Thursday, November 12, 2009

Found an article detailing a research on why sport has become a religion. Sport resembles ‘primate polytheism’, providing followers with the much-needed solidarity. The play is like a ritual with spectators worshipping other humans, their achievements and the groups to which they belong. “And that sports stadia and arenas resemble cathedrals where followers gather to worship their heroes and pray for their successes." The article goes on to summarise the research, seeing the strange resemblance between religion and sport:

Some scholars believe that fans are highly committed to their favored stars and teams in a way that gives focus and meaning to their daily lives. In addition, sports spectatorship is a transformative experience through which fans escape their humdrum lives, just as religious experiences help the faithful to transcend their everyday existence.

From that perspective, the face painting, hair tinting, and distinctive costumes are thought to satisfy specific religious goals including identification with the team, escape from everyday limitations and disappointments, and establishing a community of fans.

So far, the transformative aspects of fandom are quite close to those associated with religion. Lest the fans become too smug, here is a socialist critique:

Shaped by the needs of capitalist systems, spectator sports serve vested interests as a type of "cultural anesthesia," a form of "spiritual masturbation," or "opiate" that distracts, diverts, and deflects attention from the pressing social problems and issues of the day.

But the article then wrote something that stunned me. The article’s author, not the researchers, throw up the oft-quoted out-of-context line: Karl Marx called religion ‘opium of the people’. This point is grossly wrong. Marx hardly spoke about religion in his work and even if he did, the context was how religion is used to quite the masses’ distress in two ways, among many.

Misled on Marx

One, the 19th century priests wedded to political power ordained that the society, in whatever form it is, is just. People are poor because God cursed them to be, not because of the gross inequality in available opportunities. Jesus did side with the poor but later, the Church formed a nexus with the Roman state.

Two, Marx’s key tenet was that material gain was the main motive of man. There’s nothing more ridiculous than this. In Marx’s time, industrial revolution—and unbridled capitalism now—fashioned masses as virile machines, wiping out any individuality. Marx identified this not to abhor religions and stay quite, but to do something to reinstate human’s spiritual needs and let everyone be and become what they are capable of. He wanted humans to be restored in their fullness and in harmony with fellow humans and nature. At this individual level is where Marx is important; maybe his predictions of capitalist economies getting destabilized, due to the inherent conflict between the working and owning classes, did not come true. After all, Marx is a human and of course, did not claim to do any ‘God’s work’ as a corporate bigwig recently claimed to do.

Another aspect of Marx is that he is read less and interpreted more. And that too through Russia, which had brutal contempt of human dignity and values. Russians drank the wine of socialism at the spring of capitalism, so to say. They didn’t want to create a society humanely different from capitalism but one that elevated working class to a higher status—all this while robbing individuality. Moreover, for Marx, religion is Christianity; so one cannot extend Marx’s religious thought to say Hinduism that (at least when it started off) stressed on an individual’s journey to self-actualization: realize what you’re maximally capable of. Even economic desire was there but it was part of the four-desire club: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Hinduism, in intricately connecting these four duties, strove to make human complete and follow their bliss (ananda). [More on this face of Hinduism in another post, mainly because I cannot recollect much about this :( ]

Overgrowth of capitalism

Marx may not have predicted this but though capitalism may not get destroyed and replaced, it does get cooked up in its lab. Take this experiment: privatization of prisons in US. Prisons in America are called penitentiaries and to be politically correct, are correctional houses. That doesn’t change the nature of the prisons much in any case.

Pretty damning, the so-called prison-industrial complex rests its foundation on the fear of crime that scared US in late 1960s and 70s. This resulted in the emergence of private prisons. These prisons are like hotels, where inmates are treated as guests with their checkout date set by an external authority. So starting 1980s, private prisons grew with now at least 27 states adopting this model and nearly 90,000 inmates lodged in these prisons. This for-profit prisons industry is worth $35 billion a year.

It seems the famed French author who wrote about democracy in America visited US in 1831 to study its prisons, on behalf of the French government. He thought that prisons were indeed a “remedy for all evils of the society.” Prisons are meant to isolate an offender so that s/he repents and reflects on their misdoings. Some say prisons in US have achieved this—with nearly 2 million incarcerated, violent crime has come down. But one researcher points out that chose another 2 million Americans randomly and lock them up, and the crime rate will come down further. Larger cultural and demographic trends may be responsible for the decreasing crime. And strangely, confining criminals in prisons can increase prison crime as well; this was seen in the recent outbreak of jail violence in India as well.

My point is should the private industry raid a public institution as vital as prison. Supporting the for-profit prisons are those who say private competition brings in innovation in prison administration and rids government bureaucracy as well. True, but inmates require care and there is no guarantee that private police will provide it (so can be the case with the government machinery).

Take the case of two characters in the brilliant Hollywood flick, Shawshank Redemption. Shanwshank is a prison where the hero is incarcerated for murdering his wife (later learning that he was falsely implicated). But another character, the sweet-sounding Ellis “Red” (Morgan Freeman) is given parole after serving 40 years of his life sentence. And when he does get the parole, Freeman beautifully enacts his resistance to go into the outside world. He fears he will have the similar fate of the close former inmate who, after release unable to withstand the external world, commits suicide. That goes on to say how well the prison prepares for the prisoner’s re-entry into the exiled world.

An Indian movie that comes to my mind is Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s Mathilukal. Adapted from the brilliant Malayalam writer Vaikhom Basheer’s short story, Mathilukal is the tale of a male prisoner finding his liberation in the prison by communicating to a woman prisoner, with a high wall separating them on the other side of his cell wall. The brilliance of the movie lies in having a faceless heroine empathizing with the hero (only this much I can recollect from the snippets I saw of the movie).

Now, to go back to my point, I do not think giving up prison administration to private interests will make the jails any better than retaining it as a public body. I would want to end with two quotes:

"A wall is just a wall and nothing more at all. It can be broken down" by an activist of Critical Resistance, a movement which seeks to “challenge the belief that caging and controlling people will make us safe”. Though to have no prisons is a far-fetched idea, at least helping prevent imprisoning the powerless is practical.

“The new thinking on prisons has been duly summarised by the dictum that convicted persons go to prison as punishment and not for punishment” [emphasis not mine] - The Hindu

No comments: