Barack Obama and the Dispiriting of America

May 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji) (, , , )

 More than a year into his presidency it takes an effort to remember the hope and hype that Barack Obama generated during his historic campaign and victory. His candidacy and Presidency were seen as a renewal of America’s compact with its better self as well as a coming to terms with its less savoury aspects, including the ‘original sin’ of slavery and segregation. The media hoopla added to the aura of a ‘post-racial’ America that would now bring bipartisan governance to a United States racked by the divisive years of the Bush presidency as well as peace on earth. That these expectations were delusional at best was perhaps evident from the outset, that they would be diminished so quickly could not have been foreseen. While the conservative media was and continues to be implacably hostile to Obama, the so-called liberal media has joined an increasingly loud chorus of dismay and outright criticism. The reflection of oppositional stances that are played out within the political sphere in the media serves not only to highlight seeming ideological divisions but also the failures of the Obama Presidency thus far. Those failures, however, seem not merely those of policy but more fundamental ones.

As November 4, 2009, approached there were a series of positive commentaries on what President Obama had achieved. Eugene Robinson’s ‘A World of Change in 287 days’ [Washington Post, November 3, 2009] was fairly typical in its upbeat and optimistic listing. ‘It’s been a year since a healthy majority of American voters elected Barack Obama to change the world. Which is precisely what he’s doing.’ Robinson did concede that Obama is ‘a president, not a Hollywood action hero’ but then went onto see most of his policies in contexts of instantaneous change and hope. He ended with a prediction, which while proving substantively true, highlights in retrospect the pitfalls of journalistic and political crystal ball gazing: ‘We still have some fighting to do over two words – “public” and “option” – but it looks like the principle that everyone is entitled to health insurance, a Democratic Party goal for at least six decades, is about to become law.’ The aftermath of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts not only changed the dynamics of the health care debate (apart from the arithmetic of the Democratic Senate majority) but it also effectively buried the public option. The Democratic funk and then final vote on the health care reform bill on strictly partisan lines emphasized precisely the ways in which politics has not changed one whit in the age of Obama.

Simon Tisdall in an end-of-year assessment of the state of the world in The Guardian, ‘2009: the year of living dangerously’, asserted that ‘Barack Obama’s inauguration provided hope in a period marked by war, terror, nuclear fears and climate change anticlimax.’ [31 December, 2009] Tisdall was aware of the extraordinary burden of global expectation: ‘To paraphrase Churchill, never in the field of human conflict was so much expected by so many from one man.’ That sums up not just the absurdity of a single transformative leader creating the pathway for worldwide transformation but also the apolitical, decontextualized desire for redemption that will miraculously transcend the complexities of American and international politics. Within such a redemptive, quasi-religious framework it is not surprising that there is a sense of betrayal, of diminution, and hopelessness and Obama was aware of it. In a speech in New Orleans he mimicked his critics: ‘“Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” […] I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder.’ [John F. Harris, ‘Change has come’ … or has it?’ Politico, November 4, 2009] Obama highlighted the difficulties of governance, the necessity of incremental change, and the pitfalls of an easy radicalism that ignores these realities to fulfil its agendas while ‘their man’ is in power.

Harris went on to analyze the kind of president Obama is focusing on contraries in his political persona and desire. At one end is the inspirational figure: ‘He wants to be a transformational president – unconfined by the limitations of conventional politics and determined to put a lasting mark on his era.’ ‘But,’ as Harris continues, ‘Obama also has the soul of an operative. He and his West Wing team – dominated at the top by people whose expertise is in the world of campaigns and Washington maneuvers – have proved to be far more familiar political types that they admit to themselves or than was forecast by his insurgent campaign and the expansive, at times almost messianic, rhetoric that powered it.’ That this is a fairly accurate summation is evident in the ways in which health care reform – a transformational issue related to ideas of equity, fairness, and the type of nation America wishes to be – was ultimately passed after a series of backroom deals and obfuscation about how it will be paid for. The positive political futures enacted in the bill sit uneasily with the shenanigans that preceded its passing. Arguably the wheeling and dealing is an essential part of the democratic process and the ends justify the means. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision and legislative achievements such as the laws related to Civil Rights were achieved at the cost of increasing polarization (and opposition to the Vietnam War from within the Democratic Party didn’t help). In a different era and under very different circumstances Obama’s policies too have sharply divided the country.

There can be no doubt that the symbolic politics of Obama’s election as the first African-American President of the US is of enormous import and Obama will be remembered for his signal achievement in a country still coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and race hatred. Obama was also the non- or anti-Bush and that explains part of the global and national adulation. As Robinson writes: ‘On national security, Obama moved at once to categorically renounce torture – a big step toward removing the ugly stain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left on our national honor.’ Yet, more than a year later Guantanamo Bay is open and there is a greater continuity in foreign policy initiatives – the New START with Russia notwithstanding – than the Obama administration may wish to acknowledge. These continuities are even more apparent in modes of political operations within the US. To cite Harris once more: ‘As it happens, the Obama team is never happier – as in its frequent public disputes with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or the insurance industry – than when it can adopt campaign-style tactics to frame an adversary for public advantage. The logic of this approach is clear but also plainly at odds with Obama’s stated desire to unify Americans and drain politics of its anger and addiction to unproductive conflict.’ To blame Obama and his policies for this anger, division, and hate is simplistic just as it seems disingenuous to attribute the vitriol solely to the wing-nutters on the extreme Right. That Obama’s election was not the promised future, that it was a deeply disturbing event for many Americans was evident in the immediate aftermath of November 4, 2008. [For media examples of post-election despair and hate see my article in this blog – ‘The Promise of America’, November 18, 2008] The combination of the biggest recession since the 1930s, high unemployment, massive government spending to bail out ‘too big to fail’ banks, a record budget deficit, two wars, the health care bill, the perception of a more interventionist government, a general sense of American ‘declinism’ (and the corresponding unease over the ‘rise’ of China) along with paranoia, hate on the net and over the radio and TV, Republican intransigence, and race have roiled the American landscape in a manner not perceptible since the Vietnam era.

Quite clearly there are significant sections of the populace who dislike if not hate the figure of the President and his policies for reasons which have little to do with policy. The Southern Poverty Law Center in its report ‘Rage on the Right’ pointed to some of the reasons for increase in militia and hate groups in the US: ‘Patriot groups have been fuelled by anger over the changing demographics of the country, the soaring public debt, the troubled economy and an array of initiatives by President Obama that have been branded “socialist” or even “fascist” by his political opponents.’ The arrest of nine members of the Hutaree militia whose Web site bears the slogan ‘preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive’ is just one example of a rising tide of armed hate groups intent on fulfilling their version of a perfect union. Along with mainstream Republican politicians, Birthers (who believe Obama is not born in the US and therefore an illegitimate President), Tea Party activists, and the likes of Glenn Beck who provide media space for all sorts of conspiracy theories there is a constant churning of anger and a furthering of the ‘addiction to unproductive conflict’.

A large part of the blame for the toxic and dangerous divisions in the US today may be assigned to the Republicans, Birthers, and Tea Party activists. They are more visibly angry and given some of their absurd assertions easily lampooned in the liberal media. However, there has been a failure of leadership. Obama and his supporters have justly condemned the extremists but the alternatives he has provided have not always been clearly articulated or fully implemented. Obama’s failure has stemmed, paradoxically, from one of his greatest campaign strengths: the ability to be all things to all people. As Larry Sabato observes: ‘Obama’s great strength on the campaign trail was that he was a “tabula rasa”. People wrote what they wanted to write. That was true for moderates and independents and even some Republicans, and was certainly true for the Left. He was going to be everything.’ [Cited in Chris McGreal, ‘Obama battered by criticism as anniversary approaches,’ The Guardian, 18 January, 2010] What worked on the campaign trail is not necessarily good for governance. Obama has been criticized on the Left for being too timid and on the Right for being a socialist (among other things). This critique seems to overlook a larger failure of imagination, of political courage, of the inability to perceive alternative and viable ideas of being American. Commenting on the significance of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts Harold Evans wrote: ‘Of more significance, in my view, is the mood of the country, and it is becoming as sour as it was in the worst Bush years. With Obama, this disenchantment is not so much because of what might be. It’s because of what is. And what is lies at the core of national despair.’ [‘Lessons of a Mass revolt,’ The Guardian, 20 January, 2010] Part of the disenchantment is surely attributable to the gap between the promise and the reality, the ‘arrogance’ that ‘has seeped in’ to the administration, and the ways in which Obama and his coterie seem so comfortable in the ways of Washington.

