Ravi Mohan's Blog

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Why Hackers Should Read History

It all started very innocently . A manager at one of the many software companies in Bangalore announces a scheme to "tax" Indians travelling abroad on the company's business .

The basic (at best naive, at worst foolish) idea was that Indians who go to the USA would "contribute" a percentage of their (dollar) earnings into a "common pool" and this "tax" would be distributed amongst all the poor unfortunate Indians who couldn't travel to the Land Of The Golden Mountain.

The net buzzed with mails about "American arrogance" (the Manager is American) and "whoever heard of a communist company? "(the CEO of the company is supposed to have socialist leanings).

On a parallel thread , a couple of naive Canadians who came to India for a short visit were interviewed by a Canadian reporter about their Indian experience and the result was a fairly funny (to me anyway) article in the Canadian Press about how their luggage almost got stolen and a few comments about the first-world-and-third-world-existing-side-by-side aspect of Indian life (at least in Bangalore) .Mixed in with all the naivety were a couple of nasty comments about how Canada (unlike India) was "a place where you were not measured by your class stature" (perhaps they meant "caste" instead of "class" ?)

In yet another encounter , a couple of scientists at the Indian Defence Department were very scathing about "barbaric" Americans and their "decadent" life styles and I found myself in the position of having to point out the many *good* things about America and Americans and the things that need improvement in India .

The funny thing was that,unlike me, the speakers themselves had never actually visited America .But they were certain that Indian "civilization" was way ahead of a rich but decaying America.

I generally don't blog too much about politics or other "sensitive" areas but i figure it is time to take a stand.

Here are the principles I follow when dealing with people .

  1. The intrinsic worth of a person has nothing to do with race or nationality . It is all about how you think and what you can do and how well or badly you do it.
  2. Some Americans are arrogant . This is a problem of belonging to the dominant culture at a given point of time . The Romans had this arrogance. So did the Persians , the Assyrians , the Mongols, and later ,the Spanish, the Venetians and the British . And if you go back to a time when the Indians had a flourishing civilization when Europeans lived like animals , I dare say some of those Indians were arrogant too.

    All this has nothing to do with the world as it is today . In the end if you are good at something other people need , you will be given due respect .

    And if you still don't like the way the world works you have the freedom to try to change it . The only guaranteed freedom is the freedom to try.

    The thing to do when you face arrogance based on the latitude and longitude of your birth (or skin color) directed at you is to ignore it (or smash it flat depending on how combative you feel) .

    Which brings me to
  3. A large number of Indians are subservient to those in Authority , especially if that Authority Figure has a white skin . This comes of a combination of lack of self confidence , an excess of greed (to grab dollars, green cards , whatever ) and suffering from a simultaneous lack of guts and liquidity of the spine .

    When someone dreams up a totally foolish idea (a great defect in many people who end up as managers , not because they are any good at management,but because they are useless for anything else) the thing to do is to point out the absurdity in a rational manner ,irrespective of whether the proposer came from Madras, Manhattan or Mars.

    And pour scorn on it if you think it is appropriate to do so (though there are often more subtle ways ofgetting what you want).Often just a polite refusal to play along will do the trick . It also helps if you have the courage of your convictions and a feeling of self worth independent of what those "higher up the ladder" think of you.
  4. All cultures have good points and defects . The "Superior Man" (as the I Ching would say ) recognizes and promotes the virtues of all cultures and opposes and suppresses their vices both within himself and his society .
  5. All cultures have great men and despicable ones .

    Those who think Americans are "decadent" should learn about(confining ourselves to Politics) Abraham Lincoln (there is a lot more to his greatness than "freeing the slaves" which is about all most Indians know of this incredible man. Read Bruce Catton's three  part  history of the American Civil Warto understand Lincoln in his context ) , Roosevelt, and Jefferson.

    To see how fools constantly try to ruin the powerful nation these great men built ,read up on ( for eg, again confining ourselves to the political sphere),Clement Vallandigham,Gerald Nye,Edgar J Hoover and the inimitable Dubya.

    Dilbert's PHB lives on in history and politics just as much as in cubicle land .

    Westerners who pride themselves on their scientific prowess should meditate on the fact that even multiplication was hard before zero (and thus the decimal system) was invented in "primitive" India . And that the theory of Evolution is still anathema in major chunks of the "scientifically advanced" USA .

    Those who take pride in their dominant economic status should look to European Kosovo to see how easily civilization crumbles when Time's judgement rolls around. Some believed till the end , "That can't happen here . we are Europeans".

    If you look a bit deeper into the shakiness of the American Trade Deficit and potential Dollar crash ,you'll see how feeble such assumptions are and how fast the shoe could be on the other foot.
  6. Indians who believe in America's "decadence" should try to actually get to know some of the History of India rather than prattle on about "five thousand years of civilization".

    The "Golden Age" preached by Hindu Fundamentalists is largely a myth(barely half a century old) created to counter feelings of inferiority vis a vis the West. Historically the "morality" and social structures of the periods in which India came close to being a dominating culture have significant similairities with the mores of the West . A good book to start with is The Gem In the Lotus,followed by The Emperors of the Peacock Throne .

    To figure out how to "defeat" the west , read Victor Hanson's(Hanson is a slightly over the top ,but nontheless brilliant ,writer),How The West Has Won (don't worry about the alternate title.It is the same book). Indian editions of most of these books are available , a situation in which the "cheap Indian" tag actually works in your favor!
  7. To shift the context a bit, There are Indians ,some of them in the highest strata of society,who judge other Indians on the basis of caste, especially when it comes to things like marriage . There are Americans ,some of them in the highest strata of society, who judge other Americans on the basis of race , especially when it comes to things like marriage . Caste Based Discrimination is illegal in India except for government sanctioned Reservations . Race Based Discrimination is illegal in America except for government sanctioned Affirmative Action . All of which shows that both societies are not perfect and contain substantial chunks of deluded people and a comparitively fewer number of intelligent ones .
  8. and finally understand that one of the great powers that moves the world is Stupidity . "Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." .So said Napoleon , a European who shook his continent and a good chunk of the world, a man who while symbolising the quintessential westerner , was secretly most comfortable with the mores of the Orient .
Stupidity And Brilliance have nothing to do with culture. And yes , the "company enforced travel tax" is a tremendously stupid idea which tries to fix a deep and complex problem with spit and duct tape. But it could, in theory, be used a creative provocation to evolve a better one . Pretty unlikely . But who knows? If everthing fails , this will provide some consolation to the oppressed masses . Arise ! awake ! You have nothing to lose but your money and self respect!


Anonymous said...

I am surprised to see that this post of yours hasnt gotten a comment yet. I like your view of what is good and bad in both cultures, and I should say that one of the foremost thing I like about America is the fact that people are judged by what they can or cannot do, more than anything else. But then again, I don't see that much of a difference in India either. I havent seen any sort of racism in the corporate culture in India. It is, as far as I could see, based on demand(first), and then performance(second).

And you are very right talking about the subservient attitude. It is partially from the non-war like, no-killing-instinct culture of ours. And, as far as I could see, Indians in Rome would blend in smoother than the Romans.

But, one thing that I have strongly felt in Americans is that the average joe is happy if he gets his beer and his woman. Now, if I extrapolate it to the so-called visionaries, I am not sure I can see much of a difference. The difference here is, of course, that, he would wage a war to keep his beer and woman.

So, I am close to believing that the subservience that Indians show is a sense of greatness hugely disguised. Whatever be the instruments that people use to get through this, be it living in isolated groups, trying to blend in with the white dominants, or plain "my life is my wife" strategy, the american experience is gonna make a lot of difference in Indians' attitude. Extremely slow, but it will make a difference. Then again, Rome wasnt built in a day. So, wasnt India.

Ravi said...

Hi Anonymous,

Well one reason this blog post doesn't have any comments is because it wasn't originally posted here , but on my web page (magicindian.com) .It attracted quite a bit of attention and a lot of people emailed their comments to me and asked me to have a comment enabled blog , so they could comment !!(Guys, wheeeere aaaaree youuuuuuu ? :-) )

So I started a new blog here with comments enabled , but a couple of weeks had passed and , I guess folks had other thngs to do :-)

Onto your comment ,
I am afraid I have to disagree with your notion of

(a) Americans being happy with wine and women .

The average Indian could , with equal justice be said to be happy with his Arrack and woman .

Now if you are saying that the average person in any culture is happy with the minimum necessities of life and doesn't aspire to great ness, then yes, I agree . But that is just the definition of "average" .Nothing American or Indian about it.

I hope you are being rhetorical when you say visionaries are no different . If you think of people like Abraham Lincoln (or Subash Chandra Bose for that matter ) lead people into war for "beer and women" , I am afraid i have to disagree !

I am fairly well read in history and would welcome any evidence that would indicate the contrary .

(b) that Indian subservience is some kind of disguised greatness !(I hope I interpreted your sentence correctly . It is a bit ambigous could be read a couple of different ways.Please feel free to correct me if I got it wrong ).

Racism,Caste ism and all these other divisive "isms", imho , arise from the need of people with insufficiently strong notions of self worth, who divide the world into a superior "us" and an "inferior" them, the parameters for this alleged superiority/inferiority being chosen conveniently to suit the believer.

Thus if the "other" is superior in science and wealth then we have an "ancient culture " If he has the older and more sophisticated heritage, then "we" are more modern and scientific .

And so the games go on!

Also, just to make things clear, I said nothing about racism being entrenched in the Indian corporate structure. All corporates everywhere are (or should be ) about money .However if you want to find Indians who belive they are , in some unexplained fashion superior to Americans , I can show you plenty of those :-)

Thank you for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Ravi. I like your way of thinking. Some points though.

1. I disagree with you that the common man in India considers just his bottle of liquor and his wife. His thoughts and opinions always revolve higher, in terms of family, society etc.

2. I still think todays American fights for the "american way of life" essentially encompasses just his liquor and his woman.

3. About visionaries, I admit I might be wrong with the examples you gave. But, modern corporate America is running on capitalism(greed in a dirtier language, but I dont agree too much). Now, we could argue for and against capitalism for years. But, I feel that even though capitalism is a vision, the most common examples (the most frequent application) are that of the "beer and woman" concept.

4. Racism/casteism, imo, is the bad implementation of a good concept. The superior/inferior sense was never meant to be. It came along and put the concept where it is now. I am sorry if I even by mistake implied that you were saying that there was racism in corporate India. It was just an added opinion. I was just putting forward the fact that I dont see much of difference between India and America in that sense, except being very immature(Indian corporate is) in a lot of things.

Ravi said...

Hi Anonymous,
you said
"I disagree with you that the common man in India considers just his bottle of liquor and his wife. His thoughts and opinions always revolve higher, in terms of family, society etc."

Please read my sentence carefully. I said , "It *could * be said ... " .

In other words , I was trying to point out that I think making general statements like this may not be very productive because other people could use the same or similair generic statements against "our" people too .

We'll have to agree to disagree here . I don't believe that the Indian "common man" is somehow superior to the American "common man" .

To misquote and mangle Ben Johnson, the answer to "Is an American better than an Indian?" (or vice versa) is "Which American, Which Indian , and in what context? " .

Blanket judgemental statements often do not capture the complexity of reality ,imho, which was the point of the blog posting.

The problem I have with your statement is not that you think the "avaerage Indian" is more family oriented than an "average american" but the judgement that this is "always" "superior".

The relative merits of individualism vs fitting into a larger group structure are judged differently amongst cultures,(and even within one culture, differently at different points in time, and in different contexts)

.What is "superior", unless tied to a particular context where some form of numerical benchmarks can be used, comes very close to being a personal prejudice .

I still think todays American fights for the "american way of life" essentially encompasses just his liquor and his woman."

Well, again we will have to agree to disagree . The "American way of life" is about a lot more than "beer and woman" .

Now one can disagree with certain aspects of American life and it is well within an individual's rights to do so .

However even when one opposes something, in my opinion, one should first understand precisely what one oppposes .Hence all the links to the history books .

For eg, if one doesn't understand the causes and course of the American Civil War , what happend during the Recnstruction etc, one would be very hard put to accuratelyunderstand why present day America is the way it is .

Most Americans are ignorant of what really happened in their past , just like Indians are mostly clueless about their own past and prefer to believe simplistic myths .

The recent film released in India on Mangal Pandey and the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny is a good example of this myth making process .It is so very unhistorical it is not funny .

An American equivalent is "The Patriot"

"I am sorry if even by mistake implied that you were saying that there was racism in corporate India. It was just an added opinion."

Heh ! No need to apologize I was just clarifying things because my may have been unclear on that point.

And just to conclude, I am strong believer in both Capitalism and Democracy .Not because they are perfect .Thay re not .

But as Winston Churchill once said , "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have
been tried ".

Likewise for Capitalism .

Thanks for your comments .And don't worry about disagreeing with me. Disagreements are often the source of wisdom, provided both parties retain intellectual honesty .