E Pluribus Umbrage
The long, happy life of America’s anti-defamation industry.
Dec. 1, 2002 12:00 am
Original URL: http://reason.com/archives/2002/12/01/e-pluribus-umbrage
The sexual abuse scandal of 2002 is arguably the gravest crisis in the history of the American Catholic Church. Sexual dysfunction, hypocrisy, institutional self-regard, Soviet-style secrecy, pathological hostility to plain dealing — even the infamous 19th-century nativist fable The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk couldn’t support so many anti-Catholic stereotypes.
In the midst of this emergency, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation’s most prominent Catholic advocacy organization, alerted its 300,000 members to a grave threat to the faith: a King of the Hill episode in which cartoon housewife Peggy Hill impersonates a nun. Even for the perpetually outraged Catholic League, this was minor stuff. But it’s the kind of distorted controversy found in a strange and often lucrative segment of the political economy.
Call it the anti-defamation industry, the anti-discrimination lobby, or maybe the umbrage market. From politically connected lobbying behemoths to one-man shoestring operations using a Kinko’s fax machine, the United States hosts a Mad Monster Party of advocacy groups dedicated to rebutting every real and imagined racial or ethnic slur. It’s a field that attracts the talented and the warped, passionate crusaders and transparent self-promoters. It creates media stars and villains.
And if the nit-picking interest group has become a cliché, anti-discrimination’s capacity for driving legal and legislative agendas is no joke. Pandering to imagined Hibernian hypersensitivities has already resulted in the construction of an Irish Hunger Memorial on prime real estate in New York City’s Battery Park and a gratuitous curriculum requirement that Empire State public schools teach the Irish famine as an attempted genocide by the British government. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith boasts that its model hate crimes legislation has inspired actual laws in Wisconsin and elsewhere. One of President Bush’s first initiatives after the September 11 attacks was to get a series of photo ops with representatives of Arab and Muslim anti-discrimination groups.
It’s hard to place a valuation on the anti-discrimination industry. The 89-year-old Anti-Defamation League is the trailblazer, with an annual take of more than $40 million and a $400,000 salary for storied director Abraham Foxman. The National Council of La Raza rakes in a cool $16 million per year, a combination of government grants, public support, and other revenues. The Polish American Congress pulls down more than $5 million — despite its leader’s habit of making wildly impolitic public statements (more on this later). The venerable Sons of Italy runs a nearly $200,000 Commission for Social Justice.
Tactics pioneered by the Anti-Defamation League are used by anti-discrimination groups that butt heads with the ADL itself. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee budgets “in the area of a million dollars,” according to an official, as does James Zogby’s Arab American Institute. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) describes its budget as between $2 million and $4 million. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition famously declines to disclose its finances at all.
All Against All
The number of unincorporated one- or two-person social justice advocacy operations out there is beyond count. If you’ve noticed an absence of “No Latvians Need Apply” notices at local businesses, you can thank either the Latvian Truth Fund, which defends “the legal and civil rights of persons born in Latvia or of Latvian descent,” or the American Latvian Association, which “defends the interests of Latvian Americans.” There are Indian-American groups combating misrepresentations of Ganesha, Italian-American committees who condemn Mickey Blue Eyes, and Irish organizations bent on eliminating Barry Fitzgerald-style stereotypes.
Funny though they may be, such groups turn honest (or dishonest) differences into pseudo-crusades and portray an America that, contrary to abundant evidence, has made no progress against the bigotries of the past. “These groups serve a vital function,” says Robert Alan Goldberg, a University of Utah history professor and author of Enemies Within, a study of conspiracy theories in America, “but somebody has to sound the fire bell when they pour gasoline on the fire and get into thrust and counterthrust with other groups.”
Virtually all anti-discriminationists describe themselves as opponents of bigotry in all its forms. But despite some areas of agreement, such as support for “hate crimes” legislation, the anti-discrimination industry is the Hobbesian nightmare in a nonprofit setting. Arab and Muslim groups struggle with the ADL for mind share in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Serbian Orthodox Church combats not only anti-Serb stereotypes in the entertainment industry but also the Hague War Crimes Tribunal and the de facto pro-Croat teachings of Our Lady of Medjugorje. The Polish American Congress alienates the Jewish community in Chicago. Italian Americans battle American Indians every Columbus Day.
Advocacy groups also come into conflict with people they putatively represent. The Anti-Defamation League is frequently criticized by liberal Jews. A recent Sports Illustrated poll suggested most Native Americans tolerate or even support the Indian team nicknames advocacy groups have fought for many years. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, battles his own church’s liberals. Many or most Italian Americans regard Mafia films as, at worst, too abstracted from reality to cause much alarm.
Nevertheless, institutional logic demands eternal vigilance. “Simply said, there are careers, status, jobs and influence to be had as long as racism exists,” writes Laird Wilcox in his 1998 book The Watchdogs, which details incidents of strong-arm tactics by anti-discrimination groups. An anti-discrimination group has little motive to report improvement, or even stasis, in cultural relations, because that would lessen the perceived need for the group.
Nor is there incentive to declare victory and go home, even when victory clearly has been won. The Polish American Congress is still operating decades after Mike Stivic endured his last Polish joke on All in the Family. Both the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are famous for fund raising letters warning of what the ADL calls “a rising tide of anti-Semitism here and around the world” and the Wiesenthal Center describes as “a frightening new wave of antisemitism and extremism — often mixed with Holocaust denial.” The Catholic League’s Donohue defines anti-Catholicism as the “anti-Semitism of the elites” and asserts “there is a contempt for Christianity among our elites in this country that has no rival.”
If this perpetually rising tide is troubling, it’s useful in forming cultural identity, particularly where such identity is fading or never existed in the first place. Asian Americans of all backgrounds now attach themselves to the World War II�era internment of Japanese Americans. Large numbers of Irish Americans dwell on the relatively mild bigotry their ancestors endured two presidents and countless CEOs ago. “It’s easy to pick on the Irish, since we’re easily dismissed as a minority or ethnic grouping of no particular significance,” writes the Richmond Times Dispatch’s Tom Mullen. “You can say what you like about the Irish — especially Irish Catholics — but woe be unto you if you say anything critical about African-Americans or gays or any other group that has suffered from any kind of bigotry.”
Even if we concede that historical suffering of a group confers political coherence on that group’s descendents, few anti-discrimination groups have the serious historical roots of, say, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the American Indian Movement. Self-described ethnic groups whose experience of America has been almost entirely positive can get into the act. Don’t talk to me about slavery; my ancestors were traumatized by The Katzenjammer Kids! This may explain why anti-discrimination is a growth industry even — or especially — while identity politics fades into history, more Americans decline to identify themselves by ethnicity, and actual discrimination is, by virtually all measures, at historically low levels.
“We are not humorless,” says Ajay Shah. “There are things that are clearly humorous, and you have to be willing to take a joke.” Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), is speaking of Apu, the Indian Quik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons. Shah occasionally has been called upon to object to this characterization of a penny-pinching subcontinental; he sees Apu as a creation more of affection than calumny. “I get two or three incidents reported every month,” he says. “You have to make a judgment whether it’s worth pursuing or just trivial.”
In the anti-discrimination economy, AHAD is a penny stock, with no paid staff, office, or telephone. AHAD convenes on a case-by-case basis. Its targets have included an Aerosmith album cover depicting a disfigured Krishna, Sanskrit shlokas in an orgy scene in the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and, most famously, a Seattle design shop selling toilet covers with pictures of Ganesha and Kali. In all these cases, AHAD’s strategy of engagement with offenders, backed up by e-mail campaigns and the hint of boycotts, resulted in removal of the offending images.
“In all of our protests we have never asked for monetary compensation,” says Shah, “because if we can educate people, we’ll become a major organization whom they’ll come to before they start a project.”
AHAD has come under fire from both left and right. In a screed for the Indian Web site Rediff.com, writer Varsha Bhosle attacks Shah’s “ingrained Hindu obsequiousness,” which allowed the Seattle designer to escape “without a scratch.” In Bhosle’s view, AHAD is a lily-livered Gandhian group that deserves “a nice Islamic-style whipping.”
