By Emil van der Poorten –
It is said that first impressions are the most vivid and I can, certainly, recall the tone and content of my early contact with the language that was spoken on radio or tv or appeared in print for either the purpose of selling some product or in the dissemination of information when I returned to Sri Lanka about a decade ago.
Having found the North American, particularly the USA, claims that the product being spoken of was top-notch in every way and having reached the point when such rhetoric made one want to puke, there was an expectation that laid-back Sri Lanka would be haven from such basic boastfulness.
Did I have a surprise coming!
It seemed like anything and everything we, in Sri Lanka, said or did was “the greatest.” The boxer who gave that particular word credibility and new meaning was that black fighter from Louisville, Kentucky who, during his transition from Cassius Clay to Muhammed Ali, applied that sobriquet to himself and repeated it, seemingly, ad nauseam. At first, it was taken as simply promotional hype and, given the often-bizarre conduct of the man who kept repeating it, was simply taken as an eccentricity and did, at worst, prove the time-worn contention that there is no such thing as bad publicity. However, the difference was that Ali did prove that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” backing his boast every foot of the way with his balletic foot movements and lightning fast fists.
I sometimes wonder whether modern Sri Lanka’s predilection for repeating the mantram of “we are the greatest” harks back to its taking of the World Championship of Cricket in 1996. The fact that the competition had, overshadowing it, the spectre of terrorist violence which led to some of the premier competing countries refusing to compete on Sri Lankan soil out of fear for their lives, appears to have deliberately been downplayed and when, referred to at all, has been preceded or followed by the accusation of lily-livered cowardice on the part of the opposition, that accusation being picked up by more than the usual proportion of the international media as a result of it being uttered by no less a person than the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The dapper and debonair Lakshman Kadirgamar whose public persona, as projected to the western media in particular, was, if not the epitome of all that was bright and sophisticated, certainly was more worldly and intelligent than many who preceded him and certainly streets ahead of those who followed him in that ministry!
Was that pride in being “World Champions” in a sport essentially restricted to those countries that labored under the yoke of Imperial Britain for eons justified? If taken in context, perhaps an answer of “yes” could be justified because it brought us out of the backwaters of cricket to which we had been relegated by the chief practitioners of the brand of apartheid that prevailed in the hierarchy of international cricket up to that time when we were permitted to enter the hallowed circle reserved for a select few, mostly “white” nations.
But to use that achievement as a means of vaulting ourselves to being “the greatest” in any endeavour where such a boast might go unchallenged primarily because achieving such a “pinnacle” was not thought to be of any real importance by the world at large, only serves to demean us and devalue our reputation as a (one-time, perhaps) beacon of democracy and good governance in Asia.
This demonstration of behaviour that can only be described as a evidence of an inferiority complex does not do us one bit of good in the matter of standing as an equal in the larger community of nations.
I know “the Royals” of such places as Swaziland have graced our shores at inordinate expense to our meager financial resources. But while rubbing shoulders with such “dignitaries” might shore up the confidence of those who believe we are “the greatest” in all of Asia, it merely serves to demean us in the eyes of any who would be justified in trotting out the old adage that goes, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are!”
It seems like we’ve become a part of this web of self-delusion, believing that we are part of some kind of “master race.” This stupidity has been reinforced by the might of the state that put down with absolute ruthlessness and consistency any who sought to inject a note of reality into this whole discussion of “greatness.”
Inevitably, this delusion, driven by people who used all of this mumbo-jumbo to protect themselves from so much as a suggestion of their duplicity and dishonesty appears to have achieved the status of an infection that has entered every part of our body politic.
In passing, one must give credit to this tsunami of self-appreciation for developing an industry of some consequence because the public lauding of all and sundry and the never-ending distribution of trophies of one kind or another as “honours” of one kind or another has elevated the manufacture of trophies of various kinds to alevel of some importance!
Despite all of the fooforaw around events held in recognition of what are described as contributions to the well-being of one’s fellow citizens, more often than not, it is simply a means of currying favour with the “awardee” to either use their influence to advance one’s own fortunes or to seek reciprocation of the gift at some future time.
What to me epitomizes the hypocrisy of all this is the behaviour of the hero of that event without equal in Sri Lankan sporting history referred to earlier in this piece. I speak here of a gentleman called Arjuna Ranatunga.
Here is a man who has throughout his career in politics given ample evidence of the fact that he used the gift of opportunism that was such a plus on the cricket field to that of politics. I would even venture to suggest that there hasn’t been evidence of a moral bone in his political skeleton during the time he left the limelight of the flannelled fools to enter that of “public service.”
It is one of the more poorly guarded secrets that had he been given the Sports Portfolio by Mahinda Rajapaksa he would readily have sworn eternal fealty to our would-have-been Monarch. I would, in fact, submit that should such an opportunity present itself, his political colours will change faster than that of the proverbial chameleon. In fact, the move from MR to Sarath Fonseka and now to … ? (I don’t remember to which party he currently belongs!) In the meantime, this man who could do no wrong purely by virtue of having captained the winning team in one single international competition will continue to enjoy the adulation of a population who continues to see him as the one who elevated us to the level of world champions in the most “imperialistic” of sports!
This kind of distortion of morality and standards has carried over into every field of endeavour in our country. It seems like we’re not ready to simply admit to being human beings possessed of the same frailties as humanity at large, capable of making the same mistakes as others of our kind and also possessing a similar proportion of the virtues of homo sapiens.
It is time that we started cleaning out our own stable and admitting where the detritus we are dumping outside originally came from. The report and resolution for which the United Nations Human Rights Council bears responsibility provides us, possibly, the last opportunity to prove that we are capable of looking inside ourselves as a nation and admitting our frailties rather than keep blathering what amounts to the simplistic “master race of Asia” claim. We need to show ourselves as being one possessed of the skills and the determination to look in the mirror and deal with whatever blemishes we see rather than continue the terribly damaging fiction of our perfection.
As unrealistic as it might seem, I believe that if you protect our people from the threateningly-overarching sloganeering built around some concept of “Racial Superiority,” they have the capacity to renew themselves and this nation and come out of that particular fire cleansed and ready to take this nation to the place of decency and good sense that it once occupied. We never were perfect and the sooner we admit to that simple fact and get on with our lives accordingly, the better for us all!