Identity and the death of politics
Vinay Lal | 28 Aug, 2020
Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris at the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Delaware, August 19 (Photo: Reuters)
LET US FIRST, in speaking of Kamala Devi Harris, dispense with the two sets of commonplace observations being aired since Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the president of the US, named her as his running mate. Harris is described as a prolific trailblazer: she was the first black, the first Indian American and the first woman elected as the District Attorney of San Francisco and later as the Attorney General of California. She is only the second black woman to serve in the US Senate, having been preceded by Carol Moseley Braun who served one six-year term in the 1990s, and Harris is the first Indian American to serve in the Senate. She is now the first woman of colour to join the presidential ticket of the country’s two major political parties and, should the Democrats prevail in the November presidential election, she would obviously become the first Indian American and African American to hold the vice presidency of the US and would be well poised to make a bid to become the first person in all these capacities to preside in the White House and perhaps dominate the politics of the Democratic Party over a good part of the next generation. If all of this were not exhausting enough, she is also the first nominee of either party for the position of either vice president or president to have graduated from one of a group of what are known as ‘historically black colleges and universities’ (HBCUs)—more precisely, from Howard University, at one time dubbed the ‘black Harvard’.
It is very likely that there are many other such ‘firsts’ in Kamala Harris’ résumé of accomplishments. Donald Trump had many ‘firsts’ too, among them being the oldest incoming president in the US and the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win the White House without having ever been elected to any office (though Eisenhower had at least been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, rather than being, as is true of Trump, a notorious draft dodger). To enumerate all of Trump’s ‘firsts’ would be to steal the thunder from Harris, or perhaps add lustre to her candidacy. Her résumé should be, other things being equal, sufficient to win her the approbation of all but cynics and perhaps those who would like to think of politics in the rather more elevated language of a political philosopher or an ethical thinker. It is remarkable, indeed, that the second set of commonplace observations on her nomination for the vice presidency of the US bears affinity to the place-markers of identity with which she is described. On this view, Biden selecting her was astute since she is smart, a centrist and a pragmatic moderate, but, above all, because she is the counterpoint to him in the most fundamental respects. As Biden is male and white, Harris is a woman of colour; if he is the past of the party, she is its future; if he is old, she is reasonably young; if looks rather worn-out, wearing the bottom of his trousers rolled, she is brimming with energy; if he is dull, she always seems to sparkle—with something; if he is from the East Coast, she is from the West Coast. In the folksy, somewhat endearing and at times annoying language in which Barack Obama delights and which gives California its somewhat starry-eyed reputation, the coming together of Biden and Harris is the coziness of yin and yang.
It does not surprise, then, that barring some predictable and often lengthy inquiries into Harris’ record as a prosecutor and ‘top cop’ of the wealthiest state of the union, the opinion pieces have revolved around the question of identity. Does she ‘identify’ herself predominantly as black and only take recourse to her Indian identity when the occasion seems fitting? Is Harris likely to become more black as the campaigning intensifies, if only because she is astute enough to recognise that, however much she may feel beholden to her partial Indian ancestry, black people will indubitably have a far greater role in determining her future in American politics? Indians number in the vicinity of around 4 million, around 1.25 per cent of the American population; blacks, on the other hand, make up close to 14 per cent of the country. Some are asking: will she selectively play up her Indianness as she courts voters and donors in the affluent Indian American community? Or might Harris present herself as equally black American and Indian American, as someone who, in the last analysis, counts herself only as American?
That neither her Indian American nor black identity will have a bearing on some, indeed most, of her views should be amply clear from the positions that Harris has adopted on the question of Palestine. Harris is a keen supporter of Israel and was more adamant than all other Democratic hopefuls in the summer of 2019 when, in response to a question posed by the New York Times, ‘Do you think Israel meets international standards of human rights?’, she replied in the affirmative and insisted that American foreign policy in that region had to be rooted in ‘understanding the alignment between the American people and the people of Israel’.
