Saturday, June 27, 2009

MJ The Phenomenon

Writing about Michael is like my drop in the ocean of posts.

I've not read anything what the media has written and shown about the death and his legacy (which you could have escaped knowing only if you were born after the mid eighties). Since the news never stopped coming from his quarters, I treated the news of his death in the morning with a wearied sigh: another thing Michael had gotten into.

Late at night, I was thinking about Michael after I remembered a friend who was absolutely crazy about him and even after the disastrous Blood on The Dance Floor was always sure that the old Mike phenomenon was just around the corner.

Perhaps this is a hyperbole but I do not mean it to be - I've really thought about it and in my opinion no man singly has had such an impact in the recent decades as Michael. In a time of Hindi newspaper, AIR and DD, every kid in our servants' quarters knew about MJ. Maiku Lal Jai Kisan - remember?

Eighties was about two phenomena - MJ and ET. Gandhi, Eddie Murphy, Brooke Shields, GnR, Faith, Whitney Housten, Whoopi -- everything followed in the wake of these two; and MJ was a hundred ETs put together. Fashion, Dancing, Music, Videos - he defined it for a decade. And curiously, he was without a race. Black, White, Brown, Yellow - he was accepted as someone belonging to everyone and even alien to the very humanity.

I'm not talking about the man here but the phenomenon.

Just as AB remains the first in Hindi movies, Chaplin in Hollywood -- men without equals in their impact -likewise MJ in world Music.

As a sample, watch the clip below from a Rajnikant movie and wonder how in a pre-globalisation world a Tamil midget can imitate an artist in LA.

By the way, I think the clip from 00:50 to 00:57 is the greatest cinematic moment I've ever seen.

Reading biographies and autobiographies

My grandmother told me to read biographies and auto-biographies. And I did – some of them.

A biography is good to know the facts about a person – as good biographies are meticulously researched – but conclusions from those facts – as most biographers do sweepingly but the most circumspect ones – should be entirely the reader’s effort; with the biographer only suggesting his own.

The reason is that our ideas of selves and other selves is very – how shall I say it – simplistic.(?) We view the self as a unity progressing through time despite our own awareness of the contradictions to this unity. Hume says that the idea of the self is nothing but a fiction – a bundle of perceptions – where even the unity of a bundle lacks. Our predictions (this is my bit again; to not falsely attribute to Hume anything beyond what he said to my knowledge) about our own behaviour are approximations of what we recollect behaving in similar circumstances in the past and even these fail in the extreme situations. Hence, the idea of the self, I think, is a vague photo album of images and approximations about our compulsions and actions. The things we learn, the things we experience get absorbed in our approximations.

Hence, autobiographies, which compel us to reconcile our images to a single thread of perceptions, are unreliable. We might remember more or less what our father told us once and the colour of the wall of our house but the sensation it produced is lost now and can only be remembered vaguely if there was an immediate effect – a sudden epiphany regarding some other idea, an action, ex. crying, which followed immediately after the father said his something, or an imagery which popped up immediately; and this, we have to hope, was attributable only to what the father had said a minute ago. The only way to recall that sensation accurately is to take away everything we experienced and read after that moment, to bring our minds to the same level of innocence (or ignorance, as you see it) and hope that somehow – and this is a big leap of faith – we feel and behave the same way as we did then even though we know we don’t many a times.

Hence, an ideal autobiography would read like: I was born in 19XX. My father was fatter than other men. I think he was meaner than other men too. The colour of the wall of my house was blue. My mother once told me she was going to name me Herpes. I think I felt sad by it since I remember crying immediately on hearing this nose unless it was some other association or thing boiling under that chose that moment to come to the top and which I am not aware of. And so on.

Take the case of biographies and how we perceive the other. We either perceive the other free of most of these inner contradictions we see in ourselves; or we attribute the same contradictions to him as ours. Only the very few get, to some degree, to actually empathize – and that’s a true genius – but that degree is far from the perfect. (You cannot step into someone else’s shoes just like you can’t understand fully what a guy locked in a cell for twenty years felt at the end of those twenty years but being locked in the same cell for a minute. Even if you did: your perceptions would only be your own.)

Hence, we judge others more or less by stereotypes – and by stereotype I mean of the type “habitus” – the context the person has inhabited and inhabits.

Hence if someone is writing my biography (the only possibility to this I see is if I succeed in murdering twenty coworkers with a laptop and then claiming to do it since they disagreed that Amisha Patel was a fine thespian), if he perceives that I have some tehzeeb and knows the fact that I was born in Lucknow, he might, with a flourish, pen ‘Being born into the tradition of tehzeeb of Lucknow in the eighties, BS grew a polite lad…’
He’s married a perception to an incidental fact and quoted it as a fact even though it’s an approximation (Facts can only be stringed to facts to remain facts and there the association has to be logical; like syllogism – A implies B. B implies C. Hence, A implies C).

Similarly, he might say that ‘BS’s mother loved him.’ since mothers usually love their sons and there’s no incident to the contrary that he knows of. Again, an approximation stated as a fact.

One other false fact emerges when we pass quotes, or other people’s stated perceptions about themselves, as facts. Notice the gaps. One – between the stated to others and the stated to ourselves. It might be subconscious: (‘No, I’m not a pedophile!’ Inside: ‘Then why do I like touching my son’s naked butt?’) or very well conscious: American presidents. Two – even if we’re so foolishly honest to state what we really feel about ourselves they’re still perceptions which, as I pointed out earlier, even in the case of self-judgment are just approximations.

But since we cannot have scraps of conversations like –

“Bhaisaab, Dilli ka rasta kaun sa hai?”

“Assuming that there is a self and that self is me and there is a self which is you, even though what I can only perceive of that self is qualities which do not a substance imply really, and assuming that self of yours is addressing me which I know is not a single self, not even a bundle, and come to think of it, I am not even sure not even a self…’

– we’ve agreed not to qualify our perceptions every time we speak of them.

But we have to be aware of this hidden covenant to read biographies and judge them ourselves – assuming of course we have a judgment.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The goodness in being evilly big

I am reading a lot about the evil of MNCs and how generations have been turned into consuming zombies by subversive media machineries – and, to be honest, I agree on a lot of points.

But, as is generally the case, these articles wholly ignore the positive fallout for the consumer in the brands being so big - when they have the Acts to safeguard them against monopolies and cartels, of course.

One aspect that occurred to me was liability.

MNC Brands are more liable for failing on their promise. Take the case of Mattel toys and the hullaballoo last year on toxic lead in their toys. Would a local toy maker in China been taken to task as thoroughly?
Closer home, if your new tyre bursts, which scenario has more probability of getting you a fast-track hearing – a Michelin-brand tyre with receipt or a local unknown manufacturer?
What chance do you have when your Nikki sneakers come apart on the second day? What when you have original Nike shoes with the proof of purchase?

MNCs by being bigger are more noticeable and are reliant on a mass market and a mass perception of their quality and service. In a third-world economy, where local standards of production are low and liability laws difficult to implement, the MNCs, by their standards that belong to the first-world and the fact that their actions, even in a remote third-world country, subject to closer scrutiny world-wide and capable of very wide repercussions, are usually more reliable for quality and processes.

Ask any Premier Padmini owner, or someone who’s shitted blood after eating a Zingo burger at a LFC – Lucknow Fried Chicken.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Being booed in your own country

I followed the India-England match cursorily on the net in the life-long absence of television I exist in. One of the features, something that an English player later referred to as a motivational factor in the win, was the overwhelmingly raucous support for the Indian team.

I remember some English lord once declaring the side you cheer for as the litmus test for patriotism. I remember it was a statement quite derided in the press at that time. But I somehow agree.

The trial of Socrates never meant to put him to death – apparently the democrats knew that by giving him this death they would be giving the ideas of Socrates more life than ever – but to scare him into a self-willed exile. All efforts to persuade him to “escape” were made but ultimately owing to his own intransigence, he had to be put to death. Socrates argument was that of “social contract”. He argued that he had accepted the social contract under which the Athenian society was built by willing to exist according to its rules and regulations, which, so far, had even benefited him. Hence, he was obliged to live under those same contracts when they went against him, even if he might not agree with them.

Despite the nobility of the act, I have my doubts. I believe that there are certain “principles” we live in that exist independent of the society – call them the fundamental principles. These principles are based on personal ethics – the idea of virtue (note: not morality, which I think is a social contract built upon the idea of virtue) – which I would follow even despite the de facto social contract – as is indeed the case in India where to stay non-corrupt is against the flow of the existing innate acceptance of corruption as a valid mean to an end.

True, societies exist which violate these first principles but their existence is not invalidation of these principles. Hence, in the case of Suttee versus the right to life, it was the society which had to change, though, I am sure, the first argument Macaulay would have heard from distressed feudal lords would have been “But this has been so since ages!”

A social contract, in my opinion, covers the contract outside the individual contract that we all make with our own conscience. It’s a contract to bind the collection of these individuals into a single society and works in two respects. It seeks to deter individual contracts which impinge on the freedom or rights of another individual (your right to sex exists only to the extent that the other party is of an age where the person is deemed to be adult enough to decide for him/herself and that he/she is consensual, for example). Second, it looks into the affairs beyond these first principles – the nature and role of family, the form of government, civil law, economic contracts, etc.

We are born into these contracts mostly. But do we have to accept it to the letter? – I think this is too deep a topic to get into here. As I said, I have my doubts on this that I still have not resolved.

There’s another aspect to the social contract that I have not come across so far – though I am sure there would be whales of literature on it. (My understandings only reflect my own ruminations and discursive readings and are uninformed and ignorant of accepted academic definitions to that extent.) That is the aspect of ideas embedded in the underlying principle of the civil law and institutions. Ideas that go beyond the fundamental ideas of human rights. The idea of a family, the idea of social good, the idea of a patriot.

This is where dissent starts. My idea of morality and how short the skirt can be to not endanger the moral fabric of the society derives from my subjective habitus and experiences and is bound to have variations with mainstream definitions – which themselves change as the society evolves (By evolution, I just mean change and do not imply that it is for the necessarily better). This is the realm of subjectivity.

Similarly, what is the idea of a patriot? The idea is subjective – though treason which directly threatens the nation is patently unpatriotic. But where there is no tangible harm or good, the idea is fuzzy.

If I fail to stop and stand when I hear the national anthem, am I unpatriotic? (my personal opinion: yes. Since the idea of stopping and standing to show respect to the nation is built in the idea of the anthem which has been constitutionally chosen for the same. Again a little subjective.)
If I express dissatisfaction with the policies of government, am I unpatriotic? (As most totalitarian societies say.)

Is patriotism embedded in which side I cheer for in a game? Perhaps not. I might be doing this just in jest. I might cheer for Kenya in an India-Kenya match just out of fun.

But suppose I judge the loyalty of the other person by his action in the same activity.
Suppsoe I frown on people not stopping and standing in attention to the national anthem – can I escape the same consequences of my failing to do so myself?
No. Let me drive the point clearer home – suppose I believe that Indian Muslims who burst crackers after Pak won in Indo-Pak wins are non-patriots, am I not then affirming my acceptance of that activity as a litmus test to loyalty for a nation?

This is where my point lies.

Most of the NRIs cheering for India that day would instantly denounce these IMs as non-patriotic. Hence, by the same application, especially in a nation that they themselves chose to settle in, are they not non-loyal to the same degree?

Note: this is not a personal judgment. I am still undecided about those IMs – loyalty can only come once there is a foundation of making you feel belonged. I am not sure whether these IMs, or any aggrieved minority – religious, ethnic, ideological – has the sufficient ground to feel estranged from the mainstream enough to assert their non-loyalty thus. It would depend on the context.

I am judging them only by the litmus test they have accepted barring the few who do not regard this as a litmus test. And I think that the majority do accept this as the litmus test for IMs back home.

In this respect, I feel that this action does raise the issue of loyalty of the migrants and the English have good cause to feel peeved about it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why reading news every day might be getting in the way of your understanding things

A lot has happened in my life since the time I last blogged – lots that I really can’t get into right now. One of the other notable events has been the crashing of my laptop and the threat of losing everything I wrote in the past two years which still hangs with it. As some of you have suspected, yes, I am trying to pen something bigger than 3 sentenced-short stories; it has been part of the reason why I have not blogged.

My days are still meandering – I still spend half my working day chasing numbers which get irrelevant by the end of the day, the other half is spent in the smoking corridors talking about office politics and how big an asshole somebody is. Evenings are spent alone in the apartment with meanderings on the net, discursive readings and thinking, and lots of sleeping.

Part of the reason I have not blogged is that I’m not doing any readings on current affairs. My morning papers get dumped to the climbing pile of trash without a glance at even the back-page. To illustrate, I did not follow the entire follow-up to the elections and was totally unaware of the pre-poll alliances which different parties had engaged in. I am very ashamed of my lack of awareness of the relevant and have serious concerns in the efficacy of my future credibility in discussions if much of what is happening in my life is whizzing off my head without even my hearing their whiz.

I have no excuse, but let me come to some of the things that might be underlying my otherwise clueless state. For one, I have followed news quite intently for some years and the thing is – it never stops; and it seems to run around in circles. It might add credibility to my participation in stairwell discussions, but does it really make sense following pre-poll alliances when these alliances are alliances of pure convenience and not ideological, and hence subject to change with the context, as I have seen them change again and again.

It's difficult for me to give more than a couple of hours of reading every day and, in that space, blogs, wikipedia, news and books slog it out. In this space, I want to be abreast with what is happening and also form a more informed picture about the world I inhabit. Unfortunately, the endless pounding of news flashes, which might serve to keep me updated on the latest (and mostly the inconsequential), they obstruct many a times the second purpose.
I want ot understand the first principles of the ideologies underlying the social structure and consciousness, than their nth-order effects.

There was a time when I assiduously followed the morning paper but even after years of it I find myself half-informed on the range of topics I've followed. For all the years of diligently following the headlines, about a score of terror attacks – with reading of all the analyses, opinions and editorials – and a million stories of rape (which I now suspect are put more for their titillating and shock effect than any concern regarding violation of rights), I have neither any informed understanding of the mechanics of terror, why people are convinced enough to kill themselves to kill a few other, nor do I understand the human mind inured to cruelty. For all the years of following successive governments, I do not understand what democracy really means; for all the Left-bashing, I still do not understand dialectical materialism.

As part of preparation for CAT, I read a lot of editorials. The good thing about editorials and guest columns is that they offer not only a set of facts but also a point of view associated with them and hence, like pre-masticated food, are easier and faster to incorporate into the arsenal of world-views which makes an “informed” man.

But now I am beginning to understand that the analysts come from the same world that I do, a world where a million things are happening every second, and only a dozen have to vie for your attention in tomorrow’s newspaper’s headlines. Hence, if there is a terror attack in some city tonight, the analyst has to discuss that tomorrow and, if the next day, a nobel laureate dies, the analyst has to discuss the day after. It’s like a giant aeroplane with a dozen snags happening at random every day and hogging the headlines, and in the process, your mind, the day after. Next day, different set of snags, different occupation of the mind. You never get to sit back and understand the underlying mechanics of the plane which will predict these snags by themselves. Your mind is never free enough to think and understand the unity of themes which underline many of the effects we are reacting towards. We do not get the time to study history, how the same themes have been always present there, how they have evolved, and how some of the best minds have judged them then.

Worse, even the analyst’s mind is not free anymore and pushed into the reactive mode. So much of the analysis is dependent on the results of what happened!

The way truth is tested in statistics is that you make a hypothesis, you test it and then based on the significance of the expected results (how often they happen in a given random sample), you accept or reject it. Of course, the same rigor cannot be expected in human affairs. I cannot imprison a hundred people and subject them to conditions to test my hypotheses; but I do expect a formulation of a thesis independent of events before it is tested in the proof of the events. Instead, I see the reverse happen many a times – an event happens, then an extenuation is hesitatingly forwarded, that extenuation becomes an explanation, that explanation becomes a fact. The bigger analysts proceed straight from events to facts nowadays. Tharoor’s article on why engineers become terrorists is a good example to illustrate how sometimes even the better minds are driven to utter drivel by the pressures of 2-minutes analysis.

Tharoor says that engineers produce more terrorists because they’re not trained in social sciences. His first hypothesis that engineers make more terrorists (instead of the better brains of the generation, as somewhat captured in academic tests, drifting towards the ideology of extreme, and who happen to come more from the engineering stream because, let’s accept it, most of the people who get into social sciences are those who couldn’t get into engineering) is itself dubious. It smacks of this logic – two terrorists killed were wearing imitation Levis Tshirt; hence, people wearing imitation Levis are more inclined to be terrorists. A deeper thinking would recognize that more than what was printed on the Tshirt, it is the imitation which is important, belying the economic strata the terrorists came from. Let us not get into the reason how Tharoor explains this proclivity, because I like the guy, and if his mundu fell off somewhere, let us not step on it and prolong his butt-naked misery.

To come to more recent news, going into the IPL final, where the two leading captains were – Kumble, a spinner, and Gilly, an Australian – and the previous IPL was won by an Australian spinner, I shuddered at reading analyses that day which would underline how IPLs were won by teams led by captains who were, based on the result of the final, a spinner or an Australian; as indeed it happened.

A similar newsbyte concerns the Indian debacle at world Cup. IPL is being cited as the reason for the failure – so easy for a coach to deflect responsibility. But wasn’t this very IPL held the reason for the success in the previous World Cup? Frankly speaking, I believe a sporting contest is very simply judged – it’s a test of will and skill – and the rooting spectators are aware of that. Injured athletes winning championships have been the fodder of a thousand myths. Analysts need to keep analysing the finer points for the same reasons why TV channels need to retelecast old matches endlessly – to appease the demand. Without meaning to sound deliberately disparaging, I feel that most of these columns (analysts like Prem Panicker excluded) fulfil the same function that pornography does – it satisfies a compulsion and there is nothing ennobling (insightful) in it.

But I do not intend to focus on cricket analysis. I indulge in it too – in the same way as I watch pornography and I engage in the same discussions everyday on the stairwells touting the same arguments ad nauseum.

My point is that even where analysis is on topics which we seek to understand and not part of our daily fodder of compulsions: news like random terror attacks or something like Nithari, the analysis are in themselves flawed.
The thesis underlying its arguments derives from the results and hence in the absence of a suitable antithesis already foregone in its conclusion.

Hence, the first argument against daily news analysis is that the method of production of that analysis is too compromised for it to be taken seriously in many cases.

The exceptions are actually that: exceptions; I read Indian Express and except for Pratap Bhanu and Shiv Vishwanathan, I've not seen much mind-stirring insights in most other analysts.
Sudheeran, the BJP thinker, in fact underlines the monomanic vacuity to which such prestigious columns have fallen to.
Not surprisingly, Shiv Vishwanathan writes 4 articles a year, while Sudheeran writes 4 articles a month.

The next argument is that why, in a million events a second world, do only a score be considered news-worthy?

This, I would believe, is something everyone would have thought of by now – especially after the Chand-Fiza saga refuses to end even now. I’m reasonably sure that you would have, at some point of time, thought, “Who fucking cares?”; and that you would have suspected that what is news is news only because it titillates. Entertainment over substance.

Hence, I would assume that you agree that most of what is news is news because it helps the paper sell better, rather than being the most meaningful statements of our times.

A few words on how some of the great thinkers thought true knowledge works.

Socratetic dialectics aims to arrive at the first principle by the process of dialogue. A thesis is put forward – black people are inferior to white people. An antithesis is found and quoted – Jesse Owens beat white pure-bred Aryans in a fair contest. A synthesis happens – most black people are inferior to white people.

Note, that “all” is now “most”. If a mind thinks long enough, a synthesis might be ultimately reached which says – “Race has got nothing to do with it.” That is, race is not a fundamental principle of judging capability.

News analysis – anchored as it’s on the shifting, transitory character of “news” – mostly never lets the thesis meet an antithesis.

This thesis today, that tomorrow.

Engineers terrorists today, all Telugu businessmen corrupt tomorrow.

In seeking to keep us always engaged by following issues as and when and where they keep popping up, it gets in the way of our thinking through an issue.

Hence, even after these years of reading, I still feel totally unable to understand why the world is the way it is.

I am trying to correct that now.