Today in Hinduphobia June 11, 2019: Race, Religion and Paternalism in New York Magazine’s Sly Attack on Hindus
Tulsi Gabbard is a Hindu and a Congresswoman. Not a Child.
Racism and Paternalism
The depiction of people of color as children is a well-recognized racist and colonial trope in critical cultural studies and postcolonial theory. Propaganda posters from Europe and the United States from the days of legal racism and imperialism depict the Anglo-American colonizer as a stern and powerful father-figure disciplining the childish or at best child-like natives with a dose of Christianity and/or the “secular” civilizing mission. It’s racist, demeaning, and most scholars, writers and university professors today are educated properly enough to avoid such depictions in their work — except, it appears, if their subjects (or should I say, “targets”) happen to go by the name “Hindu.”
New York magazine published a lengthy article today entitled “Tulsi Gabbard had a very strange childhood” by Kerry Howley, whose bio says she also teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. At first glance, one might imagine it’s a reasonable subject since Tulsi is a public figure running for President, but then, when seen in the context of the systemic misrepresentation and demonization of Hindus and Hinduism in the Anglo-American media, one has to wonder if a writer is informed enough, and ethical enough, to get past the frequently normalized colonial, racist, and religious-supremacist tropes used in the depiction of Hindus in media today.
Simply put, would you see an article leading with innuendoes about a public figure’s childhood today if she had said she was Christian? Or Muslim, or Jewish? And moreover, unless there was something demonstrably connected to an adult’s present positions and actions, why would her childhood be somehow made the object of the spotlight here? Imagine an article essentially arguing that there was something “strange” about President Obama’s childhood premised on the insinuation that somehow his present stature as an adult is less important to our understanding of him than his supposedly strange childhood. Would it not be seen as instantly paternalistic, and racist?
Howley may or may not realize it, but she assumes this tone entirely because of racial privilege, a structure of exclusion, silencing, theft, and violence constructed against indigenous people of color over five centuries of colonialism, and perpetuated in large measure due to a failure in academia (and on that I have been writing about for almost a decade now) to decolonize its attitudes, canons and vile orthodoxies about us, about Hindus.
It does not matter to Howley, nor does she wish to examine, how Tulsi Gabbard sees herself, or her supporters, particularly those of Hindu and Indian origin, might see her. Instead, what she chooses to do under the guise of investigating some “cult” that loomed over childhood, is normalize a specific way of seeing, objectifying, and demonizing a people of color that has changed little it seems since the openly racist and barbaric deeds of Columbus and Vasco da Gama (the guy who actually “found” India and then went around mutilating and killing us ‘cos he realized after a few days we weren’t Christians as he had first thought).
Here, briefly, are the classic colonial and racial tropes deployed by Howley:
“Great Scott, wait till I tell Peter Gabriel about it!”: White Gaze as Revelation
Howley begins her story through the eyes of Sina, a relative of Tulsi Gabbard’s, presenting her encounter with Gabbard’s family’s “conversion,” so to speak, to vegetarianism, not even quite Hinduism, but vegetarianism, as a point of surprise.
This is followed up with more announcements of the “white gaze peering through the bushes at the natives” sort of writing; the children’s new names were “Bhakti, Jai and Narayana”! “They were devotees of a man named Christ Butler, whom they called Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa”! “Altars to him had sprung in every room” !
Now, just to ensure that Sina is not seen as innately hostile or religiously intolerant (and she is introduced to us already as Samoan, and a professor), Howley adds that Sina studied Eastern religions and taught from the Bhagawad Gita, and “It was her Buddhist training to which she appealed in order to remain calm about her nephews attending Butler-focused schools.”
We are reassured that Buddhism somehow makes this observer more objective, and incapable of what might have been criticized as Judeo-Christian monotheistic, or atheist-Western bias, perhaps. But the question remains — why does modern writing, in the 21stcentury, still work so much on sensationalizing difference? And in Tulsi’s case, would this still be happening if she did not say she was Hindu?
“Ritualism”- Hinduism as Object
Howley finds an interesting moment to further advance her viewpoint over Tulsi and American Hindus generally by drawing attention to the fact she first met her in Fairfield, Iowa, the location of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi’s university (of course, even a teacher as famous in the West as him is not presented directly but with a preamble, “an Indian guru named Maharshi Mahesh Yogi,” she writes).
What is also interesting here is the passing comment she throws at this organization as essentially a “different group of Caucasians taken by the ritualistic trappings of India” (emphasis added). This is a well-worn racist-colonial trope at two levels.
One, it assumes, just as the journalist Michelle Goldberg did in her romps through India some years ago, that the Indian Hindus are invisiblly beneath their performances of privilege, picking up on the “Caucasians” alone as worthy subjects (Goldberg’s description of Puttaparthi, for example). I would imagine that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi also had non-Caucasian followers, but anyway, they don’t seem to matter in this genre of writing.
Two, it perpetuates an old objectification-demonization tactic rooted in the heyday of Biblical superstition and intolerance about “idols” perhaps, that somehow “others” lack thought, philosophy and agency, generally — all they do is genuflect before golden calfs, all they have is “ritual.” In this case, it’s “ritualistic trappings,” and “of India,” no less, that the misguided Caucasians are somehow “taken in” by.
Howley’s contempt isn’t just for Tulsi, or American Hindus, but Hindus, and India, it would seem.
The White Woman and the Man of Color
There are two men of color who figure in Howley’s article. One is a man named Sunil Khemaney, a “quiet, mustachioed campaign worker” whose business card Howley writes, has “empty white space” where there ought to be a job title. She also quotes “former members of the sect” who say “he is Butler’s right-hand man.” I do not know either Butler or Khemaney, but I do know a media trope when I see one. Why is this “empty white space” on a business card such an important detail that must be called out here, except to insinuate that there is something “shady” perhaps if Indian people don’t have a job title? After all, white privilege of the Howley sort assumes that we are okay as workers but not as whole human beings, doesn’t it?
The second man is of course Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. Howley gets to mentioning Prime Minister Modi just after Syrian leader Assad (“a depraved dictator best known for his willingness to murder his own people, including many children, with chemical weapons”). While Howley respects reality (and perhaps the need to preserve a bit of credibility) by not directly calling Modi a dictator or a danger to children (a classic racist trope, once again), she deploys the commonly repeated Western (and Indian English) media epithet for Modi as a “Hindu Nationalist” and a “strongman.”
While these labels, commonplace and clichéd as they are can be debated, what is clearly an outrageously false and defamatory remark here is her assertion that Modi is “complicit in widespread violence against Muslims.” “Complicit” according to whom? A group of Western media oligarchs and their holdings in South Asia repeating a lie does not make it true, no matter how hard they try. Modi, (just in case Howley reads this and genuinely does not know), was acquitted by an investigation set up under a hostile government (not Modi’s party) of the false charges drummed up against him after the Gujarat riots of 2002 of essentially “not doing enough” to stop a Hindu backlash against Muslims after Muslims burned a train with Hindu women, children and men in Godhra. And if her reference is to “widespread violence” since he became Prime Minister in 2014, one might perhaps tweak that phrase to “widespread one-sided Hindu-erasing coverage of violence in India” to make it more truthful. In any case, facts are perhaps not the issue here. What is playing out is a mere dance of tropes, power plays of the sort described by Frantz Fanon when he talks about the dynamics between a White Woman and a Man of Color. Modi is a man of color, as are many Hindus who support him, and/or Tulsi. Howley is a white woman. That dynamic guarantees what she says must be the truth.
The White Woman and a Woman of Color: Tulsi’s Hindu Identity
Howley’s article marks an interesting detour in the usual path of religious-racial hatred that Hinduphobic media coverage has followed in recent times (read my extensive analysis of this here). Previous attacks on Tulsi Gabbard sought to taint her by association with Narendra Modi (“ties to Hindu Nationalists” was the phrase often used), perhaps because the name of Modi was already drummed up into a near-Saddam or Assad-like fear aura in Western media for several years. That name could be deployed to discredit an emerging one easily.
I do not know if Howley’s article was written after Modi’s re-election in the recent Indian elections, but it would seem that the path to smearing Hindus is now following the opposite route. In Howley’s treatment, we are made to believe that Tulsi is somehow using Modi (who is still a bad guy anyway, a “strongman” and such) to project herself as a Hindu and win over Hindu American votes. Tulsi gave Modi a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and accepted a wedding gift from him, we are told, perhaps to suggest that this dark conspiracy is working both ways, that Tulsi is doing this not because she supports good relations with India as she has often said, but because “she seeks favor with Modi in order to gain mainstream-Hindu legitimacy for Chris Butler’s otherwise obscure religious sect.”
With that shadowy insinuation, Howly goes on to a section titled “The Guru,” where she manages to demonize not only Tulsi’s faith, but also, unforgivably, the fact of her having been homeschooled. What is interesting though is the care that Howley takes care not to overtly target Hinduism (though she does misrepresent previous charges of Hinduphobia raised by Tulsi supporters by not acknowledging the racist, grubby way in which reporters scoured her donor lists for “Hindu-sounding names”). Instead, Howley resorts to a strange sort of questioning of Tulsi’s claim to be a Hindu: “Tulsi calls herself Hindu” she writes, “though the group in which she appears to have grown up does not identify as Hindu.”
What is troubling and revealing about this sort of questioning is that once again, what Howley is indulging in is not a simple, precise critique of a politican’s position or even life, but a continuing denial of Hindu subjectivity in the White-Monotheist-dominated western media-academic discourse. Howley’s disdain is overtly for Tulsi, but in reality, what seeps through even as she tries hard to walk a fine line separating Tulsi from contemporary Hindu lives in America, is her unexamined iconoclastic hate for Hindu deities and lives. “He had the kind of easy confidence you’d expect from Krishna’s representative on earth,” she writes about “The Guru” in question, as if holding back great and righteous anger at our heathen ignorance and inability to follow that there could be only one God and one prophet don’t you all know?
Howley’s disdain, whether she knows it or not, is for Hindus. We need to be saved, again and again from our false religion, which has suddenly fallen for this upstart from the islands chanting the name of the sweetest deity we have known in our lives too, of Krishna. We need to be saved from daring to think that what Tulsi is saying, standing up for, might actually be the truth; that it is you, your media, your economy, your greed and ruthless indifference to human suffering, that is need of some fixing now, after decades of same old same old phoney-faced operatives popping up from your misbegotten war machine.
But the truth is that Hindus in America are a part of this dream, this American Dream, dreamed long ago, and we will not be silenced.
Howley concludes her article with this ominous if wishfully titled phrase.
“The End” she seems to desire frankly, is essentially to post civil rights America with its promises of equality for all. “How far does our commitment to religious diversity extend?” She asks, in a voice that seems reminiscent of soft eugenicist and anti-immigration activist Katherine Mayo’s effort to get India and Hinduism declared a health risk to the whole planet back in the 1920s (her book Mother India had it all, disease, religion, filth, just like present-day rightwing rhetoric about immigrants).
And though Tulsi Gabbard has not said one irrational, hurtful or questionable thing that could be attributed to her Hinduism, Howley goes on to make a list of weird and crazy things that religiously minded politicians in America (mostly Christian) have said in the past. But because there really is nothing , just nothing, that she can evoke concretely against Tulsi (actually there is one direct dig she does make, contesting Tulsi’s appearance in a magazine’s “hotness” list- really!), or against Hinduism without being called out, Howley leaves us with a vague, generalized warning about religion and politics (“you’ve been fooled”).
The truth is that Tulsi’s rise is among many other things, a reflection of a double or triple-minority group’s desire for a better America and a better world; a racial minority, a religious minority, and within that small group of Hindus in America, a section of progressives who believe, just as Tulsi has said, that the battle against bigotry needs to include all forms of it, Islamophobia and Hinduphobia, too for starters, and who also believe, because progressives we are, and Hindu, and proud, that this stinky propaganda machine spawned by the Cold War mindset and money in so many cesspools of cultural production, from magazines to area studies departments and even to writing programs (yes, incredibly enough, it’s true), needs to be unplugged by us, the people.