Thursday, 13 July 2017

The RBI's Silence Means Modi's Demonetisation Was An Even Bigger Miscalculation Than Anyone Realises

On July 12, 2017, almost 8 months after the announcement of demonetisation, RBI Governor Urjit Patel told a Parliamentary Standing Committee that the RBI was still counting the money that had been received by the banking system, and hence he could not state how much money had actually come in.

This was doubtless an extraordinary admission. It speaks pretty poorly of India's banking system that there cannot even be a rough estimation of this amount, since all exchanges were stopped on December 25, 2016, giving the banks more than 6 months to count the cash.

I'm going to make a bold guess here and say that the RBI Governor is lying. Yes, you read that right. The RBI Governor is lying. He knows exactly how much money has come back into the system, but is unable to reveal it. Why?

Urjit Patel - Stuck between a rock and a very hard place

At the time of the demonetisation announcement last year, the amount of money in circulation in 500 and 1000 rupee notes was estimated to be 15.5 lakh crores. There was talk that the government was expecting about 13 lakh crores to come back into the banks as a result of the forced exchange, and that the remaining 2.5 lakh crores was "black" and could not be returned in the full glare of publicity. It was thought that black money holders would throw these worthless notes into the river (some of that did happen). This was how black money was going to be "hit".

Further, since 2.5 lakh crores of (in essence) promissory notes ("I promise to pay the bearer") were never going to be presented, it meant that the RBI would be absolved of 2.5 lakh crores worth of debt to the general public! This extinguished debt was going to be a one-time windfall that the RBI could transfer to the government as a huge budget surplus that could then be used to fund so many initiatives.

Now here's my theory.

I believe that the expected shortfall in currency returns did not materialise. On the contrary, I believe more money than the expected 15.5 lakh crores has come back into the system. It implies that far from demonetisation having struck a blow against black money holders and counterfeiters, the system has been cheated, and it has been cheated in more than one way.

1. Black money has been effectively turned white using demonetisation, since virtually all the deposits made have been under the no-questions-asked limit of 2.5 lakhs per bank account. A lot of private deals between black money holders and ordinary account holders must have been struck to enable this laundering, and the government is none the wiser. Minus a commission to the account holders, the original owners will eventually get back all their money. The whitewashed money will therefore largely return to the black economy, and the taxman will remain empty-handed.

2. Counterfeit currency in 500 and 1000 rupee denominations has been successfully exchanged for genuine currency in smaller denominations. Think about it. If the money that returned is more than what the RBI had put into circulation, it only means a large number of counterfeit notes have also been submitted and exchanged for genuine notes in smaller denominations. Demonetisation has unwittingly devalued the currency. By how much is anyone's guess. The RBI surely knows but is not telling.

3. Not only has the government not got its bonanza from the RBI in the form of the expected extinguished debt of 2.5 lakh crores (and hence no funds to spend on its pet initiatives), it is now in greater debt because of the demonetisation exercise. The increased deficit, as any economist will tell you, will add to inflationary pressures.

4. It means poor people have suffered for nothing. It was remarked during the months of November and December 2016 that the Indian people were demonstrating exemplary patience. Poor and lower middle class people underwent great hardship during these months, standing for hours in bank and ATM queues, and managing their lives with a chronic shortage of cash. Yet the thought that it was all in a good cause, and that holders of black money were suffering even more, kept them in relative good humour. But now, if it turns out that black money holders have managed to have the last laugh, and that common people have suffered for nothing, won't the voting public be outraged?

5. Paradoxically for a move that caused such widespread suffering, demonetisation boosted Modi's personal popularity. He was seen to have struck a blow for the common man against corruption, and the people were willing to suffer to see his efforts successful. The word "masterstroke" was often used, along with the phrase "He has delivered!" Modi seemed like a clever and decisive leader who had outwitted the enemies of the country and placed India on a path to growth and prosperity. Now everything has been turned upside-down. Modi no longer looks clever. He looks like a fool. The crooks have taken him for a ride.

Outwitted - an uncharacteristic look for a perpetually smug politician

This is politically explosive stuff. If it becomes common knowledge, Modi will be politically weakened, perhaps so badly that he may lose the 2019 election.

And that is why I believe RBI Governor Urjit Patel is trying to dissemble, obfuscate and delay his way out of the mess he has been forced into. His political masters have forced him into this sorry situation.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Four Things That Indian Hindus Must Understand About Their Muslim Compatriots

I've been reading a lot of highly polarising stuff on social media, and it has slowly been dawning on me that a lot of Hindus, even nominally educated ones, have been intellectually lazy in not taking the time to analyse the facts about their Muslim compatriots.

Many of them have strong opinions that seem to be backed by facts, but their logic is a bit dodgy.

I would like to spell out the four fundamental flaws in their logic.

1. Worldwide Islamic terrorism has little involvement from Indian Muslims

2. The Kashmir problem does not concern Muslims in the rest of India

3. Bangladeshi Muslim immigration is different from the population growth of Indian Muslims

4. Mediaeval Muslim invaders have very few genetic links to modern Indian Muslims

Let me elaborate.

1. Worldwide Islamic terrorism has little involvement from  Indian Muslims

Since September 2001, the world has rudely awoken to the problem of Islamic terror, and Muslims are now looked upon with suspicion worldwide. Acts of Islamic terror in Western countries have been carried out by Muslims from many countries. However, hardly any have been from India. 

The curious case of the Indian Muslim and terror did not escape the notice of Time Magazine, which carried an item in its April 10, 2015 issue - "What India Can Teach Us About Muslims And Assimilation".

Since the rise of ISIS in Syria and the establishment of a putative caliphate, Muslims from around the world have travelled there to become part of the group, with a couple of notable exceptions - India and Indonesia. There are hardly any ISIS recruits from these two countries.

Perhaps the best certificate, though, is the left-handed one from Zakir Musa, a former member of the Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin who joined Al Qaeda. He called Indian Muslims "shameless" for not joining the global jihad.

There is thus sufficient evidence that the Indian Muslim is a breed apart, and deserves a greater degree of trust and reciprocal goodwill.

2. The Kashmir problem does not concern Muslims in the rest of India

Kashmir has been a simmering problem for India ever since independence. Part of the problem has been fomented by the Pakistani army, but that doesn't fully explain it. Part of the problem has been the periodic dishonesty of the Indian government (rigged elections in 1987, for example), and a heavy-handed approach to security (AFSPA and the human rights violations it condones), but those don't fully explain it either. An unspoken aspect of the Kashmir problem is a fairly widespread desire for an Islamic state, and the readiness of the more extreme separatists to simply eliminate their moderate counterparts.

So there definitely is a hardline Islamist element to the never-ending violence in Kashmir, and a major part of it is local in origin. This can be frustrating and infuriating to the average Indian, who sees Kashmir as always getting favourable treatment (both through the protections of Article 370 and the investments made by the Indian state into J & K). The expulsion of Kashmiri Hindus (the Pandits) from the valley during the 1990s also exacerbates this feeling.

However, Muslims in the rest of India have nothing to do with Kashmir. There is hardly any support for Kashmiri separatism expressed by Muslim groups in the rest of India. The non-Kashmiri Muslim voice has been remarkably muted on this issue. Hence there is no reason for any frustration that Indian Hindus may feel about Kashmir to spill over towards Muslims in the rest of India. Apart from the accident of sharing a religion, there is nothing in common between the latter and the separatists in Kashmir.

3. Bangladeshi Muslim immigration is different from the population growth of Indian Muslims

There is a serious problem of illegal immigration of people from Bangladesh into the northeastern states of India and West Bengal, and from there, into the rest of India. Some estimates put the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India at 20 million. Not only is illegal immigration indefensible, it also threatens to rapidly change the demographics of Indian states, turning many districts and electoral constituencies into Muslim-majority ones and potentially shifting the balance of political power within India. Clearly, this is a serious national security problem that needs to be urgently tackled.

However, the problem of Bangladeshi immigration is not to be conflated with the population growth rate of Muslims in the rest of India. In this context, I have often heard the scaremongering message that "Muslims will outnumber Hindus in 30-40 years".

I found this such a remarkably precise and potentially falsifiable statement that I immediately got to work with a spreadsheet, and the last four decades of census data. I saw that over these four decades, both Hindu and Muslim growth rates have been steadily falling, and also that the Muslim growth rate has always been higher than the Hindu growth rate. I extrapolated forward for the next 40 years, by factoring in continuing falls in both Hindu and Muslim rates of population growth, but also ensuring that the Muslim growth rate remained above the Hindu one throughout. I also had to keep my growth rates from becoming too high, because otherwise the total Indian population would exceed reasonable limits.

As I had pretty much expected, the highest percentage of the total population that my model projected for Indian Muslims in 40 years was 19%. A more realistic set of growth rate figures put this percentage at 16% (at which time the total Indian population would be about 1.7 billion). This is a far cry from the 50+% that the term "outnumber" implies.

The myth of a soon-to-be Muslim majority is precisely that - a myth. Fortunately, it's extremely easy to refute with a spreadsheet and some independent thinking

It's clear that Indian Muslims are in no position to threaten the numerical dominance of Hindus any time in the foreseeable future, so the majority should stop thinking of itself as a threatened minority.

4. Mediaeval Muslim invaders have very few genetic links to modern Indian Muslims

Genetically speaking, Indian Muslims are virtually identical to their Hindu neighbours. The overwhelming majority of them are of Indian stock and are descendants of converts to Islam from Hinduism. With some (highly diluted) exceptions, they are not descendants of Turks, Mongols, Persians, Afghans or any of the other Muslim races that invaded, conquered and plundered India centuries ago.

Treating Indian Muslims as "Baabar ke aulaad" (children of the Moghul invader Baabar) is not only not based on fact, it is needlessly harsh. If the forefathers of Indian Muslims were originally Hindus (who were probably converted at swordpoint), they were probably victimised to an even greater extent than the Hindus who managed to hold out. This understanding should lead to greater empathy and a feeling of oneness, rather than alienation.

So, to repeat what I said at the beginning of this post, I believe many Indian Hindus have been intellectually lazy in not thinking deeply enough about the four distinctions I have made here. That may explain the flawed reasoning and needless paranoia that I see on social media. A cool head and the application of logic can lead to a much more reassuring worldview than an ideology based on fear and suspicion.

In addition, it would not just be unfair, but also needlessly self-defeating, to treat a loyal group of fellow Indians with suspicion. Continued "othering" of a group of people can cause alienation, and perhaps even radicalise a few in the process. It would be a tragic irony if the myth of the "enemy within" turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monday, 3 July 2017

India's Entitled, Privilege-Blind Elite And Their "All Lives Matter" Counter-Movement

Those reading the news from India would have heard of the "Not In My Name" protests, which were recently held across more than 10 Indian cities. This movement was the idea of liberal Indians to protest the increasing attacks on their Muslim compatriots.

The "Not In My Name" protests, with the hashtag #NotInMyName

Since then, I've come across outrage from many educated Indians against the "Not In My Name" protests. This chart circulating on social media got my attention.

One of the popular reactions to the "Not In My Name" protests

I found this quite remarkable, and it made me think about some parallels.

How many people believe that US cops are biased against black people? (Indians shouldn't be sanguine. Indian grandfather Sureshbhai Patel was assaulted and left partially paralysed by a white policeman, Eric Parker, and Parker was later cleared of all charges.) There have been many such cases. White people who commit crimes are led away in handcuffs to face trial, while black people in far less extreme circumstances are often shot dead on suspicion, and the cops get away scot-free. Some of the victims have been just children, but their families get no justice.

Anyway, those who believed that blacks were being unfairly targeted started the movement called "Black Lives Matter."

Shortly thereafter, another group of people, mostly white, started a counter-movement called "All Lives Matter." They may have honestly believed that they were correcting an imbalance, but to the rest of the world, including to many in India, they just came across as entitled, privilege-blind people. After all, what the original protesters were trying to say was that "Black Lives Matter Too", not that "Only Black Lives Matter".

Now a similar situation is playing out in India, and the irony is that many of the same people who could clearly see that the US system is biased against blacks have now taken on the role of the whites when it comes to their own country.

The injustice is startling. Take the earliest example. A man (and it is significant to add that he was Muslim) called Akhlaq Khan was lynched by a (Hindu) mob on the mere suspicion that his family had beef in their fridge. Today, it's still not clear whether or not they had beef in their fridge. But that shouldn't even matter! Even in states where eating beef is illegal, the law does not prescribe the death penalty, and definitely not through mob justice! His lynching is clearly a crime. Yet it's the victim's family that was slapped with an FIR. His assailants got away. Not only that, when one of those attackers later died of unrelated causes, a union minister attended his funeral, and his body was draped in the national tricolour as if he had performed a great sacrifice in the service of his country. To an external observer, this would seem to indicate that India had taken leave of its senses.

Full state honours for a member of a lynch mob

Not only that, even when the case gathered international headlines, the prime minister, who tweets about every inconsequential thing, remained silent for days. When he finally spoke on the issue, it was to utter a platitude: Hindus and Muslims must fight poverty instead of fighting each other. He reduced a mob lynching to a case of two groups fighting each other!

This is why Modi is considered a dog-whistling weasel.

Since then, there have only been more such cases, and they have garnered (unfavourable) international attention.

In response, we have a peaceful, home-grown protest movement called "Not In My Name". It shows that not all of India has fallen prey to this "mad cow disease". Yet even this peaceful protest seems to have outraged some people.

The chart in the image above is India's equivalent of "All Lives Matter". And it's mainly Hindus who take this position that the whole issue is being overblown, and everything is hunky-dory.

Well, they may think they are correcting an imbalance, but to the rest of the world, they come across as entitled, privilege-blind people.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Aryan Invasion Theory Is Finally Proven Right: Science - 1, Hindu Right-Wing - 0

For years, a needless ideological battle has been fought in India. The root of the debate is a seemingly irrelevant question - Did the ancient Indian "Vedic" civilisation originate in India or did it come to India from outside?

To most rational people, this would seem to be a non-issue. Does it even matter? Indian culture today is what it is. A study of its origins and roots is interesting, but it shouldn't change the way Indians look at themselves or their cultural practices.

However, to one particular group of people, the origins of Indian culture, equated by them to "Vedic" culture, is of crucial ideological importance. The people and organisations loosely affiliated under the generic "Hindutva" umbrella are very keen to establish that Vedic culture originated in India and was not imported into the South Asian region by an external group of people. It seems to be a point of pseudo-nationalistic pride with them and nothing more. Even to devout Hindus who believe in Vedic scriptures, myths and rituals, it should not matter a whit whether Vedic culture was indigenous to India or not. As I said before, Indian culture is what it is. There is no need to make its exact origin a point of pride. And yet that's the way the Hindu right-wing has chosen to play it.

A seal from the Indus Valley Civilisation depicting a strange-looking animal. There is speculation that the civilisation did not know of the horse, which was introduced into the region by invaders from Central Asia.

When I was growing up, I learnt in my history books about the Indus Valley Civilisation that existed from about 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE, with its mature period between 2600 BCE and 1600 BCE. The culture of this civilisation was suggested to be Dravidian. I also learnt about the 'Aryan Invasion Theory', which held that a different race of people from Central Asia or the Middle East invaded India, destroyed the Indus Valley Civilisation, drove the Dravidians to the South of the country, and settled in the North. They brought with them a different culture, including a different set of gods and religious rituals (the Vedic culture). Over time, there was some cultural and genetic cross-pollination between the two groups, but the predominant genetic/racial and cultural divide of Aryan versus Dravidian remains in India today as North Indian versus South Indian.

That's what I learnt at school, and so did the rest of my generation. In addition to what was taught in textbooks, I learnt from observing politics that some South Indian politicians (notably belonging to the "Dravidian" parties of Tamil Nadu) accused "upper-caste" people even in South India of being Aryans. So the popular discourse seemed to uneasily entertain (if not fully accept) the idea that India consisted of two races of people - the Aryans and the Dravidians. The Aryans were typically North Indians and "upper-caste" people; the Dravidians were typically South Indians and "lower-caste" people.

Somewhere along the way, this set of hypotheses began to acquire ideological overtones. People belonging to the Hindu revivalist movement intensely disliked it. To them, this seemed at once to have two implications:

1. It divided Hindus into two (or four) groups - North vs South, and upper-caste vs lower-caste. Viewed from their ideological angle which saw Muslims and Christians as enemies of the Hindus, such internal schisms within Hinduism were an unacceptable weakness.

2. Their own perception, perhaps born of cultural insecurity, was that it called into question the very legitimacy of the Hindu Vedic tradition, by suggesting that it may have come to the country from outside and was therefore not worthy of respect as a genuinely original civilisation.

For these two reasons, Hindu revivalist groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha (now defunct) and later the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its sister organisations, have worked very hard to disparage the Aryan Invasion Theory. One could understand a Hindu revivalist movement working to eliminate regional, linguistic and caste differences among Hindus through a positive appeal to unifying ideas, but the approach they took was entirely different. It was through the more expedient means of attempting to disparage the Aryan Invasion Theory by imputing anti-national motives to historians.

That has been the background to the debate so far, and the ideological lines have been drawn. Western Indologists like Max Mueller, colonial-era British historians such as Mortimer Wheeler and Indian ones like Romila Thapar are on one side of this debate. Intellectuals (to use a term that errs on the side of respect) such as Michel Danino, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley and Rajiv Malhotra are on the opposite side. The hypothesis favoured by the latter group is the 'Out of India Theory' which postulates that far from India being the recipient of an Aryan migration from Central Asia, it was India that was the original home of the Aryans, who then migrated outwards.

Under the onslaught of the right-wing reaction, the proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory have back-pedalled a bit, and conceded that "invasion" was probably too strong a term. They have settled for a milder term - "migration". It's the Aryan Migration Theory that is a little more respectable nowadays. However, even that is disputed by the Hindu right.

While this debate has been rancorous, a lot of it has been based on conjecture and circumstantial evidence. But in recent times, genetic research has begun to provide clearer answers.

In 2013, a paper by Priya Moorjani et al made a number of important points based on genetic evidence, and I have blogged about that here. To recapitulate,

1. Virtually all groups in India, including those considered to be isolated, have experienced an admixture of two distinct racial groups in the past. There are no "pure" groups today.

2. This admixture took place over a period of time, between 4200 years ago and 1900 years ago.

3. The paper calls these two original racial groups ANI and ASI (Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian). The ANI group has links to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, although the paper takes care to explain that it has no immediate links to Eurasians and hence may have separated from the Eurasian group 12,500 years ago. The ASI group does not have links to any group outside of India, with the closest group being in the Andamans. Hence the ASI group is probably indigenous to India.

4. Present-day Indo-European groups in India (i.e., North Indians) have a higher proportion of ANI genes than ASI. Present-day Dravidian groups (i.e., South Indians) have a higher proportion of ASI genes than ANI.

So far, the data seems consistent with the Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory in that the ASI group indigenous to India seems to correspond to the Dravidians, and the ANI group with links to Central Asia seems to correspond to the Aryans. However, it isn't that straightforward.

5. The dates of admixture are more recent among Indo-European groups than among Dravidian groups. A plausible theory is that Indo-European groups received a second infusion of ANI, making the effective date of the admixture appear more recent. This is backed up by the fact that many North Indian genomes have long stretches of ANI interspersed with stretches that are a mosaic of ANI and ASI, pointing to a more recent admixture on top of an earlier one.

6. "Upper" and "middle" caste people's genomes show multiple waves of admixture compared to "lower" caste genomes. The paper does not offer an explanation for this, but my theory is that lower caste people were less mobile and had fewer opportunities to interact with outside groups, perhaps as a result of social restrictions.

On a matter that can be seen to have a major bearing on our understanding of caste, the paper makes a further surprising claim based on the genetic evidence.

7. An abrupt shift to endogamy (the opposite of cross-breeding) occurred around 1900 years ago. Some groups stopped receiving gene flows from neighbouring groups 3,000 years ago.

A more recent paper by 16 researchers led by Martin Richards is consistent with the Moorjani paper, and provides much more emphatic evidence.

Its conclusions are explosive. To cut a long story short, the genetic evidence suggests that the Aryan Invasion Theory is probably on the money. The Out of India Theory stands discredited. What's more, it really was an invasion and not a peaceful migration. Read this commentary in The Hindu which explains the conclusions of the paper in layman's terms.

The research for the first time analyses patrilineal DNA or Y-DNA, whereas previous studies had focused on matrilineal DNA or mtDNA. Previous studies had not detected any genetic infusion into India around the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, but the newest one does. What's more, the dating of this infusion (around 2000 BCE) matches the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation to an astonishing degree.

