India, the world’s largest democracy, is currently involved in a general election process that will take many weeks to execute. Cynics have often raised the question of what democracy can mean in a country where as much as a quarter of the population cannot read or write and where politics has not only been caste-based but has involved the buying of mass votes by politicians.
Similar questions were asked of me during a recent visit to Thailand. The latter has far better indicators of social welfare than India but a shorter history of democracy. Although never colonized, military rule only ended in the mid-70s (and the military and monarchical establishment continue to exercise a powerful influence on politics). It is salutary to remember that Western European democracies such as Spain, Portugal and Greece were freed from fascist political-military regimes not long before Thailand; and that women in Switzerland were only granted the vote in 1971.
Those in Thailand who vehemently oppose the present government believe it to be manipulated by the corrupt business tycoon and former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled Thailand in 2006. Thaksin’s economic policies proved very popular among peasant farmers who constitute the bulk of Thailand’s voting population. Opposition to Thaksin and his supporters come from a coalition of urban upper and middle-class groups whose slogan is “Reform before Elections”. They have used intimidation on the streets and at polling stations to scuttle government institutions. Their argument is that the poor are being duped by rural subsidies that are actually massive scams; and that politics in the country is so corrupt that government should be given over to a representative, but non-elected, group of academics and technocrats who can “clean up” corruption and pave the way for a properly-functioning democracy.
What is fascinating is that the debates recall the nineteenth and early-twentieth century arguments in Europe about the perils of democracy. The most perceptive political thinkers of the time (Mill, Constant, Tocqueville, Gladstone) argued passionately for the extension of political and civic liberties but agonised over the spectre of mass conformity, the downgrading of public tastes and the “tyranny of the majority” that popular government would bring. They devised safeguards against this danger, arguing for electoral and constitutional restraints, including entrenched rights that limited the scope of democratic decision-making while making the most of democracy’s potential for good.
There were, therefore, numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in their political positions, not least when it came to dealing with European colonial and imperial rule. John Stuart Mill, often called the father of modern political liberalism, famously argued that the “barbarous” people of India had to be educated into political liberty by first being subject to British rule. Not surprisingly, he followed his father into the Board of the British East India Company.
There are many illiberal democracies around today. From Putin’s Russia to Museveni in Uganda and Rajapakse in Sri Lanka, despots ground their legitimacy in electoral success. And in Western Europe, we have seen the rise of far-right political parties that have played to familiar themes of scapegoating new immigrants and demonizing minorities.
It is interesting that while the middle-classes of the world resent the populism of politicians who exploit the ignorance of the peasantry, there is little comparable anger at the subversion of democracy by the super-rich. This, after all, is what is crippling American politics. The Tea-Party has not only deeply divided the Republican Party but managed to shut down government in the nation’s capital.
Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the greatest threat to America’s fledgling democracy lay in the greed of the mercantile class. Gross economic inequalities destroy social solidarity, and subvert democratic participation. Wherever we happen to live in the world, we know that those who have more resources are able to manipulate public policy in their favour at the expense of those with fewer.
At the same time, to pit freedom from want against freedom of thought and speech is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. “If someone takes away your bread”, wrote Albert Camus, “he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”
Where freedom is not cherished by a significant portion of the citizenry, and where people care more about their own sectional interests than the common good, liberal democracy cannot flourish. Moreover, Tocqueville observed: “Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”
Therefore Christians engaging in the public sphere should not be defending an abstract “democracy”, but rather the liberal values (which are also Christian values) on which a democracy that respects and safeguards the rights of all people ultimately rests; and then to argue that if such values, embedded in appropriate political institutions, are to take root we have to nurture a public culture that prizes both the love of freedom and voluntary self-restraint for the sake of the common good. Thus, contrary to some understandings of political liberalism, we cannot exclude moral and religious discourse from the public sphere.
More than 400 Nepali migrant workers have died on Qatar’s building sites since the Gulf state won the bid to host the soccer World Cup in 2022. At the same time, more than 20 Indian labourers die on average every month on Qatar’s construction sites as employers show an appalling lack of concern for workers’ safety and the Qatari authorities race to meet construction deadlines and keep costs down. It has been estimated that, unless radical improvements in labour conditions begin now, more than 4,000 workers (mostly from South Asia) would have been killed – and countless others permanently maimed- by the time the rest of the world turns up in Qatar to enjoy the soccer.
