Sunday, January 10, 2016

Three Key Factors in Political & Cultural Clashes around the World

2015, certainly saw a sharpening of the divide, and a more polarised climate of debate on many of the social and political issues across the globe including India. The "Rising Intolerance in Modi's India" was a good indicator of how polarised and stark the debates have become around the world.

There was plenty to debate during 2015, from climate change to net neutrality, but here are a few which impacted large sections of people in the west as well as in India and caught my attention.

1) A general disaffection with the political class and the rise of populism: Despite having been a long time politician, Narendra Modi's win in 2014 was in some sense a victory for an outsider to the Lutyen's Delhi Establishment. Arvind Kejriwal and AAP's meteoric rise and stunning win in Delhi in 2015 was also a victory of populist politics coupled with a deep resentment against the politics of status-quo of established parties. We are seeing similar trends across the western world. Donald Trump has taken US politics by storm with his incredible lead in the Republican nominee polls. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed "socialist", a hitherto almost unheard of term in US politics is the primary challenger to Hillary Clinton among the Democrats and polling quite well. Jeremy Corbyn, became the Labour Leader with a huge majority within his party, despite his far left background. We are seeing other examples too. Marine Le Pen in France on the right, and Podemos in Spain on the left, are illustrations of populist parties gaining more traction. And despite winning just 1 seat, Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party got 12.7% of the popular vote in the 2015 elections and was placed third in vote share.

2) The increasing importance of identity in politics: India's long running debate on secularism and cultural nationalism is now increasingly mirrored in the West as it confronts its multicultural present and future. The long continuing trend of mass immigration (especially in Europe), the refugee crisis in Syria and the return of terrorist attacks to mainland Europe this year have meant that immigration in general has become a major emotive issue in both Europe & US, and not just an economic one. While the multicultural left and progressives are shouting Islamophobia at any and every statement made by someone outside the liberal consensus, someone like Trump is making the other extreme case of shutting down the US to Muslims, temporarily. There are indeed very difficult questions to answer with regard to Muslims in the US for example, as this article by Victor Davis Hanson points out, but which mainstream politicians rarely discuss with honesty. However, identity based conflicts was not only limited to Muslims. Far less talked about but extremely disturbing is the case of rising Anti-Semitism in Europe now, while in Barack Obama's America, #BlackLivesMatter has become a serious movement. 

3) The limits of Political correctness and free speech: Standing up for Free Speech is the right and noble thing to do as many people in power and influence seem to point out, but very few will actually stand for it though and we saw that time and again in 2015. The shootings of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, brought out many apologists for the victims and political correctness meant that Charlie Hebdo got called racist, while of course the terrorists had no religionMeanwhile, in western colleges, free speech is being shut down in the name of "emotional well-being"; trigger warnings and micro aggressions have become part of the vocabulary. Recently, secular activist Maryam Nawazie was banned from speaking on fears of inciting hatred against Muslim students, while in India JNU students rallied around to oppose Baba Ramdev speaking at their campus. And so when, progressives around the world made political correctness into a bad word, it was again left to someone like Donald Trump to combat it. Trump, who has made being anti-politically correct one of his main planks, has found a voice that resonates with people because the establishment politicians and media will not talk about what is considered politically incorrect. 

How do all these things come together? On one hand, the rise of the far left in Europe through the likes of Corbyn, Podemos or Tsipras in Greece, shows a degree of discontent with globalization and neo-liberal economics, as these are resistance movements against rising inequality and austerity. Nationalist, populist right wingers are providing another alternative to this discontent with globalization. Globalization has provided twin challenges to western countries - one with jobs moving out of the countries and two, with more free movement of labour forces - increased competition for jobs at home from immigrants. And so as the once dominant population groups (whites) face increased competition in the job market, see the welfare state keep having to accommodate more and more immigrant populations, societal changes that they do not welcome and live with the fear of increased crime and terrorism. Combine all these factors and it is easy to see how the populist right wing is also gaining support. Angela Merkel, Germany's leader and a center right politician herself, faces difficulty within her own party after having provided refuge to a very large number of asylum seekers. The far left and the far right, both are trying to capture this market of discontent, with their respective spin.

With all these factors at play, as western societies are getting more diverse, their politics are also becoming more and more vote-bank oriented, a road which we have traveled a lot in India already.  The rise in Muslim populations and the current climate of fear with terrorism generally and ISIS in particular, around has meant that a lot of the debate surrounding Islam - whether it is related to terrorism, immigration, political correctness and limits of free speech, or indeed mere co-existence in the same society, has been extremely divisive and not very helpful. Take the recent unfortunate case of the mass atrocities on women across Europe, which demonstrated at once both how even a country like Germany is on the brink with the recent levels of mass immigration; while also simultaneously showing how parts of the establishment and politically correct media simply wanted to shut down any coverage and later a meaningful debate on this topic.  (The parallel with the Malda riots on shutting down coverage are there for everyone to see).

However, if we do look around we will find some pieces of encouragement. Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz came together to author a concise but illuminating book called Islam & the future of tolerance (This discussion about the book should get you interested). These two NYT article by Ross Douthat -The Islamic Dilemma & A Conservative Islam For a Liberal Society gives an interesting perspective on how Islam can indeed coexist in societies where it is a minority; giving up on violent Jihad seems to be the most important criteria.

One of the key issue with regard to identity politics, which has led to the rise of  a particular brand of nationalistic populism is that it is a sort of reaction to the complete rejection of any sort of nationalistic culture or pride or cherishing of "traditional values" demonstrated by the liberal elites of each country. After the loss of the Labour party in Britain in May, Nick Cohen wrote this piece on how the party would do well to stop hating the English people. The below paras aptly sum up how liberal elites who patronise Center/ Left parties look at their own cultures:
"The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle-class as Mail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent. So tainted and untrustworthy are they that they must be told what they can say and how they should behave. "

You could change a few words and have the problem paraphrased for just about any country none more so than in India as I had done in this blog earlier last year. Whatever the particular details of any country, this paragraph would resonate with the folks - the so called silent majorities who are feeling left out in their own countries. 

The general trend across all and any debate is that any sort of mutual trust or respect appears to have been lost. The left will of course champion the underdog, namely the minorities, the right will attempt to provide voice to the grievance of the "silent majority". The debate about gun control is a very good example of what loss of trust can do in making seemingly solvable problems appear insolvable.  Gun owning conservatives are worried that additional new regulations would just be the first step in further control of their lives by the government and curtailment of their liberties. The actual merit or demerit of the control to be put in place is pushed to the background. 

And that in summary is the general trend of debates that we see across the world. Problems that can be solved between communities and groups elude solutions as both sides fear the very worst from their opponents and compromises are looked upon as defeats. India's parliamentary logjam is probably the starkest example of this that we witnessed in 2015. It would be interesting to see if we see a difference in this situation going into 2016.

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