Finally beginning to like this

For the longest time, WordPress for some reason had a really dysfunctional web editor to write one’s post. What’s the point of not being able to add both Tags and Categories in the main default word processor?

And my biggest gripe (which has still not been resolved) – why can’t I change default fonts. 

However, it is still a significant improvement from what it was.

I haven’t blogged in a while here. Hope to get back with a vengeance. Hopefully, the new editor will help. 

The middle east ceasefire

Pages after pages have already been written, reported and opined in the mainstream and non-mainstream press about the Crisis in Gaza – so purportedly, this post will serve absolutely no purpose, or as management consultants like to say -add no value. 

And there are a lot better places on the internet to find the details on the conflict, get news (I strongly recommend Twitter – this is the first global crisis that I have actually meaningfully followed on Twitter and am blown away by the diversity of views you can get if you so choose from there) and read pundit opinion.

What I really wanted to write about was the sheer conviction that I have encountered on each side of the debate with personal friends. Friends who have gotten into very public and ugly spats on Facebook and the like. The whole deal – being personally vituperative etc.

And then again, there are really passionate arguments on both sides – the Israel Palestinian conflict brings out primordial passion in all of us (including this author).

For the sakes of all the people – In Gaza and in Israel – I really do hope the ceasefire today holds. Its one of those things – we can keep arguing and intellectualizing till kingdom come (no puns there) – but till that time everyday people are suffering. And frankly the Gazans have been getting a really really bad deal.

So much for arguments – lets hope the ceasefire stays in place.

Writing

Have artists stopped painting because we now have cameras everywhere?

Silly question, correct? Yes, we all take pictures and silly selfies. But has that led to the decline of that romantic notion of the starving artist dreamily creating works of art? Nope. Quite the contrary, actually.

Which brings me to the article in the New York Times today. Its an unrelated topic – its about the benefits of writing vs. typing on a keyboard as young children are beginning to learn. It talks about how there is a greater degree of engagement of the brain when a child is asked to write (or reproduce) a letter vs. typing it. And how, cognitively, that effort is a way of learning.

I found the article fascinating because I am constantly debating in my head about the balance of the undeniable benefits and conveniences that technology brings us vs. the long term deleterious impacts the wide-spread (and increasingly, early) adoption of technology can lead to.

Will, in the distant future of humanity, there be no artists create paintings outside of a computer program? And would that be a good thing or bad for us?

Just a random thought in the morning.

China and the new world order

It was a long time coming.

Not to mention China’s myriad tensions with the west including the IP theft issue with both the US and Europe. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was unusually candid in his remarks in his ongoing trip to China. And got this in response.

There isn’t any denying it – the tensions are escalating to a new level – both within Asia and with the global world.

So, the question becomes – What is China’s end game? Is China picking up these fights for its inexorable energy needs (a lot of which is ostensibly in the South and East China seas)? And in the case of blatant IP thefts – just to even a playing field that it feels was unjustly stacked against her – in whatever way it can – without a lot of ratiocination about the means to get to the end.

Or it is merely to define the new normal for a rising global power. As the world increasingly becomes paranoid about China – it is important to consider a few ground realities.

One, the global alarm notwithstanding, China isn’t close to becoming a global power. A pre-requisite to becoming a nation that can project its power globally is having strong allies. And as far as this author can see, China has one ally – North Korea. And that is changing as well – with North Korea opening talks with Japan. Yes, China has projected its economic might to build presence and “partnerships” with a number of dubious regimes around the world (particularly in the Middle East and Africa) – these countries cannot be counted as allies. Detractors will quote the increasing closeness between Russia and China – Putin’s geopolitical response to the West’s reaction to Ukraine – historically, the China – Russia relationship is filled with animosity and distrust (even though they shared an ideological philosophy) – and given China’s ascendence and Russia’s decline (coupled with Putin’s vision of a global Russia) – there are underlying tensions that will surface – gas deal notwithstanding.

Secondly, there was a lot of talk about the Renminbi replacing the US Dollar as the global reserve currency. This is even more far fetched. I would argue that it is impossible in the short and medium term. Reason? The world does not trust China. Or it’s institutions. Period. There is a complete lack of transparency and legislative, executive and judicial checks and balances that are critical for gain the trust of the financial markets. (not to mention, a few things like IP theft, listed above). And being a single party rule does not help in the world’s view of the Chinese ability to build those institutions.

China is without a doubt a great and rising economic power. And a very significant military power.

But it has yet to win social capital around the world. Regional powers do not become global powers just on the basis of economics and military. There has to be a cultural acceptance (or more even a desire to culturally emulate – think 19th century English culture, Hollywood etc.) before any nation can legitimately make a claim for being a global power.

And China, for the reasons stated above and many many more ( e.g. think about the Dalai Lama’s cache in the west vs. China’s claim on Tibet) – China is far away from being a global power. If ever.

 

 

America and Slavery

The case for Reparations

 

From The Atlantic. Riveting. An absolute must read.

Serious journalism in the age of Twitter

In many ways, I am an old-fashioned kind of guy. I like to read physical books – the smell of a new book, the feeling of turning pages, the experience of holding a physical entity in one’s hands while reading. I love penmanship, fountain pens and notebooks.

And I love to read long form journalism – with nuanced opinions, thoughtful arguments not compressed in USA Today style 8-line,15 sentence paragraphs.

So, as I sat thinking through what I really read to get my news and current affairs analyses, the following come to mind:

Foreign Affairs magazine: The gold standard in long-form journalism focused on current affairs analyses and, as the name suggests, geopolitical issues and foreign affairs. The magazine is a joy for the likes of us – a thick tome published every two months in large typeset with essays, opinions, book reviews and issue based debates from very eminent writers and thinkers across the globe. Published by the Council on Foreign Relations – it is surprisingly non-partisan. The website is a great supplement – though it requires a subscription to the magazine for full access.
The New York Times: Don’t think it requires any elaboration. Not a long form as the Foreign Affairs magazine – but it is a newspaper. Delightfully informed journalism and recently, fantastic web-only features on their web-site – like this one. Of course, the weekend NY Times Magazine offers much more longer, leisurely articles – but to me, this is the best of breed in newspapers.
The Atlantic Magazine / The New Yorker: Grouped them together for a reason. I used to be an avid New Yorker reader. Got introduced to The Atlantic while browsing through magazine racks at an airport waiting for a delayed flight. And was hooked. But then I realized that both magazines are intrinsically similar. Liberal leaning, smart, eclectic articles. Funny, informed, intelligent.

The Caravan magazine: Perhaps the best long-form journalism magazine from India. Sort of reminds me of Outlook Magazine -but much more of an interesting read. Covers politics, current affairs and a host of india centric themes.

Scroll: This is a new age media web-only news site. Slick, thoughtfully designed and representing different views – it sort of hooked me enough for me to check it everyday. It isn’t strictly long form – but does attract very well written articles – more like a curated blog than a traditional magazine – but it certainly has me hooked. Highly recommended if you are into reading India centric news. Could be refreshed a little more though – seems like they are a startup – with not a very substantial editorial staff.

In addition, in the era of smartphones – how can one ignore podcasts. The following are subscribed to on my mobile device currently:

  • Left, Right and Center – from KCRW (NPR)
  • This Week – from ABC
  • Face the Nation – CBS
  • Meet the Press – NBC
  • GPS by Fareed Zakaria – CNN
  • BBC World Service
  • Real Time with Bill Maher – HBO

Modi and secularism

One of the absolutely best articles I have read on why the “Secularism” angle did not resonate with the Indian electorate these elections.

From The Hindu. The article can be accessed here. Reproducing below for reference.

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How Modi defeated liberals like me

SHIV VISVANATHAN

On May 17, Narendra Modi revisited Varanasi to witness a pooja performed at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. After the ritual at the temple, he moved to Dashashwamedh ghat where an aarti was performed along the river. The aarti was more than a spectacle. As a ritual, it echoed the great traditions of a city, as a performance it was riveting. As the event was relayed on TV, people messaged requesting that the event be shown in full, without commentary. Others claimed that this was the first time such a ritual was shown openly. With Mr. Modi around, the message claimed “We don’t need to be ashamed of our religion. This could not have happened earlier.”

At first the message irritated me and then made me thoughtful. A colleague of mine added, “You English speaking secularists have been utterly coercive, making the majority feel ashamed of what was natural.” The comment, though brutal and devastating, was fair. I realised at that moment that liberals like myself may be guilty of something deeper.

At the same time moment, some Leftists were downloading a complete set of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks fearing that the advent of Mr. Modi may lead to the withdrawal of these books. The panic of some academics made them sound paranoid and brittle, positing a period of McCarthyism in India. It also brought into mind that both Right and Left have appealed to the state to determine what was correct history. With the advent of the Right, there is now a feeling that history will become another revolving door regime where the official and statist masquerade as the truth.

Secularism as a weapon

I am raising both sets of fear to understand why Left liberals failed to understand this election. Mr. Modi understood the anxieties of the middle class more acutely than the intellectuals. The Left intellectuals and their liberal siblings behaved as a club, snobbish about secularism, treating religion not as a way of life but as a superstition. It was this same group that tried to inject the idea of the scientific temper into the constitutions as if it would create immunity against religious fears and superstitions. By overemphasising secularism, they created an empty domain, a coercive milieu where ordinary people practising religion were seen as lesser orders of being.

Secularism became a form of political correctness but sadly, in electoral India it became an invidious weapon. The regime used to placate minorities electorally, violating the majoritarian sense of fairness. In the choice between the parochialism of ethnicity and the secularism of citizenship, they veered toward ethnicity. It was a strange struggle between secularism as a form of piety or political correctness and people’s sense of religiosity, of the cosmic way religion impregnated the everydayness of their lives. The majority felt coerced by secular correctness which they saw either as empty or meaningless. Yet, they correctly felt that their syncretism was a better answer than secularism. Secularism gave one three options. The first was the separation from Church and State. This separation meant an equal distance from all religions or equal involvement in all religions. There was a sense that the constitution could uphold the first but as civilisations, as communities we were syncretic and conversational. One did not need a parliament of religions to be dialogic. Indian religions were perpetually dialogic. The dialogue of medical systems where practitioners compared their theologies, their theories and their therapies was one outstanding and constructive example.

There was a secondary separation between science and religion in the secular discourse. Yet oddly, it was Christianity that was continuously at odds with science while the great religions were always open to the sciences. Even this created a form of coerciveness, where even scientists open to religion or ritual were asked to distance themselves from it. The fuss made about a scientist coming to office after Rahukalam or even discouraging them from associating themselves with a godman like Sai Baba was like a tantrum. There is a sense of snobbery and poetry but more, there is an illiteracy here because religion, especially Christianity shaped the cosmologies of science. In many ways, Ecology is an attempt to reshape and reinvent that legacy.

Tapping into a ‘repression’

What secularism did was it enforced oppositions in a way that the middle class felt apologetic and unconfident about its beliefs, its perspectives. Secularism was portrayed as an upwardly mobile, drawing room discourse they were inept at. Secularism thus became a repression of the middle class. For the secularist, religion per se was taboo, permissible only when taught in a liberal arts or humanities class as poetry or metaphor. The secularist misunderstood religion and by creating a scientific piety, equated the religious with the communal. At one stroke a whole majority became ill at ease within its world views.

Narendra Modi sensed this unease, showed it was alienating and nursed that alienation. He turned the tables by showing secularism — rather than being a piety or a propriety — was a hypocrisy, or was becoming a staged unfairness which treated minority violations as superior to majoritarian prejudices. He showed that liberal secularism had become an Orwellian club where some prejudices were more equal than others. As the catchment area of the sullen, the coerced, and the repressed became huge, he had a middle class ready to battle the snobbery of the second rate Nehruvian elite. One sensitive case was conversion. The activism of Hindutva groups was treated as sinister but the fundamentalism of other religions was often treated as benign and as a minoritarian privilege. There was a failure of objectivity and fairness and the infelicitous term pseudo-secularism acquired a potency of its own.

While secularism was a modern theory, it was impatient in understanding the processes of being modern. Ours is a society where religion is simultaneously cosmology, ecology, ritual and metaphor. Most of us think and breathe through it. I remember a time when the epidemics of Ganesha statues were drinking milk. Hundreds of believers went to watch the phenomena and came away convinced. I remember talking to an office colleague who returned thrilled at what she had seen. I laughed cynically. She looked quietly and said, “I believe, I have faith, I saw it. You have no faith so why should the Murti talk to you.” I realised that she felt that I was deprived. She added that the mahant of a temple where the statue had not drank milk had gone into exile and meditation to make up for his inadequacy. I realised at that moment that a lecture on hygroscopy or capillary action (the scientific explanations) would have been inadequate. I could not call her illiterate or superstitious. It was a struggle about different meanings, a juxtaposition of world views where she felt her religion gave her a meaning that my science could not. I was reminded that the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr had a horseshoe nailed to his door. When Bohr was questioned about it, he commented that it won’t hurt to be there. Bohr had created a Pascalian Wager, content that if the horseshoe brought luck it was a good wager, but equally content that if it was inert it did no harm. I wish I had replied in a similar form to my friend.

For a pluralism of encounters

I realise that in many places in Europe, there has been a disenchantment with religion. I have seen beautiful churches in Holland become post offices as the church confronted a sheer lack of attendance. But India faces no such problem and we have to be careful about transplanting mechanical histories.

Ours is a different culture and it has responded to religion, myth and ritual. The beauty of our science Congress is that it resembles a miniature Kumbh Mela. But more, our religions have never been against science and our state has to work a more pluralistic understanding of these encounters. Secularism cannot be empty space. It has to create a pluralism of encounters and allow for levels of reality and interpretation.Tolerance is a weak form of secularism. In confronting the election, we have to reinvent secularism not as an apologetic or disciplinary space but as a playful dialogue. Only then can we offer an alternative to the resentments that Mr. Modi has thrived on and mobilised. I take hope in the words of one of my favourite scientists, the Dalai Lama. When George Bush was waxing eloquent about Muslims, the Dalai Lama commented on George Bush by saying, “He brings out the Muslim in me.” I think that captures my secular ethic brilliantly and one hopes such insights become a part of our contentious democracy.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)