Friday, January 12, 2007

What me, Gandhi?

USD History News: Conference at USD: "Reacting to the Past: History as Hypothesis"

I'm just home from the first day of a history role playing game, India on the Eve of Independence. It's been terrific, but exhausting, experience and terrific pedagogy. I'd love to take a class like this--but I wouldn't have the guts to teach it!

When I got my assigned role a couple of weeks ago, half of Gandhi (2 of us are playing him) my heart sank, until I realized that by playing a role I found unsympathetic I might actually learn something. So I immersed myself in the literature and the more I read the more unsympathetic I became. His vision for India, the policies he promoted and, most deeply of all, his whole "philosophy of life" are utterly and diametrically opposed to everything I believe--and feel. It's been a very tough part, though I'm giving it everything I've got.

At the most fundamental level it's his picture of the world and our place in it that I find most alien. First, a moral universe in which the fundamental category is duty and wellbeing, insofar as it figures at all, is a byproduct of doing one's duty. To me, duty is just a means for distributing individual wellbeing. Secondly, the notion of individuals as parts of a grand scheme of things which which they are fundamentally in harmony if they play the game properly and do the duties that come with their particular place in the cosmos and social order.

To me, the grand scheme of things imposes constraints on individuals, who achieve wellbeing by fighting it, mastering it, subduing it. If I have a picture it's of individual agents as atoms, or maybe better, the nuclei of atoms, surrounded by a sphere of freedom, the little bit of the world within our power to dominate. These spheres press against one another, like bubbles in a foam. We each try to expand our sphere of freedom pressing against the spheres of others, and we all press against the constraints imposed by Nature, red in tooth an claw.

Now, there is no way of adjudicating between two pictures that are so fundamental level. My picture is indefensible, but so is Gandhi's. All we can do is work out the ramifications of these fundamental commitments and aim at consistency. That, in any case, is what I'm trying to do with Gandhi.

Given Gandhi's fundamental picture, his program is a consistent consequence--his repudiation of Western ways and opposition to industrialization, his vision of an India of 10,000 self-sufficient villages where people farm and do crafts, his education program for training children to play their roles within this scheme. Yet still it seems appalling, the narrow, constrained, dull lives he envisions for most of India's 400 million citizens--weaving the 1000th basket, and the 10,000th basket, and the 100,000th basket until they die--and, presumably, are reincarnated to weave even more baskets. Somehow "spirituality" is supposed to fill the void in these otherwise dull, empty lives, but I can't see how. I suppose it's consistent with the Hindu idea that our aim is to escape this treadmill--but why would anyone want to make life a treadmill, to relegate people to this emptiness and tedium, pain and drudgery, when other options are feasible?

The answer I suppose is that it's all tedium, pain and drudgery: we can decrease the pain but it's still there; we can decrease the reps, but we're still repeating the same tasks--it's just that the cycles are longer. The village craftsman throws 2 pots an hour--I teach two logic courses a year. Big difference. But it is a big difference because if the cycles are long enough we don't get bored, and if the tasks are complex enough we can change them and improve them--there's the possibility of achievement. In the grand scheme of things neither the pots nor the logic courses matter: the sun will explode into a red giant and all this will be wiped out and, beyond that, the material universe will expand, then contract and collapse. But who cares about the grand scheme of things. I will get personal gratification, I will feel a sense of achievement, I will enjoy myself.

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