अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

December 1, 2011

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

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September 5, 2011

The Missing Clause

There is a legal agreement written in very legal language that I had to read today. It’s called Mutual Confidentiality Agreement and is required to be signed by two parties who plan to collaborate on some commercial product or service.

After having plodded through the legalese and having understood most of it (I have an advantage in this regard), I found that there was one clause that was glaringly missing from it.

The document lists all the conditions that apply when the Disclosing Party discloses something to the Recipient. It has a section euphemistically titled ‘Injunctive Relief’ that might send the shivers down the Recipient’s spine, depending on the power balance. It also lists all the exceptions under which these conditions may not apply. Such conditions include “court order” and “as required by law”.

What is missing is something that should be included in all such documents post-9/11, in all countries that went for the security Gold Rush, which practically means all countries, (almost) period.

That missing clause should go something like this:

An (unintended) disclosure by the Recipient to any number of third parties of any of the Disclosing Party’s Confidential Information will not be considered a breach of the agreement if it happens under any of the following conditions:

  1. As part of surveillance operations carried out by the State and any of its agencies, the institution in which the Recipient works or any part thereof, the Local Version of the Truman Show, the Connectivity Service Providers, the Private Security Companies, the Local Quasi-authorised Vigilante Organisations or any other such agencies added to the list till the eve of the day the breach is considered for scrutiny.
  2. [Talking of eve] As a result of eavesdropping by the agencies and organisations listed in 1.
  3. As a result of disclosure by the people involved in (a) surveillance and (b) eavesdropping by the agencies and organisations listed in 1 to any of their superiors, colleagues, sub-ordinates, business associates, friends, relatives, family members or strangers.

The clause sounds very reasonable in the post-9/11 world and makes perfect legal sense. After all, any disclosure made (unintentionally) under conditions listed in this clause would not be the fault of the Recipient and it would only be for The Good of The Country and The World and The Humanity (as everyone knows and agrees to).

I have one doubt, however. Won’t the addition of this clause almost nullify everything else in this agreement to mutual confidentiality?

But the clause is required. Isn’t it?

And what about that poor thing, The Market?

Is it already being forgotten in favour of other things?

February 13, 2011

The Moral Laws of Comedy and a Paradox

The Moral Laws of Comedy

According to Eklavya, the three moral laws of comedy can be stated as follows:

  1. The First Law: If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at others.
  2. The Second Law:If you can’t laugh at more powerful people, then you have no right to laugh at less powerful people, irrespective of where you are on the power spectrum.
  3. The Third Law:If you can’t laugh at the society (or the institution or the group) you live in or belong to, then you have no right to laugh at the individuals in that society (or the institution or the group), including yourself.

An extension to the first law is:

If you can’t laugh at your own society (or institution or group), you have no right to laugh at other societies (or institutions or groups).

The revised (and recommended) statement of the same laws will have the word ‘can’t’ substituted by ‘don’t have the courage to’.

The zeroth moral law of comedy defines ‘laugh’ as a specific kind of laugh that is meant to be a negative comment or critical judgement, such as the laugh associated with ridicule, sarcasm etc. It also defines ‘comedy’ to include humour and satire.

A corollary of these laws is that if you violate any of these laws, then you are not creating comedy (or humour or satire). You are just being mean spirited, petty minded, spiteful, nasty, hateful, bitchy etc.

Simply put, you are being immoral.

A generalization of the laws can also be derived. Such a generalization would apply to criticism and punishment too. Thus, the Moral Laws of Criticism (Punishment) can be given as:

  1. The First Law: If you can’t criticize (punish) yourself, you have no right to criticize (punish) others.
  2. The Second Law:If you can’t criticize (punish) more powerful people, then you have no right to criticize (punish) less powerful people, irrespective of where you are on the power spectrum.
  3. The Third Law:If you can’t criticize (punish) the society (or the institution or the group) you live in or belong to, then you have no right to criticize (punish) the individuals in that society (or the institution or the group), including yourself.

Punishing the society needs some explanation. You can’t obviously punish the society in the way you can punish individuals. And one of the axioms of morality says that collective punishment is immoral, so punishing the society in the above sense can’t mean collective punishment (something whose innumerable manifestations we see in all ages and from all kinds of people, institutions, societies etc.). For the purpose of stating the above laws, punishment of society means changing it in some way. And only that way will be moral which changes it for the better. This sense of punishment, therefore, is nearer to treatment or curing in the medical sense.

The zeroth moral law of criticism (punishment) defines ‘criticism’ in a way that would include the ‘comedy’ mentioned above, thus the generalization.

That extension of the first law also applies here:

If you can’t criticize (punish) your own society, you have no right to criticize (punish) other societies.

The Sin-Song Paradox

Any application of the Moral Laws of Comedy (among other things) is associated with and complicated by a Paradox known as the Sin-Song Paradox.

This moral paradox can be stated (according to Eklavya) as follows:

In most societies, we are taught from our childhood (at least in schools, or perhaps only in schools) that we should hate the sin, not the sinner, i.e., it is wrong to hate the sinner (an individual) and right to hate the sin (an act). However, in practice, the norm in all societies is to hate the sinner, not necessarily the sin (if at all). That is why we have all the systems of punishment, whether legal or social or otherwise.

Similarly, we have another such inversion with regard to systems of belief. Ignoring the cases where a system of belief is respected only because of the power it wields (that being covered by a different moral paradox), we are supposed to (or we pretend to) respect those systems of belief which are shown (or proven) to be rationally and/or morally correct, but in practice, we respect those systems which are advocated by people who are, as individuals, rational and/or moral in their lives and their conduct. In other words, we are supposed to like a song because the song is good (musically and/or lyrically), but in fact we like that song (a system of belief) because the singer is good. The converse is also true.

Thus, in the first case, we focus on the individual, when we should, in fact, be focussing on the act. And in the second case, we focus again on the individual, when we should be focussing on what the individual is saying or advocating. This moral inversion is closely related to violation of the third moral law of comedy, which involves focusing on the individual, when we should actually be focussing on the society.

It is a paradox, and not simply a contradiction between theory and practice because the norm that is followed in practice is assumed to be a moral norm too.

