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Moby Dick: American Civilisation Imperilled

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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.

END

(Maybe omit this pic; it has become commonplace)



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Features

TNGlive relieving boredom

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Yes, indeed, the going is tough for everyone, due to the pandemic, and performers seem to be very badly hit, due to the lockdowns.

Our local artistes are feeling the heat and so are their counterparts in most Indian cities.

However, to relieve themselves of the boredom, while staying at home, quite a few entertaining Indian artistes, especially from the Anglo-Indian scene, have showcased their talents on the very popular social media platform TNGlive.

And, there’s plenty of variety – not just confined to the oldies, or the current pop stuff; there’s something for everyone. And, some of the performers are exceptionally good.

Lynette John is one such artiste. She hails from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and she was quite impressive, with her tribute to American singer Patsy Cline.

She was featured last Thursday, as well (June 10), on TNGlive, in a programme, titled ‘Love Songs Special,’ and didn’t she keep viewers spellbound – with her power-packed vocals, and injecting the real ‘feel’ into the songs she sang.

What an awesome performance.

Well, if you want to be a part of the TNGlive scene, showcasing your talents, contact Melantha Perera, on 0773958888.

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Supreme Court on Port City Bill: Implications for Fundamental Rights and Devolution

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The determination of the Supreme Court on the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill was that as many as 26 provisions of the Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Court further determined that nine provisions of the Bill also required the approval of the people at a referendum.

Among the grounds of challenge was that the Bill effectively undermined the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and infringed on the sovereignty of the people. It was argued that several provisions undermined the legislative power of the People reposed on Parliament. Several provisions were challenged as violating fundamental rights of the People and consequently violating Article 3, read with Article 4(d) of the Constitution. Another ground of challenge was that the Bill contained provisions that dealt with subjects that fall within the ambit of the Provincial Council List and thus had to be referred to every Provincial Council for the expression of its views thereon as required by Article 154G(3).

 

Applicable constitutional provisions

Article 3 of our Constitution recognises that “[i]n the Republic of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable”. Article 3 further provides that “Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise”. Article 3 is entrenched in the sense that a Bill inconsistent with it must by virtue of Article 83 be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the people at a referendum.

Article 4 lays down the manner in which sovereignty shall be exercised and enjoyed. For example, Article 4(d) requires that “fundamental rights which are by the Constitution declared and recognised shall be respected, secured and advanced by all the organs of government and shall not be abridged, restricted or denied, save in the manner and to the extent hereinafter provided”. Article 4 is not mentioned in Article 83. In its determinations on the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 2002 and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 2002, a seven-member Bench of the Supreme Court noted with approval that the Court had ruled in a series of cases that Article 3 is linked up with Article 4 and that the said Articles should be read together. This line of reasoning was followed by the Court in its determination on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill.

Under Article 154G(3), Parliament may legislate on matters in the Provincial Council List but under certain conditions. A Bill on a matter in the Provincial Council List must be referred by the President, after its publication in the Gazette and before it is placed in the Order Paper of Parliament, to every Provincial Council for the expression of its views thereon. If every Council agrees to the passing of the Bill, it may be passed by a simple majority. But if one or more Councils do not agree, a two-thirds majority is required if the law is to be applicable in all Provinces, including those that did not agree. If passed by a simple majority, the law will be applicable only in the Provinces that agreed.

 

Violation of fundamental rights and need for a referendum

Several petitioners alleged that certain provisions of the Port City Bill violated fundamental rights. The rights referred to were mainly Article 12(1)—equality before the law and equal protection of the law, Article 14(1)(g)—freedom to engage in a lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise— and Article 14(1)(h)—freedom of movement. Some petitioners specifically averred that provisions that violated fundamental rights consequently violated Articles 3 and 4 and thus needed people’s approval at a referendum.

The Supreme Court determined that several provisions of the Bill violated various fundamental rights and thus were required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The question of whether the said provisions consequently violated Article 4(d) and thus Article 3 and therefore required the approval of the People at a referendum was not ruled on.

The Essential Public Services Bill, 1979 was challenged as being violative of both Article 11 (cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment) and Article 14. Mr. H.L. de Silva argued that a Bill that violates any fundamental right is also inconsistent with Article 4(d) and, therefore, with Article 3. The Supreme Court held that the Bill violated Article 11 but not Article 14. Since a Bill that violates Article 11 has, in any case, to be approved at a referendum as Article 11 is listed in Article 83, the Court declined to decide on whether the Bill offended Article 3 as well, as it “is a well-known principle of constitutional law that a court should not decide a constitutional issue unless it is directly relevant to the case before it.”

A clear decision on the issue came about in the case of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution Bill; a seven-member Bench of the Supreme Court held that the exclusion of the decisions of the Constitutional Council from the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Court was inconsistent with Articles 12 (1) and 17 (remedy for the infringement of fundamental rights by executive action) and consequently inconsistent with Article 3, necessitating the approval of the Bill at a referendum.

When the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill sought to restore the immunity of the President in respect fundamental rights applications, the Supreme Court determined that the “People’s entitlement to remedy under Article 17 is absolute and is a direct expression of People’s fundamental rights under Article 3 of the Constitution.”

In the case of the Port City Bill, however, the Supreme Court only determined that certain provisions of the Bill violated fundamental rights and thus required a two-thirds majority, but did not go further to say that the offending provisions also required approval of the people at a referendum.

Perhaps, the Court took into consideration the Attorney-General’s assurance during the hearing that the impugned clauses would be amended at the committee stage in Parliament.

However, Parliament is not bound by the Attorney-General’s assurances. In the absence of a clear determination that the clauses concerned required a referendum as well, Parliament could have passed the clauses by a two-thirds majority. The danger inherent in the Supreme Court holding that a provision of a Bill violates fundamental rights and requires a two-thirds majority but makes no reference to the requirement of a referendum is that a government with a two-thirds majority is free to violate fundamental rights, and hence the sovereignty of the People by using such majority. It is respectfully submitted that the Court should, whenever it finds that a provision violates fundamental rights, declare that Article 3 is also violated and a referendum is necessary, as it did in the cases mentioned.

 

The need to refer the Bill to Provincial Councils

The Port City Bill had not been referred to the Provincial Councils, all the Provincial Councils having been dissolved. The Court, following earlier decisions, held that in the absence of constituted Provincial Councils, referring the Bill to all Provincial Councils is an act which could not possibly be performed.

In the case of the Divineguma II Bill, the question arose as to the applicability of the Bill to the Northern Provincial Council, which was not constituted at that time. The Court held while the Bill cannot possibly be referred to a Council that had not been constituted, the views of the Governor (who had purported to express consent) could not be considered as the views of the Council. In the circumstances, the only workable interpretation is that since the views of one Provincial Council cannot be obtained due to it being not constituted, the Bill would require to be passed by a two-thirds majority. Although not explicitly stated by the Court, this would mean that if the Bill is passed by a simple majority only, it will not apply in the Northern Province. The Bill was passed in Parliament by a two-thirds majority. The Divineguma II Bench comprised Shirani Bandaranayake CJ and Justices Amaratunga and Sripavan, and it is well-known that the decision and the decision on the Divineguma I Bill cost Chief Justice Bandaranayake her position.

It is submitted that Article 154G (3) has two requirements—one procedural and one substantive. The former is that a Bill on any matter in the Provincial Council List must be referred to all Provincial Councils. The latter is that in the absence of the consent of all Provincial Councils, the Bill must be passed by a two-thirds majority if it is to apply to the whole country. If such a Bill is passed only by a simple majority, it would apply only in the Provinces which have consented.

The Divineguma II determination accords with the ultimate object of Article 154G(3), namely, that a Bill can be imposed on a Province whose Provincial Council has not consented to it only by a two-thirds majority. It also accords with the spirit of devolution.

A necessary consequence of the Court’s determination on the Port City Bill is that it permits a government to impose a Bill on a Provincial Council matter on a “disobedient” Province by a simple majority once the Provincial Council is dissolved and before an election is held. What is worse is that at a time when all Provincial Councils are dissolved, such as now, a Bill that is detrimental to devolution can be so imposed on the entire country. It is submitted that this issue should be re-visited when the next Bill on a Provincial Council matter is presented and the Supreme Court invited to make a determination that accords with the spirit of devolution, which is an essential part of the spirit of our Constitution.

 

 

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‘Down On My Knees’ inspires Suzi

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There are certain songs that inspire us a great deal – perhaps the music, the lyrics, etc.

Singer Suzi Fluckiger (better known as Suzi Croner, to Sri Lankans) went ga-ga when she heard the song ‘Down On My Knees’ – first the version by Eric Guest, from India, then the original version by Freddie Spires, and then another version by an Indian band, called Circle of Love.

Suzi was so inspired by the lyrics of this particular song that she immediately went into action, and within a few days, she came up with her version of ‘Down On My knees.’

In an exclusive chit-chat, with The Island Star Track, she said she is now working on a video, for this particular song.

“The moment I heard ‘Down On My Knees,’ I fell in love with the inspiring lyrics, and the music, and I thought to myself I, too, need to express my feelings, through this beautiful song.

“I’ve already completed the audio and I’m now working on the video, and no sooner it’s ready, I will do the needful, on social media.”

Suzi also mentioned to us that this month (June), four years ago, she lost her husband Roli Fluckiger.

“It’s sad when you lose the person you love but, then, we all have to depart, one day. And, with that in mind, I believe it’s imperative that we fill our hearts with love and do good…always.”

A few decades ago, Suzi and the group Friends were not only immensely popular, in Sri Lanka, but abroad, as well – especially in Europe.

In Colombo, the Friends fan club had a membership of over 1500 members. For a local band, that’s a big scene, indeed!

In Switzerland, where she now resides, Suzi is doing the solo scene and was happy that the lockdown, in her part of the world, has finally been lifted.

Her first gig, since the lockdown (which came into force on December 18th, 2020), was at a restaurant, called Flavours of India, with her singing partner from the Philippines, Sean, who now resides in Switzerland. (Sean was seen performing with Suzi on the TNGlive platform, on social media, a few weeks ago).

“It was an enjoyable event, with those present having a great time. I, too, loved doing my thing, after almost six months.’

Of course, there are still certain restrictions, said Suzi – only four to a table and a maximum crowd of 50.

“Weekends are going to be busy for me, as I already have work coming my way, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to going out…on stage, performing.”

In the meanwhile, Suzi will continue to entertain her fans, and music lovers, on TNGlive – whenever time permits, she said,

She has already done three shows, on TNGlive – the last was with her Filipino friend, Sean.

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