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Showing posts with label Mark Twain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Twain. Show all posts

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dangers of Politically Correcting History

“I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”
Augusten Burroughs

If we want to, we can find fault with Mother Teresa, as a Hindu right wing group in India recently did. I have no doubt that she made mistakes, misspoke, and if we scrutinise every moment of her life we also will find numerous events and instances where there is cause to be critical of her actions and possibly even some of her deeply held beliefs. This is because even a saint is human, and therefore beautifully flawed like the rest of us.

There is a very dangerous movement underway in America, one that feels like an attempt to re-write history to make it more sanitised and politically correct, and therefore less offensive to people today. What is most frightening about this is that it is being done in a way that completely disregards the historical time and context. It is taking an irrational and one-sided view of history by trying to apply a modern day lens to it.

A few years ago a Mark Twain scholar and his publisher New South Books decided to release versions of the classic novels ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ deleting the word “Nigger” and replacing it with the word "slave" (Source: Publishers Weekly article).  That is akin to painting clothes onto a Picasso’s Blue Nude painting because women today find it offensive.

This movement is threatening to spread beyond desecrating works of art and of literature, setting its sights historical figures by attempting to re-evaluate their contributions to society, but evaluating from inside a blind and alarmingly inane fog of political correctness.

The irony is that this is happening under the guise of promoting inclusiveness and greater tolerance. The people championing this cause do not seem to realise that shutting down all alternate viewpoints and censoring historical facts (to fit their worldview) is the very definition of intolerance.

At Princeton University, a protest led by the Black Justice League is demanding that the college “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson,”  America’s 28th President, and take steps to rename the public policy school and residential college” and  remove his visage from every corner of the campus. (Source: NYTimes article).

Wilson grew up in the land of the KKK, the Deep South, and clearly held pro-segregationist views, as demonstrated by his efforts when US president to remove black officials and administrators from government. He also stood steadfast in refusing to admit black students during his tenure as president of Princeton College. Yet, he is also the same man who “oversaw the passage of a range of progressive legislation previously unparalleled in American history. Samuel Gompers, the most visible labour leader of the time, described Wilson's achievements as a "Magna Carta" for the rights of the workingman” and Wilson was one of the leading supporters of the League of Nations. (Source: Huffington Post article). There is no question that Wilson’s legacy is a complex one and that he held some detestable views, if we are to judge him with today’s cultural lens. But he did not live in the 21st century and that is precisely the issue.

Wilson, like most men (unlike a Hitler or Idi Amin) and like the vast majority of human beings, is a multi-faceted and complex person. So, before we attempt to erase from history books the likes of Winston Churchill or Woodrow Wilson, we need to stop and ask ourselves a few serious questions. Were the behaviour and views of these men a symptom of the time in which they lived and of their upbringing? Did these men devote their lives to spreading hate, akin to a Klansman or Hitler? Are we looking at the sum of their parts, over the period of their lives and not just one aspect of what made them complex beings? And most importantly, will doing this not just simply tilt the pendulum of history in the other direction and once again fail to present the full picture?

Would it not be better for us to use this moment of greater awareness as an opportunity to ensure that we can start to provide a more complete picture of these men, and therefore our history, rather than attempt to scrub or rectify it?

Also, if we go down this path, then we must think about how and where we would draw the line. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson were all slave owners. Abraham Lincoln famously said in a debate, in 1958, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…” (Source: We all know what Lincoln went on to do; so how should we now allow people to judge him – racist or reformer?

Nobody is suggesting we sit back and accept a one-sided view of history or accept a view that might justifiably have been ‘white-washed,’ but eradicating every flawed figure within it is not the solution. Human beings are complex, multi-faceted, ambiguous, emotionally charged and irrational beings. Our greatest strength is not in learning how to never say, do, think or believe things that may be inherently wrong, but in our ability to change. Greatness comes not from being perfect, but from the ability to learn from our mistakes and change even our most deeply held beliefs, as Abraham Lincoln showed us.

We will do future generations a great disservice, hurting the cause of tolerance and equality greatly if we attempt to take the opposite but still one-sided view of these men. So instead of expending our effort to erase murals and tear down busts and change names of buildings, let us re-examine history in an effort to add colour, to present the full and complex picture of the people they were.

Tolerance can only be promoted through a deeper understanding of the flaws and complexities that make us all unique and human, not by pretending we can ever be perfect.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Real India

“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday’s bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
Mark Twain

All my life I have believed in an India that increasingly exists only in my mind’s eye. Perhaps, this India of which I am so proud to be a citizen is merely an idea that has not yet been fully realized. Increasingly, it feels like this great vision of India rarely matches the reality that I see.

My India is rich with diversity, the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions (friend, guide and philosopher to the other three) and home to every religion practiced by man. In this India, it is our diversity, and not our divisions, that make us stronger, richer and more powerful. In my India, I am always proud to be Indian first; then Bengali, Tamilian, Gujarati, Malayali, Punjabi or Jain. 

In this India, I am also proud that India is still home to the second largest Muslim population in the world; in spite of the creation of two Muslim states on her borders. This is what makes the fabric of my India so rich and her cultural mosaic the envy of the civilized world. No other country in the world can claim to have this breadth of heritage and depth of diversity running through her veins.  

As long as each of us clings to being a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain then we will remain only a very small and totally inconsequential part of this India.

In this India, Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy for a way of life. It is an accumulation of ideas, beliefs, traditions, philosophies and cultural practices that were collected and shaped over centuries. Unlike other religions, Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into a specific belief system. 

It is a Dharma, or a set of philosophies that are meant to govern our personal beliefs and worldly actions. Interestingly, it is the only religion in the world that cannot be traced back to one single individual or book. And the only religion that does not require a person to “convert” or have a religious affiliation to it in order to receive its teachings. 

The word “Hindu” cannot be found in any of its scriptures. In fact, it was first used by invading Arabs to describe al-Hind, or the land of the people who live across the river Indus; and it was only toward the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus (source: Wikipedia). 

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity and Islam by a few thousand years. If you look at its practices, unlike other religions, it does not tell you who to worship, what to eat, which day or how many times to pray, but instead offers things like Yoga, Ayurveda and Vastu. At its core it is about self-awareness and the idea of “live and let live;” with an underlying belief system based on truth, honesty, non-violence, cleanliness, austerity and perseverance. Perhaps, this is the reason it is often referred to as the “enlightened religion.” This is the true nature of the religion we today call Hinduism.

The Hinduism that is preached, practiced and used as a tool to create communal strife and manipulate the voting public today is barely recognizable, and not part of my India. It has been bastardized by Hindu fundamentalists and hijacked by self-appointed chieftains and politicians as a way to divide the country and buy votes. But it is too easy to blame just the power hungry; for individuals too it has deteriorated into regular offerings of millions of rupees in gold, silver and precious gems to their Gods – purely as a way to atone and wash away all the worldly sins they commit outside their temple walls. 

These offerings lie collecting dust in temple vaults while 830 million Indian’s live on less than Rs. 20 per day ($0.44c or UK 0.27 pence). A person going to the temple with bags full of gold or cash can pass a starving child on the way to their deity, and look the other way. However, he will have no qualms about handing over all his possessions to fat, corrupt temple officials as an offering to an inanimate block of stone. This is what we have reduced Hinduism to, a worthless transaction that does nothing to help us live better lives, become better human beings, help our fellow countrymen or even our own country.

In my India we celebrate and hold dear our heritage, not simply because it is thousands of years old, but because it is responsible for our wealth of diversity, today. Which other non-Muslim country in the world can claim to have so many different successful Muslim figures across every aspect of society, even though they are a minority in a country whose population is more than four-fifths Hindu? 

We have had three Muslim Presidents; the Khans still rule Bollywood and Azim Premji is one of the richest men in the world. We can also proudly lay claim to Javed Akhtar and A.R. Rehman and feel great pride in the fact that one of our most patriotic and well-known songs “Saare Jahan Se Achchha,” was a great collaboration. It was penned by Muhammed Iqbal, a Muslim, and the music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Hindu. In fact, in this India we don’t just blindly recite the lyrics, we hold them dear.

“maz’hab nahīn sikhātā āpas men bayr rakhnā
hindi hai ham, vatan hai hindostān hamārā”

“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among us
We are Indians, India is our homeland”

We take their meaning to heart and reflect this in the way we live our lives. And we hang our heads in shame at the fact that we all stood idly by and watched one of our greatest national treasures, the late artist M. F. Hussain, die in a foreign land where he felt he needed to seek refuge (and accept citizenship) because thugs in saffron made sure he would never feel safe in his own home again. 

This even after the Supreme Court threw out all the completely frivolous lawsuits against his nude paintings of Indian Goddesses; refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. The court also called out the clear anti-Muslim motives behind these cases, by stating the fact that Hindu temples are filled with much more graphic depictions of nude Goddesses in pictures, paintings and sculptures, and it seems that this never hurt Hindu sentiments in a few thousand years.

This India is not about all hugging and getting along. I doubt man will ever be able to do that, but it is about accepting that we are not all the same; that we will never look, dress, think and pray alike, but that each of us has something to contribute and much more to learn. It is about recognizing that this learning is what makes us all stronger, richer, greater and more successful as a nation. 

It is only once we are all able to embrace this notion that we can stop our leaders from dividing us based on the inconsequential differences that exist between us. Until then, I will treasure this India in my mind’s eye.