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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

25 MARCH, 2014

Aldous Huxley on Drugs, Democracy, and Religion

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“Generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy.”

In 1958, five years after his transcendent experience induced by taking four-tenths of a gram of mescalin, Aldous Huxley — legendary author of Brave New World, lesser-known but no less compelling writer of children’s books, modern prophet — penned an essay titled “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.” It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post and eventually included in Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience (public library) — a selection of Huxley’s fiction, essays, and letters titled after the Sanskrit word for “liberation.” In the essay, Huxley considers the gifts and limitations of our wakeful consciousness, our universal quest for transcendence, and the interplay of drugs and democracy.

Huxley begins by considering why religion is nothing more nor less than an attempt to codify through symbolism our longing for what Jack Kerouac called “the golden eternity” and what Alan Lightman described in his encounter with the ospreys — a sense of intimate connection with the universe, with something larger than ourselves:

Every fully developed religion exists simultaneously on several different levels. It exists as a set of abstract concepts about the world and its governance. It exists as a set of rites and sacraments, as a traditional method for manipulating the symbols, by means of which beliefs about the cosmic order are expressed. It exists as the feelings of love, fear and devotion evoked by this manipulation of symbols.

And finally it exists as a special kind of feeling or intuition — a sense of the oneness of all things in their divine principle, a realization (to use the language of Hindu theology) that “thou art That,” a mystical experience of what seems self-evidently to be union with God.

The ordinary waking consciousness is a very useful and, on most occasions, an indispensable state of mind; but it is by no means the only form of consciousness, nor in all circumstances the best. Insofar as he transcends his ordinary self and his ordinary mode of awareness, the mystic is able to enlarge his vision, to look more deeply into the unfathomable miracle of existence.

The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life.

He echoes Mark Twain’s lament about religion and human egotism, Huxley examines the self-consciousness at the heart of worship:

We love ourselves to the point of idolatry; but we also intensely dislike ourselves — we find ourselves unutterably boring. Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence. It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises and yoga — to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction.

Huxley then turns to how drugs have attempted to address this human urge and the interplay of those attempts with religion:

Modern pharmacology has given us a host of new synthetics, but in the field of the naturally occurring mind changers it has made no radical discoveries. All the botanical sedatives, stimulants, vision revealers, happiness promoters and cosmic-consciousness arousers were found out thousands of years ago, before the dawn of history.

In many societies at many levels of civilization attempts have been made to fuse drug intoxication with God-intoxication. In ancient Greece, for example, ethyl alcohol had its place in the established religion. Dionysus, or Bacchus, as he was often called, was a true divinity. His worshipers addressed him as Lusios, “Liberator,” or as Theoinos, “Godwinc.” The latter name telescopes fermented grape juice and the supernatural into a single pentecostal experience. . . . Unfortunately they also receive harm. The blissful experience of self -transcendence which alcohol makes possible has to be paid for, and the price is exorbitantly high.

Huxley argues that while the intuitive solution seems to be to enforce complete prohibition of mind-altering substances, this tends to backfire and “create more evils than it cures,” while also admonishing to the diametric opposite of this black-and-white approach, the “complete toleration and unrestricted availability” of drugs. Peering into the future of biochemistry and pharmacology, he foresees the development of “powerful but nearly harmless drugs,” but also notes that even if these were invented, they’d raise important questions about use and abuse, about whether their availability would make human beings ultimately happier or more miserable. He finds reason for concern in medicine’s history of overprescription of new drugs and writes:

The history of medical fashions, it may be remarked, is at least as grotesque as the history of fashions in women’s hats — at least as grotesque and, since human lives are at stake, considerably more tragic. In the present case, millions of patients who had no real need of the tranquilizers have been given the pills by their doctors and have learned to resort to them in every predicament, however triflingly uncomfortable. This is very bad medicine and, from the pill taker’s point of
view, dubious morality and poor sense.

