How To Read

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December is the season of lists – resolutions for next year, favourite movies of the year, most interesting Twitter handles discovered, places visited, governments toppled, and so on. Several book lists are also floated around the same time. Some, usually from academics, are short and focused on their specialty. Others meander and are sometimes probably too long to have truly done their readers any good – as if they were more to secure bragging rights rather than be helpful recommendations. More is not necessarily better, and neither is quicker.

How we read is strongly correlated to why we read, which also defines what we read. I suspect more of us will become discerning regarding our choices when we realise that the majority of us will get to read only about slightly over 3,600 books over our entire lives – this is assuming one starts a serious reading habit by the age of 10, reads a book a week for the rest of one’s life, and lives until 80. This limit to our reading adds a different perspective – perhaps adds a tinge of urgency or importance – to what we read and how we read it.

There is a sense of satisfaction, I will admit, in reviewing a long list of books you have ploughed through over the year. A couple of years ago, I caught myself slipping into this false sense of achievement, conflating quantity with quality because it offered a soothing empiricism that really could not exist. Reading three to four books a week, however, left little time for contemplation. I could get away with reading quickly in graduate school because all my friends were either professors or other graduate students. Constant discussion and debate reduced the need for private rumination. Now, however, the lack of deep experience of the book, a total immersion in the subject matter, left me unhappy with my reading. In order to live more, I had forgotten to live well.

It was by deliberately immersing myself in a book I regained the pleasure of reading. Careful and slow reading with deep attention and sometimes repetition, gives the reader more time to explore the nuances of the author’s words. This is easier said than done: study after study tells us that the average attention span these days has shrunk and fewer readers make it to the conclusion of an article. In order to read more, we have also become less attentive to details and argument. Nothing exemplifies the crisis in reading more than a 2007 book by French professor of literature, Pierre Bayard – Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (How To Talk About Books That You Have Not Read). Deliberate readers of books, then, are a rare species.

What this means is that readers today have become good accumulators of factoids but their comprehension skills, attention to context and relations, and contemplation have all suffered. Reading skills that were commonplace even in the early 1990s such as oral performance, memorisation, a critical eye, and annotation have all but disappeared. Studies have shown that committing poetry or even particularly poignant prose to memory, beyond its purely aesthetic appeal, has significant benefits in terms of language acquisition and expression.

Another advantage of reading slowly is its effect on writing. Allowing well-written text to gestate in the mind enables an integration of interesting turns of phrase or sentence patterns into the reader’s own style. We have long been told that the best way to improve our writing is to read well; that applies not just to what we read but also how we read. Skimming, as most people are wont to do nowadays, is not conducive to fostering this absorption of ideas and style.

Of course, the fast-slow dichotomy is an over-simplified model of how we read. There are different kinds of books as there are several types of readers. Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers, for example, is an excellent book that is more data-heavy than Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which is again in a different class from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Then there are works like the Aeneid, Mahabharata, or the Pirkei Avot, which merit several re-reads over the years. We read for education, entertainment, or for joy and our speed and attention varies with each of these.

Regardless, the implicit hope in reading is that we imbibe and process the knowledge and values books offer and gain a modicum of maturity and wisdom. There is no profit to be had from becoming a foremost scholar of Jewish philosophy if at least some of the ideas of Moshe ben Maimon, Baruch Spinoza, or some other thinker do not enrich your own life. That admonition you have heard all your life – do not judge a book by its cover – was not entirely wrong but it was horribly phrased. It is simply impossible to read all the books you want to and filters must weed out the mountain of books that might be interesting or useful to make room for those that will certainly add value. Of course, care would be advised to ensure that our selecting process is based on criteria other than ideology for well-rounded development.

Given the limits to our reading, it is not wise to read books we do not like simply because we are “suppose to know them.” I have never been a fan of Victorian literature (including the Regency), for example, and the only works I have read from that period are the ones that were forced upon me in school. It is not a lacuna in my reading because I compensated with literature I do like, and those who made time for Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy could not for Goethe, Leopardi, Poquelin, and Rilke. Our sense of what we are “supposed to know” is fluid and depends on language and geography.

