America, Bad Journalism, Fake News, India, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP

On Hasan Minhaj’s Episode on Indian Elections: The Dangerous Techniques of Narrative Building

This is the third post in a short series on the portrayal of facts and events in a Patriot Act episode hosted by Hasan Minhaj. Read the first post here and the second post here

At the crux of the episode is the explicit intent to build a narrative. WHAT the narrative is has already been established by this point. (Trust me the episode has absolutely no ‘outsider’ view in it. It is just the same exact things peddled by the Indian media). He then uses 3 specific techniques to achieve this narrative building exercise.

  1. The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
  2. Reductionism
  3. Guilt by association

The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

This was covered in the previous post in more detail. In essence, this is what happens when the spotlight is put on a select few aspects of a situation and the audience’s understanding of the situation is thus limited to just what is shown in the spotlight. HM does this throughout the episode. He uses selective facts, quotes and events to support his narrative throughout the episode. But what makes these even more dangerous is when they are used without context. Devoid of context, any fact, quote or event can be made to fit any narrative. And that is what HM does in this episode. The audience is not necessarily aware of the background of each statement he is making, which makes his job that much easier. Those that do know the background, however, recognize the flawed arguments he is making.

Reductionism

This technique is perhaps the more significant one because it is extremely effective in propagating the narrative and to keep it moving in the episode. At its core, Reductionism consists of distilling a very complex, nuanced situation into a very specific and narrow point of view. The situation under consideration may have had a long history with multiple points of view and millions of people involved. But using Reductionism, one can boil all that down to something specific of their own choosing – something that suits their objective. Reductive statements are true in the most extreme of the cases but almost always end up hiding all the underlying nuances and complexities that constitute the situation at hand. HM uses this technique extensively in this episode. Let me give you a rundown of how he has done this:

  • The entire BJP is reduced to a ‘Hindu Nationalistic Party’ under whose rule violence against minorities has increased. (Can someone please define what this HNP actually is supposed to stand for and what is actually being done?)
  • The entire Congress party is reduced to Sashi Tharoor and a passing mention of scams that took place 10 years ago!!! (Should I be overjoyed that Rahul Gandhi was referred to as Pappu for exactly 1 second?)
  • The BJP’s entire 2014 campaign reduced to ‘India First’. (I honestly hadn’t heard Modi say ‘India First’ till I saw this episode)
  • The entire Indian political system is reduced to the claim that “Every single politician has some sort of connection to either a murder charge or a killing” (Wow! Just wow! Way to portray India as a completely corrupt third world country)
  • The entire Pulwama attacks and the subsequent military response is reduced to it being a vehicle of election campaigning and as a joke on ‘Eco-Terrorism’. (This one hurts the most)
  • The entire RSS organization is reduced to it being termed militaristic and showing dad-bod RSS workers playing with their sticks. (Showing RSS workers – seemingly lacking in fitness – playing with sticks, and calling them a ‘militaristic organization’ at the same time is somehow supposed to make sense?)
  • Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adithyanath is reduced to being called ‘a monk with a gun’ and for changing street names. (Yes because of course nobody had changed the names of those places once before from what they originally were, right?)
  • The decades old Assam Accord and the National Register of Citizens’ exercise to implement a Supreme Court order is reduced to ‘the largest voter disenfranchisement in recorded history’. (Yes maybe mention that those 4 million people include both Hindus and Muslims, and is based on a law passed back in the early 80’s by a certain Rajiv Gandhi?)

These are very potent statements to make – especially when you are being selective and are not providing any context. Reductionism can take any event, person or situation in history and simply portray it to stand for something – anything – that you want it to stand for. It is extremely dangerous when selective events are highlighted and only one perspective is propagated – thereby negating all evidence to the contrary. And that is exactly what HM has done here.

Guilt by Association

The final technique that Hasan Minhaj has used to achieve his objectives is guilt by association. This technique actually plays at a subtle level – because HM doesn’t explicitly STATE the existence of the connection he is making. But once he does connect one person or idea to another, the audience has already linked the two permanently – at a sub-conscious level. For instance, if there is a reference personality that most people are already familiar with, it is easy to simply link a very specific aspect or two between any given person and that reference personality with the ultimate implication being that the two are the same and share the same values. Like I said, the fact that the host is making the connection is never explicitly stated – which is why this plays at a subtle level making it that much more dangerous.

Let us see how he has used this technique in the episode:

  • HM shows a short compilation of Modi saying ‘India First’ (without context obviously). He says explicitly that this ‘India First’ quote is how Modi’s entire campaign can be best summed up in. (Seriously? I promise I had never heard Modi say ‘India First’ prior to this episode). Why? Because then he can directly connect Modi with the most hated man in the world right now – Donald Trump who ran on an ‘America First’ platform. (Yes, I know. What a profound and valid connection this is, right?)
  • And so, just like that, Hasan Minhaj reduced Modi to the same level as the world’s most hated man by simply connecting him with Trump – using the flimsiest of connections nonetheless. (But the people watching it don’t realize it do they? They have just been told that the Indian Prime Minister is another Trump)
  • He then says “Saying that Modi is like Trump would simply be reductive” – right after doing exactly that! Ah the audacity to pull that off!
  • Modi is then shown for his tendency to hug other world leaders – yes all world leaders. But who do you think HM shows Modi hugging? Yes you got it right – more of the most hated in the world in Putin, Erdogan, MBS and even Zuckerberg. Well it’s not like he has ever hugged someone like Obama, Tredeau, Macron, Abe, Pena Nieto ….. oh wait he has. Our illustrious host just chose not to use those pictures because, you know, that would mean showing Modi with all the right people. one-hug-at-a-time-pm-narendra-modis-taking-over-the-world-with-his-embrace
  • And then the clincher is when he makes the connection between Modi to the most hated figure of all time – Hitler. Because of course he had to find a way to do it, right? That would seal the deal in the audience’s subconscious opinions about him. Oh but how does he do it you ask? Well, let me explain:
    • He starts with Modi as running a ‘Hindu Nationalistic Party’ – whatever that means.
    • Then he goes on to connect Modi with the RSS which Modi credits for giving him his discipline and hard work. (This is the truth)
    • Then he goes on to declare the RSS primarily relies on MS Gowalkar’s A Bunch of Thoughts. He also states that the RSS has recently disavowed parts of that book. (Which it has – quite explicitly, with full explanation and context).
    • But then our host anyway goes ahead and calls the book ‘Mein Kampfy’ (by showcasing exactly 12 words nonetheless)!
  • And there you have it – the connection from Modi to Hitler.

Connecting Modi to the most hated people on this planet even with the most flimsy of ways is still a dangerous thing. This is because all this plays out at a subconscious level without the people watching it actually being aware of its effects on them.

You might say that I shouldn’t read too much into these small so-called connections, and that all this is just comedy. But that approach is not only naive, it is positively dangerous. A narrative is a narrative – regardless of who builds it, who propagates it or who consumes it. And Hasan Minhaj has used every single trick in his bag to propagate the same narrative that the Indian media has been throwing up the past 4-5 years. The only difference is that, this time, the audience is different. This time, the audience is the largely ignorant/unaware western population who will happily, without question, nod and agree to whatever it is he is saying. After all, he is Indian too right? (Well, no. He is not. He is an American – even if he says he is Indian).

This and the last 2 posts may have elaborated on how comedians like Hasan Minhaj utilize many techniques to propagate a narrative instead of facts, to unquestioning audiences, and do it all under the guise of comedy. But there is a much larger wheel in motion here. People like Hasan Minhaj are essentially nothing more than a cog in a much larger, well oiled machine that sets these narratives and ensures that it is the only narrative that is consumed by the masses. It would be incomplete and incorrect to simply look at what Hasan Minhaj did, point out all the flaws in his actions, and not look beyond.

In the next post, we will look at what this bigger machine consists of and why it works so well. And no, it is not some conspiracy theory. <Insert Rolling Eyes Emoji>

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America, Religion, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

On Radical Islamic Terrorism

I have typically refrained from writing on religious matters of the terrorism kind. But I write this a day after the Orlando shootings – and I am doing this because I am truly shaken. The tragedy has made me question my own values and the way I see this world and the specific groups of people in it. I have had conflicting ideas and opinions surface in my mind ever since I woke up to the headline yesterday morning. And this post is my effort to sort through it, try to make some sense out of it, and to arrive at an acceptable understanding of the world around me that will not be in conflict with my core values.

Terrorism inspired by religion has become the most visible and tangible threat to the safety of people all over the world. The validation that is provided by religion to carry out the most heinous of attacks cannot be obtained anywhere else. That being said, there is pretty much just one religion that seems to inspire and validate these terrorist acts – Islam. Islamic terrorism has cut through all geographies and boundaries imaginable. There are no safe havens or out of reach places any more. And yes, please, let us just call it for what it is – Radical Islamic terrorism. There is no shame in saying that, and it is completely politically correct. (Disclaimer: I am not a Trump supporter and I will be completely OK if he suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed tomorrow).

When most, if not all, of the terrorist acts on this planet are inspired by one religion, not acknowledging it and calling it out by name is like saying America does not have a gun problem. Saying that all Muslims in America are peace loving people who are true patriots of the USA and do not have any inclinations towards radicalism is like saying all gun owners are responsible and law abiding citizens who only use their guns for self-defense and hunting. Yes it is true that most Muslims living in America are peace loving people who embrace American values of tolerance and hard work, just like most of the gun owners in America are law abiding citizens who take pride in their guns for the right reasons and emphasize safety and responsibility while using them. But there is always going to be a small percentage of Muslims who get exposed to/seek out and practice extremist points of view, just like there are plenty of nut jobs with huge arsenals of guns because they believe the government is coming to kill them and take away their guns. Just like these paranoid nut jobs who listen to more popular idiots like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck for their daily dose of paranoia, there are Muslims who seek out extremist preaching – either online or through specific mosques – to feed their radical purpose in life. And just like we have the NRA who ensure that sufficient money and influence is maintained in the Congress to prevent any meaningful gun control – thereby implicitly increasing the number of lunatics with guns, there are terrorist organizations all over the world – and radical mosques within the US – who wield enough power, money, freedom and influence to continue spreading fear all over the world.

You don’t have to be a conservative or a liberal to see the above situation for what it is. It is just common sense and is based on simple facts. It is also very unfortunate and a lose/lose situation for all concerned. The inevitable presence of a small percentage of extremists in either camp can and will have everyone who are not part of the group to become apprehensive – or downright fearful – of everyone in it.

It is a loss for the innocent, peace-loving and responsible people in the group because they are prone to be looked upon as ‘one of them’ and are likely to face all the associated ridicule and social stigma that comes with it. It is a loss for an extremist because that is still a life that could have led to something constructive and beautiful. And finally, it is a loss for the general public not just whenever there is a tragedy, but to also have to live a daily lifestyle with fear and conflicting points of view on their own values of tolerance and security.

So calling it ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ is both politically correct, and still secular. It is also common sense. In fact, calling it as such explicitly points out that it is the people who subscribe to the radical portion of Islam – and not all of them – that are the harbingers of such tragedy.

The Orlando shootings have, to no one’s surprise, drawn strong messages from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And what should still be of no surprise is that while Trump used it as an opportunity to call for tougher immigration measures, Clinton used it to further her message on gun control. Both points of view are necessary, and are actually not at all in conflict with each other. To say that the problem and associated solution relates to just one of them is not only obviously incomplete, but also dangerously wrong.

We live in a world where fear is the most precious asset for someone looking to gain power. One more such a tragedy before the elections, and I will be willing to bet on a Trump presidency. The rhetoric is easy and fear feeds fear. But that is not the solution. On the other hand, advocating caution, inaction and to say that we need to treat every Muslim, including those who are radicalized, with love and respect and tolerance – regardless of their explicit intent to kill innocent people – is not only naïve, but also just plain dumb and idiotic. There is a part of the solution that involves force, and it has to be used, and I definitely hope it is indeed used. There is also a part of the solution that involves peace. But the peaceful part of the solution has to come from within the Muslim community by making their collective voices of peace heard all around the world – not just when tragedy strikes, but as an every day message that reminds all fellow Muslims of the dangers of going on the wayward path. If the Muslim friends I have known throughout my life are any indication, there is no shortage of messages of love and peace to spread throughout the world of Islam by those who practice it sincerely.

But I am still waiting for it to happen. And for all our sakes, I hope it does.

America, Serious Writing, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

Dear America, Let’s Talk About LEGAL Immigration

Dear America,

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

I’m an Englishman in New York

That was Sting singing in 1987. This is not 1987, this is 2015. I am not Sting. I am not even an Englishman, and I may not even be living in New York, but I am one of the many many aliens – more specifically, I am a ‘legal alien’- that moved to and currently live in this country. Rest assured, I do not come from a different planet with the objective of taking away your natural resources and destroying mankind. On the other hand, I am just another human being (of the homo sapien variety) who came to this land from half way around the planet about 6 years ago. (It is not me who is saying I am an alien. It is the US Government who says so and who reminds me of it every time I fill in some paperwork.)

No Not this Alien.

My story is like the many many stories you have heard over the past decades and centuries. It is the story of people coming here in search of a quality higher education and in search of a better, more liberal lifestyle than their home country. In the six years I have been here, I have had a great number of memorable experiences and befriended a large number of wonderful people. Everyone of them have been nothing short of being super nice to me. I have lived a lifestyle I never knew I could ever afford. And notwithstanding the sacrifices I have had to make in choosing to remain here, I can confidently state that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in the United States, taking in everything this country has to offer.

And all along the way, I have vastly contributed to you by working on the design of a number of highways and bridges critical to your infrastructure. I have paid my fair share (about 35% of my income) on taxes and have been a law abiding person (or alien, if you so prefer). I have supported and continue to support a lot of global and local businesses (including the neighborhood dive bar) with all the money I spend.

I am repeatedly told that I have a lot of great opportunities for me to pursue in my career in this country. I am told there are even more opportunities here lying ahead that will help me explore the world and live the lifestyle I have always wanted. And my mind savors the possibility of that future when I can do that. But alas! That is where the fairy tale ends and the nightmare begins.

You see, as far as the Government here is concerned, I am still an alien. I maybe a ‘legal’ alien, but an alien nonetheless. And I am treated as one. I am willing to acknowledge that yes, I am coming from a different country and I need permission from the host to continue my stay. Unfortunately, the issuance of that permission involves the process of transforming from the status of an ‘Alien’ to that of an ‘Immigrant’ or ‘Permanent Resident’. And as you may be aware, this is a general nightmare for all the ‘aliens’.

What is it that you said? You are NOT aware of the nightmare? Oh, my bad! Of course you do not know! That is because nobody ever talks about the ‘legal’ immigrants in this country. I am sure you are fully up to date on the latest proposals to stem the flow of ‘illegal’ immigrants from the southern border with Mexico. Of course you are! All you have to do is switch on the news and you will find all you ever need to know about how the influx of illegal immigrants is creating a national security issue and how it is killing American jobs. You will learn the full gamut of opinions on this matter – from granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants to making them pay fines to deporting the bad ones to deporting all 11 million of them. Of course everyone wants to build a wall of some sort on the US-Mexico border. You know all about that for sure.

So yes, you know all there is to know about ‘illegal’ immigration and all the impacts to the US economy and security that are associated with it. But you have absolutely zero idea about the ‘legal’ immigrants and what we go through. We are the people who sought a legal way to come to this country. You have no idea of all the shit we had to go through to just get a visa to come here and study. And we worked hard every step of the way – always staying (with an abundance of fear) within the legal framework. We came here to not just consume the better life on offer, we also came here to contribute our services and skills. We have worked hard after we came here and we have made a good life out of the opportunities that came our way.

So in a way, we have achieved the American dream – until our visa runs out that is.

You see nobody is paying any attention to us people who seek to migrate to the United States legally and who have all our paperwork in place from the beginning. Did you know that, as a citizen of India, I need to wait for a total of up to 15 years in order for me to get my status changed from ‘Alien’ to ‘Permanent Resident’? Did you know that right now 2 out of every 3 applications for a highly skilled immigrant visa are being denied? Did you know that you can come to this country, get a Master’s or PhD degree in one of the top universities here, get a job requiring a very specific skill set, be a top performer at the job, and then just have to leave all of it within a year just because you happened to be among those who did not get their visa approved? Do you even know that the highly skilled work visas are granted on the basis of a lottery? Yes. Absolute chance. No merit. Do you know that during the Clinton years, the H1B visas (highly skilled workers) was hiked to 4 times what it is now? And did you know that the number of Green Cards issued annually stayed the same, creating a massive massive backlog (of 10 years) for people who have been waiting in the ‘legal’ line?

Of course you have no idea about all this. Why would you? Why would the media care about this? They don’t see any immediate detrimental impact to the society. It is much easier for them to stick with the ‘They took our jobs!’ narrative instead. Our work here is not measured on our contribution to the society and economy. It is measured in terms of number of American jobs lost. Never mind that the special STEM related skill sets that many of us ‘legal’ immigrants bring with us is something that this country sorely needs to sustain itself. Also never mind that that demand is impossible to be met from just domestic supply. None of this matters to the media who are only focused on exposing the ‘plight of hard working Americans whose jobs are being taken away by immigrants!’ How dare we provide the skills and services this country so badly lacks? And how dare we demand that we be given due recognition for our work by granting us permanent residency?

What about the politicians you ask? Well, what about them? Barely anyone has made any noise. This is a low risk low reward issue for all politicians. Can they do anything? Of course they can. They can do a number of things that can easily fix this mess that is the legal immigration system. But they just don’t. And because they haven’t done anything worth while for decades together, guess what? The system has been ripe for abuse!

Oh the irony.

The incentive to come to this country is so great for a lot of people that you inevitably have people who game the system, find its loopholes, and willfully exploit them for their own benefit. Oh and there are a whole bunch of them. Did you know that you can have one single person apply for a visa through up to 6 different companies? That is 6 different applications for the same person, in case you didn’t figure out. Way to increase your odds, right? Or what about those people who come en masse to the US to attend a makeshift/fake university for the sole purpose of becoming eligible for a work visa application? Did you know that these pseudo degree holders stand the same chance of getting approved for the visa as a legal immigrant who is a PhD holder from MIT? Did you know that each country has a fixed quota for allotment of green cards every year? On what is it based, you ask? Well, here is what it is NOT based on: Merit. I come from a country that currently has a back log of about 10 years. That is 10 years after you file the application, which usually happens 2-4 years after you start working, which in turn happens after I have finished my 2-5 year schooling. I will let you add up the numbers for shock value. So what is it based on? Again, the answer is not merit. Many many times, a person (or alien) who doesn’t necessarily have any significant skill set to contribute to the society stands to get his/her Green Card within a matter of months just because of their specific nationality. Is this fair? Is this helping this country? And guess whose low paying jobs these unskilled Green Card holders are taking away?

So yes, the politicians and the media have neglected the legal immigration system long enough to enable its long running abuse. You know the disappointing part? It is easy to fix. It is infinitely easier to fix than the ‘illegal immigration’ problem that everyone ‘wants’ to fix. But nobody is talking about it. Actually, I take that back. I did go through all the 2016 Presidential candidates’ stance on the issue of immigrants. Most of them didn’t have one – legal or illegal. Some had the usual rhetoric about building a wall and securing the borders. But there were two candidates who actually gave specifics on the issue of ‘legal’ immigration. Both said the same exact thing. They spoke about raising the minimum prevailing wage for the positions that call for immigrant workers. This is definitely a step in the right direction to address the abuse of the system. But it is no way sufficient. More needs to be done to bring awareness around this issue and to call for Congress to pass laws that will reform the system for those who wish to migrate to this country legally and contribute to its growth and culture.

Oh you ask who those two candidates are? One is Bernie Sanders and the other is Donald Trump. Yes, a Democratic Socialist and an arrogant Buffoon are the only two people who have even got some kind of an idea about what needs to be done to bring workers into this country legally. (Not sure what that says about this country’s politicians, but that is another story for another day).

So my dear America, yes this is the state I and thousands of others like me find ourselves in. We have a highly specialized skill set that this country badly needs. We all achieve and live the American dream until our visa runs out. But our contribution is always measured in terms of the number of American jobs lost. We are subject to being the victims of people who abuse the system we are trying to respect – a system that has been neglected for far too long. We go out of the way to ensure that we live here ‘legally’, yet no one is paying attention to our needs. All the while when the whole country is looking to find a ‘solution’ to those who come here ‘illegally’.

Yes, we know that is necessary as well. But please, do not pretend that we don’t exist. We do, and we are only trying to contribute. So please pay us some attention and in the process, help us help you grow?

Yours Truly,

A Legal Alien