Vikshepa Blog

Mental Distractions

16 Aug 2022

Dystopia as a muse for fiction

There is one positive aspect of the increasing darkness we see all around us - the climate emergency; the victory of anti-democratic forces; the increasing number of refugees; the continuation of proxy wars; the smouldering animosity between nations; the expansion of hate-speech; the erosion of civil rights; the development of technologies for mass surveillance; the spread of motiveless crime; the destruction of the biosphere; the resurgence of religions; the growing gaps between rich and poor; the prevalence of modern slavery, the subservience of the state to corporations; the loss of culture and of cultural diversity and all the rest - it is a fertile bed for the imagination. Ugliness and nastiness are a perfect palate for great art. Good books and films are incubated in dark places. The horrors of World War II and the fascist regimes of the time continue to be a source of great movies. Post-apocalyptic dystopias are a recurring feature of science fiction. The horrors of the feudal era and of warring kingdoms inspire fantasy like that of George R R Martin. As things get worse, the literature gets better. Regardless of the consequences, whether, say, novels and films about climate change, are actually effective in spurring us to action, or whether imaginative fiction about dark regimes can urge the populace to vote for change, such art has a value in its own right. It keeps us engaged, entertained and enthralled, immerses us in realities that are even worse than the one we are presently suffering. The present is dark and the future may be blacker, but we live not only in reality but in our dreams, and usually these stories of wretched hyper-realities are populated by sympathetic figures and heroes who need to find their way in the darkness; either through ingenuity, by discovering their superpowers, through the exercise of compassion and humanity, or by cleaving to other hapless human beings in a similar plight.

When things get really bad, and worse, will this kind of fiction still be popular, or will we prefer to imagine better worlds - fantastic realities like the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins? Will we place a positive spin on the present? The Middle Ages, a period of poverty, rapaciousness and pillage, cultivated fantasies of chivalry and romance. The only constant is the power of the imagination to overcome the constraints of a crooked and flawed existence.

Then there's another school of thought: we can simply own up to what is happening around us, and, without worming away from it by recourse to the imagination, acknowledge facts as facts, understand that they are part of a continuum in a reality that is full of different potential, and live in consciousness and awareness of the whole. Probably the only valuable kind of action is that in which consciousness is fully present, informed not by imagination but by the actual or potential consequences.

Tags: writing
15 Aug 2022

India's independence day

Just as it's hard to think of Israel's independence day without remembering the Nakba, it's impossible to think of India's independence day without remembering Partition. Although it took place 75 years ago, the news media have still been able to find survivors who remain traumatized. Soon, there will be no one left to remember.

The bloody founding events of India, Pakistan and Israel took place in the same years, after Britain beat a hasty retreat from its colonial failures and responsibilities. There is yet another reminder of the horrors of British colonialism in the news now, this time from Kenya: Police chief quit after abuse by British colonial troops in Kenya covered up. A new documentary titled A Very British Way of Torture, "pieces together many of the worst abuses committed by British colonial forces through survivor testimony and expert analysis from a team of British and Kenyan historians."

The events took place in the 1950s, when the Mau Mau movement was fighting against colonial rule. Their revelation arrives in the midst of Kenya's election, the results of which have just been announced. As in India and elsewhere, the British left behind a working functioning democracy but a harsh legacy from colonial rule, the effects of which linger on.

Al Jazeera today has a story on how India has "little to celebrate". Just as everyone predicted, the country has been growing increasingly less democratic under Modi and the BJP's rule.

There are some bad dreams from which one does not awaken. Arundhati Roy and now the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot believe that these authoritarian trends are irreversible.

Roy:

The systematic indoctrination of people on the scale on which it has taken place over decades is hard to reverse. Every institution that is supposed to make up the system of checks and balances has been hollowed out, repurposed and deployed against people as a weapon of Hindu nationalism. In terms of political opposition, there are political parties that have successfully opposed the BJP at the state level in Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, but opposition is virtually non-existent at the national level.

The whole system of elections has been gamed. You can win a huge majority of seats even without anything close to a majority of actual votes. In India, we have a first-past-the-post, multi-party democracy. This means that even if you get say only 20% of the vote in a constituency, as long as its higher than your closest rival, you win. A rich party can put up spurious candidates to split the votes. But that's just one trick in a whole bag of tricks.

And, anyway, how do you woo an indoctrinated population? By proving that you are a better, prouder Hindu? Nobody can beat the BJP at that game. And right now, that's the only game in town. As far as mainstream politics goes.

So, no, I don't believe the damage is reversible. I believe we will be broken and then reborn. Change will only come when and if at all an accepting, gullible, fatalistic people realize what's being done to them. And then it will come suddenly, and from the street. Not from the system. Until then… God help us.

Jaffrelot:

Democracy, nowadays, is a notion you need to qualify when applied to India. You may say, like some scholars do, that it is an ‘illiberal democracy’.

I prefer to use the concept of ‘ethnic democracy’ that has been first used in the case of Israel. An ‘ethnic democracy’ is a regime where pillars of democracy are still practised, including elections — something populists across the globe need to retain to acquire legitimacy — but where minorities are second class citizens because of all kinds of discrimination.

You may (also) use the word ‘majoritarianism’, which designates the attempt for transforming a cultural majority into a permanent, political majority.

[The] changes under Modi may be permanent if the Hindutva forces have not only captured power, but also society — at least temporarily — and if this hegemonic position allows them to get deeply entrenched in the State apparatus, then a point of no return will be reached.

Just as countries formerly under British rule inherited that country's flawed democratic system, they also inherited the ways it found to suspend all pretence of democracy. For example, Israel continues to renew and institute the emergency regulations put in place in the closing years of the British mandate. Administrative detention without trial was one of them and, till today, hundreds of Palestinians are incarcerated in this way.

Tags: india, nations
13 Aug 2022

Salman Rushdie

I read about the attempt on the author's life and his wounding in the attack. I've read only one of his books - Shalimar the Clown, and a couple of short stories, which I enjoyed. Satanic Verses I once tried to read, but it didn't hold my interest. I find something irritatingly affected about the man that keeps me at a distance. Maybe more than other authors, his personality seems to infuse itself into the writing. But my judgment is only cursory - I can't really claim to understand Rushdie from reading one novel and listening to a few interviews. And it's just a personal bias. Still, I obviously know him better than his would-be assassin - I suppose religion was the motivating factor and Rushdie was just a symbolic target. What an idiot, what a presumption, by an ignorant 24-year old, to harm one of the great writers of our era.

I think the irony at the heart of all religions is that real religion is not something that one can "follow". Every religious tradition has its geniuses, but the greatness of most of them stems from the fact that they themselves weren't followers. They were people who put their lives on the line, searched for truth, tried to go to the heart of existence and made a direct connection with the divine. In their boldness, uniqueness, and willingness to escape convention, they had more in common with Rushdie than with those who revile him and want him dead.

A good guide to religion and ideology is that wherever there are attempts to trap us in prescribed practices and ritual, such as prayer or meditation at regular intervals, we need to reject them. Whenever they take away our power to think for ourselves, require us to differentiate ourselves from others, wear identifying clothing or symbols, we should reject them. True religion is about freedom of mind and vision: we can't understand any of the secrets at the heart of existence as long as we subscribe to set rules of behaviour or thinking.

It's a funny thing; the religious geniuses were themselves, by the standards of ordinary 21st century society, crazy fanatics - they had to be - it's just that they weren't followers.

name

George R. R. Martin

Having finished reading all five volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire now, I began to read a bit about the author. Apparently he composed all his books - at least up to 2011 and maybe till today - on a DOS computer and in WordStar. There's something inspiring about that simple fact: One of the most successful and prolific writers of our time requires nothing more than what most people regard as antequated software. He evidently rejected all the bells and whistles of modern word processors in favor of an old and trusted tool. As to technique, he says that he writes in a sort of daydream, though obviously he needs to be extremely systematic in order to keep all the threads of his epic together. I wonder how he compiles and catalogues the enormous amount data that he is working with? Software also as simple as WordStar? OrgMode could naturally handle both the writing and the data collection, and would be a perfect tool. When I write my epic, that's what I'll use.

10 Aug 2022

Animals

There are two or three cats that pass at every hour by the pateo screen door, on what look like regular patrols. Their pace is unhurried, as if they have all the time in the world. If the door is open behind the screen, they take a moment or two to peer in; no doubt if they could enter they would do so. I don't want to discourage their patrols. One day on the path we found a dead snake; perhaps that was their doing.

Reflecting on their manner of living I compared my life to theirs. Animals seem never to question the purpose of their existence. As far as we know, they never wonder if they are making any kind of contribution, whether they are being lazy or over-zealous, kind or mean. They just exist.

When humans exhibit the same behaviour, I'm the first to grow judgmental, and I try to watch my own, worrying that I too am just a burden on the earth, despite my decidedly low-key way of living.

Yet the existence of human beings is much more expensive to the planet, in terms of resource use, than that of animals. Maybe there is a reason to look at the time spent as if we are here on an expensive scholarship?

But I've got it all wrong. A vagabond who sleep-walks through life does less damage to the earth than an accomplished technocrat. A person who achieves nothing beyond procreating and taking out the garbage is much less of a drain on resources than a wealthy stockbroker. In fact, the poorer and simpler our lives, the better for the planet and the future of humanity. If we could just live like those cats…

Links

In PaleMoon, a browser not noted for the range or quality of its extensions, I found one that can take a web page and convert the URL and title into OrgMode syntax, for import into my blog. Perfect!

The high price of a Sri Lankan family's bid to flee crisis | Reuters

They tried to leave in a fishing boat to Australia, but were caught, sent back and face financial ruin.

Dozens feared dead as migrant boat sinks off the coast of Greece | Greece | The Guardian

Approximately 3.7 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. The influx of Europe-bound migrants to Greece has dropped dramatically over the past year but this week’s crossing is a reminder of the lengths people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa are willing to endure to find refuge in the west."

EU under pressure to ban Russian tourists from Europe | Europe holidays | The Guardian

"The EU has been urged to introduce a travel ban on Russian tourists with some member states saying visiting Europe was “a privilege, not a human right” for holidaymakers.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview with the Washington Post that the “most important sanction” was to “close the borders, because the Russians are taking away someone else’s land”. Russians should “live in their own world until they change their philosophy”, he said.

Yeah well, if that's true, the EU should close the border also to Israelis, on the same grounds. And Ukraine supported Israel in its latest military operation.

I'm actually not so sure that citizens should be punished for the crimes of their governments, especially when the cost of disagreeing is often to be put in jail. Even when it is true that the majority of a population supports the actions of the government, ordinary people should be presumed innocent of the crimes of their countries, or at least seen independently and treated with respect.

Tags: thoughts
08 Aug 2022

Diary

Sleepless Hunters

For several months, at all times of the day and night, there have been sounds of distant shots being fired. Seems to be hunters - probably of quail. On my walks, I've never seen or met a hunter, which leads me to imagine that these are deeply personal men, hiding somewhere in the undergrowth, unseen, vigilant, harboring a passion for killing things that keeps them up even through the summer night.

Gaza campaign

On our morning walk, distant sirens heralded a flurry of nearer-sounding bangs and booms, as the Iron Dome system intercepted incoming rockets. Another dumb and useless round in the violence has reached a tense ceasefire. More than 40 Palestinians have been killed, helping an Israeli leader's election run. War is a triumph of a certain kind of imagination over the common sense peace that sane people desire. Peace does not require imagination. The opposite is true. Peace is boringly simple; it means that my life and your life are worth as much, that we are all ordinary people struggling to make a living, raise our children, live our lives. Imagination comes along to encourage us to make sacrifices and agree to a reduction in the quality of life on behalf of patriotism and national identity. Domestic and external threats are conjured up in order to cow us into obedience. Violent solutions are invented for issues that can only be solved by peaceful means.

tit for tat

Nations are parasitical entities that live off the backs of their citizens, finding uses for their tax money that no normal person would wish to support if they had time to think about it. We are encouraged not to think - as if spending the money that I have entrusted to the government, in the form of taxes, for the benefit of my fellow citizens, is beyond my concern. It can be used to build palaces, make bombs, bankroll oppression, surveil me, or whatever other schemes that politicians and bureaucrats can dream up.

Tags: diary
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