Although he figures in the story, Tiger Woods is not the subject of this post. Self indulgent personal foibles of celebrities do not interest us. What strikes me as more interesting are the liberties that others take in spinning and analyzing the all too common clueless conduct of the privileged, in order to make agenda driven cultural points. The media frenzy that ensued following the sleazy disclosures about Tiger's sex life was wholly expected. But still, I found it strange that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, was asked to comment on the golf legend's fall from grace and his subsequent apology invoking his Buddhist roots. To his credit, the septuagenarian monk did not know anything about the tawdry tale of Tiger. After being "illuminated" by his inquisitors, he graciously said the following, defending the lessons taught by all faiths and not just Buddhism.
...the Dalai Lama agreed with Woods in that he should rely on his faith to help repair his marriage. He added, “Whether you call it Buddhism or another religion, self-discipline, that’s important. Self-discipline with awareness of consequences.”
Contrast that with some self appointed moral arbiters of the right wing media whose finger wagging at Tiger Woods included derision for Buddhism and the exhortation to embrace Christianity as a path to redemption. With such surefooted folks (of any religion, by the way) when one of their own fails, it is because he / she was not faithful to the message of the true god, but missteps by others are the consequence of adherence to a false faith (or no faith). Which is why the transgressions of Christian men of god like Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker and pedophile Catholic priests are deemed personal sins, not the indictment of the church or its doctrines whereas a Muslim terrorist or a Buddhist philanderer has to have been led astray by his respective faith. Particularly vituperative (and actually quite funny) is this Fox News report which made fun of Tiger and the Buddhist-Tantrik route to salvation.
If, as Samuel Johnson noted, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then religion is the emergency contingency plan of the discovered philanderer.
Whether it's a president redefining "sexual relations" or a governor redefining "hiking the Appalachian Trail," you can bet there will be a huddle with a religious advisor followed by proclamations of rediscovered faith.
So it came as no surprise as Tiger Woods wound down his prepared statement Friday that he invoked his Buddhist upbringing, lamented straying from its Eightfold (Cart) Path and vowed a return to adhering to the tenets of his religion.
"Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security," said Woods. "It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught."
And lost track. And lost track. And lost track. Presumably to the point of chafing.
Tiger, you see, is Siddhartha, the Buddhist seeker accumulating human experience on his way to enlightenment. Dominating at Augusta, breaking Rocco Mediate's heart in a playoff, clandestine assignations with Jaimee Grubbs, Holly Sampson, Joslyn James, et al., were all part of his spiritual journey.
How can you know where the Tantric Path leads if you don't go down it again and again and again? (And one has to admit there is an allure to a belief system that posits, "The hidden potency of sexual union is the seed of all creativity.")
In Hermann Hesse's novel, young Siddhartha begins his journey by leaving the comforts of his Brahmin family and becoming an ascetic, denying himself all worldly pleasures.
These are Tiger's solitary hours, days, years on the range, monotonously perfecting his game through mind-numbing - mind-clearing? - repetition. Self-denial and discipline, combined with his extraordinary talent, made Tiger the greatest golfer of all time.
In Hesse's novel Siddhartha strays from the ascetic life of a Samana and indulges in matters of the flesh with the prostitute Kamala.
"Siddhartha said nothing, and they played the game of love, one of the thirty or forty different games Kamala knew. Her body was flexible like that of a jaguar and like the bow of a hunter; he who had learned from her how to make love, was knowledgeable of many forms of lust, many secrets. For a long time, she played with Siddhartha, enticed him, rejected him, forced him, embraced him: enjoyed his masterful skills, until he was defeated and rested exhausted by her side."
(Kamala wore out Siddhartha the way Hesse wore out commas.)
Siddhartha emerges from this self-debasement, no doubt wobbly in the legs, and returns to the righteous path.
And so, too, did Tiger disappear into a lust as deep as a St. Andrews pot bunker.
Tiger didn't want to cut any corners on this leg of his journey. So he lay down repeatedly, exhaustively with, what, 14 Kamalas just to make sure the self-debasement took. This is not a guy who was ever going to be satisfied by a medium bucket.
Okay, perhaps an apt and clever analogy. But Hesse's Siddhartha (a namesake of the Buddha) is a fictional character, the product of a German novelist's overheated imagination and obsession with spirituality. Hesse described an almost identical path to self realization by a Christian seeker, a novice in a seminary, in another novel, Narziss and Goldmund. Hopefully, the next time a celebrity tomcat cries tears of contrition and takes "Jesus into his life," we will see a similar satirical comparison with Goldmund (and Christianity) who, having strayed from the straight and narrow of his Christian faith, "learnt" just like Tiger, from not just one Kamala, but a series of enticing lasses - in fact, almost each and every one that crossed his path.
