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Environmental, Life as it is, Travel

Vacation in Alaska seeing Denali Mountains

Aerial view of Denali Mountains

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envision as a vacation, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Our 10-day trip started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We—my wife, myself, son and daughter—visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords on the Resurrection Bay near Seward. Tidewater glaciers are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea.

A trip to Alaska is not complete without seeing Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), which is located in the south-central part of the Alaska Mountain Range. Denali is the Native American Athabascan word meaning “The High One,” and with good reason. From afar, it is massive; up close, the sheer granite walls, alpine glaciers and pillowing snow cornices are otherworldly.

Mount Denali is the third highest of the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents—following Mount Everest in Nepal and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. At 20,320 feet, it is North America’s tallest peak, rightly celebrated as an icon of all that is awesome and wild in a state where those adjectives are ubiquitous.

There is a fact about Denali unknown to many of us. By one measure, it could be considered the third tallest mountain in the world. It rises about 18,000 feet from its base, which is a greater vertical rise than Mount Everest’s 12,000-feet rise from its base at 17,000 feet.

Seeing Denali from a distance can be difficult. As it is frequently draped in clouds, one can see only a small portion of the mountain beyond its base. Some days the mountain is obscured completely from ground level. Still, with clouds, storms, fog and sunny high-pressure systems all battling it out around Denali, the peak can appear at any moment. On the day of our visit―July 3, 2019―we lucked out. It was a sunny, calm, cloudless, postcard-perfect afternoon and we could see Denali from a distant vista point on the highway from Anchorage to Talkeetna.

The magnetic appeal of Denali draws climbers from all over the world. They flock to this mountain to struggle for the summit. Wasfia Nazreen, who conquered Mount Everest as the second Bangladeshi female mountaineer, reached the summit of Mount Denali on June 24, 2014. Dogsledders traverse Denali’s lower reaches.

For tourists like us who are not into mountain climbing, flight seeing planes from Talkeetna carry us up the glacier-choked valleys to view parts of Denali hidden from distant eyes. Paradoxically, Talkeetna is a totally flat town 60 miles away from the base of the mountain.

We took a 90-minute flight seeing tour on a ski-equipped de Havilland Beaver. There were six other tourists and everyone had a window seat. A few minutes after takeoff, apprehension of flying in a single engine propeller-driven aircraft gave way to wonder as we entered a world of rugged, high mountain peaks and spectacular glacier-filled valleys. The wind was calm but the clouds conspired with each other and surrounded the Denali peak, with layers floating between the uplifted knives of snow-capped stone.

Clouds may have prevented a flight over the Denali peak. However, as the plane flew at an optimal altitude of 15,000 feet and since we approached from the southeast, then maneuvered toward the south rim, we enjoyed panoramic views of all sides of Denali and had the best perspective of the sheer size of the mountains of the Denali Massif.

The surrounding mountains were shrouded in black stone and white snow with shocking patches of turquoise blue where the snow had melted enough to create little dish lakes. The pilot flew the plane over those mountains, around them, up to their edge so everyone could see them. We got up close to their snowfields, alpine glaciers, deep crevasses and sheer granite walls. At times—especially when the plane banked sharply left or right to provide better perspective for every passenger, it seemed the snow and ice were almost at our fingertips. When we saw the glaciers beneath the towering mountain peaks, we could understand why these immense ice fields attract people from all over the world.

The high point of the flight was landing on a glacier. Because of clear weather and calm wind, our plane landed on the Ruth Glacier, located at 5,600 feet in the Sheldon Amphitheater. From there, we had breathtaking views of mountains and glaciers all around. The experience of walking on a glacier was out of this world. After 30 minutes of walking through Denali’s icy alpine world, our plane took off for Talkeetna, but via a different route.

As one would expect, the vastness of such an experience could never be captured in a photograph, but we certainly tried. It is the memories that are so vivid and intense, as if the trip happened yesterday. Nonetheless, while going through the mountains, we photographed jaw-dropping scenery, including some glacial landforms we had seen only in textbooks.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Environmental, Games and Sports, International, Life as it is, Travel

Gulf of Mexico – a haven of tranquility

Planning to have a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in September/October time, invariably the hurricane season in that part of the world, is a risky undertaking. This is because the Gulf Stream – the warm ocean current – which originates on the northern edges of the equator moves through the Caribbean Sea and then forks off to the Gulf of Mexico and the other part to the Atlantic Ocean and when the stream meets northern cold stream, it creates a vortex of hot and humid air in the atmosphere and hence cyclone. Only a couple of months ago, hurricane Dorian utterly devasted the Bahamas. But that did not deter us, as we applied our statistical insight that lightening is unlikely to strike twice at the same place!

