15 June 2007:

Pankaj Mishra on Martha C Nussbaum, in The New York Review of Books.

Pankaj Mishra writes, in "Impasse in India," appearing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, about Martha C Nussbaum's The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. Ms Nussbaum, a philosopher, claims to find "surreal" the conjunction of militant Hunduism with pro-business globalizing interests, but Mr Mishra deftly points to the same conjunction on the American right. In this, India may be a bit ahead of the United States. In 2004, Indians unseated BJP* majorities and reinstated the venerable Congress Party. The rate of economic growth, while still remarkable, has slowed down a bit, as the government attends to the bulk of citizens who have been bypassed by the boom.

The essay is important in general - we need to know much more than we do about India, and Mr Mishra is brings great lucidity to the task. What my mind fastened on, however, was a detail about a fundamental, possibly foundational, problem of democracy. Ms Nussbaum, we read,

approves of Gandhi's view that only individuals who are critically conscious of their own conflicts and passions can build a real democracy. In fact, much of Nussbaum's own rather unconventional view of democracy in this book derives from the Gandhian idea of Svaraj (self-rule), in which control of one's inner life and respect for other people create self-aware and engaged rather than passive citizens. The "thesis of this book," she writes in her preface, is

the Gandhian claim that the real struggle that democracy must wage is a struggle within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality.

Once upon a time, this might have sounded idealistic, high-minded. Now it just sounds obvious. As the gloves have come off in civil discourse over the past forty-odd years, it has become clear that a lot of Americans are not interested in living respectfully on terms of compassion and equality with some of their neighbors, and that many project disrespect upon people who think differently. Not without reason: Northeastern Liberals have always been inclined to see their world-view as self-evident - I've just said as much myself. But we have to remember that it is anything but self-evident. We must learn to talk about what we believe with greater emphasis on persuasion, and less on admiring ourselves for our own good thinking.

* "Indian People's Party"

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