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Friday, February 17, 2017

‘USEFUL IDIOTS’ & FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION!

John Storey might have been writing about cultural studies in Britain but his observation about all basic assumptions of cultural studies being Marxist is equally relevant to the Indian context:

“…This is not to say that all practitioners of cultural studies are Marxists, but that ‘cultural studies’ is itself grounded in Marxism. All its major texts are informed, one way or another, by Marxism; whether or not their authors regard themselves as Marxist, post-Marxist or rhetorical Marxists (using rhetoric, vocabulary, models, etc., without, necessarily, a commitment to the politics).”2

The relevance of the observation to the issue under discussion will be apparent if one remembers that Marxists can reconcile diametrically opposing views with the aid of ‘dialectical materialism’. As in Britain, the arts and culture sphere in India too has come to be dominated by Marxists and their variants Storey described. There is no dearth of ‘useful idiots’,3 in the public sphere, either in the media or in that amorphous mass called the ‘public intellectuals’. The ‘public intellectuals’ do not have to necessarily come up with ideas that solve the mysteries of the universe or be able to find solutions to the myriad problems that daunt our society. Their skill-set, to use the human resources jargon of the information technology age, includes glib talk, an ability to write gobbledygook liberally sprinkled with socialist clichés and an infinite capacity for networking with the high and mighty. For them, who they know is the ‘seed capital’; what they know is inconsequential. In short, they are literary and cultural wheeler-dealers. They have acquired the enviable Marxist acumen of being able to reconcile diametrically opposing propositions, with élan. The politicians find the ‘useful idiots’, well, useful and the ‘useful idiots’ could do with political patronage. Thus the two have developed a symbiotic relationship. It was one of those, who had acquired a name as a litterateur, who had advised Rajiv Gandhi to ban the Satanic Verses. It was probably what Rajiv Gandhi wanted to do anyway to propitiate a political constituency, but when the advice came from a litterateur, it had acquired an ‘intellectual stamp’. It is another matter the litterateur acquired his name and fame by writing semi-porn fiction and publishing collections of ribald jokes, not all of which were his own. His ability to network with the media while being a press officer in the government came in handy. He could call in old favours and what the British call the ‘old boy network’ or the ‘charmed circle’ came in with offers of syndicated columns as post-retirement sinecures.

It was said that till the book was banned in India in 1988, not many knew of it, although Salman Rushdie had published three books earlier and won a Booker prize for his second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981). It was after the Indian ban that the world noticed it and Ayatollah Khomeini had issued the infamous fatwa and a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head. The ban and the fatwa condemned Rushdie into exile, and to live incognito for a long time. The ‘curious incident’, as Sherlock Holmes told inspector Gregory in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, was not what the dog did but that ‘the dog did nothing’! In this case the curious thing was the ‘useful idiots’ did nothing. They did not cry, ‘artistic freedom was being trampled upon’, till their throats turned hoarse. Nobody returned their Sahitya Akademi or Padma awards!

However, the famous litterateur, who recommended banning the book, had had a change of heart in 2010. What could be the motive? One could only surmise, but was it self-justification, remorse or mendacity? In his syndicated column, he urged his readers to look at the positive side of the ban. He sheepishly explained that the ban had immensely helped Rushdie and his book with increased sales. Thank him for small mercies, for he did not justify the bounty on Rushdie’s head, reasoning it had garnered him international sympathy! None but an ‘intellectual’ like the ‘litterateur’ could come up with such a ‘brainy’ idea: ‘ban books to increase their sales’! Even Marxists would be stumped as the reasoning was beyond their beloved ‘dialectical materialism’.

When the eminent columnist T. J. S. George had to run for cover for offending, a ‘particular community’ to use evasive journalese — which expression does not seem to circumscribe ‘freedom of expression’, again the ‘useful idiots’ were not up in arms to protest. The media too tasted the wrath of the ‘particular community’ after the Deccan Herald affair in 1986, and when offices of all the four main newspapers in Bengaluru were attacked on different occasions. The lessons learnt almost a decade ago seem to have long lasting effect, for the media did not venture to express solidarity with its Danish brethren in the recent cartoon controversy. Its condemnation in the Charlie Hebdo massacre was too muted and not unqualified, as we shall see latter.

However, it would be inappropriate to inculpate the ‘particular community’ alone of intolerance of cultural and media freedom, when it offends their sensibilities. The ‘useful idiots’ were equally quiescent when recently, the secular party workers of DMK burnt down the offices, along with three unfortunate employees of Dinakaran in Tamil Nadu, all in the ‘good cause’ of the internal power-struggle in the ruling dynasty there. Contrast this with the campaign it ran when some Hindu organisations protested against the making of Water. The social malady the movie sought to project was no doubt an anachronism, but is a century old and no longer exists. The ideological fatherlands of our left-liberal intellectuals did not shy away from curtailing artistic freedoms. The land of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev banned Dr. Zhivago and prevented its author, Boris Pasternak from receiving the Nobel Prize. Another Nobel winner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the plight of soviet intellectuals in his novel, The First Circle, was exiled. The land of Mao ‘respects’ the ‘freedom of expression’ much more brazenly: in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in 1989, it gunned down between 2000 and 3000 unarmed civilians — intellectuals, labour activists and students — protesting against galloping corruption in the ruling communist party.

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2 Storey, John. (1994). “Introduction: The Study of Popular Culture and Cultural Studies” In Storey, John (Ed.) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. Harlow. Pearson Education. p. xi

3 The phrase has often been attributed to Lenin, but it appears he had never aid it. See Safire, William. (1987). “On Language”. The New York Times Magazine. April 12, 1987. Accessible from http://goo.gl/PhkIxn  

Excerpted from ‘ARTISTIC FREEDOM & SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY’: ‘TWISTING FACTS TO SUIT THEORIES’ & OTHER SELECTIONS FROM VOXINDICA. p. 26-30.

See the post dated December 10, 2016 below to view the book's CONTENTS.