Monday, January 25, 2010

On the anthology Civil Resistance and Power Politics

In the last half-century, what has united African-American civil rights campaigners in the American South in the 1960s, anti-apartheid demonstrators in South Africa in the eighties, anti-communist agitators in Czechoslovakia in 1989, discontented citizens and student groups at Tiananmen in China in the same year, and striking monks in Burma in 2007 and Tibet in 2008? The answer is civil resistance – a mass program of deliberate, purposive action committed to non-violence, and intended to alter the balance of political power so as to bring about what some commentators have called “a revolution without revolution”.

A hundred years ago, civil resistance as a political force was not much more than a minor curiosity. Although it had theoretical roots in the ideas of Thoreau, Tolstoy and Ruskin, in the realm of worldly application Mohandas Gandhi’s work for the rights of Indians in South Africa was about the only feather in its cap. Today, that is no longer so. The idea of civil resistance today has a history, a dignity, an allure, a vocabulary (agitations in the Philippines in the eighties gave rise to the term “people power”; the Czech writer Vaclav Havel produced a famous essay called “The Power of the Powerless”; the peaceful transfer of power in Prague in 1989 threw up the term "velvet revolution"). “Civil resistance” brings to mind strikes, fasts, boycotts, demonstrations, the use of potent symbols and messages, a sense of active community, solidarity, and discipline among discontented people. Civil resistance grasps that there are forces other than brute force (even as it accepts that violence and armed resistance may be justified in certain extreme situations). It is directed at the individual conscience of both the demonstrator and the adversary, and therefore runs deeper than matters of ideology. At the same time, it is nothing without mass support, and constructively channels the power of the crowd as a force for change.

Insofar as one of the reasons for studying history is to avoid repeating its mistakes, civil resistance offers a sharp, self-conscious break with many centuries of bloodshed and suffering over political, social and religious disputes. Thus, even when it fails, or is stamped out by violent reprisals, it is still on one plane a success, for having neutralised through responsible action the instinct to meet blow for blow. Yet, as recent history shows, civil resistance, while not evenly and universally effective, does not need any charitable definitions of success. As Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, the editors of this volume of case studies of modern civil resistance campaigns around the world, argue, the idea of civil resistance has helped redefine revolution since the 1960s. Although violence remains endemic in human affairs, civil resistance “has assisted at the birth of a new genre of revolution, one that involves force but not the violence always associated with that word.”

One of the key emphases of Civil Resistance & Power Politics is that it understands civil resistance not as an ideal of moral action and non-violent “conversion” of the adversary through “truth-force” as Gandhi saw it, but simply as a strategy of practical politics. Moral transformation of the adversary is not essential to successful civil resistance. As the second half of the book’s title indicates, civil resistance is often a response to “power politics” – the negligence, manipulation, and active oppression demonstrated by those in power. But it seeks to counter that with a power politics of its own. Its morality is restricted to non-violence; beyond that it may legitimately be all calculation and pragmatism. We should neither romanticise the idea of civil resistance, nor believe, despite some of the more stirring stories around it, that it infallibly reaches its projected ends.

Indeed, as the scholar Judith M.Brown argues in a clear-eyed review of Gandhi’s civil resistance campaigns, mass action strategised by the most celebrated practitioner of the method, even though it significantly changed the terms of imperial engagement with the colonised, could not really be said to have brought an end to empire, as some hold. Other political and economic circumstances, such as the Second World War and Britain's own faltering interest in the idea of empire, were just as influential in tilting the balance of history in favour of Indian independence.

Gandhi certainly radically enlarged the terms of protest and negotiation available to the disenfranchised, and laid down a frame where any person, even a child, could join the movement as a political actor. Yet even here, Brown shows, his local campaigns directed towards a specific end, such as the farmers’ agitations in Champaran and Bardoli, were much more successful than his pan-Indian campaigns, where it became harder to exercise discipline all the way down the line. Among the lessons we learn from Gandhi’s example is that civil resistance does not usually yield instant results: it shifts the balance of power step by step. We learn also that much depends on the timing of civil protest, and on the adversary’s willingness to engage. During the Quit India campaign of 1942, for instance, the Raj’s attention was directed towards the World War, and Congress leaders engaged in programs of civil resistance were summarily rounded up and thrown into jail. The movement was not a success. So, as the career of even the most successful exponent of civil resistance shows, skilful strategy (and not just moral rigour) can immeasurably help improve the efficacy of civil resistance.

What factors improve the probability of civil resistance campaigns succeeding? The case studies offered here show that, since civil resistance is really a form of political theatre, widespread local and international publicity is certainly a factor. (The rise of the Internet and the availablity of cheap video technology are therefore good omens for civil resistance in the 21st century.) Astute leadership and discipline are very significant, as passions can often get out of hand in mass movements; "the crowd" is often only a step away from turning into "the mob". International support and the pressure of neighbouring powers, including the threat of economic sanctions, can often decisively influence the way domestic power holders perceive their options in dealing with civil resistance. So, as Christina Fink writes in her essay on the demonstrations by the monks in Burma in September 2007, the refusal by India and China, the two biggest powers in the region, to exert any pressure on the Burmese military regime to negotiate with the dissidents made it easier for the generals to crack down on the protests without fear of reprisal.

Most importantly, mass commitment, as Gandhi realised, makes for campaigns that cannot be crushed easily and without loss of face and authority, and provides a kind of safety in numbers. On the subject of the crowd in civil resistance movements, Garton Ash, one of the chroniclers of the people's movements of Eastern Europe that brought down communism in the late eighties, writes in his essay "A Century of Civil Resistance":
Peaceful revolutions, like the violent ones of old, are distinguished by the eruption of very large numbers of people – call them, according to taste, the masses, the people, the crowd, or the citizens – into public spaces, and hence onto history's stage.. They are the exceptional moments when, to adapt Karl Marx, the people make their own history; or at least, they feel they do. [...] There is strength in these numbers, and there is safety. Such mass gatherings break through the barrier of fear which, as Gandhi saw, is the essential bulwark of non-democratic regimes. [...] In the early twenty-first century, we need new studies of the crowd in these new-style revolutions. Their sociology cries out to be understood better, as do their group dynamics. This is, let is be said at once, difficult to do. You cannot interview 500,000 people. Even if you could, memory rewrites history.

I have spent many hours of my life standing in revolutionary crowds, on freezing squares from Warsaw in 1980 to Prague in 1989 to Kiev in 2004, and they remain gloriously mysterious. What is it that sways them one way or another? Who is it that comes up with the chants that erupt, apparently spontaneously, as the crowd speaks back to the speaker as if it were itself one person? Who, as we stood on Wencelas Square in Prague in 1989, had the idea of taking his or her ring out of his or her pocket, holding it up and rattling the keys like a Chinese bell? (Within minutes, some 300,000 people were doing the same, producing a sound that I shall never forget.) Perhaps even the person who really started it does not know.

[...] Freedom of expression – recovered, or fully enjoyed for the first time – is of the essence in such moments. As Alexander Solzenitsyn and Vaclav Havel both argued, the freedom to say what you want, to challenge a regime of organized lying with "one word of truth", is both a symptom and a cause of political change. When people "speak truth to power" they are themselves empowered. They shift the power balance simply by saying words in public.
The merit of this anthology is in the way it takes the reader forward from civil resistance as a beautiful and moving idea to civil resistance as, if you will, prosaic practice. Even as it seeks to reshape history itself, civil resistance has much to learn from its own history, and, as this book demonstrates, much history today to learn from.

Here is a good recent essay by Garton Ash: "Velvet Revolution: The Prospects" ("The prospects for an attempted velvet revolution depend not just on the nature of the state and society it happens in, but also on the place of that state and society in a wider international setting. Painting...with a very broad brush, one might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically, and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones—and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies. Thus, attempts have failed in large, independent, self-referential states such as China but also in small, isolated, peripheral ones such as Burma, sandwiched as it is between China and India.")

And here are two old posts: "On the Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi" and "On Vaclav Havel's To The Castle And Back".

[A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint Lounge]

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell and the problem with modern narrative nonfiction

“On the afternoon of October 23, 2006, Jeffrey Skilling sat at a table at the front of a federal courtroom in Houston, Texas.” Not too hard to guess: this is the first sentence of an essay from the New Yorker. It features the familiar hook – a moment of dramatic tension, a set of precise visual details (Skilling is not attending his trial, as some writers might have put it, but sits at a table at the front of a federal courtroom), and the selection of a protagonist who is an entry point into the story – practised and perfected by generations of writers for that magazine, and other American long-form magazines like Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly, at least since the nineteen-sixties, when writers such as Tom Wolfe began to raid the techniques of fiction for their reportage. The current incumbent of the position of star New Yorker writer – a position held in the past by such greats as EB White, AJ Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and the current editor David Remnick – is Malcolm Gladwell, the smooth-talking mind behind the bestsellers The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, all of which offer provocative theses on modern life.

Gladwell’s new book, What The Dog Saw, has no central thesis like the previous ones, but instead brings together the best of his essays, on subjects as various as ovens, hair dye, football quarterbacks, and money markets, published in the New Yorker over the last decade. The general philosophy of these pieces seems to be, on the one hand, that human behaviour and wants are endlessly variable and complex and cannot be reduced to a system, which is why we require writers like Gladwell to explore its oddities, and on the other (and somewhat in contradiction to the first emphasis), that human behaviour is endlessly fascinating and is therefore worth systematising and theorising in all its quirks, particularly if such studies yield counterintuitive or logic-tickling results.

Two favourite Gladwell subjects, popping up repeatedly across these essays, are, one, the variables involved in human choice-making, and two, adroit salesmanship or transactional ability. Gladwell explores human behaviour in the public sphere much more than the private sphere. Some emphasis on commerce or a judgment of economic worth is present in most of his essays, and he uses the phrase “the new economy” a lot. He seems both an adept guide to, and at the same time himself a child of, the highly consumerised, commoditised world in which we now live, showing us how “the products and the commercial messages with which we surround ourselves are as much a part of the psychological furniture of our lives” as emotions and interpersonal relationships.

All the strengths and novelties of this approach are on view in the best essay in this volume, “True Colors". Like all the other essays in the book, it begins with a protagonist – Shirley Polykoff, a copywriter – who managed to make the newly available use-at-home hair dye dramatically popular among American women in the nineteen-fifties with her hit line for Clairol, “Does she or doesn’t she?” Polykoff’s influence on the minds of middle-class American women was soon rivalled by the slightly more upmarket message projected by the brand Oreal that said “Because I’m worth it.” Gladwell’s key point is that the revolution in hair-dye technology and the representations of hair-dye users in the advertising of the time were not trivial matters. “Between the fifties and the seventies,” he writes, “women entered the workplace, fought for social emancipation, got the Pill, and changed what they did with their hair. To examine the hair-colour campaigns of the period is to see, quite unexpectedly, all these things as bound up together, the profound with the seemingly trivial.”

But at many other points Gladwell’s love of a dramatic story (two essays in the book have as their closing image men breaking into tears, while another ends with an upward spike, with a room full of people cheering for the protagonist) and nonchalant fly-on-the-wall approach towards reporting raise difficult questions that cannot be simply brushed aside. Take for instance the thoroughly charming opening essay of his book, “The Pitchman”, which is about a family of inventors of kitchen gadgets, the Popeils, who sell their own products with such a charming, smooth-talking “pitch” that consumers lap them up. Here is one of Gladwell's portraits.

S.J. Popeil was a tinkerer. In the middle of the night, he would wake up and make frantic sketches on a pad he kept on his bedside table. He would disappear into his kitchen for hours and make a huge mess, and come out with a faraway look on his face. He loved standing behind his machinists, peering over their shoulders while they were assembling one of his prototypes.

Here we have the classic portrait of dishevelled, unruly genius down to the last detail, such as that adjective "frantic". Is this true? Possibly. But how does Gladwell know this for a fact? After all, only S.J.Popeil was on the scene during his bursts of late-night inspiration! It makes sense, then, for Gladwell to say that this is how Popeil, or perhaps his wife, said he worked. But no – Gladwell here, and at several other points in the book, prefers to practise what the media critic Jack Shafer has called “mind-meld journalism”, giving the impression that he has uninhibited access to his subject’s mind and life every hour of the day.

The effect, in this piece, is actually that of a writer who has become so mesmerised by his subject that he himself begins to pitch for Popeil. To me this is dishonest, corner-cutting reportage, though it makes for a good story. It bestows upon a chosen human being intriguing backstories and flaming passions, scrubbed free of contradiction, inertia, mystery, or deception (even as the larger argument may insist that people are vastly complex creatures). This approach hankers after the fiction writer's omniscience, but actually turns it into something of a joke by confusing human beings (who are independent, and often inacessible even when in front of us) with characters (who are always constructed, and are mysterious only insofar as the author allows them to be). This trend is now fairly common in non-fiction books of our era; it appears not to be a problem worth thinking about any more. Here, for instance, is a passage from Michael Meyer's recent and otherwise admirable book about the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Year That Changed The World. Meyer tells us how the Wall was breached on the night on 9 November, 1989, and then moves into a flashback:

Earlier that evening, just after 6 p.m., [...] Gunther Schabowski, the portly spokesman for the new East German Politburo, installed just weeks earlier, stopped by the offices of the communist party boss, Egon Krenz, en route to the daily press briefing, a recent innovation designed to demonstrate the regime's new openness.

"Anything to announce?" Schabowski asked, casually.

Krenz shuffled through the papers on his desk, then passed Schabowski a two-page memo. "Take this," he said with a grin. "It will do us a power of good."

The writer's reluctance to use a distancing device such as reported speech even when it is clear that the encounter being described was a private one turns the incident to something that might have come, for example, out of the screenplay of The Lives of Others. The reason he does this is that there is something in the memo that will, unsuspected by Krenz and Schabowski, swiftly bring down the whole regime, so the words "casually" and "with a grin" work to set up a dramatic irony in the story. But this reconstruction, even if based on the testimony of one of the two players involved, loses in reader's trust what it may gain in storytelling power.A similar problem plagued and for me ruined Rajiv Chandrasekaran's tale of American bungling in post-Saddam Iraq, Imperial Life In The Emerald City, which "reported" scenes of armed conflict down to what the characters were thinking at the time (“Yee-haw, thought Fish, who was sitting behind Aguero”).

In a platitudinous, self-congratulatory preface to What The Dog Saw ("Along the way, writing has never ceased to be fun, and I hope that buoyant spirit is evident in these pieces"), Gladwell makes a curious point about "good writing":

Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine who reads something of mine or anyone else's and says, angrily, "I don't buy it." Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be.

For a writer with so much skill, this seems an amateur's theory. Even so, what interests me most about this passage is not its hazy binaries or tendentious contentions, but why Gladwell has to qualify "Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade" with the back-door escape of "Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway" instead of going straight on to "It succeeds or fails on...".

As with Gladwell’s other books, there is no shortage of intriguing hypotheses and surprising insights in What The Dog Saw. But the overall effect of smart-aleckiness and the absence of sustained human encounters swiftly becomes wearisome. One longs to be with a writer interested not just in providing "a glimpse into someone else's head" – this is not as exclusive a community as Gladwell makes it out to be, although it does seem to be top of the to-do list of the modern-day nonfiction writer but in thinking about the forces and pressures and limits that operate on that all-seeing eye, as much as the heads that it apparently gets into.

And a review of Meyer's The Year That Changed The World is here.

[A shorter version of this essay appeared a few weeks ago in Mint Lounge]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A long interview about the composition of Arzee the Dwarf

Late last year I met a reader and writer in Delhi, Juhi Basoya, who later sent me a list of quite specific questions about the composition of Arzee the Dwarf. One evening I found myself quite free, and sat down to write the fullest and most precise answers I could manage. If I link to the interview here, it's only because I feel it exists on a continuum with all the other thought about writing and composition in fiction and non-fiction that is featured on this site. The only difference may be that here I've applied myself to thinking about my own methods and not someone else's, and can speak in a more personal and probably more confident way. The full exchange is here, and here are a few excerpts:

On the writing process
For Arzee I worked in a very unstructured way, and mostly by instinct, because I’d never done work on such a large scale before. This made it is a very labor-intensive book. Often I didn’t know where the story was going but went ahead all the same just to see what came of it. Once I’d gone all the way to the end (even if it wasn’t a very good end), I kept going back over and over, cutting, changing, and reworking, till slowly the hues and the structure of the story became clear. For future books I hope to work in a more organized manner. But no matter how organized you are, a story always seems to discover its own structure and tone in the actual process of composition. Writing is always full of surprises even for the most methodical and organized writer.

On the title
The name was just one of those things that arrived in my head out of nowhere, and seemed exactly right. As far as I can remember the book, was always Arzee the Dwarf, and the title of the work came before everything else and was a spur for all that followed because it focused the point of the book. Many times, when work wasn’t going too well, I would murmur “Arzee the Dwarf” three or four times to myself like a little mantra, and tell myself that, no matter how the novel turned out, I’d at least managed to write a simple, striking, and intriguing title!

On language and metaphor
In my view similes and metaphors are one of the great joys of language. But of course in a novel they must appear in a disciplined way, in a way that enhances the pleasure of the story and of a particular moment in that story. If you think about it, language itself is spontaneously metaphorical. When you say “I’m feeling down” or “feeling blue”, you’re not actually standing lower or turning a different color, but everyone knows what you mean. Metaphors are mind-expanding; they can make a sentence seem like it grasps the whole world. I would say they are one of the many weapons in a writer’s arsenal, and every now and then he finds a moment to shoot.

And some older posts and interviews about Arzee the Dwarf are here.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

An essay on Indian fiction in translation

I've just published a long essay, "The Middlemen", bringing together my thoughts on both the general subject of Indian literature in translation and some specific recent works, in particular Salma's The Hour Past Midnight and Sankar's The Middleman.

And here are some older posts on works discussed in this essay: on Sankar's The Middleman, the stories of Parshuram, Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third, and Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist.