Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ruin of India by British Rule

Hyndman: Report on India of the “Social Democratic Federation” (Great Britain), Stuttgart (1907)

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Source: “Reports of the Social Democratic Federation, Ruin of India by British Rule ,” in Histoire de la IIe Internationale, vol. 16 (Geneva: Minkoff Reprint, 1978, 1907), 513-33;
Transcribed: by Thomas Schmidt.
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The British Empire in India is the most striking example in the history of the world of the domination of a vast territory and population by a small minority of an alien race. Both the conquest and the administration of the country have been exceptional, and although the work has been carried on, save in a few directions, wholly in the interest of the conquerors, we English have persistently contended that we have been acting really in the interests of the subdued peoples. As a matter of fact, India is, and will probably remain, the classic instance of the ruinous effect of unrestrained capitalism in Colonial affairs. It is very important, therefore, that the International Social-Democratic Party should thoroughly understand what has been done, and how baneful the temporary success of a foreign despotism enforced by a set of islanders, whose little starting-point and head-quarters lay thousands of miles from their conquered possessions, has been to a population at least 300,000,000 human beings.

To begin with, India was conquered for the Empire not by the English themselves but by Indians under English leadership, and by taking advantage of Indian disputes. When the English, following upon the Portuguese, first landed in India for the purpose of commerce, they were almost overwhelmed by the wealth and magnificence of the potentates whose friendship they asked for and whose protection they craved. At the time their connection with this part of Asia began, India was a great and rich country whose trade had been sought after for centuries by the peoples of the West. If civilisation is to be gauged by the standard attained in science[1], art, architecture, agriculture, industry, medicine, laws, philosophy and religion, then the great States of India at that period were well worthy of comparison with the most enlightened and cultured parts of Europe and no European monarch could be reckoned as in any way superior to Akber, Aurungzib, Shah Jehan, or Sivaji; while it would be hard to name any European Minister of Finance equal to the Hindoo Rajahs Toder Mull and Nana Furvana. We still scarcely know how far we ourselves have been influenced in many departments by the science and thought which spread westward from the great Indian Peninsula. Even when full account also is taken of that “anarchy” of which nowadays we hear so much from Anglo-Indian bureaucrats, as having everywhere prevailed prior to English rule, we discover that there is little basis for all this pessimism of the past beyond the eagerness to exalt, however dishonestly, the superiority of European methods.

It is safe to say that never was the condition of India more anarchical than that of France, Germany, the Low Countries and Italy during a great portion of the Middle Ages. Thugs and dacoits were at no time more dangerous or more cruel than the bands of robbers and freebooters who roamed at will in those days through some of the finest regions of Europe. The exactions of the feudal nobles and chieftains were in many cases worse than the heaviest demands made by Rajahs or Nawabs; the dues to the Church were certainly not less onerous than the tithes to the Brahmins. Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi was horrible; but not worse than the Constable de Bourbon’s sack of Rome. Yet he would be a bold man who should urge that the Pax Romana with its blight of the great slave-worked estates and constant drain of wealth to the Metropolis was better for the mass of the people than even the turbulence and oppression of the period of the Crusades. Progress was going on all the time, and we can now see that what has often been called anarchy was but the commencement of a new and more vigorous life. It may be that European interference checked a similar development in India following upon the gradual break-up of the Mogul Empire of Delhi. At any rate, Europeans have no right to claim that they have benefited the country, until evidence has been given that the mass of the people are really better off than they were, or than they are, under native rule. That is the test of the merit of all governments, home or foreign. Do they or do they not secure increased welfare for the body of the people governed?

Englishmen of all Western peoples are perhaps the least qualified to enter into and fully comprehend the national life and development of a number of Asiatic nations, bound together for a comparatively short time under our alien rule; but whose growth for thousands of years has gone on in conditions so entirely dissimilar that it requires an effort of the mind to reach back to the period when the two civilisations had a common starting-point.

Writing fifty years ago when the relations between Europeans and Indians were closer than they are to-day Mountstuart Elphinstone expressed himself as follows:

“Englishmen in India have less opportunity than might be expected of forming opinions of the native character. Even in England few know much of the people beyond their own class, and what they do know they learn from newspapers and publications of a description which does not exist in India. In that country, also, religion and manners put bars to our intimacy with the natives and limit the number of transactions as well as the free communication of opinions. We know nothing of the interior of families but by report, and have no share in those numerous occurrences of life in which the amiable parts of character are most exhibited. Missionaries of a different religion, judges, police magistrates, officers of revenue or customs, and even diplomatists, do not see the most virtuous portion of a native, nor any portion unless when influenced by passion or occupied by some personal interest. What we do see we judge by our standard. It might be argued in opposition to many unfavourable testimonies that those who have known the Indians longest have always the best opinion of them; but this is rather a compliment to human nature than to them, since it is true of every other people. It is more to the point that all persons who have retired from India, think better of the people they have left, after comparing them with others even of the most justly-admired nations.”

Few would venture to dispute Mountstuart Elphinstone’s knowledge of his subject or the justice of this statement. What was true then is still more true now. The pernicious nonsense supplied by Anglo-Indian pensioners and others to the press in India and in England concerning Indian cowardice, ignorance, slavishness and incapacity is written wholly and solely with the object of upholding a nefarious despotism; which, though less openly brutal, is more insidiously harmful even than that of Russia. The numerous races and peoples of India are still capable of great work in every field of human endeavour. Wherever they are allowed a free outlet they display the highest faculties; and it is absurd to contend that great States which managed their own business capably for thousands of years, which outlived and recovered from invasions and disasters that might have crushed less vigorous countries, would be unable to control their own affairs successfully if a handful of unsympathetic foreigners were withdrawn, or driven out, from their midst.

Previous invaders and conquerors of Hindostan mostly settled in the conquered territory and invariably employed the natives in the highest posts civil and military. Native ability was made use of in every department of the administration. Men of capacity, however humble their birth, might and did rise to be the highest functionaries of a Mohammedan monarch or became the heads of considerable Hindoo Empires themselves. The people were thus not crushed down by successive waves of interlopers who never make their homes in the country and drain away its produce steadily to a foreign land. But under English rule the old system has been completely changed. The result of the great battles of Plassey, Assaye, Wandiwash, Seringapatam and Gugerat has been to deprive 225,000,000 of Indians of all control over the policy and administration of their own country and to put even the great Native States, which still retain a nominal independence, increasingly at the mercy of the same despotic power. Up to the time of the mutiny, even to half-a-century ago, this system of complete domination was not so fully worked out as it has been since; and the rule of the famous East India Company which lasted till 1858 was far lighter and more considerate of the interests of the population than has been the Government of the Crown. Not a single one of the solemn pledges given by the late Queen of England and Empress of India, in favour of justice to Indians, has ever been fulfilled and the Indians find themselves to-day, after 150 years of British domination, in a far worse position, in regard to having any control over their own affairs, than they have ever yet been. Here and there an Indian is allowed to creep into the Civil Service on sufferance, or specially servile persons are rewarded by the Government with seats on the Legislative Councils, where they have no authority whatsoever; these, however, are but exceptions which prove the rule.

