Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Month: November, 2016

Of Mamta Banerjee, Hermann Göring and Fidel Castro

Argument: The wholesale celebration or rejection of states or persons is detrimental to the cause of Liberty.

The frail-bodied Mamta Bannerjee, speaking in India’s capital in heavily-accented Hindi, recently compared the Indian Prime Minister to Adolf Hitler.

In any other country, this might be considered a straightforward appeal to emotion, or commonplace hyperbole, neither surprising in a politician. Even in one of Miss Banerjee’s caliber, a woman of inspiring fortitude, who took on the might of the entrenched-for-decades Bengal establishment and won enough votes to take her to the highest public office in her province, governing the lives of an entire people.

The point that must be stressed is this: she meant the comparison to be unflattering to her political opponent, Narendra Modi. While a post-1945 comparison to Hitler is almost everywhere unfavorable, India is a special case, and one cannot be sure whether another seeks to praise or to abuse, when the other brings up Hitler.

Although a couple of million Indians fought against the Axis powers in the Second World War, there were a few hundred Indians led by Subas Chandr Bose, a vastly respected soldier-intellectual from Bengal, who collaborated with and took up arms for Hitler. They sided with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to fight for Liberty, and that noble cause protects still their reputation. This muddies the water, and no Indian politician would dare vilify Subas Chandr Bose, even though he disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi, even though he shook the Führer’s hand.

This might be part of the reason that Hitler is still admired in India, with people openly declaring, including on public Facebook posts, that they ‘love Hitler’, and translated copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ available for sale on public footpaths.

Another contributing factor might be the near-absence of the Extermination Camps in the Indian consciousness. Not more than a couple of decades ago, a bar called ‘Hitler’s cross’ made its debut in a posh Indian quartier — Hitler, the murderer of millions, had become ‘cool’.

Or even the fact that the Swastika is a beloved, omnipresent symbol across India, published by the Nazis as the Hakenkreuz.

Or perhaps because one of the fundamental points of Nazi ideology is the breeding of races, and the Indians have been at it for millennia, winning the admiration of Nietzsche.

Or perhaps because gruesome violence in the name of some sacred cause appears entirely palatable to Nazis and many Indians. Hitlerian Germany had ‘Gauleiter’ [Gau = administrative unit; Leiter = leader], who were undoubtedly part of the Dantesque machinery of horrors, and right-wing India has ‘Gaurakhshak’ [Gau = cow; Rakshak = defender], who are pleased to lynch a man if they suspect him of eating beef. The common word ‘Gau’ might make for a dark joke, for Mamta Banerjee’s next speech, or for anyone else who also has the courage to stand up and castigate the powerful.

Of course, it is not just India who had things in common with the darker years of the Weimar Republic.

The Soviets, back when they fought the Nazis, were no strangers to repression, secret policemen, political expediency, and labor camps — the horrible things one often associates with the 1000-year Reich.

The Americans, back when they fought the Nazis, had both de jure and de facto racial segregation, which happened to be one of the defining policies of the Nazi government.

The British and the French, back when they fought the Nazis, were engaged in wars of aggression and occupation. Both states possessed overseas colonies — one of the things that Hitler desired for Germany. It is only a schoolground bully who would think that John and Pierre might have an extra apple, but Hans must sit it out. The humanist, in this analogy, would also deny the Anglophile and Francophone nationalists their rapine.

In Washington’s Holocaust Museum, in the heart of the most powerful city in the world, one sees the flags of these four countries inside the entrance, displayed in the grand manner. The solemnity suggests that these represented the forces of righteousness, bravely pitted against their natural enemy. It is a shabby attempt to mask certain unpalatable truths, such as, but not limited to, those mentioned above. Flags have been known to be particularly effective with schoolboys, and local schools doubtless send pupils to gaze upon the purported glory of one-dimensional heroes.

The Nazis are indeed to be despised — but not because they spoke English with an amusing accent, or because they were enthusiastic about sauerkraut. The opprobrium must be a product of their assaults against human dignity and the freedoms of the individual.

If we agree to that criterion, then we may construct the principle that we shall judge men, organizations and states based on their publicly expressed ideas and their acts, and that we shall apply this principle rigorously, not sparing beloved cousins, trading partners, or adolescent ideas of patriotic obligation. ‘My country, right or wrong’ — does not belong to this century.

And so we must condemn not just certain ideologies and crimes of the Nazis, but also assaults by others on humanity.

For example, we must condemn the famine in Bengal, or the one in the Ukraine, the general denial of dissent, the targeting and execution without trial by policemen or drones [in certain philosophies, this is termed ‘murder’], the demonization of homosexuals, the harassment of ethnic minorities, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, exploitative financial contracts, torture, et cetera. This might mean the ‘goodies’ are not very different from the ‘baddies’, and that some of our heroes might turn out to have the blood of little children on their hands.

If we refuse to apply the principle of responsibility universally, then we stand with one of Hermann Göring’s more persistent utterances, that the only war crime of any significance is to have lost the war.

The historical narrative of human conflict cannot be the post-factum celebration by the victorious party of all participants on its side, including of those who were forced to fight, and of the wholesale and absolute justification of its reasons for going to war, and of all acts carried out by it in wartime.

Nations insist on honoring their war-dead with much ostentation, which is laudable, but often do their utmost to obscure the memory of the lies, cupidity, hypocrisy, hate-mongering, and brutality that are usually indispensable to the prosecution of war, which deception is far from praiseworthy. The denial of debate and the systematic ostracism of the skeptical ones makes a mockery of the dead, even if trumpets are loudly blown.

Subhas Chandr Bose too was a victim of war. He was a Bengali and an intellectual, like Mamta Banerjee, and spent some time in Vienna. When I revisited that magnificent city some months ago, I had the notion that it would be a fine thing to shake the hand of his granddaughter. She might, after all, still frequent Viennese cafés and antique bookstores. He was a terrorist, guilty of sedition, and of aiding the enemy during wartime — all of which means he can be easily condemned, especially by those who belong to the ruling classes, and profit from the maintenance of the status quo. However, he also strove to advance the cause of sweet, sweet Liberty, and this is admirable.

Perhaps this is not all too different from the case of Fidel Castro. It was in a café in Bucharest that the name of the Cuban leader came up, two nights ago. Unknown to us, on the other side of the world, he had just passed away. I wistfully said that it might be a fine thing to shake his hand, yet ignorant of his demise. My companions, who had been to Cuba, expressed mild shock, mentioning a poor track record in human rights. I immediately expressed regret at being ignorant of his failures and excesses — all I knew was that he had fought against tyranny. Waking up the next morning, I realized that I was not alone in my admiration of the underdog who had dared to stand up against the mighty.

Perhaps both Castro and Bose are to be reviled — they would certainly have been regarded as the worst of criminals in their own jurisdictions. Yet, it cannot be denied that they risked their own lives for the freedoms and dignity of others.

The conundrum might have an easy solution. Perhaps we must deny ourselves the romantic desire to deify charismatic men, and apply the same principle of responsibility to all. Their excesses against human dignity to be rejected, their efforts for freedom to be emulated, and the same to apply to nation states.

We shall be left with fewer statues on public boulevards, and less ardent flag-waving — a small price to pay for a more just, freer world.


The glass ceiling — the importance of a clean blow

A Hilary Clinton win, it is spouted, would have broken the ‘glass ceiling’.

Now, a number of countries have long ago had a female premier — examples include large, populous, powerful countries such as the UK, Germany, Brazil, Israel, India, Pakistan, Poland, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Croatia, Norway, Canada, Turkey, South Korea, the Ukraine, Australia, Argentina and Bangladesh. [France has had a female prime minister, but I am not certain whether the President, also directly elected, is not more influential]

Obviously, this is not enough — and, should the USA, Russia, China, Mexico, South Africa and Spain follow through, ideally along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Egypt, the dented ceiling will be convincingly shattered.

Shattered in so far as it refers to gender discrimination — there are other insidious forms of unfairness to be fought, of course.

Also, even from a gender perspective, the victory would be independent of the ‘glass floor’, to coin a new term, which refers to the systematic manner in which male infants are preferred to the female variety, resulting in abortions, infanticide, infrastructure choices of a community, access to education, and quotidian abuse.

But even the narrow definition of the ‘glass ceiling victory’ bears further scrutiny.

From the list of nations previously listed, consider the case of India. The lady in question, Indira Gandhi, had a father who had been prime minister. Or Pakistan, represented by Benazir Bhutto — her father, funnily enough, also happened to have been prime minister. Bangladesh — Khaleda Zia, whose husband had been president; or Sheikh Hasina, whose daddy also had been, curiously enough, president.

If Hilary Clinton had been elected President, or if Michele Obama is elected, it would be a woman whose husband had previously been president, as in the case of Bangladesh. Pakistan treats spouses the same way, albeit varying the order — Benazir Bhutto’s husband later became president.

In as much as breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ would be a powerful act in its symbology — let us find a woman whose father, mother, husband, sister or brother were not previous incumbents of the post.

Otherwise, it is a shallow victory, even in symbolic terms — and it might even damage the cause of equitable treatment.

An account of queuing, politics and journalism from the Third World

Ever wonder what the Third World is like? It is magical. For some people, that is. For those towards the bottom, it is a little less so. An illustrative example is presented.

The federal government in India decided in a sudden move earlier this week to ban certain (500 and 1000 rupee) currency notes, in a move to render valueless the wealth obtained through illicit means.

For a cash-heavy economy like India, this inconvenienced many consumers, many of whom had to spend hours queueing outside banks to be able to secure their cash savings, and to acquire the new currency to be able to purchase food and the rest.

A citizen, Pooja, speaks of “feeling a sense of community in this common frustration and helplessness”.


Incidentally, to wait in a queue in India is one of the less pleasurable activities that life offers, with its fundamental uncertainty, arbitrariness, diminished privacy, rudeness and proclivity to violence and danger.

At least two people died while queueing for the new currency notes. But these numbers mean little for a country of more than a billion, where individual life is not especially valued.

A political party (the AAP) from Delhi, firmly opposed to the political party (the BJP) controlling the federal government, hold this fiscal policy to be objectionable, quite like they decry almost every policy action of the federal government.

They (the AAP) highlighted on Facebook two instances of negative outcomes of the partial currency change.


The first concerned the rape of a five-year-old girl. The victim of this gruesome assault was dumped by the roadside. She was taken to a hospital, but her conditioned worsened, and she was referred by the medical staff to another hospital. However, the ambulance driver refused to take her, as one (a stranger helping the girl?) only had the now defunct 500 and 1000 rupee notes.

The political party in question (AAP) does not bemoan the incidence of rape, nor that the victim was a five-year-old child, nor that ambulance drivers need to be paid in advance to transport patients in an emergency. The point they choose to highlight from the crime is that certain currency notes were withdrawn from circulation.
As for the journalists: the child is unnamed, nor is it known whether she has been identified; the parents are unnamed, perhaps even unidentified; the reactions of the parents are not recorded; the current state of the child is unknown; the names of the ambulance drivers are unknown; the authority responsible for cash-before-life-saving-transportation have not been named and shamed; who helped the child, how often do minors get attacked in that part of the country, why was a child left alone — unasked questions.

The second case was of a patient in some intensive care unit. As his (her?) family was unable to put up cash (specifically because of the voided 500 and 1000 rupee notes?), he (she?) was removed from the ventilator, leading to his (her?) death. The family of the deceased protested, and was assaulted by hospital staff and then handed over to the police.

The party in question (AAP) does not bemoan the avoidable death, nor that emergency medical assistance is given only on prior payment, nor that people are beaten up (in a hospital corridor? by doctors?) for protesting against the death (culpable homicide?) of a family member in these shabby circumstances.

As for the journalists: the victim is unnamed; his or her reason for being in medical care is unknown; the hospital staff who beat up the family are unnamed; the doctor responsible for turning off the ventilator is unnamed; the current state of the family is unknown; the future safety of the assaulted and grieving family is unknown; the views of the hospital, the family and the police are unknown.

From these two examples, the level of political discourse in the world’s largest democracy appears to be rudimentary. Politicians appear to care only about scoring a hit against a rival politician, ignoring the graver issues involved.

From the same examples, journalism in India appears to be bereft of any purpose apart from sensationalist headlines.

Although these are only two examples, both related to the same policy change, the same political party, and the same news organization — the described state of affairs is not the absolute exception.

The good people of India accept this state wherein human beings treat each other in a deplorable fashion, and where quotidian experience denudes hope, empathy, tolerance, health, and the capacity to create and enjoy beauty.

The poet Tagore wrote, a century ago, this verse in Bengali:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,

Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action,

Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.”

Some three decades later, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, asserted:

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,….”

Last resort? Rebellion must be the first response to tyranny and oppression, surely? At least in a people who still have some courage and dignity, and especially those who number in the hundreds of millions, heirs to millennia of thought and action.

Otherwise, the status quo persists. It is all truly magical.

Dreyfus and the US elections: guarding against intellectual dishonesty

The case of Dreyfus was of great moment in French and European history — a testimony to human endurance, evidence that grand nations can entrust offices to petty men, the empowering of public opinion, a precursor to Zionism, and even the cause of the Tour de France.

A century has gone by, but a certain aspect of the Affair, which essentially had to do with the question of guilt or innocence of a military officer, is of topical importance.

It is this: the polarization of an entire society, with rifts arising even within families whose individuals had differing opinions on the case.

Obviously, such a publicized trial had many facets and a great many persons and institutions were involved, but it came down to a binary choice: guilty or innocent.

Noteworthy is that only a minority, perhaps not more than five or six people in a nation of millions, knew the essential fact — the rest had an opinion, and staunchly, passionately, bitterly clung to it, and urged others to do the same.

The debate was carried out also with means that were not quite intellectually honest.

For instance, board games were sold which caricatured the principal defendants and opponents of the case.

Posters were produced proclaiming the guilt of Dreyfus — a simple, visual aid for people to make up their mind on Dreyfus’ guilt.


Posters were produced proclaiming the innocence of Dreyfus — a simple, visual aid for people to make up their mind on Dreyfus’ innocence.


The years have gone by, and now we see Internet memes and headlines of the ‘breaking news’ variety which try to do the same in matters of current political, social or technological importance — this includes climate change, gay marriage, insurgencies, critiques of religion, and political candidacy, all made quite simple to consume, using an appeal to reputation, or to emotion, or a straw-man fallacy, or illegitimate reasoning, dubious statistics, an ad hominem attack, or other tricks of rhetoric.

A case in point is tomorrow’s US election: Trump or Hilary.

Vote against Trump because the current US President says so. Vote against Hilary because she doesn’t look healthy, does she. Vote against Trump because he doesn’t like immigrants and Hitler didn’t like immigrants, and we don’t want that again, do we. A trivial search will yield a multitude of additional examples.

The election is probably a sure thing for Hilary, given how alienating some of Trump’s stances are — against Mexicans and Muslims, for instance. There could be a Brexit-style surprise. In any case, the greater impact of this fanatical campaign will probably be seen in a diminished mandate of the victor (Hilary), especially given the potential allegations of electoral fraud by the loser (Trump), and questions for what this means for America’s moral authority as it tries to shape the world order.

Another point shall remain valid even after the election — what shall we make of those who try to propagate such illicit attempts at manipulation? Have you received a little picture via Facebook or Whatsapp that makes the choice so very simple, yet is bereft of a chain of reasoning using transparent points of evidence? What does that mean for the sender’s intellectual honesty and opinion of your intellectual ability?

The Information Age is well upon us. In a time of diminished attention spans, we need to retain a sense of skepticism.

Resist the sillier memes

In the upcoming US elections, vote for whomever you prefer, or refuse to vote. Please do not, however, allow the more inane forms of manipulation to pass unquestioned.

Ein Volk, eine Meinung — translates as ‘one people, one opinion’, echoing the slogan ‘one people, one land, one leader’ from a certain period of German history. Might not be that of Egon Krenz, to think of it.

This silly ‘meme’ is symptomatic, alas.

I saw a person, well-educated and familiar with the broad themes of German history in the 1930s and 1940s, encouraging a Hilary vote because Trump apparently wants to ‘send US citizens to Guantanamo’. If you believe that human rights, which include protection against illegitimate incarceration and torture, are dependent upon accident of birth or nationality, then you do not believe in human rights. Such a qualification to human rights was not out of place in certain parts of German history. 

(Not the current German republic, of course, whose constitution starts with human dignity as a right not dependent upon anything else.)

#dissentisimportant #resistthesilliermemes #lookupgodwinslawontheinternet

The price of knee-jerk reactions to protest

It so happened once in Spain that a young doctor came upon a demonstration where they were chanting, ‘Down with the Bourbons!’. He asked one of the protestors, a passionate man convinced of his cause, ‘Who exactly are the Bourbons?”What! The guardia civil, of course!’

The Bourbons were a French royal dynasty whose influence had extended to Spain. This foreign domination was resented in some quarters. The guardia civil was a paramilitary police organization, also detested by many.

The protestor had his facts mixed up, but that did not take away from the legitimacy of his action — the repudiation of an organization that had abused power. [Incidentally, the protestor is no more; the House of Bourbon and the Guardia Civil (or was it another, similarly hated police organization?) persist in Spain]

A few generations later, something similar was reported from India. An officer came upon farmers shouting, ‘Gatt, go back!’.

‘Who is Gatt, respected sir?’, asked the officer.

‘It is the man, a foreigner, who threatens our livelihood’, returned the elderly farmer.

Now, the object of the protest was properly GATT, the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs. It was not a man — but that made little difference to the outcome as experienced by the farmer.

I do not imagine that any Spaniard will make such a blunder today, and I would ascribe that to universal education, and prosperity which allows time for the pursuit of non-essential activities. India, alas, is still in darkness, as was made evident by a recent incident.

In this case, it was an elected head of local government who hastened to the door of an unfortunate suicide. The deceased had attributed his action to the federal government’s refusal to increase pension payouts for the military. The local politician designated the suicide as a ‘martyr’, and announced a diversion of public funds, an enormous sum for one of the world’s poorest countries, to the grieving family.

Quite apart from whether this was a shabby publicity stunt to increase one’s own popularity using taxpayer money, there are two symptomatic issues here.

Firstly, the fetishization of the uniform. The era of the brave, male hero defending his wife and hearth against the barbarian invader, who triumphs against odds, and to whose glory bards shall evermore raise voice — is over. The interests of nations are no longer exclusively defended by gun-toting patriots on snowy peaks. Many others contribute to a country’s security — including researchers, artists, engineers, farmers, traders, lawyers and political analysts. Not all of them are soldiers, and quite a few are not even employed or directed by the State.

Add to this the fact that even the army’s supply chains of fuel, food, weapon systems, and ammunition are intricate and extend well into the civilian and international sphere, and it becomes plain that it is superficial to regard soldiers in border regions as somehow more important than the rest of society. It is a romantic notion that is suited for picture-books aimed at adolescents — not something that the wretched in contemporary India can afford.

Secondly, the knee-jerk reaction. A man has killed himself. That this is a personal tragedy is beyond dispute. It might even be grounds to consider whether a systemic change is called for. To immediately, unilaterally, munificently reward the action using the public purse, and to label the act as evidence of the majority public opinion — these are not what one expects of a mature democratic government.

Instead, use public resources to seek a consensus on how to deal with the risk of suicide, establish minimum quality of life standards, make government policy making more transparent and participatory — these are examples of a considered response to tragedy, responses which will serve many, many people, and not just the family of the unfortunate pawn who desired a bigger pension, and upon whose untrained intellect cannot be placed the burden of thinking for the entire country.

Some weeks ago, a piece of Mexican media came to my attention, ‘¿por qué hay naciones pobres? (Why do exist poor countries?) Not a dense academic work, the single-page sketch used examples to reject climate, accident of geography, culture, religion as decisive factors in determining the wealth of nations — and suggested that prosperity was caused by political and economic institutions working to benefit a majority of the target population. The opposite too holds true. Poverty and desperation are caused when a privileged elite is favored, when institutions are weak.
It might be that simple. More transparency, less arbitrariness, increased debate and participation in government — and that shall lead to increased freedoms, greater prosperity, and more reasons to live.