Of rainbows and reforms

The time has come to talk of many things, but mostly it is of rainbows and reforms. To be precise, the reform that homosexuality had just been legalized in India today.

You’ve probably heard of the gay pride marches two days ago, which took place (as far as I know) in Chennai and Delhi; to speak out against the soon to be repealed Article 377, which criminalises homosexuality. I was frankly surprised that such a movement took so long to arrive home in India – it is high time that people to come to terms with reality.  The response was mostly good, but it was a bit astonishing to see that several letters to editor in the Hindu responded quite discouragingly. The very first of these said removing the law would lead to dire consequences, such as leading to child abuse and a decay of morality and values, an erosion of ethics, and that it would mean giving undue freedom to minorities without responsibility and accountability.  Now, I could easily have blown my top off while reading this, asking exactly which century and location the sender of that letter came from (medieval Europe being the top contender). Instead of doing that, let me just tell you the facts. You don’t actually have a lot of choice if you happen to be – forgive me for using such a term, queerly oriented, as much as you have the choice to be a boy or a girl before you were born. Thus, punishing a gay would be quite as silly as, say, punishing someone for being born a girl.

Another burgeoning misconception evident from the letter is that such reforms may lead to an increase in child abuse. However, the truth is far from it – gay love has as much to do with child abuse as “ordinary” love in everyday affairs. Neither is it, as one religious head had already portrayed with added effect, another negating influenced of new-fangled Western culture. It is quite conceivable that homosexuality itself had taken root quite a long time ago in India,with legislation prohibiting it and an active movement being stillborn. For instance, several statues (warning: I would rather that you not see the images in that link :D) in Indian temples depict images that are, if not explicitly gay, at least an expression of same-sex intimacy. Last I heard, India was still a part of the “East”. The statues were later defaced and removed by a “cleansing” campaign that rewrote Indian history.

At the heart of it all lies the myth that the whole thing is against the law of nature. Au contraire, several animals and bird show such same sex preferences. Now, I am no evolutionary biologist, but this might be because of the selective advantage offered by such traits that show a balancing effect on animal population. In which case, India sure needs a hell of a lot of homos.

Meanwhile, the flag of the rainbow, which is chosen universally for the “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” movement, flutters in the wind of change; reminding us that hues may change, but humanity does not.

The only home we have ever known

Yesterday, the Boston Globe’s Big Picture section featured two dozen mind-blowing hi-quality pictures of our Solar System’s mysteriously beautiful jewel – our ringed neighbour Saturn, captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe which is still orbiting the gas giant. I was stunned by this pic, which shows the planet’s far north latitudes…and what seems like gazillions of storms and mega-storms. Each pixel here is 29 kilometres on the planet, which means even the smallest of the storms is about the size of New Zealand:

Makes the Earth actually look like a peaceful place, don’t you think?

All the images were captured by the Cassini-Huygens space probe, still orbiting the gas giant. But they seem to have forgotten to include the best pic by Cassini, the one that shows the planet just eclipsing the Sun, parts of its rings beautifully lit. But that is not all. Just click the pic to see a bigger version. Now, above the rings, in the top left, not particularly significant, forgotten and starlike – is our tiny home. Earth. The only home we’ve ever known. A pale blue dot that in this picture is easily unnoticeable. Sometimes, it is hard to accept that we live in a mote of dust, which shrinks fearfully at this imposing, giant yellow world, which occupies a full thousand times the volume of our own:

In a similar picture (below) of the earth taken from a huge distance – near the orbit of Neptune, to be precise – earth is a tiny dot, and by all miracles of chance a bright sunbeam reflecting off the spacecraft Voyager that took the picture crosses the dot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this is the best example. Carl Sagan, one of my heroes and a world renowned astronomer, once remarked thus on seeing this:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

–Carl Sagan, May 1996

Why nuclear armament does not work

My previous article on the BJP and the nuclear tests of Pokhran has generated a bit of steam. If you propose that nuclear armament is the only option in terms of national security and world peace, I present several counter-arguments:

  • You equate peaceful diplomacy to weakness: Indeed, it is the exact opposite – negotiating a conflict is a sign of strength. Also, if you happen to believe that Nehru had failed in his diplomacy in the Indo-Chinese conflict with his Panch Sheel; it does not necessarily imply that armed conflict would have been a better option.
  • You have implicitly (and naively) assumed that nuclear armament on both sides excludes the possibility of conflict: There is a premise that in a nuclear arms race, if both nations have somewhat comparable nuclear arsenal, then they will not use them: since if one did, the opponent may respond with equal or even greater force. This premise, frequently called ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)’ is sometimes itself used as an excuse for nuclear armament, thus somehow promoting peace between the nations.  The flaw in using this argument is overwhelmingly apparent – you cannot achieve peace and security by building weapons of mass destruction. All MAD does is to reduce the probability of nuclear conflict. Now, this might seem to be a good thing, but it isn’t. Consider a condom that does not let 90 percent of the spermatozoa through. Will you use it? It still lets the 10 percent through, enough to cause pregnancy – at the same time providing false hopes of security. It is the same situation here – MAD doesn’t exclude the possibility of conflict, it only reduces it. But 10 percent, in this case is a major fraction of the nuclear stockpile. Over a long time, the tiny possibility of nuclear conflict will manifest itself – and that is why I am against it.
  • You think nuclear armament is inevitable and provides security: It isn’t. It doesn’t.
  • You think I am anti-BJP: I am not. I should equally well have criticized the Congress for its 1974 Pokhran-I tests and the blunders in 1984.
  • All the proponents favouring nuclear testing also do not take one thing into account – it is perhaps the most provocative and peace destroying act in world diplomacy. Also, India is among the few countries who have not signed the NPT treaty. Sidetracking off the topic a little bit, Nitwit Nastik in a truly great blog post explained how easy it is for people to be fooled by their governments and to bring them in favour of fighting a war.  The following extract of a conversation between a psychologist and a captured Nazi captures the essence of the article:

    Goering (Nazi): Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?

    Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

    Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

    Goering: Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

    The last line by Goering is truly insightful, and tangentially relates to the discussions above.

    (Psst!! Nastik, if you are reading this, I hope you don’t mind me ripping off from your blog? I swear I won’t do it again!)