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China, opium and racial capitalism: Amitav Ghosh on the roots of a deadly business

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China, opium and racial capitalism: Amitav Ghosh on the roots of a deadly business

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‘Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories’

By Amitav Ghosh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 416 pages, $32

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After the mid-18th century, when the British East India Co. was importing tea from China, few could have guessed that the industry would be revolutionized by a different plant: the opium poppy. Over the next century and beyond, Britain and other colonial powers, joined by American and Indian merchants, amassed unimaginable wealth by getting the Chinese addicted to opium. It was opium money from trade with China that primarily funded the expansion of so many Western corporations and institutions.

In his latest book, “Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories,” Amitav Ghosh subverts Eurocentric history and digs open the recesses of racial capitalism, specifically Indian farmers coerced into growing poppy and the consequent pumping of opium into China. Ghosh exposes the hypocrisy of the Western world in perpetrating structural violence against Asians under the garb of free trade and progress and the uncanny similarities between the Machiavellian tactics of the opium business in China and of those who triggered the modern-day American opioid crisis. This conversation has been edited lightly.

China has long been perceived as an alien culture by the West. It has been demonized time and again, and after the COVID-19 outbreak, the animosity toward China has only worsened. But most Americans aren’t aware of the legacy in America of merchants who made their fortune in Guangzhou (Canton). Could you throw more light on that?

It might come as a shock to most readers that the U.S. has been dependent on China right from the very start. In 1783, when America was born, it was unable to trade with any of its neighbors that were still part of the British Empire. So, the Americans realized that it was essential for them to trade with China. In fact, one of the grievances that led to the birth of the U.S. was that the Americans were initially prohibited from trading with China because the trade was in the hands of the British East India Co. There was a lot of resentment against the East India Co.’s monopoly over tea. So almost immediately after the birth of the republic, China became the primary trading partner for the U.S. But the problem that the U.S. had in relation to China was the same that the British had — that the world again has today in relation to China — that the whole world buys Chinese goods, but the world doesn’t have any goods or enough goods to sell to China apart from resources because the Chinese make everything themselves. China was then, as it is now, the world’s great manufacturing hub.

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(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

So many of the technologies that we know today were stolen from China by the West, such as porcelain, gunpowder, compasses and bank deposit insurance. When the Americans started trading with China in the late 18th century, they started with furs and later sandalwood, but soon they just couldn’t find enough stuff to sell to China. So eventually they started doing what the British did: They started selling opium to China, sourced initially from Turkey and then later from India. For many generations, young Americans, especially very privileged white men predominantly from Massachusetts and other parts of New England and New York, would travel to China, and they would come back within four or five years with these immense fortunes. China gave them the experience of doing global trade, understanding currencies and foreign exchange, etc. They also became aware of the new industries that were then arising in Europe because of the Industrial Revolution. So, they came back to the U.S. and became the founders of all these modern industries, most importantly, perhaps the railroads.

You’ve drawn parallels between the Chinese opium crisis and the American opioid crisis. The British blamed the Chinese for being corrupt and mentally feeble. According to the British, they were simply meeting the Chinese demand for opium. Whereas we’ve seen in the American opioid crisis that it’s not demand but supply that dictates the flow of opium, as is evident in the case of the five states that had additional regulations to curb the prescription of opioids. These states (California, Idaho, New York, Texas and Illinois) experienced low growth in overdose deaths. So, it’s clear that it is supply and not demand that controls opium.

Initially, the British had trouble selling even 500 crates of opium to China, but once it got on, it was like a forest fire, and by the end of the 19th century, the Chinese were consuming hundreds of thousands of crates of Indian opium. So, when the anti-opium movement tried to constrain the British Empire from selling opium, the British deflected the blame onto the Chinese demand for it. This is essentially what the Sackler family also said in America when they introduced OxyContin; addicts were blamed. The British “logic”: There’s a demand for it, and if we don’t meet it, then someone else will.

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The Sacklers were aided by a lot of historians and academicians who put forth revisionist arguments in favor of rehabilitating opioids. They even took the FDA into confidence, right?

That’s right. It wasn’t until the victims’ families began to protest in a very big way that the narrative changed. Until then, the people who were defending opiates had control of the narrative for the longest time. I think it’s also important to note that this kind of opioid crisis seems to go hand-in-hand with a certain kind of civilizational crisis. That was certainly the case with China when it started getting engulfed in the web of opium in the late 18th century. Suddenly, it found itself having to question its ideas of centrality in the world. It was facing, literally, an existential threat.

I think something very similar is happening in America today. There’s really a profound sense of civilizational crisis. And for ordinary Americans, they are facing life conditions that are unimaginably difficult. In a way, the opioid crisis took off because of all these other factors within society. Deindustrialization was happening, and old mining communities were disintegrating. Opium was sold to extremely vulnerable communities where there was a lot of pain and social difficulties. So, we really see a kind of playing out of what happened in China in the 19th century.

The anti-opium movement in the early 20th century rattled the British Empire, and eventually China succeeded in getting most of its population off opium. You’ve pointed out in your book that one of the problems with the American war on drugs was that it pinned the blame not only on the producers but also on the consumers, whereas the anti-opium drive only targeted the producers. The Chinese establishment ensured that they treated the addicts with sympathy.

This is the problem, really. The war on drugs was a state-led movement initiated by the U.S. armed forces and its security establishment. And there was a kind of double dealing involved because the Americans were using heroin, etc. in their conflicts in Southeast Asia, Latin America and so on. At the same time, they were also trying to suppress cocaine and other drugs, and they created an incredible mess. The first problem with the war on drugs is the idea of what exactly constitutes a drug. Many of the substances that they banned and considered drugs were, as we now know, in many ways beneficial to humanity.

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Now they’ve changed strategies. More and more states are recognizing that many substances they call drugs are actually very beneficial, like psilocybin mushrooms, which can be used to treat depression. America now finds itself trying to control the circulation of heroin, fentanyl, etc. The problem is that again, it’s a state-led initiative, and it’s failing. Opioid-related deaths peaked during COVID-19, and it was thought that after the epidemic they would tail off. But no, it’s only continued to grow. Especially because fentanyl is so cheap and easily available, more and more people are dying of substance abuse.

What happened in Asia in the late 19th century and early 20th century was a very remarkable thing. You saw the emergence of a popular grassroots movement that was opposed to the free circulation of opioids, and that was effective. Even though, in China, the addiction problem continued until the 1950s, when, finally, the Communist Party did crack down on it. I don’t think any country will be able to reproduce that today.

One of the problems with addiction is that it happens indoors; the victims are out of sight. If you just look around America today, you wouldn’t think there was a problem. Many people who traveled to China in the 19th century thought everything was fine, but it wasn’t. In recent years, the U.S. Army has not been able to meet its recruitment goals. A recent survey found that not even 25% of young Americans are eligible to serve in the Army, partly because of obesity, mental health problems or drug use. Now that is a crisis.

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Movie Reviews

History of Evil: Shudder Film Review

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History of Evil: Shudder Film Review

Paul Wesley and Jackie Cruz star in History of Evil, which follows an escapee of political prison in 2045 who’s on the run from the sinister theocratic government.


Bo Mirhosseni’s debut feature film is a personal and political ode to his parents, who were both human right activists during the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. Mirhosseni has always had a desire to mix his love for the horror genre along with his political upbringing to make something he, and audiences, could relate back to the changing attitudes in society today. And ta-da! He’s managed to create the intensely quieting History of Evil. It’s a combination of the horror out in the “real” world along with supernatural elements. Think The Amityville Horror meets Battle Royale but very diligently streamlined to not be too over the top when it comes to the occult or gore. For a horror debut, it’s horrific (in the best way possible)!

