Courage and coherence

Saturday, 18 March 2023 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 No matter how facetious, the mere declaration of “national emergency” led to mass submission, even getting infuriated at those who pushed back, who were considered “enemies of the state” and targeting them for various forms of vilification 

– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


Citizenship requirements: sit down, stay apart, manically keep washing your hands (utterly useless we’ve learned given the airborne nature of the pathogen). Oh, and wear the submission mask, rush to shut the family business, be current with your experimental pharmaceuticals that haven’t had proper safety trials. In return you could glow with moral rectitude for being a dutiful pawn of the state


The past few years have seen valiant outbursts of courage in pushing back against prevailing narratives. And yet many have been reviled for their valour, for standing out, for not going along, for not meekly abdicating their common sense, will and autonomy.

William Deresiewicz writes, “Moral courage can be lonely indeed. People don’t mind being trapped, as long as no one else is free. But stage a break, and everybody else begins to panic.”

The COVID hysteria was matched by local ennui, paralysis almost, and you could readily sift outliers from sycophants, the courageous from the cowards. There is the famous historic black and white photograph of a crowd giving Nazi salutes in unison. And in the midst of it, is one man, who has crossed his hands, unwilling to capitulate to the mass hypnosis. We all fancy ourselves being that person, but 2019 largely gave the lie to that, globally.

Courage, originality, initiative are all isolating experiences. Craven acquiescence, sameness, inertia, are commonplace, they are the soot of our modern “culture” which is about fads, trends, and following the herd.

No matter how facetious, the mere declaration of “national emergency” led to mass submission, even getting infuriated at those who pushed back, who were considered “enemies of the state” and targeting them for various forms of vilification.

Citizenship requirements: sit down, stay apart, manically keep washing your hands (utterly useless we’ve learned given the airborne nature of the pathogen). Oh, and wear the submission mask, rush to shut the family business, be current with your experimental pharmaceuticals that haven’t had proper safety trials. In return you could glow with moral rectitude for being a dutiful pawn of the state. 

When a massive financial meltdown is addressed by manic lockdowns posing to be for public health, and pharma marauders are planning to jab every human irrespective of adverse effects which must be camouflaged at all costs, and here in Lanka all the main bastions of expertise are mulishly following the piper, and dare not seem “disloyal” (as if loyalty is owed to a political party rather than the sponsoring nation), we know we are heading for carnage.

Who will swim upstream, when the braying of the crowds is so deafening on various topics? When people will repudiate you without dialogue or facts or discussion, they just erupt in outrage for you questioning the mass trance. It becomes a community and social faux pas to exercise your wits. 

Namely, to say globally: you don’t shut down a planet for a pathogen with a 99%+ recovery rate, age stratified, highly treatable, median age of death above life expectancy. Sweden’s per capita excess mortality is about the lowest in Europe now if you factor in 2019 as well…hardly Armageddon as a result of keeping masks and distancing “voluntary” and mercifully keeping schools and society open. And then the US red states eventually followed suit and showed again how ridiculous our “public health” manipulations were.

And namely to say locally here: you cannot keep borrowing, keep printing, having the lowest tax base in the region, then open and shut the economy as if economic suicide was a medical prescription, then willy nilly removing chemical fertilisers with no basis, delaying going for debt restructuring, and beaming at “infrastructure” projects that will never deliver returns to service their debt. Doing this and thinking there will not be consequences requires a suspension of sanity we have to hope is too extreme to ever repeat.

Coherence needed

Media complicity takes us back to the landmark movie, Network, based on the incendiary screen play by Paddy Chayefsky, which in the 70’s seemed surreal, and now seems simply prophetic.

Whereas today, you would substitute for the word “television,” “computers” or “social media” here from that landmark movie is a searing outburst, about how all of life can get reduced to the “common rubble of banality”. Here is an unforgettable vignette (the “tube” refers to TV):

“We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell…We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colours, creeds…We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you even “think” like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets.” If only we would, and turn “on” our critical faculties, and open our hearts, and explore our spirits.

