The whites-only BNP, founded in 1982 as a breakaway from the neo-Nazi National Front, has been trying to shed its nutter image as part of a bid for respectability in mainstream politics. It was recently given a platform far more prominent than Speakers’ Corner, when its chairman, Nick Griffin, appeared on the BBC flagship program “Question Time” alongside members of the political establishment. Griffin was elected to the European Parliament in June.

This weekend, at its annual convention at an undisclosed location, 300 core BNP members will debate changing its constitution, which currently restricts membership to “indigenous Caucasians.” The move resulted from a lawsuit against the BNP by the country’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission, but Griffin is spinning it as further proof of a changed party.

Read my piece about the far-right for GlobalPost. Part One: A Far-Right Party Makes a Bid for the Mainstream and Part Two: How Britain’s All-White Party Gained Its Following.

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A Passage From India

In 1883, the British government sent the accomplished linguist Sir George Grierson to look into alleged abuses in the recruitment of indentured servants from India (known as “coolies”) who ended up on ships bound for British plantations throughout the world. In his diary, Grierson wrote about an encounter with the father of one female coolie in a village along the Ganges, noting that the man “denied having any such relative, and probably she had gone wrong and been disowned by him.” The historical record provides only a trace of this woman: a name, a processing number, a year of emigration.

In his ambitious new novel, “Sea of Poppies,” a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Amitav Ghosh attempts to fill in the blanks left by the archives. Continue reading
my review of the book in The New York Times.

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Bilateral Commitments

The short stories in Sana Krasikov’s first collection unfold in two contemporary landscapes: the former Soviet Union and New York City and its suburbs. But an entirely unrelated setting might help explain why these stories work as well as they do: 17th-century India, where court artists created illuminated manuscripts of the ancient Hindu epic the “Ramayana.” Rather than freeze a single location or moment in one frame, each painting portrays several episodes, so the characters seem to exist in more than a single place and time all at once.

Many of the men and women in “One More Year” have the same complex quality of simultaneity. Emigrés from the former Soviet republics, they live in constant flashback. They also occupy multiple time zones, thinking, for example, how late it must be in Tbilisi, where a teenage son has been left behind, or Uzbekistan, where a husband has been deserted to consider an ultimatum — her or me. Like most modern migrants, the characters in these eight stories inhabit both past and present, homeland and new land.

Continue reading my review in The New York Times Book Review.

The Keys to the Keystone State

When Barack Obama went bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on March 29, his opponent was Senator Bob Casey Jr., the son and namesake of a popular former governor whose coal-mining pedigree had made him a hero of the white working class. Casey Junior had just endorsed Obama, and the presidential candidate, wearing blue-and-white Velcro shoes and a tie, bowled gutter ball after gutter ball and lost the game. But Obama wasn’t at Pleasant Valley Lanes to knock down pins; he was there to win over white blue-collar voters and thus prove to Democrats that he is “electable” in November.

In the iconography of the campaign, bowling might have been a bid for some cred with the white working class, but it also signifies community ties of the kind eulogized by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam mourned the fact that while more Americans are bowling, fewer are doing so in leagues, a sign of a breakdown in civic bonding and engagement. Recently, Putnam put forward evidence that diversity hurts social capital: that residents of mixed-race communities trust one another less, volunteer less, vote less and hunker down more in front of their televisions. Whether or not Putnam’s dystopian theory holds true will be crucial to Obama’s chances in Pennsylvania and perhaps in a general election contest against John McCain. Do people in checkerboard communities turn inward and away from one another, and does that make them more susceptible to campaigning that plays on racial and ethnic divisions?

Bowling for Pennsylvania, my piece for The Nation, explores this question.