When you’re averse to the administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on illegal immigration and are invited to occupy the Senate Office Building to signify your displeasure, do you, as an elected US representative, agree to do so? When asked to join 398 of your House colleagues in passing a motion decrying any prejudicial treatment of Israel, specifically affirming the right of all US citizens to free speech, do you boldly side with the 16 dissidents who oppose this ideal? When you test positive for COVID, do you blame your indisposition on the events in Washington last January 6 when ‘many Republicans still refused to simply take the bare minimum precaution and wear a damn mask, creating a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack’, despite a screenshot seeming to show that you yourself were maskless while seeking refuge in the balcony of the House chamber?
In the case of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a key player in the administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’. Looking at Jayapal’s career as a whole, richly illustrative as it is of the current vanities of our public officials, with their relentless narcissism and acquired victimhood, is surely to engender not so much a feeling of scorn or pity as a well-developed sense of the absurd.
Born in India in 1965, Jayapal came to America as a teenager. After graduating from Northwestern University, she embarked on a career as a financial analyst on Wall Street. (It was the Eighties, it could happen to anyone.) After that she switched to selling medical supplies, which would have no bearing on her present-day aggressive stance against drug companies. Following the 9/11 attacks, Jayapal, by then active as a social organizer, founded a group called the Hate Free Zone. By hate she meant the sort allegedly directed at random Asian Americans, as opposed to the kind that had sent 3,000 people to an early grave.
After relocating to Seattle, Jayapal continued in her obsession with the morbid but bland world of the NSA, DHS and ICE, among other acronyms, exhibiting either a legitimate concern for civil liberties or descending into the briar-patch of standard virtue, depending on your point of view. Somewhere along the line she found time to chair the search committee which resulted in the appointment of the city’s first female police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, who served from 2014-17. O’Toole later parted ranks with her primary sponsor when she remarked in July 2020 that the Seattle City Council’s move to cut police funding in the wake of the death of George Floyd was ‘irresponsible’ and based on a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.
In November 2016, Jayapal stood successfully as a candidate in Washington’s 7th congressional district, which covers most of Seattle, for the US House of Representatives. Her opponent was a gay Cuban-American eco-warrior named Brady Walkinshaw, a fellow Democrat, who went on to assume the editorship of one of those apocalyptical climate-change webzines. Both eminently well-qualified candidates, no doubt, even if it would seem to raise the troubling matter of Washington being effectively a one-party state. The full-mouthed smile captured in Jayapal’s official freshman portrait, the Stars and Stripes furled behind her, may have been her last wholly recognizable concession to the American establishment.
The synchronous election of Donald Trump proved an unexpected gift for the new congresswoman, who spent much of the next four years getting in the president’s face. Jayapal hit the ground running by challenging the 16 electoral votes from Georgia which had helped shove Trump over the line. This initiative faltered when no senator could be found to join the cause. Four years later, she was writing of the exciting opportunity to ‘reckon with white supremacy and anti-Blackness’ (her choice of letter case), and vowing to hold Trump and company ‘accountable until the day they leave office — and beyond’. Of course we must wish her well in her Ahab-like dedication, even if this might seem to stray from the churlish technicality of her strict brief to improve the lives of those of us who live in or around Seattle, a city that currently has all the allure of Berlin after a particularly hard night in April 1945.
My own favorite story in this context came last July, when Jayapal found herself locked in a committee debate with Rep. Debbie Lasko about that summer’s continuing destruction of our city streets. A sizable chunk of downtown Seattle had then just emerged from several weeks under the control of armed anarchists who took to shooting each other on a nightly basis. This might be thought a worthy subject for discussion in itself, but it appears Jayapal’s mind had fastened obsessively onto a different detail. ‘If you’re going to say my name, please say it right. It’s “Jye-uh-pal”,’ she snapped. Somehow predictably, the phonologists at NBC News saw the slip as both racist and for that matter a sorry lapse of deference to a member of the US Congress, whose denizens would probably wear togas if they felt they could get away with it. ‘While mispronunciations can happen…Lesko’s error was directed toward a colleague,’ they scolded. ‘Given their professional relationship, proper pronunciation is expected, if not required, and many people of color said that they found the moment all too familiar and respected Jayapal’s decision to speak up.’
A sense of embattlement would seem to be a powerful rallying-point for the left, and Rep. Jayapal clearly sees herself as boldly defying the monstrous forces of oppression aligned against her. ‘[I] denounce the increase in fear-mongering, racism, anti-semitism [qv], bigotry and violence perpetrated by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other hate groups,’ she’s remarked. It’s apparently all she can do to elude the merciless Gestapo dragnet long enough to bank her $174,000 annual salary while continuing to berate her adopted homeland for its collective moral shortcomings, and rebuke any of its insufficiently woke citizens as being enemies of democracy itself.
Wonderful country, America.