Monday, March 28, 2011

Jayalalithaa: A modern Cleopatra

The passing away of Liz Taylor has rekindled interest in her blockbuster “Cleopatra”. I’ve watched it many times and recently I was struck by how much Jaya and Cleo have in common.
Mark Antony comes to Cleo to negotiate a treaty. Cleo asks Antony to kneel. Antony is livid and reminds her that he is pro consul of the Roman empire. Seething with rage Cleo retorts, “I asked it of Caesar, I demand it of you”. Ministers prostrating at Jaya’s feet (a practice started by MGR) reached such levels that they became staple jokes. Once she was to chair a meeting of IAS officers. The officers all waited for her to enter the room, standing. No one dared to sit even in her absence. The worst incident was when Sedappatti Muthiah, now with DMK, prostrating to her in the Assembly after he got elected as speaker.In an interview after losing power in 1996 Jaya claimed that she did not like it and told her party men not to do it. I guess she was vying to make her name synonymous with 'self deluded'.
Cleopatra’s love of the extravagance is well known. Jaya, in her first stint, astounded TN with flagrant display of extravaganza. 1000 car retinues followed her. Cho Ramasamy memorably said "அவர் ஐய்யங்கார் இல்லை ஆயிரம் கார்" . Her royal highness need a/c's on stage. Cleopatra and Jaya were obsessed with astrology. If Cleopatra's dinners were legendary so were Jaya's. Jaya's meeting with Narendra Modi was known more for the lavish spread of lunch than for any policy discussion. How Jaya received her guests, at door or not, was itself news.

Both were thrust into the world of men at a very young age. Jaya had just finished her 10th exams when her mother pushed her into movies. Jaya's first movie was rated as "A" because she appeared in sleeveless tops, being less than 18 she could not see her first movie in the theaters. Cleopatra had her Caesar. Jaya had MGR. Both lived down their lives as "the other woman". Cleopatra was not a native Egyptian. Jaya's lineage is not clearly known. Cleopatra, modern historians assert, was a very shrewd and intelligent person who used her seductive skills to protect her fledgling kingdom. Jayalalitha has impressed many with her shrewdness and decisiveness. Both are equally impulsive thus undoing what they achieved. Both were avid lovers of books. The movie shows Cleopatra being anguished seeing the famed library of Alexandria burn. Jaya is supposed to be a voracious reader.

When Cleopatra first meets Caesar, in the movie, she jeers that Rome needs Egypt for money and grains. She clearly understood who needed whom and why. She needed Caesar to overcome her brother. Caesar needed her riches. Knowing the power equation she tried to use it to her best interest. When Mark Antony tries to summon her very cleverly Cleopatra makes him understand that Amtony needs her more than she needs him. She had the money. She could choose to deal with Antony or if she wishes Octavian. 

For decades Congress had taken Tamil Nadu for granted. When Indira drubbed in North after Emergency only the south provided her succor. Though MP's from Tamil Nadu occasionally wielded some ministries never where TN MP's respected as a power bloc. All that changed one summer when an imperious Jayalalitha pulled the rug from under Vajpayee. North India was dumbstruck seeing a woman from South address the press from the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, in Hindi, saying she had withdrawn her support to the BJP government. Her misadventure cost India Rs 5000 crores, she lost her clout as BJP returned back to power aided by her bete noire DMK. But TN was never taken lightly after that.

Both shared a love for pearls. The best known photo of Jaya in her younger days showed her wearing a single strand of pearl necklace. The foster son marriage (now disowned) showcased that she could easily outdo Cleopatra in shameless display of wealth. World press billed it as Rs 100 crore marriage.

Cleopatra was ruthless to anyone she deemed a threat. Thugs in autos became a sad joke about Jaya's first regime. Subramaniam Swamy, Chidambaram, Seshan, advocate Vijayan all bore the brunt of her anger. 

Above all Jaya and Cleo share a fatal trait, the unseemly desire to self-destruct themselves. Mark Antony commanded a good army but Cleopatra compels him to fight Octavian at sea, a task that his army is highly unsuited for. The Battle of Actium is a disaster.The movie depicts how Cleopatra deserts Antony. Antony then deserts his army chasing her. When it appeared that Jaya's comeback has very good chances she went and ruined it by her sheer arrogant treatment of Vaiko. Tamil Nadu was just astounded to see Vaiko being humiliated and wondered if she would ever learn. 

Cleopatra and Jayalalitha are shrouded in mystery. Jaya, even in this modern age, is a puzzle that nobody has understood or found a clue to. She is not an approachable person, she has written a thinly veiled auto-biographical fiction yet much remains unknown about her. Just like Cleopatra we know Jayalalithaa only through men whether its her opponents or the media. Only in 2010 did Cleopatra get a female biographer. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Corzine and Karunanidhi: Bribing Voters.

There is lot of brouhaha on Karunanidhi's freebies (and Jaya's response). Offering subsidies for weaker sections is indulged in by politicians across countries, sometimes out of a good intention but mostly as a means to fleece votes. DMK rode to power based on providing subsidized rice to the poor. So what differentiates the color TV scheme, and its repugnant offsprings that threaten to derail a state by tearing into whatever was left of the deplorable moral fabric of a people, from other subsidies?

Jon Corzine, ex-governor of New Jersey, provides a good template to differentiate subsidies and voter bribes masquerading as freebies. NJ is a state that is practically broke thanks to corrupt politicians and public exchequer busting benefits to unions. Here was Jon Corzine who ran on a platform to reform NJ with his vaunted business skills. After all he ran the most feared money-machine on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs. Corzine, democrat, got elected. NJ's woes worsened, NJ rolled down a slippery slope of financial ruin. Corzine was roundly defeated in his re-election battle by a very unlikely candidate. Chris Christie, Republican, set about bringing order to chaos and stumbled upon a stash of $90 million dollars that lay undistributed. Corzine, the good Democrat that he was, had levied a TAX on cable TV provider Comcast in order to subsidize Cable TV programs for elderly in hospice care. Christie flew into a rage asking 'since when was watching Cable TV (not broadcast TV channels, like ABC CBS etc, that are already free) a fundamental right that needed a tax on a corporation'.

