*When Tiger Lost His Stripes: Apologies, Sexual Indiscretions, and a Modest Proposal

Over the course of the last ten years, I have on several occasions – most recently, in the Future of Knowledge and Culture (Viking Penguin, 2005) — written about an epidemic of apologies in many of the democracies of the West.  The modern trend may have commenced in the 1980s when the United States apologized to Japanese-Americans for their wrongful incarceration during World War II, and then followed it up in 1993, which marked the centennial of the annexation of Hawaii, with an apology to the people of Hawaii for the overthrow of their kingdom.  Some apologies that followed received more attention than others, but there was a spate of them:  the Germans (who had a lot of apologizing to do, and not only to Jewish people) expressed contrition for their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the Czechs in turn rendered an apology for having expelled Germans from Czechoslovakia at the conclusion of World War II.  Canada has begged forgiveness of its First Peoples, France has sought forgiveness from Jews for collaborating with the Nazis, and Australia has apologized for its abominable treatment of the Aboriginals – though, in places such as Tasmania, no Aboriginals were left alive, and thus there are no descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginals left to accept (or reject) that apology.  There are, let it be said, many (to use a mild world) curious aspects to such apologies, and two may be mentioned in passing.  Many of the countries issuing these apologies have joined the United States in wars of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan, and so we should ask what is the meaning of such apologies.  Secondly, such apologies, we are told by some educated commentators, are a sign of the fact that the modern democracies of the West, whatever their other failings, are unique in that they have displayed the ability to be contrite.  ‘Moving on’ is, for individuals and nations alike, considered to be necessary for healthy growth and development.

Now that the great nations of the world, headed by the United States, have somewhat finished with the business of apologies, the second round of apologies is in full swing.  From nations, we have come down to individuals; punting our way around the golf course, past John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, David Letterman, and others too numerous to count, we have finally arrived at the doorstep (where the last episode of punting literally started) of Tiger Woods.  This stellar list of individuals includes a wannabe President of the United States; a man who, while declaring he would clean-up New York of moral vice, was consorting with calls girls; and another Governor of a state where there must have not been much business to conduct, since his mistress was keeping the flame of their passion burning in Argentina.  The travails and misdemeanors of Tigers Woods have received rather more attention, largely because in business-minded America more is at stake when a billionaire athlete, whose fortunes are intertwined with those of the many corporations who had held him us an example and invested in him, commits one too many sexual indiscretions.  The sport of golf, we are being told, will suffer incalculably in Tiger’s absence, a surmise based on the reality of the PGA tour of 2007, when TV ratings for golf plummeted by 50% as Tiger sat out most of the year on account of a knee injury.  Why golf should be hurt by Tiger’s sexual escapades is a mystery, except, of course, in a country where “family” and “morality” are sacred words, meant to be honored (and ignored).

Many theories about the lavish attention being bestowed on Tiger’s extra-marital affairs with models, prostitutes, and waitresses among other women, now said to number somewhere in the low double digits, are circulating on the internet.  Is Tiger, some are asking, being brought down because the idea of a picture-perfect man was always a bit too much to swallow?  Is this a conspiracy on the part of white America to put the precociously successful ‘black’ – and this in quotations, since Tiger has more than one identity:  indeed, he is said to represent rainbow America – man in his place?  Leaving these largely idle speculations to the gossipmongers, Tiger’s apology seems to me to be the one concrete statement that allows a point of entry into the present discussion.  I would, apropos of apologies and infidelities, however like to begin with a modest proposal.  American newspapers have business, sports, arts, automobile, fashion and obituary pages among others, and many newspapers also carry ‘social’ pages, with announcements of engagements, marriages, deaths – and sometimes even the arrival of babies.  Isn’t it time to think of pages that could be designated as ‘infidelities’?  Since we are nearly guaranteed a constant supply of news to fill such pages, would this not be a way of assuring the attention of avid consumers of such news?  Wouldn’t this be a big boon to all those whose waking hours are devoted to tracking the infidelities of America’s many celebrities?  Instead of ads from Babies ‘R’ Us, Bed & Bath, or the department stories with their wedding registries, there would be exciting ads from condom makers, manufacturers of sex toys, and peddlers of surveillance gadgets.  In these “difficult times”, all this should give a huge boost to a drooping economy.  Imagine the fun if all the sexual indiscretions – escapades, peccadilloes, orgies – were enunciated neatly in a few pages.  Some feminists might object that such pages would be overwhelmingly gendered, since, at present, such sexual indiscretions as have nakedly been put before the public eye appear to have been committed largely by men.  But, in the interest of some equality, famous women might be invited to submit news of their sexual flings, if so inclined.

