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keerthik sasidharan

An Equal and Opposite Reaction

An Equal and Opposite Reaction

Ours is an age ablaze in reactionary fever. Words by influential political figures borrow from vocabularies of patriotism to provoke and incite in the name of ‘return to greatness’. To this end, individuals at the helm of powerful societies are “standing athwart history, yelling Stop”. They promise to halt change, reset the clock, and if need be abolish history itself. Many have mistakenly diagnosed this as a rise or a return of conservatism. But unlike the defenses of eroding traditions by conservative intellectuals like T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, or even a William F. Buckley, today’s reaction against an imperfect status quo is a full-throated, guttural scream. These reactionary responses that dominate our social media and politics have little patience for aspects of traditional conservatism that stressed a progressive refinement of aesthetics, exploration of the Self amidst tradition, or the cultivation of an attitude of incrementalism when faced with the prospect of change.

‘Death of expertise’

Michael Oakeshott wrote in his Notebooks: “Anyone touched with the sense of mortality will be apt to be a conservative in politics.” In contrast, our present day reactionaries exhort and inflame their societies and the thin veneer of civilization around them as if they were immortal. Whereas conservatism is an attitude towards life that relies on ‘humility’ of the intellect — a form of “attentive patience” as the philosopher Simone Weil described it — today’s reactionaries are marked precisely by their willingness to deny the intellect its due. The result is what the scholar Tom Nichols calls “death of expertise”.

On the flip side, the result of failing to distinguish between reactionaries and conservatives is that it produces unique blind spots and untenable lines of questioning. Asking of reactionary politics to produce intellectuals is to misunderstand what it is about in the first place. The Left exalts intellectuals because they seek to build models of the future. For the reactionary, there is already a successful model: the past. What any reactionary programme demands is revitalisers of the past and a conclave of interpreters to describe the promise of return. Much energy meanwhile is spent on op-ed pages asking questions like where are the intellectuals of Hindutva? — in hopes of showing that by failing to locate them, the reactionary mind is either to be derided for failing to make the mark or ignored conscientiously. It is this failure to taxonomise correctly — to demarcate the extent of our ignorance of a particular kind of political mind — that has led to our near complete lack of knowledge about the reactionary mind. Failure to ask such questions leads us to being blind-sided by realities such as Brexit or Trumpism.

We mistakenly label reactionaries as conservatives for they both share a preoccupation with the past. But the similarities in content, form, and analysis end there. The conservative seeks to preserve the past while anxiously examining signs of change that may upend the present, the reactionary meanwhile seeks to destroy the present so that he may rebuild the future in the shadow of an imagined past. Between the two, it is the conservative who is worshipful of the past for its complexity, while the reactionary is an iconoclast, an unbeliever in the in-betweenness of the past. For the conservative, the past is source of replenishment and meaning while for the reactionary, it is he who infuses the past with meaning. Methodologically and temperamentally, the conservative has an archivist’s attitude and is armed with nothing but a set of heuristics about what works to sustain the present while the reactionary (like the Leftist revolutionary) works out of a model he imagines inviolable.

Desire to feel free

Meanwhile, the enemy of the reactionary mind is an alchemical brew served up in the name of progress — liberal politics, theologies of social emancipation, technocrats, trade agreements, multiculturalism. Why exactly these arouse anger and response is complicated, if not obscure. One answer that the writer Pankaj Mishra offers in his sweeping and provocative new book (Age of Anger) is that the collective rage we see world over is, in parts, a reaction against the architecture of Anglo-American modernity imposed by elites in a fit of unthinking mimicry. This has in turn created half-formed mentalities. Individuals who are neither conservative and grounded in tradition, nor prepared to live a life of “agitation, change, and danger” that modernity imposes. Lacking the tools that traditional societies offer its children, men in this half-modern world adopt identities as a way to be. Men put on masks — masks originally designed by foreigners for their own festivals — to render their lives with a vitality that contrasts with the insignificance of their lives swept up in vast, impersonal events. The result, over time, is the desire to tear that suffocating mask away: to feel free, even if momentarily. []


This second column for The Hindu appeared on March 11' 2017.  The photo accompanying this piece on this blog was taken by me: a view from the beautiful apartment of Kamini and Vijay Dandapani on the Upper East Side, NYC.     

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