Saturday, December 3, 2016

Stephen Hawking: This is the most dangerous time for our planet

We can’t go on ignoring inequality, because we have the means to destroy our world but not to escape it

As a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied.
And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle. In addition to this, with the celebrity that has come with my books, and the isolation imposed by my illness, I feel as though my ivory tower is getting taller.

So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders.

It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere. What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react

I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.

Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake. The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive. We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.

It is also the case that another unintended consequence of the global spread of the internet and social media is that the stark nature of these inequalities is far more apparent than it has been in the past. For me, the ability to use technology to communicate has been a liberating and positive experience. Without it, I would not have been able to continue working these many years past.

But it also means that the lives of the richest people in the most prosperous parts of the world are agonisingly visible to anyone, however poor, who has access to a phone. And since there are now more people with a telephone than access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, this will shortly mean nearly everyone on our increasingly crowded planet will not be able to escape the inequality.

The consequences of this are plain to see: the rural poor flock to cities, to shanty towns, driven by hope. And then often, finding that the Instagram nirvana is not available there, they seek it overseas, joining the ever greater numbers of economic migrants in search of a better life. These migrants in turn place new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive, undermining tolerance and further fuelling political populism.

For me, the really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.

To do that, we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations. If we are to stand a chance of doing that, the world’s leaders need to acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many. With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present. With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so. If communities and economies cannot cope with current levels of migration, we must do more to encourage global development, as that is the only way that the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home.

We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.

The writer launched earlier this year

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Nick Visser - Deforestation Rates Skyrocket In Brazil As Country Struggles To Save The Amazon

Deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil have soared, with an area roughly three times the size of Rhode Island illegally chopped down, an annual satellite survey by the country’s government shows. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research found the rate of deforestation rose 29 percent from August 2015 to July 2016, representing more than 3,000 square miles of rainforest. The region has been under near constant threat from lucrative illegal logging and the expansion of cattle and agriculture plantations. An area roughly the size of California has been wiped out in the past 40 years.

The Brazilian government has made a concerted effort to protect the rainforest, which is home to about 10 percent of the planet’s known biodiversity. Conservation efforts have cut the rate of deforestation by 71 percent since it peaked in 2004. But the recent uptick reflects the ongoing struggle the country faces as it seeks to completely end illicit logging by 2030, in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Amazon is an important fixture in the fight against climate change because it absorbs about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. When vast swaths of the rainforest are lost, not only is that ability hindered, but the carbon stored within the trees is quickly released back into the atmosphere, spurring more global warming. Researchers have warned that ongoing rates of deforestation also threaten more than half of all tree species in the Amazon as well as about 180 indigenous groups that live in and depend on the forest for survival.

A report this week from Reuters news agency found the environment ministry doesn’t have enough funding to adequately patrol the forest after a 30 percent budget cut. The group in charge of that effort, IBAMA, can’t even afford fuel for vehicles and helicopters. “We haven’t even had enough money to pay for [$60] aptitude tests to allow our agents to carry guns,” Uiratan Barrossa, the head of law enforcement for IBAMA, told Reuters. “The loggers are better equipped than we are. Until we have the money to rent unmarked cars and buy proper radios we won’t be able to work.”

Greg Clark - How cities took over the world: a history of globalisation spanning 4,000 years

History shows that cities have tended to embrace international opportunities in waves and cycles. They rarely break out into global activity by themselves. Cities participate in collective movements or networks to take advantage of new conditions, and often their demise or withdrawal from a global orientation is also experienced jointly with other cities as circumstances change, affecting many at once.

The world’s first great market-driven cities were established more than 4,000 years ago in the early bronze age, and their rich history is only now beginning to be understood. An urban revolution was taking place, with most residents of what is today southern Iraq living in cities, and this process of urbanisation was accompanied by trade on a new scale.

Farther east, the cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, in modern-day Pakistan along the Indus River valley, were among the first cities with diversified economies and societies. They were located on trade routes that specialised in gemstones and spanned the whole of central Asia. These cities formed the epicentre of a vast trade network based on a common cultural and linguistic community, and built infrastructure to provide good standards of living for residents. With their deep-rooted cultures and external orientation, they exhibited many of the hallmarks of what are now considered to be global cities.

One important lesson to be drawn from the early waves of urbanisation and the long distance activities of cities is that prized assets and luxury possessions have often been drivers of interconnection and collaboration. As China began to expand its horizons, the trade in horses, silk, bamboo, rice and wine was vigorous and often used in diplomacy to guarantee peace between empires and cities. Silk even became an international currency.

Within a few hundred years, the world had been effectively shrunk by the growing sophistication of the trade network. As historian Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, notes: “We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon, yet 2,000 years ago it was a fact of life – one that presented opportunities, created problems, and prompted technological advance.”

The first European city to develop networks akin to those of a modern global city was Rome. Its empire came to consist of a federation of cities – stretching from Spain and Scotland in the west, to the Euphrates river in the east – each of which had a territory attached. Rome provided the administration, the stability, the monetary regime, and the tax structure for cities to thrive amid a huge spike in population mobility and mercantile activity... read more:

Simon Jenkins - Blame the identity apostles – they led us down this path to populism // Insurgent Notes: We’re Tempted to Say We Told You So, But We Won’t

I have no tribe. I have no comfort blanket, no default button that enables me to join the prevailing hysteria and cry in unison, “Of course, it’s all the fault of X.” Meanwhile we everywhere see the familiar landscape clouding over. There are new partings of the ways, disoriented soldiers wandering the battlefield, licking wounds. The liberal centre cannot hold. It cries with Yeats, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

I confess I find all this somehow exhilarating. Cliches of left and right have lost all meaning, and institutions their certainty. Even in France and Italy, European union is falling from grace. A rightwing US president wins an election by appealing to the left. In Britain, Ukip can plausibly claim to be supplanting Labour. A Tory prime minister attacks capitalism, while Labour supports Trident. Small wonder Castro gave up and died. Conventional wisdom holds that it is the “centre left” that has lost the plot. The howls that greeted Brexit, Donald Trump and Europe’s new right are those of liberals tossed from the moral high ground they thought they owned. Worse, their evictors were not the familiar bogeys of wealth and privilege, but an oppressed underclass that had the effrontery to refer to a “liberal establishment elite”.

Paul Krugman, field-marshal of an American left, stood last week on his battered tank, the New York Times, and wailed of Trump’s voters: “I don’t fully understand this resentment.” Why don’t the poor blame the conservatives? He had to assume the answer lay in the new Great Explanation, the politics of “identity liberalism”. He is right. It is 20 years since the philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that a Trump-like “strong man” would emerge to express how “badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates”.

This prediction has now gone viral. Likewise, the historian Arthur Schlesinger warned that a rising campus intolerance, of “offence crimes” and “political correctness”, would endanger America’s national glue, its collective liberal consciousness. The latest guru on the “what Trump means” circuit is the US political psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Conversing with Nick Clegg at an Intelligence Squared event in London last week, he was asked over and again the Krugman question: “Why did poor people vote rightwing?” The answer was simple. There is no longer a “right wing”, or a left. There are nations and there are tribes within nations, both growing ever more assertive… read more:

One of the comments to the above:
Simon, you’re a curious, questing commentator, willing to inhabit unfamiliar arguments and casts of mind. It keeps your writing fresh. However, with this piece I believe you have fallen under the spell of those who have learned something from groups who have actually been oppressed, and are playing the victim, saying “us poor white folks, who previously ruled the roost, are now unfairly attacked and demonised by those nasty educated liberals”.  When two women every week are killed by their men, women are still the real oppressed group.  When unarmed black men are gunned down habitually by police, it is the black men, not the white cops who are oppressed.  When people elevate “political correctness” as Public Enemy Number One, for no other reason than that it cramps their racist, bigoted style, we should have no sympathy.

Insurgent Notes: We’re Tempted to Say We Told You So, But We Won’t
Donald Trump will be the next president. What was unthinkable has become all too real. We anticipated as much in the editorial in our last issue, which we encourage people to read still.
Hillary Clinton could win the popular vote by more than 2 million, once all the votes have come in. As we write this, the margin is just over 1 million. Thus, this was not exactly a mandate for Trump. The country is no more or less divided than it was before Election Day. Trump starts out by being viewed as illegitimate by a large mass of people, evidenced by the protests that have occurred across the country and the proliferation of plans for various kinds of popular defense of individuals who may become most vulnerable if some of his schemes are hatched.

Trump’s promises to the workers who voted for him will not materialize to any important extent; in our view, that’s where a real opening might occur. Seventeen percent of the people voting for Trump had supported Sanders before. One hundred million did not vote—the majority party of nonvoters. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about why they don’t show up. It’s our best guess that they are simply too busy dealing with the realities of everyday life—working too long, taking care of kids before and after work, falling in and out of love, going in and out of jail, taking care of sick and elderly family members and relatives, dealing with hard episodes of dependence on drugs of various kinds, combatting the demons that lead all too many to suicide. It’s hard to imagine that too many of them didn’t vote because they thought that things were just fine the way they were. In all likelihood, they almost certainly thought that the outcome of the election wouldn’t matter all that much.

We have heard from a friend who has followed the hard right for years that many people attracted to it could, alternatively, be attracted to a consistent vision of an alternative to capitalist society, which up till now has not existed. They will not, however, be attracted to a defense of the existing state of affairs—no matter how dressed up in liberal notions of understanding, tolerance and opportunity. As a West Virginia friend wrote: “Racism was the icing on the ‘fuck you’ cake.” We think that’s right, and a reason not to despair too much. It will be necessary to defend all those who are attacked... 

One of the comments to the above:
Insurgent Notes writes:  “There are people in the Hillary camp who are our enemies, and there are people in the Trump camp who are our potential allies, if a proper strategic (?)outreach is developed. From the beginning we must reject the phony “left-right” spectrum defined by mainstream politics, the media, etc., and orient to “recombining” the forces across the spectrum against our enemies in both camps.” When, pray tell, does this process commence, and where and how does it commence?