In this respect, she is truly the soulmate of Biden, whose position has barely budged from the views he enunciated in 1986 during a debate in the Senate on arms sales to the Middle East, when he declared: ‘It’s about time we stop apologising for our support for Israel, there’s no apology to be made. It is the best $3-billion investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.’ The Palestinians have no reason to rejoice in the selection of Harris, merely because she is an Indian American and African American woman; from their standpoint, it is more than likely that she will be speaking only as an American—that is to say as a white person. Those who live and thrive on identity politics have given everything to pronouncing themselves Asian American, African American, Hispanic American, Japanese American or whatever and have themselves recognised as such by others, but they seldom recognise that once one has been nominated an American, one perforce takes on the characteristics of those deemed white. That is one of the entitlements, though a liability for others, of being a ‘white American’—who alone have, and dearly wish to retain, the privilege of not being named. This is what the French philosopher Roland Barthes characterised as the realm of ex-nomination.
Kamala Devi Harris belongs to a breed of professional politicians who play to win and whose careers have been shaped by the well-oiled machinery of political
manipulation, grandstanding and the like. One cannot, and must not, expect anything substantive to come out of this form of political activity in an electoral democracy. The candidate, as such, is nearly irrelevant—perhaps an odd argument to make at this juncture, some would argue, considering the apparently ‘life-defining’ choice that people are called upon to make this November, though in my memory every four years the same argument has been advanced over the course of the last three decades
THOSE WHO DO not recognise the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America. What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic Party to the vice presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the president, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life. Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration. Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years as they partook of political demonstrations against racism, discrimination and injustice, discussed decolonisation in Africa and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’. These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, ‘my mother’s people. In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life’. In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children: ‘She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.’
In characterising her mother’s desire to raise her and Maya so that they would become ‘confident, proud black women’, Kamala Harris would appear to have resolved decisively the question of whether she leans more heavily on the side of being viewed as African American or Indian American. Yet, in her speech at the Democratic National Convention where she accepted her nomination, she spoke at length about her mother; the father was barely present, not even as much as a footnote—perhaps another testament to the absent black fathers who are said to populate the American landscape. But it cannot be this cut and dry, since Harris has spoken often of vacations spent with her father and her paternal grandparents in Jamaica, and she speaks of her father, Donald Harris, with warmth if not copiously. One might say that it is but natural that she should have offered a glowing account of her mother who raised her and her sister. We might also try to interrogate her apparent self-identification as an African American from an altogether different angle: where does Africa belong in her political and moral imagination and her discursive world? The question assumes all the more importance at this present juncture, given the force, velocity and urgency with which ‘Black Lives Matter’ has become enshrined as the preeminent political movement of contemporary America with reverberations elsewhere in the world. Oddly, as some reflection on ‘Black Lives Matter’ suggests, the movement has little to say about lives in Africa; and the continent scarcely figures in her autobiography. Indeed, judging from what transpired from the eight years of Obama’s presidency, there is little if any reason to think that his term in office had any long-lasting implications for Africa. Obama paid four visits to sub-Saharan Africa, twice as many as Bill Clinton and George W Bush, but Bush on his two trips visited 10 countries while Obama visited only six. Obama was committed to weaning Africa from its dependence on aid and, as a person of pronounced neo-liberal views, was hopeful that he could get Africans more interested in engaging with the world with commitments to business models. If one were asked to describe what the eight years of the presidency of an African American meant for Africa, one would be hard-pressed to say anything in the affirmative, beyond the usual cant about ‘pride in origins’, the feeling that one matters in the world and other similar anodyne expressions that constitute the language of our times.
WHAT OF KAMALA HARRIS’ Indian American origins? Some Hindi-language newspapers erupted with joy at the announcement of her nomination, as though she had been nominated to fight an election in India; others commented, in language that can only be viewed as comical, on the Indian lotus that also blooms overseas. There are the usual speculations about what a Biden presidency, one in which the younger, energetic and ‘dynamic’—one of the operative words of our times—Kamala Harris is expected to play a more aggressive role than what is ordinarily reserved for vice presidents, may portend for India-US relations. If some would like to think that Harris’ Indian roots will incline her to push her boss to grant India more favourable terms of trade, encourage closer India-US relations in an effort to thwart China’s advance and overlook some of the more authoritarian features of the present Indian administration, others have to the contrary argued that Harris is, to use a colloquialism, ‘a tough cookie’ who is likely to question India’s intentions with regards to Kashmir and lodge strong protests whenever it appears that the rights of minorities are being violated. All of this is, frankly, uninteresting—just chatter and nothing that might pass for ‘thought’.
