• July 19, 2024

Seduced by the right

Conjure the image of Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince in your mind with a few amendments. Our version of the statue is privileged, unpopular, high-strung, feckless, jaded and mostly fatigued. And in this version, the other character, the helpful swallow, is replaced by a selfish magpie. The statue is so unpopular that the people of the community regret wasting so much money on it, want it gone, and have forgotten all about the reason why they built it at all, which is as a gaudy scarecrow. Tormented by the visions of Mordor, the magpie takes the prince statue apart bit by bit and, with the help of a mischief of magpies, builds another living, breathing one – that of an orc. Once made, this statue would torment the local populace, prove impossible to get rid of and instead of keeping the magpies and other angry birds away, would prove their nesting place and launch pad against them, the humans.

While reading this perverted version of this little story, I am sure it must have occurred to you that these allegorical references are meant to serve as metaphors. And that is precisely the purpose. Let us switch all of them with the realities of today. The prince statue is the modern, secular, institutional and constitutional nation-state. The people are the voters. The magpies are the hyperactive right-wing pundits and politicians. The orc statue is their ideal type – their idea of an ideological state.

The state apparatus that evolved over centuries or more exists to protect the people from challenges that emerge from time to time. Some long forgotten, some frequent, others less so. But the absence of a storm does not mean you give up your brick and mortar homes.

Consider this. The emergence of a firewall between the church and the state was not just a unique outcome of the western historical experience; it was based on the principles derived from the holistic lived experience of humanity. The principle, in this case, is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When temporal and spiritual powers are concentrated in one hand, the abuse is almost a certainty. So what is the solution? Diffuse power and separate the church and the state. No disrespect to either meant.

Likewise, other ways to diffuse power. The key USP of democracy. Can any mortal (or a group of such mortals) claim always to know what is suitable for an entire people? That way lies only heartless absolutism. What is better? Relativism. Again diffuse the power and the decision-making responsibility by distributing them among the people. One person, one vote. Universal suffrage, an adult franchise. Granted, absolute direct democracy is not always possible. Hence the republican principle. You do not directly exercise power. You elect representatives who exercise power on your behalf. But aren’t we back to square one? No. This participatory form of exercising power is further diffused and limits imposed. Three tiers of governance. Three pillars of the state. Alternative routes to keep power in check and its abuse to the minimum. And then limited each term in office. Good or bad, competent or delinquent, on an appointed day, your term ends, and power departs. See what a beautifully complex structure emerges.

And that is not all. There are forms of power other than the divine and the political. When money and power unite, you can have devastating consequences. The rich can use power to maximise profit, often at the expense of their people. Even from a distance, the affluent can bribe politicians, their staff and campaigns. Ergo, anti-graft laws and conflict of interest provisions. Some written. Some unwritten. But all powerful and useful. This statue of our tired old prince stood to ensure you are saved from so many demons.

But then came the attack. When people are not reminded of your import, you are taken for granted. And that is what has been happening. In politer times, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad came up with the idea of Asian values. Western values like democracy and human rights were unique to the west. East had its way of functioning, which they had mastered. According to at least one biographer of Hitler, Yew even tried to lecture him on governance. When he learned about the size of Singapore, a bemused Hitler remarked that the head of a city-state smaller than Berlin was teaching him how to run his country.

But then, elsewhere too, attempts were made to reinvent the wheel of the disgruntled. Particularly when Huntington primed the people of depressed identities about their uniqueness and the otherness of the western ideals.  The first to fall into the trap were Muslims. Then India and China. And on it went. Keep your democracy, we are older, and we know best. When Fareed Zakaria predicted the “rise of the illiberal democracy”, he might not have realised that while people like you and I treat it as a prescient observation, the liberals would hawk these ideas for their own publicity.

The most frightening prospect is now manifesting itself in the west. The non-westerns might have fought many wars and it must have killed a lot but only a few can claim to be more devastating than the two started by the west. When the west goes wrong, it goes way wrong.

America’s right-wing kept licking its wounds for a long time considering the separation of the church and the state as a personal insult rather than a prudent attempt to control the damage, but then it found a way. Capitalise on your self-proclaimed victimhood, and discredit the secular political class by calling it corrupt. Divide the seculars through creative semantics. And keep marginalising them. That is why Trumpism will never go away. Because this was the emotional high the rightwing had craved for for decades. So much winning.

And the western institutions too went wonky. You can see how the US Supreme Court threw a seventy-year-old precedent called Roe v Wade out. Shortly, a woman from the progressive liberal faction went on MSNBC and said that the incumbent Democrats should not be supported as they did not codify the precedent in the past. That’s precisely how you got Trump. What is the worst that can happen, they said? The far-right Justice Thomas has already said he would go after other such precedents. This post-liberal progressive faction used Bernie to bring down Hillary. In India, the AAP was used to bring down the Congress. The result is before you. It is my well-considered view that that statue of the orc will be complete within our lifetimes.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2022.

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