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Swami Vivekananda: An Outsider’s Ramblings

24 Mar

swamiEarlier this month I visited New Delhi’s Ramakrishna Ashram for the first time.  What drew me there was the exhibition on the life of Swami Vivekananda (a.k.a., Narendra Dutta, 1863-1902). The exhibition, inaugurated a few months ago by the Dalai Lama, celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the saffron-clad monk who is India’s Great Man -“second only to Ghandi,” as I was told more than once.  Compared to most other historical exhibitions I have seen in this country, “Vivekananda: A Prophet of Harmony” is tip-top, as measured by functioning A/C and lighting fixtures, savvy graphics panels, contemporary wallpaper posters, new dioramas, and an interactive exit quiz intended for schoolchildren.  Plus it’s relatively crowded. Over the course of an hour or two I spent there on a Saturday morning I counted a couple of university students (probably taking a short study break from the nearby library), a few senior citizens, half-dozen sadhus (among them, two Europeans and an Indonesian), and one large middle class family visiting the capital city from Tamil Nadu.  “You must see the film,” said the moustached paterfamilias to me.

His reference was to “9/11: The Awakening,” a 15-minute computer-animated piece on a speech Vivekananda gave on 11 September 1893 at the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago, which was held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition.  Starting with a scene straight out of The Titanic, the film depicts the monk’s transoceanic crossing, and how he bowed to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, before taking the podium.  “Sisters and brothers of America,” Vivekanada’s opening line, is known to every educated Indian person, but “the speech” in the short film appears to take from multiple speeches the monk gave in Chicago, including the second (“Why We Disagree,” September 15) and the third (“Paper on Hinduism,” September 19) are the richest.  By all accounts, Vivekananda’s discourses on religious tolerance and unity, mutual recognition, India, and Hinduism were a big hit (it suffices to consider the tumultuous applause he received multiple times from the audience of 4,000 – or 7,000 if you include the overflow halls of the Art Institute).  Chicago treasures these memories today.  A stretch of the Michigan Ave (at Adams St) is now the honorary Swami Vivekananda Way and a statue of the saint, taller than the one at Delhi’s RK Ashram metro station, adorns Chicagoland’s premier Hindu temple in Lemont.

According to the standard historical narrative, Vivekananda was the first Indian/Hindu thinker to introduce Hinduism and the Indian/Hindu understandings of tolerance, peace, and justice to Anglo-America and the European continent – ideas that would “conquer the world,” as he would put it (“It is my ambition to conquer the world by Hindu thought – to see Hindus from the North Pole to the South Pole”, 1897). The Chicago speeches and other overseas interventions carried by the swamiji established a number of inter-civilization bridges, both big (the global spread of Vedanta philosophy and yoga) and small (Nikola Tesla’s vegetarianism, celibacy, and a possible re-consideration of the mind-body problem). Vivekananda’s speeches and writings, the narrative goes, “awoke” India from its slumber (“For the next fifty years let Mother India be your God. Serve your country as you would serve God, and India will awaken”, 1897).  His “modernized” version of the Indian/Hindu thought inspired “social reform” at home, while helping raise awareness about India’s anti-colonial struggle abroad.  No less important, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission (now the main publisher of his writings) and the Vedanta Societies [1], which continue to spread his teachings to this day.

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American Vignettes (II): The Spirit’s Agenda

18 Mar

Most of our day we are unaware of what we are thinking, but it is not our thoughtlessness that is disconcerting, it is our lack of awareness of our thoughtlessness.

It is rare to be in a space uncluttered by social messages, but you suddenly find even your modern sensibilities assaulted as you make your way through contemporary America. There are the expected advertisements, but they cover more of the physical surface of the world than you remember. There are the expected automated announcements, but they pierce the air and reverberate more loudly than you remember. You watch as everyone else moves through this cloud of demands, warnings, enticements, and you wonder: “does their head spin as mine does?”

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Advertisement on escalator railing.

The cab you take across Manhattan has a television screen constantly playing commercials – you can silence it but you cannot turn off the scrolling images. The roads you drive down in New York, Chicago and Denver have their negative space filled by an uncountable number of signs, billboards, words – every surface a text. Even tucked away from the public stream of communication, in your home or in your car, the words and pictures crash over you: television is ubiquitous and its light flashes on you wherever you go, the radio blares at you in the coffee shop and the eye doctor’s waiting room, the ads flash on your computer screen as you write emails to friends, and the messages and updates ding and chime on your phone as you sit down to eat a family meal.

