Rajat Gupta to Rodney King and In-between
Between a man in a dark grey suit and a bright-eyed bride in white, they seem to have covered the American dream. Insider trading and ‘marrying well’ are common occurrences, but when these things happen in the United States of America they become symbols. Somewhere outside of this Wall Street and Silicon Valley insulation, even Rodney King’s death becomes a twisted tale of nightmare as part of the hallucinatory narrative.
The DREAM Act is a different story. This is Barack Obama’s latest nice guy act. It is not his brainwave. On paper such a provision exists since 2001. Almost 1.4 million undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children will not be deported if they have graduated from high school, have no criminal record and are under the age of 30. Detention of such immigrants is in private prisons and incurs a lot of expense. Is he putting employment of indigenous citizens at stake? It is a no-lose situation. Most are Latinos and not likely to opt for the big stakes in a dwindling economy.
However, the assumption of a making certain they are not a security threat is a natural progression into stereotyped territory. Immigrants who have either served in the military or are successful students get to stay. It means that the two pillars of American democracy are pugnacity and profitability. These are investments in areas where the US wants to triumph at any cost. The ‘target’ migrants are already in the red. They will be expected to work harder and essentially follow the dream set for them.
Do they move out of the clean image? The fascinating tale of insider trading by Rajat Gupta got even more intriguing when the judge was his countryman. Preet Bharara. This was classic courtroom Clint Eastwood scenario. The good and the bad Indian. It became an Indian story recreated in Manhattan. Bharara was catapulted to demi-stardom. It became less about what Gupta did wrong and more about what the judge did right. In a rather amusing statement he said that Gupta had “exchanged the lofty boardroom for the prospect of a lowly jail cell”. He was pushing the penitence theory, the lowliness of the greed for “more”.
But has not Bharara’s righteousness been recognised with Big Mac-sized effusiveness? Between the two of them, who has lived the American dream? What about the Sicily mafia that operated in the US? What about the Hugh Heffner mansions, the Neverlands, the Gracelands? The grand charity balls with gloved donor hands clinking glasses frosty with potential deceit? Had Bharara’s verdict been different would he be seen as less American? Would his fealty be questioned?
What happens to the Dr. Deepak Chopra and his spiritual jugglery? He is part of the Friends of Rajat group, and has spoken up for him, his concerns, his philanthropy. He is another case of selling the idea of the Self to people who are anyway obsessed with themselves.
The profiling of the case as that of Indians shows the limitations and the trap of febrile illusions.
There is a price on her head. Priscilla Chan has been described as the “£12 billion Facebook bride” who “embodies the American dream”. Mark Zuckerberg’s is an individualist dream. She is the daughter of collective refugee sweat. Her father had to slog for 18 hours at a Chinese takeaway. How many hours does Mark put in? That does not count. The slogging should smell of spices and a huddled group talking in strange accents.
Priscilla is the child of a Chinese-Vietnamese father who arrived in America with his family in the 70’s after spending time in a refugee camp. Dennis Chan “dreamt of his first-born daughter living the American dream”.
Those who project this leave it fairly vague, and it is a one size fits all. No one quite knows what it means. A man who has left his home in Vietnam, lived in a camp – what sort of dreams will he have? Had he wanted her to become a gourmet chef, would it be a lesser dream?
This dream has strings detached. It has to be upwardly mobile, a spider crawling up a wall leaving the web far behind. In a treacle-dripping certificate of merit, Peter Swanson, her science teacher at the state-run school in a working class neighbourhood, said, “She came up to me during that first year, when she was 13, and said, ‘What do I have to do to get into Harvard University?’ I was stunned. In all my years of teaching I have never had a 13-year-old ask a question like that. She knew what she wanted, even back then.”
This conveys that her marriage is part of this wanting and a career option. Besides, Harvard is made into a fantasy project. When and why do individual aspirations become part of social mores or do the latter dictate how people decide on their destinies? Then, one might say that such attitudes determine how many immigrants fight for an illusionary space. The reality has to be a fairytale in every respect: “She and Mark both want to change the world. And they are in the fortunate position of having the resources to do that.”
The princess’ transformation is complete when she doles out goodies from the “£3.5 million home”. Palo Alto is the geek’s Beverly Hills.
The Los Angeles cops occasionally take away the exotic nuisances created by the stars – self-destructiveness sometimes measured in vials and rolled joints. Rehab is imbued with the fervour of retribution. Death, unfortunate as it, becomes hardcover editions of leftover letters. Posterity of sediments.
Rodney King’s death in a swimming pool seems to have taken away the question of why he was an inheritor of slaves who were first brought to Virginia in 1619. It took away from the fact that 127 years after the abolition of slavery, in the city that boasts of pretty beaches and Hollywood, he was beaten up by cops, suffered 11 skull fractures, a crushed cheekbone, broken ankle, internal injuries and some brain damage. The court had initially acquitted the four White police officers. More than 55 people were killed and 600 buildings destroyed in the violence.
On Sunday, Rev. Al Sharpton, issued a statement, “History will record that it was Rodney King’s beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement.”
That same day members from 300 civil rights groups walked through New York City protesting against the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop and frisk policy. Blacks and Hispanics suffer the most, and the refrain reflected in the Bill of Rights Defense Committee statement was: “If you’re white in New York you actually have to do something, you have to present reasonable suspicion to be stopped. Whereas if you’re a person of colour the police just disregard that … (and) there is no oversight effectively of the NYPD, the world’s seventh largest army.”
The 35,000 officers earlier ran a spy operation to keep tabs on Muslims. The figures are appalling. 39 to 56 per cent white voters approve of the frisk policy.
Michael Bloomberg, the city’s mayor, talked about these as safety measures: “We’ve sent a message to criminals, if we suspect you may be carrying a gun, we will stop you. Through those stops, the police have recovered thousands of guns over the past decade … and tens of thousands of other weapons. There is no doubt those stops have saved lives.”
Why did no one stop George Zimmerman, the guy who was watching out for threats and found it in Trayvon Martin? Two decades after the LA riots, it has become an individual holding on to his vision of America. Racism is not just against a group, but to protect against contamination. Zimmermann is the symbol, not Martin. Unlike Rodney King.
One of his obituaries stated, “Mr. King, whose life was a roller coaster of drug and alcohol abuse, multiple arrests and unwanted celebrity, pleaded for calm during the 1992 riots. In a phrase that became part of American culture, he asked at a news conference, ‘Can we all get along?’”
The pressure was on the victim. 20 years after the incident, he published his memoirs, ‘The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption’, a title that fits into the American detergent dream.
You can beat the guy and see as his blood flows in the streets, but if he is alive, he should be Walt Disney. No hoodies, please. King, despite his addiction, was the token sympathy ticket. The tokenism overrode the sympathy. It might appear that there were hopes on him being the Black Christ. It was a cross he had to bear: “People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations.”
But he played along with the imagined idea and appeared on television reality shows like ‘Celebrity Rehab’. What was his celebrity about – getting beaten up? There is no sense of proportion, and this rubbed off on him when he said, “Obama, he wouldn’t have been in office without what happened to me and a lot of black people before me. He would never have been in that situation, no doubt in my mind. He would get there eventually, but it would have been a lot longer. So I am glad for what I went through. It opened the doors for a lot of people.”
Sometimes, doors are walls and graffiti scrawled on them obfuscate real dreams.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/