Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sri Lanka

Arundhati Roy writes in the Times of India about the massacre taking place in Sri Lanka.

The horror that is unfolding in Sri Lanka becomes possible because of the silence that surrounds it. There is almost no reporting in the mainstream
Indian media — or indeed in the international press — about what is happening there. Why this should be so is a matter of serious concern.

From the little information that is filtering through it looks as though the Sri Lankan government is using the propaganda of the ‘war on terror’ as a fig leaf to dismantle any semblance of democracy in the country, and commit unspeakable crimes against the Tamil people. Working on the principle that every Tamil is a terrorist unless he or she can prove otherwise, civilian areas, hospitals and shelters are being bombed and turned into a war zone. Reliable estimates put the number of civilians trapped at over 200,000. The Sri Lankan Army is advancing, armed with tanks and aircraft.

Meanwhile, there are official reports that several ‘‘welfare villages’’ have been established to house displaced
Tamils in Vavuniya and Mannar districts. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph (Feb 14, 2009), these villages ‘‘will be compulsory holding centres for all civilians fleeing the fighting’’. Is this a euphemism for concentration camps? The former foreign minister of Sri Lanka, Mangala Samaraveera, told The Daily Telegraph:
‘‘A few months ago the government started registering all Tamils in Colombo on the grounds that they could be a security threat, but this could be exploited for other purposes like the Nazis in the 1930s. They’re basically going to label the whole civilian Tamil population as potential terrorists.’’

Given its stated objective of ‘‘wiping out’’ the LTTE, this malevolent collapse of civilians and ‘‘terrorists’’ does seem to signal that the government of Sri Lanka is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide. According to a UN estimate several thousand people have already been killed. Thousands more are critically wounded. The few eyewitness reports that have come out are descriptions of a nightmare from hell. What we are witnessing, or should we say, what is happening in Sri Lanka and is being so effectively hidden from public scrutiny, is a brazen, openly racist war. The impunity with which the Sri Lankan government is being able to commit these crimes actually unveils the deeply ingrained racist prejudice, which is precisely what led to the marginalization and alienation of the Tamils of Sri Lanka in the first place. That racism has a long history, of social ostracisation, economic blockades, pogroms and torture. The brutal nature of the decades-long civil war, which started as a peaceful, non-violent protest, has its roots in this.

Why the silence? In another interview Mangala Samaraveera says, ‘‘A free media is virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka today.’’

Samaraveera goes on to talk about death squads and ‘white van abductions’, which have made society ‘‘freeze with fear’’. Voices of dissent, including those of several journalists, have been abducted and assassinated. The International Federation of Journalists accuses the government of Sri Lanka of using a combination of anti-terrorism laws, disappearances and assassinations to silence journalists.

There are disturbing but unconfirmed reports that the Indian government is lending material and logistical support to the Sri Lankan government in these crimes against humanity. If this is true, it is outrageous. What of the governments of other countries? Pakistan? China? What are they doing to help, or harm the situation?

In Tamil Nadu the war in Sri Lanka has fuelled passions that have led to more than 10 people immolating themselves. The public anger and anguish, much of it genuine, some of it obviously cynical political manipulation, has become an election issue.

It is extraordinary that this concern has not travelled to the rest of India. Why is there silence here? There are no ‘white van abductions’ — at least not on this issue. Given the scale of what is happening in Sri Lanka, the silence is inexcusable. More so because of the Indian government’s long history of irresponsible dabbling in the conflict, first taking one side and then the other. Several of us including myself, who should have spoken out much earlier, have not done so, simply because of a lack of information about the war. So while the killing continues, while tens of thousands of people are being barricaded into concentration camps, while more than 200,000 face starvation, and a genocide waits to happen, there is dead silence from this great country.
It’s a colossal humanitarian tragedy. The world must step in. Now. Before it’s too late

Monday, March 30, 2009

Facebook are all your friends, really your friends?

Huffington Post has an article that alternet picked up about facebooks and friendships.

I'd like to explore why social networking in general has touched a collective nerve. Do sites like Facebook stand as viable communities, and are the people on your home page "real friends?" Many of you say no. It's the brick and mortar, sit-face-to-face-and-talk that counts. Some expressed feeling leery of all the myriad new drains on time and energy with texting, tweeting, facebooking and so on. They lament the discourtesy of people constantly texting while out to dinner, or using twitter to reply to Facebook to send you an email to ask a simple question. They fear we are losing ourselves.

Yet, this prism has many sides. Plenty out there are believe these sites are solid and viable resources for maintaining connections, and the wave of the future. Some of you spoke of how you enjoy the broad networks you can manage easily, as well as nostalgic components of finding old friends and delighting in renewed connections. One of our readers said she joined Facebook, met old elementary school friends she had lost touch with, and was making plans for a reunion in New York City.

"But do you really consider these relative strangers to be your 'friends?"' I asked her.

"Yes," she replied, "because they have a piece of my history that almost none of my existing friends have. It is really feels almost like finding a long lost relative."

So, what gives? When something hits a nerve, clearly there are unresolved emotions, the boundaries of a comfort zone is being tapped, or we are being asked to make a paradigm shift around something we are unsure of. Perhaps we are being asked to broaden our horizons of relationship in general.

Let's look at Wikipedia's definition of Friendship:

Friendship is a term used to denote co-operative and supportive behavior between two or more people. In this sense, the term connotes a relationship which involves mutual knowledge, esteem, and affection and respect along with a degree of rendering service to friends in times of need or crisis. Friends will welcome each other's company and exhibit loyalty towards each other, often to the point of altruism. Their tastes will usually be similar and may converge, and they will share enjoyable activities. They will also engage in mutually helping behavior, such as exchange of advice and the sharing of hardship.

How about the definition of community?

1) Group of people sharing a common understanding who reveal themselves by using the same language, manners, tradition and law. 2) The condition of having certain attitudes and interests in common.
Technically then, it really doesn't matter if you feel comforted by others online or feel nourished at church or connected at a company retreat; we all need varied experiences of friendship and community in our lives. I have written extensively about community and believe there is much to gnosh on here. What's behind the movement is essentially - we are starved for one another. That is why Facebook took off across the generations. We crave opportunities to see a friendly face and know the silly details of each others lives. It fills a void.

Dawn Johnsen- Justice department appointee

Scott Horton writes in the Daily Beast about the woman who could nail Bush about even more torture memos.

Until recently, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, often considered the “brains” of the department, has been known mostly to legal experts. But for the past eight years, it was the epicenter of allegations of political manipulation and, worse, the source of infamous memoranda on torture. In tapping Eric Holder as attorney general, President Obama has promised to restore standards of professionalism to the department. For Republicans, this is tantamount to a declaration of partisan war.

On March 19, the nomination of Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen to head the OLC was endorsed by the Judiciary Committee with every Republican voting against her and Sen. Arlen Spector (R-PA) abstaining. The nomination was to have been brought to the Senate floor for a vote on Monday and then again on Wednesday, but it has been held back. Republican leaders, it appears, are playing with the notion of making Johnsen the target of their first filibuster.

The highly credentialed Johnsen is an improbable target, and OLC was long viewed as an obscure post. But Johnsen served as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League. Antiabortion groups have targeted Johnsen over the last three weeks with a massive telephone, email, and letter-writing campaign, demanding that senators oppose her nomination. Johnsen is labeled a “radical, pro-abortion activist,” although her views on the abortion issue line up very closely with the mainstream. While the noise surrounding the Johnsen nomination appears on the surface to be about the abortion issue—over which her position at OLC would have very little influence—discussions with Republican stalwarts reveal that their main concerns lie elsewhere.

The real reason for their vehement opposition is that Johnsen is committed to overturning the Bush administration’s policies on torture and warrantless surveillance, which would clip the wings of the imperial presidency. Even more menacingly (from their perspective), she is committed to shining a light on some of the darkest skeletons of the Bush years. Already, publication of OLC memoranda authorizing torture, approving warrantless surveillance, and pronouncing the First and Fourth Amendments a dead letter in connection with domestic military operations has rocked the public. More memos, potentially even more disturbing, I have learned, are about to be made public soon. Yet these are difficult issues on which to attack Johnsen, other than through vague suggestions that she is “weak on national security.” Hence the steady stream of accusations linked to her largely irrelevant views about abortion rights.

Will the Republicans attempt to filibuster the Johnsen nomination? The threat is sufficiently serious to have provoked the editors of the New York Times to editorialize in support of Johnsen on Thursday. Calling the operation of OLC in the Bush era “lawless,” the editors wrote, “Ms. Johnsen is superbly qualified and has fought for just the sort of change the office needs.”

The controversy surrounding Johnsen provides a flashpoint for President Obama’s nominees for administration legal posts. Unsurprisingly, they look an awful lot like Barack Obama—strong legal credentials, an academic bent, and liberal attitudes balanced by a strong commitment to political pragmatism.

