No place for the unarmed

We have come to a point where the accident of our birth is become a sign of virtue/merit or sin/shame. It seems to me to be a rolling back of everything the 20th century fought for – that it was possible to overcome the drawbacks of our birth if we so wished. Everything was supposed to be about free will, choice, freedom, rewards for effort and the virtue of self-education. It has now become about being the ‘right’ type, learning to think in the right apocalyptic way, and to learn the right forms of political interaction and groupthink.

So folks are now going to justify bullying, shaming and silencing by saying that people ‘like’ you (with markers of nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion) have been known to do this and this so you are at fault, no matter what you have done as an individual. You deserve it. History puts you at fault, and someone else writes history now. Your turn to be oppressed. We must first reverse the balance of power before we’ll talk about equal and uniform rights for all. And we are exceptional; and while some of us may be at fault, you cannot accuse people ‘like’ me. Take it. Apologize now, and always.

I find this strange, no matter which side it comes from.

Ah, this terrible eviction of the elite….

What’s happening? People are occupying residences in Delhi’s posh locations even though they are no longer entitled to. This is (what someone else calls) “The Lutyens’ Crisis” in Delhi, India.

Who are these occupants? Former ministers, ex-Members of Parliament, bureaucrats and officials who served under governments, artistes, sportspersons, journalists, totaling about 800 persons who have overstayed their allotted time, some by decades. “The practice of allotting houses to non governmental persons started during the reign of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but the maximum allotments has happened during the tenures of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. While the Culture Ministry recommended names of eligible accredited journalists, Sports Ministry of eminent sportsmen and Home Ministry decided on those under threat from terrorist groups.” [says Manorama Online]

What are they saying? That these are all mala fide intentions of the ruling establishment against the opposition at this time.

Those who grew up in India before this century know of this culture of elite ‘squatters.’ Those who knew someone who worked for a central or state government knew it even better; if you were not at the ministerial or portfolio level, you had to leave when your time at a government flat was up, or you had to pay market rent (which took most of the paycheck under the payscale at the time).

Somehow, this mentality of rewarding a Darwinian ascent to a top job with material benefits for life to the individual and his/her extended family became so commonplace that no one questioned it, and indeed most even aspired to it. If you got those jobs, you were set for life.

Then as now, when people make the A-list of achievement, material honors accompany awards. This is known, accepted, aspired to.

But two complaints intertwine here:

1.That bureaucrats and their dependents should think of and claim state subsidized housing as a reward for their ‘seat’ in office well beyond their time in office.

  1. That stars in the worlds of culture and sports should think that they, too, deserve a ‘show’ of respect from the government in the form of material rewards throughout their lifetime.

And I want to connect point # 2 to the ‘Award Wapsi’ torrent in India, supposedly performed as a show of no-confidence in the current Prime Minister of India and his supporters, and also to the points made by a few film actors that they would not return their national awards because they felt they had been honored by the people and not by a particular government. I had praised the latter position without understanding the former (those who returned their awards but not the cash or the material rewards that had accompanied the awards). Now, I think I understand the mentality: high-achievers in media and culture and communication industries, if groomed to think their efforts would be rewarded materially by the central government, would naturally look upon those awards as a badge of recognition by a government, no matter if the institution giving them the awards was a government body or not. And they would expect each successive government to continue to honor them as they think they should be treasured. Trouble is, this sort of award-reward relationship is one imagined between the artiste and the government as a political body, not between the artiste and the people who choose to honor the artiste. Further trouble: the attitude of entitlement on the part of certain artistes, as if awards and honors are due payments, not gifts and symbolic means of respect. The artistes who returned the awards perhaps forgot that the awards are understood to be a sign of popular recognition, no matter if the actual people voting for the awardees were a select and elite in-group. Only those who think that the awards are signs of favor from a ruling government (as if the artistes were durbaaris at court) would show their pique by returning them. If they had meant to act against the intolerance they detect in the nation, they would have gone on public media to engage with the people at large in public debate. It is only when the idea of the nation in the minds of the elites becomes so circumscribed that it cannot extend beyond what exists within the award-giving, the award-receiving, and the award-influencing crowd that such a gesture of ‘return’ can be described as a gesture of protest against intolerance instead of an un-artistic gesture of no-confidence in a political party they may or may not like.

It is mind-boggling to find that respected and socially innovative achievers find it ethical and moral to break the rules that apply to all junior government servants. Why do those who are the nation’s most honored feel the nation owes them so disproportionately much for their hard work? Did they work only for the nation? Not really, most of them reject nationalism of all stripes. Did they never make any money from their achievements? Rhetorical question.

In anger the common citizen might well ask: What have you really given back? Returned awards do not equal service. Or do you not believe that others are owed, too? Are the nation’s coffers your personal allotment?

And I will ask: Why do some enormously talented, educated and intelligent people behave as if all that they feel is owed to them must be translated into material benefits? Is honor not enough?

The ‘mentality that ‘the nation owes me’ must go.

Opinion: On anthems and faiths

[Thus I anticipate my derisive critics: allow me to parade my ignorance. You may have your say later and in more public fora, I am sure, than this obscure page. And yes, I know you will take from my ill-informed arguments what you need to build your own powerful ones. ]

Within the context of the ‘Intolerance’ debates in India, some rejoice because it has been declared: ‘It is constitutional not to stand for the national anthem of India.’

Since it is so, therefore one may use any excuse or rationale to refuse to stand. The law is not broken, therefore all is well. And so ethics falls to belief.

What was the precipitating incident? This Indian Muslim family refused and was asked to leave the theatre.

An insistence on respect for the nation is seen by some as an intolerant imposition of majority (Hindu) norms on one of India’s minority communities. Just like before. Those Hindus, even multiple imperialisms haven’t taught them how to tolerate.

Some other members of non-Hindu communities do not see a conflict between faith and nation, religion and respect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHLd1VjRfzk. But these are the people on the street. Aam aadmi. The bourgeoisie. Philistines. #Modimorons. Bhakts. What do they know?

The nation, after all, according to enlightened postcolonial intellectuals, is dead! Never again should we stand…etc. Hinduism was a construct of the British. The Indian nation was a construct of the British. Postcolonial enlightenment demands that both be cast out. Along with things such as patriotism, but do bring in Harvard whenever possible please, especially at places such as the Kumbh Mela. ‘We’ like being pre-national and post-national at once. Our own cohort of intellectuals have crafted a logic and rhetoric to make it possible, of course the ordinary Indian cannot understand or accept the vision of the subcontinent we are trying to fund and craft.

If my tone has been a touch acid so far, the next bit is straightforward.

My point is utilitarian and democratic: if you wish to avail of the benefits of citizenship in India as a member of a minority community (Special Personal Law above the law of the land, affirmative action, paid pilgrimages, money for every girl child born into specific religions, etc.; India has over 80% constitutional reservations for people of various communities and caste groups and sects, even ‘Hindu’ minorities) then you owe something to the nation. You cannot expect the country at large to submit to your demands for wellness in this life while you invest everything you get in your personal concept of the hereafter as enshrined in this or that faith. Your faith may tell you that the opinions of those who do not support your faithful behavior do not matter, but the rest of India does not need to voluntarily submit to one-sided transactional citizenship, not even when their elites tell them to, especially if your actions and loyalties support the dismantling of said nation.

You are not permitted to forego your debts or your duties if you have enjoyed your rights until now. And these apply to every state, to every disgruntled person who claims discrimination and economic backwardness as an excuse for destructive public acts, to every apologist for a libertarian, existentialist agenda in militant activity against bad faith. Take what you can give, and take and give as much as is mutually agreed upon.

If you do not wish to stand for the symbols of the nation, show your respect to the nation by some other means, and do not enter the theatre (of film or nation) until the anthem is over. If all such symbols offend you, do not ask for any special benefits from the nation by virtue of the same belief-system (religion, non-religion) that makes you a minority. Or a majority, for that matter.

We are all, supposedly, talking and fighting over a nation we want the current hapless ‘India’ to be. Make it equitable. Make it democratic.

And please make the constructed (nation, act)and the critiqued (act, law, custom) unique to the locale (the Indian subcontinent). The version of secular democracy that should be allowed to evolve in India — through the daily negotiations of the ordinary public en route to individual life goals — may not coincide with Enlightenment-inherited or foreign-foundation-funded values of what experts think it should be. And that’s as it should be.

 

Pie charts

Three links. Yours to read, juxtapose, ponder.

My view: the pie (India’s distributable resources)  is not endless, people. Let’s also talk about how to grow it in size while we decide how to fight over how to divide it up.

A South Asia without borders is also a region without a single entity to provide subsidized healthcare, aid to victims of natural disasters, incentive to industry and technology, and the privileges of reservations.

A call to divide India up still further. (Other bits of supposedly “impeccable logic” from Pakistan and JNU. ) Please set these against this call for 100 % caste-based reservations in India.

Who gets what land? What industry? How is the reservation system to be enforced if regional majorities impose their own rule in each state? Will we resettle minorities to areas where they are majorities? I wish these learned people who write such articles and propose such policy changes would consider the massive upheaval, conflict and resentment they are instigating.

Above all, how is the logic of more power to regions compatible with centrally decided logics of affirmative actions? Should India convert to a loose semi-autonomous coalition? As before the British Raj? Shall we wait for another ‘settler colonial’?

Songs of Nations

The Tale of Kings, Rajkahini, (2015), has a song of warning. And its warning is meant to rise above the complex dialectic of opinions on why audiences will listen to it and why they should not.

Some will say, with painstaking accuracy, that the song ‘Bharot bhagyo bidhaata’ is not the Indian National Anthem. The Anthem is comprised of the few lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s original poem, this song in the film is the rest of the poem. Artistes will stress they are producing culture, Bengal, music, Tagore, mela-mesha, aman ki asha, tolerance, even warning, and certainly they are not promoting nationalism. India is not their focus, Bengal is, Bangladesh is. What will be heard of their fine distinction?

Some will listen and be roused by the familiar notes of an anthem they had forgotten to sing, and then felt forbidden to sing (it is surely too parochial, too unmodern, too jingoistic to sing for a nation whose structure gives you the mediocre benefits of its citizenship) and all in conjunction with the faces and names of singers and actors they admire.

Some will be moved to tears by the beauty of the words and the symbolism of the music, in which they will hear longing and belonging to a home, see memories of a fair place, a distant ‘city on a hill,’  and remember a time before the intensification of religious and ethnic tensions in the subcontinent. They won’t stand to attention and salute a flag or a symbol, but they will feel the pull of love and longing for the spaces they call ‘bharot’ in the same place in their hearts where they keep all songs of lost innocence. Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.

And some others will see a critique of nations. They will see the blood and corpses that built the wall of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and will warn the masses that such are nations. At least, such are nations whose boundaries were drawn by modern colonizers, and that is why, they will say, we must seek to re-draw those lines to suit better the nations and tribes and kingdoms and dreams we had before the world entered the age of nations. We need to re-order and keep re-ordering our world for the ‘better.’ Let’s start with the concept of ‘India.’

This is a time of confronting the nation, accepting it or rejecting it, a time of denunciations, and a time for the making of art about it. A time when nationalist sentiment roused by wayward echoes of anthems can be denounced as negative, and people can be taught what to think of the fate of the land beneath their feet. They will be taught to choose against whatever primal defense they will be roused to by the echoes of the Anthem. And many will do so. This is still a safe time.

Some others, good audiences, will see a warning of what happens when too many divided peoples begin to fight for what they want with axe and gun and knife. Perhaps they think that films and scenes such as these will tell people to turn away from militant nationalism.

I think yet some others will look at the path to a separate nation, will see it made possible by a bridge of corpses, and will think they can pay the price and do it.

Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.

Ignorance

September 9, 2015: On ignorance.

A NYT article that many are reading now picks up on and advocates for an old course from the 1980’s, “Ignorance 101 ” in scientific practice, and on a 2012 book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” in order to argue for the breakdown of the cognitive binary of ignorance & knowledge.

People, the article argues, “tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.” In reality and in practice, “The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Why is this important? Because humans and their inventions have gathered a constantly increasing body of knowledge that is now impossible for any single human being to master. If the command of knowledge 3000 years ago was about knowing what the rest of your class and city-state knew, now it is about being able to ask relevant questions. Our work, across the world, is now ‘knowledge work,’ constantly changing in scope and definition. Part of our job is to know what we need to know for the task at hand, and how to ask about what we do not know.

In medical practice in the United States, most practicing doctors do not declare at the outset to their patients that ‘medical science may have spent billions of dollars and hundreds of years but it still does not know much about the human body or its biological environment. At best, we have best practice models.’ Why not? Partly because the power to discover and treat illness and thereby hold off death is still a potent thing, and most people want their doctors to know how to deal with the specters of illness and death. They also want quick solutions, not ongoing and incremental life-style changes. Doctors have become specialists in an industry called healthcare, they are experts, and they are paid to know. And the patients want the doctors to be able to assure them that their own ignorance will not mean the high cost of life. In between the insurance companies want better rules for practice; the smaller the margin of practical error the easier to find its correlation to money gained or lost. Also, it is not the American way to be still and watchful in the face of ambiguity. Americans like to ‘do’ things, get things ‘done,’ measure and match and mark the gains. They are not comfortable with public acceptance of the idea that the more we know the more we do not know.

Why am I not surprised by this? Because this is milk and water for people with my kind of training in literature and culture. I have argued endlessly with my scientific and technological family members on the idea that ambiguity, uncertainty, interpretative openness and lack of closure can be useful and productive things when we deal with clusters of interacting human beings (society), human relationships (family, business, politics) and human motivations. Most of the time, I could not ‘prove’ my points with facts and data to those who do not trust the reasoning of words and perceptions, so I ‘lost’ the debates.

However, performing artists everywhere, and the art and literature of the last thousand years in every culture will testify to the productive space of not knowing. This learning of ignorance and its uses in a public and open way is something new for the generations of scientific practitioners and for their acolytes, not necessarily for those who work with art.

All artists start the day with a blank canvas, a blank page, a blank score, an empty stage. And every day they create something out of their attention to and interaction with that ignorance of what will come. They brush away the old cues and they allow you to make a space for not knowing. They allow a rhythm of knowing and not knowing, until something else emerges, and each actor and participant and listener and witness can find a settling point for the time being. Fold their wings. Watch and listen, and begin anew. One example is Peter Sellars’ work  on Handel’s Hercules (here ).

This call for the use of ‘ignorance’ is therefore better understood as a use of ‘not knowing.’

A redefinition of expertise as something to be constantly mapped, an understanding of knowledge as exploration, and a sort of re-framing of the attitude of the scientific practitioner to the field and subject of knowledge. The new and desirable attitude is presented as one of humility where the previous attitudes had been those of mastery and overcoming. This sort of public discourse about disciplinary changes and modifications in how practitioners of science approach the everyday anomalous human they encounter is in line with our temporal (still nascent) shift from the stance of the ‘anthropomorphic master of his age’ to the ‘human as intelligent inter-actor’ with his still-unpredictable environment. And so we may, at the end of the century, see science take note of anecdote and anomaly before they can be processed into data-systems.

Allow me to be the heretic heathen humanist, though: I still think the change in attitude indicated above (desirable for practitioners of science especially in their interaction with the humans they practice their science upon) will face stiff competition from the human desire to pin down what we know and can prove. The love of certainty goes deep in human beings. That’s why we love religion, with its laws and punishments and certain promises of this or that heaven. And those who need something more concrete for their sceptical minds, they turn to science and fact, to the promise of human capacity to discover more and more about this wondrous cosmos we exist in through tools and methods invisible to the naked eye and improbable to the everyday mind. Has the surge of scientific advancement in the last century and this not been met with an increasing religiosity and political piety? I wonder if, now that science in practice and theory has entered realms of knowledge that it cannot prove or show to the obstinate person on the street (microbiology or the Large Hadron collider, anyone?), the same audience obstinately makes an equivalence of both types of ‘magic’ — science now and religion as it always wanted to be. Their reasoning is magically simple (and I mean the pun): if we are seeing things that were impossible before, why not the miracles in religion? The trouble is, this sort of thinking makes a binary out of what we know (science) and what we cannot prove (religion) and considers the space between them a body of water that has to be conquered by the expanding islands of each. And that’s a fallacy.