Thursday, June 4, 2009

On Obama and the great common-sense experiment

Having followed Obama since 2003-04 (lived/worked in the Chicago area for many years), yesterday's speech in Cairo easily beats everything else in terms of striking a blow for common-sense. Whether it leads to any change in ground reality is a completely unrelated question, but this much can be said. He's probably the first international leader in a long time (and probably the first US president ever) to present such a balanced understanding of what goes on outside the US. The beauty of the speech was to cut thru the 'dual noise' and for most part, state the obvious - what is, and what isn't. So what is obvious and why is it so difficult to state? Let's ramble a bit about our Janus-faced coin first.

The obvious thing about a coin is its duality - it has two sides, and in many cases, you look at one side, it is also obvious what the other is. But the problem is that most people covet this metaphorical coin but choose to live on, or favor, one side or reject the other. We are somehow shocked when we make a dent on one side and it shows up on the other side. Nothing new - it is just a restating of the ancient concept of 'Vasudeva Kutumbam' in Hinduism, that oldest statement of duality (as broadly defined by this tab). Neither Palestine nor Israel can be safe unless they both are. Violent movements ultimately turn upon themselves. Tradition/Culture and Progress cannot move independent of each other for too long, nor should they bog each other down. Urban prosperity in India without improving our villages at some positive rate is bound to fail. People ultimately come together only if they have the freedom to move apart but no longer feel the need to exercise it. The only thing obvious about these examples of duality is it is rarely followed by any of us, at least not all the time.

Obama is certainly not going to act on every one of his speaking points. It it much easier to focus on some quick-hit means that are then justified on the basis that it helps toward moving us closer to the big-picture ending. After a series of such hare-brained ideas riddled with noise, we find that it is just taking us on some random walk. Keeping this in mind, it is great to have a US leader who has lived in different continents and cultures, a mixed heritage, loves Hanuman, and one can who can apparently see the big picture clearer that most. For example, compare this to Bush Jr.'s "you are with us or against us" speech.

There are lots of sound-bites that appear to come right out of Hindu philosophy, with the phrase "Mutual Respect" being the most prominent, especially when viewed along with his statement (paraphrasing here) of wanting the world to move away from the notion of "for us to be defined, the other has to be rejected"- The classic false duality. A coin is never going to have just one side (at least not in the long run!) it is as if Obama has been reading up on Rajiv Malhotra's essays on this subject. Most of Obama's domestic speeches thrive 'on disabusing people of the notion' that there is any truth to this false duality (for example, his statements on torture and national security).

For this tab, the strongest part of his speech was is this simple sentence:

"I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality".

This should be a lesson for some of us Indians who have been 'brain-washed' to believe that visuals of our women wearing western clothes and winning inane beauty pageants is necessary and sufficient proof of women's rights in India. Instead of being just one of the means with which to fight for the right to female expression, it's become an end in itself - yet another false duality (This tab may also have the narrow, vested interest of having actress Katrina Kaif move away from crappy western clothes and appear in more traditional Indian dresses. not that its going to help her acting or Hindi diction). Firstly, we have to allow girls to be born in India. Then while we cross that hurdle, we can talk about "right to education", followed by a right to economic opportunity, and the right to dump (or bump off) your lazy husband who's also the classic drunkard that beats you up at night and takes away the money you earned after 10 hours of manual labor, with little food in between, while also dodging harassment from co-workers.

It is shocking to see a politician who brazenly speaks common-sense. If it turns out that he's actually going to put some of this stuff to practice, well, that would be something, wouldnt it. After all, the world has seen several lunatic politicial experiments fail and we are comfortable with that. But if we do test the theory of common sense, it better not fail.... The outcome do not look obvious to me, but its worth trying.

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