Tuesday, December 9, 2014

No Space for Public Reason?

It is becoming quite clear that the TV studio opinions and the social media outrages are increasingly determining governments' agenda. The exercise of public reason has taken a back seat -- at least in the cases in which media (conventional or social) decide to get involved. The result is that the governments just want to be seen as doing something, anything, even before they have thought through the issue. It's the impression that only seems to matter.

Consider the two recent cases -

First was the case of Rohtak girls who decided to stand up to their alleged harassers in a public bus. Media widely reported, even celebrated, the event. The Haryana government of ML Khattar (who had in the recent elections remarked that the girls should dress appropriately else it leads to trouble) immediately announced bravery awards for the girls. But then just the next day TV channels got hold of a new video showing the girls in yet another similar situation. Implicit questions were raised whether it were the girls who were simply of the aggressive kind. (As if a woman who has once stood up for herself should not take a similar stand ever again). That media wanted its talking points was not surprising but what was surprising was the Haryana government's decision to withhold its award to the girls. It's ridiculous that a government's actions be decided based on what's the mood on the dinner time TV debates. And yet that's what happened on two consecutive days -- first the rush to announce the awards, then to cancel them. They might have as well conducted a twitter poll or something.

Second is the Uber case. Due to the media attention, the central government felt obliged to be seen as doing something even before it had taken a considered view on the matter. (As is clear from the differing views of the Home Minister and the Transport Minister, the council itself is not clear what the strategy to deal with the situation should be). And it did just the easiest of things -- ban the cab service. In this particular case, the effect of media can be seen in still starker relief if one considers that the accused was a serial offender whose similar crimes were already brought to police notice earlier. But those crimes were committed in a small town in UP away from the gaze of media. (In fact there were reports that the neighbors from the village where the accused hailed distributed sweets celebrating the news that he was finally going to be punished now that he had committed a crime in the capital and media was involved.)

So clearly it's the media, and not some underlying public purpose, that is getting the governments to act. Or at least be seen as doing something, however meaningless those actions may be. Action is demanded and activity is delivered. As for the progress, that's a different thing.

Now, I have earlier held the view that in a democracy a government should respond to whatever its citizens demand even if those demands are not the most rational ones. (Of course, while remaining within the broader limits of our constitution). But now I am not all that sure about this.

The main question here, I think,  is the nature of representation that our politicians should owe us. Should they just be our delegates who must simply carry out whatever wishes we might have? Or should they be allowed to act as trustees who, in the words of Edmund Burke, "owe us not merely their industry but also their judgement"? Of course, given the distrust of the politician class the trustee model would sound dangerous to most. But then the delegate model, in combination with an hyperactive media, also has its own ridiculousness.

So I am not sure what the right balance is. But this much is certain -- that we need more places where calm public reason can be exercised. Parliament was one such place, but it's in decline now due to various reasons. Media is functioning within a competitive market. And as a rational actor has its focus on TRPs which doesn't really care much about providing that location for public reasoning. Where else?
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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Kama and Culture

"Indians are among the most prolific consumers of internet pornography" finds the data collected from a porn site over a year.

Given our formal cultural acceptance of Kāma as a legitimate goal of  Hindu life, this would be unremarkable. The cultural acceptance, of course, goes at least as far back as Rishi Vatsyana (of the Kamasutra fame) in the 2nd Century BC and has since been regularly reiterated in the literature, songs, paintings and most vividly in sculpture.

A later day Victorian ethics brought to our shores on the ships of colonists, however, continues to distort our views on the subject. [I am not sure what influence the Mughals had.] Now that a new cultural nationalist government is in power, one would assume them to be eager to rectify this distortion. But such are the paradoxes of politics that they plan to do the exact opposite.

On a slightly different and a more practical note -- being a civilized grown-up entails taking responsibility of and control over one's own libido. And to the extent porn sites provide a rather safe outlet to a person's natural biological needs, they serve a utilitarian purpose. It is fatuous of those who argue that this leads to degradation of morals. It does not -- unless you define watching porn itself as immoral, which I strongly deny on multiple grounds. [And I speak for many (mostly from college) when I say that watching porn does not necessarily make one an immoral person. This is by now amply borne out by our personal experiences.]

P.S. In case you find the subject or this post offensive (though I do not see why one should), please consider closing the browser. Comments are welcome.
Kama and CultureSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Democracy, Dogma and Market

A good insightful and articulate piece by Nitin Pai on the dangers of democracy to public rationality got me thinking. Following are some thoughts -

In his article, Nitin Pai highlights the limitations of democracy in promoting a certain set of values which are of self evident worth (at least to anyone subscribing to a basic form of liberalism). He argues that values like Rationality and individual liberty are important values that can be harmed by the working of a majoritarian democracy. Thus, they need an a-priori protection (i.e. not based merely on majority opinion). To address this, he says -- in the liberal tradition that goes at least as far back as John Locke -- that we should do two things -

First, we should constrain the majoritarian workings of a democracy with a basic republican constitution which will protect such important and self evident values (and hence not to be decided by the show of hands) as individual liberty and freedom of speech. The protection of these values should be as absolute as possible, not only because they are valuable in themselves but also for the instrumental reason that they promote other values like public reason or individual self-development.

Second thing to do is to moderate a purely majoritarian system with an institutional structure that can provide the locations for exercise of reason isolated from temporal pressures of popular will. One such important institution is judiciary and we must therefore ensure that the judiciary is immune to popular pressures and influences to the maximum extent possible.

Nitin also cites Bryan Caplan as arguing that -- there are systematic biases through which a democracy places irrational pressures on a goverment. Therefore a goverment should allow greater role for markets to determine the economic outcomes.

I do not find this last argument as entirely convincing (though there's perhaps more to it as I haven't read the book mentioned in Nitin's article). The contradiction that I see in the argument in its present form is this -- if we begin from the position that the self centered individuals in the market place of ideas (i.e electoral democracy) do not lead to rational outcomes/policies, then we can not, at the same time, also claim that self centered individuals in the market place of commodities (i.e. markets) lead to rational outcomes. There has to be more explanation for why greater liberty fails to secure rational outcomes in a democratic setup but not in a market setup. (And this explanation should not be mere definitional -- i.e. it should not begin with definition of rational as what markets do).

In addition, I also see markets as having the systematic biases of their own that can also lead to amplification of dogma over reason. Let's take the example of TV news market. In India it's a relatively competitive field with no channel enjoying a monopoly. Accordingly they all compete for the same viewership. This leads news channels to decide their news or commentary agenda not based on any higher principle of truth, rationality or moderation but rather on what the popular view at the moment is. This is as the market imperative would require 'rational' actors to do -- paradoxically leading to similar erosion of public rationality as was argued above for a democratic arrangement. And since this is true for all channels, it is reasonable to argue that in this case even market as a system is not immune to having their own inbuilt systematic biases.

I think in the end it all boils down to this question -- how do you make maximum liberty of an individual compatible with other values -- rationality, moderation, equality etc. 
Democracy, Dogma and MarketSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, March 3, 2014


There is this very peculiar feeling that I sometimes get when I am in a natural setting -- in a jungle, or by the river, or even in some field -- and it's a bit difficult to express but the main component of that feeling is a sense of contingency - a sense that there's nothing necessary in the scene around me. That those trees or bushes in the jungle or the stones on the mountains could just as well have been aligned differently or could have been in different numbers or of different sizes and it wouldn't have changed anything substantial. That there's no apparent pattern, structure or necessity to the whole thing. And I think that's probably part of the reason why witnessing nature is generally a relaxing experience -- if there is no pattern or meaning in it, there's that much less cognitive load. You just observe the scene and that is pretty much all there's to it. (Of course, there's almost certainly much more going on besides this lack of pattern that make natural settings enjoyable as they are).

So, what brought forth this train of thoughts? It was "Highway", the movie. One thing in the movie that really hit me was its sense of contingent. Highways are probably the only man-made places that with their continuous change of scenery and landscape suggest a similar absence of any necessity. And I think the film was remarkably well shot to convey that sense -- an abandoned godown in the middle of nowhere or a mound by the roadside you go behind to take the leak or a nondescript roadside dhaba -- there's absolutely nothing that is necessary about them. And I thought the movie captured that aspect quite brilliantly.

And I was already struck by this thought when the main characters in the movie revealed their background story to suggest that they both -- one rich and elite and the other poor and arguably exploited -- were running away from the necessities and structures of the society that hadn't quite worked out for them in their own different ways. So I thought that was quite a clever (and subtle) way to put the whole thing -- that these people were running away from the necessary and structured to the contingent and chaotic. Though it doesn't quite work out for them in the end and that makes the whole thing tragic, but, yeah, one can see the lure of it all.
Highway SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hindutva and Self-Pity

"By attacking Doniger's work for discussing sensuality in Hindu life, her opponents display a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament." - http://t.co/CFBtkJokpW

"When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you" said Nietzsche a while back. He might as well be talking about these Hindutva extremists. The most articulate expression of the Hindutva's visceral hatred towards Islam and Christanity is, paradoxically, their imitation of the worst features of these very traditions -- to "display the Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament."

At the very core of the Hindutva project is the profound sense of self-pity and a sense of shame at the perceived lack of coherence of Hinduism. Ashamed of the inherent ambiguities of Hinduism, they want to mimic the very religions and cultures that their politics makes it expedient to hate. Islam has "The book", we must also have one - look we have Gita! One central god figure? Here -- we have Ram. See, second to no one!

Of course, a self pitying person is doubly ashamed. He is ashamed the second time as the recipient of his own pity. Self pity is recursive. And one way to come out of this uncomfortable recursion that Hindutvawadis have found is to cloak the underlying shame in the language of pride and honor.
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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Useful Idiots

With elections in sight
and looking to increase
their political might,
the parties,
on the left and on the right,
are attracting foot soldiers,
- not necessarily very bright,
but who,
even on the slightest provocation,
are ever ready to fight -
on TV shows, radio talks or on internets,
and think of themselves
as righteous warriors on chariots
but in reality
are perhaps mere useful idiots.

P.S. - Useful idiots in prose.
Useful IdiotsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Kamal and Rajkumar

So there were these two friends -- Kamal and Rajkumar. They were very close but they had different political affiliations. They respected each other very much so one would never attack other's political party or leaders directly as they knew it could lead to avoidable bitterness between them. However, they were both smart and well meaning chaps. So they devised a method to put their points across to each other in such a way that it wouldn't affect their friendship -- they would tell jokes and stories to each other.

I thought that was a very clever thing to do. And sometimes the stories they told were themselves clever too. Recently, I overheard one such conversation between them. Following is a faithful reproduction of it. 

Kamal: So there was this boy in our school who wasn't very bright. He had trouble understanding and remembering things. Once for an essay recitation exam, he memorized few essays. But on the day of the exam he forgot everything except the essay on Cow. So, when the teacher asked him to recite an essay on "Our Village", he started "Our village has many cows. The cows have four legs and a tail. They're white in color. They give milk..."

"No, no, that's not what I asked", the teacher stopped him. "Lets try again - recite an essay on Horse".

He again started - "Horse is an animal like cow. Cows have four legs and a tail. They're white ..."

The teacher again had to stop him. But, whatever the student was asked, he would always somehow relate it to the only thing he knew and not pay any attention to the topic. It would have been a really funny thing, if it weren't also so pathetic. Still, everyone had good laugh at his expense.

Rajkumar: Ahh, the school stories! I am also reminded of one from my school. So there was this student taking the Hindi grammar test. He was considered very bright and he had prepared really well for the exams. He was so confident that some students even thought that he already knew what questions the teacher would ask. But that probably was just a rumor.

Anyway, his test started well. Teacher asked him to make a sentence using the word Gau (गौ). He quickly answered - "Gau hamari maata hai". Teacher then asked him to make a sentence on Dhara (धरा). He again fluently answered - "Hindustan ki dhara ke nivasi Hindu hain".

The teacher them asked him to do a Sandhi (संधिor joining of these two words and speak a sentence on it. But he just stared at the teacher's face for a moment and simply ran away from the class.

It's not as funny a story as yours but I haven't still figured out why he couldn't use all his apparent brilliance to answer "Godhara" (Gau+Dhara) and make just a simple sentence on it.
and a tail.
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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Shivji's Matrimonial Disclaimer

Haryanvi ragini from Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye! movie in which Shivji summons all his humility to dissuade Parvarti from marrying him. One of my favorite. 

My attempt at translation for those not too familiar with Haryanvi: 

तू राज्जा की राजदुलारी, मैं सिर्फ लंगोटे आला सूँ |
ांग रगड़ कै पिया करूं, मैं कुंडी सोट्टे आला सूँ |

[While you're a beloved princess, I am a mere loincloth clad,
I grind and drink bhaang; mortar & pestle are all I've got.]

तू राज्जा की छोरी सै, म्हारै इक भी दासी दास नही|
शाल दुशाले औढ़न आली, म्हारै कम्ब्बल तक भी पास नही|

[While you're a king's daughter, I have not a single servant;
O! wearer of expensive shawls, I don't even have a blanket.]

तू बागा की कोयल सै, अड़े बरफ पड़ै हरी घास नही |
किस तरयहा दिल लागै तेरा, शतरंज, चौपड़, ताश नही |

[While you're a beautiful bird of garden, here it's all snow and no grass;
How will you entertain yourself - there're no cards, chaupar or chess.]

किसी साहूकार तै भ्या करवा ले, साहूकार तै भ्या करवा ले,
मैं खालिस टोट्टे आला सूँ,
भांग रगड़ के पिया करूं, मैं कुंडी सोट्टे आला सूँ |

[Get married to a wealthy merchant,
Destitution is all I've got,
I grind and drink bhaang; mortar & pestle are all I've got.]

मैं धूने में तपया करूं, तू आग देख कै डर जागी|
राख घोल के पीया करूं, मेरा भाग देख कै डर जागी|

सौ सौ साँप पड़ै रै गल मै, नाग देख कै डर जागी|
ताण्डव नाच करे बन मै, रंग राग देख कै डर जागी|

[I burn in meditation, the fire will frighten you;
I survive on ash and water, my fate will shock you;

Hundreds of serpents around my neck, the snakes will frighten you;
I perform Tandav in jungle, the excitement will startle you.]

तनै ज़ुल्फ़ों वाला छोरा चाहिये, 
ज़ुल्फ़ों वाला छोरा चाहिये
मैं लम्बे चोटे आला सूँ|
भांग रगड़ के पिया करूं, मैं कुंडी सोट्टे आला सूँ |

[You need one with flowing hairs, 

I have mere dreadlocks;
I grind and drink bhaang; mortar & pestle are all I've got.]

Shivji's Matrimonial DisclaimerSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend