Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Of Pulp Fiction and Answers

Fight Club - a violent, visceral 1999 movie based on an equally violent and popular Chuck Palahniuk novel - was a vicious diatribe on a supposedly soul-sucking consumerism that deadens the heart of an entire generation by offering meaningless trinkets as a substitute for companionship and humanity, and visions of impending success and superstardom as a permanent diversion. It presented an exciting account of rebellion and vague, undirected retribution; and achieved instant cult status. It is currently ranked 23 in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time, a ranking that is mostly driven by popular votes. Another popular site that collates ratings of ‘top critics’, a euphemism for the most widely respected, intellectually demanding critics of cinema, rates the movie at a very average 65%. Rang De Basanti - an extremely successful 2006 Indian movie that was appreciated by audiences for its technical excellence and its liberal, revolutionary yearnings - was also panned by critics for its simplistic take on the problems faced by the Indian government and army. Both of these works are examples of a category could be rather loosely termed pulp, or fanboy entertainment. Such fiction normally present worlds that appear like the ones we live in, but are actually contextually stripped down into easily recognizable archetypes, problems that can be attributed to easily identifiable causes, and suggest simple and emotionally satisfying solutions.

When the fiction that we read and the movies we watch show us the ills of the world and then assign a face to these evils, we too begin to search for the face behind the injustices that we see around us, and very often, we either find one to point fingers at or persecute or destroy. Fight Club had capitalism and unbridled consumerism, Rang De Basanti had a crooked politician and a shady arms dealer; in the former, anarchy and terrorism offered the quick-fix, in the latter, it was as simple as killing the bad guys.

The flaw in the reasoning of the protagonists of RDB and the hosts of terrorists around the world is also the crucial insight that Organizational Behavior attempts to communicate to us and Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest insight (arguably): how an organization insulates the individual from the entirety of what it does by offering a tightly compartmentalized, controlled view of itself to any one of its constituents, and requires them to perform one small subset of tasks with little or no context. The Empire over time created a socio-cultural ethos that instilled into its young notions of racial superiority, duty and consequence; never exposing them to the true human costs of empire while requiring them to guard a railroad or storm a fort. Mahatma Gandhi recognized that killing an officer changed nothing, there would be more. Victory, if it ever did come, would require not only sustained genocide of waves of these outsiders, but would also require turning ourselves into a vicious, bloodthirsty mob, and when victory did come, there would be no way of switching the violence off. He believed that attacking the moral underpinnings of the notion of Empire would be more enlightened, more moral and ultimately more effective.

How is all this relevant to a manager? As a person who would constantly be required to get things done, a manager would have to deal with organizations, governments and people. A nuanced understanding of the incredible complexities underlying the world around us would tell us that there are no quick-fixes or easy answers. Everybody knows for sure what they would do if they attained a position of power, every coffee-table orator has the one word answer to all the problems of the world, but they rarely realize that regardless of whether you are a principled man or not, the act of getting to the position of power imposes costs upon you in the form of people or institutions that helped you, bankrolled you, and have a claim upon you; and these costs invariably constrict your options once you are in the position that you dreamed of. There would be a vaster array of interests that have to be mollified than you ever dreamed of.

At a more immediate level, corporations seek to exploit and perpetuate systemic weaknesses by seeking out the simple solutions like an illegal consideration offered to an influential bureaucrat or politician. This makes things easier, but also engenders an increasingly arbitrary allocation of rights and resources that would only harm the entire economy in the longer term.

Enron and WorldCom are the poster children of how corporations and organizations apportion guilt and submerge blame beneath torrents of paperwork and ennui. These debacles have led to stricter norms of fiduciary duty upon CEOs and MDs; but the dangers associated with corporations that pursue profit at any cost, or governments that push through religious and personal agendas regardless of its human consequences are still very real, and even immediate. This is where popular entertainment and even a large part of our education fails us, we are not trained enough to have the wisdom or patience to look deeper, innovate or resist our ingrained impulse to do the easy thing.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Where rapes, assault and other Human Rights violations of the Indian Army are not deplored (and Posse Comitatus appears in a scintillating cameo)

There is something in the way armies are designed that ensures that such violations would occur. The lack of local civilian control over any army in its theatre of operations (pretty obvious, since armies usually operate in enemy territory or de-populated borders) makes a soldier fundamentally different in mindset from a policeman: One purveys over a hostile territory while the other maintains order in what is essentially his neighborhood.

A virulent, obsessive need for secretiveness and a separate military court that sentences its own are natural for an army that does what it is designed to do, protect one’s borders from external threats and invade when it is in one’s interest to do so (extremely debatable, I suppose).

This crucial combination of factors (lack of civilian control and difference in training and incentive-system) is exactly why armies are not meant to perform police functions inside one’s own borders, and when they do, as in Manipur or Ramallah or Kashmir, such excesses are perhaps unavoidable. The army alienates by definition, and could never fight an elusive enemy the way a local police force steeped in the socio-cultural ethos of a place can.

The visionary 1878 US law, the Posse Comitatus, which banned the army from performing police functions inside American borders, was enacted to ensure that the centre would not impinge upon Federal rights, especially by deploying the army during elections. Of course, in a nation with no significant separatist movements or violent insurrections, such a principled stand is easy to take; and already, within just a decade or so of the prospect of terrorist threats in American soil, the law is being questioned and circumvented with alarming regularity.

If we do enact such a law, or at least try to uphold the spirit of it, how could our resource-starved, ill-equipped, barely-trained police force fight violent insurrections and sophisticated terrorist threats? How much of our essential freedoms would they require to protect us?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An ode to Silly Gods and Monkey Librarians...

Terry Pratchett is fading away of early-onset Alzheimer's, he of the charming anthropomorphic personifications, Vimesy and the magnificient Weatherwax. Puck you, malignant spirit that would dare covet him so early...
He does not so much slip in an allegory as whack you on the head with it, subtlety to him is something that is rumoured to exist in the far shores of lit-academia, yet his words fill me with a sublime wonder and magic in a way that almost nobody else can any longer. The breathtaking clarity of a world so simple, a world full of problems so seemingly like ours and yet so much more... PG-13.
I so wanted to see where Destiny would take Carrot and his enigmatic sword, and Granny Weatherwax who so reminded me of my creepy great grand-mom and the awe I used to feel at her limitless earthy wisdom and conviction and owlish stare that laid bare and trivialized all my supposed secrets.
His works are at heart the greatest pantheistic vision realized in all fantasy that I have read - he appreciated an insight that is almost unattainable for the Tolkiens and LeGuins and especially the Lewises bought up on the Judeo-Christian trope of a world in black and white, of a clear demarcation between Good and Evil and Right and Wrong and things Done or Undone - he saw the world filled with Small Gods as one filled with wonder and of course, some unavoidable ugliness; where Other Things cannot easily be dismissed or enslaved or destroyed; and where the acceptance of multiplicity rids (or at least tempers) the world of its burning need to convert, or convince or efface other histories.

When other greater writers made the object of their protagonists' mission McGuffins while the journey revealed profound truths about existence, he made the act of seeking itself a McGuffin: The notion that it is all a bit of a silly joke, not exactly fatalism, but eulogizing this ability to laugh at ourselves as we do the things we are supposed, driven to do.
That it is fine if all this amounts to nothing at all...

Monday, May 26, 2008

i now died (a little)

I have now drunk summer-

And faced the wrath of its sullen child,

pregnant of horror and dirt and snuff dreams-

In the city of murky darknesses and dazzling di-lights

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In which I hold forth on the virtues of armchair philosophizing and other such distractions...

What would be gained? The knowledge that their hatred is genuine.When all calumnies have been refuted, all distortions rectified, all false notions about us rejected, antipathy will remain as something irrefutable...
Moritz Goldstein on why it was pointless to fight German anti-Semitism with reason
Just something that came to mind upon being shown videos of Mr Thackeray trying to whip up a loyal fan-base by returning to the basics, listing grievances I do not know about, and so cannot comment on. And yet, the muffled rumble of the assembled crowd was scary...
Which leads me to this post by an extremely smart lady, who questions the right of this other guy to decide the lyrics of some song is not offensive enough to be banned; on the grounds he has probably not had enough first-hand experience of casteism to comment on it. The merits of the guy's argument are beside the point, but does he require experience to have an opinion? If so, how much experience, and who decides? I know, the old 'who decides' donkey that has been so ruthlessly flogged over the last couple of centuries it can barely lift an eyebrow to defend itself.
But the danger implicit in this kind of thinking is far less obvious; the more one learns, and the smarter and more sophisticated one's outlook towards life becomes, it becomes easier to simply reject other opinions as less informed, less intelligent or as simply plain dumb. Conversations and arguments tend get concentrated to between rarefied realms of almost equals who harbor roughly similar beliefs and convictions on perhaps the extent of the role of the state in their anarchosyndicalist societies (or something else equally incomprehensible to most of us)...
Back to preacher-man mode: Revelation in a barber-shop in Kerala a month ago when I failed miserably to convince a group there of the alethic and epistemic modalities implicit in the ambivalent statement in a newsletter, 'Research suggests it is possible that prayer promotes physical well-being' - Every opinion has value, hovewer misinformed or silly; and has to be argued on its merits, for this constant act of re-affirmation make us re-examine the foundations and assumptions upon which all our convictions are based on...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The one where I sermonize emptily...

The world would value an Indian life the same as we would value it... When a blast that kills 60 has to fight for space on the front-page with Shoaib Akhtar's spell, why is it not surprising that the New York Times barely deigns to even report it. Pain need not, and perhaps should not be viciousness, anger and an undirected need to bomb, murder or destroy some vaguely defined 'Them'; but still...
Today's read if you will so...
A theory of Fundamentalism. Simplistic sometimes, with significant logical flaws; but captivating, nevertheless.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bah, WTF