THAT captures the venality of what Karunanidhi unleashed. Progressive taxation and welfare schemes for the weaker sections is part of every economic system in the world. its part of politics in every country. Promising subsidized rice or shielding the poor from the ravages of the market is one thing, to dole out what is classified as 'luxury' is sheer bribery. Till date Rs 10,000 crores (or possibly more) has been spent on doling out the TV's. I've DMK friends who non-chalantly says "what could he do, it was a strategy". Beware, those are traitors to people who would not, in their blood lust to see Karunanidhi get elected, hesitate to sacrifice any Tamilian. When MK promised the TV's not many believed he would follow through that's why he could not ride to absolute majority based on the TV promise but that catch promise helped him become a minority government. MK has earned credibility in keeping up the promise because his targets are elsewhere. Thanks to him today Tamilians have been reduced to beggary. There is an unseemly eagerness to see what MK would announce? Vikatan had a very chilling comment by a woman "உசிலம்பட்டியில், 'ஜெயலலிதா வந்தா, சட்டம் - ஒழுங்கு சரியா இருக்கும். அதிகாரிங்க பயப்படுவாங்க. நிர்வாகம் சரியா நடக்கும். அதனால எங்களுக்கு என்ன பிரயோஜனம்? கலைஞர் வந்தா, டி.வி, மிக்ஸிலாம் கிடைக்கும். அதனால கருணாநிதிக்குத்தான் ஓட்டுப் போடுவேன்’ என்றார் ஒரு பெரியம்மா." Even if one ignores her credit to Jaya for good administration its frightening to think that a citizen values her personal safety negotiable with a freebie. It was pathetic to see DK's Veeramani applaud this manifesto as 'heroine' and call for Tamilians to help elect DMK and defeat Aryan designs. Periyar must be turning in his grave.

The poor do not realize the pernicious effects of such schemes. The middle class and the rich think "I do not care, it does not affect me". Not a SINGLE citizen is left untouched by the direct and indirect effects of such schemes. A good example is the Kalaignar Insurance Scheme. TN, like the rest of India, runs Government Hospitals which are provide almost free medical care to anybody who comes, thousands of crores are already being spent on those hospitals and doctors. Yet the conditions in those hospitals are deplorable and they are rife with corruption. Even the most poor man 'prefers' to go to a private clinic. MK comes riding as the knight in shining armor and announces a scheme to cover medical care for 'life threatening' diseases. Private hospitals and doctors rush to advertise that they welcome patients under that scheme. Reason was simple, profiteering. Hospitals overcharged, doctors over billed, prescriptions were padded, pharmacies and drug manufacturers prospered, tests were ordered unnecessarily, again prices were inflated. A total web of corruption ensnared the medical fraternity. Of course the poor patient got his heart repaired. What he did not realize was that in the process of this all round thievery medical costs soared due to an inflationary aspect for EVERYONE. This same poor patient now when he goes for an ordinary illness, which is not covered, pays inflated costs. THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH.
The laws of Physics eventually catches up. Government set aside only Rs 500 crores to be given to insurance companies. The inflated bills, systemic fraud etc now has compelled insurance companies to deny bills. By the way the insurance is provided by private insurers not government owned LIC's. Now add on the inflationary cost to get insured.

When food prices soared some dimwits blamed capitalism and the fact that India is now trying to liberalize. Take the Kalaignar Housing Scheme. Cement prices and construction material prices have soared due to demand thus raising the cost of construction. There is shortage of labor, their prices have shot up. When cement price hots up MK steps in and forbids the cement manufacturer to raise his prices beyond what MK thinks is fair price. Each of these schemes destroy and skew the operation of free market. What is worse they skew it in favor, not the poor, but the corrupt. The poor slum dweller thinks he gets a home but thanks to corruption and unfair pricing controls what he gets is a home of pathetic quality. Now having contributed to inflating labor prices, the woman carrying bricks who enjoys her new pay is now forced to pay more for the vegetables she buys. Round and round it goes distorting every economic activity beyond recognition.

I'll NOT blame the poor man or woman who votes for DMK drawn by such schemes. They do not know better. I've seen literate PhD's (from American Universities), people who are educated and have been exposed to a much wider world, behave no better than the woman who said "கலைஞர் வந்தா, டி.வி, மிக்ஸிலாம் கிடைக்கும்". Education, I find, is often of no avail. In fact I now wonder what is the purpose of being educated, especially when I think of casteism amongst Tamilians in US & UK. That needs a separate blog by itself.

What is the difference between politicians like these and a drug peddler? Who is a leader? What makes a person a leader? I think of Gandhi who made Indians rise up to the best within them. A famous scene in the movie 'Gandhi' is the depiction of Salt Satyagraha at the Dharasana Salt Works. Charlie Sheen, playing Webb Miller of NYT, files a report (I quote from wikipedia in full)

"Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow.Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down. When every one of the first column was knocked down stretcher bearers rushed up unmolested by the police and carried off the injured to a thatched hut which had been arranged as a temporary hospital."

A leader is one who makes a people rise about their collective weakness. Not one who makes a people collectively weak and corrupt. TN is being reduced to abject beggary. Like Bharathi said:

விதியே... விதியே! தமிழர் சாதியை என் செய்ய நினைத்தாய்?’

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Inside Job: A Hollywood Analysis Of The Financial Crises.

The financial crises wrecked trillions in share holder wealth, brought the largest economy of the world to its knees, caused a global crises of proportions unseen since the Great Depression, rendered millions unemployed, devastated the pensions of many and so much misery. At the epicenter of this mega quake, runs the easiest narrative, are a bunch of CEO's in a small street on an island. You have Wall Street CEO's as villains, working class unemployed, law breakers, whistle blowers, arrogant government agencies, economists peddling philosophies conducive to lining their pockets and if with all these elements one could not cook a cocktail that begets Oscar what is Hollywood worth? So we got 'Inside Job', Oscar winner for documentary in 2010.

First, "Inside Job" does get it right on several issues. They present an accurate, albeit simplified, picture of the securitization process of mortgages. Wall Street drinking high on mathematical wizardry and exotic products, that bewildered even the veterans of the trade, went high on adrenaline and certainly became reckless in pursuit of profits and outsize bonuses. The incestuous ratings agency world which rated many of these exotic products as AAA (like a government bond). Ivy League economists on the board of companies and doing consulting for Hedge funds promoted "de-regulation" as mantra in classrooms and think tanks. Wall Street abounded in terms like Derivatives, dark pool trading, flash trading, SIV (Structured investment vehicles), CDO's (Collateralized Debt Obligations), CDS (Credit Default Swaps), OTC (Over the Counter), market makers and so much more.

Wall Street culture of focusing on quarterly reports, investor returns and of course the much maligned multi-million dollar bonuses were all factors in cooking this stew. Yes the Cassandra's like Brooksley Born who wanted to regulate the OTC and derivatives market in the late 90's were snubbed and silenced. When Raghuram Rajan presented a paper on the perils that awaited the financial industry he was roundly snubbed by his peers that included the high and mighty.

Harvard and Columbia economists consulted, for a fee, to hedge funds, were board members of companies like AIG etc. The voice over in the documentary wondered that its no surprise that these economists with forbidding credentials provided the intellectual mainstay for 'deregulation' and for incessantly promoting a "free market is the cure-all" approach. On this point I strongly agree with the criticism. Its pathetic to watch a Harvard economist grunt and grunt and grunt as to this glaring conflict of interest. He had no answer. Martin Feldstein, a Harvard economist and John Bates medal winner, was on the board of AIG, when asked how he felt about how AIG imploded thanks to exotic insurances that simply had no economic rationale, he just glares.

The ratings agencies are a law unto themselves given that only three are there (Standard and Poors, Moodys, Fitch). They routinely rated many of the complex investments as 'investment grade'. Ratings agencies are invited by investment banks and paid to rate the structured investment. This setup naturally presents a conflict of interest.

So far so good but then this is Hollywood. A case in point is Raghuram Rajan's appearance in the documentary. I've read Rajan's bestseller "Fault lines" that presents the financial crises as the result of a multiplicity of factors way beyond the simplistic narrative that is being peddled. Rajan faults a wide array of reasons and asserts that those reasons still exist, despite the gargantuan regulation that was steam rolled into congress. The documentary uses Rajan only to present as yet another Cassandra who was shunned. They fail to engage or present the other causes Rajan highlights. I guess that did not fit with the narrative of "CEO's are villains".

Barney Frank , democrat and powerful Chairman of 'House Financial Services Comittee', appears helpfully and upbraids Wall Street. Sure he is correct. But pray why no mention of his role in preventing overhaul of Fannie and Freddie, the GSE (Government sponsored enterprises). Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, called Fannie and Freddie, were setup to bundle home loans and be the last stop in the mortgage market. Both were raided by, mostly democrat, politicians to further their own agendas of promoting home ownership amongst the poor. Rajan highlights how politicians used the mantra of owning a home, the 'American dream', and the GSE's as tools for social policy thus playing no small role in the financial crises. Weeks before Lehman was buried the GSE's were effectively nationalized. The documentary was  dishonestly and eerily silent on Fannie and Freddie and politicians. By the way one reason why any reform of GSE's was not done by democrats was because the President who proposed it was 'George W Bush'.

The documentary focuses, for several reels, on how wall street traders used escort women and frequented strip clubs. This, I found, is the most distasteful character assassination. Its takes a certain chutzpah for a Hollywood documentary to fault an entire industry for what a few indulge in. By the way the strip clubs are strictly legal entities to which anyone can go to.

In what could be the height of hypocrisy, Elliot Spitzer, who thinks of himself as crusader against Wall Street makes an appearance and bemoans how the courts would not be more aggressive in pursuing criminal cases against the CEO's. After all when billions are lost there HAS to be a crime behind it. The documentary time and again bemoans that no CEO is behind bars on a criminal charge and how often cases are settled by paying a penalty. As Spitzer fades into the background the documentary helpfully notes that he was made to step down for a simple infraction of law without mentioning what it was. Spitzer was bust in a prostitution raid. Spitzer had broken banking laws of structuring payments to high priced escort girls while he was Governor of New York. He had to step down because he was holding a political office and his position became politically untenable to hold. As Governor he had burnt his bridges with his opposition by his steam rolling, sometimes legally questionable, tactics. Today he is a high priced anchor on CNN. We call that an "American story of redemption".

That no bank CEO is behind bars is something the director cannot fathom or tolerate. Short of accusing the legal system as being in the pocket of Wall Street he indulges in casting aspersions as to why no criminal charges are filed against, for instance, Angelo Mozilo the CEO of Countrywide, the largest sub prime lender that went belly up. Then of course no vilification of Wall Street is complete without tarring Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Sachs was sued by the SEC in the most sham manner that smacked of witch hunting. The country was practically crying for the blood of Goldman Sachs. SEC sued Goldman over a fund that went bust costing investors of a hedge fund tens of millions. "Goldman bet against investment they sold", "Goldman structured the investment to fail so they could make money while their clients lost", etc etc screamed headlines. Even 'Wall Street Journal' did not do justice to explaining what is a very complex structure. I can understand populist magazine like 'Time' indulging in Goldman bashing. WSJ exists only to educate readers on finance. Its beyond the scope of this blog to explain why the case finally fell through. Goldman, as its CEO testified in congress, did NOTHING wrong. In fact many industry insiders bet that Goldman would walk away and that this was a politically motivated case by the SEC.

Compensation is another favorite stick to beat Wall Street CEO's. It does not matter that Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, all A-listers, draw minimum $20 million per movie. Entertainers like David Letterman (philanderer too), Jay Leno etc sign contracts that are worth tens of millions of dollars. Sportspersons and Rock stars sign contracts with outlandish payments. Thats ok. When a Wall Street CEO who signs on papers that make him legally liable for billions of dollars gets a 50 million pay day its all hell break loose. Lets take this compensation question at depth.

It is a wall street tradition that a significant portion of compensation is called 'bonus'. From the lowly IT person to the highest echelons its the bonus that most eagerly look forward to. Financial industry is heavy on bonuses because its the financial industry and most importantly because the work load and tension is indeed not comparable to most other industry segments. Ask an IT person supporting a trading desk application. His/her job is far more tense than an equivalent job elsewhere and very saliently here when an application goes down the monetary quantification is immediate. So its no wonder that IT people prefer to work in banks. If its so for just IT people when we are talking about a trader who is bringing in business worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars then its natural that they rake it in during bonus time. Also lets face not just New York City even New York state depend on those bonuses being spent. If comparisons are made with what unionized workers make versus traders that argument is not even worth having.

Golden parachutes are another pet stick to beat CEO's with. Stanley O' Neal, CEO of Merrill Lynch, departed Merrill with $160 million after helping sink a storied company. Shameful. Bob Nardelli departed Home Depot with $200 million after Home Depot stock languished for years. Despicable. But wait. Their successors were not so lucky. Wall Street, stung by the criticism and shareholder revolt, is re-drawing compensation provisions with 'claw back' clauses, significant portions of bonuses of CEO's are now given as deferred stocks contingent on performance. Conan O'brien, late night comedian, had his show canned for dismal ratings. He walked away with $30 million, no outcry only sympathy. Tom Cruise is still A-lister after his last movie plainly bombed. I am sure Matt Damon, the narrator in the documentary, would love to have his salary regulated by somebody sitting in DC.

Oh wait the bailouts. The much maligned "TARP" bailouts. Obama, as candidate, used to scream 'wall street is being bailed out while main street is languishing'. Here is a less known nugget on TARP. The US government was laughing its way to the bank when the banks that it loaned money (some like JP Morgan and Goldman were forced to take it) repaid with punitive interest in short order. Even the AIG bailout is turning out profitable. Often some smug politician would say that Goldman, apart from the $25 billion it was forced to take, benefited immensely from AIG bailout. The implication being that if AIG had sunk Goldman would have followed suit. Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of bestseller 'Too big to fail', in a column put a stop to that saying recently analyzed records showed that Goldman was indeed well covered for an AIG bankruptcy. But the urban myth persists that Goldman siphoned AIG bailout money and would have sunk otherwise. As a result of TARP money being repaid FDIC made record profits last year.

Now for some brief notes. Ask any American on the road which President they blame most for the crises the answer will be 'Bush'. But guess in whose presidency were banks de-regulated? Guess who was the President when Brooksley Born was silenced? Bill Clinton. While Born looks like a prophet in hindsight lets remember that hindsight is always 20/20. In the Clinton era America was drunk high on its economic fundamentals having buried communism. 'How high is high' used to be the mantra. During his impeachment Clinton was touring Russia. Clinton would call back home and ask "how is the Dow today". As long as the economy kept soaring he was untouchable. By the way Clinton did finally accept that he committed perjury. He was pardoned with a slap on his wrist by taking away his license to practice law. Talk about suing for crimes by CEO's!!!!

The documentary makes it sound as if Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers benefited from preventing regulation of derivatives as Born suggested. Alan Greenspan did not own a penny in stocks until he remitted office. Not even in blind trusts, such was his probity.. Regulation is at best a necessary evil and at worst a job killer. There is always a creative push and pull between the desire to regulate a commercial activity and the industry captains who profit from keeping it unregulated. Neither should become a run away truck. The dot com bust gave rise to Sarbanes Oxley and completely altered the landscape of the accounting industry. The current Dodd-Frank regulation will undergo several evolutionary changes and the financial industry will also change from within and without. Regulation is not a panacea for all ills. We can only regulate what we understand and what we know might come. Financial innovation is outstripping the ability of government agencies to understand and regulate.

I dont see a problem with economists advising hedge funds and promoting economic principles that they apply in the market. I'd have a problem if economist practiced capitalism in private life and taught socialism to students or vice versa. The association of economists is addressing better disclosure norms. Likewise this canard of Government Sachs, implying that the US government is run by Goldman Sachs personnel is stupidity. Who would I have as US treasury secretary, somebody who has experience running a billion dollar corporation or some academic who only dabbles in theories? Often the documentary succeeds in insinuating covertly. There is not a shred of evidence that anybody from Goldman Sachs profited from their decisions as government executives. Snide remark that Paulson profited from tax write offs when he had to sell his Goldman Sachs shares when he became US secretary of treasury is a cheap technique. Such sops are required to attract talent from outside corporate world and this is necessary because they HAVE to sell their stocks prior to taking over such positions. Who would have wanted Paulson's job in September 2008 when the world came crashing down? Lets thank the man for saving the world.

The ratings industry is undergoing a sea change. The fact that they are paid by companies asking for their products to be rated makes it appear an 'inside job'. Reality is more complicated. As much as terms like casino capitalism abound the US model of capitalism does have its redeeming features without which America would not be where its today.

I'd rather live in chaotic America than live in Ukraine as farmer when what I sow is decided in Moscow. Also I am still waiting to see a Hollywood documentary on how Unions ran down the car manufacturers, how Unions wrecked the state of California, how Unions and pension burdens are decimating countries. Would that not be some documentary to make????

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Protecting 'Speech' We Do Not Like: Westboro Church and First Amendment

From time immemorial ever since one man spoke his mind there was another to tell him where to stop. Censorship of human thoughts has a very long shameful history. Even today in many parts of the world, including democracies, censorship is often practiced. Religious establishments and governments are the most abusive powers in curbing free expression of thought. Censorship often takes very devious forms. Not many in Tamil Nadu know that even today to stage a drama one has to get police permission and get the dialogues approved. Its a statute that dates to the British rule and as is often the case the new 'rulers' found it useful enough to retain it. Indian government controls paper supply to newsprint and can throttle the industry by taxes. When the US constitution was ratified in 1789 some felt that the freedom to practice religion and to express one's opinion was not protected enough in the constitution. So a set of 10 amendments, collectively referred to as 'Bill Of Rights' was proposed. 

The 'First Amendment' is the one, which Americans of all political stripes, cherish the most. As far as my knowledge goes America was the first country to write such an amendment that expressly "LIMITS" the power of the legislature. The amendment, succinctly but with shining clarity, states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The Congress is expressly prohibited from making ANY law that would abridge the exercise of free speech. Of course such lofty sentiments were to be found in many other constitutions in ambitious democracies that followed but none came close to empowering them like the USA. The legal system has been the most robust in protecting this clause. Of course anybody could point to some blemish here and there but none can deny that America remains the most free country on earth. 

That America is involved in two wars in common knowledge. To many outside India there is an unknown side show. A church congregation, comprising almost only family members, made it their business to go and attend funerals of soldiers who were killed in Iraq. One of the leading killers of soldiers in Iraq was the I.E.D (Improvised Explosive Device). These church members would go to funeral grounds and hold signs that said "God bless the IED's", "This is God's punishment for USA tolerating gays" and other most despicable fundamentalist nonsense. Slowly they started getting attention and congressional representatives, in sympathy with the families of fallen soldiers, proposed legislation that would restrict such protests by making them stand hundreds of feet away etc. Finally the father of a dead soldier filed a lawsuit that such protests were an infringement on his freedom. The case wound its way to the US Supreme Court.

The US Supreme court does not routinely hear every petition that comes its way. This case was taken up as a challenge to the First Amendment rights of the Church. While no newspaper editor agreed with the Church's philosophy or protests everyone without exception wanted the Court to protect the rights of the Church. In a stunning 8-to-1 verdict, with 8 justices ruling for the Church and one dissenting, the US Supreme court resoundingly protected the freedom of the Church. 

The case of "Hustler" (a pornographic magazine) Vs Jerry Falwell is a more difficult case. Hustler had published a fictional story about Jerry Falwell's, a well known preacher, first sexual experience. The story involved his mother. Anyone would agree that this is outrageous. Anyone, however much they disagreed with Falwell, would sympathize with him asking for damages. Not so fast. The US supreme court ruled unanimously, in the case of 'Larry Flynt Vs Falwell', "that the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them." The verdict could not have been more resounding in favor of free speech than that. Read that again, it excuses such acts even its "intentionally inflicted" upon a 'public figure'. Even today its impossible to print disparaging articles about the royalty in England. 

It is this freedom that protects an artist who puts up in a national gallery a painting that depicts a crucifix in a jar of urine or another painter who paints the Madonna with cow dung on her breast. Rudy Guiliani, as Mayor of NYC, wanted to cut the government funding to those galleries, of course that effort went nowhere. Muslims in Britain took umbrage at Salman Rushdie for "Satanic Verses", many were immigrants from Pakistan, without understanding western ethos or that such freedom is the cornerstone of modern liberal democracy. Before anybody accuses Britishers of apathy towards Muslims let them remember that it was a British novelist, Philip Pullman, who published to much acclaim his book titled "The good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ". Pullman, with tongue in cheek, had a disclaimer in the back flap "this is a story".

Freedom of speech includes the responsibility to protect speech that many, or even one, would deem spiteful. Whether its a newspaper publishing secret papers of government (the Pentagon Papers case) or a pornographer publishing an abusive story of a pastor, or a questionable work of art that is exhibited time and again the US Supreme court and other arms of the judiciary have been zealous in protecting that most cherished right of an American, to speak his/her mind.

Michael Douglas playing the role of an American President in the eponymous movie would say " America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free".

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

America: Land of the religious and superstitious.

Every year during the Navarathri holidays (or Puja Holidays as its commonly referred to) DK bloggers go into overdrive ridiculing religion (of course only during Hindu festivals) and rituals. Last year a blogger had posted a very old speech of C.N.Annathurai. Annathurai, in the 50’s, lecturing poor Tamilians ridiculed their age old beliefs and for good measure asked them to look at Western countries that are rich and technologically advanced. In typical fashion he assigns a factually wrong cause and effect relationship. The west is scientifically advanced, said Annathurai, because they are not susceptible to religious superstitions. Having lived, observed and read a good lot in USA for a decade I could instinctively say nothing is further from truth than that.
America is a very religious and very superstitious country. A westerner’s phobia of 13 is very well known (triskaidekaphobia). High rise buildings do not have a 13th floor. 13th floor is usually labeled 12A or just 14 swallowing the 13 in between 12 and 14. Houses in a community are likewise numbered. Nearly 50% Americans, much more than any industrialized country, believe that God ‘created’ the universe and that ‘Theory of Evolution’ is not true. Those who scoff at Indians worshipping their instruments of trade (Ayudha Pooja) should just take a look at Thanksgiving and Harvest festivals in US. Christmas is a very pagan festival. The statistics for Americans who go to church and say ‘grace’ before taking food is staggering.
Teaching science can be risky especially for Biology teachers. The very famous “Scopes Trial” against teaching evolution took place in USA. That trial was later made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy. The trial itself had great elements of drama and theater at the end of which science did triumph. However, as recently as 2003, a group of teachers in Pennsylvania had to go to court to be able to teach evolution. For nearly a century only priests and theologians could become the dean of Harvard University. Princeton University houses a wonderful Chapel.
Tamilians make fun of our movies that sentimentalize the mangalsutra (or ‘thaali’). Watch Apollo 13. The commanding astronaut’s wife would lose her wedding ring while bathing on the day of the launch. She would register a shock much akin to a Tamil heroine who is asked to remove her ‘thaali’. Every culture to its own sentiments.
Children are brought up on a surfeit of superstitions. The two most treasured superstitions of children are the ‘tooth fairy’ and Santa Claus. Every year NORAD, the nodal agency that deals with North American Air Defense, helps track Santa’s ( ). The NORAD project involves Google Analytics, major corporate sponsors, even NOAA (the agency for America’s weather monitoring) and is a very big charity event. However the Santa angle is an amusing one.
Right now the Lent period is underway. From Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday it’s called the “Lent” period. Many Christians, just like the devotees going to Sabarimala, do penance for 48 days giving up something they usually love. It’s usually meat, again a coincidental similarity with the Sabarimala devotees. By the way Catholics do NOT get married during Lent period.
The US pledge of allegiance states “one nation, under God, indivisible”. The words ‘under god’ were added in the 50’s specifically to position God loving America in opposition to atheistic communism. Our dollar bills do state “In God we trust”. Every President since Eisenhower has attended the annual “National Prayer Breakfast” ( ) and its hosted by US congress. Yes, all this in a country that swears on separation of church and state. Let me note though that in any of this no single religion is favored. In fact the White House now holds more diverse celebrations of religious events including Diwali. Presidents are known to lead the country in prayer in the wake of tragedies like 9/11.
A Tamil Nadu MLA can state that he is an atheist, get elected and take oath without mentioning God. In 250+ years of its history no atheist has held any elected office let alone the Presidency. It is IMPOSSIBLE for an atheist to become US President. JFK broke the glass ceiling when it comes to a Catholic getting elected in a protestant majority country. It was a big deal for the 60’s but a non-issue when John Kerry, another Catholic from Massachusetts, ran in 2004. Likewise it’s not yet possible  in the near future for a divorcee or an openly gay person (I am ruling out lesbians as woman becoming President itself is remote) to become a President. In all fairness I’ve to state that openly gay men do hold elected office at some levels including US congress, most famous being Barney Frank the powerful congressman.
Presidential inaugurations are replete with religiosity. A pastor is called forth to give an invocation. Religion and religious references are pretty overt. It’s a matter of huge speculation which Bible verse would the President elect bookmark in the bible he holds while taking oath. In fact placing the hand on the Bible or ending the oath with “so help me God” is not in the constitution. Ending every political speech with a “God Bless America” is mandatory. Well even our national anthem has it so.

The secular nature of the country at large, a robust freedom of opinion protected by 'First Amendment' are saving graces for USA. When we see a prominent channel release a Rs150 crore movie and as publicity promote devotees praying for its success indulging in the most shameful acts of superstition we do shudder at the impact to society at large. So while Annathurai was using hyperbole and ill-informed facts to support a much needed correction his underlying intention is something i could agree with.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Learning English Prose and Poetry in School.

After a gut wrenching week of arguing with a cousin over Indian politics I needed to relax. In some used book store I had bought Jerome K Jerome’s “Three men in a boat”. I had read an excerpt of “Three men in a boat” in my school English textbook. As I was enjoying the fine humor of Jerome I thought about how lucky I was to have studied in a Matriculation school. When I had to go to high school, Don Bosco, a Matriculation school, had just opened in Tanjore. Though I had secured admission in a school that subscribed to “State Board Syllabus” I went to the latter as Don Bosco, run by the Salesian Brothers had a reputation. It is not without reason the entire political class (Karunanidhi, Ramadoss etc) put their children in such schools while mouthing platitudes about virtues of studying in mother-tongue. When I look back at the curriculum I enjoyed in Matriculation school I am very happy about what I had a privilege to study. Matriculation syllabi struck a fine balance between crappy State Board syllabi and the much more demanding CBSE syllabi. That needs a separate blog by itself.
We had a wonderful book of poems. The “non-detailed” texts were so wonderfully interesting classics. The textbooks, especially my 10th grade textbook edited by R.S.Macnicol an English teacher at Madras Christian school (alma mater of M.K.Stalin) was a gem. I hope I got the name right. Just as I typed the sentence I thought why not google him. Boy am I not surprised. Yes I got it right. He is the one. Google yielded a fine article  [“A. J. Boyd, J. R. Macphail, R. S. Macnicol and G. C. Martin were the four pillars of the English Department at MCC in the early 1930s.”]. Reading that I am reminded of how my dad used to speak fondly of one Relton who taught English at St.Peters School in Tanjore. St.Peter’s school was the first to teach English to Asians, a 300+ year old school (older than America !!!!). The quality of English teachers took a nose dive in the 80’s chiefly due to the domination of Dravidian parties that promoted linguistic chauvinism and many other reasons.
I think it was in 7th grade that we studied “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. Very coincidentally we also had to study William Cowper's  wonderful poem “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk”. I still remember the lines, not verbatim, “I am lord of the fowl and the brute alike, from the center all round to the sea, I am monarch of all I survey”. Little did we know that Alexander Selkirk was a true story and Defoe wrote his story based on Selkirk. 
Another non-detailed text was an abridged version of Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel”. It centered around the French Revolution and the attempts of a British aristocrat to rescue his compatriots from the guillotine in France. Percy Blakeney conducted himself as a rich dilettante hiding his identity as the daring Scarlet Pimpernel. Yet again very unfortunately our English teacher, Maria Francis, did not give us some interesting sidelights on French revolution. Coming to think of it, we just studied it like we read Tamil potboilers. While our syllabi was rich our teachers lacked the ability to go beyond rote teaching. This is why studying in Don Bosco vs Antony’s mattered little in real terms when it came to how the students turned out.  While we read Scarlet Pimpernel our seniors had “Tale of Two cities”. I still remember Brother Lawrence (Brother is how those who were yet to be ordained priests were referred as) imitating Sydney Carter in a courtroom. Madam Defarge’s knitting, storming of the Bastille, Dickens’ own era in Britain etc were not even touched upon.
Poetry textbook was a real gem. Other than the complimentary nod to Sarojini Naidu in a horribly mediocre poem on secularism all the rest were gems from the finest literary traditions of English poetry. This textbook served us for 8th and 9th grade. Our principal Fr Joseph Fernandez, formerly principal of St.Bedes, had a pretty good command of the language but as poetry teacher he was not great. We were made to recite hundreds of lines without any appreciation of the poetry, the meanings were taught to us in a sundry manner. Poetry recitation was fun to see who went to detention class. I had a friend who would recite it flawlessly but so complete devoid of passion and at a speed that was so difficult to follow. The poems I still remember from those classes are “Daffodils” by Wordsworth, ‘solitude of Alexander selkirk’. Rudyard Kipling's immortal "if". Much later I was sad to learn how imperialist Kipling was. Kipling raised money for General Dyer (Jallianwala Bagh). Learning to recite Tennyson's lengthy "Brook" was a chore that made us lose sight of the immense beauty of that poem.How can I forget Sir Walter Scott's rousing nationalist poem "breathes there the man, with soul so dead" 
MacNicols textbook for 10th grade was a literary feast by itself. The choice of prose and poetry were just classy. The only Indian writer was Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru’s description of Gandhi’s emergence on the scene of India from his book ‘Discovery of India’ was an apt inclusion along with Rudyard Kipling, G.K.Chesteron’s letters to a son, Hilaire Belloc, Kenneth Graham etc. The first lesson was about Ulysses escaping from Cyclops’ cave. The poetry selection included Shelley’s “La Belle Dame sans merci”, Robert Browning’s poem with Napoleon as central character "Incident of the French Camp", James Shirley's "death the leveller"

Just as I hunted the online verses for the poems I paused for a moment on Browning's "Incident of the French Camp". The last lines really jolt me today. A wounded soldier comes to Napoleon. Napoleon says "you are wounded". Browning continues "
"Nay," the soldier's pride
Touched to the quick, he said:
"I'm killed, Sire!" And his chief beside,
Smiling the boy fell dead. "

One could analyze this richly with Tamil's "Purananooru". Ah if only our teachers were so good.

Above all the poems we learnt in 10th grade what can supersede John Milton's "On his Blindness". A poem that is considered a crowning jewel amongst sonnets was taught in the most pedestrian manner. What a sonnet? What profundity of Christian theology and personal faith, yet all was reduced to learning the lines so we could score in E.R.C (Explain with reference to context).

My 11th and 12th grade was in State board syllabus. The textbook was pure crap. Even the quality of what we were examined upon and the quality of questions posed in tests were a new benchmark for mediocrity.

When Karunanidhi single handedly destroyed the Matriculation stream under the guise of "equitable education" I mourned the loss of quality education. However let me state that today's NCERT textbooks (available online) also are mediocre. Men like Macnicol do not exist in syllabus committees in India. Not every student who passed through Don Bosco spoke good English or learned to enjoy poetry. I dont want to blame our teachers exceedingly. Teachers themselves are not trained properly to teach. When I was at McGraw Hill I used to browse their school textbooks that were kept of display in the conference rooms. Once I saw their teacher guide for 4th grade English. The teacher guide gives wonderful ideas on how to teach to children the accompanying textbook. With all the shortcomings at least the rigor of the curriculum gave those who wished to hone their skills a good playground.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Anti-Brahminism and racism amongst Tamilians in USA.

A Tamil blogger used to write screeds about Sri Lankan issue. An unabashed Prabakaran worshipper he became distraught in the final days of the civil war in 2009. For once he dropped his posturing and wrote a blog critical of how Prabakaran caused untold misery to his fellow people and how his supporters turned a blind eye to it. The truce lasted few days. Once the war came to its gruesome end he again blogged and spewed venom. He railed against what he called "Brahmin-Bania" dominated media for saying that Prabakaran was dead. Like any good Dravidian ideologue his scapegoat was “Brahmin-bania” combo. It did not matter to him that Dinathanthi, Dinakaran, Sun TV the leading news media in Tamil Nadu are all non-Brahmin owned and they were all beaming pictures of Prabakaran's corpse. His favorite scuttlebutt is N.Ram, editor of Hindu. No reference of Ram would start without referring to his birth. I've never seen eye to eye with N.Ram on his strident anti-Americansism or his left wing ideals but never would I ascribe his ideas to his caste. What is ironical is N.Ram is a staunch supporter of Mandal and affirmative action. To add to the irony Ram was on the verge of being arrested by Jaya, a fellow Brahmin and Ram has appeared on DMK stages in the past. However the only area where he parts ways is on Sri Lanka and the ready made weapon to counter him is his birth. If this is not racism I need to be tutored.

Recently a DMK supporter was trying to highlight to me how Jaya enacted anti-conversion laws because she was Iyengar. It did not matter to him that the same Jaya arrested Sankaracharya and invited the wrath of hundreds of Brahmins. I asked him “would you think its possible she did it to please her then ally the BJP?”. Only silence was the reply. He later added “did she not announce in the Assembly that she is an ‘iyengar’?”. It did not matter to him that Karunanidhi repeats endlessly that he is a “shudra”, of course he would also then whine “if only I was a Brahmin then I would be appreciated”, “If only Stalin had been born to a Brahmin father”. It does not matter to MK or his idolaters that he was repeatedly elected CM and that his son is in line to the chief ministership. When DMK shamelessly aligns with BJP its strategy if Jaya aligns with BJP its "Brahminical" affinity. DMK fanatics would set a record in talking from both ends of their mouth with a poker face.

Even moving beyond the abstract to the immediate and personal I find a distasteful poisonous attitude. Another person tried to illustrate what he called "Brahminical" attitude. Citing a mutual acquaintance that person said “what he/she did was selfish and only smacks of what is typical of a Brahmin”. I was flabbergasted at the casteism. I cited incidents of similar nature amongst my extended family. Being selfish and petty is not the preserve of any particular caste but he would have none of it. Yet another time I got a bone chilling diktat “I don’t personally dislike them except that I want them to keep within their limits”. I was just stupefied at such a blatant threat that is practically fascist.

Recently Naganathan, Planning commission member and friend of MK, wrote a diatribe on the eve of Diwali spinning a yarn about how Diwali is an “Aryan” conspiracy and how it is designed to defraud Tamilians of millions of rupees in the name of Diwali purchases. Again I reached to my good friend and the reply “yes he is right and I support him”. It did not for a minute register with him that the thousands who spend money do so in shops owned by hundreds of ethnically diverse owners (of whom Brahmins are just a fraction). What is worse is that a government employee heading a commission freely writes such casteist propaganda did not even strike as unconstitutional and blatant discrimination. The person I asked is a US resident for 12 years and would be ready to attribute to 'racial discrimination' any imagined slight from Americans. Yet to his own fellow Tamils he gladly gives the 'middle finger'.

Tamil Sangams are the worst offenders in this regard. The invitees, prominent people from Tamil Nadu, often are unabashed Brahmin haters. They often peddle their shopworn ideologies of racial pride, Tamil identity etc here. Suba.Veerapandian, a DK leader, when he spoke at a Tamilian gathering, in Virginia, repeated his usual racial canard. He grandiosely suggested “even if you and your progeny live for hundreds of years in USA you will still be Tamils and NOT Americans”. It’s a stupidity that even an American would dare not say. But then this is from a guy whose organization firmly believes and propagates that a Brahmin, a Tamil speaking one at that and who might have lived in Tamil Nadu for generations, is not a Tamilian. Suba.Vi is known to manhandle his opponents when he can get away with it, unfortunately he could not do it in USA.

Once Seeman was the invitee at a FeTNA annual celebration. I had the misfortune of watching a YouTube clipping of his speech delivered in Tamil Nadu. He had just been released from jail (arrested by a non-brahmin CM). With his legs spread, his eyes blood shot with hatred, his voice rising and nerves visible he growled “if Brahmin owned Dinamalar writes that my speech was inflammatory will you arrest me” (of course his choice of casteist slur was far more crude). The camera then panned to the audience. A section seated on chairs and well dressed, apparently educated, clapped hands enthusiastically. Nobody winced at such caste hatred, that too without any grounds. I was reminded of Alfred Dreyfus affair. This is the sort of person that FeTNA chooses to invite.

A group of Tamils recently wrote a letter to Barack Obama cautioning him not to appoint Indians who might have ties to BJP/RSS/VHP because they might not be ‘secularists’. One of the signatories is a strong supporter of E.V.Ramasamy Naicker. EVR is a rabid Brahmin hater whose remarks would certainly rank as “hate speech”. What is worse EVR’s organization prohibits Brahmins from becoming members. I chuckled to myself thinking if this is not a case of “pot calling the kettle black” what else could be? Past invitees of FeTNA have included card carrying members of DK. If one goes through web postings of DK one would shudder to think that but for the restraining hand of law and order in India they would gleefully enact a holocaust. Also, it’s not co-incidental that most of these people are pro-Palestinian (in reality anti-Semites who disguise it as pro-Palestinians). I’d be very surprised if they could point to Israel on a map or know anything of its history.

This hatred cuts across educational levels and longevity in USA. A resident of USA for many years would celebrate EVR birthday wearing a black shirt and pose for photographs. Interestingly DK people wear black shirts much like the SS brown shirts of Hitler’s Germany or the Mussolini’s Brown shirts. DK is an organization whose venom would make a rattle snake bite look like a gentle caress. It is my firm belief that DK and RSS are two sides of the same coin, racial hatred. This is the same organization that had proclaimed an agitation to way lay Brahmins and to cut their sacred thread. This agitation was indeed carried out in Tanjore and I do know the affected person. A DK official recently blogged “Brahmin’s were lucky that Narendra Modi is not Brahmin else for the pogrom he unleashed in Gujarat the Brahmin in Kanyakumari would have had to pay with his life”. Chilling words those are. It is this organization that the good professor supports and attends meetings. 

When the Tamil Unicode controversy started the Tamil community in US worked itself into a lather and as self-appointed custodians of Tamil literature (most lack any diverse knowledge of any literature) let loose a volcanic rage against, what else, 'Brahminical Conspiracy'. It does not matter that but for U.V.Swaminatha Iyer many ancient Tamil literature scripts would have vanished. It does not matter that many Brahmin authors have richly contributed to Tamil literature. These are the people who think by writing "Washington" as "வாசிங்டன்" they are protecting Tamil.

A US resident Tamilian posts a comment calling Jaya as anti-Tamil. No guesses for whom he considers as the archangel of Tamilians and Tamil. A group of Tamilians, not incidentally everyone was DMK/ DK affiliated. Not a single one batted an eyelid that MK was splurging 1000 crores while Tamil University (established by, as MK never tires of saying, a Malayalee) could not even pay salaries to its staff and its buildings were dilapidated. So what makes Jaya anti-Tamil? She arrested Vaiko. Oh that Vaiko who cries hoarse about their beloved Eelam cause. Oh Jaya said Prabakaran (a proclaimed offender by Indian Government for murdering Rajiv) should be arrested. Who cares what MK said about Prabakaran. When every fig leaf is torn off the ugly head of racism rears its head, Jaya is Brahmin and Brahmins are not Tamilians ipso facto Jaya is anti-Tamil. 

Living in a multi-cultural society, enjoying the protections of freedoms enshrined in the US constitution, being educated, working at pretty well paid jobs, expecting fair treatment as human beings from Americans, expecting fair treatment at work, expecting respect and fairness in all walks of life these same people refuse to address their own innate racism. So one wonders what, if at all, can help them see? Or are we paying the price for not stemming the venom that has vitiated Tamil society for 50 years?