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A year on the Prime Minister's Great Idea may have turned out to be a dud

Mao ZeDong’s Great Leap Forward [1]  has to be the most outstanding example of the devastating harm from the unintended consequences of a state policy that aimed to modernize and develop an entire country.  It resulted in the deaths of 45 million Chinese in 4 years [2].

That was possible only because China was a Communist dictatorship and Mao held absolute power over both Party and the people of China. He decided it was a good idea and the Great Leap Forward happened.

In contrast, Mr Modi’s sudden, dramatic and hugely disruptive announcement of a year ago on Nov 8 2016 [3] was a tame affair; only a few score people died[4]. Like the Great Leap Forward, it too was one man’s Great Idea [5]; the aims were similarly laudable even if the goalposts kept changing; unlike Mao ZeDong though, Mr Modi was an elected leader of a Party that had won a decisive mandate.

Black Money was a major problem, declared the Prime Minister, and it called for a dramatic, decisive and bold step. Effective midnight 8th Nov 2016 the 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would be raddi ('worthless pieces of paper' to use the PM's words). New notes would be issued, including inexplicably a 2000R-Rupee note; and people left holding the old notes would be able to exchange them at banks or deposit them for credit to their accounts.

Almost everyone in India was affected and quite a few overseas Indians. Those with real black money (held as cash, you were safe if all your illegal wealth was held as gold or real estate)  found ingenious ways to convert their illegal stash of old notes into bank deposits.

The others, especially the poor, suffered the most. Day-to-day commercial transactions seized up. Shopping for groceries, taxi rides, buying a train ticket, paying the utility bill - all the routine stuff of everyday life became hard. Given that the notes that were declared illegal made up fully 86% of the currency-in-circulation, and that for all but the richest urban citizens India was still predominantly a cash economy, this was hardly surprising. Daily wage labourers lost livelihoods; victims of domestic violence lost the money they were hiding from violent partners; small businesses saw customers turn away; smaller businesses and street traders could not afford to take up the offer of Point of Sale equipment.  The rural sector was worst hit;  agricultural markets collapsed in a state-ordained market failure. [6]

But there was also widespread support for a ‘decisive strike against the rich and the corrupt’; in the days of chaos that followed, support for the Prime Minister hardly wavered. The cause was a noble one and people were prepared to make personal sacrifices for the national good. In time the economy would pick up, more of the informal cash-driven sector would be persuaded, cajoled or dragged into the formal, digital-transaction banked sector, the tax take would rise and India would become a modern rich economy. Trillions of rupees would not be returned to the banks by rich crooks and the ensuing windfall would be put to good use in building up national infrastructure. That, at any rate, was the hope.

It remained a forlorn hope. None of the claimed benefits materialised.

By June 2017, even the Govt's staunchest media supporter, SwarajyaMag.com acknowledged that the move had not lived up to the expectations. [7] press Very little Black money has been unearthed. After much delay a discredited central bank finally came out with the figures that almost all of the notes in circulation have been handed in [8]. There were no major prosecutions for tax evasion or illegal money laundering.

The process of re-monetisation with the new notes gradually picked up and by the 1st anniversary the total currency in circulation was back to 85% of what it used to be. Cashless transaction rose in the early days after Nov 2016 as people were forced to use alternative means of payment but have since fallen back to previous levels as currency became available.[9]

The wider economic damage too has been widely acknowledged. GDP growth fell back to levels last seen in the worst years of the previous  regime.[10] Jobs growth just did not materialise.

The Great Idea of 2016 will continue to be assessed, studied, debated and analysed for a long time, [11] But some questions may never be unanswered for many years to come.

  • What advice and analysis went into the formulation of the policy? Were experts consulted at all?
  • What was the role of economic and finance policy institutions like the Reserve Bank of India and NITI-Aayog? Did they play a role in the formulation of the policy and its implementation or were they relegated to serving as mere apologists for the ill-effects of a decision taken by an autocratic Prime Minister?
  • Why did Cabinet not protest at being ensconed in a room without access to mobile phones as the decision was announced?
  • Was it not the role of Parliament to hold the Government to account?
  • Will there ever be an independent cost-benefit analysis of the decision?

 

References:

  1. See this wikipedia account of the Great Leap Forward.
  2. See: this review of a book on the subject. I acknowledge that I have not read the book in the original.
  3. See this article in the Scroll.In for a review of how the news was covered in the newspapers on Nov 9th 2016.
  4. Deaths attributable directly and solely to the scrapping of notes was always going to be difficult. That a number of deaths occurred in queues is undeniable. Were they caused by the need to stand in queues? That's more difficult. Arguably the distress, the economic harm, the job losses and the lost wages/livelihoods and savings took its toll on ordinary people. The exact number of deaths became a political ding-dong  that diverted attention from the bigger question of the wisdom of the policy.
  5. We'll never know for certain that the final decision to go ahead and DeMonetise the currency was entirely Mr Modi's. There has never been a proper enquiry. All the indirect evidence points to it being either solely or largely his decision and his alone. Much later on it emerged that the RBI Board met on the morning of the 8th Nov and agreed to a Govt proposal but the delay in publishing this resolution leads to the suspicion that it was a hastily put together fig leaf. See: this and this . There's also speculation that a war on cash was one of the suggestions put forward to Mr Modi by an engineer and keen campaigner for tax reform Mr Anil Bokil of the Pune based ArthaKranti Foundation . Its worth noting that these ideas have no traction among mainstream economists.
  6. See the writings of P Sainath on the effects of the noteban on rural economy of India.  https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/demonetisation
  7. SwarajyaMag.com is an online journal that is openly and avowedly right wing and a keen supporter of the PM's party. In an unexpected op-ed piece on June 14 2017, R Jagannathan the editor declared Demonetisation to be a failure but argued that the critics were right for the wrong reasons. Their criticisms, he argued was led more by animosity towards Mr Modi than by any special economic insight. But even I, as an amateur student of economics, argued in my blog of 16 Nov 2016, a week after the decision to demonetise, that it was a flawed policy that would do nothing to root out black money. I argued that DeMonetisation would cause tremendous hardship and loss to large numbers of people, that it would not deliver its claimed benefits, that there were other better targeted means of combating black money.  It was, I argued neither necessary nor sufficient to make a serious dent in black money. At that time, it is important to note, the stated aim was to eliminate black money. The push to a digital cashless payments system came later on.
  8. The earlier, almost gleeful, expectation was that as much as 3.5 to 5 trillion rupees worth of high denomination notes would not be handed back in and would be a free windfall for the Reserve Bank of India which would see a dramatic drop in its liabilities. This would be a huge bonanza in the form of a one off dividend from RBI to the Govt. This euphoria evaporated when someone pointed out that a decline in liabilities affected the balance sheet but would not lead to a profit and the RBI act  required it to pay a dividend only out of annual profits from banking activities. In the event the actual dividend that RBI paid out to the Govt in 2017 actually fell by almost half compared to the previous year. The losses arose out of scrapping the old notes, printing new ones, and the extra logistics costs of shipping the new notes out to where it was needed.
  9. I published a twitter thread and a moment with analysis of month-by-month time series data right up to August 2017 of the amount of money that flowed through non-cash digital payments systems. These include bank-to bank systems, like real time gross settlements used by businesses, paper-based payments systems (bank drafts and cheques), retail electronic payments, credit and debit card payments, and mobile banking payments. These charts show that any effect of DeMonetisation has been at best short-lived. There has been a growth in the number of point of sale terminals but from a very low base, and a growth in the number of subscribers to mobile phone based payments systems.
  10. The GDP growth slowdown has been widely commented upon. The standard Govt response has wavered between arguing that DeMonetisation was necessary medicine for a a backward economy built on cash-fuelled corruption, and a counterattack that the slowdown is not due to Demonetisation but was in the making long before Nov 2016. As arguments go both are own-goals and ill-serve the Govt's credibility.  
  11. The Harvard Business review paper argues that the 4 lessons to learn are
    • Choose your experts carefully. Mr Modi may have been influenced by a few cranks posing as economic experts with not so much out-of-the-box ideas as off the wall thoughts.
    • Dont ignore basic data. All the evidence was that only 6% of black or illegal wealth was held in cash. Not attacking the sources of corruption - politicians, real estate, and big businessmen meant tha instead of a targeted approach we had an assault on everyone - honest and weak included, in which the rich and corrupt got clean away.
    • Consider human behaviour. People found a way out of the cash crunch both to manage their poor honest lives and to squirrel away whatever illegal cash they held. Digital transaction was already growing as fast as it could given the infrastructure available, so as soon as new cash came into the system any spurt faded away.
    • Beware of digital silver bullets. India came 41st out of 42 countries just ahead of arch-rival Pakistan in the infrastructure needed to support a digital payments eco-system. However 'bold' and 'decisive' an executive ordz er cannot replace patient attention to detail.

