The first class I ever attended at Yale, I shed tears in. It was a class on Milton. It was sort of embarrassing, but also touching. I spent the next three years as an English major reading a politically diverse and radical selection of writers, political thinkers, and philosophers. This fall, I returned to Milton in Professor David Kastan’s class on “Paradise Lost.” It knocked out two of my senior requirements and who hasn’t heard of Professor Kastan? Plus, “Paradise Lost” was kinda sick.
I was entirely dumbfounded upon being reminded that John Milton — representative of all things dead, white and male — was a revolutionary public writer and poet who eventually got King Charles I executed. As an English major, I have read my fair share of dead, white males but I would argue that I have read just as many dead men, women and badasses of a much greater ethnic variety. As a result, Milton in his precise, revolutionary politics and poetic prowess attracts my empathy and I have no reason to discount his anarchist ruminations. Milton believed that it was not only the right but the duty of a people to dethrone and execute an unjust ruler. In 1649, King Charles I was executed. Monarchy was restored eventually but damn, they tried.
Am I confident that we, in 2019, can overthrow, let alone behead, the colonization of capitalism before the climate is irreversibly fatal? Only sometimes.
I am aware that Milton must boast many values that crucially contradict mine. I haven’t had the time to research them yet. However, his reputation as an anarchist in the 17th century intrigues me because, on the other side of the world, in the Mughal Subcontinent (present day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan — where I am from), a poet of acclaim similar to Milton’s was beheaded in 1956 by Emperor Aurangzeb.
His name was Sarmad and he wrote verse that organized against the Mughal Empire’s unjust materialism and perpetuation of inequality. Sarmad came from an Armenian-Iranian Jewish family and went to the Subcontinent from the Safavid Empire as a merchant. He was in love with a boy named Abhai Chand, who he met in Sindh late in his life. There, he gave up all his material aspirations and became a polymath scholar writing verse, translating cultural texts and accruing an empire-wide reputation for being the next messiah of Persian poetry. At one point, he was known to roam as a naked mystic who had renounced all the materials of the world to politically represent the evils of a system in which it was easy to be complacent as people were suffering.
I am proud to say that at Yale, I have been endlessly radicalized to study, expose and evolve over the criminal systems that determine our world and lives. Sarmad was introduced to me by Professor Supriya Gandhi last fall. Yale has, at many academic turns, earnestly attempted to support and propel my quest for a kinder truth and justice for the world — for all of our personal liberations. Professor George Chauncey spoke to us about the critical role queer folks’ “coming out” played in organizing against the state-neglect of the AIDs crisis during a screening of Audrey Hepburn’s gut-wrenching “The Children’s Hour” in his fall 2016 lecture. People were dying, so personal sacrifices had to be made for the co-creation of a world where lesser people should be dying, especially if we can help it.
I surf Facebook or Instagram for three seconds and I know people are dying today.
What would Milton do? What could Sarmad do?
Last semester, I was not on campus and I wondered why the ER&M faculty did not attempt to hold their labor hostage to make Yale negotiate better. Is it not criminal to undercut an ER&M program as your nation-state is detaining undocumented migrants in concentration camps? From Martin Luther King to Gandhi, in all their inadequacies, many great thinkers would probably conclude that the world is at a political moment where non-violent civil disobedience should be the minimum standard of criticism to the state. The BBC reports that humanity has only 18 real months to prevent climate change from entering crisis-levels of unpredictability. The Guardian reports that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions. There are innumerable reports that predict unprecedented increases in climate refugees over the next five years. Drinking water will become scarce in more than a dozen cities by 2025. There is a recession expected to hit in 2020. Billionaires and their friends, the ones with yachts, have already started businesses that build shelters for other billionaires, and their friends, of course, some of whom are only millionaires. Or college academics.
Yale is one of the most concentrated centers of privilege that exist in the world. Some of your peers will have bunkers to survive the climate armageddon (not to be morbid), while others might not have the right legal documentation or metric of wealth. On our first weekend back on campus, some of my friends and I threw a little party where we made agitprop posters to go protest a frat. One read: “76 percent of all members of the U.S. Congress belonged to fraternities.” Firstly, is that not a ridiculous fact? Secondly, do I need to elaborate on the political power of that normalcy in the literal legislation of all our bodies, mobilities and dignities?
It is not only the right but the duty of a people to dethrone and execute an unjust ruler.
We should ask around what kind of burdens our socioeconomic conditions put on us. For example, did you go to that information session thrown by the Boston Consulting Group where they spent the first 20 minutes talking about how their job was fun because they went to so many hip travel destinations, have a sick view in New York City or got to make an app for Starbucks?
Who would benefit, in all earnestness, if you did get that sick consultancy job?
Would you do it for them? Homer Simpson did it for Lisa.
So as Milton and Sarmad called for the execution of the King and Empire, my call to you is this: there is an economic recession, Trump’s reelection and inevitable climate catastrophe on the horizon; do we do something about it? There are people who believe there is something to do about it, and people like Elizabeth Warren who can be spiritually (pun unintended, of course) collaborated with.
So, do we do it? Can we raze capitalist world order by a rebellion from the books of life, evolve beyond greed and save the world before we colonize Mars?
You can contact me to find us. This must be a collective struggle from us all.
Zulfiqar Mannan | firstname.lastname@example.org .