Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Humanizing Mitt Romney

Ann Romney's speech at the Republican Convention made me cringe. Not just because of its contents, but also because of the idea. A week before the convention, news media from everywhere on the political spectrum claimed, it's her job to humanize Mitt Romney. 

Errrrrr.... Ummmm... The very notion of a successful politician is one who is relatable, with whom the public can identify, and see a streak of humanity within. Mitt Romney is unable to "humanize" himself in spite of the 24 hour newscycle which follows him to Home Depot or the Grocery Store where he buys "stuff". So, the Romneys tell us in a very hard hitting interview that Ann Romney shops at Costco. In case you wanted to know, she says the trick is to shop around the outside starting at the back of the store. Also, Mitt loves him some Kirkland shirts - the world of which Ann has recently opened up to him. And it still ain't working. People aren't buying the fact that Mitt is human. 

Anyway, there's the convention. And Ann Romney has to make America like Mitt. She has to present him to the American public as someone they can identify with, as someone they can see as President, as a common man, as someone they can see in their own shoes. But here's the flaw in the plan. 

He's not a common man. He's not relatable to most Americans and most Americans don't think Mitt Romney can survive one day in their own shoes. 

This "please like me" syndrome is nothing new. Everyone does it - its part of politics. Being like-able is the first page of the politicians handbook. If you can't get people to like you, you better give up. Or, you better have amazing policy ideas, which will completely bowl people over and tell them that you ARE the person to do the job right. However in this case Mitt Romney has done neither. And since he hasn't - its everybody else's job to make people like him. 

Ann Romney's Convention speech and the CNN special on Sunday was like an ode to the man that is Mitt Romney. Ann started off with telling us a story about love. How they met at a school dance [which is apparently not true according to wikipedia {yes, I know I'm quoting wikipedia}] and how they immediately fell in love. He loves to humour people with his jokes (which is totally NOT believable from his squirmy nervous laughter that followed). Then she skipped over the part where she was actually contemplating not being with him and got to the part where they got married and moved into a basement apartment. She told us how they lived so poorly on pasta and tuna, and how Mitt was going to Business and Law School all at once, and how she was pregnant and how life was oh so tough. 

So, this is where they are clearly out of touch. I'm not even going to go into the part where they were living off Romney Senior's stocks and loans. The real American family-man can not even imagine going to Business School and Law School at the same time. ITS SIMPLY NOT POSSIBLE unless you were born with a diamond encrusted golden spoon in their mouth. Then, to have a baby with more on the way - without having to worry about what you will feed them, what you will use to clothe them in, where you can find space in your basement apartment for a baby that comes with all these amazing needs - is a luxury many hard-working new families would like to have. I digress but it's only because I suffer from the same sort of angst right now.

Ann actually started this love story of theirs on the CNN get-to-meet-the-Romneys-fest.  And she told us about their love again at the convention.Then she told us about women, how women are amazing, and how women are the ones to know what its like to be worried about rising costs, sick children and the education of their children - Women bear the brunt of society. And she's right - Women DO bear the brunt of society. Its the women who have to watch their hungry children living in poverty, women have to figure out novel ways to stretch a monthly budget, and women are the ones who work through their children's education struggles. 

However, I do not expect Ann Romney has ever had to worry about rising gas prices, sky rocketing education and sports costs, grocery costs, clothing costs. I don't expect that Ann Romney knows what it feels like to go hungry just so that she can put her children to sleep with full stomachs. And, here's the thing claims that she knows what that feels like are simply platitudes. Because to be the wife of a man who has as much money (frankly I don't even know how much money because I can not even wrap my head around a measly million dollars) and still claim to shop at Costco isn't particularly heartwarming in my book. Clearly the Romneys don't even understand that to even shop at Costco is a luxury many people don't have, because in order to be able to go to a store and buy bulk, you have to have a certain solvency - You have to have money in order to save money. This is not the case with most Americans. 

Anyway, my point is if Ann Romney claims to know what it feels like to be cash strapped like most Americans, either she's lying, or she married an extraordinarily cheap man - a man, who didn't provide for his family, alleviate their money stresses, a man who took his money and shipped it off to an island somewhere to accumulate interest. If the 5 Romney boys claim to know what its like to take a loan and go through the kind of post-secondary education most other Americans have to go through (with loads and loads of debt) then again Mitt isn't as open-hearted, loving and generous as they all claim he is.

So which one is it? Is Mitt Romney simply a rich man with no heart? Or are the Romneys not common?

Ann Romney also spoke at some length about her illnesses. She is clearly a woman of amazing strength to go through diseases like Breast Cancer and MS. However, I am left to wonder a few things. I would imagine that when a family goes through two such major diseases they would have a lot more empathy for the common man. I wonder if the experience of Ann Romney's illnesses is what led Mitt Romney down the path of Healthcare reform in Massachusetts. If it did - all the power to them. However, if it did why not own up to it? Why not be a man, and tell the American people that, watching his wife go through the kind of struggle she did, looking at those medical bills, money be spent like pouring water down a drain led him to realise that poor people, middle class America doesn't have it easy at all. That if a common American got sick with those diseases, there is no way a family without the kind of resources I had could remain unaffected. 

