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.