When I learned that Kal Penn is going to deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on behalf of President Barack Obama this week, I was immediately reminded of the stirring delivery of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley at the GOP summit last week in Tampa.
Haley and Penn have little in common – except for the fact that they are both of Indian descent (and that their high-profile appearances at these conventions may represent a watershed moment for Indian-Americans).
On a personal basis, as a person of Indian descent myself, the ideological differences between the Hollywood actor and the South Carolina magnolia highlight two completely different strands of politics among Indian-Americans.
Penn represents the liberal, urban Indian professional classes, while Haley represents something far deeper -- the fact that most Indians actually share the values promulgated by the Republican Party rather than the Democrats whom they usually vote for.
First, the actor.
Penn has become famous (and very rich) for playing a pothead in the execrable and unfunny ‘Harold and Kumar’ movies (he plays ‘Kumar,’ while John Cho plays ‘Harold’).
The ‘Harold-Kumar’ films were allegedly an attempt by Hollywood to upend the popular myth that Asian-American kids are all nerdy bookworms who are oppressed by their strict and demanding parents (Harold and Kumar not only smoke marijuana constantly, but they use foul language, are lazy and selfish, fool around with women and generally wreak havoc).
The popularity of these films obviously struck a chord with the American public since they have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Out of curiosity, I watched two of the films --- and I was left feeling appalled and very “un-entertained.” I am all for changing the perception of Asian-Americans… but ‘Harold and Kumar’ is not an image I am enamored with.
These movies are extremely vulgar and tiresome (it’s basically one long running ‘joke’ that these lads love to get high, like the majority of ‘mainstream’ American youth do). The movies seem to suggest that Asian kids can only be one of two extremes in terms of attitude and behavior.
Penn actually campaigned for Obama in 2008 and even served in the administration’s Office of Public Engagement (whatever that is) for two years.
The fact that Obama wants Penn to appear at the Charlotte convention suggests at least three things to me: Obama wants to retain his stranglehold on the so-called ‘youth’ vote; he wants to demonstrate how 'hip' and ‘cool’ he still is; and he wants to counteract the effects of Nikki Haley’s appearance at the Republican Convention.
It may also suggest desperation on Obama’s part -- polls indeed suggest that some of his ardent supporters from the 2008 campaign have lost their enthusiasm for him and his failed policies. Signing on Kal Penn is about as desperate as it gets.
Clint Eastwood has been widely lampooned for his ‘speaking to the empty chair’ routine at the Tampa convention --- but how will it go down if Kal Penn does his lame ‘Kumar’ shtick at Charlotte?
Is a ‘lazy dopehead’ the kind of person Obama wants to portray as his core constituency?
As far as I am concerned, Nikki Haley presents a far more attractive (in more ways than one) “face” for Indian-Americans.
I am well aware of the criticism Haley has endured from some quarters -- that she ‘downplayed’ her Indian Sikh origins in the past; that she ‘Anglicized’ her name and that she did not marry an Indian man.
Well, take a close look at Kal Penn. That’s not his real name – he was born ‘Kalpen Suresh Modi.’ You think someone with that name would have any hope of a TV/film career in this country? “Kal Penn” is a phony ‘stage name’ made up from his first name and sounds ethnically ambiguous.
In defense of Haley, in the very opening of her speech at Tampa, she declared that she was the “proud daughter of Indian immigrants” (so I don’t think one can accuse her of “hiding” her ancestry any longer).
Haley’s speech also laid out her views on faith, family, education, hard work and self-sustenance (the same things my parents tried to drill into my own head). She clearly laid out the argument that Republican Party principles match those of traditional Indian culture almost perfectly.
So, why do most Indian-Americans still tend to vote for the Democrats?
I think that is principally related to the perception that the GOP is ‘anti-immigration’ and ‘racist,’ while the Democrats are more ‘open’ to different cultures in this country. It’s a perception that, I believe, is largely false, and has been perpetrated by the mass media and the Democrats themselves for their own gain (remember how Obama called himself an ‘honorary Desi’ and how Bill Clinton has been siphoning millions of dollars in ‘donations” from wealthy Indian businessmen over the years?)
The Republican Party (as Haley herself explained) opposes ILLEGAL immigration, not all immigration.
I believe that Indian-Americans will gradually move towards supporting the GOP in larger numbers in the coming years. Many Indian people are increasingly uncomfortable with the Democrats’ embrace of abortion and homosexual rights; and they generally like the Republicans’ position on taxes and social spending.
In addition, given that Indians are among the highest-earning ethnic groups in the country, it would make sense that they would favor lower taxes and tighter budgets (both prominent GOP planks).
Keep in mind that the two most prominent Indian-American lawmakers – Haley and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal – are both Republicans. This may only be the beginning.
So, when Kal Penn’s pathetic film career ends, Haley could conceivably become the first Indian (and female) president of this country. I wonder what Harold and Kumar would think about that?
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.