USA, version 2016

It’s a strange, new world. I may be older, but surely that doesn’t explain why I fail to understand what is going on in our national politics today. Perhaps it is my fault, for I am not white, or poor, or poorly educated. Is that a fault?

In simple terms, I see our politics imploding a little bit more each passing day. Here we are in 2016, when things are looking so much better for the US, as compared to anywhere else in the world. Yet all around us hatred and bigotry are blooming in the national discourse, on a scale unseen perhaps since the unrest of the 1960s. But that civil unrest was about issues greater than the those who protested on the streets – war in a far-away country, political freedom and civil rights for African Americans, self-determination for young people and women’s rights over their own bodies. Today it is about the destruction of everything that has made this country into the world’s most powerful nation.

In truth, today America is greater, more powerful, more diverse and more accepting of different sexual orientations, than ever before in its history. Today is a brighter day in America than it was in the 1960s, the last time a dangerous, populist demagogue was able to hijack the entire political process of the nation. I speak of course of Senator Barry Goldwater.

Today the entire political scenario has taken on a surreal tint. Center stage is a man, a blustering bully, best known prior to this for his reality TV show where he ‘fired’ people. He is an unashamed bigot, a racist, an ugly sexist and above all a narcissist of epic proportions. Yet this is the man who has captured the imagination of the poor, poorly educated, white folks, who have smoldered for years in an imagined siege mentality.

We have in Donald Trump,a man with the best education his daddy could buy, but he still speaks in the language of an elementary school yard bully. He is a shameful rich-kid draft dodger. He is a man without any ideas who has galvanized a marginalized segment of the population, who have for decades voted against their own interests. He is a man who has reached down and roused the most bestial instincts in people. Yet this is the man who the poor and the poorly educated imagine speaks for them. It is a bewildering display of a mass delusion.

And who is to blame for this sad but terrifying situation? I lay the blame squarely on the GOP and to a lesser extent on the US media.

For at least two decades now, the Republicans have railed and decried the imagined weakening of America. They have repeatedly called on their party faithful to denounce and denigrate Government as an institution. They have called for their followers to fight against the liberal bias of the Supreme Court decisions on such issues as women’s health rights, gay marriage etc. They have forced government shutdowns as a vanity project for powerful leaders. They have spent the last 7 and a half years trying to swallow the bitter pill of a black man in the White House, by proudly proclaiming themselves the ‘party of no’.

I ask the GOP establishment, did you not think there would be consequences to all of this? Here is your biggest consequence, and his name is Donald Trump. This is the future and it’s not pretty. Now they are in disarray, wringing their hands and scratching their collective head, wondering what strategy to employ to stop him from winning the party’s nomination. I am afraid you may be too late.

A long line of leaders must take responsibility for creating this Frankenstein’s Monster, all the way from Newt Gingrich and the hubris of his unstoppable ambition, to  Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and yes, even Ted Cruz himself. Remember the old saying, ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. Well as a party you chose to sow the wind for decades, now you reap the whirlwind.

Why do I blame the media for the rise of Trump? For over a year now we have had blanket coverage of every outrageous statement that spews from that man’s mouth. Just the fact that it is played round the clock has given the man so much free publicity, he has probably spent less in campaign ad buying than any candidate in recent memory. The media is first and foremost lazy, undisciplined, and condescending to boot. They started off the primary season covering Trump almost exclusively, because it was just so fanned easy. This worked to the disadvantage of every other candidate. They, the media, precipitously thought his outrageous speech amusing and it made for easy headlines and ratings. They have highlighted the ugly antics of the one candidate without a policy platform (unless you consider “I’ll build a wall, it’ll be yuge (sic)”, to be a platform). They have gleefully reported and re-reported ad nauseum, every ugly word spoken about the size of body parts and women menstruating as if it were discourse of the highest order. When they do have him on-air, which is constantly, no journalist insists that he clarify any of the weird, false statements that he makes. This is not how an unbiased media works.

So yes, the media have helped create this ‘yuge’ mistake, who is the presumptive nominee of the Grand Old Party. No amount of hand wringing or fiery speeches by the likes of Mitt Romney can change that now.

This, brothers and sisters, is the strange new world we live in now.





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Remember when…

Remember when…

…every tree you passed seemed to call out your name, in a very personal challenge, requiring you to at least try climbing it?

…the first rains of the monsoon produced an earthy fragrance that made you take the deepest breath you could manage, moments before you ran right into it for a good drenching?

…you fought your siblings in the rush to make paper boats that you could sail in the quickly swelling rain gutters?

…steep, pitched tiled roofs seemed to scoff you, as if saying, “you can’t climb me”. It was a challenge that couldn’t be ignored, even at the peril of slithering down the roof and hanging on for dear life to rain spouts.

…you played cricket for hours under the scorching May sun, never feeling the burn on your skin?

…you woke up on summer mornings and the sky was always perfect blue?

…the smell of newly sharpened pencils filled the classroom with a heady aroma?

…fountain pens filled us with a nameless joy, as we made a huge mess filling them?

…a new school year was filled with the excitement of new pencil boxes, new shoes and the glorious perfume of new books?

…everything you ever needed could be bought at the little neighborhood shop? Essentials included bubble gum and small candies wrapped in crackling paper.

…everything you ever bought came wrapped in old newspaper, be it fish or sugar or fruits?

…you wore hand me downs from taller siblings or cousins who had outgrown their clothes and shoes, with pride?

…parents could quell your public antics with just a look?

Childhood is that magical, faraway kingdom that you can always visit in your mind, no matter how old you are.





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The World According to Daesh (ISIS)

In the wake of the attacks on Paris, French President Francois Hollande used the word Daesh to refer to ISIS. The group put out a chilling video promising to cut out the tongues of those who use this word. It is a shortening of the Arabic term, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). It apparently has a derogatory connotation. Hence the threat to tongues everywhere.

Who are these people:

We hadn’t heard of ISIS until just a very few years ago. Today they are a very real and dangerously frightening threat to the world as we know it. They are no Al Qaeda, be very clear about that. ISIS adheres to the Salafi tradition of Sunni Islam, like Al Qaeda, but the similarity ends there.

ISIS is the Caliphate with a Caliph (Holy Leader). The self declared Caliph is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Whenever Islam has a Caliph, he is the supreme leader of all Muslims everywhere (except for the Shi’ia, the Ismailis, the Druze etc. But then the Caliphate does not recognize them as Muslims at all).

Most Sunnis, radical or moderate, don’t recognize this Caliph or his Caliphate. The last real Caliphate was held by the Ottoman Turks, though even that was contentious. According to early belief, only a Qurayshi, of the Prophet’s own tribe can ever be Caliph. That, Al Baghdadi certainly is.

In addition a Caliph must be a man of unquestionable moral purity, according to early laws. And he must have amr, authority, or a certain gravitas. Baghdadi and his followers believe he is that man. Heretofore, he shall be the Caliph. All right then.

The Caliph must by necessity enforce the Sharia. He cannot deviate from it. If he does so, he can be excommunicated. In return for his leadership, his followers pledge him ultimate allegiance, baya’a. Any or every person or nation that supports any other law, is an apostate.

The people who join ISIS are not all just psychopaths and adventurers. Though it certainly has its share of those. To survive within the strict confines of ISIS belief, the foot soldier must have a true belief in the relentless, nihilistic march to an apocalyptic end and Judgement Day. The path to said Judgement Day will be strewn with the bloody bodies of the many enemies of ISIS.

This is the key to understanding the success of ISIS recruitment efforts within a section of the disaffected, marginalized Muslims youth in European and Arab countries. In the US, where Muslims are more integrated and assimilated into the fabric of society, there is less radicalization. It also explains the returnees from ISIS paradise one hears about in countries like India. It is no Disneyland.

How are they different from Al Qaeda:

What is essential for ISIS, as the Caliphate, unlike for underground groups like Al Qaeda or any of its tributaries, is territory. There can be no Caliphate without territory. That is why Raqqa is so important. That is why it must have stung ISIS like a slap in the face when the Kurds took back Sinjar province. They cannot afford to lose territory. They must gain more territory wherever and however they can. This is the first essential.

They believe in the early forms of punishment for conquered enemies. Enslavement of women and crucifixion were never a part of Al Qaeda’s practice. They had a much more worldly goal to achieve and never got into the nitty gritty of 7th century punishments. Therefore instead of the brutal visuals of beheadings, what we saw most often in Al Qaeda’s heyday were bombings and justice (their style) delivered at the end of the barrel of a Kalashnikov.

Another key difference is the ISIS emphasis on Apocalypse. Al Qaeda never mentioned this. Elite Sunnis like Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri, the guides and leaders of the movement, did not indulge in such speculation. It was almost as if it was beneath them. But to ISIS it is a central concept of their thinking.

What do they hope to achieve:

ISIS is attempting a reformation of Islam that will take them back to the purest form of religion, Islam as it was in the glory days of the Prophet’s early territorial advances. They want a state which replicates exactly the legal and daily life of the Mecca and Medina of the 7th century.

