Christmas Tree Whataboutery is the Stupidest Whataboutery

For the last few years, Delhi in Diwali seemed to be getting better and worse simultaneously. Better, because as the campaign against firecrackers in schools continued, and as the police started enforcing the midnight (was it 10 pm?) limit on bursting crackers, cracker use was dropping, and crackers themselves became less noisy. Worse, because despite dropping cracker use, Diwali getting more and more commercialised meant that traffic kept getting more nightmarish and costumes got more garish.

In the last two Diwalis, though, the shift away from crackers, which until now just had to overcome force of habit, ran up into sudden, vicious pushback of “How dare people tell us not to burn crackers! This is a threat to Hinduism!”

The idea that burning crackers is related to Hinduism on any level beyond sixty years of habit is stupid, but I won’t go into that right now.

The idea that Hinduism is under threat is even more stupid, but I won’t even go into that right now.

No, what I will write about in this post is one particular brand of whataboutery that is trotted out in dubious support of the original ‘threat to Hinduism’ argument. Because there are multiple whatabouteries which people are pushing in defence of crackers. Including:

  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using cars first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using air conditioners first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you fix crop burning first?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when millions of goats are slaughtered on Eid, huh?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when thousands of Christmas trees are chopped down on Christmas?

All of these except the crop burning one have nothing to do with firecracker pollution. Cars and air conditioners are admittedly greenhouse gas emitters, but don’t directly fill the air with unburnt sulphur and toxic gases. Neither does goat slaugher, and nor does chopping down Christmas trees.

But the Christmas tree whataboutery is such a special kind of stupid that I will now devote the rest of the post to debunking it. In a vast universe of stupid statements, this manages to be simultaneously ordinarily stupid, and, Pratchett-character-like, so stupid that it goes around into the other side to be sensible.

First, the ordinary stupidity. Worldwide, Christmas trees are not chopped down from virgin forests, you idiots! They are cultivated on farms and fresh ones are planted every year. Christmas tree decoration is not causing deforestation or denudation. Meanwhile, while they are growing, they are happily acting as carbon sinks.

Does that mean that they are completely environmentally benign? Probably not, because wherever they were planted was once a diverse forest or grassland rather than a single-species plantation. To that extent, a Christmas tree farm is a bad idea. But then, so is every other intensive farm on the planet, including wheat, rice, and marigold and chrysanthemum.

And on to the bit where the argument is so stupid and wrong, that it turns into something that actually makes sense.

Accusing Indians of choppping down trees for Christmas is stupid because most Christmas trees sold in India are not Christmas trees at all, but metal or plastic rods with green plastic leaves. So no actual trees are getting chopped down.

Why the argument still makes sense at some level despite being so wrong is because all that plastic is ultimately coming from petroleum or wood pulp extraction. If it’s from wood pulp, again, it would in all likelihood be coming from a managed forest and not from denudation; and if it’s coming from petroleum, that’s your carbon footprint right there.

Fortunately, there is a very simple, and environmentally friendly way to have a Christmas tree in India that involves neither plastic trees nor cutting down a tree from a forest, nor cutting down a tree at a tree farm. It was advised to me by Nilanjana Roy last year: get a potted plant, decorate it for Christmas, and then look after it for the rest of the year. Your garden gets an extra plant, and your Christmas decorations look all that nicer. So that is just what I did last Christmas.

 

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It was fantastic.

The Sainath Fallacy

I’m sure this fallacy has existed for many years and has already been described and named here, but I first came across it in P Sainath’s opeds. I brought it up again because it seems to have been spreading beyond Sainath in the recent past (where India is concerned).

The Sainath fallacy is basically this: “How dare you outrage about Cause X when Cause Y is so much more outrageous!”

Specific examples are:

  • Sainath himself: how dare the finance minister worry about the stock markets when India is so low on the Human Development Index! (This actually combines the Sainath fallacy with misdirected outrage, another thing that seems to be spreading these days, but that’s a topic for another post)
  • Richard Dawkins: how dare atheist women worry about men behaving creepily when Muslim women are at risk of genital mutilation!
  • Hindutvawadis: how dare the media talk about human rights abuses in Kashmir/ riots/ whatever the media is talking about when they never address the issue of Kashmiri Pandit refugees!
  • I can’t find links right now, but I vaguely remember people outraging that women were Slutwalking for the right to dress as they pleased instead of focusing on far more pressing issues like dowry deaths or female foeticide.

Basically, it’s not enough to be outraged yourself. Everyone else has to share your outrage. And moreover, all outrage over anything else is illegitimate.

Dear Sainath, Dawkins, and other outragers: as long as people are expressing themselves with their own money, or on their own blogs, and not using your money or house or website to do it – how about you let them say whatever the fuck they want?

Idiot in Her Head

Sagarika Ghose has a blogpost up that can be summarised as follows:

“I went to St. Stephens. I enjoyed it. Therefore I know that the education system is fine, and that all you philistines who did not go to St. Stephens should stop talking about how much the education system sucks, otherwise you will become a nation of idiots.”

When the poor woman has stopped hyperventilating about how appalling it is that her hard-to-obtain education is being devalued by a mere movie, can somebody please tell her that being snobbish about having gone to St. Stephen’s is so twentieth century? These days, you can be snobbish about what you buy if you’re a yuppie, what you do if you’re a hippie, or the size of your SEZ if you’re a lala. Or, given that we’re in the Great Recession, about how frugal you are. And if you must resort to education, please bring at least an Ivy League degree or a PhD to the game. St. Stephen’s just doesn’t cut it any longer – I mean, even Shashi Tharoor went there.

(Note: haven’t actually seen the movie, which is why I’ve refrained from an argument about whether it’s accurate or not.)

What’s With Salman Khurshid?

In the past ten days Salman Khurshid has advocated a return to 1980s Comptroller of Capital Issues style pricing, and also done the headline-hogging complaint about Indian CEOs drawing too much pay. The CEO pay issue is truely bizarre and WTF, for a number of reasons, including:

  1. As Deepak Shenoy points out, Khurshid is currently getting free acco in a house that would rent out at 10 lakhs a month if it was on the market.
  2. US CEO compensation is an issue because half of Wall Street has been nationalised and so the government has a right to decide compensation policies. What the hell is the Indian government losing if CEOs are paid too much?
  3. As this Business Standard oped points out (link will decay eventually), it’s not even like Indian CEOs are paid obscene amounts (not only by global standards, but by Khurshid’s own standards). So what is the bogeyman of vulgar salaries that he’s raising? The true scandal occurs in the millions of small companies where the directors or majority partners siphon money out at the expense of minority shareholders and employees, as the Satyam issue showed us.
  4. And culturally, it’s not like Indians resent highly paid CEOs. They want to be highly paid CEOs. The mango man’s reaction to high pay is aspiration, not envy. So what vulgarity?

Forget all that. Even if Indian CEOs were paid obscene salaries, and Indians resented this, and Salman Khurshid wasn’t a sanctimonious arsehole living off the public trough, this is India, where we outperform the rest of the world when it comes to innovation in corruption and fiddling accounts. If there’s a salary cap on CEOs, does he really think companies won’t find a way to get the money to the CEOs off the books anyway? Gah.

Searching for a reason for this utter lunacy, I’ve come up with:

  • Salman Khurshid is a moron. This explanation has the benefit of fitting Hanlon’s Razor.
  • Salman Khurshid wants CEO salary to start getting paid out in black money and lots of manipulation in IPO issuing so that the amount of black money in the economy increases. After all black money is the lifeblood of the Congress party.
  • Salman Khurshid is trying to raise money from Indian businesses ahead of the Haryana and Maharashtra elections. “Nice salary package you have here. Shame if anything happened to it.”
  • The whole thing is not for the benefit of Indian CEOs, or the media, but for Sonia Gandhi, who Salman Khurshid is trying to impress by showing how quick he is to catch up with American trends.

Anything I’ve missed?

(Pssst: Sainath gets into the act too, and manages to not mention Vidarbha or the HDI. There’s hope yet.).

All India Radio

Samar Halarnkar is pissed off that Indian FM radio stations only play Bollywood songs and puerile PJs (a sentiment I share to some extent) and proposes a solution in the Hindustan Times – putting AIR on steroids.

AIR has found fans like me — though let me confess that before I ‘discovered’ AIR, I was quite addicted to a radio spot in Mumbai called ‘Kamla ka hamla’, the random outpourings of a fast-talking transvestite — not because of a grand plan to counter the explosion of private radio but because it is a public broadcaster that is not beholden to the demands of the mass market.

Ideally, public-service radio must give voice to and reflect the needs of democracy’s silent majorities and minorities. It cannot be left entirely to the whimsical flick of a few hundred million wrists. “Broadcasting,” as Tony Benn, a British socialist politician once observed, “is really too important to be left to the broadcasters.”

An AIR with vision and verve could lead India’s radio revival. Imagine if it became a National Public Radio, the wonderful public-radio network in the US. There are many like us, waiting for lively, intelligent radio.

So because Samar Halarnkar is too cheap to buy an iPod and download podcasts (or a Worldspace receiver for that matter), the taxpayers of India must shell out their money to revamp AIR and the brightest people in government must go build a vision and verve for public radio instead of, oh I dunno, fixing the university system or conducting police reform or something.

For this he gets paid to be a columnist?

Zed’s Dead, Baby. Zed’s Dead.

India Uncut informs us that Rajan Zed is being enraged on behalf of Hindus around the world. This follows a long history of Rajan Zed being enraged by Sony launching a Hanuman game, Rajan Zed being enraged by Angels and Demons, Rajan Zed being enraged by Heather Graham putsing Tantric Sex, and Rajan Zed being enraged by Rihanna’s tattoo.

I pin the blame squarely on Rajan Zed for the fact that disaffected American teenagers who wish to rebel against Southern Baptism take up Wicca or Satanism or Buddhism instead of adopting Our Glorious Culture. If Zed is determined to run down the very things that make Hinduism fun – sex, superpowers, and celebrity endorsements – it is inevitable that new converts will be captured by cooler, hipper religions. A vital opportunity to conduct a harvest of faith is being lost.

I think Kunal and me should take over from Zed as Acclaimed Hindu Statesmen. After all we have come up with a plan that is much more likely to get Americans over to Hinduism – or to be accurate, Saivism.

Aadisht: Brotha Kunal
a question of great import
Kunal: bolo
Aadisht: has anybody ever mounted a religious freedom challenge against marijuana prohibition?
Kunal: i’m not sure if it was MJ, but some of the caribbean religions had tried to challenge one of the drugs
Aadisht: mmkay
anything come of it?
Kunal: nah
Aadisht: hmm
perhaps now is the time for Saivites to mount a fresh attack
Kunal: i think the court found that if it is banned for everyone, it does not violate religious freedom
Aadisht: hmm, but can’t you appeal that saying that a ban on it for everyone is an underhand way to persecute a particular religious mintority?
Kunal: problem is
the marijuana ban predates many of the religions that use it sacramentally
so maybe the saivites have a shot
Aadisht: sweet
collect the troops I say
Kunal: hmm
you know
i’m pretty sure they didn’t stop Catholics from doing the whole Eucharist thing during Prohibition
that might be a precedent
Aadisht: this can also be a cunning plan to expand our religion
Kunal: 🙂
Aadisht: once marijuana is freely provided as Shiv Prasad, the heathen Americans will line up to convert

With most of the American population turning to Saivism, the world’s only superpower will become a beacon of Saivite neo-Edwardian values. Thus we will have spreading prosperity, rising trade and cultural output, and fiscally responsible government. And of course, we will be able to slaughter the Vaishnavites. It is very pleasing.

Setting an Example

Writing in Dawn about Slumdog Millionaire, Arundhati Roy says:

That’s what Slumdog Millionaire is selling: the cheapest version of the Great Capitalist dream in which politics is replaced by a game show, a lottery in which the dreams of one person come true while, in the process, the dreams of millions of others are usurped, immobilizing them with the drug of impossible hope (work hard, be good, with a little bit of luck you could be a millionaire).

The pundits say that the appeal of the film lies in the fact that while in the West for many people riches are turning to rags, the rags to riches story is giving people something to hold on to. Scary thought. Hope, surely, should be made of tougher stuff. Poor Oscars. Still, I guess it could have been worse. What if the film that won had been like Guru – that chilling film celebrating the rise of the Ambanis. That would have taught us whiners and complainers a lesson or two. No? 

The logical conclusion of this is that we urgently need a media blackout of Arundhati Roy. If a mere fictional movie about sudden runaway success is so scary, imagine how bad her real life story is. She too used to live in slums and then she won the Booker Prize with her debut novel. Now she is so rich and successful that her bank puts her in the list of its top twenty five forex remittance customers, along with major exporting corporations. Imagine how much impossible hope that is filling aspiring writers with. For god’s sake, she could be responsible for creating Chetan Bhagat or Tuhin Sinha.

Political Incorrectness Gone Wild

Apparently, Bombay colleges are appealing to their students to refrain from making ethnic jokes, what with the inflamed situation:

Several colleges — probably the city’s most multicultural hubs — have informally cautioned students to go easy on community remarks, which would otherwise mean nothing more than harmless jokes and jibes. 

“The students are very young and have no malice. Since we have a huge mix of students, it is important to be careful,” said MB Madlani, principal of Raheja College, Santacruz. “Teachers have informally talked about the issue and our students have responded maturely.” 

(Hindustan Times)

This is all well and good. Especially because this appears to be a sensible discussion of risks rather than a blanket ban, which is quite surprising for Indian education. But what to make of this quote?

Sociologist Nandini Sardesai said the caution is demographically defined. “Colleges in areas like Parel, Shivaji Park and Dadar should be more cautious. India, including Mumbai, has a tendency to be communal at every level, be it religious or regional.”

I am enraged. How dare this so-called sociologist draw these invidious distinctions between the various regions of Mumbai? Where does this Colaba-prancing, Marine Drive-promenading, Cathedral-types socialite get off claiming that Goregaon types1 are more prone to violence than she is? This is regionalism of the worst sort. Someone should advise her to avoid unnecessary remarks.

1:For the benefit of new readers, IIM-B racism splits Maharashtrians into Cathedral Types (those who live in Bombay south of Mumbai Central), and Goregaon types (everyone else).

Sainath is Innumerate

P. Sainath being innumerate is actually the most charitable explanation for this editorial. A less kind explanation is that his bias is making him too lazy to do his research properly, and a very unkind explanation is that he’s actively using scare tactics to push an agenda.

I refer specifically to this section:

Let’s revert to the latest maternal mortality figures released by the WHO and others. Some 536,000 women died in childbirth in 2005. Of these, every fifth one of them, at least, was an Indian. That is, 117,000 of them. A total that could only be matched by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Congo together.

Does Sainath not understand the concept of per-capita mortality rates (which makes him innumerate at best and stupid at worst), or is he intentionally not bringing them up (which makes him dishonest)?

The report Sainath is referring to is here. Scroll to Page 23 of Section 1 (which is Page 29 of the PDF file). This is the table which has the estimates of maternity deaths. Page 24 has the India figure: as Sainath says, it’s 117,000.

What about the three other countries? The figures are:

  • Nigeria: 59,000
  • Afghanistan: 26,000
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: 32,000

which totals to 117,000 as well.

What Sainath omits, of course, is that India’s population is one billion people, much more than that of Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the DRC taken together. What is very curious is that the report puts the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth and the deaths per hundred thousand childbirths in the same table, and Sainath doesn’t use these measures, which are far more useful and worthwhile. Incidentally, here they are:

Lifetime risk of maternal death:

  • India: 1 in 70
  • Nigeria: 1 in 18
  • Afghanistan: 1 in 8
  • DRC: 1 in 13

In other words, you are four times less likely to die giving birth in India than Nigeria.

What about the number of deaths per 100,000 childbirths (referred to as the Maternal Mortality Rate, or MMR)? In the same table, we get the figures:

  • India: 450
  • Nigeria: 1100
  • Afghanistan: 1800 
  • DRC: 1100

Now, if 1 out of 70 mothers is going to die giving birth, that is still an obscene figure. And there is a long way to go. Similarly, if approximately one of every two hundred pregnancies is going to end in the death of the mother, that’s still nothing to be proud of.

For comparison, here are the MMR figures for the Asian tigers, which started independence poorer than India:

  • South Korea: 14
  • Singapore: 14
  • China: 45 
  • Malaysia: 62
  • Thailand: 110
  • The Phillipines: 230
  • Hong Kong: not considered
  • Taiwan: not considered, because this is the UN, and we can’t offend the Chinese. Oh no.

So there’s a long way to go. But to twist statistics to make India seem worse off than countries with actual mortality risks four to eight times worse smacks of scare tactics. Moreover, an unbiased person would look at the table, and see links with levels of urbanisation, the rule of law, and how soon a country started economic reform. Sainath looks at it and goes off on a tangent to abuse the media for talking about the Sensex instead of this (and doesn’t that argument sound very similar to the one which abuses the media for talking about the Gujrat riots instead of the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits?).

Sainath also writes:

In fact, it would be good to devise a health index spanning the reform years. One that looks at how both rich and poor have done health-wise. How many years of life, for instance, are taken away from you by ill-health if you are one of India’s less well off citizens?

Excellent idea. Let’s look at the WHO’s 2000 report on Maternal Mortality. Scroll to page 26. The MMR in 1998 was 540. In other words, the maternal mortality rate has seen a 20% drop in 7 years.

So let’s close with Sainath’s parting shot:

Maybe we need a media relevance index. An MRI scan of mass-produced mediocrity.

Like the mediocrity of his research and grasp of statistics? Pot, kettle, black.