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Forget the coronavirus, says columnist Vishal Onkhar. These are turbulent times in the realm of politics and the world at large and academics should take an active interest.
Vishal Onkhar: “Future generations will not look back upon us kindly if we stand idly by.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Forget the coronavirus, says columnist Vishal Onkhar. These are turbulent times in the realm of politics and the world at large and academics should take an active interest.

Forget the coronavirus. These are turbulent times in the realm of politics and the world at large. The rise of xenophobia, intolerance, and anti-environmentalism across the globe has fuelled the recent resurgence of the far-right into the mainstream. This ripple effect of right-wing populism has spelled dire consequences for our planet and its people.

In Brazil, the relaxation of deforestation laws has led to an alarming number of man-made forest fires in the Amazon. In the USA, the proliferation of ‘fake news’, the imposition of travel bans, the building of a border wall, the rampant racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment by persons in power, the detention of migrants and their children in inhuman conditions, and the warmongering foreign policy have set terrible precedents for the future.

‘Extremism is an insidious force’

In the UK, the anti-immigrant sentiment that has led to Brexit may well plunge the world into yet another recession. In France, political parties associated with Nazi collaborators, anti-Semites, and Holocaust deniers are thriving. In India, the avowed Hindu nationalist government threatens to undermine the country’s secular constitution and reopen old wounds born of religious hatred with its anti-Muslim policies.

The Netherlands is no stranger to such sentiments. Dutch right-wing populist parties and politicians have made contemptuous statements about women, immigrants, and minorities in the recent past, and public support for them is growing.

If you don’t know who or what I am talking about, you need to wake up and smell the coffee. History has shown us that nothing good ever comes of heading down this dangerous path. Extremism is an insidious force that works from within to spread its tentacles across the globe. It slowly creeps upon us, little by little, until one day we realise to our horror that it has taken over. Margaret Atwood’s novel (and the television series inspired by it), The Handmaid’s Tale, presents a chilling view of a world where people’s failure to act allows a cruel and oppressive regime to seize power. The author illustrates what would happen if the unsettling trends we see today are taken to their logical end, and reminds us that the scenarios put forth in her book have all actually occurred in real life.

‘There’s a storm coming’

As academics, it is imperative that we take an active interest in politics, and not just confine ourselves to academia. After all, the science we pursue and its implications for society are all deeply political, whether we choose to acknowledge this fact or not.

Taking a non-violent stand against the roots of extremism is not just our duty; it is also our responsibility because we are held accountable to our children and our children’s children. Believe me when I say that future generations will not look back upon us kindly if we stand idly by and let things take their course. Because this isn’t about being conservative or liberal, it’s about being decent human beings. Because not taking a side is actually taking the side of the status quo. There’s a storm coming, and we’d all best be ready when it does.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

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