The colonial experience-4: The economic transformation

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Perhaps the biggest disruption caused by the British colonialists was the massive change in rural life and agricultural practices as a result of the conversion from a somewhat communal, subsistence form of agriculture, where much of the local resources used for food production (such as water supplies, grazing land for animals, and forests as a source of food and fuel) was held in common, to a plantation economy with strict private ownership.

Sri Lanka before colonial rule was a feudal country and in such systems land usage was controlled by the feudal lords or by tradition. The colonial powers, on the other hand, were mercantilist and later capitalist and in such systems, it was necessary to have clear rules about who owned what, especially land. Since many of the farmers in rural areas in Sri Lanka did not officially have title to the land they cultivated, the land being either held in common by the village or rights assigned by custom or by the feudal lords, it was easy for the central government to get ownership and convert that land into single crop plantations under the control of large British-owned companies.

Creation of this plantation-based economy resulted in the displacement of huge numbers of small farmers and villages from their traditional lands and crops and made them into landless peasants, suddenly transformed from self-sufficient people, albeit often at a bare subsistence level, into unskilled laborers, forced to seek low paying jobs on the plantations or in the newly growing urban areas. The problem of how to solve the huge problem of landless peasants has been the bane of all those former colonies that had a plantation economy imposed on them.

Furthermore, traditional foods like rice now had to be imported in large quantities because the land was now being used for cash generating export crops. Local communities that were largely self-supporting now became interdependent with distant communities and even foreign countries.

The increased trade within the country and between the country and the external world did result in development of the country and the creation of new sources of wealth due to the rise of the merchant class and its associated banking and financial and transport sectors. It also resulted in urban areas now becoming the centers of activity. As a result, the terms of trade between rural and urban now shifted to the benefit of the latter, thus impoverishing the rural sector. By ‘terms of trade’ I mean that while the rural sector produced basically food, the urban sectors supplied finished goods (clothes, machinery, etc.), and the amount of food (say bags of rice) that needed to be grown to purchase (say) a shirt was such that the labor of the rural peasant became worth much less than that of the urban worker, resulting in a decline in the standards of living of the rural peasantry, except for a few wealthy land and plantation owners.

In turn, the terms of trade between Sri Lanka and England favored the latter, because Sri Lanka was basically exporting low value-added agricultural cash crops while importing high value-added finished goods. Thus Sri Lankan labor became effectively much cheaper than British labor. As has been said, the British made Sri Lanka into a tea plantation economy, the Caribbean countries into a sugar plantation economy, all so that the English could have their perfect cup of tea at a cheap price.

There was little or no attempt by the British to create local industries since they wanted to increase markets for the products grown in England, and creating industries in the colonies would defeat that goal. The British were content to keep Sri Lanka as basically an agrarian country producing food for the British and world market, and as a place to sell (or more appropriately dump) their own finished products. For a long time after the end of colonial rule, clothes, cars, canned goods, toys, etc. sold in Sri Lanka still came almost exclusively from England. It was only after independence that local industries started being created on a wide scale.

Having this captive market in the colonies was good for the colonial powers in the short run but actually harmful to them in the long run. While they still controlled the colonies, it enabled them to avoid having to compete with other rising world economic powers like the Americans. But this also discouraged them from investing in making improvements. As a result, when these colonial markets became open to the world as a result of the post-World War II movements for independence, the British found their products were no longer competitive in terms of quality or price. It used to be, for example, that when I was a child almost all the cars in Sri Lanka were English brands like Austin, Morris, Vauxhall. Rover, Triumph, and all the buses were made by British Leyland. The rapid decline in their market share following independence was quite remarkable, though one can still find forty year-old models on the roads.

So although Sri Lanka was modernized by the British in some ways, like all other colonies it seriously lagged behind in its own industrialization and in the production of finished goods for domestic consumption and for export. The net result was the steady siphoning of the wealth of the land from rural Sri Lanka to urban Sri Lanka and from there to England, with urban Sri Lanka getting some of the crumbs that fell in transit. These crumbs took the form of modern towns and cities and the creation of an educated urban elite.

This latter group plays an important role in how attitudes towards colonialism were shaped, with some seeing the British presence as largely positive and others as negative, depending on how much they personally benefited. The ambiguity of their response reflects the contradictory role that the urban centers played in colonial times, benefiting in some ways from colonial rule and losing in others. I will expand on this later.

POST SCRIPT: What about the aqueduct?

This clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian about Roman rule in Palestine captures well the inherent ambiguity of the relationship between the colonizing power and the colonists.

