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Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” as a Gothic Democratic Narrative

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Jason Yeo
LAA-57 Final Paper
Due May 17, 2006

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as a Gothic Democratic Narrative

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate.  But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up and down, good and evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosity of the serpent; in the opposition of staircases and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all possible opposition […] …but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity—because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake…  (Rushdie 161)

Towards the end of the semester, we were presented with the argument that there is a strong link between aesthetics and democracy.  One strand of this argument came from Bonnie Honig’s 2001 work Democracy and the Foreigner[1] in which she argues that the “foreigner” (as one who possesses “foreignness”) is in fact a recurring character and (potentially corrupting threat) in the founder-myths of many modern societies.  Honig thus theorizes that the literary form of the foreigner signals some of the intrinsic needs and desires of healthy modern democracies.  This is in sharp contrast to the traditional view that foreigners only mark the fearful entry of a contaminating, destabilizing element into society.  To support her thesis, Honig provides a reading of multiple literary works, including Rousseau’s Social Contract as well as the Biblical Book of Ruth, using the lens of foreignness to reveal the previously ignored work that the “foreign” characters are made to do for the societies they revitalize or help to found.  In a much later section, Honig offers the related idea of “genre” as applicable to reading the narratives of modern democracies in order to better understand the ambiguous, hero-or-villain nature of a society’s potential savior, which may also be their downfall.  But can we ourselves find in a suitable work of our own choosing what Honig has found so readily and widely elsewhere?

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children[2] (1991) presents the story of its narrator, Saleem Sinai, as an explicit and self-conscious allegory of the modern democracy of India.  By testing the various claims that Honig makes against the richness of Rushdie’s narrative, I will examine the extent to which Rushdie’s work does in fact offer textual support for Honig’s belief that foreignness can be an important proxy for the (hidden, unspoken) needs of a modern democracy.  In addition, I will discuss the advantages of reading Midnight’s Children as a gothic novel given Honig’s suggestion that such a reading highlights the problems of democracy, and possibly even hints at the solutions.  Finally, I will end with some thoughts on the effectiveness of such a strategy of reading (and writing) democracy’s narratives through such a lens, and what the implications might be for future cultural workers, politicians and citizens.

Honig argues that “sometimes the (re)construction of the national may require or depend upon the violation of the national.” because an “iconic foreign-founder” may theoretically be a means for democracies overcome the deeply-felt, but poorly understood, alienness from the law which also accompanies a lack of sense of kinship within the nation (SB 343).  In Rushdie’s novel, this sort of discontented detachment is very real, and can range from the total disenfranchisement of the poor (such as Shiva, cheated at birth from a life of privilege) to the empowered dissatisfaction of the wealthy (Saleem’s own family abandons India for Pakistan after the disastrous Sino-Indian war of 1962).  Certainly Saleem’s narrative, which we will later examine in more detail, also offers us multiple levels at which the (re)construction of the national can only proceed after the violation of the national.  But perhaps more succinctly to begin, Saleem’s sister, Jamila Singer, represents a near-perfect fit for this model of national violation for national reconstruction.  As an Indian national who immigrates to Pakistan in 1962, Jamila Singer quickly becomes the “Voice of the Nation”—also “Pakistan’s Angel” and “Bulbul-of-the-Faith”—who revitalizes the national spirit of Pakistan through her piousness and black-and-white nationalism (Rushdie 351-361), cementing her role as a foreign-founder.  As Honig predicts, this transformation is marked by a significant amount of violence and violation of the national.  Jamila Singer is wrested out of her former identity as the irascible Brass Monkey by her new adult role and quickly becomes “public property”, with her original personality wrenched away and replaced by the “national persona”, to the “exclusion of almost everything else” (Rushdie 359).  Her brother Saleem describes Jamila as being “imprisoned… inside a gilded tent” and certainly this imprisonment bears the mark of great violence, even if only fictional or metaphorical violence.  In order to hide her face from the public and thus preserve her dignity as a Muslim woman, Jamila’s manager invents the rumor that she “had been involved in a terrible, disfiguring car-crash” (Rushdie 358).  But of course the former Brass Monkey had already been terribly disfigured almost beyond recognition by her transformation from Indian girl (from an upper class Bombay family no less) to the iconic Pakistani woman in a mere matter of months.  In this case, both India and Pakistan have been violated (India has been rejected by a daughter of India; Pakistan has embraced a foreigner as their mascot who will sing thousands to their patriotic deaths) in order that Pakistan might be revitalized by their new “foreign-founder” who gave them something they were lacking before – a sense of national kinship.  But Jamila only offers us a clear transition from immigrant to national heroine, with little nuance to what is essentially a conversion story (or assimilation narrative).  Honig, however, presses us to see beyond the dualities of native and foreign as good and bad and to appreciate a certain anxious uncertainty about the foreign.  And so we turn to Jamila’s brother, Saleem, the first (by a twist of fate) of the Midnight’s Children.

According to Honig, a gothic reading of democratic theory allows us to appreciate the ambiguous, undecideable nature of the foreign-founder: a magnetic, intriguing, messiah-like figure who may also be a “lunatic and/or murderer” (SB 345).  In applying this gothic lens to a reading of Midnight’s Children, we are immediately struck by how Saleem Sinai, the narrator and chief “protagonist”[3] of the novel, is an ideal candidate for such a reading.  The first remarkable point of confluence is Saleem’s shocking, but eventually overlooked, foreignness, which works at different levels of the narrative.  Firstly, Saleem is in fact an alien to the family, having been the result of Mary Pereira’s baby-switching at birth: “thanks to the crime of Mary Pereira, I became the chosen child of midnight, whose parents were not his parents…” (Rushdie 130).  Secondly, Saleem is of foreign heritage, as the illegitimate son of Vanita, an entertainer’s wife, and William Methwold, a descendent of the original British colonial masters of Bombay.  Until this was revealed, the foreignness of Saleem’s blue eyes and distinct Bergerac nose were only disguised by his grandfather’s Kashmiri blue eyes and equally prominent nose.  To focus briefly on Methwold’s (and thus Saleem’s) foreignness as part of their potential foreign-founder role in the new Indian democracy, we can allow Methwold’s voice to speak as he makes a case for the British as the foreign-founders of India:“Bad business, Mr Sinai,” Methwold sips his Scotch amid cacti and roses, “Never seen the like.  Hundreds of years of decent government, then suddenly, up and off.  You’ll admit we weren’t all bad: built your roads.  Schools, railway trains, parliamentary system, all worthwhile things.  Taj Mahal was falling down until an Englishman bothered to see to it.  And now, suddenly, independence.  Seventy days to get out.  I’m dead against it myself, but what’s to be done?”  (Rushdie 105-106)

But of course at Independence the British left behind many things, including those roads, schools and institutions Methwold references.  And Methwold left not only his Estate, but the seed of a new foreign-founder—Saleem Sinai—to perhaps revitalize the nation in the future.

In writing Midnight’s Children, Rushdie was explicit about its allegorical nature, and thus we can usefully apply Honig’s gothic reading to Saleem’s character as a narrative of democracy.  Saleem is extremely self-conscious and uncertain about his role vis-à-vis India, his “birth-sister”, for whom he confesses “truly-incestuous feelings” (Rushdie 444).  Even in this expression of Saleem’s “vaulting, all-encompassing love of country” (the magnetic suitor, SB 345), we hear an eerie, gothic chord being struck – Saleem’s nationalism is compared to incest, which he understands to be forbidden, unclean and sinful (the dangerous lunatic SB 345 who Aunt Pia and Jamila Singer each recoil from and abandon in turn).  But Saleem’s original conception of his relationship to the fledgling nation of India was precisely that of a potential messiah, waiting for the “appointed hour” at which his prophesied greatness “would float down around my shoulders like an immaculate, delicately worked pashmina shawl” (Rushdie 178).  In fact, in a critical scene where Saleem’s discovers his power of telepathy, the central imagery is that of prophets and messiahs, of Muhammad and the Archangel Gabriel as Saleem imagines himself as an inheritor of Prophet Muhammad’s gift of talking with angels (Rushdie 185).  The reaction of the Sinai household to Saleem’s earnest announcement is also classically gothic in its paranoid revulsion and extremity.  The same family that had pampered and fussed over baby Saleem with all the competitive passion and intense love that a particularly special baby deserved as first-born son, first child of India’s Independence and first-born of Methwold’s Estate now turned on him with suspicion, distrust and even violent anger.  Just at the moment when the romantic unity of Saleem with his calling as savior of the nation seems at hand, he is rejected as a lunatic and violently spurned by his erstwhile loving family.  Saleem would henceforth be deeply aware of the ambiguity and duality of things:

[H]aving been certain of myself for the first time in my life, I was plunged into a green, glass-cloudy world filled with cutting edges, a world in which I could no longer tell the people who mattered most about the goings-on inside my head; green shards lacerated my hands as I entered that swirling universe in which I was doomed, until it was far too late, to be plagued by constant doubts about what I was for.  (Rushdie 187)

In this description of being cut off from the social, we hear a resonance back to Honig, who references Modleski and Cameron in pointing out this sense of isolation as a starting point for the sort of anxiety and paranoia that characterizes the gothic genre (SB 345).  But of course this sort of anxiety and sense of ambiguity over whether a well-loved figure is really a villain (Saleem himself claims culpability for multiple murders, which makes him either a murderer or a lunatic) is not limited in the novel to our reading of Saleem’s character.  The same reading can be profitably applied to characters as diverse as Evie Burns, Misha Miovic, Aunt Pia[4], Professor Shaapsteker and of course, Indira Gandhi[5].  As Saleem observes:

[I]f the Mother of the Nation had had a coiffure of uniform pigment, the Emergency she spawned might easily have lacked a darker side.  But she had white hair on one side and black on the other; the Emergency, too, had a white part—public, visible, documented, a matter for historians—and a black part which, being secret macabre untold, must be a matter for us. (Rushdie 483)

Despite the intense suffering that Saleem’s character bears through the Emergency, he still manages to keep in mind the sort of attitude that Honig would have praised as exactly what a gothic mode of reading democratic narratives of foreignness can produce – an attitude of understanding, and of openness to the potential usefulness and even the necessity to the periodic renewal of democracy of threatening, destabilizing elements as best symbolized by foreigners.  As Saleem records, there was a white part of the Emergency as well as a black part: “trains run on time, black-money hoarders are frightened into paying taxes, even the weather is brought to heel, and bumper crops are reaped…” (Rushdie 499), and he does not dismiss the reasons why India might have needed an Emergency either.

