Thursday, December 15, 2016

The missing moderate

The fifties was clearly a dark decade for the United States of America. Loyalties shifted, betrayal became the order of the day, and telling on your neighbour for the sake of purging what was then referred to as the Red Scare became so normalised that it didn’t matter who you were telling on. The Communists had come, the nuclear bomb was being developed by both sides, and in the rush to nip the Commie in the bud, the very idea of due process was rubbished to arrest and accuse. Not even the President of that great country could stop it.

In the end, it took a broadcast journalist (the inimitable Edward R. Murrow) to undress those who were trashing the very constitutional roots of America for the sake of (political) expedience. Murrow, a man of eloquence, spoke little but revealed a lot. His criticism of arguably the main antagonist in the drama that unfolded in that decade, Joseph McCarthy, led to the inevitable tussle between the two of them, against the man he snidely referred to as the "junior senator from Wisconsin" (a state which, curiously enough, never voted for a Republican after 1984, except for Donald Trump and that with a margin of no more than 25,000 votes).

Murrow was not a Communist. He was, however, shrewd. A stickler for facts, he called out McCarthy for what he was: a hysteric. On April 6, 1954, the latter attacked him in a televised address in which he made his point clear: “Neither Joe McCarthy nor Edward R. Murrow is of any great importance as individuals. We are only important in our relation to the great struggle to preserve our American liberties.” The last point was meant to be an affirmation of the first: Communism, in whatever form and espoused by whatever person, was so dangerous and so opposed to the liberties of the Founding Fathers that nothing less than a “great struggle” would suffice to subvert it.

The man he attacked, predictably enough, had a field day. A week later, he delivered his reply. He summed up McCarthy’s response the best way he could, with wit: “Anyone who criticises or opposes McCarthy's methods must be a Communist. And if that be true, there are an awful lot of Communists in this country.” Since Murrow had been attacked for being a Red, he made his point clear: the only way to subvert the Radical Left (or the Reds) was through constructive debate, not bombs. Demagoguery in whatever form, at the end of the day, congealed into what it actually was: cosmetic, sham, hollow.

I don’t know what Murrow would have thought of Castro, Tito, Nehru, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the Non Aligned Movement, individuals and movements (crassly) referred to as socialist or Communist by the American Right. I do know, however, that whatever he said or wrote would have privileged reason, not rhetoric. I know also that this world, and this country, drowning as both are in emotion, needs more men like Murrow.

Last week, we were witness to a debate over (of all things) a Christmas tree. The tree, touted as the world’s largest, was allegedly to be built through funds from the Ministry of Ports and Shipping, an allegation that has since been proven to be false. To sum up the ruckus: the tree was to be more than 300 feet in height, was being built with the help of volunteers (not government servants), and amounted to no more than 12 million rupees (a fraction of the 200 million its critics were railing against and of which half had been given by private donors). No, there’s nothing magnificent about artificial trees and probably nothing great about using cosmetics to celebrate what should be a time for reflection, but for now let’s forget all that.

Think instead of the drivel those ideologically opposed to the government was affirming. I shed no tears over the present regime, but as a citizen, I can't help but think: isn’t there room for reason anymore?

Let’s extrapolate. What is reasonable about trishaw drivers and private bus operators going on a strike against a government fine for speeding and overtaking another vehicle from the left? What is reasonable about blocking roads on a Friday evening as a protest against that fine, thereby piling up traffic at the end of a busy week? What is reasonable about pelting stones at CTB buses (6,500 more of which were deployed by the government to bring out some sense of order on the day of the strike) and forcing trishaw drivers not to accommodate a single passenger? And while we’re at it, what is reasonable about a government that keeps on making policy statements it has not stuck to?

Which brings me to another point. The problem with the current regime is that it’s too busy making sure the country makes a good impression on outsiders. “New Government Makes Significant Progress” was the headline of an article published in the Human Rights Watch website last January.

Progress? Significant? Where? Last time I checked, our representatives were busy spouting rhetoric on why teachers who beat up children must be cut some slack as frail individuals and why organisers of concerts must be caned with stingray tails. Last time I checked, a government that can only be referred to as politically schizoid (one of the perils of being a Coalition) was arbitrarily dishing out blame over a report that implicated an outgoing Governor of the Central Bank. That report hasn’t been scrutinised properly since. And last time I checked, that same government was approving bonanzas for its MPs even as millions of commuters (and voters) were struggling with inadequate CTB buses and a private sector bus mafia.

The problem with those opposed to the current regime, on the other hand, is that they are too busy lambasting everything the government does. The Christmas tree fiasco was one example. What of the glee with which they greeted news of the private bus strike, a strike that resulted in discomfort for millions of passengers on an inconvenient Friday? What of their schizoid support for and opposition to those clamouring against private education, even though we know they were hell-bent against the “Six Percenters” during the previous regime? And above everything else, what of their cosmetic opposition to the many instances of media scrutiny, censorship, and pilferage committed by this government? Would they hold on to their idealisations of press freedom if their leaders were in power? Probably not.

I am wary of drawing dichotomies when such dichotomies tend to oversimplify. On the other hand, there's no point denying that in an age of unreason, there’s a divide between the nationalists and the cosmopolitans in a polity. This is true for the United States, Europe, and Sri Lanka. The fact that it is true, however, doesn’t make it less sad, because in this vicious divide, we are missing out on the moderate.

Which brings me to yet another point.

Reconciliation isn’t about calling everyone and anyone who disagrees with the government’s stance on it a racist. The government, unwittingly or not, has given the impression that it does exactly that. Doesn’t make the racists innocent cherubs of course, but in terms of handling and containing extremism, our politicos tend to irk both sides of a debate.

Take the recent incident over a monk caught abusing two state officials in Batticaloa. He was vilified as a racist on social media, a stooge and a panderer to Mahinda Rajapaksa. No one, literally no one, took the trouble of taking note of the real issues that the monk, Ampitiye Sumanarathana Thero, was raking up: among them, his allegation that the Sinhala community in that region were resented by quite a number of residents (from other ethnicities).

If it’s about representation, it’s about representation for all, even the numerical minority. Same goes for reconciliation. It's as simple as that.

So where does all this lead to?

Human beings are not impartial. They are swayed by the moment. There are, however, degrees of partiality: after all some are less partial than others. It is for that reason that we must unearth the moderate, that impossible idealisation of human beings which does, fortunately for us, exist. That moderate was swept aside again and again: in Cuba after 1960 (with the dismissal of José Miró Cardona), in Britain after 1997 (with the triumph of the Blairites), and in Sri Lanka after 2005 and 2015 (with the dismissal respectively of those against chauvinism and those against minoritarianism). Nevertheless, they persist. As they should.

In 2015, we wished for a less divided polity. The days of exuberance that followed, I am nostalgically inclined to say, seemed to confirm that wish. Nearly two years on, however, we are still wishing. And we are still hoping. That’s what we like to do, after all. Nothing wrong there.

But then, I am forced to conclude: there’s just so much hoping and wishing that we can indulge in.

Written for: Ceylon Today, December 13 2016