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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆

 

The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

- From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

- From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

- From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

- IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

- IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate ChangeThe Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman

My Rating★★★★☆

From the back cover of the book:

“Can’t wait!” —Godot

 

“Stand-up economist” Yoram Bauman wants us to learn more about climate change, and he intends to take us there laughing all the way. After all, climate change is serious business and the best comedy is provided by the most morbid of human fears.

Yoram and Klein’s aims are laudable, and by creating this cartoon introduction (which also throws in a good Big History lesson, to sweeten the pot), they make the ‘gloomy’ topic not only more accessible but also fun to learn about. And that could be an important first step, especially for kids (or those childish adults that run after the shopping carts).

Based mainly on the IPCC reports and statistics, this book is as hard-hitting as any other, but might find itself more digestible even by the nonbelievers. Of course, coming from an economist, there is a marked bias towards ‘market is the Answer’, running throughout the book. It is simplistic and doesn’t put forth any great ideas and the last section was, quite honestly, a waste of time. But the first three educational, non-policy-prescription sections are really worth your time and money.

See here for a quick video guide through the book (you can also donate to the project there): https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/…

You can also get an early b/w peak of a draft of the Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change via this 15-meg 2-to-a-page PDF.

I think this would be a good book to donate to your neighboring school’s library or suggest for your kid’s school, or even stock up for yourself – and hey, it is real eye candy too!

 


This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted by on February 22, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Twilight’s Children: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

My Rating★★★★☆

 

Twilight’s Children

 

He had found the letter under his brother’s bed.

He had not minded the dust that lit up the damp light of the room. He had read it immediately. But now that he was back in his room, he took it out again, wanting to read it one more time, as always.

He remembered all the letters he used to receive from India and of how he could hear his Udayan’s childhood voice as he read it, even when the voice was long changed. In this letter he could not.

This time he picked up from the third page of the letter, glancing at the parts that did not make sense to him.

What defines identity once you are away from your center? What defines the center when you are away from our identity?

He wondered why Udayan would take the trouble to write all this when it must have been such a struggle to write at all. With that hand of his… Is it because he wanted to take comfort in talking with me? Or does he just write whatever comes to mind, arrange them in a semblance of order and mail them across the oceans? He looked back at the page.

Is it anger in the obvious betterment seen all around you? Is it shame that you were never really part of it? That you were not part of building it? And instead of building one you have just taken the easier path? Is it pride, perhaps, in your independence? Is it the blustering of the intolerable journalist when he talks about the better ‘systems’? Is it just a sense of loss of all that is left behind?

He skipped the last few lines and then skipped to the next page. Udayan’s handwriting always used to deteriorate towards the end of a page and now it was almost unreadable. ‘Not that I am missing much’, he said to himself.

Wherein lies the center of the modern man’s existence?

Is it in an imaginary village consisting of all that mattered to him as he was growing up – do they ever break that circle? Or is it constantly expanded as you grow? Or is it constantly redefined?

If you don’t have the less developed multitudes (relatives like me) to look upon you from that left-behind circle, will any achievement truly matter in life? Can your center, your point of reference and your identity, only be defined from a transpositional view from below? Or is It from a patriarchal view from above that leaves you smarting?

He was not sure why Udayan had taken to writing to him as if the roles were reversed – as if he was the one who had never set foot beyond his home city and as if Udayan was the one who had roamed the world and thought about a home that had been left behind with such ease. Of course, Udayan wouldn’t have been able to leave behind anything. He had been able to. ‘With ease’, he repeated doubtfully.

He had skipped ahead again without noticing it but decided to carry on. He knew he would be reading it over later. Again.

What of the constant sense that assaults you of not being part of the ‘real’ world – of the world you inhabit – the ones outside your country, your center being somehow artificial? Is it this artificiality that gives you wings? Soaring in a flight of fancy to heights you wouldn’t have dreamed of back where the real things are?

It is not as if he didn’t know that this was probably Udayan’s way of teasing him into coming back home. And it is not as if he didn’t know why it was never posted. He started skipping across the letter faster, eager to reach where he was addressed directly. Eager to see if could recapture the childhood voice when he read his brother addressing him directly instead of talking platitudes. He uttered a faint hum as he skipped across increasingly badly scribbled lines.

Is it a requirement to step outside the circle to be able to step outside it?

How do you view the real world then? Are they the dream now that you are living the dream?

Can you sleep knowing that the dream is never to be dreamt?

Why wouldn’t you try to dream up some solutions as well then? Why wouldn’t you start believing that your newfound wings would work in that ‘real’ world too? Why wouldn’t you even consider flying back?

Why wouldn’t you attempt to solve all the problems?

Even if you never attempt it, you know that with these wings of yours, any problem is an easy one, especially those – the ones in that ‘real’ world. The shadow world of reality.

He felt a faint irritation with his brother now. What right did he have to lecture? What had he done except read a bunch of books and preach around? Then he checked himself. Udayan had always stopped teasing whenever he got angry. He used to always know why.

It is not necessary, of course, that the circle of identity had to be a country or a village or a society or family – stepping outside your circle, outside our reality gives you wings and solutions – but the solutions and the wings are never to be allowed back in – you may step back in but you step back in as yourself, without the fancy stuff. And then you have to forget the dream. You can only inhabit the twilight or the sunrise. Never both.

Ah, he remembered, now is when he talks about the book he had asked me to send to Anita. Udayan had ended up reading it first. Mostly because one of the main characters in the book shared his name. He tried to recollect the little he had read of the book before wrapping it. He knew that much of Udayan’s ramblings in this letter might have come from the book.

After all, there were some parallels. It was the eternal afterlife of the exile that Jhumpa Lahiri was always expert at dissecting. ‘Maybe it was all a build up towards telling me why I should read it too’, he mused, ‘maybe he was not taunting me at all’. Or maybe he felt the book could do that job much better.

There are some books which once read you have a compulsion to make others read – as if the enjoyment is not complete until it is shared. Until you can see the expression of amazement in the other’s face when they have read too – your enjoyment growing in the realization of theirs.

This book is not like that – it is a quiet pleasure to read but there is no expectation of pleasure from the sharing of it – there is no compulsion to talk about it – there is nothing much to talk about really. It is boring in its own way: a beautiful and boring stream that you saw on your way – you paused to see it but you don’t run home to get your wife to stare at it together.

I was excited to read it, to see how it would capture the times that we have lived through. Times that held so much meaning for us. But, it was not meant to be of the masses and the loudness of the massed struggle – just of the individuals and of the quietness of their desperation — it requires no knowledge of our complicated history or the nuances of our anger that ignited the streets. It was not even remotely concerned about all that…

He started searching for the book among the shelves. Then under the bed. His brother loved to sleep with a book and let it slide under his bed as one arm arced and drooped. There it was. Almost brand new. Only two pages bent to mark places to return to. He turned back to the letter.

We are Twilight’s Children, brother, the Midnight’s Children was still some way ahead of us – we are the ones without definition. We were born before the darkness set in, and the day too far off.

After reading The Namesake (the one that you had sent me years ago – ordering me to read it and that you wanted me to get a sense of your University student life), I searched for something new in this one… trying to find what excited the author, trying to get a glimpse into your life – the intimacy with the characters was there – that was expected, that was known; the reality of private lives was there – again known, again expected. What set this apart from the other one? Is it the suffering? But what is suffering? Where was it? I couldn’t see it? Is it necessary that your own anguish has to be less than that of a character’s for you to be able to feel empathy?

But, when I read about this one (in an editorial review), I half thought I could get you to read it… to understand me – another book from the same author. There seemed to be a symmetry to that. But it was not to be. It was not about Bengal, at least not the Bengal that I lived through… it was not to be.

I am told the author grew up in Rhode island – that intimacy is visible. Rhode island becomes more of a home to the reader than his own Bengal. Again, my purposes were not being served by the author.

He looked at the marked pages of the book again and noticed that both seemed to be underlined faintly on lines that described their city. The language was exquisite. Maybe the time away from his expected times and places put him off the book. Udayan was never one for relishing language. He always wanted meanings and words to speak loud and bold.

You had told that you would try to read this before sending it to me. If you managed to complete the book, you must have realized that the book is not very atypical of Lahiri. I am afraid she will find it hard to win another Booker until she breaks out of her own mould or a Booker Committee comes along that doesn’t take the trouble to have read the previous winners.

