Neera Tanden And A Cultural ‘Obsession With Hierarchy’

Over at his blog, Corey Robin details an interesting Twitter spat with Neera Tanden–“the person who many think will be Hillary Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff….the head of the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party think tank that works closely with the Clintons.” Tanden is an arch-defender of Hillary Clinton–which is unsurprising given the passions political allegiances can inspire. But as I’ve observed her interactions on Twitter with those she considers foes, something about her defenses of HRC, the Democratic Party and its many shenanigans during the primary season, her own brand of ‘progressivism,’ her obsequious fawning over heads of state as contrasted with her snappy, brusque, interactions with journalists and bloggers, struck me as familiar, possessed of a distinctive and recognizable style. I finally realized where I had seen it before–in the Indian manifestations of the universal phenomenon termed ‘sycophancy.’ That in turn is rooted in a particular and peculiar Indian understanding of, and relationship with, social and political hierarchies.

In Being Indian (Penguin, 2004, pp. 7-21) Pavan K. Varma writes:

Indians are exceptionally hierarchical in outlook, bending more than required before those who are perceived to be ‘superior,’ and dismissive or contemptuous of those perceived to be ‘inferior.’ Understandably, notions of self-esteem and personal image, in conformity with perceived ‘status,’ are of great importance to them….the obsession with hierarchy, and the symbols that project it, is not a monopoly of officialdom….The structure of hierarchies may be changing, but ‘for an Indian, superior and subordinate relationships have the character of eternal verity and moral imperative–(and the) automatic reverence for superiors is a nearly universal psycho-social fact.’¹  This acceptance of the hierarchy of power gives a particularly Indian colouring to the meaning and operation of modern concepts like democracy and equality.

To an Indian, the projection of power and the recognition of status are intimately related. When a person’s entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies on a hierarchical scale, the assertion of status (and its recognition by others) becomes of crucial importance. In order to preserve status, one has to be seen to be above those below, and below those above. There can be no ambivalence in these equations.

Tanden is Indian-American, the child of immigrant parents, and in her political identity–which like good anti-essentialists, we would expect to be a hybrid of sorts–she seems to have found a pitch-perfect blend of stylistic elements that are most relevant to the achievement of her personal and career objectives. In particular, from the Indian cultural predilection for deference to power and hierarchy–one reinforced by the Indian family structure with its overbearing emphasis on respect for ‘elders’ and essential conservativeness–Tanden has drawn on, and found, a fecund reservoir of political behavioral patterns.  Those–defer to superiors, defend your position in the hierarchy at all costs, smack those down below you–should help her in her steady ascent through these lower orders of being. The ruling class will settle for nothing less.

Note #1: Here Varma cites the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar‘s The Indian Psyche: The Inner World; Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors; Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, p. 138.

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