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“Liberalism on the Rocks”  

(The TLS, February 2017)

Liberalism on the rocks  
Published in the TLS Online, February 2, 2017  
By Hirsh Sawhney  


– December 2016

The dim orange lighting in the bar is cozy, as if a fire were glowing, though there is no longer a fireplace in this wood-panelled backroom – just an immense mantle where a fireplace might have been, over which hangs the head of an antlered moose. The dead animal is a relic from another era, when this watering hole, coyly called Ordinary, was once a plain old sports bar. Most of the bars in  New Haven, where I was born and currently live, were old-school sports bars. They served a few tap beers and a basic selection of spirits, chicken wings and nuts lathered in germs. A waiter approaches my table and tells me Tuesdays are taco days, and today they are serving beef brisket tacos with bacon aioli. He’s wearing all black and has a neatly cropped red-brown beard. I enjoy this type of trendy Brooklyn fare, preferring it to the hormone-filled poultry of yesteryear, but I tell him I just want a whiskey. He snatches my menu back and points to a page that lists more than fifty types of  bourbons, ryes and Scotches, some of them from small farms in the Berkshires and others from distilleries across the pond. I raise my eyebrows in mock surprise, though I am not actually shocked. A craze for upscale whiskey has taken root in the United States, as it has across much of the world. Between 2009 and 2014, according to Fortune, sales of high-end bourbons were up 97.5 per  cent; CNN explains that global single malt exports climbed 159 per cent between 2004 and 2014.  For some reason, it seems that male members of the international bourgeoisie as well as their one percenter overlords are guzzling whiskey with renewed vigour. I am here at Ordinary to see if I can  figure out why. I told my editor at the TLS that this fad might reveal something about twenty-first  century men and masculinity, and we certainly need to think about maleness right now, Americans  having chosen a groping male bully as their next president a few weeks earlier. The piece sounded logical and easy when I pitched it: a couple of witty anecdotes alongside a few glib references to  twentieth-century literature. I’d bring it all home with some sweeping cultural analysis, earning the  approval of the intelligentsia and assuaging old insecurities. I feel less confident as my waiter asks if I’ve managed to decide on a whiskey. I ask him if he’d be willing to recommend something. He replies that every single one of them is worth trying. I go with the second cheapest single malt  Scotch. Wherever I am, this is my favourite drink, the second cheapest one on the menu.

My not-too-expensive Scotch loosens me up, and I stare at the dozen people in this room who, like  me, are sitting at small wooden tables topped with tea lights. Most of them are white, and they can’t  be poor if they can afford to drink here. The women, for the most part, are drinking wine, and the  men, for the most part, are drinking whiskey. Why whiskey? There are undoubtedly economic forces  at play, corporate consolidation and the grain industrial complex. Culturally speaking, whiskey conjures up images of rogue smugglers during Prohibition, pioneers with shotguns and Humphrey Bogart. It was the favourite drink of numerous American presidents. Thus, when we American men  drink whiskey, we might be hoping to become, if only for a short while, the tough, uber-masculine  males we have seen on television since birth. The fact that we Americans are a rootless and therefore lost people also seems important. Aside from the massacred indigenous peoples, we are all the descendants of some kind of immigrant, and to prosper within the American hierarchy, we have had  to shed, to greater or lesser extents, our ancestors’ cultural practices, those embarrassing, old-world  rituals that mark us as different and thus inferior. Unfortunately, the abandonment of our cultural  heritage has left us desolate, and we notice that our European and Asian counterparts find meaning and solace in collective experience connected to food and drink. A shared love of mussels in Marseilles or mustard greens in Ludhiana creates a calming sense of community, and the same can be said of ale in England or sake in Japan. So, we upper-crust Americans, biting our fingernails in  between therapy and acupuncture appointments, search for some sort of similar product in our  midst, one that can pass for an authentic piece of culture. Yesterday it was drip coffee or kale, and  for the men at this bar it’s whiskey. And yet the whiskey won’t provide us with what we’re seeking,  for you can’t pick culture from a tree, or shop for it on Amazon. We are condemned to fetishize  whiskey, marketed to us by billion-dollar firms, in the way that we fetishize so many other things.  We approach the whiskey with too much seriousness and self-consciousness, which prevents a  nourishing and natural relationship with it from taking root. We use it to assert our individuality and  our egotism.  

The young man at the table beside mine interrupts my crackpot contemplation. “That’s a great  Scotch”, he says. “I prefer them neat too, but I’ve found that ice really brings out the peat in what  I’m drinking.” I smile, wondering if he can really tell the difference between all these whiskeys. The  young man is reading a book about Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh. He also has a beard, and he’s  wearing a baggy flannel shirt. Flannel Man says, “I see you’re reading about the election”. I glance down at my NYRB, which is little more than a prop. He says, “I’m just so depressed. I can’t even get  out of bed in the morning since the election”. My jaw clenches, because I don’t want to talk about  the election. Firstly, my editor in London cautioned me against doing so. He said that whether  Americans are writing about the migratory patterns of hummingbirds or the family structures of  seventeenth-century Indonesian weavers, these days they bring everything back to Trump. And I  don’t want to yield more free coverage to the cretinous President-elect and his unstoppable media machinery. But it’s more than that. Like Flannel Man, I, too, have been mired in darkness. Seeing  those votes as they came in on election night was like watching a parent die, and now I’m scared about the government being run by a coalition of the incompetent, the crooked and the freakishly  right-wing. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to my gay family members. I fear for my Muslim  friends who might have to enter their names into some sort of Orwellian registry. And yet I’m tired  of this bleakness and anxiety. I’m tired of commiserating, tired of assuaging the fears of those  around me. Flannel Man says, “I just feel so personally threatened by all this”. I try to imagine why this seemingly well-off white man might be experiencing such negative thoughts. Maybe he’s gay, and fearful about the scaling back of LGBTQ rights. Maybe he’s an immigrant. He speaks English fluently, with an American accent, but he could be dating an undocumented worker. He swirls the shrinking ice shards at the bottom of his glass, the way my father used to do while watching the  News Hour on public television. I ask Flannel Man if he always prefers Scotch to bourbon, for this will be an essay about whiskey and literature, not a piece about politics and ideology. But he  ignores my question. “This just isn’t my county”, says Flannel Man. “I never would have thought  this could happen in my country.”  

Flannel Man’s words sound made up, but he actually said them, and I’ve said similar things in recent  days. Our disillusion is, in fact, a fairly typical liberal-left response to Trump’s victory, one that was  parodied by Saturday Night Live. During the skit in question, several young liberals are sitting around an apartment in what is probably gentrified Brooklyn, the poorly chosen location of Hillary Clinton’s  campaign headquarters. All of these people are white, except for the African-American comedian Dave Chappelle, a guest host of the program, and Chris Rock, who later joins the sketch. These  white Democrats drink wine, not whiskey, as they watch news anchors report on the polls. They  prematurely celebrate the imminent victory of America’s first female president, making references to insider information from friends who work at major media outlets, the very “elite” journalists whom  Donald Trump and his supporters revile. But, as we know, things change, and the white Hillary  supporters watch the election slip from their candidate’s hands. A woman says, “Oh my God. I  think America is racist”. Chappelle says, “Oh my god. You know, I remember my great-grandfather told me something like that. But he was like a slave or something”. A white man later says, “God, this is the most shameful thing America has ever done”. At this, Chappelle sheds his sarcasm and  lets out a hearty laugh. And it is this final statement that truly reminds me of Flannel Man.

Dave Chappelle’s skit incisively skewered the naive, self-absorbed responses to the election of high end whiskey drinking liberals like Flannel Man and me. How can we be so aghast that racism and  misogyny were strong currents in the election when such hateful things define our history? How can  we think we have it bad when we live in a country in which the ancestors of millions of citizens were  brutalized by slavery? But the SNL critique of liberalism misses something big. Unlike the skit’s  wine-drinking television liberals, real-life liberals like me have claimed to be aware of the dark  corners of US history, and many of us have spent our adult lives declaiming the myth of American  exceptionalism. In our classrooms and living rooms, we repeat the fact that this country was  founded on genocide and slavery, and that it rose to global dominance by carrying out racist,  imperialistic actions throughout the world, poisoning left-wing leaders and giving cash and missiles  to the ones on the Right. We know that the American government paved the way for the Taliban  and armed Saddam before declaring him an enemy. We know that the notion of America as the  greatest country on Earth is a product of Hollywood, shoddy novels and second-rate history  textbooks. We know that that the Clintons’ version of the centre makes Jimmy Carter look like Che Guevara and Henry Wallace like Chairman Mao. We know we live in a hyper-consumerist culture  that rewards narcissism and shallowness. What Chappelle and SNL missed was that the bedrock of American liberal ideology is actually based on an awareness of these complicated and ugly truths, and despite this professed awareness, we liberals find ourselves surprised that a media-crazed  demagogue is poised to become President, the type of leader we would prefer to associate with  India, Italy or Iran. In fact, we are more than surprised; we are totally and utterly shocked, and our shock reveals us to be more similar than our conservative countrymen than we previously believed.  For despite our own liberal rhetoric, we haven’t truly disavowed the myth of American  exceptionalism. Despite our own rhetoric, a love of country has a greater hold on our psyches than  our rational, intellectual thoughts. I say none of this to Flannel man, though. Our conversation  tapers; he finishes his whiskey and leaves.  

I am doing what I am not supposed, writing an article about Trump, not whiskey. If my editors  politely decline to run this monstrosity, I won’t be able to blame them. Let me return to the whiskey,  though, so that these words might see the light of day. Now would be a good time to insert those  highbrow literary references. I could talk about Hemingway, a drinker among drinkers, or Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but this canonical American literature, written by white men, has always  been challenging, reminding me of how un-manly and un-American I truly am. A web search for whiskey and American fiction turns up a page from a western novel by Larry McMurtry, but I’m a bit old-fashioned and still averse to writing about things I haven’t actually read. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the protagonist Thomas Fowler is not only an opium-smoker but also a whiskey drinker. Fowler is a journalist in Vietnam during the final days of the French government’s  tyrannical rule, just as American Cold War imperialists are stepping in to replace the French. Though he is a British citizen, Fowler is critical of imperialism and colonialism; in the lingo of contemporary  America, he is a liberal. And yet he is dependent on certain elements of empire — a British newspaper with international reach, for example — in order to earn a living. He pays lip service to the welfare of the Vietnamese people, but wreaks havoc on colonial subjects in his own way, engaging in a predatory relationship with a local woman and naively meddling in violent politics. We drinkers at Ordinary have not become fixated with whiskey to be more like Thomas Fowler, but this deeply flawed fictional character might reveal some truths about men like us, whiskey drinkers who inhabit the liberal fringes of a different, more contemporary Raj. The word Raj, when coupled with whiskey, suddenly shuttles my mind to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a granddaddy of Indian English-language literature with which this grandson has a love-hate relationship. At the beginning of the novel, India’s Partition is imminent and British colonialists are fleeing. The Sinai family seeks  to purchase a home from an imposing Englishman with “devastatingly combed hair” named William  Methwold, a man whose ancestor was one of the founders of British Bombay. But there’s a catch: Methwold, a Scotch drinker, tells the Sinais that they can only acquire one of his lavish mansions, “conqueror’s houses” with “red gabled roofs and turret towers”, if they preserve the building exactly  as it is, with Methwold’s pictures on the walls and parakeets in their cages. The Sinais are at first  disconcerted by this arrangement, but they soon adapt with a little help of Methwold’s collection of  fine Scotch, discovered by the family patriarch Ahmed Sinai. Downing glasses of Methwold’s  whiskey, Ahmed encourages his community to behave in a more “civilized” fashion, like Methwold, and, in time, the new Indian residents of Methwold’s colonial estate begin to behave like their  former rulers. “Every evening at six”, writes Rushdie, “they are out in their gardens, celebrating the cocktail hour, and when William Methwold comes to call they slip effortlessly into their imitation  Oxford drawls.”  

My own South Asian grandparents, who were a couple of decades older than Ahmed Sinai, were teetotalers, but their male offspring loved to guzzle Scotch. In fact, when I hear the word “Scotch”, the same image always comes to my mind: that of a diabetic uncle injecting himself with insulin  underneath his off-white kurta, while his free hand clasps a glass of Johnny Walker Black Label, on  the rocks. During the annual trips to Delhi that I took as a child, the purchase of two whiskey  bottles at the Duty Free in London or Frankfurt was a vital part of the journey. Though in many  ways my father was a progressive man, archaic notions of gender and class dictated the way he  distributed this booze. He would buy a bottle of Chivas for my mother’s two solidly middle class  brothers-in-law, which they would have to split between them. My father’s wealthy older brother, who hadn’t yet stolen my father’s inheritance or broken his heart, would receive a single bottle of  Johnny Walker Black Label all for himself. It’s amazing how drastically things can change in just a  few decades. The older brother who got his own bottle ended up dying of a rare neurological  disorder that left him shrivelled up and unable to speak; according to the Delhi gossip mills, this  cruel fate was punishment for his scheming and bribing and also a consequence of the noxious  chemicals in bootlegged Black Label. My mother’s formerly middle class brothers-in-law are rich  now, thanks in part to the skyrocketing values of the modest homes built by their teetotaling parents  after Partition, homes in neighborhoods that now contain Delhi Metro stations, in neighbourhoods where jackals bayed on moonlit nights during the 1950s. So, these uncles no longer need liquid  handouts from their poorer American relations. The younger members of the family, my cousins,  enjoy a wide array of spirits, including candy-flavoured things like Bacardi Breezers, but whiskey  remains a popular drink among this lot. In fact, when one cousin was in college during the 1990s, he  was involved in a Johnny Walker smuggling racket, which provided authentic, bottled-in-Scotland  booze to the bridge- and squash-playing denizens of South Delhi. These days, despite all of Delhi’s malls, smartphones and Japanese cars, whiskey can still be hard to come by. When I was travelling  there for a blowout family wedding a few years ago, the kind you see in movies, a different cousin  requested that I buy him a bottle of Talisker from Duty Free, which cost over $100. He told me he  would pay me back, but I never asked for the money. I was preserving something important.

My whiskey-drinking Delhi uncles were children and teenagers when Partition turned them into  refugees and exploded all that was stable and finite in their youthful worlds. Anxious and fearful, like  Rushdie’s Ahmed Sinai, they took refuge in a drink that symbolized stability and order, a drink that  represented the racist and misogynistic power structures from which their families were being  liberated. Amid uncertainty, whiskey enabled them to cling to the past, to a set of hierarchies that  wasn’t necessarily good for them. The younger lot in my family doesn’t seem all that different. They  are prosperous, educated people, the beneficiaries of recent globalization. And yet the era of  globalization that began in the 1990s has quickly altered their way of life. As high-caste Punjabis,  they used to have their pick of universities, army postings and jobs in corporate banking, but thanks  to changing socio-economic trends, things are much more competitive now, and many of them have  left India to find work. My cousins now socialize, communicate and work in a more frenzied and  isolated way than people did while they were growing up, or when their parents and grandparents  were growing up. The extended family, which was the most important organizing principle of their  childhoods, has migrated, morphed and disintegrated. It is the unease caused by this upheaval,  according to the author Pankaj Mishra, that has led some of them to embrace India’s version of  Donald Trump, the rightwing, Hindu Nationalist, xenophobe Narendra Modi. Perhaps it is also their  unease and anxiety that keeps them seeking solace in whiskey, the drink of men like William  Methwold who ruled over their grandparents. My cousins have much in common with the white  American men who voted for Donald Trump, with Rushdie’s character Ahmed Sinai and with their own parents. And with the guys here at Ordinary, looking for something solid. 

I am about to leave Ordinary when I run into my neighbour, a Professor of History who specializes  in a remote subject from Russia’s past, about which I am ignorant. He has two earrings and is  wearing a small black snowcap, the kind Joe Pesci wore when tormenting Macauly Culkin in Home Alone. He sits down at my table and orders a glass of Knob Creek, a high-end whiskey made by Jim  Beam, quintessentially American and owned by a Japanese corporation. At this late hour, it only  takes a minute of small talk before we dive into the election. He tells me how Trump’s victory has  signalled the death of truth and the triumph of irrationality and falsehood. “Those Trump voters”,  he says, “they really think that Hilary Clinton is a child sex trafficker. They actually believe that  nonsense.” I ask him if we should try and understand Trump voters, so that we can figure out why  they’ve done what they’ve done and prevent it from happening again. “I’m tired of coddling a bunch  of racists and misogynists!” he exclaims. “I’m just not interested in a conversation with a bunch of  fascists.” I’ve thought similar things these past days, but when Professor Pesci says them out loud,  they sound harsh and remind me of Trump. I want to be nothing like that man, so I try and make an  argument for empathy. “Couldn’t a Pakistani villager”, I ask, “consider me fascistic for voting for  Barack Obama in 2012?” After all, Obama killed innocent Pakistanis during his drone wars, using  dubious executive orders, and though I didn’t agree with these violent facets of his platform, I still  voted for him. Couldn’t some Trump voters be in the same position? Might they have liked his  populist economic bluster but not all the xenophobia and misogyny? Professor Pesci says he won’t  buy that argument. “With Obama, you could maybe call it imperialism. Maybe. But it’s not at all like fascism.” He begins a lecture on the differences between these terms, silencing me.

Before my bill arrives, I am moved to tell Professor Pesci about two white men I know, Pete and  Frank. Pete is a middle-aged, lower-middle class veteran. Recently, his best friend – a Bengali man –  got him a job working at a nearby Veterans’ hospital, where he wears a hazmat suit and cleans up  after patients with particularly deadly infections. Pete lives in the same suburban New Haven town  as my mother, and to supplement his income, he mows her lawn and ploughs her driveway. He likes  to talk politics with both me and my mother. His parents were immigrants from Russia, and he once  told us that their hardships in a communist country have made him wary of Obama’s socialist  agenda. He voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 but wished the Tea Party  had run a viable White House candidate during those elections. In other words, Pete is a fringe  right-wing American. And yet the other day, he explained that as an American who loves his  country, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump. And then there’s Frank. Frank is another  middle-aged lower-middle class white man who lives in the town beside my mother’s and does odd  jobs at her home. He recently remodelled her bathroom. When my immigrant father was dying of  Parkinson’s, Frank designed a special wooden platform for our front steps, and that quirky platform  enabled Dad to retain a greater sense of autonomy during the most vulnerable moments of his life.  Frank loves his two young daughters dearly. During the daytime, he stays at home with them,  cooking, cleaning and reading to them, and he takes them to job sites when he has to, so that his wife, an occupational therapist, can get her private practice off the ground. Frank recently told me that he was stressing about the exorbitant amount of money his family has to pay for health insurance. He was scared for their financial future and said that things needed to change. That’s why he was thinking of voting for Trump.  

“So what’s your point”, interrupts Professor Pesci. “Your friend made an irrational decision. Trump  is only going to help his cronies, not him.” I, of course, agree with Professor Pesci. But I explain that Frank and Pete are evidence that white male America is not some sort of monolithic entity.  “Fine”, he says, “but I still don’t see your point.” My point is that we teach our students to be wary of “othering” people who are different from us, the way Americans and Europeans have done to  Asians or Muslims throughout the modern era. We write about the need to empathize with people who are driven to violent ideologies and actions as a consequence of their disenfranchisement.  Should we not extend a similar empathy to white Americans who, we think, have committed a reckless and egregious act in voting for Trump? Professor Pesci says, “I just can’t see what end that would serve”. An end is quite clear to me as I sign my credit card receipt. If we don’t begin to understand and empathize with these people – not their mendacious leaders – their anger will grow,  and they will do more irrational things that advance an agenda of hate and incompetence. And, in turn, our fear, desperation and anger will grow. Our politics will become further bifurcated, and our country will lie in ruin more quickly than is inevitable. And if this election has taught us liberals anything, it is that we care deeply for our country, despite our intellectual reservations about its ethical and historical record.

Professor Pesci finishes his whiskey, slamming down his glass. “The Trump voters”, he says,  scowling, “they could all just go and drown in the ocean for all I care. Every last one of them.”  


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