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Apr 11, 2004 5:57 am


"Insider" and "Other" ...



I may be trying to think about two different things which ought not be thought about in relation to each other, but I was thinking about Tom Palaima's "Warfare and Humor" when Andrew Ackerman, the former editor of the Emory Wheel, Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels, and David Adesnik at Oxblog called my attention to this piece in the Washington Post. Ophelia, Jonathan Dresner, and I have posted at Cliopatria and elsewhere about Hindutva threats to western, critical scholarship on Hinduism before, but the Post article is about as thorough an update on the attack on western scholarship as I've seen.

Tom makes what I take to be a perfectly legitimate point: that grim humor may be a useful form of coping with terror in the face of death among combatants, but it is gauche to the point of mindless insensitivity when the White House engages in it. In retrospect, President Bush set himself up for reminders of having ducked active combat when he affected a flight suit to land on an aircraft carrier on the other side of the earth to declare the war in Iraq over before grim reality had even set in there. More colorful representations of him seem appropriate. Let's leave the humor about war to the"insiders" who face it on the ground.

Fair enough. But what distinguishes that drawing of the line from Hindutva's drawing of the line against critical western scholarship about Hinduism? O.k., there are no threats of assassination among us. I assume that we agree that it is, at the very least, gauche to the point of mindless insensitivity when Hindutva threatens the life of western scholars, suppresses their publications, and ransacks offending archives in India. But is there a line of mindless insensitivity which critical scholarship must not cross when it examines Hinduism? Is critical scholarship a western construct that somehow must inevitably traduce whatever it touches? I have to admit that when David Adesnik mocks the Hindus with: "We feel your pain ...", my sensitivity sensors buzz a little, even if I don't want to call in the censors. It seems insensitive, even if I want to defend free inquiry. In short, to arrive at a question which wouldn't have made any sense had I posed it at the outset, why ought the White House not make sport of war's grim realities if western scholars ought to be able to hold up alien traditions to critical examination? Tell me if it still makes no sense.


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Ralph E. Luker - 4/12/2004

That's very well put, Jonathan. I wish I could do that well with little time to spend on it!


Jonathan Dresner - 4/12/2004

I wish I had more time to think about this today, but my immediate thought is that there is a huge difference between the two cases.

Case A: In a free-speech environment. Bush had every right to say what he said. And we have every right to find it inappropriate, callous, unpresidential because of his rhetorical and political position. And we have the right to punish him by withdrawing our vote, because that's the kind of job he's in.

Case B: Hindutva activists claim that outsiders have no right to anything other than hagiographic receptivity to the officially sanctified theo-history. They are claiming a right to punish well outside of their jurisdiction in ways which go well beyond the sort of public rebuke or repudiation which bad or offensive scholarship might merit.

The second difference which comes to mind immediately is the difference between speaking to someone and speaking to a general public. As President, Bush doesn't really have the liberty to "think out loud" or talk in generalities: anything he says publicly is said to the public, all of its consituencies. Scholars, though, speak generally, indirectly. It's the difference between, I guess, walking up to someone and saying "your god is a pervert" and writing in a journal or book "this god's symbology includes elements of sexual expression and transgression."


Ralph E. Luker - 4/11/2004

Yes, he does have that power and jokes about it are unseemly. Hindutva can huff, threaten death, and act as if it is serious. I suppose I'm asking if there are appropriate constraints on critical scholarship, as there are rules of war, which act in some ways to constrain the engagement.


Ophelia Benson - 4/11/2004

Well right off the top of my head - I think what makes Bush's jokes distasteful in both cases - the Carla Faye Tucker one and the WMD one - is that he has the power to kill people or get them killed. And not just abstract or potential power but very real power. Since he did in fact have real, actual, literal power to prevent Tucker from being executed - power that no one else in fact had at that point, if I'm not mistaken - his joking about it is different from a scholar's comments, surely. Tucker may have in some sense deserved what she got, but that still doesn't make it a matter for flippant childish humour from that particular man.

And the same with the WMD. Jokes about 'Oops, where is that darn casus belli now?' are not all that funny to the people who have been killed and their friends and relations, coming from the guy who sent them there. Scholars don't have the power to do that, although sometimes what they write can affect policy.

So I think the parallel is not all that exact. Off the top of my head, mind you.

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