Amitav Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new novel, Sea of Poppies, six years ago, we might have saved ourselves the folly of Iraq. Instead, you could argue, we reenacted the cruel absurdities of superpower addiction and the illusions that weave themelves around it.

Sea of Poppies, the start of a projected trilogy on Britain’s Opium Wars against China, elaborates the premise that, as Ghosh says in conversation, “basically, it was opium revenues that made the British Raj in India possible. Indeed, it was silently acknowledged by the British who resisted all attempts to end the opium trade until the 1920s. In fact the British Empire didn’t long outlive the opium trade.”

Our own foreign-oil habit — yours and mine — suggests itself as the counterpart addiction that drives the American empire. Evangelical bullying and the theology of “freedom” are vital links. President Bush’s line, justifying the invasion of Iraq, has been: “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s kingpin Ben Burnham — closely modeled on historical figures from the Raj — has no trouble invoking his God in the service of opium.

“One of my countrymen has put the matter very simply,” as Burnham says in the novel. “‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ Truer words, I believe, were never spoken. If it is God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance.”

Popular will, democracy, representative government have as little to do with the action of Ghosh’s novel as Congress did with the war in Iraq. “Parliament?” Ben Burnham scoffs to a disbelieving Indian raja. “Parliament,” Burnham laughs, “will not know of the war until it is over. Be assured, sir, that if such matters were left to Parliament there would be no Empire.”

Our free-ranging conversation touches on, among other things, Niall Ferguson‘s apology for empire; the narrowing discourse in American media; Afghanistan and Pakistan today; the polyglot world of sailing ships; the anthropological eye; and the history of Asian words in English.

It is not his project as a novelist and an Indian, Amitav Ghosh remarks, to break the “imperial gaze” of British writers from Kipling to Conrad. Rather he would love to recapture the cosmopolitan vision of the American, Herman Melville — the real precursor, he says, of Barack Obama.

Conrad’s work really doesn’t interest me that much… Conrad is writing about the age of steam, as opposed to the age of sail, which is what really interests me. The writers who have profoundly influenced me and my project are Americans, Melville most of all. To me, Melville is the greatest writer that America has ever produced. And I find his writing, his projects, so rewarding in every sense… his take his anthropological projects like Typee, or his ethnographies of the ship, like White Jacket. “Benito Cereno” precisely addresses the question of repression and rebellion, a really amazing story. Benito Cereno was based upon an episode in the memoirs of Andrew Delano, who was actually an opium trader, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ancestor…

One of the most wonderful things about Melville is that he was just about the only one of the nineteenth century nautical writers who paid enough attention to the world of the sea to actually write about Indian sailors. Even Conrad, when he does write about Indian sailors writes them as faceless and demonizes them. Melville is much more open-minded, much more curious. He’s Obama’s true precursor if you ask me.

Melville has a level of curiosity, a level of engagement with the world that is completely absent from 19th century English writing. Even though England has a long connection with Asia, it is so rare actually to find a believable representation of an Asian in English books. In Melville, on the other hand, you remember in Moby Dick, the 40th chapter, all of the sailors sing in different languages, and then suddenly you discover that this ship, which is a Nantucket whaling ship, actually has forty different nationalities on board, including Indians. In those ways, Ishmael — there you have him, a figure who is articulating a very challenging view of our relationship with nature, in terms of attention to nature; and the whole idea of the destructiveness — both the interest of whales and the horror of killing whales, and at the same time the joys of men working together in killing whales. All of these things are so richly and ambiguously rendered in Melville. In many ways, his work is inexhaustible in its inspiration.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 19, 2008.


So the first homework assignment, kids, is: read Moby Dick.

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  • When Amitav Ghosh pointed out that it was not so much the silence of “Post-Colonial” voices in lead up to the wars so much as the mainstream media’s complicity in constructing narrow minded representations of other cultures that avoided basic historical context. I think that it was not that no one was criticizing the war Iraq, or that there was a failure of a certain kind of theoretical intellectual in changing the military’s policies, as it was an irresponsibility of many major news sources to really investigate the claims that the administration and the media were making in rationalizing the war.

