Thursday, September 6, 2012

Little dictators and academia

Today is the 36th death anniversary of my father and, as I've done before, I'd like to write down some thoughts inspired by him. One thing I learned from him (and also from my mother) was to admire ideas, objects and achievements, but not to overly admire individuals. They both saw individuals, very correctly, as mere instruments in the making of these ideas, objects and achievements. A logical corollary is that both were spiritual people but didn't find it important to bring God into the picture.

In this view, one admires General Relativity rather than Einstein, Rashtrapati Bhavan rather than Lutyens, Gitanjali rather than Tagore. I don't for a moment pretend that my parents were entirely free of admiration towards people, but it was not a fetish for them. In the same way, I've deeply admired the musician Pandit Kumar Gandharva for several decades but my admiration has always been focused more on his works (of which I have an enormous collection) than on himself. And recently I surprised myself by writing on someone's Facebook page that I was tired of hearing stories about Richard Feynman, for whose science I have of course the deepest respect.

In India, at least among the middle class, this approach is uncommon to say the least. For some reason we Indians fawn on people and spend all our time elevating them to absurd heights. Sooner or later they fall from these heights and then we want to trample them in the dirt. It is an anger born from disappointed admiration. This explains, for me, our absurd relationship with politicians. Bring a politician in front of middle-class Indians and they will grovel at his feet. And yet, in private the same people will profess complete contempt for all politicians and for politics itself. Their contempt is the flip side of admiration, and the deeper the admiration, the louder the contempt. This helps me understand why we keep paradoxically voting for the same people and then (but only in private) showering abuse on them.

Despite everything I've said, I did learn from my father that there are a few people worth admiring, and these are people with a wide and well-integrated range of admirable qualities. I also learned that there is one class of person never to be admired: the larger-than-life dictator figure. In our family we all considered fascism to be a total abomination because it went against principles of natural justice, which we greatly respected. Importantly, we understood that the fascist impulse is not confined to the political world. For every globally powerful figure like Hitler or Mussolini, there are thousands of little dictators whom one encounters in one's life: people who are all-powerful within an organisation, a social grouping, a family, an academic institution. And around each such dictator there are dozens or hundreds of fawning admirers for whom the dictator can do no wrong.

I'd like to connect this with some observations from my long experience in academia. Most of my scientist colleagues are vocal in their opposition to dictatorship and fascism, which they rightly view as antithetical to democracy and justice. They support a liberal democratic system for the country, the state, the city in which they live. But shrink the circle further to cover only their academic institution, and a truly surprising love of dictatorship surfaces. It is coupled with a complete distate, even contempt, for democracy of any sort. My antennae quiver when someone in my institute, or elsewhere in academia, says something like: "democracy is no good as a principle for running a scientific institution". That may be true enough if you idiotically imagine democracy to mean gathering everyone and asking them to vote on everything. In fact that would not be democracy but majoritarianism, which is quite different. Democracy is defined by Wikipedia as "a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives". Clearly, a lot hinges on the meaning of "having a say". One can transport this definition to academia (I won't try to actually do it here) by adding words like "participatory", "transparent" etc. In short, democracy is an excellent thing for academia but, like the larger version for a city or country, it can be functional or dysfunctional. That depends on the the quality of the leaders as well as the quality of the people they lead.

So, what about those colleagues who have a distaste for democracy in academia? What is their preferred system? We don't have to look very far to find out. India has a surprising profusion of institutions each associated to a single person. In fact, institutions are often said to be "given" to a person, as in "he got a new institution from the Department of ....". Publicly funded institutions are surely not gifts in a real sense, they are paid for by the taxpayer and belong only to her. But if the leader is a dictator then the distinction is easily blurred. Whenever the head of the institution benevolently allocates some (public) funding to a member, that member must be duly grateful. If the head dislikes someone in their institution, that person's career is effectively over. As with any fascist system, the blame lies as much with supporters falling over themselves to comply. And there is constant fawning: "oh wonderful leader, oh strong leader, show us the way forward in your great wisdom". Two central features of fascism are seen here. As per good old Wikipedia, "fascists seek elevation of their nation based on commitment to an organic national community where its individuals are united together as one people through national identity". And one of their aims is to "promote the rule of people deemed innately superior while seeking to purge society of people deemed innately inferior". Sadly, one is seeing these kinds of principles being de facto approved and followed by people who are leading researchers in science, even as they rail against analogous dictators in national politics.

Unfortunately I can't get to chat about this with my father, but I can easily guess what advice he would have given: others may do what they will, but you should never support dictatorship in any shape or form.


archie said...

Wonderfully insightful!

Snehil Sethia said...

You said it very well!
I think some of the Cricket tycoons are the best examples for Indians admiring people and talking less about their skills and who but not the Media here is a perfect representation of shifting opinions about the same people quite too often.

Ungrateful Alive said...

Sadly, you will not name names.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Ungrateful Alive: If I named names, I'd be focusing on people rather than issues - the opposite of what my father taught!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

You did mention earlier that TIFR did not treat its junior faculty as faculty until 2004. And of course I know that most Indian institutions are rather undemocratic. But is that really defended by our scientists? Does anyone (other than those in power) claim that this sort of feudal "ownership" of institutions is healthy? I haven't heard that argument, but perhaps I hang around with the wrong sorts of people :)

Related -- your parents' "admire ideas, objects and achievements, but not to overly admire people" is like the flip side of Jesus' "hate the sin but love the sinner", don't you think? In both cases I think the advice can be taken to extremes. It is ok to admire Einstein and nothing would persuade me to love Narendra Modi. But, of course, don't deify them. Einstein was wrong about many things.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Rahul: Perhaps it would be more correct to say that I hang around with the wrong sorts of people!!

What bothers me the most, and I might elaborate another time, is that this support of feudal ownership is marketed on grounds of "high scientific standards" as in: "this dictator will ensure high scientific standards and rapid progress, while if there was democracy there would be diluted standards and slower progress". That's roughly like the infamous "Mussolini made trains run on time", which interestingly is also a myth.

For the rest, I agree completely.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I haven't heard that argument either and it's an extremely odd argument. Dictatorship encourages cronyism, which dilutes scientific standards (and standards in general). And, indeed, the evidence exists all over India! The people making that argument must have an interest in doing so.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Rahul: I believe some of the people concerned are not "interested" as such, rather they are being naive and giving in to their own subconscious fascist impulse. As Erich Fromm nicely explained, this impulse is a neurosis that can be found to some degree within all of us.

The funny part is that the same people think of themselves as strongly anti-fascist when it comes to national and global politics, they detest Modi and Mussolini, but then convince themselves that academia calls for totally different rules.

Neelima said...

Clever dictators can ensure the appearance of democracy. This is frequently done in academia.

मृत्युंजय said...

इस बढ़िया ख्याल को साझा करने के लिए शुक्रिया. हम सब के भीतर भी एक तानाशाह छुपा होता है जिससे वक्त-बेवक्त भिडना पड़ता है. वैसे लोकतंत्र का एक मतलब विरोधी आवाज़ को जगह देना भी होता है, जो आजकल शायद ही कहीं दिखती हो.