*The Rhetoric of Relevance and the Graveyard of Gandhi

(Also published on the website of HIMAL Magazine)

As India prepares to mark the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, the tired old question of Gandhi’s ‘relevance’ will be rehearsed in the press.  Once we are past the common rituals, we are certain to hear that the spiral of violence in which much of the world seems to be caught demonstrates Gandhi’s continuing ‘relevance’.  Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the Presidency of the United States furnishes one of the latest iterations of the globalizing tendencies of the Gandhian narrative.  Unlike his predecessor, who flaunted his disdain for reading, Obama is said to have a passion for books; and Gandhi’s autobiography has been described as occupying a prominent place in the reading that has shaped the country’s first African American President. Obama gravitated from “Change We Can Believe In” to “Change We Need”, but in either case the slogan is reminiscent of the saying with which Gandhi’s name is firmly, indeed irrevocably, attached:  “We Must Become the Change We Want To See In the World.”  Obama’s Nobel Prize Lecture twice invoked Gandhi, if only to rehearse some familiar clichés – among them, the argument, which has seldom been scrutinized, so infallible it seems, that Gandhian nonviolence only succeeded because his foes were the gentlemanly English rather than Nazi brutes or Stalinist thugs.

Let me, however, leave aside for the present both the question of Obama’s Gandhi and the liberal’s Gandhi, and turn rather briefly to some more general problems in the consideration of Gandhi’s place in world history.  The Gandhi that is known around the world, and to a substantial degree even in India, is principally the architect and supreme practitioner of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and the prime example of the ‘man of peace’.  The general sentiment underlying this view is clear enough, even if one thought of bringing to the fore evident objections to such a characterization of Gandhi.  One might argue, as some historians have, that the role of Gandhian nonviolence in the achievement of Indian independence has been overstated, or one could adopt the view, a more nuanced and interesting one, that ‘peace’ was not particularly part of the vocabulary with which he operated.  The centrality of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truth) to Gandhi’s way of thinking aside, if one had to add another set of terms that might signify his practices and thought alike, then one would perforce think of brahmacharya (celibacy, closeness to God), tapasya (sacrifice, self-suffering), aparigraha (non-possession), and so on.   Though silence was an integral part of his spiritual and political discipline, Gandhi studiously avoided speaking of shanti (peace).  One of the many reasons he did so is that peace has all too often been used as the pretext to wage war.  Describing the barbarous conduct of the Romans some 2,000 years ago, the historian Caius Tacitus put it rather aptly: ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  I suspect, moreover, that if Gandhi had been alive to see how he has been packaged, sold, and denuded of all insights and vitality by the practitioners of what are called ‘peace studies’, he would have been rather pleased at his insistence on nonviolent resistance rather than on peace.

Supposing that Gandhi is a supremely world historical figure, what is being invoked is the principal figure in the twentieth century associated with peace and nonviolence.  But this Gandhi, many will be surprised to hear, is a somewhat impoverished figure, one who cannot easily be reconciled with the Gandhi who was an emphatic critic of nearly all the critical categories of modern political and humanist thought.  Let me, by way of illustration, take up very briefly two ideas that have reigned supreme in our times.  Most political thinking in the West over the course of the last century has been riveted on the question of ‘rights’, and recent political movements in the West have, in addition to the rights of the individual, vigorously asserted the rights of groups, whether defined with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or some other marker of identity.  Gandhi, at least in the received view, might reasonably be seen as falling entirely within this framework.  One can surely describe Gandhi as someone who initiated the modern campaigns against colonialism, racism, and xenophobia, and in this respect he can be viewed as an advocate of the right of people to live an unfettered life of dignity.

And, yet, if one should thus be tempted to assimilate Gandhi into a pantheon of the champions of human rights, one would doubtless be obscuring his profound skepticism towards the discourse of rights.  Rights are ordinarily claimed against the state, and those desirous of staking claims look up to the state to safeguard their rights. Gandhi recognized the state as, not infrequently, the most egregious violator of rights, and generally had little if any enthusiasm for the modern nation-state.  Indeed, Gandhi is distinct among modern political figures in decisively rejecting the narrow association that the idea of citizenship has come to have with the demand for rights, and in reinstating the concept of duty.  At the height of a struggle with the ruler of his native Rajkot late in his life, Gandhi averred that “in swaraj based on ahimsa, people need not know their rights, but it is necessary for them to know their duties.  There is no duty but creates a corresponding right, and those are true rights which flow from a due performance of one’s duties.”

