Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tik. Tok.

This is a dangerous time

This is a time without rhyme, without reason

- Graeme Connors, ‘Cyclone Season’

There is a book I wanted to read again, in the final few months of the election campaign in that faraway country which I am now doing my best to ignore. But I couldn’t find it in the library, and in the shops they only now seem to sell Sladek’s book about the good robot. Fortunately, I got a 1984 copy for Christmas through the wonders of online secondhand bookshops. Tik-Tok is the bad robot- there is something just a teensy bit wrong with his asimov circuits. He is also the first robot vice-presidential candidate, after our metal brethren are enfranchised- five-hundred million of them.

My press conference was dragging to a close: I made the usual joke about Martian annexation, parried the usual question about the Botuland crisis, and said finally:

‘I guess that about winds it up, kids. Except that I want to thank you, all of you – both friends and friendly enemies of the press – for doing one hell of a good job during this campaign. You’ve all reported what I’ve said, fairly and honestly, to the American people. Not one of you tried to exploit my – let’s say, sideshow value. I’m proud of you.’

While they gave me themselves a round of applause, I spoke to one or two of the local robots who’d promised to vote for Maxwell and me. Then I headed for the computer room to check the latest predictions – up to now, we looked certain to take thirty-eight states – but I was accosted by a reporter.

‘Hello, uh, Olsen is it?’

‘Hello, Mr Tok. Thought you might be interested in this picture. Taken not long ago in Nixon Park.’

It was a clear shot of me strangling the old man over the chessboard. My former face was unmistakeable, and so was the fact that I was squeezing his neck so hard that blood shot from between his teeth.

‘What is this, a shakedown?’

Olsen laughed. ‘Nope. I’m one of those incorruptible members of the Fourth Estate you were just babbling about. This is a still from a video tape which I’ve just handed to the police. I just wanted to see if you had any interesting comments, before you resign from politics?’

I looked around. A pair of plainclothes cops were making their way through the rows of folding chairs towards us. There was still time to kill this little shit Olsen before they reached us. I might even be able to get away afterwards. The path unfolded before me, a change of face, emigration to Mars- and even if they shot me, so what? No point in living now.

I held out my wrists for the handcuffs. Everything lost, everything. My whole life’s work, all the dreaming and building- now for the collapse. I looked at the giant pictures of Governor Maxwell and me, the bunting and the slogans. Max Dares! Tik Cares! All for nothing, wasted like my wasted life.

I found myself, in the police helicopter, allowing my mind to dwell on images from the past. They unrolled before me, a rich tapestry. … What a book it would make, if only I dared write it!

But why not? Nothing to lose now. … Nothing to lose now, and at least I could have my last spasm of notoriety: ‘You think I’m bad? Wait’ll I tell you the whole story. I started off by murdering a blind child and I ended up building death factories in Latin America, and you almost made me Vice-President, how about that?

[Here ends the manuscript of Tik-Tok’s autobiography, published on teletext as Me, Robot. The following chapter appears only in later editions, published after 2094.]

Now, I don’t accuse President-Elect Berzelius Windrip of having murdered a blind child, or burned down a nursing home, or pulled off a string of violent bank robberies, or any of the other things Tik-Tok confesses with such engaging candour in his autobiography. And I don’t think his extremist opinions are quite as extreme as ‘exterminate all the humans’. But I did breathe a sigh of relief when it became apparent he had the nomination in the bag, because I didn’t believe he could possibly win. I couldn’t imagine the electorate being foolish enough to vote for anyone with his record, with his long list of dodgy associates, with his extremely radical views.

But, just like among the very last generation of humans, rhetoric, novelty value, and the perception of candour trumps all.

‘No arguing with a best seller, Tik. And Me, Robot is not only selling well, it’s hitting the public hard.’

‘They’re shocked?’

‘Yes and no. Hell, by now, they expect anything of politicians. They’re shocked, but they’re intrigued.’ He chuckled. ‘They’re already forming Free Tik-Tok Committees.’

