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Neither new nor dangerous: Satyajit Das at FODI 2016

James Holloway is a tough critic

Photo by Prudence Upton

Photo: Prudence Upton

If you were to sit with your eyes closed and listen to Satyajit Das talk about world affairs you might be forgiven for mistaking him for a 14-year-old boy.

But Satyajit Das is not a 14-year-old boy; in fact, he’s a 59-year-old former financier who in 2014 was named one of the 50 most influential people in international finance by Bloomberg.

He also has a lecture at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

Entitled The Bill Is Due, Das’ presentation is a roughly hour-long diatribe railing against those forces of exploitation, corruption and deception seemingly inescapable in today’s modern world.

Granted, 2016 has been a difficult year for even the most persevering of optimists: historically high global temperatures, a seemingly endless barrage of terrorist attacks and Donald Trump’s Republican nomination – for a start.

The problem, however, is that like a 14-year-old boy, it’s not that Das’ observations are incorrect – it’s just that they’re nowhere near as new or as dangerous as he seems to think they are.

Similarly, his presentation is replete with choppy PowerPoint transitions, collages of Banksy artworks, Pink Floyd lyrics and neat summaries of both Brave New World and 1984.

What is disappointing is that Das does identify a number of legitimate points of concern: the decline of democracy in Europe; the frustrating ubiquity of political spin; the ceaseless exploitation of our planet’s natural resources.

But he completely fails to offer any suggestions as to how things should be run instead, reverting to a simplistic black and white interpretation of politics in which the status quo equals bad and his vision of the world equals good.

What’s worse is that at no point does Das even clue us in on what his vision entails.

The subsequent question-and-answer session fails to provide any further clarification; the very first question seeming to articulate what the entire room has been thinking: if the world is so bad then what do we do about it?

Das replies with the following: “to know the right answer is intelligence, but to ask the right question is wisdom”.

Very convenient.

Pressed further on what might constitute a practical solution to the world’s maladies, Das puts forward his first genuinely dangerous idea of the afternoon: violence.

He suggests a visit to your local member with a list of demands, and threatening them with the pitchfork if they don’t enact your mandate.

If there is not change soon, he warns, change will be involuntary and it will be violent.

It’s a premise I might be willing to entertain if it wasn’t delivered with a self-righteousness to rival John Lennon’s and an arrogance akin to that of Nick Kyrgios.

While it would be remiss to expect neat solutions to the world’s ailments in the span of sixty minutes, Das delivers little more than a series of half-baked revolutionary warnings. He ultimately leaves his audience trapped beneath the shadow of his ivory tower, helpless but to wonder so what?