May 142017
 

Last weekend, as in previous years, we marked the birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our theme this year was the centenary of the publication of Nationalism by Tagore. You can watch our half-hour presentation in the video above.

Celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – 6 May 2017)

While the First World War was still raging in Europe, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of speeches in Japan and in the US in 1916-17 warning of the harm of Nationalism. These speeches were published as essays in 1917 in a book called Nationalism. It comprised Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India and the poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’.

In these essays, Tagore warned of the harm which he believed Nationalism could cause to humanity. 100 years later, his warnings appear to have been prescient and have a new relevance today.

I had included some of his observations in my previous post about the assassination of the British Labour MP Jo Cox a few days before the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. For the 10 months since the marginal victory of the Leave campaign, the politicians who argued for it have avoided spelling out how exactly they plan to deliver their ‘have cake and eat it‘ promises.

Only this morning, in his 13-minute interview with Robert Peston, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis revealed the extent of the delusion he is under. He seems to be blissfully unaware of the speech by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier just over a week ago in Florence about ‘Protecting Citizens’ Rights in the Negotiations with the UK‘. He also seems to have no understanding of trade negotiations … .

Still, let us not worry about this, Theresa May invites the people of the UK to put our faith in her ‘strong and stable leadership‘. This after the UK’s National Health Service came to a grinding halt on Friday due to a cyber-attack using vulnerabilities found by the US NSA.

Theresa May seems simply to have taken over the populist mantle of the UK Independence Party, emphasising the need to control immigration into the UK (and reject trading with the rest of the EU). Her ‘battle bus’ has ‘Theresa May: For Britain’ emblazoned on it and she has been meeting pre-selected voters and journalists who have had to submit their questions in advance.

In the modern era, nationalism has become popular in several countries. Fake news, and the money behind it, has played a major role in this, including in the UK Referendum. Claudia Cadwalladr’s investigation has linked the main Leave campaigns to a US billionaire who also financed Donald Trump’s campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Tactical2017 campaign will be able to counter this.

As we have seen recently in France, the debate is no longer between left and right but between the Nation and the world. In the French Presidential elections last Sunday, the people of France clearly preferred the internationalist view of Emmanuel Macron to the nationalist view of Marine Le Pen.

Emmanuel Macron: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Of course, there is still an underlying problem which the populists have been playing on: many ordinary people have not seen the benefits of globalisation. Remarkably, globalisation was something Tagore had predicted a century ago in his speeches on Nationalism. He also suggested that the way to avoid the world being “broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” could come from India’s experience.

The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

European nationalists, not to mention Donald Trump, were hailing the result of the UK Referendum as the beginning of a domino effect leading to the disintegration of the EU. Fortunately, since then, the voters of other EU Member States rejected the advances of eurosceptic populists, as Thomas Taylor’s cartoon illustrates.

In his TED talk ‘Why Brexit happened – and what to do next’, social scientist Alexander Betts explains that this was behind the way people voted in the UK Referendum.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attributes his election success to having identified some years ago that ‘Globalisation isn’t working for ordinary people‘. Similarly, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned for a clear diplomatic policy to make France an independent, humanist and European power. In his inaugural speech earlier today, he said “We will need a Europe that is more efficient, more democratic and more political, for it is the ultimate instrument of our sovereignty.”

Macron’s call for France to be a humanist power echoes Tagore’s most famous poem from the English Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Here is the French version recited by Arlette Schreiber for our multilingual Story of Gitanjali at the world premiere of our film version of Chitrangada in 2012:

Jun 192016
 
Jo Cox MP

Image Today 07-15-39

The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox on Thursday while working for her constituents has shocked many of us in the UK. Apart from the tragic loss of such a promising young politician and campaigner, perhaps the most unsettling aspect has been that her killer apparently repeatedly shot and stabbed her while shouting “Britain first“. The man charged with her murder, Thomas Mair, would only give his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

In the aftermath of her death, her husband, Brendan Cox, issued a courageous statement calling on everyone to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.” Jo Cox’s Fund, set up by friends and family on Friday, has raised almost £600,000 at the time of writing. One of the three causes which will benefit from the fund is Hope not Hate.

