One evening, when I was in a restaurant, the waiter pointed his finger at a very young girl standing outside and said to me with a sly smile: “Look, she is smoking”. I looked at her, assessing the merits of the notion that a woman’s good looks will purchase indemnity for even her most grievous sin. Perhaps I should join Goethe in admitting that baseness attracts everybody.
Men and women are not expected to go beyond a certain point, when these are precisely the points they want to cross. When even the bravest man or woman tries to push these boundaries with self-righteous iconoclasm, they do it hoping against hope that the harshest judgment of the world wouldn’t be reserved for them.
Manu Joseph expresses it so well: “Sometimes I am amazed at how women in India go through life being women. No matter what they do, they can never be invisible, and it is very important to be invisible. There is a peculiar stoic expression they have when they stand out in the open and smoke. They know everybody on the street has judged them. Even on my lane in South Bombay it is true. I’ve not conducted a poll yet, but I am certain that nobody on Third Pasta Lane believes that a woman who smokes can also be a virgin.”
When a woman smokes in India, more than exploring the forbidden, she is stirring up the transgression and taboo. She is flouting the social norms of a world in which men and women are afraid to be themselves. It tells us more about those norms than about the inner conflicts which torture her mind. The conflict between what is visible to the naked eye and what is visible only to the inner eye of the mind becomes all the more clear when we see that even in the far more permissible society of South Delhi or South Bombay, there are far more social limits than it meets the eye.
When the modern man thinks that he is supposed to feel that women should be liberated, he often feels that as much as he wants to, he is simply unable to feel that way. I recently listened to the vividly graphic description of the behavior of some men in the meeting of the prospective bride and the groom. Taking her to a bar, one of them asked: “Do you drink, lady?” He was amused when she said “No” in vague apprehension. “Oh, Bharatiya Naari!” he laughed. A “workaholic” wanted a domesticated wife who cooks and cleans when he is busy turning the world upside down. One young man looked up and smiled like an imbecile when his mother was bent on knowing the dowry she can expect.
Vinod Mehta’s “Lucknow Boy” tells us his experience with the broad minded Kabir Bedi who thought that the ‘Debonair’ Magazine was celebrating naked female body and making India proud of its rich culture and heritage. Kabir Bedi was not amused when ‘Debonair’ went as far as attempting to print his wife Protima Bedi unclad. He threatened to break up with her, and the center spread was instantly pulled off the machine.
We should not think that women who flout conventions are different. A year ago, I spent my mornings talking to an exceptionally smart young girl on the internet. She was from a country where sexual mores were far more liberal. Her favorite pastime was entertaining her virtual friends by taking her clothes off. When I asked her why, she insisted that it is a joyful experience for all concerned. But, the last thing she wanted was her mother to know it. One day, I noticed that she was depressed. She said that she feels bad for being a harlot over the Yahoo Messenger. The interesting fact is that I knew it before she had said so. Half a decade back, one of my most pleasurable hobbies was that of reading the scrapbook of a little dynamite. I was a silent spectator who enjoyed her conversations with men who enter her space with the secret hope that there is so much that is possible. She was wise beyond her years-as smart as a whip. When we once talked, she said that I should know her horrible reputation. She knew that everyone on the internet had judged her. I knew it too.
Seven years back, The South Indian actress Khushboo got a hard touch of reality when she said that educated men should get real by stop expecting their girlfriends to be virgins. The temple dedicated to her was razed by protestors. I remember a Television show in which the audience predominantly agreed to her. But her devotees in Tamil Nadu expected more out of their Goddess than the cool calculation of the merits and demerits of an ethical norm. I wouldn’t be surprised if many in the studio secretly agreed with her devotees.
There are of course, taboo issues and public secrets. Seven years back, a non-fiction book titled “Freakonomics” is said to have melded pop-culture with Economics. The book had many striking claims. One among them was that some studies “prove” that spanked children are not prone to low test scores, as parents who admit to engaging in this unenlightened practice are congenitally honest. They have to sit knee to knee with a government researcher and admit to spanking his child. It meant that deep down, other parents knew that they were doing wrong, all claims and pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding. “For your own good” is a clever rationalization. The book hadn’t mentioned it.
