Saturday, September 03, 2016

A Historian Who Believes There Are No Good Guys, Bad Guys

Much of politics and history, especially in the U.S., is about Us and Them. Us, the Good Guys, versus much of the Rest of the World: the Bad Guys. If you're with us, with moral as well as material and diplomatic support, you're also good guys (though not as good as us). If you're against us, or simply not with us, you're bad guys. And our mission is to bomb, starve, and sanction you into changing your mind.

Historian Mark David Ledbetter does not accept such a simplistic view of wold affairs. His study of history, contained in three works of towering research, America's Forgotten History: Parts 1-3, tells him that every nation, at some point in its history, has been guilty of genocide or war crimes. It just happens that different nations are at different points of development and engagement with the rest of the world, and therefore, we don't all behave and think the same.

But that's just one element of Ledbetter's new book, Dancing on the Edge of the Widening Gyre: A History of Our Times, a wide-ranging, eminently sensible, serious, and important book that will both shake up and enlighten many a smug intellect (it did mine).

Ledbetter strikes me as passionately humane, antiwar, antiracist (though non-pc),  and globalist in his thinking. Also, his opinions are not always politically correct: a rare feature in an academic writer whose prose, though elegant, is as entertaining and readable as that of a good novelist.
Much of the Widening Gyre’s pleasure comes from its highly readable, entertaining, and information historical narratives. A shocking revelation, to me (and perhaps to many readers), is the degree to which racism, eugenics, and race theories were a central part of America’s immigration policy right until the late 1930s--at which point, their association with Nazism made them uncomfortable and unpalatable to the American ruling classes. (Do we see their resurgence in Donald Trump?) For example
Among politicians at the turn of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt was the most vocal and eloquent in defining racial hierarchies, in advocating Darwinist racial warfare for world domination, in defending the imperial right of the strongest races to rule the others, and in the need for continual warfare – generally racial warfare – to keep the manly qualities of leading races sharp. He was, in fact, America's preeminent advocate of the White Man's Burden.
Later, he quotes Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, which for a few decades was very influential in American academia and intellectual circles:
Africans, Grant hypothesized, were not merely a different race but a different species, a distinction which, if widely adopted, might have led to more extreme, even unthinkable solutions to the "problem." There was talk of waiting areas – concentration camps, actually – in preparation for deportation of blacks to Africa.
But wait … let us stop feeling so smug. Most of us, Ledbetter argues later, are far from free of racism, even those of us who think we are:
The new racism, then, might be ideological and cultural. Since we all agree that racism is bad, and since racism is based on race, the new racism, which lacks racial reference points, is safe. We can indulge our natural tendency to be “racist” without resorting to racism. We can stereotype to our heart's content. We can deny the humanity of the other. And we can do it all with impunity since our moral guardians, academia and the media, are so busy trying to ferret out every last tiny vestige of traditional racism – and homophobia and misogyny – they don't even notice this new form of an old instinct.
Anyway, categorizing the totality of individual people according to their cultural blueness or redness is a morally safe kind of “new racism.” That is, it gives us a chance to indulge ingrained human instincts to be both moral and “racist” at the same time, while avoiding the opprobrium of actual racism.
Ledbetter does not refrain from subversive comments about liberalism, that modern sacred cow:
If fascism is a religion of the state, so is progressivism/modern liberalism. For both, fascism and modern liberalism, as well as fundamentalist religions, creed and doctrine infuse everything. He quotes Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, “Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian – or “holistic,” if you prefer – in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists.”
Goldberg might be a bit too kind in saying American liberalism is not bullying. In academia, your job itself might be in jeopardy if you “come out” as a conservative, and it is certainly wise to be careful about expressing ideas contrary to liberal orthodoxy in the classroom. Speaking of coming out, gay conservative professionals have reported that it is easier and safer to come out as gay in professional circles than to come out as conservative. The iron hand of orthodoxy is a fearsome thing.
But here, to me, may be one of his most radical yet powerful ideas:
Then we need to dethrone democracy and make freedom the sovereign once more. Full democracy is the best idea for choosing the administrators of government, but government must be constrained by custom, constitution, and law. We have to recognize that freedom is the greater god, democracy the lesser god; or freedom the king, democracy the servant. When freedom and democracy are in conflict, it's okay to deny democracy in favor of freedom. Developed democracies need to expand freedom, restrict democracy's power to override freedom, restrict crony-capitalism, live within their means, discourage a politics infused with a highly developed consciousness of ethnic identity, and encourage an understanding of the importance of cultural receptivity. And then we need to restrain our natural desire to impose what we do on the Third World. Let it evolve naturally, as we did, even if it doesn't evolve in exactly the same way as we did.
On the subject of "No Good Guys, No Bad Guys", Ledbetter's study of history shows that America and England, like Germany and Japan and every other major country in the world, have committed their share of war crimes ... or crimes of genocide during times of "peace". Therefore, he suggests that we stop the endless cycle of blame and decide on what we need to do now to save the planet.

Ledbetter suggests that many idealists try to “to make the world fit theory rather than make theory fit the world.” You don’t have to accept everything that Mark David Ledbetter writes in order to read, enjoy, and gain tremendous insights from his book.

In fact, he probably wouldn’t respect you if you agreed with everything he says. He’s a highly tolerant, open-minded, sensitive, compassionate anti-war and anti-corruption writer, one of whose big bugaboos is the crony-capitalist state, of which the United States and many Western countries are prime examples.

Where I differ from him is in my heart-based approach to governments making sure that citizens have a basic safety net, compared to his intellectual argument that such well-intentioned interventions usually fail in the execution. At no point, however, has this affected the respect we have for each other. He is also, he writes in the present book, open to the Swedish Third Way (true free-market capitalism combined with a social safety net).

All of the above can only give you a tiny peek into a 116,000-word book. The only way to do it justice is to read it. The e-book edition is just $3.00, while the paperback is priced a very reasonable $11.70.

I have not read all of Mark Ledbetter’s many books, but I heartily recommend his America’s Forgotten History series (Books 1-3 are published, in paperback at Lulu and in e-book form at Amazon, and Books 4-5 are in progress), as well as Language and Globalization: The History of Us All—a short book that should be compulsory reading for all before they pass high school—if not in the original, for high school children, then at least in a form that summarizes and quotes its main theories and arguments.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Man Speaks in the Middle of a Forest ... Still Wrong?

From the Preface to Works in Progress: [This is the slightly changed preface, and it encapsulates the essence of the book and its raison d'etre.]

If a man shouts a sentence in the middle of the forest where no one, man or woman, can hear him, is he still wrong?

No one can say, not having heard the content of his sentence; and the same thing is true, at this moment, of Works in Progress (and a few of my other books at my website and elsewhere, which, unlike when I had well-known publishers publishing and publicizing my work, are lost in the Amazon jungle of millions of titles): They may be shouts in the middle of a forest, but since no one* has read it yet, no one can say whether or why it is right or wrong—or whether “right” and “wrong” have any meaning in the context of such an act of pure self-expression.

And yet, I needed to shout this book to the world. Or at least to myself. (And maybe that's why the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders is justified: he has something to say, and he must say it--and in my humble opinion, he needs to be heard.)

That’s why I published it. But why the title Works in Progress?

Because it proclaims that nothing is final for me, that I am always open to rethinking my conclusions, and that my stories are just one tiny strand in the vast tapestry of human history and thinking.

Though I am a procrastinator, harboring stories for years before I publish them, at some point in September 2015, I just had to get some of this off my chest, for it was a burden, a promise to myself, that had been weighing on me: I would, one day, tell this story. And now, I have (whether or not anyone reads it, that is their problem). A few other pieces (included here) had been published in e-book form (but not everywhere), but not in print (all except one).

Acutely aware that life is a gift that can be withdrawn at any second, I felt that I did not, any longer, have the luxury of waiting for perfection.

So I decided to combine these disparate works under the present title.

To tell the truth—the deep truth, as I see it—has been one of the passions of my writing life. Also, to trust the creative process, to believe that much of what I have written was meant to be published and read, and is what I owe to the world regardless of short-term obstacles: writing being a mission, a calling, rather than a choice—it is what I have always believed, though sometimes with less faith than at other times.

Also, I, and some of my friends and readers, regard print as a more solid, palpable, enduring, and substantial format than a digital file. Literary readers and serious readers read printed books with love and joy. So do I: I love to underline the parts of a paper book that move me, later rereading them with pleasure. Many of my friends absolutely refuse to read an e-book.

Though parts of this book may not be “finished,” in the sense that some artists prefer to sign their names only to works that are near-perfect, others believe that perfection is an illusion, or a subjective judgment. To further delay publication while waiting for perfection may be an excuse concocted by my Inner Coward. And I am tired of excuses, of fooling myself.

I do not believe that I have the right to postpone these and other books. To some extent, you write for yourself; but you also live in, benefit from, and are the product of a society, and this society deserves to hear what you have to say. An artist is, in some sense, an enabler of democracy and discourse, of feeling and self-discovery.

I hope you enjoy this book and most of its varied offerings. 
(*Since I first wrote this, I unpublished the paperback, and the one reader who read Works in Progress has written back to say it is my second most moving work: he has read 8 other books of mine. But, as the inimitable Bob Dylan puts, it "You're not him!"; so the books of mine I'd recommend that readers read first are The Revised Kama Sutra, The killing of an Author, and Impressing the Whites.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

True Independence: Being Fatwahed by the Churches of Salman, Roy, Pope Francis, and assorted Rightists

I never sought notoriety or tried to be banned. What kind of writer desires not to be read--except, perhaps, by his relatives, employers, wife/ex-wives/ex-mistresses, and children, who might be hurt or disturbed by intimate revelations or by seeing themselves portrayed in some character? Part of me desires to be loved by everyone--I know this is a silly desire, but as a child, especially when my parents were not with me for many years, I had known the perils of unpopularity: being lonely, being bullied and beaten, being teased or insulted, being left out of the happy, joyous moments (spending a feast day alone, or a birthday alone, with no one to wish me or celebrate it, for exampl). Almost at no point during my growing up was I physically strong enough to defend myself, though I tried to compensate with intellectual achievement and notoriety (or fame) of a sort.

Still, there was something in me, possibly as a result of my childhood or my innate nature, that yearned to tell the naked truth, to be bold enough as to say exactly what was on my mind. And, as I could not do it in conversation, being shy and not wishing to invite violence upon myself (though I read a book about karate and self-defense and practiced a few karate moves for a while in my late teens and early twenties, learning that a well-aimed blow to the windpipe or the solar plexus could be fatal, it just improved my self-confidence in case I was attacked), I decided to tell the truth as a writer: protected by the modern conventions and laws regarding freedom of expression: which writers before me had earned, sometimes at a great price. That is why I have stubbornly continued to write, despite years of resistance from established publishers, and trying financial difficulties.

And now, it turns out, I am banned, not openly, but in effect, by the Right as well as the Left. Salman Rushdie has blocked me from his Twitter account (I don't know precisely when it happened, but I discovered it recently). Arundhati Roy has never responded publicly to Impressing the Whites, or even made a statement acknowledging my existence, even though she said to me, in Bangalore in 1997, "I know who you are," before walking away in a huff.  And what's worse: and this is an Indian convention I speak of in my blogs and books: their chelas, and all those who fear the powerful and the celebrated, have interpreted their silence (or discreet nods/winks/coughs?) to mean permission to ignore me, to suppress me, and to starve me and prevent me from reaching a fraction of my potential as a writer.

That's suppression from the liberals and the Left. The conservatives have always disliked me anyway: I have extremely liberal opinions, and refuse to be a follower, whether of a guru (secular or otherwise), a cult, or a church (the Indian Catholic church's official newspaper, The New Leader, condemned by first novel in a prominent front-page, semi-editorial essay).

At one point, I was known to most of the players in the Indian literary world, and at least a few in the Western literary world (including Ladislav Senkyrik, Czech translator of Martin Amis and VladimirNabokov, who said he would have loved to translate my novel; Harriet Wasserman, Saul Bellow's agent; and many others, some mentioned in The Killing of an Author) knew me and respected me.

But at this point in 2015, I have all but vanished. Though, technically, I am still in print with HarperCollins India, they are cavalier enough and confident enough in their power (and my powerlessness) as to refuse to reply to my letters or to inform me the numbers of books they have sold, or send me royalties: which are contractual duties, in addition to elementary courtesies that every publisher should accord to every author.

The less celebrated writers and editors, who once openly praised me (and it felt like honest praise), are now silent about me. Some of this may simply be the result of my lack of fame.

Salman Rushdie: I know it is almost too late--as I have lost many precious years, and think I have very few years left--but I want to put you on notice, now, that many people the world over, some of whom have never read my books, are suppressing me in your name, and your silence constitutes consent. That you, who were once banned and persecuted, and have solicited the world's sympathy for it--and received it from most, including, from me, an essay of unqualified support published in a major Indian newspaper--that you should be silent as powerful institutions and people ban me in your name: it is an irony that is worthy of your most fantastic magic realist fictional constructions.

(To my grandmotherly Brooklyn friend: this is just part of the record. This is what a writer does: tells his stories, expresses his feelings. He does it mainly for himself.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Muhammad Ali, the Greatest and the Wittiest

I had recently forgotten that Muhammad Ali fought for much more than himself, and is a man with the courage of his convictions, and wit besides:

Here are a few inspiring and entertaining quotes from him, many of which resonate with me:

Social Consciousness and Commentary:
"Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up."
"Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it, and I didn't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people using it when speaking to me and of me."
"Nobody has to tell me that this is a serious business. I'm not fighting one man. I'm fighting a lot of men, showing a lot of 'em, here is one man they couldn't defeat, couldn't conquer. My mission is to bring freedom to 30m black people."

"I am America. I am the part you won't recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me."
"We were brought here 400 years ago for a job. Why don't we get out and build our own nation and quit begging for jobs? We'll never be free until we own our own land. We're 40m people and we don't have two acres that's truly ours."
"I'm gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can't eat, black people who don't know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don't have no future."
"I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin' hell, but as long as they ain't free, I ain't free."
"What's really hurting me - the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence. Islam is not a killer religion, Islam means peace. I couldn't just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for this problem." In the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
"Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger."
"I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over."

The Fighter:
"What's my name, fool? What's my name?" To Ernie Terrell during their 1967 fight - Terrell had refused to call him Muhammad Ali.
"I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick." Before the 'Rumble in the Jungle'
"That all you got, George?" During the 'Rumble in the Jungle'.
"It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up."

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Mahatma, the Goats, and Young Cats: My New Humor Collection

When I was in my late teens, I used to read Punch magazine, and one of my favorite writers was Alan Coren, who published a humor collection titled Golfing for Cats. It turned out that the book had nothing to do with either golfing or cats; but golfing and cats were the two hottest subjects on the bestseller list at that time, so he married the two and made up the title. (Alan Coren's book ended up doing quite well.)

My story is totally different. Neither cats, goats, nor Mahatma Gandhi are particularly hot at this moment (the Mahatma, if resurrected, would be horrified by Donald Trump and prefer to return to his grave), so the Alan Coren anecdote only partly explains the title of my new book: The Mahatma, the Goats, and Young Cats, all of which do occur in my collection of humor and satire, but are not its main subjects: this being a diverse humor collection ranging from Jesus to Ronald Reagan, from Indian politics to American nukes and deficits, from Adam and Eve to modern puberty, from Gandhi to chicken jokes, and jokes about Indian stereotypes.

Still, I was delighted when a generous and hugely talented Phnom Penh artist, Stephane Delapree, gifted me the paintings of his blue cats for my book cover. This is probably one of my best covers ever, if not the best. Thank you, Stephane!

The book is up at and Barnes and Noble, and also at:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

More Quotes from "Impressing the Whites"

These are random quotes from Impressing the Whites, completely out of context ... hopefully, they will provoke your curiosity:

Half-naked and barefoot villagers in remote parts of India had begun to spend anxious nights worrying about, of all things, their bad breath—because capitalist commercials had effectively penetrated their ancient, spiritual, breath-free minds.

A young Frenchman who had recently visited China was greatly upset. Why? Because the modern Chinese were not as spiritual as he had been primed by the Western media to expect. In fact, these bloody Chinamen with their 30 million cell phones were as materialistic as . . . as . . . as he was!

Not only do colored immigrants owe African-Americans for the work they did in resisting slavery and discrimination, but we also have experiences and strategies to share. I remember sharing my chapters on “Impressing the Whites” and “The Fourteen Commandments” with a black man on a flight from Portland, Oregon, to New York’s JFK. This man, tall, strapping, and muscular, who had been somber and even intimidating (it seemed to me) through most of the flight, burst out in belly laughs almost twice a minute for the next fifteen minutes as he read through these two chapters. He then said to me, “I grew up in Portland, destined for jail and poverty. And I had to follow almost all of these Twelve Commandments* to escape this destiny.” It was a moving reminder of how much blacks and Asians had in common despite our differences in history and heritage. (*Since then, the White God added an additional two commandments.)

What is the result of this New World Order, the modern avatar of the Old Colonial Order? Crown us a suitable boy, and we’ll give you a million suitable boys and girls; we brown and yellow people exist only for Your pleasure, as You may have heard from all those heartwarming tourism brochures. And also for the occasional pat on the head You might be so pleased as to give us.
“Do not fire your pen-guns until you hear the Ayes of the whites” is the golden rule of Indian writers writing in English.

The West is a Jupiter-sized cow with a billion bursting teats, and the rest of the world is five billion mouths fighting to suckle a drop from one emaciated cow (with two working teats, the third being on a labor strike, and the fourth awaiting an Ayurvedic massage to unclog its overworked ducts. Therefore, milking the West has become a major Third World industry, art, or con game — one that we must master merely to survive. We are practiced milkers, and we’ll do almost anything, say almost anything, act any degrading role that’s called for — all for a drop of the gleaming, life-giving, white stuff.

The reason why India has no large community of professional anarchists, while having disproportionately large numbers of feminist theorists, Yeats scholars, E. M. Forster thesis-writers, or structuralists? Because, by definition, no anarchist milk may be suckled from the West; anarchists are too disorganized or anti-organization to know where their cows are, let alone to arrange for them to mate with their bulls and ship the calves to their Indian fellow travelers.