Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

The forces of democracy he unleashed toppled the Wall, and it is because of him this occurred without bloodshed

If you seek Mikhail Gorbachev’s monument, do not look for it in today’s nationalist, authoritarian Russia. Rather, follow a ribbon of cobblestones running some 6km through the heart of Berlin. The stones mark the course of the Berlin Wall, symbol of the Cold War division of Europe. That ideological struggle has vanished. So too, has the Wall. Thanks, it must be said, more than to any other individual, to the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Sooner or later, of course, the Wall would have disappeared. “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall,” Ronald Reagan demanded in his speech in June 1987 in front of the sealed Brandenburg Gate. But no one listening that day could have dreamt that within two and a half years, precisely that would have happened.

Only 24 hours before the crossing points were opened on 9 November 1989, Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor, was in Poland, assuring Lech Walesa, the country’s first non-Communist leader, that it would be “many years” before Germany was reunited. Kohl was spectacularly wrong. But the Wall’s demise did not happen in isolation – and least of all was it due to the urgings of a US President. It was the product of events that Gorbachev did not initiate, but which his domestic reforms accelerated to fatal speed, as perestroika and glasnost at home interacted with mounting restlessness in the Soviet Union’s European empire.

Just 20 years before, the iron grip on that empire seemed unshakeable, as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was the high point of the “Brezhnev doctrine” that prescribed limited sovereignty for its satellites, and a duty to intervene in “fraternal solidarity”, should one of them veer off the socialist path. So it was in Czechoslovakia, and so it was for any hopes of political liberalisation within the Soviet Union. Thereafter a decade passed with scant change. But in 1978, the unlikely persons of the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church helped set in motion the process that would lead to the fall of the Wall.

Poland, with a long history of enmity to Russia, and whose sense of nation was entwined with its Catholic heritage, was always seen by Moscow as the most potentially troublesome member of the Warsaw Pact. The election of Karol Wojtyla proved its fears were right. 
By choosing a Polish pope, the Church gave new impetus to Polish nationalism, which John Paul II actively encouraged. His ecstatically received visit to his homeland in 1979 hastened the foundation in 1980 of the Solidarity movement, led by Walesa.

The crisis culminated in 1981 when Poland’s new leader Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law – but little did the world know that the Brezhnev doctrine was already dead. It was assumed Jaruzelski’s move was imposed by Moscow. In fact, by 1981, with the country bogged down by war in Afghanistan, the Kremlin had decided against an invasion.

Soviet archives leave no doubt. According to minutes of a Politburo meeting of 10 December 1981, Yuri Andropov – then KGB chief – declared: “We do not intend to introduce troops into Poland.” The Kremlin furthermore told Jaruzelski that even if the Polish authorities themselves failed to restore order, fraternal support from Moscow would not be forthcoming. Four years later, Gorbachev became general secretary, his overriding priority to reform the sclerotic Soviet system. The country moreover had to extricate itself from the Afghan morass. He told the Kremlin’s East European satraps they could not look to Moscow for help.

Thereafter, with every passing month, the gap only grew between the youthful reformer in Moscow and the ageing hardliners who ran the other Warsaw Pact countries. Gorbachev’s attention was consumed by the spiralling crisis within the Soviet borders, not just economic but now embracing nationalist stirrings in the Baltic states and Transcaucasia, and demands for liberalisation at home, opposed by his hardline foes in the Politburo. In the summer and autumn of 1989, matters boiled over. Faced by mounting internal unrest, and the knowledge that Moscow would not intervene, the satellite Communist parties fell like dominoes and Eastern Europe was reborn.

First to go was Poland, where in June 1989 Solidarity swept national elections. Next was Hungary, whose new rulers – fatally for East Germany – began removing the barbed wire border with Austria, dismantling the Iron Curtain, and allowing East Germans who had fled there to get to the West. The Berlin Wall was simply being circumvented. And at every juncture Gorbachev signalled he had no objection to what was happening. Then came East Germany’s turn, and this time Gorbachev himself was in the thick of the action. That October he attended the 40th anniversary celebrations in East Berlin of the founding of the of the GDR. Hundreds gathered outside the parliament, shouting “Gorbi, hilf uns” (“Gorby, help us.”). And the Soviet leader responded with a public warning to Erich Honecker: “Life punishes those who come too late.”

Within days Honecker was gone, but it was indeed too late. Demonstrations engulfed the country, and a month after Gorbachev’s visit the Wall was opened. It would have happened anyway, but Gorbachev speeded the process, and helped ensure events unfolded without a bloodbath. The loss of East Germany and Eastern Europe was another of the unintended consequences that doomed the Gorbachev experiment. He was a good man, but a mistaken one. For him, the decision to let East Europe go was a question of right against wrong, part of the process of bringing Russia back into the global mainstream, jettisoning the great power obsessions that guided his predecessors.

But it also stemmed from a utopian belief that socialism and democracy could go hand-in-hand, that the system could be reformed from within. For him, liberalisation did not necessarily spell the end of socialism in Eastern Europe, no more than it would sink Communism in the Soviet Union. But he was wrong. In his attempt to reform his empire abroad, Gorbachev destroyed it – just as perestroika and glasnost did not strengthen the Soviet Union, but brought about its downfall. The most uplifting place to trace that failure is that track of cobblestones running through the heart of Berlin.

Mukul Kesavan - The Prime Minister and Early Indian Science

In a recent speech at the inauguration of the Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai, Mr Narendra Modi encouraged doctors to take their cue from ancient Indian scientists who had, on the evidence of India's religious and mythological narratives, performed head transplants and produced babies outside the mother's womb. Thus Ganesh, that lovable God of all good beginnings, was the result of an elephant's head being grafted on to a human body by a pioneering plastic surgeon while Karna, Kunti's oldest son, was the product of advanced genetic engineering.

Mr Modi is the Prime Minister of India and we should take his public utterances seriously. One reaction to his claims was to 'normalize' them by treating them as generic invocations of India's glorious Hindu past. This was a mistake because Mr Modi is not some eccentric antiquarian. Mr Dina Nath Batra's claim that India invented stem cell research can be discounted, but when the Prime Minister begins channeling golden age fantasies, you have to pay attention...if only to sort out whether he believes what he says, or whether he is invoking magical Iron Age plastic surgery rhetorically, as a means to an end. 

Normally, I'd choose the second explanation because it's unlikely that a politician as sharp as the Prime Minister believes that an elephant's head was successfully attached to a human body at any time, let alone whenever it was that Ganesh walked the earth. 

So did Mr Modi cite Ganesh and Karna in a cheerleading way to raise the morale of the doctors and medical professionals gathered in front of him? To inspire them to invent and innovate? Unlikely. You couldn't galvanize a gathering of physicists by invoking ancient sages who travelled faster than light without risking your credibility, so why would you pick on pachyderm-human head transplants as a surgical technique with which to inspire doctors? Especially when there is a reasonable, historically-founded case to be made for the remarkable achievements of ancient Indian medicine. 

If Mr Modi wanted to toot India's trumpet on the plastic surgery front, he could have quoted the Susruta Samhita's astonishingly detailed account of reconstructive plastic surgery. Parke-Davis once published a lavishly illustrated book, Great Moments in Medicine. It had a marvelous chapter on Susruta's achievement in restoring female noses cut off by jealous ancient Indian husbands. But instead of citing the inspirational breakthroughs of this bona fide desi genius who lived and worked in the 6th century B.C., the Prime Minister chose to give us Ganesh. 

The other explanation for the Prime Minister saying something he didn't actually believe could be that his speech was intended not for the doctors in the audience, but his primary constituency, the TV-watching public. The logic of this would have Mr Modi saying just anything to inspire warm fuzzy feelings in the hearts of credulous voters who need imaginary ancient successes to distract them from India's contemporary failures. That seems a cynical interpretation because it suggests either a chronic need to pander, or a contempt for the intelligence of the ordinary Indian that we have no reason to believe Mr Modi feels. 

This leaves us with the other possibility -  that the Prime Minister actually believes in ancient Indian head transplants and out-of-body baby-making. On the face of it, this is an absurd belief. Forget the complicated reasons why these transplants can't happen, like the impossibility of getting elephant tissue to 'take' when sewn on to a human being.  Just think of the physical mismatch. The average elephant's neck is more than two feet in diameter; the human neck, even if we choose a very large human, is unlikely to exceed eight inches. How would you fix the one on the other? 

Is this too literal a reading of Mr Modi's speech? No. Mr Modi offers Ganesh as an inspiring example of ancient Indian technology in keeping with the tenor of his speech which emphasized the need to innovate technologically to advance contemporary Indian health care. Ganesh, in this context, is the result of exemplary Indian surgical technique; the example doesn't work unless he presents the head transplant as a fact. 

But is Mr Modi's belief in ancient Indian head transplants any stranger than the magical religious beliefs harboured by dozens of political leaders around the world? Mr Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, is a Catholic. This means that he believes in transubstantiation. He believes that the wine he drinks during the sacrament of the Eucharist is literally changed into the blood of Christ and the wafer into His body. Likewise, the Turkish president, Mr Recep Erdogan, as a practicing Muslim must believe that the Prophet was transported from Jerusalem to various heavens on the back of a steed called the Buraq. So why should Mr Modi be singled out for magical thinking if others aren't?

Because Mr Erdogan's and Mr Blair's beliefs aren't of the same order as Mr Modi's. Religious believers explain supernatural events by attributing them to divine intercession. Ordinary human beings are incapable of subverting nature unless they are helped along by godly powers. The miraculous is the domain of divine grace or religious magic. 

Mr Modi's claims are an inversion of the logic of faith; he is asserting that the supernatural, in this case the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is not an instance of divine magic but the consequence of human technology. He is, if you like, offering us a secular explanation for a deity in the Hindu pantheon. 

If this is a reasonable characterization of his claims, then the closest parallel to the Prime Minister's thinking is to be found not in the religious beliefs of other political figures, but in the speculative theories of Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken was an enormously successful Swiss writer in the 60s and 70s who wrote a series of best-selling books based on a single conceit: the idea that the artefacts of ancient civilization were littered with signs that pre-historical human societies were raised from their primitive state by intelligent extraterrestrials who provided them with technologies more powerful that modern earthly science can imagine. 

Daniken's most famous books had titles like Chariots of the Gods andThe Gods were Astronauts. One of the many illustrations he supplied as 'proof' of his thesis was the photograph of an astronaut in a spacesuit juxtaposed with a rock relief of a globular humanoid figure and the caption encouraged the reader to 'read' that ancient carving as a rendering of a kitted-out alien space traveller. Daniken credits the extraordinary achievements of early civilizations to the technological prowess of ancient aliens, while Mr Modi attributes the marvelous figures of epic narrative and religious belief to the technological genius of ancient Hindus. 

Implausible though his narratives were, Daniken offered speculative explanations for actual artefacts: the Sphinx, the pyramids, the mysterious Nazca Lines of Peru. Mr Modi set himself a more challenging task. He supplied technological explanations for legendary figures drawn from faith and epic narrative. An exact parallel for Mr Modi's daring is hard to find. If David Cameron were to urge a gathering of British doctors to match the achievement of early Anglo-Saxon surgeons in creating a Griffin by grafting an eagle's head and wings on to the body of a lion, the Prime Minister might have company.

Parsing Mr Modi's speech in this way might be premature. The Prime Minister could, in a statement or a tweet, withdraw his claims or indicate that he misspoke while speaking off the cuff. But if he doesn't-and it's unlikely he will, because Mr Modi is not a recanter- we should ask more keenly than we have so far: what else does Mr Modi believe? 

We know, for example, that Mr Modi's party is committed to the continued criminalization of homosexual intercourse. We now know that the Prime Minister has a radically revisionist understanding of India's storied past. It would be useful, in this context, to know what he makes of Darwin and his works. Does he subscribe to evolution or does he lean towards Intelligent Design? What does he think of Guru Golwalkar's prescriptions on citizenship? 

The Prime Minister has shown us in his Mumbai speech that he's willing to air unconventional views forthrightly. Journalists should try to draw him out. Mr Modi's regime represents the enthronement of a new conservative common sense. A fuller account of his beliefs might clarify the ideological filiation of both the Hindu Right and its attendant cohort of strenuously cosmopolitan fellow travelers.

Yes, Prime Minister

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Heroes of Trilokpuri: Eunuchs stop communal goons by threatening to strip

Although the prohibitory orders on gathering and movement of people imposed in east Delhi's Trilokpuri area following a communal clash were relaxed for three hours on Tuesday as no fresh violence was reported, it won't be easy for the residents to forget the fearful memory of the riots in the last one week.
But, there will be few stories and heroic acts that they will not want to forget. The story of a group of 15 eunuchs who stopped a gang to resort to violence is one such inspiring tale.
According to a Times of India report, a group of eunuchs stood guard as a mob armed with swords charged towards Block 35 and stopped them by threatening to start taking off their clothes, forcing the mob to back off.
Often, when a child is born, eunuchs reach the house and ask for money and threaten to take off their clothes if they are not gifted. But, this time, the threat was used for a noble cause. The ToI report noted that the group are also giving brooms to both Hindus and Muslims and asking them to clean the streets littered with stones and shards of glass.
Meanwhile, 50-year-old Shameema Begum, the owner of a grocery shop in Sanjay Camp jhuggi where 500 Muslim families live, is doing another good deed. As prices of essentials like milk have gone up to Rs 100/ litre due to hoarding, this lady were giving away food to people, noted an Indian Express report.
"People were seen secretly taking turns to go inside the narrow lane where her shop is, emerging with packets concealed under their clothes," the IE report said.
A minor clash occurred between the two communities late Thursday over rituals for the Diwali festival in Trilokpuri's B-Block. Two groups of people pelted stones at each other. Police immediately rushed to the area and pacified the people. A group of persons again started pelting stones Friday on the other group aggravating the tense situation.
Two shops owned by the Muslim community were also allegedly been set ablaze. Nearly 60 people of both the communities have been injured in the clashes, with two Hindu boys in a critical condition. "Four persons were reportedly injured by gun shots but these were not fired by police. We are trying to identify who were behind the firing," a police officer told IANS.
Forty-four people have been arrested following the communal clash, but a hunt is still on for five men whose acts are said to have triggered the violence. Thirteen police personnel were also injured in the stone pelting. A few people from both the groups were injured and admitted to separate hospitals in east Delhi.
Trilokpuri is divided into 36 blocks out of which three blocks - 15, 20 and 22 - are Muslim dominated. Seventeen blocks are Hindu-dominated, while only seven comprise of a mixed population. Over 1,000 policemen, including the rapid Action Force (RAF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are deployed in the area after the clashes broke out. Police patrolling vans were busy combing the sensitive blocks, where after the situation was examined Monday, a curfew was imposed with stricter restrictions.

Why Iceland Should Be In The News, But Is Not

An Italian radio program’s story about Iceland’s on-going revolution is a stunning example of how little our media tells us about the rest of the world. Americans may remember that at the start of the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland literally went bankrupt.  The reasons were mentioned only in passing, and since then, this little-known member of the European Union fell back into oblivion.

As one European country after another fails or risks failing, imperiling the Euro, with repercussions for the entire world, the last thing the powers that be want is for Iceland to become an example. Here’s why:

Five years of a pure neo-liberal regime had made Iceland, (population 320 thousand, no army), one of the richest countries in the world. In 2003 all the country’s banks were privatized, and in an effort to attract foreign investors, they offered on-line banking whose minimal costs allowed them to offer relatively high rates of return. The accounts, called IceSave, attracted many English and Dutch small investors.  But as investments grew, so did the banks’ foreign debt.  In 2003 Iceland’s debt was equal to 200 times its GNP, but in 2007, it was 900 percent.  The 2008 world financial crisis was the coup de grace. The three main Icelandic banks, Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir, went belly up and were nationalized, while the Kroner lost 85% of its value with respect to the Euro.  At the end of the year Iceland declared bankruptcy. Contrary to what could be expected, the crisis resulted in Icelanders recovering their sovereign rights, through a process of direct participatory democracy that eventually led to a new Constitution.  But only after much pain.

Geir Haarde, the Prime Minister of a Social Democratic coalition government, negotiated a two million one hundred thousand dollar loan, to which the Nordic countries added another two and a half million. But the foreign financial community pressured Iceland to impose drastic measures.  The FMI and the European Union wanted to take over its debt, claiming this was the only way for the country to pay back Holland and Great Britain, who had promised to reimburse their citizens.

Protests and riots continued, eventually forcing the government to resign. Elections were brought forward to April 2009, resulting in a left-wing coalition which condemned the neoliberal economic system, but immediately gave in to its demands that Iceland pay off a total of three and a half million Euros.  This required each Icelandic citizen to pay 100 Euros a month (or about $130) for fifteen years, at 5.5% interest, to pay off a debt incurred by private parties vis a vis other private parties. It was the straw that broke the reindeer’s back.

What happened next was extraordinary. The belief that citizens had to pay for the mistakes of a financial monopoly, that an entire nation must be taxed to pay off private debts was shattered, transforming the relationship between citizens and their political institutions and eventually driving Iceland’s leaders to the side of their constituents. The Head of State, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to ratify the law that would have made Iceland’s citizens responsible for its bankers’ debts, and accepted calls for a referendum.

Of course the international community only increased the pressure on Iceland. Great Britain and Holland threatened dire reprisals that would isolate the country.  As Icelanders went to vote, foreign bankers threatened to block any aid from the IMF.  The British government threatened to freeze Icelander savings and checking accounts. As Grimsson said: “We were told that if we refused the international community’s conditions, we would become the Cuba of the North.  But if we had accepted, we would have become the Haiti of the North.” (How many times have I written that when Cubans see the dire state of their neighbor, Haiti, they count themselves lucky.)

In the March 2010 referendum, 93% voted against repayment of the debt.  The IMF immediately froze its loan. But the revolution (though not televised in the United States), would not be intimidated. With the support of a furious citizenry, the government launched civil and penal investigations into those responsible for the financial crisis.  Interpol put out an international arrest warrant for the ex-president of Kaupthing, Sigurdur Einarsson, as the other bankers implicated in the crash fled the country.

But Icelanders didn’t stop there: they decided to draft a new constitution that would free the country from the exaggerated power of international finance and virtual money.  (The one in use had been written when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark, in 1918, the only difference with the Danish constitution being that the word ‘president’ replaced the word ‘king’.) To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituent’s meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape. The constitution that eventually emerges from this participatory democratic process will be submitted to parliament for approval after the next elections.

Some readers will remember that Iceland’s ninth century agrarian collapse was featured in Jared Diamond’s book by the same name. Today, that country is recovering from its financial collapse in ways just the opposite of those generally considered unavoidable, as confirmed yesterday by the new head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde to Fareed Zakaria. The people of Greece have been told that the privatization of their public sector is the only solution.  And those of Italy, Spain and Portugal are facing the same threat. They should look to Iceland. Refusing to bow to foreign interests, that small country stated loud and clear that the people are sovereign.

That’s why it is not in the news anymore.

Written by Deena Stryker of

Yes, Prime Minister

Hindu nationalists have long propagated their belief that many discoveries of modern science and technology were known to the people of ancient India. But now for the first time an Indian prime minister has endorsed these claims, maintaining that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were practiced thousands of years ago. As proof, Narendra Modi gave the examples of the warrior Karna from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha. “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time,” the prime minister told a gathering of doctors and other professionals at a hospital in Mumbai on Saturday. “We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.” Modi went on: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

While much of Modi’s speech was devoted to how to improve healthcare facilities in modern India, he also dwelt on ancient India’s “capabilities” in several fields. “There must be many areas in which our ancestors made big contributions,” he said. “Some of these are well recognised. If we talk about space science, our ancestors had, at some point, displayed great strengths in space science. What people like Aryabhata had said centuries ago is being recognised by science today. What I mean to say is that we are a country which had these capabilities. We need to regain these.”
This is not the first time that Modi has publicly articulated such ideas. But he did so earlier as chief minister of Gujarat state, and not as prime minister. He also wrote the foreword to a book for school students in Gujarat which maintains, among other things, that the Hindu God Rama flew the first aeroplane and that stem cell technology was known in ancient India. Modi’s claims at the Mumbai hospital initially went unreported in the Indian media, except on the website rediff.comBut on Monday night Headlines Today TV talk show host Karan Thapar focused on it in his primetime programme, with opposition politicians criticising Modi. The speech has also been posted on the prime minister’s official website. No Indian scientist has come forward as yet to challenge him.

