Writers and Politics – Why Do We Bother?

I recently submitted a response to one of Jason Howell‘s questions. Apparently he was  inundated with good responses so he sweetly rejected my offering – I’m choosing to post my (edited) response myself.

Here are his questions:
Q1: What role do you feel fiction writers are called to play in terms of affecting the political weather, this moment? (including poets, essayists, in general or yourself in particular)
Q2: Does writing seem politically pointless?
Q3: Or do you feel called to action?
Q4: Is there an urge to write in service of amplifying a particular voice or agenda?
Q5: Is there an urge to write to try and diagnose the confusion overall—respecting even the “villains”?

Here’s my response:
First off – can writers truly affect the political weather? Well, yes they can, but, more crucially, do they? I feel Jason’s questions almost suggest the effect writers have on the political weather is slight, something akin to a flock of birds taking off from a lake – the water is disturbed, but only momentarily. However, what’s necessary to note is that during political discourse when we voters get to hear, literally, the politicians spouting on about what they will deliver when they are in power, behind these politicians are writers. Which means, in effect, writers are affecting the political weather, they are the workers who craft the words the politicians read and we hear.

That said, as a diverse group writers are generally interested in rational and open discourse about what constitutes good governance. For example, prior to the UK’s recent EU referendum, many writers added their voices to the Remain group. Their cogent and creative pleas were drowned out by the populist rhetoric of post-truth politics. I should imagine the situation was replicated in the USA. Likewise in India, where  Modi and his many cronies seem intent on increasing their despotic tendencies, any dissenting voices are lambasted as unpatriotic and, similar to anti-Trump campaigners in the USA, targeted with death threats. Seemingly there is a growing reliance on lies to drown out rational discourse whether from writers or the many others across all the interested parties.

Perhaps as the increase in post-truth and fake news politics ascends, the need for rational-thinking writers to write about the truth behind the lies becomes greater, more urgent, more necessary. Perhaps. Because no matter how savvy you are with words no amount of writing will budge an unwilling person from their prejudices and bigotry – those attitudes are massive ego trips and require a very different tack to break them down to something more compassionate.

Nevertheless the urge to write – whether poet, essayist, reporter – is an endless call to action where the output can be many and varied and, depending on the writer’s perspective, borderless and without restriction. Therefore why not attempt to amplify a particular viewpoint? Why not try to unravel the confusion of political game-playing? Why not discover what villainy really is and who is being the villain?

For centuries writers have done just that and many been persecuted because of it, whether voicing a simple opinion or pointing to harsh truths. Writers, in all their various guises, have frequently been vilified as villains precisely because they have used words in response to atrocities, human rights abuses, vile and hateful regimes and political activities. Today’s writers are no less called upon to express their thoughts about these things, and we should do so because eventually when enough voices keep expressing the same truths the noise from the villains just might be revealed for what they are – divisive and destructive.

Now, as ever, adding words with the aim of expressing the truths that define our humanity and raise our individual and collective consciousness and kindness (rather than any kind of villainy) continues to be important. The urge to write about our current political situations will always remain. Thankfully good writers can expertly express the thoughts and feelings, the perspectives and real truths we all need to be reminded of during these times of fake news and post-truths because they can write about what must be said, what can be said and what others wish they could say. After all truth, rather than lies, even in fiction, is at the heart of good writing.

P.S. My header image is of the Gandhi statue on the beachfront at Puducherry, India – I have a notion that Gandhi was not only a politician, or a cotton spinner, but also a writer.

Responses to a Demonetisation Short Story – can you guess what they might have been?

As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking part in a short-story writing challenge this year. One of the December stories, and surprisingly only one, had the ongoing demonetisation fiasco as part of its theme.

The story was a simple one. A man takes his last ₹1,000 note to market to buy a longed-for item. To his dismay, his is informed that his ₹1,000 note is no longer acceptable. He is emotionally crushed by confusion and disappointment at this news. But later, along with a group of others, he is serendipitously gifted lots of newly-minted ₹2,000 notes. The story is a fun read and, pardon or not the pun, right on the money in terms of being bang up-to-date. The story line even ends on a happy note (a rare thing in the short story world – short-form writers tend to be joyful realists).

However, out of the critiquing round, can you guess what was the most consistent response?
Was it that the characters were not well drawn?
Was it that the setting was not well described?
Was it lack of a good plot?
Was it that the sudden appearance of new ₹2,000 notes was unbelievable?

OK, suspense over. The consensus was that given the story has an upbeat ending, in amongst the₹2,000 notes there should be plenty of ₹100.

I think this tells us something about people’s true reactions to the demonetisation debacle – which continues unabated – despite Modi’s ascertion that all would be well for everyone by 30th December. Sadly, with only a few days remaining, we still have no sight of the necessary and much needed ₹500 notes or even access to larger daily ATM withdrawal amounts.

Now remember, the story ended on a happy note, yet several of those critiquing the story wanted an additional hit of realism added to the ending. Here’s why.

Much as those ₹2,000 notes would have been welcome, cash is cash is cash after all (hear that Modi and all), those darn ₹2,00o notes are difficult to deal with; many people and businesses cannot constantly give away their precious ₹100 notes as change to every customer. Nor are there enough ₹10 or ₹20 notes to make up that short fall. All in, every day people are continuing to struggle. For some, farmers and labourers in particular, they are facing starvation for themselves and their families, employers can no longer employ workers, or they use workers but can’t pay them. There is much strife and much fudging of the truth around this. For example, propaganda abounds about villages that have gone cashless. IN TRUTH these villages are not cashless, they are poor, have low internet connectivity and regular power outages daily. IN TRUTH cashless educators have simply been to the village and inducted some of the villagers about the processes around being cashless. Giving advice and training about how to process cashless payments is far from being truly cashless, a state which I feel most villagers would decline if they were offered the choice.

Here I am going to do a ‘I told you so’ mini-rant given I expressed this belief back in November  – the ongoing push towards a cashless society was the true motivation behind Modi’s demonetisation drive, and not the hounding of black money dealers he originally declared. Because anyone with even an ounce of savvy about how corporations and governments are behaving can see that being cashless means the populace at large become more visible to an ever-increasingly despotic and authoritarian notion of governance.

As things stand, we in India are only a few days away from Modi’s earlier assertion that things will return to normal by year end. Given the images of long ATM queues, lack of useful change at shops and businesses, and the long, long wait for new ₹500 notes to appear, me thinks ‘normal’ is still some weeks off.

Fortunately, Mr D and I are currently blessed to have minimal needs as well as the opportunity to withdraw cash from a bank branch other than SBI: we’re not hungry; our bills are minimal; we plod on. I’m still hankering after getting certain tasks and jobs I have on my To Do List attended to, but for now they are still deferred until there is cash to fulfil them – clearly that’s a minor worry. For now I am on a Modi-imposed belt-tightening drive. The skipping is helping too.

But back to that short story. I’m truly hoping the writer is even now doing her last round of edits and getting it sent out. The timeliness of the plot line and the wonderful twist at the end are a winner!

Happy Holidays Everyone


2016’s Word of the Year is ‘post-truth’. Is this just another political distraction?

  • What is it that ails us all that we cannot point to an untruth or some deceit and simply call it what it is – a lie?
  • Have new words for lying taken us further from the truth (whether that truth be deemed relativistic or not)?
  • Is life in a world full of post-truth politics any more devoid of truth than it was even half a century ago?

In an attempt at keeping truth and honesty alive – let me tell you that I’ve been grappling with this nonsense word for days and I have no real answers to the questions above. The word ‘post-truth’ has had my head in a spin. Anyways, here is my response to that grappling.

With the recent endorsement from Oxford Dictionaries for the word ‘post-truth’ many writers have weighed in with comment and analysis. Most comments have centred around the political contrivances around truth, lies and everything in between. Some have written about the relativistic nature of truth and how post-truth politics is simply a necessary expedient for challenging the status quo, as if this excuses the lack of anything in politics even bothering to approximate some kind of verisimilitude. Obviously I understand how there can be shades of truth when we are dealing with complex issues that have impact on the lives of millions: beyond the universal needs for safety, security, health and well-being, not everyone’s needs or wants are the same, therefore political discussions around truth can definitely be seen as relativistic.

Sticking with politics, and in an effort toward some version of truth, I think I’m safe in assuming that deceit and duplicity are what politicians trade in. Akin to advertising, politicians deal in fear and aspiration and sleight of hand. And no matter how hard or how long they decry that opinion, we voters do understand the blame and shame game that is the political show. But still we buy it (like the advertised products), and we play along with them by voting for one party in favour of another because that’s the only game in town. Some of us voters (and not everyone votes) prefer to veer towards those who seem to  feed us fewer lies than the other parties. Some of us voters are happy to vote for anyone who deals in falsehood so long as it adheres to our bigoted, small-minded, racist, xenophobic, unkind and untrue beliefs about the world.

Before post-truth became a thing Timothy Garton Ash, in his work The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 1989 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, (1990), had this to say about political truth (he was responding to Václav Havel’s comment about the need for “living in truth”):
“… we expect many things of politicians in a well-functioning parliamentary democracy. But “living in truth” is not one of them. In fact the essence of democratic politics might rather be described as “working in half-truth”. Parliamentary democracy is, at its heart, a system of limited adversarial mendacity, in which each party attempts to present part of the truth as if it were the whole.”
(emphasis mine – see full article here)

Sadly, we can go further than the point Mr Ash makes because now politicians are happily jousting in post-truthiness – the words on their lips are no longer just half-truths but outright lies.

An obvious example of how politicians have gone from half-truths to post-truths (read lies) is Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. That’s one hell of a claim. And it’s a lie. Just because he made that claim in public in his usual loud and pouty way to millions of people does not make what he said a truth – not even relativistically. His claim is an outright lie. Not a post-truth, not even a half-truth, just a simple, straightforward and, to my mind, revealingly-immature lie.

Currently in India we are dealing with the lie that demonetisation will strike a lasting blow to black money. I’ve no doubt that later on, when the dust eventually settles, the information from which the Modi/BJP action of demonetisation was formulated will be called post-truth. To my way of thinking such actions are transparent methods of power grabbing and power wielding.

In a balanced article in The Hindu, Sundar Sarukkai points to the fact that politics is indeed in the business of power – gaining and maintaining it at any cost. Truth and facts, to whatever level of relativism one wants to measure them, are ignored in favour of actions, rhetoric and general babbling with the sole aim of keeping or grabbing power. Mr Sarukkai goes on to suggest the need for a new understanding and discourse around politics and truth. That need is possibly not new, but it is certainly a current one.

I think a global discussion around this point has become necessary because whether we like the notion of this newly-endorsed word ‘post-truth’ or not, for me the word signifies something else unrelated to politics but rather to an abuse of language. I’m all for language adapting and morphing with the times. But to lie about lying seems to be taking language modification in bizarre and ludicrous directions.

The word ‘post-truth’ seems to be an abuse of language as well as an obfuscation of a more straightforward and simpler expression about something that is not even close to the truth. Why is ‘truth’ even part of this new, to me, non-word? Discourse deemed post-truth is generally neither a half-truth or half-lie (depending on your point of view you can be coming at a thing from either side – glass half-full/half-empty kind of thing). ‘Post-truth’ equates to deceit, avoidance of anything verging towards fact or even relative truth, and as such is an outright lie.

Oxford Dictionaries, in relation to their word of the year, have been quoted as saying, “There is evidence of the phrase post-truth being used before […* see below], but apparently with the transparent meaning ‘after the truth was known’, and not with the new implication that truth itself has become irrelevant.”
(see comment and quote in full here)

Truth itself has become irrelevant!

What – The – Fuck!!!!!

* Oxford Dictionaries state that the word was previously used by Tesich when he wrote about the Iran-Contra incident and also the Persian Gulf war: “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”

Noooooo – I never decided that!

I don’t want to live in a post-truth world where “truth itself has become irrelevant”. No fucking way.

Looks to me as though the notion that all truth is just relativistic has allowed certain sectors to bandy about lies, as though tossing candy to the starving – sugary inducements that lack any substance, which is insulting and despicable at best, ruthless and destructive at worst.

On The Collins Dictionary website there is a prescient entry from June 2016:

Well, I’d rather be left in the dust of something verging on truth and live in a world where it’s OK to say “you lied” than endorse king-makers out of liars, or lying kings for that matter. I wanna be free to say “you lied” knowing that I’m not a bigot, a fascist, a racist, or anything other than compassionate and kind to the best of my conscience and abilities and where calling out a lie is a kindness to both sides.

Fuck ‘post-truth’ and all hail some honesty. Lies perpetrated as truth are a disease and are generally used and abused by those who do not want to be challenged about what they say in their never-ending attempts to grab and maintain power. And using any means possible, usually not honest ones, to avoid being challenged or quell anyone with the temerity to attempt a challenge, whether in politics, at work, in the family, is fascism in action.

To all those involved in the Trump and Brexit campaigns. You lied. Everyone else lied too, but you took political lying to a whole other low. Here’s a radical suggestion I know you’ll ignore:

Woman-up and start dealing in some compassionate honesty.

In the meantime – I solemnly swear never to deal in post-truth anything. I might lie to you, but, rest assured, unlike the unconscionable world of politics, I won’t lie about lying.

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