Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Of Folk Values and Government and Rama's Bridge

It seems to me that Ed Brayton is, unusually for him, saying some irrational things. The occasion for this is a news report noting that Hindu activists have been protesting -- fairly successfully, as protests go -- a canal project because it would lead to the destruction of one of their holy sites, Rama Setu, a set of limestone shoals that they attribute to Rama; according to the Ramayan, Rama built the formation in order to rescue his wife Sita. (The Hindu activitists, it should be noted (although Ed never mentions it) are not the only ones who are worried; the World Monuments Fund, for instance, has urged the Indian government to have the site for the canal changed in order to preserve the formation.) What essentially seems to have happened is that the Indian government, foreseeing this sort of problem, tried to forestall it by issuing a report saying that there was no evidence that Rama had built the formation. As I see it, this is essentially a dismissal tactic: it's a way for a government to move ahead with a project by dismissing potential protestors from the get-go. Of course, activists, supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party, have protested, and at one point brought traffic for almost a whole region to a standstill during a protest. (Since Ed just identifies the BJP as a religious party, which is true as far as it goes, but doesn't really give one an idea of what's involved, it might be useful to note that the BJP is a bit more than that. The BJP, one of India's largest political parties, is a Hindu nationalist party; its primary party positions are the developing of Indian scientific and technological infrastructure, economic protection of Indian business, and general religious tolerance on the Hindu principle that there are many ways to truth. Its explicit goals are to make India a developed nation and a major player on the world stage, to improve quality of life throughout India, developing a world-class infrastructure in India, and preserving Indian cultural traditions. A great deal of this uproar seems to me to have less to do with religion than with yet another political power struggle between the BJP and the socialist and secularist Indian National Congress; but I'm not an expert on Indian politics by any means.)

In any case, Ed dismissed the protestors, saying, "Yet another example of faith-based thinking standing in the way of progress."

Now, my thought on this was that what is really at dispute here is whether the canal project is really the route of progress or not, and that what has really happened here is that the Indian government has tried to dismiss the views of some of its citizens out of hand. So I commented:

I hardly expected you to be taking the totalitarian line here; surely it wouldn't matter whether they wanted the bridge preserved because it is a religious landmark or because it gave them warm sentimental feelings to contemplate on walks: it's not an impediment to any kind of progress for people either to express their wishes in this regard, whatever their reasons, or to expect that they should be taken seriously in those wishes (regardless of whether one thinks the reasons for them judicious), to the extent of at least taking them into account in the decision-making progress, rather than merely dismissing them as irrational.

Suppose a non-religious example. A dam project has been proposed; but as it turns out building the dam will lead to the flooding of a portion of land that contains a landmark widely associated with a local folk hero (who exists only in popular tall tales, but who is often taken to have actually existed). The locals rise up in protest because of this association; they don't want the folk hero's landmark destroyed. Now, one may regard this as an irrational reason for protesting a dam, but it is at least as irrational to think that merely because the folk hero doesn't exist that the locals can legitimately be dismissed as merely standing in the way of progress because of a silly belief. And the reasons for this irrationality are clear:

(1) It is often not an absolute necessity of progress like this to proceed along only one path, and thus one cannot regard any sort of opposition to this particular path as an opposition to progress as such; the natural policy question in such a case is, "Is there any way we can avoid this particular path and get more or less the same benefits?" And even if no, the question that still has to be asked is, "Given that these people hold this landmark in such high esteem, are the potential benefits such that we cannot seriously forego them when we have taken everyone's good into account?" Only if so can they seriously be said to "stand in the way of progress", because otherwise the whole dispute is whether this particular path really is progress.

(2) When we are considering whether this or that landmark should be protected, the overall value of any landmark is determined wholly by the sentiment of the people with regard to it, and this is true whatever reasons they may have. It doesn't matter, for instance, whether the reasons are purely sentimental (e.g., if instead of a folk-hero landmark it were simply the popular make-out spot), or if they have something to do with cultural heritage and common narratives (as with the folk hero example), or if they are purely utilitarian. Any reason, regardless of its grounds, increases the value in the market of policy; and whatever the worth of the grounds, the value of it in the eyes of the people is real, and it is there that serious consideration of policy begins, not with their reasons, which are their own to keep private or to use to try to persuade others.

The 'totalitarian' remark seems a little unfortunate in retrospect, since Ed seems to have fixed on it and not read anything else I've said. He responded:

The totalitarian line? Are you seriously suggesting that I'm taking the totalitarian line? The only ones acting remotely like totalitarians here are the BJP, who are bringing the region to a standstill, disrupting the lives of millions of people, impeding the economic vitality of the region and demanding the firing of archaeologists for daring to say that their religious beliefs are false. If that isn't irrational, nothing is.

To which I replied:

I am dead serious; it's why I found this whole post surprising since you are usually more evenhanded and think through the implications. Here you seem to be siding with a government that arrogated to itself the power to dismiss the views of its people out of hand, and against people who, however injudiciously, are protesting something that they think is wrong; and you seem to be suggesting that merely because they are misled that their values don't count at all. If we were to extend this principle consistently to other cases like those mentioned in my above comment, you get a situation that is totalitarian in the basic sense that people's views may be dismissed entirely, a priori, from policy making simply because someone thinks they are wrong. And since when can one say that public protest by ordinary citizens is totalitarian? Again, it may be injudicious, but I say it's entirely within the rights of people to protest what they think should not be done. And by no stretch of the imagination can popular rights, even imprudently exercised, be counted as totalitarianism. It looks to me like you are letting your disagreement with these people cloud your judgment on the role of popular values, whatever their grounds, in good public policy. It would be one thing to say that, after due process, and careful consideration of the question of whether there is seriously any other option in light of what is best for everyone, the canal project should go through as the proper route for progress. It is another thing entirely to suggest that we can take a massive technological project automatically as progress, and dismiss those who deny that it is progress simply because they believe in myths. It is no different from the folk hero case: building dams without any regard for the value of what is being destroyed is not progress; likewise with canal projects. And the value of what is being destroyed in a case like this cannot be anything other than the value that people actually place on it. I don't see how anything else could be regarded as consistent with a recognition of the importance of the people. Whether the people are right or wrong or (as almost always) some mix, policy has to start with them.

If a project to raze Devils Tower in order to build a superhighway, or what have you, was greenlighted, would you seriously dismiss the concerns of a group of Native Americans who protested because it's a sacred site to them, being the final resting place of the Cheyenne folk hero Sweet Medicine, or being the place where a giant bear helped the Lakota fight off their enemies, simply because Sweet Medicine may never have existed and the natural monument wasn't carved by the claws of a giant bear?

The last paragraph, incidentally, is my primary point here, as the folk hero argument was in the original comment; having said that Ed was favoring the 'totalitarian line', which confessedly is a bit harsh, I can entirely grant that some explanation was needed. But Ed was unmoved, replying to my 'dead serious' comment:

Then you're a moron. Only a moron would think that criticizing someone else's irrational beliefs is "totalitarian."

Of course, I didn't say that criticizing someone else's irrational beliefs is totalitarian; nor would it have been reasonable for me to do so because Ed never once in his post (although he seems to have forgotten it) actually criticizes the activists' beliefs, although it's clear by implicature that he does consider them irrational. The only thing he does criticize is their political activity (and when called on it, he again focuses on the political activity), and in this, as I've already noted, I think he has let his judgment about the irrationality of their beliefs interfere unduly with the question of whether they are, in his words, "standing in the way of progress." I don't think Ed's position is reasonably sustainable; and, in particular, I stand by my Devils Tower analogy. If I may make so bold as to borrow Ed's words, "only a moron" would think that razing Devils Tower for a technological project, with no other serious defense than that it was not carved by a giant bear, is progress, particularly if that defense were put forward by the government; and the no-giant-bears defense certainly wouldn't be a rational response to public protests over such a project. But I don't see that the cases are different -- and Ed has certainly provided no reason to think they are different. If the U.S. government were to OK a project to destroy Devils Tower in order to reduce travel times, despite the fact of a vociferous protest on the part of Native Americans, whose concerns were only addressed so far as to be told that they were simply wrong, I suspect Ed would be among the first to say that the government was at least not doing things in the proper way, regardless of whether the project were a good idea or not. At the very least I hope he would recognize that the U.S. government would not be providing a proper justification for its actions. But here, apparently, the flying monkeys of Rama get in the way of such a recognition.

I think I may have failed a bit in tact, since Ed, who usually sits back and criticizes other people's irrational views, seems a little sensitive to the suggestion I've made that his own is irrational on this point, to the extent that it is glossing over a dubious political move by the government of India. But I do think that if you're going to criticize other people for irrationality, you should have, at the minimum, reasoning ready to be presented to show that you are not yourself doing something irrational, and I haven't seen any serious argument by Ed anywhere on this issue, even when arguments are brought up against his view. [ADDED LATER: To bring out the point a little more clearly, what I see as the irrationality -- and the somewhat totalitarian-tending vector -- here is that consistent application of this type of judgment across similar cases would effectively give the government the right to ignore any of its citizens at all if only it can find sufficient experts to say that they are wrong. But while Ed is focused only on the government's being right in this case, in politics the rational approach is not to assume that the government will always be right, but to frame one's attitude toward government actions, whether based on correct information or false information, with a mind for what consistent application of principles will lead in times of corruption, when, for instance, experts are bought or bullied. And the only consistent principle I can see here that is consistent with democratic government is to say that it is irrelevant whether Rama actually existed and built the shoals; what is relevant is that a great many Indian citizens think so, and because of that value Rama Setu very highly, and the Indian government's attempt to ignore that by focusing on the first is a dangerous precedent to let slide. Nothing that comes from such a move can seriously be regarded as progress, because it puts a smaller value -- some travel time saved -- ahead of a larger value -- a government that takes its citizens' evaluations seriously.]

If anyone agrees with Ed, by the way, and wishes to argue for his position, I'll gladly put up the arguments.

UPDATE: Sudha Shenoy in the comments notes, among other important things, that the canal project was originally proposed by the BJP. I wouldn't know about this, but it sounds very likely and I'm willing to accept it, barring evidence otherwise -- the canal is the sort of nationalist technological-supremacy project that they seem generally to be very supportive of. What has chiefly happened, I think, is that the government has handled the situation in such a way that it has given the BJP popular ammunition against the Congress -- as I noted, I think a great deal of the furor has to do with the political power struggles between the BJP and the Congress, although the basic dispute itself has to do with the Congress's handling of this matter, which has been taken by some to involve a semi-official assertion that Rama did not exist and that Hindu beliefs can be ignored as false.

In any case, I don't know if Sudha Shenoy's comment is intended to be the sort of argument I asked for in my last paragraph or just a few points to be added to the mix, but in case it's the former, here's the comment in full:

1. The BJP are descended intellectually from the Fascists. They are fanatically anti-Muslim & anti-Christian, on the grounds that their 'holy places' lie outside India. A 'true Hindu' owes undivided religious & political loyalty to the Great Motherland. The BJP are intellectual obscurantists, rejecting all historical & linguistic discoveries that contradict their notions.

2. The first proposal to build the canal came from the BJP themselves, when they were in power...

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