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Merchandising “Cool” – The Never-Ending Search

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PBS Frontline, in 2001, ran a frankly prophetic documentary on what were then cutting-edge techniques in brand marketing. It’s interesting to note how quickly these trends proliferated until now, nine years later, they seem frightfully commonplace. The transcript can be found here.

The piece begins by remarking that the “teen generation” of 2001, the one to which I belonged, had been the largest and most sought-after generation to date – even larger than the baby boomers.  It collectively spent $100 billion dollars per year on itself, and induced its parents to spend an additional $50 billion. It had more disposable cash then ever before, and economic freedom to spend it. And so finding the best way to appeal to that generation became a pressing concern for the Madison Street advertising firms – and a lucrative one.

Early research quickly focused upon that implacable question – What is ‘cool’?How does one become cool? A species known in the marketing business as “Cool Hunters” made its niche to find that answer. As Malcolm Gladwell says in the piece:

“Cool hunting” is structured around, really, a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. For years and years on Madison Avenue, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next. And cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends.

PBS takes us briefly through the life of a corporate spy:

A correspondent is a person who’s been trained by us to be able to find a certain kind of kid, a kid that we call a trendsetter or an early adopter. This is a kid who’s very forward in their thinking, who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group.These kids are really difficult to find. So what this correspondent does is they go out and they, like, find and identify these trend-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends or themes that are happening through all the information, and that’s the stuff that we put on our Web site.

But there was a problem. The process essentially cannibalizes itself. As it turns out, a big part of being “cool” is having nothing to do with avaricious marketers with an intent to exploit. As soon as a certain trend becomes blatantly marketed, kids move on to the next thing. Trying to pin down “cool” is an infinite game of whack-a-mole, a perpetual cycle.

The piece details how Sprite improbably became the symbol of hip-hop by sponsoring DJs and MC’s to promote their drink. By the way, this is the reason contemporary music is awful:

[Advertising Executive] PINA SCIARRA: Hip-hop for us became the sort vehicle, or the lens, for us to get to teens and talk to them in a credible way. And the way we did that was to develop relationships with artists.

And it worked. Sprite’s sales skyrocketed, and in 2001, when the piece was done, had attained supremacy in the youth market.

The reporter, Douglas Rushkoff, intones chillingly:

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Is it nostalgic to think that when we were young it was any different, that the thing we called “youth culture” wasn’t something that was just being sold to us, it was something that came from us, an act of expression, not just of consumption? Has that boundary been completely erased?

Today five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.

Those companies own all of the networks. All advertising must go through them. And MTV, one of our primary outlets of branded youth culture, became a virtual laboratory, where the results of thousands of focus groups, undercover fact-finding missions, and interviews got to be tested on real consumers.  Viacom, MTV’s parent, happened to be the ‘coolest’ conglomerate when this piece was made, and I have no doubt it still is. After all, they still own Jon Stewart, the White House court jester, who is authentically popular with the 18-24 demographic.

Exploring Viacom’s success, PBS examines how it gained popularity with the male demographic with several case studies, all centered around the idea of a “mook”, an advertising term that translates roughly to “boor”. In males, the “mook” takes its manifest in the lowbrow comedy acts like Howard Stern, Tom Green, the phenomena of professional wrestling, The Man Show and the Jackass franchise. The impulse there is always not to think, not to worry about anything in particular; just embrace your “manhood” – your penchant for slapstick comedy and outrageous statements – and above all, keep buying things.

The female counterpart to the “mook” emphasized overt sexuality, typified by Britney Spears. As the piece remarks of Ms. Spears:

She hit the scene at 16 with “Baby, One More Time,” as a naughty Catholic schoolgirl bursting out of her uniform. When it came time for a spread in Rolling Stone, the 17-year-old self-professed virgin Britney struck the classic nymphet pose. And at the Video Music Awards last year, when Britney finally and famously came out of her clothes, she wasn’t just pleasing eager young boys, she was delivering a powerful missive to girls: Your body is your best asset. Flaunt your sexuality even if you don’t understand it. And that’s the message that matters most because Britney’s most loyal fans are teenage girls.

PBS takes us through several other case studies, and the trend of anti-intellectualism pervades throughout. Through endless focus groups and iterations of the cool chase, our marketers have programmed us to be unthinking, unfeeling, buying machines. It would be easy to dismiss these techniques as rather severe examples of the sort of anti-intellectualism that prevailed around the time President Bush was elected; that they were a small part of an overall scheme to make a purely corporate candidate electable for office. Perhaps, many would argue, President Obama, the university intellectual, repudiated that culture.

However, to those detractors I would offer this last bit of evidence: the lyrics to a song entitled “Blah Blah Blah” by our newest musical sensation, 22-year-old “Ke$ha”, who has just released a best-selling record, one year into Obama’s presidency.

Coming out your mouth with your blah blah blah
Just zip your lips like a padlock
And meet me at the back with the jack and the jukebox
I don’t really care where you live at
Just turn around boy and let me hit that
Don’t be a little bitch with your chit chat
Just show me where your dick’s at

Music’s up
Listen hot stuff
I’m in love
With this song
So just hush
Baby shut up
Heard enough

Stop ta-ta-talking that
Blah blah blah
Think you’ll be getting this
Nah nah nah
Not in the back of my
Car-ar-ar
If you keep talking that
Blah blah blah blah blah

Boy come on get your rocks off
Come put a little love in my glove box
I wanna dance with no pants on
Meet me in the back with the jack and the jukebox
So cut to the chase kid
‘Cause I know you don’t care what my middle name is
I wanna be naked
But your wasted

For anyone who would like to know how these lyrics came to be, and still wonders how the machinery of political suppression is exercised, I highly recommend PBS Frontline’s investigation.

Update: You can watch the documentary online here.

Tapes & Transcripts

Merchants of Cool
Program #1911
Original Airdate: February 27, 2001Produced by
Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin

Directed by
Barak Goodman

Written by
Rachel Dretzin

Correspondent and Consulting Producer
Douglas Rushkoff

ANNOUNCER: They want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. They are corporate America’s $150 billion dream.

    NEAL MORITZ, Movie Producer: Teenagers have a lot of disposable income. They want to go spend their money. And you know, we’re more than happy to make product that they want to go spend money on.

ANNOUNCER: MTV, Madison Avenue and the dream makers of Hollywood have targeted our teenagers.

    ROBERT McCHESNEY, Communications Professor, U. of Illinois: They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they’re colonizing. Teens are like Africa.

ANNOUNCER: They are the most studied generation in history.

    ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don’t understand and recognize what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, you’re going to lose. You’re absolutely going to lose.

ANNOUNCER: But what does this relentless focus on the teenager do to the culture?

    MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: They’re going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down.

ANNOUNCER: And to the teenagers themselves?

    BARBARA: I have to look good for people. I need to look good.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, author and media critic Douglass Rushkoff takes a journey through the complex world of buying and selling cool.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK, so I’m going to take attendance here. Christopher.

    PARTICIPANT: Here.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK. Hadad.

    PARTICIPANT: Here.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right there. OK. Adam. OK.

    You guys can all have a seat right over here. Has anybody ever done a focus group before? Do you remember what you talked about?

    PARTICIPANT: After-school sports.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, FRONTLINE: [voice-over] On a summer afternoon, in a downtown New York loft, corporate America is on a very serious mission.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: You know, it’s all going to be sort of, like, what you guys think. You guys are sort of the experts today, and it’s going to really be just you guys telling me your opinions.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: These five boys are here to be questioned about what they wear, what they eat, what they listen to and watch. For $125 each, they’re expected to answer.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Tell me some of the things that are really hot right now, some of the things that are really big right now, popular trends, things that you sort of see everywhere. What’s, like, going on? What’s hot right now? Just shout them out.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: OK, so they’re no more responsive than most teenagers, but that’s not going to stop this market researcher because the information he’s looking for is worth an awful lot of money. At 32 million strong, this is the largest generation of teenagers ever, even larger than their Baby Boomer parents. Last year teens spent more than $100 billion themselves and pushed their parents to spend another $50 billion on top of that. They have more money and more say over how they’ll spend it than ever before.

BOB BIBB, Television Marketing Executive: Teens run today’s economy. There’s an innate feeling for moms and dads to please the teen, to keep the teen happy, to keep the teen home. And I think you can pretty much take that to the bank.

SHARON LEE, Teen Market Researcher: They’re given a lot of what we call guilt money. “Here’s the credit card. Why don’t you go on line and buy something because I can’t spend time with you?”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I’m Douglas Rushkoff, and tonight we’ll tour through a landscape that has both attracted and repelled me during the decade I’ve been studying it. It’s the world in which our teenagers are growing up, a world made of marketing.

For today’s teens, a walk in the street may as well be a stroll through the mall. Anywhere they rest their eyes, they’ll be exposed to a marketing message. A typical American teenager will process over 3,000 discrete advertisements in a single day, and 10 million by the time they’re 18. Kids are also consuming massive quantities of entertainment media. Seventy-five percent of teens have a television in their room. A third have their own personal computer, where they spend an average of two hours a day on line.

BRIAN GRADEN, Television Programming Executive: I think one of the great things about this information age is, with so many channels, you can say my business is 12 to 15, or my business is 21 to 24. As a result, you have the most marketed-to group of teens and young adults ever in the history of the world.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It’s a blizzard of brands, all competing for the same kids. To win teens’ loyalty, marketers believe, they have to speak their language the best. So they study them carefully, as an anthropologist would an exotic native culture.

ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don’t understand and recognize what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and then be able to take that in and come up with a really precise message that you’re trying to reach these kids with in their terms, you’re going to lose. You’re absolutely going to lose.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Is there anybody in your group of friends in particular that is, you know, always really following the trends?

    PARTICIPANT: No.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: No? So it’s just sort of all of you together kind of keep each other in check? OK. Cool.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What makes this market so frustrating is that they don’t operate the same way as the rest of us. They’re a stubborn demographic, unresponsive to brands and traditional marketing messages. But there is one thing they do respond to: cool. Only cool keeps changing. So how do you map it, pin it down?

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: As I’m moving up, stop me when I get to, like, two years ago.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What is cool anyway?

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Like right here? OK.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The search for this elusive prize has its own name: “cool hunting.”

MALCOLM GLADWELL, Writer, “The New Yorker” Magazine: “Cool hunting” is structured around, really, a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. For years and years on Madison Avenue, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next. And cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Many companies don’t trust themselves to do this kind of research, so they hire experts who can find these cool kids and speak their language.

DEE DEE GORDON, Teen Market Researcher: We look for kids who are ahead of the pack because they’re going to influence what all the other kids do. We look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, that are going to influence the other 80 percent.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Dee Dee Gordon is a sought after cool hunter. Just 30 years old, she commands high fees as a consultant to some of the largest corporations in America and has been the subject of a New Yorker profile.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: How good is she? I think she’s as good as anyone is at this game, and it’s something- it’s a difficult thing to quantify, of course. It’s not a science. It’s really a question, ultimately, of how much do you trust the person who’s doing the interpretation and how good are their instincts. And I think, in both cases, she’s at the top of the field.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Three years ago, Gordon and her partner, Sharon Lee, left the small advertising agency where they worked to start their own business, Look-Look.

    DEE DEE GORDON: All the photos are really busy, so somebody has to shoot a skateboarder in the air or a cyclist in the air-

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Gordon and Lee have put together a team of what they call “correspondents”: all young, all former cool kids themselves.

    DEE DEE GORDON: The Slipknot story came in, and our writer did a really good job.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They’re culture spies, who penetrate the regions of the teen landscape where corporations aren’t welcome.

    “CORRESPONDENT”: Can I take your picture for a street-culture Web site I work for?

    TEENAGE BOY: Go ahead.

    “CORRESPONDENT”: I got to get your piercings. Can I get your tattoo?

DEE DEE GORDON: A correspondent is a person who’s been trained by us to be able to find a certain kind of kid, a kid that we call a trendsetter or an early adopter. This is a kid who’s very forward in their thinking, who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group.

These kids are really difficult to find. So what this correspondent does is they go out and they, like, find and identify these trend-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends or themes that are happening through all the information, and that’s the stuff that we put on our Web site.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: For a subscription fee of $20,000 each, companies are granted access to the Look-Look Web site, a Rosetta stone of teen culture. If companies can get in on a trend or subculture while it is still underground, they can be the first ones to bring it to market.

DEE DEE GORDON: And that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then eventually kills it.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And that’s the paradox of cool hunting: It kills what it finds. As soon as marketers discover cool, it stops being cool.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: The faster you pick up on these trends and blow them out and show them to everybody and reveal them to corporate America, the more you force the kind of person who starts them and spreads them to move on and find the next. So you simply- there’s no kind of solution to this. You can’t ever solve the puzzle permanently. By having- by discovering cool, you force cool to move on to the next thing.

[www.pbs.org: Learn more about "cool hunting"]

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: For those of you who crossed out Madonna, why did you cross out Madonna?

    PARTICIPANT: Because she’s old.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: She’s old?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This creates a problem for marketers. Kids begin to see them as the enemy. So what do marketers do? Market to kids without seeming to do so, become cool themselves, as Sprite did a few years ago.

    SPRITE COMMERCIAL: [singing] I like the way you make me laugh. I like the funny things you do-

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In the early ’90s, Sprite was an also-ran brand in the competitive soft drink category. Their focus groups with teenagers were designed to find out what was wrong.

PINA SCIARRA, Director of Youth Brands, Sprite: What we found by talking to teens is that they had seen so much advertising that they were on overload and became very cynical about that traditional approach to advertising.

    GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] Hi, I’m Grant Hill, professional basketball player for the Detroit Pistons.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Then they launched this ad campaign aimed at teens, which pokes fun at marketing itself.

    GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] -because it’s the only drink with that cool, crisp, refreshing taste that satisfies even my manliest thirst.

PINA SCIARRA: There was really no one in the market at the time that was saying, “Discount it all. Don’t believe it. It’s all BS, and we know that you know that. And you’re smarter than everyone else.” So it put them in a position to feel like we understood them, so that they were feeding back to us, “You know, Sprite understands me. Sprite is one”- you know, “It’s really one of us.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It worked for a while. But soon Sprite’s own focus groups revealed that kids were getting wise to this anti-marketing marketing campaign.

    PARTICIPANT: They had Grant Hill telling you not to listen to some celebrity telling you to drink a beverage.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right.

    PARTICIPANT: Well, that’s what you’re doing. You’re listening to Grant Hill telling you to drink Sprite.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right.

    PARTICIPANT: I don’t know how much they probably paid all those stars to come on and say, “Don’t listen to what a star says.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So Sprite crossed an entirely new threshold into the innermost sanctum of teen culture, where they cloaked themselves in genuine cool.

PINA SCIARRA: Hip-hop for us became the sort vehicle, or the lens, for us to get to teens and talk to them in a credible way. And the way we did that was to develop relationships with artists.

Written by pavanvan

March 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Roger Ebert: Saint

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If you haven’t read Chris Jones’s moving interview-tribute to Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire, I highly recommend it. I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s movie reviews for years  now, and while I have often found him far too soft on Hollywood’s stinkers (he liked Booty Call, for god’s sake!) I see now that it’s a product of a truly gentle personality, a soft, sophisticated intelligence that seeks, in spite of everything, to look on the bright side.

Mr. Ebert has spent the better part of the last decade in an out of surgery, battling a variety of cancers, which have ultimately claimed his throat and vocal cords, as well as his ability to eat, drink and communicate. As the article mentions, he can’t remember the last word he spoke, the last thing he ate, the last drink he drank. But with what grace, what humility he bears it! One hears no complaints from this man, no poor-me sob stories; in fact, he considers himself lucky!

As he says, “There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am! This has led to an explosion of writing.”

And indeed it has. If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to go over Roger Ebert’s Journal, where he, in his verbal silence, effuses a bright and erudite stream of daily prose on every subject thinkable. Life, death, politics, film, love, relationships – well, everything really. There is much to learn from this man, and he is kind enough to attempt to teach us.

Written by pavanvan

February 21, 2010 at 10:26 am

Telangana Resumption

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Poster at a Telangana protest. The dam diverts water from Telangana to Andhra, leaving some farmers impoverished.

As I write, the city of Hyderabad has virtually shut down – but then, a city of 4 million can never really shut down, can it? The police have cordoned off the arterial roadways; they stand erect, decked in full riot gear, shields glistening in the sun before a tangle of razor-wire. Every 200 meters or so reveals a new checkpoint, a new cadre of stern-faced policeman prepared for – what? – for anything. The students of Osmania University have decided to march on the state assembly, for one last (though it won’t really be the last) cry of agitation for Telangana. The police have determined that they will not get that far. Hyderabad swarms with them; they have learned from past mistakes, and are now taking no chances. The previous agitations may have seemed a joke to most, a petty squabble between fresh-faced youngsters and India’s grimly determined gendarmerie. Only now does the seriousness of this affair sink in. Hyderabad resembles an occupied city, a militarized zone, whose citizens are doing their best, in spite of the inconvenience, to go about their daily business. The main roads blocked, their vehicles cram the side-streets, loosing a cacophony of horns, shouts, and irritated grunts.

But what of the students? From a terrace outside the university campus I got a birds-eye view of the coming agitation; a prelude, perhaps, to the free-for-all that is sure to ensue should the students somehow make it to the state assembly. (As of this writing, at 2:30 PM, the mob has been stopped approximatly four kilometers from their target.) Thousands of students stand in a tightly packed oblong circle, surrounded by hundreds of riot-clad policeman. The crowd roars, “Jai! Telangana!” and the police nervously fingered their batons, ready for the violence to break, perhaps even willing it, but sternly warned not to attack until the first stone had been thrown.

Suddenly – a break. As though by common consent, the stduents in the center of the mass begin pushing, and soon they force a hole in the police line. The police, still cautious, refrain from swinging their batons. One catches just the faintest wisp of bemusement in their eyes – the students, after all, have six kilometers and fifteen roadblocks to traverse before they reach their goal at the assembly. Let them march! But still, one officer cannot help but swing a half-hearted whack at a passing student. The gap widens; the students pour through. The shouts become ebullient, joyful: “Johar! Johar!” One young fellow, only twenty by the looks of him, runs at the head of the mob, leaping with joy, pumping his fist into the air. Another group of students stays behind at the university gate, chanting slogans, waving flags, and glaring, with anger-widened eyes, at their khaki-clad oppressors.

The Telangana movement has entered into the third month of its current incarnation, and it shows no signs of slowing. What moves these students to risk their lives, their well-being? By what do they endure the blows of police batons, the cracked skulls, the shattered ribs? To find out, I visited the Osmania University campus during a lull in the activity, one week ago. In interviews with students and professors, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of the disposession, the frustration that drives this movement – but I gained as well a healthy dose of cynicism.

Before I begin I should admit that my initial writings on this topic (here, here and here) were premature and largely uninformed. I regarded this business then as so much wasted time, a pointless agitation for a rather meaningless goal – would Telangana, after all, relieve India’s systemic corruption? Would it ease Hyderabad’s pollution-withered lungs? I had a sense, at the time, that Telangana had suffered some historical injustice, but I had no idea how systematic it was, how deeply it affected the farmers and villagers of this area, what a scarified psychic wound it left. As with all political movements, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, how much of it is a spontaneous effusion of decades of frustration, and how much planned by clever, power-seeking politicians. My interviews with the Osmania students did little to relieve this ambiguity.

The grievances, at least, are real enough – Telangana has been deprived of water, land, and cultural identity. The statistics are revealing, and Telangana protesters never turn down an opportunity to quote them – 80% of state jobs go to Andhra, even though the state capital is in Telangana; only 13% of the state’s water supplies get to the Telangana region. Telangana finds itself bereft of universities, capital investment, development projects, or any kind of government support.  They’ve been lied to from the start – the 1956 agreement that bound Andhra and Telangana together was a sham and was violated almost immediately after it was signed.

The knowledge of this deprivation has moved countless students to protest – but it seems there must be something more to it.

My interviews at Osmania were partially instructive. I wanted to know why these students felt so strongly about the Telangana issue – beyond the various statistics that illustrate Telangana’s subjugation. What did Telangana mean to them? Why were they willing to risk being arrested and beaten? Why were students dousing themselves with kerosene and lighting a match?

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Aravind Seti, 22, is a Master’s student in Biotechnology. He has a shy, innocent smile, and a soft-spoken manner about him. He was sitting outside the Osmania Arts College, the main building of the agitations, under a tent where a few students desultorily milled about and a cheap 1960s-era speaker blasted grainy Telangana protest music. I approached him, notebook in hand, and began to ask of his motivations.

“Well…” he started. He seemed to have difficutly putting his thoughts into words. “The political leaders here are all very corrupt. We aren’t represented in the assembly. I’m doing this for the sake of my friends and colleagues. We’ll get more jobs, you see, many more opportunities if Telangana comes.”

I persisted, “But why do you, specifically, feel strongly about this? Is it a sense of historical injustice, or have you personally seen Andhra oppression? What lead you to protest?”

“I am excited to be part of such a historic movement,” he explained, “We have suffered for so long – not me, personally, but my countrymen, we in Telangana. So much history behind us gets stamped under the Andhra heel. Who will speak for us?”

He opened his mouth to continue, but before he could speak, a short professor with a furrowed brow walked quickly towards us. His eyes were red.

“Yes, who are you?” he asked.

“I’m a journalist – I’m trying to get a sense of the public mood here. You know, why the students feel so strongly about this, etc.”

He was brusque. “Address your questions to me. I can speak for the students.”

“And who might you be?” I asked.

“I’m his teacher.”

“Which class do you teach?”

“I teach Arts at a different university.”

“But he just told me he’s a biochemistry student. How can you be…”

“Well, I’ve taken on the role of a mentor for these students. I’m a teacher for all the students of this movement now.”

I attempted to interview Aravind, but his ‘professor’ continued to interject with the standard Telangana grievances: the water, the jobs, the land-grab on the part of Andhra, etc. He was vigorous, angry, even, and hardly allowed Aravind to speak. This was not what I had come there for. The grievances I knew; the students, I didn’t.

Thinking I could not understand Telegu, the professor hurriedly whispered to Aravind: “When he asks you questions, you must give perfect answers. You are speaking for the movement.  Do not give wrong answers!”

I felt I wouldn’t get much farther with Aravind, so I asked him one final question: “How long have you felt this way? How long have you been conscious of the Telangana plight?”

He blushed. The professor winced. “To tell you the truth,” said Aravind, “I had no idea about any of this until last November, when K.C.R [the leader's movement] gave his speech at the university and began his hunger strike. I listened to his speech and wanted to be part of a movement.”

The professor began to give a long speech regarding the historical injustice of Telangana’s union with Andhra – the broken promises, the theft of water, the deprivation of employment. I cut him off and asked: “What do you think of the recent suicides? There have been almost 100 so far, all for Telangana. Do you think that by glorifying the students who choose to kill themselves, the movement condones it?”

He turned scarlet. “We absolutely do not condone these suicides!” he said vigorously, “But how can we stop them? They are an expression of the students’ rage.”

I persisted. “But Aravind just said he didn’t even know about this movement until a couple months ago. How could they have gotten so enraged so quickly?”

The professor stammered. “Well… emotions run hot…” He did not want to comment further.

I was curious as to how long the professor had been active in the movement. For someone who evidently felt so strongly about the issue, for someone who had taken a leadership position in these student agitations, he surely must have agitated before. He was in his late thirties.

“How long have you been in the movement?” I asked.

The professor scowled, then frowned, as though he knew the question was coming, and dreaded it.

“…. I’ve only been participating since November 28th, the date of K.C.R’s speech. ” And then, by way of justification: “One has to take care of their own…” Meaning his family.

————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Pandu Rangam is 22 years old, and he’s studying for a B. Tech in computer science. His parents are farmers in Nizamabad, in the heart of Telangana. When I spoke with him he betrayed a profound cynicism toward the whole student movement, and questioned the motives of its leaders.

“These students are being totally manipulated by K.C.R and the rest of the leadership,” he said, “The tragedy is that while the politicians aren’t really sincere about this, the students are. Look at how many have killed themselves over this! I’m amazed K.C.R has no shame. 99% of the students you talk to had no idea about Telangana this – Andhra that, until K.C.R came and gave his speech here. They’re 2-month-old patriots.”

“What do you think will happen if Telangana comes into existence?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing much will change,” he replied, almost cheerfully, “The politicians will rule the state much as it has been ruled – only now we’ll be plundered by our own people, instead of those living 200 km away.”

“These students are trying so hard,” he continued, “They endure the police charges, take their blows, but in the end they’ll be disenfranchised as they always have – you know, we’ll only see a real change if the students get leadership positions in the new Telangana. They’re the only ones who aren’t corrupt. How can they be – they haven’t had time to get the taste of money. “

Arjun, 21, another computer science student, overheard our conversation and joined in.

“But you have to admit, we’ve been totally mistreated by the Andhra government. Remember – 85% of jobs to go Andhra! They buy all our real estate and force our farmers into slavery!” he chided Pandu, “All politicians are corrupt – we know that. But maybe things will be a little better under our own leaders.”

Pandu laughed, “You want to risk your life for a ‘maybe’?”

Arjun continued, “Before we get Telangana we need a full inquiry into government corruption. We must root out corruption in our state if anything is to change.”

Pandu: “That’s why we let the students run the state!”

Arjun: “That’s a stupid idea. What do we know? We 22-and-23 year olds? You yourself said how easily the students were led into risking their lives, into enduring police charges. Who is to say some corrupt politician won’t manipulate these student leaders if they gain power in the state?”

Pandu had no answer.

I asked, “Would it be worth all this be worth it if Telangana happened, but its leaders turned out to be just as corrupt as the Andhra leaders?”

Pandu said no. Arjun said yes.

Pandu: “What is the use if none of our problems are solved?”

Arjun: “Even if we get corrupt leaders, at least they will be our corrupt leaders.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Walking about the campus, I stopped a student on the street for a spot interview. His name was Vikas, and he had taken part in the agitations since November 28th – K.C.R’s speech. He has attended meetings, but did not participate in the riots.

“I wanted to be a part of something historic,” he said, “I didn’t know very much about this until K.C.R. gave his speech. I listened to it and became very inspired. Without Telangana we won’t get jobs. We won’t get land, or water.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Thimmapa is 20, and one of the few students I spoke with who rioted with the students last December. He endured the police batons, and showed me a scar on his forehead to prove it. He bears it with pride.

“My dad is dead, and my mom is a coolie,” he said, by way of introduction, “I’ve been wanting Telangana ever since I was 14 years old. I read about it in books, but more than that, I watched society. People from Andhra are managers. People from Telangana are night watchmen outside the buildings.”

I ask you, how is this fair? Are we not people? I tell you, we are just as smart as anyone from Andhra. They think we’re second-class, but I say they are the second-class!”

“What about K.C.R.?” I asked.

“He is a good orator,” Thimmapa replied. “We will see what kind of leader he is. I trust him.”

“With Telangana we’ll have jobs, land,” Thimmapa continued, “We’ll tear down these evil dams that divert our water. Our water! And we won’t give a drop more to Andhra. Have they not drank enough?”

His roommate interjected: “We feel stepped on. They destroy our culture, say it’s no good. Well, I think they’re culture is no good. But who listens to me? If I were from Andhra, I would have a nice job waiting for me when I get out of university; I would have big land with a river flowing through it.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Anurag is a 19-year-old law student and speaks in flawless English. He, too, is skeptical of the movement, and says he is “neither for nor against Telangana”, instead describing himself merely as “pro-development”.

“I see no clear agenda from the pro-Telangana people”, he remarked, “The students who are involved in this so-called agitation to me  seem to be simply moving with the flock. What will happen once they achieve Telangana? No one knows. Well, I guess K.C.R will become Chief Minister – everyone knows that. But then what? Do they think they’ll suddenly get land and water and jobs overnight? I think a lot of students are in for a big disappointment, one way or another.”

“What do you see as the pros and cons of a separate Telangana state?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see – definitely a con will be the lack of negotiation power with the Central Government – consolidated with Andhra we speak with a much bigger voice. All alone, I’m not sure how many concessions we’ll be able to wrest from them. Another con would be the interruption of studies. If these agitations continue, the students will have lost one full year of school. Don’t they care about that?

On the pro side – a new state will open new opportunities for jobs. A new state means a new assembly, a new legislature. These positions will obviously be filled by Telangana students. But at the same time, the number of positions we’re talking about is slight – maybe 300 to 400 new jobs at the max. It’s clear the problem is bigger than this – it has to do with overpopulation – but of course no one wants to talk about that. Let’s see… well, I guess it’ll do wonders for our self-respect. I mean that’s what everyone talks about, right? But I can’t help but think that if we can’t respect ourselves without our own state, how will be be able to respect ourselves with one? During the independence movement that was also a major argument; people said India can never respect itself while it’s under the British crown. Do we really respect ourselves so much now?”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I came away from the university with something of a clearer picture of this movement. The grievances, at least, are no doubt legitimate, but I found it extremely curious that most of the students with whom I spoke had very little knowledge of them before K.C.R gave his fateful speech. However no one can doubt the genuineness of the student’s emotions – they feel the injustice, and are willing to go to some length to demonstrate it. Partly for a desire to belong to a larger movement, certainly, but also of a feeling of historical injustice, and the desire to redress it. The student suicides are especially perplexing, and I cannot wrap my mind around why someone would kill themselves over this.

One last note on the police brutality this movement has seen: at several protests over the past few months the police have charged, seemingly without warning, striking anyone at hand, including women and reporters. I know not under whose orders such actions were undertaken, but they remain counterproductive in the extreme, and have likely done more than their part in recruiting new protesters. It is not a pleasant sight to see young women clutching their heads as blood seeps between their fingers – and those who do see it are likely to become far more enraged over that, rather than abstract historical grievances.

The Chinese Mystique

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Perry Anderson has an excellent round-up of some recent books on the rise of China in this fortnight’s London Review of Books.

An excerpt:

These days Orientalism has a bad name. Edward Said depicted it as a deadly mixture of fantasy and hostility brewed in the West about societies and cultures of the East. He based his portrait on Anglo-French writing about the Near East, where Islam and Christendom battled with each other for centuries before the region fell to Western imperialism in modern times. But the Far East was always another matter. Too far away to be a military or religious threat to Europe, it generated tales not of fear or loathing, but wonder. Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay, fixed fabulous images that lasted down to Columbus setting sail for the marvels of Cathay. But when real information about the country arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, European attitudes towards China tended to remain an awed admiration, rather than fear or condescension. From Bayle and Leibniz to Voltaire and Quesnay, philosophers hailed it as an empire more civilised than Europe itself: not only richer and more populous, but more tolerant and peaceful, a land where there were no priests to practise persecution and offices of the state were filled according to merit, not birth. Even those sceptical of the more extravagant claims for the Middle Kingdom – Montesquieu or Adam Smith – remained puzzled and impressed by its wealth and order.

A drastic change of opinion came in the 19th century, when Western predators became increasingly aware of the relative military weakness and economic backwardness of the Qing empire. China was certainly teeming, but it was also primitive, cruel and superstitious. Respect gave way to contempt, mingled with racist alarm – Sinomania capsizing into Sinophobia. By the early 20th century, after eight foreign forces had stormed their way to Pekin to crush the Boxer Uprising, the ‘yellow peril’ was being widely bandied about among press and politicians, as writers like Jack London or J.H. Hobson conjured up a future Chinese takeover of the world. Within another few decades, the pendulum swung back, as Pearl Buck and Madame Chiang won popular sympathy for China’s gallant struggle against Japan. After 1948, in a further rapid reversal, Red China became the focus of still greater fear and anxiety, a totalitarian nightmare more sinister even than Russia. Today, the high-speed growth of the People’s Republic is transforming Western attitudes once again, attracting excitement and enthusiasm in business and media alike, with a wave of fashion and fascination recalling the chinoiserie of rococo Europe. Sinophobia has by no means disappeared. But another round of Sinomania is in the making.

The review is nuanced, scholarly, and even-handed. Definitely worth a read.

The Supreme Court: On the Other Hand…

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I want to draw attention to Glenn Greenwald’s recent discussion of the Supreme Court’s pro-bribery decision. Kevin Drum gives him a good rebuttal. These two posts demonstrate the complexity of this issue and how knee-jerk embraces or denials of the Supreme Court’s decision are  vast oversimplifications. I admit I, too,regarded the decision initially with horror, though like Mr. Greenwald I noted that bribery in our polity is so bad it could not get much worse. However, I also swept aside the substantial first-amendment issues implied in this case, casually remarking “Money is not speech” or “Corporations aren’t individuals”.

Mr. Greenwald raises some difficult challenges to those once-seeming platitudes. Isn’t spending money to publicize a message, after all, a form of “speech”? Did the Founding Fathers intend freedom of speech to only cover verbal communication? But then they have that “freedom of the press” too! What if you buy a printing press and use it to disseminate your message? That’s speech, right? And what if you use your press to irrationally support one candidate or one ideology (like a certain network we know)? Even that should be protected under the First Amendment.

Greenwald:

Anyone who believes that ["money isn't speech"] would have to say that there’s no First Amendment problem with any law that restricts the spending of money for political purposes, such as:”It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;” or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money advocating Constitutional rights for accused terrorists; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such matters, provided no money is spent”; or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money promoting a candidate not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party; all citizens shall still be free to advocate for such candidates, provided no money is spent.”

Anyone who actually believes that “money is not speech” would have to believe that such laws are necessarily permitted by the First Amendment (since they merely restrict the expenditure of money, which is not speech).

Do you actually believe that? I don’t even find that argument sufficiently coherent to warrant much discussion.

Ouch.

This highlights the dangers inherent in trying to limit monetary political support. The potential for misuse is enormous. That said, corporate influence on campaigns and governance is probably the single biggest disease affecting our polity. If this decision doesn’t exacerbate the problem, it undoubtedly legitimizes it.

Citizens United v. FEC is a tremendously difficult case. Corporations must have constitutional protection; certainly from unwarranted search or seizure, and just as certainly the right to advertise. Blackwater, a private mercenary company vigorously exercises its right to bear arms. To what extent can these rights be abridged to achieve “good results”? The Supreme Court cites “compelling state interest”, and it is up for debate whether political contributions constitute such.

With regard to campaign finance, I definitely think the solution – or at least a solution – is transparency. We must have detailed records as to who takes money from whom, publicly displayed and open to scrutiny. OpenSecrets does a great job of this, but such organizations are tragically few. Beyond that, I think a return to public financing with strict limits on campaign length would be a great idea. It seems to be working in Britain, anyway. And given the length and cost of a presidential campaign (1.5 years and $680 million as of 2008 and growing), I think some steady rules on this issue would be nice.

This, of course, would not prevent a large financier from investing in some television network and using it to pump out propaganda for his chosen candidate, nor should it. That will be another difficult battle. For now, it seems clear that some restrictions on how long the campaign season lasts and how much money each candidate can spend are well in order.

Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 11:26 am

Sarah Palin: Political Scientist

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Apropos Ms. Palin’s recent entry into political commentary, I think it’s important to remember this lengthy article in October’s Vanity Fair, written by none other than Ms. Palin’s once (but not future) son-in-law, the man who impregnated her daughter, Mr. Levi Johnson.

The public saw Levi only once, following the bizarre announcement that Ms. Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant during the 2008 election. He made a single appearance at the Republican National Convention, which the article suggests he was basically forced to do, and nobody really heard from him again. Until now.

Palin comes across in Mr. Johnson’s article as a careerist par-none, a person for whom the next step in the executive (here, political) ladder is their sole driving force, who would be willing to sacrifice anything and tell any lie to get ahead, for whom even her children and (soon-to-be) grandchildren are little more than political pawns. It seems likely that Mr. Johnson has some ax to grind with Ms. Palin, as the bulk of the article states how she never had time for her children or family – but he levels some charges which, if true, would be fantastically outrageous.

You may remember, for instance, the short-lived speculation that Ms. Palin’s most recent son, Trig, was actually her daughter’s. This turned out not to be true, but a similar scheme almost went into play. As Levi explains:

“You’ve got to listen to what my mom just said.” Sarah told me she had a great idea: we would keep it a secret—nobody would know that Bristol was pregnant. She told me that once Bristol had the baby she and Todd would adopt him. That way, she said, Bristol and I didn’t have to worry about anything.

Sarah kept mentioning this plan. She was nagging—she wouldn’t give up. She would say, “So, are you gonna let me adopt him?” We both kept telling her we were definitely not going to let her adopt the baby. I think Sarah wanted to make Bristol look good.

Truly absurd.

And let’s not forget why Ms. Palin quit her governorship of Alaska, despite having two more years to serve. In her resignation speech, she mumbled something about dead fish not swimming with the stream, or something like that – but Levi gives us another take:

[After the election], Sarah was sad for a while. She walked around the house pouting. I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor, but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make “triple the money.” It was, to her, “not as hard.” She would blatantly say, “I want to just take this money and quit being governor.”

Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

The article is worth reading in full, but any of the coverage on Ms. Palin should give some idea of her intellectual rigor. This is a woman who, in 2008 was unable to explain the Bush Doctrine, someone who didn’t know what the Federal Reserve did, who had only a vague grasp of the dynamics of the Cold War, who could not explain why there was a North and South Korea, why we’re best friends with “communist” China, or even what the phrase “checks and balances” means.

When pressed on these issues, Ms. Palin, of course, points to her faux-blue collar background – the whole “I didn’t get to go to a fancy college” line, but we’re talking about a basic grasp of high school history here. Nevertheless, I’m sure Fox News will find her commentary most valuable.

A grim, misanthropic version of myself hopes she wins the Presidency in 2010. She would be no more than we deserve, and, much more than the Bush scion, would lay bare the decadence of our political culture. Already her popularity and soon-to-be status as a bona-fide political “journalist” betrays the wide and bottomless pit in which we now carry our discourse.

Written by pavanvan

January 12, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Telangana: An Exchange

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Telangana supporters burn an effigy

“Total bandh today! Every shop has closed. They must give Telangana now.”

- Are you pro-Telangana?

“Yes, Yes, Jai! Telangana! We have waited too long; for forty years, fifty years, they are not listening. Now we are united – we must have Telangana”

- I’ve been hearing these sentiments quite often. Why do you think Telangana should be a separate state?

“Yaar – so many reasons! The Andhra people, they don’t give us the water, the irrigation – every river begins in Telangana, but they give us only 13% of water and 87% goes to Andhra and Rayalseema.”

- But then shouldn’t you be protesting for equal water distribution?

“Sir, sir, very quickly let me tell you. I will give you one example. In 1956 they had the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ when Andhra and Telangana became one state. They said whenever there is an Andhra Chief Minister, there will be a Telangana deputy. They did not do this. We have no educational facilities here. Andhra people think we are dumb, stupid. Andhra has only 9 districts and more than 90 universities! In Telangana there are 10 districts but only 30 universities! They give us only a  fraction of the power generation, even though we have the most population. Andhra does not allow us to develop. We get no investement, no money – what do they think?”

- If you asked for these things, don’t you think you would get them?

“No way, yaar! How long we are asking! The Andhra politicians will never listen to us – that is why we must get our own state.

- But you must admit they are listening at least somewhat to you now. Telangana leaders are participating in high-level meetings!

“Yes, but that is only because we made them!”

- “Well then, let me ask it like this: If the Andhra government were to build universities, dig irrigation, allow a Telangana chief minister – in short, if they addressed all of your grievances, would this movement dissolve? What do you think would end these strikes and riots?

“We will accept nothing but Telangana. We have been mistreated for too long. The only solution is Telangana.”

- Do you think that such an absolute stance might make negotiation difficult?

“No, yaar – here, please listen, let me tell you just one example. We need Telangana for our self-respect! The Telegu film industry is all Andhra. They use Telangana accent as a joke. They only make villains from Telangana.  They take our self-respect! When it was independence time, we Indians had to chase the British out to get back our self-respect. Just like that, we in Telangana must break from Andhra to regain our self-respect. It is like Gandhi said: ‘Do or Die'”

- I think he used it in a different context. Don’t you think the Telangana movement works to an opposing aim to Gandhi’s? He wanted to keep India together. Do you think maybe this movement increases the regionalism here; makes people of themselves more as a member of their region than India? I mean, if Telangana gets statehood, a lot of other regions will want their own state as well.

“I don’t think that would be bad. Let them split the states up! Andhra, Telangana, Rayalseema – then the UP states can all be broken up, and the Madhya Pradesh states as well. Why not? Smaller states means better development. You’re from America – your country has only 30 Crore people and you have 50 states. Here we have 130 Crore people! Why shouldn’t we get more states?”

- If that’s the case, isn’t this something that should be decided all at once? Like, they have a session of parliament or whatever and declare once and for all how many states there should be and who should get them? That way everyone gets independence at once, and it’s done officially. Don’t you think that by doing it piecemeal like this it creates more problems than it solves?

“No, No, sir, please, please listen, we have waited 40 years for Telangana. Let them have their meeting after Telangana is independent. This much at least they owe us.”

- Well, I would think that monopolizing the central government’s time like this doesn’t let them solve the real problems of India. If you lived in Bihar or Orissa, you would wish you lived in Telangana, even with its problems. You know what goes on in those states – it’s basically slavery.  And look at the pollution around you. Look at the overpopulation, the masses of poor. Wouldn’t you want these problems solved?

“Yes, and they will be! Once we are free of the Andhra government we will have much less poverty here, we will be able to rule ourselves.”

- But that doesn’t help the Oriya farmer.

“They are poor because they don’t have resources, they have nothing there. Why should Telangana also be poor when it has coal mines, copper, tin, and two massive rivers? India will always have these problems; poverty, corruption, bonded labor – but at least we can make them lesser in our Telangana!”

- Do you really think the problems will be fixed, even within Telangana? You said yourself that Indian politics will always be corrupt. And so long as Sonia Gandhi exercises absolute power over the Congress Party, there doesn’t seem a likelihood for reform. I mean, think about it: Maybe Telangana can keep Congress out for the first few election cycle,s but once a Congress leader gets in, it’ll be the same situation as it is now. Look at what all of the Members of Parliament are saying now: “We must wait for Sonia ma’am’s approval – we can take no decision without her.”

“This may be true, but we can do nothing about that. At least now we will have our own Telangana. If we can remove 10% corruption, then this will be worth it.”

- Even if it means increasing corruption elsewhere?

“Yes, even then. We will stop at nothing to achieve Telangana. We are willing to pay any price.”

Written by pavanvan

January 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Christmas in Telangana

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The Telangana issue defies any resolution and now drags into its sixth week of open agitation. Hyderabad is once again on strike until the New Year; the buses have halted, the stores closed, and the city’s 2.5 million workers are taking a week off. The pretext for this recent outburst lies in the Congress Party’s qualification of its promise two weeks ago for an independent Telangana.

The Telangana masses, drunk with emotion, burned and rioted their way to a favorable statement from Congress, the ruling party. And only now, three weeks later, did they realize that the Congress Party has no say in this matter, that this is a question only India’s Parliament can definitely decide. When they were told as much, the Telangana leaders became infuriated and began spouting epithets about “betrayal”, “lies,” and so forth. K. Chandrashekar Rao, the leader of the separatists, thundered in a speech yesterday that Telangana would “go nuclear” if its demands were not met, that all 100 Telangana Members of Parliament and Legislators would resign simultaneously, adding to India’s storied history of constitutional crises. He also vaguely threatened that the strikes would devolve into violence, but this will likely happen with or without his benediction.

How indicative of the essential dysfunction in Indian politics, that it took three weeks to realize Parliament’s role in this affair! Any declaration of state separation is, after all, completely illegal without parliamentary approval, yet until now this apparently had not occurred to anyone. Two weeks ago everyone took it as given that if Sonia Gandhi (India’s un-elected puppetmaster) decided to separate Telangana, then bang it would go. Only now do they realize that India is not, after all, an open dictatorship; that Parliament, degraded though it may be, still carries at least some significance.

So, once again, Hyderabad is treated to the chanting processions, the emotional speeches, and occasional outbursts of violence. Superficially, one can see this as a stark affirmation of the endless divisions plaguing India, of the tribal mentality ( if you’ll pardon the expression) that pervades India’s politics. Anthropologists call it “coalition thinking”, Orwell was content to call it “nationalism”, but the result is the same tendency to mix one’s identity in with a larger group, to consider an attack upon one an attack on the whole, to be willing to light one’s self on fire rather than sacrifice group “prestige”.

A friend tried to explain it to me in American terms: “You know how in America you have white people and black people? Just like that, here we have ‘Andhra’ and ‘Telangana’.” He exaggerated, but not very grossly. Relations have not yet degenerated into institutional slavery, but people who hail from the coast undeniably consider themselves different from interior-dwellers. They speak the same language, but the most minor differences in slang are inflated to demonstrate their separateness. And every group wants its intrests to be put first; every group holds the other with cool contempt.

The Andhra-Telangana dispute is just one symptom of this line of thinking, and it goes far beyond state rivalries. Every language group is its own coalition, every geographical area, every caste, every sub-caste. I recently read of a massacre perpetrated by the higher-order castes in a nearby village, something which happens too often in India. A dalit (“untouchable”) had dared to use the public water-pump, and for that the villagers got together and lynched 40 members of his caste; their houses burned, and the corpses of their children were thrown in a pile outside the village. The thought process behind such an atrocity defies reason. One person’s “mistake”  counted as a collective transgression – and punishment went not only to him, but to his caste at large.

“In this country, we only care about ourselves,” explained a man on the street, “If I have food to eat, if my children are well, what more should I bother? What’s mine is mine. You worry about yourself.” His English stuttered, but he expressed his meaning with sparkling clarity. “Once we stop thinking like this, our country will be number one. What progress can there be when nobody cares about her? [and here he pointed to the pictured woman above.]“

But apart from the selfishness and nationalism of Indian politics, the Telangana issue is but one battle in an ongoing political dispute in India over the ideal size of its states. This argument has precedent going back to independence, when large swaths of India were carved into administrative provinces; first corresponding to the British system, then along linguistic lines, and now, to judge by the history of the past month, any group who agitates with sufficient vigor can form a state. The dispute sees a fairly even split along party lines: the Congress Party, India’s most powerful, prefers large states, and the various other parties, with their alphabet soup of names (BJP, TDP, TRS, CPI, CPI (M), CPI (M-L), etc.) favor smaller districts. Each claims their plan will allow for “efficiency”, “rural development”, “better use of resources”, and so forth – but no one seems to know which is actually better.

Of course, it would not be very difficult to conduct a survey, taking all relevent variables into account, and arrive at a definitive answer as to the ideal size of administrative districts. But it is a powerful feature of Indian politics that such a survey would never happen, that the various coalitions will sit content in their self-assured outrage. An issue which could, conceivably, be decided once and for all, finds itself artificially prolonged.

I do not know whether Telangana will succeed in its ambitions, much less do I care. I do know that India’s problems – its fearful poverty, its grossly unequal distribution, its lung-withering pollution, its systemic corruption – are much larger than this petty regional dispute. Still more do I know that the students and citizens now engaging in battle with the police could not be compelled to march in favor of clean air or an end to India’s stratified society. Some of this spectacle’s more cynical observers acknowledge that even if they get Telangana, nothing substantial will change; they will only have exchanged one corrupt set of rulers for another.

But to secure that exchange, the public burns its buses, and crack goes the police baton on the protesters’ heads. Taking in the emotional chants and the endless marches under the beating sun, one cannot help but think: How different it would be, were they to march against hunger, against farmer suicides, against the blue haze that permeates every major city! With what a voice could they rise against the staggering corruption, the millionaire legislators, the all-powerful police constables! The extent to which one becomes sensitized to such circumstances never ceases to amaze. Dostoevsky was right: Man can get used to anything.

After coughing abundantly on the blue smoke of the auto-rickshaws perpetually swarming through Hyderabad, I turned to a friend in disgust. And he shrugged! “What can one do? That’s the way things are” – it was the same response I receive when discussing corruption in Indian politics, how more than 40 convicted criminals contested last month’s municipal electons. “Politicians are corrupt – what can you do?” I have not spoken with one Indian who denies that their country’s terrifying overpopulation. Yet they take it as a matter of course that one must marry and have children. “Cheh, you must have children! Two or three at least! Otherwise how will you live?”

A peculiar strain of escapism pervades this Telangana movement. The Indian youth desires nothing more than to escape the corruption, the poverty, the mind-boggling overpopulation, the roads choked with filth, and make a nice life for themselves in America. But if they can’t? Well, then at least they have their regional pride – at least they can agitate for Telangana! It is a proxy issue, a veiled symptom of a far deeper illness. That the masses of India remain petulant, divided, in the face of it all might suggest, as V.S Naipaul once suggested, a “defect of vision”, which no measure of “development” has yet corrected.

Looking forward to India’s future, I am pessimistic. An auto-rickshaw driver gave me a toothless grin as he pulled out seven soiled, crumpled black-and-white photographs. His seven children.

Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Telengana Epilogue

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Round one of the Telangana dispute has finished, but the struggle is far from over. Citizens of Andhra, the state from which Telengana just won secession, are in a furor, and nightly demonstrations scar their major cities. Angered citizens have already destroyed 30 buses, and incredibly, 79 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have threatened to resign. Having promised a state to Telangana, the central government now must deliver one, yet it must also answer to its Andhra constituency. No consensus seems possible.

The government has promised that the transfer “will not be in haste”, and clearly the thing it most desires now is time. Meanwhile, cities in Andhra have completely shut down, and there is already talk of a hunger strike to protest a Telangana state. Further complicating the issue is Rayalseema, a neighboring area, who now says  it also wants its own state. The situation is quickly devolving into absurdity.

Hyderabad is an problem for which no one knows the solution. Previously the capital of the consolidated Andhra state, it has been the site of massive capital and human investment. The city has four 5-star hotels, a brand-new airport (which happens to be the largest in India), a massive convention center to European standards and a diminished, though still booming, IT industry. Unfortunately, the city lies square in the middle of Telangana, and separatists have already begun chanting the slogan “Not Without Hyderabad!”. Some vague discussion can be heard of turning Hyderabad into a “Union Territory”, effectively a double capital, but geography should render that plan unfeasible.

Even optimistic forecasters believe it should take at least one year for the new state to become official. Detractors secretly hope Telangana will be mired in legislation and perhaps never happen. But in any case, the Indian government will be spending much time and resources on this issue for years to come.

Written by pavanvan

December 11, 2009 at 7:21 pm

India: A Political Vignette

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The city of Hyderabad shut down yesterday as secessionists declared a general strike and took to the streets, demanding their own state within India. Andhra Pradesh, with Hyderabad as its capital, encompasses three separate regions – of them, Telengana has agitated for separate statehood for almost forty years. The issue has flared once again, and the new leader of the separatists, K. Chandrashakar Rao, is on day four of a fast-undo-death.

The situation has roused much anger and has bitterly, though unevenly, divided Hyderabad. Telengana separatists point to a laundry list of grievances against the Andhra government, claiming theft of water, land, and employment opportunities. Andhra supporters point to the lack of industry in Telengana, and allege that Telengana would not be a viable state.

Andhra’s capital happens to fall square in the middle of Telengana, further complicating the issue. A great majority of Andhra Pradesh’s industry lies in Hyderabad: its whole IT sector, construction, government, and much else. Most of the state’s wealth is concentrated in this city. The Telenganists are split on the matter – some propose to make Hyderabad a “neutral city” and capital of both states, others take a less compromising attitude and say Andhra should find a new capital.

General strikes have continued for a week, and the situation turned violent after K.C. Rao began his fast. The man is old, frail, riven with diabetes, and a chain-smoker to boot. No one expects him to last longer than a few more days. When rumors went round that his condition was critical, students of Osmania, the local university, went berserk and began torching cars and buildings. Since then several small riots have occurred, and upwards of 40 businesses were burned in a single night. Four students have also committed suicide in protest, one lighting himself ablaze.

Today, the central government flew a paramilitary force into Hyderabad to quell any further unrest. Mobs of students met them, and they engaged in a brief stone-and-baton battle, which produced 15 wounded, including five journalists. The city is on tenterhooks, wondering what will happen next. K.C Rao is now on the ninth day of his fast, and wild rumors now circulate as to his condition. Everyone knows that his death will only lead to rioting.

Written by pavanvan

December 8, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Indian Cynicism

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A young man describes the budget appropriation procedures in India:

“This road was unpaved for a long time, so we began to agitate for it. The central government appropriated $10 million. It had to go through the Chief Minister, after which $5 million remained. Then it passed to the city commissioner, and it became $3 million. The rest of city government took their cut, and $1 Million remained. The contractor did $500,000 worth of work, and pocketed the rest for himself. The whole $10 million, that was all people money; it all went to rich individuals.”

With the history of 2008 in mind, can we honestly say to ourselves that things are different in America?

Written by pavanvan

December 7, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Democracy in High Gear

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From Project Censored:

The Obama and McCain campaigns jointly negotiated a detailed secret contract dictating the terms of the 2008 debates. This included who got to participate, what topics were to be raised, and the structure of the debate formats.

Yes, that’s right – Obama and McCain colluded before their famous debates and determined what topics were off-limits.

Also:

Since 1987, a private corporation created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has sponsored the US Presidential debates and implemented debate contracts. In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, CPD has refused to release debate contract information to the public.

In 1986, the Republican and Democratic National Committees ratified an agreement “to take over the presidential debates” from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.  Fifteen months later, then-Republican Party chair Frank Fahrenkopf and then-Democratic Party chair Paul Kirk incorporated the Commission on Presidential Debates. Fahrenkopf and Kirk still co-chair the Commission on Presidential Debates, and every four years it implements and conceals contracts jointly drafted by the Republican and Democratic nominees.

Somehow I don’t think this is how things are supposed to work.

Written by pavanvan

December 7, 2009 at 4:10 pm

German Justice

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Here we have yet more proof that the Europeans, whom we once deigned to lecture on the “virtues of democracy”, have long since surpassed us in that.

From Der Spiegel:

Labor Minister Franz Josef Jung resigned from Angela Merkel’s cabinet on Friday. In a brief statement Jung said he was taking “political responsibility” for having misinformed the German public due to, he claims, a lack of knowledge regarding civilian casualties stemming from a Sept. 4 airstrike Afghanistan.

You see, in Germany, when politicians are caught blatantly lying to their constituencies, they do the right thing and step down. The amazing aspect of this is that, by American standards, Josef Jung’s transgression was exceedingly minor – he merely lied about the effects of one airstrike in Afghanistan. Following the strike, Jung claimed that there were no “civilian casualties”, but later it came to light that there were tens or hundreds, many of them children. For that he resigned.

Now can you even imagine something like that happening in America? We have grown so desensitized to the constant stream of mendacity from our leaders that it is difficult to grow angry over any one lie. Warrantless  wiretapping, “We Do Not Torture”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, “existential threats”, secret detentions, the Saddam-Al Qaeda link, and the list goes on and on and on. Yet not only do our leaders routinely inform us that no investigations into these lies will be forthcoming, no popular outrage seems to exist over them.

And Jung isn’t the only one to have been let go:

The debacle has made things difficult for Germany’s new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He is reported to have “exploded” when he first learned of the report — when he was contacted by Bild on Wednesday for a comment. He immediately called in the General Inspector Schneidhan to see if he was aware of the report. Once it was clear that he had known about it, there was little choice but for him to resign. Peter Wichert, the deputy defense minister, was also fired.

We in America are a long way off from that kind of democracy.

Written by pavanvan

November 28, 2009 at 11:04 am

India: A Local Perspective

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A young man on the street was gracious enough to share his opinions regarding India:

“Corruption is endemic here. Let’s say, for example, I get stopped by the police. I jumped a red light. Now I can either take the ticket, around Rs. 1000 or so, or I can simply bribe the policeman, say Rs. 200. Who, I ask you, would prefer to pay the ticket? 99.9% of us will just give the bribe and  be done with it. That sort of thing simply cannot happen in America.”

“Oh yes, income inequality is still huge, still a major problem, but I think there is reason to believe it is getting better. If you came here, say, 10 years ago, you would have seen it a lot worse. Come in another 10 years or so, and you’ll likely see it less. Can poverty ever be truly eradicated here? Probably not. The rich are getting a lot richer in this country; they have been for the past two decades. The poor have not seen anything like that; life for the bottom has continued in much the same way.”

“Pollution… well, what can you say about a people who throw their trash on the ground and then blithely forget it? These are cultural problems, but they are also political problems. You think there isn’t enough money to make it so that people don’t have to beg? You think we lack the knowledge and manpower – I mean, you think it’s beyond us to construct a decent municipal trash system, to make sure the sewer reaches all areas of the city, to make regularized trash pickup a basic right? Of course it isn’t, but the political will to enact such programs just isn’t there. The vested interests who run our political system would rather see our resources to go different ends. Their ends. Look at New York City – every vehicle has a catalytic converter, trash is superbly managed – hell, there’s a trash can on every street corner. We’re a long way from that.”

“In fact, I would say we in India are about 100 years behind the West.”

(At this, I demurred.)

“No, certainly we are! The things you take for granted there – social security, regularized pensions, food banks, homeless shelters, scrupulous policeman; we have none of those here. P. Sainath said that all the judges and magistrates in India don’t have the power of a single police constable, and he said it right. We hardly even have a sense of ourselves as a nation, as such. We would much rather identify with smaller communal structures: Religion, race, caste, social status, and so forth. What do the Indian billionaires really have in common with the destitute on the street? Not a damn thing.”

“But – and here is the rub – we are all implicated! Take the example of the policeman. Who will say they have never given a bribe?  I know I have. Our politicians – we say they are corrupt, we complain and moan, but in the end who elected them? We did. It is a vicious circle, without a beginning or end.”

“Perhaps I misspoke, however. If I could point to a beginning of the circle, it would surely be the population. All of our problems stem from that. But again, it is a cultural problem. Everyone gets married here; it is basically a law. And if you get married and don’t have kids, people will immediately assume something is wrong. The gossip one hears! ‘Cheh, did you hear so-and-so still hasn’t had a child? They’ve been married for more than a year! I think his wife may be infertile. Such a shame, such a shame!” One cannot escape talk like that, and one cannot, I think, live with it for more than a short time. So we are compelled to have children by a thousand different pressures. And one is not enough, you must have at least two! And woe unto you if they turn out to be girls, especially if you’re poor! In that case the dominant strategy is to just keep having children until a boy turns up. What can you do in the face of that? We distribute condoms, but nobody uses them – we hold sessions on family planning, but no one shows up.”

“About the future, I am not too optimistic. Our pollution corresponds directly with our need for an “affluent lifestyle”, and there is no getting away from it. We rely on coal to an alarming extent. Our population keeps growing and there seems no power strong enough to check it. 40% of our population is under the age of 30, but that is both a blessing and a curse. What will we do in ten years when they all start to want families?”

Written by pavanvan

November 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm

A Lesson in Tolerance

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“Oh, you can’t trust the Muslims,” a coworker of mine informed me, “They follow their own rules. They act as one. I mean, look at their religion! No morality whatsoever! If you want to have five wives, well, go right ahead. If you want to blow yourself up, just be sure to shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ beforehand.”

He continued: “We Hindus, on the other hand, when can you point to a single instance of violence originating from us? Where can you point to a single Hindu trying to convert someone by force?”

Meekly, (for I knew how hot emotions run during times such as these) I mentioned the Partition Riots that took place in 1947, or the periodic bouts of ‘communal violence’ which seem to crop up every two years or so.

“The communal riots, that’s something totally different!” he barked, “Those are usually started by the other side anyway. Are you saying we shouldn’t defend ourselves? Anyway, can you point to a single Hindu suicide bomber?”