All over the oil-rich Gulf States, an apartheid-like social system prevails. At the top of the pyramid are the Arab sheikhs who will never get their hands dirty but who reap the profits. Just below them are the senior executives of American and European banks and corporations, followed by those in middle-management. Then come South and South-east Asian professionals and business folk. At the bottom of the stack are the migrant labourers, from Filipina housemaids to (at the very bottom) unskilled construction workers from the Indian subcontinent who live in squalid, over-crowded accommodation and have little or no legal protection. The latter are heavily indebted to loan sharks at home who have paid for their passage to the Gulf. When the sheer pace of construction combines with a desperation on the part of workers willing to make huge sacrifices to improve the living conditions of their families back home, the result is a massive potential for exploitation.
These grim statistics about worker mortality did not come through investigations by South Asian governments. Far from it. The latter show no interest in the plight of their migrant labour. All that concerns them is the foreign exchange the migrants earn and send home. The statistics were unearthed and published by a local news agency invoking India’s Freedom of Information Act (forcing the embassy in Qatar to reveal how many Indian citizens had died in the past two years) and human rights organizations such as the Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee (which compiled lists of the dead using official sources in Qatar).
When, last December, an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip-searched by federal agents for violating US visa regulations, it provoked howls of outrage among the Indian media. This was an “insult to the pride of the nation”; and the Indian government was prompt with its tit-for-tat reprisals against spouses of American diplomats working in India.
No such outrage attends the deaths of Indian construction workers in Qatar and elsewhere. The Indian social elites are not only apathetic towards their own poor, but they find them a deep embarrassment (“to the pride of the nation”) and wish they could simply disappear.
Writing in The Times of India three decades ago, the well-known sociologist Rajni Kothari lamented: “As I talk to my friends, my relatives, my professional colleagues today, I get a feeling of total ignorance of the other India. When in fact they are forced to take note, such as when they walk through the pavements on which people are sleeping, there is a feeling of revulsion, of rejection, of contempt, not of compassion, empathy and least of all of any sense of guilt.”
Little has changed since Kothari wrote these chilling words. The hyped-up talk in Western media about India’s “economic boom” ignored the fact that economic growth was not accompanied by any significant increase in employment. The only “dynamic” private activity that has generated more jobs in the past decade has been construction. However, most construction in India is marked by a lack of concern for minimal standards of worker safety and other basic protections, just as in Qatar. Indeed, we don’t know how many workers die or are injured while working on building sites in India, because such data is rarely gathered.
An eminent Indian economist, Jayati Ghosh of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, cites official National Sample Survey data to state that about 95 per cent of all Indian workers are stuck in informal activities, “in precarious and often exploitative and low-paying contracts.” More than half of these are self-employed, which means that they are responsible for their own safety.
Ghosh also observes that neglect of workers’ rights has been part of an economic strategy that sees economic growth as worth almost any cost. Private investors must be provided with all sorts of incentives by the state to allow them to deliver growth. Any kind of worker protection is seen as inhibiting “wealth creation”. This strategy delivered growth (but without creating decent jobs) for a while; now even that growth is running out of steam.
Given this context, it is no wonder that the urban and rural poor are desperate to migrate abroad in search of work, even leaving young families behind. In places like Qatar, Dubai or Singapore, it will take several years before they have paid off the loan sharks from the meagre remittances they send home. Recognising the rights of migrant workers cannot be separated from the need to recognise the rights of workers in their home countries. And this would mean bringing morality and political responsibility back into the heart of economic policy.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth noted that “joy is really the simplest form of gratitude” and how common the theme of joy and celebration is in the Bible: “It is now genuine, earthly, human joy; the joy of the harvest, wedding, festival and victory; the joy not only of the inner but also the outer man; the joy in which one may and must drink wine as well as eat bread, sing and play as well as speak, dance as well as pray.”
Barth was not denying that sorrow, anger, doubt and pain all have their legitimate place in the Christian life. Moreover, depression and mental illness have been the experience of some of the Church’s greatest saints. But “the affirmation of ordinary life” (to use the words of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor) re-discovered in the time of the European Reformations, and contrasted with a medieval world-denying spirituality, tears down the sacred-secular divide and plunges Christians into the depths of bodily life and cultural creation.
If the heirs of Calvin have not often been noted for their joy, they have been responsible for deep-seated cultural and political transformations in Western societies. It is to one such heir of the Calvinist Reformation, the Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) that we owe the grand and famous dictum: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not say ‘Mine!’”
Kuyper popularized the idea of a uniquely “Christian worldview”. Since Christians have fundamentally different views of reality and of humanness from non-Christians, and thus see the “world” through different “lenses”, they should create a uniquely Christian scholarship in their intellectual endeavours. A distinctive “Christian biology” no less than a distinctive “Christian philosophy” or “Christian economics”.
I have never been persuaded by this. It seems to ignore what Kuyper elsewhere recognised as God’s common grace (another Calvinist emphasis) – that all people everywhere, Christian and non-Christian, share in the Creator’s creational blessings and creative gifts. Moreover we share a life largely in common with others, responding to common needs and challenges. The Christian scholar aims in her scholarship, not so much to be distinct as to be faithful to Christ. If, in her faithful scholarship, she is led to say things that are truly distinctive, well and good. But, if not, that may not necessarily reflect a lack of Christian sensibility.
Often Christian scholarship will gladly endorse what others may have been saying as true or right or just; while also exposing, illuminating, challenging and judging beliefs and practices that distort or conceal important aspects of reality. The world being what it is, and humans being what we are, we should expect much overlap, and even be prepared to learn from others on the way.
In a recent biography of Kuyper, the historian James Bratt points out that Kuyper was, like the rest of us, formed by the social and cultural prejudices of his day. He spoke blithely of “the superiority of Western civilization” and indulged in derogatory comments about African peoples. Even as Prime Minister he never questioned the right of the Netherlands to be colonial masters in Indonesia, although he did promote a more paternalistic and ethically responsible form of colonial government than his predecessors. Although difficult to prove, Kuyper’s “worldview” approach could so easily be co-opted in the service of the doctrine of “separate development” of Dutch settlers and native Africans in South Africa.
Pick up a book claiming to describe “the Christian worldview” and it will quickly be obvious where the author lives and to which socio-cultural group he belongs. Since the majority of these come from a suburban, middle-American context, it is not surprising to find the American Dream insinuating itself into “the Christian worldview”. One finds relatively few Kuyperite “worldview” enthusiasts joining the Occupying movement, exposing the hypocrisies of immigration policy or campaigning against the use of drones.
Does a Nepali Christian farmer see the same “world” as a Christian banker in Tokyo? How about a Christian corporate lawyer on Wall Street and a Christian factory worker in Detroit?
Worldviews (or interpretive frameworks) function as “operational maps”. Our deepest operational beliefs are not necessarily those we state, but those we think we have no need to state- because we take them to be universal. The Church historian Andrew Walls points out that while God as Creator may be acknowledged by all African Christians, in their “operational religion” far more attention is paid to territorial divinities who control the land, or to ancestors who maintain the family and the clan, or to intermediary beings of some kind than to God. On their worldview maps, therefore, God appears relatively small, the other entities significantly larger.
I have never seen the place of ancestors (“the cloud of witnesses”, Hebrews 12:1) ever discussed in teaching about “the Christian worldview” in Western church or seminary circles. Nor the centrality of economic justice, hospitality to outsiders and ethnic reconciliation.
Clearly Christians whose “worldview” has been shaped by one context will have a somewhat different operational map of reality from Christians whose worldview has been shaped within another. There is no one single Christian worldview, but a variety- all changing and growing even as they share some “family resemblances” that enable them to be identified as Christian. At the same time, Walls observes that “Christian worldviews may have important elements in common with non-Christian worldviews of the cultures from which they come- features that will differ from those on the worldview maps of their fellow Christians of another cultural background.” And I would add “social and historical background.”
Hence the need to converse across our differences and divisions.
What is the relation between moral goodness and intellectual insight? The modern assumption is that there is no connection, that ethics inhabits a different realm altogether from knowledge- a view that would have been incomprehensible to the great sages of both the ancient West (whether “Ecclesiastes” or Socrates) and the East (Buddha or Confucius). In the Hebrew Bible, for example, “the fool” is a moral category more than an intellectual one.
History is littered with examples of brilliant scientists, mathematicians, artists and musicians who inflicted deep misery on those who had to live with them and whose chauvinist or racist beliefs would shock us today. The Royal Society or the Nobel Committee do not look at the moral character of the individuals it chooses to reward for their intellectual achievements. A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is weighed on its own merits and not by any financial corruption or marital infidelity that may have given him his academic position. His personal character and relationships are fitting subjects for his biographer, not for evaluation in professional math journals. We can gratefully receive, as gifts of God’s common grace, the artistic creativity and scientific genius of men and women whom we would not care to present as moral exemplars for our children and societies.
However, can the absence of moral goodness leave unaffected any person’s claim to be a great theologian or moral philosopher?
This question was raised in a paper, written some forty years ago, by the Cambridge theologian-philosopher, Donald Mackinnon. He begins his paper with the examples of the outstanding logician Gottlob Frege- who was not only “a racialist of the most bigoted sort”, but “obsessively anti-Catholic as well as anti-Semitic” – and Gerhard Kittel, initiator of the widely-used Theological Wordbook of the New Testament and a noted authority on the text and historical context of the New Testament, who had no qualms about developing a theological apologia for the Nuremberg racial laws. He showed no remorse for his support for the Nazis after the war ended.
But the occasion for Mackinnon’s reflections was the “deeply disturbing” revelations concerning the celebrated German-American theologian, Paul Tillich, stemming from the pen of his wife, Hannah, and his personal friend, the psychiatrist Rollo May. Tillich fled to the USA as a refugee from Nazi tyranny, and established himself after the war as perhaps the most famous philosopher-theologian of the Anglo-American world. He emerges from his wife’s book as a man who used his intellectual charisma to attract women into his orbit and seduce them. He comes across as coldly cruel towards his wife. His children were also the victims of his wilful promiscuity. When Hannah in desperation sought divorce, he threw himself on the floor, begging her not to, and enlisting his friends to tell her that it would ruin his career. This was the author of a best-selling existential classic, Courage to Be. Mackinnon notes wryly: “Sadly, we must conclude that at that time the ‘courage to be’ of which Tillich wrote did not extend to risking his career, his status, his reputation, his security.”
Colleagues of mine in Singapore recently told me of how they had invited a well-known evangelical theologian from the U.S to visit Singapore for some public meetings that they planned to host. They were shocked when this man demanded U.S $2,000 as his fee for each talk, plus a business-class airfare. They had to revoke the invitation as they could not afford it. I was incensed when I heard this. My last “experience” of the same theologian was in a conference on reconciliation in South Korea, when he flew in just before the talk he was to give and flew out again after he had finished, not waiting to hear responses, leave alone listen to other peoples’ talks. I remember thinking at the time, “Typical academic prima donna”. I lost all interest in reading his books anymore.
Am I wrong to feel this distaste? No doubt he continues to have interesting and important things to say. And I don’t doubt that God continues to use us despite our moral flaws. But if theological and moral positions are not embodied in the lives of those who advocate them, why should we take them seriously?
I feel the same distaste over the cult of “apologetics” books and courses emanating from conservative American circles and marketed worldwide. More than the simplistic arguments, what troubles me is the profoundly unChristian style- inattention to context and history, caricatures of other viewpoints, self-promotion, the reduction of Christian witness to winning arguments, etc. Knowing a preacher’s political stance and what he does with his fees tells me more about his “Christianity” than any of his theological arguments. And I think I am not alone. It is why secularised young people are more likely to listen to Pope Francis explain what it means to be a Christian than to clever evangelical “apologists”.
In the early Church, before the onset of Christendom, those seeking baptism were given moral instruction (how they should live as Christians) before they were taught the doctrines of the faith. (See the last chapter of my book The Recovery of Mission, 1996). Church leaders assumed that people don’t think their way into a new way of living; rather, they lived their way into a new way of thinking. Some truths can only be perceived by people who live in a certain way.
Were they- and I- wrong? If so, I would welcome correction. But, if not, what are the implications for theological and spiritual formation?
Google’s unofficial boardroom motto is “Don’t be evil”. But how is “evil” understood by a company which surrendered information about its searchers to the US National Security Agency in 2010 but withdrew from China a year later complaining about that country’s state surveillance?
I have been reading a fascinating account of the Internet (Untangling the Web) by Aleks Krotoski, a journalist and academic researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute. I find many of her judgments well-balanced and thoughtful. She partakes neither in the “hype” about the web nor in the fear-mongering over its potential for evil. She reminds us that no technology is “neutral” but reflects the priorities, values, worldviews, and concerns of the human context in which it is developed.
She writes: “The truth is that software, from computer games to web services, from Amazon to Match.com, is suffused with the principles decreed by the context in which it is produced… Spaces like Facebook, places like Second Life or World of Warcraft and technologies like Google permit and discourage certain kinds of uses, and these are being designed by the people behind the machines. The ways in which these web services fulfil our needs to connect, play or search for information and products are coloured by their developers’ personal backgrounds, life circumstances, social circles, hometowns, financial wealth and many other things. We are critical of the news we read, the programmes we watch, the movies we see and the art we appreciate. We are aware that they are constructs of their creators. We can point to liberal newspapers and conservative TV. Yet we seem to forget that the web is a network that is entirely human-produced, and primarily created by people who live in a small area of Northern California.”
The web has become an indispensable part of our lives. We upload enormous amounts of personal information to the web, mostly to social networks and e-commerce, because it serve our needs and we cannot imagine the vastness of the potential audience who may have access to what we communicate and how they will use the information we share. Even what is not explicitly shared, such as indirect references to other people, events or groups, is stored in gigantic databases (called Big Data) where complicated pattern-matching and cross-referencing algorithms reveal connections that would otherwise have remained invisible. Bits of personal data extracted by a website or social media page for one purpose can easily be deployed by others for another purpose.
Surveillance is endemic to the new technologies that we use (or use us). People choose to carry mobile phones, even though the phones’ geolocation feature makes them prime tracking devices. Every click of the mouse, every webpage visited, every purchase on eBay or Amazon, every “like” button pressed on Facebook, leaves an information trail and builds up an online digital version of oneself that is open to commercial manipulation. When Wall Street puts a value on Facebook or Google, it is not for the services they provide, but for the data they collect and its worth to advertisers, among others.
Online, it is our friends (and not our enemies) who are likely to betray us- even if we ourselves are offline or very circumspect in how we enter our privacy settings. Your friends will have photos of you on their Facebook walls, and divulge information about how they saw you last night, or who they saw you with at that party, what you said about so-and-so at that seminar, or where you normally go on holiday. Websites and social media are increasingly connected with other, and mergers and acquisitions mean that what is shared on one site is now available to others all over the web. That’s why if you order roses for your girlfriend through one site, you will see ads for roses appearing on other sites you visit. If you are an American and express online how much you love hummus and Al Jazeera, you may not only see ads for Turkish and Lebanese restaurants appearing on your favourite websites, but you may have your home broken into by a FBI Swat team. Big Data poses an enormous threat to our civil liberties because it gives a disproportionate amount of control to machines.
Krotoski tells the story of how, in early 2012, a 15-year old girl’s shopping behaviour at the US chain Target told the computer system that she was pregnant. It automatically printed and sent coupons for maternity wear and baby toys to her home, where she still lived with her parents. The superstore divulged to her parents the news that she had not told them. Computers cannot replace people in interpreting data and knowing how to use –and not use- that data.
There is so much that is wonderful about the Internet- it is educative, useful, entertaining, lucrative, therapeutic, and fun. But, as the technology commentator Sue Halpern observes, while we were having fun, we happily and willingly have helped to create the greatest surveillance system ever imagined. “The free flow of information over the Internet, which serves us well, may serve others better. Whether this distinction turns out to matter may be the one piece of information the Internet cannot deliver.”
With each new communication technology, we are forced to renegotiate our personal and social boundaries because each new technology makes us vulnerable in a different way.
What reasons can we give for caring about these boundaries? And how do we stop colluding in our own exploitation?
WordPress informs me that this is my 100th Blog post. Isn’t it ironic to be congratulated by a machine just after having written about surveillance technology?
I have also been reflecting recently on C. S. Lewis’s famous essay on The Abolition of Man.
Today happens to be Lewis’s fiftieth death anniversary. I discovered Lewis in my first year as an undergraduate student, and by the time I had graduated from university I had read all his Christian essays, poems and books, including his science-fiction trilogy and the Narnia Chronicles. Only his letters (collected and annotated much later) and his academic work on medieval literature eluded my voracious appetite.
I “outgrew” Lewis, especially after returning to Sri Lanka and finding myself confronted by a wholly different set of intellectual and practical challenges. While I retain a huge admiration for his writings, I am bemused by the cult of veneration that has grown up around him in some part of the evangelical church in the USA. The very people who shun Roman Catholic hagiographies have turned Lewis into a modern-day evangelical saint. If he were alive today, would they invite this pipe-smoking, pub-crawling, beer-swilling Anglo-Catholic to speak in their churches or teach in their seminaries? I very much doubt it.
Further, Lewis would have poured scorn on “inerrantist” views of the Bible. He would also never have read Genesis 1 or Job or Jonah as literal history. As a student of literature, he had no problems with recognizing truth as conveyed by myth and fable, extended metaphor and story, wherever these are found in the biblical writings. He understood also the importance of Church tradition in reading Scripture. He didn’t subscribe to the ridiculous idea that the Holy Spirit disappeared in the Patristic era and the Middle Ages, only to re-appear in the Reformation and the Anglo-American revivals. His view of salvation was not ecclesio-centric but inclusive without being universalist. Is a desiccated Lewis being read in American evangelical circles today?
Of all his writings, the one that I return to regularly, after a day or an evening spent defending, arguing and commending the Christian faith to others, is a little poem called “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”. I carry it in my Bible. I think it should be enshrined on the doors of all those churches and institutions that place too much emphasis on apologetics and preaching “techniques”:
“From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins, let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.”
I began Blogging in February 2009 and my first post drew attention to the war crimes being committed by all sides in the closing weeks of Sri Lanka’s bloody war. Four years later, those events are coming back to haunt the ruling regime. The latter’s lavish attempt to showcase Sri Lanka on the international stage at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last week failed miserably. The President’s smooth talk about post-war “development” was swept away by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who issued an ultimatum vis a vis a serious investigation of war crimes. The state-controlled media has fallen back on the usual rhetoric of “foreign conspiracy” and the hypocrisy and double standards practised by Western governments when it comes to talk of human rights abuses and war crimes.
I have said enough on my Blog about these hypocrisies and double standards, and the frustration we feel that Christians in the US and Europe are not more outspoken about these. At the same time, we are frustrated by large sections of the international media (and especially American TV channels like CNN and Fox) who, if they ever talk about Sri Lanka at all, narrowly focus on war crimes committed in the past and the lack of “ethnic reconciliation”. But the latter are only symptoms of the wider political malaise in which we find ourselves (nepotistic rule, emasculation of the judiciary, suppression of dissent and targeting of journalists and human rights activists) that I have chronicled, from time to time, on this Blog in recent years.
I often tell people that those who have had the biggest influence in my life are those, like Lewis, whom I never met. That is the simple power of the written word. It has an influence across space and time that the author never imagined possible. Lewis never travelled beyond the UK and Ireland. Perhaps the venerators of Lewis today can help us by wielding their pens (and computer keypads) as courageously as he did in exposing falsehoods, dispelling ignorance and opening up the imagination of their contemporaries to other societies/worlds that impinge on their own.
The continuing disclosures, thanks to Edward Snowden, of the global extent of American spying programs are faintly humorous. One would love to know, for instance, what possible benefits American governments have gained from ten years of listening in to Angela Merkel’s phone-calls, and how it has served the public interest (which, after all, is what governments are for)?
This is the kind of question that should be raised in the media, let alone in introductory university classes in moral philosophy. A truly fascinating question has to do with the central (and sometimes exclusive) place many ethicists and moral philosophers give to the notion of individual “autonomy”. This, it is often claimed, is what grounds the language of human rights. However, Ms. Merkel’s autonomy was in no way violated by the secret surveillance on her. She was not constrained or restricted in any way. And, yet, most of us sense that she was morally wronged. Is it possible to make sense of that sense of being wronged by invoking “autonomy”? Or does it require a robust notion of intrinsic personal dignity?
Wherever dignity is abused, trust decays and relationships suffer. Questions about dignity are what come to the fore in all discussions about technology. Does the development and use or this particular technology respect or diminish personal dignity? A broader question is an old one, but nevertheless one that takes us to the core of moral reasoning: does our capability to perform an action obligate us to do so? This is more than asking whether the end justifies the means. It is asking whether the means are all that exist.
It is technological development which lies at the heart of advanced economies. Technology carries a seductive momentum of its own; and in the absence of any countervailing social vision to the idolatries of “national security” and “economic growth”, how is it possible to resist that momentum, or even divert it towards greater goals? The NSA is a vast data-gathering bureaucracy. With its supercomputers and myriads of private security firms to which “intelligence” is outsourced, no single human being know what is going on. Assigning responsibility becomes difficult if not impossible. All we have is a vast impersonal system that assumes a life of its own as the technology it has developed takes over the mindless quest towards absolute security.
These questions about technology move us beyond the politics of “right” and “left” which have been largely irrelevant in the advanced economies. Technology is no longer about gadgets and machines. It is a totalizing system, the environment in which the citizens of these countries (and any of influenced by the forces of globalization) conduct their lives. We are all cyborgs now; not in the biological sense of carrying devices implanted within us, but in the functional or cultural sense of being totally dependent on devices all the time (try going for 24 hours without a wristwatch, cell-phone, car or computer). Technologies shape and control us more than, it seems, we do them.
George Orwell’s Big Brother metaphor and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon are often mentioned in discussions on surveillance. But I suggest that a more fitting image to describe the NSA comes from the novels of Franz Kafka, particularly The Trial and The Castle. Writing a generation or so before Orwell, Kafka hauntingly depicted the helplessness and uncertainty experienced by the individual before an all-encompassing, faceless bureaucracy. The system has grown to such proportions that the boundary between human and machine has disappeared. Bureaucracy and technology are thus intimately linked. Both exalt the spirit of techne, the reduction of life and work to rule-following behaviour.
I mentioned, in my last Blog post, the frustrating experience of obtaining visas to rich countries, where the entire process is “outsourced” to intermediaries. The latter are taught to blindly follow a set of procedures in dealing with applications but cannot respond to individuals in exceptional situations. Nothing would be missed if these intermediaries were to be replaced by robots, and that is probably how things will develop, given the cost-cutting ambitions of Western governments today. It is not surprising that the Pentagon is pouring huge sums into the production of robots and drones for battle field use- the ideal soldier of the future will be another Adolf Eichmann, but made of electronic circuits not blood vessels.
I write this on the day the Indian Space Agency has launched a satellite to Mars. It is the latest manifestation of the Indian technocratic elite’s infantile understanding of what makes for a “Superpower”. While India’s Constitution is liberal and democratic, its politicians and military-industrial establishment share the same mind-set as the North Korean regime when it comes to national priorities.
India is a country rich in innovative talent, but “imitating the West” is what the middle-classes aspire to in their consumption habits. There are plenty of amazing technical inventions that the poor in India have come up with and which could be marketed around the world (See http://www.ted.com/speakers/anil_gupta.html). But thinking “outside the box” is not the long suit of India’s military-funded technologists; so much easier to be propelled along by the momentum of a politics that identifies “national prestige” with imitating hi-tech US industries.
Once again, the “why” questions get buried under the “how”.