Sunday, December 31, 2017

Praveen Swami: This Op-Ed Is Dead

NB: A timely and sensitive essay. The author's observations about the destruction of conversation are correct, and carry sinister portent. In its deepest sense, 'communication is living together': if we fail to communicate, we render ourselves incapable of social life, which can then be taken over by the Behemoth of the modern state. It is worth considering whether 'New Dogma' is actually new, or something which has been cooking for decades. I would say the realm of thought and philosophy has been relentlessly subsumed by ideology, which has emerged as a substitute for religion. 

To take two rampant examples of ideological belief systems, Nation-worship is the atheism of the Right; Party-worship the deism of the Left. The Schmittian ramifications of Bolshevism are a clue to why the doctrines of a Nazi jurist exercise so much fascination for Leninists. Communal ideologies pretend to religious belief, actually they are about representational claims and the enforcement of this or that version of civil religion. In either case, God is absent; (not that I yearn for his return), and speech about truth, justice and the Good replaced by polemic, which is a form of silence. (The philosopher Stanley Rosen referred to nihilism as a condition wherein speech is equivalent to silence. For those interested, his book on nihilism is of great value). 

Contemporary nihilism has many sources, not least of them the wave of global war, state terror, and the trauma and pessimism of the first half of the 20th century. These phenomena straddled political fault-lines - and that is a long story. The rise of ideological belief systems is also connected to the reduction of theory to interpretation, and the retreat of objectivity into pure subjectivity - something touched upon in this article. Certain contemporary schools of thought have contributed to this development - let us remember that the term 'radical' can be used to describe nihilists of all inclinations. The leap from 'post-modern' to 'post-truth' has been enabled by relativists of all stripes. Here are some articles that address this issue:

The fact-value distinction is another matter raised here - it could prompt us to think about the parallel distinction, raised by Hannah Arendt, between truth and meaning. Her essay on truth and politics is also relevant. Be all that as it may, this article deserves careful reading. Contrary to the author's statement, I hope that his column remains very much alive. DS

“Fools admire and love those things they see hidden in verses turned all upside down”, wrote Titius Lucretius Carus, “and take for truth what sweetly strokes the ears”. Looking out at the political dissension, slave revolts, and riots that marked the death of the Roman republic, the poet saw people cringing in fear, dreading divine wrath. His answer was to explain the nature of matter. There’s little chance a 7,500-line essay explaining atomic physics and philosophy, the twin pillars of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, would be published today. There is even less chance that it would be read.

Lucretius - and the tradition of reasoned opinion he represented — have been rendered redundant by the profound intellectual changes sweeping the world. In its place, we are seeing the rise of New Dogma: A system of knowledge in which legitimacy derives from I. Truth, in other words, has become a personal aesthetic preference. Evidence of the rise of New Dogma has emerged all around us: Two eminent commentators calling each other “donkey”, “idiot”, and, more colourfully, “b*c*” during a debate on India’s most-watched television network; cows that exhale oxygen; an opposition politician claiming Prime Minister Narendra Modi was importing Taiwanese mushrooms to whiten his complexion; the prime minister asserting his predecessor was plotting with Pakistan.

Truth is no longer arrived at through evidence carefully marshalled, premises examined and arguments tested. The system of knowledge that came to us through pamphlets, books, art and newspaper op-ed pages ever since the Enlightenment has begun to disintegrate.

The key to New Dogma is the ideological proposition that everyone is entitled to their opinions. This democratic core distinguishes it from earlier forms of dogma, which drew legitimacy from god or political power. Technology has facilitated its triumph. New Dogma ideas gain legitimacy through iteration, not by gatekeepers like op-ed editors or institutions like peer-review. New Dogma allows everyone to weigh in on everything - poets on gene science, accountants on nuclear physics, journalists on urban design. For power, New Dogma is of particular use. Complex ethical choices - the need for economic justice, the role of secularism, the value of individual rights - are reduced to matters of taste. Both the political right and left have embraced the New Dogma, as each withdraws into the intellectual ghettos created by social media.

New Dogma rests on the well-established idea that statements of fact, and statements of opinion have separate value. There is, the argument goes, reality - that is, statements that can be proven to be true - and then representations of that reality, or beliefs. Examined closely, of course, the distinction between fact and opinion is less clear than it appears at first. I might state for a fact that there is milk the fridge, and opine that it is enough for the children. There might, however, be no milk - but then children might not want any. In this case, fact and opinion shift around. Ferocious contestation, similarly, will greet the claims about murder being only wrong if people believe it to be so; many would see it as objectively wrong. God’s existence can be asserted to be a fact, or not, depending on who is making the claim. Put simply, both facts and opinions can be either successful or unsuccessful in representing reality: There’s just no way to assess their truth without engaging in the hard work of critically evaluating the evidence.

