Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Mark Twain

Broken Promise Land

This was the first article I had published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD). It appeared in the December 2007 issue.


“When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends,” said Mark Twain. “Unless it would impose the silence of slavery, no government can afford to ignore its obligation to the truth,” said Michel Foucault. And Rauf Hakeem said in a recent interview: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.”



In daily life, we all constantly encounter the kind of broken promises and untruthfulness which Hakeem sees as a natural part of political life. Associated concepts are trust, loyalty, confidence, frankness, sincerity, right livelihood, betrayal, perjury, smear, spin, manipulation, hypocrisy, self-delusion, forgetfulness and corruption.


None of these issues  are exclusive to Sri Lanka, but this is my home and here are some Sri Lankan examples I have encountered,  which illustrate how frustrating and exhausting it is to get the simplest task done- and how corrosive a lack of truthfulness can be in friendship, business and politics.


Promises, by their very nature, have consequences. A friend who is a vet agreed to perform surgery on our dog, which she told us to starve. After six months, we haven’t seen or heard from her. If we had taken her at her word, the dog would be dead by now.


A roofing-tile company agreed to view our site and provide an estimate. I telephoned the salesman when he didn’t show up. He was in Ratnapura and couldn’t get to us. We didn’t buy that company’s tiles. Its Managing Director said when I complained: “That’s Sri Lanka, no?”



The CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board) said that its staff would come on Thursday. They didn’t. They said that they would be there on Friday. They turned up a month later, but we were away. In its office is a sign that says: ‘The Customer Is King’.


Hakeem is echoing the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who wrote: “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.” The doctrine that there can be no absolute truth seems to have sprung from the discovery that scientists can err and that cultural factors inevitably colour our perceptions.


Other philosophers such as Mary Midgley combat this post-modernist relativism, maintaining that without a concept of absolute truth, “how, then, could we describe the world?”



All jurisdictions punish perjury, because justice cannot be done unless all parties adhere to the truth. The absolute language of the oath has a pragmatic purpose. Professor Bernard Williams writes about the two virtues, accuracy (doing everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth) and sincerity (expressing what one really believes without deception). He cites as an example the tobacco company executive who knows that his product may kill,  but his own life and peace of mind depend on avoiding that fact. He may accommodate himself to this by wishful thinking about the evidence. Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage. The tobacco salesman may simply lie. The victim might die.


In our imperfect world, the white lie is hard to avoid. Frankness may prove costly in both public and private life, and it is not necessarily scheming or devious to hold back from absolute honesty. The man who prides himself on his bluntness may also have to be content with his own company, as he may not retain any friends. We might call this withholding of, or economy with, frankness tact – rather than insincerity.


Does more good than harm flow from the telling of a lie? According to Henry Sidgwick, in The Methods of Ethics, we must weigh “the gain of any particular deception against the imperilment of mutual confidence involved in all violation of the truth”. Practices of deception tend to multiply and reinforce one another and it takes an excellent memory to keep the thatch of one’s untruths in good enough repair to keep the rain out.


Mostly, the real reason for a lie is simply the advantage to the liar. Politicians use the white-lie justification to vindicate self-serving manipulation. The electorate is masochistic enough to let them get away with this. We are complicit, but delude ourselves thus: “Politicians are corrupt, but what to do?”


Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, was recently grilled by a tribunal investigating corruption. Few doubt he took large sums of cash from businessmen on four occasions. His testimony has been described as “rambling and incoherent”, and he has changed his story so many times that some of it has to be a lie. Polls show that less than one-third of voters believe him, but also show a sharp increase in support for his government and a corresponding drop in support for the opposition. At a recent public appearance Ahern was described as adopting a demeanour of martyred vindication. Some commentators see the public’s complaisance as evidence of the corrosive effect on the Irish nation as a whole of corruption at the top.



Denying the inevitability of falsehood in politics is seen as naïve – but there is, at the same time, tacit agreement that lying is wrong. It was said that British Minister of War John Profumo’s greatest rime wasn’t betraying his wife or compromising his country by sleeping with Christine Keeler- a call girl who was also the mistress of a Soviet spy. Rather, commentators took pains to assert that they were not concerned with his sexual morals, but with the fact that he lied to Parliament.



US Government officials told ABC News that they concocted the story of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to give legal justification for war’ “We were not lying. It was just a matter of emphasis,” they asserted. Dr Samuel Johnson quoted Henry Wyatt’s definition of a  diplomat as “a man paid to lie abroad for his country”. (It is interesting that Johnson was writing about journalists and their tenuous relationship with the truth.)


The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. He was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force. “I’ll give you the corpse. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done,” he said. Lies about lraq have led to over 85,000 real corpses.


George Bush Jnr., like Richard Nixon before him, used smears and lies to become president. Dan Rather is suing CBS for firing him for allegedly presenting forged evidence on revelations in 2004 about Bush’s National Guard years. Bush, the coward, was running against war hero Senator John Kerry, but the Republicans discredited Kerry’s greatest asset to compensate for Bush’s liability. Witnesses remember Bush drunk and never going near the National Guard while Kerry was being decorated for bravery in Vietnam. CBS wanted Bush to win and branded one of its own as a liar for exposing the truth.


Deviation from truth throws a spanner in the works of social interaction and business life. We can organise our lives more effectively if truth is the accepted currency. Johnson said that the devils themselves do not lie to one another, since even the society of hell could not subsist without the truth. His devils didn’t have the benefit of email, SMS and mobile phones. With modern technology, there is no excuse for wasting my time because someone has more important things to do than make our agreed meeting. If I tell someone that I am going to do something by a certain time, they can effect their arrangements in the confidence that I will deliver. Punctuality is the politeness of princes.


Broken promises have a domino effect. Society will not prosper if people lie and boost their egos by making promises which they have no intention of fulfilling. In his bestselling little book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt defines lies as statements that are not germane to the enterprise of describing reality, promises unconnected with an intention to fulfil. Lies arise when people are pushed or tempted to talk about things they know nothing about or when they don’t care about the truth.


Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said in LMD that “there was a time when the people were very vigilant, vibrant and alive to numerous issues affecting society … civil society seems to have gone to sleep. It could still be a powerful force if it came forward as one body.” His job is dealing with the big issue of corruption. We can all play a small part in affecting the environment in which corruption thrives by addressing the ‘what to do?’ mentality in daily life whenever a company disrespects us by dishonouring a commitment or a friend lets us down.


Defy the petty quotidian corruption of unreliability and negligence. Businesses and state departments will carry on lying and breaking promises if their ‘customers’ allow them to. Businesses will prosper if truth is respected and customers can rely on companies keeping their promises. Governments will thrive if they embrace openness and sincerity.

Leaving the Heart in San Francisco

Hipsville to Nerdsville


This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.

gold rush

Modern San Francisco was born raffish and rebellious. The prospect of gold increased the population from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December 1849. Crews deserted their ships for the gold fields. Silver discoveries further drove rapid population growth. A transient population encouraged lawlessness, with the Barbary Coast quarter seething with prostitution and gambling. In the 1950s, Kenneth Rexroth and the Beats revolutionised poetry. In the 1960s, The Grateful Dead transformed music. Today the pioneers of the digital revolution are changing the character of San Francisco yet again.



San Francisco is a walkable city, measuring about six square miles. Not so square – it is still a cool place to be in 2014, but perhaps not as hip as it was in 1967. Many neighbourhoods are dotted with boutiques, cafes and nightclubs as businesses, restaurants and venues cater to both the daily needs of local residents and for tourists.

nob hill

The historic centre of San Francisco is the northeast quadrant of the city anchored by Market Street and the waterfront. The Financial District is located here, with Union Square, the principal shopping and hotel district, nearby. Cable cars carry you, if not quite halfway to the stars, up steep inclines to the summit of Nob Hill, once the home of the city’s business tycoons, and down to Fisherman’s Wharf.


cable car

The large Western Addition, which acquired a large African-American population after World War II, survived the 1906 earthquake with its Victorian mansions mostly intact. It includes smaller neighbourhoods such as Haight Ashbury, which was a hippy haven in the 60s but is now home to some expensive boutiques and a few chain stores, although it retains some bohemian character.

Haight Ashbury2

Working class immigrants from Europe populated the Mission District in the 19th century. In the 1910s, a wave of Central American immigrants settled there but in recent times the demographics of parts of the Mission have changed from Latino, to twenty-something professionals.


With 39% of its residents born overseas, San Francisco has numerous neighbourhoods with businesses and institutions catering to new arrivals. In 1870, Asians made up eight per cent of San Francisco’s population. The Chinatown quarter around Grant Avenue developed from around 1848 as businesses sprang up catering for Chinese railroad workers. Chinatown is an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity (and crime).


According to an FBI criminal complaint, behind the restaurants there is a sinister underworld. The federal charges, which allege a California lawmaker accepted money and campaign donations in exchange for providing official favours and helping broker an arms deal, cast harsh light on Chinatown’s tight-knit network of fraternal organizations and one of its most shadowy characters, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. Chow’s gang is said to have lured state Sen. Leland Yee into its clutches through money and campaign contributions in exchange for legislative help, as Yee sought to build his campaign coffers to run for California secretary of state.


West of the Mission, the area now popularly called the Castro was once a working-class Scandinavian and Irish area, which became North America’s first gay village. San Francisco has a LGBT-friendly history. The city’s large gay population has created and sustained a politically and culturally active community over many decades, developing a powerful presence in San Francisco’s civic life. San Francisco is the only city in the state to cover gender reassignment surgery for the poor and uninsured.


A circle of writers turned 628 Montgomery Street into a literary bohemia during the Civil War. Bret Harte was successful with “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” However, his friend Mark Twain’s achievements eventually outweighed his.

bret harte

The original “Beat Generation” writers met in New York and migrated west in the mid-1950s, when they linked up with the San Francisco Renaissance, which made the city a hub of the American avant-garde. The poet Kenneth Rexroth was the founding father. Lawrence Ferlinghetti met Rexroth in Paris and went with him to San Francisco where he established the City Lights Bookstore and publishing company.



The British-born philosopher Alan Watts wrote that by around 1960 or so “… something else was on the way, in religion, in music, in ethics and sexuality, in our attitudes to nature, and in our whole style of life.” Many of the songwriters of the upcoming rock-music generation of the mid-1960s appreciated City Lights writers. The hippie culture on the Haight absorbed elements of the Beat movement gravitating around North Beach since the 1950s.

Some of the songwriters of the upcoming rock-music generation of the mid-1960s and later read and appreciated writers like Kerouac, Snyder, McClure, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg. In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the hippie culture.


Haight Ashbury bands played with each other, for each other, for free and at Chet Helms’s Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham’s Fillmore. By 1967, fresh and adventurous improvisation during live performance (epitomized by the Grateful Dead) was one characteristic of the San Francisco Sound. In San Francisco, musical influences came in from not only London and Liverpool, but also the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s and the Chicago electric blues scene, as well as poetry.



In the 19th century, entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on the wealth generated by the Gold Rush. Wells Fargo was established in 1852 and the Bank of California in 1854. San Francisco became the main finance centre of the West Coast and Montgomery Street, which had nurtured literary bohemia, became known as the Wall Street of the West. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, not a single San Francisco-based bank failed. Bank of America completed 555 California Street in 1969 and the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972, (on the site of literary bohemia) igniting a wave of extensive high-rise development that lasted until the late 1980s.



During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, large numbers of computer application developers moved into San Francisco, bringing marketing, design, and sales professionals in their wake. Many popular and prominent Internet companies such as Craigslist, Twitter and the Wikimedia Foundation established their head offices in San Francisco. In August 2013, Forbes named San Francisco among its list of Best Places for Business and Careers. However, the number of San Franciscans employed by firms of more than 1,000 employees has fallen by half since 1977. Small businesses with fewer than ten employees and self-employed firms make up 85% of city establishments.

The blow-ins gentrified poor neighbourhoods and the city’s property values rose, creating a large and upscale restaurant, retail, and entertainment scene. Many families have been leaving the city for the outer suburbs of the Bay Area, or for California’s Central Valley.




In the early-90s, tech workers made up less than one percent of workers in San Francisco. In 2000, tech employees had risen to three percent of the workforce. By 2013, that number had passed six percent.

Internet developers like to think of themselves as creative rebels while the real cool people might see them as geeks. Go into any bar in San Francisco and you will hear people bragging about their start-up, or a titanic struggle with a line of code. These people rarely interact with people outside the tech world. Silicon Valley workers seem to want to inherit the cachet of the anti-war, social-justice, mutual-aid heart of historic San Francisco.

Google Buses

According to the Brookings Institution, after Atlanta, San Francisco has the second-highest level of inequality in the US. Software engineers at Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter make on average up to $120,000 a year plus bonuses.


The city estimates there are about 7,350 homeless people now living in San Francisco and has allocated $165 million to help them. It has succeeded in offering 6,355 permanent supportive housing units to the formerly homeless. Nevertheless, the number of homeless people on the streets has remained unchanged. Techies living in condominiums constantly express their deep disgust that city policies provide a magnet for homeless people, spoiling an otherwise lovely place for all the hardworking taxpayers.



google-bus-photo.jpg w=600

The rising presence of company-funded buses in densely populated neighbourhoods has led to protests and occasional violence in a city formerly known for tolerance. Luxury coaches 45 feet long, outfitted with tinted windows, plush seats, TVs and wireless Internet, chauffeur programmers around the Bay Area. Passengers scowl or text from behind tinted windows. The Google bus and the Apple bus do not reduce commuting impact. They just transfer it to poorer people.




In order to buy a home, your income needs to be nearly one and a half times higher in San Francisco than in the next most expensive city in the US. Many people can no longer afford the city they have lived in all their lives. Bookstores, bars, Latino businesses, black businesses, cannot afford high rents or purchase prices. The current boom is destroying what made San Francisco attractive in the first place.



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