Seeming to take a page out of Dina Nath Batra’s book, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has linked medical science to mythology, citing “plastic surgery” and “genetic science” to explain the creation of Lord Ganesh and Karna respectively.
Speaking at a function in Mumbai on Saturday, he said, “Medical science ki duniya mein hum garv kar sakte hain ki hamara desh kisi samay mein kya tha. Mahabharat mein Karna ki katha, hum sab Karna ke vishay mein Mahabharat mein padhte hain. Lekin kabhi humne thoda sa aur sochna shuru karen to dhyaan mein aayega ki Mahabharat ka kehna hai ki Karna maa ki god se paida nahi hua tha. Iska matlab ye hua ki us samay genetic science maujood tha. Tabhi to Karna, maa ki god ke bina, uska janma hua hoga. ( We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb).”

According to the text of the speech posted on the PMO website, he  said, “Hum Ganeshji ki pooja karte hain. Koi to plastic surgeon hoga us zamaane mein jisne manushya ke shareer par haathi ka sar rakhkar ke plastic surgery ka prarambh kiya hoga.  (We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery).” Stressing on the need to improve healthcare facilities, Modi said India had “capabilities” in several fields during ancient times. “There must be many areas in which our ancestors made big contributions. Some of these are well recognised. If we talk about space science, our ancestors had, at some point, displayed great strengths in space science. What people like Aryabhatt had said centuries ago are being recognised by science today. What I mean to say is that we are the country which had these capabilities. We need to regain these,” he said.

In his book, Tejomay Bharat, which was made compulsory reading in Gujarat schools, Batra, convenor of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, has said, “.America wants to take the credit for invention of stem cell research, but the truth is that India’s Dr Balkrishna Ganpat Matapurkar has already got a patent for regenerating body parts. You would be surprised to know that this research is not new and that Dr Matapurkar was inspired by the Mahabharata. Kunti had a bright son like the sun itself. When Gandhari, who had not been able to conceive for two years, learnt of this, she underwent an abortion. From her womb a huge mass of flesh came out. (Rishi) Dwaipayan Vyas was called. He observed this hard mass of flesh and then he preserved it in a cold tank with specific medicines. He then divided the mass of flesh into 100 parts and kept them separately in 100 tanks full of ghee for two years. After two years, 100 Kauravas were born of it. On reading this, he (Matapurkar) realised that stem cell was not his invention. This was found in India thousands of years ago.” The book carries a customised message from Modi, as then Gujarat Chief Minister.

Yes, Prime Minister
Ancient Indian plastic surgeons could also attach several heads and hundreds of arms to the same body, and replace severed heads instantaneously. 

Our weapons and missile experts had invented neutron bombs that Aswaththama used at the end of the Mahabharat.

Jesus cured lepers with antibiotics. He walked on water with levitation boots

The ancient Egyptians knew about organ transplants, including grafting animal heads upon human bodies. The ancient Greeks knew how to attach goats legs to human torsos..

Where the mind is without fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls 
Where words come out from the depth of truth 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake 
Rabindranath Tagore

The South African HIV scientist who gave girls back control of their bodies

Last weekend Quarraisha Abdool Karim, one of South Africa’s top HIV researchers, became the first woman to receive a US$100,000 (£62,000) prize for developing world scientists. The prize is a welcome recognition for the 54-year-old epidemiologist.
Abdool Karim has devoted her career to developing tools that African women can use to protect themselves against HIV. She is involved in developing a battery of new methods, including anti-HIV gels and long-term injectables.
One of the main challenges has been how to prevent HIV infection of young women, who in South Africa have the greatest risk of contracting HIV. Most HIV prevention methods, such as condoms, faithfulness or abstinence, are difficult for women to control. In rural areas, where farming is falling out of fashion, women often don’t earn money, and sex frequently becomes a form of currency.
In 1990 Abdool Karim led South Africa’s first community-based survey of HIV infection in the KwaZulu-Natal province on the country’s east coast. At the time, HIV was a silent epidemic in South Africa, with few carriers showing symptoms. Deaths from Aids only became commonplace in the late 90s, nearly 20 years after the disease was first discovered in the US.
The HIV prevalence in South Africa was low back then (around 1%) compared to current rates (over 12% nationwide in 2012). But Abdool Karim found that HIV infection rates shot up quickly in girls aged 15-19 years old, while the prevalence among boys only started climbing in their late 20s. Why did the girls have HIV but not the boys?
“It could only be that the younger girls were having sex with men from the older age group,” says Abdool Karim. It was one of the first descriptions of what became known as the “age-sex” difference in HIV acquisition in sub-Saharan Africa. Other studies found that older men sleeping with teenage girls was key driver of the HIV epidemic in Africa.
The age-sex gap has proven tricky to address. Abdool Karim found in her studies of the epidemic that even when girls and women knew the risks involved, HIV wasn’t an overriding fear. “Aids six or seven years down the line was less of a priority than survival today,” she says.
Working with sex workers, Abdool Karim had the idea of a HIV barrier gel that women could use to prevent themselves from HIV. She’d heard about microbicides – compounds that can be put inside the vagina or rectum to protect against sexually transmitted infections. The first one she tested, a spermicide called Nonoxynol-9, didn’t stop HIV. Nor did thesecond one, a gel containing a drug known as PRO2000.
However, on 20 July 2010, South African researchers led by Quarraisha and her husband, Salim Abdool Karim, unveiled the first global results showing that a microbicide could protect against HIV. In clinical trials of a gel containing the anti-retroviral drug Tenofovir, the women using the gel reported a 39% reduction in HIV infections, compared with those using a placebo gel.
The study also found that among women who were high-adherers (who used the gel over 80% of the time before and after intercourse) HIV infections dropped by 54%. A confirmatory trial of the Tenofovir gel is underway, and if successful the vaginal gel could fill a gap in HIV prevention for women who may not be able to insist on condoms or faithfulness from their partners.
Other tools being tested by Abdool Karim and her colleagues might have higher rates of protection. One is a ring that is fitted around the cervix containing a powerful anti-retroviral called Dapivirine. Abdool Karim is part of an international trial of the product managed by the International Partnership on Microbicides and the Microbicide Trials Network. Another is a three-monthly injection for HIV prevention.
There are also long-term plans to evaluate therapies combining HIV prevention with other medical technologies, for instance birth control. Successful outcomes from these studies could give women a variety of options for protecting themselves against HIV, Abdool Karim says. Options are important, she adds, as what works for one woman may not be suitable for another.
Prevention remains the key to curbing HIV in South Africa. Anti-retroviral rollout in South Africa has changed HIV from a death sentence to a chronic but manageable disease. But rates of new HIV infections exceed treatment rates. The HIV prevalence has remained at about 30% despite the fact that the numbers on treatment increased from about 48,000 in 2003 to close to 2.6 million Aids patients on treatment in 2012. “We can’t treat our way out of the epidemic,” says Abdool Karim.

Graham Harman - Between Truth and Power: Bruno Latour’s Political Philosophy

‘In Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political, I claim that Latour’s approach to political theory poses a strong challenge to reigning paradigms in the discipline. Politics since the French Revolution, whatever the complexities of any given historical moment, has habitually been carved up into “Left” and “Right” orientations. Indeed, this is how all of us instinctively classify each person we meet in political terms. As Emerson famously put it, every nation has its progressives (“The Party of Hope”) and its conservatives (“The Party of Memory”). Bruno Latour has always been difficult to place on this familiar spectrum. Clearly he is not a radical Leftist, having little in common with Jacobin countrymen such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, who are prepared to sacrifice everything in the name of egalitarian principle. In fact, Latour is sometimes tarred by the Left as a “neo-liberal,” though this label is always too vague and too broadly applied to anyone who pulls up short of calling for instant Revolution.

Yet Latour also cannot plausibly be viewed as an adherent of the political Right, despite his unapologetic Catholicism and his famous polemic against modernism. One can hardly imagine Latour signing up for a “Party of Memory,” in view of his fondness for novel hybrid fusions of humans and non-humans: it is not for nothing that cyborg theorist Donna Haraway is an enthusiastic reader of his work. The difference between Left and Right actually has less to do with hope and memory than with the conception of human nature as basically good or basically troubled. In the former case, as for example in the writings of Rousseau or Marx, the innate goodness of humans is alienated or crushed by some external corrupting force— whether agriculture, metallurgy, society, ideology, or capital. In the latter case, as in the works of Hobbes or Carl Schmitt, the human being is viewed as a basically dangerous entity, and hence an iron fist is preferred to the innate corruption and disorder of our natures. These two opposite theories of human nature already show us why Latour is hard to classify as Left or Right: namely, Latour has no theory of human nature. The topic does not seem to interest him much, or at least has little place in his philosophy. What matters for Latour instead is the constant reshuffling of human and nonhuman actors in various networks; as they enter and exit various networks, actors change their character accordingly, including human actors. They do not have some inherent good or evil nature that would be either oppressed or restrained by authority.

Yet there is a different polarity in modern political theory, one that cuts across the Left/Right distinction and is also of far greater relevance to the political theory of Latour. I speak of the difference between what we might call Truth Politics and Power Politics. I have already mentioned Rousseau and Marx as exemplars of the Left version of Truth Politics: the truth is basically already known, but is prevented from becoming reality by various social, economic, or ideological obstructions. Yet there are also Right versions of Truth Politics, as found for instance in the teachings of Leo Strauss. Here Socrates is interpreted not as someone who seeks the truth without finding it, as the name philosophia suggests. Instead, Socrates already knows the truth: that humans are not equal, but are arranged in a permanent hierarchy of types that transcends all historical context. Philosophy is dangerous for the masses, yet philosophers must conceal this fact with coded writing and esoteric signals, convincing the masses that they are normal patriotic and religious citizens in order to avoid the fate of Socrates himself. But this elitism is merely the reverse of the supposed egalitarian truth, since both think the truth is already known to some smaller or larger group. This sort of Truth Politics has nothing at all to do with the thought of Latour, who completely forbids any direct access to a “truth” that might trump the uncertain struggles between competing actors.

Power Politics also comes in both Left and Right flavors, though it is perhaps more common on the Right. For Hobbes, nothing can be permitted to transcend the Leviathan. To appeal to a religious truth beyond the edicts of the State, or even to a scientific truth beyond such edicts, is to risk a bloody civil war of all against all. Transcendence is therefore forbidden. In the case of Schmitt, politics begins only in the sovereign’s decision that it is no longer possible to reason with one’s enemy, so that an existential struggle commences. We see Left versions of this Power Politics in various postmodern theories that dispense with the category of truth altogether. While Latour is naturally allergic to any form of Truth Politics, he remains permanently tempted by Power Politics, and fights these temptations for the remainder of his career. The young Latour shows open delight in defending the claims of Hobbes and Machiavelli, in erasing the purported distinction between Might and Right, in admiring a hypothetical Prince who would not just destroy or manipulate his human rivals, but would successfully arrange gas, water, and electricity lines as well. This early phase, in which Latour broadens Hobbesian politics to include inanimate beings alongside humans, ends in his 1991 classic We Have Never Been Modern. When Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer claim that the power of Hobbes outstrips the truth of scientist Robert Boyle, Latour suddenly intones: “No, Hobbes was wrong!” This is not because Boyle was right instead, but because both Hobbes and Boyle are wrong— by reducing the world either to Irrefutable Right or Irresistible Might. Both truth or power are employed by turns to efface the always uncertain play of political networks, in which rhetoric and proof, strength and weakness, all stand on the same footing.

Post-1991, Latour searches for a way to incorporate a reality external to Hobbesian power-plays. Yet he remains a Hobbesian at heart, just as suspicious as Hobbes himself of any court of appeal beyond the immanent world and its actors. Thus, the most Latour is ever willing to grant is a “mini-transcendence.” In his Politics of Nature (first published in French in 1999), it is scientists and moralists who are given the task of detecting new candidate entities for inclusion in the body politic. Not long afterward, Latour turns to the “object-oriented politics” of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, for whom the “public” is constituted differently on an issue-by-issue basis. The political issue or object is that which gathers various stakeholders around it, gradually composing and clarifying the issue by determining what is truly at stake.

However, in both of these phases Latour tends to identify the political with reality as a whole. There is nothing in his early celebrations of Machiavelli and Hobbes that is any truer of “politics” in the strict sense than of science, sports, or amorous life. This remains the case even in Politics of Nature, whose parliamentary terminology does not stop its basic concepts from being applicable to even the least political portions of everyday life. Yet everything changes with Latour’s 2012 treatise ..An Enquiry Into Modes of Existence, or AIME, as it is usually known in Latourian circles. read more:

Monday, 27 October 2014

Caste discrimination, child labour and the Nobel peace prize winner

Child labour and caste unfortunately continue to go hand in hand in India. In connection with the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to one of India’s chief campaigners against child labour, Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, this issue has again been raised in global media and in expert statements.

IDSN network members have been working for years on combatting caste-based child labour including the forms of caste-based child prostitution, Dalit children working in agriculture, manual scavenging and mining, garment, carpet weaving and construction industries. However, as long as ingrained discrimination and stigma continue to be the cause of extreme poverty and lack of opportunities for Dalit families, finding alternative  routes for Dalit children to engage in such as education is proving difficult to sustain.

In the article ‘Poverty and caste fueling child labour in South Asia’, in connection with Mr. Satyarthi’s Nobel peace prize win, Harvard child labour expert, Siddharth Kara, comments that caste is a key factor underlying child labour in India. He says that, “Every single child labourer that I have documented comes from a highly impoverished family unit and belongs to a low-caste or minority community.”

In her statement, Stopping the small hands of slavery, Human Rights Watch South Asia Director, Meenakshi Ganguly, also points out that caste discrimination is partly to blame for child labour in India, as discrimination pushes many Dalit children to drop out of education.

Satyarthi himself reveals that witnessing caste discrimination as a child and teenager in India were what fuelled his engagement with fighting for the rights of those who are abused and marginalised. In a New York Times article he recounts how he as a child experienced that a Dalit child did not go to school and was told that this child’s caste determined that he would work as a cobbler.

Satyarthi also explains that he, as a teenager, arranged a dinner cooked by Dalits for members of dominant castes. He was infuriated when the dominant castes boycotted the dinner and subsequently shunned Satyarthi’s family. This incident in fact caused him to change his then dominant caste surname to his present Satyarthi, meaning “seeker of truth”.

In his work on child labour Stayarthi has inevitably continued to champion the rights of Dalit children, as do the many activists and organisations in South Asia working on the nexus of caste discrimination and child labour. But a concerted and coordinated effort from all actors International, national, government, multilateral, industry and civil society must be made in order to curb caste-based child labour in India and elsewhere.