Ultimately, Rushdie’s novel does provide substantial support for the wide-ranging theory proposed by Honig about the question of foreignness and foreign-founders, and adds the further complication of the possibility for gender role-reversal in the female-gothic genre.  And while, as Honig admits, a gothic reading (or writing) of democracy’s narratives will probably not single-handedly produce solutions to the inherent anxieties and paradoxical needs of democratic societies (SB 341), but yet they offer the best hope for us as readers (and potential cultural workers and producers) to privilege and attend to the ambiguities of foreignness and foreign-founders as a first step towards achieving the climate of greater openness and acceptance-of-others that Saleem Sinai finally achieves at the end of his narrative as he melts into the multitudinous, cacophonous Indian crowd on his thirty-first birthday.


[1] Bonnie Honig, “Natives and Foreigners” and “The Genres of Democracy” in Democracy and the Foreigner, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
[2] [2] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. 1991. Penguin Books.
[3] This is an uncertain characterization given Saleem’s own well-founded doubts about the reality and extent of his human agency.  “From ayah to widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as protagonist.” (Rushdie 272, italics in original)
[4] In an interesting twist on the female gothic novel, a gothic reading of Midnight’s Children often presents a fascinating gender reversal of the genre since the narrator and protagonist of the novel is male, and the women are often just as ambiguous and deadly as any male villain / (anti-)hero.

[5] Indira Gandhi’s last name, while no relation to Mahatma (or Mohandas) Gandhi, is also a reminder of the foreign-founder status of Mahatma Gandhi as someone born in South Africa and educated in Britain.

Happy Accidents and Snakes-and-Ladders: Fate, Agency and Repeating History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Jason Yeo
Eng 167p, Spring 2006
Final Paper

Happy Accidents and Snakes-and-Ladders:
Fate, Agency and Repeating History in Midnight’s Children
The moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snake and Ladders.  O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice!  Clambering up ladders, slithering down snakes, I spent some of my happiest days of my life. When, in my time of trial, my father challenged me to master the game of shatranj, I infuriated him by preferring to invite him, instead, to chance his fortune among the ladders and nibbling snakes.  (Rushdie 161)

In Midnight’s Children[1], Salman Rushdie uses the metaphor of the simple child’s game of Snakes and Ladders to explore multiple questions concerning the history (and thus the future) of India through the experience of Saleem Sinai, whose life is “tied” to the fate of India.  Throughout the novel, Rushdie poses riddles to the reader, having us decide (or merely wonder) whether Saleem’s life (and in turn the allegorical referent of India herself) is the product of chance or of predestination, of human agency or of powerlessness, of logical inevitability or of historical reinvention.  In other words, could Saleem affect his own life, or the life of others (or even the whole nation), through his rational will?  Or was his influence merely incidental to his choices?  And regardless of whether Saleem is in fact powerless to consciously control the tides of history, does his undeniable influence bear the mark of chance, or is there sufficient evidence to make us suspect the existence of inescapable fate?  Finally, does the resulting history of these choices or non-choices, random or pre-destined acts and events reveal a pattern of cyclic repetition on a cosmic scale, or is this neat “form” merely an illusion in Saleem’s imagination?  As Saleem admits towards the end of his narrative, “There have been illusions in my life; don’t think I’m unaware of the fact.” (Rushie 490)  While Saleem ultimately comes to the conclusion that he is largely unable to affect the world in an “active-literal” sense (Rushdie 273), and that his effect upon the world is largely one of fate and as a part of the inevitable cycling of history, yet he leaves enough ambiguity for himself (and for us readers) to imagine other possibilities.

            Although Saleem will eventually see his faith in human agency weakened by his experiences, early on Rushdie introduces us to Saleem’s contradictory sense of agency and fate.  The young Saleem is a firm believer in fate (he-who-was-prophesied), yet he also refuses to give up his sense of autonomy and agency.  This is apparent even in the passage quoted before, where Rushdie carefully describes Snakes and Ladders as a game of “seemingly random choices”, where each move is a product of a choice, made firstly (and importantly) by “tumbling dice” rather than the player, and secondly in a manner that is only “seemingly random”.  This introduces Saleem’s underlying childhood belief in fate and predestination as something both real and non-random, and also as an element outside of human control.  The former idea of fate being both non-random and only bearing the appearance of chance is echoed elsewhere in the novel, for example when the young Saleem ponders on the metaphor of “greatness as a falling mantle”, which “at the appointed hour, would float down around my shoulders like an immaculate, delicately worked pashmina shawl” (Rushdie 178).  As Saleem reflects, the hour will be “appointed”, but unpredictable, and the effect will be as “immaculate” as any conception of deity.  Yet at this point, Saleem still believes that he has some level of autonomy – after all, he can invite others to play the game, just as Saleem’s father is invited to “chance his fortune”; Saleem can choose not to play, just as later he will choose to shut Shiva out of the Conference and choose to keep his (and Mary Pereira’s) secret of switched-at-birth from the other Children.  But perhaps Rushdie has been sufficiently explicit on the matter of Saleem’s sense of autonomy from fate: “From ayah to widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as protagonist.” (Rushdie 272, italics in original)
            Of course, the strongest piece of evidence for Saleem’s autonomous ability to influence events as a legitimate protagonist on a personal and national level is his revenge on his mother Amina, on Homi Catrack and Lila Sabarmati.  Saleem’s anonymous letter tipping off Commander Sabarmati to Lila Sabarmati’s affair with Homi Catrack is itself a study in choices, with the passage detailing the construction of Saleem’s letter littered with active verbs which embody Saleem’s impending active role in India’s history.  Saleem “extracted”, “found”, “excised”, “seized” and “took” at will, “cutting up history to suit [his] nefarious purposes” (Rushdie 297).  In the careful composition of his poison note, we have evidence that Saleem Sinai is indeed able to influence his life, the lives of others, and even the nation, through premeditated acts.  After all, did Saleem not succeed in punishing his mother for her secret meetings with Qasim (once her former husband Nadir) with a fear of exposure so profound that she would never visit the Pioneer Café again?  But even in this incident the logic of destiny and greater purpose repeated throughout Midnight’s Children is discernible.  Saleem may be “the puppet-master” watching as the nation “performed [his] play” (Rushdie 300), but as Saleem confesses later, “in my life, fate has never been unwilling to lend a hand.” (Rushdie 412)  The result of this confluence of agency and snowballing, cosmic destiny eventually becomes clear to Saleem, who nonetheless traces the cycle of culpability back to himself:
If I hadn’t wanted to be a hero, Mr Zagallo would never have pulled out my hair.  If my hair had remained intact, Glandy Keith and Fat Perce wouldn’t have taunted me; Misha Miovic wouldn’t have goaded me into losing my finger.  And from my finger flowed blood which was neither-Alpha-nor-Omega, and sent me into exile; and in exile I was filled with the lust for revenge which led me to the murder of Homi Catrack; and if Homi hadn’t died, perhaps my uncle would not have strolled off a rood into the sea-breezes; and then my grandfather would not have gone to Kashmir and been broken by the effort of climbing the Sankara Acharya hill.  And my grandfather was the founder of my family, and my fate was linked by my birthday to that of the nation, and the father of the nation was Nehru.  Nehru’s death: can I avoid the conclusion that that, too, was all my fault?  (Rushdie 319)Saleem’s then-belief in personal agency extended far beyond himself, and the novel is filled with his suppositions for why other people act the way they do.  But even in these instances, Saleem sees and insists upon the workings of fate and what he increasingly sees as the repetitive cycling of history at all levels – personal, social, economic, political and so on.  While Saleem explicates this belief many times in the novel, a small taste of this can be seen in the “alternative explanation” that Saleem offers for his father becoming “entirely white” after the death of Doctor Narlikar (Rushdie 204).  According to Saleem, “large numbers of the nation’s business community” turned white during the first nine year’s of Independence “in taking over from the British,” suggesting the replication of the social hierarchies of class and wealth present under the British (Rushdie 204). This cyclic view of history beneath the apparent influence of individual agency is also demonstrated in the chapter where Saleem describes the events that led to his marriage to Parvati, as well as the impending birth of his “son”, all of which he describes as actively planned and executed by Parvati but also inescapable and foretold according to the recurrence of history:

Parvati—just as she had planned, I’m sure—accepted me at once, said yes as easily and as often as she had said no in the past; and after that the Republic Day celebrations acquired the air of having been staged especially for our benefit, but what was in my mind was that once again destiny, inevitability, the antithesis of choice had come to rule my life, once again a child was to be a born to a father who was not his father, although by a terrible irony the child would be the true grandchild of his father’s parents…  (Rushdie 477, emphasis added)

By this point in the novel, Saleem has already gone through the purifying rebirth of amnesia and the painful process of “reclaiming” (or of being reconciled with) his memories in the Sundarbans (Rushdie 419).  That particular event is of especial interest to us as readers because it both signals the beginning as well as the eventual end of Saleem’s “rebellion against inevitability” (Rushdie 440).  While Saleem will finally accept the logic of “No Escape” many months later while in captivity during the Emergency, his rejection of fate came in his discovery of anger and of “not fair”, and an unwillingness to espouse “a prophesied historical role” upon his re-connection with his past (Rushdie 440).  In fact, by the very end of the novel Saleem will be completely won over by the inevitability of history and the very limited scope for personal agency in shaping the “many-headed multitudes” (Rushdie 532).  In Saleem’s almost-31-year-old mind, he has rejected the promise of free will and potential-for-greatness that his father and Mary Pereira (later Mrs Catherine Braganza) had given to him in his childhood: “I hear lies being spoken in the night, anything you want to be you kin be, the greatest lie of all…” (Rushdie 533)  The promise of childhood lullabies has been roundly refused as a lie in the face of 31 years of cruelly mutilating experiences at the hands of fate and history.  Thus, as readers we have been transported by Rushdie through a sweeping and detailed retelling of Saleem’s life as an argument for the inevitable cycle of ups and downs of not-quite-chance, also known as fate, that mark Saleem’s life, which is also “a mirror” of India’s history, owing to the “happy accident of [Saleem’s] moment of birth” (Rushdie 139).  Tragically, not all the “accidents” would be happy ones.  Saleem offers an explanation: “Because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times” (Rushdie 533).  We can think of the repeated mutilations that Saleem suffered of deafened left ear, truncated finger and uprooted hair.  If Saleem had once described playing Snakes and Ladders as a metaphor for life, as “chancing [one’s] fortune” (Rushdie 161), much later he would allude to the “seemingly random choices” of fate as a potentially deadly gamble:

But the Midnite-Confidential had one trick left up its sleeve.  Once a night—just to add a little spice—a roving spotlight searched out one of the illicit couples, and revealed them to the hidden eyes of their fellows: a touch of luminary Russian roulette which, no doubt, made life more thrilling for the city’s young cosmopolitans…  (Rushdie 524)

But of course Russian roulette is a game of life and death, played by spinning the cylinder of a revolver loaded with a single bullet before squeezing the trigger with the muzzle pointed at one’s own temple (which remind’s the reader of Saleem’s temples-like-horns).  At the same time, it is a gamble with one’s own life, the enactment of a certain recklessness that approximates an act of suicide or a death wish.  This is the sort of death wish that Ilse Lubin and others carried when they went to drown in the Kashmiri lake of Aadam and Naseem Aziz, which Saleem reminds us he has not forgotten (Rushdie 464).  And here we find an apparent internal contradiction between Rushdie’s choice of words and Saleem’s experience.  While Russian roulette is a gamble that is willingly accepted and performed by the wielder of the gun, Saleem was by no means a willing participant in this game.  Rather, Saleem found it to be a “trick”, or deception of the Midnite Confidential Club, which promised anonymity in the darkness but then exposed him to the humiliation of being “tittered” at by the faceless “young cosmopolitans”.  In this humiliation we are reminded of the mirrored “daily humiliation” that filled Shiva with murderous hate and an “old violence” after Roshanara Shetty’s poisonous insults sank deep into Shiva’s heart (Rushdie 471).  In remembering Shiva’s violent response to this humiliation during the Emergency, or even of the murderous result of Commander Sabarmati’s humiliation by his adulterous wife, we can see the life-and-death nature of the spotlight which fell upon Saleem at the Midnite-Confidential, inevitably-by-accident. This brings us as readers full circle to Saleem’s self-conscious position as just one person among some six hundred million Indians, but the one (along with Shiva, his midnight twin) upon whom the inevitable spotlight of history’s Russian roulette would fall, time and time again.

Ultimately though, embedded inextricably in the form of the novel as a tale for oration over many nights (echoing the one thousand and one tales of Arabian Nights), and also in the metaphors of games of chance—Snakes and Ladders, Russian roulette—is the unmistakable hope for alternate possibilities and outcomes.  As Saleem hints when he evaluates his narrative, “perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin” (Rushdie 491).  By offering a multitude of different conclusions to well-worn but half-forgotten bedtime stories, Saleem’s father Aadam provides us with the hope that prophesy and fate do not necessarily mark the end of human agency: “…the Brass Monkey and I heard, down the years, all kinds of different versions of the journey of Sinbad, and of the adventures of Hatim Tai… if I began again, would I, too, end in a different place?” (Rushdie 491).  And recall also that Saleem, for all his rejection of boundless possibilities shaped only by human agency, and for all his wish to “write the future as I have written the past, to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet” (Rushdie 532), admits that this is impossible, that “the future cannot be preserved in a jar; one jar must remain empty…” (Rushdie 432)  Looking even closer at the previous lines, we realize also that far from having narrated the past “with the absolute certainty of a prophet”, Saleem has been a notoriously unreliable narrator, and self-consciously so at that.  After all, this is the same Saleem that baldly told us: “in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe…” (Rushdie 310).  This additional crack in the narrative lets us as readers discern the possibility of ambiguity in fate, human agency and the recurrence of history which Saleem recognizes as a profound source of hope (which he also calls the “disease of optimism” Rushdie 343), even as he ends his narrative with the (unlikely) possibility that he will live happily ever after with Padma.  Finally, returning to Saleem’s fascination with Snakes and Ladders, we find the same unmistakable faith in ambiguity, which we may take to be the elusive “Third Principle” (Rushdie 292) that Saleem never seems to find.

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate.  But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up and down, good and evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosity of the serpent; in the opposition of staircases and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all possible opposition […] …but I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity—because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake…  (Rushdie 161)


[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. 1991. Penguin Books.

Trade Liberalization: Winners, Losers and the Collective Action Problem

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Jason Yeo
Historical Study A-12, Paper 3
Due May 3, 2005 TF: Gregg Peeples  

Question 2.
Classical trade theory tells us that free trade raises aggregate social welfare.  Therefore, a country can raise social welfare by eliminating all barriers to imports.  Yet, few countries reduce such trade barriers unilaterally.  This generates the central puzzle for most of the international political economy: Why do governments adopt policies that render society as a whole worse off?  Focusing on US trade policy in the contemporary era, resolve this puzzle using the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, and specific factors model, and empirical examples or broader empirical evidence.


Trade Liberalization: Winners, Losers and the Collective Action Problem  


Using the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem and the specific factors model to explain how distributional inequalities of the losses and gains from trade lead to conflicting interests within society, I will argue that the collective action problem means that within representational democracies it is politically difficult to unilaterally reduce trade barriers.  I will support my argument with empirical evidence from contemporary US trade policy to show that in essence, strong domestic political pressures from the workers and business-owners who will be negatively affected by trade liberalization account for the political obstacles to such policies despite their overall positive effect on the national economy.


A look at contemporary US trade policy reveals overall progressive moves towards trade liberalization, such as the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 and the end of quotas on garment imports on Jan 1st, 2005[1].    Yet there have also been the enactment of new protectionist policies such as the imposition of tariffs on imported steel in March 2002[2] and other signs that popular support for free trade is weakening.  For example, President Bush won congressional approval for fast track authority during 2001-2 by just one vote in the House of Representatives[3]; previously, President Clinton had not been able to obtain Congressional fast track approval at all after the implementation of the Uruguay Round in 1994[4].  If economists know that free trade brings net benefits society in the long-run, why has the government adopted policies that make American society as a whole worse off?  While economist Paul Krugman has suggested that ignorance of and disdain for the basic economic truths about international trade might contribute to the enactment of policies unfavorable to trade liberalization[5], political scientists find compelling evidence to assume that legislators are rational actors[6] and that the answers lie in the structural effects of free trade.

Free trade spurs a redistribution of resources within a society according to the market-driven logic of comparative advantage, which leads to greater efficiency and a net gain in aggregate social welfare[7].   However, this redistribution creates both winners and losers in the short- and medium-term as uncompetitive companies go out of business while more competitive firms start up and expand.  Yet because the potential gains from free trade are often indirect, incremental and shared by a large number of consumers and producers over time (e.g. slightly cheaper prices), whereas the losers experience direct, acute effects (e.g. job losses), the potential winners and losers from trade have different incentives to either support or oppose trade liberalization.  The important details here concern who exactly are the losers and winners from free trade, and how strongly they will be motivated to act in their direct immediate interest.  To answer the former question, we will turn to the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem and the specific factors model as complementary approaches to predict the winners and losers from international trade.

The Stolper-Samuelson Theorem describes the phenomenon of factor price equalization under international trade (Oatley, 2004, p.89).  This means that with free trade, the prices of the factors of production (labor and capital) will equalize across all countries.  The Theorem projects that the income of the country’s scarce factor (priced higher than the world price due to local scarcity) will fall with free trade while the income of the country’s abundant factor (priced lower than the world price due to greater supply) will rise as industries relocate to take advantage of these differences and drive up demand within the country.  The factor price equalization model thus posits a clash of interests between Labor interests (workers) and Capital interests (business and property owners), since countries are characterized either by relatively abundant labor and scarce capital (developing countries) or by relatively scarce labor and abundant capital (developed countries like the US).  In the US, we would predict that labor interests would generally oppose trade liberalization while business interests would generally be in support of removing barriers to trade.  Evidence that this hypothesis is correct can be found in the work of Robert Baldwin and Christopher Magee (2000), whose analysis of congressional voting patterns on three key trade votes in the 1990s found, for example, that legislators with a pro-business ideology tended to vote in favor of trade liberalization while those with a pro-labor ideology tended to vote against trade liberalization (Baldwin, 2000, p.41).

While the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem assumes that factors of production are highly mobile across industries, this may not always be valid.  This assumption may be more applicable for less developed economies with a lower-skilled labor force and for low-tech industries (an agricultural worker can just as easily pack boxes of canned food, a sewing machine can be used to make clothes or stuffed toys).  For more developed economies with more sophisticated industries and higher levels of technology and education such as the US, we may assume in many cases that factors of production cannot be easily moved across industries (a mechanical engineer cannot quickly become a computer programmer, a wafer-fabrication plant cannot quickly switch to producing pharmaceuticals).  Additionally, in a large country like the US, the geographic distribution of different industries across different regions adds another barrier to the mobility of labor and capital.  For example, retrenched workers may find it inconvenient or psychologically hard to move across the country to find an equivalently-compensated job in a different sector and heavy machinery may be expensive or dangerous to move.  That is where the specific factors model works as a complementary approach to identifying the winners and losers from trade.  Generally, if labor and capital are relatively industry-specific and cannot be easily shifted to other sectors, then the labor and capital employed in the industrial sectors that rely heavily on society’s abundant factor will both gain from trade.[8]  These industries are referred to as export-oriented industries.  In the US, these would be industries that rely heavily on capital, such as the electronics and telecommunications industries (Oatley, 2004, p.93).  Conversely, sectors of the American economy which rely heavily on labor (collectively referred to as import-competing industries) will lose from international trade.  These industries include the garment and textiles sector and the US steel producers (Oatley, 2004, p.92). 

The specific factors model predicts that the political clash will be among specific industries rather than between labor and capital across different industries.  In particular, export-oriented industries will favor open markets and import-competing industries will favor protectionist economic policies.  In the same 2002 study cited above, Baldwin and Magee also found empirical evidence to support the specific factors approach.  They found that legislators representing districts with high proportions of workers without a high school diploma, with high proportions of unionized workers and with low ratios of export-oriented to import-competing jobs tended to vote against NAFTA in 1993, which was an agreement widely perceived as likely to send low-skilled jobs across the border to Mexico (Baldwin, 2000,[9]

It is insufficient to understand how the gains and losses from trade are distributed across industries and factors of production.  We must also explain why it is often easier to enact unilateral protectionist policies than it is to enact unilateral trade liberalization policies.  The answer lies in the concept of the collective action problem.  In each of the two models discussed, economic agents act in their own self-interest, even if they may be aware that these policies will hurt other individuals, companies or industries.  Yet it would not be in an individual’s or company’s best interest to bear the costs of lobbying for some particular trade policy if that actor could simply rely on the efforts of others and enjoy the benefits without cost[10].  This situation describes the classic “free-rider” problem in economics (Mankiw, 2004, p.226).  This also explains why consumers have not played a major role in lobbying for free trade even though they would benefit from such policies in the form of lower prices.  Since the gains to the individual consumer are relatively small, and consumers form a large group where the incentive to free-ride is greater, consumers are much less inclined to lobby for freer trade. 

In contrast, the potential losers from trade liberalization, whether it is only American labor interests or an entire sector, can more easily overcome the collective action problem since they have a more urgent motivation to lobby against free trade (the potential loss of their livelihoods) and together they form a smaller group, where the relative contribution of each labor union or company to the overall lobbying effort is larger, making free-riding less of a problem.  To take this analysis to its logical conclusion, unilateral protectionist policies are politically more feasible because their benefits are concentrated on a small group of producers who can overcome the collective action problem while the costs of protectionism fall upon a larger, heterogeneous group of consumers and producers who find it harder to overcome the collective action problem (Oatley, 2004, p.96).  By similar logic, unilateral trade liberalization measures are politically difficult to enact, and “reciprocal trade agreements transform the large and heterogeneous pro-liberalization interests into smaller groups of export-oriented industries that can overcome the collective action problem.” (Oatley, 2004, p.96)

In closing, it is important to note that I am aware that the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem and the specific factors model are not sufficient to explain all aspects of US trade policy, which may sometimes be better explained by more state-centered explanations that account for national security concerns, foreign policy objectives and “national prestige”, or a more society-centered approach that accounts for societal values such as human rights and environmental issues in developing countries.  However, the empirical evidence available supports the present focus on the winners and losers from trade (which depends on the relative abundance and  mobility of labor and capital) and the incentives to act politically in order to overcome their collective action problem.  As we have seen, together these models offer compelling and powerful explanations of the political difficulties of unilateral trade liberalization policies, and the relative ease of being influenced by better-organized domestic protectionist pressures.


Baldwin, Robert E.
Congressional Trade Votes: from NAFTA to fast track defeat, Institute for International Economics, 2000
Krugman, Paul
Pop Internationalism, MIT Press, 1996
Mankiw, N. Gregory
Principles of Economics, Third Edition, Thomson, 2004
Oatley, Thomas
International Political Economy, Pearson Education, Inc (2004)
Steel Panel Committee on Technology and International Economic Trade Issues
The Competitive Status of the U.S. Steel Industry, National Academy Press, 1985
United States. Congress. House. Committee on Small Business. 
The unintended consequences of increased steel tariffs on American manufacturers : hearing before the Committee on Small Business, House of Representatives, One Hundred Seventh Congress, second session, Washington, DC, July 23, 2002, U.S. G.P.O., 2002.
Warren, Kenneth
Big Steel: The First Century of the United States Steel Corporation 1901-2001, University of Pittsburg Press, 2001
Journal/Newspaper articles
South China Morning Post, “Ruling on quotas a victory for free trade,” Jan 4, 2005, Editorial p.14
The Economist, “Time to Deliver the Goods; World Trade,” Jan 8, 2005
Web resources
Statement of Roberta Baskin, Executive Director
The Center for Public Integrity, Washington D.C., April 7, 2005
Last accessed May 2, 2005

[1] South China Morning Post, Jan 4, 2005, Editorial p.14 “Ruling on quotas a victory for free trade”   

[2] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Small Business.  “The unintended consequences of increased steel tariffs on American manufacturers : hearing before the Committee on Small Business, House of Representatives, One Hundred Seventh Congress, second session, Washington, DC, July 23, 2002.

[3] The Economist, Jan 8, 2005, “Time to Deliver the Goods; World Trade”
[4] Baldwin, Congressional trade votes: from NAFTA approval to fast track defeat, 2000, p.2
[5] See Krugman (1996), Pop Internationalism, Chapter 5, “The Illusion of Conflict in International Trade”
[6] In this paper, I assume that Congressional legislators are interested in representing the interests of their direct constituents (to gain public support for reelection etc.) and are influenced by industry and labor lobby groups who petition and lobby representatives and senators to act in their economic interests.
[7] See any introductory economics textbook such as Mankiw, Principles of Economics 3rd Ed. (2004)
[8] Oatley, 2004, International Political Economy, p92
[9] Similar evidence on the united lobbying efforts of labor and business representatives from American garment industries and steel producers is cited in Oatley, 2004, p.92
[10] These costs can be very high.  According to the Center for Public Integrity, in 2003 lobbyists reported spending about $2.4 billion.  (,)

Protected: Personal Statement

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

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Personal Essay for Harvard Admission 2002

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

(this essay is preceded by a photo, which is a snapshot of a hurdles race I participated in. It shows me tripping over a hurdle, and in the midst of tumbling to the ground in agony)

Let me draw your attention to the runner on eighth lane — the one who has tripped over a hurdle and is falling to the ground in dramatic fashion. Can you see him? That athlete is me. And I fell over last year, during the finals of the National Track and Field Championships.

Ask any competitive hurdler what his greatest fear is, and almost invariably it will be the fear of clipping a hurdle during a major competition. If the clip is mild, you will merely lose your momentum and drop a few positions behind. If the clip is severe, you will tumble over spectacularly, and when you pick yourself up all you can see are the silhouettes of your competitors as they cross the finishing line. In my case, the clip was so acute that I somersaulted several times on the ground, involuntarily. As I lay on the track writhing in pain, images of the hundreds of hours of training being washed down the drain flashed across my mind. The anguish, the despair, the pathos, were immeasurable.

Yet, the memory of this unfortunate incident has been oddly endearing to me, and there were many moments in the past year when I recalled the incident fondly. Strange you may say. But I believe that this incident which shook me significantly had allowed me to grow and to develop in ways which would otherwise have been impossible. Some would call it a cloud with a silver lining. To me, it was more like a blessing in disguise.

My secondary school life has been smooth-sailing for the past five years. In fact, too smooth-sailing for my good. I had done well academically, socially, and in terms of sports. In a sense, I had become somewhat locked in an ivory tower of success. When my friends despaired over their failing grades or their team’s loss in a competition, I could sympathise but I could not understand. When peers talked about the difficulty of overcoming setbacks, I could only nod and pretend to comprehend. School has taught me how to appreciate Shakespeare and how to do calculus, but it has not educated me sufficiently about life — its trials and tribulations, its often unpleasant realities and its pain — until I experienced it myself. For the first few days after my unfortunate incident, I was distraught: I could not study, I was moody, and I snapped at friends. Some friends said I was ‘over-reacting’, and with the benefit of hindsight they were right. But it was an over-reaction borne out of the inability to handle setbacks — which I had hitherto not experienced. The process of picking myself up and learning to move on was slow but it was perhaps the most important lesson I had learnt in the past five years. More important, I would say, than the lessons on Shakespeare or on calculus. These merely prepared me for an educational degree. The lesson I learnt from Track and Field prepared me for the hardened realities of life.

Our parents often tell us that what we learn in the classroom is of limited applicability when we enter the working world. It is only until recently that I fully grasped the sagacity of what they meant. Lessons which truly prepare students for life are not found within the confines of the classroom — they are found on the soccer pitch where teammates rally around an injured member, they are found on the drama floor where thespians learn to tolerate differences and work together to produce a play, they are found on the track where athletes grit their teeth over monotonous and repetitive drills. Most importantly, lessons which prepare students for life are found when they fail — and learn to pluck themselves out of the rut and move on. Unlike what is taught in the classroom, these life lessons — on resilience, determination, and strength of character — never become anachronistic, they are as relevant fifty years later as they were when the student first grasped it.

Hence, the memory of this incident has a special place in my heart. I can say with brutal honesty that I’m grateful to have fallen over during the finals of the National Track and Field Championships last year. It has been a turning point of sorts in an intensely personal way, teaching me the bitter taste of failure and giving me a new perspective on life. I thank my lucky stars for it. It has taught me and made me grow into a better person.

Wong Shi Ming, Oct 2002


Wednesday, January 1st, 2003
The letter brought tears to my eyes. It was undoubtedly the most touching, sincere letter I had ever received, and it came from a complete stranger. The letter was from a South African art teacher named Robin Opperman who needed my compassion and help — he wanted me to work with one of his students, Sizwe, on an international Web site design competition in which I was participating. Sizwe came from a world totally removed from my idyllic existence in Singapore. Not only did he live in South Africa – which is presently experiencing 30% unemployment and one of the highest crime rates in the world – but Sizwe was also a special-needs student. He attended the perennially under-funded Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Handicapped, where Robin worked. I was even more emotionally affected by Robin’s letter as I had seen at first-hand the environment in which Sizwe lived.

Just two years earlier, I had visited South Africa on vacation. While on our way to the Johannesburg airport, we had driven past a vast township. In truth, the township consisted of little more than an endless jumble of makeshift tin-and-cardboard shacks, with no phone lines, electricity, or even sanitary running water.


“How can they live like this? They should just build proper houses, there’s lots of land around.” This flippant, callous remark from a traveling companion (a comfortably middle-class homemaker) made me both cringe and blush at her cultural ignorance and social indifference. Even so, I turned away from the window, knowing I was unable to offer any real help.

Thus, it was impossible for me to turn down Robin’s earnest request. Never mind that I was participating in a Web design competition and Sizwe had never used a keyboard or mouse (his school had no computers); never mind that Sizwe spoke mainly Zulu; never mind that they lived halfway across the world from me. Despite advice from my teachers against the partnership, I knew that if I did not give Sizwe this much-needed opportunity, very possibly no one would. In fact, Robin had already been rejected by several other teams.

That was the beginning of our eight-month journey through ThinkQuest, overcoming each difficulty as it presented itself. In the end, our entry (covering the last 100 years) “The Passing of a Century”, richly decorated with Sizwe’s stunning, distinctly-African artwork, made it to the prestigious finals in Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles, oceans away from our homelands, that I finally met Sizwe in person.

During those five days together, I marveled as the shy African boy blossomed — he became confident in his English, he learned how to send e-mail by himself, he charmed the international press present. All were remarkable feats for someone who had never before traveled more than 20 miles from his home. During our time together, I could not help but think, “It is truly amazing what a person can make of an opportunity.”

In the end, we picked up a Silver award, with college scholarships and cash, which will be used to buy Ningizimu’s first computers. Sizwe started working as a teaching assistant at Ningizimu; Robin was promoted to Head of Department of Art & Technology. This year, ThinkQuest has implemented a new award for teams with disabled team members.

