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We call them Oncle and Tantie

MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, January 7 2013

“A crisis of public trust” is how Fintan O’Toole called it in a collection of essays on the past, the present and perhaps the future, of the Irish Republic. This crisis of public trust, Fintan O’Toole reminds his readers, is not confined to Ireland. I would add Trinidad and Tobago. Whatever of the Irish Republic, the crisis of public trust here is part of a much wider social crisis.

I write this on New Year’s Day. Throughout 2012 we moved from crisis to crisis. These crises overlap. The only ending to a crisis is “the seven day wonder”. We forget and “move on”. There are a number of problems with this. Issues are likely to be insufficiently ventilated. Where there are issues which are perceived as serious, “move on” may increase conflict by trivializing or by concealing the reasons for disagreement. There is another problem: “move on” is part of a certain model of a Republic. In this model the political participation of citizens is limited to the vote at elections. With that vote all power is handed to the victor. Kofi Annan argues that it is this model of democracy which is responsible for the authoritarian States in much of Africa. Unfortunately it is not only Africa. Hannah Arendt, speaking of the post-First World War Europe, considered the emergence of the authoritarian State as, at best, a heresy of European philosophical traditions. According to Arendt it led to both the Fascist States of Europe and to the Stalinist State of Russia.

Crisis in Democracy

The crisis in American democracy has exercised our attention over the past weeks. There has been the growth of the Extreme Right in a number of Western European countries including the flagship countries of democracy: Holland, France and Britain. There is the trend of political Islam in countries of the Arab Spring.

All have increased interest in the conditions under which an authoritarian State may arise. There would seem to be three conditions: a decline in the economy, an increase in social marginalisation of certain groups, the failure of political dialogue. These three conditions fragilize the social bonds which underpin the modern State. There is then the “crisis of public trust” Fintan O’Toole speaks about. Our “move on”, while perhaps meant to end tensions, increases marginalisation, suppresses political dialogue and adds to the “crisis of public trust.”

One of the examples of issues that are insufficiently ventilated is the cluster associated with the Prime Minister’s visit to India. The visit was both a State visit as Prime Minister and a visit as a member of GOPIO – the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin.

Both of these visits were, in my opinion, valid, although I expect raised eyebrows at the increased visibility of GOPIO in official affairs. However, the two visits, public and private, were intertwined. It was a recipe for confusion. And confusion there was. But it was the bowing to touch the President of India’s ankle or foot – depending on who is talking – which was the most long lasting of the confusions.

Oncle and Tantie

Bowing as a mark of respect to one’s betters is not only Indian. It is there in the language: “bowing and scraping” to someone is to be not only polite but obsequious. To kiss someone’s foot is to be ready to do the most menial work in return for a favour. Bowing to kiss a Bishop’s ring showed respect and loyalty to the office of Bishop.

In feudal China emissaries from her client States bowed and scraped before China’s Emperor. If the manifold signals of rank – for that is what “respect” meant – have gone here as well as in most modern States, it is not simply losing traditions, as one Minister seemed to think. Rather, signs of servitude or of unequal status no longer have a function in today’s more equal society.

The trend is there among Indians. Few Indian wives here now walk a few steps behind their husbands. In Naipaul’s biography the joint family was headed not by Naipaul’s father but by Naipaul’s Capildeo mother. I have found a number of examples even in country areas, of a wife’s family being the de facto joint family. Money rather than tradition may be the relevant joint family factor. I have visited India a number of times. I have never seen the gesture of touching feet, although I know that it exists.

It is more rare among the middle class in say, Delhi than our own popular gesture of respect for the elderly: we call them Oncle and Tantie. I have taken the example of the bowing in India as an example of conflict stemming from the confusion of Public and Private. This conflict re-emerged months later at Divali. More important has been our “move on” before important historical events. And that to come.

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