Liberals, on the other hand, condemn AHAD’s affiliations with both the million-dollar advocacy outfit Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, which has ties to India’s ruling BJP party, and the nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose mission includes “strengthening the [Hindu] society by emphasizing and inculcating a spirit of unity, so that no one can dare challenge it.” Both groups supported the demolition of the Ayodha mosque and say attacks on Christian missionaries result from “anger of patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces.”
“The issues we pick have no political overtones,” counters Shah. “We take up issues offensive to Hindus…once people denigrate your symbols, it’s a matter of time before they say, ‘If people worship these symbols, they’re worth ridiculing.'” Shah notes that his group participates in pluralism efforts and meets with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Hindus are very liberal,” he says. “We see nothing wrong with people choosing their own lifestyles. If there is a libertarian religion, it’s Hinduism.”
Upping the Anti
This easygoing spirit is a rarity among anti-discrimination groups. “The issue,” Wilcox writes in The Watchdogs, “is the abominable record…with respect to individual rights…misrepresentations and lies, exploitation of normal human sympathy for the underdog, flagrant double standards, hidden agendas, unprincipled methods, and unconscionable use of law enforcement to advance their own ends.”
Not surprisingly, the 9/11 attacks pushed these tendencies to the forefront while giving urgency to anti-discrimination efforts. CAIR tallies anti-Muslim incidents, which it says tripled in the last year. The group issues news alerts with headlines that are witty (“Ann Coulter Attacks, Dates Muslims”), breathless (“House Leader Calls for Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians”), or mendacious (“First Lady Says She Can’t Empathize With Palestinian Mothers”).
The post-9/11 backlash, the Afghan war, endless intifadas, and the Bush administration’s hysterical terrorist threat warnings have inspired an unbroken string of columns, speeches, and television appearances from CAIR, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and the Arab American Institute (AAI). The rising profile of these groups never goes unchallenged. The ADL’s Foxman, who accuses the AAI’s Zogby of “crude anti-Semitism,” campaigned to get Zogby’s son ousted from a position in the Clinton State Department. Leaders of other Arab and Muslim groups have been subject to similar attacks.
“They’re saying don’t let me on television because I’m bad,” says ADC spokesman Hussein Ibish. “Pipes and Emerson rehash a version of anti-Semitism: ‘There is a plot out there to destroy our Christian way of life; they may look like us, but they worship a hostile and alien god.’ This is political anti-Semitism, recast against another Semitic group to exclude that group from the political process.”
Ibish is referring to Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, head of the Middle East Forum, and Steven Emerson, self-dramatizing MSNBC terrorism expert. The dustup between Pipes and his Saracen adversaries is one of the oddest offshoots of the war on terrorism. Pipes has condemned CAIR as “‘moderate’ friends of terror.” AAI founder Zogby has been the subject of a rant in Pipes’ Middle East Quarterly. Ibish, Pipes writes, is “Anti-American, anti-Semitic, inaccurate and immoral.”
Pipes’ Web site carries exposés about CAIR. CAIR shoots back with a special “Who Is Daniel Pipes?” feature on its own site. Like all pissing contests, it ends with everybody getting wet. Pipes mass e-mails alerts about his run-ins with various interlocutors (“Pipes on ‘Hardball’ — hits one back to the pitcher,” “Pipes on O’Reilly Factor, dukes it out with host,” “Pipes vs. Zakaria on MSNBC’s ‘Hardball'”). His enemies are even more energetic. Here is how Mohammed Alo, a young writer at toledomuslims.com, describes a Pipes appearance on the defunct talk show Politically Incorrect:
“Host Bill Maher and the other guests quickly argued that Pipes is the one that needs to be controlled and kept out of the public stage. Even they noticed his outright hatred and anti-Muslim sentiments. You could faintly hear an audience member shout out ‘Pipe down Pipes!’
“Pipes was humiliated. His plans were foiled once again. Bigotry was on display, but failed to reign supreme. Hooray for America. Pipes will forever remain in the garbage bin of history, and rightfully so.”
Needless to say, very little of this has to do with fighting discrimination. “We’re a civil rights organization, but much of what we do is devoted to foreign policy,” says Ibish. “Much of the discrimination Arab Americans face stems from disagreements between Arab Americans and the rest of society over our policies toward the Middle East. Until we can create a more reasonable foreign policy, we’ll face defamation in the form of films, television, discrimination in the workplace…I believe this absolutely.”
Nevertheless, Arab-American leaders concede that animosity toward their ethnicity may be less than advertised. “Is there a generalized antagonism?” says Zogby. “No. Was there a problem immediately after 9/11? Yes…the country doesn’t have much tolerance for hearing Arabs whine. There are people who try to make politics out of whining. I choose not to be a professional victim, because I don’t think it’s true and because people don’t have much tolerance for it.”
Victimization politics also holds tactical disadvantages. Anti-Semitism remains a concept with much more punch than such recently diagnosed maladies as “Anti-Arabism” or “Islamophobia.” Reference to the Holocaust is still sufficient to shout down any discussion about the plight of Arab Americans. “I don’t think anything in the Arab experience can resonate similarly, because I don’t think anything in the Arab experience is similar,” admits Ibish. “But since we can’t counter that emotional appeal honestly, we can question its relevance to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Big Trouble in Little Poland
For an odder case of emotional appeal turned into political ordnance, consider the City of Big Shoulders, where the slow-motion implosion of the Polish American Congress (PAC) mirrors the political decline of Chicago’s Polish community.
Since 1996 PAC President Edward Moskal has been making statements that can charitably be called ill-considered. “The spilled blood of those Jews, however torrential it may have been, cannot wash away the blood of their Christian neighbors,” Moskal wrote in a 1996 article that defended a commemorative cross at Auschwitz. (Elsewhere in the piece, he averred that Jews collaborated with Poland’s Soviet occupiers.) He dismisses evidence of Polish collaboration with the Germans as “twisted history,” an assault on Polish sovereignty. Moskal ridicules attempts by Poland’s leadership to offer restitution to Jews and implies Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, generally considered a resistance hero, was a Nazi collaborator.
Moskal’s impatience with talk of Polish guilt is partly understandable.
“[Poles] see themselves as victims, which they were,” says Guy Billauer, director of the National Polish-American-Jewish-American Council, which broke with PAC in 1996. “They have a right to think that way. But [the Moskal controversy] has opened our eyes. We believe it’s hard to reform somebody who holds these views. It’s like mending fences with Arafat.”
“I think people should welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with somebody who speaks his mind,” counters PAC spokesman T. Ron Jasinski-Herbert, “rather than saying the right things and thinking all the bullshit inside.” Whatever Moskal’s true feelings may be (he did not consent to an interview for this article), his comments have diminished both membership and clout for PAC, an umbrella group for 3,000 religious, fraternal, and political orders.
The situation came to a head during this year’s Democratic primary in the 5th Congressional District, which pitted former state legislator Nancy Kaszak against combative Clinton administration apparatchik Rahm Emanuel. Because of demographic changes and redistricting in Chicago’s 30th Ward, the Polish-American voting bloc is declining. “We do have a valid gripe,” says Jasinski-Herbert. “If we lose this one we have no more Polish representatives from the largest Polish community outside Poland.”
But it may not have helped when, a few weeks before the election, Moskal gave Kaszak a contribution and then denounced Emanuel as a “millionaire carpetbagger” with divided U.S.-Israeli loyalties, accusing Emanuel’s Polish supporters of accepting “30 pieces of silver to betray Polonia.” “The country from which Poles come struggled for democracy,” Moskal said. “While the country…to which [Emanuel] gave his allegiance defiles the Polish homeland.”
Kaszak publicly rejected Moskal’s endorsement. Emanuel insisted that Kaszak go further and order Moskal to “cease and desist.” The incident received wide media play, and in the weeks after Moskal’s comments Emanuel closed an eight-point deficit in polls to win the primary. The loss of Polish-American political clout turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what is ethnic cleansing or the Holocaust compared to the scourge of stage Irishmen? For Ultan O’Broin, founder of San Francisco’s Celtic Tiger Anti-Defamation League, the great issues of the day include Angela’s Ashes, Fighting Fitzgeralds, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and presumably the Star Trek episode wherein Kirk beats the stuffing out of an arch-rival tellingly named Finnegan.