Similarly, during the course of my volunteer work with the Autism Resource Centre, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to tutor and mentor Sheng Hoe, a young man with autism. During my weekly house-visits, I served mostly as simply a willing ear, to allow him the opportunity to talk to someone. Apparently, scorned and ignored by his peers, Sheng Hoe had become withdrawn and uninterested in his schoolwork. Within a few months of our sessions, however, he began to make great strides in confidence and sociability. Once, he was even admonished for talking during class, a first for him! His grades also began to improve.

What motivates me to mentor children like Sheng Hoe and Sizwe is my experience on the receiving end of a valuable opportunity. After ThinkQuest, I was approached by Cari Ladd of PBS, who offered me a job producing an awards ceremony for the corporation as a freelance multimedia designer. I was amazed that such a high-profile organization would entrust a teenager on the other side of the globe with such an important task.

Unhesitatingly, I took the job, which lasted two months. In the nine months since, I have completed four other multimedia/Internet design projects. I am sure that I would never have had these opportunities if not for a stranger who trusted me and gave me a chance to prove my worth.

Jason S. Yeo, Nov 2000


My one perfect day in Amsterdam

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Since quite a number of people have found this page searching for “a perfect day in Amsterdam”, I thought it would be a public service if I posted some information on what I did on my perfect day in Amsterdam.

Of course, exactly what makes a perfect day in a new city will be different for different people, and depends on when you arrive, what season it is and so on.I arrived by bus on July 18th (Sunday) at about 5pm at the Eurolines Amstel station. (I had come from Paris, which is about six hours away by coach) I then made my way to the city center via the subway system. It’s four or so stops to Centraal Station, which is the main railway station, and also where the main tourist information office is – there you can pick up city maps, get brochures for various attractions, rent bicycles etc. (You can also get city maps from just about any hotel reception – just ask for one.)I then went to my friend Eric’s summer apartment in Amsterdam, which is close to the Central Station. The area also has loads of reasonably priced hotels, and again the tourist information office (ask any police officer or look for the many, many street signs) can direct you to someplace to stay. By about 7pm I was ready to go out again, so I went to the Anne Frank Museum, which was open till 9pm that day (Sunday). The sun doesn’t set till about 10pm in July, so it was a lovely 15-minute stroll through the city. The old part of the city (the part that is ringed by two circular canals) is very compact, and it takes less than 15 minutes to walk right across town. The “Anne Frank Huis” is quite an experience, especially if you’ve read the book, seen the play/movie or even just know a little bit about her and what she represents (the face and voice of hundreds of thousands, even millions of faceless, nameless victims). The house involves some clambering about, with a couple of steep, narrow staircases so it’s not very handicap friendly (and not at all wheelchair-friendly). Definitely worth a visit to pay tribute to one tragic aspect of the beautiful city of Amsterdam.

I was back at Eric’s apartment by 9pm, and we left for dinner at about 9.30pm. He cycled his bike and I rode pillion. The city of Amsterdam is made for bicycles, and it’s a great idea to rent one for the day. There are bike lanes literally everywhere in the city and loads of bike racks to park/lock your bike on every street. I definitely recommend a bicycle as a must-have component of a perfect day in Amsterdam. Be careful though, many, if not all, bikes in Amsterdam have a braking system that’s different from what I’m used to in Asia and the US – instead of brake handles at the handlebars, you have to back-pedal to brake. It’s not hard at all, but it takes a little bit of getting used to when you first start.

Anyway, we had a lovely dinner at a Jewish restaurant in the former Jewish quarter, which of course is now all newer buildings since the area was razed when the Nazis occupied the city. As with most of Europe, very little remains of the pre-WWII Jewish populations or culture in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, although remarkably, the large Jewish synagogue in the former Jewish Quarter somehow escaped destruction. The name of the restaurant we ate at escapes me now, but it doesn’t matter – Amsterdam is filled with great restaurants, eateries, bars and caf鳠which line every street, it seems. Kitchens tend to close between 10pm and 11.30pm, so try and order before that.

If you really want a restaurant recommendation, try Coco’s Outback in Rembrandt Plain. It’s an Australian bar with a great food and drinks menu. The place is pretty sprawling and the atmosphere is fun, relaxed and upbeat (like the music mixed by a live DJ), while the staff (all young travellers themselves) are friendly and pretty cool too. And during the two happy hours each night at 5-6pm (most drinks) and 10-11pm (all cocktails at half price), these are some of the cheapest mojitos, frozen margaritas and G&Ts in town (about €2 to €3). And let’s not even start on the unlimited ribs and chicken offer on the menu…

Dutch food is reportedly not very impressive, in general (mostly fishy stews and things like that, I’m told), but Amsterdam has very good Indonesian cuisine, and the ubiquitous donner kebabs (also known as shorma) are some of the best in the world. Ask for a “shorma sandwich” and expect to be impressed by the scrumptious-ness of this humble comfort food.

After dinner it was about 11pm, so Eric and I headed over to Rembrandt Plain (Rembrandtplein), one of the three or four centres of nightlife in Amsterdam. There we went bar hopping with a couple of other friends. Amsterdam’s nightlife is truly incredible – people in the bars are chatty, interesting and from all over the world. Don’t be surprised if someone buys you a beer, just try and return the favour sometime. The smaller bars are actually more intimate and more fun to be in, in my opinion, but definitely stop by someplace like the ARC bar, one of the chic-est places to see and be seen. Don’t be surprised to see an unusually fetching collection of tall, buff, well-groomed men there and everywhere in the area – the area is also one of the epicentres of gay nightlife. But don’t be intimidated, the place is open to everyone (the owner happens to be straight) and the mood is comfortably laid-back and inviting (and razor-sharp fashionable). Rembrandtplein is also home to Escape, one of the main dance clubs in Amsterdam. The cover charge may seem a tad steep (€14 when I went), but the huge club is worth it, and you can dance till dawn if you like.At some point, do not forget to walk through the very famous red light district, which is squarely in the centre of the city. The area is safe, always crowded with tourists, and police presence is reassuringly constant. The atmosphere is far from seedy. The professional, official-looking set-up of picture windows in the buildings lining the street looking into small rooms populated by one or several women posing in (fairly modest) lingerie is actually more curious or surreal rather than titillating. From afar they simply look like mannequins in a Victoria’s Secret or La Perla store, so it’s a bit disconcerting to realise that the “mannequins” are in fact prostitutes advertising their services. This is a tourist sight not to be missed in a city (and country) famous for its “coffee shops” selling marijuana (which is legal here), legal prostitution, same-sex marriages and legal euthanasia.Try to get to bed before the sun rises, like I did, (which in the summer would be before 4am). That way you’ll be refreshed and ready for the rest of the perfect day ahead.I was awake by 10am the next morning (Monday) and after a bit of breakfast, I was on my bike by 11am headed for the famed Rijks Museum (Rijksmuseum). As I’ve mentioned earlier, the entire city is very, very well-labelled with signs pointing to various landmarks and tourist attractions at every other street corner, plus everyone on the street is more than happy to point you towards your destination. Sometimes, all you need to do is look a bit lost and someone will ask if you need directions.

The Rijks Museum is home to four of the very few surviving paintings by Vermeer, including my favourite, The Kitchen Maid. (Yes, it’s the same Johannes Vermeer from the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. That iconic painting is at the Hague.) It also boasts an impressive hoard of Rembrandts, including his most famous (and largest) work, The Night Watch. The museum is undergoing major renovation work till 2009, but about a third of the permanent collection remains on display, including all the most popular and important works. (The rest is on loan to other Dutch museum across the country.) A real gem of a museum.

A short stroll across the Museum Plain (Museumplein) from the Rijksmuseum is the Van Gogh Museum, which is the most expensive museum I visited in Amsterdam, but worth the admission price (under 17s get in free, and there are youth/student rates at most museums). Not only is the museum quite large, but it houses hundreds of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings which comprises about a third of his entire artistic output (including The Potato Eaters, one of his iconic Sunflowers, and the brilliant Room at Arles), and some 900 of his letters (archived). Definitely get the audio guide (which I generally recommend at all Amsterdam museums), which adds coherence and animating detail to the general visitor’s experience. The museum lobby also has a stand from which you can send a free video message to your friends and family via email. Go for it – you’ll enjoy having the video clip as a little keepsake when you get home.

After visiting both museums for about an hour and a half apiece, it should be about 2.30pm, and you’ll be ravenous. Head back into the city for some lunch, en route to your next destination. (PS: There are a number of other museums in the Museumplein area, including a museum of contemporary art, but I decided to give those a miss.)

After another tantalising shorma sandwich (my first was at a stand in the red-light district the night before), I headed for Rembrandt House (Rembrandthuis). This is a house once owned by Rembrandt that has been restored and furnished with period furniture and artwork to closely recreate what it looked like when Rembrandt lived there. It’s also home to the largest collection of Rembrandt’s etchings. I thought the idea was interesting and the execution of the house itself quite impeccable, but personally I don’t find etchings very interesting, so this was not the highlight of the day. If you do visit, however, try to attend one of the regular live etching demonstrations in the etching press room one flight above street level which are interesting in their own right, and also make the collection of etchings more compelling to look at later.

Amsterdam has been the centre of the diamond trade for centuries now, so if there’s still time left in your day, go visit one of the many diamond workshops in the city centre. There you can get a free guided tour of the premises showing you and explaining the gem-cutting, polishing and jewel-setting processes, and afterwards you can admire (or purchase) exquisite finished pieces (or loose stones) in the showroom.

If you have time for one last dinner before you leave as I did, check out an Indonesian restaurant (Indonesia was a Dutch colony for quite a while) – they’re very good, pretty authentic (I should know, I’m from that part of the world) and not that expensive. And with that, I headed back to the bus station and bid adieu (or aju, in Dutch) to Amsterdam and my one perfect day in the beautiful city sometimes called the “Venice of the North”. I hope your visit will be as lovely and memorable as mine was.

My community, my thinking and I

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Many people have told me that, in many ways, I am the antithesis of what my upbringing and my circumstances should have produced. They stare in amazement when I tell them about my background and my schooling experiences, wondering how I ever came to be who I am. It is clear to me, however, that I have been shaped extensively by my upbringing in Asia.

I grew up in Singapore, a multi-ethnic tropical nation-state that, within one generation, went from rural village to bustling metropolis. As a result, Singapore is a study in juxtaposition: the ancient with the avant-garde, the traditional with the trendy. Consequently, I have always had a great love for the very old, archaic roots of culture — traditional language, music, architecture and even vintage clothing. To me, such things speak of a rich history and a precious heritage. Hence, it has given me great joy to travel to places bearing such reminders of the past, such as the ruins of Carthage in Tunisia, Ephesus in Turkey, the Forbidden City in China, and the Alhambra in Spain. On the other hand, I have always been one to embrace the new and the modern; for example, I took instantly to the Internet and taught myself HTML. As such, I have developed a delicate internal balancing act, accepting the latest developments and integrating the newest technology into my life, while respecting and preserving the roots that ground my identity.

People are sometimes surprised that I have any identity at all. This is due to the fact that most of my schooling years were spent in Confucian, Chinese-style schools which, for the most part, scorn independent thought, creativity and individualism. Instead, they espouse a style of spoon-fed rote learning and champion the inculcation of Asian values and solidarity.

It is true that most Asian societies are inclined to repress individualism for the sake of societal homogeneity and harmony, which is potentially beneficial when practised in moderation. However, my high school, Dunman High School, took this principle to extremes. The most notoriously Draconian and Maoist Chinese school in Singapore, Dunman High had to be experienced to be believed. Prefects, mostly Chinese nationals, wore red armbands, a la the Red Guards, students were called to morning assembly by the haunting, whistled melody of “Bridge Over the River Kwai”, and every regulation was strictly enforced, down to the color and style of female undergarments. It is surprising, then, that Dunman was consistently the top-ranked co-ed school in the country, with the most expensive campus and lots of extra government funding for computers and other equipment.

Despite the strongly Chinese environment at Dunman (or perhaps because of it), I continued to read English books voraciously, having never been strongly inclined to reading Mandarin books. Thus, even as I was immersed in the most traditional of ethnic Chinese culture, my English actually improved, something I put to full use at Dunman. I participated actively in English drama and eventually became head of the English Drama Society, I put together a debating team that consistently won school titles, and I took to the stage for oratorical competitions.

I am happy to say that I survived four years at Dunman, even flourishing there. Perhaps it was my adaptable spirit. Perhaps it was my optimism. Perhaps it was a guardian angel, who knows? One thing is for sure – Dunman formed my respect for teachers, my sense of propriety and my ability to see the value of discipline.

Come junior year, I chose to enter Raffles Junior College, the most diametrically-opposed school to Dunman there is. Raffles is a Western-styled, multi-ethnic school that strongly encourages independent thought and learning. I loved it. In no time, I was fully integrated into the school, managing to hold my own in the classroom and in the debating arena, where I was part of the team that won a national title. I even found myself on the international stage due to competitions such as ThinkQuest.

No one ever guessed that I was an ex-Dunmanian. While making the most of the cultural heritage I have been exposed to, I have also managed to forge my own path. Grounded in my culture, I look forward to blazing that path well into the future

Jason S. Yeo, Oct 2000


Liberalism v. Hegemonic Stability Theory: A Constructivist Rejection of Hegemony

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Jason Yeo
Historical Study A-12, Paper 2
Due March 17, 2005TF: Gregg Peeples

Q2: Bruce Russett and John Oneal treat Liberalism and Hegemony as alternative or competing explanations of order in international politics.  Hence, they assert that there is little evidence that hegemony has been associated with peace, and abundant evidence that the three pillars of liberalism have been so associated (see pages 184-191).

Critically evaluate this treatment.  First, draw on historical material (especially 20th century material) and develop an explanation of international order that integrates the central insights of the Hegemonic and the Liberal approach to international order.  Second, discuss whether it is more useful to think of these two approaches as competing or complementary.


Liberalism v. Hegemonic Stability Theory:
A Constructivist Rejection of HegemonyThe ongoing debate between Realists and Liberalists in the arena of political science and international relations has already occupied many volumes.  Today, while few academics would completely reject one theory or the other as worthless, there are those who argue for the virtual exclusion of one or the other as a valid perspective while others are attempting to bridge the gap between the two perspectives by viewing them as mostly complementary.  In a close reading of Russett and Oneal’s characterization of Hegemony and Liberalism as alternative or competing explanations of order in international politics, this paper will briefly highlight some of the analytical weaknesses underlying this conclusion, and at the same time sketch a more conciliatory perspective that incorporates the chief insights of both the Hegemonic and the Liberal approach using 20th century material.  I will then answer the question of whether it is more useful to think of the Hegemonic and Liberal approaches as competing or complementary, concluding that empirical results and constructivist arguments are both in favor of privileging the Liberal approach as the dominant competing perspective, although both approaches contain elements of truth.

At the outset, it is important to review Russett and Oneal’s overarching theory about Liberalism, which subsumes and adds to the Realist perspective, and which gives us a starting point for integrating the two approaches.  For them, it would be a mistake to conceive of Liberalism as a competing way of understanding the world (Russett & Oneal, p.90) in the sense of retroactively replacing power-based Realist theories such as the Hegemonic Stability Theory.  Instead, they posit that the three pillars of Liberalism[1] (vibrant international trade, liberal democracy, membership in Inter-Governmental Organisations, IGOs) serve two functions complementary to a Realist perspective – they offer politicians more and better tools for actively promoting international peace, and they form the basis of a new, more peaceful system within which to conduct international relations, where power is still important as in Realism, perhaps even supremely important for “coercion, persuasion or example” (Russett & Oneal, p.191), but yet different.  The three pillars of Liberalism clearly change the way that national interest and power are conceived of by world leaders, and further, how and when this power is exercised.[2]  As Russett and Oneal note, while Realists tend to focus pessimistically on the factors for conflict that states can do little or nothing to control or influence, like geographic proximity and relative military power[3], Liberalism offers practical, achievable objectives for states seeking sustainable peace, and these objectives in and of themselves tend to have positive outcomes that reinforce each other as well as increase the systemic likelihood of peace (more trade positively correlates with greater national wealth; liberal democracies tend to have better rule of law and institutional protections for civilians; IGOs can help to solve collective security problems and the prisoner’s dilemma problem as related to environmental regulations or dismantling trade barriers). 

Moving from the general to the specifics, while Russett and Oneal present important empirical work in support of Liberalism, they overstep the limits of their statistical methods by claiming that there is little empirical support for the Hegemonic view, which claims that a so-called hegemon is associated with a peaceful international system.  To begin with, the results presented by Russett and Oneal consistently support the theory that a preponderance of power within a dyad significantly reduces the likelihood of armed conflict within that dyad (for example, Russett and Oneal, p.191).  This fact on its own already goes some way towards supporting the pacific effect of a hegemon although it is by no means conclusive (at the very least, dyads containing the hegemon are more likely to be peaceful).  Next, although Russett and Oneal find no systemic effects on armed conflict on dyads not involving the hegemon, their own text reveals some confounding factors.  Russett and Oneal themselves write that examining dyads is not particularly useful for examining the effects of a specific factor upon internal politics such as the effect that the existence of a hegemon might have on each country in the non-hegemon dyad (Russett and Oneal, p.199).  Additionally, just as Russett and Oneal admit that their statistical method is unsuited to accurately analyzing the systemic effects of dense networks of IGOs (Russett and Oneal, p.169-170), so too are the factors examined unsuited to accurately measuring the indirect or systemic effects that an extant hegemon has on a particular dyad not containing the hegemon as they do not account for the magnitude and nature of the hegemon’s influence on either or both states in that dyad.

More revealingly, Russett and Oneal find the definition of a hegemon problematic (Russett and Oneal, p. 185), finally settling upon a relative value to measure the extent to which a country was acting as a hegemon in that period.  This highlights the seemingly trivial fact that Hegemonic theory in its purest form is predicated on certain pre-requisites – there has to be a hegemon for Hegemonic theory to be relevant, the hegemon has to be (as defined) able to influence or control the external actions of all the other states in the system, and (importantly) the hegemon has to be both willing and interested in controlling the external actions of the other states in question.[4]  Hegemonic theory works if these assumptions are true.  Empirically however, there has never been a Great Power whose influence unquestionably covered the whole world.  Far from being something to regret, this offers us an opportunity to test the hegemonic perspective.  It would be interesting to see if hegemonic theory is supported by dyadic-interactions amongst dyads with varying extents to which the two states are within the hegemon’s sphere of influence.[5] As the level to which they are both within the hegemon’s sphere of influence increases, we would predict a lower likelihood of armed conflict if the Hegemonic approach is correct, although this correlation would not serve as conclusive proof.   

Despite the shortcomings of the statistical work done by Russett and Oneal to discredit Hegemonic Stability Theory, we must still question the universal applicability of the Hegemonic approach to international order on the grounds that its latter two assumptions (that a hegemon can, and then should and will affect all other states in the world to maintain order) remain largely unrealistic.  Even the United States, the only superpower today, could not possibly be expected to practically bear the burden of mediating and intervening in every international conflict everywhere in the world.  Practically, the US has historically been least successful when intervening in regions far from its borders (Vietnam, Korea, Somalia), and least likely to intervene in globally isolated states of little strategic or economic importance (Rwanda, Haiti), results which make perfect sense from both Realist (greater distance and no influence on balance of power or security) and Liberal (low economic interdependence and shared membership in IGOs) perspectives.  Of course, the extent to which this critique is useful also depends on the definition of international order.  Our expectations for the hegemon would be much lower if international order is minimally-defined as a lack of general war or war that threatens to escalate into a general war but considerably higher if international order is defined as general peace and stability amongst all nations.  Practically speaking, purely Realist Hegemonic theorists tend to place their hopes on an outcome far short of the higher bar.  That is where we see the benefit of a Liberalist approach supported by Hegemonic power, which sets out as achievable the higher standard, while incidentally, but not unimportantly, promising a host of other societal benefits along the way such as faster development of technology through trade exchanges and greater civil and political freedoms for citizens in democratizing states.

In the end, when trying to decide if it is more “useful” to view the three pillars of Liberalism as competing with or complementary to Hegemonic Stability Theory (which derives directly from a Realist tradition), the yardstick has to be which perspective is more likely to lead to the peace and prosperity that states strive towards.  It then becomes clear, from both empirical and constructivist arguments, that starting from the present, in an age of globalization where there is no significant organized ideological resistance to democracy and capitalism (as opposed to localized opposition from particular authoritarian regimes), that we would be better served to treat them as competing theories and to reject the Hegemonic approach in favor of Liberalism’s three pillars even if Hegemonic theory retains some descriptive, explanative, and predictive value.

A key difference in favor of Liberalism as the dominant perspective over Realism (of which the Hegemonic perspective is a subset) is the more robust prescriptive ability of Liberalism.  Simply put, Liberalism offers a clear roadmap for policy makers in the form of the three pillars, and notes that since each pillar constitutes part of a dense web of positively reinforcing effects encouraging peace and prosperity, it is almost immaterial which pillar is focused on first or first instituted (Russett & Oneal, p.193).  In sharp contrast, Realist theorists such as Mearsheimer tend to be confused over the finer (but critical) details of what arrangements of power actually contribute to widespread peace and stability.[6]  There are real conflicts between the mutually exclusive theories about whether a multi-polar, bipolar or hegemonic system best leads to systemic peace, and almost embarrassingly, the strongest refutations of each theory tend to come from within the Realist camp, casting doubts on the ability of Realism to offer useful prescriptions.  Quite frankly, the easiest way to understand the conflict within the Realist camp is to see that they are all wrong in principle, even as they can each be right in a particular case.  Analogous to theories for predicting stock market movements derived from past date, while the logic that Realists deduce from examining each particular historical case may be compelling and closely supported by historical data, these theories are backwards looking, and ultimately cannot be easily generalized into useful, actionable principles for achieving international order.  Returning to Hegemonic Stability Theory, this critique can be framed as a constructivist argument, where the factors and determination of “power” and “national interest” and “security” by both the leaders of the hegemon and of other states is so subjective, culturally-informed and (on some level) arbitrary, to the point that making accurate predictions of what each state will do based on the Hegemonic perspective becomes difficult.  In contrast, the culture and values fostered by the three pillars of Liberalism push armed conflict to the very bottom of options in the foreign policy toolkit, so much so that it may never even be considered.  From a constructivist standpoint, renaming the British Office of War the Ministry of Defense[7] constitutes more than an exercise in political correctness.  It marks a paradigmatic change that makes armed conflict against other democracies almost unthinkable.

Some may protest against this constructivist rejection of Hegmonic Stability Theory, citing Robert Keohane’s thesis that a hegemon is necessary in order to begin the process of building up the liberal pillars by overcoming the initial barriers (externalities) to building a cooperative international economic regime (by asymmetrically bearing the costs of setting up the regime) and by solving the classic prisoner’s dilemma involved in collective security arrangements (by providing or guaranteeing security).  In response, it is easy to point out that the limited number of historical examples to draw on hardly offers more than circumstantial evidence that hegemony is the only means of achieving the three pillars of Liberalism.[8]  But more importantly, in rejecting Hegemonic Stability Theory, we are not ignoring its explanative power looking backward in time.  Instead, we are looking forward, looking for the perspective that allows us the best hope of predicting and working towards a Kantian perpetual peace.  In rejecting a Hegemonic perspective, we are agreeing with Keohane’s own view that once the pillars of Liberalism have taken root, the hegemon’s role becomes markedly less important in maintaining the system, which of course makes perfect sense from a Liberalist perspective.  Once Liberalist principles are in operation, the hegemon is no longer responsible for single-handedly holding the whole system together, a near-impossibility to begin with, and instead all the interconnected states have a vested interest in maintaining the system, which can be done at much lower costs to each state and is a far more plausible and sustainable arrangement.

Finally, it is worth reiterating Russett and Oneal’s view that even if we accept that there is some Realist formula for peace (based on proximity, bipolarity, hegemony, power transition theory or something else), there is little that thoughtful politicians can be expected to do outside of good fortune to change these factors.  We cannot impose hegemony or create a bipolar world if these do not already exist, and we cannot change the geographic distance between existing powerful countries, nor can we (or should we) prevent the natural rise and decline of states such as China or India.  In short, Realism might arguably have some explanative and predictive power, but leaves little constructive action to be taken.  It is undeniably more useful to reject the Hegemonic approach because it adds little to our understanding, introduces various unnecessary risks (the hegemon could well turn despotic and expansionary), and gives us few options for actively achieving perpetual peace.



Keohane, Robert O., “A Functional Theory of International Regimes,” “Hegemonic Cooperation in the Postwar Era,” After Hegemony: Collaboration and Discord in the World Political Economy, pp. 85-97, 107-109, 135-150, 187-190

Mearsheimer, John J., “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War,” International Security, (Vol. 15, No. 1): 5-56

Russett, Bruce; Oneal, John R.,
Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001


[1] Russett and Oneal refer to the “Kantian Triangle”, but in this essay the three elements of the Kantian system – International Organizations, Democracy and Economic Interdependence – are referred to as the “three pillars of Liberalism”.
[2] For example, democracy can limit the use of military power because military actions have to pass the test of public approval as the US found out in Vietnam and the Gulf Wars.  Economic interdependence can tip the balance in favor of peaceful outcomes in the national interest due to the possible losses from trade disruptions caused by even the threat of armed conflict.  Taiwan’s traditionally cautious view towards provoking China probably draws largely from its desire to remain attractive to foreign direct investment.
[3] Russett and Oneal’s statistical analysis consistently confirm that traditional Realist factors such as geographic proximity (dyads with a shared border are more likely to engage in war) and relative power (dyads with a preponderance of power on one side are less likely to engage in war) are important.
[4] Also often overlooked is the implicit assumption that the hegemon is a rational, benign and probably democratic state.  These characteristics are by no means necessary conditions to achieving hegemonic powers, as evidenced by Imperial China under the Mongols or the Imperial Roman Empire.
[5] We might hypothesize that the less influenced state would be less restrained by the hegemon and thus more likely to initiate or escalate conflict, or that the more-influenced state would be more likely to initiate conflict because it has the backing of the hegemon.  It would thus be important to parse out the different kinds of hegemonic influence.  It makes a difference whether the more-influenced state is an ally of the hegemon, or simply asymmetrically economically-dependent on the hegemon.
[6] A lengthier, detailed critique of the internal incoherence underlying Mearsheimer’s arguments for a bipolar world, or as the next best thing, a Europe stabilized by controlled nuclear proliferation awaits a different opportunity.  But to give a specific example, Mearsheimer claims that the Soviet Union’s failure to aid Czechoslovakia against Germany in 1938 for geographic reasons (no shared border) offers evidence for the dangers of multipolarity (Mearsheimer, p.23).  Yet the stated problem of geographic distance is unrelated to the way power is distributed amongst nations and a hegemon would face the same difficulties when dealing with distant states.  America’s current reluctance to deal with North Korea reflects both the legacy of the great geographical distance as well as an unwillingness to provoke North Korea to use its nuclear capabilities.  The destabilizing factor of the nuclear weapons in North Korea also directly discredits Mearsheimer’s preference for nuclear proliferation, no matter how controlled or limited.
[7] The US War Department was similarly re-christened the Defense Department in 1947
[8] Arguments by analogy could also be made for the possibility of a Liberalist international system arising without the need for a central force bearing the externalities and solving the security problem by looking to the initial, often bloody, spread of such disparate ideas as democracy, Christianity and communism across regions.  Clearly, ideas can spread, take root and transform the world even in the face of great adversity.

Justice Paper 2 – Discrimination, Random Searches and Profiling (Fall 2006)

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

Is it wrong for law enforcement officials to use racial, ethnic, or religious profiling in deciding whom to search in airports, train stations, subways?

The use of racial, ethnic or religious profiling by law enforcement officials has been much maligned by offended moralists who usually argue that policies informed by such profiling are morally wrong because they are unfairly discriminatory and distastefully reminiscent of racism.  I argue that this assessment is both correct and yet irrelevant.  By appealing to the cognitive inevitability and practical usefulness of discrimination, and with reference to communitarian assumptions, I will construct the case in favor of discriminatory practices in general.  Building upon this argument, I will submit that the moral acceptability of profiling in particular is conditional upon the empirical effectiveness of policies based on profiling methods as well as the actual content and execution of these policies.  I then discuss why this analysis holds true under a broad range of different moral frameworks including those of Aristotle, Mill, Locke and Rawls.  At this point, I will refute the claims of absolutist proponents of equality as incoherent and untenable before closing with a further defense of profiling against Kantian logic.

Defenders of profiling sometimes cite its almost actuarial nature as making it exempt from moral considerations.  In a wider sense, those who argue that profiling is not a moral question but rather an amoral question of statistics are not wrong, although the point can be more strongly made.  If we understand “discriminatory” to mean “having a belief formed before case-specific facts are known”, it would certainly appear discriminatory for law enforcement agents or individuals in general to operate based on a set of generalized assumptions, which by definition are not facts and may be falsified by as yet unknown information.  In this case, the assumption is that certain identifiable traits (race, ethnicity, religion) are correlated with a marginally higher probability that the bearer of those traits is a suicide bomber.  Furthermore, to the extent that this assumption is not based on the individual person but on generalized, probabilistic views about a class of individuals (which may be quite broadly defined), it is difficult to avoid the charge of “unfairness”, since feeling aggrieved and indignant is a common reaction to being incorrectly associated with something as unpleasant as terrorism.  But just saying that an assumption is discriminatory or even unfair is not enough to make it morally wrong.  The first important fact to remember is that the most important assumptions[1] about other people are always discriminatory (whether positive or negative).  Secondly, and more importantly, generalized assumptions are indispensable to human action, which are naturally colored by the assumptions that underlie them.  No individual has even the remotest possibility of having enough time or cognitive resources to absorb or analyze all the information needed to behave in a fully objective, rational way towards other people.  We assume things about other people all the time, often based on our own experiences and just as frequently based on how these other people look, talk and dress.  To say that assumptions are discriminatory is to miss the point[2].  We possess and construct an array of constantly shifting assumptions about other people which are both generally true and also critically useful for humans trying to navigate everyday social life or order society.

The idea that assumptions about others are a necessary fact of life is not a novel concept to communitarians, who argue that people can (and should in some cases) be classified and categorized differentially based on their life histories and circumstances.  In practice, these classifications are not static, one-dimensional or scrupulously defined.  Obviously everyone has a myriad of dynamic associations and shifting characteristics which could be the basis of assumptions by others or even (as communitarians further reason) potentially conflicting moral obligations.  Pushed to its logical limits, there is no escaping discriminatory profiling from a cognitive standpoint, which is an important realization for moral philosophers since something that is inevitable (as well as functionally necessary) can hardly be characterized as morally “wrong” or “unjust”[3], and even if we could agree on a situation where something inevitable was “unjust”, that would be a hollow conclusion since there would be nothing to be done about it.

Of course, stereotypes and assumptions can be inaccurate and not all stereotypes and assumptions are equal, nor should be treated with equal respect.  From a moral standpoint, both how these assumptions are made and how they are acted upon in practice make all the difference between right and wrong.  This idea of conditionality is actually fairly uncontroversial[4]: an assumption shared by moral philosophers with viewpoints as different as Aristotle, Mill, Locke and Rawls is that circumstances and intentions matter when it comes to judging an action or an institutional policy to be right or wrong.  For Aristotle, the telos or purpose of the searching of bags by law enforcement officials would be of primary importance.  If the primary purpose of the bag searches in question was to adhere to the principle of equal treatment of all individuals, then profiling would clearly be counterproductive and thus wrong from an Aristotelian perspective.  If however the foremost intended role of the law enforcement officials and the bag-search policy is to efficiently and effectively prevent a suicide bombing, and if using profiling methods based on race or religion best achieves this purpose, then using these methods would be good or virtuous (and therefore right) in an Aristotelian sense.  Clearly, the strength of this argument in favor of racial profiling will be closely coupled with the empirical effectiveness of profiling strategies.  Since there would be no practical reason to enact or discuss profiling if it was demonstrably useless, we shall assume for the moment that profiling strategies are well-reasoned[5] and are effective in enabling law enforcement officials to more effectively and efficiently catch suicide bombers[6].

Aside from the empirical effectiveness of profiling, another practical but morally relevant piece of information is how exactly the bag-search policy would be articulated and carried out.  Would there be disclaimers to carefully disassociate profiling from any official pejorative judgment against entire categories of people?  Would the law enforcement officials treat the affected individuals with respect and courtesy?  How inconvenient or embarrassing would the search procedures actually be for travelers?  In the context of a given city or even an entire country, we can mostly agree that preventing a suicide bomb attack would maximize general utility within the society; additionally, it is largely true that misfortune strikes hardest on the least advantaged in society because they have fewer resources with which to cope or recover.  With these two simple lines of logic we can deduce that if done in such a way as to minimize the inconvenience and embarrassment of those being searched, effectively preventing[7] a suicide bombing through searches guided by judicious profiling methods would satisfy both utilitarian thinkers as well as the Rawlsian Difference Principle, where social inequalities must be to the ultimate advantage of the least favored individuals in society.  Moreover, building upon this line of reasoning, it would be natural that a policy that evidently maximizes utility while bettering the lot of the worse-off in society would gain broad popular support.  From a Lockean paradigm of democratic society, this popular support would provide the critical element of consent that sets an important boundary on what the state can rightly do.  In other words, if profiling turned out to be an effective tool for crafting thoughtful policies that would maximize social utility while also helping the least well-off and preserving individual dignity (thus garnering popular democratic support), there would be little reason to consider the use of profiling morally wrong.

Naturally, the moral opposition to profiling does not always stop with the simple complaint that it constitutes unfair discrimination[8].  It may be argued that having law enforcement officers treating people differently based on their outward appearance (race, ethnicity, religion) is a fundamental breach of the principle of equality and of individual rights and liberties (including those enshrined in the US Constitution).

As reasonable as this may seem at first, the objection based on equality and rights falters on two different grounds, one more practical and the other more philosophical.  From a practical standpoint, the fact that individuals are undeniably unequal along almost infinite dimensions (culture, psyche, physicality, gender, age, occupation, marital status etc.) means that any attempt to treat everyone equally will quickly encounter the tension between the equally worthy ideals of equality of treatment and equality of outcome.[9]  It is precisely because of the differences between individuals that equal treatment will not result in equal outcomes and conversely that equal outcomes can only be created through unequal treatment[10].  As such, it is at least an open question whether a call for “equality” can be logically coherent and achievable in practice[11].  Additionally, it is clear that society accepts all sorts of conditionally or selectively unequal treatment as just for exactly this reason.  For example, only adults are allowed to vote, soldiers are beholden to military courts without juries (as opposed to civilian courts), citizens pay a progressive, graduated income tax, Indian reservations are exempt from many laws, there are mandatory provisions for the handicapped and so on.  While there are diverse moral principles that can be cited to justify these instances of unequal treatment, the important point to note is that equality is a nebulous concept that in practice is hard to pin down to either equal treatment or equality of outcome, and ultimately the realization of equality is largely conditional and tempered by all sorts of practical considerations, just as I have argued is the correct way to morally evaluate profiling.

Tackling the more purely philosophical argument about the equal rights and liberties of citizens, it is again insufficient to simply say that profiling is a violation of individual rights.  What exactly are these rights, where do these rights come from and why are they inviolable?  As Locke would argue, individuals are bearers both of natural rights as well as of conventional rights shaped by popular consent in the formation of a state.  At this point certain natural rights such as the right to revenge are “lost” or (more accurately) transformed and delegated to the state, for instance as the monopoly on coercion and the right to carry out retributive punishment.  At the same time, the conventional rights are exactly those that are contingent both upon majority democratic support (however defined) as well as the exact situation of that society including its worldview, level of development, technology, demographics etc.  In short, we are back to Locke’s insistence that democratic consent is the basis of the state’s rightful powers as well as the conventional rights of the citizen.  Do citizens have the conventional right not to have their bags or persons searched when they use public transport or enter an airport, assuming that this is not a natural right?  For Locke, this is a question for the people to answer through the democratic process, and I argue that this decision would likely turn on the practical effectiveness, description and execution of the proposed policy.

Beyond unfair discrimination, violation of rights to liberty and equal treatment, a final class of objections to the acceptability of profiling (with a very different philosophical pedigree) is that people should be treated as individuals and ends in themselves, and that it is wrong to force people to shoulder differential burdens only because they are perceived to belong to a certain community.  This line of reasoning draws strongly upon Kantian philosophy, which envisions a level of homogeneity among people (the possession and practice of Reason) as well as a certain level of autonomy[12] that taken together call for all individuals to be treated with equal respect (as deserving moral agents) and as ends in themselves.  From this view, search policies based on profiling supposedly only treat people as means towards the ends of the law enforcement officials without considering the individual’s feelings and humanity, and also robs individuals of their autonomy by forcing them to assume a certain (racial, ethnic, religious) identity.

I have already argued that treating others purely objectively without recourse to simplifying assumptions is merely a fanciful ideal, and may well be a dangerous delusion because it obscures the need to recognize and justify the inevitable assumptions.  Kant was wrong to assume that the possession and practice of Reason would lead everyone to a universal morality, as the long-standing lack of agreement among moralists demonstrates.  Additionally, the claim that search policies based on profiling will in fact treat persons merely as means to an end is clearly one that requires empirical support.[13]  Finally, the argument that search policies based on profiling force individuals to bear the burdens of a certain identity rests on the mistaken assumptions that such policies necessarily define our identities, and that the burden of such search policies is unacceptably onerous, beyond what we can be reasonably asked to bear.  Clearly, we must conclude that these are conditional arguments dependent on the specifics of the policy and its execution.  There is no inherent moral reason to reject racial, ethnical or religious profiling.


[1] For our purposes these assumptions are largely concerned with questions of identity, abilities, motivations, intentions and emotions.  For example, we assume –as Bentham, Kant and Rawls do– that everyone has the capacity for moral reasoning and also the capacity to experience pain and pleasure.  We often instinctively assume –in the communitarian tradition– that people feel a sense of duty and affiliation to wider groups including their kinsmen and their countrymen.  Another example is the common assumption, based on our cultural history, that women are (either by nature or by socialization) better caregivers for young children.
[2] Assumptions such as, “This elderly lady would probably appreciate it if I offer her my seat on the bus” or “He looks stressed and unhappy now so perhaps I should be nicer to him”.
[3] For many thinkers, the link between action and the effects of action with the realm of morality and personal responsibility hinges on the idea that something can be autonomously (Kant) or freely (Locke) caused or chosen.  Events that are purely random or fundamentally inevitable are thus usually excluded from analysis of moral worth or at least from the paradigm of human responsibility.  For example, the natural distribution of talents is often called a “moral fact” or simply “a fact” unsuitable for moral evaluation in and of itself.
[4] Of course, there can be major disagreements over the scope and limits of conditionality, but the basic premise that context can matter is hardly refutable.  For example, few people would argue that the act of taking some jewelry and running away necessarily constitutes theft or wrongdoing if they knew, for example, that the owners had asked that person to take the item urgently to the auctioneers.  Additionally, while we might all agree that “theft is wrong”, it is easy to see that, at least at the margin, terms like “theft” are socially constructed and contested – libertarians sometimes argue that mandatory state taxes are a form of theft and coercion while communitarians may see the same taxes as a legitimate moral obligation.
[5] As opposed to capriciously or willfully based on malice or similarly subjective or malevolent motives.
[6] My hunch is that the practical usefulness of bag- or body-searches in airports, train stations and subways (in increasing order of futility) to catch suicide bombers is in fact quite limited, which would definitively answer the moral question for me.  The point of this essay is to affirm the position that nothing about profiling itself suggests that it is categorically wrong.
[7] Even just increasing the probability of preventing an attack can be argued to satisfy the utilitarian calculus because the utility to the non-existent bomber and the supporters of terrorism drops to zero while the utility to citizens of knowing that there are deterrent and protective security measures in place remains real.
[8] This essay assumes that the relevant statistics upon which profiling is based are not in question and thus “unfair” in this case excludes the idea of arbitrariness.  For example, we will not consider the type of argument that says profiling is unfair because a young Muslim Arab man is not more likely to be a terrorist then an elderly Buddhist woman.  I assume generally that profiling will be based on valid information.
[9] For example, few would suggest that we should always treat a pregnant woman the same way we would treat a young man or a bedridden grandmother in terms of attention from the authorities, as well as access to particular types and amounts of healthcare and nutrition.
[10] This irresolvable conundrum was identified, for example, by libertarians such as Hayek and the Friedmans, who all additionally noted the troubling incompatibility of equality of outcomes with freedom, which compelling discredits the desirability of equality of outcomes.
[11] Libertarians and other liberals are usually in favor of equality of treatment, which interpreted loosely (as the Friedmans want), is not incompatible with profiling; Rawls offered the Difference Principle as a moral gauge for social inequality, and I have already argued that profiling policies can conditionally satisfy this principle.  Communitarians tend to focus on the cases where equality of outcomes (such as equal preservation of both minority and majority cultures) is preferable over equality of treatment; again, the specifics of the question determine the moral question.
[12] Free from the constraints of what communitarians would call the “narrative self”.
[13] As earlier suggested, law enforcement officials could be polite, efficient and respectful, and the policy could be publicized as a security measure with absolutely no intent to disparage or marginalize any group based on race, ethnicity or religion.  All of this would help to make search policies based on profiling acceptable to Kantian thinkers.