Saturday, December 31, 2005

Imperialism For The Post-Industrial World

Richard Drayton's crushing indictment of Neocon hubris. As Iraq shows, technological advancement is melding with Hobbes's Leviathan to harvest the 21st century version of Kipling's White Man's Burden.

Neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the recently indicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, learned from Leo Strauss that a strong and wise minority of humans had to rule over the weak majority through deception and fear, rather than persuasion or compromise. They read Le Bon and Freud on the relationship of crowds to authority. But most of all they loved Hobbes's Leviathan. While Hobbes saw authority as free men's chosen solution to the imperfections of anarchy, his 21st century heirs seek to create the fear that led to submission. And technology would make it possible and beautiful.

Related:
Iraq war gets them to see light, or does it?

One Sacred Genocide

Hamid Ansari bemoans the sanctity attached to the Holocaust in the Western political discourse. Mirroring George Monbiot's comments in the Guardian earlier this week, he incriminates Austria and France of vileness and Britain and America of inaction in the Hitler-directed massacre. But equally, if not more, appalling atrocities against peoples in other parts of the world have never garnered the kind of attention the Holocaust has. Shimon Peres's statement to a Turkish news agency would be funny, if it were not so outrageous.

Robert Fisk, in a seminal work recently published, writes of the First Holocaust — of the one and a half million Armenians killed in Turkey in 1915 by the Committee of Union and Progress in an effort "to destroy the Armenians." Despite much debate and factual evidence, the matter remains in a state of denial. Interestingly enough, even in Israel there is an effort to do so, as would appear from an interview given by Shimon Peres to a Turkish news agency. "We reject," he said, "attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide."

The very fact that the term Holocaust (with a capital 'H', no less) has come to be associated with the Jewish carnage vouches for the validity of Ansari's argument.

Me, You And Our Collective Cynicism


Miranda July, a 31-year-old performance and video artist, made waves at international film festivals this year with her Me and You and Everyone We Know, the story of a shoe salesman and a…well, performance and video artist. American reviewers, a fastidious lot, have been raving about this film in their year-end lists, so I decided to check it out.

The film’s premise is pretty much like American Beauty’s – the demons that lurk beneath the picture-perfect American suburban life - but the treatment is very different. For one, MAYAEWK (all right?) is not a bleak satire in the mould of Sam Mendes’s movie. The lighting is better; there are no drug plots or sinister Army men, albeit there is an important sub-plot that hints at a probable Web-fuelled dystopia.

This review is not meant to be a bird’s eye view of the storyline, but I would like to mention my favourite character. It’s the protagonist’s little son Robby, played devastatingly well by 7-year-old Brandon Ratcliff (right). Watching him enact the bewildering dichotomy of childhood innocence against the Internet’s intrusive perversities is a revelation. Catch him in the crushing coup de grâce when he finally comes face-to-face with his scatological chat-buddy.

And yes, you’d never imagine what the innocuous ))<>(( portends until you watch the movie. Of all the smileys, this!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Belated Realization


Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul acknowledges Orhan case tarnished country's image. But government to watch trial's progress before initiating change in law. Turkey is in process to become EU member.

See this.

Hollywood Munich-ed

Olympians' widows and fastidious critics hail Spielberg's "perpetual-motion machine" drama. Not everyone's joining the celebration though. An alternate view.

Waiting with bated breath.

Related:
Oscar hum begins

Book Ninja Goes Missing In Moviedom

Why The Metamorphosis and To The Lighthouse spell clumsy cinema.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Venal Cinema's Second Coming

Management professors generally dot their year-end recollections with technical jargon which only an incestuous circle of trainees and consultants can relish in the true sense of the term. Think about it, how many of us would be really interested in reading about Digital Rights Management or Venture Capital funding when we'd rather cozy up with a Daisy Miller (my current read, thanks to Azar Nafisi) and a hot cuppa coffee?

But trust our Indian gurus to spring delightful surprises. IIM-A professor T.T. Ram Mohan writes in the Economic Times on that one event in the year gone by that jolted his imagination. No, it's not SAP, neither is it Internet management or global supply chains. Heck, it's not even Peter Drucker's death.

It is...hold your breath...Madhur Bhandarkar's scathing critique of glamour and glitz, the seedy Page 3.

While the professor is quite besotted with the film's premise, it did nothing to stir my fantasy. Bhandarkar has picked up the trash of tinseltown and assembled it into 3 hours of unabashed rigmarole. There is no sensitivity or directorial coherence; just a long and hard look at a way of life whose purportedly charmed member Bhandarkar himself is (thanks very much, Pretti Jaiin). You can't possibly describe this voyeuristic hotch-potch as cinema. Bhandarkar agrees, but he prefers calling it a docu-drama. Whatever!

Up next, the second in the trilogy (he is sounding oh-so-much like Deepa Mehta now) Corporate.

'Break the mould' harangue, Take 2

C. Raja Mohan, in his trademark professorial style, recounts the hits and misses in India's foreign policy over the last year. The tone is optimistic, thanks largely to THE deal signed on July 18. And yes, for the seven-hundredth time, he exhorts the Manmohan Singh government to shed past shibboleths and chart a new course shorn of nostalgic underpinnings for the Non-Aligned era. (Natwar Singh's demise - political, of course - might infuse a semblance of rationality to the proceedings.)

Manmohan Singh’s problems on the foreign policy front, however, have less to do with the opposition of the BJP and the allied left parties. They are rooted in the growing self-doubt and a loss of nerve within the security establishment.

Now where have we heard that before?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Those Turkish sods: They at least discuss it


You'll find as many views on the Orhan Pamuk trial as the number of publications you read or sites you browse. Ace journalist George Monbiot provides his twopence for Guardian. Oddly, there is little reference to the Turkish case against Pamuk. Rather, Monbiot draws attention to the melting away of large-scale British Empire atrocities into oblivion. He touches upon Lord Lytton's execrable policies during the Indian famine and the Kenyan Mau Mau revolt, among others.

He bemoans the cruel irony inherent in "There is one, rightly sacred Holocaust in European history". The other massacres are admittedly not sexy enough. They implicate the "wrong" perpetrators (the War victors) and attack "the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence".

He is bitter against the cloying conservatism of dailies like the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph, which eulogize the Empire in glowing terms and overlook its sinister side.

The Pamuk trial, such is its nature, was bound to invite a barrage of opinion from across the globe, with every writer enriching the debate with contextual perspectives. Monbiot has made a consummate beginning in that direction.

Here.

Mary Magdalene goes Mona Lisa way


The cult of absurdly excessive analysis has bitten the Da Vinci Code. A group of British statisticians has given the worldwide bestseller only a 36% chance of prospective success. Their criteria: metaphorical, or figurative titles instead of literal ones; the first word a pronoun, a verb, an adjective or a greeting; and grammar patterns taking the form either of a possessive case with a noun, or of an adjective and noun or of the words The ... of ... (from Guardian)

The team however gives the thumbs up to Dan Brown's upcoming novel The Solomon Key.

Painting:
Mary Magdalene in the Desert
Oil on canvas
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Related:
Mona Lisa's enduring magic

Cat's out of the bag


Albert Einstein was never comfortable with certain aspects of quantum mechanics, most notably Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, whose primary consequence is that if an object's position is defined precisely then its velocity will be indeterminate, and vice versa. One cannot simultaneously find both the position and momentum of an object to realizable accuracy.

This, in the classical sense, would imply that particles can be present in regions they have no business to be in, and that measuring the properties of one particle can instantaneously change those of another one.

In a letter to Max Born, he said:

The theory yields a lot, but it hardly brings us any closer to the secret of the Old One. In any case I am convinced that He does not throw dice,

indicating his discomfort with a probabilistic notion that could not be explained with laws of physics.

But in the centenary year of the publication of his Special Theory of Relativity, scientists have put a half-dozen beryllium atoms into a "cat state". A cat state is the condition of being in two diametrically opposed conditions at once, which in this case, means that the beryllium atoms were each spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. A charming bit of info on the history of this contradiction can be found here.

Establishing once again that the mastermind's paradoxical nightmare continues to bear fruits.

Suggestions galore

Even as the Maharashtra govt. decides to regularize all illegal constructions in Ulhasnagar constructed before Jan 1, 2005, demolitions in Delhi continue to rock the establishment and send its lackadaisical honchos in a tizzy. Architect Sudhir Vohra has some ides for Ms. Dixit:

First, she needs to order that the 18,271 illegal properties which are the subject of the list submitted to the Delhi High Court be barred from any sale or purchase transactions. This is completely within the jurisdiction of her government, and needs no clearance from the Centre, as it is a revenue matter. The logic is simple — if there is a municipal illegality in the property, why should it be trade-able. Simultaneously, the list should be made public on the internet, with all the necessary options — colony wise, zone wise, ward wise, and so on. Transparency is the first pillar of democracy, and with the Right to Information regime in place it will not be long before this list is available at just a click away.

The second action the CM could take is to begin a process of DEMAT-ing property records and ownerships. Again, the advantages are tremendous: all records of sale and purchase, as well as of use (legal or illegal), and of municipal taxation, would be available to both the government and the public at large at the click of a button. Why should property ownerships be hidden behind layers of secrecy and paper, when the entire share and stock market has accepted the DEMAT system?

Full text here.


Related:
Relentless demolishing
Day of demolitions

Next stop: Textbook eyecandy


Global superstar, former president, climate activist, tsunami relief agent, sax player: some of the many hats that Bill Clinton dons. Now, his impeachment trial is finding a place in history textbooks in America. We knew all along that it was difficult to ignore a man who commands such a massive influence all over the world.

But this? It's a bit early in the day, no? Personalities should be given some time before being memorialized thus. We are still to see what level the former big gun drops to to get his better half into the White House come 2008.

The course is strictly history though. Not sex education, as one might have imagined. Erstwhile big daddies can't possibly annotate lessons on fellatio, right?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Europe steps up the GPS gas

To get beyond its American dependence. Galileo is born. BBC gets you the dope on the technology as well.

For physics novices still figuring what E, m and c stand for, this may help.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Cult of suicide pacts


Another shocking case of group suicide has emerged in Japan in less than a year. Three men and a woman were found dead Sunday morning in a car parked on the side of a forest road in Tokigawa, Saitama Prefecture.

Seven young people were found in a van in the Saitama mountains to the west of Tokyo on Oct 12 last year.

Both incidents are believed to have been triggered by the meeting of lonely hearts on websites that assist group suicides. Wikipedia informs that the most common method of suicide in such cases is carbon monoxide poisoning achieved by burning charcoal briquettes in grills or stoves within an enclosed area, such as a small sealed room, tent, or car.

Group/mass suicides are not a new phenomenon. The most publicized case in recent memory is of thirty nine people who killed themselves in a hilltop mansion near San Diego, California back in 1997. They believed an alien spaceship was hiding behind the Comet Hale-Bopp and drugged themselves in order to reach it. The victims were self-drugged and then suffocated by other members in a series of suicides over a period of three days. Marshall Applewhite (in the pic) was the leader of the gang, which called itself the Heaven's Gate cult. He died alongwith the others.

Update:

Virginia Woolf isn't the only writer who induces suicidal feelings in readers. Been reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Sample this:

The lovelorn, the cry-for-helpers, all mawkish tragedians who give suicide a bad name are the idiots who rush it, like amateur conductors. A true suicide is a paced, disciplined certainty. People pontificate, "Suicide is Selfishness." Career churchmen like Pater go a step further and call it a cowardly assault on the living. Cowardice is nothing to do with it - suicide takes considerable courage. Japanese have the right idea. No, what’s selfish is to demand another to endure an intolerable existence, just to spare families, friends and enemies a bit of soul-searching...

...Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools and states, you find indelible truths at one's core. Rome'll decline and fall again, Cortes'll lay Tenochititlan to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again, Adrian'll be blown to pieces again, you and I'll sleep under Corsican stars again, I'll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you'll read this letter again, the sun'll grow cold again. Nietzsche's gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternity.

-Robert Frobisher, Letters from Zedelghem

Two poles of The Family


Osama bin Laden's 14 year old son Hamza was shown on Islamic websites last night, clutching a rifle as he joins in an al-Qaeda attack on Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan border. The weapon held by Hamza is a Kalakov machine-gun, a mini version of the Kalashnikov.

This news appears within days of the splashing of Osama’s niece Wafah Dufour's racy photographs in the upcoming issue of style bible GQ.

Python Bursts After Eating Gator


Among NGM's top ten news stories of 2005. Excellent collection.

Conservative ire over ‘Winterval’

I say this not as a Bible-waving Religious Right-winger, but as a socially relaxed libertarian whose last wisps of faith evaporated in college. Even as a non-believer, I resent the relentless drive to convert Christmas into "Holiday" and pretend that all those beautifully decorated trees are really Hanukkah bushes, Kwanzaa shrubs, or Solstice topiaries. The Orwellian impulse to hammer Christmas into the generic "Holiday" is mainly a project of far-Left, militant secularists as well as corporate marketers whose courage can be measured in thimbles. Fearful that "Merry Christmas" might make someone "uncomfortable," they instead antagonize the 95 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas, according to a Fox News poll.

‘‘Banishing the Christianity in Christmas is not multi-culturalism at all — it’s anti-culturalism’’. So intense is the debate that Australian Prime Minister John Howard was compelled to call for ‘‘religion to be put back into Christmas’’. He urged Australians to stop downplaying Christianity during Christmas, fearing it might offend non-Christians and atheists. ‘‘You don’t demonstrate tolerance towards minorities by apologising for your own heritage,’’ he said.

Don’t be tricked by the similarity in the two passages. The first has been penned by NRO columnist Deroy Murdock, and the second by our very own Jinnah-supporter, former BJP man, now Express columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni.

There you are. Conservatives never fail to get their knickers in a twist on such weighty issues as the naming of the Christian festival. Feral conservatives like Murdock disperse their agenda without a spasm, touching upon intelligent design, gay marriage and physician-assisted suicide on the way. True grit conservatives like Kulkarni pick cudgels for the cause no matter what religion they are speaking for. Perhaps the man needs a patient hearing. Too many sane voices within the BJP get drowned out because of the dogmatic boorishness of the upper crust.

Merry Xmas, btw.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Xmas cheer in outer space


An unmanned Russian spaceship carrying food, water, fuel and Christmas goodies for Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and U.S. astronaut William McArthur docked at the International Space Station on Friday. The two have been on board for nearly 3 months as part of NASA's Expedition 12.

McArthur is in good humour about the total incongruity of the situation, reports Reuters.

"Santa's sleigh has arrived," McArthur said. "Valery and I have really been very good boys this year so we're certain there are going to be lots of goodies on board for us."

Goodies include a doll of Father Frost, a Russian analog of Santa Claus, chocolates and DVD disks as Christmas and New Year gifts.

Gosh! I wish I were an astronaut ;)

Dipping in troubled waters

Iranian President Ahmedinejad has banned all Western music from state radio and TV stations, in another reminder of his hardline stand on Islamism. The move reeks of the outlawing of music by Khomeini post the 1979 revolution. Ahmedinejad has been drawing ire from the civilized world for his repeated attempts at caricaturing himself. The news comes within days of his absurd gimmickry in which he asked for Israel to be wiped off the map. The Taliban might have been silenced in Afghanistan but trust history to throw one of their ideological ilk on the face of the earth. The destruction of the magnificent Bamiyan Buddha is still fresh in public memory. The President seems hell-bent on powering Iran's full-throttle decline into cultural and political demise.

Grievous news for Rock/Pop fans. George Michael and Eric Clapton are on the banned list. Guess Ahmedinehad never had a you-look-wonderful-tonight moment.

Quite understandable, hmm?

Related:
Welcome Iran's Lalu Yadav

Friday, December 23, 2005

2005's hits and misses

As 2005 draws to a close, the usual year-end rants about the best of this and that have begun. From the sloppy triteness of Guardian's umpteen lists to the jarringly geeky blogger manuals, there's no escaping this uncalled for windfall. Nevertheless, some light does shine through this morass of worse and worst.

If you, like I, have been smarting over the lack of distinction in this yearly routine, here is something to cheer you up. Journal Science has taken the lead in infusing some measure of sanity in this sorry state.

It has proclaimed Evolution as the scientific breakthrough of 2005, in a year when Darwin's pet theory was heinously attacked by armchair theists garbed as stodgy creationists. The BBC website reports:

The studies bestowed with the title "breakthrough of the year" by Science include the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome; recreation of the 1918 flu virus in a laboratory; and a study on European blackcap birds which demonstrated how two different populations can become two separate species.

The announcement comes in the same week that a US court banned the teaching of intelligent design in classrooms.

Thank Heavens for small mercies! For more, click here.

Chauvinist Hubris Redux

Hindustan Lever have devised a new strategy to sell their fairness cream for men, Fair & Handsome. Two men, seemingly acquaintances, are running away from a posse of girls because one of the guys has a tube of HLL’s fairness cream for women. Once they have saved themselves from the girls’ prying eyes, one of the men (the fairer one, of course) looks at his friend and exclaims in utter disgust some mumbo-jumbo about how rotten for him to use a women’s fairness cream.

What was that?? Are we still watching such rigmarole on television? Some time back, when the entire concept of fairness creams was raising debates in the MSM (how unfair was the gist of them), HLL had shown career women using the cream in a bid to show that fairness can help not just in the matrimonial stakes but also in the stock markets. A girl was shown to have stolen the limelight as a cricket commentator after using the cream (in an askance tribute to Mandira Bedi’s noodle straps, no doubt).

If that wasn’t bad enough for feminist pride, now comes this rotten display of misogyny. Wait a second - the ad doesn’t finish with the two guys rolling in their ignorant mud. The next scene shows the victim using the fairness cream (the one for men, of course) and coming to college, where bimbettes of every size and variation are falling over him like there’s no tomorrow. Yuck! What the crap is wrong with the HLL marketing team? Is this 2005 or some Sati era we are living in?

The last time around, there was talk of banning such ads, but the government, otherwise so active in banning dance bars and adult films on TV, mustn’t be seeing much wrong in the promotion of a culture so dear to the Indian identity. ‘How can we banish something that helps our daughters (and sons) to get fairer (read better), right?’ Fairness is the elixir that cures all; what you possess up there is of slight consequence.

Catch this bigoted, contemptuous, disdainful piece of junk anytime of the day on Indian TV channels.

(Incidentally, the guys in the clip are not quibbling about the very concept of a fairness cream for men, but that's another discussion for a day when I am in a mood to discuss Beckham and SRK.)



Related:

Fatherhood and other patriarchal subversions
Endings: torturous, cathartic, ultimately satisfying (stripping of gendered definitions)

Oops:

HLL is not Fair & Handsome's parent. Emami is.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Honey! Darwin shrunk our free will

The Economist outlines the story of man via the gates of Darwinism. It begins with the question Herbert Spencer raised in the 19th century about the relevance of goodwill and collaboration in a world marked by that catch-all phrase “survival of the fittest”. The article elaborates on why Darwinism segued with the dominant economic system of the time, and since: capitalism, but had no explanation for the evolution of human society and behaviour. None of the secular religions of our times (Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism) are competent in explaining this paradox, but Darwinism comes close: the basis of all social interaction is trust.

Modern Darwinism's big breakthrough was the identification of the central role of trust in human evolution. People who are related collaborate on the basis of nepotism. It takes outrageous profit or provocation for someone to do down a relative with whom they share a lot of genes. Trust, though, allows the unrelated to collaborate, by keeping score of who does what when, and punishing cheats.

Very few animals can manage this. Indeed, outside the primates, only vampire bats have been shown to trust non-relatives routinely. (Well-fed bats will give some of the blood they have swallowed to hungry neighbours, but expect the favour to be returned when they are hungry and will deny favours to those who have cheated in the past.) The human mind, however, seems to have evolved the trick of being able to identify a large number of individuals and to keep score of its relations with them, detecting the dishonest or greedy and taking vengeance, even at some cost to itself. This process may even be—as Matt Ridley, who wrote for this newspaper a century and a half after Spencer, described it—the origin of virtue.

The new social Darwinists (those who see society itself, rather than the savannah or the jungle, as the “natural” environment in which humanity is evolving and to which natural selection responds) have not abandoned Spencer altogether, of course. But they have put a new spin on him. The ranking by wealth of which Spencer so approved is but one example of a wider tendency for people to try to out-do each other. And that competition, whether athletic, artistic or financial, does seem to be about genetic display. Unfakeable demonstrations of a superiority that has at least some underlying genetic component are almost unfailingly attractive to the opposite sex. Thus both of the things needed to make an economy work, collaboration and competition, seem to have evolved under Charles Darwin's penetrating gaze.

A note of caution is introduced in looking at human nature in a purely Darwinian light:

The Earth's most capitalist country, America, is the only place in the rich world that contains a significant group of dissenters from any sort of evolutionary explanation of human behaviour at all. But it is also, in its way, a comforting view. It suggests a constant struggle, not for existence itself, but between selfishness and altruism—a struggle that neither can win. Utopia may be impossible, but Dystopia is unstable, too, as the collapse of Marxism showed. Human nature is not, to use another of Spencer's favourite phrases (though one he borrowed from Tennyson, his poetical contemporary), red in tooth and claw, and societies built around the idea that it is are doomed to early failure.
Interested in another cutting-edge debate within the sciences? Intelligent Design and all that jazz? Click here.

Fatherhood and other patriarchal subversions


Adam Mars-Jones questioned the hypocrisy behind the apparent breaking down of masculine stereotypes in his Venus Envy. Navel-gazing British oddball Toby Young reviewed the book on his blog.

Mars-Jones's argument is that the stress placed on fatherhood by post-feminist men, far from being an attempt to relieve women of the burden of childrearing, is actually a defence of traditional sexual roles. By redefining masculinity in terms of responsibility rather than aggression, men have successfully accommodated the feminist critique within a patriarchal framework. Don't be fooled by all those men pushing prams, he seems to be saying. Babies are just the latest weapons in the battle of the sexes.

To illustrate this thesis he homes in on two works of contemporary literature: Martin Amis's Einstein's Monsters and Ian McEwan's The Child in Time. According to Mars-Jones, by combining a benign portrait of masculinity with a near hysterical attack on nuclear weapons, Amis is reacting to the feminist argument that the bomb is a wholly male phenomenon (a view Mars-Jones appears to share). This explains why Amis represents nuclear weapons as a visitation, a hostile virus, rather than an indigenous aspect of modern (patriarchal) culture. The subtext of Einstein's Monsters is that we can purge the world of its destructiveness without upsetting the sexual status quo; put more simply, the anti-nuclear rhetoric of the Greenham Common Women was a load of loony feminist nonsense.