In fact, the violation of the three laws as well the above paradox, all involve wrong focus on the individual, when the focus should be on something else.

From the moral view of the world, it can be derived from the above laws of comedy and the Sin-Song paradox that a lot of our (i.e., the world’s or the society’s) problems stem simply from this wrong focus on the individual.

January 12, 2011

Life without Corporate Media

Sometimes you have to give up things without which you think your life would be incomplete. That it will be hard to bear. How the hell are you going to manage without it?

This can happen with other things too, but it usually happens with things which have become so much a part of your routine that you can’t imagine life without them. You become, in a way, addicted to them. When you are somehow compelled to give them up, life seems hard. For a while, at least. After a while, or more than that, you might become used to living without them.

Having got out of the addiction, the feelings that you might have may differ. Sometimes you might still look forward to the day when you can have that thing back in your life. Sometimes you might adopt a sour grapes attitudes and just pretend that you don’t want it anyway. But there are times when you can say, with all truthfulness, “Good riddance!”.

That is how I feel towards Corporate Media now. I have been an addict, in some cases a hard core one, of all (or at least several) kinds of Corporate Media: of radio and T.V., but most of all of newspapers. Radio and T.V. were lost long (several years) ago and the loss was not so big. The hardest was newspaper. I was one of those people whose day is spoilt completely if they don’t get their newspapers, not just everyday, but with their morning tea. And who simply have to read almost all of that newspaper. Even if it is a pain for the eyes and the back and the neck.

Therefore, when I had to stop reading newspaper everyday (whatever may have been the reasons), and here I mean hard copy, not the online version, it really was a hardship for quite some time. It was as if a part of my life was taken away. Still, I continued reading it online, not exactly everyday, but quite regularly. Then, the frequency of reading it got reduced and gradually there came a point where I totally stopped reading newspapers.

This complete stoppage, though from the chronology it seems to be the sole result of not being able to read the newspaper in hard copy, was a conscious choice. Because, by that time, I had come out of the addiction and when I thought about it, I found, very much to my surprise, that I could heartily say, “Good riddance!”.

Note that I am talking about newspapers in general, but with the implied assumption that all of them were basically instances of Corporate Media, and am not talking about a specific newspaper. In fact, the last one, the one that I finally stopped reading was definitely better than most others and perhaps with the least Corporate characteristics. I might also add that I have been an addict of at least three major (Indian ‘National’) newspapers at different times during the last (more than) thirty years. And even in case of T.V. and radio and some other forms of media, I have the experience of regularly following many sources or outlets.

Of course, not reading any newspaper daily has its drawbacks. For example, these days sometimes I find out about some major event several days later. For a person like me (who is marginally involved in the dissident media), that can be problematic. Still, it is not exactly true that I don’t read any newspaper at all now. I do periodically check Google News and read some of the ‘stories’ linked there. But that is mostly in the sense of, “What are they up to now?”.

What I do read, and where I get information and even ‘news’ that matters, is the ‘dissident media’. And I find, with only a few reservations, that this (much) more than compensates for the loss of my daily newspaper, as far as being aware of what is happening in the world is concerned.

In spite of the many usages of the first person pronoun in the preceding paragraphs, I hope the reader will have already understood that it is not about me. Because this kind of thing, even for me, could not have happened independently of what is happening in the world today. For one thing, there was no online newspaper just 15 years ago (neither did I have access to the Internet). There was no online dissident media, no blogs, no subscription in emails etc. For another thing, Corporate Media was never so blatantly, shamelessly Corporate as it is now. And being that, what it produces now is such trash that, when your addiction is gone, you can only wonder why were you addicted to it in the first place?

But then there is another thing. Since I have been consuming the produce of various kinds of Corporate (as well State) Media for such a long time and in such quantities and with such critical concentration (bordering on obsession) that given an event, I can predict most of the things that a particular newspaper would say. I have learnt their mechanics. I can see through them. I can read the subtext. I could do that even when I was still addicted, but what I mean is that this understanding of their methods (and I don’t mean behind the scene goings on, but only the text-subtext-message itself) makes the loss only the loss of an addiction, which is not a bad thing.

There was a time when the media, in spite of being owned by corporations, had something real to offer. You could get some truth out if it. That is now history. Yes, in a crude sense you still can get some information, and if you know how to read the subtext and to guess the unwritten, you can still be in touch with the global and national goings on by following this same media, but only to a small degree. Earlier, blatant lies were a rarity in the prestigious sections of the media. They could be exposed, and when exposed, they could cause major scandals and embarrassment. That is not the case now. Blatant lies are now quite common even among the more responsible newspapers. Let alone the distortions, omissions, spins, deliberate distractions etc. And exposure doesn’t rattle them much. The skins have become much thicker.

So, whatever may be your ideology, if you want to get a good idea about what is going on in the world, your best bet now is the dissident media. Even blogs are better than the mainstream media, if you know how to pick the good ones.

I am not kidding. I am not exaggerating either.

How can that be? There must be a catch somewhere. The bloggers and the dissident media people simply don’t have the infrastructure to gather news from all parts of the world everyday. That can only be done by Corporate Media.

Yes, there is a catch. The thing is, the bloggers and the dissident media people can take all that they want from different sections of the Corporate Media, clear out the trash, put the non-trash things together, and produce something much better than what you get from the mainstream media. There is another catch. Due to the ideological differences and some other factors, one dissident media source alone may not be enough. You might have to more than one of them. You don’t have to do that all at the same time. You can rotate between these sources. Read one source one day and a different one the next day. On the Internet, it is not very difficult to do, provided you don’t become addicted to just one source.

There are problems with the dissident media, some of them the same as with Corporate Media, but they are much less. The major problem is that there is still (as far as I know) hardly any dissident media at levels smaller than at least the national level. For example, if I want to know about the local politics of a particular state in India, there is little of that to be found on the global dissident media sources. There may be some blogs, but they still don’t (at least in the Indian context) provide a real substitute. This is a problem if you want to give up following the Corporate Media altogether. But as long as it is there, there is no harm in using it for some purposes. In fact, one reason I occasionally still follow it is to get an insight into the workings of the minds behind the Corporate Media, from their own sponsored words. (By the way, in that sense, even the advertisements can be helpful). They can also help you in predicting what they are going (or planning) to do, regardless of the surface meanings of what they (and the media) are saying. Crudely put, the Denial Principle works here, i.e., Peace means War.

But we can look forward to the day when the dissident media will be able to collect all its news on its own, probably (and partly) through what is called ‘citizen journalism’, though I am aware of the difficulties.

Meanwhile, there is a life of awareness after Corporate Media. And I can say that it is better than what it was before, leaving aside, for a moment, the other aspects of life.

Not to mention the saving of paper and, therefore, the reduced need to cut trees.

Viva la Dissident Media! (Excuse my Spanish).

January 9, 2011

One Suggestion for the Possible

At the beginning of this new year of a new decade of a new century, once again there is a cry from parts of the progressive left that what we need is some suggestion of the possible, rather than the ‘religious’ prophetic cry of ‘woe’ from the margins. So here is my brief attempt at the same.

Every sensible person now knows that there are two worlds, one which has all the resources and the power, and another that has close to nothing. The citizens of this have-world are few in number as most of the humanity belongs to the have-not-world. Mountains of evidence is available in favour of this ‘theory’. All the documentation is there. All the empirical evidence is there. And logic does not contradict it either. So this is as much of an established fact as any fact can be.

And the distance between the two worlds is growing.

How is it then that the have-world is able to maintain its hold over the vastly larger have-not-world? All logic seems to contradict such a possibility, but it is there.

The answer, not very original, is that there is something wrong with the binary division of the world between the haves and the have-nots. We know that this division has always been there. It has only become sharper in recent times.

For maintaining their stronghold over the world, the haves have always been promoting some of the have-nots such that another world is created. This is the world of the have-somes. You could call it the Middle Class, but that should be done only for the purpose of convenience, not as a technical term as used conventionally. It consists of managers, professionals, scientists, experts, intellectuals, artists, small businessmen (or whatever remains of them), doctors, security officers, bureaucrats and so on.

This second world, the world of the have-somes, the Middle World, serves the purpose of a buffer zone between the Top World and Bottom World. It does so very much in the sense Empires or even Great Powers talk of buffer zones between themselves and their enemies. It not just protects the Top World from the discontent and possible rebellion of the Bottom World through the passive act of just being there. It also actively manages the Empire of the Three Worlds on behalf of the Top World, with little concern for the Bottom World. It administers this Empire, it provides the security infrastructure. It curbs the tendencies for insurrections. It also looks after the Moral Affairs, which are very important if it has to carry out its complete brief. It keeps the Hope alive among the citizens of the Bottom World. Hope that is based on thin air. If all this doesn’t work, it can, perhaps with a heavy heart – perhaps not – resort to brutal violence against those who have little protection except the elements (where still available) or pure chance. It can create mythologies of fear to justify that violence, regardless of the comparative amounts of violence by those in whose names the mythologies are created and its own violence.

Note that I am talking as if it is the Middle World’s violence, whereas the consensus seems to be that it is the Top World’s violence. The violence (in all its forms, not just of the blood and gore variety) is indeed carried out on behalf the Top World, but the one that actually carries it out is the Middle World. No doubts about it. Are there? Well, there is a little imprecision here. At the ground level, much of the violence is carried out by citizens of the Bottom World – against their own brothers (if we can still talk in terms of the brotherhood of men) and also against the ‘bad citizens’ of the Middle World who refuse to accept the role they are supposed to play.

But these citizens of the Bottom World, agents of the Middle World, acting ultimately on behalf on the Top World, are acting just as drones. As humanoid robots. That’s what they have been reduced to. Being that seems to them the only way to a decent life. Hopefully.

The first question, then, is this. Why do the citizens of the Middle World accept this degrading role for themselves? The second question is, how are they able to manipulate the Bottom World for the benefit of the Top World?

The answer, again not very original, is that in return they get comfortable lives (to varying degrees), they get security, they get relatively satisfying work to do. But above all, they always have the golden carrot ahead of them. The chance to leapfrog into the Top World, either temporarily or permanently. This last one is the clincher.

But the last one is a bit of a lie. It’s basically the lottery system that can work both ways – the Calcutta Derby way and the Shirley Jackson way. Even the first part should cause at least some resentment. It does. Except that it is kept within manageable limits.

So how does this management of the Middle World itself happen? It mainly happens through the mediation of what is called the Media. By which we can now only mean the Corporate Media. Well, there are other aspects, but this one seems to me to be of prime importance. And I am only going to talk about one suggestion of the possible.

The Corporate Media ensures that the Middle World functions properly. That is because it lives in the in-between-world, with one foot in the Top World and the other in the Middle World. It is the buffer between the Top World and Middle World. Using a heady mixture of technology, psychology, language and images, it controls the minds of the people of the Middle World and to some extent even of the Bottom World. Control where control matters for its purposes. Where it doesn’t, the minds can be allowed to be free, thus causing the illusion of being completely free.

Yes, the above picture is a bit simplified. But I use it to lead up to a suggestion for the possible. You can take it as the idealization step of the scientific method.

The suggestion of the possible is to work for dismantling this crucial link, clearing up this buffer zone between the Top World and Middle World.

Work to get rid of the Corporate Media.

It is not as difficult as it seems. At least it is not so now, with the technology that CAN allow people to join together in REAL solidarity, even if all kinds of barriers have been put by the loyal (you know to who) citizens of the Middle World.

If we can get rid of the Corporate Media or any of its avatar, possibly the Top World will have serious problems managing the Middle World. And possibly the Middle World will not be so inclined to manage the Bottom World for the Top World.

It may not happen.

But it is possible.

However, to be able to achieve this, we need to change our ways too. One of hallmarks of the left has been its divisiveness, which was hilariously portrayed by the Monty Pythons in the Life of Brian (and that is just one example).

We can disagree with each other. We can criticize each other, sometimes severely. We can even fight each other sometimes. But we should stop being enemies. That’s the bare minimum. Otherwise everything is doomed.

It is already happening to some extent, but can we take it to its logical conclusion?

‘We’ specifically here refers to the little dissident ‘medias’ that we are involved in. In general, it can mean all the left. Or why just that? It could mean all decent human beings who believe in the Romance of Justice, more than they believe in the Romance of the Plunder.