A healthy reading plan should balance books for the here-and-now with books that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is inevitable that some of our reading is spent on learning more about the world: what is the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict?; what is France’s place in NATO?; how did ancient civilisations get intoxicated?; what does a manned mission to Mars entail? As food for the soul, there should also be some books that ask the bigger questions: what is beauty?; do we have souls?; how should society be structured?; is all life equal? The first part is more defined, easier to comprehend, and the books have helpful titles. The second part, however, is challenging and usually gleaned from a lifelong reading of philosophy and literature.

Like any good habit, a healthy reading habit takes effort. One hears that technology has not made reading any easier, providing ample distractions and training us to think only 280 characters at a time. There is some truth to this, but careless reading is a problem that goes back much further than the 21st century – Shakespeare’s First Folio urged us to read the playwright “again and again” until we understand him. Friedrich Nietzsche called himself “a teacher of slow reading” in 1886, and Ivor Richards popularised close reading in the 1920s.

So for the coming year, if one of your resolutions is to read more books, remember – it is better to read slowly, critically, and engage with the text and understand the author than to acquire a passing familiarity with a catalogue of books. Read what you enjoy and diversify your selections; read for the mind as well as the soul. Much like food, good books read well will stay with you for life.

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India’s Jerusalem Misstep

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In keeping with its historical tilt towards the Arabs, India voted in favour of the United Nations resolution that called on the United States to reverse its decision recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and consequently refrain from transferring its embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Besides India, 127 countries voted in favour of the resolution, including the four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; 35 countries, including Canada and Mexico, abstained, and 21 countries were absent during the vote. Only seven countries stood by Israel and the United States to vote against the resolution. Just three days earlier, the Security Council had voted 14-1 against the US decision.

These resolutions are non-binding and meaningless in compelling the United States to accept international opinion. However, the voting indicates just how internationally isolated the Donald Trump administration has become over the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The landslide result came even as the United States had earlier threatened to curtail foreign aid to the countries that voted in favour of the resolution. Tellingly, the United States was abandoned by its staunchest long-term allies during the vote in the Security Council as well as the General Assembly. Even among the 28 NATO countries, no one voted with the United States and six abstained.

It is worth reiterating as many analysts not given to histrionics and I have in earlier articles that the US declaration is neither illegal nor does it change anything on the ground. First, the United States has left it to the Israelis and Palestinians to decide upon the boundaries of Jerusalem themselves, and second, the US embassy is being shifted to a neighbourhood in western Jerusalem – a portion of the city that has been the capital of Israel since December 13, 1949. It is only the status of East Jerusalem that is in dispute, but hypocritically only after 1967 when it came under Israeli possession and not 1948 when it was occupied by Jordan and Jews denied access to their holy sites.

This is not the place to get into the wrongs of India’s policy towards international Jewry in the 20th century before 1948 and Israel since. In any case, Delhi’s relations with Jerusalem have seen a sharp uptick since Narendra Modi took office in 2014 and India has been less reticent about its relations with Israel. Political rhetoric has been effusive about the “natural partnership” between the two states and highlighted cooperation particularly in critical areas such as defence, counter-terrorism, water management, and agriculture. India’s decision to vote with the UN resolution despite this bonhomie, though not surprising, is nevertheless unfortunate.

India had taken a noncommittal stance last fortnight when Trump first announced that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that Indian interests and policy would not be dictated by third parties. This position was reiterated a week later by India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, to the Arab League. It seems that Delhi finally buckled under the tremendous pressure from the Arab world to change its vote back to its traditional pattern.

It is not that India had no other options. Even if it did not wish to overtly side with Israel, it could have stayed true to its earlier stated position by abstaining from the vote or, better still, being absent for it. As Josef Broz Tito told Jawaharlal Nehru on the sidelines of the first Non-Aligned Movement summit in Belgrade in 1961, it is not necessary to take a position on every single issue that comes up. India’s warm words for Israel and its embassy in Tel Aviv would have allowed Delhi to straddle this divide masterfully but it was not to be.

