The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Obama, Socialism and Riding Waterfalls in America

On television and in newspapers, the voices of conservative commentators veer towards hysteria. They speak of an impending existential crisis in America, of a President who is willing to disrespect the tenets of a two hundred year history. In that time an unwieldy, ungovernable mass of land has been transformed into a nation that is the envy of the entire world, so certainly, this is a history that demands respect. Consequently, you have the drumbeaters of CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and most other news media proclaiming that one of the holiest of their principles is being violated, the foundation of their great state, the policy that is more American than the bacon cheeseburger (extra cheese, extra bacon). Quite simply, they are amazed that a President has been elected who has the audacity to attempt to control the tentacles of unstinting capitalist endeavour. The message is clear: mess with anything, Mr. President, but do not mess with the free market.

As one final flip of the finger to the large swathes of the country that came to despise him, when President Bush exited stage right he left a broken down economy and a perilously damaged relationship with most of the world. Faced with economic meltdown the new incumbent, President Obama, has had to tackle the backslapping bonhomie that has long existed between corporate interests and political parties in the United States. This crisis has grown from a particular economic climate, one where traders like Bernie Madoff and Sir Allen Stanford were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased, where insurance companies were able to reinsure dud investments ad infinitum, where the heads of publicly-held corporations could write themselves bonuses of hundreds of millions of dollars while guiding their companies to hell in a gilded hand basket. Yet now that Obama has confronted these issues with the suggestion of government-appointed financial overseers, the cries of ‘Socialist!’, which never left his Presidential campaign, have begun to hover over his Presidency. Obama is certainly not a socialist. He seems unencumbered by attachment to ideology and willing to tackle individual problems free of the politics of Left or Right, White or Black, Straight or Gay. Why voters and the media seem to prefer politicians with such identifiable baggage, it is hard to say.

The car industry was a symbol of the industrial dominance once enjoyed by the United States. The muscle cars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were valorized and glorified, in movie after movie, book after book. But their steady decline over the past three decades was visible even when the economy showed no signs of distress. By the time things started to go south it was clear that car companies would be among the first to require assistance. Obama’s plan, to nationalise the car manufacturer General Motors, keeps thousands of jobs in America, as well as protecting one of the great institutions of the country. Yet it is met with ridicule and headlines of ‘GM now Government Motors’. The idea that any modern economy is allowed to run according to the classical neo-conservative theories of laissez-faire and non-intervention is in any case ludicrous. Regulation exists. Thankfully Obama looks stronger than his critics. As Brady Heiner, a curly-haired philosophy doctoral candidate at Stony Brook explained to me: “these companies need to retool to meet the challenges of the green economy. They need to start building smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, which most Americans recognize is necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuels as well as conserve the environment. If the government needs to step in and operate at an economic loss for five years so that the conversion can take place, so be it. America needs to retain industrial jobs.”

The Real Question

The media is right that America is facing an existential crisis of sorts, but it is not along the Capitalist-Marxist spectrum that is being alluded to. The question this country is just beginning to ask itself is substantively different. What becomes of a country whose identity is premised upon being at the forefront of the world – whose people have always considered themselves the vanguards of political, economic, cultural and religious expression? What becomes of a country that might conceivably lose that coveted place in fifty years? Growing, insatiable economies like China, India and Brazil have all demonstrated a greater capability to rebound, largely because they still have economies that build things. Economies that make things people need even in times of crisis, like steel, sugar, textiles and electronics; economies that are not entirely constituted of upper-middle class yuppies brandishing PowerPoint demonstrations. The America that used to build things is simply no longer there. The Motor City of Detroit, once the pride of Middle America, is a ghost town, full of boarded up shop windows and abandoned factories. The steel capital, Pittsburgh, has been forced to reinvent itself as a university town. Both cities surrendered more than industrial supremacy through the flight of capital to Special Economic Zones in China and India. They surrendered a part of the American story, one there is no guarantee can be returned.

Undergraduate courses in political science in America have Global Strategy classes that teach a generation of students about the threats that the political and economic rise of Asia pose to worldwide stability. When I graduated from college here five years ago one International Relations theory beloved by scholars was the Hegemonic Stability Theory, which arose from the period of peace that followed the Cold War. To simplify it, the theory describes a Pax Americana (Peace through American dominance), as there was once a Pax Romana (Peace under the Roman Empire). Such a belief, that the world would benevolently look on as the American military-financial complex steamrolled cultures and homes around the globe, has been left in tatters by the rise of terrorist insurgencies. If in fifty years, America finds itself no longer the global hegemon, it will need to fashion a new identity for itself, one that does not derive from expanding its influence over the world. The more globally-aware citizens of the United States are already asking themselves these questions. The politicians and their advisers will take some catching up.

It is a gloomy picture I have painted here, but it is not the complete picture. For the most part, America remains a land of unrivalled plenty, with scales of consumption and the kinds of choice in food, clothing, entertainment and leisure that even the wealthiest Europeans are amazed by. It is humbling, especially when you consider hubristic comments in India about how if our economic progression continues we might soon be on par with the national wealth of the United States. Even if by some miracle our national wealth reaches that of America, the concentrations of power will ensure that too many people are left out of the economic boom for the numbers to be meaningful.


It might not fit the popular conception of ‘the idiot American’ that so suited the Bush years, but the governance in this country, especially on domestic issues, has been unparalleled for the last hundred years. I was reminded of this as I drove through Yosemite National Park, a lush outpost of Central California full of giant redwood trees and scalpel-cut granite rocks. The trees sparkled in the intermittent sun, their leaves polished green; dead wood was cut from the boughs; dead grass on the ground was burnt away immediately. Nature flourished here, but in a classic American way, with a team of rangers and foresters constantly monitoring everything, improving the colors, spring-cleaning the vistas. It was magnificent. It made me wonder when Indian national parks would justify such outlay. A few steps would have to be taken. First, a substantial proportion of our population would have to reach a standard of living where allocating such expenditure would not seem frivolous. Then subcultures who live off nature in our wildlife reserves, such as forest-loggers, hunters and tribal communities, would have to be provided alternate sources of income. Forest rangers with an interest in actually performing their jobs would have to be found. Along with that we would have to provide a larger education about the harms of destroying nature in our wanton Indian way.

These are all slippery slopes, some much longer than others. Each one of them has been negotiated in the United States, some with more success than others. But each has been negotiated nonetheless to the extent that is required to keep the nation warmly vital in a number of pursuits, from athletics to playwriting. This at a time when in China forests are clear-cut to build massive factories that make sewing machines and electric razors. This at a time when in India we displace thousands of farmers every time a corporation has an idea for a cheaper car. National wealth is one, usually meaningless, measure of prosperity. We have a long way ahead of us.


A Culture All Its Own

As intrinsic as politics is to the American conception of nationhood, there are many other facets of their identity, some even more unfathomable to the foreign visitor. For instance, it would be hard to imagine another nation that takes its television viewing so seriously. The sale of its biggest car companies has been the most prominent news story while I have been here. The second? Conan O’Brien taking over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Reams of newspaper space were devoted to the switch; not back in the Entertainment section, but on the front page. Journalists debated with great earnestness the merits of the comically adventurous O’Brien over Jay Leno, whose show had steadily declined into tepidity. The television is an essential part of Americana, at once uniting a disparate people through the plasma prism they watch. The switch between comedians attracted so much attention because it tells of what millions of Americans will do right before going to sleep. Political strategists will now consider what jokes Conan will make about their candidates, where once they had to consider Leno’s take. Movie producers will think of what stance the new host will take on their big-investment movie projects. Culture here is inextricably entwined with television.

Another uniquely American tradition is the propagation of insane activities, or as they like to call it, Extreme Sports. If you can find a snow-covered mountain to propel down strapped to a board, or a bridge or building high enough to parachute from, or a hundred foot long sheer rock face to climb with only your fingers and some rope, you are almost certain to find an American or two indulging in said activities, muttering “Extreme! Extreme!” to themselves as they go along. I participated in one such activity, which I would be laughed at if I called an extreme sport, but an activity that nonetheless left my body bruised and battered, an activity to which I shall add elements of danger on every retelling of this story.

My cousins, who were raised in California, drove us out to a place in the Sierra foothills they quaintly called “The Water Slides.” I do not believe it was their intention to mislead, but if I had to choose another name for the place I would perhaps go with “Whitewater Chutes of Sharp Rocks and Ass Pain”, for that is what they were. The place was basically an offshoot of a waterfall, where water trickled down quite pleasantly in certain parts and very rapidly in others. I was wandering around on the hot rocks, enjoying the sun, when my cousin decided to demonstrate how to travel down the slide. His method, which I would not have considered possible before, involved sitting on your behind and basically being thrown by the force of the water down the waterfall, smashing against rocks on either side all along the way. When he reached the pool in the bottom he got up and yelled (I think it was “Extreme!” but I could not hear) and began to encourage others in our party to do the same.