I’ve only been reading your online publication for a short while, and while I haven’t read each and every doc here I keep bumping up against the same thing I always see with ultra-leftists and/or fringe leftists in the United States — (in other parts of the world it is sometimes different) — lots of grand pontificating about the Big Issues– some of it, like the title of this piece, surprisingly smug — and no evidence of some kind of real world attempts to apply these perspectives in a manner of direct relevance and transparent clarity among mainstream working class and poor people.

Can you point to some immediate suggestions or examples of where your current, or people on some similar wave length, are acting on these perspectives? In the here and now? If you don’t think this is happening, can you suggest when it will start — and who is going to start it? Best of luck.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Supreme Court order on national anthem uses patriotism to undermine individual rights // Has the deification of the nation become the nationalisation of God?

"The disinterestedly wise ought to desire the holding together of all being" (Bhagwadgita, III 25)

"...When the national anthem is played it is imperative for everyone to show honour and respect. It would instil a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism…Time has come for people to realise that the national anthem is a symbol of constitutional patriotism… people must feel they live in a nation and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go…people must feel this is my country, my motherland. [emphasis added] ...

"From the aforesaid, it is clear as crystal that it is the sacred obligation of every citizen to abide by the ideals engrafted in the Constitution. And one such ideal is to show respect for the National Anthem and the National Flag. Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible" - From the SC order on the national anthem dated Nov 30, 2016

NB: We Indian citizens are hereby informed that notions of 'individually perceived' rights of the individual have no space and the very idea is tantamount to 'wallowing', and is 'impermissible'. (How else can the rights of an individual be perceived otherwise than by an individual?). Moreover we are told what we must feel; that our obligation to abide by constitutional ideals is 'sacred'. Whatever the expectations the learned Judge who passed this order holds of us, there are also expectations that we citizens hold of our judges. Primary amongst these is that they remain restrained in their speech; and are seen to be aware of the philosophical ramifications of judicial utterances. Many citizens including the highest political leaders may not be so aware and often speak in haste. But when it comes to judges, we expect that they will be cautious and restrained: the exercise of wisdom is the fundamental requirement of judges, even though this is a quality that may only be perceived, not measured. 

'Sacred' is a word that adheres to religion. Are we required by law to a) be religious, and b) shift allegiance from Almighty God to the Nation? Should not the wise amongst us educate citizens as to the complex and indefinable aspect of nationalism, which seems to have emerged as the modern form of prayer? Would the learned judge deem Rabindranath Tagore, the very man who composed the national anthem, to be a nationalist? Here's what Tagore said of nationalism: With the growth of nationalism, man has become the greatest menace to man. Therefore the continual presence of panic goads that very nationalism into ever-increasing menace. Here is Tagore's 4-part essay on Nationalism (1917). Among the many scholarly debates about nationalism, aside from the aforesaid remarks by Tagore, is the one initiated by B R Ambedkar in his Thoughts on Pakistan (1940, 1945. See in particular, Chapter 2). 

Be that as it may, there are some who hold (and I am among them) that the nation-state has become a god-substitute for a godless age. Insofar as the Eternal Creator could scarcely be imagined to seek a dwelling place in a sliver of ground on an insignificant planet, nationalism is a dishonest form of atheism. Religious persons worship God, not nations. The deification of the Nation has turned into the nationalisation of God, and we cannot be forced into a blind acceptance of this substitution. This is not about affinity - love for one's culture or home is natural (although not inevitable). Love for the nation, howsoever defined, ought not to be, and cannot be transformed by diktat into enforced affinity. You cannot dictate my feelings, for the simple reason that love and friendship must be spontaneous to be real. If you order me to feel some emotion under pain of punishment, how can you be sure that my expressions are genuine? As Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj (p 60), 'what is granted under fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts'

Constitutional patriotism requires the citizen to be law-abiding and faithful to the norms of the constitution. It does not oblige us to accept unjust laws - were this the case, there would have been no national movement in India. The constitution protects religious freedom, but it does not require us to be religious in any way - I am free to be an atheist or agnostic. Nor can it be reduced to such shallow forms of adherence as standing to attention. Sometimes it is not the criticism of specific judgements but the speech of the Bench that undermines the status of the Court. I am sorry to say this judgement is evocative not of wisdom but thoughtlessness. So help me God. DS

The Supreme Court on Wednesday decided to give India a lesson in how exactly it should respect the national anthem. In an order that many experts have deemed a massive gesture of judicial overreach, the court yet again ventured into lawmaking by asking cinema halls to play the national anthem before start of each show along with displaying the national flag on the screen.

This decree to cinema halls was accompanied by other sweeping comments that limit freedom of expression by placing the anthem even beyond artistic interpretation. The Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the ultimate guardian of the fundamental rights of citizens, devalued the notion of individual rights by claiming that it had no place in the context of respecting national symbols.
“Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality,” the bench said. “It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible.”

By laying the rules on how to respect the national symbols, the court has put in place a law that was not envisaged by Parliament. The order has also reversed the cautious, liberal view the Supreme Court has taken in the past when dealing with cases under the Prevention of Insults to the National Honour Act. In 1986, the court took the side of three school children from Kerala who had refused to sing the national anthem during the school assembly every morning. Unlike the current interim order that placed collective responsibility over individual rights, the court decided in 1986 that forcing the children, who were faithful Jehovah’s witnesses, to sing the anthem was an infringement into their freedom of religion.

In developed western democracies, reverence to national symbols is not imposed at the cost of dissent. In 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States went to the extent of allowing the desecration of the national flag, arguing that such an act was very much part of freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution. There are also logistical problems that crop up with the order. How will the state implement it? Will policemen stand guard inside cinema halls and book those who do not show respect to the anthem in the manner decreed by the court? In October, the nation witnessed in disgust the assault on a differently-abled man in Goa who was physically incapable of standing up for the anthem. With this order, the Supreme Court may have inadvertently emboldened elements prone to taking the law into their own hands in the name of patriotism.

Suhas Palshikar: Citizens into subjects
SC’s mandating of nationalism and patriotism threatens to turn the wheel of constitutional history backwards. The enterprise of teaching and instilling patriotism is fast picking up. India has fought wars before and both during those wars and in peace time, the citizens of this country have never shown any trace of disloyalty or disaffection toward this country. But suddenly, we seem to be collectively succumbing to this phobia about a shortage of nationalism and patriotism among the public. And so, pills and injections containing vitamins N and P are being forced on to the unsuspecting citizenry...

At first glance, Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling making it mandatory for cinema halls across the country to play the national anthem before screening movies, and requiring cinema-goers to stand up while it is being played, can be seen as yet another decision that appears more whimsical than grounded in Constitutional principle. Instead of refusing to waste its precious time hearing unimportant petitions from self-righteous busybodies who seek to impose their norms on the whole country, the Supreme Court has entertained many such, and created incentives for people to waste the court’s time and the citizens’ peace. But a comment made by the bench – perhaps revealing the rationale for the decision – should make us sit up and take notice:

When the national anthem is played it is imperative for everyone to show honour and respect. It would instill a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism…Time has come for people to realise that the national anthem is a symbol of constitutional patriotism…people must feel they live in a nation and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go…people must feel this is my country, my motherland. [emphasis added]  

The Supreme Court just dissed individual liberty.

The bench sneered at one of the pillars of the Indian Constitution. Troubling as it is, more than the ruling itself we should be concerned that India’s highest judges think this way, and think nothing of expressing it this way. The Supreme Court is, after all, the ultimate guardian of individual liberty. It gets this responsibility from no less an authority than the Constitution of India. Citizens will be justified in wondering if the Supreme Court can discharge this assigned responsibility if it harbours such cynicism or disdain for individual liberty.

Legal scholars will no doubt cite scores of High Court and Supreme Court judgements that are unambiguous on the matter. Except when “individual liberty comes into conflict with an interest of the security of the State or public order”, individual liberty is supreme. It would be stretch to argue that people not standing up for the national anthem presents a scintilla of risk to the national interest. Indeed, India’s security or social order has suffered little damage from people not standing up for the national anthem in cinemas from January 26, 1950, till date. The judge’s words do not have a force of law, but to the extent they reveal thought processes, we have to worry. It is bad enough for the Supreme Court to scorn individual freedom. To do so on an issue as unserious and arbitrary as what should be done at cinema halls is terrible.

Tailpiece: Our emergency at the moment has perhaps led us to forget that if we do not give that scope to individual liberty, and give it the protection of the courts, we will create a tradition which will ultimately destroy even whatever little of personal liberty which exists in this country. 
[K M Munshi, Constituent Assembly, December 6, 1948]  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Harish Khare - The Cult of the Leader: Demonetisation and Modi Worship // Sarita Rani - Deaf PM, Hapless Parliamentarians Need a Dose of Nation-Wide Protests

Are we heading towards an authoritarian regime that curbs our freedom to spend our own money?
“We do not want another ‘god’ as the political leader of our country… We must not only not have any more gods…we must also ‘devalue’ the exaggerated importance that we have given to the office of Prime Minister.”

The author of this wisdom lies gravely unwell in a nursing home in New Delhi. Much before old age and its attendant infirmities took their toll, this man used to articulate - on behalf of the BJP - wise propositions of good governance and democratic accountability. His name is Jaswant Singh, the most suave, educated and responsible minister from the Vajpayee era. Singh had made this formulation in 1987. That was the age when the prime minister had more than 400 seats in the Lok Sabha; he also had a majority in the Rajya Sabha. He had a shouting brigade who would keep the presiding officers in check; he had an officer in the PMO who would publicly deride opposition leaders as “cretins”. That was the age of prime ministerial supremacy and it produced many unmitigated national disasters.

Let us dig a little deeper in history. The year is 1971. Legend has it that the legendary soldier, Sam Manekshaw, told off an impatient prime minister, Indira Gandhi, that he would not  be prepared for “action” in  East Pakistan till he was satisfied that adequate preparations had been made and logistical wrinkles sorted out. The prime minister had the good sense to heed the sound advice of a sound officer and lived thereafter to see the Indian armed forces settle Pakistan’s hash.

