In the beginning, and that was a while ago, when no word carried the certainty of knowledge—even experts were prone to the multiplicity of truth—death was not what frightened us. It was our own attitude towards a pandemic about which even science was not so sure. We struggled to trust our instincts, and our rulers’ responses that ranged from denial to bravado to profitable panic to, in rare cases, reassuring leadership. Death was elsewhere, beyond newspaper headlines, and the comfort of distance made life still bearable. In our enforced isolation we wilfully ceded our civil liberties and formed the world’s largest fraternity of fear. When death began to shatter our fortified existence, we realised the redundancy of our prayers. The pace of science could not minimise savage statistics. Death, displacement, dispossession…hell was us. After such knowledge, there was no consolation.
The survivors still carry the scars of memory, and, the irony of it all is that our gratitude has few deserving takers. Some feasted on our fears and further strengthened their saviour complex, still a shared trait of authoritarianism. Some paid for their sins of leadership, small rewards from those much battered democracies. Now that the intimations of a third wave with a faster transmission rate scare the world, the only consolation is that we are unlikely to die—and that tells a story about the sheer tentativeness of being alive. Of being alive in a world where nature, even as it’s being portrayed as our victim, is the arbiter. Our humility still doesn’t match its furies. What matters now is some kind of assurance, from science or our stars, that we won’t die, and we are prepared to live in perpetual anticipation of the worst. This existential state of the 21st century says something about death too—its overwhelming familiarity, and the fragility of our confidence. And our stoic acceptance of a life restricted by our daily demystification of death. Omicron—it doesn’t sound that ominous just because we know what could happen even if we closed all the windows.
DISSENTING IN DESPERATION
Is it that a closed house sharpens our perceptions? That it clarifies, in horrifying detail, the secondary source of our anger? The pandemic has changed politics—that is stating the obvious. It has changed our perception about change itself. We all can afford a philosophical sigh now, and get resigned to the next astonishment. The wages of sins still elude the political class that sees power as a relentless manipulation, and that is what suffering makes us believe. It is as if the individual stake in social morality has never been higher. It is as if even when nameless forces can still alter our lives for the worse, justice, or the absence of it, has a name and a face. We are all dissenters now, and the intensity of which is determined by the elasticity of truth. The philosopher-dissident may have told us that dissent is all about “living in truth”, the only honest way to confront the lies of the state.
What’s getting increasingly problematic is the truth about the politics of ‘applied truth’. Ideological divisions are starker now, and it’s pure tribal warfare out there. The radicalisation of politics built on social justice is more pronounced than the widening cracks on the Right—and, in the lands of its intellectual origin, the closing of the conservative mind is almost complete. The old moderate, whether from Left or Right, has been disempowered. The liberal who abhorred ideological rigidities is out of the arena. That’s bad news for the quality of conversation in any democracy. The new laws of conforming allow no space for the harrumphers. We are all certain of our demons, and our professional dissenting class won’t let the intrusion of reason or information mar its belief. Metropolitan Indians should be familiar with the extent to which the banality of dissent can go at a time when we really need honest conversation about the proprieties of governance and the moralities of power. The visceral circumlocution of our conscience-keepers bestows victimhood on those who may not deserve it. It only adds to the transgressions and exaggerations of power.
THE REVENGE OF RELIGION
Have the uses of power shifted from governance to salvation? Has power become, in a world maddened by opinions, messianic? Certainly it’s more spectacular than ever before, starring rulers larger than the sum total of the slogans that elected them. Some of them have been blinded by the aura of the Chosen One and lost their way midcourse. Some with monumental ambition have turned power into a theatre of the supersized. When history is not dramatic enough to allow leaders to achieve greatness, as dramatic as, say, world wars, some of them are desperate to acquire greatness. The pandemic didn’t help. Will the new culture wars help? Or, has the political become absolutely cultural?
Maybe in places where the reclamation of the national soul is the only mission of politics that matters. Where the mystique of grievance is political capital. Where the past is a big lie. To repudiate it is to regain our lost national self. Religion defines the new culture wars. The secular, monitored by the state, has collapsed; it may have collapsed just because popular behaviour can’t be monitored beyond a point. The enforced idyll, like the order of the secular state, crumbles when a people return to their identities that are older than their state. The Right today taps into ancient anxieties in which the personal, the historical and even the mythological merge. Identity powers the new freedom struggle—and the one identity that the progressives don’t care about has come to rearm the Right. Conventional wisdom has it that the Right never wins the culture war, that they fare better in the marketplace. They won’t give up;
they have made it an identity festival on the ruins of secular pretence.
A rightful corollary of all this is: Is pessimism the new religion? Have we lost the freedom to be cheerful for good? The book of life offers any number of reassuring stories about the evolutionary sophistication of the world and its behaviour, in spite of all those time-travelling political slogans. We have retained the freedom to make arguments that defeat the worst instincts of ideologies. Here is an invitation to turn another page of ideas.