By Kumar David –
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history” – Hegel
The term extremism in modern usage is associated with intolerance, violence and hatred of “others”. This is the sense in which it is used when referring to ISIS – jihadism – white-supremacists in America (Alt-Right, KKK) and what is called Sinhala-Buddhist racism. Minority community intolerance is equally abhorrent. This is a usage with which leftists and liberals are familiar. A different broader phenomenon is appreciation of one’s cultural heritage and the accomplishments of forbearers. Archaeologists, ethnographers (Paranavitarana), historians (MG Mendis, Leslie G’wardna), writers/dramatists (Martin W’icks and Sarachchandra) who exult in the glories and the miscarriages of the past are custodians of culture without a trace of irrational nationalism; they are free of hostility to the “other”. Zeitgeist, or spirit and mood of the times reflected in the thoughts of a community, is an interesting term. It denotes a trait that all human societies manifest. But then isn’t Nazism a manifestation of spirit and mood of Germany and of the German people in the 1930s? So the zeitgeist of an epoch can also be a dreadful thing. Contrast the renowned intellectuals I just adverted to with say Gunadasa Amarasekara, Nalin de Silva and Sarath Weerasekara all tokens of the zeitgeist of this unhappy moment. The preferential votes cast for Weerasekara 328,092, Weerawansa 267,084 and Gammanpila 136,331, in the Colombo District in 2020 denote a depraved extremist zeitgeist that overcame our people at that time. Gandhi said “If there is an idiot in power, it means those who elected him are well represented”. Victor Ivan in July 2021 says: “The dream implanted in Sinhala Buddhists was that the journey to utopian Sinhala Buddhism will peak after the victory of the 2019 Presidential and the 2020 Parliamentary elections. Instead of utopia what they have got is dystopia; a failed state, stinking, degenerated, corrupt and bankrupt”. Since my readers are well-versed in the story of this Island let me focus this column on the outside world.
Would it surprise you to learn that Woodrow Wilson, a great American president to some, was a racist? Don’t believe me; ask the students at Princeton where he was President from 1902 to 1910. They are demanding erasure of his name. See “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson” by Dick Lehr, Atlantic 27 November 2015.
and “Woodrow Wilson was extremely racist — even by the standards of his time” by Dylan Matthews.
This is all well-known among American intellectuals. Was Woodrow Wilson a racist even beyond the zeitgeist of his times? My unequivocal answer is yes. On the other hand what about Justice Vigneawaran former Chief Minister of the Northern Province who believes that Tamil is the oldest language in the world (in his reckoning oldness equates to goodness as with mouldy cheese and Premier Crux wine)? He considers all things Tamilian the apogee of civilisation. I am inclined to call this zeitgeist, which brings a rush of blood to some Tamilian veins, harmless crankiness not pernicious extremism (some of you understandably may disagree).
Zeitgeist is an infrequently used term and I would have preferred to avoid it, but there is no adequate and plain substitute. It’s a coined in the 1830s from the German words Zeit meaning “time” and Geist meaning “spirit” to illuminate the poetry of J.G. Herder and the discourses of G.F.W. Hegel, though to the best of my knowledge neither used the term. Herder’s intellectual influence is immense, much more than recognised these days.
Matthew Arnold used it in 1848 to denote the social anxiety of Victorian England, but it was Tolstoy’s boringly long discourse in the closing section of War and Peace that put the concept (not the word) into the intellectual vocabulary. Tolstoy rejected the Great Man Theory of Leadership and held that leaders and the features they exhibited were products of social circumstances of the time and conjuncture in which they lived. Hence zeitgeist came to be understood as the intellectual, cultural, and moral climate of a period – the spirit of an age; the collective outlook of a period and a people. The word ethos is unsuitable because it is more long-lived, culture means something else and consciousness is too politically focussed; hence I plummet for zeitgeist in this essay.
Nationalism is the potent intellectual vehicle that lubricated the material forces of commerce, industry and the market in the creation of modern nation states from about the time of the English Revolution of the 1640s (or 1688 if you prefer). This is not a history column so no ways can I find another 1000 words to expand on this theme so I will limit myself to one general comment and one example. The comment: Broadly speaking and in the context of the epoch spanning the period from the mid 17-th to the mid 20-th Century, nationalism has often been a positive nation building force – exceptions of course are numerous.
The example I have picked is the Turkey that Kemal Ataturk and the “Young Turks” crafted in Anatolia on the rubble of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. Nationalism was the intellectual glue that cemented a modernised, emancipated, westernised and secular Turkish nation-state which still holds together, Erdogan’s Islamic illiberalism and despotic efforts notwithstanding. But even within that progressive zeitgeist there was much murderous ultra-nationalist extremism. I am referring to the genocide of Armenians domiciled in the Anatolian peninsula and the ruthless suppression of the Kurdish people. Did you know that the words Kurds and Kurdistan were banned by the government for a long time, and that it is still illegal to use Kurdish as a language of instruction in private and public schools? Those who demand use of more Kurdish are branded as terrorists – wonder whether Sarath Weerasekara had his early training in Ankara? Some 30,000 Kurds have been killed since the 1930s in suppressing protests and uprisings, Kurdish villages have been set on fire by the army and many attempts made to starve the Kurds. [En passant, did you know that the great warrior sultan Saladin (Salah ad-Din) was a Kurd not an Arab?] So you see even in the case of Kemalist Turkey, the kit-bag of even modern, progressive, secular nationalism overflows with the remains of human cadavers.
The intellectual classes of Sri Lanka especially the English educated, and English proficient in the majority, despise Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism (SBN) – also Tamil and Muslim nationalism. But the local scene is an aside in today’s column. Where does the red-line fall between healthy SBN (nationalism that as in Kemalist Turkey denote integration, social fitness and economic wellbeing) on one side and extremism (the more the blood, monks and thugs on the street now, the richer the electoral harvest next), on the other? Zeitgeist can be a token of society’s values and mores or it can an accessory to conflict. Consider the 2013 Utter Pradesh riots (Muzaffarnagar and Kairana) in India, one of more than 100 outbreaks of communal rioting since the Armageddon of Partition (just web-search “Religious riots in Independent India”). Modi’s role was no less depraved than JR’s in the 1983 Black July carnage. Across Asia and Africa murder and mayhem, rape, arson and genocide are recurrent. Alt-Right racism is on the rise, globally. The simple answer to the red-line question is “Do not seek it in erudite theory, seek in in practical events”. And another part of the answer is that in the May 2014 elections Modi’s BJP won 71 of 80 seats in UP. For the first time in the history of Independent India, UP a 200 million population state with 31 million Muslims, did not send a single Muslim to the Lok Sabha! It is a First Past the Post system and the BJP secured a mere 42% of the poll. The Zeitgeist of Hindu culture flows as smoothly as the Ganges into Hindutva, the bedrock of anti-Muslim confessional extremism. If you say that the mythical Rama was probably a village thug in a remote hamlet in UP you are inviting a lynching.
A significant convergence of zeitgeist and extremism is Alt-Right in the USA. A great deal has been said about polarisation in America so I can keep it brief with quotes from two of Alt-Right’s most noted theoreticians, Richard Spencer and Jarred Taylor. From Spencer the suave populist and the ever well-spoken and smart populist I offer you: “Race, culture, ethnicity and religion are the most real things”, “We don’t want to be, nor should we be one country”, “The ideal of a white ethno-state is a grand goal” and “Black athletes are not a part of white identity. I would ban (American) football”. Taylor the intellectual-theoretical voice of the movement and the organiser of the American Renaissance Conference, theorises about: “The rise of white consciousness”, “The right of whites to defend their specific interests” and complains that “Whites are the only Americans not allowed to be proud of who we are”. This zeitgeist percolated into burning torches in the Charlottesville August 2017 white-supremacist riots
A visit by European Alt-Right leaders to Kashmir highlights the solidarity of the all these movements. In October 2019, 23 Members of the European Parliament’s (MEP) far-right visited Kashmir, two months after India usurped the state’s autonomous status. They included MEPs from France’s National Rally (National Front) and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. They had been granted access to Kashmir though foreign journalists and Indian politicians were barred and the Modi government imposed an internet shutdown.
I must not overstate my case. The zeitgeist of a nation or of a people can be about things that do not overlap ethno-politics. It can be about how things are done, food, clothing, and of culture as repository of a social totality. What’ is the zeitgeist of Iceland for example? My friend Jayantha is going berserk after someone sent him a video from the Icelandic Government saying it will pay single men to come, live there and cohabit with its gorgeous women (Wow the pictures! Wow the wenches!) And free beers too! All lies; otherwise my cousin Prem would be packing his bags to join J.