Gibran-ic Conundrums.

I have been reading Kahlil Gibran . There are two standard reactions to this statement —

a.) Are you in love/wasting away/ or what is wrong ?

b.) The American reaction — “Who is Kahlil Gibran ? ”

The answer to the first question is “Not yet/Seriously, no/ Why do things have to be wrong if I read Gibran ?” . And I do not reply to Americans, as a matter of personal-mental-hygiene. (see postscript)

So I have had the pleasure of being exposed to some of Gibran’s terse verses and meandering prose. All very insightful. The problem seems to be that, in spite of thinking that I am such a reflective, introspective, smart, <insert-appropriate-eulogic-adjective> young lad, I seem to have no clue as to what Gibran means. And that happens quite a few times. It is almost unnerving. I feel that it is because of my lack of “experiential wisdom”, “not-having-lived-life-enough-phenomenon”. Some things must be felt before they can be understood.

And so, it is with trepidation and in spite of almost-violent-demonstrations by several factions of my mind (who insist that this tyranny towards our beloved Ego shall not go un-protested), that I invite readers and interested clever people to help me interpret Gibran. I shall provide some brief passages which have troubled me, and give my anaemic interpretations of the same. Help, O Wise readers !

This is from the book — Sand and Foam.

Once I saw the face of a woman, and I beheld all her children not yet born. And a woman looked upon my face and she knew all my forefathers, dead before she was born.

Does he mean that a woman understands a man and his past while a man can predict the future ? Female intuition and the emotional intelligence that women have, help them understand a man and how he came into his present condition (his past, his evolution) very well, whereas a man, with his rational judgement, can sense what direction the woman’s future will take. I know he sounds sexist. And is this related to the mysterious concept of love, in which case, I am clueless. On second thoughts, it is definitely, love. Got you, Gibran !

Another one : ” Give me silence and I will outdare the night. ” How does the night dare you ? Is the silence of the mind more powerful than the silence of the night ?  (pertinent query –What about the silence of the lambs ? No one can out-dare Anthony Hopkins.)  So here Gibran seems to be craving for mental peace and solitude, I think. The pensive silence, which is the progenitor of great achievement and profound understanding. I cannot go any further with the rhetoric.

The next one is beautiful.

Remembrance is a form of meeting. Forgetfulness is a form of freedom. ”   I understand this well. Thanks to Milan Kundera and his book of “laughter and forgetting”.

The prose passage below seems very apposite to our routine lives, with our inadequate relationships and our miserable friends —

On my way to the Holy City I met another pilgrim and I asked him “Is this indeed the way to the Holy City ?” And he said, “Follow me and we will reach the Holy City in a day and a night. “

And I followed him for many days, yet we did not reach the Holy City. And what was to my surprise he became angry with me because he had misled me.” 

I have only lived a short life, but I see this happening all the time. People blame others for imitating them, following in their stead. Any thoughts.

I shall end with a rather profound passage —

My house says to me, ” Do not leave me, for here dwells your past.” And the road says to me, “Come and follow me, for I am your future. ”

And I say to both, ” I have no past, nor have I a future. If I stay here, there is a going in my staying; and if I go there is a staying in my going. Only Love and Death change all things. ” 

Clearly there is a conflict between the desire to cling to the past in comfort, nostalgia, out of the fear of the unknown, while at the same time, there is a thrill to the idea of novel experiences, newer pleasures in the future. How will this conflict be resolved ? Gibran denies both. The present matters. And he says that whatever choice he takes — his staying is also a going (into the past) and his going is also a staying (I don’t know how) . And Love crops up again. What is this business of love, that changes everything ? I can tentatively guess that it brings about a calmness, a feeling that you are beyond reproach, above judgement — other than in the eyes of your lover. The past, the future and their querulous demands cease to matter. Just this moment. Entwined and in love.

Is there any other interpretation ?  I am curious.

The readers who can help me navigate these choppy Gibran-ic waters shall earn my ever-lasting gratitude. This gratitude, unfortunately, is an ineffable thing — it does not buy you the nice holiday you have been looking forward to.

Have fun.

P.S. To any American readers who stumbled upon this : There is nothing personal to the jibe above. I just lose a little bit of respect for Americans when I see Thomas Friedman writing op-eds every week, and Bill O’ Reilly, of the “tide comes in, tide goes out” fame and Rick Santorum, especially. Chomsky-fans, Colbert-watchers and all intelligent people can blissfully ignore me !


Language and Thought.

Sometimes you have to be careful when selecting a new nickname for yourself. For instance, let’s say you have chosen the nickname “Fly Head”. Normally you would think that “Fly Head” would mean a person who has beautiful swept-back features, as if flying through the air. But think again. Couldn’t it also mean “having a head like a fly” ? I’m afraid some people might actually think that. ”  —       A deep thought on the power of names, by Jack Handey.

Language and thought are deeply intertwined. The question that we want to answer is the nature of their relationship. A simpler and more direct question would be —

Is thinking just a kind of inner speech ?

Both thought and language share the quality of being productive and novel.  We keep having novel thoughts and we can keep speaking different sentences. Is there more to this ? Given this fact, we can explain creativity and productivity of thought by supposing that people think by “saying” sentences to themselves internally. It might also be the case that language is just a “tool”, not a “vehicle” for thought. Some kinds of thoughts do occur without language. Language-learning, which is a very difficult cognitive task and clearly requires thinking, is achieved by babies without having a language in the first place. Clearly thoughts can arise without language. Also, there are certain thoughts that are hard to put in words, almost ineffable. The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when you know what you want to say but cannot say it, is another instance which supports this hypothesis.

Those who believe that thinking is just inner speech can argue by saying that when the mental states are fuzzy, imprecise and inexpressible — they are not really thoughts. Perhaps the mental state became a thought only after the “words for it” were found. In adults, the notion that thought is inner speech, finds more “validity”. We can hear ourselves think. Bilinguals report that certain information is actually stored in one language rather than another. I find it easier to count in Hindi, but do arithmetic in English. Again, there are caveats — what about visual thinking ? Chess players frequently report about visual thinking in a game. There are also cases when “physical memory” works better than actual “vocalization” of a task. Intelligent action is impeded by thinking things through in a language. (for instance, typing) So if these things are thoughts — then the notion that thinking is “inner speech” must be flawed.

The much more profound alternative is : A universal Language of Thought :  All humans might be able to think of similar things — in a language independent way. This resolves the problem that – two people with different languages cannot have the same thoughts.  We do not know what is the truth. Is thought forever limited by language ? Do people with different languages think differently ?

Or do humans share a universal language ?

In Defence of Life : A critique of suicide.

Extenuating circumstances have forced me to voice my opinions on this thoroughly depressing, yet existentially important issue — Suicide.

My first contention is that every individual has the right to his own life. No state or social institution, no morality can take that away from him. He may use or abuse his right as he pleases. So there is, in my opinion, no legal, social or moral justification for condemnation of suicide.

On the other hand, there is a powerful rational and experiential criticism of suicide. It is life. And human nature. Most of us have a strong sense of purpose to our lives, whether consciously defined or unconscious. It may be hedonism, love, some over-arching goal which drives us or any trivial thing. This purpose goads us on, forces us to live through the miseries and the ennui, it gives us strength. Some people may never find this purpose and begin to feel rudder-less, just drifting. The existential crisis ensues. But if we really want to resolve this crisis we must introspect, find our purpose, something that excites us. Giving up is no solution to the problem.

A fundamental fact about human nature that people, especially those contemplating suicide, forget is that people can and very often, do change. We are not weak forever. No one is born sad. We need not be powerless. Circumstances change, we meet new people, and lives take forever new courses. Give randomness a chance ! And enough time.

This is not to deny the fact that there might be conceivable situations when circumstances are so dire that suicide might be the best option. There is no denying the depths of despair that someone might feel, the tragedy of the human condition is something that is pervasive and irrefutable. Anyone who has read anything of Schopenhauer will agree. But a calm, deliberate, fully rational suicide is as rare as a blue moon. Impulsiveness, emotional outbursts and immaturity are more glaring culprits. I believe that society should refocus the empathy and false commiserations that it directs towards the dead more towards dealing with the tragedy of the living. Why is it that we cannot ridicule the dead ? What preposterous moralizing forces us to victimize the survivors, instead of empathizing with them ? A foolish, impulsive, weak decision needs to be criticized.  To set an example. Human problems have not turned far worse overnight. Emotions still boil over in the same ways. The social framework of dealing with pain and suffering is flawed. What is also flawed, is the idea that people should stop talking about the dead , stop passing judgement, to “honour their memory” ? Utter balderdash. If society stops passing judgement on the actions of individuals, no coherent direction will ever emerge. We must draw a line. The line is individual rights -the right to live or die. Society should not force people to live on, but it must bring down all its opprobrium on stupid, impulsive and rash decisions of individuals.

Sadness for the incident, empathy for the victim’s families should not stop us from critiquing the system of thought that promotes “giving up” — that makes it fashionable to “die” with fame rather than “live in anonymity and misery.”  Let us celebrate the living, empathize with them, empower them to live and fight.

Those contemplating the final solution : Wait. Think again. Give yourself a chance.

If you still cannot convince yourself to live — No one can or should stop you.

Nevertheless, I shall judge you.

Chomsky & Linguistic Competence.

The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face. ”  — a wise man.

Chomsky revolutionized the study of language and the science and philosophy of linguistics with a series of insights. His major insight was that language theorists must not ignore the internal mental states of agents when trying to account for their “linguistic behaviour”. Contrary to what Behaviorists claimed, language use is much too complex to be described in terms of environmental stimuli and responses. He argued that the language must be described by formulating the grammar for it and assuming that speakers already know this grammar. This internalized information about language, this form of grammar —  What is this knowledge like ?

Much of this is unconscious. So the normal notions of truth and justification for knowledge do not apply here. If somebody conjugates a verb incorrectly, it is not the same kind of mistake as a falsehood. Chomsky used some terminology to deal with these issues. Humans have “linguistic competence” — they internalize a body of rules and this competence translates into behavioral performance. There are a lot of other causal factors which influence linguistic performance apart from competence — attention, memory, physical condition, desires and beliefs etc. What this means is that it is not straightforward to go from observed behavior to the nature of grammar known to the speaker. It can be inferred but there are other factors. Linguistic competence is just one of these factors.

There are some objections to Chomsky’s idea. What Chomsky wants is a notion that will help explain people’s observable speech. What he proposes is a sort of “conscious justified true belief”, but not exactly the same thing. Notions of truth and justification apply awkwardly. If we do not have linguistic competence, we would be hard-pressed to explain linguistic behaviour. Critics point out the differences between two types of knowledge : Knowledge-that & Knowledge-how. Knowledge-that can be termed as propositional knowledge, a matter of believing certain truths on the basis of a learning process. Knowledge-how is a matter of having certain abilities — a skill, like swimming. Some philosophers contend that Chomsky has conflated the two different senses of knowledge and chosen the wrong one in describing knowledge of language. Their justification is that knowledge of language is a very unconscious thing. We are not aware of the complex rules of grammar and find them awkward even when they are pointed out to us. Thus we cannot claim that it is a knowledge-that, but is merely a skill, an unconscious knowledge-how about language.

Chomsky’s defence is that whenever a behaviour can be treated as a result of a simple disposition (like a reflex), a knowledge-that need not be invoked. But when such techniques fail, we need to revert to knowledge-that as an explanatory tool. Linguistic behaviour is as creative, flexible and complex as any other behavior and it cannot be adequately explained as an ability. Why then is a speaker not able to state the rules of language, why are they unconscious ? We do not know. But ever since Freud, scientists have resorted to explaining complex and stimulus-independent actions in terms of mental states even when the agent does not recognize that it is in that state. Language use is similarly stimulus-independent and it makes sense to use the same methods here. Also, people can lose all linguistic abilities without losing linguistic competence. (Comatose people can regain speech after attaining consciousness) So knowledge of language cannot just be a cluster of abilities or skills (which would have disappeared after trauma).  Someone might object saying that one might have the “capacity” but might not be able to use it. Also, to the claim that knowledge-how can only apply to simple behaviors, it might be said that capacities can be as complex as possible. Such a use of “capacity” is legitimate. But it is a mere semantic issue now– it is essentially the same thing as “competence”. Such an objection is a concession.

The debate has not yet been settled. But if we assume that such a thing like “linguistic competence” exists, what does it consist of ? Syntax (rules for constructing sentences), Phonology (rules of pronunciation) and Semantics (information about what parts and their unions mean) are the basic ingredients of this competence. The grammar is also infinitely productive (you can keep producing newer sentences forever).

The next question is answering how we acquire this competence. That shall be the topic of the next post.

A linguistic-philosophical deep thought to end this post  —

Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. MANKIND. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words — “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean ? It is a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind. ” — Jack Handey

Clumsy refutations & the Skeptic’s Predicament.

Skepticism is not easy to stomach, for most people. Hence, there have been repeated attempts to refute it. In vain. I shall list out some lines of attack here —

Science : Scientists use general theories to go from the appearances to how things really are. They draw inferences about the external world and eventually build a correct theory. The general principle of science is :

Theory A best explains appearances, hence , things really are as described in theory A. (call it premise 3)

Therefore, one can know about the external world from appearances alone, though we cannot directly observe the external world — it is still reasonable to believe in it, for otherwise certain observable phenomena would be inexplicable. Hence premise 2 of skepticism (if all we know about external world is through appearances, we cannot really know anything outside us) must be false. Skepticism fails .

Unfortunately, this is a classic case of circular argument. To argue against premise 2, one uses premise 3. But for premise 3 to be true, premise 2 must already be false. Science already assumes that appearances are how things actually are.

Ordinary Living : Skepticism goes against common sense.  A skeptic says that he knows nothing about the external world but goes on acting exactly like a non-skeptic. Why this conflict between philosophy and deeds ?

There are several replies to it. A skeptic might answer that he does believe in the external world and simple things, but he is not justified in believing them. Hence, he doesn’t know. And nobody really believes skepticism , but the arguments seem irrefutable.

G.E. Moore claimed that when we find ourselves believing two mutually inconsistent thins, we must give up at least one of them. Which belief should we give up ? His answer was : reject the less obvious belief.  So this provides me with a challenge. I have 2 beliefs :

1. All we know is how things seem to us, and if all we know is how things appear – we cannot know how things really are outside of us.

2. I see a notebook in front of me .

Obviously, I should give up the first belief for the second one. But this does not resolve the problem. How does a seemingly flawless argument yield absurd result.  And sometimes obvious things turn out to be false. Maybe Moore’s principle is not valid.

Meaninglessness : This claims that skepticism is either meaningless or self-refuting. The basis of the argument is “Verificationism” — the meaning of a statement is the observations by which the sentence may be verified. Sentences gain their meaning by being connected with experience. Hence, verifiability is essential to meaningful statements.

The argument runs as below :

Premise 1. If a sentence cannot be verified, it is meaningless.

Premise 2.  “That you cannot know how things really are outside of you ” is either verifiable or unverifiable.

Premise 3. If it is verifiable, then it is self-refuting. Because then we can observe something about the external world. Which amounts to “knowledge” about the world outside of you.

Premise 4. If it is unverifiable, it is meaningless.

Conclusion — Skepticism is either meaningless or self-refuting.               ( … Beautiful! )

But this has an even cuter refutation ! The argument rests on Verificationism — the claim that the meaning of a statement is the observational means of verifying that statement. This claim is either an empirical claim or it is not. If it is empirical, then it already assumes that what we see is how thing are (in this case, meaning of sentences) — and a skeptic is suspicious of all “sense-based” evidence. Put another way, the anti-skeptic cannot justify the equation of meaningfulness with observability solely on the basis of appearances. On the other hand, if it is not an empirical claim, then it is not verifiable by observation. So it runs a risk of meaninglessness, by its own definition ! The skeptic prevails again.

The Skeptic’s Predicament :  What would count as true knowledge if everything can be met with skeptical doubts ? If there are no examples of such knowledge, then is our concept of knowledge coherent ? We must have gone wrong somewhere.

Sadly, no one “knows” where !




Skepticism and Knowledge.

Continuing with the theme of the last post, I consider the central question and a skeptic’s response : What can we know ? The answer is, the only thing that we can know, is how things appear within our own minds. We do not “know” anything about the external world. The word “know” is used in the sense of “justified true belief” as discussed in the last post.

This skeptical position rests on two major premises :

1. All we directly know is how things seem to us.

2. If all we directly know is how things seem to us, then we cannot know how things really are outside of us.

Hence, the conclusion that we cannot really know the external world.

The argument structure is straight-forward, so any objection can only be made about the validity of the premises.  The first premise arises out of the empiricist belief that everything we know ultimately derives from experiences and sense-impressions. It is not claimed that everything we know is sense experience. What empiricists mean is that, all direct knowledge is sense experience and all “indirect” knowledge is ultimately derived from sense experience. The justification for this belief is the empirical assumption that the mind is “blank” at birth, and everything we learn is from experience as we grow.

The second premise arises from the question whether it is justified to infer how things are from how things seem . This inference may not be justified. There are clear error cases : dreams, illusions – where how things appear is different from reality. Thus the skeptic doubts whether the inference is justified. Also, we might wonder whether how things are and how they appear may be two different things entirely. There is no way to be sure whether or not this is true. The skeptic’s challenge is  “Show me that appearances are reliable indicators of how things are “. And we must do this by making use of only how things appear, because as premise 1 says  — that is only thing available to us.

Meeting this challenge is impossible. We are therefore not sure about premise 2, because premise 1 is the only tool we have.

So the overall argument runs as follows :

Empiricism (all knowledge arises from experience) yields Premise 1. And 2 things support Premise 2 : the occasional unreliability of sensations and secondly — that Knowledge of the external world based on just sensations requires justifying the skeptic’s challenge based on sensations and appearances alone — which is not possible.

Now both these premises give us the position that : We cannot know anything about the external world. The skeptic does not claim that there isn’t anything outside his own mind (that would be just weird Solipsism ! ). He does not make such bold claims. He is just sure that “justified true belief” about the external world is impossible.  More strictly, ” All we know directly is how things seem to us right now.” Every other kind of knowledge would have to based on inferences about things from appearances right now. That cannot be justified. Hence, no belief about your past self is true knowledge.

Knowledge turns out to be very elusive. No wonder, our philosophers insisted on “knowing ourselves” so much. Everything else is plain impossible !

Epistemology for the uninitiated.

Epistemology deals with the following three questions —

1. What is knowledge ?

2. What can we know ?

3. How is knowledge acquired ?

I shall go over some of the standard positions on each of these questions. On the definition of knowledge, one school of thought says that, ” an agent knows something if he believes a statement to be true and is justified in that belief. ” By this argument, no one can “know” a falsehood –like 2 is an odd number.  Others argue that “knowledge by authority” and “by faith” is possible. This is merely a matter of definitions. We have to choose something.

On the limits of knowledge, skeptics argue that humans cannot know anything or “in certain areas of inquiry, nothing can be known” . They argue this on the “justified true belief” definition of knowledge and point out flaws in statements because they do not subscribe to the definition of knowledge. For instance, there can be no “moral truths” , or you cannot make statements about other’s minds .

When we discuss the means of acquiring knowledge, there are several views. The first position is the “empiricist” position where all knowledge is derived from experiences and the mind is initially a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) at birth. The “rationalist” position denies that the mind is blank at birth and contend that certain ideas are present in us innately. Knowledge, according to the rationalists, can be obtained by “pure thought” and sense-experiences do not play a big role. Empiricists and rationalists differ on the extent of “innate cognitive capacities” of the mind. They disagree on the what is the ultimate foundation of knowledge : Experience or Reason.

Now that we are acquainted with the basic framework of epistemology, we can argue various positions with some degree of cogency. Why can’t philosophers write like me ? Simple, coherent and concise. Pity !

Language and the Politics of War : A critique of journalism, academia & mass media.

“The struggle of man against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting. ” — Milan Kundera.

This struggle is played out every day, in our living rooms, in news media, in the scholarly articles that some of us read and we are quite oblivious of this battle. The warriors in this struggle are numerous, the foreign correspondent is the “foot soldier”, the self-proclaimed “pundits” are the “commanders”, the op-ed columnist is the “general” while scholars might be the “Sun Tzus” of our time. Let me dissect the role that each plays with a few typical instances —

Journalism :

The Iran-Iraq War : 1980-1988 — Iran’s official history of the war shows that Iraq first used chemical weapons against its combatants on 13th January, 1981 — killing seven Iranians. Between 28 December 1980 and 20 March 1984, there were 63 separate chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqis. The world did not react. Never since the First World War had chemical weapons been used on such a scale and yet so great was the fear and loathing of Iran, so total the loyalty of Arabs to Saddam Hussein, so absolute the West’s support for Saddam against the spread of Khomeini’s revolution, that they were silent. These news items were never reported in the Arab press. In Europe and America, they were regarded as Iranian propaganda. Only in 1984 did New York Times grudgingly admitted that “Iraq used chemical weapons in repelling Iranian offensive.” The criticism was mild. There was no official criticism of Iraq’s policy.

In 1994, the “United States Chemical and Biological Warfare-related Dual-use exports to Iraq and their possible impact on the health consequences of the Persian-Gulf war ” report acknowledged that government-approved shipments of chemical weapons were sent by American companies to Iraq from 1985 or earlier. Throughout the war, America supplied Iraq with battlefield intelligence — which was used by the Iraqis to defeat Iranian offensives using poison gas.Iraq captured Fao on 19th April, 1988 using gas. They then used hydrogen cyanide gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja , by dropping it from jets, accusing the Kurdish Iraqis of collaborating with Iran. The chemicals were German, the jet was American and the 5000 dead, Iraqi Kurds.

This was one of the charges which the West used when it invaded Iraq in 2003. “Saddam gassed his own people.” They forgot to mention how and why.

Israel-Palestine : Peace Process & after ..

25th February, 1994 : Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli Army reserve officer in uniform, decided to massacre Palestinian worshippers in the mosque at Abraham’s tomb in Hebron. He was an educated man, an American-born doctor. More than fifty Palestinians died. 170 were wounded. The survivors literally beat him to death. Israeli military killed 25 out of the 50 or so total dead : enraged Palestinians as they tried to storm the mosque in the aftermath.

Within hours, the Associated Press altered the statistics. It claimed that Baruch killed only 29, and these were the official statistics. The identity of the Israeli suicide killer underwent a mysterious transformation. He was a Jewish settler and a reserve army officer in uniform. But he was called “an American Jewish immigrant”. His Israeli identity had begun to fade in twelve hours and American was touched by the crime. The man was not called a “terrorist” by any Western news outlet. Bill Clinton described the events as a “terrible tragedy” — the victims were not victims of terrorism, but of a tragedy, like a natural disaster, earthquake, tsunami perhaps!

These double standards in reporting are not the only instances. Palestinians are repeatedly demonized and bestialized in news reporting in the West. Here’s a small sample —

Rafael Eytan, the former Israeli chief of staff, has referred to Palestinians as “cockroaches in a glass jar” .Menachem Begin called them – “two-legged beasts”. The Shas party leader suggested that God should send the Palestinian “ants” to hell, also called them “serpents”. In August 2000, Ehud Barak called them “crocodiles”. Israeli chief of staff, Moshe Yalon described them as a “cancerous manifestation” and equated the military action in the occupied territories with “chemotherapy”. In March 2001, Israeli tourism minister, Rehavem Zeevi, called Arafat, a “scorpion”.