‘I don’t understand. Why-‘

‘Call it the complexity and perversity of human nature, Tik. In a way, it’s because you confessed to such hideous crimes that they want to let you go! I suppose people see it like this: All politicians are crooks, but most get away with their perfidy. Now, when one politician wants to come clean, it seems almost ungrateful of the state to demand his life. Anyway, they say, what’s the hurry? Could it be that certain people in high places want to silence you?’ He chuckled again. ‘So, you’re fast becoming a folk hero. I like that. Folk heroes don’t lose in court.’

‘Don’t be stupid. There’s no possible way I can win in court, and you know it. Not only was I caught red-handed committing murder, I’ve confessed to dozens of other major crimes.’

‘We’ve won already, smart-ass. With your permission, I can plead nolo contendere and the DA agrees to let us off the hook on all charges. You’ll have to pay some big fines and probably give up control of Clockman International, but you’ll walk free. Understand?’


‘We’ve three factors working for us,’ he said. ‘First, when you committed many of these so-called crimes, you were not legally a person, so they are not crimes. If a juke-box steals a coin, you can’t put the juke-box in jail.’

‘And what else?’

‘A second factor is, as I mentioned already, the popular appeal of Me, Robot. You’re a folk hero, and what in jury in its right mind would convict a folk hero?’

‘And the third factor?’

‘Politics. The DA is a reasonable guy, the judge is a reasonable dame, they’ve both got political careers to protect. And they both belong to Governor Maxwell’s party.’

‘So what? Maxwell dropped me. The ticket now reads Ford Maxwell for President, Ed Wankel for Vice President.’

‘Yes, but today, Maxwell announced that if you were cleared, even after the election, he would install you as Vice President. Wankel agreed to resign in your favour. They’re no idiots, Tik. They know you’ve got the vote-pulling power they need to win. So now, you’ll walk out of court not only free but Vice President. Can’t be bad, eh?’

I chuckled along with him, but my thoughts were running ahead to weightier matters. A robot assassin for Maxwell first- obvious, sure, but why aim for subtlety now? – then to get my hands on the war stuff. How long would it take, to arm the thermonuclear devices, ready the death-rays, load up the viruses? Days or weeks? Yes, and when the humans had been wiped out, how long to bring the world’s machines into line, get them ready for the big push to the stars?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why I am not a Baha'i

In Marco's tradition of extremely long posts, and as part of a general tidying-up urge to make sure I have said everything I want to say before I go, I thought I would put this up.

I have been sitting on for about seven years and thought I would put it somewhere where it might theoretically be findable by someone who is interested in such things. It is a much-tinkered-with letter, never sent, written when I was a better person and could think more clearly than I do today. It would have been my fourth in a written dialogue with a Baha’i friend, and was last tinkered with about three years ago.

My objections to the Baha’i faith are seven:

(1) I am opposed to the ‘very heart of the purpose of the cause’, that is, bringing about the unity of mankind.

(2) I am strongly opposed to the doctrine that the laws of the state should be obeyed.

(3) No Holy Book is inerrant.

(4) No religion can claim to be an improvement on that of ‘Isa that does not enforce vegetarianism on its followers.

(5) If ‘progressive revelation’ exists, humanity will need another messenger in far less than 834 years.

(6) I feel that Baha’i teachings on Justice encourage self-righteousness and hard-heartedness.

(7) To say that God is knowable only through His Messengers is trivially true, but ultimately false.

To proceed to the first point, I have read that Abdul Baha has stated that bringing about the Unity of Mankind is the ‘very heart of the purpose of the cause’.

I do not hold this to be a laudable aim.

There are two possible interpretations of what is “good”. Good may be related to:

(i) The potential for each living being to reach their fullest capacity to be what they are, in this world.

(ii) The fitting of each living being into a “thing fit for eternity” like the pots of Robert Browning’s poem ‘Rabbi ben-Ezra’.

For both of these cases, many things remain the same: Hence, the prohibitions against killing, against taking what is not ours, against activities that disfigure the soul, are required in both. Food, shelter, education, clean water and clean air, true freedom of thought and expression; these all work towards them both. There are a few practical differences between the two definitions of good; merely removing a source of temptation will work towards (i), by minimising the hazards that must be avoided in a finite time, but will not help towards (ii). By (i), our consciences may lead us to take action against the few for the good of the many (e.g., murdering abortionists in order that the prevailing climate of terror will cause them to abandon their trade) – but by (ii) we must weigh our actions against the possible disfiguring effects of our actions on the souls of the wider community, who might be estranged from God by our actions. (I presuppose a perfect moral agent; that is, a selfless man who counts his own happiness as no greater or less than anyone else’s. Thus, the disapproval of the community that he will incur, and the possibility that he himself will “lose his salvation” cannot enter into his moral calculations.