One might argue that India’s vote is meaningless in terms of the global picture as well as in its bilateral relations with the United States and Israel. This is wishful thinking. While it is certainly true that India’s vote is meaningless in the broad scheme of things, it is more an indication of its weak diplomatic heft supported by a minor economy and even smaller military capability. To top it off, Delhi has no history of leadership in the Middle East. To conclude from this that India’s vote will not be noticed by Washington or Jerusalem, however, is folly.

The vote in a non-binding resolution may in and of itself be trivial but it fits a long and well-established pattern of voting against the United States and Israel. Yet another such vote indicates to both capitals that Delhi has not yet transformed into the rising world power they had hoped to see. India’s misstep at the United Nations might not attract an immediate and specific response but it will cool enthusiasm for greater trust and trade in sensitive technology and practices. Delhi’s signal that it remains the unreliable hedging power is no way to win friends and influence strategic partners, especially when India needs their help to fuel its economy and and military capabilities. India’s vote was important as that of a rising power but if, like China, it does not contribute to the existing world order, there is no reason for present powers to commit to its rise either.

It is ironic that India would like US and Israeli support on Kashmir but is not willing to even remain out of the fray – at no cost to it – on an equally emotive issue for them. Delhi seems to be sorely lacking in its understanding of diplomatic give-and-take, be it on the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, trade agreements, joint military operations, or diplomatic undertakings. As the intractable hedge, Delhi reduces its own ability to influence states and leverage its assets for strategic gains.

This may be partly due to hubris among India’s leaders that their market is so large and increasingly prosperous that it is indispensable to salivating Western capitalists. The nuclear energy sector was a rude shock to such claptrap as company after Western company stayed away from the Indian market until the government finally stepped in to sufficiently assuage their concerns about India’s unconventional laws. Similarly, any sense of over-confidence India may have in its inherent worth would do well to get a reality check.

The usual argument trotted out to urge caution and status quo in India’s Middle East policy is that there are close to eight million Indians working in the Persian Gulf and they remit close to $35 billion annually to India. Yet if Delhi allows this to remain its primary criterion in deciding Middle East policy, it has effectively given the Gulf Cooperation Council a veto on its decision-making process. Additionally, these remittances are based on the Gulf economies and are hardly some sort of annual stipend for India. Delicate economic ties will not be snapped as easily as some analysts warn because the Gulf states also need an agreeable workforce; as a large customer, a minor diversification by India of its hydrocarbon acquisition can affect Gulf ledgers and is effective counter leverage.

There is no doubt that Washington’s threat that “it will take names” came across as crass and may have had an effect opposite to the one desired on many countries. With dwindling US aid and other financing options opening up, Trump was caught up in his own mini-1945 European Recovery Programme (ERP) time warp. For India, however, the threat need not have applied – its interests genuinely align significantly with those of Israel and the United States and there was no reason to stick a nay vote in their craw. The MEA’s failure to understand how international alliances work – however fluid and transient – is becoming one of India’s greatest liabilities.

A Rebirth of American Power

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The United States released its latest National Security Strategy (NSS) document on December 18. By and large, these releases are more important for the intent they personify than any actual policy decisions and the Trump administration’s first NSS is ripe with symbolism. The NSS comes as no surprise, staying close to the rhetoric and tone Donald Trump used during his election campaign last year and as president these past twelve months. That in itself is a drastic change in the way America sees the world and its role within the international community.

Trump’s NSS boldly announces the return of the United States to the world stage after a long spell of quasi-isolationism following the Cold War. As Washington tried to put together a consensus or a strong majority in its international actions, the perception was that the White House squandered away American dominance. The contours of the conflict in Syria and Libya especially showed an indecisive superpower whose best days, many said, are past. The new NSS intends to remedy this by strengthening the four pillars of American security: the protection of US soil, the promotion of American prosperity, the strengthening of the US military, and the advancement of American global influence. While all administrations promise the first two, it is the road map the Trump administration has for the latter two that make this security document interesting.

Trump wishes to substantially build up the US military again in support of a more aggressive posture against America’s enemies. The NSS differentiates between three kinds of threats requiring different tactics. At one level is the threat of Islamic extremism and international crime syndicates; these will be opposed by military force as well as sanctions that target operations networks. At a second level are the threats posed by rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, directly as well as from clandestine proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to state and non-state actors; the United States wishes to weaken such powers through strict sanctions and erect enhanced missile defence systems to blunt any aggressive designs from Tehran or Pyongyang. The NSS specifically mentions that such measures are “not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.”

