Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Lakbima News articles

Where Every Prospect Pleases

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on August 14 2011

Bishop Heber laboured indefatigably – not only for the good of his own diocese, but for the spread of Christianity throughout the East. He toured India, consecrating churches, founding schools and discharging other Christian duties. His devotion to his work in a trying climate told severely on his health. At Trichy, he had an apoplectic fit in his bath, and died. He wrote many hymns. “From Greenland’s icy mountains” was the missionary hymn most frequently printed in 19th century American hymnals.

Was Bishop Heber being a little unfair on this country when he wrote: “What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle/ Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile”? It is true that whenever I venture out from my mountain retreat to do a little shopping I have to beware of looking up at the magnificent scenery lest I tread in something nasty or be hit by foul matter coming from a bus window. It is certainly not gold with which our streets are paved.

Is Sri Lanka worse than other countries in this regard? Is man more vile here than elsewhere? Reg Heber’s home county of Cheshire is rather posh generally, but it also includes Macclesfield, whence came the gloomy band Joy Division, chroniclers of the laying waste of Britain wreaked by the Thatcher government. Have a look at Control ,Anton Corbijn’s film about the band, if you want see bleak and vile prospects. In her novel The Radiant Way (1987) Margaret Drabble saw Britain in the Thatcher years as “mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out, post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons”.

It used to be difficult to walk the streets of London without getting stuck to the pavement with discarded chewing gum. Many of we goodie-goodies were raised not to drop even a piece of paper on the pavement but the feral lumpenproletariat were not so refined.

In his book Ireland and the Irish, John Ardagh (1995) noted: “the Irish lack of any strong visual sense or concern with tidiness”. The Irish landscape is beautiful but it is marred by the intrusion of humanity. Most Irish small towns are ugly and depressing. The Irish countryside is sparsely populated but despoiled by the phenomenon of “bungalowitis” – the economic boom led to many ugly houses being built. With the collapse of the economy, the country is littered with ghost housing developments. Ireland’s saving grace is that, although it is the same size as Sri Lanka, the population is less than four million and falling as foreigners lose their jobs and natives look for work abroad. So it is possible to avoid vile man while enjoying the scenery. Will the last one to leave please switch off the lights!

I would venture to say that Sri Lankans also lack a strong visual sense or concern with tidiness. Affluent suburbanites dump their effluent on the street and then complain that they are infested with stray dogs and mosquitoes. Dropping litter on the streets seems to be acceptable to many in Sri Lanka. Part of the problem is food vendors who dispense even liquid comestibles in polythene, tiny portions of lunu miris are dispensed in little condom-like packages which are then tossed on the ground. Stray dogs and cattle choke on plastic bags in urban areas as do deer and fish in rural surroundings.

Ireland took a global lead on the plastic bags issue. I was somewhat disconcerted to be told on 4th March 2002 by an Irish retailer that I would have to pay 15 cents for a plastic bag. My first thought was that this was profiteering. I later learnt that this was a levy imposed by the Irish government to limit the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of re-usable bags. All levies are remitted into the Environment Fund to develop schemes to promote awareness of the need to protect the environment.

Buddhist philosophy posits a particular way of looking at the environment based on living in harmony with nature. In Buddhism and the Natural World, Irish Buddhist, PD Ryan, contrasts the Baconian or Thomist view of man’s dominance and stewardship over nature with the Buddhist world view: “It has to be remarked that the Christian missionary has often more in common with the white hunter than with his counterpart in religion, the Buddhist monk, even in these stewardship-conscious times”. Looking around the towns and villages of Sri Lanka one does not notice a strong desire to be in harmony with nature.

Many Sri Lanka environmental groups run educational programmes to raise public awareness of the dangers of waste and of the general need to care for the environment. The evidence presented to one’s eyes and nose as one moves about the country suggest there is much work still to be done.


The Environmental Foundation Ltd celebrates its 30th birthday this August. They have achieved much. I asked two of the founding members of EFL how they saw the next 30 years. Both were pessimistic. EFL fought hard to ensure that environmental regulations were observed but now these are ignored and roads are built inside national parks. EFL saved Galle Face Green from commercial violation but now it may be lost altogether to hotel development. Ravi Algama said: “I sometimes wonder if the rationale for setting up EFL is now gone – whether there is anything that a public interest law group or anyone else for that matter can do to turn things around”. When EFL started he thought the adversaries would be “influential individuals and errant corporations and companies”. Now it is “successive governments that we have had to take on”.

Lalanath de Silva has not given up the fight but he is anxious. As the Director of The Access Initiative (TAI) he has helped over 150 civil society groups in over 40 countries assess the status of access to information, public participation and access to justice in their countries. Today he is worried that the need for economic growth and foreign investment following the victory over terrorism will endanger the environment. Politicians do not have long-term vision. Lalanath says: “Good developmental policies include strong environmental and social safeguards.  That is a principle well-settled all over the world.  To abandon environmental and social safeguards is to court social unrest and environmental devastation in the long term.  But these officials and politicians bet on the fact that they may no longer be in office when the troubles come!”

There is still work for groups like EFL to do: “Eternal vigilance by civil society and the public is our only assurance that bad policies can be reversed or corrected. “

It may be difficult to fight against government and big business but let’s all do our small bit towards making the prospect less vile. Take your rubbish home. Don’t leave your rotting garbage in the street. Most important of all – don’t spit betel juice on my shoes!



Journalistic Heroines

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday 24 October 2010

There was an article titled “Mumbo Jumbo” in the Sunday Leader dated 17 October, 2010,by one Sumaya Samarasinghe. The main purpose of the article was to defend Frederica Jansz against the lies told about her by other Sri Lankan newspapers.

Ms Samarasinghe seemed to be saying that readers were too stupid to know about Judith Miller. I know enough about Miller to question the statement: “She is an ex- New York Times journalist who refused to reveal her source and ended up spending three months in jail. She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer many years later. This had a huge impact amongst journalists and questioned if the state could force journalists to reveal their sources… Does anyone remember this talented and honest reporter?”


Miller did not win the Pulitzer “many years after” spending three months in jail. She was jailed for 85 days in 2005. Miller won the Pulitzer in 2002 as part of a New York Times team covering 9/11. There was a campaign to get Miller’s award revoked.

Miller is an “ex- New York Times journalist” because she ruined the paper’s reputation for probity and honest, accurate reporting. The New York Times’s own ombudsman issued a scathing critique of Judith Miller’s lies and recommended that the paper not allow her back in its newsroom.

The “source” she went to jail to protect was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Dick Cheney, who was convicted for obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements.

What noble journalistic cause did Miller go to jail for? Columnist Margaret Kimberly wrote that Miller “isn’t protecting a whistle blower. She is protecting someone who retaliated against a whistle blower”.

Part of the Bush case against Saddam was that he was importing yellow-cake uranium from Niger as part of his WMD project. Former US ambassador to Niger, Joseph Wilson, cast doubt upon this in the Times and criticised the Bush administration for “twisting” intelligence to justify war in Iraq. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. This fact was spitefully divulged publicly by the Vice President’s office thus endangering her life. For her second grand jury appearance, Miller produced a notebook from a previously-undisclosed meeting with Libby on June 23, 2003, several weeks before Wilson’s New York Times article was published. According to Miller’s notes from that earlier meeting, Libby disclosed that Joseph Wilson’s wife was a CIA employee involved in her husband’s trip to Niger. Six days after another meeting with Libby Miller recorded in her notebook, Plame was outed as a CIA agent.

Miller’s main claim to fame has nothing to do with being honest or talented; it is to do with being a conduit of misinformation for the Bush government. The USA used Miller’s reporting, based on the lies they had fed her, as a contributory motive for going to war. The NYT later apologised for its behaviour but rejected “blame on individual reporters”. A Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Ahmed Chalabi (con-man and convicted embezzler) and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. It also regretted that “information that was controversial [was] allowed to stand unchallenged”. Others noted that ten of the twelve flawed stories discussed had been written or co-written by Miller. It was alleged later in Editor and Publisher that, while Miller’s reporting “frequently does not meet Times standards”, she was given a freer rein than other reporters because she consistently delivered frequent front page scoops for the paper by cultivating top-ranking sources.

The civilian death toll following the Iraq invasion of 2003 today stands at, according to the Body Count website, which is more conservative in its estimates than the Lancet, 107,349. The US military death toll is 2,000 and taxpayer money wasted is in excess of $300 billion. As Russell Baker put it in The Nation (not the Sri Lankan one), “I am convinced there would not have been a war (against Iraq) without Judy Miller.”

In 2007, Miller went to work for a right-wing think tank. In 2008, she was hired by that bastion of ethical journalism, Fox News.
On Tuesday, January 30, 2007, Miller took the stand as a witness for the prosecution against Libby. There was general mirth when Miller said she could not remember conversations she had had with Libby. James Carville speculated that it was “going to be very interesting to see whether [Miller’s] problem is a first amendment [one] — i.e., “I want to protect a source”, or a fifth amendment [one] — “I was out spreading this stuff, too””.

Now let us move to another courtroom drama.


In the article she posted on 13 October, 2010,Frederica Jansz highlights errors made by other papers and promised a fuller response on 17 October. The 17th October ‘editorial’ is little more than a tirade at the stupidity of newspaper readers and an assertion that all newspapers except the Leader are only fit for wrapping fish. She ignores the huge elephant in the room.



Some time ago, Ms Jansz wrote that she had asked Sarath Fonseka three times about Lasantha’s death but he had refused to give a direct answer. Her answers in her testimony to the High Court in the “White Flag” case were somewhat different.

According to the Sunday Times of  10 October, Ms Jansz testified in the High Court that at one point during the interview with Fonseka, Lal Wickrematunge had asked the note-taker and the photographer to leave the room as he wanted to raise a personal issue with Fonseka. Lal asked Fonseka who was responsible for killing Lasantha.

Jansz said in response to questioning in the High Court that “she did not pay attention to what was said by Fonseka in response to that question”.



Ms Jansz is an experienced and fearless investigative journalist who over the years has been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and many criminals. Her paper has been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha. Lasantha’s brother directly asked a man likely to be in the know who killed his brother and Frederica drifts off like a dopey teenager!

She said that she normally did tape recordings of interviews but the paper’s recorder had been given to someone going to interview the Western Provincial Council minister. Does the paper’s budget not run to buying a second recorder? Could the UNP not have a whip-round to buy another recorder for her? Was the interview with the provincial minister considered more important than an interview with a presidential candidate who is accusing his own soldiers and government of a war crime?

Ms Samarasinghe exempts the Sunday Times from her accusations about papers telling lies about Ms Jansz. Is the Sunday Times accurately reporting her testimony or not? Why does Ms Jansz not address the issue?

The elephant in the room is beginning to smell worse than those old fishy newspapers

Killing Dogs – Again

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 15 2012.


The present-day Sri Lankan Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena made a statement in Kalutara on January 6, 2012, that he has decided to revive the policy of killing street dogs “in the traditional way”.


If I have any regular readers, they will have noticed that I am not a great fan of tourism. However, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract tourists it would be a good idea to provide hotel rooms that don’t have stained towels, filthy rugs and alien hairs in the bedding. Another good strategy would be to avoid-cutting paying customers’ throats and sexually assaulting foreign women on the beaches. Calling it “Eve-Teasing” really does not make it into a quaint and lovable local custom. The New York Times has dropped Sri Lanka from its list of recommended holiday destinations.

A very painful process

Another quaint local custom foreign tourists probably will not appreciate is filling the streets with dead dogs. Calling mass slaughter of street dogs the “traditional way” makes it sound like one of those quaint old folk ways that tourists will flock to see.

Back in 2002, I was strolling past the Bandarawela Hotel in the tea country, a favourite destination even then for western tourists, and also crowded with visitors from all over Sri Lanka during public holidays.

I thought I noticed two sleeping dogs huddled together, prone on the sidewalk. A few hundred yards on I saw two more prone dogs. Then there was another three and they were covered with flies; the dogs were making no efforts to dislodge the flies. All along Dharmavijaya Mawatha and back along Main Street, dogs lay motionless on the pavement. Crows were pecking the eyeballs of some. Outside a stall on the market selling vadais, a dog was a seething mass of bluebottles, which were also sampling the vadais and moving along to the fish and meat stalls.


This was a consequence of the “traditional way”. The “traditional way” is a very painful process. Dogs undergo immense suffering after the poison is injected, sometimes writhing in agony for hours, jerking with muscle spasms and frothing at the mouth.


Horrifying films

Being of an interfering nature, always interfering with nature, we decided to do something about this situation and tried to organise our own sterilisation programme with a friend who is a veterinarian. She took us to a meeting of vets and medical officers of health at the Uva Provincial council Health HQ. The chief government vet Dr PAL Harischandra and Dr Nilamani Hewageegana, who was then deputy provincial director of Health services for Uva Province, addressed the meeting.

We saw horrifying films of actual rabies victims in their death throes, strapped to hospital beds, screaming and writhing and frothing at the mouth. They crave something to quench their thirst but scream in agony at the sight of water. They cut their own arteries as they frenziedly crash through glass in a vain attempt to escape from the horror.


