Sunday, May 17, 2009
Narcissism and Despair
Love Thy Enemy, by Bogdan Migulski
by Ashis Nandy
The Little Magazine
Interpretations of the events of 9/11, 2001, and the diverse political and intellectual responses to them, have oscillated between a concern with the wrath of the disinherited and exploited and the elements of self-destruction built into a hegemonic system. In this essay, I shall focus on the rage of those who feel they have been let down by the present global system and have no future within it. This feeling has been acquiring a particularly dangerous edge in recent times. For the rage often does not have a specific target but it is always looking for one; and regimes and movements that latch on to that free-floating anger can go far. Indeed, once in a while, their targets too have the same kind of need to search for, and find, enemies. The two sides then establish a dyadic bond that binds them in lethal mutual hatred.
Six years after the event, it is pretty obvious that this time there has been a narrowing of cognitive and emotional range all around. The global culture of commonsense has come to the conclusion that it is no longer a matter of realpolitik and hard-headed, interest-based use of terror of the kind favoured by the mainstream culture of international relations and diplomacy — as for instance the repeated attempts by the CIA over the last six decades to assassinate recalcitrant rulers hostile to the United States — but a terror that is based on the defiance of rationality and abrogation of self-interest, a terror that is deeply and identifiably cultural.
It also seems to insist, to judge by the responses to 9/11, that there are only two ways of looking at this link between terror and culture. One way is to emphasise cultural stereotypes and how they hamper intercultural and inter-religious amity. This emphasis presumes that the West with its freedoms — political and sexual — and its lifestyle, identified in the popular imagination by consumerism and individualism, has come to look like a form of Satanism in many millennial movements, particularly in those flourishing in Islamic cultures. Multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue are seen as natural, if long-term, antidotes to such deadly stereotypes. So is, in the short run, ‘firm’ international policing.
The other way is to locate the problem in the worldview and theology of specific cultures. What look like stereotypes or essentialisations in the former approach are seen as expressions of the natural political self of such cultures in the latter. At the moment, Islam looks like the prime carrier of such a political self but some other cultures are not far behind. The American senator who ridiculed those who wore diapers on their heads did not have in mind only the Muslims; nor did the American motorist who, when caught while trying to run over a woman clad in a sari, declared that he was only doing his patriotic duty after 9/11.
The first way — that of multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue — is of course seen as a soft option, the second as too harsh. However, the second has in the short run looked to many like a viable basis for public policy and political action. The reason is obvious. Terror has been an instrument of statecraft, diplomacy and political advocacy for centuries. To see it as a new entrant in the global marketplace of politics is to shut one’s eyes to the deep human propensity to hitch terror to organised, ideology-led political praxis. Robespierre said — on behalf of all revolutionaries, I guess — that without terror, virtue was helpless. Terror, he went on to claim, was virtue itself.
This propensity has also enjoyed a certain ‘natural’ legitimacy in the dominant global culture of public life when it comes to the serious business of international relations. Despite recent pretensions, in international politics violence does not have to be justified; only non-violence has to be justified. The mainstream global culture of statecraft insists that the true antidote to terror is counter-terror.
In that respect, the killers who struck at New York on 9/11 and the regimes that claim absolute moral superiority over them share some common values. Both believe that when it comes to Satanic others, all terror is justified as long as it is counter-terror and interpreted as retributive justice. Both look like belated products of the twentieth century, which in retrospect looks like a century of terrorism and its natural accompaniment, collateral damage. Guernica, Hamburg, Dresden, Nanking, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are all formidable names in the history of terror and counter-terror, used systematically as political and strategic weapons. On a smaller scale, the same story of attempts to hitch terror to virtue and to statecraft has been repeated in a wide range of situations — from Jallianwalla Bagh to Lidice and from Sharpeville to Mi Lai. The culpable states were sometimes autocratic, sometimes democratic.
Liberal democracy has not often been a good antidote against state terror unleashed by its protagonists. Few are now surprised that some of the iconic defenders of democracy, such as Winston Churchill, were as committed to terror as Robespierre was. Churchill was not only a co-discoverer of the concept of area bombing, as opposed to strategic bombing, he also did not intercede when supplied with evidence, including aerial photographs, of Nazi death camps.
Hence also the widespread tendency to dismiss all talk of fighting terror without recourse to counter-terror as romantic hogwash. It is a basic tenet of the mainstream global culture of politics that only the fear of counter-terror dissuades terrorists from walking their chosen path. Hence also the admiration for the terrorism-fighting skills of a country like Israel in states like Sri Lanka and India and the pathetic attempts of such admirers to use Israeli ‘expertise’, forgetting that Israel has been fighting terror with terror for more than fifty years without success. All that the Israeli state can really take credit for is that, in a classic instance of identifying with its historic oppressors, it has succeeded in turning terrorism into a chronic ailment within the boundaries of the Israeli state, in the process brutalising its own politics and turning many of its citizens into fanatics and racists.
Into this atmosphere has entered a new genre of terrorists during the last few yearsin Palestine, Sri Lanka, India and now the United States. These are terrorists who come in the form of suicide bombers and suicide squads. They come prepared to die and, therefore, are personally and, one might add, automatically immune to the fear of counter-terrorism. Actually, they usually view counter-terrorism — and the reaction it unleashes — as a useful device for mobilisation and polarisation of opinion. This is one thing that the hedonic, death-denying, self-interest-based, individualistic culture of the globalised middle classes just cannot handle. It looks like an unwanted war declared by the death-defying on the death-denying. What kind of person are you if you do not want to keep any options open for enjoying or even seeing the future you are fighting for? What kind of person are you if you do not care what happens to your family, neighbourhood or community in the backlash? To the civilised modern citizen, such suicidal activism looks like the negation of civilisation and the ultimate instance of savagery, apart from being utterly irrational and perhaps even psychotic.
In the nervous, heated discussions about the kamikaze nearly fifty years ago, they often appeared like strange, subhuman adventurers and carriers of collective pathologies, driven by their feudal allegiances and unable to distinguish life from death or good from evil. Recent discussions of the suicide bombers of Hamas, Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and Al Qaeda and Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan and Kashmir invoke the same kind of imageries and fantasies. Hence, probably, the abortive attempts to rename suicide bombings as homicide bombings. They invoke such imageries and fantasies because the modern world is always at a loss to figure out how to deter somebody who is already determined to die.
For most of us, this kind of passion has no place in normal life; it can be only grudgingly accommodated in textbooks of psychiatry as a combination of criminal insanity and insane self-destructiveness.
Outside the modern world too, few call it self-sacrifice. For unlike the freedom fighters of India and Ireland who fasted to death during the colonial period as an act of protest and defiance of their rulers, the self-sacrifice of the suicide bombers also includes the sacrifice of unwilling, innocent others, what the civilised world has learnt to euphemistically call unavoidable collateral damage.
Yet, the key cultural-psychological feature of today’s suicide bombers and suicide squads, despair, is not unknown to the moderns. Indeed, the idea of despair has become central to our understanding of contemporary subjectivities and we also acknowledge that it has shaped some of the greatest creative endeavours in the arts and some of the most ambitious forays in social thought in our times. Van Gogh cannot be understood without invoking the idea of despair, nor can Friedrich Nietzsche. So powerful has been the explanatory power of the idea of despair that recently Harsha Dehejia, an Indian art historian, has tried to introduce the concept in the Indian classical theory of art — by extending Bharata’s theory of rasas itself — as an analytic device. Dehejia feels that without recourse to this construct, we just cannot fathom contemporary Indian art.
One suspects that the desperation one sees in the self-destruction of the new breed of terrorists is the obverse of the same sense of despair that underpins so much of contemporary creativity. Only, this new despair expresses itself in strange and alien ways because the cultures from which it comes are not only defeated but have remained mostly invisible and inaudible. Indeed, their sense of desperation may have come not so much from defeat or economic deprivation but from invisibility and inaudibility.
Of the 18 people identified as members of the suicide squad that struck on 9/11, 15 have been identified as Saudis. They come from a prosperous society where dissent in any form is not permitted, where political conformity and silence are demanded and extracted through either state terror or the fear of it. It can be argued that by underwriting the Saudi regime, which also presides over Islam’s holiest sites and has acquired an undeserved reputation in many circles as a prototypical if not exemplary Islamic state, the United States has helped identify itself as the major source of the sense of desperation that the killers nurtured within them. Violence of the kind we saw on 9/11, Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer argue, presumes “a very high level of dehumanisation of the victims in the minds of aggressors.” That dehumanisation does not happen in a day, nor can it be conveniently explained away as unprovoked.
Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Stephen Schwarz of Spectator have drawn attention to the denominational loyalties of the 18 terrorists. They were Wahhabis, given to an aggressively puritanical form of Islamic revivalist ideology. But all Wahhabis do not turn as aggressive as the Saudi, Palestinian, Pakistani and Pashtun Wahhabis have sometimes done, and certainly all of them do not become suicide bombers. Who does or does not is the question we face.
The answer to that question, we may find out in the coming years, lies not in the ethnic origins or religious connections of terrorism but in the fear of cultures that encourage us not to acknowledge the sense of desperation, if not despair, that is today crystallising outside the peripheries of the known world. It is the adhesive in the new bonding between terror and culture. This desperation may not always be preceded by Nietzschean theocide but it is accompanied by a feeling that God may not be dead but he has surely gone deaf and blind. The Palestinian situation is only one part of the story. The present global political economy has for the first time become almost totally oblivious to the fact that the unprecedented prosperity and technological optimism in some countries have as their underside the utter penury and hopelessness of the many, accompanied by collapse of life support systems due to ecological devastation.
Nothing I have come across reveals the nature of this nihilistic, suicidal despair in some parts of the globe better than the following extract from a journalist’s story. I request the reader to go through it, despite its length:
Aman [Brigadier Amanullah, secretary to Benazir Bhutto and former chief of Pakistan’s military intelligence in Sind, bordering India] noticed me looking at the painting and followed my gaze. … “A rocket ship heading to the moon?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “A nuclear warhead heading to India.”
I thought he was making a joke. … I told Aman that I was disturbed by the ease with which Pakistanis talk of nuclear war with India.
Aman shook his head. “No,” he said matter-of-factly. “This should happen. We should use the bomb.”
“For what purpose?”
He didn’t seem to understand my question.
“In retaliation?” I asked.
“Or first strike?”
I looked for a sign of irony. None was visible…
“We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities — Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta,” he said. “They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people… and it would all be over. They have acted so badly toward us; they have been so mean. We should teach them a lesson. It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this. Have you been to the villages of Pakistan, the interior? There is nothing but dire poverty and pain. The children have no education; there is nothing to look forward to. Go into the villages, see the poverty. There is no drinking water. Small children without shoes walk miles for a drink of water. I go to the villages and I want to cry. My children have no future. None of the children of Pakistan have a future. We are surrounded by nothing but war and suffering…”
In the bonding between terror and culture, a subsidiary role has been played by the perception that all strange cultures are potentially dangerous and sources of violence, and that multiculturalism is only a means of organising or confederating those cultures that approximate or are compatible with the global middle-class culture — cultures that can be safely consumed in the form of ethnic food, arts, museumised artefacts, anthropological subjects or, as is happening in the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, packaged ethnic theories of salvation. The tacit solipsism of Islamic terrorism and its ability to hijack some of Islam’s most sacred symbols is matched by the narcissism of America’s policy elite that finds expression in an optimism that is almost manic.
At the same time, for a large majority of the world, all rights to diverse visions of the future — all utopian thinking and all indigenous visions of a good society — are being subverted by the globally dominant knowledge systems and a globally accessible media as instances of either romantic, other-worldly illusions or as brazen exercises in revivalism. The Southern world’s future now, by definition, is nothing other than an edited version of the contemporary North’s. What Europe and North America are today, the folklore of the globalised middle class claims, the rest of the world will become tomorrow. Once visions of the future are thus stolen, the resulting vacuum has to be filled by available forms of millennialism, some of them perfectly compatible with the various editions of fundamentalism floating around the global marketplace of ideas today. In the liminal world of the marginalised and the muted, desperation and millennialism often define violence as a necessary means of exorcism.