Let's think about this for a moment. No infusion of matrilineal DNA occurred during the 2000 BCE period, but there was an infusion of patrilineal DNA at that time. In other words, a large group consisting almost exclusively of men entered India at that time. What's the probability that this was an army as opposed to a nomadic community of men, women and children? I'd have to say the evidence very strongly suggests an armed invasion.

Let's think further about the remarkable coincidence that the Indus Valley Civilisation should have collapsed at about the same time that a large group of men (that we have to admit was probably an army) entered the region. What's the probability that these were unrelated events? I'd have to say the evidence strongly suggests a cause-and-effect relationship. An invading army caused the downfall of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The commentary article in The Hindu is however not bold enough to join these dots as I have above. It echoes the researchers' own circumspection by continuing to talk about a "migration" rather than an "invasion".

To my mind, it's all over but the shouting. The genetic evidence very clearly and strongly suggests an invasion of India by men from Central Asia. The Aryan Invasion Theory was therefore on the money. The ideology of the Hindu right-wing, that Aryan (or "Vedic") culture originated in India, and that all Indians share a single and indigenous genetic heritage, lies in tatters.

None of this should matter to regular Indians, who will probably shrug and carry on with their lives, absolutely untouched by what the evidence says about their past. But to the Hindu right wing, which has made this debate such a point of pride, the latest evidence is devastatingly bad news.

It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Movie Review: I Don't Know How She Does It

(Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.)
The 2011 movie that provides a snapshot of society today

Last night I watched I Don't Know How She Does It, starring Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role of Kate Reddy, a working woman, a wife and a mother of two (in no particular order). The plotline is pretty simple and straightforward, with no unexpected twists. Yet, it's extremely watchable for the simple reason that so many families across the world can identify with the situation it portrays.

A family with young children and both parents working has a number of challenges before it in terms of juggling the demands of the two offices and the home. In spite of the great strides made by society in recognising and accommodating these challenges, women still end up taking on a greater share of the burden (i.e., what's known as "emotional labour", not just the actual execution of tasks but the remembering, planning, coordinating, worrying aspect of them). The husband Richard played by Greg Kinnear is probably quite typical. He's generally supportive and tries to pull his weight, but there's more that he can in fact do. Towards the end of the movie, he does realise this and makes an effort to take more ownership of some tasks.

I was happy to see many things in this movie.

One was the realistic portrayal of positive behaviour, as opposed to the cliched portrayal of the negative. This extended to both male and female characters.

Among the males, there was of course the office jerk Chris Bunce, played by Seth Meyers. But while such characters doubtless exist in real life, he was balanced by much more supportive men, such as Kate's husband, her immediate boss Clark Cooper (played by Kelsey Grammer), and another senior executive Jack Abelhammer, played by Pierce Brosnan. Personally, I've seen more nice guys than jerks in offices. Most bosses I've come across have been reasonable and fair in their expectations from their direct reports (whether male or female), and human in their empathy and ability to understand the problems of employees with families. (Or maybe that's because I've never worked on the trading floor of a Wall Street firm.)

Among the females, the negative side was similarly cliched. Kate's mother-in-law Marla (played by Jane Curtin) could be counted on to subtly disparage Kate's choice to pursue a career at every turn, and to guilt-trip her about any perceived failing on the home front, such as her two year old son who hadn't yet begun to speak. And there were a couple of "perfect" mums who didn't work but stayed at home to look after their families, one of whom (played by Busy Philipps) could be relied on for catty soundbites. Yet they were more than balanced by supportive women, such as Kate's almost robotic and workaholic assistant Momo Hahn (played by Olivia Munn), and best friend and single mum Allison Henderson (played by Christina Hendricks). The latter could be trusted to frame Kate's many difficult situations from a sympathetic angle.

In both cases, the movie didn't deliberately stack the deck against the main character just to make a point.

It was also good to see that the movie had a positive mood overall. You know that the lead character will manage to score all those goals eventually. The narrative wasn't despairing, whining or excessively preachy, although its use of negative characters to make various points was often unsubtle.

I found myself unreservedly sympathetic to the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker. I have previously only seen Parker in Sex and the City, and didn't like her character much in that movie. I thought she was a spoiled and entitled woman with only imaginary problems. The current movie featured a character with much more substance.

On the negative side, I thought the movie went a little too far in the opposite direction when it tried to be sympathetic towards working women. It ended up caricaturing stay-at-home mums, and I thought that was unfair, because the choice of whether women should pursue professional careers or be homemakers should be theirs, to be worked out with their families. It's not for others to judge. If anything, the great lesson of the modern world is to respect individual choices, so the movie did some judging of its own, even as it made the case against judging.

The portrayal of Momo Hahn made me slightly uncomfortable. I think the positive points earned by the movie on the gender angle might be negated by some insensitivity on the race angle. There was a discernible stereotype there about hard-working but emotionally deficient Asians. Movie-makers should watch that.

There were a couple of areas in which the movie could have been even better.

They should have left out the bit where Jack Abelhammer expresses a romantic interest in Kate. The movie was just fine as it was, and such an angle, although quickly shut down, was nevertheless a distraction.

Also, I believe it would not have been out of place for either Kate or her husband Richard to provide some bracing advice to their school-going daughter that she had better get used to making small sacrifices instead of acting entitled and precious about not having her mother available to her at all times. Having grown up with a working mother myself, I understand that the advantages to the family in being able to afford jam in addition to bread and butter (thanks to a double income) far outweigh the occasional inconvenience. Besides, even setting aside the financial benefit, careers are fulfilling to intelligent and capable women, so why aren't they entitled to them? Children should be made aware of these ideas.

In sum, I thought this was a landmark film that captured a crucial snapshot of life in the early 21st century for millions of families around the world. It's socially relevant and authentic, and I'm sure this will be referenced from time to time in future years.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Epilogue: I thought this frame from one of the comics in my collection (which I re-read after seeing the Wonder Woman movie) was quite relevant to the topic of working mothers.

WW could equally stand for 'Working Woman'

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Captain Picard's Finest Moments

If I were asked to pick my best Picard moments, these would be some of them. (I'm definitely going to have to add to this list as I remember more episodes.)

Captain Picard -- Role model for this generation and the next

s01e01 (Encounter at Farpoint):

Standing up for humanity

Q: Soldiers, you will press those triggers if this criminal answers with any word other than guilty. Criminal, how plead you?
Picard: Guilty...Provisionally.
Q: The court will hear the provision.


As Riker is about to learn, Picard always values honest feedback over acquiescence

Riker: Permission to speak candidly, sir?
Picard: Always.

Honesty and authenticity

Riker: What do we do, if they're monitoring our every move and word?
Picard: We do exactly what we would if this Q never existed. If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are.

s01e19 (Coming of Age):

Wesley: I failed, Captain. I didn't get into the Academy. I failed you and I failed the Enterprise. 
Picard: Ridiculous. Did you do your best? 
Wesley: Yes. 
Picard: When you test next year, and you will test next year, do you think your performance will improve? 
Wesley: Yes. 
Picard: Good. The only person you're truly competing against, Wesley, is yourself. 
Wesley: Then you're not disappointed? 
Picard: Wesley, you have to measure your successes and your failures within, not by anything I or anyone else might think. But, if it helps you to know this, I failed the first time. And you may not tell anyone!

"I failed the first time. And you may not tell anyone!"

s02e09 (The Measure of a Man):

Picard: A single Data - and forgive me, Commander - is a curiosity. A wonder, even. But thousands of Datas...Isn't that becoming.....a race? And won't we be judged by how we treat that race? Now tell me, Commander, what is Data?
Maddox: I don't understand.
Picard: What is he?
Maddox: A machine.
Picard: Are you sure?
Maddox: Yes.
Picard: He met two criteria for sentience. What if he met the third? Consciousness. What is he then? I don't know. Do you? That's the question you have to answer. A courtroom is a crucible where we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product, truth, for all time. Sooner or later, this man or others like him will succeed in replicating Cmdr Data. The decision you reach today will determine how we will regard this..creation of our genius. It will reveal what people are, what he is destined to be. It will reach beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after to slavery? (To Judge Luvois) Your Honour, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits! Waiting. You wanted a chance to make law. Here it is. Make it a good one.

"Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits!"

s03e16 (The Offspring):

Admiral Haftel: Then I regret that I must order you to transport Lal aboard my ship.
Picard: Belay that order, Mr. Data.
Haftel: I beg your pardon?
Picard: I will take this to Starfleet myself.
Haftel: I am Starfleet, Captain! Proceed, Commander.
Picard: Hold your ground, Mr. Data.
Haftel: You are jeopardizing your command and your career.
Picard: There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience, but you ignore their personal liberties and freedom. Order a man to hand his child over to the State? Not while I'm his captain.

"Order a man to hand his child over to the State? Not while I'm his captain."

s04e21 (The Drumhead):

Where he makes his civil rights speech, one of his most famous

Admiral Norah Satie: I question your actions, Captain. I question your choices. I question your loyalty.
Picard: You know, there are some words I've known since I was a schoolboy.
"With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably."
Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie as wisdom and warning. The first time any man's freedom is trodden on, we're all damaged.

[...]

Worf: Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise. 
Picard: We think we've come so far. The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it's all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again. 
Worf: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she was. 
Picard: Mister Worf, villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged. 
Worf: I think after yesterday, people will not be as ready to trust her. 
Picard: Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay.

s05e03 (Ensign Ro):


Picard's indulgence of the maverick Ro Laren shows his supportive and nurturing side

Picard: You've got a great deal to learn from Starfleet.
Ro Laren: I always thought Starfleet had a lot to learn from me.
Picard: That's an attitude that I've found common among the best officers I've ever served with. You're not one of them yet, but you could be, if you work at it.
Ro: That's an interesting challenge. I rarely refuse an interesting challenge. There would have to be one condition.
Picard: Condition?
Ro gestures towards her earring, that she should be allowed to wear it in violation of Starfleet dress regulations.
Picard (with a smile): Two to beam up.

s05e21 (The Perfect Mate):

Stoic in the face of personal tragedy

Kamala: I will never truly love him. 
Picard: You've not even met him. 
Kamala: It no longer matters. I wish I could convey to you what it's like to be a metamorph. To feel the inner strength of someone. To realise that being with him is opening your mind and heart to endless new possibilities. To hear yourself say, I like myself when I'm with him. 
Picard: Kamala. 
Kamala: For a metamorph there's no greater pleasure and no greater wish than to bond with that kind of mate at the end of the Finiis'ral, as I've bonded with you. 
Picard: With me? 
Kamala: Who I am today, I will be forever. 
Data [voiceover]: Data to Captain Picard. 
Picard: Not now, Data. 
Data [voiceover]: But sir, Chancellor Alrik is waiting to receive you in holodeck seven. 
Picard: Acknowledged. (To Kamala) You can't go through with the ceremony. 
Kamala: Would you ask me to stay and ask two armies to keep fighting? Having bonded with you, I've learned the meaning of duty. He'll never know. I'm still empathic. I will be able to please him. I only hope he likes Shakespeare.

[...]

Briam: Your service to both our peoples is greatly appreciated, Captain. 
Picard: Your preparations made the negotiations simple, Ambassador, and Kamala was able to guide me through the rituals. 
Briam: I have to admit, I'm curious. 
Picard: Curious? 
Briam: I was chosen for this mission for a very simple reason. I'm two hundred years old. The temptations of a beautiful metamorph do not easily reach me. And yet I would be lying if I were to claim, that even at my age, they do not reach me at all. But you, you worked with her, side by side for days. How could you resist her? 
Picard: Ambassador, have a safe trip home.

s06e15 (Tapestry):

And he laughs as he is fatally stabbed

Picard: There's still part of me that cannot accept that Q would give me a second chance, or that he'd demonstrate so much compassion. And if it was Q, ..I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Riker: In what sense? He put you through hell.
Picard: There are many parts of my youth that I'm not proud of. There were loose threads. Untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, ..it unravelled the tapestry of my life.

s06e19 (Lessons):

Unlucky in love, every time

Nella: When communications went out, I knew we had to fend for ourselves. We modified our phasers to create resonant disruptions in the deflector field. The disruptions formed small pockets inside the plane of the field and we each stood inside one to wait out the storm. Richardson didn't make it. All Deng and I could do was stand there and watch. 
Picard: I'm so sorry. 
Nella: Don't. Don't say you're sorry. 
Picard: It must have been terrible. 
Nella: At first, when you told us to hold our positions, I didn't question it. Of course we would. That was our job. But when I saw that storm coming toward us. 
Picard: Part of you must have blamed me. 
Nella: A small part, maybe. But in the end, I was more afraid that you would blame yourself if I died. Would you have? 
Picard: I've lost people under my command. People who were very dear to me. But never someone I've been in love with. And when I believed that you were dead, I just began to shut down. I didn't want to think or feel. I was here in my quarters, and the only thing I could focus on was my music, and how it would never again give me any joy. Then I saw you standing on the transporter pad and I knew that I could never again put your life in jeopardy. 
Nella: If I stayed here, you might have to. 
Picard: You could always resign your commission. Stay here with me. 
Nella: And you could resign yours and come to a starbase with me. I'll apply for a transfer. 
Picard: But we could still see each other. People do. We could arrange shore leave together. And, for the future, who knows? 
Nella: Of course. (kisses Picard) Promise me something? Don't give up your music.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Review of Wonder Woman: Betrayed By Love, Yet Again

[Warning: Some plot spoilers below]

Makers of superhero movies probably dread the likes of me. As a 50+ year old superhero fan, I'm rather hard to please, because my comics collection dates back to the 70s (the Silver Age, if not the Golden Age), and I grew up imbibing the spirit and the values of that era of superhero comics. Most moviegoers today are under the age of 40 and have probably never even read the original comics, so the movies are likely to be their very first introduction to so many iconic superheroes. I therefore believe that moviemakers have a fiduciary responsibility to faithfully translate the original ethos of the comics onto the screen, so that the new generation of fans receives the same experience of values that mine did.

I critiqued the Superman movies earlier, with the help of an allegorical framework that I discerned, and now it's time to look at Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins. This is not a conventional movie review, because I'm not going to be talking so much about the movie itself, but about whether it is true to the spirit of the comics. I see that most conversations about the movie are from the angle of feminism, which I have no problem with. My concerns are more basic and relate to how faithful the narrative is to the genre. I have an emotional relationship with four DC superheroes -- Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern. It affects me personally if any of these characters is misunderstood, misrepresented or unfairly criticised. And of them all, it would not be unfair to say that the softest spot I have is for Wonder Woman. You'll see why.

My Favourite Four, who occupy pride of place in front of my TV

Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman is a faithful portrayal of one of my favourite characters in most, but alas, not all respects

Let me first touch lightly upon Zack Snyder's treatment of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a terrible movie, and the reason is the same cardinal sin Snyder committed in Man of Steel. The main DC superheroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Aquaman, etc.) do not kill anyone, not even the most terrible super-villains. To base an entire movie on the premise that Batman would even think to kill Superman is inexcusable.

Leaving that aside, Snyder's introduction of Wonder Woman hit exactly the right note. There was an initial air of mystery about a woman acting suspiciously, then a wonderful sense of recognition and joy as the viewer realised it was not another villainess but a much-loved superhero. Wonder Woman's role in Batman v Superman was also pitched just right - neither an empty adornment nor a damsel in distress but a strong and independent character in her own right. (Superman: "Is she with you?" Batman: "I thought she was with you."). One more character-revealing act of hers was that she subdued the monster Doomsday with her magic lasso. Subduing, not killing, is her signature style.

Coming to Patty Jenkins's latest movie 'Wonder Woman', I must first tick off all the positives.

The first and foremost item is that the movie got the character's appearance just right. Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and her backstory is based on Greek mythology. It's only fitting that the character is played by Israeli Gal Gadot, because a Mediterranean appearance is what is called for. I'm so glad Wonder Woman's character was not "whitewashed" by the casting of an Anglo-Saxon actor (like The Ancient One was in Dr Strange with the casting of the otherwise excellent Tilda Swinton).

Second, Wonder Woman's primary motive is strongly on display -- love and caring. (It's good that director Jenkins took Kurt Vonnegut's first rule of creative writing to heart, "Every character must want something, even if it's just a glass of water"). There is no doubt at all about what Wonder Woman wants -- an end to war and strife. All her actions are transparently guided by that motive.

As in the comics, Diana's soft-heartedness comes across in the movie too. That's a major part of her appeal.
('Paradise Island' refers to the Amazons' secret island of Themyscira.)

Third, she is strong and independent. The only man who manages to influence her is Steve Trevor, who is as much her foil as Lois Lane is to Superman.

That ends the positives.

I will discuss the negatives using references from two comics in my collection.

Two of my Wonder Woman comics, from 1966 and 1975/76 -- It's important to understand a superhero's character (portrayed consistently over a decade or more) before beginning to critique a movie portrayal. (Click to expand)

My first objection is to the excessive violence in the movie. Wonder Woman comics feature a lot of action, but it's not always violent.

Lesson #1 from Wonder Woman -- An action hero need not necessarily engage in violence.
(Note my adolescent signature at the top of this issue. I've been in this game a long time :-).) (Click to expand)

My second and much more serious objection is the same one that I had towards Zack Snyder's portrayal of Superman in 'Man of Steel and of Batman in 'Batman v Superman' -- an easy attitude towards killing. Moviemakers, as I said before, have a fiduciary responsibility to their viewers to preserve the values of the characters whose stories they narrate. There is something almost spiritually noble about these superheroes in that there is no blood on their hands. They never kill even the villains who they know would kill them and others without hesitation.

Patty Jenkins committed the same crime that Jack Snyder did. She made Wonder Woman kill General Ludendorff without a pang of guilt. At least Superman was tormented when he felt forced to kill General Zod. Turning Wonder Woman into a cold-hearted murderer was nothing less than a crime. Jenkins has failed in her fiduciary responsibility.

As evidence, consider these scenes from the comics and see how Wonder Woman deals with her adversaries.

The quality of mercy, exhibit 1: Wonder Woman spares Giganta the Gorilla

The quality of mercy, exhibit 2: Wonder Woman rehabilitates Giganta (now transformed into a human)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 3: Paula von Gunta's henchmen drop a steel girder on Diana from atop a building, followed by red-hot rivets, but when they themselves fall, she doesn't let them die. (Click to expand)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 4: When the villainous Paula von Gunta is herself in danger, Wonder Woman saves her too. (Click to expand)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 5: Dr Cyber turns Wonder Woman into a raging, snarling beast by doping her food with a psycho-chemical, but the Amazon's basic nature overcomes the drug. (Click to expand)


The quality of mercy, exhibit 6: Even when villains die, it's because they did not trust her enough. (Click to expand)

The comics make explicit mention of Wonder Woman's code of non-violence.

Wonder Woman is only violent when she has to be. (Click to expand)


As Dr Cyber points out, Wonder Woman's code of non-violence is part of her Amazon heritage. (Click to expand)

With that background, look at Patty Jenkins's movie. The screen Wonder Woman is unrecognisable as she kills soldiers left and right in fight scene after fight scene. She takes sides too easily (with the Allies and against the Germans), whereas the real Wonder Woman would see them all as human beings. As if that were not enough, she finally floors the evil General Ludendorff after a climactic fight and sits astride him. Then she kills the defenceless man with a mighty sword thrust into his chest.

I ask you, having seen the excerpts from the comics above, is this scene in character at all? I'd say the movie has committed the terrible crime of character assassination, because Wonder Woman does not kill!

I will say this with the strongest of emotion -- If a person does not understand the spirit of a genre, they must not be allowed to ruin it by making a travesty of a movie. Millions of young people who have never read about the real Wonder Woman will go away thinking she can take lives without a second thought. How terrible!

This is my strongest complaint against the Wonder Woman movie, but there is at least one other omission. The ballroom scene in the movie shows Diana without her bracelets. I don't think the moviemakers realised the significance of the bracelets of submission. Without them, Wonder Woman becomes a raging, uncontrolled beast.

Wonder Woman needs to have her bracelets on all the time to be able to control her enormous strength. They're not just there to deflect bullets. (Click to expand)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the movie character is flawed and unlovable. Quite the opposite. It would be impossible not to love the endearing person Gal Gadot portrays, and it's not just because I'm hopelessly biased.

Who can resist that smile?

I do have to conclude on a sad note, though. Many villains manage to get the better of Wonder Woman (at least temporarily) by taking advantage of her loving side and then betraying her.

Note the classical allusion to Hippolyta's seduction and betrayal by Hercules. We never fear for Diana in a fair fight, but we always fear that her trusting heart will be betrayed -- as it is again and again. (Click to expand)


It seems to me as though Wonder Woman trusted director Patty Jenkins to tell her story truthfully and honestly to a new generation of fans -- the story of a kindhearted and courageous superhero sworn to non-violence. Alas, in spite of an otherwise sympathetic portrayal, with regard to the one core element of her character, she has been betrayed yet again.