by Susantha Hewa
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
“From rags to riches” is old hat. It no longer kindles any hope in the aspiring hearts of the poor. Now it’s “from super-rich to super-viral rich.” millions have lost their lives, livelihoods, health, wealth and loved ones. However, the world’s billionaires and the super-rich have prospered. Covid–19, has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for business tycoons. According to Americans for TaxFairness and the Institute of Policy Studies, “between 18 March 2020 and 19 February 2021, the combined wealth of US billionaires increased by $ 1.3trn, a 44.6% in the space of just 48 weeks.” The US specimen, surely, proves the rule rather than the exception.
As for the average person, the virus has enriched both his vocabulary and the perception of suffering. Among some unfamiliar terms that have invaded our personal dictionaries are PCR, RAT, PPE and lockdowns. A few not so unfamiliar words like masks, sanitizers, hand-washing, quarantine and vaccine have acquired an unusual sense of urgency. There are yet other ‘semantic’ changes, so to speak. For example, the term “social distancing” which would have been more relevant in a decadent social context where underprivileged groups are excluded and denigrated on cultural notions of so called ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ has been used to mean “physical distancing.” And, to “keep someone at arm’s length” has dropped its figurative sense of disdain and acquired its literal sense of keeping someone at a meter’s distance.
During the early phase of its onset, the idea that the pandemic was going to be a leveller- a no respecter of differences based on ethnicity, religion, social status, wealth and power began to sink into people’s collective psyche. Now people are much less convinced. Since big-time scammers of every sort lost no time in realising that the tide of the coronavirus waits for no speculator, we have further improved our lexicon with novel additions, like “vaccine nationalism.”
In a global democracy, which, one may cynically call a “marketocracy,” any global catastrophe is a profit venture for Hoard-More Sapiens, considering how the market controls and almost defines our life in a consumerist society. We, in Sri Lanka, aren’t short of examples. Currently, sugar and garlic top the list of household words. They are uttered either with a hiss or a shrug of resignation. A few moons ago, ‘vaccine-nepotism’ and high-pricing and hoarding and underhand dealings in testing-tools used to be the hot topics, which were then crowded out by more mundane subjects like sugar and garlic. The latest addition to the list of woes is the crippling price hike of LP gas, milk powder, wheat flour and cement. A delay in supplies helps people to come to terms with the increased prices; the longer the delay the readier they are to pay the extra amount without grumbling.
Isn’t this a real mess? How many more pandemics must strike the world to make us feel ashamed of the wealth and power earned over the misery of millions? How many more centuries of mass suffering must we pass before we realise that intimate human relations are more beautiful than living alone in one’s island of prosperity amidst oceans of misery? Should the sense of happiness and wellbeing of all allowed to be subordinated to any convention or institution- be it the ethnicity, race, religion, culture or the all-powerful market? Bob Dylan asks:
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
If politicians are all out to serve people, why should they be on two opposing sides? How can they have diametrically opposing attitudes to peoples’ problems depending on where they “sit” ‘for the benefit of the people?’
The problem lies in the shifting distance between the people and the politicians as they change slots every five years or so. The Opposition always keeps close to the people while the ruling party keeps its distance- much more than a meter! Elections are a matter of deciding which party is going to win and be distanced from the masses from day one. Hasn’t this been the long and the short of our political experience, which is our life?
The Norwegian sociologist and criminologist, Nils Christie, sees empathy or fellow-feeling as the single most important factor in deep and fulfilling human relations. He describes how the “distance” between people determines how indifferently or sympathetically we interpret their motives and actions:
“Think of children. Our own children and those of others. Most children sometimes act in ways that according to the law might be called crimes. Some money may disappear from a purse. The son does not tell the truth, at least the whole truth, as to where he spent the evening. He beats his brother. But still, we do not apply categories from penal law. We do not call the child a criminal and we do not call the acts, crimes. Why? It just does not feel right. Why not? Because we know too much…” (Crime Control as Industry).
He goes on to describe how the boy who steals money from the purse and beats his brother has on numerous occasions “shared his money or sweets or warmth. He hit his brother, but he has more often comforted him; he lied, but he is basically trustworthy.” Although Nils here is dealing with our attitudes to “crime,” the underlying appeal and the thrust of the argument is that empathy makes a world of difference in our seeing and interpreting the ‘other’ in all matters in life.
The all-important question is how much distance we keep with the ‘other.’ If we know enough of the other, will there be so much suffering for the “faceless” millions? Can the market, however revered and celebrated as “efficient,” alleviate the suffering of the masses? Doesn’t the term “the masses” trivialise the profound concern it deserves, which has been abandoned for too long? Perhaps, “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Daunting challenges ahead
GR two years in office:
By Shamindra Ferdinando
‘Signature of The Executive’
(first volume Nov-Dec 2021) and ‘Two Years of Prosperity Amidst Challenges: State Governance Committed to the Country and the People’ dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s two years in office. Edited by veteran journalist, Sugeeswara Senadhira, who had held previous government appointments, the two publications discussed the new government’s strategy under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership against the backdrop of the Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, betrayal of the war-winning armed forces at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council in Oct 2015, soaring cost of living and the ruination of the agriculture-based economy.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa handsomely won the Nov 2019 presidential election. The wartime Defence Secretary polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes, whereas his nearest rival, Sajith Premadasa, who contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket, secured 5.6 mn votes. Interestingly, the UNP fielded the then General Sarath Fonseka (2010 presidential) and Maithripala Sirisena (2015 presidential) on the NDF ticket though that party never had any representation at local government, Provincial Councils or parliamentary level.
President’s Director General (Media) Sudewa Hettiarachchi, formerly of Hiru and Swarnavahini, presented copies of the anniversary publications to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Anuradhapura Janadhipathi Mandiraya recently. Among those present was Presidential Spokesperson Kingsly Ratnayaka, who had served Sirasa for nearly three decades. ‘Signature of The Executive’ also explained the long-felt need for the Presidential Media Division (PMD), inaugurated on July 29, 2021. Sudewa Hettiarachchi, who had been the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Swarnavahini, succeeded Mohan Samaranayake in early May this year.
The two publications essentially discussed the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government’s accomplishments. It would be pertinent to mention that Gotabaya Rajapaksa never obtained the membership of the SLPP though the latter fielded him at the presidential poll and to date the status quo remains.
Let me examine President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s two years in office – a period of unprecedented political turmoil, uncertainty and further deterioration of Parliament. In fact, the UNP, with the support of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, paved the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature at the 2019 presidential by blocking Mahinda Rajapaksa’s path to another term. The yahapalana government brought in the 19th Amendment in 2015 to deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa the opportunity to contest the presidency again. The 19th Amendment also prevented dual and foreign citizens from contesting presidential and parliamentary polls under any circumstances. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose entry into active politics had been facilitated by civil society organisations, ‘Viyathmaga’ and ‘Eliya’, gave up his US citizenship to enter the fray.
Having won the presidency with an overwhelming majority at the last election, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced a major attack within a week. Interested parties staged an abduction of Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Banister Francis (former Siriyalatha Perera) in the wake of police Inspector Nishantha Silva of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) securing political asylum in Switzerland. The well planned maneuver was aimed at giving a turbo boost to accusations emanating from the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the Secretary, Ministry of Defence and brought the war to a successful conclusion, which the Western countries, led by the US and the UK, could not stomach as that went against their oft repeated narrative that the Tigers could not be defeated in the battlefield by the Sri Lankan security forces.
Against whatever violations the LTTE committed, even under an advantageous ceasefire, drafted by the Norwegians and blindly signed away by UNP Leader and PM Ranil Wickremesighe in 2001, the West kept on insisting that the only solution to the conflict lay in a negotiated settlement. What the West was aiming for was a peace of the graveyard here, when they would be the ultimate victors.
The Swiss Embassy, the United National Party (UNP) that had been routed at the 2019 presidential election and some sections of local and foreign media played significant roles in the operation meant to discredit President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They almost succeeded. An alert President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thwarted the Swiss plot by refusing the conspirators’ move to evacuate the Embassy employee and her family in an air ambulance that had been flown in advance and kept on standby at BIA. Had the wartime Defence Secretary succumbed to pressure, the conspirators would have achieved their despicable objective in delivering a heavy blow to the newly elected President within a week after his inauguration. For the Swiss, well known for handling blood money, this staged drama would have been child’s play.
The Swiss Embassy abduction drama is now before the Colombo High Court. This particular case should have been dealt with expeditiously. Francis claimed that on November 25, 2019, five persons, who arrived in a white vehicle, abducted her in the Cinnamon Garden area, in Colombo, threatened her with a firearm, detained her for several hours and questioned her about the CID Inspector Nishantha Silva, who fled the country. She has been indicted under the Penal Code for allegedly making a false claim that she was abducted and sexually harassed.
The Foreign Ministry owed an explanation how it addressed the Swiss Embassy drama as well as a CID officer receiving political asylum in Switzerland. The Foreign Ministry appeared to have conveniently forgotten the case though at the onset the then Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena handled the case enthusiastically. The Swiss Embassy drama dominated the local media for a couple of weeks while the influential conspirators got even the New York Times to report an entirely one sided Swiss Embassy affair, even before the then Swiss Ambassador Hans Peter Mock brought the alleged incident to Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s notice. Prof. Peiris, who succeeded Dinesh Gunawardena in August this year, should review the CID officer’s case.
By turning down the Swiss request to evacuate its employee, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reversed the trap. Had the evacuation taken place, as planned, the accusations pertaining to the alleged sexual harassment couldn’t have been challenged. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa survived the Swiss conspiracy. This particular case and the way we are being singled out for targeting at UNHRC shows that countries like the USA, the UK and Switzerland can literally get away with murder because of their clout.
In early Feb. 2020, the media reported the alleged involvement of one-time SriLankan Airlines CEO Kapila Chandrasena and his wife Priyanka Niyomali Wijenayake in money laundering. The Attorney General directed the CID to obtain a warrant to arrest them. The Chandrasenas have been quite influential during the previous Rajapaksa administration. They had been so influential, that Kapila Chandrasena, in spite of serious corruption charges, received the appointment as Chairman of the national carrier in the immediate aftermath of a constitutional coup staged by the then President Maithripala Sirisena. The 52-day government reversed the decision amidst media furore over the controversial appointment. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the CID to conduct investigation into corruption charges pertaining to the Chandrasekeras role in the re-fleeting plans. Police headquarters owes an explanation to the country as regards the status of the high profile inquiry.
The failure on the part of the police to bring the investigation to a successful conclusion should be examined taking into consideration the Attorney General and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) withdrawing about 50 high profile cases on technical grounds. Two years after the presidential directive for an investigation into the Chandrasena affair, the government is in a fresh dilemma over the Pandora Papers disclosure pertaining to former lawmaker Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirikumar Nadesean named by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The failure on the part of the CIABOC to record Nirupama Rajapaksa’s statement several weeks after a presidential directive to the outfit, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eva Wanasundara, underscores the callous and snail’s pace at which such sensitive investigations are handled.
Similarly, the country is in the dark as to what the authorities are doing about Pandora revelations pertaining to one time government ministry super secretary R. Paskaralingam, who had been working very closely and powerfully with former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Nor do we know what the authorities had done about previous revelations made by, for example Panama papers, whose revelations were no less shocking, especially into those who had held Swiss bank accounts.
The Covid-19 pandemic erupted here in March 2020, ahead of the scheduled parliamentary polls in April 2020, although the first confirmed case was reported in early January 2020. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave resolute leadership to Sri Lanka’s battle against the rapid spreading infection. The President’s controversial decision to mobilise the armed forces and place the Covid Task Force under Army Chief General Shavendra Silva’s command paid dividends.
Sri Lanka’s efforts to curb Covid-19 suffered a debilitating setback due to rapid deterioration of the epidemic in India that resulted in the sudden stoppage of the supply of the Covi-shield vaccine and the delay on the part of Sri Lanka in using 600,000 doses of Sinopham donated by China. India never resumed Covi-shield supplies thereby compelling Sri Lanka to largely depend on the Chinese vaccine, which actually saved us from a far greater calamity as was seen in India.
It would be pertinent to mention that before the Covid-19 eruption, Sri Lanka suffered a staggering setback when the US categorised Gen. Silva, who is also the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a war criminal in Feb 2020, on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations. Sri Lanka’s efforts to clear General Silva’s name are questionable. Unfortunately, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the blacklisting of the former General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated Task Force 1/58 Division thereby ignored the overall Geneva threat. Sri Lanka’s failure to secure a place at the International Law Commission (ILC) should be examined against the backdrop of the country’s human rights record being constantly under pressure, especially by those with much innocent blood in their own hands, like the US and the UK.
Sarath vs Sarath
Quite surprisingly, the government continued to contribute to the Western campaign against the country by allowing killings of persons under police as well as judicial custody. Deaths in government custody cannot be justified under any circumstances. Recently, SJB lawmaker Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera traded accusations over deaths in police custody. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, too, ridiculed the police and the minister in charge over continuing killing of notorious suspects in police custody.
The simmering controversy over Minister Weerasekera’s coordinating officer and a Secretary to Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda making an attempt to recover buried LTTE gold couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The two ministerial aides have sought the assistance of the Officer-in-Charge of Puthukudirippu police to recover the gold. Such incidents prove the deterioration of the overall system and the continuing failure of the political party system to prevent unscrupulous elements taking advantage of the government. One should not be too surprised by the level of corruption in a country that experienced the then Governor of the Central Bank, Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran perpetrating Treasury bond scams at the behest of the then UNP political leadership. President Maithripala Sirisena cannot absolve responsibility for the cover-up of the first Treasury bond scam as he dissolved Parliament to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) presenting its report on that scam to Parliament. Emboldened by that action of the than President to save them, contributed to an environment under which the same administration perpetrated a far bigger second Treasury bond scam in March 2016. The incumbent government, in spite of much touted assurances in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively, hasn’t been able to convince Singapore to extradite Mahendran. Maithripala Sirisena, who represents the SLPP now, recently accused the government of sitting on Mahendran’s extradition matter.
Turmoil within …
The SLPP’s near two-thirds majority in Parliament as well as its power to secure the backing of a selected group of Opposition, has failed to ensure the much required political stability. The government is in severe turmoil with a rapidly widening rift with Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP threatening to undermine the administration. With 14 members (12 elected on the SLPP ticket, one appointed through the SLPP National List and one elected on the SLFP ticket), Sirisena’s party is the second biggest constituent among the ruling party parliamentary group. The SLFP has thrown its weight behind the National Freedom Front (NFF) and other smaller parties battling the government against the country entering into a controversial deal with the US-based New Fortress Energy. Three cabinet ministers, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila have publicly opposed the power agreement. They have vowed to oppose the project whatever the consequences though the government remains adamant that it would go ahead with the controversial deal with the US firm. The PMD’s coverage of the issue at hand reveals President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s firm backing for the US project.
Minister Weerawansa once earned the wrath of the SLPP by urging the ruling party to accommodate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a policy-making role in the party. Weerawansa, quite rightly asserted that the President should hold a suitable position within the top SLPP leadership as it would be pivotal for their overall strategy. Weerawansa didn’t receive any help.
As repeatedly declared, the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Oct 2020 and the passage of the Colombo Port Commission Bill in May this year didn’t have the desired impact. The country, in spite of being repeatedly told the 20th Amendment would ensure the much needed political stability, remains in deepening political turmoil. The SLPP’s primary promise to introduce a new Constitution, too, can be jeopardized in case the SLFP and the smaller constituents further distanced from the SLPP. They represent about 25 lawmakers elected and appointed on the SLPP ticket and its National List, respectively. In addition to them, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, elected from the Colombo District list of the SLPP, has distanced himself from the party following disputes with the government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself.
The incumbent government hadn’t been able to reverse the Geneva process. The previous lot betrayed the armed forces by co-sponsoring an accountability resolution in early Oct 2015. In spite of much publicised withdrawal from the Geneva process soon after the last presidential election, Sri Lanka remained under Geneva scrutiny. Another high profile and costly investigation targeting the country spearheaded by Human Rights Commissioner Michele Bachelet is underway now. The government seems sort of blind to ground realities as it refrained from presenting all available information, particularly the disclosure made by Lord Naseby before the Geneva body. The government remains mum as the UK continues to suppress credible information that may help Sri Lanka to challenge the very basis of the 2015 Geneva resolution.
Unfortunately, the government hasn’t been bothered with the UK strategy. Instead of countering lies, the government has entered into a dialogue with some sections of the civil society, who are part of the Western plot, in an effort to ease Western pressure. This strategy remains questionable. Over two years after the last presidential election, the Geneva issue continues to baffle the government particularly due to its failure to recognise the real challenge.
Some of those who exploited the yahapalana betrayal of the armed forces to their advantage at the last national elections, seemed to be either uninterested or wholly silent on the Geneva issue.
Perhaps the extraordinary crisis caused by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s well-intentioned bid to do away with the use of agro-chemicals is yet to be addressed. The often repeated assurance that the government would ensure sufficient supply of carbonic fertiliser couldn’t be met. The bid to import Carbonic fertiliser from China ended in a disaster with China blacklisting the People’s Bank over withholding payment as a result of the Attorney General moving the Colombo Commercial High Court against the Chinese exporter Qingdao Seawin Biotech, its local agent Chelina Capital Corporation Pvt. Ltd and the People’s Bank. Against the backdrop of the Chinese product being declared contaminated, the government sought India’s assistance to procure the required fertiliser. India and Sri Lanka quickly reached agreement on liquid nano-urea. Unfortunately as in the case of the import of the Chinese product, the Opposition questioned both in and outside Parliament the alleged involvement of the Secretary to the President, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Secretary to the Prime Minister Gamini Sedara Senaratne in the Indian and Chinese imports, respectively. Both PBJ and Senaratne have denied any wrongdoing on their part. PBJ has complained to the CID whereas Senaratne denied any role though a Director of the Chelina Capital Corporation happened to be a relative.
The government needs to address the farmers’ issue without further delay.
Amidst nearly 50 cases of accidental explosions of domestic gas cylinders and the government doing away with price controls altogether, much to the dismay of the hapless people, 2022 is certainly going to be a challenging year.
With the government reiterating its commitment to organic farming thereby giving an opportunity to the private sector to import agro chemicals, the issues at hand remain cloudly.
Often repeated accusations that the change of formula of propane and butane resulted in the explosions cannot be discarded and the government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the pathetic situation created by waste, corruption and irregularities in every sector. The government-owned Litro Gas blocking government audit for two years is a case in point. The utilisation of the services of a costly President’s Counsel to block the government audit of the SLIC-owned enterprise highlights the crisis faced by the country as the Parliament failed to fulfill its main functions, namely financial discipline and enactment of new laws. Sri Lanka’s failure to change its path overnight and take tangible measures to restore financial discipline, as it struggled to address the severe balance of payments crisis, can be quite disastrous.
Evolution of a painter
Nature and Humanity: Exhibition by Rasika de Silva, to be held on 10 and 11 Dec. at the Wendt
‘When you look at nothing what are you looking at?’ – Margaret Atwood
Preview by Seniya Ariyananda
Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967) writes that research done by modern painters is the result of a grave mistake. They wish to determine the style of a painting a priori. This style is the inevitable result of a well-made object, the union of the creative idea and its realisation. As for producing this work, a genius without a method of expression is sterile and a painter therefore must have thorough mastery of the material resources at his disposal and use them strictly according to their own laws. The master of his craft and not the slave. The real work is in the layout, the choice of line, shape and colour which will automatically trigger aesthetic sensations, the pictures raison d’etre.
An exhibition of Rasika de Silva’s paintings, scheduled to be held on December 10 and 11 at Lionel Wendt Gallery, exhibits the evolution of a painter, who has over time mastered the resources at his disposal. His paintings and the subjects within them have evolved in clarity and his style and technique have grown to perfectly suit his choice of subject. It is clear in his paintings that Rasika has not fallen prey to the mistake of an a priori determination of the style of a painting. Although the existence of gravity is proved by the laws that influence all bodies, what may trigger aesthetic emotion seems not to exist except in man’s imagination and is created by him out of nothing. So, in order to discover what it is, you have to be a different kind of seeker rather than a gold miner; you have to create what you are searching for, and artists have a natural affinity for this. Rasika has, in the past, demonstrated this affinity within himself, creating in his works on ‘Nature and Humanity’.
Painting has continued to ‘evolve’ since Courbet’s realism. Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism have been followed by Mondrian’s abstract art. In reality, this evolution was the succession of different manners of seeing the art of painting regarding its strictly formal aspect. In other words, the only minimal freedom allowed was in how to paint, and ‘what was painted’ had little importance. Reality itself was not called into question, and for this reality to be questioned we needed the ‘poet’s freedom’. Consequently, if artists were to go on painting, the importance attached to how to paint had to be shifted to the importance of a presence that is not incidental: The importance of the world and of thought.
Rasika has always demonstrated this ‘poet’s freedom’, and moved from a personal vision to a broader, global one; he seems now to be contending with the relationships between man, the weapons he builds, and nature, among other things. In a more local sense, yet in keeping with the expansive vision he has created, he contends with the island mentality in Sri Lanka, taking on such issues as conflicts within social strata. His technique or style further reflects this by not being easily definable, drawing from numerous manners of painting, stretching from surrealist to the abstract as it works for the discovery of Rasika’s subject.
Of Magritte, journalists wrote that “from the most accurate figurations he arouses the strange.” If Magritte had only given us the ‘strange’, some say the ‘fantastic’, his paintings would have joined the lineage of Hieronymus Bosch and James Ensor, who attempted to entertain, perhaps to enchant, without giving us knowledge of the world. The ‘strange’ and the ‘fantastic’ often merely allow evasion or an “escape from reality”. Whilst Magritte’s surrealist works were instead born of a questioning of reality, Rasika, in his place, has borne these new pieces out of a confrontation with the truth of the realities of our modern world.
Rasika’s painting ‘Living with the Death’, which depicts a figure with an adornment of medusa-esque vines, tightly gripping close a fish with stabilising fins, juxtaposes directly, nature and technology, commenting on the exploitation of nature in the creation of weapons. The clarity of the subject in the foreground from the conflicting colours of green and the vibrant, almost artificial, orange in the background, the calm in the eyes of the figure coupled with the chimp like bared teeth, the staring dead fish-eye and the writhing curls of vines create a sense of foreboding in the viewer. A raw yet refined picture of the truth Rasika has seen in his wrestling with the world.
In 1917 neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) listed the three mortal wounds inflicted by man’s view of himself. Copernicus had shown that he was a mere dot in the vast universe; Darwin, that he was an ape, and Freud himself exposed man as a slave to the unconscious mind. In his words: “Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him. Suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind.” Rasika’s painting ‘Disconnected Man’ is reminiscent of this idea. The vacant eyes and the docile expression on the subject in the painting almost lulls the observer into a state of complacent viewing, were it not for the mass of tangled empty vessels, curling around the obvious emptiness which draws the eye. The contrast of what is and what should be is used to hold the attention of the observer and create the image of man divorced irreparably from himself, in the starkest fashion.
The French Absurdist Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote that: “Rebellion in man is the refusal to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms. It is the affirmation of a nature common to all men which eludes the world of power.” Rasika’s painting ‘Natives’ evokes this spirit of rebellion. A dark island of green claustrophobically encloses the figures in the foreground. Two figures dressed in traditional Sri Lankan attire flank a man in a western suit and a traditional hat, whose mismatched attire and defensive posture create an uncomfortable dissonance in the mind of the observer. The hats seem as fetters to rotting systems built by dead men. All the while two dark owls stare unblinkingly, unsettlingly examining the observer. Camus wrote on rebellion against abusive power and outdated systems and Rasika seems to invoke the same metaphysical spirit of revolt, perhaps at the suffering caused by the remnants of class and caste, hierarchies of power and aged systems which protect themselves.
Painters often hear the question: “What does it represent?” And, one can get lost in a maze of literary interpretations which have nothing to say. This question asked of one of Rasika’s paintings merely means “how should I understand this?” because it is obvious if we look, for example, at Natives that we are seeing three men who do not leave us indifferent. If it were known that understanding the image was a case of seeing it and not sterile intellectualising through course symbols that the artist and observer can do almost nothing with, this question would not be asked. Therefore, there is only one way to answer the question: ‘What does it represent?’ People must know that a painting by Rasika means exactly what faithful description can be made of it. At most, we can define Rasika’s thought, and speech can describe in words what the eyes are looking at, even if silence would be better suited to accuracy.
(Ariyananda is a graduate of Anthropology from Durham University, UK)
Vision for a Holistic Education
Closer Connections among Different Branches of Human Knowledge:
by Liyanage Amarakeerthi
(A shortened version of a plenary speech given by Prof. Amarakeerthi at the International Conference of Sabaragamuwa University, Sri Lanka, on 03 December)
Every year I teach a course in aesthetics and non-linguistic arts. In that, I discuss what we ‘get’ from visual art works such as painting. One of the difficulties I constantly have is to explain to my students what they gain from looking at a painting, watching a dance performance, or listening to a piece of music.
Getting something out of art is a tricky business. Visual arts appeal to our eyes and through that sensory agent, a painting creates a certain aesthetic effect on us. Alexander Baumgarten, the first philosopher to open up the field what is now called “aesthetics”, thought that human beings gain a certain knowledge of themselves and the world through aesthetic objects. That knowledge is, he argued, acquired through our senses, eyes, ear, skin, tongue. This bodily perception he thought is inferior to rational knowledge. For him, only the rational mind can produce superior knowledge. In his book, Aesthetica (1750), he famously said, ” Aesthetics is the sister of logic.” One can easily see the Cartesian separation of mind and body here. Descartes’ has it that, “I think, therefore I am.” Here think means, logical thinking, the activity of the mind. But the ‘aesthetic cognition’ of Baumgarten was about bodily perception, about what we feel with our senses. Descartes or card-carrying Cartesians would never say, “I feel, therefore, I am.”
In the Western discussions about knowledge after Descartes, a tragic separation of the rational mind and emotional body takes place and it has continued to exist and widen despite numerous attempts to bridge it. My speech today is about creating points of contact across this divide. This is not a new theme in the scholarly discussions, of course, but in Sri Lanka this requires much more attention.
Professor Antonio Damasio has demonstrated in his excellent book, Descartes’ Error, maintains that the mind/body separation was a mistake made in the rationalist tradition. According to him, rational thoughts and emotions nurture and supplement each other. In fact, it is in the fertile ground of emotions that rational thought achieves its richest form. Damasio claims in the fields of neuroscience and biochemistry emotions have been given the due place they disserve: “Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as percepts”(xxv). After all, it might not all that wrong to call, ” I feel, therefore, I am.”
Taking cue from scientists
Taking a cue from scientists like Damasio, I think that these new developments in natural sciences can be wisely used to create a new dialogue between sciences and the humanities, the latter being often regarded as fields that deal with human emotions.
In a striking paragraph in their Primordial Bond, Stephen Schneider and Lynn Morton state,
“Along with the attempt to separate himself from Nature, man has also separated himself from his fellow man. We have subdivided ourselves into groups: professions, nationalities, religions, sexes, and even intellectual sectors like artists and scientists”(1981, 21).
Separations of this kind might be somewhat conceptual in the West, here, in Sri Lanka, the separation is physical, social, and even political. It is physical in the sense that those of us who are in these separate subject areas are physically distanced from each other as exemplified in the way different faculties are separated at the best-planned university, Peradeniya. The separation is social because those who have the expertise in different subjects are hierarchically organized – doctors at the top and others are bellow at different degrees. At least in the public imagination, this is usually the case. That separation is political in the sense powerful trade unions of doctors to continue to the get the lion’s share from the country economy. Remember, those were the ones who go the lion’s share of the country’s education in the first place.
This kind of intellectual or cultural attitudes are absent, at least in a crude form like the above, in countries where the idea of liberal arts has persisted for centuries. A typical liberal arts curriculum includes natural sciences, mathematics, history, literature, economics, languages, fine arts and so on. All these subjects are taught all the way up the university entrance level. At the university, students are required to take humanities and social science courses no matter what subject they are going to major in. For example, to get into the medical school, one has to pass some pre-med courses which typically include the following: Biology, biochemistry, calculus, ethics, psychology, sociology, statistics, genetics, humanities, public health, and human physiology.
As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I have met pre-med students and students from the School of Engineering, and the Business School taking courses in literature, drama and philosophy at the school of Arts and Sciences.
Even this long tradition of liberal arts in such powerful countries has been under threat in recent times. But when that happens over there, numerous educationists come forward to defend that concept of holistic education. One such scholar, Mark William Roche wrote an excellent book, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? when the idea of holistic education came under attack nearly decade ago. Let me quote a paragraph that might resonate with all of you: “Liberal arts students are encouraged to develop not only an awareness of knowledge intrinsic to their major but a recognition of what that discipline’s position within the larger mosaic of knowledge. The college or university citizen invested in the search for not only specialized knowledge but also the relation of the diverse parts of knowledge to one another. To be liberally educated involves knowing the relative position of the little one knows within the whole knowledge. Mathematics helps us see the basic structures and complex patterns of the universe, and the sciences help us understand and analyze the laws that animate the natural world, the inner world, and the social world. History opens a window onto the development of the natural and social world. The intellectual fruits of arts and literature, the wisdom of religion, and the ultimate questions of philosophy illuminate for us the world as it should be. In essence, the arts and sciences explore the world as it is and the world as it should be (pp. 21-2).
A rethink needed
In Sri Lanka too, it is time for us to reconsider the separation of various branches of knowledge and to imagine the ways by which we can reconnect- most rewarding ways to reconnect. Regular discussions with some of my colleagues in natural sciences at Peradeniya, and engineering have convinced me that there are so many intelligent and creative people on the other side of the divide, eagerly waiting to hold on to a friendly hand extended from our side.
This does not mean that the disciplinary hierarchies within the world of education have suddenly fallen down, and all have become equals. That is hardly the case. The subordination of all other subjects to natural sciences still continues. Publishing industry, funding mechanisms, ranking systems, the methods of rewarding scholars are more or less dominated by the scientific way of thinking. Scientism, that is elevating science to an object of worship, is also visible.
But still it is worthwhile for those of us in the humanities to engage in discussions at least with some branches of natural science. In fact, I think that, as a first step towards initiating this dialogue, everyone enters the faculties of arts should be provided with opportunities to learn the basics of science. In addition, a course in philosophy of science will show them both potentials and the limits of science.
A Union of Nature and Culture
Already, in cultural studies, there is a closer dialogue between natural sciences and social sciences in the effort understand how much of our ways of being in the world owes to nature and how much can be attributed to culture, and more importantly how much of culture gets into our psyche during the course of evolution or history. The way we carry ourselves in the world has been determined by both culture and Nature. Much of human nature is in that sense both cultural and natural.
Cultural constructivism had a major blow after that famous Canadian experiment in 1960s failed. Let me remind you that famous case. When a Canadian baby boy being circumcised, a doctor accidentally cuts off a large part of the boy’s penis. It was the heyday of cultural constructivism and the baby’s parents and the doctors decided to remove the remaining part of the penis, and to turn the boy into a girl. The plan was to raise the child as a girl, and surgically change the penis into a vagina, and, when she comes to the age of puberty, they would give her required hormones to help her move into complete womanhood. The parents named her “Brenda.” Famous psychologist named John Money advised the doctors and parents about how culture constructs gender, and Brenda was raised as a girl. Her clothing, toys, games and so on all were the ones typically assigned to girls. But Brenda never felt at ease with any of these. She did not feel comfortable among girls. The carefully planned socialization program failed.
But the textbooks on gender difference instructed the parents that the project should succeed. John Money the psychologist did not want to admit that it was a failure because of the impact it was likely to have on his career. By the time, Brenda was going to be given hormone injections to transform her completely into a woman, she rebelled and the parents decided to tell her what really happened. Brenda gave up all her cultural identity of a woman and took a male name. Of course, he is unable to father children. He married a woman who had two children from a previous relationship and became the father to them.
Culture and socialisation
Culture and socialisation, two mechanisms, the constructivists thought could transform a boy into normal girl, failed making a huge impact on the constructivist school of thought. Our biological hardwiring and genes are so crucial in deciding who we are. The culture, society, ideology and the like are still important creating and sustaining our identities. A much finer understanding between natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities can help us get the bigger picture of being human. We might never understand the final or the most perfect picture of all realities of the humanity. One of the remarkable truths the study of genes reveals is that a minute genetic uniqueness can result in giving each of us a unique identity, and end up making us significantly different from each other. Culture and socialization can only strengthen, even overdetermine, that difference. Moreover, socialisation can make us see our shared humanity as well. One may recall here Simone de Beauvoir’s famous sentence, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. (The Second Sex).
These scientists are not suggesting at all that we should return to biological determinism to argue, contrary to de Beauvoir’s point, that all the attributes of a woman are natural and she is born with them. No. We know much of what makes a woman is socio-culturally determined. But Brenda’s case invites us to come up with much richer understanding of nature/culture divide.
What I am suggesting here is that the humanities will certainly benefit by paying closer attention to some meticulous research in natural sciences. Yet, I am no expert to use scientific knowledge in a scientific manner. Therefore, what I am saying here might be incomplete and partial. But still, these facts, I hope, that make some sense.
Amygdala, the Almond
Let me tell you about the story of Amygdala – a small segment of the human brain. In Greek, Amygdala means, ‘almond’ because it is what this particular part of the brain looks like. This small area of the brain is so crucial in determining human behavior, especially various behaviors related to aggression. We in the humanities and social sciences, often study causes of human aggression. In the field literature, we interpret aggressive behaviours looking into their social-cultural origins. We often use one person’s actions as windows into human action in general in a given social or historical contexts. I truly believe that scientific explanations about the workings of Amygdala reveals us certain realities of human life that we cannot ignore. Incorporated into our culturalist or behaviorist explanations about human affairs, these scientific revelations can deepen our understating of ourselves. Extreme naturalists too can learn one or two things from the humanities and social sciences.
Scientists have experimented with Amygdala for years using various animals in addition to human beings. When this particular portion of the brain is damaged or wounded by some scientific methods, rates of aggression in that animal significantly decline. Conversely, when the Amygdala is stimulated by implanting electrodes there, aggression of the animal increases. In humans too, scientists have found out that the functioning of amygdala is so crucial for aggressive behaviour.
Human aggression has some important pathological source, and by scientifically controlling Amygdala aggression can be controlled. In other words, surgery knife, electric shocks or injections can be more useful in suppressing riots than armies or police forces! Perhaps, that is already happening.
Robert Sapolsky discusses two cases, one from Germany and another from the US, where two perfectly normal people turning into gangsters and murderers simply because their amygdala is damaged. In the two cases, more than socio-cultural causes, the damaged amygdala was the most apparent reason for them to become what they later became. The whole story of two cases are the stuff of novels and films- things we regularly discuss in our classrooms, lecture halls and in our literary or cinematic criticism. We are more than likely to use these two cases as points of departure to embark on much larger socio-cultural analysis.
Not only aggression
Amygdala is related to many other emotions, mental traits and behaviors. Anxiety, fear, and certain phobias might have their origin in certain parts of amygdala. This part of the brain plays a crucial role in making social and emotional decisions. Even at the risk of this speech turning into a lesson in neurology, please allow me to cite some more examples.
When we accidentally chew on some rotten food, we instantly spit it out even before we could make a conscious decision of it. That is amygdala at work. A chemical reaction happens there, gets what is harmful to us out of our body. What is interesting for us is this: When see something morally disgusting such as woman being subjected to violence, the same chemical reaction takes place in amygdala and prompts us to take appropriate actions. Here amygdala and the frontal cortex of the brain work in unison to alert us about the right kind of behavior.
It is not surprising perhaps that amygdala gets activated by rotten food because it is nature’s way of protecting us from harm. But we activate amygdala when we think about morally disgusting things. Remember, when we think about them. In other words, a mental image of such a thing can still get us physically activated. Perhaps, this explains how and why literary works and films can move us into moral actions.
But there are ways this becomes complicated. These chemical reactions to disgust occur in the brain, for examples when accidentally chew on a cockroach or think about doing so. Things get still more complicated, my friends- still more complicated! Similar chemical reactions in our brain take place when we feel that a neighboring tribe, a group of people are like ‘loathsome cockroaches'(Sapolsky. Behave. 41-2). Now, you can see that neuro-chemistry in our bodies participate in our nationalism, racism and the self/other divide.
I do not want to argue here that nationalism, racism or political rivalry is all about a set of chemical-electric work within the body. I am just drawing your attention to the fact that our biochemistry has a significant role in our cultural, social and political life. No scientist, whose work I have studied so far claim that our culture, our social relations and so on are all about biochemistry. They certainly acknowledge the significance of socio-cultural contexts. In the concluding section to his monumental book, Behave, professor Sapolsky puts it four words: “Brains and cultures coevolve.” (672)
US and Them
Human beings, like some other animals, separate the world into Us and Them. This division often takes to be fundamentally cultural. Many of signs that are interpreted as US are indeed cultural. But the function of amygdala tells us something interesting. Us and Them separation may have a biological foundation. Explaining how empathy and brain are related, Sapolsky states,
“‘…Amygdala activates when viewing fearful faces, but only of in-group members; when it is an out-group member, them showing fear even might be good news — if it scares Them, bring it on”(395).
In winding up, this speech, let me repeat my main argument: The isolation of different branches of knowledge from each other has been a perennial problem in our education. Specialized knowledge is important indeed. But still there must be intense discussions among those fields because for a holistic understanding of our lives, societies, and the world can only be arrived at by attempting to create an organic whole in which each field of knowledge has a gap to fill. Where the gap is seemingly filled by one branch of knowledge, still other branches of knowledge might be able to fortify filling even further. And there may be certain gaps the humanity will never fill, and that is where we need much more engaged discussion among ourselves.
In this speech, I suggested that liberal arts model followed in the US and elsewhere, could guide us to think of model of our own to integrate various forms of knowledge. To begin this process of integration, those of us in the humanities should consider the ground-breaking new research, some of which, I have summarized above. Those of us in the natural sciences too need to learn the art of writing science in a manner that can be understood by the non-specialists.
(Amarakeerthi is professor of Sinhala at University of Peradeniya)
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