Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Do Average Americans Stand up to Injustice?

Do average Americans stand up to defend another human being insulted unjustly by a bully, who claims to be a patriot?

Testing Civic Courage in America

Is it possible to test the civic courage of average Americans in a daily setting?

ABC News network tried to discover this by hiring actors as a bullying baker in a bakery in Waco, Texas and another actor as a Muslim lady customer trying to buy an apple strudel.

This film shows how the baker repeatedly insulted the lady Muslim customer and refused to serve her by claiming that she was a terrorist. Some people in the shop chose not to intervene and actually supported the bullying shopkeeper though she pleaded help.

Then, other customers intervened that she was being treated unfairly and walked out. It is very encouraging that so many ordinary people stood up to defend decency and fairness after the initial run of compliance and shock.

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Through the celluloid media and now the Internet, we have been used to the fact that Americans have exposed their way of life for the world to stare at. One of the most common reactions many people have on their first visit to the USA, is that it's familiar, like in the movies. 

If we refrain from extrapolating issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or Neocon politics on to the general American psyche, this video shows that some ordinary people conform to bullies but ordinary people also heroically stand up to defend the underdog. This is the very principle of America, which has stood as a beacon that inspires people. 

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The idea of America shines brighter than the neon lights and slogans!

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Civic Courage in Other Countries

Would this behaviour be fairly representative of the situation in other countries?

What would be the result if we conducted the same experiment with an easily recognizable American, German or Swedish woman (or a man) in place of the Muslim lady in a bakery in a predominantly Islamic country? Would local people take her/his side if the local baker would insult her/him and refuse service by unjustly calling her/him an aggressor?

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It is fashionable to portray the inability to rise up and protest when you see some wrongdoing as a sign of moral weakness. Can we stamp entire societies at certain time periods for such behaviour?

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 1996 Hitler's Willing Executioners argued that the blame for the Holocaust should be placed on all Germans, especially the ones who did not rise up and resist. Goldhagen gained international celebrity, but the simplistic argument of the book was widely criticized by serious scholars and historians.  

Let us hope, as this experiment in America shows, that there are brave lions among the meek, everywhere.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

India Grasping the Moon by Chandrayaan Moon Mission

With the launch of Chandrayaan 1, India has made clear her intention of being recognized as a modern 21st century country. 

The emphasis on the scientific and research aspects of India’s first moon mission launch are not out of sync with the Indian national character and historical heritage. India has given birth to four major religions of the world, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Ignoring hotheaded fundamentalists, these religions generally do not have any inherent conflict with science or scientific reasoning. Thus, it is not strange that the tradition of scientific thought has a history in India longer and richer than most other places.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The scientific achievements of India are fascinating. Iron was known in the Ganga valley in the mid second millennium BCE. 

The Indus-Saraswati Civilization built planned towns with underground drainage, civil sanitation, hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture covering a region about half the size of Europe. Weights and linguistic symbols were standardized across this vast geography, for a long period of over 1,000 years, from around 3,000 BCE to 1500 BCE. Textiles and steel were the mainstays of the British Industrial Revolution. Both had their origins in India. Textiles turned out to be the first major success of the Industrial Revolution, and Britain replaced India as the world's leading textile exporter. The technology, designs and even raw cotton were initially imported from India.

Why is India obsessed with a moon mission?

Is it competition with China, a flexing of muscles, a desire to claim India’s ‘rightful’ place in the community of nations or a genuine scientific pursuit of knowledge? Though ‘official’ history has, since the ascent of the West, been very biased towards a Western point of view, questioning minds have started correcting this propagandistic tilt of perspective by their open-minded studies and findings.

Why do we continue teaching in schools that Copernicus was the first astronomer to formulate a scientific heliocentric cosmology to challenge the Church’s view of Earth in the centre of universe, when the Indians, the Chinese, the Muslims, the Sumerians, the Mayas, and other civilizations had held these views centuries or millennia earlier?

Many people argue that India sending moon probes is a terrible misallocation of resources. They argue that India should be feeding the poor, cleaning the environment and removing poverty. The fact that this can be a strong and vociferous public debate in India on this topic shows that there is freedom of speech and a functioning democracy. So, how should wealth be distributed? This is a very contentious topic and answers depend on who you ask. But, there are two basic theories of wealth distribution.

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Two Theories of Wealth Distribution

There are basically two theories of wealth distribution.

  1. According to one theory, the rising tide lifts all boats, and everyone benefits (even if unequally) from rising prosperity. 
  2. The second theory says that some boats are anchored and will sink when the rising tides come in. 

The graph above would show that wealth distribution of Gini-coefficient as it is measured is rather good for India, unlike many other countries of the world.

Many of the vigilant organizations like NGOs and social enterprises in India are the watchdogs trying to detect the anchors and make sure that anchored boats are freed to rise with the tides. Unlike somewhere else, where these NGOs and watchdogs would be in prison, they are doing their best to make sure that the rising tide of prosperity lifts all equally in India.

Previous initiatives like Indira Gandhi's Garibi Hatao, or abolish poverty were dismal flops in India (4% of all funds allocated for economic development actually reached the three main anti-poverty programs), but this new wave of prosperity has improved the lives of more people than before.
A country or culture, which does not have bold and far-reaching dreams, stagnates, while a country obsessed by mad visions is a concentration camp of misery. 

Visitors in India say that the overall mood in India is generally very upbeat after decades of stagnation. 

Visitors to North Korea have not reported such feelings.

Read more about the technical aspects of the mission here.