    There is a wealth of critical literature that most of the people in power decided not to pay attention to or actively silenced in order to produce a such a narrow-minded popular constructions of the world that justified the use of military power before considering any historical specificity or complexities. After all, a small example–Edward Said’s Orientalism was written in 1978, before the Gulf Wars, and yet today, in 2008, after the nightmares of the American occupation in Iraq, you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream news source genuinely considering the arguments Said put forth, even with the generalities and problems of the text that scholars have since noticed and re-assessed. The ‘post-colonial’ voices were certainly active and vocal in the 90’s and in the lead up to the war, but it is one of the persisting difficulties of our time that few in power would like to consider them even after so many of the official narratives of the free-market governance and American exceptionalism have unraveled.

    In this ‘Obama Moment’, when difference is celebrated in political culture and transnational understanding is for the first time in my lifetime possible on a mass scale, I really hope that we have an opportunity to close the significant gaps between a new generation of ‘post-colonial’ thinkers and the traditional or neo-traditional conservative and liberal policy generating establishments. But I think it has to recognize not the absence of the ‘postcolonials’ in the lead up to the wars and thus their irrelevance, as much as the willingness not to recognize them or to consider the implications of using a remarkable body of literature and a plurality of voices in constructing our world views.

  • Glad to hear that the anthro thread is being woven, yet again. This time with the threads of imperialism, the Obama Moment, global voices, and historical perspectives.

    Ghosh’s narrative of the Indian sailors in Alexandria reminded me of Pagnol’s famous trilogy (Marius, Fanny, César). As a French-speaker, I had a hard time relating to Melville, but I have fond memories of Pagnol, from his books and movies.

    That narrative and some other statements brought back to my mind the existence of the Sabir, the true “lingua franca” which was spoken all around the Mediterranean as a vehicular language without ever becoming a native language. Polyglots still exist (in fact, the majority of the world in multilingual) but, as Euro-Americans, we now have a hard time grasping the notion that monolingualism is historically and culturally located.

    As a French-speaking linguistic anthropologist, I must say that I was quite intrigued by the notion that English’s standardization resembled what had happened with France. French language ideology is a matter of great interest to me and I recently wrote a piece on it for the AAA’s Anthropology Newsletter. As far as we know, only a small minority (8%) of citizens of the French Republic spoke French as a native language by the late 1700s. Even by 1900, there was a significant proportion of non-native speakers (if I remember correctly, Eugen Weber had a figure of 50%). But, as Ghosh said, there has been a continuous process of language creation (based on republican ideals), which gave the French language numerous reforms, a very strong sense of prescriptivism at the core of its language ideology, and a language which is now associated with elitism.

    Though English does have similar tendencies (unsurprisingly), I’d say that a predilection for usage along with the existence of “World Englishes” are preventing English from becoming as rigid as French.

    It might sound far-fetched but I like to play with the homology with legal systems. French «Code civil» is centrally dictated through a bureaucratic apparatus, laws are set into the code in a very rigid way. This system resembles the famous «Académie française» which has effects even on Quebec’s system (with its «Office national de la langue française» serving a similar role as the Académie.) French-speaking dictionaries contain all the words which are allowed. People also need to obey the rules of the Grévisse grammar (which allegedly “won” because it had some of the most complex rules).

    Anglo-American “Common Law,” by opposition, is based on precedents and usage. Some rules come into existence out of awkward circumstances. Though there is a central legal body, local court systems have some degree of independence. This system shares some broad features with the English-speaking habit of accepting words based on their usage. Though some style books are used in a prescriptive fashion, the very fact that they may disagree on some points shows how different English is from French. English-speaking dictionaries may sometimes be used to prove that the word is accepted but the OED, for instance, is better known as a tool to show a word has been used for a long time than a way to show what is accepted.

    It may all sound like a long tangent but it seems to connect with some of the things which seemed to run in the background in this conversation, such as Anglo specificity (the British Empire and US “exceptionalism”). Unfortunately, I know very little about the Portuguese colonial history, but it sounds like it may help contextualize the British rule over India for an American audience (triangulating with Brazil).

