Sunday, August 30, 2015

Strange are the ways of the academics!

I was drawn to the headline of a news item in the paper that I grew up reading in the old country:
Modi visit: U.S. academics sound caution
The curious me continued reading the text that followed:
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Silicon Valley next month to woo its movers and shakers to provide heft to his Digitial India initiative, has met with its first roadblock with several leading academics in American universities advising IT firms to exercise caution when engaging with the Indian Government.
So, of course, I read the statement.  It begins with:
As faculty who engage South Asia in our research and teaching, we write  to express our concern s about the uncritical fanfare being generated over Prime  Minister  Narendra  Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley to promote “Digital  India” on September 27, 2015.
It never ever ceases to surprise me when I read about academics issuing calls and signing off on statements like this.  "Oh, listen to me because I am an academic" always amuses me.  When will academics ever figure out that issuing statements from the comforts of their chairs won't do a damn thing other than the awesome boosts that they feel to their already self-inflated egos!

I am no fan of Modi.  I routinely critique him, his past, his affiliations with the Hindu nationalist groups, his fascination for the Chinese economic model, his security alliance with Israel, ... the list is endless.  But, even if I were not at a podunk university but at one of the research universities where the signatories are from (we podunks don't matter to those folks,) I ain't signing no political petition that asserts that we have to be listened to because we faculty know it best.  Intellectual arrogance!  And, worse, these are faculty here in the United States--not even based in India--and I wonder how many of them are Indian citizens!

It is not that I don't sign petitions.  I do.  But those are petitions that are not merely from academics and are, instead, open to anybody from any walk of life.  It does not matter if I am an academic or a ditch-digger or a filthy rich capitalist; those petitions are from "we, the people."  I run far, far away from "we, the academics."  Remember this one, for instance?

It is not that I am an apolitical faculty either.  I will be the first to admit that I am highly subversive.  But, I am a subversive who uses his class and his professional responsibilities with care. I have blogged enough about that and shall spare you all those posts but will quote, once again, one of my favorites:
SOME ASSUME that the only way academics can engage the politics of the day is by coming out of their ivory tower and protesting in front of the White House. But in conveying knowledge, the academy has a far more important and subversive way of dealing with political issues. Knowledge provides us with a way to perceive the world. Imaginative knowledge provides us with a way to see ourselves in the world, to relate to the world, and thereby, to act in the world. The way we perceive ourselves is reflected in the way we interact, the way we take our positions, and the way we interpret politics.
Curiosity, the desire to know what one does not know, is essential to genuine knowledge. Especially in terms of literature, it is a sensual longing to know through experiencing others—not only the others in the world, but also the others within oneself. That is why, in almost every talk I give, I repeat what Vladimir Nabokov used to tell his students: curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. If we manage to teach our students to be curious—not to take up our political positions, but just to be curious—we will have managed to do a great deal.
I scanned through the list of the eminent signatories.  It includes Wendy Doniger, whose book on Hinduism resulted in quite a bit of controversy in the old country, about which I blogged a few times.   I recognized two names from my graduate school days.   

I am reminded, yet again, of the caustic, sarcastic, and polemical essay that Robert Nozick authored on the strange behavior of the "intellectuals."  He wrote there:
The school system imparts and rewards only some skills relevant to later success (it is, after all, a specialized institution) so its reward system will differ from that of the wider society. This guarantees that some, in moving to the wider society, will experience downward social mobility and its attendant consequences. Earlier I said that intellectuals want the society to be the schools writ large. Now we see that the resentment due to a frustrated sense of entitlement stems from the fact that the schools (as a specialized first extra-familial social system) are not the society writ small.
If only "we, the faculty" realized that society is not "schools writ large."  Oh well, it is but one letter of a difference between faculty and faulty! ;)


Ramesh said...

Who listens to these academics anyway !!!

I was intrigued by one of the reasons they don't want Silicon Valley businesses to engage with Modi. It is to do with privacy safeguards and confidentially of information collected by the government.

HULLLLOOOOO ? Have you heard of the Patriot Act, NSA, etc, etc, your eminences ??

Sriram Khé said...

Exactly. Here we have a government that even taps the German leader's phone and they are talking about digital privacy loss in India?

Even if they want to express their concerns about digital safeguards to the Silicon Valley tech folks, do these academics really believe that they know something insightful about the technical and political issues when they are professors of film studies, childhood studies, history, ...

It is one thing to be a commentator like I am. But, I am not sending letters imploring the tech people or the president or whoever--I am merely trying to engage in discussions on issues that I think are important. The arrogance that this list of academics demonstrate ... phew, enough said! ;)

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