Arc of the immoral universe
(First appeared on November 21, 2020)
Reading president Obama’s new book took me back to that November night in 2008 when after eight years of Cheney’s endless wars we heard that an anti-war African-American man had won in the world’s most powerful democracy. It was a moment of hope and renewal. And for me a moment of vindication. I had just won a bet. One of my colleagues, a senior anchor, had refused to believe when I told him that white America could choose a black president. In my naïve exuberance I had challenged him to a bet in front of a live audience. At the time he accepted the challenge. But when results arrived I don’t think he showed any inclination towards even acknowledging that he had lost the bet. Ecstatic about what I deemed a triumph of fundamental human decency over ugly stereotypes, I did not push my luck. The world was a good place, I knew it, and my vulnerabilities and ego insignificant in comparison.
Life would take a few more years to disabuse me of any false hope. Obama was a force of hope and America was fundamentally good. But the world was broken and cosmetic changes could not change that. Now as Obama writes one remembers that on that night another force was born that would do great harm to the world. McCain was a decent man and he proved it to the very end. But his running mate, chosen for token female participation and devoid of any outstanding credentials that unnerved strongmen around her, would take electoral rejection to her heart and make it personal. In her anger she would mainstream nativist talking points and spew borderline racist nonsense. Her failed candidature later attracted the likes of Steve Bannon, who even made a documentary on her life called The Undefeated. Later Bannon would latch onto the Tea Party movement and bring his racism to the Republican mainstream. In the end, it all led to the hot mess the US finds itself in.
When you’re the first black president with the middle name ‘Hussein’ and have won on a Democratic ticket you must prove every single day that you’re every bit as competent and patriotic as a white man, not a Muslim and tough on national security. Whether he was able to do justice to all will only be decided by history. But if we thought his victory would fix a broken world we could not be more wrong. The forces of darkness can cause damage even in broad daylight. Those forces kept working, sponsoring hate around the world. And then dominoes began to fall. Hardliners were rising like rabbits raising their heads in a hutch. Netanyahu won in Israel. A Nazi-inspired Hindutva party triumphed in India. Race fanatics started rising in Europe. Religious and authoritarian extremists had a field day in the Muslim world. Then Brexit happened and eventually Trump won. The arc of the immoral universe was complete.
One example of this broken world is Trump’s refusal to concede after an electoral drubbing at the hand of a man he publicly accused of being an invalid. I still like to believe there is a good, patriotic man hiding somewhere in there. But how deep that man might be a hostage by the alt-right propaganda, personal greed and opportunism, and gullibility is anybody’s guess. I recall on the day of the first presidential debate Alex Jones continued to claim on his show that Biden was a demon possessed zombie who would fall apart at Trump’s first sight. And when that didn’t happen he went on claiming that many litres of blood had been artificially pumped into his veins to make him look alive. This practice he claims is called plumping. When you are inhaling propaganda emanating from such a broken mindset you are likely to believe that a supercomputer called hammer and a software called scorecard could help steal the election. Just some more alt-right trivia: Biden is a half-dead zombie because he accepted to be Obama’s vice-president, something a conscientious white Christian man would never do.
The second proof of a world broken beyond repair is the set of evidences presented by the Pakistani Foreign Office and army regarding India’s alleged terrorist sponsorship in Pakistan. I call it alleged just out of the sheer need to preserve journalistic integrity. Otherwise, when you have already read the leaked FinCEN reports on the involvement of Indian banks (especially Punjab National Bank) in terror sponsorship and then you see a PNB receipt, showing a money transfer to the anti-Pakistan terrorists hiding in Afghanistan, flashed on the screen you know this is a real terror money trail. Many have speculated that Pakistan unveiled this evidence because it wants to influence the incoming Biden administration. I believe it did so because it worries the Modi government uses international turmoil and leadership vacuum from a messy transition to further indulge in adventurism and exposing it now may pre-empt that. And on top I came across some fascinating arguments from Indian pundits. The world knew this was a comeuppance for decades-long separatist sponsorship by Islamabad, they claimed. Sure geniuses, but that’s not how it is supposed to work. You punish someone when some excess is commitment, not when someone has already atoned for mistakes. Even if your blinkered worldview leads you to believe Pakistan is not moving in the right direction you will concede that it is not moving in the wrong direction. And under Modi India has covered light years of the wrong territory. Broken. See.
The third example is of the South Asian reaction to Kamala Harris’ victory. While for the saffron-clad Modi bhakts she is not Indian enough, to many Pakistanis she is just another Indian. I have no solution to Modi’s benightedness but I am disappointed in the Pakistanis who think this way. One, every South Asian should be proud that one of us has reached that high office. Two, South Asian nations should stop asking the diaspora to do more for them and strive to ensure that basic decency returns to the international order so the diaspora can survive the rising tide of nativism. Three, if India is turning into a dystopia the least Pakistan and other South Asian nations can do is reach out to the expat South Asians and remind them they have other places to call home, which even if are not perfect are places where good people have not given up the fight. Try empathy sometime. It’s a miracle drug.
And while the world is already so broken we face devastating blows like the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying global economic meltdown. While the world should have been uniting to defeat new common enemies we are busy inventing new cold wars.
And now the real question: can all of this be fixed? The answer is, yes. But will it? Based on the long history of human instincts I would hazard a no. I refuse to believe in the fairytale of a light at the end of this long, long dark tunnel. The arc of this dark universe seems to bend towards more darkness. I will be happy to be proven wrong. But so far it looks like a universe meant for the Palins, Bannons, and Modis around us.