Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Cog in the machine

What turns anyone into a ‘cog in the machine’ of repressive state violence, and how does this happen? The philosopher Hannah Arendt investigated this after the Holocaust. How does a person become a weapon of the state, executing actions and inflicting violence (ostensibly legitimately) on behalf of the state, particularly when they know that the victims are innocent (for want of a better word) fellow citizens who have come together to fight for justice. I know that a lot of people would like to claim that they would be immune to the process if they found themselves in that position; that they would resist the state’s demands and injunctions, and not become a tool of repressive violence. But can one really choose to resist at the crucial moment? Can we suddenly break free from the conceptual, physical and economic bonds that tether us to everything that we know as good, true and worthy of obedience? Sure, maybe there were people - in many different historical contexts - who fully believed in the legitimacy of their actions and had little doubt about the morality of their conduct. But I’m sure there were many who did what they did fully believing that what they were doing was wrong.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Fear, loathing and the culture wars: the 2019 Indian elections

Published in Overland

The Indian federal elections are at an end, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is anticipated, will be returned to power. In 2014, it won an unprecedented majority in parliament, overcoming India’s longstanding reliance for leadership at the federal level on the Congress Party – the party that stewarded India through its independence and dominated national politics until its decimation in 2014. The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hopes to replicate those results and further entrench its power nationally.

Billing itself as the party of jobs, growth and opportunity, the BJP has fuelled much propaganda about India’s potential for further development and economic growth. But its mainstay is (and has always been) the politics of Hindu nationalism – that is, the reconceptualisation of secular India as a Hindu nation. This has been accompanied by a not-insignificant amount of violence, particularly in the form of persecution of political ‘dissidents’ and religious minorities.

During its time in government, the BJP has overseen some patently anti-democratic developments. Universities – particularly those with a more ‘liberal’ bent – have come under attack for what has been characterised as their unpatriotic thinking, and this has led to a lot of acrimony and bitterness on all sides. Here, I’ll discuss the most prominent of these cases and its implications for Indian democracy.

In 2016, students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi were arrested on charges of ‘sedition’ and criminal conspiracy for the ‘crime’ of organising an event where demonstrators chanted what were subsequently deemed to be ‘anti-national’ slogans (slogans denouncing government actions). The event was organised to protest the 2013 execution of a Kashmiri ‘separatist’ who was convicted and sentenced to death for a terrorist attack on the national parliament, as well as the 1984 execution of another Kashmiri ‘separatist’.

(In India, sedition remains a statutory offense, punishable with up to a lifetime of incarceration. This antiquated and anti-democratic statute will hopefully be abolished one day but the political establishment can’t seem to give up using this terrible colonial-era law. ‘Anti-national’ is an Indian neologism that has recently gained currency in public discourse. It is essentially a synonym for seditious. The term ‘separatist’ is used by the Indian media to primarily refer to people – particularly politicians and members of militant groups – who support the secession of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir from Hindu-majority India.)

The organisers were charged with sedition ostensibly because some of those who had attended had chanted ‘anti-national’ slogans; but a lot of people, including media commentators, objected to the very aim of the event, which was to express solidarity with supporters of the movement for Kashmir’s secession, and to the fact that it was allowed to take place in the first instance. Later, students and professors who stood by those who had been arrested were harassed, intimidated and lambasted for being seditious ‘anti-nationals’.

In 2017, students at Delhi University gathered to attend a public lecture featuring, among others, one of the students from JNU who had been arrested. These attendees were severely beaten and assaulted by members of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

Attending students – many of them belonging to the All India Students’ Association (AISA), an organisation affiliated with the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of India – and professors from the university were assaulted, and the event was ultimately prevented from taking place. Later, further protests and counter-protests by the ABVP and AISA roiled the university. A febrile atmosphere descended on campuses around Delhi.

This series of episodes represents one example of a concerted movement – sometimes underpinned by violence – against so-called ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-national’ thought in the country, particularly at universities. Right-wing groups in India have used violence, intimidation and harassment to stifle political discussions on university campuses and, occasionally, more widely in society. They have created an atmosphere of strife and engaged in fear-mongering to provide cover and justification for the violence they inflict on people who do not share their worldview. As seen in the aftermath of many incidents, politicians and police condone this violence, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly.

The core message that comes through many right-wing groups’ demagoguery and mass mobilisations is that the nation is in grave and imminent danger, and that vile ‘anti-nationals’ are out to destroy everything it holds dear. But what exactly are they claiming to defend? Where is this nation that is so imperilled by the calumnious voices of ‘anti-nationals’? Where is this nation that is so in danger of being overcome and overrun by destructive left-wing forces that all criticism of the government’s actions or policies must be stifled? The warlike rhetoric and exhortations to fight in defence of the country that demagogues routinely indulge in make any kind of nuanced dialogue impossible.

This exclusionary, us-against-them, Manichean thinking has long been the staple of right-wing Indian politics – indeed, the staple of Indian politics in general. So mired in irrational dogma is this political culture that it engenders a siege mentality that makes impossible any critical thinking and engagement, and rational discourse.

The fact that violence against individuals targeted for their beliefs has continued to erupt in India should compel us to confront more seriously the question of what kind of political culture (and, ultimately, what kind of society) we’re allowing our representatives to build.

The main opposition, the Congress Party, is rightly vilified for its history of corruption. Since the time of India’s independence, it has fostered a culture of reverence for inherited leadership, gross nepotism and corruption of democratic norms. People in India have come to regard its undemocratic functioning as an unalterable reality. There is little, if any, consciousness about how to achieve change. It is only with the benefit of time that one realises how wrongly the Congress Party has operated, and how it has corrupted Indian democracy.

The opposition is splintered and profoundly flawed. Even where public mobilisations have succeeded in focusing attention on the persecution of minorities and other issues, the danger of their being co-opted by vested interests and political forces has lurked in the background. Nevertheless, even if the BJP wins again, it cannot be given free rein to further undermine democratic and secular principles. The anti-democratic tendencies of the Indian state apparatus need to be countered and changed. The media and civil society need to attempt to stanch the tide of hysteria around ‘anti-national’ thought that the country’s government has fomented. For the party and the country to progress, this is essential.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Academic publishing and the need for a new framework of dynamic authorship

I would like to write an article aimed at academics, and readers who are interested in education and (particularly) higher education. The academic publishing model is staid and exploitative. Writers and their universities are charged exorbitant fees for the privilege of being published. But there is little, if any, editorial support in the process and, as a result, the quality of the work may not be perfect. Most publishers have outsourced their production work to external operators, often in India and the Philippines, to reduce labour costs. This process has been accompanied by a decimation of the role of the editor, who would otherwise play the role of a guardian of quality. This is egregious, particularly in light of the fact that the academic publishing industry is so profitable. Scholars who have English as a second language may not have the flair of the best writers, and may need time to improve the minor language errors that may mar their work. Everything that goes online now stays online – potentially forever. Therefore, writers should have the right to review and improve their work over time. I want to argue that we need a new model of dynamic authorship, i.e., writers should have ongoing control over improvement of their work. This would need a radical change in the way publishing works.

In an academic publishing environment that does not require publishers to pay contributors for their knowledge and output, and often encourages publishers to charge authors and their institutions exorbitant fees for the privilege of being published, what recourse to corrective action does an author have? If the academic publishing industry, which is highly profitable, wishes to truly work in collaboration with authors (and move away from a model that flagrantly exploits authors), then it should consider developing a more dynamic model of engagement. Authors should be able to amend their content and improve their work in a dynamic fashion, and not be restricted by the strictures of the print publication model that is no longer the functional basis of content production and dissemination. Authors should be able to make corrections and improve the quality of their work over time. They should also be allowed to make substantial changes to their work if such changes qualitatively improve their work, and they perceive making such improvements necessary for the future ramifications of their scholarship. Given the availability of block-chain-related and version-tracking technology, there is no reason why quality improvement should not be standard practice. In fact, what we have currently - a staid model wherein proofs are sent for 'final corrections' in a format that is neither appealing nor particularly user-friendly - belies the affordances of available technology. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Technical failure

Using technology that’s nascent and fallible requires an extra level of patience and willingness to relinquish attachments to expectations of perfection and smooth sailing. 
Humans are hard-wired to expect routine and tried-and-tested performance. And it’s not easy for us to contend with the uncertainty of system dropouts. 
When the expected routine is interrupted, we confront our ingrained fearful reactions to breakdown and failure. Technology compels us to surrender, however unwillingly, to failure.
In this way, the event of technical or technological failure is a powerful circuit breaker of our neural circuitry.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


How a society treats its weaker and sicker members is a pretty good indicator of its development potential. An underdeveloped country that has a culture of support for social security can potentially quickly and equitably utilise aid and resources to improve quality of life, whereas countries that have a dominant culture of hostility towards weaker citizens and residents are likely to struggle with improvement of quality of life, even with external support. There’s a link between culturally-informed ‘emotional’ attributes (solidarity vs hostility) and socio-economic wellbeing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Corruption and the new oligarchy in India

Journalist James Crabtree’s new book, The Billionaire Raj, promises to be interesting.

His article in the Guardian is incisive. He writes about how economic growth in India has been characterised by the ballooning of the total number of (declared) billionaires and oligarchs, and, concurrently, the impoverishment of those at the lower rungs of the economy.

It also talks about the explosive potential of growing inequality.

However, if you ask people (particularly Indian expatriates) about what ails the Indian economy, people are likely to identify corruption as a bigger problem than inequality.

Anger about corruption runs deep in India. Corruption is rampant and endemic. Not a sector of the economy and state can be said to be free of corruption.

Indian expats are wont to wax lyrical about the sheer magnitude and inescapable tragedy of corruption in India. Let me not be an exception: Corruption suffuses the air and water in India; it infiltrates the very capillaries of life in India.

And people have been angry about it for a long time, even more so since 2010 and thereabouts, when a series of staggering exposes of scams, and the spectacular protests that these exposes precipitated, roiled the country.

But corruption and the existence of an oligarchy are closely inter-related. In spite of the enormous challenges that attend any investigation of the problem, Indian journalism has been particularly good at exposing the links between crony capitalism and corruption. Now, this book, written by a journalist, brings into sharper focus how crony capitalism, corruption and oligarchic economic growth really define India’s economic story.  

What does the existence of an oligarchy say about corruption in India? Well, everything. Most of the major scams that have rocked the country have been instances of corporate perfidy and state complicity in that perfidy.

Crabtree’s book, going by his essay, promises to present some insights into this very nexus and investigate how crony capitalism has led to the ballooning of both corporate and state corruption.

Fundamentally, though, he seems to focus on the ‘big picture’, which is that India is rapidly going down the Latin American path – development and middle-income status will bring about staggering inequality, and the country as a whole will remain pegged very low on the human development index.

This path is likely to lead to a situation where most of the wealth that is generated in the country will remain concentrated in the hands of the 0.001%. ‘Jobless growth’ will continue to be entrenched.

Also – and this is something that is relevant to expat readers – it will further exacerbate the current situation of economic ‘tickle out’. Oligarchs earning their wealth in India transfer large portions of it to overseas ‘safe havens’, leading to reduced ‘trickle down’ domestically.

While some may think that this is not concerning in and of itself (well, it actually is), the problem takes on a sinister hue when you throw corruption and global mobility into the mix.

By all accounts, most corrupt oligarchs – even the average rich politician – in India siphon off wealth overseas, whether through expenditures, investments or plain old Cayman Islands-style post-boxing.

If the issue of the state banks accumulating bad assets because of bad loans (including corruptly procured loans) to corporates is concerning, how much more concerning is the prospect of never recovering wealth that has been appropriated from public banks through structurally unsound means (Crabtree’s article provides the two prime examples of this, ones that have hogged the headlines in recent years). 

