Three (Present-Day) Americans: Two, Morally Morbid, and One, Coarse

The two morally morbid Americans are: (i) Warren Anderson, and (ii) James Laine. The coarse one is: Joel Stein.

I don’t have much to write about the first two except for clearly stating that both, indeed, are morally morbid.

(I) James Laine, the Present-Day Maharashtra Politicians, and, the Freedom of Speech

In recent times, if the justice didn’t appear to have been served in the first case (that which did not involve Anderson but should have), the judicial system of India did itself good by clearly upholding the principle of the free speech in the second case (that of Laine).

I would have liked to be able to “source” Laine’s book, at least on the Internet, just to see for myself precisely what was the objectionable matter contained in it. One indirect account in an English (Indian) national daily a few years ago had said that the objectionable matter, which James Laine had heard on the streets (and which he proceeded to include in his book) was a remark made by a Dalit [sorry, can’t easily find a link to that piece]. Last week, a piece in the daily DNA attributed the same remark to a Brahmin [^]. … What’s going on?

A more important matter is the view of Laine’s book taken by the above-mentioned DNA writer, Amberish K. Diwanji. The piece prominently says that Laine’s book is an attempt of the scholarly” kind. I fail to see how.

Perhaps Diwanji mistakes any writing coming from any professor of a theological background to be a piece of scholarly writing. Perhaps, such indeed are the standards followed in those two particular vocations, theology and journalism, esp. as practised in the theological departments in the American universities.

But if you look at that field of knowledge which actually made the word “scholarly” respectable, i.e. science, you would immediately notice the difference. There is this enormous amount of rigour, discipline, propriety of attribution, etc., that goes into writing [the rational kind of] a scholarly work.  As a general rule, anecdotes are not even mentioned under the category of “private communications” let alone elevated to the status of “sources” or “references”—or made these a part of the main text, without sufficiently clarifying commentary! Now, if you subtract most prominently science, and then more generally rationality, from academic settings, then you would still be left with universities. But there wouldn’t be any need to identify anyone as a specialist scholar in theology, because irrational speculation and empty Rationalistic debates (as the number of angles that can dance on the head of a pin) is all that would be left under the name of “scholarly.” I am not offering a speculation; this actually was the state of the European universities during the medieval Dark Ages; also in India—e.g., refer to the times of Dynaaneshwar. Now, certainly, that kind of a scholarly enterprise is not what Diwanji had wanted to attribute to Laine’s book—the DNA writer did mean “scholarly” in the sense of the term that we now understand—after Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, Science, etc. If the term is to be taken in this sense, then one doesn’t have to read the objectionable matter to arrive at the conclusion that Laine’s work is not scholarly—the methods of “research” he follows are by themselves a sufficient ground to throw his text out of the limits of the scholarly. It must be clearly understood that there is no need to elevate Laine in order to uphold the principle of free speech.

While Laine is despicable, his case still does not qualify for legally banning the book. Indeed, for that matter, no case ever does! Book-burning (in principle indistinguishable from a government-enforced ban) is a method that fits the primitives and the authoritarians. And, in between the last two, the former are more innocent—their action results rather from ignorance than from a deliberate desire to dictatorship, to wrench power over others via the force of the muscle.

I am not at all surprised that certain political parties in a wholesale manner, and some politicians from the entire range of the parties, should try to grab this issue; and then feign to possess an anger that none can actually feel in such a case; and then proceed to use this excuse towards blurring the boundaries between the moral and the legal, and thereby either try to advance their justifiably floundering political careers—or follow the trend established by the worst offenders of Free Speech by appeasing them!

In the above paragraph, there is only one matter on which I might perhaps be misunderstood, and it is: feigning the anger. So, let me explain at some length.

I happen to have been born a Jadhav, which, in a certain relevant sense, makes Jijau a grand^n “aatyaa” (paternal aunt) to me, certainly a daughter in the family, so to speak. (While my immediate ancestors come from a village near Baramati, both the oral tradition in our family and also some documentary evidence indicates that this was  not always so; a grand^n father of mine had immigrated to and settled down near Baramati only in the mid-19th century, about 150 years ago; but he, in turn, came from Sindkhed Raja—the same family-town of those Jadhav’s in whose family Jijabaai was born. This happenstance makes Jijaabai even a shade closer to me, ancestry-wise! But again, though knowing this “root” momentarily feels nice, I hardly care for it one way or the other. And I mean it. It’s the individual free-will, the individually chosen action that matters. Genetics are, properly, relevant only in biology and medicine, and nowhere else, certainly not in deriving a better moral evaluation via a genetic relation—or worse! (I do sometimes hear Australians to be sons of outlaws—and the same principle applies also to their case.)