They do cleverly and cynically use the online universe to make their plans known to people everywhere. To quote Graeme Wood from his exhaustive article in the Atlantic, entitled What ISIS Really Wants, published last week, “We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

Their clearest stated aim is global domination. They will stop at nothing to achieve it. It may sound like the mad ravings of a Dr. Evil style villain, but that is what they want. To be at the helm of all affairs, everywhere. This is why they have to focus on territorial expansion. They already hold sway over an area of land about the size of Austria. They have absolute power over the populations of this area, totaling about 8 million people.

Enslavement of the people they conquer is a consequence of their plan to rule the world. Countries and territories they conquer will have to learn to live by their rules. That is why they have now dropped the terms Iraq, Sham and Levant from their name, and simply call themselves Islamic State. Once the armed wars are over, the entire world, they hope, will be theirs, not just the areas their original name limited them to.

The Syrian city of Dabiq is central to the ISIS conception of the apocalypse and the ultimate reckoning. This is where they hope to draw the armies of the infidels and fight the last, great battle. They have named their online magazine Dabiq, in recognition of the battle to come. And so we await the End of Days as visualized by ISIS.

It is an ambitious and expensive course they have charted. However, funding seems to be no problem. A concentrated series of kidnappings has raised large sums. They also use the old Iraqi smuggling routes to move everything from the output of the confiscated oil fields to the antiquities they have plundered. However by far the largest sums of money seem to come from private donors in the middle east and fund raising efforts for so-called humanitarian aid.

Groups and individuals in Qatar and Kuwait have caught the eye of the US Treasury Department as possibly the biggest sources of revenue. ‘Uncommitted funding’ to Syrian aid groups has been suspect for a while. No one knows exactly who in Syria this money goes to. However, for reasons of internal politics, nothing has been done to stem the flow.

So, there we have it. In the ultimate analysis, ISIS is a Doomsday Cult with delusions of grandeur. It exists in a bubble, where everyone that does not exactly abide by its  precisely enumerated and narrow belief system, is an enemy. That means just about everyone and every nation other than the Islamic State itself.

This has created an extraordinary circumstance, where nations we cannot imagine as allies, are arrayed on one side and ISIS stands solitary in its extreme and bizarre beliefs on the other. Iran and the USA are allied after decades of suspicion and saber rattling. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, Egypt and every other Islamic republic with a common penal code, are as much an enemy as France, Belgium or Germany.

How do they designate a nation/people as an enemy:

The legal thinking behind the ISIS stand is rooted in certain specific early traditions and texts of Islam. Most of the 1.7 billion Muslims  in the world do not follow in absolute and exact detail the very early legal traditions of the 7th century. It is impossible, as they live in modern nations and are usually fairly well assimilated in the local populations, the US being a good case in point.

Most Islamic nations in our times have criminal codes, which are loosely the ‘law of man’. Any nation with  such laws is an enemy of ISIS. This includes Saudi Arabia, which has a watered down version of Sharia criminal procedures. Yes, they do continue stonings and chopping off of thieves’ hands. But this doesn’t quite cut it with ISIS. It is not far enough. ISIS thinks Saudi Arabia does not deliver the whole package.

Next we come to the great enemy, the Shi’ia. Baghdadi has categorically stated that they, are the first enemy. They must be defeated, their lands confiscated, the men put to death and their women enslaved. Today, Shi’ia controlled Iraq and Iran are the first frontier ISIS must conquer to increase their territory and the slave population. The Shi’ia must be annihilated. Hence, the brutal attacks in Beirut.

ISIS will then move on to the next enemy, what they call al sulul, the Sunnis of Arabia who support or are part of the Saudi monarchy. The Sunnis of Arab lands have too many adherents to the ‘law of man’. This is not to be tolerated.

And then they come to the lands of the infidels, which is all the rest of us. There will be no quarter given, no mercy shown. Canons of ISIS still use medieval terms like Crusaders to depict the west. We will destroy your Rome, they claim. Rome today probably means the alliances of the west.

What we need to understand to contain and destroy the ISIS threat:

For too long now the rest of the world has gotten it all wrong about ISIS. First we thought they were Al Qaeda Lite. And proceeded to deal with them accordingly.

After the Paris bombings, there have been attempted shamings of Muslims everywhere. We need to understand that to ISIS eyes, these are not even real Muslims, if they live within the confines of the laws of any state, be it Indonesia or Turkey, India or the USA. They are already the enemy. Why are we, educated, 21st century citizens of the free world, adding to this? Did we shame Catholics worldwide when the IRA was carrying out its bombing campaign in the last century? Or did we hold all Christians responsible for the atrocities of the Nazi regime? Stop shaming all Muslims. They feel just as bad as anyone else. And they are considered the enemy just as much as we are.

The long column of Syrian refugees in desperate exodus are another self styled feather in the cap for ISIS. The world must, as both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama have both pointed out in recent days, reach out with kindness and acceptance to the fleeing thousands. These are the first victims of ISIS intolerance and terror tactics. ISIS is who they are fleeing from. Why is this so hard to understand?

Let us understand, all of us, the genesis of this reprehensible beast of hatred and destruction. ISIS evolved like a venomous serpent in the dangerous vacuum created by George W. Bush’s misadventures in Iraq. The dissolution of Saddam Hussein’s huge standing army, not only left Iraq unable to protect itself, but also fueled the great disaffection that gave ISIS its early recruits.

The warmongering has already begun in the US. Putin clearly wants to send them to meet their Maker, in his own words. Governments in the US and Russia and the West as a whole, should learn to stay their hand, desist from the temptation to create more such vacuums for terror groups to evolve. The question is, can the west and its middle eastern allies really contain the ISIS threat, destroying it in dribs and drabs, as they have been attempting so far?

On the other hand, it seems war is inevitable. Perhaps the only way to stop the serpent of ISIS may be all-out war. It should give world leaders pause though, that, this is exactly what ISIS wants. Every move ISIS makes, when it strikes soft targets in Paris or Beirut or anywhere else, they are showing their driving need for all-out war. They are trying to draw the armies of their enemies into the mother of all battles in Dabiq, where their vision of End of Days will be enacted.






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Mangalore – My Place in the Sun

A Pristine Beach in Mangalore

A Pristine Beach in Mangalore

If I have one warning for young people out there, it is, be careful what you wish for. Growing up in a small town in India, it always felt like I lived in a fishbowl. Everybody knew you. Anything you did out of the ordinary would get a) reported back to your parents and b) gossiped and discussed. Or so it seemed to me then. Fueled by incessant reading and a rich inner world of the imagination, I dreamed of escaping Mangalore. Yes, I thought in terms of jailbreaks and Escape to Victory. Ironically enough, I lived on a street named, wait for it…Jail Road. I wanted out. I wanted to see the world, to travel the world and twice around.

In truth, life was great. I lived in a home, where even all those years ago, we had lots of freedom. My parents were liberal and rather easygoing, in an age when India was a very conservative, conventional society. My sister and I enjoyed freedoms very few girls of our generation enjoyed in the rather uptight Hindu society of the times. No one ever told us we had to learn to cook and sew, sing and dance and be ready to be the perfect wives for the husbands who would eventually and inevitably come. Instead, we read widely and played cricket and lagori with the boys. We avoided the kitchen as if it were plagued by rats. Our extra-curricular activities gave us a nice escape from academic drudgery. No one had experienced the joys of television or computers or video games yet, so we all had lots of fun stuff to do. Anything could count as a toy, an empty shoe box or the used shell of a coconut. We even traveled regularly with my parents and had seen a large swathe of South India and quite a bit of North India, before we even left for college.

There was nothing I could point to and claim as missing from my life. But my eagerness to travel knew no bounds. I knew the earth was big and round and I wanted to see a lot of it. We used to play an odd little game with our atlases, where we’d turn to a random page, close our eyes and place our fingers on any part of the map therein, and say “I want to go there”, or “I want to live here”. It was a great game, you might land on Timbuktu or Teheran, London or Luanda. The possibilities were endless. Life was a game then.

There came a time in our lives when the joyful, easy days of school were over and we headed off to college, away from the comfortable confines of home, the sheltering shadow of doting parents and  little Mangalore. Those were heady and exciting times. I headed for the big city, Madras, as it was then known (and will ever be to me). After college, it was on to jobs. My sister headed to the US and I to Bangalore. And in my 24th year, I began to travel, on my own. I am turning 50 in just a few short weeks and I can’t seem to stop. It has been over a quarter of a century, and now I find myself nostalgic for Mangalore, or home, as I shall always think of it.

Life since then has been a series of moves across the world. From the antipodes to the United States of America, and a few other countries in between, I have lived in and visited several cities across the world. And yet, with almost half a century of life under my ample belt, I have not found my place in the sun. This is the question that niggles at the periphery of my thoughts, where do I belong? Where is my place in the world?

I know lots of people who have been outside of India for as long as, or longer, than I have been. Most people are settled and happy in the foreign lands where they have made their homes. They have bought homes and cars, sent kids to college and fully intend to have a contented retirement in the future. Why is that, I wonder? Is it because most of these people have moved only once, or perhaps twice, since they left home? Many of my friends have been in one city for well over a decade and a half and that must be plenty of time for a place to feel like home. Right? I don’t know. I have never lived in any one place for that long.

