A poetic expression of a lack of purpose

Ye lamha filhaal jee lene de (Translation: Let me savour this moment for now)

This line came to my mind today at work (for a reason that I will leave unexplained) and I decided to look up the lyrics of the whole song after I got home. Here are a few lines. The lyricist is Gulzar.

maasoom si hasi bewaja hi kabhi
hoton pe khil jaati hai
(An innocent smile lights up my lips occasionally for no reason)

anjaan si khushi behti huvi kabhi
saahil pe mil jaati hai
(I find an unknown happiness, drifting away, occasionally stopping at the shore)

yeh anjaana sa darr ajnabee hai magar
khoobsurat hai ji lene de
(This unknown fear is a stranger, but it is beautiful, let me experience it)

yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de
(Let me savour this moment for now)
yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de

dil hi mein rehta hai aankhon mein behtha hai
kachcha sa ek khwaab hai
(It stays in my heart, flows in my eyes, this young dream of mine)

lagta sawal hai shayad jawab hai
dil phir bhi betaab hai
(It seems to be a question, it is perhaps an answer, but my heart is still eager)

yeh sukoon hai to hai
yeh junoon hai to hai
khoobsurat hai ji lene de
(This may be peace or it may be madness, it is beautiful, let me live it)

yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de
(Let me savour this moment for now)
yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de

The lyrics are deeply disturbing. They describe the mental state of a person, who does not know what he is doing, what he is experiencing, why he is experiencing it, but wants to savour it. The mental state of a person without purpose trying to find some meaning to life by “living in the present”. I was hoping to find a poetic expression of my state of mind but this is most definitely not it. Sigh.

More on propaganda

Via this piece at True Sailing Is Dead, I came across this post:

 The curious case of 200 nearly identical MSM headlines

The following headlines have appeared in newspapers within the last 24 hours. This is not an inclusive list.

• Third of Illinoisans went without health insurance in last 2 years: Sun-Times
• Report: 2.5M in Michigan lacked health insurance: Chicago Tribune
• Study: 29% of Ohioans have gone without health insurance: BizJournals
• Report: More NJ residents lacking health insurance: Forbes
• Study: Many Kansans are uninsured: BizJournals
• Report tallies uninsured in Hawaii: KPUA AM 670
• Study: 1 in 3 Alabamians have no insurance: BizJournals
• 1 out of 4 NH residents lacked health insurance within last two years: WBZ
• 1 out of 3 Coloradans lacked insurance in past two years: Denver Post
• Nearly 1 in 3 Idahoans lack health insurance, study says: Idaho Statesman
• One in four nonelderly Minnesotans has been without health insurance, study shows: Twin Cities
• 1 in 3 are uninsured in Georgia, study says: Augusta Chronicle
• 1.3 million Louisiana residents uninsured: Independent
• Millions in N.C. lack health plan: Winston-Salem Journal
• Uninsured are mostly working: Sun-Herald
• Nearly one-third of Wyoming residents went without health insurance in past two years: Wyoming Tribune
• Report finds health insurance lacking in W.Va.: Charleston Gazette
• Nearly 1/3 Of Kentuckians Uninsured Says Report: WFPL Radio
• REPORT: 254K Rhode Islanders Uninsured at Some Point from 2007-2008: ABC 6
(links dropped)

The post goes on to claim

Data from the Census Bureau debunks the lie continually promoted by the mainstream media of the legendary 47 million uninsured Americans:
• 9.5 million people are illegal aliens
• 8.3 million uninsured people are those who make between $50,000 and $74,999 per year and choose not to purchase insurance
• 8.7 million uninsured people are those who make over $75,000 a year and choose not to purchase insurance

Clearly the 200 headlines are propaganda in the sense I wrote about a few days back. And probably also in the sense of being misinformation specially designed to push an agenda (I do not have the energy to try to verify the figures). Putting aside the truth of the figures and my disagreement with the goal – nationalization of healthcare – this propaganda is intended to achieve, how does one judge the propaganda? Al (of True Sailing is Dead) writes

These papers did not randomly all come to the same conclusion on the same day. This “news” was obviously released into the mainstream to coincide with (surprise!) President Obama’s push for Universal Healthcare. Not saying it’s good or bad, just that it’s going on, and as a news consumer you can either accept that the “news” you read is the result of good old fashioned journalistic integrity or you can say “wait a minute” and realize that you’re being played by a national propaganda machine.

It’s propaganda, and it’s not a suitable purpose for any news publication to pursue. Yet it’s done constantly. Incessantly. Pervasively. And you don’t even know it.
Or maybe you do know it. Maybe you do.
Do you?

The proper purpose of a news organization is to publish news and perhaps to provide commentary on it. But what constitutes news? A working definition could be: an event that is seen as significant. But that raises questions like significant to whom? By  what standard? (Also read Burgess Laughlin’s post on bias) It is clear that the world view of the person(s) determining whether or not to highlight a particular event will determine what constitutes news. And since a news organization can only publish so many items at a time, it will have to prioritize, i.e, it may not publish a news item as soon as it occurs but at a time of its choosing. Getting back to the specific concrete at hand, what Al seems bothered about is the fact that a number of media organizations decided to publish findings in a concerted manner in an attempt to influence people. This could be called strategy or it could be called propaganda (negative moral judgement in the common usage of the word). Calling it stategy acknowledges the fact that people can and should form worldviews, can and should look for moral significance in events, can and should try to act in a manner that they judge to be in their best interests. Calling it propaganda (in the usual negative sense) implies a desire that the people in media should never form moral judgements or atleast that they should not allow their moral judgements to influence their decisions about whether and when to publish certain items and whether to coordinate with others in doing so. But this is an impossibility. Men necessarily act in accordance with their moral judgements and just because someone is in the media, does not mean that he can (or should) act like a robot. This desire is analogous to wanting a physical body to behave without inertia. Here it is mental inertia.

It might seem that I am making too much of a minor semantic difference. But, behind the negative connotation associated with the word propaganda is a major flawed idea that manifests itself in other ways too. It is the idea that the pursuit of truth or knowledge, the forming of judgements, objectivity etc are ends in themselves. They are not. They are means to live ones’ life. If they are seen as ends, then the pursuit of one’s life is seen as an impediment, something that might make the pursuit of truth less pure by tainting it with a purpose. It is the idea that leads to other ideas like “Media should be free from commercial influences”, “Science should be free from the bounds of practicality of its applications”, “The mystic who spends his life waiting for a revelation is on a higher plane than a person who lives a normal life.” (There might be others that I have not identified).

Aspiring for a developed India

A commentator (call him X since he did not disclose his identity) wrote:

Consider India, which is a developing nation with majority of its population still below the poverty line. If we aspire for a developed India, every Indian must be educated . It is only by (good quality and free) Government schools one can achieve complete literacy, as the poor cant afford education. I feel that government must actively be a part and ensure that quality education is available for free of cost (till 10th standard).

The short answer would be that government already plays a very active part and that has ensured that the quality of education (irrespective of cost) is quite pathetic. I could write an arguement about why this state of affairs is inevitable and why government subsidized education cannot meet its intended goals. But I am not going to do that. Instead I am going to write about the premises underlying this argument. These premises are completely incompatible with my own premises. So it is difficult to find a point to start. Nor is it going to be possible to reach an arguement in one post that could convince anyone. So my goal in this post is simply to identify the premises and point out the incompatibility. If you are actually interested in a conclusive arguement, you will have to stay around for several more posts.

Read the arguement again. What is the vision? A developed India. I suppose that means things like a certain percentage of literacy, a certain percentage of child mortality, a certain kind of roads, a certain percentage of people below the poverty line, a certain stability in growth, etc, etc… What is the timeframe for this vision? No timeframe is mentioned. This suggests that a timeframe is not essential. The lack of a timeframe is one clue (among others) that this vision is not linked to X’s life. In fact, the vision is not linked to any specific individual’s life. It is statistical, collective.

Now consider my vision. I want to live in a world where I am free to act on my thoughts and take responsibility for wherever those actions may lead. Underlying this vision is the premise that life is worth living and that my enjoyment (material, spiritual, whatever…) or happiness achieved through my thoughts and actions is the sole purpose of my life. My vision is not linked to any specific collective.

The achievement of my vision involves a society that respects life and the values required for life such as freedom and individual rights (political), goodwill and cooperation (social), rationality and purpose (moral). Such a society will have the sort of statistical properties that X implies. But the two visions are very different. To repeat, X’s vision is not linked to any specific individual’s life; my vision is not linked to any specific collective. X wants India to become a developed country irrespective of the course of his life. I want to live in or bring about a free society irrespective of what happens to India.

What are the premises underlying X’s vision. As I see it, it is the idea that man’s life must have some ‘greater’ purpose, beyond his own life. The mystic seeks a purpose in another, more important world. The collectivist seeks a purpose in other men. Both seek a purpose that is external. But purpose, vision, thought are all inseparably linked to an individuals life. My vision is based on this simple fact. To quote Ayn Rand from Anthem, (emphasis mine)

I am. I think. I will.
My hands . . . My spirit . . . My sky . . . My forest . . . This earth of mine. . . . What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.
I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.
It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgement of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.
Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: “I will it!”
Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me; the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.
I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.
This god, this one word:

What is propaganda?

I sent this excellent post at Titanic Deck Chairs to a friend, who forwarded it to another and got a reply that started with

 Well the blog post reads like a propaganda piece. But thats not my argument. …

I will answer his actual argument later. But first, what is propaganda? Here are the relevant meanings of the word from the merriam webster dictionary

2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause ; also : a public action having such an effect

So yes, the blog post linked to is propaganda, i.e, it is a deliberate attempt to propagate ideas that the author believes in. In fact, by that definition, almost every post I have written on this blog qualifies as propaganda too. Why does the word have a negative connotation? It is because ideas are supposed to be held in a disinterested, dispassionate manner. But is that possible? I write about ideas because I believe they are essential to my life. Having the right ideas and spreading them is crucial to my interest. I do not write about ideas that do not interest me. I consider them a waste of my time. In fact, it is the disinterested pursuit of ideas, a pursuit cut off from any contact with reality or from any any attainable purpose that is disingenuous. It is precisely the disinterested nature of much of dominant philosophy that gives philosophy a bad name, that allows schools of thought such as pragmatism (a rejection of all abstract principles) to exist. What is more genuine – a passionate and interested expression of an idea the author believes in or a disinterested, dispassionate analysis of information with no specific purpose? As long as man has a purpose in his life, he cannot divorce interest and passion from the ideas which he entertains. And interest, passion and purpose are not bad things. They are what make life meaningful and enjoyable.

Government Funding of Science

As part of a comment on a post on India’s Chandrayan mission on desicritics.org, I wrote

The government has no business pursuing scientific research.

Here are some responses

kerty: Unfortunately, many sectors can not rely on private commercial transactions. So tax payers have to pool their resources and create capital markets that can allow large scale projects to be undertaken. Unfortunately, capital markets run on profit motive. Lack of instant profit gratification can not help corpocracy or private sector to tackle fields of r&d and infra-structure that are key for economic development. So tax-payers have to pool money and assign such roles to government – roles that neither individual, private sector is capable of undertaking. Removing poverty is a function of economy – and that role is ideal for private sector – government need not dabble in it when empowerment of private sector can tackle it. R&D and economic infra-structure is a proper role of government and good use of tax money.

Morris: …a lot of other government activities are unjust to some people. I think the real question is; is this a proper activity for a government to engage into? If the answer is yes and I think it is then why not. The fact that India is poorer than the US is not relavent.

Chandra: It is increasingly debatable as to what the Govt should be or should not be in. The bottomline clearly is efficiency. Anybody who is able to use resources efficiently is good.

There are three aspects of this issue that I wish to comment on

1) The proper role of government

A government is an involuntary organization. Its involuntary nature makes it fundamentally different from other organizations such as companies, political parties, social groups etc. A voluntary organization is one which works on mutual consent. The individuals who are a part of such an organization, participate in it of their own choice. They (in whatever manner, democratic or otherwise) decide the rules by which the organization functions and the goals which the organization pursues. Any individual can leave a voluntary organization (subject to the rules to which he has already agreed) if he judges the rules or goals to be inappropriate. The only power a voluntary organization has over its members is the power of persuasion. It may not initiate physical force on its members and it may not violate its contracts with its members (the rules subject to which its members join the organization and stay in it). A voluntary organization cannot force a man to act against his judgement. A voluntary organization recognizes the principles that the individual is the unit of thought, choice and action; that the goals and interests of a group are merely the sum of the goals and interests of its members as determined by voluntary consensus; that the proper way to deal with men is persuasion and not force. A voluntary organization enables its members to work together in pursuit of their shared goals. No society can function without voluntary organizations.

But a voluntary organization cannot work without an arbiter. It cannot work if there is no authority to resolve and settle disputes. A voluntary organization cannot work in an anarchy. The role of government is to maintain a framework of individual rights within which individuals and voluntary organizations can work and interact with each other. The creation and maintenance of such a framework is the only proper role of government. This involves creating a system of laws and procedures in accordance with individual rights to adjudicate the resoluion and settlement of disputes (the law courts). It involves granting authority to certain individuals to implement laws (the police). It involves protecting its territory from outside interference (the army).

As a necessarily involuntary organization, a government can have no shared goals or purposes. Thought, choice, action, purpose, goal are all concepts which apply to individuals. Action, purpose and goal are concepts which can apply to groups if there is a consensus among its members and an agreement on the mechanism of estalishing a consensus. Shared goals can range from running a business to spreading a religion to landing on the moon to running a charity to achieving spiritual awakening. All such goals are legitimate. Individuals and voluntary groups have every right to spend their resources on pursuing these goals in any manner they see fit. No individual or group (and therefore the government) has any right to use the resources of some individuals to pursue the goals of others. For example a government may not subsidise a pilgrimage, may not sponser research, may not subsidise certain industries, may not provide social welfare etc. All such activities may properly be carried out by voluntary groups.

It is meaningless to talk of efficiency of resource allocation when one is talking of government activities. Is an efficient pilgrimage an efficient allocation of resources? Is a successful trip to the moon an efficient allocation of resources? Is a welfare scheme run without corruption an efficient allocation of resources? Is a subsidy or bailout granted to failing banks an efficient allocation of resources? Is the creation of a wildlife preserve an efficient allocation of resources? The concept of efficiency does not make sense without a purpose. And a government does not have a purpose beyond that of protecting individual rights.

2) The effects of government sponsored science

Since government funds come from taxation, government funding of research (whether by research institutes as in India, or grants to professors as in the U.S.) reduces the capacity of industry to conduct their own research. When industry conducts research and the research fails to yield any practical results, the industy’s profitability declines. When the research succeeds the industry makes greater profits and its capacity for research increases. Good research is rewarded and bad research is punished. That is not the case with government sponsored research. When research fails, the researcher(s) has nothing to lose. When it succeeds, he (they) receive a patent, commercialize the results and reap the rewards (out of taxpayer money). Profits are private and losses are public. This is true of any commercial activity by the government. Those favored individuals (or groups) who get government support are able to take higher risks since the upside is unlimited and there is no downside. (Just consider the current mortgage crisis for example.) In the American model of research grants to university professors, the university is turned into a research lab. The professors who are able to get the most grants and write the most papers succeed at the cost of the professors who are genuinely interested in teaching. In the Indian model of research institutes, there are labs all over the country engaged in carrying out meaningless research, little of which is ever commercialized.

More importantly, the quality of research suffers. Since the government has no specific goals for research and no ability to judge matters of science or the calibre of researchers or the potential of their proposals, the task of approving grants is taken over by favored panels of “scientists” whose primary skills are political rather than scientific. Obtaining research grants becomes a game of winning favors. Politically motivated projects often get funding. Consider the enormous amounts being spent on researching “climate change” as an example.

3) Private industry and large scale projects

Consider some numbers. The estimated cost of the Chandrayan mission is around $120 million. The annual profits of Exxon Mobil are $40 billion, of General Electric $21 billion, Reliance $2 billion, TCS $338 million. Private industry certainly has the sort of money required for large projects. The reason they do not engage in certain large scale projects is either that the projects are too risky or because under current laws (such as anti-trust), the projects are not profitable. Would a company spend billions on cancer or AIDS research when it knows that its intellectual property rights would immediately be confiscated? Would a company launch a satellite when it knows that government would demand control over its commercial uses? Would a company build a highway when it knows that toll-fares would be fixed by politicians eager to win the next election? Would a company setup a university when it knows that admissions and fees would be subject to vote-bank politics? Why do laws that prevent large scale projects from being profitable exist? Apparantly to “protect” “consumers” from the “greedy” private sector. These laws deliver the “consumer” to unprincipled politicians who do not care to look beyond the next election. If the road in front of my (am I a “consumer”?) house (which gets washed away every monsoon) had been laid by a private corporation, I (or some housing society) would have a contract and the corporation would be legally bound to implement it. The corporation would lay a concrete road that would last for 20 years. Instead the muncipal officers give the contract (for laying a 2-inch thick tar road which survives for about 8 months) to favored corporations, who in turn ensure that the muncipal officers will have adequate funds for political canvassing in the coming election. And if the muncipal officers decide that “public interest” will be better served by some other project, that is just too bad. I should learn to sacrifice my narrow selfish interests for a “larger purpose”. Or I can try going to court and proving that a road in front of my house is crucial to the “public interest”.

Note: This post is also available on desicritics.org with a separate comment thread.

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