He smiled at his brother’s silly mistake and continued reading. But he found that he was skipping through the lines now, without reading much. Soon he had reached the end of the letter. It did not end with the usual wishes and he knew that it had not been finished. He quietly flipped back to the beginning again. He could hear the milkman cycling outside on his early morning rounds.

Their relationship had been stretched – stretched halfway across the world – refusing to break, no matter how much he tried.

He walked slowly to the window-sill and lit the candle he had placed here. He watched as the ashes settled nearby and turned away as the breeze started to carry them away.

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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts

 

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Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing NeedsBuilding Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

My Rating★★★★☆

Is Yunus the only practicing (as in the type who never came across the proverbial armchair yet) nobel laureate in economics? (his field is, if not the nobel)

His ideas and beliefs are rooted in and grown from the experience of running what sounds like hundreds of companies and offshoots and sister concerns – almost all successful, launching an entire industry and redefining one of the oldest businesses of the world.

Yet, in spite of full awareness of the credentials of the author, everything inside a reader militates against the seemingly utopian picture Yunus paints. You want to shout at him: all this is fine but REALITY is different! But the reader forgets – Yunus has seen and succeeded in the stark reality of one of the poorest, most torn landscapes in the world and he is proving that the ‘reality’ that economics teaches us is a very constrained reality. All the talk of incentives being the fuel of the human growth engine fall flat. But you don’t give in, you keep drilling deep holes in every cheerful statement of Yunus throughout the introductory chapters, after all you have years of economic training to back you up.

Finally Yunus gets to the case studies, and you read on with growing astonishment that the very principles outlined earlier, the principles that you had in your economic wisdom so thoroughly cut into pieces, all seem to just work on the ground. You scratch your head and try to figure it out. Then you forget your criticism and congratulate yourself on your own positive outlook towards humanity. Until next time.

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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A Not-So-Dismal Science: A Broader View of Economies and Societies by Mancur Olson

A Not-So-Dismal Science: A Broader View of Economies and SocietiesA Not-So-Dismal Science: A Broader View of Economies and Societies by Mancur Olson

My Rating★★★☆☆

The Octopus

Like Physics, when a science realizes it could underpin all other sciences, it becomes an Octopus. The primary focus of this collection presented by Olson is to be an apologetic for this ‘economic imperialism’: of Economics branching out like an Octopus into almost every sphere of human endeavor. One has to admit that as Economics assumes more and more the role of examining how human beings interact with each other for the attainment of any benefit (in so far as the theory works that any benefit is ultimately economic in a sense, in the broadest meaning of the term), this is almost inevitable. Economics is dominating most policy debates around the world now. Everything has an economic tinge, the green-colored glasses of Oz is now all-pervading. History is written with economic understanding, even science is done from an economic perspective and education is more and more directed by economics.

Most of the essays are meant to illustrate this widening ambit of economics and its integration with the social sciences and beyond. This subset of the essays are not particularly informative as they are exploratory and not argumentative in nature and only attempts to show the growing linkages, not the outcomes of those linkages.

But in the process, Olson being Olson, enough of the essays also try to take on the question of the ‘origin of the world’. And to my chagrin, I have been convinced that I bought the arguments presented by Clark too easily. Olson and co dismantle any productivity based theory by asking a simple question: If the issue was with the people, how is it that they can increase as much as fourfold in productivity on the mere crossing of a border (mexican immigrants to the US etc). Olson has a few counter theories of his own that champion Institutionalism as the answer for most of the economic debates and they seem convincing for now. But the fun thing is that there are as many opinions as there are economists and of course the answers are never to be found in any one camp.

Economics probably has as much to contribute to the various sciences as Olson claims and as he quips glibly, even if economic advice increased the GDP by just 1 percent, that would pay our salaries several times over.

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Posted by on August 30, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the HumanitiesNot for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

My Rating★★★☆☆


Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.

Nussbaum wants to change this situation with this manifesto, with this call to action. With the very poignantly titled Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.”: a world-wide crisis in education. She focuses on two major educational systems to illustrate this: one in the grips of the crisis and in its death-row. The other carelessly hurtling towards it, undoing much of the good done before (and worse, the USA is a leader in most fields, and rest of the world may well follow where it leads).