The frenetic quality of the day only appears once you are lying in an unfamiliar bed, in a quiet dark room, when you can hear your parents breathing as they sleep down the hall from you, when you can hear the geese who have come south from Canada honking in the distance, when your mind stops receiving, blocking, dodging, collecting words and is able to put its own thoughts together. Being out of place and out of rhythm, you feel the importance of this moment. Slowness. Quiet. Rest. Continue reading

Allow his prophetic voice to be heard…

23 Jan

I was thinking of writing on Dr King’s legacy (again) to mark MLK Day this past Monday, but it turns out that Dr Cornel West has already said what needs to be said.

 

Obama’s Ohio Report

8 Nov

My Ohioans did it again.  In every election since 1964 (and almost every time since 1904), the winner of this state ended up taking the presidency – hence the clichés “America’s bellwether” and “as Ohio goes, so goes America”.  Having spent six years of my life studying politics at The Ohio State University not so long ago, I can’t help but identify and sympathize with Buckeye voters, a group of people that every four years gets to decide the fate of the U.S. and, some might add, the world. This is a heavy burden for many reasons, including being exposed to the fanfare of presidential candidate fly-ins (82 of them this time), thousands of attack-counterattack TV ads (that typically target only “undecideds” and/or “independents”), as well as dozens of phone calls and door knocks reminding you to get out and vote for the right person (in the final week of the 2008 campaign, Team Obama said it knocked on a million Ohio doors per day).

The phrase “key battleground state” that every news outlet likes to attach to Ohio refers to its electoral-college vote clout (the 2010 Census reapportionment gives it 18 votes until 2020) as well as its recent record in presidential elections, which is marked by small margin-of-victory numbers (4.6 percentage points in 2008, 2 in 2004, etc.). The state has a remarkable red-blue balance overall; since 1998, the state voted for three Democratic and three Republican candidates each). Also remarkable were the results of pre-election state polling in October, which showed a tied (or at least tightening) race between President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney (see, for example, the discussion of the RCP poll of polls from 30 October).

To be sure, electoral pathologists – those friends of yours obsessing about assorted ‘paths to presidency’ – had probably explained to you that each candidate could have won an electoral majority without Ohio (e.g. Obama would have had to grab one or two bigger states considered tossups plus all reliably blue states, and Romney would have had to hold onto all normally red states while pulling off multiple upsets elsewhere). This type of electoral math is both fun and fantastic, but reason tends to swiftly restore the status quo ante: it’s all about “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio!

Tuesday’s drama ended right after 11 pm Eastern Time, when the news organizations called Ohio for Obama; less than two hours later, Romney conceded the race.  To examine this outcome, let us begin with two issues identified by the media as key to this election: the auto and coal industries, and the thousands of jobs each of them provides to the state. (Compare, The Globe and Mail’s Ohio postcard of 25 October or The Economist of 27 October to the endorsement editorials in The Columbus Dispatch [Romney], The Cincinnati Enquirer [Romney], The Plain Dealer [Obama], or my favourite OH newspaper, The Blade [Obama]). In a nutshell, while some Ohioans liked what the president did with the former (that 2009 bailout of GM and Chrysler helped the manufacturing sector in the northern part of the state), others hated what he did with the latter. (Being viewed as too green on energy was expected to hobble Obama’s re-election chances in the coal-mining counties of the Appalachian part of the state).

Whatever the explanatory merits of simple storylines like these, unofficial returns bear this one out. The website of Ohio Secretary of State’s office has Obama winning by about 2 percentage points, which is lower than in 2008. The president indeed carried the populous Cuyahoga County (centered on Cleveland) plus a string of smaller counties in the northeast by sufficiently large margins, while Romney won large parts of the coal country.  What went on elsewhere in the state was more important, however. Though Romney ran strong in most traditionally Republican rural areas, he severely underperformed in the remaining half dozen big urban counties, which account for almost 40% of the statewide vote. Even Hamilton County (Cincinnati), historically a GOP bastion, went to Obama by about 20,000 votes again. (For the county-by-county comparisons over time, see Rich Exner’s page at The Plain Dealer; U.S. politics junkies might also consult a map of the 2008 precinct-by-precinct results provided by Stanford’s Spatial Social Science Lab).

