A Baby in the Senate
In a rare and admirable moment of 21st century bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to allow Senators’ infants into the chamber when he or she votes. This legislation was introduced shortly after Tammy Duckworth, Democratic Senator from Illinois, became the first Senator to give birth while still in office. Senators believe that the difficulty of being in the U.S. Senate is a strenuous occupation and nonexistent rules such as the one resolved should not make the job any more difficult.
Senator Duckworth, who is one of ten women to give birth while serving as an elected federal official, said in a statement, “I would like to thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, particularly those in leadership and on the rules committee, for helping bring the Senate into the 21st Century by recognising that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work.” This vote brings to light the lack of family-friendly policies government agencies provide, let alone implement.
While the vote was unanimously in favor for this legislation, there were moments of behind-the-scenes resistance, as alluded to by California’s Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, who disclosed on The Late Show that there were colleagues who had concerns whether or not Senator Duckworth would have the right to nurse her newborn on the Senate floor. Such anxieties continue to reveal the continued tone of the Senate in moments of progress. This tone is unequivocally indicative of the disparity of men and women in the senate; there are 22 female Senators out of 100, a historic high.
Commenting on the the impact of this vote, Senator Duckworth tweeted, “Family-friendly workplace policies aren’t just a women’s issue, they are a common-sense economic issue.” And Senator Harris looked further ahead: “I look forward to a day that we need a nursery off the side of the cloakroom in the United States Senate.”
The Life in Things
In a purely social context, death has this unique capacity to illuminate some of humanity’s strangest habits. Notably, it elucidates our intense desire to attach meaning to matter. Kate Bolick’s recent article, “Who Bought Sylvia Plath’s Stuff?”, showcases this cultural phenomenon in a way which calls the validity of material culture into question. Bolick opens by describing the sales as “poetic justice of a sort” for “the many feminist critics who have excoriated Ted Hughes’ [Plath’s husband] treatment” of Plath. The justice derives from the fact that “the auction of the poets’ belongings by [her] daughter, Frieda Hughes…outsold Mr. Hughes’” sale. Frieda Hughes had little to say about the auction, beyond her coming to terms with that “If [she] wished to sell some items, then others would have to go too, because presented together, they made up a snapshot of a mutual history.” Hughes’ statement reads as mature and composed. Juxtaposed to the list the various items sold in the auction and their price-tags, she starts to sound like a beaming pillar of clarity and wisdom. When someone pays $2,838 for costume jewelry, or $3,012 for an old private-school skirt, what are they buying, exactly?
Bolick concludes the article with a quote from Plath’s poem “Last Words”:
Things aren’t like that.
They stay, their particular lusters
Warmed by much handling. They almost purr.
A seriously provocative way to frame material culture — does the tangibility of a thing make it more reliable than the living things around it? Is affixing meaning to material enough to make them come alive, in some way? Does the value of these items get called into question by the fact that Frieda Hughes acknowledges them as commodities?
This phenomenon isn’t only applicable to instances of celebrity. Think about the things you might reach for if someone you loved were to die. Do these items possess the ability to bring the person back to life, in some way? Are you granted some knowledge by them? Or is it just a false appendage which we cling to, because in some way it comforts us, it shields us from the reality of death? Bolick’s article does a phenomenal job of acutely calling into question this particular facet of material culture.
Bahujan Azad Party
A new, progressive political party is being formed in India called Bahujan Azad Party. Formed by fifty graduates of India’s incredibly prestigious, autonomously run public institutes of education called Institutes of Technology, the group is currently awaiting recognition by the Election Commission of India before they can officially enter the 2020 special assembly elections.
The graduates all quit their full time jobs in order to dedicate themselves to the mission of fighting for the rights of Dalits (a term which encompasses the absolute lowest caste in the Indian social hierarchy), religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and women. One of the leaders of the party, Naveen Kumar, recently released a statement saying, “Through my politics, I will fight for equal distribution of resources… A lot of work needs to be done for women’s ultimate empowerment i.e. financial independence… we will work for the downtrodden. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party – India’s largest political party] and Congress are trying their best to keep Bahujan [another word for Dalits] communities away from quality education and that is why education in government schools is getting worse and private schools fees are sky high. We are not vote banks.”
Much of the criticism directed towards the ruling political parties in India is that they treat lower castes and minorities (groups that exist within India but have no technical placement in the caste system, often referred to as Untouchables or Backward Classes) as vote banks. Routinely courted by politicians during election season without any substantive elevation of their situation.
The caste system in India is much less repressive than it used to be. For instance, legally, no matter what caste one was born in, anybody can seek an education, as many of these graduates did. More and more marriages are happening between members of different castes, which previously would never have been allowed. But just as America can have both a black president and men who look just like him being kicked out of Starbucks for no other reason than their skin color, India has its own contradictions.
For instance, in New Delhi the upcoming wedding of two Dalits is expected to attract a police presence because the groom is appealing for the right to ride a horse in the wedding procession, an act only grooms of a higher caste are allowed to do. The groom, Sanjay Jatav, is both a lawyer and member of his village council, and so is indicative of how far Untouchables have been able to rise in recent years, but is dually indicative of the discriminations and indignities his caste must still endure.
“I wanted to be a social reformer.” Said Vikrant Vatsal, another leader in the Bahujan Azad Party. “Since childhood, I have faced discrimination in my society. When I was [younger], a Brahmin [the highest caste] man stopped me from drinking water from a hand pump because I am a Solank. He told me that a lower caste can’t drink the water here. I am still haunted by that incident. It is then that I decided to eradicate this… system, which is based on inequality and injustice. My father used to sell handkerchiefs on the street, I had to work very hard to make myself strong with education… radical change comes with politics.”
It’s impossible not to relate the caste system to Jim Crow laws, apartheid, and any other strict social hierarchies created to divide, oppress and control. What distinguishes the caste system is that it is rooted in religion, which perhaps make it even more difficult to overthrow if members of the oppressed lower caste are devout Hindus and believe in the importance of caste. But believing in caste might not necessarily mean a belief that resources such as water, safety and education should be sparsely handed out to the lower castes. Just as being an American capitalist might mean I believe it’s fine to have lower, middle and upper classes so long as the lowest class has access to as much water, safety and education they need.
If not an all out overthrow of the caste system, the Bahujan Azad Party is at least taking the first steps towards revolutionary reform. Not with peaceful protest, not with a violent coup, but by democratically appealing to what is hopefully a popular consensus by Indian citizens of all castes that change has got to come.
The special assembly elections in India will be held the same year as the American presidential elections. Good luck to them and us both!