“I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity”, Tiger wrote in a statement released on December 11 announcing his hiatus from golf for an indefinite period of time, “has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children” [italics added].  Tiger asks for “understanding” from the public, his huge number of fans, fellow golfers, and his “business partners”, and respect for his privacy during “this difficult period.”  But why would anyone other than his wife – and very young children, who in later years will come to know of their father’s indiscretions — be hurt by his infidelity?  Had Tiger, for instance, pronounced the public as fools, he would doubtless have had to seek their forgiveness.  But he has committed no such indiscretion.  If he has cheated on his wife, how does that hurt the wider public?  It may well be argued that the onus on public figures to be morally upright is perhaps greater than it is on anyone else, but surely no one expects that a golfer should be held to higher moral standards than anyone else?  Or did Tiger assume that his millions or billions had made him a model to everyone – and if he had, that would surely be a display of vanity on his part.  That there is a touch of vanity, or more, in him should be amply clear from his statement of December 2nd, where he says: “I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect.”   Just what are the “values” that Tiger thought he upheld, even before his calamitous descent in public estimation?  These “values” are unspecified, not surprisingly:  if at all he championed any values, those can only be described as, in the first instance, ambition, drive, dedication, and the pursuit of (to deploy that over-used and nearly unintelligible word) “excellence”; and, if one permitted oneself a more expansive reading, greed, overweening pride, and an obviously aggressive business sense.  Tiger built himself a business empire, not simply a name as perhaps the greatest golfer of the modern era.  One cannot but notice moreover how, when celebrities fall, they are eager to aver the fact – which was not much of a fact in their own eyes before their fall – that they are human, all too human:  “I am far short of perfect.”  Who but an unthinking fan would ever have thought of Tiger as “perfect”?

Apologies are all very nice for a feel-good society and everyone will be urged to remember that Tiger is going through “difficult times” and that every person is entitled to his or her “privacy” and that “family” matters more than anything else.  Everything is now in place:  we have gone through this dozens of times before, the scenario is familiar in its intimate details, and there are ‘sexual indiscretion management’ teams standing by.  In the midst of this, it can never be forgotten that the business of America, as was observed a long time ago, is business.  AT & T reports that it is re-evaluating its “ongoing relationship” with Tiger.  One has relationships these days with companies as one does with sexual partners or spouses, but I suspect that this relationship will not be “ongoing” much longer.  One hopes that AT & T, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Pepsi (or is it Coke?), Nike, Accenture, and Tiger’s many other corporate sponsors will suffer some loss of revenues and that their CEOs and senior executives will take the hit, but this is far too much to hope. Only one tiger has lost his stripes, but the hunt for the next clean-shaven idol will commence soon.

*‘They Make War and Call it Peace’: The Shame of Obama’s Nobel Prize

Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant:  ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  So wrote the Roman historian Caius Tacitus almost 2,000 years ago.  The text from which this quote is drawn deserves a bit more scrutiny:  “Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominis imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”, says Tacitus (Life of Agricola 30), which has generally been rendered as follows:     ‘To robbery, slaughter and rapaciousness [rapere] they give the false name of empire; where they make a solitude they call it peace.’  Tacitus was describing the conduct of the Romans, to whom the “further limits of Britain” had been thrown open.  By solitude, Tacitus meant a ‘desert’; they laid waste to a place and so rendered it a place of solitude [solitudinem].  Somehow, reading Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, delivered today in Oslo, Tacitus’s text comes to mind.

