Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Arif Muhammad Khan


Ray of hope in dark times

SYMBOLISM sometimes becomes more real than the reality it shadows. Observing the dark times Indians are fighting against with a blend of grit and determination, I am reminded of the nattily dressed Omid, the blind man from Bamiyan in Afghanistan whose name spells hope writes Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn


Bamiyan is, of course, famous for its ancient Buddha statues and remembered with sadness for their destruction by the Afghan Taliban. Omid is a waiter at a restaurant that serves food in pitch-dark rooms. That’s the way this popular outfit in Canada does brisk business.

I remember a smiling Omid taking my hand firmly into his hand and nudging two others to line up behind me to form a train with our arms linked. Mobile phones were required to be switched off, not even a light-emitting wristwatch was permitted.

Threading his way in the lightless room through a clutter of furniture and people who could be heard munching but not seen, he led us to a table whose shape we have remained uncertain about. He served food without mixing orders. We groped and searched for cutlery, but decided to eat with fingers as a good option given the situation we were in.

Omid exuded confidence needed in his job as he negotiated the packed room avoiding furniture and people on the way. His worldview was imprinted in the stoic verbal interaction, which gave just a faint hint that he belonged to the Shia minority group of Muslims, vulnerable and targeted in a puritanical, Sunni-dominated Afghanistan.

It is well known that clarity of thought usually sharpens in the dark, a reason why people close their eyes to concentrate. Some of the best literature has come from the pens of people confined to dimly lit prison cells. Gramsci’s prison diaries have remained a perennial source of intellectual insights into a troubled world jousting outside the walls of what became for him an oasis of intellectual burgeoning.

Sitting with eyes shut for a stretch of time, getting momentarily into Omid’s shoes, can perhaps help one see the world with greater clarity than, say, would reading a newspaper or watching TV news do. The mind’s eye can perceive a small gesture of kindness before it becomes an invaluable link in one’s struggle against rampaging injustice and prejudice. A little noticed news item sifted from images of tragic bloodletting could become a truer anchor of support.

Newspapers, for example, highlight images of police brutality and the state’s indulgence of petty bias in the current Indian context, and that would move any of the young comrades to anger or action. Something that Omid would spur one to see with greater clarity though is the man with the janeo, the sacred thread worn across the shoulder by high-caste Hindus. This man stood his ground the other day against a baton-wielding policeman at the Jamia Millia students’ protest In Delhi. “I’m not a Muslim. Here’s my janeo. Hit me too since I’m protesting.” The image trumped the visual chaos of violence, and shored up hope with more self-assuredness.
From Kerala, a report spoke of a Christian church that gave space to Muslims to offer prayers as they both linked up in a march against a communally divisive new law imparting citizenship to everyone except Muslims from three chosen countries.

Images of determined Muslim men throwing a protective ring around a church in Peshawar quickly came to mind. Christians were targeted by Muslim zealots there. And Muslims came out promptly to protect the Christians from the zealots. That’s what rattles the toxic state most. Glimpses of another Gujarat are being woven into the narrative of state-backed communal violence in Uttar Pradesh where police under the command of an ignorant Hindu monk have gone berserk in Muslim localities. Historical reality challenges such easy assumptions. Uttar Pradesh is where the 1857 revolt began with Muslims and Hindus jointly fighting British rule. New videos have emerged of ordinary Hindus in the state vociferously rejecting the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah bias against Muslims.

The most reassuring prospect the mind can see in the new year is the unravelling of the Hindutva plot. And this is not something the youth from college campuses and universities have set into motion. Their role has been pivotal in spurring the opposition to Modi. However, it is comforting for the young men and women (actually in the reverse order) that there has been a political earthquake in Maharashtra, a source of immense confidence whether the students see it or not.

The revolt within the Hindutva alliance in Maharashtra has actually given spine to the students’ movement. It was no small deal for Udhav Thackeray, the head of the notoriously anti-Muslim Shiv Sena, to admit the other day that mixing religion with politics had been a mistake. It’s not an ordinary mea culpa but possibly a tectonic shift in the country’s political matrix.

The fact is that the prime minister and his home minister are riding a tiger. They will throw anything at the opposition that would help thwart the street anger. The divisive citizenship law they ushered and the damaging citizen’s register they seem to be stepping back from tactically following intense pressure on the streets were both aimed at the state of West Bengal.

Suppose Modi in his desperation to win at any cost decides to dismiss Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government to set the stage to capture power in the state in 2021. Nothing is impossible after what he did with Maharashtra, where he tried to sneak in his own chief minister in a pre-dawn coup of sorts. Maharashtra stalled Modi and shored up the opposition. A critical historical fact is that the Marathas are the only cohesive force after the Mughals and before the British to have come within a whisker of ruling India. They today comprise the core of the Indian state apparatus, straddling every wing of it, and, therefore, are not to be trifled with. This much again one can say with eyes closed.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Michael Sandel speaks: What Money can't buy

Sex sells but should it?


The body market


The walrus quota


Supply shock


The golden door


The death pool

Robert Skidelsky speaks: How and how not to do economics

What is economics about?


Unlimited wants limited resources


Economic growth


Is economics a science?


Models and laws


Psychology and economics


Sociology and economics

Economics and power


History of economic thought


Economic history


Ethics and economics



Saturday, 21 December 2019

Ha Joon Chang speaks: Economics for the people



Lecture 1.1 - The Nature of Economics


Lecture 2 - What is wrong with Globalisation?

Lecture 1.2 - Why all economics is political

Lecture 7 - Inequality - What is it and why does it matter

Lecture 9 - The role of the state


Lecture 5 - Why are some countries rich and others poor?

Lecture 8 - Understanding Production

Lecture 10 - Finance and financial crises


Lecture 3 - Conceptualising the individual


Lecture 12 - Industrial policy


Lecture 4 - Can economics save the planet?



