Friday, January 27, 2006

Idi Amin would have been proud...

So now it comes out that the U.S. has been seizing the wives and children of suspected Iraqi insurgents, as "leverage" to use against said insurgents. Yes, we are fighting against an enemy that knows no bounds. But what is it we are fighting for? Don't our leaders understand that when we sink to that level, we have lost?


The debate rages on, over whether Hamas will be forced to moderate its positions, now that it is the party in power. Some have likened it to the IRA/Sinn Fein. But Hamas is faced with more than a renunciation of terrorism. It is faced with having to renounce its entire raison d'etre, or risk turning a million Palestinians into instant martyrs. Today, there were gunbattles in Gaza between partisans of Fatah and Hamas. One has to wonder if they realize what they look like to the rest of the world.


It isn't just the Religious Right that knows no decency. The Queen of Bile, Ann Coulter, has come out in favour of assassinating a Supreme Court justice using rat poison. She was quick to insist it was just a joke. As though we believe that. She has previously advocated jailing, deporting or executing everyone who disagrees with her, and never cracked a smile. It's all in writing, not that you would want to waste your money on her books.


This correspondent has occasionally pointed out the similarities between our homegrown Christian Right and the Islamo-fascists. He has been met with indignation over the comparison. After all, the latter bomb buildings while the former don't (Oops. Forgot about Oklahoma City...) Well, there is a new movement taking hold in Africa, a melange of evangelical Christianity, Islam, Catholicism and native African Animism. Their sermons draw on elements of all of these traditions, with a lot of speaking in tongues and the like. This movement appears to be spreading like wildfire. For the moment, it is putting a damper on the inter-tribal warfare that has ruled the day in places like Sudan.

Now, one could, in a hopeful moment, imagine this to be the beginning of an unforeseeable rapprochement among these various religious communities, the seed of hope that we might finally transcend sectarian hatred and violence. But don't bet on it. It is just as easy to imagine a new brand of ultra-fundamentalism arising from this experiment, one that will spawn Jihad infused with Christian righteousness and a touch of Voodoo. Picture book burnings, massacres, and witch hunts. Picture schools being bombed. Ditto for labs that do medical research. Picture the execution of wayward girls, the murder of interracial couples, mass rapes, and conversions at bayonet point. Don't laugh. It's been going on for two thousand years, with almost every religious and political creed having blood on its hands. Heck, the past 40 years have seen nary a break in the insanity (think Cambodia, the Great Leap Forward, Bosnia, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Darfur, Rwanda, Pakistan, Jonestown, Gujarat, the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Iraq under the "Coalition"... and so on....) A combined Islamo-Christian movement would have the power to take the violence to levels never before imagined. We can only watch with morbid fascination.


(A self-congratulatory note here: This writer foretold the rise of such a movement two years ago, in a draft for a work of fiction that is still in progress. He imagined it spawning a global terror network, called the Hand of God. With any luck, the story will see the light of day before it becomes dated.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Surprise, surprise?

This is a foretaste of what will happen throughout the muslim world if we “succeed” in forcing democracy on them. If you’re a betting person, here is a list of countries which will almost certainly elect islamic theocracies the first time they get to hold truly open and fair elections, whether forced on them at gunpoint or not (note that at least one of them is a nuclear power already):

Saudi Arabia
Algeria (actually did, twice, and the result was annulled with support from the US and EU)

Here is a partial list of countries which would almost certainly break up into smaller states, some of them Islamo-fascist, if allowed complete self-determination:


Here are our best “friends” in the region:

Saudi Arabia

Funny, that they are all despotic, authoritarian regimes, hated by their people and guilty of massive human rights abuses. Makes you wonder where we went wrong. The idea that we can promote democracy around the world is cute. The reality, however, is that our leaders don’t understand the need to walk the walk, nor how to handle getting what we ask for. It is not as though any of this needed to be a surprise, but no one with real knowledge of that part of the world was invited to the table.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Random Neurons Firing

Google was apparently alone, among major search engine companies, in standing up to the Adminstration's brazen demand that it cough up data on the search habits of its users. On fears of a confrontation with the Injustice Department, Google's stock tanked today. While there is a lot to fault in Google's relentless hype, here is one issue on which we should all stand with the company. Yahoo, meanwhile, caved quietly, and deserves only our scorn. From having once been a symbol of edgy rebelliousness, Yahoo has become just another gutless corporate stooge. But we saw it coming. Their tie-up with the likes of SBC amounted to a wholesale sellout of both companies' customers.

