September 25, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
Bruce Bartlett: This is the best picture of the diminution of the formerly major media that I have seen.
Subroto Roy: The long run problem though is how does new media actually become profitable enough to supplant the old, not just supplement it as it does now.
BB: I think it’s a given that that will happen eventually. The problem is how to maintain quality control and accountability in the new media when editorial oversight has effectively disappeared.
SR: Editorial oversight is substituted for by mutual peer review and reputation protection (as well as a return perhaps to a pre-codification state of customary law). But still, small subscription or user charges for many millions of users may be the only long run way to sustain it, not old media advertising.
BB: I have doubts about peer review being a viable replacement for editorial control. It’s too easy to delete comments, links get broken, search engines only scan the surface etc. The virtue of traditional media is that they have systems in place that ensure a degree of responsibility at least in the hard news coverage. That simply diesn’t exist in the new media and probably won’t be created because such systems are costly and time-consuming.
SR: In that case new and old will coexist, with new continually lifting material for free from the old without recompense. (Arianna H. had a nice comparison/contrast some months ago.) The equilibrium outcome may be one of vertically integrated companies…. Come to think of it, where is Rupert Murdoch in the new media world?
BB: I am sympathetic to the idea of modifying the antitrust laws to allow newspapers to collude to create some sort of payment system that all papers could participate in. Congress created such an exemption for baseball and I think newspapers are at least as important.
SR: Well vertical would involve the Murdochs of the world buying up the Googles and the Facebooks (or perhaps being bought up by them instead).
BB: Murdoch tried that by buying MySpace, which hasn’t worked out so well.
SR: Vertical integration is not easy managerially but it may provide the only business model in the long run for new media to coexist parasitically with old media — old media does the basic research and earns the revenue, new media spreads the technology and earns the goodwill while living off the old.
BB: I don’t agree. I think some sort of horizonal integration among news providers may be viable. The new media are essentially parasitic, living off the reportage and infrastructure created by the old media. We all know that the old media need to charge for content. But they can’t without creating some sort of arrangement that would basically involve price fixing. This is where modification of the antitrust laws would help. The alternative, I fear, is government subsidies of some kind to preserve the basic news gathering function.
SR: Well there is agreement then that the parasite metaphor may be useful. Old media is the host where new media is the parasite. Good parasites tend to be in a symbiotic relationship with their host, feeding off it but also doing good to it. It would be a foolish parasite that kills off its host altogether. In case of media, someone (Publisher) pays someone else (Reporter) to witness/record Event A. That is Stage One. Then Publisher pays someone else again (Editor) to evaluate whether the report about A deserves or not to be published via the airwaves (radio, TV), cables (Internet) or dead trees (newsprint). That is Stage Two. Our new media parasite can do Stage Two well but relies on old media entirely for Stage One, and without Stage One there is no Stage Two. Vertical integration here would merely mean the host-parasite relationship becomes contractually acknowledged. I do think the dead-tree aspect will become reduced even further but radio and TV will survive.
BB: The biggest problem with my idea is the problem of leakage. One blogger like Drudge can subscribe to all the hard news web sites and just recycle their reportage for free. I don’t know what to do about that and it argues for your idea of vertical integration. But you have the same problem in that there is no way of controlling new entrants. It may be that the problem cannot be solved and we will have to muddle through somehow. In a column a while back I suggested that reporting will never pay for itself and will have to be subsidized through foundations, universities and the like.
SR: A point of yours on which I agree is this: consumers of the Internet are gaining a free good, namely the outcome of the parasitic process we discussed, and hence there is a prima facie argument for them to be taxed (by a license fee for example) and, say, newsprint or journalism schools subsidised with the earmarked proceeds.
BB: Insofar as news gathering is a public good there is a case for some sort of tax to subsize it. The problem is that I don’t see any practical way of taxing Internet access, which would be the logical tax base. Second, I don’t see any practical way of subsiding news gathering without the danger of government control. There are also first amendment problems. Perhaps there is some way that the major search engines like Google could finance a C-SPAN-type basic news gathering service.
