Vinoth Ramachandra

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, last month attributed the development of Covid-19 vaccines to “capitalism” and “greed”.

Although he was reported to have later backtracked, with some of his aids claiming that his comments were made in jest (quoting the film Wall Street), Johnson’s comment is typical of a widespread myth, propagated by conventional economics, that capitalist “innovation”, funded by visionary private investors, is largely responsible for the scientific and technological progress on which our health and prosperity rests.

Johnson seems to have forgotten that his own government promised pharmaceutical companies to underwrite the risks attendant on vaccine development and used public funds to to place huge advance orders for Covid-19 vaccines. Thus the normal risks associated with vaccine development were almost completely removed from investors.

That’s how Big Business capitalism, typified by the pharmaceutical industry and the Internet giants, operates today. Capitalism preys on public funds and public trust. Corporations walk away with the profits, while the public bears the costs.

In a trenchant critique of typical fantasies about capitalism, David Whyte of Liverpool University points out that, prior to the current pandemic, vaccine development was extremely sluggish because previous viruses did not threaten rich nations’ economies.  Earlier coronavirus diseases, Sars and Mers, had no vaccine. The Ebola vaccine was finally approved in 2019, sixteen years after it was first patented and a full six years after the start of the epidemic in West Africa, though the costs of Ebola to these countries was estimated at more than US$50b.

Whyte concludes that “There can be little doubt that racial capitalism and global economics has shaped our response to this virus… Most advanced economies stand to lose at least 4.5% of GDP as a result of this pandemic. So we needed COVID-19 vaccines to save these economies.”

He also reminds us that the “infrastructure that produced the COVID-19 vaccines was nurtured in publicly funded universities, in public institutes and in heavily subsidised private labs.” This is knowledge that is held in common. Universities “provide trained scientists and a foundation of knowledge that emerges over hundreds of years. It is in universities that the rules for clinical research are developed, and it is university researchers who publish results in academic journals which provide that knowledge foundation.” However, in the current economic models, such knowledge production counts “as an ‘externality’ that never shows up on a corporate balance sheet, because corporations never have to pay for them.

Thus, even though the scientific research community is a global one, scientific priorities are skewed by rich nations’ interests.

Furthermore, many of the researchers at AstraZenica, Pfizer and universities such as Oxford were born and educated at local tax-payers expense in the “developing” world. This is also what makes the current gross imbalance in vaccine distribution grossly unfair.

More than a year into the pandemic, three-quarters of the current vaccine supply has been secured and administered by 10 countries that account for 60 percent of global economic growth, while about 130 countries- home to 2.5 billion people- have not received a single dose. COVAX, the global initiative to coordinate the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in an equitable way, has fallen far short of its aim to deliver 100 million doses by the end of March.

Brazil has been devastated by Covid-19, with infection rates only less than the USA. Yet its local pharmaceutical industry is hindered from manufacturing and distributing vaccines owing to patents held by the US and UK industry giants.

In October 2020, South Africa and India called on the World Trade Organization to suspend its agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. This would facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific know-how to developing countries to bolster global production. (The Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network, which includes the Serum Institute of India- the world’s largest vaccine maker- has been supplying some 3.5 billion vaccines to the world annually).

However, several high-income countries (including the US, UK and many EU members) and pharmaceutical companies have rejected the idea of a waiver, claiming that it would deter private investment and hamper further innovation.  

This is to ignore the fact that vaccine developers received about $10bn in public and non-profit funding for their vaccine candidates, with the five top companies securing between $950m and $2.1bn in funding commitments, mostly from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the US government, as reported by the prestigious Lancet medical journal.

A group of more than 170 former world leaders and Nobel laureates has urged United States President Joe Biden to support the South African and Indian proposal, demanding the World Trade Organization (WTO) temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents so that vaccine know-how and technology can be shared openly with all.

Christian theology has long held that the right to life trumps the right to private property. If I have food or life-saving drugs in my home that I don’t need for my survival, yet my poor neighbour is starving or seriously ill, then if the latter were to break into my home to take what he needs for his survival is not an act of theft. Rather, it is I who am guilty of theft by withholding it from him.

Here is one representative quote from one of the Early Church Fathers, Basil of Caesarea (c.329 CE- c.379 CE):

“Will not one be called a thief who steals the garment of one already clothed, and is one deserving of any other title who will not clothe the naked if he is able to do so? That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.” (For more such arguments, see my Gods That Fail, Ch.4 or Subverting Global Myths, Ch.3)

Every March, the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva and, among its other business, passes resolutions calling on the government of Sri Lanka to implement mechanisms to ensure greater political accountability and respect for human rights. The government, in turn, protests with cliches about “national sovereignty”, promises to comply, and repeatedly fails to honour its promises.

Much of the pressure (but not all) on the UNHRC stems from militant members of the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic diaspora in the West. Their exclusive concern seems to be bringing the President and military generals before the international criminal court to face charges of war crimes, especially during the final days of the war (May 2009- incidentally, when my Blog was birthed). If they were genuinely concerned about justice, rather than vengeance, they should also seek the prosecution of those who had financially supported the Tamil Tiger guerrillas during the protracted conflict. For the Tamil Tigers violated all rules of military engagement in using non-combatants as human shields and engaging in suicide bombings, political assassinations and the conscription of children. Many of the Tamils who fled as refugees to the West were fleeing not only the brutality of the army but also that of the Tamil Tigers. Indeed, the de facto government in the north of the island that the latter set up during the last decade of the conflict was more oppressive than what was experienced in the south.

For those of us who chose to stay in Sri Lanka during those harrowing decades of bloody conflict, having to combat the hypocrisy and double standards on both sides was as depressing as challenging the simplistic view propagated by Western media who reduced it to an “ethnic conflict”, ignoring all the complexities. There were rich Tamils who, while selling or renting their mansions in Colombo to foreign embassies or international companies, went as political asylees to the US, UK or Australia claiming to suffer economic discrimination. They hailed the Tamil Tigers as “our boys and girls”, while educating their own boys and girls to elite schools and universities in the West. As so often happens in such conflicts, the people least affected are the ones who determine outcomes.

In my experience, it is rare to find among Asian diasporas in the West, advocates for human rights or economic justice- unless, of course, the victims happen to be from their own ethnic community. Many well-to-do Sri Lankans in the UK, both Sinhalese and Tamils, speak in disparaging ways of Afro-Caribbean Britons and East European migrant workers. They voted for Brexit, forgetting their own recent history.

This is why I view with some scepticism the righteous anger on the part of “Asians” in the USA as they become targets of white violence and hate-speech. Of course these acts have to be condemned publicly and unequivocally. But, when hundreds of black churches were burned every year by white supremacists, where were the Asian-Americans who protested in solidarity with their black brethren? Going further back, how many marched with Rev Martin Luther King and supported the Civil Rights Movement?

Tragically, the Asian-American ecclesiastical landscape is characterised by segregation and ethnocentrism, even though they may be predominantly English-speaking; and parents are typically horrified if their children choose to marry a dark-skinned person.

I have often stated on this Blog that India and China are probably the most racist countries in the world (although “race” is not a recognized socio-political category in either). Just look at the movies, TV advertisements, billboards, news anchors, quiz shows, pop stars and see if you can identify a single dark face that is not that of a villain! And, if you still doubt me, ask any African student in, or visitor to, these countries.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks interviewed a Christian theology professor on the distinctive Christian perspective on social justice. As the professor observed, there are rich resources which Christian theology and historical experience bring to the issue. When racism is seen as sin, and not just a social or political problem, we deal with it the way we do all sin: acknowledging it, confessing it, seeking forgiveness, changing direction (repentance) and (wherever possible) making restitution to those affected. 

I would add that we are all, in the Biblical light, both sinners and sinned-against, albeit to varying degrees.  This induces in us a certain self-critical humility: to address the sins in our own community even as we protest the sins committed against us.

Moreover, while social and political transformation involves systemic and institutional change, without a robust doctrine of the intrinsic and equal worth of every human person, coupled with a deeply relational view of such persons, all protest movements for change generate their own victims and new forms of oppression. This is happening with the “identity politics” and “culture wars” in North America which disfigure the contours of social justice.

If only we could isolate evil people like we do Covid-19 patients and inject them with drugs and vaccines! But, as the Russian Christian dissident and Nobel prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded us, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (The Gulag Archipelago)

This year the global Church celebrates the birth centenary of one its greatest twentieth-century leaders, John Stott (1921-2011).

Although I heard him as a speaker and read some of his books during my undergraduate years in London, it was only in the final year of my postgraduate study that I got to know him personally when he invited me to join the reading group that met quarterly in his flat. One of my vivid memories of that group was going to watch a film (the title eludes me) by the renowned Swedish existentialist Ingmar Bergman. Stott was so deeply moved by the film that he insisted on taking us all to a nearby church where he knelt before the Lord’s Table and poured out his soul in contrition over all his flawed relationships.

It is such integrity and vulnerability that leave an indelible impression on young people’s minds. And it is the memory of Stott’s character, far more than his books or preaching, that I recall whenever I grow discouraged by the hypocrisies or arrogance of so many in leadership positions today.

Much of Stott’s “British public school theology” was challenged by his visits to the non-Western world and his friendships with non-Western Christian leaders. He actually listened to us, unlike so many others who only came to propagate their views and to “train” us. Commitment to the poor, and a growing engagement with social and political ethics, came to the fore in his later writings, much to the consternation of his conservative friends. His eclecticism and willingness to engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics alienated him from many in his own country who believed that there was nothing they could learn from others in the global Body of Christ.

When Stott invited me to give the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity of 1998 (lectures which eventually became a book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World), he took me out to dinner to explain the aim of the lectures and urged me to “Please help us evangelical Christians to see our blind-spots.” Here was a 77-year old man desiring to be taught by an obscure non-Westerner roughly half his age and with, hitherto, only two books to his credit! I was amazed. I have not met any other leader, before or since, who has expressed to me such a desire.

Stott shunned all adulation and the near-idolization that many heaped on him, not least in the USA. While continuing to hold him in great respect, there were, of course, aspects of his theology with which I disagree. Some of these are common to the Western evangelical culture he inhabited, such as being too rationalistic in his reading of the Bible and a tendency to treat the apostle Paul almost as a “second incarnation”. His exposure to the Eastern Church Fathers and the best of the monastical tradition in the West was severely limited.

