Letting Go of American Exceptionalism, One Harvard-Educated Banker at a Time

It has, as the New York Times reports, been the year of the lynch mob.

Amid the increasing hysteria of a blatantly Hindu-supremacist, anti-Muslim, and anti-poor government, mob lynchings have been on the rise in India. Since 2015, reports The Quint, 68 people have been lynched, most of them Muslims or Hindus from oppressed castes. Stoked by vote-hungry politicians and exploding local social tensions, these lynchings have created a palpable terror for Indian minorities.

India is not alone in this trend. If the past three years of American politics have taught us anything, it is that ethnocentrism scores political points – and has real consequences. In recent US history, after all, white people lynching black people were politically-condoned and celebrated, with a legacy that persists today. While liberals decry Trump for sounding like “a third-world dictator,“ many recent domestic U.S. policies have simply brought the violence of long-standing American policy into glaring view.

I was reminded of the urgent need to look for these transnational connections by a recent New York Times articleon India’s lynching epidemic. The article explores a particular lynching in the state of Jharkand, where a Harvard-educated banker turned right-wing politician, Jayant Sinha, caused rightful outrage by congratulating the lynching-accused in a ceremony. (Though to be sure, this is not particularly surprising in a political climate where elected officials are supporting the rapists and murderers of children.)

While coverage of this case should provide an opportunity for us to reflect on how racial and religious violence are globally interconnected, the article instead depicted this violence as completely alien to American readers’ lives. As the article, titled “Seduced by Hate, Indian Politician Embraces a Lynch Mob,” opens:

Jayant Sinha is a Celtics fan. He graduated from Harvard. He worked for McKinsey…His American friends say his politics were moderate, maybe even progressive.

Then he returned to India.

He ditched the suits he had worn as a partner at McKinsey & Company, an elite management consulting firm, in favor of traditional Indian kurtas. He joined the governing Hindu right political party and became a member of Parliament and then a minister…

This opening already sets up a dichotomy: the West is liberal, tolerant, pluralistic, a world of erudite finance and boutique education. The postcolonial world, meanwhile, is a place of religious fanaticism and murderous mobs. There are hints of a Heart of Darkness-style primitivism as the article asks whether Indian politics are “so poisoned by sectarian hatred and extremism that even an ostensibly worldly and successful politician can’t resist its pull.” Swap out a Western suit for kurta pajama, this intro suggests, and you may swap out moderation for violence.

But what if being a Harvard graduate employed by McKinsey is not necessarily radically opposed to being a right-wing politician lauding a murderous mob?

Elite Western universities and financial institutions, after all, backed and benefitted from Western imperialism and slavery. Meanwhile, Harvard graduates and bankers are responsible for some of the worst economic and human rights abuses of our times. How many high-ranking members of the Bush, Obama, and Trump White Houses were Harvard graduates? How many Harvard graduates and bankers were behind the 2008 recession? Behind lethal, global economic and social inequality? Masterminding drone strikes that kill civilians? Imprisoning people without hope of fair trial at Guantanamo? Letting people die and be piled into mass gravesat the US-Mexico border? Championing the imprisonment of migrant children? Promoting or masterminding torture?

It is necessary to condemn mob violence. It is also relatively easy. It is more difficult, but equally urgent, to condemn structural violence, especially for privileged people who benefit from it . Privilege, after all, works precisely by hiding the violence it runs on; the more privileged we are, the less aware we have to be of the resource extraction, economic inequality, and structural racism that sustain us. This selective ignorance has brutal ramifications. As Malcolm X famously said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Put another way: a black child in a hoodie may be killed. A war criminal in a suit may be President.

I got my BA from Harvard. I knew people there who came from myriad political and corporate dynasties responsible for far-reaching violence. Worse than that (because you can’t control where you come from but you can control where you’re going), I went to college with many people who went on to work for such dynasties. I’ve done corporate things I’m not proud of to turn a buck. Everyone’s gotta eat, and people with privilege may turn quite a few bucks taking up polite, suit-and-tie, nice-paycheck work that fills our bank accounts by exacerbating structural violence.

But having privilege does not mean we have to do evil; privilege can give us, in fact, a unique opportunity for disruption. Google and Microsoft employees who have been protesting against their employers’ complicity in the American security regime did something about it. Other people in similar positions can, too.

Which brings us back to the Conradian flavor of the New York Times article intro. Heart of Darkness is in many ways a racist text, but it does conclude with the reminder that the seat of evil is the seat of empire. Indian politics are unique from American politics, and lynchings have myriad social, economic, political, and cultural causes which are local, national, and regional in nature. But world politics have always been connected, and this has only sped up since those first colonizing European ships set sail. Follow the trail of what causes anti-Muslim lynching in Jharkhand far enough and some of the many social, political, and economic pathways will undoubtedly lead you back home.

Featured image: Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Indian Express.

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