The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
—W. H. Auden
The highest level of human growth, according to Abraham Maslow, is that of transcendence. Transcendence, for Maslow, encompasses the need to rise above the interests of the self, to find fulfillment in helping others reach their potential (Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Resist Them (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 129).
According to Lipman-Blumen, control myths are rationalisations that we use to persuade ourselves to act or desist from acting, and these are deep-buried in our subconscious existential, psychological and psychosocial needs. “Both because of and despite the fact that they travel incognito, these powerful control myths prevent us from even attempting to overthrow toxic leaders (p 130).” She lists several control myths, but the most powerful and positive ones come at the end, or at the top, for they promise ennoblement and immortality, thus speaking to the needs that Maslow describes as self-esteem, self-actualisation and transcendence. A few samples follow (pp 135-136).
“This leader is an unique being. Participating in his/her vision will make me unique, too.” (Self-esteem and belonging; self-actualisation and transcendence.)
“Whatever promises the leader makes will come true.” (Safety)
“This leader’s vision is so ennobling, I would follow her to the ends of the earth.” (Self-actualisation and transcendence)
“When I am part of the leader’s group, I can do no wrong.” (Aesthetic [order, symmetry and beauty]; self-actualisation and transcendence)
“Being part of the leader’s group fills me with a sense of doing something really important.” (Cognition and transcendence)
“The vision is worth any sacrifice.” (Transcendence)
“Attaining the vision through my heroic efforts will earn me immortality.” (Transcendence)
The writer adds: “Believing in the special, god-like qualities of the leader makes it difficult to evaluate his claims to mana.”
But she also notes how followers can push a nontoxic leader over the edge (Lipman-Blumen, p139). The clearest contemporary example is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, who remained resolutely shtum as 700,000 Rohingya refugees were driven across the border into Bangladesh by her nationalist followers, their collective animus unleashed by the new democracy she had engendered.
“They beat her to death with their clubs,” wrote a student about his teacher. “It was immensely satisfying.”
“The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutionary bugle to advance” first sounded 54 years ago, on May 16th 1966, when Mao approved a secret circular declaring war on “representatives of the bourgeoisie” who had “sneaked into the Communist Party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture.” Between May 1966 and Mao’s death in 1976, which in effect ended the Cultural Revolution, over 1 million died, millions more were banished from urban homes to the countryside and tens of millions were humiliated or tortured.
How could an entire nation follow a toxic leader like Mao Zedong? Jean Lupmen-Blumen has a few answers. She also explains the allure of toxic leaders in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and other places like Cambodia and the Soviet Union.
Mao stood on the threshold of Paradise, Communism, the end of prehistory and the beginning of history. A few million deaths seemed a paltry sacrifice in a cost-benefit analysis. He stood at the terminus of human civilisation, the Prophet over the Promised Land, with his eager Communist disciples.
Mao’s insouciance about human life—including Chinese life—found expression in his attitude to nuclear war: such a conflict, he figured, would kill more imperialists than socialists, leaving the world ruined, but Red. This attitude spooked Nikita Khrushchev enough to retrieve Soviet scientists from China, where, before departure, they shredded all documents they could not carry. To no avail: these were meticulously pieced together and China tested an atom bomb four years later.
The insouciant disregard for the quotidian, pedestrian, everyday humdrum routine and labour by which we, no doubt much like the lower animals, earn our livelihood was scorned also by Fichte. He rejected a state which merely maintained “internal peace and a condition of affairs in which everyone may by diligence earn his daily bread and satisfy the needs of his material existence so long as God permits him to live (quoted, Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1969), p 47).” Clearly, a man and woman must transcend this state of affairs—transcend themselves. A Hobbesian state that merely guarantees life and livelihood—as General Zia and General Ershad did for fifteen stable, peaceful years in Bangladesh, in complete antithesis to the incessant murders, arson and rapes since the democratic transition of 1990—falls short. “All this is only a means, a condition, and a framework for what love of fatherland really wants to bring about, namely, that the eternal and the divine may blossom in the world and never cease to become more and more pure, perfect and excellent.” The state must not merely be a guarantor of external and material freedom, but of internal and spiritual elevation. It is small wonder that the young thumotic thugs who allegedly brought down General Ershad scorned all financial rewards he could offer: they were the “pure” and “noble” youth, incorruptible by dross, responding only to the call to transcendence.
