How Indians invented the universal religion

One of my favorite podcasts is Two for Tea, which tends toward “centrist-edgelordism”. The latest guest is, Armin Navabi, who I have nicknamed the Ayatollah. Armin is literally one of the most logical people I have ever known of, at least in the domain of those who are not visibly already extremely at one end of the spectrum. His views on religion come from this rationalist perspective, and that is where I part ways with him because I don’t see rationality as powerful a force as he does in shaping human behavior.

But in this post, I want to disagree with something Armin said in relation to the history of religion: that universalism and post-tribal religion was invented by Christianity and the Abrahamic tradition. This is clearly false.

From Ashoka’s Edict 13, put down in the 3rd century before Christ:

Now, it is the conquest by the Dharma that the Beloved of the Gods considers as the best conquest. And this one (the conquest by the Dharma) was won here, on the borders, and even 600 yojanas (leagues) from here, where the king Antiochos reigns, and beyond where reign the four kings Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander, likewise in the south, where live the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni.

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An apology to Brown Pundits

My quick Election 2019 reaction article “The rock that broke liberalism” in the local English daily Dhaka Tribune seemed to have blown up in social media. As I woke up this morning, the article has nearly 9000 shares and still growing by the hour. Most probably the blow-up happened because some prominent Indian media personality with lot of followers shared the article.

I want to apologize here to BP and also to Omar Ali bhai for not mentioning Brown Pundits or his his name directly. Althought by mentioning the key words in the BP 2016 article and also the thesis question, I made it very easy to find the article with minimum enterprise through Google search (Links at the end). I wrote the article with Bangladeshi audience in mind, I did not expect it to go ‘international’. Thus I unintentionally deprived Brown Pundits from some desereved publicity and Omar Ali bhai from due direct recognition.

The reason why I was shy about mentioning Brown Pundits is that I wanted to keep my column writing profile in Bangladesh and occasional Brown Pundits contributor and commenter seperate. Firstly, I regard BP as a forum where one can freely speak their minds about sensitive issues (very unwise I know. In internet nothing is safely hidden and everything is permanent). Secondly, as a Bangladeshi who wishes to travel to home country regularly, speaking freely about sensitive issue is a very ill-advised for me. Thus my reluctance to let my contributions/ comments in BP be known among home-circles.

This is the dilemmna of the era for us. We want to talk, yes just talk, debate, analyze, about issues that interest us but there are great number of people from all sides for whom talking freely is the biggest existential threat in the world. Of course Razib is a prime example of the reality of the threat. Awarded NYTimes op-ed contributor just for a day because the internet outrage mob mobilized in milliseconds.

https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2019/05/25/the-rock-that-broke-liberalism

Is Islam the rock on which the liberal order broke?

 

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Pakistani women, Chinese men, the continuing story….

The New York Times has a follow-up story with some nuance, She Thought She’d Married a Rich Chinese Farmer. She Hadn’t.

Now there is coverage of Muslim girls going to China. The model is the same as the Christian girls, rural Chinese men who aren’t as wealthy as they present themselves, go through nominal conversions or affirmations of faith, and take the women back. Here for me is the interesting part:

Then, after a four-hour drive past fields of wheat and corn, they arrived at Dongzhang village in Shandong Province, where she saw her husband’s duck farm. It was not the sprawling operation of a wealthy man that she had envisioned, but a modest family farm where he lived with his parents and two brothers.

The New York Times was unable to independently verify Mr. Zhang’s income. But on a recent visit to the Zhang family home, a Times’ reporter found a newly built housing compound with multiple bedrooms and shiny tile floors.

Outside the family home, Mr. Zhang’s mother, who is in her 60s, recalled being puzzled by Ms. Kanwal’s reactions.

“She is religious, so when she came here I went out of my way not to give her any pork,” she said, as a small guard dog barked nearby. “I stir-fried chicken and made egg omelets for her. But no matter what I served her, she just refused to eat.”

Some of the more sordid stories of prostitution are likely true. And, it seems from the story above that some of the girls who moved to China are pregnant, and reasonably happy where they are. But many of the stories are grayer and not so clear.

The mother-in-law above seems well-meaning, after a fashion, but one can see the perspective of a young Muslim girl from Pakistan, encountering a world filled with pork, dogs, and without the washing facilities she was used to. Additionally, the reporters seem to agree that the farmer was prosperous, if not necessarily wealthy. With no real linguistic common ground, it’s pretty easy to imagine that wires could get crossed her. The huge cultural chasm, where most Chinese do not take religion that seriously, is probably almost impossible for a Pakistani girl from a non-cosmopolitan background to fathom.

Right now these stories are exotic. But if more and more girls stay and settled down in China, that will result in positive word of mouth. The precedent with other Asian countries is tragic and horrible stories will continue. But that may not be the whole, or the main, story.

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I’m fond of saying “two is the first number”

I was senior analyst in a small and wonderfully eccentric DC Beltway think tank a while back, and my boss kept asking me for what he called “early indicators” of upcoming troubles. The trouble was, I never saw an “indicator” as such — I only ever saw “indicators” plural. It takes two to tango, they say, and from my POV it takes two to make a pattern.

My HipBone Games began as an attempt to make Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game playable, preferably on a paper napkin in a sidewalk cafe, so I began with boards like my WaterBird —

— with ten moves, ten concepts arrayed in such a way that players or later readers could see ten richly interconnected concepts in one place — concepts that might be textual, musical, mathematical, visual, filmic — if we’d known how to convey smells via the internet, I’d have included those, too..

And over time, I discovered the obvious — that the fundamental game move involved two concepts, with one bridging link between them. So that’s the fundamental way to learn to play the HipBone Games. Over time, I’ve come to rely more and more on this simplest of HipBone Games, the DoubleQuote:

— leaving the larger HipBone Gameboards — the 8-move Dart board on up to the 120-odd Said Symphony board, dedicated to, you may have guessed it, Edward Said, and available for possible competition games and solo symphonies.

**

What’s a concept, you might ask — what constitutes a move?

I might use a different definition if I were taking about anything other than the Bead Game, but in this context, a concept is a rich idea — an idea with rich possibilities for association. Let me take a paragraph from a New Yorker piece as an example:

Melissa and Ashley, identical twins from Georgia, shared a bedroom while growing up. They had the same best friend, took classes together in high school, and dreamed of becoming artists in their own collective. “We’re like two different people with one brain,” Melissa liked to say.

The article in question is titled An Underground College for Undocumented Immigrants — so there’s room associations with the underground railroad perhaps, another situation where the official system repressed a minority, and that minority found ways to circumvent the system.

I’ve chosen this example, in fact, because it offers numerous associative possibilities — to other ideas, narratives, or statistical finds about twins, to other New Yorker articles, to underground movie theaters or catacombs, to those who dream of becoming artists — and in particular for my purposes here, because it’s about two people who think, almost as if they are one.

In fact, to emphasis this notion of unity and harmony, I might simply chose this statement for the first position in my DoubleQuote::

We’re like two different people with one brain

**

Let’s use a musical analogy, and say the two of them think in close harmony, or, since there are two of them, that thinking together, they constitute a duet..

The opposite of harmony,in which many notes played simultaneously form a chord, is counterpoint, in which differing melodic lines move between discord and resolution — harmony a “vertical” matter, synchronic, while counterpoint is “horizontal” and diachronic —

— and the opposite of a duet is a duel.

**

The two friends in Don DeLillo’s New Yorker piece, Midnight in Dostoevsky like to keep their minds at opposite poles from each other. As one of the two reports:

He liked to test himself on what he knew. He liked to stop walking to emphasize a point as I walked on. This was my counterpoint, to let him stand there talking to a tree. The shallower our arguments, the more intense we became.

I wanted to keep this one going, to stay in control, to press him hard. Did it matter what I said?

