Posts Tagged 'Liberalism'

Letter from the Grave

 

Letter from the Grave

                 – by Lasantha Wickramatunga

 

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

 

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

 

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognizing the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

 

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

 

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

 

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

 

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognize that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper.

 

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labeled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

 

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that – pray excuse cricketing argot – there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

 

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

 

What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering “development” and “reconstruction” on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

 

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

 

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

 

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money.

 

By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down. You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

 

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

 

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

 

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

 

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I – and my family – have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am – and have always been – ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

 

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be – and will be – killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

 

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem0ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

 

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

 

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

 

 

 

The writer was fifty two years old, and Editor of a Sri-Lankan newspaper – Sunday Leader, was assassinated on his way to work by two gunmen riding motorcycles.

 

 

 

 

 

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Circular Dimensions

Circular Dimensions

                              – by Aditya Sihag

 

Perhaps, at a very elevated planar level one may regard the complexity of earthly events as an internally seamlessly structured gestalt; as a self-defining, self-existing and self-perpetuating entity. Viewing such a structure would be analogous to an omniscient ensconced in an eyrie a good ‘very many’ dimensions above this aforementioned gestalt. My attempt at carving out this mental imagery of sub and super-structures is only to facilitate the idea I wish to bring to bear in this write-up. I attempt to tangentially question what truly the word liberal connotes, and its potential significance in today’s world that is imperceptibly rushing headlong towards disaster, with wool pulled over its eyes.

 

In the abstract, one might consider the problems that beset humankind as manifesting from a prolonged hysteresis of poor choices made for the aggregate. From the very outset of human existence and concomitant thought, erroneous conclusions have been reached that were rooted in turn in inherently fallacious reasoning. Take something as easily identifiable as religion and all that accompanies it in the form of values, a belief in (and a fear of?) a superior force, and a broad comfort zone. Man has incessantly strived to understand systems, and in this continual process has had to confront with the imperfections in his ability to conjecture and reason. Think of the early pagan obeisance to entities such as the God of Thunder, the God of Fire et cetera. Cutting a long story short, these processes were demystified through the evolution and progress of science, and so did man adjust his concept of God to a more generic omnipotent creator and destroyer; to whom he appeals to in times of dire need, to whom he expresses gratitude in times of bounty, to whom he imputes all that is arcane, to whom he tacitly owes for all that is understood, to whom he disregards when he blunders, to whom he repents in guilt. What followed was an antagonistic confrontation between competing schools of religious indoctrination and propaganda, insofar as each believed its own version of this superior force to be the superlative truth. Think of the Crusades for one, and now think of the present global terror scenario as a warped version of an extended modern-day Crusade.

 

The point of this exercise was to demonstrate through example how the present scenario is simply an intermediate step in an ever-evolving finality of consequences. Paradigms are amorphously amoebic over time and are by construction bound to be incorrect, largely due to the inherent weakness in human reasoning. It’s almost as if we started out at a point which in itself was spurious, and this point in its own turn spawned more points, so on and so forth. Think of these points spreading out in due course, forming a circle as they hypnotically chant in unison ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses’. Now we all know how that ends, don’t we? We all fall down…

 

To cut to the chase, we are all (tragically unconsciously) living malaises of our own doing, failing to realise that there’s a cause for celebration in the conspicuous fact of existence per se. We are so obsessed with our immediate man-made concerns (most of which are variants of one-upmanship), that we unwittingly smite our very selves through the aggregation of our individual endeavours. Our problems are entwined and sprout from the same hybrid seed of pettiness, apathy, malice, cant and mendacity. What follows is a snowballing, or, put more acutely, a metastasizing of these envenomed seeds in the very system we proudly vaunt as civilisation. 

 

It has been said that the hand of fate is moving, but what is of paramount importance is that the finger points at us, together as one and all. The hand is, of course, guided by the minds of men, and it is in this sense that the fate of man is written. To misuse an Economist’s jargon, we are all price takers (the price taking behaviour is abstractly indicative of our willy-nilly acceptance of the system in which we operate) in a competitive environment, and as ‘the circle’ assumes higher dimension, we are all ill-fated in the aggregate.