These glimpses from the past are being recalled to reiterate the lessons that recent history has taught us. And, the unambiguous lesson from 1975-77 onward, has been a cultivated distrust in the idea of an omnipotent prime minister and his overweening ambition. Beware of a prime minister too powerful. India is too vast a country to be at the mercy of a prime minister and his wisdom.

The demonetisation mess painfully brings home the correctness of Singh’s caution against elevating a leader as god who must be given unambiguous obedience and obeisance. The utter incompetence in implementing the demonetisation drive merely underlines the Reserve Bank of India’s total abdication of its institutional autonomy and voice. The RBI governor was duty-bound to tell the prime minister to slow down, just as General Sam Manekshaw once told another prime minister. 

The country witnesses everyday how the finance ministry officials are encroaching upon the RBI’s institutional space and making a mess of it. This is incongruent. Here is a regime - whose senior-most impresarios take considerable pride in micro-management and have built up a formidable reputation in Gujarat as control freaks - but they were also callously inattentive to the post-demonetisation dislocations. The very arbitrariness and the resulting chaos are being sought to be palmed off as “worth the pain” because prime minister Modi “means well”.

No one is sure of the extent to which the finance minister – let alone the rest of the cabinet members – was privy to this so-called ‘surgical strike’ on black money. The country remains in the dark about whose counsel the prime minister sought while firmaning this most drastic and draconian change in currency notes. Not since Morarji Desai’s gold control (in the wake of the Chinese aggression ) order, has any other single governmental initiative touched the lives of so many Indians. Collective thinking and collective decision-making appear to have been done away with. This unhealthy concentration of power and authority in one man can only be a recipe for unhappy consequences. Already the blue-book of the personality cult is operational. Ideological, political and moral approval is sought for the prime minister and his “bold” move. Anyone disagreeing with the ‘Leader’ is being called a habitual dissenter, a fake secularist, and a potential “deshdrohi”. Anyone dissenting is dismissed and ridiculed as an accomplice of the corrupt and the terrorist.

The officials down the line have interpreted this kingly intolerance as a simple license to shut people up. For example, in Indore, the local officials have outlawed any criticism on the social media of the demonetisation decision because they think “internet social media wars” could disrupt social peace. The ‘Leader’ can disrupt the daily lives of the millions and millions of citizens but no citizen can have a right to share his/her plight, or vent anger about being denied one’s own money. On the other hand, the PMO uses that very social media to conduct an opinion poll of its own and claims wide public approval for the demonetisation move.

Why was one individual – howsoever popular, wise and honest – allowed to undertake this experiment in monetary Stalinism? Collectivist impulses of the state have been let loose. Millions and millions of households have been forced to surrender their meagre savings to the banks. The mopped-up savings will now be available to the omnipotent sarkar, to be dispersed as per the preference of the ruling clique.

If Stalin could force the Soviet citizens to donate their labour for industrialisation and for the glory of “motherland,” we can also force our people to cough up their hard-earned savings to fight off the evil Pakistan. The minatory penetration of a Leviathan state is complete and total even in the remotest part of the land; each day the state issues firmans on how much and how a citizen can use his own money. All because the ‘Leader’ wanted to be “bold” and to “transform” India, like no other Indian leader had done these last 70 years.

In the best of the Stalinist traditions the (virtual) mobs are being encouraged to denounce anyone who dare question the ruling regime’s preferences and priorities. We are manufacturing new orthodoxies: any governmental initiative – good, bad or malevolent – will not be questioned if it is declared to be in aid of fighting “corruption, black money, terrorism and counterfeiting of currency.” It is demanded of the citizens that they put up with the “inconvenience” in “our fight” against these presumed objectives. 

As in Comrade Stalin’s days, endorsements for the regime are expected. Expectedly, the venerable Ratan Tata has led the chorus of approval. Just stand up and applaud. A wise king was always advised to leave his subject unmolested of his two possessions – jameen (land) and jorru (womenfolk).  Rulers, democratic or authoritarian, have faced the most primeval resistance whenever they have sought to take liberties with their citizens’ land or women. Now, we have witnessed a new experiment with a democratically elected king putting his hand in the subject’s jeb (pocket). Consequences will be there. This article was originally published in the Tribune.

Sarita Rani: Deaf PM, Hapless Parliamentarians Need a Dose of Nation-Wide Protests
Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced parliament on Thursday. It’s not so much that he faced it, as he graced it. Like kings and monarchs do. He came, he sat. He listened for exactly an hour and left. He had promised to stay for all the 24 parliamentarians speeches and to respond to their questions. He didn’t. Modi is in the habit of breaking promises. He disdains questions. In fact, he detests people who ask questions. After all, we all saw him walk out of an interview on prime time, live, national television in 2012. 

Aware of Modi’s dislike for interaction with peers of any kind, Indian parliamentarians tried to efface themselves as best they could, while still managing to stand and speak. Former finance minister and prime minister Manmohan Singh called demonetisation: “organised loot and legalised plunder.” Singh is a scholar and a technocrat. He spoke harsh words softly. That’s his style. A style Modi is not bred to recognise.

The Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’Brien brought facts and figures to the table.
  • 1 out of 5000 people has a credit card
  • 5 out of a 1000 people have debit cards
  • 90% of them use it only to withdraw money
  • 4 out of 5 villages don’t have a bank
  • We have a GDP of Rs 45,000 crore a day
  • 59%  of it is (Rs 27,000 crore) is household financial expenditure
  • 87% of that (Rs 24,000 crore) is cash
“So my question is if it’s 24,000 crore cash and it’s been 15 days … we’ve lost Rs 3,75,000 crore – and challenge my figure – of GDP in the last 15 days.” Derek O’Brien said. “This is not about an ATM inconvenience.” Modi was unmoved. Modi is often unmoved when not thinking of himself.
O’Brien offered a specific solution. “Why don’t we allow old and new 500 notes to work in parallel for the time being?” he asked. He pleaded for a solution. Any solution. 

Modi chose not to return to parliament at all, after lunch. 21 parliamentarians left to speak on that day, were left unheard. They represent the people of India. At the very least, they represent Indian voters. They were elected to parliament so their voices could be heard, asserted with pride, not humility. They were meant to make every vote count. Yesterday, 16 united opposition parties were left unheard. At least 70% of Indian voters who did not vote for Modi, were left unheard.

Through the looking glass: Instead, not long after parliament was adjourned abruptly, we heard a series of contrary and conflicting bits of newer measures. On November 9, a cabinet minister had said of the cash crunch, in the style of Marie Antoinette : “Let them use cards.” On November 24: hearing of long queues at banks and people dying of stress, Modi seems to have decided in the style of the Red Queen : “Off with the queues.” This despite promising on November 8 that old currency could be swapped at banks till the end of November.

A couple of hours later, came a minor reprieve. Perhaps a minister begged. Slipped in an order to sign. We will never know. All of these measures end on December 24. None of these neat steps, however, address the simple fact that replacement currency is simply not in place. Simple mathematics and logic, it seems, are of no account here. Both reason and empathy, are officially dead in official India.

And then this morning came yet another announcement. Currency exchanges will happen, but only at (far fewer) RBI counters. If this were merely a farce, one would poke fun at it. But this is fantasy. This is so far down cloud-cuckoo land that it is difficult to describe. To any sane mind, Modi has gone too far down this path himself. And he’s inviting us to follow. In Derek O’Brien’s words, this is “Lulu land.”

Law may be blind, justice is not: To stay on this side of the mirror, one must respond to such a notification. And the simple truth is that there are so few RBI counters that this announcement means less than nothing. Everyone knows it. Modi has to know everyone knows it. Even his supporters by now know everyone knows it. And yet, this is how the world works, when a lawyer handles finance, instead of an economist. Much has been written on the possible illegality of this kind of demonetisation.

It was to get tested today in the Supreme Court, which chose to postpone the hearing till next Friday, December 2. That would be six days after the nation-wide all-opposition call for protest on November 28. Modi could have used the opposition in parliament to extend the date of exchange. Perhaps by a month, or even by two. It would not have solved the problem, but it would have certainly eased things a little. That would have been a face-saving measure. Even a grand gesture in a country that adores grand gestures. His followers would have loved that about him. But he chose not to. Perhaps needed  not to. Instead, he cracked the whip. From the November 8 declaration of allowing the exchange of notes till December 30, he cut it off at midnight.

The authoritarianism of this government is now beyond doubt.

Whatever conflicting ideas of India we may have, we like to believe India is an independent nation. That means we are a free and working democracy. A limping and flawed democracy, yes. But a democracy nevertheless. That means that however flawed our representatives may be, from whichever side of the spectrum they come from, when they stand up in parliament for our sake, they deserve to be heard. They deserve to be listened to. Because Indian voters deserve to be heard.

But when 552 members of parliament cannot get themselves to agree decently, on behalf of 1.25 billion Indians, it is perhaps time to let them go. These 552 parliamentarians may survive on government-given plastic cards. Most Indians can’t. Not now. Perhaps not ever. This Monday the opposition has called for a protest. As a first step, all Indian citizens should join in. Participatory democracy does not end by voting once in five years. Sometimes it needs more. We should join not because we belong to one party or another. But because we belong to a parliamentary democracy. We should give parliamentarians a chance to show that they are capable of working as a worthy opposition.

It is not enough that we share, argue, debate and pass snarky comments on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. It’s great. But not enough. Because the thing is, if we can afford to be on social media – chances are we will survive the next year. What we may not truly survive, is the part we did or did not play at this time. Ultimately, democracy is about standing up to be counted. Not sitting down to be liked.

see also
Harish Damodaran - In fact: When the money stops

Cubans pay last respects to Castro

Elderly revolutionaries joined young doctors, famous musicians, government workers and former guerrilla fighters in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución as thousands lined up to pay their last respects to Fidel Castro. Some carried flags. A few had flowers. All came with memories of the guerrilla leader who overthrew a dictatorship, resisted a US-led invasion, faced down a nuclear superpower and dominated the island’s political life for half a century.
Image may contain: 1 person
Cartoon for @chronicleherald for Monday

At the start of the official commemorations, Orlando Gómez had come with his wife to bid farewell to his old comrade in arms. Waiting in the hot sun to sign the condolence book, he recalled the first time he had gone into combat with Castro in March 1958. A few weeks earlier, Gómez – then an idealistic 18-year-old – had left his home in Havana to join the small rebel army in the Sierra Maestra mountains. He had been put in charge of a mortar unit for the attack on an army garrison at the San Ramón sugar mill. The battle lasted from midnight to 4am. Four guerrillas were killed, but they destroyed the mill and the barracks before returning to their base in the mountains.

“Fidel led by example. He was always in the frontline. He walked faster than everyone. He never stopped moving, but he was very approachable. You could always talk to him,” he recalled. “I want to say goodbye to this extraordinary man. He was a great guerrilla leader and tactician.” Others remember Castro as a leader who stood firm during the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis, when the world was taken to the brink of nuclear war over the Soviet Union’s efforts to build a missile base on the island.

“He was very open with the people about the threat we faced and how we must pull together to protect our liberty,” said Jorge Jorge, a university teacher who had arrived two hours earlier with a group of friends. “We have come here to share our grief and to show our determination to hold on to Fidel’s ideals. He taught us how to share.”

Like many in the crowd, he had often come to the square to hear Castro deliver his marathon orations, some of which lasted more than six hours. They were often at times of hardship – of which there were many: the death of Che Guevara, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the exodus of migrants escaping economic crisis or political crackdowns.

There is widespread recognition of Castro’s failures, and many – particularly among the young – balk at his dictatorial rule. But this was not the time or the place or the crowd to dwell on the negatives.
“I was born in a poor black family. Thanks to the revolution, I had opportunities that did not exist before,” said Tony Ávila, one of the island’s most famous musicians, who said he had been called up the previous night by the culture ministry and told to attend. He appeared more than happy to do so. “I’m here because of Fidel. He was everything to me.”

It was not just Cubans paying homage. Many foreigners were present – out of curiosity or shared political beliefs. Chilean Alberto Reyes arrived with a handmade flag and a photograph of the dead revolutionary who had inspired him as a youth to join the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front – one of several dozen groups across Latin America that were committed to armed struggle against the rightwing dictatorships that held power across most of the region in the 1970s and 1980s. “He was the light in the lighthouse. More than any other leader, he unified Latin America,” said Reyes, who has lived in Havana since the 1990s.

Many turned up in groups, bearing flags or wearing the uniforms of customs officers or doctors. “I’m here because he gave me the chance to enter medicine,” said Beatriz de la Cruz Quila, a 21-year-old medical student at the Institute of Gastrointestinal Medicine – one of several dozen institutions created after Castro took power in 1959.  The commemoration will continue in Havana until a ceremony on Tuesday night. Then on Wednesday, Castro’s ashes will begin a three-day procession east across the island, going back along the route the victorious rebel army took from the Sierra Maestra to the capital to topple Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Castro’s remains will be interred on Sunday morning in Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago, which is also the resting place of José Martí, the hero of the 19th-century war of independence against Spain.
That will mark the end of nine days of mourning. Since Fidel’s death on Friday night, the media have run blanket coverage of tributes, interviews, historical documentaries and footage of diplomatic trips and speeches by Castro. Musical performances have been cancelled and bars have been prohibited from selling alcohol.

“There’s a genuine feeling of mourning, that’s not a formality, that’s not showy, that’s not outward-focused, but rather completely intimate,” the former national assembly president Ricardo Alarcón said on state television on Sunday. Not everyone is grief-stricken. Democracy activists have cheered the demise of a leader who repressed political opponents, denied freedom of speech and restricted travel and religious worship. One woman at the Plaza de la Revolución, who only gave her first name Milena, said she was sad but determined to take something positive from the moment. “He should be remembered as a revolutionary who believed in social justice and fought for free public health and education. We need to maintain this. His ideas should live forever”

'Park benches are empty, coffee mugs, morose': Ravish Kumar on 'Love in the time of Notebandi'

Modi tu PM nahin Paytm hai !
Tere seene mein dil nahin, ATM hai !

(NB - these lines were composed by a friend who had better remain un-named - DS)

What happens to matters of the heart when you don't have any hard currency?' After taking on the Government for clamping down on freedom of expression, TV journalist Ravish Kumar chose a different medium for his observations on demonetisation. Namely, fiction. Featuring “Love in the time of Notebandi”. “Park benches are empty, coffee mugs, morose, and I cannot see any more tears in the eyes of teddy bears. Lovers are not emanating the smell of perfume but the stink of old notes.”

This was how Kumar began at the Times Lit Fest in New Delhi, where he was talking about his latest book, Laprek: Laghu Prem Katha, a compilation of short love stories that he first wrote as Facebook posts. “I promise to tell the shrota a love story for the next one hour.” That is the lover’s version of prominently displayed message from the Reserve Bank of India on every currency note.

In the new cash-less future, lovers will not promise each others the moon and stars in the sky. Instead, saving a space in the ATM queue might be proof enough. “So what if the Rs 500 note is of no use? Use notes of Rs 5, Rs 10 and Rs 50 for your affairs, if not coffee then you can at least enjoy a cup of tea, if not a Bloody Mary, then some coconut water, and if not a pastry, then some golgappe.”

Here’s the full talk:

see also
Harish Damodaran - In fact: When the money stops
Alexandre Koyré The Political Function of the Modern Lie
Marx's economic categories

Andrew Pulver - Russian war film set to open amid controversy over accuracy of events

Every Soviet schoolchild was taught about the heroic feats of the last 28 members of Ivan Panfilov’s division, which in late 1941 fought to the death to stop a Nazi tank assault on Moscow in one of the best known episodes of the Soviet war effort. “Russia is vast, but there is nowhere to retreat – Moscow is behind us,” one of the Red Army soldiers, armed at the end with just Molotov cocktails and grenades, said as the attack was halted.

But as a film about the events, Panfilov’s 28, opens in Russia this week, controversy rumbles on over the fact that many of the details of that last stand – both in the film and versions pre-dating it – appear to have been invented. Arguments over the upcoming film and the mythology around the episode in general began last spring, when Sergei Mironenko, the director of Russia’s state archive, gave an interview stating that while there had indeed been a bloody battle outside Moscow, it was not as many had understood it.

His words provoked such outrage that over the summer the archive posted online a 1948 internal Soviet military report into the events, which came to the conclusion that a journalist from the Red Army’s newspaper had made up the particulars of the story, inventing quotes and ignoring the fact that some of the soldiers had survived and one was believed to have surrendered to the Germans.

The legend was cooked up to fit in with the Soviet demand that soldiers should fight to the death rather than surrender. Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, reacted furiously to the intervention, saying it was not the job of archivists to make historical evaluations, and if Mironenko wanted to change professions, he should do so. Shortly after, Mironenko was fired.

The nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said in recent weeks that he had called at a government meeting for Mironenko to be fired. He claimed his uncle had fought in Panfilov’s division and said those griping about the exact numbers were missing the point. “It’s unacceptable for someone from the archives to start telling the whole country that there were no Panfilov heroes,” he said. Medinsky later went further in his defence of the film and his disgust for those who questioned the story.

“It’s my deep conviction that even if this story was invented from the start to the finish, even if Panfilov never existed, even if there was nothing at all, it’s a sacred legend which it’s simply impossible to besmirch. And people who try to do that are total scumbags.” Medinsky said he would like to send such people, who “poked their dirty, greasy fingers into the history of 1941” back to the war period in a time machine and leave them in a trench to face Nazi tanks armed with just a hand grenade.

Panfilov’s division included many central Asians, and last month Putin and Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev watched the film together. Under Putin, victory in the second world war has become the main building block of modern Russian identity, and criticism of the Red Army or mentions of the darker sides of the war effort are unwelcome.

The war’s huge place in the national psyche is understandable, given the Soviet Union lost more than 20 million citizens during the war years. But some are uncomfortable that the mythology has overtaken the facts. Alexander Morozov, a history teacher and the chair of the editorial board of a magazine on the teaching of history in schools, called the film a “big mistake”, and said mythologising the war would only confuse children.

He told Ekho Moskvy radio: “We should try to tell the truth, of course. Yes, there was a battle, yes there was heroism. This is what they should have made a film about... But as it is, they’ll watch this film, go online and find a whole load of different information about this battle, and it will undermine their trust in these kind of things.”

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

3,800-Year-Old Ancient ‘Thinking Person’ Statuette Unearthed

JERUSALEM, Nov 23 (Reuters) - A team of Israeli archaeologists and high school students have unearthed a 3,800-year-old pottery jug bearing a statuette of a person who appears deep in thought, sitting with knees bent and head rested on hand.
The 3,800 year-old pottery jug with a rare statuette, discovered during 
excavation in central Israel, at the Israel Antiquities Authority offices.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said on Wednesday the jug, dating back to what archaeologists refer to as the Middle Bronze Age, had been found during an excavation in Yehud, a Tel Aviv suburb. “It seems that at first the jug, which is typical of the period, was prepared and afterwards the unique sculpture was added, the likes of which have never before been discovered in previous research,” said Gilad Itach, who directed the excavation, which included teenage diggers. The statuette is about 18 cm (7 inches) tall.

“One can see that the face of the figure seems to be resting on its hand as if in a state of reflection,” he said. Other vessels and metal items were found such as daggers, arrowheads, an axe head, sheep bones and what are believed to be the bones of a donkey. Itach said the collection seemed to be funeral offerings, likely of an important member of anancient community.

“To the best of my knowledge such a rich funerary assemblage that also includes such a unique pottery vessel has never before been discovered in the country,” he said. The statuette was the latest discovery by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is charged with carrying out excavations at all major building sites across the country to make sure no relics are destroyed. In recent months its teams have found treasures from gold coins to an ancient mosaic.

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