Following their setback in Dover last month, a few of the Religious Rats have been jumping ship. Suddenly, congressmen like Rick Santorum, the Apostle of Ignorance, are standing up for science. We'll see how long that lasts. In Santorum's case, it can be traced to an acute attack of re-election anxiety. Some of the rats are turning on each other: the moderates (Creation as Metaphor) and the extremists are accusing each other of hurting the cause. Meanwhile, America remains the only industrialized country in which a majority reject the scientific account of how we got here. A whole lot more rats are going to have to devour each other before that changes.

Administration spokesmen (and their buddies on the right-wing talk radio stations) continue to defend their desire to spy on us. First it was the Patriot Act. Now it is catching web porn users. For a crowd that continually thunders about limiting government power, these people are remarkably cavalier about telling us we should give up our rights. The question: if this kind of government power is OK, then just what does it mean to talk about "getting government off our backs?" Oh, I forgot, the Constitution doesn't say anything about privacy.

Meanwhile, as institutional panic about Avian flu builds, governments are stockpiling a treatment of dubious value. The company that makes it once had Donald Rumsfeld as its Chairman. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists on the Left are using this as a pretext to claim that Avian flu itself is a hoax, or at best, overblown. If they have their way, we won't do anything about it until 40 million people have died, and then they will point fingers at the "callous" establishment for not having prepared adequately. This doesn't have to become another Katrina (think 30,000 Katrinas), but it appears there are too many agendas for us to expect our institutions actually to do the right things.

On a quasi-personal note: as we try to help our mom navigate through the healthcare system, a few things are obvious: Without Medicare, or children of means, people like her would just have to suffer and die in the streets. In spite of Medicare, some die there anyway, because our system is beyond broken. But the Republican campaign to bankrupt the program is simply unconscionable. It needs to be fixed, not destroyed. We could start by applying a means test for eligibility, and allowing the program to negotiate drug prices, as it does with services.

More on the system: Having the means to pay for care is not enough. We have been taking turns hounding the doctors, nurses and administrators at the hospitals, to make sure they do not forget our mom. (We are talking about some of the best hospitals in the country.) Patients without such advocates may as well just hurry up and die, and many do, in great pain. Most doctors and nurses went into their professions in part because of an idealistic desire to heal other human beings. What is it about our system that leaves them so jaded and exhausted that they don't pay attention unless you badger the crap out of them?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Final India Dispatch: Kolkata

To the minds of westerners, Calcutta has long symbolized mass human misery. The few images that are available, in venues such as Life Magazine, National Geographic and the occasional documentary on Mother Teresa, typically depict unending seas of people living in unbearable conditions. As we prepare to land, we wonder: what is Kolkata like today? Does the name change mean anything?

We arrive at night. The airport is a huge improvement over the disaster that is Delhi's airport. Outside the terminal, the air has a slight tropical taste, complemented by palm trees and people in short sleeves. The temperature on New Year's day is comfortable--a foreshadowing of the unbearable heat to come in summer. Only vague impressions, lights and silhouettes, are visible from the car, but already the feeling is different. Kolkata is more vertical than Delhi, and there is life everywhere. It has the feeling of a real city.

Kolkata was the heart of British India, and in the light of day, the signs are everywhere: in the architecture, the place names and the air of history. The largest edifice in the city is the Victoria Memorial, a gargantuan marble palace with domes and columns and several wings, sitting near one end of the Maidan, Kolkata's huge open-space park. There are, in the old sections of town, rows of grand houses in varying mixes of European styles. Some were built by the Brits, others by various Bengal princes and tycoons, who managed to ride out the colonial period in grand style.

A British East India Company cemetary lies just off the main shopping street, serving as a quiet sanctuary in the midst of chaos. The monuments inside are ostentatious, though stained with soot and mold, and evince a strangely Egyptian obsession with pyramids. Most of the people buried here died before they turned 30, yet they had been captains, professors, mayors, barristers, and society ladies. There are few visitors to the cemetary, and those we see today are speaking something that sounds like Czech.

Woven around this monumental infrastructure are the slums and bazaars, crushed into an endless maze of narrow, twisting streets and alleys. Cutting through it all are a few major thoroughfares, vestiges, ironically, of the pre-British era, when townsfolk made pilgrimages from their communities to the north to local burial grounds and temples in the south. Hordes of people wend their way through these alleys, and along the edges of the larger avenues, past shops, tea-stalls, cobbler stands, and open-air vegetable markets. Laundry hangs everywhere. We wonder where they wash clothing, and then pass the answer: huge, rectangular stone wells, at intervals along the roads, gushing water into open cisterns. We pass men, stripped to their breechcloths, bathing in water scooped from the cisterns in banged-up metal pots. Amid all the filth there is still a desire to keep oneself clean. In a society still constrained by strict codes of modesty, such a ritual is out of the question for women, so we are left wondering how they accomplish the same goal.

We are told that the hordes are largely from outside the city--Biharis, East Bengalis, others, who have swarmed into the only major city in this part of India, in search of work. And they do appear to be working; at night there are few of them left on the streets--they have found shelter in the tenements that crowd in among the old buildings. But with the carelessness of people who do not own the place, they litter on a gargantuan scale. There are cleaning crews that come at night, but overall there hangs an organic smell, part decaying garbage, part local spices and the aroma of cooking fires.

Bengal is an anomaly in India, a state run by a Marxist government. Everywhere there are pro-worker slogans painted or scrawled on walls. They are not official, but are sanctioned by the local officials. Contrary to today's orthodoxy, Bengal is also one of the more prosperous states in India, with a growth rate among the top eight. It is not one of the centers of high-tech growth, but has attracted a sizeable new-industry element, mostly in software. Still, the population of poor grows faster than the economy. With the influx of migrant workers and refugees, the human burden seems more than the place can bear.

Outside the city itself, we pass wide open spaces that are being converted into industrial parks and tract housing. The construction is done by crews using their hands, moving dirt in small baskets carried by relays of villagers, men and women alike. Where labour is so cheap and plentiful, it would make no sense to bring in heavy equipment, so there is very little. But there are ambitious plans afoot, judging by the miles of land that have been marked off for future construction.

Final thoughts from this trip:

Is India a credible rival to China, as the next economic superpower? All of the numbers say that it is falling steadily behind, but is still in the running. India’s overall GDP growth lags that of China, but at 7% for the past decade, is far ahead of that in the G8 countries. In foreign direct investment, India has fallen off the map. Still, India has key strengths that could keep it in the game, including the emergence of a young manager class and the continued flood of graduates from its highly-regarded IIT system. In certain sectors, India is ahead, especially business process outsourcing, where English language skills count. India runs a trade surplus with China, but the base is narrow and could evaporate quickly.

Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t tell a complete story. Nothing can replace direct observation, for forming a sense of the texture of a place. For this writer, having traveled in the interior of China, as well having spent a lot of time in its showcase cities, the contrast with India is unmistakable. For all its troubles and challenges, China has crossed a threshhold. Its worries are now different from those of India. It is no longer coping with the kind of poverty and suffering that we more typically associate with the “third world”. India still is. China's corruption, while pervasive, is driven by constructive pressures--the desire to control and be credited for advancement. India's corruption is driven by the desire to steal.

The irony is there for all to see. Ideologues in the West insist that China, a dictatorship, cannot possibly be a better model than India, a democracy. Perhaps they will eventually turn out to be right. China certainly faces deadly challenges, including its own growing gap between the rich coasts and the poor interior. But so far, the results say China is doing better. India’s political freedom, which is real and is to be nurtured, has nevertheless not produced a class of political leaders with a sense of mission. India must develop a sense of mission, if it is to fulfill its promise.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dispatch from India (2)

It is early afternoon, and we are headed out of Delhi. Our destination is a nearby suburb. Of course, terms are relative: A town or “suburb” here can mean a million people. As we leave the center of Delhi, we pass more of the long narrow slums that line the main arteries. It is impossible to get used to them. We continue on. The traffic gradually thins out, the three-wheelers replaced by rickety lorries and a smattering of expensive European sedans.

The roads widen, and the quality of the pavement improves. Now we are on a divided multilane boulevard. The density of habitations drops, and soon we are traveling past landscaped green areas, small clusters of buildings, an office park, and forested areas. Here and there are reminders of where we are--hand-drawn wagons at the side of the road, dilapidated stands where vendors sell fruit or fabrics, weather-stained buildings in need of repair. Still, things look more developed, and there is less of the oppressive grey dust.

We see a sign indicating a biotechnology cluster nearby. A few of the buildings we pass could have been transplanted from Silicon Valley--rounded forms, cryptic logos, lots of glass. The intersections are a less chaotic than in the city. The lights and signs look maintained, and most of the drivers actually heed them. This is one of the areas where India’s much-touted advancement has had a profound effect.

We turn off the main road into a residential neighborhood. Well-maintained homes are interspersed with broken buildings, but there are signs that the latter are slowly being replaced. Almost all of the older, crumbling buildings are occupied by squatters. We wonder where they go when these structures are demolished. There are massive low-income housing projects on the outskirts of the cities, but we have been told that the officials in charge of relocating people are instead auctioning off the apartments on the open market, most likely pocketing part of the proceeds. Some of those who win the lottery to get into these places collaborate with the officials, or illegally rent the places out because the cash is more important to them.

Wherever we go, the talk turns to politics, development, education, the future of India. The recurring motif is corruption. In the public sector, every job, it seems, is awarded on the basis of a bribe paid to the appropriate official. Applicants typically borrow money to pay the bribes. They then are forced to extort money from all comers to pay off the loans. And so the cycle goes. People bribe for the privilege of being bribed.

The local papers carry stories every day, about newly breaking scandals involving various political leaders. The stories are usually planted by their opponents, but are reported breathlessly by the local press. Then there are the purges and counter-purges, threats of retribution, and grandiose posturing on an embarrassing scale. After two days here, we wondered if we had stumbled into a particularly unstable moment in Indian politics. We were told, with a wry shrug and a smile, that it is just business as usual.

The vicious and desperate infighting among political factions is driven, not by competing ideologies, but by competition to control the limited feeding space around the trough. The main differences between this kind of corruption, and that of the current crowd in Washington, is that in the U.S. there is so much to go around that even Enron didn't get noticed for 15 years; here there is far less to go around, but the spoils are far more equitably distributed--trickle-down economics in action. Ideological differences are mainly window dressing, used to mobilize those voters whom no-one has bothered to buy. So say our local sources. Is this view accurate? Given that it is repeated by almost everyone we ask, no matter their political philosophy or affiliation, it probably contains more than a bit of truth.

Somehow, through it all, India does not appear in danger of giving up on democracy altogether. Perhaps the fragmentation of various factions guarantees that. The question is whether the political chaos is mere noise, or a real impediment to broader advancment. As we have seen this afternoon, there is real material progress. Perhaps we shouldn’t read the papers, but merely focus on what is within our reach.

After a pleasant afternoon with family and friends, we drive back into Delhi, back into the dust and the crowds. It is late dusk. The shadowy forms of the shanties, the makeshift fires here and there, the dull red glow in the sky, give everything the feel of one of those post-apocalyptic movies, where strange machines grind on through the night, past encampments of people thrust back into the stone age. It is an eerie and disquieting feeling.

Next: Kolkata