N. Balagangadhara (who wrote the forward to ‘Invading the Sacred’) offers, in his own writings, much insight into the nature of offence taken by the religious right. In his letter to Jeffrey Kripal (who interprets the words and actions of Sri Ramakrishna as having sexual overtones) Prof. Balagangadhara objects to a Freudian interpretation of Hindu texts. He says:
These interpretations “deny access to our own experiences…. Who or what is denying access to our own experience? It is not a theory, but a theorizing of someone else’s experience.” 
He views Freudian analyses (based on a western culture) as being incapable of understanding the culture of India. He says of Freud: 
“What did he ‘theorize’ then? He theorized upon the European experience of other cultures and upon a theological elaboration of these experiences. Consequently, who or what is denying the access to our experience? The experience of another culture. This lies at the root of the feeling of wrongness: our experiences are being trivialized, denied, distorted and made inaccessible by someone else’s experience of the world. Hence the feeling of moral or ethical wrongness, because such a situation is neither justified nor justifiable. One is made to think that, apparently, there is only one way of experiencing the world: the ‘western way’.”

  The rationale for free speech rests on the tenet of ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ (similar to a free market in economics), which assumes that when all kinds of ideas are freely expressed and are accessible to all, the better ideas will eventually prevail. Therefore, silencing ideas that are unappealing is an ineffective and short-term solution to the “problem” of human progress. Here’s an example from libel law:

       Libel laws are meant to protect those whose reputations come under attack by false statements, leading to negative repercussions for the one who is slandered. While it may seem like a good idea to have libel laws, they can be and are abused leading to far reaching negative effects. When frivolous or opportunistic lawsuits take advantage of laws that curb freedom of expression, the fallout is not just a matter of inconvenience and money. Such lawsuits result in strongly negative repercussions on public discourse, with the message: Don’t engage in any form of criticism - even if it is for the public good - or you too will be sued! A case in point is the Food Disparagement laws in the US, also called the “veggie libel laws.”  Remember when Oprah Winfrey was sued by Big Beef in the wake of the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the UK? The Texas Beef Group sued Oprah for saying, on her show, something as ordinary as “Cows are herbivores. They shouldn’t be eating other cows…It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.” 

       Even when libel laws have stringent standards of burden of proof, and frivolous lawsuits are successfully dismissed (as in Oprah’s case) there are detrimental effects on the atmosphere of public discourse. That is why proponents of free speech prefer to err on the side of freedom to communicate rather than on the side of suppressing information. After the Big Beef lawsuit was dismissed, Oprah declined to speak about the matter any further. If that is the effect an attempt at curbing free speech had on Oprah Winfrey, you can imagine the silencing effect it might have on the ordinary citizen. You can read about the Oprah case and Food Disparagement Laws in the US here
       Having laws that protect one’s sense of outrage will breed outrage, just like having laws that protect free speech will breed free speech, even the kind that may be inappropriate and offensive to some. So why is having free speech better than having laws that protect taking offence? Let’s take a look at the two conditions of free speech and no free speech in good times and bad times to determine which one is better for a society in the long run:

The Best of Times:
During the best of times, both free speech states and non-free speech states will do well. If the people in power are good and fair, everybody is mostly happy. In non free speech states, there may be low conflict because people are afraid to offend and get sued. But this is not necessarily a good thing in the long run. 

In prosperous times in free-speech states, potentially offending expressions may be tolerated better than during hard times. Eventually people learn to accept differences and learn some tolerance because any amount of tolerance breeds more tolerance. This is better for society in the long run. 

The Worst of Times:
It is during the worst of times that the difference between free speech and non-free speech states is most apparent. Life has abundant quantities of bad times so this is an important consideration. Let’s assume that during hard times, the people in power are unfair to some groups, and are good only to a select few. They want to promote their worldview only. They oppress and suppress minority groups.
In a non free speech state, you cannot protest this unfairness. There is no free press, and people are afraid to complain lest they be sued for being offensive to those in power. Change is very difficult.

In a free speech state, peaceful protesting is allowed and grievances can be aired without fear of reprisal. It is possible to critique unfair practices and suggest better alternatives. Unfairness can be exposed by the press as well as by individuals. Change is possible. In addition, the free-speech state discourages unfair practices because there is recourse for the ones who are aggrieved. However, a non-free speech state implicitly encourages unfairness because injustice can be sustained through suppression of those who might complain. 

       While India is well past its expiration date, the date of post-independence predictions of fragmentation into it’s multi-ethnic components, and still stands as one nation, the largest democracy no less, it is dangerously veering towards the designation of Highly Insecure Nation that’s Doomed–isthan. Its sense of identity is so precarious that any viewpoint that comes in contrast to the favored view is squashed, often even before this viewpoint has a chance to be heard. For India to regain her confidence, freedom of expression must be dissociated with reactionary terms like outrage, insult and offence. The health of the state should be judged, not by the absence of dissent, but by the nature of it. It is only when healthy dissent is used as a yardstick of measuring peace, that we will have a true tolerance for differences. 

       The premise that the absence of offence lies at the core of maintaining peace among a diverse population such as in India, is a faulty assumption. It is, in fact, the opposite. An environment that does not challenge one’s own views, and does not encourage polite dissent, is an environment that will eventually lead to intolerance. Tolerance is not learned in a void, nor is it fostered in a milieu of agreement and forced acquiescence. It is inculcated and refined only through the practice of accepting ideas novel to one’s own. 

To end with a quote attributed to Aristotle: 

It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

When Art Finds You

Three weeks ago, on December 18th, I entered a bead store with the purpose of finding out what the store was all about. I had been driving past the store for over a year, and had made a mental note several times to visit. On that particular day, I was at a restaurant that was just a few doors away. And so the opportunity came to explore this year-old curiosity.

  A quote by Flora Whittemore reads: “The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.”  I did not realize it then, but the doors I opened that particular day, greatly influenced how I spent the following month. For when I left the bead store, I was a changed person. Just being in the midst of the tools and trimmings of the bead-trade triggered something in me that sent me exploring a path that I would never have imagined for myself even a few days before. If you had told me on December 17th, that I would be spending the greater part the next several weeks making jewelry, I would have said that you did not know me well. It turns out that I did not know myself.

A confluence of circumstances (winter holidays, and over-scheduled children who were happy to be home and do as they pleased) allowed me to spend the next two weeks staying indoors and doing as I pleased. I jumped headlong into beading. As a longtime dabbler in various arts and crafts, it was no surprise that I’d try beading. In the process of sampling different beads and designs, I made pieces of jewelry without a thought about who or what they were intended for. And before long, I had a small collection.

Walt Disney once said:
“We keep moving forward—opening new doors and doing new things—because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
 And so, spurred on by my interest in photography and design, I took things a step further and began to catalogue my creations. Thus was born a facebook page dedicated to that purpose. So without further ado, here’s introducing you to my new hobby that’s running amuck. It goes by the name:

BEADecked by Nandu

The BEADecked philosophy draws from the fact that bead-making has been a part of human history for over a hundred thousand years. Bead-making and adornment, in other words, jewelry, is practically strung in our DNA.

BEADecked jewelry is meant to be worn –often- and enjoyed.
BEADecked is for everyone: Prices are reasonable.
The exclusiveness of BEADecked jewelry lies in its aesthetics.
The BEADecked vision is to unite seeming contradictions: It aims to be striking, yet subtle. It strives to be affordable, yet exclusive. Come see for yourself!

For those of you in Phoenix:

On Sunday, January 12th, I will be at Cannedy Dance Center in Glendale from 9am to 1pm with the BEADecked Debut Collection. Please stop by. Tell your friends!
(Glendale and 7th Street; Address: 6222 N. 7th Street, Phoenix- AZ 85014)

If you are on facebook, please “like” my page, and feel free to share with friends. If you are not on facebook, you can still view the album and facebook page here: