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
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All of us Sri Lankans could sharpen our thinking, and rise together to the top as a successful and peaceful nation

“It is possible, for individuals, or even for whole cultures, to care about the wrong things…” – Sam Harris, Moral Philosopher

I stood up on my own two feet” – Sam Wijesinghe, former Secretary General of Parliament

As most of us know, Sri Lanka came out of a dark age quite recently. The darkness was perhaps literal for some, like for those who were under the massive clouds of bellowing smoke rising from the burning oil tanks in Kolonaawa, or for the countless folks who lost their eyesight1 due to the shockwaves and shards of flying glass at WTC, Central Bank, Hilton, Pettah Bus Stand, CTO and other infamous bombings. These victims are a mere speck of debris in a vast metaphorical cloud of violence that engulfed our island nation for nigh 30 years2, until the unilateral defeat of LTTE-led “Tamil” terrorism in May 2009.

It is not the purpose of this essay to analyze the cause of this unfortunate conflict, or weigh the ethical merit of the two opposing ideological camps that fueled it during its heyday. Suffice to briefly say that violence begets violence3, and the subculture that flaunted separatism as their aspiration and endorsed organized terrorism as the vehicle to achieve it, grossly failed in its critical reasoning. Tribal ideology (as the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an unfortunate victim of the conflict himself, put it) was never going to be a successful strategy for social advancement. Today’s rising global moral zeitgeist is based on secular reasoning and humanism. The only room for condoning the exercise of physical violence (organized or otherwise) would be for the purpose of defending souls against immediate bodily harm; a far cry from the well-documented LTTE stratagem of instigating violent backlash through murder and genocide, beginning with the shooting of the popular and efficient public servant Alfred Duraiappah in 19754. As the proverb goes, the separatists always drew first blood.

Of course that great leveler, history, eliminated the fiendish brainchild of this unfortunate “separatist” groupthink, at great cost to life, limb and property. We wouldn’t drag out from the closet this hoary old “Tamil Terrorist” chestnut, except to serve as a pointed reminder that Sri Lankans are known to have lost their way in the past, en masse.

Let us move on to the present (2013), and bring to light a newer, and in some ways equally dangerous ideological subculture that is fermenting at grass-root levels across the socioeconomic and ethnic spectrums of our beloved country. Let us consider the “Sri Lanka sucks” groupthink, a widely prevalent meme (a viral idea propagated in a human society) making the rounds today. Let us study it, and nip it in its infancy, before it manifests itself into a big, bad beast like Prabhakaran of yore.

The reasons touted for why Sri Lanka supposedly “sucks” are many5, 6, 7, 8, but have the same broad shape of: “The government led by the “Rajapakse family” is ruining the country through mismanagement and corruption, and we have no hope for a better future. Besides, even if this weren’t true, the country has been going downhill for the last 60+ years; the downhill trend has been accelerating of late, and it is best to run away from here if we can help it. We will likely die of hunger or be killed by politicians if we remain behind. At best, we will end up in a failed state, living on our wits and in poverty. There is no room left for material, spiritual or intellectual freedom in SL”. This is the caricature of the meme, at any rate.

Granted, that anyone living in a vibrant democracy is entitled to publicly voice an existential gripe. When the going gets tough, we humans tend to blame anything and anyone, except chance and ourselves. The instinct to frame what is largely environmental circumstance into that of a purposeful action by a conscious agent (e.g. our neighbor or God) is strongly inherent in us Homo sapiens9. For example, I am born in a 3rd world country, I loose my job, I don’t have a house of my own, my peers are unsympathetic and laugh at my predicament… and I blow up. I blame society at large, the government, my parents, the education system, and basically anyone in earshot. I want to run away to dreamland, where the grass is always green…

Wait a minute. We are not talking about this sort of passing anecdotal lament. The meme we are talking about is an organized public delusion. Let us consider the sum total thrust of the front pages of our leading private newspapers like the Sunday Times or the Sunday Island for the past one year. At any given moment, the country is (said to be) engulfed by a half-dozen crises. Milk powder poisoning crisis, well water poisoning crisis, rape crisis, public sector bribery crisis, public sector mismanagement crisis (like the Southern Airport and Port), judicial services crisis (CJ impeachment), human rights crisis and opposition to CHOGM… There even was – and this is a good laugh – a screaming headline in a so-called reputed newspaper some months ago that carrier-based US Airplanes were poised to attack Colombo due to a dispute about airspace! Not to sound vaporous, let us pick today’s headline in the Sunday Island.

“Manmohan makes no commitment to attend CHOGM in Lanka” – okey fine.

Sub headline: “His participation may depend on what Colombo does about Tamil political rights” – Huh? Lets return to this in a moment.

And then: “My source [apparently journalists write anecdotally in first person these days] said: “… Dr. Singh made no commitment whatsoever [note the whatsoever – apparently there was a possibility of him making a sort of “partial commitment” to attend] to definitely attend [so he could have made an indefinite commitment? ROFL] the CHOGM….”

We think this sort of wordplay is a joke, an insult to the intelligence of the reader. If there is any value in a confidential source reveling a conversation to the press, isn’t it in stating the conversation verbatim, and letting the general public decide what took place? What did Manmohan Singh say?

And here’s the final beauty: “Dr. Singh is under pressure from regional political parties in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry to boycott the CHOGM Summit to convey India’s unhappiness with the Rajapakse government for refusing to give political rights to the island’s minority Tamils, and generally treating them as second class citizens.”

So this journalist apparently is stating the above as a fact, and not as a mere viewpoint (and an empirically false one10, 11) of a certain political subculture in Tamil Nadu?

Does this journalist actually believe that persons of Tamil cultural decent are second class citizens in SL, and that it is India’s official position that Rajapakse is a racist? If he doesn’t, couldn’t he at least frame this false allegation as a mere viewpoint of an interested party? “Dr. Singh is under pressure due to allegations by certain political forces in Tamil Nadu is that…” might have been the ethical way to frame this statement.

But then our mass media has no time for ethical reflection.  Any unfortunate incident (and there are many on any given day in a country of 20 million+ souls) is twisted into a politically motivated statement, and blown out of proportion. Perhaps in the hope that the so-called UNP opposition, an impotent remnant of a once powerful political force brimming with original ideas for the development of Sri Lanka, gains some “mudslinging points”.

A mentally imbalanced priest commits suicide whilst the instigators who put him up for it film his exit gaily12, and “Buddhist extremists” are blamed for his self-immolation. Some crackpots who call themselves reformers of Buddhism go around breathing racist hellfire, and the government is accused of having founded (or funded) their movement13. A child is raped and murdered in Colombo, and the government is responsible for an apparent erosion of morals in the urban slums. Seems that whenever something bad happens, we don’t look for answers in our immediate surroundings and ourselves – instead, we look upwards, like the primitive urge for prayer, towards the government.

Let us relate one particular meme of superb entertainment value, which made the rounds in Colombo a few months ago. Incidentally, Taxi Chauffeurs are a vehicle of transmission for social viruses, catching their infections presumably from their politically motivated masters. The author ran into this meme from such a chauffeur. There is an artistically designed bus stand shaped like a banana leaf on parliament road, next to the newly built park and jogging track. This park serves as a sort of showpiece of beauty and serenity in Colombo, one of many such handsome parks built in recent times.

Chauffeur: “this bus stand is a travesty of justice. Think about all those people who are starving. The million+ rupees used to build this stand could have fed a hundred mouths for weeks”.

Author: “Well, but it’s a symbol, we spend a little money to beautify our environment, to make us feel good. Makes us think we are on the road to success and to showcase our artistic talent.”

Chauffeur: “Yeah but we can’t afford it.”

Author: “How do you know, this might have been the result of a donation by some interested private party. Besides, think of all the beautiful parks and artistic creations in public places in other countries like Germany or Singapore. We need to sacrifice a little of our tax money for broader goals like beautifying our city.”

Chauffeur: “Yeah but this is Sri Lanka, not Germany…”

There he said it. In a nutshell – “this is Sri Lanka…” the implication being, we are a poor, failed state, and have no right to stand tall on our feet and feel proud of our achievements.

All this talk is not to say that there are no faults to be found in our current position. Sure, one could for example say the government is taking the concept of “playing to the crowd” too far. The ungainly display of public billboards with mug shots of political leaders or the exploitation of base religious mysticism for purposes of cheep popularity, seem calculated faults of this administration that perhaps we would do better without as a society. None of us are obliged to be worshipers of any government; if we don’t like them, we vote them out. But when we do this, we do so after a rational analysis of the sum-total contribution made, and not because of anecdotal memes. Colombo is clean and bustling with new construction. The road system is vastly improved throughout the country. Ports, airports and other public utilities are being renovated. The agricultural sector is being supported immensely. There is foreign income flowing in, in several sectors such as the one in which the author works – in IT. Law and order on the streets has improved, and there are less gangsters ruling the “handiyas” [inner city junctions]. Last but not least, our economy is booming like never before14.

What has our main opposition party to offer? Mud, or ideas for development?

If we don’t like what we see, we must be prepared to face problems and solve them. For example, an unsolved problem is the poor adherence to traffic rules as compared to the observed standards in Western Europe (we are far better than countries like India on this count). This is a long-standing and as yet unresolved issue in our country. But if we are not prepared to avoid jaywalking when we can help it, if we can jump in and out of moving busses, if we are impatient enough to race across double white lines and risk accident simply to get home 5 minutes early, if we are driving by the horn (and blinking headlights – a innovation) simply because we don’t know what horns exist for (presumably to warn of impending danger) – then it is us as individuals who suck, and not our government or our country. If the police are corrupt, then how many official protests has civil society lodged against the poor policing of roads?

Having a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s environment, and wanting to explore new environments, such as working abroad and settling down in new countries, is perfectly ethical. What is not ethical is converting the anecdotal personal “reasons” for preferring a different environment, into a pseudo-scientific meme for abandoning our own country “because it sucks”.

Sri Lanka can benefit from a large dose of rational, scientific thinking, when it comes to improving our lot, both economically and culturally. We must gradually move away from our horoscopes, our smashing of coconuts and our weak, otherworldly attitude towards spiritual development. Instead, we must embrace empirical human knowledge acquired over millennia and use it to improve our individual thinking and our approach to life as rational agents. We (politicians and the media especially) must treat each other as smart human beings, irrespective of our socioeconomic standing. And when we talk of improvement, we must talk of facts, like the fact that we have to make compromises when global conditions change, like loosing fuel subsidies along with the rising cost of energy. And we must talk of concrete solutions, such as exploiting solar power, and investing in its development. Perhaps if that Chauffeur we spoke about earlier had suggested that the expenditure for the banana leaf bus stand could have been better spent on sending a bright young Sri Lankan to the US to pick up the latest developments in solar power, it would have been an excellent criticism.

We must bat with some intellectual honesty, and stop this arcane, nonsensical talk about “adjusting political power” for racial or cultural groups. And start talking about real problems that face Sri Lanka; like energy, education, family planning, or defeating the false meme that “we suck because we are corrupt and are racists”.

In conclusion, it is the delusional idea portrayed in the media that other (western) countries have achieved greatness through a royal road15, and that economic and socio-cultural improvement is unachievable through hard work and rational thinking, which is most offensive to the intelligence of well-meaning Sri Lankans like myself. Let us close this essay with this apt quote from a great thinker of our times, admired both in the east and the west.

“It might be easy to manipulate uneducated people in a human society. Education improves [a person’s ability to make rational compromises towards solving a given problem]. Cunning will not be a successful [social strategy] when dealing with smart people. Truthful and honest engagement is the strategy to follow…”

–      His Holiness the Dalai Lama in conversation with V.S. Ramachandran and other eminent scientists of our time

References:

  1. Over 100 people loose their eyesight in the Central Bank bombing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Bank_bombing
  2. 27 year long civil war: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  3. Violence begets violence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_begets_violence
  4. Murder of Alfred Duraiappah: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Duraiappah
  5. Allegations of large scale government corruption: http://www.tisrilanka.org/?p=11175
  6. Allegations of family bandism: http://www.lankatruth.com/home/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4514:government-in-turmoil-due-to-basils-appointment-&catid=42:smartphones&Itemid=74
  7. Allegations of poor economic management: http://www.jvpsrilanka.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=178:country-is-faced-with-the-worst-economic-crisis-in-its-history-comrade-anura-dissanayake&catid=40:jvpnews&Itemid=73
  8. Allegations of a failed state: http://colombogazette.com/2013/06/24/sri-lanka-still-a-failed-state/
  9. Attributing agency to circumstances beyond our control: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/brill/jocc/2003/00000003/00000003/art00002

10. No discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka – ref 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkcyGOl33XY

11. No discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka – ref 2: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=86029

12. Priest self immolation: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22677058

13. BBS racist movement: http://uktamilnews.com/?p=16091

14. Sri Lanka economy booms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Sri_Lanka

15. How Sweden became an economic success: http://www.ifn.se/wfiles/wp/wp873.pdf

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