Anti-Semitism non-verbally

Quenelle-Anne-FrankAn op-ed piece in the NY Times today discusses the gesture invented by French comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, popularly known simply as Dieudonné. It’s a strange gesture, holding out the arm stiff, as in the Nazi salute, but pointing it down, and folding the other arm across the chest.  Dieudonné has named it the quenelle, the French name of a large meat dumpling. It’s widely recognized as an anti-Semitic gesture, with its obvious echo of Nazism, although according to Dieudonné it’s just meant to be anti-system.  That however stands in the face of Dieudonné’s public anti-Jewish statements and positions in the past.  Dieudonné’s fans have recognized the true meaning of the gesture, using it in front of synagogues, the Berlin holocaust memorial, or as pictured here in front of an Anne Frank poster. Due to it being illegal in France to “incite racial hatred”, Dieudonné’s shows have been banned in France, creating quite an uproar.

The author of the op-ed, Sylvain Cypel, sees the quenelle as pointing to something troubling in French society: “The Dieudonné affair is symptomatic of an insidious slide toward intolerance, but anti-Semitism is the least of it; racism and xenophobia manifest themselves more often as anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or anti-black.” She cites such examples as the black minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, being called a “monkey” or swastikas being spray-painted on the headstones of French Muslim soldiers.  Not all intolerance is so blatant or ugly, the coded racism of the Front National now has a friendly face with Maxime Le Pen but the essential positions remain the same.  One shouldn’t just point the finger at France.  Unfortunately, the intolerance to Others (especially the Others having darker skin and a different religion) is wide-spread in Europe these days with far right, nationalistic political parties having significant popular support in a number of European countries. Those parties tend to also be opposed to the European Union.  Let’s hope that, as has historically been the case, that this kind of far-right populism is tied to the bad economy and that once the European economy recovers, the political situation will change.

Homophobia & Colonialism

uganda-anti-gayAmong the legacies of colonialism are habits and attitudes brought by the colonizing powers and which persist beyond the colonial period. That may be in some cases a taste for particular foods or styles of preparation – for example, the Portuguese treats I remember enjoying in Macau (at a casino food court, no less). The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is another example (although pho may or may not be related to pot-au-feu). Even more evident is of course language, with India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Hong Kong taking advantage of the historical role of English to foster wide use of that language in business and education. But the few instances of positive colonial legacies pale in comparison to the pernicious cultural, economic, and political legacies of the colonial powers.  That includes suppression of native languages along with countless other acts of cultural imperialism.

What we are witnessing now in Uganda is just such a sad legacy. As discussed in a piece in the Think Africa Press, one of the sources of homophobic attitudes in that and other African countries is a holdover from imported and imposed Victorian concepts of sexuality.  There are of course other factors involved as well, one being the anti-Western backlash against what can be seen as neo-colonial pressure for Ugandans not to pass anti-gay legislation.  Another being the possible influence of American evangelicals. Uganda is by no means alone, According to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are at least 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many have colonial histories as well but by no means all, and not all former colonies have Victorian attitudes to blame.  Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its wide-spread popular support seem sadly to be home-grown.

Uganda’s President indicated recently that he will not sign the anti-gay bill passed by the legislature.  His explanation – homosexuals are “abnormal” and “sick” and need to be rehabilitated. His views join a long list of world leaders making unfortunate remarks about gays in their countries, from Putin to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who famously stated that there were no gays in Iran.

Lessons in Kindness and Forgiving

Nelson Mandel's symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Nelson Mandel’s symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Just in time for the Christmas season, a couple of stories in the news point to instances of personal conduct unusual in our day, offering a refreshing antidote to the culture of self-promotion and crudeness discussed in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal essay, “America the Vulgar“.

The incredible life of Nelson Mandela is a personification of the power of forgiveness, in his case resulting in the prevention of mass violence and freeing an oppressed people, ultimately creating a democratic state.  It wasn’t a small case of forgiveness.  The 27 years in prison robbed him of his prime and robbed him of his family. His son died tragically when he was in prison and he was not permitted to attend his funeral. He was allowed one letter every six months. He was often put in solitary confinement. Many Black South Africans wanted retribution against their long-time oppressors. Mandela forgave and initiated a process of reconciliation.

Seven years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish elementary school, tied up 10 little girls, then opened fire, killing five in cold blood and injuring the others, then shot himself. The Amish community responded by offering immediate forgiveness, later attended the killer’s funeral, and befriended his family.  Now the killer’s mother spends time every week with a now 13-year victim of the shooting who as a result of the shooting is confined to a wheelchair and is fed through a tube.

