Monday, December 24, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - IV

In Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi, mentions Arundhati Roy saying that Gandhi introduced religion into politics and in the hands of lesser individuals that followed, its misuse was inevitable. The first half of the story is not true. Religion was already a part of the Indian political scene before Gandhi returned to India in 1915. In the late 19th century, Syed Ahmad Khan had charged Congress with benefiting Hindus and harming Muslims. In Bombay, Muslims felt frightened when Tilak mobilized Hindus around religious festivals. Bengal was partitioned into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority parts in 1905. The Muslim league was founded in 1906 to look after the interests of Muslims and wanted a separate electorate. Rajmohan Gandhi writes:
Between a politics that pretended that religion was absent from India and a politics that squarely faced religion's hold, Gandhi chose the latter, and tried to remind all concerned that true Hinduism taught goodwill and that true Islam,  Sikhism and Christianity did the same. One survey suggests that he made the right choice, and also that without him, intolerance would have been even stronger in both Hindu India and Muslim India. 
Gandhi’s prayer meetings were a unique experiment in bringing people together. They did not require a building, they did not bring in priests and were not restricted to people of a particular faith. They combined devotional practice and song with discussions of group and national issues. During the Calcutta riots at the time of Partition, if there was an objection to reading some verses from the Koran, Gandhi would drop it from the schedule. In his talk later, he would discuss that very objection and at the end of his talk, the protester would often withdraw his objection.

Even critics of Gandhi's method of mixing religion with politics said that his prayer meetings had a calming effect. After he brought the Partition-related riots in Calcutta under control, an awed Mountbatten wrote that Gandhi did alone in Calcutta what 50,000 troops couldn't do  in Punjab. Gandhi uses the word 'religion' several times in different contexts in his seminal text Hind Swaraj. For eg., he says, 'It is contrary to our  manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery.' This gives the impression that he was a reactionary figure who was mired in the past.

This is due to a misunderstanding which Anthony Parel clears in Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.  In the original Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi uses the term ‘dharma’ which is usually translated into ‘religion’ in English. But ‘dharma’ has a much wider meaning than ‘religion’. Gandhi uses the word ‘dharma’ in two different senses throughout the text: ‘dharma’ as ethics and ‘dharma’ as sect. Most occurrences of the word ’religion’ in the English translation of Hind Swaraj should be read as ‘ethics’.

In Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama endorses Gandhi's view of religion when he says that 'any deed done with good motivation is a religious act'. He therefore sees no contradiction between politics and religion and says that religious people are morally obliged to help solve the problems of the world. He says that politicians need religion more than hermits. 'If a hermit acts out of bad motivation, he harms no one but himself. But if someone who can directly influence the whole of society acts with bad motivation then a great many people will be adversely affected.'

In his essay An Anti-secularist manifesto, Ashis Nandy writes that in the Western concept, ‘secular’ is used in the sense of being opposite to the word ‘sacred’. In the Indian concept, it is not opposite to ‘sacred’ but to ‘ethnocentrism’, ‘xenophobia’ and ‘fanaticism’. This Indian concept is what the leaders of the freedom movement adopted knowing the Western concept of secularism will not make any sense to an overwhelmingly religious population.

The separation of religion and politics has not kept religion out of politics. It has only resulted in the more unacceptable and anti-democratic forms of religion to gain more power and visibility. When we abandon symbols of religious tolerance, others appropriate them, which is what has now happened with Gandhi's legacy . Ashis Nandy says in "The Return of the Sacred: The Language of Religion and The Fear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World" :
For more than three millennia, human beings have invested some of their best cognitive and affective resources in the spiritual and the religious. That investment, in retrospect, might not have been uniformly wise and uniformly creative. But it has not been uniformly forgettable either. The investment in secular statecraft and secular public life, on the other hand, has been relatively recent and, though it has also often been immensely creative, it has been spectacularly destructive, too. 
In any case, the second set of investments can never compare with the three millennia of human achievement in the sphere of religion. Civilization, as we know it, is largely the achievement of the religious way of life, though we try hard to forget that part of the story. I say this as a non-believer who has invested some years of life in the study of the psychological and cultural sources of human creativity. 
Can we ignore or bypass these achievements for the sake of a theory of progress that seeks to wipe clean the pre-Enlightenment world or freeze it as a museum piece? 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - III

The best example of someone using religion in politics is Gandhi. All his activities including politics were governed by the spirit of religion. 'You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general - The sum total of all those in me is my religion.' He said that if religion is concerned with practical life, it is also concerned with politics. Religion, morality and ethics, for him, are closely interwoven. Similarly, politics was nothing but a major instrument of service to the people totally free from all games of power politics. Gandhi realized that he couldn't do even social work without politics.

Gandhi looked on religion in terms of experience rather than ritual practice. His perception of religion was not in any way connected with denominational religion. He finds major religious traditions giving people the moral material to frame their choices as they go about their daily lives. He does not accept the idea of a single 'best' tradition and maintains that each religious tradition speaks in its way of the shared experiences and problems faced by people living in that community.

He didn’t believe in just talk about religion but kept reminding people that actions speak louder than words. Things had to be done rather than merely contemplated. The exclusive cultivation of inwardness leads one to neglect the practical aspects of life which does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on society. He therefore does not advocate a retreat into the ‘cave of the heart’ like Indian holy men but the power of religion to move hearts must be used to bring people together when a course of action is being planned.

He re-interpreted Hinduism so drastically that it is not recognizable to many Hindus. Hinduism, for Gandhi, was not exclusive, but a broad and inclusive faith, a tolerant and open-minded religion, accommodating the best in other religions. He was ready to detect the same insight in men of  different faiths so he says, 'Khan Saheb Abdul Gaffar Khan derives his belief in non-violence from the Koran.' He retained his eclectic view on religion throughout his life. Here are a few quotes to show where he stood on religion:
  • Hind Swaraj - Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter if we take different roads as long as we reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.
  • Speech in September 1927 - I believe that all the great religions of the world are true more or less. I say “more or less” because I believe that everything that the human hand touches, by reason of the very fact that human beings are imperfect, becomes imperfect. 
  • Before March 12, 1940 - I do not regard God as a person. Truth for me is God . . . God is an Idea.   
  • The Story of My Experiments with Truth - devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
  • October 1927, Young India - I do not believe in people telling others of their faith, especially with a view to conversion. Faith does not admit of telling. It has to be lived and then it becomes self-propagating. 
  • September 1946"If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern!" 
The heart can cause passions that can result in a course of action that can cause trouble. But to say that religion always causes conflict is an overstatement. All religions, even the most tolerant ones, can be used or misused and can include as well as exclude. After Independence and Gandhi's removal from the political scene (much to the relief of who Ashis Nandy calls the 'moderns', who were wedded to secular statecraft), the intelligentsia abandoned the field of religion as something that the poor, illiterate villagers pursued.

In the absence of the tolerant, inclusive interpretation of religion that Gandhi had provided, various regressive and exclusive versions of religion sprang up in the public sphere. By the 1980s these forces had become dominant and started speaking on behalf of all their co-religionists. This was easy since there were no competing ideas in the marketplace of religion. The few noises that the intelligentsia made giving an alternative interpretation of religion seemed merely reactive.

In his essay An Anti-secularist Manifesto, Ashis Nandy writes about these regressive forces: ‘Instead of making religious use of politics, they make political use of religion, turning it into an instrument of political mobilization within a psephocratic model – a model in which elections and elected ‘kings’ dominate the system.’ Instead of being a means of expressing cultural values, religion has become a legitimate instrument for perusing personal and group self-interest. Instead of private faith and public agnosticism, what has become dominant is public faith and private agnosticism.

Gandhi once said that 'religions are only as good or as bad as their professors make them out to be'. Hence Raimundo Panikkar said - 'the separation between religion and politics is lethal and their identification suicidal'.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - II

In Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall says that religious groups have not incorporated the issue of climate change into their world-view unlike previous social movements like those against slavery or apartheid. This is because environmental groups think science and religion are separate enterprises and thus avoid communicating in the language of faith. He says that this is a serious mistake because the number of religious people is far greater than those in environmental groups and communicating in rational, scientific language leaves many of them cold.

A professor of theology says about religious people that 'they have an experiential relationship with their faith that is special, and they would not say that climate change has that same personal luminous quality'. But there are climate scientists with strong religious faith like Katherine Hayhoe who is the director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University and is also an evangelical Christian who is married to a pastor. She says:
The facts are not enough. When we look at the planet, when we look at creation, whatever it is telling us is an expression of what God  has defined it to be. So instead of studying science, I feel like I'm studying what God was thinking when he set up our planet.
The language won't move people like me but there are a far greater number of people for whom what she says makes perfect sense. The brain can be conceptually divided into two parts: the rational and the emotional. These two parts are in constant conversation. In order for there to be any meaningful action, it is not enough to convince the rational part of the brain with data and graphs (in spite of what economists say) but the emotional part of the brain must also be convinced.

In Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall says that both religion and climate science face the same cognitive difficulties. Both require people to believe something on the authority of the communicator; both manifest in events that are distant in time and place; they challenge our normal experience and assumptions about the world; and they require people to accept certain short-term costs in order to avoid uncertain long-term costs. The difference is that religion has these difficulties to a much greater degree. Marshall  writes:
As the Reverend Sally Bingham, an Episcopalian preacher and renewables advocate told me, 'We believe that Mary was a virgin, that Jesus rose from the dead, that we might go to heaven. So why is it that two thousand years later, we still believe this story? And how can we believe that and not believe what the world's most famous climate scientists are telling us?
. . . religions have found ways to build a strong belief in some extremely uncertain and unsubtantiated claims through the power of social proof and communicator trust. Few are less certain, or more successful, than Mormonism which has become the fastest growing religion in the United States.
Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, was the first Mormon - a ward bishop, no less - to run for the presidency. He was also the the first candidate to openly repudiate climate science. Which raises a very interesting question: What are the key differences that can lead a highly intelligent and worldly man to say, 'I am uncertain how much of global warming is attributable to man' and accept as certain that a transcription of tablets found buried in a hillside contains the word of God? I am not seeking to mock Mormons, just asking a legitimate question: What is it that makes one irrelevant and fraudulent and the other the rock of a man's life?
Maybe the question, then, is not whether climate change is too much like religion, but whether, in our determination to keep the two apart, we have ignored the most effective, tried, and tested models for overcoming disbelief and denial.
We must remind ourselves that for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might have some valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman writes: ‘I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?’

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ignoring religion in politics is a mistake - I

Millions of people live today without the benefit of faith. One can easily talk to  a large number of people in the colleges, in professions and in the higher echelons of the state who speak the language of secular politics. But although atheists are numerous today, the number of believers far outnumber them. Even where great efforts had been made to stamp out religion, a large number still clung to religious beliefs and practices. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, increase in scientific dissemination of atheistic worldviews through the educational curricula, believers being at a disadvantage in the reward systems of the state etc. still did not prevent about 100 million people from retaining their religious beliefs.

In large parts of the world, which consists of the huge majority of those staying in Latin America, Africa and Asia, people have partial or no access to the language of secularism. Many wrote obituaries of religions but to their surprise it re-emerged from the shadows to become powerful again. Religion is like a language of communication that allows one to converse with some but not others. Thus if a public figure in these regions is ignorant of the language and the cosmology of religion, he or she has little or no access to that world. The person will have problems when trying to influence public life and public policy in this part of the  world.

When the everyday lives of the people are closely intertwined with religion, no speeches about  keeping religion and politics separate will work on them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa came from a religious and not a secular worldview. President Mandela appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu and not a judge or a politician to head it. It brought about a remarkably peaceful transition in SA when everybody had predicted a bloodbath. Ashis Nandy says about American Blacks in  "The Return of the Sacred: The Language of Religion and The Fear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World" (pdf):
American Blacks, through all their struggles and movements, never seriously yielded ground to the religious fanatics though there were small, identifiable groups within them that moved close to fanaticism. Because the Black leadership never abandoned the domain of religion as untouchable or as irrelevant to the public sphere, some of the most creative inputs into the Black struggle for equality and dignity came from within the Black religious consciousness. Not only that. Those who opposed fanaticism and bigotry among the Blacks could make sense to others in their community because they had access to the language of religion.
I came across a conversation between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg about religion in this post where Bohr makes some interesting points:
We ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.
. . . the language of objectivity doesn’t belong in religious rhetoric — religion and its pluralities are best understood, and best applied to human life as an instrument of moral enrichment rather than one of dogmatic constriction, through the lens of complementarity:
The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order.
. . . our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society. . . . even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures — consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he’s chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life. Epistemological sophistries cannot possibly help him attain these ends.
Here, too, the relationship between critical thought about the spiritual content of a given religion and action based on the deliberate acceptance of that content is complementary. And such acceptance, if consciously arrived at, fills the individual with strength of purpose, helps him to overcome doubts and, if he has to suffer, provides him with the kind of solace that only a sense of being sheltered under an all-embracing roof can grant. In that sense, religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Clever Hans

One nurse used to make some wishes on different fingers and ask me to pick a finger. She believed that the wish corresponding to the finger I chose would come true. She never told me what her wishes were and I never asked her about them. I just played along with what she asked me to do. At first, I used to choose a finger randomly but over time, I learnt how to choose the wish she desired the most. She came to believe that I had extra-ordinary clairvoyance and she frequently made me go through this 'choose a finger' routine.

I would look vaguely at her fingers so that she couldn't quite make out which finger I was looking at. So she would bend each finger and ask me which finger I had chosen. I soon noticed that the first finger she bent was often the wish she most desired. Occasionally this guess would be wrong. I could make out from her expression that she was disappointed with my choice. I would quickly indicate that she had misinterpreted my communication and that I had actually meant  another finger.  Overall, my guess was right about 90% of the time. Put my subterfuge down to horse sense.

Over a century ago, a horse from Germany named Clever Hans was known around the world for his inexplicable abilities. Not only could Hans count - something no other animals were said to do - but he could also tell time, identify playing cards, read and spell (in German, of course). In response to a question he would tap with his hooves either to indicate a number or the right option among many given. If Hans was asked what five and two added up to, he would tap seven times; if he was asked what day came after Monday, he would be told to tap once for Tuesday, twice for Wednesday, and so on.

Even rigorous questions of critical skeptics were answered correctly. More than a dozen scientists observed Hans and were convinced there was no signaling or trickery. What was the secret - if indeed there was one? Was it all a hoax or trick? Or was this a truly unique horse? The obvious guess was that this was an elaborate hoax, set up through some means of training between horse and master. It soon became apparent, however, that Hans answered not only his trainer, but co-operated even in the absence of his master with any person he had never seen before.

In 1904, the German board of education set up a commission to determine if the claims made about Hans were genuine. After a thorough examination, they concluded that there was no hoax involved. Finally in 1907, Professor Oscar Pfungst, a biologist and psychologist explained the phenomenon after close study. He found that the horse was unable to answer any question if the questioning person did not know the answer. Furthermore, the horse was unable to answer any question when it could not see the face of his examiner.

It turned out that the horse was an excellent and intelligent observer who could read the almost microscopic signals in the face of his master, thus indicating that it had tapped or was about to tap the correct number or letter and would receive a reward. For example, when Hans was asked to add two and three, the owner or another questioner would lean forward slightly after Hans had tapped the fifth time but before he could tap a sixth. Each time the horse would reach the correct number of taps to provide human-like knowledge about the day of the week, what a word meant or a mathematical answer, his trainer would make subtle movements (sometimes merely a change in facial expression or a shift of stance) that would cue Hans to stop. In the absence of such a signal, he was unable to perform.

The horse was indeed clever, not because he understood human language but because he could perceive very subtle muscle movements. More important, Pfungst discovered that people can unconsciously communicate information to others by subtle movements and that some animals can perceive these unconscious movements. Even Pfungst himself found that he was unable to control these clues as the horse continued to answer correctly when his face was visible to it. Therefore, it is now recommended that during all studies of animal behavior, any face-to-face contact between the examiner and the experimental animal should be strictly avoided.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – IV

Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil.  – James P. Carse in 'Finite and Infinite Games' 

I was shocked by this report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".  Young people seem to crave success (whatever it means) without bothering about the means employed to achieve it. If education is only about learning skills at the cost of basic human values then there is something rotten at the core of modern education. Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem about Eichmann's chief motivation that made him mistake a demagogue for a demigod:
What he fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of "good society" as he knew it. Typical was his last word on the subject of Hitler …Hitler, he said, "may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. . . . His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man." 
His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which "good society" everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to "close his ears to the voice of conscience," as the judgment has it, not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a "respectable voice," with the voice of respectable society around him.
Within a couple years of Hitler coming to power, he was hailed as a great national statesman. He made rousing peace speech - "Germany needs peace and desires peace," "We recognize Poland as the home of a great and nationally conscious people," "Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria". The massive rearmament program had removed unemployment and eliminated the initial resistance of the working class. So what if Jews were being discriminated against? The economy was doing well, right?

Although Eichmann had been doing the jobs in connection with the Final Solution that were being assigned to him, he had harboured some doubts till some point. But then he found at a conference all the elites of the Third Reich ‘vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters’. He says, "At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt." Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"? Arendt adds grimly, ‘Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty.’

There were physicians, engineers, military leaders, etc. who were in support of the Nazis. Many prominent scientists and engineers built the Nazi war machine and helped Hitler to come close to world domination. German physicists and engineers built solid- and liquid-fuel rockets, worked on developing an atomic bomb, invented nerve gases such as sarin, produced a cruise missile (the V-1), and much more. Ferdinand Porsche (the founder of the company that makes Porsche sports cars) worked enthusiastically for the Nazis. He designed the Volkswagen Beetle, which was intended by Hitler to be a “people’s car.” Werner Heisenberg (one of the giants of quantum physics who discovered the ‘uncertainty principle’) was director of Germany's nuclear-fission research project.

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz was a card-carrying National Socialist and he actively participated in Nazi activities.  Doctors tested new drugs on the prisoners, presenting the results to a scientific conference. The Nazis poured resources into medicine, increasing doctors' pay, setting up new health care facilities for "Aryan" citizens and by 1939, around two thirds of all German doctors had some connection or other with the Nazi Party. Nazi racial hygienists were among the top professionals in their fields.

Academics in every field gave support to the Nazi regime.  Many university faculty used party membership as a method of advancing their careers. How easy it was to set the conscience of the Jews' neighbors at rest is best illustrated by the official explanation of the deportations given in a circular issued by the Party Chancellery in the fall of 1942: "It is the nature of things that these, in some respects, very difficult problems can be solved in the interests of the permanent security of our people only with ruthless toughness".

For Nazi operations in Hungary, there were protests from neutral countries and from the Vatican. The Papal Nuncio, though, thought that it should be explained that the Vatican's protest did not spring "from a false sense of compassion". Arendt comments that it was ’a phrase that is likely to be a lasting monument to what the continued dealings with, and the desire to compromise with, the men who preached the gospel of "ruthless toughness" had done to the mentality of the highest dignitaries of the Church.’

In short, the most educated, privileged and respected people were Nazi sympathizers. There has been no evil in history that has failed to find support among many of the great and the good who will find myriad ways to rationalize it as essential for national progress and morally justified. The cleverer the people, the cleverer the justifications. A result of modern higher education seems to be to dull the sense of moral outrage while internalizing simplistic concepts like 'maximising rational utility' which are applicable to  a species known only to economists. The Supreme Court once said that education helps people distinguish between right and wrong. The evidence doesn't support the statement. Arendt writes:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied - as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels - that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime - under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – III

Sin and immorality cannot become tolerable because a majority is addicted to them or because the majority chooses to practise them. - Ambedkar

It is rare to find Nazi documents in which such bald words as "extermination," "liquidation," or "killing" occur. The prescribed code names for killing were "final solution," "evacuation" and "special treatment"; deportation was called "resettlement" and "labor in the East". Only among themselves could the "bearers of secrets" talk in uncoded language, and it is very unlikely that they did so in the ordinary pursuit of their murderous duties eg., when their stenographers and other office personnel were present. The function of such clichés and stock phrases is to protect people against reality.

Arendt says that these language rules proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose cooperation was essential in this matter. She says the term "language rule" was itself a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie. Eichmann easily accepted and internalized these ‘objective’ Nazi rules which deprived them of their emotional content. The net effect of those rules, Arendt argued, was not to keep the involved officials “ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.” Arendt says about Eichmann:
What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. 
None of the various "language rules," carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for "murder" was replaced by the phrase "to grant a mercy death." Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid "unnecessary hardships" was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the  unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.  
He seemed to have an extraordinary capacity to deceive himself. So completely had he accepted the language rules that apart from the specifics of his job, he seemed to be living in an alternate reality. So much so that he once said: "One of the few gifts fate bestowed upon me is a capacity for truth insofar as it depends upon myself." He had once issued a fantastic warning to "future historians to be objective enough not to stray from the path of this truth recorded here". Arendt says that it was 'fantastic because every line of these scribblings shows his utter ignorance of everything that was not directly, technically and bureaucratically, connected with his job, and also shows an extraordinarily faulty memory'.

But the mother of all ‘objective’ statements was made by Eischmann’s lawyer, Servatious, who said that his client was innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for "the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters," whereupon the judge interrupted him: "Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter." To which Servatius replied: "It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter."

The continuum of destruction often begins with seemingly harmless acts of blaming a group for one’s misfortune or supporting exclusion of this group as a solution to one’s problems, which slowly escalates into dehumanization.  It in necessary to demonize and belittle the nature of those one wants to exploit so they will be called cockroaches, vermin, etc. (The lower an organism is in the evolutionary tree, the less the restraint of the conscience in killing it.)

If the creeping normalization of hate speech and exclusionary ideologies are not opposed at the very beginning because they still seem “below the threshold” of concern to many, it may escalate into unimaginable violence given the ‘right’ kind of leader. The ground, especially in the youth, is fertilized over time to produce evil. The dehumanization of victims slowly but surely dehumanizes the perpetrator too.

Before targeting Jews, the Nazis chose softer targets as the thin end of the wedge. Soon after Hitler took power, the Nazis formulated policy to create an "Aryan master race." People with physical disabilities, mental health needs and chronic illnesses including people with conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and alcoholism were deemed to be damaging to the common good by the Nazi party and were subjected to forced sterilization. The killings began in 1939. The model used for killing disabled people was later applied to the industrialized murder within Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the murders were only the end-point of what Auden called ‘a low dishonest decade’.

As the months and the years went by, Eichmann lost the need to feel anything at all. He did not meet anybody in his circle who was opposed to what was happening. An order from Hitler did not have to be in writing  (no document relating to the Final Solution has ever been found; probably it never existed). Thus the Führer's words, his oral pronouncements, were the basic law of the land. Within this "legal" framework, every order contrary in letter or spirit to a word spoken by Hitler was, by definition, unlawful. He was following orders so he was convinced that he was acting as a law-abiding citizen.

In a terrifying act of self-deception, Eichmann believed his inhuman acts were marks of virtue. He would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do. And this slow dulling of emotional  outrage extended to the general population to the point where they started believing that gassing people was actually a humane thing. Arendt illustrates this with a couple of anecdotes. She writes of a female "leader" who told peasants in Bavaria in 1944 about impending defeat about which no good German needed to worry because the Führer "in his great goodness had prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end."

She then tells of a woman from the countryside who says,`The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.' No one who heard the statement felt it out of the ordinary. Arendt adds wryly, ‘The story, one feels, like most true stories, is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!’ In Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott says:
Utopian aspirations per se are not dangerous. As Oscar Wilde remarked, "A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’’ Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievement. Where it goes brutally wrong is when the society subjected to such utopian experiments lacks the capacity to mount a determined resistance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – II

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. - Hannah Arendt  

What took the cake for Arendt was when Eichmann said that his whole life was lived according to Kantian precepts, including his obedience to Nazi authority. He invoked "duty" in an effort to explain his own version of Kantianism. Arendt writes: "This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible, since Kant's moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man's faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience."

Eichmann came up with what Arendt calls ‘an approximately correct definition' of the Kant’s categorical imperative: "I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws" (which is not the case with theft or murder, for instance, because the thief or the murderer cannot conceivably wish to live under a legal system that would give others the right to rob or murder him).  He said that he had read Kant's Critique of Practical Reason.

But then Eichmann contradicts himself as he explains his Kantian commitments. Although he had stated that his obedience to Nazi authority was Kantian, he acknowledges that once he was charged with the task of carrying out the Final Solution, he ceased to live by Kantian principles: "he no longer 'was master of his own deeds,' and  he 'was unable to change anything'". Arendt writes:
What he failed to point out in court was that in this "period of crimes legalized by the state," as he himself now called it, he had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula as no longer applicable, he had distorted it to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or of the law of the land - or, in Hans Frank's formulation of "the categorical imperative in the Third Reich," which Eichmann might have known: "Act  in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it" 
I have not read Kant. But Kant’s philosophy is explained in layman’s language in Michael Sandel’s book Justice. According to Kant, freedom means to act autonomously i.e. according to a law that I give myself, not as instruments of somebody or something outside of me. He says that the moral worth of an action depends not on its consequences but on its intentions. And only those duties have moral worth that are done because that they are right not because they are useful or convenient. And  Kant emphasized that people should be regarded as ends in themselves not as means to an end. For Eichmann to say that he was following Kant requires quite an imagination. Arendt writes:
But it is true that Eichmann's unconscious distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant "for the household use of the little man." In this household use, all that is left of Kant's spirit is the demand that a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law ...
Much of the horribly painstaking thoroughness in the execution of the Final Solution - a thoroughness that usually strikes the observer as typically German, or else as characteristic of the perfect bureaucrat - can be traced to the odd notion, indeed very common in Germany, that to be law-abiding means not merely to obey the laws but to act as though one were the legislator of the laws that one obeys. Hence the the conviction that nothing less than going beyond the call of duty will do.
Arendt recognized  that Eichmann was the perfect example of the modern man devoted to carrying out efficiently what he had been tasked to do without being burdened by feelings. He had carried out orders to the best of his ability and said that he did not want to be one of those who now pretended that "they had always been against it," whereas in fact they had been very eager to do what they were told to do. He said that although he had now ‘arrived at different insights’, it did not mean that he regretted anything: "Repentance is for little children." (Sic!)

Arendt says that Dostoevsky once mentions in his diaries that in Siberia, among scores of murderers, rapists, and burglars, he never met a single man who would admit that he had done wrong. She had little sympathy for the excuse repeatedly used by Nazis criminals: “I was a cog in the machine”; “I obeyed the orders”; “anybody would have acted the same way”… etc.  She writes about these people (people who did what the Nazis told them to do in order to advance their careers and later repudiated them when it became too hot) that they reminded her of this comment:
In his almost totally unknown Diary of a Man in Despair," ...Reck-Malleczewen wrote, after he had heard of the failure of the attempt on Hitler's life, which of course he regretted: "A little late, gentlemen, you who made this arch destroyer of Germany and ran after him, as long as everything seemed to be going well; you who . . . without hesitation swore every oath demanded of you and reduced yourselves to the despicable flunkies of this criminal who is guilty of the murder of hundreds of thousands, burdened with the lamentations and the curse of the whole world; now you have betrayed him. . . . Now, when the bankruptcy can no longer be concealed, they betray the house that went broke, in order to establish a political alibi for themselves - the same men who have betrayed everything that was in the way of their claim to power."

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ - I

Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” – Joseph Brodsky

Adolf Eichmann had the task of regulating “Jewish affairs and evacuations” in the Nazi regime. Until July 1944, his department played a key role in organizing the deportation of European Jews to the killing centers. Following the war, he dodged in and out  of the Middle East for several years before settling in Argentina in 1958. He was arrested by Israeli secret service agents near Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 11, 1960 and was put on trial in Jerusalem. He was convicted on fifteen charges, among which were crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and crimes of war.

After the trial, Eichmann was sentenced to death and  was hanged on May 31,1962. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt wrote a report on the trial which appeared in The New Yorker as a series of articles in 1963. From these articles she later published a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil which examines the wide gap in public perception between and the horror of the genocide and the insignificance (the banality) of the persons who were among those most responsible.

The question that plagued many was: how could in what was once regarded as the citadel of Western civilization, industrial scale murder of millions of people have be allowed to take place? How could it be that in a culture of law, order, and reason, there should have survived such murderous hatreds? How could  great masses of people willingly tolerate the mass extermination of their fellow citizens? What are the limitations of our modern society  and our assumed enlightenment? Arendt's book helps to answer some of these questions.

Arendt went to the trial thinking that she would find a Nazi monster but was shocked to find Eichmann “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. His case was all the more extraordinary because he had not been simply a subordinate. Rather, his part was very important in implementing the crimes. Arendt neither doubted Eichmann’s guilt, nor did she doubt that he deserved the death sentence. She pointed out the general pattern of how ordinary people become brutal killers. She shows how the not uncommon trait of being unable to think from the standpoint of others turns ordinary people into unfeeling, bureaucratic killers.  Arendt insisted, “obedience and support are the same.”

One of the aims of employing the word banality was to break with the standard and deceitful representations of evil as abnormal, profound and monstrous. The other side of banality refers to the activities that produced such evil. These activities were not murderous in themselves. They were comprised of office work such as organizing transport, deciding how many Jews should be deported and to where. Eichmann knew perfectly well the train destinations and understood that the Jews were to be killed, and how they were to be killed. But he had a curious idea of duty: if he did not see Jews being killed, his activities were not responsible.

By writing about ‘the banality of evil’, Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal.  She was not saying that the Nazi crimes were the similar to what had taken place earlier in history. In fact, she thought that the crime was unprecedented and that the court did not go far enough to stress this point. She feared that what had become "banal" was non-thinking itself - Eichmann was ready to do anything to advance in the Nazi bureaucratic grades. The situation had developed in such a way in the Third Reich that humans implemented policy, but no longer thought about the consequences of their actions.

The bureaucratization of evil can be compared to Adam Smith's method of production of goods: no person is responsible for producing the entire article. A person is instead responsible for repetitive production of part of the article resulting in more efficient production. Similarly, efficient production of evil depends on each person specializing in a part of the process. This diffusion of responsibility makes it easy for people to use their remarkable powers of rationalization to wash their hands off any responsibility for the resulting monstrosity.

Arendt was making a distinction between the doer and the deed:  what was ‘banal’ was not the consequences of the act but the regular , systematic way in which it was committed. At no step was there a protest. Over time, criminal activities had become routine and the moral universe had shrunk to such an extant that criminal orders were implemented without revulsion. It is often assumed that genocide must be caused by extraordinarily evil persons and unusual psychological processes that cannot be easily understood. But the psychological processes that lead up to that point and enable people to perpetrate such horrors are not so unusual.

Rather, the processes that enable genocide include many mundane, ordinary psychological phenomena that also apply in times of relative peace (for eg., the use of metaphors to normalize war). There was a failure to think and for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking may be genocidal. The banality did not concern all of the agents carrying out orders but specifically the evil that was committed by Eichmann. Banality refers to Eichmann as a character: his way of speaking, his use of clichés and stock phrases applicable to any situation and supported by the officialese, which he still admitted in 1961 was the only language he knew.

Of present-day Germans who saw figures like him as ingenious monsters, she said: “They possibly understood this as a way of creating a certain alibi for themselves. If you succumb to the power of a beast from the depths, you’re naturally much less guilty than if you succumb to a completely average man.” People become desensitized to violence they are exposed to; and participating in violence makes us more likely to engage in future violence.

It is also more comforting to think that a few monsters completely unlike us can be destroyed to make the world a better place than to contemplate a bottomless amoral mediocrity latent in millions. It indicates a fear of acknowledging that there doesn't exist an unbridgeable gap between the evil monster and our inner killer. Man, said Emerson, is nothing but God in ruins. As Auden said in his poem September 1, 1939. ‘The windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout / Is not so crude as our wish...'.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Pitfalls of history - III

The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history. - George Orwell

History often documents the activities of those in power and ignores the day to day lives of ordinary people. This led Gandhi to write in Hind Swaraj,  ‘History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world...How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago.' He says that ‘history is really a record of every interruption‘ of the normal  tenor of life.

Many written works will be hagiographies of those in power. They will be works of propaganda to consolidate the position of a ruler by portraying their struggles to gain power as being inevitable, glorious, and popular. Such a manipulation of the facts is a feature of all authoritarian states. As George Orwell observed, ‘He who controls the past, controls the future, he who controls the present, controls the past.’ This phenomenon isn’t only a characteristic of one-party states. School textbooks in democratic states are often selective in their use of evidence reflecting the ideological leaning of whoever is in power. Francis Bacon said, ‘Knowledge is power.’ But often, especially in fields of history, sociology and anthropology, it is more correct to say ‘power is knowledge’. (I saw an instance of this in this article.) In this post, there is an observation by the philosopher Hannah Arendt on the role of falsehood in the craftsmanship of what we call history:
Men who act, to the extent that they feel themselves to be the masters of their own futures, will forever be tempted to make themselves masters of the past, too. Insofar as they have the appetite for action and are also in love with theories, they will hardly have the natural scientist’s patience to wait until theories and hypothetical explanations are verified or denied by facts. Instead, they will be tempted to fit their reality — which, after all, was man-made to begin with and thus could have been otherwise — into their theory, thereby mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.
Important events in the history of a nation take on a life of their own and are related differently by different groups. Shahid Amin writes in Event, Metaphor, Memory of the different versions and emphases of nationalists, the nation-state of India and the local population of the violence at Chauri Chaura in 1922. As he says, ‘When historical significance is attached to an occurrence independent of the event, the facts of the case cease to matter. And where all subsequent accounts are parasitic on a prior memory, documentation seems almost unnecessary.’

History written today is a narrative of progress revolving around great people and great events, a grand narrative that Gandhi rejected. As Ronald Terchek writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, 'Enamoured of progress, this meta narrative does not bother to assess the costs of change or consider what is being discarded, confusing greater control over nature for control over oneself and mistaking new powers over nature for wisdom.'

In Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, a murder is described in four mutually contradictory ways by its four witnesses.The film gave rise to the term ‘The Rashomon effect ‘ which occurs when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved.  It refers to the contested interpretations of events and the existence of disagreements regarding the evidence of events. It indicates the subjectivity of perception which distorts recollection by observers of an event resulting in their relating substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.

Such a “Roshomon Effect" was what concerned Gandhi while reading historical accounts. He was influenced by the Jain concepts of anekantavada (or "many-sidedness") and syadvada ("conditioned viewpoints"). It is illustrated  with the parable of the blind men and an elephant. As a poem about it concludes, 'Though each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong!'. Thus while one's subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. David Hardiman writes in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:
When in jail between 1922 and 1924 , he read Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire...He also read J.L. Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic...and Lord Rosbery's Life of Pitt....He felt that though Gibbon and Motley claimed to present the 'facts and nothing but the facts' -...'facts' were always open to dispute. Taking a passage from Rossbery, he remarked wryly that even Pitt's supposed 'last words' were denied by his butler. What remained, therefore, was a presentation of an argument by each author.
What he concluded therefore was that, far from being objective, histories were also myths constructed by a writer using various sources and were distorted by their own prejudices and fantasies. He preferred great myths of the past like the Mahabharata which did not claim to be objective accounts of past events. He felt that these myths preserved the ethical learnings from past events which was what was important. For  Gandhi, righting present injustices was more important than avenging past injustices.

Societies are divided into two types depending on their attitude to history. Societies which lay great store in recording and remembering the events in their past are called historical societies. An ahistorical society is one that is  lacking historical perspective or context.  These societies depend on folktales, epics etc. which they believe contain important lessons from past events. India has been considered an ahistorical society. Ashis Nandy says in a transcript of a speech he gave called History's Forgotten Doubles:
The major difference between those living in history and those living outside it, especially in societies where myths are the predominant mode of organizing experiences of the past, is what I have elsewhere called the principle of principled forgetfulness. All myths are morality tales. Mythologization is also moralization; it involves a refusal to separate the remembered past from its ethical meaning in the present. For this refusal, it is often important not to remember the past, objectively, clearly, or in its entirety. Mythic societies sense the power of myths and the nature of human frailties; they are more fearful than the modern ones - forgive the anthropomorphism - of the perils of mythic use of amoral certitudes about the past.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Pitfalls of history - II

"History is a set of lies agreed upon.” - Napoléon Bonaparte 

Carlyle stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men". According to ‘the great man theory’, history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes; highly influential individuals who used their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. Similarly there are villain stories involving people like Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, etc. But these stories lack the nuances of the many, many people involved and of the concepts and causes that influenced the events that are attributed to them.

The Great Person theory is available in the historical models of people all over the world. We put a name and face to a particular discovery or event, and that person then becomes the visible representative for all of the individuals involved. Its simplicity makes the past seem rather straightforward which makes it attractive. For most historians this is a grotesque parody of how history actually works. Of course great men and women do exist who have had massive influence on various historical events.

But the creations of these “Great People” are almost inevitably dependent on many people who came before them and acted along with them. Describing all of the contributions of colleagues and rivals who influenced the unfolding of historical events would be well beyond the scope of most history textbooks. The problem is that people may never really understand that this narrative is just a shorthand and not the full picture. As Edwad O. Wilson said, 'Genius is the summed production of the many with the names of the few attached for easy recall.'

At the other end of the spectrum in his view of history is somebody like Tolstoy who thought that these ‘great men’ are basically ordinary men who are too vain to recognize their own unimportance in the unfolding of events. He felt that, just like a writer of fiction, a historian is also a creative writer who gives us his particular slant of what happened depending on his prejudices and fantasies. In his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, Issiah Berlin writes about Tolstoy’s view of history as presented in his novel War and Peace:
Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in managing human affairs, in this case the Western military theorists, …who are all shown talking equal nonsense …, whether they defend a given strategic or tactical theory or oppose it; these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.
Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind. The harshest judgment is accordingly reserved for the master theorist himself, the great Napoleon, who acts upon, and has hypnotised others into believing, the assumption that he understands and controls events by his superior intellect, or by flashes of intuition, or by otherwise succeeding in answering correctly the problems posed by history. The greater the claim the greater the lie: Napoleon is consequently the most pitiable, the most contemptible of all the actors in the great tragedy.
This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces – these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid the bleak truths – side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life – the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals – with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. 
Utterly unlike her as he is in almost every other respect, Tolstoy is, perhaps, the first to propound the celebrated accusation which Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation – Shaw and Wells and Arnold Bennett – blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul – the so-called social, economic, political realities – for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is – which are reality. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Pitfalls of history - I

A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen. - Winston Churchill

In the controversy over the film 'Padmavat', there were comments that 'history is being distorted' or that 'historical facts are being twisted'. I don't have much idea about either the film or the historical character so that is not what this post is about. These comments seem to give the impression that history about an event or a personality is fixed for all time to come. But this is not true. First of all, there is nothing called ‘correct’ history. There can only be views of the past, some of which approximate more clearly to what actually may have happened because of the evidence they draw upon and the quality of their logic and analysis.

Our perception of the past changes as and when the evidence increases and when the methods for interpreting the evidence improves. Some archaeological expeditions require scientific expertise like DNA analysis and radio-carbon dating so people with knowledge about these scientific fields must be part of the group.  New methods of data analysis and new sources throw fresh light on old incidents. Quite often the new views are slow to trickle down to the general public, who  tend to think that what they leaned in high school history books is unchangeable. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells of three problems in the human mind, which he calls 'the triplet of opacity', which affect our perception of history:

1. The illusion of understanding: People think the world is more understandable, explainable and predictable than it really is. But there are many unexpected factors which impact events.These factors seem predictable in retrospect giving rise to this illusion.

2. History seems more organised and structured in textbooks than it really was. When I was reading about the 70's and beyond in Ramachandra Guha's book India after Gandhi (which is a good book), I seemed to have been living in the midst of chaos. I remember most of the dark headlines but they occurred far away from where I lived. Historians have to write about many incidents spread over vast expanses of space and time in a limited number of pages which results in distortion of the reality.

3. Over-reliance on experts: Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley selected 284 people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends," including journalists, foreign policy specialists, economists and intelligence analysts, and began asking them to make predictions. Over a couple of decades, he asked them to rate the probability of outcomes of several questions: Would George Bush be re-elected? Would apartheid in South Africa end peacefully? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? Overall he had over 80,000 predictions.

How did the experts do? When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance i.e, they would have done better picking their answers blindly out of a hat. Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective. Most of the subjects had post-graduate degrees but they were mostly useless when it came to forecasting. Even in the region they had most knowledge of, the experts were not much better than non-specialists.

The main reason for the inaccuracy has to do with overconfidence. Because the experts were convinced that they were right, they tended to ignore all the evidence suggesting that they were wrong - they had an enhanced illusion of their skill. Those with the most knowledge were the least reliable. This is because these experts were cocooned in their area of specialization and tended to view the world through a narrow lens, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls 'the philistinism of the over-specialized scholar'. It is like the blind who touch different parts of an elephant and conclude that it is like a rope, a pillar, etc.

Tetlock also found that the experts were resistant to admitting error when it was pointed out to them, offering a number of excuses for their mistakes. The problem is that the over-specialized expert who can come up with the catchy one-liner is more likely to be invited to TV studios since  he is more interesting to listen to than the expert who uses a lot of 'ifs' and 'buts' even though the latter may be closer to the truth. The preferred expert will be the one who gives short, snappy answers to a screaming host who demands, 'India wants to know.'