The Hope not Hate campaign learned from the Southern Poverty Law Centre that Thomas Mair “had bought manuals and other materials linked with terrorism from one of America’s (and the world’s) most virulent neo-nazi movements, the National Alliance(NA)”.

In her maiden speech in the House of Commons last year, Jo Cox said: “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

This conclusion is behind the #MoreInCommon hashtag which is being used to celebrate Jo Cox’s “belief in the humanity of every person in every place”. It also echoes the basis of Rabindranath Tagore’s humanism throughout his work.

In a series of speeches criticising nationalism over a century ago, after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore observed that:

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes, the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”

Tagore defined the Nation as follows:

A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. It is an end in itself. It is a spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being. It is a natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in co-operation with one another. It has also a political side, but this is only for a special purpose. It is for self-preservation. It is merely the side of power, not of human ideals.

… The time comes when it can stop no longer, for the competition grows keener, organisation grows vaster, and selfishness attains supremacy. Trading upon the greed and fear of man, it occupies more and more space in society, and at last becomes its ruling force.

Tagore reminded his audience that the real history of India is that of its social life and attainment of spiritual ideals.

… her homes, her fields, her temples of worship, her schools, where her teachers and students lived together in the atmosphere of simplicity and devotion and learning, her village self-government with its simple laws and peaceful administration—all these truly belonged to her.”

He contrasted this with Western society, where “the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision.

As Uma Das Gupta and Anandarup Ray concluded “Like Tagore, we also live in the age of science and internationalism. Today we call it globalisation, and our education is still similar to Western-style colonialist education. Given how troubled our world is becoming, there is a growing awareness of the need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’, a conviction that Tagore pioneered not only in thought but also in his life of action.”

This tension has been heightened by UK politicians in the build up to the UK Referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave it. The Remain campaign has focused on building fear of the economic consequences of the UK leaving the EU. Meanwhile, the Leave campaign has been urging people to “Take back control” and stressing the need to control immigration. Both have been “trading upon the greed and fear of man”. But these concerns have driven not only the UK’s but also the EU’s migration policies – to such an extent that the latter has been branded by Médecins Sans Frontières as ‘dangerous‘ for asylum worldwide.

Jo Cox was Co-Chair of the Friends of Syria All Party Parliamentary Group and had called for 3,000 Syrian children seeking asylum to be welcomed to the UK. Her parliamentary interests were “foreign policy, international development, early years education and social isolation”. Before entering Parliament, she had helped to launch Britain in Europe, the pro-European organisation. She had spent two years working with Baroness Glenys Kinnock in Brussels, followed by “a decade working in a variety of roles with aid agency Oxfam, including head of policy, head of humanitarian campaigning based in New York and head of their European office in Brussels.”

Speaking yesterday, Jo Cox’s sister said that she “only saw the good in people.” Jo Cox had also received abuse on social media during her political career. “But, she would still see the positive and talk about the silent majority who would not always shout the loudest but were in her corner,” she said.

Jo Cox’s untimely death last Thursday raises questions about where society is heading, not only in the UK but also elsewhere. Unfortunately, it seems to fulfil Tagore’s prediction of a society whose humanity has been broken up, leading it to become a brutal or mechanical destructive force. Of course, as Tagore also realised, the solution lies in two of Jo Cox’s interests: early years education and social inclusion.

On Wednesday, which would have been Jo Cox’s 42nd birthday, there will be #MoreInCommon celebrations of Jo Cox’s life around the world. Perhaps, like Tagore, Jo Cox dreamed of a united world:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Dec 102012
 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Norway in July 2011, apparently by a man angered and alienated by the multicultural changes in the country, I had been impressed to see Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg saying “We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too. And that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté.”

Today has a special significance. Apart from being my father’s 79th birthday, the European Union (all 500 million of us) will receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize is awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The winner is selected by a 5-person committee nominated by the Norwegian Parliament. They noted that “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when parts of Europe are descending into Nationalism. In 1916-17, during the First World War, not long after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore gave a series of speeches criticising Nationalism . He observed that:

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes, the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”

Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Brussels, witnessed this type of inhumanity at first hand at the age of 11, after Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940. “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Audrey Hepburn’s wartime experiences sparked her devotion to the international humanitarian organisation UNICEF (winner of the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize), for which she became a Goodwill Ambassador. Her friend Gregory Peck recited her favourite poem, Tagore’s Unending love, in an interview soon after her death in 1993 (from 1:35 in this clip).

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, was finally able to receive it in June this year having spent decades under house arrest. As I mentioned in my post ‘If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone‘, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of her winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said, “During my years of house arrest I have learnt my most precious lesson from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, many of whose verses reach out to that innermost, elusive land of the spirit that we are not always capable of exploring ourselves.”

Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, had ended a letter to the Secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations by saying “We join with you, the people of India, and with people all over the world in our striving towards a new tomorrow, tomorrow making a reality for all mankind the sort of universe that the great Rabindranath Tagore dreamed of in Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words came out from the depths of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by these into ever widening thought and action into that haven of Freedom, My Father, let my country awake.”

For centuries before it actually happened, the idea of unifying Europe was associated with preventing a recurrence of war. Large areas of Europe had previously been united by empires built on force, such as the Roman EmpireByzantine EmpireFrankish EmpireHoly Roman EmpireOttoman Empire, the First French Empire and Nazi Germany. In the 17th Century, there had been the fairly unsuccessful Peace of Westphalia – parodied here in a clip sent to me by a friend from Luxembourg.

The calls for unity became louder after the First World War but it was only after the Second World War that the first real steps were taken towards creating the European Union.

Even during the Second World War, French politician Robert Schuman had been convinced that Franco-German and European reconciliation had to take place after the war ended. As Prime Minister of France (1947-48), he laid the foundations for the Council of Europe and what is now the European Union. As Foreign Minister in 1949, he said “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.” [Source: Wikipedia]

So here we are, over 60 peaceful years later. Sadly, countries like the UK have forgotten why they joined the European Union and have succumbed to their nationalist tendencies, preferring only economic unity. The absence of peace in Europe is now taken for granted.

Perhaps another problem is that peace has no value as far as economic measures like GDP and GNP are concerned. Maybe a more useful statistic in our connected and globalised times could be the Gross National Happiness index developed by Bhutan since 1972. Futurist Gerd Leonhard explains why in this recent TEDx talk.

Back in 2008, France’s then President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a report on measuring economic performance and social progress from Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Of course, Amartya Sen has been strongly influenced by Tagore’s philosophy and is one of the products of Tagore’s school in Santiniketan.

Earlier this year, the UN added happiness to the global agenda. As the Economist reported, an international survey of happiness showed “the highest levels of self-reported happiness not in rich countries, as one would expect, but in poor and middle-income ones, notably Indonesia, India and Mexico. In rich countries, happiness scores range from above-average—28% of Australians and Americans say they are very happy—to far below the mean. The figures for Italy and Spain were 13% and 11% (Greece was not in the sample). Most Europeans are gloomier than the world average. So levels of income are, if anything, inversely related to felicity. Perceived happiness depends on a lot more than material welfare.”

So I hope that the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize will be a reminder to many in Europe, not only in the UK, who seem to have succumbed to “one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented”: Nationalism. The official EU delegation that collects the Nobel Peace Prize  includes four young European citizens – Ana from Spain, Elena from Italy, Ilona from Poland and Larkin from Malta – who won a drawing and writing contest organised by the EU institutions together  with the European Youth Forum. They were asked to answer the question: what does peace in Europe mean to you?

In Brussels, at 6pm, some have called for a flash mob in front of Robert Schuman’s statue near the parc de Cinquantenaire – those attending are asked to bring a candle and something to light it. Being in London for my father’s birthday, I will miss the gathering. That is why, in the absence of any UK celebrations of the Prize (celebrations are planned around the world, including in the US), I am celebrating it with this post. After all, it’s not every day we get to be a Nobel laureate.

%d bloggers like this: