From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

Oct 2, 2012

Pankaj Mishra explores the little-known history of the first generation of Asian intellectuals, such as China's Liang Qichao and the Persian political activist al-Afghani, and discusses how their ideas influenced Asia's postcolonial state-building programs.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning and welcome. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us this morning.

Our speaker is the award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra. His book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, is part historical essay and part intellectual biography. It is a book I think that you will want to read, and should want to read, because you will learn a great deal.

Mr. Mishra's analysis of the intellectual and political response of 19th and 20th century Asian intellectuals to the extraordinary sequence of events and movements that shaped their history will, I believe, help us to understand the political and intellectual roots of modern-day thought in China, India, and the Muslim world in general.

In the prologue, Mr. Mishra eloquently lays the foundation for what this book is about and writes:

"The West has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined—and unimagined—the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples. . . . [This book] does not seek to replace a Euro-centric or a West-centric perspective with an equally problematic Asia-centric one."—and this is important—"Rather, it seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and the present, convinced that the assumptions of Western power—increasingly untenable—are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading."

In choosing writers whose responses to Western colonialism were based on value systems that were not entirely drawn from or dependent on the West, such as the 1913 Nobel Laureate Tagore, the Persian political activist al-Afghani, or the Chinese scholar and reformist Liang Qichao, Mr. Mishra provides insight to the multiple ideas shaping the political landscape of modern Asia, and perhaps even provides an answer to the perennial question "Why do they hate us so much?"

As the world is changing, deconstructing contemporary events through the lens of history, while at times can be jarring, can also be illuminating. In this case, knowing more about the main thinkers and doers of times past and how they tried to rebuild their cultural and political identities after collision with an imperialistic West could be a new chapter in understanding—or, as a New York Times article recently said, add more fuel to an intellectual fire about East and West.

To make your own decision, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Pankaj Mishra.

Thank you for joining us.


PANKAJ MISHRA: Thank you for that very generous introduction.

I began to think that this book had a very strange genesis, in that I first began to very broadly think about this book while reading a book some of you might remember, published in the early 1960s, called The Politics of Hysteria, by an extremely well- regarded, and I think one of the best, commentators on international affairs, William Pfaff. His co-author was Edmund Stillman in this instance.

The book was about how American Cold Warriors had failed to take into account what had happened in much of Asia in the last 150 years or 200 years, how much European imperialism had been a deeply destructive force across Asian societies.

There was a particular line that stayed with me, and I'll quote that to you, which is: "The radical and destructive remaking of Asia's life and society, the challenge to Asians' understanding of existence itself, made by the West's four-century-long intrusion, is ignored, or simply not understood, by Western policymakers and observers."

Now, this is something, he could have added, that was fairly widespread, not just among American Cold Warriors, but amongst Asians themselves. I include myself in that category.

Growing up in India, I was given a certain formulaic history, which was the history of the Indian nation-state and how the Indian nation-state came into being, which of course involved a great deal about the anti-colonial struggle. But what we weren't told was how that anti-colonial struggle and how that intellectual and political awakening, which I argue in this book is a central event of the 20th century, unfolded in other parts of Asia. We weren't really told about this. And this is the same for most Asian countries, where people are taught a particular history about the emergence of their own nation-states but are not really told about others. So there was this huge gap that I began to be steadily aware of.

I should go back a bit. One of the other things that happened was that, in many ways, I began to feel that the post-colonial nation-states that we inhabited in Asia had been highly unsatisfactory in many, many respects for many of the people living in these places. That was partly because they had taken on political, and sometimes economic, models that were a very poor fit for these countries.

That kind of realization came out of my travels and my writings on issues like Kashmir, on which I wrote a very long essay for The New York Review of Books in 2000, where it became clear that the Indian nation-state had not only failed to accommodate this minority of Kashmiri Muslims, it had actually effectively alienated and marginalized it, and in some ways radicalized it.

So the book began to emerge out of one set of dissatisfactions, with the shape of post-colonial history, the evolution of post-colonial India.

But then, the other impulse was the peculiar post-9/11 climate in Anglo-America, which I inhabited, partly because I spend part of my year in London, where ideas of imperial dominance, which you thought had been retired back in the 1950s and 1960s, made an extraordinary comeback.

