SAAN 2008 and Vote or Die

Guest Blogged by Mewa Singh

Partially due to the rave reviews found at Sepia Mutiny, I flew out to Michigan this weekend to attend the annual SAAN (South Asian Action Network) Conference on the Ann Arbor campus. I had a number of different motives, not the least of which, was to make connections with other South Asian activists and learn something that may be of use to a certain conference in Fresno that I have helped with in the past.

voteordie.jpgThe conference was great. It was on-time, professional, the Michigan students were kind and courteous, and the speakers were top-notch. I had the pleasure to engage with South Asian academic/activists such as Vijay Prashad, Sunaini Maira, and Aasif Mandvi, among others.

While I have nothing but admiration for the overall conference and the tireless efforts of its coordinators and staff, there were some observations that I think may be of use for reflection amongst The Langar Hall community.

On a panel discussion, one presenter remarked one of the most important present ways to be an ‘activist’ is to vote. In particular she was canvasing for Obama calling for members of the audience to vote for Obama as ‘he is like all of us.’

Now I don’t really want to get into a conversation about candidates, some of the other bloggers have mentioned their support and active campaigning for him during these elections. I also think there is a marked difference for those that are willing to actively campaign and those that are self-satisfied by the mere act of voting. However, it didn’t sit well with me for someone to so easily hand out the word ‘activist.’ To be an activist takes much more than mere ‘voting.’ Participatory democracy fails if all one does is vote every four years. It takes much more to critically engage with your community and find solutions to existing problems, than merely vote for a person who you believe will do all the work for you. This is a cop out and in someways reckless advice. It breeds complacency, self-indulgence, and a smug sense of self-satisfaction. As Vijay Prashad mentioned earlier in a workshop, Convenience is not liberation.

Another point of concern was that though the conference features amazing individuals facing a variety of different issues, few seemed to be engaged with those matters actually involving South Asian Americans. A notable exception was the South Asian Public Health Association that have produced a report on the the health of South Asian Americans (other The Langar Hall bloggers with interest in Public Health will probably find the work interesting and relevant). However it got me thinking, on this blog a number of posts are always about the affairs of the Sikh community in the diaspora and ways we need to begin engaging with these problems. This young blog has already tried to talk about sex-selective abortion in Canada, the problem of our entitled Baby Boys, domestic violence in our elderly population, and sexual abuse in places of congregation, amongst other issues related to the diaspora. While we have yet to begin creating institutions that can address these problems, it is noteworthy that problems in the diaspora are at the front of our minds (not to say that we forget Punjab, because of our symbiotic relationship with our homeland). However are we more critically aware due to the nature of the Sikh community, many of our experiences in California where we have a large community, as opposed to many of the isolated Midwest communities that form the backgrounds of many SAAN attendees? Your thoughts of the ‘South Asian American’ project?


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14 Responses to “SAAN 2008 and Vote or Die”

  1. Valarie Kaur says:

    Mewa,

    While I thank you for your commentary on voting and South Asian activism, I must state clearly that you have entirely misrepresented my remarks at the SAAN conference.

    When asked whether being an activist is a choice, I spoke about being responsible for the consequences of our every word and deed. I spoke about the moment when we are represented with a choice: whether to turn to what we know is safe and comfortable, or to cross our gulf of fear and act on our desire to do good. And I spoke about owning our place in America growing up between major racial, religious, and national identities. It is only at this point that I reference Obama as an example of someone who has done this. "No matter who you choose to vote for," I said, "we can be inspired by Obama because he owns his in-between space and speaks from it as a source of strength. He is like all of us."

    At no point did I ever tell the audience to vote for Obama (for I was not asked this question). At no point did I ever say that our activism was limited to voting. I would appreciate that you not misrepresent my remarks from any further.

    Thank you,

    Valarie Kaur

  2. Maestro says:

    isn't voting, on some level, participating in change? and isn't change part of what being an activist is about? i do agree with you that telling people to become activists by endorsing certain candidates is not necessarily activism. in that sense, you're basically advocating and there's a difference. it's less powerful.

    were there many punjabis at the conference? i personally don't associate with south asian events as much as i could, so i'm curious what level of participation there was from our community. was there a representation of speakers? it didn't look like it from the website.

  3. Maestro says:

    isn’t voting, on some level, participating in change? and isn’t change part of what being an activist is about? i do agree with you that telling people to become activists by endorsing certain candidates is not necessarily activism. in that sense, you’re basically advocating and there’s a difference. it’s less powerful.

    were there many punjabis at the conference? i personally don’t associate with south asian events as much as i could, so i’m curious what level of participation there was from our community. was there a representation of speakers? it didn’t look like it from the website.

