Belmont Club

White and Black Hats

Many of the reactions to Narenda Modi’s election as Indian new Prime Minister are of the form: ‘how can a devout Hindu be a modern leader’? Bloomberg has a roundup.

Before heading to India’s snow-capped Himalayas to study Hinduism at age 17, Narendra Modi burned family photos, discarded most of his clothes and bent to touch his mother’s feet to receive a blessing. … a champion of business in Gujarat, where he’s served as chief minister since 2001. Economic growth rates have outpaced the national average in all but one year in that time and per-capita income has quadrupled. …

“I don’t see how the two are compatible,” said Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. Pursuing a Hindu nationalism agenda “is bound to produce communal violence.” …

Taxi driver Yasin Khan Pathan, 45, a Muslim … he’s afraid. … “We are a defeated community … He won’t lift Muslims out of poverty, he’ll lift Muslims out of India.”

You get the drift. There is something atavistic about him, a sense that he doesn’t fit into the approved mold.  The modern leader is supposed to be compassionate, to forget who is and remember who he is not.  New York Times’ Gardiner Harris is worried in particular about a tolerance deficit. He writes: “Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage … Now, after a landslide electoral triumph Friday by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Hindu nationalists, some Muslims here said they were worried that their place in India could become even more tenuous.”

“Many people in India and around the world will be watching whether he reaches out to minorities in the coming days,” Ms. Chowdhury said…. that is exactly why Mr. Modi is such a poor choice as prime minister, said Siddharth Varadarajan, the former editor of The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper. Many among India’s liberal intelligentsia see Mr. Modi as a threat to India’s secularism, which is enshrined in its Constitution. It is a characteristic that distinguishes India from Pakistan and binds a nation of extraordinary diversity.

“Many of the things that are evil about India are not going to find their solution with Mr. Modi,” Mr. Varadarajan said. “If anything, they’ll get worse.”

The Huffington Post raises the alarm. “A man once banned from Britain for his extreme views set to be prime minister of 1.25 billion people.”  But if there was shock there was also hasty acceptance. Reuters writes, “U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated new Indian leader Narendra Modi on his election victory on Friday and invited him to the White House, even though he was barred from the country less than 10 years ago over massacres of Muslims.” Maybe the lesson is that power absolves all.

My how tolerant you are

My how tolerant you are

The fears of the pundits were distilled in Tweets warning that Nigel Farage of UKIP might be the next Modi. Some even compared the Indian prime minister to the BNP and the National Front. “He’s a communal bigot!” said one Tweet and maybe that communal bigotry is coming next to the West.

The world has been a disappointing place lately for leaders who believed their sheer self-evident righteousness would sweep all before it. Mark Lander of the NYT says Barack Obama, rebuffed in his peace project, has decided to momentarily deprive Israel of his beneficent presence.

Mr. Obama, stung by his second failed attempt to broker a peace deal, has decided to take a conspicuous breather from the Middle East peace process, this official said, “to let the failure of the talks sink in for both parties, and see if that causes them to reconsider.” …

Publicly, Mr. Obama has said that both sides bear responsibility for the latest collapse. But the president believes that more than any other factor, Israel’s drumbeat of settlement announcements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem poisoned the atmosphere and doomed any chance of a breakthrough with the Palestinians.

The fears that Modi might be ‘bigot’ raises two logical questions. First, why are the Palestinians, the Sudanese and the Ukranians not similarly “communal bigots” like Narenda Modi? They fight their own corner, and fight it unabashedly. And for that matter what is the difference between Nigel Farage, Narenda Modi and Vladimir Putin all of whom profess to merely represent their countries? How would you distinguish between Modi and Nelson Mandela?

The boundary between patriotism and “ethnocentrism” is more indistinct than one of Obama’s Red Lines and only the Left and liberal intellectuals appears to know where the frontier is drawn.  We mere mortals could not hope to know. For years the “international community” was the court of last resort; it alone could resolve the difference between leaders by assignment. Boko Haram =  !terrorist group. Syrian rebels = freedom fighters, Global Warming = true.  Just look up the table and find the answer.

It made for ease. Apparently these terms have equivalent political value, though they are not of identical type. Nelson Mandela == Barack Obama == Good; Modi == Farage == Le Pen == Wilders == Bad.  The sole reason was because the international community said so. It was arbitrary but simple.

But as the credibility of the liberal establishment fell — and precipitously in the last few months — so did their power to pronounce on Black Hat/White Hat values. Once there was a time, which the older among us can still recall, when people believed the US government; when populations held the UN in awe and when the NYT and the Washington Post were the gold standard of truth. They are no longer arbiters.

The Ukraine, no less than Modi, have become doubtful cases. That is in some ways a pity, for while the liberal establishment got many things wrong they occasionally got some things right.  But most of all they provided convenience, a way to tell between the patriot and the demagogue. We are now entering a world where the question: “who’s on first” has no definite answer.

When did the music die? Hendrik Hertzberg writes wistfully in the New Yorker about the ‘good old days’, before the Internet ruined everything. “Believe it or not, Newsweek had a San Francisco bureau—not just a stringer working out of his apartment but a real bureau, a four-man, full-time bureau in a comfortable, well-equipped, town-house-like office suite near the Embarcadero.” He recalls.

Start with the accommodations. After a few nights in a really nice hotel (the St. Francis, on Union Square, at company expense) and a few weeks in a grubby, furnished room in Chinatown, I landed a dream sublet halfway up Telegraph Hill—big windows, top-floor patio, view of the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the Bay Bridge on the other. Plus, it came with the loan of a car, a ’59 Pontiac as big and unwieldy as a barge on wheels.

Now what have you got?  A cellphone and a lousy Chromebook at a Starbucks — and the cellphone and the Chromebook are both probably tapped by the NSA.

But there’s an alternative view, as exemplified by former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review Copps says, ‘I killed journalism’ by helping it become a monopoly. “Dear Journalists: You may wonder why a long-time regulator like me is writing to you. The answer is that for more than a decade I occupied a front-row seat watching government policy undermine your profession and our democracy.”

I would be spending untold hours listening to big media tell me how their latest merger proposal would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms like yours being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism hanging by the most slender of threads. Instead of expanding news, the conglomerates cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you.

In Copp’s view journalism — and perhaps one might speculate the whole liberal establishment by extension — died of overconfidence and hubris.  They became dinosaurs; they started believing in their own press, debasing their own credential. Or maybe they just stopped working for their audience and started focusing on access, because who needed real investigative journalism when you had the Narrative?

And now, for whatever reason, the old magic is dead.  The harder it tries, the shriller it gets, the less the liberal establishment can impose its view upon the world. None of this is to say that Narenda Modi is a good guy any more than one should claim Nigel Farage is a Nazi. But we must now make up our mind who they are for ourselves on the facts available. The days when one could reflexively trust the judgment of the NYT and Newsweek Magazine are gone. An age of faith has ended.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world

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