O’Broin, an Irishman working in Silicon Valley, publishes articles excoriating “Oirish” stereotypes and ridiculing the dumb Americans who fall for them. “In the last decade, the Republic of Ireland has undergone a sea change,” he writes, noting that “Ireland has the highest per capita ownership of Mercedes-Benz automobiles in Europe.” Yet “stereotyping continues in the United States.” His proposed solution — one of them, anyway — is simple: “Americans (and Irish Americans) need to go to Ireland to see for themselves. They should protest the negative stereotyping. Then they might be more than welcome to celebrate what it really means to be Irish today.”
The Celtic Tiger Anti-Defamation League (CTADL) claims to have attracted 150 members, and the group’s proposals for anti-stereotype legislation have been given a sympathetic hearing by San Francisco’s mayor and legislators. As with soccer and Islam, the CTADL’s small base alone may qualify it as one of America’s fastest-growing organizations.
But the politics of Hibernian equality are thorny, even among Hibernians. Consider the sad case of Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Boyle, described by legendary activist Philip Berrigan as “a lawyer of the quality of Thomas More or Gandhi…the most competent and impassioned advocate of international law in the U.S.,” claims he experienced discrimination when he objected to the bar crawls graduate students hold every St. Patrick’s Day. “A bar crawl ‘in honor’ of St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, and one of the great figures of Western Judeo-Christian Civilization, is completely sacrilegious,” he says.
Boyle’s objections, he says, made him a target. “It’s clearly a hostile work environment for me,” he says. “I’ve been subject to ridicule by students and student organizations. This is a hostile environment based on my race — I’m of Irish nationality and a citizen of the Irish Republic — and on my religion — I’m Catholic.”
Indeed, Boyle claims the harassment got so bad that he complained to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, noting that “it doesn’t cost me anything” to have the government investigate his claims. Yet when pressed for details, Boyle becomes as vague as Van Morrison lyrics. “I got nasty e-mails,” the professor says, giving no hint of their contents. “They ridiculed me for being Catholic and ridiculed Catholicism. Two years ago, they even made a T-shirt ridiculing me.” Was this ridicule based on religion or ethnicity, or do Boyle’s students and colleagues just dislike him? Without examples, it’s impossible to say.
It’s also hard to see a legal case, given that “Irish” is nowhere recognized as a racial category. Sacrilege is an even tougher case, since nothing in Catholic canon law prohibits getting loaded on St. Patrick’s Day. Boyle is having none of this. “My secretary, who has a high school education, and isn’t even Catholic, understands this,” he snaps, abruptly ending the interview.
Perhaps a professor who claims discrimination while offhandedly insulting his secretary is not the ideal client, but shouldn’t Boyle and the Celtic Tigers be able to find common ground? Alas, the professor’s claim to Irish citizenship is based on Ireland’s notorious grandparent loophole — a practice to which the Tigers, who loathe Irish Americans, strongly object. “This citizen stuff is complete nonsense,” says CTADL spokesman William O’Herlihy. “Why not grant American citizenship to anyone in Ireland who has an American grandchild?” Thus even apparent allies cannot escape the anxiety of small differences.
The Irish are not the only long-assimilated European im-migrant group that still has it tough. “I’m a lawyer, but my dad was a shoemaker,” says Ted Grippo, the chatty and amiable founder of Chicago’s American-Italian Defense Association (AIDA). “Since 1930, we’ve had over 800 Mafia-type movies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I’m connected.” Fed up, Grippo is taking aim at Tony Soprano and the gang at the Bada-Bing — who themselves comically raised the issue of defamation in a recent episode about Columbus Day protests organized by Native Americans.
Grippo’s familiarity with HBO’s hit series would surprise the show’s most ardent fans. “In The Sopranos, there are two groups of Italians: the mob guys and the other people. Of that second group — Dr. Cusamano, the parish priest, the restaurant owner, the kids, the wife, Dr. Melfi — they’re all a bunch of slobs. Compare that to when Carmela met the Jewish psychiatrist or the African priest. Both of them were noble people, full of conscientious advice.” As Grippo describes the subtlest details of Sopranos plots, you suspect he may be a secret fan, but the show’s ethnic dynamic trumps everything for him.
Last year, Grippo brought legal action against Time Warner, citing a clause in the Illinois constitution that condemns “communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue in…a person or group of persons by reference to religious, racial, ethnic, national or regional affiliation.” While the suit was dismissed, AIDA attracted 160 members. Grippo expects to have 200 or 300 members “pretty quickly. We’re edging toward a paid staff. Within the next year we’ll have some permanent staff.”
Italian-American anti-discrimination has a long pedigree and one great event: the rise of Joe Colombo’s Italian-American Civil Rights League (IACRL). Colombo, who gave his name to the reputed “Colombo Crime Family,” formed the group in 1970, after son Joe Jr. was charged with melting down $500,000 in U.S. coins for their silver content. Within a year the IACRL attracted 100,000 members, boasting a multimillion-dollar budget and a five-room office suite on Madison Avenue. Pop culture Goliaths such as Alka-Seltzer’s “Mamma mia, datsa somma spicy meat-a-balls” slogan and Macy’s “Godfather Game” fell to the group’s wrath. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell attended a “Unity Day Rally” at Columbus Circle. Thanks to the IACRL, the terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra are never uttered in the film version of The Godfather. Colombo’s vision grew to include an IACRL-run hospital and rehab center and Camp Unity, a 250-acre retreat for underprivileged kids. In early 1971 he attained that benchmark of Nixon-era success, an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.
The dream ended just as quickly after Colombo was fatally shot at the second Unity Day Rally in 1971; the league did not outlive him. Mob fans speculate the assassination was ordered by either Colombo rival Joe Gallo or boss Carlo Gambino, who feared the league’s potential for drawing attention to discreet Gambino activities.
Richard Capozzola, a retired Florida high school teacher who worked for the IACRL, disputes both theories. “In the two years I was with the League, I worked closely with Joe; I never saw any criminal actions or heard so much as a profanity,” he says. “There is no other group that has a label pinned to its people…Michael Milken, Marc Rich, Allie Tannenbaum, Crazy Eddie Antar — those were all criminals. But if you want to get your backside kicked, write about them and call them the Kosher Nostra.”
At his site ItalianInfo.net, Capozzola publishes a 3,000-word essay defending the legacy of Colombo and the IACRL (whose “accomplishments overshadowed what all national Italian American organizations had tried to do for over SIXTY YEARS”). He speculates that Colombo’s assassination was ordered by the government as part of its long-term project to denigrate Italian Americans. “The assassination of Joe Colombo, in my view, was a capstone to the unjust and unethical treatment that Italian Americans are subject to in everyday life.”
Capozzola still speaks out against “Uncle Tomassos” like Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, and Sopranos creator David Chase. “I love my country, but I sure don’t love Hollywood,” he says. His hope is that there might someday be an organization that weeds out anti-Italian slurs as assertively as the Anti-Defamation League obliterates anti-Semitism.
Hate for Sale
Anti-discrimination efforts do not occur in a vacuum. Even hypochondriacs get sick, and the anti-discrimination lobby exists in part because real discrimination exists. If the ADL’s picture of an anti-Semitic Arab lobby is vivid, that’s because pro-Arab sentiments frequently do slide into hoary anti-Jewish tropes, a fact the more honest Arab advocates, such as the ADC’s Ibish, acknowledge.
To the surprise (if not disappointment) of Arab-American advocates, the post-9/11 backlash against Arabs and Muslims was more scattered and restrained than ubiquitous talk about internment camps and midnight roundups had led us to expect. But it would take a true Pollyanna to dismiss the troubles of Muslims in America when citizen and non-citizen alike are being deprived of such fancy Western niceties as the right to legal counsel.
