Amusing ourselves to death

For the two weeks that I have been away, I lived a pre-internet life. I consumed “news”, such as it is, through the morning papers and ignored the internet; I avoided calls except for a couple of absolutely urgent ones; I left messages unresponded to; I refrained from obsessively checking my mailbox, and limited mail time to 15 minutes at the end of each day.


In this time I went for long walks; I met a couple of friends for long conversations over breakfast/lunch; I caught up with my wife who, too, had put her phone away for the duration; I learned to breathe again.
Then, yesterday, I reverted to type. I scrolled through the main Twitter timeline and my curated news links; paged through the few dozen news websites I’ve bookmarked in my ‘dailies’ file; checked messages and DMs as they came in, and I realized just how much the internet shrinks the time and the mind-space available for everything else.

We are Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman wrote in a 1985 book-length polemic on how television had taken away people’s ability to think, to digest, to find time and space for nuance. It would be ten more years before the internet with its endless distractions went public, and yet it feels like the book could have been written yesterday.
When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, ‘Let me think about that’ or ‘I don’t know’ or ‘What do you mean when you say . . .?’ or ‘From what sources does your information come?’ This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage.’
Postman begins his argument by pointing out that 1984 has come, and gone, without George Orwell’s dystopian vision having come to pass. But, he argues, an equally influential if less widely-referenced author — Aldous Huxley, who in 1931 published Brave New World — nailed the world that has come to pass (emphasis mine):
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited (published in March 2000), the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
All of which brings me to today’s Times of India’s front page, which you access after paging past four full pages of promotional material. I learn that Ivanka Trump, whose chief claim to fame is that she is the daughter of the most unpopular president in US history, is “excited” to visit India. That Prime Minister Modi has dusted off the ‘chaiwallah’ image again and donned it over his bespoke clothes. That the Supreme Court has had to spend precious time deciding whether a young adult woman has the right to decide who she wants to love and marry, and what religion she wants to follow, for herself or no. That the scion of Britain’s titular royalty will marry an American actress.
Oh, and I also learn that there is a ‘mystery’ surrounding a young bar singer who died of a fall from her Mumbai apartment.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we find that every single one of the pillars of our society and of our state is being systematically eroded — beginning with our elections. In Uttar Pradesh, where civic polls are ongoing, the police arrested teenagers who attempted to vote with fake Aadhar cards; these cards were provided by the wife of a candidate, who runs enrollment centers.
Elsewhere, Electronic Voting Machines continue to “malfunction” — and, purely coincidentally, every instance of what is euphemistically termed a “glitch” puts the vote in the BJP column, irrespective of what party you actually voted for.
In all this reporting, however, what is missing is the unequivocal statement that the ruling party at both the Center and in the State has been subverting a basic democratic right, and using fraud to win elections, all the while claiming these victories as a mandate for good governance. While on which, this appears to be a long-running modus operandi — thanks to an RTI inquiry, it turns out that a “malfunction” in Buldhana, Maharashtra, gave a win in a local body election to the BJP back in February this year. Here is the bit that should make you sit up and take notice:

Surprisingly, when candidate Asha Arun Zore lodged her first complaint on the EVM problems at 10 a.m that day, the Election Officer at the polling station refused to take cognizance of such a serious issue, he pointed out.

However, it was only after complaints poured in from many voters that the Election Officer finally took note around 1.30 p.m — when half the voting time had lapsed — and obtained consent of the polling agents of all parties before taking action.

Simply put: the Election Commission, theoretically an apolitical body constitutionally created to ensure that every citizen gets to exercise his or her right to vote in a free and fair manner, is compromised through and through.
Once, we had thugs “capturing” booths and stuffing ballot boxes; today, we have a more sophisticated, more insidious, less obvious form of electronic thuggery. Such is progress.
Elsewhere, the mystery of a barroom singer’s death merits the front page, even as the mainstream media carefully avoids mention of another mystery — the sudden death of Judge Brijgopal H Loya, then hearing in the special SIT court matters relating to Amit Shah’s possible role in a murder.
The Caravan story published on November 20 was akin to a stone dropped into a very deep well — no matter how carefully you listened, you failed to hear the splash. The mainstream media, in a rare show of unity, ignored the story — with the notable exception of NDTV, which did a half hour story and followed up over the next few days, and The Indian Express, which carried a story saying that there all was kosher. The centerpiece of the story is an ECG ostensibly performed on Judge Loya when he was admitted to the hospital. The ECG is dated a day before Loya was admitted, and the name of the patient is “Brijmohan Lohiya”. The hospital’s director explains the former as a “technical glitch”; the latter is left unaddressed.
Much is in dispute, but surely we can agree with former Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah that there are sufficient questions surrounding the death of a judge, specially appointed by Supreme Court mandate, to warrant an investigation? Further, that such an investigation is absolutely essential to preserve faith in the integrity of the ruling party and of the integrity of our judicial system? And yet, there is silence all around, as advocate/activist Dushyant Dave points out:

The Supreme Court, which takes suo-motu notice of the most bizarre things, has been silent over this. So, the press is more or less silent, the judiciary is silent and political class is silent. It is this terrifying silence which is moving me closer to believing the report. There has been no outrage, not even pretence for an inquiry, nothing. Some of the prominent intellectuals of the civil society would rather talk about a film than comment on the judge’s death.

Total and complete failure of all institutional pillars. Usually when one declares that the worst is happening, whether it’s a reference to a dear one’s health or to the state of affairs in the country, the immediate reaction is that the person is being alarmist. Even if the person is right, the response is that the patient/country has survived. The disinclination or reluctance to see the reality can be dangerous. It has happened before in several countries.

Speaking of silence: The Hindu published a story on a clear case of corruption involving the private secretary of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari. The story has a ‘deja vu all over again’ feel to it — back in 2012 the same journalist, Josy Joseph, then with the Times of India, had reported on corruption charges centering on Gadkari’s Purti Group, salient points of which are identical to the modus operandi in this latest case.
The Hindu story is just another stone down that deep, dark well of silence.
Sections of the alternate media — in this case, outlets such as The Wire and Scroll — have been questioning the deal signed by the government with Dassault Aviation relating to the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets. Again, the story fell down the deep well that is mainstream media without a splash; again, the government has been largely silent. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijjiju defended the deal — but their defense was long on invective aimed at the Opposition and short on actual details of the deal itself. Sitharaman did say she would release a detailed breakup of the deal to disprove its critics — a promise she must have known, even as she made it, that she could not keep.
Remember Gorakhpur? Where an estimated 290 children died in the month of August this year? Where one doctor, Kafil Ahmed, was hailed as a hero for going above and beyond the call of duty to save many lives in impossible conditions? Where, a day later, the same doctor was accused of playing the media to portray himself as a hero, of rape,  and, worse, also accused of the heinous crime of stealing oxygen cylinders from the hospital? Where the doctor was first fired, then arrested? Remember the cascade of allegations in the wake of that arrest?
Unable to find any evidence, the Gorakhpur police have dropped corruption and private practice charges against Dr Kafeel Ahmed Khan, one of the nine accused in the deaths of 33 children at the BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur on August 10 and 11. …
The Investigative officer Abhishek Singh said that they could not find any material and substantive evidence during the course of investigation against Dr Khan to prove that he was involved in corruption, indulged in private practice or violated any provisions of the IT Act.
Try this: Do a search for news that these charges have been dropped. See how many media outlets have reported the development. Compare it with the waterfall of reports about the doctor’s alleged corruption, and of his arrest.
Today, says advocate Dushyant Dave who, almost single-handedly, has been attempting to keep the sudden death of Judge Loya front and center, the media is thoroughly compromised.
The difficulty in India is that media is controlled by rich business houses and those business houses have a lot to hide. They have lot of skeletons in their cupboards. As a result, the media controlled by them is automatically forced to remain silent.
In this connection, read also a Caravan story dating back to 2016 on the murky ownership of India’s leading media houses. And then read this think piece by professor and Director of Research at Reuters’ Institute of Journalism Rasmus Kleis Nielsen on what he calls “a creeping quiet in Indian journalism”.
In combination, these five factors are creating a climate of fear and lead to the creeping quiet across Indian journalism, an eerie silence on crucial matters even as the hustle and bustle of day-to-day reporting carriers on. This is an environment where some journalists and news media are increasingly opting for anticipatory obedience and self-censorship to avoid trouble.
If our nodal election commission can no longer faithfully and accurately record our vote, if our police force is reduced to playing the role of water-carrier for a bigoted government, if our courts can no longer protect its own members, if ruling party politicians can openly incite violence against actresses and even other politicians and elected chief ministers, if our government can no longer be trusted to tell us the truth about anything, what do we have left?
The national anthem, now playing in Rajasthan’s hostels.

3 thoughts on “Amusing ourselves to death

  1. Pingback: WTF Just Happened: December 1 | Smoke Signals

  2. Pingback: WTF Just Happened: November 29 | Smoke Signals

  3. Hi Prem, nice to see you back. I was checking for new posts on a daily basis in the last 1 week, only to see that the break was an extended one. Your blog is one reliable source of information to me. Please keep it up.

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