It has always been 3 years here, 4 years there and before we knew it, two and a half decades of life have passed. We delayed everything in our lives, including starting a family, until we had at least a sense of a settled feeling. And one day, suddenly, we realized, a lot of time had passed and we weren’t that young anymore. Having a child has been a grounding experience, to an extent. We have moved only 3 times in the 14 years since our daughter was born. Of course the moves were all the way across the world and back, but hey, we survived.

Now don’t get me wrong, the nomadic life makes for colorful stories.There’s an upside to it. Our lives have been exciting and always filled with new possibilities. Every new country and every new city has thrown up a different challenge and we have surmounted them all. We are strong and vibrant people because of it and we can boast of friends in many little corners of the world. So many people to visit, so little time. I have enjoyed every moment of the journey as well the experience of life in various cultures. I have picked up a smattering of languages, like Bahasa Melayu and whatever it is that Australians speak. I have visited many of those places I inadvertently placed my finger on all those years ago, playing the atlas game. I have met so many interesting people, from terribly important ones to ordinary people in little towns across the world, real ‘characters’ in their own right. It has been a full, fulfilled and happy life.

But things seem to have come full circle for me recently. As I write these words (that I never dreamed I’d ever say), “I miss Mangalore”, I am assailed by the smells, tastes and experiences of the little town I grew up in. Piping hot goli bajes from Mohini Vilas, kaane fry from Anupam, mallige in fragrant bloom everywhere, long walks in the cool breezes of Kadri Hills on Sundays (as the girls and boys surreptitiously checked out one another), frolicking like dolphins at Panambur beach, the overpowering stench of dried fish floating from the docks, tender coconut water fresh off the trees, running up and down steep tiled roofs, Chinese food from Nanking restaurant, the ice candy melting in the heat, mutton puffs from Vas Bakery, stealing mangoes from someone’s trees as we walked home from school and so many more memories linger.


I have now lived away from Mangalore for far longer than I ever lived there, but the strongest memories are still those childhood ones, overlaid with a unique taste and smell. I have been back enough times to know that many of those places I so fondly remember don’t even exist anymore, except in a thousand memories. The tiled roofs have been torn down to make way for high rises, which present gorgeous ocean views many of us Mangaloreans hadn’t even suspected were there. Kadri Hills is unrecognizable but all is forgiven, because they built a Cochin Bakery there. Much has changed but it is still Mangalore in its essence. And my heart will always belong there. Not least because, that is where my mum still lives.


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Grace in Charleston

Tomorrow, President Obama will deliver the eulogy at the funeral of South Carolina State Senator, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the storied Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was one of nine people mown down so cruelly last week, as they attended bible study.  I know the President will speak eloquently tomorrow, as he always does, and bring a nation that is grieving already, to tears once more. But today, two other victims of that senseless act of hate, were laid to rest, in a city shaken awake by the abiding hatred, evidence of  the gaping wound in this nation’s psyche that has never been healed.

The services held today were moving testaments to the good and generous lives that Ethel Lance and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton led. Ordinary lives, lived with peace and love, horrifically cut short by the action of a hate-filled racist. Ethel Lance, 70, was a mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother. As her family paid loving tribute to her memory,  a church filled with hundreds of mourners, black and white, wept. As did those of us who watched or heard it unfold.

I was coasting downhill, whistling cheerfully, as the NPR reporter spoke about the victory of the Affordable Health Care Act in the Supreme Court today. Abruptly, the next piece of news came on. Wade Goodwyn was reporting on the funeral of Ethel Lance in Charleston, South Carolina. The gospel music ebbed and flowed in beautiful melodies. Then, we heard the voice of one of Ms. Lance’s grandsons, Brandon Risher. “She was a victim of hate, she can be a symbol for love. That’s what she was in life”, he said, maintaining great composure. The music transported even the most stoic heart to a place where hatred could not find a seat. In an unusually moving newscast, Wade Goodwyn concluded by saying, ” the vile racist hatred that took Ethel Lance’s life was exorcized this afternoon, by wave after wave of music and prayer, until all that was left was sadness and love”. I pulled my car onto the shoulder and wept.

It is the remarkably merciful sentiments expressed by the famiies of the slain that will resonate for a long time. Even at the arraignment hearing for Dyllan Roof, just days after the massacre, parents and children and siblings of his victims, spoke with a rare degree of mercy. In a courtroom presided over by a judge known for his fairly racist pronouncements, the family members of the victims pronounced forgiveness for the gunman. By then, his racist ideology had been revealed in his rambling, vitriolic, hate-filled manifesto.

