by Kumar David
Herman Melville wrote his only true classic in 1851, one hundred maybe two hundred years before its time which is now. If read as allegory like all great tales it unfolds in different eras with varied import. D. H. Lawrence proclaimed Moby Dick “futurist long before futurism found paint” and “one of the strangest and most wonderful books and one of the greatest book of the sea ever written.” A reviewer in the New Yorker said in 2011; “To my mind, there are only two other works which bear comparison, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights” – when we limit our compass to English novels. Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities seem to have slipped his mind. The universal view is that Moby Dick is a prophetic allegory; what does it foreshadow?
Interpretations have been many but two stand out; one is the futility of revenge, the soul destructiveness of bitterness; a morality play. The other is Lawrence’s “Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper in the dark trees of America. Doom of what? Doom of our white day. We are doomed and the doom is in America”. Inflated as oft times with DHL, in simple words he says civilization is in decline; a common view that Melville’s forebodings are about Christian-White civilisation. The text entertains with tongue in cheek ridicule of the Church and ‘savage’ Queequeg is a gentleman in the midst of white trash.
To prognosticate that American Civilisation is in terminal debility and will soon fall is, as Mark Twain declared when he saw news-reports of his death, a little exaggerated. China and India are ‘have beens’ and may soon be ‘once-agains’; America is still an ‘is’, and likely to remain so for some decades. Yes, US imperialism ravaged the earth, but America has also been a beacon for the best and the brightest; Einstein fled from Nazism to Princeton, Chaplin made some of the greatest of all movies in Hollywood, Maria Callas was born six months after her parents migrated to the US and Audrey Hepburn emigrated to America at the age of 22 to become a movie icon. Six of the world’s ten best universities are in America, thousands of the best athletes, scholars, musicians, nut cases and avaricious and aspiring devotees of thannaha, not to mention my readers and my own dear family swoon for a Green Card.
It’s a melting pot, it’s a place like no other. I am neither pro nor anti American, neither pro or anti any nation, race, caste, clan or creed. Sure, I am an agnostic and I hold patriotism to be the “last refuge of the scoundrel” and am surprised how many people take pride in their hela, jathiya and kula, unaware of Portuguese soldiers, day-labourers and itinerant vendors who surely hugely entertained their great and greater grandmothers. The US economy will be demoted to number two in size this decade and China will reach parity in technological sophistication within a generation, but on the broader qualitative indicators I have adverted to in this paragraph the waning of America’s status to just another country will be gradual. I remind you again that if the decline of the Roman Empire commenced with the ascension of Commodus (AD 176), the fall of the Western Empire is dated to 200 or 300 years later depending on which historian you believe.
Nevertheless the medium term compels a pessimistic reading of where the US is heading. The income of Americans at all levels has fallen below that of their parents consistently since the War. The hegemony of the dollar will wither and with it US global power. Americans will not cease to live beyond their means hence domestic and foreign debt will continue to burgeon. Fourth and most worrying is an unfathomable flight from common sense and moderation in political space.
Last week I wrote of the Digital Yuan and attempts by two or three groups of countries to set up Multiple Central Bank Digital Currency Bridges, an arrangement which allows transactions to be cleared directly without recourse to the dollars or SWIFT as intermediaries. The shift from oil to green energy also diminishes the clout of the petrodollar. Both changes dent the dollar’s global hegemony and with it the long term influence of American power.
X-axis: Parental income percentile (50 for example is the Median Income Family)
(Explanation: In 1940 nearly everybody earned about 95% as much as their parents did but by1980 just
40% (Y-axis) earned more than their parents did if they belonged to the bellow 75% (X-axis) income groups)
Covid is under control, new covid cases in the US have fallen tenfold since January. There is a visible recovery in American consumer spending and economic activity. The dynamics however are complicated. Biden has pumped out $3 trillion as inducements for companies and as handouts and relief measures such as very generous unemployment support, a moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent, food assistance and support for small businesses. In 2020 ordinary people hoarded money for hard times, they were afraid to spend, but now confidence is returning.
The rich splurged on an asset buying binge, putting stimulus money into the stock market and property, creating a significant asset-price bubble. Q1-2021 GDP growth rate was up at 6.1% annualised, and inflation picked up smartly to 4.2% annualised in April 2021. Inflation is well above the Fed’s target rate of 2% to 2.5% and Biden’s spending splash is sending shivers down the spine of the well to do moneyed classes. They fear that if a still reluctant Fed is forced to raise interest rates the asset-price bubble would pop losing them billions of dollars in ill-gotten asset values. Economists worry that it may put a brake on the economic recovery. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times says “Milton Friedman said inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. This is wrong: inflation is always and everywhere a political phenomenon”. Well of course “always and everywhere” is incorrect but I grant it is so right now.
Though covid induced supply-chain bottlenecks are putting a brake on imports the accelerating consumer binge will take its revenge and America’s trade deficit will swell again. The monthly trade deficits from January to March 2021 in billions were as follows: $65.7, $67.5, $70.5 and $74.5 pointing at an annual trade deficit just shy of a trillion dollars which is much larger than at any time in the past. The US National Debt right now is $29 trillion and is rising inexorably – but if unfunded promises like future Medicare, Social Security and other liabilities are included this rises to the gigantic figure of $130 trillion. About $7 trillion of current National Debt is held by foreign countries, principally Japan and China. US GDP in 2019 was $21.5 trillion (2020 statistics are and 2021 will be atypical). It has to be appreciated is that the US is a colossally indebted country and can get away with it only because everybody is willing to hold the greenback, an international currency.
What is relevant to the doomsday scenario in this column is that the stature of a great imperial power is threatened if ever its finances run aground.
Melville does not depict Captain Ahab as clinically insane but as overcome by hate and demented by an obsession. Ahab is Trump and Trump is Ahab; a leg chewed off there and a self-destructive obsession driven by the White Whale of a million-strong half-crazed grassroots juggernaut here. This is not adjectival overload; there are one, or two million white supremacists, neo-fascists and weirdos in the Trump Base. But the worry is not these weird ones, it is the near entirety of the Republican Party and about a third of the population. Three in four Republicans believe that Trump won the election and it was stolen by a conspiracy of election officials and massive voter fraud; maybe they also believe that the moon is made of green cheese. Americans say that their country is the greatest democracy on earth and some in the same breadth declare that it is the site of the greatest electoral fraud ever.
Schizophrenia on this scale is dangerous; the Republican Party hangs on it and encourages it. All Republican Senators and Congressmen except one or two endorse this dystopian reality. Liz Cheney, daughter of a former presidential candidate was booted out the leadership caucus for publicly saying “Trump lost the election”. Her popularity among Republicans has slumped to 15% – Trump’s popularity in the Party is 84%. Though the world ridicules Donald Trump and sees him as an oafish lout his popularity in the GOP mass is sky high. His overall public approval must be about 30 to 35% if one in three Americans is a Republican and a few neutrals also like him. This is scary; were one-third of Germans infatuated with Hitler so early in the game of encroaching fascism?
“America is no more immune from collapse than some most stable and impressive consensual governments” warns Victor Davis Hanson. “Fifth-century Athens, Republican Rome, Renaissance Florence and Venice, and many elected governments of early 20th-century Western Europe destroyed themselves, went bankrupt, or were overrun by invaders.” Of all the symptoms indicating the ailments of democracy in America the most worrying is the political deficit in moderation, reason, sobriety and tolerance. Hindutva is the most widespread of all mass ideologies in India now; rank Sinhala Buddhism has claimed ownership of this country for two generations. It is gangrene if ignoble Trumpism makes deep inroads; if fascism wins in America it will take the world down with it. There will be no one left to call Ishmael, it will all be ‘Call me Fuhrer!’ thereafter.
(Maybe omit this pic; it has become commonplace)
President picks up the gauntlet
by Jehan Perera
By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.
President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.
But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.
Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.
At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”
The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.
It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.
On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.
An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.
Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka
by Anushka Kahandagamage
Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.
School children as “drug addicts”
A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”
Bhikku students as “alcoholics”
The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.
The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.
University students as “terrorists”
The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.
The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.
Privatization of Education
The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.
The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.
Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)
Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive
For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation
Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.
Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.
However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:
“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”
Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.
Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.
“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.
“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”
Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.
“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.
“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.
Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.
“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.
“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”
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