Friday, June 1, 2012

Morality, legality, etc.

The Dharun Ravi - Tyler Clementi case hits home for me on a lot of accounts. This sentiment is perhaps what drew me to re-visit my blog after a brief (ok...not-so-brief...) hiatus. I feel strongly about gay bullying and discrimination and watching the case and Ravi's defense made me think about our / the government's framework for value judgement.

First, let me note that Ravi got off easy -- with a slap on the wrist and 30 days in jail (not prison), he has the rest of his life ahead of him, perhaps with diminished job / educational opportunities to constantly remind him of his fatal misdeeds. His technical / legalese-soaked apology won't be able to (or remotely begin to) assuage the Clementi family.

But beyond this, another aspect of the case sparked my interest. The constant reference to Ravi's mean-spirited intentions, and the public / court's demand for an apology seemed to be an outright critique of Ravi's values rather than his crimes. So, where, on a personal, moral, level, do Ravi's actions become unconscionable? What he did was a malicious act of bullying. But  it took Clementi's suicide to substantively criminalize his actions.

I feel that through the ruling, and through the demand for an apology, the courts, in some way, try to dictate society's moral schema. And I think there is a fine line here: for example, where, exactly, does morality end and the law begin? To me, they are very distinct forms of assessment, sometimes with an overlap (it is mostly both immoral and illegal to commit civil murder, but neither if you're in the military; it is perhaps immoral to cheat on your wife, but not illegal; it is illegal to smoke marijuana, but maybe not immoral -- again, all of this depends on your fundamental set of values).

To me, morality can exist in an extra-legal context. Certainly, for example, there are "moral" people operating in criminal organizations -- perhaps working in an illegal framework, but still, nonetheless, "moral" or "good." These people might be faithful to their families, honest in their transactions, and loyal to their friends, but these values are fundamentally overwhelmed (to the criminal justice system) by the illegality of their professions and/or deeds. To us, they are "bad"... "criminals"; to their spouses and children, they are "good" people...dependable, even scrupulous, caretakers. Being a good person doesn't mean you're not a criminal; similarly, being a criminal doesn't eliminate the possibility of you being a good person.

Personally, I think that the law is a weak standard by which to assess someone's character. We are taught early on to conflate the moral with the legal, but I think there is a distinction, and it's an important one when we critically evaluate our reasons for judgement. Certainly I wouldn't want to grab Starbucks with Dharun Ravi, but I'm just trying to create space in our psyche for this young man's potential to evolve -- and for you, me, whoever, to reassess the judgements we make that are perhaps clouded by our learned adherence to the law as a moral standard. I think it's the best way to get closure for Tyler Clementi's family and best way for our society to reach a higher level of social consciousness and/or progress.

Alright, that's enough for today; time to get my chai latte on (even though I really need to cut back on the empty calories). Peace.

Monday, May 9, 2011

On Demonizing

Although the topic is stale to me now, all of the glory-seeking and self-congratulating surrounding the killing of Bin Laden has me thinking about our relationship with the other; how depictions of our enemies justify our irrationalities, driving actions into a regressive calculus of hate and aggression.

Outrage is flooding over the non-disclosure of pictures of OBL's corpse. Sure they could be advancing a conspiracy theory -- my cab driver from last night swears Bin Laden lives in Waziristan, and Saddam Hussein's doppelganger was executed in 2006 ("A hole is simply not Hussein's style; he would go out in a palace for sure"). But to me, seeking the release of that picture is a backwards quest of glory; a 2003 "Mission Accomplished" sign that only fuels false passion, even optimism, in a bleak geopolitical realm that needs much more than a victor and a conquest. By publishing those pictures, Obama would give America and the world a rationalized symbol of hatred, implicit approval of base instincts and a national sentiment that could be generalized into racist imaginations.

I'm a passionate person. I love life, politics, innovation, and a non-fat chai latte every other morning. And it gives me vigor to have opinions, to judge critically, and feel strongly about my decisions. And amidst my love for exuberant assertions, I've understood that  demonizing the enemy, creating the dangerous "other" - that serves as a rationalization for our irrationalities (sometimes even our passions); the justification we seek for our own imperfect judgement.

I've fallen prey to it before. As Senators at Cal, my party hated the opposing one. Every thing they did was with evil intent, and every bill they proposed had to be voted down. I mean, this happens everywhere - the partisan debates over the budget in Washington were functionally futile and served only to hurt legislative efficiency. The problem is that by creating enemies in the Senate, I never got my own bills passed; I struggled with the inefficiencies of the system, when the very political system I was a part of was aiding partisan bickering. And the problem is universal. The kids on the side of the table actually, in the real world, are more political aligned with me than not, and although I'll probably never see or talk to them again, I realize now that we all have that blinding capability to hate...but it takes thought and consideration to exercise restraint and hold yourself to higher level of refinement and discipline.

The night the news dropped, I was surprised and upset by what I saw in the social media universe - anger, hatred, religious and racial obscenities; supposedly justifiable, but actually repugnant, degrading. We become the deceitful and unprincipled "other" when we lose our sensibilities and rest our heads on the comfortable righteousness we so assuredly claim is ours.

Although I can't say I'm religious, I have a feeling karma's out there. And no good can come of blinding vengeance, no matter how terrible the object of your hatred may be. It disrupts your peace, brings down your level of rationality, and mostly tends to be inefficient and a general waste of your time.

My remedy for an angry day? A mani/pedi, The Economist, some gangsta rap, and the San Francisco sun. It's a winning combination.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

On the Regulation of Young People

Recent news (or wait, maybe it was charming and numbingly intriguing landscape of my cube...) has me curious about the framework and discourse associated with what's necessary for the "greater good."  Whether it's local politicians, literary critics, or Christine O'Donnell, every one seems have an enforceable (via witchcraft, or not) idea of what betters society at its moral core. Moral regulation at the lowest, most intimate levels of education and development, however, are troublesome (of course, I embrace the irony of this statement given my political views) at best.

Huckleberry Finn comes to mind. A Twain academic is working on a new edition, one that removes the 219 uses of the n-word and replaces it with "slave". Indeed, the historical associations of the word are reminiscent of an untenable and morally distorted period of our history which inevitably force us to writhe in the miscalculations of the Americans before us. 

The intent is understandable - protecting the future from the bleakness of the past is human nature. But Twain's narrative was not an accident, nor was it reflective of his personal views. The word is supposed to be graphic; the reader is supposed to feel the acidity, the dry and cruel pungency of the sound resonating in their mind and brave up to the historical malfeasances that inevitably contributed to their society. By censoring the words out of the book, the publisher threatens to create a generation of cultural cowards, young people who are taught to be afraid of their mistakes and who choose not to err for fear of failure. In reality, mistakes, miscalculations, even failure; these factors are a necessary part of the analysis and differentiation of what is good and what is not. 

More importantly, it takes a patronizing approach to young people; dismissing their ability to discern and assigning moral ambiguity to developing minds denies them not only equal access to their history, but also solidifies an unwavering power structure which defines in absolutes and silences the questioning. It is imperative for young people to know the facts, be curious, and to develop their own values. 

Similarly, although with a slightly different justification, lies San Francisco Supervisor Mar's ordinance that functionally bans McDonald's Happy Meals by disallowing toys to be given with the meals unless they meet nutritional guidelines determined as appropriate for children (as Jon Stewart puts it, he creates the "Crappy Meal"). 

Again, Mar's intent is genuine, even admirable. The Board of Supervisors seemed to agree; in a 8-3, veto-proof vote, they supported him and endorsed the proposal. The ramifications are extensive, but unlike the Twain scenario, in an socio-economic sense. Mar makes way for a slippery slope that gives increasing legislative authority over matters that are more likely than not, out of their area of expertise. Of course, all corporations are subject to rules and limitations - but this ordinance is unique in the moral stance it takes, and the extension of that singular belief into binding legislation. How much of this is patriarchal, and how much of this is tactical? How will this hurt McDonald's business and will it really change the lifestyle or consciousness of the consumer? Is it unfairly targeting the Happy Meal when competitor chains have similar toy options? And most importantly, is it Mar's job to peg obesity as a necessary evil that must be battled at the corporate level? 

In my personal opinion, Mar's ordinance has potential to benefit San Francisco, despite the not-so-happy meals (and kids). Maybe even make an ounce of difference in America's obesity stats. But is it fair for Mar to invade the most intimate and physical part of my being, to tell me or San Franciscan children that the shape of my body is his legislative prerogative? 

I'm not sure what the answers to those questions are...nor do I know what the implications of their existence is. 

I'm just bored, sitting in a corner coffee shop on Polk Street, and avoiding the inevitable powerpoint deck that promises to keep me awake tonight. 

ps: An article about the Mar legislation; be sure to watch the Daily Show video in the left corner; it's hilarious :

Oh Boehner

Is it not funny to anyone else that John Boehner's entire family cries just as much as he does? Right  before he first accepted the awkwardly oversized gavel from Speaker Pelosi (she references that as his gavel "of choice" in an even more awkward presentation), he whips out the handkerchief to wipe his tears. This of course is standard Boehner; what was even better was that C-SPAN pans over to his family, ALL OF WHOM are crying into their handkerchiefs.


Speaking of badass/awesomeness, Pelosi read out all the Dem accomplishments publicly before passing over the reins to the new speaker. I admire her.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"The New Kashmir"

This blogger here attributes Kashmiri unrest to economic concerns. Really, blogger, really??

Even if we did, in a distorted and hypothetical world, accept this premise, what exactly do we think LED to the economic devastation of the valley? A few things off the top of my distracted and multitasking head: the flight of hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris because of religious persecution; trade routes being cut off by regional interests; oh, I don't know, maybe even the terrorist training camps set up by the LET and Al Qaeda.

Sick of the misinformation spreading about Kashmir. Scholastic/academic views much too often trivialize the tribulations of all Kashmiris and most importantly, their disinterested analysis does no one any good. Let's be real - Kashmiris need to be more politically involved (through LEGITIMATE MEANS) if there is to ever be a solution. Kashmiris themselves have given up on government advocacy and lobbying -- something that is putting us all very behind. Losing faith in the system has only hurt the KP community.

Before there can be a solution, the problem needs to be truthfully identified. And it seems like way too many people need help with that.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

More info on the Russian spies

Such an interesting story. Had been followed them for years but the US decides to come down on them NOW, amidst US-Russia talks and joint

Obama-Medvedev appearances (he was in Cupertino last week!). Wonder what this means for relations and for our spies in Russia!

Meghana Dhar
Sent from my iPhone

Friday, July 2, 2010

Kal Penn vs. Joel Stein

Joel Stein's article in the latest Time describes the demographic shift in Edison, New Jersey and in the process, highlights ethnic norms and pokes fun at racial stereotypes. He references the "dot-heads" and mentions gods with multiple arms and an elephant nose. He discusses his past in Edison and compares it with the current, Indian-ized town. 

In a word, Stein engages in socio-cultural satire. 

Unfortunately, that's not how Indians across the country have taken it. 

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) has issued a public statement and online petition condemning Stein's words. Specifically, it reads, "most offensive is his remarkably blasé tone about the discrimination and hate crimes that targeted the New Jersey South Asian Community during the 1980s." 

Similarly, Kal Penn wrote a sarcastic piece in a HuffPo earlier today that essentially calls Stein a racist and is defensive in its tone. I'll be the first to admit that I've grown up with a crush on Kal Penn (since "American  Desi"...) and I'm a huge fan, but his article was a huge blow to his persona for me. If Kal claims himself to be an intellectual, then why isn't he deconstructing the essence of the post and instead dwelling in the superficial nonsense that Stein usually spews (I've read his columns for years now, and they are all emphasized by his slapstick sarcasm and bizarre cultural or social references). 

Here's my point. All of that stuff is true. Stein doesn't lie nor does he display the race in a negative way. Instead, he references terms and facts that have been construed as negative or offensive. Penn's narrative functionally asks you as the reader to condemn any references to the dot-busting incidents of the 80's (which are IMO of vital importance to the diaspora of the South Asian in America) and chooses miniscule battles of Stein's wordings and references instead of seeing the bigger picture. 

To take it a step further, I find Stein's rhetoric as oddly space-making and emancipatory for the race. Why can't we as South Asians embrace our immigrant history, our assigned stereotypes to create and revolutionize our identities as South Asian Americans? Instead, why are we becoming sensitive to our racial positionings, or even worse, taking it in the wrong way? This hinders our progress and distracts us from the bigger questions and the path of racial and cultural understanding within the American framework. 

As a matter of fact, Kal Penn is the last person to be criticizing racial stereotypes. As Taj Badalandabad in Van Wilder (remember that?) he played on EVERY SINGLE Indian stereotype in the book for his role; he's presented himself as the normative "South Asian" in almost every role he's had (from 24, to NYPD Blues, the Namesake) and built his career off of the ethnicizing of the South Asian. 

I stray from my point though: I think there IS racial and cultural space within American society for the South Asian. Although Kal Penn may not know this, he's one of the figures that has played ping-pong with his media-racial identity, and I think it's ended well for him and for us. Characters are portrayed in the media now as mainstream more than foreign (for example, compare Apoo from the Simpsons who was the stereotypical Indian with his thick accent and funny name, to Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford in Parks and Rec, who is known first for his quirky character and only much later in the series, as being a South Asian). Stein's playful references, however interpreted, are actually a sign of South Asians becoming relevant to American society and an integral part of its ethnographic array. I think, therefore, that a lot of this anger is misplaced and that we as a culture/race/ethnicity need appreciate these public mentions as forums through which we are "normalized" and simultaneously accepted for our cultural quirks. 

Most importantly, Stein ends his article by ironically drawing lines of similarities between young Indians and the more established Italians from the area (by again drawing on another racial stereotype of the "Guido): "gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians." Yes, I can be petty and talk about how hurt I am, along with the nation of Italy. But honestly, I think of this as a full circle for Stein - he sees things changing superficially, but ultimately, sees the similarities in the EDISON culture that DEFIES racial lines. 

Penn compares Stein's remarks to Jewish or African American jokes and hints that they should be treated just as gravely as racial attacks. Kal, in the article, Stein also alludes to being a transvestite hooker....


PS: there go my chances with Kal Penn. <3 <3 <3 :(

PS: I understand that a lot of Indians/South Asians disagree with my points, and I'm happy to hear your views.