2016 and the liberal art of life

Saikat Majumdar | Updated on January 16, 2018

For crying out loud: ‘Trump is going to be our Brexit,’ the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore had predicted in the summer of 2016   -  Reuters/Lucas Jackson

There’s your queue: The spectacle of India’s demonetisation policy started from November 8 Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

Liberals around the world had a tough year, with Brexit and Donald Trump. But they often had themselves to blame, for not reading the warning signs in time

“Let’s go, California.”

The Facebook post appeared on my newsfeed a couple of days after Donald Trump was declared the winner of the American presidential election.

Shared with the post was the link to, the website that seeks to prepare Californians for the vote to leave the US in the spring of 2019. Yescalifornia is brash about the need for Calexit: “As the sixth largest economy in the world, California is more economically powerful than France and has a population larger than Poland. Point by point, California compares and competes with countries, not just 49 other states.”

But Californian values do not sit well with those shared by the rest of the nation. The mismatch had finally exploded in Californian consciousness after Trump’s triumph.

“In our view, the United States of America represents so many things that conflict with Californian values, and our continued statehood means California will continue subsidizing the other states to our own detriment, and to the detriment of our children.”

The post had been put up by a Syrian-American filmmaker based in Palo Alto. In the same neighbourhood that I called home from 2007 to 2016.

“Oregon wants to come too,” a comment had popped up quickly.

“Take Washington with you,” said another.

Not to worry. Says another meme on social media. These states do not have to hold their own in the Pacific Ocean. They can join Canada. Canada would welcome them.

The historical irony has been noted by many. That the last defender of the liberal West in the early 21st century is Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. Not counting Canada’s dashing young Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, of course.

Merkel, who has done more for the Syrian refugees than any other leader of the wealthy West, issued a congratulatory message to the President-elect of the US that has now become legend.

“Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”

Never was a warning so thinly disguised as congratulations.

Trump is going to be our Brexit. America’s social conscience, the documentary film-maker Michael Moore had made this bone-chilling prophecy in the summer of 2016. The vitriolic resentment of poor, disenfranchised, provincialised English people from non-metropolitan swathes of the UK had pushed a British vote for exit from the European Union earlier this year.

It was a resentment directed at the arrogance of the neo-liberal cosmopolitan class, centred in London and Oxbridge, who perceptibly reaped the benefits of globalisation while the Midlands were left in the dark. Merging with the EU would be the final act of subservience of this embattled Anglo-Saxon identity to the order of neo-liberal cosmopolitanism that the EU was seen to represent.

When on 11/9 — the ironic Other to 9/11 — Trump bagged the electoral college with classic blue-collar blue states like Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the tragedy came full-circle for the (neo)liberal order in the Anglo-American world.

The idea of the liberal has never seemed as sad, beaten and bedraggled as it has in 2016. Some might say the smooth pathway that seemed to run from liberal to neo-liberal is now irreversibly destroyed. Irrevocably with Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US elections. And why not? The fundraising dinner organised by Amal and George Clooney that set back couples by $353,400 a ticket, featuring Jane Fonda and Ellen DeGeneres on the guest list and prawn risotto on the menu, showcased the neo-liberal braggadocio at its most flamboyant. Trump of Trump Tower — where a friend of mine recalls seeing a dentist in an appropriately seven-star setting and getting the offer of getting precious metal planted in her mouth at $50,000 a pop — successfully pulled off the trick of appearing as the Bernie Sanders of the Right. To millions, the right kind of Bernie.

Did I say Anglo-American world? Make that global, and I don’t just mean the conservative spectre of Marine Le Pen over Europe — but worldwide.

The world has played cat-and-mouse with the idea of the liberal (most definitely the mouse) throughout 2016, as has my very own life. Which takes us back to Palo Alto, from where the first Calexit tagline was aired into my newsfeed.

This July, not long after Trump’s policy director Sam Clovis had issued some charming promises about “making it harder” for liberal arts students to obtain federal financial support, my partner and I packed our nine-year life in Palo Alto — a bizarre bubble town where we occasionally caught Mark Zuckerberg picking fruits at the local farmers’ market — to take up positions in a new liberal arts university outside Delhi. Ashoka University was imagined by many as India’s answer to Yale-NUS, the much-talked about collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore, perhaps, in the long run, Kenyon-Williams-Amherst in the American liberal arts pantheon. Indeed, as a liberal arts university set up by an energetic group of engineers and investment bankers, it embodies a gesture made by my former workplace, Stanford, to bring computer science together with English and music in a dual major to celebrate a new-age liberal arts education.

But it wasn’t long before dark clouds gathered over the political valence of ‘liberal’ as the university became bitterly polarised over a petition signed by some students, staff members, and one professor against army activities in Kashmir, and which was quickly picked up by media outlets in Pakistan and interpreted as Ashoka University’s “endorsement” of plebiscite in Kashmir.

It was a bizarre chain of events that forced one to wonder if it was possible to be intellectually liberal while resisting the political force of the idea. Now I don’t think the answer is an easy ‘no’. Is literature about the moral or the immoral? Both, because it archives an amoral space. Does a literary education make one moral? Likely not. Does a liberal education make one more liberal?

Who the f*** knows?

The disciplinary and the political stakes of liberalism came to face an intense mutual entanglement in 2016 — my year of holding the liberal arts in a warm institutional hug.

Over here in Delhi, the strangest week surrounded 11/9, pushing environmental studies, history, political science, economics, to butt heads in time and space. Commuting between Delhi and Sonepat, Haryana, my colleagues, many of them just-arrived/returned from the US like me, had much to think about.

The unbelievable reality of the phrase “President Trump”.

The thickest smog of pollution engulfing the Delhi-National Capital Region, making regular Delhi weather — one of the most polluted in the world — look like a distant dream of purity. The drama of demonetisation, wherein the Prime Minister of the country declared all ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes voided for circulation, in a purported bid to purge the nation of black money.

All in a week’s work. A never-ending week that marked its end with the death of Leonard Cohen.

In his treatise The Conflict of the Faculties, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant had delegated theology, law and medicine (intended, respectively, to train clergymen, lawyers and physicians) to the higher faculty. The lower faculty was intended to be philosophical, including all the disciplines that in the modern university fall under the liberal arts and the sciences; ‘philosophy’ implying knowledge on the whole.

Kant called the members of the higher faculty “businessmen or technicians of learning” — people who would shape public policy and administrative policy, possessing what he described as “legal influence on the public”. Intriguingly, Kant clearly saw greater independence and autonomy in the lower faculty. The higher faculty trains students for the key institutions of public life (of which the church was a significant one at that time), but accordingly, they are subject to state control and censorship. It is the lower faculty that is free to pursue knowledge for its own sake and remains free of government interference and calculations made on the basis of vested interests from outside. As the liberal is dragged into applied reality, it is liberal no more.

Personally for me — but I suspect, also for others — the world which thus called out the liberal disciplines to the messy reality of living, in a tragic sweep of irony, also cast the political valence of liberalism in the obsolescence of a psychedelic dream.

2016 will go down as the year when the Clooneys’ prawn risotto finally made the world throw up. Especially those who could not afford to taste it in the first place.

Saikat Majumdar is the author of three booksmost recently the novel The Firebird

Published on December 23, 2016

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