When nearly two months ago the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the conferral of the peace prize upon Obama, one wondered what Obama had done to deserve the honor, or what qualifications the Committee’s members had to bestow the prize upon Obama – or indeed anyone else.  Both questions are easily answered.  The Norwegians know something about salmon and lingon berries, and they should content themselves with that knowledge, and leave judgments about international governance and peace-making to others.  (The results of their previous efforts to ‘broker peace’, to use the debased jargon of realpolitik, are there to be seen in Sri Lanka.)  As for Obama’s qualifications, many people are persuaded, and who knows Obama himself among them, that his (supposed) repudiation of the policies of his predecessor in the White House has alone made him an eminently worthwhile candidate for unusual and great honors.  Quite tickled pink with the idea of his rock star charm, Obama even made a flying visit to Denmark to help in Chicago’s bid to stage the Olympics, only to receive a rude shock when Chicago was thrown out of the final round of competition with the lowest number of votes.  Once Obama had been so slighted, it may be argued, something had to be done to assuage his wounds.  And the Nobel Peace Prize is certainly there for the taking.

Many of the left objected, as indeed they should have, to the conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize upon Barack Obama, who is a wartime President of the United States.  Obama had, in October, already ruled out immediate withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and was even contemplating an increased American military presence in Afghanistan, a step that has now become official policy.  His administration has retained the previous administration’s policy of extraordinary rendition and has, again in keeping with the trend established by his predecessor, blocked attempts to release photographs and other evidence of abuse from Abu Ghraib.  The objection that a wartime President should not be conferred the Nobel Peace Prize is an entirely legitimate one, but one that is futile.  Others may occasionally forget that the President of the United States is also, in title and in fact, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States, but Obama’s acceptance speech today does not shy from this fact.  As Commander-in-Chief, Nobel Laureate Barack Obama presides over a military establishment with a budget that dwarfs the military expenditures of every other country.  In 2008, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute has reported, the United States spent $607 billion on its armed forces, accounting for 41.5% of the world’s military expenditures.  By comparison, China spent $85 billion, France $66 billion, Britain $65 billion, Russia $59 billion, and India $30 billion.  Whatever else the US might be, it is, and has been for some time, a war-making machine.  That is the most fundamental and ineradicable part of its identity.  War is an American addiction, and Obama is no freer of that addiction than any other power-monger in American history. Unfortunately, Obama is not merely the victim of that addiction; he is today charged with peddling that addiction – arms sales of the most advanced weaponry also fall under his jurisdiction, for example — with palpable consequences for the rest of the world.

Thus, in accepting the Nobel Prize, Obama had to engage in some exercise of sophistry.  He perforce had to begin with reflection that, even as he receives the award, he has authorized the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Obama has mastered the art of appearing ‘noble’, in pursuit of higher truths – in his Nobel speech, this manifests partly as repeated invocations to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  (Thankfully, Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, a matter of much regret to many well intentioned but hopelessly confused Indians who puzzle over his omission.)  Obama might have ruminated over the fact that the same Martin Luther King, only a year before his death, unhesitatingly described the United States ‘as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world’.  Independent-minded as he is or claims to be, Obama can rightfully claim that he can pick and choose what he likes from his alleged mentors.  As for Gandhi, that man seems to have an inescapable presence in Obama’s life, popping out of the bottle like some genie every now and then.   A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about how Obama, when asked by a schoolgirl who he would like to have had as his dinner guest, had identified Gandhi.  And, now, in his Nobel speech, here is Gandhi again:  “The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.”  How Obama loves that man!

Augustine and the church fathers authored the doctrine of ‘the just war’, and Obama’s fond enunciation of this tenet — with which Jesus’s name should not be associated — of the Christian faith will be celebrated by some as a reflection of his ‘principled’ stand on the question of war.  One thought that the distinction between the ‘bad war’ (Iraq) and the ‘good war’ (Afghanistan) had been buried by intelligent minds, but Obama has just breathed new life into this sterile, not to mention stupid, distinction.  The usual platitudes about the presence of evil in this world, and the pain he feels at sending young men and women into the killing fields aside, I could not but notice the sleight of hand with which he dispatched the idea of nonviolent resistance, which Obama otherwise claims to champion, into oblivion.  “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies”, said Obama; “Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”  I’m not aware that an international nonviolent movement was even remotely contemplated, much less brought into existence, but it has become an article of unquestioned faith to argue that Gandhian-style nonviolent resistance would not have survived a minute against Nazi Germany.  Still, supposing that Obama is right in rehearsing this cliché, what is striking is that he should have used the most extreme example of the exercise of violence, namely totalitarian Nazi Germany, to support his call for war in Afghanistan.  So is Afghanistan an instance of the unmitigated evil that men can do?  And if al-Qaeda and Afghanistan – notice, too, the easy and implicit pairing of the two – are reminiscent of the days of Hitler, surely this is a ‘just war’?

