Freedom of the Whole Human Race

I am absolutely convinced that God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men. But God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers and every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. – Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”, 1960.

How true these words are! And how they have been forgotten in the past 50 years!

The spiritual and moral center of MLK’s vision is the idea inherent in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: that true freedom of two people only comes from their mutual self-recognition of each other as equals. That when there is a master and a slave, the master is also thwarted in their humanity, and that the slave’s recognition of this fact, and the resulting sympathy towards the master, is crucial for the slave’s own growth to full self-consciousness.

Contrast this with a much more simple-minded, and morally less robust, image of overcoming the master-slave relation: where the slave becomes an equal to the master by getting what the master has. On this picture, equality is a matter simply of material redistribution: the master is seen to have all the things of a flourishing life, and the slave becomes an equal by getting those things as well. Call this the redistribution model of equality.

Not surprisingly, violence ends up playing a big role in the redistribution model. For surely the master resists giving up the inequality which he sees as natural, and so the inequality has to be taken from his hands, and the equality created by force.

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Ideal of Inclusivity

What does it mean for America as a society to be inclusive?

One answer, embraced by liberals, is something like the following: “In America there are the privileged and the underprivileged, which maps onto those who have power and minorities who are marginalized. For America to be inclusive means for this imbalance to be shifted, so that power is distributed more equally.”

If we look at the civil rights movement, or the women’s movement and so on, they seem like the main example of what distributing power means, and what it means for America to become more inclusive.

There is, however, one big problem with this understanding of inclusivity: it treats it as obvious who the minorities and the majority are. Normally, for liberals, the majority is seen as whites, specially white, middle class, heterosexual males, and minorities are people who don’t fit that category.

But what happens if everybody in America in some sense or another thinks, and can think, of themselves as a minority, as marginalized, as fighting the status quo? Then the picture of inclusivity as the minorities getting what the majority already has starts to break down.

This is our current situation.

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Cosmopolitan Racism

The below is also posted at Daily Nous.

Trump, like many of his supporters, vehemently denies he is a racist. He says he loves African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese – and more, that they love him. If Trump and I were to interact one on one, I don’t get the feeling he would think he is better than me because he is white and I am brown. He seems too cosmopolitan for such explicit racism.

And yet the night of the election and in the following days, I felt a pit of fear in my stomach. That though I am an American citizen, that somehow I am a second class citizen. That I am welcome in America, as long as I know my place. I felt it during Trump’s campaign a well: a pervasive, subtle, and yet not so subtle, aura of whiteness around him, his family and his staff, which seemed to say, “This is what America really looks like.”

How can I think Trump is too cosmopolitan to be an old fashioned racist and yet worry about minorities in a Trump presidency? If Trump is cosmopolitan, shouldn’t that be enough for me to feel safe during his presidency? Not quite.

For Trump is a cosmopolitan racist. He is cosmopolitan in that he thinks people of all races can live together. But he thinks that cosmopolitanism is the discovery of white people. That it is the white culture of Christianity, European advancements and the Founding Fathers of America which enables all races to live together. On this view, cosmopolitanism in America requires preserving white culture as the essence of America.

Seen from this angle, Trump is actually much more aligned with the dominant norms of academic philosophy in America than with the KKK. The KKK is old-fashioned, non-cosmopolitan, segregationist racism. Trump is too integrated into global capitalism to favor such segregation. What Trump wants is to preserve white culture as uniquely qualified for enabling racial integration – that America can be colorful as long as at its core its culture is white.

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Breakdown of the Liberal Fantasy

The most relevant question isn’t whether Trump or Clinton win the election. Irrespective of who wins the election, it is certain there are going to be deep culture clashes in America, most probably resulting in violence, riots and protests in some form. The most pertinent thing is to understand these clashes and how to navigate them.