What is this developing crisis? Nussbaum laments that the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers, parents and students as nothing but useless frills, and at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

This is most prevalent and inevitable in the placement-based institutions, especially the IITs and the IIMs and the newspapers that hawk their successes, that measure their success purely on the drama of placements and on the excess of the pay-packages. This sort of a higher education orientation also changes the early school cultures, with parents having no patience for allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success by getting into the IITs and the IIMs.

Nussbaum says that in these IITs and IIMs, instructors are most disturbed by their students’ deficient humanities preparation. It might be heartening that it is precisely in these institutions, at the heart of India’s profit-oriented technology culture, that instructors have felt the need to introduce liberal arts courses, partly to counter the narrowness of their students.

But it is not really so. Even as professors struggle to introduce such courses, as students at IIM, we have an all-encompassing word for anything that comes anywhere close to the humanities: “GLOBE”, and boy don’t we love using it. This throughly derogatory terms sums up the purely career-minded, profit-driven orientation of education in India’s elite institutions. I now feel a sense of complete despair at every laugh shared in the use of this expression. With the standards of success thus set, is it any wonder that the culture is seeping across the education spectrum?

After this dispiriting survey of Indian education, Nussbaum says that the situation is not as bad yet in the US due to an existing strong humanities culture in the higher institutions, but issues the below caveat:

We in the United States can study our own future in the government schools of India. Such will be our future if we continue down the road of “teaching to the test,” neglecting the activities that enliven children’s minds and make them see a connection between their school life and their daily life outside of school. We should be deeply alarmed that our own schools are rapidly, heedlessly, moving in the direction of the Indian norm, rather than the reverse.

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Wizard of Oz as An Economic Parable: A Short Introduction

The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

My Rating★★★★★

The Wizard of Oz as An Economic Parable: A Short Introduction

This might be common knowledge or it might not be. Some economics textbook claim this is a wonderfully esoteric nugget: The story of Oz was an economic parable. Take that, all you who said economics can’t be fun.

Redistributions of wealth caused by unexpected changes in the price level are often a source of political turmoil. From 1880 to 1896 the price level in the United States fell 23 percent. This deflation was good for Haves (creditors – primarily the bankers of the Northeast), but it was bad for Have-Nots (debtors – primarily the farmers of the South and West). The deflation was blamed almost exclusively on the now notorious Gold Standard and a proposed move towards Silver was instead the craved for alternative.

The Silver issue dominated the presidential election of 1896. William McKinley, the Republican nominee, campaigned on a platform of preserving the gold standard.

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee, ranged boldly against Gold and for Silver. In a famous speech, Bryan proclaimed, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’’

Not surprisingly, McKinley was the candidate of the conservative eastern establishment, whereas Bryan was the candidate of the southern and western populists.

Then came The Wizard of Oz.

The midwestern journalist, L. Frank Baum tells the story of Dorothy, a girl lost in a strange land far from her home in Kansas. Dorothy (representing traditional American values) makes three friends: a scarecrow (the farmer), a tin woodman (the industrial worker), and a lion whose roar exceeds his might (William Jennings Bryan). Together, the four of them make their way along a perilous yellow brick road (the gold standard), hoping to find the Wizard who will help Dorothy return home.

Eventually they arrive in Oz (Washington), where everyone sees the world through green glasses (money). The Wizard (William McKinley) tries to be all things to all people but turns out to be a fraud.

Dorothy’s problem is solved only when she learns about the magical power of her (otherwise ordinary) silver slippers. (Unfortunately the movie forgot the parable and omitted the silver slippers – thus depriving the majority of the audience of the real delight in the victory!)

The Republicans (The Wizard) won the election of 1896, and the United States stayed on a gold standard, but the Free Silver advocates got the inflation that they wanted after gold was discovered in Alaska, Australia, and South Africa. Even later, Gold was abandoned altogether and the fraudster wizards was never heard from again. Dorothy and Baum had the last laugh over the unwanted magical oppression of the Yellow Brick Road and the green-tinted world. Well, at least from the road.

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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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