The actual phrase I’d place in juxtaposition to the first paragraph above might come from a discussion of whether the old man walking in front of them that day was wearing an anorak or a parka —

It was our routine; we were ever ready to find a matter to contest.

Again, the context — the article itself — is rich in associative potentials, with parkas, anoraks, Inuits, linguistics, life in the arctic circle, the whole idea of North — on which the pianist Glenn Gould wrote an entire radio opera

— and note that Gould is himself a master of counterpoint, specializing in the work of JS Bach, and called his radio opera technique “contrapuntal radio” —

So:

“This was counterpoint” — the opposite of harmony, and full of both conflict and resolution, with phrases isolated and overlapping, paused and repeated, denial and occasional agreement and renewed denial — a duel, not by any means a duet.

And yet each of our two excerpts describes the conversations of two close friends, the one emphasizing unity, the other diversity. And it is in the similarities and differences between the two conversation — between duel and duet — that the two concepts link to become a single move.

**

Having given that extended example, let me present a few more DoubleQuotes, in their positions on the board — with minimal explanations:

Some of them are made of names or phrases so simple, they fit on a mini-version of the board:

Some bring Shakespeare to bear on current events — in this case, Saudi Crown Prince MBS and the Khashoggi murder:

Some showing similarities in different materials:

Some making historical comparisons — this one’s in an earlier version of the same board —

or opposite opinions and creative practices of two of the world’s most distinguished physicists:

or — and this is my personal favorite, crossing as it does the great disciplinary boundary — between CP Snow’s Two Cultures — between art and science:

**

But either I’ve been very unclear, or you get the idea.

Here’s the blank DoubleQuotes board again, for you to download and drop your own examples into.

At gmail I’m hipbonegamer — feel free to send me your own, with any explanation you feel like making, and in a later post I’ll put them up here.

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Vital stats in South Asia

A bunch of vital stats from South Asia from Google Data Explorer. Since Zach and I started looking at these data since the early 2000s Pakistan and Bangladesh have diverged, unfortunately. I don’t understand what’s going on with Bangladesh’s anomalously high adolescent fertility though. This could be a function of variation among women as they age, with those entering the labor force delaying childbirth and the number of children so much that it brings the whole average down.

And of course, the whole comparison between India and the other countries is difficult since the Indian statistics average together many different regions.

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The damage done to third world countries by Harvard and UChicago

I recently read an article in The Economist about Jair Bolsonaro and one of his prominenet supporters  (a UChicago economist) and it remineded me of the damage done by such ‘luminaries’ to other third world countries such as Pakistan.

“In July, at a convention of his small and inaptly named Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro unveiled his star hire. Paulo Guedes, a free-market economist from the University of Chicago, has done much to persuade Brazil’s business people that Mr Bolsonaro can be trusted with the country’s future, despite his insults to women, blacks and gays, his rhetorical fondness for dictatorship and the suddenness of his professed conversion to liberal economics. At the convention Mr Guedes praised Mr Bolsonaro as representing order and the preservation of life and property. His own entry into the campaign, he added, means “the union of order and progress”.”

Further in the article,we learn more about the adventure of ‘Chicago Boys’

“[Chile’s dictator from 1973-90, Augusto] Pinochet sensed, rightly, that corporatism would require him to share power with his military colleagues. Instead, he called on a group of civilian economists, dubbed the “Chicago boys” because several had studied at the University of Chicago, where the libertarian economics of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman held sway.

The Chicago boys applied these principles in Chile, whose economy had been wrecked by the irresponsibility of Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist overthrown by Pinochet. Their programme would eventually lay the foundations for Chile to become Latin America’s most dynamic economy at the turn of the century. But it was akin to a major operation by trial and error and without anaesthetic. They slashed import tariffs and the fiscal deficit, which fell from 25% of GDP in 1973 to 1% in 1975. They privatised hundreds of companies, with no regard for competition or regulation. Worried that inflation was slow to fall, they established a fixed and overvalued exchange rate. The result of all this was that the economy came to be dominated by a few conglomerates, heavily indebted in dollars and centred on the private banks.

