Friday, July 28, 2017

Against a culture of ambivalence

For obvious reasons, the government wants to convince us that its enemies and friends are also the people’s. Obvious, because in equalising the one with the other we are on firm ground. Obvious, because if my enemy is your enemy, the world is easier to simplify, and the decision by an official body is easier to rationalise. Obvious, because if you kill your enemy and he or she happens to be my enemy as well, everything becomes a whole lot easier to sweep under the carpet. That is how totalitarian dictatorships work. And to an extent, that is also how democracies work.

When a movement, an ideology, or an individual is hard to define, harder to oppose or support on the political plane, he or she or it is portrayed rather ambivalently by the government and the opposition. Much of the hype around the SAITM crisis (born of the previous regime), for instance, can be rooted in how we, the people, and those whom we have elected vilify or valorise the student movement. The government is suffering from a headache because of that movement. The Joint Opposition is having a field day. Lahiru Weerasekara is, on that count, a contemporary Rohana Wijeweera to both sides. He is a hero to the State University student population, a convenience to the JO, and a pain to the government.

If there’s anything that can aggravate a social ill beyond its limits, it’s ambivalence. Ambivalence in negotiation and agreement, in identification and resolution, in diagnosis and prognosis. It was ambivalence which prolonged a conflict which could have been easily done away with to a 30 year war. It was ambivalence which took away 100,000 lives within three years, far greater than the number killed in that civil war. And it was ambivalence which led us to this cul-de-sac between private and public education. Weerasekara is the perfect symbol of all that. He is despised by those who hate him and only mildly liked by those who hate his opponents.

Popular culture has worsened this cul-de-sac. But then that’s to be expected. Popular culture knows how to distort reality to achieve its arbitrary ends. This is not something particular to Sri Lanka only, after all even the United States of America suffers from it when it comes to its own president, depicted on the one hand as a harbinger against elitism by the same people who oppose him, and on the other as a populist demagogue who’s hiding that same elitism he rants against (in both instances, he sells). But we are a small country, small enough for even the smallest act of ambiguity to spell out drastic consequences. Which is why, when the ruckus over SAITM is spelt out in vague terms, we should be wary of those consequences.

And it’s not just the SAITM crisis, of course. Just look at how we are handling our PR when it comes to the international community. On the one hand, we have a set of representatives who seem to be conceding to the process of capitulation we are giving into with respect to institutions skewed against us. On the other hand, you have another set of representatives, sometimes even from the same political party, lambasting (mildly or otherwise) those same institutions. Who’s saying what, and what should we believe? Isn’t this just like the war years, when capitulation was described horrendously as negotiation and when negotiation was robbed of its meaning via an unhelpfully vague series of discussions and peace talks?

The biggest thorn on the side of the government is its lack of clarity. The previous regime had a convenient tool at its disposal to make us forget this. Nationalism. Rabble-rousing, populist, irrational nationalism. The current regime does not have that privilege, especially since despite the many representatives who (claim they) are for a unitary state, freedom from external interference etc, we are led by a set of leaders who are more pragmatic than nationalist (whether or not it constitutes actual pragmatism being another debate). In effect, consequently, there’s nothing the government can resort to so as to hide their indefiniteness.

And to top it all, the regime is trying to please everyone without pleasing anyone. It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that when federalists, nationalists, and members of that self-labelled intelligentsia which operates in Colombo want a piece of the pie shouting “We voted you in, give us what we want!” there’s bound to be a lack of focus. In this process of trying to give everything to everyone, there are winners and there are losers. The winners are the rent-seekers. The losers are the people. And the moment compelling social problems are swept under the carpet, unresolved and etched in uncertain terms, they lose even more. This we ought to know.

Getting back to my earlier point, the student movement, like Donald Trump, sells whichever way and however positively or negatively you view them. They sell because, as heroes, they are pelted by what Marxists and other ideologues would call a “police state” and, as villains, they themselves pelt those they disagree with. In both cases, there’s publicity involved. Publicity, ladies and gentlemen. The kind that prolongs an issue because, for interested parties, there’s money and popularity to be milked. Clarity can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, we lack it in this case.

Our political culture has thrived on rhetoric for too long. We are awed by what our leaders say, and then get tired of finding out that what they say isn’t what they do. A pragmatic government wouldn’t have, for instance, dithered over the Office of Missing Persons with vague declarations. A pragmatic government would have marketed the OMP notwithstanding the hype for and against it. Like the Right to Information Act, the OMP Bill, even with the president’s signature, was born prematurely, disliked even by those who agree with its provisions because of the way it was brought through. When vagueness and confusion take over the process of crystallising Acts of Parliament, we can’t  blame those who lambast them.

Rhetoric is one thing, however. Lack of focus is another. When we put the two together, we get what Gunadasa Amarasekara once cogently described as a kavandaya (or headless corpse): borrowing a Sinhala phrase, “eheth naha, meheth naha” (neither here nor there). Making matters worse is the fact that this government is handling the sins of the past. With a serious communications problem, and despite the statements made condemning the preceding regime, we convenient lay that aside and instead condemn this regime. Despite your feelings about the matter, there’s no denying that the ruckus over SAITM, and those development projects and their environmental impact, was born from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. But what do we have today? An outfit headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa eating into the government’s popularity (what little of it there is left, anyway) over its handling of the same problems traceable to the time he was in power! Can it get any more absurd than that?

So what’s the solution? First and foremost, to do away this culture of ambivalence that has gripped us for so long. It’s not only the government that has compelled this culture, moreover. It’s also us. The people. Popular culture. The many industries that operate on making money out of social problems. The intellectuals who are cut off from the same people they are supposed to help out in the first place. And of course those outfits which are hell-bent against the government. Given all that, we have a clear choice between us. Either we continue with the vague, indefinite, and non-committal way of looking at social ills, or we identify a problem for what it really is, minus our personal feelings, and get our representatives to solve them (or in the least try solving them for ourselves). Feel-good protest campaigns and vigils won’t do much. Positive, committed action will. It all depends on what we choose. And the drastic consequences which follow our choices, both now and to the future.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 28 2017