Orwell’s Politics and the English Language

Politics and the English LanguagePolitics and the English Language by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available online at The Orwell Foundation

In this essay, Orwell decries a scourge of weak writing in the English language, writing marked by cliched phrases, imprecise descriptors, meaningless words, and pretension. In short, he tells us that writing is becoming simultaneously more verbose and less meaningful.

While the essay isn’t as fun to read as George Carlin’s rants on the same subject, it’s a clear and well-organized discussion of this flaw. Orwell presents the problem, offering examples of random unreadable passages and discussion of where each goes awry. He also contrasts a clear and concise Biblical passage with how its message would sound translated into this corrupt modern form of the language. (That’s the most comedic portion of the essay.) Next, Orwell offers writers simple questions they might apply to making their writing less bloated and more impactful. The key insight of the essay is that thought corrupts language, but language also corrupts thought.

The essay is almost eighty years old, but the problem persists — particularly among politicians, a class of people who love to both sound impressive but without saying anything definitive, anything that might pin them down. That said, since Orwell we’ve developed new linguistic afflictions unique to the internet age, and the essay could probably use updating. Still, it’s an excellent place to start one’s reflection on what’s going wrong in the English language.

View all my reviews

Under Pressure: Or, A House Divided [Free Verse]

A construction worker once told me -
    for a building to last -
 depends not so much on
    its materials,
    nor even on its foundations,

but rather on the building being
    in balanced strain throughout.

A building stays up when its 
    parts press into each other firmly,
    or pull at each other strongly,
    but never too out of balance.

This web of unseen forces
    allows the building stand solid
    against any huffing, or puffing,
    the world might throw its way. 

A democratic society works the same.

It must have an establishment.

It must have a counterculture.

And these two elements must 
    constantly pull at each other
    or mash into each other:
    tension & compression,
    compression & tension,
    tug-of-war & sumo.

If one side is unopposed, or too weak,
    the state will crumble into some kind of
    authoritarianism by another name.

Destroy your enemies at your own peril.

BOOK REVIEW: The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

The Gothic: A Very Short IntroductionThe Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Gothicness is the perfect kind of subject for the VSI series because it’s one of those areas about which everybody knows something, and yet knows nothing, really. Goth is [or has been] a people (or some people’s perception of other people,) an architectural style, a literary / cinematic genre, a contemporary lifestyle, and a political motif. Because of this diversity, even people who have a degree of expertise on some aspect of gothicness may have little understanding of other aspects or how these varied forms of gothicness relate (if they do, and – if they don’t — why enough people believe they relate to have made this well-formed, consensus view of connectedness.)

The downside of this diversity is that this book will almost certainly be dry, verging on tedious, at some point in the reading, depending upon one’s interests. For example, I found the portions on Gothic literature and cinema to be fascinating, but the part that dealt with gothicness in Whig politics to be boring. [With the architecture bit somewhere in between.] That said, one needs to follow this throughline to see how so many varied domains came to be Goth. Also, the book is quite short, so one isn’t likely to be bored to death because there’s not enough space spent on any one topic for that to happen.

I learned a lot about what it means to be “Goth” [or “goth”] from reading this book. It covers the history in some detail, but also brings it around to present-day movies and art. If you seek to know more about what “Gothic” means, you should definitely look into this brief guide.

View all my reviews

Tiny Tank [Free Verse]

Someone put a tiny, limp-gunned tank 
on Danube west bank --
in Budapest, opposite Parliament.

Unsubtle symbolism, indeed,
but worth noting:

The might of violence
made feeble in the face of democracy,
and all that.

So true,
and yet so few
seem to believe it.

We seem to believe
that matching savagery
is the key to strategy
in opposing the extreme,

but then we've really just made more
extremism, haven't we?

BOOK REVIEW: Identity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas

Identity: A Very Short IntroductionIdentity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book explores the slippery metaphysical concept of identity — not only as it’s presented in philosophy, but also in psychology, law, politics, anthropology, and literature. It begins with individual identity and expands outward to encompass gender, political, socio-economic, and linguistic identities. The aforementioned slipperiness of identity stems from the fact that we all have an intuitive grasp of identity that could be leading us astray. It tends to make us believe that aspects of identity are inherent features of the universe, when – in fact – they may be arbitrary designations – in which case, a given criterion or classification of identity may be chopped up in different ways than a given culture happened to glom onto.

I learned a great deal from this Introduction, and feel it was well organized and presented. How we see various dimensions of group identity (as well as how we weight them) has a lot to do with our social tensions and strife, and the issues around identity are worth dissecting — despite the fact that it might seem like a dry academic topic at first blush.

If you’re interested in learning more about identity, selfhood, and how various group identities feature in an individual’s overall identity, this book is worth investigating.

View all my reviews

Red in the Blues Blues

Boston Centinel political cartoon (1812)
by Elkanah Tisdale
They gerrymandered the district;
got all this red up in my blues.
They gerrymandered the district;
got all this red up in my blues.
They did it all after midnight,
so it wouldn't make the evening News.

BOOK REVIEW: Why I’m Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political EconomyWhy I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

As a foreigner living in India for almost a decade, I’m always looking for books that offer insight into cultural and political realities that remain obscure even after many years in country. I stumbled upon this book and the diametrically titled book, “Why I Am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor. I figured the two books might cover the pro / con accounting of Hinduism through two personal accounts of how a couple of thoughtful individual’s perceptions of the religion differ.

Having read this book, chronologically the first, I discovered that the two books might not mirror each other as well as I’d thought. For one thing, this book is really more about: a.) why dalitbahujans shouldn’t be considered Hindu, and b.) why following the dalit cultural framework would be better for India than following Hinduism. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t count off many theological points that rub the author the wrong way, socio-politically speaking. It also displays no shortage of anger (which one could certainly be argued is righteous, but nonetheless detracts from the feeling of scholarly objectivity that one might hope for in such a book.) But, at the end of the day, this is a book about caste, and how the system is used by the few to oppress the many. [It also turns out that both books cast themselves in opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement.]

In short, the author argues that the “high castes” of Hinduism (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are parasitic, misogynistic, violent, oppressive, corpulent, and demanding of “spiritual fascism.” On the other hand, the Dalitbahujans are painted as productive, egalitarian, democratic, creative, less materialistic, and capable of creating a sustainable path toward a healthy India of the future. I don’t know whether I came away with a much better insight into the truth of the situation, but as a social scientist I learned that what is true is often not so important as what is believed to be true – the latter can have huge impacts regardless of its objective truth. I say this because the author does make a lot of gratuitous assertions – unsupported statements — and these are particularly difficult to process when they address the motives of high caste people. He also sometimes whitewashes the “sins” of other religions to make the argument that Hindus are the worst / most unreasonable of all religions.

While it’s certainly true that the caste system has been oppressive and that the oppressed are within reason to be angry and to insist upon change, it’s hard for me to get a good read on what is true regarding the details because the author takes a preaching-to-the-choir route and doesn’t really provide the evidence an outsider would need to judge. That said, the book still offers a great deal of value because it tells one what the author (and presumably many others) feel to be the truth of the situation.

I found this book insightful and thought-provoking. There may be better books out there in terms of supporting arguments, but it’s a solid counter to the throngs of books by the Hindu intellectual elite. [FYI – The book will drive typo-haters insane, it’s loaded with missing letter typos, etc.]

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

View all my reviews

Can India Compete With China?

IMG_0131There’s perennial hope in the West that India will succeed. Having won the Cold War, advocates of democracy and rule of law aren’t eager to replay it and have a Communist country win–not even one that yields to market forces in large part.  Citizens of democratic nations want reaffirmation that democratic rule and rule by law, not men, is the superior paradigm. We acknowledge that such a system is rarely easy, but live with the words of Winston Churchill ringing in our ears:  

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

When I found out that I was moving to India, I read all that I could find on India in magazines I subscribed to, such as Foreign Affairs, National Geographic, and Wilson Quarterly. Needless to say, there was a lot to read. Besides India’s nuclear programs, both energy and weapons, I hadn’t followed its role in the world. These articles took me on a roller coaster ride. If one went back many years, no one expected much of India. Then, a few years back, massive enthusiasm blossomed that India was going to rocket off and leave India in its dust. Then I got to the most recent articles, which did yet another turnabout–saying that India’s growth had been ephemeral and no one should expect much from the country in the near future.

India has a number of advantages. Almost everyone who is capable of publishing is fluent in the de facto international language of business and academic publication–namely English. India has as abundant a supply of cheap labor as anywhere. Indians have a culture that values education. They are building a first-class university system by, in part, having sent students to the very best of academic institutions globally. Their universities are attracting foreign students. This, in combination with such a big population, has given them the potential to build impressive student bodies.

So, why isn’t India competitive? The first thing that should be stated is that things are never as simple as they appear in aggregate. In some domains, India is competing quite nicely–and not just with China. Here in Bangalore, it’s apparent that large IT companies see big advantages in doing business in India.

I made a recent trip to Hampi and was amazed to see how successful India was in building up wind power generation in central Karnataka. India is 5th in installed wind capacity overall. Many democracies have difficulty getting traction with wind because the public views the turbines as an eyesore.

Still, India has its problems. Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) surveyed business leaders about Asian bureaucracies and found India to be the worst bureaucracy in Asia.  On a 1 to 10 scale, where 10 is the worst possible, India rated a 9.21. This isn’t a surprise in the least. It seems to be common knowledge that business leaders who move to India do so in spite of India’s governance, not because of it.  India’s bureaucracy hasn’t embraced the IT-revolution. It’s interesting being in Bangalore, where IT-companies are state-of-the-art, and being asked for the same copies of documents a half-dozen times because the information is only stored on non-networked PC hard-drives–and paper files are collected but don’t seem to be organized in any way.

An ethos of corruption is ubiquitous in India. Police officers have been known to sit in parks and solicit “admissions fees” from tourists. I’m pretty sure I saw a shakedown in progress this past week when our car went through a toll booth on a toll road we had already paid for and two guys standing outside in front of the toll-taker insisted that our driver pay for the toll that he had already paid not ten minutes before. Being from a country where corruption is punished severely, I’m ignorant of the process of bribes. (I suspect this is why I’ve had so little success in getting anything done that involves the Indian bureaucracy.) For a less anecdotal experience, one can turn to the “Corruption Perceptions Index,” which places India in the bottom half among all nations.

One may wonder how a democracy retains a culture of corruption. Usually, citizens of a democracy get fed up and start voting their disapproval. At the Bangalore Literature Festival, I heard an interesting policy panel featuring a politician, a retired general, and a policy pundit. It was said that there is a high degree of apathy among the Indian middle class. Indian voter turnout rates are generally below 60%. There’s a belief that those most capable of affecting change are relatively happy and, thus, unwilling to rock the boat. I don’t know how true this is, but it seems that India is having trouble defeating some of the problems that wither on the vine in the face of a politically active public.

It also seems that there is a segment of the population who are completely cowed. This is a legacy not only of colonial repression but also of caste repression. While castes have been done away with, there remains a large segment of the population who are accustomed to doing just as they’re told without questioning and without making moves to get ahead.  Perhaps, because they believe they exist in a world in which there’s no getting ahead.

India’s abundance of cheap labor may be a curse as well as a blessing. While cheap labor has brought in foreign direct investment, it has also contributed to a business culture that doesn’t seem to value increased productivity. As an example, if one goes into a small shop in Chicago or Copenhagen or even Beijing, it’s likely that a single salesperson will show one merchandise, ring it up, and bag it. If it’s a big store, there may be a two person interaction–salesperson and cashier. In an Indian store, a salesperson will show one merchandise, a clerk will write up an invoice, one will take that invoice to a cashier, that cashier will take one’s money and hand one a carbon-copy of the “paid” stamped invoice and direct one to a pick up window, a bagger will bag your purchase, and  a “checker” will check your receipt and hand you the bag. I love specialization as much as the next economist, but this is a Rube Goldbergesque approach to retail operations.

If India wants to be a first-rate power, it needs to take on corruption, bring its bureaucracy into the 21st century, and its population needs to realize they can have a more satisfying life than waiting around for someone to need them for a momentary job. The citizenry needs to value good governance, and businesses need to figure out how to increase productivity.