Last November, nearly 63 million Americans, about 27 percent of all eligible voters, turned out to vote for Donald Trump. While not even a majority of those who voted, it’s still a staggering number and a sizable fraction of the population that cannot be ignored. It’s distressing to think that 63 million Americans actively chose this racist, sexist, narcissistic, wannabe dictator. It’s agonizing to accept that so many believed that he was the best, most qualified, most reliable person among the possible choices, the most trustworthy for steering the American Ship of State.
How is this possible? Who could support this con man? Who could condone his lies and obscenities? Who would trust him with the safety and security of the world today and for generations to come? Who are these people and why would they do such a thing?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
There are many ways we have tried to answer these questions for ourselves. Not all of the answers have been helpful or insightful. Some, in fact, have largely been myths and fantasies. For instance, many have been chanting the refrains, “We’re better than this”, or “This is un-American”, preferring to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the essential American ethos is much too civilized and morally centered to produce this outcome; they wish to believe that the kind of xenophobia we’re witnessing today is nothing more than a fluke or aberration. While it’s understandable that we want to tell ourselves this to shield ourselves from the much darker and more complex realities, such stories can get in the way of real understanding and effective resistance.
Where is the equivalent of the ACLU in India? Here is an excellent overview of the scene in India by Alok Prasanna Kumar, a lawyer based in Bengaluru. Support these organizations people; the stronger they are, the better our democracy will be.
The United States is fiercely resisting its regime of deplorables: first came the three-million strong Women’s March, and this past weekend hordes of lawyers joined the battle after the #MuslimBan, obtaining injunctions and emergency stay orders for those affected, promising to fight until Trump’s (sad!) executive order is struck down by the courts.
Here at home, many have been asking where India’s version of the American Civil Liberties Union is. Has our legal machinery ever been called in to defend the public interest with such speed and effectiveness – and is it even possible? Good news: it has happened, and we do have more than one counterpart to the ACLU. The complication: none of these bodies are exactly like it, so there’s no easy answer to the question, "Where is India's ACLU?"
A venal and debauched crew of clowns is about to take the steering wheel of the most powerful government on earth. This is a calamity of epic proportions. Do not minimize it. Do not attempt to normalize it. And for godssake stop spewing platitudes about bridging the divide and working together to move forward. The new regime has no intention of moving forward.
Stop fretting about understanding the people “on the other side.” It’s not about “sides.” There are 3 types of people who voted for Trump: 1) actual racist, misogynist, xenophobic hate-mongers, including white, Christo-fascists; 2) ordinary, garden variety rubes and naifs, who fell for his self-serving lies and demagoguery, who have little understanding of the world and/or are miserable judges of character; and 3) people who studiously practice intellectual and/or emotional dishonesty to protect and rationalize their narrow, immediate interests. Trying to understand their tortured logic will be a waste of your mindshare.
Instead, read Autocracy: Rules for Survival, by Masha Gessen in the NYRB. And resist (obviously, non-violently).
“Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.”
That, or something like that, is what Hillary Clinton should have said on Wednesday. Instead, she said, resignedly,
We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle [that] we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.
Hours later, President Barack Obama was even more conciliatory:
We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country. The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world….We have to remember that we’re actually all on one team.
The president added, “The point, though, is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.” As if Donald Trump had not conned his way into hours of free press coverage, as though he had released (and paid) his taxes, or not brazenly denigrated our system of government, from the courts and Congress, to the election process itself—as if, in other words, he had not won the election precisely by acting in bad faith.
Here is a fascinating documentary film from China. Among other things, it reveals how democracy works in real life and the sort of political animals we tend to become under it, age notwithstanding. Below is the abridged version (34 mins) of the full-length version (52 mins, 2007).
‘What kind of thing is “Democracy”?’
‘Born into an authoritarian state that professes to value the greater good over individual expression, many Chinese children have little familiarity with Western ideals of democracy. Nevertheless, they prove themselves quick studies in Please Vote For Me, which chronicles China’s first ever modern classroom election, held among third-graders in the city of Wuhan. After the students learn the basic tenets of democracy, a campaign for the position of class monitor swiftly descends into an all too familiar jumble of campaign promises, back-room deals and dirty tricks. Funny, touching and full of small surprises, the Chinese director Weijun Chen’s documentary is a wry look at the democratic process and all its chaotic, imperfect promise.’
