Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Time Magazine Finds Humor in "Dot Head"; Forgets Navroze Mody

The most read and the most emailed piece on the Time Magazine site right now is Joel Stein's "My Own Private India." In it Stein says that the increasing presence of Indian-Americans in his hometown of Edison, New Jersey "bothers[] me so much."

Faced with a flurry of criticism, Time Magazine has now posted the following non-apology apology:
TIME responds: We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

The apology does not in fact concede that there is reason for offense. That was not the "intent[]" of this "humor" piece.

Perhaps the most serious error in the piece is that it is an ostensible humor piece lacking any humor. What is most galling, however, is that this ostensibly serious news magazine fails to have any sense of history.

Stein writes:
My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.
Perhaps if magazines like Time had spent more time on better reporting, the editors would have recognized the obvious logical and historical error in this "funny" paragraph. The "white children" in Edison inclined towards crime could now practice their craft on Indian Americans.  Indeed, this was the case in the 1980s suburban New Jersey, the passing of which Stein laments.

Back then, folks like Stein's friends not only harassed Indian Americans as "dot heads," they also physically attacked them.  As the Harvard Pluralism project reminds us:
in 1987, a thirty-year-old Indian immigrant bank manager, Navroze Mody, was beaten to death by a gang chanting "Hindu, Hindu!" A group which called itself the "Dot Busters," which included local teenagers, had been targeting the hard-working community of Indian immigrants with low-level harassment for months. The "dot" referred to the bindi Hindu women wear on their foreheads.

In July of 1987, a month before Mody's death, a local newspaper called attention to the rising number of harassment incidents. In response, it received a letter, signed "Jersey City Dot Busters:"
"I'm writing about your article during July about the abuse of Indian People. Well I'm here to state the other side. I hate them, if you had to live near them you would also. We are an organization called dot busters. We have been around for 2 years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I'm walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. We plan some of our most extreme attacks such as breaking windows, breaking car windows, and crashing family parties. We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are? Do you even live in Jersey City? Do you walk down Central avenue and experience what its like to be near them: we have and we just don't want it anymore. You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a week race Physically and mentally. We are going to continue our way. We will never be stopped."
In Jersey City, a few weeks after Mody's death, a young resident in medicine, Dr. Sharan, was assaulted by three young men with baseball bats as he walked home late one night. One of the young people yelled, "There's a dothead! Let's get him!" as they set out with their bats. Sharan was beaten severely and left unconscious with a fractured skull. He was in a coma for a week, in the hospital for three weeks, and suffered permanent neurological damage.
A search on Time's website of its content in the 1980s and 1990s reveals no mention of the "Dot Busters" or of Navroze Mody--though perhaps the archive is not as comprehensive as it appears (or, more likely, the search engine is not particularly good). A group of thugs terrorized a particular group in the country on account of its race or national origin or religion--even going so far as to kill someone--and the country's major newsmagazine seems to have failed to find it worthy of significant attention.  As a child growing up in a far more gentle environment in 1980s Ohio, I learned of the terror of the "Dot Busters" from Indian-American media.

A review of the last ten columnists published by Time Magazine reveals that 100% of them are white, and only 10% are female. Newsweek can boast the powerful writing of Fareed Zakaria (who was conservative enough to support the invasion of Iraq). Perhaps Time should apologize to the Indian-American community by replacing Stein with an Indian-American columnist. Kal Penn, who has the added virtue of actually being funny, would be ideal (see his punchy putdown of Stein's column here). 

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