1

The Indian socio-political space is polarized as never before. The religious and economic right wings came together in an unprecedented show of solidarity and gave India its first Prime Minister who refuses to answer any questioning. The writing was on the wall. Subramanian Swamy had detailed the RSS "plan" as far back as 1999 with remarkable accuracy if one is to read it with the wisdom of hindsight.

Arundhati Roy had spoken of the economic separation going on in the Indian society in words that have since been seared onto the minds of most people who read them.

What we’re witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in Independent India. The secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country. It’s a vertical secession, not a lateral one. They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.

Journalists, bloggers, social media commentators have been pointing to this situation coming. This blog has certainly not pulled any punches, and the only surprise in it is the number of people who apparently did not imagine that people given to disregarding law and country while not even in power are wreaking complete mayhem now that they are.

Repulsive utterances and acts have systematically decimated any gullible people who had believed that the country would thrive under a Hindutva right extremist government. Pretty much the only supporters the government has left is its core constituency - those who support them not in spite of their communally hostile views and acts, but because of them. Businessmen are already talking about lack of investments, rupee continues to sink and so on.

Call it BJP's anti-intellectualism committing suicide by pitting itself against institutions of education or call it the simple end of the election campaign resulting in the fog of advertising coming off people's eyes, blaming the right is not such a difficult thing these days. They seem to be doing more than half the work themselves.

In the process, what is happening is a complete absolution of those who are not these barbarians. The nice halos of liberals, intellectuals, leftists and what not other identities with lofty morals are shining brilliant more from the lack lustre contrast of a determinedly incompetent right than any particular merit of their own.

How easy it has become to forget that the Congress pretty much handed the country to BJP on a platter, or that the excellent campaign of Kejriwal suddenly stopped talking of deliverables and dived into Gods after pitching the meager finances of the party into Varanasi and ensuring that hundreds of other seats did not campaign well for shortage of money? A careful Modi wave respected the Gandhi and Yadav parivars even when it swept across UP in a historic win. BJP returned the favor in Delhi elections giving AAP the landslide win so close to Kejriwal's heart. Of course, Kejriwal wasn't ungrateful. After becoming CM and whisking off for treatment at the supposedly hated PM's recommendation, his party did a nice purge of leftists who could have a problem with placing results over ethics or process.

And it goes on. Rahul Gandhi has started finding his eloquence. A near dead left is suddenly visible on Twitter. The country, as is normal for a democracy has no real answer for who should lead it.

Unless India wants to keep swinging between opportunists, the need of the hour is for a struggle for the intellect. A struggle to examine social norms, assumptions, and holy cows and test them against own reasoning, own experiences in life,  own sense of judgment. A struggle to assert own authority to demand accountability and performance from a government.

While there is no doubt that the Hindutva right is a disaster for India not just socially and economically, but in terms of intellectual capital, fundamental freedoms and perhaps even national integration itself, blaming the Hindutva right for the state of the country would be a mistake. For all their faults, their unsuitability was never hidden. A phenomenal carpet bombing of propaganda, entire cover ups of history, brutal and crude campaigns, opportunistic use of human rights propaganda and more got them a landslide victory. A complete multi-pronged brainwashing campaign with a budget to rival the GDPs of entire countries and still, their vote share wasn't a third of the voters in the country.

Can a citizen afford to forget that while the Hindutva right may be guilty of conducting this "advertising scam" and while it may be "guilty" of governing exactly as it has always said it wants a country to be run, it is the complacency of the left and the intellectuals that completely failed to challenge even a single prong of the facade? The word intellectual implies a mind that spends time in thought. A mind capable of more efficient thinking, more robust processes of concluding. Is it not time that the citizen asked whether the country's public intellectuals have served it well?

I have yet to find a reasoned argument that can engage with a crude and illogical defamatory conclusion that makes up in quantity what lacks in quality when it comes to propagation. Why is it that our intellectuals have not made an effort to fight the dangerous undermining of critical thinking nationwide, even as there has been no shortage of them screaming alarm that it was happening?

The right has never pretended to include people. Their concept is simple. "We are the rightful rulers of this land, and we'd like the rest of you to vanish. In any case, we will oppose you anything you want, fundamental right or otherwise" This is no secret. The fundamental of the ideology plays out when it is possible to simply accuse someone loudly enough for it to be a truth to be fixed with a lynch mob. It is not that the mob is stupid enough that no one realizes that the targets are probably framed. It is that the mob is fine with the destruction of the targets for whatever the superficial reason. Be it a Dadri lynching or "terrorists" in JNU.

The question of national integration has to be one for the left to answer. Because the left claims to believe in inclusion. Have they been talking to be understood by all, if a country can be fooled into pseudo-nationalist outrage at the drop of a hat? Have our public thinkers thought loud enough?

While our upper and middle classes are seceding into the stratosphere economically, is it not equally true that our intellectuals have so seceded into an intellectual stratosphere that their ideas of free speech and fundamental rights don't sound familiar to the masses?

A blog by a right wing blogger, Amrit Hallan comes to mind. In it, he compares why Niti Central shut down, but Scroll thrived. To me, the reason seems to be that Niti Central was set up with the specific purpose of electoral propaganda when BJP was in the opposition. Its archives contain often reckless condemnation of a lot of things done by the UPA2 that BJP is currently doing, and it is no longer a suitable publication for the purposes of those it served, because its own archives would condemn those it favors. My guess is that in a few months, it will mushroom up in another avatar with content more suitable to publicizing the work of this government and nothing inconvenient criticizing very similar actions by another government.

But reading the piece by Amrit Hallan was a revelation. Not because his analysis differed from mine - that is bound to happen - I have an extremely cynical view of political propaganda as a whole and BJP affiliated propaganda in particular. What stunned me was how he saw the "Left". From reading his post, the inescapable perception is that of the "left" as he puts it (including leftists and "Congis", activists, etc) as a monolith. He goes to the extent of speaking of leftists promoting each other by name or linking to pieces and creating an artificial credibility where none exists. To look at the piece in terms of its merit as a debate would laugh it off the stage, because it is so absurd.

Yet, if someone does not understand the thinking that leads to stands on fundamental rights, would not completely independent instances of agreement with rights they do not wish to give appear to be an incomprehensible conspiracy? If I did not understand, say for example architecture and published something that creates an unstable building for reasons completely beyond my knowledge, would experts who trashed my article not appear as a conspiracy of elitists unwilling to recognize my masterpiece because I did not agree with them?

Would it not appear as a conspiracy to someone conditioned to react with hate to "enemies" of India, if their reaction were criticized for impinging on the rights and safety of another? To someone who has never had a deep dialogue on citizenship and the right of every citizen to their nation, would it not appear that there was nothing being impinged in order to correct a perceived threat?

If I wrote an article criticizing the beef ban in Maharashtra from an animal husbandry perspective, Asad Owaisi retweeted it, because he perceives the beef ban as a targeting of Muslims, a few dalit activists retweeted it because of the lack of recognition of dalits eating beef as a legitimate diet of Indian Hindus, if those endorsing fundamental freedoms retweeted it because they oppose the imposition of religious belief on people..... would it not appear to be a conspiracy to a well meaning, if ignorant urban product who has never cared for cattle, but been brought up considering it holy and further radicalized to believe that a cow is nothing and nothing but a symbol of Hindu faith?

Why would an urban mind think about the crisis of fodder and water in rural India? Why would it think of a centuries old thriving trade (and exports) of Kolhapuri chappals? Why would it think of massive income from the export of beef, because Indian taboos make India the only country in the world where beef (considered superior meat) is actually cheaper than goat meat, resulting in massive export business? These things are not told to the mind, the ideas of individual rights are not informed to the mind. What remains is a fog of outraged insult that anybody would kill and eat their mother. That is where the bizarre questions come from.

Would you kill and eat your mother?

Well, I wouldn't tie her in a cattle shed either!