September 11, Gandhian activist-scholar Rajiv Vora and the Swarajpeeth initiative have recently reminded us, was the day Satyagraha, militant non-violence, was born in Johannesburg in 1906. South Africa at the time was a proudly authoritarian, racist police state, not at all like British India, presided over by an allegedly benign, liberal colonial regime that, some votaries of political realism assure us, ensured the success of Gandhi’s non-violence. Does this coincidence have something to tell us?
One way of understanding the recent changes in the global culture of protest is to offset the despair-driven, suicidal forms of terror against the self-destructive defiance and subversion of authorities, as in the case of the Irish hunger-strikers, whom we have already mentioned. The other way is to compare the new culture of terror with the no less religious, militant nonviolence of a community known all over the globe today for its alleged weakness for religion-based terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pathans, known for their martial valour and officially declared a martial race by British India in the nineteenth century, have virtually been turned into official symbols of mindless violence. Yet, in India at least, till quite recently they were also the symbols of the non-violence of the courageous and the truly martial. They had been the finest exponents of the art of Gandhian militant non-violence, directed against the British imperial regime in the 1930s. The Pathans who participated in that struggle were exactly the community that has in the last decade produced the Taliban and played host to Osama bin Laden and his entourage. Can this discrepancy or change be explained away only as a result of the efforts of dedicated fundamentalist clerics, the brutalising consequence of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan, or the skill and efficiency of Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s version of the Central Intelligence Agency? Or does the contradiction exist in the human personality and Pashtun culture itself?
The second possibility cannot be dismissed offhand. The behaviour of ordinary Afghans after the fall of the Taliban regime — in their everyday life and their participation in politics — does not suggest that the Taliban enjoyed decisive support of the people they ruled. Most Afghans seemed genuinely happy to be rid of the harsh, puritanical reign of the Taliban. On the other hand, some of them have obviously helped their guest, bin Laden, and the now-unpopular ruler, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to successfully escape the clutches of the American ground troops.
Who is the real Pathan? The one sympathetic or obedient to the Taliban or the one celebrating the Taliban’s fall? The one known for his martial values or the one who in the 1930s turned out to be the most courageous passive resister, who, according to a number of moving accounts of the Non-Cooperation Movement, faced ruthless baton charges by the colonial police but never retaliated and never flinched? The Pathans evidently brought to their nonviolence the same commitment and fervour that the Afghan terrorists are said to have brought to their militancy in Afghanistan and in other hotspots of the world. Are they as ruthless with themselves now as they were in the 1930s, during colonial times?
I shall avoid answering these questions directly and instead venture a tentative, open-ended comment to conclude. Most cultures enjoin non-violence or at least seek to reduce the area of violence, and these efforts often go hand in hand with cultural theories of unavoidable violence. Only a few like Sparta and the Third Reich glorify, prioritise or celebrate violence more or less unconditionally as the prime mover in human affairs or as the preferred mode of intervention in the world. In the huge majority of cultures that fall in the first category, violence and non-violence both exist in the same persons as human potentialities. The life experiences that underscore one of the two potentialities are the crucial means of entering the mind of the violent and to understand why the violent actualised one of the potentialities and not the other.
The experiences that in our times have contributed to the growth of massive violence can often — though not always — be traced to the collapse of communities and their normative systems. The old is moribund and the new has not yet been born, as the tired cliché goes. In many cases, the powerful and the rich welcomed this collapse because they did not like the norms of other people’s communities.
But flawed norms, one guesses, are norms all the same.
The resulting flux has psychologically disoriented and sometimes devastated a large section of humankind and generated in them a vague sense of loss, anxiety and anger. They live with a sense of loneliness and a feeling that the work they have to do to earn their living, unlike the vocations they previously had, is degrading and meaningless. Those who do not clearly perceive the hand of any agency in these changes often try to contain their anger through consumerism and immersion in the world of total entertainment. But some do identify an agency, correctly or incorrectly. The contemporary terrorists come from among them.
This also means that only by engaging with these experiences can you battle the worldviews or ideologies that organise these experiences into a work-plan for terror. If you are unwilling to negotiate these life experiences, if you consistently deny their existence and legitimacy and the normal human tendency to configure such experiences into something ideologically meaningful, you contribute to and aggravate the sense of desperation and abandonment for many. At least one well-known Palestinian psychiatrist has claimed that in West Asia ‘it is no longer a question of determining who amongst the Palestinian youth are inclined towards suicide bombing. The question is who does not want to be a suicide bomber.’
You then push the desperate and the abandoned towards a small, closed world of like-minded people who constitute a ‘pseudo-community’ of those whose rage and frustration are sometimes free-floating but always seeking expression in nihilistic self-destruction masquerading as self-denying martyrdom.
An earlier draft of this paper was presented at a symposium on ‘Edward Said: Speaking Truth to Power,’ organised by the Institute for Research and Development in Humanities, Tarbiyat Modaress University, Tehran University and Center for Dialogue of Civilizations in Tehran, and an expanded version at the Workshop on ‘The Dialogue of Civilizations: Intellectual and Organizational Signposts for the Future’, La Trobe University, Melbourne.
1. Vamik D. Volkan, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies (New York: Jason Aronson, 1988).
2. This is recognised, though in the language of the mainstream, in Michael S. Doran, ‘Somebody Else’s Civil War’, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2002, 81(1), pp. 22-42.
3. Harsha Dehejia with Prem Shankar Jha and Ranjit Hoskote, Despair and Modernity: Reflections from Modern Indian Paintings (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000).
4. Partly because American hegemony today is ensured not so much by an army and a ready reserve of about 3.9 million men and an annual expenditure of about 650 billion dollars as by a near-total control over global mass media.
5. Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer, ‘The United States, the West and the Rest of the World’, unpublished MS.
6. That is why one of the most thoughtful intellectual responses to September 11, 2001 remains Wendell Berry, ‘In the Presence of Fear’, Resurgence, January-February 2002, (210), pp. 6-8; see also Jonathan Power, ‘For the Arrogance of Power America Now Pays a Terrible Price’, TFF Press Info 127, Transnational Foundation, September 13, 2001.
7. Peter Landesman, ‘The Agenda: A Modest Proposal From the Brigadier: What one Prominent Pakistani thinks his Country should do with its Atomic Weapons’, The Atlantic Monthly, March 2002.
8. Rajiv Vora, ‘11 September: Kaun si aur Kyun’, Unpublished Hindi paper circulated by Swarajpeeth and Nonviolent Peaceforce, New Delhi 2005; and Arshad Qureshi, ‘11 September 1906: Ek Nazar’, unpublished paper circulated by Swarajpeeth and Nonviolent Peaceforce, New Delhi, 2005.
9. An ethnographic monograph that nevertheless captures the other self of the Pathan in a moving fashion is Mukulika Banerjee, The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier (Oxford: James Currey, 2000). For a hint that this is not merely dead history but a living memory for many, see Ayesha Khan, ‘Mid-Way to
Dandi, Meet Red Shirts’, The Indian Express, March 22, 2005.
10. See an insightful, sensitive discussion of the way the same cultural resources can be used to legitimise and resist terrorism in Bhikhu Parekh, ‘Dialogue with the Terrorists’, in Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse (Sage, New Delhi, 1989), pp. 139-71.
11. Eyyead Sarraj, quoted in Chandra Muzaffar, ‘Suicide Bombing: Is Another Form of Struggle Possible?’, Just: Commentary, June 2002, 2 (6), p. 1.
Ashis Nandy, renowned political psychologist and social theorist, is a leading figure in postcolonial studies and arguably India’s best known intellectual voice of dissent. He is Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His recent awards include the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize.