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Diary

Pankaj Mishra: India’s New Class, 19 June 1997

... As I write, India is about to have its third prime minister in less than eleven months, but such apparent instability seems to concern New Delhi’s chattering classes only in so far as they worry about what the rest of the world might think. Evidently, or so the popular belief goes, in this 50th year of independence, the world’s eyes are trained on India ...

Postcolonial Enchantment

Pankaj Mishra: Nadeem Aslam, 7 February 2013

The Blind Man’s Garden 
by Nadeem Aslam.
Faber, 409 pp., £18.99, February 2013, 978 0 571 28791 8
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... In October 2001, media reports claimed that tens of thousands of Pakistanis had volunteered to help the victims of the American bombing of Afghanistan. Many of these men (and women), whose fate has remained largely obscure to us, crossed the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border to fight the invading ‘infidels’; others stayed behind to help arriving refugees ...

At the Helm of the World

Pankaj Mishra: Alexander Herzen, 1 June 2017

The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen 
by Aileen Kelly.
Harvard, 582 pp., £31.95, May 2016, 978 0 674 73711 2
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... The​ Soviet-subsidised mobile bookshops that enlivened my provincial childhood in the India of the late 1970s and early 1980s always had, in among the English translations of Marx, Lenin and various socialist realist novels, an edition of Alexander Herzen’s novel Who Is to Blame? The title was irresistible and its theme of stupor and futility in the provinces seemed both contemporary and urgent ...

Modernity’s Undoing

Pankaj Mishra: ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, 31 March 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad 
by Jennifer Egan.
Corsair, 336 pp., £14.99, March 2011, 978 1 78033 028 0
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... America created the 20th century,’ Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ‘and since all the other countries are now either living or commencing to be living a 20th-century life, America having begun the creation of the 20th century in the sixties of the 19th century is now the oldest country in the world.’ She meant, quite reasonably, that America was the oldest country in the world because it was the first to be modern ...

The Sound of Cracking

Pankaj Mishra: ‘The Age of the Crisis of Man’, 27 August 2015

The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-73 
by Mark Greif.
Princeton, 434 pp., £19.95, January 2015, 978 0 691 14639 3
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Moral Agents: Eight 20th-Century American Writers 
by Edward Mendelson.
New York Review, 216 pp., £12.99, May 2015, 978 1 59017 776 1
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... Mark Greif’s​ book is a bracingly ambitious attempt at a ‘philosophical history’ of the American mid-century, a chronological account of writers and their ideas. It begins in 1933 with an apparently widely perceived ‘crisis of man’ in American intellectual culture and is cut off, equally surgically, in 1973, with academic theory’s announcement of the ‘death of man ...

Why weren’t they grateful?

Pankaj Mishra: Mossadegh, 21 June 2012

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup 
by Christopher de Bellaigue.
Bodley Head, 310 pp., £20, February 2012, 978 1 84792 108 6
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... In 1890, an itinerant Muslim activist called Jamal al-din al-Afghani was in Iran when its then ruler, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, granted a tobacco concession to a British businessman called G.F. Talbot, effectively granting him a monopoly on its purchase, sale and export. Al-Afghani pointed out, to a chorus of approval from secular-minded intellectuals as well as conservative merchants, that tobacco growers would now be at the mercy of infidels, and the livelihoods of small dealers destroyed ...

Rise of the Rest

Pankaj Mishra: After America, 6 November 2008

The Post-American World 
by Fareed Zakaria.
Allen Lane, 292 pp., £20, July 2008, 978 1 84614 153 9
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The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order 
by Parag Khanna.
Allen Lane, 466 pp., £25, April 2008, 978 0 7139 9937 2
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... In 1946, George Kennan, then the deputy head of the US mission in Moscow, sent a 5300-word telegram to Washington, hoping to alert his superiors to the threat of Soviet expansionism. Kennan had complained repeatedly and fruitlessly about what he saw as America’s indulgent attitude towards the Soviet Union, but for a crucial moment in 1946 his idea that the US should strike an alliance with Western Europe in order to contain Soviet Communism found listeners in Washington ...

Getting Rich

Pankaj Mishra: In Shanghai, 30 November 2006

... The ruins of Shanghai come as a surprise in a city so defiantly modern. Demolished low-rise houses lie in downtown streets next to luxury condominiums with names such as ‘Rich Gate’, the wreckage reflected in the glass façades of tall office buildings. In Dongjiadu, Shanghai’s oldest quarter, bulldozers were expected within the fortnight, the old women squatting silently in the cramped alleys helpless before them ...

