simplicity and otherworldliness

What’s society built on? It’s built on trust. It’s built on bluff. – Stereolab 

In revolution at first there is a general unhappiness around the status quo power in a given state, then a consensus builds up around the idea that the power is undesirable and should be removed, then the offending power is removed whether by violence or by peace, and finally a new political structure is established which of course is in danger of becoming a new intolerable status quo.

Historians and quants journal the entire process and measure the delta improvement from before the event to after. What’s exhausting is the cycle of history, how one insufferable social state can be revolutionized and replaced by an equally intolerable state. To break the cycle, a smart revolutionary carefully plans to remove the abuses of the old status quo and implant measures to guarantee better affairs in the new.

Gandhi was one such revolutionary. He saw and understood the abuses of the British Raj and realized India could throw them out of the country but end up keeping their rotten ideas. It was both the pervasive presence of the Raj and the insidious nature of their governing philosophy that kept the Indian subcontinent in its state of subservience and lockdown.

The prevailing philosophy of the British occupiers was of course Western – a mix of liberalism, imperialism, economic growth, Marxism, nihilism, industrial capitalism, the dominance of power, profit and capital. The genius of the occupiers was to convince Indians that this modern, western, instrumental philosophy benefited them. Gandhi realized that to be successful he would have to fight off the Western philosophy and the nativist Hindu nationalism which had adopted most of the precepts of the western ideas.

And so the question was asked: what do we build society on that is uniquely Indian? In his Hind Swaraj, Indian Home Rule he prescribed this vision based on the Indian virtues of simplicity, patience, frugality, and otherworldliness. He rightly saw that science and industrial capitalism had overturned spiritual authority and that this had to be corrected. The British quit India 73 years ago.

So was there success in Gandhi’s revolution? Modern India is the world’s largest democracy, it was founded on principles of secularism, and for many years after independence had a protectionist economy and during the cold war often chose to trade with the USSR instead of the West. Up until recently Indians have effectively kept modern multinational corporations out of their communities. Although not explicitly Indian principles, they show a tendency to resist western political culture as defined by the Hind Swaraj.

However, more recently the forces of nationalism and global neoliberal capital have ravaged the world including the Indian subcontinent. But the Hind Swaraj’s indictment of Western civilization was written to return Indians to the root of their identity and a root is deeper than a storm.

From The Inner Voice:

The terms of Gandhi’s critique, however, were remarkably original. He set out his views in “Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule,” a book written feverishly, in nine days, in November, 1909. Gandhi opposed those of his revolutionary Indian peers who—inspired by Marx, Herbert Spencer, Russian nihilists, and nationalists in Italy and Ireland—saw salvation in large-scale emulation of the West. Many of these were Hindu nationalists, intellectual ancestors of Gandhi’s assassin, determined to unite India around a monolithic Hinduism. Gandhi saw that these nationalists would merely replace one set of deluded rulers in India with another: “English rule,” as he termed it, “without the Englishman.”

Gandhi’s indictment of modern civilization went further. According to him, the industrial revolution, by turning human labor into a source of power, profit, and capital, had made economic prosperity the central goal of politics, enthroning machinery over men and relegating religion and ethics to irrelevance. As Gandhi saw it, Western political philosophy obediently validated the world of industrial capitalism. If liberalism vindicated the preoccupation with economic growth at home, liberal imperialism abroad made British rule over India appear beneficial for Indians—a view many Indians themselves subscribed to. Europeans who saw civilization as their unique possession denigrated the traditional virtues of Indians—simplicity, patience, frugality, otherworldliness—as backwardness.

The Inner Voice, Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker

what we once were


I read the passage below on a beach in Mexico; it was written by the English playwright Simon Gray on a beach in Barbados. I sat observing the beach life around me while reading his descriptions of the beach life he saw.

He writes about civilization – which today seems like an anachronism – and, in his description of school girls on the beach, his yearning for lost civilization is an inspiration.

My Mexican beach is mostly urban and wealthy Mexicans, Americans and Europeans. There are poor Mexicans selling peanut brittle and beads and collecting cans, but really very few of them. They are intruders on the beach in their ethnic clothing and inability to jet in and out and to pay for expensive amenities and refreshment.

On Gray’s beach the school girls are kind and together and happy in a way we don’t see any more in our own crass countries – England and America. Their relative civilization is a welcome intrusion into our fighty, greedy, selfish state.

In Playa, in the mornings, nineish, I wander around the corner from the hotel for a coffee and cuernito, and then walk to Mamita’s beach club before all of the umbrellas are gone, thirty pesos for the chair and thirty for the umbrella for the day and then higher prices for sandwiches and beer, all worth it for the beauty of the Caribbean Sea in front of me, brilliant azur, light, frothy – from what exactly? Bits of coral and gypsum that reflect pure sunlight and blue sky. Science is magic.

At noon a dj starts to play trance and drum and base; in another time and place I will find this annoying but not here – somehow it works with the beer buzz and sea and bikinis. The Mexican club kids show up in the late afternoon and gather in their thongs – men and women – around their curtained lounge beds and bottle service tables. The umbrellas and beach chairs are for the gray hairs in the morning who don’t have hangovers, and the curtained beds for the kids who don’t get up before noon.

