The Artful Politics of Hate Hastens the End of Liberalism
HONG KONG: THE summer of ’77 was a blissful guitar-strumming haze packed with long-haired peaceniks, chanting hare Krishna devotees, James Taylor, Dylan, and The Beatles. It was a time of innocent social and personal exploration and experimentation, inclusiveness, and stirring protest songs that articulated the aspirations of a generation.
I was at Davidson, North Carolina where non-segregated toilets had grudgingly crawled into vogue, a sheltered, god-fearing college town. A stone’s throw from here in cities like Raleigh it was uncommon for mixed race couples to hold hands publicly.
I was a dishevelled, emaciated kid from New Delhi, plonked down in the midst of this well-fed crowd, with unkempt middle parted hair down to the shoulders and US$20 in my pockets (as that was all the foreign exchange the Indian government allowed). I was the token brown man.
With no entry ticket into this close-knit fraternity save for a welcoming host family hewn from the best in American liberal tradition, a guitar on which I rasped out Bob Dylan, and Christian parentage of strange provenance – Syrian Christian and Punjabi Anglican – I never once felt discriminated against for my colour, my nationality, my left-leaning labour views that I vented freely in the school magazine, or my esoteric selection of songs whenever I was produced on stage as the token wild-eyed Asian.
My debut rendition of the Peter Sarstedt ballad ‘Where do you go to my lovely’, was met with modest, if polite, applause by a mystified audience. Later, in Richmond, Virginia, where I waited tables to earn my passage home, I was treated with courteous curiosity and heavy tips. Was it simply a kinder, gentler time?
I thought of this as the Charlottesville, Virginia, racial riots erupted 12 August, 2017, pitting white supremacist neo-Nazis and alt-right fringe groups (there for a ‘Unite the Right’ rally to prevent statues of Confederate generals Robert E Lee and Thomas Jackson from being removed) against a host of moderate Americans who felt it their duty to register their strong opposition. It was a supreme clash, and test, of the First Amendment and the right to free speech, an ugly hernia suddenly revealed as it tore through the flesh of an apparently healthy nation.
Why did this happen? And why are unsettling events like this sweeping the world from America and Europe to India? It is not a new malaise alas.
That hernia – crudely stuffed back after America’s tumultuous experience with black rights, desegregation, and affirmative action – has always been waiting to happen. Simmering discontent continues over the legality – and flouting – of Confederate symbols, statues and flags. In the South, some argue, perhaps rightly, that history must be preserved, while others view any trappings of the Confederacy, so intimately linked to slavery, as an affront to human dignity.
It is always right to be outraged at Nazi nonsense. But, in attacking statues of Confederate generals, the liberal counter-demonstrators got it wrong. Robert E Lee was not some right wing Jew-bashing redneck. He was a distinguished and revered soldier who was against secession from the Union. More to the point, he was not pro-slavery at all. Much of this is revealed in letters to his wife, whose father left behind a large estate, his will authorising the emancipation of the family’s slaves.
Fringe groups have pounced on these muddled memes to expand the vocabulary of their personal freedom to include racial abuse, open violence, hate, and intolerance.
As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes. Charlottesville is a troubling manifestation of the fraying of the liberal tradition the world has known in one form or another ever since the divine right of kings and the power of the church were declared subordinate to parliamentary government. By the 17th and 18th centuries, king and church were decisively moved backstage as various forms of representative government evolved in Europe.
Over time, liberalism has come to embrace the right to private property, universal suffrage, equality of women in the workforce, social tolerance, and a deregulated market, or laissez-faire, once used as a blunt instrument of colonialism – most evident in the British government’s hands-off approach to the Great Indian Famine (1876-1878) when it was believed ‘market forces’ should be allowed to make their own correction. Malthusian peccadilloes aside, liberal economic doctrine has continued to expand to include free trade, anti-protectionism, and globalism, which in turn has opened the door to migration, one of the biggest challenges for governments today, sparking identity politics, social divisiveness, and a sharpening of narrow ‘tribal’ contours. That genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
Liberalism is now an all-encompassing socioeconomic political tradition that can be cherry picked at random to support varying arguments. This amorphous absorbent quality has been its greatest strength but it is also one of its greatest weaknesses as it presents numerous entry points for attack.
