Sunday, September 27, 2015

Joseph Conrad, the Modern World, Yemen; Random Thoughts

This post was triggered by an an excellent piece about the great Joseph Conrad in Prospect magazine. (Though I do think "anticipating terrorism" is too narrow a title, he was anticipating much more). I am posting a couple of excerpts, a piece about Yemen and my copied and pasted remarks from Facebook. Followed by a few random quotes that just came to mind in connection with this. It is an impressionistic post, please don't connect too many dots :)

Conrad gets bad press in some narcissistic pigmy circles these days (who doesn't?) but he is truly one of the greats. "Under Western Eyes", for example, should be assigned reading for anyone starting their study of the Russian revolution and much that followed.

From the Clive James piece:

"..They are, in fact, idealists: and idealism is a cast of mind that Conrad questions even more than he questions radicalism. The logical end of radicalism, in his view, is terrorism; but idealism is the mental aberration that allows terrorism to be brought about. Conrad’s originality was to see that a new tyranny could be generated by people who thought that their rebellion against the old tyranny was rational. Thus his writings seem prescient about what was to happen in the Soviet Union. 

...As the collision between bliss and destruction gets closer, the reader will spend at least a hundred pages praying that Heyst has a gun hidden away somewhere. The first big slaughterhouse battles of the First World War had already been fought while Conrad was publishing the novel, but there is not a hint of pacifism. Conrad knew that unarmed goodwill is useless against armed malice. It was to be a lesson that the coming century would teach over and over, and so on into the present century: peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs, and can’t be obtained without a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the threat. Conrad didn’t want to reach this conclusion any more than we do, but his artistic instincts were proof against the slightest tinge of mystical spiritual solace, and so should ours be. Our age of massacres has also been an age of the intellectual charlatan, when people claiming to interpret events can barely be relied upon to give a straightforward account of what actually happened. Conrad was the writer who reached political adulthood before any of the other writers of his time, and when they did, they reached only to his knee.

...Conrad should have made his heroes as intelligent as himself, the better to illustrate his thematic concern with how the historic forces that crush the naive will do the same to the wise, if they do not prepare to fight back. Finally, he tends to reinforce our wishful thought that cultivation—gained, for example, from reading the novels of Conrad—might be enough to ward off barbarism. But barbarism doesn’t care if we are cultivated or not.

Then I saw (via Ali Minai)  a tangentially related piece in the daily Beast, about Yemen. Worth a read.

"..And, most tragic, is the loss of life and the irreversible disruption of the lives of Yemeni people who display a deep love of family and extend their warmth and generosity to visitors. I feel diminished that this remarkable country can no longer be discovered by others and that violence is destroying its historic beauty and threatening its extraordinary people."

My comment on this was typically obsessed with my personal obsessions, but I do think there is a point in there somewhere: There is no escaping the modern world. The technology gap means no premodern society can ever hope to survive unmolested unless they are thousands of miles from anything anyone modern may want. So the real trick is find a way to survive in the modern world (of states and armies and schools) without losing everything you hold dear. This seems difficult, but not impossible. But it seems to be specially hard in the Muslim world because we have our own "almost modern" "primitive-culture-destroying" myth and it makes things just the tiniest bit extra-hard. The shsit could have hit a smallish fan in Yemen just because different groups wanted to fight over it...nothing new about that. And not impossible to survive. But the state ideal does not seem to have enough legitimacy to really settle down (and make the necessary compromises and deals with more advanced countries) in the core Muslim world at this time. It will be a long night in Yemen.

“Heaven and earth are not merciful. To them, men are as straw dogs, destined for sacrifice.”– Lao Tzu

Could man be drunk for ever
  With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
  And lief lie down at nights.

But men at whiles are sober
  And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
  Their hands upon their hearts.