Charles Taylor, although the winner of the Templeton Prize, is clear-eyed about the history of Christianity, unlike Larry Siedentop, and the dangers to the devout. He observes:
“So religious faith can be dangerous. Opening to transcendence is fraught with peril. But this is particularly so if we respond to these perils by permanent closure, drawing an unambiguous boundary between the pure and the impure through the polarization of conflict, even war. That religious believers are capable of this, history amply attests. But atheists can as well, once they open themselves to strong ideals, such as a republic of equals, a world order of perpetual peace, or communism. We find the same self-assurance of purity through aggressive attack on “axes of evil,” among believers and atheists alike. Idolatry breeds violence (A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007), p 769).”
It follows, almost with the force of an Aristotelian syllogism, that the sensitive and intelligent would be most susceptible to the allure of toxic leaders. To live for something greater than yourself, in line with the changing zeitgeist, would draw like catnip the brightest and the best—for not all corruption is financial. The heady call to duty, greatness, destiny and power few among the enlightened can resist. It follows, again with Aristotelian precision, that if a leader is toxic enough—reaching our innermost psychic depths—we will follow him to the ends of the earth.
German fascism, unlike fascism elsewhere, as in Italy, was not an elite product (Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and The Descent of the West, (New York: Penguin, 2006), p 240). However, a section of the elite warmed to Hitler, where others he left cold. “The key to the strength and dynamism of the Third Reich was Hitler’s appeal to the much more numerous intellectual elite; the men with university degrees who are so vital for the smooth running of a modern state and civil society.” Germany had the best universities in the world. More than a quarter of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences between 1901 and 1940 were awarded to Germans; only 11 percent went to Americans (p 235).
Niall Ferguson presents a rogue’s gallery of thinking people: writer Gabriele D’Annunzio; poet, playwright, critic and editor T.S.Eliot, awardee of the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature (“totalitarianism can retain the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and give them its own meaning”); philosopher Martin Heidegger, Rector of Freiburg University; legal philosopher Carl Schmitt; novelist Ignazio Silone; poet, mystic and Nobel Prize Winner W.B.Yeats, who wrote songs for the Irish Blue Shirts. Thomas Mann, who avoided repeating his indiscretions during the previous war and with difficulty broke publicly with the Nazi regime, spoke of “the thoroughly guilty stratum of intellectuals (p 231n).”
On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland: the aim was two-fold—the seizure of territory, and the decapitating of the Polish elite. As the Fuhrer maintained, “Only a nation whose upper levels are destroyed can be pushed into the ranks of slavery.” Fifteen of the twenty-five commanders of the squads instructed to seek out and annihilate “the upper levels of society” had doctorates, mostly in law or philosophy (Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp 364-5).
Heine anticipated Nazism a hundred years earlier. “There will be,” he said in Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834), “Kantians forthcoming who in the new world to come will know nothing of reverence for aught, and who will ravage without mercy, and riot with sword and axe through the soil of all European life to dig out the last root of the past; there will be well-weaponed Fichteans on the ground, who in the fanaticism of the Will, are not to be restrained by fear or self-advantage, for they live in the Spirit (quoted, Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1969), p 89).” The German intellectual of the 1930s had a long pedigree.
But notice the supplied italics in Heine’s words: neither fear nor self-advantage motivate or demotivate the armed Fichtean. That is to say, rationality is discarded for the cause.
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Therefore, when we see a learned professor, formerly at Harvard, now advisor to the prime minister of Bangladesh, on Al-Jazeera, defending the indefensible—extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, gagging of the media, beating of protesting school children by ruling party thugs…”an endless list,” as one dissident observed before the cameras, which landed him months in jail on trumped-up charges—we realise that the cause, the cause justifies the unjustifiable.
There was indeed a constellation of toxic ideologues around the time in Asia: Mao Zedong (r. 1949—1976), Pol Pot (1976—1979), Sheikh Mujib (1971—1975), Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto (1971—1977), Indira Gandhi (1966—1977, 1980—1984). (Robert Mugabe—“Comrade Bob”—would take us beyond our territory, although belonging to the same period, and the same genus.)
Worshippers (I cannot think of a more suitable word) of Mujib will grumble at finding their idol located in such superb company. A poet at the recent international Dhaka Lit Fest, where intellectuals like Monika Ali and William Dalrymple lent the event extra gravitas, observed of Mujib: “Bangabandhu is our George Washington by vision and by association Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. He is the greatest Bangalee of our time.” Bangobandhu is Mujib’s honorific; it literally means “friend of the Bengali-speaking people.” (With bondhu like these, who needs enemies?) Article 4A of the constitution, inserted by Mujib’s daughter, Hasina, consecrated him as pater patriae whose picture must hang almost everywhere—thereby attaining for pater a binary state of simultaneous being and non-being like Schrodinger’s famous cat. The high point of the literary festival was a screening of the documentary “Hasina: A Daughter’s Tale,” a blatant promotion of the ongoing personality cult of pere et fille. One is reminded of the Kims of North Korea, now in their third generation.
But the similarities are striking, notwithstanding the costly aversion of disciples’ eyes from facts, to paraphrase Philip Larkin.
The same number of people (approximately 1.5 million) perished in Cambodia in nearly four years as in Bangladesh in one (1974)—and for the same reason: Messianic Utopianism. And around the same time. A strikingly similar number perished in the Cultural Revolution. There was enough food in Bangladesh in 1974, but it was exported to India (famine, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1988). Mujib did not lift a finger to help. Next year, he was assassinated by army officers, on whom a grateful nation heaped every possible honor. When Mujib’s daughter became prime minister in 1996, she tried the officers and subsequently hanged those still in the country.
Bondhu set up his own private army, the Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini—National Security Force—compared by Lawrence Zirring with Hitler’s Brown Shirts and the Gestapo (Bangladesh: From Sheikh Mujib to Ershad: An Interpretive Study (Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 1994), p 98). The Bahini terrorized the populace, killing many. And why should there be a private army in a state that is at peace and not in a state of war?
Another quality shared among them (with the exception of Pol Pot) is their continued popularity despite the facts. Mao Zedong is still revered today in China. The present level of “capitalist” inequality has many dewy-eyed for the equalitarian Maoist years: never mind the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. But so devastating had been the Maoist era that the Communist Party banned personality cults in 1982. Sheikh Mujib, as noted, has been canonized, or even pantheonised—whether with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi or with those in the rogue’s gallery of ‘70s Asia remains a matter of fact, not a point of view. (Whether George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi had private armies that terrorised and killed their people must be looked into by future historians.)
A further feature that must be mentioned, if only in passing, is the role of children or very young people in these cataclysms. The birth of Bengali nationalism has a precise date: 21st February, 1952. On this day, children took to the streets to uphold the Bengali language against a perceived attempt to stamp it out (never mind that only one language in the world—Hawaiian—was deliberately stamped out, but has made a comeback). Some of them were shot and killed, and thus they became “shahid,” the Islamic word for martyr. There are mausoleums throughout the land erected to their memory. Thus, what Elie Kedourie dismissively called “paedocracy” exerts its pull from beyond the grave (p 88). (1952 was a particularly fecund year for nationalism, which spread like a virus across the border in India.)
Children are still used in Bangladeshi politics: indeed, they comprise a loyal private army responsive only to extra-rational rewards emanating from the ruling dynasty. Their enemy are the Islamists: in a recent grisly episode, engineering students belonging to the student wing of the party, the Chatra League, beat their classmate on suspicion of belonging to Islami Chatra Shibir to death. This reached the BBC, the UN, Human Rights Watch, for the first time, although Shibir-hunting has been nothing new, nor beatings unto death, even before cameras in broad daylight by the same group of student thugs (the BBC report inaccurately labeled the monsters members of the youth league of the ruling party; they belong to the student league).
Children are wiser than adults, maintained the Romantics, after Rousseau, he of the “general will.” “It is reason that engenders self-love,” and children reason little, if at all.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!proclaimed Wordsworth.
And since the function of the state is no longer to make life tolerable or—horrors!—prosperous for its members, but has a higher, trans-rational goal, children are to be preferred to gerontocrats: the latter have learnt restraint and calculation, but children know neither, and are thus fit guardians of the nationalist state.
The wisdom of youth was on particular display on the streets of Jakarta in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis. What began in Thailand as a currency crisis, spread like wildfire across the region as “hot money” gushed out: “In the first six months, the value of the Indonesian rupiah was down by 80 percent, the Thai baht by more than 50 percent, the South Korean won by nearly 50 percent, and the Malaysian ringgit by 45 percent.” This was contagion, pure and simple. Conspiracy theories were put forward, such as “crony capitalism,” with the number of golf courses cited as index of cronyism!
Thirty thousand students gathered on Jakarta rooftops, waved banners, draped themselves from windows, sang songs and listened to endless speeches calling for reformasi. And for good measure, they hanged Suharto, the president, in effigy. Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz excoriated the IMF for its contractual policies, while the world re-heard Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman’s elaborations about the myth of the East Asian miracle.
But the students knew for certain that there was only one problem: Suharto.
Reformasi saw the rape and murder of hundreds of ethnic Chinese, the perennial enemy within, in riots in Jakarta. In far-flung Maluku, more than 5,000 Christians died in religious violence between 1999 and 2002.
The role of children in the Cultural Revolution needs no commentary. They were, however, not merely perpetrators, but victims, as well. Red Guard torturers were, in turn, tortured: “Among a generation of educated teenagers sent to the countryside were some who had been vicious fanatics. And although for some of those rusticated the experience was liberating, for many others it was grim. Girls were raped; girls and boys starved. No wonder older Chinese do not want to revive such memories.”
The tragedy of the Communist countries is rendered more poignant when we consider that beneath the utopian rhetoric lurked old-fashioned nationalism. Reflecting on the Indo-China wars between China, Cambodia and Vietnam, Benedict Anderson opined that these were nationalist wars fought among nation-states, in time-honoured fashion, without even pretending to be for the proletarian cause (Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006), p 1). It would appear that a large number of people laid down their lives, not for the future, as they thought, but for the past. “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends.”
The intellectual modernisation of China dates from May 4, 1919, when students from the National University in Peking demonstrated against the government. The forces now unleashed rallied around the journal, New Youth. It was against the monarchy, Confucianism and the old traditions. Thus began China’s long descent into intellectual chaos, a fate avoided by its peers in East Asia, with the telling exception of North Korea.
For the first time in human history, an intellectual current generated in the East found an eager audience in the West. The gauchistes—political activists who had positioned themselves to the left of the French Communist Party— were students of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. They began to identify with Mao’s China, which they saw as a redemptive possibility for France’s own malaise. But for government heavy-handedness, this groupuscule—small group—would hardly have surfaced. When their newspaper was banned, Jean Paul-Sartre took over the Maoist newspaper. Even Mick Jagger put in an impassioned plea for the release of the Maoists.
John Gray recounts how, in the 70s, when he raised with a British communist the millions who were killed in rural purges in the years immediately after Mao came to power, he was told, “Those sorts of numbers are just for western consumption.”
Althusser’s student Alain Badiou (a professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure) continued to defend Maoism long after the facts became known. As recently as 2008, while commending himself for being “now one of Maoism’s few noteworthy representatives,” Badiou praised Mao’s thought as “a new politics of the negation of the negation.”
The redeeming feature, if any, is perhaps to be found in the fact that all these monsters were actuated by western ideas: western ideas grafted on a non-ideological Asia.
Consider the fact that Persia rechristened itself Iran in 1935—a telling date, coming just two years after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Tehran’s diplomats in Berlin imposed on the Shah the importance of the idea of “Aryanism”—a “shared” value with a mythical linguistic-racial commonality (Frankopan, p 367). That events did not lead further down the Nazi path was Iran’s good luck; however, this should have been a tocsin to Asia: western ideas are coming
But we failed to read the runes.
This failure is most visibly highlighted in the 1972 constitution of Bangladesh which, in its Preamble, stated:
.”..the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution (emphasis added).”
General Ziaur Rahman (1977-1981) attempted a halt to nationalist psychosis by incorporating Islam into the constitution, thereby returning us to our parent civilization and inaugurating the beginning of the end of the process of alienation. But the process has been renewed with vigour since Mujib’s daughter became prime minister—for the fourth time last year. The above preamble was reinserted during her stint as prime minister in 2011. According to Gwyyn Dyer, Mujib didn’t have “a democratic bone in his body’”: in fact, the definition of democracy that every political party in Bangladesh subscribes to is the metaphor proffered by Turkey’s strongman, Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan: “a train you get off once you’ve reached your destination.” And by “secularism”—which, like nationalism, is not shared, but elite—we understand a hatred of Islam (certainly not shared!).
For socialism, read kleptocracy.
For what prevails in the political economy of Bangladesh is an oligarchy in cahoots with the ruling party; the Center for Policy Dialogue, a think tank, went on record as saying: “The current practice of recruiting Board of Directors [to state-owned commercial banks, or SCBs] on political grounds has to be discontinued. Studies have shown that financial reporting fraud in banks is more likely if the Board of Directors is dominated by insiders.” The level of non-performing loans (NPLs) has increased steadily since 2008, when the current government returned to power: between 2008 and 2018, the level of dud loans soared 297%. Syed Yusuf Saadat, research associate of the think-tank, observed, “In 2017, a single business group gained control of more than seven private banks.” The IMF observed that “important and connected borrowers default because they can.” Precious tax revenue—in a country where the tax-GDP ratio is a measly 10%—has been used to recapitalise depleted banks, to jack up capital-adequacy ratio from an abysmal 10% to 11.5%, still below the BASEL III requirement of 12.5%, thereby putting a sticking-plaster on a gushing wound. The CPD report observes wryly: “It goes without saying that there is hardly any justification to use (sic) public money towards compensating for the greed of bank defaulters and inefficient management of the sector.”
In 1996, when the government first came to power in an election (revealed by Walter Mebane to have been rigged), the BEXIMCO group, headed by Salman Rahman, rigged the stock market to lure punters, then made off with the loot: “According to the government’s report, some of the country’s biggest brokers were buying shares on the floor of the stock exchange and selling them on the kerb, where prices were generally 20% higher. A number of big operators are accused of arranging trades among themselves to create an illusion of strong demand. A good number of the transactions may be fictitious,” reported The Economist (“The Bangladesh Stockmarket: Slaughter of the Innocents,” December 7th 1996 , pp 90-91). Thirty-two arrest warrants were issued, including one for Runa Alam, head of the local office of the infamous (and soon to collapse) Peregrine Investment Holdings, and, more significantly for our story, two for Salman and Sohail Rahman, “brothers who lead the largest group of companies in Bangladesh, Beximco Group.” However, it was later found that the charges against the brothers had been brought under the wrong code! Naturally, they were released. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, appeared on television in a question-and-answer session on every subject conceivable. Among the three interviewees was one Debapriya Bhattacharya, economist at the aforementioned CPD. He questioned the prime minister how it was that 500 crore takas (1 crore equals 10 million) had been siphoned out of the country and the alleged masterminds incorrectly charged. He noted that it was regrettable, and the subject, of such enormous moment, was quietly shelved. I covered the story here: CRIMES OF FINANCE.
Thus, while the oligarchs squeeze the milch cow of the motherland, children are taught to greet mothers in the mother tongue. Some people are clearly non-delusional and rational enough to pursue their self-interest.
After Animal Farm changed to Manor Farm, exploitation didn’t disappear.