For generations, institutions like the book or the op-ed page have guided public culture through the process of assessing opinions and facts. This old order, though, involved respect for hierarchy, deference to knowledge and hard work. New Dogma has killed these values, and the opinion essay - like this one - is dead. “There are mirrors”, the scholar Umberto Eco wrote of his visit to an amusement park, “so on your right you see Dracula raising the lid of a tomb, and on the left your own face reflected next to Dracula’s, while at times there is the glimmering figure of Jack the Ripper or of Jesus, duplicated by an astute play of corners, curves, and perspective, until it is hard to decide which side is reality and which illusion”. For the age of New Dogma, there is this metaphor: The disembodied heads talking at the same time on prime time news, each distinguished from the other only by its volume, none addressing the other. Each of us may listen to them, or not, and choose the particular illusion that, as Lucretius wrote, “sweetly strokes the ear”. 

In 2018, when we are freed of the burden of reasoned choice: Happy New Year.

see also
Articles on ideology in East Europe

An Auspicious Day

An Auspicious Day
translated by Gil Fronsdal

(sent to me by my friend Anand Swamy, to whom my thanks are due)

from the Bhaddekaratta Sutta Middle Length Discourse 131

The Buddha said,
Don’t chase the past
Or long for the future.
The past is left behind;

The future is not yet reached.
Right where it is, have insight
Into whatever phenomena is present;
Not faltering and not agitated, 

By knowing it one develops the mind.
Ardently do what should be done today –
who knows, death may come tomorrow.
There is no bargaining with Mortality 

And his great army.
Whoever dwells thus ardent,
 – active day and night –
Is, says the peaceful sage,
One who has an auspicious day

See also

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus

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

Mohan Guruswamy - 2018: Interesting times ahead

The year that has gone by is best forgotten. It was a year gone wrong by manmade injuries, mostly made by one man. Its true demonetization was ordered in 2016, but the backbreaking consequences were debited to 2017. Then we had the double whammy of the ineptly and mangled GST rubbing salt into the nations open wounds. The loss of GDP is estimated, by most serious and unbiased economists, to be around 2% of the GDP (2016-17) of Rs.152.51 lakh crores, which translates into a huge Rs.3.05 lakh crores or about $70 billion. In terms of PPP GDP, we are looking at a humungous amount of 2% of $8721 trillion or a deemed loss of over Rs.12 lakh crores. These are mind-boggling numbers and there is no question of ever recovering this loss. Even recovering the pre-November 8 GDP growth trajectory will take a number of years.

The economy has been on the skids since 2012, which was the one big reason the UPA, whose decade long tenure scaled giddying heights of GDP growth to average 7.8%, was shown out and the growth revival promising Narendra Modi’s NDA was ushered in. For a bit it was looking as if we were getting back to the dizzy heights of January 2010 when it was over 11%. In January 2016 we were back at 9.2%. But in January 2017 we were at 6.2% and now we are at 5.7%.  And don’t forget the NDA2 GDP growth should be read as being on a trajectory flying at 2.2% less, because the current regime tweaked the figures to look better. We can thus say relative GDP growth in October 2017 was actually 3.5%.  From here one can say things will only get better. I will hence make a prediction, without sticking my head too much, that GDP growth should be up by about 1.5-2% in 2018. In the Modi accounting system that would be around 7%. Unless of course, if Narendra Modi in his irrational exuberance, once again decides to take a chop at the economy in its other foot too?

The job creation figures for the organized sector have just come out. We have had 4.16 lakh new jobs in the past year. The IT sector pink slipped around 50,000 high spending techies in these past few months and more are expected to beached this year. The job situation overall is going to get bleaker. A sharp increase in public investment as capital expenditure, to smartly lead the economy out of the doldrums may be too much to expect considering that the Government of India has just entered the market to borrow another Rs.50,000 crores to make ends meet. 

However, it was a good tax collection year and congratulations are due to the tax collectors who apparently took a little more from what they usually let go. According to the finance ministry the tax collection of Rs 17.10 lakh crores is a growth of around 18% compared to last year. While direct tax mop up during the April-March period grew 14.2% at Rs 8.47 lakh crores, indirect tax kitty swelled by 22% over last year to Rs 8.63 lakh crores.  Our Tax/GDP ratio is at about 11.2%. I feel hopeful that we will do even better this year as the frantic linking of PAN, Adhaar, bank accounts will improve tax compliance.

But India spends a whopping Rs 10.18 lakh crores on salaries of its Central and State government employees, including the amount spent on implementation of the 7th Pay Commission’s recommendations. This is a staggering 8.15% of the country’s GDP. But as Arun Jaitely famously said when announcing the consequences of the 7th Pay Commission, it will spur consumption demand and so we can expect a good year for cars, white goods and upper class consumables.

The external situation has been a bit bleak also. Till December 15, 2017, there were 310 infiltrations from across the LoC, a four year high and up from 270 the previous year. The number ceasefire violations reported by the Home Ministry this year was 820, 598 more than the previous year and up 667 since 2014. This clearly suggests that things with Pakistan are getting worse, and things in Jammu and Kashmir too are getting worse. After all more terrorists are coming from across because they feel there is much unfinished business here and the fire needs to be turned up.

The number of terrorists killed in 2017 (till December 1) is now over 200 and the highest in seven years. The number of civilians killed in cross fires was 54, up from 14 in 2016. We lost 47 officers and jawans till December 24, 2017, of which 12 were in suicide attacks. Security forces lost 60 killed the previous year of which 36 were in suicide attacks the previous year. Clearly the other side is struggling with getting suicidal jihadis. It would thus be safe to infer that Pakistan did not have a particularly good year last year. Now read this with the increased numbers of infiltrations reported and we can expect 2018 to be a busier year for security forces inside the state and on the border.

I think the number of actions will keep increasing to reach a high towards the end of 2018, as security forces will also be pushed to become more proactive in anticipation of 2019. In the voter perception, a cross border raid has a far higher valence than knocking off terrorists inside our territory. There are also no signs that the Pakistani Army outsourcing to terrorist gangs is going to diminish. On the contrary with President Trump breathing down its back, the Pakistan Army might ease off pressure in Afghanistan and open the valves on the Indian side. So it looks like 2018 will be much more interesting.

There is an old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. There is a typically Chinese subtlety in this curse. While sounding like a good wish or even a benediction, the allusion to “interesting times” is clearly suggestive on less tranquil times ahead, because tranquility is a highly desirable state of mind. The Chinese will almost certainly make life more interesting for us. The intensity and duration of crises provoked incidents at Depsang, Chumar and Dokolam now suggest a new tactic to ratchet up public agitation, both in India and in China. In China the regime seeks to increasingly pander to rising jingoism, just as it is the same in India. With both sides quite apparently keen to use external tensions to rally domestic support, we can the India-China border to become a more interesting place.

With economic prospects still suffering from the self-hamstringing, the external situation will play right into the Modi playbook.  The Army did well in handling the Dokolam and Chumar incidents. Such incidents unleash our animal spirits and such nationalism releases patriotism combined with religiosity. Which makes me believe that this will be the year when the Ram Mandir building will start. This will also be the year when the legislation of Uniform Civil Code will be attempted – for often the attempting is better than the doing. Modi can be trusted to make it an interesting year. And I think that it will be a good year too for him, politically. When you can’t give people jobs, you can always give them a good show. 

It usually works. But unlike Ghalib, I will not be able to say: 

Zulm ki raat bahut jaldi dhalegi/ 
Abto aag chulho mein har ek roz jalegi/ 
Abto bhukh ke maare koi bachha nahi royega/ 
Chain ki neend har ik shaksh yahan soyega/ 
Aandhi nafrat ki chalegi na kahin/ 
Ab ke baras pyaar ki fasl ugaayegi zamin ab ke baras

Mohan Guruswamy

André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra perform La Paloma - in Mexico. This man is a gift from God.. Music may yet save humanity.. Happy new year!

Image result for André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra

Andre Rieu Amazing Grace (in Scotland)

Ballade pour Adeline (composed by a father for his daughter)

The Little Drummer Boy (Some music for Christmas)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Book review: The Voegelin Enigma

Order and History (Vol. 5): In Search of Order
(Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 18)
Reviewed by Montgomery Erfourth

Eric Voegelin smashed every category, scrambled every dichotomy, and spurned every orthodoxy he encountered to discover what ailed modern Western society.

In his later life Voegelin worked to account for the endemic political violence of the twentieth century, in an effort variously referred to as a philosophy of politics, history, or consciousness. In Voegelin’s Weltan-schauung, he “blamed a flawed utopian interpretation of Christianity for spawning totalitarian movements like Nazism and Communism.” Voegelin eschewed any ideological labels or categorizations that readers and followers attempted to impose on his work

Voegelin perceived similarities between ancient Gnosticism and modernist political theories, particularly communism and nazism. He identified the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnection from society and a belief that this lack is the result of the inherent disorder, or even evil, of the world. This alienation has two effects: The first is the belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin (the Gnostics themselves referred to this as gnosis). The second is the desire to implement and or create a policy to actualize the speculation, or Immanentize the Eschaton, i.e., to create a sort of heaven on earth within history. According to Voegelin the Gnostics are really rejecting the Christian eschaton of the kingdom of God and replacing it with a human form of salvation through esoteric ritual or practice. (The above passages are from the Wikipedia entry on Voegelin)

Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin was born in Cologne, Germany in January 1901, just as Western civilization was about to tear itself apart. He grew up in Vienna, the child of rather typical Protestant parents, and joined the Law Faculty at the University of Vienna before becoming a dedicated political science professor there. Because of his vocal opposition to the Nazis—he had written two books criticizing their “master race” absurdities—the university dismissed him soon after the 1938 Anschluss. He narrowly escaped the Gestapo as he fled briefly first to Switzerland and then to the United States.

Living through the devastation of the World War and the terror of Nazi Germany fueled his desire to understand the sources of acute disorder in Western civilization. It was a desire evidently shaped by Vögelin’s American experience. When he came to the United States during World War II it was not for the first time. When he was but 23 years old, the newly minted Austrian Ph.D. had visited the United States thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He stayed for about three years, not ensconcing himself at a single university but roaming from Columbia to Harvard to the University of Wisconsin and beyond in search of America’s greatest thinkers. His experience of America’s stability, its Christian religiosity, and its non-positivist philosophical environment heightened his sense that social and political orders shared certain key features. Years later he continued to pursue the answers to what he viewed as an ongoing crisis of western Civilization, working as a professor of political science at several American universities, as well as at one in Munich, until his death at age 84.

By the time he became an American citizen in 1944, his name respelled to Eric Voegelin, his overarching question had come down to this: What is political reality? In its simplicity, it reminds one of Einstein’s early obsession: What is light? Voegelin’s query, and the means of discovery he presents as the best way to an answer, in turn produce a kind of orientation for how to live within that reality. 

That is what makes Voegelin relevant to a troubled late modernity that clearly sensed the same ongoing crisis but, in Voegelin’s opinion, used inadequate tools to understand the problem.
Modernity’s self-imposed limits, one of which was to declare philosophy and theology incommensurate, or at any rate not on speaking terms, simultaneously explain its crisis and its inability to understand it. Voegelin’s ambitious political and philosophic endeavor aimed to reunify the two disciplines, and by so doing move Western man back in line with the revelatory and philosophical traditions that had made him so successful. He came to believe that the truth of reality was revealed in a simple precept: The basis of order is found in the “ground of being”, which is the divine. Only through conscious interaction with the divine can man know truth. Ancient Greek philosophy and the Mosaic revelation are both required to comprehend this actuality; applying the logic of this world to a truth beyond it is the necessary formula.

In his reverence for the ancients, Voegelin is sometimes likened to Leo Strauss, but the comparison becomes strained once it moves beyond the superficial. Strauss once claimed (on a bad day, one would hope) that Maimonides could not be a Jew by religion because he took philosophy seriously. Strauss immersed himself in philosophical esoterica in presumed opposition to theology, perhaps in hopes that its shimmering, elusive status would rub off on him—as indeed it has for some. While Voegelin’s highly esoteric writing style belied it, he had little use for gnostic shenanigans.

At the heart of modern Western civilization’s dramatic struggle to maintain its inherited understanding of truth, Voegelin believed, were new gnostic attempts to replace traditional truths with a new formula for order that rejected any notion of divine partnership. Voegelin’s personal and professional “resistance” to the untruth he saw in modern Gnosticism—better known then as now as supposedly secular, utopian ideologies, namely Marxism and fascism—led him to seek a deeper understanding of the process by which humanity comes to know the structure of reality and its attendant symbols and indices. Voegelin examined the best our ancestors had to offer in tempering humanity’s darker angels. His examination, he hoped, would reveal how to avoid the catastrophe of these dark angels becoming our political rulers... read more:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Hegel and the mystical tradition: Interview with Glenn Magee. By Stanislav Panin

A year ago I interviewed American scholar Glenn Magee, the author of Hegel and the Hemetic Tradition and the editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism, for Russian journal Research in Religious Studies. The interview was published in Russian in issue 2(12)/2015 

* * *
You are a specialist in classic German philosophy, Western mysticism and esotericism. Why do you think these topics are important for contemporary scholars?
Well, these are three distinct — and rather huge — areas. Though my scholarship deals with how they overlap. A very simple answer to this question would be that all of these areas ought to be of interest to scholars because they have been extremely influential. German philosophy has shaped the world that we live in today, culturally and politically. And mysticism and esotericism are perennial expressions of spirit — of human nature. But the real reason why German philosophy, Western mysticism, and Western esotericism are important is that they are extraordinarily rich and profound traditions that have a great deal to teach us about the human condition, and the nature of reality.

What scholars can you name who were especially influential on your choice to study these fields and on your work?
The scholar who first led me connect German philosophy with mysticism and esotericism was Eric Voegelin, who made the claim that Hegel belonged to the Hermetic tradition. In understanding Hegel’s relation to Jacob Boehme, I am indebted to the work of David Walsh and Cyril O’Regan. In terms of my understanding of Western esotericism, the major influences have been Frances Yates and Antoine Faivre. The Hegel scholars who were most important for me were my own teacher, Donald Phillip Verene, and also J.N. Findlay, G.R.G. Mure, and, especially, Errol Harris.

You speak about mysticism and esotericism, but some scholars like Arthur Versluis, for instance, prefer to talk about mysticism as a form of esotericism. What is your opinion on relationship between these terms? How esotericism correlates with mysticism? How do you define these terms?
Gershom Scholem’s position was that mysticism meant a type of knowledge which is incommunicable, whereas esotericism is communicable, but deliberately kept secret. This is not a very adequate way of characterizing esotericism, of course, since much of it is not secret and never was. However, I do think that Scholem is correct that mysticism is incommunicable. The essence of mysticism is found in the concept of gnosis: a direct perception of the ultimate truth of what is. Because everything in our experience flows from this source, the source itself cannot be understood in terms of the categories we employ in thinking or speaking about mundane things. In the introduction to my forthcoming volume, The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism, I argue that there is a particular worldview at the root of esotericism, one which asserts that existence is an inter-connected whole shot through with correspondences and sympathies, and that the most fundamental of these correspondences is that of macrocosm and microcosm. 

But this is, in fact, precisely the core mystical teaching; the “doctrine” that emerges when mystics attempt to convey in words what the experience of gnosis has taught them. Esotericism is thus founded upon mysticism. It would be more accurate to simply state that esotericism is founded upon gnosis, either directly (when esotericists themselves have the experience of gnosis) or indirectly (when esotericists put their faith in the testimony of those who have had the experience). Mysticism affords us with a special experience, or with the next-best thing: reports by those who have had the experience. 

The various items grouped together as “esotericism,” by contrast, mainly consist in techniques or practices or specialized areas of investigation: alchemy, astrology, magic, numerology, gematria, visions of other worlds, spiritualism, etc. Mysticism is gnosis; esotericism is technē (technique or art). And, as I have argued, this technē is founded upon gnosis. Esotericism is virtually unintelligible without an appreciation for its roots in mystic gnosis. And it can be plausibly argued that gnosis leads to esoteric technē; to the development of the various “occult sciences,” and preoccupation with them. Again, I discuss all of this extensively in the introduction to my forthcoming volume.

The title of your book Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition sounds as a reference to F. A. Yates and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Was this reference intentional? What is your opinion about Yates and her works? Are her ideas important for contemporary scholars, or they are out of dated?

Yes, the title of my book is most certainly a reference to Yates — an homage, in fact. And the account of Hermeticism I offer in the book is greatly indebted to Yates. The current fashion is to claim that Yates is out of date, and that the “Yates paradigm” (the thesis that there is a “Hermetic tradition”) is untenable. However, the fact is that Yates is unquestionably the giant in the field of esotericism.
read more:

Women’s NGOs are changing the world – and not getting credit for it

In contemporary global development circles, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now performing many more roles and activities than they did a few decades ago. NGOs work with governments, community groups and the private sector — to develop and implement programs, monitor and evaluate their progress and help train people working on those projects. 

They’re considered more nimble than other institutions in accomplishing development goals, because they can reach the most vulnerable or disaffected people in a community and find innovative solutions to problems. Although their funding streams and institutional decision-making structures are typically multinational, NGOs’ legitimacy, indeed, often rests on perceptions of them being “local” and “close to the people.”

NGOs are increasingly taking on the responsibility of implementing the gender equality and women’s empowerment agendas of the global development sector. But very rarely have researchers tried to understand or document the specific challenges and opportunities that NGOs working on gender equality, or those that define themselves as feminist NGOs or women’s NGOs, face — when participating in multiple-stakeholder projects like Canada’s new feminist international assistance policy. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, and the Canadian initiative that includes $150 million in funding for advancing the rights of women and girls, will undoubtedly increase the engagement of women’s NGOs in a variety of activities.

That means understanding the opportunities and constraints faced by women’s NGOs in multiple-stakeholder projects is increasingly important. We’re basing our observations upon research conducted over the past decade in India, where women’s NGOs were involved in delivering urban basic services like water, sanitation and electricity, and in Tanzania, where women’s NGOs helped deliver community health and microenterprise development services. In both contexts, we found that women’s NGOs played crucial roles in development projects, often mobilizing, organizing and building projects that otherwise would never have launched... read more:

This love story of a Rohingya Muslim-Buddhist couple is like no other

In her dreams, Setara walks hand in hand with her Muslim husband through the streets of the seaside Myanmar town they grew up in. They visit old friends, share a meal with family, dip their toes into the warm surf of the Bay of Bengal. But in the hate-filled reality of the world they live in, Setara can only do these things alone — when she takes off her Islamic veil and crosses through a pair of checkpoints into the predominantly Buddhist state capital, where her government will not allow the love of her life to set foot. That’s because Setara’s husband is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim, a group the United Nations has called one of the most persecuted on the planet. Setara, meanwhile, was born a Buddhist and part of the ethnic Rakhine, who despise the Rohingya and see them as foreign invaders from Bangladesh.

Marriage between the two communities is extraordinarily rare. It’s also risky in a nation where security forces have driven more than 730,000 Rohingya into exile since 2016, carried out large-scale massacres and burned hundreds of villages in a campaign the UN and human rights groups have described as “ethnic cleansing.” In Sittwe, Setara tells no one she is married to a Rohingya. Because “if they knew, they would kill me right away. So I’m always careful.”

The 24-year-old’s fears are not exaggerated. Even Rohingya who have ventured into Sittwe on rare trips escorted by police in recent months have been attacked by mobs and killed. Hard-line Buddhists regularly march through the city’s crumbling streets, past ruined mosques that have been closed since June 2012, when the Rakhine burned most Rohingya homes and drove more than 120,000 into camps for the displaced. Setara, then a widow, met her husband, Mohammad, about eight months later at a market on the edge of a Rohingya village where she had come to sell vegetables. Rakhine traders, who can travel freely, regularly sell goods to Rohingya at marked-up prices.

They exchanged phone numbers and she began visiting him at a pharmacy he ran nearby. Mohammad, 32, bought her small gifts, teased her to make her laugh and took her for rides on his motorbike. He was amazed to meet a Rakhine woman who didn’t treat a Rohingya any differently than her own. He told her he loved her. Setara felt the same way. She thought he was the kindest man she had ever known.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Syeda Hameed - Muslims must share the blame for their present situation in India

The government’s decision to introduce the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill in the Lok Sabha today poses a challenge to the Muslim community . As an example of its disregard for the community most affected, the minister of state for law and justice has said that in framing this law, no Muslim groups had been consulted.

The Koranic provision on talaq is clear. In Islam, there is no concept of reincarnation. To enjoy the gift of this life, the provision of graceful separation is provided in case marriage becomes intolerable for either party. Hence the concept of talaq and khula. The man is given a way out through the provision of talaq and the woman through the right of khula. The balance is perfect and explained with precision in the Koran. My mentor Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who has translated and written the best explication of the Koran stressed the fact that its injunctions are simple. He deplored the self-appointed custodians of Islam who have created huge complications for Muslims.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, when the Koran was revealed 1,437 years ago, girl children were buried at birth. In these circumstances, came a man who revealed Allah’s word that women were equal to men in every way. That they were free agents with rights in marriage, divorce, property and income. In a society where men contracted scores of marriages the Koran said ‘enough’. No more than four but added a next sentence for men. ‘Since you are generally incapable of dispensing equal justice to four, one is enough.’

When I wrote the first ever report on status of Muslim women in India, I was a member of the National Commission for Women. That was in 2000, when no one could have imagined the way that the political tide would turn rightward. But when I wrote the report there was a sixth sense which made me warn the Maulanas and Alims. I wrote that unless they direct the community in their public preaching to practise Islam in the light of the basic tenets of the Quran and abjure the abhorrent practices of triple talaq and multiple marriages, they will live to regret it. A time may come when the government of the day will weigh in… read more:

'It's all fentanyl': opioid crisis takes shape in Philadelphia as overdoses surge. By Edward Helmore // Drugmakers ‘Complicit’ In Opioid Crisis

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released figures indicating that a sharp rise in drug overdose deaths, which many attribute in part to fentanyl, is causing a drop in American life expectancy. Opioids killed almost 64,000 people in 2016. The figure for 2017 is likely to be higher again. In October, Donald Trump declared a public health emergency.

On the streets of Kensington, a crisis is taking shape that an anti-drug advertising campaign proposed by Trump may do little to ease. “Fentanyl has drastically changed the landscape,” Trainor said. “Sixty-four percent of fatals in Philadelphia County are fentanyl-related. There’s no dope out here now, it’s all fentanyl. Even the old timers are scared of it.”

In Kensington, many addicts congregate in a small park. It has become busier since authorities fenced off and filled in “the Tracks”, an aptly named encampment near train lines where residents once set up tables and mirrors to aid fixing in the neck. Others moved to an underpass on Emerald Street, known as Emerald City. In either area, even addicts now carry Narcan. It’s an optimistic gesture, but barely. Nationally, over the past three years, fentanyl-related deaths have increased by 540%. For the first time, the majority of fatal overdoses are fentanyl-related, accounting for “nearly all the increases in drug overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016”, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. In Philadelphia, a city previously known for pure and relatively inexpensive heroin, there have been nearly 800 fentanyl overdoses this year... read more:

Chicago Area Officials Demand Accountability For Drugmakers ‘Complicit’ In Opioid Crisis
“We believe a good start is to aggressively confront one of the root causes of this national epidemic: the pharmaceutical companies and those paid by the pharmaceutical companies who put profits before public health and safety,” Preckwinkle added.  The officials want the companies to pay monetary damages for costs incurred by the county’s hospitals and jail for treating the opioid crisis. The goal is to “hold accountable those who have been complicit in the creation of this epidemic,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement. The lawsuit cites the companies’ “coordinated, sophisticated, and highly deceptive marketing” of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet, which public health officials have named as a major cause of the opioid crisis....

Rupert Neate - World's richest 500 see their wealth increase by $1trillion this year

The world’s 500 richest people have increased their wealth by $1tn (£745bn) so far this year due to a huge increase in the value of global stock markets, which are likely to finish 2017 at record highs.
The big increase in the fortunes of the ultra-wealthy comes as billions of poorer people across the world have seen their wealth standstill or decline. The gap between the very rich and everyone else has widened to the biggest it has been in a century and advisers to the super-rich are warning them of a “strike back” from the squeezed majority.

The globe’s 500 richest people, as measured by the Bloomberg billionaires index,have seen the value of the wealth increase by 23% so far this year, taking their combined fortunes to $5.3tn. The increase is largely the result of booming stock markets. The MSCI World Index and the US Standard & Poor’s 500 are both up almost 20% so far this year. The UK’s FTSE 100 is up more than 6% – and hit a new closing high of 7,620.7 points on Wednesday.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the world’s richest man. His fortune has increased by $34.2bn so far this year to take his “net worth” to $99.6bn. On just one day in October Bezos’s fortune increased by $10.3bn, when Amazon posted profits much higher than analysts had expected and the company’s shares spiked. Bezos,53, who founded Amazon in his Seattle garage in 1994, owns 16% of the retailer. He also owns all of space exploration company Blue Origin and the Washington Post newspaper, which he bought for $250m in 2013… read more:

see also
Posts on Greece

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Why do archive files on Britain’s colonial past keep going missing? Siobhan Fenton

he National Archives are home to more than 11m documents, many of them covering the most disturbing periods of Britain’s colonial past. The uncomfortable truths revealed in previously classified government files have proved invaluable to those seeking to understand this country’s history or to expose past injustices. It is deeply concerning, therefore, to discover that about 1,000 files have gone missing after being removed by civil servants. Officially, the archives describe them as “misplaced while on loan to a government department”.

The files, each containing dozens of pages, cover subjects such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the British colonial administration in Palestine, tests on polio vaccines and territorial disputes between the UK and Argentina. It is unclear whether duplicates exist. The loss of so many documents of such significance has understandably caused concern among historians, politicians and human rights groups. Amnesty International has called on Theresa May to order an urgent government-wide search for the documents, while Labour MP Jon Trickett has warned that the loss “will only fuel accusations of a cover-up”. Such suggestions may seem far-fetched, but recent history has given many people reason to be suspicious. Documents in the National Archives have previously been key in revealing human rights abuses by the British state.

In 2014, for instance, investigators from the Irish broadcaster RTÉ uncovered a 1977 letter from the then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, to the prime minister of the day, James Callaghan, in which Rees claimed that ministers had given permission for torture to be used in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The information had reportedly been withheld from the European court of human rights.

Also in 2014, the government was accused of a cover-up after it said it could not release information about the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programmebecause the files had suffered “water damage” .
In 2013, meanwhile, the Guardian revealed that more than 1m documents that should have been declassified were instead being unlawfully kept at a high-security compound in Buckinghamshire. Their existence only came to light when a group of elderly Kenyans took the government to the high court, claiming they had been tortured during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion. The Foreign Office was forced to admit it had withheld thousands of colonial-era papers… read more:

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

G. Sampath - Reading Rahul Gandhi’s hand

Until a few months ago, a politician could speak of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ and expect to be taken seriously. It was an eventuality that seemed both possible and probable. A few days after the Gujarat election results, it would seem that the spectre of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ has been exorcised for the time being.

Four factors: One could discern four factors behind the upswing in the Congress’s fortunes in Gujarat, and these may well constitute the core ingredients for a pan-India revival too. The first is Rahul Gandhi’s comfort level in a leadership role. Never before has he looked as relaxed and confident as he did leading from the front in Gujarat. For long he has been mocked as a bumbling neophyte lacking the commitment necessary for the rigours of electoral politics. But as he travelled across Gujarat, addressing nearly 30 rallies, gone was the diffident dilettante mouthing ghost-written speeches. Instead, what the people saw was a politician who was earnest, did not act like the entitled dynast he was said to be, and was eager to listen.

The second is Mr. Gandhi’s capacity for self-effacement, which enabled him to bring together competing political egos for a larger cause. Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani are massively popular, ambitious youth leaders representing different constituencies and whose political agendas are often mutually contradictory. What united them under the auspices of the Congress was their readiness to trust Mr. Gandhi. It is difficult to think of another Congress politician who could have pulled off this remarkable social coalition — remarkable because it was based not on a cynical caste calculus but on substantive issues such as employment, educational opportunities, unfair taxation, land rights, and agrarian distress.

The third element, unlike the others, is a work in progress: organisational presence on the ground. The Congress mostly managed this by drawing on pre-existing mobilisations such as the Patidar movement. But one instance where it came a cropper was Surat. The textile city had become the epicentre of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anger in Gujarat. But the crowds that turned up for Mr. Patel’s rallies in Surat did not translate into votes. The Congress’s near-absence at the ground level and the BJP’s superiority in booth management and financial firepower made all the difference as the latter swept the city, winning 15 of the 16 seats. The Surat phenomenon is bound to repeat itself unless Mr. Gandhi fixes the rot in the middle and lower rungs of the party and turns them into reliable cogs in the organisational machinery.

Last, and most critical to the Congress’s electoral prospects, is the articulation of an alternative politics that is credible, imaginative, and connects with the masses. And it is here that Mr. Gandhi has surprised everyone. His speech after taking over as Congress president offered the clearest glimpse to date into his vision of politics. Though not a full-fledged narrative, the outline suggested by his pronouncements has the potential to serve as an alternative pole of mobilisation and affective investment.

Sets of binaries: By now, the contrast between Mr. Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is apparent to all. In terms of stature, popularity, charisma, and accomplishments, the former is a David up against Goliath. But David may have found a way to make the contrast work in his favour. If Mr. Modi exudes power and authority, Mr. Gandhi personifies a low-key civility. If one evokes admiration and awe, the other has the ability to inspire affection. If one is a great speaker, the other presents himself as a great listener. Interestingly enough, of late Mr. Gandhi has shown a penchant for expanding these sets of binaries in a manner that further sharpens the contrast between himself and Mr. Modi… read more:

Chinese human rights activist jailed for eight years for subversion. By Benjamin Haas

“I will be convicted not because I am really guilty, but because of my refusal to accept a government-appointed lawyer, plead guilty in a televised propaganda confession, and for exposing torture, mistreatment and violence and prosecutorial misconduct”

A prominent Chinese human rights activist has been jailed eight years in jail for subversion on Tuesday, the harshest sentence to be passed so far in a government crackdown on activism that began more than two years ago. Wu Gan, a blogger better known by his online name of Super Vulgar Butcher, regularly championed sensitive cases of government abuses of power, both online and in street protests. He was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “subverting state power” at the Tianjin no 2 people’s court. He has been in pretrial detention for more than two years after staging a protest outside a court.