We have to associate with each other (or is it ‘one another’: this is always a grammatical puzzle for me). In spite of our differences. We have build alliances. We have use each other’s work. We have contribute to each other’s work. We have to recognize each other’s work. We have to come to defend each other whenever it is needed.

We have to come out of our false (pardon a little exaggeration) but comforting little solidarities and form a big REAL solidarity. A solidarity that may not even require one to physically ever face another. It will be the solidarity of the mind. It will be a moral solidarity.

It may not, and sometimes it may, be a solidarity of everyday social relations. Can you be in solidarity with one who may or may not be willing to meet and talk to you in physical proximity or to have dinner with you, but who is willing to participate with you, work with you?

Can you now?

नीरस नाम की रोचक कहानी

7 जनवरी, 2011

(मूल लेख)

ज़ेड नेट या ज़ी नेट, आप अंग्रेज़ी वर्णमाला के आखिरी अक्षर को जिस भी तरह उच्चारित करते हों (जो इस पर निर्भर करता है कि आप पिछले साम्राज्य के प्रभाव में पले हैं या नये वाले के), का हिन्दी संस्करण शुरू किए अब चार साल से ऊपर हो गए हैं। एकदम ठीक तारीख दी जाए तो 1 दिसंबर, 2006 को हिन्दी ज़ेड नेट की वेबसाइट शुरू हुई थी। तब से काफ़ी कुछ बदल गया है। ज़ेड नेट खुद अब ज़ेड (ज़ी) कम्यूनिकेशन्स बन गया है, जिसका एक प्रमुख भाग फिर भी ज़ेड नेट है।

हिन्दी संस्करण की शुरुआत इस तरह हुई थी कि अपन ज़ेड नेट अक्सर पढ़ते रहते थे और एक दिन अपन ने देखा कि इसके कुछ अन्य भाषाओं में भी संस्करण हैं। पाठकों-उपयोक्ताओं के लिए लिखा गया एक निमंत्रण सा भी दिखा कि अगर आप इनमें से किसी में सहयोग देने या एक नई भाषा के संस्करण की शुरुआत करने में रुचि रखते हैं तो संपर्क करें। अपने को लगा कि भाई हिन्दी में भी इसका एक संस्करण होना ही चाहिए, तो अपन ने माइकल स्पैनोस, जिनका नाम संपर्क के लिए दिया था, उन्हें एक मेल लिख डाली। जवाब आया और ज़ेड नेट के लेखों का अनुवाद करके हिन्दी संस्करण की वेबसाइट बनाने का काम शुरू हो गया। पाँच लेखों के अनुवाद से शुरुआत हुई, जो नोम चॉम्स्की, माइकल ऐल्बर्ट, अरुंधति रॉय, जॉर्ज मॉनबिऑट तथा तारिक़ अली के लिखे हुए थे। उस समय वेबसाइट ज़ेड नेट के ही सर्वर पर बनाई गई थी, क्योंकि हिन्दी ज़ेड नेट के लिए अलग से कोई इंतज़ाम नहीं था।

बाद में कुछ अन्य लेखों के भी अनुवाद किए, मगर और कामों से समय निकाल कर उतना नहीं हो पाया जितना सोचा था। फिर भी धीरे-धीरे चलता रहा। उम्मीद यह थी कि अन्य लोग भी अनुवाद में सहयोग देने के लिए मिलेंगे, पर एकाध लेख के अलावा कोई और अनुवाद करने वाला नहीं मिला, लिहाजा एक व्यक्ति से जो हो सका वही होता रहा। एक समस्या यह भी थी कि हिन्दी की अपनी वेबसाइट न होने के कारण कुछ भी करने (चाहे टाइपिंग की कोई गलती सुधारने जैसी ज़रा सी बात ही हो) में भी काफ़ी समय लग जाता था क्योंकि ज़ेड नेट की वेबसाइट भी जिन लोगों के सहारे चल रही है, उनके पास भी पहले से ही बहुत से काम हैं और वे अन्य गतिविधियों में भी अपना समय देते हैं। और यह कोई व्यावसायिक मीडिया तो है नहीं जहाँ कागज़ी हरियाली की कमी न होती हो।

आखिर 2010 के मध्य में ज़ेड संचार नाम से हिन्दी ज़ेड नेट की अपनी वेबसाइट zsanchar.org के पते पर चालू की गई। इसे शुरु करने के कुछ समय बाद यह लगा कि जब वेबसाइट हिन्दी में है तो अंग्रेज़ी का अक्षर ज़ेड नाम में क्यों है? नतीजतन एक नये नाम की खोज की गई, जो ‘सह-संचार’ पर आकर रुकी।

आप अकेले नहीं होंगे अगर आप सोचते हैं कि यह नाम बड़ा नीरस है। अपना भी यही ख्याल है। नाम के साथ एक और समस्या है। ‘सह-संचार’ हिन्दी में सोशल नेटवर्किंग के समानार्थी के रुप में भी स्वीकृत होता लग रहा है। यह दूसरी समस्या शायद इतनी गंभीर नहीं है। जैसा कि भाषा विज्ञान में आम जानकारी है, एक ही शब्द के एक से अधिक अर्थ हो सकते हैं। बल्कि उच्चारण और वर्तनी एक जैसे होने पर भी दो शब्द हो सकते हैं, जैसे दिन वाला ‘कल’ और पुर्जा वाला ‘कल’। इसलिए दूसरी समस्या का समाधान तो हमने यह मान लिया कि एक शब्द है ‘सह-संचार’ जिसका अर्थ है सोशल नेटवर्किंग और दूसरा शब्द (या नाम) है ‘सह-संचार’ जो ज़ेड (ज़ी) कम्यूनिकेशन्स का हिन्दी संस्करण है।

पर नाम के नीरस होने की समस्या फिर भी बचती है। तो यह लेख उसी समस्या का स्पष्टीकरण देने के लिए लिखा गया माना जा सकता है। स्पष्टीकरण इस तरह कि नाम चाहे नीरस हो, पर उसकी कहानी नीरस नहीं है, बल्कि काफ़ी रोचक है।

वैसे हिन्दी संस्करण के नाम में ज़ेड (ज़ी) होने का भी एक वाजिब आधार है। और वहीं से हमारी कहानी शुरू होती है।