I am all for mocking hypocrites, including those who seek cover in religion. But let it be an even playing field for all prodigal children of god(s).
(Thanks to Sujatha for the link to the Fox News Sports report)
This morning on Meet The Press, here's what McCain had to say, and I'm paraphrasing slightly: Trying to get or getting a few Republicans to get a 60-vote majority is not bipartisan. I know bipartisanship. Why don't we start over, sit down, and start with medical-malpractice reform and selling insurance across state lines?
He later weaseled around on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell despite his statement in 2006 that he would support doing so if military leadership supported it. But if there's a thorough study that he decides he could trust and all of the military leadership in their official capacity supports repeal, then he would have to seriously consider supporting getting rid of it.
I didn't realize "bipartisan" meant "doing only what the core of the minority party wants, and nothing more."
I have less respect for John McCain, as a politician and as a person, than virtually any other politician in this country. This interview reinforced that. Maybe he should stick to investigating steroids in baseball, or else avoid media interactions where he has to explain himself.
The right wing Tea Party movement has come up a couple of times in our recent discussions. Narayan reflects on similar popular uprisings elsewhere.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled The Tea Party Last Time, Prof. Robert Zaretsky recalls a time in France when populist anger led to the rise of a grass-roots political movement.
“MORE than 100,000 angry citizens united in the nation’s capital to take their country back: back from the tax collector and the political and financial elites, back from bureaucrats and backroom wheelers and dealers and, more elusively and alarmingly, back from those who, well, were not like them.”
These were not Americans in revolt in 2009 but French protestors in 1950, followers of a disaffected shopkeeper named Pierre Poujade.Who knew?It is instructive to follow Zaretsky’s retelling of the trajectory of the Poujadist movement.The elements of that movement are to be found today : unreasoned rage against politicians (the president in particular), taxes, and ‘foreigners’, and a willingness to swallow lies.
My own history lesson comes from the early 60s when Bombay was in turmoil from a spate of water shortages that scarcely affected the richer sections of the city.It served as a catalyst for a movement to oust ‘outsiders’ from the city for exacerbating the shortages. The easy victims of this thinking were South Indians in their enclaves of Matunga and Sion.Riots, shop burning and killings ensued. Nothing was resolved, but the movement resulted in the formation of the ultra-right Shiv Sena party whose early aim, ‘Maharashtra for Marathis’, progressed to ‘India for Hindus’ in a move for national legitimation. The Shiv Sena’s activities throughout its existence are indistinguishable from thuggery.
A few years earlier, in ‘58, our family’s move to Bombay was delayed by a few months by even worse violence prompted by regional jingoism. The army was called out by the prime minister to restore order and protect national interests - curfews and all.The Jharkhand party in that instance went on to successfully demand autonomy for their homeland in the impoverished state of Bihar.The new state is now probably in poorer shape than its parent.
Given their mass and momentum, it is inevitable that tea party parties are bound to achieve historical note.But what do they portend in the long term?The happening in Boston that gave a new twist to the leaf was exactly that – a happening.Was it designed as representative of larger issues, or was the symbolism created after the event, grist for historians and the politically savvy? I take courage from the fact that there is no tea - leaves, chests or bags - among our national symbols.
“The election, though, proved to be Poujade’s swan song. He had demanded the nation’s ear, but once he and his fellow deputies had it, they had nothing substantive to say. Slogans and placards were poor preparation for governance, and the group’s rank and file soon either retreated from the political arena or joined the traditional right.”
Zartesky’s history lesson is valuable and timely.Change, whether the Obama type or anti-Obama, will come only when unavoidable and serve higher ideals than those espoused by the likes of Poujade and Thakre. I hope!
Not much of a poetic outpouring, I have to say. But I wonder how long it took him to play around with the words until he had them lined up as a 224 word palindromic poem. Check it out. I did... for about four lines and sure enough, all the duckies are in a row. (thanks to Narayan for the pointer)
"Dammit I'm Mad"
Dammit I’m mad.
Evil is a deed as I live.
God, am I reviled? I rise, my bed on a sun, I melt.
