Posted on 31-01-2010
Filed Under (Sports) by Rashtrakut

CBS has been drawing some deserved fire in the past week over how it selects “advocacy” advertisements for the Superbowl after agreeing to run the advertisement with Florida QB Tim Tebow and his mother on the hot button topic of abortion.  See link.  Count me in among the crowd who thinks the Superbowl should be a 3 hour respite from politics (and I did not approve of the government’s heavy handed logically flawed anti-drug advertisements in past Superbowls either).  Also if CBS in its dash for cash is willing to accept advocacy advertisements, its censorship board should be far more fair and balanced.  CBS has previously rejected the United Church of Life for an advertisement announcing that they welcomed gays and lesbians and (for this Superbowl) an advertisement for a gay dating site that showed two men kissing.  See link.

The Tebow advertisement has also drawn criticism (independent of his anti-abortion views which he is obviously entitled to state) for seeming to encourage expectant mothers to ignore medical advice and play Russian roulette by relying on God to keep them from harm.  See link.

Tebow has never been shy about his faith.  However, for all the articles about how he is risking his financial future one must note that he practices the majority faith of the country in a region and a sport populated by fellow believers.  Similar public displays of religiosity do not seem to have cost the now retired Kurt Warner.  Likewise, for all the ire CBS has drawn for airing this advertisement it is still catering to the beliefs of the dominant religion in this country.  If CBS seeks to run advocacy advertisements during sporting events it should have the gumption to also run advertisements that could cause some discomfort to the same group, something freedom of speech is all about.  If it cannot live up to its obligations as a media entity, it should keep sporting events free of such advocacy advertisements involving politics and religion.

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Posted on 31-01-2010
Filed Under (Sports) by Rashtrakut

Ever since the notorious Bodyline series in 1932-33 caused a diplomatic incident between England and Australia, politics has rarely stayed away from the game.  In stark contrast to many other team sports, international cricket has generally been played at the national level with various domestic leagues within cricket playing countries.  While some like English county cricket occasionally brought in a few foreign players, domestic cricket as the name suggests generally consisted of teams stocked with local lads.

Until the formation of the Indian Premier League two years ago, cricket did not have a private league (and even this one was started by the Indian cricket board with private team owners) akin to the various soccer, baseball, basketball and ice hockey leagues around the world.    The new IPL also had to reach an accommodation with various national cricket boards to make sure that players would be available for international tournaments.  A very different setup than that which exists in the United States where the MLB and NHL seriously consider not making their baseball and hockey players available for the Olympics.

But these controversies pale before the brouhaha sweeping the subcontinent today.  It started when the latest IPL player auction failed to select a single player from World Twenty20 champion Pakistan.  See link.  This promptly brought tit for tat exchanges between the Pakistani and Indian governments.  Pakistan alleging that this was orchestrated by an Indian government not serious about peace with Pakistan and the Indian government retorting that they had placed no restrictions on the operations of the private league Pakistan should look to themselves as to why the snub occurred.  The Pakistani media has resorted to its typical bout of conspiracy theories involving the Indian spy agency RAW, the local mafia and hard right nationalist politicians.  See link.  Stung by the snub, Pakistan has revoked future participation by its players in the IPL.  See link.

I think Occam’s razor rather than any deep conspiracy to humiliate Pakistan probably provides the likeliest explanation.  Emotions in India still run high from the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the half-hearted Pakistani attempts to suppress the terror groups Pakistan spawned. The 2009 IPL season was played in South Africa due to concerns for player security (not helped by the attack on the Sri Lankan team visiting Pakistan).  It is likely that the IPL owners simply did not want to deal with the security hassles involved with Pakistani players.

Then there is the issue of local xenophobes disrupting play.  Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray has already lashed out at film actor Shah Rukh Khan (the owner of an IPL team) for suggesting that he would have signed a Pakistani player.  See link.  While purists can hope for the old Olympic ideal of suspending hostilities during a major athletic event, the reality never lives up to the ideal.  Right wing nuts like the Shiv Sena have been disrupting Indian-Pakistani cricket matches scheduled to be played in India for the past 20 years.

It is hard not to sympathize with IPL owners for wanting to avoid this headaches.  It is not the only one they have had to deal with.  Thackeray has also turned his fire on the Australian cricketers as scapegoats for the rash of attacks on Indian students in Australia in the past year.  Now the Australians are considering skipping the lucre offered by the IPL.  See link.  A group in the Telangana region agitating for statehood within the Indian union is promising to disrupt local matches as this would distract from their pet cause.  See link.

While Pakistan sulks and opportunists and xenophobes bask in the sun, the toxic mix of nationalism, xenophobia and idiocy threaten to deny cricket fans an entertaining sports spectacle.

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Posted on 29-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Here is an amusing story from Iran.  In a seeming reaction to the “Green Revolution” that brought thousands of protesters into the streets this summer, Iran’s regime seems to have reacted by taking the green band in Iran’s flag and turning it to blue.  See here and here.  Before rigging the elections this summer, the regime had warned the opposition not to attempt a “color” revolution as seen in other parts of the world (Orange in the Ukaraine, Rose in Georgia, etc.).  This is a move steeped in multiple ironies.  Green is the representative color for Islam and is now possibly being disowned by a putative Islamic regime.  Replacing green with blue turns would result in the Iranian flag sharing the red, white and blue combination of the two “Great Satans” of the regime – the United States and the United Kingdom.  For additional humor inherent in this situation, see the cartoon below that ran during the summer and was reposted on Andrew Sullivan’s site today.  See link.

Khamenei tears the green stripe off the Iranian flag

'Khamenei Tears Green Stripe (Associated with Mousavi) Off Iranian Flag' Cartoonist: Jihad 'Awartani, Source: Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 26, 2009.

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Posted on 29-01-2010
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

It is in many ways a sad reflection of the nature and structure of American politics, when the televised event that occurred today when the President visited the Republican Party retreat is news in large part because it actually occured (and before the cameras no less).  Others (notably transplanted Briton Andrew Sullivan) have noted the major difference between American democracy and the one in Westminster, where the Prime Minister has to show up for question hour and defend his or her policies to the questions raised by the opposition.  Unfortunately the monarchical trappings of American democracy run deep and many Presidents probably felt it beneath their dignity to subject themselves to a grilling of this sort (which is still light compared to what happens in a parliamentary democracy).

There already has been some chatter that Republican operatives think it was a mistake to give President Obama a chance to call out Republican misstatements in front of the camera. See link.  Hopefully such considerations will not prevent events like this that allow a debate of a rare genuine debate of policy issues (in contrast to the histrionics that are inevitable in the tit for tat cable TV soundbite process) from happening in the future.  After all the Republicans also get their chance to call out the  President for his misstatements, and some did try today.  In other news Fox “News” appears to have cut away more than 20 minutes before the event ended to start playing the Republican party meme that the President was lecturing, leading a good deal of mockery on the liberal blogs.  Cannot wait to see the inevitable Jon Stewart spoof.

A few cherry picked comments I am glad the President managed to get in his response (link to transcript and embedded video is at end of post): Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Juan Cole has a fascinating analysis of the latest Bin Laden audio tape and why he is not convinced it is genuine.  See link.  As Cole notes Bin Laden has not been seen on video since October 2004 and the new tape has generally been ignored in the Arab world.  If Cole’s analysis is correct, Bin Laden’s decline also serves as a lesson on why terrorists with no practical positive plan struggle to maintain support.

Bin Laden at one point attracted genuine sympathy and support in the Arab world.  He was the rich kid who abandoned his wealth to fight a jihad against two superpowers back to back.  The perceived impotence of their regimes against Israel and frustration at the lack of political and economic opportunities contributed to his support.  But Al Qaeda never had a serious or practical program to offer.  Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah whose goals are narrower and nationalistic, Al Qaeda has the unrealistic goals of restoring the  pan-Islamic Caliphate.  The entity Al Qaeda wanted existed only in its imagination.  Of the first four caliphs, three were assassinated.  The distance from the capital of Damascus (and later Baghdad) to the extremities of the Empire (Spain and Morocco in the West and the Indus River in the East) meant that provincial governors would always have a lot of local autonomy.  The “golden age” of the famous Harun al-Rashid also marked the disintegration of the empire as Baghdad could not hold effective sway over such a vast region.

Far less ambitious projects like the union of Egypt and Syria (which barely lasted 3 years) crumbled in the 20th century.  Needless to say, no Arab state took Al Qaeda’s goals seriously.  Ultimately, all Al Qaeda offered was terrorism against its presumed enemies with involuntary martyrdom offered to any Muslims who happened to be in the way.  The terror attacks in Jordan, Zarqawi’s blood lust in Iraq that helped give rise to the Sunni Awakening and the terror attacks in Pakistan last year that forced the Pakistani army to respond with lethal force, all have dimmed the rosy glow some had for this band of thugs.

While vigilance must be maintained and bands of murderous fanatics are still out there, such groups do not present and existential threat to the American way of life (unless we do the job for them).  As Fareed Zakaria noted a few weeks back overreaction plays into their hands (see link).  Meanwhile, the location of the chief evildoer (as George W. Bush once named him) is somewhat of a mystery.  As Cole notes he increasingly appears to be an irrelevancy.

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Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

France is moving closer to a partial ban on the burqa in certain public places.  Like the previous ban on head scarves in schools, I find it disturbing when a government steps into religious practice that does not pose a threat to its practitioners.  It is correct that the Quran does not explicitly mandate the veil.  The language requiring modest dress in inherently subjective and open to interpretation on cultural norms.  However, that interpretation should rely on the practitioner and not the state.  This is in some ways the other side of the coin of the Taliban and Saudi Arabia mandating the burqa and Iran mandating the head scarves.  They are both wrong and an infringement on religious liberty.

Separation of church and state is a trick subject for Islam since its founders and early leaders combined secular and religious powers in the same individual.  However, after the fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate even Islam saw a bifurcation of these functions.  To the extent Sultans exercised religious authority, it was not different than Christian monarchs proclaiming themselves god’s vice-regents on earth.

I had an interesting conversation with someone who supported the proposed French policy today.  However, I cannot help but wonder whether the support would have remained in place if a similar ban was targeted at that person’s religion rather than at what is currently an unpopular religious minority.  A ban of this nature would not be constitutional in the United States.  While I have no fondness for religious fundamentalism and am generally unmoved by overt public religious displays, I will take the liberty granted by the American constitution to the type of secularism (and cultural xenophobia) rammed down people’s throats in France.

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Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

The Indian constitution (and the Indian republic) celebrated its 60th birthday today on January 26, 2010.  Apart from a 2 year suspension when Indira Gandhi imposed a national Emergency, the Indian constitution has been the foundation of the world’s largest democracy.  It is no small achievement.  At its birth few thought that democracy could flourish in a poor country with deep cultural, linguistic and religious divides and with such a large illiterate population.  But the creaky wheels of Indian democracy have kept on churning and have so far overcome some structural flaws within the constitution’s federal layout (see link), an over-centralization imposed as a reaction to the partition of India and from the insecurities and authoritarian tendencies of Indira Gandhi.

A lot of the credit must go to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.  Ever since the dismantling of the license raj and the beginning of free market reforms in India in 1991, it has become fashionable to criticize Nehru.  However, unlike many of the early leaders of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, Nehru was at heart a believer of democracy and its institutions.  He did not attempt to turn his ruling party into a gaggle of sycophants, create a cult of personality or attempt to create a political dynasty by aggressively promoting his daughter Indira.  The ultimate respect for constitutional norms survived Indira Gandhi’s failure on all these three points (and even the Emergency was imposed based on a constitutional provision).  And even with this failure, Indira Gandhi like her father did take steps that created a national identity.

As Kashmiri Brahmins who grew up in the North Indian heartland, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi projected an Indian identity.  Buttressed by the boost to their reputation by their history in the independence struggle they belonged to India in a manner that few leaders other than Mahatma Gandhi could.  While this did have the deleterious effect of choking the growth of an alternative set of leaders, it delayed the rise of regional satraps  until a core Indian national identity was nurtured.  India has suffered secessionist movements along the periphery, but with the rise of coalition politics reliant on regional support some of this tension has eased.  This has eased the concerns (more often raised in Western media about the fragmentation of India).

Finally credit must be given to the professionalism of the Indian armed forces and their willingness to obey civilian authority.  In most newly independent countries, Nehru’s neglect of the army in the 1950s followed by the debacle at the hands of the Chinese in the 1962 war would have sparked a coup.  It did not happen.  Western media raised similar fears of a coup in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a thought not seriously considered domestically within India.  Today such an eventuality seems unthinkable.

And so India’s democratic republic continues to move on into is projected rise as a new world power.  There are issues of concern.  The division of revenues (as noted in the article linked above) is and will continue to be a source of tension between haves and have nots within India.  India has punted the issue of reapportioning parliamentary seats till 2026.  When reapportionment does happen, it will cause tension as the more prosperous states (which have done a better job implementing family planning policies) lose parliamentary seats (and as a result political power) to poorer states.  Indian democracy, like many young democracies, is often rooted in support of personalities as opposed to policies and political dynasties dot the landscape.  This phenomenon is not unknown in the United States, but the next step to the maturation of Indian democracy has to be the strengthening of parties based on political ideologies rather than vehicles for personalities.

So far India’s politicians have generally shown a sense of flexibility in working towards a common national purpose.  As long as that continues, the passage time will buttress the sense of Indian national identity and the Republic of India will continue to thrive.  So here are birthday wishes to the longest written constitution in the world.

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Posted on 25-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

And now for something different.  Touched by the tragedy in Haiti, Charlie Simpson came up with the seemingly modest idea of raising 500 GBP for Haiti via UNICEF by doing a sponsored bike ride of 8 km around a local park.  At present Charlie Simpson has exceeded his goal by 26976%.  That is not a typo.

What got this huge response in support of Charlie’s plan is the fact that he is only seven years old.  See link.  In the Internet age the news spread like wildfire once the media found out about it.   At the time of writing, he has raised over  $200,000.  For a link to his page click here.

In a cynical age it is refreshing to see that a simple and generous gesture from a young boy can draw such an outpouring of support.

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Posted on 24-01-2010
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

James Fallows from The Atlantic posted this interesting chart of Wikipedia showing the expanding level of obstruction by the Republican Party.  See link.

Cloture Voting in the United States Senate

The blue line shows how often the filibuster was invoked and the greenish gold line at the bottom shows how often it was overcome.  With the almost doubling of the filibuster’s usage since the Republicans lost the Senate and then the Presidency (and as has been noted previously in this blog for relatively innocuous items like the military budget) the main stream media like the Chicago Tribune have bought the line that all of this is the fault of Democrats failing to negotiate with Republicans rather than a deliberate Republican strategy of obstruction, epitomized by Republican ideological heavyweight Rush Limbaugh who welcomed Barack Obama into office by wishing for his failure.

If this somehow brings the Republicans back into a Senate majority, as Yglesias notes, the template has been established for the Democrats to return the favor.

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Posted on 24-01-2010
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

This is an update of a previous post regarding Wendy Doniger’s new book about Hinduism (See link).  Personally, I am way behind in my reading of the book but a lot more has transpired since the original post.  The New York Times published a review by Pankaj Mishra that cheerfully embraced the tactic noted in my previous post – blame any critique of Doniger’s scholarship on the evil Hindu nationalists.  See link.  The choice of an reviewer noted for his diatribes against the alleged lack of modernity of Hinduism and not particularly noted for significant academic scholarship is a curious one.  It all but guaranteed that The Grey Lady endorsed Doniger’s book with the type of intellectually incestuous affirmation referred to in my initial post.

Worth reading for a different perspective is a blog sent to me by a family friend that demolishes the New York Times hypocritical standards in reviewing Doniger’s book and publishing Mishra’s review and highlights Doniger’s peculiar obsessions and biases in her scholarly work.  See link.

More on this issue will follow one I have finished reading the book.

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Posted on 24-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

The Economist’s Banyan blog has an article up about the latest round of score settling in Bangladesh.  This has its roots in the assassination of the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family in 1975.  Like many of the charismatic leaders of Asia and Africa who led his country to freedom, Sheikh Mujib struggled to govern his country and in his last years lapsed into authoritarian suppression of dissent.  One of the coup plotters and Sheikh Mujib’s eventual successor (and another hero of the Bangladesh liberation struggle) Ziaur Rahman would himself be killed in a counter coup in 1981.

After the end of military rule in 1990, Bangladeshi elections have  alternated in bringing Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and Ziaur Rahman’s widow Khaleda Zia to power.  The mutual loathing of the two Begums for each other has paralysed Bangladesh’s political life ever since.  Their foreign policy outlooks also differ.  Sheikh Hasina, like her father espouses closer ties to India.  Khaleda Zia like her husband embraces a more prickly brand of nationalism that often rubs New Delhi the long way.

Fed up with the squabbling, in 2007 the Bangladeshi army intervened and initiated corruption investigations of the two Begums and their progeny.  However, the 2008 elections showed the continuing dynastic fascination of the Bangladeshi public as Sheikh Hasina was swept back to power.

Sheikh Hasina’s pursuit of justice against her family’s killers is understandable.  After all, she is alive today because she fortuitously was abroad at the time of the coup that killed her father.  But the settling of scores for events that occurred 35 years ago threatens to further destabilize an impoverished country that desperately needs good governance.  It also guarantees payback when (as has been the norm in Bangladeshi electoral politics) she is swept out of office in the next election.

Stories like this make one appreciate the incredible magnanimity and wisdom of Nelson Mandela after assuming the presidency of South Africa.  Mandela realized that his nation required a leader who united instead of delivering payback for centuries of oppression (and in that regard the movie Invictus is worth watching).  Bangladesh’s Begums would do well to learn from Mandela’s example.

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It often comes down to what gets through the filter of the American media. To be fair, the United States is hardly unique in this.  Few countries engage in serious introspection about their actions.  However, there often seems to be a major disconnect between American self-image and the image as seen abroad.

To some extent it is understandable.  Self-criticism is too hard to take and certain groups can often go too overboard on the critiques of America without acknowledging the good.  But too often the American media goes to the other extreme by embracing the Pollyannaish version of American exceptionalism (like the ridiculous George W. Bush assertion “they hate us for our freedoms“) in which all American foreign policy actions are undertaken for noble reasons.  As many Latin Americans would tell you, that has unfortunately not always been the case.

A column by Juan Cole brought this issue up for me recently.  The column deals with the continuing human catastrophe in Gaza.  Israel’s apologists in the United States often attribute any criticism of Israel to an undercurrent of anti-semitism and are only too willing to grant it unquestioned support.  However, it is stories like the one linked above that have undercut the sympathy Israel attracts (including among some progressives in the United States) in many parts of the world.

Israel is no longer the plucky underdog of the Six Days War or the Yom Kippur War threatened by seemingly overwhelming odds.  While the threat to Israel is real, the armies of its Arab neighbors have atrophied since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Meanwhile the Israeli army built up with a steady diet of American aid is the 800 lb gorilla in the Middle East.  Add to that the (not publicly acknowledged, but understood) second strike nuclear capability delivered to Israel by the United States and Israel has the ability to pulverize any of its neighbors (as Lebanon and the Gaza strip found out in the last two years).

However, with great power comes great responsibility.  American media coverage generally fails  to acknowledge this change in status for Israel or the extremely disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties in the last decade.  American media has also not really delved into the details of the collective punishment inflicted on Gaza in the past year.  When the destruction is covered, it is generally framed solely in the context of a response to terrorist attacks with little discussion of whether a hammer is being used to swat a fly.  As a result, the United States remains one of the few countries where public opinion and elected officials generally uncritically support Israel.

In contrast, the rest of the world’s media has covered this issue extensively.  So now a furious and sometimes bewildered Israel finds much of world opinion treating it as a bully for actions it feels are justified self-defense.  Israel is also painfully learning the lesson the United States learned in Vietnam.  Civilian suffering transmitted to the living rooms makes for awful public relations for a democracy, unless of course the media chooses not to cover it.  It is unfair, but countries are generally held to higher standards than terrorist groups.

A critique I have had for the Cheneyian vision of the world is that it often seeks to lower American actions to the standards of the thugs they oppose while encouraging charges of hypocrisy by maintaining the high minded rhetoric that plays so well domestically.  Israel does have a point that it should not have to take too many pious bromides from human rights “paragons” Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. who are only too willing to use the Palestinians as props while doing nothing to ameliorate their lot.  However, the question does arise whether Israel really wants to lump itself on the issue of human rights with these countries?

Juan Cole’s column also brought about a sense of deja vu.  The stories about Gaza sound distressingly similar to the stories about the sufferings of Iraqi civilians during the sanctions in the 1990s.  These stories were circulated by human rights groups, dismissed by the Clinton and Bush administrations as solely Saddam Hussein’s fault and were largely ignored by the media.  While nobody should discount Saddam’s brutality, hiding behind indifference of a tyrant to the suffering of his people is an odd way to absolve yourself of any responsibility.  And ultimately all that suffering made not a whit of difference to toppling his regime.  As the Iranian people are finding out and as the Chinese found in 1989, public outrage by itself cannot topple men with the guns who have no qualms about shedding blood.  It is also very easy, as in the case of Iraq, for governments used to manipulating public opinion to transfer the blame to the people implementing the sanctions.

The result is a propaganda coup for the regime (another example would be Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba that blames the yanquis for the failures of its socialist revolution) and a recruiting boon for fanatics like Al Qaeda who tap into the resentment caused by the suffering that is transmitted into living rooms across the Middle East.

However, as little of this is transmitted to American living rooms the perspective of the American public is shaped very differently than the rest of the world.

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Posted on 22-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

For those who have not heard of this before, the scene below from the German-Austrian movie Der Untergang (Downfall) has been gleefully parodied since the movie was released in 2004.  A quick search of You Tube will display many such parodies of Bruno Ganz’s depiction of an unhinged Hitler at the moment he realizes the war is lost and as he lashes out at the Generals stuck with him in his bunker.  Even though the movie attracted some controversy for the somewhat sympathetic portrayal of some Nazi officers and for sanitizing the fate of many German women in Berlin after the Russians took the city, it is definitely worth seeing.

The clip below has a humorous take on the Scott Brown election, whether or not you accept the subtitled text or the riff on Obama.  Enjoy…

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A lot of the focus of English and American studies into the evolution of constitutional governance naturally focuses on England.  The Magna Carta with its colorful villain in King John is too hard to pass up.  But the English Kings were not the only monarchs to find their power checked.  Various forms of parliaments rose up across Europe as monarchs haggled with their merchants and barons for funds while trying to avoid rebellion.

Eastern Europe was not immune to such trends.  Seven years after the Magna Carta, the Hungarian nobility forced their extravagant King Andrew II to issue the Golden Bull granting the nobility greater powers.

A series of dynastic shifts in the three premier East European monarchies of Bohemia (Přemyslid to Luxembourg to Jagiellon) , Hungary (Árpád to Angevin to Luxembourg) and Poland (Piast to Angevin to Jagiellon) caused a steady shift of royal power to the nobility (and as the list shows the three countries imported each others princes very often).  Each new foreign dynasty brought with it new privileges to keep the nobility happy.

However in the 16th century this pattern breaks.  Bohemia and Hungary fell to the Hapsburgs (who also married themselves into the crowns of of Spain,. (briefly Portugal and England), Naples, Milan, Sicily and the Netherlands).  After the Thirty Years War the ramshackle Hapsburg monarchy pulled back many of the privileges granted to the nobility.  Poland went in a different direction.  Faced with the impending death of the last male Jagiellon the magnates of Poland-Lithuania instituted an elective monarchy.

While the crown remained in the hands of female line descendants of the Jagiellons until 1660, the elective principle and the haggling by prospective monarchs for support took full control.    It was around this time that the legislative innovation that crippled Polish government for the next century was introduced – the Liberium Veto.

This measure allowed a single member of the Polish Sejm (parliament) to end the session and nullify all legislation by shouting Nie pozwalam! (I do not allow!).  Somehow this pernicious measure was allowed to continue.  Egged on with bribes from neighboring Prussia and Russia who were only too happy to see a weakened crumbling Poland and delusional deputies who considered this privilege as the hallmark of liberty, attempts at reform were thwarted for a century.  It wasn’t until 1764 that someone utilized a technicality to bypass this measure.  But by then it was too late.  In three successive partitions (1772, 1793, and 1795), Poland was wiped off the European map.

Obviously the filibuster does not even come close to the liberium veto.  But when a minority uses it of pretty much every single piece of legislation (including for example overwhelmingly popular bills like the military budget), it is hard to always appreciate the difference.  Not surprisingly calls to abolish it are rising.

In some ways the Democrats conversion on the filibuster (and boy did they love it when George W. Bush was President) mirrors their conversion on the advisability of the Independent Counsel Act.  When independent counsels targeted Republican Administrations all was fine.  It took one out of control independent counsel who acted like a heat seeking missile aimed at Bill Clinton’s rear end for the Democrats to switch sides on the issue.

The Republicans do risk overplaying their hand on this issue (they used more than 100 of them last year).  There is no constitutional right to a filibuster and the repeated use on every single item (which will likely increase with Scott Brown’s election) will increase the Democrats incentive to explore procedural technicalities like reconciliation to force a bill to a vote or even the nuclear option previously considered by the Bush Administration (which will be really hard for the Republicans to oppose since they drafted it).

The realization that they will one day return to the minority likely makes some Democrats squeamish on the issue.  But the legislative process in the Senate is currently broken on many issues (and don’t even get me started on the issue of anonymous Senatorial holds which have made the appointment of the President’s cabinet a travesty).  More appropriate protections for the minority (like giving them the ability to delay but not eternally block legislation) can be considered.  Otherwise ridiculous headlines like “Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate” will continue to proliferate around our broken legislative process.

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Posted on 19-01-2010
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

There will be enough postmortems about the Coakley loss in Massachusetts.  Wonder how many of them will actually bother to mention that Massachusetts voters had the least cause to be upset about Obamacare, since they passed Romneycare in 2006 which is pretty much the same thing and they are perfectly happy with it.  It is a distinction that Senator-elect Brown (who helped craft Romneycare) has twisted himself into knots about in trying to clarify why he conceptually opposes extending what his state has (and it is a benefit he explicitly supports) to the national level.  See link.   While this hypocrisy has been highlighted often enough on various blogs, the inept Coakley campaign failed to properly utilize this manna from heaven.

Andrew Sullivan’s rant (link here) on the subject captures my feelings on Republican nihilism and the newly found advocates of fiscal prudence who are unwilling to implement it in a meaningful way and is quoted in full below:

Since so much of the energy behind the Brown candidacy seems to be driven by anti-government sentiment, why is someone like me – who actually criticized Bush for being big government long before these late-comers – so dismayed?

Here’s why. The rage is adolescent. It did not exist when the Republicans were in power and exploded government during years of economic growth. Fox News backed Bush to the hilt through it all, as he added mounds of unfunded entitlements to the next generation’s debt, and then brought Beck in as soon as Obama inherited the mess. Scott Brown, moreover, has no plans to cut the debt or control government: none. He is running in defense of every cent in Medicare. He wants to increase the deficit by more tax cuts. He favors an all-powerful executive branch that can suspend habeas corpus and torture people. He has no intention of cutting defense. His position on the uninsured is: get your own states to help. His position on soaring healthcare costs is: stop the first attempt to control them.

We hear Karl Rove lamenting big government! We hear Dick Cheney worrying about deficits! The cynicism here is gob-smacking. And the libertarian right is just happy to go along.

There is, moreover, the incredible lie that somehow all the debt that lies ahead was created by Obama in twelve months, in a recession, when austerity would be fatal. This was a lie propagated mercilessly by the FNC/RNC and by partisan bloggers like Glenn Reynolds. And it has stuck, as Obama has pressed for centrist reform between the screamers on the left and the haters on the right.

I’m sorry but this is not an anti-government vote. It’s a hissy fit because reality has finally hit and the conservative bromides of the 1980s work as poorly as the liberal bromides of the 1970s. If Brown were urging big, structural cuts in entitlements, if he were proposing junking health insurance reform because he has a plan to balance the budget in five years, if he were pledging to vote against the wars for the deficit’s sake, if he were proposing ways to restrain private healthcare costs and Medicare’s GOP-passed Medicare D – whose fiscal impact makes the current reform look like a tightwad’s – it would be one thing. But he isn’t and they aren’t.

They merely want to kill a reform presidency. They have no alternative. They have no policy that could restrain health insurance costs and the desperate plight of the uninsured. They have no plans for tackling climate change, when they can bring themselves to admit it exists. They have no plans to win or end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Obama himself isn’t trying. They have no idea how to balance the budget – except more tax cuts!

 

There is the no substance (other than tax cuts in all scenarios) in the strategy that is supposed to revive the Republican party.    The intellectual dishonesty and the willful blindness of their recent record is also breathtaking.  Sometimes a country does deserve the people it elects.  But in the meantime blue-dog Democrats led by Evan Bayh are already preparing to run for the hills.

One question has always puzzled me.  If the blue dogs are so intent on being Republican-lite (Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, etc. and the ever present narcissist Joe Liberman) how does it really help them against a charge that their state might as well elect the real thing.  There is a line between sensible moderation to reflect the values of your base and craven surrender at the first hint of Republican opposition, which the blue-dogs specialize in lately.  While the Democrats should not start weeding out moderates, it is past time for them to take a stand, grow a pair and identify what values are worth fighting (and if it comes to it, risking losing elections) for.  Otherwise they will by default return to their rudderless existence under George W. Bush, with a profoundly dispirited base.  It is also time for them to aggressively challenge the alternative set of facts that the Republicans have been peddling since inauguration, instead of relying on the media (which is wedded to the idea of balance for its own sake with no fact checking).

I will close with a clip by Jon Stewart a couple of days back, whose monologue directed at the Democrats at the end of the clip is very much on point.

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Posted on 19-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Economics) by Rashtrakut

It is not a pleasant start to the new year for Venezuela’s populist strongman Hugo Chavez.  With oil prices in decline there simply is not enough money for him to toss around for his pet domestic projects and to fund his rogues gallery abroad.  Economic trouble at home and rising crime are denting his popularity.

Then he commenced the year with a devaluation of the currency.   One suggested rationale was that it gave him more money to spend domestically to buy goodwill before the Presidential election (something his buddy Iran’s Ahmadinejad tried to do before rigging the elections).

But there are natural effects to such a move.  As Venezuelans worried that imports would double in price (and Venezuela is heavily reliant on them) they started shopping furiously.  So the next diktat went out to store owners warning them not to raise prices.  Now inevitably comes the next phase of nationalizing banks and supermarkets.

Venezuela is yet another country to be cursed with natural resources.  It makes it too easy for corrupt leaders to siphon off the money (Nigeria, Indonesia, Chad) or to blow it on populist largess (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela).  It is easy to sympathize with Chavez’s assertion that the oil wealth has been used to enrich a few, because it is true.  But rather than using the wealth to create sustainable avenues for growth in the future, he has squandered it on populist subsidies and quixotic support to Cuba and other dictatorships to tweak Uncle Sam’s nose.  Venezuela is now facing the effects of his mismanagement.  But with no viable opponent to his regime in sight yet, Venezuela’s caudillo is likely to be re-elected in the elections this fall.

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Jyoti Basu died this Sunday.  The nonagenarian had been ailing for some time.  The usual round of obituaries, paeans and critiques have poured in.  See here, here, here, here, here and here.  In 1977, the English educated Basu initiated the longest running elected rule by communists (which likely will draw to a close next year).  The common theme in the articles on Basu since his death generally refer to the following:

  • His unusual length of tenure,
  • The land reforms initiated in Bengal that broke the feudal hold on society,
  • His secular outlook that saw few religious riots on his watch,
  • And finally the historic moment in 1996 when he bowed to the command of his party’s politburo and turned down the prime minster’s job.

The more critical articles also refer to the industrial stagnation, if not regression, that occurred on his watch.

Basu in many ways is an overrated figure.  His importance is inflated by the collapse of all opposition parties in West Bengal, aided by the general unwillingness of the Congress party to challenge the reds on their home turf and the communists ruthless utilization of the instruments of state to quash dissent.  This is in stark contrast to the other communist bastion in Kerala, where Communist and Congress led coalitions alternate power with mind numbing regularity.

However, the untrammeled power Basu and his communist colleagues had locally, ultimately showcased the ideological bankruptcy and incompetence of the communist movement in India.

Land reform in Bengal was long overdue, and that early accomplishment marks the high water mark of communist rule in West Bengal.  Unlike Kerala, the other social indicators remain average.  The Bengali peasant is still poverty stricken, businesses have fled the state and Kolkata’s status as the cultural capital of India has long since been taken over by Mumbai.  The violent collapse of the communist party’s attempt to entice the Tata Motor Company to build a plant at Nandigram, symbolizes why businesses are not keen to enter Bengal.

The impact Basu would have had in the rejected prime ministership (he later cryptically referred to the rejection as a historic blunder) is also overrated.  Basu would have headed a ramshackle coalition united by the pursuit of power and a loathing of the Hindu nationalist Bharaitya Janata Party (subsequent events would show that many of the constituents of the coalitions valued power over their loathing of the BJP).  The coalition was supported from the outside by the just deposed Congress party which was smarting from its electoral humiliation and itching for the opportunity to force a new election.  It is hard to see how Basu’s tenure as prime minister would have been markedly different or longer than what actually transpired.  The BJP would have still made the necessary electoral adjustments and Basu’s mismanagement of West Bengal’s economy hardly supports the theory that any good governance on his part would have prevented the BJP’s ultimate rise to power.

The humbling of Bengal’s communists in India’s parliamentary elections last year has given rise to hope that their  33 year old grip on power may come to a close in the next state elections.  However, with the successor likely to be the mercurial populist Mamata Banerjee, it is hard to see West Bengal’s lot improving anytime soon.

Meanwhile, one of the last of India’s “gentlemanly” politicians of a bygone era has passed on, fortunate that he will not see the collapse of the creaky edifice he nurtured in West Bengal for so many years.

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Posted on 17-01-2010
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

I linked this slide show in my twitter feed on Friday, but thought I would make a quick mention of this here.  It describes the approximately 1,000 year old Jain temples on Shatrunjay Hill in Gujarat, which I had not heard of before.  With historical antecedents dating shortly before the emergence of Buddhism (though its mythology argues for considerably older antecedents), Jainism was one of the faiths that arose in the intellectual tumult in India around 700-600 B.C and during the so called Axial Age.  As the article notes, the prosperity of the practitioners of the austere faith has contributed to the beautiful and elaborate temples pictured in the slide show.  The date of the temples noted in the slide show also roughly corresponds to the date of the Jain component of the majestic Ellora Caves (which I have been fortunate enough to visit).

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Posted on 17-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

I saw the latest Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots (Warning! Link contains plot spoilers) yesterday night.  The movie lived up to expectations.  People who grew up in India (or for that matter Asia) can relate to the underlying theme of the movie that education should be a means for the propagation of knowledge and the ability to think and use such knowledge, rather than rote learning.   The other theme of the movie, encouraging the pursuit of career dreams is also familiar.

Ever since the British created a western style education system in India, education has been a means to financial security rather than the pursuit of knowledge.  Whole generations of Indians actively sought out the then prevailing career option of the day (law, engineering, computers, etc.) and put their extra-curricular interests on hold.  While this was extremely logical in a country where job opportunities were few and far between, one cannot help but imagine the deep cultural loss caused the mindless automation of millions of young Indians.

One of the benefits of economic liberalization in India, is that alternative career options (based on the non-scientific observations of this blogger) seem far more common.  This is a welcome development.

However, this is a delicate balance to strike.  While the Indian education system sometimes focuses too much on careers and sucks the creativity out of its students, the United States sometimes seems all the way on the other side of the spectrum.  Excessive school choice in course curriculum often results high school graduates with poor grounding in science and math.  College academia in the United States can sometimes veer too far into encouraging students to discover themselves (a luxury many cannot afford) while leaving them woefully unprepared for careers.

Legal academia is a fine example of this.  Law professors haughtily proclaim that they teach at a “law school” and not “lawyer school.”   The result of 3 years of education (now costing about $150,000) are newly minted attorneys who cannot draft a contract or a brief without extensive hand-holding.

The latest recession has forced some colleges to evaluate whether they should modify their curriculum to add courses that they would have deemed more worthy of a trade school.  With college no longer the preserve of the idle rich and the costs rising obscenely, it is hard to see how the transition can be staved off much longer.

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Posted on 17-01-2010
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

How did it come to this?  Health care reform hands by a slender thread based on the results of the Senate special election in Massachusetts to replace the Senator most associated with health care reform.  The election is a toss up with much of the energy in favor of Republican Scott Brown who could take down gaffe prone State Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Martha Coakley actively sought the Senate nomination after Ted Kennedy died, but having taken the nomination ran a curiously passive campaign.  This gave the opening to Scott Brown to define himself in positive terms and harness the resentment building up towards a self-entitled establishment politician.  Republicans winning statewide is not unknown in Massachusetts.  Deval Patrick’s election as governor in 2006, ended 16 years of Republican control of the office.  But since then, elected Republicans in Massachusetts have been fairly non-existent.

Health Care reform is the other 800 lb gorilla in the room.  Even though broad majorities of public opinion and a majority of the House and Senate support the public option (See link), the procedural rules of the Senate have ensured that it will not pass.  The resulting compromise pleases neither the left nor the right.  The question is whether the left will hold their noses and support this bill hoping to fix it down the road, just like the racial disparities in the original Social Security Act were corrected later.  Unhappiness at the existing bill likely drives some of the support for Brown.

Brown is an odd candidate for teabagger support. As a New England Republican he is a liberal by the standards of the national Republican rump.  The right wing which spurned a similar Republican in NY-23 (See link for previous posts) has embraced the opportunity to hand Barack Obama (as Senator DeMint of South Carolina put it) his Waterloo.  Given that he seems to back the universal health care plan in Massachusetts signed into law by Mitt Romney in 2006, his opposition to the national bill is somewhat puzzling and seems based on electoral calculations.

As Andrew Sullivan notes,  Democrats have to essentially hold their noses and vote for the rather unimpressive Coakley if they do not want the best chance for health care reform in a generation to slip through their fingers.  See Jonathan Chait’s review of the Democrats options in such an eventuality.  Another option the Democrats have is to force an up down vote on some of the more popular parts of the bill like prohibiting the use of pre-existing conditions to avoid issuing insurance policies, regulating the percentage of premiums that must be used for health care, etc.  Given the Republican strategy of filibustering everything, even items that later pass unanimously, it could give the Democrats talking points to carry into the fall against the party of No.

The biggest impact of a Brown win would be psychological.  Even though the number of Republican Congressmen retiring is still much higher than the number of retiring Democrats, the main stream media has already embraced the theme of Democrats abandoning a sinking ship.  A Brown win will raise that meme to a crescendo and by further depressing  Democratic turnout in November 2010 could make it a self fulfilling prophecy.

However, I am still not sold on Republican embrace of the tea baggers as a long term viable strategy.  Even though Brown has had some of these tendencies in in the past (like questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s birth) he has generally projected a moderate image in his campaign.  This was the strategy embraced by the successful Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey.  The fire and brimstone true believers who pejoratively refer to Republican moderates as RINOs (Republicans in name  only) have had a hard time winning outside the deep south.  Add to that the continuing Republican problem attracting minority voters.

Ultimately the Democratic Party brought this on themselves.  The foot dragging on the bill, corrupt bargains with grasping  Senators that had incredibly bad optics combined with the incredible incompetence of the Massachusetts Democrats have brought about the previously unthinkable possibility of Ted Kennedy’s successor being a Republican.  It further confirms this blogger’s belief in the ability of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Posted on 15-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut
  • The New York Times on the difficulties on reporting a natural disaster and getting reporters on the ground (beyond twitter which continues to emerge as a suprising news source, though one that is hard to vet for accuracy).  See link.  Foreign Policy summarizes Haiti’s misery over the last 50 years.  The only country to win its freedom though a slave rebellion has been a failed state for some time now.  The earthquake removes what little government was left.
  • Newsweek takes a look at China’s love affair with rogue states. See link.  At least one can say that the Chinese actions are motivated by genuine self interest – preventing a collapsed state on its border (Myanmar and North Korea), locking up natural resources (Iran and Sudan) and trying to prevent another example of street protests toppling a regime (Iran). Contrast that with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who squanders his country’s wealth in strategic alliances with rogue states, quixotic socialist largess to Cuba and a military buildup against Columbia primarily to stick his finger in the eye of the United States.
  • Another one from Newsweek commending the mainstream media for doing its job during the Harry Reid controversy and not allowing the ridiculous Republican talking point of equivalence with the Trent Lott comments to stand. Its not often I join in to give a nod to traditional media.

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As the hubbub around Google’s abrupt withdrawal from China begins to fade (see previous blog article here) observers have started noting the security threats posed by the rise of the Chinese corporatist state (you simply can’t call the People’s Republic communist any more).  Foreign Policy and The New York Times both explore the close nexus between China and its domestic security firms, the likely source of the cyberattacks and the difficulty for the Obama administration in formulating an adequate response.  Google is not the first American software behemoth to fail in China.  Yahoo essentially abandoned its Chinese operations to a Chinese owned subsidiary.  The situation is made worse by the Chinese lack of respect for intellectual property (a recurring sore point in trade talks) and their continued attempts to appropriate foreign technology for its domestic companies.

The concerns about the Chinese government’s close nexus with its domestic corporations is not new.  Concerns about cybersecurity were raised when IBM sold its personal computer to Lenovo.  But the recent phase of cyberattacks should force muddling Washington bureaucrats to appreciate the real risks to American foreign policy.  They could also take their cues from science fiction, from the Cylon attack and destruction of the 12 colonies, for the impact of a casual disregard of the cyberthreat.

The United States has often been trapped between its desire and tradition to preserve the free flow of information and security concerns.  American software companies grumbled in the Clinton years about the government’s insistence on having an access key to get pass any encryption software sold on the market.

China is not the only corporatist nuclear power that poses a cyber threat.  In the past few years Russia has actively used cyberattacks to bring its former satellites from the Soviet Union like Estonia to heel.  To what extent the Kremlin controls its rabid nationalistic hackers is not clear (though the scale and the timing attacks is suspicious).  To be fair to the Russians, they have approached the United States to have a treaty to prevent an cyberwar arms race on the lines of the chemical weapons treaty.  However as this article notes, both sites have been caught up in a philosophical dispute over whether to address this by a treaty or a law enforcement agreement.  The recent attacks on Google underscore the need to reach an agreement to build co-operation with the Russians and upgrade America’s cyber defenses.

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Posted on 13-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

A country inured to misery and poverty has now been hit by another disaster.  The earthquake that rocked the island has devastated its capital. See link.  The image of the crumbled Presidential palace in the link above symbolizes in many ways the broken nation of Haiti.  The risk is that the collapse of the few government services will cause the death toll to spiral.  See here,  here and here for how and where to help.

Meanwhile in a sign that idiocy from the usual suspects (Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh) does not take a holiday in the face of terrible human tragedy see here and here.

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Posted on 13-01-2010
Filed Under (Technology) by Rashtrakut

This one will be discussed in detail on the business talk shows in the coming days.  Stung by a cyberattacks originating in China and presumably from the Chinese government, Google announced that it may pull out of China and will stop censoring its Chinese search results.  Also see link.  Google has had a troubled relationship with the Chinese government and has received criticism for its willingness to go along with Chinese censorship.  See link.  However, Google has also struggled in China and this is probably more of  a  business decision to cut the cord on a struggling business and gain positive publicity by cloaking it in altruism.  See link.

The public announcement before attempting to work things out with the Chinese government is a slap in the face to the regime and will likely draw some strident denunciations in the coming days.   This public relations black eye for China also highlights the drawbacks of doing business in an authoritarian regime that wants to control the flow of information.   A clear winner in this imbroglio is Chinese search engine leader Baidu which itself was subject to a bizarre cyberattack earlier this week and does not have to worry about Google in its backyard anymore.

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Posted on 13-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

File this one under bizarre. President Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria went to Saudi Arabia in November last year for medical treatment.  Then for the next 50 days a curtain of silence descended about the President’s health with no public statements from him, until he provided a telephone interview.  See link.  In his absence he failed to delegate his powers to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan.  The result has been a constitutional crisis and uncertainty as to who is running the country.

Making things worse is the ethnic jumble that constitutes Nigeria. The President is a Muslim from the North, which has generally dominated Nigerian politics.  The Vice President is a Christian from the South, which has the oil and natural gas reserves.  This creates an inflammable mix of ethnic and religious tensions over a well of natural treasure.  While the North and South have alternated power since the end of military rule, as the article notes the failure to transfer powers to the Vice President may have occurred because Northern power-brokers may not want to give up power before the next election.

Nigerian democracy has creaked along in the decade since the death of Dictator Sani Abacha and has been very active in peace keeping missions across West Africa. However, domestically ethnic tensions have spiked as many Northern states decided to implement Sharia law.  The constitutional limbo caused by the President’s absence and the resulting rumors of his death were the last thing Nigeria needed.  While the President appears to be alive, the constitutional crisis is not over and turbulent times lie ahead for Africa’s troubled giant.

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