Tag Archives: Simon Winchester

On saying the right thing and doing the right thing. On Noam Chomsky and Narendra Dabholkar

What has always dismayed me is that the number of people saying the right things, and seeming thereby to understand, if not who and what we are, much about our world, that these people seem to have little or no influence on the world’s problems. I guess I’ve always known that saying the right thing is never all that important compared to doing the right thing. For the number of people saying the right thing, or better, speaking the truth, are innumerable while the number of people, in particular those in leadership positions who are doing the right thing can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Daily I read some of the writings of the many people who are writing the truth, or at least a truth about our world. Here are a few of them, passages from my reading of the past few days:

Robert Reich

— “They (the Republican members of the House) say our biggest problem is the size of government and the budget deficit. In fact our biggest problem is the decline of the middle class and increasing ranks of the poor, while almost all the economic gains go to the top.”

Comment: Why do the Tea Partiers seem to ignore this? For government is no more too big than not big enough. It depends. In any case, like in a sports arena it’s not so much the size of the players, but the way they play the game, and at the moment our leaders in Congress are playing the game poorly.

John G. Taft

— “And eventually Republican party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is about responsible behavior. The Republican party is about decency.”

Comment: I think even the Tea Partiers would sign onto this statement. The truth here is that our leaders, all of them, should be responsible and decent stewards, not just the conservative Taft wing of the Republican party. The truth here is that none of our leaders are such stalwart and decent figures. John Taft is the grandson of Bob Taft, the Ohio senator and presidential candidate whom my father so much admired in the forties and fifties, and that’s probably why I listen to him, the grandson, now.

Noam Chomsky

— said that “…a military regime cannot build a state,” and pointed out that, “it is inaccurate to refer to ‘Egyptians’ as if everyone in Egypt is thinking the same way; they’re not, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise,…”
(he made these reasonable claims while speaking at a seminar organized by the Egyptian Students Association in New York)

Comment: Leave it to the great man to say the obvious. Everyone in Egypt (or anywhere else, even in the Tea Party) is not thinking the same way and yes, we would do well to stop talking about them as if they were. In Egypt there is some question whether there are in fact enough people thinking in the same way to ever be able to form a valid government. Imagine today if this country, America, had to start over right now, all 300 million of us, from the beginning and form a new government. No less than in the Middle East it probably wouldn’t happen given the sharp seemingly unbridgeable differences also among and between us.

Jan Jařab

— “Have the ROMA turned down offers of normal housing and normal jobs? Have they said that they preferred to live in shantytowns and collect scrap metal? I don’t think so.  Moreover, there are good examples from other countries which show that Roma who were formerly stigmatized as ‘incapable of integration’ and their children as having ‘intellectual disabilities’, did remarkably well when they were given opportunities.”
(Jan Jarab is the UN Human Rights Office Regional Representative for Europe and was speaking at the French National Assembly on 27 September 2013.)

Comment: About this, I would say I told you so. You might read my Blog entry, “Expel the ROMA?” where I say pretty much the same thing, although not as elegantly.

THEODORE ALOIS BUCKLEY

— “Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of scepticism. To be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour and anxiety to acquire.”
(from Buckley’s Introduction to Pope’s translation of the Iliad, Christ Church, Oxford, 1850)

Comment: It was the first sentence that drew me to Buckley’s introduction, skepticism the result of knowledge, and knowledge resulting from  skepticism. For I’ve always been a skeptic but have never belittled or disparaged real knowledge, mostly that coming from the work of scientists (is there any other?). While his initial comment makes sense to me, I’m still thinking about what follows, although I have no quarrel with what has to be now if not then a cliché, “we must set aside old notions and embrace new ones.”

Jeff Jacoby

— “The real threat to America’s national interest isn’t a debt ceiling that won’t go up. It’s a national debt that won’t stop going up.”
(from the Boston Globe of October 16, 2013)

Comment: Jacoby’s statement almost perfectly illustrates what Bob Reich is saying in his post referred to above, that the Republicans (with the help of Jacoby and others) are winning the battle for the minds of the voters by making debt the principal subject of national debate, rather than as Reich would have it, inequality of income.

Richard Snow

— “Thus does Simon Winchester bring his own experience to bear on how the railroad supplanted the canals and the wagon roads and also—the nation being united by acceleration—how it made the whole of America into a sort of department store in which Chicago dressed the country’s beef and Fall River, Mass., made its shoes and Grand Rapids, Mich., its dining tables.”
(from Snow’s review in the WSJ of October 14 of Simon Winchester’s new book, ‘The Men Who United the States.’

Comment: The moment of which Winchester speaks was just one in the life of the country. It’s now over, and we’ve gone on to something else,  and are now, probably even more united by digital communications than we were then by canals, rails, and roads. What will it take to make our country’s leaders realize that what we have now is not going to last, probably not more than a generation, and that we ought to work and prepare for the future, for a future different from the present will come within the lifetimes of our children. What will it take to make our leaders stop holding onto the present as if it were forever?

Ellen Barry

— “If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.”
(from her obituary of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, in the NYTimes of August 24, 2013)

Comment: Do you ever feel very little, and especially if you’re at the end of your life like me and have done nothing of great substance or significance, and you encounter for the first time the life of a man who lived, really lived? Dr. Dabholkar was such a man. And any comments I might make here would pale beside the man. Here is the complete obituary from the Economist Magazine of September 14, 2013.

Narendra Dabholkar  Fighter against superstition, was killed on August 20th, aged 67

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WHEN the men on motorbikes shot him, four times in head, neck and chest, Narendra Dabholkar was crossing the bridge by the Omkareshwar temple in Pune, in western India. But he had no intention of offering a garland there, saying a prayer, pressing a coin in a priest’s hand or adoring the Shiva linga. He did not believe in such behaviour. In fact, it appalled him; and he had hoped to spread his scepticism all through the state of Maharashtra.
He was a slight and courteous man, with unfashionable spectacles, in simple khadi shirt, slippers and cotton trousers: no one to notice on the street. Yet over three decades, ever since he had decided to switch his work from curing bodies to curing deluded minds, he had become famous. The organisation he had founded in 1989, the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS in its Marathi acronym), had 180 branches in the state. In village after village he and his activists would confront the babas, sadhus and other “godmen” who preyed on the poor and simple, challenging their claims and reporting them to the police. He investigated and demystified cases of black magic and possession by ghosts; he campaigned against animal sacrifice, the prodigious waste of drinking water and good food during religious festivities, and the pollution of local rivers during Ganesha’s birthday festival by the immersion of thousands of idols made of plaster of Paris.
In Kolhapur Dr Dabholkar exposed “Cowfly Baba”, who gave false comfort to people for ten rupees a time by pretending to remove dirt and cowflies from their ears with a glass tube. He poured public scorn on Sathya Sai Baba, a millionaire godman who appeared to make holy ash, gold chains and Swiss watches appear from thin air. Dr Dabholkar also offered 21 lakh rupees (about $33,000) to any sorcerer who, under strict scientific conditions, could stay on fire for a minute without moving, duplicate a currency note, grow a severed limb two centimetres by the application of powder, or turn water into petrol. The sum remains unclaimed.
Much of the “black magic” he dealt with had simple, sad causes behind it. The wild, convulsing women in the temples of Ambabai and Dattatreya were not possessed, but were mentally ill, hysterical after years of poor food, risky births and mistreatment by their families. One case, where a family was petrified by halved lemons strewn outside the house, clothes torn and the milk spoilt with salt, was traced to a daughter-in-law whose husband would not take her to the movies. When the poor came to his “mobile science” vans, bringing their stories of terrifying horoscopes, Dr Dabholkar would hand them a telescope and patiently explain the profound indifference of the stars.
The only inexplicable thing, he would say (all other “inexplicable” things being rationally explained by natural laws) was that India in the 21st century was still so full of superstition. It launched its own satellites, but before a launch the gods would be invoked with flowers and sandalwood paste; its IT was the envy of the world, but even middle-class people would not start a new project on “inauspicious” Saturdays. The cult of the individual was gathering pace, but people still believed that their fates were in the hands of the gods, not themselves. They clung blindly to karma, which was a law for “sheep” and “slaves”.
With equal ferocity, he rejected India’s caste system. He himself was Brahmin, educated in elite schools, but with progressive parents. His social work had begun with a campaign to make villages have a single well for everyone, Dalits (then “untouchables”) and others alike. He continued in that vein by urging tolerance and protection for intercaste marriages.
His success rate, though, was slow. For 18 years he campaigned tirelessly for a law against black magic, but his bill was allowed to lapse until, on his death, a severely trimmed version was passed. Babas and politicians remained hand-in-glove. Hindu and right-wing rowdies tried to attack him in the villages; once he was doused with kerosene and almost set on fire. But Dr Dabholkar, a star player of kabaddi (team-wrestling) in his youth, laughed that he could take a tumble or two. He placed his hopes in the young, whose company he delighted in, and set up flourishing teacher-training programmes to encourage rational thinking in the schools.
He also taught by example. His life was pure and simple: vegetarianism, teetotalism, abstention from religious rites of any kind. Even his children were married without pomp or fanfare, in a ceremony that took an hour rather than several days. His office, from which he ran a weekly newspaper as well as MANS, was bare except for a quote from Gandhi on the wall. His reverence for the Mahatma underlined the fact that, though an atheist himself, his organisation was neutral on the subject of God’s existence. He valued the highest reaches of Indian spirituality. It was exploitation by conmen that he condemned.
Naturally, he was also dedicated to non-violence. His critics accused him of wanting to destroy all religion; but even its idols he treated with respect. There was no other way, he said. In this, as in human rationality, he had unshakeable belief. His enemies did not.

Enough Said