Indian-Americans, a group that includes me, are one of the most visible and successful global diasporas. With the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US, we’re often called a ‘model minority’ in America. But what can be said about our politics as a group?
Historically, we Indian-Americans—and here I’m speaking primarily of Indians who’re naturalized US citizens or permanent residents—have overwhelmingly supported the Democrats, more so than any other large Asian group in the US. Over 80 percent of us voted for Barack Obama in 2008, second only to black Americans. This year, less than ten percent might vote for the Republican Donald Trump. Curiously, contrary to what one might expect, success and wealth haven’t driven most of us to vote for the Republicans, who’re seen as friendlier to the rich. What can explain this? Is it because we are remarkably liberal as a group?
Consider some more facts. We Indian-Americans overwhelmingly support Narendra Modi too, at a rate much higher than among Indians in India. We host rockstar receptions for him in arenas like Madison Square Garden in NY and SAP Center in Silicon Valley. This despite Trump and Modi being similar in so many ways. They’re both authoritarian and anti-democratic; anti-Muslim; steeped in nationalism (white/Hindu); allied with far-right groups (Christian Right/RSS); high on patriarchy; economically conservative votaries of trickle-down economics; anti-labor union; thuggish (think Amit Shah); big on defense spending; and so on. Both have provided cover to far-right groups who terrorize minorities. Even if we concede that Trump is worse than Modi—though some will disagree—their proximities are undeniable. So why do we Indian-Americans despise Trump yet love Modi? What’s behind this apparent paradox?
Modi and his Regime
Some might object here, especially Modi fans. They might say that I’m exaggerating the proximities between Trump and Modi. So let’s delve into this first. One difference I see between them is that while Trump wears his bigotry and misogyny on his sleeve and is more erratic, Modi is more discreet and austere. But as I’ll try to show, the two differ less in substance, more in style.
Modi’s stage-managed persona can seduce decent people unfamiliar with his past or with the yawning gap today between his words and actions. In his oratory, he paints an optimistic technocratic vision of India led by research and innovation. He speaks of grand ideas like Smart Cities and Make in India, and social causes like beti bachao, beti padhao and swachh bharat (nearly all of which have been very poorly planned and/or funded). He offers homilies about life, family values, and patriotism. ‘Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,’ he has said. He champions yoga, the uber-cool Indian export. He is disciplined, works hard, and wants the trains to run on time. In the July edition of his address to the nation, Mann Ki Baat, he discussed the menace of antibiotic resistance and his visit to South Africa, where he claimed to have been freshly inspired by the ideals of Gandhi and Mandela.
An insightful, though-provoking lecture by Branko Milanovic, a leading expert and historian of global inequality, on his major new work of empirical economics that "presents a bold account of the dynamics that drive inequality on a global scale." It's followed by responses from other experts and Q&A. Among his key contributions is the "elephant curve" which illustrates how the gains of globalization were distributed in recent decades (it benefited much of the world population but not so much the middle/working-classes in the US, UK, and a few other high income countries), and his theory of Kuznets waves, a replacement for the Kuznets curve (a much contested idea in development economics; Thomas Piketty didn't show much fondness for the Kuznets curve in Capital).
Here is an 18-minute travel documentary I made based on some of what we saw and learned during our wonderful 15-day trip to Mozambique in October 2015. For more photos and travel notes, check out the Mozambique page on shunya.net.
A cloying veneration of army men is yet another pathology of nationalism that’s more pervasive than ever in India today. Army men are now widely seen as paragons of nobility and patriotism. Whether their deaths are due to freak accidents or border skirmishes, they’re eulogized for “making the supreme sacrifice for the nation”. Politicians routinely signal their patriotism by chanting Bhārat Mātā ki Jai, victory to mother India, and fall over each other for photo ops where they’re seen honoring soldiers, dead or alive.
Curiously, this adoration for army men seems most intense in urban middle-class families, including those who don’t desire or nudge their own kids to join their nation’s army. Instead, they want their kids to prepare for more lucrative professions, pursue office jobs in multinationals, live in gated high-rise apartments, and own nice cars. Or perhaps leave India for greener pastures abroad. A textbook case of hypocrisy?
These folks may claim that their reverence for army men stems from their appreciation for the sacrifice the jawans (soldiers) make for others by enduring great hardship and risk, even death. And yet these same people certainly don’t glorify other risky jobs that benefit the nation no less, like unclogging the nation’s sewers, mining the nation’s coal, building the nation’s infrastructure, or toiling in the nation’s shipping graveyard—all jobs that apparently have lower pay and benefits combined with higher fatality, injury, and illness rates than Indian army jobs. Clearly, something else animates all that adoration for army men.
And who are the jawans who comprise the majority of the army? Most come from the rural poor and are hired after 10th grade. Some follow in the footsteps of other soldiers in their families, at times going back to British colonial times. As happens in all societies with volunteer armies and a severe lack of equal opportunity, most recruits join to escape poverty, get a stable job and a pension, and pursue a ticket to a higher social class, prestige, and some adventure. Indeed, in recent years, economic distress in parts of rural India has forced army recruiters to lower their physical fitness standards in some centers because the pool of candidates is too undernourished. Though the army does not release demographic data by caste or religion, it is well known that Muslims are severely underrepresented in it—as low as 2-3 percent—raising a host of awkward questions about its commitment to secularism.
Population genetics is an emerging field that’s shedding new light on ancient human migrations. It complements linguistics and archaeology, which have until now been the primary avenues for understanding prehistory. David Reich, a leading geneticist and a Harvard professor, has taken special interest in the much contested issue of the original homeland of Indo-European (IE) languages and the mixing of populations in India. Watch a video conversation with him on the edge.org page below (also transcribed).
Nothing Reich says will comfort the “out-of-India” theorists, largely a Hindutva brigade of “scholars” who claim that there was no Aryan migration into India; that instead a migration happened from India to Europe; that IE languages originated in the Indian Subcontinent from a proto-Sanskrit; that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization spoke this proto-Sanskrit (never mind that their script remains undeciphered; there’s no consensus on whether it is even a linguistic script); that the Vedas are wholly indigenous in inspiration, etc. It’s amazing how many people on the Internet confidently assert that the Aryan migration theory has been “discredited”.
Of course much of this was/is nationalistic windbaggery, based on wishful thinking and gaps in rival theories, not on any solid evidence from linguistics or archaeology. Population genetics is now producing a clearer picture once and for all. But we’re not there yet, even though Reich’s work has bolstered the Kurgan hypothesis, which puts the IE homeland in the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Watch this field for more definitive revelations in the years ahead.
I have a piece in The Wire today: The Road to Fixing Air Pollution in Delhi, Beyond Odd-even. Among other things, this attempts to distill the research and learning from my recent months at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, an advisory body to the Government of NCT of Delhi. Also an announcement on the right for my talk this weekend that's open to all.
An unprecedented public health crisis has been unfolding in Delhi: 40% of our kids now fail lung capacity tests. Respiratory emergencies have tripled in the last seven years, with no relief in sight. Just breathing our air, full of toxic gases and particulates, has raised the incidence of strokes, heart disease, cancers, birth defects, pneumonia, and more. In Delhi alone, an estimated 80 people are dying daily from conditions provoked by air pollution. Much like smoking cigarettes, it’s shaving years off our lives.
Though some fare worse than others, none are immune: rich or poor, young or old. A high burden of disease erodes quality of life, family finances, and the economy. What will be the cost of this health crisis, in human lives, in healthcare, in lost productivity?
It’s a good thing the AAP government plans to build a thousand Mohalla clinics, because what’s unfolding is far bigger than last year’s dengue scare in Delhi. Though experts have long known these health effects of air pollution, years of apathy, ignorance, and denial—among both citizens and politicians—have led us here. So how serious are the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments about fixing this menace? How well do they understand the gravity of the situation?
The seventh of January is the birthday in 1800 of Millard Fillmore, who in 1850 became the thirteenth President of the United States of America. Fillmore ascended to the Presidency upon the untimely death1 of President Zachary Taylor, the erstwhile Major General "Old Rough and Ready."
A Whig and an anti-slavery moderate, Fillmore nonetheless signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act2 which lost him the party's nomination when he pursued a second term3 and led to the disintegration of the Whig Party altogether4. Fillmore is often ranked among the ten worst American Presidents, batting at roughly the Mendoza Line5, just above George W Bush.
