NSA surveillance is the least shocking among recent subversions of democracy

f13-iconIn a conversation with Kamila Shamsie, Pankaj Mishra says: [A] part of me doesn’t understand why we are so shocked and appalled by the excesses of the NSA. Have we forgotten about the Cold War and the innumerable hot wars, not to mention the numerous assaults on ordinary moral sense by the “free world”?

Our tolerance of the intolerable found a low threshold as early as the late 1950s with the grotesque excesses of McCarthyism, which destroyed so many honest lives, and then with the insane nuclear arms race and confrontations. That’s when the Dr. Strangeloves first emerged, and the shape of the sinisterly invasive and the ferociously armed national security states people in the West live under today was fixed. No wonder that Václav Havel wrote, remarkably, while living under a repressive communist regime that Western Cold Warriors wishing to get rid of the political system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel said, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.” And that the West would eventually construct its own Gulag “in the name of country, democracy, progress, and war discipline.”

Alas, Havel’s prophecy seems too close to the actuality of the free world today — Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, extrajudicial killings by drones. All this going on while the plutocrats at home grab a few more yachts and mansions. And the NSA actually is the least shocking among the many recent flagrant subversions of democratic values.

We’ve seen an institutionalized conservatism in most mainstream periodicals, if not small magazines, since the 1980s, and a general depoliticization everywhere disguised by the strident partisanship of politicians and lobbyists. It’s only in recent years with younger writers and magazines like n+1, The New Inquiry, The Baffler, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and others that some of those older traditions of American dissent have been revitalized. Otherwise, an ironic but superior knowingness was the hegemonic intellectual and literary mode for a long time.

Not surprisingly, despite all the immense cultural power accumulated in New York and London, which keeps so many of us fixated with Anglo-American writing, the writers who have radically expanded our ideas of literature and of the individual self and the world at large in the post-WWII era have mostly come from the “suburbs” or the “periphery” — Borges, Paz, Camus, Neruda, Miłosz, Szymborska, García Márquez, Lessing, Naipaul, Gordimer, Achebe, Atwood, to take some very different examples, and the evidence becomes even more formidable if you include Irish writers.

Today, practically every country outside the West is undergoing an intellectual, political, and cultural churning, from China to Bolivia, Egypt to Indonesia, but we haven’t really had, after the 1960s, a major oppositional culture in Western Europe and America. The Occupy movement was so startling and welcome partly because it was the first such eruption of mass protests in decades. That’s one of the many reasons why we, especially those of us in depoliticized and pacified societies, need to cast a colder eye at our self-perceptions, now and in the past, as sentinels and embodiments of Enlightenment virtues of reason, dissent, and skepticism. And it is this capacity for relentless self-criticism that should be — everywhere — the true measure of intellectual freedom and cosmopolitanism, not the entrenched cultural power and self-congratulatory moral rhetoric of some people in countries long accustomed to telling other societies what to do and how to behave.

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