Monday, January 28, 2008

The Cure at Troy - Seamus Heaney

In the New York Times several days ago, in a piece about Barack Obama and the politics of hope, the writer Dave Eggers quoted an excerpt from a poem titled "The Cure at Troy" by the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. The poem has stayed with me partly because in that very first reading it made me think about the situation in Pakistan where even though optimism seems to be in short supply there is still the lingering sense of hope exemplifed by the courageous lawyers and judges in their struggle for law and justice.

from "The Cure at Troy"

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

Pakistan After Benazir Bhutto

I was in Pakistan on December 27th, the day Benazir Bhutto was assasinated in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. I watched the television screen in utter disbelief as the initial news of the murderous attack on her was soon followed by the confirmation of her death. Those who have read any of my political musings know that I took a dim view of her time as Prime Minister, was not a fan of her frequently opportunistic politics and thought her murky dealings with Musharraf at Amercian behest were a singularly bad idea.

However, since her assasination I have felt no desire to write a political analysis, provide a prognosis or even comment on the tastelessly quick backlash against her that started in the wake of widespread sympathy after her death (e.g. Dalrymple's piece). I continue to feel that this event has such large scale repercussions for Pakistan's future that the punditry still does not fully comprehend its dimensions. Never having been a supporter of the People's Party, the unique place of such a national party led by an ethnic minority has become clearly evident to me only after Benazir's death. If PPP disintegrates as a party or retreats into the Sindhi heartland, the institutional harm to Pakistan will be incalculable. In the short term, like everybody else, I am awaiting the outcome of the February 18th elections to see how Pakistan may find a way out of the current Musharraf-engendered political paralysis. However, even after the inevitable day that Musharraf leaves office, I only see compounding problems for those who follow him. Musharraf, like all of Pakistan's military dictators before him, will leave his successors a country riven with far greater problems than he inherited in 1999.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Simon Jenkins' Lament for Lahore

I love the city of Lahore. This sentiment is not an uncritical emotional attachment to my hometown but reflects a love for the incredible richness of Lahore's cultural history, the hospitality and generosity of its people and the inimitability of its cuisine. It is Pakistan's uniquely wonderful city. There are things to recommend places like Karachi (a Western-style cosmopolitanism) or Islamabad (an anodyne livability) but Lahore possesses a combination of charms that cannot be replicated elsewhere in Pakistan.

That Lahore has suffered as a city since partition is undeniable. The unfortunate cleansing of the Hindu and Sikh population at the time of independence robbed Lahore of much of its cultural diversity. The continuing neglect of its historic architectural heritage, the steady degradation of its environment and the erosion of many of its literary institutions have all contributed to a general sense of decline. Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian is right to lament this downward slide even as he acknowledges the many wonders of the city. I am inclined to blame Musharraf for many of Pakistan's current ills but it is hard to pin the current state of Lahore on his malign neglect, as Jenkins asserts. To me the plight of modern day Lahore is simply a reflection of the general state of deterioration of the Pakistani polity.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Brilliance of Steven Pinker's Mind

Cosmologists, Quantum Physicists, Geneticists, Cognitive Scientists, Evolutionary Biologists and others are continuously working to advance human understanding from the macro (origins of the universe) to the micro (behavior of genes, functioning of the mind). All this knowledge has a profound influence on metaphysics, religion, ethics, economics, sociology and other fields of the humanities and social sciences. These areas of human study then have to contend with the onrush of scientific evidence about human behavior, its nature and its origins either by incorporating the evidence or by challenging it. It is therefore of the utmost importance that laypeople who care about these issues develop some understanding of the current state of scientific learning about these subjects.

In the modern world where experts know "more and more about less and less" the effort of many brilliant practitioners in highly specialized fields to engage laypeople with their complex ideas is worthy of great praise. To make these ideas digestible without dumbing them down requires not only an exceptional clarity of mind but great expositional skills. Fortunately there are many accomplished scientists who also possess a rare ability to educate the non-specialist. Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Paul Davies, Brian Greene and Richard Feynman are some of the examples of scientists who have succeeded to varying degrees in reaching beyond their rarefied peer group.

Steven Pinker, the hard to label Harvard Evolutionary Psycholgist
is amongst one of the best examples of current scientists who can write well for a broader audience. This post was precipitated after reading his excellent essay titled "The Moral Instinct" in the January 13th, 2008 issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It is hard to summarize the breadth of the essay's argument but in it Pinker explains the existing evidence for the biological (evolutionary) underpinnings of our morality. He examines many interesting examples about the universality of morals and tries to square them with the clearly observed differences across cultures. The essay is somewhat long but I couldn't recommend it any more strongly and urge people to read it. There are few popular pieces of writing that engage this deeply in reflecting on the sources of our deeply held moral beliefs.


When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.
The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.


All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?