 

Though arguably, a liberal mindset is necessary to diagnose the systemic puckers (the infinite points that constitute ‘the circle’), I am apprehensive of its sufficiency to iron them out. This inadequacy is again attributable to the inability of man to ratiocinate holistically. In the aggregate there will always be elements that succumb to a misapprehended mission – a calling for retribution and coercive proselytizing, to extend the previously used example of religion. I am afraid that both in principle and in effect, human beings are organised in a vast plot of balkanisation – selfishly unaware. The Human race commenced on a false start, and now it’s too late to restart.

 

Perhaps, one day, we finally will understand that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of yearn that underlies all human activity, needling us on to greater consciousness? That confirmation and reaffirmation that we are all human in body, mind and spirit?; that feeling of longing, but we can’t pinpoint what we crave for? Until then, we must all respectively draw breaths of resignation, and solemnly come to terms with the present reality of each one to his own, as he may contrive. Incidentally, isn’t that precisely how we define anarchy? Today’s trials, tomorrow’s tribulations…

 

 

 

The writer is a student of Economics at Cambridge, and the Editor of Liberal Voice.

 

 

Liberalism after the Death of Politics

Liberalism after the Death of Politics

                                                                            – by Seth Thévoz

 

For much of the last century, British Liberals have been met with derision. Whilst liberalism has flourished at the heart of government in countries such as Canada, in Britain it has been accused of being abstract, vague, and unconnected to the day-to-day rough-and-tumble of politics. Indeed, the remaining proponents of liberalism in the UK are something of an oddity: They believe in something. Amidst the professinalisation of politics, and its subjection to the process of advertising, the British political spectrum does not have much to offer by way of ideology. In surveying the landscape around us, we shall see that British politics is both very hostile to ideologies, and yet has never been in more need of an ideology, especially liberalism.

 

Socialism is dead. That much is certain. What allegedly left-wing politicians now call ‘socialism’ or ‘social democracy’ or even its loosest ‘New Labour’ permutations are so far removed from the ideological roots of socialism, or indeed ideological roots of any kind, that it is more a combination of pragmatism, and a desire to capture the electoral inheritence of the traditional Labour coalition; a vast alliance of inner cities, progressive suburbs, declining industry, and a unionised workforce. The Labour Party in its present ‘New’ form is a deeply cynical exercise in power politics that seeks to dominate elections by occupying ‘the middle ground’; the problem with New Labour permanently seeking to occupy ‘the middle ground’, is that it is not a fixed point. There is no principle involved in ‘The Third Way’, indeed, as political issues and debates vary every year, so the middle ground oscillates wildly between the left and the right, the liberal and the authoritarian. To quote Tony Blair himself, “I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is power.” That holds true of the New Labour coalition.

 

Turning to the more traditionally socialist elements of the Labour Party, they are doomed to pursue small-C conservatism. Not the conservatism of the economic right, but the moderate conservatism which comes from a lack of imagination; an overdependence on tried and trusted methods; a distrust of innovation. It is the conservatism that does not question the old wisdom that the Trade Unions know best, collective wisdom is always superior to that of the individual, and so the mantra of ‘might is right’ survives through the majority always suppressing the minority, whether it be through the electoral college of Trade Union bloc votes, or the flagrant disregard for ‘outsiders’ who are not part of the Labour movement – consider, for example, the unabashedly exclusionist immigration policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments in the late 1960s and 1970s which bordered on racism. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that traditional socialism, with its tribalism and chauvinism, has few adherents today even in the Labour Party.

 

On the other side of the spectrum, traditional, paternalistic conservatism is dead also; at least, within the Conservative party. If paternalistic conservatives can bear to wear jeans, they might find a reasonable imitation of their creed amidst the bland centrism of New Labour, but certainly not within the Conservative Party. Despite the attempts of Major and even Cameron to lay claim to the old ‘One Nation’ mantle, the Conservative Party today seems suspiciously far from the ideas of Disraeli and Macmillan that resolved to unite the ‘two nations; the rich and the poor.’ Even with their new ‘cuddly’ image, the Conservatives have not recently been able to lay claim to the title of ‘unifier’. What Alan Duncan referred to as The Tory Taleban still carry enough weight to have made the party divisive, and abrasive to many on issues such as the repeal of Section 28, William Hague’s populist U-turning in opposing lower fuel taxes one week, and proposing the lowest of all the next. This Tory Taleban does still wield a strong streak of Thatcherite dogma – a good counter, it could be argued, to the idea that politics is devoid of ideology. But they are ever increasingly being marginalised by the slick, professional, insincere image being projected – in the case of Margaret Thatcher during the last election, quite literally the embarrassing relative being kept locked up in the attic. We live in a political culture where one is penalised for sincerity, and rewarded for blandness and a lack of any views whatsoever.

 

The Liberal Democrats do not claim to be a home for all the vanquished and sidelined ideologies – though it is certainly worth mourning the passing away of a politics based on the engagement of ideas. What they do represent is a vehicle for Liberal ideas amidst a political process which no longer places great emphasis on ideas of any kind. Perhaps the massively prescriptive ideologies of past centuries have had their day – but if so, there is no satisfactory successor to them.

 

If ideology is to be reinvigorated within politics, surely liberalism is the framework for it. One of liberalism’s many strengths is that it is a means, rather than an end – a system of governing through due process, safeguarding against abuses of power. Liberal systems can end up paving the way for governments of the left, or the right – or they can remain Liberal. Witness, for example, how the United States was founded upon one of the most liberal constitutions, but how it has grown profoundly conservative over the years in its defence of that original constitution. Contrast this with the gradual reshaping of Canada over the years, how the increasing progressive liberalism of the Trudeau years culminated in the constitution of 1982, and how successive Conservative governments since then have still not succeeded in removing the underlying liberal consensus in everyday attitudes forged over the past few decades.

 

No liberal could ever dispute the central message of Voltaire’s argument, “I may vehemently disagree with what you say, but I would die for your right to say it.” What a vibrant, liberal democracy needs is a meaningful dialogue of opposing views to be considered by actively participating citizens. Ever lazy parties with ever lazier, simplified slogans, asking less and less of the people is not the way to engage people. What is needed is a Liberal approach based on devolving power to the people; taking power out of the hands of Whitehall, and giving it to local councils. If local elections were meaningful, and had real power over local schools and hospitals, they would actually be worth turning up for, instead of generating dismal 40% turnouts, and votes based on vague impressions rather than real interest. If local and national issues were separated, then elections could actually be about specific issues, instead of once every five years being a maelstrom of parochial referenda irrelevant to the elections at hand. What is needed is nothing less than a Liberal reshaping of the constitution of this country, to restore a sense of ownership in our politics and our politicians. Only with this level of attention to detail can we get out of the rut of advertising agency politics.

 

The writer has graduated from Cambridge in History and Politics, and was the CSLD chair in the year 2005.

ID-Day Report

During a bitterly cold week, late in November, CSLD’s committee and its volunteers braved arctic weather conditions and battled porters covetously guarding their pigeon-holes to deliver 8,000 leaflets for our Michaelmas campaign: ID-DAY. Even before the day itself, interest had surged; press enquiries were coming in from Falmouth to Leeds and over 100 people had signed our petition online. The message was simple: the ID Cards scheme is expensive, intrusive, ineffective and unfair, but it can be defeated. We asked people across Cambridge to sign our petition calling on the government to drop plans for ID Cards and, more controversially, to refuse to register for an ID Card. Overwhelmingly, people on the streets of Cambridge were supportive of our campaign, reflected in the number of signatures we managed to collect – 500 in total. But more worryingly for the government, nearly 150 people pledged to refuse to register for an ID Card. On ID-DAY, CSLD sent out a stark message to the government: Cambridge will not comply.