Lewis Lapham, Mohan Rao, Mohammad Iqbal.
It’s odd how unrelated pieces from across time and space sometimes fall into place as if they were intended for each other.
I began with Lewis Lapham’s brilliant take (Achievetrons, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009) on President Obama’s “Christmas shopping for cabinet officers.” These are the ‘Achievetrons,’ members of the ‘valedictocracy’ who got double 800s on their SATs and graduated from the top of the Ivy League.
And then Lapham, in his inimitable style, pours a bucket of cold water on the prospects:
For the past sixty years the deputies assigned to engineer the domestic and foreign policies of governments newly arriving in Washington have come outfitted with similar qualifications – first-class schools, state-of-the-art networking, apprenticeship in a legislative body or a think-tank – and for sixty years they have managed to weaken rather than strengthen the American democracy, ending their terms of office as objects of ridicule if not under threat of criminal investigation.
Lapham is not quite done yet:
The Harvard wunderkinds (a.k.a. “the best and the brightest”) who followed President John F. Kennedy into the White House in 1961 hung around the map tables long enough to point the country in the direction of the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger, another Harvard prodigy, imparted to American statecraft the modus operandi of a Mafia cartel. The Reagan Administration imported its book of revelation from the University of Chicago’s School of Economics (“privatization” the watchword, “unfettered free market” the Christian name for Zeus) and by so doing set in motion what lately has come to be seen as a long-running Ponzi scheme. Take into account the Ivy League’s contributions to the Bush Administration – Attorney General John Ashcroft (Yale), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton), director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (Harvard) – and I can imagine a doctoral thesis commissioned by the Kennedy School of Government and meant to determine which of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning over the past fifty years has done the most damage to the health and happiness of the American people.
Lapham, in his unique, mordant yet droll and understated, style has already hinted at where he sees the source of the problem:
The courses of undergraduate instruction at our prestigious colleges and universities no longer encourage or reward the freedoms of the mind likely to disturb the country’s social and political seating plan…. After some trouble with the realignment of the educational objective during the excitements of the 1960s, the universities accepted their mission as way stations on the pilgrim road to enlightened selfishness. As opposed to the health and happiness of the American people, what is of interest is the wealth of the American corporation and the power of the American state, the syllabus geared to the arts and sciences of career management – how to brighten the test scores, assemble the résumé, clear the luggage through the checkpoints of the law and business schools…. The catalogue also offers electives in the examined life, but the consolations of philosophy hold little value for a novitiate encouraged to believe that its acceptance into a company of the elect dispenses with the unwelcome news that there might be more things in heaven and earth than those accounted for in Forbes magazine’s annual list of America’s top 400 fortunes. Achievetrons learn to work the system, not to change it, to punch up the PowerPoints for Citigroup and Disney and figure the exchange rate between an awkward truth and a user-friendly lie. Where is the percentage in overthrowing the idols of the marketplace or the tribe? If you are not in, you’re out, and when was out the better place to be?
It’s conceivable that the Obama Administration will prove itself the exception to the rule…. [But what the above] does suggest is that President Obama’s household staff, in accordance with the protocols observed by “the best of the Washington insiders,” can be counted on to place their own self-interest first and foremost and to avoid fooling around with initiatives that threaten to leave a stain on the rug.
And how, you may well ask, does this connect with Mohan Rao?
Well, Indian colleges also no longer encourage or reward the freedoms of mind likely to disturb the country’s social and political seating plan; nor do the catalogues place any greater value on the merits of the examined life. But the chaos of India, nevertheless, comes in the way of efficiently transforming its elite into a robotic and ruthless profit- and power-maximizing machine.
And that’s where Mohan Rao gets an opportunity to sneak on to the stage.
Mohan Rao (Director of the Publications Division of the Government of India) is a character (The ‘Cent per Cent’ Gandhian) in an essay in Shiela Dhar’s entertaining book of stories (Raga’n Josh, Black Kite, New Delhi, 2005):
He had a highly personalized, off-the-cuff system of assessment in which he would award marks out of ten to the subject under scrutiny…. Anything under the sun could be judged on a zero to ten scale. It could be a personality, a recipe, a place, a piece of music, a movie, just as well as a manuscript. For instance the character of Sardar Patel, his own aunt’s coconut chutney, the Vrindavan Gardens in Mysore, Abdul Karim Khan’s rendering of Raga Jhinjhoti, the Indian film classic Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani, and Bhabani Bhattacharya’s first novel were all ‘eight mark items’ to Mohan Rao.
But let’s get to the leaders to see how Mohan Rao dovetails into Lewis Lapham:
According to [Mohan Rao], the greatest man produced by modern India was Gandhi. He once expressed his admiration by saying ecstatically, ‘Nine and a half? I tell you! What a man! Absolutely nine and half marks man!’
And here was the essence of Mohan Rao’s measure of the man:
‘What is greatness?… I’ll tell you what greatness is. Nine marks here, and nine marks here,’ he thundered, thumping his head and heart alternately.
‘Barrobar. Together. Wonly then. See, nine marks brain like C. Rajagopalachari no use. Because he has wonly three and a half here,’ he finished, slapping his chest vigorously to indicate the region of shortage in his case.
‘Look at me. I too have at least eight marks heart. But only three marks head! I know. I am frankly telling. Doesn’t matter. This I can always buy,’ he said hitting his temple with his matchbox.
‘This,’ he went on, slapping his chest, ‘you can’t buy. You have to be born. God has to give. Only then! Nehru too has eight marks heart. But so much fuss about that! Chacha Nehru, Chacha Nehru! He loves children, they say! So what. I too love children. You should see how I play with them at Diwali. They are not Nehru’s grandfather’s property. And then, he has only about six and a half up here.’
Some of his audience made feeble sounds of protest at this last award to Nehru’s mind.
‘All right, all right, seven lagao, not more. I think he just missed the bus of greatness. But Gandhi, that is something! That is really something, he cried passionately.
I love this South Asian creativity, this folk wisdom, this boiling things down to their bare essentials. It’s all about hearts and minds in the end, isn’t it? And about the combinations.
I suppose most people are born with hearts but the American system has found a way to squeeze it out of the equation and make it irrelevant so that the wealth of the American corporation and the power of the American state takes precedence over the health and happiness of the American people – what to speak of those outside America.
The Indian system has not quite gotten there yet, not for any lack of trying, and so some still manage to come out at the other end with a little bit of heart intact.
As Lapham observes quite accurately, all head and no heart leads ‘the best and the brightest’ into the disasters that he laments. And as Mohan Rao tells us, you can buy the head but you cannot buy the heart.
Which leaves us with some words of wisdom from Iqbal:
acchhaa hai dil ke paas rahe paasbaan-e aql
lekin kabhii kabhii isey tanhah bhii chhoR de
it’s good that the heart be accompanied by the guide of reason
but every once in a while let go of it to be on its own
One needs both head and heart and every so often the heart has to point the way ahead.
Quiz: Rate Manmohan Singh and Asif Zardari on the head and heart scale of Mohan Rao.
The Best and the Brightest is a reference to a famous book of the same name by David Halberstam (1972) that describes how Kennedy’s Harvard wunderkinds enmeshed America into the Vietnam War.