A Westernist Perspective?

Mahogany ForestBarnaby Haszard Morris takes me to task for having a ‘Westernist’ perspective. He also notes that my post, “Reflections On India” was “roundly negative . . . and irresponsible.”

For the record, and certainly not for the last time, let me spell something out. Of course I write from a Westernist perspective. I’ve never denied this. Nor should Mr. Morris. He is, after all, a creature of the West, just as I am. I’m sure he could argue that his Westernist perspective is softened due to the presence of Maoris in New Zealand life, just as sure as I could argue that my Westernist perspective is ameliorated by the presence of Native Americans in mine. But that would be a dubious argument.

That I am Western and that every single observation and judgment I make is inherently biased by my education and cultural upbringing has never been in doubt. It is precisely because I have such biases that I have traveled so widely. It’s what compelled me to live in South Korea in the early nineties. It’s what compelled me to travel from Istanbul to Bombay overland in 2003. It’s what compelled me to visit China almost a dozen times. It’s what compelled me to stay in a Mayan Indian village in Belize. It’s what compelled me to travel to Iran in 2006 and Ethiopia later that year. It’s what compelled me to travel in 2008 through 2009 from Singapore, across South East Asia, India and the Middle East as well.

Sometimes, in my quiet moments, I fear I am never going to be able to rid myself of my inherent biases that I may never be able to see the world through the eyes of coffee farmer in the Sumatran highlands, or a rice farmer in deepest China. Would that I were able to do so the stories I could tell, the ideas I could communicate and the humanity I could convey.

All of that being said, in his post, Morris offers up not one substantive disagreement with the core of my critique that India is plagued by the following: debilitating infrastructure issues, massive direct and observable pollution–one reason pollution is a curse in India is that Hindus find value in ritual purity, which is very different from hygiene–and a terribly corrupt bureaucratic and business class. He disagrees with the tone but not the substance and then accuses me of trying to “otherize” Indians. My only reply to this would be to take a look at the full body of my work before accusing me of such a thing. In my opinion that is an extremely ugly accusation to make without a vast arsenal of evidence to back it up. I’m not Flaubert and I’m not Lord Macaulay.

Now, to Morris’ credit, he does dink me about portraying Kerala as a place of “unicorns and rainbows.” Those aren’t my words–they are his–but he’s correct: I should have noted in the post that my view of Kerala is a relative view. (This has been corrected in the book, however.) Kerala is a terribly filthy place, just no where near as filthy as the Gangetic Plain. The point in singling out Kerala was to note that it was significantly better than the rest of India for several reasons that were beyond the scope of my post. Kerala has a very different history than that of the rest of India. Kerala from the very earliest of times was linked to the global ecumene by the Spice Trade, a subject I discuss at length in my book and one of the major reasons I visited Kerala. But again, this was far, far beyond the scope of a single blog post.

Morris then accuses me of “a lack of genuine interest in why things are as they are, or what the people he writes about represent historically, philosophically, emotionally.” I could just as easily accuse Morris as lacking a genuine interest in the rest of India, because, as he says himself, “I haven’t travelled extensively in India.” Why not? You’ve been there for two years? Is such behavior not indicative of someone uninterested in why all of India is the way it is, or what the people of India represent historically, philosophically and emotionally?

You see how easy it is to set up such a silly argument? I can’t divine his motives because I haven’t investigated any of his other writings on Kerala, or India for that matter. But I seriously doubt he is uninterested. If he looked a little deeper he might notice the same in me, but he didn’t.

Here’s what I think: Morris isn’t disagreeing with me, per se, he’s just arguing from authority: because he lives there only he is capable of making such judgments, judgments that are identical to mine. There is also a need as a blogger to simply comment. It’s almost compulsive at times, the need to say something about something you know, even if you agree, but disagree on the margins. Look, I’ve done all this myself–and will no doubt do it again–so no harm, no foul. And, of course, not all arguments from authority are wrong, especially in a post-modern, super relative world, but Morris’ attempt in this case falls flat.

In the end I believe the reception the article has received in India speaks for itself. It was written nearly two years ago. I still get close to ten emails a week about it, of which nine out of ten Indians agree with the substance. Was I roundly negative? Sure. That was the whole point of the post. It wasn’t an unkind post. It wasn’t a message of insults or name calling. I did not imply or say outright that Indians were somehow inferior than me, or the West. My criticisms were based on empirical observation and a desire to see India live up to her own high aspirations and honor her own values, values the rest of the world could learn from. What it said was, if India wants to modernize–a choice entirely up to Indians, I hasten to add–India will have to face some hard truths. Facts are inconvenient, but never irresponsible.

And sometimes the most responsible (and kind) thing is to deliver harsh truths without sugar coating.