Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottesville, Cows and Fascism

On Saturday, August 12 2017, there was to be a rally in Charlottesville (Virginia) to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E Lee, a confederate General during the American civil war.  Many right-wing groups were expected to be there.  Many of these groups are advocates of White nationalism and are extreme right wingers.  They generally denounce immigration and diversity, and are stridently against multiculturalism.

On the other side, extreme left wingers were expected to protest this rally.  Some of these left-wingers have a history of disrupting meetings, speeches and to indulge in violence against police and right-wing personalities.

Because of my interest in identity politics in US, I went there as an observer.  I, of course, am an Indian immigrant to United States.  But I thereby have no special sympathy for the left-wingers and diversity advocates.

Having witnessed countless protests and rallies in India, I was curious about how the day was going to turn out.  Violence was expected.  Heavily armed citizens in military fatigues were there as neutral peacekeepers.  There was a sizable police presence.  Barricades had been installed on certain streets and around the Lee park.

Aware that vandalism and violence was a possibility, I parked my car about a half-mile away from the scene.  I walked to the park and was there at 10am.  The rally was supposed to start at noon.

The right-wing protesters started arriving in groups and gathered inside the barricaded park.  The noisy counter-protesters with loudspeakers, drums and chants gathered on the street facing the park.

Water bottles were flying to and fro.  There were minor skirmishes and pushing and shoving, but nothing remarkable to my eye.  I had witnessed much more intense protests in India where houses and shops were burnt, people were stoned and chased, and the army had to be called in.

Pretty soon, in addition to the water bottles, harmless smoke canisters were being thrown by one side at the other.  And I discovered that many of the water bottles contained pepper spray liquid, urine and I don't know what else.  I stayed at a safe distance.

There were many reasonable folks among the spectators in my vicinity and I talked to some of them, including to one militia-man who explained that he was neutral to both viewpoints and was there to ensure the lawful assembly ended peacefully. All local citizens were just anxious for the day to be over because their downtown had been converted into a fortress.  They didn't want any violence.

The counter-protesters, the left-wingers, had placards and signs which were full of expletives and provocative insults, while the right-wingers were carrying their flags and holding their shields to protect against things thrown at them.

The police was passively watching and did not move a finger to keep the two groups from each other.  If the groups had been separated by even fifty feet, it would have been much safer for both sides.

Suddenly, a tear gas canister landed in a parking lot just opposite the park and the very next minute, the police announced that the rally had been declared an "unlawful assembly" and everybody should disperse.  The right-wingers dispersed but the left-wingers continued to be there, chanting their slogans and marching in the streets.

I thought maybe the rally might happen at another venue (McIntre Park), but I saw some twitter updates that the rally was unlawful to hold anywhere at all.  That was disappointing to me.  I had expected that there would be some tension but the police would act to let the rally be held in peace.

The rally was subjected to the hecklers' veto.

I left soon after.  In the afternoon, a car ran over the still-marching left-wing protesters many of who then tried to destroy the car and the driver.  The driver quickly reversed but was arrested that afternoon itself.  One woman died in that accident.  Then, tragically, a police helicopter crashed at a golf club, in which two cops were killed.

After that day, the mainstream media went into a hysterical overdrive.  The rally was soundly condemned as being violent and reprehensible.  Anyone who came to the defense of the rally-goers (they had secured a permit to peacefully assemble in the park) was labeled a sympathizer.

The President denounced the violence, but the media pounced on him because he did not explicitly condemn the right-wing groups.  He then released a statement naming them explicitly (which I thought was a weak, pandering gesture to calm the howling wolves in the mainstream media), but the media was still shrill and thirsty for more.

Then the next day, the President condemned the violent baddies on both sides, emphasizing that the left-wingers also were to blame and strangely nobody was talking about them.  It sounded eminently sensible to me.  And all hell broke loose.  CEOs left his councils, the Republicans started saying there was no "moral equivalence" between the two groups, and suchlike.

It was an insightful series of events to me.  The events confirmed to me that

1. The mainstream and the engineered feeds on social media in the United States are there to milk every little story to create controversy and hysteria.  There was no discussion about the statue of Robert E Lee and the issue at hand.  All they talked about was the white nationalists and that we should all hate them and anyone who sides with even their right to hold the rally is despicable.

2. There are vested interests driving the narratives on social media, helped by the left-leaning, liberal, politically correct bias of those platforms.  Most of these platforms earn their advertising dollars from the urbanites with disposable incomes.  These urban folks have been given a steady dose of brainwashing by the very same social media and television, and want their echo chambers to be protected.  Anyone saying something disagreeable is to be censored, banned or fired from his job.  No nuance, no discussion, just "repeat what I say, or you're dead to me."  (ref the recent incidents involving James Damore at Google, the Dailystomer website de-registration by GoDaddy and Google and CloudFlare, and the ever-increasing banning of accounts and discussion groups by Twitter, Facebook and Reddit).  Just today, Google took down the Gab social media app from its app store.

3. America has one of the most remarkable constitutional documents in its Bill of Rights, which protects free speech, whether it be considered offensive, blasphemous or seditious.  Most social media participants, media personalities, politicians and commentators (even educated ones) show little to no understanding of this central tenet of American constitution.  They do not understand, or at least willfully ignore, that to censor disagreeable voices is to advocate a fascist, police state.  They act as emotional infants who cannot bear to hear something that they dislike.  Even more alarmingly, they show little understanding of democracy and want their ideological and political opponents to be jailed or silenced.

4. The internet platforms, originally to foster freedom, enlightenment and dialogue, are now owned by private corporations.  These corporations have no interest in fostering free dialogue (ref the Google discontinuation of Google Reader, the IMDb discontinuation of its discussion boards).  Their primary interest is to hold their audience captive for advertising dollars.  The industry magnates, afraid of public opinion and wanting social media popularity, increasingly tend to virtue-signal and side with the mob.  If the media says personality X is bad, a celebrity or CEO can disagree only at his peril.

I firmly believe that, in this country, at this time, the right-wing voice is the one in minority and the vast majority of media is left-wing.  That in part is because statistically, right-wingers are relatively uneducated, technically not as adept, and inarticulate and have little to no voice on the mainstream media.  This is a grave phenomenon deserving of the highest attention.  If this silencing escalates, we can expect only resentment and ultimately, violence.  A suppressed voice finds its expression in explosive action.  This has ramifications not just in society, but in a family, a corporate office or a place of worship.

5. In United States, I believe that the left is awash with intolerant, authoritarian and fascist tendencies, wanting to violently disrupt, silence, hurt, impoverish and jail those that it disagrees with.  It is emboldened in its tactics and supported by the mainstream media.

For those who say that the current President has "emboldened" the hateful right-wingers to come out of hiding, I find it astonishing that they would consider it healthy that somebody with different, even hateful, views stayed hidden and afraid.  Why were they not coming out of hiding before?  What were they afraid of?  Isn't it laudable that people who were earlier afraid to express themselves are now less afraid to speak up?  Is their coming out of their "hiding" a bad thing?  Engaging someone in discussion openly, with them free to speak according to their conscience, is far more likely than suppression to yield common ground and mutual understanding.

What does all this have to do with cows in the title of this essay?

This.

Fascism is not about one's ideology per se.  It is about the tactics and power to enforce that ideology on others.  I consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao to be equally fascist.  It does not matter that Stalin fought against Hitler.  It does not matter that Hitler was a right-wing nationalist while Stalin was a communist.  They did not allow divergent opinions to be heard, and dissidents to live.

With this understanding, it is consistent to consider the left-wing as fascist in the United States, while in India, the right-wingers (the cow vigilantes, the nationalistic "bhakts" etc.) are similarly intolerant and fascist.

Since I consider fascism as evil, and I hope you do too,  my sympathies are with the protection of the rights of the "silent majority" in the US, and of the "silent minorities" in India.  They are both victims of fascism.

In the US, the majority ideologies (from a media standpoint) are: third-wave feminism, diversity, globalization, immigration, climate change, restriction of gun-rights.  The minority voices are for men's rights, strong borders, nationalism, free speech, and those against Islam as a religion of terror.

In India, the minority opinions which are routinely suppressed are: criticism of India as a nation-state, heretical opinions about religions, godmen and politicians, criticism of gender-biased laws, etc.

I may not agree with them, in fact I may vehemently disagree with them, but that is irrelevant to how much I want them to be free to express themselves and how much I condemn those that would seek to silence and suppress them.

Some profound essays on the freedom of expression:

Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression (Chomsky)

Censorship more dangerous than hate speech (Glenn Greenwald)

I end this essay with this quote:

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

(John Milton, 1644 in Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicens'd Printing, to the Parliament of England) 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Three classes, Three Gurus, with some notes on Sri Sri

An ancient post on a classification of Gurus.

Swami Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are the three major godmen in India at present.

Swami Ramdev started as a Hatha Yoga and Pranayama evangelist.  His ascent was mostly due to the 24x7 religious channels on Indian cable TV which beamed his Yoga instructions to millions of home.  Now he has diversified into being the head of an Ayurvedic-themed FMCG empire.  He wears orange robes and can be considered a monk.



Sr Sri, a past follower of Mahesh Yogi, teaches a form of breathing exercise called the Sudarshan Kriya through his Art of Living Foundation.  The foundation runs courses for beginners and experienced practitioners for a fee.  He wears white and is presumably living a celibate existence.


Sadhguru, about who I have written a bit on this blog, teaches what he calls "Isha Yoga" through his Isha Foundation which now also runs shops selling yoga-themed trinkets and accessories.  He wears both modern and traditional wear, and has a long beard.  He was married at one time, but is now a widower.


It is interesting to note that these three gurus cater to different demographics in India and abroad.

Swami Ramdev talks in Hindi, and appeals to lower-middle-class Indians.  He has almost no foreign following.  He is a "1.5-star" guru in terms of ambiance.

Sri Sri, speaks mostly English, and appeals to the middle classes who have moderate exposure to English but may not be too fluent.  He has some foreign following.  He can be considered three-star for his venues and training materials.

Sadhguru speaks primarily in English, and appeals to the elite classes who don't mix with the riff-raff.  His stuff is four-star and above.

Mind, the star-rating is not for their spiritual or philosophical insight, which is third-rate for all three, but only for the material quality of their atmosphere.

(Curious folks might be interested in the long-running Sarlo's Guru Rating service.)

All three gurus are still in business and have managed to avoid, unlike the unlucky Asaram "Bapu" or "Satguru" Ram Rahim, criminal prosecution for nefariousness.

...

Some notes on Sri Sri, who has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons.

  • Why the dyed hair and beard?  He is 60+ and why this subterfuge about appearance.  One should note that both the late Sathya Sai Baba and Swami Ramdev likely dye(d) their hair as well.
  • Why does he allow his humble self to be called "Sri Sri"?  The explanation that he just went along with it as his followers decided on this name is somewhat weak.
  • He is described by his sister, and himself, as a child prodigy.  But he likely graduated only with difficulty, and in third class.  His degree is not in "advanced physics" as claimed, but is merely a regular 3-year undergraduate bachelor's course which he was able to clear only on the second attempt.
  • Given his mannerisms, I consider him quite likely to be a gay man.  There is nothing wrong with being gay, of course.  But if true, he would be the first gay guru in modern India.
  • He, like Swami Ramdev and Jaggi Vasudev, is politically well-connected.  This is a rather good way to get land at concessional rates, and generally avoid trouble.
This blog article offers more color on him and his courses.  The comments are interesting as well.  The title phrase of the blog "How genuine is ..." can be construed as an effort to determine his category in the guru-world.  As per my taxonomy, I would categorize him as a second-category teacher.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Ghazal by Mirza Ghalib

(With gratitude toward the authors of these two blogs for helpful translation and commentary)

This famous poem by Asadullah Khan Ghalib was partly rendered by Chitra Singh for the soundtrack of the TV series Mirza Ghalib.

ये ना थी हमारी किस्मत के विसाल-ए-यार होता
अगर और जीते रहते यही इंतज़ार होता

It was not my destiny to have met my beloved
To have lived on would just have been more of this waiting.

तेरे वादे पे जिए हम तो ये जान झूठ जाना
कि खुशी से मर ना जाते अगर ऐतबार होता

Consider it false, o beloved, that I lived on your word
I would have died of joy had I really believed you.

तेरी नाज़ुकी से जाना कि बांधा था अहद बोदा
कभी तू ना तोड़ सकता अगर उस्तुवार होता

Your delicateness gave away the fragility of your promise
You could never have broken it had it been strong to begin with.

कोई मेरे दिल से पूछे तेरे तीर-ए-नीमकश को
यह ख़लिश कहाँ से होती जो जिगर के पार होता

Ask my heart about the arrow of your casual glance
It would not have caused this pain had it gone through, killing me.

ये कहाँ की दोस्ती है कि बने हैं दोस्त नासे
कोई चारासाज़ होता, कोई गमगुसार होता

What kind of friendship is this, that friends have turned sagacious counselors?
I wish there was one who was a healer, one who was a comforter.

रग-ए-संग से टपकता वो लहू कि फिर ना थमता
जिसे गम समझ रहे हो ये अगर शरार होता

If what you consider as my sorrow was instead a spark of fire
It would have melted rocks and endlessly flowed as their blood

गम अगरचे जां-गुसिल है पर कहाँ बचें कि दिल है
गम-ए-इश्क अगर ना होता गम-ए-रोज़गार होता

Agreed, sorrow makes life difficult, but there is no escaping the heart and its pain
If not for the pain of love, there would have been the pain of tedium.

कहूं किस से मैं कि क्या है, शब्-ए-गम बुरी बला है
मुझे क्या बुरा था मरना अगर एक बार होता

How to describe to another the ordeal that is a night of pain
I wouldn't have minded this death if it was to be only once.

हुए मर के हम जो रुसवा, हुए क्यों ना गर्क-ए-दरिया
ना कभी जनाज़ा उठता, ना कहीं मज़ार होता

My death revealed my pain. Why did I not just disappear down a river?
Then there would have neither a burial nor a tomb for me.

उसे कौन देख सकता कि यगना है वो यकता
अगर दुई की बू भी होती तो कहीं दो-चार होता

Who can behold the incomparable, for it is unique!
If it was indeed common and easily imitated, an encounter would have happened by now.

ये मसाइल-ए-तसव्वुफ, ये तेरा बयां ग़ालिब
तुझे हम वली समझते जो ना बादा-ख्वार होता

These mystical riddles, these descriptions from you Ghalib!
We could have mistaken you for someone important, if you weren't such a drunk.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Kinatay (2009) by Brillante Mendoza

This Filipino/Tagalog film won the Best Director award at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.


One of my go-to reviewers, Mike D'Angelo, gave this film a C rating while calling it "audacious".  Needless to say, I was intrigued.

The film was panned by Roger Ebert who called it the worst film that had ever been screened at Cannes, even surpassing The Brown Bunny (Gallo, 2003) in worthlessness.  Since I had definitely enjoyed TBB (as well as Buffalo 66, directed again by Vincent Gallo), I put this film on my watch-list.  It is as interesting, and important, to watch films which critics hate as to watch the ones they love.  A film evoking strong reactions is bound to be interesting.

Given the humanist leanings of Ebert, I find it surprising that he did not see more in the film.

Kinatay, which means "Butchering", is about a single remarkable day in the life of a young man.  He marries the mother of his 7-month old child early in the day, goes to his police school around noon, and then later in the day unwittingly becomes part of something horrific.

Critics were unhappy mostly with the form of the film, much of which is a jarring, hazy, darkly-lit journey in a van to and from an out-of-town house.  The film can be called minimalist, but there are certain oblique (though by no means opaque) choices made by the director which most reviews seem to have overlooked.  The film is remarkable also for its sound design, and is more of an auditory experience.  It is also a very morally intense film, but that is quite apparent.

The film is essentially the journey of an un-corrupted, naive, innocent man from heaven to hell and back.  From being a creature of light, he becomes aware of darkness.  He witnesses hell, and wants to run away.  He cannot, or does not.

And when back in "heaven", the man tainted by hell is not the same.  Religious references abound.  Paintings of Jesus, frequent sightings of the cross, and of course the victim named "Madonna".  Hell is literally a basement below the ground in this film.

The most harrowing sequence in the film, for me, is not the one critics are focusing on, but is the one towards the end of the film when Peping, the young protagonist, is trying to get back to his home.  He hires a taxi, the taxi has a flat tire, and while the taxi is stopped, he tries desperately to flag down a bus or some communal transport.  Nobody stops for him.

He is a forsaken man by then.  Back from hell, and tainted by sin, he is no longer part of humanity.  He tries desperately to again merge in the sea of light, but finds himself invisible to God.

Contrast this sequence with the sequence during the morning, when he and his wife go together to the wedding venue.  Contrast the sequence also of them having a celebratory meal with the sequence of Peping not being able to eat after being back from hell.  The two sequences are similar outwardly, but could not be further apart inwardly.  During the morning sequences, there is an understated gaiety and camaraderie.  Western viewers might find the humble wedding and the "feast" curious, but the happiness is palpable.  During the later sequences, there is a similarly understated sense of having lost one's way and of a forlorn loneliness and despair.

