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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Life 10


New York: It was a jaw-dropping piece of news. Gabrielle Giffords, a young Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Tucson, Arizona was shot in the head by a crazed assassin in a parking lot as she did her regular meeting with her constituents on Saturday January 8.

The shooting shocked America. Since March 1981, when John W Hinckley Jr took a shot at Ronald Reagan, I can recall no other such event. The Reagan shooting precipitated a national debate on gun control; this latest one raised issues about the polarization in politics that took hold when George W Bush was president.

For me, the news harked back to the night of May 21 1991 when I got a call informing me that Rajiv Gandhi was killed in Sriperumbudur in the southern state of Madras. My heart went out to the family, friends and staff of Giffords.

Giffords’ immediate supporters probably feel today as I felt on that stormy night in May 1991: the dream was over; political violence has a way of putting paid to ideals. I worked with Rajiv for many years and was devastated at the news of his death.

When Rajiv was assassinated, I told an interviewer from The Times of India that he was killed because of the hate atmosphere that was created by his opponents in politics and in the media.

Amazingly, this was among the issues being debated 30 years later in America. In a television discussion on January 12, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told the host Charlie Rose that hate mongering is an important determinant of political assassinations. In his cool, scholastic way Remnick endorsed what I told the Times in a fit of emotion some two decades ago.

The Giffords shooting brought to mind the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Their opponents had launched a relentless and visceral hate campaign against them.

Among the many stories that emerged from the Giffords shooting, one was about Sarah Palin’s website on which she had marked targeted constituencies for her yet-unspoken campaign in 2012 with cross-hair targets and one of them was Giffords’ 8th congressional district in southern Arizona.

In the middle of the reasoned debate about how a polarized hate atmosphere can move deranged people to target public figures, Sarah Palin, the erstwhile Republican vice presidential candidate, the Narendra Modi of American politics, weighed in; she accused the media of “blood libel.”

In turn, her detractors pointed out that her phrase “blood libel” was anti-semitic. The phrase has been used since Biblical times to reinforce the fundamentalist Christian view that Jews are the killers of Jesus Christ. Like Gujarat's Modi, Palin lacks sophistication, preferring the use of propaganda to work up her constituents; like Modi, she uses insulting and intemperate words to score over her opponents.

A recent example of this was in her tweet: "So how's the hopey-changey thing working out for ya?"

Contrast Palin's tilt in the debate to the much anticipated speech that President Barack Obama gave after the shooting. Rising above the clamor, he said that political differences are real but should not be allowed to become the source of violence. He reached out to his opponents and asked for a compact of civility that would foreswear hate.

Watching television coverage and debates on the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, I was struck by several things. One, the coverage was wall-to-wall. Two, there was a liberal slant to it in that most reporters and commentators pointed discreet fingers at the right-wing cable and radio mafia for hatemongering. Three, Sarah Palin got embroiled in it.

It’s much like what the Indian media do except the Americans did it in a sophisticated, understated and well-researched fashion. No screaming and shouting and rumor-mongering, just well-reasoned arguments.

Conversations on public affairs in India are sophomoric with opinions based on prejudice rather than facts; debates are in the nature of high school encounters; the discourse as a result is usually twisted and misses the point. Indeed, if America is a post-doctoral democracy, India is still to get into college.

Though it may be not the most politically correct thing to say, fingers can be pointed at Mohandas Gandhi’s jibe. Asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said, “It would be a good idea.”

In that one smug remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, movements that raised the West to unprecedented heights of prosperity and civility.

Consider 21st century India: people urinate and defecate in public; female children are suffocated at birth; brides are snuffed out for lack of dowry; there is still hunger (India ranks number 94 in the global hunger chart); most people live without water and sanitation; cities are slums and villages dens of inequity and filth.

The legacy of Gandhi’s flippant remark can be observed in the immaturity of public discourse in India. Serious issues are subverted in the flush of smug opinions.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011