Can American democracy come back?

December 6th, 2018


America’s ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice for all may never have been fully realized, but now they are under open attack. Democracy has become rule of, by, and for the few; and justice for all is available to all who are white and can afford it.

The United States has long held itself up as a bastion of democracy. It has promoted democracy around the world. It fought, at great cost, for democracy against fascism in Europe during World War II. Now the fight has come home.

America’s credentials as a democracy were always slightly blemished. The US was founded as a representative democracy, but only a small fraction of its citizens – mostly white male property owners – were eligible to vote. After the abolition of slavery, the white people of America’s South struggled for nearly a century to keep African-Americans from voting, using poll taxes and literacy tests, for example, to make casting a ballot inaccessible to the poor. Their voting rights were guaranteed nearly a half-century after the enfranchisement of women in 1920.

Democracies rightly constrain majority domination, which is why they enshrine certain basic rights that cannot be denied. But in the US, this has been turned on its head. The minority is dominating the majority, with little regard for their political and economic rights. A majority of Americans want gun control, an increase in the minimum wage, guaranteed access to health insurance, and better regulation of the banks that brought on the 2008 crisis. Yet all of these goals seem unattainable.

Part of the reason for that is rooted in the US Constitution. Two of the three presidents elected in this century assumed office despite having lost the popular vote. Were it not for the Electoral College, included in the Constitution at the insistence of the less populous slave states, Al Gore would have become president in 2000, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But the Republican Party’s reliance on voter suppression, gerrymandering, and similar efforts at electoral manipulation have also contributed to ensuring that the will of the majority is thwarted. The party’s approach is perhaps understandable: after all, shifting demographics have put the Republicans at an electoral disadvantage. A majority of Americans will soon be nonwhite, and a twenty-first-century world and economy cannot be reconciled with a male-dominated society. And the urban areas where the majority of Americans live, whether in the North or the South, have learned the value of diversity.

Voters in these areas of growth and dynamism have also seen the role that government can and must play to bring about shared prosperity. They have abandoned the shibboleths of the past, sometimes almost overnight. In a democratic society, therefore, the only way a minority – whether it’s large corporations trying to exploit workers and consumers, banks trying to exploit borrowers, or those mired in the past trying to recreate a bygone world – can retain their economic and political dominance is by undermining democracy itself.

Project Syndicate for more

The government’s $4.6 billion handout to Amazon

December 6th, 2018


CARTOON/Boston Globe/Duck Duck Go

Why Amazon should be expropriated

In September of last year, Amazon announced its intention of building a second headquarters in the US, dubbed “HQ2.” This announcement inaugurated a bidding contest between 238 different cities, during which state and local governments from coast to coast competed among each other to present Amazon with the most favorable terms.

Billions of dollars were offered up to Amazon in the form of tax breaks and subsidies. Democrat and Republican alike, the governments of America’s cities—Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh—all submitted their bids. New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo offered to change his name to “Amazon Cuomo” if it would help win the contest. The town of Stonecrest, Georgia offered to change its name to “Amazon, Georgia.” The town’s mayor asked Bezos, “How could you not want your 21st century headquarters to be located in a city named Amazon?”

This week, Amazon announced the conclusion of this sordid beauty pageant. Amazon will split the new headquarters between Queens in New York City, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, and Crystal City, Virginia, across the street from the Pentagon. With these choices, Amazon’s headquarters will be positioned alongside (1) the headquarters of global finance capital, and (2) the headquarters of America’s state and military-intelligence apparatus. The bids of the “loser” cities will be used to exact concessions for future Amazon projects.

According to a study highlighted Thursday in the Intercept, Amazon’s HQ2 will come at a total cost of $4.6 billion to state and local governments. These giveaways will be paid with funds extracted from the population through taxation.

Amazon got everything it wanted. The company’s contract with the state of Virginia obligates the state legislature to do Amazon’s bidding until 2043, regardless of the outcome of elections. But Amazon can back out of its obligations at any time, keeping all of the benefits to date, by providing five days’ notice.

The Virginia location will doubtless facilitate Amazon’s lobbying efforts in Washington, for which it spent $13 million last year. It will also position Amazon for lucrative defense contracts and further integration with the American military and intelligence apparatus. “We are going to continue to support the DoD [Department of Defense],” Bezos said at a recent Wired25 summit, “and I think we should.”

