Sunday, October 29, 2006

"the line is a dot to you!!"

‘The market decrees that the scarcer something is, the more expensive it becomes. But there is a difference between valuing water and putting a market value on it. No one values water more than the village woman who has to walk miles to fetch it. And no one values it less than urban folk who pay for it to watch it flow endlessly at the turn of a tap.’

A friend sent me this paragraph during an MSN conversation, and I haven’t been able to get Arundhati Roy’s words out of my head. The differing values we ascribe to.

My thoughts returned to it when I read that the US military has a law which allows ‘psychological warfare’; and so planting US success stories in the Iraqi media to disillusion the Iraqis was perfectly legal. Republicans called for an apology from John Kerry who brought up the issue in the past, claiming it was immoral to do so and asked how the Bush government could sanction it. So, let me get this clear: Now that it IS legal, outrage is unnecessary? Sometimes laws DO need to be changed, and your instinct might tell you which direction you should be going.

But let me return to India- the mother country; where I have returned to understand it better. No longer the quasi NRI that I have been living as, I am back in Delhi, doing the Delhi things; living the Delhi life. During a conversation with a friend who restores vintage cars, I asked him how much he pays he workers. He said his head mechanic makes 10,000 rupees a month. Is that a lot, I asked him, because I know that is about the starting salary of a HT city journalist? Of course to a large extent, the HT city journalist is probably still living at home and using this starting salary as pocket money, while for the head mechanic, the 10,000 rupees goes a long way in maintaining a family.

Now allow me to harp back to the concept of democracy for a moment. I’ve been reading Shashi Tharoor’s book ‘The Great Indian Novel’ and through the voice of the narrator, VV, Tharoor raises some interesting questions. One of those is the reign of Priya Duryodhani [alias for Indira Gandhi]. The picture he paints is not pretty; perhaps the most horrifying sequence comes to us in the form a dream where Priya Duryodhani and her trusted advisor Shakuni decide to play Yudhishtir at a game of dice (fixed of course) and she watches in glee as Shakuni attempts to disrobe Draupadi in vein. If Draupadi serves as a metaphor for democracy, then her attempted rape for the sake of political victory is enough to condemn our erstwhile Prime Ministers as one of the vilest villains in history. Of course, this is merely a dream, and VV does accept that some good came out of the Emergency although Indian democracy took a severe hit. Now, the question that is raised is this: while democracy was restored and perhaps the Emergency forced a now complacent Indian population to actually use the democratic tools they sweat blood for, can the subversion of democracy really be that easy?

I have to allude to Star Wars at this point. In all the talk about Jedis, the Force and Yoda, one can forget that it is a chilling story about how the Chancellor Lord Palpetine hijacks the Republic by creating a false threat which forces the Senate to bestow him with emergency powers, which he never returns, until his protégé kills him. [Of course this is where the story differs from our own, because Mrs. Gandhi willingly called for fresh elections, although she grossly miscalculated how well the Emergency had gone down with the public]. The lesson in it is that the value we prescribe to things- water, morals, democracy and the like are relative. In a beautiful scene in the movie, Padme watches the Senate hand over emergency powers to the Chancellor who she knows will only use them to his own end and not the greater good, and remarks ‘So this is how democracy dies… with thunderous applause’.

And now here we are, tackling domestic violence. Women can now be protected from their husbands and live-in partners from actual or threatened physical, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. A step in the right direction, certainly. However, perhaps forms of abuse need to be defined closely because this new law is ripe for more and more problems cropping up and enforcing agencies will have a field day with it, as suggested by many including Soli Sorabjee in the Indian Express. On the other hand, and as predictable a development as any, you can see the panic setting in with the male populace who are scared their wives and girlfriends may take them to court for quasi-abuse, or no abuse at all. When it comes to domestic violence, most women don’t even own up to it, law or no law. On top of that, abuse can come for many reasons; bad mood, bad food, crying children, the women went out without permission; you name it, you have it. So qualifying it may serve as a problem. What goes in one relationship can be completely horrific in another. Again, it’s the value you ascribe to certain things, and drawing boundaries can be an impossible task.

So let me end with a quote that sums it up for me: here’s Aristotle who studied under Plato and taught Alexander the Great-

‘We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly’.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

quality v/s quantity

I enjoy watching panelists debating on television. The news is one thing, but opinion about the news is what puts things into perspective: especially when there is a diversity of opinion. Now, when the discussion is side-tracked by pundits trying to build a name for themselves instead of actually discussing the matter at hand, well, intelligent debate takes a hit.

What is even more worrying is that pundits that seem to be crawling out of the woodwork are very media- savvy and know how to build their profile. In a recent Wall Street Journal article that discussed the issue, the main theme was that those who took rigid stands on issues and did not give into the ‘On the one hand, but on the other hand’ mode of operating, were the ones who were booked for more appearances. Personally, I was offended when I read this: “In the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear test, a hawkish Ms. Schlussel hit the radio circuit, saying U.S. officials responded too mildly in calling the test "a provocative act." "A Paris Hilton video is a provocative act," she said. "What North Korea did was an act of war." To get noticed, Ms. Schlussel says, "I've become the master of the confrontational sound bite."”

What is journalism? It is a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people. But this is a step beyond journalism, because unlike journalists who can be held responsible for providing wrong news, pundits can shoot off whatever they want, louder and louder, in hopes that someone hears them.

Now, if there is anything I learned from the much (and rightly) maligned Fox News, it’s this: the more you provoke and infuriate people by being confrontational, the more they react to you. But you win because your ratings go up and more people tune in because it IS entertainment (or infotainment). But on the other hand the ones who research the matter and debate candidly, those are the ones that stand the test of time. Jon Stewart was absolutely correct when he slammed punditry when he said that these people were simply into the theatre of debate, and he did not believe that they made honest arguments. For those in the know, perhaps, the fact that it is political theatre seems exciting. But I can’t help but wonder, how can you want to be famous for being intelligent when you are earning your name as someone who simply follows a strategy of the controversial sound-byte?

The need to be famous is fairly interesting. While fame was restricted to achievers in the past; actors, sports people, statesmen and the like, today with a plethora of media channels available, more people are needed to fill in that space. It is a democracy after all. But when you see clearly manipulative people giving their faux opinion on a news show- you wonder if fame doesn’t need to have some quality control. Sadly, the Ann Coulters & Bill O Reilly’s of the world have made it ok for people to behave badly and be rewarded for it. The louder they are, the more they 'win' an arguement because they drown out other voices, the more shows they are booked for. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. It’s totally in the realm of possibility and probability that high-pitched screaming will pave the way for producers booking guests who can actually debate. We already lost ‘Crossfire’[CNN]- perhaps the formula that pre supposes confrontation will have to change; after all, there is nothing as constant as change itself. Tired formats and pseudo celebrities will outlive their purpose, but in the meantime, one can only hope for a discerning audience who understands what to listen to- and who to ignore. Well, here’s hoping!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Little Kim, Big Bomb

Ah, you can trust Fox News to delve into an issue, and make a complete mockery out of it. You can trust it for asking questions to which it does not want to hear answers- because the questions are just statements of fact disguised with a '?' at the end. No, no, I'm not talking of the Clinton-Wallace interview [which was great TV by the way, see it on youtube if you haven't] but of the latest headline I saw from Fox---- WILL THE NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR THREATS HELP THE REPUBLICANS IN NOVEMBER?

I hope I don't need to explain my problem here.

Alright, to the meat of the matter. I know what America is going to do under Bush, I'm pretty sure screwing everything up is part of the plan. But more importantly, what does this mean? What is China and Japan's role and reaction in the matter- being neighbours- and what is India's position?

Mr Blair has been nice enough to point out there are no parallels between the N-tests in North Korea and India. Manmohan Singh that this test increased the "danger of clandestine proliferation" which actually brings me back to my old friend, Mr Ahmadinejab of Iran. Remember him? Iran and North Korea have been keeping an eye on eachother, and the reaction of the international community with regards to this latest development will have major repurcussions for world affairs. B. Raman has rightly pointed out that Iran will look for a mild protest in hope and Israel with concern. He writes (and I quote): North Korea's nuclear test has proved the limits of the much-vaunted Chinese and Russian influence on Pyongyang. It has also shown the incapability of Japan and South Korea to act decisively. Condemnations such as "brazen defiance", "unacceptable" etc are not going to have any impact on Pyongyang. Nor will economic sanctions alone.

Yes, well lets talk about that. Kim Jong II only warned Beijing 20 minutes before the test. Now considering this is a nuclear bomb that will effectively change the landscape, water, air of the entire area, that was rather polite of him. But, on a more serious note, it does show that North Korea and China have a fairly stable relationship. In 2005 their trade deal worth $1.5 billion made China its biggest trading partner. China was active in the arranging the six-party talks with North Korea and even extended an invitation to Kim Jong to see China- perhaps to show him he could develop along the same lines too. But now, what should China do? In the world, which sometimes I think of as a massive high school, America is clearly the alpha male, but China has maintained its position by non-interference in others affairs; it did not even condemn the missile tests that North Korea had last summer, but now it needs to think of its reaction viz-a-viz Japan's reaction. Not only that, but economic sanctions against North Korea could lead to an influx of starved refugees who would cross over to China. Will this move force Japan to militarilize? As a deterrant againt Kim Jong, would Japan want to build its own bomb?

And Israel must be getting worried. Iran is predictably estatic with this development, faulting western (read: American) actions that have forced countries to develop their own bombs. I bet Ahmadinejad will make this all about him. The nerve!

Now, the way I see it is this: the bomb represents many dilemmas all around the world. I can't pretend to know what Kim is thinking: the most I've seen of him is his solo in Team America where he was ronwery (lonely). But I do like how Fox News has gone straight for glory. And the question is almost rhetorical. They've found their next scare tactic. As for me, the cocktail I'm sipping is a curious mix of worry and confusion. Oh give it time. Come november, I'll be swigging straight from the new alcoholic beverage from Fox, called Little Kim, Big Bomb.

Lets hope, for ONCE, a debate can be around the real issue, and not wasted time in a drunken haze. Only time will tell.