Paul Wesley delivers an eerily good performance as Ron, the husband of Alegre (Jackie Cruz), an escapee of political prison, and father of six-year-old Daria (Murphee Bloom). Together, along with Trudy (Rhonda Dents), a trustworthy escort for their trip, they’re on the run and en route to an uncanny secluded safe house. History of Evil is meant to be set in 2045 but hauntingly could pass as the present day. In order to arrive at their hideaway, they must pass a checkpoint. Alegre and Daria climb inside cadaver pouches and wait for armed men to scan their ankle monitors, which will show a fake identity, so they can continue their journey in secrecy.

The four arrive at their safe house finally, constantly staying vigilant by wearing camouflage jackets so that the drones can’t spot them. They only plan on staying for 24 hours so don’t think too much of the only things to eat and drink being two bottles of water, a carrot, which Alegre gives to their dog, and slices of plastic cheese. They radio through to The Resistance, the opposing side to the government and the group in which Alegre is a part of, who are meant to be coming to their rescue but they’ve been delayed at the border. One night is what they initially planned so another can’t be too bad, can it?

What Ron, Alegre, Daria and Trudy are yet to realise is that the horrors outside might just be as bad as the history that the house holds within its walls. There’s no escape, and either way, they’ll be met with evil. History of Evil makes your blood run cold for the first half of the runtime, but loses momentum as the story reaches its climax. It’s cleverly created to make it an evil vs evil narrative where whatever decision the characters make they’ll be surrounded by misfortune, but that makes it feel a little bit too predictable. We know, whatever happens, it won’t be a positive outcome.

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Rhonda Dents as Trudy, Paul Wesley as Ron, Murphy Bloom as Daria, and Jackie Cruz as Alegre stand in a kitchen in Shudder film History of Evi
Rhonda Dents as Trudy, Paul Wesley as Ron, Murphy Bloom as Daria, and Jackie Cruz as Alegre in Bo Mirhosseni’ s History of Evil (Shudder)

When Daria finds someone breathing through a plastic sheet in her wardrobe it creates such a sinister atmosphere, and I wish there was more of that imagery throughout. That image being on the poster makes you think that this will be a theme running throughout but it isn’t. Yes, there are ungodly horrors throughout, but visually, it needed to be more haunting. However, with that being said, the fundamental storyline and the commentary on society is nauseating, maybe enough to make up for the lack of hair-raising visuals.

Mirhosseni is not new to the directorial scene and his resume is already jam-packed with music videos that he’s directed for the likes of Mac Miller, Disclosure and Kehlani. With a debut like History of Evil, I can see his follow up films, especially if they are in the horror genre, being just as good if not better. Seek out History of Evil on Shudder and add it to your watchlist if you want a chilling thriller.


History of Evil will be available to watch on Shudder from February 23, 2024.

History of Evil: Trailer (Shudder)
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Hoda Kotb offers Kelly Rowland 'Today' show 'redo' after alleged dressing room walkout

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Hoda Kotb offers Kelly Rowland 'Today' show 'redo' after alleged dressing room walkout

Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager extended olive branches to Kelly Rowland: an opportunity to return to the “Today” show, and promises to spruce up their backstage accommodations.

The co-anchors discussed making amends with the “Mea Culpa” star and former Destiny’s Child singer a week after she reportedly walked off the “Today” show. Last week, Page Six reported that Rowland and her team abruptly left the New York studio due to a disappointing dressing room.

“There’s no one who’s more gracious or grateful than Kelly,” Kotb told Entertainment Tonight on Wednesday. “We’ve been texting back and forth. … I gave her a call, I said, ‘C’mon girl, we’re waiting. We’ll do a redo.’”

Rowland was set to co-host a segment of the “Today” show with Kotb, but after her abrupt exit, the broadcast vet reportedly scrambled to find a replacement. Ultimately, singer Rita Ora filled the spot. Ora had been scheduled as a guest that morning. (“We had two minutes to prepare,” the singer wrote on Instagram, alongside a carousel of photos and video.)

