Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Anger and Forgiveness

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 17 2017

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=27840

Events in Charlottesville (and more low-key events closer to my home affecting me personally) have led me to think about the subject of anger and its consequences.  I was moved to revisit Martha C Nussbaum’s book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice.  Nussbaum looks at the efficacy of forgiveness rather than anger as a response to wrongdoing. She gives many examples of anger and forgiveness ranging over the personal and the political.

Some people live in anger – one might almost say some people love anger, it seems to give them sustenance. As well as looking back in anger they look forward in anger.  I am lucky in that I never really get angry – I have short bursts of sometimes intense irritation but these are not sustained enough to lead to me taking any practical retribution or revenge. Nussbaum calls this Transition Anger and concedes that it “lacks a wish for ill”. She writes: “Though short-term anger is understandable and human, it is rarely helpful, and it certainly should not dictate the course of the future”.

Anger and Self-Respect

Anger is often a result of feeling disrespected. The scenes in Charlottesville happened because a group of people were angry that their standing was not appreciated and their social status was being undermined by “the other”. Trump became president by feeding this anger against elites, minorities, nations that were not the USA. He fomented anger about his country’s alleged loss of influence and power (even though the USA is still the sole superpower). “Make America great again” was his slogan. Respect us or we will be angry and punish you. Anger can be narcissistic. “Sympathy steers anger in the direction of a balanced focus on harm and correction of harm, rather than on personal downranking, with its connection to revenge.”

Nussbaum recognises that most of us are helpless against many of the contingencies of life but we can console ourselves with projects that express our anger. “It feels a lot better if we can form a payback project and get busy executing it (suing the bad doctor, depriving one’s ex of child custody) than to accept loss and the real condition of helplessness in which life has left us. Payback, thus, often has a psychic function.”

 

Retribution

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, the saying goes.  Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”. Francis Bacon did not think revenge therapeutic: “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.”

Many cultures are corrupted by blood feuds and ‘honour’ killings. The US has a false foundation myth which places it beyond such crudity but American culture spreads a brutal and infantile message to the rest of the world. The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.

 

Nussbaum writes, “people in modern American society continue to think anger is good, powerful, and manly. They encourage it in their children (especially boys), and they indulge it in both self and others.” Anger is followed by retribution which derives from “deep-rooted

but misleading ideas of cosmic balance, and from people’s attempt to recover control in situations of helplessness. But the wrongdoer’s suffering does not bring back the person or valued item”. It is psychologically damaging for me to want payback, to return pain to one who has caused me pain. “Obsessive focusing on the future suffering of the perpetrator just implicates me in the perpetrator’s hostile and degrading conduct”.

 

Reconciliation

 

We should not ignore bad acts but the recognition of their wrongness should contribute to good in the future. The formula for reconciliation is for offender, victim, and friends to act as though the wrong act and the perpetrator are separate. Nussbaum writes: “the crime is outrageous, but we can see the offender, with sympathy, as someone who is more and better than the crime, capable of good in future”. Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa and many other countries, involved a lot of forgetting. It was not easy. “The apparatus of abasement, confession, contrition, and eventual forgiveness, by contrast, often impedes reconciliation by producing humiliation rather than mutual respect, and it frequently acts as a covert form of punishment, discharging a hidden (or, often, not so hidden) resentment.”

 

Forgiveness

Nussbaum gives the name Transactional Forgiveness to a process described by another philosopher, Charles Griswold. Forgiveness, Griswold argues, is a two-person process involving a moderation of anger and a rejection of revenge. Griswold lists six conditions for the forgiveness process:

Acknowledge responsibility for the wrong

Repudiate the wrong deed and acknowledge the wrongness

Express regret to the injured party

Through deeds and words become the sort of person who does not inflict injury

Show an understanding from the injured person’s perspective of the damage done

Offer an account of how the wrong was done

 

My school in Gloucester was close to 25 Cromwell Street where Fred and Rosemary West perpetrated countless grisly murders. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a   bus in Cheltenham when Fred and Rose West offered her a lift. She was never seen again. Lucy’s sister, Marian, forgave the Wests and wrote movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.” I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances.

I wonder how forgiving I would be if I lost loved ones to terrorists. My friend the Reverend Harold Good witnessed the horrors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness”.

McGuinness helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and worked with former enemies as part of the devolved government of the six counties. Many found it impossible to forgive the atrocities committed by the IRA when McGuinness was IRA Derry Commandant. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners. Harold still comes under criticism as well as praise for his part in the peace process.

 

Some find it hard to cope with the fact that men who committed evil deeds are free and forgiven. In Sri Lanka, some find it disgusting that Karuna and KP are free.

On a visit to Northern Ireland, the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.

There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health. When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in the experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.

 

 

 

PC and Kevin Myers

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 10 2017.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=27346

 

Misogyny and Anti-Semitism?

There was quite a kerfuffle in Ireland last week when veteran celebrity columnist Kevin Myers was sacked by the Irish Sunday Times. (Please note that this is a Murdoch paper and has no connection to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times or the Irish Times). Myers decided to comment on the news which had been recently released of the very high salaries being paid to some BBC presenters. Of the 96 stars who appear on the list 32 are women. There has been speculation that some of the highest paid male presenters may face pay cuts in order to pay women more.

Myers chose to concentrate on this gender gap and highlighted the fact that two of the highest paid women were Jewish. Vanessa Feltz is paid between £350,000 and £400,000. Claudia Winkeleman (who also writes for the Sunday Times) is listed as being paid between £450,000 – £499,000. Some of the rage that erupted might have been because Myers’s column was given the headline “Sorry ladies, equal pay has to be earned”, and the writer probably was not responsible for that.

In the article, Myers wrote: ““I note that two of the best-paid women presenters in the BBC – Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz, with whose, no doubt, sterling work I am tragically unacquainted – are Jewish. Good for them. Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity.” He thus left himself open to charges of both misogyny and anti-Semitism as well as bad writing.

Reactions

Kathy Sheridan is another veteran Irish journalist. I recall that she provided excellent coverage from Sri Lanka of the tsunami. In her own column in the Irish Times she showed Myers no mercy. She wrote: “no decent man or woman can afford to shrug off the rank misogyny of last Sunday’s column”. According to Ms Sheridan, Myers has previous in the misogyny department. “All of 20 years ago, I challenged Kevin Myers in print, when he argued that the only reason a decent man was in jail was because of spiteful, whiny females.”

Myers has admitted that he has a tendency to undermine himself with “throwaway lines” but Ms Sheridan is having none of that: “The clear intention was to shoehorn women – any women – into a particular narrative of victimy, spiteful bitches. It was the kind of hateful, utterly unsubstantiated assertion that regularly reduced colleagues to howls of rage.” Myers himself has a tendency to self-pity (on behalf of males as a class rather than himself alone) that is not at all attractive. As my wife often tells me, self-pity is never attractive.

