& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Michael Ignatieff: The crisis of liberal constitutionalism - 1

According to the 'civilised' west, democracy is the best form of political governance and capitalism is the best form economic governance.

Together, democracy and capitalism are supposed to ensure that the will of the people is reflected in the election of governments. The will of the people is also reflected in the economic policies that such democratically elected governments pursue to ensure economic growth and prosperity.

That is the theory. In practice, of course, that isn’t how either democracy or capitalism have ever worked.

Late capitalism is a term that has been frequently used to describe the economic inequities that capitalism has succeeded in creating in societies that have an abiding faith both in democracy and capitalism.

Two recent films expose the ills of both democracy and capitalism.

Officials Secrets (2019) exposes the hypocrisy of democratic consensus in the way the United States of America and the United Kingdom – both pillars of liberal democracy – lied, concealed facts and generally took the world for a ride to justify the second invasion of Iraq (2003).

Based on the 2017 Panama Papers expose, Laundromat (2019) dwells into the nefarious operations of the offshore tax havens that give a legal avenue to the rich to avoid (not evade) taxes. The film is a glimpse into the murky world of offshore holdings, hidden financial dealings of fraudsters, drug traffickers, billionaires, celebrities.

All of these worthies were connected to Mosscak Fonseca, a Panama law firm with offices in more than 35 locations globally, and one of the world’s top creators of shell companies – the corporate structures used to hide ownership of assets.

Western democracies have a great deal to explain for their falsification and outright fabrication of facts (about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) to wage a war on Saddam Hussein that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths (check this: Iraq Body Count).

Western capitalism thrives on economic neo-colonialism, and questions are being raised about its efficacy now only because rampant automation is causing widespread job losses in western democracies.

I frequently remember Winston Churchill when I'm bemused by western hypocrisy. Churchill, responsible for the genocide of Bengalis in 1943, had famously said, “History will judge me kindly, because I intend to write it myself.” 

Western democracies, and especially their leaders, often get away with murder and worse because they determine the contemporary narrative of the world that becomes tomorrow’s history.

Therefore, while we roundly (and justifiably) condemn the likes of Slobodan Milošević, we are unwilling to judge Bush Jr or Blair by the same exacting standards.

Similarly, no institutional efforts are being made anywhere to rein in the untrammeled run that technocracy has over global economics that is resulting in unimaginable income inequities everywhere in the world.

The world’s richest 1 percent, those with more than $1 million, own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. Adults with less than $10,000 in wealth make up 64 percent of the world’s population but hold less than 2 percent of global wealth. The world’s wealthiest individuals, those owning over $100,000 in assets, total less than 10 percent of the global population but own 84 percent of global wealth.

In his lecture earlier this week at the Munk Centre, Michael Ignatieff (Democracy versus Democracy: The crisis of liberal constitutionalism) spoke about the failure of liberal democracies to deliver on fundamental promises. 

He spoke both the trust deficit (bordering on resentment) that masses living in democracies have developed in democratic institutions, and the economic subjugation of the vast majority of the global population.

Ignatieff spoke about the challenge that populist democracy is posing to liberal democracies with specific reference to North America and Europe. 

The distinction between populism and liberalism is populism defines democracy as rule of we the people, which is basically majoritarianism, whereas liberal democracy tries to create a nuanced framework for democratic institutions to engage in interplay of of checks and balances. 

Liberal democracy, Ignatieff explained, “Is a system built for conflict, for disagreement. The whole point of this system is that politicians resent the power of the judges. The judges push you back to defend the empire of law from the empire of politics, the media sits there and drives the politicians crazy and I have the scars to prove it. And this conflictual system is the very essence of any system that has any chance of protecting our liberties, as individuals. And the legitimacy of this system is conditional and performative at any moment in democratic life.”

According to Ignatieff, conflict is at the heart of liberal democracies. “We may sit around a table over dinner and think this is not going well. We’re at loggerheads. We’re fighting with each other. The Parliament is standing up to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister is riding roughshod over Parliament. The media are driving everybody crazy. The judges are interfering too much. We will take sides in these institutional conflicts that are built into the heart of democracy and at any given moment we will think this system is losing its legitimacy, the conflict level that we are having to live through here is just too high for our health. And our democracy is at risk.”  

People who experience the strengths of liberal democracy such as freedom of choice often despair at its inherent conflict, Ignatieff said, and then emphasized that a liberal democracy is, in fact, a “conflictual system constantly in tension, constantly in crisis. And that it seems to me is both its glory in its strength and its resilience.”

Continued below

Michael Ignatieff: The crisis of liberal constitutionalism - 2

Continued from the post above

Citing the Brexit imbroglio, Ignatieff said, at present, liberal democracy in Britain is at its best. 

“A democracy is there to prevent a society polarizing into enemies and keeping everybody in a debate in which they’re merely adversaries. In the unwritten constitution of a democracy, there are no enemies, only adversaries, and thus far, despite the polarization in Britain, despite some of the bitterness, this it seems to me is exemplary example of democracy. Not at its worst, but actually at its best. That’s an unpopular thought. If I said that in a lecture in London, I might be laughed out of the house, but I’m sticking with it. If you like democracy, you have to like its rough and tumble.”

Talking about the Trump impeachment, Ignatieff again emphasized that the liberal democratic system has ensured that when the President of the United States stepped out of line, system has ensured that the whistle blower has the constitutional protection to perform his / her duty.

He said, “It illuminated with clarity what a liberal democracy actually is, as an institutional system.”

The President has a phone call with foreign leader and the President says something which violates his constitutional oath. “What is interesting is that they (those who think that Trump erred) then have recourse through protected legislation to blow the whistle. They’re guaranteed confidentiality. They’re guaranteed access to the Congress of the United States. The liberal institutional system worked. It protected devoted civil servants, public servants, gave them the right to go to the President of the United States and say he just crossed the line in a phone call. If the president is impeached, it will be because liberal democratic institutions did what they are supposed to do.”

Ignatieff said democracy would be in crisis if Trump was impeached but would refuse to step down.

He emphasized that, “If you love liberal democracies stop getting alarmed every time it has institutional conflict, because that is the essence of a functioning liberal democracy.”

Ignatieff turned his focus on the crisis in democracy with regard to the increasingly fraught relationship between liberal democracy and liberal professions. 

Liberal professions are academics, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and professional politicians. There is a deep association between these liberal professions and liberal democracy. These liberal professions run liberal democracy.

The lawyers and the judges run the legal system. The doctors run another pillar of a liberal democracy, which is public health care. Journalists run that entire thing called the free media, which is constitutive of liberal democracy. And academics train democratic citizens but crucially, they credential the entire elite that runs a liberal democracy.

“And one of the things that the populist challenge is making me anxious about is the erosion of trust in the population at large at the status privilege and authority of the liberal professions that keep liberal democracy going. And there is deep resentment towards the credential inequality that the liberal professions have benefited from,” he said.

The liberal professions in general, need to think about inequality. Thomas Piketty’s data on income inequality is revealing – liberal professions have done extraordinarily well from the new inequality that began to emerge from the 1970s onward. 

He said that a definite linkage exists (but has rarely been acknowledged) between inequality, the erosion of status, and the erosion of trust towards liberal professions, and declining faith and confidence in liberal democracy itself.

He said, “If you believe as I do that one of the glories of a liberal democracy is a thing called the rule of law; but at present you go to many communities across Canada and you ask, what is the rule of law mean to you? People are likely to respond by saying: It means I have no access to justice. The lawyers are too expensive. The judges won't listen. And my chances of ending up in the slammer pretty good. There is a an enormous gulf between the high minded way in which in a university we think about the rule of law, and the much crueler reality of what the rule of law looks like in an ordinary Magistrates Court or criminal law court.”

Ignatieff explained that the legitimacy of liberal democracy is performative. It’s won or lost every day in our courtrooms. It’s won or lost every day when a lawyer says, ‘You can’t afford my fees’. It’s won or lost every day when our legal aid systems don't work, it's won or lost every day in which an Aboriginal comes out thinking I can't get a fair shake and this goddamn system.

“These are the pressures on the performative legitimacy of liberal democracy that we ought to take seriously. They relate to the eroding trust that the general public has in credentialed liberal professions. And I think that has a knock-on effect in terms of the faith that people have in liberal democracy. It’s one of the reasons why people say I don't want liberal democracy. What I want is to be ruled by ‘We the People’,” he said.

Ignatieff concluded with an impassioned plea: 

“I want the doors to be open, so everybody can be put through the rigorous, relentless training that makes great universities great. I don't want to compromise any of that. But we got to make sure the doors are open. We got to make sure that everybody can get the kind of chance that my father Mike, and I got through being in these places. And I think we want as teachers to be constantly thinking about the professional ethics that we teach in the liberal professionals. If you’re in a liberal profession, you have obligations, their fiduciary obligations, their obligations of competence, their obligations of good advice, their obligations of academic excellence, but they’re also obligations of service and if we lose that we may pay a price in terms of the legitimacy of liberal democracy itself that we can barely see.”

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Understanding chaos: Artur Avila, 2014 Fields Medal recipient

ArtutrAvila - recipient of 2014 Fields Medal

Dr. V. I. Lakshmanan introduced me to Dr. V Kumar Murty last year. Dr. Murty is a mathematician and a Vedanta scholar. He is the CEO and Scientific Director of the Fields Institute. He invited me to participate in a private reception and public opening of the Fields Medal 2014 yesterday.

The Fields Institute is a centre for mathematical research activity - a place where mathematicians from Canada and abroad, from academia, business, industry, and financial institutions, can come together to carry out research and formulate problems of mutual interest. 

Its mission is to provide a supportive and stimulating environment for mathematics innovation and education.

It was founded in 1992, and initially located at the University of Waterloo. Since 1995, it has occupied a purpose-built building on the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto.

Avila explaining chaos

The Institute is internationally renowned for strengthening collaboration, innovation, and learning in mathematics and across a broad range of disciplines.

The Fields Institute promotes mathematical activity in Canada, helps to expand the application of mathematics in modern society, and makes mathematics accessible and engaging for all audiences.

In the 27 years since its establishment, the Fields Institute has become a world-renowned mathematical research centre known for its support of mathematical collaboration, education, and outreach.

The Fields Institute is deeply committed to bridging and connecting scientific communities and fostering and promoting new and existing collaborations.

The Institute is named after John Charles Fields.

John Charles Fields (May 14, 1863 – August 9, 1932) was a Canadian mathematician and the founder of the Fields Medal for outstanding achievement in mathematics.

Fields is best known for his development of the Fields Medal, which is considered by some to be the Nobel Prize in Mathematics.

First awarded in 1936, the medal is considered by many as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. It was reintroduced in 1950 and has been awarded every four years since. It is awarded to two to four mathematicians, under the age of 40, who have made important contributions to the field.

Fields began planning the award in the late 1920s but, due to deteriorating health, never saw the implementation of the medal in his lifetime. He died on August 9, 1932 after a three-month illness; in his will, he left $47,000 for the Fields Medal fund.

The medal has been awarded since its inception by the International Mathematical Union (IMU). Details on how the medal is awarded are here: https://www.mathunion.org/imu-awards/fields-medal .

The Fields Institute has hosted the annual Fields Medal Symposium since 2012. The Symposium has become the Fields Institute's flagship event and attracts top mathematicians from around the world.

Artur Avila, a Brazilian mathematician who received the Fields Medal in 2014 at a ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, was honoured in the Fields Medal Symposium held on November 4, 2019. (https://www.mathunion.org/imu-awards/fields-medal/fields-medals-2014)

He is an outstanding mathematician. A dynamicist through and through, he combines the powers of a consummate analyst with a remarkable strategic flair for approaching and solving difficult problems.

The sheer breadth and depth of his work – extending over fields as diverse as smooth dynamics, Schrödinger operators, rational billiards, one-dimensional maps, and many others – cannot be summarized in a few sentences.

And yet, there is a unifying concept behind many of his most important results: that of renormalization.

The idea originates from Physics: in the simplest form, renormalization expresses the physical fact that certain phenomena are not affected when different quantities – such as length and temperature – are rescaled suitably.

Renormalization was proven equally fruitful in the realm of Mathematics, and Artur is its most skillful user.

Dynamicists have been occupied by a question since Isaac Newton’s era: given a system that evolves in time, what can be said about its behaviour over long time scales?

Avila at Isabel Bader Theatre, which was packed to capacity
with math enthusiasts 

Since Newton’s day, our understanding of the question has changed significantly with the discovery of chaos and its presence even in some of the simplest situations.

In this public lecture, Avila reflected on how his field has changed over time, and examine current questions at the forefront of dynamical systems theory.

The Public Opening of the Fields Medal awardee was held at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre on 4 November 2019 and attracted more than 300 attendees.

The Public Opening celebrates mathematics, attempts to demystify the medallist's area of research, and provides an opportunity for the public to enjoy, learn from, interact with, and be inspired by the “rock stars” of mathematics.

Public Opening featured remarks from 
  • Vivek Goel, Vice-President, Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives, University of Toronto
  • Alejandro Adem, President, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
  • Andrei Okounkov, Columbia University (Fields Medal 2006) 
  • Marcelo Viana, Director of Instituto Nacional de Matemática Pura e Aplicada
  • Melanie Woodin, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto 
  • Dr. Kumar Murty CEO and Scientific Director of the Fields Institute
Also read: Finding a horseshoe on the beaches of Rio

Information for this blog has been derived from the following sources:






Sunday, November 03, 2019

Suketu Mehta's This is Our Land

My sister Sonal, who has lived in the United States since the late 1980s, sent me Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta in 2005, probably a year after it was published in the US.

For a person who had lived his entire life in Bombay and had covered it fairly extensively as a journalist for nearly two decades, the idea that a New Yorker could have anything new to say about one’s hometown was entirely preposterous, if not totally insulting.

But Suketu Mehta, even while talking about everything that was familiar, was saying it differently.

As a journalist one had witnessed and reported the deathly carnage of the 1992-93 rioting up close, but Mehta brought alive the horror of the bloodbath with passages such as this:

“What does a man look like when he’s on fire?” I asked Sunil.

It was December 1996, and I was sitting in a high-rise apartment in Andheri with a group of men from the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party. They were telling me about the riots of 1992-93, that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

The two other Shiv Sena men with Sunil looked at each other. Either they didn’t trust me yet or they were not drunk enough on my cognac. “I wasn’t there. The Sena didn’t have anything to do with the rioting,” one man said.

Sunil would have none of this. He put down his glass and said, “I’ll tell you. I was there. A man on fire gets up, falls, runs for his life, falls, gets up, runs.”

He addressed me.

You would bear to see it. It is horror. Oil drips from his body, his eyes become huge, huge, the white shows, white, white, you touch his arm like this” – he flicked his arm – “the white shows. It shows especially on the nose” – he rubbed his nose with two fingers as if scrapping off the skin – “oil drips from him, water drips from him, white, white all over.”

“Those were not days for thought,” he continued. “We five people burnt one Mussulman. At four a.m. after we heard of Radhabai Chawl, a mob assembled, the likes of which I have never seen. Ladies, gents. They picked up any weapon they could. Then we marched to the Muslim side. We met a pavwallah on the highway, on a bicycle. I knew him; he used to sell me bread every day.” Sunil held up a piece of bread from the pav bhaji he was eating. “I set him on fire. We poured petrol on him and set him on fire. All I thought was, This is a Muslim. He was shaking. He was crying. ‘I have children, I have children!’ I said, ‘When your Muslims were killing the Radhabai Chawl people, did you think of your children?’ That day we showed them what Hindu dharma is.”

Maximum City not only defined Bombay but also went on to become a genre for writing creatively about complexities that cities – especially cities in the developing world – evolve and how they transform their inhabitants.

Fifteen years later, Suketu Mehta has published another path breaking book. This is Our Land – An immigrant’s manifesto’.  He has obviously written it in anger, desperation and frustration at the rapid transformation of the manner in which immigrants and immigration are being treated globally.

The developed economies have, in unison, decided that they have had enough of the unwashed masses that obstinately keep on showing up at their borders, and that these immigrants are really not their problem, and that they might as well drown in the ocean for all they care. The world has suddenly become inhospitable for immigrants.

I’m a Canadian citizen, an immigrant in a country that is unique in its tolerance of immigrants. Fortunately, my experience as an immigrant has been without the horrors of racism and discrimination.

Let me hasten to clarify that while Canada by and large accepts the inevitability of immigrants to in its society; it still has not been able to evolve a mechanism that ensure the economic integration of the immigrant.

Yes, there is a crazy, right-wing fringe in Canada, too, that turns abusive and occasionally even violent towards newcomers or people who look different, but their numbers are few. It wouldn’t be erroneous to claim that most immigrant in Canada don’t experience the terror and horror their counterparts feel in some parts of Europe and the United States.

Mehta’s book while authentically portraying the conditions immigrants face in the developed world, especially in the United States and western Europe, also analyses the causes of immigration. He says it is the fear of the immigrant that is more dangerous than the immigrants themselves. He cautions that if anything perennial economic subjugation (economic colonialism) and climate change will ensure more immigration than the world is prepared to accept or even understand.

Mehta was in Toronto on two occasions recently promoting his book. In September, he participated in the maiden Toronto edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival and in October he was here to participate in the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Meenakshi Alimchandani, litterateur and literary curator, had organised Mehta’s session at the Toronto International Festival of Literature, and agreed to my suggestion to interview Mehta after the session.

My friend Gavin Barrett, a poet and founder of the immensely successful Tartan Turban Secret Reading Series (for which he also unjustifiably credits me) agreed to my suggestion that we chat with Mehta together, giving our Bombay connection.

Mehta wanted to have “something Indian” so we went to the Indian Roti House across the Harbourfront Centre. It turned out to be a rather modest desi restaurant, that served roti wraps in extra spicy chickpeas gravy.

Gavin and Suketu discovered they had common friends and that eased the conversation. What follows below are excerpts of an interview that talked about both Maximum City and This is Our Land. Mehta spoke freely, frankly and authoritatively.