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How India needs characters created by Harper Lee, Umberto Eco

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By Vikas Dutta

Last week the literature world witnessed the death of two great authors as American reclusive Harper Lee and Italian philosopher Umberto Eco passed away. The connection between them is not just the timing of death but that both of them had a decent, tolerant lawyer who combats prejudice and vigilantism and a rational, tolerant monk who solves mysteries as the main character of their first fictional work. Recent events in India showed the need of both as role models.

Mockingbird” (1960) set in segregationist American south in the 1930s and Brother William of Baskerville of “The Name of the Rose” (1980) taking place in superstition- and schism-ridden northern Italy in the 14th century are not only models for emulation but the authors’ abiding contribution towards the goals of human dignity, equity, tolerance and reason. Remembering them is the best tribute we can pay to their creators.

Both works have been made into acclaimed films, with the parts played memorably by Gregory Peck and Sean Connery respectively (and earning them an Oscar and a BAFTA for best actor). Most of us would have read the books and/or seen the films but for those who might not have, or forgotten, the characters can be introduced again.

Like their creators, the middle-aged, widowed lawyer and the Franciscan monk are both disparate characters, not only in time and space but nature too though they have certain points of resemblance. Apart from being “moral compasses” and morally and personally courageous, they are caring father figures – Finch to his children (six-year-old Jean-Louise “Scout” and 10-year-old Jeremy “Jem”) and William to a companion, novice Adso.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, based on Lee’s own reminiscences (Finch turned out to be based on her own father) and incorporating some contemporary racial issues, is set in a small town in Alabama during the Great Depression. Finch is asked to defend a young black man, Tom Robbins, accused of raping a white woman, and agrees despite public disapproval. Not only does he defend his charge the best he can, he also protects him from a lynch mob. He is, however, unable to get Robbins off despite demolishing the prosecution case, and learns later that he has been shot “while trying to escape”.

But despite the outcome, it is the qualities Finch embodies – decent, fair treatment to all people, not to respond to violence with violence, to stand for what you believe and not force it on others – that make him relevant for any time.

A quote from the book – also used in the film – is illustrative. As he advises his daughter: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was Lee’s sole work. “Go Set a Watchman” (2015), set some years in the future and presenting a Finch who is not so heroic, is touted as a sequel but as per detailed examination is deemed to be an earlier draft.

Eco, apart from being a best-selling novelist, was an academician with significant contributions to semiotics or study of human signs and symbols and their interpretation, aesthetics, literary theory, media culture and philosophy and it shows in “The Name of the Rose”.

William and Adso reach a northern Italian monastery to attend a theological disputation, but all is not calm there. First there is a suicide and then several other mysterious deaths and William is asked to probe but there is labyrinthine library whose mysteries have to be solved, some secrets that the abbot is unwilling to divulge and the Inquisition is also present.

With his name commemorating a medieval philosopher and the area of a famous detective’s most celebrated exploits, the character’s inspiration is obvious. William of Ockham’s philosophical technique “Ockham’s Razor” advised that the simplest explanation accounting for all the facts should always be accepted as most likely mirrors Holmes’ dictum “that when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth”.

William also looks and behaves like Holmes, being tall, so thin that he appears taller, with sharp and piercing eyes, a thin, sharp nose and a prominent chin, is capable of most intense activity but curiously still when not intellectually stimulated, and has the same sharp intellect and deduction powers. Unlike Holmes, his skills were not very welcome in his era but he didn’t let it deter him.

When brute prejudice reigns, unthinking conformity imposed and dissent deemed criminal, such models are more than necessary. But will we – and especially those demeaning these professions – only let them remain fictional archetypes?

(21.02.2016 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )(IANS)(image-wikipedia)

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India 2nd in Government Requests for Users’ Data on Facebook

In the second half of 2018, Facebook identified 53 disruptions of Facebook services in nine countries, compared to 48 disruptions in eight nations in the first half of 2018

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FILE - A man poses for a photo in front of a computer showing Facebook ad preferences in San Francisco, California, March 26, 2018. VOA

The Indian government requested Facebook to provide data for 20,805 users (including 861 emergency requests) — second only to the US government — in the July-December 2018 period and the social networking giant provided some data in 53 per cent of the cases.

During the second half of 2018, the volume of content restrictions based on local law increased globally by 135 per cent — from 15,337 to 35,972.

“This increase was primarily driven by 16,600 items we restricted in India based on a Delhi High Court order regarding claims made about PepsiCo products,” said Facebook in its latest Transparency Report for the second half of 2018.

The US government asked for users’ data in 41,336 cases wherein Facebook provided some information in 88 per cent of the cases.

“In the second half of 2018, government requests for user data increased globally by seven per cent from 103,815 to 110,634,” Chris Sonderby, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Facebook, said in a statement late Thursday.

“Of the total volume, the US continues to submit the highest number of requests, followed by India, the UK, Germany and France,” he added.

In a separate post, Facebook said it removed more than three billion fake accounts in the October 2018-March 2019 period, saying that about 5 per cent of its monthly active users were fake.

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FILE – The Facebook app icon is shown on an iPhone in New York. VOA

Facebook disabled 1.2 billion accounts in Q4 2018 and 2.19 billion in Q1 2019.

“For fake accounts, the amount of accounts we took action on increased due to automated attacks by bad actors who attempt to create large volumes of accounts at one time,” Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president for integrity, said in a blog post.

According to Rosen, for every 10,000 times people who view content on Facebook, 11 to 14 views contained content that violate the platform’s adult nudity and sexual activity policy.

In the second half of 2018, Facebook identified 53 disruptions of Facebook services in nine countries, compared to 48 disruptions in eight nations in the first half of 2018.

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“This half, India accounted for 85 per cent of total new global disruptions,” the company informed.

In this period, on Facebook and Instagram, the company took down 2,595,410 pieces of content based on 511,706 copyright reports; 215,877 pieces of content based on 81,243 trademark reports; and 781,875 pieces of content based on 62,829 counterfeit reports.

“In Q1 2019, we took action on about 900,000 pieces of drug sale content, of which 83.3 per cent we detected pro-actively. In the same period, we took action on about 670,000 pieces of firearm sale content, of which 69.9 per cent we detected pro-actively,” added Rosen. (IANS)