the U.S. election is over, but is it really? A winner has emerged, but will he prevail?
The people have spoken, Joe Biden said.
There was a widespread sense of relief, very personal and sometimes even physical, maybe most poignantly exposed by the political commentator Van Jones.
And yet, in light of four years of Donald Trump and his ongoing refusal to acknowledge the election results, something fundamental about democracy has been exposed: The rules take on a different meaning once they are broken.
One might even say: Democracy is most painfully visible in its absence and its abuse.
For a lot of Americans, of course, this has long been part of their American experience. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed this as clear as anybody in his memoir “Between the World and Me”:
All my life I'd heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.' And these words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
What is there to learn, from these words, from the pain, from the promise, still?
We asked these questions of Homi Bhabha, one of the pre-eminent scholars of multiculturalism, professor for literature at Harvard and a future fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE.
As someone born and raised in India, Bhabha has a very personal perspective on vice president-elect Kamala Harris, who was born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.
What is it that drives her? And what is it that connects her to Barack Obama, who was born to a Kenyan father and mother from Kansas? For one, they share a postcolonial heritage.
The first part of Obama‘s memoirs was published yesterday – you can find more on this and other relevant books of the moment in our ideas section: the ongoing meaning of James Baldwin, the legacy of race, and the deeper structures of caste and society.
Stacey Abrams is one very vocal voice in this struggle, offering a powerful perspective on the U.S., listen to what she has to say. As histories collide,what is there to learn for the democracy more broadly?
Our programme “The Future of Democracy” investigates the possibilities of democratic innovation – and we invite anyone interested in this topic to apply now. The call for fellowships for this programme is open until January 6, 2021.
Because our work is both interdisciplinary and trans-sectoral the programme is open not only to academics but policy makers, activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, technologists, and artists. You are all welcome.
We try to be open, we try to learn and listen: art is particularly relevant in this context – literature creates a space for emotions and reality to unfold, visual art can make the invisible accessible.
Ideas matter. Beauty matters. People matter.
Let’s always keep that in mind.
Hamburg is our home. The world is our habitat. The future is our concern.
Homi Bhabha, writing about William Kentridge, this issue’s featured painter, regards “the procession of the dispossessed” as a sign of our times, a signal of the future – figures of fate that “bear their singular suffering, but they also carry the shared burden”. Kentridge, the South-African, is a clear-eyed chronicler of the postcolonial present that we inhabit, longer than some might want to acknowledge.
William KentridgeEspagne Ancienne (Porter with Dividers), 2005, Tapestry, Copyright William Kentridge, Courtesy of Deichtorhallen Hamburg
Homi Bhabha on Democracy for the 21st Century
Homi Bhabha, what are the lessons from the U.S. election?
There are two selves in this nation and they're at war with each other. This is more complex than the now ubiquitous discourse of polarization that assumes that there are two parties, two sets of political belief merely opposed to each other and marked by a bright dividing line. I don't think that the contradictions in the country today are best diagnosed as binary; the cracks in the democratic landscape are seismic and unpredictable. When a Republican votes along party lines for a Republican senator while casting a presidential vote for a Democrat, then the soul of the nation is bi-polar rather than simply polarized.
What are the two selves at war with each other?
This is a country whose great democratic experiment has been based on two things. One, on slavery, genocide and annihilation of black people, of native Americans as well as a fear of minorities and dissidents. On the other hand, this is a country whose strength has been in histories of migration. The democratic promise has been the promise of migration. Today, the country no longer sees migration as a strength. There is an attempt to demonize the very elements of the democratic experiment.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates called Donald Trump the „first white president“. What was the role of race, ethnicity, gender in this election?
I am a non-identitarian. That doesn't mean that I think that identity issues are unimportant. Of course, they are. Knowing yourself, knowing the other. But instead of talking about political identities, I am much more interested in political interests.
How do interests differ from identity?
Are the equitable interests of a Black member of the LGBTQ community in Chicago equivalent to those of a black person from Georgia who is part of a heteronormative culture with deep religious roots? They may see their representational interests differently in terms of gender, faith and region, while both individuals suffer the shared indignities and inequalities of institutional and individual racism. When we move from identity to interests, we begin to see that life-choices fit together in a collective condition of co-existence like a mosaic – the pieces of a mosaic fit together not because they resemble each other but because they complement each other, as Walter Benjamin said.
The lessons of a radical cosmopolitan future.
In a profound way, there was a battle between the old and the new in this election. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the old and the new on one ticket.
In America, the autobiography is always political. Biden represents the liberalism of the post-civil-rights movement with all its problems. Kamala Harris of course is the first woman as well as the first person of color to be vice president-elect, a woman of Indian and Caribbean background. Her father from Jamaica, her mother from India, both academics and activists. The parents divorce and the South-Indian mother brings up her girls in a nest of ideas and aspirations affiliated with African-American life-worlds of struggle and emancipation. Her identification with Black politics and culture is a constructive identification based on political interests and ethical principles.
