There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic: is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power?
In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”. America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well: though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives. In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos. The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either. And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel. Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally: democracy in the United States itself become imperiled. On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world. It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.
It scarcely seems possible that it was a mere thirty years ago, as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and what Winston Churchill had famously called the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted from eastern Europe, that commentators in the West were jubilantly pronouncing (to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) “the end of history”. The supposition was that the entire world seemed on course to accept the idea that the liberal democracies of the West, and more particularly the United States, represented the pinnacle of human achievement and that the aspirations of people everywhere could only be met through the free market. It mattered not a jot on their view that, precisely at this time, the US was cajoling nations into joining an international coalition designed to bring Saddam Hussein to heel and bomb Iraq, as American officials with pride and insouciance declared, “back into the stone age”. Those who saw ominous signs of what unchecked American power might mean worldwide, and in the US itself, for the prospects of democracy and social justice were dismissed as some pathetic remnants of a warped communist vision that could not recognize the dawn of a new age of freedom. “Muslim rage”, the phrase made popular by the likes of the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, was a variant on the idea that those who failed to recognize the supremacy of the free market economy and the rights-bearing individual as the apotheosis of the idea of human liberty were religious fanatics, troglodytes, or just under-developed.
I read a couple of days ago of the passing of Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born Jewish novelist, political thinker, sociologist, and essayist who exiled himself to Paris after Tunisia’s proclamation of independence in 1956. At his death, on May 22 on the outskirts of Paris, he was just a few months shy of being 100 years old. I found myself surprised at reading his obituary in the New York Times, if only because it has been years since anyone had ever even mentioned him; to be brutally honest, having known him of him as a writer who had been most active, as I thought, in the 1950s and 1960s, it never occurred to me that Continue reading →
Part II of “Who’s Responsible: The WHO, Internationalism, and the Coronavirus Pandemic”
The WHO’s record in helping contain the transmission of viruses, many of zoonotic origins, that have created global public emergencies over the last two decades and that are quite likely poised to become even more critical in the decades ahead is rather more mixed. It may be that the organization was created with the intention of liberating the world from those diseases that had long been the scourge of humankind and whose very name evoked dread: typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, and especially cholera and smallpox. No one by the second half of the 20th century was quite thinking of the “plague”, even if the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat in 1994 (with bubonic plague discovered in three villages in Maharashtra), was a grimly reminder that this ancient pestilence had by no means disappeared. The incidence of death from the plague in Surat was only 56, and it was soon relegated to the background as an anomaly, as something that was merely an unpleasant reminder of “medieval times” in a modern age that had purportedly moved beyond such calamities.
Surat, 1994, during the plague. Source: Getty Images.
(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”
“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.
The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19. The diary is taken by social historians to be Continue reading →
(Third in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
The advent of COVID-19, or a novel coronavirus, has, it appears, virtually overnight altered the nature of university instruction and student learning. Throughout the months of January and February 2020, while the virus created havoc in China before turning Italy into the new epicenter, life proceeded on American university campuses without any real thought to what was transpiring in that ‘distant’ country. By January 25, a cordon sanitaire had been placed around the entire province of Hubei Province, which with a population of 60 million has as many people as Italy, but this did not leave any real impression on Americans nor on universities. As late as February 20, Italy had reported Continue reading →
(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)
The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.” Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen. Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.
The spectacle is over. Some 50,000 Indian Americans showed up a few days ago at the NRG Stadium in Houston to greet Narendra Modi, who was joined by his soulmate in narcissism and fellow sojourner in “rally politics”, Donald J. Trump. “Howdy, Modi,” as the event was billed, has been described in much of the Indian and Indian American media as hugely successful and as another feather in Modi’s cap as he attempts to showcase India to the world and present himself as a “world leader”. Prime Minister Modi, according to this narrative, had only one visibly uncomfortable moment when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer described India as a country that, like America, was “proud of its ancient traditions to secure a future according to Gandhi’s teaching and Nehru’s vision of India as a secular democracy where respect for pluralism and human rights safeguard every individual.”
It is indubitably the case that the five-month long, and still continuing, protest in Hong Kong over China’s attempt to subvert the so-called ‘one nation two systems’ mode of governance and subvert democratic norms constitutes a comparatively new if still uncertain chapter in the global history of civil resistance. The world has been rather slow in coming to a realization of the extraordinary implications of a movement that cannot really be associated with anyone who might be termed a widely accepted leader, is fundamentally hydra-headed or anarchic in impulse, and, notwithstanding both immense provocations from the state as well as occasional lapses into violence on the part of some demonstrators, has remained overwhelmingly nonviolent.
S M Mohamed Idris, the Grand Old Man of Penang to the world, or “Uncle Idris” as he was known affectionately to his younger friends—and everyone was younger to him—passed on a late Friday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago. He was the last of his kind: kind and devout, yet fiercely disciplined and a taskmaster to everyone but never more so than to himself, a man of intense moral probity and perhaps more than anything else a relentless enemy of injustice, wherever and in whatever form it appeared. Oh, yes, there was something else about him: it was nearly impossible not to feel affectionate towards Uncle Idris, such was the radiance and goodwill that emanated from him.