Of late, a growing number of Indian-Americans look to assert a South Asian identity for most of their sociopolitical and cultural expressions even though actual residents of ‘South Asia’ don’t claim this identity in any way, home or abroad. I realize that second-generation Indian-Americans embrace ‘South Asian’ forums in reaction to various domestic conditions. However, they ignore the polysemy of the term ‘South Asia’ when they project it internationally, for example, to express ‘South Asian’ pride over Kamala Devi Harris’s historic election for the Vice Presidency, instead of just Indian-American pride. Of course, I’m not talking about African-American pride here; it is beyond the purview of my discussion.
According to my understanding, increasing application of the term ‘South Asia’—just like the Middle East—precludes a nuanced perception of the particular countries that make up the region. It permits Americans to perceive the region like it is a monolith. Although the impression of the United States is striking in the Indian imagination, the image of India, as it turns out, is not very obvious for the average citizen in the United States, not even among second-generation Indian Americans, as I see it. To gauge American curiosity in a particular region, language enrollment in US universities is a decent metric. It turns out, around seven times more American students study Russian than all the Indian languages combined. The study of India compares unfavorably with China in nearly every higher education metric, and surprisingly, it also fares poorly compared to Costa Rica! As an aside, to understand India and her neighborhood, an alternate perspective to CNN or BBC on ‘South Asian’ geopolitics is WION (“World is One” News – a take on the Indic vasudhaiva kutumbakam). I highly recommend the Gravitas section of WION for an international audience.
Back to the central question: ‘South Asia’ and why Indians do not prefer this tag?
For decades, the United States hyphenated its India policy by balancing every action with New Delhi with a counterbalancing activity with Islamabad. So much so that the American focus on Iran and North Korean nuclear proliferation stood out in total contrast to the whitewashing of Pakistan’s private A.Q. Khan network for nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, in a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that gauges how Americans perceive other countries, India hovered between forty-six and forty-nine on a scale from zero to one hundred since 1978, reflecting its reputation neither as an ally or an adversary. With the civil-nuclear deal, the Bush administration discarded the hyphenation construct and eagerly pursued an independent program between India and the United States. Still, in 2010, only 18 percent of Americans saw India as “very important” to the United States—fewer than those who felt similarly about Pakistan (19%) and Afghanistan (21%), and well below China (54%) and Japan (40%). Even though the Indo-US bilateral relationship has transformed for the better from the Bush era, the increasing use of ‘South Asia’ on various platforms by academics and non-academics alike, while discussing India, represents a new kind of hyphenated view or a bracketed view of India. Many Indian citizens in the US like me find this bracket unnecessary, especially in the present geopolitical context.
What geopolitical context? There are several reasons why South Asian identity pales in comparison to our national identities:
- The word ‘South Asia’ emerged exogenously as a category in the United States to study the Asian continent by dividing it. So, it is a matter of post Second World War scholarship of Asia from the Western perspective.
- Despite scholarship, ‘South Asia’ has low intelligibility because there is no real consensus over which countries comprise South Asia. SAARC includes Afghanistan among its members; the World Bank leaves it out. Some research centers include Myanmar—a province of British India till 1937, and Tibet, but leave out Afghanistan and the Maldives. For instance, the UK largely accepts the term ‘Asian’ rather than ‘South Asian’ for academic centers. The rest of Europe uses ‘Southeast Asia.’
- Besides, geopolitically, India wants to grow out of the South Asian box; it cares a lot more about the ASEAN and BRICS grouping than SAARC.
- Under Modi, India has a more significant relationship with Japan than with any South Asian neighbor. With Japan and South Korea, India plans to make Indo-pacific a geopolitical reality.
- South Asia symbolizes India’s unique hegemonic fiefdom, which is viewed unfavorably by neighboring Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
- According to the World Bank, South Asia remains one of the least economically integrated regions globally.
- South Asia is also among the least physically integrated (by road infrastructure) regions of the world and this disconnect directly affects our politics and culture.