There was a consensus about the European empires which anti-colonial leaders all across Asia reached very early on in the late 19th century—this is also something the book describes. That consensus was then confirmed by the first generation of academic scholars working on empire.

Even when the empire was very much around, people were talking about how destructive it had been economically, socially, and culturally. So that question had been more or less settled.

But what we saw in the last 10 years was a revival of what were Kiplingesque ideas of empire, which even George Orwell pointed out were just complete myths. I mean Kipling was a product of empire, but he didn't really know what he was talking about, as Orwell argued, when he talked about this great duty to civilize natives. George Orwell was very clear that the empire was about money making, it's a business concern, it's not about civilizing natives, and whatever benefits the natives received were entirely incidental.

But nevertheless, that particular Kiplingesque narrative about empire made a comeback, and I dare say it informed policymaking to a degree which one, even back in the 1950s, would have found really quite staggering, the way in which that kind of thinking penetrated the highest levels of government.

It helped that you had at the highest levels of government, for instance, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was under the impression that America was standing shoulder to shoulder with Britain in its darkest hour in 1940. So this is the kind of historical illiteracy—as we all know, America was neutral at that time. But it is very easy to persuade such people that the empire was a marvelous thing and that we should probably try and recreate that.

So living in that particular political, intellectual, and moral climate, and being aware of the many problems of a post-colonial state, and then feeling that this sort of revived discourse about empire was a greatly pernicious one—and the events of the last decade have proved them to be so—that's when I started to think very seriously about a book that would describe the journeys, the intellectual struggles, a whole range of debates and ideas opened up by this collision between Western power, Western imperialism, and Asian societies beginning in the late 19th century.

I began to think about figures, because I think of myself primarily as a writer of narratives. I began to think of people whose stories I could tell, whose intellectual trajectories I could trace, in a way that could illuminate broader histories and broader encounters between peoples and ideas. I was very lucky in finding people.

I was also very clear that I wasn't going to talk about familiar figures, like Gandhi or Atatürk. They are in the book, but they play supporting roles to what to most of us, and indeed to me, were originally unfamiliar characters.

Like the first Muslim activist in the late 19th century, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani; I had come across references to him here and there, but I hadn't quite realized what an important figure he was in, not just one, but several Muslim countries.

Although born in Iran, he traveled to India, where he had his crucial education; then he traveled to Afghanistan; he traveled to Iran of course, became very important in a major political movement there, almost a kind of precursor of the Islamic revolution in 1891 in some very important ways. Then he was involved with nationalists, the first anti-colonial nationalists in Egypt, the father of the Egyptian nation, Sa'd Zaghlul, with a number of disciples. He then became an advisor to the Ottoman sultan. So he was hugely important in all these territories he traveled through. And yet, he was unknown to most of us.

He also in his very short life—he was born in 1838 and died in 1897—with all his hectic travels, he managed to incarnate all the different political tendencies that we have subsequently seen, from Khameneism, to pan-Arabism, to pan-Islamism, to bin Ladenism to a certain extent, although he was never an advocate of terrorism or violence against civilians.

The other figure I chose because he is so crucial to the making of the Chinese intelligentsia, and indeed a huge influence on the first generation of Chinese communist leaders who eventually assumed power in China, was Liang Qichao, who really in many ways you could call China's foremost modern intellectual.

He came out of a very tradition-minded Confucian family and was all set to follow his ancestors into the civil services. Then he was jolted out of that traditional path by a growing awareness of China's fallen state in the international order.

The great moment for him was China's defeat by Japan in 1895. Japan had been kind of a pupil of China for such a long time, nobody ever imagined that they would grow so strong as to start lording it over China. This was a great source of humiliation to a whole generation of Chinese activists, and Liang was one of them, who articulated that sense of humiliation and sense of defeat.

Also, the Boxer rising, which was another important milestone in his thinking, and subsequent attempt to slice the "Chinese melon," as it came to be called by various foreign powers, including even Italy, which tried to get into the action at that particular point.

That sense of humiliation, the sense of China being utterly helpless and vulnerable, and what does China need to do in order to survive, in order to hold its head up with dignity—I think these are the challenges that Liang grappled with for most of his life.

