Sunday, 30 June 2013

Decoding The Superman Meme

You've seen the movies, you've read the comics, but do you really get the story?

Let me share with you my understanding of the Superman story. I was introduced to Superman at a very early age, perhaps before I was 10. I have always liked the character, not just for his superpowers but for his goodness. Even today, if I had to name a few characters from history and fiction who epitomise nobility and goodness, Superman would be among them. But it was only as I grew and reflected on the stories from time to time that the real theme of the character's life story began to dawn on me, and this realisation was entirely my own, uninfluenced by the reviews and critiques of other people. I now see in hindsight that the Superman story is an allegory that is just screaming out to be understood by anyone who looks a little beyond the superficial.

There's the purely literal storyline, of course, and most of us are content to accept this at face value.

Where is Superman from? The planet Krypton.
What kind of place is it? It's a doomed world that explodes just after he leaves.
What is his real name? Kal-El.
Where on Earth does the baby Superman land? In the US.
Where in the US? In Kansas.
Where in Kansas? In a town called Smallville.
Who are his foster-parents? Jonathan and Martha Kent, simple farmers.
What is he known as on Earth? Clark Kent.
Where does Superman go to work as an adult? In Metropolis.
What's his secret identity? A mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet.
Who's his girlfriend? Lois Lane, a smart and plucky reporter in the same office.

Look beyond the literal and you will begin to see the allegory. As I began to unravel it, I became somewhat disappointed, because Superman's story is an American story, and even though it has universal appeal, it's not really a story that's meant for non-Americans (except in that "what's good for America is good for the world" kind of way).

The planet Krypton is an allegory for a faraway country. The country itself has no hope, and is sliding into anarchy. Superman is therefore an immigrant, and a refugee at that. Of course he comes to the US, which welcomes the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And where does he grow up? Well, if you look at the map, Kansas is a state that is right in the very heart of the US.


And "Smallville" very literally and obviously means a small town (for an allegory, it's big and unsubtle enough to trip over). So he grows up in a small town in the heart of the US, brought up by simple and honest country folk. The implication is obvious. Here's an immigrant, naturalised as an American by imbibing the best folk values of middle America. And even when he goes to work in the big city (named Metropolis - the allegory-spinners are really hitting us over the head with a sledgehammer here), he still doesn't lose his small-town values. He remains modest and well-mannered and more than a little socially awkward. But he then starts to do enormous good, and the stories are all about his wonderful deeds and exploits. In other words, the immigrant makes good -- big time.

That's really the core of the Superman meme - the immigrant who imbibes American values, realises his potential and makes good even as he does good.

What a package!

Why do I like Superman so much? Because I identify with him. No, I have no super-powers (not any that I'm conscious of, anyway), but I see in him an introvert like myself. People only know me by my accomplishments. They think about me in terms of where I have studied or what kind of work I do, but none of that is me. No one knows my inner self. I keep that strictly to myself. Similarly, it is a mistake to be misled by our hero's flashy costume and all those thrilling action sequences. They do not define him. In his heart, Superman is not a flamboyant super-hero. He is private and self-effacing. In fact, the costumed superhero is Superman's secret identity behind which he hides. His true persona is Clark Kent. I identify with Clark Kent.

But what about the superpowers? Where do they fit in? Look a little deeper at the immigrant angle to the story. Immigrants are self-selecting. They move of their own will, and even if some of them are in a sense "forced" to move by harsh circumstance, it is still their choice. After all, millions more of their kind never move even when faced with the same crises. So immigrants differ in a fundamental aspect of character both from their compatriots in the old country and from the natives of their adopted one. They have innate qualities of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, and when exposed to the opportunities that their new country gives them, they tend to become extremely successful. They attain superpowers under a yellow sun.

I'm reminded of Hungarian András Gróf, who fled communist Hungary to come to the US, where he changed his name to Andrew Grove and founded Intel Corp. That's a classic Superman story.

Or of German Heinz Alfred Kissinger, who fled Nazi Germany to arrive in the US, changed his name to Henry Kissinger and eventually rose to become Nixon's Secretary of State. Kissinger was even more like Superman than Andy Grove in a literal sense. He was legendary for being able to hop around the world at a frenetic pace without suffering from jetlag.

Is this just a wild theory with no supporting facts? Well, if you want to understand a fictional character and what makes him tick, you need to dig into the biography of his creator(s). Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, were both Jewish immigrants from Europe. Schuster's father was from the Netherlands and his mother from the Ukraine. Siegel's parents were from Lithuania. They and their families lived the Superman story themselves. They were outsiders in America, and I would guess they were grateful to their adopted country. That's why Superman is alien but loyal to America.

But there's more. Superman appeared in the 1930s, during a wave of exclusively European immigration to the US, supported by the National Origins Formula that favoured Central, Northern and Western Europe. That's why Krypton, although a planet far removed in geography and culture, is nevertheless populated by Caucasians. Superman may have had a strange foreign name and come from a different culture, but he was reassuringly Caucasian. He pretty much had to be. And the mere cultural differentness was overcome by American programming, which made him acceptable in a way that a truly alien alien, however benign and noble, could never be.

However, there are subtle undertones to Superman's Caucasian ethnicity. He has black hair, not blond. It further reinforces the idea that he represents an Ashkenazi (Caucasian) Jew, very few of whom are blond. And his name, Kal-El, sounds Hebrew, redolent of the name of the Israeli airline, El-Al. Some believe Kal-El means "Voice of God" in Hebrew.

There is one very powerful (dare I say "spiritual") aspect to Superman's character. He does not kill. He is merciful even to enemies who he knows would gladly kill him given half a chance. He's a far better man than I am in that respect. In his place, I don't think I'd spare someone who I knew was going to try to kill me at the next available opportunity. [Thirty years after I was introduced to Superman, I came across another such impossibly noble fictional character, and that was The Doctor.]

There are also some conflicting themes in the Superman philosophy for those who view the American model through a capitalist lens. If that other Jewish immigrant, Russian emigré Alyssa Rosenbaum (later known as Ayn Rand), had had anything to do with Superman's creation, he might have been a somewhat less likeable character. As it stands however, Superman's philosophy is community-oriented to the point of being a little socialistic. He doesn't use his super-powers to enrich himself, although he could easily do that. This talented and assimilated immigrant doesn't just live for himself. He believes in community values and works for those around him in the best tradition of volunteerism. Not only that, one of his biggest enemies is the ultra-capitalist Lex Luthor, the head of Lexcorp. For those looking for an icon of capitalist America, Superman isn't it.

This then, in a nutshell, is the Superman meme. Moviemakers may explore variants to the storyline, but they may not violate the meme itself except very carefully and consciously. In the hands of the uninsightful, the delicate strength of this epic can be rudely shattered. I'll critique the Superman movies next, using this meme as the framework.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Atheist Dogma On Abortion

While I am in the main opposed to organised religion, I don't believe that everything (say) the Catholic Church opposes must therefore be supported by rationalists and atheists. Yes, religious beliefs often distort concepts of morality in very ugly ways, but this is not an infallibly predictable rule.

There is a Facebook site I subscribe to called "Atheist Quotes of the Day" (AQOTD). Normally, the posts here are the warm and fuzzy attacks on religious dogma and superstition that I enjoy. Recently, however, there have appeared some posts in favour of abortion, and these have not been greeted with the same degree of agreement even by the ..er.. faithful.

I have always been highly uncomfortable with abortion. I believe it is not a subject that has clear demarcations between right and wrong, and one of the mistakes made by hard-liners on either side of the debate is in assuming that there is a clear line and the other side is just not seeing it.

My point is that the line, if there is one, is highly blurred. Making an unequivocal statement of right and wrong is naive at best and dangerously arrogant at worst. So I don't want to see legislation outlawing abortion, and at the same time, I wouldn't want to see people accepting an abortion as nothing more serious than the extraction of an inconvenient tooth. (See what I did there? "An inconvenient tooth", get it?). Obviously, I would support abortion in cases of rape and incest, and also when the life of the mother is threatened. These are absolutely non-controversial to me. What makes me say "Not so fast!" is the hard-line feminist argument that a woman's body is her own and therefore there can be no questioning of a woman's decision to abort the child she is carrying inside her body under any circumstances.

I think we need to look at abortion not as a crime but as an ethical issue. That should take some of the heat out of the debate while still keeping us from turning our backs on it. I also strongly believe we should take religion out of the debate and rely on reason and empathy alone. I think reason and empathy form the necessary and sufficient foundation for a moral worldview. Religion only muddies the waters. As Arthur C Clarke said,

The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.

Abortion should be seen as a moral issue, not a religious one. And (surprise!) atheists can have morals too. The most recent post on AQOTD that spurred me to respond showed a petri dish containing human eggs (it wasn't clear whether they were fertilised or not). The site's owner had posted a rather arrogant (I thought) statement under it: "These are not human beings. Any questions?"

Edict from the High Church of Atheism: "These are not human beings. Any questions?"

This was the proverbial last straw. I can understand dogma from the religious, but dogma from atheists?

It's a little like the vegetarian debate, which again should be divorced from religion. There are people who are strict vegans and do not favour any kind of human imposition on the animal kingdom, the "ordinary" vegetarians (lacto-vegetarians), the ovo-lacto-vegetarians who will not eat fertilised eggs (and those who will), people who will eat fish and poultry but not red meat, people who will eat "regular" meat but not dogs, cats, horses and monkeys, those who will eat anything that moves except humans, and of course, cannibals. To each group of people, those further "ahead" of them seem weird and/or immoral, and those "behind" them are unnecessarily squeamish and should get with the program.

It's a bit like the saying about driving - anyone driving slower than you is an idiot; anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.

The resolution to all of these issues is the recognition that there is no single line that divides the acceptable from the unacceptable. Real life is messy, and different people (however rational and intelligent) will fail to agree on where to draw the line. Each will draw it in a slightly different place, and we must learn to accept some degree of difference in our approaches to ethical issues without condemning people as either immoral or superstitious.

When thinking about how to respond to the AQOTD post, I weighed several response styles from humorous to sarcastic and finally settled on a tone of civilised reason:

"So, after the non-controversial arguments against believing in imaginary friends, we have now moved on to the more controversial topic of human morality. As rational people, how can we be expected to accept someone else's line on morality without thinking for ourselves?

Hear me out. 100% of rationalists would agree that the killing of unfertilised eggs or of sperms is not murder. Also, 100% of rationalists would agree that the killing of a new-born baby is murder. Clearly, all of us have crossed over from "not murder" to "murder" at some point along the development of the human foetus.

Is this point conception (the point before which development into a complete human was impossible)?
Is it the development of discernible organs (when we begin to feel empathy for something like ourselves)?
Is it the development of a heartbeat (when we begin to think of the foetus as a living being and therefore capable of being "killed")?
Is it the development of the nervous system to the point of being able to feel pain (which again appeals to our empathy)?
Is it the development of the foetus to a point where it can be kept alive artificially outside the body of the mother (which makes it a complete and viable human being)?

No matter how we look at it, the 100% of rationalists who cross over from "not murder" to "murder" do so at different points, depending on their personal philosophies, which have nothing to do with god or religion (so don't insult anyone's intelligence by accusing them of religious beliefs).

It is naive to believe that there is a single line in the sand here after which 100% of rationalists will immediately cross over from "not murder" to "murder". We are all intelligent beings who believe in reason, but we need not all agree on everything, certainly not on something as blurry as the development of a human being from individual cells.

What I am asking for is an end to dogma and more respect for the views of other rationalists. "These are not human beings. Any questions?" sounds like an arrogant religious diktat from the High Church of Atheism. It is not respectful of the considered opinions of other rationalists and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Let the atheist community not degenerate into another church with its own approved dogmas."

That should have kicked the hornet's nest good and proper :-). The angry buzzing must have started already. But I'm sure there will be plenty of people whose thoughts and sentiments I have expressed, so I'm not going to be alone.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Will The Bull Turn?

After almost 3 years to the day that he was deposed by his deputy Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd had the satisfaction of deposing her back (if that's a phrase) to reclaim his crown. That was the Aussie soap opera's latest twist before the coming high drama that is the 2013 federal election.

"Damn, that felt good!"

Like any good soap opera, this one too has been a roller-coaster experience for its audience.

I started off preferring Kevin Rudd to John Howard in the 2007 election. (I mean, who wouldn't?)

But after the election, and through the early part of 2010, I developed an even better opinion of his very capable deputy, Julia Gillard.

But in 2010, I was sorry to see Rudd betrayed by that same deputy, and I was more than a little angry with Gillard.