I think from the 1960s there has been a liberal fantasy. According to this fantasy, there are two main forces in society: the conservative force and the progressive force. The conservatives want to retain the world prior to the 60s when white men dominated American society, and progressives want to change that world to create a world where all the oppressed groups prior to the 60s gain their rightful place of equality in society. On this story, the conservatives want to keep in place the monolithic power of the white male hierarchy, and the progressives wants to replace that with a rainbow coalition of equality along all the dimensions of gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, class, and so on.

Liberals in the grip of the liberal fantasy claim Trump is appealing just because of the brute conservative forces in society, those who want to take America back to its pre 60s world.

This vastly underestimates the issues at stake.

What the Trump phenomenon actually shows is the breakdown of the liberal fantasy. The liberal fantasy is no longer a good guide to understanding the complexities in our society.

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Adi Shankara and McDonald’s

adi-shankaraMy father’s favorite philosopher was the 8th century Hindu thinker Adi Shankaracharya. Like many Hindus, Dad was convinced that Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta captured the essence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita – that in reality there is only an all pervasive Self-Consciousness, and that any appearance of a duality (of different selves, or even the separation between me and the objects around me) is an illusion.

Given Dad’s influence on me as I discovered philosophy, Shankara was also one of my favorite philosophers. I was particularly enthralled as a sixteen year old by the depiction of Shankara in G.V. Iyer’s 1983 film Adi Shankaracharya. We had the movie on video, and while in high school I must have watched it at least a half dozen times. I probably never watched it all in one sitting. It is an intense, thoughtful movie in Sanskrit with English subtitles and almost three hours long. I would watch it in half hour snippets, letting it sink in slowly.

Neither Dad nor I were experts in Shankara’s philosophy. I doubt Dad ever read in detail Shankara’s works, and as a teenager I certainly hadn’t. But in both our minds Shankara loomed as an archetype of the philosopher. In time though it started to become evident that Dad and I liked Shankara for different reasons.

Dad liked Shankara mainly for the content of his views. Advaita (non-duality) was for Dad the essence of Shankara, and of philosophy. Dad would wax poetic sometimes about how Shankara had pierced to the root of the Gita, intellectually defeating Buddhist and dvaita (dualistic) Hindu philosophers along the way.

I found Advaita interesting enough, but what I was most drawn to in Shankara was his life – in particular, the fact that he was a monk. I admired the simplicity of the monk ideal: philosophy is supposed to expand our mental horizons and help us move beyond our more immediate circles, and Shankara became a monk in order to not be limited by the concerns of his family or his particular community, but to embrace a more universal perspective.

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Let’s Talk About Sex

I completely agree with Wittgenstein and Heidegger on this: philosophy questions as traditionally posed are a dead end. For example, the main issue isn’t which answer to the mind-body problem is right, whether it materialism or dualism, etc. Dualism is totally unhelpful as an answer, and materialism is trivally true. The problem is that the question, “How is the mind related to the body?” is too general a question to get a grip on clarifying the issues. There isn’t one question there. There are thousands and progress requires asking new questions that might shed a new light on how to understand ourselves as minded and material beings.

If this is right, what about the thousands of people who find the mind-body problem as traditionally stated compelling? What do we make of them? Well, what do we make of the millions of people who still think that the Bible or the Koran or the Gita is the only one true word of God, and so who insist on asking questions from that perspective? There are many reasons why people get stuck in certain frames of inquiry.

There is no point trying to argue someone out of a question which is gripping to them. The only thing one can do is to follow the questions that are interesting to oneself. This was Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s limitations. They, and many of their followers, got stuck arguing against others, rather than focusing on the new questions they find interesting.

That’s what I am going to do now. Follow my own sense of interesting questions, no matter how unlike traditional questions they are, philosophical or not.

Here is  a question: Why do people sexually attracted to women (be they straight men or gay women) find women’s breasts sexually exciting? 

This is puzzling. What do organs meant for feeding babies have to do with being sexually exciting?

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Getting Beyond the 60s

If Hilary Clinton loses this election, it will be because, ideologically, she is stuck in the 1960s.

Back in the 60s, it was clear what “racism” meant: that blacks, and generally anyone other than whites, are inferior to whites. Inferior intellectually, morally, spiritually. So inferior that blacks had to be kept segregated from white communities. It was perfectly clear: if you were for segregation, you were a racist. In the 1960s, those who wanted to preserve “American culture” as fundamentally white affirmed segregation and so actively embraced racism.

But in the last 50 years, those cultural conservatives changed their tactic. They no longer linked their view of American culture as fundamentally white with segregation. Instead, they connected it to the idea that America is fundamentally a white country: a country founded by white people from Europe.

The distinction is important. Crucial.

It is the distinction between saying, “You can’t live in my house because you aren’t good enough as a human being”, and saying “You can’t live in my house because it is my house.” The former is racist. The later is not.

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Spiritual Objectivity

There is an egoless objectivity. It is an awareness of the world beyond the concerns of me and mine: my needs, my wants, my fears, my family, my friends, my communities, my values.

Spirituality is living with egoless objectivity. It is to look and be aware of my own life and that of my family, friends, neighbors with a certain detachment, to be able to see that myself as Bharath is a limited awareness, a partial view which, in illusion, presents itself as the whole reality.

This spirituality objectivity is different from physics objectivity. True, the objectivity of physics is egoless. It makes no reference to egos or people (never mind quantum mechanics – that is spiritually irrelevant). But physics objectivity doesn’t imply spiritual objectivity. A physicist can see the world in terms of atoms and quarks, but then still get angry, jealous, resentful – still be driven by the ego in his interactions with fellow human beings. Even the physicist as a human has to do the spiritual work of attaining egoless objectivity – understanding black holes or the formation of galaxies isn’t a substitute for the spiritual work.

The physics objectivity can be a bouncing board for spiritual objectivity. When I feel resentful, I can be mindful of the limits of my ego by remembering, and holding in my awareness, that both me and the person I am resentful of are but atoms in the void. Knowledge of physics doesn’t provide this wisdom. The spiritual skill is to develop the awareness that we are all atoms in the midst of the emotional and mental turmoil I am going through, so that I don’t identify with that turmoil and act out of my ego concerns.

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The Best Philosopher I Knew


Three months ago my father, Satyam Vallabha, passed away. He was 74. My mother, brother and myself were with him in his last moments. He was on his bed, in my parent’s apartment. It was 11:30 at night. I remember his breathing becoming labored, drawn out, just for a few minutes. But it was still him. He was there, with us. And then, in the blink of an eye, there was no more breathing. He was gone.

When I think of him now, I think of him the same way I thought of him since my late teens – as the best philosopher I know. As the most inspirational philosopher I was ever around.

Until I was about sixteen I knew him just as a loving and doting father. Didn’t really think much beyond that. But then I started getting interested in philosophy. There were the stirrings of the sense that there is more to life than being a good son, or becoming an engineer or whatever it is I would do as a job when I grew up. Even more than being a good person, helping others. That there was a deeper reality to grow into, to become aware of. There was the meaning of life, the purpose of existence – waiting to be discovered, uncovered within my own inner being.

Big, heady thoughts. They were like sparks of my imagination, starting to flicker and glow. Looking for oxygen to feed on and grow bigger. At the time my father became my oxygen.

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Do I Believe in God?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends. Sort of. What do you mean by “believe” and “God”?

This hemming and hawing is usually seen by the person I am talking to as sign of confusion on my part, or an inability to take a side. The idea hangs in the air: “It is so straight-forward. Do you believe in God? Just yes or no?”

I reject the strait-forwardness of the question. I reject that I have to give a single answer which I affirm in all contexts, with all people, in every moment of my life. Instead, the answer I give varies with who I am with.

If I am with believers, I say “I believe in God”. If I am with atheists, I say, “I don’t believe in God.” If I am with Christians, I say, “Christ is my savior.” If I am with Hindus, I say, “Krishna is God.”

Am I being wishy-washy in being like this? Blatently contradictory? No.

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