    Nice context for a Benedict Anderson discussion.

    (By the way… Does the “audio reply” feature work? I submitted some audio replies which were confirmed as received but haven’t seen them anywhere.)

  • potter

    A very good hour of listening indeed, and inspiring.

    So we should be thankful for the poppy for it’s medicinal qualities as well as it’s beauty.

    War veterans wear the red poppy ( a paper flower) in their lapel. I remember this from the immediate post-war period especially on the veterans’ holidays, when everyone wore them. I read that this symbol began in the UK and “the colonies” and now is an international symbol for remembering war veterans:

    “Remembrance Day, also known as Poppy Day is a day to commemorate the sacrifice of veterans and civilians in World War I, World War II, and other wars. The poppy emblem was chosen because of the poppies that bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I, their red color an appropriate symbol for the bloodshed.”

    Well if we are an empire, twill be short-lived since we can’t afford it, falling apart from it and I hope by now the greater part of us do not have the stomach for it and will not tolerate it. The reality of a more globalized and aware world will not allow it either. Comparisons to Rome or the British are useful but have limits. As was said, we need an order where powers are mutually respected and responsibility mutually felt. This financial crisis, along climate change, awakens us to the truth of how every corner of the world is connected. The game is not or should not be any more about dominance which as we see ends in self destruction.

    Welcome post-racial world! How much hope we pin on Obama. I wish he could relax, do what he can and just be in that office- but what a sorting out he has before him!

    I did love the part about Melville and am again much inspired to read him ( and Abraham Lincoln).

    PS -Thank you so much for les Miserables and the inspiration to read Victor Hugo.

    PPS- I wonder if a fruitful branch of the conversation might have connected to our own “drug wars”.

  • wellbasically

    The question is how to deal with the authoritarian strain in 20th century politics on both sides. The Dems joined the left in giving up on popular wisdom. “What’s the matter with Kansas” and general postmodernism took over. For good reasons, such as Brown V. Board, and more arguable ones like the New Deal, the left decided that people are dumb, popular will is likely to be wrong and can be disregarded.

    In its international strain, this disregard for the popular will has taken the form of appointed “technocrats” who run foreign governments at the behest of international lenders like big banks and the IMF.

    The present national figure who has done the most damage with this is the unelected chairman of the Federal Reserve, who can inflate or deflate our money supply so that lenders or borrowers are unexpectedly punished by unforseen decisions taken on the Commanding Heights.

    In such a world there is no morality, certainly not connected with work, because your fortunes change for reasons totally unrelated to your personal effort.

  • druthers

    As an American residing abroad I especially enjoyed listening to Amitav Ghosh’s analysis of the discourse in the US which I had noticed during my stays after 9/11 and I share his view of Melville as our greatest writer.

    I also found many analogies on the rise and fall of empires in “Early India, From the Origins to AD 1300” by Romila Thapar . Of course, power being only a thing of the moment, those holding it learn so little and repeat so often.

    An interview that could be classed like “The Rich Hours” in literature.

  • georgem

    This conversation should be required listening/reading/discussion at every Liberal Arts College and University for giving young people engaged in the business of literacy, one very potent path in examining how we are made to think or not think, or to speak or not speak for that matter. And then when the smoke clears, to have a look at what riches might be at hand when one does learn how to read not just words, but speech, art, numbers and perhaps most of all, music.

    Maybe Brown University will lead the way with this very conversation. I’ve never heard better. IT’s not just about Empires, it’s not just about imperialism, it’s not just about opium, it seems to be about being and seeing and using that terribly rare commodity in our time — REASON.

    Thank you Chris for teasing this conversation out of your visiting Wise Man. Thank you Amitav Ghosh for thinking and speaking and writing as you do. I hope you never stop.

    George Mathew,

    New York

  • georgem

    Perhaps a truly pithy follow-up would be a conversation with the Oracle of the Street-level humus of American urban existence — Amber herself. We have heard Amitav Ghosh’s lofty perspective from his rational Olympus. We need Amber to tell us what the election of Barack Obama means to the people it promised the most — people like Obama and Amber.