When two years back a 13 year old boy at La Martiniere hanged himself after being caned by the Principal, many felt sorry for the Principal, including columnists in some “respectable” publications. Hearing the bail order, the Principal said: “I am relieved”. It was not said explicitly, and it was not said in so many words, but it was clear that many were fighting their inner urge to say that “it is no big deal”, that “he was a sissy”.
There is always the difference between the exoteric creed and the esoteric creed. Six years back, when the entry of women to Sabarimala temple stirred a controversy, a self-styled ‘philosopher’ claimed that anyone who bows his knee to the cult of modernity gains applause from the audience which has been hostile to him so far. The applause this comment generated dwarfed any other, and I knew that it was genuine. It didn’t matter that he cast a benevolent eye upon Sati, which of course, was often voluntary.
There are things which are intended to drive home a point which is not explicitly stated. Donald Boudreaux once wrote an article which argued that taxation and regulations though harmful, are not necessarily fatal. Statism is not necessarily fatal as the economy might be reasonably dynamic even with government regulations. If statism resulted in the death of hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century and is still not to be considered fatal, what would amount to being fatal? He didn’t answer, though throughout the article he was being apologetic and defensive, protesting that he was not discounting the importance of freedom, but only proving that freedom is robust. Months later, he had an “admittedly idiosyncratic” ranking of top 18 economists in history. Even the title was apologetic and defensive. The collectivist planner F. A. Hayek topped the list. As many readers observed, there were two glaring omissions. Ludwig Von Mises and Murray Rothbard were missing in the long list where moderately good economists found a place. When asked whether he had read Mises’ ‘Human Action’, he answered “Yep. Snooze”.
I had similar experiences before. One article by an Indian blogger began by conceding that there can be no doubt that sectarianism is wrong and dangerous, and that killing a baby for its caste or religion can never be justified. He was emphasizing the wrongness of such acts repeatedly as if his disagreement with all this was not yet clear. After conceding this fact, the author asks an innocuous question: Is it then justified for the leaders of a nation to adopt economic policies which will result in lower development and hence more infant mortality? Obviously not. So far so good.
The author then tries to illustrate his case with some real world instances: “The murder of hundreds, at most thousands of, Kashmiri Pandits, Delhi Sikhs, Gujarati Muslims, Orissa’s Christians, Bihar’s “lower” castes, Nagaland’s natives, Jharkhand’s tribals – either by fanatics or terrorists or the state itself led to so much anger, as it absolutely must have. But what about the many more Indians who were killed – slowly but surely – by the state’s economic policies?” I cannot disagree much with the facts and analysis. It is all true. Not surprisingly, as I came to know later, the author was a young man who believed that though Manusmriti had some minor illiberal positions, Hinduism is a liberal, non-proselytizing religion which grants enough leeway to reject even the Manusmriti. A religion is liberal as long as it doesn’t have a Pope. Hinduism is non-proselytizing, and people are “free” to reject it, except when forced to jump into a pit of fire. There is of course a red herring when he started out, but a man who looks at Hinduism benevolently will any day emphasize violence on the part of other religions to strengthen his case. So, why did a Hindu fundamentalist choose instances of religious violence which were predominantly against Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and tribals (initiated by Hindu fundamentalists) to prove the point that it all pales in comparison to state violence? Your guess is as good as mine.
In most movements and philosophies, there is a glaring contrast between theory and practice. Bryan Caplan has an interesting perspective on the contrast between theory and reality in the Objectivist counter-culture. Catholics do not have to live a lie as it is obvious that the Pope is always right. Objectivists have to give lip service to independence, but deep down they know that Ayn Rand is the Boss. Her cult members loved to believe that they do whatever that is right, irrespective of what others think. Caring for others opinions, after all is a mark of wrong philosophical premises. However hard they tried, they couldn’t acquire a mastery of repression that was demanded of them.
George Carlin was right: “People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.” My experience working with an Objectivist who went overboard in stating that he didn’t rely on my opinions fit Carlin’s theory. I understood that he was humiliated to the point of sharing his secret shame in the privacy of his bedroom only when in the middle of a talk, his aging wife smuggled in some out-of-context sweet words: “Use your words carefully”. It was a cry from the heart of a castrated male’s soul mate.