“The court found that the defendant Wu Gan became dissatisfied with the existing political system,” according to the verdict. “Wu Gan has long used information networks to spread a great deal of rhetoric and to attack state power and the system established by the constitution.” But Wu was defiant at his sentencing, pledging to appeal his case and saying he was “grateful to the [Communist] party for granting me this lofty honour”, according to his lawyer. He is known for his attention-grabbing protests, at one point posing for a photo with two knives and saying he would “slaughter the pigs”, referring to corrupt officials.

On the same day as Wu’s sentencing, a prominent lawyer Xie Yang was retried but not punished after he previously pleaded guilty to subversion charges. While in detention he gave an explosive account of being tortured, beaten and threatened by interrogators. Xie was arrested more than two years ago as part of a sweeping crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists that saw nearly 250 people questioned or detained by authorities. Wu was detained two months earlier.

That crackdown represented an unprecedented attack on lawyers who took on politically charged cases at the same time president Xi Jinping said he wanted to strength the rule of law in China.
Rights groups condemned the sentencing over the Christmas period, a common tactic for Chinese courts when sentencing high-profile dissidents. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace prize laureate, who died in custody in July, was sentenced to 11 years for subversion on Christmas Day 2009.

“It is disgraceful that the Chinese authorities have chosen the day after Christmas to deal with two of the remaining people left in legal limbo from the unprecedented July 2015 crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “Carrying out unfair trials and politicized sentencing of human rights defenders at the very time when diplomats, journalists, international observers and the general public are less likely to be able to respond reeks of a cynical political calculation”.“By trying to avoid scrutiny from the press and the international community, the Chinese government betrays the fact it knows well these sham trials cannot withstand scrutiny,” Poon added.

Before his trial, Wu predicted a harsh sentencing for refusing to cooperate with the authorities. “I will be convicted not because I am really guilty, but because of my refusal to accept a government-appointed lawyer, plead guilty in a televised propaganda confession, and for exposing torture, mistreatment and violence and prosecutorial misconduct,” he said in a statement released through his lawyers ahead of his trial in August.

Matthew Taylor - $180 billion investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge / Isher J. Ahluwalia, Almitra Patel Cities at Crossroads: Perils of plastics waste

The global plastic binge which is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitats and food chains, is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years after multibillion dollar investments in a new generation of plastics plants in the US. Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons.

The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientist warn already risks “near permanent pollution of the earth.”
“We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law, which has analysed the plastic industry. “Around 99% of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies, like Exxon and Shell, that have helped create the climate crisis. There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”

Greenpeace UK’s senior oceans campaigner Louise Edge said any increase in the amount of plastic ending up in the oceans would have a disastrous impact. “We are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century, and millions of tonnes of it are ending up in our oceans.” The huge investment in plastic production has been driven by the shale gas boom in the US. This has resulted in one of the raw materials used to produce plastic resin – natural gas liquids – dropping dramatically in price. The American Chemistry Council says that since 2010 this has led to $186bn dollars being invested in 318 new projects. Almost half of them are already under construction or have been completed. The rest are at the planning stage.

“I can summarise [the boom in plastics facilities] in two words,” Kevin Swift, chief economist at the ACC, told the Guardian. “Shale gas.” He added: “There has been a revolution in the US with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two thirds.” The findings come amid growing concern about the scale of plastics pollution around the world. Earlier this year scientists warned that it risked near permanent contamination of the planet and at a UN environment conference in Kenya this month the scale of plastic in the sea was described as an “ocean armageddon”... read more:

Isher J. Ahluwalia, Almitra Patel Cities at Crossroads: Perils of plastics waste

More on plastics

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Little Drummer Boy

Some music for Christmas

The Little Drummer Boy (originally known as Carol of the Drum) is a popular Christmas song written by the American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. First recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, the song was further popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale; the Simeone version was re-released successfully for several years and the song has been recorded many times since. 
In the lyrics the singer relates how, as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the Nativity of Jesus. Without a gift for the infant the little drummer boy played his drum with Jesus' mother, Mary's approval; recalling, "I played my best for Him" and "He smiled at me."

The Little Drummer Boy - Pentatonix
The Little Drummer Boy - African Tribal Version

Come they told me pa rum pum pum pum
A newborn King to see pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King pa rum pum pum pum
rum pum pum pum rum pum pum pum

So to honour Him pa rum pum pum pum
When we come
Baby Jesus pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give a King pa rum pum pum pum
rum pum pum pum rum pum pum pum

Shall I play for you? pa rum pum pum pum
on my drum?
Mary nodded pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him pa rum pum pum pum
rum pum pum pum rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum