Sunday, July 02, 2017

Connecting Our Hearts And Our Hands - Do You Know Who You Are?

Knowing oneself isn't easy.  Every society, every community projects models of who we should be, what we should do.  When who we actually are, deviates from the social, cultural, political, religious, or economic ideal, those who don't fit the ideal perfectly are alienated from themselves, their community, or both.

I'm sure readers either know what I'm talking about or strongly reject that notion.  I suspect those who strongly reject it are likely to be the ones most denying their own true selves.

OK, let me clarify what I'm talking about.

I've recently finished Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace.  It starts out in 1885 in Mandalay, the capital of Burma then, just as the British are moving up from Rangoon to capture Mandalay and exile the King and Queen of Burma to a small town on the west coast of India.  The main character is an Indian orphan who has gotten a job on a ship that ended up in Mandalay.

The whole book focuses on the Indians who served the British empire and the fundamental question (for me anyway) throughout is, "What does it mean to be an Indian?"  Particularly if you are a soldier keeping order among your conquered fellow Indians, and conquering and maintaining order in other colonies like Burma and Malaya?

At times Ghosh is a little heavy handed in this discussion, not that he's wrong, but as a novelist, he could have handled it more subtly.  It's hard tracing the way a person slowly awakens to the fact that he's been a prisoner his whole life.  But it is a topic all people must ask themselves now and then.  Sometimes it's a very heavy burden, sometimes people fit well into the world in which they were born.  Or at least think they do as is the case of Arjun in the book.  ('Think' isn't even accurate, because Arjun is portrayed as taking things as they are and not even consciously aware of who he is.)

He comes from a well-to-do family and got into officer training school, much to his surprise, since this was not something Indians had been accepted into until just recently.  It was a job and adventure to him.   But WWII has started and he's sent to Malaya.  Skipping lots of details, a woman, Allison, he's attracted to abruptly breaks things off.
"Arjun - you're not in charge of what you do;  you're a toy, a manufatured thing, a weapon in someone else's hands.  Your mind doesn't inhabit your body." (p. 326)
He responds, "That's crap."  But the issue comes back very soon when the Japanese surprise the British and their Indian soldiers and successfully invade Malaya (as well as the rest of Southeast Asia.)  He's with a fellow Indian soldier, Hardy, a long time pre-military friend, who has thought these issues through much more as they face the fact that the Japanese have landed.  They've also bombed the Indian troops with leaflets that begin:
"Brothers, ask yourselves what you are fighting for and why you are here:  do you really wish to sacrifice your lives for an Empire that has kept your country in slavery for two hundred years?" (p. 337)

Their peril opens Arjun and Hardy to a probing conversation:
"You know, yaar Arjun, over these last few days, in the trenches at Jitra - I had an eerie feeling.  It was strange to be sitting on one side of a battle line, knowing that you had to fight and knowing at the same time that it wasn't really your fight; knowing that whether you won or lost, neither the blame nor the credit would be yours.  Knowing that you're risking everything to defend a way of life that pushes you to the sidelines.  It's almost as if you're fighting against yourself.  It's strange to be sitting in a trench, holding a gun and asking yourself:  Who is this weapon really aimed at?  Am I being tricked into pointing it at myself?"
"I can't say I felt the same way, Hardy."
"But ask yourself, Arjun:  what does it mean for you and me to be in this army?  You're always talking about soldiering as being just a job.  But you know, yaar, it isn't just a job - it's when you're sitting in a trench that you realize that there's something very primitive about what we do.  In the everyday world when would you ever stand up and say - 'I'm going to risk my life for this'?  As a human being it's something you can only do if you know why you're doing it.  But when I was sitting in the trench, it was as if my her and my hand had no connection - each seemed to belong to a different person.  It was as if I wasn't really a human being - just a tool, an instrument.  This is what I ask myself, Arjun:  In what way do I become human again?  How do I connect what I do with what I want, in my heart?'" (p. 351, emphasis added)

Somewhat later, the Japanese return and as the group flees, Arjun gets hit, but manages to get under cover and his batman, Kishan Singh, pulls him into a culvert where they are hidden.  His leg wound gets bandaged but he's in pain, thinking about what he's heard.
"What was it that Hardy had said the night before?  Something about connecting his hand and his heart.  He'd been taken aback when he'd said that, it wasn't on for a chap to say that kind of thing  But at the same time, it was interesting to think that Hardy - or anyone for that matter, even himself - might want something without knowing it.  How was that possible?  Was it because no one had taught them the words?  The right language?  Perhaps because it might be too dangerous?  Or because they weren't old enough to know?  It was strangely crippling to think that he did not possess the simpler tools of self-consciousness -  had no window through which to know that he possessed a within.  Was this what Alison had meant about being a weapon in someone else's hands?  Odd that Hardy had said the same thing too."(p. 370)
Then he asks Kishan to just talk and he talks about the fighting history of his village.  He says the soldiers went to fight out of fear.  Arjun asks, fear of what?
"'Sah'b,' Kishan Sing said softly, 'all fear is not the same.  What is the fear that keeps us hiding here, for instance?  Is it a fear of the Japanese, or is it a fear of the British?  Or is it a fear of ourselves because we don not know who to fear more?  Sah'b, a man may fear the shadow of a gun just as much as the gun itself - and who is to say which is the more real?" (p. 371)
Arjun is confused.  How could his uneducated batman be more aware of the weight of the past than he himself?  He thinks to himself, fear had played no part in his joining the military academy, becoming a soldier.
"He had never thought of his life as different from any other, he had never experienced the slightest doubt about his personal sovereignty;  never imagined himself to be dealing with anything other than the full range of human voice.  But if it were true that is life had somehow been molded by acts of power of which he was unaware - then it would follow that he had never acted of his own volition;  never had a moment of true self consciousness.  Everything he had ever assumed about himself was a lie, an illusion.  And if this were so, how was he to find himself now?"(p. 372)

It does seem to me that the author, Ghosh, is helping Arjun articulate his thoughts.  But the points are important ones.

We know that African-American soldiers in WWI and WWII began to question their treatment in the US after being in Europe.  Here's a quote that sounds very similar to Arjun's struggle from Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith, The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America 167 (2002) cited on the Equal Justice Initiative website.  (The piece starts with civil war veterans and moves up to WWI and WWII.)
“It is impossible to create a dual personality which will be on the one hand a fighting man toward the enemy, and on the other, a craven who will accept treatment as less than a man at home.”1
 Throughout the 20th century women continually questioned their treatment - demanding the right to vote, to own property in their own name, equal pay, access to universities and to jobs.  Gay rights are another obvious example, and listening to Scott Turner Schofield last night telling stories about his transition from female to male I also couldn't help but think of this passage.

But those are obvious examples.

What about white soldiers and veterans, recruited to overseas wars to 'protect American freedoms'?  What happens when they see how much of war is to protect corporate interests overseas, to keep the arms industry profitable?  When they see how many civilians are being killed?  When the realize that their fellow recruits are disproportionately less educated and poorer than the average American?  And when they get home and they can't get adequate help for their war caused physical and mental problems?  Do they start thinking about their true identity and who and what they've really been fighting for?

[Consider the rest of this to be a draft application of the ideas above to current American situations.  I don't want to omit it completely because the points from the book do apply to nearly everyone and I don't want readers to feel they are only relevant to history or to other people.  They're part of being a human among other humans.  But I don't think I've made my points as clearly as I'd like.  So consider the following to be rough notes and any support or thoughtful criticism is welcome, which is always the case.]

But this is really about everybody.  Because as individual people we have individual interests that aren't consistent with what others expect of us.

What about the people who voted for Donald Trump?  How many will ever see how they've been duped for years and years by Fox News and talk radio that panders to their inadequacies and their sense of victimhood?  That they've been baited into hating other victims instead of the perpetrators of their problems?   How do they square their own sense of victimhood with their ideal of personal responsibility?  How do they come to believe that the system is stacked against them when the system has, for so long, been structured to favor them over women and people of color?  They never worried about those injustices.  They're only upset when the playing field is being made more level and they now are losing their advantages over women and people of color in getting jobs and power.  The dysfunctional president we have today was evident throughout the campaign.  There's no way anyone should be surprised at the American disgrace in the White House now, unless their hearts were separated from their hands, as Hardy put it in The Glass Palace.  

But liberals aren't immune either.  I don't want anyone to think I'm setting up a false equivalency here.  From Reagan on, conservative ideology has been part of the national oxygen.  Being liberal takes more effort than being conservative, more consciousness of inequity and of the gap between American ideals and reality.  One has to move beyond an individualist Ayn Rand view of the world and understand the power of mutual cooperation.  (Yeah, I know that's an assertion  that needs lots more back up.  For now let me assert it but I'll need to offer more evidence.  I think it's true and if anyone has some support for me on that, let me know.  Or proof to the contrary.)  But I would argue that people get to their political stances more through environmental influences - family, personal experiences, education, etc. - than by careful, conscious, reasoning.

But group-think infects every group when there isn't active debate and dissent.  And much of the separation of heart and hand is related to personal issues and beliefs that are accepted without analysis - like the myth of the magic of the work ethic to allow anyone to succeed in America.  What America would look like if everyone became a millionaire (in 2017 dollars).  How would all the minimum wage work get done?  And at most (not counting deaths in office) only 25 people can be US president per century.  What happens to the other 10,000 who believed they could be president if they only tried hard enough?  I don't hear work ethic believers talking about how that would actually work if everyone worked hard.

I'm starting to ramble - on topic, but not in a well organized way.  The key here is to think about our own conflicts between self and societal models.  A certain amount of compromise is necessary for people to live in groups, but how much of that is organized oppression of differences for the benefit of those in power?  That, I think is the basic question raised in this Indian/British debate from the book.

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