Several weeks before Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, videotape surfaced in which Trump was heard boasting of committing sexual assault. As he candidly observed: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”
Four years later, with Trump’s presidency coming to an end, his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has now offered a similarly blithe admission — one that’s just as wretched, but also just as revealing.
Giuliani, who was recently hospitalized with the coronavirus, seemed to acknowledge that he received special access to scarce drugs that Trump himself received during his illness, the New York Times reports. And Giuliani described his good fortune this way:
“If it wasn’t me, I wouldn’t have been put in a hospital, frankly,” Mr. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, told WABC radio in New York. “Sometimes when you’re a celebrity, they’re worried if something happens to you they’re going to examine it more carefully, and do everything right.”
Emphasis mine. In an important sense, these two quotes perfectly bookend the Trump era. Just as Trump rejoiced in his ability to abuse people with impunity, Giuliani is celebrating the fact that he’s had special access to treatment for the coronavirus that countless other sick and now-dead Americans have not enjoyed.
This, at exactly the moment when Giuliani is working to help Trump steal the election — that is, trying to ensure that Trump avoids accountability for his own role in facilitating that very same mass sickness and death.
Most obviously, Giuliani’s declaration raises profound questions about medical ethics. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s good piece details, with the coronavirus surging amid limited access to special treatments, health professionals face incredibly difficult questions about how to ration out those treatments, and more broadly, how to allot medical supplies in general.
Giuliani has said he received “exactly the same” cocktail of drugs that Trump did, which suggests he got antibody treatments that are in short supply. It’s still unclear exactly what he took. But Giuliani himself admits he received special care, and as Stolberg reports, even some administration officials are privately concerned that people close to the White House are getting special treatments.
Whatever did happen there, for our purposes what’s crucial is Giuliani’s description of himself as a “celebrity.”
Giuliani’s current celebrity is primarily based on one thing: He has spent the past two years trying to corrupt and even steal the 2020 election to ensure that Trump does not face accountability at the hands of American voters.
First, Giuliani spent many months carrying out Trump’s corrupt scheme to strongarm a desperate ally — including withholding taxpayer-funded military aid — to secure help smearing Joe Biden. Now he’s spent recent weeks trying and failing to overturn Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
It’s true that Giuliani has long been well-known to the nation. But anyone who has followed his career closely will understand exactly where his current iteration of celebrity comes from.
As his mayoralty wound down in 2001, he was widely derided as a diminished figure — until the 9/11 attacks, which turned him into “America’s mayor.” But Giuliani’s efforts to ride that magic carpet into the White House failed spectacularly, and he faded again.
Giuliani earned some renown for his association with Trump’s 2016 win. But not much: He has since become a true star largely because the right wing made him one, precisely due to his efforts to corrupt our election on Trump’s behalf, and now, to steal it for him.
Giuliani’s current “celebrity” is very different from his “America’s mayor” stardom, which was, in fairness, rooted in a genuinely impressive act of sustained leadership at an exceptionally challenging moment for a reeling New York City.
By contrast, Giuliani is now a celebrity mainly due to his efforts to subvert U.S. democracy, all to ensure that the most corrupt president in U.S. history, one whose malevolence and incompetence probably cost tens of thousands of needless deaths, might escape judgment at the hands of the voters.
That this is grounds for “celebrity” is due in part to the fact that large swaths of the right-wing media have become hermetically, comprehensively sealed off from reality. In this place, mere assertions of mass voter fraud, no matter how plainly ridiculous or conclusively debunked, are not just automatically presumed true.
They also form the basis for the notion that trying to overturn the results constitutes heroism, a righting of injustice, a defense of democracy.
Take, for example, the latest antics from Ted Cruz. The Republican senator’s state of Texas is asking the Supreme Court to invalidate millions of votes in four states on fictitious grounds of fraud, echoing ones already shot down by numerous courts. Cruz has reportedly agreed to “argue” this case before the high court, at Trump’s request.
Cruz knows the court will almost certainly not hear the case. But he also knows that even if he does have to argue it, the arguments he would have to make would not redound negatively on him in the slightest — that is, in the media universe he cares about.
No matter how buffoonish and corrupt those arguments might appear outside that information universe, inside it he will be feted as a hero who is fighting for Trump and saving democracy. And if the court doesn’t take the case, he will have been seen to be heroically prepared to wage this fight. It’s a win-win either way.
Trump did not single-handedly create the circumstances leading up to this political-media moment, which have complex and long running causes. But he has certainly facilitated them.
It’s the perfect coda to all this that Giuliani’s own perversely earned celebrity — mainly for trying to secure impunity for Trump after his years of wreaking so much destruction — has gained him special medical treatment not afforded to countless others who have been sickened or killed amid that destruction.
The Electoral College gives disproportionate voting power to states, favoring the smaller states with more electoral votes per person.
For instance, each individual vote in Wyoming counts nearly four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual vote in Texas. This is because Wyoming has three (3) electoral votes for a population of 532,668 citizens (as of 2008 Census Bureau estimates) and Texas has thirty-two (32) electoral votes for a population of almost 25 million. By dividing the population by electoral votes, we can see that Wyoming has one “elector” for every 177,556 people and Texas has one “elector” for about every 715,499. The difference between these two states of 537,943 is the largest in the Electoral College.
The small states were given additional power to prevent politicians from only focusing on issues which affect the larger states. The fear was that without this power, politicians would completely ignore small states and only focus on big population centers.
Ironically, there is a study that concludes that larger states are actually at an advantage in the Electoral College. Because almost all states give all of its electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes within that state, candidates must win whole states in order to win the presidency. Naturally, candidates tend to concentrate resources on the largest payoffs, the states which can provide the greatest number of electoral votes.
For a history of the development of the Electoral College, see William C. Kimberling’s essay, A Brief History of the Electoral College. Kimberling was the Deputy Director of the FEC’s Office of Election Administration.
Just how many people elect the president of the United States? The answer may surprise you.
Consider the 2000 presidential elections. Even though more than 100 million people voted in the election, only a small portion of those votes in fact were decisive. Indeed, the results would have been exactly the same even if nearly 80 million of those voters would have stayed home.
Here’s what we mean:
Total number of votes cast nationwide in Presidential elections:
105,396,641 in 2000
131, 338,626 in 2008
Total number of votes cast for the winner in their states won:
26,353,058 in 30 states for George W. Bush
39,908,351 in 29 states (including DC) for Barack Obama
Total number of votes that did not factor in determining the winner of the president in their respective years:
To win the Electoral College in 2000, Bush needed only 21,835,615votes out of a total of 105,396,641 votes.
To win the Electoral College in 2008, Obama needed only 39,908,351votes out of a total of 131,338,626 votes.
Percentage of votes that did not factor in determining the winner in their respective years:
The winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes
The Electoral College favors the smaller states with disproportionate voting power. Advocates of the system say that this uneven power forces politicians to pay attention to smaller states, which would otherwise be ignored.
Despite its intentions, the Electoral College does not encourage politicians to campaign in every state.
Some states are still excluded from the campaign; these are not necessarily the small states, but rather they are states that are not viewed as competitive.
Since all but two states allocate their votes via a winner-take-all method, there is no reason for a candidate to campaign in a state that clearly favors one candidate. As an example, Democratic candidates have little incentive to spend time in solidly Republican states, like Texas, even if many Democrats live there. Conversely, Republican candidates have little incentive to campaign in solidly Democratic states, like Massachusetts, especially when they know that states like Florida and Michigan are toss-ups.
The winner-take-all rule also leads to lower voter turnout in states where one party is dominant, because each individual vote will be overwhelmed by the majority and will not, in effect, “count” if the winner takes all the electoral votes.
There is no federal law that requires electors to vote as they have pledged, but 29 states and the District of Columbia have legal control over how their electors vote in the Electoral College. This means their electors are bound by state law and/or by state or party pledge to cast their vote for the candidate that wins the statewide popular vote. At the same time, this also means that there are 21 states in the union that have no requirements of, or legal control over, their electors. Therefore, despite the outcome of a state’s popular vote, the state’s electors are ultimately free to vote in whatever manner they please, including an abstention, with no legal repercussions. Even in the states that do have control, often the punishment or repercussion is slim or nothing (some states issue only minimal fines as punishment), although some states instigate criminal charges ranging from a simple misdemeanor to a fourth degree felony. The states with legal control over their electors are the following 29 and D.C.:
Alabama (Code of Ala. §17-19-2)
Alaska (Alaska Stat. §15.30.090)
California (Election Code §6906)
Colorado (CRS §1-4-304)
Connecticut (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-176)
Delaware (15 Del C §4303)
District of Columbia (§1-1312(g))
Florida (Fla. Stat. §103.021(1))
Hawaii (HRS §14-28)
Maine (21-A MRS §805)
Maryland (Md Ann Code art 33, §8-505)
Massachusetts (MGL, ch. 53, §8)
Michigan (MCL §168.47)
Mississippi (Miss Code Ann §23-15-785)
Montana (MCA §13-25-104)
Nevada (NRS §298.050)
New Mexico (NM Stat Ann §1-15-9)
North Carolina (NC Gen Stat §163-212)
Ohio (ORC §248.355)
South Carolina (SC Code Ann §7-19-80)
Tennessee (Tenn Code Ann §2-15-104(c))
Utah (Utah Code Ann §20A-13-304)
Vermont (17 VSA §2732)
Washington (RCW §29.71.020)
Wisconsin (Wis Stat §7.75)
Wyoming (Wyo Stat §22-19-108)
Most of these state laws generally assert that an elector shall cast his or her vote for the candidates who won a majority of the state’s popular vote or for the candidate of the party that nominated the elector.
Over the years, however, despite legal oversight, a number of electors have violated their state’s law binding them to their pledged vote. However, these violators often only face being charged with a misdemeanor or a small fine, usually $1,000. Many constitutional scholars agree that electors remain free agents despite state laws and that, if challenged, such laws would be ruled unconstitutional. Therefore, electors can decline to cast their vote for a specific candidate (the one that wins the popular vote of their state), either voting for an alternative candidate, or abstaining completely. In fact, in the 2000 election, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector for the District of Columbia, cast a blank ballot for president and vice president in protest of the District’s unfair voting rights.
Indeed, when it comes down to it, electors are ultimately free to vote for whom they prersonally prefer, despite the general public’s desire.
This inconsistency allows for discrepancies in our electoral system. The electors from nearly half of the states can vote however they wish, regardless of the popular will of the state.
In the founding of our nation, the Electoral College was established to prevent the people from making “uneducated” decisions. The founders feared uneducated public opinion and designed the Electoral College as a layer of insulation from the direct voice of the masses.
There is no reason, in this modern day, to assign this responsibility to a set of individual electors. Hundreds of thousands of votes can and have been violated by an individual elector, choosing to act on his or her own behalf instead of the behalf of the people.
As of the 2008 election, since the founding of the Electoral College, 157 electors have not cast their votes for the candidates who they were designated to represent.
If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the presidential vote is deferred to the House of Representatives and the vice presidential vote is deferred to the Senate. This could easily lead to a purely partisan battle, instead of an attempt to discover which candidate the citizens really prefer.
If the Senate and the House of Representatives reflect different majorities, meaning that they select members of opposing parties, the offices of president and vice president could be greatly damaged. This potential opposition in the presidential office would not be good for the stability of the country or the government.
Because of our two-party system, voters often find themselves voting for the “lesser of two evils,” rather than a candidate they really feel would do the best job. The Electoral College inadvertently reinforces this two party system, where third parties cannot enter the race without being tagged as “spoilers.”
Since most states distribute their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, the smaller party has no chance to gain support without seeming to take this support from one of the major parties. Few people will support a party that never wins, especially when they are supporting that party at the possible expense of their least favorite candidate taking power (as happened to Nader/Gore supporters in 2000 and Perot/Bush supporters in 1992).
Presidency can be won without a majority of the popular vote
As the 2000 election demonstrated, it is possible for a president to be elected without winning the popular vote. Nor was the Bush/Gore election the first time a presidential candidate has won the presidency while someone else claimed a plurality of the votes cast. Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1824 and 1876 respectively, only to see someone else walk into the White House.
As an even more common occurrence is for a presidential candidate to win both the presidency and the popular vote without actually winning a majority of all ballots cast. This has happened 16 times since the founding of the Electoral College, most recently in 2000. In every one of the elections, more than half of the voters voted against the candidate who was elected.
With such a winner-take-all system, it is impossible to tell which candidate the people really prefer, especially in a close race.
India’s Leading Documentary Filmmaker Has a Warning
Anand Patwardhan spent decades tracking the rise of Hindu nationalism. And now, under an increasingly repressive government, he holds his screenings in secret.
Dec. 1, 2020
In Jaipur one afternoon last fall, the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan sat in a booth outside an auditorium, waiting to screen his latest documentary, “Reason.” These showings, Patwardhan had written to me earlier, were “semi-clandestine” — partly out of a fear of right-wing vigilante groups and partly because, even now, two years after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Reason” remains officially unreleased in India. Patwardhan had yet to submit the film to the Central Board of Film Certification, a federal body that routinely demands cuts to Indian movies before awarding them a rating, which is why it is commonly known as the Censor Board. Now Patwardhan sat selling DVDs of his previous films for 200 rupees, less than $3 apiece, besieged by fans asking for selfies at the booth. “I want my films to be seen,” he said. “Money is the least of my worries.”
Over four hours, “Reason” documents how the world’s largest democracy has plunged into a majoritarian abyss since the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., came to power in 2014, and Narendra Modi was voted in as the prime minister. With testimonies from witnesses to mob lynchings, stories of college students driven to suicide by intense right-wing ostracism and interviews with Hindu nationalists willing to defend the frequent murders of journalists and activists, Patwardhan contradicts the narrative that the B.J.P. routinely projects to the country’s 900 million voters: a story where, under Modi, India is at last starting to fulfill its potential, more than 70 years after independence. A week before the parliamentary elections last year, 16 clips from “Reason” were anonymously posted on YouTube. Watching them I grew afraid, not just for the fate of the film at the hands of the Censor Board but also for Patwardhan.
In one scene, a lawyer representing the Sanatan Sanstha — a Hindu extremist organization linked to four assassinations in the last seven years — openly threatens Patwardhan at a news conference. The lawyer is angry with Patwardhan for attending a protest rally in Mumbai following one of the assassinations. “Why didn’t the police break Patwardhan’s bones?” he asks. The next moment we see a man in a black tunic, filming the scene in the same room, raising up his hands to talk. “I am right here,” Patwardhan says. “If you want to do something you can.” The viewer is left wondering if Patwardhan is next in line to be killed.
“In many ways, this is worse than the Emergency,” Patwardhan told me. He was referring to the 21 months from 1975 to 1977 when Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister, had suspended civil liberties after a court invalidated her re-election, citing corruption. “Things were clearer then. People were put in jails, newspapers were censored. We could resist that. But now our minds have been infiltrated. There is no need for any coercion. We have been conditioned into a false sense of normalcy. Most of us don’t know how bad things are.”
A month after Modi was re-elected, in June last year, the Indian government denied Patwardhan permission to screen “Reason” at a film festival in the south Indian state Kerala. In August, six college students were reportedly arrested in Hyderabad for organizing a screening of another Patwardhan documentary, “In the Name of God.” Across the country, screenings of “In the Name of God” were planned in solidarity against the arrests. In Delhi, members affiliated with the student wing of the B.J.P. tried to disrupt a classroom screening at Ambedkar University. “A group of men barged into the room,” one of the students who had organized the screening, Sruti M.D., told me. “They turned on the lights, shouted slogans and kept saying that the film offended their Hindu sentiments. Somehow the guards made them leave. But they continued kicking the doors of the classroom outside after the screening resumed. It was scary. They cut off the power to our room. We had no choice but to watch the film in the end on a laptop with Bluetooth speakers.”
This is not an unfamiliar battle for Patwardhan. For more than four decades, he has been India’s leading documentary filmmaker, tracking the country’s unraveling from its pluralist post-Partition ideals to a Hindu hegemony. His films have portrayed Mumbai’s slum dwellers, the cruelty of the caste system, the arms race between India and Pakistan, but they remain unseen in large parts of the country because of their inconvenient themes. With almost every documentary he has made, Patwardhan has had to approach a court to ensure it is shown without restrictions. His films have won publicly funded awards at the same time as efforts have been made to limit their viewership. They reflect, both in their reception and content, the schizophrenic nature of Indian democracy.
The screening in Jaipur was to take place at the end of a leftist writers’ conference. Patwardhan passed me a copy of the conference schedule: “Reason” was not on the list. But it was unofficially understood that at 5 p.m., the documentary would be screened after tea. Five became 6, then 6:30, then 7, and writers were still going on about the grimness of the situation in the country. Barely a month earlier, the Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir was placed under indefinite lockdown and its special status under the Indian federation, which had afforded it a degree of autonomy, was revoked. Local politicians were arrested; phones and internet lines were still cut off; there were reports of thousands of civilians being detained. Meanwhile, in Assam, another border state, nearly two million residents had been stripped of their citizenshipin an effort to identify undocumented migrants. There seemed just too much to discuss.
Sometime after the screening began, the sound system broke down. The audience, until then attentive, quickly exited. When the film resumed after 20 minutes, no more than 10 or 12 people were still in their seats.
“The breakdown was deliberate, you know,” Patwardhan told me later that night, over dinner. For a moment I was reminded of the disrupted screening at Ambedkar University, of men banging doors and cutting off the power in protest. But a country’s slide into intolerance is rarely so dramatic: Norms don’t always collapse overnight; they corrode against the background of everyday life. “No, I meant the sound technicians,” Patwardhan continued, as if reading my thoughts. “I think they forced the interruption. It has been a long day — they probably wanted to go home.”
At 70, Patwardhan is nearly the same age as independent India, and his appearance — long hair, youthful face, leather strap sandals, loose homespun cotton tunics — is at once haphazard and hopeful, not unlike the promise of a new republic. India’s promise was embodied by three founding fathers: Gandhi, with his message of nonviolence, his deep distrust of Western civilization and his distress in his last year, after witnessing the bloodshed of the Partition; Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, a liberal who called dams and power plants the “temples of modern India” and saw industrialization as the best way forward; and Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was born a Dalit — the former “untouchables” who occupy the lowest rungs of the caste system — and rose to become one of the main authors of the country’s constitution, embracing Buddhism in protest against Hindu society’s inherent disparities. Despite their different priorities, the three shared a vision of India that preserved its historic heterogeneity, where secularism meant not an absence of religion from the public sphere but a benign, if sometimes mushy, affinity for all faiths.
Patwardhan grew up a beneficiary of that promise. His father worked in publishing; his mother was a renowned artist and potter. His uncles — one a Gandhian, another a socialist — were frequently in prison during British rule. His aunt had escaped from jail into Nepal and briefly undergone weapons training. According to Patwardhan, Ambedkar had even stayed for a while in their family house. Still, Patwardhan doesn’t recall his early years with enthusiasm. “I was a spoilt child,” he told me, “very frivolous, very privileged.”
Though India’s freedom struggle loomed large in his family life, growing up Patwardhan was oblivious to politics. He studied English literature at Elphinstone College in Mumbai, where he remembers not participating in anything: “I bunked too many classes, spent too much time in the college canteen,” he said. But in 1970, a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., transformed him overnight into an activist. “Suddenly I was attending Black Panther rallies, going to jail for anti-Vietnam demonstrations,” he said. Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman had both graduated not too long before. Patwardhan recalls that two students were wanted by the F.B.I. during his time there. Sundar Burra, a close friend of Patwardhan’s at Brandeis, remembers the insurgent mood on campus. “We had a joke about a certain professor,” Burra told me, “that your grades in his course depended on the number of times you’d been to jail with him.”
After graduation, Patwardhan overstayed his visa to volunteer for the labor organizer Cesar Chavez in California. He returned to India and worked for two years with a nonprofit in a remote village. In 1974, he was asked to film a protest march led by students and farmers against the corrupt Indira Gandhi government. He borrowed two cameras, bought some outdated film stock, recruited a friend as a cameraman and set off for Bihar, still one of India’s poorest states, where the protesters had planned a huge rally.
Just after he had transformed the footage of the protests into “Waves of Revolution,” his debut, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. Patwardhan cut the film print into two or three pieces, smuggled them abroad with different friends and then secured a fellowship to McGill University in Montreal for a master’s degree, where he managed to reassemble the film. Away from the country during a period of authoritarian repression, he traveled across North America and Europe, showing the film to universities and film clubs, raising awareness about the collapse of democracy back home.Patwardhan (center, with camera) filming “Waves of Revolution” (1974).Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
At underground screenings of the film in India, audience members had to be individually vouched for. If discovered, Patwardhan wrote later, “at best … the film would have been confiscated and at worst, jail for all those present.” Most documentaries in India were then produced and distributed by the government, Soviet-style, so the idea of a director going around screening his anti-establishment offering was at once both risky and appealing. Sanjay Kak, a fellow filmmaker, remembers attending a screening of a Patwardhan documentary 40 years ago. “Anand arrived with a 16-millimeter movie projector,” Kak told me, “and a stack of newspapers to cover up the windows of the screening room. I thought, Who is this man traveling with a projector to show his own film?
In India, the Modi years are often spoken of as an “undeclared Emergency.” But something more enduring, a fundamental reimagining of the nation as a homeland for Hindus, appears to be afoot. The country’s roughly 200 million Muslims are, in this narrative, seen first as suspects, then citizens. They are accused of killing cows for meat — many Hindus consider the cow sacred — and cornered in public places to prove their patriotism. Muslim men are beaten up over Facebook posts and blamed for everything from the country’s “overpopulation” to luring away Hindu women through marriage. Many cities and landmarks that reflect India’s Muslim heritage have been renamed. Some school textbooks now glorify Hindu myths and paint the subcontinent’s Muslim rulers in a barbaric light. Incendiary WhatsApp rumors mislead the country’s overwhelming Hindu majority into viewing themselves as somehow under siege. Hate crimes against Muslims as well as other minorities have gone unprosecuted for years. Dissenting artists and academics are told to “go to Pakistan” if they don’t like the way things are.
The Interpreter: Original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week.
The rise of the B.J.P. and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S. — a militant organization devoted to making India a Hindu state and its minorities second-class citizens — has also been accompanied by mounting attacks on freedom of expression. Publishers have been pressured to withdraw books critical of Hindu figures. Reporters have been harassed, silenced with spurious criminal cases and in some instances killed. Policemen have gone on rampages inside university campuses. More than 50 writers and filmmakers, including Patwardhan, have returned their state awards in protest. A few weeks ago, the government passed an order to regulate online news and streaming content, stoking fears of more censorship.
“Reason” tries to cover every aspect of this traumatic transition, the wanton displays of coercion and cruelty that increasingly characterize what Modi’s supporters gleefully call the “New India.” The larger story Patwardhan tells in the film is of a revival of the psychosis of Partition, when the subcontinent was divided by the British into India and Pakistan along explicitly religious lines. More than one million people died in the resulting violence, and, according to some estimates, more than 15 million were displaced. Democracy in India was never quite robust — Ambedkar thought the Indian soil was “essentially undemocratic” — but never before have all its organs seemed so fragile. The liberal opposition is weak, undecided and of two minds about being perceived as hostile to the B.J.P.’s bellicose nationalism. Newspapers, bound to the government for advertising revenue, have suppressed stories critical of Modi and the B.J.P. Skeptical news anchors have been arbitrarily pulled off the air. TV networks that refuse to toe the line have been investigated for laundering money from abroad. Bank accounts of human rights organizations have been frozen. Citizens have been jailed for lampooning Modi online. Activists are routinely scorned as traitors. Policemen have falsely implicated victims of right-wing violence. Bollywood celebrities tend to stay silent, fearing censorship and reprisals before a big release. Any decision that the government takes is spun overnight on television and social media as an expression of the popular will, the logic being that Modi won the parliamentary elections, not once but twice.“Reason” (2018).From Anand Patwardhan
“Reason” is structured around the murders of four Indian activists, all of whom appear to have been targeted for their resistance to Hindu orthodoxy in some way. Narendra Dabholkar, a former physician, campaigned against regressive Hindu superstitions in villages; Gauri Lankesh, a journalist, was a vocal critic of the B.J.P.; M.M. Kalburgi was a scholar who had spoken out against the practice of worshiping Hindu idols. All three were shot point-blank with the same caliber pistol; the shooters, in all three cases, were men who were seen escaping on motorcycles. But the heart of “Reason” is Govind Pansare, a lawyer and communist intellectual, who was assassinated early one morning in February 2015.
Pansare had been active in progressive movements against caste and other discriminatory Hindu practices in the western state Maharashtra. Patwardhan first met Pansare in Mumbai, when he stopped the police from disrupting the screening of a documentary on Kashmir. “The next time I heard about him,” he told me, “was after his death.” The brazenness with which Pansare was murdered — he and his wife were shot outside their home, again by men on a motorcycle — had convinced Patwardhan to start working on “Reason”: “I knew right away I had to make a film.”
The day after the screening in Jaipur, Patwardhan was in New Delhi. He was showing a longer cut of “Reason” on the campus of South Asian University. Seated among the professors and students in the audience that afternoon was Mohammad Sartaj, a technician in the Indian Air Force who is also interviewed in “Reason.” Five years ago, Sartaj’s father, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob outside his home in a village in Northern India on suspicion of eating beef. From 2015 to 2018, a Human Rights Watch report estimates that vigilante cow-protection groups killed more than 40 people across the country, most of them Muslims, often with tacit support from policemen and Hindu nationalist leaders. One of the men accused of Akhlaq’s murder is the son of a B.J.P. member; another was given a public funeral after he died in detention. His coffin was draped in the Indian flag.
Not far away from South Asian University is Birla House, the mansion outside which Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Brahmin who claimed that Gandhi had sided with Muslims “at the expense of the Hindus.” In “Reason” Patwardhan connects the conspiracy to kill Gandhi with the recent murders of Akhlaq, Pansare and many others, inspired as they all were by the same ideology. Patwardhan knows that many Hindu nationalists still condone Gandhi’s murder. Godse had once been a member of the R.S.S. — his family maintains that he never quit — and many members of the B.J.P., including Modi, began their careers as R.S.S. volunteers.
When it comes to Gandhi, the party has traditionally opted for a strategic doublespeak. In 2003, under a B.J.P. government, a portrait of V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist who was charged as a co-conspirator in Gandhi’s murder but not convicted, was unveiled in a hall of the Indian Parliament. In the midst of the 2019 elections, one B.J.P. candidate asserted that Godse was a “patriot.” But Gandhi’s international stature is too immense for the party to clearly state its views. In October 2019, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Modi with the headline “Why India and the World Need Gandhi.” Reading it, I remembered a question Patwardhan repeatedly asks right-wing activists in “Reason”: “Tell me, who killed Gandhi?”
As far as I could find out, Patwardhan has never married or had children. He guards his privacy fiercely. When I asked Patwardhan once about his personal life, he told me about a filmmaker who had made a documentary about him some years ago: “I told him anything inside my house is out of bounds.” I got the message.
Simantini Dhuru, a filmmaker and education activist who has worked with Patwardhan for more than 30 years, told me that his friends and colleagues frequently worry for his safety. “Because Anand is now better known,” she said, “it is easy for him to be identified by those who won’t shy away from violence.” Dhuru had been present at that news conference in “Reason” where a lawyer representing the Sanatan Sanstha had suggested the police should break Patwardhan’s bones. “Those guys recognized Anand and noticed him in the room,” she said. “That remark was made precisely because Anand was there. It is scary in the long run to think that they know him and have marked him out for what he does.”“We have been conditioned into a false sense of normalcy.”Bharat Sikka for The New York Times
Patwardhan himself didn’t seem too worried. He became nervous, in my time with him, only when we talked about finding a bigger audience for “Reason.” In between the screenings last year, he went back and forth on a decision to submit it to the Censor Board. I, too, wondered about his chances of getting a certificate. His odds didn’t seem great. Prasoon Joshi, the current chief of the Censor Board, had worked in the publicity blitzkrieg that first brought Modi to power in 2014. More than 300 films were banned in India from 2014 to 2016. Then again, Patwardhan had always seen this stamp of approval as a “suit of armor.” “Once I get a certificate,” he said, “it turns every attempt to prevent screenings of my film unlawful. Think of the students showing ‘In the Name of God’ around the country — legally the certificate puts them on the right side.”
Patwardhan has faced censorship in India from the beginning of his career. “Prisoners of Conscience,” a documentary he made just after the Emergency, was cleared for release only once the celebrated director Satyajit Ray wrote a letter to the Censor Board. “In the Name of God” was held up, apparently, to preserve law and order. For another film, “Father, Son and Holy War,” which is split into two parts, the Censor Board issued each half a different rating. For “War and Peace,” an overview of the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, Patwardhan was initially asked to make 21 cuts.“In the Name of God” (1992).From Anand Patwardhan
Procuring a certificate is just one hurdle: In a country where documentaries seldom enjoy theatrical runs and cable channels opt to screen popular Bollywood films, he has had to sue India’s public broadcaster, Doordarshan, to show most of his films. One case stretched on for 10 years. Patwardhan can become obsessive while recounting his legal difficulties, as though not wanting to forget what he has lived through. “You have to be a filmmaker,” he has said in many interviews, “and then you have to be a lawyer as well.”
Frustrated by the certification process, many Indian documentary filmmakers give up on their dreams of a sizable audience. Patwardhan has persevered, I suspect, for the same reason that he sells DVDs of his films for less than the price of a paperback: a belief in the political efficacy of documentary making. And yet, in their encyclopedic ambition, Patwardhan’s films frequently transcend their political purpose and now seem like alternative histories of their time. Together, they map a trajectory of India from the Emergency to Modi: from the gradual undoing of the country’s pacifist principles, its uncertain turn toward strife and resentment, to its legacy of untold suffering as well as resistance. In “Waves of Revolution,” Hindu Brahmins tear up their holy caste threads at a protest rally, as if to break free of centuries of exploitative hierarchies. A Muslim widow in “Father, Son and Holy War” cannot come to terms with her Hindu neighbors’ refusal to shelter her and her husband during a riot. In “Bombay Our City,” perhaps one of the best documentaries ever made on a city, a homeless woman forbids Patwardhan from interviewing her. “You will record our voices on tape, but can you do anything for us?” she asks him.“Bombay Our City” (1985).From Anand Patwardhan
“Can you do anything for us?”: This is a question that animates Patwardhan, for he sees his films as just one aspect of his lasting involvement with their subjects. When “Bombay Our City” won a national award in India, he sent a homeless woman to receive the prize. “Slums were being demolished in Bombay when I heard that my film had won an award,” Patwardhan told me. “So I pretended to be sick and sent her to tell everyone what was going on.” Later, he went on a hunger strike demanding that the residents of another razed slum be rehoused.
Patwardhan lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Mumbai, a city that bears the stain of Hindu nationalism in its name. When the Shiv Sena, a nativist party, was elected to power in the region in 1995, in alliance with the B.J.P., one of its first steps was to rename the colonial city. Just three years earlier, in 1992, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out all over India, and the Sena was later indicted on a charge of spearheading the killings of hundreds of Muslims in Bombay, as it was then known. Patwardhan told me a story to illustrate the extent of hysteria in the city around that time. Many Hindu residents were apparently so convinced that Muslims from abroad were planning to overrun Indian shores that they would stay up all night guarding the city’s beaches.
Patwardhan’s apartment is not far from a beach and doubles as his office. “All my films are made like home videos,” Patwardhan told me, sitting in his living room. “I produce, direct, edit, do most of my own camerawork.” The Shiv Sena’s headquarters are not far, nor is the sprawling Shivaji Park, where, until recently, the Sena’s leaders delivered televised tirades every fall against Muslims and other minorities. (Many of these speeches are recorded in Patwardhan’s films.) Over 10 days every summer, many pilgrims crowd the adjacent seafront to immerse effigies of the Hindu god Ganesh. Local environmentalists have long campaigned against this practice because it takes years for the plaster statues to dissolve. “Reason” contains a video, made by the Sanatan Sanstha — the organization linked to the assassination of Govind Pansare and other activists — directing Hindus to ignore the environmentalists’ pleas and sink their Ganesh idols “only in flowing water.”
Patwardhan seemed unfazed about living in the neighborhood. When I asked if Pansare’s murder had made him more cautious, he deflected my question. “You have to understand all this frenzy has been whipped up,” he said. “Things weren’t always like this. It is only in the mid-’80s that Hindutva” — the aggressive brand of Hinduism promoted by the R.S.S. and the B.J.P. — “became resurgent.” Until the Emergency, the R.S.S. stood more or less discredited in India because of its perceived involvement in Gandhi’s death. But the discontent against Indira Gandhi’s misrule helped to revive its image. The B.J.P., formed in 1980, went from winning just two seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections, to 85 in 1989. Since 1996, it has consistently been one of the two largest parties in the Indian Parliament.Patwardhan filming on the streets of Mumbai in 2019.Bharat Sikka for The New York Times
The proliferation of right-wing ideas in India didn’t quite happen in a vacuum. Successive centrist governments had reversed decades of quasi-socialist economic policies, opening up a vast gulf between the rich and the poor. And as India’s economy grew in the 2000s, secularism came to be perceived as another failure of the left. “Jai Bhim Comrade,” a film Patwardhan shot over 14 years, begins with the suicide of Vilas Ghogre, a singer, a Communist and a friend of Patwardhan’s, who in his last moments had felt it necessary to reclaim himself as a Dalit. The need to understand the death of a friend becomes, in Patwardhan’s hands, a deep dive into the country’s original sin — caste — and the ways in which a culture of upper-caste dominance, coupled with the limitations of representative democracy, has only worsened the inhumane divide after independence. A sanitation worker in Mumbai tells Patwardhan that he is forced to ferry basketfuls of human waste regularly on his head. His employers won’t buy him any protective equipment; he makes less than two dollars a day. The B.J.P. has successfully co-opted many Dalit leaders and representatives over the years, while also fueling atrocities against the community. More and more Dalits, disillusioned by the absence of credible alternatives, have voted for B.J.P. candidates. In a prescient moment in “Jai Bhim Comrade,” we see Modi, then the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, stepping onto a stage dressed as a Hindu god. “Speak for us Hindus,” his supporters chant, “and you’ll rule over the whole country.”
The demolition of the Babri mosque marked a decisive turn in the rise of Hindutva in India. The presence of a medieval-era Mughal dome in the temple town of Ayodhya — considered the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram — was indicative of the subcontinent’s syncretic history and was no doubt for that reason an affront to Hindu nationalists. The mosque had been under litigation since 1949, when images of Ram were covertly placed inside. For years, the R.S.S. claimed that the Mughal emperor Babur had built the mosque by destroying a Hindu temple on the site. In the 1980s, Hindu hard-liners began insisting that a temple had to be built on the plot of land where the mosque stood. Soon, L.K. Advani, then the leader of the B.J.P., was traveling across the country, accusing the government of “appeasing Muslims” and asking Hindus to mobilize around the mosque. What was essentially a property dispute reopened the wound of Partition and became a fault line running through the republic. On the morning of Dec. 6, 1992, Hindu mobs razed the monument. More than 2,000 people were killed in the violence before and after the storming of the mosque.
“In the Name of God” records much of that grisly story. The film ends just before the mosque is brought down, moments after a Hindutva activist tells Patwardhan that Godse was “absolutely right” to kill Gandhi. The week that I was in Mumbai, in November last year, the mood in the country was tense: India’s Supreme Court was to finally announce its verdict on the disputed ownership of the site of the mosque. One morning I dropped into Patwardhan’s apartment and found a video crew from a news website interviewing him about the dispute. A celebrity stand-up comedian had posted “In the Name of God” on his YouTube channel, and suddenly Patwardhan was in demand for a film released nearly three decades ago.
The verdict was announced on Nov. 9, a Saturday. The court ruled that a Hindu temple was to be built on the site, while recognizing the destruction of the mosque itself as a criminal act. Modi made a few conciliatory gestures on Twitter. But lawyers outside the Supreme Court campus in New Delhi celebrated with cries of “Hail Lord Ram!” In Mumbai, fireworks went off all night in a Hindu neighborhood near my hotel.
The next morning when I met Patwardhan, he looked crestfallen. “First of all, this is not a victory for Hindus,” he said. “There are many secular Hindus like me who never wanted the mosque to be destroyed or a temple to be built. For us, it’s a disaster.” I asked him if the judgment had made him reconsider his plans to release “Reason” in India. If the Censor Board refused to certify the documentary, was he confident that the courts would again come through for him? “I have to weigh my options,” Patwardhan said. But in an op-ed he wrote for an Indian newspaper several weeks later, he seemed to have made up his mind. “On Nov. 9, 2019,” he wrote, “those who had demolished our national monument, effectively causing the deaths of thousands across the subcontinent, were legally granted the very objective of their crime. Secular democracy was finally laid to rest.”
For a brief moment, Patwardhan’s fears turned out to be premature: Around the new year, millions across the country protested a new citizenship law widely seen as discriminatory against Muslim refugees. In scenes straight out of a Patwardhan film, women camped out on streets day and night in the cold. College students held up portraits of Gandhi and Ambedkar to policemen. In city after city, Indians gathered to chant the preamble to the country’s Constitution.
But then came 2020, with more horrors. In February, on the eve of President Donald Trump’s visit to India, sectarian violence on the streets of New Delhi left more than 50 people dead, most of them Muslims. In March, in response to the pandemic, Modi declared a nationwide lockdown, so far the world’s biggest — and arguably the harshest — with less than four hours’ notice. People were beaten up by the police for so much as stepping outdoors. All but essential travel was banned. Millions of migrant workers, stuck without wages, food and shelter for weeks in cities, were forced to trek home to villages hundreds of miles away in the heat. Journalists reporting on the situation were intimidated or arrested. After an outbreak at an Islamic conference in New Delhi, Muslims were accused of carrying out “corona jihad” and spreading the virus across the country. Posters prohibiting Muslims from entering appeared overnight in some neighborhoods. There were reports of hospitals discriminating against Muslim patients.
I watched Patwardhan’s films again in self-isolation: They seemed to be now documenting not the past but intimations of the present. The country had changed too much since I first met Patwardhan in Jaipur. Scenes that I had safely relegated to history books just months ago now seemed like timely portents. The man who praises Gandhi’s assassin at the end of “In the Name of God”: Didn’t he stand vindicated by the Babri mosque verdict? The grieving Muslim widow in “Father, Son and Holy War”: Would she now be treated unfairly in a hospital? The homeless woman in “Bombay: Our City”: What was she doing to survive in Mumbai’s deserted streets? The Dalit sanitation worker in “Jai Bhim Comrade”: Was he walking home to his village, hungry and hopeless, at this moment?
The last time I talked to Patwardhan, he was reluctantly quarantined inside his Mumbai apartment. It was June. The lockdown had failed: India had surpassed Britain, Italy and Spain in the tally of cases to become one of the worst-affected countries. Every morning there were reports of overcrowded hospitals and desperate migrant workers starving on the roads. “I feel so helpless watching all this on TV,” Patwardhan told me. “I should have been out there recording these scenes, but I’m not able to do that.”
The protests against the citizenship law had been a galvanizing moment for Patwardhan. Indians from all walks of life, as he saw it, had briefly come together to assert their idea of an inclusive nation. “I remember feeling extremely hopeful,” he told me. “For the first time in many years, I thought, I can retire as an activist, because younger generations were doing amazing work.” But while the country was largely distracted by the pandemic, the Indian police arrested many students and activists involved in the protests. Courts stopped functioning at full capacity during the lockdown, which meant that bail and acquittals were practically out of the question. “To put them in crowded prisons at this time,” Patwardhan fumed, “especially when the virus is spreading everywhere?”
In August, Modi laid down the foundation stone for a new temple to be built at the site of the Babri mosque. Flanked by priests in saffron robes, he performed Hindu rituals and declared the date to be just as important as the day of India’s independence. Weeks later, a special court acquitted 32 people, including L.K. Advani, of crimes relating to their involvement in the demolition of the mosque. After 28 years, the court ruled that the razing was not “preplanned”: There wasn’t enough evidence of a conspiracy.
Patwardhan told me last year that it was becoming difficult to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism. “The line will keep getting blurred,” he warned, “as long as Hindu nationalists stay in power.” When we talked on the phone in June, I wondered if he felt a similar foreboding about the country as well, that someday it might be difficult to recall that India had once been a diverse republic. “I am making that argument in ‘Reason,’” he said. “This is why we need documentaries. At least they help keep some memories alive.”
When I was a younger man, a quarter-century ago, I clambered into the armored Land Rover provided by this newspaper to cover the Bosnian war. It was, at the best of times, an unbalanced vehicle. At the worst, it would shudder as if possessed. I was headed from Sarajevo back to Paris to see my third child born. There was no other way home. The airport, under fire from Serbian artillery, was closed.
Over Mount Igman, out of range of those Serbian guns, on the paved highway to Split, I exhaled. The blast from a shell as I walked through the old town had blown me off my feet a few days earlier. Now I was out of suffocating Sarajevo, home free. Until the steering wheel, spinning in my hands, lost all connection to the wheels. I was helpless. The car slalomed across the oncoming lane, tumbled several feet down an embankment, flipped over and over across a field, to settle at last on its side. The first thing I saw was a small red ax. To smash the bulletproof windows.
If, unlike several dear colleagues, I walked away from the war, it was to say something. Otherwise life was wasted breath. Something about crazed nationalism, how it giddies people with myth, how it gets their blood up building walls, how it births loony ideas like turning the east-west crossroads of Sarajevo into an ethnically pure Serbian preserve, how its endpoint may be 100,000 dead or more in the rubble and the ashes. How it quashes tolerance, destroys civilization, enables dictators, and devours freedom.
To say something, also, to my four children, whose lives I was lucky to see unfold, about engagement in the great causes of the world, about the pursuit of justice, about what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the bitter cup of heroism,” and about his advice to wear the “heart out after the unattainable.”
In Sarajevo, a man, half-Serb, who’d just had both legs blown off by Serbian shelling, told me a child needs his father even if he’s just sitting in the corner. Life is a struggle but we must seize it, for hope is the last to die. I like the spirit of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “We would not seek a battle, as we are; Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.”
This, dear readers, is goodbye, my last column for The New York Times. I have tried to defend the causes I believe in — freedom, decency, pluralism, the importance of dissent in an open society, above all. Uniformity of thought is the death of thought. It paves the road to hell.
I’ve learned a lesson or two. I can say, after a dozen years, that the best columns write themselves. They come, all of a piece, fully formed, a gift from some deep place. They enfold the subject just so, like a halter on a horse’s face.
Frank Bruni: A less conventional take on politics, cultural milestones and more from Frank Bruni.
Such inspiration is rare. Most columns resemble exquisite torture. Having an idea is not something you can order up, like breakfast. The battle between form and subject is ferocious. Eight hundred words constitute a rigid carapace resistant to descriptive writing and narrative.
Lincoln did all right with 272 words at Gettysburg. When the cutting began, I tried to console myself with that. But shed no tears for the columnist’s lot. I always wanted to witness what I wrote about. Armchair pontification too often turns to bloviation. Travel the world, see desperation in the eye of a raped Yazidi girl or a refugee dumped by Australia in Papua New Guinea, and battle to render the unimaginable in a few words. Brevity is a bitter stimulant to pithiness.
It is hard to go at this moment. I did not expect the lessons of Bosnia to come home to the United States of Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism. Because each vote still counts, because no state has seceded yet, because a “gunned-up” population has not taken up those guns, the country I love appears to be emerging from the Trump nightmare. It is not yet free of the tentacles of his derangement. To beat back the defeated president’s ongoing assault on truth, the rule of law, and the institutions of democracy has been the absolute moral imperative of our times.
The American idea freed me, a British Jew from the land of “trembling Israelites,” as it has freed countless others in various ways. Naturalization is a rite of passage to responsibility. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” depend on the engagement of citizens. The fight to defend America’s openness, renewal and unity against Trump’s walls, retrogression and fracture is inseparable from the struggle to save the world from the creeping autocracy of the 21st century. On lies is tyranny built.
But to everything there is a season. I have tried not only to say what I think but also to reveal who I am. That work is done. You know me, unfiltered, for better or worse. Wisdom is also knowing when to go. Persist too long and, like all those armies bent on reaching Moscow, you may face the Russian winter.
Nobody ever told me what subject to choose, much less what to say about it. “You write and you are free,” a Saudi friend once said in Jeddah. He could scarcely imagine to what degree. Free and solitary, like a runner on the beach in the early morning at low tide. Such freedom is rare.
The thing is to use it. To listen through the silences for a clue. To see the intersection of personal and national psyches, the richest point of journalistic inquiry. To marry the head and the heart. To make a difference. To know, and it’s enough, that a column saved a life. To suggest, in the name of a child’s innocent gaze, that putting food on the table beats an eye for an eye, for then soon enough everyone is blind. To hold power to account.
Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York (the place that took me in), I have been concerned with belonging.
It could scarcely be otherwise. From Lithuania to Johannesburg, from South Africa to Israel and Britain, from London to New York, my family has been on the move since the 1890s. Trees have roots. Jews have legs. Displacement is hard. A new land is also the loss of the old. The mental toll, as on my intermittently suicidal late mother, may be severe.
Exclusion precludes belonging. I learned that young. The beach at Muizenberg, near Cape Town, was full of white people. The surf leapt. Bathers frolicked. Blacks waded into the filthy harbor at Kalk Bay. They slept in concrete-floored outbuildings with little windows like baleful eyes. Or in distant townships of dust and drudgery, where the stale stench of urine filled the alleys.
But I stray into descriptive writing, anathema to the columnist. Suffice to say Bosnia redoubled the lessons of South Africa. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”
There is no place, on this small interconnected vulnerable depleted planet, for the ideologies that took tens of millions of lives in 20th century. So, dear readers, fight on for an American democracy freed at last of racism, for a borderless federal Europe, and for a sustainable world.
I am off to head our bureau in Paris, the city I miraculously reached after that Land Rover somersaulted, the city where I started in journalism more than 40 years ago. I may even indulge in some narrative writing, possibly also a good meal, conceivably a decent glass of wine. I will set opinion aside, as I did in Bosnia, where everyone knew what I thought, for we are human after all.
I hope this is au revoir, not adieu. And muchibus thankibus, as Joyce put it in Ulysses, for bearing with me down the years. It’s the voyage that counts, they say, but so does the ever-flickering destination, that promised land where the unquenchable quest of every human being to be free and live with dignity is honored and safeguarded in perpetuity.