musing about reds and blues and purples, and addas

I’ve been spending a few months quietly and slowly reading Representing Calcutta by Swati Chattopadhyay. Fascinating book; it’s an ambitious work, dealing with complex issues to do with how colonial cities are really formed, how the cultures collide and merge, how our perceptions of the history of great colonial cities have been influenced by the colonist views nad hostories. Incidentally, it’s the first time I’ve had the chance to link to a Kindle version of a book. Wonder how often I’ll get to do that.

Professor Chattopadhyay questions a commonly held view of many colonial cities, the tendency to divide a city into coloniser and native areas. I agree with her, everything I know and feel about Calcutta, everything I’ve learnt about it, says that it has always been a melted pot city. What’s a melted pot city? Just a term I like using to describe a place that’s been a melting pot for many generations.

This tendency to make grey things black and white is not just a yesterday thing. We do it today. We like doing things like joking about America as consisting of the United States of Canada and Jesusland, of blue and red states.

The electoral college approach, if anything, exacerbates that view, despite the attempts of Maine and Nebraska to soften it. Those two states use the Congressional District method of distributing their electoral votes in presidential elections, Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996. So far it hasn’t made a difference, but when I last looked, there was the possibility that Nebraska would actually return a split vote.

Quite a few people I speak to have this perception that people in blue states are blue, that people in red states are red. That this geographical separation is political and religious and intellectual and I don’t know what else, a San Andreas fault that creates deep fissures across their nation. Such people find it hard to understand how California elected Obama and at the same time passed Proposition 8. That’s because Californians are purple, not blue.

If you take a look at the 2004 election results at a level of granularity smaller than “state”, this is what you get:

Somewhat different from this representation:

[My thanks to this site for the diagrams.]

America’s a collection of purple states, a united collection of purple states. With purple districts and purple cities, purple streets, even purple households. And a smattering of purple people. Not red, not blue.

I think at least one of the points that Swati Chattopadhyay is that Calcutta was and is and will continue to be a purple city. A city where the mediation of public spaces and spheres isn’t quite as static as Habermas supposed; a city made up of societies with seriously blurred edges. As the book avers, at least part of this blurring took place as a result of race and gender equality, but there was always blurring to begin with. Blurred edges make control freaks deeply unhappy, so it’s not surprising that colonial powers sought to pretend that the blurring wasn’t happening.

Doc Searls, in a recent post, made reference to something Dave Barry said:

I miss 1960. Not the part about my face turning overnight into the world’s most productive zit farm. What I miss is the way the grown-ups acted about the Kennedy-Nixon race. Like the McCain-Obama race, that was a big historic deal that aroused strong feelings in the voters. This included my parents and their friends, who were fairly evenly divided, and very passionate. They’d have these major honking arguments at their cocktail parties. But unlike today, when people wear out their upper lips sneering at those who disagree with them, the 1960s grown-ups of my memory, whoever they voted for, continued to respect each other and remain good friends.
What was their secret? Gin. On any given Saturday night they consumed enough martinis to fuel an assault helicopter. But also they were capable of understanding a concept that we seem to have lost, which is that people who disagree with you politically are not necessarily evil or stupid. My parents and their friends took it for granted that most people were fundamentally decent and wanted the best for the country. So they argued by sincerely (if loudly) trying to persuade each other. They did not argue by calling each other names, which is pointless and childish, and which constitutes I would estimate 97 percent of what passes for political debate today.

If I’ve interpreted him correctly, Barry’s assertion was that in the 1960s, people could be passionate about their beliefs, argue about them and yet remain firm friends. That for some reason it doesn’t happen today.

I’m not that sure. People are purple. I think what has changed is that the media make a lot more out of the differences, that the nature of media today tends to accentuate the differences so much that we feel things have changed.

All this sort of reminds me of the descriptions of the adda in Chattopadhyay’s book:

The adda with its non-fixity of topic of discussion and even of space (not all addas had fixed space) may be seen as a critique of the more rational forms of “getting together”, the sabhas and samitis, organisations that had a defined agenda for their meetings. The term adda only began to be used in this sense in the last decade of the nineteenth century. […..] The nature of orality changed, however, once the adda was removed from the baithak-khana (which received its name from an old banyan tree which stood at its eastern extremity and formed a resting and meeting place for caravans of merchants who traded in Calcutta) to the cafes of the early twentieth-century city. What was retained, even enhanced, in the process was the affect of communal speech; speech as passionate, multi-sensory experience, an occasion for heated discussion, its spontaneous and raucous nature far exceeding any yardstick of reasoned debate.

Speech as passionate, multi-sensory experience, an occasion for heated discussion, its spontaneous and raucous nature far exceeding any yardstick of reasoned debate.

That’s what I sensed when I first started reading Christopher Locke’s Entropy Gradient Reversals, my route towards getting interested in blogs. For those looking for spontaneity, raucousness, heat, RageBoy was a good place to start. That laid the groundwork for Cluetrain, by which time I had managed to convince myself that the blogosphere was the adda of the 21st century. Which it is. More accurately, the blogosphere was a collection of addas, of baithak-khanas, a place where one could roam from adda to adda with a minimum of fuss, a place where the conversations you missed were recorded and archived and retrievable.

There is something about the adda that makes it inclusive. For ever and a day, there have been attempts to make addas exclusive. Exclusive in social class terms, in intellectual terms, in gender terms, and even in race terms. I’ve seen similar attempts in the blogosphere, all doomed to fail. And they have.

The adda is alive and well and blooming in the blogosphere.

The blogosphere is alive and well and bloomful of addas.

10 thoughts on “musing about reds and blues and purples, and addas”

  1. Hi, try to read this book sometime, a fascinating and easy read for a Calcuttan – Eastern Interlude: A Social History of the European Community in Calcutta, by R Pearson.

  2. Purple states? No. The states are abstractions. The more nuanced map shows a stronger division that is rural vs. urban, “patriotism”- vs. democracy-driven. Anglo-Saxon/Germanic “white” vs. mixed ethnicity, color and religion, a longing for the early 20th century rather than toward the future. The states might be purple but the divisions in values and even personality are tremendous. From multi-ethnic, egalitarian, liberal and left-of-center Brooklyn, SL

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