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Give me liberty, or give me death! (or better yet, at least a cool beer at day’s end)

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 15 September 2016 00:00


One thing you can count on to see our island-race through some tough times is our legendary sense of resilience. (I’m going to ignore the racists who think there’s more than one race – the human – in our blessed isle.) The other thing is our semi-mythical sense of humour. Some of it has its genesis with media folks who have since gone to the Fourth Estate in the sky. Some of it has its origins in entirely unoriginal politicos. A rarer distillation comes from satirists’ wicked pens…dft-15-6

In a darker era, when there was little to smile about, the picaresque leader of a picayune publishing house contrived to have the last laugh on censorship. In an age when every iota of news fit to be published had to receive the government censor’s stamp of approval (or the general jackboot’s kick of disapproval), that establishment-defying editor reported that “nothing happened” in a week in which, on the ground, clearly, “something happened”. Troops DID NOT retreat from Kilinochchi; Tigers DID NOT overrun an army cantonment there or somewhere else; there were NO casualties anywhere. 

There was fire in the belly of many military and political leaders of an oppressive ilk when it dawned on them that the laugh was on them. The tragedy of this tragicomic exercise is that under the rule of another equally oppressive regime, the Great Grim Censor of a not-so-benevolent tyrant had the last laugh. But who knows – those Gallant Gay Champions of media and a multiplicity of other rights have ridden to the slain hero’s defence with a plethora of probes and panoply of posthumous. (I’m going to ignore the chauvinists who think ‘gay’ means something other than ‘mildly cheerful’.) The late great editor might still have the last laugh after the latest autopsy in a spate of post-mortems on the state of the nation, then, is done, now or in a month of Sundays, or never, whichever comes first. (Ask for me on the 8th of January, and you’ll find me a grave man. Joke…)


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Then there are the politicians and bureaucrats who make us chuckle. These span the gamut from the jocund to the jocose and the jocular. There was once a joker who claimed that an errant public servant he had abused had actually tied himself to a tree and offered to be punished, because he realised – thanks to the joker-politikka’s kindness – what a bad boy he (the p. s. not the j-p) had been. Often the joke takes on grimmer tones – as when a combine of political propaganda and businesslike bureaucracy insisted that they had just executed a major battle with ‘zero civilian casualties’ – it was a famous victory. (Does it hurt? Only when I laugh!)

Of late, the humour has come from the highest echelons of public office. No less than the Chief Executive of the Republic has been the source of the hilarity and high-jinks. Once upon a time he expressed a latent desire for a bit of S&M: fervently wishing to whip with the toxic tails of stingrays the rude, crude, organisers of a piece of entertainment that ran counter to our culture and civilisation. Of late he has been reported as lamenting that our local lasses consume too much alcohol in the form of a frothy beverage that is hardly available these days…

I, for one, I am sure, have mixed feelings about such reportage. (Is there a lion in you also, dears?) On the one hand, it’s often funny ha-ha and I laugh at our beloved leaders – like all good republicans must do from time to time, if we are to take democracy seriously. On the other, it’s occasionally funny peculiar – and I find myself frowning at the flippancy of the tone… or frustrated by the petty foibles of a partisan Fourth Estate, which sometimes resorts to cavalier personal attacks unhorsed by ad-hominem principles of the most causal calibre of reporting. But mostly the tenor is tongue-in-cheek, and caviar to the general in the hands of superlative satirists. Even though the timbre of scurrilous personal attacks from ‘tribunal’ jungle ‘telegraphs’ based overseas often leaves a bad taste in the mouth. 

There was a time, not too long ago, when such cheek could have had – and often did have – fatal consequences for editors and other errant essayists. Today such derring-do is interpreted as daring to trespass beyond the bounds of common decency. Certainly our champions of free media might be gritting their teeth and ruing the day they stepped up to defend civil liberties and the rights of the Fourth Estate. Possibly the President himself has tasted the sour grape of an ingrate media and civil society, and all his apologists’ teeth have been set on edge by the villainy of the wild asses’ freedom. But not a man-jack among true-blue (and dyed in the wool green) Defenders of the Faith of the Democratic-Republicanism we have fought for, and some of us died for, and others now slowly come to love, can condemn or dismiss the freedoms we can enjoy to twirl our liberty umbrellas in the social-media air – even if it puts out of joint some of the Mikados and Lords High Poo-bah among the powers that be. The more sterling among those stalwarts of egality and fraternity, etc., are no doubt falling over themselves to cheer on even those who would egg them on with a rousing chorus of the Marseillaise and heartening shouts of “Give me liberty – or give me death!” (And so say us all. Well, some of us. OK, a precious few. Hm, is it just thou and I, dears?)

Now wipe that smirk off your face, silly, and sit up and listen. 

Whichever way you look at it, there is something not quite right in the media-public-office-reportage equation. Not that it is rotten, as it was under the censorship of a war machine or the jackboot of authoritarianism. But that while public officials err on the side of caution and conservatism, the wild asses take liberties with liberty – this wild ass included, admittedly – which liberty would not recognise. When elected and appointed people’s representatives err or utter inanities of which these worthies are not worthy, they deserve critical engagement. With that said, the cynicism and satire with which those worthies are caricatured and lampooned leaves something to be desired as far as media responsibility in the name of media freedom goes…

When the President was reported to have lamented the tendencies of local lasses to partake of the cup that cheers, social media commentators went to town. Wrote one: “The backbone of Sri Lanka’s workforce is women. Sri Lanka’s three top foreign-exchange earning sectors – Middle East workers, garments, and plantations – are disproportionately ‘manned’ by women. Give them a freakin’ beer after a hard day’s work… and stop whining!” And responded another: “If anything, he should be concerned about the men who drink and piss away all the money earned by women!” Allow me to admit rather shamefacedly that I enjoyed the quite good-natured jibes and witty banter. We in the blessed isle had been starved of the freedom of expression so long that the space to speak our minds now with impunity is like – well, a cup that cheers. But there’s a good measure of meaningful questioning underlying the almost affectionate sarcasm there. As well as in this query: “I wonder if he’s ever going to ‘lament’ or address the fact that more and more men are gang-raping little girls. But no, his focus is on women throwing bras and drinking beer.” 

Not really. But media – especially social media – makes a mockery of reality with its selective engagement with reportage. For when the President was reported in more sober (should I suggest, mainstream) media as keen to mount a meaningful campaign to arrest and revert the debilitating tide of alcoholism (reportedly) sweeping the nation, those same social-media ‘hacktivists’ were silent with the silence of a drunken Lot. We in the blessed isle have been so benighted by other (dare I say large or larger) issues – such as war, criminal corruption, and antidemocratic activity by democratically elected leaders – that we have forgotten the social ills that media have all but forgotten. Like, well, the cup that cheers for starters; but biteth like an adder or stingeth like a wasp in the end. Or powerfully protected paedophilia rings.  

There has to be a better balance between media freedom and media responsibility. Maybe social media needs to take more stock of the salutary measures that the country’s leadership interests itself in – even if their efforts smack to high (no pun intended) heaven of patriarchy, patronising over-familiarity, and intrusiveness. Don’t shoot (no pun intended) the President, among others, when he/they rail against the vagaries and vicissitudes of alcoholism and other perceived social evils. Perhaps the President and his protectionist cohorts could up their game a notch or two by leaving pre-colonial morals and an inverted naïve and native mentality behind and join the rest of us who are concerned about the state of the nation in the second decade of the 21st Century. If national leadership were quicker to see the other evils to which they seem oblivious – CHILD SEX ABUSE: Sri Lanka’s hidden shame; and impunity from past or present corruption and criminality in high places in the name of realpolitik – perhaps we would, should, could take them a tad more seriously. 

If. And. When. 

Maybe social media and tribunal jungle telegraphs need to cut our leaders some slack. Heaven knows they’re trying their best… Whereas under the rule of a previous regime not entirely great, we were spared the hypocrisy of ‘Mathata Thitha’ because the rogues then in office were after greater game than moral victories to please the masses or the religious lobby which really rules the worldview of far too many of us for comfort. Dutch, or otherwise.

So, praise the President! But for Pete’s sake, pass the Stella Artois! 

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