A safe rule of thumb to follow is to ignore the views of the experts who sound very confident about their forecasts. As Kahneman says in his book, Thinking, Fast and slow, 'The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable.  The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by American writer Ray Bradbury, published in 1953. It presents a future society where books are outlawed and "firemen" burn any books that are found. Its key theme is of an authoritarian society distracted by broadcast media. Fahrenheit 451 refers to the temperature at which paper burns. The lead character is a fireman named Montag who initially burns books with gusto but begins to get disillusioned with his job.

Captain Beatty, Montag's fire chief, senses Montag's concerns and recounts how books lost their value. His speech to Montag about the history of the firemen is a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature. Bradbury wrote this at a time when TV was beginning to become popular in the US and he was getting concerned about the effect of simplistic messages being pushed by the mass media. Since India is desperate to copy the US, the speech is illuminating. (I have omitted some conversations and description that occur in-between and retained a substantial portion of Beatty’s speech.)
"Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending."
"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet ...was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: 'now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.' Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more."
"Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic? Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man's mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!"
"School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?"
"More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don't have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee. Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place,  following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before."
Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! ...Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.
Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. ...There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals."
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. ...We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world ...there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That's you, Montag, and that's me."
"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn't that right? Haven't you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren't they? Don't we keep them moving, don't we give them fun? That's all we live for, isn't it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these."
"Coloured people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean."
Montag's change of heart happens after he meets a seventeen-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan, who opens his eyes to the emptiness of his life with her penetrating questions and her unusual love of people and nature. Montag finds her unusual perspectives about life intriguing. She makes Montag think of things that he has never thought of before, and she forces him to consider ideas that he has never contemplated. For eg., she informs Montag that once upon a time, a fireman's job was to put out fires, now they start them. A few days later, he hears that Clarisse has been killed by a speeding car. When he asks Beatty about Clarisse, this was the reply:
Clarisse McClellan? We've a record on her family. We've watched them carefully. Heredity and environment are funny things. You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle. We had some false alarms on the McClellans, when they lived in Chicago. Never found a book. Uncle had a mixed record; anti-social. The girl? She was a time bomb. The family had been feeding her subconscious, I'm sure, from what I saw of her school record. She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl's better off dead." 
"Luckily, queer ones like her don't happen, often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early. You can't build a house without nails and wood. If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.  
Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. 

PS: An article in The New Yorker about Amazon and books

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Economist Nobel Prize winners can be useful sometimes

For typing with the neuro-headset, I keep an on-screen keyboard in the top part of the monitor and a notepad/word document in the bottom part of the monitor. As I move my head, the mouse-pointer moves to different parts of the screen. When it is on the on-screen keyboard, the mouse-pointer is seen as an arrow and the key on which it is present is highlighted yellow. Since the auto-type feature of the on-screen keyboard is ON, when the arrow is held on the key for about a second, the letter is automatically typed in the document.

When the mouse-pointer is on the document, it is seen as a thin barely visible vertical line.

It is again seen as an arrow when it is on the icons of the various windows seen at the bottom of the screen.

If I move the arrow a bit upwards and hold it within the small window that opens above the icon, the window opens up covering the whole screen. I can use this feature of Windows 10 to keep track of some scores.

The neuro-headset communicates with a toggle that is connected to the computer. Sometimes the communication snaps and I lose control of the mouse –pointer. At these times, if the mouse-pointer is on the keyboard it will be stuck on a particular key. This will cause the letter on the key to keep getting typed in the document.  My horror scenario is if the mouse-pointer gets stuck on ’Del’ or ‘Backspace’ keys because I will then lose a substantial portion of what I have typed depending on where the cursor is located. If Jaya is around, I will alert her and she will quickly remove the mouse-pointer from the keyboard.

I always tell Jaya to tell the nurses what to do in such a situation but it is quite challenging to make them understand what they are supposed to do. First the nurse will have to be taught how to move the mouse. She will at times move the mouse in the air so she will have to  be be told that it has to be moved on a surface for the pointer to move. Then they will keep the mouse on the table and keep sliding the mouse over a large area with all sorts of contortions of the face and hands but the pointer will move only a short distance. But even after the nurse learns how to move the mouse, the desired results often don't come.

The cause for confusion is the fact that the mouse-pointer has different shapes in different parts of the screen. When the pointer is on the keyboard, it appears as an arrow (with the key it is on being highlighted in yellow); when on the document, it appears as a barely visible, small vertical line and it again appears as an arrow on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Most nurses are not able to understand that these shapes denote the same thing.

I was reading Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein when I got an idea. The authors say that in the men's rooms at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, right above the drain, a perfect drawing of a house fly is baked into the porcelain bowl. Why? Apparently, the presence of a fly in a urinal changes human behaviour. In males, there is a deep-seated instinct to aim at targets, and having a fly to aim at reduces  “spillage."

I thought that  I will give the nurses a target to aim the mouse-pointer at. Maybe this will help the nurse to keep the mouse-pointer in a safe area on the screen. I told Jaya to tell the nurse to keep the mouse-pointer on one of the windows at the bottom of the screen where it appears as an arrow. (I will specify the window so that the nurse had something concrete to aim at.) This tactic has worked with the last couple of nurses so it is probably a workable option.

A Nobel prize-winning economist would not have imagined that his book would offer a clue that will help a patient  on the other side of the world who had suffered a brain-stem stroke. God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Ravana mode of development – X

'The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook', said William James. Gandhi's views on modernity seem odd at first glance but when examined carefully in the light of subsequent developments, he seems to have noticed the crucial issues that others had ignored. The factors that made him wary of modernity - the split between cognition and feeling, the tendency to divorce means from ends, concentration of power in the hands of a few, the coercive nature of the state, the naivety of thinking that institutions can always check unethical individuals, internalizing the word-view of the colonizer leading to internal colonization, violence feeding on itself - can be seen all the time. Among long-term predictions, it is Gandhi's warnings that seem to have come closest to reality.

Gandhi was right: colonialism continues in the minds of the colonized long after the foreign ruler has left. It replaces, as he had observed in Hind Swaraj, 'English rule without Englishmen'. He had expressed a fear that Indians wanted the tiger’s nature without the tiger’s skin i.e. they wanted to retain the language, concepts and world-view of the colonial power after getting rid of them. He had warned against thinking that the mere substitution of Indians for the English, without any substantive alterations in the structures of British rule, would be a mistaken idea of independence. Unlike most Indian nationalists, he knew very well that ‘self-government’ did not mean ’good government’. Gandhi had the mental sharpness to escape colonization of mind under British rule but most Indian leaders and elites fell into its trap.