The avid lovers of Foucault, and the myriad other postmodernists and poststructuralists, should all be on notice, if they were not previously, that in Obama we have the latest instantiation of the view that, in our progressive times, we shall be killed by kindness.

*The Difficult Return to the Womb: The Travails of the Non-Resident Indian in the Motherland

A number of my friends, acquaintances, and students have emailed me an article that appeared in the New York Times business pages on November 28, entitled ‘Some Indians Find It Tough to Go Home Again’.  The article, which chronicles the difficulties that some well-intentioned Indians have encountered in their efforts to relocate to India, has evidently created something of a buzz.  No one even a decade ago would have expected that Indian Americans, in significant numbers, would choose to return to India.  The call of the ‘motherland’ may have always been there in the abstract, but even among those who thought of their stay in the US as a brief sojourn in their lives, and who seemed determined to render service to the motherland, the return to India was always deferred.  Inertia and laziness have a way of taking over one’s life; but, for many others, the moment when the gains of a professional career, built painstakingly through dint of hard work and a relentless commitment to ‘achievement’, could be abandoned seemed not yet to have arrived.

There was a time when ‘brain drain’ could mean only one thing.  Indians educated at the expense of the Indian state flocked to the US, and by the late 1980s there were enough graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology settled in the US that one could speak of the American IIT fraternity.  Ten years after ‘the economic reforms’, the benign phrase used to characterize the jettisoning of the planned economy and all pretensions to some measure of social equality, first commenced in the early 1990s, there was some mention of the trickle of Indians who had finally elected to test the waters of the ‘new India’.  No one is characterizing that trickle as a stream, much less a raging river, but increasingly in India one hears these days not only of those who left for the US but of those who have abandoned the predictable comforts of American life for the uncertainties of life in India.  And, now, to come to the subject of the New York Times’ article, some of the returnees to India are making their way back to the US.  The motherland, apparently, has not done enough to woo the discerning or ethical-minded Non-Resident Indian.

Shiva Ayyadurai, the New York Times tells us, left India when he was but “seven years” old, and he then took a vow that he would return home to “help his country”.  Why is it that, upon reading this, I am curiously reminded of contestants in Miss World or Miss Universal pageants, who have all been dying to save the world, whose every waking moment has been filled with the thought of helping the poor beautiful children of this world?  My eight-year old has certainly never taken a vow that even remotely seems so noble-minded, but then who am I to judge the ethical precociousness of a seven-year old who, perhaps putting aside his toys, had resolved to “help his country”.  The young Bhagat Singh, let us recall, was no less a patriot.  Almost forty years later, Mr Ayyadurai, now an “entrepreneur and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology”, returned to India, in fulfillment of his vow, at the behest of the Government of India which had devised a program “to lure talented scientists of the so-called desi diaspora back to their homeland”.  Mr Ayyadurai left with great expectations; he seemed to have lasted in India only a few months.  “As Mr Ayyadurai sees it now,” writes our correspondent, “his Western business education met India’s notoriously inefficient, opaque government, and things went downhill from there.”  Within months, Mr Ayyadurai and his Indian boss were practically at each other’s throats:  the job offer was withdrawn, and Mr Ayyadurai once again found himself returning ‘home’ – this time to the US.

One cannot doubt that the culture of work in the US and India is strikingly different, even if the cult of ‘management’ has introduced a cult of homogeneity that would have been all but unthinkable a decade ago.  The account of the difficulties that Indian Americans encounter upon their attempt to relocate to India sometimes reads like the nineteenth-century British colonial’s narrative about the heat and dust of the tropics, the intractability of the ‘native’, and the grinding poverty  – to which today one might add the traffic jams, pollution, electricity breakdowns, water shortages, and a heartless bureaucracy.  The “feudal culture” of India, Mr Ayyadurai is quoted as saying, will hold India back.  How effortlessly Mr Ayyadurai falls into those oppositions that for two centuries or more have characterized European (and now American) representations of India:  feudal vs. modern, habitual vs. innovative, chaotic vs. organized, inefficient vs. efficient, and so on.  Nearly every aspect of this narrative has been touted endlessly.  The only difficulty is that by the time India catches up with the United States, with the West more broadly, the US will have moved on to a different plane.

