Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dumbing Down of India

Here are some observations I have made about Indian Americans and Indian expats in the US.

• My expat Northern Indian friend doesn't think Delhi is the right place to raise kids or live because it is a far more liberal place (in terms of morality) than the US.

• Far more expats than Indian residents are conscious of their heritage, many take religion seriously even if they had never given it a thought in their past in India.

• Many are conscious of the good things in US culture as they are of the good things in Indian culture.

• The US smoking population has come down in large numbers, the tobacco industry never recovered from the body blow it received in the mid-Nineties. Litigation that won user reparations of $248 billion from the US tobacco industry meant that some of the largest producers went into bankruptcy, were acquired or simply diversified into other businesses. TV ads over the past decade have abounded with ways to kick the habit. The Indian expat community has not yet adapted to this good development as the rest of the US population has; but chain smokers are a rarity.

• The stereotypical image of the binge drinking college student may or may not be relevant any more, but people into their Thirties do not behave this way in general. The odd exceptions prove this rule.

• Raising kids is serious business. Most parents teach their kids some kind of sexual modesty, regardless of their wild youth. One may call this hypocrisy, I prefer to see it as living vicariously a life of purpose through their kids.

• Indians who believed that family was for life viewed the US lifestyle with disdain because of the incidence of divorce in the country. Despite the common notion that America remains plagued by a divorce epidemic, the national per capita divorce rate has declined steadily since its peak in 1981 and is now at its lowest level since 1970. The rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people in 1981. But since then it’s dropped by one-third, to 3.6. That’s the lowest rate since 1970. Most people are convinced that marriage problems are not reasons enough to divorce- they are interested in learning how to stay married.

You see, when I left India over 10 years ago, many people I knew talked about the US as a morally lax and directionless society. Several believed the stereotypes about US culture as being crude, unsophisticated, rude, brash, boorish, arrogant, too wealthy for anyone's good, lustful, ignorant of true faith, making a mockery of religion by selling it to crowds of the needy with loud music, manufactured excitement and fake miracles.

Several years ago many Americans believed that India was a land of snake charmers, snake oil salesmen, evil tantriks mouthing mumbo jumbo and half naked beggars.

If stereotypes defined us all, I wonder if we'd have any love lost for each other.

Here are some of my observations of people living in India that I know or know of:

• On my wife's Facebook page a friend and her husband are on vacation in Goa. A picture proudly displayed shows their 8 month old baby holding a bottle of whiskey. Another shows the dad and baby lying next to each other, dad with a bottle of beer in his mouth and the baby with a bottle of milk in hers.

• Smoking in India continued unabated; many friends are not just heavy drinkers but they talk about their sordid binge drinking weekends proudly on social networks. Smoking in public spaces has been banned- but as far as I have seen, among the thirty-to-forty-somethings this does not necessarily translate into reduction in smoking.

• Several of our friends are divorced. Many have no kids. Some have one child and do not want another child. Most marry late, though they can afford to marry at an earlier age. Many have kids closer to 40 years of age. Some support the notion of passing laws like China's one-child policy.

I don't need to make too many observations for a reader to understand where I'm going with this. You see, I see India dumbing down. I see adults who simply have not grown out of college. I see a bunch of pot-bellied, graying boozers and chain smokers cockily walking about in bermudas with a smirk on their faces, teaching kids to behave likewise and learning or teaching nothing of value to the youngsters, least of all anything of true moral or spiritual worth. Their politics leaves far more to be desired. From clueless but spirited 'citizens' who support Narendra Modi's proposal to make everyone "vote by force" to borderline fanatics who support the gunning down of lawyers who represent terrorists in India's judicial system, we have people utterly without perpsective.

Am I exaggerating? I may have taken all of this a bit more kindly. Why am I so rattled? When I talk to many friends I hardly raise these topics. But too many audaciously claim bizarre things about the US. Arrogance radiates from these self-assured know-it-alls on so many levels- arrogance of economic growth, social issues, US political failures, the so-called 'superiority' of India's educational system (which is a myth that is believed lock, stock and barrell by gullible Indians). One could be blind, but when the blind believe they can see, the blindness is serious indeed.

One must ask, what of the older generation, the parents and grandparents whose culture was far more praiseworthy, those who raised these young turks, this brat pack that has fallen pretty far from the trees? It seems to me they are scared stiff to contradict their kids. After all, this is the internet generation, the kids who are the seven figure income earners that their parents never were. The new technologies- the iPhones, the Kindles, the Youtubes, all scare the wits out of the older, gentler folks. They don't understand it. If they did, they would wonder why the brat pack was so cocky about it all. Technology doesn't make us better people. They usually entertain us or save labour. And as anyone who is wise could tell us, labour saving devices do not make us happy by themselves. Much less do they make us better people.

Do we want to really know where this is leading us? Where does unabated pleasure lead us? Social critic Neil Postman writes this in his book 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' about two views of the future- one of a strictly controlled life, by George Orwell in his book 1984; and the other by Aldous Huxley in his book 'Brave New World', that of a world where irrelevance, pleasure and indifference to reality make up the future:

"We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right."
— Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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