Lecture 6 - Will robots take your job?



Lecture 11 - Can economics save the planet?


Economic development



Friday, 20 December 2019

Maybe Corbyn was right and Labour ‘won the argument’ after all?

The Conservatives have not had transformative ideas since Thatcher in the 1980s wtites JOHN MCTERNAN in The FT

Jeremy Corbyn has been much mocked for his claim that the Labour party “won the argument” in the UK general election. A defeat of historic proportions — Labour’s worst result since 1935 — would seem to prove otherwise. But what if Mr Corbyn wasn’t wrong? What if Labour has, in his words, “rewritten the terms of political debate”? 

Consider the evidence. Just this week Boris Johnson’s newly elected government restored bursaries to student nurses and vowed to put into law its commitment to increased funding for the National Health Service. The concession on nursing is a significant reversal of direction, but is being packaged with other policies as an acknowledgment of the new electorate that the Conservatives now represent. 

Winning seats that were formerly solidly Labour will shift the balance within the parliamentary Conservative party. New Tory MPs will find that many Labour arguments were driven more by place than by ideology. 

Yet something deeper is going on. From corporate capitalism to housing, from climate change to transport, Labour’s ideas are framing the decisions the new government is making. 

Take business. A common attack on Mr Corbyn is that he is “anti-business” — and there is plenty of evidence for that in the interventionist manifesto on which he stood. Yet how does one describe the reported comments of Mr Johnson at a diplomatic gathering when he was foreign secretary? “Fuck business” may be of a piece with Michael Gove’s quip that people “have had enough of experts”, but it is not far from the Corbynite narrative.  

Delegitimising business has traditionally been a fringe far-left position. It is now bipartisan. Think back to the general election campaign. Did either party reflect in their rhetoric or policies the fact that only 16 per cent of people in the UK work in the public sector? When both parties campaign as though the public sector is the norm and the benchmark, who speaks for competitive markets? 

Mr Johnson’s promise to intervene, to buy British and to use state aid to protect UK industries was interpreted as another example of parking his tanks on Labour’s lawn. But at what point does the mask actually become the face? When does Michael Heseltine-style intervention before breakfast, lunch and dinner become Bennite control over the commanding heights of the economy. As we learnt to our cost in the 1970s, government can’t pick winners but losers can sure pick governments. 

This is not a new process. It started with Mr Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, and became a dance as formal as a gavotte. Labour would propose a policy. The Tory government would denounce it as extreme. The tabloid press would pile in. Then the government would adopt it after all. It happened with energy price caps. And it happened with the living wage. 

The problem for the Tories is that they have not had ideologically transformative ideas for public policy since Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. The trifecta of right to buy, privatisation and ending union power were fundamental in impact and irreversible. And, in truth, those ideas were developed in the 1970s and set out in policy documents in opposition. 

This is not to say there haven’t been other Tory-initiated policies that have been a lasting success. But they’ve all been bipartisan. There is a continuity between Norman Fowler, Peter Lilley and, say, Alistair Darling and John Hutton on welfare. The same continuity is discernible between Kenneth Baker and Andrew Adonis on education, Kenneth Clarke and Alan Milburn on health. 

The core of political leadership is having a strong point of view — a question that you ask in every situation. For Thatcher’s policy unit it used to be: “Is there a more market-based solution to this problem?” And there always was. To Mr Corbyn’s Labour party it was: “Is there a way this policy can help build a socialist economy?” And there always was. 

The government was elected on the promise of fulfilling a process — “getting Brexit done” — rather than answering a question. It has not formulated the challenge about the future to which it is the only answer. 

The worst of the Conservative attempt to devise an agenda aimed at working people was shown in an infographic after a recent budget in which they boasted about cutting tax on beer and bingo. That one-dimensional vision of working-class needs and desires has been ditched, thankfully. But the void has to be filled — and that is where Labour policies present themselves. 

When Tory plans for new council house building are announced or the remake of rail franchising begins, it will all be the hand of Mr Corbyn. The Conservative party won the election, but they are far from winning the battle of ideas.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Ahoy, Muziris: Revisiting Kerala port’s illustrious past