  4. Mewa Singh says:

    SSA Maestro,

    While you are right that voting is A form of participatory democracy, I do believe it is one of the most BASE forms. Former President Eisenhower, once stated, "Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage." Thus without participating in the democratic process that extends far beyond merely casting a vote, I am not convinced that one can call themself an activist. It really must be a 'part-time' job, not a 5 minute act conducted every 4 years.

    With regards to Punjabi participation, it seemed extremely low. Too my knowledge I may have been the only Punjabi Sikh participant. This was odd as their is a sizeable Sikh population on the University of Michigan campus. There were, however, two wonderful Sikhniyan facilitators. In terms of speakers Amardeep Singh from Sikh Coalition was there as well as Valerie Brar presenting her movie.

    Personally I, too, feel at times ambivalent about the 'South Asian' label. Too often I find that it is just a broader term for 'India.' At other times, South Asian organizations try to represent their 'magnanimity' by having the flags of all the nation-states in South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan (sometimes). However, for me, I have no personal loyalty or relation to any of those nation-states. For most Sikhs (especially in the diaspora), these loyalties ended in 1984. However, I do think that there may be something to a 'South Asian American' group coalition, not necessarily as identity. For political coalition building and formation, mobilizing as 'South Asian Americans' may be useful, pragmatic, and beneficial.

  5. Mewa Singh says:

    SSA Maestro,

    While you are right that voting is A form of participatory democracy, I do believe it is one of the most BASE forms. Former President Eisenhower, once stated, “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.” Thus without participating in the democratic process that extends far beyond merely casting a vote, I am not convinced that one can call themself an activist. It really must be a ‘part-time’ job, not a 5 minute act conducted every 4 years.

    With regards to Punjabi participation, it seemed extremely low. Too my knowledge I may have been the only Punjabi Sikh participant. This was odd as their is a sizeable Sikh population on the University of Michigan campus. There were, however, two wonderful Sikhniyan facilitators. In terms of speakers Amardeep Singh from Sikh Coalition was there as well as Valerie Brar presenting her movie.

    Personally I, too, feel at times ambivalent about the ‘South Asian’ label. Too often I find that it is just a broader term for ‘India.’ At other times, South Asian organizations try to represent their ‘magnanimity’ by having the flags of all the nation-states in South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan (sometimes). However, for me, I have no personal loyalty or relation to any of those nation-states. For most Sikhs (especially in the diaspora), these loyalties ended in 1984. However, I do think that there may be something to a ‘South Asian American’ group coalition, not necessarily as identity. For political coalition building and formation, mobilizing as ‘South Asian Americans’ may be useful, pragmatic, and beneficial.

  6. Valarie Kaur says:

    Mewa,

    While I thank you for your commentary on voting and South Asian activism, I must state clearly that you have entirely misrepresented my remarks at the SAAN conference.

    When asked whether being an activist is a choice, I spoke about being responsible for the consequences of our every word and deed. I spoke about the moment when we are represented with a choice: whether to turn to what we know is safe and comfortable, or to cross our gulf of fear and act on our desire to do good. And I spoke about owning our place in America growing up between major racial, religious, and national identities. It is only at this point that I reference Obama as an example of someone who has done this. “No matter who you choose to vote for,” I said, “we can be inspired by Obama because he owns his in-between space and speaks from it as a source of strength. He is like all of us.”

    At no point did I ever tell the audience to vote for Obama (for I was not asked this question). At no point did I ever say that our activism was limited to voting. I would appreciate that you not misrepresent my remarks from any further.

    Thank you,
    Valarie Kaur

  7. Mewa Singh says:

    Dear Valerie bhainji,

    We have a fundamental difference, because I do not believe I am misrepresenting your remarks. I, along with a number of participants, took issue with them and it was even discussed in our concluding 'small group' session. Upon greater reflection, you may be seeking to clarify your position and you very much have a forum here to do so. However, the point still remains and the issue I believe is still relevant. It is for that reason I brought up the matter to be discussed and did not engage in a personal attack. Your talk of the 'historic moment we live in' (just a point of reflection, are there ever any non-historic moments?) and then your praise for a particular candidate, seemed a conflation in the discussion of becoming an activist. I took exception to the remark, rather than to you as a person. Regardless, glad to hear your clarification.

    Thank you.

  8. Mewa Singh says:

    Dear Valerie bhainji,

    We have a fundamental difference, because I do not believe I am misrepresenting your remarks. I, along with a number of participants, took issue with them and it was even discussed in our concluding ‘small group’ session. Upon greater reflection, you may be seeking to clarify your position and you very much have a forum here to do so. However, the point still remains and the issue I believe is still relevant. It is for that reason I brought up the matter to be discussed and did not engage in a personal attack. Your talk of the ‘historic moment we live in’ (just a point of reflection, are there ever any non-historic moments?) and then your praise for a particular candidate, seemed a conflation in the discussion of becoming an activist. I took exception to the remark, rather than to you as a person. Regardless, glad to hear your clarification.

    Thank you.

  9. Maestro says:

    Mewa Singh, i agree that coalition building between South Asian groups could be beneficial but it's tough to do that when each group is attempting to define themselves in what seems to me to be strict limitations. For example, when i hear about South Asian events – i never think it includes my community. How can we change that?

    Valarie Kaur, although i am a huge Obama supporter, i am not convinced that he necessarily "owns his in-between space" as you stated in your comments. I have not seen any reference to him doing that (other than throwing out the word 'brother' once in a while), and in fact, some could argue that he is shedding part of his heritage. I don't support him because i can relate to him on a personal level, or because he is "like me". He is not. I just like his agenda.

  10. Maestro says:

    Mewa Singh, i agree that coalition building between South Asian groups could be beneficial but it’s tough to do that when each group is attempting to define themselves in what seems to me to be strict limitations. For example, when i hear about South Asian events – i never think it includes my community. How can we change that?

    Valarie Kaur, although i am a huge Obama supporter, i am not convinced that he necessarily “owns his in-between space” as you stated in your comments. I have not seen any reference to him doing that (other than throwing out the word ‘brother’ once in a while), and in fact, some could argue that he is shedding part of his heritage. I don’t support him because i can relate to him on a personal level, or because he is “like me”. He is not. I just like his agenda.

  11. Desi786 says:

    Valerie,

    I have to agree with Maestro. I like Barak, but I am sik of people at my college acting like he is a desi like us. He aint nothing like me. In-between what? In-between going to Harvard Law School and Columbia? I just like his ideas. Trying to get votes based on identity, be it black, woman, or whatever is stupid. People that vote based on these things will find themselves the stupidest ones of all after the election. What next, vote for Condi in 2012, she is black. Is she in-between? Stupid.

  12. Desi786 says:

    Valerie,

    I have to agree with Maestro. I like Barak, but I am sik of people at my college acting like he is a desi like us. He aint nothing like me. In-between what? In-between going to Harvard Law School and Columbia? I just like his ideas. Trying to get votes based on identity, be it black, woman, or whatever is stupid. People that vote based on these things will find themselves the stupidest ones of all after the election. What next, vote for Condi in 2012, she is black. Is she in-between? Stupid.

  13. Camille says:

    Mewa, I think it's Sunaina Maira. :)

    I'll leave aside the issue of who said what when and go back to the question — is voting an act of activism? I think Valarie has an entirely legitimate point: if you view your actions, behavior, and life as moving towards a specific ethos or world view, particularly of one as nebulous as "social justice," then voting is indeed an act of bravery. is this the same as "armchair activism" or e-activism where you can click and feel like you participated? No, not necessarily. I understand the argument re: the (mis)use of terms, but at the same time, I think the franchise has exceptional meaning depending on your context. As a woman of color, my right to vote is fairly young, and I know that people died and were jailed for it. The very least I can do is vote, and, having worked in a variety of "activist" circles, I really do think electoral politics are an excellent training ground for citizens (and soon to be citizens!).

  14. Camille says:

    Mewa, I think it’s Sunaina Maira. :)

    I’ll leave aside the issue of who said what when and go back to the question — is voting an act of activism? I think Valarie has an entirely legitimate point: if you view your actions, behavior, and life as moving towards a specific ethos or world view, particularly of one as nebulous as “social justice,” then voting is indeed an act of bravery. is this the same as “armchair activism” or e-activism where you can click and feel like you participated? No, not necessarily. I understand the argument re: the (mis)use of terms, but at the same time, I think the franchise has exceptional meaning depending on your context. As a woman of color, my right to vote is fairly young, and I know that people died and were jailed for it. The very least I can do is vote, and, having worked in a variety of “activist” circles, I really do think electoral politics are an excellent training ground for citizens (and soon to be citizens!).