Referendums, democracy and reality shows

Two referendums have generated much buzz in the media as well as social media recently. The first was the referendum on the peace deal with a left-wing “revolutionary” group of yesteryears in Colombia and the other was a referendum on EU-mandated migrant quota in Hungary. The former met with rejection of the motion, and the latter with approval. To what extent did the results of these referendums reflect popular opinion in these countries?

Voters in Colombia have rejected a landmark peace deal with Farc rebels in a shock referendum result, with 50.2% voting against it.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has declared victory in a referendum on mandatory EU migrant quotas……

Nearly 98% of those who took part supported the government’s call to reject the EU plan.

In the former case, the rejection is barely perceptible, while in the latter the approval seems to be overwhelming. However, there are caveats. In Colombia’s case:

Turnout was low with fewer than 38% of voters casting their votes.

The difference with 98.98% of the votes counted was less than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million ballots.

In Hungary’s case:

But only 40.4% cast valid ballots – short of the required 50% threshold.

In Colombia’s case, the turnout may have been negatively influenced by weather – a hurricane that hit some parts of the country the day before forced evacuations in many places. In Hungary’s case the cause for low turnout is less clear. So, the question again arises: what do these results tell us? In Colombia they tell us that for the low percentage of people that did turn up to cast their votes, the amount of opposition to the so-called peace deal is nearly the same as that of support for it. But 62% is a lot that is left unaccounted for. Even half of those people voting might have changed the verdict dramatically. The same cannot perhaps be said of the Hungarian referendum, but again, 60% is a lot of people, and their votes might have changed the result, or reduced the margin, if nothing else.  Technically, however, the referendum results are invalid because less than half of the population eligible to vote turned up at the booths. Continue reading “Referendums, democracy and reality shows”


The abomination of the death penalty and the allure of corruption

“The bullet is mightier than the blade”: Moral relativism much?

“It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”

Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal

The issue of capital punishment has been a matter of great debate for centuries, and it intensified ever since there emerged a subculture of humans which realized that people were entirely responsible for their own actions. Dishing out the death penalty began to be considered abhorrent to collective human conscience, and it began to be understood that capital punishment wasn’t effective as a deterrent of crime in any case. In Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling fictional thriller The Day of the Jackal, he mentions how he would feel if he were hypothetically to witness an execution by firing squad in the quote above. You might want to forgive the author for missing out on the words “calculated” and “chilling.” Here is a description of what execution by the firing squad looks/has looked like in the United States:

For execution by this method, the inmate is typically bound to a chair with leather straps across his waist and head, in front of an oval-shaped canvas wall. The chair is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the inmate’s blood. A black hood is pulled over the inmate’s head. A doctor locates the inmate’s heart with a stethoscope and pins a circular white cloth target over it. Standing in an enclosure 20 feet away, five shooters are armed with .30 caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. Each of the shooters aims his rifle through a slot in the canvas and fires at the inmate.[…] The prisoner dies as a result of blood loss caused by rupture of the heart or a large blood vessel, or tearing of the lungs. The person shot loses consciousness when shock causes a fall in the supply of blood to the brain. If the shooters miss the heart, by accident or intention, the prisoner bleeds to death slowly.[….]

Continue reading “The abomination of the death penalty and the allure of corruption”

Myths, facts and decision making: The human animal

The world is full of facts. People are facts. Therefore myths are facts. Sounds like a logical fallacy? Well, actually it isn’t. It’s just playing with semantics a little. What I mean to say here is that facts are what help us create a picture of reality. We talk about Homo sapiens as a species because we know individuals similar to us (or me) exist, and that we can group them together. So people are facts. It also seems almost inevitable that if there are people, there will be myths, gossip and so forth. There is always a limit to our perception of reality. However, our perception of reality -which can be mistaken at times- is in itself a component of reality. We need to understand that in order to understand ourselves. That is why studying myths belonging to a particular culture is an important exercise in trying to get an anthropological or sociological picture of that culture. The diversity of myths across cultures gives us an insight into the varying ways in which human societies evolved over time. Even in relatively modern, secular societies you have truckloads of urban legends that have little basis in reality. Religion, for example, is a collection of myths. A recent study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making studied how susceptible humans are to meaningless bafflegab. Do they judge it to be more profound? This is what the study found:

We gave people syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords and, across four studies, these statements were judged to be at least somewhat profound. This tendency was also evident when we presented participants with similar real-world examples of pseudo-profound bullshit.
For example, many test subjects judged statements like these to be profound:
Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.
Which has no real meaning. Rather which begs an explanation and is given none. That is what obscurantism is all about. This kind of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, of course, co – varied with other personality characteristics and indicators.
Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

Continue reading “Myths, facts and decision making: The human animal”

A look at cults: Dalai Lama, Swami Vivekananda and Che Guevara

collage-2016-01-14 (1)

You speak of Rastafari, but how can you justify-

-belief, in a god that’s left you behind?

Haile Selassie: Propagandhi

The cult of Rastafarianism (or Rastafari, proponents of which claim they are above all “-isms”), which is basically another plagiarized version of Christianity (or Abrahamic religion) emphasizing the black people as the chosen ones, Haile Selassie as an incarnation of their God and Ethiopia as their Promised Land, would probably not like to answer the question above. But the answer is simple enough. Apotheosis of a mere mortal doesn’t lead to that mortal acquiring supernatural powers, or even for that matter, natural powers. The opening lines of the song by Propagandhi allude to Haile Selassie’s desertion of his army and the Ethiopian capital in the face of a vicious attack against his kingdom by the Italian Fascist forces and its allies. He left his people behind to face the fury of the enemy, but apparently that kind of betrayal had no effect on his followers who continued to pretend that they thought Haile Selassie was The One.

There have always been cult figures in human history. The idea behind cultism is that there is a perfect human being who everyone ought to emulate. One who is flawless and who is the saviour of all humanity. One who brought along with them epiphanies or great intuitive or divine wisdoms that were hitherto unknown to human beings. Everything they said or did was supposed to have great meaning. Eventually the cult figures would pick up mannerisms and affectations that would complete the picture. Some cults have lasted in time, some haven’t, some have been revived and for some, a new cult figure has adopted a modified version of an old cult philosophy. Objectively speaking, these were just people who were either smarter than the ones they influenced or were charismatic or both. They carefully picked their audiences and appealed to their popular notions, and then challenged some, making people think that they had stumbled upon a gem. And this is how their popularity spread. Some extended their popularity with the sword while some did it through peaceful and measured, peripatetic sophistry. From Buddha to Dalai Lama, from Jesus to Mother Teresa and from Muhammad to David Koresh, we see the same general aspects, the same hunger for soft or hard power over the masses. Here I want to take a closer look at three cult figures belonging to disparate backgrounds.

Continue reading “A look at cults: Dalai Lama, Swami Vivekananda and Che Guevara”

Angus Deaton, the economics of well-being and the politics of poverty

Angus Deaton has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2015. I am not one to go gaga over Nobel Laureates – or the Nobel Prize itself -nor do I have a liking for economics or economists in particular. However, I do take interest in Angus Deaton’s work that led to him receiving the prize. And yes, thanks to the Nobel Committee for bringing it to public notice. Much of Deaton’s work evidently comes from a deep understanding of the psychology of human deprivation. He has made observations (like the eponymous Deaton’s paradox, in which it is found that consumption curves tend to smoothen in the face of greater unpredictability of income levels) that tend to make little economic sense on a collective basis, but which can be explained if the individual is studied. He has collaborated with Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel winning psychologist, who has made important discoveries regarding human behaviour and factors influencing decision-making.

Angus Deaton is mainly concerned with individual consumption of goods and services, and with the intricate patterns connecting consumption and happiness. He argues -and one feels rightly so- that the governmental ritual of collecting information about income levels and assets, especially in case of those people who are understood to be poor, is seriously insufficient in providing any idea about individual sense of happiness and fulfilment. His work has taken him to many parts of the world where poverty is high, and much of his work is based on his experiences in India. He has found that the conventional indices of economic progress tends to be simplistic and misleading, as different people have different preferences, and tend to spend, or want to spend, accordingly. This leads to different and complex deprivation patterns among individuals, which are not revealed by averaging and general poverty indicators (such as the poverty line), which only serve academic and political purposes.

The most important assertion by Prof Deaton, in my view, is that the current poverty situation is the result of hundreds of years of conflict, inequality and social inequities. It is through this process that the rich have become richer, and the poor poorer. As the 19th century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said, “Property is theft!” So is poverty. And poverty tends to pass on to successive generations so much that it could be mistaken as a genetic trait. Indeed, Deaton has had to reject the nonchalant idea of some Indian economists and policy-makers that short height amongst poor children is something genetic, rather than an indicator of malnutrition and poverty: “..arguments about the role of genetics is residual: if we cannot think of anything else [we assume that] it must be genetics.” Evidence, however, suggests something else.  It is assumed that the “poor” people are happy with the “help” they get from philanthropists and NGOs, and of course, from the government. However, they have aspirations and ambitions of their own, as Deaton has found, and they cannot realize them because of their socioeconomic station in life, and because the government isn’t too keen on providing them with an enabling atmosphere.

Philanthropy looks good on the surface, and for the social image of the relatively well – off, but that makes it a competitive affair that does little for the target individual. By “helping” the poor people, you make them even more indebted, in addition to the overwhelming burden of poverty that they are already carrying. Indeed, the business of philanthropy needs poverty to exist for its own survival. The hypocrisy of philanthropy of the filthy rich actually comes alive in Deaton’s observation: “The very wealthy have little need for state-provided education or health care… They have even less reason to support health insurance for everyone, or to worry about the low quality of public schools that plagues much of the country…To worry about these consequences of extreme inequality has nothing to do with being envious of the rich and everything to do with the fear that rapidly growing top incomes are a threat to the well-being of everyone else.” Governmental projects in this regard are more about announcements and big projects, than any serious concern and work. They have more to do with “meeting targets”, so that they can make themselves look better on the world stage. Hence, a poverty line threshold of 32 rupees (or around US$ 0.5) a day is deemed defensible. The poor person is just a stain on the nation’s reputation that they want to wish away, if not wash away.

All this is not to say that all philanthropy is some kind of gross affectation. Nor is the government entirely apathetic towards the poor person as a rule. It’s difficult enough to tackle poverty as it is. One likes to think that ambitious programmes and movements undertaken to eradicate poverty are more often well – intentioned than not, but obviously they are inadequate. The poor person does not yearn for the pity of the more well-off, nor do they care much about who represents their electorate. They want an enabling atmosphere, where they have the freedom to make their own informed choices. Policies in this regard have been flawed at best and shambolic at worst, but Deaton says there is hope yet, because things have improved over time. However, a lot of work remains to be done, he says. Data about individual consumption patterns need to collected and more needs to be done in order to address individual concerns. This obviously makes the whole endeavour more cumbersome, but in order to make the society more equitable and more happy, which is what a democratic welfare state is supposed to be all about, this is what needs to be done, according to Deaton.