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My California Vacation

“Religious insanity is very common in the United States”

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835).

Nothing is as disconcerting as looking at a jellybean painting of Ronald Reagan. As you walk in there is a glassed in cabinet with memorabilia of the President, the man who made the jellybean industry. There was a time when Air Force One had a specially designed bowl to hold jellybeans so that the President could use them to get his mind off tobacco. Across from the cabinet is a portrait of Arnold, the man who wants to be Reagan. Nearby, a television set shows you more of these paintings: now of Margaret Thatcher, now Bush, now the former Pope. The smell of sugar and artificial flavoring saturates the air.

I asked a worker if there are any jellybean paintings of Clinton, thinking that this saccharine shrine to the reactionary pantheon might omit him. “We have many pictures of Kennedy,” he said pointing at the Reagan display case. “He liked jellybeans.” My radical pretensions came a cropper. His slip between Kennedy and Reagan might afford some discomfort with the lack of discrimination among the working-class, or else, it might reveal how many see little to distinguish the apex of liberalism and traditionalism.

The Jelly Bean Factory is just off Highway 80 down the road from Vacaville-Fairfield. I had known Vacaville for its juvenile detention center, where a friend of mine spent a year when we were both teenagers. Vacaville-Fairfield has tried to reshape its image, to promote its industries (Budweiser, Jelly Bean) through these kinds of tours, and with a redevelopment of its downtown. All roads in Vacaville-Fairfield lead to the Travis Air Force Base, although it might not be the area’s future or the way it represents itself. Commuters who are fleeing the rising property values of San Francisco are slowly moving to the depleted agricultural land along the Sacramento River. Prisons and defense installations, factory-shrines to revanchism, commuters to dead-end jobs–this is the new California (wonderfully analyzed by Ruthie Gilmore of the University of Southern California in Golden Gulag, forthcoming from the University of California Press).

Our fellow tourists at the factory, which produces 145 million jellybeans a day, spoke a variety of languages. Cantonese, Gujarati, Spanish, as well as English in a host of accents. We had gathered for a free tour and free samples. Few of us would become the captive consumers of jellybeans, although this is perhaps the factory’s intent: the first dime bag is often given free to kids at the school playground to hook them. Many escaped from their small businesses or from their exhausting day jobs for an outing at this “family firm.” A man in the queue behind us told his son that the chemical factory where he worked smelled yucky, nothing like the sugary smell of this plant. I imagined he worked in one of the many bio-chemical plants in the area, or else in one of the oil refineries at Benicia.

Ethnic diversity is nothing new in California, although the state that denies its own history discovers its immigrants every decade. There has never been a decade in the state’s history when its elites have not startled its population with a panic over its immigrants. Mexicans know this intimately, but so do Asians, and so do Central Americans. California might have an Austrian governor, but he is certainly not an immigrant. To be an immigrant today is to be of color; that’s categorical.

But all immigrants are not necessarily of one politics, even as it is the right that is far more prone to anti-immigrant rhetoric. There is also immigrant conservatism and traditionalism. Among Asians, this is well known. Little Saigon in Los Angeles is the Miami of the Vietnamese community: it is the epicenter of anti-communism and of pro-Republican sentiment. San Francisco’s Chinatown played that role a half century ago, when the Nationalists attempted to crush any sympathy among California’s Chinese for Mao and the Revolution.

Even as California’s South Asian population is generally liberal, down the road from Vacaville, in Sacramento, some of its adherents had been involved in a diabolical endgame. Every six years, the California Board of Education reviews its school textbooks. In 2005, the state reviewed the books that it uses for Sixth Grade. As it turns out, it is at this stage in their education that young Californians encounter ancient Indian history. Certainly, the books are flawed. They represent a tradition of disregard for the rest of the world, and of a Christian disdain for other religions. There are elementary errors (“Hindi is written with the Arabic alphabet”), and there is a simple discourteousness toward Hinduism (“The monkey king Hanuman loved Ram so much that it is said that he is present every time the Ramayan is told. So look around–see any monkeys?”). The critique of Orientalism might seem dated to most academics, but Orientalist stereotypes are rife in the way India is taught in secondary education in the United States.

That said, the important work of revision was quickly hijacked by a couple of traditionalist outfits (the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation) and a legal organization wedded to a right-wing view of Hinduism (Hindu American Foundation). They wanted to revise the books so that “India” would be sufficiently well branded, and that all the contradictions of Indian history would disappear. No mention of the oppression against untouchables (dalits), and little regard for the virulently misogynist ideology of Brahmanism. Because all this makes “India” look bad, it needs to be removed from the book. Here is a whitewash in the service of globalization: if Indian culture can be seen to be modern then business might flow to India. Facts are less relevant, and what are least relevant are the struggles of people to shift traditions and mold them into resources worthwhile of social life. What these outfits want to create is an image of “India” as eternally wonderful, and therefore without need for history and struggle–what is needed is admiration and investment.

The logic deployed by the Hindu American Foundation is not unfamiliar: it is multiculturalism, an ideology well suited to globalized California. Every community is to be seen as discrete, and to have a core cultural ethos that must be respected. Typically the most conservative and traditonalist elements within the “community” are licensed to determine the contours of this ethos. And even more typically, in this globalized age, it is the religious elements of culture that come to determine it. Orthodox clerics of one kind or another, and their civilian minions, become the arbiters of culture and of social life. Such is the logic of bureaucratic, bourgeois multiculturalism, a far cry from the century long anti-racist movement that preceded its appearance in the 1970s.

“The social science and history textbooks do not give as generous a portrayal of Indian culture as they do of Islamic, Jewish, Christian cultures,” carped Rajiv Malhotra of the Infinity Foundation. When asked about the oppression of dalits and women in ancient India, Suhag Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation grumbled that “In terms of men and women, I think, first of all if you look at Christianity or Judaism or Islam, no-where in the textbooks is there any discussion of women’s rights. Then to pull it in for Hinduism, is a different treatment of Hinduism.” All cultures must have equal treatment, all contemporary representatives of that culture should be able to create their sense of self-worth based on this representation. Shukla has a point: no tradition is in the clear on these issues. The solution is not to brown-wash the textbooks on ancient Indian history, but to write more honest books about the contradictions of all historical formations, whether European or Asian.

The current debate in Sacramento and elsewhere is misplaced. A group of Indian historians (myself included) signed a letter asking for a more academically sound textbook. We had it partly wrong. This is not a fight over historical protocols. An upwardly mobile immigrant group (the Indian Americans, in this case) wants to convert its economic success into other domains. Alongside the Hindu American Foundation sits various conservative and traditionalist Jewish American groups (AIPAC, American Jewish Committee) who are eager for allies of color as they suffer from a public relations disaster. For the Hindu American Foundation, the group to emulate is the Jewish Americans, who are seen to have leveraged their demographic minority into political or at least social power (I have a long essay on this in the Summer 2005 South Atlantic Quarterly, called “How the Hindus Became Jews: American Racism After 9/11”).

Down the road from Sacramento, in Stockton, a different kind of Indian American tried to make a different history a century ago. Displaced peasants from the Punjabi countryside and from the lower ranks of the British Indian Army migrated to the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada. From Vancouver to Imperial Valley, Punjabi men (largely, although there were a few women) came in the thousands to work as farmers and wageworkers, as well as students. Experienced in anti-colonial struggles in British India, and in fights for better rights in the US and Canada, a group of these migrants founded the Ghadar [Revolt] Party. “The world derisively accosts us: O Coolie, O Coolie,” the Ghadarites sang, “We have no fluttering flag of our own. Our home is on fire. Why don’t we rise up and extinguish it?” The Ghadarites called for complete independence for India a full sixteen years before Gandhi’s party, the Congress, took this position. That history of radicalism within the Indian American community is now a minority. Part of this is for objective reasons: the class background of the community is different, it is mobilized as a model minority by the establishment, and it is able to leverage multiculturalism to its own advantage.

In the last election, a plurality of Indian Americans voted against the Republicans. In Silicon Valley, Indian American computer money filled the coffers of liberal Democrat Mike Honda in 2000 (Jessie Singh of BJS Electronics was the main donor). But when a genuine progressive South Asian American, Ro Khanna, ran on an anti-war, anti-Patriot Act platform against the war-dog Democrat Tom Lantos of the 12th Congressional District, he received minimal support from the Indian American establishment. They preferred Lantos, whose temerity on behalf of “humanitarian intervention” and against Islam is well documented. Cruel cultural nationalism has become an alibi for genuine patriotism–and all this is enabled by multiculturalism, the last refuge of bureaucrats otherwise terrified of anti-racism and of genuine social change.

VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, “Capitalism’s Warehouses”, appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly’s book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

 

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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