The twists continued. As revelations gradually emerged of Rudd's impossible nature and his general flakiness, I began to see that she had had little choice. The party had to replace Rudd before his shenanigans became public knowledge and he became a liability for Labor.

And now that Gillard has been deposed by Rudd, I once again feel sorry for the one who lost.

Throughout the entire drama, Abbott the try-hard, Abbott the consistently negative, Abbott the guy without a single positive idea of his own, has been hyperactive, desperately trying to convince the electorate that he stands for something other than his own irrelevant ambition. Whatever I might feel about Labor, Abbott's constant scum-like behaviour has ensured that they never get my absolute contempt. That prize belongs to him alone.

A charitable view of Tony Abbott's brain

I feel sorry for Julia Gillard. I believe she didn't get a fair shake of the sauce bottle after all. With Rudd on the inside and Abbott on the outside constantly keeping her off-balance, she never really got a chance to govern.

Stymied by the unholy alliance of Lex Luthor and Mr Mxyzsptlk

It'll be interesting to see what comes next. The pollsters have been predicting a walk-over for Abbott in September with Gillard leading Labor. But with Rudd back in charge, the odds have been evened. Is it the Coalition's turn to panic? I'm sure internal polling shows Malcolm Turnbull far more popular than Tony Abbott. When facing Gillard and the prospect of a certain victory, there was no incentive for the Liberals to change horses midstream. All they had to do was stay the course. But Rudd's return should have changed all those calculations. Now they really have to consider Malcolm Turnbull again. Abbott deposed Turnbull in 2009, but if it looks like he can't deliver the goods, perhaps the Liberals need a similar counter-coup.

He doesn't half want a thick ear, the blighter. Biff him one, Malcolm!
(With apologies to James Joyce)

My preferences for PM:

1. Malcolm Turnbull (Liberal)
2. Julia Gillard (Labor)
3. Kevin Rudd (Labor)
...
98. Any of the giraffes from Taronga zoo (Independent)
99. Tony Abbott (Liberal)

Does Turnbull have the intestinal fortitude to challenge Abbott to a rematch for the leadership of the Liberals? This will be a crucial test of his character. Turnbull, unlike Rudd, has lain low and licked his wounds in silence, making no effort to challenge his leader. He faces the danger that if he fails to grasp this opportunity, he may well go into oblivion the way that other promising but hesitant Liberal star went (Peter Costello).

Why John Howard never had to fear being stabbed in his backbone

Will the worm turn?

Update 02/07/2013: Malcolm Turnbull fires a shot across the bow of Tony Abbott. And man, what a shot! Dare I hope he's preparing for a challenge?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Didn't Like 'After Earth'? You Must Be Caucasian

This is not a rant about racist reviews. This is a discussion of Identity and how it can (ahem!) colour our opinions, but it could still make the liberal among us uncomfortable.

My family had been looking forward to seeing 'After Earth' for a while, but when I finally went online to book the tickets, I could see that the film had received unusually poor reviews. I warned everyone to be prepared for disappointment, and we went bravely off to see it.

There was me, my son, my sister and her son. Between the four of us, we'd covered two generations and both genders. And as it turned out, all four of us liked the movie very much! We all agreed that while it wasn't as great as 'Star Trek - Into Darkness' (which we'd seen the previous week), it was a solidly good movie.

I was a bit puzzled about the bad reviews, and also quite annoyed that they had almost dissuaded me from seeing a movie that I ultimately enjoyed, so I went online again to post my own (positive) review and to explore further.

I found that the negative reviews were of two types (and this sounds almost trivial): they were by those who had seen the movie and by those who hadn't. It was interesting to see so many bad reviews from people who hadn't even seen the movie, but there was a significant thread that ran through all of them - these reviewers either didn't like the idea that Will Smith was using this movie as a vehicle to promote his son's acting career, or they didn't think much of director M Night Shyamalan's recent movies and had therefore decided that his latest work couldn't be any better. Other bad reviews also seemed to embolden these people into giving voice to their own prejudices. None of them was therefore making any kind of informed comment about the movie itself!

I guess the only thing I can say about these "sight unseen" reviews is "Haters gonna hate". There's nothing we can do about it.

But I was still puzzled about why someone who saw the movie would think it was so bad, when neither I nor anyone in my family formed that impression.

Then I saw a couple of positive reviews (like this one) and some cheerleading news and was struck by the fact that the reviewers were African-American. Was it blind race loyalty to Will Smith, I wondered. Then it clicked. All the four lead characters in this movie were ethnic. Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith are obviously African-American. But the two lead female roles were also played by ethnic actors. Both Zoe Kravitz and Sophie Okonedo have mixed African-Jewish heritage. By appearance, it's clear at first glance that none of them is Caucasian. And the director isn't a Peter Jackson or JJ Abrams, but M Night Whats-his-name, who's as ethnic as they come.

Will Smith 

Jaden Smith 

Sophie Okonedo 

Zoe Kravitz 

M Night Shyamalan

This then, is the secret of how a good movie can get bad reviews. It need not have anything to do with racism, at least not the conscious variety. It has everything to do with human psychology and our tribal instincts. (Others have a darker explanation. As do yet others.)

If you can't identify with any of the cast (or the director), you can't form an emotional connection with the characters. If you can't connect emotionally, the gravest of the characters' situations will leave you unmoved and the movie as a whole will fail to impress. And the primary way we seem to identify with other people is on the basis of appearance, i.e., race.

As a child in India, I avoided watching Indian movies and preferred English ones, for a rather strange reason. I would cry if I saw a sad scene, and I had discovered that Indian movies affected me much more than English ones. I realise now that I was able to identify with Indian actors to a far greater degree than with Western actors. [As I have grown and become more universalist, I now avoid sad movies from anywhere!]

By and large, Hollywood has trained the rest of the world to identify with Caucasian actors, but the reverse isn't true. That's why Bollywood movies, while being extremely popular in Asia and Africa, have made no impact on the West. Western (Caucasian) audiences have not learnt to identify with non-Caucasian actors or non-Caucasian cultures. These movies have therefore been "othered" into insignificance. The only way for an "other" movie to be treated gently is for it to be culturally non-threatening, e.g., by implicitly acknowledging the superiority of the viewer's native culture.

Some of the nominally positive reviews of 'After Earth' by professional reviewers on RottenTomatoes were actually very tepid. They seemed to be "damning with faint praise". It reminded me of the reviews of Bollywood movies in Western media. Bollywood movies receive some standard pat-on-the-head adjectives ("colourful"), but they are never let out of the singing-and-dancing box. No matter how good a movie Bollywood produces (and there have been some very good ones), the Western press will never take it seriously. [The ones that the West does take seriously (e.g., The Apu Trilogy, Slumdog Millionaire, Water) are the ones that portray India in a satisfyingly poor light.]

So I think it's all a simple matter of identification. If you can't identify with people or a culture, you can't accept their movies as being of equal value as movies produced by your own culture. At best, it'll get a "not bad for that kind of movie" verdict.

I believe this is exactly what has happened with 'After Earth'. For the predominantly Caucasian reviewer (and viewer) base, this is a movie by "someone else". It therefore falls into the Bollywood box, i.e., it's not a "real" movie. Its cultural self-confidence is the final nail in its coffin. A self-flagellating movie might still make its audience feel superior. This one just makes them feel...excluded.

It's all very sad, but the saddest part of it is that significant numbers of ethnic people might be influenced by the bad reviews and stay away from a movie that they are likely to enjoy very much.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Movie Review - After Earth

I was most disappointed -- not with this movie, but with the reviews it got. RottenTomatoes should fire its entire crop of critics and get another. M Night Shyamalan's movie got a measly 11% on the Tomatometer, which causes me to seriously question whether people can see a movie as a movie anymore. Many of the comments break the fourth wall (from the audience's side). Does it really matter if Will Smith is trying to promote his son? Or if Shyamalan's last few movies disappointed? Why should such considerations leak into a review of a movie? Nah, if I was RottenTomatoes, I'd fire my entire crop of reviewers. They're cynical, jealous curmudgeons who have so fallen in love with their own opinions that they've forgotten how to appreciate an interesting story well told.

Those who didn't like this movie ought to be made to face the Ursa

I thought this was a very well-made movie. Yes, the storyline follows a vaguely predictable outline, in a seven-basic-plots kind of way. There are shades of all these themes - Overcoming the Monster, The Quest and Rebirth. And yet it would hardly be fair to hold this against the movie. After all, the seven basic plots are so called for a reason. They are to be found in every major literary work, and one can hardly pan them all just because they share certain archetypes.

A good movie does one thing, and does it well. It entertains. If you can sit through an entire movie without feeling bored, it straightaway gets 3.0 stars out of 5. I didn't once get bored during After Earth.

Then there's how well a movie can mix and match prior ideas, because let's face it, most of the good ideas have already been taken. Space travel at warp speed? Star Trek's got that. Deadly alien creatures? A dozen movies have that covered. Predators that are blind to prey that don't move/show fear? Jurassic Park. Family dramas? Sons itching to prove themselves to demanding fathers? Flashbacks of tragedies past? We're running out of tissues here.

We've got all that and more here, but well-integrated into a coherent story. That's 3.5 out of 5.

Then there are the new ideas introduced by a movie - the term "ghosting" to mean becoming invisible to a predator, the Ursa's "signature" killing style, a chameleon body suit, the ironic twist about Earth itself being so deadly to humans as to be a Class 1 Quarantined Planet, plus all the breathtaking panoramic scenes - all these push the film into 4.0 territory.

There are a couple of uncredited sources of ideas for this movie, and not too many would have picked up on these.

The Science Fiction movie that this owes the greatest debt to is Starship Troopers, with its Mobile Infantry (the Ranger Corps in After Earth) and their war against the deadly Arachnids (the Ursa in After Earth).

M. Night Shyamalan also seems to have tapped into his Indian heritage for at least one montage - that of the self-sacrificing vulture.

But while this movie was definitely good for one viewing, I wouldn't want to see it a second time. That keeps it from getting 5 stars, but that's OK. In recent times, I have only been able to award 5 stars to one movie, and that's Star Trek - Into Darkness.

My Four Indias To Rajiv Malhotra's Three

Rajiv Malhotra has, in his usual thoughtful style, analysed the cultural currents sweeping India today. He categorises them as "Sensex India" (a reference to the stock exchange index and its attendant consumerist culture), "Maoist India" (a reference to the violent grassroots rebellion that affects a third of India's districts) and "Bharat" (a reference to the traditional, mainly Hindu, culture of the country).

He sees Sensex India and Bharat as forces that seek to build India, while Maoist India is one that seeks to break it. His conclusion is that there needs to be a compromise between the values of Sensex India and Bharat that also includes the good that is in Maoist India.

While this is one way of slicing the pie and recommending a policy, I think I would have gone about it very differently, mainly because I cannot find my views reflected accurately in any of the three Indias that Malhotra describes.

I in fact see four Indias. They are:


  • Tagore's India (or more banally, Constitutional India)
  • "Me-first" India
  • Ideological India
  • The India of the Powerless

Of these, I believe Tagore's India is the only positive force. The second and third are negative and destructive. The fourth appears neutral, but is also ultimately negative.

Needless to say, I identify with Tagore's India, as do many others. I believe in a liberal democracy that is free of discrimination and prejudice. The state is scrupulously secular in Tagore's India. The evil of caste-based discrimination does not exist. Neither does feudalism, with its many economic, social and political injustices. Women are equal citizens in Tagore's India, with no barriers placed in their path on grounds of religion or cultural tradition. All linguistic groups receive equal respect. Everyone has equal opportunity. Development is fair and goes hand-in-hand with social justice. Reason and the scientific temper govern public discourse and public policy. Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

"Me-first" India includes various disparate groups of people, but the one thing they all have in common is that they want benefits for themselves, their families and their narrow communities with no regard for the well-being of others that they share the country with. "Me-first" India includes many of those that Rajiv Malhotra would classify as belonging to Sensex India, but it also includes those that struggle against it. Trade unions come to mind, as do political parties and movements organised along narrow lines of region, caste, religion or language.

Ideological India is characterised by people who believe they know what is good for the country, and are therefore willing to "destroy it in order to save it". These people elevate ideology above people, and would sooner throw inconvenient people overboard than an ideology that does not fit. Ideological India includes people from Rajiv Malhotra's Bharat as well as Maoist India. The worst elements of "Bharat" are the jingoistic Hindutva brigade, who would steamroller everyone (not just religious minorities but also Hindus with a more relaxed view of what their way of life should be). The Maoists are also part of Ideological India. After all, in their desire to portray the Indian state as evil, they actively prevent government-sponsored development schemes that could benefit the people they claim to represent. They therefore value their ideology higher than the people that ideology is supposed to be saving.

Lastly, there is the India of the Powerless. These people probably aspire to live in Tagore's India, but is possible that they are often seduced by either "Me-First" India or Ideological India and become destructive forces. But given the merest of opportunities, many of these people (like this one or this) exhibit the highest values and best human traits of endeavour and achievement.

The problem is that Tagore's India lacks brand muscle. Goodness by its very nature can appear weak and unglamorous. Selfishness and hardline ideologies are both more attractive to the impatient. The challenge for those of us who believe in Tagore's India is to make this vision compelling to others. We can contribute in many ways big and small. Bangalore, for example, is a major hub of philanthropic activity because so many educated and middle-class believers in Tagore's India have also become newly prosperous thanks to the IT boom, and they are giving back to the community around them in a myriad of ways, often doing nothing more glamorous than paying for the education of the children of their maids. Yet even the humblest of these contributions adds another citizen to Tagore's India. Building out this human chain is the only way to make India strong and great, and its people prosperous and productive citizens.

This is both our challenge and our blueprint.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Monopoly On Reason

From as long ago as 400 BC, we have had philosophers telling us that the unexamined life was not worth living. In other words, we human beings had to apply reason when making all our choices and to guide all our words and deeds.

Indeed, reason is supposed to be the characteristic that distinguishes human beings from animals, which is why we have arrogated to ourselves the right to call ourselves "sapiens", the thinking ones.

What a revolution it must cause in our view of the world to see that animals can apply reason to overcome their instinct as well as we can!

This video of a young fox (scientific name: Vulpes vulpes) with its head stuck in a glass jar is breathtaking for what it says about the animal kingdom. Instinct would dictate that a fox must always run away at the approach of human beings. Yet this fox actively moves towards two humans to seek help. It is clear from its actions (not just its initial approach but its quiet submission as the man extricates its head) that it is suppressing powerful primal urges in order to achieve a desired result.

The cookie jar that held one smart cookie!

The usual, predictable outcome of a wild animal getting its head stuck in a jar is death by starvation. Unable to free itself and unwilling to approach humans, it would have absolutely no hope of survival (unless it was captured against its will and relieved of its torment by sympathetic humans).

A wild animal defying all stereotypes and all norms of expected behaviour is something that should by rights revolutionalise not just our view of the animal kingdom but also our view of what it means to be human. Homo sapiens is clearly not the only animal species capable of applying reason to solve problems.

Master fox, I dub thee "Vulpes sapiens".

[Update 19/03/2017: Two hopelessly entangled swans display the same good sense to approach humans for help.]
I'm sure these were called stupid as well as ugly ducklings when they were cygnets

The Moral Degeneracy Of The West

[When I use the word 'degeneracy' in association with 'the West', I'm not talking about sexual promiscuity, which is what people normally imply; in fact, I have libertarian views on that topic. I'm talking about the West's abdication of the right to lecture the rest of the world on democracy and human rights. The War on Terror has revealed that our own governments have become public enemies, endangering us as well as innocent people elsewhere.]

A curious thing happened on the way to Iraq - both times, in fact. It's the story of how the West gained legitimacy and then lost it.

In 1990-91, in the wake of Saddam Hussein's ill-advised invasion of Kuwait, George Bush Sr. organised a genuine coalition of the willing to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. That was the last great noble war the West fought (after NATO's peacekeeping operation in Bosnia).

The second war on Iraq was in 2003, when another (less noble) coalition under another George Bush reprised the 1990 operation. The provocation, if any, was hardly clear-cut. There was a "sexed-up" document that claimed entirely fictitious links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that fabricated evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). I would say the biggest casualty of that war was Western credibility (specifically that of the US, the UK and Australia).

I am obviously no fan of Jihadism, but I now think the worst and most lasting terror that Islamism has inflicted on the free world is not through its random bombings and killings but through the reactionary terror of our own governments, who have gleefully seized on the excuse of security to strip away our freedoms and our right to privacy. The move has been so successful that a significant proportion of the populace (maybe even a majority) believes that a sacrifice of liberty and privacy is a necessary price to pay for security. One can almost hear the chuckles in the corridors of power. The people have willingly chained and manacled themselves, and handed the key to their nominal servants.