That is what they know. Then begins the desperate search to make an emotional stand sound logical.

No one can know what they don't know. What sort of an intellectual capital have we created that there are so many among our masses who are unaware of the reasoning behind fundamental rights? What sort of an intellectual capital have we created that there are so many left in ignorance that they can be fodder for opportunists to feed ideas for political profit? How is it that we can have a country where the population of cows rivals that of states, and yet the products of our education have no idea of the economy cattle sustain beyond religious faith?

The cow is just an example. This kind of deficit of reasoning that results in dangerous, life threatening outrage can be traced to a lack of adequate information, lack of education, lack of public debate.

We could sneer at them for their stupidity, but it would be useful to remember that we are all products of our circumstances. None of us were born wise. None of us stop learning. All of us learn in various ways unique to us that trigger deeper thought on assumptions that often lead to complete changes in views.

Whose responsibility is it to inculcate such thought? Actually, no one's. Today, we have an abundance of activists pointing out problems and demanding solutions from governments and advocating change, but relatively few reformers who create change regardless of society or government. Governments themselves have over and over abdicated this responsibility. Remember, it wasn't fanatics ruling when we chose to embrace liberalism so thoroughly that our films went from coolie and mazdoor heroes to flashy cars and item girls. It wasn't fanatics in rule when our media chased wealth so thoroughly that national integration was no longer for public content. No more ek chidiya anek chidiya and mile sur mera tumhara. Now paisa bolta hain.

Well, paisa spoke. It spoke so loud that it created an entire fantasy world for youth who never experienced a public space where children dreamed of becoming teachers and scientists instead of MBAs and MNC employees. It never told them of social injustices and showed them films like Amar Prem. Their world is one where these ugly things don't happen. In fact, they are "less privileged", if you look at the bling they are bombarded with as "normal".

You cannot expect private individuals to educate public intellect. You cannot even force them to speak so that they are understood by masses without violating their rights to free speech. That almost sounds like forced conscription for weapons of mass instruction. Something a government will never bring about regardless of political party in power, because idiots are easier to con with pipe dreams than people asking why midday meals are so pathetic and where the money went.

So who is left, whose responsibility it is to create intellectual capital?

No one's. It is a responsibility abdicated by one and all.

But I can tell you what will happen if we do not have a more thinking citizenry. We will burn each other to the ground when incited by opportunists for goals that won't give us a thing beyond the heady sense of being the neighbourhood's biggest bully. Regardless of whether it is the left or the right, the dalits or the brahmins, the Muslims or the Hindutvawadis, everyone will burn. No matter who the opportunists, the ones dying in street fights are always cannon fodder.

1

As I write this post, Indian Digital rights activists are watching in horror as "ethical hacker" Ankit Fadia has been declared the brand ambassador of Digital India. As Twitter goes nuts trying to show how big a "blunder" this is, perhaps it is time to realize that it is not a blunder. It is a deliberate stupidification of India with deliberate installations of mirrors of Modi's will rather than independent intellectuals.

Deliberate incompetence is the hallmark of appointments by Modi sarkar and they happen too often to be considered mistakes. From Smriti Irani, who faked her own education credentials handling National Education to Ankit Fadia, a self proclaimed ethical hacker no professional respects is only the tip of the iceberg that had started showing up right from Modi's election campaign.

Kirron Kher, contesting from Chandigarh in the Lok Sabha Elections had candidly admitted in an interview to the Indian Express, "I am not a politician. I do not see myself as politician. I see myself as somebody who is working for my city and fought (elections) to get one more seat to (Narendra) Modi ji. That is how see myself. I did not ask for the ticket. It was given to me and now I am here." Contesting against a 4 time MP Pawan Bansal of the Congress and Gul Panag of the Aam Aadmi Party, the candidature of Kirron Kher had been met with black flags by BJP workers themselves in Chandigarh. She won.

From Modi's holograms being projected nationwide to sidelining of senior leaders, Modi is clearly a man not interested in the contributions of others, even as he accepts their necessity. The Supreme Court rapped the Women and Child Ministry for the delay in filling vacancies in the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, but the reason turned out to be the PMO not clearing their appointments.

But if we see the appointments being made, there is little reason for cheer. Amartya Sen resigned in protest citing unprecedented interference in academics from the government. I do not see him as a leftist, but I am aware the supporters of the present government do. Yet we now have students of the FTII protesting as well. Surely the case cannot be that Modi lacks supporters among excellent actors that he settled for Gajendra Chauhan to avoid dealing with a "secular" (as his current whine in foreign countries goes)?

In a scathing piece on the rise of "anti-intellectualism" under the present government, Rishi Majumder identifies the common thread behind persistent absurd appointments as "The lack of a strong, distinct, individual vision for what they want to achieve with their charges." even as they are good managers. I see it as the appointees being conduits for a vision dictated from sources out of public scrutiny. Mirrors, mirrors everywhere, readily reflecting someone's will.

But there is more. It is a deliberate flaunting of unchecked stupidification in an obscene carnage of an intellectual India. The word "intellectual" itself has been turned into a slur by the supporters of this regime. The message is clear. "We do not want your fancy theories. We want the freedom to define scholarship however we wish." The trend is far reaching and flaunted at the most trivial of opportunities. Of all the journalists in the world, Modi chose Fareed Zakaria to give his first interview. Till then, Farid Zakaria's biggest attention puller was when his articles got pulled down for plagiarism.

Smriti Irani got rewarded for her loyalty and robust defense of Modi.  Fine. But it is not just that. What she was entrusted with was something she had been discredited for. It is not about less qualified politicians. Faking qualifications on an election affidavit is an act that declares that her qualifications felt inadequate to her own eyes. She could have been rewarded in many other ways, but she now she handles the nation's education. Something she has been established as inadequate about.

It is not merely loyalty. Modi's supporters include several senior journalists as well, but would someone like say, Kanchan Gupta accept being told what he could ask and what he couldn't? In addition to showing critics that they cannot stop him, no matter what he does, Modi's choices of people are also a statement of what behavior among supporters will get rewarded. Modi does not want independent thinking even among his supporters. Kanchan Gupta and Subramanian Swamy - two of the most independent thinking right wing thinkers are conspicuously free of responsibility, even as jokes circulate about Advani in the margadarshak mandal. The three countries Ajit Doval (who had been caught with Chota Rajan'sgangster) took an interest in, bombed in terms of foreign policy. As we speak, freaking "Hindu" Nepal has people outraging against India. It does not seem to matter to anyone. Baba Ramdev is selling churans to cure dengue and collaborating with the Defense Research and Development Organization - toward what purpose is anyone's guess.

Modi himself seems to take absurd speech to greater heights when he talks of Ganesha's head being an evidence of plastic surgery being practiced in ancient India. Not even transplants, mind you. Plastic surgery. While speaking of a super elite hospital helping improve healthcare for the masses in India, like the 32-rupees people would be lining up to pay over a thousand rupees to even be seen as an outpatient in this miracle hospital. Let there be no doubt that not even an effort to sound rational was made.

At a time when Modi has the biggest organized support among all public figures on the internet, at a time when he launches an average of two websites a month, at a time when a large part of his election victory was due to towering ethical and unethical efforts online, it is absurd to imagine that he does not have anyone to be a better brand ambassador for Digital India than Ankit Fadia - who is not respected by anyone other than abject ignorant newbies to coding. As far as appointing for incompetence goes, Ankit Fadia would rank as his second most spectacular appointment (the first being Smriti Irani, of course), because for anyone who has even passable knowledge of the subjects Ankit Fadia writes about, his name has become synonymous with plagiarism. A superstar script kiddie with dubious claims to fame. But he has the one thing Rishi Majumder had identified as a prerequisite. There is no evidence of Ankit Fadia even wanting to learn as long as he can sell his books and meaningless certificates.

Modi sarkar does not care that it reflects idolizing of incompetence on issues crucial to the nation. It does not need to care about public opinion for another 3.5 years. In a world where policies useful to cronies must be pushed unhindered, intelligent people slow things down with their questions. Even when they support. Unthinking and efficient people doing as told is what makes selling the country out from under people's feet possible. Meticulously following the government's stand, and unperturbed, supporting the government's opposite stand as well, when criticism forces a U-Turn.

 

The message to supporters is even clearer than it is to critics. I want your support, not your brain. If you want your reward, this is your key.