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.[….]

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The “juvenile” and the culture of misogyny

What chance do I have in this world?

A rapist-murderer who was one of a gang of 6 to have brutalized Jyoti Singh  -a 23 year old, ambitious paramedical student who made the mistake of going out of her home on the evening of December 16, 2012, with her boyfriend in India’s rape capital– in a horrific manner, was released after a “sentence” of 3 years of imprisonment, afforded to him by India’s Juvenile Justice Act yesterday. The reason? He was a few months short of completing his 18th birthday. The others, who were judged to be capable of taking responsibility for their crimes, were sentenced to death. So, in pampering a violent and dangerous “juvenile”, who at seventeen years and six months old was apparently as good at differentiating rape from larceny as he was at telling shit from Shinola, the Indian judiciary has overcompensated for sending the-poor-thing’s comrades to the gallows. If ever there was an instance of complete travesty of justice in a highly publicized case, this was one. There are already voices out there calling for a more considerate treatment of the issue at hand. So let’s hear what this one has to say:

We must take cognisance of the fact that the environment the children are growing up in now is vastly different from a decade ago. We are living in a ‘super sexualised world’ and the access that a common person has to the amount of depraved information available has grown multifold. It is the adversely sexual aspects of popular culture that are problematic.

If by “access” the author means “access to the Internet”, then by the same logic, one also has access to information on gender sensitivity and human rights on the Internet. Besides, correlation does not become causation. And there is no evidence that the “juvenile” (whose identity, by the way, is protected by Indian law on the excuse of being a juvenile) was influenced by “the adversely sexual aspects of popular culture” in being led to participating in the crime. One might argue that he felt encouraged to take part in the crime because he had adult friends doing it, but that does not in any way absolve him of any guilt or responsibility. The first thing that people need to understand is that brains do not commit heinous crimes. And that is the first step in reformation of any criminal, juvenile or not. The author admits as much:

Any punishment has to have a reparative effect, one that prevents an individual from repeating the crime — this cannot and should not come at the cost of fear, but should stem from a place of understanding in the individual, who takes cognisance of why what he/she had done was wrong, and, therefore, must not do again. If it is not reparative, it is vengeful and the purpose of the law is not to be vengeful.

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Religion, philanthropy and Mother Teresa

Gott ist tot.

Or “God is dead”. Thus spake Friedrich Nietzsche. Of course, there is no evidence that God ever existed in the first place, but Nietzsche meant that in another context. Even if there were any evidence from the past that it did (I have always had a queasy feeling referring to the supposedly Supreme Being as a “He”. Yes, even before I became an infidel), evidence (and/or the lack of it) from the present would certainly have repudiated it. And if God did indeed exist, it certainly has much less authority over anything than even winds do over mountains. It does nothing to rapists of infants , but must take issue with homosexual love . It is never sure which religion it wants people to follow, but must rail against those who don’t believe in it:

He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
Matthew 12:30

Drinking wine and eating pork are graver sins than liquidating “unbelievers”(complete with the apologist’s rather enlightening take). One would also like to ask why it suffers from so much social anxiety that it can never afford to make a public appearance, especially to those damned gadflies called “skeptics”. So, if the “good God” ever did exist, it’s either dead or just as good as dead.

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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.