A global economic slowdown, the erosion of real wages, and the demise of national dreams and inspiration have – just as in Germany’s 1919-1933 Weimar Republic – created an urgent need for scapegoats (to blame), and strong men (to lead ‘victims’ to salvation). These were the conditions that gave birth to the Nazi Third Reich
A global economic slowdown, the erosion of real wages, and the demise of national dreams and inspiration have – just as in Germany’s 1919-1933 Weimar Republic – created an urgent need for scapegoats (to blame), and strong men (to lead ‘victims’ to salvation). These were the conditions that gave birth to the Nazi Third Reich, which dipped into stirring Wagnerian music, Nordic legends, and Aryan folklore to rediscover an invented, ‘national’ identity based on purity of race.
While much of Germany was unaware of Auschwitz-Birkenau and its monstrous ilk – demonising Jews became the fashion of the times. The parlous state of the world economy today – erroneously blamed on globalisation and immigration – has created similar pulls to step back from world society to the safer folds of some primordial family where strength is sought in scaled-down conformity, not expanded diversity.
It is no surprise then that far right anti-immigrant anti-Islamic ultra-nationalists from Nigel Farrage in the UK to Marine Le Pen in France, Jimmie Akeson in Sweden, the pro-Nazi Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, are borrowing from US President Donald Trump’s bizarre playbook and applauding him lustily. These names are not the laughingstock of the political margins and they bring to the fray a lot more intellectual firepower and political organisation than Trump has ever mustered.
Le Pen won almost 34% of the French popular vote in 2017, before Emmanuel Macron edged out in front, as it turned out handsomely, and Strache’s FPO party holds 38 of 183 seats in the Austrian National Council. The chorus is largely similar – scapegoat Muslims and stop immigrants. ISIS terror has conveniently presented these politicians powerful images with which to manipulate the masses.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a shrewd politician and a no-nonsense administrator – has shown it is possible to be democratically elected to the top job in an ethnically diverse nation despite or perhaps because of an extremely divisive tack. He is a skilful orator and wily tactician who has done the math. And minorities simply don’t count.
Donald Trump was an outsider, but he browbeat his way into office in similar fashion, igniting the tinder of discontent with the establishment. His 22 August Phoenix rally 10 days after Charlottesville was a master class in crowd manipulation and sleight of hand, as he attacked the ‘dishonest’ media for ‘fomenting trouble’, though he had rich praise for Fox News; lauded Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who was found guilty of racially profiling Latinos in random detentions); hinted at lowering taxes and raising wages; and then lambasted weak immigration policies to focus on the ‘defence of our borders’. He craved adulation and he got it. It was barefaced populism and propaganda, yet it struck a resonant chord. This is what threatens to derail the liberal tradition.
In India, the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party makes no bones about its intent to saffronise the country. Its barrage of quirky but dangerous Hindutva rhetoric is backed by an army of online trolls. As chief minister of Gujarat, where in February 2002 the worst post-Independence Muslim massacres took place under his watch while the administration looked away, PM Modi once remarked that any car passenger would ‘feel sad’ if a puppy came under the wheels. The comment fell considerably short of remorse. The BJP now seems prepared to casually throw 172 million proud and productive Indian Muslims under the bus.
When departing Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari expressed ‘unease’ on the part of minorities due to India’s new abrasive nationalism – that has seen mob lynchings of Muslims and lower Dalit classes by self-proclaimed Hindu cow protection vigilantes or gau rakshaks – he became an immediate target of BJP venom. Galled at his temerity, Priti Gandhi, a senior member of the BJP women’s wing tweeted, ‘For 10 yrs my Hindu majority nation accepted you with open arms, placed you at the pinnacle of power & you still feel uneasy…?’