Kotb’s Wednesday comments echoed sentiments she shared during Tuesday’s broadcast. Addressing reports of the dressing room drama, Kotb said, “she can share my dressing room. We’ll be together.”

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A representative for Rowland praised the singer — “one of the kindest, most amiable humans I have ever met” — this week but did not confirm or deny whether the allegedly subpar dressing room played a role in the singer-actor’s sudden “Today” exit. Kotb, however, admitted on Wednesday that “our dressing rooms are not the greatest.”

“None of them are great,” she said, before likening the backstage spaces to the less-than-luxurious dressing rooms at Broadway venues. “It’s kind of the charm of the ‘Today’ show.”

Bush Hager, who also voiced love for Rowland earlier this week, offered to beautify the “Today” dressing rooms herself, expressing her interest in interior design.

Savannah Guthrie, promoting her new book, “Mostly What God Does,” also told ET that they “need to remodel and decorate” the “Today” dressing rooms. Another report about Rowland’s exit alleged that Guthrie’s questions about Beyoncé and her new music drove the “Freddy vs. Jason” star away. Guthrie did not address those allegations.

“We need ‘Extreme Makeover: Today Show’ edition,” she told the website. “We are in a historic studio — 1A — it’s the same studio that has been used for decades. It’s incredible, it’s iconic and it’s old … if you want history, sometimes you’re going to have a few little chips of paint coming off the walls.”

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She continued: “We try to do our best, and hopefully the main thing is how people feel and the reception they get. I hope they feel the warm hug from all of us on the show, because we’re really grateful for our guests for coming.”

Earlier this week, Rowland received love (and a luxurious dressing room) from daytime TV host Sherri Shepherd. Throwing some subtle shade at the dressing room debacle, the Instagram account of Shepherd’s show shared a video of the 43-year-old’s luxe accommodations, which included a spacious couch, multiple plush chairs and a blue velvet ottoman.

“A TIME WAS HAD with the legendary Kelly Rowland at the Sherri Show,” read the video’s original caption, which has since been edited.

While promoting “Mea Culpa,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, Rowland praised Shepherd for being a “light, positive energy in this space, in this time.”

“We needed you, and I thank you so much for your light,” Rowland said.

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A Different Take On Exorcism But No Scare Fest

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The writing by Peter Sattler and David Gordon Green on the story by Scott Teems, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green was weak. Being a horror film it wasn’t able to bring on the scare fest feel that an exorcist film is associated with. Had the performances of the young girls been not up to the mark, the story would have been a total bore. The only thing that’s decent about the writing is that it took a different approach to exorcism and didn’t take the usual routes which have been used for ages in the franchise.

As the director David Gordon Green tries to salvage a weak story but isn’t able to work his magic around that well. He does bring in some jump scares and some scenes where you’re trying to shut your eyes in horror, but besides those few scenes there’s hardly any other scene where you will be actually palpitating. He definitely got the climax correctly where he is able to keep you hooked till the last shot wanting to know what’s going to happen next.

The cinematography by Michael Simmonds is good. He has managed to not only showcase the locales in a way that you will feel have an eerie feeling, but he has also gotten the lighting very perfectly. As it’s a horror flick and most of the scenes are happening in the dark, there is hardly any scene where you’re unable to comprehend as to what’s happening when. The usage of lights was very nicely done.

Tim Alverson’s editing was good. He managed to keep the film crisp and not exceed more than 2 hours. With a weak storyline, had the film been even longer, it would have made you lose total interest in what’s going to happen in the climax.

David Wingo and Amman Abbasi’s music isn’t something to be wowed about. It’s just about okay. Even if you’re watching with noise cancelling earphones, the background score doesn’t give you that scary haunted feeling. The film missed out a lot here as with some great background score, scenes which weren’t even that scary could have been made to feel very fearful.

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