The Myth Gap

A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.

I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.

The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:

“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”

These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.

In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.

Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.

Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।

धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥

This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”

The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.

Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.

The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.

While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.

On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.

Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, is  Housum Professor of History at Yale University. At the simplest, this timely book draws parallels between the Trump administration and the Third Reich.

In the prologue, Snyder reminds us that history does not repeat but that it does instruct, that it can familiarise and it can warn. He mentions that the western tradition considers history when the political order seems in peril, and that European history shows that democracies can fall and ethics can collapse. He reminds us how fascism and communism both were responses to globalisation, and why recent developments are a good reminder for us that we are not any wiser now than people were back then.

Eschewing moral panic, Snyder has managed to write a book that is deceptively simple in stating the profound lessons from twentieth century history, which are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

As I read through the book, its broader applicability to some other well-known democracies, not just the USA, became clearer. As a person of Indian origin, I have watched the current administration campaign its way to power, where with a weak opposition, the world’s largest democracy is, at the moment, a de facto single party state. Language has been corrupted with terms such as anti-national, “libtard”, “sickular” (“sick” and “secular” twisted together) are bandied about with ease to attack those, who raise legitimate concerns about the changing face of India. These mass attacks are often technology-enabled and bot-led, so difficult to counter. Further, I live in the UK and had watched with increasing concern the Brexit campaign infested with lies. The legacy of that campaign persisted after the win, labelling upset remain-voters “remoaners”, attacked with glib comments such as “your side lost, get over it!”. Having become PM as a side outcome of the Brexit vote, Mrs May also eagerly abused language, labelling globalists “citizens of nowhere” and mouthing meaningless tautologies, such as “Brexit is Brexit”. As I write this review on the weekend of 17/18 June 2017, she is seeing plenty of corporeal politics in the form of protests at Downing Street asking her to resign.

Point no 14 — establish a private life — made me a tad uncomfortable. The way I read it, I interpret Snyder’s point to mean “don’t have anything over which you can be held to ransom”. This is a tricky endeavour. After all nearly all of us have near and dear ones, and can be forced into uncomfortable situations because of them. I was also reminded of the time when I was a graduate student of management. We had a guest speaker, TN Seshan, who is known to have been one of the most incorruptible and straight shooting Election Commissioners India has had. After nearly 25 years, one of his remarks sticks in my memory. He said not having children liberated him to live fully and fearlessly to his ideals. It is hard to have a life without a chink in the armour that a tyrannical despot and his or her minions would not be able to exploit.

One point that Snyder does not make — and perhaps it is not important enough — is that “leaders” emerging through such shenanigans remain insecure and sore winners, with easily hurt and fragile egos. This means that these leaders rarely submit themselves to public engagement or criticism, preferring either to become sound byte dispensing bots such as Mrs May or to continue attacks real or imagined adversaries as Mr Trump does on Twitter. May be that was not a lesson in history. But it is a pertinent characteristic that can be useful.

I feel the list of lessons in the book also provides an interesting framework with which to examine technological monopolies such as Facebook and Google, and the influence they may have on shaping the political discourse, about which plenty has been written since the last Presidential elections in the USA.

In the epilogue to this excellent book, titled “History And Liberty”, Snyder warns us to watch for the politics of inevitability i.e. the idea that history could only move in one direction — towards liberal democracies, and the politics of eternity, which glorifies the past with scant regard for facts. Recent developments in the USA — and I add India and the UK — give weight to his argument that this belief in the politics of inevitability is a self-induced form of intellectual coma, which stifles debate and discussion. On the other hand, the politics of eternity has fostered nationalist politicians who sell the seductive vision of a past that never existed and prevent us from thinking about possible futures and ways to self-correct.

I read the book in one sitting, with a single cafetière of coffee by my side. It is a riveting read, which is not something one could normally say about books on history and politics.

In a subsequent conversation with a journalist friend, we agreed that these points ought to be on a poster of some kind, and everyone needs to have it up where it can be seen daily.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: This book ought to be read in full. By everyone. Especially in the current political climate. Why? Because, to quote Marshall Berman, American Marxist humanist philosopher, “Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.” 

Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.

Offence: The Hindu Case

Link: You can vote on my Amazon review of the book here. Thanks. The author has linked to this review on his blog.

Offence : The Hindu Case is one in the series, Manifestos for the 21st Century Series, published in collaboration with the Index on Censorship. Some of the other books in the series argue the Muslim case, the Jewish case and the Christian case. The books in this series have upset many, who feel the books are blasphemous or even seditious. To that extent, my view is that only free speech purists may be able to read the book without getting agitated or angry. I have had the opportunity to attend a Free Word event in London in October 2009 where Mr Tripathi and Ms Shamsie, author of the Muslim case, were speaking and faced much cross-questioning from the audience, not all of it laudatory or unabashedly appreciative.

Back to this book. At 116 pages, including references, it is a quick read. But it has not been so easy to review it. I read the book about three months ago. Since then much water has flown in the Ganges, so to speak. The artist, MF Husain, the story of whose persecution in India runs through the book, has renounced his Indian citizenship and taken Qatari citizenship. The book opens with Husain’s story, then proceeds to demonstrate how Hindu nationalists are systematically catalysing censorship and bans, and revising history to suit a narrative, which is entirely at odds with India’s constitution (which creates India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic), and with India’s history and indeed Hinduism’s history as an inclusive philosophical movement. By focusing on Rama as a deity, Hindutva seems to be constructing a discourse on “offence” which is inspired, for want of a better word, by monotheistic religions such as Islam, shunning the richness and plurality of the religion’s mythology and traditions.

To construct his argument, Mr Tripathi draws upon the writings of and conversations with some of India’s leading contemporary thinkers and historians, as well as influential cultural icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. Indeed Mr Tripathi also cites Wendy Doniger, who is not the most popular western commentator on Hinduism. However Hindu nationalism revivalists in India also have help from native Belgian and American commentators, none of whom is remotely as scholarly as Doniger, who has spent several years studying Hindu texts.

This book is a snapshot of India’s recent events. It is a book about India’s present, not India’s past but there is also a disturbing prospect of a future trajectory that is potentially reductive, exclusive and revisionist.

Some readers, especially of the Hindu persuasion, may feel agitated, frustrated or confused while reading the book. Indeed recent books that are less than effusive about Hinduism have evoked highly polar reactions from Hindus. For instance, while discussing Doniger’s recent book, I asked a particularly upset lady if she had read the book. Without a hint of irony but with all the puissance of righteous rage, she said: “Why, no self-respecting Hindu will ever read that book!”. While not representative, the line captured for me the difficulty of having an informed discussion about religion in general and a religion such as Hinduism in particular, with its plurality and diversity.

Others will find this book thought-provoking and may take on the opportunity to explore Hindu scholarship in detail. Mr Tripathi’s is a perspective that needs to be shared widely. India cannot remain India Shining by excluding from its future narrative a good 20% of its people.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: This book is not to everyone’s taste and many are bound to take offence. It will however enthrall those who remain ever curious about religion and its role in political and societal narrative. I think those interested in India but confused by the rapidity and complexity of the moving feast will find the book an interesting introductory read too.

Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.

The Mighty And The Almighty

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

I read The Mighty And The Almighty in Washington DC, not far from where Madeleine Albright teaches and works. The timing was opportune too, with the backdrop of the N Korean missile tests on July the 4th 2006; George Bush’s unexpectedly articulate interview on CNN on his 60th birthday on July the 6th 2006 stressing diplomacy and not war; the sad anniversary of London bombings on July the 7th; and fresh news about foiled plots to blow up tunnels in New York. It is difficult not to acknowledge such mindfulness and the bias it creates in reviewing a book. But here it is anyway.

Madeleine Albright is an embodiment of the American dream. She came to America from the communist regime of the Czech Republic and rose through sheer hard work, intelligence and being at the right place at the right time to the top of American politics. Her personal history also explains her strong belief that communism had to go. Arguably her background was privileged, her dad being a diplomat, but her solid grounding and rich Weltanschauung is further clarified to us with this small piece of information.

In the foreword to this book, Bill Clinton says this book was written against the best advice of friends. Reading it makes it clear why the advice might have been to refrain but over all, the author treads a dangerous terrain yet comes out rather unscathed.

The book presents a combination of personal and professional experience, academic perspective, moral principles and religious themes, all of which are evident from her background and the title of the book.

Organised into 3 sections, ‘God, Liberty, Country’, ‘Cross, Crescent, Star’ and ‘Final Reflections’, the book is mainly a reflection on the historical role and political influence of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a walk through the history of America (including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in ‘Good Intentions Gone Astray’) and the involvement of America in world polity (including Clinton’s Camp David mediation sessions between Israel and Palestine).

The overarching good quality of the book’s message is in Mrs Albright’s ability to weave in and out of the narrative with historical and religious background that shows a strong handle on complex differences and similarities amongst the three religions, and how these have been exploited by various factions and schools of thought to advance their own objectives. My particular favourite was the chapter titled ‘Learning about Islam’ which in a nutshell summarises key principles for the religion.

The book is littered with references to inspiring quotations e.g. from Martin Luther King and O W Holmes, which are cross-referenced several times later, as well as bitter and frank self-assessment e.g. when she says the trouble with us Americans is that we rate ourselves more highly than the world rates us (I paraphrase, of course).

The introspection and reflection grounded in pragmatism is the best quality of this 300-odd page book. The most frustrating part is what I consider poor editing. Sentence constructions in many places are extra-ordinary. Some appear to be sotto voce and they seem the editor left them alone. Often I had to re-read entire paragraphs to make sense of the point being made. It distracts from immersion reading, the kind I prefer.

I have given it 4 stars – perhaps largely because I did not know what to expect from the book, so I came away not jubilant, but not disappointed. Some sections such as ‘The Devil and Madeleine Albright’ were rambling to read and could not hold my attention.

All in all, a multifaceted treatise for those keen on history, politics, religion and how they enmesh with one another in international diplomacy.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Recommended for those, who are curious about and interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the State Department or in international diplomacy. If political personalities and how they are made as persons and politicians are topics of interest to you, this will make a fascinating read.