Moreover, hate crime is often real crime. American Hindus Against Defamation is part of a political awakening that followed the murder of 30-year-old Navroze Mody by the Jersey City “Dotbusters” gang; agitation from the Indian community clearly helped push that case to a successful prosecution. (On the other hand, prominent civil rights advocate Helen Zia formed American Citizens for Justice after the murder at a strip club of 27-year-old Vincent Chin in 1982 — a crime now widely described as a racially motivated killing, though the circumstances are murkier than advocates admit.)
But does a crime become worse because it’s a hate crime? Are Americans too dumb to recognize bigotry unless a professional identifies it? Do anti-discrimination organizations actually make any difference?
Anti-discrimination groups are untroubled by such airy-fairy questions. Virtually all support broader federal hate crime laws. Ted Grippo’s lawsuit against The Sopranos is amusing but not uncommon. Even the Celtic Tiger ADL, which seems at first like a Swiftian hoax, is dead serious about expansive hate crime laws.
“We would like to see local legislation or guidelines enacted to prevent negative stereotyping in the local media and at officially sanctioned events or by anyone in receipt of public contracts,” says CTADL spokesman O’Herlihy. “If 24 Hour Fitness can draw the wrath of the oversized persons lobby…then I don’t see why those that are offended by the negative stereotyping of their culture shouldn’t be given serious thought too.”
Nonlegislative strong-arming is even more common. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith pressures Internet service providers that don’t police bulletin boards and libraries that display objectionable books. It once attempted to ban a textbook that “[leaned] over backward to provide a flattering portrait of Islamic civilization.”
Laird Wilcox, a civil rights activist who fell out with ADL while researching fringe groups, devotes more than a quarter of The Watchdogs to ADL abuses. Among other things, he claims a documentary he worked on in the 1980s was faked by ADL staffers posing, with fake names and mustaches, as white supremacists.
The ADL’s public record is daunting enough. In 1993 the group was fined for employing an off-duty San Francisco police officer to spy on other civil rights groups. Last year the ADL was fined nearly $10 million for defaming a Colorado couple with baseless charges of anti-Semitism. The organization defends its copyright on the word anti-defamation, taking action against groups such as the Anarchists Anti-Defamation League and Russell Means’ American Indian Anti-Defamation Council.
Other civil rights groups, Wilcox contends, might behave similarly with a $40 million budget. “They’re not hesitant to suppress free speech when they don’t agree with it,” he says, “but on the whole they’re no worse and probably better than the ADL.”
A League of Their Own
The endearing thing about Bill Donohue is that he genuinely seems to enjoy hurting people. The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights peppers his press releases with blistering jabs at luminaries who stumble into anti-Catholic offense: “LARA FLYNN BOYLE ADMITS TO HER STUPIDITY…HEATHER GRAHAM’S SEXUAL HANG-UPS…Yo, Sly, ever think about getting out of the ring once and for all?” (The last is a reference to Sylvester Stallone’s canceled series Father Lefty.)
Donohue specializes in invidious comparisons of the “If they said the same thing about blacks/Jews…” type. Some samples:
“Sadly, there is also a market for Jew-bashing cards. Millions of people hate gays. Ditto for Muslims. White racists abound. But there are no cards, thank God, that attack these groups. Just Catholics.”
“If a group of white anti-black bigots dressed up as Al Jolson and mocked African Americans, no one would excuse them….”
“For starters, would [the Brooklyn Museum of Art] include a photograph of Jewish slave masters sodomizing their obsequious black slaves?”
In an interview for this story, Donohue is energetic, engaging, and unapologetic about his aggressive personal style. “We’re not located in Kansas City,” he says (a dig at the liberal National Catholic Reporter, which is headquartered there). “New York is a rough town. The people I debate are smart, quick, and tough. I’m not some pious little bluenose, backwoods kid.”
Invoking the image of sodomite Jewish slave masters is, in Donohue’s view, fair play. “Why is that an invidious comparison?” he says. “Why isn’t it analogous? I want a level playing field.”
The Catholic League was formed in 1973 and turned over to Donohue’s leadership 20 years later. Donohue’s genius was to change the terms of the discussion, to present the Catholic League not as a socially conservative group but as the champion of an abused religious sect in a relentlessly bigoted environment. Everywhere the Catholic League looks — art museum, multiplex, TV set — an abyss of nearly Elizabethan Catholic bashing gazes back; the league fights back with press releases, letter writing campaigns, boycott threats, and an annual “Index of Anti-Catholicism.”
This strategy invites a good deal of media mockery of the “wait ’til the Catholic League gets a load of this” variety. “When any other group complains, they’re against discrimination,” Donohue says. “When Bill Donohue leads a protest, it’s censorship. He’s against free speech.” This charge clearly rankles Donohue, who insists — against considerable evidence — that he opposes governmental decency policing. “I don’t want the government to be the agent of resolution,” Donohue says. “I’d rather see somebody bashing my religion than see the government exercising censorship.”
This last claim should not be taken at face value. Donohue’s opposition to government intervention is such that when WNEW’s Opie and Anthony radio show staged a live sex act in St. Patrick’s Cathedral this August, Donohue’s first action was to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), demanding that WNEW’s license be revoked. The Catholic League has in the past filed FCC protests against a San Diego radio station and a WB Network quiz show; in 1998 Donohue went after the FCC itself, when a subscriber to the commission’s e-mail digest posted “a joke that poked fun at nuns.” As is often the case, government intervention is in the eye of the beholder.
But these were minor dustups compared to this year’s revelations that Boston’s Archdiocese housed a de facto pederasty ring that was protected by the church hierarchy. Suddenly the Catholic League was in an odd position. While the rest of the country was talking about child-abusing priests and their accomplices in the bishopric, the Catholic League was still denouncing harmless chestnuts about high-strung nuns and wacky confessional mixups.
“When this happened in Boston, I thought carefully, do I want to get involved in this thing?” says Donohue, who acknowledges having waited out the early stages of the controversy. “The reason we talk more about it now is that this thing blew up. And I wanted to have a voice of somebody who loves the church, who hates the abuse that’s going on in the church, and will oppose the efforts of the left and the right — especially the left — to impose an agenda.”
Donohue decisively inserted himself into the debate in March, briefly becoming a ubiquitous presence on talk shows and managing partly to direct the battle back toward a familiar enemy: Catholic liberals. He has become one of the major proponents of the thesis that the root of the problem was excessive tolerance for gays in the priesthood.
This, however, doesn’t address a main cause of public outrage: not just that child abuse occurred but that a self-interested church hierarchy was willing to act as an accomplice. In April a widely publicized Vatican meeting of U.S. cardinals produced a lawyerly and mealy-mouthed set of proposals; at a June meeting, America’s bishops, who had already emerged as the villains in the public mind, produced “zero tolerance” guidelines that made no mention of their own responsibility. It doesn’t take a Catholic basher to be struck by the fact that a church uniquely confident in its opposition to stem cell research, condom use, and war in Iraq is somehow unable to take a strong stand against raping children.
Despite promises that he would not “defend the indefensible” or “carry water for the church,” Donohue inevitably has had to speak carefully about Church pusillanimity and promise that real reform is on the way. Damage control is an uncomfortable job for him. In his element, Bill Donohue is a happy warrior, not an apologist. Witness a telling exchange with James Carville on CNN’s Crossfire:
Donohue: “Most of the damage was done in the 1970s and the early 1980s. The cultural and sexual revolution that this country went through in the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s had negative consequences all over. I’m not excusing it. I’m giving you….”
Carville: “I know. But I lived through the cultural revolution. And I didn’t fondle no Boy Scout.”
The fight has not gone out of Bill Donohue; he just wasn’t born to be somebody else’s straight man. Donohue promises, however, that if and when the scandal settles down, “I am gonna say to people: ‘It’s not OK to beat up on us just because we created our own problems.'”
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom
One thing you can say for anti-discrimination groups: By their very existence, they negate the idea of America as a homogeneous, or even harmonious, society. This alone constitutes a public service. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, keeps close track of the war on terrorism’s erosion of civil liberties, if only because its constituents are directly impacted. Between the tyranny of common interest and the tyranny of special interests, at least you still have the freedom to name your poison.
“We like these groups,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Massachusetts�based Political Research Associates. “It’s a good question why a person who is sensible would like these groups, but it’s because we don’t think it’s that annoying to ask whether people are being treated fairly — and to be able to do that without people running into a corner and ignoring each other. I want people to find a way to speak out in a way that is civil.”
It’s hard, though, to see how accusations of bigotry, sniping over political agendas, or appeals to courts and legislatures help promote civility. Anti-discrimination groups may in fact be most valuable when they are most combative, most obdurate, most willing to give up phony abstractions about equality for all and openly fight each other for crumbs of public attention.
Your meaningless cacophony could be somebody else’s Whitmanesque symphony. It would also be somebody else’s highly remunerative business, providing gainful employment for executives, clerks, and boards of directors. In this sluggish economy, isn’t that enough? Even when there’s little to gripe about, Americans from all walks of life can still come together and complain. We may be one nation after all.
Author:Arthur J. Pais
Date Published: 12/2000
Dr. Ajay Shah perfectly understands the importance of the First Amendment.But he also knows the clout of dollars. And if gentle persuasion is not enough, and e-mails and protest letters do not work, he uses economic threat–all to guard the honor of Hinduism.
“If any company or organization invokes the First Amendment and free-speech rights and persists in denigrating Hinduism, I would say I understand theirrights,” says Shah, a 39-year-old San Diego-based scientist.
“But the First Amendment also covers our right to protest; we could then work in getting 1 billion Hindus worldwide to boycott their products.”
Shah is the convener of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), athree-year-old group active in North America and the United Kingdom.
Right now, Shah and fellow activists are savoring their victory over a tiny Seattle-based firm that had been selling toilet seats with the pictures ofHindu deities, such as Lord Ganesha and Goddess Kali.
Following protests by AHAD and stories in Indian publications, Lamar VanDyke, one of the partners of Sittin’ Pretty Designs, decided to stopmarketing the toilet seats. She also apologized to Hindus, explaining tothem that she had come to understand from her Hindu friends that a bathroomhad to be maintained as a shrine. The decorative seats were meant to showthe respect she had for Hindu deities, Van Dyke said.
“We accept the apology, and we have had a very good discussion with her–and we are very glad that the dialogue and her explanation ended any ill feeling,” said Shah.
Parshad recently attacked AHAD for going after Van Dyke, owner of a tiny business, while the Indian government, led by the nationalist Hindu-dominated BJP, welcomes huge multinationals that harm millions ofHindus.
“It is a typical leftist argument and ploy to attack Hinduism,” says Shah.”Just because we are engaged in one type of activity doesn’t mean we cannot be active in other organizations that are attacking social injustice and poverty.”
But bringing about a change in those who insult or denigrate Hinduism in itself is important, many AHAD activists said.
“Today, someone attacks the symbols of Hinduism,” says Pallod. “Tomorrow, the attack could be on all Hindus.” And the attackers won’t differentiate between rich and poor Hindus, he says.
AHAD activists recalled how a group of young men and women resentful ofnewer immigrants had attacked scores of Indians in Hoboken and Jersey Cityin New Jersey two decades ago.
Calling themselves Dotbusters, they first attacked women with bindis; then they attacked both men and women. Also attacked were people from other religions and neighboring nations as long as they looked like Indians.
“In seeking the honor of Hindus and demanding they not be ridiculed,” Shahsays, “we are being good Americans.”
“In our fight for Hindu dignity, we are championing American pluralism,” he continues.
American history is full of instances of bigotry against other religions, henotes. And just as others have won respect for their own religion, Hindus in America want to be fully accepted and respected.
“America cannot be a great nation if any religion is hurt,” Shah adds. AHAD has no office, no staff but a few volunteers, and no budget other than what the volunteers spend on telephone calls, and yet it has been able to prevail against Sony and Warner Brothers–and lesser entities, such as Sittin’ Pretty, Club Karma in Chicago, and a shoe manufacturer in Los Angeles who used the pictures of Hindu deities on his products.
Even while AHAD has not had a full victory, as in the case of the “Xena”television episode “The Way,” Hindu leaders say the organization has been able to create discussion and awareness about Hinduism.
AHAD protested last year against the portrayal of Lord Krishna as a fictionalized character in “The Way,” but Universal did not yank the episode.
However, the version that was finally aired carried an announcement aboutHindu deities and how they are real for Hindus worldwide.
AHAD had better success with Warner Brothers, who removed the Sanskrit shlokas used in an orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s critically acclaimed film “Eyes Wide Shut.” Though the WB action came six weeks after the film was in release in America, it ensured that more than 800 new prints meant for more than a dozen countries abroad would carry some other Indian music.
How is it that AHAD is effective without a formal structure or hierarchy?
“A few years ago, if we were to do what we do today, we would have needed several full-time workers and a big budget,” says Shah. Today, the internet has made AHAD’s task very easy. Many AHAD activists are students and high-tech professionals. “With such tech-savvy people, it takes a few minutes to spread the word,” he says.
When AHAD launched an agitation against the jacket for Aerosmith’s “NineLives” album in 1997, it received over 2,500 responses. Hindus were upset over the depiction of a disfigured illustration of Krishna. Sony reportedly received over 20,000 fax and e-mail messages. The offending jacket was withdrawn within a month of the protest, accompanied by a public apology by Aerosmith.
“It was our first victory,” says Vijay Pallod, an accountant and AHAD activist in Houston. “We were very new, and the success of the Aerosmith drive convinced us that we should look out for every instance, small or big, of a denigration of Hindu faith and its icons.”
“We do not believe in confrontation at all,” Pallod, 42, says. He maintains that AHAD never takes up a protest before exhausting other means of persuasion.
“Many times we have discovered that a particular person or organization has no intention of offending or hurting any religion,” he says. “By holding a dialogue with them, we have an opportunity to educate them about Hinduism.”
Like Shah, other AHAD activists, including Pallod and Beth Kulkarni, a 50-plus white American who took to Hinduism after her marriage, are connected with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The two organizations actively promote Hindu values and are closely aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which currently heads India’s ruling coalition.
But many AHAD protests–like the one against the Southern Baptists’ booklet denouncing Hinduism–have also drawn in liberal Hindus who usually keep a distance from VHPA and RSS.
The AHAD protests are not aimed at non-Hindus alone. Srinivas “Sarin” Reddy, co-owner of Club Karma in Chicago, was prevailed upon to withdraw the display of religious icons in the trendy bar last year.
As AHAD is getting more active and vocal, so do its critics.
Vijay Parshad, a history professor at Trinity College, in Connecticut, and author of the book “The Karma of Brown Folk,” criticizes what he sees as the cavalier attitude of the VHP and RSS toward other religions. In India, the groups have reportedly been associated with the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and recent attacks against Christian missionaries.
KNBC-TV (Los Angeles): 11/29/00
Pop Culture’s appropriation of Hindu deities sparks controversy.
Take a walk down Haight Street in San Francisco and you’ll notice that colorful and exotic Hindu imagery is the height of fashion in many trendy clothing stores. T-shirts, shoes, purses are emblazoned with the images of Hindu deities such as the elephant god Ganesha and Lord Shiva. And it’s not just on clothing: music artists and advertisers are also using Hindu religious imagery to hawk their wares. It may seem that pop culture is embracing the Hindu religion. But some Hindus object to the appropriation of their icons, saying it is often sacrilegious. American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) is closely monitoring the use of Hindu icons. The group has been quick to protest what they see as inappropriate use of their religious idols. Through use of letters, faxes, email and the threat of mass consumer boycotts, they have been successful in curtailing production of various consumer items that they find offensive.
AHAD formed in 1997 to protest the release of the rock band Aerosmith’s “Nine Lives” album. The album cover featured a collaged image of the God Vishnu, with the head of a cat replacing Vishnu’s. AHAD found the disfigurement of Vishnu offensive, and objected to what they saw as a trivializing and demeaning portrayal of one of their most important gods for commercial gain. Sony Music was flooded with over 20,000 irate emails from Hindus, and agreed to redesign the album cover.
Since then AHAD has organized other protests. The Karma Club, a strip club in Chicago, stopped using the masks of Hindu deities on its exotic dancers when it received mass protests. Vanity Fair magazine was with deluged with criticism for running a 1999 photo-spread of comedian Mike Myers painted with blue body paint and dressed as a Hindu God. The recitation of the Bhagavad-Gita, a sacred Hindu text, during an orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film, “Eyes Wide Shut” was deleted after AHAD called its inclusion “utterly tasteless and insensitive”. And most recently, in July 2000, a Los Angeles shoe company discontinued production of shoes decorated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi after receiving thousands of protests via email.
AHAD says that a general lack of knowledge about Hinduism sometimes leads to insensitive usage of sacred images. It’s not that the use of the images themselves that they find sacrilegious; it’s when they are used in inappropriate ways.
Shoes for example are seen as an extremely inappropriate place for a deity. The shoe protest illuminates how a general ignorance of Hindu religion and culture can backfire. Hindus always remove their shoes before entering a home or temple, because the feet are considered unclean. Feet are always pointed away from other people as a gesture of respect. Wearing shoes that bear the image of the god means tracking the image through the dirt, as well as treading upon it. Also, printing the image of a deity on any kind of leather is definitely offensive to Hindus. The cow is a sacred animal in India, and most Hindus are vegetarian.
While a Hindu goddess on a T-shirt or purse is not offensive in and of itself, some Hindus say that the overuse of these images trivialize their religion, making it nothing more than a consumable commodity. They object to the wholesale acceptance of the fad as just another fashion statement, because the underlying symbolism is minimized. They say that many of the deities are associated with ancient moral parables and myths that provide life instruction; they do not just exist as colorful novelty items. They want Westerners to look more carefully at the underlying religious and cultural significance behind the imagery, rather than simply co-opting religious imagery to make a fashion statement.
Original URL: Varsha Bhosle Column on Rediff
Shittin’ Gritty by Varsha Bhosle
By now you’ve all read about Sittin’ Pretty Designs’ toilet seats bearing images of Ganpati Bappa and Kali Ma, who are the only two deities featured in the company’s “Sacred Seat Collection” suite. Meaning, only Hindu deities are sacred, or, only Hindu deities deserve to embellish toilet seats, or, only Hindus take affronts lying down, or in this case, sitting up.
Interestingly, the company’s website went to great lengths to prevent the casual visitor from downloading the images, by splitting each, like a jigsaw puzzle, into several parts. I presume that the owner of the company, a well-known tattoo artist and a leading lesbian activist named, appropriately, Lamar Van Dyke, has either created the images herself or has the copyrights, haha. Of course, I love puzzles and so here they are; maybe you’d like one on your Hindu sandaas, too:
Kali Ma and Ganpati Bappa
The website describes Kali Ma as “the fierce Hindu goddess who slays demons and liberates you from the constriction of your negative thoughts. She destroys all obstacles and frees you from the darkness of your fears.” While Ganesh “removes all obstacles, destroys evil and provides you with protection on your journey.” I’m sure all you Hindus out there in God’s Own Country appreciate the freely flowing puns.
On Saturday, the California-based correspondent for The Asian Age reported that the outraged Hindu community in the US “plans to stink”. He probably meant “to raise a stink”, but with Mr M J Akbar’s ultra-secular stable of reporters, one can never be sure if that was Freudian or intentional or accidental. Still, I’m grateful that the newspaper reported it at all, since no other publication picked up the story — till the politicians jumped on the bandwagon.
Thanks to TAA and rediff.com, your favourite psycho heard the views of some “outraged” leaders of the Hindu community in the US: Ajay Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation, said that “I don’t want to attach any labels to her [Dyke] right now. For all we know, she might be Hindu. She may think it’s something really cool and it propagates Hindu dharma. We just want to give her a chance to explain herself and maybe withdraw this product. Unless we learn otherwise, we must assume that is being done out of ignorance and not malice… What people might be trying to do is cash in on that popularity without considering what kind of affect it will have on the Hindu community at large.”
Vijay Pallod, a Houston-based community worker, said, “What is really offensive is that these two are the only images that have been listed in the Sacred Seat Collection. Why didn’t the manufacturers have the guts to put pictures of Gods from other religions on the same toilet seat covers? They know that if they did this with any other community there would be a huge public outcry.”
Beth Kulkarni, a member of the advisory council at the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Houston, the president of the VHP of America’s Houston branch, and described as “a pillar of Hinduism in Greater Houston”, disagreed with her “rakhi brother” Pallod’s contention that Hindus had been picked on: “I don’t know why they did such a thing. Maybe they thought they’d be able to sell their product,” for it might just be an “innocent act by uninformed people”.
Hmm… Am I the only one who thinks that something’s terribly wrong with this scenario? Am I the only one who feels that the aforementioned Hindus need to be administered a nice Islamic-style whipping…? Knock, knock… anybody there????
Let’s begin with Ajay Shah, who doesn’t want to pick on Dyke in case “she might be Hindu”. My eyes rolled up when I read that… Are all the secularists and pinkos of India non-Hindu? Are the ranks of the Kangress Parti Roman Catholic? Is the Samajwadi Party entirely made up of Muslims? Aren’t Hajpayee and his Bandar Hindu? But more significantly, if a Hindu had done such a thing, shouldn’t s/he have received a far stronger punishment than an offender of another denomination…? Can you see any logic in Shah’s statement? From where does it arise if not from the ingrained Hindu obsequiousness? What’s there that Shah needs explained by Dyke? That even after projecting Kali Ma as “the fierce Hindu goddess”, she went ahead and put Ma on the bottom of a toilet lid…?
Even so, Shah implores us to assume that Dyke may have acted out of “ignorance”. In Shah’s lily-livered world, an outspoken member of Seattle’s lesbian community, who also contributes to sociology journals, could have no clue about what causes offence to communities. Like, gays, a hounded minority everywhere, could be unaware of public scorn — and gay activists, more so. But Shah doesn’t think Dyke could have done it on purpose; perhaps, she mistook “sacred” for “scarlet”. You see, gay activists don’t have a history of extreme, in-your-face behaviour to draw attention to their community’s cause. Like, integrity’s gonna stop one from employing the same tactics when it comes to business.
However, the dipweed’s goal tops it all: Ajay Shah will be content if Dyke is persuaded to “maybe withdraw this product”. I wanna vomit. After incurring the cost of nothing more than laminating four toilet seats with the images and uploading the pictures on her website, Dyke will be let off without a scratch. No matter that the publicity she’s gained from the email campaign and the news reports is enough to make any PR firm salivate. So, even if Shah is awake to the possibility that Dyke might be trying to “cash in on the popularity” of the Hindu ethos, she’ll still be excused. For there’s no “malice”, if you please. Shah apparently believes that a well-known activist, who’s also been the subject of documentaries, may be so naïve that she’d put Ganesh and Kali Ma on toilet lids to “propagate Hindu dharma”… Don’t you just wanna aim your gun at, not Dyke, but this apology of a Hindu?!
And yet, I could have condoned Shah’s tender, loving, forgiving policy if not for this: “Attempts by The Asian Age to contact officials at Sittin’ Pretty Designs for a comment were not reciprocated.” Ajay Shah: “I’ve been patiently waiting, but I haven’t heard anything from her yet. Everyone is waiting for her response.” Such a naïve babe-in-the-woods, that Dyke.
The problem is this: Ajay Shah is not dedicated to Hinduism alone; he’s fanatically devoted to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, too. Hence his attitude when Hinduism itself is under attack: “The thing that we will do, that we have always done, is to put a moral public pressure on someone who has been offensive.” See what I mean? Since the loin cloth and “moral pressure” supposedly brought India her independence, Jockeys and toadying are gonna vindicate Ganesh in the US. Arrrrrrggghhhhhh….
Now let’s take the other Hindu worker: Vijay Pallod is offended because “these two are the only images” in the collection since Dyke didn’t have the guts to desecrate non-Hindu Gods. Vomit-time, again. Suppose if Dyke responded by putting Mohammed and Jesus on toilets, would Pallod and his acolytes be satisfied? WHAT is the relation between what Hindus want of their religion and what others want of theirs…? Will Pallod’s indignation be assuaged if the Virgin Mary, too, decorates a toilet — along with Kali Ma? Sheesh! Where do these dipweeds drop from?!
And then we have that “pillar of Hinduism’, Auntie Beth, telling us that “this might just be an innocent act by uninformed people”. When the Southern Baptists published “prayer guides” deriding Hindu Gods, this former Methodist and acclaimed VHP leader’s response was: “Generally speaking, Hindus always have a siege mentality with regards to Christians, anyway.” Auntie claims that her key mission is “to continue encouraging Hindus to let their self-respect and self-esteem grow” — while her own two children, born of a Hindu father (I’m gonna expand on the Marathi Brahmins of the US another day), do not identify themselves as Hindus… Why have you, O Shiva, placed me in such a nauseating community? The malaise is symptomatic of the Hindu “flock” everywhere — in India, we have our Auntie Sonia.
With Hindus like these, it’s no wonder that any dork gets up and sticks our deities anywhere s/he wants. In July, a California-based shoe manufacturer stuck our Gods on a range of footwear; America’s Hindus did exactly what they’re doing now — email campaigns followed by a loving “god-speed”. Read my lips, you morons: If you don’t hurt Americans where it hurts the most — their pockets — they will keep pushing at the boundaries of your limits. Instead of filling the coffers of the Democratic Party, you’d do well to invest far less in a legal suit. No pain, no gain: sittin’ pretty at your PCs and dashing off emails is not how wars are won — make the offenders shit slow and painful grit.
And now, Ajay Shah’s coup de grâce to finish Hinduism for once and for all: “I think the origin of much prejudice and discrimination against Indians in this country is the denigration of Hindu symbols. When people can ridicule your symbols, what stops them from ridiculing you?” What he’s saying is, because people are prejudiced against Hindu symbols, they discriminate against Indians; because they ridicule the symbols, they ridicule Hindus. Meaning, the entire exercise against the toilet seats is designed to stop people from ridiculing America’s Hindus! It does not rise from any particular devotion to Ganesh and Kali Ma, and it has little to do with any affront to the deities, LOL!!
These are dipweeds supreme, yuck! But the rest of you — the silent majority of Hindus who do get raving-mad at the slights to our Gods — I say this: Do not repose your faith in these so-called community leaders. Shah wrote Dyke, “I am not certain you realise that this has already caused tremendous hurt in the community” — limp words from a wimp. Do not get “hurt” — get even! Leaders are all alike — see where the BJP has left the kar sevaks of Ayodhya. If there’s no fiery Hindu organiser in America, fight individual legal battles against those who attack Hindu icons. For empowering the intellectually and morally corrupt will never get Hinduism the respect it richly deserves.
Tunku Varadarajan believes that we are UnHindu, because we stand up for Hindu dharma! Maybe, he missed the Dotbusters era…
India Today (North American edition)
Sep. 14, 1999
ALTERNATE ACCENT | Tunku Varadarajan
UNHINDU HINDUS – Apolitical Intolerance Has Now Struck the Community
I am a Hindu. My childhood was steeped in Hindu scripture and prayer, and we
often spent our vacations in Benaras, where my old grandmother lived in
Hanuman Ghat. My father took us to the Ganges in the mornings, where – in
spite of the obvious presence of muck – we had a reverential, but rapid,
snaan together. My father prayed to the gods, giving them thanks and asking
for their blessings. I prayed to the gods too, also begging them to spare me
from the agony of water-borne diseases. Our religion was calm and tolerant,
quite different from other creeds. As a Hindu, over the years, I’ve observed
cultural fanatics from the other religions go about their cretinous business.
I’ve watched daft ayatollahs, and their brainless acolytes in Bradford,
Karachi and Lucknow, rant against Salman Rushdie’s allegedly offensive
writings. “Burn, burn, burn,” the mobs bayed. “Ban, ban, ban,” the mullahs
I’ve watched Christian hotheads attack Martin Scorsese for his film, “The
Last Temptation of Christ”, with bands of aggressive pickets heckling
cinemagoers. I’ve seen Jewish extremists disrupting archeological digs in
Jerusalem – digs that would have revealed vital new information about the
earliest years of their own religion – on the grounds that they were
sacrilegious. Hindus, I’ve always held, do not behave in this way. I am not
saying that there have been no acts of savagery by Hindus. The assault on the
Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was a shameful case of Hindus behaving in a manner
that was – and there’s no other way to put this – un-Hindu. But even those
barbaric kar sevaks were not as bad as the vandals I have described in
preceding paragraphs, for theirs was an expression, however unpalatable, of a
political revolution that was then sweeping India. Those who objected to
Rushdie, Scorsese and the archeologists were, on the other hand, an
abominable species of knee-jerk primitivist. There is nothing worse than
apolitical intolerance. No, not even Babri Masjid.
But the disease has now struck Hindus. What is worse is that the Hindu
cultural loony resides in America. Taking a cue from the fire-breathers of
other religions, some American Hindus have made it their mission to scrub out
anything “offensive” to Hindus from this country’s cultural canvas. When Mike
Myers posed for a jocular spread in Vanity Fair dressed as a Hinduesque
demigod, the Hindu loonies howled for his blood. When the makers of the TV
series Xena screened an episode starring Hanuman, these caterwauling
Hinduistas demanded that it be withdrawn.
These cultural madmen trained their guns recently on Eyes Wide Shut, the new
film by Stanley Kubrick, demanding that Warner Brothers expunge an “orgy”
scene because the soundtrack contains a shloka from the Bhagavad-Gita. Ajay
Shah, convenor of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), boasted that “we
gave them 13 days notice” to pull the offending soundtrack.
I am sorry to report that Warner Brothers has caved in. I am sorrier to
report that I live in a country where groups like AHAD call the shots. Can’t
the nice Hindus of America, the civilized ones, do something to shut these
The Material Girl Goes Spiritual
Those of you who missed the MTV Music Awards last week missed one of Madonna’s greatest moments. In winning five of the headline prizes, the Material Girl taught us two lessons: first, that some divas never die–they don’t even fade away. Second–and more importantly–she attempted to introduce many of us to a new cultural and religious tradition by blending into her live performance elements from the sacred (and profane) life of the Indian subcontinent.
Madonna began her rendering of “Ray of Light” by chanting sacred mantras from the Vedas (the ancient Hindu scriptures) and incorporated into the performance steps derived from the traditional dance form native to the Indian region of Orissa. As American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) write on their website, the Hindu theme and use of Hindu symbols continued throughout the performance.
It impresses me that one of the world’s most marketable celebrities would take the time to investigate the artistic traditions of another culture, develop an act around them and present them on the world’s stage.
The problem is, what Madonna gave us isn’t Hindu (or Indian or even South Asian) culture. Instead she gave us ritualistic verses and dance steps ripped completely out of context. I admire Madonna and respect her efforts to expand our collective cultural experience. Unfortunately, by using her artistic license to syncretize Hindu and South Asian cultural elements with the Western performance culture, Madonna ran the risk of trivializing the faith of others. What began as a well-intentioned impulse to enrich our multicultural milieu backfired by alienating the very people whose traditions she was attempting to introduce to the general population.
I should distinguish here between religious and cultural traditions. The latter are much more easily syncretized, with much less chance of causing insult or offense. South Asian culture is, in fact, an amalgam of all sorts of different constituent traditions. And Anglo-American culture has successfully managed to incorporate elements of South Asian culture in the past. The Beatles, for example, were influenced heavily by the music of the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar. We all know about the therapeutic powers of yoga–and, for better or worse, the teachings of Deepak Chopra. No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani is oft-seen wearing a bindi on her forehead; mehndi, the decorative paint worn by many Indian brides, has become quite popular among Western women. Even Nehru jackets may someday make a comeback.
Religious traditions, however, require a bit more maturity and understanding to deal with. Pluralism and multiculturalism become trouble-some issues when we try simply to co-opt another religious tradition into our general popular culture without stopping to examine what that tradition actually means to its believers. That is why many Hindus found Madonna’s performance disturbing.
It is the same reason why many Hindus took offense to the cover of Aerosmith’s Nine Lives, released in 1997. According to the on-line magazine India Pulse, “in place of Lord Krishna’s face Sony and Columbia artists inserted the head of a cat. They also altered the male chest of Lord Krishna to that of a female with breasts, wearing a woman’s blouse.” Media executives did not incorporate Hindu symbols out of love for the culture, or with a desire to educate; they simply were looking for something quaint and exotic to market better their product, with little regard for the sentiments of the people whose icons they were perverting. After receiving thousands of protest messages, the Sony higher-ups wisely decided to change the cover art in subsequent releases of the record.
The Karma Club in Chicago (the sister nightclub of the one in Boston) also came under fire recently, for its interior decor. According to AHAD, this club features extravagant displays of religious icons in “compromising environments.” For example, pictures of the Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna occupy the wall of a bar, behind a number of bottles of liquor. A large statue of a dancing Shiva stands in the midst of the dance floor; a scantily clad man wearing a mask with three heads (apparently representing Lord Brahma) dances erotically on a pedestal. Finally, a statue of Lord Ganesha–the same deity that Hindus install at the entrance of their holy places–beckons people into the club.
Clearly the images of the Hindu gods in the club are divorced completely from any religious connotation–they are mere commodities meant to add to its exotic flavor. Nothing could more trivialize the faith of Hindus. It is significant to note, perhaps, that the majority owner of the Karma Club is himself a Hindu of Asian Indian origin. My comments are thus directed not only to popular performers like Madonna and Aerosmith, but also to anyone heedlessly seeking to profit off the sentiments of others.
The issue is not that Hindu religious symbols have been used inappropriately: Hinduism is one of the world’s most inclusive faiths, and its adherents certainly have no monopoly over the use of its symbols. But when these symbols are abused, and Hindu religious beliefs are trivialized, the trust and respect with which we must all treat one another in a liberal, multicultural democracy is violated.
True religious understanding requires intense struggling with and rigorous study of the faith, something Madonna (and others) through their actions clearly have not bothered to undertake. Our multicultural society is weakened as a result, our sense of community diminished.
Sujit Raman ’99-’00 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column will appear on alternate Tuesdays.
An Early Article in India Today about HSC Traces the History of HinduNet and AHAD
Title: Rallying religious revival
Author: Arthur J. Pais (New York)
Publication: India Today
Date: November 15, 1997
Kanchan Banerjee was prevented from performing Ganesh puja on the campus of
Boston University nine years ago. He was stopped not by American rednecks
or the KKK but the India Club-on the plea that the celebration of Diwali
went against India’s secular constitution.
It was probably similar complaints from fellow students at other American
schools that led to the birth of the Hindu Students Council (HSC). The aim
is unambiguous and untempered-to establish Hindu identify. “There are those
who speak for Indian Americans or Canadian Americans. We speak for Hindu
Americans and Hindu Canadians, and we want the younger generation to take
pride in their Hindu roots-and challenge anyone, including their apathetic
parents, who want to hide their Hindu identity.” says Banerjee, a national
co-ordinator of the council.
Since its inception in 1990. the HSC has grown dynamically. In November.
the 50th branch is slated to open with three groups vying for the honour.
Among the existing branches are those at elite universities like MIT,
Harvard, University of Chicago. University of Michigan at Arm Arbor, the
University of California at Berkeley, and Temple University. In addition.
several high schools. including those at the nationally-acclaimed Phillips
Academy in Andover. New Hampshire. are getting ready to open branches.
“We have witnessed a dramatic growth in the last 18 months and now have
13.000 members.” says San Diego-based Ajay Shah, who is in charge of the
electronic services of HSC. There is no doubt that the council has grown in
the last three years after it decided to go on its own following the
centenary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago visit held in
Washington D.C. by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). attended by over 1
0.000 people including 2.000 youths.
Despite this, many of the its leaders still keep in close contact with the
VHP. About six of them attended a VHP leadership conference held in New
Hampshire last week. In addition, a dozen camps in different parts of the
US and Canada have been organised where VHP leaders like Acharya Sushil
Muni and Swami Dayananda Saraswati have addressed the gathering. The
council counts among its staunch supporters Bhishm Agnihotri, the
vice-chancellor of Southern Law School near New Orleans. and jurist Ved
Nanda, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado in Denver.
In a typical week, HSC holds prayer meetings. conducts study of scriptures
and discussions on Indian history on more than 40 campuses. The HSC
recently held a youth festival in Boston attended by more than 600 college
and high school students, where every activity including a jeopardy-type
pop quiz sought to reinforce the tenets of Hinduism.
Writing letters to newspapers and news organisations to protest against
what members feel is distorted presentation about India is one of the key
activities carried out by the HSC. It is carried out through the Hindu
Anti-Defamation League, part of the Hindu Universe
(http://www.hindunet.org), the council’s home page on the Internet.
Recently. members sent over three dozen letters to Reuters to protest
against stories it carried about the Shivlinga. News reports on Kashmir
receive constant criticism from the HSC for not mentioning the plight of
Kashmiri pundits. “A few of these letters are published.” says Chandan
Bhandopadhyaya, one of the leaders at Boston University. “But even when
they are not, we hope we have raised some doubts in the minds of editors.”
The Hindu Universe also has pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. the
legends that are attached to them, prayers. articles on Indian history, and
a news update. Six HSC volunteers spend about 40 hours a week updating the
material. “on an average day, there are about 5,000 hits. But when there
is a political crisis or religious conflict, -we have seen more than 1
0,000 hits in a single day.” says Shah. “Being students. and among the
first ones to know about the cutting edge of technology, we were able to
seize on cyberspace opportunities.”
Religion is the primary. but not the only preoccupation of the group, It
also organises social activities. Recently. members in three states
adopted stretches of national highways. and spend ii few days in a month
cleaning them. Several times a year, HSC groups join Americans in
providing food to soup kitchens.
Notably, a substantial number ofthe council’s members, are born and brought
up in the US and probably that is why they are curious about their culture.
Says Sheetal Patel, a New York high school student: “Often my American
classmates would make fun of Indian traditions. about holy cows. about
bindis and about the Shivlinga. And I could not talk to them in the idiom
they understood. I believe I am going to learn a lot from HSC’s Hindu
Universe and from attending the camps.”
“HSC members seek to understand their religion. history and culture without
stiffness and without being aggressive.” says Ralph Williams. professor of
religion at the University of Michigan. Arm Arbor. But not everyone
agrees. The council is often dubbed as a group of fundamentalists. The
Indian Progressive Students Group (IPSG), a leftist group active on about
two dozen campuses, lead the pack of those who think that the HSC is just
another obscure Indian group. “They just don’t know enough about the VHP
and the RSS and are letting themselves be subtly brainwashed.” says S.
Sridhar, a former Columbia University student.
Others too question the HSC brand of’ student activism. There is the
underlying fear that the HSC could be controlled by the VHP-which could
give a unidimensional view of Hinduism and India. “They say that they
became independent of the VHP.” says S.P. Bose, a documentary filmmaker who
graduated from the University of Southern Illinois. “I think it is a ploy.”
Adds Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. a novelist: “One is wary of student groups
that have ties to political organisations and talk about religious issues.”
The opposition to the group is bound to increase in coming years. Warns
Raymond William. a scholar of Hinduism in Wabash. Indiana: “There could be
a lot of challenges from fundamentalist Christian groups.”
Ironically, the members of the Sangh Parivar are also not completely happy.
“I would say the HSC has gained a full Hindu outlook when they abandon the
current history books they are using,” says S. Venkat, an RSS activist. “I
am surprised that they are using textbooks like The Wonder That Was India
by A.L. Basham.”
However. the members are not worried. “It helps us to be on our toes. and
ready for any criticism.” says Shah.