Modern history is the story of how liberal democracy, originating in the U.K. and America, spread around the world. This may sound like an absurd fantasy. In actuality, this Whiggish narrative of progress underpins most newspaper editorials, political commentary and speeches in the West, and frames larger views of political developments in the non-West.
Visiting China in 1928, when a rising Japan had begun to prey on its neighbor, the Japanese poet Akiko Yosano took a surprisingly broad-minded view of anti-Japanese passion among the Chinese: “It’s surely frightful from the imperialists’ point of view,” she wrote in her travelogue, “but for the Chinese people it must be celebrated in the name of humanity.”
It was raining heavily last week when I visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japanese who died in the “imperial cause.” But the tour buses still discharged scores of elderly Japanese visitors, and I received approving looks and even a faint smile from two Japanese women as we stood in the rain before the memorial to an Indian jurist called Radha Binod Pal.
The “ideological legacy” of Margaret Thatcher, according to the Economist, rivals “that of Marx, Mao, Gandhi or Reagan.” She made “Britain great again,” the Daily Telegraph asserts. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the historian Andrew Roberts hails Thatcher for her loyalty to the U.S. and Israel, and claims that “Thatcherism will always remain, and the world is better for it.”
Almost 20 years ago, shortly after India’s protectionist economy was liberalized, I moved to Mashobra, a small village in the North Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh. The rent on my cottage was low. Food was cheap; the climate, mostly good; and -- an unexpected bonus in India -- the air and water were clean.
In 1984, criticizing George Orwell for having advocated political quietism to writers, Salman Rushdie asserted that “we are all irradiated by history, we are radioactive with history and politics.” He added: “Politics and literature… do mix, are inextricably mixed, and that… mixture has consequences.”
In college during the late 1980s, in the north Indian city of Allahabad, I heard many stories about local toughs and criminals who were keen to get into politics. They came from Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and Bihar, two of India’s poorest provinces that together contain nearly as many people as the U.S.
India, the Wall Street Journal claimed recently, is the Iranian mullahs’ “last best friend” for continuing to buy oil from, and trade with, Iran. Questioning why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “hasn’t already curtailed dealings with the Islamic Republic,” the Journal wondered if it has to do with the Indian fear of “pushy Westerners.” Accusing India of carrying some “mental baggage from the days of the Non- Aligned Movement,” the paper castigated the country for having failed to grow out of its “adolescent neurosis.”