Friday, June 14, 2019

The 'missing middle' in public commentators!

What is the mark of truly independent public commentators? 

In my opinion he/she should be able to see-through the clouds of ideologies and narratives and engage with issues, their positive and negative aspects, on their substance. In other words, what matters should be the distinctive merits of each issue.

F Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer and novelist, famously said,
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
In other words, a true intellectual is one who can engage with contrasting views on an issue unbiased by ideology and narratives and with equal objectivity (to the extent possible for any human consciousness which is a captive of his/her socialisation), and form a considered view. How many such public intellectuals do we have?

Unfortunately, and especially so in such a deeply polarised world, this is far from the reality. 

Take the case of the polariser-in-chief, American President Donald Trump. It is nobody's case that he is not whimsical, flippant, and bigoted. While he stacks up a long list of failures, he also has some very notable successes. The reset of the relationship with China, which has bipartisan support in the US and likely a permanent geo-political shift, is, at least for many people, one of President Trump's signature achievements. It is a different matter that one can quibble about the way in which he has gone about this or how the cards will be played in the weeks and months ahead. But the mainstream media have been consistently critical of all Trump's actions on China.

A close analogy, as a friend says, is with our assessment of anything connected with Adolf Hitler (taking this provocative example precisely to illustrate the deep point). As a mass mobiliser and an agenda-based unifier, Hitler has very few parallels in history. None of this is to take away from the fact that he was also a butcher whose bigotry led to more than 6 million deaths. Now these are two distinct and conceptually unrelated facts. But the latter is so cognitively overwhelming and stigmatising that we are loath to even explore what made him such a successful mass mobiliser and assess any useful learnings. Even a honest discussion on the latter cannot happen without being branded as anti-semitic, just as any support of Trump risks being branded as bigoted and ostracised.

The liberals across the world have a similar scornful view of a certain kind of democratically elected leaders across the world. They are disparaged as "populists", as though reflecting the concerns of ordinary people is something to be loathed.

The liberal consensus goes something like this. You need to espouse liberal causes - American-style democracy and social mores, global citizenry, support free trade and globalisation, entrepreneurial capitalism, minimum government - and values and aspirations of the elites. A person who holds conservative or traditional personal values, or worse still any one not adhering to any of the liberal causes, is an outcaste and denigrated accordingly.   

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to the six taste buds of the moral sense - care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity or purity. Modern day liberals tightly embrace the first two, and the third only so long as it concerns themselves. The last three are mostly viewed as conservative values, at the least secondary to care and fairness, with authority and sanctity being often viewed as degenerate. Accordingly, anyone who supports traditional values and practices is often disparaged and ostracised. 

What explains the inability of even intellectuals to break-free from ideologies and narratives and interrogate issues on their merits? Where have the truly independent commentators disappeared?

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