Yet, I mention this part about my ancestry for two reasons: (i) The first reason is to highlight the fact that even if one is related to a great personality, if the relations are as distant as to be centuries away, with no direct context being applicable for one’s own life as an individual, then neither praise nor criticism really can evoke any significant emotional reaction. Those who say it does, are outright liers: do they twist in their sleep for some unjustified manslaughter, raids, untouchability, that some or the other of their ancestors would undoubtedly have committed? Of course not. (ii) The second reason is that identifying ancestry here is convenient to me. Given the level of the current climate of  “debates,” and all sorts of methods of the muscle actively being depoloyed at every small excuse, and given the fact that I am publicly criticizing these “goonDaa”s, I feel that immediately stating my ancestry might perhaps provide me with a measure of protection from them. That’s why.

So, coming back to the main issue, though a Jadhav myself, I completely fail to see how can a slur, as on the part of a modern American humanities professor of the pathological variety of Laine’s kind, possibly can reflect on the character of any lady, let alone a lady as great as Jijaabai. If you are clear about the respective moral characters of the individuals  involved—hers, and then, also of anyone like Laine—then you don’t really feel all that much of an anger—as in my case.

You see, if one of these politicians-cum-“goonDa”s visits a mental asylum and hears some patient blurt out some sly or swear or allegation at him, would he feel offended? Angry? To the extent of taking sticks in hands and going about destroying property? No way. A similar consideration applies here. That’s why I think that that anger is feigned—the supposed anger purely is a political convenience to some.

Of course, this allusion to the mental asylum does not mean that Laine is a mental patient. He emphatically is not. Indeed, this fact precisely is what makes it possible for us to pass a moral judgment on him—and that’s why I call his moral character morbid.

But consider what are the implications of reaching such a moral judgment. All it means is that one should expose that morbid kind of a writing, morally denounce it, perhaps also give Laine a verbal one or two as required, perhaps simply because some people can’t understand a writing at one’s own level—as the popular Marathi saying goes, you can wake up someone who actually is asleep but you can’t wake up someone who is merely pretending to be asleep. You may even do that, perhaps. And what you ought to do is to make public your admiration of the heroes in question: Shivaji and Jijaabai.

But that’s about all! It does not mean that you go burn books, destroy private and public property, beat up the people who won’t agree with your “goonDaa” methods—or, on a more polished level, seek to impose a legal ban on the writing.

Ideas cannot be fought except by means of better ideas.

The typical of our present-day politicians are internally well-aware that they are thoroughly incompetent in the world of ideas. Reason is not predominantly their method of functioning or reaching conclusions; emotionalism is. Just open any newspaper, the smaller and more concretes-bound the better (e.g. regional language or city-specific newspapers), and note down the number of times our working politicians use terms like “public sentiments” vs. “the arguments put forth.” You can easily see the glaring contrast between them, and the working, active politicians from that glorious period of the Freedom Movement. Reason and ideas typically are alien to the routine mental workings of our present-day politicians. The only method they work on, and therefore can recognize, is: government-enforced something. Naturally, if they wish to express their disagreement, or wish to convey this to the general public in a strong manner, all that they can think of doing is to impose a legal ban. They can’t care that this way, wittingly or unwittingly, they stifle also any voices of reason—and thereby, help pave the way for a dictatorship. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Indeed, the principle of Free Speech applies in all cases: Laine’s book, as well as that infamous book on “Tejomahaa-aalay” or something like that, by a certain Hindutva sort of a guy from Pune (is his name Oak?) who was arguing that the Taj was a Shiva temple. A lot of portion of that book is outlandish, and yet, he also has a lot of plausible kind of argumentation in that book. But then, someone from the Indira Congress didn’t like it (perhaps felt that it was anti-Muslim), and so, it was banned. I have always maintained that regardless of political orientation, that book still should not be banned. I am an intransigent critic of the entire BJP and Hindu Cultural Nationalism movement. Yet, I have no issues seeing that book in print. Ditto, for the Communist Manifesto. Or, the books glorifying Hitler. None of these should be banned. Even if their contents are outright outlandish, bad, or pathetic.

It’s a complex matter as to what kind of material may properly be banned. Off-hand, I can think of manuals for making atomic bombs, or biochemical weapons, or even the more ordinary sort of bombs—whether for that Japanese movement (“Shinto”?)  or for the Jihadi purposes, etc. Note, such material can objectively be said to be parts of criminal conspiracies, terrorist attacks, and worse. The normal rules do not apply in such cases. But, still, politically, such materials is almost a non-issue; far more important is the idea that you cannot sue someone for possessing or proclaiming bad ideas.

We have enough good ideas to replace bad ideas. But the point is that whether you like it or not, this is a matter of principles. If you suppress one type of ideas—rational or irrational—then, you in principle introduce a way to suppress any type of idea—rational ideas included—ideas as such. Only dictators can fancy that (to their own peril and that of their subjects).

I would better leave the CM of Maharashtra Ashok Chavan “free” to have consultations even for settling this issue with his “High Command.” I really can’t tell him anything and expect him to listen—you see, even if I do tell him, I know that it would always be overridden by whatever it is that his “High Command” “advises” him. If so, why bother him? (And spoil our good relations? (LOL!))

But I certainly can tell others. I can tell the Maharashtra Home minister, R. R. Patil, this much: (Marathi) “Aabaa, hyaa baabtit tumach_ “judgment” chuklel_ aahe” English translation: (“Aaabaa” is the common pen-name by which Mr. Patil informally gets called), as far as this issue goes, your judgment is in the wrong.

The judgment by the court is the right one; there is no need to get into further legal proceedings to continue having a ban on the book—or pressuring the publisher, The Oxford University Press, in any way.

And yes, I also believe that Indians should also be left free to write books concerning Laine’s own family—should they feel the need to do so! … Personally, I don’t, but the point is that the freedom should be available. … One gets into the muck only to the extent of throwing it out; no more! (And that is one of the reasons why I don’t quote Voltaire here—these days, it’s easy enough to be made a martyr for others’ causes; look up the psychic attacks-related posts I have made here!)

(II) Warren Anderson:

Enough about Laine. On the other hand, what’s the news on the Anderson front? Have they got anything/anyone—from the side of the American government and politicians? Or, from the side of Indian government and politicians?

(III) Joel Stein

That leaves us to address the third American, the coarse one (but not a morbid one even after factoring in his recent controversial article): Joel Stein.

I have written a long comment on Stein at Atanu Dey’s blog [^], which, for the time being, I copy-paste here. I will improve it with one more update either today or tomorrow, and then, this post will be done. [And yes, I do remember the promise to complete the series on homeopathy—which I will do, but not in a hurry. … In blogs, I write more or less on the spur of the moment.]

Today [i.e. on July 15, 2010, evening, IST], I first took the link to Stein’s column and then went through the reactions by the Americans of Indian origin. Guess I could add a bit here because though I am firmly in India these days, I have spent some 7 years in the USA. (In the ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t want to go back to the USA.)

Anyway, two points first:

(i) For the most part of Stein’s write-up, I did not at all feel offended. In fact, quite on the contrary, I found a bit of humour underlying most of his lines, even a sort of friendliness. It was coarse, to be sure, but it was there. Why, while in graduate school at UAB, I have heard many Indian students talk in worse terms about both India and Indians.

To be sure, his reference to “dot-heads” was somewhat surprising because the connotation to “dot-busting” would be so nearby. One could enjoy it on a blog or in an email from a friend, but not for a column in Time. Yet, it was a minor thing. There was another line that really caught my attention—made me think of writing back. I will come to that line later on. Before that, I want to touch on the second point.

(ii) I was really impressed by the response by Srivastava and Bhatt. None of their points had occurred to me on my own, and after going through them, I just couldn’t think about the issue in the same way again. They showed how to give back a firm reply, in a civil manner, without nit-picking and without losing one’s temper or points.

I also enjoyed reading the reactions by Kap Penn, Sandip Roy, and others.

(iii) Now, once again back to the one point by Stein that I want to take up i.e. address.

The point is Stein’s remark concerning having Gods with multiple arms etc.