More information:

Global Slavery Index: Caste a major factor

Harvard report finds that, “minority castes and ethnic groups remain heavily exploited in India’s carpet sector

Dalit girls exploited in India's garment industry (Report)

Dalit Children involved in illegal coal mining (Video)

Caste-based prostitution involving Dalit girls in South Asia

Links to documentation on caste-based child labour

Photo by Jakob Carlsen: Young Dalit boy carrying a heavy load in India

Sunday, 26 October 2014

World’s largest snake species has 'virgin birth'

A 20-foot python from a zoo in America has given birth without the help of a mate. Thelma, an 11-year-old reticulated python - the longest species of snake in the world - laid 61 eggs in the summer of 2012. This is despite having had no contact with a male in her four years at Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, USA.

After six months of extensive tests on the shed skins of the mother and her daughters, a study published in July this year in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society confirmed that Thelma was the sole parent, in the first recorded example of virgin birth in the species.
Bill McMahan, Curator of Ectotherms at Louisville Zoo, told National Geographic: “We didn’t know what we were seeing. We had attributed it to stored sperm. I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction."

The research revealed that offspring were in fact the result of terminal fusion automixis, a process whereby cells known as polar bodies fuse with the egg to trigger cell division, effectively acting as sperm. McMahan added: “It is not uncommon for a snake to lay infertile eggs, so the staff was surprised when the eggs appeared to be full and healthy instead of shrunken and discoloured shells. “It is a very exciting thing to be able to witness something like that first hand, especially something that has never been documented before in this species.”

Virgin births have been observed in other species of reptiles, including other pythons, as well as birds and sharks. The process of fatherless reproduction in animals that normally require two parents is called parthenogenesis, although it is still a mystery to scientists, who are unable to explain the phenomenon.

Adam Lee - Godless millennials could end the political power of the religious right

America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile,the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing

The 2014 midterm elections are drawing near, and it appears that the Democrats may well lose the Senate, since they’re fighting on unfriendly territory – a large number of seats in red states are up for grabs.
But if you look deeper than the national picture, there’s a more interesting story. In southern states like Georgia and Kentucky – which in the past would have been easy Republican holds - the races are unexpectedly tight. In fact, the only reason that the questions of which party will control the Senate in 2015 is unsettled at all is that an unusual number of races in dark red states are toss-ups, despite an overall political climate that generally favors conservatives.

What we’re seeing may well be the first distant rumblings of a trend that’s been quietly gathering momentum for years: America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile,the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing. In some surprising places, these “nones” (as in “none of the above”) now rank among the largest slices of the demographic pie.

Even in the deep South, the Republican base of white evangelical Christians is shrinking – and in some traditional conservative redoubts like Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, it’s declined as a percentage of the population by double digits. Even Alabama is becoming less Christian. Meanwhile, there’s been a corresponding increase in the religiously unaffiliated, who tend to vote more Democratic.
While the effect on evangelicals is new, the general pattern isn’t. The Catholic church, the largest single religious denomination in America, was the first to feel the pinch. Church leaders and Catholic apologists have been fretting for years over the problem of aging and shrinking congregations, declining attendance at Mass and fewer people signing up to become priests or nuns – although their proposals for how to solve the problem all consist of tinkering around the edges, or insisting that they need to try harder to convince people to believe as they do.

America’s next-largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, held out a bit longer but has now come down with the same affliction. Membership has been declining for the last several years – to the point where half of SBC churches will close their doors by 2030 if current trends persist. And as with the Catholic church, the SBC defenders with the biggest platforms have insisted that they don’t need to change anything if they just double down on their existing policies and pray harder for revival.

What’s driving the steady weakening of Christianity? The answer, it would seem, is demographic turnover. 
The so-called millennials (Americans born between 1982 and 2000) arefar more diverse, educated and tolerant than their predecessors. They’re also the least religious generation in American history – they’re even getting less religious as they get older, which is unprecedented – and the majority of them identify Christianity as synonymous with harsh political conservatism. 
As older, more religious generations fade away and younger generations replace them, the societal midpoint shifts. And this trend is going to accelerate in coming years, because the millennial generation isbig. They’re even bigger than the baby boomers.
The influence of the millennials showed in the (by historical standards)remarkably rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage, which in just a few short years has become legal in more than half the country. Millennials view religious demands for the oppression of LGBT people to be abizarre and offensive anachronism. And as the major denominations vocally assert that opposing equal rights for LGBT people is a nonnegotiable condition of membership in the Church of Not-Gay, young people are driven away in greater and greater numbers. This may well be a self-reinforcing cycle, as people turned off by constant homophobic rhetoric leave the churches, which results in diluted power for religious conservatives, who then bear down even harder on the anti-gay message. The same arrogance and institutional blindness that got them into this spiral make it almost impossible for them to see the problem and pull out of it.
But even if this secularizing trend continues, it’s likely that there’s a hard core of believers who will persist no matter what: no one is forecasting the total extinction of the religious right in politics. Still, for progressives, the eroding power of the churches is a most welcome development: the religions right can no longer claim to be the sole source of morality and virtue, nor can they expect to assert their will in political matters and be obeyed without question. Instead, they’ll have to muster evidence and make their case in the marketplace of ideas like everyone else.
In other words, the religious right will finally have to fight fair, and I’m willing to bet that, in the long run, that’s a fight they’ll lose.