The Arrogance of The Elite

Back in 2016, prior to the US elections, I listened to a US radio show where a truck driver had called in to share his confidence that Trump would win based on how many more Trump yard signs he saw across America compared to Clinton. I remember laughing at his ‘insights’ and conclusions – being pretty smug myself on all the probabilistic election forecasting & commentary that I was following on Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com. At that time, I considered myself ‘well-informed’ and took pride in having some knowledge about the many issues being faced by Americans – mostly by reading the newspapers and watching cable news. Suffice to say, I had to re-examine my own standing in short order. 

Four years on, what we have seen is an unprecedented and shocking amount of negative reporting, criticism and hate – a lot of it justified, some not – on Trump the person, on the people in his administration, and maybe some on their policies. But, during the same time, what we have seen very little of commentary or reporting on, are the perspectives of everyday people from different backgrounds – emphasis on ‘different backgrounds’. 

The media’s dedication has always been to Trump (positive or negative) – never the people who voted him in. The only times they do cover the people who voted Trump in are while associating him with far-right extremists – usually of the white supremacists kind. 

Actually, we have to go one step further, so let’s try this again. 

The media’s dedication is to Trump – never the people who voted (or not). Period. 

The people who control the news and make editorial decisions are increasingly far removed from the everyday, regular people in the country – especially those they do not personally see or interact with regularly. These media elites are typically based in big cities, have an office in the downtown area, and work/hang out with other media elites. They discuss the issues in the country with other media elites and develop an opinion about it  – without ever actually having personally interacted with the people impacted. They decide that their own perspectives are the ones that the people of the country need to hear and proceed to publish or broadcast those news stories or opinion pieces. Other media elites read it and the cycle continues.

And somehow, amidst all this, no one seems to ask if the opinions of these elites are actually representative of the people on the ground. The answer to that is ‘very rarely’. But never underestimate the everyday person, because they DO see their problems not reflected – or worse, actively dismissed – in what the media elites have to say. And these people do vote – especially to a candidate who is giving voice to their problems, however rhetorical it may seem.

This ever-increasing gulf between what regular, everyday people ask for, and what is actually covered in the media is one of the reasons why Trump got elected in the first place. The media did do a brief introspection on that aspect – but never really acted on them. On the contrary, they doubled down and went on a rampage against one man – while completely ignoring the realities and issues of the people on the ground.

And that is why the media’s obsession with Trump is toxic. It is because what matters is not just what they choose to focus on – but also who they ignore, and who they (incorrectly) claim to speak for. The former is what we all SEE, the latter are only seen when their ABSENCE is highlighted. 

There are a thousand different reasons why Trump doesn’t deserve to be President, and almost none of them have to do with the media’s hit jobs on him. Joe Biden may well make an infinitely better President than Trump. But then, the elites in the media would still only be talking about Trump and Biden – and no one would be discussing the issues of the everyday American.

The arrogance of the elite and their categorical conviction of knowing what is right for the masses may well be what dooms America to 4 more years of someone clearly unfit to hold the office of the President of the US. This makes me almost – almost – WANT to see Trump being re-elected, just so I can witness the media elites implode and self-destruct once and for all. 

Five Lessons for the Modi Government from the Citizenship Amendment Act Protests

Note: Personally, I find great satisfaction from being able to legitimately criticize something that I otherwise generally support and agree with. It comes from the basic understanding that no one is obligated to support and agree with everything that anyone says or does. And so, this is me openly criticizing the Modi Government over the way the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was brought about (and NOT its contents).

I write this post with the obvious acknowledgment that the narrative on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is firmly set against it – both domestic and foreign. The media is critical of it, there are large scale protests spread across the country, misinformation and incorrect perceptions have taken the place of facts, and the Government has largely no control over any of it.

So instead of talking about the merits of the CAA, I will here talk about the lessons that the Modi Government can and should learn from this debacle (yes that is what it is). These lessons are applicable to any legislation and to any Government anywhere – past and future. And it is certainly relevant in the present case. So here goes a (clearly non-exhaustive) list of lessons that the Modi Government should learn from the CAA protests:

1. Acknowledge the radical nature of the legislation:

The Citizenship Amendment Bill set out to right a historic wrong going back all the way to the partition of India. Even though quite narrow in scope, the intent of the bill can easily be perceived to be quite radical. This is especially true when viewed through the prism of similar historical legislation and the absence of any kind of precedence to it. So yes, anytime there is a radical change proposed, there are always bound to be protests – regardless of its ultimate intent or effect. This acknowledgment is necessary to push the Government to take proactive steps to clarify and inform the public about the legislation. The other two radical changes brought about by this Government – Demonetization and rescinding of Article 370 – were understandably kept secret till their execution. But the protests following them should have been indicative of what to expect with the CAA.

2. Anticipate the reaction of radical elements in the country:

The acknowledgment of their presence is already there. But it should also include the anticipation of their reactions to the proposed radical changes. By radical elements, I am referring to those in the country (and abroad) whose objectives are to simply create chaos, promote divisions, propagate hate, incite and carry out violent acts, etc. These people do exist and include those in certain political parties, media houses, university student bodies, extremist groups, terrorist cells, etc. These people hold the power on various platforms and to various degrees to create legitimate unrest and violence across the country without having any of it attributed back to them. It is important to acknowledge their power and address it directly and in a proactive manner.

3. Media Outreach is Necessary:

This Government’s piss poor record of outreach to the media – domestic and foreign – is quite evident in the critical narratives propagated by every single media outlet not named Republic TV or Times Now. With no regular media briefing since its first day in office back in 2014 and practically no 1 v 1 interviews off the campaign trail, the various media houses have no incentive or desire to scale back on their pre-determined narratives critical of every single thing this Government does or stands for.

The fact that so much of the media fraternity all over the world is low level scum is irrelevant to the basic acknowledgment of the massive power they wield. It is therefore in the Government’s interest to keep these people in the loop and have an open and direct interaction with them on a regular basis. This Modi Government needs to look no further than its own backyard – the RSS – to understand how it has strikingly increased its outreach efforts to involve the entire world media. Simple fact is this: If you don’t set the narrative, they will.

4. The responsibility of explaining and justifying any legislation is on the Government, not its supporters:

Expecting support for a legislation as a matter of general principle just because it was in the party’s election manifesto is extremely idiotic and naive. It is the Govt’s responsibility to actively seek support for a legislation not just in the houses of the Parliament, but in the court of public opinion as well. This Government’s complete absence of efforts to educate the general public on the CAB through various platforms reeks of arrogance and a cocksure attitude probably stemming from the successful Article 370 rescission.

In its absence, its supporters pick up the Govt’s slack to educate the public. Nothing constructive ever comes out of leaving the public to educate the public on something the public can easily be divided over. The messaging is never uniform, bias creeps in, talking points are made up on the fly, sound bites and tweets go around as facts, subtlety gets lost in ‘panel discussions’, and the critics will ultimately have a field day ripping all of it apart. This will inevitably lead to misinformation, counter-narratives, and fear mongering.

5. Educate the public on all platforms:

Prior to the legislation being tabled, there should be a coordinated nationwide effort to explain, justify, and address concerns with the proposed legislation. Responding to concerns on the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha floor or explaining the bill in campaign rallies do not count for shit to the public. Having talking heads participate in the cacophony of the ‘Panel Discussion’ is useless at best, and counter-productive at worst.

Govt representatives (including the PM and HM) must give 1 v 1 interviews with ALL news channels and newspapers – including and especially those that are critical of them. Create fact sheets and FAQs, publicize them on all Social media platforms and WhatsApp. Actively seek and respond to questions and concerns and update the fact sheets accordingly. Have local MLAs and MPs give interviews to local TV channels and newspapers explaining what the bill does. Have open dialogues with representatives of those groups that perceive a danger from the bill. These are acts that minimize the scope for misinformation to spread and radical elements to cause chaos. These are also what builds consensus among the general public.

However, these are also things that will unfortunately never see the light of the day with an arrogant Government, or without the acknowledgment of the radical nature of the proposed change.

____________________________________________

When it comes to protests, the best way to address them is by their prevention. Once protests start, there is absolutely no control over how they can proceed and/or spread. And when they inevitably result in violence, the response from the state and police will ALWAYS be what is highlighted, emphasized, and criticized. All the acts of damage by the protesters will be completely irrelevant to the acts of police overreach that has historically been inevitable in a country like India – especially when containing a violent protest.

But to prevent the protests, it is the Government’s responsibility to acknowledge the nature of the proposed change, acknowledge what the radical elements in society can do, reach out to the media in good faith, actively explain the bill to the general public on all relevant platforms, and get their feedback.

Bringing about a change in a country as diverse as India does not begin and end with getting some 450 people to vote a certain way. It begins with the general public, goes through the 800+ people who vote in the Parliament, and then ends with the general public. It is time the Modi Government learn these lessons for its own sake, and if it seeks to fulfill many more of its promises from the manifesto without having to handle nation-wide protests.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 5: A Matter of Dignity & Integrity

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

This has been a long series of posts but please bear with me while I offer some final thoughts.

In the history of mankind, human beings have acted on something only after things got sufficiently bad. The inertia is so big that taking proactive measures is just not wired into our brains – or into all our institutions. It is certainly very true in my case and of those in similar situations. Though it might look proactive to some, we made the decision to move to Canada only after we went through sufficient hardships.

It would also be incorrect to simply point the blame at the Trump administration for making people like myself leave. What this administration has done is to simply take an already bad situation just beyond the tipping point. They took that narrow path of survival and made it more and more narrow – to a point where people like myself were forced to re-evaluate our lives and make the decision to leave out of our own choice.  And make no mistake, there are thousands of people like us in the US who are in the process of moving to Canada – unable to bear the burden of the long green card wait time. Every Indian I speak to who is in the same position I was, has either stated their intent to migrate to Canada or is already in the process of doing so. Some of our friends even made the move with us. Immigration status seems to be the default topic of discussion in any conversation between Indians living in the US.

Everyone is concerned for various reasons and yet there are many, many people who are seemingly content with where they are. There are even more who are not even in the US yet, but are looking forward to making a life there in the future without any knowledge of how things work there. With no sarcasm, I wish them all the very best and hope they find what they want.

As for Devanshi and I, we have landed on our feet after our move. After an initial struggle to find a job, she is now working and we are both finally living the lifestyle and routine we have been wanting to since our wedding. As much as that is satisfying, it would be incorrect to reduce our entire new lives in Canada to finding jobs and living together.

Fact is, this is the first time in almost a decade that we are not living on a temporary visa in a foreign country. In fact, it took several months for that to sink in. And truth be told, there is a certain sense of dignity and integrity that comes with being a permanent resident (and especially in not being classified as an ‘Alien’). This is something that can be truly appreciated only by those who have lived an extended period on a temporary visa in a foreign country. People who move to a new country and get their PR status within a short period of time (or beforehand) can easily take the associated privileges for granted – seeming like it was always meant to be. But it is only people like us – who have been made to struggle to find a sense of belonging, a place that lets us be who we want to be, and a place we can proudly call our new home – that can fully acknowledge and appreciate this paradigm shift in our circumstances.

Yes we could have tried to make it in the USA in some capacity if we really wanted to and if we had tried real hard. But ultimately, that just boiled down to us surviving. And we wanted to do a lot more than just surviving – we wanted to LIVE, and we wanted to live with dignity and to our fullest abilities with no shackles and no fear. And that is why we are very happy with our move to Canada and starting a new chapter in our lives.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 4: The Power of Complacency

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

In the previous post, we discussed the issues of living with fear and a lack of freedom in the US. Here, let us see what it is that keeps us here.

So, to repeat the question: If things are so bad living in a Green card backlog, how come there are still so many people willing to live under these circumstances?

The answer to that lies in the fact that, in spite of all the issues I have highlighted, there still remains a path to be in the US legally, work, grow professionally, and lead a good lifestyle WHILE waiting decades for your green card. Make no mistake, the path is definitely a narrow one, is getting more narrow every passing week, and it can terminate at any point – but it exists nonetheless. And therein lies the true answer to why so many of us still continue to live here in spite of all these constraints. In one word, the answer is COMPLACENCY.

We Indians are a truly complacent bunch. If things are going fine now, we are more than happy to simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is going to be just fine and dandy in the future as well. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we look the other way and sometimes truly believe that nothing is going to happen to us.

It might happen to others because others may have broken the rules somehow, but it would never happen to us because we have done everything by the book.

Not only are we complacent, we are also timid and naïve. Most of us live our lives truly believing ‘someone else’ is going to ‘do something about it’. It is actually mind-blowing to see most Indians blindly seek and follow the advice of the very people who have all the incentives to exploit them for their own selfish benefit (think lawyers, employers). Couple this naivete with the complacency, and you have a deadly recipe for exploiting an obliging workforce.

(I am happy to admit that, in the past several weeks, there is a noticeable uptick in the Indian involvement in demanding change and justice against this discrimination. But it is still a very small fraction of the total populace.)

Fact is I was no different until 2-3 years ago when I finally came out of the bubble after the 2016 election. The anti-immigrant rhetoric finally made me pause and ask myself some hard questions about where I was, what I wanted, what I could get and what I could lose in the future. By that time, I was also married and had to think of the wife’s freedoms as well. I came out of my complacency, but I was still in the same situation.

(That was when I joined Immigration Voice, a grassroots advocacy group, and started making my voice heard with the lawmakers. I learnt a lot about how the system works, how to bring about change, and the root cause of all the issues. Over the course of the next 2 years, I did my fair share of advocacy to get this issue fixed. To this day, that has been the best learning experience I have ever had. But that deserves a separate post in itself)

It started with my own concerns on if I would face any issues with my visa renewals. The administration was issuing new rules to process visa applications introducing new constraints on the renewals. I began to hear many cases of visa extensions being rejected for what were previously sure shot cases. I asked myself what I wanted to do 5-10 years down the line. Would I be happy with the roles I would be permitted in my career within the constraints of my green card petition? Or did I want something more? Do I want to live in one single place for the rest of my life or did I want to live in other cities in the future? How much was I willing to risk my career on the unpredictability of my visa extensions every 2-3 years? The answers were obvious.

I wanted more freedom and a life of far lesser fear and uncertainty – not the one I was going to be given if I stayed in the US. When it came to my wife, it was fairly direct. The administration stated explicitly that they intended to revoke the Spouse work permit in the coming year or two. We went from a wait and watch approach initially, to getting frustrated on just waiting for something – anything – to happen, to living with extreme amounts of uncertainty, and to finally realize that we actually didn’t need to and didn’t want to live like this in the first place.

We began to explore options for our move out of the US. We considered Canada, New Zealand and Australia. After deeply researching the immigration processes for each country and our own prospects there, we decided to make the plunge into Canada.  Even after that initial decision, there was still some hesitation on our part though. Perhaps things would get better here – after all we both still had our work permits and were working. The pull of complacency was real and, in hindsight, I feel it almost made us abandon our plans to move. But on that cold December day in southwest Kansas, after a bout of argument, we realized that we both really just wanted to live together. And as long as we were in the US, that was never actually guaranteed.

And THAT was when we made the final decision to not only move to Canada, but to also start acting on it. Act we did, and towards the end of August 2018, we received our permanent residency documents from Canada. I then told my company that I was moving to Canada, following which they offered me a position in their Toronto office. We crossed the border on the 9th of November and moved into our apartment the following week.

In my next and final post, I discuss my situation and the decision-making process with the power of hindsight. I also briefly talk about settling in Canada and what it means to finally be a ‘Permanent Resident’.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 3: (Abundance of) Fear and (Lack of) Freedom

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

In the previous post, I wrote about the specifics of how the legal, employment-based green card system works to discriminate against people from India. Here, I will highlight some of the issues we Indians face in decades long green card back logs.

Personally for Devanshi and I, at the crux of the whole situation, lay two basic ideas – fear and freedom. In our lives, we all want little to none of the former and an abundance of the latter. But the reality for people like us is quite the opposite. We live in the US with an abundance of fear while the freedoms we enjoy are significantly constrained by our immigration status. Let me start with fear.

The fear comes with knowing that if you are let go from your job (for whatever reasons), you literally have a few weeks to find a new employer who will hire you AND incur all the costs associated with the work visa. The fear comes with knowing that your kid who was born in India, and who moved and has lived with you in the US for over a decade, will have to leave the country once they turn 21. The fear comes with the knowledge that every time you apply to extend your visa, you can be denied without reason, forcing you to just simply up and leave this country for good – with all your family. The fear comes with the knowledge that you could be approved for an extension in the US but can still be denied a visa at the consulate in India – again without reason. The fear comes with knowing that you have to put up with your current work environment – however bad it may be – because you are unable to find another employer who will do all the paperwork and pay the fees to sponsor your visa. The fear comes with knowing that your spouse (predominantly women) live every day not knowing if they will lose their work permit – forcing them to stay home and feel worthless. The fear comes with the knowledge that even if you join a new employer who is willing to do the paperwork, your new green card petition from that new employer might still get denied, forcing you to simply up and leave the country for good – with all your family. The fear comes with the knowledge that every other year, your fate rests in the hands of immigration attorneys and their competency (or lack thereof) in filing the right paperwork by the right time. The fear comes with knowing that one small mistake by the immigration attorney can force you to simply up and leave the country with all your family. The fear comes with knowing that one small misdemeanor or felony – regardless of circumstance – pretty much spells the end of your stay in the country for you and your family. The fear lies in the knowledge that if something fatal were to happen to you, your spouse and kids immediately lose their immigration status and are no longer allowed to stay in the country. (Don’t you dare think the last one is an exaggeration).

Moving on to freedom, or lack thereof.

The lack of freedom is on display when you are unable to change jobs – even if you are being harassed or abused in your current job – just because of your visa requirements. The lack of freedom manifests in your inability to even change job descriptions within the same company if your education was not in the same specific field. The lack of freedom is for you to see when you cannot get promoted to a position that is inconsistent with your green card petition. You will know your lack of freedom when a junior foreign worker from a different country surpasses you in seniority just because they got their green card and you haven’t. Your lack of freedom is there to see when you are unable to travel back to India for a funeral because your visa extension application is still pending. The lack of freedom manifests as your inability to register any intellectual property in your name. The lack of freedom manifests as your inability to start and open your own medical practice if you are a doctor. The lack of freedom manifests as your inability to quit your job and start your own business, company or non-profit. Your lack of freedom is on display when you realize you cannot take up another job – in addition to your day job – to make ends meet during emergencies. The lack of freedom manifests as your spouse’s inability to work anywhere if you are not already approved for a green card – forcing them to be a homemaker even if they are highly educated. The lack of freedom lies in your inability to relocate to a different city because your green card petition is tied to your current city. Your lack of freedom lies in not knowing if you will be able to legally drive every other year when your visa extension is in process.

Like I said, an abundance of FEAR and a lack of FREEDOM.

Yes, it is true that anyone impacted by this system typically ‘only’ suffers from a subset of the issues I have outlined above. But the mere acknowledgment of this is sufficient grounds for concern on how the system impacts people like me. So the next logical question that comes up is: If things are so bad, how come there are still so many people willing to live under these circumstances?

In the next post, we will look into what it is that keeps people like us in the US.

Moving from USA to Canada – Part 2: The Broken and Discriminatory Legal Immigration System

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

In the previous post, I wrote about how the general population is typically unaware of the true nature and scale of the immigration issues – especially when it relates to legal, employment-based immigration in the US. Let me elaborate on what that entails.

There are approximately a million people like myself – Indian citizens who have lived in the US legally for up to or more than a decade on a temporary work visa. For us, the phrase ‘the immigration system is broken in the USA’ primarily means that, under the current immigration system, we will not get our permanent residency for the next decade or two (or three or four or fifteeneven though we have already been approved for it. This has been an issue for more than a decade and is unique to people of Indian origin (and to an extent the Chinese). It stems from an arbitrary cap on the number of Green Cards that can be issued to citizens of any single country each year regardless of when those people had their applications approved.

Since the foreign workforce in the US has a large presence of people from India (and China), this has essentially come to mean that people from India like myself have to wait for decades to see a green card (even though we were approved for it several years ago), while people from almost every other country obtain theirs in a year or less. So, while it is illegal for employers to discriminate against a person based on his/her nationality during hiring, the immigration system requires a discrimination against the same person based on his/her nationality – when issuing employment-based green cards.

So, what exactly does it mean to live in the USA while being on a perpetual wait for permanent residency? Is there even a legal way to live and work here while we wait for our green cards? Turns out, the same system that caused this issue, ironically, also provides what on the surface appears to be ‘a solution’.

Since almost all of us get approved for our green card while on temporary work visas, the immigration system simply allows us to keep renewing our ‘temporary’ visas indefinitely until we actually get our green cards! For those of you who were not aware of these details previously, I promise you I am NOT making this up. As much as this may all sound fantastic and ridiculous, this is actually how about a million Indian citizens live and work in the US currently – by extending their ‘temporary’ visas indefinitely! And for those of us who have been living like this for years, it has long ceased to be a matter of absurdity. On the contrary, we have all mostly just accepted this as a basic fact of everyday life. But yes, the system does appear to provide a pathway for people like me to stay here and work legally while we go through our decades long wait for our green cards. In fact, for the last 3-4 years, there has even been a provision for the spouses of those approved for a green card to be able to work. So what’s all the fuss about you ask?

This is the point where I emphasize that the true nature and scale of the problem is only known to the people who are directly impacted by it.

Over the years, the impacts from this system of legal immigration – where people from one or two countries are discriminated against for green cards – have manifested in ways that go well beyond just the allotment of green cards. An entire ecosystem of different players with different incentives has mushroomed from this flawed and discriminatory system. It has impacted the way companies do business, why people from specific countries are hired, the legal status of children, workplace harassment, career stagnation, forced deportation, family separation, among many others.

In the next post, I will highlight (some of) the problems faced by people (like myself) who are stuck in a decades long green card backlog.

Moving from the USA to Canada – Part 1: Acknowledging an Existential Crisis

This is a series of posts (5 total) where I describe why Devanshi, my wife, and I moved permanently from the USA to Canada after spending close to a decade in the US. You can find all the posts here.

The decision was made on a cold and windy December day in 2017 – between Christmas and New Year – in Garden City, a small town in rural southwest Kansas. Devanshi and I had been married for a little over 2 years and she had just started working in Garden City, while I lived about 9-10 hours away. By December of 2017, we had truly come to terms with what our future held in store for us if we decided to stay in the United States of America. To say that it didn’t look good would be an understatement, yes; but that would simply confine it to an issue of scale while completely ignoring the nature of the problem.

Over the previous several months, we had walked through all the different ways we could make our lives in the USA while trying to incorporate the not so infrequent constraints (or threats thereof) being imposed on our immigration status by the US Government. We had explored every strand of possibility branching out of these paths and tried to come up with a way to make it work in America for both of us. And at the end of each and every path and possibility that we explored, one thing became abundantly clear: our future lay outside of the United States. 

I am writing this series of posts for three reasons: One, to document the reasons behind a very significant decision in our lives lest I forget; two, to articulate what thousands of families in the US have been going through for several years, and; three, to provide some much needed reality check for those who wish to come here to the US to start a new life so they can make an informed decision.

It all starts with the acknowledgment that the general population are mostly unaware (either by choice or circumstance) of what living in this country (USA) entails for people like me. By ‘general population’, I am including everyone – from Americans to immigrants from India as well as other countries. It also (and especially) includes those from India who are looking to come here to study or work.

When you hear the phrase that the “immigration system in America is broken”, you have to understand that it means different things to different people. Unless it is someone who is directly impacted by the immigration system, its understanding is almost always limited to the rhetorical talking points that are repeated ad infinitum in the media. For conservatives who want more control on the flow of people across the border, it means the lack of laws and infrastructure to prevent that. For liberals, the administration is just not doing enough to help refugees from all over the world or is just making it too hard for new immigrants to enter the country. In many instances, American workers (of all skills and knowledge) have their own cases to make about their journeys trying to find employment. Notwithstanding that, American employers always seem to seek more foreign workers citing the low unemployment rate. The Agricultural industry wants its own share of foreign workers since, apparently, very few Americans actually sign up to be farmers. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

But what about the perspective of people who are directly impacted by the ‘broken immigration system’ – you know, the actual immigrants? We only ever hear about the ‘plight of immigrants in the USA’ through the eyes of someone who has no skin in the game (a.k.a the mainstream media). When we do not hear directly from the people who are impacted, our understanding of any situation is always limited to the rhetorical talking points that cater to a specific narrative. Which is why, when it comes to legal, employment-based immigration, very few people are aware of the facts and/or truth.

I say this because I was, in hindsight, one of the naive, uninformed students who traveled to the US full of optimism to do their Masters in 2009. I graduated, found a job, started working and was leading a good lifestyle. I even met and married my wife along the way. Everything was seemingly going to plan. After all, there were hundreds of thousands of people just like me in the US who were all seemingly doing just fine, and more were coming every year. Eventually, though, I got sucked into a state of immigration limbo where the lines between risk and reality began to get increasingly blurred – leading us on the path of an existential crisis. It was then that we began to ask tough questions to ourselves and found that there were even tougher answers awaiting us.

In the next post, I will elaborate on the specifics of what the ‘broken immigration system’ means in terms of legal, employment-based immigration in the USA.

Consumption of Information in a Divided Country

This is the 2nd installment in a series of posts outlining the divided nature of the United States of America. All posts can be found here

One of the hallmarks of a functional society is not just the availability and constant dissemination of information, but also the diverse sources that perform the act of dissemination. As an extreme, take North Korea for instance where there are a few media outlets (radio, print and TV) but they are all controlled by the same one source – the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. Contrast that to a country like the United States where there are approximately 1300 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and hundreds of news channels – and they are controlled by many different groups including many that are independently owned.

trump-keeps-promise-to-kill-first-amendments-freedom-of-the-press

So yes, the United States has way more freedom of press than North Korea (duh!). But this is not a binary measurement with North Korea as 0 and the United States as 1. There is a full spectrum of possibilities in between. We all know the consequences of the lack of freedom of press in a country like North Korea. But it would be incorrect to presume that the other extreme is perfect. Far from it. As we will see below, a free press doesn’t necessarily mean a fair press. It is not just the veracity of the reporting that counts in a free press. What counts equally is what is and what is not reported by each source of information.

(For the sake of ease of putting my point across in this post, I am going to use the phrases ‘sources of information’,  ‘information outlets’, ‘media house’, ‘news outlet’ and ‘media’ interchangeably. But what they will refer to is any platform through which information is disseminated on any topic. Additionally, when I refer to news outlets covering and presenting only ‘specific topics’ or ‘different sets of facts about a topic’, it is implied to include instances of news outlets presenting selective facts on a topic, covering only developments that peddle a certain narrative or that are favorable to an organization/ideology, providing disproportionately large amounts of airtime/print space to people espousing a certain point of view, present information/opinion in an us vs them format, etc).

The Ideal World and the Real World

In an ideal world, people think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information on hand and with no inherent bias. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where people believe that they think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information, and they believe that they do so with no inherent bias.

Another aspect of an ‘ideal world’ would be that any information disseminated by a source is both complete and unbiased. This means that any news outlet would provide all the different pieces of information on a given topic while providing the appropriate emphasis on each of those different pieces. But we all know that is also not the reality.

The reality is that different media outlets provide and emphasize different sets of facts on the same topic, but rarely present all the facts about it. Each outlet, of course, strongly believes that the specific sets of facts that they are emphasizing are the ones that deserve the attention of the society. So what we end up having is a large number of sources of information disseminating and emphasizing different sets of facts with each believing that their ‘coverage’ is the more relevant (or even important) one to the society. However, none of these media outlets would cover all the facts of the topic at hand.

How We SHOULD be Consuming Information

There is a very important distinction to be made here. It is one thing to have different media outlets emphasizing different pieces of information on a given topic but still doing so within the context of the overall umbrella of information on that topic. It is something totally different when the various media outlets choose to present and emphasize only certain pieces of information while partially or completely ignoring the rest of the facts on that topic. The former is an instance where the diversity of the information outlets becomes an asset by being able to provide a voice for those specific (parts of) topics that would otherwise have not been emphasized elsewhere. The latter implies straight up bias where the media outlets are deliberately disseminating a specific set of information while withholding another set of information.

Now let us take our real world where we have the latter scenario – one in which there are many different outlets that are disseminating information on different topics or different parts of the same topic, and exhibiting clear bias. In such a society, what would a rational person do if they sought information on a wide ranging topic such as, say, immigration?

First and foremost, they would go to one source of information and gather all the facts from that source. But importantly, they would also identify and acknowledge that the first source does not necessarily provide all the facts of the topic. This would then compel them to seek out a different source of information that would provide the facts that were necessarily not part of the first source’s coverage. Then they would repeat this until they believe that they have reasonably covered all the different aspects of the topic at hand. With this, they would then have a perspective on the topic based on complete information about the wide ranging aspects of that topic. And if society was filled with such people, we would have a very well informed population who would call for specific and reasonable action to address the issues of the society.

How we Actually Consume Information

(OK now let me return from that awesome parallel universe to our own less impressive one.)

confirmation-bias-700x223

But unfortunately, we human beings are not a rational species. We are not even meant to be a rational species based on the way our brain works – which means we have to put in that much more effort to behave rationally. So what this means is that we all have inherent biases that are hard to get rid of. It also means that it is extremely hard for us to actively seek out information that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs or opinions. These two fundamental traits influence and manifest in the way we consume information.

Because of our inherent bias, we are already predisposed to certain sources of information. These outlets typically cover and emphasize specific people, topics or parts of topics that we are already in (at least) general agreement with. Consuming information from such a source will further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and opinions about a topic while gathering no new or potentially contradictory facts about the same topic.

This will lead us to a deeper entrenchment into the same set of beliefs and opinions thereby helping our brain get even more cozy in its comfort zone. And then, the vicious cycle turns into more like a spiral where we get entrenched deeper and deeper into our own sets of beliefs and becoming increasingly incapable of processing any information contradictory to it.

But unfortunately, that is how information is consumed in this day and age. We gather our information from sources that typically disseminate the kind of information we already agree with, while (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding sources of information which provide information that could potentially be contradictory to what we already believe in. Essentially, we are all slaves to our confirmation bias.

In the next post, we will look at how such a mode of information consumption impacts society in general. 

What ‘The Big Lebowski’ Teaches Us About Media Bias

In one of the most enduring scenes that ever came out of Hollywood cinema, there lies a rather deep hidden meaning. It becomes painfully obvious once you see through it. And when you do, you will appreciate the script and the context that much more. The scene is from the movie The Big Lebowski and features Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Here is the context (SPOILERS ahead!):

The Dude has failed in the task entrusted to him by an old billionaire. The task is to deliver a large amount of ransom money in exchange for Bunny – the trophy wife of the said billionaire. He has instead lost that money and the old man castigates him for his ineptitude by showing him the consequences of his failure – which involves a toe that is  believed to belong to the said kidnapping victim. Disappointed with himself and worried about the victim, The Dude then ‘discusses’ the situation with his buddy Walter Sobchak. Here it is in full:

WALTER
That wasn’t her toe.

DUDE
Whose toe was it, Walter?

WALTER
How the fuck should I know? I do
know that nothing about it indicates–

DUDE
The nail polish, Walter.

WALTER
Fine, Dude. As if it’s impossible
to get some nail polish, apply it to
someone else’s toe–

DUDE
Someone else’s–where the fuck are
they gonna–

WALTER
You want a toe? I can get you a
toe, believe me. There are ways,
Dude. You don’t wanna know about
it, believe me.

DUDE
But Walter–

WALTER
I’ll get you a toe by 3 o’ clock–with nail polish. These
fucking amateurs. They send us a
toe, we’re supposed to shit our-
selves with fear. Jesus Christ. My
point is–

DUDE
They’re gonna kill her, Walter, and
then they’re gonna kill me–

WALTER
Well that’s just, that’s the stress
talking, Dude. So far we have what
looks to me like a series of
victimless crimes–

DUDE
What about the toe?

WALTER
FORGET ABOUT THE FUCKING TOE!

Essentially, the Dude has come to believe that the toe that is shown to him by Jeffrey Lebowski (the Billionaire) does indeed belong to ‘Bunny’ – the Billionaire’s wife – the apparent victim of a kidnapping. But Walter is clearly having none of it. He firmly believes that the toe is another in a series of ‘victimless crimes’ that are done by ‘fucking amateurs’! (Of course, in the end Walter turns out to be spot on!)

Which all brings us to a simple question.

Why did the Dude believe that the toe did indeed belong to Bunny? 

On the face of it, the apparent ‘proof’ consisted not of direct evidence of the identity of the victim, but instead consisted of an indicator – one which needs to be taken at face value without questioning in order to arrive at the suggested conclusion – that the toe does indeed belong to Bunny. It is this very ‘indicator’ nature of the evidence that Walter Sobchak questions and confidently declares that he could generate the same evidence by 3 o’ clock that same day (with nail polish!)!

The Dude believed the initial assertion (that Bunny was harmed because of his ineptitude in not delivering the money) not because of the ‘proof’ (a severed toe) that was presented to him. Instead, he started off by taking the initial assertion at face value without questioning, and then used the ‘proof’ to confirm this belief. The narrative was setup in such a way for the Dude that he just assumed the initial assertion was true and perceived whatever ‘proof’ he was then presented to simply confirm this assertion – even if that ‘proof’ was simply ‘indicative’ in nature.

Now where else have we all seen this? Where have we seen a topic being presented in such a way that it makes an assertion first and then uses primarily ‘indicative’ evidence to backup its claims?

There are a good number of ‘news’ websites and print media that utilize this very technique to sell stories and content. Many headlines from such organizations are usually articles involving a recent quote by a personality of some significance, or one or two facts that include numbers. This is then typically followed by a description of the context. But there is a sub-category here. This group of articles contain something more. It is usually subtle, but it is there nonetheless.

These articles contain a narrative that interpret the said development in a very specific way. And they do this not by offering any hard facts, but by providing evidence that are at best ‘indicative’ in nature. These articles usually contain a catchy headline that typically signals something to be feared or worried about. The article then starts off by repeating the assertion made in the headline in a more elaborate manner. Then it goes on to the actual quote or fact(oid) which typically forms a very minor part of the full article. Then the article attempts to reference previous similar developments in an effort to forge an apparent pattern – all spelling doom to varying degrees. Then the article goes on to make statements that involve the use of modal verbs such as ‘may’, ‘can’, ‘might’, ‘could’ indicating the possibility of further bad news. And then, finally, at the end of it all, to tie it all together (I had to obviously use the pun!) and to bring a sense of authenticity and confirmation to their idle speculations, they ‘reveal the toe’!

The ‘toe’ typically involves a quote by someone directly unrelated to the actual development, but one who holds a position of some significance in some industry, academia or organization that would entitle him/her to have opinions on the matter under consideration. The bigger the said person’s significance/position, higher the level of authenticity that is perceived to be on the speculations. It is important to note that these quotes are not something that is made by these persons out of their own volition without being specifically asked for. This is almost always a situation where the quotes are actively sought out by the person writing the article, and these quotes are then included in the article to provide a sense of truth and authenticity (and general concern) to the speculative inferences/statements made preceding them. (They send us a toe, we’re supposed to shit ourselves with fear.) In a sense, the person writing the article has already built a narrative (without many facts to support them) and then looks for quotes from ‘experts’ or ‘analysts’ to corroborate the same. Of course, nowadays, these ‘experts’ are dime a dozen. (You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me.) So it is another question altogether whether every single ‘expert’ he/she contacts provides quotes that corroborate their narrative, or if he/she only includes those experts’ quotes that does corroborate their speculation.

**********

See this Dec 25th article on CNN Money about Brexit for a good demonstration of the above idea. Also go to this Dec 13th article by the same writer on the same topic where he appears to have some information that doesn’t necessarily support the narrative in the article in the Dec 25th article. Also observe how he has cleverly left out those pieces of information in the Dec 25th article.

***********

So at the end of it all, it is simply a case of the writer making an initial speculative assertion and then ‘revealing the toe’ to backup their claims. So the question you, as a reader, have to ask is, “Am I being presented actual proof based on hard facts, or am I being ‘shown the toe’?” If you suspect the latter, then you know the ‘news article’ is nothing more than clickbait garbage. If it is the product of actual investigative journalism, then you will probably see a lot more information in the form of hard facts backing up the said claims. It is up to you to actively seek out the difference.

In this day and age of information/noise overload, if you even mildly suspect that you are being ‘shown the toe’, then it very likely is indeed just garbage. You should then be wary of any article from that particular source of ‘news’. This is a very simple and practical approach to consuming news media today and to distance ourselves away from fake news, pre-determined narratives, and idle speculation masquerading as truth. And if enough people do this on a regular basis, then we might still have some hope left for humanity’s progress.

The Rewards of Reading/Watching a Full Speech or Interview

In this age where information comes from media stories featuring selective quotes and needless commentary, it is very easy to miss out on the beauty, elegance, significance, and sometimes the necessity, of reading or listening to a full speech or an interview AS IS. It helps us get the proper context for the words, compels us to decide for ourselves what the highlights of the speech/interview are, and most importantly, it allows us to frame our own opinion about the content and the person.

Whenever there is an interview or a speech given by some personality I am interested in, I typically just google the full transcript of it. Yes, it takes a little more time to get through it, but it is always very rewarding. The flow of the content is very important to me, as is the overall tone and content.

kanye-west_portrait2_albert-watson_surfacemag

I am specifically reminded of an interview Kanye West gave to Surface Mag. It is one of the best interviews I have ever read, and after reading it, I have to grudgingly accept that this man is one of the most fascinating human beings on this planet. At the risk of going against the very point I am trying to make here, I am going to pull out a couple of quotes from what Kanye says in the interview (You will see why this is justified!):

This is turning into a 12-minute freestyle. Which is good. When I talk it’s like a painting.

I think you should just run this interview clean. You gotta let the painting be open with this let-me-just-zone-out-with-Ye-for-a-second thing.

Just gotta admire the man! He knows exactly what he is saying and how people should hear what he is saying!

In all honesty, I am sure all powerful people who have ever given an interview or a speech – only to have the media cherry pick the most controversial statements and reduce the whole interview to just that one soundbite – will agree with Kanye on this one!

But there is another side to this story. It is the part where we, as common people, MISS OUT on something beautiful, elegant and sometimes absolutely necessary information or advice simply because we do not have the patience or the desire to read through a whole interview or speech. Let us face it. Today, we get our perspectives from Memes, our opinions from Facebook updates, and our news from a headline. We also watch videos only when the information or situation to be conveyed is done so in a compressed manner and is under 30 seconds.

Amidst all this cacophony of piece-meal consumption of information, it is easy to spot and observe what we do see. But it is hard to realize what it is that we do not see, especially when we do not know what to expect.

In essence, what we are missing out on is a deeper insight into some idea, a better appreciation (good or bad) of the person who is making the speech, or simply some crucial facts about an issue. When we finish reading a full speech without interruption (such as commentary/ads, etc), we even have the opportunity to pause for a second and just meditate on the words of the person. Anyone who has actually done that – say after reading a book or watching a full movie – will be acutely aware of its rewards. And the more people do that, the better the debate will be on any given topic.

John McCain has been dominating the news cycles for his No vote to repeal Obamacare and defeating the Republicans’ attempt to dismantle the law. Media outlets have also been showing clips of his speech prior to the No vote where he urged bipartisan attempts to rework the healthcare law and all bills in general. But what most folks missed out on is the full speech he gave. I read the full speech yesterday, and I was extremely moved by every word that he said. There was such an important message with so many details in what he said. The flow of the speech and the ultimate plea it makes resonated with me long after I had finished reading it. It was a speech that showed there is still some hope left for this Congress to work the way it was intended to. And for all the problems plaguing this administration and the Republican party, this speech showed there may still be some sane men left who know their duties and responsibilities. It is a speech every single American – liberal or conservative – should read/watch in its entirety. There is so much truth in what McCain says that one really needs to spend a few minutes just contemplating after reading it. Ultimately, it is what every American NEEDS to hear in this day of partisanship and great divide.

 

It is easily one of the best political speeches I have ever read. In fact, if this man was running for President, and gave this speech, I would tell all my friends to vote for him. (And that is a big deal coming from a guy like me).

So yes, please go ahead and read his full speech or watch it below in full.

I started writing this post as just a small Facebook update when it began to take a life of its own. But this is something I feel very strongly about in general and so I had to do justice to it, and hence this longer post.

*******************************************

Reporting of selective quotes or providing needless commentary or background in a media story frustrates me to no end. And so, I offer the following general approach to bypass such unnecessary and/or incomplete articles:

If you read a headline you find interesting, first observe if the headline itself is a quote or a statement. If it is, and you already know the background of that story, then simply skip all the ‘reporting’ in the article and go straight to the quotes. Read the quotes and be done with it.

If you are not familiar with the story, then read the full article.

If the article quotes what Trump said on Twitter, close the news article, open Trump’s Twitter account and read all his tweets from the previous day or two up until his latest tweet. Then be done with it. There is really nothing more to know.

The above approach most commonly applies to all developing stories where there has been some incremental development. True journalism instead can be found in articles that are NOT developing stories and where there has actually been some investigation involved.

***************************************