Back in the happy days when I was comfortably ensconced in the embrace of the propaganda machine known as the Pakistani educational system, I participated in a debate with the assertion, “Pakistan was inevitable.” I cannot recall now which side I spoke for, but even then it was clear to me that the answer was both “yes” and “no”. Pakistan was not inevitable in 1857 when Hindus and Muslims both fought against the British for the remarkably stupid goal of restoring the Mughal empire to its former glory. Nor was it inevitable in 1919, when Hindus and Muslims again launched a movement for the even more ridiculous goal of keeping the Turkish Sultan on his throne. Or in 1906 when a few well-meaning Muslim luminaries decided to launch their own party – the Muslim League – into the maelstrom of political movements raging through an awakening India. However, by March 23, 1940, when the Pakistan Resolution was passed by the Muslim League general session in Minto Park, Lahore, Pakistan probably was inevitable. As with all historical events that look inevitable in retrospect, the inevitability of Pakistan was the result of a series of totally “evitable” decisions made by many leaders – Muslim, Hindu and British – and by millions of their followers. Continue reading
Will Saletan has a provocative new piece in the recent issue of Slate, arguing that Western Europe must do away with its hate speech laws and other restrictions on free speech before lecturing Muslims on their intolerance for insults to the Prophet. He certainly has a valid point, but his article obscures a larger, more important point: Freedom of speech is neither just a moral imperative nor something to be negotiated in a fair exchange; it is an essential mechanism to ensure the stability of modern societies.
The insulting film that caused the recent furor was made in the United States, not in a European country with hate speech prohibitions. The United States does not have laws prohibiting hate speech against anyone, and the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution guarantees almost absolute protection of speech. This is exactly what gives Americans – uniquely – both the right and the privilege of lecturing others on freedom of speech. Europe can be left to resolve its own dilemmas and exorcise its own ghosts. The principle that all speech – including hateful speech, blatant lies, extreme insults and outright bigotry – must be protected symbolizes a truly optimistic and modern view of human nature – that we are not, as some might insist, slaves to our inner demons or desires, but rational agents capable of analytical thought and self-control. This view of free speech may be somewhat idealistic, but the aspiration towards that ideal should not be obscured by fretting over its imperfect implementation in the here and now – especially when the most powerful, most influential and most diverse country in the world already implements it almost perfectly.
It is also essential that any defense of free speech not be couched in the idiom of Western paternalism, which – rightly – raises hackles in recently decolonized societies. Rather, it should be grounded in an understanding of the essential role freedom of expression plays in the survival and success of any modern society. Those who object to it – notably in the Muslim world, but also elsewhere – hold the depressingly pessimistic view that civilized behavior requires perpetual top-down control through the law, and that without such control, human society would fall apart. This idea – like many other “common sense” notions – is rooted in the belief that order arises only by imposition, that all organization requires an organizer, and that the only natural path for systems without top-down control is descent into entropic chaos. This view of reality, though historically understandable, is increasingly unsustainable for the complex, diverse, globalizing societies of today.
Forget all the examples of bottom-up self organization that we see in Nature. Most people already understand intuitively that human society is, at its core, a bottom-up system – relying on community, the common good, and the cooperative action. For millennia, however, top-down control has proved to be a successful strategy for reaping the benefits of this bottom-up system. From tribal chiefs to emperors and dictators, the wisdom of the few (usually one) has successfully tamed the presumed folly of the crowd, allowing societies to maintain cohesion and – very importantly – increase their influence (at least for limited periods). This is also the framework undergirding organized religion, which is the ultimate form of top-down control without hope of repeal. But the success of this strategy has now created the conditions for its own failure. Modern society and its institutions are arguably too complex to be understood, let alone controlled, by wise individuals or static legal codes. We have no choice but to trust the wisdom of the crowds. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the best example of this trust. To think that it relinquishes all control over speech is a misunderstanding. Rather, it trusts that a responsible, civilized people can determine the proper norms of speech for their time and place through social, i.e., bottom-up, action rather than through rigid legal control – that society itself can regulate what expression is or is not acceptable, and impose societal sanctions to enforce this flexible, unwritten code. Protection of all expression thus creates a flexible mechanism rather than a brittle one, and is a stabilizing influence rather than a destabilizing one. Wisdom, in this case, lies not in choosing what others can(not) say, but to let them choose and live with the social consequences of their choice.
As we understand complex systems better, it is clear that they are necessarily subject to crises of potentially limitless magnitude. No amount of wise management can prevent such crises. The best that can be done is to create the space within the system to mitigate their effects when they do happen. Resilience and robustness, not strength and control, are the best options for such systems. The role of Law must be only to facilitate this resilience. Allowing people to have their say and be ignored (or mocked!) creates a much more resilient society than forbidding such expression and letting it turn secretly into a cause or a revolution. Freedom of speech is not the permission to sow strife but a mechanism to dissipate it – automatically, without effort, at almost no cost. Those who seek to limit it in the quest for stability are, in fact, inviting instability – a fact well demonstrated by history. Modern societies – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – need to learn this lesson. And they will learn it either before or after they destroy themselves from within. To avoid the latter fate, they would do well to stop using European laws to justify their myopia and look to the much more useful American example.
1. It is possible to justify freedom of speech in more concrete terms through psychological, social and economic arguments, but those are just details. Another important issue that could be raised is to ask whether this same laissez-faire approach should then be applied to the economic domain – as free-market purists have argued. This is not the place to discuss it, but, in my opinion, the problem is that money is not speech, whatever five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court might say. It is abundantly clear that the free market system within the right context is, by far, the most productive ever devised by humans (see “The Origin of Wealth” by Eric Beinhocker, or “The Birth of Plenty” by William Bernstein), but the relationship between humans and money is not the same as that between humans and expression. No one dies because of the speech of others, but people can be harmed physically by others’ economic decisions. Nor is money an essential part of an individual’s being as expression is. Some regulation is, therefore, required for economic systems, but only as much as is necessary to preclude real harm to innocents and no more.
2. There is a very rich literature on the inevitability of crises in complex systems, and on ways to mitigate them Three of the best are Per Bak’s controversial classic “How Nature Works”, Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, and Marten Scheffer’s “Critical Transitions in Nature and Society”. Philip Ball’s “Why Society is a Complex Matter” also looks delicious but I have not read it yet. Nassim Taleb’s upcoming book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” is about the flip side of things – how disorder can be exploited. It should be very interesting.
3. Some readers will note the apparent irony that the freedom from laws regulating speech is itself embodied in a law – the First Amendment. The first few words of the amendment reinforce this irony: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is a law prohibiting the making of laws – a “meta-law”, so to speak! The irony is resolved by noting that the target of its prohibition is the legislative body (Congress), not the population at large, which it frees from oppressive laws. It does not say to people, “You must speak freely”, but only that Congress cannot abridge such freedom. However, the ironies don’t stop there. The fact that a few rich white men in the 18th century promulgated this law empowering the many is one of history’s wonders. They needed both an immense portion of wisdom and an inordinate capacity for self-delusion to do so – many were slave-holders, and almost all accepted the practice.
4. I have not seen the movie that caused all the recent mayhem, nor do I intend to do so. From its description, it is, to put it politely, a piece of crap. The proper response to it would have been to ignore it and thus deny its makers the one thing they most desired – attention. The reaction that actually occurred has, alas, guaranteed that more such crap will be made and publicized – mostly to the benefit of extremists on all sides.
5. I am sure that, in response to this post, I will be told that: a) The U.S. kills innocent people with drones (true but irrelevant); b) Insulting Jews or African-Americans is illegal in the U.S. (false); c) Western values are not universal (making wise choices to improve societal survivability is not a Western value); d) There should be some limit to free speech (yes, when it can physically or economically harm someone); and many more. All such objectors would benefit greatly from watching “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Laughter cures all hang-ups.
The news went out Friday night – well after final call in most Georgetown bars and certainly too late to lure people away from the more interesting pursuits of the evening: Mitt Romney was getting married! No, not to another wife as his ancestors might have; he was getting married to a corpse! Perhaps it would be described better as “undead” – a zombie with the voice of Ayn Rand and the face of a lazy-eyed boy scout from Wisconsin with an eerie resemblance to Eddie Munster. They said his name was Ryan. Some heard it as “Ruin”. As word leaked out, the stalwarts of the media were rudely shaken out of their slumbers or their beers, as the case may have been. Wolf Blitzer was roused; Chuck Todd was summoned forth; Andrea Mitchell was disinterred – all to share forthwith their special insights on this momentous event, this occasion when Mitt Romney had, at last, found love. Bleary-eyed and slurry-speeched they came – some elated that their chosen one had been chosen, some still pining for Chris Christie. All said things such as are said by those with little to say and too much time to say it in. But all this clamor was of little consequence – the falling of trees in earless forests – for the place where news goes to get made was taking little notice. Foxland was silent, or rather, going on with their regular programming. Yes, the chyron at the bottom of the screen carried the news, but those who watch Fox are not inclined to read. Eventually, there was some brief mention of the story by actual Fox humans, but only the lowlier ones – no Wallaces or O’Reillys were dragged out to the studio. Even Brit Hume was left undisturbed in the jar of vinegar where he normally dwells in suspended animation. Then it was back to the Stossel re-run. A moment’s thought suggested the reason for this mysterious obliviousness. It was not yet the hour to inform the masses. That would come Saturday morning. And it did! There, on the deck of the decommissioned battleship USS Wisconsin, Mitt Romney draped his arm over the shoulder of his new-found love and declared, “From time to time, I make a mistake”. And they gazed into each others’ eyes, and smiled, and some of those in attendance smiled as well. It was a match made in Grover Norquist’s kitchen. The world hasn’t been the same since – except that Mitt Romney still hasn’t released his tax returns.
So the question arises: Why did Mitt Romney choose Paul Ryan as his running mate? As with all bad decisions, there are many plausible explanations. The first, most obvious one is that poor Mitt Romney was bullied into it by Norquist, Kristol and the other hegemons of Right-Wing opinion. Ever since he bought his way through the primaries, Romney has encountered a distinct lack of amore from those whose love he most needs – the know-nothing base of the Republican party. This base loves Paul Ryan because Rush, Sean and others have told them that he is the Great Intellectual of the Right. The Intellectual Pretenders of the Right love Ryan because he is the quintessence of their pretensions. Mitt Romney loves him because he needs to, and Mitt always does whatever is needed. But going beyond this “doctrine of necessity”, one may haltingly ask, “But … what are they thinking?” After all, choosing the architect of the single most unpopular piece of legislation to pass Congress in many decades appears to be rather risky. It is even riskier because, as of now, the only large demographic consituency that still votes Republican in the U.S. is white Christian men, many of whom are in their golden years or nearly there. To them, the “Ryan budget” is anathema. So why is Romney embracing Ryan?
One theory – much discussed in the Democratic blogosphere – is that the Republicans have already set up their mechanisms to steal Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and several other states through voter registration rules and vote rigging, and thus feel free to choose the candidate they like ideologically. This strikes me as implausibly simplistic. Republican efforts to depress the Democratic vote are now well-documented and may well have significant impact, but the system is clearly not fool-proof, or the Right would not be putting so much effort into this campaign. Another explanation is that the Right is confident that their large funding superiority will allow them to force Romney-Ryan through. If they ever really thought this (and they probably didn’t), the last month should have disabused them of this notion. The Obama campaign is masterful at using their resources with maximum efficiency while the Republican machine seems to rely mainly on increasing the volume to 11. Unfortunately for Romney, the more Super-PAC ads the Republicans run, the further behind he falls – mainly because the product being sold, i.e., Willard Mitt Romney, is not very attractive. It is like an advertising campaign for excrement – the more you hear about it, the less you want to buy it! Yet another possibility is that the Republican establishment believe in Paul Ryan’s power to persuade people. Given how well he has fared in the last two years, however, the only people who can sincerely believe this are the ones who thought there were weapons of mass-destruction in Iraq. I have no doubt the Bill Kristol truly believes that Paul Ryan, given the opportunity, could truly convince voters to buy into Right-wing ideology, but then Bill Kristol’s track record for being disastrously wrong is surpassed among pundits only by Dick Morris. He was, one may recall, the foremost champion of la Palin in 2008.
I think that there are only two truly plausible explanations of the Ryan choice: “Shakeup” and “give up”. The first, more charitable explanation is that the Romney campaign has realized the futility of running a “referendum campaign”, i.e., one that relies only on saying that President Obama has failed to fix the economy and that, therefore, the Republicans should be given a chance. Having recognized this, Romney is trying to shake up the campaign by turning it into a true battle between two visions of America – the supply-side vision of the Right and the regulated capitalism of the Left. If this is indeed the case, it represents a truly stunning achievement for the Obama campaign under very difficult circumstances. It also means that Romney is headed for much more trouble because the Obama campaign, sensing weakness, will not take the bait and keep the campaign focused on making Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan the issue – Romney as the quintessential rich guy who kills middle class workers for a fast buck and Ryan as the frightening face of an intransigent Congress with an 11% approval rating. The problem that Romney is facing is one that Rick Santorum diagnosed several months ago – he cannot run on what was going to be the entire basis of the campaign against Obama: Repealing healthcare reform. Of all Republican candidates, Romney was the only one who could not exploit it, and now the issue has fizzled completely. From now on, the campaign will be all about “the 1% vs the 99%” and “ending Medicare as we know it”. And, if the opportunity presents itself, a little bit of Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts. Even so, Romney may think that choosing Ryan provides an opportunity to reframe a faltering campaign.