Unity can only be a means towards good, by (i), under limited circumstances, and cannot help at all towards (ii). If (ii), it is always more important that division remain, no matter how difficult, to teach us patience and mutual respect. Diversity is what I would call a second-order good. It is true that specific instances of diversity should not be preserved if their presence brings more disfigurement of soul to individuals than its absence, for only individuals can suffer or feel joy, be sundered from God or abide forever in His presence; but you cannot look at the universe and not know Diversity to be dear to the heart of our Creator, our inordinately-fond-of-beetles God. No idea, no nation, no species, no religion, no culture, ought to be preserved if it causes more harm to individuals than it cures; but that many ideas, nations, species, religions, cultures are necessary for the health of the human race I hold as an article of faith. Just as a multiplicity of species maintains some kind of balance in the world of living things, the multiplicity of religions ensures that the harm done by prevailing errors in a particular one is minimised.

I agree with Toynbee that there is a true core to all religion; but I see the great multiplicity of outward forms of worship, devotional practices, theologies, etc., not as stumbling blocks, but as a thousand thousand different paths to the One God, each particularly suited for particular people in the very diverse world we live in. I feel it would be a tragedy to lose them. I believe that not only the revelations of Muhammad and ‘Isa are of value, but that Maronites and Pentecostals, Ismailis and Wahhabites, have a particular role to play in the Divine Plan. The fact that there are no sects and divisions within the Baha’i faith is to me a very great stumbling block to considering it seriously.

In the ‘Satanic Verses’, Gibreel tells Mahound that any new idea is asked two questions: the second is, ‘what do you do to those who disagree with you when you have power over them?’ This is a question that the Catholic Church has answered, that al-Islam and a few other religions have answered, but it is not a question that the Baha’i faith has yet had to answer. The true level of tolerance exhibited by the Baha’i faith, with its claim that all religions are of God, can be gauged by two admittedly anecdotal pieces of evidence:

(i) My father-in-law was once told by a Hand of the Cause, ‘make no mistake, eventually there will be no room for any other religion but Baha’i.’ This is a very good answer to Gibreel’s question, but is quite in the spirit of those offered by the Inquisitors and Ayatollahs.

(ii) When a person seeks to sever ties with the Baha’i faith, they are asked to sign a document stating that they no longer believe Baha’ullah is a manifestation of God. Those who continue to believe so, but do not agree with particular matters on which Abdul Baha, Shogi Effendi, or the International House of Justice have spoken, exist but are never mentioned.

These specific doubts, in combination with the general principle of the good of Diversity, lead me to reject strongly seeking the unity of mankind under Baha’i auspices as a positive value.

To proceed to the second point, it is reiterated in “The World is But One Country” and in many other Baha’i writings that the laws of the state should be obeyed, even to the extent of taking up arms and killing the enemies of the state when conscripted.

My belief is that where the laws of God and the laws of men come into conflict, the laws of men must always give way.

Very many thousands of Christians have died rather than obey the laws of the state. From the days of Tiberius to Jiang Zemin, we have suffered for placing the laws of God above the whims of man. This doctrine that the state should be obeyed is an insult to the memory of those martyrs.

In the Second World War, many catholic men were executed rather than serve in the armed forces of the Third Reich. The doctrine of the Baha’i faith is that they were going against the will of God! This is unacceptable to me. I believe a major factor in the ‘success’ of Hitler was the emphasis by Martin Luther on this very thing, respect for the state and the divine sanction of authority, leading to a perverse level of respect for authority in German society. In the history of Russia and China, the other homelands of totalitarianism, religion has always been subordinate to the state and encouraged respect for authority.

On the other hand, there is a quote by Mussolini that I have always treasured; “the human material that I have to work with,” he said, “is worthless, worthless.” This judgement is a great compliment to the Italian people. I will always remember the signs on the trains in Switzerland as an insight into the connection between respect for authority and national behaviour. In German and French, the languages of nations that have spread devastation across Europe in recent centuries: “It is forbidden to stick parts of your body out the window.” In English and Italian, the languages of nations that have not: “It is dangerous to stick parts of your body out the window.” For the one set, appeal to authority is sufficient; for the other, reason must be invoked.

Although the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has often sided with the state – for example, the disgraceful record in supporting repressive regimes in Latin America - when not a state-supported church it has usually encouraged obedience to the laws of God rather than the laws of man. The revolutionary priest has been a stock character in anti-catholic pamphleteering since the time of Queen Elizabeth I (recent examples equating Liberation Theology with Marxist revolution should be easy to find at any Christian bookstore!)

With regard to these first two objections, I fear that the idolisation of unity, combined with the exhortation to obey the state, will make the Baha’i faith an ideal tool for godless and evil movements that also seek world unification. Individualism may be a source of discord; but respect for authority is far more dangerous. It has killed many millions in this century, and keeps billions in chains of their own making.

To proceed to the third point, the Baha’i faith teaches that the writings of its founder, of Abdul Baha and of Shoghi Effendi, are of divine origin and cannot be contradicted without calling into question the validity of Baha’ullah’s Divine mission.

The idea of the inerrant “Holy Book” is strongly bound up with Judaism, with Protestantism, and with Islam. This concept I believe to be erroneous, and especially dangerous in the case of the Baha’i faith where there is such a very large amount of inerrant writing.

I fear that, due to the all-embracing nature of the inerrant prescriptions for human society within the Baha’i corpus, the Baha’i faith may be more than a tool of potential world dictators, but a totalitarian theocratic state in embryo.

To a large extent, the arguments in the ‘Wine of Astonishment’ are based on a very Protestant/Muslim understanding of revelation; the Holy Book is brought down from heaven, and all we must do is obey what is written. This same spirit pervades the teachings of Baha’ullah that I have read: if you accept that his mission was of God, you must accept all of his writings as inerrant. Clearly, if I accepted that the writings of a Prophet of God are inerrant, all my other objections would have to vanish as cobwebs in a blast furnace; but I have never accepted the idea of an inerrant Holy Book in the Christian community, seeing many things in the Bible that cast disgrace on the Holy Name of God and can only be human in origin. The difficulties I have here would be magnified with the large corpus of Baha’i writings, especially the legal ones.

I would like to discuss in particular my problems with the Muhammad = Paraclete equation, which has been carried over into the Baha’i community from Islam.

Our evidence of the life and career of Jesus must, in my opinion, rest almost entirely on the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew). Biblical scholars believe the gospel of John was written at a later date, and it is impossible to read it without noting that the character and the teaching of Jesus described are very different from what is written in the other three Gospels. I have found nothing that troubles me, in the sense that it seems to be unworthy of God, in the words of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, but this is not the case with gospel of John.

Now, the book of Acts is very clearly a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and though I am no expert, I think the scholars are agreed that the two books had the same author. The whole plot of Acts is the sending of the Paraclete in the form of the Holy Spirit, and her nurturing the growth of the Church.

If we reject what is told us in Acts, how can we accept the evidence of the synoptic Gospels on the teaching and character of Jesus? What is the touchstone that can make Luke valid but Acts invalid? Without such a touchstone, the rejection of Acts leaves us completely at sea, and free to make up whatever Jesus suits the requirements of our philosophy.

‘Isa never wrote a book. I believe that he was a prophet of a greater order than Moses, Jeremiah, Buddha, Muhammad, Baha’ullah, et al., though all these were inspired by God, and that God does not endorse inerrant holy books.

To proceed to the fourth point, the Baha’i writings say that one day carnivory will pass away, but in no way exhort humanity to abandon the practice.

I have noted that for over three-thousand years the great sages and teachers of many lands have been telling us that carnivory is an abomination.

How can we claim to be followers of God when we gorge ourselves on the bodies of slaughtered innocents? It is true that ‘Abdul Baha said that the eating of meat would pass away eventually, but the clear retrogression from the teachings of Krsna so many years before throws the whole concept of “progressive” revelation into limbo.

I find the Baha’i position of claiming Krsna and Buddha as prophets, but ignoring what they said almost entirely, to be appallingly discourteous to practising Hindus and Buddhists. I will not discuss the immorality of eating animal food further, since many people greater than I have done so ably before.

To proceed to the fifth point, the Baha’i writings state that the next Messenger of God will be sent after 1000 revolutions of the earth around the sun have elapsed.

I believe that the environment of mankind has changed far more in the last 160 years than in the previous three thousand. In a further 834 years, the state of humanity will be unimaginable to us today. If revelation is made according to the needs of humanity, it appears obvious that new messengers will be required in far less than the thousand years foretold.

How will the Baha’i profession of the unity of ‘all religions’ hold on the world of Sevastna, where 99% of the population of four billion are Nambarunists? When there are more Selkites than Hindus in the universe, and more Mormons than any other Christian denomination? The ‘unity of all religions’ will look very silly if it leaves out the religions followed by the majority of humankind. This may appear to be a rather ridiculous fantasy of the future, but in a few hundred years I think it will be the strongest of all objections to the Baha’i faith.

The Catholic Church teaches that other religions contain truth, but has never compiled a list including some and excluding others. Rather than rely on ‘progressive revelation’, we believe that the Holy Spirit animates the Church, making her an adaptive entity that can change and continue to faithfully project the light of God to different times and places. My personal belief is that all revealed religions are in fact such adaptive entities - it is incontrovertible that most of the good achieved by Judaism, most of the real apprehension of God, has occurred since the revelation of Christianity. It is incontrovertible that most of the good achieved by Christianity, most of the real apprehension of God, has occurred since the revelation of Islam. Progressive revelation, as envisioned as the ‘passing on’ of the Light from one messenger to another, is not experimentally tenable.

To proceed to the sixth point, Baha’ullah has said in the Hidden Words: “best beloved in My eyes is justice.”

But ‘Isa said “See where it is written: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”.

I once told a Baha’i friend that I no longer felt anger at being cheated in my business dealings, for it was not a sin to be cheated, while wrath at being cheated might easily lead me into sin. He disagreed, quoting the verse from the Hidden Words mentioned above. This scared me. I do not believe such a verse can or should be applied to relations between human beings. We should by all means strive for justice in the world, but we are the last ones who should decide whether we are personally treated justly or not. All of us in the West, for example, are beneficiaries of an unjust distribution of the world’s resources and are accomplices in preserving the unjust status-quo.

Hitler and me and you are as alike as three raindrops, from the standpoint of the infinite righteousness of God; we are all absolutely reliant on the mercy of God, and stand condemned by his justice. Only by keeping this continually in mind can we escape the trap of self-righteousness and hard-heartedness that traps so many religious people. My community is excoriated by secular society for bringing forth feelings of guilt; but this is its great strength. We are all equally wicked before God’s justice.

Barry Goldwater has famously said: “extremism in defence of freedom is no vice; tolerance in pursuit of justice is no virtue”. I would agree with the first, but not the second; I suspect and fear that the Baha’i community would endorse the second, but not the first.

To proceed to the last point, a point reiterated in the Baha’i writings is “God is knowable only through His messengers”.

I do not know the point of saying that ‘God is knowable only through His messengers’. It is trivially true that it has been the work of the Prophets to break down the barriers between humanity and God, but it does not mean that we must approach God through the Prophets, know them by name, or necessarily do them any honour whatsoever. My personal understanding of the role of Christ is that the barriers between God and us have been broken down entirely, once and forever, and we need profess no intermediary.

“Seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you; ask and you will receive.” I cannot believe in ‘salvation by faith alone’ in the way that is taught in so very many Christian churches; this idea is very repugnant to me. If you asked me when I was six years old what Jesus did, I would tell you the same thing I would tell you today: ‘He taught us to call God our father.’ God is knowable as our human fathers are knowable. The grace of God is poured out continually upon all of us, ready to support our feeblest step towards goodness. One very great problem I have with the idea of progressive revelation is the way that Muslims and Baha’i’s do not call God their Father. From the outside, it appears to me that the Baha’i relationship with God is less personal, the Baha’i conception of God less immanent, than that of the Catholic Church.

The purest statement of what I believe about grace can be found in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, where Aslan (the Christ of that world) speaks to Emeth the Calormene, who has all his life devotedly sought to know and serve Tash (not only a false God, but the Satan of that world):

“Child, all the service though hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me ... for no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replies that he has been seeking Tash all his days, and Aslan replies: “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

The key has been turned; the door is open; all may enter. The grace of God is poured out like the rain, to feed a thousand thousand rivers, at which all may drink. In conclusion, I find that my faith is based on the words of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels. There is nothing in these words that I find conflicts with my experience of God. There is much in the writings of Moses, of Muhammad, and of the Baha’i teachers that conflicts with my experience of God, the Father of the Unborn Galaxies. I believe, almost against my will, that ‘Isa was special. I would much rather find the same pure light shining through equally in the recorded work of Jesus, Confucius, Moses, the Bab, etc., with appropriate allowances for time, place, and fidelity of transmission... But I can’t....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Civil Cult

There is a little scrap of civil religion that has appeared in the last five years or so, at least in this part of the country. Before a public speech of whatever sort, anywhere within the education sector- even if it is to open a stop work meeting- the speaker will recite a formula something like this:

"I wish to acknowledge the ##### people, the traditional owners of this land."

Frequently followed by:

"...and show my respect to all Elders, past and present."

I suppose this does as little harm, or as much harm, as burning a pinch of incense at the Emperor's altar. I would however like to proffer the following more extended litany:

"I acknowledge the ### people, the traditional custodians of this land, who love this land, who know the stories of this land and the names of its hills and rivers.

I acknowledge the many peoples who came before the ####, who also loved this land, whose names and stories are forgotten.

I acknowledge the people of the British Isles who crossed the world to learn to love this land, in whose words I am speaking, and who have made their own names and stories here.

And I acknowledge all men and women, in whatever time, and from whatever place, who have loved this land, for anyone who loves this land belongs to this land.

I wish to show my respect to all men and women of good faith who have sought truth as they understood it, and virtue as they understood it, in every age and every land. And I wish to show my respect to the many sages and prophets of East and West who built the civilisation we share: who taught us to seek for law in the universe, and in the way we live; to love our neighbours as ourselves; and to strive to live according to the principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality. For the Earth is but one country, and all of us its citizens."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kingdoms of the Wall

Last week I finished listening to ‘The Story of India’ on CD, and I still don’t have a good feel for Michael Wood's unifying structure for Indian history. All I have come up with so far can be summed up by slightly modifying the words of Poilar’s uncle in ‘Kingdoms of the Wall’: ‘India is a world. India is a universe.’

Michael is obviously very impressed with India, and very fond of India, and wanted to write a book. He thinks many of the distinguishing features of Indian culture can be traced back before the coming of the Aryans, as far the very dawning of humanity on the subcontinent, and talks about yoni and lingam stones five thousand years old being recognised by modern villagers when dug up. Having stressed this antiquity of Indian civilisation he runs out of specific things he really wants to say and skips along from vignette to vignette for the last 2000 years without ever making much of a point. I don’t think Michael’s heart was really in telling that part of the story.

I still enjoyed it, of course, since I am also very impressed with India, and very fond of India, and wanted something to listen to in the car. So I apologise, Michael, if you are reading this, for the negative tone of what follows. Thanks for the book. I have just written about the aspects that struck me as worth quibbling about, as a contrary and pedantic Dr Clam.

There is a dreadful responsibility resting on the shoulders of anyone who goes to write about such a vast subject, because of the false impressions that can be given by leaving things out. For instance, Michael mentions famine in association with the career of the Buddha and an Emperor of the Mauryan or Kushan period- I forget which- who was moved by his inability to do anything about it to embrace Buddhist principles: then he doesn’t mention famine again until the 19th century, where it is a stick to chastise the British with for being insensitive and incompetent Imperialist rulers. This gives the false impression that the millennia in between were all jolly and well-fed, which is of course not true. Famine is a chronic problem in populous countries with rain-fed agriculture and pre-modern communications. Here, for example, is part of the account of an English traveller in Gujarat in 1631, during the reign of Shah Jahan, the ‘Golden Age of the Moguls’:

‘No less lamentable was it to see the poor people scraping on the dunghills for food, yea in the very excrements of beasts, as horses, oxen, etc., belonging to travellers, for grain that perchance might come undigested from them, and that with great greediness and strife among themselves, generally looking like anatomies with life, but scarce strength enough to remove themselves from under men’s feet, many of them expiring, others new dead…. From Surat to this place, all the highway was strowed with dead people, our noses never free of the stink of them, especially about towns; for they drag them out by the heels, stark naked, and all ages and sexes, until they are out of the gates, and there they are left, so that the way is half barred up.’