We set off from Galveston, a dedicated port some 30 km south of Houston, Texas in a Royal Caribbean cruise ship named Liberty of the Seas on Sunday. Our cruise ship was, what is known as super-cruise ship – nearly 340 meter-long, had five dining facilities, numerous restaurants and shops, a large auditorium, a running track, three swimming pools and many more facilities in 15 decks carrying nearly 3800 guests and over 1,200 staff. It took the whole morning for the guests to board on the ship and at 16:00 we set sail.  

There was no fanfare, no gunfire; the massive ship just quietly and smoothly slipped away from the port. As we were chatting and admiring our staterooms, I noticed that the building on the shore are gradually going further and further away and then started to disappear completely. Getting to know the various facilities, particularly the dining facilities – which one is for breakfast, which one for supper etc – is quite an adventure. On top of that, my friends had to learn the naval terms like port side (left) and starboard side (right) as well as aft (back) and forward (front). I had a head start on my friends as I was a Civil Servant at the Royal Navy for a number of years.

We kept cruising along the western part of Gulf of Mexico for nearly 40 hours until 07:00 on Tuesday morning, when the ship docked at the international pier at Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island off the eastern coast of Yucatan Peninsula. As the ship was scheduled to stay there until 16:30 in the afternoon, we were given a number of options for shore excursions. The one I chose was a trip to see Mayan Ruins in Yucatan Peninsula, which entailed a ferry trip of 12 miles to Tulum from the ship. We had to come back by 16:30 when the ship will sail again.

Mayan civilisation is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, civilisations in the chronicle of civilisations of the world. It flourished nearly 2000 BC in the central American area covering Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia and Venezuela regions. Mayan progressed from pure agricultural living to sophisticated communal living in towns and cities. Around 600 BC they developed logo-syllabic writing script, astronomy, sculpture, art and mathematics. In the western world, they were the first to have developed the concept of zero (rivalling India). Their counting system was based on fours, not tens (Modern day computing algorithm is based on binary system). However, there is an enigma about Mayan civilisation – the early Mayan civilisation which lasted over two thousand years and then it disappeared – cities they developed had been abandoned, agriculture vanished etc.

And then from 250 AD to 900 AD, the civilisation surfaced again. After 900 AD it just collapsed. Subsequently, the Mayan people had been literally massacred and annihilated by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century.

Tuesday night was the Captain’s night. Although Captain could not be present in all three dining facilities that normally takes place simultaneously, his representatives were present in all dining facilities. But, more importantly, after dinner, at about 21:30 there was convivial music and dance, performed by the catering staff and any guest who felt brave enough could join in.

At 16:30 the ship sailed again from Cozumel heading eastward and reached Grand Cayman and docked at George Town the following morning (Wednesday) at 10:00. We hired a minibus to take us to the tourist spots. Although Caribbean islands won independence in the 1970s from Britain, British influence was very much in evidence – they drive on the left side of the road. We saw the Governor’s house (probably unoccupied), reminiscent of the Governor’s house in the then East Pakistan. The highlight of this visit was a trip to a village called Hell. People are welcome to Hell. If our so-called religious hell is anything like this Hell, people would be grateful to be allocated to this place by our non-existent creator!

At 18:00 we left George Town and set sail for Jamaica and docked at Falmouth, which is on the northern side of the island, at 08:00 on Thursday. Jamaica may be renowned for sprinters (Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth), fastest cricket bowler, best basket-ball players etc, what we saw in Falmouth the artistic side of Jamaica. The whole precinct was full of artists painting, wood carving, engraving etc and there were Art Galleries, Florists etc. We had the whole day to soak up the Jamaica life in general. There were no restaurants or cafes for the obvious reason that people can pop in to the ship and have gorgeous meal at no cost and come back again to the precinct. However, coconuts and some mangoes (not very sweet) are too good to miss.

At 17:00 we got into our boat for the last leg of our journey back to Galveston. But then we had nearly 40 hours of uninterrupted cruise through the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico. This was the opportunity to lazy around, indulge in excessive eating and breathing the freshest air one can get. The catering staff were always too keen to please us.

Altogether, Gulf of Mexico cruise was very relaxing and enjoyable. Cruising is becoming a choice holiday event for the public these days away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and towns. On top of that, because of tough competition, cruise standards are improving and prices are very competitive.       

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, Political, Technical

Was Gulf of Mexico oil spill world’s worst man-made disaster?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill – variously referred to as the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the BP oil spill, the Macondo blowout and so forth – that began on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect site had been dubbed as the world’s worst man-made environmental disaster by the frenzied American media, local, regional and national politicians and the brazenly self-interested groups. But does it stack up to the reality check?

The accident in the Macondo field (28.74 N and 88.38 W) that resulted in the fatality of 11 workers and casualty of another 17 workers and the total discharge of 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gallons) of oil was, according to tabloid press at that time, the largest environmental disaster in American history. Although BP owned the lease of the Macondo oil site, the oil rig was owned and operated by Transocean (an American company), drilling and safety assessment responsibility was vested on Halliburton (another American company) and the blowout preventer manufacturer was Cameron International.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Notwithstanding the delegation of operational and safety responsibilities on multiplicity of companies, particularly on American companies, the US District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Carl Barbier, ruled in his judgement in September 2014 that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill. In July 2015, BP had to agree to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in the United States history. Altogether, as of April 2018, the cost of clean-up, compensation to private individuals, corporate charges and other penalties on BP amounted to a staggering $65 billion. Some people from as far north as Chicago came to claim compensation in Louisiana and Texas from that oil spill (off the coast of New Orleans in Gulf of Mexica)! It was a free-for-all compensation bonanza for the American deplorables! The local press in Texas (which has a very large oil industry), as well as American national press started floating the idea that this was the opportunity to swallow up the oil company BP, which was the 6th largest oil company in the world!  

Following the accident, BP initiated a massive response to protect the beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the oil spill by commissioning skimmer ships, floating booms, controlled burns of oil and using oil dispersant (nearly 1.84 million of US gallons). Although there were several failed attempts to block the well head, finally on 15th July 2019 it was capped. On 19th September 2010, the well was declared totally sealed by the regulators.

Although it took 87 days to plug the well-head, the long-term effects were far less than what local media had whipped up. Within weeks of the leak being plugged, the traces of oil on the surface of the sea and adverse effects on the coastline had disappeared. Now, about nine years after that disaster, the effects had completely gone and the said disaster is all but a distant memory!

Tranquil deep blue sea (Gulf of Mexico)

On a recent cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, I found the area spectacular, virtually a haven of tranquillity, where a number of large cruise ships, each carrying 4,000 or more holiday makers, are operating nearly every day of the week! The water is crystal clear, there is no short-term or long-term effects at all. People in that part of the world are now more occupied with job prospects and worried about global warming, tropical storms and tornedos, extreme rainfall and floods than non-existent consequences from the oil spill.

Just to put this disaster in perspective, it must be pointed out that it was not the world’s largest man-made disaster; it was not even the largest oil disaster. The largest man-made oil disaster occurred in Kuwait during the Gulf war on 10 January 1991 when Iraqi forces deliberately opened the Kuwaiti oil valves as their war strategy. A total of 330 million gallons of oil was spilled, which was one and half times more than the Gulf of Mexico spill. The third largest oil spill occurred in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in June 1979 when the oil well exploded releasing 140 million gallons over a period of ten months.

Accidental release of nearly 32 tons of deadly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) on December 3, 1984 from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India was the world’s worst industrial disaster. The MIC is far more toxic and deadly than chlorine gas used in chemical weapons. The official estimates were that more than 3,800 people (men, women and children) died within three days of the accident and over 3,900 suffered severe and permanent disabling injury. Further afield, over 500,000 people were grievously affected by respiratory problems. Although the American Union Carbide chemical company was the major shareholder in this industrial setup, the company mendaciously managed to transfer its corporate responsibility to UCIL as a standalone entity in India and only paid $470 million (equivalent to $845 million in 2018 money) as compensation. For the death toll of nearly 350 times of Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, American company paid 75 times less compensation. That makes the life of an Indian person as 2625 less valuable than that of an American! Even now, more than 35 years later, over 30,000 people are still suffering from chronic effects – heart, lungs and digestive problems – and large areas are contaminated with toxic chemicals.

World’s worst man-made disaster was, what is now known as, the Ecocide in Vietnam when more than 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals were sprayed in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s by the US military to flush out the Viet Cong guerrillas and wipe out jungles and their hiding grounds. The herbicide called Agent Orange contained dioxin, a deadly carcinogen which causes not only somatic but also genetic defects like spina bifida and other mutation illness. The Vietnamese government estimated that nearly 400,000 people had died from dioxin exposure and over 500,000 children had birth defects. No compensation of any significance or any remedial action by the US government had ever been made.

Any disaster of any sort – whether man-made or natural – is unfortunate. But when man-made disasters produced by powerful nations get away with impunity, just because the nations are powerful, that smacks at the heart of humanity. One day the perpetrators of such catastrophes could face justice of the day. 

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Advanced science, Environmental, International, Technical

Solar radiation management can help combat climate change

In the Environmental Physics course that I teach from time to time, a student once remarked that we really do not have to worry about the deleterious effects of climate change because technology would be able to solve all the problems we are facing. At that time, I thought this viewpoint is an extreme case of technological optimism. But today, as the likelihood of international consensus to stabilise atmospheric composition of greenhouse gases seems remote while the consequences of climate change are becoming more apparent and direr, many in the scientific community believe that the potential last-ditch effort to stave off the disastrous impacts of climate change is to appeal to technology, geoengineering in particular. Even the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers geoengineering as a necessary Plan B if global warming does not show any signs of slowing.

Geoengineering is deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change. It encompasses two different approaches using a variety of cutting-edge technologies to undo the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. They are removal and sequestration of carbon dioxide to lower its concentration in the atmosphere and offsetting global warming by targeting the overall amount of solar energy reaching the Earth. The removal technologies were discussed in an op-ed piece published in this newspaper on November 29, 2018.

Some of the offsetting options scientists are exploring are reflecting part of the sunlight back into space before it reaches the Earth’s surface, allowing more of the heat trapped by the Earth’s surface to escape into space, and increasing the reflectivity of roofs, Arctic ice, glaciers, pavements, croplands and deserts. Known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM), these options would slow down the rise in Earth’s temperature until carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced enough to prevent catastrophic repercussions of human-driven climate change.

The fraction of incoming sunlight that is reflected back to space could readily be changed by increasing the reflectivity of the low-level clouds. This could be achieved by spraying seawater in the air where they would evaporate to form sea salt, which would seed the clouds above the oceans making them thicker and more reflective. Several simulations have confirmed that the seeding mechanism, also known as Marine Cloud Brightening, would work with the likelihood to lower temperatures at a regional level.

Another proposed cloud-based approach involves thinning the high-altitude Cirrus clouds in the stratosphere by injecting ice nuclei into regions where the clouds are formed. These wispy clouds do not reflect much solar radiation back into space, and instead trap heat in the atmosphere by absorbing thermal radiation emitted by the Earth. While this method is not technically an example of SRM, thinning Cirrus clouds would provide more pathways for the trapped heat to escape into space, and thus, potentially cool the Earth. Currently, work in this field is limited to theoretical studies at research institutions. However, research shows that a cooling of about one degree Celsius is possible by thinning the clouds globally.

Scientists have known for a long time that volcanic eruptions could alter a planet’s climate for months on end, as millions of sunlight-reflecting minute particles (aerosols) are spread throughout the atmosphere. Indeed, the “cold and miserable” summer of 1816 in China, Europe and North America is attributed to the enormous eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815. Though the aerosol haze produced by the Tambora eruption reflected less than one percent of sunlight, it was enough to drop global temperatures by as much as two degrees by the summer of 1816.

The 1991 explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines cooled the Earth by about 0.5 degrees, while the average global temperatures were as much as one degree cooler for the next five years after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia. Furthermore, the volcanic-induced cooling of the oceans caused by Krakatoa’s eruption was enough to offset rise in the ocean temperature and sea level for a few decades.

Inspired by these eruptions and the subsequent cooling effect of their sunlight-blocking plume of sulphate particles, scientists are suggesting injecting sulphate aerosols or hydrogen sulphide in the stratosphere. The geoengineering research programme at Harvard University is currently trying to model how clouds of such particles would behave.

One of the more practical SRM techniques that can be implemented easily is whitening surfaces like roofs, croplands and pavements to reflect more sunlight back into space. By absorbing less sunlight, they would negate some of the warming effect from greenhouse gas emissions. This is what greenhouse owners do with whitewash and blinds.

The small island of Bermuda in the North Atlantic is leading the way with white roof houses that not only reflect sunlight, but also keep the homes cooler during the hotter months. A study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California indicates that a 1,000 square foot of white rooftop has about the same one-time impact on global warming as reducing ten tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Ice sheets are responsible for reflecting lots of sunlight into space. So less ice in the Arctic due to melting means less heat leaving the planet. Hence, scientists want to spread tiny glass beads around the Arctic in the hopes of making the polar ice more reflective and less prone to melting. Another idea is to cover deserts and glaciers with reflective sheets.

Perhaps the most challenging concept to control solar radiation entails deploying an array of reflecting mirrors at strategic points between the Sun and the Earth—just as we all do with sunscreens and sunblocks. Calculations by space scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California indicate that a mirror roughly the size of Greenland would be able to block one to two percent of solar radiation from reaching the Earth. The idea of a sunscreen is still on the drawing board.

Finally, as we transition into a new era in which human activity is shaping the Earth more than the natural forces, technology could be seen as a way of humans reshaping the planet by limiting the adverse effects of climate change. Also, because international political efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions have been slow in coming, solar radiation management is a possible measure to be used if climate change trends become disruptive enough to warrant extreme and risky measures.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

The west’s self-proclaimed custodians of democracy failed to notice it rotting away

British and American elites failed to anticipate the triumph of homegrown demagogues – because they imagined the only threats to democracy lurked abroad

Anglo-American lamentations about the state of democracy have been especially loud ever since Boris Johnson joined Donald Trump in the leadership of the free world. For a very long time, Britain and the United States styled themselves as the custodians and promoters of democracy globally, fighting a great moral battle against its foreign enemies. From the cold war through to the “war on terror”, the Caesarism that afflicted other nations was seen as peculiar to Asian and African peoples, or blamed on the despotic traditions of Russians or Chinese, on African tribalism, Islam, or the “Arab mind”.

But this analysis – amplified in a thousand books and opinion columns that located the enemies of democracy among menacingly alien people and their inferior cultures – did not prepare its audience for the sight of blond bullies perched atop the world’s greatest democracies. The barbarians, it turns out, were never at the gate; they have been ruling us for some time.

The belated shock of this realisation has made impotent despair the dominant tone of establishment commentary on the events of the past few years. But this acute helplessness betrays something more significant. While democracy was being hollowed out in the west, mainstream politicians and columnists concealed its growing void by thumping their chests against its supposed foreign enemies – or cheerleading its supposed foreign friends.

Decades of this deceptive and deeply ideological discourse about democracy have left many of us struggling to understand how it was hollowed from within – at home and abroad. Consider the stunning fact that India, billed as the world’s largest democracy, has descended into a form of Hindu supremacism – and, in Kashmir, into racist imperialism of the kind it liberated itself from in 1947.

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is enforcing a seemingly endless curfew in the valley of Kashmir, imprisoning thousands of people without charge, cutting phone lines and the internet, and allegedly torturing suspected dissenters. Modi has established – to massive Indian acclaim – the regime of brute power and mendacity that Mahatma Gandhi explicitly warned his compatriots against: “English rule without the Englishman”.

All this while “the mother of parliaments” reels under English rule with a particularly reckless Englishman, and Israel – the “only democracy in the Middle East” – holds another election in which millions of Palestinians under its ethnocratic rule are denied a vote.

The vulnerabilities of western democracy were evident long ago to the Asian and African subjects of the British empire. Gandhi, who saw democracy as literally the rule of the people, the demos, claimed that it was merely “nominal” in the west. It could have no reality so long as “the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists” and voters “take their cue from their newspapers which are often dishonest”.

Looking ahead to our own era, Gandhi predicted that even “the states that are today nominally democratic” are likely to “become frankly totalitarian” since a regime in which “the weakest go to the wall” and a “few capitalist owners” thrive “cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open”.

Inaugurating India’s own experiment with an English-style parliament and electoral system, BR Ambedkar, one of the main authors of the Indian constitution, warned that while the principle of one-person-one-vote conferred political equality, it left untouched grotesque social and economic inequalities. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment,” he urged, “or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”

Today’s elected demagogues, who were chosen by aggrieved voters precisely for their skills in blowing up political democracy, have belatedly alerted many more to this contradiction. But the delay in heeding Ambedkar’s warning has been lethal – and it has left many of our best and brightest stultified by the antics of Trump and Johnson, simultaneously aghast at the sharpened critiques of a resurgent left, and profoundly unable to reckon with the annihilation of democracy by its supposed friends abroad.

Modi has been among the biggest beneficiaries of this intellectual impairment. For decades, India itself greatly benefited from a cold war-era conception of “democracy”, which reduced it to a morally glamorous label for the way rulers are elected, rather than about the kinds of power they hold, or the ways they exercise it.

As a non-communist country that held routine elections, India possessed a matchless international prestige despite consistently failing – worse than many Asian, African, and Latin American countries – in providing its citizens with even the basic components of a dignified existence.

It did not matter to the fetishists of formal and procedural democracy that people in Kashmir and India’s north-eastern border states lived under de facto martial law, where security forces had unlimited licence to massacre and rape, or that a great majority of the Indian population found the promise of equality and dignity underpinned by rule of law and impartial institutions, to be a remote, almost fantastical, ideal.

Failed idealism of Mahatma Gandhi in India. Mahatma Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947.

The halo of virtue around India shone brighter as its governments embraced free markets and communist-run China abruptly emerged as a challenger to the west. Modi profited from an exuberant consensus about India among Anglo-American elites: that democracy had acquired deep roots in Indian soil, fertilising it for the growth of free markets.

As chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002, Modi was suspected of a crucial role – ranging from malign inaction to watchful complicity – in an anti-Muslim pogrom of gruesome violence. The US and the European Union denied Modi a visa for several years.

But his record was suddenly forgotten as Modi ascended, with the help of India’s richest businessmen, to power. “There is something thrilling about the rise of Narendra Modi,” Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, wrote in April 2014. Rupert Murdoch, of course, anointed Modi as India’s “best leader with best policies since independence”.

But Barack Obama also chose to hail Modi for reflecting “the dynamism and potential of India’s rise”. As Modi arrived in Silicon Valley in 2015 – just as his government was shutting down the internet in Kashmir – Sheryl Sandberg declared she was changing her Facebook profile in order to honour the Indian leader.

In the next few days, Modi will address thousands of affluent Indian-Americans in the company of Trump in Houston, Texas. While his government builds detention camps for hundreds of thousands Muslims it has abruptly rendered stateless, he will receive a commendation from Bill Gates for building toilets.

The fawning by Western politicians, businessmen, and journalists over a man credibly accused of complicity in a mass murder is a much bigger scandal than Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to MIT. But it has gone almost wholly unremarked in mainstream circles partly because democratic and free-marketeering India was the great non-white hope of the ideological children of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who still dominate our discourse: India was a gilded oriental mirror in which they could cherish themselves.

This moral vanity explains how even sentinels of the supposedly reasonable centre, such as Obama and the Financial Times, came to condone demagoguery abroad – and, more importantly, how they failed to anticipate its eruption at home.

Even the most fleeting glance at history shows that the contradiction Ambedkar identified in India – which enabled Modi’s rise – has long bedevilled the emancipatory promise of democratic equality. In 1909, Max Weber asked: “How are freedom and democracy in the long run at all possible under the domination of highly developed capitalism?”

The decades of atrocity that followed answered Weber’s question with a grisly spectacle. The fraught and extremely limited western experiment with democracy did better only after social-welfarism, widely adopted after 1945, emerged to defang capitalism, and meet halfway the formidable old challenge of inequality. But the rule of demos still seemed remote.

The Cambridge political theorist John Dunn was complaining as early as 1979 that while democratic theory had become the “public cant of the modern world”, democratic reality had grown “pretty thin on the ground”. Since then, that reality has grown flimsier, corroded by a financialised mode of capitalism that has held Anglo-American politicians and journalists in its thrall since the 1980s.

What went unnoticed until recently was that the chasm between a political system that promises formal equality and a socio-economic system that generates intolerable inequality had grown much wider. It eventually empowered the demagogues who now rule us. In other words, modern democracies have for decades been lurching towards moral and ideological bankruptcy – unprepared by their own publicists to cope with the political and environmental disasters that unregulated capitalism ceaselessly inflicts, even on such winners of history as Britain and the US.

Having laboured to exclude a smelly past of ethnocide, slavery and racism – and the ongoing stink of corporate venality – from their perfumed notion of Anglo-American superiority, the promoters of democracy have no nose for its true enemies. Ripe for superannuation but still entrenched on the heights of politics and journalism, they repetitively ventilate their rage and frustration, or whinge incessantly about “cancel culture” and the “radical left”, it is because that is all they can do. Their own mind-numbing simplicities about democracy, its enemies, friends, the free world, and all that sort of thing, have doomed them to experience the contemporary world as an endless series of shocks and debacles.