Merit-Credit Competition

I will scratch your …

I mean your back

You scratch my …

… I mean my back

 

I will give you a Like

You give me a Like

I will give you a Thumbs Up

You give me a Thumbs Up

 

Online, offline, be it wherever

These are the rules of the game

 

I am OK, you’re OK; both healthy

And all is well with the world

Even though losers go on and on

About the problems in the world

 

We play by the rules, and so

 

My merit will go up

My credit will go up

Your credit will go up

Your merit will go up

 

Together, both of us

Will win the competition

We will earn the position

That we don’t deserve

 

I mean, yes we actually do

Deserve on our very own

 

Then we will go pay our respects

To the billionaire, God bless him

For giving us all his all blessings

May he prosper forever and ever

 

And may he bless us in the world for

Doing well in all adult competitions

 

All Hail the Gods of Meritocracy!

 

Let’s launch a #hashtag as an offering

In his honour, so he gets eternal glory

We all get our prasad and our lollipops

 

After the fall of the causality frontier

Just as punishment determines crime

Our success also determines our merit

 

That is why we have the word loser

 

***

Updated on 25th August, 2019.

Weaponizable Technologies

250px-Panopticon

Weapon are devices

That can harm people

Can also harm property

But that’s less important

 

Weapons are technologies

Not necessarily physical

As in the Foucauldian sense

 

In that sense,

They can also

Harm society

And culture,

Civilizations

Humanity itself

 

And,

More importantly

The very idea of

What humanity is

 

In the Foucauldian sense, they

Can generate chain reactions

Just like nuclear technologies

And they can destroy humanity

Just like fission-fusion weapons

 

Weapons or technologies

Are not tied to a particular

Ideology or even a religion

 

In the Foucauldian sense,

Conventional technologies

 

Are clandestinely

Or benevolently

Developed, and

Are weaponized

 

They are proliferated

Then are exposed

Are opposed, and

Then, gradually

Are normalized

Are assimilated

Into our social fabric

 

The protests against the weapons

And weaponized technologies

As in the world we have made

Not necessarily in the world

That we could perhaps make

Are very predictable phonomena

 

They can start out very strong

Then they become a shadow of

Themselves, or even a parody

 

At best they can become, and

Exist for a longish time, even

Perhaps with ups and downs

 

With limited longish term achievements

Or with very impressive short term ones

Or with no effect on the status quo at all

 

A connoisseur’s delight

They often are reduced to

 

At worst they may become

Freak shows on the fringes

As Kipling showed in a story

Even if they are genuine

Not the fake ones: A part

Of Manufactured Dissent

 

A protest is like a lot like a balm

A protest that is for a single issue

Or, at most, a few such issues

For the people who are hurting

 

In that sense, they are a good thing

But pardon me, for I feel duty bound

To spoil the positivity with some

Unallied and honest bit of truth

 

For they are mostly just balms

That give temporary relief

From the symptoms only

 

They are necessary, but not sufficient

They are not cures in the end

And they come at the expense

Of some other people, who are

Also very much hurting, and

Their issues, symptomatically,

Can be very much different

 

In fact, they can be the exact

Contraries of the issues of the

First set of people who are hurting

 

The powers that be are apt to play

The one against the other, and

The little or large bits of evil

In all of us, ensures that we play

That game, of our own volition

Collectively, so that none feels guilty

 

On our own initiative even, or

So we might convince ourselves

 

Weaponised technologies then

Not just weaponizables ones

 

Are morally

And ethically

And legally

Sanctioned finally

 

That means that

They are approved

By general society

 

And they become

An integral part

A necessary part

Of the civilization

 

They are never

Ever sufficient

 

They become fait accompli

Which is a terrifying phrase

 

After enough time

They are taken

For granted

Are not even

Noticed in our

Everyday life

 

Most of us forget what they mean

Or what they are, how they work

They become part of our natural

Reality, our very natural universe

 

Who can use weapons?

 

Anyone can use them

If they can get access

 

To them, somehow, anyhow

 

And they will be used

Later on, if not sooner

Over there, if not here

At least in the beginning

 

The good guys can use them

Or those who claim to be so

We all know what that means

 

The bad guys can use them

The ugly guys can use them

The evil guys can use them

 

Individually evil can use them

Collectively evil can use them

 

More likely the latter

 

Anyone anywhere anytime on

The whole political spectrum

Can use them, if less or more

Individually or collectively

 

More likely the latter

 

There is absolutely

No guarantee that

Any of the above

Or indeed all of them

Can’t use them at all

Ever and anywhere

 

But can the weak and the meek

Or the tired and the poor

Use them as much as the

Strong and the powerful

To the same extent, even

For the purpose of self-defense?