The fundamental reality is that most rich Indians spend and will continue to spend a fair chunk of their disposable wealth (of whatever hue this might be) overseas.

But, as I said, for oligarchs and the corruptly rich, the scales are quite out of whack.

Crabtree is right that Prime Minister Modi’s efforts to address the problem of ‘big picture’ corruption have not yielded the ‘big picture’ solutions that many Indians had hoped for and have been hoping for since the Jan Lokpal days.

And, while many oligarchs are out there in the limelight, corruptly rich politicians are well and truly safely ensconced in their fiefdoms.

Anyone who understands what the price of corruption in India is (in terms of lost human and infrastructure development), and perhaps has also had the misfortune of witnessing how corrupt Indian politicians spend overseas, will balk at the injustice of it. 

The oligarchic economic growth that the IMF and others like Crabtree are talking about is going to entrench the extractive element of India's economy.

Unfortunately, in India, the state tends to obsess about getting the small fish. Individual tax-payers, with modest incomes, will be hounded to hell and back, but politicians, oligarchs and even the average rich person with ‘connections’ will remain free to steal, swindle and bribe with impunity.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

What Eurovision can teach us about life

Eurovision can teach us a fair few things about life. These are things that we already know but Eurovision helps dramatise the lessons in an inimitably glorious way.

Style over substance

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Eurovision is more about pomp, glitz, glamour, pyrotechnics and performance than it is about music per se.

It is about exuberance, mirth, irreverent satire, celebration and deep emotion. Happy and cheerful songs; saucy songs; lugubrious songs; bellicose screeches; plaintive cries of longing and loss – Eurovision gives us all genres and emotions. Some of the songs that are performed are absolutely amazing, and there can be little doubt that the singers performing them are virtuosos.

But, at Eurovision, performative virtuosity trumps musical virtuosity. Exceptions notwithstanding, performance is paramount. Eurovision is a riotous conflagration of colour and (this year especially) a pyromaniac’s wet dream.

Eurovision’s performative and aesthetic appeal is absolutely essential. Audiences and fans love its aesthetic sensibilities, and Eurovision wouldn’t be what it is without these sensibilities. However, in a competition, the aesthetics of performance and the music are bound to exist in tension.

In every competition, decision-making is influenced by a number of factors. In this year’s Eurovision, once again, we have examples of performance triumphing over music. The performances by Cyprus (‘Fuego’, Eleni Foureira) and Slovenia (‘Hvala, ne!’, Lea Sirk), both qualifying for the finals, were amazing performances but arguably did not feature great songs. The Swedish performance (‘Dance you off’, Benjamin Ingrosso) and Czech performance (‘Lie to me’, Mikolas Josef) were great and the songs had really catchy tunes but the two singers were definitely not among this year’s best live singers. (When it comes to Eurovision, every definitive statement is necessarily accompanied by an implied and sotto voce ‘in my opinion’.)

On the other hand, the Swiss (‘Stones’, Zibbz), Croatian (‘Crazy’, Franka), Montenegrin (‘Inje’, Vanja Radovanović) and Russian (‘I Won't Break’, Julia Samoylova) contestants were really amazing live singers, but they didn’t make the finals. This might have been because of generic factors or lack of mesmerising (enough) showmanship. Either way, you can see how these outcomes exist in tension with one another.

This year’s winner, the Israeli contestant (‘Toy’, Netta), combined quirky performance with quirky musicality.

Of course, all assessments are subjective, and perhaps it is the subjectivity of our collective responses that Eurovision can help us better understand. I found SBS’ reactions ticker very revealing. It was interesting (and, admittedly, frustrating) to see how frequently other viewers’ reactions varied from my own. Some reactions from viewers in Australia (for example, poor ratings for a song that was sung beautifully but did not have that Eurovision dance-worthiness or je ne sais quoi) can be baffling. But in that experience of momentary bafflement, you have an opportunity to reconcile with the seeming irreconcilability of other people’s subjective reactions. When Australians voted the Albanian (‘Mall’, Eugent Bushpepa) and Montenegrin songs down, I rolled my eyes and muttered “bloody ee-jits” at the telly. Then I made my peace with it.

Looks matter

Looks definitely matter. Culturally, we have always valorised beauty and prioritised appearance. Not that this needs any reinforcement, but Eurovision teaches us that looks do make an enormous difference. Not just beauty in the traditional sense (although, obviously, that matters as well) but looks and appearance, considered more broadly. Visual merchandising matters. Contestants have to carve an image, visibly identify with a particular iconic mould, and make this a part of their performance. At Eurovision, being beautiful in the traditional sense is perhaps less important than having unique visual merchandising. Eurovision has had many iconoclastic contestants (and winners). They’ve taken an unusual (or non-mainstream) image or look and made it appealing.

Political ideology matters

Of course political ideology matters. Music is not only about technique and rhythm. It is also about the message. The message is actually incredibly important. Songs can ‘speak to the heart’. This is intrinsic to how we engage with music.

Eurovision teaches us that messages, beliefs and images matter. If not, a Chinese broadcaster would not have censored the Irish (‘Together’, Ryan O'Shaughnessy) and Albanian performances, the first for featuring a gay theme and the latter because of the singer’s tattoos, and would not, in turn, have been subsequently banned from broadcasting the rest of Eurovision. Both the censorship and Eurovision’s response highlight the primacy of the message.

Also, many songs and singers (even if they are less technically brilliant than others) find themselves winning hearts and votes because of their message. They tap into a zeitgeist or they highlight something that is topical and politically significant (Ukraine’s winning 2016 performance, ‘1944’ by Jamala, comes to mind).

Moreover, the entire social, cultural and political rubric under which Eurovision operates has important ideological underpinnings. This cannot be overstated. What is a cultural event without its appeal to belief and ideology? Eurovision emblematises European respect, freedom, unity in diversity, etc., and songs that resonate with these themes are likely to do well.

On winning this year’s contest, Netta’s comment on diversity (thanking viewers for supporting diversity of performance) spoke to the importance of messaging for both contestants and the organisation.  

Assessments cannot be fair

This goes back to my earlier point about the subjectivity of responses. When I say that assessments cannot be fair, I mean two things: one, that assessments (particularly of music and performance) simply cannot be objective, and, two, that extraneous (and hidden) factors (including, occasionally, political ideology) can affect the way people vote.

The random allocation of contestants to two semi-finals, as in many other competitions, can also contribute to the arbitrariness of the outcomes. You can have unbalanced pools, and some good contestants will miss out on getting into the finals in this way (true of 2018). However, this is simply about the luck of the draw, and, perhaps, by leaving things to chance, the process delivers something of a more equitable solution (than the alternative of devised allocations). All competitions that use this mechanism of arbitrary allocations teach us that assessments cannot be completely fair but are fair to the best possible extent.

There will always be a P5

There will always be the big or permanent five (in Eurovision, the P5 grouping includes France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom). While it would be easy to get mad at the organisers for replicating (and thus reinforcing) on the cultural plane broader structures of political and economic hegemony, perhaps we should give them credit for revealing the immutability of these structures. Let’s face it, there will always be a P5. Some hegemons will always have more sway than peripheral or less economically powerful players.

In 2018, I was delighted to see that the P5, who get direct entry into the finals, put in pretty good performances. This is not always so, and it can be a little annoying to have one of the P5 appear in the finals in spite of the fact that many other contestants were much better. However, pending a major rebellion, all must make their peace with the political status quo, and Eurovision is right to teach us so.

We must accept these truisms as immutable

I don’t meant to sound defeatist but we must accept these truisms as immutable. Eurovision teaches us that music, performance and, indeed, life itself can be exuberant, raucous, amazing and fun, but also chaotic, ridden with subjectivity, coincidence, chance, arbitrariness and hierarchy, and that we must reconcile ourselves to the immutability of this condition.

Trite as it may sound, Eurovision is a microcosm of life itself.