Today in the news, one year after the Sandy Hook shooting, one of the parents of a slain child was asked what outsiders who wanted to help could do; her answer – perform “an act of kindness” in your community.

Blonde angel

angelThat is how the Greek press described the 5-year blonde, green-eyed girl found in a raid on a Roma camp.  There was immediate suspicion that she had been abducted by the family with whom she was living and she is in the custody of the Greek authorities.  Meanwhile DNA testing has confirmed that she is the daughter of a Bulgarian couple.  It’s not yet clear how she came to live with the Greek Roma family.  The Bulgarian family has 9 other children and the poor living conditions of the family has resulted in the majority of children being taken from the family home and placed with relatives, foster families, or local authorities.  In Ireland this month two blonde, blue-eyed children were taken from their Roma parents, then later returned when DNA confirmed they were in fact the parents.  As a recent article in the NY Times points out, Roma are now the ones fearing that their children will be taken away.  The active scrutiny by officials and the intense interest of the public in such cases is of course based on age-old stories of Gypsy child-snatching.  It’s not likely that any suspicions would be aroused should blonde children be seen with Greeks or parents of other nationalities who happen to be dark-skinned.

France has also been the scene of controversy involving Roma families and government officials.  A 15-year Roma girl was taken into custody while on a school field trip and then deported to Kosovo together with her family. This follows controversial statements from the French interior minister expressing doubt that Roma had the ability – or the desire – to integrate into French society.  These and other incidents, including mass deportations of Roma from France have raised discussion in Europe of the “Roma question”, a disturbing echo of the “Jewish question” posed in 20th-century Germany.

Trapped by language

Rachel Jeantel620x408In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:

  • Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
  • Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
  • Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
  • Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”

The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:

Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]

Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.

I’m allowed to wear a hoodie

istock_000008235676largeIn an interview yesterday, a member of the George Zimmerman trial jury stated that race did not enter into their deliberations and that she did not think the situation would have been different had it been a white young man walking down the street of Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Given that perspective, it’s not surprising that Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trevon Martin. We all tend to categorize unknown individuals based on appearance, including dress, skin color, gender, age, demeanor, walking style. This is normal human behavior in dealing with the unknown – we put things and people into groups based on previous encounters, learned values, and media messaging. This kind of processing does not normally have deadly consequences, but it becomes problematic and potentially dangerous if we assume our initial categorizing corresponds to reality in every case and in every context, without trying to ascertain the nature of an individual beyond outward appearances. This is profiling – associating the stereotyped individual with assumed negative behavior.

It’s clear that Zimmerman’s actions were based on profiling, following Treyvon Martin because he was black, male, young, and wearing a hoodie. On NPR this morning as part of the “race card project” (creating 6-word statements about race) there was discussion about what message is sent by someone wearing a hoodie:

A woman named Bethany Banner of Kalamazoo had this ah-ha moment when she was out shopping one day. It starts raining. She pulls her hoodie, and her six words were: ‘I’m allowed to wear a hoodie’. Because she realized in that moment that no one would ever look at her, as a petite white woman, and assume that she was someone dangerous because she had this hood up over her head.

Treyvon Martin made the mistake of thinking he too would not be looked at askance when wearing a hoodie.

Another jolting quote came yesterday from George Zimmerman’s brother, who was complaining that his brother was afraid of retribution : “There are people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it, or be vigilantes in some sense”. I think he missed the irony of George Zimmerman fearing someone acting outside official channels and taking matters into his own hands.

Texas German & Nietzsche’s Sister

TexGer0120Logo2Interesting examples of code-switching (German mixed with English, like the combination of German was and English whatever) in a NPR story today about Texas German, a variety of the language still spoken by several thousand Texans living around the town of New Braunfels, between Austin and San Antonio. It’s one of only a few areas in the U.S. where there are still German-speaking communities.  Best known are the Amish communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  As mentioned in the story, one of the unusual aspects of Texas German is the fact that it is based not just on one or several dialects but on a relatively large number.  Also of interest are the words from the “new world” that were invented and imported into Texas German.  Skunks are not known in Germany, so the Texas German came up with Stinkkatze (smelly cat, in standard German Stinktier).

The story calls to mind a recent NY Times article also about German in the Americas, in this case about a German colony in Paraguay, Nueva Germania, founded in 1887 by German anti-Semites, including the sister of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  This is the same sister, Elisabeth, responsible for distorting her brother’s ideas to make them much more anti-Semitic.  According to the article, the town of Nueva Germania today is a model of multilingualism, far removed from Elisabeth’s vision of an Aryan stronghold:

While there are still a few blond-haired children running around, after generations of intermarriage, many of the town’s 4,300 residents have German surnames but are indiscernible from other Paraguayans. Nueva Germania’s dominant language is Guaraní, the indigenous language widely spoken in Paraguay; even those families who still hew to old ways, speaking German at home, mix it with high-pitched, nasal Guaraní and some Spanish.

Describing a towering tree in the yard of her farm with few branches around its trunk, making it daunting to climb, Ms. Fischer, the descendant of Nueva Germania’s pioneers, called it simply “ka’i kyhyjeha,” an indigenous term roughly translating as “monkey’s fear.” “Guaraní and German are so different from each other,” she said, “but they mix well for us.”

What a horror for Elisabeth Nietzsche, German mixing well with an indigenous language!


Not the nanny!

lam-bright-family-photoThe latest installment of the NPR “Code-Switch” series had an interesting segment on multi-racial families in the U.S this week.  Such families have become much more common, with 15 % of marriages being interracial or inter-ethnic, but that doesn’t means they are universally accepted. The story highlights the experiences of a couple with an African-American father, a Vietnamese mother, and two children.  The mom recounts that when she her daughter to a local park, she was ignored by the other moms or was asked if she were the nanny and if it was ok with the family that she spoke Vietnamese to her charge.  The encounters inspired the mom, Thien Kim Lam, to create a blog called I’m not the nanny. The article points out that more and more interracial families are touting their mixed heritage as a positive thing. Surveys in the U.S. show that that over 2/3 of Americans would accept multiracial marriages in their families.

It’s not always easy for the children in biracial families.  Thien Kim Lam recalls that when her daughter was 2, she threw a tantrum because her skin wasn’t fair like her mom’s and her hair was curly. The take-away for the mom was that it’s a good idea to talk about race and to make them aware of their special status: “Teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they’re American. That’s what makes them American; that they have this great mix of cultures.”

Turks in Germany

turksInteresting piece today on NPR on the changing situation of Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) in Germany today.  These are workers who were brought to Germany in the 1960’s with the expectation that they would go back home after a few years.  But instead, the Turkish workers stayed in Germany and brought their families to join them – jobs were much better paid in Germany and the political situation in Turkey was unsettled. Today there are 2nd and 3rd generation German-Turks, who often stand between two cultures. The report indicates that increasing numbers of Turks are going back to Turkey.  In contrast to the economic problems in the European Union, the Turkish economy is doing well.  The earlier Turkish ardor for entering the EU has cooled considerably.

Another aspect of that movement back to Turkey has to do with the attitude changes in Germany (and Europe generally) since the economic downturn of the past few years.  Racism and islamophobia have increased, as jobs become harder to come by.  In Germany a group of neo-nazis murdered Turks over a period of several years.  This has led to much questioning in Germany about police lack of interest and/or competence in fighting violence against foreigners from far right groups.

One of the interesting twists in the story about Turks returning to their home land is the reverse culture shock described by one of the young returnees, who had gotten used to the sense of order in Germany society:  “He was surprised to find a Germanic desire for order welling up in him one day while walking down Istanbul’s teeming downtown thoroughfare, with masses of people jostling this way and that. ‘You know, I can’t understand why all the people are walking like this! And one day I was nearly to cry, “Stop! You go right and you go left!”, ‘ he says.” .Anyone experiencing everyday German life quickly sees the real life acting out of the German saying Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Who belongs?


Nikah Dondero, ejected from her California tribe (NY Times)

Group membership is sometimes voluntary, sometimes not.  Sometimes there are such advantages attached to group membership that there are disputes over who can belong.  One wouldn’t normally expect such disputes to involve ethnic backgrounds.  And not long ago, fighting to claim membership in an American Indian tribe would have seemed highly unlikely.  After all, few groups have lost more than indigenous peoples of the Americas or have worse prospects for healthy and fulfilling lives.  But in the US some Indian tribes which operate casinos have acquired enough wealth that disputes have arisen over who can claim to be part of the tribe.

A story in this week’s This American Life discusses the process of “disenrollment” which has roiled a number of Native American tribes in recent years, The story focuses on the Chukchansi tribe in California, where the Tribal Council has been expelling members on grounds of insufficient proof of tribal bloodlines or lack of ownership in tribal lands.  Those findings are hotly disputed by those “disenrolled”, which number in the hundreds in a tribe of only some 1000 members.  The ex-members include 87-year old Ruby Cordero, who, according to an article in the New York Times is “a cultural pillar of the tribe because she is expert at basket weaving and among the last native speakers of the Chukchansi language”.  Why the recent emphasis by the Tribal Council on weeding out members perceived to be not legitimate?  According to them, they are just making sure their tribal constitution is being followed.  Others, however, point to the fact that reducing the number of tribal members increases the monthly stipend remaining members receive from the tribe’s gambling operation.  It seems ironic that now people are fighting to be recognized as Native Americans, a group mired in poverty for generations.  It’s hard to assign blame to those Native Americans who finally are getting some small share of the “American dream” and want to make sure it goes to the just recipients.

“Foreign agents”

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 10.08.09 PMReports abound today on crackdowns on non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in Russia.  This follows the law passed in July that requires NGO’s involved in political activities to register as “foreign agents”, an expression in Russian which is more pejorative than in English.  This is in line with a worrying trend in Russia towards greater nationalism and growing suspicion of non-Russian ideas and people.  The organizations being raided include a number of foreign-based but also Russian human rights groups that monitor elections and report abuses of minority groups, in particular those in the North Caucasus.  It’s clear that President Putin not only wants to eliminate interference from foreign sources, he also wants to ensure free hand in dealing with troublesome groups asserting more rights.  Many see echoes of the Soviet era in the raids.  As the Guardian writes, “Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on NGOs is return to rule by fear”.

It’s not just the NGO’s that are being intimidated but also ordinary Russian who are getting the clear message that actions such as investigations of police brutality, of corrupt officials, or of the unfair treatment of minority groups are unwelcome and may result in actions such as tax review and repeated harassment.  This also comes at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church receives substantial official support while all other religions (including Protestant churches) are discouraged if not persecuted.  The options for group membership and activities in Russia seem to be getting more and more restricted.

Sarita’s World

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12-year Sarita Meena

In the past few months there has been a lot of coverage on the gang rape and subsequent death of an Indian student in New Delhi.  The tragedy has shone a spotlight on the treatment of women in Indian society as well as on the caste system, as the victim (as were the majority of the perpetrators) were from the Dalit caste (“Untouchables”).  There is a perception that lower caste women are “free game” for men from the higher castes.  This case, however, does not follow this pattern and brings up the additional issue of the migration of rural inhabitants to cities and the social difficulties that often arise from that situation.

A recent story on the radio program The World discusses girls in rural India and how their role is undergoing significant changes.  The story follows a young girl named Sarita in a rural, very conservative area, who is seen (with hair cut short) playing sports with boys after school.  That would have been unacceptable not many years ago, as in fact would have been girls just attending school in that area.  The majority of women in the school did not attend school and are illiterate.  The girl’s family is unusual in that the two older sisters have been sent away to college.  Sarita herself dreams of being financially independent.  At the same time Sarita follows Indian traditions in a number of ways.  She worries about her parents, when she and her sisters marry and, as is customary in India, go to live with her husband’s family.  When it is suggested to Sarita that she could perhaps have her mother come and live with her future husband’s family, she rejects the idea out of hand:  it wouldn’t be seemly. Like other women in India in a changing environment, Sarita will have to decide how important it is for her to keep to traditional ways of life or strike out in new directions.

A video on YouTube shows a typical day in Sarita’s life:

Cossacks return

Cossacks1Ethnic tensions have a long history in the Caucasian foothills of southwestern Russia.  A recent story in the NY Times evokes a group familiar from Russian history that seems to be coming back in that part of Russia, at least in the Stavropol area, namely the Cossacks.  The Cossacks are a legendary fighting group (usually pictured on horseback), somewhat akin to the cowboys of the American Wild West, fighting at the frontiers of the expanding Russian empire, including battling the Caucasian tribes.  Tolstoy’s Cossacks illustrates that side of their history.  In today’s Russia the Cossacks are evoked in support of Russian nationalism; according to the article, “In his third term, President Vladimir V. Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology.  Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.”

Apparently, men in Cossack uniforms are proliferating in Russia. According to the article, “Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.”  The newly reinvigorated Cossacks in the Stavropol area (where Tolstoy’s story is set) are running up against the demographic dynamics of the area, namely that Muslims from Caucasian ethnic minorities (Dagastani and Chechens) are increasing, while numbers of ethnic Russians are decreasing.  The Cossacks are not universally welcomed in their law enforcement role, as, in contrast to the police, they have no official status and are therefore not bound by the same legal restraints the regular police force faces.

Desert chamber music

Recent NPR story on the music of Sidi Touré And The Sonic Heritage Of The Sahara. Beautiful guitar music – delicate and comples – against the backdrop of a region (city of Gao in Northern Mali in Africa) torn by ethic conflict.  His music harkens back to the Songhaï Empire, which ruled the region in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Tuareg rebels captured the city of Gao in March and proclaimed a Tuareg homeland that they are calling Azawad.  It’s amazing how much great music comes from Mali, much of it going back to ancient traditions, particularly from the Mande Empire.  What makes the music today so good and different is the mixture of many ethnic cultures, including French and Arab, that continues to influence Mali musicians.