He then turns to how these psychopharmacological tendencies might be exploited in a political context:

The dictatorships of tomorrow will deprive men of their freedom, but will give them in exchange a happiness none the less real, as a subjective experience, for being chemically induced. The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights — namely, liberty.

Wondering whether it would even be possible to “produce superior individuals by biochemical means,” Huxley points to an experiment Soviet researchers embarked upon in 1956, a five-year plan to develop “pharmacological substances that normalize higher nervous activity and heighten human capacity for work” — in other words, psychic energizers. Rather ironically given the context of subsequent geopolitical history of despots, from Putin to Yanukovych, Huxley considers the fruits of these experiments an assurance against despotism:

Let us all fervently wish the Russians every success in their current pharmacological venture. The discovery of a drug capable of increasing the average individual’s psychic energy, and its wide distribution throughout the U.S.S.R., would probably mean the end of Russia’s present form of government. Generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy. Even in the democratic West we could do with a bit of psychic energizing. Between them, education and pharmacology may do something to offset the effects of that deterioration of our biological material to which geneticists have frequently called attention.

Huxley ties this back to religion and the parallel artificiality of the transcendent experience:

Those who are offended by the idea that the swallowing of a pill may contribute to a genuinely religious experience should remember that all the standard mortifications — fasting, voluntary sleeplessness and self-torture — inflicted upon themselves by the ascetics of every religion for the purpose of acquiring merit, are also, like the mind-changing drugs, powerful devices for altering the chemistry of the body in general and the nervous system in particular. Or consider the procedures generally known as spiritual exercises. The breathing techniques taught by the yogi of India result in prolonged suspensions of respiration. These in turn result in an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood; and the psychological consequence of this is a change in the quality of consciousness. Again, meditations involving long, intense concentration upon a single idea or image may also result — for neurological reasons which I do not profess to understand — in a slowing down of respiration and even in prolonged suspensions of breathing.

(Coincidentally, scientists have just begun to shed light on why meditators hallucinate — Huxley was, once more, ahead of his time.)

He concludes by reminding us of the deeper spiritual and psychoemotional roots of both drug-induced and religious experiences:

That men and women can, by physical and chemical means, transcend themselves in a genuinely spiritual way is something which, to the squeamish idealist, seems rather shocking. But, after all, the drug or the physical exercise is not the cause of the spiritual experience; it is only its occasion.

He once again peers into the future:

For most people, religion has always been a matter of traditional symbols and of their own emotional, intellectual and ethical response to those symbols. To men and women who have had direct experience of self-transcendence into the mind’s Other World of vision and union with the nature of things, a religion of mere symbols is not likely to be very satisfying. The perusal of a page from even the most beautifully written cookbook is no substitute for the eating of dinner. We are exhorted to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

[…]

My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. . . . From being an activity mainly concerned with symbols, religion will be transformed into an activity concerned mainly with experience and intuition — an everyday mysticism underlying and giving significance to everyday rationality, everyday tasks and duties, everyday human relationships.

Whether one considers Huxley a madman or a prophet-genius, Moksha is a fascinating read and an unusual, dimensional lens on the human longing for transcendence. For a wholly different side of Huxley, see his only children’s book.

HT Open Culture

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24 MARCH, 2014

Larry and Friends: An Illustrated Ode to Immigration, Diversity, Friendship, and Acceptance

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A charming celebration of camaraderie across cultures.

