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The 'Politics of Division' Is All There Is

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I opened the Slate homepage during the US Democratic Primaries ages ago to search for a couple of old Christopher Hitchens Columns and noticed this phrase on the frontpage:

Bernie Sanders is a divider, in a good way.

The title, if not the article, reminded me of the Hitch. One of my favorite videos is him talking to Jeremy Paxman.

When Paxman asks him about the 'politics of division':

When you say in this country, "I'm a unifier", you expect and usually get applause. I'm a divider. Politics is division by definition. You need a difference of opinion.

The article was about the failures of the Obama Presidency and Sanders's statements about not wanting to work with the GOP on issues he did not support for the sake of (ugh) bipartisanship. So, Hitchens was acutely right, and if not in his lifetime, it's safe to say he's been vindicated.

Politicians like to talk about fundamental differences, and unlike much politicians talk about, these differences exist. There is a fundamental, undeniable difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, the RSS and the CPI(M), Franco and the Republicans, the Allies and the Axis, and between Salman Rushdie and the late(I cannot help but snigger at Rushdie's sly remark: 'One of us is still alive. Do not mess with novelists') Ayatollah Khomeini.

These differences are irreconcilable. What Martin Amis once said about chess is occasionally true of politics: "It's a fight. It's a fight."

The Hitch, sadly, is not with us. But we can contemplate what he would do if he was.

I think we would find him, perhaps not speaking for Sanders or Clinton or the Democrats, but at least eviscerating the Republicans. Sean Spicer should be glad that the Hitch is dead. Or he would see, as he stood in the press room, Christopher Hitchens in his element, bobbing and weaving; jabbing and parrying; ripping and tearing; protecting and defending.

You know you don't want to be on the other side.

On Prohibiting The Vernacular

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What a country. Perennially occupied with debating what to eat, what to drink, what to ban, what to make compulsory. What a country. Ours.
- Anand Ranganathan

After a commonplace birth on 21st July 2000 at the Kozhikode Cooperative Hospital, I was whisked away to Chennai, where I lived for the next 12 years or so. I grew up learning only Tamil and English at School. I managed to pick up a modicum of rudimentary spoken Malayalam,but I was never able to properly learn the language. That was until we moved back to Kerala. Upon arrival, I was enrolled at a high-toned school in Kozhikode run by the CMI.

Looking back, the admission interview seemed like a red flag. Standing outside the principal's office was a young girl from the 6th grade, looking vaguely guilty and squirming in her shoes.

"Why are you here?” I asked.
"For speaking Malayalam in class.”

We smiled and moved on. It was only later that I found that Malayalam was prohibited except during the Malayalam class, which was hardly three quarters of an hour long. No Malayalam in the corridor, no Malayalam in class, not even in the school courtyard. If caught, though this is rare, a fine is levied.

The rule isn't always enforced, of course. Monitoring 1200 students is a singularly difficult task for a school principal, even a competent one. Yet, even the existence of such a rule prohibiting students from speaking the language of their ancestors is banal. It restricts communication.

Even more unsettling was reading the 10th standard Malayalam textbook which contains a translated section from Kenyan Writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's excellent Decolonising the Mind. In a chapter, he speaks about the British colonial practice of prohibiting the use of a Kenyan vernacular, Gikuyu, in convent schools and punishing students for speaking in the language most familiar to them. The idea was disgraceful then, coming from foreign colonialists.

It seems even more so now, coming from the head of an education institution in a quasi-liberal democracy. Of course, I am not accusing my former principal of neo-imperialism, but it must be said that these ideals still remain entrenched in our post-colonial minds. I am not rejecting Western Civilisation or the consolations of Philosophy, Literature, or Science. I am basing my arguments on them.

Considering Malayalam inferior(condescending and utterly incorrect in itself as many western writers would do well to aspire to Srinivasan's Satire or Basheer's immense resonance) is just stupid. Barring it from students is frankly disgusting.

The Unfaithful Countryside

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I wrote this little fragment a while back, on a train ride to Hyderabad for CIDMUN 2016. I was so bored that I just transcribed what I saw outside. I hope you like it :)

It was midday and the train had just started. Adil sat by the window, casting accusing glances at the heaving fields: The heaving fields of the unfaithful countryside with its streaks of red earth and green grass; the bricked ridges partitioning the paddy plots; the grimy rotundas of the men from housing colonies, goading their improbably obese wives to slam foam-lathered laundry on rough stone; the mined, rocky hills displaying pubic grass on their plateau’d mounts. He rested his face against the iron bars of the window, blinking at the sudden rush of wind and staring ahead. The train writhed and twisted on the tracks as he fell asleep and woke to a sprinkle of rain. A day passed, then a night, and then began another day in late February.

Understanding Obama: Perspective, Foreign Policy, And The Limits of Power

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I’ve been reading articles about the Obama Administration, partly out of nostalgia, but also out of retrospective interest. The 44th President was an excellent statesman, regardless of how terrible his successor is. But while we're building bomb shelters, Barack Obama is out there, and seems to be happy as can be.

There's a lot of excellent writing about Obama and you should read all of it. But since you're reading this, here are some important excerpts and a little intrepid analysis.

Obama's Way

The first piece that comes to mind is Obama's Way by Michael Lewis who also wrote books like Moneyball, Liar's Poker, The New New Thing and so much else. He somehow convinced the White House to give him access in 2012. This was quite a feat, and the only comparable presidential profile is of Truman by John Hersey in the New Yorker(April 28, 1951!).

Lewis's piece tells us something that's missing in most biographies: A feel of what someone is like and how they think.

It starts with Tyler Stark, an air-force navigator whose plane was shot down during the first days of the Libyan Intervention of 2011. Lewis weaves a narrative on who Obama really is which cannot be divorced from his being the President of the United States. He gives us a feel for the man.

He didn’t really know why he’d been sent here, to Libya, in the first place. He knew his assignment, his specific mission. But he didn’t know the reason for it. He’d never met a Libyan. Drifting high over the desert he had no sense that he was at once an expression of an idea framed late one night in the White House by the president himself, writing with a No. 2 pencil, and also, suddenly, a threat to that idea.

This becomes a theme and tells us, without burying the lead, how little control we really have. Salman Rushdie once spouted a priceless fragment in an interview with the Paris Review that's worth remembering here.

... It challenges Heraclitus’s idea that character is destiny. Sometimes your character is not your destiny. Sometimes a plane flying into a building is your destiny.

Moving on, here's some practical advice from Obama about decision fatigue.

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

and towards the end of the piece, he moves back to the initial premise of the profile, of how much power we do not have, and of the limits of this kind of power.

At that moment there was a curious balance of power between the leader and the led. Tyler Stark was in harm’s way because of a decision Barack Obama had made, more or less on his own. He was at the mercy of another man’s character.

This is an incredible article. It gets better in that we get to know a lot about how Lewis wrote it. He had an hour-long conversation about it at Berkeley.

The Obama Doctrine

I've always been a big foreign policy buff which I think is the most exciting boring-hobby to have. The Obama Doctrine by Jeffrey Goldberg is an excellent long view on Presiden Obama's Foreign Policy, which, perhaps mistakenly, I call enlightened self-interest. The piece begins with Syria, and largely stays there while giving us overviews of Obama's views on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. As we learned from Obama's Way, the views of the President of the United States are more tangible than of most. That is why this quote is so important, and, quite a relief:

Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”

The piece also gives us a view of the people in the Situation Room at every decision including the admirable Samantha Power who I recommend you read more of, and about.

Power, who during this period served on the National Security Council staff, is the author of a celebrated book excoriating a succession of U.S. presidents for their failures to prevent genocide. The book, A Problem From Hell, published in 2002, drew Obama to Power while he was in the U.S. Senate, though the two were not an obvious ideological match.

It also touches on why I admire Obama's statesmanship: His ability(shared by Ben Rhodes, a staffer who the next pick is about) to cut through to the heart of a problem, and make a calm, collected decision; his uncanny instinct to step outside of a situation and view it detachedly.

I first spoke with Obama about foreign policy when he was a U.S. senator, in 2006. At the time, I was familiar mainly with the text of a speech he had delivered four years earlier, at a Chicago antiwar rally. It was an unusual speech for an antiwar rally in that it was not antiwar; Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, argued only against one specific and, at the time, still theoretical, war. “I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbours.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

This is remarkably prescient, considering that he arrived at a better foreign policy judgement than the Bush Administration of the time. These are also things that he took into account during the Libyan Intervention, the semi-failure of which, is a heartbreakingly instructive look at the limits of power.

To understand his views on war and pacifism a bit better, you would do well to watch his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. It was a case for just war which is probably the most readable analysis of the concept by a statesman in history.

“I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything,” he said.

Obama seems to describe himself as an internationalist.

“I am very much the internationalist,” Obama said in a later conversation. “And I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values...."

I'll end my intrepid analysis of his foreign policy with the continuation of this quote, the truest thing that can be said on Foreign Policy as well as any other.

“Having said that,” he continued, “I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”

What next?

I want to bring your attention to Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power and a couple of other important staffers. I also want to highlight some more interesting features of his administration. I'm planning on writing those, but I have board exams to attend to. Laters, I think, would be le mot juste.

A Women's Day Bookshelf Experiment

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Happy International Women's Day.

As an experiment, I checked my bookshelves for books written by female authors. Just so you know, my cabinets are enormous.

  1. Stephen Hawking by Kitty Ferguson
  2. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
  3. Lajja by Taslima Nasreen
  4. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  5. Harry Potter(All of them) by JK Rowling

That's very little out of a few hundred. I guess that this is what you would see at a bookshop as well. This is intensely sad. I gotta get me some Virginia Woolf.