Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Very Illiberal Phenomenon Amongst European Liberals

This post is an attempt to articulate - instead of fulminate on twitter - a strange phenomenon that I have long observed, often been annoyed by, but never tried to describe: in the past decade of living in Europe, I have found that self-professed 'liberals' - who are actually not liberals but merely left-of-centre ideologues - of this continent have a short-hand for dismissing political, economic, historical and/or cultural views that they cannot refute: simply accuse the person of being 'posh.'

Let me explain what I mean by just one example: a few weeks ago, I was at dinner with friends and was seated next to a Scandinavian journalist, with usual impeccable leftist credentials. We discussed events in the Middle East and North Africa, economic development in BRIC nations, Indian foreign policy and of course, European politics.  I disagreed with much of what he said and was clear in my disagreement, backing each point with relevant information and reasoning. As the dessert course came around, this journalist had run out of convincing arguments for his stance.  So he chose to pull out the final WMD: he pointed out that my views were obviously wrong because I was part of India's elite!  Then, with classic European panache, he backed this statement by asking me my caste.

Fortunately, by this moment, the dinner had come to an end and I left; sadly without tipping the coffee pot over his head. 

Now this was not a particularly isolated event. This sort of conversation happens every few weeks, in various countries, with people of varying European nationalities. In fact, I got into a very similar conversation yesterday which led to a furious rant on twitter (scroll down my TL, if you really must). In fact some gems from yesterday included: a reminder that as Hindu I obviously didn't quite understand the purpose of reincarnation the way a Buddhist would (yes I know!); that I should learn from some well recognised Indian authors (ironically all from extremely privileged backgrounds that I could never even dream of equalling) about the reality of Indian poverty; and finally, my 'elite' situation in India prevents me from understanding the true horror of gender inequality faced by Indian women. Never mind that all these gems originated from members of London's white, economically comfortable, politically powerful, cultural establishment! 

I got to thinking back on the number of times views that discomfit, challenge or refute dominant 'western' (read European/American) public narratives are either excluded from debate or merely dismissed by similar accusations of elitism.  I remembered when listeners of a Barcelona radio programme emailed the host to point out that as I spoke Spanish I was therefore was too elite to understand the "real poverty" in India (never mind, that none of these children of welfare state had ever even been to India!). I remembered the anti-racism activist who breezily commended me on "integrating well" into Europe simply because I wore western clothes and went on beach holidays.  I was reminded of the journalist who patronisingly asked me about India and its obviously brutal desire to build dams that flooded villages and, worse still, precious archaeology sites, simply to fuel economic development. Unfortunately, the frequency and ubiquity of these incidents is such we could be here for an extremely long time.

Yet in these strange interactions, there is a pattern to be found. Very few of the above are right-of-centre. In meetings with journalists from conservative media outlets, I may be challenged to defend a viewpoint, but I have never yet been patronised. In meetings with conservative politicians, thinkers, and academics across the European continent, I have been disagreed with, but rarely have I been dismissed as 'elitist' or 'posh' or even most rudely, 'an upper caste.'  In fact, I begin to think this is a particularly illiberal aspect of Europe's self-professed liberals! 

Of course, the accusations of elitism are absurd when levelled by a historically privileged, white, middle-class man even in the simplest of equations. However, they take on a particularly ridiculous aspect when levelled at someone - like me - who has spent most of her life fighting for the very privileges my accusers take for granted: right to live where and how I want; ability to work at a job that I love; right to be friends and socialise with people without cultural constraints; the opportunity to read and learn and speak my mind.  And yes, even these are privileges that I have fought all my life for: a university education that was made possible only through merit-based scholarships and minimum wage jobs; the opportunity to write - and yes, that too is privilege as I neither have the familial riches nor the welfare state to pay my bills while I pursue my 'creative' ambitions; the very small liberty to pick my own partner or indeed choose not to marry at all.  

Strangely enough, if I were from a truly elite background, born to rich and powerful parents, married to other rich and powerful people, but could spout leftist incoherence about India and the world, and never once challenged the dominant paradigms of the hegemonic narratives, I would be welcomed as a darling of this very European 'liberal' circle. 