Spare a thought for an intellectual urging the nation to “go back” to the constitution of 1972: “The 1972 Constitution is by far the best and most eloquent instance of our self-expression as a nation. And it is because you have within it all those principles that went into the forging of Bengali nationhood, into an espousal of the four ideals which governed our thoughts as we waged war against the state of Pakistan in 1971.” The article—written in English, naturally—fulminates against the military dictators, Zia and Ershad. Never mind that these two men (and a third, General Moeen, military ruler for two peaceful years, 2007-8, who “probably averted a bloodbath,” as observed by the Economist) gave us our longest stint of peace and stability: these are not the legitimate functions of a state, remember?; the state exists to elevate ourselves to a higher plane, no matter what the body count. The pedestrian provision of peace is for wimps—and, worse, for the rational.
As noted by Kedourie: “The purpose of education is not to transmit knowledge, traditional wisdom and the ways devised by a society for attending to the common concerns; its purpose is wholly political, to bend the will of the young to the will of the nation (pp 83—84).” Thus, while in school my generation learned Galileo’s equations of motion, Newton’s laws and the periodic table of the elements, children today learn a little more than the foundations of science: they learn the pseudo-foundations of our society. This year, for instance, one question asked students to compare Sheikh Mujib with Nelson Mandela—favourably, of course, on pain of losing marks otherwise. The pantheon accommodates new heroes, if not new gods. Thus, our schools have been turned into nationalist madrassas to factory-produce hatriots.
Although my generation were not drip fed lies and selected bits of our history as happens today, we experienced a total immersion in nationalism: we were forbidden to study in English.
St. Joseph High School, a premier English-medium school in East Pakistan, today Bangladesh, had to teach every subject in Bengali, the mother tongue. Our headmaster, Brother Thomas Moore, entreated the authorities to allow English teaching to be resumed: he was almost thrown out of the country.
In “To the Germans,” Herder cries (Kedourie, p 59):
Look at other nationalities!
Do they wander about
So that nowhere in the world they are strangers
Except to themselves?
They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.
And you German alone, returning from abroad,
Wouldst greet your mother in French?
O spew it out, before your door
Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine
Speak German, O you German!
Substitute Bengali for German, English for French, and Thames for Seine, and you have Bengali nationalism in our schools in the ‘70s: spewing out English, ingesting Bengali to greet our mothers.
The same “cultural cringe” that the German intellectual felt before French culture in eighteenth-century Germany, the selfsame cultural cringe is felt by the Bengali intellectual before English language and literature: a fervent desire to emulate the English runs deep in our vascular system. The sincerest form of flattery occurs in our political realm, which explains the four ideals of our constitution.
No doubt Fichte would have approved of our education system, then and now: “By means of the new education we want to mould the Germans into a corporate body and animated in all its individual members by the same interest (Kedourie, p 83).” The reasoning individual is not the desired outcome: he or she must transcend themselves via the language.
However, the government could do little to dim the prestige of English. The ability to speak English lifts one above the crowd: English-medium students proudly proclaim their weakness in Bengali. After the change of the nationalist regime, English-medium schools mushroomed, but so great is the demand and so scant the supply of teachers that the fees are exorbitant. An entire generation grew up without English.
“What nature separated by language, customs, character, let no man artificially join together by chemistry,” wrote Herder (quoted, S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p 1546).
It follows that all “chemical” unions—such as polyglot, noncontiguous Pakistan, India under Nehru, and the European Union today—are factitious, spurious entities. The real McCoy is the Volk. Herder inaugurated the Counter-Enlightenment, and proved a useful corrective to the Enlightenment in more ways than one. However, the legacy has not been an altogether unmixed blessing.
But then, why stop at language? Why not dialect? A dialect is just as legitimate a focus of identity as language, surely. This was the basis for Chakma demands for autonomy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in newly created Bangladesh. Besides, the Chakmas and neighboring hill people are also racially different. But our military made sure they didn’t secede: “What the Pakistani army did to us, we did to the Chakmas,” confided my late uncle, retired Major General M. Khalilur Rahman to me, sotto voce—and for the same reason, he might have added. On this principle, the people of Chittagong and Sylhet—who speak an incomprehensible dialect—have an inherent right to secede. Scottish nationalism has a similar basis..
Here’s Robert Burns, dialected and undialected:
Had we never lov’d so kindly,
Had we never lov’d so blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
“I say sae, you say so.”
Were this principle taken up in China in earnest, the country would splinter into more than eight units—in fact, China is the world’s most linguistically diverse country. Interestingly, in China regional “dialects” are banned in schools and universities. As Herder insisted, the uneducated must be privileged over the educated: poetic ability “appears in its greatest purity and power in the uncivilized periods of every nation,” as in Homer and the Old Testament. Education is an artifice that destroys difference and originality. Folk poetry is necessarily unlettered. The songs of Nobel-Prize-winning Rabindranath Tagore—one of which constitutes the national anthem of Bangladesh—betrays the elitism of our nationalism. Demotic Bengali is sharply different from hieratic Bengali—the latter only spoken by the uber-elite, the self-consciously nationalist Brahmins of Bangladesh. Education is the national cosmetic, concealing all wrinkles of the particular. And this in a country where more than half the people are functionally illiterate. That is why school-kids have to be pumped full of lies and deceit to produce the desired outcome, the unreasoning, reflexive hatred. The contemporary anti-elitism in Europe reveals an awareness of education—especially tertiary education—as the great solvent of heterogeneity. Surveys show that in the 2015 election in France, voting intentions for the National Front, as it then was, declined the higher up the educational ladder the voter. “The leprosy of nationalism” was Emmanuel Macron’s response to nationalist stridency. “The educated, multilingual cosmopolitan elite of Europe grew weaker,” writes the historian Norman Davies of the era before the Great War, “the half-educated national masses, who thought of themselves only as Frenchmen, Germans, English or Russians, grew stronger.”
In the chillingly titled The Seduction of Unreason, Richard Wolin observes: .”..the Counter-Enlightenment program is not merely a thing of the past. The European New Right has inherited the counterrevolutionary critique of modern natural law; it privileges the values of ethnicity (ethnos) over democracy (demos). According to this optic, the prerogatives of cultural belonging trump considerations of “right.” Thereby, New Right politicians seek to advance a type of parliamentary ethnic cleansing. As with the proponents of interwar fascism, today’s antidemocrats seek to exploit the openness of the constitutional state to undermine democratic norms (The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), p 22), italics original).”
Identity is not an argument.
He avers (p 13, italics original). “Identity politics—that’s what they had in Germany from 1933-45,” he quotes a European friend.
Without doubt, the English language has done us irreparable harm: words like nationalism and democracy have been inserted into the vernacular, and the native languages of Persian and Sanskrit have been repressed, peremptorily marginalised by Macaulay. Claude Levi-Strauss was surely right about cultural contamination.
However, turning off English is no longer an option: what has been learned can’t be unlearned. The dangerous words have been nativised, if only by the elite. And it would be suicidal to relinquish English, the lingua Franca of the world, spoken and understood by 1.5 billion people, a truly cosmopolitan institution. But more importantly, the rendition of English words—totalitarianism, demagogue, personality cult—into Bengali would offer a possible escape route. One can do no better than to introduce hungry young minds to the two masterpieces of George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984. Interestingly, our learned intellectuals have never felt it necessary to introduce the young to the aforementioned terms for political pathology: an inadvertence? Surely not.
That Pol Pot was educated in Paris comes as no surprise. The rejection of Confucianism from the children’s movement of May 4 onward until the death of Mao ushered in a Marxist dystopia. In Bangladesh, linguistic nationalism justifies tyranny and mass death by enforced starvation. Indeed, it was after these diabolical outcomes in Asia that the fashionable Third World-ism among Western European intellectuals fell into justified disrepute. The compliments heaped by the west on an east slavering over the former’s liberation theologies ceased: it had been an unholy symbiosis.
As one Chinese gentleman observes: “People think that the Chinese lack manners and civility. That’s because we lost our culture for 60 years. But for the previous 1,000 years, this culture dominated East Asia.”
Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.