Monday, July 25, 2016

From Roscoff to Amritsar

[Swarna-Jayanti Express, Indian Railway]

I was on a jet plane coming back from France, in 1977 I think it was. There was a chunky red-faced American next to me, maybe from Texas but who knows at this late date. He was claiming that everyone in France spoke perfectly good English, but just weren't willing to be helpful to Americans, and after all “we'd” done for them in World War II. We'd played a little club in Roscoff, which happened to have been near a German submarine base in the war, and Americans had bombed the hell out of Roscoff. There were mostly new high-rise government built apartment buildings, which looked strange in France, although these days the web page for Roscoff features pictures of quaint seaside buildings, so either some of the old Roscoff was left, or they've managed to rebuild with historical accuracy. Some of the patrons of the place we played thought we had a lot of nerve being there, but fortunately our banjo player was a former tackle at Florida State and tended to have no problems with disgruntled folks. I watched him shrug his shoulders at Galax one time, and flip a drunk who'd tried to climb on board several feet out of the pickin' circle. Aside from Roscoff, I never felt like the French were sandbagging, and I always tried my best to order in French. Often after my efforts caused a wry smile in the waiter, I was told to just order in English. On the other hand, it was easy enough to point at the line in the menu, particularly as in France you were in little risk of getting served a poor repast.

This was my first encounter with the cliché of the Ugly American. Of course it's easy to find ugly Americans in America, then and today. They might be a majority. But the cliché was pointed and remarkable at the time. Why would people who speak their native language all know some other language, or want to speak it. We sure don't. Who comes up with some theory that it's all a French joke on us? There's a certain lack of self-awareness at work, which is part of the definition of Ugly American anyways.

So here it is, blazing hot summer of 2016. We're living this summer without air conditioning—so far. The little window air unit we put in is about five years old now, and seemed to be fading last summer, and we're also wanting to get an electrician to come out and upgrade our service. Fans do kinda work, and I felt oddly at home watching “Tough Trains: India” Saturday night on the Globe Trekker show on PBS. The host was Zay Harding, a guy who looks just like Dustin Johnson and probably putts just about the same. He rode a number of trains across the northern part of India with an unseen camera crew that likely stretched Indian patience quite a bit. All of the trains were so packed with people that sometimes our host and many other riders sat in the luggage racks above the seats, and people rode for hours standing on the steps and holding on to hand rails, entirely outside the car.

At one point he stopped in a city where Ramadan was in progress. During Ramadan, muslims fast all day and then feast after sundown. A muslin friend invited him to participate in the feast part. At one point the friend said “the fasting is easy if you believe, and it helps you appreciate those without.” Our American host picked up a big bite of rice and meat and said, “Dig in,” surrounded by hundreds of equally voracious participants in the nightly fast-ending banquet.

The host also did little historic pieces on India in colonial days and at independence. There were terrible massacres of both muslims and hindus along the rail line we were traveling, due primarily to a great fear inculcated by the passive-aggressive fashion in which the British left, creating a partition no one understood between India and the new country of Pakistan. Some administrator from Britain had come out and just drawn some lines on a map, known as the Radcliffe Line, even if the lines went straight through rivers and cities. No one on the ground could see these suddenly crucial lines, or knew for sure which country they lived in, of if someone was going to take their land and stuff and murder them for being suddenly in the wrong country. So they murdered each other, and even now India and Pakistan face each other across this mythical border with nuclear weapons at the ready.

This past week the GOP just nominated the Ugly American for President. I saw a poll this morning that some 60+% of white men are for Mr. Trump. He speaks to their ethnicity; he speaks, as he claimed, “for” them. He wants to ban muslims. The guy who shot up Munich on Friday wanted to ban muslims too, and most of the people he killed were muslims. It took a couple of days for the news to get to our news media that although he had some connection to Iran (he was a German-Iranian), he hated muslims and idolized the Norwegian mass-killer of a couple of years back, Brivik.