Therefore, the abstract nature of ‘South Asia’ is far from a neutral term that embraces multiple cultures. It is, at best, a placeholder for structured geopolitical co-operation in the subcontinent. However, in socio-cultural terms, ‘South Asia’ used interchangeably with India signals India’s dominance over her neighborhood. Contrarily, in India’s eyes, it is a dilution of her rising aspirations on the world stage. These facts widen the gap between the US’s intentions (general public and particularly, second-generation Indian-Americans) and a prouder India’s growing ambitions.
Besides, it is worth mentioning that women leaders have already held the highest public office in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. So as you see in this video, the Indian international actress, Priyanka Chopra, tries her best to be diplomatic about this nebulous ‘South Asian’ pride thingy, but she rejoins with the more solid identity, her Indian identity. The next time, say a Nepalese-American does something incredible in the US, and you want to find out how another Nepali feels about this achievement, as a matter of experiment, refer to the accomplishment as Nepali pride, instead of South Asian pride, and see the delight on the person’s face. Repeat this with another Nepali, but this time use the ‘South Asian’ identity tag and note the contrast in the reaction.
- On identity, politics, and identity politics in America Scott Sumner, EconLog
- Geopolitics after Trump Ernesto Zedillo, Noema
- Best history books of 2020? Tim Barber, Financial Times
- The archaeology of emergent complexity (pdf) Earle, et al, JAMT
- Hayek (Streeck, Hazony) and world federation and colonialism Eric Schliesser, Digressions & Impressions
- The new secessionism Jason Sorens, Modern Age
- Winning the court, losing the constitution John Grove, Law & Liberty
- The quest for German national identity Anna Corsten, JHIBlog
- Immigration, identities, and the state of exception Mila Dragojević, Disorder of Things
- Great piece on Himalayan geopolitics Akhilesh Pillalamarri, Diplomat
- Orders of civilization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
- Hey Rawls: Which Original Position? Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
- “Subnational Elections, Diffusion Effects, and the Growth of the Opposition in Mexico, 1984-2000” (pdf)
- Types of Federalisms, Good and Bad
- “Structural Blockage: A Cross-National Study of Economic Dependency, State Efficacy, and Underdevelopment” (pdf)
- “The Political Economy of Expulsion: The Regulation of Jewish Moneylending in Medieval England” (pdf)
- Why not world government?
- “Voice, Exit, and Liberty: The Effect of Emigration on Origin Country Institutions” Landgrave & Nowrasteh, CATO Institute
- Why immigrants are superior Jacques Delacroix, NOL
- Libertarian as ethnicity Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
- There’s no such thing as a “national interest” Brandon Christensen, NOL
- One multi-ethnic state on the ruins of another Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Class politics has given way to identity politics Fraser Myers, spiked
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- “You can only hold down a good city for so long” Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
Quite recently, I was reading musicologist Martha Feldman’s book The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, which is, unsurprisingly, a study on the castrato and the music written for the voice type during the 17thand 18thcenturies. The concept is exactly what it sounds like – a male singer whose physical development was surgically ended in order to preserve his access to the high soprano range. The surgery in theory created an ideal singer because his head and ribs continued to grow to normal male size, creating someone with tremendous lung capacity and also large head space which created greater resonance.
For anyone who might be wondering, no, castrati did not sing female roles; the type was still male in identity and was often associated with nobility or demi-gods in character casting. Incidentally, the practice of castrati eventually led to the operatic custom, beginning in the late 18thcentury, of mid-range female singers (mezzo-sopranos) singing the roles of young males because as religious and civil laws cracked down on the creation of castrati, this particular type of singer gradually disappeared, even as the music written for them increased in popularity. By the time Mozart wrote Le Nozze di Figaro(1785 – 86) and La Clemenza di Tito(1789), the roles of the junior males, Cherubino and Annio respectively, were written for women singers from the outset.
The aspect that was, for me, quite interesting about the castrati was the level to which a concept which musicians more or less take for granted stemmed from larger social, legal, and cultural changes in Europe in the late 1500s. Explaining the castrato’s history in Italy, where the practice originated, Feldman mentioned philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas and his work, particularly on the “weakening of industrialization and the refeudalization of Europe” following the Renaissance. More directly related to the trend of castrati, Feldman wrote:
Most of the time first sons were excluded (from castration in order to make a castrato) because primogeniture was the rule in Italy, hence first sons were heirs, breeders, and eventual legatees, though very poor or very ambitious families sometimes did have first sons castrated, including the family of Handel’s principal castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi), whose older brother was a castrato, and first son Gaetano Berenstadt (1687 – 1734), of Tyrolean descent, who ended up caring extensively for his family’s needs (Feldman, 13).
And further explained,
If some form of patriarchy had long been the rule, patriliny by contrast took root in a historically precise way only around 1570, as we have glimpsed above [a preceding paragraph on the combination of increased lifespan and the introduction of estate entail in Italy]. Prior to that time the ideal had been to marry off all or most sons to increase a family’s power not just vertically but horizontally, within a wider network of kin, with the goal of fortifying the clan as a whole. With the marrying off of first sons only, a situation arose in which younger sons were typically consigned to military or ecclesiastical careers and thus formally speaking to legal or effective celibacy at the same time as most upper-class daughters entered convents. Both strategies intensified with the severe economic crisis of the seventeenth-century, but the practice continued afterward, albeit with increasing tendencies toward diversification (45).
Before 1570, the law of entail was not prevalent in continental Europe, which also tended to include females in the line of succession – Salic law applied only to the throne in the case of France, so noble women could and did inherit their parents’ property. Since one of the central points of the Counter-Reformation was ending the abuse of Catholic religious facilities, either as retirement homes for dowagers or as cold-storage for spare heirs once their elder brother fulfilled his duty, convents, monasteries, and the priesthood quickly became unviable career options, at least for the aristocracy.
This little tweak to Canon Law had two effects: 1) the Catholic clergy gradually ceased being a profession as such, which resulted in an increased number of non-elites joining voluntarily and rising to high places, and 2) the performing arts, particularly music, exploded as the young men enrolled in ecclesiastical preparatory schools and originally destined for careers in the Church had to find new avenues for their skills. On a side note, the struggle to enforce the new regulation took centuries, was closely related to the battle for separation of church and state, and it is a story for another time.
The point to this tale is the response of the younger sons to their change in fortunes and status. Being in cathedral schools, and even more impractically in music-specialist cathedral schools, at first glance there was not much use for what these young men could do in the secular world. They were fluent in Latin, usually had a good command of Greek, frequently had a solid understanding of modern European languages and literature in general, and they were competent musicians. In a world that not only was still largely agrarian but was also “refeudalizing” into a system where they were, on the one hand, very much locked into the expectations of their caste – an impoverished younger son was still an aristocrat – while simultaneously being locked out of any claim to family property, the position of these men appeared hopeless.
Instead of giving in to the circumstances, though, these men went out and turned their skills into an industry – classical music as we know it. They taught it, wrote it, and developed it into a dominant art form. Some found multivariant use for their “irrelevant” skills. For example, the castrato Carlo Broschi (1705 – 1782) didn’t use his real name out of respect to his aristocratic family, performing under the name Farinelli. However, his birth and skill with languages also caused him to be appointed a diplomat-at-large and it was not uncommon for him to be in cities, such as London or Madrid, for opera engagements and be suddenly called upon to go to the royal court and help sort out a diplomatic issue. When he died at the unusually old age of 77 (a perfect example of Jonah Goldberg’s point about Second Sons as both victims and beneficiaries of the upper-classes having better medicine), he left behind a fortune, which in a delightful ironic twist bailed out his elder brother’s family.What is remarkable is not that he did this, but that he was only slightly unusual in terms of his financial success.
In her book The Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey argued, rather controversially, that all movement, no matter how organic, comes top down in terms of the social pecking order. In the case of capitalism, the movement occurred, in part, because the group whom Goldberg termed “Second Sons” and McCloskey “bourgeois” had a particular knack for both recognizing and creating markets, even in very negative situations. The resilience evinced in the story of the castrati and their role in the history of music is a type of proof that McCloskey’s thesis is correct.
In fairness to the elder Broschi, he was a well-regarded musician in his own right and had a strong career up until he inherited the estate and, following convention, retired to it to become a penniless landed gentleman, rather than a wealthy performer, like his younger brother. The suspicion is that Farinelli covered most of his brother’s family’s living expenses; it is known that he paid for the education of his nephews and niece.