You see, my crime - at least in the eyes of western 'liberals' - is the same as that of many millions of Indians (and indeed others of the developing world) who are increasingly climbing past the historical economic and political barriers to claim an equal spot at the table: we are the wrong kind of 'elite.'  Self-made, self-taught, fighters to the core, I and many more like me are elite because we have made our way from scratch. And because we are self-made, we are unfettered by the Fanonian psychological baggage that plagues the old established elites from the former colonies. Because we are self-made, we are not beholden to anyone else for our intellectual, economic or political successes. And we are frightening because we cannot be controlled or indeed patronised. 

In fact, the only way the western illiberal liberal has to deal with this upcoming 'elite' from developing countries is by dismissing us as 'posh' (complete with its not so subtle corollary of de-racination). Ironically enough, as the world changes (and faster every day), even that won't keep us out of the gates and silent for long. 


  1. Congrats Sunny, you've reached the heart of rationality, that exceedingly rare position of seeing all the biased wackjob hypocrites all around because no matter which way you lean you will inevitably run into one. They create the twisted rules, artificial parameters, frame the historical context 'just so' when it suits their ossified biases...

    These wonderfully educated (read:stuffy ideologues of a new variety), culturally savvy (read: second hand experts how it all really is in those sad 3rd world countries striving to be like "us"), when really pushed outside their cozy comfort zone react with effortless hostility while simultaneously pigeonholing you for standing your ground, and making valid points. You know you've hit the nerve of truth when dialogue becomes diatribe. As you said f*ck them! Time to find new dinner mates to dine with with a wider scope of friends... say, more music/art/ working class roots and less academia. Though my own bias is showing now, haha.

    And though it's impossible to manage if passionate to the point of blood boiling, i've found humorous replies to undercut such grating arrogance works brilliantly. Some just have it built into their personality. A priceless talent.

  2. Thanks. But then perhaps thats why I find so many of my friends are Tories ;-P

    Seriously though much appreciated.

  3. Some years ago I ran an outreach program at an Indian cultural centre in Brent. When we found it difficult to attract enough people of the type prescribed by our sponsors, this was immediately - and lazily - blamed on the Indian caste system. Your piece rings true...

  4. Go Sunny! Well articulated as always! It IS annoying - to be constantly pigeonholed into something one is not because it is the easy way out for those who would sit on a self-made pedestal and preach what they themselves do not follow. To be told condescendingly to 'move away from caste' but to be constantly asked what your caste is and to be slotted in because it somehow means you need to 'be' a certain way and evidently have access to certain priviledges...ARGH! I could go on - but luckily don't have to because you've said it all and with much more eloquence than I can manage!

  5. Thanks. If you saw my twitter rant, you would perhaps reconsider the term eloquence. :-)

  6. Sorry blogspot doing odd things to comments.

    Re Brent programme, yes, that sounds quite familiar. And thanks.

  7. Somehow this comment was published then gobbled up. Cutting and pasting it again.

    mylifemyviews ( has left a new comment on your post "A Very Illiberal Phenomenon Amongst European Liber...":

    Well articulated peace. You could find the similar situation even in India. So called ' Intellectual circle' in India is almost leftist(fake) and being a 'Right or Center of Right' is considered a crime. Rights are considered untouchable in Indian intellectual circle.

    Hopefully India will soon be able to get out of western intellectual hegemony due to increasing number of "self made elites" by their sheer sheer hard work and dedication.

  8. This is brilliant.
    Only thing I would like to add is that - aren't lefties everywhere the same ? Take our own country - Arundhati Roy is a prime time example. Others probably include JNU jholawalas. Is it a leftist problem in general, or just a, err, firangi problem ?

  9. I find some resonance with white foreigners blaming everything on caste system. Once I got into a discussion with a guy about the vegetarianism in India. I was trying to explain about sanctity of life in Indian scriptures etc (of whatever little I knew - just a general talk), and the first comment is that - what is the point of you people being vegetarian when you practice caste system ?! I am like - whaaa ... !! How do they link at all ?!

  10. Back in 1959, Allen Drury published a novel "Advise and Consent", which apparently was quite a hit in America. Some critics have called him "Allen Dreary". You can find out more about the book on Wikipedia. Here, I just want to reproduce a passage; I assume it represents some attitudes from that era, that may continue to this day.

    Krishna Khaleel or K.K., is the Indian Ambassador and Lord Claude Maudulayne is the British Ambassador; and they are conversing at a party in Washington, D.C.

    "Ah," Krishna Khaleel said knowingly, "I might have guessed. Our dear old Bob never rests. He has a job to do, to get this man confirmed, and he will not rest until it is accomplished. Admirable, is it not, Mr. Ambassador?"

    This form of address, which always surprised Claude Maudulayne a little considering the number of times he and his Commonwealth colleague had conferred on matters of mutual interest, almost provoked him to say something which he knew would be a very serious mistake.

    He almost suggested that K.K. relax; but he knew with a calm certainty that in his presence K.K. would never relax, that in the presence of the British, it would be generations before any educated Indian could really relax, that there would always be this self-conscious, faintly hostile, faintly cringing relationship, and in spite of himself he felt a mild but satisfied contempt. Yes, he thought, you're top dogs now, aren't you, but there's one thing you'll never really have no matter how desperately you want it, and you know it, and that's our respect. And because he knew that K.K. knew pretty much what he was thkining he threw his arm around the Indian Ambassador's bony shoulders with an extra cordiality and informed him jovially, "Actually, we've been settling the problems of the world, K.K., and we need your help......"

  11. Perhaps this speaks more about your own perception of / prejudices against "right of center" people or ideology, perceptions that may have been formed without first-hand experience. Anyway, left ideology is a form of mental illness - pretending to be sanctimonious/holier-than-thou, while being blind to data points and its own prejudice - and it's heartening that your lifetime experiences are proving the same. I've found that people who claim to be left-liberal are also some of the most intolerant people, when it comes to views they don't agree with.

  12. There are many issues that need to be taken seriously.

    1. The westen cultural experience of India, which is product of travellors, missionaries, colonial administrators from 16th century onwards.

    2. If you encounter an alien culture, you try to understand that culture with the the ways you have tried to understand your own culture. In other words, the description of western cultural experience of India tells more about the West than about the India.

    3. In trying to understand Indian culture, the west has constructed experiential entities like "caste system", "Hinduism". They also the immorality of Indians. Today, no western libera make the claim that Indians are immoral--however, they say it in different contexts: India is the most corrupt country; Indians are corrupt.

    4. When you countered that Scandinevian, you are kinda destroying the structure that holds his experience of India. Think of that structure as lens: what happens, if you destroy it? Either he becomes blind or he need a new lens. In this case, he doesn't want to destroy that lens.

    5. The same set of lens have been used by Indians, whenever they talk about Hinduism, immorality, caste system. SN Balagangadhara calls it "colonial consciousness". Even the so-called postcolonial scholars use the same lens.

    6. Whenever one says that caste system does not exist, they show instances of many social ills. Of course, no one has denied social ills; however, to go from social ills to the existence of caste system requires many theoretical steps: one such step is "normative ethics", which is a product of Protestant Reformation in the West. In other words, normative ethics is a secularized Christian ethics. All these liberals, who claim to be atheists, subscribe to this secularized Christian ethics.

    For more, on caste discrimination, check these posts:
    1. Normative assumptions, discriminatiosn, caste discriminations
    2. Vivekananda and caste-discrimination: theory-ladenness
    3. More on colonial consciousness:
    On colonial experience and Indian renaissance
    4. On the logic of "India is corrupt"

    These are all writings of Balagangadhara. You can get more insight about these westerners if you study B's writings.

    1. Thank you for your comment. In many places I agree with you. I write about postcoloniality both in academic and popular terms and you may wish to read some more of my work.
      Best wishes