How much do you think Kamala Harris’ worldview was shaped by her biography?
The arc of her experience provides Harris with many bridges by which to connect the USA to the postcolonial world. Such a perspective would be in step with some of the greatest African-American writers and thinkers: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, of course the great W.E.B Du Bois. They were profoundly interested in establishing political, historical and ethical relations between the United States and the International community, based on anti-racist and postcolonial aspirations. There is a lesson here for a radical cosmopolitan future.
In my work, I call it vernacular or minoritarian cosmopolitanism – a cosmopolitanism that takes its tone from the everyday existential exigencies and political interests of displaced and diasporic peoples. Xenophobia and ethno-nationalism create false walls between internationally displaced peoples and nationally disadvantaged populations. When jobs are shuttered and homes repossessed, when work disappears and the lights go out on Main Street, at that point you are a displaced person although you haven’t moved an inch from the place in which you may have spent your entire life.
This is very different from the common notion of cosmopolitanism.
Which is actually a cosmopolitanism of the élites. Let us learn the lessons of vernacular, minority cosmopolitanism from the Sudanese doctor who is now a taxi driver in New York. Or the highly trained Syrian engineer who survives as a hospital, orderly wheeling patients into the operating theater. This is a form of minoritarian cosmopolitanism that manifests a political will to establish neighborly relations in traumatic and challenging conditions. It is only legally right and morally proper that this will to neighborliness should be reciprocated by host societies extending a right to hospitality.
Could this even be the starting point of how to think about and build a truly multi-ethnic democracy? What is the binding element then?
The binding element that increasingly fades from our view is a representative and recognizable “common good”. Not a coercive, assimilationist common good, but a binding element that creates opportunities for the convergence of diverse interests and differential identifications. Too often, political principles are framed in universalist terms that everybody piously accepts and then they violate them in the interests of national sovereignty.
At the heart of citizenship is the predicament of the refugee.
What is the consequence for the democracy of the future?
It is in the fissures of the global experiment that democracy is being shaped. It is being shaped in the inequalities, the unevenness of what we see as a global moment. And in that moment, we need to get away from the majoritarian ideas of ethno-nationalism – what Hannah Arendt described in her book on totalitarianism as the majority that is made to feel like the victimized minority. Populists are encouraged to fight back against the most unequal members of society from the centers of power and the margins of social media. In some counties democratic dissent is treated as sedition against the state. What a ludicrous reversal of fortune!
What is your answer to this challenge?
We need to restructure the laws and norms of citizenship. There are over 75 million displaced people in the world – displaced by climate change, tyranny, civil war, economic hardship, and reckless, long-lasting wars. These people who do not have a nation, but they are a global population and deserve the moral rights, human rights, economic rights, legal rights and social rights, that any national citizen can access. At the moral center of the security of citizenship falls a shadow of the insecurity of the refugee. At the heart of citizenship is the predicament of the refugee.
Homi Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University. As a fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE he will be involved in several programmes.
The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can find a longer version here here.
One night, a day or two before Independence Day, the neighbors were shooting fireworks from a rooftop down the block. Phosphorescent streaks raked up the purple, light-polluted sky and shredded into huge explosions that reverberated through our apartment. I was asleep on the living room floor, wedged between you and Lan, when I felt the warmth of her body, which was pressed all night against my back, vanish. When I turned, she was on her knees, scratching wildly at the blankets. Before I could ask what was wrong, her hand, cold and wet, grabbed my mouth. She placed her finger over her lips. “Shhh. If you scream,” I heard her say, “the mortars will know where we are.
— Ocean Vuong, One Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Down at the Crossroads
In this section, as in all of our work at THE NEW INSTITUTE, we’re on the hunt for constructive answers, for optimistic perspectives, and for bold new ideas.
Of course, this can mean different things at different times. The US election, as Homi Bhabha explained, was as much about the history as it was about the future of the American project. One could even argue that, if you ignore the lessons of the past, there is a very limited understanding of the potential for changet.
Several recent and important books shine a light on this connection to time, allowing us to break free of the constraints of an all too narrow view of the present moment. A common thread is the word “lie” – highlighting the fact that the Trump administration’s refusal to accept the election results have historical precedent.
Pulitzer prize winner Isabel Wilkerson opens up an entirely new way of thinking about race in the American context with her water-shed book “Caste. The Lies That Divide Us” – she analyses the social construct of race in the context of India’s caste system as well as Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews. It is a provocative and eye-opening read of particular relevance at this moment, as the 21st century unfolds and the postcolonial layers of Western societies and self-understanding become more evident.
“We cannot fully understand the current upheavals of most any turning point in American history”, Wilkerson writes, “without accounting for the human pyramid encrypted into us all. The caste system, and the attempts to defend, uphold, or abolish the hierarchy, underlay the American Civil War and the civil rights movement a century later and pervade the politics of twenty-first-century America. Just as DNA is the code of instructions for cell development, caste is the operating system for economic, political, and social interaction in the United States from the time of its gestation.”
The quintessence of the caste system is easy to define and – to reference Homi Bhabha – has to do both with identity and with interest, even more so with white identity politics: “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.” This is, Wilkerson says, still American reality, still drives in a lot of ways American politics.
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The presidency of Barack Obama was framed from the beginning through the prism of race – or, as he quotes an advisor saying in his memoir “The Promised Land”, while he was still running for office: “Trust me, whatever else they know about you, people have noticed that you don’t look like the first 42 presidents.”
Race, in other words, was not at the core, but always on the surface of Obama’s presidency – and it remains part of his legacy. The memoir, the first of two volumes and already a handful at 800 pages, explores the early life, the marriage, the campaign and the first years of government, elegantly written, with maybe a bit too much self-control. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her review: what she really misses is an honest take on race.
“He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offense”, Adichie writes. “Instances of racism are always preceded by other examples that ostensibly show the absence of racism.” Obama’s father, an economist steeped in the socialist tradition, was in many ways more radical than his son. Barack Obama himself was a moderate perhaps not only by temperament but also by choice.
This is evident in the way he talks about his presidency, in the book and also in a long interview with “The Atlantic” – Thomas Meaney and Sam Moyn point that out as well in a very insightful essay connecting Obama to Kamala Harris: both illuminate how to best navigate biography, heritage, ambition and a society that may or may not be ready for you.
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It is a very different view of race than that espoused by James Baldwin. Since at least 2017 when the film “I Am not Your Negro” came out, Baldwin’s name has been everywhere and mostly at the center of intellectual debates about the past and the present of the American “lie” – this is what Eddie S. Glaude Jr. calls it in his beautifully written essay “Begin Again. James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own”.
Glaude is a regular political professor for African American Studies at Princeton and regular political commentator, explains Donald Trump not as an aberration, but as a consequence of what this country is – a country at war with itself, in some ways, but also a country at a crossroads.
“The crossroads of the railroad junction is a way station of the blues”, Gaude writes, “a place where anguish and pain are faced, where everything seems to have gone wrong, and yet a kind of resilience is found in the painful phrasing of new possibility. In the after times, hope is not yet lost, even if the call to reimagine the country has been answered with violence.”
Baldwin, it seems, had given up on the U.S.; Gaude tries to reclaim that hope, to reimagine a country for all.
Before there was an American story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral, a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her, so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.
— Junot Diaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Call for Applications
It was the beginning of our journey, in a lot of ways, and we are very happy to report that our first call for fellowships for the programme “The Foundation of Value and Values” has been successful and is now closed. We very much look forward to going through all the applications and to choosing the right participants for workshops we will hold in the Spring of 2021 - and to finding the right cohort to start working together at the Warburg Ensemble, our future home. The goal will be to look for alternatives to the prevalent paradigme of “homo economicus”.
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Apropos Warburg Ensemble: We have started a new conversation format whose backdrop is our construction site at the townhouses along Warburg Straße in Hamburg. The series “Work in Progress” so far features the full video interview with Daniel Ziblatt as well as Homi Bhabha. All future conversations will be featured on YouTube, so please go there and sign up to stay informed about our work – and our progress.
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We are still accepting applications for the programme “The Future of Democracy” established to address the current challenges and failures of the democratic system. Our ultimate goal is to find new ways to strengthen participation and to reimagine how democracy can better serve everyone.
The key questions we’ll explore are:
• How can we strengthen democratic deliberation? • How can we enhance decision-making at the intersection of politics and knowledge? • How can we reconfigure social and political communication in the digital age? • How can we reinvent political representation?
William KentridgeMore Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015 Installation at Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, 2015 Copyright Photography: Studio Hans Wilschut. Courtesy William Kentridge Studio / Deichtorhallen Hamburg
Summoning strains of predecessors–like German Fluxus master and polymath Joseph Beuys–and doling out fragrant hints of American acolytes like Kara Walker, William Kentridge widens eyes and strums heart strings at Deichtorhallen Hamburg, in a show that doesn’t argue but demonstrably proves the power (or paramountcy) of artist-curator collaborations. Historically important shows are only (ever) one part expression (assets produced in, or pulled from, the studio) and one critically co-equal part execution. Both are expertly designed and organized in collaboration with the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), and delivered at the Deichtorhallen. Opened in October, in one of the sparing few shows staged (or seen) during quarantine, the South African artist, filmmaker, and theater director William Kentridge can be absorbed in large-scale, endeavoring to wrestle with a panoply of topics spanning social (in)justice, South Africam history, colonialism, family, flight and displacement. The show features a medley of different media: painting, poster, film, and key to the show–and foundational to his work–is the practice of drawing. Unlike the show’s title, you shouldn’t hesitate. Go. Mask up. See it. Open through April 2021.