The Child in Time, while a much more thoughtful book, is, if anything, even more reactionary. By having his hero, Stephen Lewis, deliver his own child, McEwan is attempting to usurp the privileges of female reproduction (the 'Venus Envy' of the title). According to Mars-Jones, in his effort to compensate for the marginal role of men in the reality of creation, McEwan comes perilously close to excluding women from the process altogether.

Now, Mars-Jones writes on Brokeback and assesses the distance the depiction of gay lifestyles has traversed in mainstream movies. It’s a personal and accomplished piece that touches upon the male fear of and condescension towards the feminine. On Brokeback, he is cautiously approving.

The film has been acclaimed for shattering stereotypes. Men who have sex with men need not have a funny walk; they can form deep attachments; they can fix cars and ride steers. All this is news to Hollywood, and good to see on the screen.

On the other hand, much of the fear of homosexuality is fear of the feminine. From this point of view there's something reassuring about men who hook up with each other without benefit of radical drag and gay pride marches. And perhaps just as important as the stereotypes shattered is the stereotype left unrevised: that gay men are isolated, trapped and doomed.

In The Observer.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This tapestry called Life

Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky has spent a lifetime studying stress and its baneful effects on the human body. Among his varied discoveries is the effect adventitious suffering has on human health. This caught my eye while reading a piece in The Washington Post. It is a concept that is readily grasped. I wonder what took so long to put a name to it.

The body's reaction to stress can become chronic and pernicious. This doesn't happen because a physical threat to safety continues for a long time, but because humans -- endowed with imagination, memory and language -- have the ability to create psychological stress, even when no physical or emotional threat is present. Sapolsky, author of the book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," calls this "adventitious suffering -- the pain of what was, what will be, what could be or what someone else is experiencing."

The body makes no distinction between immediate, in-your-face stressors and chronic, in-your-imagination ones, Sapolsky said. Faced with either kind of threat, the body reacts, and when the threat is sustained psychologically, the physically destructive stress response continues.

To me, this is a uniquely modern phenomenon, a condition afflicting our post-modern selves: what Woolf deems “a well of tears” in Mrs. Dalloway.

She remembered once throwing a shilling into the Serpentine. But every one remembered; what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

And a little later:

This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.

This mood permeates the length of the novel. Adventitious suffering, Sapolsky calls it. The question is can it be checked. Is it not built in the fabric of life: to ponder, to reflect, to regret? It is this suffering that kills Septimus, this anxiety that defines Clarissa’s life. What effect might the absence of such traits in the lead characters have had on the quality of the novel? It’s literature at its zenith when Clarissa says to herself, “she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other.” What are the tradeoffs in this fight of sanity and a life that is lived to its fullest, with the attendant frivolities and pursuits, sorrows and grandness? It’s not just about psychology or literature; it’s about rage against an unbearable lightness of being.


Related:

Always...the hours
Depression and Creativity: Brothers in arms?

Thank God for the President


At a time when scams rocking our parliamentarians come a dime a dozen, we should thank our stars that there is at least (though there are more) one public figure who not only picks cudgels on behalf of the honest dead, but also is rather bookish. Here, he spells out his reading list over the last year. The list revolves around Kalam's pet subjects: leadership and science. Browsing it makes you marvel at the breadth of the President's vision and thank providence that this erudite simple man reached the highest office of the land.
To educate and inspire, it would seem.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

French love and other causes celebres

Saubhik Chakrabarti's amusing take on the West's obsession with farm subsidies. The 2013 deadline for phasing them out, decided at the recently concluded Hong Kong ministerial is only a diversionary tactic to take the focus away from the contentious issue. Economics is only one aspect of the story, he claims. History and romance combine to form a potent force that's stopping European leaders from reaching a final and abiding settlement.
France, in fact, is the grandest example of Europe’s love for farm subsidies. That love, like many things French, has complicated, interesting and often enchanting dimensions. Eating is a serious, aesthetic, fussy business in France—wild game sold in small markets of particular localities cannot be substituted by supermarket meat. Farmers who produce these and other treats cannot be substituted by factory agriculture or, horror, third world imports. Farm subsidies are seen as a vital support system for this producer-consumer interface that makes few concessions to modern supply chains. If you have no idea about France, you will have no idea how enormously important this issue is. It’s not about trade losses; it’s about a way of life. It’s about romance. It’s about “national identity”.

The second dimension is political/historical. Many French politicians firmly believe that growing your own food, even if it is expensive, is much better than importing. They draw this belief mostly from Gaullist traditions, which equate food self-sufficiency with national security. France’s defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany and its difficult re-birth as a wholly sovereign entity were marked by severe food shortages. The collective memory persists. So, there are hardly any French politicians, from the Right or the Left, who will argue for cheaper food imports. Some of them are prepared to go to great lengths to do this.
Interesting "diversionary tactic" from the vapid and unengaging reporting this issue's been getting in the MSM.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Relentless demolishing

It's a curious dilemma. The propriety of the demolitions was never in question. Money changed hands, and technically, the illegal usurping of prime property in the national capital must be reversed. But like most dilemmas, it is ultimately a human tragedy. Women expressing their anguish and rage to willing television cameras. Anguish at the prospect of their homes tearing down. Rage against those MCD officers who greased their hands insouciantly and assured them of a viable accomodation. When, the women screamed in unison, when will they be punished?

It must be harrowing, seeing one's home fall brick by brick, emotion by tended emotion. Who is to blame? In a country where governmental corruption is common knowledge and something that is accepted as a part of life, how does one cope with this very twisted aspect of the underhand dealing? You pay money, yet lose out in the end. It wasn't supposed to work that way, right? There was a commitment. A commitment that rests on mutually assured benefit.

The law is catching up with the builders. There is talk of prosecuting MCD officials who let the structures build. But what will happen to those unmindful residents who are losing the roof above their head without sufficient preparation to think alternatives? The winter is turning graver with every passing day. Who is answerable to those who are becoming refugees in the heart of their nation?


Related:

Day of demolitions

Flip-flop President


First came the admission that the Iraq war is not on track. Then the damning revelation of the administration spying on unsuspecting citizens post 9/11 (hail the brilliance of George Orwell). And now, the war is not just right but proceeding so smoothly that the U.S. is all set to win it. Oh really, Mr. President? I think the only victory we are in for is the triumph of chicanery over truth.

"This election will not mean the end of violence, but it is the beginning of something new."

'What exactly, I can't say,' he must have thought. Come Back, Mr. Clinton, all is forgiven. Give us a promiscuous global figure over this scheming ape any day.

In the pic, 'I still sit back at night, the lamp on my table throwing a warm glow on my face, and wonder how I ever got here.'

Pasted inside a Speed Post centre in Delhi

"No speed post parcel of the inland and international (sic) should exceed 1.5 m for any one dimension or 3 m for the sum of the length and the greatest circumference measured in a direction other than the length. This is as per the UPU guidelines."

Manager
Speed Post Centre
New Delhi -
*********
(??)
Solved the puzzle yet? Mindsport, take note.

Hong Kong round meets with partial success

The U.S. may not have budged on Kyoto, but it did everything it could to rescue Hong Kong. Until Saturday evening, European negotiators had insisted that they would not accept any deadline for an end to agricultural subsidies because they wanted a broader definition of export subsidies that would include food aid to poor countries. But bowing to U.S. pressure Saturday, the European Union's agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, introduced a proposal calling for a worldwide ban on agriculture export subsidies by 2013.

The New York Times picks up the holes in this partial success (much-vaunted like the similar half-victory in Montreal last week):

But the Hong Kong Declaration does not settle some of the biggest trade issues facing the W.T.O.'s members. Some of these issues were barely discussed here because the sides are so far apart, including lower tariffs on agricultural and manufactured goods and limits on domestic farm subsidies.

As with many trade agreements at the ministerial level, the declaration also papers over differences that could yet prove troublesome later. An agreement reluctantly accepted by the European Union to end agricultural export subsidies by 2013, for instance, calls for a "substantial" part of the subsidies to be eliminated well before then, but does not specify what that means.

Similarly, the ban on fishing subsidies does not define overfishing. And the agreement on cotton leaves for later the tricky question of how quickly the United States should lower its subsidies, which West African nations blame for depressing the prices that their farmers receive for their crops.


Full Story here.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Double treat: Chomsky interview

I couldn't have asked for a better gift this feative season. First Arundhati, and now Chomsky. Recently voted the world's top public intellectual (buy the latest issue of Tehelka for an in-depth analysis of what makes one) by Prospect magazine, Chomsky sat down with Guardian's Emma Brockes to speak on a host of issues: activism, journalistic ethics, childhood experiences, Bosnia, capitalism. Broadly he maps out in the course of an hour how his whole life has conspired to bring him to do what he's best known for today: speaking up against injustice (though he has a day job as Professor of linguistics). By turns quirky and charming, "vibrating with anger" one moment and smiling the next, Chomsky has a knack for provocativeness. Read this piece for a brief primer on some pertinent issues of our times. (Oct 31 post)
Dec 18 update:
Have been waiting all of last week to include bits from Shelley Walia's excellent piece on him in last Sunday's (Dec 11) Hindu Sunday Magazine. But since it reads nicely with the Guardian article, I am updating this post.
On creativity:
The essence of creativity is innate in all humans, which enables them to think and introspect. Language being inherently a creative entity, its original usage gives one a sense of freedom. Inequality and suffering in the world, therefore, have to be taken into consideration to finally eliminate division. A Marxist standpoint with class as the central tenet thus forms the essence of anarchist theory and practice. Chomsky adds to it the idea of the human linguistic abilities that have the power to resist any social oppression or straitjacketing.
This passage is eerily silimar to the following excerpt from Harold Pinter's Nobel lecture:
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.
On his anarchist philosophy versus an "elite liberalism":
Liberalism of the American New-Dealish brand of cut throat competition and corporate authoritarianism in the industrial sector is what the elite intellectuals take upon themselves to support, whereas the socialist anarchist stands polemically opposed to such hierarchical fascism so integral to corporate thinking which has full control of the policies of the government and is always opposed to trade unionism.
Making the anarchist philosophy work:
Each individual, according to Chomsky, has the responsibility and the creative acumen to take control of his/her society. Therefore, the idea is not to overthrow governments but to take over the corporates so that they begin to work more in favour of the people. Anarchism, in favour of the people, involves the recognition of plurality and diversity, and difference of interests, ideas and opinions. This is the Cartesian underpinning to Chomsky's thought, an impulse towards the non-systematic and highly relative and flexible character of everything in society from organisations to individuals. He takes governance inherently as a communal activity not to be left simply in the hands of the specialists who focus too narrowly on their respective areas of interest, ignoring the larger well being of society. For instance, undesirable jobs like cleaning the sewerage system, or repairing the electrical wires during a snowstorm should necessarily be mechanised, and if there still exist more undesirable jobs, the community should share them. Another solution that Chomsky suggests is that people who do unpleasant jobs should be paid the highest, not the lowest.

"Versatile, Quicksilver, Accomplished" :Proulx herself


Annie Proulx sits down with Bookslut's John Detrixhe to talk about her writing and Brokeback. A very private person who came to writing late in her life, Proulx maps her inspirations.

Actually, walking and hiking is extremely useful for some reason. One is able to untangle characters and plot lines and so forth more easily when walking. Driving does the same thing for me. I find driving, in Wyoming, not anywhere else, very conducive to clear thinking. Or useful thinking, I should say. [Laughs.] Not necessarily clear.

Wyoming has been a recurrent figure in Proulx's stories and her sense of place is so strong that reviewers often include it in the cast of characters they judge. About Brokeback, she expresses her reservations on how the story is overshadowing her other good work, but relents saying she is gratified with the attention and is happy with the bits that were added to transform the story for screen. "Instead of a little canoe, it became an ocean liner."

Here.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Always...the hours


Mrs. Dalloway is the book that, in words often misused in the media, changed the rules of the game for me. Edmund Wilson’s dictum “No two people read the same book” was meant for this one. I reached for the book after watching Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, a heart-wrenching portrayal of loneliness and grief. The Hours is a book written by Michael Cunnigham, and in its opening, he pays tribute to the narrative style that Virginia Woolf employed. He tries it himself in The Hours, but never quite reaches the finesse of Woolf. Richard in the novel accepts as much when he tells Clarissa on the day of his suicide,

I wanted to write about it all, everything that happens in a moment. Way the flowers looked when you carried them in your arms. This towel, how it smells, how it feels, this thread, all our feelings, yours and mine. The history of it. Who we once were, everything in the world, everything all mixed up. Like it's all mixed up now. And I failed. I failed... no matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less... terrifying pride, stupidity. Oh we wanted everything, don't we?

The same evening, Clarissa is throwing a party in his honour for he has won a major literary prize for his collections of poetry. But like Brenda Chenowith in Six Feet Under, that is not reason enough to go on living. Worldly success matters little to Richard. He sees his life as a failure because he has not been able to capture the sanctity of gestures too inchoate to quantify. What he wishes for is a chain of events: a gesture, a thought, a way of resting; anything and everything that may inspire a sudden gladness, taking him back to reminiscences that sustain him and also, in the end, take him.

The book and the movie are almost similar. Daldry has adapted the film scene-to-scene. Who deserved to be knighted the best actress among Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore is a tough nut to crack. My vote goes to Streep for her haunting portrayal of Clarissa Vaughn. Her face, the details of gesture, the grief surrounding her persona, her sighs of relief against the cruelty of life: only a veteran like Streep could bring Clarissa’s existential angst to life. Years pass and the reminder of her love for Richard carries her along. One day in her youth sets the stage for the motions of her entire life. One day.

The beauty of books like Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours is that they honour the respectability of grief. Not the banal kind, but the sadness that lingers through life’s regrets and missed chances. Love, passion, silence are evoked in their most realizable element. They transport you to a horizon where grief is accepted as a part of life and arguably as something that lends dignity to it.

In the pic, Streep and Ed Harris.
Related:

Don't sound the bugles just yet

Pranab Bardhan writes on the underserved fear that China and India have struck in the western imagination. In a snide reference to Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” he decries the irresponsible reporting that has put a gloss to the countries’ real problems:

Columnists have sent breathless reports from Beijing and Bangalore about the inexorable competition from these two new whiz kids in our complacent neighborhood in a "flattened," globalized, playing field.

He questions the veracity of the neo-rich claims. The numbers, despite being impressive, are still a drop in the ocean in percentage terms.

Others have warned about the momentous implications of "three billion new capitalists," largely from China and India, redefining the next phase of globalization. Both China and India are still desperately poor countries. Of the total of 2.3 billion people in these two countries, nearly 1.5 billion earn less than US$2 a day, according to World Bank calculations.

In the nineties, the decade of major trade liberalization, the rate of decline in poverty by some aggregative estimates has, if anything, slowed down. In any case, India is as yet a minor player in world trade, contributing less than one percent of world exports. (China's share is about 6 percent.)

What about the hordes of Indian software engineers, call-center operators, and back-room programmers supposedly hollowing out white-collar jobs in rich countries? The total number of workers in all possible forms of IT-related jobs in India comes to less than a million workers – one-quarter of one percent of the Indian labor force. For all its Nobel Prizes and brilliant scholars and professionals, India is the largest single-country contributor to the pool of illiterate people in the world. Lifting them out of poverty and dead-end menial jobs will remain a Herculean task for decades to come.

He tears down the oft-repeated claim that democracy is the hindrance in India’s pace of reforms. He points to the absence of a rural security net here. (He fails to mention the Employment Guarantee Act in this context. Perhaps this is deliberate: several commentators have criticized the measure as another botomless hole of governmental inequity.)

China's authoritarian system of government will likely be a major economic liability in the long run, regardless of its immediate implications for short-run policy decisions. In the economic reform process, the Chinese leadership has often made bold decisions and implemented them relatively quickly and decisively, whereas in India, reform has been halting and hesitant. This is usually attributed to the inevitably slow processes of democracy in India. And though this may be the case, other factors are involved. For example, the major disruptions and hardships of restructuring in the Chinese economy were rendered somewhat tolerable by a minimum rural safety net – made possible to a large extent by land reforms in 1978. In most parts of India, no similar rural safety net exists for the poor; and the more severe educational inequality in India makes the absorption of shocks in the industrial labor market more difficult. So the resistance to the competitive process of market reform is that much stiffer.

He gives India its due when he points to its better track record in managing political dissent. Interestingly, he alludes to the Chinese (read communist) propensity to over-react in crises. He, however, does not draw attention to China’s poor human rights record.

China is far behind India in the ability to politically manage conflicts, and this may prove to be China's Achilles' Heel. Over the last fifty years, India's extremely heterogeneous society has been riddled with various kinds of conflicts, but the system has by and large managed these conflicts and kept them within moderate bounds. For many centuries, the homogenizing tradition of Chinese high culture, language, and bureaucracy has not given much scope to pluralism and diversity, and a centralizing, authoritarian Communist Party has carried on with this tradition. There is a certain pre-occupation with order and stability in China (not just in the Party), a tendency to over-react to difficult situations, and a quickness to brand dissenting movements and local autonomy efforts as seditious, and it is in this context that one sees dark clouds on the horizon for China's polity and therefore the economy.

Orhan case adjourned


The trial against Orhan Pamuk was adjourned within minutes of its commencing today when the defence put forth the contention that Pamuk’s comments were made before the law that makes it a crime to insult the national identity had come into force. While that may earn Pamuk reprieve when the case comes up for its next hearing on Feb 7, Pamuk in unlikely to gloat over the defence’s rather lame excuse in light of the spirit in which the remarks were made. It is akin to suggesting that Pamuk must be let off only because he made the comments in the nick of time. That is not very heartening for the reputation of an author on whose able shoulders rests not only the need for self-introspection within Turkish society but also the freedom and the discretion of a writer to bring to light injustices and wrongdoings.

Pamuk’s reaction to the developments hasn’t emerged in the media yet. Knowing him, it won’t be charitable. The silence may be for the sake of saving himself 3 years in gaol, but it is likely to singe the soul of one of the foremost activist-writers of our times.

Will be tracking the case as it moves along.
Update:
Pamuk displays his genius in his latest write-up by drawing attention to the larger malaise of globalization affecting erstwhile traditional socities like India and China. I shall not refer to its more contextual contents because that has received a lot of media coverage already, including on this blog.
That said, the drama we see unfolding is not, I think, a grotesque and inscrutable drama peculiar to Turkey; rather, it is an expression of a new global phenomenon that we are only just coming to acknowledge and that we must now begin, however slowly, to address. In recent years, we have witnessed the astounding economic rise of India and China, and in both these countries we have also seen the rapid expansion of the middle class, though I do not think we shall truly understand the people who have been part of this transformation until we have seen their private lives reflected in novels. Whatever you call these new élites—the non-Western bourgeoisie or the enriched bureaucracy—they, like the Westernizing élites in my own country, feel compelled to follow two separate and seemingly incompatible lines of action in order to legitimatize their newly acquired wealth and power. First, they must justify the rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the idiom and the attitudes of the West; having created a demand for such knowledge, they then take it upon themselves to tutor their countrymen. When the people berate them for ignoring tradition, they respond by brandishing a virulent and intolerant nationalism. The disputes that a Flaubert-like outside observer might call bizarreries may simply be the clashes between these political and economic programs and the cultural aspirations they engender. On the one hand, there is the rush to join the global economy; on the other, the angry nationalism that sees true democracy and freedom of thought as Western inventions.
It is extremely important for writers to chronicle the ordinariness of lives caught in the cross-currents of such global conflicts. That is the only solace this rapid change can offer to those who cannot otherwise make sense of the benumbing transitions.
In a later passage, he questions the neocon philosophy of the Bush empire because it is seriously hampering the case of "western" democracy that people like him are trying to promote in their countries.
As tomorrow’s novelists prepare to narrate the private lives of the new élites, they are no doubt expecting the West to criticize the limits that their states place on freedom of expression. But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world.
Pamuk is being smart in extending the essentially parochial debate to larger themes of our times, namely globalization and the war in Iraq. Ironically, his being hounded has landed him in a unique spot from which his comments on such unrelated topics will also draw notice. More power to him.


Related:
Orhan Pamuk: The fight for a novelist's soul

Friday, December 16, 2005

Mona Lisa's enduring magic


She has mystified and captivated us, yet nothing seems to diminish the enigma surrounding Mona Lisa. What exactly does she feel, is a question artists and scientists have explored for centuries. Is she sad, reflective, happy, disgusted…what? Leonardo Da Vinci’s epic creation invites any number of interpretations depending on the state of mind of the observer. Whatever you may be thinking, Mona Lisa seems to empathize. It’s not just that the contours of the painting are brilliant; it is also the mischief, the “I-know-what-you-did-last-summer” look in the eyes that confounds many.

Now scientists have tried dwelling into the mind, rather face of history’s perennial treasure trove by using a software that recognizes a person’s emotions by examining the face. They have concluded that Mona Lisa is 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, and 2 percent angry. You may make what you think of the discovery. The software must be, no doubt, a sophisticated one, but one still scratches the head on such a neat demarcation of the emotions that a person feels. It’s too mathematical for my taste and I would like to think that emotions and lives are slightly more mixed up than that.

Anyway, it only establishes that the prima donna of the art world shall continue to hog headlines for a long time to come.

SEBI dredges up another scam

The fickleness of the capital markets again came to light today with the SEBI unearthing a demat racket involving entities that opened thousands of demat accounts and applied for the Yes Bank public issue through multiple applications to ensure higher allotments in the retail portion of the offering. One of the benami agents, Roopalben Panchal applied for a single application in her name and got none. Nevertheless she turned richer by 9.47 lakh shares that were allotted to her through the 6,315 demat accounts she had opened with depository participant Karvy. All demat accounts were with Karvy, and all bank accounts with Bharat Overseas Bank. These two entities have also been sent notices by Sebi to examine their application norms.

For someone who has burned his hands in the stock markets, such news only re-establishes the volatility of this kind of investment. What kind of risk appetite does the government expect investors to have? Parallel economies run on the markets, most notably, research analysts who dispel advice on the best buys. Business news channels are lauded for changing the rules of journalism by bringing slickness to an erstwhile dour medium. Who will however take responsibility in the event of a meltdown for the humongous amount of stock advice doled out every day?

If you are in any way interested in equity, my advice is look long-term. If you park your funds in blue-chips like Infosys and TCS, there is little likelihood that you’ll incur losses on a 4-5 year outlook. You can also look at mutual funds that do the investing for you by tapping into sound research and financial tools. The bigwig here is “long-term”. If you are the kind of person who gets the jitters on every dip in the markets, stay away and spare yourself a lifetime of anxiety.

Related:
City Slickers hit the hay

Up to cockney, tarts and lager?


The recent race riots in cities dotting the Western map have launched a series of speculative commenting among columnists and analysts on what is the best way of integrating immigrants. Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes in the Boston Globe, on the experiences that countries have traditionally had with their systems of governance and why, in his view, the American melting pot is the best of them all.

Different countries already had different attitudes to the idea of nationhood: German identity was founded on the Volk (the people) and the French republican version was founded on the patrie, ethnic as opposed to civic nationalism. German immigration law, dating back a hundred years, has been well-nigh racial in inspiration. Anyone can claim German nationality who can prove German descent, but it was very difficult indeed for anyone else to ''become a German."

In France the official attitude was quite different. France had a long history of migration and assimilation, and a melting pot kept on a higher flame than the American one. Reagan's ''you can't become a Frenchman" was not quite right. France believed in a mission civilatrice, and this meant among other things that little boys from Martinique to Senegal to Indochina might achieve the highest honor of all by becoming Frenchmen.

In England and Holland there has been another factor, what William Pfaff, the American columnist who writes from Paris, calls ''ghettoization through political correctness." People were encouraged to think of themselves as members of a specific community, black or Muslim, rather than as citizens of the country in which they lived.

That was the exact opposite of the American tradition, whereby immigrants were taught to identify with flag and constitution. It is more than significant that the Blair government has now deliberately adopted the American model. Those seeking British citizenship are for the first time expected to show some knowledge of British history and culture, and then take a pledge of allegiance to crown and country.

This move by the Blair government, disgracefully termed the “Patriotism test”, invited wide condemnation. What it demonstrates is a deeper malaise of the polity in not being able to identify rightful means that one can employ to prove the so-called “allegiance to crown and country”. Both sides have a certain merit to their argument, but leadership is ultimately about taking a nuanced stand, no matter the compromises involved. The patriotism test, to that extent, might be useful. Wheatcroft however contradicts himself by alluding to the discriminatory nature of the test:

So can anyone become British after all? Norman Tebbit, who was one of Margaret Thatcher's key lieutenants has proposed a new version of traditional loyalty oaths or badges of identity, in the form of a ''cricket test." When brown-skinned boys, second- or third-generation British, from Bradford or Luton go to watch England play Pakistan, which side do they support? It was a trick question, and a mean one, since (as Lord Tebbit well knew) they are often seen at Headingley and Lord's supporting their ancestral rather than their native land.

That is not in truth a fair test. We all have multiple identities and mixed loyalties, national, religious, political, social. As it happens, there are enthusiastic Muslim cricket leagues in Yorkshire. A very few of their players might become terrorists, but most don't. And yet the whole question of radical Islamism has muddied the waters of assimilation and identity, with that PC ghettoization playing a lamentable part.

I have blogged about the emasculation of the British identity because of the post-modernist political correctness that every civilized person and his uncle have been reared to accept/ follow. Why should a society accept the kind of split allegiance referred to above? Salman Rushdie’s recent essay provoked me to write a rejoinder on why the western world needs to lay down stricter guidelines about protecting its bastions of civility, which under the menacing gaze of the terrorists, have begun to look like dens of incompetent policy-making. Here’s an excerpt from my post:

In my opinion, he (Rushdie) oversimplifies the argument there a bit by suggesting that such riots spark off when the mitt of "white" patience is dislodged. That is not always the case. Indians have been living in the west for centuries; while cases of racism are common, they have never borne the brunt of the so-called supremacist fury. If it is really about retaining the authenticity/ purity of the white faith, how have Indians made, rather been accorded the privilege to make such a name for themselves in those countries? When Rushdie questions: "what does a society owe to its citizens?", he needs to be countered, how much should a society bend to accommodate those who are both cagey about returning to the dens of distress their forefather left long ago and adept at criticizing their acquired homeland for not doing enough.The issue here is that the world changed on 9/11. Western societies realized that the home and hearth they had been protecting for decades was not immune to the rage of distant tribes. It is the helplessness that they feel in not being able to locate, much less decimate, the enemy that has supplied fuel to the fire. Riots across the western world (count Paris and Sydney as the latest) have little to do with gilt-edged longings for erstwhile colonial identities. If that were the case, analyzing them would still be reasonably possible. That it is not is the real tragedy of post-modernism. Brownlow in The Black Album is its classic victim, too careful of being politically incorrect, considered a wimp by one and all.
Related:

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Murky underbelly of Transplant Tourism

The latest in the long string of human rights violations in China relates to "suspicions that death row prisoners in China have their organs removed - with or without their permission - before being shot, to ensure they are in prime condition".

These horrific findings came to light Sunday. Quoted in the Daily Mail, Prof. Nadey Hakim, head of transplantation surgery at Hammersmith Hospital, said: "I suspect that to get decent organs they most probably operate on the prisoners before they get a bullet in the head. I can't see any other way of doing it."

The kidney operations, whose beneficiaries are mostly British nationals, are being offered by an Internet company - transplantsinternational.com - which charges £23,000 for the procedure. The price includes a month-long stay in hospital with a friend or relative.

In a gruesome reminder of Chinese lackadaisicality on its wretched human rights record, January is likely to be a 'bumper month' for organs as it is the usual practice to execute prisoners en masse in the run-up to the Chinese New Year on January 29.
China uses the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, from murder to economic crimes such as corruption. A Beijing court today sentenced to death a senior official of a securities company for graft and embezzling public funds worth over eight million US dollars.

These reports appear within a week of police violently suppressing a protest against the construction of a power plant in the southern town of Dongzhou, an incident that killed 20 people and which is being dubbed Tiananmen II. It received little media coverage inside China because of the communist regime's "ambitions to control the flow of information to its citizens, and of the increasingly sophisticated techniques - a combination of authoritarian methods and the latest technologies - that it uses to keep people in the dark".
Related:

Endings: torturous, cathartic, ultimately satisfying


Philip Hensher, author of The Mulberry Empire, writes in the Telegraph on the importance of fine endings in a literary work. He marks the last lines from the world’s best-known books, including Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Not only does he dwell on the writer’s obligation to provide a befitting conclusion to their work, but also discusses the importance of cadence in this scheme. Cadence, he asserts, is what distinguishes a good book from a masterpiece.

While reading the piece, the ending of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway kept ringing in my head, and I was desperate for Hensher to refer to it. He does not mention it, but he acknowledges the amorphous ending by citing The Ambassadors:

The predominant mode, really, for 100 years, has been the straightforward Ambiguous Ending. When The Ambassadors ends, " 'Then there we are!' said Strether," what on Earth does that mean? Readers have been arguing over that for 100 years.

How very similar this passage is to Peter Walsh’s final thoughts:

What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?...What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.

Then it strikes you, The Ambassadors was written by Henry James. Both modernists, the similarity in their work has been attributed as much to their styles (stream of consciousness) as to their willingness to strip gendered definitions in their works. Virginia did, of course, question the boundaries between masculine and feminine sensibilities, most notably in Orlando. Is it any wonder then that to followers of the Master, Woolf is the unchallenged diva of the kind of prose that lays claim on your emotional sanity and lives within you long after the pages have turned yellow?

Here’s Hensher’s take on Brokeback Mountain, much in the news only now, despite being a gem of a work:

When Annie Proulx ends her novella Brokeback Mountain with the sad assertion, "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it, you've got to stand it," no one is likely to complain about its old-fashioned quality.

Read this piece for an astute primer on the gifts of the writerly life.

Branson blasts into space



Ace entrepreneur and social butterfly Richard Branson will launch his space travel plans from a $225 million spaceport in southern New Mexico. The company will be named Virgin Galactic. The nomenclature might be the only dampener in this bit of fantastic news. Galactic sounds like a siamese to Atlantic: can we get any more unimaginative?

"We're about to embark on a wonderful adventure. We’re going where no one has gone before. There's no model to follow, nothing to copy," Branson said in his trademark scream-from-the rooftops style.

The company plans to send 50,000 customers into space in the first 10 years of operation from the world's first purpose-built private spaceport.

For trivia buffs, Roswell, the proposed site for the construction of the spaceport, is believed to have been the site of a UFO crash in 1947.
The place also lends its name to the hit US television drama that showcased heart-of-gold aliens living among humans.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Creationism versus Evolution? God knows!


I have written on these pages about the debate raging within the Vatican on creationism. Supporters of intelligent design routinely give a theistic angle to their argument, and this is the fundamental bone of contention between the two sides. British ethologist and science writer Richard Dawkins presents his case in this interview with Beliefnet. Atheism and regard for the scientific spirit ooze undiluted in his words.

On the notion that evolution and natural selection make some people feel that everything is meaningless:

If it’s true it causes people to feel despair, that’s tough. It’s still the truth. The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it’s true, it’s true, and you'd better live with it.

However, I don’t think it should make one feel depressed. I don’t feel depressed. I feel elated. My book, "Unweaving the Rainbow," is an attempt to elevate science to the level of poetry and to show how one can be—in a funny sort of way—rather spiritual about science. Not in a supernatural sense, but there are uplifting mysteries to be solved. The contemplation of the size and scale of the universe, of the depth of geological time, of the complexity of life--these all, to me, have an inspirational quality. It makes my life worthwhile to study them.

On the theistic viewpoint:

it doesn’t explain where the designer comes from. If they’re going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs—"these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?"--well, if they’re so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.

The idea of God:

Wouldn’t it be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, can give you advice? Of course it’s satisfying, if you can believe it. But who wants to believe a lie?

On whether atheism derives from evolution:

They clearly can’t be irrevocably linked because a very large number of theologians believe in evolution. In fact, any respectable theologian of the Catholic or Anglican or any other sensible church believes in evolution. Similarly, a very large number of evolutionary scientists are also religious. My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism.

Cash-for-questions a godsend for Congress


When the winter session of parliament convened last fortnight, the Congress party was in a shambles. The morale of the grassroots was down after the back-to-back routing in Bihar. Volckeritis, a particularly virulent strain whose primary symptom is edginess, had contaminated every nook and cranny of 24, Akbar Road. The Left was breathing down the government’s neck and Natwar Singh’s mulishness was inviting ridicule from every quarter.

It was in the midst of this sorry state that Aniruddha Bahal, that old charmer who had snuck his way into the BJP some years ago, recalled the hidden cam from the cobwebs of his rather-aptly titled Cobrapost office, swooped down on unsuspecting MP’s with fetching wads of cash (you poor, poor Bangaru: the ghost of Tehelka, the memory of that lingering image refuses to dissipate), and with the able aid of the TV Today group, conceived the latest corruption scandal to rock the nation.

But there's more. Of the eleven members caught with their pants down, 6 belonged to the BJP. The party which despite its Bangarus and Judeos still thinks corruption in its ranks is the exception rather than the norm, immediately expelled the erring gang, with a visibly upset Advani lecturing the parliamentary wing on the need for probity in public life (yawn!).

The Congress swung into jubilant mode. Whispers of “my crook smartest” reverberated through the boardrooms of political India.

After all, for every Bofors, there is a Coffin. For every Satish, a Bangaru. For every Volcker, a Bahal for a whistleblower.

Meanwhile, our MP’s who have been scouting for ways to save their…uhm dignity despite will-o-the-wisp efforts at reforming themselves (my heart so goes out to them it could break) have discovered a fine means to trump those journalistic sods at the game. Welcome the Radio Frequency Signal Detector. Radio frequencies are commonly used by mine clearance teams, military forces, border patrol, bomb detection teams, VIP security forces, Law Enforcement and government Agencies. What can help our netas, however, is the innocuously titled Video Camera Detector. The VCD is specially made for detecting hidden cameras and is insensitive to cellular phone signals. One can set in on vibrate mode and know if video cameras are present in the vicinity. An alert vibration informs you that there’s someone out there to nail your truth. The depravity of that truth is entirely your prerogative, by the way. Radio frequencies don’t detect that (un)fortunately.

Cheers, Honorable members of the House! Make hay while the sun still shines on that bowed head of humility looking on at your den of collective wickedness.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Brokeback leads Golden Globe nominations


Path-breakingly romantic, cinematically genius, visually stunning, charming in an old-fashioned way...these are some of the accolades being heaped on the screen version of Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, a moving portrait of the love that two men share. Heath Ledger has been gathering praise for his quietly restrained performance depicting the tortured persona of Ennis del Mar. There are many interpretations of the story, and people on various points of the sexuality spectrum have relished this timeless saga of the unique limitlessness of love. The story, as also the movie, desists from becoming a mushy saga of gay love, and challenges the reader's perception of what is psychologically acceptable, as also possible, if two people find compatibility. What ways their lives move and what are the consequences, these are the questions explored.

The movie picked up seven nominations, including best dramatic picture, best director (Ang Lee), best actor in a drama (Heath Ledger) and best supporting actress in a drama (Michelle Williams). It was also nominated for best screenplay, best original score and best original song. The Golden Globes are considered a sophisticated dress rehearsal for the Oscars, and already the rush for the big one is giving the fraternity sleepless nights. Brokeback appears to have taken an early lead in this race. It spells loads of excitement for viewers and industry watchers alike.

In the pic, Heath Ledger (left) with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Rushdie jumps the shark


In the backdrop of the race riots raging in Sydney, Salman Rushdie examines the phenomenon of immigrant discontent and natives' fury in this essay posted on the Times, UK.

In the age of mass migration and the internet, cultural plurality is an irreversible fact; like it or dislike it, it’s where we live, and the dream of a pure monoculture is at best an unattainable, nostalgic fantasy and at worst a life-threatening menace — when ideas of purity (racial purity, religious purity, cultural purity) turn into programmes of “ethnic cleansing” or when Hindu fanatics attack the “inauthenticity” of Indian Muslim experience, or when Islamic ideologues drive young people to die in the service of “pure” faith, unadulterated by compassion or doubt. “Purity” is a slogan that leads to segregations and explosions. Let us have no more of it. A little more impurity, please; a little less cleanliness; a little more dirt. We’ll all sleep easier in our beds.

In my opinion, he oversimplifies the argument there a bit by suggesting that such riots spark off when the mitt of "white" patience is dislodged. That is not always the case. Indians have been living in the west for centuries; while cases of racism are common, they have never borne the brunt of the so-called supremacist fury. If it is really about retaining the authenticity/ purity of the white faith, how have Indians made, rather been accorded the privilege to make such a name for themselves in those countries? When Rushdie questions: "what does a society owe to its citizens?", he needs to be countered, how much should a society bend to accommodate those who are both cagey about returning to the dens of distress their forefather left long ago and adept at criticizing their acquired homeland for not doing enough.

The issue here is that the world changed on 9/11. Western societies realized that the home and hearth they had been protecting for decades was not immune to the rage of distant tribes. It is the helplessness that they feel in not being able to locate, much less decimate, the enemy that has supplied fuel to the fire. Riots across the western world (count Paris and Sydney as the latest) have little to do with gilt-edged longings for erstwhile colonial identities. If that were the case, analyzing them would still be reasonably possible. That it is not is the real tragedy of post-modernism. Brownlow in The Black Album is its classic victim, too careful of being politically incorrect, considered a wimp by one and all.
That Rushdie is making these observations is a tad baffling, for sure. Losing your vintage touch, Salman?
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