  • nother

    Gotta say I especially appreciate Mr. Ghosh’s criticism of the Opportunitism in the chattering classes. Big media has become the fourth branch of government (just look at who moderated the debates – why not have academics or professional moderators moderate) so shouldn’t they be subjected to checks and balances? Luckily we have The Daily Show and SNL, but that’s only a band-aid.

    Howabout a show called “Press Meet The Press.” Where media members are subjected to a Tim Russert like gauntlet of their past reporting.

    And I especially appreciated Mr. Ghosh’s take that racism is a relatively new concept and thus “finite”…and that he can envision a “post-racial” world…where “racism is not the ruling concept.”

    All and all a sprawling conversation which was much more than ok…in fact you dudes got my mojo risen, and I’m not Jiving about that!


  • It is astonishing to me — and instructive and depressing — that the world of institutional American journalism cannot read Amitav Ghosh’s novel as he so passionately wrote it. See:



    And the NYT:

    Not one of these reviews (all of them favorable) uses the word Empire. Not one of them notes the unmistakable connections Amitav Ghosh is making between Britain Rampant and the US today. Not one of them hints at the “parallelisms and analogies” that Ghosh spoke of in our interview. Not one of them senses Ghosh’s outrage over Iraq that “spilled over into this book.”

    What I really think is that the institutional media cannot read, period. But we can.

  • @nother Good points about both academia and satire (TDSwJS and SNL). In some ways, academics have ceased to fulfill their role as public intellectuals (links to previous conversations intended). Satirists have taken over the metadiscursive role of commenting on social and political discourse.

    Thing is, satirists avoid the tricky issues associated with the (IMHO outdated) “publish or perish” tenure-track system.

    Granted, academics in some parts of the world are able to take on that social role you describe. But the global academic system is increasingly similar to the US system.

  • @chris It may just be an impression on my part but you seem increasingly willing to take a step back from institutional media. You were always self-aware (which is rare) and always maintained a critical stance (even rarer) but I seem to hear more from you as thoughts that members of media institutions are unlikely to share publicly.

    As for the absence of the term “Empire,” specifically. Your conversation with Ghosh made prominent a type of ambivalent attitude, in the US, toward the term “empire” itself. Outside of the US, the term “empire” (or “imperialism”) is commonly used to not only describe the United States of America but to connect the US to historical empires, from Ancient Rome to France and Britain.

    A personal favourite is Denys Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire movie. The film wasn’t specifically about the US, but it was released (in 1984) at a time when the reference was quite obvious to many unwilling victims of the Cold War.

  • Not to preempt this thread or anything but, speaking of media institutitons, Seth Godin just launched at the NYT:

  • potter

    I thought this review was better:

    I think Enkeri is right about a reluctance to use the term “empire” with comfort.

  • wellbasically


    Seventy times seven liberals attempted to latch their area of specialty onto these invasions. Feminism, Anti-racism etc all found a little seat on the tank. Bush was happy to encourage it.

    The liberal intelligencia was into empire too, because they like telling people what to do.

  • Amitav Ghosh writes in an email:

    Dear Chris

    ‘Sea of Poppies’ is about many different things, and every reader responds to different aspects of it. As far as I am concerned this is wholly welcome. And I’m both glad and grateful to Shashi and Kanishk for reviewing the book: they know a lot more about the context than most, so it was wonderful to know of their response.

    Your reading of the book was very valuable too, so many thanks for these comments.

    All best


  • Then Shashi Tharoor, the Washington Post reviewer of “Sea of Poppies” and himself a former assistant Secretary General of the UN, copied me on his email to Amitav Ghosh, as follows:

    But I do have to admit that it’s precisely my interest in, and engagement with, your treatment of the actual historical period (and my own biases against the British Raj) that made me focus completely on that time, oblivious of the parallels with the US “empire” of today. So I’m grateful to Chris — an old friend — for pointing those out, though i would mildly demur with his suggestion that missing your Iraq analogies suggests I can’t read….!


  • nother

    During this interview Mr. Ghosh laments the dearth of real conversations in the U.S. After reading the emails Chris so graciously posted…which only continue the excavating that Chris engaged in on air…I wonder if he sees the irony in his statement. So often through the years I’ve heard guests on the air with Chris decry the lack of thoughtful journalism, without acknowledging/realizing that they were engaged in it at that very moment. I now think that this phenomenon is a credit to Chris’s conversational interview style…he makes the guest feel removed from the media they are so used to, enabling them to open up.

    Wow the schism between Mr. Ghosh’s take on his own book during this interview and the take of the reviewers was very telling indeed.

    Personally, my own memory of hearing “empire”: I remember the mantra during the 80’s that there were two superpowers in the world. Then of course during the 90’s I heard over and over that there was only one superpower. I suppose superpower was our humble way of saying empire.

    Now interestingly enough, I have not heard that word “superpower” in sometime. It has simply vanished from the lexicon. Which speaks to Chris’s point.

    Now all we hear is crickets. For instance, I listened to Obama’s speech today and I was dismayed that I did not hear the word sacrifice even once. Where was the call to arms, in the face of that empire crumbling? His rhetoric still struck me as: don’t worry we will get things back to the way they were.

    I have to admit, that kind of talk is gives me the chills. Isn’t the true lesson of this mess that we (as a country) have been living far beyond our means? That’s what we need to hear from our President, and we need to hear it soon. He only has this “honeymoon” period to ask us what we –not he- will do for our country.

    This country is like the most popular kid in highschool whose parents lost their job and can’t bankroll his car and fancy clothes anymore…only the kid won’t dare think about arriving at school without the goods, so he fakes it through simple denial and maxed out credit cards.

    When is Barack Obama gonna have the nerve to tell us all that we’re going to have to take the bus to school from now on?

  • potter

    I agree that the book appears to have many levels– and I reached my tipping point and ordered it. To focus ( only) on the connection to the US invasion of Iraq you have to be pretty angry about it. I don’t criticize that view as very valid and (perhaps) primary but anger can block out other things.

  • nother,

    Regarding the mention, or more specifically, the absence of mention of “sacrifice“, I believe you were referring to the statement President-elect Obama made at his press conference in Chicago announcing his economic team? If I am mistaken concerning the speech you reference in your comment, please forgive me.

    In referring to the stimulus package needed to “jolt” the economy, and specifically in reference to how the stimulus package would be paid for, Obama remarked that it would require “scouring” the federal budget “line by line” and making “meaningful cuts and scarifies as well.”

    I point this out only to underscore the point (I believe) you were making in your comment, that sacrifice will be required to rectify our current economic environment. It is my sense that Obama is attuned to this reality.

  • potter

    Yes, flow—-hello Nother– Obama has said that we will have to all make sacrifices and that it is going to be hard but that we will make it through. He has said this a number of times including most recently. I do not have time to do the research- but it was ( more than once) in his economic address, his press conference or his Saturday radio talks.


    Just dropping by to link two good pieces by Amitav Ghosh. Both are on empire and written just prior and at the time of our invasion. The impress still as wisdom:

    From “The Nation” May 2002

    Imperial Temptation”

    From “The New Yorker” April 2003

    The Anglophone Empire

  • @wellbasically The divide between those you call “liberals” (it seems you probably mean “progressives”) and others (those US media tends to call “conservatives”) is a different axis from the one which goes from empire to local empowerment. Chris’s conversation with Zizek contained good cues as to a similar pattern between political lateralization (“left/right”) and a degree of dogmatism. (There are dogmas on both “sides” but not everybody on either side is dogmatic.)