We can also, in a similar vein, turn to Gandhi’s unflinching skepticism towards ‘history’ as a dramatic example of his repudiation of the liberal traditions of learning of the modern West and of the categories of thought marshaled by modern knowledge systems.  The story of how Indian nationalists responded to the colonial charge that Indians were deficient in the historical sensibility has been told often enough and need scarcely be repeated here, but suffice to note that nationalist thought was heavily invested in the idea of history and the commitment to history took many forms.  Whatever the ideological differences between armed revolutionaries, liberals, constitutionalists, Indian Tories, and Hindu supremacists, they were all agreed that that an Indian history, for and by Indians, was the supreme requirement of the day.  Here, as in so many matters, Gandhi struck a lonely path, departing from the main strands of nationalist thought.   It would be trivial to suggest that Gandhi did not lack an awareness of the past; but had he lacked such awareness, it is far from certain that he would have viewed his ignorance as a shortcoming.  Gandhi’s indisposition towards viewing the Mahabharatra, Ramayana or the puranic material as a historical record is pronounced; but he went much further, as in this pronouncement from 1924: “I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history.  It is my pet theory that our Hindu ancestors solved the question for us by ignoring history as it is understood today and by building on slight events their philosophical structure.”  Though I myself am a teacher of history, Gandhi’s profound misgivings about the enterprise of history strike me as just and even prescient.  Among other considerations, such as his manifest concern about the pernicious attempts to transform Hinduism from a religion predominantly of mythos to one of history, he was also fully aware that nineteenth century ideas about history, and the inevitability of human progress, were but forms of social evolutionism.  Gandhi resisted the idea that the only history that India could live out was someone else’s history.

My point here may be encapsulated in the following way:  Gandhi has an inescapable presence in intellectual and public spheres, and in the knowledge industry, but in the most predictable ways.  The shapers of opinion and the framers of knowledge have entirely neutralized him, or, in the provocative language of Hind Swaraj, for which ‘world history’ has absolutely no use, rendered him effete.  (Elsewhere, I have written extensively on the cultural politics of sexuality surrounding Gandhi’s life, and my use of ‘effete’ is quite deliberate and self-reflexive.)  There is room for him as an Indian nationalist who articulated some unusual ideas of nonviolent resistance, forged a mass anti-colonial struggle against the British, fought to bring peace to communities torn apart by violence, and agitated for various social reforms.  It is unnecessary, for the purposes of this argument, to point to those critics who would describe him as a reactionary, a friend of the industrialists, an enemy of Dalits, an opponent of class warfare, and so on.   Recently, Mayawati and the Slovenian philosopher-clown Slavok Zizek have found common cause in describing him as more violent than Hitler.  Gandhi’s admirers have, it appear to me, sanitized him enough, and evidently have little patience for his withering critique of modernity, his strictures against Western systems of education, his sexual Puritanism, or his indifference to what I could describe as the regime of modern aesthetics.

Thus, on the eve of the anniversary of his assassination, the question of his ‘relevance’ strikes me as supremely irrelevant.  We should think rather of liberating Gandhi from everything that has beautifully conspired to constrain him.  First there were the Gandhians, a largely unattractive and insipid if well-intentioned lot who, like many practitioners of formal religions, followed all the external signs but showed little of the creativity of Gandhi.  Then there have been the infernal statues, towards which the pigeons have shown an admirable irreverence that would have made Gandhi laugh.   As the Gandhians aged and the statues had normalized Gandhi, the peace studies practitioners came forward with their institutionalized programs of study for peace administrators and conflict managers.  This narrative has many other chapters, but it should by now be transparent that the rhetoric of relevance has been the graveyard of Gandhi.


*Marines as the Face of America: Haiti’s Earthquake II

Why is it, I have asked myself, that the American relief efforts in Haiti appear to be dominated or headlined by American troops?  Why is it that the military seems, as it has so often in the past, to be the face of the United States in such endeavors?  A few days after the earthquake, American troops were described as having “secured Haiti” – secured from what, one should also ask, if not from its own supposedly errant citizens; and, a week into the relief efforts, the New York Times on its front page stated, one suspects rather proudly, “U.S. Troops Patrolling Haiti, Filling Void Left by Quake” (20 January 2010).  The Washington Post, on January 22, was similarly to headline the role of the military:  “U.S. troops to help oversee Haiti ports, roads in earthquake relief.”  The answer, many will aver, is self-evident:  when a catastrophe of this magnitude takes place, only the United States armed forces have the infrastructure, manpower, authority, and organizational experience that can meet the requirements of the situation.  Moreover, the United States has long been accustomed, as is well known, to thinking of Haiti, indeed all of central America, as its own backyard:  and in its backyard the dispatch of American troops is certainly the default reaction.

