The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.

Book Release Announcement: Eagles Over Bangladesh

Some readers of this blog might remember that I write on military aviation history; more specifically, the history of the Indian Air Force (IAF), and especially its role in India’s post-independence wars. Thus, I’m pleased to announce the release of my second book on this subject: Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (HarperCollins, 2013). As with my first book on the Indian Air Force, The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965, this book is co-authored with PVS Jagan Mohan, India’s most accomplished military aviation historian. (My father and brother both flew for the IAF, in case you were curious why a philosophy professor is interested in military aviation history.)

Here is the cover for the hardback:

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 1.37.43 PM

Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

Here is the cover for the paperback:

Eagles over bangladesh cover2

Reading Native Son

Partha Chatterjee describes his experience of first reading Edward Said‘s Orientalism:

I will long remember the day I read Orientalism. It must have been in November or December of 1980. In India, this season is classically called Hemanta and assigned a slot between autumn and winter. In Calcutta, where nothing classical remains untarnished, all that this means is a few weeks of uncertain temperatures when the rains have gone, the fans have been switched off, and people wait expectantly to take out their sweaters and shawls. I remember the day because the house was being repainted and everything was topsy-turvy. I sat on the floor of the room in which I usually work, now emptied of its furniture, reading Edward Said whom I had never read before. I read right through the day and, after the workmen had left in the evening, well into the night. Now whenever I think of Orientalism, the image comes back to me of an empty room with a red floor and bare white walls, a familiar room suddenly made unfamiliar. [As cited in S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 35]

In 1991, I was gifted Richard Wright‘s Native Son by a girlfriend of mine. I had not heard of Wright; I certainly had not read Native Son. I was–as might be surmised–callow and ill-read.

A few days after receiving this generous gift, I began reading it; I will long remember the day I did. It was summer time in New Jersey; the nights came late, providing some relief from the muggy heat of the day. I had driven back from work, eaten an early dinner, and then retired to my tiny bedroom to read; my two roommates were still occupied elsewhere, one at graduate school, the other at work; I had solitude and quiet and time, near perfect conditions for reading. I propped my pillow up against the wall, rested my head against it, stretched out on the modest futon mattress that served as ‘bed’ and read Native Son.

I read Book One: Fear and Book Two: Flight. Then, as I read Book Three: Fate, and as Bigger Thomas approached his final, irresistible fate, I felt as if the world, and the place I had previously inhabited in it, was fast becoming unrecognizable. And yet, simultaneously, I was becoming more comprehensible to myself; suddenly I understood . As I lay there, slumped, stunned, struggling to take in the dramatically new portrait that Wright was painting for me of race, class, subjugation, and resistance, I felt as if the walls of the room I was in were moving back, somehow expanding to accommodate a growth I felt within me of something I had never experienced before.  I couldn’t stop; I continued to read, sickened and fascinated in equal measure by the tragedy whose contours had been traced out for me in such eloquent fashion by Wright. I knew I would never see my past life in the same way again; I didn’t think I would ever feel as I had before I read Native Son ever again. Now, whenever I think of Native Son, I think of that evening, that room, and its walls, seemingly being pushed back by the expanding consciousness they enclosed.

Babywatch: First Year Observance

New parents are barraged with a series of sage observations on, and homilies about, the parenting experience by those who have been through the grinder. Among them is one that is part warning, part rueful exclamation: ‘enjoy the kids, time flies!’ Well, time has flown. My daughter is one.

She was born at 5:55 AM on December 23rd, 2012. and this morning exactly 365 days later, I heard her crying again as she awoke and called out for her mother to come pay attention and provide the day’s first cuddle and feed. Last year, when she had been lifted out by the obstetric surgeon and whisked over to the attending pediatrician for her first post-natal check, her cry had been part gurgle, part shriek. This morning her crying was stronger, louder, persistent and insistent in equal measure. She wasn’t crying just because it was an instinctive, hardwired response; she’s learned that her mother is close by, just behind the sliding partition that separates her space from our now-smaller bedroom; she’s learned her parents respond to her when she calls; she has, in this coming of age, shown that her oldest, most common response, has grown and matured with her.

So the days have gone slowly, the year has gone fast. The fourth trimester, the first three months of my daughter’s life, were, in retrospect, perhaps the most tranquil; she slept a great deal, often through loud disturbances; she had no nap schedule and slept easily in carriers, so we were mobile and took her everywhere, even busy adult gatherings. But she was barely responsive to the outside world, content to remain sleepily nodding at us, and occasionally bawling full-throatedly when her most pressing needs were not taken care of. Over the next three months, she began responding to our cues, switching on a full repertoire of facial and bodily expressions; she moved to a nap routine, and became harder to put to sleep; her growing interaction with the world meant she was increasingly reluctant to leave our company for the solitude of her cot. She began to gurgle and coo and laugh and giggle and babble.

And then, slowly too, came the increased physical interaction with the world: the rolling over, first from belly to back, and then from back to belly, the scootering along carpets and hard floors, the pushing off with one knee and then the second, which heralded the beginning of her crawling, the increased inquisitiveness about objects–many of which she felt she would best experience by placing in her mouth–and then, the full-fledged crawling followed by the first tentative steps.

She’s already left home. We were home with her for the first five months; I did the solo daycare gig for two months; then we got help with babysitters, then she did a day or two a week in daycare. Now, she spends the week in daycare, spending her time playing with others her age. She’s had her first cold, her first fever, her first cough; we’ve had our first full-blown panic attacks in response. She’s got plenty more ahead of the mixed fortunes that life dispenses.

One down, many more to go. She’s not the only one learning as goes along; she’s not the only one growing.

A Puzzle about Karmic Doctrine – Contd.

Reader theendlessknot3d writes in with an interesting comment to yesterday’s post on the doctrine of karma as explicated by Daya Krishna:

You say that karma is working, in the case of B, to bring retribution for a past action, Y, which B had previously inflicted on another, and that A is therefore potentially free of guilt/responsibility for having spilled the hot water on B. A would just be the agent who is ‘used’ by karma to bring about this retribution. But I think the paradox of such a situation is pretty clear: that there is really no such thing as freedom in action, despite the appearance of free will which we would all intuitively think exists. It’s an unfree freedom, since karma informs or utilizes our motivations to bring about the actions which we otherwise think we are freely performing.

But I’d probably say that karma isn’t only being exercised against B through A’s act of spilling the cup, because we know that A deliberately chose to do it. I’d think that, if karma is a true description of agency, there would be a potential argument of infinite regression, since B’s act in his previous or present life also wouldn’t strictly speaking be his act; it’d be another act of retribution directed at some third agent, C, which was caused by C’s act of Z-ing. So it seems that there isn’t a way out of this circular argument with its intrinsic paradox unless we either at least admit to a rendition of the theory of compatiblism or reject the theory of karma outright.

Both these points are useful in that they illuminate the puzzle I was raising. I think there is another facet to the doctrine of karma that arises when you consider that in my original post, I had relied on a too-neat slicing up of events, their causes and effects.

To see this consider that in the original example, A‘s action does not have one effect alone; it has several. It hurts B, but it also spills water on the floor, wets B‘s clothes, perhaps breaks a glass and so on. These effects may in turn impinge on other agents; again, in each case, these accrue because of the affected agents’ pasts. So A‘s actions are not determined by B alone but by a much larger assemblage. Similarly, A‘s action is not the cause of B‘s injuries; it is one of the events–the availability of hot water, fuel for its heating, a glass to hold it in, and so on–that may be causally implicated.  Each of those events’ effects contribute to B‘s injuries; each of them is due to B‘s actions in the past. In ascribing responsibility to A we rely on some ends to guide us: perhaps our society is interested in assigning tort liability and individual actors are the most appropriate loci of causal influence for it. But the presence of the other events  implicated in B‘s injuries means that the deserts for B’s actions flow through multiple channels.

These points do not affect the ones made by theendlessknot3d above; the puzzles of responsibility and free will noted there still stand.

Daya Krishna on the Doctrine of Karma: A Puzzle

During the course of a series of lectures delivered at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 2005–in an attempt to explicate what he saw as one of the primary distinctions between the ‘Western’ and the ‘Indian’ conceptions of the relationship of the individual to society–Daya Krishna noted:

The idea that one may be responsible for actions that have not been taken by one’s own self and that one may be redeemed by someone else’s action [as man’s by Christ] may seem positively outrageous to a sensibility that treats the individual as essentially apart for his relationships with others, relationships in which he may happen to be accidentally involved. The doctrine of karma in traditional Hindu thought primarily reflects this basic presupposition that it would be an immoral world indeed if one were to reap the fruits of someone else’s actions. The monadic morality of the Hindu is thus conceived of in an essentially asocial manner. It does not derive from an other-centered consciousness in which the consequences of one’s actions on others are the subject of one’s focus of attention. Rather, it is the consequences of one’s actions upon oneself which provides the main ground for morality in Hindu thought and thus paves the way for a very different kind of perspective on the entire issue of action and one’s relations with others. At the deepest level, not merely does what one does have consequences upon oneself but, conversely whatever happens to one could only be the result of one’s own actions. Thus, not only do one’s own actions have consequences on oneself, but also, if the world is to be a moral world, nothing else could. [Civilizations: Nostalgia and Utopia, Sage Publications, 2012, pp. 13-14]

This explication of the doctrine of karma raises, I think, a pair of vexing questions.

To see this, consider some actor A that takes action X. The consequences of X can only accrue to A. But Y may have–visibly, in this world–effects that impinge on another being B. For instance, I may tip a cup of hot water–as a cruel joke–on a waiter at a restaurant. According to Krishna, what has happened to B–the waiter–is a consequence of B‘s actions, perhaps in a past life, perhaps in the present one. But A is the actor, the agent, that brought about those effects on B, so are the causes of A‘s actions B‘s actions?

Furthermore, actions are, I presume, within the karmic doctrine, reckoned as good or bad, moral or immoral, a calculus which then plays out in the effects that will take place in the future on their actor. A‘s action X of tipping a glass of hot water–purely for jest–on a waiter is, let’s say, an immoral one: it is gratuitously cruel. A has then presumably accrued a ‘negative credit’ of sorts in the karmic ledger, one which will presumably result in some negative effect on A in the future–again, either in this life, or in some future one. But will A then be chastised for an action, X, that was the result of B‘s actions?

I hope the puzzles of responsibility and action that I had in mind are visible. I welcome clarification if I’ve misunderstood Krishna in any way. (Perhaps Y‘s effects on B are only apparent etc.)

Nationalism and Climate Change

Many contemporary commentators–sages all of them–have noted that the single most important barrier to expeditious action being taken on climate change is nationalism, that the prioritization of national priorities, the elevation of ‘local’ concerns–possibly short-term and limited in impact–over global ones would ensure failures of co-ordination between precisely those entities–nations–whose joint action is required to roll back the (almost literally) advancing tides.

There is little reason to contest this gloomy prognosis; climate change and global warming are not confined by national boundaries–indeed, they may be the most borderless of the many not-so-benign changes sweeping the globe–but strategies for combating them are. Some nations sign on to international treaty protocols to lower greenhouse emissions or impose carbon taxes; some do not. Some nations find their proclaimed aims of poverty alleviation and elevation of gross domestic product–that vital statistic which they have been trained and taught to treat as sacrosanct–dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, the depredation of rain forests and an increased pace of industrialization; yet others, having attained advanced stages of economic development on the back of precisely such strategies, and having found some of its blessings decidedly mixed, if not downright pernicious, have reluctantly cast about for alternative modes of engagement with the environment.

And because there is so much bad faith and so little trust in our cozy community of nations, there is little chance that the ‘do as we say, not as we have done’ injunctions flowing from the Developed North to the Developing South will succeed. More to the point, the Developed North often does not seem to take its own advice seriously, thus infecting its nostrums with a strong whiff of, at best, holier-than-thou hypocrisy, and at worse, malevolent conspiracy aimed at keeping the South where it has been all this while.

So, unsurprisingly:

After the dramatic collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, there has been a retreat from the idea that climate change is going to be fought through international action. The talk has shifted to ‘voluntary national measures’ loosely coordinated at UN level.

Unsurprisingly, nationalism has found its usual ugly bedfellows in its push-back against the cautionary formulations of climate change worriers: the invocation of external threat and cultural superiority, xenophobia, racism, and perhaps most depressingly of all, a retreat to an atavistic skepticism about science. This blinkered anti-science attitude, with its rejection of overwhelming scientific evidence for retreating icecaps, elevated atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and rising ocean waters, has been most visible in the US but it has its fans elsewhere, notably in Australia, whose prime minister, Tony Abbott, has acquired some notoriety for his incoherent views on climate change. Abbott has decided, for instance, that Australia does not need a national commission to inform and educate its citizens about, nor devise any strategies to combat, climate  change. As a result, for the first time since the 1930s–my Australian friends reliably inform me–Australia will not have a science minister in its federal government.

Nationalism–and its related ideologies–have had a lot to answer for during the almost unimaginably violent twentieth century; this may be its deadliest impact of all.