In 1969 and also on this day, Barbara Castle, the second longest-serving Member of Parliament in British history, wrote in her diary
It was nice to see Indira Gandhi again: I warm to her. She is a pleasant, rather shy and unassuming woman and we exchanged notes about the fun of being at the top in politics. When I asked her whether it was hell being Prime Minister she smiled and said, 'It is a challenge.' Oddly enough, I always feel protective towards her.
Every group I spoke to greeted me as the first woman Prime Minister to be. I hate this talk. First I'm never going to be PM and, secondly, I don't think I'm clever enough. Only I know the depth of my limitations: it takes all I've got to survive my present job6.
One wonders what Fillmore thought his place in history would be. And, equally, one wonders whether Castle knew she might have secured a more prominent world historical legacy without necessarily needing to have been particularly competent.
(Full disclosure: I'm currently leading a task force on air pollution at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a think tank of the Delhi government.)
The government of Delhi recently announced several measures to combat the hazardous levels of air pollution in the city. This includes emergency measures to reduce some of the eighty daily deaths from the current spike in cardiopulmonary cases in Delhi’s hospitals. It also declared some medium- and long-term actions, such as shutting down one coal power plant and possibly another; raising of vehicle and fuel emissions standards from Bharat IV to VI in just one year (a very bold move that leapfrogs Bharat V entirely, pulling in Bharat VI earlier than anyone had thought possible); limiting operating hours and enforcing emission standards for diesel trucks entering Delhi; adding more bus and metro services; taking steps to reduce road dust, and the open burning of trash, leaves, and other biomass in Delhi.
What intrigues me is how many of the chatterati have focused on the alternate-day driving restrictions for a fortnight (based on the license plate’s even/odd last digit) to the exclusion of other measures. Is this because it’s the only measure that calls for a bit of sacrifice from them? They’re posting articles on why such rationing of road space won’t work, or how car owners will rush to buy cheap used cars that’ll be even more polluting. They’re conveniently ignoring the fact that this is a 15-day emergency measure, that no rich man is likely to buy another car for the 8 out of 15 days that he won’t be able to drive his primary car. The complainers seem to include: (1) entitled upper-class folks who forget that driving is not a right but a privilege, that the right to non-toxic air precedes the right to drive; and (2) those who have no idea how bad Delhi’s air is right now and what it’s doing to our bodies.
Second, even if this measure became permanent at a future date (after due analysis and debate), it’ll likely happen after scaling up public transportation, in certain zones before others, and during certain hours. Designed right, it’ll accompany disincentives for diesel (which emits 7.5 times more PM 2.5 than petrol), reclaiming sidewalks for pedestrians, bike lanes, and a much higher cost of car ownership. For instance, we could charge an annual registration fee that rises steeply for two or more cars in a household (to prevent out-of-state registrations, it’d require the driver’s main residence to be the registered address), raise parking fees, limit and enforce parking in designated spaces, etc. To deter people from buying a second car to beat driving restrictions, its license plate could be given the same last digit as their first car, or the permitted days for a car could be shuffled every three months. More options might become possible in due course (when we have an up-to-date vehicle registration database), such as congestion pricing in certain zones and issuing citations via traffic cameras. That some devious little minds may find ways to beat the system is hardly a good argument against trying to redesign our transport systems and urban spaces.
Nirmukta is running a series on Facebook in which people are invited to submit a photo and briefly comment on being "more than an atheist". An editor invited me and Usha and asked, "can you send a pic in which both of you are together? It would be great to feature more couples."
Here's the comment and pic that Usha sent in:
I grew up in a relatively tolerant, liberal, Hindu family. We were taught that Hinduism accommodates atheism, and both my parents professed (mildly) to be atheists. Nevertheless, in my childhood, we regularly did pujas at home, recited Sanskrit prayers, and listened to or read the Hindu myths. But many of my earliest encounters with Hindu mythology awakened a rage in me, an anger at the way the stories made me feel as a girl. Long before I could understand these feelings or the reasons for them, Hinduism and Patriarchy became inseparable in my experience and understanding. And very soon, instinctively, I rejected both. At the same time, I grew up in an extremely conservative, backwards, and religiously overwrought small town in the American West, where friends and classmates regularly tried to pull me to their churches—Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist—each of them vying to save my soul in all the wrong ways, without a shred of actual human sensitivity. By my pre-teen years, I’d already abandoned all organized religion as useless, alienating, and corrupt. I wanted, instead, to discover a system of ethical beliefs that was meaningful to me.
Soon afterward, during my teens, my reasoning about the manifest world and the moral world together guided me away from all theistic doctrines of any kind. But I always knew that giving up faith in god or an afterlife wasn’t enough; that’s not where one can stop questioning one's beliefs and presumptions about ourselves and our world. We still must figure out what we value, how we might construct meaning in our lives, how we relate to others, and so much else. We all know of prominent atheists who are poor role models, having built upon their atheism their own versions of dogma and intolerance, which seem counter to the purpose of a seeking mind—atheism has hardly proven a cure for unreason and immorality. Rather than bludgeoning others with my lack of belief, I feel that each of us must work to forge our own synthesis of critical reason and compassion. So I seek to continue questioning dominant and reductive beliefs and practices around gender, race, caste, class, language, the environment, animal rights, economics, history, nationality, culture, and more. I find there’s often much to learn from and admire in other people, whether they are theists or not. But I knew early on that, for me, religiosity in a life partner would be a deal-breaker, for it’s essential to me that my partner and I should share our fundamental worldviews, and non-theism is fundamental to my apprehension of the world.
The highs and lows of identity politics, and why despising it is no smarter than despising politics itself.
Our identity is a story we tell ourselves everyday. It is a selective story about who we are, what we share with others, why we are different. Each of us, as social beings in a time and place, evolves a personal and social identity that shapes our sense of self, loyalties, and obligations. Our identity includes aspects that are freely chosen, accidental, or thrust upon us by others.
Take an example. A woman may simultaneously identify as Indian, middle-class, feminist, doctor, Dalit, Telugu, lesbian, liberal, badminton player, music lover, traveler, humanist, and Muslim. Her self-identifications may also include being short-tempered, celibate, dark-skinned, ethical vegetarian, and diabetic. No doubt some of these will be more significant to her but all of them (and more) make her who she is. Like all of our identities, hers too is fluid, relational, and contextual. So while she never saw herself as a ‘Brown’ or ‘person of color’ in India, she had to reckon with that identity in America.
Identity politics, on the other hand, is politics that an individual—an identitarian—wages on behalf of a group that usually shares an aspect of one’s identity, say, gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, class, disability, ethnicity, religion, type of work, or national origin. Any group—majority or minority, strong or weak, light or dark-skinned—can pursue identity politics. It can be a dominant group led by cultural insecurities and chauvinism, or a marginalized group led by a shared experience of bigotry and injustice (the focus of this essay). Both German Nazism and the American Civil Rights movement exemplify identity politics based on the racial identity of their constituent groups, as do the white nationalism of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Both Hindutvadis and Dalits are identitarians of religion and caste, respectively. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in his essay Identity Politics and the Left, labor unions, too, have long pursued identity politics based on social class and the identity of being an industrial worker.
Life, and identity politics, can amplify certain aspects of our identity while suppressing others. During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers elevated Tamil national identity over that of caste. Gender identity turns secondary in some contexts: Indian women often close ranks with Indian men when White Westerners lecture them on sexual violence in India. Likewise, Dalit women often close ranks with Dalit men when upper-caste women expound on gender violence among them. Especially after September 11, 2001, many European citizens and residents with complex ethno-linguistic roots faced a world hell-bent on seeing them as, above all, ‘Muslims’.
Below is a talk I gave at Thinkfest 2015 to a classroom-sized audience on 26 Jan, 2015 (90 minutes). It was hosted by Nirmukta, dedicated to promoting science, freethought and secular humanism in South Asia. (NB: the audio in the first few minutes is choppy but fine thereafter.)
The topic I chose is "What do we deserve?" For our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements can we fairly claim? This question is particularly relevant in market-based societies in which people tend to think they deserve both their success and their failure. I explore the fraught concepts of "merit" and "success", and what outcomes we can take credit for or not. I present three leading models of economic justice by which a society might allocate its rewards—libertarian, meritocratic, egalitarian—and consider the pros and cons of each using examples from both India and the U.S. (Also read a companion essay to this video, and read a report on Thinkfest 2015.)
A Plea for Culinary Modernism is a though-provoking essay on modern food and our attitudes towards it by Rachael Laudan, food historian and philosopher of science and technology. "The obsession with eating natural and artisanal," she argues, "is ahistorical. We should demand more high-quality industrial food." She is also the author of "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History", now on my reading list.
As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.
The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front. That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.
(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 2015. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut. Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Few places in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
As with many ideas and concepts, "neoliberalism" means different thing to different people. They often talk past each other, for they don't have a common understanding of the term. In this piece, Wendy Brown, author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, first presents a compelling view of neoliberalism and then discusses the "consequences of viewing the world as an enormous marketplace".
The most common criticisms of neoliberalism, regarded solely as economic policy rather than as the broader phenomenon of a governing rationality, are that it generates and legitimates extreme inequalities of wealth and life conditions; that it leads to increasingly precarious and disposable populations; that it produces an unprecedented intimacy between capital (especially finance capital) and states, and thus permits domination of political life by capital; that it generates crass and even unethical commercialization of things rightly protected from markets, for example, babies, human organs, or endangered species or wilderness; that it privatizes public goods and thus eliminates shared and egalitarian access to them; and that it subjects states, societies, and individuals to the volatility and havoc of unregulated financial markets.
Each of these is an important and objectionable effect of neoliberal economic policy. But neoliberalism also does profound damage to democratic practices, cultures, institutions, and imaginaries. Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.
"Under the Dome" is a brilliant documentary on air pollution in China that has been seen by millions. Scary as hell. India is catching up fast and would do well to avoid some of China's mistakes. Not likely though. Things are going to get much worse in India before people wake up.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
What to make of the verdict in Delhi’s Assembly elections this month? After a dismal show in the national election last year, when many had written it off, the Aam Aadmi (‘common man’) Party achieved a crushing win in Delhi with 67/70 seats. Delhi may be electorally small but being the capital of the nation and of empires past, the headquarters of the national media, and a trendsetter for other regions, its control has great emotional significance—all too evident in AAP’s main rival BJP’s desperate eleventh-hour tactics to win in Delhi.
The verdict has drawn many explanations: AAP’s strategy, grassroots campaign, and populist promises; people’s disaffection with the fueling of communal strife by RSS, VHP, and other BJP-affiliated Hindu right-wingers; the invisibility of BJP’s much-hyped ‘development’; BJP’s arrogance, disorganization in Delhi, and its dirty campaign; AAP’s success in framing this as a two-way contest which enabled anti-BJP votes to consolidate behind AAP; Modi’s $18K splurge on a suit—in retrospect, a major wardrobe malfunction, and so on. Whatever the mix of factors, last year’s ‘Modi wave’ now seems subdued, if not stalled.
Various polls show that AAP won due to greater support from the poor, the rural sections, slum dwellers, lower castes and Dalits, religious minorities, students, and women voters of Delhi—an enviable constituency for social liberal democrats like me. I’m not a member of AAP or any other party but I wanted AAP to win—not only because the alternatives were much worse but also because, despite some lamentable populism, there are many hopeful and progressive things in AAP’s politics and 70-point manifesto. These include two innovations it already practices: transparency in campaign finance and ensuring candidates have no heinous criminal charges. AAP’s win may bolster BJP’s opposition in upcoming state elections. It may even slow the rise of BJP’s communalism and its model of development in which growth of the corporate sector is prioritized far above social welfare and primary services—a GDP-growth led model akin to neoliberalism and almost always marked by rising disparity, shrinking safety nets, crony capitalism, and faster ecological damage. Indeed, why pursue GDP and corporate sector growth if not to primarily help increase human knowledge and reduce human suffering?
I really like the clarity and point of view in this short 2006 essay by Ronald Dworkin, American philosopher and scholar of constitutional law. The essay is relevant in light of both Perumal Murugan and Charlie Hebdo incidents.
So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness. If weak or unpopular minorities wish to be protected from economic or legal discrimination by law—if they wish laws enacted that prohibit discrimination against them in employment, for instance—then they must be willing to tolerate whatever insults or ridicule people who oppose such legislation wish to offer to their fellow voters, because only a community that permits such insult as part of public debate may legitimately adopt such laws. If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept. Whatever multiculturalism means—whatever it means to call for increased “respect” for all citizens and groups—these virtues would be self-defeating if they were thought to justify official censorship.
Muslims who are outraged by the Danish cartoons note that in several European countries it is a crime publicly to deny, as the president of Iran has denied, that the Holocaust ever took place. They say that Western concern for free speech is therefore only self-serving hypocrisy, and they have a point. But of course the remedy is not to make the compromise of democratic legitimacy even greater than it already is but to work toward a new understanding of the European Convention on Human Rights that would strike down the Holocaust-denial law and similar laws across Europe for what they are: violations of the freedom of speech that that convention demands.
It is my honor to have been invited to speak at Thinkfest 2015 in Chennai on January 26. "Thinkfest is the annual programme organized by Chennai Freethinkers, a regional group of Nirmukta, during which science popularizers, humanists, and freethought activists are invited to share their ideas with the general public." Read more about the event and the schedule. The event is open to all but requires registration.
The topic I've chosen is "What do we deserve?" For our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements can we fairly claim? This is a question of particular relevance in market-based societies in which people tend to think they deserve both their success and their failure. I’ll explore the fraught concepts of "merit" and "success", and what outcomes we can take credit for or not. I'll present three leading models of economic justice by which a society might allocate its rewards—libertarian, meritocratic, egalitarian—and consider the pros and cons of each using examples from both India and abroad.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
On how caste patriarchy in urban India hijacks and distorts the reality of gender violence.
Delhi now lives in infamy as India’s ‘rape capital’. In December 2012, the gruesome and fatal gang rape of a young woman, named Nirbhaya (‘fearless’) by the media, unleashed intense media and public outrage across India. Angry middle-class men and women, breaking some of their taboos and silences around sexual crimes, marched in Delhi shouting ‘Death to Rapists!’ The parliament scrambled to enact tough new anti-rape laws.
Many Delhiites have since grown fearful of their city’s public spaces. Spotting an emotionally charged issue, opposition politicians promised to make Delhi safe for women. Campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2013, Narendra Modi told Delhiites, ‘When you go out to vote, keep in mind "Nirbhaya" who became a victim of rape.’ The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor, Arvind Kejriwal, even promised private security guards with ‘commando training’ in every neighborhood. All this might suggest that a rape epidemic has broken out in Delhi’s streets, alleys, and buses. Mainstream media outlets in India and abroad seem to agree.
Anyone trying to analyze the issue must at least ask three questions: who are the rapists, where do they rape, and how common is rape in Delhi? The 2014 Delhi Police data on rape is a great place to start, not the least because it challenges the conventional wisdom of Delhiites and their media and politicians. It shows that, as in other countries and consistent with previous years in Delhi, men known to the victims commit the vast majority of rapes—96 percent in Delhi. These men include friends, neighbours, ‘relatives such as brother-in-law, uncle, husband or ex-husband and even father.’ More than 80 percent of them rape inside the victim’s home or their own. Strangers commit only 4 percent of rapes, which are also likelier to be reported. Yet so many people fixate on this latter scenario and take it as proof that Delhi is unsafe for women to go out by themselves.
The hard truth is that sexual predators are not so much ‘out there’ in the faceless crowd as among the familiar ones. ‘Statistically speaking’, journalist Cordelia Jenkins wrote in August 2013, ‘the problem [of rape in Delhi] is not on the streets at all, but in the home; the greatest threat to most women is not from strangers but from their own families, neighbours and friends.’ According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a women’s rights organisation in Delhi, ‘This data compels us to look at what is happening in and around our homes and workplaces.’ In other words, we ought to worry about rape less when women enter public spaces on their own, and more when they return home or hang out with friends. Why do so few Indians—men and women, including policy makers and public figures—seem to realize this? Some feminists have argued that this blend of pious concern with plain denial is the modus operandi of patriarchy itself.
Here is a powerful and insightful piece by a former Tamil Tiger woman who was recruited at 13 in the Sri Lankan civil war and served for 15 years. Also coming soon: my review of Samanth Subramanian’s new book: "This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War".
Increasing state persecution of Tamils in the seventies inspired the formation of a few small insurgent groups, including the LTTE in 1976. They impatiently challenged the elderly political leadership, but had few recruits. After the July 1983 riots, however, hundreds of enraged young people became radicalized. By the time Mugil was a teenager, the LTTE had emerged as the strongest and most ruthless of the militant groups.
The Tigers were not just real-life heroes to Mugil; they were also the only ones who seemed to be in control. Even Mugil’s father, after coming to PTK, started to print pamphlets and run other mysterious errands for them. “Be loyal to Prabhakaran,” he said. “He will take our people far.”