Kamala Harris’ ascendancy is far less the sign of any substantive shift in American politics than a form of gestural accommodation that democracies are called upon to make these days. It is now perfectly well understood that some shifts are irreversible and must therefore be accepted in good taste, so long as some fundamentals—class hierarchies, a belief in the spirit of American capitalism and the supposition that the US is the one ‘indispensable nation’, to name just a few—are left undisputed
Among Indian Americans, the principal consideration is what having Harris at the near helm of politics might mean for the future of the community in politics. Indian Americans long complained of being invisible in the US, and the feeling persists among many of them that Hinduism is slighted in comparison to other religions. Kamala Harris is no Hindu, but for the present many Indian Americans are prepared to overlook that—more particularly because she has spoken with immense warmth of not only her mother, her maternal grandfather, but (alas, somewhat in the vein of Ved Mehta) also the seemingly countless number of uncles, aunts and cousins on her mother’s side. Her rise is obviously a matter of pride to most Indian Americans, especially women, but it is wholly characteristic of the intellectual parochialism of the community that almost no one has taken Harris’ ascendancy as an opportunity to revisit the rich, largely unknown and sometimes troubled history of Indian-Black relations in the US. Such a narrative would encompassthe unusual history of what the scholar Vivek Bald has called ‘Bengali Harlem’, a portrait of Indian peddlers, lascars and other working-class men who struck up long-term relationships, sometimes leading to marriage, with black, Puerto Rican and Creole women in cities stretching from the East Coast across to the Midwest and the American South. It would also encompass, to take another illustration, the sustained interest in the Indian independence movement over a period of three decades in large segments of the African American press, including newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Courier, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World and New York Amsterdam News.
IN AN EFFORT to understand what the rise of Harris might mean, it may be more productive to enter into the vortex of her life and the belly of that beast called American politics in a more tangential fashion. I would wager to say, on no authority except my own hunch as a reasonably educated and moderately well-read person, that Kamala Devi Harris was very likely named after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-88). This is, to reiterate, far from being certain, but it is immaterial since the invocation of Kamaladevi’s name suggests both the possibilities that are inherent in Kamala Harris’ gradual and impending ascendancy to the near pinnacle of American politics and, though this will be less evident to most people, the profound misgivings that one must necessarily have about electoral politics at this juncture of history. It is almost inconceivable that Kamala’s mother, Shyamala, was not inspired by Kamaladevi, a fiery Indian nationalist, socialist and feminist who was a major figure in India’s struggle for freedom and a close associate of Mohandas Gandhi. Kamaladevi was not only a staunch advocate of women’s rights but a leading exponent, at a time in the 1930s when even feminists in the West were reluctant to advocate for the complete equality of women, of the idea of equal pay for women and men. She was the first woman in India to stand for elected office, losing her bid for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1926 by a mere 60 votes! Kamaladevi forged extensive contacts with socialist feminists around the world, led satyagraha campaigns in India and preceded Shyamala Gopalan in making her way to the US as a single—or, more accurately in this case, divorced—woman for a lengthy visit which took her to prisons, American Indian reservations and reform institutions in an attempt to understand the underbelly of American life and initiate a transnational solidarity of the oppressed.
As independence dawned, however, Kamaladevi retreated from politics. She did so at a time when, much like her yet more famous sister-in-law, Sarojini Naidu, she could have had nearly any political office for the asking. In eschewing political office, she was choosing the trajectory established by her mentor, Gandhi—though, as was the case with him, this did not even remotely signal any severance from social work or participation in public life. In the immediate aftermath of independence, she involved herself with work revolving around the rehabilitation of refugees, and it may be more than just a coincidence that Shyamala Gopalan might have been aware of this as well since her father, PV Gopalan, was employed as Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Transportation and placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Rehabilitation with effect from December 1955. Kamaladevi went on to have an extraordinary second career as one of the country’s preeminent experts in handicrafts, textiles, theatre arts, puppetry and crafts and as a principal force in moulding the new nation’s cultural policy. The idea of the ‘Global South’ is incipient in all her work and she was a radical exponent of the idea of South-South exchanges and the decolonisation of knowledge. What is critical is that Kamaladevi’s disavowal of political ambition stemmed from her disenchantment with animal politics—and electoral politics is nothing but that in psephological democracies such as the US and India—and, at the same time, a deep awareness of how to effect social change.
