Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2012

The Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. Five years ago, Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University showed how induced pluripotent stem cells could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells.

What the Nobel committee (in its citation and press release) and the major TV channels and newspapers ignored, however, was the fact that Yamanaka moved away from research on embryos on moral grounds, and not merely technical reasons. (See )

It was not too long ago when “hype” about how embryonic stem-cell research would revolutionize medical treatments was rife in the global media. Politicians like Gordon Brown and Barack Obama were adamant that those who opposed such research on moral and religious grounds were obstacles to “progress”. Today those voices seem to have fallen silent. Even when the Vatican and other Christian leaders were encouraging work like what Yamanaka eventually undertook, the media attention was all on the promise of embryonic cells (after all, we have to do something with the thousands of frozen embryos languishing in fertility clinics, don’t we?)

The season of Advent in the Christian calendar brings multiple challenges to our taken-for-granted ways of seeing. Here is a God who catches us by surprise, breaking into peoples’ lives in unexpected and unsettling ways.  This is a God who embraces embryonic life, identifies with the weak and vulnerable, and chooses to work through flawed women and men for the redemption of the world. There is also a challenge to fundamentalists: pagan Magi behave like God’ s servants, while the ruler of the Jews behaves like a pagan tyrant.

Not least is the challenge to journalists and the scores of “expert” commentators who are invited by anchormen and chat show hosts to pronounce on global events. Where would the cameras and TV crews have been focused on that first Christmas? Outside Herod’s palace, probably, certainly not in Bethlehem. But Judaea was too much of a political backwater, anyway, for the Roman media to bother.

Most histories of most countries focus on the actions of monarchs, warriors and industrialists. Howard Zinn is uncommon among historians in telling his nation’s story (the United States, in his case) from the perspective of the little people: blacks, poor whites, women, native Indians, common labourers.

“When I taught American history, I ignored the canon of the traditional textbooks, in which the heroic figures were mostly presidents, generals, and industrialists. In those texts, wars were treated as problems in military strategy and not in morality; Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were treated as heroes in the march of democracy, with not a word from the objects of their violence. I suggested that we approach Columbus and Jackson from the perspective of their victims, that we look at the magnificent feat of the transcontinental railroad from the viewpoint of the Irish and Chinese labourers who, in building it, died by the thousands.”  (Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, 1993)

As for Herod’s murderous rage which left many childless mothers in Bethlehem, only one evangelist records it (with no voluminous commentary) and links it to an ancient lament from an earlier time of national suffering. And a friend’s Christmas newsletter reminds me that Mary’s son was also born with a “death warrant” around his neck.  She was warned that a sword would slash through her own heart. Would Mary have accepted her vocation if she had known the consequences for the other mothers of Bethlehem? Nowhere do the biblical writers seek to explain such events. Clearly God is not a Cosmic Utilitarian. There is great evil abroad in the world and most nativity plays  sanitize away this dreadful reality. (The most repugnant aspect of Christmas for me is the sentimentalism, not the commercialism).

God has not promised to explain to us every terrible thing that happens. Every attempt to “explain evil” only trivializes it, reduces the horror and irrationality of it. And the trivialization of evil is what is characteristic of the narratives of secular modernity, whether Kantian, Utilitarian, Marxist or Freudian. In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, they leave us “linguistically bereaved”, lacking a vocabulary to make sense of our deepest motivations, let alone the deeply threatening elements in our social and cosmic environment. There are aspects of human behaviour that we cannot make sense of, aspects of our selves – and our collective humanity- that cannot be caught in rational schemes.

But parents continue to bring children into this dark world. They assume that existence is fundamentally good, despite the silence of the heavens. And the God Christians trust in is a God who bears the wounds of his world.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Advent heralds is the revolutionary and “this-worldly” nature of the “salvation” that God promises. Mary exults thus in “God my Saviour”:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones,

and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 51-53)

Note that the verbs in her song are in what is sometimes called the prophetic aorist tense. So certain is God’s coming reign of justice, that it is spoken of as already having been established.