SR: We simply do what the BBC did when it started 70+ years ago, namely, license fees for radio and then TV. So each Internet connection gets taxed or pays a one-time or annual license fee. It is the logical tax base for sure. Re. subsiding news gathering, that is why I said subsidise newsprint (expensive raw material common to all newspapers), and perhaps subsidise young journalists in training (left, right or centre). That’s about it. Yes the C-Span model is good too but will depend on largesse of very rich people.
BB: Per our discussion.
(That is where the conversation stands as of about Sep 27 2009. Feel free to join in or model better.)
June 1, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
US election ’08:
America’s Presidential Campaign Seems Destined To Be Focussed On Iraq
By Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman,
Editorial Page, Special Article, June 1 2007
Like baseball and American football, it is not easy to comprehend modern American politics from the outside world. The very idea that most American voters are either “Democrat” or “Republican” throughout or over much of their lives is itself a little odd. In an ordinary social or job-environment, a single Republican in a group of Democrats will feel uncomfortable as will a single Democrat in a group of Republicans.
Typically, each is in favour of some and against other specific “issues”, or, more accurately, specific political slogans. A Republican may be typically in favour of “free enterprise”, “limited government”, “a strong military”, and “family values”. A Democrat may be typically in favour of a woman’s “right to choose” (whether or not to abort a foetus), “gun control”, “universal health care” and tolerance of diversity. Republicans typically charge Democrats with being tax-raisers, profligate spenders of public money, soft on defence and crime, promoters of homosexual rights and generally daffy-headed hippies. Democrats typically charge Republicans with being stooges of the rich, oppressors of middle and working classes, proto-fascists and jingoists, and lunatic religious fundamentalists.
The mood is vicious, and in small social gatherings (even between husband and wife) tempers flare and can only subside by reference to some other neutral subject such as sports or by making a joke. Comedy is a major forum of political discussion and means of tension-release.
Greasy pole of power
A typical politician may rise from being an elected local official to running for the State legislature and thence running to be State Governor or a US Senator from the State, and thence either make a bid for the White House perhaps or fade away as a senior statesman. George W Bush was Governor of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Ronald Reagan of California, Jimmy Carter of Georgia. George Bush Sr became Reagan’s Vice President after being a Texas legislator, head of the CIA and UN Ambassador. Gerald Ford went from House Speaker to Vice President and then President due to collapse of the Nixon Presidency. Richard Nixon himself was Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President and before that an abrasive Senator from California. Eisenhower was not a politician but a retired soldier, the war-hero who led the Allies to victory, and became perhaps the most popular and competent of all modern US Presidents.
In a nutshell, American politics is about the reputations of individuals acquired along the way, which then their friends and allied interest groups seek to publicly enhance and their enemies seek to publicly destroy as they try to climb the greasy pole of political power. The media, especially television in the last fifty years, becomes pivotal, as each side tries to ferret out and expose publicly any dirty deeds of the other, or failing that, at least create a monstrous image based on a voting record in the public domain.
As the 2008 Presidential Election approaches, both major parties will witness ruthless slug-fests as candidates for the party’s nomination battle one another to see who is the last man/ woman standing. That person then gets to choose a Vice Presidential candidate, and the two form the “ticket” which will fight the other party’s ticket. This inter-party contest for the White House (and hence some 4,000 executive jobs in Washington DC for four years) has been compared by astute American observers to a nationwide popularity contest. It is certainly not the most reliable method in the 21st Century by which to find the wisest government of the world’s strongest (and perhaps most aggressive) military power.
The Iraq war has come to wholly dominate America’s current political debate. The number of American soldiers dead in Iraq is now well over 3,400 and climbing quickly; the number seriously wounded by roadside bombs etc is in the tens of thousands.
Among the Democrats, the perpetually ambitious Mrs Hilary Clinton is hard-pressed to explain how she, as Senator from New York State and someone with experience of her husband’s Presidency, backed his Republican successor’s jingoism and chose to be blind to all the official mendacity. She is unable to explain herself. Her rivals include Senator Barack Obama ~ the son of a black Kenyan graduate student in Hawaii and a white woman from Kansas, which, in American terms, brands him as black. He is a Harvard-trained lawyer married to a Harvard-trained lawyer, and though there is glamour and excitement in his candidacy as a young freshman Senator who voted against the Iraq war, it is inevitable many whites will see him as being a black man while at least some blacks will see him as being not black enough in not having been seared by the history of black people in America. His enemies have been already delighted to suggest he is Muslim with a middle name “Hussein” and that Obama rhymes with Osama. Such prejudices may be too much to overcome. The Democrats also include John Edwards of South Carolina, who was John Kerry’s running-mate in 2004, and who presently gains from being neither female nor black. It is not impossible once these and others like Governor Bill Richardson and Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have bruised one another sufficiently, a heavyweight old candidate joins the Democratic race like Al Gore (who likely had beaten Bush in 2000). But Gore is now facing a personal obesity problem.
The leading Republican contenders are trying to outdo each other on harshness towards alleged terrorists trying to attack America (something which can simply mask racial and religious prejudices and sadism). Arizona Senator John McCain’s claim to fame is that he many years ago was a POW who suffered under the North Vietnamese. He was once seen as a reasonable politician but his outright support for Bush’s aggressiveness abroad goes against the 70% of voters who today think Bush has been dead wrong. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made his name by apparent efficiency and compassion during the 9/11 attacks. He now seems to see his task as one of outdoing McCain’s jingoism. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has positioned himself to seem the most “standard” candidate around; but he is a member of the Christian sect known as the Mormons, prejudice against whom remains deep in the country and Romney may eventually face the same uphill task as Obama.
New shoots of life
Surprise factors have been upstart anti-War candidates. Mike Gravel, a principled former Senator from Alaska, forced his fellow-Democrats to face up to their hypocrisy over Iraq and war in general. But Gravel is the longest of long shots, and lacks the power of any of the Democratic special interest groups on his side. Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul is the dark horse in the entire field at the moment. He is staunchly libertarian or “classical liberal” on principle, believes in a wholly non-interventionist American foreign policy, consistently voted against the Iraq war and has never voted in favour of raising taxes. He is the runaway favourite of the Internet where America’s real political discussion is increasingly taking place, and his grassroots support among both Republicans and Democrats opposed to the Iraq war is swelling fast. An obstetric surgeon by profession, Paul, at age 71, has been and remains married only once (an American rarity), and may well appeal to all sides of the political and economic spectra although his technical monetary economics is weak. What his emergence does show is how American democracy is yet able to spring healthy shoots of new life from within a decaying morass.
Correction : In my previous article “On Indian Nationhood”, it was said Independence came “forty years” after Montagu-Chelmsford when it was thirty years. The error is regretted. I had meant the Morley-Minto period of 1906-1908.
February 13, 2006 — drsubrotoroy
SEPARATION OF POWERS
Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws outlined a doctrine that applies to India, the USA and all constitutional democracies: there is no monopoly of political wisdom.
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman, The Statesman Editorial Page, Special Article Feb 12-13 2006
The Speaker’s noble office is that of the single member of the House, traditionally chosen by unanimity, whose task it is to self-effacingly maintain order in Parliamentary debate and proceedings, so that the House’s work gets done. C’est tout. Once chosen Speaker, he ipso facto retires from partisan politics for life. The Speaker neither contributes to the substance of Parliamentary debate (except in the rare case of a tie) nor has to feel personally responsible for Parliament’s conduct.
Our Parliament has tended to become so dysfunctional since Indira Gandhi and her sycophants destroyed its traditions 30 years ago, that supervising its normal work is an onerous enough task for even the finest of Speakers to handle.
The Lok Sabha’s incumbent Speaker has tended to see himself as the champion of Parliament. He need not. He does not command a majority in the Lok Sabha; the Government Party does. We have had the oddest peculiarity unfolding in India at present where the person who does command the Lok Sabha’s majority, and therefore who would be normally defined as Prime Minister of India, has chosen to nominate someone who is not a member of the Lok Sabha to act as Prime Minister, i.e. to command the Lok Sabha’s majority. (The Rajya Sabha was and remains irrelevant to most things important to Indian democracy, regardless of its narcissism and vanity). Someone with access to 10 Janpath should have told Sonia Gandhi in May 2004 that if she did not wish to be PM and wanted to gift the job to someone else, she should do so to someone who, like herself, had been elected to the Lok Sabha, like Pranab Mukherjee (elected for the first time) or Kamal Nath or Priya Ranjan (both veterans).