I dislike film and most of what passes for popular culture. I think this may be why Ruchira tipped me off to this review of a film about the viability of popular philosophy. On reading it, I immediately reflected that our own M recently mentioned Camus in a comment to a post about Heidegger. I'd say Camus is pretty darn popular, and not all that intricate, elusive, or arduous. And what about Philosophy Talk, which plays in these parts on public radio? The movie seems misguided from the get-go, pursuing a question with a faulty assumption.
Anyway, popular is a relative term. Maybe there are no philosophers whose books sell as widely as Richard Dawkins', but some of them sell far more than most poets'. Furthermore, Dawkins as popular writer isn't really even a popular science writer in the mold of, say, James Gleick. As a popular writer, he's a polemicist, an essayist or pamphleteer. The article quotes Stanley Cavell on the ambiguity of 'popularize.' Now that's a hoot. Cavell's work is pretty intricate and elusive, and yet he is not wholly unpopular.
At bottom the film review seems to be concerned primarily with clarifying the definitions of disciplines, rather than genuinely wondering whether lots of people can enjoy and appreciate academic philosophy. Take, for example, the easy derision of Jacques Derrida. He was called a philosopher because he was trained as one and, for a time, he wrote about philosophers (Husserl, Heidegger, Nietzsche, etc.). Might as well call him one. But as his ambitions drifted toward amorphous, bastardized, parasitical literary studies, he grew dangerous to the discipline, precisely because he became too popular, in a rock star sort of way, and he purveyed wacky ideas in a ratcheted-up language that was a professional embarrassment to "real" philosophers. The pleasure and instruction I get—S&M allusion intended—from reading Derrida grew mostly out of his writing about literature, anyway, and a little out of the fun he had deliberately embarrassing philosophers.
Oh, well. The disciplinary approach makes it easier to measure contributions and progress, I suppose, but it's also simply division of labor, a mode of controlling people that isn't entirely free of oppression. Stick to your job description, buddy, unless you have that certain je ne sais quoi that licenses you to venture out and away. Not entirely coincidentally, Ruchira has also just posted about, among other things, a slightly confessional account, appearing in the same online publication as the review, of the work of academic philosophy by an accomplished philosopher, Raymond Geuss, who addresses this very issue: "But our networks of institutionally anchored universal ratiocination are hard to escape. How in fact could one get out, assuming one wanted to?" Geuss doesn't consider charisma as one avenue, but that may be because one can't choose to be charismatic in the same way one can choose to be courageous. For better or worse, Derrida quite evidently had charisma, as did his now deeply unpopular colleague and friend, the comparative literature scholar Paul de Man. And it is fascinating that this recent discussion by Geuss about escaping his "mildly discreditable day job" was intimated long ago in a public—if not exactly popular—correspondence between Geuss and de Man in the pages of Critical Inquiry.
De Man's surrebuttal to Geuss's criticism of de Man's article about Hegel begins by noting "the tenuous relationships between the disciplines of philosophy and literary theory." De Man celebrates this nascent interdisciplinary cross-pollination, but he also recognizes the anxiety caused by the decay of disciplinary borders. That may be why according to de Man, "Geuss's stance, throughout the commentary, is to shelter the canonical reading of what Hegel actually thought and proclaimed from readings which allow themselves, for whatever reason, to tamper with the canon." It is no surprise that a scholar devoted to sheltering the canon, as de Man perceived things, might experience his work as taking place in a "conformist, claustrophobic, and repressive verbal universe." I read the de Man-Geuss correspondence when it occurred, back in the early '80s, and I obviously haven't forgotten it. Only now does it strike me that it had all of the trappings for me of popular cultural spectacle, a sort of textual extreme fighting. I don't even care to proclaim a winner in the bout, but the pummeling each writer inflicted on the other was violence to savor.
As for the review's concluding discussion of Socrates and excellence, and its prescription that excellence "should be our motto as we institute a new model for the humanities," evidently Jonny Thakkar is unaware of the late Bill Readings' University in Ruins. See Harvard UP's description, particularly the second half of the second paragraph. Oops.
If you remember having read an intelligent, interesting and informative blog post on any topic related to the arts or literature since February 21, 2009, please consider nominating it for a prize sponsored by 3 Quarks Daily. Please follow the link to find out about the rules of the contest and the deadlines for nominations and voting.
Play "I Spy" before you say "I Do" - a new tradition in Indian weddings.
A thin man in an ill-fitting suit, Singh works out of a crowded office around the corner from a muffler shop. An incense stick burns behind his desk. A sign in slightly fractured English warns the staff: "Walls Has Ears And Eyes Too. BE ALERT."
Singh has spent years honing his skills: disguise, surveillance, misdirection. With just a few minutes' notice, he can deploy teams nearly anywhere across the country.
Because in modern India, where centuries of arranged marriages are being replaced by unions based on love, emotion and anonymous Internet introductions, where would a wedding be without a private detective?
"Today, there's a need to check if people are telling the truth. And that is where we get involved," said Singh. "Does that boy really have an education? Is he really earning that big salary? Is that boy or girl running around?"
A groom-to-be may seem like a nice young man. He might come from a good family. But nearly two decades running his own agency, Hatfield Detectives, has taught Singh how little that can mean. So he spells out a warning, lingering over each word: "You don't know what that boy is doing with his time."
The detectives, though, are ready to find out.
Of the body:
Historian Tony Judt's excruciating account of living with Lou Gehrig's Disease.
I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig's disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration.
In effect, ALS constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole. First you lose the use of a digit or two; then a limb; then and almost inevitably, all four. The muscles of the torso decline into near torpor, a practical problem from the digestive point of view but also life-threatening, in that breathing becomes at first difficult and eventually impossible without external assistance in the form of a tube-and-pump apparatus. In the more extreme variants of the disease, associated with dysfunction of the upper motor neurons (the rest of the body is driven by the so-called lower motor neurons), swallowing, speaking, and even controlling the jaw and head become impossible. I do not (yet) suffer from this aspect of the disease, or else I could not dictate this text.
By my present stage of decline, I am thus effectively quadriplegic.
Of the mind:
Raymond Geuss contemplates his day job - teaching philosophy. Could this gentleman benefit from repairing a motorcycle or two? [A] penitential domain of reason-mongering is an expression of true despair!
I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable, partly because I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness. Partly, too, because 10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual “philosophical” part, is almost invisible from the outside, totally unclassifiable in any schema known to me—and quantitatively, in any case, so insignificant that it can more or less be ignored.
So the experience I have of my everyday work environment is of a conformist, claustrophobic and repressive verbal universe, a penitential domain of reason-mongering in which hyperactivity in detail—the endlessly repeated shouts of “why,” the rebuttals, calls for “evidence,” qualifications and quibbles—stands in stark contrast to the immobility and self-referentiality of the structure as a whole. I suffer from recurrent bouts of nausea in the face of this densely woven tissue of “arguments,” most of which are nothing but blinds for something else altogether, generally something unsavory; and I feel an urgent need to exit from it altogether. Unsurprisingly, Plato had a name for people like me when I am in this mood: misovlogos, a hater of reasoning.
Of the existential kind:
Did you ever ponder that life itself may actually be a form of life sentence? Oh, well.
(the link to Raymond Geuss' essay in The Point magazine is via 3 Quarks Daily and to Tony Judt's essay from Leiter Reports)
Around the Thanksgiving break in last November, was one of the Feel-Good, Miraculous stories of the season: Rom Houben, a comatose Belgian who had been bedridden for over 23 years, was actually communicating with the use of helpers, even without the benefit of normal faculties like speech or much muscular effort. From the BBC article:
"It was only in 2006 that a scan revealed Mr Houben's brain was in fact almost entirely functioning.
He now communicates by using a special keyboard attached to his wheelchair."
This 'miracle' of communication was 'facilitated' with the help of an aide who used Houben's hand to rapidly peck out messages and responses to queries made to him, some so rapid as to elicit doubt from viewers of the video footage- no human with that degree of muscular impairment could possibly tap out messages so fast. From Wired.com:
"Rom Houben’s account of his ordeal, repeated in scores of news stories since appearing Saturday in Der Spiegel, appears to be delivered with assistance from an aide who helps guide his finger to letters on a flat computer keyboard. Called “facilitated communication,” that technique has been widely discredited, and is not considered scientifically valid.
“If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don’t trust it,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics. “I’m not saying the whole thing is a hoax, but somebody ought to be checking this in greater detail. Any time facilitated communication of any sort is involved, red flags fly.”
Facilitated communication came to prominence in the late 1970s after an Australian teacher reportedly used it to communicate with 12 children rendered speechless by cerebral palsy and other disorders. Over the next two decades, it gained some adherents in patient and medical communities, but failed to produce consistent results in controlled, scientific settings."
But never mind, the media were all over the marvellous message. It was only yesterday that a quiet article appeared, confirming that the doctor who treated Houben now acknowledged that the 'facilitated communication' was a hoax, and that Houben wasn't capable of any degree of communication at all.
"Dr Laureys, a neurologist at Liege University Hospital in Belgium, had earlier established that Mr Houben, was more conscious than doctors had previously thought - and that is still thought to be the case.
But he also believed that his interaction with the speech therapist was genuine. Following further study, however, Dr Laureys says the method does not work.
He told the BBC that a series of tests on a group of coma patients, including Mr Houben, had concluded that the method was after all false. The results of the study were presented in London on Friday.
Objects and words were shown to the patients in the absence of the facilitator who was then called back into the room. The patient was then asked to say what they had seen or heard"
Why does this same miracle-mongering keep happening over and over again in the media, with insufficient prominence to the final evidence that it was bogus?
I wonder if all the pundits who opined on the significance of the earlier news will now care to expound at length on its debunking.
Consider the following circumstances relating to this morning's plane crash in Austin,Texas.
a man deliberately flies a plane into an occupied building
the man was upset - he burnt his house down before flying out on the suicide mission
he left an angry online diatribe detailing various grievances against the US federal government's "injustices" towards citizens
he was particularly angry with the IRS and what he perceived as a flawed and unjust tax system
the building he flies into houses an IRS office
the man is now presumed dead
So, we are watching the aftermath of an attempt by a suicidal man with a beef against the US government indulging in a murderous act that he knew was going to kill him and possibly others. Sounds like terrorism to me. Yet I heard the Austin police and the Obama White House go to some lengths in insisting that the incident is merely a criminal act by an individual and NOT terrorism. Why? Haven't we seen individuals performing "criminal" acts of terrorism before? Can it be that the distinction is being made merely because no Muslim is involved and the perpetrator Joseph Stack's angry manifesto may well have been inspired by the rantings of home grown patriots?
I have been meaning to write about the Tea Party of American politics for some time. But the ever escalating ridiculousness of the Tea Partiers' bald faced lies and innuendos is so maddening that it has kept me from composing a coherent post. Perhaps more on that later.
Instead of High Noon at the GOP sponsored High Tea, let me look back at another time in another place. Here are some historic pictures of India that you might enjoy. Click on the thumbnails to see the enlarged images.
A young girl from a princely family atop the panther she shot
A British man of the officer cadre getting a pedicure from his Indian servant
A stretch of the Grand Trunk Road, an ancient trade route from Calcutta to Kabul
A group of dancing girls or courtesans in their finery
Aerial view of the president's palace and the Parliament Building in New Delhi
A group of devotees from the Hindu Vaishnava sect
Aerial view of the Jama Masjid, the historic 17th century mosque in Delhi
Plane carrying passengers and mail from England to India refueling in Sharjah (UAE)
Over at Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio, we've just finished a new show about legendary saxophonist and big band arranger Frank Foster's ambivalence about love. If Valentine's Day left you with similarly mixed feelings, you might find the music a comfort. It's a combination of modern "post-swing" big band writing along with some of the classic Basie sound that made Foster famous. There are also two new compositions by 30-ish musicians Erica Von Kleist and Kurt Bacher. It's all free: http://jalc.org/jazzcast/j_radio09.asp
So Heidegger and a hippo stroll up to the Pearly Gates and Saint Peter says, "Listen, we've only got room for one more today. So whoever of the two of you gives me the best answer to the question 'What is the meaning of life?' gets to come in."
And Heidegger says, "To think Being itself explicitly requires disregarding Being to the extent that it is only grounded and interpreted in terms of beings and for beings as their ground, as in all metaphysics."
But before the hippo can grunt one word, Saint Peter says to him, "Today's your lucky day, Hippy!"
Apparently that is a direct quote from Heidegger. Don't know how much it confused Saint Peter, but I too would have second thoughts about admitting into my home someone who is in the habit of speaking that way. Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein's book Heidegger And A Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates [H&H from here onwards] ends on that note.
Cathcart and Klein, both Harvard philosophy grads, have written this book to explore some questions that have confounded humans through the ages. Patterned as an ongoing conversation between the authors and Daryl Frumkin, the neighborhood plumber, the book attempts to explain the meaning of life and death while drawing upon the wisdom of philosophers, folksy jokes, New Yorker cartoons and of course, Woody Allen.
At the heart of our Life and Death anxiety lies the wishful thinking that author William Saroyan expressed in a letter written to his survivors: "Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case." H&H takes readers through the much debated but hitherto mostly unanswered questions like the meaning of life, eternity, immortality, religious myths, spirituality, suicide, near death experiences, cloning, the reach and limits of bio-technology as a means of prolonging life and the inevitability of death. It is not surprising therefore that the first chapter of the book opens with the no-nonsense declaration, Dead! Whatcha Gonna Do About It? Not much, it is clear by the end of the book, except to laugh occasionally and come to terms with life's grand finale, an outcome we try to keep at bay most of our lives but have no way of finally avoiding.
Whether readers more familiar with serious philosophy than I am will find a meaningful connection between formal philosophical thoughts and the supporting jokes, I do not know. But I found the humor refreshing for the most part. It reminded me of another book I read long ago. Humorist Leo Rosten took the same approach to explaining the subtle nuances of Yiddish words and expressions in his hilarious dictionary, The Joys of Yiddish. The New Yorker cartoons in H&H are particularly apt. Occasionally, the relentless light hearted banter is a bit jarring. I was initially somewhat irked by the authors' propensity for assigning flippant nick names to philosophers.
Martin Heidegger: Marty, Heidi Aristotle: Ari Sigmund Freud: Siggy Arthur Schopenhauer: Schopey, Schopster, Artie, Schopmeister
Woody Allen on the other hand, becomes Allen Stewart Konigsberg (his real name) for a brief period.
Daryl Frumkin too on his side of the conversation, is given to repetitive and predictable incredulity. For example, after being informed of what an assortment of wise men have said about the milestones and mysteries of life, the plumber is prone to judging some of them as follows:
Søren Kierkegaard: a few Danishes short of a coffee break Arthur Schopenhauer: a few breadcrumbs short of a schnitzel Plato: a few Doric columns short of a Parthenon
You get the idea - a running gag you get used to after a while. I enjoyed reading H&H. But I find it hard to review the book in my customary, descriptive fashion. So I will leave it at that. You can check out what others have said on the Amazon page. Also, you can listen in on an interview with the authors on the Forum Network.
(Thanks to Rebecca Hunt, Associate Editor at Penguin Books, for sending me the book for review)
Brinjals, or aubergines or eggplant, as they are variously called in different parts of the world, are the center of a major brouhaha over biotech crops and their introduction in India, one of the most lucrative markets for seeds in the world.
Bowing to the pressure of numerous activists and at least 10 state governments, the Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh has declared a moratorium on the introduction of the Bt Brinjal into the Indian agroproduct market.
Despite the concerns of the growing biotech industry in India, this moratorium is backed by no less a personage than Dr. M.Swaminatha one of the founding fathers of the 'Green Revolution' in India that did away with dependency on food imports. From The Hindu:
"Agriculture scientist and Rajya Sabha member M.S. Swaminathan on
Tuesday described the government’s moratorium on commercialisation of
Mahyco’s Bt brinjal until independent studies established its safety,
as “a wise and appropriate decision.”
He said it was appropriate not to hurry and to look at the problems
to the satisfaction of all. The government should utilise the time to
put in place a credible, effective and transparent system for the
benefit of the country and conduct tests in a manner that had public
Other voices had been earlier raised in protest against what was termed 'inadequate research' of the effects of Bt Brinjal consumption in animal models, prominent among them scientist Gilles-Eric Selarini.
From the concluding lines in his report:
"This Bt brinjal release in the environment includes major risks. It is
not serious to give to billions of people and animals for their entire
life a food / feed that has not been tested more than 3 months with
blood analyses. We do not know the long term consequences of the
genetic modification itself nor the effects of the modified insecticide
toxin produced at very high levels. Moreover there were clear signs of
hepatorenal toxicities, among other effects, shown within 90 days by
significant differences in Mahyco's toxicological subchronic tests in
mammals: goats, rats and rabbits. These are not clear proofs because
the tests are too short, but preoccupying enough to forbid Bt brinjal
release at this stage."
While it's heartening that the Indian government is responsive enough to these concerns prior to full-blown introduction of the crop into the Indian ecosystem, it may have already made its way into existing varieties through improper isolation techniques for the test farms.
"When proper refugia standards are not followed, contamination can
result from the cross-flow of pollen between Bt and non-Bt varieties.
The result may be new genetic combinations that fail to express the Bt
toxin enough for adequate protection from the bollworm.
Preliminary analysis by CICR in Nagpur, which has monitored
resistance to the Bt toxin for the past five years, shows that one in
every 667 bollworms in north India, one in every 440 in central India
and one in every 400 in south India is resistant to Bt toxin." (emphases mine)
It will take a DNA battle of sorts between the existing varieties to determine the genetic victor of all the crosspollination and insect resistance evolution patterns. The results may not be anything we can predict.
Of all the instances of human rights abuse through history, the Hindu caste system of India is surely the oldest, most entrenched order of societal and political inequity. Among India's one billion plus people, hundreds of millions qualify as members of lower castes with myriad gradations and distinctions in their status, the levels of indignity heaped on them being inversely proportional to their position on the social ladder. At the lowest end of the complicated hierarchical scheme are those classified as untouchables (involved in "unclean" work) and some fall under the category of "criminals," although not officially, but in the public perception. While the plight of the untouchables is fairly well known in most of the world, the "criminal" caste may come as a surprise to even some Indians. The indignity and danger associated with this peculiar social taxonomy is based not on legal grounds but merely the accident of birth and the ignorant bias of a long ago foreign occupier - the imperial British rule in India.
The majority of the castes that were "notified" as criminals under the British belonged to India's numerous nomadic tribes. Existing mostly on the periphery of society, nomads were rarely thought of as hereditary criminals through India's history until quite recently. Although a few isolated groups in certain parts of India made their livelihoods through robbery and murder (often ritualized through religious customs), the vast majority co-existed peacefully with mainstream society as itinerant craftsmen, artisans, entertainers, animal handlers and even healers with knowledge of rare herbs and cures. The criminalization of the nomadic tribes took place when people with no fixed address or land to their name became the object of suspicion in the eyes of the highly bureaucratic British Raj who took it upon itself to systematically define India and Indians according to alien European-Christian sensibilities. The foreign rulers thus further complicated the existing local prejudices with their own distrust of dark skinned Gypsies of Europe. A double whammy for an already marginalized section of the population.
In the wake of India's independence and the newly awakened consciousness about the pernicious and cruel nature of the caste system, progressive leaders like India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, tried to facilitate a settled identity for nomadic tribes. Among the steps taken was the "de-notification" of the criminal status conferred on them by the British administration. Legislations were enacted to lift up all lower classes of Indians out of the centuries old state of disenfranchisement. As was (and still is) the case with most Indian bureaucratic measures, many of the programs failed to reach the target population due to inefficiency, indifference and often, outright hostility toward the lower castes both from public officials as well as fellow citizens. Over the past decades, incremental improvements in the plight of some groups have occurred as they have found vocal advocates within and outside their communities. But the poorest and the most cruelly exploited victims of India's ingrained caste-ism have a long way to go in benefiting from the country's economic, educational and employment opportunities. Attempts to assist or assimilate nomads sometimes poses the additional hurdle of tracking them down at a permanent address. Those who have chosen to settle down into a "sedentary" lifestyle, often find themselves in squalid slums without access to public amenities. Also, despite "de-notification" by the government of India, the unfair label of "criminal" sticks to them and continues to foment suspicion of the tribes to their great detriment.
The February, 2010 issue of the National Geographic has an article that sheds light on the plight of nomadic Indian tribes in this day and age of India's great strides in the global economy. Reporter John Lancaster spent some days among the Lohars (blacksmiths) of central India and discovered that while their ancient identity is being fast stripped away by the galloping wave of modernization, the tribes are caught in a backward no-man's land of poverty, suspicion and rejection - still outsiders looking in, denied both the incentive or the opportunity to assimilate with the rest of the country.
(the 8 page article is worth checking out, as is the fabulous photo gallery)
Poverty and suffering, like wealth and success, are frequently associated with personal attributes. The former evokes hard work, determination, intelligence and the competitive spirit, while the poor are suspected of stupidity, malingering and a tendency to exploit the generosity of others. The poor are also often blamed for their own misery in religious terms like karma or an injudicious pact with the devil. Those making such judgments conveniently ignore issues such as accident of birth, exploitation, unpredictable market forces, social, economic and political disparities, natural and man made disasters and in some cases, physical and psychological disabilities.
Public servants like to describe themselves as champions of the middle class while many actually are in office to do the bidding of the rich and the powerful. But at least the middle and working class citizens get lip service and faux respect from their political representatives. The poor are at best neglected and in some cases, shamelessly mocked and maligned. It is troublesome when politicians who are vested with the responsibility of improving the lot of their constituents, harbor contemptuous attitudes toward the most vulnerable and powerless among them. The lieutenant governor of South Carolina, Andre Bauer recently said the following at a town hall meeting about those receiving public assistance in his state.
“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals,” he said. “You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”
When his hateful characterization of the poor generated some criticism, Bauer said that he did not regret his comments but “maybe the stray animals wasn’t the best metaphor.”
For the true state of government assistance programs in South Carolina, please see the full story here.
The recent demise of reclusive author J.D. Salinger has spawned numerous obituaries in the media. Most of them focus on his literary /cultural impact as the creator of Holden Caulfield, a character widely believed to have appealed to the youthful alienation experienced by several generations of young readers. Is Holden Caulfield a universal, timeless youth icon? Do today's youngsters feel the same way about him as their parents did? May be not. Writing in the Smart Set more thansix months ago, author and blogger Morgan Meis speculated that the world has changed as has the young reader's opinion of Salinger's anti-hero.
I'm for the kids. It’s crazy not to be. Are you, dear reader, mighty Atlas, going to hold the world in place and keep it from changing into something new? One lesson of all hitherto existing human history is that the kids have the advantage in the long run. This is a function of time and finitude. The only real wisdom comes in realizing that the kids of today will get their comeuppance with the swift passing of a decade or so. They, too, will wake up one day to find themselves representatives of what was, instead of what shall be. The kids keep on coming.
We learned recently (from a New York Timesarticleby Jennifer Schuessler) that Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, has lost his appeal among the teenage crowd. This came without fair warning. No pimply representative of the Millennials stepped forward to cushion the blow. Instead, we are informed by Barbara Feinberg — "who has observed numerous class discussions of 'Catcher'" — that a 15-year-old boy from Long Island has said, "Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’"
It is easy to respond defensively and with contempt. People don't like to have their heroes snubbed, especially when the snubbing comes from some little punk from Long Island whose fingers are surely rubbed raw from constant tweeting, texting, gaming, and masturbation. We (shall we define 'we' as that part of the population over 30?) find subtle ways to undercut the legions of cheeky hormone machines. Trying to explain the sudden disdain for Mr. Caulfield, a cultural critic by the name of Mr. Dickstein says,
The skepticism, the belief in the purity of the soul against the tawdry, trashy culture plays very well in the counterculture and post-counterculture generation. [Today], I wouldn’t say we have a more gullible youth culture, but it may be more of a joining or togetherness culture.
Indeed, Mr. Dickstein would never say that we have a more gullible youth culture now than in his time, except that he just did. Such are the sneaky tactics of the older generations in the face of youthful boldness.
I asked my co-bloggers if any of them had anything to say about Salinger or Holden Caulfield. No one did. Two of the younger authors, Joe and Andrew (both students of English lit) responded as follows:
Joe: [at] the moment I can't think of anything non-snarky to say, and I feel it might be (1) unwarranted and (2) unkind to the recently deceased.
Andrew: I'm not the biggest Salinger fan. I recently read Frank Portman's high school novel "King Dork," which rages against the institutionalization of Holden Caulfield as a nonconformist icon -- the book asks, how can he be a nonconformist icon if every third-rate hack of a teacher presents him as such? Which is the point the Onion piece* was making..
Of all the articles in the media I have come across on Salinger recently, this essay by Meis written before the author's death, struck me as the most insightful. I myself read Catcher early enough before I was jaded by the worldliness of adulthood, probably in my latish teens. My reaction to it was a bit like the cheeky hormone machines of today although I didn't know Prozac. But in my case it may have been more of a cultural thing. I was a young girl in India in a different milieu inhabited by very different quality of angst.
Meis on Rye ends with this:
But the original lines have nothing to do with "catching." There is no catcher in the rye. In the Robert Burns poem it is "meeting" instead of "catching." If a body meeta body comin' through the rye. And that meeting leads directly to kissin'. That Salinger turned "meeting" into "catching," turned basic human interaction into paranoia and fear, is no fault of J.D. Salinger. Holden Caulfield spoke to three generations because alienation was real. It still is real. But not in the same way. There's a twist to the story that we are still trying fully to grasp. The kids are working on new metaphors. They have their own archetypes to construct. If that means saying goodbye to Holden Caulfield then so be it. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he makes his eventual return, resurrected by the kids of the kids somewhere down the line when somebody has had a little too much of the phonies.
Where are the phonies? Are they from the past or will they rear their heads in the future? Meis is looking down the road for them and their inevitable hypocrisy. The Onion* seems to think that some are here, right now, lamenting the passing of an icon, whose cultural / spiritual half life may not be as lengthy as they had once believed. [link to the Onion via Sujatha]