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  • nicolepwr624

    you are totaly right potter Obama has said that we will have to all make sacrifices and that it is going to be hard but that we will make it through. He has said this a number of times including most recently.

    obamma is the mamma

  • nother

    Thanks Flow and Potter. But I ask you, do you see a direct link yet between his rhetoric and the lives you two lead? Yes I’ve heard the term “sacrifice” come out of his mouth, but I’m not waiting for a word, and I’m not waiting for budget cuts, I’m waiting to be called to duty specifically. I’m waiting for him to move our masses in his first inaugural address. Look at the army of citizens who canvassed this country for him…we are not waiting for change, we are waiting to change. I want him to be paternal. I want him to chide us for our excesses. Call us to car-pool, take public transportation, turn off the lights when we leave, pay off our credit cards. Call right away for a national day of volunteering. Demand that the brightest enter public service. Demand that we attend our city council and PTA meetings. Be our moral compass…be our shepherd.

  • nother

    I just read FDR’s first inaugural address…It is an ohh so beautiful speech. First he states the obvious (the malaise of the depression), then he comforts us with the notion that it’s not an indictment on who we truly are: “Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance.” And then he right away tells us things could be worse: “We are stricken by no plague of locusts.”

    Man I love that…just like your dad would say: “Hey, life is tough, but you are stronger than that, so snap out of it and stop feeling sorry for yourself…now get up.”

    But it’s the following part of the speech that really goads me. In a good way because it’s SO cogent, but in a bad way because it reminds me that we didn’t learn the lesson:

    “Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.”

    -FDR March 4, 1933

  • nother

    And one more thing! 🙂 In this interview Mr. Ghosh speaks to something that I have felt strongly about for a long time: “The Bush regime did everything in it’s power to undermine the UN. But if instead it had thrown all that effort into making the UN work, it could have.”

    To see how far our country has gone astray in national security matters, one only need compare the Bush attitude towards the UN vs. JFK’s attitude outlined in this part of his ohh so beautiful first inaugural address:

    “To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective—to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak—and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.”

    -JFK January 20, 1961


  • potter

    It would be interesting to have a deeper discussion focussed on why the lessons of history are not learned from generation to generation and across cultures/nations. or is it that we do not agree on what the lessons are? I take it as the way the world just is. A discussion could include an historian, anthropologist, a biologist. and sociologist-psychologist. Maybe a theologian or two as well. The discussion could go on for weeks.

    Nother- we just elected, not only in my opinion, an extraordinary person to be President. He is not even “The President” yet. He did not go on vacation after a grueling two year campaign. He is already hitting the ground running and making some excellent appointments, giving press conferences and addresses. His plate is overflowing with problems that require immediate and wise decisions. There are limits to what he can do and his influence. Again- he is not even President but yet he has shown the kind of leadership we have been missing.

    We do not need a Daddy. I don ‘t want a daddy figure. Inaugural speeches come and go. Obama’s speeches ( pretty damn good) came and went. One of the lessons of history still unlearned is that we need all citizens to act like grown-ups and as responsible partners in the common good as opposed to being told what to do or trying to get away with selfish acts b/c no one is watching or punishing.

    I agree we should have government sponsored programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress( Projects) Administration.

  • We can get a better conversation in Tokyo, too.

    Great show and so refreshing to hear someone talk about the dearth of discourse in the US. First there was the legacy of McCarthyism, that pushed academia away from critical theory towards the safety of quantitative methods, and now on top of that it’s neo-nationalism.

    It was interesting to listen to the discussion of imperialism, comparing Britain in the 19th century and the US today. But I kept thinking that there was a long history of US imperialism that went unmentioned here and is part of US historical myopia.

    This occurs because coloured people have long been represented as unsophistocated, uncivilized and without history. Of course there was Vietnam, Korea and Japan, then further back the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii and the US mainland, itself, from 1607 to 1890. What was western expansion if not colonialism?

    Ronald Wright in his book “What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order” discusses the colonial practice and attitude, that conquering spirit that is at the heart of US mythology. He notes that George Washington called the the US a rising empire in 1783 and that JFK stated that “our frontiers today are on every continent…”

    Of course some Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with the imperial foundations and the frequent excesses of their nation, as they do with the legacy of slavery, so the question, as Ghosh notes, is why so many were silent when Bush and the congress sanctioned the occupation of Iraq. I wonder if the safe turn from critical theory to quantitative methods in academia after McCarthyism isn’t an important factor.

    Now the pressing concern is with the looming possibility of high unemployment. A redistributive swing back to a stronger welfare state and a fairer income distribution would be the obvious solution. But I wonder if the ruling class will decide to hold on to their wealth and instead seek to avoid social disorder by employing the poor in the next imperial pursuit.

  • Nother and Potter, hi.

    By the way, since you are talking about sacrifice, you might be interested in the 2008 Massey lectures by the novelist Margret Atwood on Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.

    Here is a description from the HP:

    “Payback is not about practical debt management or high finance. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies.”


  • nother

    Hi, sidewalker and thank you, i’ve been looking for a reason to read Margret Atwood.

    Ok, Potter I guess your right, I’ll let him get sworn in first. But I do disagree that inaugurals come and go…especially not in a time of crisis. Just read those two above. And in Lincoln’s first he gave us the phrase “better angles of our nature.”

    If you think about it, this will be the most watched speech in real-time ever in the history of the world. Imagine that, the whole freak’n world, billions of human beings, will watch Obama’s speech together (as a union of the world) with hope in their hearts. I got my popcorn pop’n already!

  • nother

    I don’t want change to mean getting back to where we were. I want change to mean rethinking who we’ve been.

    The average American, for example, consumes around twenty times more meat and fish and sixty times more paper, gasoline, and diesel than the average Indian.

    United States accounted for 4.6 percent of the world’s population and 33 percent of global consumption

    The Outstanding Public Debt as of 26 Nov 2008 at 05:30:54 PM GMT is:

    $ 1 0 , 6 6 1 , 3 1 7 , 3 5 6 , 5 2 1 . 5 6

    The estimated population of the United States is 305,165,626

    so each citizen’s share of this debt is $34,936.17.

    The National Debt has continued to increase an average of

    $3.89 billion per day since September 28, 2007!

  • potter

    Everyone has their own priorities and ideas about who we are and where we are going. If consumption bothers you then act on it. People have been encouraged to consume as part of being American and Obama is not going to be able to change that but perhaps the financial crisis we are in will reorder things to your liking.

    I recommend Ghosh’s two pieces from 2002 and 2003 that I linked above.

    We elect a president to make judgments as best he can about where to put the next foot forward. The Bush presidency has put many of us in despair for 8 long years. We have muted the TV every time he appeared in recent years.

    There is way too much wrong to be righted or attended to as quickly as Nother seems to want from one man. This opinion is what I fear. Such an attitude multiplied and amplified will exert a big drag on Obama and we will ultimately be shooting ourselves really if we bury him with impatient demands judgments and criticisms. If he is really the treasure of a leader that we seek and we want to nurture we must also be kind in our demands and have some patience.

    Best wishes for a great holiday.

    hello Sidewalker- will get to Japan one of these days soon I hope!

  • Nother, I have to agree with Potter about reigning in expectations.

    Probably like Ghosh and many other “outsiders”, who will watch the speech, I have a more nuanced understanding of the US presidency. Even if Obama is an exceptional person, he is restrained both by the complexity of the world and by the structural rigidity of the office.

    Sorry for this analogy, but if he is an agent of change, he must be the type of parasite that pretends to be local (thus the appointment of so many old-guard, neo-liberal Clinton democrats) and once in the system he kills the host. The ruling elite would never let this happen and they would find a cure for his virus. Otherwise, he is just the kind of parasite that lives in a symbiotic relationship with the host, in which case nothing much happens and the imperial, greedy nation keeps over-feeding itself, but maybe at a less frantic pace than in the past 40 years.

    It is not that I don’t have hope, but it will only be realized if the young, and all the groups who supported Obama take to the streets and force him to carry out his promise. Was the election campaign only a pop-culture, feel good moment for the US or can the Obama fever spread to be the kind of viral grass-roots movement that brings about actual transformation? In the election Obama gave the people his greatest gift. He showed them that their voice can be heard. It’s in that which I place my tempered hope, not Obama the president.