For whom is judgment Good News? Definitely not for those who profit from the present world order.

On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is worth reflecting again on the question: whose history do we read?

Towards the end of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson presented to the US Congress an ambitious scheme for a new international order based on democratic government, the right of small nations to self-determination, the reduction of armaments, and free trade. Even as the US was suppressing liberty in central America and the Philippines (which they had annexed in 1898), Wilson was proudly declaring that “we are chosen, and permanently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Wilson’s rousing rhetoric, leading up to the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, was seized upon by anti-colonial nationalist leaders from Egypt to China. Despite some glaring faults, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book From the Ruins of Empire deftly portrays the hypocrisies and brutalities of colonial rule and the responses of subjugated Asian and North African intellectuals. Mishra chronicles how their hopes were dashed when Wilson (who was, for a brief moment, the most admired politician all over the world) caved in to cynical imperialists such as the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Clemenceau of France. Britain and France had dispatched hundreds of thousands of artisans and soldiers from all over their colonial empires to their battlefields in Europe, with vague promises of self-rule if victorious. After the war, both nations promptly forgot their promises.

Mishra tells us how racist slurs and jokes by Western powers marred the discussions about the constitution of the proposed League of Nations, with many Asian and African nations barred representation at the conference. Even the Japanese, an Asian imperial power on par with the Europeans, and who arrived in Paris seeking an end to trade restriction on Japanese imports in French Indochina and an end to discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California, were humiliated by being given a seat at the far end of the table, next to Ecuador and Guatemala.

The British manipulated Wilson, who was an Anglophile himself and surrounded by advisers drawn mainly from the east-coast WASP elites. They persuaded him to support British rule in Egypt, and informed him that even poets like Rabindranath Tagore were dangerous firebrands!

Among the people disillusioned by Wilson was a young Vietnamese man living in Paris, Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. He was a poor menial worker in Paris when Wilson arrived with his bold plans for a new international order of self-governing states. He rented a morning suit and sought a personal audience with Wilson, “carefully quoting from the United States Declaration of Independence in his petition”. He was allowed nowhere near Wilson, or any other Western leader.

Like so many other anti-colonial thinkers and activists, Ho was then attracted by Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet which asserted that the US was no less an imperial power than Britain, France or Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, and that it was the inherent instability of the global capitalist system that had caused the Great War.

1919 was a crucial year for many nations struggling to be freed from colonialism. Ho Chi Minh joined the French Communist Party in 1921. “It was patriotism, not Communism”, he later recalled, “which had prompted me to believe in Lenin.”

In India, the 29-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of how the “Wilsonian moment” had passed, and “for ourselves it is again the distant hope that must inspire us, not the immediate breathless looking for deliverance.” A 25-year-old Chinese journalist by the name of Mao Zedong lamented, “So much for national self-determination, I think it’s really shameless!” He wrote to his friends in France to say that he was through with all other ideas save “the Russian Revolution” which was the only way to liberate China. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was birthed in Shanghai. Mao later recalled: “The whole of the Chinese revolutionary movement found it origin in the action of young students and intellectuals who had been awakened.”

We know how Germany took its revenge on Britain and France two decades later, having been utterly humiliated at the Paris conference of 1919 and excluded from the League of Nations. And Ho Chi Minh not only drove the French out of Indo-China but inflicted on the United States the most humiliating military defeat in its history. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives, not to mention numberless Vietnamese and Laotians, because of Wilson’s decision to ignore the humble petition of a Vietnamese migrant worker.

One of the unofficial Chinese representatives to Paris, Liang Qichao, wrote back home that “China’s only crime” had been “her weakness and her belief in international justice after the war. If, driven, to desperation she attempts something hopeless, those who have helped to decide her fate cannot escape a part of the responsibility.”

If the next generation of Maos, Hos, Osamas and Castros are being formed today in Gaza, the West Bank, North-West Pakistan, the Congo, or northern Sri Lanka, who bears responsibility?

And whose stories will be told in the global media in 2019, when the world “remembers” 1919?



December 2012