Saturday, August 29, 2009

BJP's Hindutva

Dilip D'Souza has sparked a discussion on his blog on the subject of Hindutva. He asked what exactly does BJP's Hindutva ideology mean: what are its core tenets? Many people, including myself, partook in the discussion.

I was of the opinion that BJP's ideology is essentially one about what Muslims and Christians should or should no do. It has precious little to offer to a Hindus per se wanting to understand his or her culture better. Of course, there were others who felt BJP had somehow lent pride to Hindus. Most posts in this context were aggressive, but one by a certain Chandru K seemed more sincere.

Here is what he says:

On Hindutva: "It's more in identifying with 5000 years of Indian civilisation, in embracing that as one's own. Which means feeling easy referring to Kalidasa, Aryabhata, the Mahabharata, the Vedas, Khajuraho, Sushruta and Charaka, Vikramaditya and Rajendra Chola, Vijayanagar and many more. Moslems, barring exceptions like Kalam, have enormous difficulty identifying with all this; Christians also have difficulty making Hindu/ancient Indian references. This matter goes to the heart of Indian spiritual unity."

But, what I am wondering is does BJP want Muslims to engage with our symbolisms or just pay homage to them? Because with engagement comes questioning, debating, playing with the ideas and taking them further. Are we mature enough to be able to stand up to such questioning and debate without reducing to childish abuse and threats?

When MF Husain tried to engage with our Hindu symbolism - and he was genuinely celebrating Hindu godesses through his art - why were we so enraged? After all, we are not enraged by Khajuraho that celebrates sensuality on temple walls? Or much of our literature, which is highly sensual in its descriptions of our gods and goddesses?

What about Kalidasa and his most famous work, Shakuntalam. Suppose a Muslim scholar decides to study it and write a thesis on the depiction of women in Sanskrit poetry. It may or may not be all laudatory. Will BJP be mature in debating it then? My guess is BJP will:

a) show no interest in trying to understand what his argument is (the way they are treating poor Jaswant Singh);

b) nevertheless, shower him with abuse, threats, and physical violence if they can help it for daring to question a great work of Hindu art.

BJP doesn't want any genuine engagement on the part of non-Hindus with our religion and culture. It simply wants absolute surrender. And my real pique is that it doesn't mind using physical violence to get it.

Dilip D'Souza's blog: Death Ends Fun

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quote of Arms

Quoted on August 24, 2009
Gone Pots?

"Our education system should change from MOTS (More of the Same) to HOTS (High Order Thinking Skills)" - Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Government of India.
The Times of India
Humpty Dumpty Acts on a wall

"So, you want to be Humpty Dumpty and make words mean what you say and act, then I presume you already have in your mind to act against me or anybody, so act." - Arun Shourie, former journalist and member of Bhartiya Janata Party challenges the party.
The Times of India
Subject of my affection

"The subject is a separate one, it is a subject that is altogether a subject." - Jaswant Singh, former member of Bharatiya Janata Party on the tv show Devil's Advocate.
Hindustan Times
Loose change

"IIT professors are loosing Rs 23 lakh in their career compared with the government scientists and other officials of similar rank," Somya Mukherjee, Secretary of Faculty Forum IIT-B.
The Times of India
And finally.. Great Minds Think Alike

The Times of India & DNA report on Ganesh Chaturthi

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Romancing the Indian way

Karan Johar is appalled by the way the American authorities treated his friend Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan - daring to question him at the Newark Airport. After all, as Shahane in his latest blog Shoot First, Mumble Later points out, Johar has always been so kind in his intelligent and nuanced potrayals of western cultures.

That reminded me of another "pure Punjab vs wicked West" film, Namastey London, that I had the honour of reviewing for Time Out Mumbai a few years ago.

Needleless to say, Punjab came out toppers. But what really struck me about the film was the director Vipul Shah's idea of how Indian men should woo women (NRI or otherwise): apparently it involves leering at them frankly and aggressively, accosting them in a drunk state in the night, and giggling idiotically when talking to them. Treating them with respect or acting like intelligent beings around them is overrated.

The movie was a thunderous hit. No wonder, Indian men think sexual aggression is a perfectly acceptable part of romance.

If only, western men would take a few lessons from their pure-bred counterparts in Punjab.

Leering is sexy:
Accosting is macho:
Idiocy is attractive:
Review on Time Out Mumbai:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Nehru vs Obama

While campaigning for India's first general election, Nehru described his state of mind in a private letter to Edwina Mountbatten.

"Wherever I have been, vast multitudes gather at my meetings and I love to compare them, their faces, their dress, their reactions to me and what I say.... Having long been imprisoned in the Secretariat of Delhi, I rather enjoy these fresh contacts with people... The effort to explain in simple language our problems and our difficulties, and to reach the minds of these simply folk is both exhausting and exhilarating" - Dec 3, 1951, pg 143, India After Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha.

Growing up in an age of extreme cynicism towards the political class, I was incredibly moved by Nehru's words when I first read them in Guha's first-class book. Nehru discusses sharing and explaining the country's problems with its citizenry not merely winning the ballot. It indicated affection for the people he served, but more than that, it indicated respect - respect for poor, uneducated people and their ability to understand and work with him to make the country a better place.

Perhaps it would be silly to expect such nobility today.

But I do feel that Obama has brought some of that spirit to his politics by not giving up on reason, logic and respect for the people. Throughout his campaign and now through the healthcare debate, he has kept reason and logic supreme - despite the opposition going berserk with lies and accusations - believing that people are intelligent enough to see his point. That is showing respect to them.

Yes, he is being criticised for not using more emotional arguments. I agree, there needs to be a human element to such debates. But that should not overrule the rationality of the issue under debate.

And for the sake of politics in general, I hope that the American people will prove his judgment right.

An op-ed by Obama in the NYT, August 16, 2009:

Friday, August 14, 2009

rocket science?

Me: The onions go into the pot, S. It is not rocket science, you know.
S: Don't rocket science me. I've done rocket science. This is tougher!

And the onions never made it into the pot....

Marrying an aerospace engineer means some well-loved phrases can go into the rubbish bin.


The American Dream

The current Healthcare Nightmare going on in America dispels two persistent myths for us Indians.

Myth 1: Democracy can only thrive when a critical mass of people are educated. Because only then, they can differentiate between right and wrong, and what is good for them and what not. This argument will inevitably be followed by a case for India needing some form of dictatorship or other.

Well, if the democratic debate going on in America about the reform of its ineffective Healthcare system at the moment is anything to go by, it is as easy to dupe educated citizens - one just needs to write down the lies for all to read.

Myth 2: That the only way we can get the moribund Indian government to act decisively, is to have a presidential form of government. I know one person who would clearly not agree with the statement at the moment: President Obama, who is haplessly trying get his own Democratic Party to sign a legislation, which the party members don't feel obliged to in the least.

In fact, Henrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker magazine has pinned his country's problems down to its Presidential form of government in the latest issue.

Through the 90s, America's was the only system to follow, the only country worth emulating. Now suddenly everything American is an anathema. What was the American Dream for the rest of us, seems to have turned into a nightmare.

This is not to say that our system is indeed better. Just to point out, that simply because a system seems to work in another country isn't reason enough to adopt it. For you never know, when it might stop working even for them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Yes Men Fix the World

Last night, Sid & I went to a watch the Moore-style spoofy documentary The Yes Men Fix the World at a theatre nearby, which was followed by a satellite link-up to a live Q&A with the film-makers, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano (both aliases), from Sheffield.

The Yes Men are a group of activists who pose as spokespersons of powerful organisations - usually corporations, and sometimes the government - and infiltirate conferences and meetings. Once there, they make outrageous presentations on behalf of the company meant to highlight how dehumanizing and selfish their real goals are when seen from the perspective of the victims. The movie puts together many such successful ruses conducted by the film makers, who belong to this group including, speaking on behalf of Dow Jones Chemicals on the BBC announcing that they take full responsibility of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, launching a candle made from human flesh for Exonn at an energy expo, and more.

So far, so good. Yes, we agree that there is something rotten going on and needs a change.

