NEW YORK – Cultural revolutions are underway in two nation-states — India and Israel — founded by secular nationalists in the late 1940s. Right-wing demagogues, emerging in both countries from among previously unrepresented masses, seek to forge a new national identity by stigmatizing particular religious and secular groups.
There are eerie similarities between the Hindu thugs who assault Muslim males marrying Hindu women and followers of the far-right Israeli group Lehava (Flame), who try to break up weddings between Muslims and Jews.
More importantly, religious-political chauvinism is now amplified by figures in power as well. Last week, Israel’s minister of religious services claimed that Reform Jews were not Jews. A minister in Narendra Modi’s government has described Indian Muslims and Christians in India as “bastards.”
The new ruling classes seem obsessed with moral and patriotic education, reverence for national symbols and icons (mostly right-wing), and the uniqueness of national culture and history.
Smriti Irani, India’s Minister for Human Resources and Development, has staffed top positions at prestigious cultural organizations such as the Indian Council of Historical Research with men whose only qualification seems to be their unapologetic Hindu nationalism.
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev has promoted a similarly unapologetic nationalism. Having watched Paul McCartney wave the Union Jack at one of his concerts, she’s proposed him as a role model: “That is what I want to happen here, too, for artists to wave Israeli flags.”
The supremacism of these ethno-nationalists goes with a loathing of dissenters, who seem to be undermining collective unity and purpose. Regev has described Israel’s culture scene as dominated by “arrogant, hypocritical, scheming, ungrateful” people.
Indeed, the most striking aspect of the right-wing upsurge in India and Israel is mob fury, sanctioned by the new ruling class, against anyone who can be labeled, plausibly or not, liberal, leftist or secularist.
The New Yorker’s David Remnick reported last year from Israel that vigilantes “comb through Facebook looking for left-wing sentiment among Israeli Jews; when they find it, they send letters to their employers demanding that the lefties be fired.” Hindu nationalists, among whom Rush Limbaugh’s coinage “libtard” enjoys its widest currency, are in the middle of their own righteous war against liberals, leftists and “sickularists.”
A few Hindu nationalist writers and journalists are frantically trying to build up what one of them calls a “counter-establishment.” That’s already been accomplished in Israel by religious nationalists who, as Remnick wrote, “have long railed against what they see as the dominance of leftist elites in the media, academia, human-rights organizations.”
The rhetoric heard today in Israel and India may elicit deja vu among those familiar with culture wars in the U.S. and Europe. People frustrated by unfulfilled promises of equality or prosperity, or their own inability to advance, have always found it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. In “The Revolt of the Masses” (1930) Jose Ortega y Gasset warned that the era of paternalist liberalism was giving way in Europe to a “raving, frenetic, exorbitant politics that claims to replace all knowledge.”
It is now the fate of newer nation-states like India and Israel to undergo the massive shifts of class power and explosions of bitter know-nothingism that the conservative Spanish thinker feared.
The vengefulness of the freshly empowered is understandable. While pontificating on the virtues of socialism, secularism and liberalism, the old elites presided over a network of patronage that primarily benefited their relatives and friends. Artists and intellectuals connected to the state monopolized the best positions within the culture industry.
Many of the ancien regime’s certified liberals now look shocked and bewildered at their demotion by apparent upstarts and philistines. Indeed, a traditionally hegemonic class losing its hegemony can look pretty clueless, as the visionary Russian writers of the 19th century knew well. In “Fathers and Sons,” Ivan Turgenev’s classic novel of generational and class conflict, the resentful Bazarov, a ruthless man of science, taunts his upper-class friend, “You are nothing but a beautifully bred liberal boy.”
Alexander Herzen, who despised the Russian ruling class as much as the techies of his time, was nevertheless moved to defend the ineffectual liberal intelligentsia in an essay titled “The Superfluous and the Bilious.”
Herzen — and Dostoevsky, famously, in his novel “Demons” — recognized that the seductive emotions of hatred and revenge, when not sublimated into fresh artistic and intellectual creativity, can only engender lynch mobs — a prescient fear confirmed in the 20th century by demagogues offering collective vengeance to masses humiliated by the old social and political order.
It would be nice to hope that India and Israel’s emboldened hotheads are different, and will lead their countries to stability, prosperity and peace through their special mix of right-wing economics and the politics of ressentiment. It is already clear, however, that they find more thrilling the prospect of perpetual warfare with their perceived enemies, especially the ones within.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.