Even though some of his solutions—he changed positions over several years of thinking and traveling—he was a Confucianist; he became a liberal democrat; and when he decided that wasn't the right thing for China, he went back to Confucianism. But in all his struggles and his very hectic travels and thinking, he came up with these ideas that became hugely important, influential, for a second generation.

Mao Zedong as a young man decided to read Liang Qichao. Liang's whole vision of China being weak, China being preyed upon by Western powers and Japan, was crucial to Mao Zedong forming his point of view, which eventually became, as we know, an extremely paranoiac world view.

Likewise, with many other Chinese communists, who parted ways with Liang politically of course, but they internalized that particular vision of China being constantly under threat by foreign powers and what China needed to do to consolidate itself.

So I had these two characters, Liang Qichao and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. So I began to think of ways in which I could describe their intersecting journeys and describe a moment in Asian history which in many ways occurred before serious anti-colonial movements in large parts of Asia got underway, the movements we associate with the famous names like Mahatma Gandhi or Mao Zedong or Atatürk.

In a way, what I wanted to describe was a prehistory of anti-colonialism, which meant that the people I was describing were not necessarily the major movers, the major figures, in the respective histories of their countries, but they belonged to this uniquely cosmopolitan moment in Asian history where people were traveling a lot to other countries, exchanging notes with other Asian figures, with other Asian writers. In that sort of cosmopolitan world people in Egypt could travel to Tokyo to learn the secrets of Japanese power.

I should have mentioned that Japan was a huge inspiration to Asians wherever they were, whether it was Buddhist monks in Burma or nationalists in Java or Egyptian nationalists in Cairo. Japan was a model for most of these Asians, who felt extremely humiliated by Western power, as to how to modernize yourself, how to strengthen yourself to the point where Western powers start to treat you with respect and dignity that you thought was your due.

The crucial milestone here was Japan's victory over Russia in 1905, with which this book begins, which is the Battle of Tsushima, a relatively small battle but a hugely important one, in that it was the first to prove for any number of people—Gandhi, who was a lawyer in South Africa at that point; Atatürk, who was a soldier in Damascus; Nehru, who was a public schoolboy in London, England; and Sun Yatsen, who was an activist at that point—they all responded to this ecstatically. For them it was evidence that an Asian power could match the West, and could match it militarily, economically, socially.

Soon afterwards, the news of that victory spread. It sort of acquired a kind of consequence, in the sense that what you had was a constitutional revolution in Persia, you had revolutions all across a broad swath of Asia, by people inspired by this victory, thinking "Japan has a constitution, it has managed to check the arbitrary power of its rulers, so we must do the same, have a constitution and have an elected parliament of some sort."

Any number of students from all across Asia headed to Japan to learn the secrets of Japanese power, also Chinese figures like Liang, who then acquired Vietnamese disciples. The first generation of Vietnamese nationalists grew up reading Liang Qichao and his colleague Kang Youwei.

The book describes this extraordinary moment where people are being politicized very rapidly and people are learning their place in the world, at first with a great degree of shock and horror and humiliation—humiliation is a very important trope in the book—and then, increasingly, with the hope or sense that if only they worked hard, if only they would organize the citizens of their scattered empires into a coherent nation-state in the way Japan has done, they could probably be able to hold their heads high in the wider world and regain some of that dignity that had been trampled upon by European imperialists.

So this idea goes around very rapidly in the late 19th century and early 20th century. That is really the moment this book describes. Of course, the ideas that people like Liang or al-Afghani had, the first generation of awakened modern Asians, those ideas then assume a different form as the 20th century progresses and different kinds of geopolitical context come into play. So many of their most cherished ideas never really got a chance.

But nevertheless, if you look at what they were thinking of back then, someone like Liang Qichao, it was what does China need to do in order to match the United States. He came to the United States in 1903, and he was very concerned to see the United States on its way to becoming what he thought was an imperial power on the European model—not by acquiring possessions and territories in the same way, but beginning to have an interest in an informal empire enforced by trade treaties and military bases and so on.

He goes back and writes a book saying this is very bad news for China, because if we don't strengthen ourselves fast enough, these multinational corporations that are developing in America—and America has now completed its internal expansion and is now looking for international markets—they will come over. Just in the way we were subjugated by the British during the Opium Wars with their commercial interests, we are going to be subjugated once again.