[From Peter Mundy, Travels in Europe and Asia, quoted in ‘The Men Who Ruled India’, Philip Woodruff]

In a similar way Michael says, several times, that India was something like 30% of the worlds economic output under the Moguls, and only 3% in 1900 (or at Independence- I forget which) and this he also blames, without explicitly hammering the point, on the British behaving badly. Leaving aside the fact that the 3% is probably a number based on solid data and scholarship, while the 30% is a rubbery one that someone made up: (1) The taxation policies of the Moguls could hardly have been more effective at creating poverty and quashing entrepreneurship than if they had been designed for that purpose, and similarly appalling administrative practices were found everywhere on the subcontinent when the British arrived. It is a matter of record that the British immediately started acting to reverse and ameliorate these policies, but ‘India is a world. India is a universe’ and it is not surprising they were not as effective as the Japanese were in their colonies. (2) India’s economy shrank only in relative terms, because vast swathes of the world- Europe, Japan, Russia, the Americas- were surging ahead in leaps and bounds.

Michael becomes more politically correct as he moves closer to the present, but this is not an imperceptively gradual process: it comes in quite suddenly, with the coming of Islam. He takes great pains to stress the non-ideological motives for Muslim invaders, the craving for lewtz and the necessities of power politics, and also takes pains to balance Muslim with non-Muslim atrocities. When he has to mention Mahmud of Ghazni’s destruction of Hindu temples, for example, he makes sure to say something about the contemporary wars of the Cholas in South India, who were quite happy to destroy the other side’s Hindu temples despite being Hindus themselves. He only forgets himself once, when he gets to Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul Emperor. Every other historical figure is painted in shades of grey, but he has no compunction about painting Aurangzeb completely black. The conflict between him and his brother Dara Shikoh can be construed as a conflict *between* Muslims, I expect, so Michael sides whole-heartedly with the ‘Muslim’ who is more congenial to a modern worldview. But- if the quotations attributed to Dara Shikoh in the book are accurate- he really *was* an apostate, and would not be recognised as a real Muslim by 99% of Muslims living today. Michael more or less blames Aurangzeb’s religious policies (he removed various un-Qur’anic favours extended by his predecessors to the kaffirs, and introduced Shari’a) for the collapse of the Mogul Empire, but historians today are far from agreed that this is true. It didn’t fall apart until *after* his death, after he had ruled nearly fifty years, and it was a dreadful economic mess already when he took over.

The most serious bit that is left out is one that Michael says, early on, that he left out on purpose. And it makes sense to draw the line somewhere, so he probably had to leave it out, or his book would have gone on forever. It is an aspect of Indian history that is of enormous interest to someone looking from this direction, from the East.

Look at Bali; look at Borobodur, at Angkor Wat, at the galleries of painted scenes from the Ramayana you can see at that palace in Bangkok: Indian culture is the background culture to a region of half a billion inhabitants outside of India. It sank in and became part of those places, in a way that Chinese culture never really has. Like Greek or American culture, Indian culture was an attractive product that could be readily exported. The Islam of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, is an Islam that was mediated through India, was Indified on its way. I would have liked to hear more about how all this happened. Michael had to leave something out, and looking from the West, from his home in the UK, this Drang nach Osten probably seemed like an obvious thing to leave out. But by leaving in- as you have to – all the movements of ideas and people from the West- the Aryans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Moguls- the impression that you get is of an Indian civilisation more passive than it was, an eternal Mata Bharat merely receiving and transforming the products of virile men from the West.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's all there in Green Day's "International Superhits". Goodness me, what do they teach them in these schools?

I want to be the minority
I dont need your authority
Down with the (im)moral majority
cause I want to be the minority

Stepped out of the line
Like a sheep runs from the herd
Marching out of time
To my own beat now
The only way I know

One light, one mind
Flashing in the dark
Blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts