Leadership in Crisis Times; Who is your Wallfacer?

In Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy (The Three Body Problem), humanity is under attack by a more advanced alien civilization. The aliens have sent sophons (modified photons) that can read/see/hear everything that is outside our heads, but they cannot read minds (apparently the Trisolarians have not solved the mind-body problem either), so the UN selects some people to be “wallfacers”; selected humans who are given free rein to develop a strategy to stop the aliens; they keep their strategy hidden inside their own minds, while using whatever resources humanity can put in their hands. In some sense, charismatic leaders are a bit like wallfacers; we trust their leadership without necessarily knowing what goes on in their head. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, we have the organized (relatively transparent) commissions and committees of the world hard at work, trying to figure out the best possible strategy. But much is unknown about the pandemic and how it will play out, especially in economic and political domains; in such times, leadership matters more because sane people disagree and no algorithm can decide who is right. The leader really has to lead, to make difficult decisions, to take original initiatives, to look for fresh answers. So who, out of the current crop of world leaders, is likely to do something above (or well below) “normal” handling?

  1. Trump. My view is not a secret. He is a corrupt narcissistic conman and a disaster. That does not mean he is wrong about everything and his critics are correct. In some cases his instincts may turn out to be better than those of the bureaucrats and traditional politicians, who maybe fighting the last war with yesterday’s methods (and whose own corruption and blind spots gifted us Trump in the first place). But he is batshit ignorant, he does not want to learn, he is not interested in anything beyond his own welfare. I expect nothing from him. I don’t even think he is seriously thinking about what to do, other than what he can get for his own re-election (see how he has managed to discover that stopping immigration is an anti-viral move at this time). That said, I am aware that there are sane people who like him and I encourage them to tell us more in the comments section 🙂
  2. Xi Jinping. Comrade Xi and his team are a black box to me. Please add your opinion in the comments section. I do think he is a Chinese patriot and I think China has many competent people at high levels of government and they have high standards of professionalism in midlevel people; I expect them to do some things very well, but it is also a dictatorship; dictatorships breed yes men and sycophants. Which brings us back to Xi, who I dont know anything about. So please comment..
  3. Putin. The Czar of all the Russians is clearly an intelligent and capable man. He has been in power for a long time. That breeds overconfidence and limits reality testing. Also, his country has less money than the first two. But the list of outsiders who paid the price for underestimating Russians is a long one; they are an amazing people, regularly screwing up on a massive scale and then regularly performing well beyond expectations.  What do you think it will be this time?
  4. Merkel. She seems highly intelligent and Germany can never be underestimated, but while I expect her to do a competent job, I do not expect unexpected miracles. No big “out of the box” moves. Which may be a good thing.
  5. Modi. His fans love him the way Trumpists love Trump; he is their only hope in an elite that otherwise does not have their pet projects as priority number one. Unlike Trump, he is not a conman, he is probably sincerely trying to make India stronger (whether he is succeeding or not is a separate question). But other than thinking he is sincere, I remain almost completely ignorant about his qualities as an individual. To hear his opponents say it, he is a bigoted non-entity, a “small man”, neither intelligent, nor well informed and certainly not well-intentioned. Supporters have a different view, but I am not sure how much of that is based on any real knowledge of the person, as opposed to his carefully cultivated persona (and their own projections/hopes). As far as i can tell, he is surrounded by yes men, doesn’t take criticism well and keeps his private thoughts to himself (in this at least, he is the polar opposite of Trump). So the bottom line is, I don’t know if he is capable of something above and beyond whatever capabilities the Indian state has collectively. Those abilities may be good enough (or better than nothing), but that does not seem to hold out the hope of any “out of the box” brilliant moves. Conversely, it also means they will not do crazy stuff.
  6. Imran Khan. The less said, the better. I will be happy if his regime turns out to have done about average. I fear they may do worse than average.
  7. Bojo. Baby Churchill may not be Churchill. Lets hear it in the comments.

What else? who is your wallfacer? and why? (I clearly know nothing about the leaders of South Korea, Taiwan or Japan.. feel free to tell us more about them in the comments section)

Just to be clear, I am not talking about “routine” response to the pandemic. That is important and it follows protocols and plans developed by bureaucrats and public health professionals, for better AND for worse. The thought here was that there may be an opportunity here for some nation to go beyond that level (or to significantly sink below it). IF that happens, who is likely to outperform the herd, who is likely to underperform? (e.g. I am guessing that Trump will under-perform, by American standards).  For the purposes of this post, I am thinking more about the economic and political consequences, not so much the caseload and death rate. 

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Browncast Episode 95: Stanford serological study incorrectly underestimates infection fatality rate

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to 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 website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point

This episode is a discussion with a person who was a participant in the Stanford serological study. Basically he talks about the selection bias in the study sample, and the wrong inferences we can make from that.

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Razib Khan corona-casting in the time of coronavirus

I recently talked about coronavirus with our old friend Kushal Mehra. I decided this is probably a time where I can post all the different coronavirus related podcasts I’ve done. I started on February 17th, on my podcast with Spencer Wells. You can see all the podcasts in rough order of date recorded…

It’s not live yet, but I’m going to have an episode on Two for Tea soon (it was recorded before the two below, so I put it here).

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Interview with a Mujahid: Maj Gen Tajammal Hussain Malik

The late Major General Tajammal Hussain Malik had an illustrious military careere (and a very controversial retirement career). In 1965 his unit played an important role in the defense of Lahore (a battle that the Indian army could have won if led by someone like Sagat Singh, but luckily for Pakistan, their GOC was Niranjan Prasad and Lahore was saved) and in 1971 his brigade was the only major force that the Indian army could not break in its lightning campaign in East Pakistan. Gen Tajammal was also a true believer who dreamed of the standard “Pak army true believer” stuff (abolish provinces, impose shariah law, unite the ummah), but with the interesting twist that he hated the crook Zia ul Haq and actually planned to assasinate him on 23rd March 1980 (his second coup plan, more serious than his first, which had been little more than a vague thought that arose when he was denied a well-deserved promotion). By the way, when Islamophobes think of Pakistan they tend to imagine that the median army officer is as fanatical as Gen Tajammal (though they obviously assign a more negative valence to that fanaticism than Islamophiles do), but as the following interview makes clear, his level of belief is not exactly common in the senior ranks of the army.

Anyway, here is an interview that Major Amin conducted with Gen Tajammal in 2001 (a couple of years before Gen Tajammal passed away). I am posting it here both as an important historical document and as a window into the mind of someone who was NOT the median Pakistani army officer, but is probably representative of what we may call the “PMA ideal”: an officer who combined professional competence with a Nasim Hijazi level view of history, a PMA-level view of Pakistani politics and a naive but intensely sincere faith in what can only be described as the Chakwal version of Islam. Comments welcome. (I put Major Amin’s words in red, the rest is Gen Tajammal speaking)

Postscript: I have added the full text of an article Abdul Majeed Abid wrote about General Tajammal in the Pakistani newspaper “The Nation” at the end of this interview.. it add more detail to the picture of Gen Tajammal.

Major General Tajammul Hussain Malik

Agha H Amins Note:—

This is the man who was praised by Indians and they established a commission to study his masterpiece Battle of Hilli .He was praised by his Indian battle opponent in his book “Indian Sword penetrates East Pakistan” as a singularly brave man .

He was miles above pygmies like Zia , Ayub and Musharraf. When we joined the army, we were inspired by his battalion 3rd Baloch’s attempted coup of 23 March 1980 to wipe out despicable clown Zia and his dirty clique !

We had to wait till glorious 17th August 1988 when that plane finally crashed right into the Hindu Shamshan Ghat on Basti Lal Kamal !

One good thing that General Beg did immediately after that glorious crash in 1988 was to restore Tajammuls complete military honours and privileges. Tajammul was serving a sentence of 14 years RI for planning to liquidate all army generals and Zia on 23 March 1980, a brilliant scheme indeed !

Tajammul has thrown light on Zias shallow personality in this interview !

May God Bless His Soul !

Major Agha H Amin (Retired)

Maj Gen (Retd) Tajammal Hussain Malik

A.H Amin

September 2001

Please tell us something about your early life, parents? Continue reading “Interview with a Mujahid: Maj Gen Tajammal Hussain Malik”

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Hindus are the most authentic Indians

As someone who was raised in the United States as a person of brown complexion, I grew up as an “Indian.” This, despite the fact that the last time any of my ancestors were Indian nationals was before 1947. The main reason is that it is really hard to get people in 1980s America to know what “Bangladesh” was. Yes, there was a famine and a concert in the early 1970s, but this was not very well known. Since I had brown skin, and my parents ate spicy food, it seemed plausible to accept that I was Indian and just “go with it”.*

But, a problem with being Indian is that people assumed I was Hindu. I was raised Muslim (though never really a believer myself), so I had no ownership or connection to Hindu identity. Therefore, I would have to explain the religious discrepancy to my interlocutors. It wasn’t a major issue for me. After all, I wasn’t religious myself.

As a grown adult, with children of mixed background who find my exotic antecedents amusing, I have had to reflect more on the relationship between India and its native religious traditions and identities. Hindus often make the accusation to Indian Muslims and Christians that these religion’s holy sites are elsewhere. In contrast, southern Asia is the locus of “Hindu” spirituality. The sacred geography of Islam in Arabia, the Levant, and for Shia and Sufis more broadly across the Near East (with some expansion in other areas for Sufis, though these are secondary). For Christians, the locus is in the Near East and Europe. But I think this focus on Islam and Christianity takes the eyes off the major prize.

What does it mean to be Hindu?** I think that it is clear that Hinduism is a precipitation of the indigenous religious traditions of India, a fusion of numerous strands which are quite distinct. As a non-Hindu it is not my role to adjudicate on what is, or isn’t, Hindu, but it seems quite clear that there is something distinct from Islam and Christianity, and that that distinctiveness is usually due to indigenous aspects (some of which were exported through Buddhism out of India). Al-Biruni saw this. Hindus themselves saw this even if they did not think of themselves as a confessional religion.

This doesn’t mean that non-Hindu Indians and subcontinentals are not distinctively South Asian. Look at a street scene in Pakistan, and it looks more like New Delhi than Tehran. The people, the color, the foods and density. But for various reasons Pakistanis have rooted their identity in Islam, and this makes identification as subcontinental awkward for many Pakistanis, because Hinduism suffuses subcontinental identity. The word Hindu after all originally just meant Indian.

Let’s use an analogy. Imagine that Iran was divided into multiple states. One to the west was mostly Shia. One to the east, inclusive of Tajiks, was mostly Sunni. Finally, in the middle was a numerically preponderant Zoroastrian state with a Muslim minority. I think it would be hard to deny that Zoroastrian Iranians would feel a stronger identification with being Iranian full-stop, because Zoroastrianism is a religion which emerged in an Iranian matrix (Bahai and secular Zoroastrians in the USA give their kids more “Iranian” names usually than even nominal Muslims). In contrast, Muslim Iranians would feel affinities with Arabs and Turks and other groups all around them through fellow-feeling of religious brotherhood.

The point of this post is not to take a particular stance on whether India is or isn’t secular, or should or shouldn’t be secular (whatever that means in India, which is different from the United States). Rather, it’s to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.” Growing up around my parents’ Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi friends, there was always the reality and tension that they had non-subcontinental attachments and identification, in theory. The theory part is made salient by the reality that my parents socialized with Hindu Indians and Bangladeshis (generally Bengali, but not always), but never with Muslims from other regions (the sole exception was when I had an Indonesian best friend, though my parents complained that the Indonesians weren’t very good Muslims anyway so what was the point?). They were foreigners in concrete terms, though there was an abstract brotherhood implied by faith.

Growing up in a family that is Muslim being exposed to the religion at the multiethnic masjid was a cosmopolitan experience. It was a West Asian dominated space. The difference with brown people that are Hindus is that with rare exceptions every religious space has a rootedness in being Indian. To be religious is to reinforce Indianness, subcontinentalness, South Asianness.

The title of the post is pretty explosive. But I am pretty sure none of my descendants that I will live to see (grandkids) will identify as Bangladeshi or subcontinent, so I think perhaps I can be a bit objective and detached. My legacy is going to be in North America, not South Asia. My family’s transition into being Muslim centuries ago opened up a whole new international world. But it also unmoored us from the soil in which we were nourished. Bangladeshi Muslims are still trying to deal with that and work through it.

* To be clear, I never said I was born and raised in India. I would simply say I was born in Bangladesh, which is near, and like, India.

** I can substitute “Dharmic” for Hindu and keep 90% of my argument the same

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Ghaznavids from 1021 to 1186

The following is a set of pictures from Major Amin (a well known military history specialist in Pakistan) that give the flavor of the 200 year run of loot, plunder and internecine warfare that characterized the Ghaznavid dynasty (including alliances with Indian rulers and officials who were willing to work with them). These are just headlines, interested readers will have to look up more detail in other articles and books (or in wikipedia, which is always helpful). There is a volume 1 that I will post when i get some more time.

By the way, this topic reminded me of a little episode from our school days. We had a Christian history teacher (a Mr Lawrence) who had written a kind of guidebook that all of the students used to study 8th grade history. In the chapter on Mahmood Ghaznavi, he had listed the reasons for his attacks on India. The list included items like spreading Islam and putting down miscreants and point number X was “loot and plunder”. Our Islamic studies teacher found out and started a campaign against Mr Lawrence for bringing Islamic heroes into disrepute. This led to the inevitable excision of this chapter from the book, but students had copies that had already been printed; they had to have the offending passages either torn out or crossed out. So it goes..

Continue reading “Ghaznavids from 1021 to 1186”

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Browncast Episode 94: Amey and Amit, Indians, not South Asian

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to 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 website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

This episode is a discussion with regular guests Amey and Amit, two Right(ish) and American(ish) people of Indian origin. Their main beef on this podcast is with terms such as “South Asian”, and it means and doesn’t mean…

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