This was not the first time that I had run into this kind of a remark by a Westerner, and we all know that it wouldn’t be the last. Why, the first time I ran into this issue was while reading Ayn Rand. Off hand, I think that she was writing in the context of primitive societies—sacrifice of man and worship of insects was the point (or something like that). Taken both together, of course, I have no issues with it. But the reason I mention it here is that right the first time I read that, I remember, I had suddenly thought of what she would have thought of the more cultured Indian people also offering prayers to Gods that also looked like animals/insects. And, further: I could easily see how the lesser Westerners could “love” to make an issue out of it.

I would like to note a few points in this regard, in no particular order. (May be, I will also post this at my blog later on.)

1. At least some of the prominent images of the multiple-arms-types are obviously derived from the Indian dance forms. For example, consider Durga with many arms, and the front view of a group of dancers waving the arms with differing phases. Not every group action qualifies for a collectivist or primitive interpretation. Indeed, as in this example, there can be beauty to it.

2. I had read of an interpretation that Ganesha’s elephant form with the long trunck is symbolic of the major anatomical features of the nervous system: the brain with the spinal cord. Even if having such an origin, one still does read something of a tantrik sort of practise to it. On the other hand, brought up in Marathi culture of “Ganapati Bappa Morayaa,” even if I can approach it thusly at an intellectual level, it doesn’t at all affect my appreciation of such a form.

3. A lot of this has to do with the things spiritual—many of which most of us don’t even have inkling of.

In general, in spiritual symbolism, the correspondence isn’t meant to be made with the material forms and what that suggests—instead, it is to be made with the actual spiritual experience that a Shishya’s Guru has managed to convey him. [I must add: this is only one simple observation; I don’t mean to imply infinite regress. In principle, it would be always possible to have the spiritual experience on one’s own, without a Guru—that’s how the traditions could at all have begun. The Guru simply makes the process easier and faster, as in learning and mastering any other type of knowledge.]

Science and culture and every field of progress has had similar blurry, halting, mistaken beginnings. The difference is that the grasp of the material phenomena being easier, we have been able to correct these mistakes more easily. For instance, can you imagine that in the millions of years of development of the human race, it was as late as barely 2000 years ago that people had a radically wrong model of visual perception: they thought that when you see an object, something emanates from your eyes, hits the object, gets reflected and comes back into the eye. The early thinkers were mistakenly taking the mechanism of texture to apply that for vision. We have had easier progress about the material world; not so about the spiritual matters.

(And, no, I, for one, don’t believe that all spirituality ends with intellectuality. No. One has to intellectually approach anything before it can be properly understood and brought under control, of course. But this does not mean that starting with the intellectual level resolves alone you might experience those experiences which have come to be bundled under “spirituality.” In other words, you shouldn’t abandon intellectuality or thinking; however, you won’t get the referents of the concepts pertaining to spirituality simply by thinking about it alone—that, indeed, would be Rationalistic (i.e. a false way to approach such things).)

So, one can generally advocate evolution and progress even for the symbols part of it.

Yet, it must be understood that symbols aren’t primary—referents to certain mental states are. That’s what, as far as I know, (at least the civilized, cultured) Indians understand and focus on when they practise religious worship.

And, indeed, similar is the case for all other religions/regions too. Which brings me to my final point.

4. How would a Stein (i.e. either Joel himself or others, worse) think of this: What Indians worship is at least animate—living—forms: a group of girls dancing in unison, a man (Buddha), and decidedly animate forms (or likeness) of the elephant (Ganesha) or the monkey (Hanumant). But how about the others? How about the Jews and Muslims (“just a wall,” “just an empty hall facing a certain direction”)? How about Christians (“a hanging corpse”)? I am sure many readers would feel that this is a flame. But it is not meant to be. It’s just meant to be a dramatically direct confrontation.

It looks like a flame simply because we lose the context. The context is that it isn’t the “external” i.e. material symbols that are really important to a spiritual person—the actual referents are within the consciousness. If so, at a certain basic level, most any symbolism is more or less acceptable. Of course, within limits.

Here, since we still don’t understand the essence of those spiritual things, the best course of action is to approach the best practitioners of a given culture with a certain authentic good-will, and try to learn—if you care. I of course don’t advocate egalitarianism, not even in the spiritual regard. But, frankly, there really is no other way—other than following this kind of an “enumerating” sort of approach. And, if anyone thinks there is an objectively better way to approach these things, well, let them present the case!

= = = = =

A Song I Like:
(Marathi) “tujhe roop chitti raaho, mukhi tujhe naam…”
Singer: Sudhir Phadke
Music: Sudhir Phadke
Lyrics: G. D. Madgulkar