26 July, 2004

Three Rupees Worth Of Democracy

Three Rupees Worth of Democracy Nation Weekly, July 26-August1, 2004

What keeps America, in spite of its flaws, still a functioning democracy are its in-built checks and balances to authority
In Nepal there is a lot of talk—one might almost say too much—about “democracy.” Newspapers devote entire columns so theorists can pontificate on it (look at how much space Nation is giving to this pontificator!), international non-profits with money to burn fund seminars and workshops to discuss how to do it, people burn tires on the streets as a means to get it. If we had a self-help publishing industry, “How to Instill (and nurture) Democracy: And see if it can flourish in a semi-feudal society” might be on Nepal’s best-seller list. (Oops: our non-existent bestseller list.)

In America, the word “democracy” also raises passions and hackles. It gets people to give up their jobs and join the election campaign. It gets Congress to pass billions of dollars in funding to start wars in Afghanistan. It is enough to inspire people to support wars and send their children to die in foreign countries. In other words, it is as loaded as it is in Nepal.

A minority would argue that America is in fact, not a democratic country. That democracy flourishes better in countries where there is not such a massive disparity between the rich and the poor. For me, democracy in America kicks in when a right-wing person can sit down to dinner and break bread with a left-wing person without having to shoot them dead or chop their hands off. Surely, you think, that might be feasible in Nepal one day? Can people with different political opinions actually find themselves within the same system and think of living together without having to bomb each other into submission?

Perhaps our problem is a lack of space where people can express their opinions safely. Speech in our country has become actions: voicing opinions can become an act of suicide. Mention one favorable word towards the Maoists and you might end up being “disappeared.” Mention one word of support towards the monarchy and you might end up with your throat slit open. Why does this not happen in America? Plenty of people are plenty aggrieved at Bush, and plenty of them hate John Kerry. What keeps the people of the most militaristic society in the world from shooting each other dead due to difference of opinions?

Spates of extreme but small scale violence regularly rock America. Anti-abortion fringe groups from the right have bombed abortion clinics because they do not believe in abortion. Cults like the Klu Klux Klan kill their opponents. The difference in America may be that violence of this nature is seen to be unusual, and perpetuated by marginal groups—things that regular people do not do on a regular basis. Regular Republicans do not pick up guns and shoot Democrats dead for having sex with their interns. Regular Democrats do not pick up grenades and bomb Bush for starting an unnecessary war (although they might throw eggs and rotten tomatoes).

In our country, violence has become the way we hold conversations with each other. Shootings, bombings, disappearances and assassinations have become the norm. Whether we confess to it or not, this has become the state of our nation. And each incident, each moment in which a bombing or an “encounter” becomes normalized in the press, we forget we are moving closer and closer to a state where violence becomes the natural state of nature. Amidst all the weary litany of deaths, it is a challenge to keep seeing the strangeness in violence. This is not people’s normal state of being.

The other aspect that keeps America, in spite of its flaws, still a functioning democracy are its in-built checks and balances to authority. Nepal may be one of few countries where a politician is still allowed to run for office after holding it for four or more terms. The U.S. president gets kicked out of office after two terms, or eight years. Clinton recently gave an interview to Oprah in O magazine where he talks about how much he loved being in office, and how he had to mentally prepare to leave it. Who doesn’t love being the head of state? Now he has to wait on runways and in New York City traffic. Americans are prepared to step down from public office once their terms are over, no matter what their political orientation. We, on the other hand, are fixated with authority. We give them life-long power over us, like they are our fathers. We allow our politicians to be disgustingly greedy, and forget to remind that public service comes with a time limit.

Being in graduate school in America reminds me that teachers and students mingle on the same level. We break bread at the same table, we eat the same food, we even share the same conversations. If I have an opinion that is worth its salt, my professor will hear it – never mind that I am a young, minority woman, and they are old white men. This ingrained sense of democracy that is instilled in academic institutions in the United States, I would say, is the third wheel of democracy.

The proponents of democracy in Nepal need to work towards these three goals: to stop normalizing violence, to stop deifying our leaders and start making them accountable to the public, and to start building towards a more egalitarian relationship between different groups of people.

12 July, 2004

The Reigning Storyteller

Nation Weekly magazine, July 12, 2004

Americans like their heros to be lean and mean – not fat and shaggy, shambling and unshaven as Michael Moore, who won the best film award for “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the Cannes Film Festival, tends to be. Farenehit 9/11 asks questions that many of us have been asking post 9/11. How come the Bin Laden family were flown out of the US before they could be questioned? Both the Bush family and the Bin Laden family have cosy business connections with the Carlyle Group, an investment company with deep investments in defense and aerospace industries – how was this linkage never investigated? How come Haliburton, a defense company which has gotten multiple, non-competitive contracts for the war in Iraq, had Dick Cheney, current vice-president of the USA, as its former CEO?
Moore is a polemic documentary-maker and author well-known for taking on big business head-on, and he does this unapologetically and with his trademark bite of satiric humor. His previous best-selling documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”, aimed at the incendiary topic of gun-control in America. He examined the incident in Columbine when two young boys, in the fashion of Crown Prince Dipendra, went berserk and shot their classmates before killing themselves. “Bowling” raised questions about rampant and uncontrolled gun ownership and was a hit with audiences over America and worldwide.
But even Moore may have been unprepared for what is happening with his new film. Fahrenheit 9/11 beat the opening weekend of "Return of the Jedi”, broke "Rocky III’s" record for the biggest box office opening weekend ever for any film that opened in less than a thousand theaters, and went to #2 on the all-time list for largest per-theater average ever for a film that opened in wide-release. Whoever said Americans were not interested in politics?
And whoever said flag-waving and patriotism was reserved for dumb Americans who watch Fox news and believe it? Moore’s biggest coup is making this delicate shift from rabble-rouser to patriot. He goes from a man who could potentially be branded, in the fear-crazed atmosphere of Terrorized America, as domestic terrorist to a true citizen of America. And that’s when the shambling, I-come-from-a-factory-town-in-Flint-Michigan-and-I-know-the-heartland claim comes in handy. Cowboy Bush may know how to say “Bring it on!”, but he should not have opened his big mouth to Moore when he yelled at him cheerily: Hey Mike, get a real job! This scene is ruthlessly used by Moore, who takes up the challenge by showing how Bush was on vacation 45% of the time just before the WTC bombings.
Bush stays in the classroom watching children reading a story about a goat while planes destroy the World Trade Center. Bush looks less like a president than a deer caught in the headlights. Moore’s intention may have been to call attention to Bush’s ineptitude but he also does a delicate job of slipping in the question – how can this man not have known what was going on? The majority of the highjackers in the plane were Saudis, not Iraqis or Afganis. And Moore spends a great deal of time dissecting the Bush family’s business connections with Saudi Arabia.
Moore is acutely aware of the need to be populist in his mission to get Bush dethroned. To accomplish this mission, he goes back to the voting heartland of America. He picks a strong character – a patriotic woman from Flint who loses her son in Iraq. Filmed with quiet sympathy for a military family, this segment is a coup d’ etat, allowing both the anti-war Left who see soldiers as intrinsic enemies, and the families of soldiers, to participate in the outrage that is the Iraq war. The military families, shielded from the realities of 1000 dead American soldiers and thousands of wounded by the mainstream American press, get to know that the per diem of each soldier as well as veteran benefits have been brutally slashed by the Bush administration.
Documentaries are made and played to be film’s poor cousin. They rarely get theatrical releases. Moore has changed all this with his spectacular results of the bottomline – box office records. Time magazine even ran a point by point breakdown of the Moore Method – comedy, tragedy, infiltration, confrontation and speculation – analyzing what makes him the undeniable master of his own genre. Christopher Hitchens, another documentary-maker who shot to fame unmasking political myths with “The Trails of Henry Kissinger”, rants jealously in Slate.com about Fahrenheit. Poor Hitchens! Reduced to mediocrity, he will never reach the same heights as Moore simply because he lacks a showman’s approach. Moore, more than anything else, is an entertainer who speaks truth to power. Who but Moore could write a book called “Stupid White Men” and get away with it – or even better, see it soar to the top of the bestseller charts?
At the end of the day, a good story can steal an election, launch a war, change the face of global politics, and buy time for a cabal of murderers. The entertainment factor, more than the truth, matters in America. By cuing himself to the populist power of the media and entertainment, Moore might have made himself more powerful than the President of the United States. Now lets see who wins that goddamn election. Bring it on!

Don't Celebrate Yet

Nation Weekly magazine, July 12-July 18, 2004

The presidential election in November will be the mother of all election battles. Democrats sound confident of victory but it may be too early to celebrate

July 4th is an American holiday that doesn’t mean much to a Nepali passing by. But this year, as I watched fireworks explode over Lake Champlain near the Canadian border, I felt it. July 4, 1776 was the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, it laid out reasons why the Americans were finally sick and tired of the British king. As America goes through “extraordinary times” with a president who often seems more nominated than elected, that document takes on special significance.

I have been in and out of America for a dozen years, and have clear memories of only two 4th of Julies, giving a hint about how important the Declaration of Independence was in my scheme of things. One is the time when I was sitting in a bar in Juneau, Alaska, eating a plate of the most delicious, smoked, barbequed, and sauced ribs of—cow meat. The second time was halfway around the continent, in a small town next to Providence, Rhode Island. As I walked down the crowded streets, my friend spotted the mayor and rushed over to shake hands with him. This was no ordinary mayor, but Mayor Vincent Cianci—a cult figure who has managed to rule Rhode Island like the Godfather for three decades. Cianci was a popular and charismatic man—not only did he clean up downtown and bring in Venetian style gondolas to float down a once-abandoned waterway, he also featured in a television series called “Providence” and even started his own brand of pasta sauce that sold well in the heavily Italian immigrant community of Rhode Island. But like the Godfather, Cianci had his darker side—it was common knowledge that he was heavily corrupt, and he had once arranged for thugs to beat up—and torture with a lit cigarette—a man who had slept with his wife.

The rule of Cianci appeared never-ending. Like all leaders in power who are known to be corrupt but who still sustain approval and followers due to the magic of power, Cianci kept on getting re-elected, in spite of overwhelming evidence of kickbacks and bribes in his government. Studies have been done about the psychology of people who blindly follow a charismatic leader. Hitler was one of those charismatic creatures, albeit in a twisted way. This is the factor—charisma—that worries me when I think about the upcoming American election in November. The liberals, I feel, are too smug about their forthcoming win, too sure Bush will be ousted. America is a strange can of worms, and I wouldn’t celebrate the end of President Bush—just yet.Take the man who drove me from the airport. He was a good, honest, God-fearing man. He had worked all his life at a medical insurance company, and had six children who he had put through school. All of them were hard workers, except for the middle son who was unemployed. He was retired, he said. He didn’t need the money, but still worked part-time driving the van. “Are you going to vote for Mr. Bush?” I asked. He looked at me and for a tiny, infinitesimal moment, sensing the irony of “Mr. Bush,” he nodded, “Yes, I am going to.”

“And I will tell you why,” he said. “Mr. Bush is a good Christian man. He had the guts to stand up to Saddam Hussein and call his bluff when nobody—not the United Nations or Europe—were willing to touch him. I respect his courage.”

It wasn’t that this man was uneducated, or unintelligent. Far from it. He was, in fact, frightening like the mass of Americans—good, hard-working, middle class Christians, who would form the majority of the Middle America voting bloc.

It was too late in the night to argue about the harm Bush had done to America, and the world—the billions of dollars that were cut from education and healthcare to wage a costly and bloody war against Iraq, a country already beaten down with sanctions and a tyrannical ruler; the war against terror that had become a war against immigrants and the poor; the countless ways in which the law was suppressed, information was hidden from the public, and the constitution ignored in order to further the oil-grabbing schemes of a clique of powerful millionaires. I paid my money, thanked the driver and let him go.

Not all tyrants last forever. Especially in America, the clear-eyed respect for the law is written in black ink in the Declaration of Independence, and comes back to catch men who thought they had committed the perfect crime. Cianci was accused of running a criminal enterprise from City Hall that collected more than $2 million in kickbacks and bribes in exchange for contracts, leases and city jobs over a nine-year period. An FBI probe collected enough evidence to convict Cianci of racketeering conspiracy and send him to a federal prison in New Jersey for five years and four months. The world waits with bated breath to know when this process will catch up with Mr. Bush. But the Democrats, it feels, are too confident about winning. This will be the mother of all election battles where charisma and Christianity (the evangelical kind), blind faith and ideological divides will rule the day. It may be too early to start popping open the champagne. If badly timed, the world may have to wait four more agonizing and destructive years before they get to drink it.

01 July, 2004



Milan Rai is the author of “War Plan Iraq,” and a longtime British anti-war and anti-nuclear activist of Nepali origins. Voices in the Wilderness, an UK-based organization with which he is affiliated, has strongly opposed the American occupation of Iraq. He talked with Sushma Joshi of the Nation Weekly about his work on Iraq, and his impressions of the similarity of the situation in Nepal.

What changes have you seen since the last time you came to Nepal?
I was last here four years ago. There’s a lot more militarization and urbanization. The atmosphere is very brittle.

What do you think of the recent bombing in Thamel?
It’s a military action coming into the tourist zone. It’s a taboo being broken. My impression is that people in the Kathmandu Valley, to a certain extent, are living in a bubble, and the tourists are living inside another bubble inside the bubble. I have a sense of impending loss. I don’t know how much longer this bubble can continue.

You’ve advocated non-violent methods of resistance for Iraq and UK. What would you suggest for the current political situation in Nepal?
My sense of it is that there are much more opportunities to be explored, like non-violent interventions for justice and freedom.

You’ve written a book with Noam Chomsky, one of the most well-known leftist intellectuals of the West. Do you have a personal relationship with him?
I asked him if I could use an essay by him, and he agreed. I wouldn’t say it’s a very personal relationship. I have met him four or five times. I interviewed him for my first book “Chomsky’s Politics.”

What were your impressions of him?
Chomsky is one of the great minds of our generation. I was not just influenced, but revolutionized by his ideas on a whole range of issues. On a personal level, he’s an incredibly unassuming and approachable man. We have a culture of celebrity. We treat some people as superhuman and some as less than human. He doesn’t have that to him.

Which books influenced you on your intellectual pathway?
I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, which helped me to find my own path. A book about the Chinese Revolution called “Red Star Over China” was also very influential to my development. This was before the revolution took off. Obviously the Chinese revolution has problems, but one can learn a lot from it.

You’ve been appropriated by the Nepalis as one their own, even though you have concentrated your activism and spent most of your life in the UK.
I have always felt a sense of inferiority as an Asian. The achievements of other Asians helped me to overcome those feelings. It is important to identify with the people you respect.

Do you feel that the sympathy for Iraq and the Iraqi people has gone up in the West since the war began?
There’s been a steady growth of sympathy with people of Iraq since 1998 to the time the war started.

Has the Western notion of Iraqis as “terrorists” lessened since the war began?
Since the war, there’s been another current – anger and bewilderment from people who don’t understand why Iraqis are fighting the coalition forces. People are feeling a bit stuck about how to respond. There are pro and anti-war people on both the Left and the Right. There is a very confused picture in the West regarding Iraq. If the war continues, the potential costs to the Iraqi people and the wider world could be quite high. Now the US is putting a “sovereign” Iraqi government at the end of June. It’s a new mode of controlling the country.

What similarities do you see between Iraq and Nepal’s present situation?
There are lots of parallels. In my book, I write about how the Iraqi armed resistance has been fueled very largely by feelings of revenge and honors of unpunished killings by occupation forces. I don’t claim to know a lot about the situation in Nepal—I don’t follow events here. But I feel there are a lot of similarities here. In both Iraq and Nepal, you cannot take the US government’s commitments to freedom and democracy at all seriously.