Opinion| Tale of two Indias: Mr Woke Das goes to Washington

There was something Pavlovian, dog-like… actually, cancel that, because I respect dogs… let’s just say there was something mindless, and dro...

There was something Pavlovian, dog-like… actually, cancel that, because I respect dogs… let’s just say there was something mindless, and drool-like, in the spectacle of a fancy auditorium filled with eagerly aspirational elites paying good money to hear inanities about India from a very fortunate Indian mediocrity.

“We are sold out!” he shouts joyously to his fans at the start. An unintendedly honest pun for sure.

The sorry state of the creativity that was on display informs one part of my severe disappointment here. I mean, where’s the humour, or insight, or even critique, in a tired meme that millions of Indians have shared, Liked, or argued over on Facebook and Twitter before every Goddess festival (and after every selectively publicised news of violence against women) for several years now?

Also read: You may be offended by Kangana Ranaut and Vir Das, still they have every right to speak their minds

What is the abject state of degradation of the human spirit, intelligence, and indeed, dignity, in the experience of finding something that stale, hollow, and dishonest, to be worth a laugh, or a feeling of deep insight like, “Wow, we sure saw through some hypocrisy there, man!”

If John Lennon were on that stage, he wouldn’t have said, “Those of you in the richer seats rattle your jewellery.” He would have told them to choke on their grandiose delusions of virtue and sung or screamed the lines from Revolution.

Mercs in the parking lot, woke-cliches in the theater hall. The New NRI American Dream. What a strange new world.

But before I return to the shiny Netflix-polished world of Vir Das (and his patriotic “befitting reply” critics), I must share one more anecdote from the world of Indian-American Model Minority Wokeness.

Also read: Why Vir Das' standup special I Come From Two Indias deserves to be criticised — not for being offensive, but for being obvious

Hey Ram!

The next story is from early 2020, a month before the pandemic hit.

My friend Ram, who lives in the Bay Area, went to a classy dinner concert. Between the ghazals, a nice Indian couple at his table got talking and asked him his name.

“Ram,” he replied.

What happened next is incredible (but I’m in academia and am not surprised).

“Ram…” the fellow says slowly (Eureka-exclaiming-eyebrows rising, I imagine), “now that’s a very interesting name … these days … isn’t it?”

I can picture poor Ram looking puzzled, and taking the bait.

Then, Ram (making WTF Eyebrows in turn, presumably), asks them what they mean by “Ram” is an “interesting name” and “these days.”

The bait has worked. Ram needs to be educated. Ram must be educated. Poor Ram.

It turns out that these random dinner-table neighbours for a couple of hours at a concert felt so compelled to pick on Ram’s name because they just had to tell him all about the new anti-Muslim law that Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed called CAA that was going to put 200 million Muslims in camps, and of course, don’t you know, the BBC, NYT, NPR all said so: “Jai Shri Ram” was now an Islamophobic war cry back there.

Again… poor Ram. He has all the Indian American creds, Ivy Leagues, IITs, volunteer work, and everything else going too but, somehow, in that glittering evening of posh culture and having arrived, he failed on the most important count of all. He failed the Woke Club test.

Woke Media

We all have our stories of woke-inquisitions (or just viral psy-ops) like “Racist Tom” or “Hindutva Ram” these days. It’s scary. But the good news is that there is also an intelligent discourse about the structural causes of wokeism rising in America. And this is not like the shallow Right-wing “Franklin School” theories (it’s “Frankfurt School,” of course, but there was an “RW” book which misspelled it so, hence the dig), but coming from those who work within the bastions of wokeism at that, and have seen enough to call it out.

Wokeism is only the symptom, the product, the consumer high. But what is the cause?

At least two new books have done an outstanding job of answering this question. I have talked about one of them in an earlier column, but what is of even greater interest for students of media is Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon.

Bad News offers a deep critique of the causes of US journalism’s (and The New York Times in particular, of course) growing disconnect from reality over the past few years, and its effects. What woke media is doing to its consumers, as Ungar-Sargon says (in the context of a perceptive analysis of Vox here), is to assure its young, affluent and educated audiences that “they are among the ranks of the correct, the informed, rather than one of the stupids”. It’s about displaying your knowingness, about status, rather than truth. That’s why the standing-room crowd at the right events. That’s why social media shares the right articles and memes.

But wokeness, we learn, wasn’t just a political backlash to Donald Trump, as people often assume, but a deeper, class-based change that completely remade US news media even before Trump arrived. Till the 1930s, American journalism was, for the most part, a working-class or lower-middle-class world, in terms of its reporters, readers, and issues. Few journalists even went to college, and reporting took place from the world of slums and factories and working-class lives.

But since the 1970s, and all the more so now, big journalism has become an upper middle class or upper-class world (and it is mostly big journalism, for small, local papers hardly hold their own anymore). It’s only kids of privilege, she says, who can afford to work as journalists in places like New York City. And they are mostly white and upper-class. Their concerns, even “anti-racism,” are those of the upper class, and not of the masses, white or black.

Where the woke-evasion comes in is that they mistake (or disguise) their class privilege in a performance of race-guilt, which is then wielded like a punitive stick against tens of millions of poorer Americans who may watch Fox News, vote for Trump, and so on. There were four thousand articles in the New York Times mentioning George Floyd, and only four about a poor white man also killed in an act of brutal police violence. As always, the class becomes the ground reality over which the politics of supposed privilege and resistance play out.

From Anti-Racism to Anti-Hinduism
It may be too obvious to say this but a similar class divide plagues the public discourse in and about India too. The elites consume the morally satisfying discourse of ‘Two Indias’ while the masses who are stuck in that other India they loathe keep voting again and again for the people that elites don’t approve, most of all because they are seen to be Hindu.

I don’t even say it’s necessarily a good thing they vote that way, for it solves little. The elites insult the people again and again and then play the martyr when politicians use those hurt feelings to file court cases and have a day in the sun. It’s a self-serving little game; hollow caricatures of artists claiming creative freedom on one hand, and politicians claiming “national sentiments” on the other. It’s a race to the bottom, in terms of truth and art, while at the same time, it’s really also a race to the top, for the one-percenters who live in the world of Netflix nights and Woke-causes like “reforming” Hindu festivals and practices.

The real concern about the globalisation of wokeism is that the mapping of US “white privilege” talk onto Hindus and Hinduism in India by these sell-out one-percenters and their na├»ve followers has added one more burden on the back of a people battered by billions of dollars poured into their colonisation and enslavement.

But I understand, still, that many people who are moved by the Vir Das sort of self-criticism probably mean well, and want to see their pain about injustice and violence expressed by someone. But what they fail to recognise is how much this expression is not helping anyone at all, but is only a cover-up, a consumer product designed to distract elites from the real role they could be playing instead.

The obfuscation of causes, frankly, is the biggest source of rot produced by the merchants of woke culture in media and academia today. No serious critic of wokeism, including Ungar-Sargon, denies that racism does exist in America, and is indeed the cause of many problems. It is just that racism is not the cause of every single thing wrong in America today. Just as Hindutva (or Hinduism), is not the cause of every single thing wrong in India today.

AQI 1000? Not Deepavali, not Hinduism.

Violence against women? Not Durga Puja, not Hinduism. Sorry.

And this issue is really where the Vir Das spectacle falls utterly flat. How can any sane public figure play the “worshipping women” card (an obvious dig at Hinduism and Hindus) as day after day we read about Hindu women being shot, beaten, raped, kidnapped, or made homeless simply for being Hindu women?

Intersectional Spectacle, Omnicidal Reality

Did Vir Das and his Leni Riefenstahl-level genius production team (I mean, those shots of the audience from the stage were just stunning) fail to notice even one news photo of those shattered Durga puja pandals from Bangladesh during Navaratri that could have made them think twice before the “worshipping women” dig?

Or is this what the Kennedy Center and Netflix and India’s self-proclaimed comedy-as-conscience scene are all really about, rubbing salt into the wounds of the people living in the slums below the gated colonies and high rises who still live and survive with the strength of their trust in the Goddess’s names to protect them and their children?

The Australian anti-war activist and propaganda-critic Caitlin Johnstone wrote a powerful poem last year called ‘Intersectional Omnicide’. Read it, and think about it. That war is already on in South Asia. And if you really care about the people, you should be thinking along lines much deeper than what propagandists preying on dreams of upward mobility disguised as moral superiority are offering to you. Put the Woke media to sleep and think for yourself instead.

The writer teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco. Views expressed are personal.

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