Gave up on your resolutions yet? For a better 2017, make time for difficult books

2016 just had to hit rock bottom before it could finally excuse itself: Brexit, Trump, Aleppo, Sudan. On the last Monday before Christmas, a series of terrorist attacks struck fear across Europe in Zurich, Ankara, Berlin[1]. Then the new year got rolling with a bit of hope to be enveloped by Trump’s terrifying first week in office. We all share a burning desire: to do something about this fucked up state of the world, but at the same time, we feel powerless. What type of civilian action is effective? What is a conspiracy and what is true news? We end up staring at the screen reading the same arguments screaming at the same Facebook posts. Stuck in Pink Floyd’s fish bowl: “Running over the same old ground. And how we found. The same old fears”.

In this vulnerable moment, I’ve found that academic books grounded in rigorous research and thinking are one of few things that can offer me calmness, perspective, and the confidence to assess the world. This may be surprising given that for at least two decades now, academia has become increasingly afraid that it is irrelevant to public discourse in a society that values immediate action and entertainment. At the same time, new forms of liberal media have crept closely towards academic writing as they evoke geo-spatial, feminist, postcolonial, or Marxist arguments, but in more appetizing bite-sized formats. In 2016 even Teen Vogue publishes op-ed political pieces next to its typical acne-treatment tips[2]. But the adoption of the activist rhetoric by mass media has its drawbacks: click bait is designed to elicit outrage and reaction, and we the reader fling from one micro-cycle of anger to the next. Engaging with slower academic texts can offer us the space to engage with complex issues in a more reflective manner.

For those not convinced, it’s worth pointing out that in November 2016, Turning Point USA, an American conservative nonprofit, published a website titled “Professor Watchlist” which features an expanding list of professors whose work it deemed so radical that they pose a threat to the state. An example of one such scholar feared by the alt-right is Berkeley’s Nancy Shepard Hughes, who in the aftermath of several American massacres criticized pro-gun conservatives for not tightening gun laws. The website poses a substantial danger to freedom of thought, but it also is a good reminder for academics: That intellectual ideas and arguments can still spark fear, for they can deepen thinking and call for a radical reimagining of society. Below, I briefly summarize the works of two renowned thinkers Arjun Appadurai and Hannah Arendt to show how they can be relevant to big questions we are asking today.

  1. First question: Trump is outrageous and ridiculous. How can we stop him?

Recommended text: Hannah Arendt, On Violence (1970).

A German-born Jew, Hannah Arendt was exiled to America during the Holocaust. Her political theory is rooted in her lived experience: much of her work asks how violence and totalitarian power was able to rise in 20th century Europe (many writers have pointed out how nascent signs of a similar process can be observed today in the USA). In the essay On Violence, she tells the story of how German university lectures were disrupted by a small but loud group of pro-Nazi supporters. In one university, just one dissenter was strong enough to disrupt a class of several hundred students. Contrary to the popular narrative, which claims that the Nazi minority was successful in disrupting peace and dominating power, Arendt argues that the blame should be elsewhere: the silent minority. In these instances, the majority is not innocent but clearly unwilling to use its power to break the status quo. Power, argues Arendt, is never the property of one individual, for power belongs to a group.

During the rise of Trump in the 2016 US election, the media has been single-mindedly focused on Trump’s actions, beliefs, and politics as an individual. The more we try to understand and analyze him, the less he makes sense, perpetually unraveling as an incoherent but power-hungry mess. Arendt’s work points out a needed reminder: that Trump is the product of American consent. Trump has no power but the power Americans have given to him. Focusing all the attention on Trump makes liberal activists put both outrage and hope in the wrong place: for example, the delusional hope that the electoral college would somehow vote for Hillary instead, believing still that Trump had conned people into supporting him. The fact is, across Europe and America, we are seeing the rise of alt-right everywhere. It’s not the candidate (or soon, president), we must seek to understand: it is the populace.

  1. Question 2: Ok, why, then, are we seeing a conservative populist revolt across the West? Why are people so racist?

Recommended text: Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (2006).

Appadurai writes about the rise in ethnic tension in the late 1990s in conflict-ridden African countries and several European states (such as France). In the 1990s, the world was first coming to terms with the effects of globalization and also starting to become weary of its broken promises. Shouldn’t globalization bring prosperity and increased cultural understanding? Why was it resulting in heightened ethnic warfare?

Appadurai argues that every nation state is glued together by a myth of ethnic exceptionalism produced at great cost through war and violence. Any large-scale movement of people disrupts this illusion of the cohesive state and brings to surface uncertainty about what binds a country together. This uncertainty especially affects the traditional ethnic majority, who has likely fought for this very idea of the undivided state. It causes the majority to inflate the risk posed by minorities and newcomers, paranoid: How many of them are among us? What will they do to our home? In these moments of insecurity, it is not the major differences (such as religious beliefs) that can trigger conflict, Appadurai argues that it is the smallest cultural differences that can trigger a sense of divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Appadurai’s “Fear of small numbers” thesis offers one explanation for why we have seen a rise in nationalism and conservatism this year after the Syrian Civil War released millions of refugees into the Middle East, Europe, and North America. It also offers explanations for why people in European countries greatly overestimate their Muslim population, and why it seems to be the most trivial cultural issues (such as what women wear to the beach) that become primary battlegrounds for struggles over citizenship. Knowing that the world has seen this happen before, it becomes clear what project liberal activists need to work on: assisting both new and existing populations to overcome fear and create community.

Conclusion

Academic thinkers don’t always agree, and likewise one does not have to agree with Appadurai and Arendt’s arguments to see them as useful. What these thinkers have in common is they push their reader away from reacting emotionally to political situations, directing anger and fear towards other humans. Instead, they train the mind to consider the larger structural and contextual forces at place. Slavoj Zizek makes a similar argument in his book Violence: that as counter-intuitive as this may seem, sometimes in times of turmoil when one feels the urge to get out and do something, the most productive thing to do first is sit down and read[1].

[1] Argument made by Slavoj Zizek in his book Violence (2008).


Zung Nguyen is a PhD student in LSE Geography, where she focuses on urban planning and social movements in the Global South.  Prior to joining the LSE, Zung worked for 4 years managing ethnographic research and consulting projects for ReD Associates, a New York consulting firm that uses qualitative insights to deliver strategy. In her capacity, Zung advised Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and international organisations on their innovation strategy and organisational capabilities. She also conducted ethnographic fieldwork in various cities in East Asia, Southern Africa, and North America. 
 

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