What China needs to do is build up its industrial strength very, very fast. Forget about democracy—he was a democrat until that point—but what we need to do is build up our industrial strength. The only way we can do it is not through socialism. Socialism doesn't work for us. Socialism is something that European societies developed because there was so much inequality there due to industrialization. We don't have industrialization, we haven't had any of that, so it is completely useless for us.

What we need is for the state to become strong and then to support its businessmen, support its big businessmen—in other words, to have the kind of state capitalism which you could argue in many ways the current regime in China has now developed.

So you see how in many ways the ideas, this kind of speculation that the first generation of—this is just one example of that—the first generation of Asian intellectuals had been talking about and how those ideas became realized in policymaking in state-building programs.

I think I am going to stop here and take some questions.


QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for giving us a very rich idea of the background to what is happening today. Unfortunately, not enough people are even asking the question "How did we get the way we are?"

You have been asking the questions. Today in your op-ed piece in The New York Times you had an opportunity to comment on what the West has to be aware of in this very new world that is taking many people by surprise. But if they had read your book, if you had written it a while back, it wouldn't have been quite as surprising.

We see the Muslim Brotherhood coming forward, many elements. You didn't have a chance to discuss Tagore, but could you expand on that and its implications for what is going on today?

PANKAJ MISHRA: Yes. Thank you for your question.

I think something very interesting was carried by The New York Times yesterday, which was an interview with the new Egyptian president. He made it very clear that things were not going to be running the same way they had been for a long time, and that the United States needed to change its attitudes toward that entire part of the Muslim world, and that he was under different kinds of pressures now, that he just wasn't going to respond in the way the Americans wanted him to. I think he was obviously putting it very politely and very mildly. But that is the sentiment in large parts of the world, including places like Pakistan, and indeed Afghanistan.

This again goes back to a kind of deep disconnect between the historical memory of people in this part of the world and people here, the way we look at history, the way we in America look at the history of the 20th century, where events like the Cold War and the two world wars are so much more important than anything that happened in Asia. They don't really think about decolonization, which was the major event for Asia, and that was the major event of the 20th century. Insofar as the two world wars were important, they were important in weakening the power of the West, and the power of Europe in particular. So it is a completely different way of looking at history.

If you think that the 20th century was where we won two world wars, defeated communism, defeated Nazism, and now we can remake the rest of the world in our own image, that kind of vision clashes very rudely with the visions created in Asia in the last 150 years, which have all to do with self-determination, which have to do with describing and outlining your destinies, taking control of your lives, taking control over your own destiny, and really living with dignity in a wider world, where nobody tells you what to do. This was the whole impulse behind the anti-colonial movement, that people have been ordered around for far too long.

In a curious way, there is this strange sort of incompatibility now which needs to be bridged urgently, which is that we just have a very different idea of how we should be in the wider world, which creates these kinds of problems.

And then, of course, we reach for very simple explanations, like "they must hate our freedoms," or "there is this irrational Muslim rage, which has obviously been lingering there for a long time, because they have all failed and they are all completely resentful of successful societies," so on and so forth—any number of culturalist, pseudo-psychological explanations about this. But we have to reckon with the political and historical side of that I think more and more urgently.

JOANNE MYERS: In that same piece, you sort of advocate that America should leave the Middle East and Asia. How do we come back, or do we ever come back?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I don't say "leave," but certainly "scale down" is the word I use, because that whole presence has become so controversial and so volatile, there is such a massive deficit of trust, which is very difficult to overcome even in one generation, and is certainly not going to be overcome by a couple of good speeches in Cairo or Istanbul by the American president.

The fact is that these societies are now going to be in turmoil for a very long time. What they need to do is to give them enough space to sort out their own problems.

This argument that if you leave there will be chaos—again, these arguments are not aware of their own history. This is what the British always used to say about India, that "there will be chaos when we leave, and there will be chaos in Africa and there will be chaos in various parts of the world."

There was chaos, and the chaos was partly their making. But in the end people were free to make their own mistakes, which is what self-determination is all about, and that is what the power of anti-colonial nationalism always resided in. That's what they wanted. They did not want to be ordered around.

When I say that America should retreat, you can't argue that it should retreat completely from that region, which had such important stakes, and has had them for a very long time. But certainly start to act in ways that do not complicate this problem even more than it has, and stop thinking of yourself as having the ability to dictate events there, because events are simply not amenable to that kind of thing. Those events are now going to be dictated by the people there, the people who are now politicized, who are very active. Whether it's the radical Islamists, whether it's the liberals, it is not going to be pretty. We are going to have a lot of conflict and a lot of chaos in that region.

But I think a party that is distrusted by all sides—and I make it clear in the piece that even the people who are opposed to the Islamists, and there are many of them, they have been worrying that the United States has cut secret deals with the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is no way in which, apart from a few people here and there, the United States can win back the kind of trust, for instance, they enjoyed—that was a golden moment that I describe in the book—just before 1919, when Woodrow Wilson seemed to offer self-determination to people across the world and there was this huge explosion of hope. I think it is going to be impossible to win back that degree of trust for a long time.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for your presentation. I'm Helena Finn from the American Council on Germany.

My question is: In a period of globalization, what is the future of the nation-state in Asia? One sees Japan, one sees Turkey—these are very clearly defined nation-states with a strong sense of identity. But I think a lot about Pakistan, and particularly the enormous sectarian violence within—Shiites, Sunnis, Alawis, Christian minority, Hindu minority, and so on. What is the future of that, and how can a country like that achieve sufficient stability to progress economically from within?

PANKAJ MISHRA: I think that's a very good question. Thank you for that.

I deal with it at some length in the book, about how so many Asian countries in order to match the power of the West decided to adopt, and in many ways they were forced into adopting—there was really no time or scope for maneuver there—Western models, the nation-state primarily amongst those models, which were a very poor fit for these ethnically, religiously heterogeneous societies in Asia, and those communities had co-existed without the model of the nation-state.

So now we end up having problems we did not have before in our very long histories, where you have that kind of sectarian violence against minorities—not just in Pakistan, but also in India, and indeed in countries like China, and indeed in Indonesia we are seeing more problems there of that kind.

Globalization was supposed to have weakened the power of the nation-state. It has done so, but not in the way we would have liked, in the sense it has made a lot of national elites beholden to global businessmen, to global corporate interests, and that means the state has withdrawn from a lot of areas that it used to intervene in and used to provide social welfare, for instance in India. It used to do a lot more than it does now. The idea is that the market is going to do everything. So in that sense the state has weakened.

The state's ability to intervene effectively politically between different communities and to maintain law and order and peace, that has been also affected in the process. India is a good example of that. People resort to violence, and the state resorts to violence, much too quickly in response to social unrest and political disaffection.

So you see the nation-state model is in a very, very serious crisis in various parts of Asia, whether it's India or in China—or indeed in Pakistan where the nation-state never really established itself in the way it did in India primarily, because we inherited most of the institutions of the state from the British.

I think we need to think very, very clearly about different forms of sovereignty, different ways of dealing with problems, which cannot be solved by one nation-state.

Climate change is an excellent instance of that, Asia's major rivers originate in the Tibetan plateau, and that affects the lives of hundreds of millions of Asians. Obviously, China alone cannot solve that problem. There are so many problems that transcend the abilities of nation-states.

So I think there is a lot of rethinking to be done about those kinds of issues. And some of the people I describe in the book were very skeptical of nationalism to begin with and of the nation-state.

Tagore was famously so about this whole idea of what he called "organized selfishness and organized brutality." He was a great critic of the Japanese nation-state, and a very prescient critic too.

QUESTION: Georg Paik.

To moot my premise for the question, in what I would say are early encounters across cultures intellectual patterns and trends are freighted with the various parochialisms and the various circumstances of the different parties. As we get through the 20th century, as you were pointing out, there is an evening-out, if you will, an emergence of different multiple voices.

I wonder if it is at this stage possible, or if you see any elements of common, or even generally accepted, values as a result of that encounter and of this developing relationship. If so, are there any elements you might point to in the discourse today? If so, I am wondering what you might identify as the key blockage points at this point.

PANKAJ MISHRA: You mean a sort of collaborative intellectual effort?

QUESTIONER: Collaborative effort, even just elements of common values, if we are not yet ready to engage, even at the academic level.


QUESTIONER: Within Asia, between Asia and the West, between Asia and the West and other places perhaps we haven't identified, but obviously of course Asia.

