In praise of Universal Basic Income

…and why objections based on so-called ethical principles are silly

In a recent address to his graduation class, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called for the implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI): a well-known and forward-looking concept in the social sciences, where the state provides everyone with an income sufficient to meet their basic survival needs such as food, shelter and clothing, irrespective of whether they are gainfully employed or not.

I am greatly encouraged by this resurgence of interest in UBI, amongst Zuckerberg, Musk and other Silicon Valley big wigs. I noticed however, that Zuckerberg’s speech in support of UBI drew a hostile reaction of non-trivial proportions across social media, and thought it worthwhile saying a few words in support of his cause.

Zuckerberg put the case forward quite clearly; he provided at least three compelling reasons for embracing UBI.

  1. Advancing technology and increasing automation is leading to fewer jobs.
  2. The dire need for a financial cushion for people, so they could educate themselves as adults, or engage in quality parenting, or perform other productive activities at different stages of their lives, which don’t provide a direct cash return.
  3. The undeniable role that basic financial security plays in fostering entrepreneurship.

I would like to reinforce Zuckerberg’s case for UBI by expanding and extending his rationale. I am charitably assuming of course, that Zuckerberg’s interest in the matter goes deeper than a mere desire to absolve people of the need to work, so they could spend all day on Facebook – a rather sardonic yet common enough reaction to his address.

Let us for a moment explore the ethical underpinnings of the objections to UBI. The commonest objection raised against UBI is the objection to giving people “a free lunch”, and thus “spoiling” them. I saw this particular objection echoed time and again in the commentary surrounding Zuckerberg’s address. One commentator stated this objection with poetic elegance, sighting the good book. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, he chimed in.

I don’t buy this ethic. Iron age religions codified our inherited instincts to forage and hunt, which were perfectly natural, into a dogmatic ethical principle that one doesn’t deserve to eat, unless one has worked for it. There are two problems with this rather unfortunate paraphrasing of our natural instincts. The first is that nature doesn’t set a precedent to frown upon idle eaters who reach out effortlessly for an easy meal procured by someone else. A male lion, mooching about on the savanna whilst the rest of his pride sweats hard to bring down a kill, may simply saunter over and dig into the carcass, without causing any ill feeling.

Of course one has to sometimes “work” to obtain a meal in nature, but everyone doesn’t have to work for it all the time, and, more importantly, providing food to others is not something for which one need demand an explicit return. This is the second problem with the canonical viewpoint. Social animals such as lions, gorillas or meerkats instinctively understand that opportunity is the biggest success factor in nature, and the individual who “wins the bread” shares it without placing demands. An ancient Homo sapiens may have brought down a boar and dragged it over to his tribal dwelling, to be shared with his kinsmen with altruistic pleasure. Group cooperation, and adaptation for altruism amongst kin, are well-known Darwinian processes.

Civilization and the rise of religious ethics changed this protocol of feeding each other FOC, by sub-optimally placing a mandatory barter value for a meal; it had to be obtained by working (and usually working for someone else). To put it plainly, we were told we have to toil for every f…ing meal. We were conditioned to feel squeamish if we had procured our lunch effortlessly, even if it harmed no one.

Another fallacy, which again I suspect has its roots in the folk psychology of religions, is the idea that poverty is the main driver of success. One particularly benevolent commentator on the Zuckerberg story had these words of wisdom to say: “poverty will be merely a step you take towards success”. Really?! Contrary to this rather masochistic view, the majority of those whom I’ve met who had lost jobs due to no fault of their own, will attest to the huge dependence of their subsequent success on how much financial support they got, when they were “down”.

Rather than being a driver of employability, the fear of starvation often rushes and muddles up the process of getting back on one’s feet. Your friends and relatives push you get any kind of job, which often doesn’t match your skillset, causing further disruptions in your career and more psychological distress.

I quote from a conversation that the political scientist Charles Murray had with the philosopher Sam Harris, where Murray says that an income stream actually improves moral agency, contrary to popular belief. It’s much easier for society to demand more from someone whose basic survival needs are already met. “Don’t tell us you are helpless because you aren’t helpless; the question is whether you are going to do anything to further improve your lot” is something we can tell those who are unproductive, yet receiving a basic income from the state. In contrast, far too many homeless people without a predictable income are powerless to land a job interview, simply because they can’t afford to dress up tastefully. This fact reinforces Zuckerberg’s third point.

Let us bring in another perspective to Zuckerberg’s second point. Many young people sacrifice their best years helping others, at the expense of helping themselves to a comfortable salary. If one raised a child (or looked after an aged parent or grandparent), one has discharged an important practical responsibility towards maintaining a civilized and productive society, for which one ideally aught to receive some material benefit. However, when such a dutiful person looks about to make a living after a hiatus in paid employment, they often face a forbidding society that won’t employ them again because they have a “broken track record”, or are “too old”, or judged to be “overqualified” if they seek a “lesser” job than they last held.

To expand on Zuckerberg’s first point, it is more than mere automation that future employment seekers must worry about. The demography of working class society is changing, towards the upper end of the IQ and EQ bell curves. The rise of importance in IT is a classic example. Coming from this industry myself, I can say that not everyone is cut out to be a good software engineer, for example. In fact, very few people are. Successful lateral career moves into software engineering are an absolute rarity, and worse, the ratio of employability of graduates keeps dropping over the years. It is harder to become an expert software engineer in 2017 than it was to become a successful corporate executive in 1980, in real terms.

The eminent historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts that, barring other catastrophic possibilities like extreme climate change or nuclear war wiping us out, humanity is reliably on course towards freeing itself from the shackles of existential labor, and morphing itself into a species that spends most of their lifetime on pursuits of a recreational nature, either of the intellectual or physical kind. Hence the title of his latest book, “Homo Deus” – human gods. Work, including food production and delivery, will soon be seconded to technology, and humanity will be left to worry about doing things to please themselves, or please each other. This doesn’t sound like all too bad a predicament for us, particularly if one didn’t subscribe to those silly Iron Age philosophies about the sanctity of laboring for one’s meal.

I’ve purposefully not discussed the economics of walking towards UBI and ultimately a labor-less, recreation-focused society. I’ll leave that discussion to the economists and experts. Suffice to say that a very promising trial is in progress in Finland.

However, I argue strongly against any moral objections to freeing ourselves from the need to labor for our basic needs. Social norms are evolving, and its time that we freed our minds of the ancient burden of mere survival, in order to move 100% into the more joyous space of innovation and recreation. Just as Homo erectus evolved towards freeing two of its four limbs to use tools and develop its mind, Homo deus aught to evolve towards freeing its mind of the worry of survival, and focus on developing its technology and the quality of its leisure-time, at an accelerated pace.

“Lifeboat diplomacy” – a rejoinder to Sam Harris, suggesting America aught to abandon the “rogue nation” doctrine, and mediate in conflict exercising social intelligence and with foresight of outcomes

Sam,

Your “waking up” podcasts are profoundly educational for those of us who are living in these conflicted times, and keen on seeing a better world order. Your interviews (https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg) are far more interesting than the humdrum analysis of violent conflict as portrayed on news channels like CNN or BBC.

I am relieved to discover that I’m not alone in denouncing the hypocrisy of pacifism, a view I suspect many liberal thinkers would share at heart, but dare not speak openly about for fear of being stereotyped as rightwing fanatics. The world is full of truly errant beings, from whom we must protect ourselves violently when all else fails. In my own country, Sri Lanka, we had what amounted to a 30-year failed experiment in pacifism, having had countless peace talks1 with a particularly ruthless terror group – the Tamil Tigers2 – before the then Colombo administration finally abandoned their pacifist qualms and defeated the Tigers militarily in 2009.

The defeat of the Tamil Tigers caused collateral damage3 that was deeply distressing, nonetheless blameless in my personal opinion, given the context of the well-publicized, cautionary approach that successive Lankan governments adopted6, even during the height of the fierce, final battle at Puthukkudiyirippu. Much of the credible accounts of civilian deaths were “caused” by the Tigers, who held over a hundred thousand civilian hostages as human shields4, 5. The government forces gave up on heavy weapons and resorted to hand-to-hand combat: nonetheless the fierce fighting couldn’t prevent the loss of civilian lives.

