November 7, 2007

The golden rule

"There is so much pressure to love your neighbor as yourself. It is not necessary to love your neighbor as yourself; it is okay to love yourself more. Just don't kill your neighbor, and don't destroy his property."
-- Shabana Azmi

(Source: my notes from Shabana ji and Javed sahib's appearance at Harvard, November 9, 2006.)


Maru said...

Now that is a lovely idea, but in some convoluted way it brings me to a question on ideological and political choices. Carla, or indeed any of the "azmaniacs" who visit here, how do you feel about what I see as Shabana's distinctly leftist/socialist leanings. For instance: 1) Do you support 2) are indifferent/nuetral on 3)are troubled by her politics? As you can probably guess that is an issue that I have difficulty with.

I love Shabana as an actor and would pretty much be willing to give any movie a shot merely on the strength of her appearance in it. But ideologically I'm poles apart from her politics and sometimes it is hard to parcel out an individual, keep the bits you align with and ignore the bits that you are opposed on. I have a much more extreme form of that confusion with Arudhati Roy. I love her writing but hate her politics. I'm curious about how others see these sorts of sorts of conflicts with the celebs they admire. Since this is a Shabana fansite I'm posing that question in the context of the phenomenal Ms Azmi :)

Filmi Geek said...

Maru, thanks for your comment and question. It brings a couple of thoughts to mind.

First, I am glad that you are unafraid to raise challenging questions, and to be critical of Shabana ji's core politics, in a thoughtful way. I am proud and pleased that we can have this kind of discussion here and I'd like to think that Shabana ji herself would be pleased to know that her comments could spark such conversations.

On the substance of the question: I think Shabana ji's politics are terrific. I say that with the important caveat that I am not a citizen of India and that I'm hardly qualified to analyze whether the specifics of her ideas are good for her country or not. So I don't mean to say every idea out of her mouth is perfect, vote for every candidate she supports and make her prime minister! It's not my place to say that for India; I just don't have the knowledge or perspective to guess at what might be right for India at a specific, implementational level.

Nevertheless, on a broader ideological scale, I find myself in complete agreement with Shabana ji's values, and that is not a small part of why I admire her enough not just to watch dozens of her movies but also to launch a website about her. I think she holds very dear the idea of empowering the disenfranchised, be it women, the poor, religious minorities, you name it. She is in favor of development but only if it is not done at the expense of the disenfranchised; I find her work with Nivara Haq, the organization building homes for displaced slumdwellers in Mumbai, is a particularly impressive and practical application of her philosophy. Nivara Haq says: new development in Mumbai is a fine thing and we don't oppose it; but if you raze a shantytown to do it there is a responsibility to rehabilitate the people who lived there. I can't help but admire that: I think in an ideal society everyone should be concerned with the welfare of everyone else.

Being concerned with the welfare of others does not mean legislating their morality or restricting their freedoms, however, and that brings me to a final point about Shabana ji's politics, the one reflected in the quotation that started this discussion. I agree with Shabana ji that sectarianism - communalism, fundamentalism, it has many names - is a terrible, destructive, frightening thing. What I particularly like about Shabana ji's comment is that it makes a distinction between having a distinct cultural identity and cultural pride on the one hand, and imposing that on others on the other. "It's okay to love yourself more" - you can retain your own cultural and religious identity, you can preserve what you think makes you special - but you can't kill or deprive someone else on the ground that they hold a different identity. I think that is a magnificent and powerful statement: cultural pride does not mandate the subjugation of other cultures.

maajhi said...

I no zilch about Shabana or her politics, but I thought your comment was very thoughtful, Carla. Especially enjoyed and respect you for:

"It's not my place to say that for India; I just don't have the knowledge or perspective to guess at what might be right for India at a specific, implementational level."

If only more Americans and the US administration had this view, so many lives would have been and would be saved.

maajhi said...

To answer Maru's question, I'm not an admirer of celebrities in general. In fact, I don't believe in the word 'celebrity' itself. To me, these are actors playing good roles, and that's my extent of involvement with them. Some I love and admire (as actors), some I don't.