The other explanation is that the Republicans have, in fact, given up on winning the Presidential election this year, and simply want to use this as an opportunity to push their message, organize their cadres, and anoint Ryan as the candidate-in-waiting for 2016. This is a reasonable strategy, and certainly gives the Tea Party ideology ruling the Republican Party its best chance to reach a large audience. On the downside, the ideology is likely to flop (see discussion of advertising excrement above). Even more importantly, the Democratic nominee in 2016 will be Hillary Clinton, who will be completely unstoppable unless a true Republican superstar can arise to challenge her. Given the current situation, this superstar would have to come from another planet.
As I have written earlier, we are witnessing the death throes of the Republican Party, which will probably be over by 2030 or so. Then the Democratic Party will disintegrate as well in the absence of the shared resentments that hold the party together now. Of course, the machines may have taken over by then:-).
Eisenhower had predicted that the “military-industrial-congressional complex” could “endanger our liberties and democratic processes”. While academic researchers often claim to be independent, the dirty secret is that most high-profile research projects are M-I-C sponsored.
The M-I-C folks are happiest while chasing the Next Big Idea. For example in applied physics research (late 80s), the M-I-C wish-list included laser induced fusion for energy security and superconducting supercomputers for well…enabling the launch of a Human Brain project. The computer power required for performing the simulations will be in exa-flops (10^18 operations per second).
The N-B-I list is often controversial and sometimes involves major scams like cold fusion (1989). But the hope and optimism never dies. The current N-B-I star-in-waiting is Henry Makram from EPFL, Switzerland. He is shortlisted for a 1B Euro grant for the EU Flagship Human Brain project which is attracting great levels of hostility and scepticism. And why not? One of the most bone-chilling statements ever: “You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!”
The project goal is to model everything, “from the genetic level, the molecular level, the neurons and synapses, how microcircuits are formed, macrocircuits, mesocircuits, brain areas — until we get to understand how to link these levels, all the way up to behavior and cognition.”
If this project is successful and we are allowed to dream what may happen? Currently the South Korean president has been labeled as an “underwit with 2MB of knowledge.” Labeling people as dumb is a popular sport (Irish/Red-neck/Sardarji jokes). South Asian Browns are often labeled low-IQ (even though HH Steve Sailer has admitted that IQ determination for SA is a “mug’s game”).
What if we find out that it is just a matter of (1) a few neurons being misconnected (out of just 100 billion) and (2) how to straighten them out for good. There will be new hope for Browns currently at the bottom of the ladder (they will still need nutrition). Indian elites who are presently tensed-up about the disruptive implications of the Right to Education (poor kids co-educating with rich kids) ACT will be able to relax.
The world will be a wonderful place once you have had your brain examined. M-I-C zindabad. Henry Makram zindabad.
Pakistan: Rinkle Kumari (from now on to be known as Faryal Bibi) and 2 other Hindu women were abducted a while back. When given the opportunity to return (by the Supreme Court) they have now decided to join their “husbands”.
Even if they had returned, how would the community handle “damaged women?” The experience from Bangla 1971 seems to be negative. It seems the only options available for existing Hindu families are to either convert or emigrate to India.
India: A beef festival was organized by Dalit students in the Osmania University campus in Hyderabad. According to the organizer B Sudarshan “We have not made any slaughter of animals in the hostel premises but only distributed food among the students to acknowledge the age-old custom of Dalits and minorities. We wanted to remove the dirty image associated with beef, as spread by the Brahminical culture.”
Unfortunately, the festival was attacked by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad goons and as a result the police ended up tear-gassing both sides.
For now there is a stalemate but in the long run it seems that ABVP is fighting a losing battle. The Dalits and minorities have glimpsed victory and they will not be denied their rights.
USA: “American nuns struggled to respond Friday to aVatican crackdown on what it calls “radical feminism” among the women and their purported failure to sufficiently condemn such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.”
“Tensions have publicly flared recently between the bishops and the leadership conference — along with a few other large prominent nun-led groups — over public-policy issues. Some bishops were angry when the leadership conference supported the White House’s health-care reform, which the bishops’ conference had vigorously opposed. The bishops also have focused on opposing a White House mandate that employers, including religious ones, offer birth control, while the nuns accepted a compromise from President Obama.”
If Obama is defeated, the Vatican will undoubtedly feel vindicated. But will the American public passively accept such a “public enforcer?”