An Intellectual History of Global Inequality is a terrific project based at Aarhus University in Denmark. Earlier this summer I was interviewed by them about my work as a novelist and a critic as it pertains to global inequality. I think because of my recent fiction and scholarship on caste and postcolonialism, and because of my work-in-progress, a critical study of representations of the poor in Africa, India and the US. I was in conversation with them about presenting material from that work-in-progress at Aarhus this summer before COVID-19 put an end to all such blissful nonsense. So, I am grateful to them for the opportunity to think through some key questions about global inequality in interview format. What they are doing, how they are trying to impact our understanding of inequality, is tremendous–you should check them out! And if you want to read the interview which covers a variety of topics pertaining to current ways of thinking about inequality and poverty, follow the link below.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” –Martin Luther King
In a speech at Riverside Church in April 1967, Martin Luther King warned us about thing-oriented thinking. King was concerned about things being exalted over people and, reciprocally, people being converted into things. Not only can thing-oriented thinking not solve the problems of racism, extreme materialism and militarism, in King’s opinion, it in fact contributes to them, makes them flourish. It is worth thinking today, as simultaneously a pandemic and an uprising for racial justice rage, about higher education in the light of King’s words.
Over the last century and across the globe, the thinking King warned us about has given us such “things” as the atomic bomb, emerging markets, and forced sterilizations. Thing-oriented thinking flattens the myriad challenges and mysteries of human life, indeed of all life on earth. It replaces the fluid dynamism of life with the passive inertia of things. Why? Because passive and inert things can be more easily manipulated. They can be ordered, reordered (forcibly sterilized bodies), moved, put in boxes, measured and counted (consumers in emerging markets), made into targets (residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), sliced to manageable size. Things don’t have to be listened to.
Thing-oriented thinking fosters the reductive notion that the world is a collection of problems meant to be confronted by technical and technological solutions. (Frankenstein anybody?) It is the naïve and dangerous notion that the world is an ever proliferating collection of wildly diverse nails for which we need to invent ever more ingenious hammers.
One might think higher education would be the very antithesis of thing-oriented thinking. If only. Thing-oriented thinking, alas, is alive and well within the university in the form of technocratic education or education of, for, and by technocrats. The transformation of higher education into technocratic education, into thing-oriented education, into a machine for the invention of hammers has been well underway for quite a while. Its signs are well known: the exaltation in prestige as well as resources of STEM over other disciplines, of “policy” over “pure” knowledge fields, of externally funded research for the market and the military over the instruction of students and citizens, of problems and solutions over context and complexity.
Thing-oriented education grows ever more dominant within the university. So much so that it has now turned the university itself into a thing, into a nail that needs to be hammered into place. To order and reorder the university, to hammer it into shape, thing-oriented thinking has exalted the administrative class within the university over the faculty and students. A bloated administrative class—far removed from core instructional and research functions and impatient with the “messiness” of faculty and student governance—has become the hammer that purports to solve the problem of a university not sufficiently bent to the will of, in King’s words, “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights.”
I offer my home institution as an example. Thing-oriented education is as alive and well at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa (UHM) as anywhere else. The spirit of thing-oriented education is clear in the additional title given to the President of the university: CEO of UHM, the flagship campus. CEO is a corporate-world title, a title drawn from the world of profit motives and property rights. The use of the title has been growing within public higher education. What does it signal with regard to the shift in culture within the not-for-profit enterprise of public higher education? A question worth asking.
At UHM as elsewhere, an ever growing administrative class engages in the doctrinaire pursuit of a narrow technocratic idea of education. For years now, a variety of reorganization efforts have helped to consolidate power in the central administration. Simultaneously, faculty and student governance has been eroded. Recently the faculty senate resoundingly rejected a plan for merging three (largely arts and humanities) colleges, because this merger failed to grant the newly created college the resources and governance structures necessary for its success. Despite overwhelming and sustained opposition from faculty during a multi-year “consultation” process, the administration went ahead with the merger anyway. The technocrats, you see, always know best.
What is going on at UHM has been repeated elsewhere. The story is well known and has been told many times in different ways. For a recent cogent (and comic) review see Hasan Minhaj’s brilliant episode of Patriot Act.
The shift to thing-oriented education has been underway for a long while, but the COVID-19 epidemic promises to intensify the process. Who can argue that a pandemic is not a problem in need of a solution? It is more challenging now than ever to draw a sharp distinction between thing-oriented and person-oriented education. And, yet, draw that distinction we must.
COVID-19 will give administrators—yes, there are brave and inspiring exceptions to such administrators—cover to accelerate the turn to technocratic thing-oriented education. The dangers of such an acceleration are real and should not be underestimated. If the pandemic is one current crisis, the other is police brutality and racial injustice. The lessons of the pandemic should be balanced against those of the racial justice uprisings, which are quite simply acts of resistance to the conversion of people into things to be ordered, reordered, disciplined, kept in place, even expunged via chokeholds. We should fear, as King did in the midst of another era of uprisings, sliding headlong into a thing-oriented society. Against such a society a person-oriented education is the first and last bulwark.
A person-oriented education is one that recognizes the intrinsic value of persons over things. Such an education should, for a start, acknowledge seriously the worth of the humanities and the arts—for a start, because it is not as if these disciplines are immune to thing-oriented thinking. Investing in these disciplines will surely not be enough to counter the thinking King feared. But it should be clear by now that not investing in them is guaranteed to speed us into a generalized condition of thing-ness. These are the disciplines in which person-oriented thinking has the greatest potential to thrive. To put the matter concisely: these disciplines may not be sufficient for the creation of a person-oriented society but they are necessary.
Which, come to think of it, may be why university administrations are busy gutting them to please their thing-oriented masters.
Nothing says law-and-order like thug. Once again, the word is being bandied about in all the media. The thugs are out looting and rioting in the inner cities of America, we are told. Every time protests against police brutality ignite across the United States out comes the word from some all-too-convenient grab box of insults. Opinion pieces are full of it, and so are the mouths of politicians.
Certainly, there has been violence and destruction of businesses amidst the largely peaceful protests following the horrific murder of George Floyd. We can all agree the wanton destruction of shops owned by innocent community members, often black or brown themselves, is simply wrong. There can be no defense of such actions. But does it help to call the people involved thugs? Is the word at all illuminating in thinking about the events of the last few days? Or does it rather—by design—obscure more than it reveals?
Thug is by now a fully American word, but it wasn’t always. As the screenshot below suggests, thug, facilitated by British colonialism, entered the English language in early 19th century India, probably from Hindi or Hindustani.
Screenshot of an online dictionary no doubt—but the “historical” definition offered above is surely wrong. I have written before in this blog (and more fully in the critical essay “Thugs and Bandits”) about why. And others have too, in postcolonial scholarship that is by now at least forty years old. Today, scholarly consensus holds that the word thug is profoundly shaped by (willful) British colonialist misconceptions of India.
A religious organization? Devotees of Kali? Ritually prescribed strangulation? All of this is likely pure fabrication. Were there robbers who waylaid and murdered travelers in the midst of the social chaos of early 19th century India? Surely. But the British loudly and ceaselessly claimed more, much more—that thugs were nothing less than fiendish members of a vast and ancient demonic cult called thuggee. Why?
In the early 19th century, British colonialism was rapidly advancing across India. It needed a reason to extend its rule into new territories. Enter thuggee. The wild and diabolical stories of thuggee invented by the British provided justification for them to displace native Indian rulers, seen as either unable to control thuggee or else going further to abet and give it protection. In place of native rulers, the British established their own rule.
The British discourse around thuggee in the 19th century aimed to convert a complex, social story of human beings struggling with social chaos and economic dislocation into a narrative justification for iron-fisted rule. It did so in two parts. First, it converted specific human beings, all robbers no doubt and many murderers, into demonic thugs, that is, targets for the most extreme disciplinary action. Then, it made thugs representative of Indians in general and thus made India as such a target for disciplinary action. It was a discourse masterfully designed to create a maximally repressive, law-and-order colonial state.
Fast forward to the US today. Does the word thug not do similar work now? Does it not parallel British colonial discourse in 19th century India in flattening out complex histories of racism, discrimination against black people and relentless police brutality against black men into a law-and-order problem? Does it not prevent us from engaging fully the real origins of the profound rage being expressed by black and other communities?
As an English word, thug originates in a law-and-order mentality and it continues to express such a mentality today. Rather than fostering understanding and engagement, it propagates the iron fist of draconian rule. Like British discourse on thuggee in the 19th century, the use of the American incarnation of the word today justifies the reduction of a social crisis to a law-and-order problem—a problem to be met by the force of the carceral state about which, alas, black communities know only too much.
India is over. And Kashmir is just the latest sign of it.
Call me a late born child of 1947, of India’s independence from the British.
When I was a teenager in the 70s in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), I came dangerously face to face with ethnic intolerance. I am a Tamil from the southern part of India, and Bombay in the west was then gripped by hatred aimed at people like me because of an influx of Tamil migrant labor (sound familiar?).
I remember one day when the commuter train I was traveling on was convulsed by dire whispers that young men were on board, questioning passengers on whether they were Tamil. They would ask you to speak in Marathi, the whispers said, and if you couldn’t they would throw you off the running train. Having come to Bombay only recently, I couldn’t speak Marathi, so I hurried off the train at the next station and waited for a succeeding one.
A few years later I was going to college in Tamil-majority Madras (as Chennai was then known) when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh and the country, especially the north, plunged into an anti-Sikh maelstrom of killing. Even Chennai, relatively calm, had its transportation disrupted by roving mobs. It took me half a day of walking and hitching rides to get home from my college—the journey should have taken no more than an hour.
Surely, I am not the only Indian of my age (or any age for that matter) with memories like these.
Add the Emergency, the Bombay riots, the Gujarat killings, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the lynching of Christian missionaries, the targeting of “Chinese-looking” students and workers from the northeastern states in “cosmopolitan” Bengaluru, innumerable caste killings.
Conclusion? India has always—yes, always—been a country prone to violence.
Why, then, do I still feel immense loss because of the news coming out of India these days?
Here’s another story, a well-known one.
The Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was no friend of Indian nationalism, rightly viewing the elite leadership of the nationalist movement as for the most part disinterested in the liberation of (“low-caste”) Dalits. Yet, today he is described as the Father of the Indian Constitution for the role he played in drafting a legal document that many have described as one of the most enlightened in the world (it bears saying that what is happening in Kashmir is in the opinion of most legal observers unconstitutional—and, yes, I am aware that Ambedkar’s views on Kashmir, Pakistan and Islam are not straightforward).
Critical as he was of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar made a judicious decision to participate in laying the foundations of the post-Independence nation. For him, “India” could still be the name of a possibility. It could be the banner under which to experiment with anti-caste and generally democratic policies.
Can India still be the experiment it once was? The slow erasure of India, not as it was, but as a promise of what it could be under the momentum of anti-colonial resistance and its aftermath—isn’t that what I mourn when I read the newspaper headlines today?
For all its violence, growing up in India I could still find in the idea of it something to claim. It could still be the name of a challenge, a vigorous call to experiment in the creation of a transformative and tolerant society.
India was never perfect, far from it. It was not created by a blemishless nationalist movement, despite all the myths about Gandhi. Like all nation-states, it deserved to eventually become obsolete (read your Marx, please). Still, because of the unpredictability and popular scale of the anti-colonial resistance launched under its name, “India” could be claimed for decades after Independence for a multitude of experiments in humanistic liberation, including Gandhian ones that tried to transcend the flaws of the man. A powerful idea, “India” could be hijacked for progressive ends as Ambedkar did.
Narendra Modi and the BJP are making sure of that with their brutal actions in Kashmir and elsewhere—though, frankly, in the long view blame can certainly be shared by all too many political parties, including the Indian National Congress.
Things feel unprecedented now. It feels as if India stands on a final threshold of forced forgetting, of the death of post-independence optimism.
Can India survive what’s going on?
Is India over?
Dear President Lassner:
I write to protest both the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea and the recent letter from “UH Leadership.”
On the first issue of the construction of the TMT:
I am sure you have seen news regarding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ call to halt the construction. I consider myself a non-Hawaiian ally of those opposed to the construction. The desecration of a site of such great spiritual and cultural significance to Hawaiians seems to me an unacceptable price to pay for the pursuit of scientific knowledge of uncertain value. I am sure many will dispute that the value is uncertain and also claim that only scientists can make an estimation of scientific value. I differ. Science is nothing if not a social enterprise, judged by its effects on society in general.
Accordingly, for me, the question on the TMT remains: why this site? and why now? Would we allow the building of a telescope on Mt. Kailash (the alleged abode of Shiva)? How about digging under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the pursuit of scientific discoveries? If we would do neither, then why Mauna Kea? Here’s the simple truth: the callous disregard for widespread Hawaiian opinion on Mauna Kea has a basis not in science (no scientist would offer to blow up the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for scientific gains) but an arrogant and racist attitude that has already caused incalculable harm to the Hawaiian islands.
Just to be clear: I write as an atheist and as someone who has a profound respect for science done the right way. It is far past time for scientists to recalibrate their goals away from resource gobbling billion dollar projects aimed at finding answers that will make little difference to the everyday lives of people, and more particularly in this case Hawaiians. In most cases such projects are covert subsidies to the construction lobby and to “big science.” How refreshing it would be if UH chose to be an example in this regard rather than revealing itself to be a neoliberal colonial institution!
On the second issue regarding a letter signed by “UH Leadership”:
I can only hope that you were ill-advised in this regard. “UH Leadership” is not an entity I am able to find in any of the organizational charts for the university. Does “UH Leadership” mean just you? Or does it include the Board of Regents? How about officers in the upper administration? Which officers?
A letter to the UH community, especially one calling for aloha and respectful engagement, should clearly identify authorship. With a letter such as this, one would wish for the kind of transparency that goes with the aloha and respect the letter itself urges. A letter does not inspire confidence when signed in such a vague manner. This is especially so given the draconian administrative rules targeting the Mauna Kea protectors “UH leadership” has put in place. If the intention of the letter is to suggest that the “UH leadership” is above the fray, I must respectfully submit that that is not the case. By its actions, the “UH leadership”—whatever that might be—is clearly in the process of enabling the side—the corporate interests?—that wants to see the TMT built.
I suppose—one can only hope—it is still not too late to remedy matters. You have often professed a respect for Hawaiian values. This is the time to make that respect clearly manifest. I urge you to stop the construction of the TMT. No doubt, there are multiple players involved, inside and outside the university, but you have a unique position as the President of the university to make things happen. I urge you to take steps.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to hearing from you.
I write this in my hometown Chennai, India, the day after a report in the newspapers declaring the city to be the most water vulnerable in the whole world. I’ve been here in my mother’s house for three weeks, in the midst of a near-unprecedented heat wave and a delay in the onset of relief-bringing monsoons, but have experienced little water scarcity. The water scarcity is real, though. My differing experience is, no doubt, both a matter of luck (there is enough groundwater below my mother’s house for us to access through a bore well) and class privilege.
K—, the maid who works in my mother’s house, does not have any privilege. Her family of four, who live in a one-room not far from my mother’s house, get metro water provided by the city once in two days for about an hour. They must store this water, which serves for everything from drinking to bathing, in buckets for use over the following two days until metro water briefly comes gurgling through their pipes again. If they run out in the meantime, they might be able to get more from a water truck that the city administration sends to their street now and then. That however would require someone to stand in line hot and dusty, possibly for an hour or more. Failing the truck, the next option is to buy water. K—has never bought water because it is an expensive proposition, not something she can afford.
In my mother’s home, we too have not yet had to buy water because of our good fortune, but I know people similar to us around the city who do so routinely. Currently, it costs anywhere from 4000 to 6000 rupees for a tanker of water, a princely sum for someone like K—, and not inconsiderable for my mother, though she can certainly afford it. For me, since I live in the United States, that would be $57 to $87 at today’s rates—a pittance for water that would last for days, probably more than a week depending on usage. Certainly an amount I would spend without a second thought for the comfort of having water flow through a faucet when I need it.
Nevertheless, something in me has made me change my water practices even in the few days I have been here. I have taken to flushing the toilet every three or four times when it is yellow as opposed to brown (“If it’s yellow, let it mellow…”). I have replaced showers with old-school bucket-and-mug bathing, something familiar to me from my Indian childhood. When I cook, I try to prepare dishes that don’t require quite as much as water. I watch how many dishes I make for washing, and how much I launder.
Small changes, amounting to a nominal kind of frugality, for a temporary period of time. Still, it’s enough to make you think more consciously about the meaning of frugality and its politics. When I curtail my use of water, quite possibly I am being frugal. But is K-, who in her home uses water way less than I do? I have a choice, she has none in the amount of water she uses. Is it possible still to call her frugal? Or does frugality necessarily entail choice, a conscious choosing to make do with what is enough rather than what one is able to afford?
Frugality is regularly recommended by those conscious of saving the planet amidst global warming (“switch off the light when you leave the room”); but my experience in Chennai suggests it is also meaningful in addressing global poverty. In this age of not only environmental crisis but widespread poverty on a global scale, to consume or not to consume is a political act. If I in Chennai am frugal in my consumption of water, perhaps K— who consumes so much less than I do without being frugal might actually be able to increase her consumption without worsening the environmental catastrophe besetting Chennai.
Is it necessary to draw the lesson out for this one lonely planet on which we all—in Los Angeles and Honolulu and Tokyo and Baghdad and Cape Town and Chennai—live?
A politics of frugality recognizes that the poor cannot be frugal; they don’t have enough to be. The poor are indigent, and because of their indigence they can and should consume more—their physical health and spiritual well-being depends on increased consumption. Telling them to be frugal is surely obscene. It is we the privileged who need to be frugal. Frugality might very well be the most radical of political acts in this age of the Anthropocene and global poverty.
I stand with Mauna Kea.
Which is to say I stand against the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea for (allegedly) scientific research.
Mauna Kea is the mountain on the Big Island managed by the University of Hawai`i and sacred to Hawaiians. Controversy over the proposed telescope is now returning to a boil after the highest court in Hawai`i cleared the way, over the objections of broad sections of Hawaiians, for the resumption of halted construction.
I’m not Hawaiian, and nor am I an astronomer, but as a professor at the University of Hawai`i I too have a stake in this controversy, and as a student of the tenacious hold of colonialism with its associated mythology of a hierarchy of peoples I might even have a particular perspective to offer in debates within the university and outside.
- Mauna Kea and Anti-Colonialism
From an anti-colonial point of view the sacredness or otherwise of Mauna Kea, the scientific value or otherwise of the telescope, are beside the point. To be clear, I am not saying science and the sacred are irrelevant, only that it is possible to make an anti-colonial argument against the TMT without either an appeal to the sacred or a dismissal of science. (Of course, it is also possible to make the argument that there is plenty of serious knowledge about the natural world in indigenous epistemologies, whether you want to call it science or not.)
Colonialism hierarchizes groups of people, often by hierarchizing knowledge-systems: This knowledge-system (the notion that Mauna Kea is sacred) is superstitious and primitive compared to this other knowledge-system (the scientific assertion of the value of Mauna Kea as the site for an astronomical telescope). The arguments of the proponents of the TMT for the universal value of scientific knowledge—that the TMT will help uncover objective truths about the cosmos likely to benefit all human beings—cannot but be understood within the context of such a hierarchization.
Why? Because a little reflection suggests objective truths are not exempt from a moral and political calculus, that things that are objectively true can at the same time be at the heart of morally and politically reprehensible actions. Splitting atoms objectively releases great energy but it may be morally and politically reprehensible to pursue technologies based on it.
In contrast, anti-colonialism asks with regard to Mauna Kea: what is the moral and political calculus of a comparative assertion of science over native epistemologies? And, can whatever objective scientific value that emerges out of the TMT project outweigh the consequences of this moral and political calculus?
Consider: the scientific community would undoubtedly—if it came to it—exempt many religious sites around the world (the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the Kaaba in Mecca, the Shiva temple in Benares) from desecration in the name of science. Why does Mauna Kea not deserve such exemption? Could it have something to do with the colonialist hierarchization of peoples through the hierarchization of their knowledge systems?
- The Limits of Academic Liberalism
Since the University of Hawai`i is the custodian of the land on which the TMT is to be established, the university administration is at the heart of the controversy. Unfortunately, the administration seems to be blissfully untutored —irony for an institution dedicated to knowledge?—of the true complexities of the controversy. Consider the recent emails from the university president. The emails do not mention the TMT project or Mauna Kea but suggest an approach to controversy and issues like the TMT that, frankly, cannot stand up to scrutiny. Here’s an excerpt from one email, which begins with a quotation from an internal document:
“‘All human beings are entitled to the respect of their culture and who they are. We know absolutely that people of different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs can not only peacefully coexist but synergistically thrive together. As the UH motto tells us: Ma luna ae o na lahui a pau ke ola ke kanaka. Above all nations is humanity.’… We do not all need to agree on every issue before us. But we can and must live together peacefully and extend human dignity to all.”
I will leave it to scholars of Hawaiian to weigh in on whether respect for all cultures is a persuasive interpretation of “Above all nations is humanity;” but, surely, the gist of the email is, at best, liberalism at its most naïve? A German Nazi, a British imperialist, a South African ideologue of apartheid, an Indian proponent of Brahminical caste-ism—each claimed at one time (and in some cases does still) a cultural justification for their odious views. Surely, it cannot be the case that they all are entitled to the respect of their culture, then, now or ever?
Simply put, the liberal exhortation to respect all cultures has always been intellectually incoherent, and yet liberalism has routinely made this exhortation. The right question again is: why? And the answer can only be that liberalism does so usually in the interest of buttressing the de facto reality on the ground, that is, the status quo of power arrangements. For example, to liberally assert equal respect for all cultures in Jim Crow America is to leave the ground reality of Jim Crow in place. Such a liberalism cannot be a guide to difficult and thorny issues, including that of the TMT.
To assert equal respect for all cultures in the context of the TMT is to leave the de facto pro-TMT ground reality, and the colonial hierarchization of peoples and knowledges that accompanies it, in place. This is reason enough, from an anti-colonial point of view, to oppose the TMT regardless of arguments about science and the sacred.
It was such a blast– the full recording of the It’s Lit episode with PhDJ Anjoli Roy and Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng featuring readings from GHOST IN THE TAMARIND and NO END TO THE JOURNEY, terrific conversations about literature and writing, and music from MIA, A R Rahman, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Sudha Raghunathan, and more is now out.
Go here to live stream.
I was interviewed recently for the series #WritersTalkPolitics for the Indian cultural forum. Go here to view the interview.
I first read Naipaul in Malaysia as a teenager. I would check out his books from the library of the club to which my family belonged. I recognized the world that Naipaul described in early books like A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street, though I had never been to Trinidad, from where Naipaul hailed. I had grown up in Nigeria and India, before coming on a prolonged visit to Malaysia, where my family was then living. Naipaul’s fictional world was sort of Hindu, yes, but what made it recognizable was the perceptive treatment of ambition in the midst of postcolonial scarcity. This theme of desire confounded by material circumstances is universal and early in his career—very early in his career—Naipaul explored it with some insight.
Young as I was, I recognized the postcolonial aspects of Naipaul’s theme from having lived in so many places. Even then, though, something about his fiction was disquieting. I wrote my first (unpublished) short stories more on the model of Chinua Achebe, whom I had read in school in Nigeria, and R. K. Narayan, whom I had read in India. What I was drawn to in these other writers, I recognize now, was their more compassionate plumbing of that same theme of ambition amid constraint. I say this even though there is room for misunderstanding—after all, Achebe is nothing like Narayan and compassion is often regarded as being opposed to truth (it is not).
In comparison to Achebe and Narayan, Naipaul is routinely applauded by his admirers for being uncompromisingly honest about the varied “Third World” locations (Trinidad, Uganda, India, Iran) on which he poured scorn. This “honesty” is a tiresome defense of Naipaul’s reprehensible causticness, and since I have written about all three writers extensively in my criticism and literary journalism over the last twenty years I will forego saying more here. But here’s the truth I know: Naipaul was in his writing an Islamophobe, a racist, and a misogynist.
In his early writing, whether because Naipaul was dissimulating or because he was genuinely less doctrinaire, his prejudices were somewhat in abeyance. Later, he was feted by the literary establishment in Europe and the US because he did the ideological work of reinforcing the legacies of empire and European self-regard. I know it is common to call Naipaul a great writer with a mean streak, as if his greatness were somehow separate from his meanness and made his meanness bearable; but to my mind it was this very mean-ness, which showed dishonesty as well as a singular lack of imagination, that kept him from being a great writer.
In a way, Naipaul was a literary version of Trump. Like Trump, he hid behind the mask of a made-up truth to advance narrow ambitions (we should ask: what price an illustrious literary career if it leaves the world smaller, poorer?). All the beauty of his sentences—and there are genuinely beautiful sentences in some of his writing—cannot mask his failure of imagination. At most, with the exception of one or two early books, Naipaul was a talented and industrious writer of sentences rather than a great writer. Consider: Trump is a talented and industrious manipulator of the media but that doesn’t make him a statesman and a leader. What stops us from making a similar literary judgment with regard to Naipaul?
Kant does. Ever since Kant, our cultural gatekeepers have learned to separate ethics and politics from art. I don’t subscribe to this separation—which is why I can disagree with the many reviews that have greeted the passing of Naipaul by calling him great. Can a writer lacking moral imagination (otherwise known as compassion) ever deserve the mantle of greatness? I have to say no, even at the cost of being dismissed as naïve.