I could not. Yet it seemed pointless to mention at that time the danger of the views he espoused, that by perpetuating the “Us vs. Them” mentality he did damage of a far more insidious sort than quite a lot of suicide bombers together.

I mention this episode because it was so similar in nature to many other conversations I have had with Hindus regarding Hindu-Muslim relations. Perhaps it is a symptom of the unspoken segregation that exists in India that I have not yet had the chance to get a Muslim view on the subject, though I suspect such a conversation would go quite the same, only in favor of their “side”.

Unspoken though it may be, Hindu-Musilm segregation is quite real, and it stands apparent even to a foreigner such as myself. The city in which I stay, Hyderabad, is famous for the peace with which its population lives, despite being an almost fully hybrid city. Hindu temples dot the sidewalks in one district, and merely a few kilometers away one can hear the local Mosque’s ringing call to prayer. Yet one sees very little commingling between Hindus and Muslims. The city is pocked with Hindu or Muslim enclaves, and their residents rarely venture to the other side. And it is an undeniable fact that the Muslim neighborhoods are worse off in almost every respect to the Hindu boroughs. The few Muslim neighborhoods I visited were crowded labyrinths of squeezed-together houses and suffered from a lack of fresh water, lack of access to sewage systems, poor and irregular food delivery and almost no sanitation to speak of, while the neighborhoods I saw with all the ‘modern amenities’ were populated almost exclusively by Hindus.

“India will never solve its problems,” a pessimistic friend of mine once said, “because India will never get along with itself. If you had a stone in the middle of the road and were trying to organize people to help move it to the side, it just wouldn’t happen. One person will say we should move it to the right. The other person will insist on moving it to the left. They’ll form parties over the issue, hold elections, even. Whatever the outcome, no matter how well monitored, the losing side  will insist that it had been cheated, that the elections were fraudulent. Then there will be recounts, runoff elections. One faction of the ‘right side of the road’ party will splinter off, saying it is no longer represented by party leadership, and form its own party – say, the ‘further down the road’ coalition which states that the rock should neither be moved to the right nor left. Hindus will insist on taking leadership positions in the moving of the rock, Muslims will howl at the injustice of it all. Perhaps they’ll agitate for their own rock, to move in a fashion they see fit.”

At that point he ran out of examples, but I could continue for him if he wished: “Then, a language controversy would erupt. Marati speakers would insist on writing their language on the rock; Hindi speakers will make the same demands, and so will the Tamils. The lesser represented languages will join together in a coalition which, of course, will subsequently break apart.” And so forth.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. “In such a country,” my friend concluded, “It’s impossible to believe that anything gets done.”

It is clear, however, that things are getting done, and one need look no further than India’s new crop of billionaires to see it.  But one wonders if India will ever move beyond its communal mentality, if it will ever see itself, and its problems, holistically. There is much evidence that this is already happening, however slowly.

On the other hand, I have even heard the overpopulation problem blamed on the Muslims.

Written by pavanvan

November 19, 2009 at 10:45 am

CO2: Black, not Green

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The Center for Media and Democracy turns us on to a thoroughly scurrilous attempt on the part of Big Gas and Oil to downplay the negative effects of CO2 output.

“CO2 is Green”, a new Montana-based advocacy group, derives its dollars from the Coal and Oil Industry and has the sheer audacity to claim that “There is no scientific evidence that CO2 [carbon dioxide] is a pollutant. In fact higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the Earth’s ecosystems.” without breaking into guilt-induced conniptions.  Here we have yet another example of “The Big Lie” technique. If you can make a such a statement as above on television with a straight face, many people will conclude that it must be true. No one could possibly be audacious enough to repeat such a patently absurd claim unless there was some truth to it of which the public is not aware. Thus, the idea that “CO2 is not a pollutant” will likely enter into mainstream discourse, despite the fact that almost every scientist declares the opposite.

Some of you may recall this is not the first time our oil companies have undertaken such an advertising campaign. Indeed, as Greenpeace revealed earlier this year, Exxon-Mobil secretly funded much of the Global Warming denial we saw earlier this decade. On podium after podium, cable news show after fabricated report, their hired “scientists” spread the claims that (a) Global warming doesn’t exist and (b) even assuming it does, Global Warming isn’t man-made. Now, of course, we see both of those statements for the patent falsehood  they present, but at the time they proved quite influential and likely set us back years in dealing with this problem.

Today, a new generation of pseudo-scientists, such as our friend H. Leighton Steward, a former executive of Enron, wish to spread the message that CO2 is a “net benefit” for the planet – and, presumably, that we are doing our earth a huge service by burning coal and oil.

Please watch their commercial. It gives an excellent overview of the false populism and junk science employed by the coal and oil industries to defend what remains, in the last analysis, a thoroughly indefensible business. And I would encourage everyone to do precisely what they suggest at the end by contacting your Senator, except instead of agitating for even more pollution, ask them to clear our airwaves of deleterious propaganda.

Spinning in Iran

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The discovery of a second uranium enrichment site in Iran has again ignited the “debate” over nuclear strategy regarding that thorn in the Middle East. Once again, the conversation centers upon how best to prevent Iran from acquiring those dastardly weapons – no mention is given to why Iran should so badly wish to join the nuclear club, nor does our mainstream even entertain the notion of what might happen should they succeed. Iran must be prevented from “going nuclear” at all costs, according to the US media. Instead of a rational debate as to the causes and possible effects of this development, the newspaper-reading citizen is treated to a variety of doomsday scenarios and chest-puffing from our sensationalists-in-chief.

For instance, here is British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, doing his best impression of John Wayne:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, and called the Iranian facility “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” Added Mr. Brown, “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”

The Wall Street Journal’s front page features an essay entitled: “Israel’s attack plan for Iran”, while The Washington Post’s cryptic headline reads: “President’s focus shifts from engaging Iran”. We are left to guess what he is shifting to, although the article hints at “sanctions” and possibly “military action.”

Amid the bellicosity spewing from the western media, the question of why, after all the threats, after all the entreaties to the contrary, Iran should continue to desire a nuclear weapon remains unanswered. The unspoken reason is given to be sheer madness: Ahmadinejad is a “tyrant”, a “madman”, a crazy holocaust denier who wishes nothing more than the obliteration of Israel. That, and only that, is the reason for Iran’s nuclear ambition, and, as Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu thundered at the United Nations this week,

“The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

But let us suppose, merely as an intellectual exercise, that Iran is not run by lunatics, but instead by reasonably sane politicians who, like all politicians, seek only the continuation of their own power. Then, a few very good reasons to pursue nuclear arms come quickly to light:

1) Insurance against invasion

It is an unspoken rule amongst policy planners that “nuclear weapons states do not invade one another”, a fact most recently illustrated by the delicacy with which the United States has treated North Korea. Nuclear weapons are the greatest safeguard against regime change. Considering that Iran is still part of the “axis of evil”, and especially in light of the fact that the US currently occupies the countries directly to its east and west (Iraq and Afghanistan), there should be no surprise that Iran seeks some sort of insurance against a US invasion. Particularly when one considers what happened to Saddam – who, after all, did not posses nuclear weaponsthe choice to acquire nukes should not be a difficult one.

2) Deterrence against Israel

Unlike Iran, who has had to enrich their uranium surreptitiously, Israel, by the good graces of the US, has been allowed to acquire nuclear weapons quite in the open. They now posses a stockpile of unknown quantity, nearly all aimed at Iran, and the American and Israeli media abound with aggressive articles that rather plainly state Israel’s intentions toward Iran.

3) Domestic Prestige

Similar to India in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998, a nuclear detonation is generally a splendid propaganda coup for a ruling establishment which finds itself losing its grip on popularity. The Ahmadinejad regime, by any reasonable assessment, has only a slippery grasp on its population, if the massive protests a few months ago are any indication. Add to the mix skyrocketing inflation, massive unemployment, and a general feeling of mismanagement, and it is not difficult to see why Iran’s leaders should wish to bolster their domestic standing with a nice show of power.

4) Energy

Most scoff at this reason as mere propaganda, but it is a fact that Iran, like everyone else, is seeking alternative forms of energy. But as this is likely the least of their motivations, I have placed it last.

Taken together, these reasons do not quite justify a nuclear Iran, but they surely help to see the situation from their point of view. If we are to seriously understand the stakes of this issue we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by poor caricatures from our yellow press.

Success in Afghanistan

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A US patrol in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A US patrol in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times gives its version of fair and balanced assessment of Afghanistan.

The word “success”, which appears several times and is contrasted only with that grim epithet “failure”, encapsulates the major theme of the article. These phrases speak to the duality of all our mainstream war discourse; and their resemblance to President Bush’s favorite characterizations of Iraq (“Victory” versus “Defeat”) is no coincidence.  The central idea is always the same shapeless, undefinable and unattainable goal that justifies all past actions and usually most future ones as well.

From the article:

In his five-page commander’s summary, General McChrystal ends on a cautiously optimistic note: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”

And again, later on:

In a series of interviews on the Sunday morning talk shows, Mr. Obama expressed skepticism about sending more American troops to Afghanistan until he was sure his administration had the right strategy to succeed.

“Success”, of course, is never defined in any but the most general sense – “keeping America safe”, “defeating the insurgency”, “stopping terrorism”, and so forth. Cultural and military dominance of Afghanistan appears the only real solution proffered, while the debate centers instead upon the relatively minor issue of how many more troops to send. The Times dresses the issue with remarkable delicacy.

Pentagon and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy say General McChrystal is expected to propose a range of options for additional troops beyond the 68,000 American forces already approved, from 10,000 to as many as 45,000.

So the 68,000 are never in question, and that fact is shunted into a secondary clause. The Times reports President Obama as saying his decision will not be swayed “by the politics of the moment” (whatever that means), and that his top priority is “to protect the United States against attacks from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

The President invoked the safe card again in the article, claiming that

“whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we’ll figure out how to resource it.”

The Times puts no question to the wisdom that our military is the surest route to safety, nor to the idea that American “safety” is worth limitless human and financial cost.

General McChrystal, in his report demanding up to 45,000 more soldiers, argues that:

“The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”

An odd problem for an a body of soldiers to try and solve.

The article abounds with even more couched assumptions regarding the general righteousness of our goals in Afghanistan, and I would highly recommend reading it in full to inoculate against such techniques. The filters through which our mainstream outlets distill the news are perhaps the greatest impediment to a genuine discussion of the various crises we face today.

Written by pavanvan

September 22, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Still more on Blackwater

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From a local source in the Philippines: Blackwater is apparently training the Filipino military (for “counter-terrorism” purposes, of course).

Might this not have been relevant information for the Times‘ recent declamation of the Philippine military’s widespread human-rights abuses?

It looks as though the Philippines are learning from the best.

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September 2, 2009 at 12:38 am

Afghan elections

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The beleaguered Afghan nation, tormented for three decades, first by the Soviet Union, then the US, dutifully inked their fingers yesterday to vote in a general election. Though the field was a bit more diverse this time around, with more than 40 candidates from which to choose, Hamid Karzai is widely seen as the winning favorite.

Favorite, that is, of the US establishment and Afghan elite – not the Afghan populace, whose opinion matters remarkably little in affairs such as these. The US needs a mandate to continue its aggression in Afghanistan; it needs a friendly Prime Minister to allow construction of the Central Asia oil pipeline – thus, a second term for Hamid Karzai is all but a foregone conclusion.

It matters very little, of course, that entrenched corruption within his government is now widely acknowledged. The US cares very little that Karzai is deeply unpopular among the population he rules. It doesn’t even matter that his own Deputy President openly proclaimed that Hamid Karzai is a “US stooge”. In fact, that is precisely why he will win.

It is interesting to view The Times’ coverage of Hamid Karzai, particularly this saccharine article, published a couple weeks ago. After a brief and dismissive list of the very real charges against him, we are told that Karzai “clearly abhors violence”, that he is “a lonely man”, “painted into a corner”, that “no one is one his side.” (Except, of course, the corrupt graft machine of which he sits at the head).

The article follows a similar tone throughout. I suppose allegations that Karzai’s family derives its wealth largely from opium is beneath The Times’ notice. The article had the audacity to quote Karzai as saying  “I’m a very, very, very simple person. I have no property. I have no money. I have no love for luxury.” without any challenge. This, from the leader of one of the most corrupt governments on earth!

As I write, the Afghans count their votes. No one doubts that Karzai, the “US Stooge”, the corrupt executor of our command, the ‘deeply unpopular’ incumbent will prevail. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Afghan election coverage centers around this man.  In him, the US ruling establishment will find an avaricious, though obedient, stooge in Afghanistan.

Written by pavanvan

August 20, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Death Panels

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The recent brouhaha over so-called death panels appears to be little more than an attempt to obscure the fact that in large part consensus over healthcare already exists.

By inflating a non-issue and making it a centerpiece of the “Health Care Debate”, our establishment leaders can quietly insert pro-corporate clauses into whatever legislation they enact. Indeed, such a trend is already evident from Obama’s speech to the American Medical Association a few months ago.

In his speech, he identified an outdated records system, an “epidemic of obesity” spurred by “junk food”, lack of preventative care, and a system which charges by procedure instead of charging by result as the main culprits in our high cost of health care.

Well and good – but to that I might add a couple more: the exorbitant cost of medical school and the well-to-do salaries it enforces. The debt implied by a full medical school term has ballooned to more than $200,000, and this forces doctors to start out at least six figures if they wish to pay it off. No one denies that doctors ought to be at least somewhat affluent, but the unfortunate fact is that in many cases their salaries go to the repayment of medical school debt. Curiously unmentioned!

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August 14, 2009 at 11:21 pm

A Baghdadi Conundrum

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The Times on this week’s Baghdad Bombings

On the same page one can view an image of Jay Leno smiling in a convertible with the headline “Life needs more laughter”. More laughter indeed!

Two parallel narratives of Iraq currently populate our mainstream media, each claiming to represent the truth, yet both mutually exclusive of one another. On the one hand the Obama Administration claims (and our newspapers echo) that the situation in Iraq has markedly improved. We are endlessly informed of the “remarkable turnaround” in Iraq – the quiet streets, the reduced violence, and the returning refugees. As I mentioned earlier, Secretary Gates has committed to withdrawing 15,000 troops by the end of the year, with all “combat brigades” to exit by 2011. Publicly, our administration has stated that Iraq has begun to “take care of itself” and that US troops are no longer needed. Privately, they admit that the real focus of our Mid-East adventures has shifted to Afghanistan and that the reason for the Iraqi drawdown is to provide infantry for an Afghani buildup (17,000 extra soldiers already deployed with more on the way).

The Times, The Post, and various other newspapers have lent credibility to the idea of Iraqi stability with endless human-interest pieces on the resurgence of civil life in Iraq, now that the guns have fallen silent. View, for instance, this delightful little story on the finer points of Iraqi fish-roasting. And, of course, the endless op-ed pieces which begin with the premise that “the surge has worked” and continue their arguments from there. Ross Douhat gives a memorable line in a recent Times article: “Plenty of war-skeptics are unconvinced that Iraq’s recent stabilization will deliver a happy outcome in the long run. But the surge smoothed the way for withdrawal, which is what the war’s critics have wanted all along — so why rock the boat?” It is important to note here the assumption of “recent stabilization” and the bald assertion that “the surge smoothed the way for withdrawal”, as if those were facts only the most staid contrarian would dispute. Later he speaks of the “current [Iraqi] consensus” in much the same tone.

And yet the actual dispatches coming from Iraq paint a far different picture. Every week we hear of a new string of bombings in Iraq, “apparently intended to inflame sectarian passions”, as the Times puts it. (Here is a list of all major attacks in Iraq this year.) I think it safe to say such “passions” have long since been inflamed. So on one hand we have the official line espoused by the Obama Administration that we’ve seen “real improvement” in Iraq and that “the surge worked”. On the other we have the bombs that are still going off with alarming frequency. Taken together they paint a rather confusing picture of Iraq in 2009.

The key to deciphering these cryptic reports – indeed, to deciphering nearly all US dealings in the Middle East – is oil, always oil. The violence in Iraq concerned us in 2005-2008 because the US-installed Maliki government was still unsure of itself and still a bit wary to make deals regarding oil. Well Maliki has since fallen nicely into place, the lucrative oil contracts have already been made, and most importantly, Maliki has shown resilience to the various forces attempting to depose him. He’s our man in Iraq, and he’s not going anywhere. So let the Iraqis carry on their bloody feud! Let them blow one another up! As long as our man is in power and the oil still flows into US hands, what does it matter?

Afghanistan, however, tells a different story. The oil there flows through the geopolitically vital, and now precariously placed, Central Asia Pipeline. The Karzai government has not shown a tenth of the resilience of Maliki, though he has surely made up for that in obedience. Clearly he needs help. And so we put a veneer  over Iraq, ignoring the reality that nothing has been solved there, in order that we may draw soldiers out to help our friend in Afghanistan.

The contempt for life which the US government displays on a daily basis is nothing short of appalling. But even more insidious, if a bit less deadly, is its continuous contempt for the truth.

Written by pavanvan

August 8, 2009 at 3:15 am

More political infighting in Iran

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Ahmadinejad flouts his patron Ayatollah’s authority

This is somewhat strange, particularly in light of Ayatollah’s alleged illness. In any case, Ahmadinejad has backed down to the “conservative” protests – the disputed deputy is safely out of the picture. His crime was to suggest Iran’s friendliness to all nations, without specifically excluding Israel. Ayatollah wrote a strongly-worded letter demanding the deputy’s resignation, and after a week of hesitation, Ahmadinejad complied.

Despite eulogies by the likes of Roger Cohen that Iran’s population has largely pro-west leanings, an influential contingent of ultra-conservatives clearly has just asserted itself. Ahmadinejad finds himself in an unenviable position – assailed both from the right and left. The Iranian political spectrum appears to be splitting yet again. If the Ayatollah has grown displeased with the fellow whom he just installed by force, it likely suggests the formation of a third power center. On the reformist end, Moussavi and his supporters, on the ultra-nationalist, Islamic end, the Ayatollah and his committed followers, and Ahamadinejad, incredibly, in the center.

The Ayatollah evidently seeks to cut the power out from under Ahmadinejad, but this move probably signifies nothing more. Such “personnel shifts” were not uncommon in the Soviet Union, as Stalin jealously prevented his supporters from forming their own independent cadres. This sorry little episode is further evidence that Ahmadinejad is merely a puppet of the Ayatollah, and that the American Right directs their implacable ire at quite the wrong man.

Written by pavanvan

July 26, 2009 at 2:53 am

Posted in Politics

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US finds no fault in Kyrgyzstan Dictatorship

The on-again, off-again relationship between the US and Kyrgyzstan appears to be on once again, as US officials stolidly refused to comment on brutal police action in the post-Soviet state. State Department officials cited Uzbek expulsion of our bases after a strongly-worded statement against their police practices. Clearly the US would not relish the loss of yet another Central Asian ‘ally’.

Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have all been loyal (if not always obedient) US allies after the loss of their Soviet patron, and the state department considers their military cooperation critical to our efforts in Afghanistan. Thus, bygones will be bygones – at least until their assistance is no longer required. Kyrgyzstan, in particular, has attempted to play both sides this year, announcing total closure of US bases in Februrary followed by a quick redaction in March. Evidently the Kyrgyzstani government is angling for a US-commitment to its regime stability, an outcome which, if it continues to play its cards correctly, it should likely receive.

As with all diplomatic maneuvers in the region, there is an oily bottom to our dealings with that slimy government. The Central Asian oil pipeline runs through the aforementioned countries in addition to Afghanistan (surely our only interest in that godforsaken desert). With resource scarcity becoming an undeniable fact, it would appear that free-flowing oil trumps human rights any day of the week. Not that one need look any further than Iraq for evidence.

A bidding war for these countries between the West and Russia-China appears likely. Russia has already shown its proclivity for pipeline dominance with its annual shutoff of natural gas to Europe (now three years running). In light of these considerations, a few ignored beatings is surely the least the US can do.

Written by pavanvan

July 23, 2009 at 5:24 pm

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