Sunday, 10 November 2019

Ayodhya judgment is a setback to evidence law

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Certainly in matters of freedom of religion, the court should not have any say, but deciding title suit on the basis of faith is a thorny proposition.

The Supreme Court has tried to please everyone in its much awaited judgment on the property dispute in Ayodhya writes Faizan Mustafa and Aymen Mohammed in The Indian Express

The Supreme Court has tried to please everyone in its much awaited judgment on the property dispute in Ayodhya. The worshippers of Lord Ram have been given land for the construction of a temple at the very site where the Babri Masjid stood between 1528 and December 6, 1992.

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The Nirmohi Akhara has welcomed the judgment as it will be given some representation in the trust that would construct the temple. The Sunni Waqf Board too must have the satisfaction that the highest court has accepted their central argument that the Babri Masjid was a Sunni, and not Shia, waqf property, and the same was not constructed after demolishing the Ram temple. Thus, the court has rejected the Hindu right’s narrative on the Babri mosque. This false narrative not only was responsible for galvanising the ordinary Hindus, but also gave some sort of legitimacy to divisive electoral politics. Similarly, Muslim grievances about the trespass in 1949 and the tragic demolition of the mosque in 1992 have been accepted by the court. In fact, the court has accepted that there was an injury caused to them — i.e. violation of their legal right. Accordingly, the court, invoking its extraordinary jurisdiction of doing complete justice, has given them almost double the land in Ayodhya.
The Ayodhya dispute did not begin in 1528 with Babur, the founder of Mughal empire, but in 1886 with litigation in the British courts over a chabutra (courtyard) that was constructed outside the Babri Masjid by one Mahant Raghubar Das in the late 1850s. When the British prevented the construction of a canopy over the chabutra, Das unsuccessfully litigated his cause in three judicial forums. Each time, the courts emphasised status quo — that is, the Muslims would pray inside the Babri Masjid while the Hindus had limited rights to pray at the chabutra. Surprisingly, the apex court has rejected title of Muslims for want of proof of title document. This may have repercussions for several temples and mosques. The court rejected the revenue record and gazetteers as sufficient proof. Even the British grant papers were said to be sufficient only for proving the upkeep of the mosque.
In law, the phrase “status quo” means the situation at the time of the judgment must not be changed. The Babri litigation is a story of changing “status quo”. On the night of December 22-23, 1949, trespassers placed Lord Ram’s idol under the central dome of the Babri Masjid. In a few days after the incident, a new status quo would be sanctified by the local courts: Muslims were not allowed to pray inside the mosque, the idol would not be removed, and that Hindus would have a “limited” right to pray and pujaris would ensure daily bhog. By one act of criminal trespass, a mosque was converted into a temple.
On February 1, 1986, District Judge K M Pandey would order the unlocking of gates that acted as a “barrier” between the idols inside the masjid and the devotees who had come for the darshan. This decision had the blessing of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who in order to mollify the self-anointed regressive Muslim leadership would subsequently introduce the bill to reverse the Shah Bano judgment on February 25, 1986.
The demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992 was also the destruction of the rule of law. The SC has rightly criticised it and accepted that it was in violation of the “status quo” order passed by it. Within a few hours of the mosque’s demolition, a makeshift temple had come up at the structure’s location. Within a month of the demolition, the Allahabad High Court allowed for darshan at the makeshift temple. In 1994, the Supreme Court, while dealing with the Acquisition of Certain Areas of Ayodhya Act, ordered the protection of the latest “status quo”: No mosque but a makeshift temple and legally protected darshan at the site.
In 2010, the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court ruled that the title suit must be decided as a question of joint-ownership of property. Muslims, the deity Ram Lalla and Nirmohi Akhara were to get one-third share of the disputed property. The Supreme Court has overruled this judgment and rightly held that it was not a partition suit.

The judgment will be remembered for the victory of faith over the rule of law as the Supreme Court considered religious beliefs even in deciding a property dispute, and despite conceding that faith cannot confer title, it still went ahead to give property to worshippers on the basis of faith. The court should not have any say in matters of freedom of religion, but deciding title suit on the basis of faith is a thorny proposition. In brief, it is the red letter day for the constitutional right to religion but a setback to property law and a setback to evidence law with differential burden of proof being demanded from different parties.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

I was an astrologer – here's how it really works, and why I had to stop

Customers marvelled at my psychic abilities but was that really what was going on when I told their fortune? asks Felicity Carter in The Guardian 

‘It turned out what most people want is the chance to unload for an hour.’ Photograph: Fiorella Macor/Getty Images

The man was agitated, with red-rimmed eyes and clammy skin.

“Help me,” he said. “I’m under a curse.”

At first it was just flickering lights, he said. And then a figure, at the edge of his vision. Now something grabbed his fingers or stroked his arm. There was more – and it was happening more frequently.

“I saw a Catholic priest,” said the man. “But he couldn’t help. Can you?”

Yes, yes I could. I knew exactly what he needed to do.

I was a fortune teller. Every Sunday, I climbed the stairs of an old terrace house in Sydney’s historic Rocks district, to sit in the attic and divine the future. I would read Tarot cards or interpret horoscopes.

As a teenager, I’d devoured a book called Positive Magic. An instruction manual for witches, its central idea was that if you wanted something, and you had good intentions, you just told the universe and magic would happen. Although nothing I wanted (fame, money, hot boyfriend) actually arrived, one thing led to another and I taught myself to read Tarot cards. At the time I was a science student, and just considered it a fun game at parties.

That changed after I took my cards to my part-time job and read them for a colleague during the break. She picked the card for pregnancy, which we laughed about, because she wanted her tubes tied.

A week later she said, “Guess what the doctor told me this morning?”

She was pregnant, and I was officially psychic.

Deciding to develop my gift, I enrolled in a psychic class, where I learned to say the first thing that popped into my head. “Your first thoughts are the most psychic ones, before your rational mind interferes,” said the teacher.

I also learned that all things are connected, and everything is a symbol of something else. Suddenly, I saw signs and omens everywhere.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘The range of problems faced by people who can afford $50 for fortune telling turned out to be limited: troubles with romance, troubles at work, trouble mustering the courage for a much-needed change.’ Photograph: Busà Photography/Getty Images

To test my new skills, I volunteered to be a clairvoyant at the spiritualist church. Congregants would place a flower on the table, and the clairvoyants would choose one and “read” it at the microphone. Nervous, the first thing I grabbed was a packet of silver foil. The rose inside had been packed so tightly, its petals were crushed. I didn’t get a single vibe from it, so I just described the symbolism.

“You are feeling battered and bruised,” I said.

Afterwards, a woman approached and said she was a victim of domestic violence, and what should she do?

I was only 19 and had no idea, but my psychic reputation soared. The attention was intoxicating.

Then the universe told me I wasn’t cut out for science, by sending me my second-year results. I dropped out to pursue theatre and also signed up for a one-year course at the Sydney Astrology Centre, a cavernous commercial building in a seedy part of town.

The course began with the meanings of the zodiac, from Aries to Aquarius. Then the luminaries; the sun (what you will become), the moon (what you brought into this life) and planets. After that, how to calculate planetary positions and cast horoscopes.

Although astrologers use Nasa data for their calculations, horoscopes aren’t a true map of the heavens. The Babylonians who invented astrology believed the sun rotated round the Earth; modern astrologers still use Earth-centred charts, as if Copernicus had never existed. That’s only the start of the scientific problems.

The astrological meanings themselves derive from a principle called sympathetic magic, where things that look alike are linked together. Mars looks red, so it rules red things like blood. How do you get blood? You cut, so Mars rules surgery and war.

You forecast by combining meanings with planetary movements. Say Saturn, planet of restrictions, is about to transit the First House of self – your life will contract! You’re going to get more responsibilities than usual. Or maybe you’ll be denied the chance to take on more responsibilities. Or maybe a cold, critical person will come into your life. But anyway, it’s a good time to go on a diet.

Astrology is one big word association game.

I loved it, though I was losing interest in other mystical practices. Partly I didn’t have time, because I was now immersed in theatre while working as a temp typist at St Vincent’s, a Catholic hospital. But as I bounced from one department to another, my views changed. I’d understood organised religion to be something between an embarrassment and an evil. Yet as Aids did its dreadful work – this was the 1990s – I watched nuns offer compassionate care to the dying. Christian volunteers checked on derelict men with vomit down their clothes. I became uncomfortably aware that New Agers do not build hospitals or feed alcoholics – they buy self-actualisation at the cash register.

Finally, I was accepted into a music degree and my days filled with classes, my nights with rehearsals. This caused a cash crisis, because I could only do office work during academic holidays. When I saw the ad for a fortune teller, I pounced.

My credentials impressed the man on the counter (“My name is Ron,” he said. “My spirit guide is Blue Star. He’s on the intergalactic committee”) and I was hired.

We charged A$50 an hour, a significant sum at the time, and I wanted to offer value. No fishing for clues from me – I printed a horoscope or laid the cards and started interpreting immediately, intending to dazzle the customer with my insights.

Half the time, though, I couldn’t get a word in. It turned out what most people want is the chance to unload for an hour.

The range of problems faced by people who can afford $50 for fortune telling turned out to be limited: troubles with romance, troubles at work, trouble mustering the courage for a much-needed change. I heard these stories so often I could often guess what the problem was the moment someone walked in. Heartbroken young men, for example, talk about it to psychics, because it’s less risky than telling their friends. Sometimes I’d mischievously say, “Let her go. She’s not worth it,” as soon as one arrived. Once I heard, “Oh my God, oh my GOD!” as an amazed guy fell backwards down the stairs.

I also learned that intelligence and education do not protect against superstition. Many customers were stockbrokers, advertising executives or politicians, dealing with issues whose outcomes couldn’t be controlled. It’s uncertainty that drives people into woo, not stupidity, so I’m not surprised millennials are into astrology. They grew up with Harry Potter and graduated into a precarious economy, making them the ideal customers.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘Intelligence and education do not protect against superstition.’ Photograph: Alamy

What broke the spell for me was, oddly, people swearing by my gift. Some repeat customers claimed I’d made very specific predictions, of a kind I never made. It dawned on me that my readings were a co-creation – I would weave a story and, later, the customer’s memory would add new elements. I got to test this theory after a friend raved about a reading she’d had, full of astonishingly accurate predictions. She had a tape of the session, so I asked her to play it.

The clairvoyant had said none of the things my friend claimed. Not a single one. My friend’s imagination had done all the work.

Yet sometimes I could be uncannily accurate – wasn’t that proof I was psychic? One Sunday, I went straight from work to a party, before I’d had time to shuck off my psychic persona. A student there mentioned she wasn’t sure what to specialize in – photography, graphic design or maybe industrial design?

“Do photography,” I said.

She looked at me, wide-eyed. “How did you know?” she said, explaining photography was her real love, but her parents didn’t approve.

I couldn’t say, “because my third eye is open”, so I reflected for a moment. Then it hit me. “You sounded happier when you said ‘photography’,” I said. My psychic teacher was right – the signals we pick up before conscious awareness kicks in can be accurate and valuable.

Well, maybe I wasn’t psychic, but it didn’t matter. It was just entertainment, after all, until the cursed man came in. The one who’d seen the Catholic priest.

“Get to a doctor,” I told him. “Now.”

That very week, I’d typed letters for a neurologist who specialized in brain diseases. Some of those letters had documented strikingly similar symptoms to this man.

“Are you saying I’m crazy?” he said, his hands balled.

“No,” I reassured him. “But Catholic priests know what they’re doing. If he couldn’t help, this isn’t a curse.”

That made the man angrier.

“You’re a fraud!” he shouted, and stormed downstairs to demand his money back.

The encounter shook me, badly. Shortly afterwards, I packed my astrology books and Tarot cards away for good.

I can still make the odd forecast, though. Here’s one: the venture capital pouring into astrology apps will create a fortune telling system that works, because humans are predictable. As people follow the advice, the apps’ predictive powers will increase, creating an ever-tighter electronic leash. But they’ll be hugely popular – because if you sprinkle magic on top, you can sell people anything.

Who is the real Dice Man? The elusive writer behind the disturbing cult novel

A search for the mysterious author of a counterculture classic led to someone else entirely. Or did it? By Emmanuel Carrère in The Guardian 

Toward the end of the 1960s, Luke Rhinehart worked as a psychoanalyst in New York and was bored stiff. He lived in a pretty apartment with a nice view. He practised yoga, read books on Zen, dreamed vaguely of joining a commune but did not dare. As a therapist, he was resolutely nondirective. If a patient who still had not lost his virginity was plagued by sadistic impulses and said on Rhinehart’s couch that he would like to rape and kill a little girl, his professional ethics obliged him to repeat with a calm voice: “You’d like to rape and kill a little girl?” No judgment. But what he wanted to say was: “Well, go ahead, then! If what really turns you on is raping and killing a little girl, then stop boring me with this fantasy. Do it!”

He checked himself before coming out with such monstrosities, but they obsessed him more and more. His own fantasies were nothing extreme – not enough to get him sent to prison – but like everyone else, he stopped himself going through with them. What Luke would have liked, for example, was to sleep with Arlene, the wife of his colleague Jake Ecstein, who lived across the landing. But as a faithful husband, he let the idea simmer away in the back of his mind.

So life plods on, calm and dreary, until one night after a dinner party, when he has had a little too much to drink. Rhinehart sees a dice lying on the carpet, a banal playing dice, and gets the idea of throwing it and acting on its instructions. He says to himself: “If it lands on a number from two to six, I’ll do what I would have done anyway: bring the dirty glasses back to the kitchen, brush my teeth, take a double aspirin, go to bed beside my sleeping wife, and maybe masturbate discreetly thinking of Arlene. But if I roll a one, I’ll do what I really want to do: I know Arlene’s at home alone tonight, so I’ll go across the hall, knock on her door and sleep with her.”

The dice lands on one. Rhinehart hesitates, feeling vaguely that he is standing on a threshold: if he crosses it, his life could change. But it is not his decision, it is the dice’s, so he obeys. Arlene opens the door in a negligee; she is surprised but not put out. When Rhinehart comes back home two extremely pleasant hours later, he realises that he has changed. He did something he wouldn’t normally do.

From now on, he always consults the dice. Since it has six sides, he gives it six options. The first is to do what he has always done. The five others depart more or less distinctly from this routine. Once it has been subjected to the dice, even the most anodyne choice – that of a film, a restaurant – opens a vast array of possibilities for putting your routine behind you.

His choices soon become more audacious. Going somewhere he would never go, getting to know people he would otherwise never meet. He pushes his patients to leave their families and jobs, to change their political and sexual orientations. His reputation suffers, but Rhinehart does not care. What he likes, now, is doing the exact opposite of what he would normally do: putting salt in his coffee, jogging in a tuxedo, going to work in shorts, pissing in the flowerpots, walking backward, sleeping under his bed. His wife finds him strange, but he says it is a psychological experiment, and she lets herself be lulled into believing it. Until the day he gets the idea of initiating his children.

One weekend when their mother is not there, Rhinehart gets his little boy and girl to play this apparently innocent game: you write six things you would like to do on a piece of paper, and the dice chooses one of them. It all goes well at the start: they eat ice cream, go to the zoo. Then his son becomes bolder and says that one thing he would like to do is go beat up a boy who bugs him at school. “OK, write it down,” Rhinehart says, and that is what the dice rolls. The boy thinks his father won’t make him go through with it, but his dad says: “Go ahead.” The boy goes to his friend’s place, hits him several times, and comes back to the house with his eyes shining and asks: “Where are the dice, Dad?”

That makes Rhinehart stop and think: if his son so naturally adopts this way of being, it is because he is not yet completely warped by the absurd notion that it is good for children to develop a coherent character. What if they were brought up differently, giving pride of place to contradiction, multiplicity and relentless change? Luke seriously thinks of freeing his son from the dismal tyranny of the ego and making him the first man entirely subject to chance. Then his wife returns and discovers what has been going on. Not finding it funny in the least, she leaves Rhinehart and takes the children with her.

Next, it is his profession that Rhinehart abandons, after disgracing himself (on the dice’s instructions) at an evening with the cream of New York psychoanalysts. With no family, work or personal ties, he is free to move from transgression to transgression. Eventually, the day comes when the dice pushes him to do things that he had not only never dared to do, but didn’t want to do, because they ran counter to his tastes, his desires, his whole personality. But that’s just it: the personality – the miserable, petty personality – is the enemy to be done away with, the conditioning that you have to free yourself from.

Sooner or later, he could not avoid writing “murder” on his list of options. When the dice orders him to do it, Rhinehart is forced to draw up a list of six potential victims, in which he courageously includes his two children. Luckily for him, he is spared that particular ordeal: the dice simply demands that he kill one of his former patients.

If you believe his autobiography, he went through with it, although certain commentators doubt it. What does seem certain is that having ruined his career, his family life and his reputation, Rhinehart was ready to become a prophet, and that is what he did. In these years when the most paradoxical therapies flourished from one side of the US to the other, a guru with a dice had every chance of attracting followers. So he establishes the Centers for Experiments in Totally Random Environments, where you enrol of your own free will but undertake not to leave until the experiment is over. In time, students are expected to commit to roleplays of varying durations: you list six personality types and for 10 minutes, an hour, a day, a week, a month, or a year, adopt the one that the dice decides.

Some of the followers of dice therapy went insane. Others died or ended up in prison. Some, it seems, reached a state of nirvana. During their short existence, Rhinehart’s centres became as scandalous as Timothy Leary’s communities: a school of chaos posing as serious a threat to civilisation as communism or the satanism of Charles Manson, as the conservative newspapers had it. The end of the adventure is shrouded in obscurity. It is said that Rhinehart was arrested by the FBI, that he spent 20 years in a psychiatric hospital. Or that he died. Or that he never existed at all.

Everything I have just told comes from a book, The Dice Man, published in the US in 1971 and translated into French the following year. I was 16 when I discovered it, as a terribly timid adolescent with long hair, an afghan jacket and little round glasses. For a while, I walked around with a dice in my pocket, counting on it to give me the self-confidence I lacked with girls. (Not that it worked too well.) The Dice Man is the kind of book that not only pleases readers but also gives them a set of rules for life: a manual for subversion.

It was not clear whether the book was fiction or autobiography, but its author, Luke Rhinehart, had the same name as his hero and, like him, he was a psychiatrist. According to the back cover, he lived in Majorca – seemingly the ideal refuge for a prophet at the end of his tether, who has just managed to escape from his shipwrecked community of maniacs. The years passed, The Dice Man remained the object of a minor but persistent cult, and each time I met someone who had read it (almost always a pothead, and often a follower of the I Ching), the same questions came up: what was true in the book? Who was Luke Rhinehart? What had become of him?

After The Dice Man came up in conversation a little while back, I started to wonder once again what had become of Luke Rhinehart. In an hour online, of course, I learned more about Rhinehart than I had in 30 years of idle conjecture.

Luke Rhinehart, author of The Dice Man Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

His real name is George Cockcroft, and though no longer young, he is alive. He has written other books, but none as successful as The Dice Man, which almost 50 years after it came out is still a cult classic. Dozens of sites are dedicated to it, and just as many legends circulate about it. Ten times it was almost adapted for the cinema, but mysteriously the project never came about. Communities of followers of the dice still exist all over the world. As for the mythical author, he lives as a recluse on a remote farm in upstate New York. One particular photo of him makes the rounds: it shows a sarcastic, gaunt face under a stetson. I imagine Luke Rhinehart as something like Carlos Castaneda, William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon rolled into one: an icon of the most radical subversion, transformed into an invisible man. I decide that I must meet him.

One detail should have warned me that my initial ideas were not quite right: my invisible man has his own website, through which I was able to contact him. He answered my message in less than an hour, with surprising good grace for a recluse. I wanted to come from France to interview him? What a good idea! When I filled him in on the reason for my visit, he told me that he hoped he was not going to disappoint me: on my search for Luke Rhinehart I was going to meet George Cockcroft, and George Cockcroft, in his own words, was an old fart. I took this warning as false modesty.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been in contact with some followers of the dice on the internet, and on my way through New York I invite one to dinner. Ron is 30, introduces himself as a conceptual artist and urban pirate, and heads a community of dice people who meet every month for what, under all the new-age jargon, seems to be good old group sex, where the dice above all decides who will be on top, who on the bottom and so on. No such thing is planned for the days when I will be there, I learn a little to my regret, but the urban pirate appears impressed by my boldness: knocking on Luke Rhinehart’s door! Pulling on the tiger’s whiskers! That’s really venturing into the dark side of the Force. I answer that to judge by the author’s messages, he seems like a nice old guy.

Ron looks at me pensively, with a touch of pity: “A nice old guy … Sure, why not? Maybe the dice ordered him to play that role for you. But don’t forget that a dice has six sides. He’s showing you one, you don’t know what’s behind the other five, or when he’ll decide to reveal them … ”

The man waiting for me when I arrive in Hudson in upstate New York is wearing the same Stetson as he is in that photograph. He has the same jagged features, the same faded blue eyes and the same slightly sardonic smile. He is tall and has a bit of a slouch; you could even find him sinister, but when I hold out my hand, he gives me a big hug, kisses me on both cheeks as if I were his son and introduces me to his wife, Ann, who is just as warm and welcoming as he is.

We all pile into their old station wagon, and as we drive past the orchards and through the woods, I realise that this landscape reminds me of one of my favourite novels: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. My hosts are enchanted: it is one of their favourites as well, and George has often taught it to his students.

To his students? He is not a psychiatrist, or a psychoanalyst?

“Psychiatrist? Psychoanalyst?” George repeats, as surprised as if I had said cosmonaut. No, he was never a psychiatrist, he has been a college English teacher all his life.

Really? But on the cover of his book …

George shrugs as if to say, editors, journalists, you know, there is almost nothing they won’t write.

From Hudson we drive for about an hour; he handles the wheel with an abruptness that contrasts with his good humour and makes his wife laugh. It is moving to see how the two love each other, and when Ann tells me in passing that they have been married for 50 years, I am not surprised.

They live in an old farmhouse with a yard that slopes down to a duck pond. They have three grown boys, two of whom live nearby. One is a carpenter and the other is a housepainter; the third still lives at home. He is schizophrenic, Ann tells me matter-of-factly; he is doing fine at the moment, but I shouldn’t worry if I hear him speaking a bit loudly in his room, which is right beside the guest room where I will be staying. (I invited myself for the weekend, but I get the feeling that if I wanted to settle in for a week or a month, it wouldn’t be a problem.)

Ann serves us tea, and George and I take our mugs out on to the terrace for the interview. He has swapped his Stetson for a baseball cap, and I ask him to tell me about his life. He starts from the beginning.

He was born in 1932 in Albany, just a few miles from where he now lives and where, in all likelihood, he will die. Semi-rural middle-class, hit hard by the Depression, in spite of which he looks back on a more or less happy childhood and youth. Good at maths, a bit of an egghead and not adventurous in the least, he reached 20 without having felt the slightest creative urge. At college he began studying psychology, but found it tedious and instead decided it was better to read novels.Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

While working night shifts as an intern in a hospital on Long Island, he devoured Mark Twain, Herman Melville and the great 19th-century Russian writers. He started working on a novel that took place in a psychiatric hospital. The hero is a young man who has been interned because he thinks he is Jesus, and among the hospital staff is a doctor named Luke Rhinehart, who practises dice therapy. The dice was a quirk the young George picked up in college. He and his friends used it on Saturdays to decide what they were going to do that night. Sometimes, they dared each other to do stuff: hop around the block on one leg, ring a neighbour’s doorbell, nothing too mischievous. When I ask, hopefully, whether he pushed these experiences further as an adult, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles apologetically because he can tell that I would like something a little spicier.

“No,” he admits. “All I asked the dice was, for example, if I’d had enough of working: do I stay at my desk for another hour? Or two hours? Or do I go for a walk right away?”

“What are you talking about?” says Ann, who has come on to the terrace to offer us some blueberry crumble. “Don’t you remember at least one important decision that the dice made you take?”

He laughs, so does she, and he tells me that he had noticed an attractive nurse at the hospital, but was shy and didn’t dare talk to her. The dice made him do it: he drove her home, took her to church, but the church was closed, so he invited her to play tennis. Of course, the attractive nurse was Ann.

Ten years later they had three little boys, and George, who had become an English teacher, applied for a job at the American school in Mallorca. This expatriation is the big adventure of their lives. Although Mallorca in the 1960s was associated with psychedelia and wild living, George didn’t take drugs, was faithful to his wife, and mostly just hung around with other teachers like himself. Still, he didn’t completely escape the zeitgeist. He started to read books on psychoanalysis, antipsychiatry, oriental mysticism, Zen – all aspects of 1960s counterculture, whose grand idea was that we are conditioned, and that we must free ourselves from this conditioning. Influenced by this reading, he suddenly became aware of the revolutionary potential of something he had thought of as no more than a simple game, and had more or less given up since his adolescence. Although he had also long ago given up on the idea of writing books, he got fired up about what would become The Dice Man. He spent four years writing it, supported faithfully by his wife.

FacebookTwitterPinterest George Cockcroft with sons Powers (left) and Chris in Mallorca in 1972. Photograph: Courtesy of George Cockcroft
Much to their surprise, an editor paid good money for the book, and the rights were sold to Paramount. Then The Dice Man started to live its erratic, unpredictable life: success in Europe but not in the US, regular new editions and, eventually, cult status. There were disappointments: for one obscure reason or another the film was never made, and none of his other books had the same success. But the rights from The Dice Man allowed them to buy this beautiful house, and to age with dignity – George writing, Ann painting, both of them caring for their son with schizophrenia.

The day I visited was Mother’s Day, and the two other boys came over to celebrate it with their parents. They are good American kids: Budweiser drinkers, trout fishers, wearers of checkered shirts. Later, their brother came out of his room for a short while. All three told Ann she was “a terrific mom”. After dinner, we finished the evening at the house of one of their sons, also in the middle of the countryside. He has an outdoor jacuzzi, in which George and I continued to drink while looking up at the stars, with the result that I don’t quite remember how I made it back to my room.

It is strange how much you can project on to a photograph. The one of Luke Rhinehart made me imagine a whole novel: a dangerous, sulphurous life filled with excesses, transgressions and ruptures. Bordellos in Mexico, communities of madmen in the Nevada desert, delirious, mind-expanding experiences. And this face, the same face with strong bones and eyes of steel, is in fact that of an adorable old man who is approaching the end of a sweet, comfortable life with his adorable wife, a man whose only departure from the norm was to have written this alarming book, and who in his old age must softly, gently explain to people who come to see him that you must not confuse it with him, and that he is simply a novelist.

Really? But what did I know about the reality? I remembered the warning of Ron, the urban pirate. What you see, the adorable old man, is just one side of the dice. It is the side that the dice ordered him to show you, but at least five others are in reserve.

At breakfast I could see that George was worried he had disappointed me. So he took me kayaking on a lake, and as our kayaks skimmed slowly over the calm water, he told me the stories of some of his disciples. What he was content merely to imagine, others did for real. Take the tycoon Richard Branson. He used to say that all of his choices in business and in life had been taken thanks to the dice, influenced by Luke Rhinehart.

Then there was the British gonzo journalist Ben Marshall who, in the 1990s, took on an assignment in which he would follow Rhinehart’s example for three months: let all of your decisions be taken by the dice and write about what happens. The journalist took the assignment seriously enough, it seems, to trash his love life and his professional life, and to disappear without a trace for several months. “A funny guy, that Ben,” George tells me. “You can see him in Diceworld, a documentary made by an English TV channel in 1999.”

I had never heard of this documentary and ask if George has a copy we can watch. All of a sudden he looks embarrassed. He says it is not great, and he is not sure he even has it. But I insist, and in no time we are sitting on the living room couch in front of the big TV and the film starts. It is true, it is not great. But it does show Marshall, who volunteered to gamble his life on the dice and who explains convincingly how he stopped before he went mad, because the dice can drive you mad.

And lo and behold, whom do we see next? His inspiration, our friend George – or rather, our friend Luke, as he was 15 years ago: the Stetson, the gaunt face, the steely eyes, handsome, but not at all like the doting grandfather I know. In a low, insinuating, hypnotic voice, he says into the camera: “You lead a dull life, a life of slavery, a life that doesn’t satisfy you, but there’s a way to get out of it. This way is the dice. Let yourself go, submit yourself to it, and you’ll see, your life will change, you’ll become someone you can’t even imagine.”

Saying this, he looks like a televangelist, the head of a sect filmed just before his followers commit mass suicide. He is frightening. I turn to look at the person beside me on the couch, the nice pensioner in slippers holding his mug of herbal tea. He gives me an embarrassed, apologetic smile and says that the Luke in this film is not him. He, George, wasn’t so keen on it, but the director insisted.

Ann, who can hear us from the kitchen, laughs gaily. “You’re watching the film where you play the spook?”

He laughs, too, beside me on the couch. Nevertheless, when I see him on the screen, I find him awfully convincing.

Imet other followers of the dice over the internet: one in Salt Lake City, one in Munich, one in Madrid. All men. In Madrid, Oscar Cuadrado, who came to meet me at the airport, is young, a bit pudgy, and nice. On the way to his place in his 4×4, he made what was by now a familiar joke: “I may look nice, but you never know what the dice’s got in store for tonight: maybe I’m a serial killer and you’ll find yourself chained to my basement wall.”

He lives in a stylish house in the suburbs, together with his wife and daughter, and without further ado we sat at a lawn table and consulted the dice: do we have a drink right away, or do we wait until we have done the interview? Three sides for a drink, three against: we could just as well have tossed a coin. The answer: right away. Now, do we drink beer, table wine or the bottle that Cuadrado’s saving for his daughter’s 18th birthday? Two sides for the beer, three for the table wine, and just one for the special bottle, because although he would open it willingly – you don’t refuse the dice – still … Finally, it is over a glass of table wine that he explains to me how he uses the dice.

Like everyone, Cuadrado has heard of people who have ruined their lives by setting extreme conditions such as going halfway around the world and never coming back, having sex with animals or stabbing someone at random in a crowded train station in India. Stories like that circulate on all sites dedicated to the dice – including the one he has been managing for the past 10 years – but they don’t interest him. He recommends using it in a way that makes life more fun and surprising.

‘Photo of me and my wife taken in 1956 a few minutes after I had proposed to her’: George and Ann. Photograph: Courtesy of George Cockcroft

He has three rules. The first is to always obey. But obeying the dice is ultimately obeying yourself, since you set your options. Hence the second rule, concerning the decisive moment when you list the six possibilities. You have to examine yourself and try to find out what you want. It is a spiritual exercise, aimed both at getting to know yourself and getting a better grasp of the infinite possibilities that reality offers. The options you select have to be pleasant, but at least one – the third – has to be something you would not normally do. It has to make you overcome resistance and break with habit. When you throw the dice, your desire has to be tinged with fear.

Ever since he discovered the Spanish translation of The Dice Man when he was 17, this sort of small challenge has been second nature to Cuadrado. Like his father, he is a tax lawyer, but thanks to the dice he has also become a wine importer, a webmaster, a Go teacher, a fan of Iceland and the publisher of the Mauritian poet Malcolm de Chazal. How’s that? Well, first he thought it would be good to get to know a foreign country. Six continents, six options. The dice fell on Europe, then, narrowing the choices, on Iceland. Fine. Now, how should he visit it: on foot, by car, hitchhiking, by boat, by bike or on a skateboard? It landed on bike. The only problem: he had never ridden one before. So he learned, toured Iceland by bike, and even went back with the young woman who would become his wife. On this trip the dice got him to make the proposal, which was accepted.

For their honeymoon, the young couple travelled to Mauritius – a present from his parents-in-law, not the dice. But once there, Cuadrado made up for it. He looked around for something to read, an author with something to do with Mauritius. The dice chose the poet Malcolm de Chazal. Bingo: he fell completely in love with De Chazal, a creole surrealist whom the artist André Breton was crazy about. Seeing that De Chazal had not been translated into Spanish, when Cuadrado got back from his honeymoon he founded a publishing company to change that. He knew nothing about publishing, no more than he had known about bike riding. But when he pulls the books from his shelf, I can understand why he is proud: they are magnificent. He sums up: “It’s through Luke that I discovered Malcolm, and now it’s thanks to him that I’ve met you. Funny, isn’t it?”


Dear Friend,

It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead.

Luke didn’t fear death, although he confessed to being a bit nervous. Death to him was just another one of life’s unknowns, like travelling to a new land, starting a new book, trusting a new friend. Luke liked to laugh at death, but then again he liked to laugh at everything. He felt confident that death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He promised to report back as soon as he could and let us know what he had found. He was confident we would all get a good chuckle out of it. However, at this point we still haven’t heard word.

Some of you have asked about Luke’s last days. They were no different from days from any week over the last several decades. People who came to see him on the basis of his books were sometimes discouraged to discover how attached he was to his habits. Even when he threw the dice, it was always to do more or less the same things.

“It’s not rolling along in the same old patterns that is bad in itself,” he said, “but rather if you’re enjoying the rolling. If you’re comfortable in the selves you’re rolling along with, then roll on. Most people aren’t. They don’t like who they are. It’s with them in mind that I wrote all those things about the dice. But I’m fine as I am.”

Luke’s wife, Ann, was with him to the end.

When I received this email, I was surprised, then sad, then moved. Since I had their number, I called Ann to express my condolences. When she picked up the phone, she was as cordial as ever, but she sounded a bit hurried and said she would pass me on to George. I stuttered something about the email I had just received, and she answered like someone who was used to this sort of little misunderstanding: “Oh, the email! Of course … But don’t worry: it’s not George who died, it’s Luke.”

When he got on the line, George confirmed: “Yeah, I was getting a little tired of Luke. I’m getting older, you know. I still love life: seeing what the weather’s like when I look out the window in the morning, doing the gardening, making love, going kayaking, but I am less interested in my career, and my career was basically Luke. I wrote that letter for Ann to send it to my correspondents when I died. I kept it in a file for two years, and one day I decided to send it.”

I asked him two more questions. The first: before sending this email, did he throw the dice?

“Oh, no, that didn’t even occur to me,” said George. “The dice can be useful when you don’t know what you want. But when you know, what use is it?”

Second question: how did his correspondents take the news?

He gave his mischievous little laugh. “Well, a few thought it was in bad taste. Aside from them, some thought: ‘That’s George!’ And others: ‘That’s Luke!’

“And you, what do you think?”

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Muslims and Kashmiris

Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn

IN the aftermath of the anti-Ahmadi violence in the 1950s, Maulana Abul Hasanat Sayyed Muhammad Ahmad Qadri, President of Jamiatul Ulema-i-Pakistan, demanded an Islamic state in Pakistan. And he deposed before the Justice Munir Commission that looked into the violence.

Q: You will admit for the Hindus, who are in a majority in India, (a similar) right to have a Hindu religious state?

A: Yes.

Q: Will you have any objection if the Muslims are treated under that form of government as Malishes (Mlechhas) or Shudras under the law of Manu?

A: No.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman heads a faction of the Jamiat today. I gained a nodding acquaintance with the maulana when, for a reason difficult to fathom at the time, he became a regular interlocutor with Indian journalists visiting Pakistan. The maulana’s portly bearing and merry laughter had a likeness to Friar Tuck whose Robin Hood, albeit too briefly, Musharraf had become. A version of the English legend has the monk fording the river in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood on his back when, in midstream, for no apparent reason, he hurled his friend into the freezing waters. That’s more or less what the maulana is said to have done with Musharraf. 

In recent days, the cleric from the doctrinaire Deoband school of Muslim theology has been raging at Imran Khan, accusing the prime minister of insincerity towards the Kashmiri people facing Indian high-handedness since Aug 5. The stance is double-edged.

Fazlur Rehman has friends in high places with the Indian government. Besides, he has the entire Jamiatul Ulema-i-Hind (JUH) and the Deoband seminary eating out of his hands. Atal Behari Vajpayee embraced him and Manmohan Singh welcomed him to the prime ministerial residence. This was around the time when Benazir Bhutto was struggling to get an appointment with Vajpayee in New Delhi, when, as the grapevine had it, she was seeking his intervention to iron things out with Gen Musharraf.

Important Pakistani visitors from the left and liberal corner have not had the ease of access to the prime minister’s office in recent years as the maulana did. His equation with the Modi establishment is not clear, but given the Indian prime minister’s chummy relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia — a common link between Rehman and the JUH — it’s not difficult to imagine an agreeable prospect.

The fact that the maulana would routinely drive off to the Deoband seminary, not far from the Indian capital, following his official sojourns, suggests a link between the two stops. That P. Chidambaram made a much-publicised visit to the seminary as home minister further indicates a strong political interest between the Indian government and the orthodox clerics of Deoband. And perhaps it also delivers a handy vote bank that the clerics control.

There are Indian Muslim groups as well as non-Muslims who harbour sympathy for the Kashmiri people, but it is mostly with regard to their claim on Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy within the Indian arrangement. Such groups also speak up against perennially violated human rights endured by the mainly Muslim people of the disputed area. To that extent the JUH has stood with the Kashmiri people, but only from the perspective that their interests were not separate from those of Indian Muslims.

In 2010, during Congress rule there was a surge in India’s stand-off with Kashmiri Muslims, and the JUH, a close cross-border comrade of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, did express its formulaic sympathy. A recent statement was, however, more assertive in its pro-government stance, effectively endorsing the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy.

“It is our belief that the welfare of the people of Kashmir lies in getting integrated with India. The inimical forces and the neighbouring country are bent upon destroying Kashmir. The oppressed and beleaguered people of Kashmir are stuck between opposing forces,” the JUH argued, virtually ad-libbing the official view on the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy. “The JUH stands steadfastly for the unity and integrity of the country and has accorded it paramount importance. As such it can never support any separatist movement rather it considers such movements not only harmful for India but also for the people of Kashmir.”

The irony is stark. Both the JUH and its Pakistani counterpart headed by Fazlur Rehman are or should be at loggerheads on Kashmir. And they are also tethered to the Saudi establishment for inspiration and sustenance. However, Saudi Arabia has veered close to the Indian stand and even felicitated Modi with its highest civilian award. Imran Khan has chosen to swallow the disappointment and has signalled that it’s business as usual by choosing to fly to the UN General Assembly session in New York on the Saudi crown prince’s private plane. The Kashmiris must be watching the denouement with awe and trepidation.

The JUH leverages Indian Muslims in what is clearly a rather self-serving relationship it has with any government of the day. But this is also how the Hindu right prefers to project the equation. Add­re­s­­­­­sing the media in the aftermath of the derailed Agra summit, then senior minister Jaswant Singh obliquely described the link between Indian Muslims and the Kashmir issue. The gist of his comment was this: if India gives away Kashmir to comply with the two-nation theory, should Indian Muslims not be put in trains to Pakistan?

A different answer to the question came from a senior leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in 1992. Javed Mir had dodged the security dragnet when practically every Hurriyat leader was put behind the bars. I asked Mir to comment on the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which had just taken place. He said he couldn’t care less what became of it or the dispute, because it concerned Indian Muslims who had shown scant interest in the struggles of the Kashmiris.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

On Freedom of Religion in India - Brilliant talk by Faizan Mustafa

In Urdu

If we’re serious about changing the world, we need a better kind of economics to do it

The pursuit of rapid growth won’t solve the huge challenges we face. A more honest, humane approach is the answer write Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee (joint winners of the 2019 Nobel prize in economics) in The Guardian

Rubbish pickers at the municipal site in Maputo, Mozambique. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

In 2017, a poll in the UK asked: “Whose opinion do you trust the most when they talk about their field of expertise?” Nurses came first – 84% trust them. Politicians came last. Economists were second from bottom on 25%.This trust deficit is mirrored by the fact that the consensus of economists (when it exists) is often systematically different from the views of ordinary citizens. The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago regularly asks a group of about 40 prominent academic economists their views on core economic topics. Working with the economist Stefanie Stantcheva, we ran a survey: we selected 10 of the questions that were asked of the Booth panel and put them to 10,000 Americans.

On most of these issues, our respondents were sharply at odds with economists. For example, every single member of the Booth panel disagreed with the proposition that “imposing new US tariffs on steel and aluminium will improve Americans’ wellbeing”. Only a third of our respondents shared their view. And the gap is not only because people are not informed of what economists think: telling them does not seem to change their opinion one bit.

Economists are often too wrapped up in models and methods, and sometimes forget where science ends and ideology begins

This is troubling, because questions of economics and economic policy are central to the present crisis. Is migration actually threatening the livelihoods of poor workers? Has international trade worsened inequality? Should we worry about the rise of artificial intelligence or celebrate it? Why are our societies becoming increasingly unequal, and what can we (or should we) do about it? How can society help all those people whom the markets leave behind?

Economists have a lot to say about these big issues: they study immigration to see what it does to wages, taxation to determine if it discourages enterprise, redistribution through social programmes to figure out whether it encourages sloth. They have long worried about what happens when nations trade. They have worked hard to understand why some countries grow and others don’t, and what, if anything, governments can do to help. They gather data on what makes people generous or wary, what makes a man leave home and migrate to a strange place, how social media plays on our prejudices. The most recent research often has surprising things to say about all these issues – especially to those used to the pat answers coming from old high school textbooks and TV “economists”.

It’s not that when economists and the public have different views the economists are always right. We, the economists, are often too wrapped up in our models and methods and sometimes forget where science ends and ideology begins. But good economics can be a source of hope – a way to understand what went wrong but also to explain how our world can be put back together, as long as we are honest in our diagnosis of the problems.

‘How can society help all those people whom the markets leave behind?’ A child wait for a plate of food at a soup kitchen in Salta province, Argentina. Photograph: Javier Corbalan/AP

For that to happen, we need to understand what undermines trust in economists. Part of the problem is that there is plenty of bad economics around. The self-proclaimed economists on TV and in the press – chief economist of Bank X or Firm Y – are, with important exceptions, primarily spokespeople for their firms’ economic interests, who often feel free to ignore the weight of the evidence. Moreover, they have a relatively predictable slant towards market optimism at all costs, which is what the public associates with economists in general. It does not help that there is a class of economists who make predictions about broad trends in the economy, which often turn out to be wrong.

Another part of the problem is that, especially in the UK and the US, a lot of the economics that has filtered into government thinking is the most beholden to orthodoxy, and the least able to pay attention to any fact that does not square with it. Economists are therefore naturally seen as those who keep repeating that regulations, taxes, and public spending all need to be slashed to let the market be, and that eventually everything will all “trickle down” to the poor, even as we watch inequality exploding.

But good economics is much less strident, and quite different. It is less like the hard sciences and more like engineering or plumbing: it breaks big problems into manageable chunks and tries to solve them with a pragmatic approach – a combination of intuition and theory, trial and acknowledged errors. Good economics starts with some facts that are troubling, makes some guesses based on what we already know about human behaviour and theories that have been shown to work, uses data to test those guesses, refines (or radically alters) its line of attack based on the new set of facts and, eventually, with some luck, gets to a solution.

We have spent our careers studying the poor, trying to apply this kind of experimental approach to the problems they face. Instead of relying on our intuition, or that of others, we set up large-scale, rigorous randomised controlled trials to understand what works, what does not work, and why. We are not alone: this movement has taken hold in economics. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), the network we co-founded in 2013, has 400 affiliated or invited researchers, and together they have finished or are working on nearly a thousand projects on topics as different as the impact of sleep on productivity and happiness, and the role of incentives for tax collectors.

 ‘Economists have a tendency to adopt a notion of wellbeing that is often too narrow – some version of income or material consumption.’ A homeless man outside Victoria Station in London. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

This work is starting to make a difference. To date, 400 million people have been touched by policies that J-PAL affiliates have shown to be effective. Just as importantly, although no single project offers a definitive answer, together they allow us to understand much better some of the mechanisms behind the persistence of poverty. While our own beat has mostly been the poor countries, there are many others doing good economics in countries like the US, which can help shed light on the big issues our societies are grappling with.

Economists have a tendency to adopt a notion of wellbeing that is often too narrow – some version of income or material consumption. Yet we know in our guts that a fulfilling life needs much more than that: the respect of the community, the comforts of family and friends, dignity, lightness, pleasure. The focus on income alone is not just a convenient shortcut – it is a distorting lens that has often led the smartest economists down the wrong path, and policymakers to the wrong decisions. This is a big part of what persuades so many of us that the whole world is waiting at the door to steal our well-paying jobs. It is what has led to a single-minded focus on restoring the western nations to some glorious past of rapid economic growth. It is also what makes the trade-off between the growth of the economy and the survival of the planet seem so stark.

A better conversation must start by acknowledging the deep human desire for dignity and human contact – and treating it not as a distraction but as a better way to understand each other, and to set ourselves free from what may appear to be unresolvable contradictions.

Restoring human dignity to its central place has the potential to set off a profound rethinking of economic priorities and the ways in which societies care for their members, particularly when they are in need. At the very least, this should help persuade some of the disaffected that economics is about them as well, and that we economists have useful contributions to make to the rebuilding that must happen.

Friday, 25 October 2019

A Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar?

Why do people hate vegans?

It has left the beige-tinted margins and become social media’s most glamorous look. But why does veganism still provoke so much anger asks George Reynolds in The Guardian

From the hunger strike to the edible projectile, history offers abundant examples of food being used for political ends. Even so, the crowd of vegans who gathered in central London earlier this year are unlikely to forget the moment when Gatis Lagzdins skinned and ate a raw squirrel.

Along with his co-conspirator Deonisy Khlebnikov, Lagzdins performed his stunt at the weekly Soho Vegan Market on Rupert Street. He would subsequently demonstrate at VegFest in Brighton (although this time his snack of choice was a raw pig’s head) as part of a self-proclaimed “carnivore tour” intended to highlight the evils of a plant-based diet. At the London event, he wore a black vest emblazoned with the slogan: “Veganism = Malnutrition.”

The war on vegans started small. There were flashpoints, some outrageous enough to receive press coverage. There was the episode in which William Sitwell, then editor of Waitrose magazine, resigned after a freelance writer leaked an email exchange in which he joked about “killing vegans one by one”. (Sitwell has since apologised.) There was the PR nightmare faced by Natwest bank when a customer calling to apply for a loan was told by an employee that “all vegans should be punched in the face”. When animal rights protesters stormed into a Brighton Pizza Express in September this year, one diner did exactly that.

A charge commonly laid against vegans is that they relish their status as victims, but research suggests they have earned it. In 2015, a study conducted by Cara C MacInnis and Gordon Hodson for the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations observed that vegetarians and vegans in western society – and vegans in particular – experience discrimination and bias on a par with ethnic and religious minorities.

Illustration: Lee Martin/Guardian Design

Once a niche interest group parodied in TV shows such as The Simpsons (in which a character describes himself as a “level five vegan” who refuses to eat anything that casts a shadow), in the past two years, vegans have been thrust into the limelight. A philosophy rooted in non-aggression has found itself at the heart of some of the most virulent arguments on social media. In November 2018, Good Morning Britain hosted a debate titled “Do people hate vegans?”; the political website Vox tackled the question in even more direct fashion a week later, asking: “Why do people hate vegans so much?”

These recent displays of enmity towards vegans represent a puzzling escalation in hostilities, just as a consensus is starting to form that eating less meat would almost certainly be better for everyone – and the Earth. Of course, eating less meat does not mean eating no meat whatsoever, and the extreme prohibitions associated with going vegan (no animal products, no eggs, no leather, no wool) suggest it could have been just another Atkins diet or clean-eating fad – a flash in the pan that blows up and then dissipates, leaving behind nothing more than a dose of mild regret. Instead, just when the growth might have been expected to plateau, it kept on growing. A 2016 Ipsos Mori survey suggested the total number of vegans in the UK had increased more than 360% in the preceding decade, to more than 500,000.

Big business has been quick to cash in. The Los Angeles-based company Beyond Meat, producer of plant-based burgers whose taste and texture are as much like minced beef as possible, recently went public and soon afterwards hit a valuation of $3.4bn; huge conglomerates such as Nestlé and Kellogg’s are moving into the fake-meat market; supermarkets and restaurant chains have introduced vegan ranges. Yet perhaps the definitive proof of veganism’s mainstreaming – and the backlash against it – came in January this year, when the beloved high-street bakery chain Greggs announced it was launching a Quorn-based vegan sausage roll. It was pilloried by Piers Morgan, who tweeted: “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns.” It turns out Morgan was mistaken: the vegan sausage roll was such a hit that the company’s share value leapt by 13%.

Of course, what we grow, harvest, fatten and kill is political. A Tesco advert showcasing vegan produce met protests from the National Farmers Union who claimed it “demonised” meat, while Shropshire deputy council leader Steve Charmley unleashed a tweet-storm when confronted with pro-vegan advertising in a county he claimed was “built on agriculture”. This moment, and this conflict, were a long time coming. The rise of veganism is a question less of personal taste than of generational upheaval; less about meat and fish and dairy than the systems that put them on our tables in such excessive quantities. Ultimately, the vegan wars are not really about veganism at all, but about how individual freedom is coming into conflict with a personal and environmental health crisis.

In many cultures, the practice of abstaining entirely from animal produce has an established history: with their belief systems rooted in nonviolence, many Rastafarians, followers of Jainism and certain sects of Buddhism have been swearing off meat, fish, eggs and dairy for centuries. In large swathes of the west, though, public awareness of what veganism actually entails has been sketchy. There wasn’t even a commonly accepted English-language name until 1944, when a British woodworker called Donald Watson called a meeting with a handful of other non-dairy vegetarians (including his wife, Dorothy) to discuss a less cumbersome label for their lifestyle. They considered alternatives such as dairyban, vitan and benevore before settling on the term we use today, a simple contraction of vegetarian on the grounds that “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusions”.

But those logical conclusions did not stop at abstaining from certain foods. The original vegans were not pursuing a diet so much as a belief system, a wholesale ideology – one that rejected not just animal protein but also the way animals had become part of an industrial supply chain. In the 1970s, Carol J Adams started work on the book that would appear, two decades later, as The Sexual Politics of Meat: a seminal feminist text that positioned veganism as the only logical solution to a social system that reduced both women and animals to desirable, but disposable, flesh.

In the early 70s, other activists were considering how veganism might provide a viable alternative to existing food systems. In 1971, Diet for a Small Planet by the social policy activist Frances Moore Lappé introduced an environmental justification for going vegetarian or vegan to a global audience (it eventually sold more than 3m copies). In the same year, counter-culture hero Stephen Gaskin founded a vegan intentional community, The Farm, in Lewis County, Tennessee, bringing together some 300 like-minded individuals. Four years later, The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook by Louise Hagler announced: “We are vegetarians because one-third of the world is starving and at least half goes to bed hungry every night,” and introduced western audiences to techniques for making their own soy-based products such as tofu and tempeh.

The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook fixed a certain vegan aesthetic in the minds of mainstream meat-eating culture for decades to come. Veganism became synonymous with soybeans and brown rice, with ageing hippies spooning beige bowlfuls of worthy grains and pulses – not the glamorous, vibrant, youthful practitioners that now radiate positivity from their Instagram feeds.

BBQ pulled jack fruit tacos with avocado and lime: a long way from the beige vegan food much parodied in the 70s. Photograph: LauriPatterson/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is hard to overstate the role social media has played in transforming veganism’s image, with its facility for fostering an instant sense of community. Witness any number of viral internet phenomena – from Woman Laughing Alone with Salad to acai bowls and this generation’s staple, avocado toast – that have helped free it from its musty old associations. Instagram in particular gave vegan food mainstream exposure, repackaging it (good for you and photogenic!) for the low-attention-span internet age. Not everyone sees this as a positive development: the vegan writer and podcast host Alicia Kennedy considers it troubling that the internet has transformed something with such a rich political history into “a wellness thing” that allows would-be consumers to label themselves vegans without having to engage with the “excess baggage” of ideology. Another American writer, Khushbu Shah, has argued that the popularisation of veganism via social media has erased non-white faces and narratives from the dominant discourse, as white bloggers and influencers fashion a lifestyle in their image.

At the same time, a similar transformation was happening to the food vegans were eating. A blossoming street food scene in major cities influenced a dirtier, trashier vegan aesthetic that gave the diet a further boost. Recipe channels on YouTube and Facebook such as BOSH! – a glossy young male duo – used video to make stunt dishes (apple pie tacos; a plant-based take on a McDonald’s McMuffin; a watermelon “Jaegerbomb”) that injected some much-needed fun into the diet. (Tellingly, the BOSH! dudes, Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, refer to themselves not as chefs but “food remixers”.)

The language began to reflect a new, more approachable veganism. Descriptors such as “plant-based” gained in popularity, effectively rebranding the worthy brown stodge of popular imagination into something green and vital. Other neologisms such as “flexitarian” (a term denoting someone who is predominantly vegan or vegetarian but who occasionally eats meat or fish, added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014) recast daunting vegan ideology as a fun, healthy, casual thing to try.

Cultish initiatives like Veganuary (an annual campaign encouraging people to go meat-free for the first month of the year, launched in 2014) and Meat Free Mondays tapped into this spirit – moving away from wholesale dietary transformation and towards something more manageably sporadic, with the added gloss of being able to share (that is, brag about) the experience online. Beyoncé declared an interest in veganism – at least, for breakfast – while athletes such as Venus Williams (who took up a raw vegan diet to combat a health condition) and Lewis Hamilton played a vital role in raising awareness and turning something once seen as weird and a little annoying into a desirable lifestyle.Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

Helping the cause was the growing body of scientific literature suggesting that some of the processes that produce the modern western diet were catastrophically bad for us. Bee Wilson wrote in these pages about the health effects of processed pork in a piece titled “Yes, bacon really is killing us.” Food in the Anthropocene, a report commissioned by the Lancet in conjunction with the global nonprofit Eat (a startup dedicated to transforming the global food system) concluded that “unhealthy diets are the largest global burden of disease”, and that meat-heavy food production is “the largest source of environmental degradation”. A major study led by a team from Oxford University, published in the journal Nature in October 2018, showed that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to slow the rate of climate change. Livestock production has been shown to lead to dangerous levels of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Factor in pop-science phenomena like the documentaries Cowspiracy! and What the Health – available on Netflix – and your diet suddenly seemed like a way you could save the world.

Big Meat continues to lobby aggressively in favour of our God-given right to eat animal flesh, resulting in a series of legal prohibitions surrounding what can and cannot be called “meat”’ or even – in one US state – a “veggie burger”. But veganism’s virality has proved irresistible. From about 2015, vegan and plant-based cookery manuals started to proliferate at a dazzling rate, with the BOSH! boys selling upward of 80,000 copies and spending four weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller list (today, Amazon lists more than 20,000 results for the search term “vegan cookbook”). Sales of plant milks skyrocketed; financial results at the manufacturer of plant-based protein Quorn soared as what one analyst referred to as the “battle for the centre of the plate” began to draw (fake) blood. By 2018, Byron, M&S and Pret had invested heavily in vegan ranges. It was, this paper proclaimed, “the year that veganism moved out of the realms of counter-culture and into the mainstream”. In 2014, Veganuary’s inaugural campaign had attracted just 3,300 participants; by 2019 the number was greater than 250,000, with 53% of them under the age of 35.

But veganism’s explosive growth alone does not explain why it attracted such controversy. There is something inherent to veganism and vegans that arouses deeper feelings. What is it about the vegan lifestyle that stirs such strong emotion in those who don’t happen to share it? Why do people hate vegans so much?

Early attempts to establish a vegan utopia did not go well. In the 1840s, the transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott (father of the author of Little Women, Louisa May) founded Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts – a vegan community intended to be nothing less than a second Eden. But Alcott’s insistence that crops had to be planted and fields tilled by hand meant that not enough food could be grown for all of the members (even though the population peaked at just 13); a diet of fruit and grains, typically consumed raw, left participants severely malnourished. Just seven months after opening, Fruitlands closed – derided, in the words of one biographer, as “one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias”.

The timing was unfortunate for American vegetarians, who were already engaged in a pitched battle with public opinion. Vegetarians and vegans in the 19th century – known as Grahamites after the Presbyterian minister and diet reformer Sylvester Graham, who campaigned against meat-eating on the grounds that it was both unhealthy and morally repugnant – were the subject of frequent vitriolic editorials in the popular and medical press of the day, which described them as “cadaverous”, “feeble”, “half-crazed”, “sour-visaged” and “food cranks”.

In the 21st century the terminology may have changed but the sentiment remains much the same. The 2015 study conducted by MacInnis and Hodson found that only drug addicts were viewed more negatively among respondents. It concluded: “Unlike other forms of bias (eg, racism, sexism), negativity toward vegetarians and vegans is not widely considered a societal problem; rather, [it] is commonplace and largely accepted.”

In 2011, sociologists Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan observed a phenomenon they called “vegaphobia”, demonstrating that the British media consistently portrayed vegans in a negative light. In the days after her story broke, Selene Nelson, the freelancer at the centre of the Waitrose magazine row, was called “humourless”, “combative” and “militant”. In 2017, residents of the Swiss town of Aargau reportedly called for a vegan foreign resident to be denied citizenship because she was “annoying”, and the glee with which the global media retold the story revealed a widespread and casual prejudice.

  Beyond Meat’s Beyond Spring burger.

Veganism’s opponents outline a host of objections to the lifestyle to justify their hostility. Per a now-familiar joke (Q: How do you know if someone’s vegan? A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you), vegans are portrayed as preachy and sanctimonious, a characteristic that rankled among MacInnis and Hodson’s respondents in particular, who viewed “vegetarians/vegans more negatively when their motivations concern social justice rather than personal health”.

There are rational motives to oppose vegan diets on health grounds. They can be deficient in crucial nutrients such as vitamin B-12. This is especially notable in the case of extreme diets (such as fruitarianism) advocated by some vegan bloggers or Instagram influencers with unorthodox approaches to nutritional science. Various supermarket chains have also attempted to meet the burgeoning demand for vegan products with highly processed vegan ready meals – from the Impossible Burger to plant-based meatballs, goujons and hot dogs. As Bee Wilson argued in these pages, the high proportion of processed ingredients in these products means the so-called health halo they enjoy may well be illusory.

Perhaps all we are doing, as veganism truly goes mainstream and companies such as Beyond Meat reap windfalls, is replacing one kind of industrialised system with another. Evidence suggests that intensive livestock farming is a poor solution to world hunger, given its impact on personal health and the environment, but intensive industrialised farming of soya, maize and grains comes at a significant carbon cost, too – as does flying in the ingredients to keep berries and nut butters on acai bowls or avocado on toast.

Veganism, of course, is rooted in social justice – a detail that has faded from view as it has gone mainstream. But even in its dilute 21st-century form, veganism remains confrontational: it casts people’s dietary choices in harsh relief, and people are by nature defensive. In countries where meat is prohibitively expensive for many, people are sometimes vegetarian or vegan by necessity; in the affluent west, not eating meat is an active choice. This makes it a rejection of a lifestyle and a rebuke to the majority’s values – especially in a country (such as the UK) still struggling to escape the long shadow of rationing. We are conditioned to like animals and decry animal cruelty, and yet we are also brought up in a culture that revels in the bacon sandwich, the Sunday roast, fish and chips. One simple explanation for why people don’t like vegans is because they show how confused humankind is about food choices and how illogical its decision-making can be.

And yet none of this really gets to the heart of what it is about vegans that makes people so upset. Calling them humourless or militant, sanctimonious or annoying or hypocrites – all of these terms are just smokescreens for what it is that people really feel, which is fear. Vegans are unsettling and uncanny: they live among us, speak like us, behave like us – but for one significant exception. Meat may be murder, but to some people, the prospect of life without it is even worse.

There is no justification for the amount of meat we eat in western society. The resources that go into humanely rearing and butchering an animal should make its flesh a borderline-unattainable luxury – and, indeed, in the past, it was. Meat always used to be the preserve of the wealthy, a symbol of prosperity: “A chicken in every pot” remained an aspirational but impractical promise across the best part of a millennium, from the days of Henry IV of France (when the term was invented) all the way through to Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign.

It was only through the technological advances of modern agriculture that meat became attainable and available at supermarket prices. From the mid-1800s onwards, farmers could raise animals bigger, better and faster than in the past; kill them quicker; treat their flesh to prevent it from spoiling; transport it further and store it longer. A commonly cited psychological turning point was the second world war, which engendered what Russell Baker, writing in the New York Times, later described as a kind of “beef madness”. GIs were sent to the front with rations of tinned meat; once peace had been declared, there was no better symbol of the brave new world than a sizzling celebratory steak. In the course of just over a century, meat went from unattainable luxury to dietary cornerstone; these days, we feel entitled to eat meat every day.

In March this year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was discussing the Green New Deal on Showtime’s Desus & Mero US TV talk show when she observed: “Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like, let’s keep it real.” An apparently innocuous comment, rooted in the same common-sense good science that informed the Lancet report on meat and environmental degradation published around the same time? Not if you asked the Republicans, it wasn’t.

Representative Rob Bishop of Utah seized on Ocasio-Cortez’s comment, claiming that under the Green New Deal the eating of burgers would be “outlawed”. Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka went one better, using a speech at the Conservative Political Action conference to proclaim: “They want to take away your hamburgers! This is what Stalin dreamed about but never achieved!”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing the Green New Deal, part of which would aim to reduce meat consumption. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Stalin was, in fact, full of admiration for the American burger, going so far as to send his minister of foreign trade to the US on a fact-finding mission (the result, the so-called Mikoyan cutlet, would remain an affordable Soviet staple for decades). But “they’re taking our meat” is as evocative a rallying cry as “they’re taking our jobs” or “they’re taking our guns” – it conveys the same sense of individual freedoms being menaced by external forces, a birthright under attack. Ted Cruz (wrongly) alleged that his Democrat rival Beto O’Rourke planned to ban Texas barbecue if elected senator in his place: like the personal firearm, animal flesh has become an emblem of resistance against the encroachments of progressivism, something to be prised from your cold, dead hand. Men’s rights advocate Jordan Peterson is famed for following a beef and salt diet; Donald Trump is renowned for his love of fast food and well-done steak with ketchup; there is even a subset of libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts who call themselves Bitcoin carnivores.

In the internet age, the consumption of meat is visibly aligned with a certain kind of conservative alpha-masculinity. Before he found infamy eating raw flesh, Gatis Lagzdins was best known for hosting a YouTube channel peddling racist ideology and rightwing conspiracies about the Illuminati. Among the alt-right and affiliated circles online, the derogatory term “soy boy” has been adopted along with other terms such as “cuck” and “beta” as a way of mocking so-called social justice warriors for their perceived lack of vigour. This echoes a finding in the MacInnis/Hodson study, in which respondents from a rightwing background, who seek to uphold traditional gender values, see something alarmingly subversive and worthy of derision in any man who prefers tofu to turkey.

This loaded use of food-derived epithets cuts both ways. In the UK, the term “gammon” gained currency in the early 2010s as a pejorative apparently inspired by the puce skin tone of enraged, middle-aged middle Englanders. Food has always been bound up in personal identity, and thus inextricable from politics. In their etymology, common terms such as “diet” (Greek for way of life) and “regime” (Latin: rule) are metaphors for a struggle over what it means to lead one’s life correctly. The very concept of orthorexia (whose sufferers obsessively exclude foods from their diet that they consider harmful) has at its root a corrupted idea of “correct” eating. It is impossible to talk about diets without also talking about the implied inadequacies of those who do not follow them; to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, tell someone what to eat and you tell them who to be.

The vegan conversation, then, is a stand-in for much bigger things. When we talk about veganism we are talking about environmental and social change; we are also contemplating the erasure of tradition (Texas barbecue! The Sunday roast! The sausage roll!). We are also tabling a long-overdue referendum on how our food choices affect us and the world around us. And as much as its popularity has been pumped up by concepts like flexitarianism, ultimately veganism’s goal is a world in which the annual per-capita consumption of animal products is precisely zero. No wonder things have got so heated.

Food can be a powerful conduit for our anxieties, too. Half a century ago, a letter published in The New England Journal of Medicine described a terrifying new condition whose symptoms – headache, sweating, heart palpitations – were associated with a common ingredient of dishes served in Chinese restaurants: monosodium glutamate, or MSG. The flavour-enhancing additive was so demonised that it was banned in some US cities. Despite multiple studies conclusively proving otherwise, the belief in so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” remains widespread today: Asian-American chefs still find themselves having to justify the use of MSG despite its widespread use in non-Asian foods too. It is a neat example of the persistence of food-related urban legends. There was no doubt a racist element to the way the MSG myth spread; those involved in its dissemination were also motivated by a gnawing fear of obsolescence as a new threat to their existence began to gain popularity.

Those opposing meat-eating have a struggle ahead of them. It is clear that what is at stake here is not steak, but identity. A movement that preaches such wholesale change is bound to stir up anxieties, chief among them the sense that vegan dishes such as the Greggs Quorn sausage roll are being positioned not as alternatives but as replacements.

With a few notable exceptions – most of them religious – meat has retained its primacy in cultures across the world. It originally became a status symbol because it was harder to obtain than plant matter – even a small animal could run away, and if caught, was capable of inflicting wounds that could prove fatal in a world before antibiotics. As society became hierarchical, there was no greater token of status than the ability to eat meat on a whim. In her 2016 book Meathooked, Marta Zaraska records the discovery of Egyptian tombs in which the pharaohs had been buried alongside “meat mummies”, baskets of beef and poultry that had been embalmed in preparation for the afterlife. Our fetishisation of meat has not lessened – on the contrary, forecasters predict rapid increase in meat consumption in developing countries over the next decade. As a ready source of protein, meat remains the great aspiration, the surest proof of prosperity.

As Carol J Adams wrote, the words we use shield us from the moral consequences of carnivory: we eat beef, not cows, pork, not pigs, while a cabbage remains just a cabbage wherever it is in its life cycle. Our language ennobles meat at the expense of veg: strong, muscular types are “beefy”, lazy people are “couch potatoes”, unresponsive ones “vegetables”. Turning our back on meat-eating is not as simple as changing from pork to Quorn: it requires us to reject some entrenched values.

Already, there are signs that a great migration is underway. The UK university caterer Tuco recently reported that record numbers of canteens are going meat-free, describing the adoption of vegan or vegetarian diets among students and staff as a “mega-trend”. On the high street, too, there is a growing recognition that vegan ranges are not just opportunistic cash-grabs but potential best-sellers. After the success of Greggs’ vegan sausage roll, Tesco announced it would be increasing its range of dedicated plant-based products by nearly 50% to keep pace with demand.

Sales may be growing fast, but they are barely making a dent in the $1.7tr global market for animal-derived protein. Certainly, a change of culture will not happen without the involvement of government, industry and science; as the past few years have shown, widespread change is also unlikely to happen without a fight. This makes the current field of conflict an unfortunate one – in the real world, we can practise moderation, emotional flexitarianism. Online – where many of the vegan wars’ most intense skirmishes are currently being fought – we do not find compromise or even look for it. The internet has made communication highly charged and polarised; the only way to be heard in such a screaming vortex is to shout louder.

But the body of evidence suggesting that we eat too much meat is approaching the point where it becomes undeniable. This summer, a UN report identified destruction of forests and emissions from cattle and other intensive farming practices as major factors driving the climate crisis towards a point of no return.

Some are proposing urgent action, such as the QC Michael Mansfield, who recently suggested (in a speech given at the launch of the Vegan Now campaign) that meat-eating could become illegal. He drew a parallel with the smoking ban, and it is indeed eminently possible that in time meat (especially red meat) becomes the new tobacco – a vice enjoyed by a small number of people in full awareness of its negative health consequences.

But in coining the term “ecocide” – and classing it as a crime against humanity – Mansfield framed the debate in different terms. We might portray the current moment as a precipice, and the growing interest in plant-based diets as the surest way back to safety. In this interpretation, the war on vegans is the act of a doomed majority fighting to defend its harmful way of life. Vegans might well be vociferous and annoying, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied and evangelical. But as their numbers grow beyond the margins, perhaps the worst thing they could be is right.