The New York deal involves allowing Jeff Bezos to have a rooftop helipad, so that he does not have to use the streets or public transportation.

The scramble to turn public resources over to this massive monopoly brings the real state of affairs in society into plain view. The corporate oligarchs dictate their terms, and politicians from both capitalist parties rush to obey.

When it comes to the needs of the population as a whole, such as education, clean water, health care, public transportation, housing, jobs, culture, protection from fires and natural disasters, and measures to address climate change, the population is endlessly told that there is “no money” for these utopian dreams. But when the world’s richest man comes knocking, America’s political leaders throw open the vaults and shovel money at him.

Democracy is incompatible with this state of affairs. “A monopoly, once it is formed and controls thousands of millions, inevitably penetrates into every sphere of public life, regardless of the form of government and all the other ‘details,’” Lenin wrote in his famous treatise on imperialism. What was true when corporate empires were measured in the thousands of millions of dollars is even truer today of Amazon, which is valued at over a trillion dollars.

World Socialist Web Site for more

Evangelicals bring the votes, Catholics bring the brains

December 6th, 2018


The Word of Life’ mural, otherwise known as the ‘Touchdown Jesus’, at the Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame University. PHOTO/Wikipedia

Catholics make up a disproportionate share of the intelligentsia of the religious Right in the United States. Although they constitute only a fifth of the US population (and white Catholics make up less than 12 per cent of the US population), they maintain a high profile among conservative think tanks, universities and professional organisations. On the US Supreme Court, four out of five Republican-appointed justices are Catholic, despite evangelicals making up a substantial portion of Republican Party support.

To understand Catholic overrepresentation on the US Supreme Court, and how Catholics in some sense became the brains of American conservatism, we must look to the history of Catholic education in the US.

Successive waves of Irish, German, Polish and Mexican migrants to the US made up most of the Catholic Church in the US. They faced persistent harassment from the country’s Protestant majority. In 1834, when a Protestant mob burned down an Ursuline convent near Boston, it was only an extreme example of popular American prejudice against Catholics.

Long a Europe-oriented institution, the Catholic Church had a tense relationship with liberalism, church-state separation and democracy. Often in the 19th century, the Vatican felt itself under siege by republicanism in France, where the state had seized Catholic lands and property, and in Italy, where nationalists had unified the country at the expense of the temporal power of the Papal States. This was the context, during the First Vatican Council of 1869-70, in which the Vatican proclaimed the Pope infallible, a rarely invoked doctrine but one that symbolised the incompatibility of conservative Catholicism with republicanism and secularism. The Vatican published an ‘index of forbidden books’ from the 1600s until 1948 (officially ending only in 1966, following the Second Vatican Council) that banned the laity from reading Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, John Locke, Martin Luther, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Niccolò Machiavelli. Later, 20th-century authors including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were added.

Of course, many American Catholics regularly ignored these prohibitions. And some American clergy believed that Catholicism should adapt to the values of its new homeland. But the Catholic hierarchy and especially the Vatican remained opponents of liberalism. In his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), Pope Leo XIII even condemned ‘Americanism’, warning that it was wrong to desire ‘the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world’. Fear of republicanism and secularism partly drove American Catholics to set up separate institutions for themselves – separate social clubs, separate unions and separate charities.

Aeon for more

How will capitalism end?

December 5th, 2018


CARTOON/Duck Duck Go

There is a widespread sense today that capitalism is in critical condition, more so than at any time since the end of the Second World War. [1] Looking back, the crash of 2008 was only the latest in a long sequence of political and economic disorders that began with the end of postwar prosperity in the mid-1970s. Successive crises have proved to be ever more severe, spreading more widely and rapidly through an increasingly interconnected global economy. Global inflation in the 1970s was followed by rising public debt in the 1980s, and fiscal consolidation in the 1990s was accompanied by a steep increase in private-sector indebtedness. [2] For four decades now, disequilibrium has more or less been the normal condition of the ‘advanced’ industrial world, at both the national and the global levels. In fact, with time, the crises of postwar oecd capitalism have become so pervasive that they have increasingly been perceived as more than just economic in nature, resulting in a rediscovery of the older notion of a capitalist society—of capitalism as a social order and way of life, vitally dependent on the uninterrupted progress of private capital accumulation.