 

Can single individuals use them

As much as the collective

To the same extent, even

For the purpose of self-defense?

 

First they are used over there

On those we don’t care about

Then they are used over here

 

And when that happens

There are fresh protests

 

We all care about ourselves

Even if we don’t about them

 

Once again, they

Are exposed: For us

Are opposed, and

Then, gradually

Are normalized

Are assimilated

Into our social fabric

Our very own life

 

Excluding them over there

They are already included

We still don’t care about them

We still care only for ourselves

 

Like before, again

They are morally

And ethically

And legally

Sanctioned finally

 

This time, however

For us, not just them

 

Some weaponized technologies

Are so totally unthinkably evil

That their existence is not even

Acknowledged, for preserving

Collective sense of being good

 

Such technologies are only used

Clandestinely, outside all records

So they leave no evidence at all

 

Who do they mean to target?

The demonized are targeted

Mentally-ill may be targeted

Truly subversive freethinkers

May be targeted, selectively

Misfits and loners can also

Be targeted with these ones

 

And, above all

 

The uncontaminated

(Unalloyed, if you like

Or unallied, if you like)

The incorrigible

Truth seekers, As

They may be called

Justice seekers also

Unalloyed or unallied

Can be targeted with

These unacknowledged

Weaponized technologies

In the Foucauldian sense

 

For The Greater Good

Seems they are called

Coal Mine Canaries

Freelance Test Rats

They may not be paid

May not even consent

 

They don’t even know this

That have been made that

This is the most evil part

Of the scheme, in which

 

All “schematism” had to be avoided

 

So they can’t even share

Without anyone at all

Let alone lodge a protest

 

They become Dead Canaries

If they come uncomfortably

Close to the truths that matter

 

In fact, these technologies

Are, by their very nature

Made only for selective use

Personalization is their

Key feature, their identifier

 

One of them had even

Got put on the record

Perhaps due to naïveté

It was called Zersetzung

It specifically recorded

Naïvely, as it turned out

It specifically wrote down

 

This kind of weaponised technology

Is a collective, organised and mobilised

Version of what is called gaslighting

 

A later version of it was called COINTELPRO

Who knows how many different versions of it

Exist today in how many places

Officially or unofficially

Recorded or unrecorded

 

In the original version called Zersetzung

All “schematism” had to be avoided

Because that would make opposition

And protest against it easily possible

 

It being: The collective using it?

 

Individual simply can’t use it

Not to the same degree and reach

Not anywhere remotely close

 

Or the technology itself only?

 

Or why not both of them?

 

But we had better not forget

Technologies are the means

Religions and ideologies are

About the ends, not the means

For them, practically speaking

Ends always justify the means

 

Even if they are, unthinkably

Unredeemably, only pure evil

 

However, we are all endowed with

The extreme powers of self-deception

Individually yes, but also collectively

 

So we still manage to think that they

Are still for them, over there, not us

They are within our society, never us

They are still for them, not over here

Over there can be much nearer now

But it is still over there, and for them

 

Thus, once more magically

They become fait accompli

With a very different context

But actually the same context

 

They are always necessary

So it is claimed, benevolently

But they are never sufficient

 

This is a universal theorem

If you like to be very precise

Then it is at the very least

A pretty likely conjecture

 

And so we march on forward

Or even backward oftentimes

Or sideways, if necessary

Which can be very effective

If you know what I mean

 

In search of new weapons

And ever new technologies

 

That can be weaponized

Easily and yes, inevitably

Even if you don’t believe

In Inevitabilism at all

 

What really is inevitable

However, is the fact that

Some weak, or the meek

Or an isolated individual

Perhaps crazy, perhaps not

Will use them occasionally

Usually after provocation

But sometimes without it

 

Or some collective

Rogue or not rogue

 

A matter of definition

 

Will also make use of them

Regularly or occasionally

 

That is a great opportunity

A motivation for finding

Implementing and using

Ever more lethal weapons

Weaponized technologies

And some non-lethal ones

In the Foucauldian sense

 

We find new evils

We define new evils

We create new evils

 

We get new weapons

To fight newest evils

Which creates even

More ever new evils

 

Thus the circle of evil

Closes in upon us all

Over there, over here

 

So what do you think about it?

***

Originally published on 14th August, 2019. Updated on 20th September, 2019.

A Great Lesson from History

One of my favourite lessons from History, now in the form of a three part documentary:

Of course, it is not just about alcohol (or any other intoxicant). It is about any moral, ethical or legal issue. It is about unintended consequences. It is also about politics and meta-politics and the influence of religion, race, money etc. over it. It is about racism and anti-immigration. It is about religious bigotry. It is about gender bias. It is about organization and mobilization. It is about rural versus urban life. It is about conservatism versus liberalism. It is about the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. It is about solidarity. It is about crime and punishment. It is about Human Nature. It is about what is radical in a time and place and what is not. Finally, it is about economics.

All these are connected in real life. The Great Dilemma of real world politics is, however, that the lesson from it seems to be that single issue politics is most likely to succeed in the short term.

But an opposite lesson is that it is also guaranteed to fail in the medium or long term. That’s one of the reasons why real political change is so difficult to achieve.

There are many sub-lessons too, for example in the way the Women’s Suffrage movement thought about Prohibition before and after this great mistake.

Still, in spite of its relevance, we have to keep in mind that times have changed in some very fundamental ways. Just to give a small example, we have no H. L. Mencken now. Nor F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor even an FDR.

The Mainstream Media has transformed, across the political spectrum, into something I can’t express without using some very very derogatory words. There is widespread TV now, which is far worse than even the Mainstream Media.

Not to mention the technological and economic changes.

And the core specific issue is going to be super-relevant because a whole new generation of intoxicants are on the way. And they are coming from the top, not from the immigrants, but the local heroes of the New Global Establishment. You won’t be able to stop them. You will only be able to regulate them, if you don’t want to repeat history catastrophically.

Have you started thinking about that?

***

It is not really now. It was aired in 2011. And it was aired on PBS, which is part of the Mainstream Media. Even so, PBS is somewhat special case. Sitting here in India, it seems very special.

The Prohibition itself (the 18th Amendment) started in 1917 and ended in 1933. Till recently, it was not that unusual to see such programs on Mainstream TV almost 80 years after the whole affair ended. To some extent, on some channels in some countries, it still happens. Could it have been made (and shown) before 1933?

In the coming years (or months, or days, who knows in these times) even this kind of History lesson may become hard to get because now History is being re-written like never before, at least since Enlightenment.

Where will future generations find the truth (as much as it can be found, even with best efforts). Some Select Few might still have access to it, but even that does not seem certain now.

How long will PBS last as it exists today?

Big Data and Big Information and Smaller Knowledge and Tiny (or Zero) Understanding. And what is Wisdom? Back to thousands of years ago, perhaps.

What will politics mean then? What does it already mean? Have we reached a point of no return?

***

But what about Prohibition of the original intoxicant: alcohol? Is it gone forever, or at least everywhere? Not at all. It still exists in many places. Just as it did in the US back then. And it is following almost the same trajectory. And in these places, it can cause even more problems, if not for any other reason than simply because of poverty and the stigma.

Even in the past, Prohibition has been used politically in many other countries. For example, it was used (the movement of it), perhaps not that rigidly, but still as a rallying cry for reform by someone as illustrious as Gandhi. And most Gandhian (or those who call themselves Gandhian: the gap is getting larger as with any other ideology), still argue for it in some or the other form.

In places where it is still used, the reasons given (often very valid ones) are almost the same as for Prohibition in the US. The biggest similarity has been, perhaps in all cases of Prohibition, the support of women, particularly rural women. That support is based on just as valid grounds as the one in the documentary. Another big similarity is that, for similar reasons, it can swing elections. Many politicians have once again realized the political utility of it. Most probably they have known all along, but they didn’t believe it could swing elections.

A party in existential crisis in 2015 won the state elections by promising Prohibition and kept that promise. Seeing the success, others also started talking about it.

Same valid reasons, justifications and grievances. The same disastrous results. The same long term positive effects. Or may be not the last part, may be not in all cases.

I personally have little to do with it. Strange as it may sound, as alcohol use is widespread in India even with the enormous stigma, I hadn’t actually even seen an alcoholic drink till the age of around 25 or more likely 27. It wasn’t till the age of 38 that I had tried out one spoonful out of a glass that someone in a celebration had ordered. Now I have been to many conferences where there are (usually paid) banquets where liquour is served and I have tasted a glass or two several kinds of alcoholic drinks.

However, it is almost embarrassing to admit that I still haven’t developed a taste for such drinks. Not that I have ever been against alcohol as such. Nor do I have anything against those who drink.

One reason for me is that they are so bitter (particularly beer) and we don’t like bitter in India! We like sweets, lots of sweets. Very sweet. Too much sweet. The kind a westerner might taste and say (perhaps silently, Ugh!).  I did too (liked sweet, that is). I still do, but not the ‘sweets’ themselves, just the taste sweet. Moderate sweet. Have I become Europeanized. That is, to some extent, a fact worth taking for granted for all those who are ‘well-educated’ and live in urban areas.

There is a very large number of Indians that drinks, so they must like it for some reasons, but I am not sure whether bitterness is one of them.

I am sure there are many many people in India who have actually never tasted alcohol in their whole life, as they consider it a sin, as did so many people the world over and throughout history.

But I can’t resist repeating again. The world is changing radically. In fact, the word radical isn’t even enough to describe that change.

For both who drink and those who don’t drink. Or those somewhere in between, like me.

A Challenge for RTI Activists in India

There is a major issue that most people, including activists in India have not given as much attention as it merits. That issue is of surveillance of ordinary people, especially within offices, gated societies, campuses and in some cases even independent houses. The use of electronic devices for surveillance is far more widespread than the occasionally reported phone tapping cases. Potentially, and I think in reality too, this is hampering all kind of normal activities that people can indulge in, including acts of dissidence and protest, which I think are the special target of such practices. It has come to the point where any kind of protest activity in India is being ‘nipped in the bud’, at least in urban areas. This is making all the talk about there being democracy in India a joke.

Whether or not I am wrong in saying the above, there is sufficient evidence about the potential and real misuse of surveillance devices. This is part of a worldwide trend that has intensified in the last ten years and many such cases have been reported in various countries, including by the mainstream media, which usually avoids such topics these days. One concrete, practical action that can be taken in this regard is to demand information about this under the Right to Information Act. Since I am not competent enough to do this on my own and I have no contacts of any sort whose help I can take, I challenge (or appeal, whichever way you like to see it) the RTI activists to demand this information from the government as well as corporations.

I list below some specific points which I think should form the basis for such a demand. I only write them down here as rough indicators.

  1. Has the government sanctioned the use of electronic surveillance devices against ordinary people? It yes, who gives authorisation in specific cases and on what basis? What guidelines are followed? Who verifies that these guidelines are followed? Is there any mechanism through which the targeted person can ask for justification for any such surveillance?
  2. Are these devices being used in hotels, hostels, campuses and offices? What safeguards are there against their misuse? Who looks after this? On what basis are these places identified? Are they also being used in independent houses? If yes, what are the details?
  3. Are local administrators or managers or private security agencies allowed to make their own policies regarding this, ignoring any consideration for privacy of individuals? What is the mechanism through which information can be obtained about this and how can any redressal be sought?
  4. Are there any constraints about sharing the information collected through these means? Who decides about such things? Has it become a complete free for all where any administrator or manager or private security company can collect and disseminate such information?
  5. What is the role of IT companies in this, especially outsourcing companies such as TCS, Wipro, Infoys, who have huge numbers of employees, many of whom at any given time are not engaged in productive work? Are these employees being involved in unauthorised and illegal surveillance on ordinary people? What are the details about this, how can they be obtained? If this is happening, does the government know about it and was this officially sanctioned by the government?
  6. Is the information (or any falsified/distorted version of it) collected through surveillance (by whichever agency) being used for punitive purposes against people who are seen to be (rightly or wrongly, with justification or without justification) indulging in some kind of dissidence activity such as opposing the policies of privatisation and corporatisation of everything? If yes, what is the legal basis for this?
  7. Is such information being used to disrupt services such as Internet access and electricity supply for people who are being targeted by the surveillance policies?
  8. Is such information being used to launch smear campaigns against people seen as opposed to the official or corporate policies?
  9. Is such information being used to generally “make life impossible” (as one think tank writer proudly mentioned in one of his articles: on a dissident media website, no less) for the targeted people?
  10. Is such information being given to shopkeepers, hair dressers etc., with the instructions to not provide proper services (or deny providing services) to the targeted people?
  11. Is such information being used to ensure that the targeted people are denied jobs that they apply for? Is it being used to form a kind of (formal or informal) blacklist for employment and related purposes? Is it also being used to create hindrances in the work of these people, if they do get a job.
  12. What is extent of the use of surveillance of any kind in academics? What is the purpose of such surveillance? Are students being involved in such activities as developers, system administrator and informers in general? What are the details of surveillance related projects sanctioned by the government specifically for academic institutions?
  13. To what extent are the communications service providers being used for surveillance, whether for the government or for corporations or for any other organisations?
  14. Does the government know about the use of surveillance devices by the large right-wing organisations and corporations/institutions sympathetic to them? If yes, have any steps being taken to stop this? Has there been any investigation into this?
  15. In case the answer to most of the questions above is negative, is there any mechanism to take action in case evidence is made available that would indicate that the answer to at least a few of these questions may be affirmative?

I have written the above only as initial notes. These can be refined and improved and extended. I would welcome any suggestions.

Full Disclosure: I am writing this as a person who believes that he has been a target of such practices for the last many years, although I don’t even claim to have indulged in much protest of any major significance. I am writing this almost as a last resort, having tried to ignore this issue for a long time, hoping that it would cease in due course. I don’t know what else I can do about this. Please note that being part of the ‘IT community’ in India, I am both more prone to it and also more likely to notice it.

I know how some people are going to react to it, but unless I thought it absolutely necessary (a matter of life and death), I wouldn’t have written it. I am generally not given to stick my head out easily, though I do try to call a spade a spade. I am no Bradley Manning. But I guess my head is already out.

The Ambiguity In The Box

Moral ambiguity is one of the stocks-in-trade of literary and art criticism. This or that work of art is said to have moral ambiguity to a high degree and it is usually meant to be a compliment. Now moral ambiguity, given the world we live in, is indeed something that perhaps every work of art should possess to some degree. After all, what can be worse, from the artistic point of view, than to sit in judgement over each and every aspect of human life, when human knowledge of human mind or of human relations, let alone of the cosmic realities, is so little that we can only feel humble at our own collective ignorance. We can also feel collectively criminal, given what we have done to the Earth, but that is a digression. Paraphrasing and putting in the reverse order what Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, unlike in real life, where we often have to (and must) say what is true and what is false (or what is good and what is bad), in art one need not do that. The necessary result of such a well advised policy will be moral ambiguity in art, because art is not Moral Science. That applies as much to popular art as it does to ‘high’ or ‘fine’ art. However, that does not give us the license to see moral ambiguity where it is not present.

The sources of immediate provocation for bringing up this topic are the reviews ([1] [2] [3] [4]) that I have recently read of an acclaimed movie. That movie is called Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. It can be called a gangster movie. On the surface, it is quite run-of-the-mill, but like all ambitious works that achieve some artistic success, by which I don’t mean box office or critical success, but the inherent quality of the work, this one too rises above other similar crime movies. It is also one of those rare movies that are made great (or almost great) mainly because of the acting, in this case the acting of just one person: James Cagney. On this point I am in agreement with all the reviewers of this movie, who, without exception, praise his performance. The direction is good enough, but it has become secondary.

One can also mention before proceeding further that this is a better movie than the overrated Casablanca by the same director. But please don’t let that come in the way of listening to what I have to say about the supposed ambiguity in this movie.

The basic plot is simple and familiar for every movie buff (even to others perhaps). Two boys live in a slum. They are members of, what we euphemistically call, ‘troubled youth’. They indulge in petty thievery (one reviewer called it robbery: unarmed boys trying to steal a little something from a stationary goods-train wagon and failing to do so). On this train ‘robbery’, they are noticed by someone and then chased by two policemen. One gets away, the other gets caught. From then on, their lives are separated for fifteen years. One becomes a priest and the other becomes a hardened criminal. No prize for guessing which one becomes what. Their lives collide again and one of them ultimately loses. No prize again for guessing which one.

The plot would be especially familiar to those who grew up on Hindi films of the seventies, but it was a common plot even in the US in those days, that is, the thirties. Only forty years of difference in progress, instead of fifty. Cheer up. Don’t feel cheated.

So where is the ambiguity? When the hardened criminal comes out of prison one more time and meets his old pal, the priest, he also revisits his old slum. And he runs into not just the girl he used to tease (who, after having waited for fifteen years, pays him back as she always wanted to, but falls in love with him nonetheless: the movie does suggest that they were in love even in the beginning, though their street-smartness required them to express it via mutual hostility), he also runs into a a group of boys just like what he and his friend were. These boys pick his pocket and he bests them (as one reviewer expressed it) to win their admiration. He was already their hero, being a familiar figure in the daily headlines, but now that they have him near them and find out that he lived in the same place and used the same hideout, their admiration is total. These boys are called the Dead End Kids (or Dead End Boys in the movie, I don’t remember which). They are played by the same actors who played similar roles in an earlier series with the same name. The situation is that the good guy priest is trying to ‘straighten’ them. He tries to make them go to the gym and play basketball. Play by the rules, that is. But he fails. It turns out that the bad guy criminal is better at making them play the game by the rules. How would the priest feel?

The movie ends with the bad guy criminal duly coming to an inevitable bad end, as required by the moral Production Code of those days. He is captured after a shootout, which occurs, in the first place, because he was trying to save his friend’s life. For the second time. The first time was just before he was caught after the train ‘robbery’ and was put in the Center for Juvenile Delinquents. Jerry (the to-be priest) had fallen on the rail tracks as a train was approaching and Rocky (the to-be gangster) stopped and helped him get up. That probably cost him his future. But he ain’t complaining. He is the kind who is prepared to ‘take the rap’ for his actions and maintains his tough persona and, when Jerry comes to visit him and asks him why didn’t he name him too (so that he could have got an easier punishment), he (Rocky) advises his best friend, “Always remember: Never be a sucker.”.

So the bad guy comes to a bad end and is sent to die on the electric chair. Now the priest, who already owes his life twice over to his best friend (and had earlier gone on a campaign against all the criminals in the city, including Rocky Sullivan), asks for one last favour from him. Since the boys hero worship him, would he now show “a different kind of courage, a courage that only you and me and God know about” and pretend to die as a coward, instead of maintaining his brave persona to the end, as expected by the boys? That, the priest argues, would save the boys from falling into a criminal life and coming to … a bad end.

Rocky Sullivan refuses the request (it’s the only thing he has: his heroic, even if criminal, image) and walks defiantly to the chair, but just before the last part, after walking the last mile, his shadow is seen through a glass and his voice is heard as he apparently succumbs and cries out for mercy. The next day the media reports that Rocky Sullivan died ‘yellow’ and the priest takes the dejected and disillusioned (isn’t that an appropriate word?) boys to go with him to say prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could”. No mention, of course, of the life saving part, which would have caused the hero worship of the bad guy to resurface.

The ambiguity, for many reviewers, is supposed to be in that last act of cowardice. Did he just pretend to die as a coward (for the sake of his friend and the boys who admire him), or did he actually lose his courage in the end? But one can almost excuse the reviewers because James Cagney himself is reported to have said that he tried to make that scene seem ambiguous, and his co-actor (then not quite a star) Humphrey Bogart also appreciated this scene, presumably because of the same ambiguity.

What ambiguity? Where is the ambiguity in that last scene? There is no ambiguity there. If you insist it’s there, may be it’s there in the box. I didn’t see it. Given all that went before in the movie, it is crystal clear to me that Rocky was just pretending to have turned ‘yellow’, granting one more favour to his best friend. And thus failing by his own standards, as well as by those of the others. He died, not a coward, but a sucker.

Actually, there was a reviewer who also didn’t find any ambiguity here. Neither, as he mentioned, his father. He is the one of the robbery mention. But there were others. So I am not completely alone in this.

Movies about crime, movies like this, almost always work at different levels. One is as required by that moral Production Code. Criminals coming to a bad end. The conflict between the good and the bad. Even this is not as simple as it sounds, because at this first level too the bad guy, who is the main character, is shown to be basically a good person (in this movie: in others he may have some good traits), who only came to a bad end because of his circumstances (the movie doesn’t mention his hero worshipping a preceding Rocky Sullivan). That is why he does all those favours to his friend. The movie also shows many other bad characters, who are much worse than him and meant to be seen as such by the audience. But the priest, who is also shown to be really a very good person (who came to a good end), boils down the whole set of circumstances to just one thing: Hero Worship of criminals like Rocky Sullivan. That’s the reason, he seems to believe (like a right-wing conservative nut), if that hero worship was stopped (by hook or by crook), the Dead End Kids will get straightened and will live a good life. So he decides to make an example of his own best friend (who is dying because of him and probably came to a bad end also because of him). For a good cause. For him, ends justify the means. Priesthood and goodness be damned. He is a pragmatic, albeit idealistic, politician. As wily as they come.

The second level, when compared to the first, is what shows up our own moral ambiguity. That is the level of entertainment. How we enjoy those thrilling scenes. How we root for Rocky all the way (as more than one reviewer noted), even when he is in the shootout and is killing policemen. The whole story has been made up mainly for our entertainment. Michael Curtiz (he was famous for his problems with the English language) is known to have said about his movies (and his way of making movies, and may be also for the business of making movies), “Who cares about character (development)? I make it go so fast, no one notices.”. All the way we root for the bad guy, and at the end we set it morally right by delighting in the sorry end of the same bad guy, so that we can go home and sleep well.

That’s the usual thing. What is especially bad here (or is that usual too?) is that there are a lot of other really bad guys. Much worse, as I said. And most of them don’t come to a bad end. They are not even considered or known to be criminals. They live respectable lives. What about their hero worship? Don’t the ‘straight’ but not yet respectable people see them as their role models (or at least look up to them)? The lawyers. The police chief. The businessmen. The mediamen. You can extend the list to the very top.

In fact, as the soon-to-die criminal remarks, all those bad guys were named during the trial and the priest himself had tried to clean the city of all the corruption (with the help of one brave newspaper editor), but nothing happened. The only ones who we see coming to a bad end (except Rocky Sullivan) are those who are killed by Rocky, who is the only one caught and sentenced. So what’s all this about bad guys always coming to a bad end? Does someone really believe that? Did they believe it even in the thirties?

I am talking about the world we have, not the one we should have.

To follow this to the bitter end, one could almost say that the good guy priest finally has his revenge on his friend who didn’t take his offer of help and instead advised him (condescendingly?) to not be a sucker. The monster living in the priest’s dark side might well be looking up during the prayer after the execution and saying triumphantly, who is the sucker now?

The boys, when they first saw him and decided to pick his pocket (and before they realised that he was their hero, Rocky Sullivan), identified him as, yes, a “sucker”. Works of art often say things which their creator may not have intended.

Why were the boys called the Dead End Kids? The word angel is referring to these boys as well as to the famous criminal. One of the dirty-faced angels has to be sacrificed to save the other dirty-faced angels. So it’s all among the dirty-faced angels. Nothing to do with the rest. Be happy, go home and have fun.

It was perhaps the possibility of having to face such questions that sent those reviewers and commentators (and Cagney and Bogart) scrambling to find ambiguity where there was none.

As hinted earlier, there is a kind of ambiguity here, but it’s not in that last scene, which is an embarrassing end to the movie. It’s there in the priest’s character. It’s also there in our reactions to the movie, where it always is. But the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold’s character is as straightforward as that of any archetype in Western movies. No ambiguity.

The problem (at the first level) is not that the priest is trying to make the kids forego a life of crime. The problem is that his endeavour, like that of the moral Production Code as well as the quest for ambiguity in this particular case, is not genuine. And the solution is not to make suckers out of ‘angels’, dirty-faced or not.

The problem (at the second level) is also that even the last purifying delight of ours just doesn’t work, if you think a little about it. After all, it’s not just the priest and criminal and God who know what really happened. We also know it. And the final bad end was ultimately for our benefit. But if we know that he didn’t die ‘yellow’, then the device breaks down. Now we need something else as a substitute. So we make up the story that we really don’t know. The last scene is ambiguous. In spite of the explicit explanation that went just before it and all that went on earlier, we don’t know whether the cowardice was real or not. May be it was. That would absolve us. Because if he did die yellow, then he did come to a really bad end: in the public eyes, his own eyes, in our eyes. No redemption for him. After having entertained ourselves at his expense, we have appropriated his redemption as well. That’s smart, isn’t it?

We ain’t no suckers.

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

सांस्कृतिक कार्यक्रम

पहला: मार साले को!
दूसरा: मार साले को!
तीसरी: मार साले को!

कोरस: मार साले को! मार साले को! मार साले को!

पहला: मर गया क्या?
दूसरा: लग तो मरा ही रहा है।
तीसरी: अभी पूरी तरह नहीं मरा।

कोरस: मार साले को! मार साले को! मार साले को!

पहला: अबे ये देख वीडियो तेरा।
दूसरा: दिखता नहीं इसमें तू मर रहा है?
तीसरी: नहीं मानेगा, और लगाओ इसके।

कोरस: और लगाओ इसके! और लगाओ इसके! और लगाओ इसके!

पहला: मान जा! रस तो तेरा सारा निकल गया है।
दूसरा: रस तो सारा कोरस को चला गया है।
तीसरी: अब बचा क्या है? अब क्या करेगा तू?

कोरस: अब क्या करेगा तू? अब क्या करेगा तू? अब क्या करेगा तू?

The Missing Clause

There is a legal agreement written in very legal language that I had to read today. It’s called Mutual Confidentiality Agreement and is required to be signed by two parties who plan to collaborate on some commercial product or service.

After having plodded through the legalese and having understood most of it (I have an advantage in this regard), I found that there was one clause that was glaringly missing from it.

The document lists all the conditions that apply when the Disclosing Party discloses something to the Recipient. It has a section euphemistically titled ‘Injunctive Relief’ that might send the shivers down the Recipient’s spine, depending on the power balance. It also lists all the exceptions under which these conditions may not apply. Such conditions include “court order” and “as required by law”.

What is missing is something that should be included in all such documents post-9/11, in all countries that went for the security Gold Rush, which practically means all countries, (almost) period.

That missing clause should go something like this:

An (unintended) disclosure by the Recipient to any number of third parties of any of the Disclosing Party’s Confidential Information will not be considered a breach of the agreement if it happens under any of the following conditions:

  1. As part of surveillance operations carried out by the State and any of its agencies, the institution in which the Recipient works or any part thereof, the Local Version of the Truman Show, the Connectivity Service Providers, the Private Security Companies, the Local Quasi-authorised Vigilante Organisations or any other such agencies added to the list till the eve of the day the breach is considered for scrutiny.
  2. [Talking of eve] As a result of eavesdropping by the agencies and organisations listed in 1.
  3. As a result of disclosure by the people involved in (a) surveillance and (b) eavesdropping by the agencies and organisations listed in 1 to any of their superiors, colleagues, sub-ordinates, business associates, friends, relatives, family members or strangers.

The clause sounds very reasonable in the post-9/11 world and makes perfect legal sense. After all, any disclosure made (unintentionally) under conditions listed in this clause would not be the fault of the Recipient and it would only be for The Good of The Country and The World and The Humanity (as everyone knows and agrees to).

I have one doubt, however. Won’t the addition of this clause almost nullify everything else in this agreement to mutual confidentiality?

But the clause is required. Isn’t it?

And what about that poor thing, The Market?

Is it already being forgotten in favour of other things?

हक़

कोई मेरे पास आए
साथ चलने के लिए
और मैं उसे भगा दूँ
दुत्कार कर
फटकार कर
सबके सामने
बेइज्जत कर के

तब भी अगर वो ना जाए
तो मैं उसके होने को ही
नज़रअंदाज़ कर के दिखा दूँ

वो बार-बार आता रहे
और मैं बार-बार यही करूँ
तो क्या मुझे हक़ बनता है
उसे दोष देने का
इसलिए कि उसने साथ नहीं दिया
इसलिए कि वो अब साथ नहीं चल रहा
जबकि मेरी खुद की सांठ-गांठ उन्हीं से है
जिनकी यातना और दुत्कार से बचते हुए
वो मेरे पास आया था

साथ चलने के लिए
इसलिए कि किसी और को
यातना और दुत्कार दिए जाने से रोका जा सके

जबकि मुझे यही नहीं पता
कि वो क्या कर रहा है
और क्यों कर रहा है

किसी के सारे रास्ते बंद करके
(दुनिया से ही टिकट कटा लेने को छोड़ कर)
क्या कोई किसी को पाठ पढ़ा सकता है
कि जीवन कैसे जिया जाए
कि नैतिकता के मानदंड क्या हैं?

इंकलाब के पहले

अन्याय हर तरफ फैला है
पूंजी का बोलबाला है
सच का सर्वत्र मुँह काला है

ये हालात तो बदलने ही होंगे
बदलाव के हालात बनाने होंगे

तभी तो इंकलाब आएगा
हर जन अपना हक पाएगा

पर उसके पहले बहुत से काम
जो अभी तक पूरे नहीं हुए
वो सब के सब निपटाने होंगे

वो कोने में जिसे अधमरा करके
बड़े दिनों से डाल रखा है
वो अब भी, हद है आखिर,
कभी-कभार बड़-बड़ किए रहता है

उसे सबक सिखाना होगा
उसके भौंकने को बंद कराना होगा
पहला बड़ा काम तो यही है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

फिर आपस के झगड़े भी तो हैं
तगड़े हैं, एक से एक बढ़ के हैं
एक-दूसरे को सबक सिखाना होगा
एक-दूसरे का भौंकना बंद कराना होगा

दूसरा बड़ा काम यह भी तो है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

फिर कुछ डरे सहमे
असुरक्षित लोगों ने
अपनी बुद्धि का
अपने ज्ञान का
और तो और
अपनी प्रतिभा का!
(हद है!, हद है!
कितनी अकड़ है!)
आतंक फैला रखा है
यहीं, इंकलाबियों के बीच!

उनका मटियामेट कर के ही
सच्चे इंकलाबी दम ले सकते हैं
उन्हें अपने साथ लाकर नहीं

एक तीसरा बड़ा काम यह जो है
इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?

ऐसे कितने ही काम और हैं
जिन्हें निपटाना है
इंकलाब के पहले

इसी से याद आया
एक काम तो यही है
कि इन कामों में
जो अड़चन पहुँचाए
उसे हड़का-हड़का के
आपसी झगड़े
ज़रा देर को भुला के
मिल-जुल कर
ऊपर पहुँचाया जाए

इसके बिना आगे कैसे बढ़ सकते हैं?