So which one is it? Is Romney a rich man incapable of empathy? Or are the Romneys not common?

Its not the first time an un-common American has run as a politician. Many of them have even gotten elected to office. What the Romneys and the Republican party need to do is not humanize Mitt - they need to empathize. Fake platitudes don't portray empathy. People aren't stupid. So, instead of spewing this nonsense, why don't they come out with some REAL policies that will alleviate the hardships (that they claim to so understand) for the common American?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bengali - a Groovy Kind of Love.

The other day I was talking to fellow blogger Ovshake (although I'm using the term "blogger" loosely in an effort to explain what I do here) and we were both trying to figure out what it is that is in the Bengali language that is so magnetic. Magnetic isn't even the right word to use here. In fact, I think we will be hard-pressed to explain in any number of words the "taan" (the pull) that the language has on its people. Abhishek da asked, "Well, what is it?" and I have been thinking about that ever since. 

You can say that I have two primary languages. I was born in Canada, which meant I was exposed to the English language right away, my mother-tongue is still Bangla and my Dad was frightfully strict about never hearing me speak in anything other than Bangla at home. I lived in Toronto until age 6, when we went back to Kolkata, where I attended school until I was 19. Possibly due to my upbringing I speak English and Bengali as if they are both my native tongues (both accents are unaffected mostly - ie when I converse in English it is with a Canadian accent while my Bengali accent remains untouched by my Canadian-ness). I grew up reading, writing and speaking both languages. The purpose of going into this detail about my life is to establish the fact that my exposure to both languages has been of equal depth - if not more in favour of the English language because I have unfortunately and shamefully not been able to read a lot of Bengali since I came back to North America.

However, I seldom shed a tear when I read English fiction. English rarely ever makes it hard to swallow (unless in rare occurrences when the book is set in India or is about Indian sensibilities). On the other hand when I read anything in Bengali, I can paint a clear picture in my head, I can smell the food, hear the sounds - I can feel Bengal. For a minute I think perhaps it is because I can remember things from my childhood and I have an emotional connection to those things - but then I stop and I realise that some pictures are painted in my head, which have nothing to do with my childhood. It's like reading Tagore's Chhelebela (Childhood) - there's no way I can know what it was like to live in Jorashanko but somehow I can see all of it it. His words paint a picture for me. Same can be said for Ha Ja Ba Ra La - it isn't real, but Sukumar Ray's words make the whole thing turn into a parallel universe. (Ha Ja Ba Ra La is a lot better and deeper than Alice in Wonderland by the way). Rabindrasangeet, Nazrulgeeti, Dijendrageeti, old Bengali Songs have a way of tugging at my heartstrings that I have never experienced with an English song (except for maybe Lennon's Imagine, the Black Eyed Peas' Where is the Love, MJ's We are the World - but then I attribute that to my overall angst about the human race and all its issues). Some Hindi songs do the same thing - but then I don't really pay attention to Hindi lyrics (Hindi is truly a 3rd Language for me) I generally just soak in the tunes and the music. 

What is in a bengali piece of writing that can leave me sobbing (yes, I mean sobbing, not just crying) with tears of joy? When I recently read the Protidin e-zine on Debabrata Biswas - that was painful. And again, it was the words - oh the words - that drew me in and made me mourn the loss of the golden days of bengali music - which if I may add, I had not really experienced. How is it that I can listen to "Dole Dodul Dole Jhulona" and imagine Manabendra and Shyamal singing it and reminisce those "good ol' days" (again which I wasn't around for) when both of them refused to sing the song in solo performances out of respect to the other singer (my father tells me). Why is it that all of a sudden I have begun longing for a copy of Rajkahini (Abanindranath Tagore) and Chhelebela (Rabindranath Tagore)? I still try to remember the name of the book of short stories that we had to read for our ICSE exams just so that I can acquire a copy of it and read the story, "Mahesh" to experience that gut-wrenching ending.  I can spend hours just reading poetry and songs by Kazi Naztrul Islam, and feel a sort of pain and angst about how he was not understood during his life-time, eclipsed by Tagore and neglected forever after. So much so that I went off and did some research about him and am tormented by the fact that I have not been able to disseminate what I have learnt. 

The funny thing is that I have met a few non-bengalis, non-Indians really who feel the same kind of tug from the Bengali language. I have met Willian Radice who has dedicated his life to taking Tagore to a worldwide audience translating so many of Tagore's works. It is simply unfathomable to me that he learnt Bengali as a second language and wrote his PhD thesis on Michael Madhusudan Dutta (someone I have a really hard time understanding without a lot of help). I have been very close to two of my professors Dr. Joseph O'Connell and Dr. Kathy O'Connell who have dedicated their lives to the Bengali cause. They have worked tirelessly to bring Bengali to the University of Toronto and managed to bring a bust of Tagore to the campus. Until his recent passing Joe Kaku had worked on translating Tagore's works. Both him and his wife, Kathy Mashi have been regular fixtures in the Toronto Bengali community - always looking for new ways to broaden the Bengali audience. 