As Ben Franklin said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

John Le Carré wrote a strongly-worded article on the dangers of letting spies dictate the terms of our polity. I wonder if anyone paid attention.

Whatever happened to the public's right to know? Public accountability has gone out of the window, and we have watched idly as this has been happening.

We said nothing when whistleblower Bradley Manning was charged as a traitor. He has been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment in the three years he was held before his trial, and potentially faces life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

The prosecution and the establishment-friendly press paint Bradley Manning as "the man who may have put U.S. military secrets in the hands of Osama bin Laden". (Oh, really?!)

Why isn't Manning seen as the man the US army is torturing because he revealed the truth about US war crimes to the world?

Our protests at the hounding of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange were muted by the effective tactic of having him charged with an unrelated offence of rape. Public outrage was effectively dissipated.

Now we are treated to the fittingly ironic spectacle of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden fleeing the US as a pro-freedom dissident, to seek refuge in Chinese-controlled Hong Kong, where he enjoys huge popular support. Can there be a stronger indictment of the West for its betrayal of its own vaunted principles?

So much for the freedom of speech and the public's right to information. Human rights get short shrift too, and in this our own xenophobia and latent racism play a major part. When 8 year old Martin William Richard died in the Boston bombing, we were outraged at the monsters who would stoop to killing such "an adorable boy". He certainly must have been an adorable child, and I am as outraged as the next person. But innocent children are killed each week in the tribal badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, collateral damage of the war on terror. But such killing simply doesn't cause us the same outrage! We expect the people there to understand, and to mourn their young quietly. If they protest too much, we conclude that they must be terrorist sympathisers, not anguished parents and relatives. After all, the ones who die are little Ahmed, Yusuf and Fatima, not little Jack, Michael and Nicole. When we treat "their kids" as somehow less precious than "our kids", we lose the right to talk about human rights. This is not just the fault of our governments. We are all complicit because our outrage at the deaths of innocent people is not race-blind or colour-blind.

In a way then, we had it coming. This monster is devouring its own children (citizens of Western democracies)  just as it devours others'. Up until 9/11, fresh from the glow of the righteous First Gulf War, we (virtually every citizen in the world) placed our childlike trust in the responsible adult supervision of Western governments. It was clear to us then that they could always be trusted to do the right thing.

After the shock of 9/11 began to wear off, we have begun to see a different kind of Western government. What we thought were responsible and caring parents turned out to be slightly older kids who were bullies.

Western governments have made victims of us (citizens of Western democracies) as well as innocent people in other countries. We have lost our privacy, our right to know and our right to dissent. They have lost their right to life, liberty and dignity. And no one can protest lest the wrath of these powerful states turn on them.

But indeed, there has never been a more crucial time to protest than the present. We don't all have to come out onto the streets (although that would be nice). We have organisations like GetUp! and Avaaz that can rally millions online. All we need to do is type a few words and click a couple of buttons. It's not too much to ask to defend our freedoms. Manning, Assange, Snowden and countless others have made huge personal sacrifices to protect us, the common people, from our increasingly evil governments. We have to stand up and let them know that we will not let this steady erosion of our freedom continue any further. When we have the freedom to speak and to dissent, we can also question the evil that our countries do to people elsewhere.

This is not an appeal to go soft on Islamic terror. Jihadism must obviously be crushed, but there are more effective ways to do it.

We are told by the US to view Iran as the great Islamic evil, whereas anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the Middle East knows that Sunni Wahhabism is behind the global terrorist threat, not the Shi'ite Islam practised in Iran. Iran may meddle regionally through proxies like Hezbollah, but if there is an evil empire behind the kind of Islamism that threatens the citizens of democracies worldwide, it lies on the Riyadh-Islamabad axis.

To my mind, the way to bring the War on Terror to a swift and successful conclusion is to cripple Saudi Arabia (the financier) and Pakistan (the training ground). But these two countries are "allies" of the US and hence above reproach, let alone retribution. It makes one wonder what sort of game is being played, with ourselves as the biggest suckers.

We have to wake up and show we care, because our world will be a distinctly more unpleasant and scary place in a few short years if we don't.

To quote Jefferson, another American Founding Father, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.