For some things Harvard suffices; this blog is for the rest.

Fake History And The Real Gandhi

I never read much of Scott Alexander’s blog Slate Star Codex. To rectify this huge educational gap, I recently downloaded the abridged version of SCC. The collection starts with In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization in which Scott, among other things, explains how liberalism came to dominate the world:

Liberalism does not conquer by fire and sword. Liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules, slowly growing until eventually an equilibrium is disturbed. Its battle cry is not “Death to the unbelievers!” but “If you’re nice, you can join our cuddle pile!”

This view is extremely common, but to put it politely, not very accurate – mainly because the winner gets to write history, and liberalism is the winner.

Scott’s mistake is a version of Gell-Mann Amnesia: you know the news is wrong when they talk about a topic you know but assume they’re correct when they talk about anything else. Or, as Michael Crichton describes it:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Scott knows that the universities and newspapers are wrong on a lot of things. His blog is partially a way of cataloging where and how these institutions are wrong. But he never takes the next step: assuming that everything he learned from these institutions but hasn’t checked himself should be doubted as well. He simply turns the page and takes every new claim at face value. His null hypothesis remains “trust institutions.”

This way of thinking is amusingly illustrated by the curate’s egg analogy explained by Yarvin:

A curate is an Anglican minister—an exceedingly polite and deferential figure. Served a rotten egg, he tastes it and cannot avoid making a face. “How is the egg?” someone asks.

“Most parts of it are excellent,” says the curate. This is a masterpiece of what Orwell called crimestop. The curate, needing to avoid the bad, stressful chain of inference

goes directly to the magnificent evasion

As Yarvin correctly observes, Rationalists do this quite often. One wonders at what point they would change their null hypothesis to “doubt.”

Unfortunately, history is a difficult and complex subject to argue (and I'm certainly the wrong person for that job). It would take way more than one blog post to convince Scott of why his “liberalism won by cuddling” view of history is not very accurate. But to make my point, we can look at a more narrow example from Scott’s post.

A few paragraphs above the already quoted section, Scott makes the point that you can win without violence by quoting Gandhi:

Mahatma Gandhi said “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Another guy who fought one of the largest empires ever to exist and won resoundingly. And he was pretty insistent on truth too: “Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another.”

Most people read this paragraph and think “Scott is trying to make the point that non-violence is a winning strategy, so he quotes the best-known modern pacifist who defeated the British empire with cuddles. Great way to make a point!” And presumably, this is also how Scott decided to include the paragraph. There is only one problem: this is how the winning side tells the story.

Scott thinks of Gandhi as he is depicted everywhere: as an anti-racist and anti-colonialist pacifist. In other words, Scott's Ghandi is the Gandhi of the eponymous and successful 1983 movie. An interesting fact about this film is that it was financed 30% by the Indian government. In other words, propaganda works – only bad propaganda doesn’t.

For a more accurate version of history, we can take a look at Richard Grenier’s review of the aforementioned movie. We will focus on the non-violence aspect of the narrative, but I highly recommend reading the whole piece — as a friend of mine put it: They just don’t write movie reviews like that anymore. (For readers who like Grenier’s review: I’m told that his collection of reviews called Capturing the Culture is well worth a read.)

Grenier writes about the non-violence part of Gandhi’s philosophy:

It is something of an anomaly that Gandhi, held in popular myth to be a pure pacifist (a myth which governments of India have always been at great pains to sustain in the belief that it will reflect credit on India itself, and to which the present movie adheres slavishly), was until fifty not ill-disposed to war at all. As I have already noted, in three wars, no sooner had the bugles sounded than Gandhi not only gave his support, but was clamoring for arms. To form new regiments! To fight! To destroy the enemies of the empire I Regular Indian army units fought in both the Boer War and World War I, but this was not enough for Gandhi. He wanted to raise new troops, even, in the case of the Boer and Kaffir Wars, from the tiny Indian colony in South Africa. British military authorities thought it not really worth the trouble to train such a small body of Indians as soldiers, and were even resistant to training them as an auxiliary medical corps (“stretcher bearers”), but finally yielded to Gandhi’s relentless importuning. As first instructed, the Indian Volunteer Corps was not supposed actually to go into combat, but Gandhi, adamant, led his Indian volunteers into the thick of battle. When the British commanding officer was mortally wounded during an engagement in the Kaffir War, Gandhi—though his corps’ deputy commander—carried the officer’s stretcher himself from the battlefield and for miles over the sun-baked veldt. The British empire’s War Medal did not have its name for nothing, and it was generally earned.

Maybe one day we get a movie about Gandhi, the war hero. I would certainly watch it. Grenier continues on the topic:

Anyone who wants to wade through Gandhi’s endless ruminations about himsa and ahimsa (violence and nonviolence) is welcome to do so, but it is impossible for the skeptical reader to avoid the conclusion—let us say in 1920, when swaraj (home rule) was all the rage and Gandhi’s inner voice started telling him that ahimsa was the thing—that this inner voice knew what it was talking about. By this I mean that, though Gandhi talked with the tongue of Hindu gods and sacred scriptures, his inner voice had a strong sense of expediency. Britain, if only comparatively speaking, was a moral nation, and nonviolent civil disobedience was plainly the best and most effective way of achieving Indian independence. Skeptics might also not be surprised to learn that as independence approached, Gandhi’s inner voice began to change its tune. It has been reported that Gandhi “half-welcomed” the civil war that broke out in the last days. Even a fratricidal “bloodbath” (Gandhi’s word) would be preferable to the British.

