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The First Presidential Debate – A National Embarrassment



News Flash Story

Vijaya Chandrasoma

The first of three scheduled presidential debates was held in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, with Republican contender, incumbent President Trump and Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden taking center stage. The debate was divided into six 15-minute segments, set to include each candidate’s record, Covid19, the Supreme Court, the economy, race relations and violence and the integrity of the election.

Tuesday’s debate was held under the perennial clouds of the scandals involving Donald Trump, the latest one being a New York Times story about the president’s taxes, a mystery that has been guarded more carefully than the gold at Fort Knox. The Times revealed that Trump had paid no federal taxes for 11 of the 15 years before 2015, and had paid just $750 in federal taxes for 2016 and 2017. All the while enjoying the lifestyle of a billionaire. Among the most egregious of tax fraud he is alleged to have committed included a questionable $72.9 million tax refund, and a $70,000 deduction for hair styling – evidently money ill spent.

The Times’ report also revealed Trump’s personal debts amounting to $421 million to unnamed foreign creditors, which will be due and payable in 2022.

The moderator was Chris Wallace, the news anchor of Fox News, renowned for his tough and wide ranging interviews. In spite of working for Fox News, the Trump propaganda machine, Wallace is nationally respected as an impartial journalist.

Wallace did himself no favors at this debate, unable as he was to control Trump’s incessant interruptions and bullying. At times, the debate featuring the leaders of the Free World, moderated by one of the nation’s best, non-partisan Anchors, deteriorated into a shouting match reminiscent of the caterwauling of the fisherwomen in my home town of Hikkaduwa.

The consensus at the end of a painful 90 minutes on Tuesday night was that it was the most chaotic presidential debate in the history of the nation. The TIME magazine headline was “Just Cancel the Last Two Debates. America Has Suffered Enough.” Chris Hayes of MSNBC called it a “Performance of Our National Catastrophe”. Perhaps CNN Anchor Jake Tapper described the debate best: “A hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck”.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is “carefully considering” format changes for future debates, designed to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. Short of shutting up Trump with a dog muzzle while Biden is speaking, I fear the efforts of the Commission are doomed to failure.

The debate provided many winners and one distinct loser.

The biggest winners were the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and far right, fascist organizations, when Trump refused to denounce them before a TV audience of 73 million viewers, a tacit endorsement of white supremacist terrorism. On September 17, 2020, Trump appointed FBI Director, Christopher Wray warned, under oath before a Senate Committee, that white supremacists posed the single most lethal terrorist threat faced by America today. Trump’s refusal to denounce these terrorist movements has been taken as an endorsement, a call to violence. As Plato said centuries ago, “Your silence gives consent.”

A close second were adversarial nations like Russia, China and Iran, whose ambitions to sow discord and chaos in the United States have met with spectacular success. The Kremlin and Beijing are already mocking the debate, using it as an example of proof that America has relinquished its claim to leadership, and has diminished confidence in the democratic process.

Vice President Biden completed the trifecta, by merely withstanding Trump’s desperate lies and bullying, and remaining calm. He scored brownie points by calling the President of the United States a clown, and for the most memorable line in the debate: “Will you shut up, man?”

The only loss was sustained by the American people.

No comprehensible light was thrown on the policies of the combatants, or their plans for the management of the health, economic and climate crises America faces today. Trump went on his usual rant about how he had created the greatest economy the world has ever seen, which has been slowed by Covid19; he guaranteed, given four more years, that he will take it back to its former glory, that he alone can fix the mess he himself has largely created. Wallace responded with some fact-checking, reminding Trump that President Obama’s last three years in office had higher growth rates and lower unemployment figures than those of Trump’s first three years.

When Trump bragged that he had done a phenomenal job in containing the pandemic, Biden pointed out a few examples of his colossal incompetence, including outrageous and self-serving predictions that the virus will go away, as if by a miracle, in April; that children are immune to the virus; that it can be cured with injections of disinfectant and UV rays; and that the vaccine is around the corner. The nation has to date suffered over seven million infections and 208,000 fatalities; with 200,000 more deaths projected before the end of the year. Dr. Ashish Jha, Harvard Professor of Global Health said last week that our hesitance to take personal protective measures like masks and social distancing, thanks to Trump’s happy talk and mocking of these measures as a sign of weakness, has resulted in at least 150,000 preventable deaths, to date. The virus is spiking in at least 26 states, and shows no sign of abating throughout the nation. Trump continues to downplay the severity of the virus, lying that the US is “rounding the turn” on Covid19, a statement refuted by the nation’s leading epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Trump was asked about his plans to repeal Obamacare, a case which will be heard by his stacked Supreme Court on November 10. When told that the repeal of Obamacare will result in the loss of health insurance for over 20 million people, he lied that he has a replacement health plan “in hand”. The same hand that has been hiding the same mythical replacement plan since 2017.

He was challenged that his new ultra-Christian Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, will play a major role in repealing Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision regarding the Constitutional right of women on reproductive freedom. Trump has long opposed this landmark decision.

There were some important, if frightening, takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:

Trump denied that he had paid only $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017. He said that he had paid millions in taxes during that period, an assertion which he could easily prove if he would only release his tax returns for the past few years. Strangely, he made no comment about his debt of $421 million to foreign creditors. The danger to the security of a nation when its president carries huge debts to foreign adversaries is incalculable and terrifying.

Trump refused to denounce white supremacist groups, which he has failed to do throughout his presidency. Trump was asked, by both Biden and Wallace, whether he would condemn these groups, specifically the Proud Boys (a far-right white supremacist group, a part of the Trump cult who are regulars at Trump rallies), and warn them to desist from engaging in the racial violence which has recently erupted in many cities. In fact, far from warning them, Trump said “Proud Boys, Stand Back and Stand by”, an exhortation to await his orders to violence. “Stand Back and Stand By” immediately became the new rallying cry of this violent fascist group.

Trump is regarded by white supremacists as a fellow traveler and an important recruiting tool for these terrorist, KKK style groups which have proliferated throughout the nation since Trump’s inauguration. In a style immediately recognizable by those of us who lived in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 1990s, Trump is assembling an extra military force who will wreak violence at his command, if the election goes against him.

Trump refused to take the pledge that he would accept the results of the election, and to keep his supporters in check if the count goes on after November 3. He continued making false statements about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. He is inciting voter intimidation by his far right vigilantes, which is against the law. The FBI has confirmed that white supremacist terrorism provides the greatest threat to law and order since the Civil War. As Trump himself predicted at the end of the debate; “This is not going to end well.”

Sadly, there is little doubt that Trump will be the first president in the history of a once-great nation to refuse to accept the will of the electorate and surrender the White House gracefully, if he loses the election. Trump will pull out all the stops to stay in power, abusing his compliant Supreme Court, and inciting violence by his carefully assembled militia, as if his life depends on it. Which it does, as he will face multiple charges of tax fraud, sexual assault, abuse of power, even treason, the day after he leaves the Oval Office.

Decent Americans have lived the past four years enveloped by a feeling of pervasive helplessness in the face of the racist antics of a narcissistic psychopath. But this feeling is just an illusion. The American voter has the power to Make America Great Again by turning up at the polls on November 3, in what will prove to be the most fraught election in its history. One that will determine the democratic and ideological future of the nation for generations to come.

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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