Facebook posts argue that Muslims are anti-India and should ‘go back’ to Pakistan. This is sheer gobbledegook. The shared memory of the pain of partition has been the glue of a modern, diverse and inclusive India, which has no less than 22 recognised languages including Urdu.
In Modi’s India things can border on the farcical. We are told the country was familiar with spaceships in Vedic times. More insidiously, it has been suggested the Taj Mahal is likely a Hindu monument, and Muslims and the Moghuls are being edited out of history books as the government tries to mould young minds
If anything, the Indian and American – and indeed British and European – experience has shown that immigration and the acquisition of population diversity (whether through conquest, invitation or necessity) has greatly empowered economies, enriched literature, mathematics, medicine and the sciences.
In Communist China too with its watertight censorship of the media and the Web, there is growing fascination with extreme nationalism – often tinged with jingoism – in which the essence of being Chinese is sharply defined to the exclusion of all others. (‘China first’ is not much different then to ‘America first’, or ‘Make in India’.) Yet, this is at odds with the country’s vast cultural diversity that includes the dominant Han Chinese, Muslim Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans, the Miao, Manchus, Dai and a host of tribes with their own disappearing dialects, dress, and customs.
Old Confucian values that bred social inclusiveness, egalitarianism, and offered rewards for learning, scientific or a philosophical temperament, are seemingly forgotten. Today in China, or India, as in Trump’s America, it is money, not metaphysics that prevails.
The erosion of civilization as we know it – and its attendant liberal ideals – has been accompanied by a disturbing fascist frisson and the growth of anti-intellectualism, attacks on minorities and the media, the rise of nationalism (to the detriment of globalism), and the powerful use of propaganda employing social media tools. It is a wholesale attack on the truth.
With the legitimate media portrayed as a purveyor of ‘fake news’, audiences have been directed towards a maelstrom of online blogs, and gossip sites many of which – either lacking professional resources or any interest in the truth – simply put out whatever sells to keep clicks and followers coming. It has empowered rumour, displaced reason, and emboldened politicians to tinker directly with the psyche of the masses by providing a diet of fear and heroic bluster in 140-characters.
What an extraordinary way to run governments, target opponents, and announce policy. Trump has shown it can be done. Even China has attempted to whip up social media frenzy from time to time against Japan, South Korea and, more recently, India. Modi uses Twitter as a means to arouse his storm troopers. Social media is being used increasingly not as an information channel, but as a weapon, with the sort of ROI – and measurable outcome – so gratifying to any bureaucratic pooh-bah.
The post second world war era was built on the bedrock of first-hand experience of the horror of global conflict and a determination to never slip back into that bloody chasm. It produced a generation of nation-builders who worked strenuously to move their country ahead. Everyone made sacrifices. Today’s thrill-seeking generation is brought up on the fantasy of vicarious violence. It is not marching towards any defined national goal. We live in a nuclear society where the individual comes first, the family second, and the country last.
Even so, there are sufficient tools to battle the forces arrayed against liberal thought. Fundamental rights are enshrined in many a constitution as ironclad law. The French Revolution rallying cry, liberté, égalité, fraternité that inspired the US Constitution, is recalled the world over. American courts have battled the Muslim entry ban. The preamble to the Indian Constitution clearly describes India as a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic’ and it seeks to secure for all citizens, justice, liberty and equality. You can’t be clearer than that.
In many countries a thoughtful independent media – though imperilled by the loss of advertising revenue and customers - is at hand to expose falsehood and red herrings.
The Boston anti-racist counter protests and similar gatherings show there are enough clear-headed individuals to right the ship of state. But to truly save liberalism and our way of life, the moderate but meek silent majority must stand up and be heard. It is no good just twiddling tweeting thumbs while Rome burns.
(Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.)