Much has been said about the lack of diversity in children’s books. But these discussions — as most conversations about diversity — have been largely co-opted by questions of race, overlooking other elements of diversity, such as nationality and native language. This is particularly perplexing in America which, for a nation of immigrants that prides itself on being a “melting pot” of global cultures, has one of the world’s most hostile immigration policies. (I can attest to this myself as a “resident alien” — the tellingly unfriendly term for a U.S.-based foreign citizen — whose entire adult life has been plagued by immigration-related bureaucratic nightmares.) National policies being the seedbed of national attitudes, it’s hard not to wonder and worry about the toxic effect such legal practices might have on fostering xenophobia and intolerance. This concern, coupled with my enormous soft spot for children’s books, is why I was instantly smitten with Larry and Friends (publisher) — a heartening story about immigration, diversity, friendship, and acceptance, envisioned by Ecuadorian-born, New-York-based illustrator Carla Torres, who partnered with Belgian-born, Venezuelan-raised, New-York-based writer Nat Jaspar to bring the project, funded on Kickstarter, to life.

Torres’s gorgeous illustrations tell the tale of Larry the American dog, who decides to have a birthday celebration and invites all his friends, each from a different part of the world and an immigrant in New York, where the story is set — a fitting backdrop, given Gotham’s Ellis Island was the original entry point for immigrants in the United States and New York is the most linguistically diverse city in the world today, home to more than three million foreign-born residents who speak over 800 languages.

The bell begins to ring and each of Larry’s friends arrives, along with a piece of cultural, linguistic, and geopolitical history. We meet such endearing characters as Magda, the little pig from Poland who was sent to New York by her serious parents to “become a competent secretary” but instead pursued her passion and became a tightrope artist; Cogui, the tiny Puerto Rican frog, a violinist living in the Bronx; Gugu, the African zebra who moved to New York with only his Djembe drum and went on to become the lead percussionist at the Apollo Theater.

Then there is Laila, the sinewy cat from Iran who works as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History; Edgar, the Colombian alligator who moved to New York as a street musician playing the accordion and now has a steady gig at a French restaurant in Manhattan; Bernard, the French gargoyle who spent years observing people from atop the Notre Dame Cathedral and was drawn to New York as the world’s best people-watching locale; and Rimshi, the Tibetan yak who moved to New York after the Chinese invasion and whom Larry met while volunteering at the refugee center where she works.

Then comes the Mexican coyote Rosita, the best luchadora in New York, and Larry’s heart begins to pound uncontrollably — shy as he is, he has an irrepressible crush on this fierce lady. The Greek owl Ulises, a fine cook, arrives and brings Larry “the biggest and most beautiful birthday cake he has ever seen.”

What’s perhaps most enchanting about the story, however, is that a number of the characters are drawn from the real stories of real people Torres met in New York. Pedro, the Ecuadorian guinea pig, is based on Pedro Erazo, one of the members of the beloved indie band Gogol Bordello. Jin, the Korean fox, is inspired by Mariola Paen, a self-taught Korean artist. Ashki, the Native American buffalo, is based on Melvin, a shaman from the Navajo people who performed a spiritual ceremony Torres attended some years ago.

In the end, the jolly and eclectic group has a party — a charming celebration of diversity and belonging.

Larry and Friends is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, both aesthetically and in its cultural message, and is also available directly from Tangerine Books in both English and Spanish editions.

Images courtesy of Carla Torres

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13 MARCH, 2014

March 13, 1964: What the Kitty Genovese Murder Teaches Us About Empathy, Apathy, and Our Human Predicament

By:

“How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do?”

In the small hours of March 13, 1964, a young Italian-American woman in Queens got attacked, raped, and stabbed to death seventeen times over the course of half an hour outside her small apartment house on Austin Street in Kew Gardens. Thirty-eight of her neighbors witnessed the attack. No one did anything to stop it. No one called the police. No one seemed to care. The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese became one of modern history’s most unsettling and confounding conundrums for generations of psychologists, sociologists, and ordinary people alike. How can we accept that thirty-eight ordinary middle-class citizens — people with good jobs and good families and good homes, people with beige carpets — could slide so far down on the scale from empathy to apathy as to allow for such brutality to happen right before their eyes? What does this say about the human spirit, and how can we make sense of it without losing faith in humanity?

That, and its many complicated dimensions, is what A. M. Rosenthal, who would go on to become the most controversial executive editor The New York Times has ever had, explores in the slim but tremendously impactful book Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (public library). Rosenthal himself was responsible for bringing public attention to Genovese’s story in an era when the Times gave any murder in Queens no more than four paragraphs, a time when the invisible “relationship of color and geography to crime news” permeated the media. But Rosenthal, having just been appointed Metropolitan Editor of the Times after years at the paper’s foreign bureaus in India, Poland, and Japan, took it upon himself to get to know the men — for in that era, they were only men — who ran the city, from the Mayor to the bankers to the playwrights. One of them was Michael Joseph Murphy, the New York City Police Commissioner — a man “who looks like a tough Irish cop because he is a tough Irish cop but who also happens to be a man of knowledge and sensitivity,” a man who goes to the same restaurant for lunch, always sits with his back to the wall (an old police habit), and “orders shrimp curry and rice in the touching belief that the dish is somehow non-caloric.” (Yes, besides being a formidable journalist, Rosenthal, who died in 2006, was also an enchanting storyteller.)

Catherine Genovese

Over one such lunch near City Hall, hours after the murder had been reported, Commissioner Murphy shared with Rosenthal his preoccupation with this chilling case in which thirty-eight neighbors had failed to help a dying 28-year-old woman. Rosenthal first thought the details were an exaggeration, but the Commissioner wistfully assured him, “Yes, thirty-eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.” There and then, Rosenthal knew it would be an important story — not only for its newsworthiness in crime reporting, but also for the broader philosophical questions it raises about our human predicament. He was right — the Times ran the story the next day, and it was immediately picked up by other mass media. The case soon became “a stunning example of apathy — other people’s apathy.” But behind that veneer of otherness hide some of the darkest potentialities of our own selves.

Rosenthal captures the murder’s enduring haunt:

The Kitty Genovese story, the Genovese case, has become both a quick, puffy cliché for apathy and cowardice about the suffering of others, and an intellectual and religious puzzlement: what does it mean to me? To me, you, we.

That is the power of the Genovese matter. It talks to us not about her, a subject that was barely of fleeting interest to us, but about ourselves, a subject never out of our minds.

Catherine Genovese

Rosenthal wrote the book shortly after the murder and it was originally published at the end of 1964, partly as a reporter’s account of the precise details of the case, and partly as a philosopher’s meditation on the elements of human nature and social dynamics that made this brutality possible. In 1995, it was reprinted with a new introduction by Rosenthal, who had spent thirty-five years contemplating the case — thirty-five years during which social psychologists had come up with the influential theory of pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect in trying to explain what happened. But for Rosenthal, the case, with its question of why thirty-eight witnesses refused to help, was still a microcosm of the choices we all make, every day, in how we relate to the world. He writes in the 1995 introduction:

As I was writing Thirty-Eight Witnesses, I felt the question should be reworded so: would I ever refuse again?

I knew most of us had refused in the past, so often that we had become unaware of what we were doing.

I have walked past lepers and beggars scores of times in Asia. Any help from me, the merest, would have been of importance to them. They were terribly sick; I saw their sores. If they were professional beggars, as I told myself, did that salve their sores or straighten the limbs of the twisted children they held up, rented or not?

[…]

But the mystery for all of us about the Genovese case was how could it have happened that thirty-eight people, thirty-eight, heard the screams and did nothing. Two or three, all right, maybe even a half dozen — it could happen. But everybody, all thirty-eight of them?

I was trying hard to be candid with myself, but not hard enough. Now and for some years I have realized that I failed to ask the question that might have answered the mystery of so many silent witnesses on Austin Street.

Who was walking with me on that street in Calcutta or New Delhi and not stopping to give help? Not thirty-eight people, but hundreds at any one moment, thousands in an hour.

In the middle of a cold night, thirty-eight people refused the risk of being stabbed or getting involved by answering a cry for help of a person they could not see. Is that a greater mystery, a greater offense, than that by light of day thousands on a single street withhold help to suffering people, when it would cost them virtually nothing and put them in no peril, even though they see their faces and sores?

It is a poignant question, and a prescient one, as we face a growing disconnect between the haves and the have-nots in the world today. For all those fighting global poverty, how many do nothing? And when one of the most fundamental human rights — the right to love — is being denied to a great many fellow human beings, how many raise their voices? How many perch out of our proverbial windows and look on as the tragedy of the “other” unfolds?

With equal poignancy, Rosenthal questions how we hide behind physical space and use distance as a currency of apathy — an observation all the more prescient in our day and age of military drones, where the combination of new technology and basic human psychology makes soldiers deadlier at a distance as they find it easier to kill someone far away than to shoot them at close range. Rosenthal’s closing words land like poison darts at our darkest, most self-conscious fears about what it means to be — or to fail at being — a good human:

How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something.

Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the thirty-eight? Tell me, what question is more important than the one Catherine Genovese put to me for years when I sat down to write my columns for the Times — how far?

Thirty-Eight Witnesses is a remarkable read in its entirety — undeniably difficult, but undeniably important. Complement it with the equally disquieting Stanford Prison Experiment, then see psychologist David DeSteno on the psychology of good and evil in all of us.

Thanks, Andrew

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16 JANUARY, 2014

Legendary Indian Leader Nehru on Power, Privilege, and Kindness: Letters to His 10-Year-Old Daughter, Indira Gandhi

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Notes on the moral foundations of becoming a great leader and a great human, bittersweet in history’s hindsight.

As a hopeless lover of timeless letters, especially ones of sage fatherly and motherly advice, I was thrilled to come across Letters from a Father to His Daughter (public library). In 1928, when his only daughter was ten and spent the summer in the Himalayas while he was in the plains below, Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of India’s struggle for independence from British rule, sent the young girl a series of short letters seeking to explain how the world came to be as it is. That daughter was Indira Gandhi, who would become India’s first and only female Prime Minister, tragically assassinated in 1984.

What makes these letters, which cover everything from the Big Bang to the ancient civilizations to the rise of the division of labor and trade, so spectacular is that Nehru speaks to young Indira both lovingly and with clear respect for her intelligence, treating a ten-year-old child as the future leader she would become. Indeed, we see in these letters the foundation of that becoming — a foundation of moral values for peace and justice, respect for those different from us, and immeasurable, indiscriminate kindness, a message rather bittersweet in history’s hindsight, given the context of Gandhi’s political reputation. Above all, Nehru takes great care to show the little girl that power is not a right but a privilege, one that ought to be used wisely and benefit those whom it is designed to protect and serve rather than the selfish interests of those who hold it.

Young Indira Gandhi

In one of the first letters, Nehru reminds his daughter that we need to consistently step outside of our biases and boundaries, be those ones of geography or of culture, in order to fully understand the world:

England is only a little island and India, though a big country, is only a small part of the earth’s surface. If we want to know something about the story of this world of ours we must think of all the countries and all the peoples that have inhabited it, and not merely of one little country where we may have been born.

In a letter exploring the origin of different races, Nehru dispels the irrational beliefs that lie at the heart of racism by telling Indira the story of how early humans migrated across the earth and developed into different races based on the conditions of the lands they lived in:

We find that people’s complexions are the result of the climate they live in. They have nothing to do with the worthiness or goodness or beauty of a person.

Reflecting on the different complexions of people in different regions of India — fairer in the north where it is cooler and darker in the hotter south — and on the flawed cultural beliefs that associate fairer with better, Nehru adds a disclaimer about privilege:

Of course, it may be that some people, even though they may live in a hot country, do not work in the open and are rich enough to live in big houses and take care of themselves and their complexions. A rich family may live like this for generations and may thus not be affected by the climate very much. But not to work oneself and to live on the work of others is nothing to be proud of.

In another letter, he addresses the conceits of nationalism and the perils of stereotyping in equally simple yet poignant terms:

You will also see that most of us now living in different countries far from each other long ago were one people. We have changed greatly since then and many of us have forgotten our old relationships. In every country people imagine that they are the best and the cleverest and the others are not as good as they are. … This is all conceit. Everybody wants to think well of himself and his country. But really there is no person who has not got some good in him and some bad. And in the same way there is no country which is not partly good and partly bad. We must take the good wherever we find it and try to remove the bad wherever it may be.

He adds a prescient note on India’s own geopolitical destiny — a country that, nearly a century after Nehru’s letters, is emerging as a global force of innovation:

If we find anything good in other countries, we should certainly take it.

As Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins. It would be such an excellent thing if all the people in the world were happy and contented. We have therefore to try to make the whole world a happier place to live in.

Jawaharlal Nehru with young Indira and niece Chanderlekha Pandit, 1925. (Image courtesy of JMMI, New Delhi)

In a letter exploring the origin and social purpose of religion, Nehru explores the inner contradictions of religion, which haunt us to this day:

This seems horrible but a man who is afraid will do anything.

This must have been the beginnings of religion. So religion first came as fear, and anything that is done because of fear is bad. Religion, as you know, tells us many beautiful things. When you grow up, you will read about the religions of the world and of the good things and the bad things that have been done in their name. . . . We see even today that people fight and break each other’s heads in the name of religion. And for many people it is still something to be afraid of. They spend their time trying to please some imaginary beings by making presents in temples and even sacrifices of animals.

In a letter on the origin of agriculture, which created a surplus of food beyond a tribe’s daily needs, Nehru ties this development to the invention of money and questions the warped dynamics of surplus:

If you think about it, you will see that this money is all surplus, that is people do not want to spend it all at one time and so they keep it in banks. The rich people today are those who have plenty of this surplus, the poor have none at all. … It is not so much because one person works more than another, but nowadays a person who does not work at all gets the surplus, while the hard worker often gets no part of it! This seems a very silly arrangement. Many people think that it is because of this stupid arrangement that there are so many poor people of the world.

In a related letter on the origin of the rich-poor divide, Nehru traces the rise of the patriarch — “the time when complications first began” — and how power structures developed, speaking with timeless prescience to present predicaments ranging from the everyday expressions of entitlement of the privileged in society to the large-scale issues that precipitated the Occupy movement:

Everything in [the early] days belonged to the whole tribe and not to each member separately. Even the patriarch had nothing special to himself. As a member of the tribe, he could only have a share like any other member. But he was the organizer and he was supposed to look after the goods and property of the tribe. As his power increased, he began to think that these goods and property were really his own and not the tribe’s. Or rather he thought that he himself, being the leader of the tribe, represented the tribe. So we see how the idea of owning things for oneself began.

[…]

But as soon as the patriarch started grabbing at the things belonging to the tribe and calling them his own, we begin to get rich people and poor people.

In the next letter, Nehru traces how patriarchs swelled into kings, once again presaging with tragic foresight the state of politics and politicians today:

When the patriarch’s office became hereditary, that is son succeeded father, there was little difference between him and a king. He developed into a king and the king got the strange notion that everything in the country belonged to him. He thought he was the country. … Kings forgot that they were really chosen by the people in order to organize and distribute the food and other things of the country among the people. They forgot that they were chosen because they were supposed to be the cleverest and the most experienced persons in the tribe or country. They imagined that they were masters and all the other people in the country were their servants. As a matter of fact, they were servants of the country.

Later on … kings became so conceited that they thought that people had nothing to do with choosing them. It was God himself, they said, that had made them kings. They called this the “divine right of kings.” For long years, they misbehaved like this and lived in great pomp and luxury while their people starved.

But Nehru reminds young Indira that even in republics, which have democratically elected officials rather than hereditary kings, things are bound to go awry once the entitlement of power poisons a ruler’s soul. He offers an example from India, a country — and by far not the only one — plagued by enormous political corruption to this day:

In India, we have still many rajas and maharajas and nawabs. You see them going about with fine clothes, in expensive motor cars and spending a lot of money on themselves. Where do they get all this money from? They get it in taxes from the people. The taxes are given so that the money may be used to help all the people in the country — by making schools and hospitals and libraries and museums and good roads and many other things for the good of the people. But our rajas and maharajas still think as the French king did of old L’etat c’est moi — “the state, it is I.” And they spend the money of the people on their own pleasures. While they live in luxury, their people, who work hard and give them the money, starve and their children have no schools to go to.

In another letter, Nehru traces the origin of trade and offers an observation on the downside of globalization that presciently speaks to today’s tendency to increasingly celebrate and prioritize locally made goods as a token of more conscious consumer choices:

Consider a piece of foreign cloth that is sold in the bazaar here. The cotton grew in India and it was sent to England. A great factory took it and cleaned it and made it into yarn or cotton thread and then into cloth. This cloth then came back again to India and was sold in the bazaar. How many thousands of miles it traveled backwards and forwards before it was offered for sale! It seems rather silly that the cotton that is grown in India had to go all the way to England to be made into cloth and then come back again. This seems such a waste of money and energy.

Mahatma Gandhi fasting in 1924, with the young Indira dressed in a khaddar garment shortly after Gandhi began advocating that khaddar be worn by all Indians instead of British-made textiles.

Once again, we see how young Indira’s father instilled in her from an early age the personal and political beliefs that would come to shape her. He writes:

You know that we do not buy or wear foreign cloth. We wear khaddar because it is more sensible to buy things, as far as we can, made in our own country. We also buy and wear khaddar because in this way we help the poor who spin and weave.

In one of the final letters, he returns to the question of money with a sentiment reminiscent of Alan Watts’s philosophy, reminding Indira that money in and of itself is meaningless:

We must remember that money is no good by itself. It only helps us to get other things that we want. It helps us to exchange goods. . . . Some foolish people imagine that money itself is a good and they collect and hoard it, instead of using it. This shows that they do not know how money came to be used and what it really is.

In one of the best letters, considering the question of what civilization is, Nehru pulls into question the power dynamics of our culture and the flawed baseline assumptions underlying them:

How can we find out if a person or a society is barbarous or civilized? Many people in Europe think that they are very civilized and the people of Asia are quite barbarous. Is this because the people of Europe put on more clothes than the peoples of Asia and Africa? But clothes depend on the climate. In a cold climate men put on more clothes than in a hot climate. Or is it because a man with a gun is stronger than the man without a weapon and is therefore more civilized than him? Whether he is more civilized or not, the man who is weak dare not tell him that he is not or else he might get shot!

Writing shortly after WWI, Nehru relates this issue of civilization vs. barbarism to the concept of war, posing a rhetorical question that rings equally, if not even more, true today:

Do you think it was a very civilized or sensible thing for people to kill each other like this? If two men fight in the streets the policeman separates them and everybody thinks how silly they are. But how much sillier and more foolish it is for great countries to fight each other and kill thousands and millions. It is just like two savages fighting in the jungles. And if the savages are called barbarous, how much more barbarous are the countries that behave in that way?

Ultimately, he tells his daughter that civilization is not a matter of external material evidence but of internal spiritual disposition:

Fine buildings, fine pictures and books and everything that is beautiful are certainly signs of civilization. But an even better sign is a fine man who is unselfish and works with others for the good of all. To work together is better than to work singly, and to work together for the common good is best of all.

Letters from a Father to His Daughter is at once enormously heartening and a vital reminder for readers of all ages and eras about how we shape the world we live in through our understanding of it and the choices we make in it.

Thanks, Saneel

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