Sunday, May 28, 2006

We actually share the same identity

But reading Spinoza today, it seems very religious, there's a lot of talk about God.
But it's not in any way a personal God. Spinoza's God is logic, basically. It's the sum of all the reasons for everything. But it's not a God whom one can pray to, and certainly not a God who would enter into a special relationship with a people.
And Spinoza was intent on disproving any sense of a special relationship or chosen people. Why?
For Spinoza, being a Jew is a problem to be solved. The continued identification of this people and their stubborn insistence on their difference has only brought woe on them, and the best way to solve this unbearable suffering that the Jews have been subjected to is to cure them of their beliefs in a difference. When he was a boy, there were stories of people who had gone back to Portugal and who were burned in the auto-da-fé—an ongoing calamity, the worst calamity of the Jewish people until the Holocaust. These stories clearly made an impression.
Spinoza's rationalism is a kind of answer to this tragedy, to the tragedy of all racist hatred—and the Inquisition wasn't just religious hatred but racial. It's saying that, to the extent that we're rational, none of the differences between us matter. To the extent that we're rational we actually share the same identity. Part of our salvation—our secular salvation, as he sees it—is to deconstruct one's own identity. I believe that somehow he had indicated this even at an early stage of his philosophy, that being Jewish is not the essence of one's identity for those who are Jews; it's not ethically essential. That's a viewpoint I don't think that Judaism could tolerate—not in his time, not in ours. Rebecca Goldstein AUDIO Rebecca Goldstein talks with Sara Ivry about philosophy and betrayal Listen >> These are mp3 files. What's a podcast? >> Betraying Spinoza

Friday, May 26, 2006

There are still a lot of unresolved issues from the civil rights era

Mr. Laster is dapper and cosmopolitan, a part-time professor and Democratic activist who drinks and dines with a wide circle of black, white and Hispanic friends. He said he marveled at first as the images of cheering, flag-waving immigrants flickered across his television screen. But as some demonstrators proclaimed a new civil rights movement, he grew uncomfortable. He says that immigrant protesters who claim the legacy of Dr. King and Rosa Parks are going too far. And he has begun to worry about the impact that the emerging immigrant activism will have on black Americans, many of whom still face poverty, high rates of unemployment and discrimination in the workplace.
"I think what they were able to do, the level of organization they were able to pull off, that was phenomenal," said Mr. Laster, who is also a part-time sociology professor at a community college in Baltimore. "But I do think their struggle is, in fundamental ways, very different from ours. We didn't chose to come here; we came here as slaves. And we were denied, even though we were legal citizens, our basic rights."
"There are still a lot of unresolved issues from the civil rights era," he said. "Perhaps we're going to be pushed to the back burner." This painful debate is bubbling up in church halls and classrooms, on call-in radio programs and across dining room tables. Some blacks prefer to discuss the issue privately for fear of alienating their Hispanic allies. But others are publicly airing their misgivings, saying they are too worried to stay silent.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Caste myopia

Occupational immobility and founding principles Gautam Chikermane
Indian Express: Monday, May 08, 2006
To ascribe a precise state of consciousness to a particular community, race or religion and fix it into rigid clusters of misery is a needlessly short-sighted look at a vision profound. And India has been suffering from this myopia for centuries. It is today a part of a constitutional mechanism that seeks to “uplift” the socially downtrodden through a series of measures, including reservations, so that India moves towards being an egalitarian state, a nation where equal opportunities are not a theoretical construct but a practical reality.
But the caste system, whose poetical and refined form is beautifully encapsulated in four shlokas of the Bhagwad Gita (chapter 18, verses 41 through 44), has nothing to do with matter at all; it has everything to do with the Spirit. When Krishna explains to Arjuna the duties of the four castes, he is not talking about any colour or texture of skin but with their states of consciousness. Follow the argument long enough and we meet swabhava (loosely, one’s inherent nature) — brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, shudra. And based on that swabhava, the organisation of society by caste was fluid and free.
Moreover, even as we attempt a discussion standing on a brittle intellectual crust, it would be wise to time-travel a few millennia that have passed since the conception of the caste and the writing of this column. During this time, along with social evolution has come the birth of a far more layered, multi-faceted man. There is, today, a Ravana-like, 10-headedness, multi-beingness that surrounds all of us. Who can say that the brahmin doesn’t serve and the shudra doesn’t rule, or the vaishya doesn’t teach and the kshatriya doesn’t trade? At any point we, knowledge workers, are part-brahmins (we think), part-shudra (we serve) and part everything in between (we organise, we conquer).
Knowledge is equally our tool to negotiate the world with and a sword to fight in the arena of marketshare. We trade the capital between our ears and finally serve one another. To say that as a brahmin our business is only mind or sense control and forgiveness, purity, integrity, mediation our tools, or as a shudra our job is merely to serve the higher castes, is living in an unevolved past. Besides, the caste system, as we know it socially, is a perversion. When formulated, there was free mobility. Can we, for instance, forget that it was not a brahmin whose words of wisdom are encapsulated in the Gita, but a kshatriya’s?

Whom Dalits don’t touch

There is a hierarchy within untouchables.The top sub-castes do not dine with, marry or even touch the lowest layers By Manu Joseph TNN
In any given situation in this country, there is a Brahmin and there is a Shudra. Even within an impoverished group that is emotionally called Dalits or the untouchables, someone is higher and someone is lower. There are about a thousand recognised sub-castes within the 160-million dalits, and almost all of them come under the scheduled caste. The top echelons of the community, like the Vankars and Mahars who were traditionally weavers or farmers, do not mingle with the lowest sub-castes, and in villages today, they do not even touch the Valmikis who have traditionally been sanitation workers. So the leaders of Dalit liberation wear two faces and neither is a mask. Sometimes they froth at the cruelties committed against them and their forefathers by the upper castes. Sometimes they turn sheepish under the burden of a quiet acceptance that Dalits themselves perpetrate the same crimes on the lowest of the low. This food chain is inspiring the untouchables among the untouchables, to ask for reservations within the scheduled caste quota. The battle lines are clear in some states and just forming in others. Dalit leaders fear a looming civil war.
When Martin Macwan, a social activist, ate in the household of a sweeper in one Gujarat village, he was denied entry into a Vankar village for that reason. “There are Dalit activists who do not drink water in a Valmiki village,” he says. Many at the bottom of the Dalit underground run away to towns to seek anonymity and escape discrimination by other Dalits. In the cities, they settle for professions that are baser than what some animals have to endure. They are hired by morgues, especially in Ahmedabad, to squat on corpses during autopsy, take out body parts and show them to the doctor who may not want to touch the cadaver. They clean human excreta with their hands, like in Jain monasteries where meditating inmates refuse to install flushes in the fear that flushing will kill germs, a micro murder that is unacceptable to their faith. Valmikis also get into manholes where they die sometimes after inhaling poisonous gases.
These cursed sub-castes that go by different names in different states are beginning to complain that it is only a handful of somewhat liberated comities of Dalits who enjoy quotas the most. Communities like Chamars in Maharashtra and Malas in Andhra Pradesh have over the years prospered due to persistence with schooling and by that virtue being in a position to take advantage of reservation. While communities like Moshahars still catch rats and eat them because they have no other means of surviving. The growing financial and even social inequality between various Dalit sub-castes is at the heart of the lowest groups demanding further fragment the scheduled caste reservation. These demands are growing stronger, muffled only by the fact that influential Dalit leaders are against such a liquidity. “Splitting the country into anymore caste categories can disintegrate the nation,” says Dalit leader Udit Raj who believes that there is a serious distinction between bifurcating and splintering.
In Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and to some extent Karnataka, the movement to further split the scheduled caste quota is formidable. In other states, the murmurs are waiting for the arrival of an opportunistic politician. In AP, Naxalites of PWG are inciting a lowly subcaste called Madigas to carve out a separate quota. “They are claiming that educated sections like Malas are taking away all the benefits,” says G Shankar, secretary general of AP Scheduled Caste Welfare Association. “Such splintering is very complicated, because a sub-caste which is not doing well in one state may be doing well in another.” The issue smoulders down many grey rustic lanes of the country far away from the mainstream. It is dividing the Dalits and disturbing the battle plans of liberated Dalits who can see clearly how official fragmentation of untouchables will dilute their struggle for welfare. So, though one may find it hard to believe, there are times when educated Dalits think reservation is bad.

Quick justice only for raped foreigners?

Indian victims are ignored by the very system that dispenses 22-day convictions, says 26-yr-old German student who was raped in Alwar J S Sunday, 07 May, 2006
A rape conviction in 22 days is not the norm in India but a rare exception. Until now, this exception has only been made in Rajasthan for foreigners who come from countries that are important for the Indian tourism sector. These convictions show the potential capacity of the police and judiciary for dispensation of quick justice but they also point to the fact that many Indian rape victims are discriminated against and ignored by the same system. A victim has only a small chance of getting (quick) justice if there are no financial interests at stake, if she is not in an influential position and if there is not much media attention. The fact that in many cases victims have to wait for a trial for several years and that the majority of rape accused are acquitted demonstrates that state governments and judiciaries fail to handle cases of violence against women with due diligence.
Amnesty International has elaborated in several reports that governments, under these conditions, are responsible for human rights violations against women even if the acts are committed by private individuals. If a state fails to ensure law enforcement, if the behaviour of police and judiciary officials leads to a widespread impunity in cases of sexual violence, this has to be judged as the tolerance and acceptance of violence against women by the state. This state failure is not only a human rights violation against women who already have become victims of sexual violence, it concerns all women in India. The prevalent impunity in rape cases creates an atmosphere within society which encourages men to use violence against women.
The danger comes not only and not mainly from perpetrators who are unknown to the victims but often from colleagues, friends, husbands and other relatives. It makes things even worse that crimes committed by persons who are well-known to the victim are mostly not taken seriously. A widespread prejudice about socalled date rapes is that it was a consensual act. But can anyone really imagine that a woman would choose to go through many humiliating judicial procedures, especially in a society where rape victims are strongly stigmatised and where it is highly probable that the offender will be acquitted, if her claims were not true? In fact, most women who experience sexual violence don’t report it because they are afraid of the police, afraid of the stigma and afraid of the offender and his family.
It is a shame if people allege in so-called date rape cases that the victim agreed or that she is somehow responsible or guilty for what has happened. Is a victim guilty only for trusting a friend or colleague and being friendly to him or, in other words, for having a drink and dinner with him? Is it asking too much if a woman expects respectful behaviour from a friend? Fair, fast rape trial a must It seems to be a widespread misconception among men that they can do anything with a woman if she is friendly and shows a bit of trust. If a woman says no they don’t care, maybe some don’t realise that a ‘no’ expressed by a woman really means NO, regardless of the relationship or situation. This mindset of men who rape their friends, colleagues, neighbours or relatives is not an individual problem, it is a reflection of a society in which women are still discriminated against and disrespected.
The state has responsibilities to prevent violence against women. It has to make more effort to build a society in which women get equal rights and where they can live a more independent life. Most important, it has to ensure that every rape victim gets a fair and quick trial, regardless of her nationality or position in society and regardless of the circumstances of the offence—be it a date rape, marital rape or rape by an unknown offender. Convictions should become the norm. (The writer’s initials appear with her consent.)

Monday, May 08, 2006


By RUSSELL SHORTO Homepage Published: May 7, 2006
The English writer Daniel Defoe is best remembered today for creating the ultimate escapist fantasy, "Robinson Crusoe," but in 1727 he sent the British public into a scandalous fit with the publication of a nonfiction work called "Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom." After apparently being asked to tone down the title for a subsequent edition, Defoe came up with a new one — "A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed" — that only put a finer point on things. The book wasn't a tease, however. It was a moralizing lecture. After the wanton years that followed the restoration of the monarchy, a time when both theaters and brothels multiplied, social conservatism rooted itself in the English bosom. Self-appointed Christian morality police roamed the land, bent on restricting not only homosexuality and prostitution but also what went on between husbands and wives.
It was this latter subject that Defoe chose to address. The sex act and sexual desire should not be separated from reproduction, he and others warned, else "a man may, in effect, make a whore of his own wife." To highlight one type of then-current wickedness, Defoe gives a scene in which a young woman who is about to marry asks a friend for some "recipes." "Why, you little Devil, you would not take Physick to kill the child?" the friend asks as she catches her drift. "No," the young woman answers, "but there may be Things to prevent Conception; an't there?" The friend is scandalized and argues that the two amount to the same thing, but the bride to be dismisses her: "I cannot understand your Niceties; I would not be with Child, that's all; there's no harm in that, I hope." One prime objective of England's Christian warriors in the 1720's was to stamp out what Defoe called "the diabolical practice of attempting to prevent childbearing by physical preparations."
The wheels of history have a tendency to roll back over the same ground. For the past 33 years — since, as they see it, the wanton era of the 1960's culminated in the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 — American social conservatives have been on an unyielding campaign against abortion. But recently, as the conservative tide has continued to swell, this campaign has taken on a broader scope. Its true beginning point may not be Roe but Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that had the effect of legalizing contraception. "We see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion," says Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, an organization that has battled abortion for 27 years but that, like others, now has a larger mission. "The mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an antichild mind-set," she told me. "So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception."
The American Life League is a lay Catholic organization, and for years — especially since Pope Paul VI's "Humanae Vitae" encyclical of 1968 forbade "any action which either before, at the moment of or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation" — being anti-contraception was largely a Catholic thing. Protestants and other non-Catholics tended to look on curiously as they took part in the general societywide acceptance of various forms of birth control. But no longer. Organizations like the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, which inject a mixture of religion and medicine into the social sphere, operate from a broadly Christian perspective that includes opposition to some forms of birth control. Edward R. Martin Jr., a lawyer for the public-interest law firm Americans United for Life, whose work includes seeking to restrict abortion at the state level and representing pharmacists who have refused to prescribe emergency contraception, told me: "We see contraception and abortion as part of a mind-set that's worrisome in terms of respecting life. If you're trying to build a culture of life, then you have to start from the very beginning of life, from conception, and you have to include how we think and act with regard to sexuality and contraception." Dr. Joseph B. Stanford, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002 to the F.D.A.'s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee despite (or perhaps because of) his opposition to contraception, sounded not a little like Daniel Defoe in a 1999 essay he wrote: "Sexual union in marriage ought to be a complete giving of each spouse to the other, and when fertility (or potential fertility) is deliberately excluded from that giving I am convinced that something valuable is lost. A husband will sometimes begin to see his wife as an object of sexual pleasure who should always be available for gratification."
As with other efforts — against gay marriage, stem cell research, cloning, assisted suicide — the anti-birth-control campaign isn't centralized; it seems rather to be part of the evolution of the conservative movement. The subject is talked about in evangelical churches and is on the agenda at the major Bible-based conservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition. It also has its point people in Congress — including Representative Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Representative Joe Pitts and Representative Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — all Republicans who have led opposition to various forms of contraception.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is considered one of the leading intellectual figures of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. In a December 2005 column in The Christian Post titled "Can Christians Use Birth Control?" he wrote: "The effective separation of sex from procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age — and one of the most ominous. This awareness is spreading among American evangelicals, and it threatens to set loose a firestorm.. . .A growing number of evangelicals are rethinking the issue of birth control — and facing the hard questions posed by reproductive technologies." 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Russell Shorto, a contributing writer, has written for the magazine about the anti-gay-marriage movement and religion in the workplace.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

In South India, more the merrier

TIMES NEWS NETWORK Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Hyderabad/Chennai/Bangalore: That engineer K Suryanarayana had two wives became public only after his murder in Afghanistan, but the revelation isn’t surprising in Andhra Pradesh, indeed in most of south India. In Tamil Nadu, bigamy is pretty much institutionalised and even has a name — Chinna veedu, which translates as ‘small house’ or second home. It is an age-old tradition surviving to this day despite its illegality. When DMK was in power in the state, security agencies had a tough time providing security to two houses for many ministers, as each of them had two wives.
Whether it was the late M G Ramachandran, or M Karunanidhi, they have all had it, and flaunted it. Karunanidhi has married at least three women, the first of whom is dead. The DMK chief now divides his time in the houses of both wives — spending mornings at the Gopalapuram residence with Dayaluammal while moving to the house of his other wife, Rajathiammal, at CIT Nagar in Chennai in the afternoons. Another towering Tamil actor, Gemini Ganesan, married five times while his first wife was alive. The Chinna veedu concept is fairly common in Krishnagiri and Salem districts of TN, where males believe in more the merrier.
Actor-director K Bhagyaraj even made a Tamil movie called Chinna Veedu. At least one top Union minister from Tamil Nadu is known to have two wives and so does a senior DMK official, who married his daughter’s classmate. An academic said, ‘‘The social sanction for two wives can be traced to religion and mythology. Lord Muruga, for instance, had two wives.’’ In Andhra, bigamy doesn’t have the traditional sanction it enjoys in TN, but the practice is fairly widespread among the powerful and even a status symbol.