I’m sure there are other groups I am not seeing: from the cruise ships docked in Cozumel, travel and tourist professionals, and -. There are groups of twenty something girls in neon hats that say ‘team wedding,’ either from the travel professional group or are they a wedding party? They are like Gray’s school girls: of a unit, for the good of a couple who has decided to marry in a very public way with family and friends at a big, significant, social event. It seems like civilization again.

A girl with a hula hoop and a boyfriend starts to dance just at the edge of the water, gyrating, swaying, moving the plastic disk up and down her lithe body effortlessly, while he sets up the beach cloth and their things. There are flashes of timelessness here on this beach – people responding to an invitation to life where the Caribbean Sea meets an ancient land and dance, drink, love –

Simon Gray’s passage from Wish You Were Here:

This morning a boat arrived, full of schoolgirls on an outing, about thirty of them, between nine and fifteen, I suppose, all wearing traditional brown uniforms, their hair in pigtails, children of a sort I haven’t seen in England since my own childhood. They leapt squealing and laughing off the boat into the water, carrying their shoes and socks in their hands, and scampered on to the beach. A young woman, presumably the teacher, got off last, her skirt hiked up. She splashed after them, calling out instructions which she really didn’t expect them to follow, but at least reminded them that she was there. They poured up the beach and into the changing rooms in the small park, a sort of compound, that also has a café, benches, swings, little shops. A few minutes later they poured out again, into the sea, heads bobbing, screams, shrieks of laughter, splashing each other ducking each other, an absolute rough-house of girls at play but not a swear word to be heard, nothing bad-tempered, ill-natured, brutish about these children, and it struck me with a pang that such a sight and such sounds would be impossible in the England of today, wan will soon be just a folk-memory among the elderly, for what authority would dare to allow thirty children to go on a trip to the beach, to plunge into the sea, with only one teacher to supervise them? indeed, what authority could muster thirty children who would play freely and joyfully, without bawling out obscenities and threats at each other, and at the teacher, probably. When you live in a barbarous country, it’s educative, if painful, to spend a little time in a civilized one, to remember what we once were, to think what’s become of us.

Wish You Were Here, Simon Gray, Granta

a vast panorama which enlarges the mind
November 25, 2013, 1:37 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Life can be a desperate, savage affair or it can be civilized. For it to be civilized, people need – by whatever means – to leave themselves behind and to understand – and I suppose even to love – this big old world. Some people who have been able to transcend themselves and understand aspects of the world have had massive civilizing effects on our lives. Teachers because they are brokers of knowledge are the agents of this civilizing and humanizing work. That’s what Bertrand Russell says in the following passage.

From Bertrand Russell:

. . . Civilization . . . is a thing of the mind, not of material adjuncts to the physical side of living. It is a matter partly of knowledge, partly of emotion. So far as knowledge is concerned, a man should be aware of the minuteness of himself and his immediate environment in relation to the world in time and space. He should see his own country not only as home, but as one among the countries of the world, all with an equal right to live and think and feel. He should see his own age in relation to the past and the future, and be aware that its own controversies will seem as strange to future ages as those of the past seem to us now. Taking an even wider view, he should be conscious of the vastness of geological epochs and astronomical abysses; but he should be aware of all this, not as a weight to crush the individual human spirit, but as a vast panorama which enlarges the mind that contemplates it. Continue reading

February 6, 2010, 5:21 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , ,

How civilized!  The Brit in me likes to fling that phrase around, every once in a while:  a label for someone drinking tea from a dainty cup with his pinky up, playing tennis in whites, snacking on smoked meats and vodka, being versed in opera.  Or slaughtering the natives.  Civilization, a complex topic, and one that leaves a decidedly mixed taste in the mouth.

Jeremy Rifkin’s definition of civilization below is smart because it addresses the foible of both of our political extremes.  On the right:  blood ties aren’t enough, to civilize your associations must extend beyond mere blood; and on the left:  you must develop as an individual to engage properly in society.

Here is the excerpt —

A heightened empathic sentiment also allows an increasingly individualized population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, expanded, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterizes what we call civilization. Civilization is the detribalization of blood ties and the resocialization of distinct individuals based on associational ties. Empathic extension is the psychological mechanism that makes the conversion and the transition possible. When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.

We frequently hear political conservatives argue that empathy is a code word for collectivism. They fail to realize that empathic maturity requires a well devolved sense of selfhood and individuality to flourish. Political liberals in turn, are likely to associate “individualism” with uncaring narcissism, again, not realizing that a well formed self identity is required for empathic extension and compassionate behavior.

–Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin

author – Jeremy Rifkin
book –  Empathic Civilization:  The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Tarcher 2009
organization – Foundation on Economic Trends

everything we do
September 16, 2008, 1:57 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

It appears these days that cracks are showing in some of our for years seemingly unassailable cultural mythologies.  Biggies like the work ethic, class and even the granddaddy time.  When you’re pulling down a big one expect a rich and unseen set of new – or in the case below – old realities to begin to emerge and take on significance.  Often a big edifice blocks something much more complex and interesting.

In the quotation concerning play and civilization below, Huizinga gently prefaces his final radical statement as if to ease us out of what we currently believe and into a new reality.  We know play, he lets us believe.  Play is that thing we did a long time ago when we were young, and even now on the weekends and after work and with the kids when there’s time.  We work and we play.  But not quite according to Huizinga.  He says that everything we do, which he reminds us is called civilization, the evidences and constructions of our lives, is play.

The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play….We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.

~Johan Huizinga