PANKAJ MISHRA: I am sort of uneasy generally with the talk of values, whether it is Western values or Asian values, because I think they conceal world power, they conceal many different kinds of agendas. So I prefer to not theorize about values.

Certainly, intellectuals and commentators when they start talking about values are mostly really talking about who needs to be on top. So I find myself again and again reacting. I have written about the whole fraudulent aspects of Asian values, which were proposed back in the 1990s by various Asian authoritarian figures, and that was mostly a justification for their authoritarian rule, for the denial of political freedoms to their populations.

At the same time, I think it is possible for intellectuals who are not affiliated with these regimes to think about alternatives, to think about possibilities.

I think in that sense a historical exploration of those issues is so important, because in many instances, such as the people I describe, these are people already thinking about ethical problems, about political problems, very early on, because they are not, at that point at least, engaged in political activism. So they had not become ideologues at that point. They are not forming political parties or political movements.

Then you have to develop a tunnel vision and just follow one particular path. So they are thinking very broadly and thinking about what forms of political community are suitable for these societies that we inhabit in large parts of Asia, what kind of ethical frameworks we need, whether the Western framework is suited for us, the Western idea of the individual. I mean they go very deeply into those questions about what does Western modernity consist of, what is at the center of that, what is the vision of the good life there.

So there is a very broad range of subjects that these people were considering and assessing, a whole range of ideas that have been lost to us because we have been sent down this part of history and have been following these particular trajectories and have been told that it is our duty to be modern, and to be modern in certain ways, which means that, whether you are a capitalist or a communist, you are essentially thinking of getting people out of rural areas into urban areas. You are still thinking in the same model of extensive industrialization, urbanization. You see that. You see Stalin doing that, you see Mao doing that, and you see China doing exactly the same thing. The methods have changed, but that vision hasn't changed.

The idea of unsustainability hasn't begun to really even enter their calculations, although we know that is not a reality. The planet cannot sustain the consumer-oriented lifestyles of 2.6 billion additional people. It can barely sustain those lifestyles of a few hundred million Europeans and Americans. And yet we continue down that path, we keep doing that.

Most Indian cities are heavily polluted and they cannot accommodate the people who are traveling to these cities from the countryside. And these people cannot find any jobs, or they find extremely exploitative, menial jobs.

But there we are, sleepwalking through history, just doing the same things that other people have done. So I think there is this urgent need for fresh thinking about so many of these issues. Otherwise you just create so much potential for social conflict.

We are seeing that now. People have gone through the cycle of wanting to realize the opportunities of globalization and urbanization and are finding it is not working out. There is far too much disappointment, far too many failures.

And then you have a kind of militant disaffection because globalization is so promiscuous with its promises, offers so much, and delivers so little to so few. So you have such a large majority of people who feel left behind, who feel cheated, or feel very angry. That's the anger and disaffection and militancy we are seeing in large parts of even a supposedly rising emerging economy like India.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

I want to shift the focus to the Middle East from Asia. It seems to me to be infinitely more problematical, first of all, because in Asia you have settled countries, in a sense national states, where there is a certain amount of symmetrical relationships and modalities that you can have in terms of negotiation and so on.

In the Middle East that is lacking. It's asymmetrical to a very significant degree. You don't know exactly what the states are and who the heads of those states are and how much authority they have to bargain with you.

Secondly—and this is quite important—I'd be interested in your thoughts as to how these sorts of developing relationships can be managed internally by U.S. and Western European statesmen, because that is a very difficult issue. It's fine to say, "This is what we need to do; it's not about us," and all this kind of stuff—we all agree on that, or most of us do I'm sure—but managing that sort of relationship and withdrawal internally is a very formidable problem.

PANKAJ MISHRA: It is, and I agree with you. These are huge problems that have been in the making for some time. Obviously, things were pretty stable and under control when you had a whole lot of despotic regimes in place which were keeping these tensions, if not in check, certainly concealed, very well concealed, and now they are all out in the open. There are no clear-cut answers, I completely agree with you.

Unlike Asia, where when the United States withdrew from Indochina back in 1975, there was actually a political movement ready to assume power, which it did very quickly, to the point where it could then very effectively intervene in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge. So it had that kind of institutional capacity, which is not something you can say about many of the countries that have been recently liberated from despotism.

I think, as I said, we are going to see a long period of chaos. I don't think there is much anyone else, anyone outside, can do about it. It will be very difficult to make policy in those circumstances. One will have to simply improvise.

But I think it is useful to keep some sort of broad ideas in mind about how Western intervention in that part of the world has been historically received, which calls for a change in tone, which calls for a change in attitudes. That I think, in itself, would make a huge difference.

QUESTION: Nancy Kirk.

What you have just said, does that mean—we have good relations with Japan and Vietnam. Would you then say that it is the existence of institutional capacity that makes the difference between our being there and not being there? The countries we are being advised to move out of, not only by you but by others, seem not to have this institutional capacity. Can we enable that through education, through contributing to the exchange of information, and contributing our resources to building education in these other countries?

PANKAJ MISHRA: Absolutely. And it can be done through any number of non-intrusive ways. You can be encouraging the formation of a proper civil society. People are already doing that. Very brave people are out there doing that kind of work, and they ought to be encouraged.

But I think what I am really stressing is that this relationship has been so poisoned by the support given to various dictatorships in that part of the world for a very long time, so it is going to be very difficult to regain the political trust of the people in that part of the world.

For that, I think years and years of that kind of consistent, steady work in education and public health will be so much more important than calling up Mohammed Morsi and telling him what to do, or making sure that The New York Times carries a report about how the president called him and gave him a talking-to. That kind of thing doesn't go down well anymore. Small things like that can make a huge difference.

QUESTION: My name is Krishen Mehta. Having grown up in India like yourself, I empathize with the post-colonial legacy that we grew up with, needing always a sense of respect and dignity from that era.

Now, having lived in the West and observing a lot of things here, I wonder what you would comment about the First Amendment rights, on the one hand, of people to say what they want, and how it stirs up emotions and anger that has some of the post-colonial connections that are hurtful to various groups.

I'm particularly worried about some ads that are going to come out in New York subways next week will stir the pot even further. I don't know if some of you are aware, but there are some very disturbing ads that will come out that will stir the anti-Muslim fervor in this country.

I wonder how you would advise so Western nations can respond to this kind of thing—the First Amendment, on the one hand, and the impact it has on developing and other Western countries.

PANKAJ MISHRA: It's a very complicated issue, because so many of these rights were created at a time when the United States or Western countries weren't actively engaged in different parts of the world, when these things weren't really happening in the context of wars or various other kinds of meddling and interference in these countries.

Now when a video or something like that happens, people just fail to see that this is something that most Americans would insist on as their right. This is part of their particular society, their particular values.

They see it as a larger assault on their collective identity, which is already under siege. If you are someone living in Yemen or if you are someone living in Pakistan and have been protesting against the drone attacks, against the strikes on civilians in Afghanistan, this just comes on top of all that that's happening, it becomes part of a continuum.

So for us to expect them to understand—"Oh no, this is part of what we do, this is First Amendment, part of what is guaranteed to us under that kind of legislation"—I think is a bit optimistic. So it becomes complicated, because this all happening in the matrix of recent wars, not to mention Guantanamo and indefinite detention without trial of civilians, all these kinds of things.

I think one thing that is not emphasized enough—we have a lot of clichés about the global village and how we inhabit a global reality—is we have not yet developed an ethic of responsibility as so-called global citizens. In fact, someone who wrote brilliantly about that, Hannah Arendt, in an essay she wrote on Karl Jaspers, which could see how inhabiting this global reality, where anything you did was immediately known and prone to be misinterpreted by your neighbors, by people in other countries—and the Internet has made it even quicker—that you needed to think in different ways than you would have when you were just inhabiting a single nation-state and were fairly isolated, where you could enjoy the rights available to you within those kinds of national boundaries.

Now we are all engaged with other countries and other societies in ways that we weren't back in the 19th century, back in the 20th century, when the information wasn't available to us.

So I think we need to start thinking about those kinds of issues: What does it mean to be a citizen of the world, to be inhabiting this particular land? What do those rights mean? I mean those rights are obviously extremely important. That is almost the fundamental basis of any democratic society, the freedom of speech. But how it can be misused or turned into incitement to violence and hatred—we are fully within our rights to say whatever we want, but "should we say that?" is the question we should be asking ourselves more and more.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to ask these questions. It was a very thoughtful presentation. Thank you.

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