…the most important and very simple lesson there for American and European commentators who for a long time have assumed that everyone in the world is just waiting to become like them is this: how Asians have conceived over the last century and a half of their place in the world dominated by a small minority of white men.
This is what my book seeks to describe. In this basic quest for dignity and equality and release from humiliation – so obvious yet so rarely discussed – are grounded all the events that you speak of, whether the Arab Spring or the rise of China.
So unless you grant that people have conceived of their own fates, made their own trysts with destiny, without regard for what the West wants or how the West sees itself and judges non-Western peoples, you’ll always be a little bewildered by everything that happens in the world today, and will end up falling for simple, self-flattering notions like “they must hate our freedoms”. The book addresses this massive incompatibility of historical memory and self-perceptions between the West and Asia.
There is of course a great deal of continuity in the Western discourse of free markets: from the British merchants who lobbied for an assault on China in the late 1830s to Woodrow Wilson saying we must “batten” down the doors of countries that do not practice free trade to Friedman who wrote that the invisible hand must necessarily conceal an “invisible fist” or it won’t work.
So the coercion and profound inequality inherent in this practice of “free trade”, or the fact that it made a small transnational elite – foreign businessmen and their local collaborators – rich and impoverished many others, have always been obvious.
Why do so many people fall for grandiose moral claims – the ludicrous notion, for instance, that the free market is all about removing poverty?
The reason why I chose Tagore, who is not a systematic thinker or ideological system-builder and is better described as a poet and seer, was precisely these bits of writing – necessarily naïve and un-ideological and therefore so cognisant of modern horrors. Only someone with a rooted relationship with the world and a profound sense of the past could see the increasingly impersonal and brutal form of violence unleashed by “rational” men.
I can’t do better than quote some of Tagore’s own writings from this trip to the Middle East, which are particularly relevant to our Age of the Drone:
“There is a British Air Force station at Baghdad. The Christian chaplain of that force gave me the news that they were daily bombing some Arab villages. Old men, women and children were being killed indiscriminately from the upper regions of British Imperialism; it was easy to kill them because the principle of Imperialism obscures the individual. Christ has recognised men as the sons of God; but to the Christian chaplain of the Air Force the Father along with his Son have grown unreal, they can no longer be discerned from the altitude of Imperialism… Besides, the desert-dwellers can be killed so easily from the air and their powers of retaliation are so inadequate that the reality of their death too grows dim. For this reason, armed men of the West are very prone today to forget the humanity of those who have not yet learnt their scientific methods of homicide.”
…the rise of Asia and its assertion of dignity and equality before the long-dominant West, means nothing if Asian countries like India and China and Indonesia follow the same script: conquest, exploitation, an instrumental attitude towards nature, dispossession and the worldwide scramble for resources that produced vicious conflicts in the last centuries.
The model of the imperial nation-state that made a few Western countries so uniquely powerful and prosperous can only spell political and environmental disaster on a gigantic scale if populous countries like India and China adopt it. But that is what we are looking at in the new century.