Case studies in dissent

Topics BOOK REVIEW | dissent

Book cover of Rebels with a cause: Famous Dissenters and Why They are Not Being Heard
As a chronic contrarian, dissent fascinates me. So it’s good that someone sensitive such as T T Ram Mohan has chosen to write about it. 

At the same time, his training in engineering, economics, business and finance has ensured an emotionless account. That’s what’s needed for such an emotional subject.

His method, too, is appropriate. As befits a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, it is the case study approach. Moreover, the book is lucidly written. All in all, it is a very nice book.

He has chosen seven great dissenters. They are Arundhati Roy, Kancha Ilaiah, John Pilger, Yanis Varoufakis, David Irving, Oliver Stone and U G Krishnamurti.

I must say I had never heard of John Pilger, Yanis Varoufakis and David Irving. Oliver Stone was vaguely familiar. 

So this book serves another purpose by educating us, or at least me. That’s a good enough reason to read it.

Mr Ram Mohan says he could have chosen some of the more famous dissenters such as Noam Chomsky or Joseph Stiglitz. But he didn’t because they have been written about extensively.

Actually, truth to tell, his choice of dissenters really doesn’t matter because of the question he has asked: Why are dissenters ignored, marginalised, neglected and generally treated as kooks? 
The answer is simple: No one likes them. This book tells us why.

Whether it is Arundhati Roy, who thinks the Indian State is constantly at war with the Indian people, or David Irving, who believes that Hitler didn’t really know that Jews were dying in large numbers in German concentration camps, or any of the others, they are all saying something that sounds outrageous because it is against the received wisdom. 

Good-natured governments ignore them. Bad-natured ones often jail them and sometimes eliminate them. Whatever the response, the outcome is the same: Very few want to give them the time of day. 

There was a time in India not so long ago that market economics was treated with lofty disdain by economists looking for crumbs from the government. Chhee, they said, when you mentioned markets.

It wasn’t until the government turned market-friendly, first under Rajiv Gandhi and then under Narasimha Rao, that academic ideas also changed.

This attitude, says Mr Ram Mohan, is terrible because these people must, at the very least, be heard out. They certainly should not be muzzled. Yet, that’s what happens universally. 

That said, there is one weakness in the book. Mr Ram Mohan doesn’t make a clear distinction between different ideas that constitute true dissension and allegations that sound like dissent. 

Ms Roy, for example, goes very long on the latter. So do Irving, Pilger and Stone. It is not very clear, to me at least, what they are dissenting from other than what they call “The Man” in the US.

Messrs Ilaiah, Krishnamurti and Varoufakis are, however, different. They deal more in ideas. We in India are fully familiar with Mr Ilaiah and Krishnamurti but not Mr Varoufakis. 

So— with apologies to the author — let me just focus on Mr Varoufakis, not least because he is an economist and a former finance minister of Greece. He was charged with rescuing his country from the debt in which it had drowned itself. 
Rebels with a cause: Famous Dissenters and Why They are Not Being Heard

: T T Ram Mohan

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 320

Price: Rs 600

Mr Ram Mohan starts with a fantastic quote by Larry Summers from Mr Varoufakis’s book called Adults in the Room. 

Mr Summers is a former US Treasury Secretary. 

They met in a bar in Washington where Mr Summers told him a newer version of the old Black Panther saying that went something like, “Maan, you belong to the solution, you join us; you belong to the problem, we take care of you.”

Mr Summers tells Mr Varoufakis that there are two types of people in government: Insiders, who belong to the solution; and outsiders, who are problem. After six months as finance minister, Mr Varoufakis decided he was not part of the solution and quit. 

He then began to expose the real nature of the Great Greek Bailout. He said the political leaders had colluded to benefit Greek and foreign private lenders.

So convincing was he that one day he received a call at midnight saying his son would not be safe if he persisted. He then moved to the US.

Mr Ram Mohan has both described Mr Varoufakis’s ideas and critiqued them. Although about half of it is familiar to us in India, there is one insight that must be recognised and dealt with sensibly rather than emotionally.

This is, contrary to what has been propagated, money is intensely political. We in India believe that politics is about money but never that money is about politics, too.

Once you grasp this properly, many things begin to make sense.

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