A Conversation With: Sociologist Ashis Nandy


Niharika Mandhana in the NYT’s India Ink:

Ashis Nandy, an eminent Indian sociologist and political analyst, now finds himself in what he described as an “astonishing and ironic position,” in an interview Tuesday.

He has championed the rights of India’s lower castes and tribal groups for the better part of half a century, he said, but is now being accused of making remarks that some have cast as “anti-Dalit,” a reference to India’s lower castes, formerly known as “untouchables.”

Speaking last week at the Jaipur Literature Festival, an annual  gathering of writers, thinkers and commentators, Mr. Nandy acknowledged that what he was about to say was “undignified” and “vulgar,” but then said, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, and increasingly the Scheduled Tribes. And as long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.”

(For our readers outside India, the Indian government classifies some of its citizens according to socioeconomic status, grouping them under the labels Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.)

His comments followed those of the journalist and editor Tarun Tejpal, who characterized corruption in India as a “class equalizer.”  Mr. Nandy’s statement was instantly picked up by television news channels, often in an abbreviated form, and many portrayed his words as a slur against lower castes.

“Ashis Nandy says OBC, SC, ST most corrupt,” the Press Trust of India reported.

After his comments were publicized, small demonstrations broke out in Jaipur, and a complaint against Mr. Nandy was filed with the police under a law that aims to prevent and punish crimes and atrocities committed against Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

India Ink spoke Mr. Nandy about the recent furor, the correlation between caste and corruption, and the state of free speech in India, at his New Delhi apartment on Tuesday as the 75-year-old waited to receive a warrant from the police for questioning.

Q. The current controversy arose as a result of a statement you made where you suggest that most of India’s corrupt belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. What did you mean when you said that?
A. That’s not what I wanted to say. That can’t be empirically supported, because there’s no real survey.

The point I was trying to make was this: if you remove all corruption from society, that’s good. But that will take decades. In the interim period, those who are on the brink of desperation, those who have been deprived of access to power for centuries, deserve to get a share of the loot. Their corruption is a sign of their empowerment and the growth of the Indian republic. In fact, it should be encouraged.


(Here, in Outlook India, you can find a transcript of his comments and a video of the session.)

the logical space of reasons


Reviewing John Dewey’s Experience and Nature in 1925, George Santayana charged that the overarching goal of the treatise was incoherent on its face.1 Indeed, Santayana insisted that Dewey’s “naturalistic metaphysics”—the philosophical slogan of this particular work—was a flat contradiction in terms. Years later, Richard Rorty agreed with his hero’s interlocutor. In fact, Rorty extended Santayana’s critique, complaining of Dewey’s ambition to transform philosophy into a credibly modern, because natural science. For this ambition, holds Rorty, is predicated on a willful forgetting of what thoroughgoing naturalists don’t ever forget but emphatically deny. Specifically: “[N]othing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies in which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge.”2 One way of cashing out Rorty’s point here is to say that I might explain your affective state, say, your sadness, by reminding myself of the cruel remark that I made last week. Alternatively, I can cite the frequency and rate at which sound waves hit your eardrum, triggering a chain reaction that includes the passage of vibrations through a coiled tube in your ear, and the subsequent swaying of hair-like nerve endings or cilia, which are thought to be responsible for the transmission of messages from the auditory nerve to the brain.

more from Jason Bartulis at nonsite here.

bird music


The term zoomusicology was coined in 1983 by French composer François-Bernard Mâche. Mâche argued that bird song and human music share many attributes. Both rely on repeated patterns, scales, arpeggios, themes, and variations. Both are frequently used to attract mates, or claim territory. (How much conceptual daylight is there between a national anthem and a blackbird singing to tell other males to clear off?) It was possible, then, to analyze animal sounds using musicological principles. Mâche went further, though, wondering whether birds might consider their own calls aesthetically as well as functionally. Scientists had observed that bird songs are often more complex and ornamented than seems absolutely necessary; and some species create their songs rather than know them innately, cobbling their own compositions together with snippets from their parents, their neighbors. Do these birds improvise and mimic and mock for the sheer raucous thrill of it?

more from Eric Wagner at Orion here.