And suddenly Gandhi began endorsing violence left, right, and center. During the fearsome rioting in Calcutta he gave his approval to men “using violence in a moral cause.” How could he tell them that violence was wrong, he asked, “unless I demonstrate that nonviolence is more effective?” He blessed the Nawab of Maler Kotla when he gave orders to shoot ten Muslims for every Hindu killed in his state. He sang the praises of Subhas Chandra Bose, who, sponsored by first the Nazis and then the Japanese, organized in Singapore an Indian National Army with which he hoped to conquer India with Japanese support, establishing a totalitarian dictatorship. Meanwhile, after independence in 1947, the armies of the India that Gandhi had created immediately marched into battle, incorporating the state of Hyderabad by force and making war in Kashmir on secessionist Pakistan. When Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist in January 1948 he was honored by the new state with a vast military funeral—in my view by no means inapposite.

Even the most famous of Gandhi’s non-violent methods, the “fast unto death,” was first used for a cause that nobody today would ascribe to Gandhi:

The film leads the audience to believe that Gandhi’s first “fast unto death,” for example, was in protest against an act of barbarous violence, the slaughter by an Indian crowd of a detachment of police constables. But in actual fact Gandhi reserved this “ultimate weapon” of his to interdict a 1931 British proposal to grant Untouchables a “separate electorate” in the Indian national legislature—in effect a kind of affirmative-action program for Untouchables. For reasons I have not been able to decrypt, Gandhi was dead set against the project, but I confess it is another scene I would like to have seen in the movie: Gandhi almost starving himself to death to block affirmative action for Untouchables.

Gandhi, the defender of India’s caste system – another interesting movie waiting to be made.

I should also note that while Gandhi’s “non-violent protest” certainly had its effect on the British, it didn’t exactly produce peace after the British left:

At the famous Amritsar massacre of 1919, shot in elaborate and loving detail in the present movie and treated by post-independence Indian historians as if it were Auschwitz, Ghurka troops under the command of a British officer, General Dyer, fired into an unarmed crowd of Indians defying a ban and demonstrating for Indian independence. The crowd contained women and children; 379 persons died; it was all quite horrible. Dyer was court-martialed and cashiered, but the incident lay heavily on British consciences for the next three decades, producing a severe inhibiting effect. Never again would the British empire commit another Amritsar, anywhere.

As soon as the oppressive British were gone, however, the Indians—gentle, tolerant people that they are—gave themselves over to an orgy of bloodletting. Trained troops did not pick off targets at a distance with Enfield rifles. Blood-crazed Hindus, or Muslims, ran through the streets with knives, beheading babies, stabbing women, old people. Interestingly, our movie shows none of this on camera (the oldest way of stacking the deck in Hollywood). All we see is the aged Gandhi, grieving, and of course fasting, at these terrible reports of riots. And, naturally, the film doesn’t whisper a clue as to the total number of dead, which might spoil the mood somehow. The fact is that we will never know how many Indians were murdered by other Indians during the country’s Independence Massacres, but almost all serious studies place the figure over a million, and some, such as Payne’s sources, go to 4 million. So, for those who like round numbers, the British killed some 400 seditious colonials at Amritsar and the name Amritsar lives in infamy, while Indians may have killed some 4 million of their own countrymen for no other reason than that they were of a different religious faith and people think their great leader would make an inspirational subject for a movie. Ahimsa, as can be seen, then, had an absolutely tremendous moral effect when used against Britain, but not only would it not have worked against Nazi Germany (the most obvious reproach, and of course quite true), but, the crowning irony, it had virtually no effect whatever when Gandhi tried to bring it into play against violent Indians.

For those curious about why Nazi Germany is mentioned above, I highly recommend reading the full piece, but I can‘t resist including some of Gandhi’s great advice here:

He seemed at this point to have a rather low opinion of Hitler, but when Germany’s panzer divisions turned west, Allied armies collapsed under the ferocious onslaught, and British ships were streaming across the Straits of Dover from Dunkirk, he wrote furiously to the Viceroy of India: “This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man. . . .”

Even after reading only these few bits, a much more complex and interesting picture of Gandhi emerges. One where using Gandhi to make a point about non-violence is questionable at best. As a rule of thumb, I expected this shift in perspective for every recent historical event or figure that I come across. It turns out, history was not a Marvel movie – and the winners did indeed write many history books.

Scott can, of course, be forgiven for not having read this obscure movie review of Gandhi before. My point is not that he should know all of history, but that he should expect all of history he was taught to be fake in the same way the Gandhi movie is fake. We need to work hard to prevent this nasty amnesia where we assume that the rest of history must be good even though many parts we taste seem to be rotten. The default should be “X Doubt.”

As a wise monkey once said: if the news are fake imagine history.