What Is Great about Ourselves

Pankaj Mishra: Closing Time, 21 September 2017

The Retreat of Western Liberalism 
by Edward Luce.
Little, Brown, 240 pp., £16.99, May 2017, 978 1 4087 1041 8
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The Fate of the West: Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea 
by Bill Emmott.
Economist, 257 pp., £22, May 2017, 978 1 61039 780 3
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The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics 
by David Goodhart.
Hurst, 256 pp., £20, March 2017, 978 1 84904 799 9
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The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics 
by Mark Lilla.
Harper, 143 pp., £20, August 2017, 978 0 06 269743 1
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The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam 
by Douglas Murray.
Bloomsbury, 343 pp., £18.99, May 2017, 978 1 4729 4224 1
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... Is it finally​ closing time in the gardens of the West? The wails that have rent the air since the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory rise from the same parts of Anglo-America that hosted, post-1989, the noisiest celebrations of liberalism, democracy, free markets and globalisation. Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, writes that ‘the fear now is of being present at the destruction' of the ‘West’, the ‘world’s most successful political idea ...

The Mask It Wears

Pankaj Mishra: The Wrong Human Rights, 21 June 2018

The People v. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It 
by Yascha Mounk.
Harvard, 400 pp., £21.95, March 2018, 978 0 674 97682 5
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Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World 
by Samuel Moyn.
Harvard, 277 pp., £21.95, April 2018, 978 0 674 73756 3
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... American liberals​ , Samuel Moyn wrote last year in Dissent, have never broken ‘with the exceptionalist outlook that cast the United States as uniquely virtuous’, but having Trump in the ‘cockpit of American power’ will reveal ‘just how terrifyingly normal a nation we are, with our populist jingoism and hawkish foreign policy’. The bipartisan support for the president’s bombing campaigns shows that little has changed in this respect, however ...

Why do white people like what I write?

Pankaj Mishra: Ta-Nehisi Coates, 22 February 2018

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy 
by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Hamish Hamilton, 367 pp., £16.99, October 2017, 978 0 241 32523 0
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... During​ the big antiwar protests in early 2003, Ta-Nehisi Coates was a deliveryman for a deli in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He, too, was ‘sceptical’, he wrote a decade later in a blog post for the Atlantic, ‘but if the US was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object?’ After all, as Coates remembered, ‘every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew – left or right – was for the war ...

Ordained as a Nation

Pankaj Mishra: Exporting Democracy, 21 February 2008

The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism 
by Erez Manela.
Oxford, 331 pp., £17.99, July 2007, 978 0 19 517615 5
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... Early in The Wilsonian Moment, Erez Manela tells a story about Ho Chi Minh that I often heard in student Communist circles in India. Ho was an indigent worker in Paris when Woodrow Wilson arrived in the city in 1919 with a plan to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. Inspired by Wilson’s advocacy of national self-determination, Ho sought an audience with the US president, hoping to persuade him to use his new influence to restore Vietnamese rule in French Indo-China ...

Bland Fanatics

Pankaj Mishra: Liberalism and Colonialism, 3 December 2015

On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present 
by Alan Ryan.
Penguin, 1152 pp., £14.99, September 2013, 978 0 14 028518 5
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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism 
by Larry Siedentop.
Penguin, 448 pp., £9.99, January 2015, 978 0 14 100954 4
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Liberalism: The Life of an Idea 
by Edmund Fawcett.
Princeton, 496 pp., £16.95, September 2015, 978 0 691 16839 5
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An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzō and a New Liberal Order in East Asia 1905-37 
by Jung-Sun Ni Han.
Harvard, 244 pp., £29.95, March 2013, 978 0 674 06571 0
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... Visiting​ Africa and Asia in the 1960s, Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered that many people in former colonies were ‘sickened by the word “liberalism”’. They saw it as an ‘ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs’. O’Brien – ‘incurably liberal’ himself (at least in this early phase of his career) – was dismayed ...

Watch this man

Pankaj Mishra: Niall Ferguson’s Burden, 3 November 2011

Civilisation: The West and the Rest 
by Niall Ferguson.
Allen Lane, 402 pp., £25, March 2011, 978 1 84614 273 4
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... Civilisation’s going to pieces,’ Tom Buchanan, the Yale-educated millionaire, abruptly informs Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged ...

The ‘People’s War’

Pankaj Mishra: The Maoists of Nepal, 23 June 2005

... In Kathmandu this March, I met a Nepalese businessman who said he knew what had provoked Crown Prince Dipendra, supposed incarnation of Vishnu and former pupil at Eton, to mass murder. On the night of 1 June 2001, Dipendra appeared in the drawing-room of the royal palace in Kathmandu, dressed in combat fatigues, apparently out of it on Famous Grouse and hashish, and armed with assault rifles and pistols ...

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