“FOR AMERICA, THIS IS TRULY SERIOUS . . .”
by Selvam Canagaratna
For better or worse. man is the tool-using animal, and as such he has become the lord of creation. When he is lord also of himself, he will deserve his self-chosen tittle homo sapiens.
– T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men” (1925)
“Two former Democratic presidents recently tried to build up Joe Biden in part by taking down President Donald Trump. When they did, there were some important distinctions in how they spoke about the man in their party’s crosshairs,” wrote John F. Harris, founding editor of POLITICO magazine.
Here was Bill Clinton:
“If you want a President who defines the job as spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he’s your man.”
The subtext: America, we all know this guy is a buffoon.
Here was Barack Obama: “I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.”
The subtext: America, this is serious. Trump isn’t just a bad President, he’s an actual threat to our way of self-governance.
Buffoon and tyrant aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But they point in very different directions. And the tension between the two highlights a curious reality.
Five years after Donald Trump leaped on the stage of presidential politics and instantly came to dominate it — and after two national conventions almost totally consumed by discussion of his character and motives — there still isn’t a stable consensus on just who Trump is, and what gives him power.
There are three distinct pictures of Trump jostling for primacy in American politics: the would-be tyrant of Obama’s speech, the clownish dilettante of Clinton’s and a third view that holds him up as a legitimate, if flawed, tribune of a wide swath of America.
In the end, it will be up to historians to decide who Trump really was, and that argument is likely to last far longer than his presidency. But the inability to agree on Trump matters in the moment as well — and perhaps very urgently.
The Republican National Convention that ended Thursday night was less a party event than a kind of re-coronation, an effort by the party to embrace the President and soften his edges — which were then continually re-sharpened by the Trump family itself. The Democratic National Convention was a demonstration that there are still competing interpretations of what threat he really represents, and thus how to beat him. For Democrats, and to some extent the news media, the now-familiar challenge is that denunciations of Trump are more likely to strengthen his hold on supporters than to dilute it.
From the start of his first campaign in the summer of 2015, there have been three dominant interpretations of Trump and the Trump phenomenon. These three models go up and down in terms of which one has the most currency among the news media, the political class and the public broadly. But it is notable that the entrees at the analytical buffet have not changed:
Interpretation One: Trump is the political equivalent of a pro wrestling celebrity.
He cares about (and is skilled in reaping) media attention and self-affirmation and not really much else — including ideas, or history, or party-building, or how specific policies fit into a larger whole, or how one day in the presidential spotlight connects in some linear way to the next. This is Bill Clinton’s buffoon thesis. It’s not that someone like this can’t cause a lot of damage, but, as a political type, it is different in character than…
Interpretation Two: Trump is the American equivalent of Vladimir Putin.
In this light, Trump is more than just a self-absorbed improvisationalist. To the contrary, he operates with clear purpose: To weaken the mechanisms of democratic accountability and attack all constraints on his power. Obama offered a mildly more understated version of this thesis at his virtual convention address, standing before a giant blowup of the US Constitution. It is this thesis that justified his dire warning to voters: “Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.”
Interpretation Three: Trump is a tribune of Americans whose voices are mostly unheard by conventional politicians.
Trump may be a bit coarse or hammy, by these lights, but he does possess an intuitive sense of politics and history — of how the system had tilted too far in the direction of self-dealing global elites, diluting frank assertion of national interests and undermining the interests of average Americans.
So, by one interpretation, Trump is making a mockery of democracy. By another he represents an assault on democracy. And by the third he is an authentic expression of democracy.
Does one really
have to choose? No, it is not essential. Both parties are now headed into the general election with coalitions that include devotees of all three interpretations. Democrats, obviously, draw most support from believers in the buffoon and tyrant categories, along with some people who once believed he was a tribune of their cause but are now disillusioned.
Republicans, obviously, have just spent a week — capped by Trump’s speech Thursday night — trying to revive support for the idea that Trump has a singular understanding of how to represent ordinary Americans from liberal excesses and elite indifference. But the GOP coalition also includes some who think a dash of American authoritarianism is just what the doctor ordered for current maladies, or who appreciate the buffoonish elements of Trump’s persona precisely because they know it drives his critics crazy.
What’s more, views can change over time. Obama was once firmly an adherent of the buffoon thesis. By some accounts, his mockery of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while Trump was in the audience, helped embolden the Republican to run for president. Even after the 2016 election, the New York Times reported the other day, Obama was calling Trump “a cartoon,” and only later did he come to believe that the man posed a more fundamental threat to constitutional values and rule of law.
Addressing the interpretive challenge posed by Trump, “There’s no reason to choose among the three,” says Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who wrote the 2017 bestseller On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. “They may be in tension, but there is a way to put them together.” Snyder is one of the leading intellectual apostles of the idea that Trump is a genuine danger, with parallels in the bloody history of Europe. Buffoonery can serve the authoritarian’s purpose, he noted, by distracting attention from important matters, and most authoritarians in history have tapped into some vein of popular support, even if that is marked by prejudice and exclusion.
Trump’s appeal depends on being criticized.
Confronting Trump, however, has always been a good bit more complicated for his foes than simply indexing all the reasons they don’t like him and trying to convince voters why those reasons are sound. That is because Trump’s appeal depends on being criticized — in the same way a plant can’t thrive without both water and light.
It’s useful to consider the distinction between politicians who have absolute appeal versus those who have relative appeal. One good example is Ronald Reagan. To many conservatives, he has absolute appeal — his political and personal traits represent the beau ideal of how presidents should act, in any time or in any circumstances. Many progressives feel the same way about Barack Obama.
But even many — possibly most — Trump supporters don’t think his raffish, roguish, divisive and disruptive style represents the ideal of how Presidents should act. They just think his brand of politics is right for this moment. His appeal is relative — compared with the hypocrisy or venality or ineffectuality of conventional politics. Data from the Harris polling firm for Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies indicates roughly 40 percent of people who support Trump as a President either dislike him as a person or are indifferent.
So critics can roll their eyes and make fun of Trump as a buffoon if they wish. Or critics can raise their voices in alarm that he is an incipient American fascist. The risk is that this looks overwrought — and thrills Trump supporters, who love their candidate precisely because he offends liberal pieties.
India at 75
By Gwynne Dyer
Last Tuesday, on the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to turn India into a developed country, within the next 25 years. If all goes well, that could actually come to pass, but it would have to go very well indeed.The demographic and economic signs are positive. The country’s population has grown fourfold, since independence in 1947, but population growth has now dropped to ‘replacement level’: 2.1 children per completed family.
The current youngest generation is so large that the population will keep growing, until 2060, when it will have reached 1.7 billion. The upside of this is that India will continue to have a rapidly growing young workforce for another generation, while its only rival, China, will have a rapidly ageing and dwindling population (1.2 billion and still falling in 2060)
India’s GDP per capita has been growing at about 5% for years, and if that continues for the next 25 years, it will have grown to $7,500 per person. That’s certainly within the lower ranks of developed countries (like Mexico, South Africa or China today). Given the size of India’s population, the economy would certainly rank in the world’s top five.
So, Modi’s prediction was certainly within the realm of possibility, but there are two big wild cards. One is climate: although only half of India, technically, falls within the tropics, all of it, except the very far north, suffers long, very hot summers.This summer has been the hottest ever, with many of the largest cities experiencing temperatures, above 45°C, for days at a time. Whatever we do about climate in the future, it can only go on getting worse for India, for the next 25 years.
That will bring the country into the zone where it literally becomes unsafe for people to do manual work outside, at the height of summer; death rates will go up, and food production will go down. Nobody knows exactly how bad it will get, but it will certainly get much worse that it is now.
The other wild card is war. Since the Indian and Pakistani tests of nuclear weapons, in 1999, the subcontinent has lived under the threat of a ‘local’ nuclear war that would devastate both countries (and also cause global food shortages lasting for at least four or five years).An Indo-Pak nuclear war is not inevitable, but, unlike the major nuclear powers, these two countries have fought real wars against each other – three in the past 75 years. The likelihood of such a catastrophe actually happening is certainly a lot higher than zero.
Each country now has about 160 nukes, and although both are now working to move beyond the dangerously unstable ‘use them or lose them’ phase where a a surprise attack might disarm the other side, there is no real stability to be found when the adversaries are so close and the hostility is so intense.So there is no harm in considering whether it might have been better to keep the entire Indian subcontinent, first united by the British empire, in one piece, at independence, rather than splitting it into two countries (and eventually three, counting Bangladesh).
The split was by no means inevitable. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two main Hindu leaders of the independence movement, wanted an inclusive, non-sectarian republic, including all of British India, although they failed to offer Muslims sufficient guarantees to ensure their support.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the main Muslim leader in 1947, did want to carve a Muslim-majority Pakistan out of the country, but there was no obligation for the British government to satisfy his demand. He got his way because the United Kingdom was virtually broke after the Second World War and in a great hurry to dump its responsibilities in India.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been east of Paris, had five weeks to draw the dividing line between the two new countries. Around 15 million people, who found themselves on the wrong side of that line, became refugees, mutual massacres followed, and within weeks India and Pakistan had their first war. But it could have been different.
The undivided ‘big India’ would have 1.8 billion people today, about one-third Muslim and two-thirds Hindu. That would virtually guarantee that both groups would be represented in every government and in most political parties.
Lots of countries, elsewhere in the world, manage to be both democratic and prosperous with comparable religious and/or ethnic differences. The ‘big India’ would not have wasted 75 years’ worth of high defence spending, and there would be no risk of nuclear war.All those energies would have been devoted instead to civilian priorities, and that united India might already rank as a developed country. Might-have-beens.
Ukraine War: Mother May I?
By Gwynne Dyer
“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”
The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.
The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”
Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.
But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?
It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.
Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.
Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.
Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.
Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.
The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.
Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity
Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation
Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran
A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication
Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz
This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.
Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.
What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.
The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.
The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’
When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.
At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.
For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.
A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.
‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.
However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.
The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.
Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.
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