Thursday, June 30, 2011

I've Seen Stranger Objections.

I'm rather accustomed to hearing from people who object to my sentiments.  Hell, you can't be a vocal atheist, and not expect at least some people to hate your guts.  Idle threats come all the time, but it's been many years since I've seen a Molotov hurled in my general direction.  Most of them are pretty typical in making the most absurd assumptions, and it is quite easy to tear these people down.  If they find themselves shaken by the demonstrable absurdity of their beliefs, then that's a good thing.  You won't ever grow out of infantile ideas if you don't realize the necessity of it.

There are always a few that lead down the path of some sort of appeal to emotion, as if such trifling games could ever work on me.  Upon my railing on tradition in Indian classical music, one particular individual, who admitted he wasn't all that knowledgeable about music, took umbrage with my railing against tradition on a universal level.  And while the idea of someone being in favor of tradition itself is nothing new, this correspondence took a different form than I was used to.  He said that I should feel ashamed of the incredible hypocrisy I exhibit in associating myself in any way with India (or at least one of its cultural components) while at the same time diverging so far in opinion from the nation's greatest hero.

That hero he was referring to, was of course, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  Just as a clarification to my readers in America, that is his actual name -- a lot of people, particularly in the U.S., think "Mahatma" (great soul) is his actual name rather than a nickname.

I'm a bit surprised that he came up in that context because Gandhiji's position on tradition is not one that often gets associated with his name.  We tend to remember the passive civil disobedience, the railing against caste formality, the attempts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims, etc.  Nobody remembers much more, because we like to paint our heroes only in the lights that glorify their positive achievements.  I don't think many people remember his attitude toward black Africans, whom he considered quite beneath humanity.  Similarly, Gandhiji's attitudes about tradition are not usually one of the topics one hears about when he comes up in discussion.  Nonetheless, the fellow is correct in his assessment that I disagree with the "nation's greatest hero" on the matter of tradition.  I'm not going to apologize for that or ever pretend that just because Gandhi said it, it's therefore worthy of respect.

If that makes me no longer a Desi in your eyes, then so be it.

There's nothing I can say to make any of M. K. Gandhi's ideas on progress sound any worse than the man himself did in his own words.  This is a man who considered modernity the number one enemy of India, and that it can only have a bright future if it reverts to the "classical" ways of thinking.  Granted, he wasn't in favor of every conceivable tradition (e.g. untouchability), but was otherwise a luddite.

In his own words --
India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such like have all to go, and the so-called upper classes have to learn to live conscientiously and religiously and deliberately the simple peasant life.
- Letter from M.K. Gandhi to H.S.L Polak dated 14 Oct 1909
In one sense, you can interpret it to be a message that he favors people to live simply, but he takes it to a certain extreme that everything that progress and modernity has brought have to be removed from the landscape of India.  It is one thing to object to the imposed rigors from a oppressive conquering nation, but to oppose even the otherwise helpful things they brought into the country is entirely taking things too far.  In the very same letter, Gandhi did point out that a person or society's moral improvement cannot be facilitated in any way by providing their lives with further comforts.  This is largely a fair point, though there are certain luxuries which can serve as counterexamples.  The thing is saying that they cannot help is an entirely different thing from saying that they are a hindrance.  That is the extent to which he goes, and that is the very thing which makes him, to put it mildly, just plain foolish.

In particular, he seemed to have a problem with medical science.  At one point in time, Gandhi did consider studying medicine, but ultimately took up a law degree instead.  Apparently, he later regretted ever even considering it, saying instead that any quackery is preferable to real medicine.  Before you think I'm straw-manning him, bear in mind that the use of the term "quackery" is actually Gandhiji's own choice of words in one of his writings during his jail term.
Medical science is the concentrated essence of black magic. Quackery is infinitely preferable to what passes for high medical skill.
I'm particularly amused by his admonition that medical science is constituted almost exclusively of "black magic" considering that pretty much all traditional forms of quackery involve magical cures which have no explanations rooted in fact.  Particularly in India, where the traditional form of quackery is Ayurveda, you have forms of so-called medicine which rest entirely on vitalistic perspectives on health which involve certain types of energies, influences, and forces which can't even be demonstrated to exist.  This is typical of ancient schools of thought about medicine because people were fundamentally unable to explain the nature of how the body works and why it is able to function, and so they invented nebulous concepts like some sort of magical "life force" or something to that effect.  Real medical science involves actually having a pretty good idea what the hell you're doing and why, and any accusation of it being rooted in magic is entirely worthy of repudiation.
Hospitals are the instruments that the Devil has been using for his own purpose, in order to keep his hold on his kingdom. They perpetuate vice, misery and degradation and real slavery. I was entirely off the track when I considered that I should receive a medical training. It would be sinful for me in any way whatsoever to take part in the abominations that go on in the hospitals. If there were no hospitals for venereal diseases, or oven for consumptives, we should have less consumption, and less sexual vice amongst us.
The above quote is actually from the same letter that Gandhi sent to Polak in 1909.  In a way, he's sort of correct in saying that there would be fewer STDs or TB without proper medical care;  It's just that it would turn out that way because more people would be dead.  It may seem easy to think that ancient humans didn't have to suffer through herpes or meningitis, but that's not really the case.  It's just that ancient humans or even humans of a few centuries ago didn't have sufficient knowledge to be able to identify even 1% of the conditions and diseases we know about today, nor did they know how to treat it.  People back then were dying of infections which would hardly raise an eyebrow in the modern age.  It wasn't until modern science, medicine, and industrialization that we even got to the point where the worldwide human population could be any greater than India's population is right now.