The taxi driver fixes his tire, and invites Peping back into the taxi.  But inexplicably, Peping is not interested in re-entering the taxi.  Does he not want to be alone with his guilt?  Does he seek admission back into the heaven but is refused?  Does he wish to be normal again, and not wanting to spend the money that he has just "earned"?

The last shot of the film is his wife cooking for him and caring for their child.  Will he find his way home?  Will he use the money to buy milk for his child, as suggested by Satan?

We never find out.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Definition of An Evolving State

I am not sure if this idea has ever been stated in these terms, but it just occurred to me today morning.

This came to me while reflecting on the two first amendments in the two largest democracies in the world: India and the United States.

The First Amendment to the constitution of the United States guarantees free speech:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first amendment to the constitution of India restricts free speech:
Nothing ... shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
As is obvious, the first amendment to the US constitution radically curtails the power of the state, while in case of India, the first amendment radically expands the power of the state.

And it is equally clear that the right to free speech in the United States is more libertarian than the one in India.  There is a sound reason why people flee oppressive regions and regimes and want to migrate to United States.  It is partly to have a "better life" in terms of prosperity, but it is also indubitably to live a life of more dignity and freedom.  Many sociologists would contend that the two are inextricably related.

Especially when it comes to intellectual creativity, scientific and ideological progress, and a critique of prevailing paradigms, the protection of free speech can be easily seen as the fundamental building block of a society.

Hence, this definition:
The evolution of a nation-state can be measured by the limits it places on its powers, and by the powers and protections it thereby guarantees to its citizenry against its own government.
By this measure, there is only one significant progressive event in India in the seventy years since its independence, which is the passage of the Right to Information Act.  This was enacted by the Parliament of India in 2005.  It is not ideal, and it has many loopholes.  But in a rare deviation from India's legislative narrative, it places a burden on the state.  It confers a new right to its citizens, and prohibits the state from infringing on that right by prescribing penalties on the state in case of such infringement.  It also sets up a somewhat independent body to handle disputes about the execution of this right.

I fail to find any other significant law in India which similarly, and more to the point, effectively limits the power of the state.  It is one thing to blithely state some new right, but it is an entirely different matter to guarantee that right by a quick process of redress.

I am at a loss to find a right in India which can be enforced effectively by its citizens.  This is somewhat due to the dysfunctional courts, but even the intent seems to be missing from the statement of these rights.  The intent is to pay lip-service to a right, while keeping the right ambiguous enough to grant a lot of leeway to the state and others to come after you if you truly exercise that right to their consternation.

There have been many laws passed for the benefit of minorities, or of women, but most such laws confer a right to one section of the population to the detriment of another.  Such laws seek to re-balance power, for better or worse, between two sections of the population, not between the state and the citizenry.  In no way does do these laws confer a right to the citizenry while taking a power away from the state.

For example, the SC/ST atrocities act, which among other things makes it a crime to use a pejorative or expletive when addressing people from certain tribes obviously grants a right to those tribes, but inhibits the liberty of others.  Similarly, the Domestic Violence act which tries to guarantee domestic peace and happiness to women does a flagrant disservice to men.  Not just because men are seen to be never the victims and always the aggressors, but also because the state confers this right on women and thereby imposes a duty on men and their families (e.g. of maintenance, and of keeping their wives or daughters-in-law in good humor, et al).

Leaving aside the fact that it was already a crime to intimidate anyone, be it a minority community member or one's domestic partner, these laws are regressive according to my definition.

In fact, such laws make the state more and more powerful by bringing hitherto unaddressed activities within the purview of its powers.  They further limit the acts of its citizenry and further empower the state to go after and prosecute its population.

A truly progressive law, under my definition, would be to guarantee something to the citizenry and making the state not just the guarantor, but also the party liable to be punished in case of the infringement of that right.

Now one may ask: "What about subsidies and largesse?"  Aren't they a right conferred on the citizens making the state liable?  Not at all.  The state is not a generator of wealth, so to begin with it had no right to confer that wealth on an individual or community of its choosing.  In such cases, the state is using the wealth of one section of the population to benefit another.  In fact if a state uses this kind of "right" too often, it is usually a sign of corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

If we agree that a progressive state is one that is a freer state, and if we regard liberty as the fundamental measure of human progress, it stands to reason that India has a long, long way to go.  Not just that, but India has been regressing by passing more and more laws to empower the state.

True progress is that which promotes liberty, and on that measure, India is not significantly better today than it was in British times, and quite likely worse.