If others opinions do not matter, only sticks and stones can be hurtful. But, sarcasm and subtle hints can play with the deep wound within people in a way explicit abuse or even swords cannot, as the humiliation is all the more real. It makes people feel that they are little, that they are nothing. Extreme acts of hatred are done by people with such a deep wound within. When Duryodhana fell into a pool of water assuming that a lake was the solid floor, Draupadi laughed at his face saying, “A blind man’s son is also blind.” It was that insult which helped to ignite the rage, envy, and vengefulness of Duryodhana. Many of us have seen that in workplace, nothing unsettles people more than being told that they are wrong, that they are not good enough. It is the hatred of the inferior, a feeling of discomfort, a state of high tension and fear, something not to be talked about, but only to be understood. The saying that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is all but a pious fraud.
When the aging Ayn Rand had a romantic relationship with Nathaniel Branden, a 23 year old boy, both their partners were expected to be happy with the affair, as she so deserved an equal. Instead of feeling jealous, they were supposed to be flattered. She claimed to be proud of the affair, but did everything to keep it private. When she feared that she will be humiliated in the public, she wrote: “My life is over. He took away this earth.” But iconoclasts are not supposed to care for the society, right?
As Bryan Caplan points out, there was of course, one big problem with Rand’s amateur “psychologizing”: The fact that people care for others opinions stems from billions of years of evolution and not innate depravity. It is “deep rooted”, almost immutable. The fact that people feel jealous and care for others opinions serves the vital function of the propagation of mankind. To cut it short, the agony Ayn’s clique went through was unnecessary. Ayn Rand believed that she could root out irrational emotions by correcting the underlying wrong premises, but her feelings didn’t change when she changed her philosophy-partly because those feelings were not irrational in the first place. By denying their feelings, she and her followers were revealing their secret fascination with it, and those feelings remained hidden inside, welled up, waiting to explode and come to surface. And it did.
There are things which people like. Then there are things which they profess to like in the public. When several newspapers owners chided Gail Wynand, the publisher of New York Banner, the most vulgar publication in the country, he said: “You give them what they profess to like in public. I give them what they really like. Honesty is the best policy, gentlemen, though not quite in the sense you were taught to believe.” Nothing illustrates it better than the commercial success of Times of India. As Manu Joseph writes: “Needless to say, like in any other city, Delhi has astonishingly talented editors, journalists and writers, but there is a Delhi mental condition which is incurable—a fake intensity, a fraudulent concern for ‘issues’, the grand stand. Readers, on the other hand, have many interests today apart from democracy, policies and the perpetual misery of the poor. But the Indian media, based in Delhi, refused to see it until recently and very grudgingly, when The Times of India proved it. It is not a coincidence that The Times Group, the most profitable media organization in India, is based in Bombay. It is not a coincidence that the game changer came from here.”
There is the way we feel. Then, there is the way we are supposed to feel. The irresolvable conflict between both was evident when eight years back Manu Joseph visited the Juice Hair salon in Bombay. Nikhil, a 25 year old stylist said something totally unexpected: “I believe in family values”. Manu Joseph was bemused and asked: “What? Family?”. He replied, “Yeah, and traditional values”. He was asked “You would say people should not have sex before marriage?” He replied: “Yeah. It’s a good idea not to have sex before marriage. Also, I feel people should marry young and settle down. I am for joint family”. Manu Joseph writes that “It was quickly verified that by ‘joint’ he didn’t mean marijuana and by ‘family’ he was certainly referring to those loving and disturbed people.” The boy soon made things clear: “But what I believe in is very different from the way I live my life”. When asked whether he simply likes the theory of traditional values, his answer was: “Yeah, something like that”. He loved the theory of traditional values, but in practice, he loved the pleasures, comfort and freedom of modernity.
There are many things people like on an abstract level. On a high philosophical level, the man on the street is against everything which improves the quality of his life-from money to sex to markets to lurid magazines. If possible, he wants it all to be wiped out of existence by the state. In reality, he is the most shameless in pursuing all of these. We have the much enjoyable spectacle of politicians sending their own children to private English language schools, and at the same time enforcing regional language education in Government schools. The same is true of their followers who can afford to do so. They believe in clinging to their mother tongue only on a high, philosophical level. People of course, love illusions they do not live up to. And this is the reason Karan Johar includes national anthem in the middle of a movie.
The contrast between what people like on an abstract level and what they like in reality tell us a lot about people, and the society in which they live in. When self interest tells them to pursue what they really like, their “conscience” that is guided by an inverted morality often tells them to go against their instincts. In the Indian media, I have read few things as perceptive as Manu Joseph’s analysis of Arundhati Roy: “What her admirers say about her is true—that she is the conscience of the nation. What is disputable is whether it is a compliment. We know very little about conscience but what we do know is that there is an unattainable moral superiority about it, and that it usually transmits unsolicited advice, which is the opposite of what the mind really wants to do. But at the same time, it is fundamentally a creation of the mind, a creation that is meant to come in conflict with its maker. That is Roy. She is the creation of the very system that she aspires to bring down.”
In any conflict between self interest and conscience, selfishness would have inevitably won. So, is this insight of any value? Yes, and for a reason. Though self interest directs the actions of people, politics determine the actions of self-interested individuals in a democracy. There is one space where politics succeeds in ensuring that the conscience wins out, that the conscience directs the actions of individuals: Inside the polling booth. If it is not a compliment when we say that Roy is the conscience of the nation, is there any reason for us to expect that the results would be good if people act according to their conscience? There are reasons to believe otherwise. Interestingly, Manu Joseph’s do not think that people act according to their conscience inside the polling booth. His views on voter behavior are very much close to that of the long discredited Self Interested Voter Hypothesis. So, it could be true that both the perspectives can be reconciled.
Contra Manu Joseph and many others, the middle class and the rich do not shirk their responsibility or try to outvote the poor. The middle class is more likely to vote than the politically and economically ignorant poor. The average voter is often an above average citizen. Decades of research in public choice theory proves that people vote selflessly. Voters typically do not vote for government policies which fit in well with their financial self interest. They generally vote in the larger interest of the society. Adjusting for IQ, the rich and the poor are equally likely to vote in favor of welfare as almost everyone believes in the supremacy of the welfare state. Why? The reason is simple. Being altruistic at the polling booth is an easy way to feel “noble”, as the vote of a single person is close to irrelevant. If I can feel good about myself by pressing a button, why shouldn’t I? The evidence to support his notion that voters discipline politicians and prevent them from running roughshod over them is really weak. History is full of corrupt politicians who had immensely “successful” “careers”. Most voters do not know their representatives or their positions too well. Voters are not capable of analyzing public policy, as it is too complex a task which requires specialized and often abstract knowledge. Most voters are woefully ignorant as economics and politics are extremely complex fields of knowledge in which even experts with decades of learning can easily go wrong.
To make sense of the madness in the Indian society, we should take a good look at Indian democracy. The system so reflects the society which sustains and nurtures it. As wrong as it is, Manu Joseph’s critique of democracy is far superior to that of Indian libertarian columnists. When many libertarian columnists believe that in a democracy special interest groups see to it that people do not get what they want, this comes as a relief: “There is something hollow about Indian voters’ rage against politicians. In many ways, the average Indian politician is a natural product of Indian society and its way of doing things. But, across all classes, a majority of Indians hate politicians even though they love democracy. The adoration for the world’s greatest political idea coexists with a deep loathing for the human embodiment of that idea.”
In any case, how many public choice researchers could have begun an article this way, with the characteristic wit of India’s most stylish writer: “On Sunday, when a tired old man ended his hunger strike by consuming coconut water laced with honey, the humiliation of the Indian government was complete.”
As much as one disagrees, there is one thing which is hard to deny. If intelligence is what goes on inside the head, Manu Joseph is the rock star of Indian Journalism. To borrow an invaluable metaphor from Albert Jay Nock, he makes all other Indian Journalists look like confederate money. It would be hard to think of anyone who unmasks the rationalizations, hypocrisy and near complete imbecility of the Indian middle class and self-styled intellectuals in as pitilessly a manner as he does. The sophistication with which he handles seemingly mundane issues, the original insights which go into every article and the stylistic manner in which each and every sentence is framed makes him stick out like a silver thumb in this vast sea of incompetence.
When John Stuart Mill proceeded to analyze Sir W. Hamilton’s philosophy, he felt that the damage to Hamilton’s reputation became far greater than he had expected at first, through the never ending array of inconsistencies which recurred in his works. We feel the same when we read Manu Joseph analyzes political correctness or other multitude of evils that so plague our society. The damage to the objects of his ridicule and criticism becomes greater and greater as we proceed through the article. After reading his article on Anand John, a Facebook friend said that she could visualize everything which she had read as if it all were happening in front of her eyes. I felt the same. For once, I can agree that good journalism is indisputably literature, and of course, the most underrated kind.