Death, Democracy, and lexical ambiguity

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:05 AM May 9 2020
Columns Death,  Democracy,  and lexical  ambiguity

By Padraig Colman


On a mission in Augsburg, in 1604, Sir Henry Wotton said: ""An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." A novel concept is an ambassador going abroad and accusing his president of lying.


Democracy has not been doing too well lately. Trump is busy wrecking the USA and causing unnecessary deaths after winning three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton. In the UK, Boris Johnson struggled to" get Brexit done" with a majority of minus 43 and now struggles to cope with a pandemic with a majority of 80. Sri Lanka tackles the current pandemic well compared to the UK and the US and does so without a parliament.

 I understand the need to get back to normal for the economy as a whole and for individuals who are suffering grievously. I appreciate the risks to democracy of Government by task force. I also appreciate the danger of going back to 'normal' too soon. Remember how 'normal' coped with the Easter bombings.


Grasping the main thrust


Dayan Jayatilleke Ph.D., Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation has taken some more time off from his ambassadorial duties to impart some wisdom on the domestic situation in the homeland. He published an article in the Daily FT on 23 April. I advise you to try to read it.


I had to read the article several times before I could get anywhere close to grasping the main thrust. One problem is the usual epic name-dropping: "My old friend and fellow doctoral student of Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara" (two for the price of one, there folks!).

 "My late father Mervyn de Silva, who edited the Daily News, the Times of Ceylon and the Lanka Guardian, would certainly have asked…" "I must admit that the College hosts an annual oration in memory of my paternal uncle Dr. A.V.K.V. de Silva, Univ of Edinburgh gold medalist, top epidemiologist and WHO program coordinator on AIDS." What has any of this got to do with the price of fish? How many readers know or care about these names?


I have noticed a tendency with Sri Lankan columnists (and academics) to favour substance over style. Rather than laying out a clear narrative line to help the long-suffering reader to establish what the writer wants him/her to take away from the article, he (it's usually a he) prefers to launch a piece with rhetorical flourishes and move on with curlicues and rococo grace notes rather than setting out the Gradgrindian hard facts.


Dayan posits the case for a General Election on 20 June against the arguments of "liberal critics".  I am not sure what "liberal" means in 2020 - the word seems to have been fatally flawed by lexical ambiguity. He brings in "neo-liberal" at one point too. Anyway, let us judge these liberals by their arguments, which are "legalistic-constitutionalist points". Unfortunately, he does not specify these arguments but describes them as "prissy proceduralism and legalistic literalism".


Let's recap. Those who are opposing an election are "legalistic". Dayan concedes that their arguments may be true but they are irrelevant "because the real-world question is what if the Executive ignores all the 'simply can't do' points they make and simply does them?" Simply can't do what? Simply does what?


'Opine' is a favourite of Sri Lankan columnists


"Clearly the PM does not place himself among the 'many [who] opine that there is no need for elections AT ALL' (my emphasis - DJ)". 'Opine 'is a favourite of Sri Lankan columnists. Mahinda Rajapaksa does not want to ditch democracy, apparently. Neither does his brother. "It is not that President Gotabaya has a zero-election project or extra-constitutional preference". Let us work up a panic anyway and create a froth of hypotheticals involving sinister scenarios created by unnamed figures from "the postwar Far Right ranks".


Dayan graciously gives the Government a (dimmed) gold star for the way it has handled the COVID-19 crisis so far. This faint praise is effectively withdrawn when he compares Sri Lanka (to its detriment) with Israel and South Korea. He concedes, "There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP Governmental sub-culture. "


It is difficult to keep up with Dayan's political philosophy and allegiances. He often describes himself as a progressive (but resists defining the term) and endlessly cites men of the left like Gramsci and Castro. To my face he praised Trump's fascist adviser, Steve Bannon and in writing defended Jeremy Corbyn's Stalinist apparatchik, Seamus Milne.

 He has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as well as the grand old mass murderers, Stalin and Mao. In this article itself he offers the apartheid state of Israel as an exemplar (is this because Mahinda Rajapaksa has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause?)


How does he think Trump and Johnson are coping with COVID-19? What would Corbyn have done? Dayan thinks Brexit is good for Britain.


I was shocked to read Dayan writing this about the Government that pays his salary: "What are the ethics, values and morals of those who would put hundreds of thousands of people in harm's way, by fudging or embellishing evidence in a severe epidemic which has dealt suffering, death and bereavement to so many around the world? "He seems to be saying that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is lying.  His heroes Trump and Johnson are widely acknowledged to be serial liars. This is a very serious charge for an ambassador to level at the Government that pays him


Let's give ourselves a little encouragement


I have no wish to make unwarranted boasts about the way Sri Lanka is dealing with the crisis. However, I do find it odd to see the Western Media saying this country or that country is doing better than Britain. True, Britain is among the worst for total incompetence and mendacity. At the time of writing, Britain's official death toll was over 28,446, and climbing.  Ireland is held up as good examples. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 4 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed 1,303 deaths. Sri Lanka's population is 21.4 million and there have been nine deaths. There is of course the danger of complacency but let's give ourselves a little encouragement in these dark days.


In the hope of establishing what the point of Dayan's article was, I went to the last paragraph. The very last words were a bit of pointless name-dropping. Before that, this: "It is not that there is no political motivation as well, but that isn't a simplistic one of pushing for a premature General Election. It is a more complex two-pronged tactic, or more to the point, an ambush, a trap. The two prongs are on one flank, a snap election on unfavourable terrain for the Opposition and at a dangerous moment for the voter, and on the other, the project of zero-Elections and open-ended rule by the President plus a "power cartel" "


Where does that leave us? I would advise readers to check out an article by DBS Jeyaraj who covers similar ground in simple prose without obfuscation.

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:05 AM May 9 2020

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