According to an official return to the House of Commons, obtained many years ago, with great difficulty, by the late Mr. John Bright, the conditions not having materially changed in the meantime, out of 39,000 officials who drew a salary of more than 1,000 rupees a year 28,000 were Englishmen and only 11,000 natives, or in the ratio of more than five to two. The Englishmen, however, received on the average in salaries more than five to one what the natives are paid. Of 960 civil offices which really control the civil administration of India, 900 are occupied by Englishmen and only 60 by natives. The Indians have no control whatsoever over their own taxation, nor any voice at all in the expenditure of their own revenues. The entire civil government is now carried on by men who live lives quite remote from the people they govern, who have no permanent interest in their well-being and who return home, which they have frequently visited in the meantime, at forty-five or fifty-five years of age with large pensions. India is, in fact, now administered by successive relays of English carpet-baggers, men who go out with carpet-bags and return with chests, having ordinarily as little real sympathy with the natives as they have any deep knowledge of their habits and customs.
These District Officers, as they are called, are the real rulers of India. They have the well-being of millions upon millions of people at their disposal. They land in India, nowadays, already full-grown young men, brought up and educated in a totally different society, by no means well-versed in the native languages, convinced of their own great superiority, and prejudiced on many points to a degree which even the best of them cannot materially overcome for years.

And these are the duties which the District Officer has to perform in a tropical country among a strange people: He is:

Collector of the Land Revenue.

Registrar of the landed property in the District.

Judge between landlord and tenant.

Ministerial officer of the Courts of Justice.

Treasurer and Accountant of the District.

Administrator of the District Excise.

Ex officio President of the Local Rates Committee.

Referee for all questions of compensation for lands taken up for public purposes.

Agent for the Government in all local suits to which it is a party.

Referee in local public works.

Manager of estates of minors.

Magistrate, Police Magistrate and Criminal Judge.

Head of Police.

Ex officio President of Municipalities.

Now what does this all mean? No human being, had he the versatility of an admirable Crichton and the endurance of a Hadrian, could possibly do this work efficiently himself. Consequently, the business falls into the hands of that worst class of natives, who are eager to play the part of jackals to the governing white minority. There have here and there been administrators of exceptional genius who, having landed early in India, became habituated to the ways of the people and were able to exercise reasonable supervision over their subordinates. But these cases were exceptional even under the Raj of the old East India Company: to-day they are almost unknown. According to practically universal testimony, European officials are becoming less and less capable of thoroughly understanding the people they are sent out to govern. The most important work also is perforce, done in a hurry and such work is necessarily bad work.

Such is the alien civil administration. The military is like unto it. In the last resort we English hold India by the sword. A well known Anglo-Indian official of high rank, walking with a great Afghan chieftain, many years ago, on the ramparts of Peshawur, held forth to him on the importance of the British power in India and the overwhelming forces it could bring to bear. “Your power in India” replied the Khan coolly “is 70.000 men well armed.” The European forces in India are now somewhat in excess of this and the native army, officered in all the higher grades by Europeans amounts, including reserves, to 180,000 men, without artillery since the mutiny. The cost of this army is entirely thrown upon the revenues of India and amounts to upwards of £19,000,000 a year – a terribly heavy tax in itself on a very poor population, and the heavier that so large a proportion is paid away in salaries to foreigners.

It is claimed by the supporters of European domination that this army, though admittedly entailing heavy charges, is cheaply purchased; seeing that, by its presence, peace is ensured from one end of Hindostan to the other. But the horrors of peace, even in the Western World, are often worse than the horrors of war, and in India this is unfortunately still more apparent. The vigour and intelligence of one-fifth of the human race is being kept down by this despotic peace. Beautiful arts are falling into decay. Native culture is being crushed out. Agriculture is steadily deteriorating. Anything in the shape of patriotism or national feeling is discouraged, and its advocates are persecuted and imprisoned. Denunciation of the wrongs of British rule is treason and legitimate combination to resist tyranny is a pernicious plot. Peace is not worth having at such a price, even if accompanied by increasing wealth. But when such peace goes hand in hand with growing impoverishment for the mass of the people, then clearly we are face to face with an utterly ruinous and hateful system.

It is true that India is inhabited by many races and peoples; true that there exist between them many racial and religious causes of quarrel; true, also, that the Mohammedan minority of 60,000,000 or so scattered throughout British and Native territory conceives at times that it has grave wrongs to adjust against the vast Hindoo majority of some 240,000,000 or 250,000,000. Internecine war is, therefore, quite possible, should we withdraw. But, even so, there are more terrible fates in the world than to die fighting, and the slow starvation of tens of millions of human beings is far worse than any slaughter on the battlefield yet heard of. The marvel is that India, overborne as she is by excessive, costly and unsympathetic administration in every direction, is able to hold her own at all, and that Indians under existing conditions ever show that high distinction in so many branches of human thought and learning that they unquestionably display.

But it may be urged: Look at the results of European management as applied to India. The great cities of Anglo-India, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Agra, Delhi give an impression of wealth and magnificence worthy to be ranked with anything that can be seen in the West. Fine railways admirably built and handsomely equipped conduct the traveller from one end of the Empire to the other; affording not only the best convenience for passengers but enabling transport of goods to be conducted with ease, cheapness, and rapidity thus, also, putting it in the power of districts which have a surplus of food to provide for the shortcomings of those where drought and short harvests prevail. Irrigation works on a large scale, though not equalling the complete systems of water provision which existed under the best of the old native rulers, are being pushed forward as rapidly as possibly, and rendering famine from drought practically impossible in those parts of the country where their influence is directly felt. Afforestation is being carried on under careful and systematic control, so that the harmful denudation of large districts observable in countries supposed to be much more advanced, such as the United States, is permanently averted. Elaborate arrangements have been made whereby in periods of famine relief works are at once started and the afflicted people are employed on useful enterprises close to their own homes. Disease, epidemic and endemic alike, is treated with a thoroughness and knowledge previously unheard of; while the best known principles of sanitation in tropical climates are applied wherever possible.

Not only so but many drawbacks of the ancient native society have been swept away. Thugs have been suppressed for three generations. Suttee was put down as long ago. Dacoity and highway robbery are rarely heard of. Justice is administered without corruption, and torture is now almost unknown. Indians, if not admitted to prominent posts in the government, have opportunities in the way of acquiring the higher European education never at their disposal before. The press is in the main fairly free and rights of speech and combination are allowed which no foreign prince certainly has ever consented to before.

Much of this if, not the whole of it, is correct. The English have introduced into India continuous peace and many of the advantages of Western civilisation. Had their influence then been confined to such work as was done by a few of the old East India Company’s servants, who knew, were known and were loved by the people; had they restricted their efforts to remedying admitted evils in Indian administration, as was done to some extent very successfully in more than one of the great independent States; had they recognised that what was needed for improvement was not complete Europeanisation but sympathetic cooperation of really capable white men, thoroughly versed in Indian habits and customs and divorced from constant life among Europeans, with the Indian themselves; had they in short regarded India always from the Indian standpoint: it is undeniable that great benefit might have resulted to the country. But, all this notwithstanding, had the economic relations remained the same, India would still have been as desperately impoverished as she is to-day.
The total gross value of all the produce of British India for 225,000,000 of human beings cannot be put at the outside at more than £1 per head. The late Mr. William Digby put it at not more than 12/6 per head. No such dire poverty over so large an area was ever before known on the planet. And the impoverishment is increasing. Mr. Digby, himself an official of one of the great Famine Agencies, and with special opportunities for obtaining information, calculated that the ryots in the Districts outside the permanent settlement get only one half as much to eat in the year as their grandfathers did, and only one-third as much as their great-grandfathers did, Yet, in spite of such facts, the land tax is exacted with the greatest stringency and must be paid to the Government in coin before the crops are garnered! Thus, apart from other drawbacks, our system forces almost the entire agricultural population into the hands of the native money-lenders, from whom alone money to meet the tax can be obtained; and then we hypocritically lament the usurious disposition of the men who lend on the crops! When it is remembered that every improvement which a ryot makes in his holding he is taxed for; that fallow land in British territory is taxed as high as cultivated land; and that little allowance is made for famine periods, it is easy to comprehend the crushing effect of our ruinous system upon the miserable agriculturists, who constitute four-fifths of the Indian population. But for the money-lenders – if, that is to say, the native usurers refused to lend on growing crops – the Government of India would at once be bankrupt.

It is argued, however, that, as population is increasing, the idea of impoverishment on any large scale is absurd and a German Social-Democrat, Mr. Edward Bernstein, who has been acting as advocate-in-chief on the continent for the British India Office, in place of M. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu retired from the field, contends on this and other grounds that English government in India has been beneficial. The same argument was used in relation to Ireland prior to 1847. Population was rapidly increasing in that island; therefore the people of Ireland must begetting richer in spite of all the absentee proprietors and of all the talk about the drain of wealth to Great Britain. In that year, however, came the cataclysm, in the course of which millions of people perished or were expatriated; and it was then discovered that Adam Smith himself had said that “poverty seems favourable to generation.” Not only seems but is; as Russia can testify as well as Ireland and India. There are more people in British India than ever there were, but they are living on an ever-falling standard of subsistence. How long we shall have to wait until the cataclysm comes in this case it is difficult to say; but is certainly not far off.

The evidence as to increasing poverty is absolutely conclusive. According to official report after official report it is clearly established that an increasing proportion of the population is yearly getting less and less to eat, and Mr. Digby’s contention is in the main verified. Taking only the period of direct British rule since the Mutiny in 1857, we have conclusive evidence from Viceroy Lord Lawrence down to Mr. C. J. O’Donnell, Mr. Smeaton and Mr Thorburn that, economically at any rate, our rule is a complete failure. None indeed has put the matter more clearly as to the impoverishment than Sir William Hunter, who for many years prior to his death had filled the post of literary advocate-general of British domination, and who admitted that even in 1880 no fewer than forty millions of our Indian population lived in permanent starvation. Matters have become very much worse since.

The reason for this continuous depletion of wealth and destruction of well-being is not far to seek. And this reason applies to the entire population under British control. Here, at any rate, race, colour, religion make no difference. All are subject to the same terrible disadvantage of the drain of produce away from India on English account without any commercial return. This drain, or economic tribute, from which most conquered dependencies suffer, is specially severe in the case of India. Making every possible allowance, it is clearly established that, comparing the Indian Exports and the Indian Imports, the overplus of Exports for which there is no commercial return now amounts to more than £35,000,000 a year, or considerably in excess of fifty per cent more than the total Land Revenue obtained from all British India[2] This drain has been going on in an increasing ratio, and necessarily with deepening effect, ever since the British occupation. It means that India, naturally a country with the greatest possibilities for wealth-production in every department, is being steadily bled to death, in order to pay pensions, interest, home charges, dividends and remittances in Great Britain to the capitalist and landlord classes with their hangers-on Wherever it is possible to throw a charge upon the Indian revenues this is at once done and, as the Indians are wholly unrepresented either in India or in Great Britain, they are unable to complain effectively in any way whatever. It is very doubtful whether the Spaniards ever exacted anything approaching to this tremendous tribute from their American possessions, even in the heyday of their ruthless extortions. When to this drain of £35,000,000 annually is added the amount paid for the services of Europeans in India, including the 75,000 white soldiers, which runs up to many millions Sterling, it is clear we need look no farther for the real cause of India’s frightful impoverishment and the continuous famine and plague which now steadily prevail in some part or other of our territory.

Yet when famine on a larger scale comes, as the inevitable result of this terrible drain of wealth to England, the possessing classes in Great Britain itself, who receive this huge tribute and fill the appointments in India with their relatives, consider they are performing a deed of wondrous beneficence if they return to India £500,000 in one-year out of the £1,000,000,000 or more they have taken out of the country in unpaid-for produce during the past fifty years. No wonder that under such circumstances the agricultural population is drifting into the hopeless position already referred to. The poor ryots overtaxed and heavily indebted “except in the richer irrigated lands eat or sell every saleable article the land produces, use the manure of the cattle for fuel, and return nothing to the soil in proportion to what is taken away. Every increase of population increases the danger. Crop follows crop without intermission, so that Indian agriculture is becoming simply a process of exhaustion. Even in some tracts of canal-irrigated land, where water is lavishly used without manure, crops have ceased to grow. An exhausting agriculture and an increasing population must come to a dead-lock. No reduction of the assessment can be more than a postponement of the inevitable catastrophe.”
This was written by the celebrated agriculturist Sir James Caird in his report as Special Famine Commissioner nearly thirty years ago. Mispredictions are being fulfilled under our eyes. The “catastrophe” he foresaw is close at hand.

To borrow money at interest from England in these conditions, in order to build more railways, is only to intensify the drain and multiply the number of syphons to suck out wealth for foreigners. Even to create more irrigation works, likewise with borrowed money, can have no permanently good effect, so long as the drain of produce without return goes on upon a greater scale. That drain and the excessive employment of Europeans in India at heavy rates of pay render ruin certain whatever else may be done. There are two Indias: Anglo-India with fine European quarters and luxurious arrangements battening upon the wholesale impoverishment of the country; and India proper, undergoing misery such as has never been seen on a like scale elsewhere, even under twentieth century capitalism.

But now matters are becoming so unendurable that the industrious, thrifty, patient Indians themselves are beginning to feel that some change must be made in their lot. The educated classes are beginning to understand what European tyranny, economic and social, means to all who are brought under it, and to know that their impoverishment is occasioned by British rule and not by the forces of nature. Famines occurred in India before our conquest; but continuous famine such as now afflicts some part of India every year was wholly unknown under Hindoo or Mohammedan rule. Black plague has been known as an epidemic in India for centuries; but black plague as an endemic pestilence working death all through the year had never been heard of till we brought to Hindostan, within the past generation, the full blessings of European civilisation.