Written by Vishnu Varma in The Indian Express
Muziris, Kottapuram, Kerala kings and queens, kerala kingdom, paliam family, paliam family palace, Kerala fort, Kerala news, indian express
The view from the boat jetty at Kottapuram near Kodungallur. A water-taxi for tourists can be seen docked to the jetty. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
On a recent morning, I stood at the boat jetty at Kottapuram on the outskirts of Kodungallur town in central Kerala gazing at the dark green waters of the Periyar that flowed listlessly before me. A couple of air-conditioned water taxis, painted in bright colours, glistened in the sun as they stood docked to the jetty, ready to spring to life any second. In the far distance, a concrete bridge, on which cars, buses and trucks could be seen scurrying like ants, connected two islands.
The serene setting that day, however, betrayed a topography that was wildly different more than three centuries ago. At and around the spot where I stood, it’s believed that a vibrant urban port by the name of Muziris, or Muciri, used to exist, frequented by merchants who sailed from far-off lands such as Greece, Rome, Persia, Arabia and China in search for spices and semi-precious stones.
 A view of the boat jetty at Chendamangalam near Paravur. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
Historical accounts of those including Pliny and early Sangam literature have indicated that Muziris was a thriving trading centre — an important halt on the Spice Route and a gateway for those fleeing persecuted lands. It is said that the port remained one of the busiest on the Malabar coast for a long time until a cataclysmic event, perhaps a cyclone, in 1341 sunk the port bringing irreversible changes to the geography of the region, particularly the Periyar river. The kings and queens that ruled over Kerala in subsequent years have been unsuccessful in building ports and harbours that matched the elegance and grandeur of Muziris.
Now, centuries later, an ambitious tourism-conservation project under the aegis of the Kerala government is attempting to revisit Muziris’ illustrious past and the cultural and religious amity it was once home to. The Muziris Heritage Project is the brainchild of finance minister TM Thomas Isaac, who grew up in the region around Kodungallur (erstwhile Cranganore), and aims to safeguard the cultural assets of a bygone era of the region including temples, synagogues, churches, mosques, museums, palaces and fort ruins. In the last decade, several of such sites have been brought back to life and assembled as part of curated tours for visitors.
Accompanied by a guide, I set off on a journey that transcends across different periods of time and revisits important junctures in the history of Kerala. While there are different travel options for visitors vis-a-vis land and water, I took the latter, settling myself into a water-taxi.
The water-taxi started off by gently gliding through the waters, picking up speed in the middle as it cruised past Chinese fishing nets and men in wooden canoes. The journey offers visitors a beautiful sketch of the quintessential Kerala countryside centered around fishing. On one side, caged fish farming is being practiced with local varieties such as pearl spot, bluefin trevally and red snapper. Houses, on either banks, are painted in bright colours. A little ahead, fishing boats of varying sizes are docked. These are the ones that go to sea and their livery give a sense of which state they belong to.
“Blue is for the ones registered in Kerala, green for Tamil Nadu and red for Karnataka,” our boat captain informs us. The bigger boats go out to sea for two weeks at a time while the smaller ones come back after an overnight journey. There’s also a smattering of ice processing plants and boat-building and repairing units on both sides of the river: an entire industry built upon fishing. A little ahead, the boat captain slows down, pointing to the Chinese fishing nets which are now scattered across the expanse river. The channels around the nets are narrow and he has to be extremely careful to guide the boat through them without crashing against the nets. Soon we leave the main waterway to turn into a much smaller canal that brings us to our first stop: the Paravur jetty and the adjoining Paravur synagogue.

An ode to Kerala’s Jewish history

The tolerant and benevolent nature of the Chera kings of erstwhile Cranganore is reflected heavily in the multi-ethnic society consisting of Jews, Christians and Muslims alongside Hindus in those times. The early Jewish settlers, whose roots purportedly date back to the time of King Solomon, were rewarded with land by the Chera kings to establish synagogues and the one at Paravur is Kerala’s oldest one.
Muziris, Kottapuram, Kerala kings and queens, kerala kingdom, paliam family, paliam family palace, Kerala fort, Kerala news, indian express Inside the courtyard of the synagogue at Paravur, the oldest in Kerala. It fell into disrepair in the early 50s after the last of the Jews left Indian shores for Israel. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
A two-minute walk from the Paravur jetty, the synagogue here is Kerala’s oldest and one of the few surviving structures. Built in 1615, the building is a fascinating confluence of Jewish traditions and Kerala style of architecture. The presence of a ‘padippura’ (gateway) and a large courtyard are testament to that. “A small door has been carved out of a bigger gate so that those entering would have to bow their heads down signifying respect to God and the place of worship,” our guide Vipin explains.
Its roof crafted out of teak wood and the structure resting on giant pillars, the Jewish temple is unique for its separate stairway for women that leads them directly to the upper gallery. The chandeliers and other decorative pieces have long been stolen, but extensive restorative works have been carried out inside. The temple had fallen into disrepair in the early 50s when the last of the Jews left the region for Israel as part of Aliyah.
 A stone that was used to mark the border of the Kochi-Travancore kingdoms before independence in Kerala. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
Osnat Kalati, who had flown down from Israel to visit the synagogue that was once a place of worship for her parents, said it was a surreal feeling to come back to her roots. “My parents were born here and lived here until 1954. Three of my siblings were born here as well, but I was conceived in Israel,” she said.

The birthplace of Sahodaran Ayyappan

We get back to the boat to sail to our next stop, the birthplace of social reformer and thinker Sahodaran Ayyappan. This is an important halt in examining the state’s 19th century renaissance movements that brought in progressive social reforms and, in particular, paying obeisance to a man who ripped apart caste inequalities with his actions.
Ayyappan was born in August 1989 into an Ezhava (OBC) family of Ayurvedic physicians in Cherai near Kochi. Spurred by his association with eminent thinkers like Sree Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan, Ayyappan was a vocal opponent of the caste system and laid the foundation for the ‘Sahodara Sangham’ (Brotherhood Association). In 1917, he proposed the idea of ‘misrabhojanam’ (a feast where people of all castes dine together), a revolutionary idea at that time, and conducted it at the home of his nephew. While the upper castes and even his own community of Ezhavas vociferously attacked him for dining with the ‘untouchables’, it earned him the moniker of Sahodaran Ayyappan (Brother Ayyappan) and fired of social equality into the minds of the masses.
Muziris, Kottapuram, Kerala kings and queens, kerala kingdom, paliam family, paliam family palace, Kerala fort, Kerala news, indian express The thatched hut where Kerala’s leading social reformer and anti-caste hero Sahodaran Ayyappan was born. A museum and library in his memory stands adjoining the hut. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
A small thatched hut, renovated and rebuilt over time, where Ayyappan was born, stands as a testimony to his position in the pantheon of Kerala’s social reformers. The hut is a ‘moonu-kettu’ (three-faced) as Ezhavas in those times were not allowed to build houses bigger than that. A sculpture stands on one side of the hut, similar to The Last Supper, showing a bunch of people belonging to different castes taking part in the ‘misrabhojanam’. There’s also a digital library and facilities for a writers’ residency for those aspiring to study and research the life of Ayyappan.

Cranganore’s military prowess

By the time we leave Ayyappan’s museum, the sun is directly over us, forcing us to break for lunch. The boat glides towards Munambam, one of Kochi’s major harbours, and the mouth of the Arabian Sea where the waves are rough before taking a turn back toward the Kottappuram jetty where we started off. If one is lucky, dolphins can be seen leaping through the waters, our guide informs us.
 One of the restaurants at the Kottapuram jetty where tourists can gorge on sumptuous Kerala cuisine. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
The restaurants, particularly The Portuguese, beside the Kottappuram jetty, offer authentic local Kerala cuisine for tourists. After a sumptuous meal of roti with tawa-fried pearl spot fish and bird’s eye chilli chicken washed down with some pomegranate juice, we set off for the third stop of the tour — the remains of what was once a sturdy and magnificent military fortress.
Muziris, Kottapuram, Kerala kings and queens, kerala kingdom, paliam family, paliam family palace, Kerala fort, Kerala news, indian express The excavated remains of the once-military fortress of Kottapuram which was used by the Portuguese and the Dutch before it was transferred into the Travancore Royal Family. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
The Kottappuram fort, standing at the mouth of the Periyar, was built by the Portuguese in 1523 before it was captured by the Dutch, dismantled and rebuilt in 1663. The fort, that offered breathtaking views of the river and the sea beyond, was a precious asset for colonial powers and regional kingdoms to monitor enemy ships.
“The fort once comprised of six small churches, a cathedral, military camps, granaries and workshops over a 10.5 acre land. According to records, the fort was purchased by the Travancore kings in 1789 from the Dutch at an estimated sum of Rs three lakhs. But later, during Tipu Sultan’s conquest, the fort, under the leadership of an English officer, was said to have been emptied and demolished completely to prevent the former’s advance,” said Lalji, a staff of the state archeological department which maintains the site.
Muziris, Kottapuram, Kerala kings and queens, kerala kingdom, paliam family, paliam family palace, Kerala fort, Kerala news, indian express Wide windows with glass shutters at the Paliam palace, a marker of Dutch architecture. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
Parts of the fort have been dug out in recent excavations of the archeological department, offering fascinating glimpses into the life of the people of the bygone era. Pearls, coins, plates, canon parts, iron and glass objects were also dug out. In a rare and significant finding in 2010, remains of a skeleton dating back to 1540-1550 were also uncovered and was subsequently stored in a box at the site. “It was found to be that of a man below the age of 20. His left hand was missing,” Lalji added.

The feudal chieftains of Paliam

The final destination of our journey ends at the imposing household-turned-museum of the Paliath family, who ruled as the hereditary prime ministers of the kingdom of Cochin between the 17th and 19th centuries and second only to the Maharaja. A five-minute walk from the jetty at Chendamangalam, located on a rivulet of the Periyar, the Paliam ‘nalukettu’ (four-faced household) and the Paliam Kovilakam have been transformed into museums under the heritage project and offer a snapshot of the once-grand lives of the members of the feudal family.
Muziris, Kottapuram, Kerala kings and queens, kerala kingdom, paliam family, paliam family palace, Kerala fort, Kerala news, indian express The centuries-old household of the Paliam family, the male members of which were designated as the prime ministers of the Cochin kingdom. Only female members of the family and children were allowed inside this house. (Express Photo: Vishnu Varma)
Chendamangalam was said to be a wasteland before the Paliath family arrived from the Malabar. With their arrival, development began trickling in. The origins of the stone-work, gold-work and handloom industries in Chendamangalam today are all rooted to the family.
It has also played a pivotal role in the battles that the Cochin kingdom fought with colonial powers and with other local rival armies. During the conquest of Hyder Ali in 1776, the then chief of the family was able to eke out a treaty between him and the Cochin king that kept truce between the two powers.
The meteoric rise of the family, after being endowed with land grants and the title of prime-ministership by the king of Cochin, led to the popular adage ‘kochiyil pathi paliyam’ (Paliyam owns half of Kochi). While the male members of the family, including the head, resided in a two-storey official residence which was gifted by the Dutch, the female members stayed in a separate adjoining household. Both of these structures are fascinating architectural wonders, crafted out of the finest teak wood and replete with luxurious facilities.
“The household, restricted to women and children of the family, is about 234 years old. Each wing of the house has specific uses. For example, the east wing is primarily used for functions such as births, marriages and even deaths. In the west wing, we can see a locker which contained all the valuables. Underneath the locker, it’s said that a tunnel begins, leading up to Kottayil Kovilakom, a nearby household,” Rakhi, a guide, explains.
Today, the museums at Paliam reflect and celebrate local history, folklore and architecture of the region. Officials of the heritage project say there’s enough historical material in the Chendamangalam area alone to set up at least 29 museums dealing with religious, cultural and social aspects of the people and the feudal leaders that lived through the ages.
As the evening sun cast its glow on the village and the surrounding islets of the Periyar, I wrapped up my tour, with the sensation of having travelled through different time periods in a matter of hours. A journey through time indeed.

Constitution, Citizenship & Free Thought | ഭരണഘടന, പൗരത്വം, സ്വാതന്ത്രചിന്ത


Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Cash for Violence in Kashmir and recent developments on Kashmir Issue - Hamid Bashani


The ethics of walking in cricket: from Socrates to Nietzsche

Anthony McGowan in The Guardian

It has been a frustrating season. You’ve managed a scratchy 30, a couple of awkward teens and more ducks than a farmyard pond in a children’s picture book. Thoughts of retirement float into your mind, along with the existential terror of what might take the place of these long days on a green field under greying skies. Golf? God, no.

Then, finally, it seems like you’re in. Blue sky, no swing, flat track, friendly bowlers. You’ve done the hard work, wafting and missing outside off, surviving the early run-out opportunity. You’re starting to think the new socks might be just the talisman you needed. You allow yourself the luxury of hope. Along comes an innocuous delivery down the leg side. You flick at it, hoping for a glanced boundary, expecting the airy miss. 