बीसवीं शताब्दी में कला का एक नया माध्यम सामने आया जिसे सिनेमा कहा जाता है। बहुत से शायद इस माध्यम की किसी भी कलात्मक संभावना से सिरे से ही इन्कार करते हों, पर उनसे बहस में भिड़ने का अभी अपना कोई इरादा नहीं है। तो इस नितांत नये माध्यम की सबसे बड़ी खासियत यह है इसकी पहुँच बहुत कम समय में बहुत बड़े जनसमूह तक एक ही समय पर हो सकती है और बहुत तेज़ी से फैल सकती है। इक्कीसवीं सदी और भी नये माध्यम लाती हुई दिख रही है, पर सिनेमा जितनी पहुँच तो अभी भी किसी अन्य माध्यम की नहीं है। टी वी की पहुँच कुछ मामलों में अधिक हो सकती है, पर उसकी कलात्मक संभावनाओं पर सवाल इस हद तक उठाए जा सकते हैं कि अधिकतर तो एकमात्र कला जो उस पर कभी-कभार नज़र आती है वो सिनेमा ही है। संगीत, नृत्य आदि भी पहले दिखते थे, पर वो ज़माना तो चला गया लगता है। इंटरनेट पर बाकायदा एक कलात्मक माध्यम के उभरने में शायद अभी कुछ समय लगेगा।

तो सिनेमा की इस असाधारण पहुँच के कारण ऐसे बहुत से लोग भी इसकी तरफ आकर्षित हुए जिनको प्रतिबद्ध कहा जाता है। हिन्दुस्तान के ही सर्वश्रेष्ठ सिनेकारों में से एक रितिक घटक, जिनका प्रगतिशील राजनीति और उससे जुड़े थियेटर से लंबे समय तक वास्ता रहा था, का कहना था कि उन्होंने सिर्फ़ इसलिए सिनेमा को अपनाया कि इसकी पहुँच बहुत बड़ी है और अगर हम अपनी बात ज़्यादा से ज़्यादा लोगों तक पहुँचाना चाहते हैं, तो सिनेमा को नज़रअंदाज़ नहीं कर सकते। रितिक घटक जैसे अन्य कई सिनेकार विश्व सिनेमा में हुए हैं जिन्होंने इस माध्यम का प्रयोग न केवल कलात्मक अभिव्यक्ति, बल्कि नैतिक-राजनैतिक कथन के लिए भी करने की कोशिश की है। उनकी राह में बाज़ारवाद, रूढ़िवाद तथा पूंजीवाद (भ्रष्टाचार को छोड़ भी दें तो) के चलते अनेक बाधाएँ आईं और वे किस हद तक सफल हुए यह कहना कठिन है, पर उनमें से कई काफ़ी लोकप्रिय फ़िल्में बनाने में कामयाब हो सके, या कहना चाहिए कि उनकी फ़िल्में लोकप्रियता हासिल करने में कामयाब हो सकीं।

इन्हीं में से एक बहुत बड़ा नाम है कोस्ता गाव्रास। यूनानी (ग्रीक) मूल के गाव्रास का नाम लेते ही तस्वीर उभरती है ‘राजनैतिक’ फ़िल्मों की। यहाँ राजनैतिक से वैसा अर्थ नहीं है जैसा प्रकाश झा आदि की फ़िल्मों से जोड़ा जाता है, बल्कि वैसा है जैसा प्रतिबद्ध साहित्य के साथ जुड़ा है। यह अर्थभेद राजनीति तथा राजनीतिबाज़ी का है – पॉलिटिकल और पॉलिटिकिंग का।

ऐसी राजनैतिक फ़िल्मों में भी एक खास श्रेणी है उन फ़िल्मों की जो हमारे ही समय (यानी पिछली एक सदी के भीतर) की वास्तविक ऐतिहासिक घटनाओं पर आधारित फ़िल्मों की है। कोस्ता गाव्रास ने ऐसी ही फ़िल्में बनाने में अपनी महारत दिखाई है। ‘मिसिंग’, ‘स्टेट ऑफ़ सीज’, ‘एमेन.’ (पूर्ण विराम नाम में ही है) ऐसी ही कुछ फ़िल्में हैं। पर शायद उनकी सबसे प्रसिद्ध फ़िल्म है ‘ज़ेड’ (या ‘ज़ी’)। यह आधारित है यूनान की ही राजनैतिक घटनाओं पर जब वहाँ अमरीकी दखलंदाज़ी की पृष्ठभूमि में फ़ासीवादियों द्वारा एक लोकप्रिय उदारवादी नेता की हत्या कर दी गई और उससे जो घटनाकृम शरू हुआ उसकी परिणति सेना द्वारा सत्ता पलट में हुई।

‘बैटल ऑफ़ अल्जियर्स’ तथा ‘ज़ेड’ वे दो फ़िल्में हैं जिन्हें इस श्रेणी की फ़िल्में बनाने वाला हर निर्देशक अपना काम शुरू करने से पहले देखना ज़रूरी समझता है।

कोस्ता गाव्रास के नाम के साथ यह कहानी भी जुड़ी है कि ‘ज़ेड’ की असाधारण (और शायद अप्रत्याशित) व्यावसायिक सफलता के बाद उन्हें (फ़्रांसिस फ़ोर्ड कपोला से पहले) गॉडफ़ादर निर्देशित करने का ‘ऑफ़र’ दिया गया था, पर उसे उन्होंने रिजेक्ट (या कहें ‘रिफ़्यूज़’) कर दिया क्योंकि उनके अनुसार स्क्रिप्ट माफ़िया का महिमामंडन करने वाली थी और वे उसमें कुछ बदलाव करना चाहते थे, जिसके लिए स्टूडियो वाले तैयार नहीं थे।

खैर, यह समय था विश्व युद्धों के बाद अमरीकी साम्राज्यवाद के पहले बड़े फैलाव का, यानी वियतनाम युद्ध का और ढेर सारी अन्य जगहों पर अमरीकी समर्थन प्राप्त सत्ता पलट और तानाशाही का। पर यह समय अमरीकी नागरिक अधिकार (सिविल राइट्स) आंदोलन का भी था। नोम चॉम्स्की और हावर्ड ज़िन जैसे लोग इस आंदोलन में सक्रिय थे, और जो छात्र इसमें शामिल थे उनमें एक थे माइकल ऐल्बर्ट,यानी ज़ेड नेट के संस्थापक।