Eli Saslow captures this sense of disillusionment in an article on three Americans who were invited by Obama for his first speech to Congress on 24 February 2009. They were a bank president who split his $60 million bonus among 471 employees, the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., rebuilding the city into a clean energy hub, and an eighth grader who wrote to Congress about the decay of her 112-year old school in South Carolina. Saslow cites the banker in conclusion: ‘“The risk here is that people are going to lose hope. I worry about what it does to our society, having people out of work for so long and struggling so hard to find work and getting into despair and things like that. People want to work and need to work. It goes beyond making a living. A lot of people are very scared, and they’re starting to lose their spirit.”’ [‘Some Obama goals for administration have still not been met,’ Washington Post, January 26, 2010] Saslow delineates the lives of Americans who are not extremists, who are supportive of Obama and yet deeply worried by the present, their futures and that of the nation, and their despair is a far more trenchant criticism of Obama’s governance than any of the rabid rhetoric resonating in Congress, the blogosphere, or the media. In some crucial ways Obama has failed to reach out to American citizens such as the ones characterized in Saslow’s article and therein lies the disconnect between promise and reality.

There is another aspect of the impact of Obama’s presidency and this relates to the notion of democracy. Michael Gerson, former speech writer to President George W. Bush, writes of the visceral hatred and contempt with which his boss was greeted and treated. He draws parallels between that expression of hatred and the current scenario and sees it as a sign of democratic decline. ‘While no democratic judgment is final – and citizens should continue to work to advance their ideals – respecting the temporary outcome of a democratic process is the definition of political maturity. The opposite – questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one’s opponents – is a sign of democratic decline.’ [‘Tone down the hatefulness in politics,’ Washington Post, April 9, 2010] Conceivably there is a difference between the disputed election of 2000 (decided ultimately by the US Supreme Court) and the huge Electoral College victory of President Obama, but Gerson’s point about the need for respecting differences is worth considering. One consequence of the absolute lack of dialogue between political and ideological opponents is the diminishing of democracy and spaces for disagreement and debate. The process did not, of course, begin with Obama’s presidency but it is ironic that an articulate, intelligent, and acute President presides over public spheres vitiated by vitriol and worse. Politics now is largely a matter of ‘messaging’ and ‘massaging the message’, of advertising and hype bereft of substantive matters, a permanent state of campaigning.

Perhaps it is too early to judge and the febrile media commentary merely reflects the echo chamber of talking heads who lambaste Obama for dithering over health care and hail him when it is passed, who detest him as a socialist, fascist, and Muslim or revere him. Perhaps he will be a truly transformative President who, putting aside easy radicalism, genuinely sets America on a revolutionary trajectory. At this point in his Presidency, however, it seems that the promise of America represented in his being and administration is precariously poised. The dispirited nation needs more than rhetoric to regain its sense of hope and direction, to restore democratic spheres of debate and disputation.

– Subarno Chattarji


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The Promise of America

November 18, 2008 at 4:42 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)


Barack Hussein Obama’s election as President of the United States is, as innumerable commentators continue to point out, a momentous, path breaking, and rejuvenating turn in US history. Obama’s life story, his biracial identity, and his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency all point to a central myth of American self-fashioning, whereby one can make oneself anew in the new land. In the eighteenth century Hector St. John de Crevecoeur asked a question quintessentially related to the United States: ‘What is an American’?

Crevecoeur’s answer implied that the American is special because he is not subject to the constraints of his European forbears; the American has unique opportunities to make his own life anew, to refashion himself as if there was no past; in America history begins. ‘He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. … There is room for everybody in America;’[1] Obama’s election represents one of these pivotal moments of change, of transformative agency which the rest of the world desires but cannot engineer in quite the same way as the United States has done. Part of the acclamation and euphoria – especially in Europe – can barely conceal the fact that Obama is the first non-white leader in the Western world, and there are no Obamas likely to spring from European soil in the foreseeable future. Europe’s celebration – genuine though it is in the hope of new directions in US foreign, economic, and environmental policy – reveals the extent to which race relations in the ‘old world’ are mired in platitudes of multiculturalism and diversity training. This is a moment for America to proudly proclaim its catholicity, that ‘there is room for everybody in America.’


The change that Obama intoned during his campaign and premised in his election is related to the history of slavery – the ‘original sin’ of America’s founding – and that fought for and dreamt of by Civil Rights leaders. Again, this has been commented upon to emphasize the extent to which the nation has not only changed since the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but the manner in which the country has redeemed itself in electing a black president, putting to rest the demons of a shameful past of overt and often violent racism. The transformation since the time of lynchings, beatings, and segregation is indeed dramatic. African-Americans such as John Lewis who survived the beatings at Selma or the Rev. Jesse Jackson have testified to a sense of disbelief and wonderment, of awakening to a world hitherto inconceivable in their lifetime. Obama has acknowledged that he stands on the shoulders of giants who preceded him, who indeed made his moment possible and real. In his speeches he seems to encapsulate the inclusivity articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his immortal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That sense of inclusion is crucial for a contemporary black community apt to blame the white man for all their travails, to thrive on a diet of victimhood thereby disabling a crucial aspect of their ‘Americanness’, the ability to refashion themselves anew. In the example and life of Barack Obama they see a possibility now of renewing the American Dream, of re-entering the community from which they were excluded or excluded themselves. Inclusiveness is also implied in the fact that Obama could not have won without significant support from white people. There was no ‘Bradley effect’ this time round because blacks, Hispanics, and whites voted for an idea of a future not entirely corralled by race. In this context it is obviously interesting that Obama is biracial, that when his parents married inter-racial marriages were against the law in 22 of the United States, and that anti-miscegenation laws were on the statute books in Alabama till 2000. Thus this election holds out the hope of a ‘post-racial’ America where policies and intelligence, rather than race will determine suitability for elected office.


The hope of transcendence is further bolstered by the fact that Obama seemingly overcame a prejudice related to Islam and the idea that his middle name designated him as a Muslim. Islamophobia existed in the US prior to 9/11 as Edward Said, among others pointed out. 9/11, however, legitimated a pillorying and worse of Islam in ways that race or sexual orientation cannot be, at least in public conversation. The easy trashing of Islam and Muslims was evident during the campaign when rumours of Obama’s Islamic faith and his terrorist leanings circulated virally over the internet. The connection between Islam and terrorism was heightened during some of the McCain-Palin rallies and when Palin declared that Obama had been ‘palling around with terrorists’. Although it was William Ayres, the former Weather Underground bomber that Palin was referring to it was easy for Republican crowds to portray Obama as a terrorist because of his Muslim middle name and the fact that he had been in school in Indonesia.[2] The demonization of Obama as Muslim was not impacted by the fact that he is a Christian and had some traction both during and after the campaign. Moreover, as Colin Powell pointed out in his endorsement of Obama, being Muslim is not in itself a negative appellation or attribute; that it should be seen as such says much about America and its peculiar pathology vis-à-vis Islam. Every election campaign has its negative and hateful aspects. This one was unique in the ways in which Obama was consistently portrayed as un-American, an alien, and an outsider with dubious connections and therefore not to be trusted with the presidency. Here too the suspicion harks back to the question of who or what is an American? Can a biracial man with a peripatetic childhood and a ‘funny name’ be classified as ‘American’? The currency of these ideas did not disappear after the elections. Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post noted this the day after the elections. A McCain supporter in Houston, Texas reversed the once-in-a-lifetime narrative of the Obama win: ‘“It’s going to be very painful,” Charles Leff, 81, said of an Obama win. He added: “I never would’ve believed it. Not in my lifetime.”[3] Among others Ruane quoted ‘Sean Frost, 23, another disgruntled McCain supporter, [who] said, “They elected a terrorist.”’[4] These could be dismissed as natural post-election blues from the losing side but they presage a narrative of resentment and hate which has emerged across the country since the election.


Anti-Obama and racist graffiti was scrawled in a multi-racial locality in New York soon after the election. An article on November 15 documented the extent of race threats and crimes following Obama’s landslide victory:

Cross burnings. Schoolchildren chanting “Assassinate Obama.” Black figures hung from nooses. Racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars.


Incidents around the country referring to President-elect Barack Obama are dampening the postelection glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America.