In all this discussion about home, the mother country, and the diaspora, almost nothing is allowed to disturb the received understanding of what, for example, constitutes corruption, pollution, or inefficiency.   There is no dispute in these circles of enlightened beings that Laloo Yadav is corrupt, but the scandalous conduct of most of the millionaires who inhabit the corridors of power in Washington passes, if at all it is noticed, for ‘indiscretions’ committed by a few ‘misguided’ politicians.  I wonder, moreover, if Laloo’s corrupt politics kept the state of Bihar free of communal killings – a huge contrast from the ‘clean’ and ‘developed’ state of Gujarat, where a state-sponsored pogrom in 2002 left over 2,000 Muslims dead.  Gujarat is the favorite state of the NRIs and foreign investors, though the sheer dubiousness of that distinction has done nothing to humble either party.  Or take this example:  the US has done much (if not enough) to tackle pollution at home, but its shipment of hazardous wastes to developing countries is evidently a minor detail.  And one could go in this vein, ad infinitum, but to little effect.  The more substantive consideration, perhaps, is that there is little recognition on the part of many NRIs that there is a sensibility which still resists the idea that the conception of a home is merely synonymous with material gains, bodily comforts, or a notion of well being that is defined as an algorithm of numbers.  William Blake, when asked where he lived, answered with a simple phrase:  ‘in the imagination’.

On the subject of home, let me allow the 12th century monk of Saxony, Hugo of St. Victor, the final words:  “It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about invisible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether.  The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.  The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

*A ‘World Historical’ Figure? The Politics of Lincoln’s International Legacy

The US has been awash this year with celebrations of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. The feeling is widespread that Lincoln, more than anyone else, represents the idea – and thus the dream and hope – of America better than any other figure in American history.  He has been lionized as the savior of the Union, the emancipator of the slaves; he is also, perhaps, the most eminently quotable American.   At his death, as I recall from my American history textbook from over three decades ago, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declared that he ‘now belongs to the ages’.  Lincoln has topped most American polls as the most widely admired person in American history.  Tolstoy was unequivocal in his pronouncement that Lincoln “overshadows all other national heroes.”  The great storyteller that he was, Tolstoy has mesmerized Lincoln’s acolytes with his account of the conversation that transpired between him and a tribal chief in the Caucasus who was his host.  Tolstoy told the tribal chief about great military rulers and leaders, but his host remained unsatisfied.  “You have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world”, he told Tolstoy, adding the following:  “He was a hero.  He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as a rock . . .  His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived.  Tell us of that man.”

The hagiographic portrait of Lincoln that has circulated since his death has, to be sure, also been punctured with criticisms.  While the ‘Great Emancipator’ to some, to others his commitment to equality between blacks and whites is profoundly questionable.  For the present, though, one might profitably turn one’s attention to another, not unrelated, question:  to what extent can Lincoln reasonably be viewed as a ‘world historical’ or universal figure?  As I have elsewhere argued, in an “interchange” among scholars of Lincoln published in the Journal of American History (September 2009), Lincoln had many constituencies, to take one country as an illustration, in India.  Gandhi and Ambedkar, however opposed to each other, nevertheless shared in common an admiration for Lincoln.  In 1905, while Gandhi was waging a struggle on behalf of the rights of Indians in South Africa, he penned an article in his journal Indian Opinion which pronounced Lincoln as the greatest figure of the nineteenth century; Ambedkar, on his part, quotes Lincoln in his closing speech as the Constituent Assembly was on the verge of adopting the Constitution of India of which Ambedkar was the principal drafter.  In Britain, not unexpectedly, there was much veneration for Lincoln, among, for example, the Welsh and in Liberal Nonconformist working-class communities; and one can, similarly, point to the enthusiastic reception given to him in most countries of Europe and Latin America.

It is wholly understandable that Americans should be unable to minimize representations of Lincoln as the preserver of the Union, the emancipator of slaves, and the self-made man who, moving from a log cabin to the White House, brilliantly exemplified the possibilities of humankind in the relatively unencumbered circumstances of the New World.  But once we are beyond this, the question persists:  what, if anything, qualifies Lincoln as a world historical figure, in the manner of, to name some highly disparate figures, Marx, Mao, Darwin, and Gandhi?   Is there in his writings something that might be called a body of thought that can be viewed as having made a substantial difference to intellectual activity worldwide?  Histories of human rights will doubtless always have a place for him as the figure who precipitated the formal end of slavery in the US.  But, nevertheless, the fact that he is an inspiration to so many, or that his humanism is immensely appealing, should not be conflated with any estimation we might have to offer of Lincoln’s contributions to the principal questions that have animated those who work and deliberate on such issues as nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, the creation of postcolonial states, and so on.  The invocations over the last few decades have been to the likes of Cesaire and Fanon, not to Lincoln.  Once the Lincoln who is forever enshrined in popular memory as the author of the observation that “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” has been reckoned with, what is there in the body of his work that would appeal to those especially outside the Anglo-American world?  It does not appear to me that Lincoln figured prominently, if at all, in the discussions about human rights that ensued in the 1930s and 1940s and culminated in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s; likewise, debates about decolonization, the principal political issue of the 1950s and 1960s, except of course to those who view everything through the prism of the enmity of the US and the Soviet Union, seemed to have bypassed Lincoln.

There is yet another consideration:  many American figures have much larger reputations than they might otherwise have had owing to the immense influence wielded by the US in nearly every sphere of life, particularly in the post-World War II period.  America’s history has been everyone’s history, and not only because the US has been a distinct immigrant society; just as significantly, America has been part of the national imaginary of every country, foe, friend, or otherwise.  When the attacks of September 11 transpired, Le Monde unhesitatingly described it as an attack on the world:  “We Are all Americans”, the newspaper declared.  Can one even imagine such a response had the attacks been conducted on Chinese soil?  When, however, America’s star begins to fade, will it also not lead to a fundamental reassessment of American history and culture.  How is Lincoln going to fare in a world where America’s history is no longer perceived to be everyone’s history?

*The Untamed Monster: Corporate Greed and the Continuing Tragedy of Bhopal

In the early morning hours of December 3rd, 25 years ago, a poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant and crept over the city of Bhopal and within hours had taken a few thousand lives.   Since that fateful evening, close to 20,000 people have died.  Chernobyl still remains synonymous with industrial ‘accidents’; Bhopal, notwithstanding the valiant attempts of many survivors and their children, activists, and an entire array of organizations – among them, Sambhavna Trust, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, the International Medical Commission for Bhopal, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh (the Bhopal Gas-Affected Women’s Stationery Trade Union) — that have been plunged in relief work to ameliorate the conditions under which victims and their communities live and labor, has been largely forgotten.

The facts surrounding the ‘Bhopal Gas Leak’ are no longer disputed, except, of course, by that cowardly and criminal corporation known as Union Carbide, which in 2001 was acquired by Dow Chemical.  Shortly after midnight on December 3rd, 54,000 pounds (24,500 kilograms) of untreated methyl isocyanate, known as MIC, escaped from a tank at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, then (as now) a city with a venerable history and a population of over a million.   By about 1 AM the alarm had been sounded and people began to flee as the gas, moved along by the wind, swept over the city.  None of the six safety systems at the plant were functioning, and the tank refrigeration system, which alone would have sufficed to prevent the leak, was out of order.  The Indian Government, which too bears a heavy and to this day largely unacknowledged responsibility for the catastrophe, admits that over 521,000 people were exposed to the gas.  By all reasonable estimates, some 7,000 people were killed within the first week of exposure to the lethal gas; in subsequent years, another 15,000 people, perhaps more, have succumbed to their medical ailments as a consequence of their exposure.  The number of people still under treatment is many times more.

Why, one might ask, was a chemical plant allowed to function in a densely inhabited portion of the city?  The same question should be asked in many countries such as the US, where hazardous wastes’ disposal sites are disproportionately located in poor and minority communities.  We know that long before the incident, numerous warnings had appeared in the local press of the dangerous and unsafe conditions in the plant.  Raj Kumar Keswani, the Bhopal-based writer for the Hindi weekly, Jansatta, penned a piece in June 1984, six months before the disaster, entitled “Bhopal:  On the brink of a disaster.”  Had the article appeared in India Today, perhaps – only perhaps – someone may have paid attention, but no one deemed Keswani’s Hindi-language investigative journalism of any consequence.  There are far too many hidden scripts, many hitherto still unexplored, in the narrative that is now known as the ‘Bhopal Gas Leak Tragedy’.

While, in the immediate aftermath doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens struggled valiantly to save people, Union Carbide refused to divulge the chemical composition of the gas.  Consequently, since toxological information about MIC was not forthcoming, doctors were compelled to offer symptomatic treatment.  Indeed, all of Union Carbide’s endeavors had but one purpose, namely to find ways to absolve itself of all responsibility for a catastrophic failure at one of its plants.  Allegations that the company had compromised on the safety of the plant in an effort to cut costs were met with the astounding claim, which the company’s own investigative officers could not substantiate, that a “disgruntled employee” had sabotaged the plant and caused the leak.  With 50.9% ownership of Union Carbide India Limited, Union Carbide was the principal shareholder of its Indian subsidiary; but now a resounding effort would be made to depict the relationship between Union Carbide and its Indian subsidiary as a remote and distant one.  Now that Union Carbide has ceased to exist, the day may not be very far when Dow Chemical will, in a manner of speaking, pretend that the incident never occurred.  In the US, of course, Dow Chemical, as conversant with the insipid languages of multicultural democracies as any other corporation, will continue to project itself as a corporation that ‘cares’ for people’s lives, is committed to safe and ‘nurturing’ work environment to ensure a ‘better future’ for our children and their children, and so on.  Meanwhile, other victims will be roasted at the altar of profit.

The story of Bhopal has been told often enough and the struggle continues.  The toxic wastes that litter the plant have seeped into the soil and the groundwater has been contaminated, giving rise to a new generation of those who, even if they are not the offspring of victims of the gas leak, are suffering from the consequences of the leak.  A mere few days after the leak, American lawyers were flying into India, boasting about the billions that they would win for the victims.   The story of the litigation surrounding Bhopal makes for unpleasant reading, but is fully suggestive of the consideration that ethical considerations have never been even remotely present in the minds of governments, courts, Union Carbide, and most lawyers.  [See my article on Bhopal and the lawyers on MANAS.]  By terms of the Bhopal Gas Leak Act of 1985, the Government of India assumed responsibility as the sole legal representative of the victims, and shortly thereafter the Supreme Court of India awarded a paltry US $470 million, two-thirds of which today still lies unused in the Reserve Bank of India, as a final settlement to all the victims.  The maximum compensation to those injured is Rs 25,000 ($550), and to the next of kin of those who died the amount is Rs 62,000 ($1,300):  as a Union Carbide spokeswoman once put it, the amount is generous, “plenty good”, for an Indian.

Nearly everything that can be said about corporate responsibility has been said.  The monster cannot be tamed, and it is time to recognize that rather than to pretend that, as we become wiser and democracies ‘mature’, rogue corporations can be coaxed into civility.  When I think of gas and atrocities, I think of the gassing of Jews by the murderous Nazis.  But while the Nazis were brought to justice, the then-CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, a fugitive from justice for whom an arrest warrant has been out for two decades, is enjoying his retirement years lapping up the sun in one of his many vacation homes.  Not one person, American or Indian, has ever been indicted for the criminal conduct that led to the Bhopal tragedy.  Meanwhile, as if to suggest that Union Carbide remains an anomaly, we will be told, as in today’s New York Times, by no less a person than the famed author of Maximum City that Union Carbide has failed to abide by the norms that are inculcated in all American children:  “It’s a wonderful American tradition:  you always clean up the mess you made.”  Somehow, the mess that democratic America – where children, unlike in Mumbai (so avers Suketu Mehta), are taught to clean up their mess — has left behind in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, much of central America, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention countless other places, has been forgotten.  Once America starts to clean up the mess it has left behind wherever its footsteps are to be found, it will find no need for any other occupation for years to come.