Sunday, June 12, 2011

Judging sex, lies, war and yoga politics

Human beings are flawed animals with plenty of good and bad in them. They are also addicted to judging each other. During the past month there has been plenty of high moralizing about the world’s most powerful leaders. But in most cases the judgements have often been flawed as I will show in the cases of Dominique Strauss Kahn, Osama bin Laden, Rajat Gupta and Baba Ram Dev

Throughout human history when a servant or someone of low status accused a powerful person of rape, she was ignored. This is why the arrest in New York of Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK), the former head of the International Monetary Fund and a contender for the presidency of France, has exhilarated the world. The trial will soon decide if DSK is guilty of sexual assault. In the meantime, there is victory in the fact that the maid was given the respect she deserved when New York’s police took her accusations seriously and arrested a very powerful and wealthy man.

The mistake people made in judging DSK was to confuse his womanizing with sexual assault. It was as wrong as the idea still prevailing in India that a loose women cannot be raped. There is huge difference between consensual and forced sex, and a woman's right to say “no” is not diminished by the number of times she may have said “yes” in the past. In fact, DSK’s ability to find willing partners makes him an unlikely rapist. Only one historical allegation matters--Tristane Banon’s claim that he sexually assaulted her and tried to rape her during an interview in 2002. In the eyes of the law there is no difference between raping a prostitute or a virgin. A husband who forces his wife to have sex also commits a crime; a married woman who has an affair does not.

A second example: Osama Bin Laden’s death hopefully has buried the demons of 9/11 in the American mind, bringing to a close what Americans have mistakenly called ‘the bin Laden decade’. A hundred years from now historians will remember the first decade of the 21st century for the rise of China and India, not bin Laden. Islamic terror is a doomed ideology. Human beings prefer peace to war. Parents want children to go to school, get a job, and look after them in their old age. True, there is a desire for recognition— to be somebody, not a nobody. Greeks called this thymos, and this desire was satisfied in the past by becoming a ‘war hero’. But today’s young prefer to become CEOs, cricket heroes, or film stars. Islamist warriors, I reckon, will eventually succumb to the consumerist middle class life.

Americans can learn something from India which has also suffered from Islamist terror. George W. Bush proclaimed he had ‘moral clarity’ after 9/11, and so he invaded Iraq. India’s political leadership, on the other hand, was accused of being cowardly after 26/11. The truth is that India behaved sensibly and maturely. It did not become paranoid over terror like the Americans. After each attack, India shrugged its shoulders, quietly improved its security systems, and remained focused on its economic destiny.

My third example: people across India admire Baba Ram Dev, who has brought yoga and healthy living to millions. But his solid achievements do not give him permission to blackmail the government via a fast unto death (FUD). Everyone sympathises with his ends but not his means. Peaceful protest is acceptable in a democracy but FUDs are dangerous and authoritarian. With his resources and his acumen, Baba Ram Dev could achieve tremendous results by working within the rule of law.

A final example: Rajat Gupta was the toast of the world’s corporate elite. He had been head of McKinsey, and was director American Airlines, Procter & Gamble, and Goldman Sachs--a rare executive whose integrity was beyond reproach. But a tape of his voice, divulging secret details of a Goldman board meeting to a convicted hedge fund manager brought about his fall. Why does a man, who had everything, do something so dreadful? I can only speculate: he was well off but not wealthy like his friends. In coveting wealth, he forgot that he was a professional executive (a guardian of wealth, a kshatriya) not an owner of wealth (a vaishya).

What these examples illustrate is that the moral life is anything but clear. DSK’s womanizing life-style is irrelevant to his crime. George W. Bush’s ‘moral clarity’ brought great suffering to the Iraqi people and diminished America’s prestige; India’s ‘cowardly’ response to terrorism turned out to be wiser. Baba Ram Dev’s admirers confuse means and ends. Rajat Gupta confused his role in life. The Mahabharata had the right idea— “dharma is sukshma, ‘ambiguous’”, says Bhishma. Hence, we ought to be cautious and humble before judging others.