From California to Maine, police have documented a range of alleged crimes, from vandalism and vague threats to at least one physical attack. Insults and taunts have been delivered by adults, college students and second-graders.[5]


The article catalogues instances of hate such as leaving faeces in pizza boxes outside the house of Obama supporters the day after the election as well as second and third grade students in Idaho saying that Obama should be ‘assassinated’. What is disturbing about the latter instance is the way in which younger minds have received and then repeat hate speech from adults. Within this paradigm the change presaged by Obama’s election is a travesty, a ruination of America and its founding ideals which are premised as fundamentally white, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian. The article quotes one Grant Griffin, a 46-year old white Georgia native who said: ‘“I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change. If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama’s) church being deported.”’[6] It is possible that these are lone voices and stray incidents but to dismiss them as such is to overlook a not-so-subterranean sense of outrage and a recrudescence of racist hatred. For better and for worse Obama’s election represents a seismic change in American politics in terms of its actual and symbolic representative and while this is a welcome and long overdue one for African Americans, minorities, and liberal whites, it is a moment of fear and anxiety for the rest. ‘Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is “the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War,” said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. “It’s shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries.”[7] The contours of this recent change will be shaped in the years to come and much will depend on President Obama’s success or lack thereof. There can be no doubt that his ascendancy to the position is a ‘profound’ shift and representative of the ways in which America has been transformed in political, electoral, demographic, and attitudinal terms. To point to the post-election incidences of racial hatred is not to undermine the changes but to highlight how the Obama revolution brings to the fore contradictions and fissures within the American polity that cannot be wished away.[8] To cite Ferris once more: ‘“Someone once said racism is like cancer. It’s never totally wiped out, it’s in remission.”’[9] There can be no ‘post-racial’ utopia in the sense of erasing racial prejudice or hate speech. While Obama will have to tackle two wars, the economic meltdown, climate change, and a host of other major issues, he is the heir to both the hope of a new world and the bitterness of loss for a significant section of America. That sense of loss cannot merely be dismissed by liberal elites as the voice of unenlightened barbarians clinging to their guns, religion, and bitterness. In this sense the context of the American Civil War is important because it brings to the fore another era of loss and disenchantment. In many ways America has worked its way through that period and Obama’s presidency is part of a trajectory of hope and fulfilment arising from the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent battles for black and minority empowerment. That this is only a beginning was evident in Obama’s sober and down-to-earth acceptance speech in Chicago but he too shied away from the contradictions of race. While Obama ascends to the most powerful position in the world he would be aware of his co-ethnics who are not only in prison or ghettoized by poverty and lack of education, but those who now face the bigotry unleashed by his very power. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of his success but it highlights both the immense possibilities and the perils of this epochal moment. America is unique in its ability to reinvent itself, to reenergize and fulfil its sense of possibility and destiny. That is what Barack Obama represents in his person and in the people who have put their faith in him. The promise of America, however, is a work in progress and this is but one stage towards the possibility of a ‘more perfect union’.

– Subarno Chattarji

[1] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, ‘Letter III: What is an American?’ Letters from an American Farmer. 1782. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1951, 45, 57.


[2] Some sources projected Obama as a Muslim anti-Christ.

[3] Michael E. Ruane, ‘With Obama Win, Elation and a Lingering Divide,’ The Washington Post, November 5, 2008, A10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Obama election spurs race threats, crimes,’ Associated Press, November 15, 2008,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] One salient contradiction was the passing of Proposition 8 in California outlawing gay marriages, a proposition supported by a majority of black and Hispanic voters.

[9] ‘Obama election spurs race threats, crimes,’ Associated Press, November 15, 2008,

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‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part III

August 24, 2008 at 9:46 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)


Sebastian Mallaby in ‘Wright and Ridiculous’ dismissed the guilt-by-association criticisms of Obama in the Rev. Wright affair. ‘Of all the strange features of this presidential race, the tarnishing of Barack Obama has got to be the most ridiculous. […] Am I supposed to believe that Obama is a supercilious elitist or a menacing ghetto radical? […]Yes, Jeremiah Wright says some disgraceful things. But can anyone explain how that changes Obama’s qualities as a candidate?’[1] Mallaby’s dismissal may seem too pat and the questions rhetorical but he did take on a media consensus, particularly on the right, that Obama was unfit to be president by dint of his twenty-year association with Rev. Wright. That association was portrayed solely in terms of Obama’s sympathy with the bitterness and anger of Wright’s sermons and condemnations of America. Mallaby tries to unpack some of the bonding between the two: ‘The Wright affair tells us that Obama bonded with someone whose political views are sometimes toxic. But as a young man trying to make sense of his mixed heritage, Obama looked to Wright for spiritual guidance, not political tutorials; as a community organizer, Obama focused on Wright’s admirable social work, not his resentment of the white establishment. Indeed, Obama’s own views on race and politics were diametrically opposed to those of his pastor.’[2] While the gap between ‘spiritual guidance’ and ‘political tutorials’ may not be as binding as Mallaby implies – the political and the spiritual are often intertwined in Wright’s sermons as well as in earlier paradigms such as that of Martin Luther King Jr. – the fact that Wright had done ‘admirable social work’ and that Obama’s views on race are not as ‘toxic’ as his pastor’s, need to be emphasized. The demonization of Wright as well as the tarring of Obama with the Wright brush is emblematic of a desire to create easily comprehensible, monolithic stereotypes that can then be pilloried. Stereotyping and personalization play, as Murray Edelman argues, an essential part in mediated mass politics: ‘It is characteristic of large numbers of people in our society that they see and think in terms of stereotypes, personalization, and oversimplifications, that they cannot recognize or tolerate ambiguous and complex situations, and that they accordingly respond chiefly to symbols that oversimplify and distort.’[3] Written before the age of the internet and blogs Edelman’s analysis may seem patronising and naïve, but the coverage of the Wright controversy bears testimony to the power of distorted and oversimplified symbols. In fact the proliferation of mass and instantaneous media has exacerbated the ease with which caricatures or half-truths may be purveyed.

Fortunately, however, as Mallaby and other analysts were testaments of, the media is not monolithic either.[4] Eugene Robinson extended the idea of difference between Wright and Obama, focusing on Wright’s hubristic homogenization of the black experience: ‘The problem is that Wright insists on being seen as something he’s not: an archetypal representative of the African American church. In fact, he represents one twig of one branch of a very large tree. […] his basic point — that any attack on him is an attack on the African American church and its traditions — is just wrong. In making that argument, he buys into the fraudulent idea of a monolithic, monocultural black America — one with his philosophy and theology at its center.’[5] It is not just the case that the media represented Wright in a stereotypical manner – which it did – but that Wright also colluded in this process by passing himself off as the voice of the black church. The lure of absolute representation of the self and the power inherent in those representations is as irresistible for the good Rev. Wright as it is for the media, and both sides take refuge in their vision of the evil ‘other’.

For conservative media in the US the Wright sermons were manna, effectively pinning Obama to a fundamentalist strain in his community with little chance of explication, communication, or escape. The general media coverage was, as Mallaby pointed out, ‘a revelation about our political culture: About its failure to distinguish the important from the trivial and about the inevitability that the race card will eventually be played against a black candidate.’[6] Obama’s assertions on race may sound rhetorically improbable but there is nothing unreal, no ‘fairy tale’ about the ways in which his candidacy has helped to redefine for both blacks and whites the centrality of race in American polity and imaginative frames. Race is not merely a ‘card [that] will eventually be played against a black candidate’ but it is a way of confronting and re-imaging the politics of race. In that sense Mallaby is right about the dominant media coverage being symptomatic of America’s ‘political culture’, not only in the context of Obama’s race but insinuations of his Muslim background and persuasion. As Betsy Reed points out: ‘[…] questions about his devotion to America carry a special potency, as xenophobia mingles with racism to create a poisonous brew. The toxicity is further heightened in this post-9/11 atmosphere, in which an image of Obama in Somali dress is understood as a slur and e-mails claiming he is a “secret Muslim” schooled in a madrassa spread virally, along with rumors that he took the oath of office on a Koran.’[7] Although the rumors have been debunked they continue to circulate and the Koran – as well as its attendant desecrations – carries a particular symbolic potency in the current climate of fear. The recent case of a US soldier in Iraq being disciplined for using a Koran for target practice followed by a public apology from the US commanding officer is an instance of disrespect and alien distancing, followed by a politically expedient apology.[8] Reed’s excellent essay deals with questions of race and gender in the current primaries election cycle and focuses on the ways in which the former circulates in political and media discourse.

Reed highlights Hillary Clinton’s complicity in making Obama’s race an election issue. ‘[…] what is most troubling – and what has the most serious implications for the feminist movement–is that the Clinton campaign has used her rival’s race against him. In the name of demonstrating her superior “electability,” she and her surrogates have invoked the racist and sexist playbook of the right–in which swaggering macho cowboys are entrusted to defend the country–seeking to define Obama as too black, too foreign, too different to be President at a moment of high anxiety about national security. This subtly but distinctly racialized political strategy did not create the media feeding frenzy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is now weighing Obama down, but it has positioned Clinton to take advantage of the opportunities the controversy has presented.’[9] While Clinton has not gained much leverage from her less than principled positions on Obama’s race and Muslim identity, the fact that she too has played the game shows its potency and attraction within a political field that perceives race as a primary and often negative marker of identity and belonging. In the debate between gender and race Reed argues that while ‘Clinton has’ ‘faced a raw misogyny’ ‘racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront’.[10] Setting up a hierarchy of victimization is both tricky and ludicrous because it creates a competitive victimhood that allows for the Ralph Peters kind of dismissal of Wright’s sermons as belonging to a global victims’ club of dispossessed rant. Such a hierarchy is also demeaning in the way in which it privileges victimhood as the sole quality or value worth considering in a subject. Furthermore the media replication of Wright’s sermons is a not so subtle replay of racial oppositions and fears.

However, Reed is accurate in her summation of the implications of racial codification within a larger context of American identity, a point I emphasized earlier. Reed writes that ‘Wright’s angry invocation of race and nation tapped into a reservoir of doubt about the very Americanness of African-Americans. “American citizenship has always been racialized as white. Who is a true American? Are African-Americans true Americans? That has been the question,” she [Paula Giddings, biographer of Ida B. Wells] says.’[11] The debate over and anxiety about the idea of America is deflected in major media discourse into an attack on the messenger. The virulence of the attack reflects in some ways the depth of the anxieties.