The only unmerciful voices were those on the far right, especially the denizens of Fox News, who talked till they were blue in the face, to recast the massacre as an ‘attack on Christianity’. Bill O’Reilly got apoplectic arguing that there was no racism in America. As the days passed and the calls to remove that symbol of deep oppression, the Confederate flag that flies over the South Carolina Capitol building, gathered momentum, we heard more unmerciful statements from the right. Ann Coulter called Nikki Haley, the Republican Governor of South Carolina, an ‘immigrant who doesn’t understand our history’.  Nikki Haley is South Carolina born, her parents emigrated from India before her birth. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, both Republicans,  got brickbats from the far right, for daring to call for the removal of that oppressive symbol of race hatred.

Meanwhile, there were positive signs too. Alabama quietly removed the offending article from its own state house. Even Walmart, the shopping mecca of southern rednecks, announced it would stop selling confederate flag merchandise. But the subject of gun control never made it to the front pages, as the controversy over the flag raged.

Until that time comes, when America will finally confront the unresolved and the unhealed, the wounds inflicted by more than a century of oppression and the abrupt withdrawal of the right to own people as chattel on one side and complete subjugation on the other, all discussion is moot. One side claims that enough reparations have been done, citing affirmative action as America’s gesture towards making amends. However, as we all know the elephant in the room remains. Until then, we can only rely on the grace and mercy shown by ordinary, decent people whose loved ones were torn from them so unmercifully.

To conclude, I quote the immortal Bard.

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

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Media Madness

You learn something about human behaviour every day. As part of my work, I have been transcribing a series of interviews conducted by a journalist from an online magazine. The questions are generally boring in the extreme and the interviewer has the most mind-numbing monotone. And yet, I am often jolted out of the dreariness of it all by the revealing quality of the answers. Most of these interviews are conducted in Middle Eastern states with tight censorship laws and harsh repercussions. I began to wonder, why then do all these people, mostly very successful business people and academicians, feel the urge to divulge information that could be considered sensitive in their restrictive societies?

The answer is simpler than you think and it’s something reporters have known since… well since there have been reporters. There is a basic design and flow to an interview. When an interviewer ask a question, the interviewee responds. Then the answer runs to a natural halt. The expectation is that the interviewer will now ask another question. If the interviewer stays quiet for a few moments past the natural break in conversation, the interviewee is usually rather rattled and begins to speak again, to fill in what seems like like an uncomfortable silence. The interviewer has thrown them off their rhythm. They will begin to second guess themselves, wondering why the conversation did not continue to flow as expected. This is a brilliant, brutally simple tactic that reporters would do well to follow.

The interviewer in my headphones isn’t a particularly clever specimen, though he seems to think so. He has a certain native cunning that he deploys in his interview tactic. When he doesn’t dazzle himself with his special French brilliance, he can lead his subjects up unexpected roads. In the ultimate analysis he is a smart reporter, because he has ended up mining information that he had no inkling of and his subject had originally had no intention of sharing. I have heard people moan about repressive policies before pulling themselves up short, the interview version of looking over your shoulder for the secret police. It’s fascinating how much repressed anger there is in oppressive societies.

Now let’s look at the real media, the demigods on our TV screens. Today’s news media seems to be a 24/7 whirl of spin and opinion, mostly delivered in crowing tones or loud arguments. In the US, there are unfathomably stupid people on TV, like the death’s head who lords it over Fox and Friends. I must admit I never bothered to learn his name, because I’ve only ever seen him on the TV sets of hotel lobbies, as I’ve waited for breakfast. He’s a real catch, that one and he has an equally foolish female co-anchor. The perfect matched set of fools.

Then there are the screaming hosts who bludgeon their guests with loud voices and strong words, as if they were blunt instruments of torture known only to the incredibly stupid. I have no idea why anyone listens to them, when they obviously have never listened to themselves. Into this category must fall people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. And in India, the host with the most, Mr.Arnab Goswami. They seem to consider themselves very smart, savvy and well-informed. None of which they are by the way. And finesse in interviewing? They wouldn’t recognize finesse if it jumped up and bit their noses. Consequently, an hour spent watching them is torture to your eyes, ears and brains. They shout over their guests and cut off people who disagree with them (which in my opinion, should be everyone on earth except themselves). Entering O’Reilly’s self-proclaimed ‘no spin zone’ is like sticking your head in the toilet while flushing it, to hear the sea’s roar. Such is Fox News, or as Jon Stewart so aptly calls it ‘Bullshit Mountain”. The Hannitys and O’Reillys of this world never descend its Olympian heights to indulge in a moment of retrospection.

This brings us to Jon Stewart, the king of ‘fake news’. To many hundreds of thousands, it’s the only news outlet they have. Stewart uses his commanding intellect to suss out explanations even from the outstandingly unreckonable. Watch his interviews of Bill O’Reilly to understand what I mean. With normal people of normal intelligence, Stewart never ceases to amaze. He took a show that was at best lukewarm, with Craig Kilborn in the seat, and over the years offered up a smorgasbord of experiences. It was all done with an understated cleverness and a stunning lack of screaming. For some a wink and a nudge will suffice where others may bring out the Howitzers.

Stewart’s greatest legacy is in the hordes of hosts he has nurtured on the Daily Show. Look at the selection who grace our late nights these days. There is the irepressibly formidable wit  of Stephen Colbert, the fake angry conservative. We have the fruity tones of John Oliver, holding a very funny reflecting mirror to America and its inconsistencies. There’s the maniacally funny world view of the crazy Indian, Asif Mandvi. For years we got to enjoy the hyperbolic shenanigans of the world’s funniest Canadians, the inimitable Jason Jones and Samantha Bee.And lately we learned gorgeous can be funny too, thanks to the talented Ms.Jessica Williams. Not to mention that the hugely successful Steve Carell forged his comedy mettle on the Daily Show. There have been many others, but these names top the list.

If you do nothing else in the interest of understanding the American media, watch Stewart’s interview with the uber conservative commentator, Bill Kristol. Stewart led Kristol up so many convoluted pathways of the mind, that Kristol ultimately admitted that government healthcare (provided to American vets) was the best in the world. The look on Kristol’s face as he realised what he had said? Priceless. He had definitely stepped in the doodie. It must be mentioned that Kristol’s original point was to discredit the idea of Obama’s initial push for a national health care system. Kristol was trying to argue that this would make the American health care system as lousy as in a third world country, like say, umm Canada or the UK. Don’t believe me? Here is the link to the segment.—bill-kristol-extended-interview

Finesse, that is what Stewart deployed so powerfully in that segment. Finesse, something a lot more reporters could use to actually coax real information out of their interviewees. Barbara Walters, had it in spades. So did Oprah Winfrey. Sadly, they didn’t really interview people to find out the answers to the great questions of our time. They interviewed plenty of important people but they did it to extract drama and tears, not answers to serious questions. The ones we look to, to do the kind of serious journalistic reporting, like the hosts of CNN shows, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer et al, will often start with the best intentions but often they will let the interviewee run the show. When an interviewee blatantly goes off topic, they will let them run on, rather than lead them back on track. These are Journalism 101 rules folks, not string theory.

Which brings me back to my original point, if you give a person enough rope, they will eventually hang themselves.

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The Temporal Feminine

Dan Brown wrote an international bestseller about the effects of removing the Sacred Feminine from religion. Thus began a global discussion of the Catholic church and the neverending success of The Da Vinci Code. I have been considering a much more mundane prospect but one that has great impact on daily life. I was considering the effects of removing the feminine presence from the daily life of a society. What happens to such a society? In one word, such a society becomes ‘ridiculous’.

Saudi Arabia is the clearest case in point. Afghanistan under the Taliban was another weird case. But then, that is just an effect of the importation of Saudi Wahabbism to other, poorer countries. It’s important to note that Afghanistan had a thriving society filled with female doctors, teachers, hairdressers and just about every other profession until the Saudi Wahabbi money and ISI’s sinister scheme created the many horned Taliban beast. Women were everywhere, doing everything, in Afghanistan, until the dreaded Taliban wormed their way into power at gunpoint, with the added ammunition of fundamentalist ideology. Today, Afghanistan is wending its slow way back to normal, with women in Parliament and other sectors of the economy.

As for Saudi Arabia, what can I say. I mean really, what can you say about Saudi Arabia? It is a society that actively strives for the title of ‘ridiculous’. If you look up ‘Women in Saudi Arabia’ in Wikipedia, you find one page that lists all the women in Saudi Arabia who are outstanding in different sectors. Here are the categories, alphabetised no less. A for Actresses, has 1 entry. The next category is under F, for Film Directors. It has 1 person listed. Next comes M, for Medical Doctors, with a paltry 4 names. The next entry is under P, for Politicians, with 5 names. Then we have a category under S, for Singers, 4 names. After this blitz, if you have the energy to carry on, is S for Sportswomen with a dazzling 3 names featured. The last category falls under W, for Writers with a truly impressive list of 8 women. One of these women, is actually of Turkish descent, not even really Saudi. She is the mother of Dodi Al Fayed, of Princess Diana fame, with that fact taking precedence over her writing in her bio. The whole list of eminent Saudi women equals a total of 26 luminaries.

So we have 26 women of renown, out of a population of 29.2 million Saudis (2012 statistics). Roughly half the population is female. If this statistic doesn’t make Gloria Steinem scream, I don’t know what will. It certainly drives me crazy. It is a crying shame that in the year 2014, when women have taken their place on the world’s stage and established their positions firmly in every aspect of life everywhere in the world, women in obscenely wealthy Saudi Arabia are so isolated. In the Asian Games held in October 2014, Saudi Arabia was the only country that failed to field even a single female athlete. If this isn’t the definition of a ridiculous society, I haven’t been looking hard enough I suppose.

The country has an entity called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or the religious police. This entity’s main activity seems to consist of restricting the movements of women in the country. Of course they are also well known for other human rights violations. But let us focus on the plight of Saudi women. There is a long list of things a Saudi woman is forbidden from doing. I read that a Saudi woman cannot open a bank account without her husband’s approval. Huh, I thought to myself, what is the fate of the Saudi woman who does not marry? She gets to stuff her mattress with banknotes I suppose. How appropriate. But wait, is a Saudi woman allowed to choose not to marry? The circles within circles are getting totally psychedelic now.

A Saudi woman cannot go anywhere in public, I mean anywhere, without a male chaperone. This person is called ‘mahram‘, usually a male relative. God forbid, it’s an unrelated male. In one bizarre case, a girl reported being gangraped. When it was established she had stepped out without a ‘mahram‘, she was found guilty. She actually got more lashes of the cane than one of her rapists! Wherever a Saudi woman is going, she cannot drive herself there in any case. Women are not allowed to drive, not by any specific law, but by decree of Saudi clerics. They believe women drivers ‘undermine social values’. Their words, not mine.

So the list of the forbidden continues. Women can’t drive, go anywhere alone in public, participate in international sports events, swim in a public pool or in the ocean, try on clothes in a store and so on and so forth. Some of the verboten are positively mental. A woman can’t read an uncensored magazine, buy a barbie doll, try on clothes in a store before buying or work in a lingerie store. I know countless women who’d love to go to a Victoria’s Secret staffed only by men. Wouldn’t you? It’s laughable. Think of the sizing discussions on bras, boggles the mind doesn’t it? However, as Maureen Dowd states in her Vanity Fair article, ‘A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia’, everything in Saudi Arabia is on a ‘sliding scale’, “depending on who you are, whom you know, whom you ask, whom you’re with, and where you are”. So at least some of the women are enjoying some freedoms, some of the time.

In another pesky comparison to the Catholic Church, Saudi Arabia is the only country other than the Vatican, where men have the vote, but women don’t. This differentiates them from countries where no one has the vote, aka dictatorships. Just to throw a dog a bone, there is a royal decree which will allow Saudi women to vote in local body elections in 2015. How magnanimous of the King. I’m guessing this is a man who stepped fully formed out of a magazine and produced his own kids the same way, because apparently he has no mother or wife (or is it wives?).

The biggest problem with making a society so ridiculous, by forcing women so deep into the shadows that they are practically invisible, is the public behaviour of men. People in Mumbai and London have long known of this. It is rumoured that the venerable Taj group in India actually built the far gaudier President hotel in Mumbai to cater to the large number of Arabian guests (known by the generic term ‘sheikhs’) and their tastes. And to keep them apart from other guests perhaps? The idea for this post occurred to me as I was transcribing an interview with a group of successful Saudi businessmen. Some of their speech was Ionesco in the flesh. Funny but true, when asked what were the peculiarities of the Saudi market one businessman responded,’the camels’. The interviewer was understandably taken aback. Pressed further, the interviewee says “camels are too expensive here. They cost much more than Bentleys”. I give you the Saudi male.

I certainly refrain from painting it as Arab culture. It is not. It is quite specifically Saudi Arabian. None of the nations nearby have such oppressive practices against women. Lebanon and Jordan are perfect examples. Saddam Hussain may have been a murderous dictator, but under his Baathist rule Iraqi women had tremendous freedoms, (more than a little lost since). Syria is certainly more progressive in women’s issues. The Emirates states are way ahead of the others in the region. It is Saudi Arabia that chooses to regress in women’s rights. It has chosen to relegate women to domestic roles, as housewives and maids and housekeepers. Oil rich and tremendously powerful in the region, it has chosen not to lead from the front.

Fortunately for them, Saudi women are highly educated. They will not stay in the shadows for much longer. Their sisters around the world stand ready to rally behind them. As they begin to push the envelope, slowly and steadily, they will themselves bring about the revolution that frees them from the oppressiveness of their society. Until then, the sliding scale will have to suffice.


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