Pan-Asianism central to exile activist’s ideology


Author, artist, thorn in the flesh of America’s political right and confirmed pan-Asianist M.T. Karthik is taking time to return to his roots in Madras. Preparing to make the first of several trips to India, he will then move on to Portugal before returning to Japan, where he is in self-imposed exile with his wife and 3-year-old son. “It’s all to do with making the return home as easy as possible for my family.”

In India he will be visiting relatives, finding his feet. In Portugal he will be on the island of Madeira, assisting with an art installation, a retrospective by the artist Rigo 23: ” ‘Jam Sessions Rigo 84-23’ opens Feb. 4. I’ll then be back in Kamakura for the next couple of years.”

Karthik was politicized at age 8, when his parents — both scientists — emigrated to the United States. His father, a high-flying specialist in sulfur reactions, had been appointed professor at a new university in Texas.

“As an Asian child growing up in that part of the world 30 years ago, I had to deal with a lot of discrimination and bullying. You cannot imagine the bigotry, the homophobia. . . . Coming from a culture where it was customary for small boys to walk hand in hand to school, I was quick to realize that something was wrong.”

When Richard Nixon resigned as president, Karthik’s father sat him down and said: “Son, this is history. Now you will see America change for the better.” In fact, the opposite happened. Working in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Karthik witnessed the collapse of the twin towers. The next three months, he says, were the most difficult of his life.

“I was Asian, a writer and performance artist with a big black beard. While other Asians were barricading themselves in against retaliation, I went on the attack, marching, shouting, trying to make America understand it’d brought 9/11 upon itself. I was one of very few Asians to be out on the street, saying what I believed, and obligated as an American citizen to do just that.”

The last few years, especially since President George W. Bush was re-elected, have left Karthik in a state of disgust. But his family doesn’t understand. “My parents have not contextualized their lives in America. They remain leftist, but I say it’s a sinking ship. I don’t want my son to grow up in such a political, social and educational atmosphere. I’d rather he went to school in India.”

His mother, who has always felt a kind of ambivalence toward the U.S., now spends half the year in Madras. His father is unsure of his son’s plan, finding Karthik’s desire to return to Asia too extreme. “I’ve been trying to explain to him my need to leave, but his attitude is very much, ‘Well, I’ll be there for you . . . when it falls apart!’ It makes me feel a little insecure.”

Karthik speaks with such passion and clarity of vision that it’s hard to imagine him feeling insecure about anything. Back in the U.S., he had his own daily radio program, with a base of half a million listeners. This made his exit as news director and a major voice of dissent for KPFK 90.7 FM — the Pacifica Radio Network’s station in Los Angeles — high profile.

Karthik is proud of what he gave Pacifica Network, which over the years has survived two major lawsuits defending freedom of speech. “The founder, Lew Hill, opposed the USA entering World War II.” No subject was ever off-limits. “I told people the truth as close as I could get, something that’s gotten lost in recent years under the Bush administration.” And Americans — young Americans in particular — were listening.

“You ask how Bush can live with himself? Well, if your father described civilians during his Desert Storm campaign of ’91 as GFUs — an acronym for gun fodder units — what kind of morals do you think you’d have? Those despots (in the White House) are beyond caring. In 2001, Rumsfeld actually said, ‘We will lie to protect you.’ Now America is trapped in a lie called democracy.”

He recommends “The Power of Nightmares,” a BBC series by Adam Curtis that can be freely downloaded from the Internet. “Educationally long overdue, it’s about two radical movements — neoconservatives and radical Islamists — struggling to control us all, and how power blocs lie about one another’s history using the tactic of exaggerating fear.”

With his own imprint, Fifty Foot Pine Trees Press, Karthik is a member of New York’s Brooklyn Artists Alliance. But though proud to say he’s a bookmaker, he feels he’s no longer someone who can help makes things better in America. A trained statistician, he was convinced that the presidential election of a year ago was even more rigged than the first. “As I watched the votes come in and saw what was happening in other States, it was clear that Ohio was stolen from Kerry, just as Florida was stolen from Gore.” Within months he began his expatriation.

With Japan providing a transitory space — Karthik’s gateway back into Asia — pan-Asianism stands increasingly at the heart of his ideology. “While we have the U.S. on one side of the world, and an expanding EU on the other, what is happening in Asia? Infighting. We need to recognize China as a grandfather and seek unity, not as a threat to the rest of the world, but to provide a counterbalance.”

When Marcus Garvey first talked about pan-Africanism in America, he was mocked, regarded as a radical and a threat to white power. Forty years on, the Internet makes the world a very different place.

“Many of us agree, it’s time for the 21st century colonization of Asia to step out of the way. I mean, French restaurants? We demand a pan-Asian block, with the virtues of elders, and the interconnectivity and facility of a new cultural structure.”

The debate about Yasukuni, he says, is “old news.”