(AE Houseman)

It takes the Navy three years to build a ship. It will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. The evacuation will continue.. (Admiral Cunningham ordering the Royal Navy to continue the evacuation of Crete in the face of heavy German air attacks)

"With two thousand years of examples behind us, we have no excuses when fighting for not fighting well." T. E. Lawrence

Once war has been undertaken, no peace is made by pretending there is no war.
---- Duryodhana (and look what happened to him)

He is a fool that practises truth without knowing the difference between truth and falsehood.
-- Krishna to Arjuna

The unique architecture of the Unesco World Heritage City of Sanaa at sunset Yemen

Image result for jordan pilot fire

Monday, September 21, 2015

Indian Studies; Reversing the Metropolitan Gaze

A long essay by Brooklyn philosopher Samir Chopra on the Hindutvadi school (not necessarily their term, or his) of Rajiv Malhotra and  Balagangadhara and friends.

"As the historian Satadru Sen pointed out to me in conversation, there are two broad points that run counter to the kind of gaze reversal Balagangadhara and Malhotra attempt.  First, their attempt founders on some ineluctable facts. Orientalist gazes reflect uncomfortable historical realities of power; the East is scrutinised by this gaze because the West, to put it bluntly, conquered it. The philosophical and theoretical apparatus of its gaze was that of a civilization that had asserted its will over another. No such conquest underwrites this attempt to examine the West through an Indian lens, especially when Indian scholars themselves by and large do not rely on Indian philosophical or theoretical analyses to study the world or their own societies. Indeed, there is at this point in time, no unconquered, un-Orientalised Orient to deploy against the West. The fact of conquest does not grant the West the right to objectify. But still, whatever came before its encounter with the East has been transformed at a very fundamental level by this fact. So again, there is now no authentically Indian or indigenous lens that can be brought to bear on the West.  The contexts within which our discourses take place are those largely constituted by the Western intellectual tradition; Balagangadhara's and Malhotra's philosophical idioms—couched in English—belong to it. The contemporary exercise of reversing the gaze—in particular, in the manner sought by Balagangadhara and Malhotra—seems like a thought experiment destined to fail.

Second, the "Indian culture," "Hinduism," and "dharmic traditions" referred to by Balagangadhara and Malhotra are left mysteriously unspecified. We might wonder how inclusive these terms are. Those who assume the existence of these broad and abstract categories can all too easily marginalise others who might not share their unspoken definitions of them. The group Balagangadhara claims to be speaking for—the "majority of Indians", the "men and women" who "protest" the "violence" done to them by academic studies of "Hinduism"—enjoys hegemonic status. Those who suffer under that hegemony— women, adivasis, Dalits—might put forward very different understandings of what they would consider acts of "violence" directed against them, and might not, for instance, mind the inducements of conversion.

Here is a challenge for "Indian studies" as advocated by  Balagangadhara and Malhotra: to not take refuge in imagined glories of systems understood in the abstract, independent of their actual historical application and manifestations, or indulge in implausible apologia for manifestly real social ills. Rather it must reckon with the history of this nation, one in which English has emerged as a language in which Balagangadhara and Malhotra seek to communicate and one whose study requires a more inclusive view than they seem to exercise. - See more at:

I had some off-the-cuff comments on the 3QD site and am copying them here (with minimal editing) in the hope of getting feedback.
I know Malhotra fans are going to be somewhat upset, but by now those who are also my friends will realize this is not meant to be an attack..

Malhotra (and company?) seem to be operating (most of the time) at the level of political polemicists, driven by their commitments in present day politics (particularly identity politics, in which they have chosen their ground as Hindu nationalists or Indian nationalists, or both?). Their scholarship seems no more objective (to me) than that of various left wing "politics-first" scholars who use the jargon of postcolonial studies or Marxism (post-Marxism?), or of the various Islamist scholars whose priorities are set by their chosen identity (real or imagined..or both?) and their contemporary political stance.
All of these groups may not be equal. To an amateur outside observer (aka me) the Indian-HIndutva armamentarium seems a bit thin. Not zero. But thin, compared to the vast quantities of scholarship (good, bad or mixed) upon which any progressive scholar can build. Or even when compared to what is already mainstreamed within the metropolitan gaze for Islamists. Hindutvadis have further to climb (and less asabiya to start with? After all, most Hindus in mainstream metropolitan academia are not Hindutvadis; there are many more Gayatri Spivaks or mainstream liberal scholars, no?).

An acquaintance (Pakistani) who is an Islamist and a historian (U Chicago) once dismissed some vaguely Indophile claim I happened to make with the dismissive retort: “Oh Please! Let us not delude ourselves about the relative civilizational heft of these contenders. My party (Islam) may be down, but we are not at Hindu-level in the world civilizational conflict game. Let’s not bring the minor league teams into this”.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Aqlima. Daughter of Adam

A translation (by Ruchira Paul) of Pakistani Feminist poet Fahmida Riaz's poem Aqlima (daughter of Adam and Eve)

Audio in the poet's own voice. (mislabeled as another poem).

Colonel Imam As I Knew Him

A note about colonel Imam, sent by Dr Hamid Hussain. The writer is not identified (but is a Pakistan army officer). The lines in red are comments from Dr Hamid Hussain.


I had known Sultan Amir later on Col Imam since mid-1966. I had been commissioned about 6 months earlier than him. However, my unit Guides Infantry FF (formerly Queen Victoria’s own) came to Lahore as a result of pull back of forces due to Tashkent Accord in 1966 about the time he was commissioned in the 3rd Pathans (FF).
Both young and energetic got plunged into the lives of young officers of that time which was divided in training and sports events, assaulting Xing water obstacles exercises, even evenings were devoted to regimental dinner and guest nights leaving very little time for fun and frolic. Only on Sundays one could indulge ‘non-training events’. Most of us covered our sleeplessness of the previous six days of the week.
In December 1970 both of us found ourselves competing for selection into the elite SSG (Special Services Group). I must have just crawled through but Sultan Amir passed through the three days of gruelling selection tests with flying colours. Only 24 officers were selected from the large number of officers who had volunteered for the SSG.
The basic Commando Course started in early 1971. It was here we discovered the real Sultan Amir. Originally designed by the US Special Forces instructors, it was considered as one of the toughest courses in Pakistan if not other modern armies. He would carry the heaviest load to farthest distance not asking for relief or respite till one of us felt that we are not being fair to him. He was the most helpful among all of us to carry anyone’s belongings tired enough not to carry his own weight, weapons, ammunition or anything else. After 25-30 miles, night marches over the most rugged terrain when we would just slump down he would run around to see our hideout, gather fire wood, cook food and see to the security drills of the hideout etc.
It was here that his real leadership qualities came out.
A few days before we were to graduate from the course, he was with us in setting a record of crossing the Mangla Lake at its widest, approximately swimming 6 miles both ways in 2 hours & 45 minutes. This record remains unbeaten till today. He along with Brig Akram later Commander SSG came out with the highest grade in that course.
He was posted to the elite Tipu Company and I went over to 2 Commando Brigade (SSG). During the Dec 1971 war he had infiltrated behind the Indian troops in the Desert Sector and laid a blocking position. Unfortunately the Pakistani ground offensive just petered out. It goes to his credit that lost, hungry and forsaken he was able to safely extricate along with his troops. By the end of 1973 he had undergone the US Special Forces Course at Fort Bragg along with Psychological Operations Corse. His visit to the US was to bring about a marked change in him; appreciating their training methodology while criticising the materialistic way of life that he saw there. Meanwhile, as the OC Parachute Training School he had also become a jump master with golden ensign (over 100 jumps).
We went up our career ladders, commanding our parent battalions and landed back together in 1976. I was the Commanding Officer (officiating) and he as the Second in Command. We went through hectic training, exercise, operations, etc. together. During this period we were involved in training of the Mujahedeen on a small scale courtesy General Naseerullah Khan Babar who was the architect of the forward policy and had advised Mr Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to be proactive along the Durand Line and payback in the same coin for what the Afghans were doing in NWFP in particular. Promoted to the rank of Lt Col he commanded his Paltan and landed in the Afghan cell of the ISI in early 80’s and was to become a larger than life legend. His stay there was to also change his earlier outlook towards life as well as profession. ( a number of officers went through a transition later dubbed as ‘reverse indoctrination”) It was here that he adopted the nom de guerre of Col Imam which became a world famous identity.