Jon Stewart takes on Jim Cramer, CNBC, and the financial news industry

Most people would have heard by now of the Daily Show-Jim Cramer face-off, but I want to comment on it anyway.

It all started when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli tried to fan outrage against Obama’s plan to rescue some homeowners from their current situation. Santelli went on the floor of the stock exchange and riled up the traders there by implying that their money was being used to bail out reckless homebuyers.

Stewart made fun of this cheap populism by running clip after clip of CNBC reporters touting the virtues of one company after another just before those companies went belly up. Several of those clips featured Jim Cramer, who has a daily show on the CNBC network.

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In response, Cramer than went on a series of shows on CNBC and their affiliates MSNBC and NBC where the friendly hosts gave him a chance to dismiss Stewart’s criticisms as those of an ignorant comedian who did not understand the complexities of the market and whose whole shtick was to run clips out of context and make faces.

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When Santelli backed out of a promise to appear on his show, Stewart then invited Cramer to debate the issue. The result last Thursday was a humiliating experience for Cramer, who had no answer as Stewart grilled him like a prosecutor, showing clip after clip exposing the way that Cramer and his fellow financial reporters essentially knew all the time exactly all the financial games that were being played with ordinary people’s money, while they now try to act like innocents taken by surprise at the collapse of that shell game. It seemed to me like at some moments Cramer was about to burst into tears.

In the process, it became clear that Stewart understood perfectly well how the markets operated and the complicity of the media in hiding the impending collapse. As I watched the three-parts of the unedited interview, two things struck me.

One was that this was another example of the problem of access journalism. All these financial reporters desperately want high-profile people like CEOs of the big companies to come on their shows. They think that being a good reporter is getting access to people, with exclusive interviews or off-the-record briefings, instead of doing the hard work of reading financial reports and analyzing the data. This means that they simply let their interviewees say whatever they want and relay it to the public. They never call them out if they lie, because if they did that then those people and their friends would never talk to them again. In fact, our mainstream media news reporters actually recoil from the very idea that they should point out when the people they interview lie to them and the public. So these shows have become merely vehicles for pure propaganda put out by business and political leaders.

The second issue is related to the first. Stewart asks Cramer the important question, which was not answered, as to which group these shows are supposed to serve, the public or business. The shows advertise themselves as serving viewers, trying to give them the information to invest wisely. But Stewart questions that, saying that the shows are really serving the interests of the companies they talk about, by helping them market themselves as being better than they are.

Although we are asked to think of the news as the ‘product’ and the viewers/listeners as the targeted audience that this product is delivered to, that is not the case. The workings of the current media system makes much more sense if we realize that we, the viewers/listeners, are the product that is delivered to the real audience, the corporate underwriters of these shows. The ‘news’ is simply the lure to hook us, which is why the line between news and entertainment has become so blurry. The goal of TV news shows is not to create an informed public, it is to deliver a specific demographic to their corporate sponsors.

Here are the three parts of the Stewart –Cramer exchange, all of which are well worth watching.

Part 1

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Part 2

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Part 3

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The kind of sharp questioning that Cramer could not deal with is not because Stewart is smarter but because he does his homework and, more importantly, does not need access to famous people to do his stuff. This is why he can say what he really thinks and ask these kinds of questions. It does not matter to him if Cramer never appears on his show again or if Rick Santelli chickens out and backs out of appearing because of the sharp questioning he will receive. The Daily Show does not need them because they use publicly available material for their humor.

But the so-called ‘real’ news people not only desperately want to interview famous people, one gets the nauseating sense that they want to be thought of as their friends, and that they would be thrilled to be asked to play golf with them and invited to their country clubs or fly with them on their private jets. That is the basic problem. One sees this instinctive mentality with Cramer as he tries to ingratiate himself to Stewart.

True reporters like the legendary I. F. Stone studiously avoided any personal contact with the people they were covering because this gave them total freedom to call it like they saw it, irrespective of whether it offended them. This independence gave them more power as reporters, not less.

The other lesson to be taken from the Stewart-CNBC episode is that one should not mess with Jon Stewart. Because, like I. F. Stone, he does not need your approval to do his work, he can hit you hard.

POST SCRIPT: Self-parody

The Daily Show introduction to the Cramer interview pokes fun at the controversy itself.

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The colonial experience-3: The missionaries

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is well known that in the colonies conquered by the Europeans, the Bible and the gun went hand in hand. Soon after a country was militarily overpowered, missionaries were often the next group to go in under their protection, even before merchants and traders. These missionaries were the first to establish a permanent presence in many areas of the country, setting up rudimentary medical facilities, classrooms, and churches. Although they did have the backing of the military, the missionaries were often personally courageous and even humane people, taking aid and a strange message to the remotest parts of a distant and foreign land and often having to deal with an initially suspicious and hostile population, and by doing so, winning souls for Jesus. Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart gives a good description of this process at work in Nigeria.

Many of the missionaries with their schools and hospitals and social work represented the kinder, gentler face of colonialism, the velvet glove hiding the iron hand, and thus masking the basic exploitative nature of colonial rule. By preaching about Jesus, they sought to replace local religious myths and totems, that often represented local interests, with Christian myths and totems that were common to a larger group. They thus tried to create allegiance to a larger political entity than the village or tribe, and to get the local people to identify with the values of the colonists.

Many of the missionaries in Sri Lanka had the same attitude towards the locals that the administrators of the Indian schools in America had, that what was best for the Sri Lankan people was to suppress as much as possible local language and custom and have them adopt western ways. So successful were they that this attitude persisted long after the British formally left. Missionary schools taught by foreign priests and nuns continued to exist after we gained independence, and punishing students for not speaking English was also common in some Sri Lankan missionary schools.

Even during my own education, long after independence in a school set up by Anglican missionaries, the chaplains and some of the teachers were English, but they were generally progressive people who genuinely seemed to have the interests of the Sri Lankans at heart. (At least they seemed so to me when I was a schoolboy. It could have been the case that they were simply good actors. But I doubt it. To be really effective as a missionary, you have to be a true believer, convinced that you are truly serving god by converting the locals. While such people are misguided, they are usually incapable of willful deceit.)

By preaching Christianity with its idea that what happens in this world is not important, that what really counts is the health of your soul and that your reward is in heaven, they promoted a message of acquiescence to colonial rule and thus sought to blunt the appeal of those who argued for revolting against the occupiers. That dynamic has always been there, with religion undermining the message that redressing injustice and exploitation in this world is an important goal and that people should unite to overthrow their oppressors whether they be their own people or foreign rulers.

We saw that same thing happen with the slaves in the US. Their adoption of Christianity probably resulted in greater acceptance and endurance of their suffering under the slave owners. The slaves were encouraged to seek consolation by looking forward to their rewards in heaven and not seek justice on Earth, thus blunting the efforts of those who argued that they had a right to a good life here and now and that slavery was an abomination.

I have written before about how Christianity has been systematically used as a cover for political and economic exploitation. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote “When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible” captures accurately how religion served the interests of the colonial powers.

Next in the series: The economic transformation created by the colonists.

POST SCRIPT: I don’t get Twitter

Although I signed up for a Twitter account a long time ago to see what it was all about, I have never used it. But I get messages that people have signed up to follow my “tweets”, as the messages (limited to 140 characters) are called. I completely share Tom Tomorrow’s bafflement as to why anyone would want to follow me, or anyone else for that matter, on Twitter.

Jon Stewart doesn’t understand the appeal of these new networking crazes either.

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Are Facebook and MySpace killing religion?

There was welcome news in a recent survey (sent to me by Bill, a reader of this blog) that found that the number of people professing themselves to be Christians in America has declined while the numbers of nonbelievers has risen significantly.

According to the ARIS survey, compared to results in 1990, “The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent…”Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly,” [survey co-author Ariela] Keysar said. “We now know it wasn’t. The ‘Nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.””

Furthermore, “Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death.”

This confirms what I have said many times in the past, that many people are effectively and functionally atheists, even though they may shy away from explicitly adopting the label. I am pretty confident that even this survey is underestimating the number of nonbelievers due to the reluctance of people admit to it.

Correspondingly “The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent.”

The good news is that the main result of the survey that the number of nonbelievers has risen significantly has been widely reported in the media. USA Today, in a long article with charts and graphs, said that “this category [nonbelievers] now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.” The Washington Post also made the increased numbers of nonreligious people its lede.

Such media reports will, I think, further encourage those who already harbor secret feelings that the tenets of religion make no sense to become more open about expressing their doubts.

So what could be the source of this decline in religiosity? Here’s my theory: Facebook. Not only Facebook but other social networking sites like MySpace that are exploding on the internet. All these sites are filling a niche that once used to be largely the preserve of churches, which was a place to meet like-minded people. If you moved to a new location, joining a religious group was often the best way to get to know others like you. A Sri Lankan friend of mine used to live in a small town in central Ohio. The people were friendly but almost the first question that was posed to her was to ask her what church she belonged to. When she said she was a Buddhist, they were a little nonplussed. But with the internet, it becomes far easier to find affinity groups and so the utility of churches as a meeting place and networking center has declined.

This does not mean that religion will go away. Most people will still feel the need for something transcendental in their lives, especially the need for rituals to mark landmarks like birth, coming of age, marriage/commitment, and death. I suspect that churches and priests will end up largely serving those sporadic needs, with regular weekly religious services becoming sparsely attended by aging populations.

ARIS survey co-author Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. says that today, “religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many.”

Over time, the US is likely to become like the Scandinavian countries. The people there belong to churches (mostly Lutheran) but do not think of the church as the place to ask the big existential questions of life, meaning, and death. They are not even much bothered by those questions at all. The church is seen as simply a place that conducts ceremonies.

And contrary to American ideas that a country without religion would be a depraved one, this article by Peter Steinfels, in the February 27, 2009 issue of the New York Times (thanks to reader Chris) says, “It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier.”

Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist and author of a book on religion in Denmark and Sweden called Society Without God (New York University Press, 2008), says that he found “a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.”

The people were not anti-religion probably because in those countries religion is not the powerful negative force that it is in the US. There is no sense in being hostile to something that is largely irrelevant. But the secular nature of their religion is clearly evident.

The many nonbelievers [Zuckerman] interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.

At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.”

This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”

One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. “I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person,” the colleague pleaded.

Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.

This is the way America is going. The churches will still be there. The priests and rabbis and imams will still be there. But god, whose only purpose is to allay fears of death by fostering the delusion of a life after this one, will have largely disappeared.

POST SCRIPT: What if god disappeared?

Thanks to Machines Like Us.

The colonial experience-2: The (mostly) bad

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While many of the things introduced by the British had beneficial features, almost every one had its own negatives, apart from the introduction of universal suffrage. The reason was that each of these things was not created exclusively for the benefit and advancement of the local population but to increase the ability of the colonial powers to control the population and exploit the country’s natural resources for the benefit of England, especially a climate that was ideally suited for the growing of food and spices. Any benefits that did accrue to the locals were incidental.

For example, although the new road and rail networks provided greater mobility for the population, that was not their primary intent. Instead they were designed to facilitate the transport of the products of the new cash crop plantations to the coastal ports for export. One can see even now how the winding rail lines through the central hill areas follow the path of the plantations. These systems, along with the telephone and telegraph systems, also enabled easier access to, and thus greater control of, the entire country to the small band of British colonial officers based in the urban centers, enabling them to keep tabs on what was going on.

Also, while the police and army consisting of Sri Lankans brought about greater security for people, they could, and were often used to suppress opposition, especially as the independence movement started to grow in strength.

The goal of any colonial power is very simple and unambiguous: to exploit the resources of the conquered country for the benefit of the ruling classes in the conquering country. The ultimate mechanism for achieving this is also simple: raw power. But power only takes you so far for so long. To achieve long-term dominance one needs to win the allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of significant sectors of the local population. So while the foundation of achieving the political and economic goals of the colonialists lay with brute force (they had the guns after all), the task of winning the hearts and minds of the people to feel positive about their subjugation by their foreign rulers fell largely, though not exclusively, to the missionaries.

By setting up schools and churches, these people sought to create an important class of people: those who were of the local population but who identified more with the interests of the colonial power. They did this by giving benefits such as land and titles and leadership positions in legislative and administrative bodies to those who were willing to use them to advance British interests. Over time, this group became identified as being ‘national’ leaders, even though they spoke English, wore western dress, lived a western lifestyle, and had little in common with the people they supposedly represented.

This is not to say that all the colonialists were cynical exploiters. Many of them, especially at the middle and lower levels, probably were genuinely interested in the welfare of the ‘natives’ (as we were so quaintly called) and sought to improve their lives by bringing modernity to what they perceived as backward people. This is probably more true of those missionaries and educators (and often the same person played both roles) who built churches and schools with the goals of saving the heathen from hell and replacing their pagan beliefs with what they saw as belief in the one true god. I have little doubt that most of these people sincerely thought that teaching children English and making them adopt western ways of life in terms of clothing, speech, and lifestyles was a good thing.

It is not unlike what happened with Native American children in the US who were forcibly removed from their families on the reservations and sent to distant boarding schools where they were systematically stripped of all their traditional cultural connections and forced to adopt the majority white culture. In those schools, children were, for among other things, forced to cut off their long hair and were punished if they were caught speaking in their own languages and not in English.

Many of the people who implemented what we now condemn as a woefully wrong-headed and cruel policy did so out of the best of intentions, thinking that the only way to save the Indians from what they saw as the wasteland of life on the reservation was to have them adopt the ways of white people. The Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Jim Thorpe is probably the best known of all of them. He attended Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, which had as its founding principle: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

But while bribes and coercion can result in some people being willing to serve the interests of their colonial masters, to achieve the best results you need to have local people who think that the ways of the colonial powers are truly better and that by advancing those interests, they are also advancing the interests of the local people. You need to win the hearts and minds of a significant group of the local population.

This is where the missionaries came in, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: How not to win hearts and minds

A US soldier excoriates Iraqi police recruits. (Very strong language advisory.) I wonder how the interpreter deals with the constant stream of profanity. Does he gloss over it? Censor? Literally translate? Translate idiomatically?

The power of the internet

The internet has had one major positive effect and that is that it has reduced the power of the establishment media to control the public discourse. It used to be the case that once you had achieved a position of authority in the media, you could say pretty much what you wanted and, as long as it conformed to the desired narrative of the pro-war/pro-business one party system, you could not be challenged. This enabled the discussion on important topics to be limited to within a very narrow spectrum of views, so that whatever view prevailed within that spectrum, the underlying status quo remained untouched.

It used to be the case that those informed people who read something in the paper or heard on the news that they knew was wrong had very few options, other than (say) writing a letter to the editor, which the paper had the option of refusing and which had only a marginal effect anyway.

Take for example this anecdote from Noam Chomsky’s book Understanding Power (2002) about a column George Will wrote in 1982 (thanks to Jonathan Schwarz).

[A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called “Mideast Truth and Falsehood,” about how peace activists are lying about the Middle East, everything they say is a lie. And in the article, there was one statement that had a vague relation to fact: he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter, the kind of letter you write to Newsweek—you know, four lines—in which I said, “Will has one statement of fact, it’s false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down.” Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek “Letters” column. She said: “We’re kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?” So I told her, “Well, they’re published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971″—which is true, because it was a big proposal, it just happened to go down the memory hole in the United States because it was the wrong story. So she looked it up and called me back, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, we found it there; okay, we’ll run your letter.” An hour later she called again and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, but we can’t run the letter.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he’s having a tantrum; they decided they can’t run it.” Well, okay.

Mind you, in 1982, Chomsky was already a very eminent and well-known figure, both as a linguist and political analyst who was, outside the United States, one of the most famous and admired intellectuals. It will probably surprise many Americans that in the rest of the world Noam Chomsky is a household name in intellectual circles whose writings are regularly published in mainstream newspapers and magazines. And yet even that was not enough clout to enable him correct a direct falsehood by Will. That was the end of that.

Now fast-forward to 2009. Zachary Roth at Talking Points Memo tells the story in which the still-deceptive Will writes a column on February 15 in which he denies global warming, and as evidence says “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

The Arctic Climate Research Center immediately issued a contradiction on its website, saying:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

This denial was picked up by bloggers who gave the ACRC statement wide publicity. Many bloggers wrote to the editor of the WP asking for a retraction. Will and the editor of the WP editorial page, the awful Fred Hiatt, went into their traditional mode of operation when their narrative is contradicted, which is to either stonewall and ignore the critics, or stick to their guns and act as if they are immune from error and that no one should dare challenge their oracular wisdom. After all, that policy worked so well back in 1982 when even the efforts of people like Chomsky to point out their errors could be thwarted.

But the world has changed. The blogs kept hammering at the story, and the WP and Will got blasted with thousands of people writing to the paper and their website and to their new ombudsman demanding that the paper issue a correction. The paper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander initially replied saying that he had questioned the editorial page editors about this and they had said they had checked the facts in Will’s column and were satisfied that they were valid. But this bland self-serving assertion drew an even greater negative response.

The ombudsman then investigated the matter personally and wrote a column on March 1, 2009 in which he tried to find reasons to excuse their famous columnist but had to conclude that Will and the WP editors had at best been very sloppy in their checking of the facts. He said, “Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren’t free to distort them.”

Will this new experience of prompt and widespread public reaction make people like Will more cautious about making ungrounded assertions? Unlikely. People like Will have got so used to being venerated as sages that he will find it hard to change his attitude that what he says cannot be challenged. But the editors who are responsible for vetting his writings might now exercise more diligence and that is a good thing.

Welcome to the world of the internet, George Will and Fred Hiatt. You cannot get away with distortions that easily anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Great card trick by Ricky Jay

I love magic tricks. They are the best evidence against the claims of charlatans who say they have paranormal powers. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

The colonial experience-1: The (mostly) good

In a comment on my earlier post on portrayals of the developing world in western culture, Jared raised a really interesting point about his odd experience of taking a class on “British Colonialism in India” and finding that, while he was the only non-Indian student, he was also the only one who seemed to think that the practices of the British colonialists were not altogether benign.

He was rightly surprised that although we now tend to look on colonialism as a bad thing, the descendents of the very people who were colonized, the ones most likely to have been aware of, and even scarred by, the negatives of it seemed to take a much more positive view of it. He wondered why this was so, and the next series of posts gives my long-winded answer to his question.

The relationship of colonized people with the colonial powers is a complex one and I will try to sketch out some general themes. In the process, I will draw heavily on my own and Sri Lanka’s experience with colonialism, because it is what I know best and also because I think it shares broad similarities with many other British colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Sri Lanka was colonized continuously from about 1500 CE by a back-to-back succession of colonial powers, first the Portugese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, each staying for about 150 years. I was born after we finally obtained independence from the British in 1948 so I have always lived in an independent country. But my grandfather was born in Sri Lanka when it was a British colony, went to Burma as a youth, and actually worked there for the British army, evacuating to Sri Lanka only during World War II when the Japanese overran that country. As a result, my father grew up in a British military ‘cantonment’ there, as the British bases were called, coming for the first time to Sri Lanka when he was an undergraduate, and living there ever since.

My grandfather admired the British very much, despite their outright and often overt racism towards the so-called darkies. Although he knew that because of his skin color he could never rise above a certain level, he was nevertheless grateful to the British for what he considered fair treatment within that limited framework. My father, however, was not an admirer of the British, and I even less so, and my family’s responses reflects the ambiguity of reactions to the colonial occupation.

There is no question that the British in particular speeded up the pace of modernization in Sri Lanka and its incorporation into the global economy. The British built a network of roads and railways and telephone and telegraph and postal systems that, for the first time, linked the entire country in an efficient communication system. They created an extensive administrative system, modeled on the British Civil Service, that brought order and accountability. They set up a legal system and police and other security forces to maintain order. They created first coffee and then tea and rubber plantations that became (and still are) the main export cash crops, along with coconut and spices. They built hospitals and brought modern science and medicine to the country, displacing from dominance (but not eliminating) the traditional ayurvedic medical practitioners, who used various herbal methods. They built churches and converted many to Christianity. They built schools and introduced the English language.

Most importantly, they introduced the idea of democracy by creating legislative bodies at all levels of government from local to national, and introduced elections as a means of selecting people’s representatives. While the decisions of these bodies were ultimately subordinate to the British governor, they did allow for self-rule in certain areas. The principle of universal adult suffrage (i.e., the right of all women and men of adult age to vote) was adopted in Sri Lanka in 1931, the first country by a wide margin outside of Europe and North America to do so, and remarkably early considering that women in the US only got the right to vote in 1920, England in 1928, and supposedly enlightened France only granted that right in 1944, Italy in 1945, and Belgium in 1948.

Were these actions by the British good things? Most of the time, undoubtedly so. But apart from the introduction of universal suffrage, almost every one had its own negatives.

Next in the series: The (mostly) bad

POST SCRIPT: Lambasting the anti-government zealots

One tactic that people who oppose measures to improve the lives of all people (like a single payer health care system would do) is to sneer at the very idea that government can do some things better than the private sector.

Bill Maher shows how to respond to them in his New Rules segment on his show Real Time.

The need for a government-run single payer health care system

I have said before that while I voted and supported Obama against McCain, he is firmly committed to following the policies of the pro-war/pro-business elites that govern this country. No politician can get elected to high office otherwise.

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than his attitude to single-payer health care. I have written extensively about this in the past and it is clear that a system like that of France provides the most cost effective means of providing high-quality health care to everyone without the incredibly expensive, burdensome, and bureaucratic system that we have in the US.

But although Obama talked a lot about providing access to health care to everyone, when he called a summit to be held yesterday (March 5, 2009) to discuss this serious problem and said that he wanted wide-ranging views on how to solve it, he deliberately excluded those who wanted the single payer system as part of the discussion. His key people on health care reform are those with ties to the parasitic health insurance industry. Hillary Clinton did the same thing with her earlier ill-fated efforts to reform the health care system.

Politicians and the health insurance industry like to call for ‘universal’ health insurance as long as all it requires is that the government mandate that everyone have private health insurance, because that would hugely increase their profits. This is why it is important for people to realize that ‘universal’ health care and ‘government-run single payer’ health care systems are not the same thing. The latter is far, far, better.

Obama initially did not want not even allow the views single payer advocates to be heard, even though one of the most senior members of his own party, Congressman John Conyers, has proposed House Bill 676 to establish just such a system. This is because almost the entire government is beholden to the health-drug-hospital lobbies and they are all fearful that when more people realize how much better a government-run single payer system is, they will demand it.
But the supporters of single-payer flooded the government with protests about this exclusion and at the very last minute, an invitation was extended to advocates of single payer. They invited Conyers and Dr. Oliver Fein, who is president of Physicians for a National Health Program, whose mission is to obtain a single payer system. As their site points out:

The U.S. spends twice as much as other industrialized nations on health care, $7,129 per capita. Yet our system performs poorly in comparison and still leaves 47 million without health coverage and millions more inadequately covered.

This is because private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork consume one-third (31 percent) of every health care dollar. Streamlining payment through a single nonprofit payer would save more than $350 billion per year, enough to provide comprehensive, high-quality coverage for all Americans.

That illustrates why, as I said before, it is extremely important that the people who voted for Obama not cut him any slack at all and keep up the pressure on him, because the lobbies that dominate the government work 24/7 to keep the pressure on the politicians they buy so that they follow their dictates. Obama is no exception, however much his most ardent supporters might think he is different.

This success in gaining entry to the summit does not mean that single-payer is going to win out soon. The for-profit health care lobbies that make fortunes out of the sickness and misery of people have too much at stake and are still too powerful to be vanquished that easily. They are vampires, preying on people’s fears in order to preserve their profits, and it will take a lot to drive a stake through their hearts. What kind of mentality pays bonuses to employees if they can cancel the policies of sick people, and thus save the company money? And yet, in the for-profit health care system we have now, such a cruel policy is good business practice.

The present system has become so appalling that now even a majority of doctors want a single payer system, because they themselves are finding the current system dehumanizing, deprofessionalizing, and a bureaucratic nightmare.

The latest sign is a poll published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine showing that 59 percent of U.S. doctors support a “single payer” plan that essentially eliminates the central role of private insurers. Most industrial societies — including nations as diverse as Taiwan, France, and Canada — have adopted universal health systems that provide health care to all citizens and permit them free choice of their doctors and hospitals. These plans are typically funded by a mix of general tax revenues and payroll taxes, and essential health-care is administered by nonprofit government agencies rather than private insurers.

There will be no real improvement in the health care system until the private, for-profit health insurance industries are removed from it. But the health insurance lobby is powerful and has huge access to the halls of government and the media. It will take a huge groundswell of popular sentiment to overcome it.

POST SCRIPT: How other countries did it

The US is the only major country without a government-run single-payer health system. Supporters of the present system self-servingly argue that switching over would cause huge disruptions and chaos. This article in the New Yorker describes how the single payer system was introduced in other industrialized countries, with minimal fuss and to great satisfaction.

The French health-care system has among the highest public-satisfaction levels of any major Western country; and, compared with Americans, the French have a higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, more physicians, and lower costs. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked it the best health-care system in the world. (The United States was ranked thirty-seventh.)

Why I am not a good judge of novels

I serve on a committee to select the common book reading for Case Western Reserve University. This is a book that is sent out to all the new incoming students each year in the summer prior to their admission and forms the basis for some programs during their first year on campus. In 2008, for example, the book selected was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, in honor of 2009 being the Year of Darwin, since it is the anniversary of the 200th year of his birth and the 150th year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (Shameless plug: I have a book GOD v. DARWIN: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom coming out later this year to also commemorate the event.)

In the seven years that this program has been held, two of the selected books were memoirs, two were biographies, and the other three were books about brain-damaged people, the working poor in America, and what it takes to be a great chef.

Despite the diversity of topics, it is notable that not a single novel has been selected so far. While many novels have been nominated and some have made it to the final short list, they have never been chosen. Although I would like to have a novel added to the list, I have not been able to wholeheartedly support any of the nominees and I am beginning to think that my problem is that I am not a good judge of novels, although I enjoy reading them.

With non-fiction, and especially advocacy books, the author’s purpose is obvious and what constitutes good writing is also fairly unambiguous. The author is trying, or should be trying, to make his or her case as clearly as possible. So I can judge a non-fiction book on whether it was easily apparent to me what the author was trying to say and whether they said it as clearly and as entertainingly as possible. In non-fiction, while a good writing style definitely helps, there is usually little merit to burying the main point in metaphor and imagery. The reader is not expected to dig deeper than the content requires, to struggle to find out what the hidden meaning is.

Bu with fiction, I run into problems. In addition to the surface story of the book, there is also a subtext, where the author may be trying to convey something deeper. And this is where they sometimes lose me.

I am much more comfortable with the novelists of an earlier era, like Dickens or Tolstoy. Their novels had a clear surface story that could read and enjoyed merely at that level. The novels had deeper levels of meaning but these were not hard to discern. In many of his books, Dickens was trying to lay bare the appalling conditions under which children of his time suffered, and Tolstoy was making many points about the nature of personal and political relationships

But with more modern writers like William Faulkner, for example, even the surface story is hard to figure out. The story switches without warning between multiple narrators and out of chronological order, leaving the reader to often wonder, during the first reading, what the hell is going on. The novel is constructed like a jig saw puzzle in which the author gives the pieces to the reader to piece together to see the picture.

Even to understand Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Miss Emily, after reading it I had to create a spreadsheet in which I inserted all major events mentioned in the text and used the allusions and historical references to try and order them so that I could at least decipher the chronological sequence of events as a prelude to making sense of the story. While that was kind of fun once I got into it, somewhat like solving the murder mysteries that I was addicted to in my youth, it is not something I want to routinely do when reading fiction.

I get the sense that Faulkner deliberately wrote in an obscure fashion for its own sake, simply to make the books difficult to understand. Consider The Sound and the Fury, which has multiple narrators and every narrator refers by name to a particular key character. The story makes no sense until one finds out at the very end that two different characters of different genders had that same name. There seemed to be no reason for the author doing this other than to confuse the reader. I found Faulkner infuriating because of this and he makes me resentful for having to work so hard just to understand even the surface story.

I have also tried several times and given up on reading James Joyce. I feel that Joyce, like Faulkner, deliberately obscures the message.

A novel should not require footnotes, or the reading of another book explaining it, or attending a college class, to explain its surface meaning. I definitely do value the scholarly insight that literary critics provide about deeper meanings but feel that the surface level should not need it.

I have heard it suggested that the reason English professors and literary critics like difficult authors like Faulkner or Joyce is because then readers need these same experts to explain to them what the novel is about. That may be too cynical. I am sure these books are the works of genius they are claimed to be. It is just that I don’t want to work that hard to understand them. I think that I am just too low-brow to appreciate these works.

One can encounter the same surface-deep meanings problem with films. The difference with films is the time invested. Films too can have many layers of meaning with the surface one being obscure, but can get away with this because watching a film only takes a couple of hours and people are willing to invest the time to watch it again if the surface story intrigues them. For example Mulholland Drive or Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can, on the first viewing, leave the viewer baffled as to what is going on but if the surface story is told in an entertaining way, the viewer is willing to take the time and effort to try and figure things out, and to see it again with even greater pleasure. But there are very few novels that I will re-read.

POST SCRIPT: What happened with AIG

The US treasury has been pouring money into AIG (American International Group), the company taken over last year as part of government efforts to stop the downward spiral of the financial sector.

In September of last year I explained the major role that AIG played in the collapse of the housing market and the resulting spread of financial disaster. Now Joe Nocera (New York Times, February 27, 2009) explains in more detail the whole sordid story.

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

I want to pay a long overdue tribute to Paul Newman, who was one of the truly great actors of our time. Although his good looks and acting talent alone could have secured his place purely as a romantic leading man, what made him special was the roles he chose, taking people who were flawed in some way, people whose moral compass did not quite point true north, and making them sympathetic.

He also did not seem full of himself, shying away from the celebrity culture that films spawn. Despite his success and fame, he did not seem (at least publicly) to suffer from excessive ego and was self-deprecating, always a good trait to have. He delighted in telling the story of how he once spoke to a group of school children and one of them raised his hand and said, “So what did you do before you went into the salad dressing business?”

Paul Newman’s films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting have given me hours of pleasure.

I cannot really pick a top favorite but surely Cool Hand Luke, which inserted into popular culture the line “What we got here is a failure to communicate”, must rank high on anyone’s list.

Here are two other back-to-back scenes from that film, featuring that other great character actor George Kennedy.

Although Newman’s politics was progressive (he was very proud of making it into Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies list’), his films were not overtly political. But that did not mean that they did not have political meaning, since they often dealt with an individual fighting the odds, finding deep reservoirs of inner strength, and not giving up.

Newman aged gracefully. As one observer put it, he did not seem to get older, just purer. Here is a scene from a later 1982 film The Verdict that is apropos for today’s political climate.

Paul Newman grew up in the suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights where I now live and went to the same high school as that my daughters attended. That is the full extent of my links to him but his death brings with it the kind of sadness that follows the loss of an old and good friend.

I spent some wonderful times with him.

POST SCRIPT: Spotting a hidden religious agenda

In this 28 February 2009 New Scientist article, Amanda Gefter lists the cues by which you can identify people who are pursuing a religious agenda while seeming to talk about science.