Book Reviews Culture Indian History Indian politics Religion

The Indian Conservative: Hindu apologism goes mainstream

Jaithirth Rao is an Indian businessman who founded Mphasis, a cookie-cutter IT outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. In time, his stature as one of India’s aspirational new tech elites gave him space to air his views on politics, history, culture and a range of other social subjects. Rao calls himself a true-blue conservative in the Burkean sense – small government, free markets, traditional family values, continuance over radical change … the whole kit and kaboodle. “The Indian Conservative” is a compilation of his various lectures, talks and thoughts on an assortment of issues that Indian conservatives have concerned themselves with. It seeks to put forth an argument that conservatism in India has a long and colourful history that deserves further study. In doing so, Rao tries to elevate the status of conservative figures like Sardar Patel and Dadabhaoi Naoroji who’ve been given short shrift due to independent India’s wholesale adoption of Nehruvian liberalism.

Before reading the book, I was genuinely curious about a lack of cohesive picture of the conservative movement in India. Other than recent speculation about how different India would have been if Sardar Patel had been made PM instead of Nehru (a long shot considering the zeitgeist of the time), there’s very little we know of the other side of Nehru’s liberal India. The previous hints I’d seen were through Guha’s books, and even he laments the lack of scholarship on Indian conservatism. So when I came across this book, I picked it up without even checking reviews online. In a way, this turned out to be a good thing because I could start with no prejudgments about the author, content or style, and could appreciate the book for exactly what it was supposed to be – an overview of conservative thought in India, and a case for why it should be studied more intensively.

Boy was I wrong! In this post, I want to do two things: firstly, review the book for what it is, and then talk about all the things that it isn’t – so you can see for yourself the various ways in which Jaithirth Rao missed the mark in entirely avoidable ways. My overall assessment of Rao’s book is mixed – on the one hand, it brings conservative thought to the mainstream and gets us talking about it on an intellectual level and without the baggage of Hindu extremism. Equally, the book fails to deliver on every single claim it makes at the outset: it’s not historically accurate or complete, it never explains what makes Indian conservatism different from its Western cousin, isn’t held up by solid arguments so much as statements of intent, and finally, is too heavily reliant on the author’s 10-mile-high understanding of Indian society.

What follows is an expansion on these two sides of the coin. This post is going to be longer than average (which is already much longer than most blogs) so if you’re liable to get bored, I’d suggest skipping the next section and jumping straight to the second part where I make my case for why Jaithirth Rao’s latest book is only a 4/10, and can be ignored by most people.

What It Is

“The Indian Conservative” considers various spheres of conservative thought, namely political, cultural and social. The book also includes a small chapter about Rao’s own views on aesthetics and education. The chapters on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres cover what it means to be Indian, and how the conservatives of history, legend and imagination have all combined to create a rich, vibrant, multiethnic and multicultural polity we know as India. These chapters are all fairly boring with very little to stand on other than a smattering of religious texts and some well-intentioned proclamations by leaders.

The really interesting bits are actually all in the first chapter: the political sphere. Here, the author begins with a broad definition of what Indian conservatism is and what its guiding principles are.

Conservatism is a school of philosophy which is not characterized by rigid contours or definitions. It believes that human beings as individuals and as communities have evolved over time, developing laws, institutions, cultures, norms and associations. This evolutionary process undoubtedly contributes to practical utility.

The conservative position is that improvements have to be gradual, and preferably peaceful. Sudden, violent attempts at so-called improvements are viewed with suspicion, because they are likely to backfire, destroy much of the good in the past and the present, and deliver a situation substantially worse than the earlier one.

For those with an interest in political theory, it’s not hard to notice a direct and strong link to Western conservatism – more specifically as a school of thought containing Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. However, Rao reminds us that these ideas are not foreign imports to India. Indeed, if one were to consider the Mahabharatha and Tirukkural to be foundational texts of the Indian civilization, we would see that the Indic civilization itself is a deeply conservative one.

These two texts – one a religious epic and the other a collection of words of wisdom – deal with the three pursuits of humankind: artha (material, political and economic wellbeing), kama (beauty, passion and sensous pleasures) and dharma (virtue and morality). A fourth pursuit – moksha – is attained when the other three are achieved.

Then, the author makes the link between ancient Indic thought and modern history.

Let us switch gears and consider names associated with modern Indian conservatism, focusing for the time being on the pre-Independence era. The first is Rammohun Roy, who was a political conservative and a supporter of British rule, while being a social and religious reformer – a reformer and not a radical. The second is Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who can be characterized as almost the founder of Hindu conservatism. […] Bankim and Lajpat Rai along with several others realized that a shared Hindu cultural identity could be the basis of overcoming vertical and horizontal boundaries among Hindus, like caste.

Hinduism, in other words, formed pre-Independence India’s “imagined community” a la Benedict Anderson. This is where Jerry Rao (that’s what the author goes by apparently) brings modern day Hindu nationalism back into the conservative fold. In his analysis, the roots of Hindu nationalism and that of Indian conservatism are one and the same. There may be some merit to this line of thought, but I think there are some gaps in Rao’s reasoning that someone else will have to fill. We’ll pick up this thread later in the post.

To those who might argue that conservatism everywhere is merely reactionary hand-wringing, Rao has a ready response:

The view that conservatives love the old and oppose all change is both simplistic and wrong. Conservatives are most certainly not reactionaries. We only love those parts of the old and inherited that are constructive and creative and not dysfunctional. We are committed to change, which as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, and as the Yajur Veda articulates, is inevitable. We, however, do not believe in jettisoning features of the past that are worth preserving or that we feel are worth cherishing.

While this is a sensible position to take and I personally find it hard to refute, it’s nigh impossible to shake the feeling that much of Rao’s analysis is based on European and American conservatism, with all the Indian bits retrofitted to prove his point. We’ll return to this objection in the next section.

Returning to the question of political conservatism, the author details how the Indian National Congress until the late 1920s saw British rule as a benevolent protector state. Its only demands were only for ‘home rule’, on the lines of what the Irish were fighting for. We know that Dadabhai Naoroji’s strongest allies in the British parliament at the time were Irishmen, and even before Naoroji’s time, Raja Rammohun Roy was received in England by the liberal Unitarians. So almost unwillingly, the author concludes, Indian conservatives ended up in the wrong camp due to the obstinacy of the British Conservative party. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that this is just how politics is played and there are no unconditional alliances in the pursuit of power.

[…] even though Rammohun Roy went to England as a very conservative emissary of the impoverished Mughal emperor, he was feted not by the High Church party, but by nonconformists like the Unitarians. Willy-nilly, even conservative Indians ended up being seen as liberal fellow travellers. In the decades that followed, British Tories preferred Indian maharajas to scholars like Naoroji. It was only the Liberal Party which would nominate Naoroji for a parliamentary seat. Gokhale faced the same situation. His only interested audience in England was to be found among liberals.

In the struggle for independence, Rao makes a case for why conservatives largely supported India’s British overlords, and why many chose fight their own countrymen alongside the colonial powers. His argument is a tried-and-tested one about maintaining continuity, making incremental progress, sticking to available remedies etc. In this regard, he sees Ambedkar, Gokhale and Savarkar as incrementalist heroes who ensured that when India did gain freedom, it would retain much of the old legal and civic structure. The Indian Constitution – despite the devious machinations of socialists and Soviet sympathizers – is thankfully only a minor facelifted version of the Government of India Act of 1935.

Here, Rao anticipates an objection from the other side: given that in one stroke the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, gender or religion, all so deeply embedded in our history and our country, would it not be more appropriate to call it a revolutionary document, far from being a conservative one? His answer is a firm “maybe”. He argues that under the British, all Indians were treated alike – as chattel to be thrown out of trains when caught travelling in the whites-only carriage. So, Indians had already internalised some of this non-discrimination anyway, and the constitution only ensured that the progress made was not lost at some later time. A supremely weak argument; but a coherent argument nonetheless.

From independence, Rao draws a straight line to the modern-day Modi government, through Partition, the Emergency, 1984 Sikh riots, 1992 Babri riots and the single-term Vajpayee government from 1999-2004. Needless to say, he papers over inconvenient pieces of history. For example, this is what he had to say about the way Advani and the BJP riled up millions of Indians to march to Ayodhya and destroy a centuries-old mosque:

BJP put together a well-crafted national programme in support of the proposed Rama temple. The party organized a motorcade, referred to as a rath yatra, from different parts of the country to Ayodhya. […] The BJP also used the Rama temple movement very intelligently on the caste front. The volunteers in the marches and motorcades came from all castes. Dalit volunteers were specially honoured as layers of foundation stones. The BJP had successfully broken away from the accusations of its critics that it was an upper-caste Brahmin-Bania party.

The denouement of the temple movement came on account of mob violence, which the Uttar Pradesh state government had solemnly assured the Supreme Court would not happen. The inability of the Hindu nationalist forces to control extreme elements remains problematic for conservatives.

And in that one line, he sweeps aside all the many ways that conservative forces – much more than any leftist threat – threaten to pull this nation apart by force. To Jerry Rao, the problem with the Babri demolition wasn’t its complete illegality, or the fact that the Hindu side has no historical claim to that piece of land, or the months of communal provocation by Advani, Uma Bharti. No, the problem was that a handful of extreme elements resorted to mob violence, which was not controlled by the Uttar Pradesh government. So really, we’re told, the UP government was at fault.

But regardless, I’m quite aware that this kind of reasoning is not entirely uncommon in Indian political circles, and even in some intellectual quarters. We can excuse Jerry Rao this piece of unoriginal falsehood as just another symptom of the moral bankruptcy that infects modern-day conservatives everywhere. While their forebears were willing to go against king and society to defend individual freedoms and bring about real change, the modern conservative movement increasingly busies itself with engaging in revisionist storytelling and name-calling instead of getting its house in order and taking a stance against extreme elements.

In responding to any and all critique of this kind of reactionary rationality, Rao likes to fall back on the concept of yuga-dharma to illustrate how the nature of Indian conservatism has evolved over time.

[…] Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda, which the historian P.V. Kane dates to the fourth century bce, talks of Yuga Dharma: the virtue or the ethic that is appropriate to the age. It is Parel’s case that Mahatma Gandhi in his own inimitable way figured out that in the present yuga, it makes sense to walk away from the excessive emphasis on moksha. […] The dharma of Gandhi’s times demanded an active involvement with this world, with his country, with his city.

Modern day conservatives like Jerry Rao fail to consider that in this yuga, yuga-dharma demands that the most conservative thing to do is to stand up against Hindu extremists and defend the Indian way of life from a complete dismemberment from the inside.

In the subsequent sections on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres, Rao has precious little to offer, even when you try very hard to see his point. In the chapter on social issues, Rao offers a tepic objection to the caste system, concluding that the caste system has some limited utility in modern India but society needs to be reformed to make sure that things like untouchability are not brought back in fashion. On the role of women, Rao acknowledges wholeheartedly that women have been mistreated and marginalized for millennia – an unusually candid admission from a writer who seems to skirt all other issues, no matter how obvious they may be to Indians or outsiders:

The same issue received considerable attention from our detractors like Kipling who argued that Indians did not deserve freedom principally because we were given to oppressing our women and our poor and in fact it was the British who protected these unhappy residents of our fair land

Lost in the chapter on aesthetics is another easily-missed admission of guilt: the mistreatment of Muslims. Rao accepts that Muslims are treated as purely political entities to be herded and cajoled into voting for whichever party represents their interest. He sees much to be achieved to bring them back to the mainstream and open up the floor to debate on social issues affecting Muslims.

Issues connected with Indian Muslims that do not deal with religion are largely seen through a political prism and not a social one. I believe that this is a mistake. Muslims are more than just voters. They have given to the country important legacies in architecture, painting, music, dress, food, landscape gardening, literature and much more.

Mysteriously, however, his thoughts on purdah, the role of women in Islamic society and hot-button issues like triple talaq are never clarified. More importantly, his expression of solidarity with Muslim conservatives is entirely undercut by the fact that this is the only time in the book when the author considers the plight of Muslims. You need to be three-quarters of the way through the book to find an acknowledgment of Muslim contribution to Jerry Rao’s “Indic culture”. This and other substantive issues with the book are the subject of the next section.

What It Is Not

At the outset, Jerry Rao’s book is not an honest retelling of Indian history. It leans too heavily on upper-caste tropes of “centuries of humiliation” under successive Muslim rulers, falls prey to the same trite upper-class arguments about the “benevolent British”, and consistently diminishes the serious differences that have always existed between various schools of thought. Let’s consider the matter of Muslims first.

The Islamic Question

In his entire chapter on Indian conservatives in the political sphere, Rao does not find space to drop a single Muslim name. I can name a few stellar individuals right off the bat: Maulana Azad, Shafaat Ahmed, Sir Muhammed Iqbal, and the indomitable Sir Allah Bakhsh.

The last name may be unfamiliar to some, and in all fairness deserves a whole post to himself, but here’s the run-down: Allah Bakhsh was the Premier of Sind in British India – up to 1942 a career conservative within the British Raj. An inveterate secularist, he championed a popular movement against the divisive Muslim League. His popularity was so immense that the Muslim League made nearly no advances into the province of Sind until his death in 1943. In 1942, Churchill’s infamous speech to the British parliament where he refered to Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement with utter disdain and made some unsavoury remarks about the possibility of granting independence to Indians. Allah Bakhsh made it clear that he’d had it – he renounced his post and fully intended to dedicate the rest of his life to gathering support for a free, secular and united India. The united part of his personal manifesto bothered the Muslim League, and every clue points to their involvement in his eventual assassination in 1943.

Was this not relevant to Rao’s case for conservative thought in the country?

Rao might counter my objection by stating that Allah Baksh was indeed a conservative for the most part but by renouncing his premiership, he also renounced all claims to being part of Indian conservatism. Fair enough. But if one is to buy this argument, why does Naoroji figure so conspicuously in Jerry Rao’s narrative? Naoroji too began as a conservative who thought he could make a difference from within the British parliament. Although he made some progress towards his goal of Indian home rule, he soon realised that the powers in Britain wanted control over India at any cost, and saw the predatory Crown as a leech sucking the Indian body dry. By the time Naoroji died in 1917, he was thoroughly disillusioned with the British ability to govern India and wanted them gone.

Naoroji was as radical as they came in 1917. And yet, Rao has no trouble including him in the political narrative. Wilful omission? Maybe. Double standards? Most definitely.

This exclusion of Muslim individuals isn’t restricted to the Independence movement – Rao ignores all Muslim contributions to Indian political thought despite the fact that for over 600 years, this nation was ruled by Muslim rulers. I want to go easy on the author and assume that he ignored them because they were causing many changes to Indian culture by bringing their new ways of life to this land of Hindus. At the risk of being accused of whataboutery, I want to put to Rao this following: if this is the case, why not at least mention Akbar, a man who fought his own zealous family to ensure equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their religious, ethnic or cultural background? For a man so fond of name-dropping, the silence on political changes due to Mughal rule is deafening. On the matter of trade and economic issues, why not mention Sher Shah Suri, the man who facilitated free and fair trade so much that during his time, a caravan could travel unmolested from Peshawar in modern Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh – a distance of over 2000 km. Such free movement is still only a distant memory in modern India, where highway robberies are painfully common. As a lover of free markets and open trade, shouldn’t Rao appreciate this unprecedented effort a bit more?

The 16th century Grand Trunk Road, a truly impressive trade route connecting Bengal to the Hindukush

In the end, it is obvious to all but the most intransigent that Jerry Rao’s recounting of Indian political history deliberately omits Muslim names while trying to secure ‘Indian conservative’ firmly in the hands of Hindu actors. In case you needed more convincing, here’s how the author summarizes what Indian culture is:

I would argue that “we the people” is meant to be a reference to people with a shared culture, however limited or tenuous that idea may be. We call it Indian culture. The fact that many of its traditional elements have a Hindu touch does not make it an exclusively Hindu culture. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are doubtless central. But so are the Jataka tales, Jain sutras, Sufi music, the Sikh gurbani, Reverend Beschi’s Tamil epic Thembavani, Abraham Panditar’s Carnatic music compositions on Jesus, Avestan verses, Bene Israel psalms, Santhal chants and so much more.

So it’s everyone on the planet except mainstream Muslims. Good to know, Jerry!

Conservatism and Its Masters

Perhaps the most cringeworthy parts of the book are where Jerry Rao echoes Indian conservatives in his defence of the British Raj as a benevolent, positive addition to Indian history. A century of poverty, strife and gradual resurgence seems to have granted him a doe-eyed version of what the British were actually doing in India. This is how Jerry Rao views the

The fundamental political dispute that defined the first half of the twentieth century in India had to do with the approach to the Raj. Many conservatives believed that with all its faults, on balance the Raj must be leveraged as a force for the good. […] It is not uncommon to keep running into the view that we were in a sense lucky not to have been colonized by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch or even the French. The Indian encounter with the Anglo-Saxon has been seen as one that resulted in a refreshing outburst of creativity, which had constructive outcomes.

A “refreshing outburst of creativity”? In what, massacring peaceful protesters?

And yet, Rao does not spare the pre-British Mughals the same generosity; this despite the undeniable fact that everything from food to clothing to our culture itself was made infinitely more colourful by Mughal patronage.

Rao’s claim that the 1950 Indian Constitution must be seen as a conservative document is comical in its absurdity. His whole argument hinges around the Manusmriti, an ancient Indian document that lays out the various rules governing Hindus, codifies the ways in which they may interact with each other and prescribes a very rigid set of roles that individuals of each caste, creed and gender could perform. Many devout Hindus consider this document to be divinely handed down from God to the sage Manu – therby making it inviolable and sacred. Most contemporary discourse about “Brahminical orthodoxy” ultimately refers back to this text. Let’s consider the evidence presented before us:

One can argue that the idea of non-discrimination too had an evolutionary history through the Raj. […] The jury is out on whether the Manusmriti was simply an idealized text or if it was practised. But for what it is worth, it did have a measure of social sanction and it did provide for differential punishments for identical crimes committed by persons belonging to different castes. It turns out that the Raj successfully subverted this ideology fairly early in the game.

[…] in the area of gender, the practices of the Raj were not necessarily much behind those prevalent in Britain and America. In the late nineteenth century, the Madras Medical College did admit women. In the early twentieth century, Cornelia Sorabji was not allowed to practise in the Bombay High Court because women were not allowed to practise in English courts at that time. The enhancement of women’s rights can also be seen as a gradual and phased affair, rather than one which was parachuted in by our Constitution.

Some have argued that the grant of universal adult franchise by our Constitution was truly revolutionary. The very chronology by which the political institutions of India evolved from the Regulating Act, Pitt’s India Act, the Charter Acts, Queen Victoria’s Proclamation, the creation of Councils, the Minto-Morley Reforms, the Montagu-Chelmsford Act and the 1935 Government of India Act all the way to our Constitution makes it an evolutionary, gradual, constitutional process. The retention of the key features of the political institutions bequeathed to us by the Raj makes the process a conservative one. The new Constitution did go against doctrines like the Manusmriti. But that process had started long ago.

