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By Inderjit Badhwar

Perhaps one of the most disturbing essays I have read in recent months is Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s “Big Brother Is Winning”. Mehta, whom I often find abstruse and prolix, argues this time with verisimilitude and lucidity that there is reason to fear that human liberty, the foundation stone of the Republic bequeathed to us by our founding fathers, has been steadily eroded in India and there is no real institutional challenge to this descent into illiberalism.

His is not a partisan argument against any particular party or government but to our blindness as a people to a steadily escalating wearing down of our rights. One example he cites is the Finance Bill’s amendment of Section 132 of the Income Tax Act giving untrammelled search-and-seizure (read midnight knock) powers to taxmen answerable to no higher authority except their own “reason to believe”.

The official reassurance—“the innocent have nothing to fear”—he argues, is the patronising ruse of authoritarianism, an excuse for exempting state action from scrutiny. Citizen abdication to the state’s arbitrariness, he reminds us, is what Orwell called “an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise”.

True globalisation, it appears to me now, is the creeping acceptance of authoritarianism—Russia, Turkey, Syria, France, Brexiters, the Netherlands, Trump’s America. Its most rabid manifestations are alt-truth, fake news, assaults on press freedom, the use of the state apparatus to intimidate political opponents and religious persecution.

Is the world plunging into medieval, pre-Enlightenment shadows? As Orwell raged endlessly against the dying of the light of liberalism, so too did men and women of wisdom and compassion such as the 26th American President Teddy Roosevelt, whose words are as relevant today to Trump as they are to any Indian prime minister.

Listen to him:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right.

The most rabid manifestations of globalisation are alt-truth, fake news, assaults on press freedom, the use of the state apparatus to intimidate political opponents and religious persecution

“Any other attitude in a citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

In other words, you have the constitutional duty of holding your maximum leader’s feet to the fire. As Washington-based Jim Thomas, a retired federal official of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and civil service leader put it:

“I understand that reporters are reluctant to seriously challenge Trump in interviews for fear that a negative reaction could freeze them out of access. But can these folks set aside some of that fear and launch a challenging follow-up. Statements that people are saying or numerous reports have stated should generate a follow-up demanding the source of the information.  I am sure Trump can find folks who claim that the moon is made out of cheese, but it is ridiculous that he continues the same crap he used during the Birther movement for five years and no one is demanding the source of the information.  This is not so much to embarrass the President but to force him into a mode where he begins to accept that the President of the United States should not be promoting unfounded rumours as a basis for policy decisions.”

And I love these latest lines from Adam Gonik, one of my favourite New Yorker writers, in an essay entitled: “Trump’s Radical Anti-Americanism: As the President rejects our foundational principles, all we can turn to is our instinct for shared defiance.”

He elaborates:

“Yet what perhaps no one could have entirely predicted was the special cocktail of oafish incompetence and radical anti-Americanism that President Trump’s Administration has brought. This combination has produced a new note in our public life: chaotic cruelty. The immigration crisis may abate, but it has already shown the power of government to act arbitrarily overnight—sundering families, upending long-set expectations, until all those born as outsiders must imagine themselves here only on sufferance of a senior White House counselor.”

And…

“American collective protests against Trump are called, a little too romantically, ‘resistance,’ but there is no need, yet, for so militant a term. Resistance rises from the street, but also from within the system, as it should, with judicial stays and State Department dissenters. Opposing bad governments with loud speech, unashamed argument, and public demonstration is not the part that’s off the normal grid: it’s the pro-American part, exactly what the Constitution foresees and protects. Dissent is not courageous or exceptional. It is normal—it’s Madisonian, it’s Hamiltonian. It’s what we’re supposed to do.

“Democratic civilization has turned out to be even more fragile than we imagined; the resources of civil society have turned out to be even deeper than we knew. The battle between these two shaping forces—between the axman assaulting the old growth and the still firm soil and deep roots that support the tree of liberty—will now shape the future of us all.”

The thoughts of one of 20th Century’s greatest Jewish-American political thinkers, the late Hannah Arendt, who analysed the “banality of evil”, echo today with as equal intensity as they did when she first wrote them down. She told an interviewer that when she first wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, “one of my main intentions was to destroy the legend of the greatness of evil, of the demonic force, to take away from people the admiration they have for the great evildoers like Richard III.”

She drew inspiration from Brecht whom she has often quoted while referring to the rise of Nazism. This is one of them: “If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history. That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook and that what he does has great consequences does not add to his stature…One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.”

—Inderjit Badhwar is Editor-in-Chief, India Legal. He
can be reached at
editor@indialegalonline.com

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