When I'm analyzing individuals on my political map, there are others whom I admire (politically) or don't.

For the record though, based on Carla's description of Shabana's politics, she wouldn't be on my favorites list politically. She sounds terribly psec to me. Don't ask me explain what psec is; it'd need an indepth explanation of Indian politics, simply not for this blog.

So for me, she's a good actress, it's great that she does social work and all, but politically, she's not honest.

And that's the extent to which I'm going to discuss Indian politics here.

maajhi said...

Oops, and I surmise all this only based on Carla's description. So in actuality, I don't hold any opinion of her political persona at all since I have no firsthand information. I have a feeling it's best I keep it that way :).

Filmi Geek said...

Regarding Shabana, I have the luxury of being an idealist, as I am evaluating someone else's views about a country whose realities I know little about.

Maajhi, from what little I know of Shabana's views and yours, I don't expect you'd agree with her either. Nevertheless I hope she is not properly viewed as politically dishonest. One of the very first things I ever read about Shabana, and one of the things that flagged her as an interesting person to me, was an article by some commentator who said that while he despised her politics and disagreed with her on nearly every substantive point, he believed her to be among the handful of Parliamentarians of true integrity. I wish I could remember where I read this or who wrote it - when I search for it now all I find is my own memory of having read it.

maajhi said...

Yes, I think she's a person of integrity too. But I meant "politically dishonest" ie. someone whose positions on various issues aren't completely consistent with each other. I might be using the wrong word here :).

Anyway, politics are politics and just one small sliver of a person's personality.

maajhi said...

I meant to say "a facet" rather than "one small sliver".

maru said...

Carla, Maajhi thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I'm away this diwali weekend with family, but will respond when I get back.

Carla, I do want to say however that I felt comfortable raising this question on this site, coz its like no other fan website. There is no blind adoration of Shabana. It supports criticism and dissent which I suspect from what I've seen of both your sites reflects your very tolerant and inclusive personality :). As for Shabana she comes across as a secure, confident and intelligent person --- one that would welcome a chance to explore views more deeply.

yves said...

Hi Carla,
Do you agree with what you wrote coming from Shabanaji?

I would say it's either a very American thing to say ("there's so much pressure to love your neighbor like yourself"), or very Indian ("Just don't kill your neighbor, and don't destroy his property").

I wonder which axe she was grinding when she said that.

maru said...

Happy Thanksgiving to those in the US!

I haven't had a chance to comment on the question I raised. I didn't mean to trigger a discussion on politics per se as much as to ask how others reconcile (if at all) any ideological differences between celebs they admire and themselves. Perhaps it is impossible to discuss that without getting into the specifics, so the question maybe a tad naive.

I wish like Maajhi I can parse out the craft of the celebs I like from their overall persona. But the more I admire the person for her craft, the more troubling the ideological gulf is for me whether the person is a writer, actor.... indeed any sort of creative /intellectual luminary.

I don't doubt Shabana's intent or her ideological integrity --- indeed, Carla as you said her devotion to causes of the downtrodden is admirable. However I see her leftist politics are inherently troublesome. She doesn't take on just the "soft issues" as I think she once termed them - service to the physically handicapped for instance. She takes on causes that have real political and economic ramifications like the rehabilitation of slum dwellers in Bombay. I am not criticizing the work of Nivara Haq, here. My point is when Shabana chooses to support "hard issues", this points to some of the underlying political or economic paths she aligns with and my capitalist (mostly, anyway!)ideology clashes with that. The nexus between politics and films in India is deep enough that this is not a trivial issue although I believe Shabana when she says she is unlikely to align with a mainstream political party.

Carla, I wish I could distance myself from judgments of political and economic choices for India, but as someone born and bred in India --- I can't. I'm much too involved.

On a more general note when the rich and privileged espouse leftist causes it seems a tad hypocritical. Yes maajhi, I do know think psec in this context is appropriate!

I do however greatly admire Shabana for fearlessly standing up to a faction of Muslim fundamentalists. I wish more luminaries in India would speak out against all forms of fundamentalism.

Filmi Geek said...

Maru, you said "when the rich and privileged espouse leftist causes it seems a tad hypocritical."

I can't possibly disagree more.

I am in a position of relative wealth and privilege in my own country, and I consider it my honor and my duty to give generously to progressive causes, to vote for candidates that support progressive reform even when that means increasing funding to social programs that my taxes pay for, and to support and fight for the rights of people who haven't been afforded the same privileges and advantages I've been lucky enough to have.

In a society in which access to education, housing, health care, legal representation, and other basic needs is not equal, who is going to help provide them if not the people with money and power? Grass-roots mobilization is a wonderful thing, but it is not the end of the story. If wealth and power and privilege are to be redistributed to the benefit of the disenfranchised then by definition the people who have those things will have to relinquish some of them. And I have far more respect for rich and privileged people who recognize that and are willing to sacrifice some of that wealth and privilege than I do for people who cling white-knuckled to every last dime to the detriment of the working poor.

There is a normative judgment built into my view, obviously: the norm that vastly unequal distribution of wealth and power is an injustice that needs addressing. I am not a Communist, and I don't believe a completely equal distribution of wealth is beneficial or even possible. But I do see tremendous injustice in the increasing wealth imbalance in my own society, the rich getting richer and more and more people unable to make ends meet.

And I say that as a person who is arguably benefiting from that system.

To bring this back round to Shabana ji, I don't know what goes on inside her head. I hope, but I don't know, that she would largely agree with what I have said above. I see her not as a hypocrite, but as an exemplary specimen of a person who openly enjoys the benefits of wealth and privilege but also dedicatedly deploys them to the benefit of people who don't have those advantages.

I have researched the term psec, and I find its usage to be mostly pejorative, vague, and reactionary; and, I am sad to see such labels applied to Shabanaji, who I think puts more thought into her positions and her actions than many others do. Her views may not always be internally consistent, but neither are mine - contradictions are part and parcel of our human condition. Complex problems rarely admit of pat solutions, and I think it's quite unreasonable to demand purely consistent or unchanging views of anyone, and unreasonable to brand as insincere a person who has not achieved such rarefied clarity of vision.

Filmi Geek said...

Maru, forgive me for going off on that tangent, when you had tried to redirect discussion back to the specific topic of admiring Shabanaji as a performer while disagreeing with her politics. I would like to address that, if you don't mind, in a post on the main page, rather than in these comments. So please looks for that in the coming days.

maajhi said...

psec has tangible meaning, so I don't consider it vague or reactionary, though it's quite definitely pejorative.

psec, or pseudo-secularism, describes actions and behavior that are contrary to a claim of being secular - that is, blind to religion when conducting policy or passing judgement.

At its extreme, when people speak of "religious minorities", they are being psec. They claim to be blind to religion, and yet are willing to conduct policy that favors people on the basis of their beliefs.

Even if we accept the idea of religious minorities, when people speak out on behalf of a minority of one religion, completely ignoring another in an exactly similar situation in a different region, that's pseudo-secularism. An empirical example is: Muslims in Gujarat vs Hindus in Kashmir. You will hear a lot about the former, nothing about the latter, from pseudo-secularists.

Another trivial example: the State pays Muslims to go on Hajj, it doesn't pay Christians or any other religious groups to go on their pilgrimages.

Another one: There is nothing wrong with Pakistan (Urdu for "the Land of the Pure" - draw your conclusions) or Bangladesh officially discriminating against non-Muslims because they're Islamic States.

Another: Criticism of Islamic practices or behavior is Islamophobia and Muslim writers that criticize Islam need to be banned or driven out of India (Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen) but criticism of other religions has to be protected under free speech.

The examples of pseudo-secularism in India could fill volumes.

About your comment that you can't expect people to have consistent positions, I couldn't disagree more. One is obviously free to have inconsistent positions - be secular or not depending on the matter at hand, for example - but has no claim to being truly secular in that case.

maajhi said...

I should add that pseudo-secularism (false or fake secularism) and the inconsistency and favoritism inherent in it are destructive for a society, and in fact increase sectarianism and communalism as evidenced by Indian post-Independence history, something psecs claim to be against but in actuality, contribute to.

Filmi Geek said...

To my knowledge Shabana Azmi does not hold any of the views that you hold out as examples of so-called pseudo-secularism. At any rate as I can only speculate about what's going on in her mind, have only spotty and occasional exposure to her opinions, and also am not very well versed in these issues myself, I've nothing more to say on the topic.

maru said...


Look fwd to yr post on my question and will likely have more to say then, but I couldn't resist responding to your more general comment on the rich and privileged supporting the redistribution of wealth.

To me your comment points more towards philanthropy than towards ideological position or hard economic or political choices. I admire philanthropy greatly - e.g. from Warren Buffet or Bill Gates even though I may not care for their business strategies - I'm esp. not a fan of Microsoft.

However supporting political reform or making voluntary contributions of time/money to causes benefiting the underprivileged is a whole different ballgame from the sort of leftist/socialist policy I am referring to. These are about structural (economic/political) changes that frankly frighten me when I hear them being spouted by those who derive their voice, thanks to the current system.

The American version of socialism is still way right of the sort of leftist position I'm talking off. Redistribution of wealth by the rich paying higher taxes wouldn't do it unless the rich were wrung bone dry.

What is termed "reservation" -the equivalent of affirmative action for those of lower castes - has been turned into a mockery in many states in India. Reservation for education and jobs touches 70-75% in many cases. There is complete subversion of merit.

In the name of supporting the disenfranchised, several infrastructure projects (highways, roads, power projects) are compromised. Slums and shanty towns that are allowed to thrive are often little more than protected vote banks for politicians.

I could go on ---- but the corruption of the system is so endemic that it horrifies me, so much so that I worry that all of the opportunity for economic growth and real change will be stymied by leftists/socialists supporting "economic quality for all".

Sorry, I didn't mean to make this a political debate or a frustrated rant , but my purpose here is to illustrate that we're looking thru very different lenses on this issue.

maajhi said...

Carla, your comment is noted, and as I mentioned earlier, I have no opinion of Shabana Azmi the politician, since I know nothing of her politics. My impressions are only based off of what I've read here, and as I said, I definitely don't consider them authoritative.

My earlier comment was only to define the term and dispute its supposed vagueness, not to claim the label definitively applies to her.

Filmi Geek said...

Maru, I've been up front about the fact that I cannot evaluate particular policies or implementations as they apply to India. That is why I said that while I support what I perceive as Shabana's ideals generally, I am not equipped to support or reject any particular stance she takes on a substantive issue.

My own views are not merely philanthropy; private philanthropy forms only a small part of my ideal. I guess if I tried to characterize my position it would fall closest to a mid-century, FDR kind of progressivism (I'm talking about economic policies here, not necessarily social or international policies) where the people - i.e., the democratic government - has the power and the responsibility to look after less privileged members of the society.

My views are probably idealist, which is why I am not a policymaker myself and have no desire to be one. I find real life problems too complicated to tackle, and I'm happy to leave that to others and to trust my gut when it is my turn to select those others at the polling booth. Maajhi, I am happy for you that you feel you can see the world with such clarity that you are never tormented by carry two conflicting ideals in your mind. I am not so fortunate, which is again why I am not a policymaker. It's also why I am not a political blogger, and why I don't generally read or contribute to political blogs; this kind of debate is fundamentally distressing to me, rather than entertaining.

I realize that in setting up a blog that supports and admires and invites discussion a person who is herself extremely political I can't avoid having *some* substantive political content, which is why I've participated to this point. But I'm tired and I just don't want to go any further down this road. And so, I will comment no longer on this thread.