Aakar Patel’s article “The Martyr Who Cleans Your Drains” is brilliant. Sanitation workers are incomparably more likely to die than soldiers. So, why are they not considered martyrs? Why are soldiers seen as heroes? I think the explanation lies in human evolution. People don’t like the idea of doing a task and getting paid for it because they have such poor personal standards. They have all sorts of illusions about themselves. They don’t have the brains or nerve to think on their own. But, if they are paid to do a task, they think there is something demeaning about this. But, the truth is that most human beings do not have the deep specialized knowledge to be truly creative. The most they can do is to take orders, get paid, and say “Thank You” nicely.
But, if they are led covertly into serving ideals that do not challenge the society’s secular religion, like warfare, they are fine. People value covert conniving and the warrior spirit more than they value real skills and co-operation. Soldiers are also high status—martyrs in the uniform. Aakar Patel once pointed out that Gujaratis are more likely to be traders and less likely to be soldiers. The reason is that the mercenary spirit and the spirit of the trading floor are entirely opposed to each other.
A person who reads this article can’t honestly disagree with it. But, they won’t pay much attention to it. Why? It ain’t hard to admit that sanitation workers die more often than soldiers, and that they deserve more respect. But, once you admit this, it would become clear that what soldiers do is no big deal. People are quite willing to die while getting paid to do a task.
Once when I asked an economist how the government should cure the fiscal deficit, he said that the government should cut spending. “The government shouldn’t run schools and colleges. The government shouldn’t run hospitals. The government shouldn’t run the police and the courts. The government doesn’t do anything well—except perhaps running the NHAI roads.” Then he asked, laughing, “Do you disagree with that?” I said, “No. I don’t disagree. This is obvious. Everywhere I see idiots. I haven’t talked to an honest guy before.” He said, “Thank You. But, you can’t quote me on this.”
Call him a hypocrite, but my respect for him went up. The establishment economists do lie, or at least they do not tell the whole truth. Whatever the ethical aspects of the matter, this is the necessary price they pay for being part of the establishment. We’re better off when the establishment economists are otherwise sane, thoughtful fellows. Would you rather have sincere mad scientists as appointees? I’d pick economists who cannot help speaking their mind over others any day.
Once when a proposal to raise the tax rate on the rich in India was under discussion, in a meeting with the Finance minister, all the economists present disagreed with the proposal. When I was at the finance ministry, an economist who spoke after the meeting had as much as said so. After an hour, I noticed that the finance ministry had issued a statement saying that there was a near-unanimous consent on the proposal. I couldn’t even believe what I read. When I asked an economist, he said that he was surprised to hear this too, but he was not willing to be quoted on that.
I am not willing to believe that “They are doing this for the nation.”, but I am sure that they see this as a necessary price to pay for having a say in policy matters. But, irrespective of whether they would like to believe it or not, are they right? I suspect “sincere” policy making is scarier. India’s central bank head, Raghuram Rajan, for instance, is more sensible than he comes across. Inflation has fallen drastically in the past one year.
Few days ago, Rich Weinstein, an obscure investment adviser publicized tapes of establishment economist Jonathan Gruber’s cynical comments on Obamacare. Now, this is what Jonathan Gruber said that angered people:
“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”
Of course, now he claims that these were off-hand remarks. Human nature being what it is, this is what we should expect. Jonathan Gruber has proven not to be a sincere liar. But, would Jonathan Gruber have been an honest man if he had accepted the official party line, lock, stock and barrel? People think that the sincere liars have more integrity than the intellectuals who consciously lie. I have my doubts. I have learned from hard experience that people can convince themselves of almost anything they want to believe. The conscious liars at least feel bad about what they do, but the sincere liars feel good about themselves. Wouldn’t they go too far?
What is unusual about Gruber is that people penalized him for not having consistently lie dabout having lied. Remember: He is not being punished for being deluded, or even lying, but for not having consistently lying about having lied. Otherwise he would have been damned all along.
He wouldn’t have been publicly humiliated if he had kept his mouth shut. The harm has already been done. So, what did he gain by speaking his mind? Gruber probably felt better saying that he did not really agree with how things were being done. Wouldn’t it be good if this happened often enough? By punishing Jonathan Gruber for making off-hand remarks, libertarians are punishing him for not being a good coalition partner. I think we should subsidize that more. Or, should false excuses inspire more trust?
I do not believe that there is something antisocial about too much honesty, but I think libertarians haven’t internalized this enough:
“Although we claim to value truth above all else, we are also at least dimly aware that there is something antisocial about too much honesty. This dilemma has often been portrayed in literature and film, from Dostoevsky’s Prince Mishkin, whose innocence and honesty destroy the lives of those around him, to the 1997 film Liar, Liar! in which a lawyer wreaks havoc when he is placed under a spell condemning him to be truthful for twenty-four agonizing hours. Evolutionary biology suggests that no normal person would be capable of such a feat. We are natural-born liars.
The power to deceive is our main weapon in the struggle for social survival. Like it or not, without it, we are sheep in the company of wolves. Similarly, the power to read intentions from nonverbal expressions is our best safeguard against victimization by others. Without it, we are at their mercy.
Immensely rapid, specialized unconscious modules are humming in the background of our minds twenty-four hours a day. We could not get along without them. We could not get manage if we had to consciously coordinate our bodily movements, choose words in a conversation, or laboriously parse streams of sound from people’s mouths into choppy words and sentences. Fortunately, our brains come equipped with pre-installed cognitive software for these tasks, and the same holds true of our ability to understand the meaning of social behavior.
“All social inferences flow from a common set of assumptions, an informal folk-psychological theory of human nature. If the theory is biased, it will deliver faulty appraisals of everyone: not only of oneself, but also of other people. Commonsense assumptions include gems of sagacity such as the notion that self-deception is abnormal, that good people do not lie, that so-called normal people are not motivated by self-interest, and that politicians aspire to serve the public. Such homilies cannot serve as a basis for sound social reasoning, but they are terrific gimmicks for Machiavellian manipulation. The knife of self-deception cuts two ways: you cannot maintain a highly distorted conception of yourself side by side with a true estimate of others.
A savvy social operator needs to have an excellent grasp of human self-interests, because it’s impossible to beguile others unless you understand what makes them tick. However, self-deception, which is also essential for competent social manipulation, pulls us in the opposite direction, leading us to disavow knowledge about human self-interest and encouraging a rather naive conception of human nature. So, there is a tension between the profound psychological understanding needed by the shrewd social player and the dumbing-down of social intelligence required by self-deception. How could nature have engineered the mind to make the most out of these conflicting forces? The obvious solution is to split the mind. It is all right for consciousness to be socially myopic if this helps social intelligence to operate smoothly behind the scenes. Our sheer conscious stupidity about one another is a perfect front for a wily Machiavellian intelligence. If these considerations are on the mark, we must be far better at “reading” other people unconsciously than we are consciously. We must all be gifted, instinctive psychologists, whose conscious minds are left out of the loop. The chasm dividing unconscious astuteness from conscious naivete is a consequence of the way that natural selection has sculpted our psyches to handle the pressures of a complex social life. It is distinctly and quintessentially human.
In short, we are like people playing poker in the dark. We are in the dark because “part of the game of social competition involves concealing how it is played.” from our own conscious minds. As unconscious poker players, we can manipulate the others while remaining innocent of many of our own self-serving intentions. If accused, we can sincerely take offense and claim that it is all in the paranoid eye of the beholder. Self-deception about our own Machiavellian agenda also makes us relatively insensitive, on the conscious level anyway, to the selfishness of others. We sleep because waking up would spoil the game.”—Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith
I think many, perhaps most Indian writers find Rushdie’s claim controversial:
“The prose writing – both fiction and non-fiction by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 “official languages” of India, the so-called “vernacular languages”, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. It is a large claim, and while it may be easy for Western readers to accept it (after all, few non-English-language Indian writers, other than the Nobel laureate Tagore, have ever made much of an impact on world literature), it runs counter to much of the received critical wisdom within India itself. It is also not a claim which, when we set out on the enormous and rewarding task of doing the reading for this book, we ever expected to make. The task we set ourselves was simply to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text – S. H. Manto’s masterpiece, the short story “Toba Tek Singh” – made the final cut.” Those who wish to argue with the conclusion we have drawn may suspect that we did not read enough. But we have read as widely and deeply as we could. Others may feel that, as one of the editors is English and the other a practising English-language writer of Indian origin, we are simply betraying our own cultural and linguistic prejudices, or defending our turf or – even worse – gracelessly blowing our own trumpet. It is of course true that any anthology worth its salt will reflect the judgments and tastes of its editors. I can only say that our tastes are pretty catholic and our minds, I hope, have been open. We have made our choices, and stand by them.”
I have said this before. I haven’t read literature in “vernacular languages”. But, I think Rushdie is right. I have my own reasons. 1) The Indian writers in English have much higher IQs. 2) English is a rich, complex language. 3) Writing in vernacular languages doesn’t pay. 4) If the non-English-language writers were smart, they would have been writing in English. It is hard, if not impossible to express complex thoughts with the highest degree of fluency in vernacular languages. But, I am being charitable here.
I noticed this now:
“First, there has long been a genuine problem of translation in India – not only into English but between the vernacular languages – and it is possible that good writers have been excluded by reason of their translators’ inadequacies rather than their own. Nowadays, however, such bodies as the Indian Sahitya Akademi and UNESCO have been putting their resources into the creation of better translations, and the problem, while not eradicated, is certainly much diminished. And second: while it was impossible, for reasons of space, to include a representative selection of modern Indian poetry, it was evident to us that the rich poetic traditions of India continued to flourish in many of the sub-continent’s languages, whereas the English-language poets, with a few distinguished exceptions (Arun Kolatkar, A. K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, to name just three), did not match the quality of their counterparts in prose.”
If it is, indeed, true that Rushdie is prejudiced against vernacular writers, why is he unusually prejudiced against prose writers, but not against poets? People don’t think.
A wide gulf separates the Indian and western thinkers. This is hard to miss. Indian thinkers are abysmally read, shallow and superficial. They do not understand the concept of abstract reasoning. When I read Indian and western nonfiction, I feel that these are entirely different kinds of literature. But, why? Of course, the average Indian IQ is 81. This means that the average Indian fellow is dumber than 89% of the people on earth. But, the differences in IQ do not fully explain this phenomenon. I have known too many people with high raw IQs—mostly in engineering college—and my experience is fairly typical.
Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda have a good explanation:
“Easterners, the researchers find, appear to think more ”holistically,” paying greater attention to context and relationship, relying more on experience-based knowledge than abstract logic and showing more tolerance for contradiction. Westerners are more ”analytic” in their thinking, tending to detach objects from their context, to avoid contradictions and to rely more heavily on formal logic.”
If the concepts that people are taught to believe are true, I find this a very accurate description. Now, observe. What are the eastern thought habits?
1) Thinking more ”holistically.”
2) Paying greater attention to context and relationship.
3) Relying more on experience-based knowledge than abstract logic.
4) Showing more tolerance for contradiction.
These are precisely what intellectuals (whether eastern or western) see as virtues. The eastern values are not stated with much disapproval.
Now, what are the western values?
1) More ”analytic” in their thinking process.
2) Tends to detach objects from their context.
3) Avoids contradictions
4) Relies more heavily on formal logic Continue reading