Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The fuss about government debt

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, governments around the world have passed very large stimulus packages. Some of the numbers are: \$2 trillion in the US, \$990 billion in Japan,  \$814 billion in Germany. There has been little opposition to the measures, with much of the debate centering around which industries get bailouts, what segment of the population receives checks in the mail etc. This is in sharp contrast to the situation about a decade or so ago, when the financial crisis of 2008 and the so-called Great Recession that followed it prompted major interventions by governments.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Twenty-first century right-wing movements

We live in interesting times, with multiple right-wing governments around the world. Among these are: the US, India, the UK, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey.

Here are some characteristics that I have distilled from reading the news and watching events unfold. See if the right-wing movement you are thinking about has  these features. 
  1. Majoritarianism
    • Hatred of minorities, immigrants
    • Depicting majority group as victim and decrying its weakness
    • Claiming minorities are particularly favored or pampered
    • Fear of being outnumbered by immigration or by rapid population growth of minorities
  2. Intimidation of and violence against minorities and opponents. Usage of state machinery for these purposes.
  3. Virulent nationalism, constant invocation of external enemy and local fifth column.
  4. Repeated public exaltation of military strength.
  5. Veneration of a glorious past.
  6. Sexual anxiety: fears of miscegenation, of women of the majority being enticed by minorities, dislike of LGBTQ people.
  7. Heavy use of Propaganda. Reliance on short slogans, repetition of blatant lies, coded phrases and dog whistles.
  8. Intolerance of dissent. Opponents described as anti-national or labeled traitors.
  9. Pronounced anti-intellectualism, disregard for facts and data.
  10. Reverence for authority, personality cult.
Please use comments to provide examples, as well as to suggest additions and changes to the list.

Update (January 28, 2020): Two additions suggested by my friend Namit Arora:
  1. The need to radically rewrite history and find new national heroes and sources of pride. Equating history of nation with the sanitized history of one community while denigrating the history of other communities.
  2. Emphasis on patriotism and various public tests of patriotism (or lack thereof).

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Original Fascism

Over the last decade, several countries around the world have elected right-wing governments. Opponents of these governments and concerned commentators have described the swing to the right as the rise of Fascism. I have often wondered whether this is an accurate description or hyperbolic alarmism on the part of liberal and left-leaning critics.

A big difficulty to note upfront  is that Fascism is notoriously hard to define precisely. Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher and author (of The Name of the Rose fame), in a 1995 essay on Fascism, captures this well:
Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions. 
George Orwell noted, as early as 1944, that the term had already been applied to conservatives, socialists, communists, Trotskyists, Catholics, war resisters, war supporters, and anti-imperial nationalists. Today,  it retains that flexibility: the first insult that is hurled at anyone showing authoritarian tendencies is "fascist pig".

In order to use the phrase accurately, it seems worthwhile to explore the early history of the two cases that set the template: fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

IIT investigates Faiz

Democratic India has had a long-standing tradition of court cases filed by individuals whose "religious sentiments" are hurt by various slights. In line with this tradition is the news from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, that a committee has been instituted to investigate whether one  of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poems is "anti-Hindu".

As reported by various media outlets (for example, here) a complaint against a student march claimed that the Faiz nazm (poem) sung at the march was "anti-Hindu". The poem in question is known by its refrain, "Hum Dekehnge" (हम देखेंगे), and was composed by Faiz in 1979, in opposition to the fundamentalist dictatorship led by Zia Ul Haq in Pakistan. In 1986, a year or so after the death of Faiz, Iqbal Bano, a well-known ghazal singer, sang this song in a Lahore stadium in front of fifty thousand people. She wore a black sari as a mark of defiance against a ban on the sari imposed by the Zia government.

Early America

Once in a while, I hit the jackpot with my random browsing in public libraries. Recently, I chanced upon a book called The American Colonies by Alan Taylor, published in 2001.
Front Cover
This is a remarkable book, shorn of the usual triumphalism of books on American history.  As the author says in the Introduction:
Until the 1960s most American historians assumed  that "the colonists" meant English-speaking men confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Women were there as inconsequential helpmates. Indians were primitive peoples beyond the pale: unchanging objects of colonists' fears and aggressions. African slaves appeared as unfortunate aberrations in a fundamentally upbeat story of Englishmen becoming freer and more prosperous in an open land. The other colonies of rival empires -- Dutch, French, and Spanish -- were a hazy backdrop of hostility: backward threats to English America that alone spawned the American Revolution and the United States. ...
That narrow colonial cast and stage made for the fundamentally happy  story of "American exceptionalism": the making of a new people, in a new land ... The story persists in our national culture and popular history because it offers an appealing simplification .... Moreover, not all of colonial America was English. Many native peoples encountered colonizers not as westward-bound  Englishmen, but as Spanish heading north from Mexico, as Russians coming eastward from Siberia, or as French probing the Great Lakes and Mississippi river ...
To divide the  peoples into three, into the racial and cultural categories of European, African, and Indian, only begins to reveal the human diversity of the colonial encounter. For each embraced an enormous variety of cultures and languages, For example, the eighteenth-century "British" colonists included substantial numbers of Welsh, Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, Germans, Swedes, Finns, Dutch, and French Huguenots -- as well as the usual English suspects. .. Until lumped together in colonial slavery, the African conscripts varied even more widely in their ethnic identities, languages, and cultures. A very partial list of West African peoples includes Ashanti, Fulani, Ibo, Malagasy, Mandingo, and Yoruba. In general, their languages differed from one another more than English did from French or Spanish. Most diverse of all were the so-called Indians. Divided into hundreds of linguistically distinct peoples, the natives did not know that they were a common category until named and treated so by the colonial invaders.
 This is already promising, given the willingness to present the complexity of the colonial encounter, which spanned the centuries starting with the voyages of Columbus in 1492, to at least the American revolution in 1776, if not the Latin American wars of independence in the early nineteenth century. Every chapter in the book  bristles with insights, and is aided by superb maps. The story of European expansionism in the 15th century is laid out with penetrating detail.
Popular literature reinforced the European longing for a new trade route to the fabled riches of the Far East. During the second half of the fifteenth century, the development of the printing press immensely lowered the cost and increased the volume of book publishing. ... By the end of the century, Europeans possessed twenty million copies of printed books. Readers especially delighted in vivid accounts of the wealth and power of India and China. These included the real travels of Marco Polo, an Italian merchant,as well as the pure fictions attributed to John de Mandeville. 
The whole book is a great example of excellent history writing, including the wonderfully chosen maps. I recommend it highly. Read it, enjoy it, and spread the word.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

1984, 1993, 2002: Mass violence in India

Recently, there has been a bit of a flutter in the Indian media regarding an interview given by Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi family legacy and potential prime ministerial candidate from the Congress party  in the upcoming 2014 elections. At issue was a question put to him by the interviewer, asking him to compare two of the most horrendous episodes of collective violence in independent India.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Economic snapshots

There are several different ways in which we can view the relative economic performance of countries. A selection of graphs based on the World Development Indicators (compiled by the World Bank) reveals interesting patterns. All of this is made remarkably easy thanks to Google Public Data. The graphs tell interesting stories, but I have often been surprised at how different people interpret the same data, so I'll refrain from adding my commentary and see if readers come up with any interesting comments on the data, my selection of graphs, as well as my choice of countries for the graphs.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

War and Peace

It took me about one and a half months to read War and Peace. Tolstoy's magnum opus, first published in the 1860s,  has been acclaimed as one of the greatest novels ever written, though the popular perception is that it is a very difficult book to finish reading. The length of the novel is clearly a huge barrier to reading it, though unfamiliarity with the historical context adds to the difficulties.
To appreciate the book fully, it is useful to recall the historical context. The story is set in the early nineteenth century, spanning the period from 1805 to 1820. Its main characters all come from the Russian nobility, and the narrative arc follows their fortunes, set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events surrounding Napoleon's invasion of Russia.