Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Philosophy and Ethics

The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking and Ethics

I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. Critical thinking has been defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”[i]

A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. I have been assisted by reading the works of philosophers such as Nigel Warburton, Stephen Law, Jamie Whyte, AC Grayling, Raymond Williams, Alec Fisher and Anthony Weston. These writers describe the strategies often used to undermine critical thinking. I have also taken an interest in writings on ethics and have been guided by Bernard Williams, Peter Singer, Henry Sidgwick, Simon Blackburn, Sissela Bok and the Lord Buddha. I try to lead an ethical life.

Enemies of Reason

With this background, I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. I try to avoid any discussion of the policies and actions of the Israeli government because I know that my Zionist friends will eventually call me an anti-Semite. Similarly, it seems to be impossible to discuss Sri Lankan politics without encountering bizarrely false assumptions about my character, beliefs, allegiances and associations. I have been called a government stooge, a Sinhala-Buddhist Chauvinist (despite my Irish Catholic upbringing) and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state. Discussions about animal welfare can also be very fraught as there are many warring factions among animal lovers.

Kenan Malik

My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, an Indian-born writer, lecturer and broadcaster who was brought up in Manchester. He studied neurobiology (at the University of Sussex) and history and philosophy of science (at Imperial College, London). He has lectured at a number of universities in Britain, Europe, Australia and the USA. He writes: “My main areas of academic interest are the history of ideas, the history and philosophy of science, the history and philosophy of religion, the philosophy of mind, theories of human nature, moral and political philosophy,  and the history and sociology of race and immigration. “

Malik has long campaigned for equal rights, freedom of expression, and a secular society. He has defended rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”. Like me he campaigned for the Anti-Nazi League. He is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and a trustee of the free-speech magazine Index on Censorship.

Unlike me, (although I was a subscriber to the paper Socialist Worker and accompanied them on many a protest march) in the 1980s, he was associated with a number of Marxist organisations, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).  Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist and author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), has called RCP “a vicious movement” and “the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects”. Malik stood for Birmingham Selly Oak in the 1992 general election, coming last out of six candidates with 84 votes. Malik wrote for the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism, later LM. Although the RCP has since disbanded, Malik has written for later incarnations of LM, and for its on-line successor, the British web magazine Spiked. Jenny Turner wrote in the London Review of Books about “the LM network’s habit of supporting freedom of expression for all sorts of horrible people: BNPers and child pornographers and atrocity deniers. Of course it’s only the right to speak that is supported, not what is said: members of the LM network are always careful to stress that they’re no less opposed to racism, sexual exploitation and mass murder than everybody else, it’s just that they think unpleasant opinions should be not banned but ‘battled’ with, in open debate.”[ii]

Opinion without Knowledge

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.” Voltaire wrote, “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.

Kenan Malik Comes to Sri Lanka

Mr Malik took the opportunity of his visit to the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016  to recycle the fictional figure of 40,000 plus civilian casualties at the end of the war against the LTTE.[iii] I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought. I have attended think tanks and seminars, had a long conversation with the author of the IADG report[iv], reviewed Gordon Weiss’s book on the subject,[v] had a dialogue with Callum McCrae and published several articles. I do not think that Mr Malik has studied the matter in so much depth.

I have no desire to whitewash the Rajapaksa government or the Sri Lankan military. I have looked at this matter in a perfectly calm and logical manner which is what I would have expected of a public intellectual with Mr Malik’s reputation. My conclusion is that the figure 40,000 cannot be correct and it is not helpful to any reconciliation process to continue to bandy it about.

Darusman Report

Mr Malik responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war.”[vi] In reality, this was not an official UN report but a report by a “panel of experts” called by the UN General Secretary as a preliminary to further investigation and action. The panel did not carry out any investigations of its own (and recognized that it had no mandate to do so) but had to rely on second-hand “evidence” that was not evidence in the normal sense of the word. The Marga Institute evaluation of the report said that this forced the panel “into an adversarial stance with the Government” in which it assumed the role of prosecutor. “The Panel’s dismissal of the Government’s position prevents it from making a more searching assessment of the military necessity claimed by the Government. It prevents the Panel from analyzing the crucial elements of intentionality and proportionality as should have been done in any investigation of war crimes in the Sri Lankan situation.”[vii] The Darusman report was also challenged in the report of the Paranagama Commission.[viii]

This is not the place to go into a further detailed analysis of the shortcomings of the Darusman Report. Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before coming to Sri Lanka but seemed to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. Professor Michael Roberts has given an extensive list of citations on Mr Malik’s blog. Suffice it to say that the Darusman report is dishonest in the way it pumps up a previous UN figure of 7,221 civilian deaths and in the way it elides “credible allegations’” into self-evident proven war crimes.

In one of my articles I say: ‘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”.’ The Darusman report arrives at its figures by a process of recycling hearsay.

Moving the Goalposts

My sole point in my original critical comment on Mr Malik’s blog was that it was not helpful to cite the figure of 40,000 deaths upwards as if it was incontrovertible fact. I believed that he should have mentioned that there were many closely argued interpretations that set the figure much lower. In his response he shifted his ground and brought in the idea of “apologists for the Sri Lankan Army.”

“The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making. The figures I have come across vary from around 9,000 to around 100,000. I rejected the figures that came from either side in the war and took instead figures from independent third parties, such as the UN and ICEP. It may be that, as you say, these figures, too, are myths, and I have no reason to dispute your research (though I have not seen it in full). However, where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for the more those provided by more objective collectors of those figures, which is what I did.”

I would contend that the figures I cited were even more objective as many of them were calculated by Tamils, including Navi Pillay of the UNHRC and the Tigers own website. To argue that, “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making” is disingenuous. His argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one takes a spectrum from the zero casualties ludicrously asserted by the government at one time, to the 147,000 claimed by Frances Harrison, zero casualties would demolish the contention that the SLA was targeting civilians (unless their aim was very poor). If it is true that 147,000 were killed the case for deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.

Hypotheticals and Counterfactual History

I have never been a fan of counterfactual history or hypotheticals so I was not keen to take up the thought experiment posited here by Mr Malik:  “Suppose that I had written something critical of the actions of the Syrian government in the current civil war, and particularly of its mass killings of civilians. And suppose a respondent had suggested that the real problems lay not with the actions of the government forces but those of the al-Nusra Front and of the Islamic State, and that it is rebel activities that drives the Syrian government to take the actions that it does, an argument that can be heard quite loudly in certain parts of the media today. Would a robust response not be justified? And if it is justified in that case, why not in this case? (Before anyone jumps on me, the analogy I am making is not between the conflicts in Syria and Sri Lanka, but between the attempts to use insurgent actions as a means of justifying unjustifiable government actions).”

That seems to me to be rather feeble and unnecessary. He is assuming before he enters the discussion that the government actions are “unjustifiable”. He is explicitly comparing the situation in Syria with the situation in Sri Lanka at the same time as saying that he is not comparing. Why bring Syria up at all? I have coined an aphorism which I repeat in a most tiresome fashion at every opportunity: “The road to hell is paved with false analogies”. I most often use it when people try to compare the Irish peace process with what was happening in Sri Lanka. Martin McGuinness came here to tell us that a military solution to the Tiger problem was not feasible and that we must achieve a political solution through negotiation. I used to think that myself. I made the decision to come and live in Sri Lanka when Ranil Wickramesinhe, in his previous stint as prime minister, was maintaining a cease fire with the LTTE. I was very dismayed when Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated him in the 2005 presidential election. I was severely dismayed when the Rajapaksa government decided to try to defeat the Tigers militarily. I realize now that I was seriously mistaken.

Never mind about hypotheticals; why not keep it simple and concentrate on what actually happened in Sri Lanka? The LTTE used cease fires to regroup and re-arm. Peace talks had failed over many decades because Prabhakaran had no intention of compromising. Eventually, the legitimately constituted armed forces of a democratically elected government of a sovereign unitary state decided to make a determined effort to defeat a group that was systematically slaughtering civilians in order to set up a separate state.

War Crimes Apologist?

Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Robert’s mouth when he says he was arguing that “that the actions of the LTTE somehow justified the actions of the Sri Lankan Army”. I have read and re-read Professor Roberts’s words and he is saying nothing remotely like what Mr Malik attributes to him. This was not about revenge or what-aboutery. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned but they did not behave badly because the LTTE behaved badly and Roberts is not arguing any such thing. Malik claims “You do not, as far as I can see, contest the empirical claim that the Sri Lankan Army fired into what it had declared to be No Fire Zones or on hospitals or civilian areas.” Michael Roberts[ix] and many others have indeed contested that claim.[x]

Universal Expertise

In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton lists alphabetically the many tropes used to manipulate argument. One trope is “truth by authority”. Warburton writes: “Unwary members of the public may make the unreliable assumption that because someone is a recognised authority…in a particular area he or she must be capable of speaking with authority on any other subject”.

The problem is that when one covers a vast array of subjects, one exposes oneself to the danger of being downgraded from polymath to dilettante or to jack-of-all trades. There is no doubt that Noam Chomsky has a huge brain but his speciality is linguistics. Because he speaks with the authority of a specialist on that subject (although many other linguists disagree with him even about linguistics) that does not mean he speaks with equal authority on the many other issues on which he chooses to intervene.

I could never hope to have such a huge brain as Kenan Malik but there are some subjects on which, in all humility, I think I can speak with more authority than him because I have studied them in more detail than him.(Isiah Berlin’s essay about the hedgehog and the fox springs to mind.) I have assembled a good deal of evidence and opinion that convinces me that the oft-cited mantra that over 40,000 civilians were killed in the last days of the defeat of the LTTE is factually incorrect. Disagree with me if you wish but do so from a position of knowledge and do so with specifics and civility.

Tropes Employed by Online Commenters

My main interest here is, rather than going over the casualty figures yet again, is to discuss the manner in which my argument has been dealt with by Mr Malik and others. Some interesting tactics were employed. I found it impossible to get anyone to actually deal specifically with the different estimates of numbers killed.

One Facebook commenter chose to place his trust in the UN. He wrote: “I doubt if the UN plucked this figure out of thin air”. He ignored the many analyses which showed in detail why it seemed that the UN figure was plucked out of thin air. He then brought in some assumptions based on anecdotal ‘evidence’. “I personally had contact with several intelligence agencies from Canada, US, UK as well as Sri Lanka and Amnesty International”. At no point does he look at the various calculations of casualty figures and explain why he thinks they are incorrect. He does not explain why he does not accept criticisms of the Darusman Report but relies on faith: “The UN report was done by eminent legal personalities and it is doubtful if they would quote numbers which they cannot defend in a court of law. If not their reputation would be in tatters.”

Immunising Strategies

In his book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law uses the term “immunising strategies”. He shows how Young Earth Creationists counter the arguments of evolutionists by claiming that, however much evidence is presented, they will still claim it is provisional and incomplete. Those who claim high figures of civilian casualties dismiss contesting calculations with responses like: “It was a war without witnesses” or: “No-one can know without forensic evidence”. Well-argued estimates have been made which could be refuted or accepted. “Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities”. [xi]There were witnesses.[xii] Murali Reddy wrote in the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline: “It must be said that the ‘journalistic team’ associated with TamilNet did a marvelous job of relaying the scenes of the last hours of Eelam War IV as they unfolded. Obviously, they were in regular touch with LTTE leaders in the war theatre. The news, nuggets and nuances that reflected in the TamilNet reportage, minus the blatant propaganda that both sides excelled in, gave a fairly good idea of the last hours and minutes as experienced and relayed by the last batch of Tiger cadre and the LTTE top brass.”

Guilt by Association

I asked one Facebook commenter to give his opinion on the many calculations which gave a lower figure of civilian casualties. I pointed out that many people had demolished the Darusman Report. He responded: “Those demolitions are in my humble opinion by personalities who are no match to the legal personalities who authored the report. All reports could be demolished, but on legal scrutiny I would suggest that the demolishers will get demolished”.

When I pressed on this point, he brought in Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and said the calculations of one or two of the people estimating were “buddies of Gota”, the defence secretary and brother of the president. I responded : “I am not talking about Hitler, Mussolini etc. I am talking about different people’s views of how many civilian deaths there were in the final days of the defeat of the LTTE. I am merely asking you to specifically address those views. It is a common trope on comment threads to avoid discussion by saying ‘He’s not worth considering because he has an agenda or he is close to so and so or his father did blah’. You are not even being specific about which person is close to Gota. You cannot dismiss all the arguments because, according to you, some unnamed person is a buddy of Gota.”


He wanted to avoid dealing with the specific points that I was making by citing his superior inside knowledge. However, the very fact of his inside knowledge prevents him from naming names.  “I don’t want to be specific because both are known to me, one being a close friend for several decades. I repeatedly warned him to stay away from Gota. I accept that different views must be considered, but surely you should also be able to assess if certain views are even worth considering. I would seek enlightened views and discount pedestrian views “

I asked  why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation) , the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Rajasingham Narendran , Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (of the Point Pedro Institute of Development), Dr Noel Nadesan, the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka, all come up with lower figures? Are they all buddies of Gota? Have you read any of their arguments?”

Do Numbers Matter?

The aim of the SLA was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. I do not believe that the aim was genocide of the Tamil people. I do not believe that civilians were targeted as a matter of policy. I do believe that the aim was to limit the number of civilian casualties as far as possible in a situation where the enemy was using its own people as human shields. Mr Malik has  every right to disagree with me about this, even though he is less well-informed than I or Professor Roberts. To state these beliefs does not make myself or Michael Roberts an ‘apologist’ for any atrocities that might have been committed by the Sri Lankan army. To use that loaded word is rather manipulative and dishonest.

In this context, the number of dead being cited is of crucial importance if one is making the assumption that the government deliberately engaged in the punitive “mass killing of civilians”. Mr Malik, having raised the issue brushes it aside when challenged as “not central to his argument”.


[i] Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.









[viii] file:///C:/Users/HP/Downloads/Maxwell_Paranagama_Final_Report.pdf








Intellectual Property Rights

I have reworked an article originally published in LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) in 2011.

Under intellectual property law, owners are granted certain exclusive rights to a variety of intangible assets such as musical, literary, and artistic works; discoveries and inventions. According to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”. The natural rights argument is based on Locke’s idea that a person has a natural right over the fruits of his or her labour. Utilitarians argue that a society that protects private, including intellectual,  property is more effective and prosperous than societies that do not.

The earliest recorded historical case-law on copyright comes from ancient Ireland. The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript and the earliest example of Irish writing. It is traditionally ascribed to Saint Columba as the copy of a Psalter lent to Columba by St. Finnian. A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill gave the judgement “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy”.

The Berne Convention was first established in 1886 and  relates to literary and artistic works, which includes films. The convention, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory,  requires its member states to provide protection for every production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain. A core principle is that each signatory would give citizens of other member states the same rights of copyright that it gave to its own citizens. The stated purpose of the convention is protection  of authors rather than the protection of publishers and others.

Sitting down to watch a DVD one is  assailed by a noisy prologue asserting: “You wouldn’t steal a handbag, you wouldn’t steal a TV etc”. There is an irony in this strident propaganda against pirate DVDs because the disc on which it was included was purchased in Colombo’s Majestic City for 230 rupees. These pirate emporia are openly advertised in reputable publications like LMD. In some establishments the very latest movies are available for as little as 60 rupees. On one occasion, I stood next to a policeman while making my illicit purchases.

The protection of a creator’s creation  might at first seem to be an unalloyed good. However, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, believes the term “operates as a catch-all to lump together disparate laws [which] originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues”.

In 1980, Ananda Chakrabarty won a US Supreme Court case allowing him to patent a bacterium to digest oil that he had genetically engineered. Five years later, the US Patent and Trademark Office allowed genetically modified (GM) plants, seeds and plant tissue to be patented. By 1987 animal patenting was permitted. Today human gene sequences, cell lines and stem cells are patented. Since the mid-1990s, Monsanto has sued 145 individual US farmers for patent infringement in connection with its genetically engineered seed. One farmer received an eight-month prison sentence for violating a court order to destroy seeds. In India, thousands of farmers have committed suicide because of Monsanto’s policies.

Eben Moglen ,  professor of  law  and legal history at Columbia University writes in his dotCommunist Manifesto: “Society confronts the simple fact that when everyone can possess every intellectual work of beauty and utility–reaping all the human value of every increase of knowledge–at the same cost that any one person can possess them, it is no longer moral to exclude. … the bourgeois system of ownership demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay.”

“Anything that is worth copying is worth sharing.” His other quotes: “The more we give away, the richer we become.”

Eben Moglen  says , “‘When everybody owns the press, then freedom of the press belongs to everybody’”. This is the world of citizen journalism. It is great for us journeymen writers  to have access to Wikipedia , Google, Word Press and Questia so that we can easily research the drivel we inflict on the world. A lot of this is free to us , so we are grateful.

It came as a shock to me when I saw my  own immortal words in print without payment. It was actually a pleasant surprise to see my work in the New York Times. Quite a few of the articles I wrote for the Le Monde diplomatique blog appeared in publications and websites all over the world. The New York Times was perhaps the most prestigious, but it was also good to see my name in the International Herald Tribune and the Scotsman. It seems that, without my knowledge Agence Globale was syndicating my unpaid work on behalf of Le Monde diplomatique. I have never been able to establish whether the New York Times etc  paid Le Monde diplomatique for my work.

It was  worse   when my articles were published without even a mention of my name, let alone payment being made. This happened with an article in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times about the Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL). I made a complaint to the Press Complaints Authority but it seems the fault lay with EFL who allowed the paper to accept my article as a press release. The Sunday Times did eventually pay me.

It came as a worse shock when I saw some more of my words in print with someone else’s name at the top. This happened when the Sunday Leader, which had never responded when I submitted articles, published word for word an article by me on animal welfare with the name of one of their staffers on it.

People willingly write for free for Huffington Post. The divine Arianna became a very rich woman when she announced  “a merger of visions” with AOL which netted $315 million. “And, of course, thank you to our HuffPost community, whose engagement, enthusiasm, loyalty, and support have been the foundation of HuffPost‘s growth. We can’t wait to begin the ride.”

By the way, to my knowledge, after a good deal of research, I can confidently state that there are no longer any retail outlets in Sri Lanka that sell legitimate DVDs or CDs. One can order them from Amazon but they will be subjected to prohibitive shipping charges and import duties. Because of various emergencies and curfews the postal service has become less reliable. More than one DVD I ordered from a legitimate online retailer took over a year to reach me. The pirates provided a useful service. There were many films that were not interesting enough to me to endure a great deal of expense and inconvenience but worth trying out for a small price.I do not think that by doing so I impoverished the likes of Johnny Depp or Simon Pegg. The number of pirate shops has declined with the increased popularity of streaming. However, as Netflix itself goes into decline perhaps the pirates will return.

Anti-Semitism and Critical Thinking

Some time ago, I wrote a post on Open Salon which used the topic of Anti-Semitism to examine various facets of critical thinking. Recent exchanges with Ajit Randeniya prompted me to revisit it.

Let me emphasise:

  • I am not an anti-Semite
  • I am not a racist
  • I have nowhere questioned the right of the state of Israel to exist
  • I have nowhere condoned the actions of the PLO, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, IRA, UDA, LTTE, FARC or any other terrorist organisation you can think of.

There were  many lengthy comments on my post, many of them off-topic and many of them angry. There was a lot of to and fro, a lot of tit for tat and the main point got lost along the way.

My main purpose was to highlight  certain tendencies I had noticed during the nearly two years that I had been blogging on OS (I served almost three years before giving up). These tendencies were brought out particularly by a debate on anti-Semitism.

The particular issue was whether criticism of Israel constituted anti-Semitism. My interlocutor, whom I will here call K,  seemed to be saying that it was possible to  criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite. However, the upshot was a third party, DL,   called me an anti-Semite merely for using the word “sneakily” about K’s shift of ground in his argument, and an Israeli citizen  called me a hate-monger for trying to conduct a rational conversation.

Tu Quoque- the Companions in Guilt Ploy

“Don’t look at me–look at them. It reduces the debate to schoolchildren in the yard pointing fingers at each other. It is childish and self-destructive.”

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.

K says that he does not think criticism of Israel by itself constitutes anti-Semitism and then  goes on to widen the definition of anti-Semitism. You don’t qualify as an anti-Semite purely for criticising Israel but you do qualify if you fail to state strongly that others, particularly Arabs and  Muslims, are as bad as Israel and probably much worse.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims who just love to kill innocent children.

K said: “I do not believe that anyone who thinks that walking into a pizza parlor with a bomb, noticing that half the people in the pizza parlor are kids and detonating the bomb anyway should be condoned under ANY circumstances has any moral authority. I will not treat such a person’s views of right and wrong as having any validity until such time as they change their view on this. What anyone else does is beside the point – this action is intrinsically always wrong on its own. Period. I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.”

That is not terribly well-expressed  or lucid  but I think it means that because Palestinians blow up innocent children in  pizza parlors they have no moral authority. Notice he does not say the particular Palestinians who set off the bombs. He says Palestinians which implies that all Palestinians lack moral authority. I suspect that the moral condemnation is extended to include those who do not condemn the action. Does “moral authority” refer to the bombers or those who condone their actions or fail to condemn? The phrase is dangling somewhat at the end of the sentence. “What anyone else does is beside the point” – what does that mean? I’m stumped!

“I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.” Does that mean that the bombers have allowed their enemy – Israel- to determine their conduct? Is K condemning the bombers 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.

My meta-intention was to deal with an aspect of blogging.  (It also happens in ‘real-life’.) Before I started blogging, I used to read in the Guardian Review  a weekly summary of what was going on in  the literary blogs. I was astounded to read one self-important blogger  pompously stating: “I haven’t read X’s latest book but what seems to me to be the crucial issue is…” This seemed to be saying that whatever time, effort, imagination  and literary skill poor old  X had put into his latest tome, it paled into insignificance beside the uninformed opinions of some nonentity of a blogger.

This post came out of 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. I have encountered similar tactics in relation to my posts on Sri Lanka. Someone with “Progressive” in his blog name  said that he did not know much about Sri Lanka but it seemed to him that… and proceeded to accuse me of being bigoted against Tamils (while displaying his ignorance of the reality of the situation for Tamils, a subject on which I am an expert). In his view, the fact that I lived in Sri Lanka was not relevant because he believed the Sri Lanka government controlled information.

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

I quoted the Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte: “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.”

Leaps of logic

My chief interlocutor, K,  was a decent man with whom I got on well.  I thought him misguided in his arguments about Israel. He persistently claimed that he himself is critical of many aspects of Israeli government policy and of government actions. He claims that he has no objection to people criticizing Israel and that such criticism does not, in his view, constitute anti-Semitism.

If we unpack his actual words he was saying something quite different.

K said: “For most of my life, I drew a sharp distinction between antisemitism and antizionism. Over time, however, my opinion has changed as a result of a litmus test I now use.”

“If your standards for how Israel should behave are substantially different from your standards for how other nations should behave, chances are that you’re antisemitic.”

I don’t think he really means a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He seems actually to be talking about a distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

My objection to his litmus test is that he gives permission to criticize Israel only if one criticizes other culprits.

“Because there’s only one factor that really differentiates the Israelis from everyone else and we all know what it is.”

I take it that he means that Israel is Jewish and anti-Semites hate Jews therefore those who criticize Israel are anti-Semitic because it is a given that they will not criticize other  regimes.

Although he denies it (and perhaps he does not realize what he is doing) he is still saying that criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism.

Israel’s right to exist

DL (with whom I got on well in other contexts) said: “The topic, as Padraig Colman framed it, is the meta-debate. His launching point, you’ll recall, is his disagreement with K as to the boundary between antisemitism and antizionism. That isn’t about Israel’s conduct; that’s about responses to Israel’s conduct.”

Another problem that occurs in discussions like this is people make false assumptions about their interlocutors. This was not a disagreement about the boundary between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  That was not my point at all! That is a completely different discussion.

At one point, K said: “I make the connection and state that antizionism under those circumstances is antisemitism by another name.“

People often talk of a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as if the former is vile but the latter  is acceptable. I don’t think DL would approve  if I denied being anti-Semitic but proudly admitted being anti-Zionist. Wouldn’t being anti-Zionist mean that I did not recognize Israel’s right to exist? Wouldn’t  that put  me in the same box as Iran?


Israel uses Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah as justification for its own violent actions. Does anyone remember Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, Palmach? These groups were official, semi-official and unofficial paramilitaries that split and reformed into different alliances in a kaleidoscopic fashion, fought with the British and against the British and, mainly, against the Arabs. Many would  class them as terrorists. Future prime ministers Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and current president Shimon Peres served in these groups. In 1946, there were 91 people, Arabs, Jews and British, killed in the bombing of the King David Hotel, 46 injured in the hotel with further casualties outside. When the King David Hotel bombing was mentioned, Chaim Weizmann started crying heavily. He said, “I can’t help feeling proud of our boys. If only it had been a German headquarters, they would have gotten the Victoria Cross.” Netanyahu described the bombing as a legitimate act with a military target, distinguishing it from an act of terror intended to harm civilians. Civilians were harmed.

Another future prime minister Ariel Sharon, was commander of “Unit 101,” an Israeli special forces unit. On October 14, 1953, in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli civilians, Unit 101 executed sixty Arab men, women, and children in the border village of Qibya. Anyone remember Shatilla? Estimates of the dead civilians vary between 800 according to international sources to 3,500 according to Palestinian sources. Robert Fisk estimated 2,000 bodies as did Israeli journalist, the late Amnon Kapeliouk in  Le Monde diplomatique : (See also articles on Sri Lanka by the estimable Padraig Colman: In 1982, an independent commission chaired by  Irishman Sean McBride (son of WB Yeats’s muse Maude Gonne) concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were, directly or indirectly, indubitably involved. The Israeli government established an investigation, and in early 1983 it found Israel indirectly responsible for the event, and that Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre for allowing the Phalangists into the camps. The UN General Assembly condemned the massacre as an act of genocide.

History and Truth

K said:

“Jews were not the only people who migrated to the area in the half century before Israel was founded and it’s a little disingenuous to assume that one population was completely indigenous while the other was completely foreign – neither contention is true.”

K and  I agreed that the territory on which the state of Israel now sits was not empty in 1948. The fact that some of the sitting tenants  were Jews is not particularly relevant. Even if, as K says, a majority were Jewish  and had been there for thousands of years – that  also is not particularly relevant.

Israeli historian Tom Segev says, in a footnote, that the term yishuv  was used because, as well as “settlement”, it meant the opposite of “wasteland”, suggesting, consciously or not, that Zionist settlers were living in a wilderness devoid of other human beings, that is, Arabs.

According to Segev, in the 1840s, “Palestine was a rather remote region of the Ottoman empire with no central government of its own and few accepted norms. Outsiders began to flock to the country towards the end of the century, and it seemed to awake from its Levantine stupor. Muslims, Jews, or Christians, a powerful religious and emotional force drew them to the land of Israel. Some stayed only a short time, while others settled permanently. Together they created a magical brew of prophecy and illusion, entrepreneurship, pioneerism and adventurism – a multicultural revolution that lasted almost a hundred years. The line separating fantasy and deed was often blurred – there were charlatans and eccentrics of all nationalities – but for the most part the period was marked by drive and daring, the audacity to do things for the first time. For a while the new arrivals were intoxicated by a collective delusion that everything was possible”.

There was huge influx of new Jewish settlers from Europe for whom room had to be found. This was bound to alter the balance. This happened even before the state of Israel was born. Segev writes: “Tens of thousands of people, most of them Jews, came from Eastern and Central Europe. Among them were courageous rebels searching for a new identity, under the influence of Zionist ideology”.

Founding father  Ben Gurion said:  “I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.” Around 800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Benny Morris and Illian Pappé confirm that it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror. Israel had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs. However, some Jews thought  the territory earmarked for Israel  too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract.

Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state.

In 1948, Ben Gurion was able to put his relocation plan into action. In a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; eleven ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948.

Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, ran the operation. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border.

There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant, some might say terrorist, Zionist organisation.

In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”

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”.

It seems that to found and sustain a nation, “glorious past-invention” is essential. Benedict Anderson has dealt better than I, with my limited powers, can with the “imagined communities” that are nations. The philosopher AC Grayling has written: “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth that is not home to more than one different but usually co-existing culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity”.

Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has argued that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – genetically,  in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. He believes that the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand was quoted in Haaretz. He   was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been, and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

I have written about nationalist myths in greater depth at:

Confusion between explanation and approval

DL: “I am referring here to your extended list of episodes of Jewish violence against Arabs, whose contextual import you left dangling before readers, thus inviting them to fill in the blank with respect to Arab violence against Jews.”

What DL left dangling is whether he defends the listed acts of violence against Palestinian civilians. I ask him plainly .”Do you deny that  acts of violence such as those listed were carried out in the furtherance of the establishment of the state of Israel?”

I hereby state  quite plainly that I do not believe that acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors.

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 Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. I wrote: “Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a thirty year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only language policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?”

Disagreement is not the same as censorship

I have encountered this in real life as well as on blogs. People with whom one disagrees proclaim their rights under the first amendment. If I tell  someone I think they are  wrong they can get back and tell me how I am wrong. Disagreeing is not a form of control. I have enough trouble controlling myself without trying to control anybody else.

Someone else commented:  “Out in big boy blog world, bloggers are always challenging each other’s opinions and writing. The idea that all criticism is attacking another person , that only praise is allowed, is just idiotic.”

DL  ‘whinged’ about me accusing him of stifling debate by promiscuous use of the epithet “anti-Semite”. This is a sticks and stones kind of thing; this is not censorship in the extreme sense of having an iron-spike shoved into one’s brain through the eyeball. At the very least, though, it is a serious devaluation of the currency of language. It will not make me shut up but more timid souls might be reluctant to participate for fear of being unjustly accused of the horrible evil of anti-Semitism. Shame on you, DL!

Debasing the currency of language.

My feeling was that  K seemingly gave permission to criticize Israel and then withdrew it. I said that he had ‘sneakily’ changed his  ground. Perhaps I  should have said something about sleight of hand, or prestidigitation. DL  seemed to call me an anti-Semite for using the word ‘sneakily’. He changed his ground a little when I challenged him. He  said: “At the very least, I’d think that one would want to be highly conscious of the language one chooses when addressing topics as sensitive to Jews as antisemitism. Is Padraig an antisemite? I have no way of knowing, but I do know now that he is willing to toy with rhetoric that dances right up to the edge — and he is too clever a writer not to know just what he was doing.”

I sought further clarification and he told me: “’Sneakiness’ is part of the standard antisemitic stereotype of Jews, whether you like it or not. You are far too sophisticated to pretend unawareness. I don’t assert that you ‘must’ be an antisemite on this basis. I call it out as evidence of a willingness on your part to play around with some decidedly ugly rhetoric. Own it or not, but you deserved to be called on it.”

I honestly did not know that I could be seen as  employing a stereotype. When I said I had never been called an ant-Semite before he said: “You haven’t been called one now. I’m inclined to reserve my accusations of antisemitism for cases where the evidence is strong. I was quite clear in what I was accusing you of: rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes. Really, if you find it so wounding to be charged with such a thing, the simplest way to avoid such a charge is not to do the thing.”

I was not “rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes” I was flippantly using the word “sneakily”  without the slightest awareness that it was a stereotype that would offend a Jew. The particular Jew that I was addressing has not told me that he was offended, although we have had many friendly exchanges.

As soon as DL  suggested that the word was offensive to him,  I deleted it and told him so and asked him if he was happy. He replied: “Yes and no. Deleting what you describe as the inessential ‘sneakily’ in effect acknowledges my assessment of it as gratuitous, so, yes. But you also strenuously resist acknowledging the initial offense itself, so, no. Even Joe Biden had to acknowledge that his clumsy characterization of then candidate Barack Obama as ‘clean’ strayed into very dicey territory, whether he meant it to or not.”

Can’t do right for doing wrong!

As GB Shaw said to Zionist David Eder: “I cannot explain my position to you. There is something inherent in your germ-plasm which makes you congenitally incapable of understanding anything that I say. I have explained in writing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over  and over and over  and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over with the most laborious lucidity.”

K and I agreed that analogies can be misleading and even dangerous. I’m going to try one anyway. Back in the last century, I worked for the Department of Health in London in the area of child protection. The leading charity in the field conducted a number of shock horror campaigns to raise public awareness of the problem of the sexual abuse of children, to raise its own profile and to raise funds. According to the “evidence” the charity presented it seemed that just about everybody had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child.

This strategy was not helpful. Ordinary members of the public were surprised by the statistics. A lot of people thought, “I never experienced sexual abuse as a child and I don’t know anyone who has.” The charity seemed to be blaming the government for not doing more to curb the incidence of abuse. Ministers were not pleased because the charity depended for its existence on an annual grant of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as well as further grants for a number of one-off projects. Not surprisingly we began to look at the raw data. Members of the public thought sexual abuse meant rape and sodomy. We discovered that the charity had widened the definition to include accidental exposure to soft porn, inappropriate language, flashers in the park and loving relationships between teenagers who were legally below the age of consent. The currency was devalued.

Child abuse is evil. Racism is evil. The Israeli citizen said: “it puzzles me why people focus so much on questioning the Jew and his Land?” I am not doing that. “Don’t take us back to the Inquisition or the Krystall Nacht. That is regressive and not progressive.” “Anti-Semitism came and stayed.” If he is  saying that anti-Semitism still survives, I agree. How does one define anti-Semitism? Neo-Nazi parties are on the rise all over Europe. I did my bit campaigning against them in England by taking part in Anti-Nazi League marches and supporting the organization Searchlight which took great risks investigating and exposing fascist thugs. The National Front became very scary in England during the 70s (the play Destiny by David Edgar whom I knew at university was produced at the National Theatre to great acclaim). Today the British National Party has representatives in the European Parliament. I do my bit to counter the forces of racism in Sri Lanka.  Anti-Semitism is evil. Do not devalue the currency of language by absurdly widening the definition of anti-Semite or racist to include me.

What to do?!

Prime Minister Netanyahu  published  a book in 1993 called A Place among the Nations. In it he wrote that Israel had made enough concessions, by which he meant that it had abandoned its claim to Jordan which he believes should have been part of Israel. He repeatedly compares  Palestine’s  hopes for statehood with Nazism because  claiming territory for such a state resembles Hitler wrenching  Sudetenland out of Czechoslovakia. Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank would be accepting a “ghetto state” within “Auschwitz borders”.

Peter Beinart argues in the NYRB that the current coalition government is the result of trends that have come to characterize contemporary Israeli society: ultra-Orthodoxy is growing, the settler movement is becoming more radical and more influential in the government and the civil service and the army,  Russian immigrants are prone to anti-Arab racism. 77% of recent Russian immigrants support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. More than 80% of religious Jewish high school students would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.

and Abraham Foxman’s response:

Acceptance that Palestinians have a right to stay and that settlements should be dismantled might would be a good basis for working out a solution for the future but what is being done? Many do want to expel the Palestinians and the settlers are radically recalcitrant. I am not arguing that the state of Israel should be destroyed,  but its own actions may not help its survival. The Roman Empire once seemed indestructible, as did the British. I remember my history teacher saying that the Soviet Union had survived so many setbacks in its early days that it would probably last forever. It died at the age of 72. Apartheid South Africa seemed rock-solid until it wasn’t. Israel is two years younger than me and I feel a bit shaky. As the Buddhists say, “Anicca”, impermanence is all.

Recommended reading

I would like to recommend a few books that have helped me to clarify my thinking:

Bad Thoughts – Jamie Whyte

Critical Thinking: an Introduction – Alec Fisher

Thinking from A to Z – Nigel Warburton

A Rulebook for Arguments – Anthony Weston

The Meaning of Things – AC Grayling

Keywords – Raymond Williams

Why Truth Matters  – Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Lying – Sisela Bok

Truth – Simon Blackburn

True to Life – Michael Lynch

The Complexity of the Gift Relationship

Sophocles: “An enemy’s gift is ruinous and no gift”.

Emerson: “We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten”.

Antonio Porchia: “I know what I have given you but  I do not know what you have received”.

Beggars’ Day

In Badulla, every Friday is Beggars’ Day (remember that great track by Crazy Horse from 1973?) Many Sri Lankans (like many English) are dubious about beggars – some people will tell you that beggars  belong to organised gangs and are really very rich. There is a less cynical strain in the culture which lays an obligation to give alms to the poor. Every Friday, the town is full of beggars receiving from  shops and restaurants. Customers and proprietors all give something. I was coming out of Wine City when I was accosted by a small elderly woman in Muslim garb. I paid my dues and went over the road to get a cell phone repaired. My egress from the phone shop was blocked by another minute Muslim woman who was expanding to fill the space available. I paid her off and made my escape. When we were back on the street we were surrounded by another three of them. Was this some esoteric sorority, a Muslim midget Mafia? I had difficulty getting served in Wine City the other day because the Muslim Midget Mafia was out in even greater force, their tiny arms reaching above the counter grasping for coins, their heads invisible.


I was used to seeing beggars in Ireland in the 1950s and subsequently was not surprised to see them in India. I still remember the time in 1983 when a young woman on the South Bank in London asked me for “change”. It took me a while to realise she was begging. Soon, as a result of Thatcher’s policies – selling off public housing , killing off manufacturing industry, cutting public spending – The Strand began to resemble Calcutta – City of Dreadful Night, with hundreds sleeping in shop doorways. I have not been to London for five years – are the homeless back on the streets now with Cameron’s Big Society relying on under-funded charities and volunteers to do the work that government should do?

I  received Christmas and New Year greetings from Tessa Doe, a friend I met on a tour of South India many years ago. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire (I’m trying to think of something that Wiltshire is famous for and can only come up with Andy Partridge and XTC) in the UK. This reminded me that after the 2004 tsunami, Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.

Melksham resident  Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.

Seend village primary school organized bring and buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.

Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his  class making posters to advertise the event.”

A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Don’t ask me what they did with the men! Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.

I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”

The response to the tsunami echoed the outpouring of sympathetic emotion that followed the Ethiopian famine which inspired Bob Geldof to organize Live Aid and Band Aid. Celebrity philanthropists such as Bono, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are today prominent on the world stage.

Richard Titmuss

Richard Titmuss left school aged 14 with no formal qualifications. He has been described as an “autodidactic, degree-less insurance clerk”. In spite of this, he was a pioneering British social researcher and teacher. He founded the academic discipline of Social Administration and held the founding chair in the subject at the London School of Economics. There is also now a Richard Titmuss chair in Social Policy at the LSE. Titmuss’s  books and articles of the 1950s helped to define the characteristics of Britain’s post-war welfare state.

His concerns focused especially on issues of social justice, a term used to describe a society with a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution, policies aimed toward achieving that which developmental economists refer to as equality of opportunity.

He was much criticised for his role as a vice-chairman of the government’s Supplementary Benefits Commission  (I was  Assistant Secretary to Sir Arthur Armitage, the chairman of the SBC’s successor body, the Social Security Advisory Committee) which some critics felt did not allow him enough distance from the establishment. Titmuss argued that it was good to try  to make inadequate institutions work better for the benefit of the poor even if his involvement with such institutions had the potential to sully the purity of his reputation.

Titmuss published  The Gift Relationship  in 1970. It compared blood donating in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some donated, some bought and sold). Its conclusions – that the voluntary system was superior in efficiency, efficacy, quality, and safety – helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation. Titmuss’s most profound conclusions concerned the quality of life and community when people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood).

“Men are not born to give; as newcomers, they face none of the dilemmas of altruism and self-love. How can they and how do they learn to give – and to give to unnamed strangers irrespective of race, religion, or color – not in circumstances of shared misery but in societies continually multiplying new desires and syndicalist private wants concerned with property, status, and power? … If the opportunity to behave altruistically – to exercise a moral choice to give in non-monetary terms to strangers – is an essential human right, then this book is about the definition of freedom.”

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde also has examined the concept of the gift. He locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food. In some societies even an ornament purposely made for passing as a gift is offered as “some food we could not eat”. Hyde argues that this led to a notion in many societies of the gift as something that must “perish”. Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade. Highly organized and technical modern society allows few opportunities for ordinary people to give beyond  their immediate network of family and personal relationships. Hyde investigates the effect our delusion with the market economy has  on our ability to give and receive. In a market economy, wealth is increased by  ‘saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation  within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, people say: “you have to give to get”. It is as though giving creates a space for receiving. In Buddhism giving creates  ping, or merit.

Tainted Philanthropy

Philanthropy can be tainted by market considerations. According to Hyde giving is spiritually and psychologically transformative. To sell a transformative gift falsifies the relationship. Therapies and spiritual systems (Scientology is an obvious example)  delivered through the market will tend to draw the energy required for conversion into a commodity. Here in Sri Lanka, it is the custom to provide danes – food – to the priesthood. It seems somehow less meritorious if one pays a caterer to prepare it rather than cooking it oneself.

A Liberian woman we knew in Ireland was making a personal fortune from the second-hand clothes trade. See Apparently the clothes that westerners donate as “gifts” to charities are not passed on directly as “gifts” to poor Africans. The charity sells them in bulk to African middlemen who then sell them on African markets making large profits in the process.

What makes a philanthropist? There are four modern definitions of “philanthropy”: “private initiatives for the public good” – John W Gardner;  “voluntary action for the public good”-  Robert Payton;“the private giving of time or valuables…for public purposes”- Lester Salamon; “the aim of philanthropy…is improvement in the quality of human life” – Robert Bremner. Putting them together we might say that philanthropy means “private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life.”

Some cynics might believe that the  main concern of many philanthropists is less benevolence towards a community than self-aggrandizement and tax-avoidance. This is  demonstrated  by the prevalence of foundations boosting the name of some oligarch. Sometimes guilt might be a factor. Many of the noted philanthropists of England came from families who made their fortunes from chocolate – Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree.  Was guilt at the use of slave labor to make the family fortunes a reason for their philanthropic works? John Berger won the Booker Prize for his novel G in 1972. (Francis Hope damned Berger with faint praise saying he was not “inhibited by the fear of being pretentious”. Hope later perished in the Turkish DC10 crash). Berger took the opportunity to make an acceptance  speech at the Café Royal, in London condemning Booker-McConnell for trading for over 150 years in the Caribbean and using slave labor on their West Indian sugar plantations. Berger gave his prize money to the Black Panthers.

The Nobel Peace Prize is funded from the proceeds of instruments of war.

Charity as a Career Move

We all got a warm glow from helping out the Ethiopians through Live Aid and what harm in creating a bit of empathy?  It has to be recognised however that a number of fading rock careers were given a boost by Live Aid. In more recent times the fractious members of Pink Floyd were persuaded to play a live concert for charity and sales of their back catalogue surged miraculously. David Gilmour felt morally obliged to donate all the extra income to charity. (Good man – he also gave the proceeds of the sale of his London house to charity.) Bono has created a new job for himself as some kind of roving ambassador for the poor but evades paying his taxes. New Internationalist magazine has awarded the Dublin jackeen a Jammy Dodger (a sticky biscuit favoured by English children) as “Tax Dodger of the Year”. Estimates suggest that the world’s wealthiest individuals dodge over US$250 billion dollars each year in tax. This far exceeds what the UN has asked for its Millennium Development Goals to tackle global poverty – a cause with which Bono has been closely linked.


Unfortunately, one has little control over what charities do with our donations. We all felt that warm glow when we thought we were helping out starving Ethiopian children (and aging rock stars) but it seems, although Sir Bob vehemently denies it,  we might have been supporting the appalling Mengistu regime or the equally unlovely Eritrean or Tigrayan separatist rebels.


Institutionalised Aid and Corporate NGOs

Dutch journalist Linda Polman argues in her book War Games that aid has often had perverse and at times catastrophic effects. Polman argues that humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers. She cites a damning catalogue of examples from Biafra to Darfur, and including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Polman believes aid enabled the interhamwe, Rwandan  Hutu extremists to continue their attempt to exterminate  Tutsis from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma.

A number of people from the NGO world rushed to attack Polman but to me, while they may have found errors of fact or examples of exaggeration in Polman’s book, they have not substantively addressed her central thesis. Conor Foley debated with Polman at the Frontline Club and the exchange can be viewed at


In The Guardian, Robert Fox  reacted to Polman’s book

“Linda Polman grinds her axe to the haft. By the end I gloomily felt like foreswearing aid donations and taking up guerrilla avoidance of the clipboard kids in the street at Oxford Circus for life. But taken together, Polman’s books have an unfortunate circularity: on aid she wants us to do that for which she condemns the UN in the first book: do precisely nothing.”  Fox’s views were challenged by many readers who commented.

The May 2010 issue of Opinion, the journal of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, carries a long article by Matthew Foley intended to be a rebuttal of Polman’s book. To me it reads more like a defence of her viewpoint.We tell donors that they’re not giving enough, while simultaneously telling ourselves that giving too much creates aid dependency, as if humanitarian assistance were the only resource for people in times of crisis (Harvey and Lind,2005). A lack of contextual knowledge, plus cultural insensitivity, often lead to inappropriate, unwanted or unsustainable projects. Displaced people are still herded into massive camps because delivering aid is easier and cheaper when they are in one place, despite evidence that camps are often incubators of disease and crime, and often develop into more-or-less permanent communities. At higher policy levels, we worry that humanitarian aid may become a substitute for the state, freeing governments of their responsibility to their own people.”

The full ODI response can be seen at:

Giving in Wartime

Ever since Henri Dunant set up the Red Cross back in the late 19th century, the role of the humanitarian has been to avoid taking sides in war. Dunant’s concern was not the rights or wrongs of any particular conflict. Instead he simply wished to ease the suffering of, and improve the care offered to, all victims of war, which at that time were mostly soldiers. In this endeavour he was opposed by Florence Nightingale who argued that Dunant’s compassionate vision was a charter for prolonging war. Linda Polman agrees with Nightingale that neutrality is as much of a problem as taking sides.

Polman argues that competition between agencies distorts the aid enterprise by forcing agencies to go where the money is, not necessarily where the greatest needs are. Aid can be  identified with Western political and strategic interests rather than altruism.

Aid and Dependence

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo contends  that aid is the cause of rather than the solution to problems in the “developing” world.  William Easterly examines the pitfalls of humanitarian aid in his book  The White Man’s Burden and on his blog at An example of Easterly’s argument: “”The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families.”


A feeling for the debate on this issue can be found at

 The Aid Business

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business. Analysts at Development Initiatives estimate that the humanitarian aid sector globally was worth at least $18 billion in 2008. World Vision International, spent over $6.5 million on relief assistance in 60 countries that year, distributing over half a million tonnes of food to 8.5 million people. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

“Aid workers should respect the fact that local people live in poverty,” Polman  says. “It is perverse, for example in Haiti, that there are people sleeping outside in the streets and aid workers step over them to enter the clubs.” The notion of rich aid workers living in luxury compounds while those around them struggle to survive is grotesque and the destabilising effects of their high wages on local economies are well known. So too are allegations of sexual abuse. Here in Sri Lanka, Gomin Dayasri has written about the arrogance of NGOs who link up with what he has termed “Colombians”, whom he defines as a “social stratum in Colombo alienated from Sri Lankan society living in a small world of their own and sending the wrong signals”. Dayasri’s  Colombians form an educated westernised elite, ignorant of the kind of lives led by the majority of the population,  who fraternise with NGO employees and sport themselves in the capital’s luxury hotels and clubs (some of which are out-of-bounds to “locals”) .

During the Sri Lankan civil war there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA?

NGOs the New Imperialists?

Susantha Goonatilake entitled his book on foreign  NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonisation. He argues that organisations like Care undermine the civil society of “developing” countries like Sri Lanka. “Sri Lanka had enjoyed a rich and active civil society until it was emasculated by the simultaneous arrival of an authoritarian state and foreign-funded NGOs. Its voluntary sector was strangled by both…NGOs have prevented the growth of real society in Sri Lanka. They have been the opposite of almost all that civil society advocates wanted NGOs to be ..The coming years will see an outcome of a struggle between real civil society and foreign-funded NGOs. This struggle, which is partly between a Recolonisation agenda and local voices, echoes Sri Lanka’s 500-year-old struggle with western colonial powers. It will therefore yield lessons for  all developing countries in the new arena of multi-faceted globalisation”.

Goonatilake described the situation after the tsunami: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilise funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks’. At the time I visited one of these temples in Hambantota and spoke to Christians, Muslims and Hindus who were being cared for by the Buddhist monks.

Charity as a Conscience Salve

The ethical philosopher, Peter Singer recommends giving a sort of tithe to charities along the lines of religious organisations such as the Mormons. Of his book, The Life You Can Save he says  “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  He begins with an example: You are walking past a shallow pond, and you notice that a small child has fallen into the water and is about to drown. Should you wade in and rescue the child, even though it will ruin your shoes and get your clothes muddy? Most people agree that anyone who didn’t rescue the child would be a moral monster. Even if the case is more demanding—the child has to be taken to a hospital, and that will make you miss a flight for which you have a non-refundable ticket—it would still plainly be wrong not to save the child’s life. The next question is, what is the principle that explains why failing to rescue the child would be wrong? Singer argues that any plausible explanation of what is wrong in this case has vast implications. He offers the following simple principle: “If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to.”

Singer has on his website the motto: “Making a difference”. He certainly made a difference to me with his book Animal Liberation. He changed the way many people think about the place of animals in the scheme of things. On his website he gives his e-mail address. I took the liberty of writing to him  when I was involved in a campaign about two veterinarians in Kandy who, by deception, acquired two street dogs from a shelter and mutilated them for some obscure “research” purposes. I believe that I did make a difference in this case, not by getting the perpetrators punished, but by getting codes of conduct improved. I made a significant contribution to drafting guidelines published by the Forum of Ethics Review Committees of Sri Lanka and the Ethics Review Committee (ERC) of the Colombo Medical Faculty  sponsored by the WHO (World Health Organisation). These guidelines on the use of animals in research were described by the Sri Lanka  Sunday Times as “milestones… Sri Lanka has turned a new leaf in its attitude towards animals used in research, laying down in print and concretizing what may have been practised. They show the right path and hopefully institutions dealing in animal research will encourage and persuade their employees to take them into consideration, thus preventing any misdemeanours.” Singer’s only response was to grumpily tell me to remove him from my mailing list. I appreciate that he is a busy man.

The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of  Singer’s normal subtlety of thought and is an example  of the fallacy of false analogy. Just because I choose to forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body claiming to be engaged in philanthropy does not  guarantee that anything better will happen as a result. The most likely result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from making a donation. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  Reducing extreme poverty is a big ambition and is several degrees of separation away from setting up a standing order from my bank account.

I long ago became concerned about the way charities operated. We all accept that they rely on public donations and donations from private individuals. When I worked for the fraud section of the UK Department of Social Security I discovered that people collecting money in the street (these days I believe they are called ‘chuggers’) were paid to do so by the charity and some were doing this paid work at the same time as collecting welfare unemployment benefits. As a schoolboy I took part in street collections for Oxfam realising that I would get plenty of abuse from the great British public and no cash for myself. A more senior representative of the charity made several visits to my office and immediately alienated me by trying to ingratiate himself and cover up the fraud. Many years later, I had dealings with those at the very top of the organisation.

I was working on child protection at the Department of Health and was responsible for disbursing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to charities working in the field. My view of charities has been jaundiced ever since. (Incidentally, my experience of working with animal welfare organisations taught me that they were more interested in fighting with each other than uniting against a common foe or promoting the interests of animals). Many organisations came to us with a very hard sell for some piece of research or promotion that they had dreamed up. Once they had the cash they became mightily offended when we expected them to produce something. The particular charity I mentioned  above was the most generously funded by  the government but also tried to project an image of the underdog when appealing for money  from the public. It went about soliciting individual donations by sensationalizing issues and distorting statistics in a manner to make Richard Titmuss revolve in his grave. For example, they did a TV ad campaign which suggested that there were very few people in the population of the UK who had managed to escape sexual abuse as children. They achieved this by adopting a very loose definition of sexual abuse which encompassed both a single encounter with a flasher in the park and  repeated violent rape. We felt that this was not helpful to the cause of combating real child abuse and seemed to be a cynical ploy to raise quick cash.

Most of these organisations had celebrity patrons. I met Princess Margaret at one function. Some of the celebrities were more active than her and could call on influential support for their cause. I got on particularly well with one organisation and wrote a speech for my minister to give to their annual conference. Jane Asher was a patron of this organisation. She used to be described as an actress but I don’t recall seeing her act in anything. Her main claim to fame in the early 60s was as the girl friend of Paul McCartney. She later married the artist Gerald Scarfe. She achieved a later fame in the UK for making cakes. She once baked a cake for this charity of which she was the patron. The idea was that money could be raised by a auction of the celebrity cake. She sent a bill to the charity for providing the cake.

Direct Giving

I find that active charity is more effective than passive giving. I have found ways to make my modest income work in a form of freelance micro-funding. We have had second –hand cell phones given to us and passed them on to three-wheeler drivers to help them in their businesses. An asthmatic woman who recently lost her husband came to us for help with her medication. We gave this and buy vegetables from her. I have provided a retired man with cash to buy seeds to start a vegetable-growing business. When we were having our water pipes extended we arranged for our plumber to put a water supply into a neighbour’s house. We put an electricity supply into another village house. That woman brings us breakfast from time to time. I have developed a friendship with a Buddhist monk from Sikkim (he speaks fluent Sinhalese, Tamil and English) who runs a temple in a remote village. I have helped him with some of his building projects which have improved the quality of life in his community. Two Buddhist nuns run a little school, again somewhat off the beaten track. We helped with their building work and arranged a water supply for them and send supplies to them.

There is a larger temple near our home. The high priest there has become a very good friend. We did not realize that he was a very senior priest – the president and the leader of the opposition call him to wish him on his birthday. He is very ecumenical. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school. Hindu Tamils work for him and bow down to show their respect. He has many projects on the go. He provides a water supply to village houses. A huge pit has been dug into which waste is dumped to produce gas for cooking. Computer classes are given to local children. Various job creation schemes such as growing mushrooms for sale are organised with the catholic priest.

When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. A potential buyer seemed to be trouble – he moaned about the price and however much we lowered it we could foresee him coming back in perpetuity  to complain about defects. Our friend the high priest offered to buy it as it would be helpful to take him to his clinic appointments (he is 86 and diabetic but climbs about like a mountain goat) and various official functions. We gave him the car free of charge.

Community Projects


This gift had many beneficial consequences. When we first came to live in this area we felt a certain hostility. Mine is the only white face for many, many , many miles. Rural people anywhere in the world can be suspicious of strangers (we found this in Ireland also). After giving the car we were greeted with smiles everywhere. I am invited to functions at the temple and given the honour of carrying relics on my head and presenting prizes to schoolchildren, sharing the platform with the then Speaker of parliament and his son who is now an MP, and the local police chief. The usual practice is for the laity to provide food for the temple. We have not bought rice for over two years because the priest sends it to us from his field. We give the temple flowers from our garden and occasionally plants. He wants us to plant them  for him because he believes it will thrive better if it is planted with our hands. We also take ice cream for the baby monks.

The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging,  has put everything right that was mechanically wrong and spray-painted the car. He says how can he expect payment when we gave the car as a gift.  Many little accoutrements and furbelows have been proudly added. A local builder  constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.

I write all of this not to boast of my own saintliness but to demonstrate the effectiveness  of direct  and active rather than passive charity . Not everyone will have the time and circumstances to be active and giving is probably better than not giving even if we do not investigate the  political background. While charity doesn’t always benefit the intended recipient, it usually manages to make the donor feel better.








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