Manmohan Singh, a former Lok Sabha candidate, may as Finance Minister have been able to progress much further with economic reforms. But sycophancy has ruled the roost in the Congress’s higher echelons, and nobody had the guts to tell her that. Indeed as early as December 2001, Congress leaders knew that in the unlikely event they won the polls, Manmohan Singh would likely be PM by Sonia Gandhi’s choice (though he was not expected to last long at the top), and yet he did not contest the Lok Sabha polls in 2004.
The Government of the day, not the Speaker, is Parliament’s champion in any discussion with the Supreme Court over constitutional rights and Separation of Powers. And the Government has in fact quietly and sensibly requested the Supreme Court to set up a Constitutional Bench for this purpose. Such a Constitutional Bench shall have cause to ask itself how far Kesavananda Bharati needs to be tweaked if at all to accommodate the contention that Parliament has a right to judge its own members. The Court may well likely say that of course Parliament has a right to judge its own members but even that right is not an absolute right, (nothing is). Even Parliament’s right to judge its own members must be in accordance with natural law, with principles of justice, with due and clearly defined processes. E.g. the established Privileges Committee and not the ad hoc Bansal Committee had to do the needful.
Imagine a hypothetical case of fantastic fiction where half a dozen independent MPs are elected to a future Lok Sabha, and then take it upon themselves to expose corruption and shenanigans of all major political parties. Our fantastic super-heroes become whistleblowers within Parliament itself while remaining totally incorruptible as individuals — like Eliot Ness’s team who jailed Al Capone and other gangsters, and came to be depicted in Hollywood’s The Untouchables. These Untouchables would come to be feared and despised by everyone from Communists on one side of the political spectrum to Fascists on the other. They would upset everybody precisely because they were so clean and were not purchasable. The Government and Opposition of the day might wellgang up to expel such troublemakers and even fabricate charges to do so. (Now there’s a script for a Bollywood movie!)
What our Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench decides now in the matter at hand will determine the fate of our super-heroes in such a future fantasia. The present case is a polar opposite — where MPs have been caught on camera with their sordid fingers in the cookie-jar, and then made to walk the plank immediately by their peers. Yet natural law applies here as it will to our fantastic future fighters, and this is what the Bench would have to speak on.
Why the present situation continues to be disconcerting is because the whole country heard all the holier-than-thou protestations, yet everyone continues to take a very dim view of what they see of politicians’ behaviour. There remain strong suspicions that only a few very tiny tips of very large icebergs were or can be caught on camera. Large-scale deals and contracts involve payments into invisible bank accounts, not petty cash into pockets or even suitcases filled with cash sloshing around Delhi.
What we have desperately needed in the situation is modern prime ministerial leadership which could intelligently and boldly guide national debate in the right direction on the whole matter of probity in public life. Why a distinguished parliamentarian like the Speaker has found himself in the limelight is because neither the de jure nor de facto Prime Ministers of India are anywhere to be seen thinking on their feet on these central issues of constitutional procedure and practice. They tend to use prepared scripts and may be temperamentally disinclined to do what has been called for by these unscripted circumstances. (Indeed the much-maligned H. D. Deve Gowda could be alone among the bevy of recent PMs who has been able to think on his feet at all.)
Collapse Before Executive Power
In the meantime, the United States is going through its own Separation of Powers’ crisis. As explained in these columns previously, the American system is distinctly different from the British, and our own system is midway between them. Yet similar principles may be discerned to apply or fail to be applied in all.
Winston Churchill once perspicaciously observed:
“The rigid Constitution of the United States, the gigantic scale and strength of its party machinery, the fixed terms for which public officers and representatives are chosen, invest the President with a greater measure of autocratic power than was possessed before (the First World War) by the Head of any great State. The vast size of the country, the diverse types, interests and environments of its enormous population, the safety-valve function of the legislatures of fifty Sovereign States, make the focussing of national public opinion difficult, and confer upon the Federal Government exceptional independence of it except at fixed election times. Few modern Governments need to concern themselves so little with the opinion of the party they have beaten at the polls; none secures to its supreme executive officer, at once the Sovereign and the Party Leader, such direct personal authority.”