Romila Thapar. Something is missing..

A good, wide-ranging interview with famous Indian historian Romila Thapar.

I did have a few random thoughts of FB and just copy and paste them here. Not well formulated, but you may get the drift (or I may learn something from any comments):

I have no argument with a lot of the history or the ideal of the neutral, skeptical, inquiring historian.., as far as it goes. But something is missing; her own overall worldview. It is frequently said (mostly by her enemies?) that her basic framework is Marxism. But as far as I know, she does not explicitly claim this. Is it? and if she does not like to claim it, why not? And even if it is, there are so many subcults within Marxism by now, we may need to know more specifics.. But anyway, let us assume it is some sort of Marxism, but Marxist Chinese and Russians ended up with very strong (and expansive) nationalist visions of Russia and China. What is her vision of India? and what is that identity based on (what is "India" in her mind? in her worldview?). Maybe she should lay it out more instead of relying on the understanding and sympathy of others who hold equally vaguely Marxist views?
Let us assume she has a vision of India that requires India to be India (the specific modern state that exists) and not part of the greater Ummah (or ten separate warring states for that matter) but she seems to take it for granted. Maybe she thinks it doesnt need to be contested, it is so obvious and clear. But maybe she should put it out there. Let us judge how solid it is. Maybe it IS very solid. Maybe it will turn out to be rather thin. Or standing on ground that is more "colonial" than her fans would like to admit?
Doesn't she seem to assume the liberal secular democratic state exists without its own legitimating narrative, common culture, foundation, history, development, challenges and responses? And even economy?

And what about the economy? Supposedly the economy changes and the narratives (mostly half-imaginary) will follow? isnt that what the "Vulgar Marxists" (the only ones who actually ran states) used to say? But it is interesting that those Marxist states remained true to older identities and borders, frequently with a vigourous (and even vicious) nationalism that their Manchu or Romanov or Khmer ancestors would have been proud of.... But anyway, doesnt that raise the problem of her wider circle of supporters and fellow travelers having picked the "wrong" economics? Or does she still think those are the right economics? Maybe she does, but I find that most leftists don't argue very deeply and firmly about that these days, preferring the easier and more superficial BS about postcolonialism and intersectionality or whatever. This too needs some work..and some discussion.

Anyway, she could be right about ALL the factual details of this raja, that monument, that battle...and still have said little that is deep/insightful about how all that evolved into modern India and where it may/will/should evolve next..or why THIS fact/line in book matters more than that fact/line in book?

That all those movements and kingdoms and conquerors will not fit into the neat categories and stories of various nationalist or religious parties is hardly a great discovery. In India it is sometimes claimed that Hindutvadis are the main mythmakers about the past, but obviously there are as many mythmakers as there are parties contending today. We may need to examine her foundational myth in more detail. Which means she may have to lay it out in more detail..

PS: I would prefer a secular democratic liberal Indian state. But even such a state needs a legitimating narrative, , Look at China or the USA: there is a central culture that is in charge and confident of its place (this last thing may not apply fully to all sections of Western academia but still applies far more than "the sky is falling" critics sometimes claim.. though how that may eventually shift is an interesting question) and it incorporates Muslims into society just as it incorporates other cults, as long as they are law-abiding...otherwise there is trouble. India is far from that ideal, but that IS the ideal. But it presupposes a dominant common culture. Or so I think. Maybe I am wrong. But we may need to debate this more explicitly than she ever does..I am just not sure she has enough to say about the development of that ideal, and the challenges that stand in its way today, in India, in any deep sense. ..
Of course, whatever it is, I dont expect it to make me happy necessarily. Happiness being a whole separate issue, much smaller in scale most of the time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Decline in Violence Worldwide; For Now?

Steven Pinker has an article in the Guardian about the continuing decline in violence within humanity as a whole.
save image

Last para:
"Though I’m relieved that making myself a hostage to fortune eight years ago has not turned out badly, (at least so far), needless to say my greater relief is for the state of humanity. Despite the headlines, and with circumscribed exceptions, the world has continued its retreat from violence. We need invoke no mysterious arc of justice or end of history to explain it. As modernity widens our circle of cooperation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it. Though a few narcissistic despots and atavistic zealots stand athwart this current, history does not appear to be on their side."

• Steven Pinker’s graphs can be seen in full here

I happened to have the following exchange on FB about this article

 Omar Ali: I don't doubt his data, but as Ali keeps telling us, this trend may not last. I am still optimistic, but as is obvious from Syria etc (and from reading Fukuyama), the modern state is a critical factor in this trend. What if state failures accelerate? and at some point, what if those single disasters coalesce into world war? That would do it for Pinker (and for us)...Maybe more for us than for Pinker. SJWs and postmarxist bullshitters notwithstanding, the core of Western states (and East Asia/China) may still hold.....People in intact states may see a continuation of this trend, even as the shit hits the fan from Morocco to Malaysia. Now THAT may be a more likely outcome than total reversal of this trend. In that case the death toll would depend on whether India has hit the fan or escaped (which pretty much means Pakistan would also have escaped...since if we hit all the way, the splashes of gore would probably get India to slip anyway). Unless India hits the fan, the worldwide toll from a Morrocco to Malaysia hit would still be low (I am assuming Indonesia will find a dictator and escape the trend)...Cheery thoughts. :)

Abbas: We are in for interesting times, as the Chinese say... :)

Ali: I think it is more likely than not that we have lived through a brief liberal interlude in history and the world is about to return to its natural state of universal conflict between neotribal nationalisms. How's that for cheerful thoughts?

Abbas: Keep working on making the singularity real, my friend. The fate of humanity hangs in the balance. (To be read out loud in the movie-trailer guy's voice.)

Omar: Ali, It would be foolish to take any of your guesses (about anything) too lightly, but I remain an optimist (of sorts). I think Europe, China and the Americas may not rejoin the world-war trend even if the waters rise and things get worse. They may see some modestly nasty things, but not a return to universal conflict. They will probably kill a lot of people outside their own countries (and sort of, kind of, fight each other in the middle east and Africa, mostly via proxies), but not descend into total war with each other. Why? I dunno. I just think our brains are somehow wired to prefer the pessimistic view, so our nth-order "considered view" should be deliberately biased towards optimism. Something like that. That's not a very solid basis for optimism, I admit. :)

by the way: I think the US has caused state failure in Iraq and contributed to it in Syria (and now has a supporting role in the attempted state failure in Yemen; in Yemen I think the Saudis are the prime movers of the idiocy. There is no reason to accept the Eurocentric Metropolitan Racist view that only White people have agency. The Subaltern may speak :) )
Why has the US caused these state failures? I dont think it was deliberate. But I do think it shows you that it is not just the SJWs/Postmarxist academics who don't appreciate how important the state is; even the decision makers of the most powerful state in the world don't seem to get it. Or rather, they don't seem to have sufficient grasp of where the asabiya or legitimacy of a state comes from: it comes from genuine fellow feeling, or it comes from colonial structures that happened to be this way and within which the necessary fellow feeling builds over time. EITHER can work. Both together are even better. But remove both, and the shit will hit the fan...
Which is also why groups like the Kurds can fight better than any fake army put together by US advisers alone. US advisers PLUS genuine national feeling (Afghanistan, if the US had not allowed us to mess it up) can work though :)

What do you think? 

PS: another comment on that FB  thread:
Aditya: What a dose of negativity and gloom this morning! And I don't much like Pinker myself. 

Those who have money riding on it are really bullish on Africa. I have some firsthand visibility into a region from Manila to Delhi to Cairo and I can't see really many causes for gloom myself. A bit Edgy White-Liberal? Perhaps, but these are good times for the region. Also a good time to remind ourselves that IF south India were hived off, the remaining portion of north India lags Bangladesh's and Pakistan's development indicators. There's a new tech incubator in Pakistan, there are big data think tanks in Sri Lanka and massive cross regional investments brewing. The rational force against world war won't be the nation state but the increasingly dense network of capitalist self interest.