Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on Two Thousand and Eleven

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” 
Albert Einstein

Two thousand and eleven feels like it will be remembered largely as the year in which humanity’s integrity and honour fell by the wayside and everything in the world seemed to be off kilter as a result of the great precipice created in our world. It was a year filled with company destroying financial revelations, country-crumbling debt crises, leadership failures and big economic disappointments. It was a year when honesty and transparency seemed in short supply, everywhere. Many of the revelations were sadly, not so much shocking as simply removing the thin veil that barely hid what we already knew to be true for some years now.

It was also the year when some of the most oppressed people in the world stopped fearing their governments and started to rectify this equation to finally make government fear the people. The Arab street locked arms, raised voices, gave lives, but in the end succeeded in striking down the tyrants that used fear, torture and censorship to shackle them for decades. It was the year of the Arab Spring or Awakening, as the longstanding and brutal dictatorships of Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia all fell and the ones still left standing are on the brink of revolution. All this ignited by a single act of frustrated defiance by Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller, on the streets of Tunisia. He set himself on fire to protest police corruption and continuous harassment by government employees, and his martyrdom set in motion a chain of events that the most brilliant analytical minds at the CIA, Mossad and Pentagon had not foreseen in any of the scenarios they have spent their lives exploring and building. There were even simmers of discontent in China with the short-lived Jasmine protest and now we are seeing it engulf mother Russia. Last weekend saw the largest demonstrations held in the streets of Moscow and other cities since the fall of the old Soviet Union. People came out in the hundreds of thousands to protest voter fraud and demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the great democracies of India and the US also saw their share of people power, albeit without much turmoil or disruption so far. In India, Anna Hazare’s movement to create Lokpal or citizen ombudsman bill to fight corruption was passed by the Lower House this week and is currently being debated in the Upper House. The bill was first introduced in 1968 but never managed to see light of day. In the United States we saw the beginnings of a something that had all the power and popular support to grow into a force with clout and sway. But sadly, Occupy deteriorated into a homeless-filled, feckless orgy of sex, drugs and alcohol. The day Occupy announced that it would be a leaderless movement is that day I believe America stopped caring about them and went back to burying their frustration in their office cubicles. However, the discontent with Capitol Hill and Wall Street is not going away anytime soon. It will continue to fester across the nation until some real and meaningful change takes place, and some real prison sentences handed down for the fraud perpetrated by many executives.

Even as the world seemed starved and desperate for leadership nobody was able to step up to the plate and deliver. Instead it seemed the opposite was true with the Former Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, being sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a former employee while he was president. The former French President, Chirac, was found guilty of corruption and given to a two-year suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds and abusing public trust. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had to resign after he had sex with a New York hotel maid. His wife stoically stood by him even as he admitted to having had consensual sex with the maid. Meanwhile Europe was in turmoil with the constant fear of the impending disintegration of the European Union and Euro zone hanging over the markets like a dark cloud for the better part of the year. Every day we heard about another country on the brink of default on their loans, from having lived beyond their means for more than a decade. It was not just the smaller and developing economies of Iceland, Ireland or Greece that faltered, but also the fully developed and large ones of Italy and Spain that are teetering on the edge of that debt cliff. Had one of these big countries gone it would have taken the whole Euro zone down with it. They say that in the times of great crisis, great leaders emerge; I guess they got it wrong. Instead of leadership and fortitude, we had Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy pussyfooting around the problems, relying on German coffers to shoulder Europe’s’ self-created woes, and finally asking private banks to write-off loans and thus share the public burden. The one good thing that did come out of this was that Silvio Berlusconi had to finally resign, giving the Italians a fighting chance to keep their country alive with the “developed world” label still intact. It is also true that while the US’s troubles are much deeper and more worrying, the dollar was saved not by anything the US Federal Reserve or the government did to shore up investor confidence, but by the fact that the only other option – the Euro did a phenomenal job of making itself look worse and even less secure than the weak dollar.

Back on the sub-continent, Indians witnessed the uncovering of one scam after another. Dirty politicians, unscrupulous businessmen, even corrupt officials in The Indian Space Research Organization. Sadly even the once revered Indian army was not left unsullied. Each new scam unearthed was bigger, more daring and conducted with greater fearlessness and abandon than the last one; in the end leaving no Indian institution unscathed. It seems that the ruling Congress Party had made a decision to make hay while their electoral sun shone, and pretty much everyone from Sonia Gandhi to the bottom layers of the party had their hand in the taxpayer’s cookie jar. It was only after a prolonged public outcry, major media coverage and really bad International press that a single arrest was made. One has to wait and see how many years these cases drag on and if there will ever be a single politician prosecuted for any wrongdoing. I still see all the disgraced politicians smiling and looking shameless and plucky, as if they know of enough skeletons in other closets to ever be prosecuted by their peers. We shall see.

In America, too, it was the year of uncovering scams pulled off by all the major retail and investment banks, as well as unethical if not illegal business practices by many large and iconic companies. Curiously, though, not a single corporate executive was prosecuted or even indicted for this wrong doing. Instead settlements were made with all the companies, forcing them to pay seemingly large fines but also allowing them to admit “no wrongdoing.” Perhaps I am a little slow but I don’t understand this logic – you commit a crime and instead of prosecution you agree to pay a large sum of money; which happens to be no more than 25% of the total amount you illegally and unethically made, and you get to say you are not guilty of doing anything wrong – how exactly does this serve as punishment and more importantly as a deterrent?

I guess we could look back at two thousand and eleven and conclude that the Mayan prophecy about twenty-first December two thousand and twelve being the end of the world, could quite possibly be true. Talk to anybody and they will tell you they think the world feels like it is going to hell faster than we can say the word. I am sure every generation felt this sense of hopelessness and despair at some point in their journey; what we also know is that each of these generations managed to find a way through the Plague, Hitler, Hiroshima, Jallianwala Bagh and Apartheid. So while our world has for some time now felt tilted towards the majority of people seemingly driven entirely by selfishness, greed and unethical behaviour, I want to offer an alternative point of view on the Mayan prophecy. This prophecy maybe correct about the end, but not in terms of the four horsemen or fire, brimstone and volcanic ash, but as an end to a chapter. Perhaps this year will mark a new beginning, closing this long and dark chapter of unethical behavior, lack of regard for our fellow human beings and the selfish rot that seems to have overtaken the majority of people and begin to shift the balance back. Maybe we have sunk to our depths and it is time to rise once again; finding within us the very same things that have made us more united and more connected than ever before in the history of the world. The same kindness and compassion of neighbours that saw America through the Great Depression, the solidarity and selfless resolve that drove the mighty British out of India and a strength and never say die resolve that ended Apartheid. Perhaps this is what the Mayan Prophecy foretells and for what two thousand and twelve will be remembered.

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