Thursday, June 29, 2017

Professor Whitman, through his research and reminder, tries to dispel collective and selective forgetting; denial and minimizing...!!!

James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law’, Princeton and Oxford, 2017. Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism states that one of the major contributions of the Western world has been “race-thinking”, as distinct from “class-thinking”. Race is a political, and not a biological, concept. ‘Race’, a concept without scientific foundation, does not lead to racism; rather it’s racism that creates race. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me that racism is not the innocent product of Mother Nature; race is not the father of racism but its child. And, Whitman observes (p. 117), unfortunately even mentally gifted individuals are not immune from the sickness of racism. Whitman, a Professor of Law at Yale, is meticulously careful not to over-state the case in his study: influence does not mean exact imitation but, rather, selective borrowing and adaptation. The Nazis were not demons who suddenly erupted on stages: there were traditions within which they worked, continuities, examples and inspirations (p. 15). It must be borne in mind that contemporary Germany rests on the moral foundation of refusing to deny responsibility for what happened under the Nazis (ibid). Germany has repeatedly acknowledged guilt, expressed contrition, paid reparation. One recalls Willie Brandt, Chancellor of Germany, spontaneously kneeling (7 December 1970) at the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was a silent but brave and eloquent gesture, most unusual for a head of state. Equally, it may seem strange to see America as an inspiration for the Nazis because the USA soon fought Germany, and has long set itself as a bastion of freedom and democracy (p. 140). But in the 1930s, Nazi Germany and ‘Jim Crow’ America were similar in that both were “unapologetically racist regimes”. For example, “American blacks being de jure citizens, were de facto second class” (p. 39) while Nazi Germany had Reichsbürger who possessed full rights and mere Staatsangehörige. America was for the Nazis an excellent example of a country with racist legislation and practice. Prior to the Shoah, sporadic riots and attacks on Jews, condoned but not organised by the State, were equated with the lynch-mobs in America: one recalls the song “Strange fruit grows on Southern trees”, made famous by the 1939 Billie Holliday recording (now available on the ‘Net’). Hitler admired the way Americans had killed and reduced millions of Native Americans to a few hundred, and kept the modest remnant under observation in cages: Hitler, quoted on p. 9. (In passing, I would draw attention to The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez, 2016.) To the Nazis, the very foundation of America was a fateful turning point in the worldwide rise of white domination: the US Naturalization Act of 1790 opened naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person” (p. 34). “America may have been the global leader in the creation of racist law, well known and much cited long before Hitler came to power” (p. 70). Germans paid “studious scholarly attention to American immigration Law”” (52), “hailing America as a forerunner of Nazism” (p. 54). On 23 September 1935, forty-five leading Nazi lawyers sailed to America on a first-hand study-tour (p. 132) because in the early twentieth century, America was “the leading racist jurisdiction” (p. 138, original emphasis). Characteristic of race-thinking the world over, a very small minority (here, the blacks) were seen as trying to “get the upper hand” (67). But the nefandus (such shame or evil that it cannot be spoken of) both for Americans and Nazis was inter-racial sexual relationships outside and within marriage; more precisely, between individuals of different skin pigmentation. (Often what is meant by a “race” problem in the West means a “problem” of colour difference. Elsewhere, I have suggested that in such contexts, “colourism” is a more accurate word than “racism”.) Of course, American society turned a blind eye on children born of the rape of slave women: the incidence was too common. The Nazis faced a problem in that the Jews were not always identifiable, visually and immediately. This difficulty has also been experienced in inter-ethnic conflict where the group-identity of the individual(s) has to be established – usually by linguistic or religious tests - before barbarity is unleashed. The Americans came up with the notorious “one drop” (of non-white blood) criterion. American law demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to have racist legislation even if it was impossible to come up with a scientifically satisfactory definition of race (p. 106). They did not trouble themselves about “the correct conceptualization of race”: a racist society can be built even in the absence of “any meaningful scientific conception of race” (p. 108). Consequently, the USA “offered the model of anti-miscegenation legislation” (p. 79, original emphasis). Thirty American states declared racially mixed marriages civilly invalid, and many of these states threatened such couples with harsh punishment (ibid) “The only other even partially comparable example that the Nazi literature highlighted in the early 1930s was found in South Africa which penalized extramarital sex between races, but not marriage” (p. 79). The film ‘Loving’ is the story of the marriage of Richard Loving, a white, and Mildred Jeter, an African-American. When the law raids their home and Richard produces their marriage license, he is curtly told that it has no validity in Virginia, and both are taken to jail. What surprised me was the date: the very end of the 1950s. (In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of ‘Loving versus the State of Virginia’ invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.) On 4 July 1776 Americans declared their independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Yet they denied the equality of the native peoples, and were a slave-owning society. They did not see them as people, human beings as they were. (Sri Lankans know well that in the mythical, foundational-text, The Mahavamsa, Buddhist monks offer the following consolation to the victorious but morally-troubled Sinhalese king: the thousands of Tamils killed were not Buddhist; not being Buddhist, they were not human beings.) Francis Scott Key is the author (1814) of what has come to be the American national anthem containing the words, “the land of the free”. But Key publicly declared that Africans were an inferior people, the greatest evil to blight the country. Being morally and otherwise inferior, it was justified to mete ‘inferior’ treatment. What the Americans demanded for themselves, they did not grant others. History furnishes us with similar contradictions between protestation and practice; contradictions which arise from a denial of the full humanity of the ‘Other’. Barack Obama in a speech at the Jerusalem Convention Centre on 21 March 2013 urged vis-à-vis the Palestinians: “Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” (As I have written elsewhere, under an electoral system one cannot shift the entire blame onto politicians: that’s all too easy a “washing off” of hands. Finally, the people are responsible.) Professor Whitman, through his research and reminder, tries to dispel collective and selective forgetting; denial and minimizing. Prof.Charles Sarvan/Germany Berlin, June 2017

Friday, February 3, 2017

From inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka: Grandfather’s Letters. Letters by C. Suntharalingam (1895-1985), edited by C. Anjalendran, Sailfish

From inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka: Grandfather’s Letters. Letters by C. Suntharalingam (1895-1985), edited by C. Anjalendran, Sailfish Publishers, Colombo, 2016. Time is unredeemable; what might have been is an abstraction (Adapted from T S Eliot’s poem, ‘Burnt Norton’) Chellappah Suntharalingam (1895-1985; known variously as “Sun”, “Sunth” and “Sunthar”) passed with distinction in Mathematics at Oxford University. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service but, energetic and restless; bored with signing gun licenses, he resigned. For a while, he was vice-principal of Ananda College (unthinkable for a Tamil in Sri Lanka today); later the first Professor of Mathematics, Ceylon University College. Entering politics and winning the Vavuniya seat, he was a proverbial “stormy petrel”; individualistic; fearlessly frank and outspoken. D S Senanayake, before he became independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, frequently visited Suntharalingam, and “Sunthar” personally knew many of Ceylon’s political leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil: “I met Arunachalam in London in 1920 when he came as Leader of the Ceylon Reform” deputation.” I met Ramanathan in 1915 in London when he came to save the Sinhala people from the atrocities of British imperialism (p. 61). The book is not without humour: “educated and recruited in England”, young Suntharalingam on his return received proposals of marriage from some of the richest “Thamil” (see below) families of the day, but the prospective brides were fatter than their fat dowries (p. 19). The cart-drawn journey from Jaffna to Colombo took five to six days. Suntheralingam was about fourteen when he travelled from Chunnakam to Urumpirai by train for the first time (p. 33). Though his mother was illiterate, “Sunthar” says she highly educated. A wise and strong widow, through careful planning and frugality, she educated five sons in then-faraway Colombo. As a child in Jaffna, “Sunthar” walked to school, sat on a floor smeared with mud and cow-dung, and wrote out the Thamil alphabet on sand. (He uses the phonetically more accurate “Thamil” rather than the anglicised “Tamil”.) Even as a Professor of Mathematics, he would mentally calculate in Thamil while lecturing in English (p. 30). He recalls that some children brought nothing to eat at school, and physical hunger affected their mental performance (pp. 46-7). He quotes with approval the Latin saying, ”Mens sana in corpore sano”. Before beginning homework by lamplight, he would wash, say his prayers and wear holy ash: the attitude to studies was almost reverential. Supper was served only after homework was completed. (No doubt, their cooking was done over a wood fire. I remember the short hollow tube, black with use and soot, through which my mother blew to encourage the fire, the flames casting a red glow on her.) As a child in Jaffna in the 1940s, I recall that if a pupil accidentally dropped a book, any book, she or he would pick it up and touch the forehead with it as a sign of contrition. If they were caned in school, children usually didn’t tell their parents for the reaction most likely would have been: “What! You gave the teacher cause to beat you?” The way of life of a people, their values and attitudes (all summed up in the word ‘culture’) cannot be separated from the physical environment. The high value placed on education is not surprising. Jaffna didn’t have lush plantations nor industry and factories; the soil was arid, demanding much patient labour. It’s therefore not surprising that many “Thamils” moved out in search of employment (some beyond the shores to Malaya). Their self-discipline and industry led to a success that was felt to be disproportionate to their number, in turn exciting deep resentment and anger. (To blame British favouritism for alleged disproportionate Tamil success took away credit from one side and self-reproach from the other.) Comparisons have been made with attitudes to the Jews in the various countries in which they existed prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948. The emphasis on studies did not exempt “Sunthar” from physical work. In many a Jaffna well, a man or boy would walk the beam (the “thula”) from which the bucket was suspended. As he walked forward, the bucket dipped into the water. When the man (woman, child) at the well began to haul up the bucket, the man or boy walked back, thus helping to bring up the now full and heavy bucket. This process was repeated until the garden or field had been watered. Whether the practice still exists, I don’t know but “Sunthar” writes: “I was trained to tread the well-sweep, to water the vegetable beds, to look after cattle and to drive a bullock-cart. On some days I had to tread the well-sweep between four and six in the morning”, have my morning meal, and run over three miles to school, “lest I be summarily caned for being late” (p. 45). A staunch Hindu but with an inquiring, wide-ranging, mind the first of many school-prizes he won was for his knowledge of Christian scripture (p. 199). Under British imperial rule, there was “impartial recognition of Ceylonese merit” (p. 74), and students “were judged solely on our individual performances”. University scholarships were won, among others by, L. M. D. de Silva, P. de S. Kularatne, Gregory Weeramantry, D. J. Telesphor (later, Liyanage), and T. D. Perera, borther of H. V. Perea, QC, and Walter Samarawickrema (p. 73). So too, in politics: the only seat available at the 1911 Ceylon Legislative Council election was contested by (Tamil) Ponnambalam Ramanathan and (Sinhalese) Marcus Fernando. Ramanathan won. Students sometimes didn’t know to which community a particular fellow-schoolboy belonged (p. 38). I quote Professor Suntharalingam: “It is not realised by many people in Ceylon that the Soulbury Constitution did not grant full Dominion Status to Ceylon. It was therefore necessary that in constituting the first Cabinet every step had to be taken to make it inevitable to have the Soulbury Constitution converted to a full-fledged Dominion Constitution at the earlies possible opportunity. The National Unit comprising Sinhalese, Thamils, Muslims, Burghers and others had to be a matter of show if not of substance: it had to be displayed to make the British Government believe that the demand for responsible government knew no communal difference. Oliver Goonetilleke and Lionel Kotelawala were D. S. Senanayake’s emissaries to persuade me to join the Cabinet” (p. 87, italics added). Inclusive Ceylon soon metamorphosed into excluding Sri Lanka, and by the time Professor Suntharalingam realized his mistake and presented an appeal to the Governor-General (24 June 1950) it was woefully too late: see p. 163. His brother Nagalinam was acting Chief Justice and acting Governor General but could never be made permanent: “Yes, unfortunate days have fallen on the Thamils of Eelam” (p. 17). “In our day we could work hard and depend entirely on our merit to progress in life. But in your day, you may be thwarted for no other reason than that you are born an Eelam Thamil boy” (p. 60). Another brother, Amirthalingam, retired as Director of Fisheries and went on to become a professor of Zoology abroad. Seen only as a Thamil, he was not allowed to “give of his best to the land of his birth” (18): a feeling of deep regret shared by several others. Unlike in former Ceylon, what counts most in Sri Lanka is ‘race’ and, secondly, subscription to religion, specifically, Buddhism. One “cannot deny any more that there is no impartial recognition of merit, not only towards the Eelam Thamil boy, but towards the Sinhala boys who are not Buddhist” (p. 74). Erich Fromm in his Escape From Freedom distinguishes between 'freedom from' and ‘freedom to’. The former can be seen as emancipatory while the second, building on this foundational freedom, gives scope to the individual, among other things, to develop and express her or his talents to their full potential. “Sunthar” would probably have said that though ‘freedom from’ still exists, there’s little of the ‘freedom to’ for Thamils in Sri Lanka. Volatile, credulous and easily excited, the people were ever ready to take rumour for fact, and to disseminate it. The Governor-General phoned and asked “Sunthar” about poor Sinhalese fishermen being murdered in Mullaitivu. On investigation, it turned out that “not a single fisherman or any other had been harmed” (p. 147). During the 1958 riots, I was one of those who found refuge at Gampaha police station. From the window I could see a mob gathering, with Buddhist monks at the forefront behaving in a most un-Buddhist manner. As perhaps the only one of the refugees with whom he could talk, the officer once told me that a train was coming from Jaffna, each compartment packed like sardines with the bodies of murdered Sinhalese. “Why did your people do this?” Marooned, disorientated, I had no answer but of one thing I was certain: if there was indeed such a train, then when it steamed into Maradana station, I would be killed in Gampaha. Of course, the grisly, ghastly, train never existed. Looking back, what remains in my mind is the total conviction of that officer. Taking rumour for fact, his question was not whether but why. He believed the story because he wanted it to be true. In turn, it would confirm and justify his prejudice and hatred. There are points in the letters at which one pauses: I mention just three. First, to engage in the “Ifs and buts” of History as Professor Suntharalingam does is futile because there are so many unknowns and variables. He reports what Bandaranaike told him in conversation, and what was generally believed in and expected: “Monck-Mason Moore will be Governor-General for a year, D. S. will succeed him and I will succeed D. S. as Prime Minister” (p. 91). If Bandaranaike had not been “ousted” he would not have resorted to the “Sinhala-Only” slogan, “a slogan especially invented by him to rise to power” (p. 92). But one wonders: Do politicians create venomous, divisive, group-emotions or do they cater to, incite and excite already-existing feelings in the populace? Isn’t it too easy to lay all the blame on politicians, and so exculpate ourselves? Then again Professor Suntharalingam urges his grandchild to remain true to traditional Thamil values and patterns of conduct (p. 20) but isn’t culture dependent on political, economic and social realities? Thirdly, following the Bhagavath Gita, he believes that when Dharma decays and Adharma prospers, there will be Providential intervention to right wrongs. Though such miraculous and dramatic incidents are related in all religions, they hark back to distant time. To my knowledge, there is no modern example of divine intervention in public-life and History. Again, it’s too easy to leave it all to god or the gods. Prayer must be prelude and preparation, and not a substitute for human endeavour. The Editor, in a ‘Last of the Mohicans’ fashion, says in his Introduction that he is now the only one left in Sri Lanka of what was once a large and closely-knit family. (Etymologically, “diaspora” is derived from to “scatter”. You will be scattered in all parts of the earth: Deuteronomy 28:25). The title, Grandfather’s Letters, may lead readers to think this is a substantial, if not a comprehensive, collection of letters but they amount to only twenty in number. The letters are not dated and the reader must try to work out historical context by internal reference, for example, the assassination of Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike. Readers would also have been greatly helped by editorial exegesis relating to certain details and now-forgotten individuals mentioned by Professor Suntharalingam. However, these letters form a valuable document – interesting, informative and ultimately tragic. The Editor is to be thanked for attempting to preserve them for posterity. Finally, I thank Mahesan Selvaratnam (retired Deputy Inspector General of Police) for kindly sending me a copy. We have been friends since Gurutalawa days in the early 1950s. Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan (Berlin)