By Sarath de Alwis –
“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” ~ William Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun)
The government recently announced a decision to import 6,000 metric tons of Basmati rice from Pakistan under the provisions of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement.
Responding to a question from the press, Mass Media Minister and Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella offered his explanation.
“Our “Paddy Farmers” were not getting a high price for their crops. The idea is to import Basmati rice for those who seek it which in turn will “reduce the competition for local rice variants. “
Almost immediately, a quipster on some social media which I don’t recall ( I am not savvy with the stuff and rely on my granddaughters to follow these gems) responded:
“Why not permit the import of more BMWs for those who seek it? It will reduce competition for Altos!”
Said Thomas Carlyle “Teach a parrot the words ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ and you have an economist.
It is a shame that the Minister in charge of the subject of Information missed this excellent opportunity to explain how free trade agreements help regional trade. Perhaps the import of Basmati would have helped our Betel exporters.
The SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry has published a review of the FTA with Pakistan.
“Pakistan’s exports to Sri Lanka grew from US$ 97 million in 2004 to US$ 355 million in 2018. Similarly, Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan grew from US$ 47 million in 2004 to US$ 105 million in 2018. “
Instead of informing, the Minster peddled propaganda. In this age of fake facts, this gambit is known as ‘Spinfluence’.
It is the use of language to peddle biased idea. It is the art of interpreting events to shape perceptions. It is the voodoo that, manipulates cognition. It is the wizardry that directs behavior.
It is called the battle for hearts and minds of the crowd and the mob. Some call it populism. Its disciplined exponents call it authentic democracy.
But the magic works. Weak arguments become counter thrusts of immense force. All that is required is the language that can invade the mental and emotional territory. It obliterates the space between fact and fiction.
A few days before the Parliamentary Elections in August 2020 I penned an essay – “A super majority is a bad idea”
I was way off the mark. An emphatically persuaded constituency, vast in size, strong in its determination to be on record, thought that a super majority was a damned good idea.
This explains why this writer has ceased his once frequent explications on democracy and good governance. That grand wide eyed naivete of a just society no longer summons the passion it once commanded.
But something happened that compelled me to write this missive. I got a new year’s gift of two books.
One is the Autobiography of Sarath Amunugama- the ‘Kandy Man.” The other is Arundathi Roy’s ‘Ministry of Utmost Happiness.’
As is the case with books, curiosity coerced a little browsing of both.
The blurb on the back over informs that Arundhathi Roy lifts the veil on India’s chaotic beauty with her radical anger and warm compassion.
My preference was to read ‘Kandy Man’ first. My hometown is nearby Matale. Reading it is easy and restorative. After all, Yesterday is today’s nostalgia.
His recollections of days in Trinity, set up by Anglican Missionaries to make Gentlemen out of the genteel class in the Kandyan heartland is heart warningly instructive. It reminds one of V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical novel ‘Mimic Men’.
Receiving both books at a time when the pandemic has reduced normal life to watching shadows in a cave was unnerving. It alerted me to abandoned and a forgotten world.
As Faulkner says “memory believes before knowing remembers.
This digression I hope will explain the melancholic meandering that follows. There is no greater sorrow than to recall happier times when one is miserable. And I am miserable.
This is an anguished effort to get some weight off my chest. A few weeks ago, I read an observation made by Professor Rohan Samarajiva in a webinar on the 20th Amendment.
He spoke in Sinhala. Rendering it to English, I have followed the dictum that the ‘translator is a ‘faithful accomplice.’
The good professor offered a marvelous analogy in explaining the purpose of a constitution and how constitutional provisions differ from ordinary legislation.
“A constitution of a state is different from ordinary, regular law. A constitution stipulates what is possible and what is not possible within the accustomed political process. It is analogous to the rules of a game of cricket. Cricket rules are not determined by the winning team. Those rules are decided by either the International Cricket Council or by the Decision Review System of Umpires. “
This forthright, faultless, analogy made in Sinhala is a master stroke. Pun intended. It has the power of metaphor. It has the drive of an authentic narrative.
It captures our present predicament. This is about civility and common decency that Sarath Amunugama recalls during his days at ‘Trinity’.
The game of cricket must have two teams. It is played on an agreed set of ground rules. Both sides comply with the ruling of the umpire. The winning side doesn’t claim the right to frame the ground rules.
These simple home truths constitute the fulcrum that upholds the principle of debate in a democracy. A democracy is not determined by laws. A democracy has a simple choice – to be decent or indecent.
It all depends on the ‘demos’ who make up the democracy – we the people.
George Orwell the intellectual of the common man who gave us the ‘Animal Farm ‘and 1984 often used the term ‘common decency’ in his essays.
Simplicity, honesty, warmth, respectability, stoicism and grit were all embodied in the catch phrase called common decency. These attributes are no more!
The word ‘democracy’ creates problems to elected leaders who happen to be closet autocrats. A closet autocrat still claims proprietary rights over the cadaver of the party that was formed by the natives to claim independence. Not that it matters.
A country calls itself a democracy when it needs to show a veneer of respectability. Often it is used as praise of a country. All types of regimes can and do claim title to democracy.
But when the term democracy needs to be tied down to any one solid meaning, the theatre stops. Puppetry begins.
Let us not take refuge in humbug. These common decencies were not observed by the drafters of the 19th amendment. We must not allow history to perpetuate distortions.
One of the architects of the 19th Amendment told this writer some time ago why Justice Mark Fernando then the most senior judge in the apex court was bypassed. The 1994 reformers who promised to abolish the executive presidency discovered that JRJ’s market economy can be humanized.
They did not want a doctrinaire jurist at the helm to hamper their proposed constitutional reforms.
We must learn to live with the 20th Amendment.
The committee stage debate on the 2021 budget revealed something that Plato discovered in his famous tract – The Republic written in 380 BC.
Plato describes the democratic man.
‘The ‘Democratic process would replace moderation with grand slander and abuse. Insolence would be substituted for good breeding. Self-gratification would be regarded as magnificent.’
No autocrat can succeed alone. It can be done only with the acquiescence of ‘we the people.’
The moral psychology of the state cannot be far from the moral psychology of the citizenry.
It is our desire for freedom that creates the space for genuine democracy. When we abandon that desire, we slide to tyranny.
We do not know, for certain what happened with sovereign bonds before 2015. But we do know what happened with sovereign bonds in January 2015.
A multitude of interests unleashed in haste, under the guise of a reform agenda unleashed a skirmish that snowballed into a washout that couldn’t be contained. The 20th Amendment was inevitable.
The people or most of them were convinced that only a strong leadership could unite the plethora of passions.
It is the authentic process. This genuine product is called populism.
Stanford University Political Science Professor Josiah Ober explains Plato’s reading of populist tyranny in lucid contemporary terms.
“This desire for a strong leader who can guide the diverse pluralistic uncoordinated desires ultimately produces a kind of tyranny.”
Populism transforms democracy. It vests the government with a moral authority that can never be claimed or commanded amidst democratic chaos.
When the state becomes the embodiment of moral authority, the virtuous people willingly give up the mechanisms put in place to prevent tyranny.
The mechanisms thus dismantled are called the checks and balances that Professor Rohan Samarajiva likened to the rules of cricket.
When the oppressed people are liberated from the grip of democratic elitism, they become loyal adherents of their liberators.
Periodically they are offered a syrup that will keep them protected from all types of viruses that invade both body and mind.
Linguist Philosopher Noam Chomsky and Economist and Social Critic Edward Herman explained this process in 1988 when they noticed the early signs of the information age.
They called it the Manufacture of Consent. Today it is a much-practiced science.
It has claimed two victims- truth and trust. Today, we do not recognize truth. We confuse trust with fancy.
Until about ten years ago, our politics had at least the semblance of a foundational civility and an intrinsic sense of decency.
Today we are incapable of sympathy. We are totally bereft of empathy. We must first unravel the two.
Sympathy is the ability to put yourself in the place of another. That helps to understand the feelings of others by identifying with them.
With empathy, you put yourself in the other person’s predicament. Then you will feel much more deeply than just plain sympathy.
At age seventy-eight I look back. There was a time when we regarded sympathy and empathy as unexceptional virtues. They were simple human qualities known to the rich and poor, the privileged and the deprived.
There was a norm for acceptable, permissible behavior. Even when some travesty was committed, there appeared some dignified and quiet signs of remorse.
Though with some reluctance, a minimum standard of behavior was observed by the political class. Now the bottom has dropped. The abyss is deep.
Democracy is not a periodic election. Democracy is the ability and the means of reaching cohesion amidst diversity.
Global rise of populist autocracy has produced much scholarly research on the death or imminent death of democracy.
Benjamin Carter Hett, a professor of history at the City University of New York, has produced a master piece – “Death of Democracy and the fall of the Weimar Republic.”
A moral crisis, he maintains must precede a moral catastrophe. Does it sound familiar? It all began in 1983.
There are some inviolable truths about democracy.
“No democracy can function for long, however, unless ultimately the divided groups are willing to compromise with one another.”
More importantly, when people are tired of reason, when they are tired of thought and reflection, we the people stop in our tracks and then ask “What has reason done? “
Democracies don’t die easily. Democracy cannot be strangled by someone or some group. Democracy cannot be killed by some constitutional amendment.
Democracy can only die due to our apathy, our indifference and our failure to nourish it.
Undernourishment caused by a dissipated civic culture is the usual cause of democracy’s death.
A long time ago, Socrates suggested an experiment for ancient Athenians.
“Let us place the most just regime side by side the most unjust, and when we see them, we shall be able to compare…”
Today we have earned that strange privilege. Let us sit back and compare what we were and what we are. What we had and what we have lost over the last 72 years.
Thank you for the patience with which you reached the end of this story that began with Basmati Rice. Moghuls feasted on Basmati then. Moghuls feast on Basmati now.