  • jazzman

    Potter I believe you correct in your assessment of the situation in which America finds itself and it is natural to want the “Knight in Shining Armor” to rescue us but it would be counterproductive to pin all hopes on any person.

    The current economic crisis was some 35 years in the making with both parties and all presidents since Nixon complicit in the policies (or lack thereof) that allowed the private sector to obscenely profit from selling “magic beans” to investors and reap large bonuses and commissions by abrogating their fiduciary responsibilities.

    Globalization (read – exploitation of cheap labor to benefit executives and stockholders at the expense of local workers) has exacerbated the crisis and will continue to unless it is stemmed as PE Obama proposes to do by making it less profitable to ship jobs overseas.

    The financial tsunami that is sweeping the world is an empirical example of the interconnectedness and interdependency of all things and is an opportunity for great change if it is recognized and exploited (in the ideal sense) to affect peace and brotherhood. A President Obama can’t do it without willing participants to work for the commonweal; he is an idea man and a persuasive rhetorician who just may be the catalyst for an ideal “new deal” in which we all have a role. He knows the nature of what is required, exemplified when he said: “We are the change we seek!”

    We need a critical mass of us to want and work toward the ideal; it is we who must alter our beliefs about ourselves and the world to realize the change, Obama is merely a mirror for our best selves to create the world we desire.

    Peace and happy Thanksgiving to ALL,


  • nother

    Nice post, Sidewalker…really like parasite analogy. And Obama as mirror was swell as well, jazzman! It’s been nice to hear hope in all the voices of guests and in both of you too! Guess we’ve come a long way in the years since Open Source stated.

    Although that doesn’t mean I will be “reigning in expectations.” Just the opposite, indeed.

    “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

    -MLK 1967

  • nother

    Chris, I’m seeing your point about the reluctance in mainstream media to use the word “empire.” Or even get their head around it.

    Todays editorial in the NY Times is a prime example:

    The closest they come to describing a falling empire is the phrase, which they attribute to other commentators: “dreaded multipolarity”

    And don’t worry, the Gray Lady assures us all:

    “A relative decline in power also does not mean that the United States will not remain powerful.”

    “Relative,” what a word! I love that word…the word is so…well, it’s just so, relative!

  • potter

    There is a difference between being realistic in expectations and allowing high ideals to rule expectations. With the latter you will surely suffer a letdown. I do not advocate lowering ideals either- just being realistic.

    Amitav Ghosh wrote an op-ed for the NYT the other day on the tragedy in Mumbai last week:

    India’s 9/11? Not Exactly

  • Our pal Darryl Li calls all attention to a marvelous speech by Amitav Ghosh — about his formative years in India and Egypt, about empire and capitalism and the current “crisis” of everything — here:

    The talk is adapted from a session in Cairo last March. It moves me!

    Chris Lydon

  • bpaulemile

    Hello Chris:

    I went out and bought Sea of Poppies. Thanks for the introduction and for the great interview. Your world-view, vision, breadth of understandIng, your probing wit are needed now more than ever. You have helped to bring about this brighter day!!! I am happy to have access to your interviews, comments etc. and to be a part of this public discourse. You will ever be missed on TV and radio. Those of us who have followed your career do so appreciate your provocative and penetrating approach to issues current and historical and are thrilled to find you again. GLAD THAT YOU ARE ON THE PLANET!!!


  • Dear Barbara: Thank you! I am delighted to be here, too. Please drop me a line directly, to: Yours entirely, Chris Lydon

  • Color Grower

    To me as a 3rd generation of east indian descent raised in the caraibien “Sea of poppies” had a total different meaning. While VS Naipaul tends to harp on our idiosyncracies, it works for him as he received a nobel prize. David Dabydeen tends to go after the academic social economic pre/post colonial experience. Brijdh Lal appropriately describes the indian manppower export as the reinvention of slavery. When in the same breath it should be mentioned that Winston Churchill had no qualms starving millions of Indians to keep his englishmen well fed at home. For me Ghosh travels back to my roots, how my grandparents made it to Suriname, shared their recipees for mango anchar and then in the last couple of years I learned we speak the same bhojpuri dialect as in Fiji.