Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tigers - White and Paper

You know, the more time I spend listening to John McCain the more convinced I become that the man is incapable of either making or following anything as basic as a logical argument.

Take last night's debate. In response to Obama's perfectly lucid explanation for why he'd not supported legislation banning late stage abortion - because it didn't have exceptions for the mother's health and life - McCain comes up with this beauty:

"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He's health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.

That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health." But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child in our lives. We'll do everything we can to improve adoption in this country."

Let's ignore the bizarre implication that being eloquent is somehow a bad thing, rather than a desirable quality in someone who's in the running to be leader of the free world. Can anyone explain to me what the second paragraph is supposed to mean? Obama's point is simple - bans on abortion that put the mother's health and life at risk are unacceptable. What does improving adoption have to do with ensuring that women's health is safeguarded in such cases? The whole thing's a non sequitur.

As is pretty much everything else McCain says in the debate. All he seems to be able to do is parrot the talking points he's already familiar with; hardly ever does he even seem to really hear or understand his opponents points, let alone engage with them.

Take this parting exchange:

Obama: the centerpiece of Senator McCain's education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots.

That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Senator McCain.

So if we are going to be serious about this issue, we've got to have a president who is going to tackle it head-on. And that's what I intend to do as president.

McCain: Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working. I got it.

Now in McCain's senile worldview this may be a stinging rebuttal, but personally, I don't see it. First, he doesn't get it. Obama isn't saying we shouldn't do it, he's saying vouchers aren't a meaningful solution because 2,000 slots in one state don't begin to address the scale of the problem. But even if Obama were saying that we shouldn't do it because there aren't enough vouchers, why is that such a bad point? Sounds like a fairly sensible argument to me. I realize McCain probably doesn't believe this, given his fondness for abolishing earmarks as the panacea for all budgetary problems, but I think most reasonable people would agree that a good criterion for assessing a proposed solution to a problem is whether it actually solves the problem. If McCain's plan only provides 2,000 slots in one state (I should say that I don't know whether this is true or not - but if it isn't surely that's what McCain should have been stressing), it doesn't solve the education problem, which makes it a bad solution. So while McCain's misrepresentation of Obama's point is presumably meant to be sarcastic, it actually makes a lot of sense as a criticism.

Oh, and am I the only one who sees the irony in railing against corporate greed one minute and proposing to solve the nation's economic problems through a trickle down via tax cuts to big business the next? Or of blithering on about bloated government when one of your key proposals is to take 300 billion dollars "go in and buy those home loan mortgages and negotiate with those people in their homes, 11 million homes or more"? Finally, am I the only one who almost choked on my dinner hearing Sarah Palin described as "a role model to women" (I mean, come on, at this point even Tina Fey would make a better VP)?

What last night's debate makes clear, I think, is that this is not so much a contest between two sets of opposing ideas about what the US needs, but a contest between one set of ideas and a lot of incoherent bombast. There's a lot about Obama that I find unconvincing or have reservations about, but given a choice between him and someone who would fail basic reading comprehension, I'll pick the former any time.


In other news, it seems India is being rocked by roars of anger by Aravind Adiga's White Tiger. Personally, I haven't heard the slightest whimper of surprise, let alone outrage, over the book, and seriously doubt that anyone other than some ivory tower dwelling white man whose last 'Indian' read was Midnight's Children would find anything in the book insightful, provocative or even news, but that's just me.

It's a fairly ridiculous interview, brimming with banalities and sloppy generalizations. My favorite bit, though, is this:

"it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That's what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies."

Never mind the highly questionable causal link between social change in England and France and the novels of Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens. Never mind the fascinating question of how exactly a set of novels consisting of The Temptation of St. Anthony, Salammbo, Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pecuchet comprise a critique of the 'brutal injustices of society'. And never mind that it's hard to imagine anything further from the superb naturalism and psychological accuracy of Dickens than Adiga's styrofoam characters and grotesque framing (can you imagine, say, David Copperfield being written as a series of letters to a visiting Spanish diplomat). What's really hilarious about this quote is that Adiga follows it up with the following statement:

"I'm in a different position from Husain. Fortunately, the political class doesn't read."

A minute of thought will show you that the two positions are hard to reconcile (even assuming it's true the political class doesn't read - apparently Adiga hasn't heard of the controversy around Jaime Laine's biography of Shivaji). Either novels like Adiga's are capable of being an instrument for socio-political change, in which case they are sure to invite political attention; or they are largely irrelevant to the nation's socio-political discourse, in which case all this posturing about Dickens et al makes no sense. In any case, it's hard to see why, if your goal is to use your writing as a means to social change, you would consider the alleged fact that the political class doesn't read 'fortunate'. Plus, of course, it makes you wonder who these people in Adiga's homeland that the novel is causing offence to are, and how, if the political class doesn't read can the Indian tourist board be (as per Jeffries) 'livid'.


ReadnRyte said...

Are you even 'assuming' that the controversy over Jaime Laine's Shivaji was based on them having read it :)

But, personally I found 'The White Tiger' to be an easy read that was topical because it was in marked contrast to the 'English' news channels view of India as having arrived and shining and all that. Which is probably why, Adiga's book didn't get as much press as say the God of Indian Writers in English, Mr. Chetan Bhagat.


Brian Barker said...

I see that Barack Obama's education policy is that everyone should learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Why not decide on a common language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

It is totally relevant then, that UNESCO will meet in Paris, on 15th December, to acknowlege Esperanto, as a living language, in conjunction with the International Year of Languages

An interesting video can be seen at A glimpse of the language can be seen at

kbpm said...

yeah well i dont see any ire here in India about this book. Of course what do I know but I do feel that everyone is all "Oops we did it again" about it.

anyway i was looking to see what you had to say about the book before i bought it. sounds like

Annamari said...

A.Each time when I am told that Sarah Palin should be my role model, I feel so insulted that I mutter something about shoveling.
No comments.

B. I thought Balzac was a bourgeois writer. So you see my confusion here: bourgeois , social revolution ?
On the other side Dostoevsky went to jail for his liberal views and writings. I guess that should make Russia a better society? Or not?
But societal writing like societal marketing will make a reputation…

Annamari said...


Why not a common language?
Because diversity is more fun.

km said...

Did you see McCain's air-quotes? That was priceless.

Falstaff said...

readnryte: Not really. I'm just using 'reading' in the same sense as Adiga is - political actors do respond to books they see as controversial, whether or not they truly read them.

Personally I couldn't get through White Tiger, but then I've never been big on easy reads or things that are valuable because they are 'topical'. Plus, I think much of this has to do with what media you pay attention to. I've seen much more coverage of Adiga than I have of Chetan Bhagat, and I've seen very little of this India shining business, because again, I tend not to watch English news channels in India.

brian barker: Why one language? The more the merrier, I'd say. Personally, I'd go with Wernher Von Braun and pick Chinese.

kbpm: Yes, that's probably because there is no outrage - the whole idea that the book is in any way provocative or hard-hitting is nothing more than a PR gambit.

And my advice would be not to waste your time reading the book - it's a facile work that succeeds neither as an authentic novel nor as an accurate socio-cultural exploration. You'd be much better off reading either Indra Sinha's Animal's People or Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.

annamari: Yes, I know. Unfortunately, I haven't read enough Balzac to comment. Which is why I was focussing on Flaubert.

ggop said...

Speaking of the debate, check out Joan Didion's write up today in Salon "Election by sound bite" - I think you will enjoy it. Depressing though..

Falstaff said...

ggop: Thanks for the reference, though I'd already seen the piece on the NYRB site (see post above).