Cultural, Environmental, Games and Sports, International, Life as it is, Travel

Gulf of Mexico – a haven of tranquility

Planning to have a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in September/October time, invariably the hurricane season in that part of the world, is a risky undertaking. This is because the Gulf Stream – the warm ocean current – which originates on the northern edges of the equator moves through the Caribbean Sea and then forks off to the Gulf of Mexico and the other part to the Atlantic Ocean and when the stream meets northern cold stream, it creates a vortex of hot and humid air in the atmosphere and hence cyclone. Only a couple of months ago, hurricane Dorian utterly devasted the Bahamas. But that did not deter us, as we applied our statistical insight that lightening is unlikely to strike twice at the same place!

We set off from Galveston, a dedicated port some 30 km south of Houston, Texas in a Royal Caribbean cruise ship named Liberty of the Seas on Sunday. Our cruise ship was, what is known as super-cruise ship – nearly 340 meter-long, had five dining facilities, numerous restaurants and shops, a large auditorium, a running track, three swimming pools and many more facilities in 15 decks carrying nearly 3800 guests and over 1,200 staff. It took the whole morning for the guests to board on the ship and at 16:00 we set sail.  

There was no fanfare, no gunfire; the massive ship just quietly and smoothly slipped away from the port. As we were chatting and admiring our staterooms, I noticed that the building on the shore are gradually going further and further away and then started to disappear completely. Getting to know the various facilities, particularly the dining facilities – which one is for breakfast, which one for supper etc – is quite an adventure. On top of that, my friends had to learn the naval terms like port side (left) and starboard side (right) as well as aft (back) and forward (front). I had a head start on my friends as I was a Civil Servant at the Royal Navy for a number of years.

We kept cruising along the western part of Gulf of Mexico for nearly 40 hours until 07:00 on Tuesday morning, when the ship docked at the international pier at Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island off the eastern coast of Yucatan Peninsula. As the ship was scheduled to stay there until 16:30 in the afternoon, we were given a number of options for shore excursions. The one I chose was a trip to see Mayan Ruins in Yucatan Peninsula, which entailed a ferry trip of 12 miles to Tulum from the ship. We had to come back by 16:30 when the ship will sail again.

Mayan civilisation is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, civilisations in the chronicle of civilisations of the world. It flourished nearly 2000 BC in the central American area covering Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia and Venezuela regions. Mayan progressed from pure agricultural living to sophisticated communal living in towns and cities. Around 600 BC they developed logo-syllabic writing script, astronomy, sculpture, art and mathematics. In the western world, they were the first to have developed the concept of zero (rivalling India). Their counting system was based on fours, not tens (Modern day computing algorithm is based on binary system). However, there is an enigma about Mayan civilisation – the early Mayan civilisation which lasted over two thousand years and then it disappeared – cities they developed had been abandoned, agriculture vanished etc.

And then from 250 AD to 900 AD, the civilisation surfaced again. After 900 AD it just collapsed. Subsequently, the Mayan people had been literally massacred and annihilated by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century.

Tuesday night was the Captain’s night. Although Captain could not be present in all three dining facilities that normally takes place simultaneously, his representatives were present in all dining facilities. But, more importantly, after dinner, at about 21:30 there was convivial music and dance, performed by the catering staff and any guest who felt brave enough could join in.

At 16:30 the ship sailed again from Cozumel heading eastward and reached Grand Cayman and docked at George Town the following morning (Wednesday) at 10:00. We hired a minibus to take us to the tourist spots. Although Caribbean islands won independence in the 1970s from Britain, British influence was very much in evidence – they drive on the left side of the road. We saw the Governor’s house (probably unoccupied), reminiscent of the Governor’s house in the then East Pakistan. The highlight of this visit was a trip to a village called Hell. People are welcome to Hell. If our so-called religious hell is anything like this Hell, people would be grateful to be allocated to this place by our non-existent creator!

At 18:00 we left George Town and set sail for Jamaica and docked at Falmouth, which is on the northern side of the island, at 08:00 on Thursday. Jamaica may be renowned for sprinters (Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth), fastest cricket bowler, best basket-ball players etc, what we saw in Falmouth the artistic side of Jamaica. The whole precinct was full of artists painting, wood carving, engraving etc and there were Art Galleries, Florists etc. We had the whole day to soak up the Jamaica life in general. There were no restaurants or cafes for the obvious reason that people can pop in to the ship and have gorgeous meal at no cost and come back again to the precinct. However, coconuts and some mangoes (not very sweet) are too good to miss.

At 17:00 we got into our boat for the last leg of our journey back to Galveston. But then we had nearly 40 hours of uninterrupted cruise through the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico. This was the opportunity to lazy around, indulge in excessive eating and breathing the freshest air one can get. The catering staff were always too keen to please us.

Altogether, Gulf of Mexico cruise was very relaxing and enjoyable. Cruising is becoming a choice holiday event for the public these days away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and towns. On top of that, because of tough competition, cruise standards are improving and prices are very competitive.       

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

The west’s self-proclaimed custodians of democracy failed to notice it rotting away

British and American elites failed to anticipate the triumph of homegrown demagogues – because they imagined the only threats to democracy lurked abroad

Anglo-American lamentations about the state of democracy have been especially loud ever since Boris Johnson joined Donald Trump in the leadership of the free world. For a very long time, Britain and the United States styled themselves as the custodians and promoters of democracy globally, fighting a great moral battle against its foreign enemies. From the cold war through to the “war on terror”, the Caesarism that afflicted other nations was seen as peculiar to Asian and African peoples, or blamed on the despotic traditions of Russians or Chinese, on African tribalism, Islam, or the “Arab mind”.

But this analysis – amplified in a thousand books and opinion columns that located the enemies of democracy among menacingly alien people and their inferior cultures – did not prepare its audience for the sight of blond bullies perched atop the world’s greatest democracies. The barbarians, it turns out, were never at the gate; they have been ruling us for some time.

The belated shock of this realisation has made impotent despair the dominant tone of establishment commentary on the events of the past few years. But this acute helplessness betrays something more significant. While democracy was being hollowed out in the west, mainstream politicians and columnists concealed its growing void by thumping their chests against its supposed foreign enemies – or cheerleading its supposed foreign friends.

Decades of this deceptive and deeply ideological discourse about democracy have left many of us struggling to understand how it was hollowed from within – at home and abroad. Consider the stunning fact that India, billed as the world’s largest democracy, has descended into a form of Hindu supremacism – and, in Kashmir, into racist imperialism of the kind it liberated itself from in 1947.

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is enforcing a seemingly endless curfew in the valley of Kashmir, imprisoning thousands of people without charge, cutting phone lines and the internet, and allegedly torturing suspected dissenters. Modi has established – to massive Indian acclaim – the regime of brute power and mendacity that Mahatma Gandhi explicitly warned his compatriots against: “English rule without the Englishman”.

All this while “the mother of parliaments” reels under English rule with a particularly reckless Englishman, and Israel – the “only democracy in the Middle East” – holds another election in which millions of Palestinians under its ethnocratic rule are denied a vote.

The vulnerabilities of western democracy were evident long ago to the Asian and African subjects of the British empire. Gandhi, who saw democracy as literally the rule of the people, the demos, claimed that it was merely “nominal” in the west. It could have no reality so long as “the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists” and voters “take their cue from their newspapers which are often dishonest”.

Looking ahead to our own era, Gandhi predicted that even “the states that are today nominally democratic” are likely to “become frankly totalitarian” since a regime in which “the weakest go to the wall” and a “few capitalist owners” thrive “cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open”.

Inaugurating India’s own experiment with an English-style parliament and electoral system, BR Ambedkar, one of the main authors of the Indian constitution, warned that while the principle of one-person-one-vote conferred political equality, it left untouched grotesque social and economic inequalities. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment,” he urged, “or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.”

Today’s elected demagogues, who were chosen by aggrieved voters precisely for their skills in blowing up political democracy, have belatedly alerted many more to this contradiction. But the delay in heeding Ambedkar’s warning has been lethal – and it has left many of our best and brightest stultified by the antics of Trump and Johnson, simultaneously aghast at the sharpened critiques of a resurgent left, and profoundly unable to reckon with the annihilation of democracy by its supposed friends abroad.

Modi has been among the biggest beneficiaries of this intellectual impairment. For decades, India itself greatly benefited from a cold war-era conception of “democracy”, which reduced it to a morally glamorous label for the way rulers are elected, rather than about the kinds of power they hold, or the ways they exercise it.

As a non-communist country that held routine elections, India possessed a matchless international prestige despite consistently failing – worse than many Asian, African, and Latin American countries – in providing its citizens with even the basic components of a dignified existence.

It did not matter to the fetishists of formal and procedural democracy that people in Kashmir and India’s north-eastern border states lived under de facto martial law, where security forces had unlimited licence to massacre and rape, or that a great majority of the Indian population found the promise of equality and dignity underpinned by rule of law and impartial institutions, to be a remote, almost fantastical, ideal.

Failed idealism of Mahatma Gandhi in India. Mahatma Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947.

The halo of virtue around India shone brighter as its governments embraced free markets and communist-run China abruptly emerged as a challenger to the west. Modi profited from an exuberant consensus about India among Anglo-American elites: that democracy had acquired deep roots in Indian soil, fertilising it for the growth of free markets.

As chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002, Modi was suspected of a crucial role – ranging from malign inaction to watchful complicity – in an anti-Muslim pogrom of gruesome violence. The US and the European Union denied Modi a visa for several years.

But his record was suddenly forgotten as Modi ascended, with the help of India’s richest businessmen, to power. “There is something thrilling about the rise of Narendra Modi,” Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, wrote in April 2014. Rupert Murdoch, of course, anointed Modi as India’s “best leader with best policies since independence”.

But Barack Obama also chose to hail Modi for reflecting “the dynamism and potential of India’s rise”. As Modi arrived in Silicon Valley in 2015 – just as his government was shutting down the internet in Kashmir – Sheryl Sandberg declared she was changing her Facebook profile in order to honour the Indian leader.

In the next few days, Modi will address thousands of affluent Indian-Americans in the company of Trump in Houston, Texas. While his government builds detention camps for hundreds of thousands Muslims it has abruptly rendered stateless, he will receive a commendation from Bill Gates for building toilets.

The fawning by Western politicians, businessmen, and journalists over a man credibly accused of complicity in a mass murder is a much bigger scandal than Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to MIT. But it has gone almost wholly unremarked in mainstream circles partly because democratic and free-marketeering India was the great non-white hope of the ideological children of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who still dominate our discourse: India was a gilded oriental mirror in which they could cherish themselves.

This moral vanity explains how even sentinels of the supposedly reasonable centre, such as Obama and the Financial Times, came to condone demagoguery abroad – and, more importantly, how they failed to anticipate its eruption at home.

Even the most fleeting glance at history shows that the contradiction Ambedkar identified in India – which enabled Modi’s rise – has long bedevilled the emancipatory promise of democratic equality. In 1909, Max Weber asked: “How are freedom and democracy in the long run at all possible under the domination of highly developed capitalism?”

The decades of atrocity that followed answered Weber’s question with a grisly spectacle. The fraught and extremely limited western experiment with democracy did better only after social-welfarism, widely adopted after 1945, emerged to defang capitalism, and meet halfway the formidable old challenge of inequality. But the rule of demos still seemed remote.

The Cambridge political theorist John Dunn was complaining as early as 1979 that while democratic theory had become the “public cant of the modern world”, democratic reality had grown “pretty thin on the ground”. Since then, that reality has grown flimsier, corroded by a financialised mode of capitalism that has held Anglo-American politicians and journalists in its thrall since the 1980s.

What went unnoticed until recently was that the chasm between a political system that promises formal equality and a socio-economic system that generates intolerable inequality had grown much wider. It eventually empowered the demagogues who now rule us. In other words, modern democracies have for decades been lurching towards moral and ideological bankruptcy – unprepared by their own publicists to cope with the political and environmental disasters that unregulated capitalism ceaselessly inflicts, even on such winners of history as Britain and the US.

Having laboured to exclude a smelly past of ethnocide, slavery and racism – and the ongoing stink of corporate venality – from their perfumed notion of Anglo-American superiority, the promoters of democracy have no nose for its true enemies. Ripe for superannuation but still entrenched on the heights of politics and journalism, they repetitively ventilate their rage and frustration, or whinge incessantly about “cancel culture” and the “radical left”, it is because that is all they can do. Their own mind-numbing simplicities about democracy, its enemies, friends, the free world, and all that sort of thing, have doomed them to experience the contemporary world as an endless series of shocks and debacles.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Isn’t Great Britain in existential threat?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

It may sound utterly surreal – a country with long and admirable tradition of tolerance, inclusiveness, multiculturism and parliamentary democracy is now in utter disarray due to onset of intolerance, bigotry, populism and ugly nationalism that may well lead to disintegration of British unionism. Decency, honesty, fairness and truthfulness are all attributes of the distant past. Ideological arrogance, spinning of facts to meet one’s selfish ends are more in keeping with the reality of Britain today, particularly with Tory political elites, than with the traditional virtues. In the pursuit of selfish benefits, the interests of the country and people had been blatantly abrogated. These are the sad realities of Britain today.

One may say, leaving the EU on its own volition is the beginning of Britain’s decimation. Nothing could be furthest from the truth. Leaving the EU (with or without a deal) may be the symptom but not the cause. The real cause is more deeply rooted and strongly anchored in the psyche of the British people – more accurately, the English people.

One must look at the inner causes that led Britain to opt to leave in the first place. What was so abhorrent in the EU that Britain, after over 40 years of association, had to leave the EU? Was that a genuine reason or a manufactured reason by some opportunistic political leaders? Was there an aspiration, an unfulfilled ambition of ‘English Elites’ that could not be met by being in the EU? Was it the ideology that the second era of British Empire, another ‘Golden Age’ of British Imperialism, thwarted by the EU can be fulfilled by leaving? All these unfulfilled ambitions, dormant aspirations were confluenced to arouse British people to go for it.

The present predicament could be seen to have started more than 100 years ago – from the beginning of World War I – when Britain was at the height of Imperial Power. Britain was ruling the waves of seven seas, Sun never set in the British Empire . A tiny island at the western fringe of Europe was ruling nearly half of the world. That mighty Empire was lost since World War II and, surely, it can be regained! This aspiration of a certain section of the British people, aided and abetted by delusional ‘Imperialist Elites’, became so vivid that it found expressions in the EU referendum in the form of ‘take back control’, ‘establish sovereignty of the parliament’, ‘day of independence’, ‘future is bright’ etc. The uninitiated general public fell for these deceitful pronouncements of the opportunist politicians.

The WWI did damage Britain significantly, not only militarily and economically but also reputationally. The mighty Empire was found by the colonies not to be invincible. Then came the World War II, only about 20 years later, when Britain hardly had had enough time to recover. The end of WWII in 1945, even with a victory, was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Within short two years, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – India became independent – followed in quick succession in other parts of Asia and Africa.

The USA did come to the rescue of Britain but extracted a high price for it. On high moral grounds, the USA demanded Britain should forgo its colonies and offer freedom to all nations. A new world order was established – USA would lead the western powers and Britain would follow it subserviently. This is what was dubbed in British diplomatic circles a ‘special relationship’.

The waves in the seven seas are still there, but there is no single power to rule them anymore. However, USA is gradually taking over the role vacated by British Empire and it is now called America, comprising the central mainland of 50 States and hundreds of overseas territories, protectorate and sovereign lands with their military bases. America’s overseas territories are almost as big as the original USA mainland, both in terms of territorial size and population!

When given the opportunity in the EU referendum, the deprived underclass of Britain blamed the EU for the demise of British power and opted to leave the EU in the vain hope of regaining the bygone glory of ‘British Empire’. Of course, they had been incessantly fed by the opportunistic, populist politicians the messages that getting out of the EU would usher in the opportunity of regaining world power without the shackles of the EU, Britain would ‘take back control’, Britain would be ruled by ‘elected representatives’, Britain be ‘sovereign again’, Britain would make better trade deals with countries etc. Those deceitful politicians claimed (egregiously) that £19 billion that is paid to the EU as annual fees would be given to the NHS – £350 million per week extra! None of these claims is true. But the unpretentious general public did fall for such mendacious claims and voted to leave.

But the question is, why did this bunch of politicians mislead the public with downright falsehood to leave the EU? Apart from personal financial gains – most of these politicians are wealthy tax dodgers and supporters of overseas dwellers of tax havens – they had the agenda of getting back the second era of British Empire! The EU was, in their minds, the only impediment. Once free from that shackle, they would be able to go around the world, make trade deals with various countries and everything would be just hunkydory.

Those delusional Tory politicians started going around the Commonwealth countries to make trade deals which would be needed post-Brexit. Liam Fox, ex-International Trade Secretary, went to India to draw deals under the guise of Commonwealth fraternity. But he had been told bluntly by India that any future deal would be made on purely commercial basis, no amount of Commonwealth or past Imperial flag waving would cut any ice. However, special relaxation of travel restrictions, residence requirements etc for Indians might persuade India to come to a trade agreement! In other words, India would extract special price for any future trade deal. Of course, the same practice would be applied by other Commonwealth countries. The delusional Tory Brexiteers thought making new deals would be a breeze with their imperialist past! Liam Fox said before the EU referendum that making new trade deals would be ‘the easiest thing in the world’!

Leaving the EU, the largest trading block (44% of all exports from the UK goes to the EU), without a deal would leave Britain so severely damaged that other countries would definitely try to extract heavy price for any export-import relationship. No country would even come to make a fair-trade relationship with a lame duck country. After all, Britain under the British Imperialism, did the same thing! Now the hunter has become hunted and that is by choice!

Another sinister issue is the likely disintegration of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Why would Scotland be dragged out of EU against the will of their people by England, when 62% of Scots voted to Remain? Where is the democratic accountability and fairness to the constituent countries of the United Kingdom? In the EU, every Member States (MS), no matter how large or small, has equal say. A small country like Malta (population 500,000) or Luxembourg (population 600,000) or Cyprus (population 1.2 million) has equal say as big countries like France (population over 67 million) or Germany (population 83 million) on all matters of interest. And here is Scotland with a population of over 5.4 million has no say at all in the union with the United Kingdom. This is creating a great deal of strain in Scotland and the demand for its independence from the United Kingdom is growing ever louder. The same narrative goes for Northern Ireland which voted 56% to Remain in the EU.

Gordon Brown, the ex-prime minister of Great Britain, said in an article in the Observer on 11 August 2019 that Britain is sleepwalking into oblivion fuelled by destructive, populist, nationalistic ideology deployed by Boris Johnson. This is not an alarmist view; it is an honest view of a senior politician. When the idea of inherent unfairness will go into the minds of people of those countries within the United Kingdom, it would be extremely difficult to put a stop to it. The strident calls by delusional Boris Johnson to ‘do or die’ and ‘come what may’ will come to haunt him as the disintegration of the United Kingdom rolls on. History will come to look in utter amazement how a country which ruled over half of the world came to smithereens in just about seventy to eighty years!

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, Environmental, International, Life as it is

America’s ‘Last Frontier’ becoming the ‘Lost Frontier’

Missing glaciers at Denali, Alaska

Nick-named the “Last Frontier”, Alaska is the largest state (in area) of the United States. It is also one of the richest states; thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, gold and fish. The state is home to a vast expanse of pristine wilderness, towering mountains, breathtaking glaciers and big game animals.

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envisage as a vacation spot, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Finally, our 10-day jaunt started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords near Seward.

We also took a 90-minute flight-seeing tour of Mount Denali followed by landing and strolling on a glacier at 1,750 metres. At 6,200 metres, Denali is the highest peak in North America. A panoramic cruise through the Orca Inlet at Cordova allowed us to see the highest concentration of sea otters in the world. We saw the midnight sun at Anchorage and basked in 24 hours of sunshine at Healy, a backwood small town close to the Arctic Circle.

Besides appreciating the awesome natural beauty of Alaska, what struck me most during the trip is how global warming has pushed this Arctic region into an entirely new climate regime, one that is outside the experience of the aboriginals and native wildlife.

Climate change is occurring faster in high-latitude regions–twice as fast as the rest of the world–due to the phenomenon of “Arctic Amplification,” which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than the rest of the world. Being located on both sides of the Arctic Circle, effects of climate change in Alaska are no longer yearly anomalies; rather, they are daily occurrences.

Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased approximately by 1.7 degrees Celsius. Warming in the winter has increased by more than three degrees. Temperature in Anchorage three days after our arrival was 32 degrees.

As Alaska continues to warm, average annual temperatures are estimated to increase by an additional 1-2 degrees by the middle of this century, while precipitation is projected to increase during all seasons by the end of this century. Despite increased precipitation, Alaska is likely to become drier due to greater evaporation caused by warming temperatures and longer growing seasons.

With rising temperatures, the threat of massive wildfires continues to grow over time across Alaska all the way to the Arctic. During our stay, about 350 wildfires were raging in south and south central Alaska. Smoke from the fires made driving hazardous, particularly through the scenic backroads.

Warmer temperatures have left vegetation more susceptible to parasites and spruce bark beetles. They have killed more than four million acres of trees in Alaska. Indeed, we saw thousands of dead trees in the Denali Wilderness.

Alaska is full of eye-catching glaciers adorning majestic mountains, but most of them are melting at an accelerated rate. The US Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing 75 billion tonnes of glacier a year. Melting glaciers have implications for hydropower production, ocean circulation patterns and global sea-level rise. In addition, glacial meltwater from tidewater glaciers, which are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea, has chemical properties that can exacerbate ocean acidification that is already threatening the fishery industry.

As we cruised on the Prince William Sound, arguably the best place in Alaska to see spectacular tidewater glaciers, we saw fewer glaciers due to warmer temperatures. The largest glacier accessible by car, Matanuska Glacier near Anchorage, is shrinking dramatically at its toe. Furthermore, during the flight-seeing tour of Denali, we saw many mountains with barren slopes and valleys. According to our pilot, they were once packed with glaciers.

Nearly 80 percent of Alaska’s surface lies above permafrost—frozen ground that is typically located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions and remains frozen year-round. However, as air temperatures are rising, permafrost is thawing in many areas, causing the soil above to sink, resulting in ground subsidence that is damaging highways, railroads, airstrips, homes and other structures. Moreover, shrubs and spruce that previously could not take root on the permafrost now dot the Alaskan landscape, potentially altering the habitat of the native animals.

Because of melting permafrost and subsequent caving of the road, we could not drive from Healy to Valdez via the scenic Denali Highway. Instead, we had to take a 320km detour.

Arctic permafrost acts like a gigantic cap over mineral resources and fossil fuels containing greenhouse gases. But melting permafrost is releasing these gases, particularly methane trapped in ice. Clearly, the loss of permafrost and glaciers is opening new pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming.

Erosion of Alaska’s coastline is increasing due to the decline in sea ice that protects the coast from storms and tidal surges. The coastal areas are now more vulnerable to devastating storms and heavier rainfall.

The ripple effect of ice loss does not stop here. In the sparsely populated areas, where roads are few and far between, frozen rivers are indispensable for transporting goods, visiting family and taking children to school. With the loss of ice, their communication routes are cut off. Additionally, many people in northern Alaska depend on hunting on the ice. They no longer have access to traditional hunting areas, or access is much more dangerous because the ice is less stable.

Although climate change is having deleterious effects on people all over Alaska, those most affected are the Alaska Natives. Since they live so closely with the land and nature, small shifts in the ecosystems can perturb their way of life. Also, they get food mostly through fishing and hunting, including animals like polar bears, walruses and seals. Changing climate has resulted in the habitat destruction of these animals.

In summary, climate change in Alaska is not a distant or abstract concern, as some would like us to believe. It is real—simply because there is water where there was once ice. Hence, with a gloomy, disaster-prone future, it seems America’s “Last Frontier” will eventually become the “Lost Frontier.”

  • Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Frailty in our ubiquitous Democracy

In the 1950s and 1960s, communism or socialism or their various shades of colour swept across the whole world, particularly across the developing countries (used to be called under-developed countries). Those political dogmas, however, did not or could not take firm grip on most of those countries. They came about on utopian sentimentality of certain sections of the public and faded away under the harsh reality, leaving behind a spattering of dogmatic title-tattle and lots of bitter memories.

The aspiration to move from proletariat dictatorship to democratic expropriation was strong among the left-outs of the great socialist revolutions. Democracy became the buzz-word, a tool which would offer the same fruit without the associated thorn. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called his dictatorial regime ‘presidential democracy’, General Ayub Khan of Pakistan formulated ‘basic democracy’ for legitimacy, Sukarno of Indonesia devised ‘guided democracy’, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay legitimised his 35-year long rule with ‘selective democracy’ and many countries adopted democratic veneer such as autocratic North Korea called itself ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and so forth. The appellation ‘democracy’ became a touchstone for legitimacy, regardless of whether there is any semblance of democratic tit-bits or not in the country.

Nearly 50 years on, right wing fanatics and extremists seized on this opportunity to grab power through the democratic veneer. Once in power, by hook or by crook, clutching the touchstone of ‘democracy’, the ‘non-democratic’ power becomes almost invincible; no popular movement or ideology could dare touch it. Such is the magic of democracy.

The xenophobic racist views such as – “America first”, “Brazil first”, “Philippines first” etc – are sweeping across the world.  Whereas in the communism-socialism rounds there were at least some semblance of social care, workers’ rights etc; but now in the right-wing extremism all those things have become peripheral and have been contemptuously dispensed with. The veneer of ‘democracy’ is only required to get to the power and the rest becomes superfluous.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’, which is an amalgam of demos (mob, the many) and kratos (the rule). Thus, the original word signifies the ‘rule of the many’. The Greek philosophers Socrates and then Plato along with his disciples had high hopes in democracy. Aristotle over the centuries looked at various forms of governance and gradually the consensus view emerged that democratic participation of the citizens as equal would ensure free and fair form of governance; where rights, liberty and freedom of the people would be preserved.

But there were many shortcomings and apprehensions in that form of ‘democracy’, which Plato did pointedly bring out. He asserted that democratic system might lead to the establishment of the view of the majority, but that might not encompass the view of the whole or a large fraction of the society. He particularly disliked the connotation of ‘rule’ over the whole society. Wouldn’t that ‘rule’ by the majority mean the tyranny of the majority? And what form or type of ‘rule’ that would be applicable over the whole society?    

A true ‘democracy’ is something that may offer good governance, political justice, liberty, equality and human rights. Of course, not all of them can be fulfilled all at the same time. But the majority of these attributes can be met with the majority of the society. And the concept of ‘rule’ can be kept in abeyance, as it inherently means dictation over the society.

The more important point is the ‘issue’ (the choice of government; a matter of national interest in a referendum etc) on which consensus of the society is sought. Has the ‘issue’ been brought to the attention of the public with its pros and cons truthfully? In other words, are public knowledgeable or suitable to pass their opinion on the ‘issue’?

The outcome would be blatantly distorted if people are ignorant or misinformed or misled with different or conflicting interpretations of the same issue. There are plenty of opportunistic populist politicians in this country and around the world who are ready to manipulate the situation to gain the support of the majority and gain power. This practice does constitute a blatant abuse of ‘democracy’. It is very easy to mislead the public with convenient lies. Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling is eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association.

For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what ‘EU’ means. Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on prejudice and ignorance. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally corrupted the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became skewed.

David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.”

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.