Journalist Matt Taibbi recently testified before the US Congress pointing out that Twitter, Facebook, Google and other companies developed a formal system taking in moderation ‘requests’ from every corner of government: FBI, DHS, Department of Defense, even the CIA. There were also quasi private entities doing the same, including Stanford’s Election Integrity Project, Newsguard and many others, quite a few, taxpayer funded.

Taibbi writes, “In one remarkable email, the Virality Project recommends that multiple platforms take action even against “stories of true vaccine side effects” and “true posts which could fuel hesitancy.” None of the leaders of this effort to police COVID speech had health expertise. 

You see what puts the lie to all this – the global crises, and even the Sri Lanka hybrid, which is global plus local meltdown and throwing a tantrum at having to reform the economy, and invest in infrastructure and human capital and “boring” things like that when you can build more unused airports and vanity projects with no ROI – is the emotional tenor of the propaganda flowing. 

COVID for example was never treated as a health issue or a logistical problem to be solved (protecting the vulnerable). 

Instead the aim has been to have people fundamentally alter their expectations of life, lowering demands for political freedom, quality of life, or even solvency here at home. 

So, the terror of death, or the terror of how to survive (without a real gameplan for progress that everyone is unified behind) becomes the perennial fixation, and extra-legal policing and surveillance become “justified” for these ends. As CJ Hopkins wrote re the pandemic, “Society has been transformed…into an enormous hospital from which there is no escape.”

So, the Network prediction can be detailed from lies and distortions threaded across recent decades from Saddam’s WMD (Weapons of Mass “Distraction”), then Brexit mania, then Trump eruptions to delegitimise the populist backlash he represented (he personally was not what people were swooning over), then mass hysteria over a clearly non-apocalyptic virus, to “trying” monkey flu, to climate panic, to bird flu agitations, to the US refusing to ever call off its “state of emergency”…

The only remedy is for us to come awake, to take on the responsibilities of citizenship. Here in Sri Lanka, we must desperately teach “civics” to children, frankly we must everywhere. Thomas Jefferson rightly reminded us, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be.”  

How else, except by virtue of such education, can we vote for, underwrite, support, contribute to and champion “inclusive” institutions that enrol merit and contribute to national capabilities rather than “extractive” institutions that simply enshrine a cabal, where we have personal enrichment at the expense of public aims and aspirations being undermined?   

Governance at a Nadir

So, essentially, international and national bureaucracies have assumed the power to abuse any crisis to deprive populations of Constitutional expectations and rights, and to impose massive financial costs on them with no discussion. The taxpayer mandated “bailout” of Silicon Valley Bank is a clear example.  

Corporations and their subsidiaries, which at times seem to include government, largely rule the roost. Politicians need to be funded, and do not seem to have the faculties (most of them) to understand complexities.

Take something humdrum like the supply of flatware and dinnerware to the US Department of Defense, which purchases 500,000 pieces of cutlery annually. These are overseen by a bureaucratic cadre too bloated to be useful. But the sheer number of treaties that influence even this purchase, everything that a supplier must be compliant with, leaves too many such decisions in thrall to a pre-determined supplier, irrespective of costs, or competitiveness, and certainly as far removed from creative market forces as possible. And what a thing to fixate on!

If you do not have a holistic overview, and who does with such a morass, you cannot deduce where the issues are, where the entanglements arise, where the rot and corruption are insinuated. The strings are constantly being pulled, where are the puppet masters? 

Corruption in complex systems is located via what economists’ term “market discovery”. Those who benefit most from the corruption have found the levers of corruption. Civil servants, lobbyists, invested outsiders find out, through constant experimentation, which buttons to push, and how to obscure them from others.

The most common perhaps is “the revolving door.” Here in Lanka we see the same families and their adjutants cycled through the various administrations. Next door in Pakistan, for years, military, the Bhutto family and the Sharif family kept trading places. But for the Trump “surprise”, the revolving door of Clintons and Bushes may have continued in the US.

And then Ambassadorships, and Chairmanships are given to those in the inner circle, which are then stripped as a new administration comes into power, and restored yet again in the next go around.

Sometimes one person may Chair multiple organisations on this philosophy. In the US those in Cabinet roles are seduced by being offered highly lucrative appointments in those key industries after they leave office, and they earn their keep by ensuring the doors of influence stay pried open and well lubricated.

Australia’s so called “anti-corruption commission” was duly neutered by politicians from both political camps after the 1980s reforms. Shady insiders went in, mandates were reduced, funding was reduced, what was once illegal now was polished and primed for fresh utility. 

Julian Assange rotting in a British jail, Edward Snowden now having to be naturalized as a Russian national having been “on the run” are instances of the dangers of bucking the institutional status quo. Their crime was exposing corruption, essentially.

What is the way out?

A lot of the manoeuvring for the IMF intervention for Sri Lanka has revolved around agreements being forthcoming from key creditors. And all have a quid pro quo attached, understandably so. Most “foreign relations” these days are a brokering of interests.

And outside the evident national interests which are understandably to be protected or advanced, there is a quagmire of international treaties, many penned by special interest groups to secure future profits at the expense of the public.

And then think of privately owned technology critically needed to ensure the functioning of infrastructure or weaponry, where capability and functionality require maintenance and upgrades. How many “public-private” partnerships are inflicted upon countries that lock in future generations to overpriced toll roads, medicines, broadband and more?

Ergo, it is not simple to speak of “reform” as you would be rending the fabric asunder. And the key players would retaliate brutally as it is matter of staying viable for them. And absent better bedrock, chaos could ensue. Dramatic imagination and decisive action are required, but we have to “baby step” our way forward.

Think of the state corruption of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and its predecessor on that front, the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1910s. They were cesspools of confusion, avarice and unfairness. Kafka’s landmark book The Trial details a remote authority accusing someone of a crime. He is unaware of the crime, nor where to present himself, ultimately locating the court in a basement that is teeming with bureaucrats irate that he is late for his trial! The book is a compendium of such absurdities which gave rise to “Kafkaesque” referring to mindless, proliferating, self-obsessed bureaucracy.

Anyone who has spent a day trying to get a visa extended in Sri Lanka could testify to elements of the same, or getting a company registered, or numerous other absurdities that have also been stitched into the framework of life here. 

Economic commentator Friedrich Hayek, a generation later than Kafka, worked in that same bureaucracy, and wrote in his book, The Road to Serfdom that such bureaucracies operated through their own insidious logic, divorced from real world consequences. 

Of course the only thing that finally prevailed over this bureaucracy was defeat in WW I, with the Americans adopting the Austrian part, and the Soviets the Hungarian slice…compulsory transformation! And the Soviets lurched forward, trying to create “zones” insulated from their own protocols. 

The desire to evade one’s own bureaucracy has led multiple jurisdictions from parts of China to the UAE and beyond to create alternative operating theatres, “free” zones where trade, and currency flows, and operating norms are simplified, transparent, and which entice people who wish to invest and perhaps live there. The Port City adventure here is inspired by the success of some of these, though we seem unable to define our specific aspiration or vision for Port City, much less clear progress milestones. 

In fact, while the Chinese have choking bureaucracy, once decisions are taken, that bureaucracy galvanises to deliver…one has only to see the economic and infrastructure breakthroughs there. Sri Lanka’s challenge is one of execution. We have assets, we have capabilities, we have human capital, but we must synergise them, develop the assets, mobilise them, focus them, and follow through consistently. Those nations that do, break through, think Japan, think South Korea, think Vietnam.    

Invest India as a gateway (one I believe our BOI is aiming to emulate, an effort to be saluted) is a similar attempt to stifle the choking bureaucracy. It has been a success story of unprecedented investment flooding in, startups being nurtured, and there being a “one stop shop” for set up, scoping, establishment and then partnering throughout a business’ life cycle in India. It bypasses all the factions and gives one entity the oversight and the mandate and the accountability. It is far cheaper and less devastating than a World War, but has real “breakthrough” impact, far more constructively, bypasses all the factions and gives, if the right leader is enrolled and properly empowered.


Sri Lankan Economic Woes

Speaking of Pakistan, Atif Mian provides a brilliant analysis of the economic recovery needed, an antidote to the institutionalized confusion outlined above. There are clear parallels here.

So, say you have current account deficits and find yourself short “x” billion dollars. So, we think we can resolve that “administratively” by cutting imports (which may undermine viable industries that are crucially needed for recovery and growth).

So this creates what are in essence “multiple auction markets” where a bureaucrat, with scant understanding of a market or industry or competitiveness designates what is “essential.”

It invites corruption, and “gatekeepers” can get scandalously wealthy while worsening the situation. One had only to watch the outrage from industry after industry when some hack in Sri Lanka applied the red pencil to imports indiscriminately, and then “deal” after deal had to be done to try and rectify placing more industries on life support.

The key sin here though is economic, and the issue is “production networks.” An exporter can’t bring in raw material, or an intermediate input for production, an entire export chain can collapse. The economic multiplier impact of such disruptions can be significant. 

So, trying to close a “x” billion dollar gap reduces economic output, and then pressures balance of payment further as exports begin to dwindle. And its worse, originally the issue was also fiscal deficits, very large ones. When growth now slows so do your tax receipts, but you still have to pay the salaries and service the debt. So you end up driving inflation up. Now we have an unholy trinity: failing growth/output, balance of payment pressures and stronger inflation!

As the Government would not devalue its currency hence “administrative” remedies re curtailing imports were ushered in, a black market exchange rate premium surfaces. The unsustainability gets increasingly trumpeted and now FDI dries up, domestic investment is compromised, there is a capital flight, dollars are hoarded, domestic liquidity is immobilised, and the doom loop is exuberantly in evidence. 

Creating impact labs

Years back, MIT and Harvard, through Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer developed “Theory U”, a remarkable means by which dialogue can be structured so that it is more than an echo chamber of grievances and prefabricated talking points.

If we take on any national reform or evolution, if we exercise the “courage” we were seeking at the outset here, it needs to be funnelled through some mechanism. Putting so many people in a room and hoping for wisdom and will to emerge is more than myopic. 

A process is needed, just as “kaizen” gave a process and structure for the desire to involve those doing the work in focused, measured improvement. And then it became portable and teachable. It became a global language for quality.

In Theory U on which I will write more in the future, you begin by “downloading” and gathering thoughts and facts. You seek counterfactual views. You then shift to “sensing” to getting out there and viewing and observing and bringing the “outside in”. This is the left side of the U.

Then we “surrender” for a bit, we let the data and impressions and views sift and percolate, and in a guided process we transition to “Presencing” – a combination of being “Present” and “sensing” the future that is “trying” to emerge, that is potentially present, for which there are ingredients, for which there are construction materials, but where we need to be architects. This is the bottom of the U.

And then we go up the other side of the U and create a fresh vision and aspiration for this emerging future, grounded in and drawing on all this. 

We then run controlled execution experiments, and prototype rapidly and get feedback and assess results, and look at cost-benefit options. 

And then from what emerges from the prototyping and bridging forward, we create scorecards and co-create and start moving freshly forward. 

It can be iterative, and it is corrigible, and it is open to amendment and course correction. But it is informed, energised by engagement and collaboration, connected, visionary and grounded in both facts and inspired by imagination.

We would love to induct and develop a lattice work of national facilitators to create these “conversational hubs”, these “impact labs” wherever key breakthroughs are sought, and wherever key stakeholders can be gathered.

Thereby, we could partner with and influence our bureaucracies…evolution if not revolution. 

And learning how to have that collaboration flow with the exploring/sensing/activating (open heart, open mind, open will) essence of Theory U would be a great boon.

But we cannot “talk” ourselves to a new frontier. We must learn how to communicate and to listen radically and dramatically. And we must engage with awareness (grounded in inclusivity) and contribute with passionate abandon (setting toxic ego agendas aside in favour of progress that delivers sustained value to us and everyone else). Only thus do we come out of doom loops and begin to forge better futures.

(The writer is the founder and CEO of EPL Global and founder of Sensei Lanka, a global consultant with over 30 years strategic leadership experience and now, since March 2020, a globally recognised COVID researcher and commentator.)  

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