Obama’s top picks start with a couple of well-known Washington names. Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, was a career Justice Department attorney who spent his formative years as a prosecutor in the department’s Public Integrity Section (much-criticized for abuse under Bush). He spent time as a U.S. attorney, a judge, and ran the Justice Department for a while as deputy attorney general in the Clinton years. Obama’s White House counsel, Greg Craig, is a Washington fixture at the powerhouse Williams & Connolly law firm. The former foreign-policy aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy and State Department official has handled high-profile cases from Clinton’s impeachment defense to representing the father of Elian Gonzales. In the way of Washington, he is also has ties to powerful Republicans, including Karl Rove and Alabama Sen.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Indians

Jabberwock reviews Sudhir Kakar's latest book, The Indians. I just finished reading it and found the book fascinating, especially the differences between Indians and Westerners.

Ask Sudhir Kakar how he feels about having been named “one of the 25 major thinkers of the world” by French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur and the psychoanalyst-writer waves his hands in a self-deprecating gesture, looks mildly embarrassed. “Oh well,” he says when pressed further, “it was nice to be one of two Indians on the list.”

This is an apposite reaction, given that one of the aspects of “Indian-ness” Kakar examines in his new book The Indians: Portrait of a People is the subsuming of individual identity to group interests. “A Westerner,” he says, “is more likely to say ‘I want to achieve this’ – whereas in India individual achievement gets tied up with family pride or, at a wider level, with community.”

A casual glance at The Indians, co-written with his wife Katarina Kakar, might suggest a collection of generalisations about a country that’s too vast to be defined in easy terms. But the painting of all Indians with one brush-stroke is not the book's intention. What Kakar is trying to do here – and he shows his hand in a lucid Introduction – is provide “a necessary and legitimate short cut to a more complex reality”. His thesis is that without the big picture – whatever its flaws of inexactness – the smaller, local pictures, however accurate, will be myopic, “a mystifying jumble of trees without the pattern of the forest”.

So what are the vital characteristics of Indian-ness, as he defines it? "A key aspect,” he says, “is how connected we are to each other as a people. Compared to Westerners, Indians are generally more ready to embrace the pain that accompanies too much closeness - one reason why the family structure is still very strong compared to many other cultures.”

But surely individualism is on the rise, I ask. “Yes, and it started in the 1960s and 1970s – in fact I would argue it was more pronounced in India back then – but either way it’s a restricted sort of individualism: the sort that is practiced in negotiation with the family structure, rather than by rebelling against it.”

Another important quality is that this is a profoundly hierarchical society. “Indians are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the largest democracy,” he writes at one point. “What I mean by this,” he explains, “is that one Indian typically looks at another through a variety of filters – including gender, caste, religion, class – all aimed at answering the question, ‘Is this person superior or inferior to me?’ The difference in status between a chief executive and an office peon is the highest in our country.”

And yet, there is also what he calls a “connected hierarchy, based on a humane orientation” – which means that our leaders tend to be authoritative but not autocratic, and usually benevolent. “Once a leader has been accepted, he is looked upon as a father figure and his subordinates tend to be very loyal to him. We have this culture of people willing to work regularly even on weekends. The flip-side is that this can result in sycophancy and a lack of critical feedback.”

The Indians is a very cerebral analysis of a very emotional people; one often gets a sense of the authors taking a microscope to the Indian character the way scientists in a laboratory might do with a culture sample, and this can be discomfiting. But the approach follows naturally from Kakar’s profession, and its advantage is that his book never adopts a sanctimonious tone. The idea isn’t to pass judgement but to understand the long and complex process of societal and genetic conditioning that makes one people different from another.

Aren’t some of the qualities he mentions – especially the ones relating to family closeness – getting diluted in the urban parts of the country? “Yes, that process is underway,” he says. “But also, very often, what we have is the illusion of modernity. Centuries of conditioning and generational ‘wisdom’ still underlie most of our attitudes.” He points out, for instance, that the average college girl in Delhi, even one who dresses in jeans or skirts, will hesitate to break into loud laughter at the antics of a boy who’s trying to attract her attention. At some level, despite the surface liberalness, she is still aware of traditional folk-wisdom pertaining to male-female interactions, which she has absorbed from her community – in this case, the saying, “jo hansi, woh phansi” (“if a girl laughs, she is already in the net”). It's something most of us who have grown up in India can relate to; we've all had epiphanic moments which reveal that we're not quite free of tradition's shackles.

Even the idea of the ever-increasing generation gap, Kakar says, is part of a canon of Western psychology that we – especially those of us who have grown up reading English – too easily accept. “But in India, even in the less conservative families, the generational bond tends to be stronger than the generational conflict.”

Kakar admits to speaking of Indian-ness in terms of a pre-eminently Hindu civilisation that has contributed the major share to what he calls the “cultural gene pool” of India’s peoples. What about the contribution of other cultures like the Mughals and the British? “There have been many positive and negative contributions,” he says, “but they have been gradually assimilated over centuries – it isn’t a clear-cut process. Thinking of examples offhand, I believe the Indian character has benefited greatly from the Brotherhood Ideal that is prevalent in Islam."

This brings us to a nuanced chapter on Hindu-Muslim conflict, where Kakar says we will have to give up Gandhi’s dream of “lasting heart unity” between the two communities. “The differences won't go away,” he says, “and even if it were possible, there will always be someone ready to exploit communal tensions.” What then is his best-case scenario for the future? “An achievable ideal is increased tolerance for the Other, even if one disagrees with their beliefs and lifestyles. We might have to content ourselves with the creation of a common public realm while regarding the other community with benign indifference in private.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pen World Voices festival

My favourite festival in NYC starts April 25th.

Saturday, April 25

Pictures + Words: The New Literature of Graphic Narrative
2 p.m.: The Rose O’Neill Literary House, Maryland

Monday, April 27

Neil Gaiman in Conversation with Joshua Wolf Shenk
7:30 p.m.: The Prince Theater, Maryland

Meir Shalev: The State of Israeli Literature
8 p.m.: Columbia University's Altschul Auditorium

Tuesday, April 28

Resonances: Writers on the Great Works
1 p.m.: Baruch College

The Rattapallax/PEN World Voices Literary Film Feast
7 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

A Thousand Deaths Plus One
7 p.m.: The Americas Society

Evolution/Revolution in European Arts and Letters
8 p.m.: State University at Albany

Wednesday, April 29

The Inspired Scientist: A Program for High School Students
10 a.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

The Voyage of the Reader: Using Children’s Books to Create a Lifelong Love of Reading
4:30 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes

Anagrama: Celebrating 40 Years of Independent Publishing in Spain
6 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

Prison Deform
6 p.m.: CUNY Segal Theater

Roland Barthes and the Invention of Modernity
6:30 p.m.: La Maison Française of NYU

8 p.m.: The Great Hall at Cooper Union ($20/$15: Smarttix)

Thursday, April 30

Personal Evolution, Social Revolution: A Program for High School Students
10 a.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

Jeffrey Sachs: Common Wealth
1 p.m.: CUNY Proshansky Auditorium

Global Voices
1 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

Cod, Orange Groves, and Olives
3 p.m.: CUNY Proshansky Auditorium

Tendencies in Spanish Language Literature
4 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Kathrin Röggla: Modern Day Salarymen
4:30 p.m.: Austrian Cultural Forum

Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov
6 p.m.: CUNY Elebash Recital Hall

Quiet Revolutions in Storytelling
6 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

Leaps and Bounds, Fits and Starts: The Evolution of a Children’s Book Writer
6:30 p.m.: Scholastic Auditorium

Kafka in America
6:30 p.m.: Austrian Cultural Forum

Meir Shalev in Conversation with Daniel Menaker
7 p.m.: Center for Jewish History ($15/$10: Smarttix)

Collaborations/Elaborations: The Music of Daniel Felsenfeld
7 p.m.: CUNY Proshansky Auditorium

The New York Review of Books: The Economic Crisis and How to Deal with It
7:30 p.m.: The Metropolitan Museum of Art ($25/$20: Smarttix)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog: Muriel Barbery in Conversation with Adam Gopnik
8 p.m.: Cantor Film Center ($10: Smarttix)

The Moth ®evolution: Stories of Change
7 p.m.: Galapagos Art Space ($30: Smarttix)

Diálogos Isleños: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Reinaldo Arenas and Blai Bonet
8 p.m.: CUNY Elebash Recital Hall

DEFIANCE: The Spirit of ’89
9 p.m.: Joe’s Pub ($15/$10: joespub.com)

Friday, May 1

Garden Readings
12:30 p.m.: Deutsches Haus at NYU

Macondo: Imaginary and Real
1 p.m.: Austrian Cultural Forum

The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction
1 p.m.: Instituto Cervantes New York

Left/Right Literature: The Politics of Taking Up the Pen
1 p.m.: Scandinavia House

What’s Taboo?
3 p.m.: Austrian Cultural Forum

This Critical Moment!
3 p.m.: Scandinavia House

Discovering Unbearable Truths
5 p.m.: Austrian Cultural Forum

Season of Migration to the North: The Work of Tayeb Salih
6 p.m.: Scandinavia House

Innocence and Guilt: Domenico Starnone in Conversation with Antonio Monda
6 p.m.: Instituto Italiano di Cultura

The Language of Fear: A PEN Journal Event
6 p.m.: CUNY Elebash Hall

On the Edge: Writing in Post-Reunified Germany
6 p.m.: Deutsches Haus

6:30 p.m.: Hungarian Cultural Center

Poetry Reading
7 p.m.: Bowery Poetry Club ($10/$5: Bowery Poetry Club)

Readings from Around the Globe
7:30 p.m.: 92nd St Y ($20/$15: Smarttix)

Armin Petras: We Are Camera
8 p.m.: CUNY Segal Theater

The Translation Slam
9 p.m.: Bowery Poetry Club ($10/$5: Bowery Poetry Club)

Saturday, May 2

Tribute to Harold Pinter
10 a.m.: CUNY Proshansky Auditorium

Coraline, Sandman: Books and Imagination: A Conversation with Neil Gaiman
1 p.m.: The Great Hall at Cooper Union ($10/$8: Smarttix)

Mark Z. Danielewski and Rick Moody in Conversation
1 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

Standing Before History: Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa
1 p.m.: CUNY Elebash Recital Hall

Writing and Reading Multilingual Haiti
1 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

Where Truth Lies: A Conversation on the Art of Fiction
1 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

New European Poets
2 p.m.: Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House

Jazz: The Revolution of Beat
2 p.m.: Galapagos Art Space

Writers Who Are Translators
3 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

1,000 Words: The Power of Visual Storytelling
2:30 p.m.: The Great Hall at Cooper Union ($10/$8: Smarttix)

Enrique Vila-Matas & Paul Auster in Conversation
2:30 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

Frankétienne: Hatian Identity
3 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

Péter Nádas in Conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn
3 p.m.: CUNY Elebash Recital Hall

Contested Territory
4 p.m.: Brooklyn Public Library, Central Library

Revolutionary Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in Conversation with Adrian Tomine
4:30 p.m.: The Great Hall at Cooper Union ($10/$8: Smarttix)

East–West Storytelling
4:30 p.m.: CUNY Elebash Recital Hall

On Translation
5 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

Krik? Krak!
5 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française

The PEN Cabaret
7:30 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française ($30/$25: Ticketmaster)

Death in Spring and The Time of the Doves: Mercè Rodoreda
8 p.m.: Baryshnikov Arts Center

Sunday, May 3

The Pan-European Picnic Redux
1 p.m.: Museum of Modern Art

David Grossman and Leonard Lopate in Conversation
1 p.m.: Museum of Jewish Heritage ($15/$10: Smarttix)

Faith & Fiction
1 p.m.: powerHouse Arena

Richard Ford in Conversation with Nam Le
2 p.m.: The Morgan Library & Museum ($15/$10: Smarttix)

The Secret Scripture: Sebastian Barry in Conversation with Roxanne Coady
3 p.m.: powerHouse Arena

Is Nonfiction Literature?
3 p.m.: Museum of Jewish Heritage ($15/$10: Smarttix)

Henry Hudson at 400 Years: Amsterdam and New York City
4 p.m.: The Morgan Library & Museum ($15/$10: Smarttix)

4:30 p.m.: PowerHouse Arena

The Fourth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Nawal El Saadawi
6:30 p.m.: The Great Hall at Cooper Union ($15/$10: Smarttix)

Monday, May 4

See Under: Love. David Grossman on Bruno Schulz
8 p.m.: 92nd Street Y ($19/$10:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Quote from Lama Surya Das

A renowned Thai Buddhist-monk & master I once studied and meditated with named Achaan Cha said:
"Try to do everything with a mind that lets go.
If you let go a little you will have a little peace.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace.
If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom.
Your struggles with the world will have come to an end."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quote from J. Krishnamurthy

Transformation can come only when every problem is immediately understood.

What do we mean by transformation? Surely, the cessation of all problems, cessation from conflict, confusion, and misery. If you observe, you will see that the mind is cultivating, sowing, and harvesting as a farmer cultivates, sows, and reaps. But, unlike the farmer who allows the field to lie fallow during winter, the mind never allows itself to lie fallow. As the rains, the storms, and the sunshine recreate the earth, so during that passive yet alert fallowness of the mind, there is rejuvenation, a renewal, so the mind renews itself and the problems are resolved. The problems are resolved only when they are seen clearly and swiftly.

The mind is constantly distracted, escaping, because to see a problem clearly might lead to action which might create further disturbance; and so the mind is constantly avoiding facing the problem, which only gives strength to the problem. But, when it is seen clearly without distortion, then it ceases to be. So long as you think in terms of transformation, there cannot be transformation, now or hereafter. Transformation can come only when every problem is immediately understood. You can understand it when there is no choice and the seeking of a result, when there is no condemnation or justification. Where there is love, there is neither choice nor search for an end, nor condemnation, nor justification. It is this love that brings about transformation

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is interviewed about the five kinds of minds needed in the 21st century. The five kinds of minds are disciplined (depth), synthesizing (breadth), creative (stretch) respectful and ethical.

LEHRER: Your most recent book argues that we need to dramatically re-think the way we think, especially when it comes to learning. What's the problem with our current models?

GARDNER: As many people have pointed out, our educational system basically prepared individuals for the 19th and 20th century. In Five Minds for the Future, I describe the kinds of minds that will be at the highest premium going forward. Although our existing models of learning are reasonably good for developing a disciplined mind, they have almost nothing to say about the synthesizing mind, though it is arguably the most important mind for the 21st century. I don’t think that any of us knows how best to cultivate the creative mind; but our current ways of thinking and teaching are excellent at quashing the creative mind.

As for the last two kinds of mind I identify in the book—respectful and ethical—these are generally considered beyond the purview of theories of learning. Respect should be inculcated from birth, and is best learned by example. As for the ethical mind, that has been my chief research concern for the past 15 years. Our current thinking about this vexing topic is best accessed via a visit to goodworkproject.org

LEHRER: Why are these five types of mind so important right now?

GARDNER: In writing this book, I was taking on the mantle of “czar.” If I were the czar of education and of the work place, these are the five minds that, I believe, would most be at a premium, the ones that I would train, if possible, or select for, if necessary.

To summarize, they push the mind in three ways: disciplined (depth), synthesizing (breadth) and creative (stretch). There may be some division of labor across individuals, but everyone should have at least some experience with each kind of mind, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to work productively with others.

Despite the financial meltdown, the world is getting smaller every day. Unless we are able to respect those who appear to be different from ourselves, we are not going to be able to work with them. And unless we behave ethically and responsibly, we will not be able to enter into trusting relationships with others and it will become a dog-eat-dog world. Although the current financial meltdown is due to many factors, the lack of an ethical compass in major corporations and financial institutions is a major cause.

I make no claim that these are the only five minds, nor that they were unimportant in the past. What I do claim is that these are the five minds that we need to keep front and center going forward, and I suggest how they work and how they cultivate them—but those details are in the book!

LEHRER: In your book, you note that some people fake these essential skills. For instance, although they might appear creative or ethical, they're actually not. How can we tell the difference between real achievers and the fake achievers?

GARDNER: A friend of mine once quipped: when hiring someone or deciding whether to work with them, you need at least 10 lunches." This is only a figure of speech, of course, but there are no short cuts toward making these assessments. People in business love tests for the minds, and they are disappointed when I talk about the limits of standardized tests. I think that two tacks are much more likely to be effective:

First, rely on the testimony of individuals who know the persons well, and don’t be afraid to probe or confront problems and inconsistencies. You can soon tell whether you are getting baloney or well sliced prime information.

Second, pose questions and challenges that reveal the ways in which the candidate approaches issues. For example, I do not find it credible when a person tells me that he or she has never faced an ethical dilemma. I probe for such dilemmas and if they are not forthcoming, I pose some dilemmas of my own and see how the candidate responds.

In general, however, I place greater weight on testimony from knowledgeable sources—as your question implies, one can often be fooled by a single interview.

LEHRER: Do you think the current economic downturn is attributable, in some way, to our failure to cultivate the right kind of minds?

GARDNER: Without question, the answer is yes. What came to govern decisions everywhere, including my own university was a reckless disregard for experience, due diligence, caution and contemplating the down side of decisions. If anything, “deciders” were selected and rewarded on the basis of whether they could cut corners and whether they could make it appear as if they were gaining ever greater profits.

I don’t want to claim that we were seers. But my colleagues and I began our GoodWork Project in 1994-’95, when we were skeptical of the claim that 'markets are self-adjusting and always lead to the best outcomes." In order for markets to work, one needs wise policies, wise policymakers, tough regulation and, above all, individuals who behave in an ethical way and demand ethical behavior from others.

Now 15 years later, people are approaching us from many sectors saying, "How do we secure good work? How can the young people, the future leaders of America, become good workers and citizens?" We certainly don’t have all the answers, but I'd like to think that we can prevent more damage and help orient individuals toward responsible behaviors—actions that in the long run serve the general welfare, and not primarily the pockets of the so-called “masters of the universe.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger on Hindu history from a balanced perspective.

Thanks to CM for the link.

The Battle over Hindu History
For years, some Hindus have argued that the 16th century mosque called the Babri Masjid (after the Mughal emperor Babur) was built over a temple commemorating the birthplace of Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu) in Ayodhya (the city where, according to the ancient poem called the Ramayana, Rama was born), though there is no evidence whatsoever that there has been ever a temple on that spot or that Rama was born there.
On December 6, 1992, as the police stood by and watched, leaders of the right-wing Hindu party called the BJP whipped a crowd of 200,000 into a frenzy. Shouting "Death to the Muslims!" the mob attacked Babur's mosque with sledgehammers. In the riots that followed, over a thousand people lost their lives, and many more died in reactive riots that broke out elsewhere in India. On the site today, nothing but vandalized ruins remains, and, in a dark corner of the large, empty space, a small shrine with a couple of oleograph pictures of Rama, where a Hindu priest performs a perfunctory ritual. Whether or not there ever was a Hindu temple there before, there is a temple, however makeshift, there now.
People are being killed in India today because of misreadings of the history of the Hindus. In all religions, myths that pass for history--not just casual misinformation, the stock in trade of the internet, but politically-driven, aggressive distortions of the past--can be deadly, and in India they incite violence not only against Muslims but against women, Christians, and the lower castes.
Myth has been called "the smoke of history," and there is a desperate need for a history of the Hindus that distinguishes between the fire, the documented evidence, and the smoke; for mythic narratives become fires when they drive historical events rather than respond to them. Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat, sparked a revolution in India in 1857. We are what we imagine, as much as what we do.
Hindus in America, too, care how their history is taught to their children in American schools, and the voices of Hindu action groups ring out on the internet. Some of these groups, justifiably incensed by the disproportionate emphasis on the horrors of the caste system in American textbooks, and by the grotesque misrepresentation of Hindu deities in American commercialism, ricochet to the other extreme and demand that all references to the caste system be expunged from all American textbooks.
And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in "The Hindus: An Alternative History," to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it's a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, "The Hindus believe. . . ," is talking nonsense.
My narrative is alternative both to the histories promulgated by some contemporary Hindus on the political right in India and to those presented in most surveys in English--imperialist histories, all about the kings, ignoring ordinary people. But the texts tell us not just who was the ruler but who got enough to eat and who did not. And so my narrative is alternative in its inclusion of alternative people. How does one include the marginal as well as the mainstream Hindus in the story? The ancient texts, usually dismissed as the work of Brahmin males, in fact reveal a great deal about the lower castes, often very sympathetic to them and sometimes coded as narratives about dogs, standing for the people now generally called Dalits, formerly called Untouchables. The argument, for instance, that Dalits should be allowed to enter temples, an argument still violently disputed in parts of India today, can already be found, masked, in ancient stories about faithful dogs who should be allowed to enter heaven. So too, though Feminists often argue that Hindu women were entirely silenced, women's voices--their ideas and attitudes and, above all, their stories--were often heard and recorded by the men who wrote down the texts.
Foreigners, too, made contributions to Hinduism from the very beginning. Once upon a time--about 50 million years ago --a triangular plate of land, moving fast (for a continent), broke off from Madagascar (a large island lying off the southeastern coast of Africa), and sailed across the Indian Ocean and smashed into the belly of Central Asia with such force that it squeezed the earth five miles up into the skies to form the Himalayan range and fused with Central Asia to became the Indian subcontinent. Or so the people who study plate tectonics nowadays tell us, and who am I to challenge them? Not just land but people came to India from Africa, much later; the winds that bring the monsoon rains to India each year also brought the first humans to peninsular India by sea from East Africa in around 50,000 BCE. And so from the very start India was a place made up of land and people from somewhere else. India itself is an import, or if you prefer, Africa outsourced India (and just about everyone else).
The magnificent civilization of the Indus Valley (in present-day Pakistan) traded with Sumer, Crete, and Mesopotamian, before it came to a mysterious end in about 2000 BCE. At just about the same time, in the nearby Punjab, a very different culture entered India from the Northwest and created the great corpus of texts called the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism. Other invaders-- Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and British--made valuable contributions to the complex fabric of Hinduism.
We can trace certain important ideas throughout the centuries of this unbroken tradition. For example: A profound psychological understanding of addiction to material objects is evident throughout the history of Hinduism. Addiction was the concern not merely of kings or scholars but of ordinary people, like the proto-hippy and the gambler who are depicted in the Vedas (see excerpt). One reaction to this perceived danger was to control addiction through asceticism or renunciation. And so began an ongoing battle between a great tradition that always celebrated sensuality (think: elephants encrusted with rubies, temples that make rococo look like Danish modern, the Kama-sutra) and another that feared the excesses of the flesh and practiced meditation (think: Gandhi).
Some of the British, especially in the early colonial period, admired and celebrated the sensuality of Hinduism. Others, particularly but not only the later Protestant missionaries, despised what they regarded as Hindu excesses. Unfortunately, many educated Hindus took their cues from the second sort of Brit and became ashamed of the sensuous aspects of their own religion, aping the Victorians (who were, after all, very Victorian), becoming more Protestant than thou. It is not fair to blame the British for the Puritanical strain in Hinduism; it began much earlier. But they certainly made it a lot worse. And cultural influences of this sort, as much as the grand ideas, are part of what makes the history of the Hindus so fascinating.
Read an excerpt from "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Wendy Doniger, which is being published today.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Birthday Wishes

MadMomma wrote a beautiful post for her daughter's birthday..it brought tears to my eyes..read it and see..

My darling little baby,

As I sit to write this post, the pressure gets to me. How do I tell a two year old what she’s done to my life? Will you read this at 15 and roll your eyes in disgust? Or will you read it at 30, which is my age now, and smile fondly? Will you understand why this mad woman has been cranky and fighting with your father for days now? Will you know what it feels like for my little teeny baby to turn into a pre-schooler? I sure hope so. Its been amazing being a young mother and I hope you’ll let me be a young grandmother!! What??? Don’t roll your eyes at me young lady, I did it for your grandmother!

So much is running through my mind as I type this. You’re the baby I planned more than 15 years ago. The one I just knew I would have. The beautiful, spirited little girl who would be everything I was hoping to be and much more. And then when I was expecting the Brat, five years ago I kept wondering. Something deep down told me it would be a boy. Because you see, I knew that I would know when you came. Don’t ask me how, but I would just know.

And I did. I knew the day I was pregnant with you. Without the home test. Unlike others who are nervous right through, I was positive it was a little girl. God could not, in His mercifulness, deny me what I wanted so badly. And when you came out - bawling your head off, red cheeked and angry at being ripped out of your cosy home, I gulped in terror. What had I asked for? A holy terror?!

And then you quietened into this happy little, quiet baby - only bright beady eyes blinking out of a blanket. Fed, burped and put to bed. The Brat was in his element in those days and it was so easy to forget the quiet little newborn. You took your time and then one day you just took over. I don’t know when it happened but before I knew it - my little star was born.

The last year was spent with you being Daddy’s girl. All the way. It was good because your first year had you being this cranky, clingy child. You’d howl like a baby hyena if anyone other than me touched you and it wasn’t flattering, it was just back breaking, it made me give your brother less time and you were an embarassment to this family of 3 other wildly sociable members (read about it in my old blog when you do!). Your Dada was really upset because the Brat would respond to him beautifully and the daughter everyone promised him would adore him, was shunning him. He tried his best, to give him his due, but you were having none of it. You wanted mama. And since mama had prayed so hard for you - she learnt to rise to the occasion and deal with it.

And then you turned one and like a little thali ka baingan you went over to his side. And I watched, bereft, from the outside. All of this last year you’ve worshipped the ground he walks on. And then, in what seems to be your way of messing with our heads, you’re back to being my little tail.

Which is not to say you’re anti-social/shy again. But that in the last month you’ve favoured me over him. And we’re back to square one, with me being flattered but tired. No problem. I’d like it to stay this way. Every second word is mama, the maid is allowed to do nothing for you (why am I wasting money on her??!). Come to me mama, I want to sleep with you mama, Mama draw for me, Mama I want to sit in your godi, mama, mama, mama. And every time your little voice says my name, I smile. I love it. Being mama to you, has completed my life, completed me. There’s so little else left to ask for.

I’m thinking of stuff you might want to know about yourself and I can’t imagine what would interest a young, smart Bean of 25.

Will I remember to tell you how you insisted on putting everything in your mouth, all of your second year? Or that you spoke so much more than any other kid I’ve ever come across? That you are a gutsy little creature and other parents watched in terror as a one year old you insisted on hitting the bouncy castle with your 3 year old brother and other much older children? That thereafter there was no looking back and you’ve done everything the Brat does, from perfectly executed somersaults to leaping off the bed to land on a strategically placed bean bag. That you have an elephant’s memory and retain things we mention in passing? That you worship your brother but often discipline him more than we do - ‘Baba - don’t touch anything !! Put that down. Right now. Don’t do naughty, naughty. Okay?’ While your father and I do the guppy act and look on.

So let me ask you - because I doubt much will change in the next 20 years. What is it like to be the centre of attention in this house? To be adored by your brother and worshipped by your parents? Yes, even the old grouch who tries to act like he’s above it all, has been caught looking at you devotedly. As for me, I make no secret of it.

I watch your little skinny baby limbs turn lanky and take shape. They’re no longer just baby limbs.. they’re delicate, girly limbs. I examine your stubby little ugly toes for the nth time and sigh. Maybe this is your father’s blessing. The black mark to take away the evil eye - because other than that, I think you’re perfect! *looking over my shoulder to check if your father is reading this!*

I wonder what kind of girl you will grow to be. You are so at home in the ratty hand me down tees and shorts your brother wore and yet you want to wear a bindi and bangles. Aunty Noon has sent the most gorgeous dress for your birthay. I tried it on you and you took my breath away….

Well, I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I’ve hugged you, I’ve squeezed the juice out of you and you’ve just tucked your head into my shoulder in that endearing way you have and let me be. It’s almost like your gift to me. Mama can do anything because mama cut her tummy and took you out of there. Oh yes, thats another thing you like to do - lift up my shirt and play with the c-sec scar. And ask me if you came from there. Yes my angel. You did. And now you live a little higher. Right in mama’s heart.

Perhaps the one thing I’ve left out in this post is how you’ve filled a place that lay empty for a while. The place your great grandmother left 3 years ago. You have her tiny build, her ferocious temper, her beautiful delicately shaped face - not the square face that your Nani and I share, her grace, and her way of filling up a room just by being in it. I often believe that she looked down from heaven and saw how much I ached for her and sent you in her own image. Well my baby, if you are half the woman she was - I’ll not need to worry.

God bless you my life, my love, my pride and my joy.

And oh - for a change - pictures of my big girl.

I love you baby…


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Relationships and Conflict

Ken Mcleod has a great podcast on Relationships and Conflict. According to him Conflict is the experience of resistance to change when two or more worlds interact.
The four stages of conflict are
1. Passification what is the issue, give each other space.
2. Enrichment- use a third party to help figure out the situation.
3. Magnetization-use personal energy to compel a resolution.
4. Destruction- Unilateral action that ends a relationship.

Questions we should ask when in a relationship.
1. What am i doing here?
2. Being present for and to the other person.
3. Opening up and serving whats true to our perception
4. Recieving the result and Deep listening.

Pain is the sensation and suffering is how we react to pain. One of the marks of existence is to be present and open to the pain and suffering of the other. See where the resistance is and ask yourself, do I need to resist?, what am I resisting and do I need to resist at all? See where the resistance is, and open up to the totality of experience, not just my suffering and your suffering.
Another mark of existence is what is my intention, the intention is to be one with the experience and to do what the situation requires.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Long March

The Long March is an excellent article giving background information about the struggle in Pakistan.

Thanks to CM for the link


The Long March is a set of upcoming protests and rallies of thousands of Pakistanis demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges who were deposed by Gen. Musharraf in Nov 2007. Protesters will begin marching towards the capital Islamabad on March 12th. Activists from Karachi and Quetta are expected to arrive in Lahore on the 14th, and converge on the capital by March 16th for a dharna (sit-in). This is an independent, grassroots movement for democracy led by the Pakistani lawyers movement that includes lawyers, activists, students and workers. The term “Long March” refers to Gandhi’s march against British colonialism. The Pakistani government has reacted defensively to this broad-based movement by shutting down the capital and arresting hundreds of activists. Bans on gathering are in effect in several cities.

It’s the second such mass protest. Last June, thousands of Pakistanis of various political stripes and socio-economic classes, marched from Karachi to Islamabad to demand the restoration of the judiciary in first Long March. Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N campaigned on the issue for the Feb 2008 elections. While the PML-N has continued to push for restoring the judges to the bench, the ruling PPP has spurned the demand since winning the elections. Instead, judges loyal to the party have been sworn in, including the questionable Abdul Hamid Dogar. Also see here.

This is the new democracy movement in Pakistan today.


The Long March is here. A roundup of some places to keep up:

Live Updates via Teeth Maestro’s collective effort: http://teeth.com.pk/blog/2009/03/11/long-march-live-updates
Live Updates via Kashif Aziz: http://www.chowrangi.com/live-coverage-of-pakistan-long-march.html
PK Politics is posting updates of the political situation: http://pkpolitics.com/2009/03/10/civil-dictator-zardari-orders-mass-arrests/
Twitter feeds: 1) http://twitter.com/LongMarch 2) http://twitter.com/arnoldyb
Website with basic docs and interviews: http://marchforjustice.wordpress.com/
Twitter and SMS updates on one site: http://longmarch.seenreport.com/

1. Sahiwal, a district of approximately 1 million residents in Punjab, has refused to implement orders under a colonial-era law, called Section 144, which would ban public gatherings of five or more people. Mayor, Rai Hassan Nawaz Khan’s courageous act comes at a critical moment. Government officials have already imposed the law in several cities across Pakistan as part of a crackdown on activists and lawyers preparing for the Long March. Checkpoints or blockades have been erected on all main roads to the capital Islamabad, the destination of the lawyers protest. The army has deployed some 300 Rangers in and around the city.

The law, which has its roots in 1860 British colonial Penal Code law, empowers district govermnents to promulgate order in cases of emergency for the public interest. Human Rights Watch has issued a demand to the Pakistani government to release the 300 activists currently detained under this draconoian legislation:

Since March 10, 2009, authorities have detained at least 300 activists from the opposition party and affiliated groups from across Punjab province, the party’s stronghold. Scores of opposition politicians are in hiding, fearing arrest. The activists have been detained under various provisions of the Maintenance of Public Order Act or simply detained without charge.

“It’s a disgrace for elected officials to mimic the discredited military government by using old and repressive laws to stifle political expression,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The protesters who were arrested should be freed right away and allowed to demonstrate peacefully without fear of violence.”

2. Punjab government leader, Shahbaz Sharif defies the ban and addresses a large gathering in Gujranwala. His government was ousted last week following a ruling by the Supreme Court retroactively disqualifying him and his brother from the watershed elections in Feb 2008 that brought him to power. The decision is widely regarded as illegitimate, a biased judgement by a discredited Supreme court packed with judges installed by and loyal to the ruling PPP party. Shahbaz Sharif’s speech is available here. His brother, Nawaz Sharif’s speech in Abbottabad on the same day is available here.

3. Arrest warrants have been put out activists using lists that the Musharraf government had compiled. The result? Warrants are out for folks who aren’t even in Pakistan at the moment. Five activists from the Student Action Committee including Samad Khurram, who refused to accept an award for academic excellence in protest against US policy towards Pakistan from then US Ambassador Anne Patterson, have a warrant out against them. They should lapse after 90 days. “The crime?” says Khurram, is that they “could ‘potentially’ be protesting.”


Pakistan Tries to Derail Popular Cross-Country Protest -CS Monitor
Fascism in Action -Editorial, The News International
Pakistan’s Long March on the Road of Political Uncertainty Continues -Adil Najam, All Things Pakistan
Plunder of Justice -Editorial, The News International
Viewpoint: Marching for Democracy in Pakistan -Sahar Shafqat, BaltimoreSun.com
US Has Chance to Help Real Democracy in Pakistan -Sanjeev Bery, Wajiha Ahmed, Atlanta Journal Constitution

Long March Songs hit the Internet: http://pkpolitics.com/2009/03/08/songs-for-rule-of-law-long-march/

Remember Jalib:

Engaging the Muslim world

Juan Cole is asked 6 questions by Scott Horton about his new book Engaging the Muslim World.

Juan Cole is one of the nation’s leading historians focusing on the Middle East. Over the past decade he has emerged as a commentator on Middle East policy and a reliable source for new ideas that may enable the United States to pursue its foreign policy objectives more effectively in the region. For millions, his frequent posts at the Informed Comment blog provide a daily update on press accounts from the Islamic world, often including translations from Arabic- and Farsi-language sources in close-to-real time. His new book, Engaging the Muslim World, will be published on March 17.

1. What are the three biggest misperceptions Americans have about the global Islamic community?

Prof. Juan ColeOne: If you watch American television, you see the most extreme charges against Muslims set forth by pundits. Some allege that Muslims are inherently violent and commanded by scripture to attack infidels. In fact, the Quran forbids murder and commands Muslims to make peace with people who seek peace with them. The “infidels” whom the Quran urges the faithful to combat were the militant pagans of ancient Mecca, who had aggressively attacked the Muslims and were trying to kill them all. The Quran praises the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels as full of “guidance and light,” celebrates the children of Israel, and says that Christians are closest in love to Muslims. Of course, some Muslims are bigoted and manage to ignore those parts of their scripture, but it is not the case that the religion is essentially militant. I’ve gone with Americans to the Middle East, and after a few days they typically come and confess to me that they are amazed at how nice the people are, how kind and generous to foreigners, and how little they resemble U.S. media stereotypes.

Two: Many Americans seem to view the Muslim world as the new Soviet Union, as a relatively monolithic and uniformly hostile bloc of nations. This point of view seems to me oddly detached from reality. Turkey is a NATO ally, and Washington has designated Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan as non-NATO allies. Other governments of Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen have offered the U.S. intelligence, security, and/or military cooperation of a high order. Aside from Europe, there is probably no other culture area on the globe where the United States has as many formal and informal allies. The only countries the United States has relatively severe differences with among nearly fifty Muslim-majority states are Syria, Iran, and the Sudan, and that sort of thing changes over time.

Three: Americans underestimate how beloved American culture is in the Muslim world. U.S. films, television programs, music, Internet programming, and politics are matters of huge public interest, especially among youth. All the polling shows that “they” do not “hate our way of life” at all. Rather, there is enormous interest in democracy, more individual freedoms, and in free market reforms. Muslim publics report deep dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy on Israel/Palestine, on Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they dislike what they see as Hollywood sexual values. But the American dream is wildly popular, even (or especially) in Iran.

2. It is common to see the relationship between the North Atlantic world of Europe and North America on one hand and the Islamic world on the other framed in terms of energy policy—the conflict between the consumers and the producers. You suggest that this has driven the relationship since the middle twentieth century at least, and that it’s fundamentally unhealthy. Given the power of these economic facts, what’s the way to a more healthy and productive relationship?

In the Cold War, the U.S. blithely overthrew democratically elected governments in Syria and Iran to ensure Western European access to inexpensive petroleum, considered by elites in Washington, D.C., to be key to free market economic growth and to defeating the Communist bloc. Iran in particular never forgave the United States for this heavy-handed intervention. Going forward, the temptation to conduct further oil wars will be severe. Once the world economy recovers, demand will spiral up, and the discovery of new fields is unlikely to keep pace with that new demand, especially that of China, India, and other rising Asian powers with large populations.

But let us just allow market forces to operate, and put away the guns of mercantilism. If petroleum prices rise and there are shortages, that will be an impetus to develop mass transit, electric automobiles, and alternative sources of energy. Hydrocarbons as fuel are a dead end, and we need to move away from them as quickly as possible. The impact of burning them for energy on global climate is increasingly disastrous. But there is no quick fix here, and by 2050 we will be lucky to get a third of our energy from alternative sources. Solar energy is the only source that holds out hope of truly resolving the world’s energy problems. We need to cooperate with wealthy oil states such as the United Arab Emirates, who are, ironically, exploring the possibility of zero-carbon cities.

3. The mainstay of U.S. politics in the Middle East in recent years has been the relationship with Israel, but a secondary pillar has been the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. The appointment of Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the National Intelligence Council is being portrayed as a tilt in favor of the Saudi relationship. What do you make of Freeman’s appointment and the vehement opposition it has drawn?

Freeman is a man of vast experience, both in the Middle East and East Asia, and he is a realist with excellent practical judgment, so having him in charge of the writing of the National Intelligence Estimates would be a great thing. It would be a shame if his clear-eyed view of the impact of Israeli expansionism on U.S. security should itself become an obstacle to his appointment, because of the influence of the Israel lobbies. But he will not be making policy with regard to Saudi Arabia. That task will fall to Hillary Clinton at the State Department and ultimately to Barack Obama.

Saudi Arabia is a special challenge for the United States. Its oil resources are the largest in the world, and its good will is indispensable to an industrialized country. It is too rich to ignore. It is too friendly to the United States to snub. It is too authoritarian and fundamentalist to embrace without qualification. It is too influential to sideline. Saudi Arabia has emerged as a diplomatic leader in the region, playing an important if understated role in Lebanon, Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in negotiations with Iran. Although its diplomacy is often of the checkbook variety, the same thing could after all be said of the United States. Despite American trepidation about its hard line Wahhabi Islam, Saudi Arabia’s positions have generally aligned with those of Washington.

There is some good news. Saudi Arabia’s public and its elites have since 2002 taken the threat of terrorism increasingly seriously, once Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began targeting Riyadh and Jidda. The kingdom has held municipal elections, and plans to move toward an elected parliament. The king just appointed the first woman minister and dismissed the head of the morals police for abuses. But Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, its rigid form of Islam, its abysmal human rights situation, its gender apartheid toward women, and its role in spreading narrow-mindedness and xenophobia, require steady behind-the-scenes pressure from the U.S. More, not fewer, educational exchanges are desirable.

4. You say that constructive, measured withdrawal of troops from Iraq is the only way forward. Barack Obama is putting the United States on a 19-month course to withdrawal, but he’s also saying this is only a draw-down from military operations and suggesting that there may be a long-term military presence behind enormous fortified military installations. Grade the Obama plan.

I give Obama an “A” on his Iraq policy speech. It seemed to me to hit all the right notes. He thanked the U.S. troops for their valiant efforts and sacrifices. He pledged to abide by the express wishes of the Iraqi parliament. He tried to reassure U.S. allies in the Gulf, who are worried that in the wake of a precipitate U.S. withdrawal, Iraq might collapse and that the resulting conflagration might engulf them.

I don’t entirely agree with the above characterization of Obama’s Iraq plan, however. He did not suggest that there may be a long-term U.S. military presence behind fortified military installations in Iraq. He said firmly and clearly that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement passed by the Iraqi parliament last fall. I am not sure why his forthright declaration to this effect has been missed by so many observers.

It is true that he hedged a little on adherence to a strict timetable, but that is only common sense. If all hell broke loose in Mosul, with guerrillas fighting off the Iraqi Army and then beginning a massacre of the Kurdish or Christian population in the thousands, would the U.S. public really want Obama just to shrug and let it happen? If so, then why the demand for intervention in the Sudan to stop massacres there? As for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to train and equip the new Iraqi Army, would that not be the only way to ensure that U.S. soldiers did not have to intervene to stop scenarios like the one I suggested at Mosul, above? The Iraqi military has demonstrated impressive new capabilities and esprit de corps in facing down the Mahdi Army in the past year, and that gives hope that the U.S. could honorably leave Iraq without fearing a security collapse in that country in the aftermath.

I understand the public anxiety that somehow Obama will renege on his pledge to get out of Iraq altogether, and it is important that we hold his feet to the fire on this issue, since the military-industrial complex will attempt to push him to remain. But nothing in his speech justified a conviction that he is already backtracking. After years of outright prevarication and fantastic policy pronouncements on Iraq by the previous administration, this frank and realistic speech struck me as a breath of fresh air.

5. The Obama plan for Afghanistan involves a substantial ramp-up of the U.S. presence coupled with what seems a more aggressive posture against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province—as shown by the now routine reports of attacks using predator drones. You previously criticized Bush’s policies in the area as being short-sighted with respect to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is the Obama plan an improvement?

Under Bush, Afghanistan and Pakistan suffered from neglect. Under Obama they may suffer from a surfeit of attention. To tell you the truth, I cannot understand what the mission is in Afghanistan any more. It is not to fight Al Qaeda there. I haven’t seen anything about U.S. troops engaging or capturing “Arab Afghans” for years. It appears that the U.S. and NATO are just trying to shore up the government of Hamid Karzai, which only controls thirty percent of the country. And what do we expect? That someday rural Pashtun Muslims will wake up and say, “I don’t mind foreign troops patrolling my country, I’m happy to be ruled by Tajiks and Hazara Shiites, and I’m not that interested in living by Islamic law anymore”? President Obama has spoken about fighting defeating the “Taliban,” but there seem to be four or five distinct groups now being called that, only one of them is Mulla Omar’s “Old Taliban.” And, I have a distinct sense of dread that some of the Pashtuns attacking NATO checkpoints are just disgruntled poppy farmers whose crops we burned down.

As for Pakistan, the demand that the government exert control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is frankly daft. I’ve been through that territory. You might as well demand that we exert control over all the rattlesnakes in New Mexico. And the conviction that the security of the U.S. mainland depends on the urban Pakistani government regimenting those rural clansmen makes no sense to me. Rugged areas where the government is weak are obviously possible havens for terrorists, but they also typically lack the infrastructure to enable major operations to be conducted directly from such territories. We’d be better off working with Pakistan to put in better airport security and computer tracking of people flying in and out. The Pakistani military has been fighting hard in Bajaur, one of the tribal agencies, against the Pakistani Taliban since August. They have had some success, but displaced 300,000 Pashtuns from their homes. That is going to settle the Pashtuns down?

6. Neoconservatives don’t seem to have lost their voice or their preoccupation with Iran and the Iranian nuclear program—as shown by John Bolton’s joking reference to Iran making a nuclear wasteland out of Chicago at the recent CPAC meetings. But you argue that there may be a way to engage Iran with less violence and bellicose rhetoric and more support for America’s natural allies in the Iranian population. What’s your policy prescription for President Obama, and what are the odds that Dennis Ross will accept it?

Never have so few been initially so powerful, in the event so wrong, and ultimately so discredited as the Neoconservatives. Why anyone would ever again pay the slightest attention to anything they say mystifies me. And I think the real onus is on Dennis Ross to demonstrate that he can be an honest broker.

The U.S. relationship with Iran is the most perilous area of U.S. foreign policy going forward. But there are actually only two bilateral issues between Washington and Tehran that put that relationship on the front burner. They comprise, first, Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, which the U.S. fears could veer toward dual use and result in a nuclear weapon. Second, Iran’s rejectionist stance toward U.S. ally Israel, and its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and, allegedly, for Hamas in Gaza, are highly objectionable to the United States. I really don’t think there is any other really burning issue. Iran’s human rights policies are abominable, but not obviously worse than those of Vietnam, with which the U.S. has established good relations, or than those of Saudi Arabia, with which Washington is actively allied.

The nightmare is that relations deteriorate to the point where there is a war. Iran is over three times the size of France. It is three times more populous than Iraq. Conquering and occupying it would break America. A war with Iran could also cause dwindling U.S. troop contingents in Iraq to be cut off by Shiite militants and besieged. The entire NATO force in Afghanistan risks being trapped in that country if Iran mobilizes regional forces to isolate them in that craggy, landlocked country.

So since, to my mind at least, a war on Iran is unthinkable, the alternative is negotiations. I argue that we have to be realistic about what the Iranian elites they say they want. They say they do not want a nuclear bomb, but do want the ability to enrich uranium to run domestic nuclear reactors for energy. They already use half the petroleum they produce every day, and their economy and population are growing at such a rate that Iran may have no petroleum for export in the relatively near future. They say they are afraid that at that point, they will lose their independence and the U.S. will impose another puppet government upon them. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 assessed that the Iranians are not doing weapons-related research and that they do not have a nuclear weapons program. So it is at least plausible that they really are driven by a desire for energy independence, which should not be so hard for the U.S. public to understand.

In fact, they would be much better off if they gave up their enrichment activities and obtained an end to U.S. and United Nations economic boycotts, so that their enormous natural gas reserves could be developed. Moreover, their only real hope of energy independence in long term is solar, so that is where they should put their research energies.

If, as some suggest, the Iranians are engaged in enrichment because they want the appearance, at least, of being able to fend off a U.S. attack, then obviously one way to get them to close the program down is to give them credible guarantees against such an assault. That might have to be a multilateral undertaking, involving NATO, Russia and China. Congress needs to stop devoting millions every year to overthrowing the government in Tehran. Do Americans even know that we are doing that?

As for the Iranian involvement in the Levant, it is the Israelis who give the ayatollahs that opening and they could easily close it off. If they just gave back the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a Camp David-style peace treaty with Damascus, and gave back the Shebaa Farms occupied territory and made peace with Lebanon, they would deny Hezbollah its pretext for remaining armed and remove a key Hezbollah patron, Syria, from the equation. If they stopped blockading and half-starving the Gazans, ceased colonizing the West Bank and granted the Palestinians a state, Sunni, Christian, and secular Palestinians would not want or need Iranian money and arms.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Johann Hari

Johann Hari wrote this article in the Independent.

He then defended his article and the arrest of the Statesman editor, Ravi Kumar and publisher here.

Here’s how it happened. My column reported on a startling development at the United Nations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has always had the job of investigating governments who forcibly take the fundamental human right to free speech from their citizens with violence. But in the past year, a coalition of religious fundamentalist states have successfully fought to change her job description. Now, she has to report on “abuses of free expression” including “defamation of religions and prophets.” Instead of defending free speech, she must now oppose it.

I argued this was a symbol of how religious fundamentalists – of all stripes – have been progressively stripping away the right to freely discuss their faiths. They claim religious ideas are unique and cannot be discussed freely; instead, they must be “respected” – by which they mean unchallenged. So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries to discuss the stoning of “adulterous” women, the hanging of gay people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are silenced by the chair on the grounds these are “religious” issues, and it is “offensive” to talk about them.

This trend is not confined to the UN. It has spread deep into democratic countries. Whenever I have reported on immoral acts by religious fanatics – Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim – I am accused of “prejudice”, and I am not alone. But my only “prejudice” is in favor of individuals being able to choose to live their lives, their way, without intimidation. That means choosing religion, or rejecting it, as they wish, after hearing an honest, open argument.

A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.

That’s why I wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him. I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice…. When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol… He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth – especially in a democracy of a billion people rivven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

I did not write a sectarian attack on any particular religion of the kind that could lead to a rerun of India’s hellish anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh pogroms, but rather a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly silence their critics. The right to free speech I am defending protects Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say anything they want – as long as I too have the right to respond.

It’s worth going through the arguments put forward by the rioting fundamentalists, because they will keep recurring in the twenty-first century as secularism is assaulted again and again. They said I had upset “the harmony” of India, and it could only be restored by my arrest. But this is a lop-sided vision of “harmony”. It would mean that religious fundamentalists are free to say whatever they want – and the rest of us have to shut up and agree.

The protestors said I deliberately set out to “offend” them, and I am supposed to say that, no, no offence was intended. But the honest truth is more complicated. Offending fundamentalists isn’t my goal – but if it is an inevitable side-effect of defending human rights, so be it. If fanatics who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don’t resile from it. Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.

You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offence. Every day, I am offended – not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offence is that I can give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protesters propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own heinously offensive views about women’s rights or homosexuality, but we have to shut up and take it – or we are the ones being “insulting.”

It’s also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these protesters, because they too aren’t going away. Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was “asking for it” by writing a “needlessly provocative” article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

The argument that I was “asking for it” seems a little like saying a woman wearing a short skirt is “asking” to be raped. Or, as Salman Rushdie wrote when he received far, far worse threats simply for writing a novel (and a masterpiece at that): “When Osip Mandelstam wrote his poem against Stalin, did he ‘know what he was doing’ and so deserve his death? When the students filled Tiananmen Square to ask for freedom, were they not also, and knowingly, asking for the murderous repression that resulted? When Terry Waite was taken hostage, hadn’t he been ‘asking for it’?” When fanatics threaten violence against people who simply use words, you should not blame the victim.

These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the oxygen of rationality into religious debates – and introduce doubt. Voltaire – one of the great anti-clericalists – said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” If you can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt – if there is a single nagging question at the back of their minds – then they are more likely to hesitate. That’s why these ideas must be challenged at their core, using words and reason.

But the fundamentalists are determined not to allow those rational ideas to be heard – because at some level they know they will persuade for many people, especially children and teenagers in the slow process of being indoctrinated.

If, after all the discussion and all the facts about how contradictory and periodically vile their ‘holy’ texts are, religious people still choose fanatical faith, I passionately defend their right to articulate it. Free speech is for the stupid and the wicked and the wrong – whether it is fanatics or the racist Geert Wilders – just as much as for the rational and the right. All I say is that they do not have the right to force it on other people or silence the other side. In this respect, Wilders resembles the Islamists he professes to despise: he wants to ban the Koran. Fine. Let him make his argument. He discredits himself by speaking such ugly nonsense.

The solution to the problems of free speech – that sometimes people will say terrible things – are always and irreducibly more free speech. If you don’t like what a person says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people. The best way to discredit a bad argument is to let people hear it. I recently interviewed the pseudo-historian David Irving, and simply quoting his crazy arguments did far more harm to him than any Austrian jail sentence for Holocaust Denial.

Please do not imagine that if you defend these rioters, you are defending ordinary Muslims. If we allow fanatics to silence all questioning voices, the primary victims today will be Muslim women, Muslim gay people, and the many good and honourable Muslim men who support them. Imagine what Europe would look like now if everybody who offered dissenting thoughts about Christianity in the seventeenth century and since was intimidated into silence by the mobs and tyrants who wanted to preserve the most literalist and fanatical readings of the Bible. Imagine how women and gay people would live.

You can see this if you compare my experience to that of journalists living under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of people sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the fanatics – or charged for their “crimes.” They are people like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was sentenced to death for downloading a report on women’s rights. They are people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran’s leading reform-minded women’s magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah law.

It would be a betrayal of them – and the tens of thousands of journalists like them – to apologize for what I wrote. Yes, if we speak out now, there will be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall silent – if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs – then many, many more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right to criticise religion – or lose it.

If you are appalled by the erosion of secularism across the world and want to do something about it, there are a number of organizations you can join, volunteer for or donate to.

Some good places to start are the National Secular Society, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, or – if you want the money to go specifically to work in India – the International Humanist and Ethical Union. (Mark your donation as for their India branch.)

Even donating a few hours or a few pounds can really make a difference to defending people subject to religious oppression – by providing them with legal help, education materials, and lobbying for changes in the law.

An essential source of news for secularists is the terrific website Butterflies and Wheels.

all of us xxxx

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bhagwant Singh on Connaught Place

Connaught Place, regarded as Delhi’s best-known business and shopping district, is an intrinsic part of the city’s rich heritage.

An air of expectancy pervaded the Great Royal Durbar. The occasion was a celebration to commemorate the coronation of His Majesty King George V as the Emperor of India on December 12, 1911. Whispers did the rounds that the King-Emperor would make an important announcement on the occasion, but nobody could guess what it would be. And when it came, the dramatic announcement took everyone by surprise-the capital of British India would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi!

Work on the project began immediately after the durbar concluded. A foundation stone was hastily laid by King George V. Later, Britain’s renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens-in charge of the project-toured the area on elephant back. Lutyens felt the site was unsuitable for the Imperial capital, meant to epitomise British glory and grandeur.

So the Viceroy chose another site at Raisina Hill in south Delhi. In 1913, the foundation stone was piled on a bullock cart and transplanted at the location. Assisting Lutyens in the project was Sir Herbert Baker, another renowned British architect. The new city-spread over 26 square kilometres-would be centred around what came to be known as Connaught Place (now popularly known as CP).

Designed by Robert Tor Russell, CP was to become New Delhi’s main commercial centre. Controversy struck early, though, with a debate on whether the city’s design should be influenced by Western or Oriental architecture. “Western architecture with an Oriental motif” was the suggestion of Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy. But eminent personalities like Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy advocated an Indian style. Lutyens himself disparaged Indian architecture, but finally settled for a balance between the two.

It was a decision that allowed Indian contractors to play a greater role in the building of Connaught Place and New Delhi than they would otherwise have enjoyed. For the next 20 years, most of the land was levelled, roads were built and water and electricity connections provided to various sites. At the peak of the city’s building activity, 29,000 workers were employed, not counting labourers at brick kilns and distant quarries.

In the construction of CP, three Indian contractors played a prominent role. Says 90-year-old Bhagwant Singh, elder brother of noted author Khushwant Singh: “There were three main contractors who built Connaught Place, one of them was my father, Sir Sobha Singh. The other two were Sardar Dharam Singh and Rai Bahadur Narain Singh. We handled the work through my father’s company, Sobha Singh and Sons. In those days (the late 1920s), we had a home in Jantar Mantar. This is now known as Kerala House.” Indeed, in its listing on contractors, The Delhi Directory, 1932 (Old and New Delhi) has this entry in its weather-beaten pages: Sobha Singh, Sardar Bahadur, 3, Jantar Mantar Road, New Delhi.

Bhagwant Singh narrates the family saga in building CP: Born in 1912, when he was six years old, the family migrated from Sargoda- now in Pakistan-which was then a horse-breeding centre for the army. He recalls the past proudly:“The inhabitants of Sargoda were tall, big people. My father and grandfather attended the 1911 coronation when the capital’s shift from Calcutta to Delhi was announced. When they discovered that Delhi was to become the capital, both decided to relocate here and start business as contractors. In 1919-20, we shifted. We were four brothers and one sister. The metre gauge train that carried stones was a prominent feature for us children. The train going from Nizamuddin to New Delhi was quite a picturesque sight.”

Pausing to collect his thoughts, the old-timer continues: “Opposite our house in Janpath was the house that Sardar Ranjit Singh had built. Mohammed Ali Jinnah bought this house later, around 1930, I think. The road from Claridges Hotel to CP, Janpath was then called Queen’s Way. Rajpath was called King’s Way. India Gate was constructed in 1928. In those days, many roads were not paved. Rajpath was paved around 1928.”

In a conscious attempt at surpassing ancient Mughal architecture, the British utilised the same kind of red sandstone that Emperor Akbar and Shah Jahan had used centuries earlier in their majestic forts and mausoleums. Records indicate that the white and red sandstone mainly came from the princely states of Bharatpur and Dholpur. Bhagwant Singh corroborates this: “While building CP, stones were brought from Dholpur (now in Rajasthan). The red and white stones came by train up to New Delhi Railway Station and a shuttle then took them closer to the site were the stones were dressed according to requirements. Contractor Sardar Dharam Singh brought all the stones.”

Dwelling wistfully on the halcyon days, Bhagwant Singh adds: “In those days, there was nothing beyond Janpath, which was being built. One could still come across foxes and rabbits in the area bordering this place. The nearest populated area was Jantar Mantar. The British, however, lived in places like Aurangzeb Road and Safdarjung Road. In 1920, we used to go to school in a four-wheel horse buggy. By 1924, I had a bicycle and would cycle to school in Daryaganj. I was in Modern School. The construction of a new branch of the school was started and the school shifted to Barakhamba Road in 1933. No other building existed on Barakhamba Road at that point of time. Even Asaf Ali Road did not exist.

“In 1928, only Regal Cinema had been built; no other buildings were functioning in CP. The Rivoli Cinema side did not exist. The rest of CP came up slowly. ‘A’ Block and Regal Building were built by my father-Regal Building is still with us. And it was Rai Bahadur Narain Singh who built Odeon Cinema.”

According to Bhagwant Singh-who played an active role in his father’s construction business-a major portion of CP was opened in 1930 and it was named after the Duke of Connaught, a member of the British Royal family who had visited Delhi in 1921. Like much of New Delhi, the construction of CP occurred between 1913 to 1931. And it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

“CP took quite a long time to build. At that time, prices were very low. My father took over Scindia House but was only able to complete the Janpath side. The British chief engineer refused to release payments, saying: ‘You have to complete the entire building before I can do so.’ My father had to take a big loan to complete it-around Rs 20 lakh! It was called Scindia House because the plot was given by His Highness the Maharaja of Gwalior,” says Bhagwant Singh.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Sita sings the blues

Nina Paley has done a brilliant job of describing her breakup through using Indonesian puppets, the Ramayan story and set to Jazz.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

SlumDog Review

Arundhati analyzes the slumdog millionaire movie.

The night before the Oscars, in India, we were re-enacting the last few scenes of Slumdog Millionaire. The ones in which vast crowds of people – poor people – who have nothing to do with the game show, gather in the thousands in their slums and shanty towns to see if Jamal Malik will win. Oh, and he did. He did. So now everyone, including the Congress Party, is taking credit for the Oscars that the film won!

The party claims that instead of India Shining it has presided over India 'Achieving'. Achieving what? In the case of Slumdog, India's greatest contribution, certainly our political parties’ greatest contribution is providing an authentic, magnificent backdrop of epic poverty, brutality and violence for an Oscar-winning film to be shot in. So now that too has become an achievement? Something to be celebrated? Something for us all to feel good about? Honestly, it's beyond farce.

And here’s the rub: Slumdog Millionaire allows real-life villains to take credit for its cinematic achievements because it lets them off the hook. It points no fingers, it holds nobody responsible. Everyone can feel good. And that’s what I feel bad about.

So that’s about what’s not in the film. About what’s in it: I thought it was nicely shot. But beyond that, what can I say other than that it is a wonderful illustration of the old adage, ‘there's a lot of money in poverty’.

The debate around the film has been framed – and this helps the film in its multi-million-dollar promotion drive – in absurd terms. On the one hand we have the old 'patriots' parroting the line that "it doesn't show India in a Proper Light' (by now, even they’ve been won over thanks to the Viagra of success). On the other hand, there are those who say that Slumdog is a brave film that is not scared to plum the depths of India 'not-shining'.

Slumdog Millionaire does not puncture the myth of ‘India shining'— far from it. It just turns India 'not-shining' into another glitzy item in the supermarket. As a film, it has none of the panache, the politics, the texture, the humour, and the confidence that both the director and the writer bring to their other work. It really doesn’t deserve the passion and attention we are lavishing on it. It's a silly screenplay and the dialogue was embarrassing, which surprised me because I loved The Full Monty (written by the same script writer). The stockpiling of standard, clichéd, horrors in Slumdog are, I think, meant to be a sort of version of Alice in Wonderland – ‘Jamal in Horrorland’. It doesn't work except to trivialize what really goes on here. The villains who kidnap and maim children and sell them into brothels reminded me of Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians.

Politically, the film de-contextualises poverty – by making poverty an epic prop, it disassociates poverty from the poor. It makes India’s poverty a landscape, like a desert or a mountain range, an exotic beach, god-given, not man-made. So while the camera swoops around in it lovingly, the filmmakers are more picky about the creatures that
inhabit this landscape.

To have cast a poor man and a poor girl, who looked remotely as though they had grown up in the slums, battered, malnutritioned, marked by what they’d been through, wouldn't have been attractive enough. So they cast an Indian model and a British boy. The torture scene in the cop station was insulting. The cultural confidence emanating from the obviously British 'slumdog' completely cowed the obviously Indian cop, even though the cop was supposedly torturing the slumdog. The brown skin that two share is too thin to hide a lot of other things that push through it. It wasn’t a case of bad acting – it was a case of the PH balance being wrong. It was like watching black kids in a Chicago slum speaking in Yale accents.

Many of the signals the film sent out were similarly scrambled. It made many Indians feel as though they were speeding on a highway full of potholes. I am not making a case for verisimilitude, or arguing that it should not have been in English, or suggesting anything as absurd as 'outsiders can never understand India.' I think plenty of Indian filmmakers fall into the same trap. I also think that plenty of Indian filmmakers have done this story much, much better. It's not surprising that Christian Colson – head of Celedor, producers of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ – won the Oscar for the best film producer. That's what Slumdog Millionaire is selling: the cheapest version of the Great Capitalist dream in which politics is replaced by a game show, a lottery in which the dreams of one person come true while, in the process, the dreams of millions of others are usurped, immobilizing them with the drug of impossible hope (work hard, be good, with a little bit of luck you could be a millionaire).

The pundits say that the appeal of the film lies in the fact that while in the West for many people riches are turning to rags, the rags to riches story is giving people something to hold on to. Scary thought. Hope, surely, should be made of tougher stuff. Poor Oscars. Still, I guess it could have been worse. What if the film that won had been like Guru – that chilling film celebrating the rise of the Ambanis. That would have taught us whiners and complainers a lesson or two. No?

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