If you believe Western Civilization is oppressive, you will ensure it is oppressive

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

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Philosopher John Locke's spirited defense of the natural rights of man should apply to all men and women, not just one's favorite factions.

When the British left India in 1947, they left a complicated legacy behind. On one hand, Indians had suffered tremendously under oppressive British rule for more than 250 years. On the other hand, India was fortunate to have been ruled by the British rather than the Germans, Spanish or Japanese. The British, with all their flaws, did not resort to putting large numbers of people in concentration camps or regularly subjecting them to the Inquisition. Their behavior in India had scant similarities with the behavior of the Germans in Namibia or the Japanese in Manchuria.

More importantly, while they were crisscrossing the world with their imperial ambitions, the British were also steeping the world in their long history of the English language, of science and the Industrial Revolution and of parliamentary democracy. When they left India, they left this legacy behind. The wise leaders of India who led the Indian freedom struggle – men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar – understood well the important role that all things British had played in the world, even as they agitated and went to jail to free themselves of British rule. Many of them were educated at Western universities like London, Cambridge and Columbia. They hated British colonialism, but they did not hate the British; once the former rulers left they preserved many aspects of their legacy, including the civil service, the great network of railways spread across the subcontinent and the English language. They incorporated British thought and values in their constitution, in their educational institutions, in their research laboratories and in their government services. Imagine what India would have been like today had Nehru and Ambedkar dismantled the civil service, banned the English language, gone back to using bullock cart and refused to adopt a system of participatory democracy, simply because all these things were British in origin.

The leaders of newly independent India thus had the immense good sense to separate the oppressor and his instruments of oppression from his enlightened side, to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nor was an appreciation of Western values limited to India by any means. In the early days, when the United States had not yet embarked on its foolish, paranoid misadventures in Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh looked toward the American Declaration of Independence as a blueprint for a free Vietnam. At the end of World War 1 he held the United States in great regard and tried to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference. It was only when he realized that the Americans would join forces with the occupying French in keeping Vietnam an occupied colonial nation did Ho Chi Minh's views about the U.S. rightly sour. In other places in Southeast Asia and Africa too the formerly oppressed preserved many remnants of the oppressor's culture.

Yet today I see many, ironically in the West, not understanding the wisdom which these leaders in the East understood very well. The values bequeathed by Britain which India upheld were part of the values which the Enlightenment bequeathed to the world. These values in turn went back to key elements of Western Civilization, including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, French, German and Dutch. And simply put, Enlightenment values and Western Civilization are today under attack, in many ways from those who claim to stand by them. Both left and right are trampling on them in ways that are misleading and dangerous. They threaten to undermine centuries worth of progress.

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A Belated Reply to Plato

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Plato

Plato is among the most famous critics of democracy. His criticism is relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It runs as follows. Politics aims at achieving justice, and so political policy must reflect the demands of justice. Only those who know what justice is and have the self-control to enact what justice requires are capable of doing politics properly. Alas, the average citizen is dumb and vicious. Hence Plato's conclusion is that democracy is a fundamentally corrupt form of politics; it is the rule of those who neither know nor care about justice. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates argues for a philosophical monarchy, the rule of the wise and virtuous.

Citizens of modern democracies naturally tend to recoil at Plato's argument, and his positive proposal that philosophers should rule is often met with understandable ridicule. And yet Plato's crucial premise that the average citizen is too dumb and undisciplined for democracy is widely embraced, especially among those who find themselves on the losing side of a democratic vote. For one example, consider a common reaction among social and fiscal conservatives to Barack Obama's re-election in 2012; it was routinely claimed that the People had been “duped” and “mislead.” Furthermore, it seems that a second crucial Platonic premise – namely that a proper political order must place those who have knowledge and integrity in charge – is also widely endorsed. Consider here the popular criticisms of President Bush that fix upon his alleged lack of intelligence.

So we must ask: Could Plato be right?

We should begin by noting that many philosophers, including us, hold that democratic citizens ought to take seriously Plato's criticisms. There is nothing anti-democratic about earnestly confronting democracy's critics, and arguably there's something on the order of an imperative to engage with democracy's smartest detractors. As John Stuart Mill once argued, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

Now, there are several responses to Plato, and we'd like to survey a few popular rejoinders before sketching our own. First, one may respond to Plato by denying that politics has anything at all to do with ideals so lofty as wisdom and justice. Politics, the response continues, is not about discerning truths, but producing stable government. And stability is not a matter of getting things right, but getting things done in ways that prevent revolution, and that's what a democracy accomplishes.

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Being Like America

by Gautam Pemmaraju

On a recent television panel discussion show, the BJP leader and senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, in response to how the nation should respond to periodic terrorist attacks, said, unsurprisingly: “why can't we be like America?”. He also said that India should “stop comparing ourselves to Pakistan” in terms of terror attacks, for Pakistan, “is a failed state”. Again, this too is unsurprising. His comments followed those of film actor/activist and former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi, who, pointing to the fact that ‘not a single’ terror attack has taken place on American soil since 9-11, said “America dikha diya ke nahin?” or “hasn’t America shown the way?” Writer/Journalist Naresh Fernandes, also on the panel, in response to Mahesh Jethmalani, was quick to point out the obvious – America was “deeply embedded in two wars”, had perpetrated countless violations of civil rights, infringed/abridged speech unlawfully, tortured innocents, espoused dangerously divisive rhetoric, flagrantly contravened international law, amongst many other profoundly problematic transgressions in their response to 9-11.

Mumbai_blasts_mumbaikars While it is clear that both Azmi and Jethmalani were referring to securing India’s safety and escalating vigilance, the pointed invocation of America presents an opportunity to discursively examine how the desire to ‘be like America’ is imagined and expressed. It is mostly a desire for parity, which is increasingly evident in many aspects of public life and discourse, and runs alongside a disregard of regional aspirations of neighbouring nations, particularly Pakistan’s. Beleaguered as Pakistan may be in several ways, competitive nationalism comes into play, on both sides, and India to many, has the upper hand presently. While we have ‘arrived’ and are ‘poised’ for greater things, they, the popular narrative runs, have ‘failed’. The disregard is not exclusively reserved for our neighbours, but is also generously cast inward upon our own laws, the common people at large, and in specific on minorities, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginal. Consumerist desires aside, what seem further entrenched are disturbing predatory practices in many aspects of socio-economic activity, particularly in areas where government regulation is critical. Be it rural/tribal land acquisition, health, education, food production, housing, water resources, we see today not just highly questionable activities, but downright criminal ones as well.

So what does it mean for India to ‘be like America’ – semiotically charged as the phrase is? Should we ‘be like America’? Are there positive lessons to be learnt, portents and cautions that need be judiciously considered, institutions, ideas and processes that may be adopted? Or is it to be an unfalteringly foot-stomping ahead on to being a ‘superpower’?

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An Open Letter to the National Punditry

Dear Esteemed Pundits of America,

Beck Chalkboard The 2010 mid-term elections are behind us, and all the post-mortem analyses of the races are complete. Yet the 24/7 news cycle, and the corresponding demand for your incisive commentary, will not abate. So, what next? Will you turn your attention to the Congress and examine the ways in which the new House leadership clashes with President Obama? Will you look ahead to 2012 and offer odds on who will be the Republican nominee and how likely he or she is to defeat Obama? Will you continue to discuss the Tea Party in your ongoing attempt to discern who they are, what they want, and whether they matter? Will you investigate the gradual implementation of our healthcare bill and monitor the inevitable dissolution of DADT? Will you be able to sustain your interest in our increasingly quixotic military adventures? Or will you take up a cause you regard as underappreciated among the American people? These are all arguably worth your consideration. But we have a better idea: Resign from your job in broadcasting and run for public office.

We admit that this is a bold suggestion. Perhaps it has never occurred to you to seek political office. But consider how this course of action is required in light of the things you say and how you understand yourselves.

You take yourselves to be public figures committed to keeping the American government in check and on the right track. You offer daily commentary on national politics as a crucial contribution American democracy. You do not merely report the day’s news; indeed, many of you claim that you are not reporters at all. Rather, you claim to be commentators on the news, and you draw a sharp conceptual divide between yourselves and “the mainstream media.” We understand that you must insist on this distinction, for you take one of your central tasks to be that of exposing the media’s biases, distortions, and blind-spots. You understand your job to be that of helping the American citizenry to strip away propaganda, double-talk, and spin. You present the facts, and then you help the American people to understand what they mean. We’re thankful.

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