Much has been written regarding the status of Manusmriti in pre-colonial Indian culture, and I don’t want to belabour this point too much. However, two things need to be noted: first, as pointed out by historians such as Ram Guha and Shashi Tharoor, the Manusmriti was considered as useful in daily affairs as the Bible is to Americans today. Laws existed separate from the rules laid out in the Manusmriti, and it was really the British who gave Manusmriti more weight than society did. The Gentoo Code that the British adopted in their dealings with Indians was the first time in centuries that the Manusmriti came to be regarded as anything more than a historical relic. This is not to imply that all pre-colonial Indians were casteless hippies enjoying life freely. No, by codifying these loose and amorphous rules as the basis of all Indian law, the Raj actually cemented the very discrimination that Jerry Rao so gleefully tries to downplay.

Second, if Jerry is fine with the British state because it subverted the provisions in the Manusmriti, one wonders if this is a matter of principle or a convenient factoid the author is exploiting. Supposing a Muslim ruler had done the same thing by imposing a set of rules that applied to Hindus without any regard to their castes, would Rao be equally glad that age-old shackles of caste had been broken by a wise ruler? What if Jerry Rao reads a bit more Indian history and learns that Aurangzeb did exactly this? Would he start singing praises about the great ruler Aurangzeb who ruled over all of India and destroyed the caste system for all eternity? I doubt it very much, and I think this inconsistency proves that for Jerry Rao, the Manusmriti matters purely because the British first legitimized it, and then subverted it. That’s not conservatism; that’s just boot-licking.


It’s now getting tiring to point out the fact that Indian conservatives are without exception drawn from the same mold of upper-caste, upper class urbanites who seem to be entirely removed from the rest of India’s “unwashed masses”, all while simultaneously preaching what the caste system actually is to people whose daily lives are defined by it. Trust me, I hate this dreadfully boring continuance as much as anyone else. And it brings me no small amount of frustration to be saying that of a writer who I thought could make a genuine attempt at wrestling with the vexed issue of conservatism in India. But Rao shows neither the self-awareness nor the honesty required to carry out such a task. In the end, his book is just another in a long line of sad restatements of cliched elite truisms about India’s glories and its colourful past, and adds nothing to enrich popular discourse. If I’d gone my whole life reading this book, I don’t see how I would have been poorer by a paisa, an ounce or a thought. However, I suspect that “The Indian Conservative” is going to be instructive to liberals looking to rebutt Indian conservate arguments. If nothing else, it goes to demonstrates all the reasons why it may be considered at best a hollow intellectual space, and at worst a dangerous normalisation of previously taboo apologisms.

In one word, Jaithirth Rao’s attempt at mapping out the history of conservative thought in India can best be summarized as ‘dishonest’. It papers over many issues in Indian culture purely because the author finds them inconvenient to his narrative that ther is a positive thing called “Indian culture”. Where impossible to ignore, Rao’s hamfisted arguments only delegitimize the conservate case, even while exposing his less-than-adequate research. Nevertheless, the book is important as an emblem of the growing brazenness with which Hindu apologism is seeping into everything in India. If nothing else, it may be a sign of the books to come.

Book Reviews

Book review: Bullshit Jobs

We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darvinist theory, he must justify his right to exist

Buckminster Fuller

David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is a 360-odd page expansion of his earlier essay ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs‘, which set out to make the case that many high-paying, respectable jobs are completely unnecessary and meaningless. I must admit, I wasn’t familiar with Graeber’s essay before reading the book. For the most part, I hadn’t really thought very deeply about the phenomenon, despite knowing many people I can now recognise as being caught in such BS jobs.

When I picked up this book, I was going solely by the title and coverpage, which looked interesting and provocative. I thought was it was going to be one of those ‘The 4-hour Workweek’ kind of pop-management books, where the author makes a bunch of loose, interesting but essentially forgettable claims to support a “cool”, contrarian viewpoint. My experience with such books has generally been that they’re easy reads, and make for good ways to kill time on a flight or something, and I always hated the fact that these authors take 200+ pages to make a point you could easily fit on a business card with some room to spare.

‘Bullshit Jobs’ is nothing like that. It’s a deceptively simple idea hiding a far more sinister, insidious structure that is becoming increasingly hard for me to ignore.

The first chapter introduces the reader to Graeber’s previous essay, and defines what he considers to be bullshit jobs:

Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless or pernicious; typically, there has to be somd degree of pretense and fraud involved as well. The jobholder must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason why her job exists, even if, privately, she finds such claims ridiculous

The examples he provides include the well-remunerated armies of administrative staff in universities, PR consultants, IT subcontractors, financial sector workers etc. Jobs that are meaningless because they perform redundant, circular or unnecessary activities that only aim to further the existence and creation of more such jobs. In effect, Graeber’s book identifies modern industries of corporate rent-seeking. They’re just as likely in the public as well as the private sector, and increasingly more common in the private sector, where the firms are shielded from public scrutiny, and protected by neoliberal apologists who justify their existence because in a free market, the market creates needs, which are then filled by jobs. Therefore, bullshit jobs cannot be bullshit because they’re only responding to a market need for such jobs (I will comment on my own assessment of this argument later on).

Moreover, he points out, there’s a distinction between “bullshit jobs” and “shit jobs”:

Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are treated badly

The second chapter creates a taxonomy of bullshit jobs – flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters. Flunky jobs are those that exist purely to make someone else look or feel important – like executive assistants for a mid-level manager who wants to feel important, and receptionists for an office that only does business online. Flunkies sometimes end up doing 80-100% of non-bullshit aspects of their bosses’ jobs. Goons’ jobs have an aggressive element to them, and there’s no reason for them to exist except that other people employ them – think national armies, lobbyists and telemarketers. Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist because of flaws, inefficiencies or problems in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that shouldn’t even exist – Graeber includes a poignant little example about how throughout history, prominent men have wandered around oblivious to the goings-on around them, leaving their wives, sisters or mothers to clean up after them and negotiating solutions as they arise, thereby “duct-taping” the issues caused by these great men. Box-tickers are people who exist predominantly to allow an organization to claim to be doing something it isn’t – like diversity consultants, factfinding commissions, PR people, sustainability consultants etc. Finally, taskmasters come in two varieties – unnecessary superiors and creators of unnecessary tasks for others.

While the taxonomy is definitely interesting and sometimes insightful, I see many of these BS jobs (especially flunkies, box-tickers and goons) as a form of signalling and a type of Mullerian mimicry, where you stand to lose by not indulging in this meaningless activity.

This reminded me of a (possibly apocryphal) story of a Fortune 500 CEO, when asked about why his company is paying him an outrageous amount despite the company’s poor performance, stated that if they didn’t do it, it would signal to its competitors and investors that the company isn’t serious about improving performance, and other executives would jump ship, thinking it was sinking. Essentially, for any company that seeks to buck this trend of useless jobs, it’s a Catch-22: “yes, a CMO is entirely useless to the day-to-day functioning of the company” (Uber hasn’t had one in over a year), “… but we can’t attract top marketers to our company if they don’t see a neat career pathway leading to the top”.

So, a BS job – if sufficiently common – is meaningful merely because it is widely expected among peers, therefore requiring you to employ a flunky if you are to perform your job properly. Of course, it’s another matter if your job is itself a BS job. And the flunky becomes the flunked.

The third chapter is mostly a treatise on the consequenes of Puritanical “moral confusion” that Graeber talks about in his previous book on debt. The gist of it is that our assumptions about why humans work and what motivates them to keep working in meaningless jobs are completely wrong. We assume that people, when given the choice to be a parasite, would definitely take it. Graeber makes a case for the opposite view: that actually, people hate boredom, and want to be the cause of something meaningful. As Graeber’s interviewees see it, “a human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.” I think this is a particularly powerful insight, and helps to explain why most people end up gravitating to one of two kinds of jobs: BS jobs at important companies, and non-BS jobs at startups that have no real shot at success. We look for purpose even as we try to chase money, fame and all the other things humans have always chased after.

Here, Graeber takes a historical view at the changing nature of what it meand to work, and how it related to other abstractions like time, money, the economy, God and so on. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the book and could easily have been trimmed down to a few pages of high-level analysis without going into the details of serfdom and ancient Roman concepts of slavery.

Nevertheless, Graeber teases two factors that could explain why a reasonable person values jobs so highly – even if (and sometimes, especially because) they’re complete BS. One reason is that in modern cities, it’s impossible to have many friends that aren’t somehow related to work. The other, which I found quite interesting, is a concept of “scriptlessness”, where people don’t know how to respond to having a job they think is meaningless simply because there’s no prescribed or socially-acceptable way of dealing with it.

Here again, Graeber circles back to his reasoning that neoliberal economic thinking is at fault. Part of the reason that nobody has noticed this epidemic of BS jobs, he argues, is that people simply refuse to believe that capitalism could produce such results.

I’m sympathetic to this line of argumentation, because this is what standard economic theory teaches us and the more educated one is, the less likely you are to question the wisdom of such a fundamental premise of the modern world. It’s become gospel (on the political left as much as the right) to assume that free markets force companies towards a relentless pursuit of efficiency, which means that any jobs created in a free market must be necessary or somehow demanded by market forces.

This kind of circular logic reminds me of the scene from Vice where Dick Cheney argues for why the United States can not be accused of torturing its prisoners:

Cheney: “We believe the Geneva Convention is open to… interpretation.”

Tenet: “What exactly does that mean?”

Addington: “Stress positions, waterboarding, confined spaces, dogs.”

Rumsfeld: “We’re calling it enhanced interrogation.”

Bush: “We’re sure none of this fits under the definition of torture?”

Addington: “The U.S. doesn’t torture.”

Cheney: “Therefore, if the U.S. does it, by definition, it can’t be torture.”

If you imagine David Graeber to be a cat making a meal out of some sorry animal, the first three chapters are where he fusses over the location and licks the carcass clean of hair, feathers and other detritus. The fourth, fifth and sixth chapters are where Graeber really digs his teeth into the meat of the issue and goes to town. And this is also where his own self-assured political and moral leanings begin to come through more clearly.

He begins by tackling the arguments that seek to justify BS jobs, and shows that people who defend such jobs as simply a reflection of market demand and/or government regulation are speaking out of their rear ends.

It’s extremely unlikely that government regulation caused private sector administrative jobs to be created at twice the rate as it did within the government itself. In fact, the only reasonable interpretation of these numbers is precisely the opposite: public universities are ultimately answerable to the public, and hence, under constant political pressure to cut costs and not engage in wasteful expenditures

He points out that historically, BS jobs have been confined to a few sectors – most prominently, in the legal profession as in Dickens’ Bleak House. They rose in prominence as businessmen and corporations raised the profile of adminstrative tasks at the expense of actual, physical labour through concepts like “scientific management”, and the resulting emphasis on middle managers and supervisors led to corporate overlords usurping power from factory unions, teachers and nurses through the creation of new and entirely pointless professional-managerial positions. Graeber points to the current state of affairs, where banks derive most of their profits from fees and penalties, and car companies make more money from interests on car loans than from actually selling cars.

“Efficiency” has come to mean vesting more and more power to managers, supervisors and other presumed efficiency experts, so that actual producers have almost zero autonomy. At the same time, the ranks and orders of managers seem to reproduce themselves endlessly.

Graeber sees the new system as akin to a revamped, facelifted Feudalism 2.0 that oppresses workers while rewarding overseers and supervisors. He proceeds to make his point by examining how feudalism worked historically, what changes made it less prevalent, and how capitalist logic brought it back from the dead. This section is positively riveting, and reads like the impassioned sermon of a fervid missionary. He uses economic data to show how even by libertarians’ own estimation, many of these jobs are a drain on society, destroying more capital than they are paid. For good measure, he also points out the role of religion by showing how God himself may be held responsible for some of this undue stress on having a job and working your ass off, even if it’s ultimately meaningless:

The Judeo-Christian God created the universe out of nothing. (This in itself is slightly unusual: most Gods work with existing materials.) His latter-day worshippers, and their descendants, have come to think of themselves as cursed to imitate God in this regard

All these factors, Graeber argues, mean that present-day managerial feudalism is maintained by a delicate balance of resentments. Here, he synthesizes his pointed understanding of the problem, in a form he calls the “paradox of modern work”:

  1. Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living
  2. Most people hate their jobs

The final section discusses some political implications of this trend towards bullshitization of jobs. Graeber also recommends a policy fix, but only hesitatingly and almost unwillingly, leading one to wonder why he needed to at all. Regardless, he leans heavily in favour of universal basic income as a possible cure for the proliferation of bullshit jobs. After all, who would even bother working a BS job if they didn’t have to worry about feeding their kids or taking care of medical expenses?

In the main, Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is not to be read for its policy proposals or even for the role of politicoreligious institutions in creating the economic structures we’re saddled with today. In my opinion, the book must be read as a critique of the popular discourse surrounding the social role of jobs and what work ought to be. On this front, the book is par excellence. Political theorists can argue about whether this discourse is because of politics, or drives political incentives. And religious scholars can debate whether religious scripture condones or militates against it. But for most of the rest of us, the ideas provided by David Graeber form a solid bedrock to build better relationships with our jobs.

Book Reviews

Book review: Early Indians

‘Early Indians’ by Tony Joseph has a simple claim: to bring us up to speed on what we know about prehistoric Indians. To do this, he uses a variety of sources to triangulate arguments and make a simple and robust claim: all Indians have a mixture of immigrant ancentries.

The book begins, as any work rooted in scientific concepts would, with definitions: what he means by ‘Indian’, what he means by ‘prehistory’, what kind of data he uses, where we find such data and whose work he derives from. This is where Joseph’s approach stands out from similar ones made by authors such as Romila Thapar – Joseph goes beyond simply using archaeological data; he uses draws from genetic data in the form of genomes and lineages, and insights from linguistics as well. By setting up these concepts nicely, he also ensures that the reader doesn’t need a dictionary or an encycopedia. Every new concept that is introduced is given sufficient attention before turning to how it’s useful and what information can be drawn from it. For example, consider this passage in the first chapter:

When geneticists talk about the first modern humans in India, they mean the first group of modern humans who have successfully left behind a lineage that is still around. But when archaeologists talk about the first modern humans in India, the are talking about the first group of modern humans who could have left behind archaeological evidence that can be examined today, irrespective of whether or not they have a surviving lineage.

This distinction is helpful for the reader to appreciate why multiple sources are necessary, and also buttresses Joseph’s claim that the various fields don’t have to disagree with each other’s findings. It just takes some contextualization for us to appreciate why they may be different.

The first real insight for me was the role of haplogroups (branches in the genetic tree) in decoding ancestry. All humans outside Africa carry lineages that follow from M, N or R haplogroups. While south Asia has all three of these, Europe only has N and R. What does this say? Quite simply, that the first groups of humans to leave Africa followed a route that brought them close to India, where they may have settled before moving to Central Asia, and then making the push towards Europe. But if they were moving across the Sinai and Levant, wouldn’t Europe be closer to them, and thus likely to be settled first? Well, it turns out that the first successful groups of early humans first moved into Asia via the Bab el Mandeb at the southern edge of the Red Sea, crossing over into Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Earlier expeditions through the Levant and Judaea were unsuccessful (likely because of the presence of Neanderthals), and the Red Sea route was very much a viable route in the interglacial period.

This means that very early in our species’ history, South Asia was home to a great majority of humanity – a poignant reflection of today’s reality, where the Indian subcontinent alone accounts for over a fifth of the world’s population. So, in a way, the story of Indians is the story of our species, whether some of us like that idea or not.

The second chapter goes into some detail about the pre-Harappan farming communities in the Indian subcontinent. The site he chooses to focus on is Mehrgarh in Pakistan, a spectacular example of Neolithic civilization in the subcontinent.

The fast-eroding ruins at Mehrgarh, Pakistan

In 7000 BC, the Mehrgarh people, called ‘First Indians’ by Joseph, had masonry, brick houses, more or less rectilinear walls, fireplaces, red paints and even early domesticated versions of barley, cattle and goat. The most amazing of these remains are the “grave goods”, or things people were buried with. We see shells, necklaces, headbands and semiprecious stones, moved around through trade networks that reached as far as the Makran coast. There’s even cotton you guys! And they had dentistry.

This leaves an obvious question: what happened to them? Turns out, they moved all over India. The current genetic makeup of Indians is a mix of two distinct lineages: Ancestral South Indians (ASI) who derive from the First Indians at Mehrgarh and Iranian agriculturalists, and Ancestral North Indians (ANI) who are a mix of First Indians, Iranian agriculturalists and Steppe pastoralists. In other words, north and south Indians really are different people.

The third chapter deals with that jewel in Ancient India’s crown: the Harappan Civilization. One of the oldest and most sophisticated civilizations of its time, the Harappan civilization rivalled Uruk as the preeminent civilization of its time, stretching over an area of a million square kilometers – modern India is an entity covering three thousad square kilometers. The people traded with Mesopotamia, lived fairly peaceful lives and had a real appreciation for art and crafts, despite not having spectacular temples or ziggurats. They also spoke proto-Dravidian, the forebear of modern-day Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. By using linguistics, genetics and archaeology, Joseph shows the unvarnished truth: the mature Harappan Civilization had few rivals in its time, and once it fell, the subcontinent would take close to a millennium to reach that level of advancement again.

Harappan architecture - Wikipedia
Harappan architecture

Harappan remains are now scattered all over India and Pakistan, where they’ve just turned into sad mounds of dust and pieces of inconvenient history. In Pakistan because pre-Islamic history has become taboo for some reason, and in India because the Harappans predate the ‘Aryans’, who are said to be the people who brought proto-Hinduism, Sanskrit and everything else that a proud Hindu values. In the fourth chapter on Aryans, the author’s powerful argumentation steps in to defend scientists from religious and political zealots. He picks apart Harappan culture to show that it contained many elements of what we consider to be Indian culture, and the Aryans really only brought Sanskrit, horses and an undue emphasis on violence, a warrior culture, ritual sacrifices and supreme mastery of metallurgy.

There is substantial evidence that the Indus civilization was pre-Aryan.

The Indus civilization was mainly urban, while the early Vedic society was rural and pastoral. There were no cities in the Vedic period. The Indus seals depict many animals but not the horse. The horse and the chariot with spoke wheels were the defining features of the Aryan-speaking societies. The chariot found at Daimabad in the Deccan, the southernmost Indus settlement, has solid wheels and is drawn by a pair of humped bulls, not oxen. The tiger is often featured on Indus seals and sealings, but the animal is not mentioned in the Rigveda.

All of these go to show that the Aryans were alien to these lands, and could only have been an immigrant (or invading) population. Evidence presented by Joseph shows that the Harappans worshipped or revered some sort of a phallic symbol, which we now know as the ubiquitous Shivalingam. But the funny thing is, the Rigveda actually denounces ‘shishnadeva‘, translated to ‘the phallus god’ or ‘phallus worshippers’, a clear allusion to the Harappan culture. Archaelogical evidence also shows evidence of deliberate destruction of phallic symbols and idols in every Harappan settlement we have.

However, Joseph shows that this disdain for Harappan culture doesn’t last forever. By the time of the Upanishads (500-100 BC), the ‘shishnadeva’ has been coopted into a religion loosely resembling the Hinduism we know today. In other ways too, the two cultures merge into one: Dravidian words are taken into Sanskrit, retroflex consonants (consonants that need you to curl your tongue, the very thing that distinguishes Indian accents) become common. Houses are built around courtyards, bullock carts are still in use across the country, bangles are important to this day, trees continue to be worshipped – the peepal tree in particular, the significance of water buffalo in some cultures, dice games, chess and even the practice of applying sindoor are ways we carry on in the traditions of the Harappans.

Tony Joseph’s book is a great example of the kind of confident works Indian authors are starting to produce. There’s a resurgent self-assurance in Indian writing, lacking the mass-market appeal of recent years. Gone are the days when the Indian writer was tremulously searching for validation from Western audiences. Joseph writes his book for one audience alone: the curious, anglophile Indian. He wants you to be informed, to be proud and to also be able to stand up and take control of the cultural narrative. The epilogue is a perfect exemplification of this: he makes a compelling argument for how and when the caste system came to be solidified in Indian culture. Joseph argues that the caste system in India did not arrive with the ‘Aryans’. Instead, it fell into place much, much later – about two millennia later.

In bringing history, science and culture together, Tony Joseph is able to convince the educated, cosmopolitan Indian to give up the self-flagellating fatalism we sometimes slip into. He brings history to contemporary India and argues for the value of studying our past in order to rectify its mistakes. He closes the book perfectly with a meditation on caste, endogamy and the role of migrants like the Sakas, Mughals and Parsis in deciding the cultural makeup of modern India.

‘Early Indians’ is more than just a simple narration of historical events, and it’s definitely not an academic piece of writing. It’s the perfect example of what authors are capable of producing when they build neat, rigorous arguments that contextualise history.

Culture Reviews

Walden Ponderers

I have a problem with Henry David Thoreau. I know Americans love him, and I also know that everybody who’s anybody quotes Thoreau like they were included in his will. So forgive me for saying this, but I don’t think he’s really all that. I’m saying this despite the fact that he was a huge influence on Gandhi, whom I can almost write a whole book about my admiration and respect for. Most of my knowledge about Thoreau’s writing is from ‘Walden‘, a wee little story about the two years he spent living by himself in the woods by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. I’ve read a few other essays as well, but this is the only one I’ve suffered through till the end. Let me go over some of my issues with the book, and Thoreau – which have been repeated so many times by writers so much better than me that I’m beginning to think it should get a whole shelf at the bookstore. But don’t worry, I won’t dwell on its flaws for too long. Yes, the book is bad and I don’t recommend it, but the point of this post isn’t to beat a dead horse. I’ll get to the real point after this small detour.

Pond Scum

For as long as Walden has been in circulation, people have had problems with it. One of the best takedowns of Thoreau and the Walden cult came form Kathryn Schultz in an essay in The Atlantic, provocatively titled “Pond Scum“. OOOOOOOH. Burn. Take that, you pesky environmentalists! Actually, not a burn; the magazine decided that the title was too much for them, and quietly changed it to “The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau”, but the link still has some clues to the older, more appropriate, title.

Before I dig in, I’ll be honest here: I hadn’t fully read Walden before I read the criticisms. I’d begun to read it on a trek to Geocha La, but I found it so utterly dry and unreadable that I stopped around 50 pages in and picked up “Three Men on a Boat”. I will never regret that decision because Jerome is a far better write than Thoreau, and Three Men on a Boat is infinitely more readable and full of memorable scenes like this one, where the gang is having lunch on private land:

We had just commenced the third course – the bread and jam – when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn’t given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we were trespassing, we would, without further hesitation, believe it.

He gave us the required assurance, and we thanked him, but he still hung about, and seemed to be dissatisfied, so we asked him if there was anything further that we could do for him; and Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam.

I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly, as if he were vexed at being tempted with it, and he added that it was his duty to turn us off.

Jerome K. Jerome, “Three Men on a Boat”

Outstanding book, and one of the best short novels I’ve ever read. Definitely worth a read. So, with that little detour nested within a detour out of the way, let us proceed to Walden. The prose of the book is fantastic, and definitely gives any budding writer a lot of tips on how to engage your reader and draw them in. More accurately, it serves as a manual on how not to write a book that’s supposed to be for the general public. For a book that begins with a chapter on the value of economy, Thoreau spares no thought for the reader and fills the book to the brim with stupid little digressions, endless repetition, inane trivia and superficial “insights” into how beautiful nature is when man isn’t around to muck things up. Let me put forth three (only three!) examples of Thoreau’s horrendous writing.

Exhibit A: Repetition

When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned any thing of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me any thing to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

This is just in the first few pages. It gets worse: the first two chapters are basically the same absolutely worthless rubbish said in a million slightly different ways. Reading them is like going on a merry-go-round that’s going so slow you don’t feel any thrill, but you’ve been on it so long that you’re beginning to feel bored and slightly nauseous.

Exhibit B: Owls

When other birds are still the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the wood-side; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then—that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods.

I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being,—some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness,—I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it,—expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings. But now one answers from far woods in a strain made really melodious by distance,—Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.

I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp, where the single spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lisps amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath; but now a more dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.

I love owls as much as the next guy. Matter of fact, there are at least three on my list of top 10 birds. It makes me sad, but I have to say, what did I do to deserve this?

Exhibit C: The rest of the book

Most of us have been in a forest, and the earliest memory I have of being in the woods was when I was 8 or 9, when our family had gone on a trip to Ooty. I remember being so excited about everything I was seeing around me, I was losing my mind about the tiniest things. I thought I’d tell the whole world about that one brilliant yellow mushroom with a cute frog sitting on it. But I could only go on about it for no more than 2 minutes before someone shut me down. I could never have talked about it for any longer than 15 minutes before people would have drowned me out. But Thoreau don’t care. Walden is full of tiring details about the woods around him. You saw the part about owls hooting into the night. That’s not all, though. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to beans and how to cultivate them properly. There’s another where he goes off on how a pond needs to be cared for, with exact instructions on how to clear pond scum, what depth you can allow it to be, and how to measure the depth of the pond. According to Thoreau, a pond is deepest where its two widest sections meet. Okay sure, that makes a lot of sense, Mr. Naturalist.

The Hyppie

So, thoreau was not very knowledgeable about nature despite the years he spent living by himself and braving the savage elements of the wild. Which begs the question, “how did he survive for so long?” Don’t wonder anymore because I have research to answer that question.

Actually, I didn’t have to read too much to get to this. Here are the first few lines of Walden:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

“A mile from a neighbor”? How’s that even close to living in the woods by yourself? If you screamed from a mile away, it has a decent chance of being audible. Thoreau himself says that he could hear the train whistle from his pondside shack. You don’t have to be a detective to suspect that this man may have been cheating. And he was. Here’s a great example of why:

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

His laundry was done by his mum, as practically everybody knows (and this writer for some reason detests that they know). He lived on a piece of land owned by his friend, and got his food from the friendly and often just confused villagers near the pond. Thoreau says he was self-sufficient and only went to the village just to hear some gossip and “exchange” what he’d grown/gathered. Self-aggrandizing though he was, the man would have known perfectly well that the villagers were being quite generous towards him. They give him food and supplies, even though most of what he has to offer is probably worthless to them because they can grow it themselves. In other words, Thoreau was a squatter and the townsfolk regarded him as a curious oddity they didn’t mind providing for.

For a squatter, Thoreau is awfully glib about everybody else around him. Here is the man hating on a farmer for the cardinal sin of having named a little pond after himself:

Flint’s Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like;—so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that he had made it. Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him who could show no title to it but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him,—him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore; who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it; who regretted only that it was not English hay or cranberry meadow,—there was nothing to redeem it, forsooth, in his eyes,—and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom. It did not turn his mill, and it was no privilege to him to behold it. I respect not his labors, his farm where every thing has its price; who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any thing for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor,—poor farmers. A model farm! where the house stands like a fungus in a muck-heap, chambers for men, horses, oxen, and swine, cleansed and uncleansed, all contiguous to one another! Stocked with men! A great grease-spot, redolent of manures and buttermilk! Under a high state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the church-yard! Such is a model farm.

Throughout Walden, Thoreau makes it a point to go after people he sees as beneath him: worthless idiots who don’t deserve to breathe the air that the forest provides for them. Without a hint of self-awareness or irony. Bill Bryson, that upstanding gentleman, writes in “A Walk in the Woods”:

The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a vist to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn’t the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was “grim and wild … savage and dreary,” fit only for “men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, “near hysterical.”

Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods”

The word “hippie” is generally used to mean “hipster”, originally meaning “someone who knows”, but more usually used as shorthand for “spiritualist vagrant who may be on some drugs”. And it’s in this sense that many people refer to Thoreau as the world’s first hippie. But after reading Walden, I can only see Thoreau as a “hyppie”, short for “hypocrite”. And he wasn’t the first or the last.

The Perks of Being a Paper Tiger

As much as he was a boring holier-than-thou hypocrite, Thoreau actually started something. His works sparked doubt in enough people’s minds about the supposed value of “civilization” and all these vestiges of paternalistic power that a whole movement of “transcendentalists” began to emerge. Put together, Thoreau, Emerson and Tolstoy formed a great wall of literary defence against the encroachment of humans upon nature. With “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, Thoreau created a template for individuals to resist institutions; a template used by all manner of protestors including Gandhi, MLK and Mandela. Yes, I want to hear about what kind of grand organizing framework Mandela would have liked to create. But it wouldn’t have been as inspiring as Thoreau’s. Why? Because Mandela was a practitioner and Thoreau was a paper tiger. And only a paper tiger operating in a safe little sandbox can construct a narrative and give people hope.

Thoreau appeals to us because his thoughts on being alone in the woods are universal enough to appeal to practically everybody: either as a reality, or as an aspirational goal. There’s no real danger in Thoreau’s works: he doesn’t have to run for his life while being chased by a grizzly across some sodden vegetation. He doesn’t even spend any time talking about all the dangers that lie beyond his little suburban refuge. All he sees is a postcard version of the “struggles of solitary life” without any of the actual strife in nature. All he has to wrestle with is one thing, and one thing alone: “what does it mean to live with yourelf?” That’s it. He doesn’t actually have to think about how to farm in a forest, how to fend off predators, how to ration materials, how to stay sane when isolated from everybody you care about, how to survive, nothing. He sees the beauty of a mushroom without having to wonder if it’s poisonous. He can see a way to find the deepest part of the pond without thinking about whether he should jump in there and end his miserable life. You can connect to the material in the book whether you’re out there slugging it out in the mountain highlands of Papua New Guinea, or in a suburban park resting under a tree. Just as the themes it explores are universal, Walden’s messages of self-sufficiency, discipline and economy are just as relevant in the benign undergrowth of Rotorua, New Zealand as in the spectacular woods of Concord, Massachusetts. So, Walden can be a beacon for anybody that loves their little corner of the planet: from white nationalists to PETA-lovers. You can make a case for protecting the beauty of just about any piece of land by quoting extensively from this book.

And that is the value of paper tigers: they give you a message uncontaminated by the awful, ugly truth of reality. Yes, I’m all for a realistic portrayal of what survival in the woods entails, but it doesn’t have to be all grime and grit. For a person living in dirt-poor conditions in Malawi, Walden has no real survival advice to offer. In many ways, it can be patronizing to see Thoreau wax poetic about the virtues of freeloading and staring at still water all day. But to those same people, Walden can also be something to aspire towards, precisely because Thoreau doesn’t have to bother about being hunted or sold into slavery. Walden offers a sanitized version of free living, free from the nastiness of having to survive.

I don’t mind people living in their own little coccoons, giving the world “advice”. To me, the value of a Kardashian’s advice on dealing with hardships, adversity and discrimination isn’t the advice itself. But just the existence of these little corners of the “upper echelons” of society where people feel hurt by some bizarre little thing makes you say “man, if that woman’s biggest problem today is that she has decide whether she wants to wear makeup, I want to be a Kardashian”. It makes you realize that if you’re rich enough, famous enough, free enough, powerful enough, bold enough, attractive enough, talented enough, successful enough, creative enough or smart enough, you can choose to suffer for a couple of years in a shack on your friend’s land in the Hamptons, and live to write a book about it that, decades later, kids will be forced to read.

Paper tigers give people hope. For that reason, there’s something of value in being a paper tiger.