But can Yes Men be that change. The Q&A that followed highlighted the shortcomings of such activism. Beyond saying, go out and protest - which they did interspersed with winks, jokes and self-mockery that somehow diluted the message - they had nothing concrete to advice.

It reminded me of a funny encounter, Sid and I had in Melbourne years ago. We were walking around the Central Business District of the city, when we came across a stall filled with left-wing, smash-capitalism style bric-a-brac. It was being run by two college student in full hippie regalia, who belonged to a group emphatically called Resistance. I browsed through the key chains and posters and then casually asked one of the guys, "but resistance against what, exactly". I had never seen anyone reduced to such utter confusion so quickly. Muttering unintelligibly, he turned towards his mate. She immediately and agressively came to his rescue. "It is resistance against everything!" That helps, I thought.

Yes, I dearly want to change the world. But really, I don't want to hand it over from one set of fools to another.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The McDonaldization of Society: Or is it a case of an academic lost?

How do we know that a social theorist has lost track of his own argument?

When he starts espousing academic pearls like this:

"Although, the grobalisation of nothing is at odds with the glocalization of something, clearly much of the power today lies with the grobalization of nothing, which threatens to overwhelm and undermine the glocalization of something (through, for example, McDonaldizing these forms of something" - pg 179, The McDonaldization of Society 5 (2008) by George Ritzer.

Ritzer came into limelight in 1993 with his book The McDonaldization of Society, in which he examined how the fast food chain McDonald's, and the fast food industry in general, had come to adopt a highly rational system of production based on efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. (The principles were first put forth by Max Weber when talking of the rationalisation of bureaucracy in Europe). He took existing journalistic records, popular knowledge about the McDonald's food chain, his own observations of society in general - doused them with a strong polemic against profit-driven corporations - and tried to show how such a model was bad for workers, customers and for society as a whole. He explained that such an effort towards formal rationality will eventually lead to irrationalities creeping into the system, such as, poor quality of the food and service, deskilling and high turnover of labour, health and environmental disaster, dehumanisation, and more. More importantly, Ritzer claimed that this model was being adopted by different sectors - banking, healthcare, police, education - and was spreading out of America to other parts of the world through globalisation. The whole world was getting McDonaldized, he warned. In short, he used McDonaldization to damn capitalism, Americanisation, Westernisation and globalisation – incidentally, Ritzer fails to differentiate between the last three – without doing any primary research himself.

The book met with an enthusiastic reception. Here are some responses put together by David Chery, an academic studying the theory's popularity:
* ‘Since using Ritzer’s text, enrolment in [my] class has grown …We think the text will serve as ‘launching pad’ for our majors.’ US college lecturer
* ‘This book has attracted the most animated response from students I have ever experienced…’ Lecturer, Arizona State University
* ‘invaluable as an illustration of how classical social theory can be applied’ Stephen Miles Social Theory in the Real World
* ‘Genuinely succeeds in communicating the sociological imagination … and would serve as a wonderful catalyst for an extended discussion on rationalization, modernity, and …related issues’ Endorsement of The McDonaldization of Society by Peter Kollock

It is easy to see the appeal of the book. It is written in everyday language, and relates to an easily observable everyday phenomena: fast food chains. It has relatively little tedious comparative statistics, specific definitions or extended analysis based on such statistics or definitions. And yet, it seems to explain the whole world around us through manifold observations and plausible extrapolations. Most importantly, it provides us with an identifiable bad guy, the evil profit-driven corporation, to pin all our problems on - obesity, break-down of family structure, increasing isolation, ecological disaster, deskilling of labour to name a few. Little wonder that students loved it. It allowed them to pontificate, criticise and judge without actually exerting themselves to do any boring scientific enquiry.

For example, this is how he extrapolates the model of fast food industry to higher education:
“The masses of students, large, impersonal dorms, and huge lecture classes make getting to know other students difficult. The large lecture classes, constrained tightly by the clock, also make it virtually impossible to know professors personally; at best, students might get to know a graduate assistant teaching a discussion section. Grades (and students are obsessed by this quantifiable measure of education) might be derived from a series of numbers rather than by name. In sum, students may feel like little more than objects into which knowledge is poured as they move along an informational-providing and degree-granting educational assembly line.” The McDonaldization of Society 5 (2008), pg 158.

There is no attempt to systematically apply the principles of efficiency, control, predictability and calculability to university education here. Ritzer does not try to break down the various functions of a university and examine how the McDonaldization model has come to dominate them all. For example, if we were to judge universities on classroom size, we would first have to come to some understanding regarding what an optimum classroom size should be. Next, we would need to find out what the average classroom size of an American university is, and prove that there is indeed a significant difference between the two. To further cement our point, we would have to prove that such classroom sizes had indeed led to a decline in the quality of students stepping out of such universities. Only then, could one say that irrationalities had crept into university education and it was getting McDonaldized. However, Ritzer does no such work. He makes random observations about classroom size, grades, exams and generalizes them to all professors and students, peppers his argument with “may” and “might” and pronounces that higher education in America has become McDonaldised.

However, such lack of precision did not deter the book or its author’s popularity in the least. Ritzer has revised the book five times since, the latest one being published in 2008. He has further extended the theory in books such as The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions (1998) and McDonaldization: The Reader (2002), apart from writing other books on globalization and consumer culture that willy-nilly relate back to his McDonaldization theory. In the process, he inspired many other academics to look into McTelevision, Disneyfication, McWorld and more.

However, criticism also accompanied the veneration.

Ritzer came up with an ambitious social theory to predict how the world operates. And yet, many theorists pointed out how the world, and the people who inhabit it, were deviating from his predictions. To take McDonald's for example: Yes, its outlets were spreading around the world, but in each new outlet seemed to adopt the local colour, cuisine and customer habits, making it different from its counterparts elsewhere, found James Watson. Further, the spread of chain stores and restaurants were also being accompanied by an explosion of independent restaurants and stores, back-to-nature movements, organic businesses, and other small businesses. In particular, Roland Robertson introduced the theory of glocalisation - that global and local are the two sides of the same coin, and their encounter leads to something new and unique, not the global always overpowering the local to create a homogenous world. Thus, globalisation is also responsible for greater heterogeneity, which is observable once we dig under the superficial homogeneity. Robertson claimed that corporations had an interest in promoting and nurturing these local differences in order to capture different markets.

How was Ritzer to explain the many contradictions to his theory that were emerging as sociologists started applying the glocalisation theory to a fast globalising world?

It is, thus, that Ritzer descended to the gibberish that we started the blog post with.

He could not deny that glocalisation was taking place. So he decided to differentiate between the different encounters of global and local, and the resultant outcome.

* Glocalisation: When, a global and local encounter takes place without the aid of multinationals, it is glocalisation.
* Grobalisation: When, a multinational is involved, such an encounter is grobalisation. He does not specifically define the term coined by him, beyond saying that “grobalisation focuses on the imperialistic ambitions of nations, corporations, organizations, and the life and their desire, indeed their need, to impose themselves on various geographical areas.” The term GRObalisation arose out of the needs of corporations to see their influence, power and profits GROW.
* A Nothing outcome: When such an encounter results in a product or service that was “centrally conceived, controlled and comparatively devoid of distinctive substantive content” – the outcome is nothing.
* A Something outcome: When the product and service results in something that is “generally indigenously conceived, controlled and comparatively rich in distinctive substantive content” – the outcome is something.

That Ritzer came up with such horrendously imprecise terms – Nothing & Something – to explain a phenomenon of global impact indicates his own cluelessness about the argument he wants to make.
He agrees that most outcomes will lie somewhere between the Something and Nothing continuum. But, he gives us no clue as what factors would lead to a result closer to one or the other end. For example, when decision-making is being shared by a global office and local branch how are we to judge the outcome. What kind of sharing arrangement would lead to the relationship closer to a Something end?

No doubt, he will answer the question in the 6th edition of The McDonaldisation of Society, due to be published in 2012. I guess, his answer will be – "since the decision-making of the grobal “the” emphasising nothing will always overwhelm the decisions of the glocal “a” producing something, the Mcdonadization of the “an” creating anything is inevitable."