The third level of threats, however, includes these same countries. The Trump administration believes that these threats will need to be faced through strengthening American space and cyberspace capabilities, re-establishing America’s lead in nuclear (energy) technology, advanced computing, and green technologies, combatting unfair trade practices and market distortions, and reviewing the visa process to curb industrial espionage.

What is interesting is that despite the chumminess Trump has been accused of having with Moscow, his administration’s NSS clearly calls Russia out for attempting to weaken US influence in the world and drive a wedge between Washington and its allies. “Russia want[s] to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests…seek[ing] to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”

In a stark departure from previous NSS documents, the Trump administration reserves its harshest tone for China. Rumoured to want to get tough with China, the George W Bush administration was distracted by terrorism in the Middle East and ultimately “welcome[d] the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China” in its 2002 NSS and maintained focus on trade relations and development with a gentle nudge towards internal democratic reforms in its 2006 document as well. The succeeding Obama administration was more interested in achieving some progress on human rights and climate change with China while maintaining strong trading ties as its NSS documents from 2010 and 2015 reveal. Taiwan and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula are mentioned too but in a conciliatory tone rather than as a challenge. The Trump administration’s NSS, however, launches into a jeremiad against Beijing:

China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.

For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.

Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.

The important question for Delhi is what this means for India and its relations with the United States, at least for the next two years. Superficially, the NSS is a godsend for India – not only does the document identify India’s main rival as a threat to the United States but it also targets Delhi’s perennial nuisance Islamabad through its counter-terrorism aims. In addition, Washington recognises India as a “Major Defence Partner” and declares its intent to expand defence and security cooperation as well as “support India’s growing relationships” including “its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.”

Indo-US relations have clearly come along way since Bill Clinton’s desire to come down on Delhi “like a tonne of bricks” and “cap, rollback, and eliminate” its nuclear programme after Pokhran II. The credit for transforming Indo-US relations goes to Bush ’43 and his administration’s willingness “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century,” but even such a pro-India White House spoke of the South Asian giant largely in terms of its relations to Pakistan, democracy, development, and economic growth; the Obama administration was even more tepid. This latest NSS makes, in that sense, another great departure from its predecessors.

The Trump administration’s prioritisation of the Indo-Pacific region, the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad as a key regional institution, and recognising Delhi’s potential as a provider of regional security and stability is certainly a promotion for India. This good news does not come unalloyed: regardless of what this White House – or any administration before it – says, the true measure of relations can only be supporting policies. The United States has for long promised to compel Pakistan to abandon its support of terrorism but next to nothing has been done in that regard. Hafiz Saeed, one of the most wanted men in America, walks free and even participates in Pakistan’s politics. US aid is yet to come with stringent preconditions and sanctions against Islamabad have not been mentioned even as a joke.

Similarly, Trump was hawkish on China during his election campaign and even began his presidency with a call to the Taiwanese president. However, he has since mellowed and not followed through on some of the economic punishments that had been under consideration to persuade Beijing to stop market distortions and intellectual property theft. It would be foolhardy for India to fully bank on the United States and assert itself on the Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean against a stronger foe just yet.

Delhi bears some of blame for the United States’ ambivalence in the Indo-Pacific – its ideological compulsions have historically prevented it from becoming a useful ally to Washington and thereby increase its influence with the superpower. As a result, the United States has looked elsewhere to meet its needs and contributed to the spiral of mistrust between the two estranged democracies. This was particularly evident between 2004 and 2008 when India dragged its feet in response to the Bush White House’s enthusiasm for strategic relations. This is slowly changing now but the pace may not be enough to satisfy India’s strategic regional interests.

If Delhi can stop tripping over its hollow phrases like non-alignment, strategic autonomy, and partnership of equals, the Trump administration’s NSS presents a real opportunity for India to forge greater economic and military ties with the United States. The ripple effect will open doors to better ties with other US allies as well. A demonstration by India that it is willing to play like the big boys could set a higher trajectory for India-US relations.