Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The country of the nobles

“I wonder why it is that the countries with the most nobles also have the most misery.” 
— Francis Bacon

“I’m a citizen of a world!” is a quote usually attributed to Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was a cosmopolitan. He was also a cynic. He made that remark at a time when his compatriots were identified in relation to the city-state they came from and their fidelity to Greece. History doesn’t tell us if people took to his idea at once, but history does tell us that his remark, no matter how unpopular it would have been at the time, gained a fresh lease of life as the centuries and decades wore on and nationalism (as I’ve pointed out in an earlier column) got vilified for reasons not always discernible to the average Joe.

People make assumptions. Assumptions can be verifiable. If they can’t, they in all likelihood they’re based on flawed premises and even more flawed extrapolations. These in turn are probably based on a heavily prejudiced view of the world and an even more biased reading of the political, which in a Goebbelsian manner gets repeated so much that they acquire the quality of truth. So it is, so it has been, and (I suspect) so it will be with the dichotomy between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, particularly when it comes to (s)electing our representatives.

About a month or so back I wrote on nationalism. I argued then that the biggest damage those scripting reconciliation here were doing was ignoring the nationalist factor. I still believe this to be true, not because I affirm the kind of values that rabble-rousers, in their quest to win votes, provoke but because of two reasons: one, the nationalists will always have their say (history is a good guide for this), and two, the more you suppress them, the more likely they will vent out their frustration resorting to unseemly, despicable methods. I could have mentioned then, as I did not, that the promotion of cosmopolitanism in our political, economic, and social spheres was doing as much damage as the suppression of nationalism.

And it’s not hard to see why. For centuries, the West was entranced by a form of cosmopolitanism it never really upheld. It preached the gospel of multiculturalism even as it ironically celebrated and affirmed the faith of the majority. There was racism but it was almost always paraded as assimilation. To this end I alluded to the (Lutheran) Constitution of the Norway and illustrated how, at the end of the day, the Constitutional situation in the West is such that rights guaranteed to ALL are IMMEDIATELY qualified by privileges attached to SOME (in ethnic and religious terms).

Personally, I think this is a joke. And you know what? It’s a tragedy that most of our self-proclaimed multiculturalists (not all, but many) don’t see that they are affirming a more nuanced version of what Diogenes said centuries ago even as those who finance and fund their attempts capitulate on the ideals they market for the sake of expedience. Let’s not forget, after all, that the ban on the burkini in France (which thankfully did not go through unquestioned) was allegedly made to equalise followers of every faith with each other, an argument that would have met with (justifiable) rebellion had it been made here.

Added to this is another point, as problematic and tragic as the above: we’ve been riddled with so many demagogues that we’ve literally been force-fed the myth that the only solution for the political wormhole in this country is (what else?) cosmopolitans and self-proclaimed political elites. I reflected on this a few weeks back (“Reflections on poverty and the political periphery”). No, I shan’t reflect on it again, but will add some more points which I feel we should take heed of. Starting with this: those who believe that the political cosmopolitan can best deal with political wormholes are only half-correct.

If there’s one thing we can take stock of when it comes to what transpired after January 2015, it’s this: popularity and cosmopolitanism cannot, and will not, coincide. The latter, moreover, will not ward out corruption for the simple reason that at the end of the day, the political elite are as “frail” (or “dangerous”), if not more so, than those who indulge in rhetoric. Sure, we’ll have Ministers and other (s)elected representatives congratulating themselves for achieving “durable” peace, reconciliation, and what-not, but all in all, they are little more than clueless lawmakers attempting to force their worldview on a country that remains alienated by what these representatives do.

Let’s be honest here. We’re entranced by certain attributes in politicians. We look for whether they are eloquent, whether they put individualism before sovereignty, and whether they can communicate well. We prefer the gentleman to the village thug even if, at the end of the day, both engage in the same kind of racketeering and wheeler-dealing that our government has gained an unseemly reputation for. We rubbish the thug, in other words, not so much on account of his (or her) underhand activities as on account of the fact that he (or she) is perceived as less cultured and refined that the so-called gentleman.

Let’s be brutally honest now. What did we see after January 2015? We saw rhetoric and heard words. Nice, shiny words. We saw politicians trying to beat each other at coming up with the rosiest chest-thumping poetry they could come up with. We saw promises that were made and not kept. We saw jokers on the loose, jokers caught unawares thanks to social media and jokers who, in a more politically enlightened state, would have been forced to resign or better, would have by resigned on their own accord. More than anything else however, we saw deception.

Those who support the status quo will continue to see in its leaders the nice, poetic statesmen they are not. Those who support the opposition will continue to question the status quo on account of its less than admirable stance on the values it itself espoused barely a year ago. Both sides have their idols and both will venerate them, though with a difference: while the populists operate on the premise that only rooted individuals will drive this country forward, the cosmopolitans on the other hand affirm the kind of beer-guzzling, clique-affirming, Colombo 7 mindset that (to put it pithily) did not, cannot, and will not take this country forward. In other words, the one operates on workable assumptions, the latter on unworkable fairytales.

I know, for instance, that those who deride key representatives (especially the leader) of the previous regime celebrate with equal vigour the visits made to this country made by “White Men” whose records are as abysmal as that of the village thugs on the issues of reconciliation and general decorum. And yet, they are welcomed and salaamed as though they are the statesmen they are not.

Yes, I know it’s simplistic to think that all this is just a sign of hypocrisy (after all we live in a world where Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize and Scott Morrison, present Treasurer of Australia, observed that had the United States achieved the kind of conflict-development goals we achieved after 2009, the leaders of that country would have been awarded the Prize), but still, it would be great if our self-proclaimed “Honest Abes” came out and called a spade a spade when dealing with the political.

It is fashionable to deride populists. It is fashionable to hold in esteem those who do not market their proximity to the people. True, in this the populists have been as guilty as the non-populists, because after all we’ve come across those who maintained a facade of friendliness to the public so as to woo some votes, but this dichotomy, I feel, has done more damage to this country than you can imagine.

What is wrong, after all, in appealing to and being friendly with the people, and what is right with maintaining a steely, ridiculously unfriendly attitude to them on the pretext that “I don’t woo them with lies because I don’t need to” if at the end of the day, the populist got some work done and the non-populist, despite rhetoric and his or her statesman-like image, got nothing done? Worse, what can be justifiable in that steeliness and unfriendliness if, at the end of the day, you win despite the most ridiculously alienating statements you make on the majority BECAUSE you are “blessed” with that “rare gift” called cosmopolitanism, which guarantees you a large chunk of votes from the elite in the city and elsewhere?

I am not naming names here, by the way. The truth is that since independence, we’ve gone back. We have voted for idealists and got in jokers. We have selected dreamers and have been accursed with them for the better part of not-so-distant past. It’s hard to pick and choose and vilify particular politicos because everyone, to some degree, is guilty and blemished.

In the final analysis, we are living in a country of nobles, whose nobility is predicated on the institutions they attended and the political ideals (fixated for the most on the middle-class and rightwing economics) they espouse. They win votes from the poor because the poor, as someone once said, never or hardly ever ask for an explanation of what they have to put up with. They may get tormented by taxes and corruption and they may get tortured by wielders of justice (formal or informal) while the bigger sharks go scot-free, but they like to dream. The political elite do not dream. They do. And each time they do, they dangle their bait a little farther away from the poor.

Chaminda Weerawardhana, who is domiciled in London and who calls a spade a spade, in an essay titled “On War Criminals and Privileged Holidaymakers” observed that those who stand for human rights and democracy and all other stuff populists love to demean as “Western trash” were, for the most, immature owing to their social and economic prejudices.

He contended (quite cogently) that they would trash the previous regime with the same enthusiasm they displayed when they invited the likes of Tony Blair and Cherie Blair (the privileged holidaymakers), the former an all-but-in-name-only war criminal and the latter noted for her law firm’s connection with Abdulla Yameen, who imprisoned Mohamed Nasheed in what Amnesty International referred to as a “travesty of justice.”

The irony, if you can spot it out, is that the government invited Tony to speak on “Reconciliation in Sri Lanka and the Northern Ireland Experience” and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (yes, BASL!) invited Cherie to speak on “Human Rights in Business.” I was there at the latter event, I saw Cherie Blair speak, and I saw her spout rhetoric on the importance of maintaining decency in commerce and foreign relations. Weerawardhana questioned this and answered thus: “Why do Sri Lankan leaders, supposedly committed to the rule of law and good governance, court Blair? The answer partly lies in the Colombo elite’s blind admiration of all things Western and white.”

He then opened a bag: “The day the Colombo elite reach that level of maturity, beyond their neo-colonial, ‘Master-race-worshipping’ hangover, Sri Lanka could take real forward steps.”

Will they, though? I doubt it. As long as the status quo in this country is decided on by those aforementioned beer-guzzling clique-affirmers, the truth of the matter is that they can’t. The sooner we realise this, the better it will be for everyone.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 1 2016