Crisis symptoms are many, but prominent among them are three long-term trends in the trajectories of rich, highly industrialized—or better, increasingly deindustrialized—capitalist countries. The first is a persistent decline in the rate of economic growth, recently aggravated by the events of 2008 (Figure 1, below). The second, associated with the first, is an equally persistent rise in overall indebtedness in leading capitalist states, where governments, private households and non-financial as well as financial firms have, over forty years, continued to pile up financial obligations (for the us, see Figure 2, below). Third, economic inequality, of both income and wealth, has been on the ascent for several decades now (Figure 3, below), alongside rising debt and declining growth.

Steady growth, sound money and a modicum of social equity, spreading some of the benefits of capitalism to those without capital, were long considered prerequisites for a capitalist political economy to command the legitimacy it needs. What must be most alarming from this perspective is that the three critical trends I have mentioned may be mutually reinforcing. There is mounting evidence that increasing inequality may be one of the causes of declining growth, as inequality both impedes improvements in productivity and weakens demand. Low growth, in turn, reinforces inequality by intensifying distributional conflict, making concessions to the poor more costly for the rich, and making the rich insist more than before on strict observance of the ‘Matthew principle’ governing free markets: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.’ [3] Furthermore, rising debt, while failing to halt the decline of economic growth, compounds inequality through the structural changes associated with financialization—which in turn aimed to compensate wage earners and consumers for the growing income inequality caused by stagnant wages and cutbacks in public services.

Can what appears to be a vicious circle of harmful trends continue forever? Are there counterforces that might break it—and what will happen if they fail to materialize, as they have for almost four decades now?

New Left Review for more

Red Birds

December 5th, 2018



Red Birds revolves around three major characters who lead the narration — American pilot major Ellie whose plane has crashed in the desert near the refugee camp he was supposed to bomb; precocious 15-year-old Momo from the refugeee camp whose elder brother has mysteriously disappeared and who dreams of making it big as an entrepreneur to escape the poverty of his surroundings; and Momo’s dog Mutt whose brains were partially fried during a freak accident and who can see strange birds nobody else can.

The following excerpt is our first introduction to Momo’s narrative voice.

This place is full of thieves. I know what you gonna say. You’re gonna say what’s there to steal? And I’m gonna tell you: look with care, there is nothing to steal because everything has already been stolen. You’re gonna think maybe you can have a camp without water taps, a camp with road tax, a camp without a road, a camp with electric poles, a camp without electricity, but surely you can’t have a camp without a boundary wall? So where is that boundary wall, you gonna ask? Stolen.

You’re gonna say how can anyone steal an entire boundary wall? And I’m gonna say you don’t know these people, my people.

When it comes to stealing, they are artists.

They stole it brick by brick. Foundations were dug up and every single bit of concrete, mortar was taken away, steel wires were pulled with bare hands. There are those who’re gonna blame me for prying the first brick loose, but I did that to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the international-aid types, nice-smelling do-gooders who obviously were the biggest thieves of them all. But they did their paperwork. You see that crater there? That was gonna be a dam for a water reservoir. You see that pile of shining steel poles tied down with chains and locks? That was gonna be electricity. You see that shack with two buffaloes in it? That’s my alma mater. For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen. There was a complaints register where you could report this kind of thing, it had a ball-pen tied to it with a piece of nylon string.

Yes, you guessed that right, it was stolen along with the ball-pen.

There was a waterfall here, yes a proper waterfall, it had shrunk to three feet and the fall was only basketball-hoop high. Bro Ali and I used to bathe under it when I was a child. And that was not a very long time ago. Some people’re gonna say that if I was only a child back then how would I know? How can there be a waterfall in the middle of the desert, they’re gonna ask. And I’m gonna say you know nothing about this place, my place.

Dawn for more

The biggest story of the century needs more coverage

December 5th, 2018


Abandoned phosphate harbor on the Pacific island of Nauru, which is acutely threatened by rising seas. PHOTO/Mike Leyral, Getty Images

Yes, the news on climate change is bad. That’s why we need more of it

When I’m trying to impress people, I like to tell them that I won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, that’s right.

Okay, maybe you’ve never heard of me, and it’s true I don’t rank up there with Mother Teresa or Elie Wiesel. But arguably thousands of people can make claim to have won the prize because in 2007 it was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a grouping of thousands of scientists and other experts who regularly evaluate the latest science to report on the state of the climate and the prospects for our planet.

Seven years earlier, while taking a break from my career as a journalist to work for a brief stint at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I was tasked with overseeing the US government’s review of the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, gathering feedback from various agencies to send as an official response to the report. So I was in theory a very small part of the IPCC, and thus a recipient of an ever so minute portion of the prize. Hey, when it comes to climate change, you take what victories you can get.

The IPCC has been in the news lately because it recently released a striking new report documenting that the impacts of climate change have generally been worse than expected. They also concluded that the target the world’s governments had set of keeping average global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius is probably not enough to avoid planetary catastrophe. They concluded that is likely to occur even with a 1.5 degree rise, a level we might reach by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, costing the planetary economy an estimated $54 trillion.

The situation, in other words, is much worse than people thought.

That is a hard message for journalists to tell in our stories. Yes, it is true that even if governments meet all the commitments they made to the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we probably still won’t be able to keep average global warming below 3 degrees, if that. And the fact is that in the current political climate—not only is the U.S. led by a climate change denier, but Brazil has elected one as president too, putting the fate of the Amazon rainforest and other ecosystems into question—even the hope of fulfilling those commitments seems tenuous. Most Americans care about climate change, but not enough to make it a priority when voting. Some communications experts, however, worry that too much candor about the dire outlook may cause people to throw up their arms in despair and simply carry on with business as usual, even as the forests burn.

On the other hand, journalists have a responsibility to be honest about our planetary prospects, and to report as often and openly as possible about climate change. A recent column by Margaret Sullivan emphasizing the need for more and better media coverage explains quite eloquently that our civilization may be at stake.

Scientific American for more

Death of Chris Wanjala confirms 2018 a doomsday for African literature

December 4th, 2018


PHOTO/Pulse Live

The author reflects on recent passing of Professor Chris Wanjala of the University of Nairobi, at the same time thinking about other prominent African intellectuals and political figures such as Samir Amin and Kofi Annan that Africa lost in 2018.

On 6 October, I wrote a short message to Professor Chris Wanjala, I wanted to share with him some news about the Egyptian Marxist and political economist Samir Amin who had died in early August 2018. Unfortunately, Chris Wanjala did not have the information about the death of Samir Amin, he replied to my message, fully expressing his grieve. In his message he also wondered why the media in East Africa could not run news stories about the death of such a prominent intellectual, scholar, patriot and social revolutionary like Samir Amin. This was my fourth time I was communicating with Professor Chris Wanjala in the year 2018.

At the beginning of 2018, in fact on 20 January, I called Chris Wanjala to get his sentiments about South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile who had just died by then. Chris Wanjala talked on phone for two hours about the peculiar strength, intellectual alertness, academic focus, cultural confidence and intellectual empathy as the key qualities of Keorapetse. Professor Chris Wanjala was very specific in declaring Keorapetse as a good man and a caring scholar for the critical role Keorapetse played in assisting Ngugi wa Thiong’o to run away to Zimbabwe and then use the Zimbabwean passport to go to exile in the United Sates of America.

This was the time the government of Kenya under the visceral dictatorship of Daniel Moi had instructed the special branch police to arrest and detain Ngugi wa Thiong’o at the Nyayo torture chambers for writing the books that were intellectually liberal. My conversation with Professor Chris Wanjala about Keorapetse that particular evening inspired me to write an article about the unique literary and intellectual spirit of Keorapetse Kgositsile, the article was published as the main letter in The Sunday Nationat Nairobi and as the leading opinion in The Face2faceat New York.

In one of the weekend days of May 2018, I visited Anna Nanjala Catholic Library in Lodwar town, north-western Kenya to do some general reading, I first read Professor Wanjala’s brief review of Dreams in Time of Warby Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Professor Wanjala had reviewed this memoir by Ngugi in Awaaz Magazine. Then again I picked the Mind and Stylesof Okot P’Bitek in Song of Lawinoby Monica Naliaka Wanambisi (also known as Professor Monica Mwelesi). The introduction in this book was written by Chris Wanjala. It is one of the best introductions ever written in Africa. It comes out clearly on the problem of “Barbarous Pedantry” disguising as literary criticism in Kenya.

It was so Pataphorical on that day that Professor Chris Wanjala coincidently called me that same moment I was reading the introduction.

Pambazuka for more

In Bolivia, a backlash against women in politics/en Bolivia, una reacción violenta contra las mujeres en política

December 4th, 2018


The mayor of Collana, Bertha Quispe, in the central square of the village. PHOTO/Irene Escudero

In Bolivia, women in power, such as Indigenous mayor Bertha Quispe, often suffer political harassment and violence.

Bertha Quispe was 28-years-old when she was elected mayor of Collana, a small town in the Bolivian Altiplano of just over 5,000 inhabitants, who work primarily in ranching and open-pit mining. Quispe is young, an Indigenous Aymara—like most of the inhabitants of Collana—and originally from a small community in the municipality.

She entered a world dominated by men in a country where women’s political participation is rapidly growing. Since 2014, a majority of the national parliamentarians have been women, and since the 2015 municipal elections, women have had a 51 percent of representation in municipal councils. However, Quispe is one of only 29 women mayors in Bolivia: only 8 percent of the country’s municipalities have a female mayor.

Quispe is the first woman mayor of Collana. All of the town’s previous mayors were male, older, and lived in the municipality’s main urban center. Once elected, those surrounding her—Indigenous authorities, local union representatives, and office visitors—were predominantly male.

Quispe had initially studied in the municipality but completed high school in the city of El Alto, an hour away by public transportation. There, in the second largest city in Bolivia, she majored in social work before returning to her village, where she became a schoolteacher and began to participate in grassroots organizations, such as the Sindicato de Mujeres Campesinas Bartolina Sisa (Bartolina Sisa Women Farmers’ Union).

Leading up to the 2014 municipal elections, each of the seven territories that make up Collana held local caucuses under the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), the party of President Evo Morales, where they created an assembly of proposed candidates for mayor and councilor positions. Guided by principles of gender equality and complementarity, each assembly was required to propose two candidates: a man and a woman. They consulted Quispe by phone and she accepted to run. She said she identifies with “the process of change” Morales represents.

Soon after, an assembly chose Quispe to represent the MAS in the local election. On March 29, 2015, Quispe won with a small margin of 51 votes. The victory was so close that her party was left with a minority in the Council, holding just two of five seats. This was the outcome of some voters having supported her mayoral candidacy but having chosen others outside of the party for the council.

Yet a few months after she became mayor, in June 2015, Quispe began to suffer political harassment and violence. There was some ongoing tension between councilors and other male social leaders, but the real conflict set off at the end of February 2016.

Quispe had devised a new urban planning structure that changed the boundaries between the different communities of Collana. Her opponents accused her of favoring her community, Ichuralla Chico, and of acting without the approval of the Council, which she denies.

The North American Congress on Latin America for more

Writing as fast as reality

December 4th, 2018


Ali Smith in her garden, Cambridge, England, 2005 PHOTO/Antonio Olmos/eyevine/Redux

Winter by Ali Smith (Pantheon, 322 pp.)

Autumn by Ali Smith (Anchor, 264 pp.)

I read the first two novels of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet in Cairo, where long, warm, sunny days make up most of the year. In a city whose pace—a down-tempo lull—gives a sense that time is expanded, Autumn, with its meandering, time-traveling, light-footed story of a friendship between a young girl and an old man, felt exhilarating, deeply touching, even breathtaking. Winter, which is not strictly a sequel except in the seasonal sense and which revolves around a Christmas gathering at a family home in Cornwall, was fraught, overwhelming, dire. Too many people, too many egos, too many ideas, too much tension. “Ghastly” is how I have heard the season, which I have never experienced in its entirety, described—but the word “somewhat” applies to it and the temperament of the novel as well.

Winter begins tellingly, like Autumn, with a contemporary take on a Dickensian tale:

God was dead: to begin with.

And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism and surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music, disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead.

As were history, politics, democracy, political correctness, the media, the Internet, Twitter, religion, marriage, sex lives, Christmas, and both truth and fiction. But “life wasn’t yet dead. Revolution wasn’t dead. Racial equality wasn’t dead. Hatred wasn’t dead.”

Smith, who was born in Scotland in 1962, is as attuned to the current moment as she is to the cycles of history that led us here. Growing up in council housing, Smith held odd jobs including waitressing and cleaning lettuce before persuing a Ph.D. in American and Irish modernism at Cambridge; she ultimately abandoned academia to write plays.

In Winter, Arthur (Art), who makes a living tracking down copyright-infringing images in music videos and also maintains a blog, Art in Nature, has just broken up with Charlotte, his conspiracy-theorist anticapitalist girlfriend, who has destroyed his laptop by drilling a hole through it and taken over his Twitter account to impersonate and ridicule him. Unable to face Christmas alone with his emotionally withdrawn, hypersensitive, and self-starved mother—Sophia, aka Ms. Cleves—and having promised her that he would bring along his girlfriend, he hires Velux (Lux), a gay Croatian whom he meets at an Internet café, to be a stand-in Charlotte (for £1000). At some point over that Christmas weekend, a long-estranged, politically and technologically aware hippie aunt, Iris, visits too. In their midst, accompanying Sophia, is the floating, disembodied head of a child. Bashful, friendly, nonverbal, it becomes something of a constant, if gradually dying, presence.

Family banter, conflict, political debate, reckonings, and reconciliation ensue. As do dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, and apparitions. Perspectives and narrators constantly change, shift, and collapse; parallel and tangential events are recounted at the same time. (“Let’s see another Christmas. This one is the one that happened in 1991.”) Conversation is structured and guided intuitively:

The New York Review of Books for more

Why it is important to preserve Tagore’s ‘Gurudev’ image

December 3rd, 2018


It is for the best that only three of Tagore’s works are known to the nationalists today. PHOTO/Cherishsantosh/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Beyond the sanitised image of a ‘Gurudev’, Rabindranath Tagore railed against nationalism and disagreed with Gandhi’s refusal to draw a line between politics and religion. If the cultural godfathers of our great Bharat get wind of these words, he would surely be branded an ‘urban Naxal’.

Many more people like to refer to India’s greatest poet by the moniker Gurudev than by the name that his parents had given him at birth, the name that appears on his Nobel medallion. Politicians and industry barons, intellectuals as much as mafia dons, dyed-in-the-wool liberals no less than right-of-right creationists: they all love to pay obeisance to their Gurudev in equal measure.

At the first hint of an opportunity, people trot out one of the three pieces of Rabindranath Tagore’s work that everyone seems to be familiar with – Jadi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re (“If no one heeds your call, you must walk alone”) being the universal favourite. Even though some of the more patriotic specimens of our political class have been known to fumble when asked to recite the national anthem, nobody fails to roundly condemn a laggard who rises late to the same anthem when it plays out in a movie theatre’s sound system. And, recently, even one of our most intrepid mainstream journalists felt encouraged to pen verses patterned on ‘Where the mind is without fear’

Tagore is everybody’s favourite for several reasons. First, we are a nation of guru-bhakts, congenitally programmed to idolise every Baba and every Ma (guruwad being sex-blind), and of course every godman with a double-barrelled honorific adorning his name. To be fair to the poet, he does indeed fit the bill rather well – what with his fine, flowing beard, his aquiline nose and high forehead, his long and colourful robes, and of course the ashram that he, so faithful to our hallowed tradition, set up and nurtured.

Then again, ‘Gurudev’ is so convenient. He is always there, like the Himalayas or the Vedas or the six seasons of Bengal, and so nobody needs to take the trouble to study or explore his work again, for don’t we already know what there is to know about, say, the vedas? (So, those three nuggets from the Gurudev’s cannon will do very well for us, thank you.)

Most importantly, however, the virtues of a Gurudev lie in the sanitised, aseptic image of such an exalted being. He is above everything mundane or worldly. Ordinary human emotions and passions, anxieties and predilections are entirely alien to him. And he always symbolises stability and continuity. Change is anathema to his character. Also, no question troubles him, because he, the true sage, already knows every answer.

But does he? Was Tagore immune to all questions and doubts, or is the image of the Gurudev a convenient, and also clever, construct, but only a construct, no more? Was the poet a status quoist in the hoary ‘Indian’ tradition?

The Wire for more