In one of his most important books, The Contemporary Christian, Stott called for a “double refusal” on the part of the Church. Both Escapism and Conformity should be replaced by a posture of “double listening”: listening both to the Word and to the World. This was central to the development of a Christian Mind. He wrote: “We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.” (John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening, pp. 27-29)

This is well said; but it does not go far enough. For, surely, the aim of our listening to the world is not only to find relevant ways of communicating the gospel to that world but also to learn from the world (or, more accurately, from God’s actions in the world) a fuller and deeper understanding of that gospel itself. The apostle Peter’s listening to Cornelius relating his personal journey (Acts 10 & 11) would be a paradigm example from the early Church. What is happening here is a “double conversion”: Cornelius to Christ and Peter to a deeper understanding of Christ.

As the Church historian Andrew Walls famously put it: “It is as though Christ himself actually grows through the work of mission… As he enters new areas of thought and life, he fills the picture. It is surely right to see the process as being repeated in subsequent transmission of the faith across cultural lines.” (Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, p.xvii)

Listening to the world also involves more than reading influential secular texts. It includes deep personal encounters with men and women outside the Church and also being plunged into the pain, confusion and creativity of all humanity. This is where the hermeneutics of “double listening” must lead. And the development of a “Christian mind” cannot occur by leap-frogging the rich Christian intellectual traditions that have emerged in the world Church through prolonged conversation with all other human intellectual enquiries and a faithful immersion in wider human communities. So, it is not simply a matter of “the Word and the World” but “the Word in its long engagement with the World”.

So, in this centenary year, even as we give thanks to God for such a remarkable servant of the Church, we should neither pay mere lip-service to John Stott’s legacy nor idolize him. Perhaps the best way to honour him would be to imitate his integrity and teachability.

While the world breathes a collective sigh of relief at the departure of Donald Trump and his acolytes, celebrations may well be premature.

The USA remains a deeply polarized society, and the influence of the internet has exacerbated similar polarizations- moral, economic, political- all over the world.

Of the wide variety of people who voted for Trump, despite all his incompetence, blatant lies and  narcissistic rants, the only ones with whom I can sympathise to some degree are those rural and urban working-class Americans who looked to him, both in 2016 and now, as one standing outside the conventional political system, whether Democrat or Republican, that had largely ignored their fears and concerns in recent decades. These are people who feel impotent, irrelevant, obsolete.

Of course Trump shamelessly stoked racist, misogynist, and xenophobic sentiments at every opportunity. But in 2016, and again last year, Trump offered hope to those who had been left jobless by the global flow of capital and also wanted him to bring back their children from fruitless wars overseas. He promised to rebuild American industry and continue his hard line on China. The latter policy is the only promise Trump honoured and it won support from many Asian countries, as well as Asian-Americans living in the US who are rightly angered by China’s repressive political regime.

But, at the same time, his choice for Labour Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is the boss of several big fast food companies and a fan of automated customer services: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case,” he is reported to have said soon after his appointment. Further, nearly half of current jobs in the U.S. will be automated by 2033. Not only will 3D printers eliminate jobs in manufacturing, but “truck drivers” (the most common job in some American states) will also become obsolete in the age of driverless cars and trucks.  

Those who drive this relentless surge to automate everything are the Hi-tech giants and owners of Big Business. They are found among Democrats as well as Republicans; and Joe Biden’s almost single-minded focus on Covid in his election campaign did little to reassure voters that he understood their desperate economic future. Apart from Bernie Sanders, no one seemed able to acknowledge how so-called “neoliberal” economic ideology had subverted liberal democracy and played into the hands of “far-right nationalists”- something also seen in Europe and parts of Asia.

Many political liberals are, along with rich conservatives, part of the ruling elite that treat poorer and less-educated folk with supercilious disdain. As for the latter’s moral and religious concerns, these too are summarily dismissed as antiquated and regressive, without public debate. They are jeered at by East Coast comedians and are often the butt of ridicule in Hollywood movies.

It is impossible, of course, to argue with conspiracy theorists and those who move only within their limited circles and see every issue in black-or-white terms. The latter include militant atheists as well as the militantly religious, the highly educated as well as the non-literate. One can only argue with those who believe in argument, reason with those who respect reason. But there are plenty of such men and women across the political and moral/religious divides in all nations. They may well be the “silent majority”; but, if so, their silence and neglect of genuine dialogue among themselves have ushered extremists on to the centre of the political stage.

About ten years ago, I spoke at an American university on the theme of Justice. I told my audience that the three most important contemporary justice challenges that American society faced were (a) the massive wealth inequalities (which translate into power inequalities); (b) global warming and climate change (which affect millions of people who are not responsible for greenhouse emissions); and (c) protecting the lives of foetal human children who are the most voiceless and vulnerable persons in our human community.

Many students told me afterwards that they had heard “conservative” speakers address the third topic, and “progressive” speakers address the first two, but that they had never heard anybody bring all three issues together in a single talk on justice. I found this both revealing and disheartening. It expresses the utterly unintelligible polarizations in American society.

And, far more tragically for me, it mirrors the same polarizations in the American church today, a church that while failing to live as a prophetic counter-culture within its own context, exports its divisions and prejudices to the rest of the world. Can the American church be an agent of reconciliation? Only if it practices humble repentance and the willingness to listen to, and learn from, others.

This gloomy year comes to a close with a glimmer of light in the form of remarkable vaccines developed and coming on board at an unprecedented rate. These vaccines are safe and offer hope to many.

However, there are serious questions about who will have access to them, and how soon; and lurking behind  all this is the all-important question of whether the exclusive pursuit of “technological fixes”, apart from giving rise to new sets of problems, can ever be a substitute for addressing the deeper moral, ecological and political challenges the world has been ignoring and which have exacerbated Covid-19.

As the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, long-term disability, economic collapse, children dropping out of schools, and lost livelihoods. Further, the WHO has repeatedly warned that several viruses, likely to cause pandemics similar to what we have been experiencing this year, are on the horizon- unless we take preventive measures.

In the early months of the pandemic I pointed out that the rapid spread of Covid-19 was a result of our global interconnectedness combined with deteriorating global cooperation. And that it exposed the growing health and economic disparities within nations, with the people whom we typically ignore (because they are invisible to us in “normal” times) at the forefront of caring for the victims and helping the rest of manage the effects of lockdowns. Once mass immunizations spread, and the threat of Covid-19 recedes, there should not be any return to such “business-as-usual”, whether within or between nations. It has to be a wake-up call to political, business and intellectual leaders.

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Workshop (27-31 July 2020, held virtually) warned that an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 631,000-827,000 could have the ability to infect humans. Five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to spread and become global.

The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and anthropogenic climate change.

The Report of the workshop highlighted several drivers of pandemic risk. Pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animal reservoirs, but their emergence is entirely driven by human activities. These include agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption. These bring wildlife, livestock, and people into closer contact, allowing animal microbes to move into people and lead to infections, sometimes outbreaks, and more rarely into true pandemics that spread through road networks, urban slums and global travel. Land-use change is a significant driver of pandemics and includes deforestation, human settlement in primarily wildlife habitats, the growth of cash crops and livestock production, and urban sprawl.

Earlier this year I ready of poor people in Kenya, whose hunger has worsened because of lockdown measures, resorting eating giraffe meat and that of other endangered species.

However, it is our unsustainable global consumption habits, driven by demand in developed countries and emerging economies, as well as by demographic pressure, that have to change.

“The business-as-usual approach to pandemics is based on containment and control after a disease has emerged and relies primarily on reductionist approaches to vaccine and therapeutic development rather than on reducing the drivers of pandemic risk to prevent them before they emerge”, states the Report.

Scientific and economic analysis warns us that unless we make transformative changes in our taken-for-granted “lifestyles”, the costs of climate change coupled with more regular pandemics will prove disastrous for the entire human race. This will be a century of crises, notwithstanding technological breakthroughs, many of them more dangerous than what we are currently experiencing.

We now know what it’s like to have a full-on global-scale crisis, one that disrupts everything. The world has come to feel different, with every assumption about safety and predictability turned on its head.

How can faith, “seeking understanding” as always, direct our walk into the darkness of the future? The moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan raises this question and answers in terms of Christian hope: “No act of ours can be a condition for the coming of God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom, on the contrary, is the condition for our acting; it underwrites the intelligibility of our purposes.” (Self, World, and Time, Vol.1, 2013)

And here is the novelist Marilyn Robinson, a sane public voice in the midst of religious and secularist obscurantism: “[B]y nature we participate in eternal things- justice, truth, compassion, love.  We have a vision of these things we have not arrived at by reason, have rarely learned from experience, have not found in history. We feel the lack. Hope leads us toward them.” (“Considering the Theological Virtues”, What Are We Doing Here?, 2018)

This is not a time for nostalgia and myths of national sovereignty. If we ever needed globally-minded statesmen and stateswomen, as opposed to mere politicians, it is now.

Since my university days, I have been deeply attracted to Albert Camus (1913-1960), both his novels and his philosophical essays. It is difficult during these Covid days not to recall his most famous novel The Plague (1947) which describes the outbreak of a terrible disease which ravaged the population of Oran in North Africa, resulting in its isolation and shut down. The narrative describes the struggle of the townspeople to cope with the avalanche of suffering and death.

At another level, the plague has been taken as a symbol of the German occupation of France, against which Camus fought heroically as a member of the resistance. And, towards the end of the novel, there are hints that the story is also a parable of the perennial human condition- fighting the plague of evil in all of us.

When the plague strikes Oran, the local Jesuit priest Father Paneloux preaches a fire and brimstone sermon announcing that this was a judgment of God brought about by the failure of the people to repent of their sins. The atheist doctor Bernard Rieux is too busy helping the victims to indulge in such speculations. “Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar,” he wryly observes, “He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of truth- with a capital T. but every country priest who visits his parishioners, and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed, thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”

However, Father Paneloux joins the doctor and his workers in the town’s hospitals and comes into contact with people suffering from the plague. His repeated exposure to the tragedy of the deaths of children, softened his rhetoric and brought about a profound change in him, so that when he preached his next sermon he “spoke in a gentler, more thoughtful tone than on the previous occasion” and “instead of saying ‘you’ he now said ‘we’”.

Bringing down his fist on the pulpit, Father Paneloux declares in ringing tones that all Christians should stay in the town and not run away. “There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal.” Nor was it an occasion to surrender to the plague in a spirit of fatalism. “No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in one’s power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite.”

Jean Tarrou, a recent visitor to the town and the chronicler of these events, is the novelist’s own tormented voice. He tells Dr. Riux towards the end of the novel “I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see- that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it… we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in someone’s face and fasten the infection on him.” Yet such constant vigilance is wearisome. It is a weariness “from which nothing remains to set us free, except death.”

What I love about Camus is his unflinching honesty. While he presents the challenges posed by the plague to traditional theodicies, he does so with respect and empathy, not scorn. And he is equally clear that people like him who have rejected faith in God struggle with profoundly troubling questions of their own. While announcing that existence is absurd, his very being cries out for coherence, order, justice. He wants to confront the disorder and suffering that reigns everywhere. But why? On what his passion for justice grounded?

In his most famous philosophical essay The Rebel, Camus summed up the paradox of protest atheism: “When man submits God to moral judgement, he kills him in his own heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of justice but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of God? Have we not arrived at absurdity?”

The struggle to “live as a saint [a just man] without God” haunted Camus all his life. And, I was not surprised to learn that over the course of a few years before his untimely death in 1960 he met regularly with an American Methodist pastor, Howard Mumma, in Paris. Mumma records that Camus read the Bible several times and confessed to him:

“The reason I have been coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage- seeking something to fill the void that I am experiencing- and no one else knows. Certainly the public and the readers of my novels, while they see that void, are not finding the answers in what they are reading. But deep down, you are right- I am searching for something that the world is not giving me.” (Howard Mumma, Albert Camus and the Minister)

Mumma felt that Camus was close to Christian commitment but shrank back from baptism because of his ingrained aversion to the institutional church as well as fear of the public frenzy this would arouse. Camus’s death is labelled a road accident, but Mumma believed it was suicide. He lamented “my failure to restore faith in my friend, Albert, at least enough faith to stave off what to me was obviously suicide. Perhaps the depth of his despair was beyond anyone’s ken, perhaps not.”

All the great works of art, music and literature (East and West), not to mention religious philosophy, have been inspired by human suffering and death.

Is it too much to hope that, from the midst of this terrible pandemic currently blighting the planet, there will arise new novels, art, music and films that will enrich our lives and deepen our sense of human fragility, dependence and solidarity?

The Sri Lankan parliament has just committed hara-kiri by giving powers to the President that make parliament itself irrelevant.

Such absurd acts of collective self-destruction seem to be rife all over the world. We are often our own worst enemies.

Around this time, every four years, I commiserate with my American friends over the pitiful choice they face when electing a President. One has to belong to the tiny class of the super-rich to be nominated by either party. Moreover, this is the only country I know of where a candidate who gets as many as three million votes less than his rival wins the election. Al Gore suffered the same fate when George Bush, Jr., was elected in 2000. What was a revolutionary Constitution in the 1780s has proved to be easily corruptible and unjust. Unsurprisingly, U.S Presidential elections have been gleefully held up by despots around the world as excuses for their own anti-democratic practices.

Let me now digress a bit before returning to the elections.

The eminent political thinker John Rawls (1921-2002) once proposed, controversially, that democratic civility requires us all to deliberate as citizens in a neutral, universal tongue. We are best guided, according to Rawls, by a “political conception of justice” that we can all endorse and by what he called a “public reason”, meaning that we only present concepts and arguments that other “reasonable” citizens find intelligible (even if they may disagree). If we try to introduce reasons grounded in our own worldviews and moral traditions (“comprehensive doctrines”) parts of these will not be translatable into reasons which people who do not share these worldviews and these traditions can grasp.

Clearly, since decisions about law or public policy in a pluralist, democratic polity have to command the consent of people holding a wide range of worldviews, merely quoting a particular religious authority- whether the Bible or the Qur’an or the Pope- will not be meaningful to others. But, then, nor will quoting Plato or Marx or Kant or, ironically, the Rawlsian form of political liberalism.

Rawls’ proposal was shot down from numerous quarters, including other liberal philosophers who pointed out its basically illiberal nature. It seemed to place too high a premium on harmony, and to aspire to an immunity from  contradiction and challenge. Much to his credit, Rawls, with characteristic humility, responded to his critics by diluting and amending his “public reason” proposal until his death. But that is another story and not the main point of this particular post.

What interests me is that Rawls was heavily influenced towards his original view by the heated debates over abortion following the Roe vs Wade case of 1973. He assumed that the argument against abortion was based on religious tradition. That may have been the case with Christian fundamentalist groups who simply quoted the Bible at others (although, interestingly, there is no solitary biblical text that can be used legitimately to outlaw abortion).

But, the moral argument against abortion is based on the simple facts of human embryology coupled with a commitment to the universality of human rights. And, in Western liberal societies that embrace whole-heartedly both science and human rights discourse, this is, in fact, a classic case of a “public reason” argument! It is why there are many atheists, too, who are opposed to abortion. (

The vast majority of us- all those who were not the products of monozygotic twinning (i.e., twinning from a single fertilized egg) – began our lives at conception. From a scientific point of view, there is no doubt at all concerning what the early embryo is. The early human embryo is not a “potential” human being, or a “pre” human being, but a new human being with a unique human genotype- the same self-directing human organism as the later child and adult. The changes from embryo to fetus to infant to adolescent to adult are simply changes in degrees of natural development.

Where moral reasoning enters is in the following argument. If we accept that human beings are intrinsically valuable and deserving of full moral respect by virtue of what they are as humans (as opposed to what they either possess or achieve), does it not follow that they are intrinsically valuable from the point at which they come into being?

Paradoxically, it is the “pro-choice” position that violates the standards of public reason. A “right to choose” is only meaningful if we specify what we are in fact choosing. And human beings have no “right” to choose who should live and who should die. We can only take the life of another human being in self-defence or to protect another life from murder.

Moreover, in patriarchal societies, aren’t women’s choices often controlled by men? Why, then, should a woman’s choice be the only consideration when it comes to abortion, as argued by extreme feminists? (I say “extreme”- for want of a better word- because not all feminists agree with this view and it does not follow logically from feminist principles).

And, what if a mother chose to abort a female baby because males are more acceptable in her society? This is indeed the case in India, and Indian law now criminalises what it labels “female feticide”. This is, however, morally incoherent.  The worth of the unborn child lies no longer in her humanity but in her sex. Such a law discriminates against the unborn male child, assuming it to be less than fully human while the female child is intrinsically valuable.

Note: My arguments here have to do with the moral case against abortion. I accept that the legal issue is more complicated as it involves personal and social situations which vary from country to country and in which we have to balance the rights of the unborn child with other considerations. Although we may disagree about the legal solution (and I have dealt with this elsewhere), surely the moral worth of the unborn child can never be ignored or disputed by Rawls’ “reasonable” citizens. Abortion can also never be a “quick fix” that replaces sex education, access to reliable contraception, holding men accountable for pregnancies and providing economic help and psychological counselling to pregnant women who need them.

Now let’s return to the U.S elections next week. I cannot understand how any sensible person can want four more years of Trump/Pence. Admittedly, Biden is a pillar of the establishment and undistinguished as a politician despite many years in politics. Harris is an obvious token woman/minority figure.

But, fundamentalist Christians who are supporting Trump on the single-issue of restricting abortion (not global warming, racism, poverty, gun violence and the host of other national and global challenges) are doomed to be disappointed. They don’t appear to have learned from the way Republican candidates, from Reagan to Bush Jr., all claimed to be “born-again” around about election time and cynically manipulated the religious right with promises about abortion that they never kept.

To such sincere but utterly misguided folk, I say: Would it not be more reasonable to vote for a President who will work to restore civility and decency to American public life and with whom one can then engage in rational debate on abortion and every other moral question?

The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once quipped that, in some strands of postmodernist rhetoric, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, becomes the new moral leader.

So we need to take care that the self-righteousness of the “radical left” that has come to the fore in recent outbursts over colonialism, racism and transgenderism does not kill tolerance in the name of promoting tolerance, suppress intellectual diversity in the name of protecting diversity.

I read recently of a school in England that rescinded its decision to name one of its houses after novelist J K Rowling simply because the latter had tweeted: “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” (6 June 2020)

We cannot afford to play this game. Isn’t it better to meet lies with facts, poor arguments with better arguments, insults with civility, and false narratives with counter-narratives?

I have written before on this Blog about the insidious threats posed by ideological versions of “political correctness.” They stifle argument and forestall legitimate criticism simply by attaching the suffix “phobic” to any contrary viewpoint. Hence the widespread use in Western media and even academic circles of neologisms such as “homophobia” and “transphobia”- simply mirror-images of the “Islamophobia” that is deployed by some Muslim writers and organizations to deflect any criticism of Islamic theology and practices. It is why I welcome the letter written in July by 150 writers, academics and activistsby decrying the way freedom of thought and expression about racial and sexual politics is being threatened by the “left” as well as the “right”.

This is one reason I have avoided open discussion of sexuality and transgenderism on this Blog. What I would want to say is heavily dependent on the context into which I am speaking; and what I would want to say to a fundamentalist Christian audience that believes that “the Bible has settled these issues once-and-for-all” is very different to what I would want to say to the left-liberal fundamentalist lobby that subsumes everything under “identity politics”. Both sides, in my experience, distort and demonize views with they disagree.

There is, undoubtedly, a biological phenomenon of “intersex” and persons in this category need social and legal protection from stigmatization, abuse and physical violence. (Didn’t Jesus refer to those who were “born eunuchs and those who were made eunuchs by the acts of men”?) But whether this implies the obliteration of sex difference as if the latter were a social construction like gender, or whether it justifies resorting to reconstructive surgery to “choose” the sexual body we want, are matters for legitimate philosophical, moral and political debate. Outlawing difference of views in the name of respecting difference is hypocrisy.

So, what is ironic in all these postmodern postures is that rejection of “essentialism” and “binary thinking” perpetuates new essentialisms (e.g. “colonialism”, “hetero/homo/bisexual”) and binary thinking (e.g. inclusivist/exclusivist, tolerance/judgmentalism, victim/victimizer).

Moreover, satire is a powerful weapon when wielded against those who enjoy positions of political and economic power. But when used against defenceless and insecure people, it becomes simply another weapon of the powerful. An interesting question to raise: Does Charlie Hebdo publish satirical cartoons of sexual minorities (even though some of the latter are in powerful political and economic positions) or only against religious minorities?

The Black Lives Matter movement has belatedly claimed global attention following the George Floyd and Breona Taylor murders in the US. Through its non-violent direct action to protest police brutality and the systematic violence done to black people in the US (and elsewhere) it has won the sympathy of many whites who are not fascists but have hitherto tacitly supported racist practices through widespread ignorance. However, if BLM is not to alienate itself from conservative, white majorities in the US and Europe, it needs to eschew in its campaigns blanket assaults on capitalism and the nuclear family, romantic notions of pan-Africanism and blaming European colonialism entirely for the refugee crisis today.

In my last Blog post, on slavery and colonialism, I noted the importance of nuance and a certain measure of relativity when it comes to historical understanding and judgments. Simplified narratives are what demagogues of the political right and the left thrive on. And when academics and journalists do the same, they betray their calling to honest intellectual labour. It is the difference between the “party intellectual” and the genuine prophet.

Thus Hindu and Buddhist nationalisms in South Asia, like Islamist versions elsewhere, are not atavistic retrievals but modernist reactions to European colonialism. They borrowed heavily from modern European discourses on race, religion and nationhood. The irony is that they are wielded as ideological weapons against secularism and Christianity, forgetting their indebtedness to both, and blaming the colonial era for all the national evils that are rampant several decades after the end of colonialism.

I myself am grateful to British colonialism for the English language, without which my “take” on the world would be extremely parochial. I am grateful, too, for liberal political institutions the British left behind (however hypocritically they were administered in practice by colonial governors and judiciaries) and which have been steadily dismantled in my own country as well as in many other former colonies by racist and self-serving local elites. And one mustn’t forget cricket and rugby, which stir the passions of the most ardent anti-colonial nationalist!

Sugar, tea, cinnamon, nutmeg, cotton- behind each of these common household items there is a story of human barbarity and suffering that is rarely told in school history textbooks.

Serious histories, unlike hagiographies and polemical tracts, are always nuanced. The best historians strive to explore the complexity of human characters and their motivations, and the larger cultural, economic, political and religious contexts in which they were situated. They try to avoid judging people by the moral standards of their own day; and in this sense, there is an inevitably relativistic dimension to historical understanding.

For instance, the moral critique of slavery in the Greco-Roman world should be different from the moral critique of nineteenth-century chattel slavery in the United States or the earlier British colonies of the Caribbean. In the Roman world, slaves were mostly people taken as prisoners of war and many of them could work for and buy their freedom. The better-educated often worked in households. Economically, and in terms of social mobility, they were often better off than many free peasants. Moreover, there was no doctrine of human equality as part of a cultural worldview that applied to them or anybody else. There were also no mass shipments of slaves from Africa to serve purely as economic merchandise.

The tobacco and cotton-growing slave plantations of the southern United States, on which nineteenth-century American prosperity was founded, were pre-figured by the British sugar estates in the Caribbean which were not just the largest agricultural businesses in the world at the time but also the most destructive of human life. In this lawless universe of everyday enslavement, whites tortured, killed, raped, and mutilated black people with complete impunity. Men and women were worked to death so ruthlessly that very large numbers of fresh imports from Africa were continually needed to maintain the workforce. In contrast, by 1850, most US slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth generation Americans even though they had no citizenship rights.

The Atlantic slave trade since the early 18th century was foundational to Britain’s rise to global power. The Caribbean islands, particularly Barbados and Jamaica, were turned into vast sugar plantations geared to an export market. In 1760 there had been about 150,000 slaves in Jamaica; by 1808 (the year after the slave trade was halted) there were over 350,000. Sugar became Britain’s single largest import, and during the eighteenth-century its consumption in Britain rose five-fold. The craze for it revolutionized national diets, spending habits, and social life- not least because of its association with that other recently fashionable commodity, tea. Even those in Britain who opposed the slave trade did not fully understand how these sugar islands were run as mega-factories: everybody from the Governor and the wealthiest white settler down to the slave labourer in the field was involved in the production of sugar for a distant market. The laws, the revenues, the communications were all created for that single economic purpose.

In a recent essay in the New York Review, the cultural historian Fara Dabhoiwalanotes that on the eve of the American Revolution, the nominal wealth of an average white person was £42 in England and £60 in North America. In Jamaica, it was £2,200. “Immense fortunes were made there and poured unceasingly back to Britain. This gigantic influx of capital funded the building of countless Palladian country houses, the transformation of major cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and a prodigious increase in national wealth. Much of the growing affluence of North American ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia was likewise based on trade with the West Indies.”

What is most distressing is that, again unlike in the ancient Roman world or other civilizations which enslaved peoples considered “inferior” or even “sub-human”, many British and American colonial governors, lawmakers and merchants professed to be Christians, thus betraying the very core of the Christian faith. They were, with few exceptions, not publicly confronted and denounced by the Church of England. There were a few missionaries sent to evangelize slaves and white settlers, but the inhuman system as such was rarely challenged.

It was a sense of shame over British slavery and an attempt to “atone” for that which lay behind nineteenth-century Christian missions from Britain to Africa. The combination of commerce, education and evangelism was always open to criticism by anti-Christian voices in the West. But missionaries like David Livingston, for all their human foibles, were concerned to liberate Africans from returning to being economic prey at the hands of Arab slave-traders. (The current public outcry at slavery bypasses the fact that many- if not most- slaves were sold by African chiefs to Arab and European slave-traders, with Muslim Arabs controlling the East African slave trade in the nineteenth century).

At the same time, after the legal abolition of slavery in 1833, the British continued slavery in their colonies in another form: a system of “indentured immigrant labour” whereby poor unskilled labourers were exported from one part of the empire to another to work on plantations (tea, rubber, tin, etc.) which mirrored the hierarchical superstructure of the slave era: primitive barracks, no freedom of movement or association, and subsistence wages.

One new fact I learned from Dabhoiwala’s review essay was that British taxpayers have funded the largest slavery-related reparations ever paid out. “Under the provisions of the 1833 act, the government borrowed and then disbursed the staggering sum of £20 million (equal to 40 percent of its annual budget- the equivalent of £300 billion in today’s value). Not until 2015 was that debt finally paid off. This unprecedented compensation for injustice went not to those whose lives had been spent in slavery, nor even to those descended from the millions who had died in captivity. It was all given to British slaveowners, as restitution for the loss of their human property. Black lives, white rights.”

Our histories live on into the present, with terrible consequences. And our diets, clothing and consumption habits should be sites for serious historical, as well as moral, reflection.

One of the more pleasant side-effects of the coronavirus-induced immobility is the opportunity to spend time re-visiting books and films one had forgotten.

The film Educating Rita (1983), with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, is one of those films I wish all university students could watch in their first year of studies. It would remind them of the privilege, let alone the responsibility, of acquiring knowledge. On the one hand, the story is a re-hash of the Pygmalion plot (immortalized in George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name and the musical My Fair Lady): a vivacious, lower-class girl’s relationship with her staid, upper-class mentor. On the other hand, this is no sentimental romance. It is far funnier, more moving and intellectually stimulating than any precursor.

Rita is a 27-year old hairdresser whose husband and working-class family cannot understand her passion for a higher education. She refuses to have a baby until she has “discovered herself”, as she puts it, and therefore can choose her life’s path rather than be pushed along by social convention. She enrols in an Open University course in English literature and has, as her tutor, an alcoholic professor who is also a disillusioned poet, one who has lost all interest in teaching and whose life is falling apart. Rita’s own marriage breaks up as her husband, seeing Rita’s new-found love for Chekov and Shakespeare as a threat to his dreams of fatherhood, burns her books and walks away. There follows a mutually transforming, yet asexual (because this is not Hollywood), relationship between Rita and her professor.

Such a relationship- of a student changing a teacher and them learning together about life- is perhaps more likely to arise in the study of the Humanities (literature, philosophy, history, art, theology) than in the natural/ social sciences and professional disciplines, because the subject matter is less in the “control” of the teacher and invites personal reflection on the bigger issues of our common humanity. And, of course, the kind of relationship between Rita and her tutor is not possible in the large classrooms of the typical industrial-age university or the virtual classrooms of the current information-age.

There are many professors like Rita’s in our universities, including the most famous. Not only have excessive workloads, bored students, and increasing competition made university teaching lose its thrall for many, but the lack of a coherent worldview within which to discover the meaning and value of one’s subject has a corroding effect on morale.

In recent years, the more far-seeing university administrators and academics have promoted more inter-disciplinary courses and research programs, as most of the challenges facing humanity, from global warming to technology run amok and widening social inequities, require a multi-dimensional approach. Cultivating wisdom is what we need, in whatever profession, and not the mere accumulation of information.

Contrast this with Jerome Kagan (a former President of Harvard)’s dispirited observation: “Too often the undergraduate years resemble a bus tour through a beautiful countryside where the purpose is not to admire the scenery but to keep the tour on schedule. The new understanding was that college students were hotel guests choosing from a variety of intellectual diversions with no purpose other than career preparation directed by a diverse faculty of reasonably well-treated employees.”

This is why the current worldwide trend in university education of seeing learning and scholarship as merely a means to employment and economic growth, coupled with the shutting down or scaling back of Humanities departments, is disastrous. It destroys the possibility of any independent critique of government and corporate hegemony, as the Humanities are the soil in which independent, critical thought is most naturally nurtured. As universities become mere tuition factories, churning out products for the marketplace, they encourage a society of super-educated morons.

In such a crassly consumerist world, the acting profession will be deprived of actors like Julie Walters and Michael Caine, both of whom came from working-class homes. And working-class folk like Rita will never be able to afford a college education; but, once in college, there is a real possibility of their minds never being awakened but remaining self-enclosed. Yet, paradoxically, if change is to come to our universities, most likely it will not be from the ranks of the social elite, and even the elite universities which are bastions of the status quo, but from rare individuals like Rita who help others awaken to life with all its everyday joys and cruelties.

The current pandemic has seen a resurgence of online courses. This has been inevitable, but it has played into the hands of those who want to turn all universities into financially lucrative virtual spaces even in the post-pandemic age. However, both before and since the pandemic, the severe limitations of online learning were becoming apparent to perceptive observers in the academy. Sherry Turkle, the renowned sociologist of technology at MIT, quoted the director of a Columbia University study that compared online and face-to-face learning: “The most important thing [the study concluded] that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support.” (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age). “What makes the greatest impression in a college education,” writes Turkle, “is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own.” For that, person-to-person encounter is indispensable.

Furthermore, Professor Las Back, in his Academic Diary, raises the question, “In the age of Google Scholar, aren’t libraries at risk of becoming a bit of an anachronism? Reading matters comes to our screens faster than any book ever could. Why do we need a library when, with the right log-in, we have almost immediate access to the world library online?” He answers his own question thus: “All this misses the point of libraries because they provide not only a refuge but places of serendipity, where we discover routinely things we are not looking for.”



May 2021