But, so long as such reasoning exists, the likelihood that the United States, whether acting in concert with the so-called ‘international community’ or independently, will ever put into place an organization drawn from civil society that can perform relief functions on a gigantic scale is negligible.  Whatever the mechanisms already in place at the United Nations, and associated relief agencies – Medicin sans Frontiers [MSF], the Red Cross, and many others (such as, for the Haiti Earthquake, “Partners in Health”) – for what is these days termed ‘disaster relief’, it is transparent that the existing infrastructure is woefully inadequate.  “The number of weather-related disasters”, an Oxfam 2007 report states, “has quadrupled over the past twenty years and the world should do more to prepare for them.”  Does this situation furnish the US military with a continuing mandate to make its presence felt in the Western hemisphere and across the world?

The deployment of American troops on such occasions should be recognized for what it is, namely an aspect of the militarism that is so deeply entrenched into the very fabric of American society.  Though the separation of the civilian and military spheres of life is one of the most fundamental and enduring principles of a democratic polity, its subversion is an aspect of everyday existence in the US, from the largely unquestioning ease with which the military conducts recruitment campaigns on college campuses to the ubiquitousness of ‘support our troops’ stickers and yellow ribbons across the front yards of American homes.  The anomalousness of American democracy, relentlessly paraded as a model to the world while grounded firmly in principles of militarism – a militarism that extends well beyond the distressingly abundant occasions for which the US has found cause to deploy the military for wars fought in the national interest and to secure America from its sworn enemies – has never adequately been confronted, either in public discourse or scholarship.

Haiti has long had an acquaintance with the presence of American troops on its soil.  In early 1915, the country came under American occupation.  If the Civil War, fought not only to preserve the Union but also to give some teeth to the Emancipation Proclamation, would compel Lincoln in 1862 to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti almost 60 years after the slaves rebelled and proclaimed a free republic, it is not accidental that another war should have furnished the pretext for American intervention.  Fear of German infiltration of the Caribbean was enough cause to send marines to Haiti.  The historian Foster Rhea Dulles is candid in his appraisal that the US set up “virtual protectorates” in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua in an endeavor to transform the entire Caribbean into an “American lake from which all trespassers were rigidly barred.”  Then, as now, as US troops entered Haiti, to enforce an occupation that would last nearly 20 years, the New York Times would stand forth to celebrate the heroic achievements of the military:  “It was almost hopeless to expect an orderly government to be established without [military intervention] on the part of the United States.”

The need to project the Marines and the US military more generally as an indispensable force for good can never diminish as long as the military remains the backbone of American foreign policy and the desire to remain the world’s dominant power is undiminished.  In recent years, as the US fights two wars, both of which have discredited the US and neither of which can be defended as having advanced global stability and peace, the US will strive to put a good face on its military and its humanitarian missions.  The New York Times, among other American newspapers, is already circulating reports of the ‘warm reception’ being given to the Marines as they continue with their relief efforts among the earthquake’s victims.  To be sure, there is also the recognition that some Haitians at least might be wary about the presence of American troops on Haiti’s soil.  The present mission to Haiti might not have the overtones of the ‘liberation’ missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, but humanitarian missions have all too often been the guise under which violations of the sovereignty of other nations have taken place.

*The Evisceration of Democracy: More Good Days for the American Corporation

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  Whatever else Nero may have accomplished, and some historians will tell us it was not wholly insignificant, this is the most enduring story that has survived from the reign of Nero.  The great fire that engulfed Rome broke out in mid-July AD 64.   The fiddle may not even have existed in 1st century Rome; the instrument that is associated with Nero’s Rome is the lyre.   But no new ‘facts’, or claims to tell us the ‘real truth’, can undo the popular understanding that Nero fiddled as good chunks of Rome were reduced to ashes.

Many years hence, it is entirely possible that people will mull over the present-day evisceration of the little that remains of American democracy while the Supreme Court went gallivanting.  Among the more hallowed of democratic institutions anywhere in the world, the United States Supreme Court has on occasion furnished grounds for optimism even to the most tried cynics.   Some of the court’s most memorable days may have been when it struck down Jim Crow laws, outlawed segregation, enhanced prisoners’ rights, and otherwise acted in the interest of a freer, open, and just society.   Others more familiar with the history of the court will no doubt go as far back as the early days of the Republic, when the Marshall Court, in a memorable series of decisions, established the principle of judicial review (Marbury v. Madison, 1803) or, to take another notable achievement, prevented states from taxing federal institutions (McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819).  For the last couple of decades, however, the Supreme Court has been singularly unimpressive, and most of the appointments of the last twenty years, from Clarence Thomas to Chief Justice Roberts, are not calculated to inspire confidence in those who would like to look to the court as the keeper of democracy.

If the court can be described as the preserver of liberties, the liberties are increasingly those of robbers and criminals often masquerading as politicians, bankers, financiers, and CEOs.  With its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to remove corporate campaign limits, and allow corporate America a free hand to influence the course of politics, the Supreme Court has sounded the death knell of democracy.  Some will proclaim this an exaggeration, and point to the alleged self-correcting tendencies of American society; others will submit that the US remains the most successful example of the capitalist model, which might even be rejected were it not for the circumstance that it is better than all other available and tested models of political society.  Since, apparently, corporations have not been permitted a free run for their money, and they have much the same rights that are permitted to individuals – in the bizarre language of the majority, “Government may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity” – the court in its wisdom has proclaimed that the protocols which permit the oppression of corporations must be brought to an end!

Most likely more than anywhere else in the world, candidates for high office in the United States have generally come from exceedingly affluent backgrounds.  The Supreme Court is packed with millionaires, and Roberts came to office as Chief Justice with an estimated wealth of $6 million.  While the liberals scanned his records to assess how he might vote on the question of abortion, his corporatist leanings were given scant attention.  The US Senate is often characterized as the most exclusive club in the world, and not only merely because its 100 members wield extraordinary power; indeed, a substantial majority of its members are millionaires, some obscenely so, and its four wealthiest members are all Democrats.  A campaign for a Senate seat can run in excess of $75 million; the cost of the last presidential election was in excess of $1 billion.  The lesson in this is clear enough:  only the heavily propertied classes should aspire for high political office, and they should understand that sanctioning the theft of the nation’s resources is among their principal obligations as office-holders.

In the eighteenth century, in which I live for some part of my life as a teacher of the history of British India, Englishmen returned home with some of the plunder from Bengal; they attempted to buy seats, much to the acute discomfort of those with landed wealth.  Now electoral triumphs are hard-fought gains – but such triumphs appear very much like the attempts to buy seats in the 18th century, even if our language has very much changed.  Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House, and the rags to riches narrative can always be summoned to illustrate the infinite possibilities in the land of promise.  Yet, the inescapable reality is that money determines to an overwhelming degree the outcome of elections, and the Supreme Court decision has laid bare the uncomfortable fact, transparent at least to a few of its critics, that the US has long been a plutocracy.

Justice Stevens, in his dissenting opinion, rightly describes the Court’s understanding of the corporation as akin to an individual, as the bearer of the rights of free speech that are granted in the First Amendment, as both a repudiation of common sense and a mockery of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. “While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Stevens, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”  In 2009 the US Chamber of Commerce spent $144 million in attempts to influence the US Congress and state legislatures, and financial companies spent close to $5 billion over a decade pursuing deregulation and other policy outcomes that would lead to the economic collapse of 2008.  The entire economic recovery appears to have been undertaken through the eyes of the bankers, whose ineptitude and greed continue to be rewarded.  The time is not so distant when Supreme Court justices, much like the occupants of some chaired professorships, will be known by the name of the corporation that has agreed to patronize them.  We are only left to imagine what kind of future is in store for the US with Exxon Chief Justice Roberts, Mobil Justice Scalia, Chevron Justice Thomas, and others of their ilk at the helm to guide the ship of justice to its shores.

*A Country of Closet Republicans: The Beautiful Democratic Debacle in Massachusetts

Martha Coakley’s ignominious defeat to Republican Scott Brown, posing as your average American next door in his pick-up truck, is a just cause for celebration – but not for any reason imagined by the Republicans.  The Obama ‘strategists’, as such creatures are known in American political culture, as though they had the mind of Clausewitz, Bonaparte, or Sun Tzu, will mull over how their candidate for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward Kennedy blew it in a state that is believed to have been secure for Democrats for decades.  We have already heard that the Democrats were caught napping:  according to this wise version, the party establishment never for a moment seriously contemplated the possibility that a firmly ‘blue’ state would send a Republican to the US Senate to replace a man whose family has been, in one fashion or the other, at the center of American politics for over half a century.   Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was holidaying much further away, in the tourist belt of north India.  To read the narrative of how Coakley went down to a punishing defeat is to understand why animal fables, such as those of the Hare and the Tortoise, have endured for centuries.

Scott Brown, the ‘analysts’ — another mysterious category of American politics, intended to reassure the public that there are thoughtful men and women out there who have a grip on the situation and are in a position to enlighten the masses — inform us, ran a disciplined and tight campaign.  He took nothing for granted, went from home to home, held ten times as many town meetings as his opponent, and persuaded voters that Obama’s health reform bill would cost them money without improving health care — and, needless to say, that taxes under Obama would rise.  But is there is an iota of anything new in this analysis that we have not heard before?  The sheer poverty of imagination is staggering to behold.  The slightly ‘more astute’ analysts, always looking for something to celebrate about American democracy, have come forward with the explanation that, in this election, ‘independents’ made all the difference.   Far many more voters than is commonly imagined are registered as ‘independents’ in Massachusetts, and this time they decided to abandon Obama’s ship:  their exercise of the vote is, on this view, a true vindication of American democracy.  All the talk of independents blissfully obfuscates the morose reality, namely that in the US there is no escape from Democrats and Republicans, no freedom from the horrible tedium of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  Independents are free only to cast their vote for Democrats and Republicans; the day when independence could be proclaimed from these two monstrosities, which have all but massacred democracy, is nowhere in sight.

For all of its Nobel Laureates, famous universities and gigantic libraries, a bloated professoriate and renowned researchers, the United States has been unable to generate a public sphere characterized by intelligent discourse and, to an even lesser degree, anything that would muster as analytical reasoning.  One of the signature truths of American politics, at least from the days of Clinton, insists that there are ‘blue’ states and ‘red’ states.   The ‘red’ states are supposed to have delivered the Presidency to George Bush; the ‘blue’ states, for the most part removed from the American hinterland, are thought to be the bastion of liberal sentiments.  No political family has been as closely associated with Massachusetts as the Kennedys, and three generations of the Kennedy family were thought to have sealed the liberal credentials of the state.  In truth, Massachusetts is as viciously racist a state as any in the American Union, and one hopes that the fiction of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states, which passes for political analysis, will have received something of a fatal blow.   It seems that in this liberal state, the home of Harvard, MIT, Amherst, and other celebrated institutions of higher education, all that was required to send the democrats to a resounding defeat was to remove a Kennedy from candidacy for high office.  (Only in third world countries, so goes another piece of wisdom, are the masses enthralled by political families.  The illiterate voters of many a country, I daresay, would have done much better than the ‘independents’ of the most liberal state of the Union.)  As my wife put it to me when the news of Scott’s victory was announced, in the US there are Republicans, more Republicans — and closet Republicans.  Their stampede has just started.

*Port-au-Prince & Lisbon, Pat Robertson & the Enlightenment Philosophers: Haiti’s Earthquake I

On 1 November 1755, a massive earthquake struck the city of Lisbon.  It is thought to have been 9.0 on the Richter scale:  whatever the precise measurement, its magnitude may be judged by the fact that the earthquake nearly leveled Lisbon, and caused widespread damage elsewhere in Portugal, and even in Spain and Morocco.  Together with the tsunami that came in its wake, the earthquake, by modern estimates, is thought to have wiped out about a fifth or sixth of Lisbon’s population of 200,000.  According to some sources, nearly every church of any consequence in Lisbon was destroyed.  That, in a country intensely Catholic, was alone calculated to leave an ineradicable impression on its inhabitants.

Though the destruction was extraordinarily widespread, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 has entered the annals of history for reasons other than as an illustration of nature’s furious unpredictability.  The earthquake would provoke a wide-ranging discussion among many of the greatest minds of the day; indeed, even into the twentieth century, the Lisbon earthquake would be summoned to point to both the inscrutability of God’s ways and the uses of seismology.  One of the regnant ideas of those days had been best adumbrated by the philosopher Leibniz, who adhered to the view that whatever happens happens for the best, or, in slightly more elegant language, God’s ways could be justified to men if one recognized that one lived in the best of all worlds.  Among the most eminent men of the day who felt the tremors of the quake in Paris was Voltaire.  In his novel Candide (1759), the eponymous hero, who at first vividly subscribes to the view that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, in time comes to reject this optimism.  The Lisbon earthquake is enough to cure him of this theodicy, just as it sufficed to make Voltaire reject the optimism of Leibniz.

One of the other supreme figures of the age who attempted to make some sense of the earthquake was Immanuel Kant, whose interest in this would be captured by Walter Benjamin in a radio talk prepared for school-children 150 years later:  “No one was more fascinated by these remarkable events than the great German philosopher Kant . . .  At the time of the earthquake he was a young man of twenty-four, who had never left his hometown of Konigsberg – and who would never do so in the future.  But he eagerly collected all the reports of the earthquake that he could find, and the slim book that he wrote about it probably represents the beginning of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”  In the typical fashion of the day, Kant’s slim volume bore the longish title, History and Natural Description of the most Remarkable Incidents of the Earthquake that Shook a Large Part of the Earth at the End of the Year 1755.

Kant’s avid interest in the earthquake was not confined to a scientific assessment of the natural circumstances that had led to the calamity.  “Whatever is, is right”, Alexander Pope had famously declared in his Essay on Man (1733), and his affirmation of Leibniz’s theodicy had many supporters who rather agreed with Leibniz’s reasoning that though the presence of evil could not be denied, evil itself existed for the sake of a greater good.  As Rousseau and Voltaire, whose repudiation of theodicy in Candide was prefigured in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (1756), tangled over the ‘meaning’ of the earthquake, Kant would step into the debate later with a distinct philosophical articulation of the idea of the sublime.  When the imagination reaches its limits, Kant argued, pain is experienced; but this pain may be compensated for with the pleasure produced by the mind.  The “beautiful” was not to be equated with the “sublime”:  if the former belongs to the realm of “Understanding”, the latter belongs to “Reason”.  A sublime event was not to be comprehended through the understanding, indeed the enormity of the sublime – “we call that sublime which is absolutely great”, he wrote in the Critique of Judgment – passed all understanding and demonstrated the inadequacy of one’s imagination.  And, yet, the supersensible powers, through which one comprehends an event as whole, and which inform both nature and thought, bring one to a realization of the sublime.

When we consider the philosophical level of public discourse that the Lisbon earthquake could engender, the depths to which public discourse has sunk in our times becomes all the more transparent.  Pat Robertson has been known over the years for his outrageous announcements, and one should not be utterly surprised that he should, on the present occasion of the earthquake that has devastated Haiti, have displayed the same dim-wittedness and callousness for which he has nearly an unsurpassed reputation (barring, perhaps, only the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck).  As he put it in a televangelical broadcast, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”  America deplored Haiti’s independence in 1804, refusing to recognize the country until 1862, and it appears that even today there are some Americans such as Robertson who evidently believe that some people are born to serve others.  Colonialism, we know, continues to have its defenders; but Robertson’s remarks disguise many more profound anxieties, none as acute as the fact that the only genuine revolution, gone astray for reasons that I shall attempt to comprehend in subsequent blogs, in the Western hemisphere took place in Haiti rather than in what would become the US.

Insanely stupid as Robertson’s remarks are, they nonetheless point the way to a debate that cannot be resolved under the sign of secularism.  In a very different time, equally removed from the energetic debates of the Enlightenment and the mental vacuity of a Robertson, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore would have a lively public exchange over the equally devastating Bihar Earthquake of 1934.  Gandhi described the earthquake as God’s chastisement of upper-caste Hindus for their oppression of Harijans; Tagore, revered almost as much as the Mahatma, expressed shock that Gandhi would adhere to a view which was openly dismissive of scientific reasoning and likely to encourage the Indian masses in their superstitious thinking.  The intricacies of that exchange aside, Gandhi was firmly persuaded that communication with the masses could not succeed in the language of secularism – even if he was, in his own fashion, resolutely wedded to the idea that the Indian state perforce had to be secular, scrupulously fair to the adherents of all religions.  Moreover, the secular imagination cannot, Gandhi would have argued, countenance the idea that natural events may have their counterpart in the life of the soul.  Perhaps, in howsoever unpleasant a way, Robertson’s remarks suggest that we do not live only under the sign of secularism.