John Nichols in a posting on The Online Beat, a blog on The Nation tapped into the idea that while Wright’s sermons may not be ‘comforting’ they are ‘for the most part’ ‘well within the mainstream of American religious and political discourse’.[12] He went on to observe: ‘In more ways than Republican and now Democratic critics seem prepared to admit, Wright is the embodiment of an American religious and political tradition of challenging the country’s sins while calling it to the higher ground that extends from the founding of the republic.’[13] Nichols is referring to what Sacvan Bercovitch calls the ‘Jeremiad tradition’ in American history and self-conception. Nichols cites Thomas Jefferson: ‘“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” wrote Jefferson in 1781’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where he asked, “(Can) the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”’[14] Jefferson’s fears about the wrath of God are related to the idea that America is a new Eden, established by a special covenant between God and His chosen people. ‘Because New England was God’s country, its inhabitants must expect His lash.’ This ideation created what Bercovitch calls a ‘teleology of tribulation’.[15] That slavery should be the cause of Jefferson’s fears is appropriate in the contemporary context where Wright and Obama in their different ways bring to the fore the troubled histories of racial oppressions. Nichols perceives this tradition as a positive and empowering one concluding that America needs to heed the sayings of Wright rather than caricature or condemn him: ‘America has been blessed from its beginnings by champions of liberty, by abolitionists and civil rights marchers, by suffragists and union organizers, by anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and challengers of the military-industrial complex like Dwight Eisenhower. Necessarily, these patriots have said some tough things about American leaders and policies. They have acknowledged flaws that are self-evident. Yet, they have not done so out of hatred. Rather, they have loved America sufficiently to believe it can be as good and as just as figures so diverse and yet in some very important ways so similar as Thomas Jefferson and Jeremiah Wright have taught us.’[16] Jefferson, Twain, Eisenhower, and Wright represent for Nichols a pantheon of American nay-sayers who were brave enough to stand up to the orthodoxy of their times and their refusal represents a peculiarly American form of patriotism. Bercovitch refers to these ‘prophets of doom’ and their effort to reconcile reality with mythic expectations: ‘In spite of themselves, our prophets of doom [‘God damn America’] also helped persuade the American that the vision he inherited must be made to correspond to the fact. They too helped make him feel, if only out of desperation, that the distance between what is and what ought to be demanded his rededication to the spirit of America.’[17] While Obama has not used the intemperate or negative language of his former pastor it is interesting that he too taps into this national reservoir of prophecy, of the possibility of change that will redeem America and fulfil pledges that were made at its founding moments.


In her monthly column for Camille Paglia touched upon what Obama’s association with the Rev. Wright meant from a somewhat different, but still hopeful angle. ‘My one nagging question about Obama, given his Kenyan lineage and broad background in Indonesia and Hawaii as well as his Ivy League education, was how well he knew the history, passions and aspirations of African-American culture. But Obama’s 20-year membership in Rev. Wright’s Chicago megachurch completely reassured me on this score. First of all, sermons constitute only one small part of any congregation’s rich religious and social life. Second, not for a moment do I believe — as talk radio shows are tirelessly alleging — that Obama’s political views are secretly identical to Wright’s. On the contrary, it was through listening to Wright, who was reciting a black liberationist theology that has been standard issue for a half-century, that Obama honed his desire to bridge the gap between racial and ethnic communities in the United States. This is one reason I believe Obama is the right person at the right time for the presidency. Where Hillary divides and sows bitterness, Obama wants to unite and heal.’[18] Where many commentators saw naivety, bad-judgment, lack of patriotism and worse, Paglia perceives the Wright sermons period as a transitional one, preparing and honing Obama for a presidency that will transcend the divisions exacerbated by Wright’s sermons and by their airing on You Tube and radio and mass media outlets. Whether her hope is wishful and whether the politics and ideological frameworks of the campaign and possible presidency allow for such a transcendence is debatable. What remains vital and more than interesting are the ways in which all sides to this media fuelled debate participate in their conceptions of America and its future.

– Subarno Chattarji


[1] Sebastian Mallaby, ‘Wright and Ridiculous,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), p. 31.

[4] An example of alternative analyses was an opinion piece in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California) which expressed the dissociation very clearly: ‘If Wright were running for office, he would get the full treatment for his race-baiting and delusional ramblings and for rhetoric that ill serves Chicago’s black community. But as long as Wright is not drafting policy for Obama, he is entitled to his uninformed opinion.’ Debra J. Saunders, ‘With Wright, Obama is not Guilty by Association,’ San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 18, 2008.

[5] Eugene Robinson, ‘Where Wright Goes Wrong,’ Washington Post, April 29, 2008, p. A 17.

[6] Sebastian Mallaby, ‘Wright and Ridiculous,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A 17.

[7] Betsy Reed, ‘Race to the Bottom,’ The Nation, May 19, 2008,

[8] See ‘Soldier uses Quran for target practice: Muslim holy book was found riddled with bullet holes at Baghdad range,’ Reuters, May 18, 2008, Major General Jeffrey Hammond, commander of US troops in Baghdad said, ‘“I am a man of honor, I am a man of character. You have my word this will never happen again.”’

[9] Betsy Reed, ‘Race to the Bottom,’ The Nation, May 19, 2008,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Nichols, ‘Wright, Jefferson and the Wrath of God,’ The Online Beat, Posted 04/29/2008,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), p. 57, 59.

[16] John Nichols, ‘Wright, Jefferson and the Wrath of God,’ The Online Beat, Posted 04/29/2008,

[17] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, p. 197.

[18] Camille Paglia, ‘She won’t go easy,’, May 14, 2008,

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How China is Plundering the Natural Resources of Tibet

August 22, 2008 at 6:54 pm (Partha Gangopadhyay, Politics)


China is incurring huge expenditure in transferring and consolidating the Chinese population in Tibet. Massive investment has been made to build a network of modern highways all over Tibet. China can also boast of having laid the highest railway track in the world that connects Lhasa with Beijing. In fact, China often complains that its “civilizing” mission in Tibet is costing the government and people of China large amounts in terms of subsidies to an under-developed region. According to official Chinese statistics, the level of annual subsidies to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in the late 1980s was around 1 billion yuan or $270 million. However, all the infrastructure that China has built in Tibet has not made the lives of the native Tibetans any better; it has only taken the exploitative apparatuses of the Chinese government deeper. 


China’s Ministry of Land and Resources has announced monumental new resource discoveries all across Tibet. The findings are the culmination of a secret 7-year, $44 million survey project, which began in 1999. More than 1,000 researchers were divided into 24 separate groups and fanned out across the Qinghai-Tibet plateau to geologically map the entire Tibetan region. Their findings have lead to a discovery of 16 major new deposits of copper, iron, lead, zinc and other minerals worth an estimated $128 billion. These discoveries add to Tibet’s proven deposits of 126 minerals, with a significant share of the world’s reserves in lithium, chromite, copper, borax, and iron. “Lack of resources has been a bottleneck for the economy,” Meng Xianlai, director of the China Geological Survey, had once complained in his statements. The discoveries in Tibet “will alleviate the mounting resources pressure China is facing.”  


Tibet is now said to hold as much as 40 million tons of copper — one third of China’s total, 40 million tons of lead and zinc, and more than a billion tons of high-grade iron. Among the Tibet discoveries is China’s first substantial rich-iron supply. A seam called Nyixung, is alone expected to contain as much as 500 million tons. That’s enough to reduce Chinese iron import by 20 per cent. The new copper reserves are no less substantial. A 250-mile seam of the metal has been found along Tibet’s environmentally sensitive Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge. One mine there, called Yulong, already described as the second-largest reserve in China, is now estimated to hold as much as 18 million tons, according to the government news site Xinhua and could soon become the largest copper mine in the country, helping to feed China’s increasing demand of the metal used for electrical wiring and power generation. China, which until now has imported much of its copper from Chile, is estimated to hold 5.6 per cent of the world’s copper and is its seventh largest producer. 


The riches that China expects to extract from Tibet in the near future, perhaps better explains the money that China annually spends on Tibet than the empty claims of modernizing Tibet. 


In fact, an official web site of China has itself disclosed that “Once-quiet, northern Tibet has become a scene of bustle and excitement since a number of inland enterprise marched into the region in response to the government call for speeding up the development of western China. Northern Tibet has more than 200 mining areas with 28 kinds of mineral ores, and is rich in oil and hot springs.”  


The China National Star Petroleum Corporation and the China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corporation have recently dug up the first oil well in the Lunpola Basin, which has a proven oil reserve of three million tons. This reserve is in addition to the over one million tons of crude oil that Amdo’s oil fields produce per year. Further, the Chinese have opened two alluvial gold mines in Nagqu and built a gem processing plant in Lhasa. Soinam Dorje, an official of the Nagqu Prefecture, has welcomed inland and foreign investors to exploit the gold, oil and antimony resources on the plateau of northern Tibet. This also goes far to explain the need to invest in infrastructure all over Tibet. Apart from its rich mineral wealth, Tibet has many other resources that may provide China the edge in its race to emerge as the world’s richest economy. 


The volume of timber that China has taken away from Tibet itself far exceeds the amount that it has spent to build the infrastructural facilities in Tibet. In 1949, Tibet’s ancient forests covered 221,800 sq km. By 1985 they stood at 134,000 sq km — almost half. Most forests grow on steep, isolated slopes in the river valleys of Tibet’s low-lying south-eastern region. The principal types are tropical montane and subtropical montane coniferous forest, with spruce, fir, pine, larch, cypress, birch, and oak among the main species. The tree line varies from 3,800 mt in the region’s moist south to 4,300 mt in the semi-dry north. Tibet’s forests were primarily old growth, with trees over 200 years old predominating. The average stock density is 272 cubic mt/ha, but U-Tsang’s old growth areas reach 2,300 cubic mt/ha — the world’s highest stock density for conifers. Once pristine forests are reached, the most common method of cutting is clear felling, which has led to the denudation of vast hill sides. Timber extraction until 1985 totaled 2,442 million cubic mt, or 40 per cent of the 1949 forest stock, worth $54 billion. 


Deforestation is a major source of employment in Tibet: in the Kongpo area of the TAR alone, over 20,000 Chinese soldiers and Tibetan prisoners are involved in tree felling and transportation of timber. In 1949, Ngapa, in Amdo, had 2.20 million hectares of land under forest cover. Its timber reserve then stood at 340 million cubic mt. In the 1980s, it was reduced to 1.17 million hectares, with a timber reserve of only 180 million cubic mt. Similarly, during 30 years, till 1985 China exploited 6.44 million cubic mt of timber from Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. As new roads increasingly penetrate remote areas of Tibet, China is finding new excuses to increase the rate of deforestation in the region.  


China’s primary objective of constructing roads in Tibet is to deploy occupying forces like the People’s Liberation Army, along with defence materials, and immigration of Chinese, as well as to exploit the natural resources of Tibet, which are transported primarily to China. Roads may run through most Tibetan villages, but a public transport system is almost non-existent in the majority of rural Tibet. The Chinese modern means of transport do not benefit the majority of Tibetans. Tibetans in most places continue to use horses, mules, yaks, donkeys and sheep as modes of transportation. Thus, the Chinese claim of investing heavily in “civilizing” the Tibetans is one of the most shameless lies that one can perpetuate. 


The Tibetan plateau gives birth to some of the longest rivers of the world; The Machu (Huang Ho, or Yellow River), the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), the Drichu (Yangtze), and the Senge Khabab (Indus).  Tibet also has over 2,000 natural lakes spread over a combined area of more than 35,000 sq km, some of which are sacred and play a special role in local culture. Steep slopes and the abundant water of these rivers and lakes make them extremely valuable as sources of hydroelectric power. Tibet has an exploitable hydropower potential of 250,000 megawatts, the highest of any country in the world and the TAR alone has a potential of 200,000 megawatts. China has built some large hydroelectricity projects all over Tibet. These projects are designed to tap Tibet’s hydro potential to provide power and other benefits to the Chinese population and industries both in Tibet and China.  


While the Tibetans are displaced from their homes and lands, tens of thousands of Chinese workers are brought up from China to construct and maintain these dams. Take the case of the Yamdrok Yutso hydropower project. The Chinese claim that this project will greatly benefit the Tibetans. The Tibetan people in general, particularly the late Panchen Lama and Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, opposed and effectively delayed its construction for several years. The Chinese, nevertheless, went ahead with the construction and with the help of more than 1,500-strong PLA troops are guarding the construction area and no civilians are allowed near it. But the environmental, human and cultural toll of these hydroelectricity projects will have to be borne by the Tibetans.  Tibet also possesses high solar energy potential per unit only after the Sahara, an estimated annual average of 200 kilocalorie/cm, as well as significant geothermal resources. Despite such abundant potential from small, environmentally-benign sources, the Chinese have built huge dams, such as Longyang Xia, and are continuing to do so, such as the hydropower station at Yamdrok Yutso. Tibet is made to play a pivotal role in fulfilling the huge demand for power in China at the cost of its own helpless, poor natives. 


Furthermore, Tibet has been made a hub of nuclear facilities. This reduces the radioactive risks that China could suffer if an accident takes place in such installations. Again, since such facilities are located in a colonized region, the Chinese authorities do not take the necessary precautions that are mandatory for such facilities. Official Chinese pronouncements have confirmed the existence in Tibet of the biggest uranium reserves in the world. Apart from Amdo, since 1976 uranium has been mined and processed in the Thewo and Zorge regions of Kham also. According to reports, the uranium mining and processing in Tibet is done with unforgivable callousness. The Ninth Academy, China’s Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy in Tibet’s north-eastern area of Amdo, is reported to have dumped an unknown quantity of radioactive waste on the Tibetan plateau, according to a report released by International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington, D.C.-based organization: 


“Waste disposal methods were reported to be casual in the extreme. Initially, waste was put in shallow, unlined landfills… The nature and quantity of radioactive waste generated by the Ninth Academy is still unknown… During the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear waste from the facility was disposed of in a roughshod and haphazard manner. Nuclear waste from the academy would have taken a variety of forms — liquid slurry, as well as solid and gaseous waste. Liquid or solid waste would have been in adjacent land or water sites.” 


Given the fact that underground water supplies in Amdo have been diminishing at a rapid rate and usable underground water is very limited, the radioactive contamination of groundwater is of great concern in the region. Many local Tibetans have died after drinking contaminated water near a uranium mine in Ngapa, Amdo. They have also reported deformed birth of humans and animals.  


The existence of Chinese nuclear bases and nuclear weapon manufacturing centres in Tibet has been reported from time to time. China is reported to have stationed approximately 90 nuclear warheads in Tibet. The Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy or the Ninth Academy, a secret organization involved in China’s  nuclear programme which is also a high security military weapons plant, is based at Dhashu (Chinese: Haiyan) in the Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It was responsible for designing all of China’s nuclear bombs through the mid-70s. It served as a research centre for detonation development, radiochemistry and many other nuclear weapons related activities. It also assembled components of nuclear weapons. Several missile bases are located to the south of Lake Kokonor in Amdo, and Nagchukha. Another nuclear missile site in Tibet is located at Delingha, about 200 km south-east of Larger Tsaidam. It also houses DF-4s, and is the missile regimental headquarters for Amdo, containing four associated launch sites. It has been reported a number of times that China has carried out chemical defence manoeuvres in the high altitude zones of Tibet. There are also reports that China has been conducting nuclear tests in several areas of Tibet in order to determine radiation levels on the human population.  


Not only is its economy, China’s military might too is growing because of its colonization of Tibet.


China is exploiting far more from Tibet than what it is giving back. While China is proudly hosting the Olympics with its spectacular stadia and dazzling shows, the future of Tibet is turning gloomier. 


– Partha Gangopadhyay 


[Quote from Nuclear Tibet, Washington, DC, 1993, p.18 


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‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part II

August 20, 2008 at 1:11 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)


Barack Obama’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination has triggered anxieties not only about what it means to be American but has also led to a spate of speculations into the nature of blackness and the black community in the United States. Teddy Davis’ ‘Obama: “A Bound Man?”’ is one example and Davis’s article was based largely on a book by Shelby Steele, A Bound Man: Why We’re Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win. The title in its combination of hope and inevitable loss encompasses the notion that Obama is a passing phenomenon, that America is not ready to vote a black man yet.

Davis, summarising Steele, makes a distinction between two kinds of black leaders: the ‘challengers’ and the ‘bargainers’. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright are the ‘challengers’, because ‘they make whites feel guilty’. Obama is a ‘bargainer’ because ‘he agrees not to shame Americans with the history of slavery and segregation and whites respond with enormous gratitude’.[1] Steele does not perceive Obama’s possible cross-racial bargaining capacity as a positive quality because he thinks Obama has to ‘prove’ his blackness. Steele argues that in order to establish his black credentials Obama advocates a type of black agency which is contingent on whites (and their approval) and if this is so blacks will remain at the bottom forever and they will continue to need government help. ‘Steele thinks Obama’s alleged insecurity about his racial identity explains not only his 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but also his continued support for affirmative action’.[2] Steele’s pop-psychological deconstruction of Obama’s racial identity and dilemmas is cited without comment, indeed with approbation, throughout the article, indicating the need for definitive frameworks to understand as well as criticize Obama. In Steele’s formulation it is not so much that America is not ready to vote for a black man but that the black leader is himself flawed and insecure and therefore unworthy of trust and votes. Davis concludes with a quote from an interview of Steele: ‘“What he is really saying is that he’s afraid,” Steele continued. “What Obama is saying is, ‘I’m afraid if I am less than receptive to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they’re going to call me an Uncle Tom, they’re going to call me a sellout.’ The terror of Barack Obama’s life has been that blacks would reject him. That’s why I call him a bound man.”’[3] Steele was responding to Obama’s comments that he couldn’t selectively distance himself from being African-American in American society. Steele perceives Obama’s capacity for bargaining as a type of ‘sellout’ and it is interesting that the Uncle Tom stereotype is wheeled out to condemn Obama for trying to conceptually and ideologically, if not actually, challenge the idea of a black politician as speaking to an exclusively black constituency. So while it is theoretically possible to postulate the idea of the ‘bound man’ the phrase seems emblematic of community and perhaps national insecurities rather than only the anxieties of Obama.

Part of Obama’s problem with sections of the black electorate is related, as noted in the Shelby Steele/Teddy Davis analysis, to his refusal to take extremist stances and to tap into a wider sense of black nationalism. Thus while Obama has benefited from African-American support, his repudiation of the Rev. Wright as well as his more nuanced responses to matters of race, has made African-Americans unhappy. As Jonathan Tilove observes: ‘To many, [Andra] Gillespie [political scientist at Emory University] among them, Obama’s problem is that he has never made explicit what, beyond symbolism, his election would do for black America. Now, he is rejecting Wright’s racial agenda without having clearly articulated his own. “The whole thing with Barack’s campaign is making all the other black leadership be on mute,” said Kevin Alexander Gray, an activist and writer in South Carolina. “The idea is that black people should just shut up and accept him as the prize of racial advancement with nothing given in return except him being the president.”’[4] Black nationalism, according to Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago ‘refers to a way of thinking that “takes race as the fundamental dividing line in the U.S.” and the “primary determinant for making political judgments”’.[5] The testimony of Obama’s political workers in the field, the persistent focus on his alien background and upbringing are indicative of the racial divide and it would be too much to expect Obama to heal that rift in his person and his campaign. What is interesting in the commentary of Gillespie and Gray, however, is the reinstatement of racial identity and division, this time from a black point of view. For one black commentator ‘So much of the educated white people’s love for Barack depends on educated white people’s complete ignorance of and distance from the rest of us. Barack is the black person they want the rest of us to be–half-white and loving, or “racially transcendent,” as the press loves to call him.’[6] The anger and disillusion is based on Obama’s appeal to a certain class of white people (the ‘latte liberals’ from a Republican perspective), his ability to reach across racial divides, however inadequate that might be. The polarization mediated here is not just between black and white, right and left (the continuance of the culture wars), but within a black communitarian ideal that sees itself as authentic only when it is defined in exclusive terms. Part of this exclusivity is predicated on a memory of slavery, a collective pain and generational trauma and Obama, although his Philadelphia speech referred to the well-springs of communal anger, has largely steered clear of the divisive terrain represented by this memorial and historical landscape.[7] At one level this could be seen as an attempt to escape history, a political sleight of hand whereby race is fore-grounded but not brought to the forefront to upset the idea of racial transcendence. At another level Obama’s soft peddling of race may be connected to the ways in which many black leaders have thrived on constituencies of victimhood, and his desire to move to a more positive frame.

The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is not a liberal newspaper but it carried an analysis of Rev. Wright’s speeches in the context of victimhood that is worth considering. Ralph Peters in ‘The Rev & the Global Victims’ Club’ reduced Wright merely to the level of a demagogue who thrives on a sense of historical dispossession, but he also pointed to certain contradictions and contexts not mentioned by other analysts. Peters wrote: ‘Blame is delicious. And easy. Progress takes work. Nor is it in the interest of demagogues to see their followers graduate from society’s margins toward the center. Social, economic or political success undercuts their fundamental argument that their poor will always be with us.’[8] Parts of this argument are unexceptionable, particularly the ways in which leaders in all parts of the world – and Peters gives examples from the Middle East to Latin America to China – thrive on historical memories of dispossession and the idea of being victims because victimhood seems to erase historical responsibility for the past and especially the present. Within the African-American community this is a point that Bill Cosby and Obama (among others) have stressed in varying ways: that blacks need to take responsibility for their own lives and futures rather than blame the past and the government. While this argument is important, Peters also implies that since blacks have moved to the center and since America is a land of opportunities the blacks have only themselves to blame for their plight. This argument is disingenuous at best given systemic inequities which have led to large numbers of blacks without decent schooling, or the high rates of incarceration among the black community. Thus while there is a need to move beyond the rhetoric of victimhood – as Obama does – there is equally a need to focus on the dispossessed and the angry within the black community. Peters refuses to contextualize Wright’s anger lumping it with the demagoguery of ‘white supremacists, polygamist child molesters, UFO cults and the less scrupulous “advocates” for troubled minorities’.[9] The catalogue deliberately trivialises black issues by association with ‘UFO cults’ and the implication that ‘troubled minorities’ generally have unscrupulous advocates.

Peters then goes on to place his generalizations within the context of America since the battleground in all these debates is the imagining and refashioning of the nation. ‘Fortunately for us, this paralyzing cult of victimhood is the antithesis of the ethic that allowed the United States to achieve the quality of life the vast majority of us enjoy today. What built our country was the get-up-off-your-butt belief that God, by any name, helps those who help themselves.’[10] The reiteration of a founding myth of energy and progress based on a Protestant work ethic is imaginatively powerful but historically problematic in its elision of moments when America has placed itself in the position of the victim. The re-writing of the Vietnam War in popular culture (Hollywood in particular), literature, and political language has created the iconic image of American soldiers as victims of their government, the Viet Cong, the media, the anti-war protestors, or a malevolent combination of all these. Post 9/11 America positioned itself as a victim of terrorism – which indeed it was – but that positioning allowed for an erasure of histories of US violence within and outside its borders. As Suman Gupta observed: ‘In one fell swoop on 11 September those who could be perceived as perpetrators (the West) and their allies had turned into victims, and those who could be conceived of as victims (the objects of Western power politics and self-interest) had turned into perpetrators.’[11] Peters does not deal with these troubled contexts because for him ‘victimhood’ is a minority disease, an affliction from which mainstream America is miraculously immune, and Rev. Wright represents a recrudescence that only bolsters the argument that ‘the global victims’ club’ have nothing really to complain about. Between the explaining away of victimhood through trivialization (Peters) and the fixation on victimhood (Gillespie and Gray) there seems to be little middle ground. Are Obama’s silences on some of these issues evasions or are they indicative of his realization that mere rhetoric will not address the problem? These questions are not within the media matrix under consideration but there are more thoughtful responses to some of the problems raised by Wright and the response to Wright and what he represents.

 Subarno Chattarji.

[1] Teddy Davis, ‘Obama: “A Bound Man”?’ ABC News, March 26, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Tilove, ‘Renewed Wright Imbroglio Exposes Fissures Among Black Voters,’  Accessed May 2, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cinque Henderson, ‘Maybe We Can’t: The Black Case for Obama Skepticism,’ The New Republic, May 28, 2008.

[7] Obama’s even-handedness does not mean that he has moved beyond the consciousness and travails of race. As Debra J. Saunders wrote: ‘Obama is a viable candidate because he is a black man with a foot in two worlds. Obama appeals to white America as a black success story. But even if Obama has grown beyond grievances, that doesn’t mean Obama has moved beyond recognizing grievances of underclass African Americans, who have fared less well in a world that can look at them with hostility.’ Debra J. Saunders, ‘With Wright, Obama is not Guilty by Association,’ San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 18, 2008.

[8] Ralph Peters, ‘The Rev & the Global Victims’ Club,’ The New York Post, April 30, 2008.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Suman Gupta, The Replication of Violence: Thoughts on International Terrorism After September 11th, (London, Sterling, VA.: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 10.

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‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part I

August 15, 2008 at 9:54 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)



The spectacle of the Democratic Party primaries nomination for the US Presidential elections has occupied media space since January 2008 when Barack Obama created a sensation by winning Iowa. Media reports have dwelt on the epic and interminable contest between the first African-American and first woman candidate for President in United States, emphasising in turn the inspirational, the banal, the personal, the gimmicky, and occasionally, the political aspects of this race. Inevitably race and gender have figured in the debates and commentaries and while the intersection between the two is important – and analysed in at least one media outlet – it is the issue of race that this piece will focus on. This is not to privilege race over gender but to see the ways in which media debates on Obama are refracted through the history and contexts of race relations in the US as well as the conception of America itself.


A quantitative analysis of reportage reveals an enormous amount of column space as well as air time spent on the relationship between Obama and his former pastor for twenty years, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. A LexisNexis search indicates that there were more than 3000 entries in US news outlets from 20 February to 20 May 2008 with articles or mentions of Obama and the Wright controversy. When the search is narrowed to headlines over the same three month period the incidence comes down to 322.[1] The print media along with television as well as the internet and World Wide Web coverage are indicative of the obsessive nature of media focus. A qualitative analysis reveals some of the underlying issues inherent in the reportage as well as in the ways in which Obama’s bid for the Presidency brings to the fore overt and latent anxieties and prejudices in the US polity and the imagining of the nation.


A significant part of Obama’s appeal seems to lie in his apparent transcendence of race, a ‘post-racial’ paradise where race does not matter. This was, from the beginning, a fiction sustained by Obama himself and by his younger supporters as well as sections of the media. The fictional nature of a colour blind campaign and candidacy was revealed not only in the Wright controversy or in earlier attempts by Bill Clinton to pigeon hole Obama as a black candidate, but also in rare media reports of racism on the ground.


