Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-II

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. You can read the first part here. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play.  

Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Characters exhibit flaws and make choices that lead to terrible consequences. It is easy to feel sorry for Caesar, who gets stabbed by his good friend, or Brutus, whose misplaced idealism comes back to haunt him (quite literally at that). But the individual I felt sorry for the most was one who had a bit part role, the poet Cinna.

In the aftermath of Mark Antony’s incendiary speech, the Romans go berserk, searching for the men who murdered Caesar. They come upon Cinna on the street and kill him because his namesake was one of the conspirators. The scene is short but shocking, but with a tinge of black humour when the crowd realises they have the wrong man but kill him regardless, justifying their action on the basis of his supposedly bad verses.

I have two thoughts on this little episode.

One, it best showcases Shakespeare’s cynicism about human reason that I touched upon in my previous post. If it was not clear already, this scene shows just how vacuous a crowd can be. The broader implications this has on a democracy and a republic cannot be ignored.

Two, it asks questions about Antony’s role in Cinna’s death. Yes, he could claim he had no intention and that Cinna’s death was an unfortunate case of collateral damage. But he was aware of the crowd’s nature and knew exactly what buttons to push to get them riled up. Shouldn’t he then bear some responsibility for his words? Or does the blame lie solely on the crowd even though their capacity to reason is stunted? These questions act as a precursor to a conversation about hate speech and how best one can prevent it while still preserving a right to free speech. That we are still having this conversation centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play shows just how vexing a problem it is.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-I

Note: This is the first of a planned two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play. 

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an intriguing blend of high drama, sudden bursts of violence, and impressive speeches. It is also a realistic and sombre meditation on the fragility of a republic. This fragility stems from the play’s take on human nature, which it would not be a stretch to say is a touch cynical.

Brutus, the idealistic senator and Caesar’s friend, sets great store by reason to disastrous effect. He believes that his fellow conspirators are as idealistically motivated as he is. He believes that the citizens of Rome will understand his reasons for assassinating Caesar. He is mistaken on both counts. The self-interest that propels these groups is a trait that very few individuals, like Brutus, can disavow. Left to their own devices, they will wreak havoc on society, which they do in the play to varying degrees of success.

This points towards the quality that a republic must have in order to endure, namely, that of being more than the sum of its parts. It needs to rise above the individuals who form it. And the way it can achieve this is by having institutions that channel the best of such individuals while avoiding the unsavoury bits. A republic thus lives and dies on the strength of the institutions that undergird it. This is a lesson worth revisiting every time the functioning of a republic is questioned.

Women: The Unpaid Workers

“With an increase of 22.3 million in the male workforce between 2004-05 and 2009-10 being virtually cancelled out by a fall of more than 21 million in the female workforce, the need to understand the gender dimensions of employment trends in India has acquired a new urgency.”

Let the statistic sink in. The paper on ‘Gender Dimensions: Employment Trends in India, 1993-94 to 2009-10’ by Indrani Mazumdar, Neetha N, drives home the magnitude of the problem in front of us. The authors highlight that “the most striking revelation of the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 66th round survey is a significant fall in the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FWPR )between 2004-05 and 2009-10.” The paper expands on how the liberalisation, unlike the popular opinion, did not lead to an increase in the female labour force participation.

One of the key insights of the paper is the drastic increase in the number of unpaid women helpers. As per the NSSO, the employment activity categories have been segregated as self-employed, regular salaried and casual labour. Out of all the three segments, the highest proportion of female workforce is in the self-employed group. However within the self-employed group, the largest proportion of women are employed as unpaid women helpers. From 2004-2009, the total number of employed women rose from 61 to 72.5 per cent, while the regular salaried women only accounted for 9 per cent of the total number. These numbers clearly show that the increase in the FLFPR was mostly due to the increase in the unpaid job rather than the formal jobs.

The paper also shows how the characteristics of the unpaid jobs also varied between rural and urban regions. In rural regions, unpaid workers vary from peasant to supervisors. The jobs are also significantly dependent on the economic background of the household. For instances, the women are usually supervisors only if the land is owned by either their husbands or in-laws or fathers or parents. In urban spaces, the nature of the job is largely different as 43 per cent of the women are engaged in community and personal services which includes domestic workers, teachers, launderers, beauticians, and so on. The second biggest sector that hires unpaid women in urban region is the manufacturing sector (primarily home-based, piece-rated work). 

This disparity in the type of jobs and the variety of them is an indicator of how most of the women work at minimal wages and how vulnerable their jobs are. While in rural regions the family income defines their jobs, in the urban spaces they are mostly engaged in low wage and high risk jobs. With the large segment of women working in the informal spaces like domestic help and agriculture, one of the keys solutions to look at can be to formalise these sectors. A good example would be the increase in the number of online platforms like BookMyBai.

The Art of Letting Go

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Air India, one of the most beloved public enterprises, is not finding any buyers. The government owned enterprise has been a cause for major concern for the union government with the size of its losses increasing over the past few years. Although, the proposal to sell the government owned airline has been put into action, it is evident that the appropriate desire has not followed.

The airline had opened up the offers for two months and did not see a single buyer concert. As per the reports,

“While the Rs 33,000-crore debt that was to be bundled with the airline was initially seen to be a major hurdle, industry analysts believe it was the government’s decision to retain 24% stake that ultimately proved to be the big deterrent.”

This is not the first time the proposal to sell the government enterprise has been brought to notice. Twice before, in 1996 and again in 2000, much more feasible plans to sell the airline, then in much better health than now, were scuttled. The problem is much deeper than this non-viable auction. The problem lies at the core strategy towards divestment.

Government with all its units and resources is still a limited body that has various responsibilities to fulfil with scare resources. Keeping this in mind, it is important to consider the sectors or firms in which the government invests, in order to ensure that the resources are being put to the best use. On of the first litmus test for this would be to see if the good or service being provided can be provided more viably by a private body. If yes, there is no reason for the government to enter the sector as the player. If not, government can either regulate it to make it feasible or provide the good or service itself to ensure their provision. This simple test helps limiting the number resources being directed to ineffective causes.

If we put Air India into this consideration, it is evident that in the current set-up there are enough players in the sector to ensure competition and air travel is increasingly becoming viable. Hence, there is no role for a government enterprise to exist in this space. Knowing this, it would be best for the government to sell all its ownership claims towards the loss making government unit. Government needs to instead invest more in strategic sectors such as defence, healthcare and education.

Even though the argument for strategic divestment have been made in previous occasions, it is quite clear that the lack of focus has made it difficult for the union government to let go of the age old air line.

Icarus, and Doping in Sports

Last night, my son and I were comparing notes on the Giro d’Italia, one of the Big 3 European cycling races, and speculating whether Chris Froome would be able to win the stage.

Waiting for race updates from the Guardian blog, I was bemused to see a photo of a spectator taunting Froome with a massive mock-up of an inhaler – Froome is fighting a legal battle for his rights to his last two racing titles over the salbutamol levels in his blood.

The next race update showed that Froome had raced down the last descent at an average of 53 km. an hour, with a peak speed of 80 km, and was now clear in the lead for his fourth grand tour in a row, a record unbeaten since Eddie Merckx, who retired in 1978.

Thinking about drugs in sports, I turned to ‘Icarus’ on Netflix, a riveting ‘accidental’ documentary. By a bizarre set of circumstances, a playwright and stand-up comic, Bryan Fogel, found himself in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Director of the Russian anti-doping center, and filmed the drama that ensued. It’s tough to believe that Grigory is not a masterpiece of film-writing and casting, as he is an engrossing, complex character, who happily helps Bryan Fogel devise a personal doping program that will beat the anti-doping system.

Meanwhile, WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, is crawling over the Russian lab, suspecting that the Russian sports system is not as clean as it claims. Grigory bails out, flies to the US, and with Bryan’s help, turns whistle-blower. The New York Times carries a massive story, the WADA gets in on the act, and given the amount of data Dr. Rodchenkov is able to offer up, concludes, “I can confirm, for years, that spectators have been deceived. The desire to win medals superseded their collective moral and ethical compass, and Olympic values.”

The 2016 Rio Olympics were weeks away, and WADA recommended to its parent organisation, the International Olympic Committee, that Russia be banned from the Rio games. The IOC passed the responsibility for the decision on to individual sports federations; eventually, 111 Russian athletes were banned, and 278 took part.

Given the time frame, and the paucity of data from Russia, I would assume falseness in both sets of Russian athletes. Having seen the film, I suspect the number of athletes on doping programs who came to Rio was significantly more than those not on drugs who stayed away.

This is probably true of most professional sports – the doping docs stay one step ahead of the anti-doping docs, and in some cases, the two are the same. For a top-level athlete, its probably safe to assume that your competitor is doping. Looking for that tiny extra edge to get on top, it must be really tough to stay away from the magic mushrooms.

Is it even worth trying? Is the Olympic promise of a drug-free games achievable? Or would a laissez faire approach be more honest – find the training regimen, needles and pills included, that sails your boat…

Flower Power, at 50

The first rock musical, HAIR, opened on Broadway in 1968.


It captured the spirit of Hippiedom with the exuberance of protest, inspired lyrics, and the shock value of a nude scene. It ran on Broadway for 4 years, in London for 5, and was adapted into a film by celebrated movie director Milos Forman. A generous cousin gifted me the double album set of the soundtrack, and its songs deeply informed my teenage years.

Ten days ago, I got to see a traveling production of Hair in Munich, and I had this strange sense of traveling into the past to look at the present.

Hair was a protest against the Vietnam war, and the draft; a plea for love, peace, and clean air.
 
It was a paean to the solidarity of youth, to the joys of sex – of all kinds, and free love.

It was a celebration of drugs.

 
And, yes, to the freedom to wear your hair long.
 
In the context of the late 60s, the demands that Hair made of society were truly fringe. And yet, its appeal, which was quite unprecedented, could be seen as a pointer to how widely change was sought.
 
5 decades later, so much of that change has been wrought, particularly in the US.
 
Though wars may still rage across the world, annual deaths have trended vastly down since the late 60s, and Max Roser has an amazing set of graphs (https://goo.gl/images/ZtP9wY) to show the changes. And draft, a central theme in Hair, was removed in 1973.
 
‘Free’ Love, meaning sex outside of marriage, barely merits mention today; same-sex intercourse, and marriage, have wide-spread acceptance, and increasingly, legal sanction. In June 2016, President Obama dedicated the Stonewall Monument in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, to honor the LGBT rights movement. In November of that year, Kate Brown became the United States’ first openly LGBT person elected Governor.

During World War II, smog in Los Angeles was so bad that people suspected a Japanese chemical attack. But the US Congress enacted the Clean Air Act in 1970, and progress has been rapid. California is still vulnerable to forest fires and thermal inversion, but air pollution in the US is not a major public health hazard. Meanwhile, 14 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India.

And drugs? 64 % of American citizens support the legalisation of marijuana. In 29 states, you can smoke it for ‘medical use’. And legal annual marijuana sales crossed 10 billion dollars in 2017.

Long hair? Man-buns is now a thing.

I don’t want to make too much of a point of this, but I was really struck by how the performing arts can anticipate change, and, perhaps, just perhaps, influence it.

Elaborately Learned Superstition

Check out this excellent paragraph from that Jane Jacobs masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Talking about the urban planners of her time, she writes:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by what rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible. However, because people, even when they are thoroughly enmeshed in descriptions of reality which are at variance with reality, are still seldom devoid of the powers of observation and independent thought, the science of bloodletting, over most of its long sway, appears usually to have been tempered with a certain amount of common sense. Or it was tempered until it reached its highest peaks of technique in, of all places, the young United States. Bloodletting went wild here. It had an enormously influential proponent in Dr. Benjamin Rush, still revered as the greatest statesman-physician of our revolutionary and federal periods, and a genius of medical administration. Dr. Rush Got Things Done. Among the things he got done, some of them good and useful, were to develop, practice, teach and spread the custom of bloodletting in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use. He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians. And yet as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling ”the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

It is my case that bloodletting in the 19th century was like government regulation in the 20th and 21st. There exists a “superstructure of technical complication” that makes wonks and boffins believe in their omnipotence, but they are as wrong as Dr Rush.

We will look back on this with wonder 100 years from now. Dang, I feel like I’m trapped in the wrong century. That said, better this one than any that came before.

Not Waving But Drowning

This is one of my favourite poems, and at first glance it seems that it deals with the personal and doesn’t belong on Pragati Express. But hey, wait a minute: do you think the metaphor in the poem could be extended to decades-long victims of bad public policy?

NOT WAVING BUT DROWING
by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Newton and the Free Speech Apple

News18 reports:

Rajkummar Rao’s Newton, which was India’s official entry for the 2018 Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, earned widespread critical acclaim across the globe and received numerous awards and nominations. However, what was Indian cinema’s pride for some has hurt sentiments of a CRPF officer, who has filed a complaint against the makers of the film seeking deletion of a few scenes allegedly portraying the India’s Central Armed Police Forces in a bad light.

You might read this and think, what kind of man would file such a complaint? What’s wrong with him?

The problem here is not the man, though, but the fact that we don’t do enough to protect free speech in this country. There are many laws that can be used to muzzle free expression, and they cannot be challenged on constitutional grounds, because the constitution does not protect free speech. Article 19 (2) allows grounds on which free speech can be muzzled such as “public order, decency or morality” and “defamation,” all of which can be interpreted widely.

We have a whole bunch of IPC laws that make it a crime to offend someone — and people can be offended by anything one says, which makes it all a bit of a joke. The producers of Newton have enough money to put their lawyers on the job, and this case is just a minor nuisance for them. But these laws are liberally use to strike out at dissenters, and they have a chilling effect on potential dissenters.

What’s worse is that it is not just the laws that are messed up. Most people around you — unless you move around in a self-select elite circle — will agree that there need to be these restrictions on speech. That makes it not just a political and legal problem, but also a social one.

Okay, I’ll shut up now.

The Kennedy-Klobuchar Bill – Updates from a Post-Zuckerberg Congress

(This post is part 1/n of what’s happening in the US Congress post the Zuckerberg testimony.)

If (like me) you spent hours watching Zuckerberg testify before the US Congress, then you’d remember how several legislators promised Facebook they would be tabling bills to regulate social media.

Well, it’s just over two weeks after Zuck’s testimony, and the first such bill is already tabled before the Senate. Sponsored by Democrat Senator Klobuchar and Republican Senator Kennedy, the Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Bill, 2018 centers around important principles of user consent and compulsory breach notification.

The bill stresses on drafting the terms and conditions in simple English so that users know exactly what data the website wants to collect, store and process. It also puts the ball back in the user’s court by allowing her to delete her social media data once she becomes aware of a breach.

Well-intentioned as it is, it looks like the Kennedy-Klobuchar bill retains a “Take It or Leave It” binary. It proposes solid user protection and rights, but most of them are squarely based on the power of the data collector to provide only two polar options to the user – to opt-in to its terms, or to opt-out of the platform completely.

If you’ve been so bored that you’ve read your favourite app’s terms and conditions, you will know that several of them today are a binary.

These are called “Take it or Leave It” clauses – so, if a user does not agree to a particular clause her only option is often to not sign up on the platform at all. While this provides simple, easy to understand options to the user, it is also a problem because it may make the user accept terms she is unhappy with. This is why, one of the suggestions data privacy advocates make is that companies collecting data devise smarter, non-binary ways in which the user is assured while still making their platform available to users.

Simplifying these terms and conditions, while still allowing the user multiple options other than to “Take It or Leave It”, as well as being a fast moving service provider at the same time is bound to incredibly tough for the social media company. The good news is, there are some effective ways to do that. However, as the Kennedy-Klobuchar bill rests on the correctness of this approach, its impact is automatically limited.

That said, the Kennedy-Klobuchar bill is an otherwise significant proposal. It looks out for the user by making the data collectors responsible for communicating terms and conditions in a simple manner.

The nerd in me is super excited to do a clause-by-clause breakdown of the bill, but until then, here are some neat summaries of what it talks about:

Senate privacy bill gives Facebook what it asked for.

Senators introduce bipartisan internet privacy bill.

Cute Cats Are Good for Online Activism

Ever wondered how social media has helped activism in your country? Ethan Zuckerman, an American scholar and activist, coined the “Cute Cat Theory“. This helps make sense of why online movements succeed, especially once they are banished from the web by unhappy governments.

According to this theory, social media is the best stage for activists to rally the masses for a political cause – exactly because the people who visit these websites are there to browse mindless content and not to rage against the system. Digital activists can use these platforms to have easy access to generate mass awareness, and also not be targeted by the government for posting unwelcome content.

And so, although a majority of us who visit Facebook do so to stay connected with our friends or to browse cute cat videos, digital activism is likely to get more traction on these platforms than anywhere else on the web.

Story time!

In the early 2000s, dissatisfaction in Tunisia against its President (Ben Ali) had escalated to a boiling point. Various activist groups started chronicling the shortcomings of the Ali government online. This was also a way of rebelling against the highly authoritarian Tunisian government, which would often censor the internet and online speech. In 2009, when certain dissidents called “Astrubal” posted a video concerning the President on Dailymotion, the government took down the site almost immediately. As knee-jerk reactions go, this is classic – the Tunisian government responded defensively to an action as soon as it could so that any hint of dissent is curbed.

However, this plan backfired because of – you guessed it – the Cute Cat Theory.

Although Astrubal’s footage had received only a few thousand views before the site went under, the abrupt, arbitrary unavailability of Dailymotion to the other millions of residents of Tunisia only ended up creating more publicity for this footage and ultimately, sufficient traction to end Tunisia’s regime under Ali.

The Cute Cat Theory shows that it is actually detrimental for a government to ban entire websites to curb dissent – especially social media. What’s better, because of this entire Dailymotion ban debacle, the number of people protesting against the Ben Ali regime on the streets shot up rapidly. If anything, the attempt to shut the digital vigilantes up ended up backfiring badly for the government.