Even Britain has repealed the law on sedition but India still retains in its statute books the colonial law that was used to charge Tilak and Gandhi. When protesting civilians are fired upon by security forces, the excuse often given is that they were just doing their duty to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. This is the same excuse that was given by General Dyer for his action in Jallianwallah Bagh. This is what nationalism does to you – a crime that is committed by others is condemned but if the same crime is committed by ‘our’ side, it is justified. After reading Gandhi, it is apparent that India never got rid of colonialism. Only the color of the rulers had changed. As Joseph Brodsky writes in Less Than One about post-independence India:
From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.
Gandhi knew whereof he was speaking. It would be fallacious to think that he was not well-read. He had read Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, William James, Goethe, Adam Smith, Marx, Bentham, Carlyle, Huxley, Bacon, Gibbon, Shaw, Kipling, Wells among others including books on Common Law, Roman Law and religion. He even learned enough Latin to read Justinian in the original. Often when he says, 'I am ignorant about...', it is better to treat it as Socratic ignorance. Importantly, he was a critical reader and did not accept unquestioningly what others wrote. As Ashis Nandy writes about Gandhi in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias, 'He was one of the few non-Westerners who had carefully read and digested the relevant Western experience and he was one of the very few among the third world's nationalist leaders to see the full implications of the West's Faustian compact with modernity.'

In an interview  in 1936, Gandhi was asked what he most despaired of. He replied, ‘The hardheartedness of the educated’. What was true then is also true now. It is a symptom of the pathology of rationality. The super-rich are living on their own planet and seem oblivious of how funny they sometimes sound. I once heard an interview with Nita Ambani where she spoke of the time when she was in Rio to watch the football World Cup and found herself in the midst of many people who were cheering for their respective national sides. She said that she had tears in her eyes thinking of how nice it would have been if India also had a football team that she could cheer. Poor thing, my heart went out to her. Life can be unbelievably cruel!

In this talk, I heard that in his book Rebooting India (a title  like this makes me cautious), Nandan Nilekani says that it only takes 100 people to solve all of India's problems! You can live in a techno-utopia and come up with such arrogant and astonishingly dim-witted statements only if you are highly educated. Too much education makes you think that the world is more orderly and predictable than it really is and you think that real world situations resemble the simplified problems in textbooks. Planning and development become like scientific formulae. Your head is buried in your chosen silo of knowledge and you are unaware of anything that lies outside it. If you give a man a hammer, every problem will look like a nail to him.

In this talk, Ashis Nandy says that IITs produce brilliant students but they are like primary schoolchildren when it comes to knowledge about society. That statement by Nilekani is a very good illustration of this observation. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, ‘People who are ‘cognitively busy’ are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.’ What Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj seems ever relevant, 'Those in whose name we speak we do not know, nor do they know us.' The white man’s burden has become the brown man’s burden.

During demonetization there was a debate about the people who died. It is not about the exact number of people who died or about how and where they died or about whether the cause of their death can be determined with certainty… A society where discourse about a person’s death is reduced to an accounting language is a society not worth having. As Orwell says in his essay The Prevention of Literature, ‘When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness…. They appear to think that the destruction of liberty is of no importance so long as their own line of work is for the moment unaffected. ‘

Gandhi’s vision of the ideal society was one in which there is a just balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. His practise at times had to necessarily fall short of his ideal as it met real-world constraints in the pursuit of an egalitarian, just society. (About his compromises see Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony by Anthony Parel.) There are, however, some basic principles that do not alter as, for instance, truth and non-violence or his exposition of the value of means in any struggle for ends. Abert Camus once said that “through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.” Despite the pretense in global diplomacy, it is non-violence not violence that has to be justified. As Rajni Kothari says in her essay, Civilizational Gandhi (pdf):
Above all, the future may depend on addressing a fundamental question – how do we decide what is priceless? Gandhi’s ideal of a civilized society offers markers which help us to process this question. This vision acknowledges that greed and the will to grab power are part of the human condition. But these are not necessarily our most dominant traits. Human behaviour, like water, fills the spaces created by the rules we frame. So why not frame the rules on the basis of a more holistic view of the human condition?
If thinking that human behaviour is like water that takes the shape of its container sounds utopian, consider the case of the Pathans. They are known to settle disputes violently and have a weakness for religion-based terror. It is the culture that has produced the Taliban and sheltered Osama bin Laden. Now go back to almost a century ago. The Pathans were a symbol of militant non-violence under the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. According to Gandhi, they were the best examples of militant non-violence directed against the colonial regime in the 1930s. The non-violence of the Pathans proved ineffective in the new nation-state of Pakistan with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan spending more time in Pakistani jails than in British jails. Gandhi was also killed by an educated, rational, upper-caste Hindu in independent India not in British India.

This raises an obvious question: is the modern jungle of nation-states inherently inhospitable to non-violence? When told that his thought is utopian, Gandhi said, 'It is almost like Euclid's line which exists only in imagination, never capable of being physically drawn. It is nevertheless an important definition in geometry yielding great result.' (In fact, the world is ruled by fictions having their own utopias and die-hard subscribers - religions, histories, myths, nations, corporations, politics, capitalism, communism, economics...) As Einstein said, 'The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.'  Gandhi had stressed that his general ideas are far more important than his specific solutions which are contextual.

Gandhi's far-sighted ideas were interred with his bones. In Bapu Kuti, a late professor at IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur, C.V. Seshadri is quoted as saying, 'In 1945 I wondered how and why the German intelligentsia kept quiet about the concentration camps but now I ask the same question about our intelligentsia here, which quietly and easily allowed Gandhi to be rejected.’ He is now reduced to the role of a sanitation inspector. The cluelessness of those people (and myself) is dawning on me only now. In his essay The Final Encounter: The politics of the Assassination of Gandhi (included in the essay collection Debating Gandhi), Ashis Nandy writes that many elites were intellectually complicit in the assassination because they sensed that Gandhian politics was pushing them from the centre to the periphery of the social structure. Many of them thought that he was a back number and were secretly glad to see him go even though they shed tears in public.

Another reason why Gandhi is not taken seriously is because he did not leave any easy solutions. All Gandhian attempts at reform began at the level of the individual. Without individual reform, institutional reform is futile. But reforming oneself is hard. It is easier to point out faults in others or to shoot the messenger. (As a verse by Kabir says, Dos paraye dekhi kari, chala hasanth hasanth / apne yaad na aavai, jinka aadi na anth.- People laugh at others’ faults but fail to remember their own endless list of faults.) Another reason for confusion was Gandhi's Janus nature - he was a devout Hindu who was called more Christian than Christians, a nationalist who had reservations about the idea of a nation-state, a Congress head who wanted to disband the Congress, a traditionalist who chose the modernist Nehru as his successors...

If you thought Gandhi was just a shrewd bania with weird ideas, you are far off the mark. Many criticisms of Gandhi seem as if the person is bravely grappling with the ant while studiously ignoring the elephant in the room. He was an original practitioner-thinker whose ideas should be carefully examined rather than being deified or dismissed.  He was the one who dared to question long-held certainties. Others appear like parrots. (An important book explaining Gandhi's ideas is The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi by Raghavan Iyer). India has paid a big and probably irreversible price for ignoring Gandhi. As A.K. Saran says in this article, the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work and ultimate failure is this: 'Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?'