Here's the thing - I can't even claim to be a real Bengali fanatic. I haven't read most Bengali books. I haven't finished Bankimchandra, Saratchandra, Rabindranath or Nazrul. I can't recognise quotes from random stories, poems or movies and there's no way I could win a bout of Gaaner Lorai (Although I think here I could hold my own). But, I do know that Bengali touches me in a way that no other language possibly can, and I really have no clue why. Its inexplicable. Sort of like being in love, not knowing why  - just that it simply is a groovy kind of love. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Forget the "Other" to know your Own.

I woke up on Sunday morning to a furious rage - my heart sank to the pit of my stomach as I watched the tragedy unfold on CNN. Even though I am not religious, I can understand a person's need to find religion, to find peace with something that is untouched by the world, its ugliness, immorality and instability. I can understand a Diaspora's need to find culture and a sense of their home at a place of worship - the need to find refuge in the confines of the known and the familiar. So, answer this - how does a soldier who was dishonorably discharged from the army who was known to be a skinhead  legally buy a semi automatic pistol in your country? How does a man purchase military issued bullet proof attire, 4 different guns and 600 rounds of ammunition on a website in your country and not get flagged? But then, this isn't about gun control or access to firearms. I digress. I'm not one to trample on one's right to bear arms.

Let's get this straight - the shooting at the Gurdwara on Sunday, wasn't a case of "mistaken identity", and no it can't be remedied by educating Americans about Sikhs, why they wear turbans and when their faith started. This is a case of orientalism, racism, xenophobia, white supremacy and a general lack of awareness, culture and open-mindedness.

The fact of the matter is if you're going to continue to open your doors to people from other countries, you should be changing your societal rubric from a melting pot to a salad bowl. If you force your own culture onto those who are new, your people will not  learn to appreciate the foreign, learn from them and about them - you have to open your minds, you have to welcome the new, and accept the other with an open heart and mind.

When the rhetoric is choke-full of hate for "immigrants" it will only fuel the fire that is in the mind of crazy, deranged people like the shooter - especially when the country doesn't know how to take care of mental disease effectively.

When your politicians sit in office and speak into microphones about "terror babies" and "anchor babies", about "immigrants taking jobs away from Americans" you create the problem.

When you talk about "American Values" and "American Customs" And "America the Land of the Free", as if America's values are the only ethical and moral ones and no other country in the world has freedom or democracy - you do a great disservice to your people - because you consciously or subconsciously appeal to those Americans who think that America is only for the visible majority of Christian faith.

There exists in your America a palpable fear and distrust of people who look different, speak a different language, go to a different house of worship instead of a church. If America were so inclusive how come CNN, the go to source for news (for the sane) in America does not have a single person of Indian origin who was able to clear the facts about Sikhs (this I'm assuming, because CNN"s initial coverage was probably the most uneducated reporting I have ever seen in North America). When Sikhs woke up to a horrific nightmare which reminded them of a past that they dare not dredge up how come they had to sit through that appalling thing they call "coverage"? How come - what I would assume to be - hundreds and thousands of Indians stared in disbelief at the TV set when they repeatedly mixed up Hindus and Sikhs or just took the safe route and called them "Hindu Sikhs",  and kept calling the Gurdwara a "church"? How come they repeatedly insinuated that perhaps this was a misdirected attack on Muslims since Sikhism is a peaceful religion - as if they were making the statement that if this were a Mosque it would have been okay? How come the first official message read out on air was from the Indian embassy, and not from the American President? How did it not occur to them, that these Sikhs were mostly Americans, who have given up their Indian passports to sing your National Anthem, and hoist your National Flag?  NBC didnt even bother to look away from the Olympics for a minute to inform their viewers of this horrible tragedy, and Fox covered it for a while, before they went back to their usual Democrat bashing.

At least we should appreciate CNN's full day coverage of the event, its ensuing investigation and the opportunity it took for a much needed Sikhism 101 lesson. But, the very fact that this needs appreciation is kind of sad and disheartening. I won't even bring up the almost absolute lack of coverage about the mosque being burnt down in Missouri a day later.

Perhaps just as the shooter killed the other on Sunday, You, America should kill the idea of the "Other". Believe that it is the "Other" that enriches your culture, opens your eyes and weaves a beautiful cultural tapestry for you. Make the "Other" not so different, know them as your "Own". Perhaps America should learn that yours is not the only culture, religion and lifestyle that is desirable - that you are in fact not the greatest country in the world (that's a pretty sweeping statement to make when you have so many issues giving rise to so many problems - but that's another blog post on another day) and that there exist other people on this earth - their religion just as desirable as yours, their lives just as valuable as yours, and their country just as great as you.

(Image originally found here.)