जब मैंने पहली बार ज़ेड नेट पढ़ना शुरू किया था, उसके कुछ ही समय बाद मैंने यह अनुमान लगाया था कि हो न हो इसके नाम में यह अंग्रेज़ी का आखिरी अक्षर जो है, उसका कुछ संंबंध कोस्ता गाव्रास की फ़िल्म से है और यह बात मैंने अपने ब्लॉग पर भी लिखी थी। बाद में खुद ज़ेड नेट पर ही यह लिखा देखने को मिला कि यह अनुमान सही था।

बात इतनी अजीब नहीं है। दरअसल (आधुनिक) ग्रीक भाषा में इस अक्षर का अर्थ है ‘वह अभी जीवित है’ और उस फ़िल्म के अंत में यह अक्षर या शब्द इस अर्थ में एक लोकप्रिय नारा बन जाता है कि अमरीकी दखलंदाज़ी के विरोधी जिस जनप्रिय नेता की हत्या कर दी गई थी वो जन-मन में अब भी जीवित है, यानी जैसा कि ज़ेड नेट के मुख्य पृष्ठ पर लिखा है, प्रतिरोध की भावना अब भी जीवित है (द स्पिरिट ऑफ़ रेज़िस्टेंस लिव्स)।

सार यह कि ‘ज़ेड’ अंग्रेज़ी अक्षर नहीं हुआ, बल्कि एक राजनैतिक कथन हुआ। इसीलिए अगर हिन्दी संस्करण में भी यह रहता तो उसका वाजिब आधार था।

फिर यह ‘सह’ क्यों आया? मज़े की बात है कि यह भी ऐसा मामला है जहाँ एक ही उच्चारण और वर्तनी होने पर भी दो शब्द हैं – पहला तो सहने के अर्थ में और दूसरा सहयोग के अर्थ में। हमारे लिए दूसरा वाला मामला लागू होता है, हालांकि पहले को भी अक्सर झेलना पड़ सकता है।

लेकिन उससे भी मज़े की बात एक और है। वामपंथियों के खिलाफ़ एक आरोप जो अक्सर लगाया जाता है वह है कि जो व्यवस्था (या मनोहर श्याम जोशी के अनुकरण में कहें तो प्रतिष्ठान) अभी हमें जकड़े हुए है उसकी बुराइयाँ तो आप बहुत बताते रहते हैं, पर उसका कोई विकल्प आपके पास नहीं है। जो विकल्प माने जाते थे, यानी साम्यवादी व्यवस्था आदि, वे भी असफल साबित हो गए हैं। ये आरोप सच हैं या नहीं इस पर तो हम अभी नहीं जाएंगे, पर जिन माइकल ऐल्बर्ट का ज़िक्र हमने किया, यानी ज़ेड नेट के संस्थापक, वे एक विकल्प (पार्टिसिपेटरी इकोनॉमिक्स या पैरेकॉन) की परिकल्पना और विकास की कोशिश में अनवरत लगे हुए हैं, उसे हिन्दी में ‘भागीदारी की अर्थव्यवस्था’ या ‘सहयोग पर आधारित अर्थव्यवस्था’ कहा जा सकता है। तो सह-संचार के ‘सह’ को आप उससे जोड़ सकते हैं।

पर वो तो बाद की बात है। उससे पहले की बात यह है कि ‘स’ और ‘ह’ (संयुक्ताक्षरों को छोड़ दिया जाए तो) हिन्दी या देवनागरी, बल्कि ब्राह्मी, वर्णमाला के आखिरी ‘अक्षर’ हैं, जहाँ ‘अक्षर’ शब्द का प्रयोग अंग्रेज़ी के ‘लेटर’ या ‘कैरेक्टर’ की तरह किया जा रहा है।

आपके बारे में नहीं मालूम, पर अपने को तो यह कहानी बड़ी रोचक लगती है। अगर ज़्यादा हो गया हो तो चलिए थोड़ी बहुत रोचक तो है ही। नहीं क्या? अगर नहीं तो कोस्ता गाव्रास की कुछ फ़िल्में ही देख डालिए। और देख ही रहे हों तो लगे हाथ रितिक घटक की फ़िल्मों पर भी हाथ साफ़ कर दीजिएगा।

(जो भी हो, यह याद रखा जाए कि सह-संचार अनिल एकलव्य की वेबसाइट नहीं है, चाहे अभी तक इसका ज़िम्मा लगभग पूरी तरह उन पर ही रहा हो। यह ज़ेड कम्यूनिकेशंस का हिन्दी संस्करण है। आप इस संचार में सहयोग करना चाहें तो एक बार फिर निमंत्रण है। संक्रामक रोग का कोई खतरा नहीं है।)

November 25, 2010

Drones, Aerial and Otherwise

[This was meant to be a comment in reply to an article on the ZNet by Pervez Hoodbhoy about aerial drones and what he calls ‘human drones’.]

I feel very strange, in fact disturbed, to have to make this comment, as this comment is critical of the ideas of someone with whom I have a lot in common, whereas I have almost nothing in common with those he proposes should be killed by any means possible. The strangeness also comes from the fact that the author not only recognizes but has actually been writing about the grounds on which I will put forward my criticism.

I am not sure whether Pervez Hoodbhoy is one or not, but I am an unapologetic atheist and have almost the worst possible opinion about religious fundamentalism of any kind, especially when it is of the organised kind or has organisational support. I also have no hesitation in stating that there IS something that can be called Islamic Fascism and it should be called by its proper name. But I also recognize that often things get mixed up and we can have a resistance movement that is also a Fascist movement. That makes it difficult to analyze them, let alone judge them. We can, however, still analyze and judge specific facts and events and be mostly right about them if we have sufficient evidence and we make sure that we keep our intellectual integrity intact.

Thus, for example, the people who are being targeted by the American drones (excluding those caught in the ‘collateral damage’) have been doing things which no sensible human being can support. These include the horrible terrorist acts, but more importantly (as the author rightly points out) they include their atrocities on their own people: women, protesters of any kind, ‘blasphemers’ etc. I can very well see what would happen to me if I were living in that kind of society.

I also share most of what the author has been saying. The trouble is that, he also makes some leaps of logic or conclusions which seem patently wrong to me and I think I have to register my disagreement with them, because they are far too important to be ignored.

I could, perhaps, write a longer article about it, but for now I will try to say a few things which matter more to me.

The first problem is that the author mixes up the literal and the metaphorical and this logical error leads him to atrocious conclusions. We can surely talk about ‘human drones’ where we are using the word drone metaphorically and the usage is justified as he has eloquently explained by comparing them with the non-human aerial drones. But the comparison itself is metaphorical. And the justification does not remain valid when he goes on to establish a straightforward literal equivalence. The ‘human drones’ might be brutal, unthinking, destructive, (metaphorical) killing machines and so on. They might be, in a sense, inhuman or anti-human, but they still are not non-human. They do have bodies, minds and thoughts. To say otherwise is to abandon one’s thinking in a fit of rage. What they deserve or not may be a matter of debate, but it has to be based on a vision that does not ignore the fact that they still are human beings, however detestable and dangerous they may be.

I am sure the author is aware of some of the history of the world which seems to indicate that there were a lot other people – and still are – who might also be justifiably called ‘human drones’ and who might be considered as bad as the ones he is talking about. That definitely can’t justify their actions, but it has a bearing on what those taking up the task of judging them should think and do.

If you agree with my contention here, then the analysis will lead to different directions. What those directions exactly should be, I won’t go into, because I don’t claim to have the answers, but they would lead to conclusions different from those of the author.

Even the metaphorical comparison here has some problems, which can, as I said, be guessed from what the author himself has been writing. There are some similarities, but there are also many differences. The ‘human drones’ still come from a certain society and they are part of it. The aerial drones are just machines, they don’t come from any society. The ‘human drones’ come from societies which have seen destruction of the worst kind for ages, whereas the aerial drones are (literally) remote controlled by those who played the primary role in bringing about this destruction, as the author himself has written and said elsewhere. If you ignore these facts, you will again be lead to very risky (and I would say immoral and unfair) conclusions.

With just a little dilution of the metaphor, haven’t most of the weapon laden humans (soldiers, commandos etc.) been kinds of ‘human drones’? The ones author talks about may be deadlier, but the situation is more drastic too. On the one hand you have an empire that is more powerful than any in history and on the other you have an almost primitive society that thinks it is defending itself, just as the empire says it is defending itself. Will it be improper to ask who has got more people killed? What about the ‘human drones’ of the empire: thinking of, say Iraq?

As far as I can see, the use of aerial drones to kill people, whoever they may be, is simply indefensible. Because if their use is justified on the grounds of the monstrosities of the Taliban ideologues and operators, what about chemicals? If some people were to form an anti-Taliban group and they were to infiltrate the ‘affected’ villages and towns and if they were to use poisoning of the water supply or something similar to kill people in the areas where these monsters are suspected to be, would that be justifiable? The aerial drones are, after all, just a technological device. There can be other such technologies and devices.

There must have been some very solid reasons why the whole world agreed to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons after the first world war and stuck to that ban (with a few universally condemned exceptions), though they were very effective and the Nazis were very evil.

The other big problem I have with the author’s opinions on this matter is that he suggests that the American aerial drones are one of the unsavoury weapons we should use against the fundamentalist Islamic militants. This is a logical error as well as a moral one. The logical error is that ‘we’ are not using the weapons at all, the empire is using them. And it is the same empire that created the problem in the first place, once again as the author himself has said. We have no control over how these drones are or will be used and who they will be used against in the future. Can’t they, some day in the future, be used against ‘us’? Why not? Perhaps the empire won’t use them directly, but it can always outsource their use: think again of Iraq. Iraq of the past and Iraq of the present. The author, in fact, knows very well the other examples that I could give.

To put it in Orwell’s words, make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists.

The use of aerial drones, they being just a technological device, might perhaps be justifiable for certain purposes, for example in managing relief work during large scale natural disasters, e.g. the wild fires in Russia or the frequent floods in India and China (but not as just a cover for their more sinister use). Their use for killing humans is, however, of a completely different nature.

The moral error is that the author’s conclusions unambiguously imply that ends justify the means. As long as these monsters producing (or becoming) ‘human drones’ are killed, it doesn’t matter whether the weapons are, to use the author’s word, unsavory. It also doesn’t matter that they are being used by an empire ‘we’ are opposed to and which started the mess. (Actually, the mess was started long ago by another empire, but then we could say there were even older empires who played a role in creating this mess, so let’s not go into that).

I even sort of agree with the author’s idea that recommending the standard left meta-technique of “mobilizing” people (actually, it is not just leftists who use such techniques) may not be very practical under the conditions prevalent in this case. But, as I said, though I understand the severity of the problems, I don’t have the solutions. I only want to say that the kind of errors that the author makes can lead us to a worse situation. We should not forget (I am sure the author knows this too) that it is not just a case of some bad apples. Even if these were to be removed by using ‘unsavory’ forces and weapons, the problems are not going to be solved so easily. Because there is not just one clearcut problem but many problems which are all meshed together and the meshing is too complex and barely visible.

At the risk of making an unpalatable statement, I would say that if any party in conflicts like this has to be excused for using unsavory weapons or tactics, it will have to be the much weaker party, not the strongest party in history. But I don’t think I would include suicide bombing among those weapons or tactics. And I also realize the limits to which I can be entitled to sit in judgement over people living under such conditions.

The author need not offer me (business class or mere economy) tickets to Waziristan. I am scared to even go to places in India.

One more problem that I have with the author’s writings is that he seems to have assigned blame to most parties involved in the conflict: the Army, the militants, the Taliban, the Americans etc., but has he (I haven’t read everything written by him) considered, equally critically, the role of the Pakistani elite (not just the leftists) and the somewhat ‘secular’ middle class? He seems to have hinted at their role, but it seems to me that their role was, is and will be far more critical in determining what is happening and what will happen. After all, the rise (if we can call it that) of the Taliban closely parallels the Islamisation of the Pakistani society in general. How did the Pakistani elite (intellectual, feudal and official) help in this and what can they do to solve this problem?

