Friday, September 09, 2005

India/Katrina. Why, Bruce Sterling? Why?

Uma has a post reflecting on the sarcasm on Bruce Sterling's Wired blog (and echoed on Boing Boing) following India's donation of $5 million to the American Red Cross.

The sarcasm is relatively mild, as far as that goes. Many people in the U.S. are incredulous at just how badly the relief operations have been going, and it's commonplace for people to say things to the effect of "it's like living in a third world country." And for some reason they assume that no one in a 'third world country' is listening when they say it, and that it won't sound profoundly insulting when they/we do in fact hear it. I wish Americans -- especially American journalists -- would learn to be a little more sensitive in how they use language (I know, too much to ask in this era of O'Reilly). But it's increasingly an almost unconscious tick: no matter how many times we're reminded that the U.S. isn't immune to 'third world' problems like poverty (12.75% this year, folks) and corruption (hello, the ex-Governor of Connecticut is in jail?), American narcissism seems to be indefatigable.

I read both Bruce Sterling and Xeni Jardin as echoing that line. It's a species of that same narcissism, but it's basically a nasty little American commonplace.

Uma also links to Club 810, a blog that was new to me, where there is a thoughtful reply and an interesting comments thread.

To me, the sarcasm in Bruce Sterling's post is irksome, but it's nothing compared to the racist Rudyard Kipling poem ("Gunga Din") Sterling quotes at the end of his post. 500,000 people are homeless in the south, hundreds dead, and bloggers (who also happen to be respected and successful sci-fi writers) are quoting Kipling poems about subservient coolies? ("Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,/ By the livin' Gawd that made you,/ You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!") Please. It's a little like whistling Dixie while driving buses full of evacuees to the Astrodome. Extremely, wretchedly bad taste.

Bruce Sterling, if you're reading this, drop the Gunga Din B.S. please.


Manorama said...

Oh my. I couldn't believe what I was reading when I got to the poem. Good grief.

I share your feelings on this, Amardeep.

2:48 AM  
Laura said...

me too. My mouth is literally hanging open. "Why?", indeed.

12:30 AM  
uncleji said...

Cheer up Daniel Lak from the BBC is impressed by India. He's reporting from the Big Easy and preivously was reporter in Pakistan, India & Nepal....
It did not take long for huge field hospitals and vast camps of toilets and clean water tanks to be set up in southern India for example, after the tsunami hit there last year, whereas here in Mississippi, the authorities are still begging people to boil their water and watch where they go to the toilet, lest they give or receive some water-borne disease.

And politicians in India, often cursed by their constituents for flocking to disasters to show their concern, compare rather well with a US president whose first big gesture after Katrina's damage became evident is to cut a five-week vacation short by two days to give the matter his full attention

full report below

9:40 AM  
uncleji said...

I the columan is an example of his "robust" off the cuff "humour".
Patronising Yes, Racist No.
I have say that some of our household were someone bemused by India offering aid.

1) Bruce Sterling lived in India as a teenager.

2) Is a huge fan of Bollywood Movies & includes reviews of films in his postings....

Of course none of the above means a man can't be racist

9:54 AM  
uncleji said...

Even better here's a English bloke who won a Gameshow and accepted the prize of Pakistani citizenship.,2763,1559204,00.html

9:58 AM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for your comments.

Here's the thing -- I'm not saying that Bruce Sterling is a racist, but rather that the specific choice of the "Gunga Din" poem (which is racist) is in poor taste.

That he lived in India earlier, or that he has an ongoing interest in the subcontinent is nice, but it doesn't change my response to "Gunga Din."

Shashwati has a post on this, and she points to a nice polemic about the "third world" rhetoric on Znet by a writer called Mukoma Wa Ngugi (the same as Ngugi Wa Thiong'o? I don't know).

This Ngugi also points to somethind I'd noticed, but forgotten about. When Bush was in Mississippi last week, he kept referring to the region as "this part of the world," which was really odd, considering that all of the affectd region was in the U.S. It was as if he was unconsciously marking his difference from the people who were affected by this tragedy.

12:37 PM  
anandsharma said...

A well wrtten post.I join you and support your call to Bruce Sterling.

2:44 PM  
RC said...

Looks like now everyone is using the word "Third world country" to mean a "Third class or a third rate country" as opposed to its original meaning as Non aligned countries as per Wikipedia.
But the usage of this term has degenerated into a slur for poor countries.

2:36 PM  
Owen said...

You've read Gunga Din, of course?

3:58 AM  
Anonymous said...

Bruce Stirling is more than just "a sci fi writer" with an interest in the Indian subcontinent. His recent career can be thought of as a relentless promotion of the emerging world culture, with especial interest in industrial design from the Global South.

It may not seem like much now, but when first published the narrator's acknowledgement that Gunga Din was "a better man" than himself, though not of the imperial race, had definite liberal shock value to the smug servants of empire.

While I can't know Stirling's true thoughts, I would like to think that the quotation made here is ironically pointing out the way this very message is unavoidably forced upon the most closed American minds, whose assumptions he certainly does not share, via the accompanying news item.

2:40 PM  

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