Anita Pratap en Sat Nov 20 12:08:02 IST 2021 randy-andy-and-other-rogues-in-royal-robes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In the 1980s, he was “insanely hot”. Girls swooned over him, boys envied him and the media fawned over him. Britain’s Prince Andrew was second in line to the throne, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite and a party animal. He had all the fun and no responsibility, unlike his elder brother, king-in-forever-waiting, Prince Charles. But as time passed, Andrew slipped further away from the throne and life careened downhill. Playboy Prince Andrew’s is a cautionary story, a fairy tale that was not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ongoing court battles, the accusation of rape and friendship with convicted sex offenders, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, have disgraced Prince Andrew. Invited by Andrew into exclusive royal realms, Epstein and Maxwell spent weekends in the Queen’s favourite Balmoral Castle, danced in Windsor Castle, hunted in Sandringham Royal Parkland and even sat on the throne in Buckingham Palace. In turn, Andrew flew on Epstein’s jet, nicknamed ‘Lolita Express’ to luxury destinations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the “Lolitas”, Virginia Giuffre, trafficked by Epstein to his friends, accuses Andrew of raping her when she was 17. Rape is hard to prove, but sex with underaged girls is a crime. Andrew’s response to Giuffre’s allegations has so far been to deny meeting her, to dodge and deflect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His lawyers manoeuvre for an out-of-court settlement, assert the case has no jurisdiction in New York because Giuffre now lives in Australia, that Epstein has signed an agreement with Giuffre shielding his friends from litigation, that he could not be the “sweaty” rapist Giuffre described because he cannot sweat. With no medical records or witnesses to back his claims, Andrew looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Says mental health counsellor Todd Grande: “He has made himself look guilty.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Andrew’s profligate lifestyle is his nemesis—partying and philandering in mansions, yachts and resorts owned by the rich, famous and scoundrels. Earlier, Andrew courted Central Asian and Arab dictators, went on luxury holidays paid for by a convicted arms smuggler and chased sexy sports models—women, not cars. “He has come to Hollywood to look for chicks,” his former actress girlfriend, Courtney Love, once said. The media called him “Air Miles Andy” and “Randy Andy”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Casanova to grandfather, from hot to hot potato, times have changed for the Prince. In the wake of the Giuffre scandal, Andrew’s sponsors dumped him. He had to withdraw from 230 charities. His life as the swashbuckling international jetsetter leading British business delegations to different destinations, making speeches from Davos to Bangkok, disintegrated. Is his story ill-fated to end unhappily ever after? The lives of Princess Diana and Prince Andrew should suffice to convince fans there is no such thing as a royal fairy tale. When there is no fairy tale, why have the monarchy? It has no political power. People no longer believe royals have a divine right to rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stripped of mystique and grandeur, the monarchy is just Big Business. Nicknamed “The Firm”, the British Royalty spins revenue from tourism, pageantry and merchandising. Monarchies claim they are national unity symbols in polarised times. Western kingdoms squeeze competitive advantages by forging a club with other kingdoms and sending their royalty on trade missions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More and more princes have fairy tale weddings with “commoners”, feeding fantasy frenzies worldwide. But their usurious, luxurious lifestyles and mortal scandals of lucre and lust reduce them to anachronisms—oxymorons embedded in modern, egalitarian societies. In Britain, #AbolishtheMonarchy trends on Twitter. As royal families pose for photographs on their balconies, in hats and medals, fripperies and fineries of the past, they look like a gallery of relics. And a few rogues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Jan 16 10:49:12 IST 2022 in-2021-european-art-throbbed-with-fantasy-and-realism-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Popular themes in art indicate the direction in which a Covid-fatigued world is headed. It’s not that art imitates life or life imitates art. It is just that artists have a different perspective and sensibility from journalists, politicians, and decision-makers swirling in the throes of fast-paced developments. The message from the art world is that 2022 will be a year of warriors and women, of faces, fantasy, and feelings. It is both new, and to renew.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, we lived in bubbles. But European art throbbed with fantasy and realism, remembering and portraying life as we knew or imagined it. Exhibitions were big on fantasy, not surprising because people easily slip into the make-believe amid pandemic-induced loneliness. In Basel, the exhibition on Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828) was a powerful magnet. Goya’s saints and sinners, ghouls and witches inhabit realms where reality and fantasy merge. His genius lay in depicting the drama that unspools when reason meanders into irrationality.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Alice in Wonderland incarnated in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with vanishing rabbits and psychedelic tea parties. Overwhelmed by the changes around her, Alice wonders “Who in the world am I?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Figurative painting ruled the year. Freudian analysis suggests audiences craved to connect with faces: different, diverse, dramatic, or drab. It didn’t matter, so long as they were human. People thronged to see the tableaux of portraits, absorbing the expressions depicted in exquisite detail—the supercilious duchess, the smirking lieutenant, the crafty merchant.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The health of the planet nagged people’s consciousness. The Nobel prize of painting, the Praemium Imperiale, was awarded to rainforest photographer Sebastião Salgado for his stunning monochromatic images in silken black, blinding white and shadowy grey to powerfully convey human misery amid a ravaged environment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Exhibition trends suggest that the art world—and society—has entered not kalyug, but shakti yug. In Tate Gallery, eight of the nine solo presentations of living artists were by women. Another presented the works of women artists who succeeded in invading the male-dominated domain of 19th century art. A Swiss exhibition presents female artists who capture the feminine experience through nude portraits of women with pregnant bellies and sagging breasts. Through their unflinching portraits, these women artists subvert the stereotypical male depiction of the female form as seductive, voluptuous, mysterious, or long-suffering.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In addition to gender battles, cultural and political wars invaded the hallowed precincts of museums like never before. Slavery, racism, and the construction of identity in exile were illustrated with rage and rancour. Critics trumpeted the arrival of a new star on the art firmament, painter Michael Armitage, 37. They raved about his “sumptuous surfaces, luminous colour and exhilarating brushstrokes”. Beneath the visual feast, are dark portraits about current and post-colonial conflicts that challenge historical assumptions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In between lockdowns, several magnificent, quaint, and controversial museums opened or reopened across Europe to showcase human genius. The 13-storeyed Munch Museum dedicated to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, considered the father of modern art, opened in the spectacular surroundings of the Oslofjord. Paris came up with the renewed Musée Carnavalet, clever and quirky with old shop signs and miniature guillotines in ivory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In summer, the refurbished Casa Balla opened in Rome, colourful and futurist, crystallising the human experience from endurance to exuberance. Italian artist Giacomo Balla lived and worked here through fascism and war, a reminder that calamities recede into history, but life and art endure. Pandemics, mass extinctions, wars, and other doomsday scenarios notwithstanding, our world with all its whims and beauty, paradox and flaws, keeps spinning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sun Jan 02 10:23:03 IST 2022 anita-pratap-life-lesson-from-wavelle-a-nonconformist-seagull <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A bird was my best teacher this year. A sweeping section of the fjord outside my window had frozen overnight, a spectacular phenomenon. Nature’s majesty was on full display as ice sparkled, snow glistened, dreamy mists swirled and wisps of steam curled up. The ice on the fjord crackled and broke apart in the winter sun, becoming a metaphor for the fragility of life during the pandemic. A flock of seagulls huddled on a floating breakaway block of ice, the size of a car. As the wind surged, this sheet of ice began disintegrating into the foam-flecked waves. The gulls squawked and flew away.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All except one.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She stood her ground on the thin slice of shrinking ice and began grooming herself. Unperturbed and undistracted by the choppy waves, she focused on nuzzling her right wing, then left, then her chest. And on and on she repeated her ritual, even as her ice patch became smaller and smaller, bobbing perilously into the far beyond. I decided the gull was female and named her Wavelle. She did not give up, she did not look up, she did not fly away like the others. She just concentrated on her routine, fearlessly, patiently, diligently.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was a good lesson on how best to endure and survive the pandemic—or any calamity for that matter. Concentrate on the routine. Religious leaders advise it is wise to submit to higher forces when they are beyond your control. But never surrender will. That is within one’s control and one can choose how to respond. When misfortune befalls, the common reaction is anger or self-pity, fear or loathing. People complain or create mischief. But all this is pointless, self-defeating behaviour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead, times of adversity can be used to study, learn, teach, write, paint, and help others. Do your duty, reward is not your concern, the Gita teaches. Instead of getting sucked into the vortex of the never-ending cycle of alarming news or conspiracy theories, it is better to focus on one’s daily routine, writing, singing, home-schooling children, cooking, administering, dancing, coding, crunching numbers, whatever. Concentrating on activity is also meditation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New-age gurus advise “Do what you love”. Much of the time, we may not love what we are doing. But keeping at it helps. The discipline of daily practice is as important as the outcome. As time goes by, discipline becomes the outcome. Without realising, we have improved, one day at a time, one word, one brushstroke, one note, one digit, one ingredient, one peck at a time. The inner spark of creativity is lit, it grows and glows, despite the surrounding pain, chaos and meaninglessness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The journey of this inner spark is told beautifully in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a cult book from the 1970s. Little Jonathan, the seagull, knew there was more to life than the ceaseless squabbling for food. He finds his joy, his meaning in flying. His flock ostracises him for not conforming, but he finds enlightened teachers who impart an age-old wisdom: practice makes perfect.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was a lesson taught by my own seagull. While Jonathan taught the magic of flying high, Wavelle’s lesson was about staying grounded, persisting with her routine even as the ice beneath her webbed feet shrank. Her space, her world closed in, as the lockdowns did on us. Flying Jonathan and steady Wavelle represent the equilibrium of opposing male-female forces. Soaring or still, imagination unlocks the magic world of possibilities. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray once said: “To some, it is only a droplet, but I see the whole world in<br> a dewdrop”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bach based his book on American aviator John Livingstone, who died in 1974 at age 77 shortly after test flying an aerobatic aircraft. Livingstone’s wife’s name was Wavelle. Of course, even if others had seen my Wavelle’s voyage on windy waves, they would not have given her a second glance, let alone thought. Like beauty, interpretation lies in the eye of the beholder. To some, a daft bird. To me, a nonconformist gull that demonstrated 2021’s best life lesson.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Dec 16 15:55:33 IST 2021 anita-pratap-writes-on-the-many-problems-facing-swedish-pm-magdalena-andersson <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>History was made. This country got its first woman prime minister. That is ho-hum news everywhere, except if it had happened in the US, Russia or China. Sri Lanka elected the world’s first woman PM in 1960, then came Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina….</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But it is shocking that progressive Sweden has never had a woman prime minister until now. Even more shocking is that history was unmade in seven hours. Sweden’s first woman PM, centre-left social democrat Magdalena Andersson, was forced to resign on the day she was appointed. “This political circus is very bad for Sweden,” declared Ulf Kristersson, leader of her ally, the Moderates. “People are wondering what the hell is happening in Swedish politics right now,” said Ebba Busch, leader of the centre-right Christian Democrats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mess comes from Sweden’s complex governing system. Andersson did not win a parliamentary majority for her appointment. But the opposition lacked the votes to stop her from taking office. Then, parliament rejected her budget, but adopted the opposition’s, drafted by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. History was made—for the first time, a far-right budget was passed in Sweden. Infuriated by the opposition budget’s reversal of environmental measures, the Greens pulled out of Andersson’s governing coalition, toppling her government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, while the world danced to ABBA, watched Ingmar Bergman movies and enjoyed Björn Borg’s tennis skills, whatever happened to women politicians in Sweden? This liberal Scandinavian country introduced women’s voting rights a century ago, is path-breakingly advanced with social welfare and gender equality. Yet, neighbouring Norway had its first woman PM in 1981. Denmark, Iceland and Finland followed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tragedy, scandal and prejudice have stymied prime ministerial ambitions of Swedish women. The first serious contender Anna Lindh was knifed to death. Mona Sahlin’s bid to become PM was derailed by the “Toblerone Affair”. She had used her government credit card to buy $4 lakh worth of private goods, including nappies and Toblerone chocolate. “These are all things that male politicians have wives to do,” said political scientist Drude Dahlerup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unconscious bias works against women. Södertörn University’s political expert Jenny Madestam says previous women PM contenders “battled the unconscious beliefs that the party leader should be a man”. Top women political leaders have also paid the price for being ahead of their time, advocating talks with the Greens or the far right. Madestam believes it is easier for men to make these strategic leaps. Instead of becoming PMs, prominent female Swedish politicians chose international careers in the UN or the EU.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are unconscious expectations from men and women politicians, in substance and in style. In her 2018 biography, Inifrån, conservative PM contender Anna Kinberg Batra writes, “When a woman scores points against her opponents, stands up for herself or is challenging, she’s neither strong nor sexy, but ‘sharp’, or even ‘a bitch’.” It’s perfectly normal for a man to look grave when discussing serious issues, but when she handled serious matters, top colleagues advised her to “look more cheerful”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Andersson now has reasons to look cheerful. History was made yet again on November 29 when she was reappointed first woman PM—for the second time. But the fragmented political landscape makes her position precarious. Parties are jockeying for next year’s parliamentary elections. Her party drones on about rent control, while the far-right rants against crime, shootings, bombings and gang violence in immigrant ghettos that blight big cities. This resonates powerfully with the voters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All the problems that made Andersson’s first stint as PM a “seven-hour wonder” remain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Dec 04 12:04:23 IST 2021 scandals-wont-cost-boris-johnson-his-job-yet-but-knives-will-be-sharpened-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In politics, nothing changes… until it does. British commentators wonder whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be ousted by the current “sleaze scandal”. But Teflon Johnson, so far, has had the devil’s luck. Nothing sticks. The string of controversies, sweetheart arrangements, dodgy deals, gaffes, scandals over rewarding cronies, appeasing donors and breaking rules have failed to turn into a noose to cook his goose. Instead, he stumbles blithely—some say recklessly—into the next minefield. “He’s always had the idea that rules don’t apply to him,” says Sonia Purnell, his biographer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The sleaze row centres around his Conservative members of parliament taking well-paid “second jobs” as lobbyists to promote private interests. Labour leader of the opposition Keir Starmer accused minister Owen Paterson of snagging Covid-19 testing equipment contracts worth £500 million for the firm Randox that paid him £1,10,000 in fees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Parliament’s standards committee ruled against Paterson, asserting: lobbying is permitted; “paid advocacy” is not. Johnson’s initial reaction was to protect Paterson—and other Tories—by replacing the independent committee with a new one packed with his loyalists. The uproar culminated in Paterson’s resignation and Johnson backing down on his controversial proposal—his 43rd U-turn in two years in office.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Media investigations reveal over a quarter of Tory MPs have “second jobs” earning them £4 million since the pandemic began. Another scandal involved Tories “selling” peerage or seats to the House of Lords for<br> £3 million apiece.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Johnson himself has been embroiled in ethics inquiries into who paid for his posh Caribbean holiday, refurbishing his Downing Street flat and whether he misused his position as London mayor to benefit an American businesswoman with whom he had an affair. Starmer accused Johnson of “leading his troops through the sewer”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But British sleaze is “chicken feed” (a favourite Johnson idiom) compared with the corruption in autocracies, poor resource-rich countries or even some southern European nations. Britain scores well, 11, on Transparency International’s ratings. But TI’s Steve Goodrich admonishes, “Where rules aren’t followed and there is no consequence, the absence of accountability can breed particularly egregious behaviour that could easily slip into out-and-out corrupt practices that you might expect from less-established democracies.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Petty corruption” has always existed in Britain. Whether it was MPs cheating on their allowances or the Egyptian billionaire and father of Princess Diana’s boyfriend, Mohamed Al-Fayed, slipping brown paper envelopes with cash to Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in 1996. But Professor Mark Knights, an expert on the history of corruption, compares the Johnson regime’s “new corruption” to the “old corruption” of the 18th century prime minister Robert Walpole, when government jobs were bought and sold. Knight warns, “There are signs that we could be slipping back into a Walpolean era where patronage, patrimony and partisanship prevail”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is unlikely that the scandals will cost Johnson his job yet. His party is solidly behind him because he is the best Tory vote-catcher. He is still an election asset, not a liability. He keeps the Conservatives’ patronage system in power. For a politician, losing the ability to win votes is like Samson losing his hair.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Labour is nowhere close to the victory line, the sleaze row has dented Tory and—especially Johnson’s own—popularity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Should the ratings keep falling, knives will be sharpened. Margaret Thatcher had won three elections for the Tories. When her popularity began sinking, it was her own ministers who tossed her out. Losing votes and losing money have perilous trajectories. Dwindling popularity is like bankruptcy; it happens gradually, then suddenly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Nov 20 12:05:59 IST 2021 austria-sebastian-kurz-has-his-party-backing-as-he-plots-return-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He was Europe’s wunderkind, the fresh-faced wonderboy who was serious, eloquent and popular—loved by girls, admired by boys and adored by aspiring mothers-in-law. In 2017, Sebastian Kurz became Austria’s—and the world’s—youngest ever democratically elected head of government at 31.&nbsp;In 2019, his ethical decision turned this high-achieving political rockstar into “Saint Sebastian”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the cost of his own government’s collapse, Chancellor Kurz evicted his governing coalition’s far-right partner when he was caught in a corruption scandal. Kurz declared “Abuse of power, misusing taxpayers’ money and manipulating media is really serious.”&nbsp;In the ensuing election, Kurz won a bigger mandate. The wunderkind could not be stopped.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Until he was—by Austrian prosecutors who accuse him of, ironically, abusing power to bribe journalists with taxpayers’ money. Investigators, not fans, began raiding his office. He and nine associates are suspected of&nbsp;embezzlement, bribery and corruption.&nbsp;The loss to the state exchequer is only €3,00,000, but if convicted, they could face long jail terms. This time, Kurz’s Green coalition partner pulled the rug. Vice-Chancellor and Green party leader Werner Kogler announced Kurz was “no longer fit for office”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Without the Green party’s support, Kurz’s government collapses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So he resigned, announcing grandly,&nbsp;“This is about Austria, not about me. I want to make way to prevent chaos and ensure stability.” But it seemed more about his own, rather than Austria’s, stability, when he appointed loyalist Alexander Schallenberg to replace him. Kurz stepped down, but not aside.&nbsp;Petra Stuiber, deputy editor-in-chief of Der Standard, says Kurz will be “the one who is continuing to pull the strings in the background”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bribery scandal unmasked Kurz. Beneath the image of the poised whiz kid with immaculate gelled-back hair was a schemer, conniving his way to chancellorship after he became foreign minister in 2013 at 27. The “Kurz Machine” was an apparatus of corruption, cunning and conspiracy.&nbsp;Rigged opinion polls and media spin enabled Kurz’s astonishing trajectory. Riding on public animosity to “traditional politicians”, Kurz&nbsp;first maneuvered to become the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) leader and then rebranded the waning old party into the “Liste Sebastian Kurz”, a movement mirroring his own image. He changed the party colour from boring black to trendy turquoise. The rejuvenated party made a spectacular comeback.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On becoming chancellor, Kurz placed loyalists in key institutions in the country, from the powerful public broadcaster to the constitutional court. Opponents say the messiah had become a mini dictator, running a one-man show. Kurz&nbsp;embraced far-right’s anti-immigration policies and befriended populist leaders in Poland and Hungary. Like them, he defied the UN and European Union programmes to accept asylum seekers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To remain in power, Kurz consorted first with the far right—a taboo in Austrian politics. When that coalition self-destructed, he switched to the left-wing Green Party. Friend-turned-foe Gottfried Waldhäusl of the Far-right Freedom Party, says, “Kurz is Austria’s biggest opportunist.” It was all about Kurz, and Kurz only.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like Donald Trump, Kurz calls the investigation a “witch-hunt”. He has the backing of his party and his core base to work the puppet strings until he plots his return to power. But puppets sometimes develop spine. Critics believe Saint Sebastian has turned into a Sleazy Sinner. His halo has lost lustre, but Kurz’s political ambition still burns bright. Most politicians are incarnations of Narcissus. They love themselves. But Kurz is an original. He fell in love with his own image.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Oct 22 17:09:28 IST 2021 anita-pratap-on-the-great-norwegian-vault-that-preserves-the-worlds-memory <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What does “Piql” stand for? Some clues: It does not mean anything; it rhymes with pickle, and its goal is to preserve. But what it preserves and how it preserves it is a hi-tech tribute to human ingenuity. Says Piql Founder Rune Bjerkestrand: “We preserve world memory”.</p> <p>That sounds incomprehensible and impossible to do. Where would one begin? Since 2017, Piql’s “Arctic World Archive” (AWA) is creating a digital repository for civilisational heritage. AWA is inspired by the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway’s Arctic Archipelago. This vault preserves seeds of the world to perpetuate humankind’s food supply, should they be destroyed by disease, drought or nuclear wars. These same calamities can wreck world culture. So, for a fee, Piql preserves text, images and audio-visuals of our cultural legacy: music, movies, mosaic, maps, manuscripts, monuments—imagine a 3D Taj Mahal preserved for eternity!</p> <p>How do they do it? They do not curate. Clients approach them—usually governments, corporates, museums, libraries and national archives—to digitally preserve their assets and records for posterity. Many institutions have digitised their data, but not for long-term storage. Using AI and machine learning, Piql digitises and converts data into high definition QR codes and prints it to motion picture style film. Each 35mm frame has 8.8 million data points! Kick or crush it, the sturdy film survives. The data is open-sourced and read easily on different formats as an anti-obsolescence measure—to avoid the fate of disk operating system (DOS) and video home system (VHS). Who can predict the technology of 2030, let alone 1,000 years from now!</p> <p>The spools of 35mm film (usually a kilometer long) are wound into special pizza-box like containers and shipped to clients. They are also stored in Svalbard, in a decommissioned coal mine, where the dry, dark, low-oxygen permafrost could preserve the film for thousands of years. Says Bjerkestrand: “This data cannot be hacked, because it is offline and permanent”. But some clients want to store the information in the cloud for easy access for the public. Cloud can be hacked, but a comparison with the original spool would immediately reveal the hackers’ digital fingerprints and the information corrected.</p> <p>Unlike the government-run seed vault, the AWA is a private enterprise. Not surprising. Authorities have always dealt with seeds, but not so much with cutting-edge technology. Even the government-funded GPS and internet were popularised and commercialised by the private sector. Piql’s unique technology has been funded by €41 million from the European Union. The Norwegian government owns the Arctic coal mine where the archives are stored.</p> <p>Piql is a nerdy solution to an enduring problem. It is a miracle that so much heritage has survived. But much has been lost: the Afghan Bamiyan statues or Brazil’s library that burned down, reducing its historic collections to ashes. The digital revolution has contributed to heritage loss, but it now comes to the rescue. Bjerkestrand says his idea is inspired by the Norwegian concept of “sjølberg” or self-sufficiency. Mountains are alluring but unpredictable. In their backpacks, trekking Norwegians carry items to survive all eventualities—waterproof warm wear, spikes, salves, folding cookstove and dry rations. Says Bjerkestrand: “I wanted to create a self-sufficient product.”</p> <p>Institutions buy Piql’s sophisticated “reader” for high-resolution playback, but with a backpack containing a light source, mobile phone, camera and microscope, anyone can select and photograph a compressed QR code. Instructions on the film help you to recover the data. Visually, Piql represents 0 and 1, the binary code for all digitised data. Trust a Norwegian nerd to imagine, invent and implement such an idea.</p> Thu Oct 07 15:50:59 IST 2021 that-laugh-could-cost-germany-armin-laschet-the-top-job-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>That laugh could cost him the top job. Armin Laschet was in the lead to win the September 26 elections to become German chancellor and step into Angela Merkel’s shoes. But then he laughed at the wrong moment. His shoulders shook with mirth as he stood in the background and chatted at an event condoling victims of the recent devastating floods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The inappropriate laugh went viral. Laschet apologised profusely, but the damage was done. His centre-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany began sinking in the polls, enabling the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to overtake and emerge the front runner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Voters are angry. And fearful. A 2019 survey showed that Germans were least anxious in decades. But last year, they feared Donald Trump. This year, they worry about the consequences of the swelling pandemic-induced public debt, totalling an all-time high of €2.2 trillion. Germany is famous for its balanced “black” budgets, which have given citizens the comfort of financial predictability.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To offset this deficit, people now expect tax hikes, rising cost of living and welfare cuts. “The mountain of debt which has piled up at the federal, state, and local levels to deal with the coronavirus pandemic is causing Germans the greatest worry this year,” said Brigitte Römstedt, head of this annual “fear study”. Römstedt clarified that Germans are not inherently fearful. They respond to real, not imaginary, threats, worrying about unemployment only when there are layoffs or about terrorism after 9/11. As long as climate change was abstract, people did not worry. But now 69 per cent do after seeing the disturbing images of the recent floods.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But people’s anxiety over public debt is not reflected in this election campaign. It’s not a feel-good issue and requires painful remedies. “The parties have successfully hushed up the issue,” says political scientist Manfred Schmidt. It’s easier to run divisive, demonisation campaigns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As ratings fall, hysteria rises. Seeing power slipping from their grasp, the ruling conservative CDU is ratcheting up the rhetoric against their former coalition partner SPD, which could form post-election alliances with the socialist left and green parties. Laschet says the “radical left” weakens German security because they oppose foreign military deployments and the purchase of armed drones.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But riskier are the cyberattacks targeting to influence the election outcome by spreading disinformation—a sinister reminder of the 2016 US election meddling that contributed to Trump’s victory. German authorities protested sharply against alleged Russian attempts to hack data of local politicians to spread fake news and smear campaigns—as they have allegedly done in Poland and the Baltic states. German prosecutors say hackers from the group “Ghostwriter”, linked to Russian military intelligence service GRU, have been trying to breach private email accounts of parliamentarians and state legislators. A foreign ministry official described Russian actions as “a danger to the security of Germany and to the democratic will-forming process.” Berlin accuses the GRU of hacking the network of Germany’s lower house of parliament in 2015.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Due to Germany’s proportional representation system, coalitions are needed for securing the majority to rule. But this is a tricky and time-consuming process. In 2017, it took six months to cobble together a governing coalition. The SPD has the lead now, but it is difficult to predict the next coalition combination because polls can get it wrong. Laschet has not given up and the SPD leader Olaf Scholz is not complacent. Both fight hard in the last lap, keen to have that last laugh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Sep 16 15:10:59 IST 2021 us-century-over-in-kabul-china-begins-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What are Afghans like? Not the Taliban or Mujahideen fighters, but what are ordinary people like?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One typical Afghan was a turbaned tribal elder I once interviewed in a village near Khyber Pass. We sat in the courtyard of his single-storied, mud-brick house, with three generations of his women confined to the zenana (women’s cloister). He was tough, stoical and patient. Like his spirit, his weather-beaten skin seemed to have a high tolerance for pain. He did not flinch when an insect bit him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Walking away after the meeting, I turned around to wave. But I had already disappeared from his radar. He stared inscrutably into the horizon, from where many conquerors appeared through the millennia—Darius of Babylon in 500 BCE, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Genghis Khan and Arab invaders. Afghanistan was also “the graveyard of empires”—British, Soviet, and now American.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thorbjørn Jagland, former head of the Council of Europe, noted: “The fall of Kabul is as historic as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It symbolises the end of the American century.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is baffling that the White House did not anticipate a repeat of the 1996 Taliban “takeover” of Kabul—the CNN coverage for which I received The George Polk Award from Long Island University, New York. Like today, it was a walkover, not a takeover. Fed up with the corrupt, foreign-backed regime, tribal chieftains gave free passage to the Taliban to Kabul. A passage lubricated by Pakistan. History repeats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The White House appeared shocked that the 3.5 lakh Afghan forces they had spent billions arming and training collapsed without a fight. In reality, this was mostly a ghost army—men on paper. The “real” soldiers fled, surrendered or were slaughtered. Said British MP Tom Tugendhat: “Expecting this ragtag army to fight is like putting a rusty tricycle on Tokyo Olympic tracks and expecting it to win gold.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insists “Kabul is not Saigon”, referring to the chaotic embassy roof-top pull-out from Vietnam in 1975. Phil Caputo, a Vietnam veteran and journalist, among the last to be evacuated from Saigon, agrees. “It is worse,” he says. Compared with Kabul, Saigon was “like an audience leaving the opera.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>American evacuation from Kabul leaves in its wake bizarre ironies. When the US invaded Kabul after 9/11, the Taliban was not on their terror list. Now it is. America’s main concern was never the Taliban’s repression of women or beheadings. Their invasion aimed to ensure Afghanistan did not become a safe haven for terrorists, especially Al-Qaeda, to launch attacks against the US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, we see the rise of ISIS-K, a terror group deadlier than the Taliban, with bigger ambitions. They want a caliphate in Khorasan—a historic region including parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. American departure aroused fears of the Taliban taking control. Now the fear is they do not have enough control, especially vis-à-vis ISIS-K.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Remaining in Afghanistan to continue waging a counter-insurgency operation is fighting yesterday’s war. There is strong support in the US to bring soldiers back home. Troops are vulnerable to suicide attacks. Counter-insurgency using remote applications, surveillance satellites, eavesdropping technologies and drones are lethal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Over the horizon” operations are not the only new avatar of today’s warfare. Earthmovers may replace tanks in Afghanistan to extract rare earth metals and other minerals needed to power the global green revolution. It is about mining and manufacturing, loans and lanes. The 21st century could well be China’s century in Afghanistan. But the millennium remains with the Afghans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Sep 02 16:51:43 IST 2021 karsten-warholms-success-is-testimony-to-norways-unique-sports-model-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He is the new Scandinavian Superman, tall, dark-haired and handsome. Karsten Warholm, 25, does not fly, but he runs like the wind, winning “the best race in history”. As he crossed the finish line at the Tokyo Olympics, Warholm looked up at the scoreboard and gasped in astonishment. Cameras immortalised his face as he roared in joy, ripping apart his t-shirt. “There is no perfect race. This is as close as it gets,” he rejoiced.</p> <p>Warholm had just smashed the “speed barrier”, becoming the first man to finish the 400m hurdles in under 46 seconds; in 45.94 seconds, to be precise.</p> <p>Colin Jackson, BBC’s sports commentator, exulted, “This is one of the most outstanding world records. I am sure it will live longer than me.” Warholm broke his own world record of 46.70 seconds set two months ago at an Oslo race. That had shattered Kevin Young’s 29-year-old Olympic record.</p> <p>Warholm’s Tokyo Triumph is testimony to his grit. The hunger to win began burning when he was eliminated in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic semi-finals. For 1,812 days he went to bed, slept, dreamed, awoke, ate, trained and ran with just one thought in his head—win gold in Tokyo. Asked what he owed his success to, Warholm says, “I had my own drive, I had my own flame.”</p> <p>His success is also testimony to Norway’s unique sports model that abhors commerce, competition and above all, pressure. Exceptions are few. Until 12, children are not even graded. They are shielded from pressure—from parents, teachers and the system. Allowed to just be, without the pressure to compete and made to feel inferior or superior, children veer naturally to what they like, whether it is art or athletics, mathematics or music. What they choose and how far they wish to pursue it comes from within.</p> <p>Little flames are lit and some carry it to the peak of excellence. Says Warholm, “I like the Norwegian sports model. I think a lot of people can learn from it. I never felt any pressure.” Norway’s sports system is well organised down to the village-level. Young talent are selected, given world-class facilities, coaching and training. Norway is in contrast to the US and Britain where sports funding is linked to medals, leading to terrific triumphs, but also high stress, bullying and breakdowns.</p> <p>Born with “skis on their feet”, Norwegians excel in the winter Olympics, ranking first in 2018 with a record haul of 39 medals. The achievement is extraordinary as Norway has a tiny population of 5.4 million, comparable in numbers to a Delhi district.</p> <p>In Tokyo, Norway won eight medals, including four golds, ranking 20th out of 206 competing countries.</p> <p>Focusing on what is good for the child—not the school or parents—is integral to Norwegian philosophy. But this sometimes creates conflicts, especially with immigrant parents from different cultures. Like family, even the fisheries policy prioritises the wellbeing of the fish, not the fishermen or industry. This focus has revived depleted seas, resulting in abundant fish and richer fishermen. Fish is Norway’s second largest source of export revenue, second only to oil and gas.</p> <p>But Olympic victory is today’s headline. Norwegian commentators are already discussing Warholm’s existential dilemma: What next? Wondered sports analyst Erlend Nesje, “More of the same is hardly motivating. What’s he going to dream about now?” Even as the Viking Superman emblazons the “Norwegian Way”, the quest for excellence fans his inner flame. Says Warholm, “I will keep running. The next is best.”</p> Thu Aug 12 16:16:19 IST 2021 anita-pratap-trees-are-social-creatures-that-come-to-each-others-aid-in-times-of-danger <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This is a true story. My uncle, a surgeon, loved trees and every day he communed with them in his garden in Kottayam in Kerala, examining them from root flare to crown.</p> <p>His favourite was the luxuriant Malgoa tree that bore hundreds of sweet, juicy mangoes. Uncle would distribute them to family, friends and everybody in the hospital where he worked. He died in 1998. That year, for the first time, the tree did not bear fruit. Nor the year after. Eventually it restarted, but it was never the same. Gone was the joyful abundance. The tree was grieving.</p> <p>As someone who loved my uncle and trees, I found it perfectly normal that trees had feelings. Experiments that showed plants scream when cut indicated this, but that trees could behave like pets was considered absurd. This is why science is exciting, but can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Your thoughts are dismissed until proven right… sometimes. Ecologist Suzanne Simard, who grew up in the Canadian forests, has done pathbreaking research that proves trees communicate. She discovered that forests are like the neural networks in the brain or a living internet. Instead of computers linked by wires and radio waves, the trees are connected by threadlike fungi, which also help them extract water and nutrients from the soil. There are several satellites, with the oldest trees functioning as the biggest communication hubs. Scientists call this vast underground network, the “Wood Wide Web”.</p> <p>Trees work together in good times and bad. Like a well-knit human community, trees are social creatures that come to each other’s aid in times of danger like drought, disease or pests. Simard found trees infected by insects send chemical signals to nearby trees which produce defence enzymes against the insect. Trees communicate needs and cooperate to send supplies. It is the opposite of the Darwinian principle of the selfish gene asserting itself to survive. Instead of the strongest tree grabbing the dwindling nutrients, they share, sending it on to the neediest. Much like the Japanese villagers, who, after the devastating 2011 tsunami, forwarded precious supplies to the people on the frontlines who needed them more.</p> <p>Forests, like humans, are an ancient, caring, complex society. That’s how and why they survive. Cut them down, especially near human habitations, and diseases like Covid-19 spread. Scientists have discovered that the secret of healthy trees is diversity.</p> <p>Natural forests that survive millions of years are a profusion of biodiversity, with different species of trees, bushes and moss. Trees sicken when stuck in monoculture plantations. Fertilisers and pesticides become their life-support. Commissioned by the British government, <i>The Dasgupta Review</i> (an independent review led by eminent researcher Sir Partha Dasgupta) explores the catastrophically non-existent relationship between biodiversity and economics, which has “enabled the destruction of natural resources on a monumental scale”.</p> <p>Estimates suggest 1.6 earths are required to maintain the world’s current living standards. Simard has proved that trees talk to each other. Whether trees can talk to humans remains unproven, though there are people who experience profound communication, calming and age-old wisdom from the whispering boughs of ancient trees. That might be considered a sign of insanity now, but then science is a work in progress. It may catch up. Like societies, Simard says, healthy forests are “built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system.” The bond between nature and humans is the magic key. Trees and forests are as important to our well-being as uncles and societies. This is a message Covid-19 has reinforced around the world.</p> Thu Jul 29 19:54:27 IST 2021 anita-pratap-writes-on-how-lipstick-is-the-comeback-kid-after-mask-wearing-hit-sales <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is something peculiar about the world we live in when lipstick becomes not merely a fashion statement, but a symbol of life and liberation. As Europe approaches the tantalising light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, women break free from year-long confines and emerge from their homes—with makeup, coiffed hair and glowing skin. Masks out, lipstick in. Smiles can finally be seen. “Putting on lipstick again will be a symbol of returning to life,” declared Jean-Paul Agon, chairman of the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oréal. The $500 billion global beauty industry is predicting that the end of the pandemic will be greeted with the same exuberance as in the roaring 1920s. When World War 1, and the catastrophic Spanish flu pandemic ended, people swung to the other extreme—partying, preening, overspending, kicking their heels high. The same freedom from fear and the release of bottled emotions now propel people to feast on a fiesta of fashion, fragrances and face enhancers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Margarita Arriagada, CEO of Valde Beauty, “There is a pent-up desire to glam up.” Leading beauty businesses are already enjoying double digit growth. Pandemic lockdowns savaged fashion and cosmetics industries with closed shops and salons. Before Covid-19, 85 per cent of beauty products were sold in shops. Even luxury customers preferred to shop in the showrooms. Presumably, the ecstasy of shopping is enhanced by the envy of onlookers as they stride out swinging Louis Vuitton or Prada shopping bags. Still, shopping did not become extinct during lockdowns. It shifted online. E-commerce and the pivot to Asia, especially by affluent Chinese customers, offset some losses. Entrepreneurs, like the Portuguese businessman José Neves, profited from this trend. His online luxury marketplace for men and women that showcases high-end fashion brands from around the world became popular. During Covid-19, Neves’s wealth crossed $2.2 billion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the rich got richer during the pandemic, they spent even more money, time, and energy on pampering themselves. An ambassador for the idle rich, Melania Trump became unchained not only from the pandemic but also from the shackles of the White House. In her sprawling Mar-a-Lago resort in sunny Florida’s Palm Beach, she visits her in-house spa twice a day. This enables her to peacefully practise a miracle mantra for eternal youth: Rinse, Relax, Rejuvenate. Repeat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The pandemic exacerbated existing income inequalities. Joblessness and poverty skyrocketed. Over 36 million Americans went hungry and waited in queues to get free food while the sales of Godiva’s “luxury” chocolates rose. Heineken Lager Beer announced new products to spoil its fast-expanding market—women—with tantalising choices: Zero alcohol beer for lunches, sparkling alcohol water, low alcohol beer for weekday evenings and strong ones for Friday nights. Beauty is no longer skin-deep; it encompasses diversity, nature and well-being. Many companies report that their premium products—especially in the eye makeup, wellness and self-care categories—sold briskly during the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lipstick sales are usually recession proof. Cosmetics billionaire Leonard Lauder invented the so-called “lipstick index” that gauges how women, during bad times, splurge on a small “affordable luxury” like lipstick, while forgoing expensive clothes and shoes. As fashion icon Coco Chanel famously said, “If you are sad, put on more lipstick and attack.” This time though, lipstick sales plummeted because of mask-wearing. But now, lipstick is the comeback kid in the makeup kit. Native tribesmen used war paint to convey strength, ferocity and success before battle. Women now apply face paint and lipstick, ready to battle for fun.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Jul 15 16:49:38 IST 2021 ronaldo-runs-like-a-cheetah-kicks-like-a-kangaroo-jumps-like-an-impala-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Football star Cristiano Ronaldo is a poster child for anti-abortion campaigners. His impoverished mother, Maria, wanted to abort him because life was desperate with three children and an alcoholic husband. But, in 1984, abortion was forbidden in catholic Portugal. So Maria gave birth and an unwanted star was born.</p> <p>Fast forward to the present. Ronaldo attained superstardom in the ongoing European football championship when he scored his 109th goal in international matches. Covid gave way to football fever as Ronaldo tied with Iran’s Ali Daei to become the world’s champion scorer.</p> <p>But Ronaldo did not start life as a champion. His father was a gardener and his mother a cook. They lived in a one-room tenement without electricity, where sunlight squeezed through the cracks. Bullied in school for his dialect and his poverty, Ronaldo acquired a defiant, smouldering, sullen look that seemed a shield of defence and was destined to break hearts later on.</p> <p>His father named him after Ronald Reagan. That seemed a cruel joke as Ronaldo’s childhood was more about scars than stars. Legend has it that he was expelled at 14 for throwing a chair at a mocking teacher. He hated school and loved football, so became free to focus on the game. The rest is history. “Dreams are not what you see in your sleep, dreams are things which do not let you sleep,” he famously said.</p> <p>One well-meaning teacher warned him that football would not put food on the table. In 2020, Forbes reported that Ronaldo’s net worth had crossed $1 billion. He champions many just causes. His kicks make millions. His flicks erase millions. At a recent press conference, he pushed aside the Coca-Cola bottles placed in front of him, a gesture that wiped out millions in Coke’s share value. His message: “Drink water!”</p> <p>Ronaldo’s mesmerising dribbles, long-range goals and animal spirits make him a superstar. He runs like a cheetah, kicks like a kangaroo, jumps like an impala and has the stamina of a horse. Sports commentator Carl-Erik Torp said, “Portugal team is not that good, but Ronaldo is always dangerous.” Ronaldo is hyper-competitive and cocky, but has talent and humour to back his swagger. He said of himself: “He’s six foot two, brave as a lion, strong as an ox and quick as lightning. If he was good looking, you’d say he has everything.” He sure has, including 500 million followers on social media.</p> <p>Ronaldo is poised to become the greatest footballer of all time. His main rival is Argentina’s Lionel Messi. There are strong similarities—both come from poor families, both overcame childhood medical conditions, both dribble like magic. There the similarities end. Messi believes God made him. Ronaldo takes pride that he made himself, overcoming endless obstacles through sheer grit and sacrifice.</p> <p>Both are in their mid-30s and are performing well, an unusual phenomenon among sportsmen. Gone are the days when injuries aborted the careers of 25-year-old athletes, forcing them into retirement. Now they gain an extra decade of playing not because of God or self, but science. While their genius has brought them thus far, what takes them further are medical interventions. Some athletes have had more than 30 surgeries, fusing and fixing assorted bone, muscle and tissue. Said Ronaldo, “Many people helped me along the way. Above all, though, I want to mention the help of my medical team that has been working alongside me.” He sees them as his guardian angels.</p> Thu Jul 01 17:03:15 IST 2021 why-hungarians-are-opposing-upcoming-chinese-university-in-budapest-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>What does a European mayor do if he wants to enrage China? Rename streets. So, the liberal mayor of Hungarian capital Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, renamed streets to shame Beijing: “Uighur Martyrs’ Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road”, “Dalai Lama Street”. China was enraged. “This stunt is contemptible,” fumed the Chinese spokesperson.</p> <p>Budapest’s renamed streets surround the 5.5 million square-foot campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University, China’s first university in Europe. Opening in 2024, the campus will have 8,000 students living and learning medicine, business and engineering on the banks of the picturesque Danube. The university will have a 500-strong faculty, convention centres and sports facilities. Hungary will “become a regional knowledge hub”, boasted government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs.</p> <p>The Fudan campus is a powerful symbol of the populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s embrace of communist China. Dubbed the “Bad Boy of Europe”, Orban champions “illiberal democracy”, is Euro-sceptic and anti-immigrant, and curtails independent media, judiciary and the opposition. He has vexed European Union leaders by cosying up to strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.</p> <p>Ignoring America’s warnings that Huawei is a security threat, Orban hosts Huawei’s biggest supply centre outside China. Hungary accounts for 1 per cent of EU’s GDP, but enjoys veto power. The country blocked EU’s measures against China for anti-democracy crackdowns in Hong Kong. Hungary was the only EU country to approve China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines. Two years ago, Orban ejected George Soros’s liberal Central European University from Budapest and then welcomed the Chinese university into the heart of Europe.</p> <p>But Orban miscalculated on Fudan. Two-thirds of Hungarians oppose the campus, fearing Chinese influence, espionage and surveillance. This could be “China’s Trojan Horse of intelligence on Hungarian soil”, warns political scientist Daniel Hegedüs. The first post-pandemic street protests in Hungary were aimed against Fudan. People are also angry because the elite campus replaces a housing project for poor Hungarian students who come to study in the capital. Karacsony accuses Orban of serving the interests of the elite. Ironically, elite-bashing and nationalism helped Orban win landslide victories since 2010. Karacsony will now challenge him in next year’s general elections. To defuse public anger, Orban offers a referendum on the campus if re-elected.</p> <p>Fudan is Orban’s weak spot. The Chinese campus will drain 1.5 billion in taxpayers euros—more than Hungary’s entire higher education budget. It is mostly financed by Chinese loans, like the €2 billion China deal to reconstruct the Budapest-Belgrade railway. Project details are classified. Orban’s aides accuse opponents of hypocrisy, asserting Germany and France have bigger investments with China.</p> <p>The pushback against China comes from liberal mayors of European cities that are engines of economic growth, like Prague and Budapest. Karacsony fears Hungary is falling into China’s debt trap. He worries about the security risks and the financial burdens imposed by expensive projects built with Chinese loans that could “bankrupt future generations”.</p> <p>This resentment prevails in other European countries, too. Several EU member-states snubbed Chinese President Xi by avoiding an infrastructure summit last February. Lithuania withdrew from this club altogether. Montenegro pleaded for EU aid to repay Chinese loans for a motorway project bedevilled by corruption and delay. The project’s environmental damage to this scenic, tourism-dependent nation is catastrophic, what with chopped mountains and gouged river valleys. Per kilometre, it is one of the most expensive roads in the world. Critics call it the “Highway to Hell”.</p> Thu Jun 17 20:13:49 IST 2021 has-gop-become-american-democracys-most-dangerous-enemy-asks-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was catchy, but the world was baffled by Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Wasn’t America great already? But the message was coded: assert white dominance in a country “degraded” by diversity. So the demagogue demonised the “other”—Muslims, Mexicans, Africans and gays. But “otherising” is not new to the Republican Party aka Grand Old Party (GOP).</p> <p>From its inception in 1854, the GOP was infamous for its violent antagonism towards impoverished Irish immigrants. Discrimination against the Chinese, Japanese and East European immigrants followed.</p> <p>Xenophobia and racism helped the GOP win elections. Even folksy Ronald Reagan belittled African-Americans. Asked if Reagan’s attempted assassin did anything wrong, a black woman said: “He missed”.</p> <p>Author Steven Jonas predicts, “Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation.” Long before Trump, white antagonism seethed against the liberal elite for “stripping” away their racial, cultural, national and economic superiority. Racial anxiety fused with resentment of feminism, gay rights, secularism, immigration, globalisation, stagnant wages and dwindling opportunities. The solution: not upgrading oneself but “degrading the other”. The most virulent manifestation of hounding the “other” was Republican senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt of communists in the 1950s. Renowned journalist Walter Lippman wrote McCarthy’s goal was to become the GOP’s feared “supreme boss,” brazenly demonstrating “he respects nobody, no office and no institution, and that everyone at whom he growls will run away”. Reputed historians say the GOP’s response to Trump mirrors the party’s response to McCarthy, whose biographer Thomas C. Reeves observed, “Republicans rallied behind McCarthy even though most understood that his allegations were fraudulent.” Just as they know Trump’s election fraud charges are fraudulent. Republicans surrendered to McCarthy because McCarthyism reaped votes for the party. They made huge gains in the House and Senate in the 1950 mid-terms and a landslide in the 1952 presidential polls. The GOP believes Trumpism will do the same, starting with mid-term elections next year. One reviled man links McCarthy and Trump. Lawyer Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s vicious aide turned Trump’s mentor. Critics have labelled Cohn a “snake”, a “Machiavellian” and “a new strain of son of bitch”. Cohn used cunning and villainy to dodge scandals and indictments involving tax evasion, stock swindling, bank fraud, bribery, blackmail, extortion, forgery and perjury. Trump was 26 when he began cultivating the feral fixer. Columnist Frank Rich says, “You can see and hear Trump in Cohn’s ruthless bullying and profane braggadocio.” Cohn’s hypocrisy was astounding. He flaunted anchorwoman Barbara Walters, the “fiancé” he never married. He savagely threatened to expose and shame closet “fags”. But he died of AIDS in 1986. “Lie and Attack” was his mantra. <i>The New York Times </i>editorialised, “Mr Trump has spent his career in the company of developers and celebrities, and also of grifters, cons, sharks, goons and crooks.” Mainstream mocks, but the fringe flocks. The far right is a minority, but forms the vocal Trump base in the GOP, which attracts disgruntled white voters but alienates most others. The Republican party’s dilemma is that demographically, the “others” are outnumbering the whites. Elections will not perpetuate the party of white identity in power. So they counter by redrawing constituencies and introducing laws in GOP-ruled states to disenfranchise “others”.</p> <p>Warns political commentator Richard North Patterson, “The GOP has become American democracy’s most dangerous enemy.” Disconcertingly, it continues to invalidate President Biden’s legitimate victory, sabotages inquiries into the January 6th insurrection and rejects to repair and rebuild to truly “Make America Great Again”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 03 15:28:05 IST 2021 marine-le-pen-is-the-phoenix-from-france-s-far-right--writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Marine Le Pen is sort of a Madame Butterfly of French politics. Four years ago, when the far-right leader contested the presidential elections, it was unrequited love. Voters rejected her roundly. So, she rebranded, rebuilt and rejuvenated her Rassemblement National Party. Now it is roaring, threatening to oust President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s presidential ballot. Le Pen asserts: “There is no more split between left and right; there is a split between the globalists and the nationalists.”</p> <p>Blurring traditional party loyalties give wind to Le Pen’s wings. If she wins, she would be the first far-right leader since World War II to become president of “Socialist” France, a momentous event for the European Union’s second-largest economy and as consequential as Brexit for the bloc.</p> <p>Liberal France abhors the far-right’s populism and nationalism. But taboos are crumbling. Macron and Le Pen are neck and neck in current opinion polls, with Macron at 26 per cent and Le Pen at 25 per cent. Unlike her rabble-rousing, anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, she unifies voters by adopting popular Brexit-type grievances, including hostility to globalisation, immigrants, free trade and the EU. Says French political scientist Chloé Morin: “Lots of ingredients are the same (as Brexit)—a rejection of elites, feelings of injustice, the desire to ‘take control’ of your country’s destiny.”</p> <p>But Le Pen, who championed “Frexit”, has now withdrawn her threat to leave the EU. Dragging her party towards the centre has made her less untouchable to the public. Frustration with the sclerotic French bureaucracy is an old epidemic. This anger catapulted the insurgent newcomer Macron to power in 2017. As he now jockeys for his re-election, “reformation” remains Macron’s magic mantra.</p> <p>But after one term in office, the magic has gone and the mantra rings hollow. Macron broadcasts he is a “breath of fresh air”. Le Pen retorts, “Macron is the last gasp of the old system.” His diplomatique grandeur of French internationalism, peace-making and economic reforms fizzled along the way. Terrorist attacks, street protests and pension reform rebellions roiled France.</p> <p>The pandemic also bruised image-conscious Macron. It stalled his reforms. It sullied his reputation. Critics lampooned and lambasted the self-proclaimed “Jupiter” for his erratic handling of Covid-19. He disdained scientific advice, then flipflopped to impose stringent lockdowns to control a third wave of infections. “Mr Know-it-all gets it wrong, again” is a snide refrain.</p> <p>Perhaps Macron’s personality is the fatal flaw. Morin describes Macron as “scornful, haughty and as divisive as Le Pen”. Political analyst Nicholas Dungan says Macron fails “to convince people he feels their pain”. In an election that follows a pandemic, that can be fatal. Former socialist economy minister Arnaud Montebourg says: “Macron is hated because he is arrogant. He is not the rampart but the one who will sweep Madame Le Pen to power.”</p> <p>But it is not a done deal for Le Pen. She lacks administrative experience, was involved in a Russian donation scandal and performed poorly in TV debates. The pandemic exposed the mess populists created worldwide. “Still,” says Dungan, “Trump and Brexit have shown you get elected on feelings, not facts.”</p> <p>The French typically choose a candidate they dislike to defeat the one they hate. So, who do they hate more? Last time, they voted Macron to keep out Le Pen. Is it vice-versa now? If Le Pen rises from the ashes, Madam Butterfly could well turn into Madame Phoenix.</p> Thu May 20 18:46:24 IST 2021 anita-pratap-argues-young-women-are-prophets-of-the-21st-century <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Prophets are imagined as old men with flowing beards, imparting wisdom that stands the test of time. Not so in the 21<sup>st</sup> century. Now they are small, young women. Or girls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First came Malala Yousafzai. An unknown 15-year-old schoolgirl from interior Pakistan, who got shot, got famous and got the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. All in two years. She spoke with stunning eloquence about girls’ right to education, vowing to be prime minister of Pakistan one day. She is the Prophet of Girl Power. Cynics say she was planted by the CIA.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came Greta Thunberg. At 15, this Swedish schoolgirl with Asperger’s syndrome inspired a global youth movement to fight climate change. Even experienced environmental experts could not better her brilliant, spontaneous soundbites. From the UN pulpit, she mocked, ridiculed and scolded world leaders. One day, she could be the United Nations Secretary General. She is the Prophet of the Planet. Cynics say she was planted by a communications agency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then there was African American Amanda Gorman. Older than the other two, but still only 22. The poet laureate and Harvard student wowed the world with her poem that she read out at Joe Biden’s inauguration. A well-crafted, wise poem about love, racial unity and democracy. The poem mirrored her persona—poised yet passionate. She power-dressed in a chic red headband and a Rs2.5 lakh sunshine yellow coat by Prada, with whom she has a deal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Amanda is not shy about her presidential ambitions. She said in her poem “A time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” Her fans say she will win the 2036 US presidential elections. Cynics say she is planted by the Clintons, the Obamas and Oprah Winfrey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And then there is Darnella Frazier. An ordinary 17-year-old black Minneapolis schoolgirl who used her mobile phone to film police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. In filming all 10 excruciating minutes of the murder while Chauvin’s cohorts advanced menacingly with Mace, Darnella showed courage, compassion and civic conscience. Her video exposed the police coverup and contributed to the 12-member jury unanimously pronouncing a guilty verdict, sentencing Chauvin to a jail term of up to 40 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Darnella won awards for bravery. “With nothing more than a cell phone and sheer guts, Darnella changed the course of history in this country,” praised Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an NGO that champions freedom of expression. Darnella has transformed into a TV personality with artful makeup and stylish dresses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, there is darkness. She is undergoing trauma therapy. Her mother says Darnella was already suffering from social anxiety. Then she had to deal with the horror of witnessing life squeezed out of a terrified man. After that she was persecuted by internet trolls—white supremacists spewing venom, hatemongers accusing her of getting payoffs and denigrators unreasonably blaming her for not intervening to save Floyd. Darnella’s life is a 21st&nbsp;century morality tale, personifying the power and pitfalls of social media. Activists raised half a million dollars to protect her. But activists move on, finding new causes and new prophets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Historic police reforms are under way because of Darnella. She is the Street Prophet of Small Miracles. Planted by none, she grew like a dandelion through the cracks of the pavement. Cynics say her video will be remembered, her name forgotten.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu May 06 15:06:17 IST 2021 systemic-racism-in-us-propagates-police-excesses-writes-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In black dystopia, people need protection from the police and the police need protection from the people.&nbsp;The dystopian capital is “Murderapolis”, also known as Minneapolis in the US. In this scary world, routine activities—like going to a shop or a gas station—can turn lethal. Says author Van Jones, “For blacks, driving a car is a death sentence.”</p> <p>Black motorists are disproportionately pulled over by white police officers, usually for minor traffic violations, but too often ending in homicide. Police shootouts have cursed black communities for generations. Says former police chief Charles Wilson,&nbsp;“The institution of policing in the US is inherently biased against people of colour and low income. It’s been designed that way for over 400 years.”&nbsp;</p> <p>That bias was horrifyingly on display when George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee down on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. But even as Chauvin’s trial was climaxing, 16kms away a young bi-racial man, Daunte Wright, 20, was shot dead by police. Enraged demonstrators marched to the heavily guarded police headquarters, barricaded by high metal fences and concrete barriers. Soldiers and policemen in riot gear hurled gas grenades as protestors threw rocks and cans.&nbsp;</p> <p>Systemic racism propagates police excesses. Says black activist Kamau Bell, “It’s not just about a few bad apples. The whole system of policing is a rotten tree of white supremacy.” Whites feel superior to blacks, but racial profiling also embeds fear as whites see young black men as criminal and violent.&nbsp;Wright was killed by a policewoman, Kim Potter, with 26 years of experience. But her body camera video shows an officer in fright.</p> <p>Fear impairs judgment. Potter, 48, was field-training the officers who pulled Wright over for expired license plates. They then discovered an outstanding warrant—he had failed to appear in court last June for charges of possessing an unlicensed gun and fleeing from the police.&nbsp;This inflamed the stereotyping of blacks with guns and crime. As a frightened Wright scrambles into his car, Potter repeatedly shouts she will Taser (stun gun) him. And she does, except she fires her pistol.&nbsp;</p> <p>Caught on bodycam, Potter exclaims, “Oh shit, I shot him.” How an experienced police officer mistakes her loaded handgun for her bright yellow, lightweight stun gun is baffling. Potter’s senses may have scattered, but her aim was dead accurate. She fired one shot, got him in the chest. She is in jail, charged with second degree manslaughter. In Chicago, a policeman shot dead an allegedly armed 13-year-old boy—again, with one bullet in the chest.&nbsp;</p> <p>Stereotyping begets suspicion and prejudice. When white officers see fancy cars driven by blacks, do they assume they are stolen? Wright had a shiny white car. In Virginia, policemen pulled over Caron Nazario, an Afro-Latino who was driving an expensive SUV, almost straight from the showroom. It had temporary licence plates.</p> <p>A serving lieutenant, Nazario was wearing his army uniform. But that made no difference.&nbsp;Says Wilson, “Being in the uniform of the service of this country doesn’t protect you from nothing. Not if you get stopped by one of the idiots.” Nazario&nbsp;was pushed to the ground, hands forced back in a position frighteningly similar to Floyd’s. But unlike Floyd, Nazario walked out alive and is now suing the police.&nbsp;No longer are African Americans prepared to wait for another 400 years to end this black dystopia.</p> Thu Apr 22 17:27:40 IST 2021 zeb2-is-the-mastermind-determining-the-size-of-the-brain-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A two-day delay, a giant leap for humankind. Cambridge researchers have discovered that a 48-hour lag in the activation of a gene resulted in a bigger human brain.</p> <p>The development of a big brain was the Big Bang moment in human evolution, the moment when we diverged from the apes, about five million years ago. The rest, as they say, is history.</p> <p>Thanks to our big brain, here we are today, enjoying the best that life can offer, living in packs safely in skyscrapers, hunting for food even more safely in supermarkets, averting life-threatening situations by looking at both sides of the street when crossing, composing symphonies, doing math and spinning new technologies that take us into deep oceans and outer space. Were it not for that two-day fateful delay, we would still be foraging in faraway forests and swinging from trees like chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.</p> <p>Our magnificent yet mysterious brain is three times bigger than that of the apes’. But size is not idiot-proof. Charles Darwin observed, “An American monkey, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus is much wiser than most men.”</p> <p>Still, a larger brain is more intelligent and processes information more efficiently. But the mechanics of the momentous expansion of our brain has largely been unknown.</p> <p>To understand this least understood organ, scientists used stem cells from humans, gorillas and chimpanzees to create pea-sized versions of their real brains in the laboratory. These “mini-brains” called “cerebral organoids” are rudimentary cell fragments of the brain that imitate its characteristics. Of course, mini-brains are not perfect representations, underscoring the complexity of the real brain.</p> <p>Four weeks after conception, an embryo’s general-purpose, cylindrical stem cells change shape. They become conical as they convert into specialised brain cells or neurons. The window for this conversion is five days in apes, but in humans it is seven days. The extra two days gives time for more stems cells to convert into neurons, resulting in a larger brain. Says Madeline Lancaster, who led this research team at Cambridge MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, “It is remarkable that a relatively simple evolutionary change in cell shape could have major consequences in brain evolution.” Her findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal <i>Cell</i>. Lancaster created the world’s first mini-brain in 2013.</p> <p>The Cambridge researchers solved a key puzzle: the seven-day window was caused by the delayed activation of a gene called ZEB2. When they delayed this gene’s activity with chemicals, gorilla mini-brains grew larger, like human ones. When they switched on ZEB2 earlier in human mini-brains, they became smaller, like the apes’. Evidently, zany ZEB2 is the mastermind, determining the size of the brain—and thus the creature’s fate. Case solved.</p> <p>Not so fast, say scientists. Humans are yet to crack the brain code. ZEB2 is the master regulator, switching on and off other genes. But what switches on ZEB2? A super mastermind, a genetic mutation or an evolutionary accident? That is probably a mystery for the next generation of scientists to solve. For now, Lancaster is thrilled with the outcome of this pioneering research. She says her findings take us closer to understanding “What makes us human?” For non-scientific mortals, it is hard to fathom what is human about organoids and ZEB2, though delays are utterly and understandably human. The giant leap in her understanding, is alas, one more step in our incomprehension. The mother of mini-brain clearly has a bigger brain.</p> Thu Apr 08 19:17:53 IST 2021 experts-predict-baby-boom-post-the-pandemic-says-anita-pratap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Experts said the pandemic would produce a baby boom because people were stuck indoors. Nine months later, the outcome is a baby bust. Many developed countries are experiencing significant drops in the number of births, proving that simplistic correlations can be dead wrong. Like the ecosystems that surround us, human life is determined by a complex web of factors. As Australian demographer Liz Allen says, “More sex is insufficient for a baby boom to occur.”</p> <p>Following the pandemic, Hawaii has recorded a 30 per cent drop in births, Spain 23 per cent, and Italy 22 per cent. Canada, Japan, Korea, the UK and France have seen 5 to 15 per cent fall in birth rates. In the US, three lakh fewer babies were born by 2020 end. The reasons for this dramatic drop are many: pandemic-induced health and economic crises are not conducive to having a baby. The thought of accessing Covid-burdened medical facilities or thinking of the number of hands that could touch a newborn is sufficient to delay parenthood until the pandemic is over. Precarious job markets create anxieties about the future. Singles lived isolated while couples endured erosion of privacy and energy.</p> <p>Explains Canadian economist Elisabeth Gugl, “After balancing work with the sudden loss of school or day care, parents simply didn’t have the bandwidth.” Abortions and miscarriages increased due to financial and emotional stress. Singles delayed weddings. Couples deferred fertility treatments.</p> <p>The pandemic-induced worries appear temporary, but they accelerated the global downward trend: birth rates have fallen 50 per cent in the past 50 years, from 5.1 births per woman in 1964 to 2.4 in 2018. To offset death rates, a country should have a replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Korea’s birth rate is now 0.84, the lowest rate recorded for a major economy. Populations in many countries, including Italy, Korea and Japan, are predicted to drop by more than half by the end of this century.</p> <p>The long-term reasons for declining global birth rates are well documented: urbanisation, modernisation, emancipation, working mothers, expenses in raising children, nuclear families and welfare states that provide elderly care, among others. The increasing age at which women in developed countries are having children contributes to difficulty in conceiving. But there is another alarming reason for rising infertility.</p> <p>In a paper, legendary British investor and philanthropist Jeremy Grantham says, “there is a shocking 50 per cent decline in sperm count since 1970s and an equally rapid increase in age-adjusted miscarriage rates.” He blames “endocrine disruption”, or the toxicity in the body’s hormonal system caused by the chemicals in the products we use daily—plastics, toys and food. Europeans are aghast by the American “Kehoe” rule, whereby suspicious chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Thus, the lead in petrol, pipes and paint continued to be used for 50 years after its danger was first raised. While the US has banned only 11 substances in cosmetics, the EU prohibits over 1,000.</p> <p>Low fertility has high costs. Experts say low birth rates depress economic growth. Less children mean more elderly people, relative to the population, as in China, which is getting old before it gets rich. Ageing population means higher health care and pension costs. Optimists claim low birth rates are reversible. Birth spikes do happen nine months after power outages or Christmas holidays. When the pandemic ends, experts predict celebrations will result in a rise in births. Not a boom to compensate the bust, but an increase nevertheless from the current lows. We will know if the experts are right, nine months after the worst is behind us.</p> Thu Mar 25 16:16:06 IST 2021 from-grace-to-grass <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>He was the man who could be the president of the United States. Now he is disgraced, contrite and cringing, a diminished version of the Colossus that strode the planet’s most exciting city. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, 63, is accused of sexually harassing five young women. Four of them had worked for him. He apologised for causing “unintended offence” and insisted: “I never touched anyone inappropriately”. That only reminded everyone of Bill Clinton’s infamous claim, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Clinton was impeached, not for sexual relations, but for lying.</p> <p>Cuomo swears he was not making advances, merely greeting in his customary, “playful” manner. He is of Italian descent and Italians are customarily effusive in their greetings. Long ago, he had wisecracked, “As my Sicilian grandfather used to say, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The tough-guy governor is known both for his harm and charm offensives, using his power to punish foes and promote friends. An ageing alpha male touching 25-year-olds in any manner is controversial, not customary; prurient, not playful. The same age as his daughters, the complainants accuse Cuomo of kissing, stroking bare backs and making lewd comments.</p> <p>Cuomo’s marriage to Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter Kerry ended in divorce in 2005. His relationship with celebrity TV chef Sandra Lee ended in 2019. Aide-turned-accuser Charlotte Bennett alleges Cuomo propositioned her in his office, prattling about “looking for a girlfriend” because he was “tired” and “lonely”, moth-eaten ploys used by powerful men to prey on pretty women. Cuomo is now under investigation.</p> <p>Like his father, Cuomo is a three-term New York governor and has implemented popular progressive policies: fighting climate change, passing the strictest gun control laws in the US, raising taxes for the wealthy, reducing it for the middle class, equalising wages and providing free tuition for the underprivileged, among others. During the early months of the pandemic, Cuomo was the polar opposite of President Donald Trump: in-command, coherent, visible and taking tough, data-driven decisions. That is when his supporters began to extol him as the most effective Democratic presidential candidate to take on Trump.</p> <p>But that is also when Cuomo’s enemies got activated. He himself has said: “I am sort of the Antichrist to the Conservative Party.” Republicans first pounced upon the scandal over his aides hiding Covid-19 deaths of the elderly in nursing homes. The sexual harassment charges came as a bonus. But Cuomo also has rivals within, most notably, the Democratic Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. Sprawling New York is not big enough for the oversized egos of these two feuding men. After the sex scandal erupted, de Blasio called Cuomo’s alleged behaviour “grotesque,” “perverse” and “terrifying”.</p> <p>As if enemies in the Republican and Democratic parties are not enough, Cuomo can be his own worst enemy. Detractors accuse him of abrasive, aggressive, arrogant behaviour. “I am the government,” he has pronounced to his critics’ annoyance. His younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, once said on-air while interviewing him, “No matter how hard you are working, there is always time to call mom.” The national fame garnered by his riveting televised pandemic press conferences has made him feel “he is untouchable”, says Bennett. Hubris probably contributed to Cuomo’s travails.</p> <p>Cuomo is now a wounded lion. He may wind up as the man who would, not could, be president. The investigation’s outcome will determine whether he can even cling on as governor.&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 11 10:44:22 IST 2021 anti-vaxxers-history-and-hysteria <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The race is on. Across the world, countries rush to vaccinate their citizens against Covid-19. But some nations, especially the US, face a stumbling block: public mistrust of vaccines. The “anti-vaxxers” are motivated by deep-rooted suspicions, ranging from historical experiences to religious beliefs to conspiracy theories. Worries popular US epidemiologist Anthony Fauci: “There is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country.” Herd immunity cannot be achieved when so many millions are hostile to vaccines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“American health care’s racist history has helped fuel a fear of vaccines,” notes investigative reporter Olivia Goldhill. The US Public Health Service conducted a 40-year experiment, which ended in 1972 in Tuskegee in rural Alabama, denying antibiotics to 399 black men. The purpose was to study the progression of untreated syphilis―condemning the men to slow, painful deaths from infected sores, dementia, paralysis and organ damage. Author of Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington observes: “Tuskegee is the most famous, but there are many other less-known medical atrocities conducted by the government.” These include invasive gynaecological procedures without anaesthesia and sawing a black baby’s skull to study epilepsy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Other western nations, too, conducted unforgivable experiments in their colonies. During the 1930s in Rawalpindi, British army scientists tested the effect of mustard gas on the brown skins of 20,000 local men and women. In the mid-20th century, thousands of poor black women were secretly sterilised in procedures labelled “Mississippi appendectomies”. Suspecting the authorities’ intentions, many black families rejected polio vaccines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The African Americans’ historical fear of the vaccine is completely different from the contemporary fear-mongering by white supremacists and other anti-vaxxers who ceaselessly spin contradictory conspiracy theories: the vaccine causes disease; it will alter your DNA; China unleashed this “bioweapon” to conquer the world; Covid-19 is a hoax; Bill Gates has embedded a microchip in the vaccine that connects through 5G technology to mobile phone towers, enabling the government to watch you.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perverse imaginations know no limits. But they instigate real reactions with believers damaging vaccine vials and cell phone towers. Religious fundamentalists spin their own yarns, condemning vaccines as “unnatural” and “devil’s spawn”. The changing findings of science do not help. Quips sociologist John Gagnon: “The difference between a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory is that a scientific theory has holes in it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Racism is neither a conspiracy nor a scientific theory. It is a political fact. Even today, death rates from breast cancer are 40 per cent higher among black than white women; four times more black women die in childbirth. Says genetics professor Terence Keel: “African Americans have been systemically disenfranchised from the health care system in this nation. This is not lost on them.” Communication experts suggest winning the trust of the African-American community with pro-vaccine campaigns featuring black celebrities. But activists say watching a needle jab into the arms of sports or entertainment stars is not going to cut it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both black and white doctors perpetrated the syphilis experiment involving a historically black university and conducted it with the help of 120 black medical students. These horror stories are as deeply embedded in the African-American psyche as the chronicles of slaves and torture. Writes journalist Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune: “Tuskegee has long haunted African-Americans. Now it has circled back to haunt America. Do not blame African-Americans for fearing the Covid-19 vaccine. Blame America.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Wed Feb 24 18:50:30 IST 2021 ghosts-with-vile-goals <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Active measures” sound like dull, do-gooder proposals from a self-help pamphlet. Actually, they are devilish deceptions used in waging clandestine political warfare. Devised a century ago, they are still the “heart and soul of Russian intelligence”, says KGB defector Oleg Kalugin.</p> <p>The United States is still the main stage for this subterfuge. Recent events prove that “active measures” to weaken America are very active and not at all measured. That is because “the world has moved from analogue to digital espionage and the impact is extreme and unquantifiable,” says German security studies expert Thomas Rid.</p> <p>Soviet supremo Joseph Stalin created the secretive Special Disinformation Office in 1923, allegedly using the French word <i>désinformation</i> to deceive other nations into believing it was a French doctrine, like <i>diplomatique. </i>In reality, it systemised Russia’s stratagems to destroy enemies.</p> <p>Western experts found the KGB’s <i>aktivnye meropriyatiya</i> hard to translate because the “active measures” included propaganda, disinformation, kidnapping, honey-traps, duping journalists, sabotage, assassination, media manipulation, bribery, forgeries and strategic deception. The purpose was to advance Soviet interests by secretly sowing political and social discord among enemies―engineering fake incidents in West Germany in the 1950s to instigate real anti-Semitic violence or planting “evidence” to show Nazism still flourished; or spinning conspiracies about Ku Klux Klan bombing black neighbourhoods or the CIA murdering John F. Kennedy, a suspicion that still agitates America.</p> <p>The past is prologue. As president, Vladimir Putin uses all available tools to restore Russia’s greatness. A KGB agent for 16 years, Putin said in 2006: “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.” Security analyst Steve Abrams says, “Modern incarnations of ‘active measures’ in Putin’s Russia are much more sinister with greater range and speed through the internet.” The Federal Security Service (KGB’s successor) has dustbinned or dusted the dirty old tricks, adapted good ones and designed new cyber warcraft for an interconnected world. Explains Abrams: “Plant, incubate, propagate have been replaced by tweet, retweet, repeat.” Agent provocateurs incarnate as “Guccifer 2.0”, the Russian hacker who stole Democrats’ emails. “These guys move like ghosts,” says Chris Krebs, former US cybersecurity chief.</p> <p>Author Craig Unger’s new book, <i>American Kompromat</i>, alleges that the KGB cultivated Donald Trump as a “Russian asset” for 40 years. Decades ago, Vladimir Lenin advocated exploiting rifts in the enemy ranks “by taking advantage of any, even the smallest opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional”. Lenin seems more prophetic than Nostradamus.</p> <p>But Russia’s “malign machinations” should not be overstated. All nations resort to spying and subterfuge, some more skilled than others. “Success” in the United States is as much a testament to Russia’s dogged duplicity as to America’s deep domestic divisions that enemies can easily exploit. Active measures flounder in harmonious, homogenous societies.</p> <p>Western analysts now recognise a strategic feature of active measures. “They must ‘activate’ an emotional response,” explains Rid. “It is not important whether the original provocation is real or fake. It must incite a real reaction.” Emotions are activated when people are already fearful, angry or suspicious. When emotions erupt, lines blur between truth and lies, memory and imagination, origin and outcome, visible storm troopers and invisible Guccifers. As French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, “the neatest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist”. &nbsp;</p> Thu Feb 11 15:45:35 IST 2021 from-angela-to-armin <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>By year’s end, Armin Laschet could well be Europe’s most powerful man. He is a seasoned politician—prudent, pliable, patient and persistent. These qualities helped him become the head of Germany’s ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a position formerly held by Angela Merkel. She steps down in September after 16 years as German chancellor. A Merkel-loyalist, Laschet promises to continue her legacy: a robust Germany, a strong European Union and inclusive centrism. Merkel goes; long live Merkelism.</p> <p>Affable and jovial, Laschet, 59, was prudent when party heavyweights criticised each other and especially Merkel’s welcoming refugee policy in 2015. He patiently overcame political defeats to eventually become prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, whose capital is Düsseldorf. In the party leadership race, he narrowly defeated his sharp-tongued rival, Friedrich Merz. A multi-millionaire lawyer, Merz is polarising because he is associated with big business and high finance. Academics and socialist politicians have exposed his lobbying activities and conflicts of interest. Despite his defeat, Merz lobbied Merkel to make him economy minister. Merkel snubbed him, saying she was not planning a reshuffle.</p> <p>If the CDU wins the national elections in September, Laschet would succeed Merkel as German chancellor. But the pandemic disrupts political dynamics. Merz may not be Laschet’s sole challenger. Laschet’s ally, Jens Spahn, 41, may emerge a contender. As health minister, the openly gay Spahn gained high visibility during the pandemic.</p> <p>External opponents also lurk. Recognising this, Laschet said in his victory speech at the digital conference of 1,001 party delegates that elected him: “We want to make sure the next chancellor is from this party.”</p> <p>A potential external challenger is Markus Söder, a former journalist and serving state prime minister like Laschet. The Bavarian premier heads the CDU’s sister party and coalition ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Opinion polls show that 43 per cent of Germans want Söder as the next chancellor, while only 12 per cent prefer Laschet. Again, the pandemic accounts for this polarity in popularity. Söder won praise for his tough handling of the pandemic in Bavaria, while Laschet’s popularity sank because he flip-flopped between lax and tight restrictions, culminating in outbreaks in his state. Laschet is also labelled Russlandversteher, a derogatory term for people who are soft on Vladimir Putin’s Russia.</p> <p>Who becomes the next chancellor depends on the September election results. Laschet’s CDU is still Germany’s largest party, commanding 36 per cent of votes. The party has ruled for 52 of the last 72 years. Still, it needs partners to form a majority government. The CDU’s main ally, the Socialist Democratic Party, will not continue the partnership because it has damaged it politically. The party is down to 15 per cent in opinion polls, with both the far right and the Greens overtaking it. To Laschet’s advantage, the Greens, who now poll 20 per cent of votes, have an uneasy if not hostile relationship with Söder’s pro-business CSU. Experts predict a CDU-Greens coalition. Tortuous negotiations can take six months to culminate in an agreement.</p> <p>Laschet is cannily wooing the Greens. On winning the party elections, he said, “After Covid, the country needs to modernise and press ahead with green transformation.” Critics cattily noted that in his 10-point “vision for the future”, Laschet mentions climate only once. It appears in the heading ‘A good climate for entrepreneurial spirit and innovation’.</p> <p>Pliability, euphemistically called pragmatism, is also the trait of a seasoned politician.</p> Thu Jan 28 14:50:46 IST 2021 words-become-deeds <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Words matter. At his inauguration four years ago, President Donald Trump spoke about “carnage on the streets of America”. That was crazy talk because there was no carnage on the streets. The power of words is that they may not reflect reality. But they can change it. And that is what happened in the waning days of Trump’s presidency.</p> <p>In the waxing days of Trump’s reign in 2017, latent concern about the president soon became patent among non-partisan commentators. To assuage this, the stock answer of Trump’s apologists was: “Judge Trump by his actions, not by his words.” Trump’s words did not always metastasise into action, but it was not for the lack of trying.</p> <p>Analysts who worried about Trump’s disdain for ethics and rule of law consoled themselves that he would be stopped by America’s fabled checks and balances. This expectation was proven both right and wrong. The system buckled under Trump’s assault mainly because his loyal appointees implemented his questionable orders. But the system also bucked. Several government officials refused to do his bidding. Trump publicly branded them “enemies of the people.” These officers lived under police protection because pro-Trump-trolls threatened to kill and rape, and vandalise their homes. Republican state officials and even Trump-appointed judges quashed his election fraud allegations, undaunted by the president’s inducements, threats and coercion. Men and women of honour who became heroes for simply doing their job.</p> <p>It is appropriate―or perhaps ironical―that character assassination is waged through “characters”. After Twitter doubled text length from 140 to 280 characters early in the Trump presidency, only 12 per cent of its users exceeded the original limit. One of them was tweet-addict Trump, Twitter’s best brand ambassador with 88 million followers. Now he had 55 words to weaponise. And he did, tweeting praise and poison, punishment and policy. He tweeted constantly, conceitedly and compulsively, to spread lies, polarise society, build his fanbase, shame his opponents, bamboozle his critics, argue his case and even fire his defence secretary.</p> <p>Finally, Twitter fired Trump for his inflammatory words, banning him forever. It is easier to take tough action during the last gasps of a presidency. Still, corporate America realised that words matter. As do historians who have studied leaders through centuries. American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reiterated the obvious: “Rhetoric leads to violence.”</p> <p>This is recognised by all cultures, the power of words to destroy and inspire, debase and uplift, hurt and heal. Words are impactful because they spring from the speaker’s mind and strike the listener’s heart, stirring lasting feelings, ranging from joy to hatred. For all his faults, Donald Trump has always been transparent with his words. His tweets consistently reflected his thoughts, feelings and intentions. American Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel warned: “What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.” The problem was that the “guard rails” of democracy in the US government and the Republican Party did not, or could not, take this danger seriously. And, America paid the price.</p> <p>About an hour before the storming of the Capitol, Trump’s cue words at a rally―“stolen election”, “take our country back”, “walk to the Capitol”, “fight like hell”―goaded his assembled legion. His surreal Sancho Panza lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, instigated them to wage “trial by combat”, a medieval practice popularised by <i>Game of Thrones</i>, to settle disputes with a single attack. They did. And undid Trump’s presidency.</p> <p>The word-deed correlation could not be starker. It all began with words of carnage. It ended with deeds of carnage.</p> Thu Jan 14 14:15:40 IST 2021 brexit-and-english-covid <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was not meant to be this way. But then, such are the ironies of fate, its twists and turns that mock. On New Year’s Day, the United Kingdom embarked on a historic journey as an “independent” nation, breaking free from the European Union. It was “Onward Ho”, travelling far and wide, under a brand-new identity—“Global Britain”—restoring imperial grandeur, spreading opportunities, championing international causes, cutting lucrative trade deals with nations near and distant.</p> <p>But on the eve of this new journey, Britain was isolated as never before. Following the detection of the “English virus”, an extremely contagious variant of the novel coronavirus, nearly 50 countries pulled up their drawbridges to deny entry to British citizens, goods and flights. Perversely, it was as if the UK leaves the EU, but the world leaves Britain.</p> <p>Even the nations within the kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—shunned the English. The irony was biting—the mutant virus was discovered in England, the “imperial-nostalgic” birthplace of Brexit. And Britons were banned just when they were readying to go forth into the world. Throughout 2020, Brexit and Covid-19 unfolded as parallel stories in Britain, neither impacting the other.</p> <p>David Gauke, a former Tory lord chancellor, observed, “as in a TV series finale, the two plots are finally brought together.”</p> <p>In England, Brexit-induced bottlenecks were expected at the borders, especially in the English port of Dover, the main hub for trade with the EU, through France’s Calais port. But a few days before Brexit, the variant virus created havoc in Dover. As France blockaded Britain, some 10,000 trucks, laden with vegetables and fish, were stranded for days. With no money, food, water and toilet facilities, angry drivers scuffled with police. Some 8,000 military personnel were brought in.</p> <p>Supermarket shelves emptied and tempers frayed. Lufthansa sent planeloads of fresh food to Britain—humanitarian gestures that contradicted the Brexiteer demonisation of the EU. The English love to blame the French for their misfortunes. But PM Boris Johnson had to plead with French President Emmanuel Macron to allow the flow of goods. Macron did, and his decision demonstrated how interconnected, mutually dependent and globalised the world is. Macron was appeasing his French supermarket owners and connoisseurs. Lockdown or no lockdown, langoustines—those delicious lobsters fresh from Britain—are to be savoured, not sacrificed at border crossings.</p> <p>Every crisis has silver linings. The Dover disruption, a preview of the catastrophic consequences of a no-deal Brexit, finally nudged the UK and EU to sign a trade deal. Global Britain’s first export seemed to be this mutant virus, which sneaked into Europe, Canada, Japan and even Australia.</p> <p>The virus variant probably exists elsewhere, but it was detected first in England because British scientists have excelled in sequencing the coronavirus genome. Regular Covid-19 tests cannot detect viral mutations. They can only be identified by analysing the vast genetic data in each sample, using specialised machines.</p> <p>The silver lining for Britain is that these discoveries form the launchpad for a profitable new life sciences industry. The UK’s regulatory system is now independent of the EU, so the government plans to offer fast-tracked approvals to drug manufacturers for innovative medicine. The game plan is for the UK to emerge as a post-Brexit creativity hub. Johnson’s clarion call: “unleash the animal spirits”.</p> <p>Rousing rhetoric hides not Global Britain’s shaky start. But that’s no reason to believe it cannot steady its course. Fate is fickle; it tricks and tempts. But the Brits, they are tenacious and tough.</p> Thu Dec 31 16:14:11 IST 2020 ducks-and-drakes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A few Europeans to look out for in 2021.</p> <p>Lame duck conjures visions of The Donald. But there is another lame duck in Europe, Angela Merkel. Her 16-year German chancellorship comes to an end next autumn, but she remains powerful and popular. In her final budget presentation to the parliament, Merkel did something extraordinary. She spoke with passion. Instead of addressing parliamentarians, Merkel earnestly appealed to booze-guzzling youth to shun Christmas revelries this year.</p> <p>Merkel is fabled for her dowdy pant-suits, sedate manner and boring speeches. Equally famous are her annual Black Zero balanced budgets. This time, hunching and leaning her shoulders forward, narrowing her eyes and gesticulating with her hands, Merkel made a stirring corona speech, urging the youth to responsibly protect society, especially their grandparents, from Black Death. Rich in EQ, delivered with sincerity, concern and empathy, Merkel’s speech drew huge applause.</p> <p>Merkel, 66, ends her tenure as she began―<i>mutti</i>, or mother, who in her lame-duck phase, is still the protective mother hen, keeping not only Germany’s, but also Europe’s fractious flock together. The last custodian of post-war liberal European values, Merkel held a steady course through the financial meltdown, eurozone crises, Brexit, Donald Trump and coronavirus. Compromise, consensus and moderation are her mantras, patience her virtue. In all year-end surveys, she tops the list of Europeans who matter in 2021.</p> <p><b>RUSSIA</b> is part of the Eurasian landmass and telegram seems hopelessly outdated. But it is a cutting edge Russian social networking app promoting anonymous digital resistance. Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, 36, is called the Russian Mark Zuckerberg. He is a libertarian who encourages revolutionaries and shows his middle finger to the authorities. His response to Kremlin-backed demands for dissidents’ personal information was to knavishly post a picture of a dog with a hoodie, sticking its tongue out. Fury flared, Durov fled. The billionaire entrepreneur now holds a Saint Kitts passport. European governments welcome his digital resistance platform, but not in their backyard. Mask opponents and conspiracy theorists nimbly use the Telegram across Europe to stage spontaneous protests. Surveys say watch out for this disruptor.</p> <p><b>2021</b> can be a make-or-break year for British unity with the Scottish elections in May. If First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party triumphs, the next step could well be Scotland initiating steps for independence from its 300-year union with the United Kingdom. The Scots traditionally dislike British prime ministers, but pollsters say, they loathe Boris Johnson, especially his Brexit, which drags Scotland kicking and screaming out of the European Union. All eyes on Nicola, “the new queen of Scots”.</p> <p><b>ROKHAYA</b> Diallo, 42, is a culture war heroine with a vocal machine gun. Her ricocheting words puncture wide-ranging and deep-rooted French exceptionalism. Diallo is French, black, feminist and secular Muslim. But she condemns French feminists for opposing veil restrictions and the <i>Charlie Hebdo</i> magazine for caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad. She attacks systemic racism and the self-righteous elites for proclaiming Black Lives Matter does not matter in colour-blind France. But recent police racism and long-tolerated paedophilia shatter national myths, vindicating Diallo. The French Dragon Lady now has a column in <i>The Washington Post</i>, much to the dismay of image-conscious President Emmanuel Macron.</p> <p>Most Europeans featured in the surveys are glad that in 2021 they will not have to deal with the American lame duck, who is still striving to conjure victory out of defeat.</p> Thu Dec 17 22:27:24 IST 2020 opium-of-the-bigots <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>American analysts compare Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to a child’s tantrum. This insults children and trivialises dangerous behaviour. This is not a fit of temper. It should be called out for what it is: a wannabe autocrat’s power grab. Some day we will discover Operation Cling—alleging voter fraud, bombarding courts, pressuring election officials, legitimising conspiracies—came from some tyrant’s playbook ferreted to Trump, probably by Rudy Giuliani, his fixer side-kick of many scandalous escapades.</p> <p>Trump’s flaws are widely publicised. Books, documentaries and investigative reports reveal he is venal, vain, vulgar and vindictive, a liar on steroids, cruel and incompetent. He mauled America’s moral authority. He replaced ethical experts with fawning flunkies. He preyed on social divisions. His handling of Covid-19 brought America to its knees.</p> <p>Despite these wrongdoings, 72 million Americans voted for Trump, higher than any presidential candidate thus far—except for President-elect Joe Biden. This massive vote bank is why the Republican Party is in Trump’s thrall, appeasing him instead of nipping his immoral power grab. Ignoring Trump’s misdeeds, the rich, who gained enormously from his tax cuts, the farmers and others who benefitted from some of his policies, voted for Trump. They can be fickle. But not his estimated 35-million strong “base”, many of whom are white, gun-owning rural residents without a college education, the so-called “left-behinds of globalisation”. No matter what Trump does, that base stays loyal.</p> <p>This defies understanding until one delves into the political psychology of autocrats and their supporters. In <i>Escape from Freedom</i> (written 1941), German psychoanalyst-philosopher Erich Fromm explores how the masses—not just willingly, but enthusiastically—allowed Hitler to grab power. The German lower middle classes, he observed, “had become especially isolated from their work and their society, owing to the rise of capitalism. One way of coping was becoming dependent on a ‘great’ leader.”</p> <p>The autocrat and his followers are symbiotically bound together because they need each other, writes Fromm. The autocrat needs the adoring masses “because he cannot endure his aloneness and fear”. So the Covid-afflicted Trump bolts from the empty White House to address his cheering crowds.</p> <p>Likewise, supporters ignore the pandemic to attend rallies because they reinforce their importance by being part of a “great” person or idea. Fromm says the supporter is “frightened—often only subconsciously—[and] has a feeling of inferiority, powerlessness and aloneness. Because of this, he depends on the leader, the great power, to feel safe. He escapes into idolatry.”</p> <p>Alienation and powerlessness are aggravated during times of economic stress and upheaval, during war, pandemic, uprooting from villages, mass unemployment, cultural dislocation, loss of life and livelihoods, and a familiar way of life. White supremacism and scapegoating—Muslims, Mexicans, Jews—make supporters feel powerful.</p> <p>Many wonder how Trump’s base can ignore science, evidence, visual proof, and shared experiences of their leader’s incompetence and callous disregard in handling the pandemic. Rational arguments do not work, Fromm says, because the supporters’ relationship “is based on emotional submission” to the leader. This is a political religion. Trump often calls himself “the chosen one”.</p> <p>How does all this end? Fromm noted prophetically: “As long as he holds power, the leader appears—to himself and others—strong and powerful. His powerlessness becomes only apparent when he has lost this power, when he is on his own.” This insight is one reason why Trump does not want to concede and why the next phase will not be pretty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Nov 19 18:21:28 IST 2020 gunning-for-votes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” says Wayne LaPierre, the head of America’s formidable gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA). Diehard Donald Trump fans, the NRA is mobilising to get him re-elected—buying ads, organising events and pushing their five million members to vote. In 2016, they spent $30 million for Trump’s election.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Surveys show 60 per cent of Americans want stricter gun laws—including banning automatic weapons and proper background checks on gun buyers (mostly rural white men). But the NRA has successfully resisted restrictions by invoking the US Constitution’s Second Amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms. They tenaciously lobby Congressmen and cleverly equate gun ownership with freedom. Americans fancy they are the freest in the world, ironic given that they are enslaved by debt, materialism, corporate tyranny and notions of exceptionalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Long before Trump’s “fake news” and “alternative facts” went viral, the NRA shamelessly propagated fake analysis and alternative history. NRA leaders claim the association was established to train black Americans to defend themselves against the Ku Klux Klan. There is “zero” evidence of this, reveals award-winning author Frank Smyth. But that does not stop the NRA from proclaiming it is America’s “longest standing civil rights organisation”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Foundational myths proliferate. LaPierre, 71, asserts “Shooting is in America’s blood. It’s what Americans have always done.” The NRA’s real history is that a group of US army veterans were ashamed that Americans “could not shoot straight”, especially compared with the Europeans. So, they went to London in the 1870s and modelled their organisation on the British Rifle Association that promotes marksmanship.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>NRA mythology spins that history would be different if only there were enough good guys with guns: no holocaust, because armed Jews would have fought the Nazis. More guns, less genocide: had they been armed, victims could have counterattacked Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot. Martin Luther King Jr could not defend himself because he was denied a gun permit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if these arguments lack common sense, they are backed by sound financial sense. Threat perceptions drive membership and gun sales. Gun manufacturers contribute 60 per cent of the NRA’s income. Gun sales are now skyrocketing to two lakh a day due to high threat perceptions triggered by the pandemic and racial violence. There are already at least 400 million civilian firearms in the US (population: 330 million). In most states, gun shops are open because it is an “essential service”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After the 2012 Sandy Hook school carnage in which 27 people, including 20 six- and seven-year-olds, were gunned down, LaPierre blamed mental illness and video games for the rise in gun violence. His solution: put armed guards in every school. Even Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers called him a “Gun Nut.” After the 2018 Florida school shootout that killed 17, La Pierre’s solution: arm schoolteachers. He blamed the FBI, media and gun control “elites”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Multi-millionaire LaPierre, who has headed the NRA for three decades, epitomises the elite—private jets, luxury cruises and African safaris; his wife, Susan LaPierre, ran up a $16,000 tab with her hairstylists. But now New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a case, accusing LaPierre of corruption and using the NRA as his personal piggy bank.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sometimes, the only thing that stops a bad guy is a good girl.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Thu Oct 22 16:36:24 IST 2020 qanons-factory-for-alternative-facts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>They are becoming the western world’s most dangerous cult. With coded acronyms like WWG1WGA, 8kun and X22, QAnon is a platform of racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. Born in the US in the Trumpian era of 2017, QAnon is now spreading across Europe, especially in Germany’s neo-Nazi strongholds. German sociologist Matthias Quent describes them as “people who are quitting the mainstream, who are raging against the establishment”.</p> <p>The pandemic accelerated QAnon’s growth in Germany with neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers (vaccination) and others joining the protest against Covid-19 measures, especially masks. They stormed the parliament, a chilling reminder of the 1933 Reichstag (parliament) burning—part of Adolf Hitler’s violent campaign to incite voters ahead of German elections. Warns extremism researcher Julia Ebner, “QAnon is a potential threat to national security.”</p> <p>German intelligence agencies and the FBI agree. Earlier this month, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly condemned QAnon as a “sick cult”. QAnon’s conspiracy theories range from the ghoulish to the absurd. Devil-worshipping, mind-controlling elites brew anti-ageing elixirs from children’s blood. The coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese lab with Barack Obama’s help. The Covid-19 vaccine will turn humans into cyborgs. Colluding to enslave the masses are George Soros, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers.</p> <p>But there is a hero in QAnon’s worldview. “Trump is a saviour, a great redeemer for the German far right,” says extremism expert Miro Dittrich. QAnon believes Trump will save the world from the liberal cabal and is faking Covid-19 to deceive and destroy them in the coming Armageddon. They cheer Trump’s pandemic scepticism, nationalism and tolerance of white supremacists. They feel vindicated because his language and ideology legitimise theirs.&nbsp;</p> <p>QAnon members comprise Trump fans, right-wing trolls, provocateurs, hate-mongers, gun-lovers, weirdos, misogynists and prophets of doom. They include electricians and naturopaths, and German social media celebrities like news anchors and rappers who are conspiracy super-spreaders.</p> <p>Before he massacred nine persons of immigrant background in Hanau, 25km east of Frankfurt, 43-year-old xenophobic German gunman Tobias Rathjen uploaded a video amplifying QAnon’s conspiracy theories. Immigrants, liberal politicians and synagogues are targets. The killers of the mass shootings in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, circulated their hate pamphlets on 8chan (later renamed 8kun), a QAnon-favoured internet channel. QAnon’s German YouTube channel, Qlobal-Change, has over 17 million views.</p> <p>For QAnon disciples with impressive online viewership, this is lucrative business: bagging ad revenue, selling books and shady cures—quack creams, oils, pills and vitamins. Perhaps, it is good they make money. With their maniacal eyes and crazy ideas, their patterned shorts and cross medallions, rough beards and rougher mannerisms, they are unlikely to clear most job interviews.</p> <p>But QAnon is crystallising into a political force. Thanks to Trump, who recognises QAnon supporters as a significant segment of his base, the movement appears to be on the cusp of going mainstream. For the November Congressional elections, 22 Republican candidates are QAnon fans, with Trump-backed Marjorie Greene expected to win in Georgia.</p> <p>We know that WWG1WGA stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All”. Day X is the day Neo Nazis take over Germany. 8kun is an internet channel where violent anonymous posts vanish without a trace. But we still do not know who founded QAnon. Devotees believe QAnon‘s creator is either God or Trump.</p> Fri Oct 09 18:44:07 IST 2020 suga-the-self-effacing-samurai <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Dark-suited and silent, he is the typical, faceless bureaucrat. Now he is the face of Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appears to fit Winston Churchill’s description of his political opponent Clement Attlee—a modest man with much to be modest about.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suga is modest because his origins are modest. Son of a strawberry farmer from northern Japan, Suga fled his village at 18 and laboured in a cardboard factory to pay his Tokyo college fees. In the parallel universe of Japan’s elitist dynastic political families, whose scions become PMs, humble origins are insurmountable barriers to political crowning.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But destiny favoured Suga. Greatness was thrust upon him by former PM Shinzo Abe, who resigned suddenly citing ill health. Abe knew his devoted lieutenant Suga would safeguard his legacy and complete his unfinished reforms. They had been a good team—Abe grandstanding in the limelight, Suga toiling in the shadows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With almost eight years at the helm, Abe is Japan’s longest-serving PM, and his appointee—the unsmiling, weary-eyed Suga—the nation’s longest-serving chief cabinet secretary. Self-effacing Suga secured that top job through loyalty and merit. But he also had an underrated asset and strategy—a drab personality that helped him fly under the radar. “The nail that stands out gets hammered,” is a popular saying in Japan, where society swiftly squashes any deviation from conformity, modesty and humility. Abe and Taro Kano, another blue-blooded minister who could eventually become PM, are mavericks. But Japanese carpentry rules do not apply to princelings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For now, the princelings who head the fratricidal factions in Japan’s ruling LDP party support Suga’s elevation because he is uncontroversial and a political lightweight. Anyway, this is a stop-gap arrangement until the September 2021 elections. For similar reasons, Congress factions had agreed upon the mild-mannered, scholarly P.V. Narasimha Rao becoming prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination three decades ago. Rao went on to serve a full term.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like Rao, Suga, 71, is not a vote-getter. He is disciplined and hard-working, but lacks people skills, charisma and eloquence. In his victory speech, he prioritised tackling Covid-19 and then droned: “I want to break down bureaucratic sectionalism, vested interests and the blind adherence to precedent.” Not exactly crackling words that inspire voters to spark revolutions.</p> <p>But like Rao, Suga has a trump card, acquired through a long innings in politics. He is a skilful, behind-the-curtain operator who can manoeuvre Japan’s opaque bureaucracy. It is tempting to describe Suga as a humourless Sir Humphrey, the crafty bureaucrat in the BBC sitcom Yes Minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some experts predict that Suga is doomed to be merely a stand-in PM because the sectarian samurais will swoop in for the kill before next year’s elections. Internecine warfare could propel Japan back to the “revolving door” era—short-term PMs packed off prematurely by rivals. Since World War II, Japan has had 63 PMs. But others say Suga’s factional neutrality may help him become the least troublesome choice that all can agree upon... again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Much depends on how Suga tackles his basket of inherited problems—the pandemic, a shrinking population, an ageing society, the slumping economy, the massive public debt and a rising China. His past suggests he is reform-minded. He counts the privatisation of Japan railways as one of his triumphs. He may even call snap elections to secure himself. Suga has already travelled far from his humble origins. If he plods on as a boring bureaucrat who delivers results, he may yet pioneer a ‘velvet revolution’ in Japanese politics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Sep 25 17:26:34 IST 2020 the-royal-vanishing-act <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Ex-King flees to unknown land”. This time-warp headline takes us to medieval eras when monarchs fled their kingdoms, pursued by rebels, coup leaders, murderous kin or invading conquerors. But, this happens in 2020, involving the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos, 82. The unknown land he fled to is Abu Dhabi, where he is reportedly luxuriating in a $13,000 a night “paparazzi-free” hotel, with his loyal lover of 40 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One palace writer claims Queen Sofia has not shared her bedroom with Carlos since 1976, when she caught him cheating. Another claimed this King Don Juan had 5,000 mistresses—another time-warp reminding us of Emperor Akbar and his harem of 5,000 concubines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is not companionship or carnal liaisons but a corruption scandal that drove Carlos out of his homeland. He is accused of siphoning tens of millions of dollars from a secret offshore fund linked to Saudi Arabia. Spain’s supreme court prosecutor is investigating whether the former king received bribes for a $11 billion contract awarded to a Spanish consortium for constructing a high-speed rail linking Saudi holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Spanish and Swiss authorities are investigating whether the rail contract is connected to a reported $100 million “gift” that the late Saudi King Abdullah gave to a foundation associated with Carlos.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2014, public dissatisfaction spurred Carlos to abdicate in favour of his son Felipe—after a 38-year reign. Serving Spanish monarchs are immune to prosecution, but not necessarily ex-kings. Critics wonder whether Carlos fled to avoid conviction, a fate that befell his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin. A retired handball player, Urdangarin is currently serving a six-year jail term for embezzling $7 billion in public funds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Scandal has pursued the former king from the time he was a young prince. As a teenager, he killed his brother in a shooting accident. In 2006, there was a furore over allegations that he had shot dead a drunken bear after enticing it with vodka-infused honey. Most devastating was his secret, “tone deaf” extravagant hunting holiday in 2012. While Spain reeled under unemployment and austerity induced by the financial crisis, Carlos spent tens of thousands of dollars killing elephants and African buffalos in Botswana.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One former lover said Carlos financed his lavish lifestyle with “suitcases of cash” brought back from trips to Arab nations. The holiday became public only when he fractured his hip in a fall and had to be evacuated back to Madrid in a special aircraft. His 13-year-old grandson had to be hospitalised after he shot himself in the foot. People were aghast that the boy was allowed to use such lethal weapons, given the family’s deadly history with firearms.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite his flaws and foibles, the former king has a place in people’s hearts and in Spain’s history. After dictator General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, King Carlos’s support enabled Spain’s bloodless transition from fascism to democracy. For Spain, stability is paramount then as now with regions like Catalonia demanding to break free. But Carlos is now a polarising figure. Younger generations see less justification for a luxury-loving monarchy, kept afloat with taxpayers’ money. In pandemic-ravaged Spain, people are losing patience with royal misconduct. King Felipe has renounced his inheritance from his tainted father. He has also stripped his father of his annual $2.3 lakh allowance. But that is easily shrugged away when several million dollars lie waiting in Swiss banks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Sep 11 18:13:00 IST 2020 assets-imagined-and-real <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The dystopian world of artificial intelligence that we imagined would unfold in the future is already here. Or, at least a hybrid version with humans and AI working together, but where humans are not always in control.One “enemy”spawning and spinning this dystopian world is the global financial market, says San Francisco-based internet guru Tim O’Reilly. “The market is on its way to becoming that long-feared rogue AI, enemy to humanity, a machine that its creators no longer fully understand,”he said. Problematically, the financial market is disconnected from the real economy of goods and services that it was originally created to support. An example of this disconnection is the stock market rally and Apple’s astronomical $2 trillion valuation in the midst of an economically devastating global pandemic.</p> <p>The “market”, nicknamed “Wall Street”, does not factor in livelihoods, indebtedness, inequalities, pollution or resource depletion. Predator Wall Street preys on High Street for profit and productivity. Says O’Reilly, “We are engaged in a battle for the soul of this machine, and we are losing.” How the global financial market evolved into an AI-accelerated web is testimony to humans imitating nature. We, instinctively, associate AI with robots. But, an AI ecosystem is similar to a forest’s biosphere, our brain’s neural networks or our gut’s microbiome comprising the vast ecology of interconnected microorganisms. Billions of humans store and share information every second on the internet, creating a technology-assisted global human-machine hybrid brain. We now live in the womb of this AI ecosystem. This collective super intelligence is designed, directed and amplified by algorithms. More than 50 per cent of the stocks are now traded by algorithms because humans cannot compete with its speed. The time advantage of a high-speed trader is one millisecond. Says best-selling author Michael Lewis, “It takes 100 milliseconds to blink. So, this is a fraction of a blink of a human eye. But for a computer that’s plenty of time.” High-speed trading and complex investment instruments such as derivatives (that caused the 2008 global meltdown) pull financial markets beyond human grasp and control.</p> <p>Says O’Reilly, “Financial capitalism became a market in imaginary assets, made plausible only by the Wall Street equivalent of fake news.” The market’s destructive power is also demonstrated by the prioritisation of shareholders over workers, consumers and communities. Experts say the compulsion to increase share price above all else has hollowed out the mainstream economy.</p> <p>Economics professor William Lazonick notes that over a decade, Fortune 500 companies spent 86 per cent of their $3.4 trillion profits to buy back shares and give dividends to shareholders, leaving only 14 per cent for reinvestment in the company. Workers are now a cost to be eliminated. Over the past 50 years, the share of wages to GDP fell from 54 to 44 per cent, while corporate profits rose from 4 to 11 per cent. But the algorithm is servant, not master. It fast-tracks its creators’intentions, which are driven by altruism or greed. AI accelerates benefits and inequalities, profits and losses. The legendary GE boss Jack Welch was an ardent advocate of this shareholder capitalism. By 2009, he had changed his mind, calling it “a dumb idea”. By then he had retired with a fortune of $900 million. It was “dumb” because growth slowed. Companies had to buy back stocks to increase share price and create the illusion of growth to conceal the stagnation. Real growth improves people’s lives. So now, fake news in politics complements fake growth in economics. Perhaps, it was farsighted to call this tool artificial intelligence.&nbsp;</p> Thu Aug 27 14:59:30 IST 2020 the-showdown-is-on <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>T he “Thucydides Trap” states that a rising power is doomed to conflict with the established hegemon. This theory has stood the test of time for 2,500 years. Experts now fear a doomed conflict between the United States and China, in a new version of the Cold War.</p> <p>Closing each other’s consulates is vintage Cold War. But the new twist is that China cannot be “contained” because it is deeply integrated into the global economy. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted: “The USSR was closed off from the free world. Communist China is already within our borders.”</p> <p>And making full use of it—snooping, spying, selling and stealing. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray says China’s intellectual property theft is “so massive that it represents one of the largest wealth transfers in human history”. China’s thieving costs an estimated $250-$600 billion a year and robs millions of American jobs. The new US war chant: China is “raiding, not trading”.</p> <p>Two-thirds of Americans view China as a “major threat”, which explains the bipartisan consensus to get tough on China. Reducing American dependence by helping companies to shift out supply chains and isolating China commands public support. In the run up to the November presidential elections, China-bashing by both Donald Trump and Joe Biden will intensify, but the accelerating shift heralds worsening US-China relations thereafter.</p> <p>A shift has also taken place in China, away from former premier Deng Xiaoping’s mantra—“Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” Under Xi Jinping, China is done biding its time, rising peacefully. It has risen.</p> <p>It is flexing its muscle—military, economic and rhetorical—and cracking its whip within, in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, in its neighbourhood and beyond, and as far as Australia and Britain.</p> <p>In what will probably be called the “Pompeo Doctrine”, America’s top diplomat, who harbours presidential ambitions, proclaimed the new battle cry against China. Until now, US-China relations have been defined by a complex coupling of financial and economic mutual interdependence. In a seminal speech at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, Pompeo outlined his decoupling doctrine by announcing an ideological war between “freedom and tyranny. The Chinese Communist Party is the enemy, the Chinese people the friend”.</p> <p>The Trump administration that has spurned, insulted and sanctioned its allies now beckons them to join an alliance of democratic nations to take on China. America still has friends across the world. So does China, which has drawn many countries into its Belt and Road Initiative. It also has allies in the corrupt, authoritarian world. The China bloc is not equal, but it cannot be dismissed.</p> <p>Experts say the emerging bipolar world is divided not so much by ideology as by the great firewall of technology. The west’s rejection of Huawei is the opening shot of the decoupling. 5G is the battle terrain for the two blocs. China has developed cutting-edge hard, soft and internet-related technologies involving social media, deliveries, payments, infrastructure and entertainment.</p> <p>The assumption that innovation thrives only in the petri dish of freedom, or that a Facebook can emerge only in America, is questionable. Chinese drones were deployed to take close-up videos of the burning Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The footage helped firemen pinpoint their water hoses and thus save the structure. The drones were made by Chinese student entrepreneurs in their university dorms. As Thucydides wrote, people being people, similar sort of things—from creativity to conflict—happen, again and again.</p> Thu Jul 30 15:47:13 IST 2020 when-pax-americana-wanes <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>An image sometimes captures an empire’s decline. The iconic photograph of nurses wearing garbage bags as protection against Covid-19 illustrates America’s waning. Decay is invisible in real time. Yet, the world watched as an unprepared and ill-equipped superpower was humbled by a tiny, invisible virus.</p> <p>But the virus, like Donald Trump, is not the cause but the catalyst that accelerates existing problems. Trump shredded the US-led international order single-handedly, resulting in a disgraceful free-for-all. Instead of championing global efforts, the US became a Covid-19 medicine-grabbing buccaneer. When an imperium is no longer admired, respected or feared, it begins to unravel. Like a supernova, a superpower collapses when it runs out of fuel, when contradictory forces within collide.</p> <p>To understand how empires end, one can study the last one that did—the Soviet Union. Empires implode because of “self-delusion”, observed Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik. Magnificent visions collide with contradictory, grim ground realities. Soviet grandeur fuelled spacecrafts to Venus, but ordinary people struggled for toilet paper.</p> <p>Delusions of American exceptionalism is pervasive. Polls show 90 per cent of Americans believe egalitarianism is the top national ideal. Yet, studies confirm that the US is one of the most unequal societies in the world—stratified by racial injustice, rising poverty, declining mortality rate, plummeting industrial employment spanning five decades, collapsing infrastructure, failing schools, soaring deficits, staggering debt, unsafe cities, deteriorating health systems, outdated gun laws and popular pandemic beliefs that facemasks violate civil liberties and “Jesus is my vaccine”. &nbsp;America still has the world’s richest people, best universities, companies, entertainment and is the hub of excellence and innovation. But the cracks caused by these contradictory forces have widened to chasms, deep and structural. Is this damage repairable? Is there a moral or economic glue to fix this polarised nation?</p> <p>It is difficult because ideology fails the US exactly as it did the Soviet Union. Once “sacred”, capitalism has evidently gone rogue. It has spawned plutocrats who get richer by stymying scrutiny, blocking regulation and rigging democracy by engineering favourable laws. Communism had its proletariat, capitalism has its “precariat”—an underclass of the exploited—as described by author Martin Sandbu. Inhabiting this parallel universe are essential workers like drivers, cleaners and care workers who live precariously on temporary jobs, low wages and erratic shifts. The poor live on prayer. As Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev says, “The poor do not fear the end of time, they fear the end of the month.” Even US allies agree that the “idea” of America as prosperous, powerful, free and fair has run out of fuel. Disillusioned with toxic American capitalism, they turn to Scandinavian socialism or as economist Thomas Piketty labels “participatory socialism”.</p> <p>Like massive stars, empires self-destruct, with peripheries breaking away, leaving behind a contracting core, what astronomers call “the white dwarf”. The earlier empires have left behind their geographical dwarfs—Britain, Russia, Turkey, Italy and Austria. Pax Americana will end, but the United States will survive. But will it remain united or will it fragment like all previous empires? Liberal California on the periphery is the world’s fifth biggest economy; already there is talk of “Calexit”.</p> <p>A supernova is a dying star’s “last hurrah”. But an empire’s collapse is rarely marked by a thunderous explosion. The end meanders in drips and drabs, in everyday failures, in sad whimpers and pathetic sights, unheard, unnoticed, unremembered. Like bankruptcy, the decline of an empire happens gradually, then suddenly.</p> Thu Jul 16 17:17:21 IST 2020 this-is-america <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>During the pandemic, the rich got richer. Not only billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Microsoft’s Bill Gates, whose goods and services enjoyed unprecedented demand. The rich got richer because they could not spend. New research shows that spending by the top 25 per cent of American earners’ dropped by 17 per cent; in low income groups it fell only by 4 per cent.</p> <p>The rich saved money as they worked and played at home. But the livelihood of many low-wage workers depends on the lifestyle and whims of the rich. While landscaping and swimming pool services thrived, small businesses in the posh neighbourhoods—wine bars, sushi restaurants, Pilates studios, and gourmet boutiques—suffered a 70 per cent revenue drop and a 65 per cent job loss.</p> <p>Research by Opportunity Insights headed by Harvard’s Raj Chetty assessed the economic impact of Covid-19 and the US government’s response. They analysed digital data obtained from credit card processors, payroll firms, government agencies and private companies using Big Data. Dissected data generates interactive maps, charts and infographics that are used to examine details and understand patterns. Chetty, 40, whose parents emigrated three decades ago, is described as a “star economist” destined to win a Nobel Prize.</p> <p>Studying consumption patterns is kosher—it is economics, capitalism and utterly American. Two-thirds of the United States economy is fuelled by consumption. But Chetty establishes the moral significance of Big Data, using it to expose the underbelly of injustice, inequality and income-segregation. His “Opportunity Atlas” map colour-codes rich and poor neighbourhoods across the US, revealing that poverty is concentrated in the former slave-owning regions. There is an oasis of white affluence in towns like Charlotte, fringed by ghettos of black misery. His research proves that moving children to better neighbourhoods improves their future income. The younger the child, the greater the benefit. The children of one per-centers are 10 times more likely to become inventors even when their childhood math scores were the same as the poor children’s. Chetty calls these underprivileged children “Lost Einsteins”, cursed by their poor neighbourhoods. Today’s street protests underline Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year old observation: “Inequality is the cause of all local movements.”</p> <p>Chetty’s data show that the government response to Covid-19 was largely ineffective. The $500 billion support to big companies did not save jobs. It should have been given to small businesses. The $1,200 stimulus cheques bearing Donald Trump’s name went to millions of affluent housewives, expatriates and even dead Americans. Chetty warns against forcibly restarting the economy. As long as the rich are afraid of the virus, they will not go out and spend money. So the government must bring the virus under control.</p> <p>The economy will eventually return, but millions of low-paid American jobs may not. Previous shocks—globalisation, offshoring, deindustrialisation—reveal that workers find relocation and retraining difficult. In the 2000s, a million manufacturing jobs were lost in the American Rust Belt to cheap Chinese imports. Unable to find new jobs, non-college-educated, middle-aged white men became addicted to alcohol and opioids, resulting in “Deaths of Despair”.</p> <p>Researchers despair over the ruins of the American Dream. The dream extols the ideal that regardless of where they are born, capable children can succeed and earn more than their parents. Chetty busts this myth. He has shown that children born in 1940 had a 90 per cent chance of earning more than their parents. In 1990, only 50 per cent stood that chance. How then does one achieve the American Dream? Chetty says: Move to Canada.</p> Thu Jul 02 18:05:00 IST 2020 racism-touch-up-and-rip-up <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The brutal police killing of George Floyd blew the lid off a global problem. Racism exists in every country and it has nothing to do with race. Science disproves that blacks or any other ethnic groups are inferior, because all humans carry the same genes. Racism is man-made, which explains why it thrives even in Africa that is full of blacks and in India where there are no blacks. This “ism” is a socio-cultural ideology designed to devalue, dominate and discriminate against the vulnerable underclass—blacks, dalits, Muslims, Jews, minorities, migrants or women.</p> <p>Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, all sprout from the same cursed root: “the will to exercise power, the need to control”, as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison explains. The tendency that makes some men want to control their wives is not very different from the pathology of a majority community wishing to dominate a minority group.</p> <p>Humans are not naturally racist, but are evolutionarily programmed to be groupists. In certain situations, the narratives about the “stranger” as a “threat” escalate to demonising the “other” as contemptible, unclean and ignorant. This becomes an existential necessity in order to lionise the dominant group. One needs the “other” to feel privileged, blessed and superior—individually, institutionally and ideologically. From the clay of subjugation, the identity of the oppressor is moulded.</p> <p>Oppressors subjugated black communities through the centuries. In mid-19th century Ohio, 25-year-old black slave woman Margaret Garner killed her children when they were sold and about to be taken to another plantation. She wanted to spare them the agonies she herself endured. Her case went to trial, but she was not given the death penalty as she was not considered human with human responsibilities such as motherhood. Blacks were useful, not quite like cattle, yet not sufficiently human.</p> <p>Racists misused both science and religion to justify enslaving the blacks. In 1851, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal published a report on the “Diseases and physical peculiarities of the Negro race”. It claimed blacks were prone to drapetomania (a disease that made them run away) and dysaesthesia aethiopica (laziness, due to which their shrunken lungs were chronically oxygen-deficient). Never mind that the first disease contradicts the second.</p> <p>Such prejudices still fester with popular assumptions that laziness makes blacks obese. Working multiple shifts to make ends meet, impoverished blacks have neither the money nor the energy to go to gyms. They live on cheap and fattening junk food. Job insecurity and stress contribute to ailments ranging from hypertension to diabetes. Not surprisingly, blacks and migrants who suffer these underlying conditions were hardest hit by Covid-19. As a Harvard study reveals, ZIP code is a better predictor of health than genetic code. Where you live matters, and not for snobbish reasons. A poor neighbourhood dooms its inhabitants to shoddy education, scant job opportunities, bad housing, drugs and crime—all of which undermine health.</p> <p>For decades, books and Hollywood films romanticised or “white-washed” American slavery—the jolly matronly housekeeper, the happy handyman, the joyous children singing in cotton fields. That’s all gone now. The solution to the current protests to exorcise racism includes essential police reforms. Equally important is ending the culture of white impunity by enforcing the law and securing convictions. Racism is systemic and can be uprooted only by upgrading the ZIP codes of poor black neighbourhoods by investing in education, health care, job opportunities, safety, sport and leisure activities. Otherwise, as before, blacks will remain banished in the place where they belong, homeless in their home.</p> Mon Jun 22 08:32:05 IST 2020 a-trump-of-lies <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Why are we still shocked by President Donald Trump, his falsehoods, distortions and exaggerations? Through the ages, in mythology and in history, Gods and men have lied. One of humankind’s oldest tendencies, lying ranges from the harmless, arousing fun and laughter, to the vicious, resulting in grief and death. Literature captures the rainbow spectrum of lies, from dark to light, from hilarity to the terrors of its consequences. An enduring dramatisation is Iago’s cruel lies that draw Shakespeare’s Othello to suicide.</p> <p>Research typically focuses on the liar—the motivations, the character flaws and the after-effects. But it does not equally analyse the “lied-to” or the victim. There is an almost predatory relationship here, with the liar exploiting the vulnerabilities of the lied-to, not necessarily abusively, but in a psychologically manipulative manner. The liar becomes the “re-affirmer”, telling what the lied-to wants to hear or already suspects. Only if it hits a fertile, receptive mind can the lie strike root and germinate into a monster of belief in the victim’s head. As Othello shows, lies unleash devastating consequences when they awaken the victim’s dormant demons of jealousy. Absolving himself, Iago says of Othello, “I told him what I thought, and told no more/ Than what he found himself was apt and true.”</p> <p>Trump’s lies, perhaps, should be seen in this context. He is talking only to his base, not to CNN, educated Americans or the world. He is not lying, he is telling what his base wants to hear, what they believe to be “apt and true”. Left behind by globalisation, digitalisation and offshoring, alienated and stressed, Trump’s base clings to conspiracy theories to explain the downturn in their lives. They fully endorse Trump’s attacks on the liberal establishment, the intelligentsia, Hollywood, mainstream media and social media giants. In daring to filter his misleading messages to his base, Twitter earned Trump’s blistering wrath.</p> <p>Rising like the coronavirus death toll, Trump’s falsehoods are nearing 20,000. “There has never been such a serial liar in the Oval Office,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “Trump lies as a policy.” Trump appals truth-seekers, but every one of his lies cements the bond between him and his base. This explains why despite his follies, Trump’s ratings never dropped below 35 per cent.</p> <p>Reading between Trump’s lies, his motivation appears to be to win admiration or deny failure. He is not the first or the last to lie for those reasons. “Lying politician” is a 200-year-old British phrase that still survives, though many now see it as a tautology—a repetition in terms. Lies resonate because they arouse emotions. Both literature and history unveil the drama of unpredictable outcomes when emotions run high. “Even the buses lied” is a popular British mantra to describe the Brexiteer’s campaign to leave the European Union. Boris Johnson even faced a lawsuit for his falsehoods that were plastered on London buses. The public knew these claims were false. Yet, not only did Brexiteers win the referendum, Johnson secured a landslide victory in last year’s elections.</p> <p>Analysts’ explanation is that we have entered the post-truth age. But, could it be that voters are battling a bigger, bitter truth—a rigged system entrenched by a corrupt elite of dishonest politicians, tycoons and journalists that perpetuates disparity and discrimination? The web of inequality, injustice and deceit has spun through the centuries. Lies are the silken threads that weave the gossamer snares of deception and defeat, vanity and victory.</p> <p>The age of lies is without beginning and it is without end. &nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 04 16:04:17 IST 2020 an-unusual-cult-figure <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Tall and handsome in a craggy sort of way, Dr Anders Tegnell commands the highest popularity ratings in Sweden. Youngsters tattoo his face on their bodies. But he is no rock star. He is a bespectacled, boring bureaucrat. Tegnell, 64, is Sweden’s chief epidemiologist—the architect of Covid-19 ‘Lockdown Lite’, which made his nation the world’s most fascinating outlier. Says prominent scientist Johan Giesecke: “Sweden is doing it right. Everyone else is wrong.”</p> <p>While most countries imprisoned citizens in their homes for two months, Sweden targeted shutting down only places acutely vulnerable to Covid-19. Care homes and universities were closed, but schools, offices, factories, shops and cafes remained open throughout. People were instructed to work from home if possible, restrict travel and maintain two-metre distance in all public places, including restaurants. Sweden’s economy never froze.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tegnell’s strategy counted firstly on Swedish citizens’ fabled sense of duty and compliance. It also helps that the Swedes are not touchy-feely, hugging and kissing, like the Italians and the Spaniards. Secondly, the authorities aimed to protect the public health system from becoming overburdened.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tegnell, whose 30-year career in public health includes field experience from the 1995 Ebola epidemic, says health policies should be “sustainable and holistic”. “Confining schoolchildren for weeks harms them mentally and psychologically”. Likewise, shutting the economy “is a terrible option because losing jobs is extremely dangerous to health,” he says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is too early to determine if Tegnell’s way is the better global role model. Sweden’s Covid-19 death rate is way above Norway’s and Denmark’s, but far below that of other European countries like Britain, France, Spain, Italy or Belgium. The elderly account for 50 per cent of the death toll. Still, the public health system was not overwhelmed, having 20 per cent spare capacity in ICU beds even at the pandemic’s peak. Sweden’s economy did not suffer a cardiac arrest, but shrank six per cent mainly due to supply disruptions as other countries imposed severe lockdowns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>President Donald Trump would happily import Tegnell and his ‘Lockdown Lite’ strategy to replace his own expert, Anthony Fauci, who advocates total shutdowns. But Tegnell’s model cannot be replicated in the United States. Science-trusting, law-abiding Swedes respect authority, unlike the gun-slinging American protesters. The pandemic also exposes how inadequate the American public health system is.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts will surely examine if the world did the right thing in imitating China’s sledgehammer lockdown. Scientists say we must learn to live with this virus. Having achieved a higher immunity rate, Sweden can probably cope better with future Covid-19 outbreaks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Tegnell has strong critics. Accusing him of “gambling”, Dr Stefan Hanson, a Swedish infectious disease expert, said: “You cannot take risks with people’s lives if you do not know what risks you are taking.” Tegnell’s strategy was attacked by 2,000 Swedish scientists, but over one lakh Swedes joined Anders Tegnell fan clubs, which are sprouting like dandelions in spring. Fans see him as a hero who had the courage to be the lone voice, steadfastly safeguarding health and economy. Praised WHO’s Michael Ryan: “I think there may be lessons to be learned from our colleagues in Sweden.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tegnell finds his cult status “absurd”. His three daughters think the media hoopla is hilarious, especially a fashion magazine’s analysis of his dress sense—or lack thereof. With his maroon pullovers and brown jackets, his matter-of-fact comments and contrarian views, his fan clubs and daring strategy, Anders Tegnell is no boring bureaucrat after all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 22 16:57:23 IST 2020 credibility-at-stake <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I really screwed up.” It is a startling confession from any official, but astonishing when it comes from the CEO of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, popularly known as Norway’s Oil Fund. Abjectly apologising to his staff for returning from a $3 million luxury seminar in Philadelphia in a private jet, the fund’s contrite CEO Yngve Slyngstad messaged: “This was not in line with the modest profile of our brand. It was a lack of good judgment. I am truly sorry for letting our organisational culture down.” That culture forbids accepting even a free cup of coffee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bigger problem is that the “dream” seminar and jet were arranged by Slyngstad’s selected successor, Nicolai Tangen, a London-based hedge fund billionaire, who takes over as the fund’s CEO in September. The Oil Fund is a global gold standard for its prudent and ethical investments. It invests revenues from Norway’s huge oil and gas resources to benefit current and future generations of Norwegians. The $1 trillion fund owns 1.3 per cent of all listed shares in the world. It takes moderate risks—serving its higher purpose is more important than maximising returns.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say Tangen, 54, is unsuitable for the job. He is accused of seducing officials, ministers, diplomats and cultural czars with his wealth. Comments Norwegian parliamentarian Kari Elisabeth Kaski: “This is how economic elites try to buy power.” Famous anti-corruption campaigner Eva Joly warns: “The whole recruitment process is corrupted.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tangen was not on the published list of candidates, but he sprung upon the public at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown. Analysts say the fund should not be headed by a successful, risk-taking hedge fund manager, that too one with assets in tax havens—in Jersey, British Virgin and Cayman Islands. They say Tangen’s use of tax havens and trusts to avoid taxes has “an unfortunate signal effect”. Criticises Joly: “His appointment is catastrophic for the fund’s credibility in the international fight against tax havens.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anti-corruption activists have been crusading for years to shut down tax havens—those “sunny places for shady people” as author Nicholas Shaxson describes. They are primary conduits for money laundering, smuggling, parking ill-gotten wealth and tax evasion. If tax havens are eradicated, governments could invest the recovered tax revenue to create jobs and infrastructure. But the global elite ensures lawmakers keep tax havens legal to draw distinctions between tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (illegal). Says Kaski: “Tax havens are legal. But that does not make them moral. They are a problem for the global economy. The Oil Fund is needed to lead the fight against tax havens.” Laws and loopholes enrich the wealthy. As a foreign resident in London, Tangen does not pay taxes either to Norway or Britain, proving US President Donald Trump’s dictum: Only idiots pay taxes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But when he moves to Oslo, Tangen will have to pay a yearly property tax of about $7 million. His annual salary is $1 million, meaning he would pay more in taxes in a year than he would earn during a six-year tenure. “I am not doing it for the money,” he says, stating the obvious. The prestige of having been the boss of the world’s biggest fund will be major capital for his post-CEO investments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After 12 years of faultless stewardship, outgoing CEO Slyngstad muses: “This is like mountain climbing. It is while climbing down, when you are tired and think that you have made it, that you fall.” Tangen falls even before he begins his climb, as the Oil Fund, Norway’s pride and glory, faces the biggest test in its 22-year history.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri May 08 17:52:15 IST 2020 european-union-divided-by-a-virus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We have witnessed the coronavirus’s capacity to ravage lives and livelihood. Experts wonder if it can ravage and unravel the European Union, the world’s biggest and mightiest bloc. The person thinking this unthinkable thought is none other than French President Emmanuel Macron, EU’s doughtiest defender. In a Financial Times interview, he warns that the EU “as a political project will collapse” if the EU’s richer northern countries fail to bail out the pandemic-stricken southern members of Italy and Spain.</p> <p>When Covid-19 erupted, instead of showing solidarity, EU countries distanced themselves from each other, closed borders and struggled to control the pandemic in their own countries. Italy did not even get masks from the EU, making anti-EU sentiments as lethally contagious as the virus. A poll revealed 88 per cent of Italians feel the EU failed them, prompting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to publicly apologise for “not offering a helping hand”. With an eye on his own nation’s right-wingers, Macron predicts the virus will fuel populist anger against the EU in Italy and Spain, unless the bloc shows solidarity.</p> <p>But solidarity is just another word for money. Rich, financially disciplined northern countries like Germany and the Netherlands support giving emergency relief to the southern states—€100 billion to protect jobs. But they say the pandemic cannot be an excuse to waive loan repayments. Long before Covid-19 struck, Italy’s debt was unsustainable. Observes Italian investment banker Alessandro Ciravegna, “The Italian economy has underperformed on almost every metric for decades, due in large part to structural inefficiencies that Italians acknowledge but simply refuse to address.” For example, about 60 million tourists travel to Italy every year and Italy has a large global diaspora. Yet Alitalia has never been solvent. A thriving black economy means low tax revenues. Adds Ciravegna, “Foreigners who have ever had to deal with any part of the judicial system run and never return.”</p> <p>The protestant northerners are seen as frugal, hardworking and law-abiding. The southerners, lazy and wasteful. Former Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem famously told southern Europeans, “I attribute exceptional importance to solidarity. But you also have obligations. You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Southerners say the “conditionalities” attached to the funding are unacceptable, while northerners retort that even when parents pay for children’s education, it is on the condition that they attend classes and study hard. Pleads Ana Botin, executive chairman of the Spanish Santander Bank, “We are in this together. Countries with the broadest shoulders should carry more of the burden.”</p> <p>Stoking the north-south stereotypes, Italy’s nationalist leader Mateo Salvini warned that if Germans do not give money, Italians would not buy BMWs. Germans blew a fuse at the notion that they must work full shifts in their factories, pay taxes and then donate their tax revenue so that Italians can cruise in BMWs. They asked where Italian solidarity was when German workers sacrificed pay hikes to make their economy healthy again.</p> <p>This infectious virus, like a secret agent, enters through chinks in the armour. It cannot create cracks in the EU, but it can certainly widen existing ones, especially when the bloc lacks the immunity of social cohesion. Even today, there is no European national hero or monument that member states can agree on to adorn the Euro banknotes. Currently, they feature non-existent classical buildings. Two-thirds of Italians now feel EU membership is a hindrance. “This crisis is the EU’s biggest test yet,” warns Botin. One of EU’s founding fathers, Jean Monnet had said, “Europe will be forged in crisis.” It can also fall apart.</p> Thu Apr 23 16:05:35 IST 2020 realities-of-a-post-pandemic-world <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though 2,000 times smaller than a grain of salt, the coronavirus flies straight into the heart of darkness, and greatness, exposing the true character of peoples and nations. Among world leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel scored high, staying true to her character—wise and restrained—speaking little and doing much to prepare her country. Thus, Germany had spare ICU capacity to treat Italian and French patients.</p> <p>At the other end was Donald Trump staying true to his character—denying Covid-19, blaming opponents, sowing confusion, contradicting himself and stealing credit, face masks and vaccine-development research. The continent’s populist leaders took cues from Trump. Rather than heed medical experts, they spun conspiracy theories, blamed media and vaunted their exceptionalism. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador mingled with crowds, shook hands, hugged, kissed and playfully bit a child’s cheek, claiming, “We should hug. Nothing will happen.”</p> <p>Forget social distancing, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega spearheaded a public rally proclaiming victory over the virus. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, first dismissed Covid-19 as a “fantasy”. When it began disrupting the economy, he got furious. Urging people to return to their jobs, he said, “The virus is there. We need to face it like a man, dammit. We will all die someday.” That is not comforting to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, felled and hospitalised by the virus. In contrast, New York’s Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo became the much-admired ‘Man of Action’ with his empathy and toughness. He could even unseat Trump.</p> <p>In some countries, people sing, applaud and blare horns to express their gratitude to medics. But in Brazil and Spain, people bang pots and pans to express anti-government discontent. For months, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in France have been protesting to get financial support for the underclass. The pandemic disproportionately hurts this segment that is not privileged to work from home: shop assistants, delivery drivers, garbage collectors, medics, food factory workers—the frontline warriors preventing societal collapse.</p> <p>Elites salute them, but the hypocrisy is blinding. These “heroes” are among the lowest paid, often on contract, with no job security, no health insurance, no holidays, no pension and no future. “It is an eye-opener,” says Chloé Morin, analyst with the Jean-Jaurès Foundation. “The existence of social inequalities is not new, but it is amplified by the current crisis. The people who make the economy work are poorly paid and poorly regarded.” France’s Libération newspaper asked, “Does the prestige and income of the wealthy correspond to their social utility?” The virus exposed human parasites and corporate shamelessness. BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen planned to give €7.5 billion in dividends to investors while taking government subsidy to pay two lakh workers. German socialist leader Carsten Schneider exploded: “This is the ugly face of capitalism.”</p> <p>Covid-19 snapped supply chains, making western countries regret their excessive reliance on low-cost China in pursuit of corporate efficiency and profits. European economist Beata Javorcik predicts, “Coronavirus will not end globalisation. But it will change it.” Countries now equate self-sufficiency with national security. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire argues, “This is protection, not protectionism.” Outsource to EU countries, not Asia, is his corona-exit strategy. He claims, “With this crisis, EU has a historic opportunity to become an economic and political superpower between the US and China.” Actually, the virus severely tests EU solidarity. Italy got no protective gear from EU members. Supplies arrived from Russia and China. True to character, China tried to extract propaganda mileage, but much of the equipment was defective.</p> Thu Apr 09 15:46:56 IST 2020 goops-oomph-factor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Who would buy an expensive bottle of “vampire repellant spray”? If you believe in vampires, cheap garlic should do the trick. Oscar-winning actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury lifestyle company Goop peddles a vampire “psychic mist” that uses “gem healing and aromatic therapeutic oils” to banish evil spirits, expel negative energy and shield buyers from the bad vibes of people near them. If the boss is the vampire, they do not need the spray now, when working from home. If it is their husband, then no repellant can help when they are quarantined together.</p> <p>Goop’s other outlandish offerings include coffee enemas (presumably to awaken the inner you), chill child (to mollify your frisky kid into a furry lamb), a hyped “90-second breath-workout” that takes six minutes, $1,20,000 (Rs91 lakh) gold dumbbells (guaranteed to reduce your bank balance if not your weight), $2,300 (Rs1.75 lakh) gilded playing cards (to kill time when you have arrived but are going nowhere), $43,200 (Rs32.86 lakh) chandelier earrings (to show you have pierced glass ceilings), Devi steamer seat (to send vapours to body parts that have never seen sunshine) and more. Several other products cannot be mentioned in a family magazine.</p> <p>Like its silly sprays, exotic elixirs, pampering potions and gobsmacking gizmos, the company’s very name is idiotic. Goop. It means nothing, it stands for nothing. Paltrow claims someone told her that successful internet companies have two ‘O’s in their names. Like, Facebook and Google. Never mind Netflix, Amazon, Uber—that is an irrelevant detail in her saga. For customers yearning for the elusive, the unknown, the instant fix, the manic mantra, the luxury purr, the magic cure, Goop it is. This is the La La Land of the loopy one percenters. Escape in a bottle. Dreams in a jar. Hope in a tube. The sorcery ends with the last squeeze. Some customers go away, others come back for more.</p> <p>Paltrow launched Goop from her kitchen. Scientists wish it had stayed there. She began with a “homespun” newsletter that swelled into a major enterprise, hawking health, beauty, fashion, accessories, décor, gadgets, books, alternative therapies and celebrity cruises. At Goop’s “health summits”, patients give testimonies about how love in the brain brought back dead people or positive emotions cured cancer (neglecting to mention their chemotherapy).</p> <p>Goop is the scientific community’s four-letter word. Experts groaned when Netflix recently launched a docuseries on Goop’s psychedelic and energy exorcism cures for physical and mental illnesses. An aghast Simon Stevens, head of Britain’s National Health Service, said Goop’s “dubious wellness products and dodgy procedures” posed “considerable health risk”to the public, adding “people’s natural concern for their health, and particularly about that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans and cranks”.</p> <p>To banish scientists’bad vibes, Goop sprays disclaimers on merchandise that customers should take medical advice. But then it uses scientific jargon to beguile customers into thinking these snake oils are cutting-edge medical innovations. Canadian health-policy maker Tim Caulfield observes, “As people become more science-literate, pseudoscience has adopted scientific language to justify itself.” Paltrow praises an alternative treatment to Lyme disease that uses “quantum science”. Impressive, but doubtful that physicists believe subatomic particles can cure bacterial infection.</p> <p>Susceptibility of the gullible is Paltrow’s currency, controversy her best salesman. “I get more eyeballs,” she says. More eyeballs, more sales. Experts attack her goofy, loony products. But items like vampire mist have helped Goop become a $250 million (Rs1,900 crore) wellness empire, proof that the double ‘O’ voodoo works for her.</p> Thu Mar 26 16:18:08 IST 2020 priti-patel-poster-girl-or-piranha <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Small, scrappy and spunky, Priti Patel is a few short steps away from 10 Downing Street. As Britain’s home minister, Patel could conceivably become the prime minister. But now her prospects are fading and she has only herself to blame.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Born in London to Gujarati parents who fled Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1960s, Priti Patel, 47, grew up into a headstrong Tory who likes strong-arm tactics. As home minister, she is hardline on immigration, counter-terrorism and policing, wanting criminals “to literally feel terror” at the thought of breaking the law. She favours using force to disperse peaceful protestors. She enthusiastically enforces immigration laws that would have denied entry to her parents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Inevitably, Patel’s drive to push through draconian policies face British bureaucratic push back, reminiscent of the brilliant BBC comedy Yes Minister. Her home secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, regularly stymied her proposals citing legal hurdles. Nicknaming him ‘Mr. No’, and ‘Eeyore’, the ponderous, stubborn donkey in Winnie the Pooh, Patel’s aides allegedly told the media that Rutnam should be fired for incompetence and relieved of his pension.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Accusing Patel of lying, bullying, and running a “vicious, orchestrated campaign” against him, Rutnam resigned and is suing the government. He said employees accuse Patel of “swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”. Patel heads one of the busiest Brexit delivery departments, having to implement new immigration, border inspection and IT rules, while fighting crime and cyberwar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Patel, it is “my way or the highway”, and Rutnam is not her first victim. She ordered that the home ministry’s communications officer, Andy Tighe, be sacked on Christmas Eve. Rutnam refused and eventually both officials resigned. So did Mark Thomson, who, as head of UK Visas and Immigration, found Patel’s demands “uncomfortable” and her policies “mad”. He believed her punitive plan to tackle radicalised youth was “outdated, flawed, based on past failed policies and not on research”, which clearly shows that adopting “positive psychology” is better at diverting youths from terrorism to productive activities. One government employee “collapsed” following a meeting with Patel, while another “overdosed” after Patel told her to “get lost”. The fired official sued and got a £25,000 settlement. “Sack, sue, settle” follows in Patel’s wake. She is known to storm out of her office, shouting “Why is everyone so f**king useless?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But she certainly is very useful to her political bosses, a poster girl with her Euro-scepticism and ruthless pursuit of hardline Brexit policies. Supporters say she is hardworking and charming; critics say she is rude and divisive. An inquiry will examine Patel’s bullying behaviour, but the government backs her and not the complaining officials. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called her a “superb minister doing an outstanding job”, while cabinet minister Michael Gove said, “We make no apology for having strong ministers in place.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A bit too strong, sometimes. When she was international development minister in Theresa May’s cabinet, Patel appointed her marketing consultant husband, Alex Sawyer, to run her office part-time on £25,000 a year salary. He did not last long. Eventually, Patel had to resign for holding secret meetings with Israeli politicians without informing the Foreign Office. According to urban legend, when she left, officials sang “Ding-dong! The witch is gone”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pop psychologists would suggest Patel suffers from Napoleon complex—short people who are overly aggressive or domineering. So how does her extremely tall husband analyse his controversial wife? Says Sawyer, “She is quite small and combative. She is my personal piranha.” As long as she is described as a witch or a violent fish, Patel will find it hard to occupy 10 Downing Street.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Mar 13 15:01:44 IST 2020 cold-blooded-or-just-nuts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Right-wing massacres follow a pattern in the west. The killers are young, male, white, xenophobic lone wolves. Socially isolated but active online, their radicalisation incubates in cyberspace. Muslims, Jews, immigrants, liberals and asylum-seekers are their victims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In his 24-page manifesto, racist killer Tobias R. (German law proscribes using their surname) claimed the world’s population could be halved by first “rough” and then “fine cleansing the inferior and destructive” races from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including India and Pakistan. He shot dead nine Kurds, Turks and Africans in Hanau, near Frankfurt, before killing his mother and himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>White supremacists have always existed in Germany, but since the far right Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD) dramatic victories in national and state elections over the past two years, right-wing violence has increased substantially. Targets are legitimised, taboos broken and racist slurs normalised in some circles. To eradicate migrants, AfD leader Björn Höcke suggests “well-tempered cruelty” and “a strong broom to clear the pigsty”. Hitler’s extermination of Jews, his belief in an Aryan super race continue to inspire neo Nazis across the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From Norway to New Zealand, there is another common trait shared by these xenophobic terrorists: an obsession with conspiracy theories. Tobias believed he was under government surveillance since childhood, blaming this for his inability to have relationships with women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Conspiracy theory researcher Travis View said the gunman’s rants suggest he was influenced by a hash of paranoid conspiracies, including QAnon, the bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory, which disdains mainstream media, attributes vaccines and viruses to fiendish plots and believes Donald Trump is heroically fighting a satanic “Deep State” that includes Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks. For its disciples who believe they are custodians of secret knowledge, QAnon is a political cult, imbuing their life with meaning, purpose, entertainment and superiority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Tobias also deviated. He believed he masterminded Trump’s policies and slogans. Said View: “That’s not ‘Q’. They think that Trump is a super-genius. They would not be so arrogant to suppose that they could give Trump—God emperor—ideas.” Trump has invited several conspiracy mongers to the White House and retweeted many QAnon posts, giving them lift and legitimacy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Trump has now appointed his “attack dog”, loyalist Richard Grenell, who was US Ambassador to Germany, as the acting director of National Intelligence. Ambassador Grenell aspired to “empower right-wing forces across Europe.” Meanwhile, German authorities struggle to tackle right-wing extremists—60 of whom threaten public safety and 12,700 oriented toward violence. By belonging to gun clubs, they have legal access to firearms. Most of them do not have a criminal record. Law is lenient. Neo Nazi Franco A. of the German military was arrested for stockpiling weapons and preparing “violent subversion.” But a court released him because there was “insufficient evidence that he had taken a firm decision to attack”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The authorities have banned the neo Nazi organisation Combat 18 and approved a tougher anti-hate speech bill that increases punishment to three years for online rape and death threats. They seek to compel Facebook to report hate speech on their platform. A basic problem is that experts are unsure whether these xenophobes are terrorists or mentally ill. Seizing upon this dilemma, the AfD claims such killers are psychologically disturbed and not motivated by right-wing ideology. But surveys show that most Germans hold AfD partly responsible for rightwing extremism, which they see as a bigger threat than Muslim fundamentalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Feb 28 14:37:44 IST 2020 hitler-in-waiting <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was a “political earthquake”, no less. The incident in the east German state of Thuringia created shockwaves. People, politicians and pundits denounced it as “unforgivable”, “inexcusable” and a “lust for power that trumps moral responsibility”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So what happened? Thomas Kemmerich was elected premier of Thuringia with the support of the far right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD)—a first in post-war Germany. Inclusion of far right parties in coalition governments is increasingly common in Europe, but because of Germany’s Nazi past, mainstream political parties shun the far right. Said leftist parliamentarian Martin Schirdewan, “This breach of taboo shows how weak resistance to the rise of the right in Germany is.” Kemmerich belongs to the pro-business Free Democratic Party, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Censured Merkel: “This broke with a core conviction, that no majorities should be won with the help of AfD.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AfD’s kingmaker role in Thuringia sent shivers down Germany’s spine because it was an eerie repetition of history. Exactly 90 years ago, Adolf Hitler triumphantly proclaimed: “We achieved the greatest success in Thuringia. Today we really are the crucial party there. The parties in Thuringia cannot get a majority without our assistance.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is the same situation now. Kemmerich rationalised: “There is no choice but to get AfD help to govern.” Thuringia, in former East Germany, is a far right stronghold. In the recent election, the left party won 31 per cent of the votes and the AfD 23 per cent. Kemmerich’s party won only 5 per cent, so its ally CDU’s 21 per cent vote was insufficient for premiership. Thus, the pariah AfD became the kingmaker. In 1930, the Nazi debut in the Thuringia government was its first major breakthrough in the Weimar Republic, culminating with Hitler’s ascension as chancellor in 1933.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AfD leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, apparently aims to follow Hitler’s rise. Last September, a court ruled that the anti-semitic and racist Höcke could be legally termed a “fascist” as the description “rests on verifiable fact”. German media accuses Höcke of using Kemmerich as his “tool”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Post-war Germany vows never to forget the past, including the Nazi persecution of Jews. Höcke trashes this resolve, claiming that Germany is “crippled” by its “stupid” politics of atonement and describes the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital”. He leads an extremist faction in the AfD, ominously called “The Wing”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many neo-Nazis seek refuge in the AfD, which began as a Eurosceptic party and floundered until 2015 when Merkel’s welcome of over a million, mostly Muslim, migrants provoked a fierce public backlash. The AfD transformed into an anti-immigration, anti-Islam, anti-mainstream media, xenophobic party. It scored spectacular successes. For the first time, the AfD entered the German parliament, becoming the main opposition party with 89 members. It won seats in all 16 state parliaments and in the European Parliament. The party’s moderate faction is led by Alice Weidel, 38, a lesbian economist who lives in Switzerland with a Sri Lankan partner and its extremist faction is led by lawyer Alexander Gauland, 76. Like Höcke, Siegbert Droese, head of the AfD in Leipzig, is a Hitler fan. One of the cars in his convoy had the licence plate AH1818, a neo-Nazi code for Hitler.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AfD-backed Kemmerich faced a firing squad of abuse: “hypocrite”, “traitor” “charlatan”. He resigned and Merkel’s party leader and potential successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped down for failing to control her regional partymen. Having caused a seismic episode, kingmaker Höcke retreated. In 24 hours, public outrage clipped the wings of the wannabe Hitler. But he lies in wait.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Feb 14 11:21:07 IST 2020 putin-game-for-greatness <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Western pundits invariably reduce Russian President Vladimir Putin into a caricature. He is the brooding, power-obsessed, money-crazed, luxury-loving, paranoid megalomaniac. Putin’s recent constitutional changes reaffirm his domestic puppeteering prowess. In foreign affairs, he is the sinister strategist, the inscrutable grandmaster of global geopolitics, conniving, subverting, and plotting the downfall of the west.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even American officials foster this image. Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman during Barack Obama presidency, famously said, “Putin is playing chess and we are playing marbles.” Westerners like to paint Putin as a Machiavellian manipulator who masterminds all the crises they face—Brexit, migrants, fake news, Donald Trump’s election and social polarisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a just-released book, Russia expert Mark Galeotti argues “the west gets him all wrong”. Putin, he says, is not a chess player. He is a judo expert, a nimble ninja who seizes the opportune moment to use his opponents’ strength against them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chess or judo, these are tactics. Putin’s success is his strategy, his vision of a strong, resurgent and respected Russia, risen from the Soviet Union’s ashes. His own name germinates this vision. “What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare dismissively. For Putin, name is destiny. He sees himself as successor, not so much to Vladimir Lenin, but to Vladimir the Great, the expansionist prince-turned-saint who created the Russian proto-state 1,000 years ago.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sword and stratagem, marriage and might, prince Vladimir used them all to conquer and annex neighbouring territories. A pagan, he shopped for the right organised religion for his people. To him, the loss of Jerusalem proved God had abandoned the Jews. Roman Catholicism permitted wine but prohibited polygamy. Islam, vice versa. He reportedly proclaimed—“No alcohol? Drinking is the joy of all Rus! We cannot exist without that pleasure.” In Constantinople, he found his answer. The Byzantine Church exuded the pomp and pageantry, rituals and riches that created “heaven on earth”. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church was born and prince Vladimir was anointed saint.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Veteran Russia-watcher Odd Gunnar Skagestad says Putin carefully and consistently crafts a persona that is in complete alignment with Vladimir the Great, both in terms of political power and in religious legitimacy. Putin believes the Russian Orthodox Church reflects Russia’s soul. Notwithstanding the communist purges of Christianity, church and clergymen, most Russians, especially women, are devout. Putin harnesses Russian pride and nationalism, faith and grandeur by invoking religious symbols and dignitaries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Putin cannily cultivates his image. Strengthening the ex-KGB, Russian James Bond aura are pictures of the macho shirtless Putin, on horseback or hunting. Another video shows him emerging from freezing waters. More than fitness and endurance, it symbolises baptism. Exactly as in a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov depicting the baptism of Vladimir the Great, Putin rises from the wintry waters, golden cross gleaming on his torso.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Resurrection. James Bond’s favourite hobby. By deftly reincarnating himself as prime minister, Putin overcame constitutionally-mandated presidential two-term limitation and controlled Russia for two decades. Now, with his new constitutional amendments, Putin plots his post-2024 resurrection to perpetuate direct or indirect control for another decade. Putin often asks independent experts how history will view him. With the Russian economy sinking and social discontent rising, it is doubtful that he will be remembered as Putin the Great a thousand years from now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Fri Jan 31 11:05:16 IST 2020 a-royal-drama-worth-the-big-screen <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This could be a 21st century Disney version of the British royal romance. The commoner rescues the prince from his castle. Traumatised by childhood memories, the prince is vulnerable. His street-smart commoner wife is no virginal violet. She is from American showbiz, older, divorced, has a black mother, is opinionated and independent, with millions in the bank. Tormented by goblins and monsters, palace intrigues and stifling rules, the couple run away from their kingdom, seeking more fame and fortune in distant Canada.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Driving them mad and away is the modern wicked stepmother—the British tabloid press. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have declared war against the “false, derogatory and malicious”British tabloids, which they accuse are “destroying”their lives. Tabloids skewer all royals, but Meghan was roasted relentlessly as a “fame-hungry social climber”. Many say the vitriol is racist.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Meghan, often described as “difficult”, also became tabloid prey owing to her dysfunctional family, private jet trips and £2.4 million taxpayer-funded home improvement. Anti-Meghan journalist Piers Morgan tweeted: “People say I am too critical of Meghan Markle. But she ditched her family, ditched her dad, ditched most of her old friends, split Harry from William &amp; has now split him from the royal family. I rest my case.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Harry and Meghan fought back valiantly—he rebuked, she sued the tabloids. But the evil tabloid stepmother continued to lie, distort and mock. Harry remembers that the tabloid demonisation of Princess Diana turned to lionisation only with her death in a paparazzi chase. Said Harry, who has openly discussed his mental health issues, “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces. I cannot be a silent witness to her private suffering. I will not be bullied into playing a game that killed my mum.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To save their fairy tale wedding from turning into a nightmare marriage, the couple will “step back”from royal duties, live part-time in North America and implement a new media policy. Traditionally, the tabloids enjoy privileged access to the royals. But off with their heads, say Harry and Meghan, banishing the “misreporting”tabloids from their Camelot circle. Instead, they will include grassroots journalists, “credible”media and social media. The couple can run, but can they hide from the tabloids’ long claws and fangs?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Spurning an outdated media system is one thing, but no royal couple has attempted a part-time, half-in, half-out relationship. Harry and Meghan wish to remain within the royal family, but seek financial independence. This involves lucrative commercial deals, including personal branding and monetising celebrity, which Meghan excels in. But disentangling philanthropic royal identity from profitable private business is treacherously tricky. Which is why Queen Elizabeth’s reaction to the couple’s decision was identical to Meryl Streep’s celluloid comment on human entanglements: “It’s complicated”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Did the Queen anticipate this separation? In her Christmas message, there were no photographs of Harry’s family on her desk. Royal courtiers say she was merely signalling the line of succession, from her to her son Prince Charles, grandson William and great-grandson George. Sixth in line, Harry’s succession prospects are dim. Now it is airbrushed out. Perhaps Harry and Meghan fled the castle on their terms, pre-empting exile on the royal institution’s conditions. The couple’s parting jab is that they shall carve a “progressive role”for themselves. That role may be easier in reel than real life. Given his lineage and her acting background, Harry and Meghan are ideally suited to play themselves in a sassy new Disney romance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Jan 18 17:23:25 IST 2020 brexit-horror-show-continues <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Halloween came and went. So did Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to leave the European Union on October 31, leaving the monster of Brexit uncertainty to continue haunting Britain. The next chapter is elections, the third in three years, the first to be held in December in a century. The month is avoided because voters are busy with festivities or ill with flu. The cold, dark, wet and windy weather excludes outdoor campaigns, while indoor spaces are booked with events. Worse, the December 12 poll outcome may fail to clarify the murky mess called Brexit. Political commentator Nick Cohen predicts Britain’s “economy, constitution, place in the international order and sense of who it is and what it can become will be battlefields in the next election”.</p> <p>Opinion polls give Tory leader Johnson a strong lead over Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, regarded as the most unpopular opposition leader in 45 years. If Johnson gets a clear majority, then Britain will leave the EU by January 31. But before Tories uncork the champagne, they should remember that opinion polls predicted an even bigger lead for Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May when she called elections in 2017. She lost her majority, returning with a weak government that failed to deliver Brexit.</p> <p>Britain’s politics has traditionally been binary—Tories vs Labour. But now, there are two strong spoilers in the fray, the Brexit Party that wants a clear-cut Brexit and the Liberal Democrats that aim to cancel Brexit. Labour and Tory supporters are further splintered into pro- and anti-Brexit camps. Tories could wrest some Labour seats, but lose their traditional strongholds like London, university towns and southeast England that wish to remain in the EU. Johnson is popular, but critics see him as divisive and untrustworthy because of his flip-flops.</p> <p>“Get Brexit Done” is Johnson’s election mantra. Counting on voters’ Brexhaustion, Labour hopes to win by focusing on the austerity era under Tories’ 10-year rule that devastated ordinary people. It promises to tax the rich and improve health care, schools, housing, environment, infrastructure and recruit more policemen to end knife crime.</p> <p>Experts worry that even democracy is now “unsafe” in Britain. Of the 650 MPs, 50 are not contesting primarily due to online and physical threats. Most are women. Voter manipulation is another worrying issue. Full Fact, a pro-democracy charity, warns “any election held today would be open to abuse”. Referring to people’s indifference to the lies shrouding Brexit, Oxford University professor Patrick McGuinness says, “That is why I am really pessimistic, as well as sad and angry.”</p> <p>Activists say the Tory government has failed to control bots, social media corporations, Russian meddling, computer-generated fake propaganda and micro targeting of voters with devious political advertising. Seeing the misuse, Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on information warfare, says satirically, “Britain is turning into a failing African state, but without the sunshine.”</p> <p>Should elections produce a hung parliament resulting in a coalition government, more uncertainty will prevail. Potential future scenarios include: January Brexit, soft spring Brexit, Brexit cancellation or a new referendum in mid-2020. To dodge being blamed for a no-deal Brexit, an exasperated EU will grant Brextensions. Giving a futuristic spin, writer Julian Popov mocked: “The year is 2192. The British prime minister visits Brussels to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline. No one remembers where this tradition originated, but every year it attracts many tourists from all over the world.” It is equally bad if Brexit happens. A new book, examining the 15-20 years of tortured trade negotiations that then lie ahead, is titled Brexiternity.</p> Sat Nov 09 12:28:10 IST 2019 deal-dilemma-delay <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>My deal or no deal. Sounds familiar? Yes, we are back in Britain. The Shakespearean dilemma to leave or not to leave the European Union raises new proposals and threats that fizzle before they fly. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his alternative proposal to continue the open border between Britain’s Northern Ireland and the EU member country of Ireland post Brexit, he challenged the EU: Take it or we leave without a deal. The ultimatum failed. The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said, “This is repackaging old bad ideas.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Everyone agrees that border checks on the Irish frontier must be avoided lest it reignite the Protestant-Catholic sectarian violence. Johnson’s “flexible and creative” proposal conceptualises two borders, one on land, the other at sea. Electronic monitoring would make the Irish border checks invisible. Critics say it is not the checks, but the technology that is invisible—because it is not yet developed. Johnson’s proposal controversially mandates Northern Ireland’s legislature to periodically review and veto this agreement. The EU worships predictability. This clause convinced it that Johnson is playing to his domestic gallery, instead of crafting a stable, operational deal with the EU.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Johnson’s proposal has more support than former prime minister Theresa May’s doomed deal, rejected thrice by parliament. It is liked by Northern Ireland’s Unionist Party and large sections within Johnson’s Conservative Party. At the annual Tory conference, his popularity was in full display. No one seemed to care about his alleged sex and sugar daddy scandals. Because of this Brexit crisis, “we are like a world class athlete with a pebble in our shoe,” Johnson said, entertaining party members with his jokes, punchlines and vivid metaphors. “Get Brexit done,” he asserted, to roaring approval. The fun and festive atmosphere, with much champagne and gin tonic flowing, was in contrast with the anger and infighting in the Labour Party’s conference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A significant transformation is the consecration of the Conservative Party as a Brexit party. Much like how the Tea Party movement changed the Republican Party in the United States, the Leave.EU campaign infiltrated the Conservative Party to catalyse this change. This group has used the discredited data mining Cambridge Analytica’s techniques to target pro-Brexit individuals and create the biggest, most powerful online political engagement compared with any other party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Leave.EU’s network fosters a culture of intimidation to ambush and silence prominent Tory ‘Remainers’—those who wish to remain in the EU. Conservative MP Philip Lee, one of those hounded out, has revealed the “destructive campaign” against him. Johnson’s trusted aide, Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign credited for winning the Brexit Referendum, is another prominent Brexiteer shaping the current government’s policies. The third leg of the Conservative Party’s hard right Brexiteerism is the European Research Group, whose celebrity member is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the lanky, languid aristocrat, who, like the other Brexiteers, blames the elites for betraying Britain’s glory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the glory’s gone and Britain is tired. Brexit is still undone and the current parliament exhausted. Fresh elections could lead to a Johnson victory. But unless he has a clear majority, the Brexit saga of confusion and uncertainty will drag on. But what happens on October 31, Britain’s deadline for a Halloween Brexit? The Brexit talks continue, but concluding a legally watertight deal requires more flexibility and time. The parliament has outlawed no-deal Brexit. But Johnson insists Britain will leave, come what may. Experts say another delay seems likely. Sounds familiar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Pratap is an author and journalist.</b></p> Sat Oct 12 11:10:36 IST 2019