This horrible disease with its ravages bids fair to do more to break up native society and to turn the mass of Indians against us than anything else. At the time of writing the mortality in India by plague alone is at the rate of 90,000 a week. Now plague is above all other dangerous sicknesses the disease of poverty. Where in hot countries there is great poverty, there the plague finds its most congenial habitat. No other proof of the increasing poverty of India is needed than the increasing fatality and persistence of this scourge. The natives are panic-stricken, and the very measures of scientific precaution taken by European doctors and their subordinates to prevent its spread, involving as they do constant interference with the most cherished and even sacred native customs, render the foreign despot more hateful than he was before. Such is the irony of events, when once an Empire has entered upon the downgrade. All the efforts of the unscrupulous Anglo-Indian press in India and at home to stir up the old ill-feeling between Mohammedans and Hindoos will have little influence as against the discontent and hatred engendered by the manufactured plague and the methods used for its suppression.

Meanwhile, too, a new spirit is being displayed in the towns. Meetings and protests against British mistakes are becoming rather the rule than the exception, when discontent is felt, even in patient Bengal. There is movement and stir in Bengal on political grounds; in Punjab and the Mahratta country on economic grounds; while all over India a propaganda in favour of boycotting European, meaning of course English, goods in favour of Indian and Asiatic goods is going steadily forward. Slowly but surely the economic situation of India is being appreciated and the cry of “India for the Indians” is being systematically raised. Even at the “Indian National Congress,” which meets every year, and which strongly protests its loyalty to the British Government, an advanced party has been formed, which undoubtedly looks to complete independence for India as the only hope of the future. This party is gaining strength daily and the more determined of its members have taken a vow never in any circumstances to serve under or to aid the foreign Raj. Indians visiting England are even more outspoken as to the future. They take courage from the example of Japan and argue that if it has been possible for little Japan to place herself in the front rank of the nations within a space of forty years, with very little assistance from Europeans, it is surely quite possible for India with her 300,000,000 of people, and her fighting races, whose numbers alone are fully treble the entire population of Japan, to take courage by her example and, even unarmed, to sweep out of Hindostan by one great and simultaneous effort the 200,000 of Europeans and Eurasians who at present despotically control her fortunes and are ruining her future.

There is no longer any hope of improvement by peaceful or constitutional means. Thirty years, perhaps even twenty years, ago it was still possible to have so reorganised British administration, by reestablishing native rule under British leadership and by stanching the drain, as to give India full outlet towards a new and prosperous period. But, lately, both capitalist factions in England have shown a firm determination to continue in the course of wrong-doing and tyranny. Mr John Morley, the sham Radical placeman acts as Secretary of State with even less of real sympathy or statesmanship towards Indians than the late Viceroy, the Tory Lord Curzon, who, by common consent of Europeans and natives of all grades in India, was the worst Governor-General Hindostan ever had. Attempts are even being made at the present time, in view of the growing discontent and threatening demonstrations against our system, to maintain our domination, as it was originally established, by stirring up internecine animosities. Even official organs are not ashamed openly to appeal to the fanaticism of Mohammedans against Hindus for the special purpose of weakening the rising agitation against unendurable economic, social and race oppression. But this shameful policy will be unsuccessful and neither Moslem bigotry nor European rifles and artillery can permanently maintain a foreign despotism which has proved a failure in every direction. White capitalist rule, now doomed to an early overthrow, will seem but a short and hideous nightmare in the long and glorious life of India. Upon the withdrawal of the English the Indians will begin afresh their old career of internal development, side by side with the other progressive peoples of the world.

But India is only the most conspicuous instance of the ruinous effect of European capitalism upon subject races. Other nations, so far as their opportunities permitted, have been as injurious in their dealing with the less-developed peoples as the British. France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Belgium and now the United States and Germany have carried on the same system on a smaller scale. It is for the International Social-Democratic Party of the World, representing the classes that gain nothing whatever from the tyranny which, hitherto, while suffering under, they have helped to uphold, to organise and assist any efforts that may be made to destroy for ever the pernicious domination of capitalism in all its forms, and to bring about the emancipation of all mankind regardless of race, colour or creed.

May 1st, 1907.

H.M. Hyndman.

P.S. – Since the above paper was in type, affairs in India have assumed a more critical aspect. Not only is the black plague extending its ravages, but even by official accounts, which, of course, minimise matters as far as possible, the mortality has now mounted up to just 500,000 every month! This, so far, is chiefly in the Punjab. The arrest and deportation of Mr. Lala Lajpat Rai, without even the form of a trial, or any justification whatever for such a proceeding, has aroused a bitter feeling of indignation among the educated classes of India from one end of the Peninsula to the other. Mr. Lajpat Rai is a man who has devoted his life and his fortune to the service of his poorer countrymen when suffering from the disasters of famine and earthquake. He was engaged at the time of his arrest, as Mr. O. Donnell, M P., a late member of the Anglo-Indian Civil Service in this very district, has clearly shown, upon a perfectly legitimate, sober and reasoning protest against the action of the Government in raising the Land Tax to famine point, and in exacting payment for lands, reclaimed by the Punjabi peasants, which had been specially exempted from assessment at the time of their reclamation. All this has been proved to demonstration. But Mr. John Morley, the philosophic Radical, speaking as Secretary of State for India on behalf the Liberal Government, has justified his infamous Muscovite methods in the House of Commons, and Mr Lajpat Rai is being slowly done to death in gaol. Thus, in England as in other countries, the Liberals and Radicals are again showing what cowardly tyrants at bottom they are. No attempt has been made by the government of India to defend itself against the overwhelming charges of the deliberate bleeding to death of India, formulated against it by myself and others who thoroughly know the facts. It has been distinctly shown by members of the Anglo-Indian Government themselves that the terrible drain of produce from India for nothing; the excessive demands for the Land Tax as well as the manner in which it is collected in cash before the crop is grown; and the Salt Tax which, though reduced, still acts as the direct promoter of disease for men and cattle due to insufficient consumption of this necessary of life: it is being proved, I say, not by the adversaries of British rule but by its supporters, that these shameful extortions are the direct cause of the frightful impoverishment and plague mortality of the Indian people. The so-called “unrest” is meanwhile extending throughout the country, and men in high place, who have had 40 years experience among the Indians themselves, have warned the Government that, unless a complete change of system is made, the end of our rule in India is close at hand. What the economic effect of that collapse would be on the middle classes of this island, it is not necessary for me to describe at length here. Enough to say that it would mean an immediate deduction from the incomes of the non-producers of Great Britain of not less than £ 35,000,000 a year.

1. Those who wish to go farther into the question of Hindoo achievement in various directions will find an admirable summary, largely drawn from European statements and admissions, in “Hindu Superiority” by Har Bilas Sarda published in English at Ajmere in November 1906. In his laudable anxiety to uphold the reputation of his race and country the author may, perhaps, take a somewhat optimist view of the capacity of his own people; but the quotations given and the facts adduced in this book of more than 450 pages ought to silence for ever the foolish and ignorant sneerers at Hindoo inferiority. It is not so very many years ago that I remember hearing the Japanese spoken of with similar lofty contempt by English traders and travellers.

2. Ordinary readers rarely follow calculations in the text. I prefer therefore to put the figures of the Indian trade in a note. It must be borne in mind that no analogy whatever exists between such a country as the United States and India. The excess of Exports from the United States may be and as a matter of fact are represented by the unseen import of bonded and other indebtedness redeemed from abroad, or by investments in foreign countries, which, also, would not in this case appear in the trade returns. It is certain that India’s debts are not being repaid but being added to, and it is equally certain that she has made and is making no investments abroad. Consequently, the actual net surplus of exports from India over exports into India, the exports and imports of treasure being duly taken account of, represent the total amount of the actual drain of produce from India without commercial return. Now the total excess of exports for the last three years as given in the corrected official returns are for 1902-3 £18,570,811; for 1903-4 £24,961,773 and for 1904-5 £20,144,132 or an average of £21,500,000. But this is far from being the amount of the drain. In order to arrive at the true figures and in order to balance correctly, we have (as the estimate of values is made at the Indian ports) to add at least fifteen per cent to the total of the exports in order to make up for a similar amount for profit, insurance and freight charged on the imports at the points of debarcation. If this is done in regard to the three years named, it will be found that upwards of £14,000,000 on the average should be added to the £21,000,000 of excess exports Thus the real yearly drain of wealth from India represents at least £35,000,000. In fact it is much more; as there can be no doubt whatsoever that much of the treasure retained in India on balance of treasure imported, as well as more than their proportion of trade imports, goes to the Native and Border States which are not under direct British control though their imports as well as their exports are calculated in with the figures of purely British territory.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Age of Rudeness

nytimes

As the social contract frays, what does it mean to be polite?

By RACHEL CUSK FEB. 15, 2017

In a world as unmannerly as this one, how is it best to speak?

There’s no need to be rude, I say to the man in the packed hall at passport control. There are people everywhere, and his job is to send them into the right queues. I have been watching him shout at them. I have watched the obsessive way he notices them, to pick on them. There’s no need to be rude, I say.

His head jerks around.

You’re rude, he counters. You’re the one who’s rude.

This is an airport, a place of transit. There are all sorts of people here, people of different ages, races and nationalities, people in myriad sets of circumstances. In this customs hall, there are so many different versions of living that it seems possible that no one version could ever be agreed on. Does it follow, then, that nothing that happens here really matters?

No, I’m not, I say.

You are, he says. You’re being rude.

The man is wearing a uniform, though not a very impressive one: a white short-sleeved synthetic shirt, black synthetic trousers, a cheap tie with the airport’s insignia on it. It is no different from the uniform a bus driver might wear, or someone at a car-rental desk, someone who lacks any meaningful authority while also being forced into constant interaction with members of the public, someone for whom the operation of character is both nothing and everything. He is angry. His face is red, and his expression is unpleasant. He looks at me — a woman of 48 traveling alone, a woman who doubtless exhibits some signs of the privileged life she has led — with loathing. Apparently it is I, not he, who has broken the social code. Apparently it was rude of me to accuse him of rudeness.

The social code remains unwritten, and it has always interested me how many problems this poses in the matter of ascertaining the truth. The truth often appears in the guise of a threat to the social code. It has this in common with rudeness. When people tell the truth, they can experience a feeling of release from pretense that is perhaps similar to the release of rudeness. It might follow that people can mistake truth for rudeness, and rudeness for truth. It may only be by examining the aftermath of each that it becomes possible to prove which was which.

The queue moves forward. I reach passport control, and I pass through it, and the man is left behind.

In recounting this incident afterward, I find myself running into difficulties. For instance, I find myself relying on the details of the man’s physical ugliness to prove the badness of his character. Searching for a specific example of someone else’s being upset or offended by him, the only person I can prove he offended was me. On another day, a perfectly polite man is probably to be found directing the crowds in the customs hall, assisting the elderly, apologizing for the crush, helpfully explaining things to people whose English is uncertain: He would make a good story about individuality as the basis for all hope.

By telling this story, I am trying to substantiate my fear that discrimination and bullying are used against people trying to enter Britain, my country. There are many people who don’t have this fear. To them, my story proves only one thing, which is that I once met a rude man in an airport. I might even have inadvertently made them pity him. I, the teller of this tale, would have to demonstrate that under the same circumstances, I would have behaved better. In the event, all I did was criticize him. I made him angrier; perhaps he took it out on the next person in the queue. To top it all off, I admit that he accuses me of precisely the same failing: rudeness. Anyone hearing the story will at this point stop thinking about the moral problem of rudeness and start thinking about me. I have damaged my own narrative authority: Might I be to blame after all? By including that detail — true though it is — I am giving the man a platform for his point of view. In most of my stories, I allow the truth to look after itself. In this one, I’m not sure that it can.

For all these reasons, the story doesn’t work as it should. Why, then, if it proves nothing, is this a story I persist in telling? The answer: because I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it, and I feel that the thing I don’t understand about it — indeed the mere fact of not understanding — is significant.

Another day, another airport. This time the situation is clearer: My country has recently voted to leave the European Union, and rudeness is rampant. People treat one another with a contempt that they do not trouble to conceal. The people in uniforms — the airport officials — exercise their faux power with uncommon ugliness, while the rest of us look suspiciously at one another, not sure what to expect of this new, unscripted reality, wondering which side the other person is on. It is already being said that this situation has arisen out of hatred, but it seems to me that if that is true, then the hatred is of self.

The uniformed woman at security bangs the gray plastic trays one after another onto the conveyor belt with a violence that seems to be a request for attention. At every opportunity, she makes it clear that she has relinquished self-control: Her nature has been let loose, like an animal from its cage. She abuses, without exception, every person who passes along her queue, while seeming not to address any single one of them: We are no longer individuals; we are a herd enduring the drover’s lash, heads down and silent. She looks unhealthy, her face covered with sore-looking red spots, her shapeless white body almost writhing with its own anger, as though it wishes only to transgress its boundaries, to escape itself in an act of brutality.

The person in front of me in the queue is a well-groomed black woman. She is traveling with a child, a pretty girl with neatly plaited hair. She has put two large clear bags of cosmetics and creams in her tray, but this, apparently, is not allowed; she is permitted only a single bag. The uniformed woman halts the queue and slowly and deliberately holds up the two bags, looking fixedly at their owner.

What’s this then? she says. What’s this about?

The woman explains that because two of them are traveling, she has assumed that they are entitled to two bags. Her voice is quiet and polite. The little girl gazes ahead with wide, unblinking eyes.

You assumed wrong, the uniformed woman says. Her horrible relish for the situation is apparent. She has been waiting, it is clear, to fasten on someone and has found her victim.

You don’t get away with that, she says, grimacing and shaking her head. Where do people like you get your ideas from?

The rest of us watch while she makes the woman unpack the bags and then decide which of her possessions are to be thrown away. They are mostly new and expensive-looking. In another situation, their scented femininity might have seemed to mock the ugliness of the woman superintending their destruction with folded arms and a jeering expression on her face. The other woman’s slender, varnished fingers are shaking as she scrabbles with the various pots and jars. She keeps dropping things, her head bowed, her lower lip caught in her teeth. The uniformed woman’s unremitting commentary on these events is so unpleasant that I realize she is half-demented with what would seem to be the combination of power and powerlessness. No one intervenes. I do not inform her that there is no need to be rude. Instead, as I increasingly seem to in such situations these days, I wonder what Jesus would have done.

My traveling companion — a painter — is the politest person I know, but I have noticed that he does not often take up arms on another person’s behalf. He dislikes conflict. When it is our turn in the queue, the uniformed woman stares at the bag he has placed in the tray. It contains his tubes of paint. They are crumpled and bespattered with use, and there are so many of them that the bag can’t close at the top. She folds her arms.

What are those, she says.

They’re paints, he replies.

You can’t take those through, she says.

Why not, he asks pleasantly.

The bag has to close at the top, she says. That’s why not.

But I need them to paint with, he says.

You can’t take them through, she says.

He looks at her in silence. He is looking directly into her eyes. He stands completely quiet and still. The look goes on for a very long time. Her eyes are small and pale blue and impotent: I did not notice them until now. My friend neither blinks nor looks away, and the woman is forced to hold herself there as the seconds tick by, her small eyes open and straining. During those seconds, it seems as if layers of her are being removed: She is being simplified, put in order, by being looked at. He is giving her his full attention, and I watch the strange transformation occur. Finally he speaks.

What do you suggest I do, he says, very calmly.

Well, sir, she says, if you’re traveling with this lady, she might have room in her bag.

Neither of them looks at me — they are still looking at each other.

Would that be acceptable? she says.

nytimes
Credit Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro

Yes, he says, I don’t see why not.

I proffer my bag, and the woman herself transfers the paints from one bag to the other. Her hands labor to do it with care and exactitude: It takes her a long time. Finally she seals the bag and lays it gently back in the tray.

Is that all right, sir? she says.

Now that he has won this victory, I want him to use it to reprimand her, not just for her behavior toward the black woman in the queue but for all the wrongs her behavior represents; for the fact that it’s safer to be him, and always has been. He does not reprimand her. He smiles at her politely.

Thank you very much, he says.

It would have been a shame to throw them away, wouldn’t it? she says.

Yes, it would, he says. I appreciate your help.

I hope you enjoy your holiday, sir, she says.

Society organizes itself very efficiently to punish, silence or disown truth-tellers. Rudeness, on the other hand, is often welcomed in the manner of a false god. Later still, regret at the punishment of the truth-teller can build into powerful feelings of worship, whereas rudeness will be disowned.

Are people rude because they are unhappy? Is rudeness like nakedness, a state deserving the tact and mercy of the clothed? If we are polite to rude people, perhaps we give them back their dignity; yet the obsessiveness of the rude presents certain challenges to the proponents of civilized behavior. It is an act of disinhibition: Like a narcotic, it offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.

In the recollection of events, rudeness often has a role to play in the moral construction of a drama: It is the outward sign of an inward or unseen calamity. Rudeness itself is not the calamity. It is the harbinger, not the manifestation, of evil. In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.

In the United Kingdom, the arguments rage over the rights and wrongs of the Brexit referendum result. I begin to think this is what it must be like to be the child of divorcing parents. Before, there was one truth, one story, one reality; now there are two. Each side accuses the other, and amid the raised voices, the unappeasable points of view, the vitriol and distress, the obfuscation and exaggeration and blame, the only thing that is demonstrably clear is that one side is ruder than the other. It seems to me that even if you didn’t know what they were arguing about, you would have to come to that conclusion.

In the aftermath of their victory, the winners are markedly unmagnanimous. They brand those who voted the other way as a liberal elite, patronizing, self-interested, out of touch with real life. The liberal elite are characterized as bad losers, as though the vote were a football match. When they protest against or complain about the result and its consequences, they are immediately belittled and shouted down. In the weeks before the vote, the eventual victors’ own handling of language resembled a small child’s handling of an explosive device: They appeared to have no idea of its dangers or power. They used phrases like “We want our country back” and “Take back control” that were open to any and every interpretation. Now they complain that they have been misrepresented as racist, xenophobic, ignorant. They are keen to end the argument, to quit the field of language where only the headachy prospect of detailed analysis remains, to take their dubious verbal victory and run for the hills. They have a blunt phrase they use in the hope of its being the last word, and it is characteristically rude: “You lost. Get over it.”

The liberal elite, meanwhile, have evolved a theory: It is their belief that many of the people who voted to leave the European Union now regret their decision. There is no more tenuous comfort than that which rests on the possibility of another’s remorse. In psychoanalysis, events are reconstructed in the knowledge of their outcome: The therapeutic properties of narrative lie in its capacity to ascribe meaning to sufferings that at the time seemed to have no purpose. The liberal elite are in shock; they fall upon the notion of the victors’ regret as a palliative for their mental distress, but because the referendum result is irreversible, this narrative must adopt the form of tragedy.

Unlike the victors, the losers are loquacious. They render the logic of their suffering with exactitude and skill, waxing to new expressive heights. The deluge of fine writing that follows the referendum contrasts strangely with the reticence that preceded it. The liberal elite are defending their reality, but too late. Some urge a show of tolerance and understanding; others talk about the various stages of grief; others still call for courage in standing up for the values of liberalism. These are fine performances, but it is unclear whom they are for. I have often noticed how people begin to narrate out loud when in the presence of mute creatures, a dog, say, or a baby: Who is the silent witness to this verbal outpouring?

Meanwhile, in the Essex town of Harlow, a Polish man is murdered in the street by a gang of white youths who apparently heard him speaking his native language.

How can we ascertain the moral status of rudeness? Children are the members of our society most often accused of being rude; they are also the most innocent. We teach children that it is rude to be honest, to say, “This tastes disgusting” or “That lady is fat.” We also teach them that it is rude to disrespect our authority. We give them orders: We say, “Sit still” or “Go to your room.” At a certain point, I got into the habit, when addressing my children, of asking myself whether I would speak in the same way to an adult and discovered that in nearly every case the answer was no. At that time, I understood rudeness to be essentially a matter of verbal transgression: It could be defined within the morality of language, without needing to prove itself in a concrete act. A concrete act makes language irrelevant. Once words have been superseded by actions, the time for talking has passed. Rudeness, then, needs to serve as a barrier to action. It is what separates thought from deed; it is the moment when wrongdoing can be identified, in time to stop the wrong from having to occur. Does it follow, then, that a bigoted remark — however ugly to hear — is an important public interface between idea and action? Is rudeness a fundamental aspect of civilization’s immunity, a kind of antibody that is mobilized by the contagious presence of evil?

In the United States, Hillary Clinton calls half the supporters of Donald Trump “a basket of deplorables.” At first the remark impressed me. I approved of Clinton for her courage and honesty, while reflecting on her curious choice of words. “Basket of deplorables” almost sounded like a phrase from Dr. Seuss: It would be typical of him to put deplorables in a basket, for the moral amusement of his young readers. A sack or a box of deplorables wouldn’t be the same thing at all, and a swamp of deplorables is too Dante-esque; but a basket is just the kind of zany, cheerful container that makes light of the deplorables while still putting them in their place. It quickly became clear, however, that as a public utterance, the phrase was malfunctioning. The basket began to speak, to distinguish itself: Inside it were a number of offended individuals. Clinton had made the mistake of being rude. The “basket of deplorables” wasn’t Dr. Seuss after all. It was the snobbish language of the liberal elite, caught committing the elemental moral crime of negating individual human value. Yet Clinton’s adversary regularly committed this crime with impunity. Were Clinton’s and Trump’s two different kinds of rudeness?

In Britain, a man tweets that someone should “Jo Cox” Anna Soubry. The amorality of the English tongue: In the run-up to the referendum, Jo Cox, a member of Parliament, was shot and stabbed to death by a far-right nationalist; to “Jo Cox” someone is to murder a female member of Parliament who advocates remaining in the European Union. The man who posts the tweet is arrested. The police, it seems, are trying to get on top of our verbal problems. It has now become commonplace for proponents of liberal values to receive death threats. The death threat, I suppose, is the extreme of rudeness: It is the place where word finally has to be taken as deed, where civilization’s immunity reaches the point of breakdown. “I could kill you,” my mother often used to say to me, and I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. It is true that I frequently fell foul of her and others through my habit of outspokenness. The sharpness of my phrases maddened her. I was quite capable of the basket-of-deplorables mistake, the confusion of cleverness with insult, the belief in language as an ultimate good, the serving of which was its own reward. No one could mind what you said if you said it with sufficient skill, could they? Later I came to believe that the good of language lay entirely in its relationship to truth. Language was a system through which right and wrong — truth and untruth — could be infallibly identified. Honesty, so long as it was absolute, was a means for individuals to understand all good and evil.

Like a narcotic, rudeness offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.

The liberal elite, as far as I am aware, do not make death threats. Is this because they have better manners? Do they in fact wish that their enemies were dead but would just never say so? And if they do wish it — albeit politely, in the manner of a white lie — is the sin somehow less cardinal for being courteous? The anti-liberals do not seem to find their own penchant for death threats problematic. In America, Trump even makes a veiled one against Clinton. We are told by the newspapers that Trump invited the Clintons to his wedding, that their daughters are good friends. Is this verbal violence, then, simply incompetence? Is it the verbal equivalent of someone who has not learned the piano sitting down and trying to play Rachmaninoff’s Third?

The rudeness of these public figures gives pleasure and relief, it is clear, to their audiences. Perhaps what they experience is not the possibility of actual violence but a sort of intellectual unbuttoning, a freedom from the constraint of language. Perhaps they have lived lives in which they have been continually outplayed in the field of articulation, but of this new skill — rudeness — they find that they are the masters. My mother’s death threats undoubtedly arose from her frustration with my own use of language. What I did not take into account when I spoke to her was the difference in our social positions. She was a housewife with little education and a rapidly retreating beauty, for whom life was a process of discovering that no greatness had been held in store for her. She did such things for me as cook and clean, while I was on my way to university and liberty. Yet to my mind, she had an extraordinary power, the power to blacken my mental outlook and ruin my prospect of life. When I spoke to her, I thought I was addressing a tyrant in whose overthrow my only weapons were words. But words were the very things that roused her to violence, because at her life’s core, she had been separated from them. Her labor, her maternal identity, her status were all outside the language economy. Instead, she formulated a story of herself whose simplifications and lies infuriated me. I aimed to correct her with truth — perhaps I thought that if only I could insult her with sufficient accuracy, we would be reconciled — but she refused to be corrected, to be chastened. In the end, she won by being prepared to sacrifice the moral basis of language. She didn’t care what she said, or rather, she exacted from words the licentious pleasures of misuse; in so doing, she took my weapon and broke it before my eyes. She made fun of me for the words I used, and I couldn’t respond by threatening her with death. I couldn’t say “I could kill you” because it wasn’t true, and in language I had staked everything on telling the truth.

If inequality is the basis on which language breaks down, how is it best to speak?

In a clothes shop in London, I sift through the rails, looking for something to wear. The instant I came in, the assistant bounded up to me and recited what was obviously a set of phrases scripted by the management. I dislike being spoken to in this way, though I realize the assistant doesn’t do so out of choice. I told her I was fine. I told her I would find her if I needed anything. But a few minutes later, she’s back.

How’s your day been so far? she says.

The truth? It’s been a day of anxiety and self-criticism, of worry about children and money, and now to top it all off, I’ve made the mistake of coming here in the unfounded belief that it will make me look nicer, and that making myself look nicer will help.

It’s been fine, I say.

There’s a pause in which perhaps she is waiting for me to ask her about her own day in return, which I don’t.

Are you looking for something special? she says.

Not really, I say.

So you’re just browsing, she says.

There is a pause.

Did I tell you, she says, that we have other sizes downstairs?

You did, I say.

If you want something in another size, she says, you just have to ask me.

I will, I say.

I turn back to the rails and find that if anything, my delusion has been strengthened by this exchange, which has made me feel ugly and unlikable and in more need than ever of transformation. I take out a dress. It is blue. I look at it on its hanger.

Good choice, the assistant says. I love that dress. The color’s amazing.

Immediately I put it back on the rail. I move away a little. After a while, I begin to forget about the assistant. I think about clothes, their strange promise, the way their problems so resemble the problems of love. I take out another dress, this one wine-colored and dramatic.

God, that would look amazing, the assistant says. Is it the right size?

According to the label, it is.

Yes, I say.

Shall I put it in the fitting room for you? she says. It’s just easier, isn’t it? Then you’ve got your hands free while you keep browsing.

For the first time, I look at her. She has a broad face and a wide mouth with which she smiles continually, desperately. I wonder whether the width of her smile was a factor in her being given this job. She is older than I expected. Her face is lined, and despite her efforts, the mouth betrays some knowledge of sorrow.

Thank you very much, I say.

I give her the dress, and she goes away. I find that I no longer want to be in the shop. I don’t want to try on the dress. I don’t want to take my clothes off or look at myself in a mirror. I consider quietly leaving while the assistant is gone, but the fact that I have caused the dress to be put in the fitting room is too significant. Perhaps it will be transformative after all. On my way there, I meet the assistant, who is on her way out. She widens her eyes and raises her hands in mock dismay.

I wasn’t expecting you to be so quick! she exclaims. Didn’t you find anything else you liked?
I’m in a bit of a hurry, I say.

If inequality is the basis on which language breaks down, how is it best to speak?

God, I know exactly what you mean, she says. We’re all in such a hurry. There just isn’t time to stop, is there?

The fitting rooms are empty: There aren’t any other customers. The assistant hovers behind me while I go into the cubicle where she has hung the dress. I wonder whether she will actually follow me in. I pull the curtain behind me and feel a sense of relief. My reflection in the mirror is glaring and strange. I have stood in such boxlike spaces before, alone with myself, and these moments seem connected to one another in a way I can’t quite specify. It is as though life is a board game, and here is the starting point to which I keep finding myself unexpectedly returned. I take off my clothes. This suddenly seems like an extraordinary thing to do in an unfamiliar room in a street in central London. Through the gap in the curtain I can see into a dingy back room whose door has been left open. There are pipes running up the walls, a small fridge, a kettle, a box of tea bags. Someone has hung a coat on a hook. I realize that the theater of this shop is about to break down, and that the assistant’s manner — her bad acting, her inability to disguise herself in her role — is partly to blame.

How is everything? she says.

I am standing there in my underwear, and her voice is so loud and close that I nearly jump out of my skin.

How’s it going in there? How are you getting on?

I realize that she must be speaking to me.

I’m fine, I say.

How’s the fit? she says. Do you need any other sizes?

I can hear the rustle of her clothes and the scraping sound of her nylon tights. She is standing right outside the curtain.

No, I say. Really, I’m fine.

Why don’t you come out? she says. I can give you a second opinion.

Suddenly I am angry. I forget to feel sorry for her; I forget that she did not choose to say these things; I forget that she is perhaps in the wrong job. I feel trapped, humiliated, misunderstood. I feel that people always have a choice where language is concerned, that the moral and relational basis of our existence depends on that principle. I wish to tell her that there are those who have sacrificed themselves to defend it. If we stop speaking to one another as individuals, I want to say to her, if we allow language to become a tool of coercion, then we are lost.

No, I say. Actually, I don’t want to come out.

There is a silence outside the curtain. Then I hear the rustling of her clothes as she starts to move away.

All right then, she says, in a voice that for the first time I can identify as hers. It is a flat voice, disaffected, a voice that expresses no surprise when things turn out badly.

I put my clothes back on and take the dress on its hanger and leave the cubicle. The assistant is standing with her back to me on the empty shop floor, her arms folded across her chest, looking out the window. She does not ask me how I got on or whether I liked the dress and intend to buy it. She does not offer to take the dress from me and hang it back on its rail. She is offended, and she is very deliberately showing it. We are, then, equal at least in our lack of self-control. I hang up the dress myself.

nytimes
Credit Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro

It wasn’t my day, I say to her, by way of an apology.

She gives a small start and utters a sound. She is trying to say something: She is searching, I see, for one of her scripted phrases in the effort to reassume her persona. Falteringly, she half-smiles, but her mouth is turned down at the corners like a clown’s. I imagine her going home this evening, unhappy.

When I tell the story afterward, making myself both its villain and its butt, it goes like this: I, currently dismayed by the sudden ascent of rudeness in our world and wondering what it means, am betrayed into rudeness myself by a personal sensitivity to language that causes me to do the very thing I despise, which is fail to recognize another human’s individuality. But the person I tell it to doesn’t hear it that way at all. He hears it as a story about how annoying shop assistants are.

I hate it when they do that, he says. It was good you made an issue of it. Maybe she’ll give feedback to the management, and they’ll stop making people say all that stuff.

What Jesus did was sacrifice himself, use his body to translate word to deed, to make evil visible. While being crucified, he remained for the most part polite. He gave others much to regret. Their regret sustained 2,000 years of Christianity. Is regret, then, the most powerful emotion after all?

My mother and I don’t speak to each other anymore, but I’ve been thinking about her lately. I’ve been thinking about facts, about how they get stronger and clearer, while points of view fade or change. The loss of the parent-child relationship is a fact. It is also a failure. It is regrettable. The last time my parents spoke to me, my father said something very rude. He said I was full of shit. He put the phone down straight away after he said it, and I have not heard from him again. For a long time afterward, I was profoundly disturbed by his words: For my father to speak to me of shit, and claim that I was full of it, seemed to remove my basis for existing. Yet he was half of me: It was, I realized, for that reason that he felt he could speak to me the way he did. I was his child; he forgot that I was as real as he. It could be said that one-half of our country has told the other it is full of shit, deliberately choosing those words because it knows that their object finds rudeness — the desecration of language — especially upsetting.

In Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes,” the man who suffers most is also the man with the most powerful weapon, an infallible bow that could be said to represent the concept of accuracy. The hardhearted Odysseus abandoned the wounded Philoctetes on an island, only to discover 10 years later that the Trojan War could not be won without Philoctetes’ bow. He returns to the island determined to get the bow by any means. For his part, Philoctetes has spent 10 years in almost unendurable pain: It is decreed that he cannot be healed other than by the physician Asclepius at Troy, yet he would rather die than help Odysseus by returning with him. Time has done nothing to break down the impasse: Philoctetes still can’t forgive Odysseus; Odysseus still can’t grasp the moral sensitivity of Philoctetes. It is for the third actor, Neoptolemus, a boy of pure heart, to resolve the standoff and bring an end to war and pain. Odysseus urges Neoptolemus to befriend Philoctetes in order to steal the bow, claiming it is for the greater good. Philoctetes, meanwhile, tells Neoptolemus the story of his dreadful sufferings and elicits his empathy and pity. In his dilemma, Neoptolemus realizes two things: that wrong is never justified by being carried out under orders, and that the bow is meaningless without Philoctetes himself. The moral power of individuality and the poetic power of suffering are the two indispensable components of truth. For his part, Neoptolemus might be said to represent the concept of good manners. In this drama, the expressive man and the rude man need each other, but without the man of manners, they will never be reconciled.

“Make her stop!” my daughters used to beg me when they were younger and one was doing something the other didn’t like. In other words: Restore to me the primacy of my version; rid me of this challenge to the experience of being me. One might say that what they wanted was justice, impartiality — but impartiality, I usually discovered, was not easy to attain. There were always two sides to their stories, and I lacked the ability to turn them into one. I have prided myself on my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done. But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make it stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.

It strikes me that good manners would be the thing to aim for in the current situation. I have made a resolution, which is to be more polite. I don’t know what good it will do: This might be a dangerous time for politeness. It might involve sacrifices. It might involve turning the other cheek. A friend of mine says this is the beginning of the end of the global order: He says that in a couple of decades’ time, we’ll be eating rats and tulip bulbs, as people have done before in times of social collapse. I consider the role that good manners might play in the sphere of rat-eating, and it seems to me an important one. As one who has never been tested, who has never endured famine or war or extremism or even discrimination, and who therefore perhaps does not know whether she is true or false, brave or a coward, selfless or self-serving, righteous or misled, it would be good to have something to navigate by.

Rachel Cusk is the author of several novels, including “Outline,” which was one of the The Times’s 10 Best Books of 2015, and most recently “Transit.” She last wrote for the magazine about making house.

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Source: nytimes

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