Every ten minutes, somewhere in the world, someone dies from rabies infection. Of the reported cases, 30-50% are children under 15.

Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease but it is still a public health problem in many countries in Asia, even though safe, effective vaccines for both human and veterinary use exist. Most of the 50,000 deaths from rabies reported annually around the world occur in Asia, and most of the victims are children.


Knowledge of these horrendous facts might be a deterrent to someone planning a holiday in Sri Lanka.


Back in 2002, Dr Hewageegana invited us to her home one evening and gave us advice on how we might approach our modest project. We did not have any huge ambitions but hoped we could help in a small way. Dr Hewageegana informed us that she was having discussions with the chairman of the Urban District Council about her Healthy cities project. During the course of those discussions she had received an assurance from him that the slaughter of street dogs in his bailiwick would cease.


Dr Harischandra corresponded with us regularly, gave us helpful advice and invited us to meetings and seminars.


In 2005, scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage after the tsunami. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of starving and desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service, led by Dr Harischandra courageously resisted calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and took the opportunity, with the support of tireless local vets, foreign volunteers and the then Minister of Health, Nimal Siripala de Silva, to carry out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccinations and sterilisation of dogs.


In June 2006, President Rajapaksa’s website proudly carried a letter from Monika Kostner in Germany: “Mr President, let me congratulate you on the path that you have chosen. Please continue pursuing it. I greatly welcome your pledge to bring stringent laws against cruelty to animals. Do not give way to those political forces and vested interests, which are keen to continue the outdated, cruel treatment of animals. After all, they are living and feeling creatures.”


Visakha Tillekeratne, one of the five trustees of the Animal Welfare Trust, responded thus to Minister Sirisena’s statement: “I believe he is being wrongly advised.” Animal welfare groups united to explain that mass slaughter has been shown in many countries to be ineffective. Sterilization is the only solution.


Unfortunately, a good policy established by Nimal Siripala de Silva has been bungled and undermined by greed and corruption. Nevertheless, despite what Minister Sirisena claims, rabies deaths in Sri Lanka have reduced, not increased. The Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry said that the number of deaths caused by rabies dropped in Sri Lanka by 50% last year compared to the deaths reported during 2006 to 2010. According to Health Education Bureau statistics, 18 rabies deaths  were reported from the Western Province in 2009, while this figure had dropped to 11 in 2010 as a result of a number of awareness programmes carried out by local government institutions in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.


We thought we were making progress when a dog-lover, Nimal Siripala de Silva, whose wife is an animal welfare activist, was health minister, and the president, many times reiterated his no-kill policy. Thanks to Minister Sirisena, Sri Lanka is again being shamed. An international petition is being organized and is attracting comments like: “Sri Lanka, the world is watching you.”


Champa Fernando of KACPAW speculated: “Is he trying to bring discredit to the president? The No-Kill policy came from the president and this is the only humane way.”


The president had said that mass slaughter was against the Buddhist philosophy of living in harmony.

Minister Sirisena had said some sin , must be committed in order to gather merit.


Health Ministry spokesman WMD Wanniniyaike Iater said that there was no move to kill stray dogs and said that Minister Sirisena’s remarks had been taken out of context. Let us see how long it is before this subject comes up again.


The Devil’s Excrement

This article appeared in Lakbima News on November 14 2010. Unfortunately, they attributed authorship to Dr Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, rather than Padraig Colman.

Oil will bring us ruin. It’s the devil’s excrement. We are drowning in the devil’s excrement.

Dr. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, principal architect of OPEC.

The people of Louisiana have been drowning in the stuff but Sri Lanka nevertheless wants to have a swim. Once again, Sri Lanka has hopes of becoming oil-rich. Perhaps we will one day be able to import maids rather than sending our Sri Lankan women to Saudi Arabia. Petroleum Resources Development Minister, Susil Premajayantha, recently announced that that plans are underway to drill the first oil well in the Mannar basin during the first quarter of next year. He also said that the government hoped to conclude the ongoing oil exploration activity off Kirinda and elsewhere in the country’s territorial waters.

This has a familiar ring. Is it too late to warn that oil is a curse rather than a blessing to most countries that find it on their premises?

Sri Lanka imports nearly 30 million barrels of the black stuff every year at a cost of some US$ 2.2 billion. The CEB uses it to generate electricity. Add to this the cost of subsidies, the knock-on effect of transport costs on prices and one can see why the Government would like to have its own oil.

Previous minister, AHM Fowzie, said Sri Lanka could produce oil by 2010 but we are still waiting. The government demarcated eight exploration blocks of 3,500 to 4,000 square kilometres in the Mannar basin, two of which were earmarked for India and China. Fowzie hobnobbed with some unsavoury characters in Baku. The Azerbaijani ambassador to Sri Lanka told his country’s news media that Azerbaijan could help Sri Lanka develop an oil-producing industry. In Azerbaijan, the oil-rich clans retain power through politically motivated arrests and torture. At least two people died in pre-trial custody in 2006. Media freedom deteriorated, with violence against and arrests of journalists, as well as defamation cases brought by the government.

As long ago as 2004, a Transparency International report estimated that billions of dollars were lost to bribery in public purchasing, citing the oil sector in many nations as a particular problem. As the Corruption Perceptions Index 2004 showed, oil-rich Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen all had extremely low scores. Public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by revenues vanishing into the pockets of Western oil executives, middlemen and local officials.

Even if oil exploration in Sri Lanka proves to be successful, it is unlikely that many Sri Lankans will benefit. Venezuela is to some extent an exception in that government policy is to try to use the wealth to improve the lot of the people as a whole. Hugo Chávez used oil revenue to regenerate agriculture and help Venezuelans feed themselves. The illiteracy rate used to be 90% but now adult literacy is complete; there are new schools across the country, a free health service operates in shantytowns; housewives get a wage. The transport infrastructure is improving even in remote places. The government is spending nearly $900 million to promote manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. Venezuela has, over the past 25 years, earned $300 billion from petroleum sales, yet more than half of the population lived in poverty, a quarter of the population of working age were unemployed and over 200,000 children survived by begging. Caracas is one of the three most violent cities in the world.

When Mr Fowzie was junketing in Azerbaijan, the Director General of Petroleum Resources in Sri Lanka, Dr Neil R de Silva, said oil companies would be expected to take steps to ensure employment for Sri Lankans. He also said that the Sri Lankan maritime services are not prepared and there were no Sri Lankans qualified to work in the industry. I wonder where the local Sri Lankan expertise has been discovered in the intervening period.

The number of local people employed after the construction phase of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline was negligible in Cameroon and around 350 in Chad. In Ecuador 50,000 new jobs a month were promised; there have been only 9,000 new jobs so far, mostly unskilled and temporary.

Professor Michael Ross of the University of California in Los Angeles produced a chart mapping oil sales against literacy and malnutrition rates. In it, every five per cent rise in oil exports was matched by a three-month fall in life expectancy and a one-point rise in childhood malnutrition. Sri Lanka currently enjoys good WHO indicators in terms of infant mortality but malnutrition figures are causing concern.

Dutch disease is the concept that if a country’s economy is heavily dependent on oil production its currency becomes too strong, making other sectors such as manufacturing, unprofitable and difficult to develop. In Nigeria 70% of the workforce worked in agriculture. Oil has stifled diversity and agricultural production has not kept up with the increase in population. In 1962, agriculture contributed 78.2% of the nation’s revenue; in 1977 it contributed 1.1%. The contribution of crude oil rose from 13.3% to 98.9% over the same period.

Governments squander oil revenues to buy support. Profits go to the elites and existing power imbalances are worsened. The elites have no desire to share the benefits of oil with the poor.

Does Sri Lanka want to be a nation where foreigners call the shots – a polluted nation, plagued by poverty and inequality; where corruption, dynastic elites and nepotism compromise good governance and erode human rights?


Does Sri Lanka deserve the blessing of oil?






Extending the bounties of madness

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 14 2011. Unfortunately, they gave the writer’s credit to Herman Melville rather than me.

Man’s insanity is heaven’s sense

Herman Melville

The Sri Lanka Daily Mirror recently reported that 25% of Sri Lankans suffer from mental illness. I could not trace an authoritative source for this figure and was puzzled because the item also said there was a shortage of psychiatrists in Sri Lanka. If psychiatrists are lacking, who was qualified to count and what were their definitions? Is there really a problem or is this a case of what Mikkel Borch-Jacobson has called “conceptual gerrymandering”?

There are articles, for example one in the Lancet, which explain why there might be a high incidence of mental illness in this country – the long-running war and the fear of terrorist acts, the tsunami, poverty. The high suicide rate is given as evidence of extensive mental illness.

In the world in general, are there more people today with mental illness than there used to be? Are the stresses of modern life driving more people mad?

Mortimer Ostow MD, wrote that the normal practice for psychiatrists when dealing with a new patient was to complete a questionnaire, possibly by computer, the results of which would lead the psychiatrist to a code number and diagnosis in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM). The psychiatrist would then refer to the three-volume handbook Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders. Treatment is primarily medication.

Each new version of the DSM has included more mental illnesses than the previous edition it was replacing, although the latest, DSM V, has dropped a few types of schizophrenia. In 1973, homosexuality per se was removed. RL Spitzer argued that what was at issue was a value judgment about heterosexuality, rather than a factual dispute about homosexuality.] The controversy stirred by Spitzer’s paper did not prevent him becoming editor of DSM III.

What’s in a Name? Were there bipolar people in the olden days?

Very few people had heard of bipolar disorder before 1980, when it was introduced in DSM III. (Thank you Robert Spitzer.)

We are told bipolar is merely a new name for manic depression. This is not true because muddle has been introduced by naming different types of bipolar disorder.

David Healy explains that the term ‘bipolar disorder’ was introduced in 1966 by Jules Angst and Carlo Perris. On the basis of 3,872 admission charts from the asylum at Denbigh, North Wales, between the years 1875 and 1924, Healy concludes that manic depression was rare. He arrives at a figure of ten cases per million each year, that is 0.001% of the general population. In 1994, the US National Comorbidity Survey estimated that 1.3 % of the American population suffered from bipolar disorder. Four years later, Angst estimated 5%: 5000 times higher than the figure suggested by Healy. There is now a ‘bipolar spectrum’, which includes a very accommodating ‘subthreshold bipolar disorder’.

Bipolar children?

On 13 December 2006, four-year old Rebecca Riley died from an overdose of the medication cocktail prescribed by her psychiatrist, Kayoko Kifuji. At the time of her death, she was taking Seroquel, a powerful antipsychotic drug, Depakote, a no less powerful anticonvulsant and mood-stabilising drug, and Clonidine, a hypotensive drug used as a sedative. How could Kifuji have prescribed a two-year-old psychotropic medications normally intended for adults suffering from psychotic mania? Apparently such things are now considered “normal”. Kifuji was cleared of any misconduct. Rebecca’s parents were convicted of murder.

The prevalence of paediatric bipolar disorder multiplied by a factor of 40 between 1994 and 2002. ‘Warning signs’ for parents are : ‘poor handwriting’, ‘complains of being bored’, ‘is very creative’, ‘intolerant of delays’, ‘curses viciously in anger’, ‘elated or silly, giddy mood states’.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Janet Wozniak, director of the paediatric bipolar programme at Massachusetts General Hospital, stated her credo: “We support early diagnosis and treatment because the symptoms of bipolar disorder are extremely debilitating and impairing … It’s incumbent on us as a field to understand more which pre-schoolers need to be identified and treated in an aggressive way.”

Treatment of people deemed by the professionals to be mentally ill has often been aggressive to the point of barbaric violence, including sending electric currents through the brain or scooping out pieces with an ice-pick.

Clearly Rebecca’s home circumstances were not conducive to a happy childhood but was there any hope that a toxic cocktail of powerful anti-psychotic drugs would improve her life? What of other children guilty of being silly or giddy?

The Problem with Psychiatry

In his work generally, Niall McLaren focuses on difficulties with the field of psychiatry as a whole. Going all the way back to Freud, there has been a lack of scientific rigour. McLaren believes that mental disorder is a reality but sufferers are denied effective treatment because academic psychiatry has failed to provide practitioners with a consistent treatment programme. McLaren demonstrates that psychoanalysis is not scientific in nature.

Malcolm Macmillan has shown that Freud’s theories of personality and neurosis- derived as they were from misleading precedents, vacuous pseudo-physical metaphors and a long concatenation of mistaken inferences that cannot be subjected to empirical review- do not provide a cure or even prove authoritatively that an individual is actually mentally ill.

Extending the bounties of madness – Inventing sickness to sell ‘cures’.

Some critics see a method in the madness of ever-increasing categories. It has been seen as deliberate disease-mongering for profit by the pharmaceutical industry. Of the authors who selected and defined DSM IV psychiatric disorders, roughly half had financial relationships with the pharmaceutical industry.

Expanding and diluting the definition of manic-depressive illness to include depression and other mood disorders, allows antipsychotic or anticonvulsant medications that were initially approved only for the treatment of manic states, to be foisted onto more people.

Healy concludes that “All available studies on the longer-term consequences of antipsychotics indicate that they probably reduce life expectancy.” Anticonvulsants are liable to cause kidney failure, obesity, diabetes and polycystic ovary syndrome. Atypical antipsychotics can cause significant weight gain, diabetes, pancreatitis, stroke, heart disease and tardive dyskinesia (a condition involving incapacitating involuntary movements of the mouth, lips and tongue). They can, in some circumstances, cause neuroleptic malignant syndrome, a life-threatening neurological disorder, and akathisia, whose sufferers experience extreme internal restlessness and suicidal thoughts.

I have witnessed these side-effects. A now-elderly lady, who is perhaps too gentle and innocent for this harsh world, became quite understandably sad at the harsh circumstances of her life. She was not mad or ill, just a little melancholy from time to time, for good reason. Inappropriate medication did not cure her unhappiness, it increased it. She was sent to Angoda because she showed signs of dyskinesia and erratic behaviour directly caused by the ‘cure’. Now the medication has been altered and she is happy.

There might be worthwhile risks in taking such toxic medications in cases of acute mania but not for depressed elders or hyperactive children.

The market for atypical antipsychotics is currently worth $18 billion – twice as much as it was for antidepressants in 2001.



Fiat Lux – Let There Be Light

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday June 19 2011

Before remote controls were invented, couch potatoes got a little exercise getting up to change channels. When I watched TV, I found the remote useful to switch off the ads without delay. I don’t want the evil bastards getting in my head. ‘Neuromarketing’ has refined the crude subliminal techniques of 60s advertising. Neuroscientists and psychiatrists are searching for the buy-button in the brain. This involves putting subjects into brain-scanning machinery and pitching concepts and images at them to see which ones make the lights flash.

Talking about flashing lights… I can avoid ads by not having a TV or radio, there is no escape when I go shopping. There is always a radio on in Cargill’s supermarket with irritating voices  forcing something useless on me. I was particularly cranky recently when some smug know-it-all was lecturing me about the virtues of CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) energy-saving light bulbs. He patiently explained that an 11W energy saver is equivalent to 60W of the old-fashioned kind.

I never found it easy to love those new-fangled bulbs. The old-fashioned incandescent bulbs had a pleasing shape, like ripe fruit. Energy-savers are all complicated in shape with lots of nooks and crannies for insects to die in. They are pretty damned expensive too, which makes one endure the rigmarole of waiting for the shop assistant to fill in the warranty slips.

When CFLs were first introduced in Sri Lanka, CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board) launched a scheme to popularise them as a means of saving on power, and offered four bulbs per consumer, the cost of which was recovered in twelve instalments added onto the monthly electricity bill. The British Council helped found CFL Sri Lanka in May 2010 with the aim of “encouraging and empowering the people of Sri Lanka about the use of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) that save money and the environment”. Post-colonial imperialsm?

Persuasion, encouragement, empowerment – all fine ideas.

All this ugliness and expense is worth it, no? The little buggers are good for the planet, after all. The EU has banned the old bulbs in order to make it easier for us to be virtuous and use the unlovely new-fangleds. Regulation 244/2009 of the European Commission enforces the gradual phase-out of incandescent light bulbs from September 2009. As of September 2012, only energy efficient lighting sources will be allowed for sale in Europe. Rejoice, rejoice we have no choice! By 2020, it seems the measures will save enough energy to power 11 million households every year. This will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 15 million tons each year.

Champions of the new bulbs claim that conventional incandescent light bulbs convert only around 5-10% of the energy they use into light; the rest is given off as heat. The propaganda says they are far more wasteful than newer devices.

The EU estimates that a household can save at least €50 on electricity bills every year by switching to energy-saving bulbs. Funny thing though, experience does not seem to back this up. The little buggers don’t seem to last very long and it’s a hassle finding the warranty and the empty box and going back to the shop to complain. In one test by the U.S. Department of Energy, one quarter of tested CFLs no longer met their rated output after 40% of their rated service life. I have hoarded my electricity bills going back many years and they seem to be going up not down. This is not because of increasing tariffs or the FU Charge (I used to think that was something obscene but perhaps it just means Futility Utility). There is no decrease in the number of units used after we went completely over to energy-savers.

Researchers at RWI (Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung) seem to be on my side. Manuel Frondel and Steffen Lohmann argue that the EC ban “is a harsh attack on consumers’ sovereignty on purchase decisions that is hardly warranted on environmental and welfare grounds”.

If they are so good for the environment why are these bulbs so dangerous for individuals? Even the UK Department of the Environment advises that if a low-energy bulb is accidentally smashed everyone should leave the room for 15 minutes because the bulb contains mercury in vapour form. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain, liver, kidneys and central nervous system.This is a problem in land-fills and waste incinerators because mercury leaks into the air and the water. Special handling instructions for breakage are currently not printed on the packaging of household CFL bulbs in many countries.


Hundreds of Chinese factory workers who manufacture CFLs for export have been poisoned. At a factory in Foshan, 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned that they required hospitalization. In Jinzhou, 121 out of 123 employees were found to have excessive mercury levels, with one employee’s mercury level 150 times the accepted standard.


Unison, the garbage men’s trade union in the UK, say their members should refuse to accept them. Even if bulbs are unbroken they should be specially handled by a recycling unit because of their toxic waste.

This fact is unknown to 80% of UK consumers. The Department of Environment’s advice to place a bulb in a sealed plastic bag does not meet with the approval of the State of Maine, Dept of Environmental Protection who report that vapours well above safe levels continued to leach from the bags. The Maine DEP study also confirmed that, despite following best-practice cleanup guidelines on broken CFLs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of the carpet — such as by young children playing — created localized high concentrations air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage. The bulbs have been known to exacerbate skin rashes, trigger migraines and seizures in epileptics. A study conducted by Peter Braun at Berlin’s Germany’s Alab Laboratory found these light bulbs contain carcinogens including Phenol, Naphthalene and Styrene. Abraham Haim, a professor of biology at Haifa University found that the light from the bulbs increased the likelihood of breast cancer by disrupting the body’s production of melatonin.

There have been reports of the bulbs making TVs change channel without use of the remote.


So this is the free market at work. Advertising tries to convince us that our virtue will be enhanced by saving the planet and these bulbs will save us money even though we don’t notice it. Frondel and Lohmann at RWI are on to this. “If the saving potential of energy-saving light bulbs was really as significant as it is presumed by the European Commission, it has to be asked why the overwhelming majority of European consumers has not yet massively installed energy-saving light bulbs in their homes on a voluntary basis. This argument is all the more relevant for industrial consumers, for which one can safely expect that competition may foster the cost saving behaviour of firms and companies”.

The market having failed to persuade us, coercion is used.


Perhaps there is a niche opportunity here for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs. The last Morris Minor came off the assembly line in 1971. Enthusiasts all over the world are still able to run the classic car thanks to the efforts of the Durable Car Company in Galle, which makes Morris spare parts by hand.


Some enterprising Sri Lanka company should get into gear to build up stocks of incandescent bulbs.


Crowding and Consumer Protection

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday May 29 2011.

Football Hillsborough disaster

We have a beautiful new hospital in Badulla, with modern equipment and helpful staff. Badulla Provincial Hospital provides treatment free to all. Private, paid consultations are carried out in another building, a hell-hole reminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. On our most recent visit to this private clinic access and egress were particularly difficult because the main road outside was being re-made. Whatever about that, access is always difficult. There is only a small forecourt, which is thronged with patients trying to get through the narrow entrance, which also appears to be the only exit, while three-wheelers manoeuvre amongst them. A harassed peon tries vainly to control the melee as people book in at reception.

The crowd surges up the narrow staircase into the crowded waiting rooms. There is air of clammy anxiety about the place. All the waiting rooms are packed and all the seats are taken. Every available inch of space is taken and one constantly has to shuffle about to let people pass. We have to stand for two hours although we are there because my wife has chronic spine problems. Our ticket number is 19. A woman with ticket number 32 is clearly very stressed and keeps trying to get into the consultation room arousing the anger of other patients. She may have travelled far and now it is dark outside and raining heavily. An ugly mood could develop into a riot and a stampede. The room is very hot and our clothes are drenched with sweat. Our particular waiting room is the furthest back and there is no exit door. If there was a fire, we would have to fight our way through the crowd in the corridor and down the narrow stairs.

Elias Canetti wrote in Crowds and Power that both socialism and capitalism were defined by the “modern frenzy of increase”, in which production led to ever bigger crowds of goods and consumers.

I have a fear of being caught in crowds. I am not phobic. My fear is perfectly rational. There are names for a phobic fear of crowds – demophobia, enochlophobia or ochlophobia – and you can pay people to cure you. Professor Keith Still has devoted his life to studying crowd dynamics. There is much interesting material on his website:

I remember being caught in a press of crazed hippies trying to get into the music venue the Paradiso in Amsterdam. Both my feet were off the ground and I think it was right to be scared. A peaceful afternoon and evening watching a Neil Young concert in Finsbury Park was spoiled by being “kettled” into a dangerous zone by huge police horses.

Readers may remember the horror of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Ninety-six people died because of the crush at a football match in Sheffield. Before the kick-off, a bottleneck had developed outside the ground with more fans arriving than could enter the Leppings Lane Stand. People who had been refused entry could not leave the area because of the crush behind them but remained as an obstruction. The police, to avoid deaths outside the ground, opened a set of gates, intended as an exit, which caused a rush of supporters through the gate into the stadium.

A huge crush built up at the front of the terrace, where people were being pressed up against the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them. People entering were unaware of the problems at the fence. The intensity of the crush had broken the crush barriers on the terraces, later holes in the perimeter fencing were caused by desperate fans tearing. Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia. The pitch quickly started to fill with people sweating and gasping for breath and injured by crushing, and with the bodies of the dead.

Only 14 of the 96 fatalities ever arrived at a hospital. The final death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when Tony Bland was taken off a life support machine after four years in a vegetative state. Andrew Devine, eight years after he was also rendered vegetative at the age of 22, became aware of his surroundings and started communicating with his family. He is still alive.

The tragedy changed the face of English football as safety measures were introduced.

There have been many instances, even in recent times, of fires in garment factories and sweat shops. The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York can stand as a specimen. This was the deadliest disaster in New York until 9/11. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Like Hillsborough, the Shirtwaist tragedy led to changes. Globally though, workers continue to die because the greed of employers makes them negligent about

There have been many instances of people being killed in crowded night clubs and discos. In January this year, Hungarian police arrested five people in connection with the apparent trampling to death of three young women at a nightclub in Budapest. Police focused on whether the disco was overcrowded and whether it had sufficient exits. Interior minister Sandor Pinter said that almost 3,000 people were admitted to the event, although the disco had a capacity of only 1,600 and emergency exits sufficient for just 307 patrons. He described the organizers of the event as “irresponsible” and “greedy.” He said he had ordered a review of the law. “This cannot happen again,” he said.

Everyone here is here in this private clinic because they are sick enough to consult a doctor, sick enough to put themselves through this hell. How many people go through this building every day? How many people will be crammed into the building together at any given time? Are the proprietors required by law to limit the numbers? How would they be evacuated in an emergency? Health and safety law seems to be focused on the protection of employees. What are the rights of customers? I have written to the chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority but have yet to receive a reply.

I said there are cures for ochlophobia. Would you have to endure such conditions to see the doctor?

How long will it be before patients are crushed and killed in this kind of situation? How long before a minister has to say: “This cannot happen again”.

I would like to hear the views of doctors and patients. I would like information on what the law says about this.

From New Orleans to Mannar

This article appeared in Lakbima News on September 19 2010.

Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

Much good has emerged from Louisiana: Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and Cajun musicians like Doug Kershaw, Gladdy Thibodaux and Dewey Balfa.

There is a downside. When I was there, white people would inveigh against blacks. I could feel the hatred in the eyes of the blacks along Frenchman’s in New Orleans. Louisiana is still segregated.

Tulane University was established in New Orleans in 1843. Its motto is: “Not for oneself, but for one’s own” – a bizarre mission statement in a segregated society. Joshua M Schoop is studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane. He had been living in Sri Lanka for all of three months when chastised us, in an article in the magazine Groundview (published by CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies).

“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 concedes the government has built new roads which help the local economy but the roads are “helpful for military operations”. Is the army not doing useful work de-mining and rebuilding? Schoop claims the military is depriving “the locals” of jobs.

Following the American civil war, Louisiana, was under martial law.

“Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh, are you not planning a career based on such dependence?

I was shown around a plantation house in Louisiana  by a “docent” employed to sanitise the horrors of the Old South for the heritage industry. 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 victims of Hurricane Katrina were disproportionately black. More than 80% of African-American births in inner-city New Orleans are to unmarried women. There is a cohort of rootless adolescent males which translates into potential social disorder probably worse than anything in Mannar. Blacks form a disproportionate share of the US prison population. Louisiana State Prison at Angola Prison Farm, like US prisons generally, incarcerate a disproportionate number of blacks. Two of Louisiana’s great musicians – Huddie Ledbetter and James Booker – did time there. This prison is on land bought in the 1830s with slave-trading profits. In the 1930s, hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. Even in the 1970s, weak inmates served as slaves who were gang-raped, and traded like cattle. In 2009 James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.”

In 2008, mayor Ray Nagin threatened that any New Orleans residents caught looting after Katrina would be immediately transported to Angola.

Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system ensured that there were no disease outbreaks after the tsunami; neither were there any major health problems in what the west saw as “extermination camps” at war’s end. Essential supplies were mobilized within a day of the tsunami. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.

US authorities reacted to Katrina with mind-boggling incompetence. Five years on, tourists are back in the French Quarter enjoying the over-rated cuisine, the great music and the transsexuals. Beyond the tourist hotspots, for example in St Bernard parish, homes have not been rebuilt and more than a third of residents have not returned. Tens of thousands of people still live in trailer parks in Texas and beyond. The Lower Ninth Ward was the most devastated part of New Orleans. All that’s left from many of the houses that were destroyed are foundations. Brad Pitt helped to provide 200 affordable houses for residents who would like to return, but few wish to do so. Henry Irvin, aged 74, did return in 2008 and his is the only occupied house on his square. He says the problem is racism and greed. “Some big people in this town are trying to buy all that land to build motels and casinos”. A federal judge ruled that the criteria for awarding rebuilding grants discriminated against black people. A Kaiser Foundation poll found that a third of New Orleans residents say their lives are still getting worse. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to say they still had not recovered from Katrina.

Life expectancy for black US males was 70 in 2003; the average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low North Korea. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that Sri Lanka’s health indicators are improving all the time.”  Life expectancy in Sri Lanka has risen steadily. In 1946 it was 43.9 for males and 41.6 for females. Life expectancy in 2001 for males was 70.7 years; for females, it was 75.4 years. 17, 2009).

In 2003-05, the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the US as a whole for African-Americans was 13.6; the rate for White Americans was 5.7 per 1000 births. IMR is generally seen as an indicator of a nation’s level of health development and is one of the best predictors of state failures. Sri Lanka’s IMR was 11.2 in 2003 for 2006 was 10 per 1,000 live births. WHO regards this as a great success and attributes it to “effective and widely accessible prevention and primary healthcare strategies including treatment of minor infections”.

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.

The three most violent cities in the world are Cuidad Juarez in Mexico, Caracas in Venezuela and New Orleans. 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. Should Josh be scolding his compatriots that these measures are not effective?

America’s civil war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and only ended 16 months ago. The Reconstruction era was a difficult period in American history . Progress is already being made in Sri Lanka but we are too slow for Josh.

It is good of Josh to take the trouble come over here to Sri Lanka to help us out when there is so much to do back home. I wonder what he is doing to help us.

A Cow Is Just a Cow

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 20 2011

It is now over ten years since I tried to convert the editor of the Catholic Herald to Buddhism.

I have never been a great fan of the London Daily Telegraph but I want to recommend one of their columnists to Lakbima News readers. Cristina Odone currently blogs at the right-wing Telegraph. She gets reactions: “You are a horrible, vile, vindictive little woman who really shouldn’t be writing in any national newspaper.”

Previously she was deputy editor of the left-wing New Statesman and a regular columnist for the liberal-left Observer. She was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991-1995. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank (founded by Margaret Thatcher and her batty guru Sir Keith Joseph). Ms Odone is American. She is a Catholic, although she is married to a divorced man. Generally speaking , her Catholicism is a pick-and-mix kind of faith but she seems to be strongly against abortion and euthanasia and strongly for faith-based education, creationism.

Andrew Brown wrote about her time at the Catholic Herald: “Few can be the amusing writers who have not been approached by a whirlwind of flirtatious energy and propositioned to write something for absurdly small sums of money. Most have accepted, sometimes with noisy results.”

She recently sprang again into my consciousness for her comments on a peripheral matter relating to the Murdoch investigation. A news item about Louise Mensch MP caused Ms Odone to exclaim that although she had lived in England for thirty years and was married to an Englishman, “every now and then something crops up which makes me feel as alien as if I were on Mars”. According to Ms Odone, this was because of the reaction when Mensch told an interviewer she was anxious to look good for her husband Peter Mensch, the American rock band manager (Jimmy Page, Metallica and Red Hot Chilli Peppers).

What was worrying about Mensch was not that she wanted to please her husband (she also sort of confessed to having a face-lift before being given the chance to grill the Murdochs in parliament) but that she was behaving like an air-head, posh-totty variety. Some found her impressive at the Murdoch hearings but others were amused by her saying she had to leave early to pick up her children. Guardian women’s editor Jane Martinson :“The question is, what on earth was Louise Mensch up to yesterday? Was she striking a blow for women in Westminster, putting the issue of childcare centre stage? Or was this, as Martinson suggests, “the worst kind of display parenting”?

Odone’s unfavourable view of the English compared with Johnny Foreigner would probably be bolstered by that. The English just don’t like children as much as those warm-hearted Italians.

Odone is apt to make these sweeping generalisations. I noticed her having a swipe at the English about their attitudes to animals back in 2001. .

“It is the usual hyperbole the British go in for when they talk of four-legged, fanged or furred beings. Ever since it became primarily an industrialised, rather than agricultural, country, Britain has lost all perspective on animals.”

I wrote to her about that article. Here is an edited version.

“The main thrust of your argument can be summarised as follows: ‘There is a hierarchy of beings. Man stands at the top. God made all creatures, but only man in his image. Man ranks above other animals because he has a soul. This entitles man to exploit animals for his own ends. Animals are an economic investment. They can be allowed to suffer if that suffering leads to the cure of ‘even one child’. It is sentimental anthropomorphism to take any other view. To recognise the sentience of animals or to argue that they have rights as a result of their sentience belittles human dignity and ‘defiles the memory of human suffering.’

There is a thin line between espousing a hierarchy of species and seeing hierarchies within species. It’s OK to eat a pig (unless you are a Jew or a Muslim) but not to eat a guinea pig (unless you are a Peruvian) or a dog (unless you are a Korean). Some people think it is OK to abuse ‘inferior’ races or people with disabilities. It has been argued that some other humans lack rationality or a soul and therefore can be exploited with impunity. The United States was founded on genocide and developed by treating human beings as property. It did not matter what cruelties were inflicted on Native Americans or African slaves and their descendants because the advantages to be gained from their exploitation prevented consideration of their sentience or their rights. Women’s alleged lower ranking in the divine order was an argument for withholding the vote. There is a hierarchy of nations. The USA stands at the top. This entitles its President and his cronies from the energy industries to pollute the planet – it would be sentimental to put the future of the human race before their investment.

It is easy to scoff at anthropomorphism. I have often done so myself. It is clearly ridiculous to think of real animals being cuddly and benevolent. Each of our cats (thrust upon us not bought) has a clearly distinguishable character, usually appealing, but respect for the rights of pigmy shrews or birds is lacking. It is ridiculous to think of Mr and Mrs Pigmy Shrew building a little home for their young ones, paying a mortgage, worrying about their education, hoping they will find suitable spouses. Ridiculous, but it might have a point if induces empathy.

Does a lack of reason or speech or a soul justify inflicting pain? Voltaire was no sentimentalist but he was outraged at the animal experimenters of his day. ‘There are barbarians who seize the dog, who so greatly surpasses man in fidelity and friendship, and nail him down to a table and dissect him alive, to show you the mesaraic veins! You discover in him all the same organs of feeling as in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel’?’   Jeremy Bentham wrote ‘The question is not can they reason? Nor can they talk? But Can they suffer?’ He denounced man’s dominion over animals as ‘tyranny’ rather than ‘legitimate government’.

In the Thomist universe charity does not extend to animals because, according to Aquinas, irrational creatures are not competent to possess good, this being proper to rational creatures; we have no fellow feeling with them, and charity is based on the fellowship of everlasting happiness, to which the irrational creature cannot attain.

Can the idea that man was created in the divine image in order to have dominion over other species survive the findings of Darwin? Surely, the idea of evolution is pretty widely accepted – even by Christians apart from a few fundamentalists? The publication of the human genetic code showed that humans carry little more genetic information than mice, and barely twice as much as tiny fruit flies or a simple worm. Hundreds of genes have been smuggled into human chromosomes by bacteria. The dog is 85% identical to a human in terms of genetic sequence and many of the 380 inherited diseases in dogs are very similar to human diseases. We are animals too. I do not find this thought depressing. There is a spiritual dimension to awareness that we are all part of what E. O. Wilson called ‘the delicate web of reciprocity’.”

Life is tough for Odone: “For most of us ‘squeezed’ middle-class parents, our little treasure’s education will set us back £30,000 a year (the average boarding school bill). For many of us this means not only giving up on luxuries such as exotic holidays and theatre outings, but also remortgaging our home, going begging to the in-laws, and moonlighting and other small humiliations.” Sad, no? In recent writings, she has been attacking the Lib Dems for favouring euthanasia and abortion, attacking Irish comedian Sean Hughes for condemning child abuse by Catholic priests, and Richard Dawkins for being an atheist. “Catholic schoolchildren used to pray for the conversion of England; nowadays, I’d settle for the conversion of Richard Dawkins”. Odone has seemed quite happy to disobey her church’s teaching on contraception. A more serious Catholic, Caroline Fallows, wrote: “As a high profile and influential Catholic, Cristina Odone risks reinforcing existing error as well as leading people into sin. Sometimes I wish we could have more authentic female catholic voices in the media and not just the privileged catholic aristocracy”

In a debate with Odone, Dawkins asked: “So why stick with it? Why call yourself a Catholic when you don’t do what Catholics are supposed to?”

Go read. Have a laugh.

I did not convert Odone to Buddhism but she did send me a postcard from the New statesman saying she would try to be more compassionate. Ten years on, the promise is unfulfilled.

For Argument’s Sake

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday December 5 2011

Critical Thinking

Recent encounters in the blogosphere led me back to my shelf of books on critical thinking. The most accessible of these is philosopher Nigel Warburton’s Thinking from A to Z.

Current usage of the term “liberalism” is an example of what rhetoricians term “lexical ambiguity”. A whole book could be written on how this applies to liberalism but I will deal with that in another article.

Lexical Ambiguity

The word “argument” itself is an example of lexical ambiguity. In common parlance, an argument can be a rowdy fracas, in which all reason is abandoned. In philosophy, an argument is a set of reasons supporting a conclusion. This is in contrast with an assertion which is an unsupported statement of belief. Asserting something loudly does not make it true.

Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments would provide a useful guide to writers and politicians or indeed anyone whose mental health, and the sanity of those around them, would be improved by clarity of thought.

Lexical ambiguity occurs when a word with more than one meaning is used in the same sentence. One often finds that people are discussing totally different topics using the same words so there is no chance of agreement. “Discrimination” can be a good thing when it comes to appreciating art, but a bad thing when practising racial injustice. When Dr Johnson saw two harridans shouting from their respective doorsteps, he said they were “arguing from different premises”. A character in a Flann O’Brien novel dismisses an argument because it was made on “licensed premises” i.e. the disputant was probably drunk.

I examined the subject of critical think on a blog some time ago using as a peg arguments about Israel. This brought out quite a variety of comments in which people allowed sloppy thinking to muddle their arguments.

Tu Quoque– the Companions in Guilt Ploy

Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it  to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.

One often hears in Sri Lanka a refusal to accept criticism of human rights failings because the critics are American or British and are guilty of worse crimes. I have argued this way myself. In my defence, I believe it is not the same as Israel’s tu quoque. Israel’s defenders say if you are going to criticise us you must also criticise the Arabs. Sri Lankans are saying look at the beam in your own eye and prove your “credible allegations”.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. You set up a caricature of your opponent’s viewpoint and knock it down. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims and Arabs just love to kill innocent children.

Are Hamas bombers to be condemned because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.

Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.

Voltaire said  “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice. An adage often touted on blogsites is “Opinions are like #*!eholes. Everyone has one and they all stink”.

I have long felt a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises.

People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic  errors of fact.

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.”

Confusion between explanation and approval

I had to state  quite plainly that I do not believe that historical and contemporary acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors. Nevertheless, the explanation of current terrorist actions has to take account of the terrorism and ethnic cleansing involved in the foundation of the state of Israel. The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.

When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described stated Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. When I explained the government viewpoint I was condemned as a government lackey.

Truth Matters- National Myths

In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:

“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’  history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.

How the Buggers Lie to Us

Sam Leith has a new book titled You Talkin’ to Me? Leith argues that the advertising copywriter is no less a rhetorician than the statesman, they both employ persuasive words to fulfil their own ends. Leith’s own title is an example of a trope known as erotema, a figure of speech where something is asserted by asking it as a question. It also demonstrates the use of the demotic by charlatans such as Tony Blair. “You know I’m a straight kind of guy, don’t you?”

When he was our hope for change, Obama’s signature rhetorical figure was “anaphora”, or the repetition of words or a phrase at the beginning of a clause or sentence – although his monumental “Yes we can” was its opposite, or “epistrophe”.

Obama’s rhetoric all seems a bit feeble now. Fine words butter no parsnips and solve no economic crisis. Understanding rhetoric is probably the most vital tool any of us can possess that we can have some inkling of how they are shafting us.





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