The current political situation in India and the world brings to mind the old question: Is the glass half full or half empty? The question is conventionally taken to be a test of disposition differentiating between optimistic personalities and pessimistic ones, but also relates to our expectations. If we demand a brimming glass, receiving one at 50% capacity will seem intolerable. Our anguish at the glass not being full could even distort our perspective and make it seem almost completely empty. An excellent example of this attitude was the Communist Party of India proclaiming yeh azadi jhooti hai (this is a false freedom) at the culmination of India’s uniquely successful non-violent anti-colonial struggle in 1947.

Another way of approaching the question is as a matter of process. Being full or empty is never a permanent state for glasses. They are made to be filled and emptied. Whether a glass if half full or half empty, then, can only be determined by investigating whether it was previously emptier or fuller or, to put it another way, whether it is gradually filling up or emptying out. Fullness is a vector rather than scalar quantity.

How does this relate to politics today? Take the case of the failed coup d’état in Turkey. It felt anachronistic, reminiscent of the 1970s rather than the second decade of the 21st century. Unlike recent coups in Egypt, Niger, and Thailand, which were spurred by political chaos, the Turkish plot targeted a freely elected administration and its popular leader in a period of economic stability. The takeover by the plotters of the national broadcaster underlined the sense that they had stepped out of a time machine. Forty years ago, that move would have provided them a crucial medium of communication while removing the same from the government’s grasp. In 2016, it was easily circumvented with the help of FaceTime and a satellite channel. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan video-phoned in to CNN Turk, appealing to citizens to take to the streets, and soon hundreds of his supporters were swarming over army tanks placed at important landmarks.

Democracy vs dictatorship

Whatever the flaws of Erdogan’s government, and the danger posed by his retributive arrests since the abortive overthrow, the current democratic dispensation is certainly preferable to military dictatorships of Turkey’s past, as also to the anarchy that could have resulted had the plotters managed to assassinate Erdogan but then failed to unite the military behind them and quell civilian protests. Looking at it from that long perspective, the glass in Turkey is undoubtedly half full.

We have a would-be authoritarian of our own in power, who recently pulled a move reminiscent of the India-is-Indira days. Belying his rhetoric about preferring cooperative to coercive federalism, Narendra Modi instigated the governor of Arunachal Pradesh to destabilise the Congress government in that state, only to have the Supreme Court slap down those machinations. The court’s unanimous verdict showed how far it has come since the days of its subservience during the Emergency and its reluctance during the subsequent decade to cut the central government to size.

As individuals, Modi, Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin might be more authoritarian than their counterparts four decades ago. However, technological progress and the stronger roots of democratic institutions keep them in check to different degrees. Since Russia has the shallowest history of democracy among the three, Putin has been able to capture more power than Erdogan and Modi. Even so, Russians today are in a better place than they were under Brezhnev and Krushchev and Stalin, and Putin is very far from turning Russia back into a totalitarian state. As with Turkey and India, the glass is fuller in Russia than liberals credit.

In the United States, where a new strongman threatens to emerge, the situation is reversed. It is conservatives who believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, while by most objective measures like GDP expansion, job growth and crime rates, the US is doing pretty well. Some changes, such as the legalisation of gay marriage, seen as remarkable advances by liberals are understood very differently on the right, but even illegal immigration, that conservative bugbear, has fallen significantly over the past decade.

Events vs processes

How is it, then, that so many Americans think the glass is empty? Part of the explanation lies in the inability of traditional right- and left-wing parties to address the negative impact of globalisation, which I wrote about in a past column. Add to that the extraordinarily fast churn in media narratives, which chew and spit out issues in days if not hours, especially on television and the Web that increasingly dominate news coverage and are often ideologically driven. These narratives inevitably concentrate on events rather than processes, since events are more time specific. Events also tend to be more negative than processes, because Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Pompeii was destroyed in one. Even in an era in which crime rates are low and falling, the constant barrage of terrorism and mass murder in the headlines creates an anxious public that feels vulnerable, and gets progressively angrier at the perceived inability of states to keep citizens safe. People seek harsher laws, stricter screenings, higher walls, stronger leaders.

At this point, I want to supplement the idea of the empty/full glass with that of perspective painting. The technique, invented centuries ago in Europe, mimicked the way the eye sees. Objects that were far away were drawn smaller than those close by, and everything looked as if it was being viewed from one point in space outside the picture. When perspective painting came to Japan, Japanese artists used it in novel ways, often creating compositions with objects in extreme close up. The most famous example of this is Hokusai’s woodblock print, The Great Wave of Kanagawa, which depicts Mount Fuji in the distance, dwarfed by the much smaller wave of the title in the foreground.

Hokusai’s public would instantly recognise Mount Fuji and, knowing how large it actually was, appreciate the clever use of perspective in the composition. Imagine, though, a viewership that came away believing the wave and the mountain were depicted true to their actual size. Or a public that had no knowledge of Mount Fuji and therefore could not understand the relationship between wave and mountain. That’s the situation we are in, and unless we figure out how perspective works in media accounts today, we will continue to underestimate positive processes, overestimate negative events, come to incorrect judgements about how full or empty the glass is, and take political actions as a consequence that could reverse the progress of the past few decades.