David Berlinski Reviews Pankaj Mishra

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)

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire - Mishra, Pankaj - Livres -  Amazon.fr

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 GuardianThe London Review of Books, the New YorkerThe 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.

No doubt…

… 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 entrenchedbinaries 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.

Continue reading David Berlinski Reviews Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra and His Discontents

This was an old post i wrote in 2014, still in our archive, but hard to find and not properly formatted, so I am reposting today).

Pankaj has an op-ed in the NY Times. Friend Sardul Minhas prodded me to say something about it, but I was short of time and just gave some general comments about the Pankajist worldview and it’s discontents. These comments are quick and off the cuff, so almost as superficial as Pankaj Bhayia’s op-ed, but they sort of add to my earlier longer rant about his book, and my earlier article about Pankaj and Arundhati Roy. Read them all and you will start to see what I mean (or at least, where I am coming from). Trust me 🙂 

Before I go on, let me say that India hypernationalism is at least as real as Pakistani or American or Chinese hypernationalism and can be almost equally crazy. Like those hypernationalisms, it is mostly held in check by real-life constraints and need not trigger world war three, but world war three is not inconceivable. Shit happens. So I do not mean to imply that all is well and will forever remain well in the Indian subcontinent with the BJP in power (and of course anyone who says all was well before the BJP came to power must be joking). But I do think some of the doom and gloom is overdone and a lot of it is just hyperventilation that provides no good analysis as to why this phenomena has grown, what it may become, and what can be done to moderate or counter it’s possible excesses…in short, i dont think there is nothing to fear, but I do think that the Pankajist worldview is neither an adequate analysis, nor a rational prescription for it’s cure.

Pankaj seems to believe (or knows it is fashionable to believe) that the worship of strength and material progress is a serious mistake and therefore all of recent Western history (with its abundant displays of strength and material/organizational progress, however defined) was a very bad thing. But he also believes the equally fashionable meme that the weak should “stand up for their rights” and fight back and defeat the strong….since I have not seen any evidence to suggest that he has some well-developed theory of Gandhian resistance, how is this circle to be squared? Given belief A, belief B requires the acquisition of strength and at least some material/organizational progress (how else will anyone be able to overcome the amoral West?) but it so happens that the constituency of “strength and material/organizational progress” in India is one that Pankaj cannot afford to be associated with. He has little trouble with non-Indian strength-worshippers like Jamaluddin Afghani (a minor and ineffectual fascist whom he portrayed, historically inaccurately, as one of the great exemplars of Asian resistance to Western domination), but in India his home is in the liberal elite Left, and the “strength and progress” idea, while very much present in the traditional Left, is not one that the postmodern Left is comfortable with…besides, the strength part is now mostlymonopolized by the Hindutvadis, so there are problems with admiring Indian anti-Westernism and strength-worship that do not arise for Pankaj when he is talking about Muslims or Chinese who want to become strong like the West. Incidentally, Japan remains a sore spot of Pankaj; perhaps because of his initial Leftist orientation or because the rise of Japan does not fit his preferred picture of “East tries to Westernize and falls flat on face”, he completely skipped Japan when discussing his version of the rise of Asia from the ruins of Empire. Anyway, given these ideological limitations, what is to be done? His options include:

  1. Westernization has been and forever will be a disaster for non-Western nations. The apparent weakness of “Eastern” nations is actually strength; a sign of moral superiority, closer to nature, deeply rooted, psychologically sound, more humane etc etc. Gandhi had some such beliefs. Of course Gandhi also believed that if we stick to our (moral) strengths, we can “defeat” the apparently stronger West. But this defeat will not look like the usual victory and defeat looks in war. Valid or not, this would be a relatively consistent (and very attractive) set of beliefs. But many elements of this system are anathema for the Left (like Gandhi’s embrace of the people’s ancient religon and religious myths, his lack of interest in physical strength, and his un-Marxist view of history), so Pankaj cannot comfortably take a Gandhian position against the West (though he can say patronizing nice things about it).
  2. Westernization has been and forever will be a disaster for non-Western nations. They must find their own unique way forward. They have unique cultures and cultural strengths and these are embedded in their language, their culture, their myths, their religions… and they must build from these, etc. But this is what a lot of the Hindu right is saying, so it certainly cannot be Pankaj’s choice either.
  3. Or Pankaj can drop the whole Eurocentric post-Marxist framework and start from scratch. He might then find that “Westernization” is not so exclusively Western. A lot of it is just progress in human knowledge (always incomplete and prone to errors) and any individual or group can acquire and make use of past discoveries in human knowledge, whether they happen to have been made in Europe or Central Asia or Japan, and build on those…. that maybe the flaws we see in the West are not that foreign either, but are human characteristics, and their larger organized expressions (armies, conquests, wars, colonization, cultural and literal genocides, megalomaniacs, liars) are not really some unique and novel Western invention…. If strength and scientific progress are diseases, then we are all prone to falling victim to their allure….and so on. But that would be such a departure from the postcolonialist postmodern post-marxist universe in which Pankaj operates, its not really a choice either. What if his audience no longer buys his op-eds?