Demographically, Obama probably carried the state in the same manner as he did four years ago.  How many Ohioans voted will not be known until late-arriving absentee ballots and provisional ballots are counted, but the turnout (about 68%) can safely be described as well above average. This surely helped the president: by getting its base to register and ballot (including via early in-person voting), the Obama campaign succeeded in maximizing Ohio’s Democratic potential once again (against a stream of ‘voter fraud’ legislation targeting qualified minority voters). What exit polls seem to be suggesting is that the president bested his challenger among female, young, college-educated as well as minority voters.  And what of Ohio’s white working class males (those without a university degree), who sit at the center of any “annoying, all-purpose pet theory” of U.S. presidential elections? Here, it appears that the president succeeded in avoiding a large margin of defeat, and it will be interesting to see why. The success in capitalizing on Romney’s casino capitalism sounds like a plausible hypothesis (and a nice extension of the auto bail-out storyline); but let’s recall that in 2008 Obama won 56% of votes from union households, which was lower than the national average.

What about the role played by ‘non-fundamentals’, specifically Obama’s race? Estimating this particular effect is challenging at any level of analysis, but both survey-based and non-survey-based studies have suggested that in 2008 Obama lost about 5 percentage points of the national popular vote due to racial intolerance on the part of some voters. A meaningful decline in this number would be my candidate for a feel-good story of the 2012 election.


Note: Cross-posted at the CIPS Blog, and meant to be read in conjunction with “Pre-Election Facebook Rants, #652

A Foolish Discipline?

1 Oct

This is the third post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book, followed by Meera’s response. In the next few weeks, we will have a posts from Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Brett’s response is now up.


Interest in the history of International Theory has grown, but the academic study of its origins has received relatively little attention to date.  The reasons are multiple: the complexity of the subject, a powerful commonplace view that ‘disciplinary history’ equates scholasticism and navel-gazing, and, I would hasten to add, a collective unwillingness to deal with racism that often pops up in the writings of mythicized fathers of international theory.  John M. Hobson is not hindered by any of these obstacles.  What he does in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is tell a story that begins in 1760 and ends in 2010, assessing hundreds of international theorists past and present, from Adam Smith to Anne-Marie Slaughter.

This wide-ranging, authoritative book is a continuation of the author’s previous achievement of note, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. There, Hobson argued, echoing Edward Said, that nineteenth century European imperialism was symbiotic with Europe’s “racist identity.”  This symbiosis has had many implications, but none as big as this: “had racism not existed and had the West viewed the Eastern peoples as equal human beings, imperialism might never have occurred” (2004: 241).  This meta-point is now revisited in a major way:

international theory is to this book what Western literature is to Edward Said’s Orientalism….given Said’s claim that Eurocentrism has a clear link with international politics – in this case imperialism – then international theory should logically constitute the ultimate litmus test for revealing this discourse in Western academic thought (p.2; all subsequent in-text references are to this book, unless otherwise indicated). Continue reading

Feminist Notes, part I

12 Jul

By including what violates women under civil and human rights law, the meaning of “citizen” and “human” begins to have a woman’s face. As women’s actual conditions are recognized as inhuman, those conditions are being changed by requiring that they meet a standard of citizenship and humanity that previously did not apply because they were women. In other words, women both change the standard as we come under it and change the reality it governs by having it applied to us. This democratic process describes not only the common law when it works but also a cardinal tenet of feminist analysis: women are entitled to access to things as they are and also to change them into something worth our having.

Thus women are transforming the definition of equality not by making ourselves the same as men, entitled to violate and silence, or by reifying women’s so-called differences, but by insisting that equal citizenship must encompass what women need to be human, including a right not be sexually violated and silenced. This was done in the Bosnian case by recognizing ethnic particularity, not by denying it. Adapting the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, we are making the word “woman” a “name of a way of being human.” We are challenging and changing the process of knowing and the practice of power at the same time.

-Catharine MacKinnon, “Postmodernism and Human Rights,” Are Women Human?

What We Talked About At ISA: @Hannah_Arendt – A Hypothetical Exploration of Hannah Arendt in Cybersphere

24 Jun

‘Social Media Drawing’ by Tjarko Van Der Pol

This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.

The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.

Inside the Political Twittersphere. Sysomos

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