Clearly brutal, inhuman tactics are permitted against animals. If only enough people are convinced about the Palestinians being sub-human ! My last piece of evidence regarding the high standards of journalism that we seem to uphold is …

Thomas Friedman : The celebrated New York Times op-ed columnist, author of numerous books (“The World is Flat”), who reaches out to a very wide audience in America and Europe — is an example of the rot that has set in journalism. Here are some of his choicest remarks —

(on Iraq)

“Let’s all take a deep breath, and repeat after me: Give war a chance.”

“This is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched — a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.”

“What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”

“…I never believed or wrote that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could threaten us…….the right reason for the war was not W.M.D. It was to deal with the problem of P.M.D. — people of mass destruction.”

“This war is the most important liberal revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan. We got off to an unnecessarily bad start but it’s one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad, and it’s a moral and strategic imperative that we give it our best shot.”

“The next six months in Iraq… are the most important… ” November 2003 ..  “Iraq will be won or lost in the next few months.” November 2004 … “We’re in a six-month window here…” September 2005  … “We’re going to know after six to nine months…” January 2006 … “It’s going to be decided in the next weeks or months…” April 2006 … “We’re going to find out… in the next year to six months.” May 2006

(on Afghanistan)

“It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not.”

(on Yugoslavia)

“Let’s at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are ‘cleansing’ Kosovo, is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.”

“Let’s at least have a real war. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted…Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.”

On Racist stereotypes

“If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all – they won’t believe it.”

“After every major terrorist incident the excuse makers come out to tell us why imperialism, Zionism, colonialism or Iraq explains why the terrorists acted. These excuse makers are just one notch less despicable than the terrorists and also deserve to be exposed.”

On democracy

“Had we properly occupied the country, and begun political therapy, it is possible an American iron fist could have held Iraq together long enough to put it on a new course.

As long as voices like Friedman’s  are heard above saner voices like Amira Hass, Robert Fisk, Eva Stern … journalism is going to be a “cheerleader for war” . But why is he so important ? What happened to our scholars, our professors, academics –who know better ?

 Academia :  I recently came across a book by Marc Gopin, visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and a visiting scholar in the programme on negotiation at Harvard. His book was titled “Holy War, Holy Peace : How Religion can bring Peace to the Middle East. ” It sounds very promising. But when you are confronted with phrases like “universalist mythic constructs” and “romanticised, amoral constructs of culture” and  “fundamental dialogic immediacy” and “prosocial tendencies” .. you begin to lose hope very quickly. The author goes on to talk about the “the Abrahamic myth of a loving Patriarch and a loving God who care for a special people has created a home and a meaning system for millions of human beings.”  The author grew up, in a ” self-consciously exilic spirituality”. He mentions the “interplay of political and mythic interdependencies” and the “ubiquitous psychological process of othering” . He wants to “problematise” intervention at “elite levels”. He says that a rabbi was “awash in paradoxicality” which proved that “cognitive dissonance is good for intractable conflicts”. There was more : “dialogic injuries”, “cultural envelope”, “family psychodynamics” , “the rich texture of hermeneutic possibility” , “porous barriers of spiritual identity” and, my favourite — “social intercourse” ! “Dialectic apologetics” makes a guest appearance, alongside “persecutorial othering” and several other “otherings”, including a reference to “pious transformation of old cognitive constructs as an end to othering : remythification. ”

Why this preposterous academic language ? This snobbishness. There is no such “exclusivist, secret language” in the works of Edward Said, Avi Shlaim, Martin Gilbert or Noam Chomsky. This prevents the masses from understanding the issues in their complexity. Academic rigour can go hand in hand with clarity. If our academia continue to encourage such mumbo-jumbo, it is no wonder that the masses look at Thomas Friedman for understanding and answers. It is up to the students in universities to rebel against this —  the merest hint of “emics” and “constructs” and “otherings” or “hermeneutic possibilities” and we should walk out of class, shouting Winston Churchill’s famous retort — “This is English up with which I will not put. ”

Cinema and Mass Media : There is a routine bestialisation of Arabs and Muslims in Western cinema. I have several instances —

In the movie, “O Jerusalem” based on the eponymous book by Lapierre and Collins, there is an honourable, kind-hearted, moderate Arab who is friends with a Jew.

Similarly, the movie Exodus, based on the Leon Uris’ novel of 1948, also has a “good Arab”.

In the much-acclaimed  “Ben Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia”, there are “good Arabs” who lend horses !

“The English patient”, a brilliant movie, has a blatantly racist scene (which has no place in the book on which it is based), where a British army officer is torturing a suspected German spy by chopping off his thumb. For this barbarous act, he calls a Muslim woman nurse forward, saying — “The Muslims, they understand this sort of a thing. What’s the punishment for adultery ? ” This abhorrently racist dialogue has no basis in the book.

Once we have thus established that there are “good Arabs”, out there, somewhere — we are, of course, free to concentrate on the rotten kind and treat them as we will !

Unless we can put an end to this “language war”, the slow and seductive radicalization of pubic opinion by propaganda , the historical conflicts in the Middle east shall linger. Peace can only be achieved with understanding. We have our “eyes wide shut” right now.

Trivial thoughts on Power and Freedom.

I have a few thoughts swirling in my head, leaving behind in their wake … a cloud of frustration, pent-up angst. This is my release. Please do not look for coherence here — this is the “Rebel Voice” speaking. (We shall get to the distinct voices of my mind later.. )

On Misunderstanding : People always misunderstand the things which they are not capable of. To be misunderstood always, is a mark of distinction. Misunderstood jokes, witticisms, actions, pranks are the hall-mark of an active mind ! Those who misunderstand people all the time, should try entertaining a few thoughts some time — they might even get it ! We are not very different, humans all.

On the drive to achieve “Power” : This is a most basic craving. The will to gain dominance. Free will is just a manifestation of this desire to “command”. Why do people take so much offence at the idea that all choices are illusory, that we are not “free” ?  Everyone understands the feeling of being forced to do something unwillingly, reluctantly and against your will. This slavery, bondage is just “an alien will” . What we want is to do as “our will” commands. Achieving that sense of “Power” over oneself is “free will”. All social institutions are geared to suppress this individual drive and impose the herd’s collective “free will”.

On the “trivial” mind : We go on thinking about what “should be” , and not what “is”. Our mind is constantly occupied with trivial things — our ambitions, quest for power, success, wealth etc. — and as long as we think ideologically about what “should be”, what “needs to be changed” about the world — we are happy. Despite being pre-occupied with trivial things, the mind deceives itself into feeling important, noble even.

The mind, by its nature, is trivial. It is a product of memory, an instrument of survival. Can it actually be free of itself ? It can speculate about the existence of God, invent political systems, question all beliefs — but can it recognize the fact that it constantly is occupied with “trivialities”. If we are fully aware of how our mind actually works, all the time, we will be quite embarrassed. That awareness shall bring greater control I believe, greater freedom.

Eventually, we must try and enslave our minds, the ultimate “Power” . The greatest freedom.


Nietzsche on Knowledge.

In some remote corner of the universe, bathed in the fires of innumerable solar systems, there once was a planet where clever animals invented knowledge. That was the grandest and most mendacious minute of universal history. ” —      Friedrich W. Nietzsche

What does he mean ? Is knowledge an invention ? And why is this mendacious ? Schopenhauer, before him, made the mistake of assuming that religious sprung from a metaphysical sentiment inherent in all men. Nietzsche denies this. He claims that Gods were invented. Art was a particularly creative invention — poetry, for instance, by somebody who had the rather curious idea of using a certain number of rhythmic or musical properties of language to impose his words over others. Similarly, knowledge too.

Knowledge does not have a basis in man’s natural instincts. It cannot be one of the primary urges of mankind. It is simply the outcome of the interplay, the encounter between instincts. Several instincts war with each other and reach a compromise at the end, which we call knowledge. It expresses a certain state of tension or appeasement between instincts. It is not really a part of human nature. Conflict, combat and the outcome of the combat, which depends a lot on chance, give rise to knowledge. As Nietzsche puts it poetically, Knowledge is like a “spark between two swords” , but not a thing of the metal.

The Nietzschean ideal of knowledge is that it is something that is not even closely connected to the world itself. The character of the world is chaos. Knowledge is order. Physics has come to obey Nietzsche’s decree — entropy always increases. Nature abhors knowledge. It is not natural for nature to be known. Therefore, between our instincts and knowledge, there can be only a relation of domination, struggle, of violence. Knowledge can only be a violation of the things to be known, and not a mere perception, a recognition, an identification with those things. If it is just that, it is not really Knowledge.

Several philosophers have opined that to truly understand things, one needs to “calm one’s passions”, take care not to “laugh at, lament or detest them” (words of Spinoza). Nietzsche states that the converse is true. We understand only because of the struggle between these passions. Laughing, lamenting or detesting are all ways of keeping the object “away” from oneself, differentiating it from our own selves — by protecting oneself from it through laughter, devaluing it through complaint or destroying it through hatred — and not ways of identifying oneself with the object. Consequently, all such drives, which are at the root of knowledge, have a will to destroy, differentiate and place ourselves in a position of hatred, contempt or fear before things that are threatening. Knowledge arises when this war of the passions reaches a truce — as a “spark between the swords” .

At the center of knowledge, Nietzsche places hatred, struggle and power relations. Hence, it is the philosopher, who is most likely to misunderstand knowledge, since he thinks in terms of unity of ideas, congruences and pacification. In order to truly know knowledge, to apprehend it at its root, how it is created, we need only look at our politicians — how relations of power and struggle are created.

Or we might read Noam Chomsky ! (Manufacturing Consent, The Fateful Triangle and innumerable articles)

On Ascribing Value to Emotions

How cheap or precious is an emotion ? How do we reconcile the strong core of feelings, that defy logic, with the quest for rational decision-making ? And should we do that ? What has given rationality this pedestal ? Is it justified with everything we understand about humans ? These are some of the questions that I would like to address in this post.

Let me first begin with the deceptively easy question on the “value of life”. How do we measure the sanctity of life ? It is clear that we need a way to do it or all planning (economic, military) will come to a logical cul-de-sac. As many people will argue, a single life has infinite “replacement value” — you cannot buy it with any amount of money. But does it follow that a life is priceless. What if, two lives are balanced against one another, and we have to choose ? These moral dilemmas are hard to resolve unless we take a strictly logical approach.

Whenever we spend money in order to ensure the safety of lives, we are establishing lower bounds on the “value of human life”. When, as a society, we refuse to invest enough for security of citizens, we are inadvertently setting upper bounds on the value of human life. If your upper bounds and lower bounds are inconsistent, it means you could move money from one place to another, and save more lives at the same cost. So if you want to use a bounded amount of money to save as many lives as possible, your choices must be consistent with some monetary value assigned to a human life; if not then you could reshuffle the same money and do better. How very sad, how very hollow the indignation, of those who refuse to say that money and life can ever be compared, when all they’re doing is forbidding the strategy that saves the most people, for the sake of pretentious moral grandstanding.

There may be people who cringe at this rational, cold-hearted position that I espouse. They are ignorant of the fact that governments do this all the time using their own money. Life is cheap in the third world, very expensive in the West. This is, of course, only the social context of the value we attach to emotions — “value of human life” being one of the more powerful emotive issues. The personal value of a single life is indeed infinite : because humans cannot be expected to behave logically when lives are at stake. Sacrifice is an emotion that brooks no rationality. The strange paths that feelings lead us on to, merit further deliberation and elucidation.

Every emotion needs to be analyzed, the intensity of the feeling duly noted and ascribed values. The ascribing of values to an emotion is inherently arbitrary. I might choose to love self-denial as the most precious emotional high, others value decadence. What is important is to understand the hierarchy of emotions and the simple fact that the hierarchy can be altered. By a strong enough will. It is imperative that we grasp the value of rationality as the only “King” on the mental board — something that can never be compromised. All other pieces, emotions are expendible.

But why is that ? I have no answer. Creative achievement seems to stem from the emotional core of our beings. Reason tempers emotion, leashes the beast.

Our survival has depended on our rationality. We need it now, more than ever.

On the depths of feeling.

Once upon a time, I was a child. And I thought I was strange. I thought I could not feel. When I say feel, I mean “strong emotions” .. the cathartic sense of justice and injustice that goes with a child’s emotions and how he/she expresses them. I was very phlegmatic, impassive, even dull sometimes.

Lot of it was down to training, I presume. I was the elder sibling, the calm, good-child as opposed to the rambunctious, naughty younger kid. I was studious, afraid of my dad’s stern look and therefore, quiet. I had early-school experiences at this stage which exacerbated these tendencies — as in, lot of bullying and teasing at my expense ! And so it was, that I began to feel — at the mature age of 7 or 8, that I just couldn’t feel! I was stone-cold. Icy, even. I did not need anyone, no comforting was needed, no tantrums for me.

And so began my experiments with myself. I used to sleep at nights alone, coaxing myself to feel strongly about something, anything, to no avail. I constructed elaborate fantasies, in the hope of drawing forth some emotion from the spring-well of childhood that I knew existed with every other kid. I understood social norms and was perennially worried about living up to these mores. You are supposed to cry if your parents are dead. I imagined losing my parents, coaxing myself to cry as I slept. I could not initially. Eventually I learnt how to feel. I slept on a soaked pillow that first night, the memory of which has all but faded now.

The relief was palpable. I knew I could pretend to feel, bring forth those tears on demand. I had control over some part of my existence. I still suspected the genuineness of my emotions . But I had learned to wield some degree of self-control. It gave me strength.

And that is why emotion hits me. The things I feel about are few and far between, but the depth of my feeling is almost scary. I wear rationality as armour and hide the raging storm beneath lest it might scare off people. It is almost Byronic !