Once all the other Americans started getting in on the act, hurtling down this rocky slope with huge smiles on their faces as though they were at a particularly hilarious movie, I of course could not shame my country by declining to participate. My instructions were clear: lean in front and keep my arms by my side. But somehow by the time I was sitting in the flowing water, waiting to push myself off, those instructions disappeared completely from my mind, replaced by thoughts along the lines of, “that rock looks very sharp” and “what am I doing here?” Many times I flew down that waterfall at great speed, each time forgetting to stay in front, in fact leaning back as if I was on a reclining chair, but thankfully each time emerging from the water with only a few cuts on the arms and legs and a pair of bruised buttocks.

Then, as a little after dinner snack as it were, we climbed down to a little ledge over a lovely green pond that the waterfall fed. Standing there, with no way to get back to safety and without much warning, my cousin took a couple of steps and jumped into the water forty feet below. Forty feet does not sound like much on paper, but peering over the edge of that ledge, as the girls we were with stood below filming us, it looked like a whole lot. By this time I had already submitted my fate to whichever God would accept me, so it was not hard for me to jump. What I had failed to notice however was that each of the rest who had jumped had taken a substantial leap. I sort of sauntered off the edge of the ledge, flying down one-two-three seconds through the air perilously close to the cliff, prompting one onlooker to tell me I would have cracked my head open had I leaned back. One cousin called it “the path of least effort and most danger”, which I then assumed meant I embodied some sort of Gandhian ideals. In retrospect, this might have been her polite way of calling me both lazy and stupid.

I had spent most of the day in a sort of stupor, wondering at the surreal nature of the challenges being placed in front of me, my brain refusing to comprehend that this was something Americans called “fun”. But by the end of it all I was exhilarated beyond words, my heart envigourated and my body racing. Then on the drive back, as I was falling asleep, I might even have whispered to myself, “Extreme!”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Want My BBM

this piece appeared as the edit in the Sunday Guardian on August 15. Happy Independence Day!

Two competing questions lie at the heart of the BlackBerry vs Indian Government debate. The first concerns individual freedoms: what level of state-sponsored intrusion (or snooping) into personal affairs is a law-abiding citizen expected to tolerate? The second concerns state power: since the government is deemed culpable in the event of a security crisis, is it not entitled to use every tool at its disposal to prevent such a scenario from arising?

The governments most concerned with “terror”, the United States, United Kingdom, India, Israel and so on, are in an unenviable position. The rapid proliferation of communication options that new technology provides is a direct offshoot of these governments most sacred cows: commerce, capitalism and competition. How can the United States government ask RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, or Apple, the makers of the iPhone, to pare down the technology they are able to provide for their users, without starting to sound a bit too much like China? The world thrives on giving entrepreneurs the freedom to innovate; can governments then ask them to innovate only as much as is suitable?

Once it became clear that the terrorists involved in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai utilised various types of new technology very effectively, the Indian security apparatus was entitled to demand some retrenchment of the options available. However, this is an issue that requires very careful handling, and a degree of common sense. RIM is right in asserting that there is no evidence that any of their phones have been used in a terrorist attack. Why single out one over the other? The iPhone offers a vast array of communication options, more certainly than the BlackBerry, but no one is asking them to hand over any codes. Is it because the BlackBerry has been much more successful than the iPhone in India? Does the Indian government genuinely believe that, in the event of a terrorist attack, jehadi operatives will only use the phone that is most popular amongst Indians? Or is it simply that security agencies in India are not comfortable having so much communication bouncing around the country without their being able to monitor it?

There are other issues at stake. Over the years, Indian security agencies have acquired the reputation for not being overly concerned about the personal freedoms of the citizens of India. What guarantees will the government provide that they will only utilise these monitors to track terrorist activity? Will they also use it to see who is complaining about government policies in the Naxal-affected regions? Will they use it to check if Indians are accessing pornography, which is still, ludicrously, a violation of the penal code? Will they use it to make sure there are no cards parties on Diwali?

Many technology experts believe that we are on the precipice of a great revolution in mobile computing. Devices like the BlackBerry and the iPhone are precursors to handheld computers that will be able to do infinitely more. The first wave of these products has already hit the market. If the government is worried about the BlackBerry, just wait till they see what the iPad can do.