America’s Legislative Branch has, on paper, strong powers of advice and consent to control errors, excesses or abuse of power by the Executive President. But (with rare and courageous exceptions like Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia) the Legislature cravenly collapsed before the father-son Bush presidencies in regard to the Middle East wars of recent years. America’s once-revered federal judiciary has also tended to lose its independence of mind with overt politicisation of judicial appointments in recent decades.
Bush the First went to war against Saddam Hussein (a former American ally against Islamic Iran) at least partly with an eye to winning re-election in 1992 (which he would have done as a result but for a random shock known as Ross Perot; Bill Clinton became the beneficiary). Bush the Second obsessively wished to follow up on the same, to the point of misjudging the real threat to America from Bin Laden and fabricating a false threat from an emasculated Saddam.
America’s Legislature palpably failed to control her Presidents. Now, late in the day, after all the horses have bolted, the Senate Judiciary Committee began tepid hearings on February 5 2006 into whether the President authorized laws to be broken with impunity in regard to wire-tapping some 5,000 citizens (doubtless mostly non-white and Muslim) without judicial warrants. Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the Committee’s Chairman, has said he believes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been “flatly” violated, and “strained and unrealistic” justifications are now being offered. Bush’s men, from his Vice President and Attorney General to political intelligence operatives, have brazenly placed in the dustbin the traditional principle fiat justitia pereat mundus — let justice be done even if the world perishes — saying that the Sovereign can do just as he pleases to save the realm from external enemies as he might perceive and define them to be.
What this kind of collapse in current American practice reveals is a new aspect unknown at the time of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. In the modern world, Separation of Powers involves not merely constitutional institutions like Executive, Legislature and Judiciary but also the normal civil institutions of a free and open society, especially academic institutions and the press. In America, it has been not merely the Legislature and Judiciary which have tended to collapse before Executive Power in regard to the recent Middle East wars, but the media and academia as well.
“Embedded reporters” and Fox TV set the tone for America’s official thought processes about Iraq and the Muslim world — until it has become too late for America’s mainstream media or academics to recover their own credibility on the subject. On the other hand, unofficial public opinion has, in America’s best traditions, demonstrated using vast numbers of Internet websites and weblogs, a spirited Yankee Doodle individuality against the jingoism and war-mongering of the official polity.
Neither the press nor academia had collapsed the same way during America’s last major foreign wars in Vietnam and Cambodia forty years ago, and it may be fairly said that America’s self-knowledge was rather better then than it is now, except of course there were no Internet websites and weblogs.
Our Pakistani Cousins
Across the border from us, our Pakistani cousins are, from a political and constitutional point of view, cut from the same cloth as ourselves, namely the 1935 Government of India Act, and the Montague-Chelmsford and Morley-Minto reforms earlier. However, ever since Jinnah’s death, they have refused to admit this and instead embarked haplessly on what can only be called an injudicious path of trying to write a Constitution for a new Caliphate. The primary demand of the main scholars influencing this process was “That the sovereignty in Pakistan belongs to God Almighty alone and that the Government of Pakistan shall administer the country as His agent”. By such a view, in the words of Rashid Rida and Maulana Maududi, Islam becomes “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. The philosophical foundation of Western democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Lawmaking is their prerogative and legislation must correspond to the mood and temper of their opinion… Islam… altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the viceregency (Khilafat) of man.” (Rosenthal, Islam & the Modern National State, Cambridge 1965.) Pakistan’s few modern constitutionalists have been ever since battling impossibly to overcome the ontological error made here of assuming that any mundane government can be in communication with God Almighty. In the meantime, all normal branches of Pakistan’s polity, like the electorate, press, political parties, Legislature and Judiciary, have remained at best in ill-formed inchoate states of being — while the Pakistan Armed Forces stepped in with their own large economic and political interests and agendas to effectively take over the country and the society as a whole, on pretext of protecting Pakistan from India or of gaining J&K for it. Pakistan’s political problems have the ontological error at their root. Pakistan’s political parties, academics and press, have with rare exceptions remained timid in face of the militaristic State — directing their anger and frustration at an easier target instead, namely ourselves in India. The Pakistan Government’s way of silencing its few political, academic or press dissidents has been to send them into comfortable exile abroad.
Sheikh Abdullah Contrasted
Pakistan’s perpetual constitutional confusion deserves to be contrasted with the clarity of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s thinking, e.g. his 5 November 1951 speech to the Constituent Assembly of J&K: “You are the sovereign authority in this State of Jammu & Kashmir; what you decide has the irrevocable force of law. The basic democratic principle of sovereignty of the nation, embodied ably in the American and French Constitutions, is once again given shape in our midst. I shall quote the famous words of Article 3 of the French Constitution of 1791:- ‘The source of all sovereignty resides fundamentally in the nation. Sovereignty is one and indivisible, inalienable and imprescriptable. It belongs to the nation.’ We should be clear about the responsibilities that this power invests us with. In front of us lie decisions of the highest national importance which we shall be called upon to take. Upon the correctness of our decisions depends not only the happiness of our land and people now, but the fate as well of generations to come.”
Contrasting the Pakistani views of constitution-making with those of Sheikh Abdullah may help to explain a great deal about where we are today on the delicate and profound subject of J&K. (See “Solving Kashmir”, The Statesman, December 1—3, 2005)
India’s current debate about Separation of Powers needs to keep at a distance the clear negative examples of our American friends, who have brought upon themselves in recent times a craven collapse of Legislature, Judiciary, press and academia to the Executive President (as Churchill had seemed to predict), as well as of our Pakistani cousins who have continued with general political and civil collapse for half a century. Because our universities are all owned by the State, India’s academics, from Communist to Fascist, have tended to be servile towards it. In respect of the press, the power of independent newspapers has been dwindling, while the new TV anchors have created their own models of obsequiousness and chummery towards New Delhi’s ruling cliques of the day. It thus becomes India’s Supreme Court which remains the ultimate guardian of our Constitution and the safest haven of our very fragile freedoms — besides of course our own minds and hearts.
February 5, 2006 — drsubrotoroy
OF GRAVEN IMAGES
It is a fallacy of our narcissistic age to expect images of what supreme leaders of thought may have looked like; their teachings and deeds are unaffected by our erroneous expectations
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, Feb 5 2006
IT is hard for us in our narcissistic age of photography, cinema, TV and the Internet to imagine older worlds and cultures where men and women (especially named historical figures) lived and died without any images whatsoever being left behind of what they may have looked like. Few of us know what our own great great grandparents looked like, and they died only a century ago. In Indian religious and philosophical thought, we hardly even know any names.
Eliot in his monumental Hinduism and Buddhism said, “In reading the Brahamanas and older Upanishads we often wish we knew more of the writers and their lives. Rarely can so many representative men have bequeathed so much literature and yet left so dim a sketch of their times. Thought was their real life… we hear surprisingly little about contemporary events.”
In Jain tradition, the first saint, Risabha, son of a king of Ayodhya, was born 100 billion sagaras of years ago, where one sagara is 100 billion palyas, and a palya is the period in which a well a mile deep filled with fine hairs can be emptied if one hair is withdrawn every one hundred years. That is a long time. Risabha lived 8,400,000 years, exceeding all the enormous longevities mentioned in Judaeo-Christian scriptures.
Fortunately for the cause of logic and natural science, “the lives of his successors and the intervals which separated them became shorter”. In Asoka’s edicts, the Jains find their first definite objective mention outside fable, myth and legend. Mahavira, the 24th and greatest Jain saint, whose personal name was Vardhamana, was a contemporary of Buddha though somewhat older. His parents lived in a suburb of Vaisali. When he was 34, “they decided to die by voluntary starvation and after their deaths he renounced the world and started to wander naked in western Bengal, enduring some persecution as well as self-inflicted penances.” Thirteen years later, at age 47, Mahavira had attained enlightenment and appeared as the head of the Nigantha religious order, i.e. the “unfettered”, and it is by that name that the Jains are known to the Buddhists. No image of the historical Mahavira is available, which should not surprise us given the great length of time that separates us as well as the simple fact that the art of realistic portrait-painting is but a few centuries old — starting with, say, Rembrandt and the Dutch Masters — and of course the arts of photography etc are all wholly recent.
Of Gotama, the Buddha, the Sakyamuni of Mahayana tradition, there have been countless images made over the millennia though none may bear any recognisable likeness to the actual man. During his period of fruitless self-mortification, we have his own words “When I touched my belly, I felt my backbone through it and when I touched my back, I felt my belly”. After his enlightenment, wanderings and teachings, the “beauty of his appearance and the pleasant quality of his voice are often mentioned but in somewhat conventional terms which inspire no confidence that they are based on personal reminiscence, nor have the most ancient images which we possess any claim to represent his features, for the earliest of them are based on Greek models and it was not the custom to represent him by a figure until some centuries after his death.”
It is possible “the truest idea of his person is to be obtained not from the abundant effigies which show him as a somewhat sanctimonious ascetic, but from the statues of him as a young man such as that found at Sarnath, which may possibly preserve not indeed the physiognomy of Gotama but the general physique of a young Nepalese prince, with powerful limbs and features and a determined mouth. For there is truth at the bottom of the saying that Gotama was born to be either a Buddha or a universal monarch: he would have made a good general, if he had not become a monk” (Eliot).
In case of Yeshua ben Nazereth, the founder of Christianity, the controversy has become most intense in recent times. A trial has begun in an Italian courtroom on 27 January 2006 as to whether Jesus existed at all, whether the Roman Catholic Church has violated Italian law by teaching about him. An atheist plaintiff, Luigi Cascioli, has alleged “The Church constructed Christ upon the personality of John, the son of Judas of Gamala”, and claims it is up to the Church to prove in court that Jesus did exist. A priest, Enrico Righi, representing the Church in court, has been accused of breaking two laws: impersonation and abuse of public belief, for having published in a parish bulletin that Jesus was born of a couple named Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth. Judge Gaetano Mautone initially refused to hear the case but was forced to do so after being over-ruled by the Court of Appeals.
As for what the historical Jesus may have looked like, The Bible gives no physical description other than in Isaiah 53:2b, “he hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”As a Palestinian Jew, Jesus was likely to have been dark, not the blue-eyed Nordic Jesus of modern American imagination with Presbyterian nose, long blonde hair and height of six feet (Fig. 1). For centuries, the Shroud of Turin was believed by many to have been the actual burial cloth of Jesus — until modern scientific techniques of carbon-dating have conclusively proved that the Shroud was probably of a medieval nobleman and had nothing to do with the historical Jesus. Out of respect as well as sheer ignorance of what he may have looked like, modern cinematic productions traditionally did not show Christ’s face. But based on the Shroud of Turin image (Fig 2), the actor Jim Caviezel recently acted the role of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” (Fig. 3). Jean Claude Gragard, in a 2001 BBC documentary “Son of God” chose a different way. “Using archaeological and anatomical science rather than artistic interpretation makes this (Fig 4) the most accurate likeness ever created. It isn’t the face of Jesus, because we’re not working with the skull of Jesus, but it is the departure point for considering what Jesus would have looked like.” They “started with an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. They then used computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time to determine the shape of the face, and colour of eyes and skin.” The result is “a broad peasant’s face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose, about 5’ 1” in height, 110 pounds in weight.” We do not and cannot in practice know what Jesus looked like but this might be closer to the truth than the work of great artists.
And of course, Jesus’ Divinity to Christian believers, and his teachings and deeds for all mankind, like those of Mahavira or Buddha or other supreme leaders of human thought like Aristotle, Zarathustra, Confucius, Muhammad and Nanak, are unaffected by whatever image people have erroneously made of them.
see also my Twitter Wall on the CharlieHebdo controversy; also https://independentindian.com/2001/12/22/the-case-for-and-against-the-satanic-verses/ and https://independentindian.com/science-religion-art-the-necessity-of-freedom-2004/