It’s a tough place to be in.  Hence the confusion.
btw, he started with Naipaul, betting that his audience would have little or no clue about Naipaul’s actual views about Indian history and the rise of the BJP. I think this move shows Pankaj is not dumb and he sometimes takes risks. Those are worthy qualities 😉
Or it may mean that Naipaul’s earlier expression of admiration for Pankaj (as a literary critic) has created a soft spot. Human nature being what it is…

I initially posted these thoughts as a facebook comment and asked some questions on 3quarksdaily (where Pankaj’s article was up on the blog). One of the responses (from someone named Sundar) was as follows:
I doubt if I fit the profile of Pankaj’s intended readership, but here goes:
I think the Indian left (and Pankaj in particular) has become irrelevant. The Left parties have been decimated even in their citadel of West Bengal, where they had unleashed a reign of terror for 25 years. (If you think that is an exaggeration, you should learn more about life in Rural West Bengal). It is another matter that the TMC is continuing their tactics.
Intellectually, the left has been in shock since their utopias of Russia and China have moved on. Hence their desperate attempt to use any issue they can get their hands on: Environment, Caste etc. Their last gasp was their infiltration of the centrist Congress party via Sonia Gandhi’s unconstitutional NAC.
They are terrified that Modi has put together a workable coalition of various caste groups which aims to control parliament for the foreseeable future. They don’t know how to deal with Modi: he comes from the very groups that they claim to represent. But he represents a new kind of India, one which does not want handouts from elite controlled parties.
Whether Modi’s electoral coalition will hold in the next Lok Sabha elections, I don’t know. But if it does, the India left’s worst nightmare will come to pass: A world where they are simply irrelevant. A Bourgeois India that hasn’t heard of Pankaj Mishra and his ilk. And doesn’t care.

My answer had some more questions, which I will post here in the hope that someone will attempt some answers:
I think you are right, though out of loyalty to my youthful ideals and deference to my friends /peer group I would assign a less positive valence to this decline and fall… Anyway, follow up questions : since higher education and public intellectuals in India share (consciously and unconsciously) many of the historic assumptions, ideals, paradigms etc of the Left, what does the  future hold in that area? Will they modify their beliefs and carry on? Will there be a circling of the wagons and a vicious fight with the newly powerful right, followed by an auto da fe? Will the crazier Hindutva historians replace our familiar Marxist intellectuals as most of my friends seem to fear? And will all this play any role in “real life”? 
Inquiring minds want to know 🙂

Finally, a word from my better half (who has higher IQ and EQ): I must not just criticize Mishra. I must also say what he would be good at; so here goes: I think he would be an excellent literary critic if he could just give up his urge to push his (fashionable, but ultimately irrelevant) political agenda in every thing he writes. I know, “the personal is political” and all that, but comrade, that too may just be fashionable claptrap. Take a deep breath. Let go…