 

Defenders

I am myself somewhat queasy about the fact that a writer should be sacked and his articles deleted because people did not like what he was writing. I have had the unpleasant experience of seeing supposed libertarians calling on editors to ‘silence’ me. I have been fortunate to encounter editors honourable enough to resist such calls for censorship. Myers claims that he has lost his livelihood and his reputation is “in tatters”.

The Jewish Representative Council of Ireland issued a statement defending Myers. Myers had established something of a reputation for himself as a “holocaust denier”. “Branding Kevin Myers as either an anti-Semite or a Holocaust denier is an absolute distortion of the facts. More than any other Irish journalist he has written columns about details of the Holocaust over the last three decades that would otherwise not have been known by a substantial Irish audience. “David Quinn, whose father helped establish the Israeli Embassy in Dublin, said “The Most Pro-British and Pro -Journalist in Ireland has been sacked by a British Newspaper for Antisemitism”.

The distinguished Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards was disappointed that some of her Jewish friends should vilify Myers whom she considereda brave man who has incurred a great deal of unpopularity in Ireland by sticking up for Israel and consistently reminding people about what the Nazis did to Jews.”

PC Again

While I am prepared to listen to the arguments of those who deny that Myers is anti-Semitic and I am concerned that a man should lose his livelihood for expressing his opinions, I start to see a red mist when the concept of “political correctness” is introduced into the scenario. Some defenders of Myers find it refreshing that he did not always follow liberal received wisdom. He is contrasted with favourably with Jeremy Corbyn because he took a principled stand against the Provisional IRA.I have also taken a stand against the myths of Easter 1916 and the brutal use to which they have been put. I am completely on the same page as Ruth and Kevin on that subject.

Ben Lowry points out that Myers “was an early critic of appeasement of violent Islamic fanatics. He mocked the naïveté of anti-war demonstrators who inadvertently help protect war-mongering dictators. He was one of the first people to see that if Europe accommodates large numbers of migrants, more will come (or die in the Med). He ridiculed environmental opposition to nuclear power that resulted in more carbon emissions.” He scoffed at the notion of equality.

What is “PC”?

It seems to me that PC is a ruse by which right-wingers attempt to fool everybody else that they are the legitimate guardians of “common sense” and everyone who believes in civility and justice is a cretinous subversive.  Take Donald Trump – please! Trump has shown that he is xenophobic, racist, homophobic, misogynistic and insensitive to people with disabilities. What people like Trump (and people who like Trump) mean when they condemn ‘political correctness’ is, in reality, is that they have no time for common decency, civility and empathy.

Ian Mayes was the first Readers’ Editor, a kind of Ombudsman, of the Guardian. He fought a long but ultimately futile battle against sloppy and hurtful language relating to mental illness.  “I feel a strong commitment to this policy. It has nothing to do with political correctness. It has a lot to do with the way we treat each other, or wish to be treated, and in particular the way in which we relate to each other in times of need.” It was sad to read Mayes’s columns over the years because however many times he returned to this subject he just could not stop Guardian journalists using the word schizophrenic in a sloppy and hurtful way.

Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when the political right adopted it in the 1990s as a pejorative term suggesting Stalinist orthodoxy. The right claimed sole ownership of Common Sense. All else was mere ideology. The term Political Correctness used by the right means “excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations”. Many of the most widely publicized anecdotes about PC were more myth than reality. The British tabloid papers ran a number of fictitious stories about Islington Council going to ridiculous lengths to avoid the word “black”. Boris Johnson floated many myths about EU bureaucracy in his columns written from Brussels. The term “politically incorrect” came into use as implicit self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to speak plainly. Some might say they were just rude and insensitive.

Fintan O’Toole wrote about Myers: “He didn’t notice that he was doing something he generally avoids: insulting people who can answer back.” O’Toole saw the Irish Times as being complicit in Myers’s offence. “The paper did him no favours when it decided in February 2005, under the influence of a misplaced anxiety about being seen to censor dissenting views, to publish his column calling single mothers “mothers of bastards” and was then very slow to apologise for this gratuitous kick at the weak. What Myers learned from the episode was not to mind his words but that he would be indulged and rewarded for inverting the usual journalistic imperatives and using his formidable talents to afflict the afflicted.” I do not believe Myers should have been silenced but he is old enough (70) and experienced enough to know that words, like sticks and stones, have consequences.

 

Positives from Negatives

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 6 2017.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=24837

Colman's Column3

 

I have written in recent articles about the spirit of rebellion developing among the public as a result of what disasters have revealed about the shortcomings of the governments of Sri Lanka and the UK.

Lights On, Nobody Home

In 2012, I was asked to do some consultancy work for a London company that organises events and exhibitions on an international basis. They were organising their second Aidex exhibition, held in Brussels, aimed at establishing networking and marketing opportunities for organisations providing goods and services in emergency and development situations. I was asked to establish contacts between Aidex and Sri Lankan organisations. The obvious place to start my research was the Ministry of Disaster Management. It was initially encouraging to find that the e-mail addresses and telephone numbers (even residential numbers) of personnel at the ministry were publicly available. I wrote to all these people and telephoned a large number of them. I did not get a single reply and no-one picked up the phone.

I published an article in advance of the Aidex event in which I wrote: “Surely there must be some Sri Lankan organisations similar to those who participated in AidEx 2011 and found it so beneficial to their business! Surely there are some Sri Lankan organisations who could make tremendous gains from participating in AidEx 2012.” Aidex 2012 was very successful. Not a single Sri Lankan attended.

Crisis, What Crisis

It was no surprise to find that the Ministry of Disaster Management was not prepared for this year’s floods because they had not been prepared for previous natural disasters. The emergency services in the UK responded magnificently to the Manchester bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire. However, they were stretched very thin because government policies over many years had brought about a reduction in police and fire service personnel (not to mention shortage of nursing staff). Many fire stations had been closed because of austerity measures.

Humanitarian Response from Humans rather than Politicians

How can one see anything positive in this? For one thing, one can feel inspired by the bravery of the firemen in West London and the prompt response of police in a number of terrorist incidents. The Sri Lankan government was slow to get its act together immediately after the tsunami, but a local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success despite the understandable confusion which accompanied it at times. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. This was in sharp contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina. There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation but  Sri Lankan soldiers performed heroically and efficiently in the aftermath of the floods as they did after the tsunami, when 20,000 soldiers assisted in relief operations.

Word from the Ground

My friend Amelia Ayewan has been tireless in her efforts to help the victims of Grenfell Tower. One of the great benefits of the much-reviled social media is the opportunity offered to spread news of what is going on, news that you do not get on TV or in the newspapers. Amelia has spoken to many people around Grenfell Tower, including policemen and firemen, and she passes on what she has heard. This is not irresponsible gossip. Volunteers at Grenfell Towers are hearing and sharing things that the government does not want people to know.

Personal stories bring home the reality of government policies. A friend of Amelia’s wrote: “A few days ago I walked into a shop on Portobello and ‘Uncle’ was gone… just an empty chair where he used to be sat, every day- now perished in the fire. I felt so sad. On Saturday evening, I went to buy injera (Ethiopian flatbread) and was relieved to find the regular lovely man serving me…mainly because he hadn’t been there last time…. ‘I am so glad to see you” I said. It turned out that he has lost about 18-19 people in the fire that were coming to his shop to buy injera every week… including a family of 5 that came twice a week every week for years.”

A volunteer passed on what a fireman had said: “He said there are 120 fire engines in London and 60 attended. He said they got there and were shitting themselves but ran in. He went to the 11th floor and got 10 people out, some could walk but the smoke was making people collapse so he had to carry people. They had to make an emergency stop on the way down because he had to give CPR to a six-year-old girl whose body couldn’t cope with the heat, the smoke and the stress. She didn’t survive.” The fireman said one of the worst things was the sound of people on the floors above screaming, sobbing and crying.

The fireman was furious about “the cost cutting that led to the shitty cladding that had no fire breaks and went up like a touch, that it had happened after the election so we could have put an end to the cuts to emergency services.”

End of Ideology?

One positive outcome might be an end to austerity policies. The UK government has had to commit itself to spending millions of pounds to make tower blocks safe. The disaster has shown the utter evil of the ideology of privatisation, outsourcing, deregulation and cutting spending on public services. Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s speech calling for an end to cuts to emergency services was rejected by MPs by 323 votes to 309, a government majority of 14. Nevertheless, there have been hints of wider moves to loosen austerity in the wake of May losing her majority at the general election.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP who chaired parliament’s health select committee before the election, said there was considerable strength of feeling among her colleagues on the backbenches and in cabinet that action was needed to ease the pain. There have been signals from a series of influential ministers, including Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Justine Greening and Michael Gove, that the 1% cap on public sector wage rises ought to be reconsidered.

The Home Office minister Nick Hurd told Parliament that increasing police pay was “under active consideration”. As I write, several reports have been published demonstrating beyond doubt that the austerity ideology is mistaken and harmful. A research report by UCL and NIESR was published quietly on July 3 and ignored by the government. The report analyses earnings growth among Pay Review Body occupations. The researchers found that median hourly earnings of UK workers dropped in real terms by almost 6% between 2005 and 2015, with some sectors suffering worse drops than others. The report showed George Osborne’s policy of pay restraint on public sector workers began to bite after 2010, as police officers, teachers, midwives, radiographers, nurses and doctors saw a marked decline in median hourly earnings. Police officers saw median real earnings fall from £20 an hour to £18 an hour over the same period.

There are already alarming staff shortages in hospitals in high cost areas like the south of England, including hospitals  used by constituents of Mrs May and Mr Hunt. Nurses point to evidence of a £3,000 fall in their pay since 2010, and their governing body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, has now reported that for the first time ever, more of their members are leaving the NHS than are joining. Brexit will mean less hospital staff will be going to the UK from the rest of Europe.

As the Guardian put it in an editorial: “U-turns have succeeded U-turns – in a series of hairpin bends leading down to an abyss – which can only reflect a struggle between Downing Street neighbours.” One wonders when the government will resolve the issue and start to invest in the people who rose so heroically to their tasks after the recent disasters.

 

Long Spoon Required

This article appeared in slightly different form in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 15 2017. The article was submitted on June 11 so I have amended it slightly to take account of further developments.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=23308

Pact with the Devil

 

As I write, Theresa May is barely holding on to the prime minister’s job despite her utter humiliation in the unnecessary general election she called in response to bad advice.Many Conservatives are out for her blood. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose services  she dispensed with is enjoying the opportunities that his new post as editor of the London Evening Standard affords him to rub salt into her wounds.

 

 

She went from having a majority of 17 to scrabbling around for the support of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party to keep the Conservative Party in power. The DUP is the party founded by the Reverend Iain Paisley. It has fundamentalist views on homosexuality and abortion as well as climate change. More worryingly it has had ties with terrorist organisations.

Ian Paisley marched at the head of masked loyalist paramilitary ranks during the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike. Peter Robinson, who was DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister until last year, was an active member of Ulster Resistance. One of the things the group did was collaborate with other terrorist organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association to smuggle arms into the UK. There was a major arms find in County Armagh in November 1988 but some UVF and UDA weapons have never been found.

Peter Robinson

The murder of Colin Horner, in a North Down supermarket car park in front of his three-year-old son last month revived community fears of loyalist violence and racketeering. DUP leader Arlene Foster, who met the senior UDA leader Jackie McDonald days after the killing, was criticised for failing to condemn loyalist violence robustly enough.

May attacked Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged ties with the IRA and is now allying herself with a party founded by former Northern Irish loyalist terrorists.

Who are the DUP MPs?

DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr has made many positive comments on Sri Lanka including telling the House of Commons: “In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland.” However, he has also said that he believes that homosexual “relationships are immoral, offensive and obnoxious.” There have been questions about the probity of his dealings with some property developers. He has consistently drawn attention by his high expenses claims as an MP. He is a friend of Donald Trump and has invited him to visit Northern Ireland for the Open golf championship at Portrush in 2019.

Sammy Wilson has been accused of condoning calls that Catholics should be “expelled, nullified, or interned.” Nigel Dodds attended the wake of paramilitary leader John Bingham with DUP founder Ian Paisley Sr. Emma Little-Pengelly is the daughter of Noel Little who was one of three men arrested in Paris in April 1989, along with a South African diplomat and an arms dealer. During her 2017 general election campaign, she received the endorsement of the three biggest loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was part of Official Unionist leader David Trimble’s negotiating team during the Good Friday Agreement talks in 1998. He came to oppose his leader’s stance, however, criticising the lack of a link between IRA weapons decommissioning and Sinn Fein’s being allowed into government. Donaldson joined the DUP in 2003 and is Northern Ireland’s longest serving MP.

In 2005 David Simpson ousted David Trimble from his parliamentary seat. He opposed same-sex marriage and lobbied to have creationism included in the science curriculum in Northern Ireland schools. Gregory Campbell has called for the reintroduction of the death penalty and described homosexuality as an “evil, wicked, abhorrent practice”. Jim Shannon was voted the least sexy MP in 2011.

Funding from Saudi Arabia

The story about the DUP’s shady financial links with Saudi Arabia is too convoluted for me to cover fully here and many facts remain uncovered. Two days before the Brexit referendum last June, the Metro freesheet carried a four-page glossy propaganda supplement urging readers to vote Leave. It cost £282,000 and was paid for by the DUP, even though Metro does not circulate in Northern Ireland. The DUP eventually admitted that money came from a much larger donation of £425,622 from the Constitutional Research Council which is linked to the Saudi royal family. The name of Peter Haestrup crops up in connection with this funding. He is a Dane who has repeatedly been linked to a gun running case described by Indian authorities as “the biggest crime in the country’s history”. All the DUP bigwigs claim to be puzzled by all this. The donation seems to be illegal under UK electoral law. If the DUP were   forced to return such a large sum of money it might bankrupt the party.

Cash for Ash

Arlene Foster, the current leader of the DUP, is a divisive figure in Northern Ireland. The “cash for ash” scandal indicated that the DUP were corrupt or at best incompetent and arrogant. A renewable energy incentive scheme for Northern Ireland ran out of control and cost the public purse £500 million. Concerns of fraud were raised initially in 2013 and again in 2014, when a whistle-blower contacted Foster to raise concerns about the scheme. The scheme worked by paying applicants to use renewable energy. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, however, meaning applicants were making profits simply by heating their properties.

The plan was overseen by Arlene Foster when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. She signally failed to introduce proper cost controls, allowing the plan to spiral out of control. Foster said that calls for her resignation were purely “misogynistic”. Foster was succeeded as minister by Jonathan Bell who said in an interview that DUP special advisers and Foster “intervened” to prevent the closure of the scheme. He also claimed that Foster tried to “cleanse the records” by hiding her involvement in delaying the scheme’s closure. Bell was suspended from the DUP. An audit indicated that there were serious fraud issues at 14 of the sites

The affair ultimately caused Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness to resign in protest as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January 2017 after ten years in office. McGuinness’s resignation meant that Foster was removed from her role as First Minister, which in turn caused the Executive Office of Northern Ireland to fall. The fall of the executive, though triggered by cash for ash, was the inevitable consequence of the DUP’s unwillingness to embrace the vision of a shared and equal society in the north of Ireland which underpinned the GFA.  The DUP has continued to adopt a sectarian approach to most issues undermining the carefully crafted agreement designed to allow a more normal society and body politic to take root and flourish.

Whither Peace?

May’s courting of the DUP augurs badly for power-sharing talks at Stormont. The uneasy peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement owed a lot to the fact that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were both part of the EU so that the border between the six and 26 counties no longer signified. Thanks to Brexit this will no longer apply. Sinn Féin have argued that because the Northern Ireland electorate voted by 56% to remain within Europe last year the area should have special designated status. The DUP are very much in favour of Brexit and will use their influence to insist there would be no post-Brexit deal that could decouple Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The hard border between the six counties and the 26 counties will reappear. It will now also be the land border between the EU and the UK. The success of the GFA depended on the London government being neutral between the nationalists and the loyalists in Northern Ireland. May’s Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire undermined that neutrality. May’s Faustian pact with the DUP will make any pretence of neutrality ludicrous.

There are many who think this anxiety reflects scaremongering and suggest that the DUP’s fundamentalist views cannot affect the rest of the UK. Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has written many pieces lately advising people to calm down. “The DUP leader – a rural solicitor who saw her father and several friends injured by IRA attacks – has with good grace sat in government with ex-IRA people and their apologists. Her wish-list is, she says, utterly in the national interest. Theresa May can count herself lucky.”

Nevertheless, many people in the UK and Ireland are feeling a sense of betrayal and despair. I lost respect for John Major because of rail privatisation and Edwina Currie. Perhaps Major has not been given enough credit for his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. Noe Major is worried. “A fundamental part of that peace process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland. The danger is that however much any government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal, at Westminster, with one of the Northern Ireland parties. The last thing anybody wishes to see is one or other of the communities so aggrieved that the hard men, who are still there lurking in the corners of the community, decide that they wish to return to some form of violence.”

Many British voters will be thinking it was bad enough getting Brexit and Theresa May. They are also getting a gang of ignorant bigots with connections to terrorists, fraudsters and Trump. What fresh hell is this?

 

 

On Bullshit

This  article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 1 2017,

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=22261

Bullshit

By

Padraig Colman

My first article published in a Sri Lankan magazine was for LMD nearly ten years ago. My subject was truth and lies and broken promises in politics and business. The immediate trigger for the article was my reading of Harry G Frankfurt’s best-selling little book (67 pages) On Bullshit.  Since reading Frankfurt, I have also read a book by another philosopher, my Facebook friend Stephen Law – Believing Bullshit. Stephen goes into a lot more detail with practical examples of bullshit and what to do about it. Frankfurt is one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers. This could be a false memory but I seem to recall that the LMD editors were too squeamish to print the word ‘bullshit’.

Post-Truth

Ten years on, bullshit is still around and still being written about. Evan Davis has published Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Buzzfeed correspondent James Ball weighs in with Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, and political journalist Matthew d’Ancona contributes Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as word of the year, with the definition “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Trump spokesperson Kelly-Anne Conway has come up with the phrase “alternative facts” to explain her boss’s s bizarre claims about the weather and the crowds on the day of his inauguration.

Lies, Humbug and Bullshit

LMD could have substituted the word “humbug”, which Frankfurt considers a genteel alternative. There is a subtle difference between bullshit and lies (Sisela Bok’s book Lying is a must-read). Frankfurt argues that bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter only cares whether or not the listener is persuaded. Frankfurt argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. Bullshit need not be untrue at all. Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything  is true. They change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.

Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. Bullshit is everywhere, because people must create prose about things they don’t actually understand.

Entitlement to Opinion

A cliché on social media is “opinions are like arseholes; everyone’s got one and they all stink”. The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Der Spiegel wrote about Trump: “He doesn’t read. He doesn’t bother to peruse important files and intelligence reports and knows little about the issues that he has identified as his priorities. His decisions are capricious and they are delivered in the form of tyrannical decrees.”

Facebook

Thanks to Facebook, bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world, about more or less anything and everything – so they rant about things they know virtually nothing about. However, Facebook and the internet in general are tools and we perhaps should not blame them for the way they are used. Columbia University researchers analysed 1.3m articles published online before the US presidential election. The report’s authors insist that it is neither fake news nor Facebook that poses the real challenge to the mainstream media, but a “propaganda and disinformation-rich environment”.
Churnalism

Thanks to parlous economic conditions, newspapers cannot afford to employ reporters to dig out the facts. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

It seems to me that there is more bullshit around than there was ten years ago. Look at the current President of the United States. Many have written about Trump’s incessant lying but his modus operandi seems to me to be more akin to bullshit. Frankfurt wrote: “The bullshitter is involved in a program of obfuscation, not merely the substitution of truth for lies.”

Twittering Trump

Trump uses Twitter ceaselessly and undermines the efforts of his spin doctors. Trump’s election and the Brexit vote relied on distrust of experts and disregard for knowledge. There are so many opportunities for people to sound off without knowing what they are talking about. It is disturbing when the person sounding off without knowledge is the president of the United States. As I write, I am looking at footage showing the leaders of NATO countries tittering in bemusement as Trump holds forth mistaken views about how NATO works. Trump’s claim that American allies are “underpaying” or owe NATO money has been repeatedly debunked.

Principles of Conversation

Yet another philosopher, HP Grice (1913-1988), described in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, ‘maxims’ that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. The co-operative principle means that speakers and listeners assume that their interlocutors stick to certain speech norms. There is a kind of unstated contract about quantity, quality, relevance and manner. If the maxims are violated you get bullshit: quantity – too much or too little information; quality – utterances that are intentionally false or lack evidence; relevance – shifting ground from the topic under discussion; manner – utterances that are ambiguous, unnecessarily prolix or disorderly. Grice could be describing Trump. The elements Grice outlines may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Another philosopher, Bernard Williams, brings trust into the equation. Williams sees any person lied to or who has bullshit tipped onto him or her as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage.

Blind Faith and Bullshit

Frankfurt comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: ‘sincerity is bullshit’. Frankfurt rests his case on a critique of those who claim for sincerity a position formerly occupied by a trust in objectivity. He disputes the view that our nature is a more reliable guide to truth than ‘facts’. He has no time for faith or gut feeling, seeing those as part of bullshit.

Stephen Law takes this up and offers strategies for avoiding getting trapped in what he calls the black holes of bullshit – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can be imprisoned. Even the most intelligent and educated, not just the ignorant, are potentially vulnerable. Beware! You might think you are smart but you too can be bullshitted.

I am myself guilty of churnalism and also of having opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world. I have been confidently condemning Jeremy Corbyn for voting against the Good Friday Agreement. I believed it because I had read it so many times on the internet. I am a bullshitter! I may have to eat my hat. According to Channel4 Corbyn did, in fact, vote for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Here is the relevant extract from Hansard showing that Corbyn did support the Good Friday Agreement.

https://www.publications.parliament.uk/…/debte…/80731-06.htm
My apologies to Mr Corbyn.

Fake Editor

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday  April 1 2017.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=20797

Sri Lankans are justifiably proud of their politicians’ corruption and nepotism. However, I have had spirited debates with some Sri Lankans who think such things only exist in Sri Lanka. I have argued that western politicians are even more corrupt but are usually more subtle about it.

Fake Editor

The shock announcement on March 17 by Evgeny Lebedev, (dubbed “two beards” by satirical magazine Private Eye) proprietor of the London Evening Standard that George Osborne was to become editor of the paper in May drew attention to many unsavoury features of British politics. Osborne, who was sacked as Chancellor of the Exchequer when Theresa May became prime minister, blithely announced that he would continue to sit as a member of parliament for the Tatton constituency in Cheshire.

Privilege

His salary at the Standard has not been disclosed. He will not be starving anyway. Since he ceased to be a minister he has declared almost £1 million in speaking fees in the Parliamentary Register of Members’ Interests. He has declined to answer those who ask whether he will give up his lucrative little jobs to avoid any suggestion of conflicts of interest. Osborne is paid £650,000 a year for one day’s work a week for fund manager BlackRock. He has earned £800,000 for 15 speaking engagements in the last year, collects a £120,000 a year stipend from a US thinktank and has a book deal on top of his £75,000 MP’s salary.

Private Eye has on its cover a Standard employee saying: “There’s no conflict of interest – he’s not interested in journalism”. Seriously though, as a member of the privy council, Osborne has privileged access to confidential briefings, conflicting with his obligation as a supposed journalist to publish information in the public interest. The Standard has a good reputation for its city coverage. Will that continue with a new editor who has been paid vast sums by the world’s largest asset manager. BlackRock is a major player in the pensions industry and has benefited from the policies of Osborne the chancellor. The money-laundering bank HSBC, in which BlackRock has more than £2 billion worth of shares, also benefitted from Osborne’s policies and received critical coverage from the Standard. Will this continue with Osborne as editor? The new editor will need to recuse himself from every financial story his paper covers.

Revolving Doors, Revolting People

The Eye has been running a long campaign to expose the inadequacies of Acoba (advisory committee on business appointments) the body which is supposed to regulate the revolving door between government and business. Acoba is supposed to assess any private paid roles taken by former ministers and civil servants in fields they previously regulated in government. The committee seems to approve every move it assesses. Osborne showed his contempt for the body by taking up his new job without waiting for a finding. He has previous on this because he did not consult Acoba before taking a post with Northern Powerhouse.

Contempt

Real journalists, particularly those working at the Standard, feel Osborne’s contempt for them. One said that Osborne’s confidence that he could edit the paper and be an MP “just shows the contempt he has for the newspaper, that he thinks being an editor is a part-time job, that’s the real scandal”. Osborne’s constituents might not be happy at the knowledge that he thinks representing them is a part-time job. Carla Flynn, editor of the Knutsford Guardian, Osborne’s constituency local paper, described the appointment as a “huge shock”. “Since he lost his position as chancellor, constituents thought they would be seeing more of their MP but this hasn’t been the case, and we’ve received an increasing number of letters questioning George’s commitment to Tatton.”

Senior hacks all over the UK are expressing their annoyance at Osborne’s appointment. Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian thought it was ironic that this appointment should be made at a time of controversy over “fake news”. “George will pen a few words, front a few Lebedev cocktail parties and pocket a few hundred thousand pounds, burying the remains of a once glowing political career. The perfect PR symbol of our times: a fake newspaper editor”.

Marina Hyde was caustic. “Primarily, it is a thrill to see Osborne finally get his break in journalism, over two decades after failing to get on the Times graduate trainee scheme. Bless him for keeping on plugging away – it’s so easy to get discouraged by a setback like that.” She noted that Lebedev had said, “I am proud to have an editor of such substance.”

She asked What substance? Is it crystal meth?” There is footage of Osborne on YouTube which shows him in the House of Commons in a very peculiar state which looks like coming down after some drug induced experience.

Former prostitute and ex-drug user Natalie Rowe claims that Osborne  took cocaine with her in his early 20s, before he became an MP.

http://www.neonnettle.com/interviews/67-neon-nettle-chats-to-natalie-rowe-on-explosive-new-book

 

Marina Hyde continues: “One of the more questionable pleasures of the age has been to watch people who used to be journalists cocking up the country, and people who used to cock up the country becoming journalists. What fluidity there is between these two pursuits. In the former category, we have leave figureheads Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who got their start in journalism. In the latter category, we may now place newspaper editor George Osborne.” Another revolving door!

Austerity Is Not for Everyone

One of the reasons Osborne irritates people so much is that he has led a privileged and sybaritic existence while imposing austerity measures on the rest of the population. He was born in Paddington, London, and christened as Gideon Oliver Osborne. His father Sir Peter Osborne co-founded the firm of fabric and wallpaper designers Osborne & Little. He was educated at independent schools: Norland Place School, Colet Court and St Paul’s School and Magdalen College, Oxford.

At Oxford, Osborne was a member of the Bullingdon Club, noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising of restaurants and students’ rooms. Its ostentatious display of wealth attracts controversy, since many ex-members have moved up to high political posts, most notably former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Tom Driberg described a typical Bullingdon outing: “Such a profusion of glass I never saw until the height of the Blitz. On such nights, any undergraduate who was believed to have ‘artistic’ talents was an automatic target.”

Failed Journalist

Having failed in his ambition to become a journalist, Osborne took advantage of personal contacts to get a job at the Conservative Research Department in 1994 and rose to high office without too much effort. Like many politicians, he has never done a proper job in his life and has no clue how normal people live, normal people who bear the brunt of his policies. David Cameron denied that his long friendship with Osborne was anything to do with him getting the job of chancellor: “He stayed in my shadow cabinet not because he is a friend, not because we are godfathers to each other’s children but because he is the right person to do the job. I know and he knows that if that was not the case he would not be there.”

Corruption

Osborne’s school and university contemporary, financier Nathaniel Rothschild, said in October 2008 that Osborne had tried to solicit a £50,000 donation from the Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska, which would have been a violation of the law against political donations by foreign citizens. In 2009 and 2012 Osborne was criticised for his expense claims, in particular for the claims for mortgage interest payments on his Cheshire properties.

What of the Future?

When Theresa May announced that there would be a general election on June 8, Osborne announced that he would cease to be an MP. Few doubt that he still has ambitions to be prime minister and the editorship will be a useful tool.  Osborne’s first edition will do little to quell rumours that he wants to use London’s freesheet as a platform for his own political agenda. Some see it as a vehicle for future political ambitions, should the Brexit strategy being pursued by the prime minister who sacked him as chancellor go wrong.

 

Mind-Forged Manacles

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Thursday May 25 2017.

In every cry of every Man, 

In every Infants cry of fear, 

In every voice: in every ban, 

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 

 

William Blake

 

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=21718

 

Jim Morrison was a big fan of Blake – The Doors got their name from Blake. In Unhappy Girl

Morrison sings: You are locked in a prison/Of your own devise. Perhaps Morrison was also inspired by Richard Lovelace: Stone walls do not a prison make /Nor iron bars a cage. All three poets seem to me to be saying that we delude ourselves when we think that we are independent agents blessed with free will which enables us to make informed rational judgements. In reality, we are restricted from fulfilling our true potential by an accumulation of bad and good habits or addictions, futile daily rituals, false memories, gut feelings, tribal loyalties. We are our own jailers – although Lovelace was actually in a real prison with stone walls and iron bars when he wrote To Althea.

 

Behavioural Economics

 

The first article I published, on 31 October 2008, under the byline ‘Padraig Colman’ was on the subject of behavioural economics. Behavioural economics combines the insights of psychology with the rigour of economics, factoring human unpredictability into market analysis. Nine years on, behavioural economics is still being discussed but it has come to be considered somewhat sinister by some critics despite the efforts of proponents to portray it as a benign form of Libertarian Paternalism.

 

Michael Lewis recently published a book on the subject, which renewed the controversy. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds , describes the friendship and intellectual partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the psychologists whose work provided the foundation for behavioural economics. Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow was a best-seller. The book summarizes research that Kahneman conducted over decades, often in collaboration with Tversky.

 

What Is Behavioural Economics?

 

Behavioural economics studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market prices, returns, and resource allocation.

 

Kahneman characterized the human mind as the interrelated operation of two systems of thought: System One, which is fast and automatic, including instincts, emotions, innate skills, as well as learned associations and skills; and System Two, which is slow and deliberative and allows us to correct for the errors made by System One.

In real life, economic behaviour does not fit in with the accepted norms of economic theory. In reality, homo economicus failed to pursue his own self-interest. Decisions were based on received wisdom or bizarre rules of thumb rather than logic. The key factors are inertia, overconfidence, and loss aversion. In their everyday existences, people tend to stick with what they are doing, even if trying something different would be easy as well as beneficial.

Kahneman and Tversky developed heuristics, or rules of thumb, to describe specific flaws in our intuitive thinking: the “endowment effect” (overvaluation of what we already have), “status quo bias” (an emotional preference for maintaining the status quo), and “loss aversion” (the tendency to attribute much more weight to potential losses than potential gains when assessing risk) are all related to an innate conservatism about what we feel we have already invested in. We find it hard to tune out information that should, strictly speaking, not be of high relevance to our judgment.

Behavioural economists have taught politicians and policy-makers that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market is not infallible. Their theories and experiments are of interest to politicians because of their relevance to decisions in the public sphere – whether to grant patients buying power in the health service, whether to compel individuals to save for their old age.

Rationalising the Irrational

The systematic errors that psychologists have identified make human irrationality predictable and people can be helped to avoid bad outcomes through “nudges”. Cass R Sunstein devised “choice architectures” or “nudges” that would work with the intuitive apparatus people have in order to guide their choices. For example, if people refuse through inertia to choose between retirement plans, government can help them by automatically enrolling them in the most beneficial plan with the option to withdraw.

Behavioural Economics and Government

 

Richard Thaler has built upon the work of Kahneman and Tversky in books such as Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness which he co-wrote with Cass Sunstein. Thaler wrote a column called Anomalies (sometimes in collaboration with Kahneman, the first psychologist to win the Nobel Prize for economics).

 

Governments have taken up these ideas. Thaler taught at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and was close to Austan Goolsbee, who was Obama’s economic advisor. Sunstein was for ten years a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School (he is also the husband of Professor Samantha Power, who was Obama’s foreign policy adviser until she resigned after calling Hillary Clinton a ‘monster’). Sunstein oversaw the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House (Obama subsequently created a Social and Behavioural Sciences Team). Thaler was an advisor to David Cameron’s Behavioural, based in the Cabinet Office.

 

Nudge or Manipulation?

The Economist’s columnist, Bagehot, suspects that the theories of behavioural economists appeal to politicians because they provide a cover for a hands-off approach to problems they should be facing head-on. “Nasty behaviour—such as the propensity of some British teenagers to drink too much, get pregnant or stab each other—is often symptomatic of a deeper malaise: skewed values, social atomism, despair and so on.” Problems of this kind might require the smack of firm governance, rather than a gentle nudge, but the term “nanny state” has long been part of the dictionary of political abuse.

Sunstein’s Libertarian Paternalism might well be what philosopher Bernard Williams called “Government House utilitarianism” a moral philosophy underlying the practice of the British Empire that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use.

 

Hidden Persuaders

Heuristics have a relevance to business in the private sector for what they can reveal about consumer behaviour. Thaler has an investment company, Fuller and Thaler’s Asset Management Inc. whose mission statement says: “Investors make mental mistakes. Fuller and Thaler’s objective is to exploit them”. More sinister still, Frank Babetski, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence analyst has called Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow a “must read” for intelligence officers looking for ideas about control and coercion.

In 2007, and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a masterclass in “Thinking About Thinking” to, among others, Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia). Psychologists helped to develop myPersonality, a Facebook application that allowed users to take psychometric tests and gathered six million test results and four million individual profiles. Scores on these tests could be combined with enormous amounts of data from the user’s Facebook environment. The architects of myPersonality claim that these tests, in conjunction with other data, permit the prediction of individual levels of well-being.

Facebook

Many people manacle themselves to Facebook. As well as possibly being the cause of them not using their time most productively, they are leaving themselves open to manipulation by those expert in the dark arts of behavioural economics.

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, writing in the Swiss publication Das Magazin, claimed that Cambridge Analytica (a data science firm created by a British company with deep ties to the British and American defence industries) had used psychological data culled from Facebook, combined with vast amounts of consumer information purchased from data-mining companies, to develop algorithms that were supposedly able to identify the psychological makeup of every voter in the American electorate. The company then developed political messages tailored to appeal to the emotions of each one.

As Sue Halpern wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook, as well as Google, the two biggest advertising platforms in the world, to successfully sell a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want.”

How about that for a nudge!

 

 

 

 

Orientalism and Sour Grapes

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 20 2017.

Last week, I wrote about the farrago of error that was Thomas Meaney’s article on Sri Lanka in the London Review of Books.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19109

Dayan Jayatilleka described Meaney’s article thus:  “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years.” This prompted me to look at Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism.

Wilson, Keppel and Betty

 

Said published his book in 1978 and died in 2003, so he was not able to include in his bibliography a book published in 2016 by Alan Stafford. The book did not win the international acclaim of Said’s work but it did win The Bookseller’s annual Diagram prize for the year’s oddest title. Too Naked for the Nazis is a biography of Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Second place went to Dr Jonathan Allan’s Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus. Apparently, Hermann Göring was outraged by the sensuality of Betty Knox’s dancing. She went on to become a war correspondent and was the first to report Göring’s suicide.

I am old enough to have seen Wilson, Keppel and Betty perform live on more than one occasion. They represented Orientalism at its finest. The “sand dance” that formed the highlight of their act was a parody of postures from Egyptian tomb paintings, combined with references to Arabic costume. The act was usually performed to the Egyptian Ballet (1875), by Alexandre Luigini. I recall them dancing to In a Persian Garden.

 

What is Orientalism?

 

 

Edward Said redefined Orientalism to describe a pervasive Western tradition of prejudiced outsider-interpretations of the Eastern world, which was shaped by the cultural attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a form of cultural imperialism. Oriental culture is an Other that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. This implies that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and thereby superior, whilst Oriental societies are inferior for being undeveloped, irrational, and inflexible. Said develops Antonio Gramsci’s of cultural hegemony, and Michel Foucault’s theorisation of discourse (the knowledge-and-power relation).

Said wrote, “The Orient is a stage on which the whole East is confined” in order to make the Eastern world “less fearsome to the West” so that Western nations and their empires could exploit underdeveloped countries, by the extraction of wealth and labour from one country to another country.

Orientalism and Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been cursed with many “prejudiced outsider-interpretations”. Starting in 2009, I used to write a monthly column on Sri Lanka for Diplo, the blog of the prestigious monthly Le Monde diplomatique. The articles were appreciated by Wendy Kristianasen, the editor of the English-language edition, and for a while she pressed me to send more copy. Most comments on these pieces were along the lines of “professional” and “unbiased”, and one reader in Canada compared me to a famous Canadian journalist. Not everyone was happy. One reader called me a government lackey and another called me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.

 

Diplo turned  nasty when Wendy asked for my opinion on a piece about Sri Lanka by a Frenchman called Cédric Gouverneur. “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.” My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”

 

Cédric Gouverneur wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.” So much for that armchair expert! That ludicrous prophesy did not stop Le Monde diplomatique giving him another shot at analysing Sri Lanka in 2010.

As well as many highly debatable judgements gleaned after interviews with LTTE supporters the article was riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815 (surely something wrong with the arithmetic!). “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?

Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. This schoolmarmish rapping of knuckles was particularly galling because she was not paying me and was passing my articles on to others who were not paying me. One article appeared in the New York Times who did not pay me, ask my permission or even notify me that they were going to publish. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail after Wendy forwarded to him my e-mail to her without my permission.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/triumphalism-and-foreign-commentators/

Way Down Yonder

Way back in 2010, Joshua M Schoop, after spending a full three months in Sri Lanka , decided to tell us  -in an article in the magazine Groundview (published by CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies)- where we were going wrong. “The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone”. “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “In progressive nations, this is where a government would come in to assist.” Josh conceded the government has built new roads which helped the local economy but the roads were“helpful for military operations”. Was the army not doing useful work de-mining and rebuilding? What have the Romans ever done for us?

 

Josh was studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane. It was very Orientalist for someone from Louisiana to be superior about Sri Lanka. Following the American civil war, Louisiana, was under martial law. Before the civil war, Louisiana’s wealth depended on slavery. White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century. Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations. The average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is nearly as low as in North Korea. Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008 to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana. Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the US for 21 consecutive years. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been the highest of any state for the last 20 years; it retains the death penalty.

Sour Grapes

Cédric Gouverneur thought I was annoyed because he was in the print edition of Le Monde diplomatique and I wasn’t. Damn right! The chaps at LRB probably think that I am suffering from sour grapes because I have submitted articles to them that they have thought were not up to their impeccable standards. Too true! They have rejected my articles but are quite happy to publish articles that are crawling with errors. I forgive them. I will continue reading and enjoying and being stimulated by LRB. I just hope that the next time they deign to look at Sri Lanka they will ask me -or Jonathan Spencer.

 

 

More on Orientalism and Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 27 2017.

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19829

 

In previous articles, I have noted that much of what is written by foreigners about Sri Lanka conforms to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. Said wrote in that book about “middle-brow journalists, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalizations so as to stir up ‘America’ against the foreign devil.” Said’s book contains many telling phrases: “Orientalism has not allowed ideas to violate its profound serenity.”

Fantasies of Virtue

 

In an article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers: “These are methods the U.S. should never use.” That is outrageous. The methods Sri Lanka used to defend itself from brutal terrorists within its sovereign boundaries seem benign compared to what the US has done to achieve and maintain world dominance.

 

The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000. During the Vietnam War, up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives. Obama killed wedding guests by remote control. Trump drops huge bombs on caves.

 

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labour, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.

There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.

Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Perfect Fright

On a somewhat lighter note we have Peter Grimsdale’s unexciting “thriller” Perfect Night which illustrates Said’s comment: “The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.” Said quotes V G Kiernan’ phrase “Europe’s collective day-dream of the Orient.”

Grimsdale’s  narrator Nick Roker(who surely must be the hunky babe-magnet that Grimsdale would like to be) first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting, I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointments. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.

Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists, he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war, not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism”.

Here is Said on travel guides: “many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colourful, expensive, interesting, and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”

Grimsdale presents an “actuality” that is full of misconceptions and factual errors about Sri Lanka. I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka, but it is not the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.

Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned about the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy. In his acknowledgements Grimsdale thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They have failed you badly Mr Grimsdale.

Here are some examples of Grimsdale’s faux Sri Lanka:

  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s. It is the High commission today.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take Nick and the journalist Greer (Marie Colvin? Frances Harrison?) out to a cruiser almost in open sea. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995 50 rupees was worth half a British pound.
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas! Bidis are smoked by Tamil estate labourers but it is unlikely that a Tamil doctor would smoke them.
  • There is a photographic business whose address is “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” Galle Road is very long but none of it goes near Colombo 7. According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address is Colombo 3.I have never encountered a Sri Lankan called Witjerwarra.
  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our hero or our author).  A small girl appears at table the selling ball points. I have encountered this on the trekking trails of Nepal but not in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans.
  • Greer has what seems to be meant a harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
  • I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks”and “the locals”.

There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of parachute dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame –  I can’t tell you why they are dying.

Final Word

I leave the final word with Edward Said: “Knowledge no longer requires application to reality; knowledge is what gets passed on silently, without comment, from one text to another. Ideas are propagated and disseminated anonymously, they are repeated without attribution; they have literally become idées reçues: what matters is that they are there, to be repeated.”

Thomas Meaney on Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 13 2017 under the title “Crawling with Errors”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19109

I recently moved closer to the fleshpots of Colombo after spending nearly fifteen years enduring the privations of life in a remote location in Uva province. I have written about that life in Uva province here:

https://staionarytraveller.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/living-in-uva/

The move meant that I have got rather behind with my reading and have only just got around to reading the issue of the London Review of Books dated February 2 2017. That issue contains an article on Sri Lanka by one Thomas Meaney. Because of my tardiness, two people have already beaten me to the punch and taken Mr Meaney to task for errors in his essay. Michael Roberts and Jonathan Spencer are both academic anthropologists with a knowledge of Sri Lanka that is deep and wide.

Thomas Mallory Meaney

 

Others have challenged Mr Meaney’s contention that the country passively gave itself up to foreign conquerors and was in 1948 handed independence on a plate without having to fight for it. Nobody died, he claimed. We Irish (and I suspect Mr Meaney has Irish antecedents) have long memories and are likely to bring up the massacres of Cromwell at the slightest excuse. Uva Province still bears the scars of what happened in 1818. In retribution for an uprising, the entire able bodied male population above the age of 18 was killed and homes throughout the region were also destroyed. The British also destroyed the irrigation systems, poisoned the wells, killed all cattle and other domesticated animals, and burnt all cultivated fields

I have seen a copy of Mr Meaney’s CV and am confident that he is a very knowledgeable young man. However, leaving false modesty aside, I do not think that Thomas Meaney knows as much as I do about Sri Lanka.  Nevertheless, the prestigious organ has allowed him over 7,000 words to inform readers about the country I have chosen as my home. Unfortunately, he makes many egregious errors.

I am not concerned so much about value judgements like this one: “The Rajapaksa years now look like the most ignominious period in the country’s post-independence history.” Mr Meaney is, of course, entitled to hold that opinion. I was myself (as I wrote in these pages https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/partisan-people-and-fissiparous-parties/) happy that Rajapaksa was ousted, but I do not think that history will judge MR as harshly as Mr Meaney contends. After all, he ended 30 years of fear and improved the infrastructure of the country beyond recognition. Sri Lanka also made it into the “high” category of the Human Development Index during Rajapaksa’s rule. It is ten years since I last left Sri Lanka and I have experienced the warp and woof of daily life here. I certainly felt a huge improvement in the quality of life in Sri Lanka even in the backwater in which we lived. I listen to ordinary people like a couple who sell vegetables on Badulla market. We have known them for 13 years; they used to be prosperous but now they are desperate; they wish Rajapaksa had not been ousted. Meaney writes dismissively about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s transforming of “Colombo into a city of antiseptic beauty” but many of the affluent are worried about the effluent that is returning to the city because of the laxity of the current government. Many are nostalgic about Gota’s can-do spirit.

Rather than disputing Mr Meaney’s judgements, I am more concerned about factual errors that any decent copy-editor should have spotted and questioned with the author. Jonathan Spencer drew some of these to the attention of the LRB in a letter and the editors allowed Meaney a response. He was oddly offhand: “I thank Jonathan Spencer for clearing up errors for which I have only myself to blame. But some of his objections are unnecessary.” Who else could be to blame for his errors? What is that “but” doing there?

Jonathan Spencer has carried out fieldwork in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, concentrating at first on rural change and local politics, but writing more recently on ethnic conflict, political violence and political non-violence. His current research looks at the fraught boundary between the religious and the political in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Professor Spencer had pointed out that Mr Meaney’s claim that the British “converted Ceylon’s inhabitants on a much larger scale than the Portuguese and Dutch had” was nonsense because there were four times as many Catholics as Protestants in the population in 1948. Spencer also said that it was plain wrong to describe SWRD Bandaranaike as a member of the ‘burgher class’ when he was a man from the highest caste in Sinhala society. Spencer also questions Meaney’s account of the JVP uprising: “The ‘fifty thousand youths’ who ‘descended on Colombo’ in 1971 are new to me, and I imagine to all other scholars of modern Sri Lankan politics.”

 

There are many more ludicrous errors. Mr Meaney says that Mahinda Rajapaksa was from Matara. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Weeraketiya in the southern rural district of Hambantota. In his opening paragraph Meaney writes: “Solomon Ridgeway Bandaranaike, the anti-colonial head of state who took power in 1956…” Later he writes that “Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became head of the SLFP and the world’s first female elected head of state…. “  In fact,  both Bandaranaikes held the office of prime minister. The head of state was Queen Elizabeth II. Also in the first paragraph, Meaney writes: “After independence in 1948, Ceylon alone among the former colonies not only retained but promoted the monarchy”. Did no-one at LRB notice the contradiction?

More confusion about office here: “Prabhakaran participated in the assassination of the governor of Jaffna”.  On 25 April 1978, the LTTE issued an open letter, which was published in the Virakesari, claiming responsibility for the assassination of eleven people including Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah in 1975. Duraiappah was the mayor of Jaffna (elected by the people) and a member of parliament (elected by the people), not the governor. Jaffna does not have a governor. The Northern Province has a governor who is appointed, not elected. Prabhakaran, of course, was never elected by anybody. Another avoidable blunder was getting the Army Commander’s name wrong. Meaney calls him “Sarnath” Fonseka instead of Sarath.

As Michael Roberts writes: “Thomas Meaney speaks with a certainty that brooks no doubt: ‘At the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the far north-east, Prabhakaran was captured and killed. Photos of his execution and a gruesome video were widely disseminated.’ Since no documentation is deployed in these types of powerful media outlets, we have no means of checking Meaney’s conclusions.” After citing the views of David Blacker who had served in the Sri Lankan Army, Roberts comments: “Alas, the Western world is dominated by journalists and intellectuals who have no experience in jungle warfare (or any form of warfare).” Roberts uses Blacker’s expertise to quash DBS Jeyaraj’s contention that the LTTE leader shot himself and questions the view that he was captured and summarily executed. HL Mahindapala wrote: “Nobody knows who fired the fatal bullet. It seems to be a gun shot fired within a range of about 10 metres.” Roberts surmises: most soldiers will tell you: more often than not, one sprays a round at vague figures of the enemy way in front of you. … a frontline soldier has the luxury of identifying an officer or X and Y to target only on a few occasions”. I have no way of knowing how Prabhakaran died, but then, neither does Mr Meaney.

 

I am disappointed that LRB has seen fit to publish this error-strewn essay rather than giving the job of reviewing books on Sri Lanka to people who have knowledge and expertise in the subject. I am sure that Michael Roberts or Jonathan Spencer would have made a better fist of it. There is insufficient space here to deal with all the dubious statements in the article. I may return to the subject later. Malinda Seneviratne commented: “there seems to be an over-indulgence in off-the-cuff remarks.” As political scientist and former ambassador Dr Dayan Jayatilleka wrote to me: “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years. You can’t really pick at this ball of wool, can you?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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