Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans–The Uncomfortable Truth


August 11, 2017

Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans–The Uncomfortable Truth

by  Jeanie Suk Gersen

https://www.newyorker.com

Image result for Harvard by The Charles River

Since the nineties, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, while the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population has more than doubled.

The application process for schools, fellowships, and jobs always came with a ritual: a person who had a role in choosing me—an admissions officer, an interviewer—would mention in his congratulations that I was “different” from the other Asians. When I won a scholarship that paid for part of my education, a selection panelist told me that I got it because I had moving qualities of heart and originality that Asian applicants generally lacked. Asian applicants were all so alike, and I stood out. In truth, I wasn’t much different from other Asians I knew. I was shy and reticent, played a musical instrument, spent summers drilling math, and had strict parents to whom I was dutiful. But I got the message: to be allowed through a narrow door, an Asian should cultivate not just a sense of individuality but also ways to project “Not like other Asians!”

I got the message: to be allowed through a narrow door, an Asian should cultivate not just a sense of individuality but also ways to project “Not like other Asians!”– Jeanie Suk Gersen

In a federal lawsuit filed in Massachusetts in 2014, a group representing Asian-Americans is claiming that Harvard University’s undergraduate-admissions practices unlawfully discriminate against Asians. (Disclosure: Harvard is my employer, and I attended and teach at the university’s law school.) The suit poses questions about what a truly diverse college class might look like, spotlighting a group that is often perceived as lacking internal diversity. The court complaint quotes a college counsellor at the highly selective Hunter College High School (which I happened to attend), who was reporting a Harvard admissions officer’s feedback to the school: certain of its Asian students weren’t admitted, the officer said, because “so many” of them “looked just like” each other on paper.

The lawsuit alleges that Harvard effectively employs quotas on the number of Asians admitted and holds them to a higher standard than whites. At selective colleges, Asians are demographically over represented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool. Since the nineteen-nineties, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, at between sixteen and nineteen per cent, while the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population more than doubled. A 2009 Princeton study showed that Asians had to score a hundred and forty points higher on the S.A.T. than whites to have the same chance of admission to top universities. The discrimination suit survived Harvard’s motion to dismiss last month and is currently pending.

When the New York Times reported, last week, that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was internally seeking lawyers to investigate or litigate “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” many people immediately assumed that the Trump Administration was hoping to benefit whites by assailing affirmative action. The Department soon insisted that it specifically intends to revive a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed with the Education and Justice Departments by sixty-four Asian-American groups, making the same claim as the current court case: that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asians in admissions, giving whites an advantage. (The complaint had previously been dismissed in light of the already-pending lawsuit.) The combination of the lawsuit and the potential federal civil-rights inquiry signals that the treatment of Asians will frame the next phase of the legal debate over race-conscious admissions programs.

Just last year, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative-action program, which, like Harvard’s, aims to build a diverse class along multiple dimensions and considers race as one factor in a holistic review of each applicant. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, approved of a university’s ability to define “intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” Incidentally, the phrase “intangible characteristics” echoes the sort of language that often describes the individualizing or leadership qualities that many Asian-American applicants, perceived as grinds with high test scores, are deemed to lack. The complaint against Harvard highlights the school’s history of using similar language to describe Jewish students nearly a century ago, which led to a “diversity” rationale designed to limit Jewish enrollment in favor of applicants from regions with fewer Jews, such as the Midwest. If diversity of various kinds is central to an élite school’s mission, an Asian may have to swim upstream to be admitted.

The U.T. affirmative-action case was brought by a white student and financed by Edward Blum, a white Jewish conservative who is also financing the lawsuit against Harvard. Justice Alito’s dissent in the U.T. case said that, in failing to note that U.T.’s admissions practices discriminated against Asians, the Court’s majority acted “almost as if Asian-American students do not exist.” For Asian-Americans—the majority of whom support affirmative action—being cast in the foreground of the affirmative-action debate can be awkward and painful. Affirmative action has consistently been a “wedge” issue, and groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice have opposed attempts to use Asian students as the wedge in conservative attacks on affirmative action that may harm black and Latino students. Some simply deny that race-conscious admissions procedures are disadvantaging Asians at all, which avoids confronting a complicated dilemma.

The Harvard lawsuit does raise uncomfortable questions, especially in a time when it is also becoming less comfortable to be an immigrant. Is an admissions process that disadvantages a minority group benign, or even desirable, if that minority group is demographically over represented in higher education? Should colleges pursue their interest in a diverse class by limiting admissions of a minority group whose numbers may otherwise overwhelm the class?

Because our legal doctrine prohibits racial quotas, it is currently impossible to have an honest discussion of these questions. The truth is that, in addition to a holistic review of each applicant that considers race as one factor, colleges undertake some amount of balancing so that they do not end up with a class that is swamped by members of any particular race—or with too many scientists, poets, or dancers, for that matter. But admissions offices cannot admit to efforts at racial balancing or anything that sounds remotely like quotas. Hence, Harvard’s litigation position must attribute the resulting race composition and the percentage of Asians in its class solely to the holistic method, admitting to no racial balancing. This account is plausible if, in fact, despite disproportionately strong academic credentials, Asian applicants are severely less likely than white ones to have the special personal qualities that colleges seek.

That is the inevitable implication of Harvard’s position, which would be in line with long-standing perceptions of Asians as indistinguishable from one another. The lawsuit may well entail an inquiry into whether Asian applicants’ non-academic qualifications were disproportionately un-special compared to those of white applicants. (In addition to Harvard submitting comprehensive admissions data for discovery in the case, several competitive high schools with large numbers of Asian students are also being asked to provide information about their students’ applications to Harvard.)

But this lawsuit, and much of the discussion of affirmative action that surrounds it, makes a serious error in assuming that, in order to stop discrimination against Asian applicants, race-conscious affirmative action must end. The argument simply proves too much. Continued use of affirmative action of the kind upheld by the Supreme Court is perfectly compatible with tackling the discrimination at issue. The problem is not race-conscious holistic review; rather, it is the added, sub-rosa deployment of racial balancing in a manner that keeps the number of Asians so artificially low relative to whites who are less strong on academic measures. It is also time to look seriously at the impact on Asians (many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants) of the advantage enjoyed by legacy admissions and wealthy families who are likely to give significant donations. It distorts and confuses the debate to lay the preferential treatment for whites over Asians at the feet of affirmative action—or, on the other side, to deny that Asians are disadvantaged in admissions today.

In the pursuit of diversity, some amount of racial balancing seems unavoidable, however taboo. We should not want the composition of our élite universities to be wildly out of proportion to the racial composition of our country. Such lopsided access to gateways of opportunity and power—say, with whites being severely underrepresented at schools like Harvard—has the potential to fuel dangerous resentment and disturb social peace, at least if the change occurs too far ahead of demographic changes that are projected to make whites a minority in this country in less than three decades.

 

“It is unrealistic to think that universities like Harvard can immediately stop privileging white applicants, given the current whiteness of their donors, but that picture will change over time. It was as Jews gained more political power and became more likely to be donors that élite schools’ discrimination against them waned. And, for the first time, racial minorities are a majority of this year’s entering class at Harvard.”

I would not relish seeing the nation’s most élite colleges become majority Asian, which is what has resulted at selective high schools, such as Stuyvesant, that do not consider race in admissions at all. It is also extremely troubling when solely test-based admissions such as Stuyvesant’s reflect the failure to remedy structural disadvantages suffered by black and Latino students. What is needed instead, then, is race-conscious affirmative action, to address the historic discrimination and under representation of blacks and Latinos, in combination with far less severity in the favoring of whites relative to Asians.

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Harvard and other schools will vigorously defend their use of race-conscious affirmative action along the lines previously upheld by the Supreme Court. Outside of court, the Asian-discrimination claim may move colleges to refine their admissions procedures and better calibrate for diversity and fairness. It is unrealistic to think that universities like Harvard can immediately stop privileging white applicants, given the current whiteness of their donors, but that picture will change over time. It was as Jews gained more political power and became more likely to be donors that élite schools’ discrimination against them waned. And, for the first time, racial minorities are a majority of this year’s entering class at Harvard.

The enrollment of Asians is the highest ever, at more than twenty-two per cent, with their increased share cutting into white, rather than black or Latino, enrollment. Those trends will be hard to reverse, and other schools will follow suit. For Asian-American students, the imperative to show originality will continue. But I hope that we can soon say goodbye to the admissions ritual whereby an Asian student is paradoxically expected to represent other Asians by proving she is different from them.

Malaysia is known for the wrong reason(s)–Misogyny


August 1, 2017

Malaysia is known for the wrong reason(s)–Misogyny

http://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/29/asia/malaysia-women-misogyny-legislature/index.html

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Lawyer Aminah Kosai and Friends

Editor’s Note: Animah Kosai (pic above on extreme right) is a lawyer who writes, speaks and advises leaders on creating an open “Speak Up” culture in corporations to address wrongdoing, harassment and safety concerns. She also speaks on women empowerment. Animah is creating a platform called Speak Up and can be followed on LinkedIn and Twitter @SpeakUpAtWork

Malaysia has a problem: misogyny. The country’s Parliament set yet another sordid example last week when Member of Parliament Che Mohamad Zulkifly Jusoh, during a debate on amending domestic violence laws, said husbands were ‘abused’ when wives threw insults, withheld sex and denied consent for Muslim men to take another wife.

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Another Problematic UMNO Mamak–Setiu MP Che Mohamad Zulkifly Jusoh

In 2007, another MP, Bung Mohktar Radin, equated the leaking parliament roof to a woman’s period, picking on woman opposition MP Fong Po Kuan, and saying she ‘leaked’ every month. His disgraceful comments drew laughter from the floor. No male MP stood up to defend her.

Image result for Shabudin Yahaya, MP and former syariah court judgeAnother UMNO Character from Penang

 

In April this year, Shabudin Yahaya, MP and former syariah court judge, objected to a female representative proposing a ban on child marriage during the tabling of child sex abuse laws. He said nine year old girls are already mature. That girls at 12 or 15 who had bodies of 18 year olds were physically and spiritually mature, and could be married. He explained that rape victims would face a bleak future without husbands — and suggested they marry their rapists. In Malaysia, the legal age for marriage is 18 but exemptions can be given by the appropriate judge.

Was there outrage? Yes. From civil society, mainly women, and a handful of female MPs. It’s an uphill battle when 90% of the House of Representatives are male. Only 23 out of the 222 elected members of parliament are women.

Picture a rowdy boys club that fights to determine the loudest chest thumper. The winner emerges as alpha male while the rest fall into line as loyal followers. Women entering this arena upset the pecking order. We think differently. We ask tough questions. The alpha male isn’t used to being questioned. Especially not by a woman. In front of his pack!

To keep his position, he has to remind her who’s boss. He does so through bullying rather than rational intelligent discourse. You see this in Parliament, in the workplace and on social media. All a leader needs to do is make one remark to ‘put a woman in her place’ and his sycophants will do the rest.

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An UMNO Empty Vessel who makes the most noise–Teuku (aka Tengku) Adnan Mansor

A few months ago, Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor was at a town hall meeting when an eloquent young woman asked him about steps to reduce street crime. She was worried for her safety. He replied, “It’s because you’re so beautiful. The next time you go out, wear shabby clothes.” The audience laughed and wolf whistles were heard.

In just one sentence, Tengku Adnan avoided answering the question, objectified the woman, blamed the victim and rallied the boys to follow his cue.

Once a leader speaks this way, he is sending the signal to the masses that it is the fault of the victim for being attacked. This is wrong and has to be called out for what it is.  Patriarchy. Sexism. Rape Culture.

Why can men get away with such sexist remarks? Because they hold the power. Malaysia has the dubious distinction of scoring highest in the Hofstede Power Distance Index. In other words, Malaysia is the country in which the least powerful members of society most accept and expect the unequal distribution of power.

This means leaders can say anything knowing they will most likely not be challenged. In some families, women are reminded that religion and tradition requires them to be subservient to their husbands.

Image result for Najib Razak--Malaysia's Corrupt Hypocrite

Malaysia’s Hippo-Crite –Anything for Political Survival

Zulkifly’s male abuse remarks last week came the same day his boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced women had hit 30% representation in management in the top 100 listed Malaysian companies. Najib noted 17 of the companies had no women directors and said companies without women on boards by 2018 would be named and shamed.

Najib, meanwhile, has only 3 women in his 35 member cabinet. His party, UMNO, has 7 women in its 57 member Supreme Council — a council that has both Tengku Adnan and Bung Mokhtar on it.

When there is big imbalance between the genders, misogyny thrives. The only way forward is for men to drop their pack mentality and let women in. It’s hard for women with 10% or 20% of the power to change male mindsets. Don’t leave the heavy lifting to us.

Men, the moment you hear a sexist remark, intervene and object. A man will be taken more seriously by a misogynist. Men are part of the brotherhood. When a woman points out a sexist remark, she is challenging the male ego. He gets defensive, stops listening and often continues his tirade. I have seen the powerful shift when a man calls out sexism. The speaker stops and thinks. He is not threatened. He may not change immediately, but a seed is planted. The more men call out misogyny, the greater the shift. Eventually men will hear women the same way they hear men. As equals.

Workplaces, social media and yes, Parliament, will become less aggressive and open up to a calmer, respectful culture where women will be happy to participate.

We need male champions for gender equality. So non-alpha male men: break ranks and support us.

Not just Economics, but also Humanomics


July 30, 2017

Not just Economics, but also Humanomics

by Gary Saul Morson*

*Gary Saul Morson, a professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University, is co-author of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

and Morton Schapiro*

*Morton Schapiro, a professor of economics and President of Northwestern University, is co-author of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

http://www.project_syndicate.org

In a 2006 survey, American university professors were asked whether it was better to possess knowledge from numerous fields of study, or from just one. Among professors of psychology, 79% were enthusiastic about interdisciplinary learning, as were 73% of sociologists and 68% of historians. The least enthusiastic? Economists: only 42% surveyed said they agreed with the need to understand the world through a cross-disciplinary lens. As one observer put it bluntly: “Economists literally think they have nothing to learn from anyone else.”

In fact, economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus. Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

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Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

People are not organisms that are first made and then dipped in some culture, like Achilles in the river Styx. They are cultural beings from the outset. But, because culture cannot be rendered in mathematical terms, economists typically embrace the idea of a pre-cultural humanness.

To understand people as cultural beings, one must tell stories about them. Human lives do not unfold in a predictable fashion the way Mars orbits the sun. Contingency, idiosyncrasy, and unforeseeable choices play an irreducible role. Life displays what might be called “narrativeness,” implying the need for explanation in terms of stories. And the best appreciation of this is to be found in novels, which may be considered not just a literary form, but also a distinct way of understanding the social world. Although the events that novels describe are fictional, the shape, sequence, and ramifications of those events is often the most accurate account we have of how lives unfold.

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Economics inevitably involves ethical questions that are not reducible to Economics itself

Finally, economics inevitably involves ethical questions that are not reducible to economics itself – or, for that matter, to any other social science. Economists often smuggle ethical concerns into their models with concepts like “fair” market price. But there are many ways to make these issues overt and open them to argument.

There is no better source of ethical insight than the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry James, and the other great realists. Their works distill the complexity of ethical questions that are too important to be safely entrusted to an overarching theory – questions that call for empathy and good judgment, which are developed through experience and cannot be formalized. To be sure, some theories of ethics may recommend empathy, but reading literature and identifying with characters involves extensive practice in placing oneself in others’ shoes. If one has not identified with Anna Karenina, one has not really read Anna Karenina.

When you read a great novel and identify with its characters, you spend countless hours engaging with them – feeling from within what it is like to be someone else. You see the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, moral understanding, or other features that define and differentiate human experience. By living a character’s life vicariously, you not only feel what she feels, but also reflect on those feelings, consider the character of the actions to which they lead, and, with practice, acquire the wisdom to appreciate real people in all their complexity.

The point is not to abandon the great achievements of economics, but to create what we call a “humanomics,” which allows each discipline to keep its own distinctive qualities. Rather than fuse economics and the humanities, humanomics creates a dialogue between them.

Such a conversation would actually bring economics back to its illustrious roots in the thought of Adam Smith, who, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, explicitly denied that human behavior could be adequately described in terms of people’s “rational choice” to maximize their individual utility. After all, people often behave foolishly. More important for Smith, their care for others is an “original passion” that is not reducible to selfish concerns.

Smith’s writings on economic and ethics share a deep sense of the limits of reason. Central planning is bound to fail, but so are algebraic models of behavior. One needs a subtle appreciation of particulars, the sort of sensitivity that was dramatized, a half-century after Smith’s moral treatise, by Jane Austen and her successors. A great psychologist, Smith knew that we need both cents and sensibility.

Econometric methods and mathematical models teach us much, but only so much. When it comes to human lives, characterized as they are by contingency and narrativeness, stories are an indispensable way of knowing. That is why the quantitative rigor, policy focus, and logic of economics must be supplemented with the empathy, judgment, and wisdom that defines the humanities at their best. Economists must speak to other disciplines – and let them speak back.

On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt


July 24, 2017

On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

Petter Naessan examines Harry Frankfurt’s famous little book On Bullshit

Harry Frankfurt, a moral philosopher, starts this little book with the following observation: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” He then proceeds to develop a theoretical understanding of bullshit – what it is, and what it is not.

Image result for On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

Aspects of the bullshit problem are discussed partly with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, Wittgenstein and Saint Augustine. Three points seem especially important – the distinction between lying and bullshitting, the question of why there is so much bullshit in the current day and age, and a critique of sincerity qua bullshit.

Frankfurt makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting. Both the liar and the bullshitter try to get away with something. But ‘lying’ is perceived to be a conscious act of deception, whereas ‘bullshitting’ is unconnected to a concern for truth. Frankfurt regards this ‘indifference to how things really are’, as the essence of bullshit. Furthermore, a lie is necessarily false, but bullshit is not – bullshit may happen to be correct or incorrect. The crux of the matter is that bullshitters hide their lack of commitment to truth. Since bullshitters ignore truth instead of acknowledging and subverting it, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies.

Image result for On Bullshit by Moral Philosopher Harry Frankfurt

 

Having established the grave danger of bullshit, Frankfurt’s next step is to ask why there is so much bullshit around. The main answer to this is that bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about “events and conditions in all parts of the world”, about more or less anything and everything – so they speak quite extensively about things they know virtually nothing about. Frankfurt is non-committal as to whether there is more bullshit around now than before, but he maintains that there is currently a great deal.

There is an interesting problem sketched at the end of the book, wherein sincerity is described as an ideal for those who do not believe that there is any (objective) truth, thus departing from the ideal of correctness. Now, Frankfurt does not mention the word ‘postmodern’ at all in his book (which is a good thing, I think), but to some extent the last pages may be understood to be a critical punch on a postmodern rejection of the ideal of the truth. Be this as it may, when a person rejects the notion of being true to the facts and turns instead to an ideal of being true to their own substantial and determinate nature, then according to Frankfurt this sincerity is bullshit.

Bullshit seems to be defined largely negatively, that is, as not lying. Frankfurt’s discussion – which he admits is not likely to be decisive – reveals that there is nothing really distinctive about bullshit when it comes to either the form or meaning of utterances. It is predominantly about the intention and disregard for truth of the bullshitter. How then do we discern bullshit from other types of speech behaviour? Is it really possible to accurately know the values (or lack thereof) involved when a person speaks?

Probably not. One may have some intuition that certain utterances constitute bullshit. Frankfurt does not provide any answers here, but one could perhaps suggest that the ‘cooperative principle’ of H.P. Grice (1913-1988) might provide some further food for thought within the emerging field of bullshitology (as I would like to call the scientific study of bullshit). Grice, in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, outlined a number of underlying principles (‘maxims’) that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. Speakers and listeners assume that the others abide by certain, predominantly unstated, speech norms. The cooperative principle can be divided more specifically into the maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. For bullshitological purposes, the violation of the maxims would appear to be relevant. So if utterances convey not enough or too much information (quantity), are intentionally false or lack evidence (quality), are irrelevant to any current topic or issue (relevance), and are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly (manner), they would seem to qualify, although not necessarily, as bullshit (minus the intentionally false utterance, of course). These elements may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Then again, can we be certain that to identify utterances as bullshit in any given situation necessarily is connected to an understanding of the bullshitter’s indifference to the truth?

Needless to say, there are numerous problems which may be expanded, looked into and analysed concerning bullshit. And I dare say that Frankfurt’s little book is a nice starting point.

© Petter A. Naessan 2005

Petter Naessan is a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Adelaide.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press (2005). £6.50/$9.95 pp.67.ISBN: 0691122946.

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Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88


June 8, 2017

COMMENT: What do Farouk A. Peru, a much younger man at least a few decades apart chronologically speaking, and I (78 years old last May) have in common? Well for starters, we are Facebook pals; we  love to read and pen our thoughts in print; we appreciate culture and the arts and all things of beauty; we are unafraid to express our views openly and critically; we are Muslims; we are Malaysians and we enjoyed reading ZEN.

We admire Singapore’s Pak Othman  Wok, and Robert Prisig who wrote Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (first published  in 1974 and that was when I read it). Both men have since died, and May God Bless their souls.

I stumbled upon Farouk’s article  on Prisig’s magnum opus and also learned of his passing in The Malay Mail this evening (see below).

Like Farouk, I recommend the Zen book (which is subtitled An Inquiry into Values) to my young readers. It is tough reading at first, but it gets easier as you go along with the help of a good English dictionary. But to assist you, I would recommend The Guide Book  To ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE by Ronald L. DiSanto, Ph.d and Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Ph.d (New York: William Morrow, 1990). I congratulate Farouk for reading the book and for his article.–Din Merican

Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author Robert Pirsig has died at the age of 88. Pairing motorcycles with philosophy, Pirsig was responsible for inspiring countless motorcycle journeys and road trips.

The book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sits on bookshelves all over the world. It’s by no means a book about Zen, nor is it a book that tackles the mechanics of motorcycles – it’s a story about a father and son journey aboard a motorcycle that takes them across the western United States. It’s not necessarily a road trip book either. In fact, it’s hard to classify exactly what the book is, but that doesn’t matter – and that’s the beauty of it. It was a book that appealed (and still appeals) to audiences over the world, and is an essential book for any motorcyclist. If you’ve ever been drawn to the road, you and Pirsig would have a lot in common.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence authot Robert Persig

Robert Pirsig: 1928 – 2017

An announcement by Peter Hubbard, the Executive Editor of William Morrow & Co, recently announced the death of one of our favorite authors. Robert Persig passed away on April 24th 2017, “after a period of ill health.”

Zen was first published back in 1974. Pirsig had been rejected by more than 100 publishers before the iconic, semi-autobiographical book ever hit the stores. Despite the difficulty finding a publisher, Zen became a best seller. Pirsig described the nature of the book as an effort to “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road.”

Robert and Chris Pirsig

Born in Minneapolis, Robert Pirsig was very well educated and went on to earn a degree in Philosophy, working as a technical writer and English teacher before suffering from mental illness. His battle with mental illness resulted in a motorcycle trip with this son Christopher in 1968 through the western United States, which would become the inspiration for his story.

The preface to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the best way to sum up his iconic book: “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

Robert Pirsig and his motorcycle

If you haven’t read it, we urge you to pick up a copy and enjoy Pirsig’s journey along with him and his son. It’s a great American story and should be celebrated – and a fantastic read for all of those who appreciate the liberty and freedom associated with the open road.

Here’s to you Robert Pirsig, and thanks for your wonderful insights. You will be missed.

Robert Pirsig

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong, until either the machine or your mind is changed.” – Robert Pirsig 1928 – 2017

Read Robert Prisig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENCE

By Farouk A. Peru (April 28, 2017)

Not one but two writers whose works made an impact on me died. It seems that 2017 is doing to authors what 2016 did to artistes! I had written about the death of Othman Wok and now I find out Robert Pirsig has died.

Often at times, authors or film-makers are defined by a single work but that work is a true magnum opus. They never again replicate the sheer tremor of these works but they do not have to. The deed is done; they have imprinted their names in the annals of literary history.

In the case of Robert Pirsig, that work is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (henceforth, Zen, first published in 1974 ). This narrative has been available in Malaysian bookshops since my own childhood, as I remember.  However, it was only in the early 90s when I picked up my first copy. It was after my SRP and the bookshop was the MPH in Section 14 which has long since closed down.

It was in the New Age/spirituality/philosophy section and I needed something completely different from the boring schoolwork I had been ingesting since the beginning of 1991.

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Zen was not about actual Zen (the Buddhist originated tradition), as I found out on the bus home. Rather it was about a journey undertaken across the American north from Minnesota to California by the unnamed narrator and his son, accompanied by their friends for the first half of their journey.

It was set in the 60s or early 70s. What attracted me to it at first was the journey itself. I loved narratives of long-forgotten places. America, being the gigantic nation that it is, has plenty of places which are unknown even to Americans themselves.

One could liken the geography and culture to the milieu found in Annie Proulx’s works and the visuals akin to the film Brokeback Mountain. Of course, the tagline of Zen being “An Inquiry into Values”, one would rightly expect a philosophical discussion.

One would not be disappointed either but Pirsig delivers it so surreptitiously that readers would feel as if they had “gone under” in surgery and woken up with some philosophical knowledge!

Pirsig ingeniously used the literary device of a third person, thought to be the alter ego of the narrator. He named him Phaedrus who, like the Phaedrus coined by Plato in his dialogues, was an interlocutor, midwifing the truth for readers through his own experiences.

Phaedrus had mental health issues like Pirsig himself but was a child prodigy. These similarities are obviously telling us who Phaedrus represents.

Rereading this book in 2014 (I had found a milestone edition with an introduction by Pirsig himself), I found that Pirsig may have oversimplified philosophy just a little.  His East/West dichotomy saying Eastern is more intuitive and the West more rational had become too simplistic for my liking. Perhaps if he meant dominant trends in each tradition, I would have been more amenable to his view.

To me, philosophy as a subject cannot be extricated into several self-containing traditions. Rather it is a complex network of ideas which feed off its own nodes which we may not even be aware of.  Plato, for example, may have derived his ideas from Egyptian thought, thus undermining the very idea of Western philosophy!

Be that as it may, I would still highly recommend Zen to anyone who is looking for a digestible story while at the same time expand his philosophical mind. The book has, after all, sold five million copies. No small feat for a manuscript rejected 121 times before finally getting published!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/farouk-a.-peru/article/why-you-should-read-zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance#sthash.5FDvKLu7.dpuf

The Paradoxes of Power–On Being Brutally Frank


June 7, 2017

The Paradoxes of Power–On Being Brutally Frank

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

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Having struggled against what Winston Churchill famously deplored as the ‘black dog’ of depression through most of my life, I’d kind of hoped to have it trained or even totally tamed by now.

But as I head into old age, I find it’s hounding me more relentlessly than ever. So relentlessly, in fact, as to threaten to rob me of the very weapon I’ve long relied on as my last-ditch defence against its deadly aggression, writing.

Thank goodness, however, the thought of being both mentally and verbally dumbstruck by depression paradoxically strikes me as just too depressingly disempowering for words.

Especially in light of my recent realisation in the course of university studies I’ve embarked on as an adjunct to writing in my counter-attack against terminal depression, that so much remains to be thought and written about power in its every manifestation from the multifarious and mostly still mysterious forces that drive and/or comprise the entire universe, to the combination of physical, mental and verbal powers that make us humans the most powerful of all currently-known animals.

Except, of course, for all those ‘lesser’ creatures with the power to either keep us alive, like the ‘good’ micro-organisms in our digestive systems do, or else, as in the cases of so many viruses and virtually countless other so called ‘germs’, to kill us off in great numbers.

In short, the human race is paradoxically both the most powerful living force on Earth, and powerless to exist without lots of apparently less-powerful animals, not to mention without continuing supplies of the planet’s vegetables, minerals,drinkable water and breathable air.

A situation that seems to me well within most people’s intellectual powers to appreciate and act on. But unfortunately the power of the human mind is paradoxical to such an extreme degree as to be little if anything short of pathological, as demonstrated by our numerous environmental, economic and political atrocities.

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Knowledge may well be power, as Francis Bacon declared, but the first false lesson that most of us learn, in our ignorant, impotent infancy, is that our very helplessness or total lack of power paradoxically makes us all-powerful in our demands on those around us.

And though life rudely disabuses us of this illusion by the time we’ve achieved the power to walk and talk, we’re so enraged by the realisation that we’re not, after all, all-powerful, that we throw tantrums characteristic of the stage commonly known as the ‘terrible twos’.

Next thing we know, the process called ‘education’ apparently imbuing us with the alleged power of knowledge, but at the same time disempowering us in our ability to distinguish mathematics-style fact from historical and other versions of opinion or outright fantasy like religion, all the while subjecting us to a regime of discipline designed to turn us into just-powerful- enough-to- be-useful citizens, or what French intellectual-academic Michel Foucault (1926-84) called ‘docile bodies’.

Docile bodies are, of course, precisely the kind of workers, consumers and subjects most desired by exploitative economic so-called elites and repressive, self-serving political regimes.

And thus, for those of us aspiring to sufficient power to live our lives to their full potential, it’s vital to be able to perceive the power dynamics of our society if we’re not to become passive victims of it.

For this reason I’m a great fan of Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), the renowned French sociologist, anthropologist and educationalist who investigated the possibility for people to grow outward and upward from their ‘habitus’ (environment of birth and upbringing) through the achievement of a share of not just economic, but also social, cultural and other forms of ‘capital’, a term he equated with power.

And even more helpful, at least to me, are the various forms or vectors of power that Proctor (2002), Cattaneo 2010) and others have identified as indicators of the dynamics of power in any given situation.

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In Malaysia, for example, it’s abundantly clear that the UMNO-BN regime perceives itself as having ‘power over’ rather than, as it piously pretends, ‘power with’ the people. In fact it plainly has ‘power for’ its own members, cronies and supporters.

And that it shamelessly employs its ‘historic power’ (which in UMNO-BN’s case includes the power to rewrite history in its favour), and not only its ‘role power’ (witness its obsession with grandiose titles and ‘honours’), but also its ‘religious power’.

Though frankly this last is a debatable blessing, as the persistent claims by current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his Deputy that they’ve been chosen by Allah could be interpreted as either chosen to lead the people or sent as a curse to mislead and bleed them.

But in any event, in their determination to cling to their ‘power over’ the people, they leave no stone unturned in their efforts to strictly limit Malaysians’ ‘freedom to’ oppose, criticize or achieve legal protection against or redress from them, and ‘freedom from’ repressive laws and constant surveillance.

All of which goes to explain that obviously one of the reasons I’m feeling more depressed than usual right now is that I’m still failing to help rid Malaysia of these crooks despite writing almost 500 columns over the past 11 years, or in other words doing everything within my power to do so.

And besides the disempowerment of disappointment, there’s also  the fact that advancing age is inevitably robbing me of muscle-power, staying-power and every other kind of power you can think of, except, I fondly if possibly mistakenly hope, brain-power.

Unlike the ancient Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who, though he still appears both mentally and physically hale and hearty, seems to have progressed, or rather regressed all the way through his second childhood back to his second bout of infancy, complete with its paradoxical illusion of omnipotence.

Meanwhile Mahathir’s and my relative junior, Najib, is still fighting hard to stave-off the ultimate power paradox proposed by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), the so-called Master-Slave Dialectic.

In many peoples’ opinion, Najib turned from his own Master to Rosmah’s Slave long ago. And soon, if only the US Department of Justice would get its act together, we all look forward to his dialectic or even electoral transformation from high-flyer to felon.