PS: Given the current political conflicts within India (with which I have only an outsider’s connection), it is inevitable that an attack on Pankaj will get positive responses from his supposed ideological opponents in the BJP (I say “supposed” because Pankaj actually shares their emotional antipathy towards the West and has some sympathy for their counterparts in other Asian countries, just not in India itself). Just to keep things clear, I am mostly Left-of-Center in my politics and extremely left of center on most social issues (though somewhat right of center on state intervention in social issues, whatever). I do hope a left-of-center alternative survives and thrives in Indian politics, not just because my own inclinations (mostly) lie that way but because the total dominance of any one ideology is always a problem. Best to have some balance and some competition. Finally, I do realize that all who identify as leftists are not as Eurocentric/Europhobic and confused as Pankaj. 
Oh, and about the Hindutvadis, I think there are some obvious problem areas in their quest to become the leaders of resurgent and powerful India: I am saying nothing original if I say that the “Muslim question” is one of them. In my case, the concern is not that they will try to “Indianize” Islam well beyond what current Indian Muslim leaders would consider desirable… I think that is the eventual fate of Indian Islam and I see no great reason to abhor that possibility. My concern is that they will mess up the “soft landing” that is the “desirable option” in this process. i.e. I think a soft landing is possible (and desirable) but the way the BJP has evolved, they may not be the best people to achieve it. More on that some other day, but I do want to add that to me this is not a specifically “Muslim” concern. It is an Indian concern. In numbers, in solidarity, in civilizational consciousness, in cultural contribution, etc Indian Muslims are not an insignificant component of India. A “hard landing” would hurt everyone and the outcome is by no means guaranteed to be in the Hindutvadi’s favor. Softer approaches would work better for everyone, not just for the Muslims. Fascist tendencies and mob action are other obvious problems but are by no means a BJP monopoly (see West Bengal for details) but a BJP-specific (much less serious) area of concern is the large mass of pseudoscientific nonsense that has accreted around the crazier edges of the Hindutva brand. While I think the actual “real world” significance of that mass of craziness is sometimes exaggerated by liberal/Westernized/agnostic/atheist observers, it is not necessary trivial.  I quote Prime Minister sahib: “We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery – See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/pm-takes-leaf-from-batra-book-mahabharat-genetics-lord-ganesha-surgery/99/#sthash.mRlrMYpm.dpuf “
I really dont think modern Indian medicine will be easily derailed by such flights of fancy, but ….There. That should do it 🙂

Post-post script: Friend Shivam Vij posted Guardian’s piece about Modi making his Hindutva pseudosciency remarks and I told him its funny, but may not necessarily be too consequential. Many friends seemed to find that surprising. Why not consequential? he is saying an elephant head was transplanted on a human, literally. That’s crazy. Well, yes, it is, but if we go by that, we would lose our shit everytime some leader says he believes in the talking snake or the flying horse or whatever. The silliness is not the problem. Or at least, its not NECESSARILY a big problem. The same people who believe in flying horses and talking snakes are very rational and clever in matters closer to our own lives. So the problem is not necessarily the silliness of the belief. Its the fact that PM sahib chose to express it on such an occasion and in such a context, indicating a certain mixing of knowledge streams best left unmixed…and the implication that such hindutvadi pseudoscience may then be forced on people in real life settings, maybe even in Medical schools and in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Now in a democracy that is certainly a possibility and a scary one. But a reasonably competent elite can erect filters and keep the ship on near-even keel even in a democracy.
Is the Indian elite competent enough.
I guess we will find out. 

Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

This was a long rolling rant I wrote 5 years ago while reading Pankaj Mishra’s book “From The Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia“. The format is that I commented as I read the book. So early parts are comments on early chapters and so on. Quotes from Pankaj are in bolded italics. I am reposting today after editing it a little because the topic came up once again.

Spoiler Alert. since the “review” is really a very long rolling rant, written as I read the book, some people may just want to know this one fact: this books is NOT about the intellectuals who remade Asia. That book would have to start with people like Aizawa in Japan, the first Asian nation to be “remade”, but that is one nation and one set of thinkers you will not find in this book. Why? because this book is not about Asia, its history or its renaissance, it is about post-liberal virtue signaling. For details, read on..

Introduction: After being told that everyone from Orhan Pamuk to Pakistani Ambassador (and liberal feminist Jinnahist icon) Sherry Rahman is in love with Pankaj Mishra’s new book I have finally started reading it.
I have only read 50 pages so far but it is beginning to set a certain tone. And its not a very encouraging one. I am not impressed. At all. So Far.

On  page 18 he says: the word Islam, describing the range of Muslim beliefs and  practices, was not used before the 19th century. 

This is then negated on the very next page by Mishra himself. The only explanation for this little nugget is that Pankaj knows his audience and will miss no opportunity to slide in some politically correct red meat for his audience. There is a vague sense “out there” in liberal academia that Islam is unfairly maligned as monolithic and even that the label itself may be “Islamophobic”. Pankaj wants to let people know that he has no such incorrect beliefs. It is a noble impulse and it recurs. A lot. Continue reading Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

Review: Age of Anger. Pankaj Mishra

Postscript: Having been told this is a rant, not a review, I have decided to add this disclaimer: it IS a rant. And no, it is not personal. I have never met Pankaj and for all I know he is probably a very nice guy. This is not so much about him as about the postliberal Eurocentric elite in general. That he writes this for them and they love him for it makes me use him as a focus for my criticism. Someday, if i have the discipline and/or the time, I should write a long-form essay and not make it about him but about the worldview in general. Until then, he gets to stand in for the lot of them. But it is NOT personal. 

Pankaj Mishra is a British-Indian writer and public intellectual who currently lives between London and Mashobra and writes regularly for publications like the NY Times and the NYRB. He started his career as a promising literary critic (Naipaul was initially impressed) but soon switched to “native informant” mode, presenting and interpreting what he described as the angst, atomization, envy and ressentiment of newly emerging and fitfully modernizing India; a phenomenon that other elite commentators and foreign visitors were presumably failing to notice. He then expanded this theme to all of Asia and has finally graduated to interpreting the  Metropole to the metropolitans themselves. This could have been a somewhat risky move, since Western reviewers who received his reports about the darker nations relatively uncritically, might well know enough about their home turf to become critical. But by and large, that has not happened; reviews have generally been favorable.

This is not one of those favorable reviews.

I found the book  tendentious, shallow and repetitive, with quotes and facts cherry-picked from across his vast (but chronologically limited and highly Eurocentric) reading list, full of unfounded assumptions and opinions that are casually passed off with an “as everyone knows” air in practically every paragraph.

The book begins with a brief account of D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume in 1919. This relatively obscure episode is sprinkled with cherry-picked quotes and while the facts are mostly true, their significance is asserted rather than proven. This pattern is followed throughout the book; vast historical claims (e.g. that modernity led ultimately, not just transiently, to more immiseration in Europe; “First manifested in 19th century Europe – Bursts of technological innovation and growth offset by systemic exploitation and widespread immiseration“) are casually asserted as if they are already known and accepted by all sane-thinking people. There is no systematic description of what happened economically, socially or culturally in Europe (or elsewhere) in the last 200 years, and no data is ever offered to support any claims, but since these claims (sometimes stated, frequently just hinted at) are almost all prevalent (if only vaguely and without systematic evidence) in postmodern liberal European (and Westernized Desi) circles, so the book gets a pass in those circles; but the fact is that if you stop and dig into any random claim, the tone and the details will not pass muster.

It could be objected that this is not the point of the book. As Pankaj himself puts it:

This books is not offered as an intellectual history; and it cannot even pose, given its brevity, as a single narrative of the orign and diffusion of ideas and ideologies that assimilates teh many cultural and political developments of the previous two centuries. Rather, it explores a particular climate  of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from teh age of Rousseau to our own age of anger

He goes on to say “It tries to show how an ethic of individual and collective empowerment spread itself over the world, as much through resentful imitation as coercion, causing severe dislocations, social maladjustment and political upheaval.

Marx said it better but this is not bad either. But unlike Marx, who offered a diagnosis and then a prescription (right or wrong), Pankaj goes on to dig through 200 years of (mostly European) intellectual history to find quotes and episodes that bewail this process of destruction of the old in action; but he never offers a diagnosis of why human beings and human societies created modernity in the first place (after all, even Europeans, or rather Anglo-Americans, who appear in this book as the only people who actually do things instead of just reacting to things being done to them, are also humans); nor does he offer any ideas about what an alternative may look like. What he does add to the diagnosis of some of the authors he quotes is a relentless focus on ressentiment as the quintessential human emotion; the secret sauce that explains everything that Pankaj does not like about the world today, from Trump and Modi to Erdogan and, somewhat surprisingly, the New York Review of Books (“a major intellectual periodical of Anglo-America“).

Resentment and envy drive everything in Pankaj-world. Herder and Fichte, for example, are “young provincials in Germany.. who simmered with resentment against a metropolitan civilization of slick movers and shakers that seemed to deny them a rooted and authentic existence”. This motif is repeated with variations throughout the book. Everyone (except the Anglo-Americans of course) is endlessly burning with resentment and hates who they are. It almost makes one wonder if the book is really about Pankaj digging through 200 years of intellectual history to find his own mirror image everywhere? But this would be to psychologize, and one should try to avoid that, even if Pankaj never does.

Perhaps all this would be fine if he was suitably humble about his own limitations, but of course, he is no such thing. There is a consistent tone of “I have discovered what all of you fools missed” throughout the book. That tone is grating, partly because what he has discovered is not very original, and partly because it is by no means certain that his assessment of the Enlightenment and its major thinkers is the correct assessment. I think it likely that the specialist who specializes in any thinker cited in this book will disagree with the flippant generalizations and cherry-picked quotes, but given that this treatment is being meted out to dozens of thinkers from across the globe and the specialist knows only his own, he may not realize that Pankaj is equally shallow about all of them. For example, he sums up Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant in one go with the dismissive “the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant”; is this really a fair and reasonable summary of all that those subtle and profound thinkers wrote and thought? I think it is certainly part of what they said, but Pankaj has no use for their other insights. What he needs for his purposes is the code words “commercial, self-interested, rational”. He knows these will do their magic within his (superficially anti-capitalist) audience, and he is probably right.

Of course, doubts and misgivings about modernity have been the subject of countless works ever since the terms were invented. In fact, the reason Rousseau, Nietzsche and company are one of the two groups who dominate the quote-mining in this book (terrorists and anarchists are the other) is precisely because they did produce works that questioned and critiqued many Enlightenment assumptions. Pankaj, with his focus on resentment and envy is, if anything, a much more limited and shallow version of their work. This may sound harsh, but this book is really little more than a disorganized dictionary of selected (sometimes misleadingly so) quotations and sweeping generalizations about writers who generally thought deeper and harder than Pankaj does. So my suggestion, dear reader, is, why not read them?

Which brings us to another problem with this book; its complete lack of interest in all human history before 1688 and in all civilizations except the European civilization of the last 200 years. Again, one may say that they are not the subject of the book, but the problem goes deeper than that. Not only are they not the subject of the book, it seems that they are not of interest to Pankaj at all. He never shows any interest (or awareness) of humans as biological beings, evolved over millennia, with instincts, drives and abilities shaped by that evolution far more than they can ever be shaped by “modernity”, whatever that may be. He is not interested in 10,000 years of human cultural evolution or in the vast literature on the evolution of political order. And he seems to regard all non-European (or perhaps non-Anglo-American) civilizations as interchangeable place holders for “tradition”, trammeled under the boot of modernity. That China and the Chinese, for example, may not be exact counterparts of his native India, and may even be a civilization that regards itself (justifiably) as a world-leader, a source of many “modern” ideas, fully capable (and desirous) of joining the modern world on its own terms. But these are not notions to be found in Pankaj-land. To him, all non-Europeans are simply interchangeable primitives; “traditional” people driven by resentment and envy and, more to the point, doomed to fakery, imitation and disappointment.

Finally, there is the issue of conscious (or unconscious?) manipulation of facts and anecdotes to fit his agenda.  Pankaj seems to know the prejudices and vague preconceptions of his postmodern Eurocentric audience, and he never misses a chance to push their buttons, even if it requires some subtle alteration of events. A few random quotes will illustrate this tendency:

Turkeys Erdogan to India’s Modi, France’s Le Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reserviors of cynicism, boredom and discontent”. Discontent, yes, but cynicism and boredom? Other than sounding good to his audience, how much sense does this really make?

Speaking of the 1990s “The Dalai Lama appeared in Apple’s “Think different” advertisements and it seemed only a matter of time before Tibet, too, would be free”.  Did it? really? to whom? The only reason this sentence appealed to him is because it presses the right buttons. The Dalai Lama, check. Evil corporation Apple, check. Advertisement, check. Sheeple being fooled yet again, check. It is a theme, and it recurs.

He casually claims that the first televised beheading occurred “in 2004, (just as broadband began to arrive in middle-class homes) in Iraq, of a Western hostage dressed in an orange Guantanomo jumpsuit“.  This is another classic example of Pankaj in action. It is hard to believe that he has not heard (or did not learn while Googling) that the televised beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl happened two years earlier in 2002; but that beheading was in Pakistan, involved Jew-hatred and did not include an orange Guantanomo jumpsuit. So it doesnt really evoke instant anti-imperialist memes in the way the Iraq invasion and Guantanomo jumpsuits do, so the example chosen has to be Iraq in 2004. And the “broadband arriving in middle class homes” is the cherry on the subliminal messaging cake. This is a minor point, but it is worth noting that even in the case of minor points, the rhetorical needs of Pankaj’s overall project are going to be paramount. The reader has to be on his guard.

only on the rarest occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence” . First of all, it is by no means certain that this history is “largely one of carnage and bedlam”, but among those who think this is true, this has been the fashionable view for decades. Pankaj does not get to announce this as new news to the in-crowd.

Wrought by the West’s transition to industrial capitalism and mass politics..“. We know he is against capitalism. Perhaps against industry as well. But is he also against mass politics? Pankaj will not say “the people” are ignorant, easily manipulated fools, but he is never too far from implying exactly that. It would be hugely interesting if he went deeper into this topic and reached some philosophically interesting (and perhaps even controversial) conclusions (aristocratic ones? under that “man of the people from Jhansi” exterior?) but this is another reason I am not a fan of his books. You get the party line, and nothing but the party line. The message is in fact NEVER controversial or new or shocking. it is exactly tailored to fit current postliberal fashions and where those fashions are internally contradictory, Pankaj will not venture. Sad!

By the way, he thinks Pope Francis is the “most convincing and influential public intellectual today”. Convincing? to whom? and MOST influential??

When it comes to Islam, he is even more predictable and safe. The following, for example, is a fairly typical example of clueless Euroliberal apologetics, and Pankaj may even know better, but he knows what buttons to push, so here it is.

(Osama and Zarqawi, not to speak of Al-Baghdadi, who has a PhD in Islamic studies, do in fact know a lot about the Islam of their ancestors. that the foot soldiers don’t know the theological details is neither here nor there; foot soldiers of other ideologies don’t know either)

He is not always wrong. In fact he is frequently perfectly correct, but in a trite and almost trivial way. For example, he says (correctly in my view) that “those routinely evoking a woldwide clash of civilizations in which Islam is pitted against the West, and religion against reason, are not able to explain many political, social and environmental ills”. Yes, but to hear him say it, you would think everyone except Pankaj thinks this is the case. But in fact, hardly any liberal commentators see this as the main explanatory framework for the world today. Debunking this to a liberal audience (and there is no other audience for this book) seems like the easiest of easy shots, not worth wasting 350 pages. But that is the problem with the book: in the end, it is just dumbed down propaganda, preaching to the converted, telling then what they already believed, but making them feel like they are participating in the unmasking of some deep and meaningful secret. This formula surely works as a way to sell books and get good reviews. But for anyone interested in new information or deeper insights, it is a waste of time.  What Scruton said about Foucault’s “The order of things” (“an artful book.. a work not of philosophy but of rhetoric”) applies to this book too. Which is unfortunate. Pankaj is obviously intelligent and very widely read. He could do something more interesting than just artfully massaging the fashionable prejudices of his class and his audience.

Besides, while he hates this “soul-killing world of mediocrity and cowardice” he is also a Westernized liberal (or post-liberal) who cannot possibly stand alongside, say, the extreme Hindu or Islamic radical who says exactly the same things. To him, those people are justified in their rebellion (though he is not at all sympathetic to the Hindu variety, relatively gentle on the Islamist variety, and most forgiving of the Leftist variety, because of the particular politics of his own peer group) but at the same time he cannot really advocate any “return to traditional mores” because of course, those mores are patriarchal, heirarchical, transphobic etc etc.. Knowing this and knowing his audience, he never goes too far into this problem. But the problem is very real. If modernity is evil, then why not the premodern? And if that too is “problematic”, then we have a bigger human issue on our hands and all this handwaving has done nothing to bring us one step closer to a solution.

PS: a couple of other random screenshots

“Man..can no longer connect cause to effect”. OK, but that implies a return to very ancient isolation. Is that the solution? maybe it is, but you won’t hear more about it from Pankaj. He presses the button, makes you feel deep, and moves on.

The book is full of this sort of elevated pseudo-discourse..

We end where we began. We need to do something new. But what?

by the way, since Pankaj quotes Nietzsche on ressentiment, here is the original. Judge for yourself..