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Friday, August 19, 2011

Oh Albion, beware India...

I shall carry on with the thread of what I was musing over in the last blogpost, especially with reference to the two articles whose links have been provided in the comments, one by Swapan Dasgupta and the other by Ian Jack. Those who dislike any kind of serious discourse, please stay away.

Arnold J. Toynbee is generally associated with the theory that nations (he would have preferred civilisations) experience epochs of rise and fall, and that the interplay of challenge and (corresponding-) response decides what sort of historical track a nation will follow, and for how long. Also, the greatness of a nation is certainly pivoted, in the first instance, on how rich and militarily powerful it manages to become, but mere wealth and power have never completely defined greatness: that depended upon how strongly one nation could influence, even impress others, fill them with admiration, respect, and a strong desire to emulate. I don’t think historically conscious people will doubt that England’s rise to greatness started with the Tudors coming to power in the mid-16th century (everything started then or soon after, from global explorations of discovery to defeating the Spanish Armada, the founding of the East India Company to the kind of social ambience that could produce and lionize geniuses on the scale of Shakespeare, Milton and Newton, the huge political upheavals that firmly secured the foundations of the most enduring of democratic societies…), and reached its apogee in the last days of Queen Victoria, in the final decades of the 19th century, not merely because Britain had by then become the first as well as biggest industrial economy in the world or that it ruled the largest empire ever, but because she had self-consciously and proudly achieved an incredible number of things which she taught or dared other countries to follow: from creating the infrastructure for universal education and social security and the most organized and efficient police service in the world to kindness to animals to missionary activity on an unprecedented scale, from mapping the planet to creating the greatest body of literature the world has ever known, from setting up the first ever society geared to science and technology to delineating a culture of suavity, understated decency and humour and good manners that spared none, from the monarch down to the ragpicker, and creating a more widely diffused will to greatness than has ever been seen before or after…

Then  came the two world wars, with the Great Depression thrown in in between. Britain emerged nominally vindicated and victorious, but something precious and essential had been lost – although they didn’t know it then, back in the 1940s. There followed Keynesianism and the welfare state and the post war construction boom, James Bond and the Beatles and drugs, ‘progressive’ ideas about education and the Commonwealth and the British Council, prime ministers assuring the nation that they had ‘never had it so good’, the invasion by mass-consumerist American culture and hordes of immigrants, and the country rode an artificial high for a long, long time: in fact, even in the 1980s, there were intellectuals pointing out how Britain should rejoice that she was much ‘richer’ in the post-colonial era. There were grumbling voices growing ever louder that they had made a country of lazy, irresponsible, uncivic buffoons by the million (witness the obesity epidemic, the degree of functional illiteracy and the culture of the football beer gangs), and it couldn’t afford it much longer. What followed was the long night of Thatcherism, during which much of the best of the welfare state was demolished, and over the ruins was raised once more the ramparts of capitalism of the most rapacious, shameless, ostentatious variety … success means the rich getting richer quick (Ronald Reagan might have actually learnt this from the Brits) and nothing else. Thirty years have passed since then, too, and now, as the very recent urban riots show, the chickens are coming home to roost. Note two things: the vandals stole no food and no books, only laptop computers, iPods, flatscreen TVs and Nike trainers, besides the odd water bottle, lifted just for the ‘fun’ of it. And now the incumbent PM is lamenting over a broken society: a culture of  ‘irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences, children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities…’ This is obviously a very far cry from the England people like us knew, adored, even worshipped. But the question is, has it happened by sheer accident, or, as the Americans say, they had it coming? And the far more important question for us Indians – citizens of the greatest wannabe country in the world – is, can we see the writing on the wall, meant for us?

The increasing crassness and arrogance and boorishness of an increasingly rich class of upstarts, the epidemic of social dysfunction all around us, the persistence of great poverty amidst great opulence, the skyrocketing graphs of environmental pollution and natural-resource depletion, the rapid loss of not only the physical treasure of cultural heritage but awareness thereof (‘Who was this RaOne dude? Was he, like, cool…?’ and ‘Why go to Aurangabad, yaar? No malls there, just some dirty old caves with stupid pictures on the walls…’), the stench of corruption everywhere, the increasingly moron-friendly quality of examinations (an expression that a very wise British boy has just taught me) which allows millions to get the tag of ‘educated’ with no effort at all, the policy paralysis that has engulfed the highest levels of government, the total dishonesty that pervades every kind of relationship, from the one with your bank advisor to the one with your so-called love interest… how much more evidence do we need that mere anarchy is loos’d upon us, and the ‘blood-dimm’d tide’ might not be too far off?


Al-Le-Gr-Fi said...

Spot on, once again. No more need be said, England is in decline and I take my hat off to nations who still possess social discipline. My only hope is that my people will learn - although I know they will not.

Debarshi said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards. Your latest blog post is extremely relevant to the
modern-day scenario, just like your previous ones. Ian Jack has indeed
provided us with a very revealing perspective of the human mind...the
loss of one's identity, the dissemination and disassociation of the
self into clashing personalities...the constant struggle of people to
'be' and not 'live', is very accurately portrayed in his article in
The Telegraph.

A general deterioration of society,and its established rules,has set
in everywhere across the world...Our generation,is into 'quick-fixes'
for chronic problems...Every clever charlatan is now a self-styled
leadership,personality and success coach..The Personality Ethic has
superseded The Principles Ethic...principles lead to values,values if
moral,lead to virtues..virtues,if practiced,become habits...and
ultimately,habits form a person's character...A lack of
principles,leads to a lack of character..and gives rise to an empty
void in one's heart...this void does not seek to understand
itself,fulfill itself..it seeks only to envelop every remnant portion
of life in a person's heart..If one's sense of identity is based on an
ever-changing plane in today's society,then how can one expect to live
a life?..But,every single day,every single moment,this is the
atrocious nature,by which we propose to live out our life..There is no
sense of internal security or self-worth..so violence,leading to
populist power is the only escape for the masses..Each material
acquisition, be it the latest television set..with its 'wacky' and
'cool' gizmos,or the mobile phone..or the tiresome commercials on
television,leading you to believe that a simple consumer good could
're-define your status'..or that this network..promised to keep you in
touch with 'your loved ones'..eliminating the possibility of one's own
personal space,or the need for two people to 'communicate' and not
just engage in endless banter...each material good promises you to
'be' what you 'want to be'..negating all other considerations..A glass
pane is so easy to smash,as Ian Jack so correctly points out..when
that is all that separates you from your dreams..Sir,the problem that
exists today is like the many-headed Hydra,of Herculean fame..that
rears up its ugly head,when one is partially severed..

How to find meaning in one's life..or even how to live
it..are questions that are now reported,to be hallmark symptoms of a
neurotic personality!.

As the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said," A changeless
core in an ever changing world...that is how one changes..The only
constant is change...No one can change,if one does not have an anchor
that remains rooted to a changeless base.."...Gone are the ideals of
Nietzsche...his view of education and about educators..Nietzsche
purported that the educator should be a model ('Vorbild')..who stands
out ahead of his pupils..and to use the memorable line from the end of
Goethe's Faust II..which Nietzsche never tires of parodying.."draws us
onward and upward'..('zieht uns hinan'..)...If a teacher is merely
another one from the masses..then what will that person teach?..If our
whole life is being spent trying to be just another one among the
crowds..if people derive strength,both moral and physical,from being
in a mob..than in one's own self or God..then the sight of the world
around us today is perfectly explained...As Ian Jack puts it so
eloquently.."Looters are so quickly organized,and Glass is so easy to


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Strange. I should have thought a lot of people would have had something or the other to say about the contents of this post!

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

While social dysfunction is an epidemic, the greater one in my mind is the lack of awareness that there is a social dysfunction. While at times, I think is it actually a transition phase but then I cannot see what lies at the end of the tunnel once the transition happens?

In New Zealand, pressure groups are airing their views on television with veiled threats of rioting if the ruling government takes back some privileges that the youth enjoy. What are those privileges? If a person is less than 18 years of age, gets pregnant and gives birth then the state ensures it takes care of the mother and child. Many people for long have exploited this privilege by not studying, or looking for job etc. Few government dared to touch the benefit until the recession came and government coffers look empty. Now when the policy is being tweaked, the youth are threatening. Issue is who is to blame?

I don’t understand why in the first place give such benefits, which later creates a whole bunch of shirkers. I think even in UK similar situation existed for long. The system allowed a large number of beneficiaries to grow-up who did not do anything constructive for a long time. Suddenly, they and their parents felt threatened and started looting as soon as given the opportunity.

While any welfare benefits come with noble intention, it does end up tampering the system. Coupled with these benefits, none bothered about education and value enhancement that comes with education.

Though you have said, India beware but I think in India we are in a perpetual state of acrimony and anger. How frequently do we get decent behaviour in our streets, buses, autos etc. We always go out on the streets mentally preparing ourselves for a battle. Either we take our frustration out on our car horn or exercise our vocal chords. Coupled with that a large proportion of Indian youth have hardly ever taught the benefits of keeping the streets clean and appropriate behaviour in lives outside their family and office. That is why, any crowd in India even if that is in-front of a temple is controlled using sticks.

In my mind, Suvroda, we as a whole degraded ourselves as a society the moment we forgot that education is not just about jobs and human dignity is far more important than anything else. I wonder whether anyone living in Delhi or Calcutta spend a day on the street without even once being rubbed off wrongly?

Sorry for my pessimistic view if it offends any reader.



Sunup said...

After going through the post and the links provided, one fact struck me as very unique. Globalization and crass materialism has brought together the human mindset to a common platform irrespective of geographical boundaries. Other than the color of the skin or the language spoken, there isn't much of a difference between a citizen of the Western world and a so-called middle class Indian or for that matter any Oriental. It was not the case say 20 or more years ago. Some striking similarities as quoted in Ian's article are -- the only moral tutor being the celebrity television show; greed and the flaunting of wealth; the younger generation finds that its identity comes from the ownership of consumer goods rather than the customs of family and religion or the bonds of neighborhood and nation -- and so on.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I have written about this trend towards increasing and dreary homogeneity in my latest post on my other blog, Sunup.

This won't last. History has seen endless changes in the way people live, what they consider good living. This is one more passing phase. A hundred years from now this era may look like a dark, hardly credible nightmare. My real concern is whether the change will come through cataclysms - whether it be war or anarchy or ecological disaster which suddenly kills off hundreds of millions, and puts the clock back by many centuries. I am terribly afraid because my own daughter might have to live through it ('The sins of the fathers', says the Bible, 'are visited upon their children, yea, unto the third and fourth generations'. The equivalent saying in Saudi Arabia, I hear, is 'My grandfather rode a camel, my father drove a car, I fly an aeroplane, my son is going to ride a camel again'). And I shiver to think of the scenarios portrayed in movies like Mad Max. The recovery, too, can take excruciatingly long: it took Europe more than a thousand years to get back roughly to the same point where their ancestors had been before the Roman Empire collapsed...

Shilpi said...

It's been two weeks since you put up this one, Suvro da and I'm still quiet over the sweeping history lesson (unless I read it out loud - it reads like the introduction on an History channel program). You'll brush it off saying this is nothing, and I might nod with that before saying, maybe or maybe not - but certainly not for the historically non-conscious and/or non-connected.

As for the whole post/essay and comments taken together - to say that the world seems to be in a troubled place doesn't quite express what I want to say, and even over the last decade I seem to notice things crumbling around us, and a frantic obsession with technology, money, and consumer goods...

The value of knowledge, leave alone wisdom, seems to be rapidly losing its worth (and what counts as knowledge), informed sentiments are rare, and empathy and compassion or 'good feelings' as someone says, seem to be values discussed and practiced amongst eccentric (and vanishing) circles while there's a steady rise of uneducated mobs with very little knowledge and almost no sense and sensibility and decency. It's what you mention in your comment in your previous post/essay...and it's disturbing. Those following liners that you've used elsewhere started gonging in my head unbidden this time around '...the worst are full of passionate intensity...', and even at a chronic level it's what you point out here: that human beings are going the wrong way, and the awareness or the need to be aware or even the realization that there is something we need to be aware of is ebbing. I don't know about others but I sometimes think that even a half-wit can't help but be quietly horrified over the way we're going, and it's something that's spreading across the globe...

And it's not just about the welfare system or the louts or the poor or about racial minorities. The horrifying part I keep thinking is that it's the so-called formally educated folks who loot and destroy and act on some perverse impulse or because it's convenient or because it seems 'cool' and 'in' or because that's what everybody is doing while being completely ignorant and utterly clueless about what they are protesting or supporting or doing....

Anyway, I'd better end this comment for now.

Many thanks for writing this one.

P.S: Oh, and you do do those awful liners (the dude and the 'yaar') a little too well. I can almost hear them.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

When I came across this article http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2793424.ece, I was reminded of this post of yours and re-read it again. The article has mentioned Generation Me, which as you said, looks with apathy to everything beyond their narrow sphere. I am reminded of the lines Salman Rushdie wrote in Fury regarding America, "O Dream-America, was civilization's quest to end in obesity and trivia, at Roy Rogers and Planet Hollywood, in USA Today and on E!; or in million-dollar-game-show greed or fly-on-the-wall voyeurism; or in the eternal confessional booth of Ricki [sic] and Oprah and Jerry, whose guests murdered each other after the show; or in a spurt of gross-out dumb-and-dumber comedies designed for young people who sat in the darkness howling their ignorance at the silver screen".
Be it Britain, America or India, isn't the situation same everywhere? I don't know how the 'blood-dimmed tide' is going to unleash, but I can sense your concern regarding our future.
Lastly, thanks for the eloquent history lesson. I knew most of the facts that you have stated here, but the way you put it together makes it so striking and thought-provoking that the lesson really remains etched in the mind.
With regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Quite right, Sayantika: behind all the glamour and glitz, opulence and fun, the darkness gathers all around. I am not instinctively a pessimist, but everything points towards either cataclysm or slow decline and decay. You figure out how. Men have never lived sanely for long by merely worshipping the golden calf, that's at least as old as the Bible...