At another spot on our train tour we were taken to a lovely park. In April, 1919 there had been a big market going on in the park, in Amritsar, with thousands of people, and a small peaceful demonstration was also happening. The British military administrator of the city, Col. Reginald Dyer, ordered troops to fire on the people in the park until their ammunition was entirely exhausted. Many bullet holes are still in evidence in brick walls around the park, marked with squares of white paint. Over a thousand were killed, some 1500 casualties in all (although Great Britain still officially disputes this number as does the Daily Mail). They counted the spent cartridges to come up with that calculation. This massacre is viewed as one of the two crucial moments leading, eventually, to Indian independence. Churchill hated Gandhi.

These days a great deal of the press, all of one major political party, and some of the other, encourages all of us to see muslims as the fearful “other.” There is almost no depiction of muslims as simply people, just exactly like us. With each turn of this screw, muslims in our midst are put even more at physical risk. Just last year in, of all places, Chapel Hill, NC, three young muslim graduate students, all from my home town of Raleigh, were murdered by a middle-aged red-neck who lived down the parking lot from them in an apartment complex. He liked to brandish his pistol when he complained to the students about their parking space usage. He'd appointed himself parking lot monitor, and enforced his own private rules. People claimed afterwards that it was not religion or ethnic background but parking that motivated his crimes. His trial still awaits. The three children are buried, gone, entirely lost to their grieving parents, who are even forced (this being NC) to publicly dispute whether this was in fact a “hate crime.”

In the past couple of weeks eight policemen have been assassinated by two different black men who snapped, perhaps because there was, in their mind, one too many headlines recounting the shooting of a black man or woman in trivial and harmless circumstances—circumstances which even on the same day do not lead to similar shootings when the civilian happens oddly enough to be white. Republicans tend to say that it's the headlines, not the facts, that are the problem. That's an idea Herr Trump would surely support.

There are over a billion muslims in the world. Close to a billion people, just trying to get along, in large majority living in circumstances which most Americans would find daunting in the extreme. They do not yet blame us for the heat, or the floods, though in time they may. Everyone still wants to ride, be it a Mercedes or a scooter. Perhaps Mr. Trump's supporters have some dim inkling of these deeper connections, which are like the misguided 2nd Amendment supporters at the initial constitutional convention, who in fact feared the slave uprisings that might at any time explode, no matter what their theological apologists might preach on Sundays in Richmond and Charleston, Savannah and Biloxi. The last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, who appointed Cyril Radcliffe to draw the lines in 1947, was in 1979 blown up in his yacht in Donegal Bay, Eire, by the Irish Provisional Army.

For now they ride the trains, muslims, hindus, sikhs, enduring the heat and the crowds of fellow passengers. It is enough to make it through the day. There was a lovely shot at one point in the documentary of several women walking with parcels on their heads, across an empty trestle. Mr. Ailes takes his retirement. Ms Kelly is said to be getting a brand new show, which is compared to Oprah's. I have been assured by political scientists that Trump needs a political apparatus which he has profoundly alienated in order to actually succeed in his quest this fall.

Trump's Democratic opponent, meanwhile, seems not to grasp the alienation she also generates. For all his Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama also operates a drone assassination air war, and in Turkey last week a possibly fake revolution was briefly televised. As of today Wasserman-Schultz is gone, which both removes a red flag and implies shenanigans were accomplished. A pure-hearted abstention this fall is a vote for Herr Trump. It's enough to make a person spend the day carefully learning a new fiddle tune. Speaking of which (more or less), Digby featured a post yesterday about a free health clinic at the Wise Virginia County Fairgrounds. That's the very place the guy threw the sno-cone at Jack Herrick during his trumpet solo, back in '77, right after the plane trip with the Ugly American. We were playing Ralph Stanley's bluegrass festival on the way home. Hillbilly sharia I guess it was, like when they killed Ralph's lead singer, Roy Lee Centers, a few years previous. Ain't no trumpets in bluegrass, you get that? What goes around I guess, whatever that means. It's probably something Trump would say to end a sentence, amirite?

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