That, it seems to me, is the crucial question to ask (though it won’t lead to a quick fix), apart from what people around the world can do about those controlling the aerial drones, towards whom, as the author earlier wrote, “we still dare not point a finger at”. After going on to point a finger at them, the author seems to have now moved to the position of accepting their support in terms of killings by the aerial drones in order to contain the ‘human drones’, which (to be a bit harsh) doesn’t make sense to me.

Related to this is another question: does the natural antipathy of the Pakistani elite towards these ‘primitive’ tribal communities has something to do with the position that the author has taken and which he says many others (‘educated people’) share?

There are, of course, other actors. The author has mentioned Saudi Arab, but Iran has a role. Even India has (or at least wants to have) a role.

But I want to end on a positive note. It’s heartening to see that the ZNet allows this kind of a dissenting view to be presented on its platform. That should be a good sign for the discussion.

[Unfortunately, I have to end on a slightly negative note. As I was going to add the comment to the article, I realized that I have to be a ‘sustainer’ even to post a comment. And I have not been able to become a sustainer for reasons I won’t go into here. Hence I post it here.]

November 17, 2010

So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)

 

One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

July 23, 2010

It Could Happen to You Too

If it doesn’t, perhaps it should.

The third person pronoun used repeatedly above refers to this. A short quote:

Ocampo’s view of the timing of the arrest warrant in 2008, which applies just as much today, was that as any prosecutor, with such evidence in his hand, had a duty to act and did not have “the luxury to look away.” Ocampo, who also believes that he has a duty to contribute to the prevention of international crimes, has pointed out that every day which Bashir remains free enables him to engage in the commission of additional hostilities and abuses.

Sounds familiar?

And the second person pronoun in the title? Is it just one person? Is it hard to guess the candidates?

About the title itself? Well, the sub-editors have been following the local version of the Truman show and they got mighty inspired.

June 4, 2010

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

A few years ago I had received some feedback from someone about a research paper that I was going to submit to a major conference. Paraphrasing the feedback (repeating the exact words, even with the reference, will be copying: won’t it?), I was told that there was something that I had put in the paper, which, if I insisted on retaining, might make the reviewer look at my paper in a negative light. So, if I didn’t remove that part, I would be shooting myself in the foot.

This is beside the point, but I thought what I had added was correct and so I retained it. The paper was rejected, but I would like to believe that the reason for rejection was not that I had shot myself in the foot.

Getting back to the point, this is an expression that I have come across innumerable times, mostly directed at others, but sometimes directed at me. As a person who claims to be a writer, translator as well as a researcher in a language related discipline (among other things), I can’t help obsessing about how such expressions are used and what they mean, what they show and what they hide.

But I am not interested in writing an academic paper about that. So I write something here. And you are not supposed to review this piece when I submit the next Computational Linguistics paper which might come to you for review. (See the comment functionality below?).

Recently, Chomsky used this expression in a speech, saying ‘those who are being harmed are shooting themselves in the foot’. Now, most of the time that I have come across this expression, I have thought it was being used cynically to show something which wasn’t there and to hide something that was there. Or for some other questionable purposes. However, the people using this expression were mostly respectable well meaning people. Most probably they hadn’t thought about this expression in the way that I had done. May be because if they were to do it, they would be shooting themselves in the foot.

But when Chomsky uses this expression, I can’t but believe that he is using it to mean something sensible, not cynical (if this last part looks strange to you, look up the meanings and histories of these two words, especially the second one).

I do believe that what Chomsky said was basically correct. That is, there are some people who are being harmed and they are indeed shooting themselves in the foot (I am not sure whether I am one of them or not).

The reason I am writing this is that I also believe (based on evidence, not on faith) that such people are (relatively) so few that ridiculing them or offering them advice is hardly going to matter. I must add here that Chomsky did actually caution against ridiculing such people (who have realized that they are being systematically harmed). He only expressed his disappointment that instead of doing something to stop this systematic harming, they are shooting themselves in the foot.

You see, there are also people who are being harmed and are shooting themselves in the head (or ‘consuming pesticide’). You might say that they belong to the same category because the expression is metaphorically wide enough to cover them. That might be true. But then there are also a far larger number of people who are being harmed and they are doing something very different.

They are not shooting themselves in the foot (or in the head). They are shooting others (who are also being harmed) in the foot*. Often they are also shooting others (who are also being harmed) in the head. Sometimes they are doing it for a few extra peanuts, sometimes just for the fun of it and sometimes because they have been led to believe that these targets are their enemies (or the enemies of the nation, or the enemies of the society, or of the religion, or of the community etc.). And since doing it openly is a bit problematic (not cool anymore, baby!), they often have to make it appear as if their target shot himself in the foot (or in the head), whether deliberately or accidentally.

* Perhaps they are programmed in Concurrent Euclid.

So, my take on the matter is that we should be talking about people who are being harmed and who are (literally or metaphorically) shooting others who are also being harmed, whether in the foot or in the head. Because without them, the whole shooting machinery probably won’t be able to operate. In fact, to visualize a grisly scenario, if all such people stopped shooting others (who are being harmed) and started only to shoot themselves in the foot, even then the shooting machinery will probably become dysfunctional. Fortunately, most of the people will not be interested in shooting themselves in the foot (or in the head) if they are just able to find any feasible alternative. Unfortunately, no one from above can tell a person what such an alternative means in practical terms in that person’s circumstances and it’s very hard to find it out for oneself. It’s very hard to even be sure that such an alternative exists. If it does, it’s very hard to translate it into any meaningful action. Compared to a a few decades earlier, it is infinitely harder now, given the extraordinary consolidation of the global power structure (going far beyond what Foucault had studied up to his time), to a great extent due to the techno-administrative ‘advances’ (mostly in the name of security).

There are, surely, people who are being harmed but are not shooting others (being harmed or not being harmed). I won’t say anything about them right now.

(To academic busybodies and surface-style junkies: don’t bother to count the number of times the said expression has been used in this short piece: it has been done very deliberately. Perhaps the author was trying to shoot …).

 

 

For having read the above, here is a bonus link: Fascism then. Fascism now?

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