What’s in a name?

Shobha De writes

…Ten days ago, i received a call from a Muslim friend. She sounded a little concerned. Her anxiety had to do with her nephew’s admission into one of Mumbai’s better colleges. His marks were good, his conduct exemplary. He had been a prefect at school and participated in several extracurricular activities. I asked what the hitch was. She sounded almost embarrassed as she said, “Well, we are Muslims and that seems to be the problem in a lot of colleges.”

There is no getting away from the current polarization. … At the time (post- 26/11), we believed it was a passing phase that would disappear once everything ‘settled down’. Except that nobody quite knew what was meant to settle down or whether it would ever happen. … Two years down the line, there are no alibis, no screens to hide behind. Positions have obviously hardened to such a degree that now city colleges have begun to follow their own quota system and turn down eligible students because they are Muslims. … That awful attack was the work of hardcore terrorists. What we are doing may be much worse — we are killing the spirit of innocents. The latter crime may have far more lethal repercussions!

Ten years ago, I might have fully agreed with De. Today I know better. Religion is not like race or caste. It is not something you are born with or into. It is a label for a system of beliefs. Those beliefs can be chosen or rejected. When an overwhelming majority of terrorist activities are carried out by Muslims, it is clear that there is something about belief in Islam that incites people to violence. Religious profiling is hardly comparable to discrimination on the basis of race or caste.

On the other hand, it is also a fact that there are many, many Muslims who are just as rational (or irrational) as people of other religions. These people do not deserve to be profiled out just because they have a Muslim name. What are they to do? There is a simple solution. They can change their names. What’s in a name anyway?

One of my father’s PhD students suspected that her research papers were being discounted because of her gender. She simply resorted to using her initials and surname instead of her full name. Problem solved.

However, this solution only works for those who really do not care about their religion. And that is as it should be. Those Muslims who are irrational enough to believe that they are really losing something by adopting a non-Muslim sounding name get to live in a world filled with people just like them. In other words, they deserve what they get.

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Independence? day

Another anniversary of India’s independence is approaching. And there are children on the streets, at traffic signals, selling paper flags to anyone who wants to celebrate the occasion. Wonder what they do on other days? They sell a lemon and two (or is it more?) chillies tied with a string to anyone who wants to ward off evil spirits. So what exactly are we supposed to celebrate? Independence? Whose independence? From whom? More than 60 years ago, thousands of people gave their lives to achieve political “independence”. What did they achieve? They replaced British rule with democracy. Some of the British rulers were doubtless oppressing a people willing to be oppressed. But others were rendering a service – the white man’s burden. After “independence”, India’s government was led by men of the second kind – British educated socialists who resented the white man’s burden because they wanted to make it their own. They were men with a “noble” purpose; to teach the uneducated masses how to live – by taking control over their lives. These men had “noble” dreams, but their dreams were not dreams of what they would do with their lives; they were dreams of what they would do with other people’s lives. That meant that no one else would be allowed to dream. This was supposed to be independence. Inevitably, this “independence” has produced the worst kind of dependence imaginable. The politician is dependent on the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the irresponsible and the incompetent for their votes. And it is in his interest to let them remain as they are. And these people are dependent on the politician for favors or promises of favors. This dependence is the essential and defining feature of the kind of unchecked democracy that India’s leaders established after independence. The modern intellectuals call this dependence “corruption”. But the manifestation of the essential nature of a system is not corruption. Unchecked democracy is corrupt to begin with.

There is no such thing as political independence. The concept of independence is properly restricted to the realm of a person’s mind. A man’s thoughts, wishes, desires can be independent – of the judgements of other people. Like all virtues independence applies to individuals, not to a collective. And like many other such concepts, this one too has been stolen by collectivists to disguise their true goals. What the Indian political leaders fought for was not independence – of any kind. What they fought for was sovereignty – the state of affairs when a country is governed by people of the same race, religion or culture that have historically occupied it. There is nothing particularly desirable about sovereignty as such. Some of the most oppressive places in the world to live in suffer from sovereignty. It does not matter whether a country is governed by natives or not. What matters is the system of government.

The proper socio-political goal is freedom, not some meaningless independence or a tyrannical sovereignty. Freedom to believe and express one’s ideas – without being censored by the government or by thugs (M.F. Hussain); freedom to marry the person of one’s choice – without being murdered by one’s family or community (honor killings); freedom to develop a technology and market it – without having to buy the rights to do so (3g auction); freedom to buy land and use it for any purpose – without having to rely on the government (Tata Nano); freedom to contract with people on mutually agreeable terms – without being tied by labor laws; freedom to spend one’s money as one chooses – without having it confiscated for subsidies and hand-outs; freedom to run a school – without having to declare it as a non-profit; freedom to start a political party – without having to swear by socialism…

When will India become free? I am not holding my breath (remember the lemon and chillies?). And I am not going to celebrate “independence” day either.

Boys vs Men, Indian weddings, and an essay by Paul Graham

Boys vs Men

This has been going around in my head for some time; ever since I read/reread some of Alexander Dumas’ novels a few months back. The main characters in his novels (especially “The Three Musketeers”) are all people in their early twenties. And they are described as men and women, not as boys and girls. Today the age at which we describe someone as a man seems to be around 30. Young people seem to think of themselves as boys and girls, not men and women. The standard love stories in the movies are described as boy meets girl, not man meets woman. It should be a matter of pride to think of oneself as a man or a woman as opposed to a boy or girl. And yet, there is a definite reluctance in most young people today about letting go the self-image of a boy or girl. It is as if we want to remain boys and girls forever. This reluctance is quite surprising considering that young people – atleast in India – have never been as financially independent as they are today.

Most of us have grown up in families where our parents have been extremely responsible people in an age when there were very few opportunities. Our parents have held the same job for decades while we are free to change our jobs every few years. Our parents have lived in a socialist hell where achieving financial security meant dreary jobs and a sacrifice of their dreams. Is it that we associate adulthood and responsibilty with sacrifice, boredom and dreary routine? In the relatively free economy today, it does not have to be so.

Regardless of the cause, thinking of oneself as a boy well into actual adulthood is clearly a bad thing. Ideas held unconsciously have an enormous influence on our lives. If we don’t think or even want to think of ourselves as fully grown adults, we will always look to various authority figures in our lives to make our decisions for us, to take responsibility for our lives.

Indian weddings

There are two parts to most Indian wedding ceremonies. A religious ceremony consisting of various rituals and a reception party. The interesting thing is that neither part is directly controlled – to the extent that a ceremony involving so many people can be controlled – by the couple getting married or even their families. The first is controlled by some Pandit and the second is controlled by a photographer! If ever I have a wedding ceremony I would want to control every aspect of it.

“The Top Idea in Your Mind”, Essay by Paul Graham

Paul Graham is easily one of the most thought-provoking essayists I have read. And this one is particularly good (Via Gus Van Horn). Graham writes that there is a “top idea” in one’s mind – the idea that one’s thoughts keep turning to when one allows them to drift.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

This seems to be a brilliant observation and an excellent way to take control of one’s thoughts.

NYC mosque and symbolism

Ari Armstrong has a thorough post on the controversial NYC mosque. Here are some good excerpts

…the building of Cordoba House represents a symbolic victory for America’s enemies, and blocking it would constitute a symbolic victory for America’s self-defense.
The question, then, is whether a symbolic display may ever properly be proscribed legally. My initial reaction is to say no; the First Amendment properly protects symbolic expression, and only actions (including active provocation of violence) properly may be criminalized.

I submit that it is precisely this obsessive agonizing over Cordoba House that reflects a posture of defeat and surrender. Why would people spend one minute of their time trying to get rid of some damned prayer center, when they could spend that minute urging the United States government to take decisive action against America’s true enemies? What exactly are our priorities, here?

As disgusting as the idea of a mosque being built in the vicinity of what was once the WTC is, it remains a symbolic victory for Islamists. Leonard Peikoff – in his podcast (transcript) – and Amy Peikoff – in her post – seem to suggest that this symbol represents an existential threat to America. Had someone other than Peikoff taken this position, I would have ignored it. But on more thought, there is something to it. As a rational person driven by logic rather than emotion, I do not attach much significance to symbols. But the same certainly cannot be said about the radical or even moderate Islamists. If a symbol can inspire radical Islamists to further violence – and a mosque on property that was destroyed by Islamic terrorists is certainly a powerful symbol – does it still remain “just a symbol”? I hold that the state cannot legitimately curtail a merely symbolic expression because a symbolic expression is an expression of ideas and not of action. Does that principle still hold when one deals with enemies who do not make that distinction? I am not really sure.

Here is an excerpt from Steve Simpson’s post on NoodleFood.

There’s an odd sort of contradiction at the heart of the argument in favor of cajoling a zoning board into denying the land owners the right to build. It consists in saying that the government will not use legitimate anti-terror laws to prosecute the owners if they support terrorism, but it will use illegitimate, non-objective laws and processes to accomplish the same ends. But if officials lack the will to use legitimate means to go after terrorists, why would they possess the will to use illegitimate means? Supporting this effort seems destined to fail, in which case those who have done so have thrown away principle for nothing at all. And if government is willing to go after the terrorists, why would we ever support using illegitimate means when we could support using legitimate means? Trusting the government with arbitrary power is always a bad bet.

It is clear that trying to prevent the construction of the mosque by taking recourse to bad zoning laws is a bad idea. But I don’t think that is the point of contention. The real question is – Is this really an issue of the right to property or the right to free expression? As Peikoff notes in his podcast, property rights are contextual. They presume a context of a mostly rational, freedom respecting society. It would be impossible to apply them in a society where people do not respect even the right to life. When one is dealing with precisely such enemies, does the context remain unchanged?

Religion and timezones

Several (most?) Hindus engage in ritual fasts to propitiate various gods. Apparantly (via my sister), when they travel abroad, they have a problem. They don’t know when to start or stop their fasts. What timezone do Hindu gods live in?

Interpreting History and Sceptcism

In an email exchange regarding an article in The Hindu regarding secularization and modernization, a friend (call him X) commented: “As far as the article goes ….. I didn’t like it as much. More like the author already has some conclusions and wants to write something to highlight those conclusions.”

Indeed the author already has some conclusions or rather an interpretation of history. The same could be said of my post regarding the same article. Why is that bad? Could it even be otherwise? Anyone who is sufficiently interested in a subject to write about it will and should have an interpretation of the relevant historical events. Having an opinion/conclusion/interpretation is not bad. Not having the honesty to revise ones ideas if one finds facts that contradict them is. In fact, forming tentative hypotheses and refining/correcting them as one encounters new facts is the proper method to deal with anything that has a large scope. 

As an example of this, I am a software application developer. My work involves building upon an enormous amount of previous work of which I know very little. I do not know much about how the hardware on which my application runs. I do not know much about the network over which it communicates. I do not know about all the intricacies and design details of the software libraries that I use. Yet I need and have a mental model for all these things. The model is better in some areas than in others but it is not complete and will probably never be. But the fact that I might never be able to have a complete mental model does not mean that I should try not to have a model at all.

Of course, the example is not fully analogous. It is not possible to test an interpretation of history in the way that it is possible to test a model of computer hardware or software. But the necessity for interpreting history remains. History is the only place where we can actually see ideas in action. It is the only empirical source for validating ideas.

The attitude of discounting something because the author seems to have firm opinions smacks of scepticism. In the same email, X also wrote “I think that religion in not the center of the universe  for most”. Scepticism seems to me to be very common among the non-religious. But scepticism is an intellectual dead end. It transforms philosophy from a tool for living well to a game of no consequence. If one believes that one should never form firm ideas, one cannot take ideas (especially moral ideas) seriously. (I will provide an example of this in my next post.) And that is not conducive for a good life.

Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

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