Kevin Merida’s ‘Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause’ outlined the extent of the problem. ‘For all the hope and excitement Obama’s candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed – and unreported – this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They’ve been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they’ve endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can’t fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.’[2]

While Merida’s is a mainstream media awakening, racial profiling of Obama has been active in the blogosphere for a while. One set of family photographs emphasises Obama’s alien background highlighting his Muslim identity and apparent links to Luo opposition leader in Kenya, RaRaila Odinga ‘(who signed a Shariah pact with Muslims and claims to be Obama’s cousin)’. A photo of Barack’s father is captioned ‘Muslim, hard-drinker, was married three times, attended Harvard and returned to Kenya.’ A Kenyan family shot focuses on Obama’s brother ‘Abongo “Roy” Obama who is a Luo activist and a militant Muslim who argues that the black man must “liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture.”’[3] The photo montage and captions position Obama as a Muslim with dubious family and political connections and place him outside the pale of American identity and patriotism. The notion of ‘Americanness’ harks back to the founding of the country and finds repeated resonance in the American imagination as well as in politics. Hector St John de Crevecoeur travelling in and writing about the United States in the eighteenth century famously asked the question ‘What is an American?’ in his Letters from an American Farmer, and went on to answer it in archetypal terms of plurality, democracy, and hope. More recently Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post analysed the implications of being American in the context of the 2008 elections. Meyerson claims that ‘Obama’s story […] represents a triumph of specifically American identity over racial and religious identity. It was the lure of America, the shining city on a hill, that brought his black Kenyan father here, where he met Obama’s white Kansan mother. It is because America is uniquely the land of immigrants and has moved beyond a racial caste system that Obama exists, has thrived and stands a good chance of being our next president.’[4] This is the idea of the transcendent melting pot, the land where individual self-fashioning opens the way to success and communal acceptance. It is, however, a partial vision and Meyerson characterizes another notion of Americanness, one that is predicated on being white and Christian, a homogenous core that perceives ethnic ‘others’ as outsiders and aliens. In West Virginia, a state that is 95 percent white and recently voted for Hillary Clinton ‘a disproportionate number of people write “American” when answering the census question on ethnic origin. For some, “American” is a race — white — no less than a nationality, and it’s on this equation that Republican prospects depend.’[5] What is at stake in the 2008 elections is not merely the choice of a successor to George W. Bush but the ways in which America and Americans define themselves within the particular cusp of nation and race.

Within these contexts and in the current climate of fear Obama’s supposed Muslim identity coupled with his blackness creates a direct as well as subliminal threat that must be subverted. In fact, his Muslim middle name and connections (such as the ‘endorsement’ from Hamas) have been repeatedly emphasised to underline the absolute ‘otherness’ represented by this candidate. While mainstream media has been largely innocent of this characterization its circulation on the internet is indicative of the profound suspicion of Islam mediated in the US by the media. As Edward Said pointed out in a book written more than a decade prior to 9/11: ‘“Islam” seems to engulf all aspects of the diverse Muslim world, reducing them all to a special malevolent and unthinking essence.’[6] In emphasising Obama’s Muslim identity in a post-9/11 world it is the malevolence of the religious association that is fore-grounded. An example of this was a letter written to a local paper by Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball. Mayor Ball explained his support for Hillary Clinton in the following words: ‘Barack Hussein Obama and all his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don’t know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can’t convince me that some that didn’t rub off on him. No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office.’[7]


The central focus of media coverage and controversy has, however, been Obama’s race and the persistent racism of sections of the American electorate. Kevin Merida quotes a Victoria Switzer who was on phone-bank duty during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. ‘She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn’t possibly vote for Obama and concluded: “Hang that darky from a tree!”’[8] Merida also notes that ‘In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: “Hamas votes BHO” and “We don’t cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright.”’[9] The vandalizing and graffiti are reminiscent of an earlier era when Civil Rights protestors were attacked physically, churches and houses fire-bombed, and lynching a common practice. The reaction to Obama hasn’t reached the same level of violence and intimidation but the incidents cited by Merida are indicative of a strong and under-reported current of racial hatred.


A significant part of the media debate about race, loyalty, and patriotism was triggered by the Rev. Wright’s incendiary sermons blaming America for unleashing the HIV virus to decimate blacks, characterising 9/11 as a case of ‘chickens coming home to roost’, and his ‘God damn America’ diatribe. Obama’s response to his pastor’s opinions were outlined in a major speech in Philadelphia on March 18 where he attempted to place the anger and the bitterness expressed by Rev. Wright in contexts ranging from the history of slavery to the memory of the Civil Rights movement. Obama’s speech was followed by a further spate of media attention, some negative and some hailing it as a landmark speech in American politics.


Ed Koch, a former Mayor of New York City, weighed in with a piece on ‘Why Obama’s Speech Was Unconvincing’ and asked several questions: ‘Why didn’t Senator Obama stand up in the church and denounce his hateful statements or, at the very least, argue privately with his minister? […] What is it that I and others expected Obama to do? A great leader with a conscience and courage would have stood up and faced down anyone who engages in such conduct. I expect a President of the United States to have the strength of character to denounce and disown enemies of America – foreign and domestic – and yes, even his friends and confidants when they get seriously out of line.’[10] Koch’s argument was emblematic of the guilt-by-association logic whereby Obama was tarred with the same brush of intolerant and excessive rhetoric. In Koch’s and subsequent media articles there was little or no attempt to analyse the contexts and substance of the Rev. Wright’s works and words nor was there any sense that Obama may not agree with all that his former pastor says.


The Rev. Wright did not help his or Obama’s case by his series of media appearances in late April wherein he repeated his earlier assertions and forced Obama to formally and forcefully dissociate himself from the pastor’s ideas and iterations. Obama’s denunciations did not, however, alleviate the ‘out-group homogeneity effect’ whereby, as social psychologist David Hamilton puts it ‘on average, people tend to feel that those from other ethnic, cultural and political groups are quite similar to one another, whereas they know that people from their own groups are quite varied’.[11] The need to homogenise and thereby minimise and condemn a person as belonging to the ‘out-group’ was expressed in different forms in media analyses.

George F. Will’s article ‘A Pastor at Center Stage’ was subtitled ‘And a Parishioner with Questions to Answer’ and it raised questions similar to the ones raised by Ed Koch. Will concluded by establishing a close symbiosis between Obama and Wright: ‘He is a demagogue with whom Obama has had a voluntary 20-year relationship. It has involved, if not moral approval, certainly no serious disapproval. Wright also is an ongoing fountain of anti-American and, properly understood, anti-black rubbish. His speech yesterday demonstrated that he wants to be a central figure in this presidential campaign. He should be.’[12] It is interesting that Will ignored nuances within Wright’s arguments classifying them as ‘anti-American’ and ‘anti-black rubbish’ implying that to make such connections – between 9/11 and the conduct of US foreign policy, for example – is to be generically ‘anti-American’ (a not so subtle reminder of the ‘you’re with us or with the terrorists’ adage). Will omitted mention of Obama’s Philadelphia speech but one of his colleagues was quick to dismiss that as a ‘shameful, brilliantly executed, 5,000-word intellectual fraud’.[13] These swift and sarcastic dismissals are emblematic of an anxiety whereby the fissures and often unpleasant contexts revealed by Rev. Wright are sought to be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic and Obama, by association, is unfit to lead the nation. While bi-culturality, multiculturalism, and the heterogeneity of the United States are justly celebrated, there is a strong resistance to these ideations and constructions of the nation, a resistance reflected in media outrage.

Obama’s Philadelphia speech was interpreted by Robert Tracinski as an attempt ‘to neutralize criticism of Wright by appealing to white racial guilt. Shelby Steele has memorably described “white guilt” as the presumption that whites are guilty of racism until they can prove otherwise, which they do by subjecting themselves to “diversity training,” by embracing “affirmative action” racial preferences–or by patiently taking abuse from the likes of Jeremiah Wright, in order to show how understanding they are of black grievances.’[14] Tracinski and Steele simplify ideas of white responsibility and guilt to the point of caricature and thereby create absolute polarities between the seemingly irrational anger of Wright and the rest of America that is truly American. To be sure this kind of polarization is ably aided by the politics of the liberal left which seems to fetishize ‘white guilt’ and the celebration of an untroubled multicultural country, but Tracinski and Steele and Krauthammer and their ilk are quick to denigrate any criticism of American race-relations, as well as its troubled history and continuities. The Rev. Wright serves as a perfect hate figure in this framework of partisan paranoia and the fear of transition that Obama represents. As Tracinski concluded with some satisfaction: ‘This is the final collapse of the noble promise of the Obama campaign. The man who had once put himself forward as the candidate who would transcend racial politics once and for all has ended up legitimizing a Christian equivalent of Louis Farrakhan–and injecting him into the American political debate.’[15] The construction of Obama’s denunciation of Wright’s extreme views as ‘legitimizing’ them is linked precisely to the idea of ‘out-group homogeneity’ whereby nuances, disagreements, subtleties of context and history are swept aside in favour of a monolithic black ‘other’, the enemy within who refuses to assimilate appropriately to mainstream roles and ideas. Even Obama’s supporters, as The Guardian reported, ‘fear that his denunciation of Wright will not be enough. Stacee Nichols, 33, said: “The state [Indiana, stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan] has a horrible history. There is still racism but it is more subtle now.”’[16] While Obama lost Indiana by a whisker the issue of race and its importance in the defining and re-defining of America and Americanness continues to reverberate in media debate.

– Subarno Chattarji.

[2] Kevin Merida, ‘Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause,’ Washington Post, May 13, 2008, p. A01.

[3] Karel Prinsloo, ‘What do we know about Obama?’ AP

[4] Harold Meyerson, ‘McCain’s America,’ Washington Post, May 14, 2008, p. A19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), p. 8.

[7] Kevin Merida, p. A01.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ed Koch, ‘Why Obama’s Speech Was Unconvincing,’  Accessed March 27, 2008.

[11] Shankar Vedantam, ‘The Candidate, the Preacher and the Unconscious Mind,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A02.

[12] George F. Will, ‘A Pastor at Center Stage’ Washington Post, April 29, 2008, p. A17.

[13] Charles Krauthammer, ‘The “Race” Speech Revisited,’ Washington Post, May 2, 2008, p. A21.

[14] Robert Tracinski, ‘Obama’s Chickens Come Home to Roost,’  Accessed April 30, 2008.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ewen MacAskill, ‘Fatigue and racism threaten to knock Obama bandwagon off the road,’ The Guardian, May 2, 2008, p. 28.

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China’s Diabolic Demographic Plan for Tibet

June 2, 2008 at 2:11 pm (Partha Gangopadhyay, Politics)


China can justifiably claim to have done a lot for the development of Tibet. Very recently it has replaced more than 17000 Tibetan household in the Qiang province of the Tibetan autonomous region to new households to rescue them for the deadly Kashin-Beck disease at a cost of about $ 157 million. All over Tibet China has spent millions to relocate rural populace to modern sanitized homes from ancient Tibetan style habitats. China can boast of having increased the average per capita income of rural Tibetans by 17.2 percent last year. Great advances have taken place in the field of communications and transport all over Tibet. The railway track connecting Beijing and Lhasa is arguably the highest railway facility in the whole world.


 Despite all that China has done for Tibet in the last fifty years, the aspiration of Tibetan people for freedom from Chinese rule remains undiminished. The recent clashes in Tibet over protests by Tibetan monks to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first mass protest against Chinese occupation bears testimony to the fact that fifty years of political propaganda and ‘developmental work’ have failed to crush the love and loyalty that Tibetans owe to their ancient culture and religious identity.


If  material progress is used as the only benchmark to justify Chinese occupation of Tibet then the British perhaps had every reason to rule India for one more century for all that they have done for this country’s infrastructure development in addition to the introduction of modern education and modern governance. In fact, the imperialist have always defended their action by showcasing the development they have brought to the country they ruled. The imperialists have, with varying degrees of success, always claimed to have rescued the colonized from the demonic rule in the past.


In that sense, the Chinese treatment of Tibet is no different from any other imperialist regime that the world has seen. Though some credit must be given to China for all that it has done to modernize Tibet, the political and cultural subjugation that common Tibetans face under the Chinese regime and the rampant economic exploitation of Tibet by China betrays its imperialist intentions.


If there is one policy that has exposed the ulterior motive of the Chinese government to the world, it is the policy of transfer of Chinese population into Tibet and controlling Tibetan population with stringent measures.


Since 1949, China has periodically inundated Tibet with large number of Chinese settlers. From 1983 there has been a sharp increase in the transfer of Chinese settlers to Central Tibet. In Lhasa alone, there were 50,000 to 60,000 ordinary Chinese residents in 1985. From 1985 to 1988, additional Chinese immigrants doubled the population of Lhasa.


In late 1992, China announced the opening of Tibet’s economy to ‘foreign investments’. In reality, that was a subterfuge to facilitate widespread Chinese settlement in Tibet.


 Kham and Amdo provinces in Tibet are the worst affected by this demographic policy. By 1959, when China installed its Government in the Tibetan capital, Chinese population in these eastern parts of Tibet had already reached an alarming proportion. The influx escalated from 1962 onwards when thousands of additional Chinese settlers were sent into these areas as ‘builders, workers, and technicians’.


In fact, in a statement to the Legal Inquiry Committee of International Commission of Jurists, way back in August 1959, the Dalai Lama said that in 1955 he had heard an important Chinese official mentioning to the Panchen Lama, “Tibet was a big country and unoccupied and that China had a big population which can be settled there”. There is clear indication of the policy of population transfer in Mao Zedong’s 1952 statement: “Tibet covers a large area but is thinly populated. Its population should be increased from the present two or three million to five or six million, and then to over ten million”. In the aftermath of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Premier Zhou Enlai observed: “The Chinese are greater in number and more developed in economy and culture but in the regions they inhabit there is not much arable land left and underground resources are not as abundant as in the regions inhabited by fraternal nationalities”.


The fact that this demographic ploy is a part of the Chinese policy to suppress Tibet can be understood from the incentive the Chinese government provides to the settlers in Tibet. In fact all housing, health-care, cultural and educational facilities that China claims to have built in Tibet are all part of an enormously expensive plan to provide for the Chinese in Tibet. To encourage Chinese population to settle in Tibet other costly subsidies like high-altitude allowance, and transporting wheat and rice by truck to Tibet are provided to them.


Annual wages for Chinese personnel are 87 per cent higher in Tibet than in China. The longer they stay in Tibet, the higher the benefits. Vacations for Chinese personnel in Tibet are far longer than those in China. For every 18 months of work in Tibet, they receive a three-month leave back to China, and all the expenses are paid by their Government.


The Chinese entrepreneurs receive special tax exemptions and loans at low-rate interest in Tibet, whereas for Tibetans to start an enterprise in their own homeland is extremely difficult. In Kham and Amdo, most of the fertile lands in the valleys have been given to Chinese settlers, driving the Tibetans to barren lands. Almost all key administrative positions in Tibet are held by the Chinese. Furthermore, Chinese settlers are given preference over Tibetans in jobs created by forestry and mineral exploitation in Tibet.


The general economic impact of the Chinese settlers on Tibetans may be gauged from the following example: Of the 12,827 shops and restaurants in Lhasa city (excluding Barkhor), only 300 are owned by Tibetans. In Tsawa Pashö, southern Kham, Chinese own 133 business enterprises whereas Tibetans own only 15. The ownership ratio is in other Tibetan towns: 748 to 92 in Chamdo, 229 to 3 in Powo Tramo. The situation is far worse in the urban centers of Amdo, where, according to one British journalist, Tibetans are reduced to ‘tourist curios’. A well-planned large-scale Chinese population transfer policy has marginalized Tibetans in economic, political, educational and social spheres in their own homeland. In the early 1980s, the Tibetan Government-in- Exile estimated the Chinese population in the whole of Tibet at 7.5 million. The figure today may be well in excess of this. The Chinese population transfer policy has reduced the Tibetans in Tibet to a minority. Thus even if at any future date the Tibetans manage to get their long standing demand for plebiscite for determination of their future they will be at great disadvantage.


Along with the policy of population transfer, China has also implemented an even more sinister policy of controlling Tibetan population by repressive measures of birth control. From 1984 China imposed its policy allowing Tibetan couples to have only two children. Heavy fines ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 Yuan or US$ 400 to 800 are imposed on Tibetan parents for the birth of a third child.


Extra children are denied ration cards and workers violating the rule have their pay cut to the extent of 50 per cent, or in some cases withheld altogether from work for three to six months. Such coercive measures as well as regular birth control campaigns and sterilization programs are implemented  to keep Tibetan population under control.


In Kham and Amdo, an even more repressive policy is being enforced. For example, in “Gansu Parig Tibetan Autonomous District” 2,415 women were sterilized in 1983 of whom 82 per cent were Tibetans. In 1987, 764 women of child-bearing age were sterilized in Zachu district in “Kanze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture” of which 660 were Tibetans. Mobile birth control teams roam the countryside and pastoral areas where they round up women for abortion and sterilization. Even women well advanced in their pregnancy are forced to undergo abortion followed by sterilization.


The effect of all such policies to change the demography of Tibet has put the Tibetans in very vulnerable position. Although there is no independent census report of the Tibetan population living in Tibet today, historical Tibetan sources show that their population before the Chinese invasion was at least six million. Even statistics provided by the Chinese themselves suggested that the population of Tibetans was over six million in 1959 but now they insist that the total Tibetan population is only slightly more than four million. Where have the rest two million Tibetans during last fifty years? It is ironical that China, a communist country is wreaking the Tibetans the same havoc that the capitalist Americans inflicted on the Red Indians centuries back. Imperialists, it seems, in all ages, in all cultures are no different.


– Partha Gangopadhyay.

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