Random Thoughts

Status: Nemesis of Fools, Smarts and Nations

Advertisements in America often show scantily clad attractive buxom women draped over cars, rushing towards men wearing designer clothes, using certain cosmetic products or drinking specific beverages. The idea is to convey that the use or ownership of such products will have good looking persons of the opposite sex irresistibly drawn towards you. The hormone dominated and driven young, fall for this to their detriment and to the profit of the manufacturers. It is this mistaken belief that the use of, or ownership of the product will confer a privileged status, that makes the buyer forget that the blonde or hunk does not come with the car, toothpaste, aftershave, perfume or the car.

Another strategy in ads is some prominent personality endorsing the product. The ad watcher, who by close attention to the ad has already acknowledged temporary if not permanent lack of discerning ability, is made to function under the misapprehension that the product will put him in the same status or looks as the film star. There is a normally prevalent tendency in human beings for hero worship, as various temples and web-sites to film personalities and the popularity of film magazines attest. Wearing specially designed expensive sneakers or saris does not make the average person into a basketball, cricket player or beauty queen like Michael Jordan, Tendulkar or Aishwarya Rai respectively.

This obsessive and pervasive desire for status leads to behavior that ranges from mildly detrimental to profoundly destructive. Organizations and nations are not immune from this fad. The US is the world's preeminent military power, unmatched in human history. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world became unipolar. The US has nearly 4000 modern aircraft unmatched in quality or quantity by any other nation. In spite of this it still spends 500 billion dollars for defense and invested over ten billion dollars to develop the F22 Raptor attack aircraft. It has purchased hundreds of such aircraft at a unit price of over 250 million dollars each. These resources could have been better spent on education, healthcare or reducing its budget or medicare deficits. The planes will not significantly strengthen its security and as the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and the firing of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld show, military might alone does not guarantee victory or security. There are currently over 45 million Americans (nearly 15% of the 300 million) without health insurance and a large number of high school graduates who are technically illiterate because of the dismal quality of inner city schools.

India has a similar problem with public primary schools, potable water supply, sewage systems, electricity and healthcare, as I wrote in one of my previous articles. A sensible policy demands that defense of the nation may need to take priority over important social policies. India's history and conquest by Islamic, European Christian conquerors and recent Chinese invasion prove that. This still does not justify spending over three billion dollars for a manned moon landing in fifteen years. I am not against scientific progress, but an unmanned lunar probe or landing could and should be done for a tenth of the price. All the benefits do not justify the extra investment at present. The moon has minerals and Helium 3 which may be useful but would not be cost effective. Mining minerals can be done a lot cheaper from the ocean floor. The money has better use for reconnaissance satellites, developing satellite killers or even better missiles, nuclear submarines and conventional arms not to mention health care clinics, schools, electric grids, sewage and water systems. ISRO, an organization of smart people is falling into the status trap. As the Hindi adage goes, 'Kisikaa mahal dekh kar apni jhopdi ko aag nahin lagaani chaahiye'.

On a final note, let me talk about the media. I mean radio, television, newspapers and magazines. These were meant to inform the public and debate vital issues. The present concentration of media in large corporate hands subverts this process. In America, the media have become the mouthpiece of the administration and vested interests. The owners are afraid to challenge the government for fear of losing their licenses or access. They are afraid of losing the ad revenue sources and thus avoid offending the advertisers. In America, they are large corporations and in India they are corporations and the government. The owners are often wealthy and thus they are reluctant to go against their own interest, which dovetails with the wealthy. This is why it is critical to glean information from multiple sources and discount their bias. The English press in India is often blindly secular and afraid of offending the minorities. The vernacular press is often rabidly parochial and we have some that are obediently communist leaning oblivious of national interest. The Internet helps but much of it is filled with misinformation, conspiracy theories and one needs to review it critically and carefully.

The limited literacy or education of the electorate together with time constraints of earning a living and spending some time with the family, puts severe constraints on the people. Tired and harried persons seek passive pastimes like television and often prefer mindless entertainment to civic education. The latter is rarely available even from newspapers and magazines and much less from passive media like radio and television. The above mentioned problems are what make democracy often a failed form of government. The problem is not unique to underdeveloped and poor India but equally prevalent in rich and developed America.  


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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