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Home >Opinion >Columns >The young should quit activism and go make money

You may say this is the wrong time to say it. This month, the Indian government used disproportionate force against a 22-year-old climate-change activist by interpreting her call for protest as a war against the Republic, and put her in jail. Other young activists, too, face serious consequences for their rebellion against India’s farm reforms. But then, the wrong time to say something is also the best time to test the tenor of a difficult argument. And the argument is this: India’s young, who are of sound mind, and this is an important classification, should quit full-time activism, refuse to work in non-profit organizations, sack themselves as humanitarians, and develop a suspicion for the hyper-morality that emanates from the West. They should instead make money, or do well in the material world in other ways, or at least start a doomed business.

I do not say for a moment that the young should not be interested in the welfare of other people, or that they should quietly tolerate despots. In fact, the only moral basis on which all my columns in this space stand is: ‘We have only one job: if we are lucky, we must take care of the unlucky; everything else is merely an argument about the best way.’ It is just that I feel the best way that the young, especially those of privilege, can serve their nation better is by encashing their luck in the for-profit material world, rather than choosing the easy option of festive grandstanding and do-gooding, which is often harmful, at best useless or an inefficient way to make the world a better place.

There are good arguments against such a view. Material success is tough, a mere lottery, and often rigged. Why should the young be trapped in the unhappiness of ambition; why should they waste their lives in dull corporate slavery? And, no amount of taxes deposited with the government or invisible jobs you create by expanding the economy can match the excitement and meaning of direct intervention in a social cause. Even so, my argument against early activism rests on these thoughts.

There is a crisis that some activists whisper about but cannot state in public. Humanitarianism has become a magnet for the unstable who wish to see unhappiness in everything. It is not a place where the happy and the sane can thrive. This is a dangerous atmosphere for the suicidal or merely the gloomy, like young people often are, as there is a perpetual over-articulation of all that is bad in the world.

Last year, Barack Obama exhorted the youth to create change by asking them to “make good trouble", borrowing the phrase from a legendary American civil rights activist. “Good trouble" is not as naive as Obama’s imagination of “moderate Taliban". The young can make “good trouble". What is “toxic", to deploy a useful modern term, is full-time idealism. The “joy of giving" is a pleasure that radiates from an emotional feudal system in which some people feel a sense of importance over the miserable. And that joy of facile validation can be an unmatched intoxicant.

As in the case of any drug, it has its risks. And activists do get into trouble with the state for their dependence on it.

When this happens, what is the moral responsibility of people who exhort the young to become “good trouble"? In the US, the human rights establishment can go to great lengths in taking care of its own. But its travesty in India cannot. The young who hope to be “good trouble" can be ruined by the state, and their handlers, who use them to achieve political and ideological ends, cannot always save them. India is merely an electoral democracy; it is not really a democracy in a Western sense, nor headed that way.

Much of what is going on in India in the name of humanitarianism is a part of the global industry of Western idealism with its identical values. It is a new form of evangelism. That is why a Greta Thunberg or Rihanna, or conscientious comedians like Trevor Noah, appear not to think they have an obligation to read the dense prose of a nation’s agrarian economy, at least on Wikipedia, before commenting on what a nation ought to do about its own farmers. As this column has maintained, India’s agricultural reform is a bold humanitarian effort, but to Western social evangelism, an agitating farmer on a tractor has to be the victim. In that way, once again, the global posh, in the euphoria of do-gooding, are actually sabotaging India’s poor. This is exactly how exotic socialism impoverished India, offering us tragic proof that good intentions can kill millions, and that the liberation of greed can lift one-fourth of a gigantic nation out of poverty in a single generation.

The Indian government’s claim that foreign agents are trying to sabotage its farm reforms does sound silly, but there is substance in the paranoia. The young do not always realize who is funding their agitation and why. After all, America’s Central Intelligence Agency has been revealed to have not only funded uprisings around the world, but also sponsored Gloria Steinem’s feminism, and the globalization of Russian literature.

To be honest, if I were India’s prime minister and worried about China’s rise, I would summon my secret service chief and wonder how to promote humanitarian agitations among China’s well-fed youth, and how to smuggle into that country the drug of ‘joy of giving’. That would help China’s rich, who are in search of meaning, inadvertently sabotage the rapid rise of its poor. I know this sounds somewhat funny. But then again, that is always an omen of truth.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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