Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Edmund Burke

Partisan People and Fissiparous Parties

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 15  2015.

Colman's Column3

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html

The regime has changed. Now is the time for mentalities to change too. Uditha Devapriya.

The People’s Verdict

The people have spoken! Four years ago, I was among those who believed politicians allowed personal considerations and pure weakness to persuade them to support or ineffectually oppose the 18th Amendment. It was left to the people themselves to shout a resounding NO to a third term for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Although some have branded me a Rajapaksa supporter (more about that later), I felt a certain lightness of spirit on the morning of January 9, 2015, when it became clear that a change had been effected. After several depressing weeks of gloom, rain, floods and landslips, the clouds have gone. A Jimmy Cliff song keeps going through my mind.

Not Groundhog Day

On January 10, I woke at 4.41 am precisely with a cat on my face. I was somewhat spooked to recall that on January 9, I had woken at precisely 4.41 with a cat on my face. Was this Groundhog Day? On January 9, just before waking, I dreamt that I met Mahinda Rajapaksa in a street market. I had never met him or any of his family in real life, although I did once make eye contact with him at Nuwara Eliya flower show when he was prime minister. I awoke at 4.41 to find that he had conceded defeat and left Temple Trees.

On the morning of January 9, the sun was bright in a clear blue sky and there was an invigorating, chill breeze that had a cleansing effect.

A Surprising and Welcome Result

When I first heard last September from the then president’s local agent (that is one poor fellow who must be looking for a new job) that there was to be a presidential election in January, my immediate thought was that , for good or ill, there was no one who could defeat the incumbent. If I had a hat, I would eat it now but will instead consume a slice of humble pie. I knew of Maithripala Sirisena but never imagined him as a presidential contender. I offer my sincere congratulations to him on a successful strategy.

Even during the course of the election, I wondered if the NDF’s (National Democratic Front) success in wooing Tamil and Muslim politicians would be reflected among Tamil and Muslim voters, considering the influence of the Sinahala Buddhist Nationalist JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Heritage Party) in the NDF. In the event, NDF majorities were highest in areas with significant minority populations. These figures were impressive and were not undermined by the fact that these areas also had the lowest turnout. Jaffna, Mannar, Killinocchchi, Batticaloa were in the 60% bracket, which is very high compared to less than 43% in the last EU elections. The turnout in the recent US mid-term elections was 36.4%.

The Tribe, the Herd

When I was around ten years old, I was fanatical about Aston Villa because my handsome cousin played for them and gave free tickets for my father and myself. It was not possible to be a Villa supporter without despising Birmingham City. Later, I lived in Manchester and had the privilege of being able to see George Best and Denis Law up close. I was more of a Manchester City fan, though, and spent more time at Maine Road watching Rodney Marsh, Colin Bell and Denis Tueart. Up to the age of about 15, I was a very devout Catholic and prayed fervently for the rest of the world to be converted to “our team”. I was educated at Sir Thomas Rich’s School; the other grammar school in Gloucester was Crypt. We never played each other at rugby because of the fear of mayhem. Kolombians might see a parallel in the rivalry between St Thomas’s and Royal. There has been discussion about the composition of the new cabinet- 12 Royalists in 27-member Cabinet.

Thus we shape our identities through dichotomies, feeding our sense of self by hating or mocking the Other.

Partisan Voices

I enjoy reading polemical writers like Hazlitt, and in contemporary times, Nick Cohen and Julie Burchill. I have read and quoted Tisaranee Gunasekera’s impassioned articles. I have read and quoted Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and am currently reading her thoughts on torture. I do not do polemic myself. I do analysis and criticism. For an international audience, I wrote articles critical of the 18th Amendment, the imprisonment of Sarath Fonseka, the failings and misdeeds of the police, environmental crimes, child abuse through vehicle emissions, the errant entitled thuggish sons of ministers, crime in politics; I frequently accused the government of living on immoral earnings by depending on migrants’ remittances and tourism. I wrote an article condemning BBS and asking why there were no prosecutions.

This was not enough for those who called me government shill.

I realised that the problem with some Sri Lankan readers of my articles was not that I was praising Rajapaksa – I knew that I was not. At one stage, I thought the problem was that I was not attacking the government. Then, I thought I was not criticising the president himself abusively enough. There were many talented writers doing that job with great gusto. I came to realize that UNP (United National Party – Uncle Nephew Party to its critics) supporters were unhappy that I criticised Ranil. Most who read my article in Le Monde diplomatique got that I thought the 18th Amendment was a bad thing. I could see no argument in favour of it. All one of my persistent bêtes noirs got from the article was that I was critical of Ranil.

Groucho Marx said, “I would never be a member of a club that would accept someone like me as a member”. I have found myself added to a number of groups supporting one political viewpoint or another. I have swiftly withdrawn. I have lingered a little longer in a couple of groups which had the ostensible mission of building bridges or encouraging philosophical discussion. They quickly become hotbeds of dissension and entrenched views. My attempts at neutrality win me hate mail from all sides. As well as being called a Rajapaksa sycophant, a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist (strange label to attach to someone brought up as an Irish Catholic) I have been branded an IRA fugitive who regurgitates Tiger propaganda. This is spite of the fact that a piece of mine condemning both the IRA and the LTTE got 5,000 viewings on Groundviews.

The great, if today unappreciated, English essayist William Hazlitt was an admirer of Napoleon. Hazlitt’s views on Napoleon and, most other topics, were diametrically opposed to those of that other great wordsmith Edmund Burke (a Trinity man). Despite their different philosophies, Hazlitt’s guiding concept of “disinterestedness” meant that he did not trust anyone who did not believe that Burke was a great man. The disinterested thinker can empathise with views with which he or she does not agree or even opposes. As another loquacious Irishman, Tom Paulin, puts it in his book on Hazlitt, The Day Star of Liberty, “The disinterested imagination takes a position, but it is not entrenched, obdurate or rigid; rather it is based on an active and flexible way of knowing that is essentially dialogic. It doesn’t talk to itself”. Hazlitt believed he could do an enemy, “justice or more than justice, without betraying a cause”.

As an impartial foreign observer, I really, sincerely, do not have atavistic emotional attachment to one side or another. Why would I? Why would I support one Sri Lankan party over another unless I was paid to do so; I assure you I am not paid (except by Ceylon Today). My modus operandi is to say, “on the one hand…and on the other hand”. I have quoted Uditha above. I was amused to see someone berating him because he was “too neutral” in his public utterances. The poor man was trying to adopt a balanced approach but his scourge condemned him because he would not tell her to whom he planned to give his vote.

Indi Samarajiva’s  analysis of the new cabinet was rubbished by two commenters because he had previously said some positive things about Rajapaksa. Someone thought he should not be heeded because of  the politics of his father. This was a man who had clearly said he was going to vote for MS and had advised others to do so.

Rajiva Wijesinha played a vital role, with his constant flow of informed comment and practical advice on good governance, in the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Most people welcomed his ministerial appointment but someone objected because he had once supported the outgoing government and had questioned Channel 4’s Killing Fields in a TV interview.

My social media contacts are ecumenical and eclectic. There are Catholics, Anglicans, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists, gay men and lesbians, jazz fans and folk singers singers (even banjo players), rock musicians (even drummers). There are people who hate the Rajapaksas with venom. There are those who think he was a great president. There are those who think Ranil walks on water. I enjoy dialogue with right wing conservatives and lefties from various sects. I am friendly with staunch supporters of Israel and those protesting at the treatment of Palestinians. I even resisted a strong urge to “defriend” someone singing the praises of Tamil rapper and Tiger supporter MIA. I open my mind to all these influences to challenge my own ideas. I am willing to change my opinions but sometimes I just do not know what my opinion is and I set out different viewpoints for my readers to chew over.

I become uncomfortable when someone is loud and bullying in his or her partisan stance. During the election process there were instances of commenters on social media “naming and shaming” those who did not seem to be voting the “correct” way, or even for not speaking loudly enough for the approved candidate. One woman was exposed in a public forum despite her protestations that she had voted for MS. Her crime was that she had shared an article by Dayan in which he had said, after much deliberation, that he would himself be voting for MR. This mental attitude goes beyond the totalitarian mantra of, “If you are not with us, you are against us”. “If you have a friend that we disapprove of you are our enemy”.

Some people cannot consider ideas without being overwhelmed by emotion. Some people cannot understand that to explain is not the same as to advocate. UNP/SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) dichotomies do not seem relevant in these days of fissiparous alliances. The victorious alliance this time has made a good start without being stuck with a party doctrine.

Welcome Changes

Why did I feel invigorated and optimistic at the election result? There are many excellent proposals in the new government’s work plan. Here are some that attracted my notice:

  • A Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament.
  • Repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with legislation to establish strengthened and independent institutions.
  • Relief to the people by reducing the rising Cost of Living.
  • Proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system .
  • An Ethical Code of Conduct will be introduced legally for all representatives of the people.
  • A Right to Information Bill will be introduced and passed within three weeks.
  • Special Commissions will be appointed to investigate allegations of massive corruption in the preceding period.
  • Laws will be passed swiftly to put a stop to ill-treatment of animals

Gracious Ranil

Before the election, I echoed Dayan Jayatilleka’s concern that voters would be casting a vote for Sirisena but giving power to Ranil, for whom no one was voting directly. The voters clearly did not see this as a problem and accepted the opposition package as offered. The UNP’s organisation and vote bank contributed to a change that allows the possibility for beneficial developments for the governance of the nation. The people clearly want change and the NDF electoral strategy has opened up possibilities that would not have existed had Rajapaksa won. Ranil was extremely gracious in victory and I look forward to seeing him govern as the gentleman many of his admirers have described to me.

Although there was great relief (and surprise) at the swiftness and smoothness of the transition, (compare with Bush versus Gore where the Supreme Court handed the presidency to the candidate with fewer votes) there is a dispute about how gracious Rajapaksa really was in defeat. There is speculation about what his future plans might be. If I were him, I would relax and enjoy retirement. There are stories going around that he plans to recapture the SLFP and get back into parliament and stake a claim for the prime minister job which M3 and Ranil would have made the power centre. Thus, he might be able to block the governance changes for which we hope. As I write, the issue of the SLFP leadership is confused. MR and MS seemingly both consider themselves in charge but one paper thinks CBK will make a bid. Apparently, Karuna still considers himself SLFP vice-president. In all this confusion who is the official opposition? Is it the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna  – People’s Liberation Front) with just three MPs?

Good out of Bad

Some have found a good deal of amusement at the sight of former supporters of Rajapaksa, who did not cross over before, now pledging support to Sirisena after his victory. One commenter expressed this pithily: “Their brown noses will never change. Same nose different object.” They may be keen to back the winner. They may be hopeful of preferment – with a reduced cabinet, let us hope they will be disappointed.

There is a positive side. It was a conundrum how the positive changes could be effected within the timetable set by the incoming regime when the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) still had a majority in parliament. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority so a general election was thought necessary. That in itself would not guarantee a two-thirds majority for constitutional change. Nimal Siripala de Silva has announced that he and the current UPFA MPs will not stand in the way of the new president’s programme. Will we have a government of national unity? Do we need an opposition? However, it seems that some defections are causing dissension in the ruling coalition. A clean machine does not want Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, Anura Vidanagamage and Udith Lokubandara.

At this point in history, it is good that we appear to have peaceful change and are moving towards a government of national unity. There is the promise that mechanisms will soon be put in place to guarantee that it does not become a one-party dictatorship. The sun is shining on the mountains and I am optimistic.

Cruel and Unusual Part2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 13 2014.

 

Colman's Column3

An examination of  issues relating to capital punishment, continued from last week.

What Do the Philosophers Say?

Immanuel Kant wrote: “But whoever has committed murder, must die. There is, in this case, no juridical substitute or surrogate that can be given or taken for the satisfaction of justice. There is no likeness or proportion between life, however painful, and death; and therefore there is no equality between the crime of murder and the retaliation of it but what is judicially accomplished by the execution of the criminal.”

Nietzsche recognised cruelty in Kant’s position. Cruelty can be, and often is, masked as morality. Base pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be, and often is, rationalised as moral duty. “Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?” Nietzsche sees the origin of this “strange hypothesis” in commercial law – “debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.” Commercial contracts provide a model for the social contract, which requires that humans undergo an internalisation of their aggressive drives. This has a psychological effect causing what Freud would call a neurosis. Nietzsche describes it as that “serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced – that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace”. Nietzsche warns that this psychic formation (or deformation) brings the risk of the subject becoming her or his own executioner.

Nietzsche suggests that abolitionists are not immune to cruelty. By preferring imprisonment to the death penalty (protracted cruelty, that is, over immediate death) they are making an aggressive attack on aggression which paradoxically preserves, or redoubles, aggression even as it seeks its eradication. As I mentioned last week, Yanna Brishyana, when sentenced to death in the Colombo High Court, appealed to the court to have her executed immediately.

Victor Hugo was a staunch abolitionist. He travelled across Spain as a young boy. Along the roadside, heads of convicted robbers were displayed as warning to others; one man had been dismembered and re-assembled in the shape of a crucifix. As Voltaire put it: Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres. In his short novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829), written when he was 27, Hugo writes about a man who has been condemned to death by the guillotine in 19th century France. He writes down his thoughts while awaiting his execution. Hugo had witnessed executions and told a story about the blade sticking halfway through a condemned man’s neck. The man freed himself and stumbled off holding his spurting head in place with his hand. The executioner’s assistant jumped on his shoulders and finished hacking his head off with his pocketknife. Baudelaire did not agree with Hugo. The poet celebrated capital punishment as a supremely sacred and religious proceeding.

Albert Camus deals with the “eye for an eye” trope: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Jacques Derrida addresses Baudelaire’s criticism of Hugo’s abolitionism. Hugo argues that the death penalty should be opposed because the right to life is absolute. Derrida says abolitionists “are afraid for their own skins, because they feel guilty and their tremulations are a confession; they confess, with the symptom of their abolitionism, as it were, that they want to save their lives, that they tremble for themselves because … unconsciously, they feel guilty of a mortal sin… ‘I want to abolish the death penalty because I am afraid of being condemned.’”

Derrida tries to expose the way that the abolitionists are implicated in the death drive, suggesting that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness. He suggests that abolitionists are like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of pornography. Derrida himself opposed the death penalty, but could still ask whether some abolitionists are committed to other forms of cruelty that are masked by elegant moral formulations, ones that rationalise prolonging the time of cruelty and the tenure of sadistic delight. Abolitionists have made sure to promote the punishment of life without parole as the alternative to execution, taking care of the question of the worst of the worst being allowed out to commit fresh crimes.

Democracy and Death Penalty

Edmund Burke, told his 18th century constituents in Bristol that, while he would attentively listen to their opinions, he would reject any talk of “authoritative instructions” or “mandates issued” which he might be expected to obey. The death penalty is normally cited as the classic example of the disconnect between politicians and the people they represent. I have written often about the lack of democracy in the EU. The EU has made abolition of the death penalty a condition for membership of the club. In every Western democracy that has scrapped the death penalty, politicians have acted against the wishes of a majority of voters. A European politician running on a platform of restoring capital punishment would be wasting his and the voters’ time, unless he was willing to leave the EU as well.

In the UK, a majority of MPs have consistently opposed the death penalty and a majority of the public consistently supported it. It used to be over 70%, but these days roughly half of the UK population support the death penalty for “standard” murder. Overall US public opinion remains clearly in favour of the death penalty, with around 60% or more of Americans saying they want it retained as a punishment for murder. Michael Dukakis’s opposition to capital punishment in a televised debate sank his 1988 presidential run.

The most combative abolitionists openly assert that they know better than their voters, and are saving them from themselves. Former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, defended his position: “Capital punishment raises important questions about how, as a society, we view human beings. I believed as governor, and I still believe, that the practice and support for capital punishment is corrosive; that it is bad for a democratic citizenry and that it had to be objected to and so I did then, and I do now and will continue to for as long as it and I exist, because I believe we should be better than what we are in our weakest moments.”

Cuomo could only block capital punishment until he left office – it was reinstated. Yet in states whose state legislatures have voted in recent years to abolish it, after long debate, there are no signs of it being brought back on to the statute books.

It is a strange state of affairs when politicians are moral arbiters acting in our best interests and keeping us on an ethical path.

 

 

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