City City Bang Bang, Columns

Going medieval, worldwide?

It has become a ritual of sorts. Wake up every morning to track the fall-out from the latest abomination from the House of Donald Trump. He rarely disappoints, if that is the word one is looking for. One begins virtually every day this way- going through the torrent of inanities, absurdities, delusional ramblings that brim over with both paranoia and narcissism that he offloads on the world.

The sense of unreality that began ever since Trump announced his candidacy, has not abated a bit, and the world marvels every day at what keeps unfolding. Every crisis colours the earlier one sepia; scandals become wallpaper ; after all, there is only so much vividness that memory can take. And this is not just about Donald Trump, but about a world that is gradually getting trained to lower its expectations every day.

What was utterly unthinkable a few years go, is now possible to not merely imagine, but to convert into policy. Donald Trump’s lasting legacy will be to have permanently raised the bar for what is deemed unacceptable. He says one horrible thing after another, goes through one scandal after another till the question that we ask is- is there anything so horrible that he can say or do that will be deemed too much for even Donald Trump? The real question is not how low can he fall, but at what point will he fall too low by public standards?

It is easy to have a grotesque fascination for Trump, which is why so much is written and said about him. In some ways, however, what is more significant than his personal characteristics is how he is helping reshape the prominent questions of our time. He converts the bases of emotions into acceptable political currency. By framing the twisted resentments of the dominant class in terms of a pathology of victimhood, he is dragging the country back into territories that were deemed to have been left behind.

The idea that the President of the United States would equivocate in the denunciation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and that a not insignificant section of the country would support this is a sign of how benchmarks in politics have changed in his wake.

The fact that in 2017, the dominant fault-lines of the world have to do with race, religion, caste and ethnicity is something that few would have anticipated. Even the terrorism of this era speaks volumes for the times. Today’s acts of terrorism, that randomly target innocent people have no overt purpose. It is interesting how we have stopped asking as to what do terrorists want? Earlier acts of terrorism came accompanied with a list of demands- today, innocents are killed because of their ethnicity, nationality or religion, just like that.

The gradual normalization of ideas that were beyond the pale of legitimacy is now a very real prospect. We have seen any number of such gradual transformations of meaning take place in India too. Intolerance as an idea has been effectively silenced, secularism as a word has been made deeply contentious, and even the idea of lynching people because of their religion does not attract as much outrage as it once did. The idea of assigning motives to people because of their identity is now a mainstream custom.

The manner in which the outgoing VP, Hamid Ansari is being attacked is illustrative of this change. Here was someone who was effectively leaving not just his office, but a position of prominence in public life. He was never a significant political figure and there was absolutely nothing to be gained by going after him.

If his statement, that Muslims in India were uneasy in the atmosphere today, is guilty of any inaccuracy, it is by way of understatement. Of course, Muslims in India are uneasy, and why would they not be? That has been the express purpose of the right wing army that jumps on any prominent Muslim figure of the day.

It is hardly a coincidence that the issues most debated today relate to beef, love jihad, Urdu, road names, the role of Mughals in history, the singing of Vande Mataram, personal law all of which serve only one purpose- to send a message to the Muslim minority that this is a New India.

The objection in reality is not to the content of Ansari’s speech, but to the fact he dared speak at all on this subject. Ideally, Muslims should be far too uneasy to be able to say that they are uneasy.

In Ansari’s case, what was remarkable was PM Modi himself led the charge. What was particularly noteworthy is that he sought to project the VP’s concern for the Muslim state of mind today as part of Ansari’s ‘core thinking’ that was shaped and limited by years of dealing with West Asia ( and those kind of people) and with institutions like the Minority Commission and the Aligarh Muslim University. In other words, his Muslim-ness rendered him unable to look at the ‘national’ picture, in spite of being in office for ten years.

When the legitimizing of new fault lines begins to extend to the judiciary, then it is time to take note. That ‘love Jihad’ exists as a phrase is by itself strange, but that a marriage between two consenting adults can be investigated by the NIA and adjudicated by the courts is surely a sign of the times.

This is not a temporary phase that will dissolve quickly. Trump will go for sure, in eight years in the worst case, and much sooner, if he outruns his luck, as will the other leaders in time, but the world that they are shaping is not going anywhere. We are in for a long march back in time, and civilization is rewinding with a sullen hiss. It’s time to go medieval, Steve Bannon, the former Chief of Strategy of Trump has warned us. The world have already crossed that bridge.

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