tattoo you


Toward the end of the nineteenth century—at the same time as Europeans and Americans were shying away from tattoo-emblazoned sailors and flocking to gawk at primitive people covered with inky designs—a veritable tattoo craze was underway among pilgrims in Jerusalem. It followed hundreds of years of less flamboyant dissemination of the practice among westerners visiting the Holy Land. An Armenian known as “Prickly Jack” haunted hotels in the vicinity of the Holy Sepulcher, presenting certificates of endorsement from former clients to every traveler he could accost. One of these read: “This old fellow picked my arm until it was ‘deeply, darkly, beautifully blue,’ thereby giving me a deep and everlasting impression of Jerusalem.” Pairs of men hovered in the doorways of churches inquiring among passing pilgrims whether they would like to have the representation of a sacred object pricked into them. Young ladies pleaded with their fathers to approve their getting inked and suffered distress of mind as to where to place the mark so that it would neither stain the effect of a sleeveless décolleté costume, nor prove too inconveniently concealed to flash to a friend.

more from George Prochnik at Cabinet here.

Tariq Ali on upcoming elections in Pakistan

Tariq Ali in the London Review of Books:

Tariq_ali__tariq-ali_58507ePakistan is preparing for elections in May and June, and an all-party caretaker government will soon take over to supervise the process. Meanwhile, things continue as eventfully as usual. There has been yet another clash between the Supreme Court and the Zardari government; a previously obscure Muslim cleric returned from Canada to lead what he hoped would be a ‘million-strong’ anti-corruption march to Islamabad; and two factories in Lahore and Karachi have burned to a cinder with the workers still inside. Add to all this Sunni vigilantes regularly targeting and killing Shia; the Pakistani Taliban striking security targets; the military responding with indiscriminate killings; and the regular drone attacks, courtesy of Obama.

On 15 January, the Supreme Court, having last year got rid of one prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, for contempt of court, ordered the arrest of his successor, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and 16 other men on charges of corruption linked to kickbacks handed out by the power companies contracted to supplement the country’s inadequate electricity supply. These so-called Rental Power Projects gave rise to the nickname ‘Raja Rental’ that Ashraf acquired when he was Zardari’s minister for water and power. After all, nine firms had received a government advance of 22 billion rupees so it was only fair that the minister and his officials be rewarded. It was a surprisingly honest report by the usually tame National Accountability Bureau (NAB), set up by General Musharraf in 1999 to investigate corruption, which led the Supreme Court to order last March that all the RPP contracts be declared null and void. The judges are now livid because they believe the NAB is deliberately dragging its feet.

More here.

Love in Excess: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

Amanda Shubert in Critis At Large:

ScreenHunter_112 Jan. 31 15.39If you’d asked me last year which contemporary director I’d most like to see adapt Anna Karenina, I would have named Joe Wright. David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies and directed the majestic BBC miniseries’ of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, would have been a close second. Yates has a magical feel for the epic scope of Victorian fiction – a quality he excavates out of J.K. Rowling’s already Dickensian material – and perhaps more than any other recent director he has succeeded in transmuting the addictive pacing of the capacious novel form to the seriality of television and the film series, capturing the velocity of the novels rather than trying to outdo them. But it’s Wright’s films that distill and remediate the pleasure that novel reading can give us. In Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), the experience of reading as both subject and visual motif suffuses the movies with a gently expressive self-awareness of the translation from page to screen.

More here.

Arguing against gay marriage

Alex Worsnip in Prospect:

Opponents of gay marriage have, for many years now, lacked intellectually credible arguments. What Is Marriage is an attempt to remedy this. Its authors—Sherif Girgis, Ryan T Anderson, and Princeton Professor Robert P George—are three academics with an impressive array of credentials. The book is measured and non-confrontational, written in a tone somewhere between legal scholarship and philosophy. Stylistically, at least, it is the antithesis of the ravings of the religious right. Although the authors are conservative Christians, they purport to make a secular case against gay marriage.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-gay marriage movement has embraced this work as a godsend, characterising it as the long-awaited heavyweight, intellectually formidable defence of their view. The authors have presented their argument in serious forums such as the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy and the Wall Street Journal. Even some people on the other side of the debate have taken the book seriously, with Kenji Yoshino of NYU law school calling it “the best argument against gay marriage.” Behind its intellectual veneer, though, the arguments of What Is Marriage are no less flimsy than those of other anti-gay marriage crusaders.

The central question in the gay marriage debate, the authors tell us, is not about homosexuality, but rather about marriage. As such, the battle over gay marriage is, in the view of the authors, a battle to save marriage. Once we understand what marriage—the real thing—is, we will see that it is inherent in its very nature that there cannot be a marriage between two people of the same sex.

It’s an audacious line of reasoning. In response to demands for legal rights for gay people, it says something like: “I’m sorry—it’s nothing against you, it’s just that the demand you’ve made doesn’t make sense.” Asking for a gay marriage is, for these authors, rather like asking for a liquid car, or for a manicure for your knees—a demand for something conceptually impossible.

More here.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief

From The Guardian:

Tom-Cruise-at-opening-of--010Lafayette Ronald Hubbard published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950. According to Bridge Publications, itself an arm of the Church of Scientology, at least 80 million copies have been sold. That sounds possible, if you credit the church's claim that it has 8 million members. But then you have to reckon with more objective external estimates that the membership might be just 50,000, while one assumes that the book sales are inflated by deliberate bulk-buying by church members. So what are you going to believe?

…All of which would begin to bear out the thought that there can't be that many people who would fall for the preposterous doctrine of Scientology, or be ready to tolerate the ugly behaviour of its church. Admittedly, that is a personal opinion, but on your behalf I have acquired it from reading Lawrence Wright's account of this phenomenon. His book is admirably judicious and thoroughly researched (within the limits of secrecy or paranoia imposed by the church), but I often had the feeling that Wright himself was uncertain whether this was fit material for a sober book of non-fiction, or would he collapse in fits of helpless laughter and tears at the stuff he was obliged to report? Even if the church had just three remaining members (Tom Cruise, John Travolta and its present leader, David Miscavige), it would be a demented venture worthy of Mel Brooks or Monty Python. When I say on your behalf, I have to tell you, and remind myself, that fears of litigation are preventing publication of this book in Britain. Both the Church of Scientology and Tom Cruise have a history of being litigiously aggressive, and both have denied the veracity of a great deal of the material in the book.

More here.

‘Jeopardy’-winning super computer headed to college


JeopardyWatson, the supercomputer famous for beating the world's best human “Jeopardy!” champions, is going to college. IBM is announcing Wednesday that it will provide a Watson system to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first time the computer is being sent to a university. Just like the flesh-and-blood students who will work on it, Watson is leaving home to sharpen its skills. Course work will include English and math. “It's a big step for us,” said Michael Henesey, IBM's vice president of business development. “We consider it absolutely strategic technology for IBM in the future. And we want to evolve it, of course, thoughtfully, but also in collaboration with the best and brightest in academia.”

Watson is a cognitive system that can process massive amounts of data, including natural language. To beat “Jeopardy!” champions in 2011, it was fed the contents of encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news dispatches and movie scripts. For its medical work, it takes in medical textbooks and journals. After it takes in data, Watson can provide information like a “Jeopardy!” answer, a medical diagnosis or an estimate of financial risk. IBM, which provided a grant to RPI to operate Watson for three years, sees it as a way to help it boost the computer's cognitive capabilities. Artificial intelligence researchers at RPI want to do things like improve Watson's mathematical ability and help it quickly figure out the meaning of new or made-up words. They want to improve its ability to handle the torrent of images, videos and emails on the Web, the sort of unstructured information that is overwhelmingly fueling the data boom.

More here.

Thursday Poem

How to Listen

I am going to cock my head tonight like a dog
in front of McGlinchy's Tavern on Locust;
I am going to stand beside the man who works all day combing
his thatch of gray hair corkscrewed in every direction.
I am going to pay attention to our lives
unraveling between the forks of his fine-tooth comb.
For once, we won't talk about the end of the world
or Vietnam or his exquisite paper shoes.
For once, I am going to ignore the profanity and
the dancing and the jukebox so I can hear his head crackle
beneath the sky's stretch of faint stars.

by Major Jackson
from Leaving Saturn, 2002

The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA

That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think

Natalie Angier in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_111 Jan. 30 16.10In a report that scaled up local surveys and pilot studies to national dimensions, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States — both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it — kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.

The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.

Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and an author of the report, said the mortality figures that emerge from the new model “are shockingly high.”

More here.

The Scariest Environmental Fact in the World

Bryan Walsh in Time:

CoalAs the data show, China is now burning almost as much coal as the rest of the world — combined. And despite impressive support from Beijing for renewable energy and a dawning understanding about the dangers of air pollution, coal use in China is poised to continue rising, if slower than it has in recent years. That’s deadly for the Chinese people — see the truly horrific air pollution in Beijing this past month — and it’s dangerous for the rest of the world. Coal already accounts for 20% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, making it one of the biggest causes of man-made climate change. Combine that with the direct damage that air pollution from coal combustion does to human health, and there’s a reason why some have called coal the enemy of the human race.

Of course, there’s a reason why coal is so popular in China and in much of the rest of the world: it’s very, very cheap. And that’s why, despite the danger coal poses to health and the environment, neither China nor many other rapidly growing developing nations are likely to turn away from it. (If you really want to get scared, see this report from the International Energy Agency — hat tip to Ed Crooks of the Financial Times — which notes that by 2017, India could be burning more importing as much coal as China.) That’s likely to remain the case in poor nations until clean energy can compete with coal on price — and that day hasn’t come yet.

The EIA’s chart also shows how limited President Obama’s ability to deal with climate change really is. The reality is that the vast majority of the carbon emissions to come will be emitted by developing nations like China — and much of that will be due to coal.

More here.

‘I feel like a stranger where I live’

Jane Kelly in The Telegraph:

Multicultural_2464391b“When you go swimming, it’s much healthier to keep your whole body completely covered, you know.” The Muslim lady behind the counter in my local pharmacy has recently started giving me advice like this. It’s kindly meant and I’m always glad to hear her views because she is one of the few people in west London where I live who talks to me.

The streets around Acton, which has been my home since 1996, have taken on a new identity. Most of the shops are now owned by Muslims and even the fish and chip shop and Indian takeaway are Halal. It seems that almost overnight it’s changed from Acton Vale into Acton Veil.

Of the 8.17 million people in London, one million are Muslim, with the majority of them young families. That is not, in reality, a great number. But because so many Muslims increasingly insist on emphasising their separateness, it feels as if they have taken over; my female neighbours flap past in full niqab, some so heavily veiled that I can’t see their eyes. I’ve made an effort to communicate by smiling deliberately at the ones I thought I was seeing out and about regularly, but this didn’t lead to conversation because they never look me in the face.

I recently went to the plainly named “Curtain Shop” and asked if they would put some up for me. Inside were a lot of elderly Muslim men. I was told that they don’t do that kind of work, and was back on the pavement within a few moments. I felt sure I had suffered discrimination and was bewildered as I had been there previously when the Muslim owners had been very friendly. Things have changed. I am living in a place where I am a stranger.

More here.

“Pride & Prejudice” Forever


So widely admired is Pride and Prejudice today that it’s impossible to imagine our literary landscape without it. And yet, nothing about the novel’s genesis pointed to such a remarkable future. Its early publishing history was in fact downright unpromising. According to the records of Cassandra, Austen at age 20 began drafting the book in October 1796, possibly in epistolary form, under the original title First Impressions. She finished it in August 1797. In November 1797, Austen’s father, always one of his daughter’s greatest fans, wrote a letter inviting the prominent London publisher Thomas Cadell to look at a “Manuscript Novel,” probably First Impressions. Cadell declined the offer, and a few years later the title “First Impressions” appeared on a novel by Margaret Holford. More than 15 years later Thomas Egerton, the publisher of Sense and Sensibility, published Austen’s revised version of Pride and Prejudice, “lop’t and crop’t” as she put it in a letter to Cassandra, and sporting the new title, most likely borrowed from a passage in Cecilia by Frances Burney, the most famous female novelist of the late 18th century. As a market-savvy author, Austen no doubt also favored the alliterative cadence of “pride and prejudice,” something she had employed to good effect in the title of her first published book. Egerton bought the rights to Pride and Prejudice (the only time Austen allowed this) and paid Austen £110 for her labors, £40 short of what she had asked. Details about Pride and Prejudice’s early print runs are imprecise — the scholar Jan Fergus estimates that there were roughly 1,000 first editions and 750 second editions before the end of the year; a third edition was published in 1817.

more from Audrey Bilger and Susan Celia Greenfield at the LA Review of Books here.

the knotted-up man


Richard and Pat Nixon, two essentially shy people who would now both be a hundred years old, first met onstage. Each had a role in the Whittier Community Players’ 1938 production of “The Dark Tower,” by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott. Pat Ryan, a pretty twenty-five-year-old teacher at Whittier High, came to “The Dark Tower” with a smidgen of theatrical experience. Born in a Nevada mining-town shack and toughened by a hardworking childhood on a farm in Artesia, she had helped put herself through the University of Southern California with occasional jobs as a movie extra. But it wasn’t any real enthusiasm for the stage that brought her to the Community Players. As her daughter Julie explains in a biography of her mother, she went only because the assistant superintendent at Whittier High asked her to, and she “found it difficult to say no to a school administrator.” Nixon took to the whole business and several months later was back for more. At the urging of the Players’ director, he went on to appear in “Night of January 16th,” a melodrama by Ayn Rand in which the text itself chewed the scenery. Pat Nixon, in later years, gave three memorably painful on-camera performances opposite Richard Nixon. In each of them, she was without lines of her own, but her mute, stricken countenance became an important part of the historical impression being created and preserved.

more from Thomas Mallon at The New Yorker here.

the truth is far murkier


On November 18, 1978, more than nine hundred members of Peoples Temple church died in a mass suicide-murder in Jonestown, Guyana. It was a horrific epilogue to the dream of building a socialist utopia in the South American jungle. Jim Jones, the Temple’s charismatic leader, had promised his flock deliverance from America’s ills: racism, sexism, capitalism, and economic burnout. Instead, he controlled his city like a police state, enforcing a paranoid regimen of loyalty oaths, suicide drills, and brainwashing. His drug-fueled sermons, beginning in the evening and lasting until 2 or 3 AM, spelled out a doomsday scenario of CIA invasion and torture. “They will not leave us in peace,” he warned his followers, but in the end it was Jones himself, the Temple’s beloved “father,” who rallied his people to their own destruction. Peoples Temple remains an enigma despite having spawned a cottage industry of books, documentaries, and scholarly studies. The most fundamental misrepresentation is that it was a cult and Jonestown the apotheosis of a collective death wish. Jim Jones, with his painted sideburns and aviator sunglasses, has become a totem of ’70s kitsch, the apocalyptic flipside to Jimmy Carter and Alfred E. Neuman. The truth captured in Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown, a new collection of interviews with survivors of Peoples Temple, is far murkier.

more from Jeremy Lybarger at Bookforum here.

Drawn to perfection

From The Independent:

Mother-TeresaDo not adjust your screen: the above portraits are not the products of a camera but the steady hand and sharp pencil of a London artist with an astonishing eye for detail. Kelvin Okafor is one of the leading proponents of a niche but flourishing school of photo-realists. The Middlesex fine art graduate is winning plaudits and prizes for his pencil drawings, each of which can take 100 hours over a three-week period to produce. From his home in Tottenham, North London, Okafor, 27, has created portraits of celebrities as diverse as Amy Winehouse, Tinie Tempah and Mother Teresa, shown here, commanding as much as £10,000 for each work. He has more than 50 commissions to his name and awards including the Catherine Petitgas Visitors’ Choice Prize, part of the National Open Art Competition. Okafor’s portraits have also been exhibited at The Mall Galleries in central London as part of the Threadneedle Prize Exhibition. Before the artist puts the pencil to paper, he spends days analysing his source photographs, concentrating first on the eyes before using thousands of pencil strokes to build detail showing every pore and hair.

More here.

Research prize boost for Europe: Graphene and virtual brain

From Nature:

Two of the biggest awards ever made for research have gone to boosting studies of the wonder material graphene and an elaborate simulation of the brain. The winners of the European Commission’s two-year Future and Emerging Technologies ‘flagship’ competition, announced on 28 January, will receive €500 million (US$670 million) each for their planned work, which the commission hopes will help to improve the lives, health and prosperity of millions of Europeans. The Human Brain Project, a supercomputer simulation of the human brain conceived and led by neuroscientist Henry Markram at the Swiss Federal Insitute of Technology in Lausanne, scooped one of the prizes. The other winning team, led by Jari Kinaret at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, hopes to develop the potential of graphene — an ultrathin, flexible, electrically conducting form of carbon — in applications such as personal-communication technologies, energy storage and sensors.

The size of the awards — matching funds raised by the participants are expected to bring each project’s budget up to €1 billion over ten years — have some researchers worrying that the flagship programme may draw resources from other research. And both winners have already faced criticism. Many neuroscientists have argued, for example, that the Human Brain Project’s approach to modelling the brain is too cumbersome to succeed (see Nature 482, 456–458; 2012). Markram is unfazed. He explains that the project will have three main thrusts. One will be to study the structure of the mouse brain, from the molecular to the cellular scale and up. Another will generate similar human data. A third will try to identify the brain wiring associated with particular behaviours. The long-term goals, Markram says, include improved diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases, and brain-inspired technology. “It’s a very bold project,” says Mark Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, adding that it will “no doubt spawn unexpected new research directions, probably to help develop supercomputing and medical robotics”. No one knows exactly what data will be needed to simulate the human brain, he says — “the Human Brain Project will help us find out”.

More here.