I have been too busy (or wasting too much time on twitter) to write much, but I think we should promote some essays from other sites when they look interesting. Here is one I saw today: David Berlinski reviews Pankaj Mishra’s latest book of essays. You can read it in full on this link.
(my own, less erudite and much more rant-like takedown of Mishra and his brand of “tailor made for Western and Westernized Liberals” shtick can be found here) . (my own summary of Pankaj in that rant: With Pankaj, the safest bet is that he is “not even wrong”. Good for virtue signaling. Useless for any other purpose.) You can also read a review of sorts I wrote about Pankaj in 2014 that also tries to clarify where I am coming from in this topic)
A few excerpts:
PANKAJ MISHRA is an Indian journalist, novelist, and travel writer; he is widely appreciated as a scold.1 Written between 2008 and just the other day, the sixteen essays comprising Bland Fanatics were published variously in The Guardian, The London Review of Books, the New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books.2 Readers seeking ideological exuberance must look elsewhere. The essays are themselves unified by a common rhetorical strategy, if not a common rhetorical subject, in which Mishra reveals that he knows something that others do not. “It had long been clear to me,” he writes, “that Western ideologues during the Cold War absurdly prettified the rise of the ‘democratic’ West.”3
What I didn’t realise until I started to inhabit the knowledge ecosystems of London and New York is how evasions and suppressions had resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge about the West and the non-West alike. Simple-minded and misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from this blinkered history, had come to shape the speeches of Western statesmen, think tank reports and newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless log-rolling columnists, television pundits and terrorism experts.4
Living on hot air, logrolling columnists, like certain abstemious yogis, do not generally require fuel, although they may require logs; and a knowledge ecosystem suggests nothing so much as a child’s terrarium: wood, water, weeds, worms. Never mind. Readers will get the point. They could hardly miss it. In hanging around London and New York, Mishra encountered a good many dopes.
… THE ESSAYS IN Bland Fanatics, if intelligent and brisk, are also imperfectly argued and badly written. Realities are brutal, falsehoods blatant, notions reek, prejudices are entrenched, binaries pop up here and there (eager, I am sure, to escape gender confinement), crime rates skyrocket, adventurers are bumptious, history is blinkered, delusions climax, despotisms are ruthless, and, if breasts are not being bared, chests, at least, are being thumped.6 Mishra is also a writer unwilling to savor the niceties of attribution. The wonderful phrase “closing time in the garden of the West” appears three times in two essays, welcome relief from the clump of Mishra’s habitual clichés. It is due to Cyril Connolly.7 That “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism” is due, in turn, to Walter Benjamin.8 Mishra has appropriated the phrase and its mistranslation into English.
Iraq and Afghanistan were societies wounded by imperialism; and if they are today squalid and violent, the fault is not entirely their own. Something is left over. In this, Mishra is correct. But in nothing else. In 1831, the territory that is now Iraq passed from Mamluk control to Ottoman rule. Signed by Britain and France in 1916, the Sykes–Picot Agreement divided the Ottoman provinces of the Middle East. If the British grabbed what they could, so did the French. The Russians were not far behind, the Sazonov–Paléologue Agreement assigning Turkish Armenia to Imperial Russia. In 1920, the San Remo conference initiated the British Mandate over Palestine, an exercise in imperial rule justified by the assumption that if the British had no obvious right to rule Iraq, the Iraqis had no obvious way in which to rule themselves. The British were rewarded for their troubles by the Iraqi revolt.19 The British handed nominal authority over mandatory Iraq to Emir Faisal in 1921, and ostensible independence to the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932. The British, of course, kept their nose in Iraqi affairs well after they had withdrawn their hands.20 Their influence did not represent an imperial masterpiece, Iraq, during the 1930s and 1940s, tending, if not tilting, toward Nazi Germany.
The Iraqi monarchy was never a triumph of statecraft, but neither was the Republic of Iraq that followed the July 14 revolution of 1958. Unstable and divided under the Ottomans, Iraq remained unstable and divided under the British, and then under themselves. Whatever the Iraqi tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts under the monarchy or the republic, they were suppressed or controlled, sometimes by force, often by terror, and, as often, by bribery; they achieved a degree of lurid efflorescence only after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. This is no inspiring story, but neither is it one in which the “actual legacies of British Imperialism” played a very obvious role. The morbid conflict between Sunni and Shiite religious communities has smoldered in Islamic life since the Battle of Karbala in 680.
To assign to British imperialism in the nineteenth century the conflicts consuming Afghanistan in the twenty-first, is to favor what is remote in history at the expense of what is directly under one’s nose.21 Afghanistan is today the victim of both American and Soviet imperial incompetence; and the victim, as well, of various tribal insurgencies, fanatical in their exertions, but Islamic in their devotions.22 In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan assassinated president Mohammed Daoud Khan, and then murdered his family just to be on the safe side. The promotion of Nur Muhammad Taraki to the presidency provoked rebellion in Nuristan Province. The luckless Taraki was murdered by supporters of prime minister Hafizullah Amin. The Soviets invaded thereafter, protecting the Amin regime by murdering Amin. The Soviets were persuaded to leave the great game when it became clear that they could not win it and had no reason to fight it, a lesson that the United States was slow to learn.
Afghanistan was among the pawed-over states of central Asia; the British, in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, pawing it over again and again, always to the detriment of Afghanistan and seldom to the benefit of the Empire. But those murderous tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts—they were homemade.23
But Mishra requires a figure still more deeply embedded in Indian history to make his case against the British. The Bengali writer and Hindu nationalist Swami Vivekananda, if not made to measure is, at least, tailor-made. Having been born Narendranath Datta, Vivekananda underwent a promotion to Swamihood after a spiritual apprenticeship with Swami Ramakrishna.26 It is Swami Vivekananda that Mishra regards as India’s “most famous nineteenth-century thinker,” and it is Vivekananda who “articulated a widespread moral disapproval of the pith-helmeted missionaries of Western civilization.”27
Did he? Did he really? There is this:
Intoxicated by the heady wine of newly acquired power, fearsome like wild animals who see no difference between good and evil, slaves to women, insane in their lust, drenched in alcohol from head to foot, without any norms of ritual conduct, unclean … dependent on material things, grabbing other people’s land and wealth by hook or crook … the body their self, its appetites their only concern—such is the image of the western demon in Indian eyes.28
Mishra has wisely provided no source for this quotation.29 The words appear in English in Vivekananda’s The East and the West (Prachya o Paschatya), which was written originally in Bengali. They do not mean what Mishra suggests they mean. Vivekananda intended to call attention to the distortions that made it impossible for the British and the Indians to see one another clearly. “This is what meets the eye of the European [emphasis added] traveler in India,” he wrote:
Devastation by violent plague and cholera; malaria eating into the very vitals of the nation; starvation and semi-starvation as second nature; death-like famine often dancing its tragic dance; the Kurukshetra (battlefield) of malady and misery, the huge cremation ground, strewn with the dead bones of lost hope, activity, joy, and courage; and in the midst of that, sitting in august silence, the Yogi, absorbed in deep communion with the Spirit, with no other goal in life than Moksha [enlightenment].30
The reciprocal image under Indian eyes is of men who, when they were not drenching themselves in alcohol, or drinking it, I suppose, were slaves to women and insane in their lust.31 Vivekananda’s judgment? “These are the views of observers on both sides—views born of mutual indiscrimination and superficial knowledge or ignorance [emphasis added].”32