I'm really not sure where he gets the idea of perpetuating slavery.  I expect such insufferable tripe from the likes of Michele Bachmann, but not someone who is otherwise educated.  The closest thing I can think of to slavery is the generic tendency of a patient towards a sort of blind deference to the judgment of a far more educated doctor.  This is sort of natural for an emerging nation where people are not interested in learning more about the conditions they have, but simply knowing what they need to do about it without any sort of rhyme or reason to it.  Either that, or Gandhiji was one of those Kevin Trudeau-type conspiracy theory nuts who thinks that the medical establishment is out to pump us full of mind control drugs or turn everything into controlled chronic conditions that force us on medication for our entire lives.  I doubt this was the case, but if so, then he was nothing short of a delusional psychopath, I'm sorry to say.

Again, Gandhiji is favoring ancient traditions because they are, if nothing else, very different from the thing he hates so much.  He's not so much in favor of the old as he is against the new.  He simply rationalizes it in the veneer of virtue that tradition carries.  Furthermore, he has the tendency to put more fuel on the fire by using language that inspires hatred and fear and revulsion.  If you inspire the populace towards any goal, even if it was an otherwise positive one, by way of revulsion of the adversary, you are guaranteed that things will go too far at some point and the whole plan goes awry.  Gandhiji never thought once about this effect, and the nature of his views on the matter betrays the fact that he is just as guilty of not thinking straight and taking things much too far.  That is the crux of my problem with tradition -- it involves not thinking.

I think we do have to remember the nature of Gandhiji's politics.  There was absolutely nothing he proposed which stood alone in its conception.  He was, simply put, a reactionary.  He didn't take a position on the basis of some idealistic merits, but because he took offense at the way things were around him and sought to change it (or rather, revert it to what he preferred).  He believed that the wealthy were generally unhappy people and that the poor were generally happy, so therefore, wealth is bad.  He believed that interest in innovation and scientific advancement lead to obsessive behaviors, so therefore, ignorance is superior to knowledge.  When a person takes these sorts of positions, it is no understatement to consider him a detriment to humanity.  It is in the nature of progress that people can only make change by seeking out solutions to problems, no matter whether it be a problem of politics, religion, or science.  It is all too ironic that for all of the so-called Mahatma's efforts against issues which he effectively obsessed about, he doesn't wish to comprehend that obsessions that others might have with other problems can produce fruit of their own.  Because he sees these sorts of reactionary measures he favors in the end results of how our ancestors lived, he projects this sort of thinking back on them and justifies ancient ways of living.

Given his reactionary stance, though, it's not inconceivable that he would have had less of a problem with more modern advancements if they weren't things that came to India by way of British influence.  But in the end, his problems weren't just that the British were trampling upon the freedoms of native Indians, but that they brought in countless engines of change which made every effort on their part that much more powerful and pervasive.  What he did was assign guilt to those items by association, and basically considered all such change brought into India to be reviled.  Likewise, there are matters he did not have personally much problem with which we today consider reprehensible.  I doubt many people are all that aware of his attitudes about black Africans, whom he called "kaffirs" (equivalent, more or less to saying "nigger").  One of his apparent reasons for his fight in South Africa was that he believed the goal of the occupying Europeans throughout Africa was to degrade Indians to the level of blacks, whom he stereotyped as sexually deviant hunter-gatherers who trade cows for wives.
Ours is one continued struggle against degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the European, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.
- from a public meeting in Bombay, 26 Sept 1896
Contrary to popular opinion, Gandhi had no real interest in helping anyone other than Indians in Africa.  That too, he showed no interest in helping Indians of lower caste.  He never originally had any issue with the caste system itself, so much as untouchability (which he considered one leap too far).  He ultimately later realized that there's no way to get at the issue of untouchables without tearing down nearly all the social rigors associated with caste.

In any case, all his racism towards "kaffirs", towards "unclean Indians", towards women, and so on is a separate digression.  The original point was about tradition.  I don't value tradition in any way, no matter who delivers it.  Merit is the sole measure of value.  I'm certainly not about to respect an idea just because it is said by someone who many people, somewhat misguidedly, considered a saint.  And to the person who originally sounded this objection, I don't see anywhere in the definition of "Indian" that it be someone who blindly accepts anything any of the freedom fighters proposed.  Being of Indian descent does not mean you are required to harbor no element of dissent against anything India's legends have spoken.  Having an attitude like that makes you nothing more than a sheep posing to speak for an unworthy shepherd.  Even if you were to somehow convince me that everything Gandhiji stood for was good and fine and decent back then, times have changed, and an M.K. Gandhi 2.0 today would be a very different man.

At least...  I'd sure hope so.  If not, then that man is worthy of rebuke on the same counts.  I don't care if Gandhi was a staunch traditionalist, nor am I against it because he was for it.  Similarly, I am not an atheist just because Bhagat Singh was also an atheist.  Trying to play up to some sort of assumed patriotic connection to historical figures is entirely dishonest and backhanded, but that sort of game has no effect on me either way.  I actually evaluate ideas to find the what, where, and why, and see what it's worth in the end.  Why can't you?