In 1982, after a rise in interest rates in the United States, Chile defaulted on its debts and the economy slumped. Poverty engulfed 45% of the population and the unemployment rate rose to 30%. Pinochet eventually dumped the Chicago boys and turned to more pragmatic economists, whose policies contributed to Chile’s post-dictatorship prosperity.”

Pakistan was one of the countries that was ‘advised’ by economists from Harvard during the 1950s and 60s.

M. Ziauddin, veteran Pakistani journalist, wrote about the influence of Harvard and UChicago on Pakistan’s economy in his piece titled: Way Out of Deepening Inequality.

Some critique of the Harvard Advisory Group’s (HAG) broader actions can be found in a paper (found here and without paywall here) by Nadeem ul Haque and Mahmood Hasan Khan (Haque obtained a PhD from UChicago and Khan from a Dutch University).

“The HAG vision was flawed in three respects and sowed the seeds of the distorted development of the economics profession in these three respects.

First, it did not attempt to develop an economics profession that was rooted in the country. They left the universities and colleges in a state of neglect attracting resources to these new non-academic, semi-bureaucratic institutions and attempted to give them the lead in the profession. Without the seed of the pure profession being nurtured and jealously guarded in academia, the profession was bound to have a distorted growth.

Second, the HAG trained economists were very different from the economists of the time. The HAG training was very development oriented and specific to Pakistan. They were not encouraged to do any theoretical or pioneering research. Third, given the importance of HAG and the new institutions and the symbiotic relationship between these institutions and the bureaucratic and political setup of the time, these HAG trained economists acquired a large and visible role in the economy. These visible economists not only played an important role in Pakistan’s history but also distorted the country’s perception of an economist, the economics profession and economic policy.

By design, the HAG group was interventionist, plan and budget allocation oriented. They mistrusted the market and had the arrogance of having more information than the market and the rest of society. Interestingly enough, the HAG training of development economics was collapsing on itself. Because these people had no behavioral relationships in mind and no faith in markets, they did not merely push policy levers and study response lags and dynamics. Instead, they developed lengthy plans or wish lists and used the bureaucratic structures to control the environment to make these plans happen. This control-oriented and market-mistrusting civil service loved this new intellectual force given to their view.

A second element in the thinking of the HAG economist was the concern with inequality. Haq and Baqai (1986), two important economists of the HAG era, note with concern that “early writing on economics in Pakistan surprisingly did not contain much reference to poverty related themes.” It is very interesting that most of the early econometric or behavioral research is done mainly by the HAG advisor, whereas the work on measuring poverty, productivity (the ratio calculation work) is done by the Pakistani economist. Before anything about the economy was understood, poverty indices, regional inequality indices, and declines in real wages (when hard wage data was hardly available) were the main areas of concern.

The manner in which these economists were trained itself created a certain perception of economists in the country which lasts till today. These economists were trained to be policy-oriented development economists. A sharp distinction was made between such economists and those who studied more theoretical and academic economics. The erroneous impression was unintendedly cultivated that the study of theory or more rigorous economics is of limited use to the country. Such a pursuit was considered a luxury that the country could ill-afford. This view has persisted and developed over time and reinforced the perception that to be a good economist for Pakistan a grounding in economic theory is not only not required but perhaps may even be a hindrance. The result is that there is a tremendous disrespect for academic and theoretical economics. The term “ivory tower” intellectual was used to describe anyone who attempted to read and keep abreast of academic economics. Instead, an amalgam of general knowledge and mild development verbiage has been established as sound Pakistani development economics.’ Fragmentation of the Profession”.

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Browncast Ep 42: American Arranged Marriage

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, AppleSpotify, and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…this podcast was posted a week ago).

Probably the number #1 reason that the “Browncast” is of interest to me is that I can talk to people who are different from me in some deep and important manner. This podcast is a conversation with Amit, an Indian American who is doing a medical residency. Raised on the “best coast” of the USA, after some conventional dating travails, he has decided he will go the route of an “arranged” matched.

If you listen, you will see that the process has been a positive one for Amit, and it includes much more flexibility and volition than most Americans might imagine.

I went into the discussion mildly skeptical and came out of it with an appreciation for how people can make different choices, but those choices are probably the best for them.

I would really appreciate if regular readers/commenters would leave more positive feedback/ratings, especially on Apple and Stitcher.

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The decline of the bee


At the Spelling Bee, a New Word Is M-O-N-E-Y – Elite spellers now can pay to get a spot in the national event. For this generation of zealous competitors, it just means another chance to shine:

An extra factor driving the stakes for this generation of spellers is a concerted effort by non-U.S.-born parents, particularly Indian-Americans, to make a mark on the competition. In 1985, Balu Natarajan was the first child of immigrants to win the Scripps bee. Of the 33 contests since then, fellow Indian-Americans have won 17 more, including the last 11 straight.

Indian-Americans, just 1% of the U.S. population, have established their own minor-league spelling bee circuit that adds opportunities to hone on-stage performance. They have led the way in paying for coaching, buying or developing proprietary study software and traveling to participate in more bees. Many spellers’ parents came to the U.S. via the Immigration Act of 1990 that admitted exceptionally skilled immigrants who specialize in STEM topics. It is no mystery that they would value education—and recognition of it—above all else; it is the very thing that gave them access to this country.

Reminds me of the stuff in Jerry Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics. Now that the national bee is going in this direction it will be impossible to reverse the trend and make it a test of childhood exuberance and passion, as it was until recently. Rather, it will be just another part of the meritocratic conveyer belt, another notch in one’s resume or c.v.

And, unfortunately, it illustrates one of the effects of the rise of Asian American immigrant parents, who come from extremely competitive societies, and so bring the same ethos to the United States. Childhood in the old sense is disappearing, as people begin to prepare their children for adult roles in the economy before they enter elementary school.

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A quick reaction to Indian Election

I wrote the following article for one of the English daily newspapers in Bangladesh. The main idea is directly borrowed from a very good post in Brown Pundits (2016) by always superb contributor Omar Ali bhai.  “Is Islam the rock on which the liberal order broke?”  https://www.brownpundits.com/2016/12/05/islam-is-rock-on-which-liberal-order/

Link to my article here.  Text follows. Just as a reminder, newspapers op-eds are not suitable place for good elaboration and defense of ideas. This is not an analysis or theorizing, just a reaction.

The rock that broke liberalism

https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2019/05/25/the-rock-that-broke-liberalism?fbclid=IwAR3cQVWjO1PYe6muE33Dijy44kR90fJRH1Iv6UBqS9KYqHr9e7AlTHKjvdo

I was watching live streaming of the India Election 2019 results on the NDTV website. Panelist after panelist was commenting on how significant were Balakot strikes in boosting BJP’s re-election prospects, and how ignorant are the liberal elites of India about the appeal of national identity among the masses.

This was NDTV, as a reminder, one of the citadels of India’s liberal elites. BJP’s triumphant re-election under Narandra Modi underscores the wave of right-wing populist nationalism sweeping across democracies of the world — Europe, Australia, Latin America, the US, Asia, maybe soon in Canada also.

With every election, every referendum taking place in established democracies, it is becoming apparent that this wave may not be just yet another right turn in the cycle of politics soon to be corrected by pivot to the left, but a fundamental shift in the people themselves.

A couple of years ago, in a South Asia focused blog I frequent, a much-admired Pakistani-American writer wrote a post posing a great question: “If and when modern humanism and liberalism crashes and burns, will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?”

His point was not that Islam single-handedly threw a powerful challenge to the liberal order, or “end of history” would have been achieved if Islam didn’t throw a wrench into the gears of civilization.

He argued that by obdurate refusal to accept the fundamental assumptions of post-enlightenment worldview, by obstinate resistance to assimilate with the mainstream when in the minority and by dogged persistence in recreating antediluvian theocracies when in majority, Muslims not only undermined the universal validity of the whole liberal project, but also sowed deep doubts about the liberal project among its previously most faithful adherents.

