Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The difference between taste and judgment

We are very quick to pronounce our judgments on works of art: a book, a movie, a picture. I don't like this book. I love that movie. And so on. The point is, as long as we have a basic respect for a work of art, it is OK to express your opinion about it.

This and many other interesting points make Rick Gekoski's piece, It takes judgment, not taste, to pick a Booker winner, quite readable:
Claiming that something is right or wrong is generally regarded as more than mere opinion. Murder is wrong, being kind to old ladies is right: such conclusions are the result of first principles, argument and sustained consideration. If I prefer merlot to cabernet sauvignon, football to cricket, blondes to brunettes, spinach to mushrooms, that is a matter of taste, and I am under no obligation to defend my preference. But if I adore murdering, and am gratuitously beastly to old ladies, I am (in many ways) likely be called upon to defend myself.

Where does this leave us? With a clear distinction between matters of taste and matters of judgment. You like Mateus Rosé better than Château Pétrus? No problem. You think it is a better wine? You're wrong. You're clearly without the experience, palate, or discrimination to make such a judgment. As unfit as I would be to decide which sort of catalytic convertor to fit to my car. I simply don't know enough. This seems obvious, but increasingly such a position offends against the spirit of the times. Nobody is wrong these days. We are all "entitled to our opinion", and the notion that there is some gap between opinion and truth, assertion and argument, seems to be getting lost.

His final point:

You will have gathered by now that this is not about Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, or even John Banville, who merely provides its occasion. What is it about, then? Respect. For people, for texts, for the act of reading, and of talking about books and their authors. Implicit in this is John Stuart Mill's wise advice: it is easy enough to be grateful for friends who agree with you, but who we really need to value are our antagonists, for it is they who make us think harder, strive to refine and elucidate our judgments, making them (and ourselves) both clearer and better. I would love one day to argue publicly with Boyd Tonkin about The Sea. I think he was wrong. He thinks I was. Maybe one of us might actually change his mind?

Full text

Friday, August 26, 2011

Anna, fight moral corruption in India

More important than wholesale and retail corruption is the third dimension of corruption—moral corruption—that has to be checked. Corruption can only be stopped if we are ready to suffer by not giving bribes. Indian citizens have to go through that painful phase.

By Zafar Anjum

In school we were taught that constant vigilance is the true price of democracy. For decades, we did not take this principle seriously. We allowed politicians, bureaucrats, and power brokers swindle billions of rupees from the public system decade after decade. We made a few noises from time to time and then we hurtled along the path of democracy with our heads bowed. We had a nation to build. Life was not easy anyway. The result of this half-century long lapse is today’s anti-corruption crusade by Gandhian activist, Anna Hazare and his team.

Corruption in India has reached its tipping point. People can’t take it any more.

Anna has been fasting for the introduction of the Jan Lokpal bill in parliament for 11 days now. Negotiations with the government have been blowing hot and cold. Both team Anna and the ruling Congress Party have stonewalled themselves. Everybody is looking for a closure. A 74-year old frail Anna’s life is at stake.

There is doubt if the government will concede to all of Anna’s demands. Even if it does, will it solve the widespread corruption in India? That is the question I want to raise.

Anna’s demand for the appointment of a Lokpal at the Centre, a new agency empowered to fight corruption among public servants, with sweeping powers over all government officials, the prime minister included, will create a bureaucratic monstrosity. Anna also wants to appoint Lokayuktas at the state level, with bureaucratic machinery to support them.

First, people who will be appointed in this bureaucratic set-up will again come from the same society that produces the corrupt police and administrative officers, politicians and clerks. How different will their morals be from their current counterparts? Second, even if they turn out to be honest, they will have to handle billions of complaints from 1.2 billion Indians. To sort out the complaints, they will have to work with other government bodies which are supposedly staffed with corrupt officials. How is this system going to work then?

Corruption happens because of two main reasons: one, absence of a stringent rule of law, and two, moral weakness in individuals (instances of corruption can arise from both greed and for need of money). A nation that has people with a strong moral fibre will not tinker with the institutions in place. That’s what India’s basic problem is today. No one is arguing that corrupt government servants should be spared a harsh crackdown. But crackdown alone will not solve the problem of corruption. In China too, there is visibly harsh punishment for corruption, yet cases of corruption keep getting unearthed. Therefore, alongside the struggle for Lokpal, Anna should focus his energies on building a mass movement to develop people with character.

This suggestion might sound a bit moralistic but if you think of it, why is it that India is in such a state today despite having all the institutions in place? The chalta hai attitude, the jugaad culture, the bribes for chai and paan has totally eaten into India’s moral fibre. Anna’s honesty, fearlessness and fighting spirit is an exception in today’s India. People might wear ‘I am Anna’ caps but are they, really?

Middle class morality

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must be a baffled man at this time: India’s middle class has stood up against him. It is the same middle class that was midwifed by his financial reforms 20 years ago. This middle class has given him the epithet of Dhritrashtra—the blind king of Mahabharata who presided over the epic war, oblivious to the wrongdoing of his own people.

Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms were justified by invoking the trickle down theory. The theory was a Trojan horse to implant neo-liberalism. Today, the same theory is known as voodoo economics. Among the many things, India’s liberalisation has also created Indians with oversized ambitions and the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened. Capitalism and neoliberal values have unleashed a fountain of aspirations in India. People will do anything to get by and get hold of shiny, material objects advertised on TV. The result is greed and moral decadence. No one wants to cut his coat according to his cloth. No one wants to live within his means, according to his station in life defined by his wage and profession. There is a rush to be seen with wealth, no matter how ill-gotten.

We are all in it

When we talk about corruption, we often refer to our politicians and bureaucrats, the big and small government servants. We have to bribe them for every little transaction—from getting a birth certificate to getting a passport. This corruption has been going on for ages: questioned but tolerated. Why? Because no one wants to suffer. We are all in a hurry to get our work done. There have even been demands to legalise bribe giving in India. It has been supported by respected entrepreneurs like Narayan Murthy, the former chairman of Infosys, one of India’s biggest outsourcing companies.

Former Infosys CEO, Nandan Nilekani, now chairman of the newly minted Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), has interesting terms to describe corruption in India: wholesale corruption (like the Commonwealth Games scam, the telecom scam) and retail corruption (corruption that occurs at the points of citizen-government official interaction).

Wholesale corruption can be checked by strong institutions that are already in place. If the Lokpal becomes a reality, it can certainly focus on weeding out wholesale corruption in India.

More difficult to tackle is retail corruption. There are 2.4 million government officials in India. How is one going to keep an eye on their activities? According to Nilekani, e-governance, transparent systems, and enabling electronic instruments such as Aadhaar (unique identity project that can help check corruption in the public distribution system) can help reduce retail corruption.

More important than these two, however, is the third dimension of corruption—moral corruption—that has to be checked. Corruption can only be stopped if we are ready to suffer by not giving bribes. Indian citizens have to go through that painful phase. And now that Anna has awakened the nation, there is no one better to do this job. That should be his next mission.

An updated version of this piece was published in Guernica Magazine, USA.