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Of new social contracts and ‘goon squads’ on social media

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 24 March 2017 02:08

I don’t often quote the United Nations (UN). Not because they don’t say sensible stuff. But because their sound bites are not as memorable as that which their opposition – rogue states, global terrorists – says. Because the UN, like any international humanitarian organisation, is stretched like a taut laundry line full of dirty linen being washed in front of a planetary public. Which is to say that the best-intentioned world leaders are hung for humanitarians as much as for hypocrites, perhaps? With that said, however, some maxims and watchwords which our worldwide watchdogs craft alone at midnight while nations sleep are worth examining in the cold light of dawn… like this…

10-111LIBERTY OF AN INDEPENDENT WILD ASS – Whatever happened to the spirit of Voltaire (“I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”)? Well it may be subsumed by the zeitgeist of Wilde (“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself”)! Freedom of speech may not protect one from the consequences of saying stupid stuff. Facebook’s worldview is not the weltanschauung of government. But it’s the beginning of a slippery slope to perdition when defenders of the faith in good governance – even when bad, ugly, or plain mediocre – tread the primrose path with propagandising their blue-eyed boys… privileging spin against truth, prioritising prosperity gospels over peace with justice


“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Well, all right, it’s not hypocritical hyperbole; but rather, an integral part of the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” And, the reason I bring it up is not for love of idea or ideology; rather that the sentiment seems to lack a certain appeal to defenders of human and other rights in the blessed isle over which the sun is shining again.

Or is it? In last week’s column, I argued along the lines that I knew were not going to win me any popularity contests with the present powers that be. The argument went something like this:


  • That political stability is bringing in plenty of support from stakeholders of Sri Lanka on the macroeconomic front. YES.

  • That this renewed and revitalised interest in our island-nation’s growth, development, progress, would suffice to dispel the rain clouds under which we have laboured so long. FALSE.

  • That over and above (or least in tandem with) international investment inflows, there must be a more sterling commitment to transitional justice and all its trappings by our stalwart constitutionalists. TRUE.

True to form, the powers that be remained silent. At least, as far as one could tell… Being apathetic to critical engagement and agnostic to anyone outside the ranks of Tuscany who seem to have the national interest as much at heart as themselves has for too long been the prerogative of our pathetically myopic patriotic leaders! Be that as it may, the hound-dogs and the hyenas who pass for the hosanna-chanting hallelujah chorus of our present mix of political masters didn’t hold their peace. 0232

Perhaps predictably, they took umbrage against the circus which provides some of them with their daily bread. For daring to raise a voice in the wilderness that is the free media and shake a clenched fist at the war they make and call it a just peace, sweet reason seemed to desert even my erstwhile friends in the former palaces of justice and righteousness. For impugning the motives of the Mikado and his Lord High Poo-bah – to say nothing of the mandarins who swim like minnows in a small pond filled with sundry sharks – my interlocutors on social media skewered and spit-roasted me: a minnow in the larger scheme of macro matters.

I was named as being nuts. The blessed appellation of ‘prophet of doom’ was less than lovingly bestowed upon my camel hair-attired locust-eating person. Some even went as far as to nominate my humble ideas about prioritising Peace With Justice over the Prosperity Gospel as a “rant”… here’s some of what I said in response to them…

“Good if my effervescent Facebook pals or chums would accept my ‘rant’ to counterpoint their daily ‘rave’ about the socioeconomic miracles we are presently experiencing. There is – one hopes – more to the ‘new social deal’ we contracted with the powers that be than GDP, FDI, RTI. Such as fast-tracking responsible inclusive constitutional reform as well as developing a reasonable instrument to communicate the political gravitas no one really feels anymore.”

My reply was greeted with mixed feelings. The spin-meisters said that I should please excuse their enthusiasm for the prosperity gospel because they’re the “glass half-full” kind of people (or drained to the dregs, so that to the world they seem full of it). Some counter-propagandists who saw the value in critical engagement encouraged myself and other gadflies like me to persist with the point, counterpoint; because government – like too many other avatars of a few good men doing their own things – is often able to accomplish their agenda through “smoke and mirrors”.

Now, gentle reader, lest you begin to harbour doubts (not of the Hambantota port debacle type!) about whether this is principled or personal, let me assure you that it is both… 

On the one hand it is personal

As I have said a mouthful, let other thinkers be my mouthpiece in the case…

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” (John Milton, ‘Areopagitica’.)

“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost…” (Neil Gaiman, possibly paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer.)

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.” (Christopher Hitchens, paraphrasing this columnist’s hostility to the chummy hypocrisy of the hallelujah chorus.)

On the other hand it is principled 

Since quoting others works for me, let it suffice for you also, dears!

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” (George Orwell, recognising that all political animals are created equal, but some are created more equal than others?)

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” (Well, we can all tell Harry Truman – the late president of a democratic republic – that we’re past all that… And, we’re just about getting our act together as a democratic republic ourselvesto bring those – the former secretaries of a rigorous dictatorship – who perpetrated such a reign of terror to justice – if only realpolitik doesn’t rule the day – But there’s a thin line between oppressive powers censoring their people with brute force and their propagandists silencing government’s critics with unfriendly bullyingusing invective and insinuation: It’s the principle of suppressing opinions inimical to yours.)

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” (George Washington, thank God, didn’t have to face the fury of friends of the powers that be on Facebook! Being facile, folks, so lighten up a bit, please.)

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” (Will someone tell the Prime Minister that all the Prime Minister’s plans and all the Prime Minister’s policies are not as praiseworthy as all the Prime Minister’s men make them out to be? Teddy Roosevelt has spoken!)

If the powers that be – to say nothing of their propagandists and spin-meisters can’t see that, don’t want to, won’t, then we’ll be all harbouring doubts (of the return to power of the Humbugstota port clan?) till kingdom come. Better if the best of the bad lot – the democrats – buckle up, bite down the bile in their rising gorge, chomp on the bullet – and admit that even gadflies like yours truly have a place in their burgeoning economic miracle. If it goads them… good… for maybe the Mikado at least might realise that we’re on the side of the angels!

Under the Grand Panjandrum of the bad and ugly past, sticks and stones would break our bones, those of us who expressed dissent which degenerated into dissidence, even if our heads were bloody but unbowed under the bludgeoning of law, mobs, hit squads. Under the rule of men more peaceful and peaceable if not justifiable, words can only hurt… us – and them… but the problem is that in a dispensation where difference of opinion is still treated as treason, nothing transformational can take place in the old political culture leave alone a new social contract. 

Least said, soonest mended maybe – but the more said about how we need not just an economic miracle (as the likes of Eran would have us believe) but a transformational experience (as the likes of Sumanthiran have advocated), the better. In fact, “both are better”. Fie on those who think one advocacy or belief trumps the other. Everyone knows GDP and the prosperity gospel of FDI and GSP Plus alone won’t – can’t – hack it… Everyone, that is, except the powers that be and the economic pariahs who pelt the passing caravanserai of critical engagement with sticks and stones and hurtful words. Shame be on him who thinks evil of critical engagement or prophecies of doom when Sri Lanka now, as not then maybe, is looking down the barrel of boom without peace with justice, and thereby bust… trickle-down? (In the long run, we are all dead.)

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