Muslim recalcitrance has hastened delivery of the contradictions that the liberal project was pregnant with from the beginning.

And the contradictions are huge indeed. The liberal order is prone to breakdown because it doesn’t sufficiently account for the fact that human nature itself is broken. People are not just utility or satisfaction maximizing beings. Enjoyment and suffering are intimately co-mingled.

People do not just want to reach heaven together; they want some, preferably who are somewhat different, to be confined to hell as well. Apart from the contradictions, surely undercurrents of technological and economic change, the shift in global power balance, the inevitable decay of political order, played a far more important role in undermining the liberal dominance than obstinate resistance of the followers of Islam?

However, it’s hard to deny any causative role of Islam. The emergence of right-wing, national identity politics was perhaps inevitable in India, but BJP’s astonishing dominance must be partially attributable to Pakistan’s persistent spoiling and nightmare-neighbour role? Right-wing majoritarians everywhere are scapegoating Muslims as the principal other; morality of their methods can be questioned, but the success cannot.

Moreover, I would argue that Islam has not undermined the liberal order by sowing doubts within liberal ranks or exposing its contradiction, it has weakened liberalism by emboldening and consolidating the enemies of liberalism in established democracies which were scattered and disheartened after the bloodbath of WWII and subsequent emergence of liberal world order.

Stubborn defense of group identity by Muslims of the world has made upholding group identity respectable for all groups, majority or minority, powerful or weak. In the age of mass politics, group identities like religion or nation have more elements in common than in difference. If Muslims can be unabashedly assertive about the sanctity of their religious identity and traditions, other groups can be unapologetic about their respective identities too.

Muslims may be a small minority in most of established democracies, but they comprise nearly one-fourth of humanity, and they have a very emphatic presence in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. To people of different faiths, Muslims, regardless of their actual numbers as minority, represent the much talked-about demographic threat from the south.

Muslims, whether in majority or minority, are on the other hand deathly afraid of the political, cultural, and economic threats emanating from the leading political and ethnic groups of the world. It’s a mutual cycle of fear spiraling downwards. Muslims cheering the probable demise of a liberal world order is the height of folly.

As the world’s most powerless and disunited major group, they will continue to pay the major price of breakdown in blood and misery. Uighurs of China portend that bleak future.

In established democracies, Muslims are generally politically allied with liberal progressives, and this alliance has opened liberals up to accusation of double standards in protecting a very illiberal minority identity. Abandoning universalism and embracing identitarianism is hollowing out liberalism from within. Either the principles of liberalism apply for all groups or none at all.

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The Hindu Liberal test

Zach, please back this up with facts – “This tirade has gotten old – India has rejected her Muslim heritage and culture (not socially but politically).” <br /><br />Indian history books discuss Muslim rule at length – the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal dynasty, and myriad Muslim dynasties from the Deccan. Monuments built by Muslim kings are well preserved and regarded as a heritage of all Indians. Mosques are preserved and new ones are being built all the time. Hindi/Urdu – a heritage of Islamic rule – is becoming more widely spoken every year since independence. <br /><br />How is this similar to what has happened in Pakistan?

As you all know I call out Pakistan and Islam on a fairly regular basis especially liberalstanis who baulk at the no-go zone of Pakistani culture.

The test I would devise to test whether a Hinditva values liberalism or Hinduism is the Babri test.

Do you believe Babri Masjid should be rebuilt brick for brick as it stood pre-92?

If you don’t then that means you are a Hindu before you are a liberal. It isn’t a bad thing but don’t pretend that your liberality is so magnanimous so as to extend to your cowering minorities.

By way of comparison it’s pretty obvious that Al-Aqsa Mosque stands on top of the Old Temple (a bit like Babri Masjid). If a mob were to destroy Al-Aqsa tomorrow would the Israeli government be right in apportioning the site?

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