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Men in not-so-iron masks

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 29 January 2016 00:00


  dyfTAKES ALL TYPES? There are times when the true nature of leaders leaks through. And then the heart speaks out of the mouth’s abundance. (“Join me, my son!” See copy.) Rest assured however that realpolitik will work with even such mask-slip moments to complete the programme of change on which it embarked 13 moons ago. Though the advocates of genuine good governance would cringe at such gremlins in the machine 


I’m in two minds about the way our many media treat local politicians. Today. In response to how the latter has behaved yesterday. 

On the one hand... take an embarrassment of continuing social media posts and tweets about >lapsed lingerie that are thrown at news consumers. Like so much confetti even after the bra, er, bridal couple, has exited. Passé, but fun for the voyeuristic watchers. You. And also me. 5656

On the other: the paucity of headlines and column centimetres about more >lingering issues. Regarding governance. Such as Q: Does the Govt. still have its ^big picture^ in centre-frame? Q: Where is constitutional reform taking us as a nation-state and as a society? Q: How will the incumbent administration handle burgeoning chauvinism and a submerged tolerance of public bigotry short of starting a riot? Q: Who’s managing the economic front – and how will we stave off an impending financial crisis, if the prophets of doom are to be believed?

All or most of which get buried under the main bulletins. About the heat and other weather. The PM in Davos. George Soros’ connection. Sir Richard Branson’s interest in Sri Lanka. Death in custody or by falling off buildings. The surety of taxes. The press today wavers and vacillates. Lost between too much of a song and dance about banal trivialities and/or red herrings strewn across our path for the gullible public’s pleasure. And not enough critical engagement with a government we take at face value or take for granted. 

There are many times, though, when even the state media gets some of it right. Even if the overall balance is askance. For example: refusing to plaster the front page with politicos making shameless capital out of photo ops. A welcome change from the regimen of our daily news under sundry narcissistic regimes! But we’d like less moonshine and more honest appraisals of the state of the nation in their op-eds. Sometimes, privately-owned media still gets it hopelessly wrong. For instance: shamefully splashing sunshine stories for every passing shower of politically blessed and timely rain (PM in D! GS’ connection? SRB’s interest in SL...). Hagiography aside, however, some of the facts and figures are simply not true... some are, but hidden under a bushel. The hype about the WEF is askew. But the publicity triumph for the PM may not be.


Be that as it may

Today, a year and three weeks after the ‘revolutionary’ time, there will be those of us in the media who still look back to that celebrated event of early 2015… for a reassurance that all is still well... despite the many signs to the contrary around us at the start of 2016. 

Today, less than a week before our second ‘liberty day’ under the incumbent administration, I (for one. you too?) choose to look forward – to the greater ‘liberating day’ – when we can all (and not just political conservatives, civil libertarians, and cosmopolitan elites) choose not to look back in anger, bitterness, contempt, disgust, enervation, frustration, grief. At what might have been. But was not. More is the pity. 

Today, you and I, dear reader, may have cause to celebrate ‘freedom’, ‘independence’, ‘equality’, etc. But we might still rue the legacy of a sort that some leaders seem determined to leave our posterity through their honest-enough words.

For e.g.

Recently, I watched a television interview. Conducted by the local service of a foreign news agency. In which an upper-echelon national leader executed a definitely bad-ass but of late disappointingly predictable two-step manoeuvre. First, he opened his mouth. Then, he put his foot in it. And, the wily interviewer let him be hoisted with his own petard. Again and again. If, O reader, you have the grace and the patience, here is a summary of what was said… in response to a series of probing and pertinent questions – that have made the headlines of late... dfh

[QUOTE-PARAPHRASE] “I am not guilty of nepotism or anything. The previous government was guilty of nepotism. Even their children were involved in and interfered in state affairs. My children are seen only when I take them to international events out of the humanity of my heart as a father. Which any parent will understand. You can’t accuse me of nepotism for that. So, my son travelled with me – what is wrong? Most importantly, humaneness must prevail. If the UN wanted to accommodate him out of the goodness of their heart, what’s the problem? I’m not making my son a state crown prince like others before me! Or am I being accused of nepotism because my brother was appointed to a key state sector post... no, no – can’t be, no – because he has a state department and a subject minister to report to, no! There is a big difference from how it was like in the past... I take exception to those who point fingers at me! Have they forgotten the excesses of the previous regime? As for matters like Sinha-lay – on which I have said nothing, as you allege – well, I will comment only on what is important in the national interest, no! There are plenty of other serious matters demanding my attention. This is a striving after the wind... So – Why pick these? Let the wise people of our land decide on what is meaningful – I will comment only on matters of national significance. The people are not afraid of us becoming nepotistic. They know what happened under the previous government, no! It is only our enemies who are criticising us, no? As for allegations against me on the web – I don’t read them… it is an uncivilised use of social media, no – this internet technology was intended for tech-savvy people, you see – not for people who are working – I am working for the state, no – I have no time to read rags/yellow journals online. As for the video which you say portrayed me as a king, I don’t need to take action against the unauthorised expenditure to promote it! I didn’t authorise and I don’t need to take any steps to correct the impression that it’s official – if there is a formal charge made, then it will be up to the appropriate ministry to respond. Those who criticise must consider what the previous regime did! All at once you can’t have a 100 per cent swing of the pendulum, no – change must progress, must go step by step…” [END]

Four prisms help us make sense of this off-prime-time fiasco:

NICE: The prez is a nice guy, but was caught off guard by the bluff interviewer.

NECESSARY: Our head of state can’t be taken at face value – there must be a pragmatic reason why he let his mask slip and/or his hand show.

NAUGHTY: When one’s election-winning majoritarian constituency will not like one’s sincere answers, it’s time to strike a pose and say a welcome neo-chauvinistic thing or two. 

NASTY: Poor leaders never truly care about being above suspicion, but go with the flow. Tyrannical under tyrants, republican at democratic intervals? Caught off guard the niceness drops! Losing face before one’s past and future voters becomes a necessity. There’s no need to strike a pose... about nepotism or any of the other issues. Sad. Doesn’t bode well for the shape of things to come... but let’s not rock the boat for the sake of Good Governance’s ongoing game of sweeping reforms.

Let me hold my peace and let you come to your own conclusions about how the mouth speaks out of the abundance of one’s heart. But let me just say that there is something slightly rotten – or rapidly rotting – somewhere in the state of our executive-oriented democratic-republican set-up. And it looks a little – or a lot – like the same rot could be setting in at the highest levels.


If I had small change stashed away for every time someone mentioned Acton’s axiom that “power corrupts”! I wouldn’t have to be a wage slave to the Fourth Estate as I am today! For even in this heady democratic milieu, hardly a month goes by these days in which someone, somewhere, does not erroneously invoke that British historian. Glancing about the glory that was once our own republic, and maybe renascent empire, they are bound to say, with a sad and knowing shake of the head: “Power? Corrupts!”

Actually, Lord Acton only intimated that “power *tends* to corrupt”. And most people who misquote him tend to omit the full flow of his idea. Understanding only too well the weakness of the human soul (its will, intellect, and emotions), he declared: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”


Great is not good 

In our new and emerging thought-empire (where nepotism is #family #feeling), we make this mistake far too much and far too often to our detriment. Too many of us assume that our political leaders are good. Or good enough. Or better than the last bad lot. Because the offices they hold are great. Or their ideals are grand. Why else would we lionise ordinary mortals apparelled in the splendour of (constitutional, yet undesirable) high political office? We voted faithfully for them! Hung on their every word in the first flush of reforms! Splashed their least utterances across 72-point headlines! Invited them (like we invited their predecessors) to ‘grace’ our functions! Even after they disgraced themselves on the national stage by re-accommodating rogues among a parliament of crows and cabinet of panthers. And generally reinforced their own self-induced myth that they are some superior breed of political creature or even reincarnate king… 

The polity (who should know better by now, really) still indulges them shamefully – and the politicians let themselves be indulged shamelessly. You can take the autocrat out of the regime, but you can’t take the regimen of autocracy out of the budding tyrant. When voters and votive hangers-on reinforce what the politicos are trying to enforce – that they should be served, appeased, pandered to, forgiven their fatherly humanity, have their all-too-human faux-pas overlooked – the public will find that the cult of the demi-deity is forced on them. Yes. Once again. Shame on you if you fool us once... Shame on us if you trick us twice!? 


In the meantime 

Look, there they are: About to “ceremoniously declare open” something. Or be “guest of honour” at something else. All dressed in spotless white “national” costume. While harbouring distinctly “antidemocratic” thoughts. Now. As they always probably did. And while you get the garlands ready and prepare the banquet, they have begun again to disrupt the already traumatised traffic and (in admittedly isolated incidents) threaten anyone who stands in the way of our politico. Who will shortly be standing up for an hour… boring everyone to death about how this is best of all possible states or worlds – given that it is good governance (one with a difference, at least in terms of concept, as regards nepotism and cronyism and state patronage of personal glory-seeking). The extra half an hour or so that they have to stand, distributing prizes and making inane and asinine comments on the #Miracle of our Social-Revolution, or #How the West Was Won While the Home Crowd Was Lost, is a small price to pay for all the fuss and bother made. Look at us: WE are the champions! Even if WE have to go through media purgatory and social media limbo prove how great WE are and that OUR alleged badness is the conspiracy of the dull to discredit the good that WE are doing! 


The office does not sanctify 

Forget politics, if only for a moment. At home or in school, we do not always treat our parents and teachers with the due degrees of respect. Much less, then, do we treat our elders and betters as well and truly as they deserve. And our peers often get short shrift from us. In the competitive, productive, and progress-oriented marketplace we call business establishment, social institution, or community organisation. So why are our elected representatives – no matter how self-proclaimedly good they are – exempt (or expecting to be exempted) from the general rule that trust and respect must be earned? And continued to be demonstrated? Is it because they, too, for all their talk of how un-nepotistic they are, can grant us favours in return for the attention we shower on them? Or the admiration we now only pretend to have for the sake of OUR principles, and not THEIR values? Or is it that their power to abuse us and disabuse us of the neat faith we once had in them brings out the mice in all men (to put it rather politically incorrectly)? Or is it that we naively believe that there is still a difference? 

The one entity in the body politic that could change our corporate mindset (as a nice enough nation) about human nature is the media community – for is it not newspapers and TV channels that still kowtow most to the state? Sponsorship at election time+ Coverage of politicos alive+ Commemorations of politicians dead+ The dogged shadowing of the people’s representatives for the sake of a sound-bite+ If these were to be discontinued as a matter of policy UNTIL a whole new or true political culture ensued, a new political culture could very well emerge – but not UNLESS.

The mass-media culture today (and, perhaps, even our subterranean social media subculture) have been extolling the wrong virtues. Rigorous Republicanism! And Doughty Democracy! Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with assertiveness about one’s political ideas. Or self-confidence in expressing even inane opinions. And the will to succeed in the same manner as one’s predecessors. Taken to the extreme – or however interpreted in a milieu where might is still right – these could very well degenerate into aggressiveness about one’s government; overconfidence in one’s position and authority; and selfishness in pursuing a personal agenda rather than the common good. Isn’t it time we re-introduced some morality and a sense of proportion – about self-serving politicos’ disappointingly arrant arrogance – into civics, politics, and even ‘good’ governance? Or is §Service-before-§Self too much to ask of servants of the public – and the new republic, though not yet quite a new empire – who think that public service means that the public must serve them and their philosophical fallacies?


The bottom line 

We in the media need to start taking off the kid gloves with which we handle our sacred cows. Are they still claiming to be a superior cut of beef… and a slice above the previous herd? Well then, let’s dignify that claim by critically engaging and reporting their least utterance. No more soft-peddling the inanities that the increasingly irate-sounding national-level leaders spew out on potentially hostile media such as the BBC Sinhala Service (which is where I watched the interview above, from where I culled a beloved leader’s thoughts on nepotism and other mad cow diseases). No more relegating the hard core commentary to social media and letting them pull the wool over our eyes about what they really think and mean about nepotism, cronyism, and the rest of The Usual Suspects that have bedevilled these pastures for so long. No more bowing down to public sentiment such as “It’s early days” and cowing down to sharp protectionism like “Be careful not to buckle our chances at genuine reform”. No more denying that once a despot or sycophant to a dictator perhaps always a tyrannical demagogue. And sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof!

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