Saturday, March 26, 2016

How many wrongs make a right?

The proposition "two wrongs don't make a right" is readily accepted but I haven't met anyone who really believes it in practice. Most of us, rather than deciding for ourselves what we consider right and wrong, tend to focus on a definite wrong that bothers us enormously, and then conclude that the opposite must be right.

As I pointed out to a mathematically inclined friend this morning, "two wrongs make a right" defines the group Z2, and this naturally extends to "N wrongs make a right" which describes the cyclic group ZN. People may quibble about why a beautiful unimodular complex number like an Nth root of unity could possibly be called a "wrong" in the first place, but we'll let that pass. The point is that life is not based on any cyclic group. Wrongs accumulate and they never cancel each other out.

A fair person will observe that Israelis and Palestinians have both committed multiple wrongs during their conflict. The same is true at various times of the US and the USSR, the US and Iran, Iran and Iraq, Irish Protestants and Catholics, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalas and (I hesitate to say this for fear of a jail sentence, but will say it anyway) India and Pakistan. It's also true of left- and right-wingers in today's India. Only a person who has no observational powers, or who has put those powers on hold for some reason, could fail to see that the ongoing political flare-up in India between students and the government involves wrongs on both sides.

This brings up two big questions: (i) between two wrongs, shouldn't one focus on the greater wrong? (ii) since wrongs tend to perpetuate each other, doesn't the fault lie with whoever committed the "first" wrong? Anyone who can answer these questions has figured out life's problems extraordinarily well and must be able to sleep peacefully at night. I, however, struggle with both questions and it costs me a fair bit of my sleep. By now I've given up on finding complete answers and I'm not sure such answers exist at all.

On an apparently unrelated note, I recently watched Bridge of Spies and it moved me to reflect about the cold war between the US and the USSR. When I reached the US in 1976 as a Ph.D. student, the cold war was very much a reality. Communist sympathisers were considered "anti-American" and publicly reviled. This extended to anyone seen as "anti-American", a catch-all phrase for those who opposed the government or its policies in any way. I came in at the tail-end of this phenomenon, which had peaked in the 1950's (McCarthy era) and again in the 1960's (anti-Vietnam-war movement). The latter period was marked by frequent conflicts between university students and the US government, which brought the police and army on to campuses on several occasions.

Volumes have been written about these periods but I'm not a historian, and I know the history of that period primarily through rock music - of which I'm a huge fan. An epic song that highlights the student-government conflicts of the 1960's is For What It's Worth, penned by Stephen Stills and originally performed by his band Buffalo Springfield (the incredible Neil Young was part of the band and is briefly seen in this video looking remarkably young!). Here's a relevant excerpt from the song (the full lyrics are here):

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It goes on to say:

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

(for rock music fans, I believe Neil Young played the superb "paranoid" guitar sequence during the first line of this verse).

One point which is largely forgotten nowadays is that student demonstrations on US campuses grew increasingly violent during that period. On the one hand there is an iconic image (seen below) of a student showing flowers to angry gun-toting policemen:

but there was also another side that is rarely admitted to in rock songs. I quote from this website:

However, increasingly violent protests - while still representing only a small minority of the movement - ended up alienating most Americans from the anti-war cause as well. Government agents would routinely infiltrate anti-war groups, encouraging them to  use violence in order to marginalize the movement further. 

The anger and violence built up until a peak was reached in 1970 with the Kent State Shootings in which four unarmed student protestors were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. This incident is commemorated in another great rock song, Ohio by Neil Young, who was by now part of a supergroup with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The video features chilling visuals of the event and ends with the statement "No one was ever held responsible for the deaths of the four students". Neil Young's song has the powerful lines:

What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? 
How can you run when you know?

The backdrop to the shootings is interesting and not so widely known. On May 1 1970, a campus demonstration was organised to oppose President Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. A major campus building was set on fire and there were other acts of violence during the demonstration. The next day, as the Wikipedia entry tells us, Governor Rhodes of Ohio responded thus:

During a press conference at the Kent firehouse, an emotional Governor Rhodes pounded on the desk and called the student protesters un-American, referring to them as revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio. "We've seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups. They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police, and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. This is when we're going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We're not going to treat the symptoms. And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community."

He added:

"They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."

By May 4 the protests had escalated. 2000 students gathered on campus despite a University ban on the protest. Students threw rocks at the National Guardsmen who were still on their campus and taunted them as "pigs". Soon thereafter, the National Guard opened fire and not only killed four students but injured 9 more including one who was paralysed for life. The horrifying situation came to an end when geology professor Glenn Frank urged students to vacate the area with the following short speech:

I don't care whether you've never listened to anyone before in your lives. I am begging you right now. If you don't disperse right now, they're going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this ..

The event led to a nationwide strike by a staggering four million students. Today it is widely considered a tragedy and a blot on the history of the United States.

So how many wrongs made a right? Clearly there were wrongs on both sides. Protesting students went far beyond their guaranteed right of freedom of expression and indulged in violence. Whether there were infiltrators or not, it's clear that students did many unacceptable things over a period of many years.

In this recorded interview after the Kent State Shootings, President Richard Nixon started by saying "We think we've done a rather good job in Washington" in handling similar protests. He then went on to basically blame rock-throwing students and defend the National Guard, and ended with a brief U-turn by showing some sympathy for the dead students and vowing to deal better with campus protests. This was Nixon's standard slippery, double-faced behaviour (if you don't believe me, listen to the interview). The Vietnam war came to an end in 1975 with the humiliating escape of the Americans from Saigon. By that time Nixon had resigned in disgrace as he faced impeachment for the criminal Watergate scandal. He has gone down in American history as a crooked trickster.

I'm not sure what universal lessons can be extracted from this story. If the Kent State students had not protested violently, the shootings may not have taken place. But history has judged their protest as sincere, motivated by opposition to an unjust and pointless war. It was the government's even more violent and disproportionate response that alienated its own citizens, many of whom were not Vietnam war protestors to start with. So this particular incident ended badly for four students, but even more badly for the US government and the image of the nation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Laughing Buddha

I'm taking the opportunity to restart my blog while on vacation in Thailand. Each time I visit this country, I'm impressed by the role that religion seems to play in daily life. Perhaps there is also a darker side that I don't know about, but my impression as a visitor is that Thai people follow a gentle religious practice focused on simplicity and personal responsibility. They are primarily Buddhists, but have great respect for Hindu gods and scriptures. Indeed the Hindu epic Ramayana has been transformed into the national epic of Thailand, the "Ramakien", written under the supervision of Kings Rama I and II in the 18th and 19th century. In this story Hindu gods and personages acquire Thai-style names, for example the names Vishnu and Brahma translate to Witsanu and Phrom, while Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna are Lak, Phrot and Satrut. Clothes, weapons and natural surroundings have likewise been converted to the Thai context, but the the essential narrative remains intact.

Interestingly the Ramakien was translated back into Sanskrit by Prof. Satya Vrat Shastri, who according to Wikipedia "has written many important poetic works in Sanskrit, the most important being his rendition from Royal Thai into Sanskrit, of the Thai version of the Ramayana, viz., Sri-rama-kirti-maha-kavyam, upon royal request, and with a Foreword by the Princess of Thailand". He is presently an honorary professor at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies at India's leading anti-national university.

Thai religious practice can pose quite a challenge to orthodox Hindus from India. In Thailand it is possible to be devout and still believe in the right of women to work. Indeed Thai women are said to constitute 47% of the workforce, and this shows clearly on the streets. As far as food and drink go, devout Thai people eat pork, chicken, duck, beef, many varieties of seafood, as well as insects like water beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bee larvae and ant eggs (all of which I saw being sold in the local market) plus of course a generous quota of vegetables and fruits. Alcohol is freely available and can be bought just about anywhere. So the impact of religion does not seem to go anywhere near inhibiting people's consumption of the fun things in life (well, maybe ant eggs are fun for those who eat them). I don't think orthodox Muslims care too much for Thai habits either. The southern and predominantly Muslim part of Thailand has an ongoing insurgency which has apparently transformed itself from separatist to jidhadist over the last couple of decades. This is a complicated story, as the insurgents seem particularly annoyed with moderate Muslims from Thailand and Malaysia.

In the last few days I've visited half a dozen Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. Some are extremely popular with tourists but others are quite deserted and one of them was completely empty (in Thailand this means no security guard either). Each of them has signs urging you to sit or kneel if you are near the front, partly to not block the view for others, and partly I suppose for devotion. Personally I'm a great fan of religious devotion, as long as it's my own choice and doesn't come with any annoying baggage (I'm also an atheist but I understand the Buddha is fine with that). So in each of these temples I've been sitting down and enjoying the silence, punctuated by the gentlest tinkling of tiny bells placed at strategic corners, and praying to the Buddha for enlightenment to descend on my countrymen. When He responds (as I'm sure He will), India will give up its modern, mean-spirited, bullying, violent and materialistic approach to religion. Each Indian will be allowed their own religous practice and their own choice of food. Religion will help us be more self-disciplined, organised and responsible. We will re-read our scriptures and realise their deep meaning. Religion will go back to being a gentle and personal activity, and India will turn once more into a place of peace and contentment.

One thing puzzles me, though -- while these thoughts were going through my mind, I noticed that the Buddha seemed to be laughing.