Coming from a country that won a battle against one of the worst terror groups in the world (not a single shot has been fired after the defeat of the Tigers nearly seven years ago, and the country’s economy boomed afterward), I agree completely with the instincts of your esteemed guests like Willink and Reitz. When you do decide that violence is the only recourse, and when everyone involved agrees with you that the forces driving the perpetrators are unbelievably immoral and impossible to manage by peaceful means (in a secular, rational analysis of the problem), that you must strike hard to kill.

However, I see a marked difference between governments fighting terrorists in their own countries, and powerful nations attempting to improve the lot of failing nations like Syria (or Libya or Iraq in the past). I believe that powerful countries like the United States must adopt a more imaginative approach to deal with entire nations that are failing or appear to be “rogue nations” at first estimation, by recognizing them explicitly as entities different from terrorist groups, requiring a different strategy of engagement. Let me elaborate this idea by way of a response to an idea that surfaces in your podcasts.

It seems to me you advocate (or at least toy with) the idea that the establishment in the USA, whose constituent individuals have a superior ethical grounding as compared with the leaders of ISIS (or any other professed terror group or rouge regime), cannot make cataclysmic blunders because their moral instincts (and intentions) are fundamentally good.

Your own caricature of this undertone sounds like this, to me at least. “Someone as “radical” as Dick Cheney would probably not see Ramadi carpet bombed (if he could help it), he’d probably try to make Ramadi like Southern Nebraska instead. I wonder why people can’t see this [and perhaps reduce their dislike of America?]”.

I personally feel that the good intentions of the political leadership in the USA have little bearing toward America regaining global respect for its foreign policy. It is the track record of US intervention in conflicted zones that has tarnished America’s image as a “helpful superpower”. America engages with conflicted regions often sans correct intelligence, foresight, due diligence, and, most importantly, without an informed philosophy for “conflict resolution” appropriate for the 21st century.

Let us delve in the “bad attitude” that is historically evident in US foreign policy, when it comes to mediating in conflicts in remote parts of the world. It is this attitude that makes not only terrorists but also nice, intelligent people dislike American foreign policy, in spite of the fact that they adore American culture, learning and intellectual leadership. Since I am not an expert on the pertinent hotspots like Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, and because I have better knowledge of America’s attitude and approach to Sri Lanka during and after the Elam Wars, many of my supporting arguments come from this comparatively nameless experience.

  1. An obvious reluctance to decisively share a view about a given conflict (i.e. name terrorists) until “shit hits the fan” – even in cases where evidence was overwhelming from the beginning, but political interest was averse. Instead, in the case of Sri Lanka, successive American administrations adopted the “politically correct” approach of “cautioning both sides” to stop violence, indirectly fuelling the legitimacy of the completely unethical aspirations of terrorists – the Tamil Tigers. Consider this statement by Obama six years ago: https://youtu.be/gahJwnMLwtE

This is clearly a well-intentioned statement in itself, arising out of Obama’s genuine concern for the lives of civilians held by the LTTE as human shields, during the last stages of the “humanitarian operation” to free the North and East of terrorism. So, what’s wrong with this seemingly humane face of America?

What’s wrong is that for 30 years there was a brutal terrorist movement whose underlying aspiration7, 8 was to ethnically cleanse the North and East of Sri Lanka, and to carve out a “Tamil homeland”, pushing aside demographic realities and all known moral principles. The LTTE leveraged the most inhuman tactics ever know to mankind to further this ambition, ranging from the ritual disembowelment of babies in remote villages, to the crippling tens of thousands of civilians with their trademark “Jony Batta” landmine9, to the use of pregnant suicide bombers, to the assignation of heads of state like Rajiv Gandhi of India or Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka.

When the LTTE is on the brink of defeat by a democratically elected government after 30 years of hell, and after many failed attempts at peace – including an open invitation to govern the North and East of the country for 10 years, unfettered by elections10 – America pops up at the 11th hour to express its concern for civilian casualties. Too little, too late, too biased.

What would have been impactful diplomacy is if an American president had made a statement of concern 30 years before this date – when the LTTE had shot and killed the democratically elected (Tamil) Mayor of Jaffna and began lobbying internationally for Elam War 1 – urging the Tamil community to stop trying to correct the poor administrative legacy left by the imperial British in Sri Lanka through violence. Not once (even after the banning of the LTTE in the USA on the advice of the secret services) did an American president openly declare the LTTE’s political agenda (carving out a race-centric “Tamil homeland”) to be morally unacceptable and absurd, and urge the Tamil community to shun the LTTE’s violent culture and help return Sri Lanka to normalcy.

  1. Making a stand on conflicts based on sectarian lobbying, as opposed to a close study of the history, moral justification and ethical merits of the demands of the parties involved in a conflict. In other words, carelessly equating sensible democratically elected governments with terrorist organizations, because representatives of these terrorist ideologies have better lobbying power in congress or the white house.

The former Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka was viewed as an “unsound postwar peacemaker” by America, as openly acknowledged by John Kerry: https://youtu.be/Tnn-43OK4To

Kerry, whilst condemning terrorism unequivocally and condoning the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, goes on to insinuate that the Rajapaksa government didn’t have a sound approach towards “building the peace”. Furthermore, he says that civil liberties and a free press “are returning” since the government changed. This is intellectual dishonesty at its finest, considering the fact that it was a free press overflowing its gutters that caused the last change of government, with more or less every newspaper siding with opposition forces for years prior to the elections11! The slander against the government was so brazenly false at times that some officials challenged the press and won back their dignity in court. It didn’t help them however, as public opinion had shifted, and they bowed out of administration most democratically, as acknowledged earlier by Kerry himself12.

What we see here is more sinister than a mere absence of knowledge, or even a cheeky leaning towards one side of Sri Lanka’s political landscape by the US Secretary of State. The Rajapaksa administration steadily refused to give credence to the Tamil Tiger’s divisive, morally unsound “aspiration” for an ethnically cleansed “Tamil homeland”. What ordinary Americans might not know is that the Tamil diaspora led by the likes of Raj Rajaratnam invested buckets of money into pro-LTTE lobbying in the Americas. Rajaratnam may have been jailed for insider trading, but the opinion drummed up by Tamil Tiger lobbyists funded by the TRO (Rajaratnam’s proxy organization) had already taken root in the minds of “nice” people like Kerry. The Rajapaksa administration had become known as a “racist” one in Congress and the White House.

  1. A record of mercilessly allowing USA’s poor geopolitical relations with the two big powers (Russia, China) to shape opinion regarding the governments of smaller countries. There seems to be a particular fondness for “freedom fighters” that are opposed to governments of small countries, which are aligned with big powers that are considered “enemies” of America in one sense or another. Without going far, let us recall the Mujahideen and Taliban. It was genuinely “nice people” like Regan and Bush Senior who were in charge when these anti-Russian terrorists were funded by America, inclusive of Osama Bin Laden.
  2. A track record of American conflict management “diplomacy” having an underlying philosophy that is rather primitive, of the “Gog and Magog” (or brimstone and fire, call it what you will) variety. The world has seen 70 years of black-and-white US diplomacy, where countries are stack-ranked as “enemies”, “neutrals” and “friends”. Yesterday’s neutral becomes today’s enemy, if the said neutral happens to bolster their relationship with top ranking enemies. In the bad old days of Vietnam, open warfare against “evil communists” was the game plan. The salient technique these days for the punishment of “enemies” seems to be to orchestrate a “toppling of governments” by way of supporting civil disturbances led by otherwise marginal internal political factions, leading to “regime change”.

Syria is a classic example. Heartened by the “successes” (questionable really) in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the US/UK-backed freedom seekers tried to “drive out” the “horrible” pro-Russian (and anti-Saudi) Syrian administration. Unfortunately for everyone (and I really want to stress this – perhaps it would have been better for Syria if Assad had caved in), the administration fought back viciously, instead of rolling over like puppies, or getting lynched like Gadhafi.

As your rather unworthy pen-friend Chomsky might tell you (mind, I find you far more palatable than him), there were many other shining examples of this lousy American foreign policy.  Like annihilating millions of people in Vietnam four decades ago in a war fuelled by cold-war ideology, only to find the Vietnamese yearning to become best friends with America a mere two decades later. Why couldn’t America foresee this?

What the world needs instead is a sort of “lifeboat diplomacy” where America recognizes the threatened state of mankind and the planet as a whole, and “rows together” with misguided leaders of apparently rogue nations, displaying some “social intelligence”, foresight of outcomes and concern for the ordinary peoples of these nations. America must realize that it is a strong (if not the strongest) member in an ungainly team of “global leader” nations, who must somehow work together and not make the boat capsize. If there were a rogue member in a lifeboat battling the high seas, we’d somehow try to get her on our side and row together for the common cause of survival.

Someone might argue that this is high-flying ideology – how does one put this “lifeboat diplomacy” theory into practice? The answer is actually quite easy. Assad, whether we like it or not, was the legitimate leader of his country at the time the civil disturbances began, as accepted by the existing norms and traditions of that country. He was no more a tyrant than the Saud family, or Saddam when he was a darling of the American secret service14 – and arguably less so. In fact, Assad was probably closer to Bill Clinton in his personal moral standing, and gave wartime directives with good intentions, that cost human lives (recall your email exchange with Chomsky). No one wants to firebomb old Bill’s house (except perhaps Chomsky) in retaliation for his blowing up hundreds of civilians in a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, simply because of the unfortunate presidential order he gave, that caused massive collateral damage. Many however, consider Assad worthy of annihilation because of his geopolitical leanings.

If we were to consider the single biggest moral transgression Assad is accused of – the Ghouta chemical attack – the UNHCR’s independent international commission that investigated chemical weapon use confirmed that limited amounts of toxic chemicals were indeed used in four attacks in the civil war, but the head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, said the U.N. could not determine who used chemical weapons in Syria after evidence had been delivered by the United States, Britain and France15.

If America had no part in instigating the civil disturbances in Syria, they should have immediately condemned it in principle. They could have negotiated their concerns with Assad, without pointing the finger at him instinctively. They should have obtained consensus in the UN and approached Syria respectfully, asking the administration to show reforms, in return for better commercial and strategic relations with the USA and the UK. They should have put a whole variety of carrots before the stick. As mentioned previously with the example of Sri Lanka, Americans sometimes don’t know the history and ethical underpinnings of a conflicted country well enough to jump forward, stick first. How can a nation that had absolutely false intelligence of WMDs in Iraq know for certain if Assad is truly an immoral being, a monster worthy of getting rid of at any cost to the country’s ordinary citizens, or the rest of the world for that matter (consider the migration crisis for example)?

So yes, Dick Cheney is a minor saint in comparison to Jihadi John… or perhaps even Assad. But if Cheney’s successor’s foreign policies include playing dangerous games in other countries like arming terrorists, then we must expect at least some intelligent sections of society to develop a distaste for America. America must be cautious of punishing entire nations and their populations, simply because their leaders won’t play ball with them, or align themselves with superior Western morals and political frameworks. They should stop carrying out experiments like supporting “Arab Springs” which invariably involve terrorism and bloodshed. America should stop acting like an unruly global cop thrashing hither and thither, and then refusing to take responsibility when innocents suffer.

Bernie Sanders, who appears a rather promising democratic candidate for the upcoming US election, has promised in New Hampshire to change America’s approach to conflict resolution, by discarding its role as “global policeman”. It may be that we finally have an American political leader who understands that while the greatest crime on earth is to do nothing in the face of human suffering, one can also escalate suffering by orders of magnitude through selfish, partisan interference and an absence of negotiation skills, borne of arrogance.

References:

  1. Peace attempts during the war against terror in Sri Lanka: http://www.defence.lk/pps/peaceattempt.pdf
  2. Ruthlessness of the Tamil Tigers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_attacks_attributed_to_the_LTTE
  3. Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  4. Tigers using human shields: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/5161118/Britain-accuses-Tamil-Tigers-of-using-civilians-as-human-shields.html
  5. Elam War 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eelam_War_IV
  6. Zero civilian casualty policy during the final battle: http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca201112/FINAL%20LLRC%20REPORT.pdf
  7. Thimpu Principles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thimpu_principles
  8. Tamil Elam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_Eelam
  9. Jony batta mine: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/081109/Plus/sundaytimesplus_00.html
  10. Tigers offered the North and East for 10 years: http://archives.dailynews.lk/2001/11/21/pol08.html
  11. Press freedom gone haywire in Sri Lanka: https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong/
  12. Kerry on democratic transition of power: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/i-commend-president-rajapaksa-for-accepting-the-results-us-secretary-of-state/
  13. Rajaratnam funds the LTTE:

http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/rajaratnam-major-ltte-financier/article37890.ece

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/hedge-fund-crook-raj-rajaratnam-accused-funding-tamil-terror-1468411

  1. America helped Saddam: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/
  2. Ghouta chemical attack: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghouta_chemical_attack

 

The Indian Rope Trick and the dire need for critical thinking among us Sri Lankans

100civ19-indian-rope-trick-set-1127-pSri Lanka seems shy to reflect on the past, because its not considered “smart” – “stale news”, “don’t live in the past”, “what’s done is done”, “lets move on”, are some of the retorts one hears whenever one tries to draw lessons from history. I on the other hand, have no qualms about freely traversing the past, present and future when finding answers, like Minkowski in his Block Universe.

We are witnessing what I feel is the strangest episode in the history of Sri Lankan politics as yet – an episode that is unfortunately an outcome of the naive thinking that prevailed in the minds of the majority of our nation’s good citizens, during the past year. I’d like to urge us all to think more independently and critically about our country’s governance in future, without riding the wave of propaganda ever again.

Let us first consider these facts.

  • We recently chose a twice-failed and prematurely jettisoned politician as our administrative leader for a third time, against overwhelming evidence for his lack of courage and fortitude1, in favor of a twice-successful administrative team2. Only to find the said twice-failed “leader” heading for a third failure, being check-mated by political forces3 he is unable to outwit.
  • We recently deposed a President for being a “dictator” based on anecdotal reports and hearsay4, only to appoint another who publicly meddled with the electoral process and appears to be meddling with the judicial system. Not only does he throw out the former attorney general5, but also subverts the democratic values in his party by sacking candidates who were standing for election6, during an election. Furthermore, he appoints defeated candidates loyal to him7, through the National List, instead of the publicized list of “intellectuals” who should have been rightfully appointed.
  • We have a “new” government whose appointed attorney general, under the auspices of two cabinet ministers, investigated Avant Garde – an invaluable maritime security arrangement falsely touted as the greatest scandal to befall Sri Lanka8. It was said to be a “crime” committed by the former government, particularly by the former President’s brother. We have these appointed officials and their policy makers exonerate the previous government of any wrongdoing under our criminal law. We then have the President (of the “new” government) cast aside this verdict and appoint another set of officials to conduct “a full investigation”. The cabinet spokesman continues to tout Avant Garde as a “horrible crime” against Sri Lanka, contrary to the opinion of the ministers responsible for this investigation.
  • We had a government voted out for its supposed incompetence in economic affairs, only to find the new government see the country’s development visibly retarded9, with once robust public infrastructure crumbling10 due to lack of maintenance.
  • We saw the defeat of a supposedly “vile, greedy, unforgiving and superstitious man”11 – who, curiously enough, never spoke in anger in public, and hardly ever mentioned the ills of his political predecessors or opponents. We replaced him with a man who believes in an “eye for an eye”, is determined to bring back the hangman as a speedy solution to crime12, and who openly spouts hatred of his political opponents through his own tongue13 and that of his cabinet spokesman14.
  • We have appointed a “new” government that appears to be hung up on a punitive system of justice, seeking to punish political opponents from the previous government through various investigative bodies like the FCID15, as opposed to taking a more restorative stance of dialog and reconciliation with them. The government spends far more “nervous energy”, as is evident from the debates in parliament, on punishing opponents or using them as an excuse, as opposed to developing the nation.
  • We see terrorists suspected of grave crimes (such as the murder of our former foreign minister) pardoned and released, and instead have secret services officials imprisoned under counter-terrorism laws.16 With no apparent transparency around what the facts are – no justification of this peculiar approach to justice.
  • We see the government facing cash flow problems and grasping at straws such as “taxing the rich”, and taxing salt, sugar17 and “mansions”. In contrast to 2014, where taxation was reduced, particularly for businesses18, and where there was a visible boom in the economy.

One could go on, but I feel the above facts are sufficient to justify my hypothesis: We as a nation chose a worse political arrangement, whose inadequacies were staring in our faces at election time, in favor of a better arrangement that was governed by a more talented team. This former team had many faults, like being obsessed with the public image of their “leader” to the point where it was nauseating to see the good gentlemen’s sky-high cutouts plastered all over town. We saw a couple of makeweights in their cabinet that were reputed for being lowlifes. Worst of all, we saw state controlled media channels drum the victory against terrorism beyond decorum, to the point where old wounds would not have a chance to heal.

There were other more serious allegations against the former government, ranging from kidnapping in white vans to massive corruption and wastage of public expenditure, none of which are substantiated in a court of law to date, even under the keen guidance of an administration determined to “nail” its predecessor. To the contrary, some “scandals”, like Avant Garde, are declared to be non-issues.

These weaknesses were small in comparison to the strengths displayed by that deposed administration: competency in economic development, the right intuitions on national security and an honest desire for public welfare. These areas (or at least activity outside of the private sector’s engine of growth) are more or less stagnant today.

Why did we do this – vote in a less talented and “delivery-incapable” administration? I doubt its because our nation is purposefully subversive. The roots of this costly mistake run deeper than mere political naïve ness. I fear our country’s recent “poor choice” stems from an inherent flaw in our culture; we are not a nation of independent, critical thinking people who question ideas for evidence.

Astrology, homeopathy and mystical healing, state acknowledgement of “multiple systems of medicine”, an examination system that hinges on cramming, devil-riddled Poya-day sermons, cash-cow arranged marriages, hallucinations of Sri Lanka being a “paradise in 1975 under Sirimavo Bandaranaike” (a popular reflection amongst cabbies, when in truth the country was literally starving during that period), conviction that eating handsomely in old age is “bad for you”, aspirations for racially homogenous “homelands” and a myriad other cockeyed ideologies being almost ubiquitous is surely an alarming sign of wooly thinking and intellectual gullibility.

In a land beguiled by such profoundly bad ideas, one must be cautious when believing what one’s neighbor proclaims. Especially when the message comes in the shape and form of a stereotypical rumor, such as “Hey, my best friend works in the Presidents House, and he told me that he saw the President visit a brothel, with his own eyes… he runs it, and one of his promising junior lady-ministers is his main consort. He can deliver, but has no moral sense, yada yada yada” (this was a popular meme floating around late last year, and was one of many such memes).

Every one of us has a social obligation to square such rumors with evidence available to the general public; evidence that would (at least conceptually) survive critical scrutiny (such as a video of the person in the act, in the case of the previous example). The Avant Garde scandal exemplifies the problem we must overcome – a fascinating story that grabs our attention, but with no real value in it. It is like the Indian Rope Trick of yore (men climbing a rope dangling in thin air, cutting it off from the top and falling down). Everyone talks about it and word spreads. Unfortunately, there is no such trick. Other than being a mind-teaser, it’s a waste of time thinking about it.

We all know that even highly skeptical Western European societies do have a large appetite for rumor, but not to the extent that they are duped into voting for such an obviously weaker administration, and cheated of a better future. We owe it to our children’s future to not believe or parrot hearsay without our personal evaluation and endorsement.

We must also lean to become better judges of character. We should have been able to differentiate between public-spirited, talented persons who perhaps have ordinary human failings, and resentful, vengeful back-stabbers that have little to show for themselves beside their hate.

I leave with two cautionary quotes from two of the greatest philosopher-politicians of all time.

To the fans of the present government:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” – Bertrand Russell

To the leaders of the former government:

In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born.” – Roberto Unger

References:

  1. Ousted from the role of Party Leader in 1994 by Gamini Dissanayake, oversaw a government collapse in 2004, oversaw a Norway-brokered peace process that failed and cost many thousand innocent lives, and muddled through a record 29 election defeats.
  2. http://www.ft.lk/2014/08/18/south-asias-fastest-growing-economy-a-look-at-modern-sri-lanka-with-ambassador-kariyawasam/
  3. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=134936

http://atimes.com/2015/11/sri-lankas-coalition-govt-in-deep-water-over-arms-ship-scandal/

  1. https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong/
  2. http://www.adaderana.lk/news/29637/mohan-peiris-says-his-removal-as-cj-was-unlawful
  3. http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/42642
  4. http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/42957
  5. http://www.adaderana.lk/news/32994/tilak-marapana-tenders-resignation-to-president

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPYsuozkCos

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41AjNbsRd_k

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jYTfx7GRFk

  1. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/sri-lanka/gdp-growth
  2. http://www.nation.lk/edition/business-tbl/item/40410-construction-jobs-at-stake.html

https://twitter.com/anuradhakherath/status/648880535289229313

http://www.dailymirror.lk/61525/ressway-suspended

http://www.ft.lk/article/440675/Suspension-of-Chinese-projects–Loss-is-for-Sri-Lanka

  1. http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/07/05/main_Editorial.asp
  2. https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/to-hang-or-not-to-hang-that-is-the-question/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsPrlFYii-U
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUDYNZtl5Zs
  5. http://asiantribune.com/node/87074
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDSz4eE_VFY
  7. http://www.dailymirror.lk/89245/nut-oil-to-limit-intake

http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=2015/11/06/political/sixty-percent-not-paying-taxes-ravi

http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lanka-calls-for-expat-funds-in-swiss-accounts-ravi-k/

  1. http://www.taxsrilanka.com/infocentre/index.php/year-budget/62-budget-2015/289-value-added-tax

To Hang or Not To Hang, that is the question

Hangman's noose against black background

I do not believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out in any way acted as a deterrent against murder” – Albert Pierrepoint, Hangman, UK (1931-1956)

There are three popular arguments in favor of Capital Punishment:

  1. It allows society to “punish” a wrongdoer, thereby balancing “the celestial scales of justice”
  2. It serves as a deterrent for persons who may be contemplating violent crimes
  3. It serves as a “redress” for the victims of a violent crime

In Sri Lanka, Capital Punishment has thankfully been shelved for nearly half a century. Yet we occasionally hear a public outcry for its re-introduction, in the aftermath of a horrendous crime. Citizens feel outraged by a particularly vile act, and want “something done about it”, to prevent it happening again. Capital Punishment suddenly seems an attractive solution to politicians, who feel answerable to the demands of the general public. Recently, no less a person than The President threw his weight behind Capital Punishment, saying he was working towards its reinstatement in 2016.

It is noteworthy that a mere century and a half ago, judicial experts and the intellectual community at large would have sided with such an intuition for leveraging Capital Punishment.

Even that great rationalist luminary of the 19th Century, JS Mill, famously argued in parliament in favor of capital punishment, albeit for the most extreme of cases1: “…when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it, then I confess it appears to me that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy, solemnly to blot him out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of the living is most appropriate.

However, times have changed since the days of Mill. We saw two whole new branches of science emerge, which may have something definitive to say about the efficacy of Capital Punishment; namely psychology and sociology.

We know today that motive #2 (Capital Punishment is a deterrent) is empirically false2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and we know that motives #1 (“punishment”) & #3 (“redress”) are a mere “window dressing” of an retributive instinct that was perhaps useful in stone-age tribal societies. Contrary to this primitive instinct, many a moral philosopher, both ancient7 and modern8, has rejected capital punishment (or worse, retribution as a solace for victims), as an uncivilized way of conducting human affairs.

Albert Camus, that outstanding French libertarian and writer, highlighted the concern:

But what is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal act, no matter how calculated, can be compared? If there were to be a real equivalence, the death penalty would have to be pronounced upon a criminal who had forewarned his victim of the very moment he would put him to a horrible death, and who, from that time on, had kept him confined at his own discretion for a period of months. It is not in private life that one meets such monsters”.

The utopian human being with perfect mannerisms and an unfailing character is an imaginary socio-psychological construct, a conceptual role model for children. The uneasy truth is that human intent is fickle, governed by a nervous system whose structure and function is fraught with aberrations, which cannot be eliminated through nurture alone. A sociopathic personality, for example, could be the direct consequence of a poor endowment of mirror neurons, or other generic mutations that attenuate empathy from birth9, 10, 11. The details are somewhat complex and beyond the scope of this essay, but for those with such subtle birth “defects”, no matter how peaceable their childhood influences may have been, they may be saddled with a fundamental inability to empathize with other living creatures. They may not even be able to empathize with themselves, in a self-reflective manner. Not being able to feel for someone (or even for one’s own self) makes it easy for one to cause injury or distress to others.

An Iowa Supreme Court Justice made this observation as far back as 1840:

Crime indicates a diseased mind in the same manner that sickness and pain do a diseased body. And as in the one case we provide hospitals for the treatment of severe and contagious diseases, so in the other, prisons and asylums should be provided for similar reasons.

If society ends up killing every such person who yields to his natural instinct (to strike, rape or plunder), rather than finding ways to curb or neutralize their behavior, we then get into a fascinatingly diabolical downward spiral. The more we kill those who lack empathy, in order to better the lives of those who have it, the more we lower the empathy of the empathetic. We know that a taste for judicial killing brutalizes society12, as was the case in Victorian England, where public hanging made life cheap, and people even more violent. We find such a brutal society today in Saudi Arabia, where domestic workers are abused13, and where murder and sex crimes are rampant. The executioner hacks away to no avail.

That is precisely why the more enlightened nations (including Sri Lanka) aspire to practice Restorative/Preventative Justice14.

We should also not make any mistake on the legitimacy of the actual act; Capital Punishment is a premeditated violent crime committed by the state, according to modern jurisprudence. It is not an act of self-defense (as Camus and others have clearly pointed out). Perpetrators are often executed years after their bad acts were committed, by which time their attitudes have changed dramatically for the better. There are ample such cases widely publicized in the media15.

There probably are a dozen other reasons16 for permanently abolishing capital punishment and resorting to a lengthy prison sentence, ranging from the danger of punishing the innocent to the cost of the entire procedure outweighing the cost of a life sentence. To quote Jeffrey A. Fagan, Professor of Law at Colombia Law School:

As states across the country adopt reforms to reduce the pandemic of errors in capital punishment, we wonder whether such necessary and admirable efforts to avoid error and the horror of the execution of the innocent won’t—after many hundreds of millions of dollars of trying—burden the country with a death penalty that will be ineffective, unreasonably expensive, and politically corrosive to the broader search for justice.

There is one very special reason why Sri Lanka should think twice about this measure. Sri Lanka is the Asian poster child for a country operating a genuinely restorative system of justice, supposedly drawing inspiration from the compassionate philosophy of Gautama Buddha17. It is a true sign of our sociocultural progress, in comparison with our neighbors. It is disappointing to see our President succumb to the knee-jerk reaction of the mob (or worse, “believe in” CP), rather than stand upright and explain to people the hard truth that we cannot win the war against crimes of passion and deviance through attrition.

Our President, in his speech, attempted to drop originality of thinking and hide behind the fact that the USA and China leverage capital punishment. Let us quote that preeminent American moral philosopher Sam Harris on this matter:

Especially in the United States, is a barbaric system of imprisonment—to say nothing of capital punishment—that should make all citizens ashamed”.

Did our President take the sensible step of consulting a bona fide Sri Lankan criminologist or sociologist on the matter, or at least have his staff perform a literature survey and advise him, prior to making his announcement? Dr. L.B. L. De Alwis, ex-Chief JMO, had published an excellent analysis of the Lankan situation18 in The Sri Lanka Journal of Forensic Medicine, Dec-2011, where he strikes at the core of the problem, along with a superb background analysis. Let us quote.

In my opinion it is not the Non-implementation of the death penalty that has contributed to the rise of grave crime, especially murder, in Sri Lanka, but the release of murderers, rapists, drug barons, extortionists, highway robbers etc. sentenced to death or to long term rigorous imprisonment by the Judiciary, but later released by the executive in the shortest possible time for petty political advantage”.

Yasantha Kodagoda and other Lankan legal luminaries have held similar views19 over the years.

To conclude, it’s simply awful when a terrible crime happens, like when a child is raped and killed (the crime that fuelled the President’s declaration). Our hearts go out to the victim’s kin.

The state owes four things to society in such cases:

  1. A swift and accurate dispensing of justice, where the perpetrators are correctly identified, tried fairly and sentenced
  2. The next of kin of the victims are provided with appropriate counseling and support, to the utmost possible degree
  3. The lessons learned from the incident (if any) are shared for the broader education of the general public
  4. Firmly discourage lawlessness and mob-justice, which would interfere with the official criminal investigation

The third point is important and not to be underestimated in its value. Education, awareness and vigilance are the real weapons against such “personal” crimes. Subtle profiling of violent or deviant persons, cautioning parents and children about how to stay safe in ungated, low-income neighborhoods where dangers lurk (as appears to have been the case in the particular crime that fuelled the President’s decleration20), enforcing better policing etc. are all steps to be facilitated by the state.

What the state does not owe society is a reactionary, “quick fix”, which would prejudice or pervert the broader course of justice in our country, and create an unhealthy punitive culture amongst our children. We leave the reader with this quote.

I have never heard a murderer say they thought about the death penalty as consequence of their actions prior to committing their crimes.

-Gregory Ruff, police lieutenant in Kansas

  1. Mill on Capital Punishment

http://ethics.sandiego.edu/books/Mill/Punishment/

 

  1. Capital Punishment: Deterrent Effects & Capital Costs

https://www.law.columbia.edu/law_school/communications/reports/summer06/capitalpunish

 

  1. 88% of criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent

http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/study-88-criminologists-do-not-believe-death-penalty-effective-deterrent

 

  1. The Death Penalty and Deterrence

http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts/the-death-penalty-and-deterrence

 

  1. The death penalty is ineffective and indefensible

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/09/29/the-death-penalty-is-ineffective-and-indefensible

 

  1. Failure to Deter Crime

http://nccadp.org/issues/deterrence/

 

  1. Buddhism on Capital Punishment

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/buddhistethics/capitalpunishment.shtml

 

  1. Sam Harris on capital punishment

“The result, especially in the United States, is a barbaric system of imprisonment—to say nothing of capital punishment—that should make all citizens ashamed”.

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will

 

  1. Psychopathic criminals have empathy switch

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23431793

 

  1. Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy

 

  1. How Empathy Can Be a Luxury

http://bengraves.hubpages.com/hub/Psychopaths-and-Mirror-Neurons-How-Empathy-can-be-Absent

 

  1. Brutalizing society

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/against_1.shtml

 

  1. GCC declares war on domestic violence

http://www.arabnews.com/featured/news/657236

 

  1. Restorative Justice

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restorative_justice

 

  1. The case of Karla Faye Tucker

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karla_Faye_Tucker

 

  1. 13 Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty

http://www.oadp.org/facts/13-reasons

 

  1. Buddhism and capital punishment

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/buddhistethics/capitalpunishment.shtml

 

  1. DEATH PENALTY versus LIFE IMPRISONMENT

http://www.pdn.ac.lk/med/departments/forensic/Vol2No2.pdf

 

  1. Death penalty not the answer, expediting dispensation of justice is

http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=69674

 

  1. Seya’s murder suspect arrives at Negombo hospital

http://www.hirunews.lk/117215/kotadeniyawa-murderer-confesses

 

On Being Right about Right and Wrong

HambanthotaPort_RRThe dominance of memes and hearsay over facts and evidence in contemporary Sri Lankan journalism

The Editorial Column in last Sunday’s Observer (presumably written by Lakshman Gunasekara who is listed online as its Editor1) is a piece that professes to analyze our ambient sociopolitical situation and serve as a guide the voter2 in the upcoming General Election.

The Editor begins with this salvo. “On January 8, 2015, Sri Lanka also became known for near-heroic social and political struggles that toppled a bumbling dictator-plunderer who allowed sorcerers and astrologers to define his, and by default, his country’s destiny.”

He goes on to say, “After the narrow shave for the UPFA in retaining the Uva administration, analysts were already doing their psephological analysis and coming to the conclusion that with the disillusionment of the Sinhala rural poor demonstrated in the Uva, any political force that relied solely on that vote bank now ran the risk of losing out. Notwithstanding that political reality, the Rajapaksa regime thought fit – on the advice of their astrologers, not psephologists – to hold presidential polls two years in advance and lost it and, convincingly, at that.

Let us dwell on the essence of these two statements.

  1. MR is a dictator who plundered our nation and,
  2. MR held the presidential election early because his astrologer said so.

Can this Editor back these two claims with some evidence?

After all, these are profound statements to be made by the Editor of one of the nation’s widest selling Sunday newspapers3, which has a powerful influence over the general public.

If these two statements are true, then our Penal Code compels us to act upon them. If they are false, then I’m sure the Elections Commissioner would be compelled to act upon them, in order to uphold the law governing free and fair elections. Remember, election candidates have rights too; they cannot be subject to irresponsible, malicious defamation by news media. There is no attempt by this Editor to frame these aspersions into proper perspective, like for example “it was rumored in some quarters that MR held the election because his astrologer said so”. And there is certainly no evidence put forward by him to support these two statements in his piece.

Perhaps we aught to take example from his singular style of critical thinking, which throws empirical evidence, fair-mindedness and intellectual honesty out the window: and begin paying homage to gossip, rumor and a free casting of aspersions. Perhaps we should already “know” that this Editor is a mere hack of a political party opposing MR’s candidature, and that he is beating the drum of corruption and despotism to pleasure his unscrupulous paymaster.

However let us not stoop to his lowly depths, and simply call a spade a spade. This Editor has no qualms in deviating from the best practices in intellectual judgment and honesty dictated by civilization since the days of the renaissance, such as sighting evidence and dealing with factual statements. It appears that when evidence (such as that accepted in a court of law) is lacking to buttress the propaganda that this Editor’s political allegiances demand, he seems to be fishing out of his own backside political gossip that has been digested by his system. In doing so, he makes a feeble attempt at defending himself by hiding behind phrases such as “Sri Lanka became known as…”

If one were to use internet-age slang as a reaction, one would say WTF??? Doesn’t this person want to talk about facts that can be useful to the voter, or at least share a constructive bit of advise to the political parties involved in the election, in the hope of better shaping our nations future? Is his brain so devoid of ideas or facts that the only weapon he has to support his political view is slander?

Furthermore, does he really think that the wise thing to do at this point in time is to remind the voter that some wisecracker in 1983 called Sri Lanka a “tear drop”? What is the intellectual underpinning behind this type of argument? We can’t find a single nation in the world that hasn’t had its historical share of grief, and all nations have had a “bad name”. Perhaps at the next US presidential election we should remind the American voters of Mark Twain quip “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” Perhaps true in some humorous way, but what purpose does it serve?

We expect more from the Editor of Sri Lanka’s preeminent newspaper. We’d like him to pay some attention to detail, discuss facts and form opinions based on evidence. We’d like him to refrain from the sort of idle talk that one would imagine being indulged by an uneducated, drunken village thug (“Mahatheyo mung horu okkoma” | “Sir, these chaps are all crooks”). Why would we need erudite newspaper editors if that were the standard of their political analysis? One could go to the local pub, and rant about how all journalists are paid hacks of politicians, and save LKR 50/-

Personally, I make no bones about the fact that I was a supporter of MR’s broader national policies. I deeply value the contribution made by MR towards Sri Lanka’s socioeconomic development, and his decisive eradication of terrorism. Sure, there were rumors of corruption during his tenure, which remain completely unsubstantiated to date. There were nepotistic tendencies displayed, which were self-evident4. However, as voters in the upcoming election, what we aught to care about is:

  1. Who is the best person to elect locally, out of the given lot? This is a general election; we cannot vote based on the party leader’s record alone. Besides, we granted more autonomy and administrative capacities to parliament, precisely because we wanted to elect better persons locally.
  2. Which party has the better national policy?
  3. Which party has the stronger leadership team, with a better track record of success in difficult times?

It’s fascinating that this Editor takes offense that MR is leading a general election campaign after one single election defeat. One would have thought that RW, with a handsome record of 29 election defeats5 under his belt, would induce more squeamishness. The fact is though, we should not care either way; what matters is who can do a better job right now.

The MR administration defeated terrorism, built roads and highways, uplifted the image, cleanliness and public works in Colombo, facilitated commercial enterprise directly (through building renovation, telecommunication infrastructure, lower taxation for small businesses), supported farmers through subsidies and increased our agricultural production manifold, built ports and airports (yes, for those who think that the Hambantota harbor is idle, take a look at the cover photo of vehicles on the dock for transshipment), built public works, schools and hospitals in the war affected North and East, and boosted Sri Lanka’s global position to one of the fastest growing economies in the world6. Their achievements are well-documented7. Sure they did some quirky or even disturbing things, like muscling out the Chief Justice (with the backing of the parliamentary majority, note) because her policies were at odds with theirs. Most notably, we hardly ever heard them speak of the previous government during their tenure.

In comparison, the MS administration came in and changed the constitution, reducing the powers of the Executive President, as a “solution” to excesses of government. They cut prices of fuel and some essential commodities. They passed a “freedom of information” bill. They gained bipartisan support for these constitutional amendments. On the flipside, there was a parliamentary COPE committee formally investigating an unprecedented fraud in the Central Bank, allegedly orchestrated by its newly appointed Governor!8, 9 Parliament was dissolved just prior to the release of that important report. They arrested members of opposing political parties for alleged fraudulent practices, but we have no report as yet of their culpability before the eyes of the law. Oh yes, and they spend 100% of their airtime blaming the previous government.

In answer to a question posed to Eran Wickramaratne on the TV program “Wada Pitiya”10, a senior UNP MP and economist, the MP acknowledged that there was not one single development project or investment initiated by the UNP during their recent 7-month coalition government.

We understand that people vote at elections based on widely varying personal experiences and preferences. However, we urge everyone to be cautious of media skullduggery like that promulgated by the Editor of the Observer.

References:

  1. http://srilankabrief.org/2015/02/a-brave-new-state-media-lakshman-gunasekara/
  2. http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/07/05/main_Editorial.asp
  3. 175,000 per week plus many online readers: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2001/pix/AdvLoc.asp
  4. Nepotism in former UPFA government. The MR Administration had two of MR’s brothers as cabinet ministers, and a third as his secretary of defense (a non-ministerial public office with extensive power over the defense establishment of the island). This third brother was also put in charge of urban development8. MR openly backed his son’s nomination from the UPFA ticket, as a member of parliament. This MP son of his was also powerfully empowered to campaign on behalf of his the government. 70% of the national 2014 budget was allocated for portfolios or departments managed by the Rajapakse Brothers, in a cabinet of over 100 ministers. MR was instrumental in bringing forward legislation to change the constitution, allowing for his nomination as a presidential candidate for an unprecedented third term. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nepotism
  5. http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2015/02/25/ranil-wickramasinghe-is-the-prime-minister-of-president-maitripala-sirisena-but-not-of-the-people-of-sri-lanka/
  6. http://www.ft.lk/2014/08/18/south-asias-fastest-growing-economy-a-look-at-modern-sri-lanka-with-ambassador-kariyawasam/
  7. http://www.mahinda2015.com/achievements.html
  8. https://rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/prof-wijesinha-wants-next-parliament-to-take-up-cope-report-on-bond-scam/
  9. http://www.dailymirror.lk/78287/governor-intervened-in-scam-jvp
  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oInTZZELJFk

* Title borrowed from Sam Harris’s blog, apologies to Sam.

Is Noam Chomsky a prophet or a simpleton?

Give peace a chance: 'It's been done.'

Give peace a chance: ‘It’s been done.’

I am sorry but I simply cannot resist this rhetorical question. The esteemed Noam Chomsky, who inspired the world with his theory of generative grammar and his outspoken criticism of America’s meddlesome and counterproductive foreign policy, has (it seems) recently acquired the capacity to read minds. In a (admittedly rather reluctant) discourse with Sam Harris, Chomsky postulates that Bill Clinton, “assuming that he was minimally sane”, would certainly have known that he would kill a great many innocent civilians when bombing a target in Sudan, that turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory. And that Clinton simply didn’t care.

Without repeating too much detail of what exactly Chomsky believes (one can read the discourse for oneself here), I’d like to critique his overall technique of meting justice in cases of civilian deaths during military interventions. The technique used by Chomsky to gauge the commanding officer’s accountability seems to be hindsight. Whatever said and done, if one party in the conflict ends up causing civilian deaths, and there is plausible evidence in hindsight, that these deaths could have been prevented if we had access to the right information, then, the commander who issued the orders would have to be held accountable for these civilian deaths, and be branded a war criminal.

It matters not, according to Chomsky, whether the facts before the commanding officer at the time of making the decision (to carry out an offensive) were in favor of making such an offensive, within the framework of a calculated risk. We needn’t bother ourselves with gathering any evidence to ascertain the attitude of the commanding officer at the time she made the decision, such as whether she was rational and compassionate (“take every precaution to ensure we target combatants only”), and whether the commanding officer’s intentions were noble (“are we really sure this is a chemical weapons plant?”) No. Instead, we judge him or her on the outcome, and on better knowledge available in hindsight.

I personally find this type of justice hypocritical, parallel to the very thing Chomsky started out to warn the world against: prejudiced western leaders purposefully misjudging the intentions of other nations and peoples, and taking military action against them. Seems to me, Chomsky is purposefully misjudging his own country’s former president, and nailing him in his private mind for genocide, like a vengeful urban guerilla fighting for a “new world order”.

Or perhaps Chomsky has the capacity to spy into the oval office and read minds?

My own country Sri Lanka has been at the receiving end of ludicrous “Western Foreign Policy” from time to time. For example, our former president Mahinda Rajapakse was the most successful president we had since independence, measured from an empirical standpoint. Yet he was more or less branded a “pariah” by the west because he took conclusive action to defeat what was arguably the most dangerous terrorist movement in the world, in the process of which there were civilian deaths (of far lesser proportions than what took place in US-instigated “humanitarian wars” like Iraq or Vietnam or Afghanistan).

However, I personally don’t wish to see America become a nation of flippant, judgmental pacifists. Instead, I feel we should engage in fair-minded analysis of armed conflict (a sad reality of humanity, dwindling we are assured by Steve Pinker), and understand that there is indeed a place in a world full of hawks, for violent mediation by good Samaritans. Samaritans who may accidentally cause some harm in the course of trying to help others.

I sincerely hope Chomsky goes back to his drawing board, and refines his views on morality in human conflict. We don’t want to fight wars, but there might be situations where “war” is a good option, in spite of the awful “cost”. Therefore, I’d suggest we judge the individuals involved in such cases in a well rounded fashion, not merely on outcomes alone. We must judge them on the outcome, the intent, and on their personal moral standing as is evident to others. To me, if I were to believe Chomsky’s “evidence”, Bill Clinton was a fool at worst, but not a villain. He cared. And words matter, as the greatest linguist in the world would surely know…

Lets dump communal viewpoints from Sri Lanka’s political landscape

Six years have gone by, since the close of the civil war. Six years of peace, with not a single shot fired* or a life lost to the ideology or the ground realities that fuelled the conflict1. As an ordinary Lankan who lived the first 34 of his 40 years shrouded in this rambling civil disturbance, I cannot overexpress my gratitude to the collective human endeavor that brought about its end, and ushered in an era of lasting peace.

And yet we continue to hear calls for “reconciliation” between the two communities (Sinhalese and Tamil)2. These two communities are represented by politicians as being the two participant “sides” in the old war, and hence thought of as former enemies in an “ethnic conflict”, whose underlying cause (devolving of “power” to the “Tamils”) remain unresolved3.

I’ve been thinking about this call for reconciliation, and what shape and form it should take. And though it may be unpleasant, I find myself dipping into the sordid history of this conflict, as it offers a storehouse of lessons for the future.

The “war” – or rather the succession of battles, acts of terrorism, and chronic social unrest – was an ugly, protracted affair that darkened our attitudes and hampered our country’s economic progress for nearly 35 years. When I say “ugly”, I don’t mean ugly in just the sense of the trail of blood it left behind. This in itself was bad enough; but, as with most armed conflicts, what was intolerably ugly was the ideology that fuelled it.

This ideology, popularly known as “Tamil Separatism”4, was a gross insult to the educated Lankan’s ethos, which is shaped by the nonviolent and unifying teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism. Furthermore, this notion of carving out self-governing territories based on ethnicity was also an insult to advancing secular human knowledge and its resultant codes of morality, which we are grateful to have acquired through centuries of contact with western intellectual discourse.

The British colonial government that ruled our nation for nearly 150 years left us saddled with a legacy of inquietude amongst the communities. The “Sinhala politicians” of the post-independence era grappled with two realities:

  1. The socioeconomic gap that prevailed between the Sinhala speaking rural masses of our country, who formed 70% of our population, and the English speaking “elite”5, and
  2. The relative dominance of high office by English speaking peoples belonging to the minority Tamil community, as a consequence of the British colonial strategy of subjugating the majority community and promoting minorities up the ranks6, 7.

Unfortunately, successive democratically elected post-colonial Lankan governments faced these two realities with grave shortsightedness. The declaration of Sinhala as the “official” language in 1956, done with good intentions8 to resolve these two “problems”, resulted in disastrous consequences.

Two such consequences became obvious in hindsight:

  1. The marginalization of the use of the English Language, which could have served as a better medium of learning and globalization9, and
  2. Although Tamil was introduced as an official language in 1958, the Tamils continued to face difficulties in securing government jobs and dealing with government departments, due to their inability to speak or write in Sinhala.

The government of SWRD Bandaranayke envisioned this move as a desperately needed change to uplift the socioeconomic condition of the vast majority of the Sinhalese population, and to restore the past glory of an independent nation. We must realize that there was a powerful movement during the pre-independence era comprising of leading Sinhalese and Tamils who wanted to make Sinhalese the official language25. SWRD would surely have been influenced by these ideals. The Tamils, because they were a minority that was doing very well at the time, were perhaps expected to “bear up” and learn Sinhala.

These grievances were woven together with a brewing resentment amongst the Tamil community about their loss of predominance10, as more and more members of the majority Sinhala community reached high office. The fairness of this trend was that there was no longer any purposeful discrimination against the majority community by the government. The unfairness was that due to the absence of the moderating influence of English, many Tamils found it hard to gain entry or rise in government service, and the representation of their ethnicity fell below demographic levels.

This situation catalyzed the dominance of racial politics11 amongst the Tamil community. One could haggle about the details, but the fact remains that something frightful began to take shape. One would have expected a strong, nonviolent political movement to immerge and right these wrongs. One could have anticipated civil disobedience to be a part of this essential corrective process. After all, civil disobedience was a key weapon in the “Second Emancipation Movement” of the African Americans12, which belonged to the same era. Instead, a far more sinister ideological movement arose. Its goal was not to overturn the shortsighted policies of the government(s) at the time, but instead to create a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. Called Tamil Elam, it was envisioned to fulfill an ancient aspiration of Tamils across the world4.

The strategy adopted was to alienate Tamils from Sinhalese by means of well-organized terror campaigns and bloodshed, designed to instigate mutual hatred and backlash13. Alfred Duraiappah, the popular “Moderate Tamil” mayor of Jaffna, was the first victim of this sinister ideology. The young Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers, shot Duraiappah dead in cold blood as a warning to all Tamils: the time had come to separate the races. Traitors to the cause (Tamil Elam) were to be made an example of.

After a period of minor skirmishes, the Tamil Tigers were desperate for creating a showpiece backlash. They plotted and killed 13 solders returning home for the holidays, thus successfully orchestrating the infamous anti-Tamil riots of 1983. This riot was Prabhakaran’s crowning achievement14, his ticket to lasting international sympathy and the string connecting him to the hearts and minds of the ordinary Tamils. The Tamil Tigers and their allied militant forces became “our boys in the North” to the Tamils of the South. Like feeding a viper in one’s neighbor’s woodshed, successive Congress Party governments of India, for selfish internal political reasons of their own, openly aided the Tamil militants16, 17.

The rest of the Tamil Tiger exploits are part of documented history, and can be summarized as a blaze of carnage aimed squarely at alienating the Tamils from The Sinhalese13.

It is curious to note that from the early days of mass brutalization of villages, through countless bombings and assassinations, to the closing of the Mavil Aru anicut leading to the final Elam War, the Tamil Tigers made no hesitation in drawing first blood, feeding on the “guilty” conscience of the Sinhalese: “you made the initial mistake with Language Policy, and you committed mass murder during the 83 riots. You owe us.” Thus, they freely raped and pillaged the country for over a quarter century, until the MR Administration put a final stop to their havoc in May 2009.

Coming back to the present, we should not afraid to call a spade a spade. There can be no so-called “Homelands” for “Tamils”, or “A Federal Solution”, both euphemisms for a region in Lanka ethnically cleansed of other communities, and cut out for the preferential residence of the “Tamil race” (a shaky concept in itself because the Sinhalese and the Tamils seem to be genetically intermixed15). This solution seems conceptually abhorrent as a viable method of addressing any practical grievance that a person or community of persons may face. To quote our former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (an intellectual luminary from the Tamil community, sadly assassinated by the Tamil Tigers as part of their campaign of alienation), “we (Lankans) are not tribalists”.

Living in Sri Lanka in the 21st Century, we all share existential challenges, none of which are peculiar to one community or race. Contemporary leaders from the Tamil community must speak up and take partial responsibility for the post-war healing process, even if they had nothing to do with the actual atrocities of the LTTE. “Tamil politicians” must not act like spoilt babies demanding rations from their parents (usually personified as the “Sinhala” government). They must follow the example of countless “Sinhala politicians” like CBK, RW or MS, and “own up” as the community within which the Tigers flurished18.

We must hear sentiments such as “We (Tamils) were wronged, but we in turn were very wrong ourselves. Our misguided political leaders led us astray, advocating alienation and ethnic purification as an answer to the changes and challenges that took place as a consequence of the poorly thought-out dismantling of colonial government. If the decision to make Sinhalese the “official” language was a blunder in public administration, then the decision by militant Tamil leaders to use this mistake as an excuse to take up separatist ideology and attempt an obliteration of the two other races from one third of Sri Lanka was foolhardy. Tamil, Sinhalese and English are official languages today. Governments (past and present) are firmly committed to accelerate economic development in the regions of past conflict. We now see the way forward for all “Tamils”, without the need for continuing to tout “discrimination”, like a beggar’s sore. Sinhalese and Muslim Brothers and sisters, we too are sorry. Sorry for all the death and destruction that took place as a result of the damaging aspirations of our political and militant leaders. This problem could have been solved in a better way, and now that the war is over, any remaining redress for all victims of the war must be done collaboratively and objectively, without any separatist ideology19 clouding our vision.”

If we are to consider the healing of hearts and minds, then we must accept that the mind of the mother grieving for the loss of her child, blown to bits by an artillery shell fired by government forces during the final stages of the battle to defeat the Tamil Tigers, is no less distraught than the mind of the grieving father who’s daughter was disemboweled by the Tigers, simply because she was “Muslim” and residing in a hallucinatory “Tamil homeland”. If successive recent governments led by so-called Sinhala politicians (e.g. CBK, RW, MR and MS) have taken many practical steps to reconcile differences, then so must the Tamil politicians. We find just one outstanding exception of a true reconciler on the “Tamil side” of the affair, the ex-Tamil Tiger militant Karuna. To quote his words, “what have you [the “Tamil Politicians”] done for the Tamils, in comparison to the [MR] Government?20” There aught to be more plain-speaking “Tamil politicians” like this.

People of all walks of life were badly hurt by this conflict. But, we have now moved away from the three biggest shadows of the past.

  1. We don’t have terrorism
  2. We have moved away from the early postcolonial shortsightedness, when dealing with the administration of different ethnic communities (e.g. all three languages are official languages, and English is returning as a powerful medium for globalization), and
  3. Elected governments are now highly sensitive to the folly of touting parochial, iron-age ideology (e.g. Sri Lanka is a “Sinhala-Buddhist Country” etc.)

Recent governments like those of CBK, MR, MS and RW were responsible for bringing about #2 and #3.

The MR government alone was instrumental in bringing about #1. There was targeted military action against the worst elements of society, who held a third of the country at ransom and kept the entire world in terror of them. The MR government did everything in its power to negotiate, and when negotiations failed, to minimize the loss of civilian life. The LTTE : Civilian Death Ratio during Elam War IV was 17,605:11,16721. Assuming “charitably” that the accountability for all civilian deaths belongs to the SL Government – rather a joke because A) the LTTE dragged around their shifting headquarters an entire population of approximately 300,000 civilians as human shields in 2009 and B) the LTTE were responsible for the bulk of the civilian deaths during 2006 – 2008 – this ratio is still “better” than the figures from wars such as Iraq23 or Vietnam22.

I for one don’t feel guilty of the way this curse of terrorism was lifted from our country. I instead feel sorry for all the combatants and civilians who were affected. They were all sons and daughters of Lanka, whom history had pitted against each other. We don’t have to glorify dead terrorists, but at a larger metaphysical level, we must understand that whilst they (the LTTE and its sympathizers) stood on the wrong side of humanity, they were simply fallible humans like us, led astray by harmful ideology.

So the lesson I see from history is that we are desperately in need of a raising of our collective Lankan consciousness, akin to what the feminists did in the western world in the decades gone by. It need not be “illegal” to form a political movement with a race or community in its name; but we must develop a social aversion to it; where people wince when they hear a political party named as a “Tamil National Alliance” or a “Sinhala Urumaya [Inheritance]” or a “Muslim Congress”. Allegiance to race or religion is parochial and has little to do with the broader administrative problems facing a country like ours. Political forces must transcend such cultural or anthropological distinctions in favor of more fundamental concerns of administration and good governance.

How do we develop our economy? How do we educate our children? How do we protect our environment and ensure its long-term habitability? How do we ensure the long-term security of our nation in a turbulent era? How do we improve our standards of good conduct and fair play? Is our police force effectively enforcing the law? Are our streets safe to drive? Our political parties should represent alternative strategies for confronting problems such as these, and not hanker after homelands for races (sadly some still do, such as the TNA). Politicians should feel ashamed to start “working for the Sinhalese/Tamils/Muslims”. They should be working for administrative subdivisions and individual concerns.

I’m not suggesting that we should shun our sociocultural inheritances. On the contrary, we should treasure and celebrate them publicly, but in a benign, non-political fashion. Some Tamils do celebrate Vesak, and almost every Sinhalese goes to a Kovil at some point in their life. Our inheritance of monumental architecture, art, music and craft is marvelous, and a cause for national pride. But we must know where to draw the line. We overstep the line when we begin to incorporate communal structures into government. This has terrible consequences, as we have seen.

It is not difficult to take this essential step, when we accept that whilst our spiritual makeup might be closely tied to our ancient sociocultural inheritance, the “truths” that these inheritances profess are inadequate when navigating today’s world.

Without a shade of doubt, we know that there are greater truths to the workings of nature than those revealed by the Bhagavad Gita, or Gautama Buddha, or Jesus. There have been countless other enlightened folks24 who have over the centuries trod the earth and contributed to our social and spiritual uplifting. It is the collective insights and hard work of these (often nameless) people that, over the centuries, have allowed the emergence of modern systems of government, law, education, science, technology, medicine, culture and morality. We must acknowledge that ancient religious or cultural viewpoints are parochial and don’t address the needs of different people.

So, unlike religious or communal interests, politics must operate through ideologies that are extensible across different communities, addressing the needs of the individual, and perhaps the nation as a whole administrative unit. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, we should stop toadying to “communities” as part of a general abolition of all community privilege.

* Some militant LTTE carders were killed in clashes a few days after the official closure of the war.

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References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-conflict_history_of_Sri_Lanka
  2. http://www.gulf-times.com/sri%20lanka/251/details/437441/kerry-warns-sri-lanka-that-tamil-reconciliation-will-‘take-time
  3. http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=13952
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_Eelam
  5. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTSRILANKA/Resources/App1.pdf
  6. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lkawgw/colonial.html
  7. https://books.google.lk/books?id=hPEOYtC5_zwC&pg=PA227&lpg=PA227&dq=british+preference+for+tamils&source=bl&ots=M3EE5sgULt&sig=2n21WcwG6fNXB75BF2OsD5flBr8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_0hXVZP7JMr68QWsoIH4Ag&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=british%20preference%20for%20tamils&f=false
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NP13RWkd4vM
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/world/asia/09iht-englede.1.5198685.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinhala_Only_Act
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Tamil_nationalism
  12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1954–68)
  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_attacks_attributed_to_the_LTTE
  14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_July
  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Sinhalese
  16. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_Tigers_of_Tamil_Eelam
  17. http://www.terminalx.org/2013/07/indian-army-trained-financially-sponsored-ltte-militants.html
  18. http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/581988/Tamil-Tigers
  19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmbhjfCU8bY
  20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odHSunSt5hM
  21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties
  23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Iraq_War#Iraqi_civilian_casualties
  24. http://www.ranker.com/list/greatest-minds-of-all-time/walter-graves?page=3
  25. http://www.atimes.com/ind-pak/CK24Df05.html
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