Kamala Harris’ parents had a shared political life for some years as they partook of political demonstrations against racism, discrimination and injustice, discussed decolonisation in Africa and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’. These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, ‘my mother’s people. In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs’
It is in all these respects that Kamaladevi’s namesake in the US, Kamala Devi, is radically different. Most people, particularly of liberal disposition, suppose that the nomination of a woman who is one part African American and one part Indian American signals a new kind of maturity in American politics and shows that in such evolution the intrinsic strengths of a democracy are most evidently on display. The argument may not be wholly without merit except that one must fundamentally digress from such a generous interpretation in at least three respects. First, Kamala Devi Harris belongs to a breed of professional politicians who play to win and whose careers have been shaped by the well-oiled machinery of political manipulation, grandstanding and the like. What I have called the ‘animal politics’ of Kamaladevi’s time is but child’s play by the ruthless rules of the game that are in place today. It is far from established that Harris is any more principled than the average politician: the man who is now presented, with good reason, as an affront to most reasonable people and as a threat to American democracy, Donald J Trump, is on record as having twice, in 2011 and 2013, contributed as a private citizen to the election campaign of Kamala Harris when she was running for the state attorney general. One cannot, and must not, expect anything substantive to come out of this form of political activity in an electoral democracy. The candidate, as such, is nearly irrelevant—perhaps an odd argument to make at this juncture, some would argue, considering the apparently ‘life-defining’ choice that people are called upon to make this November, though in my memory every four years the same argument has been advanced over the course of the last three decades.
Secondly, Kamala Harris’ ascendancy is far less the sign of any substantive shift in American politics than a form of gestural accommodation that democracies are called upon to make these days. It is now perfectly well understood that some shifts are irreversible and must therefore be accepted in good taste, so long as some fundamentals—class hierarchies, a belief in the spirit of American capitalism and the supposition that the US is the one ‘indispensable nation’, to name just a few—are left undisputed. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the decision this summer of the US Supreme Court in a case where Justice Neil M Gorsuch, whose nomination to the court was bitterly contested by liberals and who had been roundly condemned by them as ‘extremely conservative’, surprised everyone by writing the court’s landmark decision extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ employees nationwide. Opposition to gay marriage and to gays serving in the military went the same way as opposition to women serving in the army, and both Gorsuch’s seeming capitulation to the moment and Harris’ rise must be viewed in the same vein—as harbinger of the kind of incremental changes that permit a democracy to call itself a democracy. It bears reiteration that the meaning of being ‘American’ is expansive enough and one can expect that under Harris, should she become the vice president and perhaps gain the White House in a subsequent election cycle, such incremental changes will accelerate.
Thirdly, it cannot be stressed enough that a more capacious and particularly ethical perspective on politics behooves us to liberate ourselves from procrustean notions of identity rather than becoming entrenched in them. It cannot be doubted that there will already be rather silly articles by Indian Americans about Harris as the ‘desi alpha female’ and other sentimental pronouncements about how her nomination is a ‘dream come true’. The trouble with identity is that it is a crushingly boring subject. ‘Nothing seems less interesting,’ Edward Said wrote with characteristic forthrightness, ‘than the narcissistic self-study that today passes in many places for identity politics, or ethnic studies, or affirmations of roots, cultural pride, drum-beating nationalism, and so on’—and this from the author of Orientalism (1978), a devastating indictment of the intellectual apparatus and regimes of representation that European colonial powers deployed in their study of ‘Oriental’ societies. When will we get past the fact that Kamala Harris is a woman, in equal parts African American and Indian American, and begin to pose some more difficult questions. What does she understand by ethics in politics? Under what circumstances might one permit the conscience to become the highest law of the land? But if we must insist on her identity, we might still ask some difficult questions: as an African American and Indian American, will she be hospitable to the idea that if a vaccine for the coronavirus should be developed in the US, it would first be made available to essential healthcare workers in the US, India, Africa and around the world before it is even made available to all Americans? Or will it be merely ‘America first’? Are those who are minorities any more endowed with a sense of altruism than those who are not? It is clear that in the present state of senescence that characterises democracy in the United States of America, no one will be bothered to put these questions to Kamala Devi Harris—or indeed to any other candidate.