And then you feel it. A barely perceptible touch. Almost like the little electric tingle you get from a tooth that will soon need root canal work. The bowler begins to go up but has a change of heart. Was there really a noise? He decides to keep on the umpire’s side for now, saving one in the bank for the nip-backer that might just clip leg. Then he’ll give his lungs a workout. The young keeper was a little more convinced but stifled his shout when he saw the bowler’s lack of conviction. But the keeper is suspicious. He looks at you as if to say: “Did you? I think you might have…”

What do you do? Had you stroked your way to a nice 60, you might well nod, stick your bat under your arm and walk off, garnering goodwill and praise from all. But it’s not been that kind of season. You keep your head down and you ponder. I’m not sure any other sport has anything quite like this. There are plenty of opportunities for cheating in other sports and you can choose to reject them. Nudging your ball so it lies a little easier in the rough. Feigning assassination in the 18-yard box to win a penalty, then adding a flamboyant roll and clutching the face for the bonus of a sending-off. Calling “out” when your opponent’s backhand hits the line.

But walking is different. It isn’t cheating to stand your ground. There is nothing in the laws of cricket that says you can’t wait for the umpire to make a decision. But there are moral aspects to this case. The fact that the laws are silent on walking means it is – almost uniquely in sport – a purely moral issue. One for the philosophers, rather than the third umpire.

Let us imagine that the batter has felt that sickening click. He wants to do the right thing and is in a meditative, philosophical frame of mind. So he quickly reviews the history of Western moral philosophy to find some guidance from the greatest minds to have pondered the question of right and wrong.


Socrates

Ethics really gets going with Socrates, who changed the central question of philosophy from “what kind of stuff is there?” to “how should I live?”. His method was simple. He would find a person who claimed to be an expert in some area of ethical concern – the nature of, say, courage or piety or justice – and he would show them that everything they knew was wrong. But Socrates never actually answers the question of how we should live. The dialogues always end in a vaguely unsatisfactory way – not so much a hard-fought draw as match abandoned due to fog.




Ten commandments every club cricketer should follow


But a few linked ethical principles emerge. The first is that the pursuit of virtue is the only worthwhile goal in life. The second is that virtue is the only real good. Other things that may appear good – wealth, power, beauty – are illusory and will never bring happiness. Living a virtuous life is the only path to happiness. And the third is that every person does, in fact, want to be good. Only ignorance stands in our way.

Would Socrates have walked? The manner of his death tells us much. When he was put on trial for denying the gods and corrupting the young, he was found guilty and condemned to death. Although his friends offered to spirit him away, Socrates argued that it was only right for him to obey the laws of his city. He calmly took the hemlock and shuffled off to the great pavilion in the sky. So we can be sure that he would never question the umpire’s decision.

He would have walked. To do otherwise, to stay at the wicket to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of not being out, would be to betray his life’s work.


Plato

Socrates never gave a full account of what virtue actually is. That was left to his pupil, Plato. For Plato the world we perceive around us is an insubstantial shadow realm, a pale reflection or copy of the “real” world. This real world is made up of “ideas” or “forms” that act as a kind of template for the stuff we find around us in our world. As well as the original forms of material things such as triangles and beds, more exalted concepts such as beauty, virtue and justice also live in the world of the forms.

How do we know every vaguely triangular thing is a triangle, or that a blue object is really blue? It’s because, says Plato, we have the ideas of a perfect triangle and perfect blueness already in our minds, and we use this template to judge whether or not these shapes before us are blue triangles. The same applies to virtue. If we want to judge any act – for example, walking when we’ve nicked off – we simply compare it to the idea of virtue in our minds. The ideas of triangle and blue are already in our mind because, argues Plato, before we were born our soul lived in that world of the perfect forms and has a vague memory of what it knew there.

This last part is clearly nuts, but many philosophers still say ideas or forms do exist separately from their material embodiments, and that goodness or virtue must be one of these entities, and any act of virtue is such because it in some way copies or partakes in that form. Does this help us to decide whether or not to trudge back to the pavilion? The problem is that we still don’t know what this vague cloud of goodness is and how precisely it applies to our current dilemma.

In his most famous dialogue, The Republic, Plato argues that injustice comes when the separate sections of the soul or the state get ideas above their station – your opening bowler trying to convince the skipper that he’s actually a perfect fit for the No 4 berth. There are three parts to the state: the rulers, warriors and workers (or skipper, batters and bowlers). The subdivisions of the soul are: the rational part, which uses reason to guide our action; the appetitive, which keeps us alive by driving us to eat and drink; and the spirited, which gives us courage and urges us on towards honour and victory.

But how does this theory of justice apply to our dilemma? It’s hard to know. And – cards on the table here – although Plato is perhaps the most revered of all philosophers, I think he’s wrong on almost every important issue. But in general terms he, like Socrates, believed we should follow the laws of our particular state – anything else leads to chaos. I think Plato would have walked. However, he was also opposed to most forms of entertainment. He would have banned poetry, plays and any kind of music other than military marches, so he would probably have done away with cricket altogether. Wanker. 


The Cynics

The word “cynic” – which derives from the Greek term for “dog-like” – has come to mean someone who “disbelieves in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms.” It’s not an attractive picture: the thin-lipped misanthrope, mocking good intentions, forever pulling away the mask of virtue to reveal the hypocrite behind. Perhaps you’ve played with a Cynic, witnessed that sneer of cold contempt, the assumption of superiority, the presumption that all decency and honour are merely a sham.

The Cynics lived simply, disdaining the trappings of wealth and worldly success, dressing in rags, sleeping rough, railing against the greed and materialism of the affluent. No convention was sacrosanct; no moral or religious tradition left unmocked. They believed in doing openly those things most of us reserve for the privacy of the bedroom or bathroom. But Cynicism was, above all, a creed devoted to achieving a virtuous life and their critique was a necessary, if destructive, first step to enlightenment.

What would the Cynics have said about walking? I’m afraid that they would have regarded the game itself as a ludicrous artifice. Diogenes (412-323 BC), the founder of the group, would have marched out to the wicket and defecated on the pitch, just short of a good length. No help there.


The Epicureans

These are one of the more misunderstood groups of Ancient philosophers. “Epicurean” has come to mean something similar to “hedonist” – someone who lives purely for pleasure. There’s something in that – the group’s leader, Epicurus (341-270 BC), did argue that the ultimate good is pleasure (as opposed to virtue, favoured by rival Platonists and Stoics).

However, it wasn’t the crude pleasures of the flesh he had in mind, but instead calm contemplation and philosophical speculation. And his main concern wasn’t with actively finding physical delights but with eradicating things that cause us mental or physical pain. Retreat from the hurly burly, find a quiet garden to cultivate. Fend off hunger by all means, but live modestly and keep your desires in line with your ability to achieve them.

Epicurus would have been most concerned about the mental consequences of not walking – the guilt, the anxiety, the fear of a confrontation with that angry bowler after the game. He probably would have walked and advised you to do the same.





The Cyrenaics

There was one group of ancient philosophers who were straightforwardly hedonistic. The Cyrenaic school, founded by Aristippus (435–356 BC), believed that the one thing you could know for certain was whether you were enjoying pleasure or suffering pain. The only good or virtuous things are pleasant sensations. The only bad things are unpleasant sensations. The past is gone forever and the future is unknowable. So live for this moment, eat, drink, and be as merry as you can. Frequent the pub and the bawdy house.

Aristippus and the Cyrenaics would say do not walk. Enjoy your time out there. Do anything you can to maximise the pleasure of batting. Lie, cheat, whatever you like. Because there is nothing else – no greater goods, no higher power.


The Sceptics

The Sceptics, a school that began with Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BC), maintained that knowledge was impossible. Our senses are fallible and our intellect can lead us astray. For any issue, you can argue equally persuasively on both sides. Therefore the only rational option is to withhold your judgment. Decide nothing. Did you edge the ball? Impossible to say. To walk would mean that you knew that you touched it. You can’t know that, or anything else for that matter. So don’t walk.


The Stoics

The Stoics believed that everything is determined by an all-knowing, all-powerful god-like entity. Nothing happens by chance and nothing can be changed by human will. We are like dogs tied to a cart rolling uncontrollably down a hill. A foolish dog will whine and pull and skid and writhe; a clever dog will understand that the cart cannot be resisted and trot along beside it. Knowledge and wisdom can only help us understand the direction that fate is taking us and to conform our will to that outcome.

The Stoic virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – are designed to help us endure the suffering that is inevitable in life. But we should take comfort from the fact that the ultimate destination is a good one. These are immensely useful thoughts for cricketers. Our sporting lives are full of woe. Yet we must, somehow, endure.

And walking? The Stoic’s belief that the universe is a well ordered place, guided in the right direction by a benign god, means they trust in fate. If the umpire hasn’t given it, that must be the right thing. To interfere would be like the dog resisting the pull of the cart. The Stoic does not walk.


Aristotle

Aristotle (384-322 BC) argued that every virtue is at the midpoint between two extremes represented by vices. For example, the virtue of courage is at the midpoint between the vices of recklessness and cowardice. Think of the quaking batsman backing away to square leg as one extreme, and the fool who goes out without wearing a box as the other. Or take generosity, which is at the midpoint between meanness and showy prodigality. Picture the skulking miser who never gets his round in after the game, and the show-off who flashes his Amex card and buys drinks for the whole bar. And then the modest fellow who buys a modest round for his mates and, in the rare event of a fifty, gets his jug in uncomplainingly.

Applied to walking, I’d suggest that the two extremes are the player who will stand his ground even when given out and the player who is fairly sure he has missed it but walks to be on the safe side. Aristotle would have walked only if he was pretty sure the umpire was about to give him anyway. Otherwise I think he’d stay.

As evidence, we can look at what happened when he, like Socrates, was threatened with prosecution for impiety. Rather than stay and take his punishment, Aristotle lifted up his skirts and fled. He’s a runner, not a walker.


Kant

We’re leaping forward a couple of thousand years to the 18th century and the greatest of all philosophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant strove to find a moral principle that any rational person would agree on. He hits on his “categorical imperative”, a rule that says: “Act always in such a way that your action could become a universal law.”

The example he gives is breaking a contract. If you agree to a contract and then break it, the categorical imperative asks that you imagine a world where it was a law of nature that all contracts were broken. In that world, nobody would ever enter into a contract and the whole institution of contracts would collapse. Your goal – to benefit by breaking your contract – would end in failure.

Or take lying. Lying is a useful strategy only in a world in which most people tell the truth. If everyone always lied, there would be no point in your lies. The categorical imperative says your actions must be checked against the following principle: what would happen if everyone did what you do? Even if lying were to bring some great benefit to lots of other people, you shouldn’t do it.

At this point people always come up with a counter example that makes the categorical imperative sound absurd. And the example they give is nearly always the mad axe murderer who knocks on their door and asks for the whereabouts of their intended victim, your best friend. The categorical imperative informs us that we must never lie and yet who could in conscience reveal the hiding place?

Rather beautifully, Kant anticipates this precise example and his answer helps to explain why he thought you cannot base a moral system on looking at the consequences of your actions. The trouble with consequences is that they are, by definition, in the future, and the future is unpredictable. You might lie to the axeman, telling him that your friend isn’t at home when you know he is. But, seeing the axeman at the door, the friend might already have slipped out the back. And now the axeman encounters him in the street.

In Kant’s view you can never be held responsible for the consequences of telling the truth, though you are responsible for the bad consequences of a lie. And there’s always the option of simply refusing to answer the axeman’s question or slamming the door in his face and calling the police. Refusing to walk could be seen as a type of lying. And lying breaks categorical imperative, so you have to walk.

But Kant gives another formulation to the categorical imperative: “Act always in such a way that you treat other people as an end in themselves, and not as a means to an end”. We should not view our fellow cricketers as the means to our own pleasure. They also have hopes, dreams and fears. You owe them the truth. Walk.


Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is another type of hedonism. It declares that the only good is happiness and that happiness is a measure of the pleasure and pain we feel. The goal of life should be to maximise pleasure and minimise pain in any society.

Now, there are problems here. What counts as pleasure? Is there a hierarchy in which some pleasures (such as cricket) get more points than others (such as golf)? How do we measure these pleasures? Can we impose our judgments on others? Can we force people to be happy in accordance with our own conceptions of happiness?

Despite these problems, utilitarianism is the best hope we have for finding a genuinely rational way to think about morality. In any given situation we have a duty to ponder seriously on the likely consequences and to do our best to minimise harm and promote wellbeing. One possible advantage of Kant’s system is that we don’t have to think: we just apply the rule that says never lie. With utilitarianism, we have to continually assess the outcomes of our actions.

I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. To be a moral person we must constantly engage with these problems. And so the utilitarian would, on feeling that edge, quickly assess various factors: the state of the game, the nature of the opposition, their own mental condition, as well as that of the other 21 players. And he or she will then decide which choice will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

It’s not entirely straightforward but, there is something that may help in the decision-making process. As someone who has batted and bowled, I can confirm that the pain of being out is greater than the pleasure of taking a wicket. So, in most circumstances, the utilitarian does not walk.


Nietzsche

Anyone who thinks about morality these days does so in the shadow of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche argued with great force and panache that morality is always a matter of power, a way of asserting your will. What is right is what those in charge, or those who want to be in charge, say to preserve or enhance their own position in society. So morality, specifically Christian morality – all that talk about gentleness and cheek-turning – was a weapon forged by slaves and cowards and weaklings to combat the natural aristocracy of the bold and strong.

Nietzsche says we all have to forge our own morality. In this view there is nothing to stop the strong and the brave trampling over the weak and the dim. Nietzsche would not have walked.

So where does all this leave our poor batter, still suspended in that moment of judgment? I favour the utilitarians, but philosophy isn’t like maths or physics. The answers are always provisional. The argument never concludes. It’s a timeless Test. But to live a fully human life, a life that engages with the complexity and difficulty of our moral universe, you need to think through the options. So make a choice. What are you – Platonist? Cynic? Sceptic? Stoic? Aristotelian? Kantian? Utilitarian? Nietzschean? Come to think of it, those sound like a perfect set of franchise names for a new cricket tournament…

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

How native English speakers can stop confusing everyone else

Michael Skapinker in The FT 

From 1999 until 2003, the UK’s Channel 4 screened an Emmy award-winning female-led comedy series called Smack the Pony. In one sketch a woman called Jackie O’Farrell (played by Doon Mackichan) marches into an adult education centre somewhere in England, sits down and tries to register for a course in speaking English as a foreign language. 


But you already speak English, the puzzled course organiser (played by Sally Phillips) says. “I only speak English English,” Jackie replies. “I don’t know how to speak it as a foreign language.” She travels a lot, she says. “Foreign people can’t understand a word I’m saying.” 

Hilarious, except that Jackie was ahead of her time. It is now widely recognised that many people don’t understand what native English speakers are saying. Widely recognised by non-native English speakers that is. The Brits, Americans, Australians and others who have been speaking English all their lives are largely oblivious to the incomprehension they leave behind at conferences, business meetings and on conference calls. 

“The CEO gave me the most almighty bollocking,” I heard a British speaker tell a conference in Berlin a few years back. “I spent time at London Business School cutting my teeth,” I heard another Brit tell a room full of Dutch, French and German speakers in Amsterdam this year. “From the horse’s mouth,” yet another UK speaker proclaimed to a conference I went to in Dubai last month. 

I don’t know what the audiences made of all this. A 2015 survey of a Nato working group tactfully observed that “native speakers of English are not always good at adjusting their English to the manner and level that is used”. 

Regular readers of this column know that I have been exercised by native English speaker ignorance on this issue for years. There are thousands of courses, books and videos on how to be a better communicator, but almost nothing on how native speakers should speak English to foreigners, largely because, like the Smack the Pony course organiser, most native anglophones don’t realise they have a problem. 

So I was pleased to be sent a pocket book (where I found the Nato study) called Is That Clear: Effective Communications in a Multilingual World by Zanne Gaynor and Kathryn Alevizos, two teachers of business English. They describe the book as “easy-to-follow tips for adapting your English”. 

As well as telling native speakers to slow down when they speak to international audiences, Gaynor and Alevizos have advice on two issues I have addressed before: avoiding idiomatic language and being careful with the use of phrasal verbs — a verb plus a preposition — which many non-native speakers find hard to understand. 

Different prepositions can change the verb’s meaning — break in, break up, break down. The authors also point out that the same phrasal verb can have different meanings: put someone down, put down a deposit, put down the cat, put the baby down. 

They add other pieces of advice. I have written about the problems that colloquial language can cause non-native speakers: “shall we crack on then?” But the authors point to the confusion that polite language can use too — “to be honest, I was a bit upset he arrived so late” sounds convoluted to a non-native speaker. “I was angry he was late” is clearer. 

Another issue is the phrasing of questions. “You don’t have time for a quick chat, do you?” is tough for a non-native speaker because it starts with a negative. “Do you have time for a chat?” is clearer. 

The authors advise cutting down on “filler words” such as “as it were”, “actually” and “basically” because they cloud the central message. I am not sure about this. I find filler words helpful when I hear them used in other languages, such as finalement in French. Not only do they slow the speaker down; having heard them often I can also use them myself when I speak, which gives me more time to think of what to say next. 

But the authors do have sound advice on slides. Don’t fill slides with words. Native speakers find them hard enough to read; second language speakers find them even harder. But do put numbers on slides, they say. Numbers can be hard to understand in your second language and seeing the figures on a slide makes it easier.

Barrister Hamid Bashani realistic analysis of Muslim world


Sunday, 1 December 2019

America is not the land of the free but one of monopolies so predatory they imperil the nation

Its growing economic crisis is in contrast to a thriving and newly innovative Europe writes Will Hutton in The Guardian


  
Illustration by Dom McKenzie


Tomorrow, President Trump arrives in London for the annual Nato summit. Despite the boasting and the trappings of superpower status, he is an emissary from a country whose economy and society are in increasing difficulty, and whose global leadership is under challenge not just from the usual suspect, China, but from Europe. With the unerring capacity to be wrong that defines the Brexit right, Britain is about to decouple itself from a continental economy beginning to get things right, and hook up with one that is palpably beginning to fail.

This is not the conventional wisdom. The EU is sclerotic, undynamic, stifled by quasi-socialist red tape, and hostile to insurgent startups. It is so degenerate it cannot even defend itself – as Trump will undoubtedly remind its leaders over the next two days. The US is the mirror opposite. A free trade agreement post 31 January with the US is the number one strategic policy aim for Brexit Britain – unshackling the UK from the declining old, and embracing the English-speaking, dynamic new. Best be nice to “the Donald”.

Except the latest research demonstrates the reverse is true. Britain is about to make a vast mistake. In the recently published The Great Reversal, leading economist Thomas Philippon of New York University and member of the advisory panel of the New York Federal Reserve, mounts a devastating attack on the conventional wisdom, so perfectly embodied by the witless Boris Johnson. The news is that over the last 20 years per capita EU incomes have grown by 25% while the US’s have grown 21%, with the US growth rate decelerating while Europe’s has held steady – indeed accelerating in parts of Europe. What is going on?

Philippon’s answer is simple. The US economy is becoming increasingly harmed by ever less competition, with fewer and fewer companies dominating sector after sector – from airlines to mobile phones. Market power is the most important concept in economics, he says. When firms dominate a sector, they invest and innovate less, they peg or raise prices, and they make super-normal profits by just existing (what economists call “economic rent”). So it is that mobile phone bills in the US are on average $100 a month, twice that of France and Germany, with the same story in broadband. Profits per passenger airline mile in the US are twice those in Europe. US healthcare is impossibly expensive, with drug companies fixing prices twice as high or even higher than those in Europe; health spending is 18% of GDP. Google, Amazon and Facebook have been allowed to become supermonopolies, buying up smaller challengers with no obstruction.

This monopolising process gums up everything. Investment in the US has been falling for 20 years. Because prices stay high, wages buy less, so workers’ lifestyles, unless they borrow, get squeezed in real terms while those at the top get paid ever more with impunity. Inequality escalates to unsupportable levels. Even life expectancy is now falling across the US.

But why has this happened now? Philippon has a deadly answer. A US political campaign costs 50 times more than one in Europe in terms of money spent for every vote cast. But this doesn’t just distort the political process. It is the chief cause of the US economic crisis.

Corporations want a return on their money, and the payback is protection from any kind of regulation, investigation or anti-monopoly policy that might strike at their ever-growing market power. Boeing, for example, ensured – as one of the US’s biggest lobbyists – that regulation was friendly to its plans to shoehorn heavier engines on to a plane not designed for them – the fatal shortcut behind the two crashes of the 737 Max 8. Philippon shows this is systemic; how both at federal and state level ever higher campaign donations are correlated with ever fewer actions against monopoly, price fixing and bad corporate behaviour.

In Europe, the reverse is true. It is much harder for companies to buy friendly regulators. The EU’s competition authorities are much more genuinely politically independent than those in the US – witness the extraordinary fines levied on Google or the refusal this February to allow Siemens to merge with the French giant Alstom. As a result, it is Europe, albeit with one or two laggards such as Italy, that is bit by bit developing more competitive markets, more innovation and more challenge to incumbents while at the same time sustaining education and social spending so important to ordinary people’s lives.

Even starting up businesses is now easier. France is generating multiple hi-tech startups, with unemployment falling. Parts of Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam or even Milan are now rivalling San Francisco’s Bay area.

The EU’s regulations are better thought out, so in industry after industry it is becoming the global standard setter. Its corporate governance structures are better. And last week, to complete the picture, Christine Lagarde, the incoming president of the European Central Bank, in the most important pronouncement of the year, said the environment would be at the heart of European monetary policy. In other words, the ECB is to underwrite a multitrillion-euro green revolution. In short – bet on Europe not the US.

Thus Jeremy Corbyn, seizing on leaked documents showing how US trade negotiators want UK drug prices to rise to US levels, is on to something much bigger than the threat to the NHS, fatal though that is. Any trade deal with the US will require the UK to accept the protections that are making US capitalism so sclerotic, predatory and high priced – while dissociating itself from a European capitalism that is not only beginning to outperform America’s, but so much better reflects our values.

This election is set to seal not just the geopolitical but geo-economic mistake of Britain’s recent history. The tragedy is that our national conversation is hardly aware of how high the stakes have become.