Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Deconstructing Sen ...

In an Opinionjournal piece, Tinku Vardarajan takes apart Amartya Sen's "Identity and Violence," or, rather, the liberal Indian elites in general.
"Identity and Violence" is not an entirely tedious book, although it is more than a tad repetitive. Its thesis is that the ascription to individuals of "singular identities"--in other words, to speak of a person as "a Muslim" to the exclusion of other facets of his personality--leads to the "miniaturization of human beings." And this, he avers, is Not Good. It is also Not Accurate. And Unhelpful. And Divisive. And Dangerous.

Put another way, the reduction of individuals to a "choiceless singularity"--religion being, for the most part, a state one is born into--leads to the "solitarist belittling of human identity." Such reductiveness, Mr. Sen claims, merely plays into the hands of that rabble-rouser Samuel Huntington, who insists on seeing the world in terms of differentiated civilizations based largely on religion. Mr. Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations," published in 1996, continues to play a Manichaean role--in Mr. Sen's view--in the war on terror. Mr. Sen asserts that, in truth, people have multiple identities and that the Huntingtonian view (which Mr. Sen simplifies to the point of caricature) is willfully blind to this complexity. But what exactly are these layers of identity that Mr. Sen speaks of?

Here is what he says: "The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English)."

Apart from being a flawless recitation of a left-liberal catechism--except for the bit about outer space--what exactly does this mean? And how does all this help us? Mr. Sen is here conflating identity with predilection, as well as denying that there is--or can be--a hierarchy of potency within a catalog of personal states. I don't mean to belittle the power of endorphins, but is being a long-distance runner the same, in an accounting of identity, as being a Christian or an American? This is, perhaps, a ludic list of identities; but it is also faintly ludicrous.
So when Mr. Sen asks--Is a "religion-centered analysis of the people of the world a helpful way of understanding humanity?"--I ask back: Is ignoring religion, or diminishing its importance, a helpful way of understanding humanity? The view from Cambridge (Mass. and England) is clearly not the same as the view from my office in New York, which overlooks Ground Zero.

To understand Mr. Sen's desire to get away from religion-based political taxonomy, one must be aware of where, as they say, he is coming from. The Nobel laureate--who has taken to describing himself as a "feminist economist"--is a full-fledged member of the Indian "progressive" left. If there is one concern that drives this group, that animates its politics like no other, it is the perfectly well-meaning desire to safeguard India's Muslim minority from the excesses of the country's Hindu right. This desire has led to such contortions as the left's defense of a separate personal law for India's Muslims (which leaves Muslim women at the mercy of inequitable rules on divorce and inheritance) merely because the Hindu right campaigns for a uniform civil code for all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion.
You know, I'm with him (Vardarajan i.e.). Even with all my visceral opposition to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar (especially after Gujarat, 2002.), this particular bit of their platform - a Uniform Civil Code - always seemed reasonable (even if it was partly inspired by anti-Musim maliciousness). The bewildering variety of India's civil laws never made sense, not for a secular democracy, exemplified especially by the Shah Bano case. Besides the instinctive anti-Americanism of the Indian intelligentsia is irritating at best (even as people jockey to get their children student visas to come to the US?).

Last summer when I was in India, the Argumentative Indian had just been released -- it got middling reviews from the 'rents, and while lionized in many places, the main criticism seems to be that he makes broad generalizations about history at best, or even distortions of history to serve an ideological end. (Yes, the Sangh Parivar does this as well, but that doesn't legitimize it!). Seems like that has carried forth into his next book as well.

No, I haven't read either book. Or any of his economic stuf either! And I guess, part of why I liked the op ed was that it poked fun at the Indian left. We have such base motivations for what we read and like!] Back to Mr. Vardarajan:
People like Mr. Sen overlook Muslim or Islamic failings for fear of appearing "unsecular." Any political conflict in which one side is characterized as "Muslim" is automatically disparaged as being anti-Muslim. Conversely, if there is to be fault-finding based on religion (or civilization), then both sides must be depicted as guilty. So al Qaeda and the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib are grouped together as examples of what happens when there is "identity thinking" amenable to "brutal manipulation."

There is also a tendency on the part of thinkers like Mr. Sen to diminish the political and scientific contributions of the West and to glorify the achievements of non-Western (and, where possible, Islamic) societies. So the Muslim emperor Akbar, the lofty Mughal, is lauded for his tolerance of all faiths. But no one stops to ask why the edifice of Islamic tolerance collapsed after his death in 1605.

Likewise, early Islamic-Arabic breakthroughs in mathematics are held up as proof of intellectual greatness--and, yes, at the time of their conception they were indeed great. But why did the Islamic world flounder later into a state of long-running anti-scientism? As always, Mr. Sen compares the very best of the non-West with quotidian practice in the West. This is a common problem with the defenders of Islam--or, in Mr. Sen's case, with the critics of the critics of Islam.

Mr. Sen, inescapably, is a member of Bengal's bhadralok, or gentleman class. (As the joke goes: One Bengali is a poet; two Bengalis are a film society; three are a political party; and four are two political parties--both leftist.) What Mr. Sen really wants is for all of us to be "fair" to each other. Fair enough. But his idealistic thesis twists and turns to remake the world in its own image. Ultimately, his picture--though pretty--bears little relation to reality. It makes me so sad.

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